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First Blood 


So I bound myself to a guilty secrecy for Eva's sake, to save her from these wretches, or if you will, to win her for myself. Nor did it strike me as very strange, after a moment's reflection, that she should intercede thus earnestly for a band headed by her own mother's widower, prime scoundrel of them all though she knew him to be. The only surprise was that she had not interceded in his name; that I should have forgotten, and she should have allowed me to forget, the very existence of so indisputable a claim upon her loyalty. This, however, made it a little difficult to understand the hysterical gratitude with which my unwilling promise was received. Poor darling! she was beside herself with sheer relief. She wept as I had never seen her weep before. She seized and even kissed my hands, as one who neither knew nor cared what she did, surprising me so much by her emotion that this expression of it passed unheeded. I was the best friend she had ever had. I was her one good friend in all the world; she would trust herself to me; and if I would but take her to the convent where she had been brought up, she would pray for me there until her death, but that would not be very long.

All of which confused me utterly; it seemed an inexplicable breakdown in one who had shown such nerve and courage hitherto, and so hearty a loathing for that damnable Santos. So completely had her presence of mind forsaken her that she looked no longer where she had been gazing hitherto. And thus it was that neither of us saw Jose until we heard him calling, "Senhora Evah! Senhora Evah!" with some rapid sentences in Portuguese.

"Now is our time," I whispered, crouching lower and clasping a small hand gone suddenly cold. "Think of nothing now but getting out of this. I'll keep my word once we are out; and here's the toy that's going to get us out." And I produced my Deane and Adams with no small relish.

A little trustful pressure was my answer and my reward; meanwhile the black was singing out lustily in evident suspicion and alarm.

"He says they are coming back," whispered Eva; "but that's impossible."

"Why?"

"Because if they were he couldn't see them, and if he heard them he would be frightened of their hearing him. But here he comes!"

A shuffling quick step on the path; a running grumble of unmistakable threats; a shambling moonlit figure seen in glimpses through the leaves, very near us for an instant, then hidden by the shrubbery as he passed within a few yards of our hiding-place. A diminuendo of the shuffling steps; then a cursing, frightened savage at one end of the rhododendrons, and we two stealing out at the other, hand in hand, and bent quite double, into the long neglected grass.

"Can you run for it?" I whispered.

"Yes, but not too fast, for fear we trip.'

"Come on, then! "

The lighted open doorway grew greater at every stride.

"He hasn't seen us yet - "

"No, I hear him threatening me still."

"Now he has, though! "

A wild whoop proclaimed the fact, and upright we tore at top speed through the last ten yards of grass, while the black rushed down one of the side paths, gaining audibly on us over the better ground. But our start had saved us, and we flew up the steps as his feet ceased to clatter on the path; he had plunged into the grass to cut off the corner.

"Thank God!" cried Eva. "Now shut it quick."

The great door swung home with a mighty clatter, and Eva seized the key in both hands.

"I can't turn it! "

To lose a second was to take a life, and unconsciously I was sticking at that, perhaps from no higher instinct than distrust of my aim. Our pursuer, however, was on the steps when I clapped my free hand on top of those little white straining ones, and by a timely effort bent both them and the key round together; the ward shot home as Jose hurled himself against the door. Eva bolted it. But the thud was not repeated, and I gathered myself together between the door and the nearest window, for by now I saw there was but one thing for us. The nigger must be disabled, if I could manage such a nicety; if not, the devil take his own.

Well, I was not one tick too soon for him. My pistol was not cocked before the crash came that I was counting on, and with it a shower of small glass driving across the six-foot sill and tinkling on the flags. Next came a black and bloody face, at which I could not fire. I had to wait till I saw his legs, when I promptly shattered one of them at disgracefully short range. The report was as deafening as one upon the stage; the hall filled with white smoke, and remained hideous with the bellowing of my victim. I searched him without a qualm, but threats of annihilation instead, and found him unarmed but for that very knife which Rattray had induced me to hand over to him in town. I had a grim satisfaction in depriving him of this, and but small compunction in turning my back upon his pain.

"Come," I said to poor Eva, "don't pity him, though I daresay he's the most pitiable of the lot; show me the way through, and I'll follow with this lamp."

One was burning on the old oak table. I carried it along a narrow passage, through a great low kitchen where I bumped my head against the black oak beams; and I held it on high at a door almost as massive as the one which we had succeeded in shutting in the nigger's face.

"I was afraid of it!" cried Eva, with a sudden sob.

"What is it?"

"They've taken away the key!"

Yes, the keen air came through an empty keyhole; and my lamp, held close, not only showed that the door was locked, but that the lock was one with which an unskilled hand might tamper for hours without result. I dealt it a hearty kick by way of a test. The heavy timber did not budge; there was no play at all at either lock or hinges; nor did I see how I could spend one of my four remaining bullets upon the former, with any chance of a return.

"Is this the only other door?"

"Then it must be a window."

All the back ones are barred."

"Securely?"

"Yes."

"Then we've no choice in the matter."

And I led the way back to the hall, where the poor black devil lay blubbering in his blood. In the kitchen I found the bottle of wine

(Rattray's best port, that they were trying to make her take for her health) with which Eva had bribed him, and I gave it to him before laying hands on a couple of chairs.

"What are you going to do?"'

"Go out the way we came."

"But the wall?"

"Pile up these chairs, and as many more as we may need, if we can't open the gate."

But Eva was not paying attention any longer, either to me or to Jose; his white teeth were showing in a grin for all his pain; her eyes were fixed in horror on the floor."

