The Four Just Men (1920)/Part 2/Chapter 16
If you pass through the little door that leads to the porter”s lodge (the door will be locked and bolted behind you) your conductor will pass you through yet another door into a yard that is guarded by the ponderous doors of the prison at the one end and by a big steel gate at the other. Through this gate you reach another courtyard, and bearing to the right, you come to a flight of stone steps that bring you to the governor’s tiny office. If you go straight along the narrow passage from which the office opens, descend a flight of stairs at the other end, through a well-guarded doorway, you come suddenly into the great hall of the prison. Here galleries run along both sides of the hall, and steel gangways and bridges span the width at intervals. Here, too, polished stairways criss-cross, and the white face of the two long walls of the hall are pitted with little black doors.
On the ground floor, the first cell on the right as you enter the hall from the governor”s office is larger and more commodious than its fellows. There is, too, a suspicion of comfort in the strip of matting that covers the floor, in the naked gaslight which flares in its wire cage by day and night, in the table and chair, and the plain comfortable bed. This is the condemned cell. A dozen paces from its threshold is a door that leads to another part of the yard, and a dozen more paces along the flagged pathway brings you to a little unpretentious one-storeyed house without windows, and a doorway sufficiently wide to allow two men to pass abreast. There is a beam where a rope may be made fast, and a trapdoor, and a brick-lined pit, coloured with a salmon-pink distemper.
From his cell, Manfred was an interested listener, as day by day the uproar of the demonstration before the gates increased.
He found in the doctor who visited him daily a gentleman of some wit. In a sense, he replaced the governor of Wandsworth as an intellectual companion, for the master of Chelmsford was a reserved man, impregnated with the traditions of the system. To the doctor, Manfred confided his private opinion of the “Rational Faithers.”
“But why on earth have you left them so much money?” asked the surprised medico.
“Because I dislike cranks and narrow, foolish people most intensely,” was the cryptic reply.
“This Sweeney——” he went on.
“How did you hear of Sweeney?” asked the doctor.
“Oh, one hears,” said Manfred carelessly. “Sweeney had an international reputation; besides,” he added, not moving a muscle of his face, “I know about everybody.”
“Me, for instance?” challenged the man of medicine.
“You,” repeated Manfred wisely. “From the day you left Clifton to the day you married the youngest Miss Arbuckle of Chertsey.”
“Good Lord!” gasped the doctor.
“It isn’t surprising, is it,” explained Manfred, “that for quite a long time I have taken an interest in the various staffs of the prisons within Teach of London?”
“I suppose it isn’t,” said the other. None the less he was impressed.
Manfred”s life in Chelmsford differed in a very little degree from his life in Wandsworth.
The routine of prison life remained the same: the daily exercises, the punctilious visits of governor, doctor and chaplain.
On one point Manfred was firm. He would receive no spiritual ministrations, he would attend no service. He made his position clear to the scandalized chaplain.
“You do not know to what sect I am attached,” he said, “because I have refused to give any information upon that point. I feel sure you have no desire to proselytize or convert me from my established beliefs.”
“What are your beliefs?” asked the chaplain.
“That,” said Manfred, “is my own most secret knowledge, and which I do not intend sharing with any man.”
“But you cannot die like a heathen,” said the clergyman in horror.
“Point of view is everything,” was the calm rejoinder, “and I am perfectly satisfied with the wholesomeness of my own; in addition to which,” he added, “I am not going to die just yet, and being aware of this, I shrink from accepting from good men the sympathy and thought which I do not deserve.”
To the doctor he was a constant source of wonder, letting fall surprising items of news mysteriously acquired.
“Where he gets his information from, puzzles me, sir,” he confessed to the governor. “The men who are guarding him——”
“Are above suspicion,” said the governor promptly.
“He gets no newspapers?”
“No, only the books he requires. He expressed a desire the other day for Three Months in Morocco, said he had half finished it when he was at Wandsworth, and wanted to read it again to ‘make sure’—so I got it.”
Three days before the date fixed for the execution, the governor had informed Manfred that, despite the presentation of a petition, the Home Secretary saw no reason for advising the remission of the sentence.
“I never expected a reprieve,” he replied without emotion.
He spent much of his time chatting with the two warders. Strict sense of duty forced them to reply in monosyllables, but he interested them keenly with his talk of the strange places of the world. As far as they could, they helped him pass the time, and he appreciated their restricted tightness.
“You are named Perkins,” he said one day.
“Yes,” said the warder.
“And you’re Franklin,” he said to the other, and the man replied in the affirmative. Manfred nodded.
“When I am at liberty,” he said, “I will make you some recompense for your exemplary patience.”
At exercise on the Monday—Tuesday was the fatal day fixed by the High Sheriff—he saw a civilian walking in the yard and recognized him, and on his return to his cell he requested to see the governor.
“I would like to meet Mr. Jessen,” he said when the officer came, and the governor demurred.
“Will you be good enough to refer my request to the Home Secretary by telegraph?” asked Manfred, and the governor promised that he would.
To his surprise, an immediate reply gave the necessary permission.
