Mitchelbourne's Last Escapade by A.E.W. Mason
It was in the kitchen of the inn at Framlingham that Mr.
Mitchelbourne came across the man who was afraid, and during the Christmas
week of the year 1681. Lewis Mitchelbourne was young in those days, and
esteemed as a gentleman of refinement and sensibility, with a queer taste for
escapades, pardonable by reason of his youth. It was his pride to bear his
part in the graceful tactics of a minuet, while a saddled horse waited for
him at the door. He delighted to vanish of a sudden from the lighted circle
of his friends into the byways where none knew him, or held him of account,
not that it was all vanity with Mitchelbourne though no doubt the knowledge
that his associates in London Town were speculating upon his whereabouts
tickled him pleasurably through many a solitary day. But he was possessed
both of courage and resource, qualities for which he found too infrequent an
exercise in his ordinary life; and so he felt it good to be free for awhile,
not from the restraints but from the safeguards, with which his social
circumstances surrounded him. He had his spice of philosophy too, and
discovered that these sharp contrasts, — luxury and hardship, treading
hard upon each other and the new strange people with whom he fell in, kept
fresh his zest of life.
Thus it happened that at a time when families were gathering cheerily each
about a single fireside, Mr. Mitchelbourne was riding alone through the muddy
and desolate lanes of Suffolk. The winter was not seasonable; men were not
tempted out of doors. There was neither briskness nor sunlight in the air,
and there was no snow upon the ground. It was a December of dripping
branches, and mists and steady pouring rains, with a raw sluggish cold, which
crept into one's marrow.
The man who was afraid, a large, corpulent man, of a loose and heavy
build, with a flaccid face and bright little inexpressive eyes like a bird's,
sat on a bench within the glow of the fire.
"You travel far to-night?" he asked nervously, shuffling his feet.
"To-night!" exclaimed Mitchelbourne as he stood with his legs apart taking
the comfortable warmth into his bones. "No further than from this fire to my
bed," and he listened with enjoyment to the rain which cracked upon the
window like a shower of gravel flung by some mischievous urchin. He was not
suffered to listen long, for the corpulent man began again.
"I am an observer, sir. I pride myself upon it, but I have so much
humility as to wish to put my observations to the test of fact. Now, from
your carriage, I should judge you to serve His Majesty."
"A civilian may be straight. There is no law against it," returned
Mitchelbourne, and he perceived that the ambiguity of his reply threw his
questioner into a great alarm. He was at once interested. Here, it seemed,
was one of those encounters which were the spice of his journeyings.
"You will pardon me," continued the stranger with a great assumption of
heartiness, "but I am curious, sir, curious as Socrates, though I thank God I
am no heathen. Here is Christmas, when a sensible gentleman, as upon my word
I take you to be, sits to his table and drinks more than is good for him in
honour of the season. Yet here are you upon the roads to Suffolk which have
nothing to recommend them. I wonder at it, sir."
"You may do that," replied Mitchelbourne, "though to be sure, there are
two of us in the like case."
"Oh, as for me," said his companion shrugging his shoulders, "I am on my
way to be married. My name is Lance," and he blurted it out with a suddenness
as though to catch Mitchelbourne off his guard. Mitchelbourne bowed
"And my name is Mitchelbourne, and I travel for my pleasure, though my
pleasure is mere gipsying, and has nothing to do with marriage. I take
comfort from thinking that I have no friend from one rim of this country to
the other, and that my closest intimates have not an inkling of my
Mr. Lance received the explanation with undisguised suspicion, and at
supper, which the two men took together, he would be forever laying traps.
Now he slipped some outlandish name or oath unexpectedly into his talk, and
watched with a forward bend of his body to mark whether the word struck home;
or again he mentioned some person with whom Mitchelbourne was quite
unfamiliar. At length, however, he seemed satisfied, and drawing up his chair
to the fire, he showed himself at once in his true character, a loud and
"An exchange of sentiments, Mr. Mitchelbourne, with a chance acquaintance
over a pipe and a glass — upon my word I think you are in the right of
it, and there's no pleasanter way of passing an evening. I could tell you
stories, sir; I served the King in his wars, but I scorn a braggart, and all
these glories are over. I am now a man of peace, and, as I told you, on my
way to be married. Am I wise? I do not know, but I sometimes think it
preposterous that a man who has been here and there about the world, and
could, if he were so meanly-minded, tell a tale or so of success in
gallantry, should hamper himself with connubial fetters. But a man must
settle, to be sure, and since the lady is young, and not wanting in looks or
breeding or station, as I am told — "
"As you are told?" interrupted Mitchelbourne.
