WHEN we reached the house the first question the Doctor asked of Dab-Dab in the hall was,
“Is Jip home yet?”
“No,” said Dab-Dab, “I haven’t seen him.”
“Let me know the moment he comes in, will you, please?” said the Doctor, hanging up his hat.
“Certainly I will,” said Dab-Dab. “Don’t be long over washing your hands; the lunch is on the table.”
Just as we were sitting down to luncheon in the kitchen we heard a great racket at the front door. I ran and opened it. In bounded Jip.
“Doctor!” he cried, “come into the library quick. I’ve got something to tell you—No, Dab-Dab, the luncheon must wait. Please hurry, Doctor. There’s not a moment to be lost. Don’t let any of the animals come—just you and Tommy.”
“Now,” he said, when we were inside the library and the door was closed, “turn the key in the lock and make sure there’s no one listening under the windows.”
“It’s all right,” said the Doctor. “Nobody can hear you here. Now what is it?”
“Well, Doctor,” said Jip (he was badly out of breath from running), “I know all about the Hermit—I have known for years. But I couldn’t tell you.”
“Why?” asked the Doctor.
“Because I’d promised not to tell any one. It was Bob, his dog, that told me. And I swore to him that I would keep the secret.”
“Well, and are you going to tell me now?”
“Yes,” said Jip, “we’ve got to save him. I followed Bob’s scent just now when I left you out there on the marshes. And I found him. And I said to him, ‘Is it all right,’ I said, ‘for me to tell the Doctor now? Maybe he can do something.’ And Bob says to me, ‘Yes,’ says he, ‘it’s all right because—’”
“Oh, for Heaven’s sake, go on, go on!” cried the Doctor. “Tell us what the mystery is—not what you said to Bob and what Bob said to you. What has happened? Where is the Hermit?”
“He’s in Puddleby Jail,” said Jip. “He’s in prison.”
“What for?—What’s he done?”
Jip went over to the door and smelt at the bottom of it to see if any one were listening outside. Then he came back to the Doctor on tiptoe and whispered,
“He killed a man!”
“Lord preserve us!” cried the Doctor, sitting down heavily in a chair and mopping his forehead with a handkerchief. “When did he do it?”
“Fifteen years ago—in a Mexican gold-mine. That’s why he has been a hermit ever since. He shaved off his beard and kept away from people out there on the marshes so he wouldn’t be recognized. But last week, it seems these new-fangled policemen came to Town; and they heard there was a strange man who kept to himself all alone in a shack on the fen. And they got suspicious. For a long time people had been hunting all over the world for the man that did that killing in the Mexican gold-mine fifteen years ago. So these policemen went out to the shack, and they recognized Luke by a mole on his arm. And they took him to prison.”
“Well, well!” murmured the Doctor. “Who would have thought it?—Luke, the philosopher!—Killed a man!—I can hardly believe it.”
“It’s true enough—unfortunately,” said Jip. “Luke did it. But it wasn’t his fault. Bob says so. And he was there and saw it all. He was scarcely more than a puppy at the time. Bob says Luke couldn’t help it. He had to do it.”
“Where is Bob now?” asked the Doctor.
“Down at the prison. I wanted him to come with me here to see you; but he won’t leave the prison while Luke is there. He just sits outside the door of the prison-cell and won’t move. He doesn’t even eat the food they give him. Won’t you please come down there, Doctor, and see if there is anything you can do? The trial is to be this afternoon at two o’clock. What time is it now?”
“It’s ten minutes past one.”
“Bob says he thinks they are going to kill Luke for a punishment if they can prove that he did it—or certainly keep him in prison for the rest of his life. Won’t you please come? Perhaps if you spoke to the judge and told him what a good man Luke really is they’d let him off.”
“Of course I’ll come,” said the Doctor getting up and moving to go. “But I’m very much afraid that I shan’t be of any real help.” He turned at the door and hesitated thoughtfully.
“And yet—I wonder—”
Then he opened the door and passed out with Jip and me close at his heels.