Jessen stepped into the cell and nodded pleasantly to the man who sat on the edge of the couch.
“I wanted to speak to you, Jessen,” Manfred said, and motioned him to a seat. “I wanted to put the business of Starque right, once and for all.” Jessen smiled.
“That was all right—it was an order signed by the Czar and addressed personally to me—I could do no less than hang him,” he said.
“Yet you may think,” Manfred went on, “that we took you for this work because——”
“I know why I was taken,” said the quiet Jessen. “Starque and François were within the law, condemned by the law, and you strike only at those the law has missed.”
Then Manfred inquired after the Guild, and Jessen brightened.
“The Guild is flourishing,” he said cheerfully. “I am now converting the luggage thieves—you know, the men who haunt railway stations.”
“Into——?” asked the other.
“The real thing—the porters they sometimes impersonate,” said the enthusiast, and added dolefully, “It”s terribly uphill business though, getting characters for the men who want to go straight and have only a ticket of leave to identify them.”
As he rose to go, Manfred shook hands.
“Don’t lose heart,” he said.
“I shall see you again,” said Jessen, and Manfred smiled.
Again, if you grow weary of that repetition “Manfred smiled,” remember that the two words best describe his attitude in those dreadful days in Chelmsford.
There was no trace of flippancy in his treatment of the oppressing situation. His demeanour on the occasions when he met the chaplain was one to which the most sensitive could take no exception, but the firmness was insuperable.
“It is impossible to do anything with him,” said the despairing minister. “I am the veriest child in his hands. He makes me feel like a lay preacher interviewing Socrates.”
There was no precedent for the remarkable condition of affairs, and finally, at Manfred”s request, it was decided to omit the ceremony of the religious service altogether.
In the afternoon, taking his exercise, he lifted his eyes skyward, and the warders, following his gaze, saw in the air a great yellow kite, bearing a banner that advertised some brand or other of motor tires.
“Yellow kite, all right,” he improvised, and hummed a tune as he marched round the stone circle.
That night, after he had retired to rest, they took away his prison clothes and returned the suit in which he had been arrested. He thought he heard the measured tramping of feet as he dozed, and wondered if the Government had increased the guard of the prison. Under his window the step of the sentry sounded brisker and heavier.
“Soldiers,” he guessed, and fell asleep.
He was accurate in his surmise. At the eleventh hour had arisen a fear of rescue, and half a battalion of guards had arrived by train in the night and held the prison.
The chaplain made his last effort, and received an unexpected rebuff, unexpected because of the startling warmth with which it was delivered.
“I refuse to see you,” stormed Manfred. It was the first exhibition of impatience he had shown.
“Have I not told you that I will not lend myself to the reduction of a sacred service to a farce? Can you not understand that I must have a very special reason for behaving as I do, or do you think I am a sullen boor rejecting your kindness out of pure perversity?”
“I did not know what to think,” said the chaplain sadly, and Manfred’s voice softened as he replied:
“Reserve your judgement for a few hours—then you will know.”
The published accounts of that memorable morning are to the effect that Manfred ate very little, but the truth is that he partook of a hearty breakfast, saying, “I have a long journey before me, and need my strength.”
At five minutes to eight a knot of journalists and warders assembled outside the cell door, a double line of warders formed across the yard, and the extended line of soldiers that circled the prison building stood to attention. At a minute to eight came Jessen with the straps of office in his hand. Then with the clock striking the hour, the governor beckoning Jessen, entered the cell.
Simultaneously and in a dozen different parts of the country, the telegraph wires which connect Chelmsford with the rest of the world were cut.
It was a tragic procession, robbed a little of its horror by the absence of the priest, but sufficiently dreadful. Manfred, with strapped hands, followed the governor, a warder at each arm, and Jessen walking behind. They guided him to the little house without windows and stood him on a trap and drew back, leaving the rest to Jessen. Then, as Jessen put his hand to his pocket, Manfred spoke.
“Stand away for a moment,” he said; “before the rope is on my neck I have something to say,” and Jessen stood back. “It is,” said Manfred slowly, “farewell!”
As he spoke he raised his voice, and Jessen stooped to pick up the coil of rope that dragged on the floor. Then without warning, before the rope was raised, or any man could touch him, the trap fell with a crash and Manfred shot out of sight.
Out of sight indeed, for from the pit poured up a dense volume of black smoke, that sent the men at the edge reeling and coughing backwards to the open air.
“What is it? What is it?” a frantic official struggled through the press at the door and shouted an order.
“Quick! the fire hose!”
The clanging of a bell sent the men to their stations. “He is in the pit,” somebody cried, but a man came with a smoke helmet and went down the side. He was a long time gone, and when he returned he told his story incoherently.
“The bottom of the pit’s been dug out—there’s a passage below and a door—the smoke—I stopped that, it’s a smoke cartridge!”
The chief warder whipped a revolver from his holster.
“This way,” he shouted, and went down the dangling rope hand over hand.
It was dark, but he felt his way; he slipped down the sharp declivity where the tunnel dipped beneath the prison wall and the men behind him sprawled after him. Then without warning he ran into an obstacle and went down bruised and shaken.