"Yes, for I have never seen her. No, not so much as her miniature. Nor
have I seen her mother either, or any of the family, except the father, from
whom I carry letters to introduce me. She lives in a house called 'The Porch'
some miles from here. There is another house hard by to it, I understand,
which has long stood empty and I have a mind to buy it. I bring a fortune,
the lady a standing in the county."
"And what has the lady to say to it?" asked Mitchelbourne.
"The lady!" replied Lance with a stare. "Nothing but what is dutiful, I'll
be bound. The father is under obligations to me." He stopped suddenly, and
Mitchelbourne, looking up, saw that his mouth had fallen. He sat with his
eyes starting from his head and a face grey as lead, an image of panic
pitiful to behold. Mitchelbourne spoke but got no answer. It seemed Lance
could not answer — he was so arrested by a paralysis of terror. He sat
staring straight in front of him, and it seemed at the mantelpiece which was
just on a level with his eyes. The mantelpiece, however, had nothing to
distinguish it from a score of others. Its counterpart might be found to this
day in the parlour of any inn. A couple of china figures disfigured it, to be
sure, but Mitchelbourne could not bring himself to believe that even their
barbaric crudity had power to produce so visible a discomposure. He inclined
to the notion that his companion was struck by a physical disease, perhaps
some recrudescence of a malady contracted in those foreign lands of which he
"Sir, you are ill," said Mitchelbourne. "I will have a doctor, if there is
one hereabouts to be found, brought to your relief." He sprang up as he
spoke, and that action of his roused Lance out of his paralysis. "Have a
care," he cried almost in a shriek, "Do not move! For pity, sir, do not
move," and he in his turn rose from his chair. He rose trembling, and swept
the dust off a corner of the mantelpiece into the palm of his hand. Then he
held his palm to the lamp.
"Have you seen the like of this before?" he asked in a low shaking
Mitchelbourne looked over Lance's shoulder. The dust was in reality a very
fine grain of a greenish tinge.
"Never!" said Mitchelbourne.
"No, nor I," said Lance, with a sudden cunning look at his companion, and
opening his fingers, as he let the grain run between them. But he could not
remove as easily from Mitchelbourne's memories that picture he had shown him
of a shaking and a shaken man. Mitchelbourne went to bed divided in his
feelings between pity for the lady Lance was to marry, and curiosity as to
Lance's apprehensions. He lay awake for a long time speculating upon that
mysterious green seed which could produce so extraordinary a panic, and in
the morning his curiosity predominated. Since, therefore, he had no
particular destination he was easily persuaded to ride to Saxmundham with Mr.
Lance, who, for his part, was most earnest for a companion. On the journey
Lance gave further evidence of his fears. He had a trick of looking backwards
whenever they came to a corner of the road — an habitual trick, it
seemed, acquired by a continued condition of fear. When they stopped at
midday to eat at an ordinary, he inspected the guests through the chink at
the hinges of the door before he would enter the room; and this, too, he did
as though it had long been natural to him. He kept a bridle in his mouth,
however; that little pile of grain upon the mantelshelf had somehow warned
him into reticence, so that Mitchelbourne, had he not been addicted to his
tobacco, would have learnt no more of the business and would have escaped the
extraordinary peril which he was subsequently called upon to face.
But he was addicted to his tobacco, and no sooner had he finished
his supper that night at Saxmundham than he called for a pipe. The
maidservant fetched a handful from a cupboard and spread them upon the table,
and amongst them was one plainly of Barbary manufacture. It had a straight
wooden stem painted with hieroglyphics in red and green and a small reddish
bowl of baked earth. Nine men out of ten would no doubt have overlooked it,
but Mitchelbourne was the tenth man. His fancies were quick to kindle, and
taking up the pipe he said in a musing voice:
"Now, how in the world comes a Barbary pipe to travel so far over seas and
herd in the end with common clays in a little Suffolk village?"
