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A NIGHT OF STRANGE INCIDENTS
As the shot rang out, Bradshaw fell crashing through the branches, clutching frantically at boughs and twigs in his descent, stripping away the young bark and searing the palms of his hands into patches of white-hot agony. But it was one of those cases in which a man must break either his fall or his neck, and the American's sympathies were largely in favor of the first alternative. Nevertheless, during fifteen feet of a sheer drop there was only thin air between himself and mother earth, and this distance he fell like a stone, landing heavily at Hobson's feet. Luckily the ground was soft, and he stood up in an instant, apparently sound in limb and otherwise fit for action, except that he was breathless.
"Quick!" he gasped, dragging the detective close under the shadow and shelter of the house. Not a moment too soon were they. Mrs. Warren had thrown up the window now and was firing shot after shot into the gloom where Bradshaw had fallen.
"Keep cover," gasped Bradshaw again, "or you are liable — to get filled — full of holes. That bullet — whizzed past my ear — like a toy cyclone."
"I thought you were killed when you fell as you did," murmured Hobson. "I suppose you were startled and lost your hold."
"Startled!" The American drew a deep breath or two to test his ribs. "I am not going to be startled any, not if you fire at me with a Gatling gun; but if I had come down in the orthodox manner, mama Warren would have shot me about eleven and a half times before I had climbed a yard. I have read reams about the British matron, and if this is an average specimen I don't wonder that she is highly respected in the bulk. Here," he continued when the house began to gleam with fitful lights, "we had better make ourselves scarce."
Crossing the garden close under the house, they reached a shrubbery and plunged into the thickness of the neighboring firs.
The detective asked if they were to return to the village.
"Don't speak to me," faltered Bradshaw — he had not recovered from his fall yet — "I am working up the right story to meet the situation. We are sure to strike some of those prowling gamekeepers if we keep on, and it won't look natural for us to be running away from the Hall. Now, you strike the drive and hurry back toward the house, while I rest right here and make myself as tidy as I can under the circumstances. I will call for help presently and put up a big yarn of how I heard the shots fired, and grappled with a man whom I met running from the Hall. I don't like having to admit that any one has licked me, but it can't be helped."
"But why —" began the detective.
"Because I raked in a blow on the forehead from a bough when I fell, and it appears to have bled enough. I must explain it somehow, and I don't see any other way out of the difficulty. Don't you worry. I will arrange a scenario about that fight that will make your hair curl. Don't stop to argue — we are running a risk every moment we delay. Of course, you will say that I strolled part of the way with you, and said good-by a little while before you heard the shots."
Hobson, not quite clear as to the outcome of the affair, hurried off. Left to himself, the American proceeded to arrange the battle-ground, crushing down the softer vegetation and scoring the earth as it might be scored by the feet of men engaged in deadly grapple. The only thing that troubled his imagination was the state of his hands. As far as he could judge from his sensations, there did not appear to be an inch of skin left on the palms. However, he must endeavor not to let them come into evidence. When he thought his efforts had attained a sufficient degree of realism, he flung himself down and waited, utterly exhausted.
The fall from the tree had shaken him badly, and the cut on his forehead had bled far more profusely than he had told Hobson.
Once or twice, when he caught sight of a moving light in the distance, he shouted, but was evidently unheard. There was nothing for it but to wait until Hobson reached the Hall, when the detective might be trusted to engineer the search parties in his direction.
At last! there came the close sound of footsteps. Bradshaw, in accordance with the part he had to play, raised a feeble call for help. His cry was answered by a quick rush through the undergrowth, and Wilson, the groom, knelt violently on his chest, yelling triumphantly: "I've got him, I've got him!"
"Let go, you blithering idiot!" gasped Bradshaw, tearing away the coarse fingers striving to encircle his throat. "What in thunder do you think you are playing at? I am Mr. Bradshaw."
Wilson peered down at him, trying to pierce the darkness, but he did not relinquish his advantage.
"I want to be sure of that," was his reply, uttered with grim determination. "Besides, even if you are Mr. Bradshaw, what are you doing here at this hour?"
The American was spared any explanation by the arrival on the scene of Inspector Hobson, Harry Warren, and several servants carrying lanterns and armed with miscellaneous weapons. As the light fell on Bradshaw's pallid, blood-streaked countenance, the detective sprang forward with a well-simulated expression of surprise. Wilson, too, released his prisoner, when he saw it was indeed the nephew of Lord Arncliffe whom he had handled so unceremoniously.
