AT sight of Sampson's placard Mr. Hardie was seized with a tremor that suspended the razor in mid air: he opened the window, and glared at the doctor's notice.
At this moment he himself was a picture: not unlike those half cleaned portraits the picture restorers hang out as specimens of their art.
"Insolent interfering fool," he muttered, and began to walk the room in agitation. After a while he made a strong effort, shaved the other half, and dressed slowly, thinking hard all the time. The result was, he went out before breakfast (which he had not done for years), and visited Mr. Baker — for what purpose has been already shown.
On his return, Jane was waiting breakfast. The first word to him was: "Papa, have you seen?"
"What, the Reward!" said he indifferently. "Yes, I noticed it at our door as I came home."
Jane said it was a very improper and most indelicate interference in their affairs, and went on to say with heightened colour: "I have just told Peggy to take it down.
"Not for the world!" cried Mr. Hardie, losing all his calmness real or feigned; and he rang the bell hastily. On Peggy's appearing, he said anxiously, "I do not wish that Notice interfered with."
"I shouldn't think of touching it without your order, sir," said she quietly, and shot him a feline glance from under her pale lashes.
Jane coloured, and looked a little mortified: but on Peggy's retiring, Mr. Hardie explained that, whether judicious or not, it was a friendly act of Dr. Sampson's; and to pull down his notice would look like siding with the boy against those he had injured: "Besides," said he, "why should you and I burk inquiry? Ill as he has used me, I am his father, and not altogether without anxiety. Suppose those doctors should be right about him, you know?"
Jane had for some time been longing to call at Albion Villa and sympathise with her friend; and now curiosity was superadded: she burned to know whether the Dodds knew of or approved this placard. She asked her father whether he thought she could go there with propriety. "Why not?" said he cheerfully, and with assumed carelessness.
In reality it was essential to him that Jane should visit the Dodds. Surrounded by pitfalls, threatened with a new and mysterious assailant in the eccentric, but keen and resolute Sampson, this artful man, who had now become a very Machiavel — constant danger and deceit had so sharpened and deepened his great natural abilities — was preparing amongst other defences a shield; and that shield was a sieve; and that sieve was his daughter. In fact, ever since his return, he had acted and spoken at the Dodds through Jane, but with a masterly appearance of simplicity and mere confidential intercourse. At least I think this is the true clue to all his recent remarks.
Jane, a truthful, unsuspicious girl, was all the fitter instrument of the cunning monster. She went and called at Albion Villa, and was received by Edward, Mrs. Dodd being upstairs with Julia, and in five minutes she had told him what her father, she owned, had said to her in confidence. "But," said she, "the reason I repeat these things is to make peace, and that you may not fancy there is any one in our house so cruel, so unchristian, as to approve Alfred's perfidy. Oh, and papa said candidly he disliked the match, but then he disliked this way of ending it far more."
Mrs. Dodd came down in due course, and kissed her; but told her Julia could not see even her at present. "I think, dear," said she, "in a day or two she will see you; but no one else: and for her sake we shall now hurry our departure from this place, where she was once so happy."
Mrs. Dodd did not like to begin about Alfred; but Jane had no such scruples; she inveighed warmly against his conduct, and ere she left the house, had quite done away with the faint suspicion Sampson had engendered, and brought both Mrs. Dodd and Edward back to their original opinion that the elder Hardie had nothing on earth to do with the perfidy of the younger.
Just before dinner a gentleman called on Edward, and proved to be a policeman in plain clothes. He had been sent from the office to sound the ostler at the "White Lion," and, if necessary, to threaten him. The police knew, though nobody else in Barkington did, that this ostler had been in what rogues call trouble, twice, and, as the police can starve a man of the kind by blowing on him, and can reward him by keeping dark, he knows better than withhold information from them.
However, on looking for this ostler, he had left his place that very morning; had decamped with mysterious suddenness.
Here was a puzzle.
Had the man gone without noticing the reward? Had somebody outbid the reward? Or was it a strange coincidence, and did he after all know nothing?
The police thought it was no coincidence, and he did know something; so they had telegraphed to the London office to mark him down.
Edward thanked his visitor; but, on his retiring, told his mother he could make neither head nor tail of it; and she only said, "We seem surrounded by mystery."
Meantime, unknown to these bewildered ones, Greek was meeting Greek only a few yards off.
Mr. Hardie was being undermined by a man of his own calibre, one too cautious to communicate with the Dodds, or any one else, till his work looked ripe.
The game began thus: a decent mechanic, who lodged hard by, lounging with his pipe near the gate of Musgrove Cottage, offered to converse with old Betty. She gave him a rough answer; but with a touch of ineradicable vanity must ask Peggy if she wanted a sweetheart, because there was a hungry one at the gate: "Why: he wanted to begin on an old woman like me." Peggy inquired what he had said to her.
"Oh, he begun where most of them ends — if they get so far at all: axed me was I comfortable here; if not, he knew a young man wanted a nice tidy body to keep house for him."
Peggy pricked up her ears; and, in less than a quarter of an hour, went for a box of lucifers in a new bonnet and clean collar. She tripped past the able mechanic very accidentally, and he bestowed an admiring smile on her, but said nothing — only smoked. However, on her return, he contrived to detain her, and paid her a good many compliments, which she took laughingly and with no great appearance of believing them. However, there is no going by that: compliments sink: and within forty-eight hours the able mechanic had become a hot wooer of Peggy Black, always on the look-out for her day and night, and telling her all about the lump of money he had saved, and how he could double his income, if he had but a counter, and tidy wife behind it. Peggy gossiped in turn, and let out amongst the rest that she had been turned off once, just for answering a little sharply; and now it was the other way; her master was a trifle too civil at times.
