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Jack Haydon's Quest By John Finnemore Characters: 15764

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Jack Haydon, prefect of Rushmere School and captain of the first fifteen, walked swiftly out of the school gates and turned along the high road. He had leave to go to the little town of Longhampton, three miles away, to visit a day-scholar, a great friend of his, now on the sick list.

He was alone, and he swung along at a cracking pace, for he could walk as well as he could run, and a finer three-quarter had never been known at Rushmere. He was a tall, powerful lad, nearly nineteen years of age, five foot ten and a half inches in his stockings, and turning the scale at twelve stone five. At the present moment he carried not an ounce of spare flesh, for he was in training for the great match, Rushmere v. Repton, and his weight was compact of solid bone, muscle, and sinew. As he stepped along the highway, moving with the easy grace of a well-built athlete, he looked the very picture of a handsome English lad, at one of the finest moments of his life, the point where youth and manhood meet.

The road he followed was called a high road, but the name clung to it from old use rather than because of present service. Eighty years before it had been a famous coaching road, along which the galloping teams had whirled the mails, but now it had fallen into decay, and was little used except by people passing from Rushmere to Longhampton. A mile from the school it ran across a lonely, unenclosed piece of heath, the side of the way being bordered by clumps of holly, thorn, and furze.

Halfway across this desolate stretch of country, Jack was surprised by seeing a man step from behind a thick holly bush and place himself directly in the lad's way. As Jack approached, the man held up his hand.

"Stop," he said, "I want to speak to you."

Jack stopped in sheer surprise, and looked at the speaker in wonder. What could the man want with him? At a glance he saw the man was not English, though upon closer examination he could not place the type. The stranger's skin was darker than an Englishman's, but not darker than many a Spaniard's. His eyes were large and black and liquid; their look was now crafty and a trifle menacing; his hair was lank and intensely black. In build he was very slight, with thin arms and legs. Jack's idea was that if he had been a little darker he might very well have been a Hindoo.

"And what, my friend, may you want with me?" said Jack genially.

"This morning you received a letter from your father," said the dusky stranger.

"How under the sun do you know that?" asked Jack; "and what if I did? I don't see where your interest comes in."

"I wish to see that letter. You had better hand it over at once."

"Don't you ever apply for a further stock of cheek, my little man," said Jack, "for you've got all you need, and a little bit over."

"The letter is almost certainly in your pocket," said the stranger in perfect English, yet pronounced with a curiously odd lisp and click, "and I must see it."

"It's in my pocket all right, confound your cheek," replied Jack, "and there it will stay. Come, get a move on you, and clear out of my way."

"I shall not get out of your way," said the other. "I shall stop you until I have read the letter."

"I don't know what lunatic asylum is short of your cheerful presence to-day," remarked Jack, "and if you don't clear out quick I shall certainly rush you. In which case, I beg you to observe that I am, even if I say it myself, a pretty stiff tackler, and about three stone heavier than you."

The man laughed mockingly and waved his hand, as if making very light of Jack's purpose.

"I assure you," he said in a soft voice, and giving once more his laugh of light mockery, "that it would be much better for you to hand over the letter at once. I do not wish to hurt you, but I have not the least objection to do so if it becomes necessary."

Jack's warm blood was fired at once, and he pulled himself together for a swift charge which would fill this stranger with surprised regret for what he had brought upon himself. But, for a second, something checked him; a strange, mysterious feeling came over him as he wondered what lay behind all this. He stood, though he knew it not, at a great parting of the ways. Behind him lay his happy days of triumph on the football meadow and the cricket field. How was he to know that this dark, slight figure before him meant that a strange, new life was opening out to him, a life of wild adventures in far-off lands, in lands where the memory of English meadows would seem like thoughts and dreams of another life. Jack Haydon knew nothing of this; yet he paused for a moment as some strange prevision seized upon him and held him in its grip. Then he brushed away this odd influence, and was back at once in the present.

