DAB-DAB was terribly upset when she found we were going away again without luncheon; and she made us take some cold pork-pies in our pockets to eat on the way.
When we got to Puddleby Court-house (it was next door to the prison), we found a great crowd gathered around the building.
This was the week of the Assizes—a business which happened every three months, when many pick-pockets and other bad characters were tried by a very grand judge who came all the way from London. And anybody in Puddleby who had nothing special to do used to come to the Court-house to hear the trials.
But to-day it was different. The crowd was not made up of just a few idle people. It was enormous. The news had run through the countryside that Luke the Hermit was to be tried for killing a man and that the great mystery which had hung over him so long was to be cleared up at last. The butcher and the baker had closed their shops and taken a holiday. All the farmers from round-about, and all the townsfolk, were there with their Sunday clothes on, trying to get seats in the Court-house or gossipping outside in low whispers. The High Street was so crowded you could hardly move along it. I had never seen the quiet old town in such a state of excitement before. For Puddleby had not had such an Assizes since 1799, when Ferdinand Phipps, the Rector’s oldest son, had robbed the bank.
If I hadn’t had the Doctor with me I am sure I would never have been able to make my way through the mob packed around the Court-house door. But I just followed behind him, hanging on to his coat-tails; and at last we got safely into the jail.
“I want to see Luke,” said the Doctor to a very grand person in a blue coat with brass buttons standing at the door.
“Ask at the Superintendent’s office,” said the man. “Third door on the left down the corridor.”
“Who is that person you spoke to, Doctor?” I asked as we went along the passage.
“He is a policeman.”
“And what are policemen?”
“Policemen? They are to keep people in order. They’ve just been invented—by Sir Robert Peel. That’s why they are also called ‘peelers’ sometimes. It is a wonderful age we live in. They’re always thinking of something new—This will be the Superintendent’s office, I suppose.”
From there another policeman was sent with us to show us the way.
Outside the door of Luke’s cell we found Bob, the bulldog, who wagged his tail sadly when he saw us. The man who was guiding us took a large bunch of keys from his pocket and opened the door.
I had never been inside a real prison-cell before; and I felt quite a thrill when the policeman went out and locked the door after him, leaving us shut in the dimly-lighted, little, stone room. Before he went, he said that as soon as we had done talking with our friend we should knock upon the door and he would come and let us out.
At first I could hardly see anything, it was so dim inside. But after a little I made out a low bed against the wall, under a small barred window. On the bed, staring down at the floor between his feet, sat the Hermit, his head resting in his hands.
“Well, Luke,” said the Doctor in a kindly voice, “they don’t give you much light in here, do they?”
Very slowly the Hermit looked up from the floor.
“Hulloa, John Dolittle. What brings you here?”
“I’ve come to see you. I would have been here sooner, only I didn’t hear about all this till a few minutes ago. I went to your hut to ask you if you would join me on a voyage; and when I found it empty I had no idea where you could be. I am dreadfully sorry to hear about your bad luck. I’ve come to see if there is anything I can do.”
Luke shook his head.
“No, I don’t imagine there is anything can be done. They’ve caught me at last. That’s the end of it, I suppose.”
He got up stiffly and started walking up and down the little room.
“In a way I’m glad it’s over,” said he. “I never got any peace, always thinking they were after me—afraid to speak to anyone. They were bound to get me in the end—Yes, I’m glad it’s over.”
Then the Doctor talked to Luke for more than half an hour, trying to cheer him up; while I sat around wondering what I ought to say and wishing I could do something.
At last the Doctor said he wanted to see Bob; and we knocked upon the door and were let out by the policeman.
“Bob,” said the Doctor to the big bulldog in the passage, “come out with me into the porch. I want to ask you something.”
“How is he, Doctor?” asked Bob as we walked down the corridor into the Court-house porch.
“Oh, Luke’s all right. Very miserable of course, but he’s all right. Now tell me, Bob: you saw this business happen, didn’t you? You were there when the man was killed, eh?”
“I was, Doctor,” said Bob, “and I tell you—”
“All right,” the Doctor interrupted, “that’s all I want to know for the present. There isn’t time to tell me more now. The trial is just going to begin. There are the judge and the lawyers coming up the steps. Now listen, Bob: I want you to stay with me when I go into the court-room. And whatever I tell you to do, do it. Do you understand? Don’t make any scenes. Don’t bite anybody, no matter what they may say about Luke. Just behave perfectly quietly and answer any question I may ask you—truthfully. Do you understand?”
“Very well. But do you think you will be able to get him off, Doctor?” asked Bob. “He’s a good man, Doctor. He really is. There never was a better.”
“We’ll see, we’ll see, Bob. It’s a new thing I’m going to try. I’m not sure the judge will allow it. But—well, we’ll see. It’s time to go into the court-room now. Don’t forget what I told you. Remember: for Heaven’s sake don’t start biting any one or you’ll get us all put out and spoil everything.”