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CHAPTER XV

CHELMSFORD


They took Manfred back to Wandsworth Gaol on the night of the trial. The governor, standing in the gloomy courtyard as the van drove in with its clanking escort, received him gravely.

“Is there anything you want?” he asked when he visited the cell that night.

“A cigar,” said Manfred, and the governor handed him the case. Manfred selected with care, the prison-master watching him wonderingly.

“You”re an extraordinary man,” he said.

“And I need to be,” was the reply, “for I have before me an ordeal which is only relieved of its gruesomeness by its uniqueness.”

“There will be a petition for reprieve, of course,” said the governor.

“Oh, I’ve killed that,” laughed Manfred, “killed it with icy blast of satire—although I trust I haven’t discouraged the “Rational Faithers” for whom I have made such handsome posthumous provision.”

“You are an extraordinary man,” mused the governor again. “By the way, Manfred, what part does the lady play in your escape?”

“The lady?” Manfred was genuinely astonished.

“Yes, the woman who haunts the outside of this prison; a lady in black, and my chief warder tells me singularly beautiful.”

“Ah, the woman,” said Manfred, and his face clouded. “I had hoped she had gone.”

He sat thinking.

“If she is a friend of yours, an interview would not be difficult to obtain,” said the governor.

“No, no, no,” said Manfred hastily, “there must be no interview—at any rate here.”

The governor thought that the interview “here” was very unlikely, for the Government had plans for the disposal of their prisoner, which he did not feel his duty to the State allowed him to communicate. He need not, had he known, have made a mystery of the scheme.

Manfred kicked off the clumsy shoes the prison authorities had provided him with—he had changed into convict dress on his return to the gaol—and laid himself down dressed as he was, pulling a blanket over him.

One of the watching warders suggested curtly that he should undress.

“It is hardly worth while,” he said, “for so brief a time.”

They thought he was referring again to the escape, and marvelled a little at his madness. Three hours later when the governor came to the cell, they were dumbfounded at his knowledge.

“Sorry to disturb you,” said the Major, “but you’re to be transferred to another prison—why, you aren’t undressed!”

“No,” said Manfred, lazily kicking off the cover, “but I thought the transfer would be earlier.”

“How did you know?”

“About the transfer—oh, a little bird told me,” said the prisoner, stretching himself. “Where is it to be—Pentonville?”

The governor looked at him a little strangely.

“No,” he said.

“Reading?”

“No,” said the governor shortly.

Manfred frowned.

“Wherever it is, I’m ready,” he said.

He nodded to the attendant warder as he left and took an informal but cheery farewell of the governor on the deserted railway station where a solitary engine with brake van attached stood waiting.

“A special, I perceive,” he said.

“Goodbye, Manfred,” said the governor and offered his hand.

Manfred did not take it—and the Major flushed in the dark.

“I cannot take your hand,” said Manfred, “for two reasons. The first is that your excellent chief warder has handcuffed me, behind——”

“Never mind about the other reason,” said the governor with a little laugh, and then as he squeezed the prisoner’s arm he added, “I don’t wish the other man any harm, but if by chance that wonderful escape of yours materializes, I know a respected officer in the Prison Service who will not be heartbroken.”

Manfred nodded, and as he stepped into the train he said:

“That lady—if you see her, tell her I am gone.”

“I will—but I’m afraid I may not tell her where.”

“That is at your discretion,” said Manfred as the train moved off. The warders drew down the blinds, and Manfred composed himself to sleep.

He woke with the chief warder’s hand on his arm and stepped out on to the platform as the day was breaking. His quick eye searched the advertisement boards on the station. He would have done this ordinarily, because they would tell him where he was, supposing for some reason the authorities had wished to keep his destination a secret from him. But he had a particular interest in advertising just then. The station was smothered with the bills of a travelling cheap jack—an unusual class of advertisement for the austere notice boards of a railway station. Huge flaming posters that said “Everything is Right”, and in smaller type underneath “Up to-date”. Little bills that said, “Write to your cousin in London … and tell her that Gipsy Jack’s bargain,” etc. “Go by the book!” said another. Marching down the stairs he observed opposite the station yet further evidence of this extravagant cheap jack”s caprice, for there were big illuminated signs in evidence, all to the same effect. In the shuttered darkness of the cab, Manfred smiled broadly. There was really no limit to the ingenuity of Leon Gonsalez. Next morning when the governor of Chelmsford Gaol visited him, Manfred expressed his intention of writing a letter to his cousin—in London.