He heard behind him the grating of a chair violently pushed back. The pipe
seemingly made its appeal to Mr. Lance also.
"Has it been smoked?" he asked in a grave low voice.
"The inside of the bowl is stained," said Mitchelbourne.
Mitchelbourne had been inclined to believe that he had seen last evening
the extremity of fear expressed in a man's face: he had now to admit that he
had been wrong. Mr. Lance's terror was a Circe to him and sunk him into
something grotesque and inhuman; he ran once or twice in a little tripping,
silly run backwards and forwards like an animal trapped and out of its wits;
and his face had the look of a man suffering from a nausea; so that
Mitchelbourne, seeing him, was ashamed and hurt for their common nature.
"I must go," said Lance babbling his words. "I cannot stay. I must
"To-night?" exclaimed Mitchelbourne. "Six yards from the door you will be
"Then there will be the fewer men abroad. I cannot sleep here! No, though
it rained pistols and bullets I must go." He went into the passage, and
calling his host secretly asked for his score. Mitchelbourne made a further
effort to detain him.
"Make an inquiry of the landlord first. It may be a mere shadow that
"Not a word, not a question," Lance implored. The mere suggestion
increased a panic which seemed incapable of increase. "And for the shadow,
why, that's true. The pipe's the shadow, and the shadow frightens me. A
shadow! Yes! A shadow is a horrible, threatning thing! Show me a shadow cast
by nothing and I am with you. But you might as easily hold that this Barbary
pipe floated hither across the seas of its own will. No! 'Ware shadows, I
say." And so he continued harping on the word, till the landlord fetched in
The landlord had his dissuasions too, but they availed not a jot more than
"The road is as black as a pauper's coffin," said he, "and damnable with
"So much the better," said Lance.
"There is no house where you can sleep nearer than Glemham, and no man
would sleep there could he kennel elsewhere."
"So much the better," said Lance. "Besides, I am expected to-morrow
evening at 'The Porch' and Glemham is on the way." He paid his bill, slipped
over to the stables and lent a hand to the saddling of his horse.
Mitchelbourne, though for once in his life he regretted the precipitancy with
which he welcomed strangers, was still sufficiently provoked to see the
business to its end. His imagination was seized by the thought of this fat
and vulgar person fleeing in terror through English lanes from a Barbary
Moor. He had now a conjecture in his mind as to the nature of that greenish
seed. He accordingly rode out with Lance toward Glemham.
It was a night of extraordinary blackness; you could not distinguish a
hedge until the twigs stung across your face; the road was narrow, great
tree- trunks with bulging roots lined it, at times it was very steep —
and, besides and beyond every other discomfort, there was the rain. It fell
pitilessly straight over the face of the country with a continuous roar as
though the earth was a hollow drum. Both travellers were drenched to the skin
before they were free of Saxmundham, and one of them, when after midnight
they stumbled into the poor tumble-down parody of a tavern at Glemham, was in
an extreme exhaustion. It was no more than an ague, said Lance, from which he
periodically suffered, but the two men slept in the same bare room, and
towards morning Mitchelbourne was awakened from a deep slumber by an
unfamiliar voice talking at an incredible speed through the darkness in an
uncouth tongue. He started up upon his elbow; the voice came from Lance's
bed. He struck a light. Lance was in a high fever, which increased as the
Now, whether he had the sickness latent within him when he came from
Barbary, or whether his anxieties and corpulent habit made him an easy victim
to disease, neither the doctor nor any one else could determine. But at
twelve o'clock that day Lance was seized with an attack of cholera and by
three in the afternoon he was dead. The suddenness of the catastrophe shocked
Mr. Mitchelbourne inexpressibly. He stood gazing at the still features of the
man whom fear had, during these last days, so grievously tormented, and was
solemnly aware of the vanity of those fears. He could not pretend to any
great esteem for his companion, but he made many suitable reflections upon
the shears of the Fates and the tenacity of life, in which melancholy
occupation he was interrupted by the doctor, who pointed out the necessity of
immediate burial. Seven o'clock the next morning was the hour agreed upon,
and Mitchelbourne at once searched in Lance's coat pockets for the letters
which he carried. There were only two, superscribed respectively to Mrs.
