The Blue Posts, Chelsea, is an old-time public-house pleasantly situated by the river, with an extensive connection amongst gentlemen's servants, 'busmen, and other skilled judges of good beer, the subtle and delicate perfume of which liquor pervades the place from cellar to basement, and has more than once taken the policeman on duty to the back door, under the impression that something wanted looking into.
To some men imprisonment in such a place would have been little short of ecstasy. In the heat of summer they would have sat in the cool cellar amid barrels of honest beer; in winter, they would have led the conversation cosily seated around the taproom fire. For exercise, profitable employment at the beer-engine in the bar; for intellectual exercise, the study of practical chemistry in the cellar.
To Captain Fred Flower none of these things appealed. He had visited the cellar certainly—in search of subterranean exits; he had sat in the tap-room—close to the open window; but his rabid desire to get away from the place and never see it again could not have been surpassed by the most bitter teetotaler that ever breathed.
His greatest trouble was with Porson, whose limpet-like qualities were a source of never-failing concern to the unfortunate mariner. Did he ascend to the drawing-room and gaze yearningly from the windows at the broad stream of Father Thames and the craft dropping down on the ebb-tide to the sea, Uncle Porson, sallow of face and unclean of collar, was there to talk beery romance of the ocean. Did he retire to the small yard at the rear of the premises and gaze from the back door at the passing life of a Chelsea by-street, Uncle Porson was looking over his shoulder, pointing out milkmen with histories, and cabmen with a past.
The second week of his stay was drawing to a close before he fully realised the horror of his position. His foot, which had been giving him considerable trouble, was getting much better, though it was by no means well enough to give him a chance in a foot-race with Mr. Porson or Charles, and as the family at the Blue Posts realised the improvement, the attentions of his personal attendants were redoubled. The key of his bed-room door was turned every night after he had retired, a discovery he had made the first night after carefully dressing for flight and spending an hour over the composition of a farewell note to Miss Tipping. There was no chance of reaching the roof from his bed-room window, and the pavement below offered him his choice between a wedding and a funeral.
And amid all this the fiction was maintained of preserving him from his lawless foes and his own inconvenient devotion to duty. A struggle for escape was not to be thought of, as the full measure of his deceitfulness would transpire in the event of failure, and the wedding drew nearer day by day, while his active brain was still casting about in vain for any means of escape.
"Next Tuesday," said Mrs. Tipping to her stepdaughter, as they sat in the much decorated drawing-room one afternoon, "you'll be Mrs. Robinson."
Miss Tipping, who was sitting next to the skipper, looked at him languishingly, and put her head on his shoulder.
"I can hardly believe it," she said, coyly.
Flower, who was in the same predicament, patted her head tenderly, as being easier than replying.
"And I must say," said Mrs. Tipping, regarding the pair, "I'm a plain woman, and I speak my mind, that if it was me, I should want to know more about him first."
"I'm quite satisfied, mar," said Miss Tipping, without raising her head.
"There's your relations to be satisfied, Matilda," said Uncle Porson, in an important voice.
Miss Tipping raised her head and favoured the interrupter with a baleful stare, whereupon Mr. Porson, scratching his neck feebly, glanced at Mrs. Tipping for support.
"Our relations needn't come to see us," said his niece, at length. "He's marrying me, not my relations."
"He's making me his uncle, at any rate," said Mr. Porson, with a sudden access of dignity.
"You don't mind, Fred, do you?" asked Miss Tipping, anxiously.
"I'd put up with more than that for your sake," said Flower. "I needn't tell people."
"That's all very fine," said Mrs. Tipping, taking up the cudgels for the speechless and glaring victim of these pleasantries, "but there's no mystery about your uncle; everybody knows him. He doesn't disappear just as he is going to get married, and be brought back in a cab months afterwards. He isn't full of secrets he mustn't tell people who ought to know."
"Never kep' a secret in my life," agreed Uncle Porson, whose head was buzzing under this unaccustomed praise.
"I know quite eno'ugh about Fred," said Miss Tipping, tenderly; "when I want your opinion, mar, I'll ask you for it."
Mrs. Tipping's reply was interrupted by the entrance of a young man from the jeweller's with four brooches for Flower to present to the bridesmaids. Mrs. Tipping had chosen them, and it did not take the hapless skipper long to arrive at the conclusion that she was far fonder of bridesmaids than he was. His stock of money was beginning to dwindle, and the purchase of a second wedding suit within a month was beginning to tell even upon his soaring spirits.