"For the last time, clear out," said Jack. The man laughed, and Jack made a swift leap at him. They were not three yards apart, but Jack never reached his man. Without a sign, without a sound, someone sprang upon him from behind, flung a cord over his head, and seized him in a strangling grip. Jack was as strong as a young bull, but in this awful, noiseless clutch he was helpless. He fought madly to throw off his unseen assailant, but he fought in vain. He felt a noose close upon his throat, and his eyeballs began to start out and his head to swim. In front of him stood the mysterious stranger, who had moved neither hand nor foot, and Jack's last conscious recollection was of the quiet, smiling face, and the mocking laugh once more rang in his ears. Suddenly the frightful, strangling clutch seemed to tighten, the blood drummed madly in his ears as if every vein was bursting; then he knew no more.

When Jack Haydon came to himself, he found that he was in the same spot, and that someone was chafing his hands and pouring water on his face. He gave a deep sigh, and a well-known voice said: "Thank God, Haydon's coming round. Whatever could have been the matter with the poor lad? What does this mark round his throat mean?"

Jack opened his eyes and saw Dr. Lawrence, the headmaster of Rushmere School, bending over him. Near at hand stood Colonel Keppel, a gentleman residing in the neighbourhood. The Colonel had been driving Dr. Lawrence back from Longhampton, and his trap stood close by. At the present moment the Colonel held a hat from which water was dripping. He had fetched it from a pool near at hand.

Jack gulped once or twice, then began to speak. The two gentlemen heard his story with the utmost surprise.

"Garrotters!" cried Dr. Lawrence, "I never heard of such an outrage in this neighbourhood before. What a frightful thing! Yes, yes, that explains the mark on your throat. Their object must have been robbery. What have they stolen from you, Haydon?" But the mystery now deepened. Jack's watch and chain, his purse, everything he had worth stealing, were perfectly safe and untouched. Suddenly Jack started up and thrust his hand into his pocket. "The letter! the letter!" he cried. He drew out several letters and looked over them. "My father's letter has gone!" he said.

"What's that?" said Colonel Keppel, pointing to a sheet of paper fluttering over the heath about thirty yards away. He ran and fetched it. "This is the letter," said Jack, "the letter I received from my father this morning."

"But what an extraordinary thing that you should be attacked in this manner, Haydon, in order that this man may read a private letter. Is there anything in it, may I ask, to explain such a strange proceeding?"

"Nothing, sir, that I know of; nothing in the least. My father says nothing there but what anyone may see. I beg that you and Colonel Keppel will glance over it; you will then see how ordinary it is."

The two gentlemen demurred, but Jack insisted, and they ran their eyes over what Mr. Haydon had written. "Purely and simply

an ordinary letter from a father abroad to his son," said the Doctor; "it seems madness to go to such lengths to gain a glimpse of such a letter."

"All the same, young Haydon was quite right in not giving up his father's note to such rogues to read, whatever their purpose may have been," remarked the Colonel.

"Oh, quite so, quite so," agreed Dr. Lawrence. "They had no right whatever to see his private correspondence. By the way, Haydon, I see your father is on his way home. This is posted at Cairo. In what part of the East has he been staying lately?"

"He has been in Burmah for some time, sir," replied Jack, "but I do not know exactly what he has been doing. I rather fancy he went out to survey some ruby-mines for a big London firm."

"Quite so," said the Doctor, "I have seen him referred to many times as a famous ruby expert."

At this moment Colonel Keppel came towards them with something in his hand. He had started away after concluding his last speech, and had gone in the direction where he had seen the letter fluttering. Now he was returning.

"Here is something they dropped, something which throws a flood of light on the affair in one way, and makes it much stranger in another," he remarked in a grave voice, holding up his find. It was a curiously-plaited thong of raw hide, with faded strips of silk worked into the plaits.

"The cord with which Haydon was garrotted!" cried Dr. Lawrence. "They dropped it."

"Yes," said the Colonel slowly, "but this does not mean common garrotters. The fact that they stole nothing really disposes of that. This means a much darker and more terrible business."

"And what is that?" cried the headmaster.

"Thuggee," said Colonel Keppel very gravely.

"Thugs, Colonel!" said Dr. Lawrence in a tone of stupefaction. "Are you serious? Thugs on the heath here, in our quiet, familiar country?"