Ufford at "The Porch" near Glemham, and to her daughter Brasilia. At "The
Porch" Mitchelbourne remembered Lance was expected this very evening, and he
thought it right at once to ride thither with his gloomy news.
Having, therefore, sprinkled the letters plentifully with vinegar and
taken such rough precautions as were possible to remove the taint of
infection from the letters, he started about four o'clock. The evening was
most melancholy. For, though no rain any longer fell, there was a continual
pattering of drops from the trees and a ghostly creaking of branches in a
light and almost imperceptible wind. The day, too, was falling, the grey
overhang of cloud was changing to black, except for one wide space in the
west, where a pale spectral light shone without radiance; and the last of
that was fading when he pulled up at a parting of the roads and inquired of a
man who chanced to be standing there his way to "The Porch." He was directed
to ride down the road upon his left hand until he came to the second house,
which he could not mistake, for there was a dyke or moat about the garden
wall. He passed the first house a mile further on, and perhaps half a mile
beyond that he came to the dyke and the high garden wall, and saw the gables
of the second house loom up behind it black against the sky. A wooden bridge
spanned the dyke and led to a wide gate. Mitchelbourne stopped his horse at
the bridge. The gate stood open and he looked down an avenue of trees into a
square of which three sides were made by the high garden wall, and the fourth
and innermost by the house. Thus the whole length of the house fronted him,
and it struck him as very singular that neither in the lower nor the upper
windows was there anywhere a spark of light, nor was there any sound but the
tossing of the branches and the wail of the wind among the chimneys. Not even
a dog barked or rattled a chain, and from no chimney breathed a wisp of
smoke. The house in the gloom of that melancholy evening had a singular eerie
and tenantless look; and oppressive silence reigned there; and Mitchelbourne
was unaccountably conscious of a growing aversion to it, as to something
inimical and sinister.
He had crossed the mouth of a lane, he remembered, just at the first
corner of the wall. The lane ran backwards from the road, parallel with the
side wall of the garden. Mitchelbourne had a strong desire to ride down that
lane and inspect the back of the house before he crossed the bridge into the
garden. He was restrained for a moment by the thought that such a proceeding
must savour of cowardice. But only for a moment. There had been no doubting
the genuine nature of Lance's fears and those fears were very close to Mr.
Mitchelbourne now. They were feeling like cold fingers about his heart. He
was almost in the icy grip of them.
He turned and rode down the lane until he came to the end of the wall. A
meadow stretched behind the house. Mitchelbourne unfastened the catch of a
gate with his riding whip and entered it. He found himself upon the edge of a
pool, which on the opposite side wetted the house wall. About the pool some
elder trees and elms grew and overhung, and their boughs tapped like fingers
upon the window-panes. Mitchelbourne was assured that the house was
inhabited, since from one of the windows a strong yellow light blazed, and
whenever a sharper gust blew the branches aside, swept across the face of the
pool like a flaw of wind.
The lighted window was in the lowest storey, and Mitchelbourne, from the
back of his horse, could see into the room. He was mystified beyond
expression by what he saw. A deal table, three wooden chairs, some ragged
curtains drawn back from the window, and a single lamp made up the furniture.
The boards of the floor were bare and unswept; the paint peeled in strips
from the panels of the walls; the discoloured ceiling was hung with cobwebs;
the room in a word matched the outward aspect of the house in its look of
long disuse. Yet it had occupants. Three men were seated at the table in the
scarlet coats and boots of the King's officers. Their faces, though it was
winter-time, were brown with the sun, and thin and drawn as with long
privation and anxiety. They had little to say to one another, it seemed. Each
man sat stiffly in a sort of suspense and expectation, with now and then a
restless movement or a curt word as curtly answered.
