Chapter XI: The Criminals Chase the Police
SYME put the field-glasses from his eyes with an almost ghastly relief.
“The President is not with them, anyhow,” he said, and wiped his forehead.
“But surely they are right away on the horizon,” said the bewildered Colonel, blinking and but half recovered from Bull’s hasty though polite explanation. “Could you possibly know your President among all those people?”
“Could I know a white elephant among all those people!” answered Syme somewhat irritably. “As you very truly say, they are on the horizon; but if he were walking with them... by God! I believe this ground would shake.”
After an instant’s pause the new man called Ratcliffe said with gloomy decision—
“Of course the President isn’t with them. I wish to Gemini he were. Much more likely the President is riding in triumph through Paris, or sitting on the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral.”
“This is absurd!” said Syme. “Something may have happened in our absence; but he cannot have carried the world with a rush like that. It is quite true,” he added, frowning dubiously at the distant fields that lay towards the little station, “it is certainly true that there seems to be a crowd coming this way; but they are not all the army that you make out.”
“Oh, they,” said the new detective contemptuously; “no they are not a very valuable force. But let me tell you frankly that they are precisely calculated to our value—we are not much, my boy, in Sunday’s universe. He has got hold of all the cables and telegraphs himself. But to kill the Supreme Council he regards as a trivial matter, like a post card; it may be left to his private secretary,” and he spat on the grass.
Then he turned to the others and said somewhat austerely—
“There is a great deal to be said for death; but if anyone has any preference for the other alternative, I strongly advise him to walk after me.”
With these words, he turned his broad back and strode with silent energy towards the wood. The others gave one glance over their shoulders, and saw that the dark cloud of men had detached itself from the station and was moving with a mysterious discipline across the plain. They saw already, even with the naked eye, black blots on the foremost faces, which marked the masks they wore. They turned and followed their leader, who had already struck the wood, and disappeared among the twinkling trees.
The sun on the grass was dry and hot. So in plunging into the wood they had a cool shock of shadow, as of divers who plunge into a dim pool. The inside of the wood was full of shattered sunlight and shaken shadows. They made a sort of shuddering veil, almost recalling the dizziness of a cinematograph. Even the solid figures walking with him Syme could hardly see for the patterns of sun and shade that danced upon them. Now a man’s head was lit as with a light of Rembrandt, leaving all else obliterated; now again he had strong and staring white hands with the face of a negro. The ex-Marquis had pulled the old straw hat over his eyes, and the black shade of the brim cut his face so squarely in two that it seemed to be wearing one of the black half-masks of their pursuers. The fancy tinted Syme’s overwhelming sense of wonder. Was he wearing a mask? Was anyone wearing a mask? Was anyone anything? This wood of witchery, in which men’s faces turned black and white by turns, in which their figures first swelled into sunlight and then faded into formless night, this mere chaos of chiaroscuro (after the clear daylight outside), seemed to Syme a perfect symbol of the world in which he had been moving for three days, this world where men took off their beards and their spectacles and their noses, and turned into other people. That tragic self-confidence which he had felt when he believed that the Marquis was a devil had strangely disappeared now that he knew that the Marquis was a friend. He felt almost inclined to ask after all these bewilderments what was a friend and what an enemy. Was there anything that was apart from what it seemed? The Marquis had taken off his nose and turned out to be a detective. Might he not just as well take off his head and turn out to be a hobgoblin? Was not everything, after all, like this bewildering woodland, this dance of dark and light? Everything only a glimpse, the glimpse always unforeseen, and always forgotten. For Gabriel Syme had found in the heart of that sun-splashed wood what many modern painters had found there. He had found the thing which the modern people call Impressionism, which is another name for that final scepticism which can find no floor to the universe.
As a man in an evil dream strains himself to scream and wake, Syme strove with a sudden effort to fling off this last and worst of his fancies. With two impatient strides he overtook the man in the Marquis’s straw hat, the man whom he had come to address as Ratcliffe. In a voice exaggeratively loud and cheerful, he broke the bottomless silence and made conversation.
“May I ask,” he said, “where on earth we are all going to?”
So genuine had been the doubts of his soul, that he was quite glad to hear his companion speak in an easy, human voice.
“We must get down through the town of Lancy to the sea,” he said. “I think that part of the country is least likely to be with them.”
“What can you mean by all this?” cried Syme. “They can’t be running the real world in that way. Surely not many working men are anarchists, and surely if they were, mere mobs could not beat modern armies and police.”