One of the last men down had brought a lamp, and the light of it came flickering along the uneven passage. The chief warder shouted for the man to hurry.
By the light he saw that what confronted him was a massive door made of unpainted deal and clamped with iron. A paper attracted his attention. It was fastened to the door, and he lifted the lantern to read it:
“The tunnel beyond this point is mined.”
That was all it said.
“Get back to the prison,” ordered the warder sharply. Mine or no mine, he would have gone on, but he saw that the door was well nigh impregnable.
He came back to the light stained with clay and sweating with his exertions.
“Gone!” he reported curtly; “if we can get the men out on the roads and surround the town——”
“That has been done,” said the governor, “but there’s a crowd in front of the prison, and we’ve lost three minutes getting through.”
He had a grim sense of humour, this fierce silent old man, and he turned on the troubled chaplain.
“I should imagine that you know why he didn’t want the service now?”
“I know,” said the minister simply, “and knowing, I am grateful.”
Manfred felt himself caught in a net, deft hands loosened the straps at his wrists and lifted him to his feet. The place was filled with the pungent fumes of smoke.
Poiccart, going ahead, flashed the rays of his electric lamp over the floor. They took the slope with one flying leap, and stumbled forward as they landed; reaching the open door, they paused whilst Leon crashed it closed and slipped the steel bolts into their places.
Poiccart’s lamp showed the smoothly cut sides of the tunnel, and at the other end they had to climb the debris of dismantled machinery.
“Not bad,” said Manfred, viewing the work critically. “The ‘Rational Faithers’ were useful,” he added. Leon nodded.
“But for their band you could have heard the drills working in the prison,” he said breathlessly.
Up a ladder at the end they raced, into the earth strewn “dining-room” through the passage, inches thick with trodden clay.
Leon held the thick coat for him and he slipped into it. Poiccart started the motor.
“Right!” They were on the move thumping and jolting through a back lane that joined the main road five hundred yards below the prison.
Leon, looking back, saw the specks of scarlet struggling through the black crowds at the gates. “Soldiers to hold the roads,” he said; “we’re just in time—let her rip, Poiccart.”
It was not until they struck the open country that Poiccart obeyed, and then the great racer leapt forward, and the rush of wind buffeted the men”s faces with great soft blows.
Once in the loneliest part of the road they came upon telegraph wires that trailed in the hedge.
Leon’s eyes danced at the sight of it.
“If they’ve cut the others, the chase is over,” he said; “they’ll have cars out in half an hour and be following us; we are pretty sure to attract attention, and they’ll be able to trace us.”
Attract attention they certainly did, for leaving Colchester behind, they ran into a police trap, and a gesticulating constable signalled them to stop.
They left him behind in a thick cloud of dust. Keeping to the Clacton road, they had a clear run till they reached a deserted strip where a farm wagon had broken down and blocked all progress.
A grinning wagoner saw their embarrassment.
“You cairn”t pass here, mister,” he said gleefully, “and there ain’t another road for two miles back.”
“Where are your horses?” asked Leon quickly.
“Back to farm,” grinned the man.
“Good,” said Leon. He looked round, there was nobody in sight.
“Go back there with the car,” he said, and signalled Poiccart to reverse the engine.
Leon was out of the car, walking with quick steps to the lumbering wreck in the road.
He stooped down, made a swift examination, and thrust something beneath the huge bulk. He lit a match, steadied the flame, and ran backward, clutching the slow-moving yokel and dragging him with him.
“’Ere, wot’s this?” demanded the man, but before he could reply there was a deafening crash, like a clap of thunder, and the air was filled with wreckage.
Leon made a second examination and called the car forward.
As he sprang into his seat he turned to the dazed rustic.
“Tell your master that I have taken the liberty of dynamiting his cart,” he said; and then, as the man made a movement as if to clutch his arm, Leon gave him a push which sent him flying, and the car jolted over the remainder of the wagon.
The car turned now in the direction of Walton, and after a short run, turned sharply toward the sea.
Twenty minutes later two cars thundered along the same road, stopping here and there for the chief warder to ask the question of the chance-met pedestrian.
They too swung round to the sea and followed the cliff road.
“Look!” said a man.
Right ahead, drawn up by the side of the road, was a car. It was empty.
They sprang out as they reached it—half a dozen warders from each car. They raced across the green turf till they came to the sheer edge of the cliff.
There was no sign of the fugitive.
The serene blue of sea was unbroken, save where, three miles away, a beautiful white steam yacht was putting out to sea.
Attracted by the appearance of the warders, a little crowd came round them.
“Yes,” said a wondering fisherman, “I seed ’em, three of ’em went out in one of they motor boats that go like lightenin’—they’re out o’ sight by now.”
“What ship is that?” asked the chief warder quickly and pointed to the departing yacht.
The fisherman removed his pipe and answered: “That’s the Royal Yacht.”
“What Royal Yacht?”
“The Prince of the Escorials,” said the fisherman impressively.
The chief warder groaned.
“Well, they can’t be on her!” he said.