"There's another thing about Fred I don't quite like," said Mrs. Tipping, as she sat with the brooches ranged upon her capacious lap; "he's extravagant. I don't like a mean man, but one who flings his money away is almost as bad. These 'ere brooches are very pretty, and they do him credit, but I can't say but what something cheaper wouldn't 'ave done as well."
"I thought you liked them," said the indignant Flower.
"I like them well enough," said Mrs. Tipping, solemnly; "there's nothing to dislike in them. Seems to me they must have cost a lot of money, that's all—I suppose I may make a remark!"
Flower changed the subject, and turning to Miss Tipping began to speak in a low voice of their new home. Miss Tipping wanted a sort of Eden with bar improvements, and it was rather difficult to find.
They had discussed the matter before, and the wily skipper had almost quarrelled with his bride-elect over the part of the country in which they were to live, Miss Tipping holding out for the east coast, while Flower hotly championed the south. Mrs. Tipping, with some emphasis, had suggested leaving it until after the honeymoon, but a poetic advertisement of an inn in Essex catching her daughter's eye, it was decided that instant inspection should be made.
They travelled down from Fenchurch Street, accompanied by Dick and Mrs. Tipping, the skipper, who was painfully on the alert for any chance of escape, making a great fuss of his foot, and confessing to a feeling of unusual indisposition. He sat in one corner of the carriage with his eyes half closed, while Miss Tipping, with her arm affectionately drawn through his, was the unconscious means of preventing a dash for liberty as the train steamed slowly through a station.
The nearest station to the Rose of Essex was five miles distant, a fact which (owing perhaps to the expensive nature of newspaper charges) did not appear in the advertisement.
"It's a nice little place," said the landlady of the Railway Hotel, as they asked her opinion over lunch; "there's a little land goes with it. If you want to drive over, I'd better be having something got ready."
Mrs. Tipping, who halved the duties with Flower, she doing the ordering and he the paying, assented, and in a short time they were bowling rapidly along through narrow country lanes to their destination. The skipper noticed with pleasure the lonely nature of the country, and his heart beat fast as he thought of the chances of success of a little plan of escape.
So far as appearance went, the inn was excellent. Roses clustered round the porch and hung in fragrant bunches from the walls, while three or four sturdy lime trees in one corner threw a grateful shade over a rustic table and settles. Flower, with a grateful sigh, said that it was the very thing. Even Mrs. Tipping, after a careful inspection, said that they might do worse; Dick, with an air of professional gravity, devoted most of his attention to the cellar, while the engaged couple walked slowly round the immense garden in the rear exchanging tender whispers.
"We'll think it over and let you know," said Mrs. Tipping to the landlord.
"There's been a lot after it," said he slowly, with a glance at his wife.
"And yet it ain't gone," said the business-like Mrs. Tipping, pleasantly.
"I'm going to take it, mar," said Miss Tipping, firmly.
Mrs. Tipping sighed at her haste, but finding her determined, went down the cellar again, accompanied by Dick, for a last look round. Captain Flower, leaning heavily on Miss Tipping's arm, limped slowly to the carriage.
"Tired?" she enquired, tenderly, as he sank back in the cushions.
"Foot's painful," he said, with a faint smile. "Good gracious!"
"What's the matter?" asked Miss Tipping, alarmed by his manner.
"I've left my pipe in the garden," said Flower, rising, "the one you gave me. I wouldn't lose it for the world."
"I'll get it," said Miss Tipping, springing out of the carriage. "Whereabouts did you leave it, do you think?"
"By the bee-hives," said Flower, pale with excitement, as he heard Mrs. Tipping and Dick coming up from the cellar. "Make haste; somebody might take it."
Miss Tipping darted into the house, and immediately afterwards the Tippings ascended from the cellar, attended by the landlady.
"Driver," said Flower, sharply.
"Sir," said the man, looking round and tenderly rubbing his back.
"Take that to the lady who has just gone in, at once," gabbled Flower; "hurry up."
For want of anything better, he handed the astonished driver his tobacco-pouch, and waved him to the house. The lad descended from his perch and ran to the door just as Dick Tipping, giving vent to a sharp cry, was rushing out. The cry acted on the skipper like magic, and, snatching up the whip, he gave the horse a cut in which was concentrated the fears of the last fortnight and the hopes of his future lifetime.