“Mere mobs!” repeated his new friend with a snort of scorn. “So you talk about mobs and the working classes as if they were the question. You’ve got that eternal idiotic idea that if anarchy came it would come from the poor. Why should it? The poor have been rebels, but they have never been anarchists; they have more interest than anyone else in there being some decent government. The poor man really has a stake in the country. The rich man hasn’t; he can go away to New Guinea in a yacht. The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all. Aristocrats were always anarchists, as you can see from the barons’ wars.”
“As a lecture on English history for the little ones,” said Syme, “this is all very nice; but I have not yet grasped its application.”
“Its application is,” said his informant, “that most of old Sunday’s right-hand men are South African and American millionaires. That is why he has got hold of all the communications; and that is why the last four champions of the anti-anarchist police force are running through a wood like rabbits.”
“Millionaires I can understand,” said Syme thoughtfully, “they are nearly all mad. But getting hold of a few wicked old gentlemen with hobbies is one thing; getting hold of great Christian nations is another. I would bet the nose off my face (forgive the allusion) that Sunday would stand perfectly helpless before the task of converting any ordinary healthy person anywhere.”
“Well,” said the other, “it rather depends what sort of person you mean.”
“Well, for instance,” said Syme, “he could never convert that person,” and he pointed straight in front of him.
They had come to an open space of sunlight, which seemed to express to Syme the final return of his own good sense; and in the middle of this forest clearing was a figure that might well stand for that common sense in an almost awful actuality. Burnt by the sun and stained with perspiration, and grave with the bottomless gravity of small necessary toils, a heavy French peasant was cutting wood with a hatchet. His cart stood a few yards off, already half full of timber; and the horse that cropped the grass was, like his master, valorous but not desperate; like his master, he was even prosperous, but yet was almost sad. The man was a Norman, taller than the average of the French and very angular; and his swarthy figure stood dark against a square of sunlight, almost like some allegoric figure of labour frescoed on a ground of gold.
“Mr. Syme is saying,” called out Ratcliffe to the French Colonel, “that this man, at least, will never be an anarchist.”
“Mr. Syme is right enough there,” answered Colonel Ducroix, laughing, “if only for the reason that he has plenty of property to defend. But I forgot that in your country you are not used to peasants being wealthy.”
“He looks poor,” said Dr. Bull doubtfully.
“Quite so,” said the Colonel; “that is why he is rich.”
“I have an idea,” called out Dr. Bull suddenly; “how much would he take to give us a lift in his cart? Those dogs are all on foot, and we could soon leave them behind.”
“Oh, give him anything!” said Syme eagerly. “I have piles of money on me.”
“That will never do,” said the Colonel; “he will never have any respect for you unless you drive a bargain.”
“Oh, if he haggles!” began Bull impatiently.
“He haggles because he is a free man,” said the other. “You do not understand; he would not see the meaning of generosity. He is not being tipped.”
And even while they seemed to hear the heavy feet of their strange pursuers behind them, they had to stand and stamp while the French Colonel talked to the French wood-cutter with all the leisurely badinage and bickering of market-day. At the end of the four minutes, however, they saw that the Colonel was right, for the wood-cutter entered into their plans, not with the vague servility of a tout too-well paid, but with the seriousness of a solicitor who had been paid the proper fee. He told them that the best thing they could do was to make their way down to the little inn on the hills above Lancy, where the innkeeper, an old soldier who had become devout in his latter years, would be certain to sympathise with them, and even to take risks in their support. The whole company, therefore, piled themselves on top of the stacks of wood, and went rocking in the rude cart down the other and steeper side of the woodland. Heavy and ramshackle as was the vehicle, it was driven quickly enough, and they soon had the exhilarating impression of distancing altogether those, whoever they were, who were hunting them. For, after all, the riddle as to where the anarchists had got all these followers was still unsolved. One man’s presence had sufficed for them; they had fled at the first sight of the deformed smile of the Secretary. Syme every now and then looked back over his shoulder at the army on their track.
As the wood grew first thinner and then smaller with distance, he could see the sunlit slopes beyond it and above it; and across these was still moving the square black mob like one monstrous beetle. In the very strong sunlight and with his own very strong eyes, which were almost telescopic, Syme could see this mass of men quite plainly. He could see them as separate human figures; but he was increasingly surprised by the way in which they moved as one man. They seemed to be dressed in dark clothes and plain hats, like any common crowd out of the streets; but they did not spread and sprawl and trail by various lines to the attack, as would be natural in an ordinary mob. They moved with a sort of dreadful and wicked woodenness, like a staring army of automatons.
Syme pointed this out to Ratcliffe.