Mitchelbourne rode back again, crossed the bridge, fastened his horse to a
tree in the garden, and walked down the avenue to the door. As he mounted the
steps, he perceived with something of a shock, that the door was wide open
and that the void of the hall yawned black before him. It was a fresh
surprise, but in this night of surprises, one more or less, he assured
himself, was of little account. He stepped into the hall and walked forwards
feeling with his hands in front of him. As he advanced, he saw a thin line of
yellow upon the floor ahead of him. The line of yellow was a line of light,
and it came, no doubt, from underneath a door, and the door, no doubt, was
that behind which the three men waited. Mitchelbourne stopped. After all, he
reflected, the three men were English officers wearing His Majesty's uniform,
and, moreover, wearing it stained with their country's service. He walked
forward and tapped upon the door. At once the light within the room was
It needed just that swift and silent obliteration of the slip of light
upon the floor to make Mitchelbourne afraid. He had been upon the brink of
fear ever since he had seen that lonely and disquieting house; he was now
caught in the full stream. He turned back. Through the open doorway, he saw
the avenue of leafless trees tossing against a leaden sky. He took a step or
two and then came suddenly to a halt. For all around him in the darkness he
seemed to hear voices breathing and soft footsteps. He realised that his fear
had overstepped his reason; he forced himself to remember the contempt he had
felt for Lance's manifestations of terror; and swinging round again he flung
open the door and entered the room.
"Good evening, gentlemen," said he airily, and he got no answer
whatsoever. In front of him was the grey panel of dim twilight where the
window stood. The rest was black night and an absolute silence. A map of the
room was quite clear in his recollections. The three men were seated he knew
at the table on his right hand. The faint light from the window did not reach
them, and they made no noise. Yet they were there. Why had they not answered
him, he asked himself. He could not even hear them breathing, though he
strained his ears. He could only hear his heart drumming at his breast, the
blood pulsing in his temples. Why did they hold their breath? He crossed the
room, not knowing what he did, bereft of his wits. He had a confused,
ridiculous picture of himself wearing the flaccid, panic stricken face of Mr.
Lance, like an ass' head, not holding the wand of Titania. He reached the
window and stood in its embrasure, and there one definite, practical thought
crept into his mind. He was visible to these men who were invisible to him.
The thought suggested a precaution, and with the trembling haste of a man
afraid, he tore at the curtains and dragged them till they met across the
window so that even the faint grey glimmer of the night no longer had
entrance. The next moment he heard the door behind him latch and a key turn
in the lock. He crouched beneath the window and did not stand up again until
a light was struck, and the lamp relit.
The lighting of the lamp restored Mr. Mitchelbourne, if not to the full
measure of his confidence, at all events to an appreciation that the chief
warrant for his trepidation was removed. What he had with some appearance of
reason feared was a sudden attack in the dark. With the lamp lit, he could
surely stand in no danger of any violence at the hands of three King's
officers whom he had never come across in all his life. He took, therefore,
an easy look at them. One, the youngest, now leaned against the door, a youth
of a frank, honest face, unremarkable but for a firm set of the jaws. A youth
of no great intellect, thought Mitchelbourne, but tenacious, a youth marked
out for a subordinate command, and never likely for all his sterling
qualities to kindle a woman to a world-forgetting passion, or to tread with
her the fiery heights where life throbs at its fullest. Mr. Mitchelbourne
began to feel quite sorry for this young officer of the limited capacities,
and he was still in the sympathetic mood when one of the two men at the table
spoke to him. Mitchelbourne turned at once. The officers were sitting with a
certain air of the theatre in their attitudes, one a little dark man and the
other a stiff, light complexioned fellow with a bony, barren face,
unmistakably a stupid man and the oldest of the three. It was he who was
speaking, and he spoke with a sort of aggravated courtesy like a man of no
breeding counterfeiting a gentleman upon the stage.
"You will pardon us for receiving you with so little ceremony. But while
we expected you, you on the other hand were not expecting us, and we feared
that you might hesitate to come in if the lamp was burning when you opened
Mitchelbourne was now entirely at his ease. He perceived that there was
some mistake and made haste to put it right.
"On the contrary," said he, "for I knew very well you were here. Indeed, I
knocked at the door to make a necessary inquiry. You did not extinguish the
lamp so quickly but that I saw the light beneath the door, and besides I
watched you some five minutes through the window from the opposite bank of
the pool at the back of the house."
The officers were plainly disconcerted by the affability of Mr.