The animal sprang forward madly just as Dick Tipping, who had pushed the driver out of the way, rushed out in pursuit. There was a hard white road in front and it took it at a gallop, the vehicle rocking from side to side behind it as Flower played on it with the whip. Tipping was close behind, and the driver a good second. Flower, leaving the horse to take care of itself for a time, stood upright in the carriage and hurled cushions at his foremost pursuer. The third cushion was long and limp, and, falling on end in front of him, twined itself round his swift-moving legs and brought him heavily to the ground.
"He's winded," said Flower, as he saw the coachman stop and help the other man slowly to his feet; "shows what a cushion can do."
He clambered onto the seat, as a bend in the road shut the others from his sight, and gathering up the reins, gave himself over to the joyous feeling of his new-found liberty as they rushed through the air. His ideas of driving were elementary, and his mode of turning corners was to turn them quickly and get it over; but he drove on for miles without mishap, and, the horse having dropped to a steady trot, began to consider his future movements.
"They'll be setting the wires to work, I expect," he thought, soberly. "What a comfortable old world this must have been before they invented steam and telegraph. I'll go a little bit farther, and then tie it up to a tree."
He made what he considered an endearing noise with his mouth, and the startled animal at once bounded forward with the intention of getting out of hearing. A gentle incline favoured the pace, which was now so considerable that the skipper, seeing another craft approaching him, waved his hand towards it warningly.
"I wonder who ought to get out of the way?" he said, thoughtfullly; "I s'pose the horse knows."
He left it to that able quadruped, after giving it a little bang on the flank with the butt end of the whip to keep its faculties fresh. There was a frenzied shout from the other vehicle, a sudden violent stoppage, with the crashing of wood, and Flower, crawling out of the ditch, watched with some admiration the strenuous efforts of his noble beast to take the carriage along on three wheels.
"Look what you've done!" roared the driver of the other vehicle, foaming with passion, as he jumped out and held his plunging horse by the head. "Look at my gig, sir! Look at it!"
Flower looked, and then returned the courtesy.
"Look at mine," he said, impressively; "mine's much the worst."
"You were on the wrong side of the road," shouted the other.
"I was there first," said Flower; "it wouldn't have happened if you hadn't tried to get out of my way. The course I was on I should have passed you easily."
He looked up the road. His horse, trembling violently, was standing still, with the wreck of the carriage behind it. He stooped mechanically, and picking up the whip which was lying in the road said that he would go off for assistance.
"You stay here, sir," said the other man with an oath.
"I won't," said the skipper.
His adversary made no reply, but, having by this time soothed his frightened horse, took his whip out of its socket and strode towards him with the butt raised over his head. Flower arranged his own whip the same way, and both men being new to the weapon, circled round each other two or three times waiting for a little instruction. Then the owner of the gig, whose temper was rising every second, ran in and dealt the skipper a heavy blow on the head.
The blow dispelled an idea which was slowly forming there of asking the extent of the damage, and, if it were not too much, offering to make it good. Ideas of settlement vanished; ideas of honour, morality, and even escape vanished too; all merged in the one fixed idea of giving the other man a harder blow than he had given.
For a minute or two the battle raged fairly equally; both were securing a fair amount of punishment. Then, under a heavy blow from Flower, his foe went down suddenly. For a second or two the skipper held his breath with fear, then the other man raised himself feebly on his knees, and, throwing away his whip, staggered to his feet and, unfastening the reins, clambered unsteadily into his gig and drove off without a word.
The victorious skipper looked up and down the lonely road, and shaking his head sadly at the noble steed which had brought him into this mess, tenderly felt his bruised and aching head, and then set off as fast as his foot would permit up the road.
He looked about eagerly as he went for a place of concealment, fully aware of the inability of a lame shipmaster to outdistance horseflesh. Hedges and fields bounded both sides of the road, but half a mile farther along, on the right-hand side, the field stretched away upwards to meet a wood. Towards this wood Captain Flower, having first squeezed himself through a gap in the hedge, progressed with all speed.
He sat on the trunk of a fallen pine to regain his breath, and eagerly looked about him. To his disappointment he saw that the wood was of no great depth, but was a mere belt of pines running almost parallel with the road he had quitted. With the single idea of getting as far away from the scene of his crime as possible, he began to walk through it.
