A Man stood in the speckless courtyard before the Governor's house at Dartmoor gaol. He wore the ugly livery of shame which marks the convict. His head was clipped short, and there was two days' growth of beard upon his haggard face. Standing with his hands behind him, he waited for the moment when he would be ordered to his work.
John Lexman - A. O. 43 - looked up at the blue sky as he had looked so many times from the exercise yard, and wondered what the day would bring forth. A day to him was the beginning and the end of an eternity. He dare not let his mind dwell upon the long aching years ahead. He dare not think of the woman he left, or let his mind dwell upon the agony which she was enduring. He had disappeared from the world, the world he loved, and the world that knew him, and all that there was in life; all that was worth while had been crushed and obliterated into the granite of the Princetown quarries, and its wide horizon shrunken by the gaunt moorland with its menacing tors.
New interests made up his existence. The quality of the food was one. The character of the book he would receive from the prison library another. The future meant Sunday chapel; the present whatever task they found him. For the day he was to paint some doors and windows of an outlying cottage. A cottage occupied by a warder who, for some reason, on the day previous, had spoken to him with a certain kindness and a certain respect which was unusual.
"Face the wall," growled a voice, and mechanically he turned, his hands still behind him, and stood staring at the grey wall of the prison storehouse.
He heard the shuffling feet of the quarry gang, his ears caught the clink of the chains which bound them together. They were desperate men, peculiarly interesting to him, and he had watched their faces furtively in the early period of his imprisonment.
He had been sent to Dartmoor after spending three months in Wormwood Scrubbs. Old hands had told him variously that he was fortunate or unlucky. It was usual to have twelve months at the Scrubbs before testing the life of a convict establishment. He believed there was some talk of sending him to Parkhurst, and here he traced the influence which T. X. would exercise, for Parkhurst was a prisoner's paradise.
He heard his warder's voice behind him.
"Right turn, 43, quick march."
He walked ahead of the armed guard, through the great and gloomy gates of the prison, turned sharply to the right, and walked up the village street toward the moors, beyond the village of Princetown, and on the Tavistock Road where were two or three cottages which had been lately taken by the prison staff; and it was to the decoration of one of these that A. O. 43 had been sent.
The house was as yet without a tenant.
A paper-hanger under the charge of another warder was waiting for the arrival of the painter. The two warders exchanged greetings, and the first went off leaving the other in charge of both men.
For an hour they worked in silence under the eyes of the guard. Presently the warder went outside, and John Lexman had an opportunity of examining his fellow sufferer.
He was a man of twenty-four or twenty-five, lithe and alert. By no means bad looking, he lacked that indefinable suggestion of animalism which distinguished the majority of the inhabitants at Dartmoor.
They waited until they heard the warder's step clear the passage, and until his iron-shod boots were tramping over the cobbled path which led from the door, through the tiny garden to the road, before the second man spoke.
"What are you in for?" he asked, in a low voice.
"Murder," said John Lexman, laconically.
He had answered the question before, and had noticed with a little amusement the look of respect which came into the eyes of the questioner.
"What have you got!"
"Fifteen years," said the other.
"That means 11 years and 9 months," said the first man. "You've never been here before, I suppose?"
"Hardly," said Lexman, drily.
"I was here when I was a kid," confessed the paper-hanger. "I am going out next week."
John Lexman looked at him enviously. Had the man told him that he had inherited a great fortune and a greater title his envy would not have been so genuine.
The drive in the brake to the station, the ride to London in creased, but comfortable clothing, free as the air, at liberty to go to bed and rise when he liked, to choose his own dinner, to answer no call save the call of his conscience, to see - he checked himself.
"What are you in for?" he asked in self-defence.
"Conspiracy and fraud," said the other cheerfully. "I was put away by a woman after three of us had got clear with 12,000 pounds. Damn rough luck, wasn't it?"
It was curious, he thought, how sympathetic one grows with these exponents of crimes. One naturally adopts their point of view and sees life through their distorted vision.
"I bet I'm not given away with the next lot," the prisoner went on. "I've got one of the biggest ideas I've ever had, and I've got a real good man to help me."
"How?" asked John, in surprise.
The man jerked his head in the direction of the prison.
"Larry Green," he said briefly. "He's coming out next month, too, and we are all fixed up proper. We are going to get the pile and then we're off to South America, and you won't see us for dust."
Though he employed all the colloquialisms which were common, his tone was that of a man of education, and yet there was something in his address which told John as clearly as though the man had confessed as much, that he had never occupied any social position in life.
The warder's step on the stones outside reduced them to silence. Suddenly his voice came up the stairs.
"Forty-three," he called sharply, "I want you down here."
John took his paint pot and brush and went clattering down the uncarpeted stairs.
"Where's the other man?" asked the warder, in a low voice.
"He's upstairs in the back room."
The warder stepped out of the door and looked left and right. Coming up from Princetown was a big, grey car.