"Good Heavens! Mr. Bradshaw!" cried Hobson with anxious solicitude. "What has happened to you?"
"I am not sure yet whether it was an earthquake or a dynamite explosion," answered the American, rubbing his head ruefully. "I heard two or three shots fired shortly after we parted. I ran back toward the Hall to find out what the trouble was. Then I heard some one making his way rapidly through the wood. Naturally enough, in view of the shooting, I tried to stop him, but," and he glanced at his torn and blood-spattered clothes, "I think he must have regarded my interference as impertinent. But do, for goodness' sake, my dear fellow, help me up to your rooms, and let me wash some of the dirt out of my eyes. My friend appears to have given it to me good and hard, and just at present I feel like walking on air."
He looked and felt really on the verge of collapse. It was only by leaning heavily on the shoulders of Wilson and the detective that he was able to walk the short distance to the Hall. When the cortège arrived there, an eager crowd of women were waiting for tidings. Mrs. Warren, unruffled as though she had been shooting at clay pigeons, still had the revolver in her hand, and Bradshaw noticed with the quick appreciation of a man who has carried a "gun" all his adult life, that it was of a caliber built to kill. Your man of the frontiers has no use for the "deadly toy" so beloved of the lady novelist.
Edith, in a dressing gown, and with her glorious hair rippling over her shoulders, was endeavoring to calm the fears of the huddled maids, and to soothe Mrs. Aingier, who was tearfully protesting that she would never have left her own home had she known she was to be continually murdered in her bed. The young mistress of Arncliffe made so fascinating a picture that Bradshaw, who at once found himself an object of tender solicitude, would willingly have lingered near her despite the pain he was suffering.
Hobson, however, silenced all questioning and hurried the American to his room. The stains of moss on Bradshaw's boots and clothes would suggest tree-climbing to the least astute of observers, and both were glad when the door of the bedroom closed behind them. Harry Warren had followed, but Hobson got rid of him for a moment by begging him to fetch brandy. He obliterated the tell-tale marks during Warren's absence with a few deft strokes of a clothes-brush and a rub with a damp towel.
"Give me a big drink — a real big drink," said the American.
He drank thirstily from the glass Warren handed to him, and then shook himself, with tentative twistings.
"That's better," he cried with a nod of approval. "I will be a man again in two minutes. Just bathe this cut on my head, will you, Hobson?"
He leaned over the basin with his burning hands in the water, and experienced a delicious sense of relief. In reality, they were not nearly so badly injured as the intense pain led him to suppose. When Hobson had finished with him, covering the ugly gash on his forehead with a strip of plaster, he looked comparatively respectable again.
"We are still in the dark, sir," the detective reminded him, "as to how you came to be so badly used — in the dark, that is, as to details of the attack upon you."
"Come down-stairs," answered Bradshaw, "and I will explain the whole business. I am feeling quite fit now, and there is no need for me to tell the story a dozen times over. He was well aware that it is difficult, if not impossible to, relate a "tall yarn" more than once, without some little deviation from its original beauty. Like a conjuring trick, such an effort of the invention should never be submitted to the same audience twice.
He was no more shy than the majority of his fellow-countrymen, but he found the situation decidedly embarrassing. Wilson had already described a blood-curdling combat in the depth of the woods. When its hero appeared, interestingly pale, and with just enough of disorder in his appearance to support Wilson's story, he was overwhelmed with attention.
Edith herself led him to an armchair and tenderly placed a cushion beneath his aching head. Then she sat beside him, and, with all a woman's admiration of a brave man dilating her eyes, begged for particulars of this latest outrage. This unnerved him. He felt he must gain time.
"Why, really, Miss Holt, the matter is of no consequence, so far as I am concerned," he protested. "Won't you tell me, what caused the shots I heard — has any one been injured?"
"No. Mrs. Warren noticed a man in the tree outside her window, and, as she has provided herself with a pistol since we have had so much trouble here, she bravely fired at him. He fell from the tree, but he has escaped. No doubt the police will find him. How came you to be so dreadfully injured, Mr. Bradshaw? Could it be the same man who attacked you?"