"They've come back," she gasped. "The underground passage! Hark - hark!"

There was a muffled rush of feet beneath our own, then a dull but very distinguishable clatter on some invisible stair.

"Underground passage!" I exclaimed, and in my sheer disgust I forgot what was due to my darling. "Why on earth didn't you tell me of it before?"

"There was so much to tell you! It leads to the sea. Oh, what shall we do? You must hide - upstairs - anywhere!" cried Eva, wildly. "Leave them to me - leave them to me."

"I like that," said I; and I did; but I detested myself for the tears my words had drawn, and I prepared to die for them.

"They'll kill you, Mr. Cole!"

"It would serve me right; but we'll see about it."

And I stood with my revolver very ready in my right hand, while with the other I caught poor Eva to my side, even as a door flew open, and Rattray himself burst upon us, a lantern in his hand, and the perspiration shining on his handso me face in its light.

I can see him now as he stood dumfounded on the threshold of the hall; and yet, at the time, my eyes sped past him into the room beyond.

It was the one I have described as being lined with books; there was a long rent in this lining, where the books had opened with a door, through which Captain Harris, Joaquin Santos, and Jane Braithwaite followed Rattray in quick succession, the men all with lanterns, the woman scarlet and dishevelled even for her. It was over the squire's shoulders I saw their faces;, he kept them from passing him in the doorway by a free use of his elbows; and when I looked at him again, his black eyes were blazing from a face white with passion, and they were fixed upon me.

"What the devil brings you here?" he thundered at last.

"Don't ask idle questions," was my reply to that.

"So you were shamming to-day!"

"I was taking a leaf out of your book."

"You'll gain nothing by being clever!" sneered the squire, taking a threatening step forward. For at the last moment I had tucked my revolver behind my back, not only for the pleasure, but for the obvious advantage of getting them all in front of me and off their guard. I had no idea that such eyes as Rattray's could be so fierce: they were dancing from me to my companion, whom their glitter frightened into an attempt to disengage herself from me; but my arm only tightened about her drooping figure.

"I shall gain no more than I expect," said I, carelessly. "And I know what to expect from brave gentlemen like you! It will be better than your own fate, at all events; anything's better than being taken hence to the place of execution, and hanged by the neck until you're dead, all three of you in a row, and your bodies buried within the precincts of the prison!"

"The very thing for him," murmured Santos. "The - very - theeng!"

"But I'm so soft-hearted," I went insanely on, "that I should be sorry to see that happen to such fine fellows as you are. Come out of that, you little fraud behind there!" It was my betrayer skulking in the room. "Come out and line up with the rest! No, I'm not going to see you fellows dance on nothing; I've another kind of ball apiece for you, and one between 'em for the Braithwaites!"

Well, I suppose I always had a nasty tongue in me, and rather enjoyed making play with it on provocation; but, if so, I met with my deserts that night. For the nigger of the Lady Jermyn lay all but hid behind Eva and me; if they saw him at all, they may have thought him drunk; but, as for myself, I had fairly forgotten his existence until the very moment came for showing my revolver, when it was twisted out of my grasp instead, and a ball sang under my arm as the brute fell back exhausted and the weapon clattered beside him. Before I could stoop for it there was a dead weight on my left arm, and Squire Rattray was over the table at a bound, with his arms jostling mine beneath Eva Denison's senseless form.

"Leave her to me," he cried fiercely. "You fool," he added in a lower key, "do you think I'd let any harm come to her?"

I looked him in the bright and honest eyes that had made me trust him in the beginning. And I did not utterly distrust him yet. Rather was the guile on my side as I drew back and watched Rattray lift the young girl tenderly, and slowly carry her to the door by which she had entered and left the hall just twenty-four hours before. I could not take my eyes off them till they were gone. And when I looked for my revolver, it also had disappeared.

Jose had not got it - he lay insensible. Santos was whispering to Harris. Neither of them seemed armed. I made sure that Rattray had picked it up and carried it off with Eva. I looked wildly for some other weapon. Two unarmed men and a woman were all I had to deal with, for Braithwaite had long since vanished. Could I but knock the worthless life out of the men, I should have but the squire and his servants to deal with; and in that quarter I still had my hopes of a bloodless battle and a treaty of war.

A log fire was smouldering in the open grate. I darted to it, and had a heavy, half-burned brand whirling round my head next instant. Harris was the first within my reach. He came gamely at me with his fists. I sprang upon him, and struck him to the ground with one blow, the sparks flying far and wide as my smoking brand met the seaman's skull. Santos was upon me next instant, and him, by sheer luck, I managed to serve the same; but I doubt whether either man was stunned; and I was standing ready for them to rise, when I felt myself seized round the neck from behind, and a mass of fluffy hair tickling my cheek, while a shrill voice set up a lusty scream for the squire.

I have said that the woman Braithwaite was of a sinister strength; but I had little dreamt how strong she really was. First it was her arms that wound themselves about my neck, long, sinuous, and supple as the tentacles of some vile monster; then, as I struggled, her thumbs were on my windpipe like pads of steel. Tighter she pressed, and tighter yet. My eyeballs started; my tongue lolled; I heard my brand drop, and through a mist I saw it picked up instantly. It crashed upon my skull as I still struggled vainly; again and again it came down mercilessly in the same place; until I felt as though a sponge of warm water had been squeezed over my head, and saw a hundred withered masks grinning sudden exultation into mine; but still the lean arm whirled, and the splinters flew, till I was blind with my blood and the seven senses were beaten out of me.

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