“Did you see him?” asked Poiccart.

“Just a glimpse,” said Leon. He walked over to the window of the room and looked out. Right in front of him rose the grim façade of the gaol. He walked back to the table and poured himself out a cup of tea. It was not yet six o’clock, but he had been up the greater part of the night.

“The Home Secretary,” he said between gasps as he drank the scalding hot liquid, “is indiscreet in his correspondence and is generally a most careless man.”

It was à propos of Manfred’s coming.

“I have made two visits to the right honourable gentleman’s house in this past fortnight, and I am bursting with startling intelligence. Do you know that Willington, the President of the Board of Trade, has had an ‘affair,’ and that a junior Lord of the Admiralty drinks like a sponge, and the Chancellor hates the War Secretary, who will talk all the time, and——”

“Keeps a diary?” asked Poiccart, and the other nodded.

“A diary full of thousands of pounds’ worth of gossip, locked with a sixpenny- ha’penny lock. His house is fitted with the Magno-Sellie system of burglar alarms, and he keeps three servants.”

“You are almost encyclopædic,” said Poiccart.

“My dear Poiccart,” said Leon resentfully, “you have got a trick of accepting the most wonderful information from me without paying me the due of adopting the following flattering attitudes: primary, incredulous surprise; secondary, ecstatic wonder; tertiary, admiration blended with awe.”

Poiccart laughed outright: an unusual circumstance.

“I have ceased to wonder at your cleverness, illustrious,” he said, speaking in Spanish, the language these two men invariably used when alone.

“All these things are beyond me,” Poiccart went on, “yet no man can say for all my slow brain that I am a sluggard in action.”

Leon smiled.

The work of the last few weeks had fallen heavily on them both. It was no light task, the preparation of Three Months in Morocco. The first word of every seventh paragraph formed the message that he had to convey to Manfred—and it was a long message. There was the task of printing it, arranging the immediate publication, the placing of the book in the list, and generally thrusting it under the noses of an unappreciative public. As sailors store life-belts for possible contingencies, so, in every country had the Four Just Men stored the equipment of rescue against their need. Poiccart, paying many flying visits to the Midlands, brought back with him from time to time strange parts of machinery. The lighter he carried with his luggage, the heavier parts he smuggled into Chelmsford in a strongly-built motor-car.

The detached house facing the prison was fortunately for sale, and the agent who conducted the rapid negotiations that resulted in its transfer had let fall the information that the clients hoped to establish a garage on the Colchester Road that would secure a sensible proportion of the Essex motor traffic. The arrival of two rough-painted chassis supported this view of the new owners’ business. They were enterprising people, these new arrivals, and it was an open secret “on the road”, that Gipsy Jack, whose caravan was under distress, and in the hands of the bailiff, had found financial support at their hands. Albeit Jack protested vigorously at the ridiculous suggestion that he should open in Chelmsford at an unpropitious season, and sniffed contemptuously at the extravagant billing of the town. Nor did he approve of the wording of the posters, which struck him as being milder than the hilarious character of his business-entertainment called for.

“Them Heckfords are going to make a failure,” said Mr. Peter Sweeney in the bosom of his family. He occupied “Faith Home”, an ornate villa on the Colchester Road. Before his momentous conception of the “Rational Faithers”, it had borne the more imposing title of “Palace Lodge”, this by the way.

“They’ve got no business ability, and they’re a bit gone on the sherbet.” For a high-priest of a new cult, Peter’s language was neither pure nor refined. “And they haven’t got the common politeness of pigs,” he added ambiguously. “I took the petition there today,” Peter went on indignantly, “and the chap that come to the door! Oh, what a sight! Looked as if he’d been up all night, eyes red, face white, and all of a shake.”

“‘Good mornin’, Mr. Heckford,’ says I, ‘I’ve come about the petition.’

“‘What petition?’ says he.

“‘The petition for the poor creature now lyin’ in Chelmsford,’ says I, ‘under sentence of death—which is legal murder,’ I says.

“‘Go to the devil’ he says; they were his exact words, ‘Go to the devil.’ I was that upset that I walked straight away from the door—he didn’t even ask me in—an’ just as I got to the bottom of the front garden, he shouts, ‘What do you want him reprieved for—hasn’t he left you a pot of money?’”