Mitchelbourne's reply. They had evidently expected to carry off a triumph,
not to be taken up in an argument. They had planned a stroke of the theatre,
final and convincing, and behold the dialogue went on! There was a riposte to
The spokesman made some gruff noises in his throat. Then his face
"These are dialectics," he said superbly with a wave of the hand.
"Good," said the little dark fellow at his elbow, "very good!"
The youth at the door nodded superciliously towards Mitchelbourne.
"True, these are dialectics," said he with a smack of the lips upon the
word. It was a good cunning scholarly word, and the man who could produce it
so aptly worthy of admiration.
"You make a further error, gentlemen," continued Mitchelbourne, "you no
doubt are expecting some one, but you were most certainly not expecting me.
For I am here by the purest mistake, having been misdirected on the way."
Here the three men smiled to each other, and their spokesman retorted with a
"Misdirected, indeed you were. We took precautions that you should be. A
servant of mine stationed at the parting of the roads. But we are forgetting
our manners," he added rising from his chair. "You should know our names. The
gentleman at the door is Cornet Lashley, this is Captain Bassett and I am
Major Chantrell. We are all three of Trevelyan's regiment."
"And my name," said Mitchelbourne, not to be outdone in politeness, "is
Lewis Mitchelbourne, a gentleman of the County of Middlesex."
At this each of the officers was seized with a fit of laughter; but before
Mitchelbourne had time to resent their behavior, Major Chantrell said
"Well, well, we shall not quarrel about names. At all events we all four
are lately come from Tangier."
"Oh, from Tangier," cried Mitchelbourne. The riddle was becoming clear.
That extraordinary siege when a handful of English red-coats unpaid and
ill-fed fought a breached and broken town against countless hordes for the
honour of their King during twenty years, had not yet become the property of
the historian. It was still an actual war in 1681. Mitchelbourne understood
whence came the sunburn on his antagonists' faces, whence the stains and the
worn seams of their clothes. He advanced to the table and spoke with a
greater respect than he had used.
"Did one of you," he asked, "leave a Moorish pipe behind you at an inn of
"Ah," said the Major with a reproachful glance at Captain Bassett. The
Captain answered with some discomfort:
"Yes. I made that mistake. But what does it matter? You are here none the
"You have with you some of the Moorish tobacco?" continued
Captain Bassett fetched out of his pocket a little canvas bag, and handed
it to Mitchelbourne, who untied the string about the neck, and poured some of
the contents into the palm of his hand. The tobacco was a fine, greenish
"I thought as much," said Mitchelbourne, "you expected Mr. Lance to-
night. It is Mr. Lance whom you thought to misdirect to this solitary house.
Indeed Mr. Lance spoke of such a place in this neighbourhood, and had a mind
to buy it."
Captain Bassett suddenly raised his hand to his mouth, not so quickly,
however, but Mitchelbourne saw the grim, amused smile upon his lips. "It is
Mr. Lance for whom you now mistake me," he said abruptly.
The young man at the door uttered a short, contemptuous laugh, Major
Chantrell only smiled.
"I am aware," said he, "that we meet for the first time to-night, but you
presume upon that fact too far. What have you to say to this?" And dragging a
big and battered pistol from his pocket, he tossed it upon the table, and
folded his arms in the best transpontine manner.
"And to this?" said Captain Bassett. He laid a worn leather powder flask
beside the pistol, and tapped upon the table triumphantly.
Mr. Mitchelbourne recognised clearly that villainy was somehow checkmated
by these proceedings and virtue restored, but how he could not for the life
of him determine. He took up the pistol.
"It appears to have seen some honourable service," said he. This casual
remark had a most startling effect upon his auditors. It was the spark to the
gun-powder of their passions. Their affectations vanished in a trice.
"Service, yes, but honourable! Use that lie again, Mr. Lance, and I will
ram the butt of it down your throat!" cried Major Chantrell. He leaned
forward over the table in a blaze of fury. Yet his face did no more than
match the faces of his comrades.