"Put down your paint pot," he said.
His voice was shaking with excitement.
"I am going upstairs. When that car comes abreast of the gate, ask no questions and jump into it. Get down into the bottom and pull a sack over you, and do not get up until the car stops."
The blood rushed to John Lexman's head, and he staggered.
"My God!" he whispered.
"Do as I tell you," hissed the warder.
Like an automaton John put down his brushes, and walked slowly to the gate. The grey car was crawling up the hill, and the face of the driver was half enveloped in a big rubber mask. Through the two great goggles John could see little to help him identify the man. As the machine came up to the gate, he leapt into the tonneau and sank instantly to the bottom. As he did so he felt the car leap forward underneath him. Now it was going fast, now faster, now it rocked and swayed as it gathered speed. He felt it sweeping down hill and up hill, and once he heard a hollow rumble as it crossed a wooden bridge.
He could not detect from his hiding place in what direction they were going, but he gathered they had switched off to the left and were making for one of the wildest parts of the moor. Never once did he feel the car slacken its pace, until, with a grind of brakes, it stopped suddenly.
"Get out," said a voice.
John Lexman threw off the cover and leapt out and as he did so the car turned and sped back the way it had come.
For a moment he thought he was alone, and looked around. Far away in the distance he saw the grey bulk of Princetown Gaol. It was an accident that he should see it, but it so happened that a ray of the sun fell athwart it and threw it into relief.
He was alone on the moors! Where could he go?
He turned at the sound of a voice.
He was standing on the slope of a small tor. At the foot there was a smooth stretch of green sward. It was on this stretch that the people of Dartmoor held their pony races in the summer months. There was no sign of horses; but only a great bat-like machine with out-stretched pinions of taut white canvas, and by that machine a man clad from head to foot in brown overalls.
John stumbled down the slope. As he neared the machine he stopped and gasped.
"Kara," he said, and the brown man smiled.
"But, I do not understand. What are you going to do!" asked Lexman, when he had recovered from his surprise.
"I am going to take you to a place of safety," said the other.
"I have no reason to be grateful to you, as yet, Kara," breathed Lexman. "A word from you could have saved me."
"I could not lie, my dear Lexman. And honestly, I had forgotten the existence of the letter; if that is what you are referring to, but I am trying to do what I can for you and for your wife."
"She is waiting for you," said the other.
He turned his head, listening.
Across the moor came the dull sullen boom of a gun.
"You haven't time for argument. They discovered your escape," he said. "Get in."
John clambered up into the frail body of the machine and Kara followed.
"This is a self-starter," he said, "one of the newest models of monoplanes."
He clicked over a lever and with a roar the big three-bladed tractor screw spun.
The aeroplane moved forward with a jerk, ran with increasing gait for a hundred yards, and then suddenly the jerky progress ceased. The machine swayed gently from side to side, and looking over, the passenger saw the ground recede beneath him.
Up, up, they climbed in one long sweeping ascent, passing through drifting clouds till the machine soared like a bird above the blue sea.
John Lexman looked down. He saw the indentations of the coast and recognized the fringe of white houses that stood for Torquay, but in an incredibly short space of time all signs of the land were blotted out.
Talking was impossible. The roar of the engines defied penetration.
Kara was evidently a skilful pilot. From time to time he consulted the compass on the board before him, and changed his course ever so slightly. Presently he released one hand from the driving wheel, and scribbling on a little block of paper which was inserted in a pocket at the side of the seat he passed it back.
John Lexman read:
"If you cannot swim there is a life belt under your seat."
Kara was searching the sea for something, and presently he found it. Viewed from the height at which they flew it looked no more than a white speck in a great blue saucer, but presently the machine began to dip, falling at a terrific rate of speed, which took away the breath of the man who was hanging on with both hands to the dangerous seat behind.
He was deadly cold, but had hardly noticed the fact. It was all so incredible, so impossible. He expected to wake up and wondered if the prison was also part of the dream.
Now he saw the point for which Kara was making.
A white steam yacht, long and narrow of beam, was steaming slowly westward. He could see the feathery wake in her rear, and as the aeroplane fell he had time to observe that a boat had been put off. Then with a jerk the monoplane flattened out and came like a skimming bird to the surface of the water; her engines stopped.
"We ought to be able to keep afloat for ten minutes," said Kara, "and by that time they will pick us up."
His voice was high and harsh in the almost painful silence which followed the stoppage of the engines.
In less than five minutes the boat had come alongside, manned, as Lexman gathered from a glimpse of the crew, by Greeks. He scrambled aboard and five minutes later he was standing on the white deck of the yacht, watching the disappearing tail of the monoplane. Kara was by his side.
"There goes fifteen hundred pounds," said the Greek, with a smile, "add that to the two thousand I paid the warder and you have a tidy sum-but some things are worth all the money in the world!"