The wood was very still, and the shade grateful after the heat of the sun. Just beyond, the fields were shimmering in the heat, and he pricked up his ears as the unmistakable sound of wheels and hoofs came across the silent fields. He looked round wildly, and seeing a tiny cottage standing in a bit of a clearing, made towards it.
A little old man twisted with rheumatism rose as he stood at the open door and regarded him with a pair of bloodshot, but sharp, old eyes, while an old woman sitting in a Windsor-chair looked up anxiously.
"Can I come in?" asked Flower.
"Aye," said the old man, standing aside to let him pass.
"Hot day," said the skipper, taking a seat.
"No, 'tain't," said the old man.
"Not so hot as yesterday," said Flower, with a conciliatory smile.
"It's 'otter than it was yesterday," said the old man. "What ha' you done to your face?"
"I was climbing a tree," said Flower, with a laugh, "and I fell down; I've hurt my foot, too."
"Served you right if you'd broke your neck," said his amiable host, "climbing trees at your time o' life."
"Nice cottage you've got here," said the persistent Flower.
"I wish you 'ad to live in it," said the old man.
He took a proffered cigar, and after eyeing it for some time, like a young carver with a new joint, took out a huge clasp-knife and slowly sawed the end off.
"Can I sleep here for the night?" asked Flower, at length.
"No, you can't," said the old man, drawing at his cigar.
He smoked on, with the air of a man who has just given a very clever answer to a very difficult question.
"We ain't on'y got one room besides this," said the old woman solemnly. "Years ago we used to have four and a wash-place."
"Oh, I could sleep on the floor here," said Flower, lightly. "I'll pay you five shillings."
"Let's see your money," said the old man, leaning forward.
Flower put the sum in his hand. "I'll pay now," he said, heartily.
"The floor won't run away," said the other, pulling out an old leathern purse, "and you can sleep on any part of it you like."
Flower thanked him effusively. He was listening intently for any sounds outside. If the Tippings and the man in the gig met, they would scour the country-side, and almost certainly pay the cottage a visit.
"If you let me go upstairs and lie down for an hour or two," he said, turning to the old man, "I'll give you another half-crown."
The old man said nothing, but held out his hand, and after receiving the sum got up slowly, and, opening a door by the fire-place, revealed a few broken stairs, which he slowly ascended, after beckoning his guest to follow.
"It's a small place," he said, tersely, "but I daresay you've often slept in a worse."
Flower made no reply. He was looking from the tiny casement. Through an opening in the trees he saw a couple of figures crossing the field towards the wood.
"If anybody asks you whether you have seen me, say no," he said, rapidly, to the old man. "I've got into a bit of a mess, and if you hide me here until it has blown over, I'll make it worth your while."
"How much?" said the old man.
Flower hesitated. "Five pounds for certain," he said, hastily, "and more if you're put to much trouble. Run down and stop your wife's mouth quietly."
"Don't order me about," said the old man, slowly; "I ain't said I'll do it yet."
"They're coming now," said Flower, impatiently; "mind, if they catch me you lose your five pounds."
"All right," said the other. "I'm doing it for the five pounds, mind, not for you," added this excellent man.
He went grunting and groaning down the narrow stairs, and the skipper, closing the door, went and crouched down by the open casement. A few indistinct words were borne in on the still air, and voices came gradually closer, until footsteps, which had been deadened by the grass, became suddenly audible on the stones outside the cottage.
Flower held his breath with anxiety; then he smiled softly and pleasantly as he listened to the terms in which his somewhat difficult host was addressed.
"Now, gaffer," said the man of the gig, roughly.
"Wake up, grandpa," said Dick Tipping; "have you seen a man go by here?—blue serge suit, moustache, face and head knocked about?"
"No, I ain't seen 'im," was the reply. "What's he done?"
Tipping told him briefly. "We'll have him," he said, savagely. "We've got a mounted policeman on the job, besides others. If you can catch him it's worth half a sov. to you."
He went off hurriedly with the other man, and their voices died away in the distance. Flower sat in his place on the floor for some time, and then, seeing from the window that the coast was clear, went downstairs again.
The old woman made him up a bed on the floor after supper, although both he and the old man assured her that it was unnecessary, and then, taking the lamp, bade him good-night and went upstairs.
Flower, left to himself, rolled exultingly on his poor couch, and for the first time in a fortnight breathed freely.
"If I do get into trouble," he murmured, complacently, "I generally manage to get out of it. It wants a good head in the first place, and a cool one in the second."