Mr. Peter Sweeney was very much agitated as he repeated this callous piece of cynicism.

“That idea,” said Peter solemnly and impressively, “Must Not be Allowed to Grow.”

It was to give the lie to the wicked suggestion that Peter arranged his daily demonstration, from twelve to two. There had been such functions before, “Mass” meetings with brass bands at the very prison gates, but they were feeble mothers’ meetings compared to these demonstrations on behalf of Manfred.

The memory of the daily “service” is too fresh in the minds of the public, and particularly the Chelmsford public, to need any description here. Crowds of three thousand people were the rule, and Peter’s band blared incessantly, whilst Peter himself grew hoarse from the effect of railing his denunciation of the barbarous methods of a mediæval system.

Heckford Brothers, the new motor-car firm, protested against the injury these daily paraders were inflicting on their business. That same dissipated man, looking more dissipated than ever, who had been so rude to him, called upon Peter and threatened him with injunctions. This merely had the effect of stiffening Peter Sweeney’s back, and next day the meeting lasted three hours.

In the prison, the pandemonium that went on outside penetrated even to the seclusion of Manfred’s cell, and he was satisfied.

The local police were loath to interfere—and reopen the desperate quarrel that had centred around such demonstrations before.

So Peter triumphed, and the crowd of idlers that flocked to the midday gathering grew in proportion as the interest in the condemned man’s fate arose.

And the augmented band blared and the big drum boomed the louder and Rational Faith gained many new converts. A sightseer, attracted by curiosity, was standing on the fringe of the crowd one day. He could not see the band from where he stood but he made a remarkable observation; it was nothing less than a gross reflection upon a valued member of the orchestra.

“That chap,” said this unknown critic, “is beating out of time—or else there’s two drums going.”

The man to whom he addressed his remarks listened attentively, and agreed.

The crowd had swayed back to the railings before the premises of the motor manufacturers, and as it dispersed—Peter’s party “processed” magnificently to the town before breaking up—one of the new tenants came to the door and stood, watching the melting crowd. He overheard this remark concerning the big drummer’s time, and it vexed him. When he came back to the sitting-room, where a pallid Poiccart lay supinely on a couch, he said:

“We must be careful,” and repeated the conversation.

Until six o’clock these men rested—as men must rest who have been working under a monstrous pressure of air—then they went to clear away the results of their working.

At midnight they ceased, and washed away the stains of their labours.

“Luckily,” said Poiccart, “we have many rooms to fill yet; the drawing-room can hold little more, the dining-room we need, the morning-room is packed. We must start upstairs to-morrow.”

As the work proceeded, the need for caution became more and more apparent; but no accident marred their progress, and three days before the date fixed for the execution, the two men, coming to their barely furnished living-room, looked at each other across the uncovered table that separated them, and sighed thankfully, for the work was almost finished.

“Those fellows,” said Mr. Peter Sweeney, “are not so Bad as I thought they was. One of ’em come to me today and Apologized. He was lookin’ better too, and offered to sign the petition.” Peter always gave you the impression in speaking that he was using words that began with capital letters.

“Pa,” said his son, who had a mind that dealt in material issues, “what are you going to do with Manfred’s money?”

His parent looked at him sternly.

“I shall Devote it to the Cause,” he said shortly.

“That’s you, ain’t it?” asserted the innocent child.

Peter disdained to answer.

“These young men,” he went on, “might do worse than they have done. They are more business-like than I thought. Clarker, the town electrician, tells me that they had got a power current in their works, they have got a little gas-engine too, and from the way one of them was handling a big car today on the London road, it strikes me they know something about the business of motor-car running.”

Gonsalez, coming back from a trial trip on his noisy car, had to report a disquieting circumstance.

“She’s here,” he said, as he was washing the grime from his hands.

Poiccart looked up from his work—he was heating something in a I crucible over an electric stove.

“The Woman of Gratz?” he asked.

Leon nodded.

“That is natural,” Poiccart said, and went on with his experiment.

“She saw me,” said Leon calmly.

“Oh!” said the other, unconcerned. “Manfred said——”

“That she would betray no more—I believe that, and George asked us to be good to her, that is a command.”

(There was a great deal more in Manfred’s letter to “his cousin in London” than met the governor”s eye.)