Mitchelbourne began to understand. These simple soldier-men had
endeavoured to conduct their proceedings with great dignity and a judicial
calmness; they had mapped out for themselves certain parts which they were to
play as upon a stage; they were to be three stern imposing figures of
justice; and so they had become simply absurd and ridiculous. Now, however,
that passion had the upper hand of them, Mitchelbourne saw at once that he
stood in deadly peril. These were men.
"Understand me, Mr. Lance," and the Major's voice rang out firm, the voice
of a man accustomed to obedience. "Three years ago I was in command of
Devil's Drop, a little makeshift fort upon the sands outside Tangier. In
front the Moors lay about us in a semicircle. Sir, the diameter was the line
of the sea at our backs. We could not retire six yards without wetting our
feet, not twenty without drowning. One night the Moors pushed their trenches
up to our palisades; in the dusk of the morning I ordered a sortie. Nine
officers went out with me and three came back, we three. Of the six we left
behind, five fell, by my orders, to be sure, for I led them out; but, by the
living God, you killed them. There's the pistol that shot my best friend
down, an English pistol. There's the powder flask which charged the pistol,
an English flask filled with English powder. And who sold the pistol and the
powder to the Moors, England's enemies? You, an Englishman. But you have come
to the end of your lane to-night. Turn and turn as you will you have come to
the end of it."
The truth was out now, and Mitchelbourne was chilled with apprehension.
Here were three men very desperately set upon what they considered a mere act
of justice. How was he to dissuade them? By argument? They would not listen
to it. By proofs? He had none to offer them. By excuses? Of all unsupported
excuses which can match for futility the excuse of mistaken identity? It
springs immediate to the criminal's lips. Its mere utterance is almost a
"You persist in error, Major Chantrell," he nevertheless began.
"Show him the proof, Bassett," Chantrell interrupted with a shrug of the
shoulders, and Captain Bassett drew from his pocket a folded sheet of
"Nine officers went out," continued Chantrell, "five were killed, three
are here. The ninth was taken a prisoner into Barbary. The Moors brought him
down to their port of Marmora to interpret. At Marmora your ship unloaded its
stores of powder and guns. God knows how often it had unloaded the like cargo
during these twenty years — often enough it seems, to give you a fancy
for figuring as a gentleman in the county. But the one occasion of its
unloading is enough. Our brother officer was your interpreter with the Moors,
Mr. Lance. You may very likely know that, but this you do not know, Mr.
Lance. He escaped, he crept into Tangier with this, your bill of lading in
his hand," and Bassett tossed the sheet of paper towards Mitchelbourne. It
fell upon the floor before him but he did not trouble to pick it up.
"Is it Lance's death that you require?" he asked.
"Yes! yes! yes!" came from each mouth.
"Then already you have your wish. I do not question one word of your
charges against Lance. I have reason to believe them true. But I am not
Lance. Lance lies at this moment dead at Great Glemham. He died this
afternoon of cholera. Here are his letters," and he laid the letters on the
table. "I rode in with them at once. You do not believe me, but you can put
my words to the test. Let one of you ride to Great Glemham and satisfy
himself. He will be back before morning."
The three officers listened so far with impassive faces, or barely
listened, for they were as indifferent to the words as to the passion with
which they were spoken.
"We have had enough of the gentleman's ingenuities, I think," said
Chantrell, and he made a movement towards his companions.
"One moment," exclaimed Mitchelbourne. "Answer me a question! These
letters are to the address of Mrs. Ufford at a house called 'The Porch.' It
is near to here?"
"It is the first house you passed," answered the Major and, as he noticed
a momentary satisfaction flicker upon his victim's face, he added, "But you
will not do well to expect help from 'The Porch' — at all events in
time to be of much service to you. You hardly appreciate that we have been at
some pains to come up with you. We are not likely again to find so many
circumstances agreeing to favour us, a dismantled house, yourself travelling
alone and off your guard in a country with which you are unfamiliar and where
none know you, and just outside the window a convenient pool. Besides —
besides," he broke out passionately, "There are the little mounds about
Tangier, under which my friends lie," and he covered his face with his hands.
"My friends," he cried in a hoarse and broken voice, "my soldier-men! Come,
let's make an end. Bassett, the rope is in the corner. There's a noose to it.
The beam across the window will serve;" and Bassett rose to obey.