So, for the sake of the sweet girl who was hanging on to his words, Bradshaw was forced to carry through his disagreeable task. "It is nothing to make a song about," he said. "I had strolled part of the way with Mr. Hobson, and, soon after the shots were fired, I intercepted some one who evidently had urgent business in another direction. But don't make me talk about it, Miss Holt. I have been soundly licked. The proud crest of the American eagle is drooping; the Stars and Stripes are trailing in the dust!"
"Oh, do try to be serious for once, Mr. Bradshaw, and tell us what actually happened. Do you think you could identify your assailant if you saw him again?"
"My belief is," answered the American, solemnly, "that he was a grizzly bear. Mercy!" as Edith held up a threatening finger, "I will tell you everything. He was a very powerful man — I am pretty strong myself, and he handled me as if I were an infant — but I should not know him again. We rolled over, I guess, two or three times; and then he managed to hit me on the head with a club he was carrying. The subsequent proceedings interested me no more."
Bradshaw, as he warmed to his subject, brought a little action into the recital, and, in doing so, betrayed his bruised and cut fingers.
"Oh, your poor hands!" cried Edith in horror. "How did you hurt them so?"
The "tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive" appealed strongly to the poetic soul of Sir Walter Scott, and the same great thought came into the mind of William L. Bradshaw.
"Good land!" he murmured to himself, "if ever I get out of this tangle I will tell the truth for a month!"
Still, he had by no means reached the end of his resources. "Oh," he exclaimed with easy confidence, "that was caused by the stick he hit me with. I got hold of it, after parrying one blow, and we had a tough struggle for its possession. But he was too strong for me, and he wrenched it through my hands. I think it was one of those sticks with spikes on them you call blackthorns. I have seen Irish immigrants carrying them in New York."
Edith drew in her breath with a little hiss, as though she pictured the agony of the moment, and looked at him with undisguised admiration. In fact every one in the company regarded him as a paladin, none more sincerely than Detective-Inspector Hobson.
"It so crippled my hands for the moment," went on Bradshaw, entering into the spirit of the thing, "that I could not hold him. It was then that he got his blow home."
"So," said Edith, severely, "you had nothing to defend yourself with against that dreadful stick — I know what they are like — and yet you gallantly tried to stop him. Mr. Bradshaw, I think," she asserted, with a delightful sincerity, "you are the bravest man I have ever met!"
The American cast a piteous glance toward Hobson, who was eyeing him with malicious enjoyment. No succor was to be expected from that quarter. The detective had not forgotten certain allusions to "idiots" and "men with the instincts of a horse-thief." Far from coming to Bradshaw's rescue, he added to the chorus of praise showered upon him.
"You may well say that, Miss Holt," he broke in earnestly. "If you had seen the place where we found this gentleman you would have thought there had been a battle between two lions. The ground was so torn and trampled that they must have been at it for a quarter of an hour at least. And the blood Mr. Bradshaw had lost!"
The wounded "lion" uttered a queer little cough. It conveyed a warning to Hobson, but the detective was desperate. He would pay off old scores that night, at any rate.
"There is one thing which may give us a clue," said Edith. "Do any of you know a man in the district who carries a blackthorn?"
"Yes, miss," volunteered Wilson, "Bob Leigh, the poacher, him that Master Harry caught and gave six months to last year — he is hardly ever without one in his hands. He would only be out of prison a few weeks, and no doubt he bears a grudge against Master Harry. There's another thing, miss, he is a mortal strong man; there's no one in the village can stand up against him."
"Then that completely proves it!" asserted Edith, calmly ignoring the first principles of justice. "You had better go and arrest the man at once, Mr. Hobson."
"Oh, dash it all!" broke in Warren, excitedly, too agitated by this new peril to realize that his mode of address left much to be desired, "you can't arrest a man for having a blackthorn stick."
Except for a contemptuous curl of her lip, Edith appeared as though she had not heard him. "At once, Mr. Hobson," she repeated.
Warren's anxiety on behalf of the poacher was not lost on the detective. This development was likely to prove highly embarrassing to himself, however, so he welcomed any diversion.
"Mr. Warren is quite right, Miss Holt," he pointed out. "We require more evidence than that before we are justified in making an arrest. Still, I will institute some inquiries as to his movements, and keep an eye on him generally."