“She is an unhappy woman,” said Gonsalez gravely; “it was pitiable to see her at Wandsworth, where she stood day after day with those tragic eyes of hers on the ugly gate of the prison; here, with the result of her work in sight, she must be suffering the tortures of the damned.”

“Then tell her,” said Poiccart.

“That——”

“That George will escape.”

“I thought of that. I think George would wish it.”

“The Red Hundred has repudiated her,” Leon went on. “We were advised of that yesterday; I am not sure that she is not under sentence. You remember Herr Schmidt, he of the round face? It was he who denounced her.”

Poiccart nodded and looked up thoughtfully.

“Schmidt—Schmidt,” he puzzled. “Oh yes—there is something against him, a cold-blooded murder, was it not?”

“Yes,” said Leon very quietly, and they did not speak again of Herr Schmidt of Prague. Poiccart was dipping thin glass rods into the seething, bubbling contents of the crucible, and Leon watched idly.

“Did she speak?” Poiccart asked after a long interval of silence.

“Yes.”

Another silence, and then Leon resumed:

“She was not sure of me—but I made her the sign of the Red Hundred. I could not speak to her in the open street. Falmouth’s people were in all probability watching her day and night. You know the old glove trick for giving the hour of assignation. Drawing on the glove slowly and stopping to admire the fit of one, two, or three fingers … so I signalled to her to meet me in three hours’ time.”

“Where?”

“At Wivenhoe—that was fairly simple too … imagine me leaning over the side of the car to demand of the willing bystanders how long it would take me to reach Wivenhoe—the last word loudly—would it take me three hours? Whilst they volunteered their counsel, I saw her signal of assent.”

Poiccart hummed as he worked.

“Well—are you going?” he asked.

“I am,” said the other, and looked at his watch.

After midnight, Poiccart, dozing in his chair, heard the splutter and the Gatling-gun explosions of the car as it turned into the extemporized garage.

“Well?” he asked as Leon entered.

“She’s gone,” said Gonsalez with a sigh of relief. “It was a difficult business, and I had to lie to her—we cannot afford the risk of betrayal. Like the remainder of the Red Hundred, she clings to the idea that we have thousands of people in our organization; she accepted my story of storming the prison with sheer brute force. She wanted to stay, but I told her that she would spoil everything—she leaves for the continent tomorrow.”

“She has no money, of course,” said Poiccart with a yawn.

“None—the Red Hundred has stopped supplies—but I gave her——”

“Naturally,” said Poiccart.

“It was difficult to persuade her to take it; she was like a mad thing between her fear of George, her joy at the news I gave her—and remorse.

“I think,” he went on seriously, “that she had an affection for George.”

Poiccart looked at him.

“You surprise me,” he said ironically, and went to bed.

Day found them working. There was machinery to be dismantled, a heavy open door to be fixed, new tires to be fitted to the big car. An hour before the midday demonstration came a knock at the outer door. Leon answered it and found a polite chauffeur. In the roadway stood a car with a solitary occupant.

The chauffeur wanted petrol; he had run himself dry. His master descended from the car and came forward to conduct the simple negotiation. He dismissed the mechanic with a word.

“There are one or two questions I would like to ask about my car,” he said distinctly.

“Come inside, sir,” said Leon, and ushered the man into the sitting- room.

He closed the door and turned on the fur-clad visitor.

“Why did you come?” he asked quickly; “it is terribly dangerous—for you.”

“I know,” said the other easily, “but I thought there might be something I could do—what is the plan?”

In a few words Leon told him, and the young man shivered.

“A gruesome experience for George,” he said.

“It’s the only way,” replied Leon, “and George has nerves like ice.”

“And after—you’re leaving that to chance?”

“You mean where shall we make for—the sea, of course. There is a good road between here and Clacton, and the boat lies snug between there and Walton.”

“I see,” said the young man, and he made a suggestion.

“Excellent—but you?” said Leon.

“I shall be all right?” said the cheerful visitor.

“By the way, have you a telegraph map of this part of the world?”

Leon unlocked a drawer and took out a folded paper.

“If you would arrange that,” he said, “I should be grateful.”

The man who called himself Courtlander marked the plan with a pencil.

“I have men who may be trusted to the very end,” he said. “The wires shall be cut at eight o’clock, and Chelmsford shall be isolated from the world.”

Then, with a tin of petrol in his hand, he walked back to his car.