"Who could help it?" said the able mechanic rapturously; and offered a pressing civility, which Peggy fought off.
"Not so free, young man," said she. "Kissing is the prologue to sin."
"How do you know that?" inquired the able mechanic, with the sly humour of his class.
"It is a saying," replied Peggy demurely.
At last, one night, Mr. Green the detective, for he it was, put his arm round his new sweetheart's waist, and approached the subject nearest his heart. He told her he had just found out there was money enough to be made in one day to set them up for life in a nice little shop; and she could help in it.
After this inviting preamble, he crept towards the L. 14,000 by artful questions; and soon elicited that there had been high words between Master and Mr. Alfred about that very sum: she had listened at the door and heard. Taking care to combine close courtship with cunning interrogatories, he was soon enabled to write to Dr. Sampson, and say that a servant of Mr. Hardie's was down on him, and reported that he carried a large pocket-book in his breast-pocket by day; and she had found the dent of it under his pillow at night — a stroke of observation very creditable in an unprofessional female: on this he had made it his business to meet Mr. Hardie in broad day, and sure enough the pocket-book was always there. He added, that the said Hardie's face wore an expression which he had seen more than once when respectable parties went in for felony: and altogether thought they might now take out a warrant and proceed in the regular way.
Sampson received this news with great satisfaction: but was crippled by the interwoven relations of the parties.
To arrest Mr. Hardie on a warrant would entail a prosecution for felony, and separate Jane and Edward for ever.
He telegraphed Green to meet him at the station; and reached Barkington at eight that very evening. Green and he proceeded to Albion Villa, and there they held a long and earnest consultation with Edward; and at last, on certain conditions, Mr. Green and Edward consented to act on Sampson's plan. Green, by this time, knew all Mr. Hardie's out-of-door habits; and assured them that at ten o'clock he would walk up and down the road for at least half an hour, the night being dry. It wanted about a quarter to ten, when Mrs. Dodd came down, and proposed supper to the travellers. Sampson declined it for the present; and said they had work to do at eleven. Then, making the others a signal not to disclose anything at present he drew her aside and asked after Julia.
Mrs. Dodd sighed — "She goes from one thing to another, but always returns to one idea; that he is a victim, not a traitor."
"Well, tell her in one hour the money shall be in the house."
"The money! What does she care?"
"Well, say we shall know all about Alfred by eleven o'clock."
"My dear friend, be prudent," said Mrs. Dodd. "I feel alarmed: you were speaking almost in a whisper when I came in."
"Y' are very obsairvant: but dawnt be uneasy; we are three to one. Just go and comfort Miss Julee with my message."
"Ah, that I will," she said.
She was no sooner gone than they all stole out into the night, and a pitch dark night it was; but Green had a powerful dark lantern to use if necessary.
They waited, Green at the gate of Musgrove Cottage, the other two a little way up the road.
Ten o'clock struck. Some minutes passed without the expected signal from Green; and Edward and Sampson began to shiver. For it was very cold and dark, and in the next place they were honest men going to take the law into their own hands and the law sometimes calls that breaking the law. "Confound him!" muttered Sampson; "if he does not soon come I shall run away. It is bitterly cold."
Presently footsteps were heard approaching; but no signal: it proved to be only a fellow in a smock-frock rolling home from the public-house.
Just as his footsteps died away a low hoot like a plaintive owl was heard, and they knew their game was afoot.
Presently, tramp, tramp, came the slow and stately march of him they had hunted down.
He came very slowly, like one lost in meditation: and these amateur policemen's hearts beat louder and louder, as he drew nearer and nearer.
At last in the blackness of the night a shadowy outline was visible; another tramp or two, it was upon them.
Now the cautious Mr. Green had stipulated that the pocketbook should first be felt for, and, if not there, the matter should go no farther. So Edward made a stumble and fell against Mr. Hardie and felt his left breast: the pocket-book was there: — "Yes," he whispered: and Mr. Hardie, in the act of remonstrating at his clumsiness, was pinned behind, and his arms strapped with wonderful rapidity and dexterity. Then first he seemed to awake to his hunger, and uttered a stentorian cry of terror, that rang through the night and made two of his three captors tremble.
"Cut that" said Green sternly, "or you'll get into trouble."
Mr. Hardie lowered his voice directly: "Do not kill me, do not hurt me," he murmured; "I am but a poor man now. Take my little money; it is in my waistcoat pocket; but spare my life. You see I don't resist."
"Come, stash your gab, my lad," said Green contemptuously, addressing him just as he would any other of the birds he was accustomed to capture. "It's not your stiff that is wanted, but Captain Dodd's."
"Captain Dodd's?" cried the prisoner with a wonderful assumption of innocence.
"Ay, the pocket-book," said Green; "here, this! this!" He tapped on the pocket-book, and instantly the prisoner uttered a cry of agony, and sprang into the road with an agility no one would have thought possible but Edward and Green soon caught him, and, the Doctor joining, they held him, and Green tore his coat open.
The pocket-book was not there. He tore open his waistcoat; it was not in the waistcoat: but it was sewed to his very shirt on the outside.
Green wrenched it away, and bidding the other two go behind the prisoner and look over his shoulder, unseen themselves, slipped the shade of his lantern.
Mr. Hardie had now ceased to struggle and to exclaim; he stood sullen, mute, desperate; while an agitated face peered eagerly over each of his shoulders at the open pocket-book in Green's hands, on which the lantern now poured a narrow but vivid stream of light.