“Yes,” replied the policeman, “that’s discipline. That’s Sunday. He is perhaps five hundred miles off, but the fear of him is on all of them, like the finger of God. Yes, they are walking regularly; and you bet your boots that they are talking regularly, yes, and thinking regularly. But the one important thing for us is that they are disappearing regularly.”
Syme nodded. It was true that the black patch of the pursuing men was growing smaller and smaller as the peasant belaboured his horse.
The level of the sunlit landscape, though flat as a whole, fell away on the farther side of the wood in billows of heavy slope towards the sea, in a way not unlike the lower slopes of the Sussex downs. The only difference was that in Sussex the road would have been broken and angular like a little brook, but here the white French road fell sheer in front of them like a waterfall. Down this direct descent the cart clattered at a considerable angle, and in a few minutes, the road growing yet steeper, they saw below them the little harbour of Lancy and a great blue arc of the sea. The travelling cloud of their enemies had wholly disappeared from the horizon.
The horse and cart took a sharp turn round a clump of elms, and the horse’s nose nearly struck the face of an old gentleman who was sitting on the benches outside the little cafe of “Le Soleil d’Or.” The peasant grunted an apology, and got down from his seat. The others also descended one by one, and spoke to the old gentleman with fragmentary phrases of courtesy, for it was quite evident from his expansive manner that he was the owner of the little tavern.
He was a white-haired, apple-faced old boy, with sleepy eyes and a grey moustache; stout, sedentary, and very innocent, of a type that may often be found in France, but is still commoner in Catholic Germany. Everything about him, his pipe, his pot of beer, his flowers, and his beehive, suggested an ancestral peace; only when his visitors looked up as they entered the inn-parlour, they saw the sword upon the wall.
The Colonel, who greeted the innkeeper as an old friend, passed rapidly into the inn-parlour, and sat down ordering some ritual refreshment. The military decision of his action interested Syme, who sat next to him, and he took the opportunity when the old innkeeper had gone out of satisfying his curiosity.
“May I ask you, Colonel,” he said in a low voice, “why we have come here?”
Colonel Ducroix smiled behind his bristly white moustache.
“For two reasons, sir,” he said; “and I will give first, not the most important, but the most utilitarian. We came here because this is the only place within twenty miles in which we can get horses.”
“Horses!” repeated Syme, looking up quickly.
“Yes,” replied the other; “if you people are really to distance your enemies it is horses or nothing for you, unless of course you have bicycles and motor-cars in your pocket.”
“And where do you advise us to make for?” asked Syme doubtfully.
“Beyond question,” replied the Colonel, “you had better make all haste to the police station beyond the town. My friend, whom I seconded under somewhat deceptive circumstances, seems to me to exaggerate very much the possibilities of a general rising; but even he would hardly maintain, I suppose, that you were not safe with the gendarmes.”
Syme nodded gravely; then he said abruptly—
“And your other reason for coming here?”
“My other reason for coming here,” said Ducroix soberly, “is that it is just as well to see a good man or two when one is possibly near to death.”
Syme looked up at the wall, and saw a crudely-painted and pathetic religious picture. Then he said—
“You are right,” and then almost immediately afterwards, “Has anyone seen about the horses?”
“Yes,” answered Ducroix, “you may be quite certain that I gave orders the moment I came in. Those enemies of yours gave no impression of hurry, but they were really moving wonderfully fast, like a well-trained army. I had no idea that the anarchists had so much discipline. You have not a moment to waste.”
Almost as he spoke, the old innkeeper with the blue eyes and white hair came ambling into the room, and announced that six horses were saddled outside.
By Ducroix’s advice the five others equipped themselves with some portable form of food and wine, and keeping their duelling swords as the only weapons available, they clattered away down the steep, white road. The two servants, who had carried the Marquis’s luggage when he was a marquis, were left behind to drink at the cafe by common consent, and not at all against their own inclination.
By this time the afternoon sun was slanting westward, and by its rays Syme could see the sturdy figure of the old innkeeper growing smaller and smaller, but still standing and looking after them quite silently, the sunshine in his silver hair. Syme had a fixed, superstitious fancy, left in his mind by the chance phrase of the Colonel, that this was indeed, perhaps, the last honest stranger whom he should ever see upon the earth.
He was still looking at this dwindling figure, which stood as a mere grey blot touched with a white flame against the great green wall of the steep down behind him. And as he stared over the top of the down behind the innkeeper, there appeared an army of black-clad and marching men. They seemed to hang above the good man and his house like a black cloud of locusts. The horses had been saddled none too soon.