Bradshaw, too, was glad to divert attention from his homeric combat. "It is absolutely impossible for me to identify the man," he joined in. "Therefore, I could not prove anything against him, even if we were to get hold of the right person by chance. Now, Miss Holt, I think I will go back to the inn. I am ashamed to have given you so much trouble at such an hour."
"Go back to the inn, indeed!" exclaimed Edith, with fine scorn. "I have ordered a room to be prepared for you, and when you have taken this" ("this" was a huge bowl of chicken broth, one of the invalid delicacies provided for Aingier) "you are to go straight to bed."
"But really, I am perfectly well," he protested.
"What? When Mr. Hobson says that your wound bled so dreadfully? Besides," she went on triumphantly, "I have sent a messenger for Dr. Lester, and here he comes. We shall soon see whether you are perfectly well or not."
Lester, knowing the errand upon which the pair had set forth, was naturally in a maze of conflicting theories as to the cause of Bradshaw's injuries. The footman who summoned him told an incoherent story, in which burglars and pistol-shots figured largely.
And now, as he made cursory examination of Bradshaw's hurts, Edith gave a disjointed narrative of the night's doings, interspersing it with lavish appreciation of the American's gallant behavior.
"Oh, dear, oh, dear!" groaned Bradshaw, when Edith had delivered herself of a particularly warm tribute to his courage.
"Poor fellow!" she whispered to Lester, with tender pity, "he is in pain."
"He had better go to bed at once," said the doctor.
He was anxious to learn the true details of the affair. Moreover, he did not find this almost fulsome eulogy of Lord Arncliffe's nephew particularly gratifying.
"Have you a room ready?" he asked. "Thank you — then I will just go up and make the patient comfortable. And as I wish to prescribe bed very strictly for you, too, Miss Holt, I will say good night."
His manner was formal, even beyond the austerity which medical men assume, and Edith, unaware that her innocent praise of a courageous action had aroused the demon of jealousy, looked at him in pained reproach. But he kept his eyes steadily averted and walked away, supporting Bradshaw, whose other arm was taken by Hobson.
detective too was burning with curiosity to
"Now, then," he said, "we must speak softly."
"You are right, my friend," agreed Bradshaw. "I am liable to make use of language which will be all the better for being spoken softly. And see here, you grinning ape, if that irritating smile doesn't leave your face mighty quick, I will shoot it off!"
"May I ask what the joke is?" queried Lester, mildly.
"You tell him, Hobson. If I do, I shall choke before I am half-way through."
Hobson, nothing loath, described their disastrous attempt to spy upon Mrs. Warren and her son. He told of the American's brilliant idea of explaining his injuries, and, with loving touch, drew a picture of the unearned increment of glory which had fallen to the amateur detective's lot. By the time the recital was finished, Hobson and Lester were convulsed with silent mirth, while the unfortunate hero of it all sat on the bed and glowered at them.
Lester had been telling himself that there was nothing so wonderful in collaring a man, and getting the worst of the encounter. But now, when Bradshaw's ridiculous position was made clear, he was not wholly displeased that Edith had showered her praises so liberally.
"All right," grumbled Bradshaw, "laugh away — I suppose one must not expect any sympathy from a licensed assassin and a — a detective. I was trying to think of something nasty to say to you, Hobson, and I think I have struck it. And now, if the professional murderer will be so good as to bandage up my head and hands properly, I should like to go to sleep."
Lester, still smiling, attended to him, but Hobson, true to his craft, anxiously asked for details of the scene in Mrs. Warren's room.
Bradshaw took inadequate vengeance by piquing the detective's curiosity. It was only when he felt that he would really like to sleep that he condescended to explain matters.
"Well," he said, "when first I looked into the window, young Warren was evidently in a pretty bad frame of mind. He look[ed] thoroughly scared over something. His mother seemed to be trying to pacify him. After a few minutes she went out of the room for a moment, and her son began rummaging in the drawers, presently finding something which he put in his pocket. Meanwhile, Mrs. Warren had returned, and she too took something from one of the drawers of the desk. I did not see what it was, but, as she started shooting at me right then, I am willing to believe it was a revolver."
"What was it her son took out? Could you see that?"
"Well," replied Bradshaw, "it was an article of a very queer shape, and a very queer color — in fact all sorts of colors, like a soap-bubble. And I am quite certain it was a bottle of some sort."