But Mitchelbourne gave them no time. His fears had altogether vanished
before his indignation at the stupidity of these officers. He was boiling
with anger at the thought that he must lose his life in this futile
ignominious way for the crime of another man, who was not even his friend,
and who besides was already dead. There was just one chance to escape, it
seemed to him. And even as Bassett stooped to lift the coil of rope in the
corner he took it.
"So that's the way of it," he cried stepping forward. "I am to be hung up
to a beam till I kick to death, am I? I am to be buried decently in that
stagnant pool, am I? And you are to be miles away before sunrise, and no one
the wiser! No, Major Chantrell, I am not come to the end of my lane," and
before either of the three could guess what he was at, he had snatched up the
pistol from the table and dashed the lamp into a thousand fragments.
The flame shot up blue and high, and then came darkness.
Mitchelbourne jumped lightly back from his position to the centre of the
room. The men he had to deal with were men who would follow their instincts.
They would feel along the walls; of so much he could be certain. He heard the
coil of rope drop down in a corner to his left; so that he knew where Captain
Bassett was. He heard a chair upset in front of him, and a man staggered
against his chest. Mitchelbourne had the pistol still in his hand and struck
hard, and the man dropped with a crash. The fall followed so closely upon the
upsetting of the chair that it seemed part of the same movement and accident.
It seemed so clearly part, that a voice spoke on Mitchelbourne's left, just
where the empty hearth would be.
"Get up! Be quick!"
The voice was Major Chantrell's and Mitchelbourne had a throb of hope. For
since it was not the Major who had fallen nor Captain Bassett, it must be
Lashley. And Lashley had been guarding the door, of which the key still
remained in the lock. If only he could reach the door and turn the key! He
heard Chantrell moving stealthily along the wall upon his left hand and he
suffered a moment's agony; for in the darkness he could not surely tell which
way the Major moved. For if he moved to the window, if he had the sense to
move to the window and tear aside those drawn curtains, the grey twilight
would show the shadowy moving figures. Mitchelbourne's chance would be gone.
And then something totally unexpected and unhoped for occurred. The god of
the machine was in a freakish mood that evening. He had a mind for pranks and
absurdities. Mitchelbourne was strung to so high a pitch that the ridiculous
aspect of the occurrence came home to him before all else, and he could
barely keep himself from laughing aloud. For he heard two men grappling and
struggling silently together. Captain Bassett and Major Chantrell had each
other by the throat, and neither of them had the wit to speak. They reserved
their strength for the struggle. Mitchelbourne stepped on tiptoe to the door,
felt for the key, grasped it without so much as a click, and then suddenly
turned it, flung open the door and sprang out. He sprang against a fourth man
— the servant, no doubt, who had misdirected him — and both
tumbled on to the floor. Mitchelbourne, however, tumbled on top. He was again
upon his feet while Major Chantrell was explaining matters to Captain
Bassett; he was flying down the avenue of trees before the explanation was
finished. He did not stop to untie his horse; he ran, conscious that there
was only one place of safety for him — the interior of Mrs. Ufford's
house. He ran along the road till he felt that his heart was cracking within
him, expecting every moment that a hand would be laid upon his shoulder, or
that, a pistol shot would ring out upon the night. He reached the house, and
knocked loudly at the door. He was admitted, breathless, by a man, who said
to him at once, with the smile and familiarity of an old servant:
"You are expected, Mr. Lance."
Mitchelbourne plumped down upon a chair and burst into uncontrollable
laughter. He gave up all attempt for that night to establish his identity.
The fates were too heavily against him. Besides he was now quite
The manservant threw open a door.
"I will tell my mistress you have come, sir," said he.
"No, it would never do," cried Mitchelbourne. "You see I died at three
o'clock this afternoon. I have merely come to leave my letters of
presentation. So much I think a proper etiquette may allow. But it would
never do for me to be paying visits upon ladies so soon after an affair of so
deplorable a gravity. Besides I have to be buried at seven in the morning,
and if I chanced not to be back in time, I should certainly acquire a
reputation for levity, which since I am unknown in the county, I am unwilling
to incur," and, leaving the butler stupefied in the hall, he ran out into the
road. He heard no sound of pursuit.