"This is a Thug noose, at any rate," said Colonel Keppel. "I know it very well. I served twenty-seven years among the hill-tribes of northern India in one capacity and another, and once I served in a Thug country, and I shall never forget it. The way young Haydon was handled suggests Thuggee. No common garrotter could have overcome such a fine, powerful young fellow in that fashion. But the skill of these Thugs is a thing truly diabolical. I remember one instance well. One night, just upon dusk, two men of my regiment were entering the gate of the cantonments. The guard saw them pass, and one was relating a story to the other. The man telling the story expected his comrade to laugh at the conclusion of the anecdote. Hearing nothing, he turned and found that he was walking alone and talking to the empty air. Thinking his comrade had slipped aside and played a trick upon him by leaving him to himself, he went on to the barrack-room. Later the second man was missing, and inquiries were made. A search followed, and the dead body of the unfortunate man was found under the wall of the cantonments. He had been seized and strangled by Thugs when actually walking beside a comrade, and the latter had known nothing of it.

"That shows frightful skill and cunning, Colonel," said Dr. Lawrence.

"It does indeed," said the other, "and I could relate a dozen such stories. But why Thugs should be here and attack Haydon seems a most extraordinary mystery. How do you feel now, Haydon?"

"Much better, sir," replied Jack. "My throat's a bit stiff, but for the rest I am none the worse."

"You've had a wonderful escape, my boy," said Colonel Keppel; "there are not many who have felt a Thug noose and lived to say what it was like. But now, Doctor, what are we to do? There must be some inquiry made into this."

"Of course, of course," agreed Dr. Lawrence. "You are a magistrate, Colonel; what do you recommend?"

"We must put it into the hands of the police at once," said Colonel Keppel. "The fellows cannot have got far. We saw no sign of them on the road, so they must have slipped away over the heath, very probably as soon as they heard the sound of wheels in the distance. Now, Haydon, jump up at the back of the trap. The cob will soon run us up to the constable's cottage in Rushmere."

All three climbed into the Colonel's dog-cart, and away went the brown cob at a slashing pace for Rushmere. Tom Buck, the Rushmere constable, was just returning from a round, and he touched his hat respectfully to the gentlemen. Colonel Keppel told the story, and Buck slapped the gate-post with his open hand.

"Well, gentlemen," he said in surprise, "then they are the very men I've just been hearing about."

"What's that?" said Colonel Keppel. "Where have you heard of them?"

"From Parsons, the postman, he drives the mail-cart, you know, sir, from Longhampton. This morning, just after six, he was coming through the Chase, the wood beyond the heath, when two men slipped out o' the trees before him and made a dash at the horse's head. There was hardly light enough to see 'em, an' they'd ha' stopped him as easy as could be if he hadn't been drivin' a young, fresh, chestnut mare. She's that wild he daren't use a whip to her, but seein' these suspicious characters, he snatches the whip out and gives her a cut as hard as he could lay it on. Off she went like a shot, took the bit between her teeth and bolted. As for the men jumpin' at her head, it was all they could do to save themselves from being run down and trodden underfoot. Parsons luckily managed to keep her on the road, and after she'd galloped a couple o' miles or so, he managed to pull her in all of a lather."

"Then those rascals meant to raid the mail-bags to find your letter, Haydon," said Colonel Keppel. "They seem to have been thoroughly posted as to its time of arrival. Missing the postman, they hung about, and a strange chance delivered you into their hands."

"It's certainly a most mysterious business, sir," replied Jack. "But why they should want to see so simple and ordinary a letter, who they are, and what they're after, are altogether beyond me."

"We must try to get hold of them," said Colonel Keppel, "then we shall perhaps be able to fathom the mystery." He gave orders to Buck, who went off at once to follow, if possible, the track of the strangers across the heath, to inquire at cottages, and do his utmost to trace them.

"For my part," said Colonel Keppel, "I shall drive back at once to Longhampton, and see the superintendent. The railway must be watched, and every constable for miles round be warned by telegraph to keep a look out for the rascals."

"You are very kind to take so much trouble, Colonel," said Dr. Lawrence.

"I'm working for myself as much as anyone," laughed the other. "My wife and daughters use that road continually, and very often they are driving alone in a pony-carriage. It is imperative that the neighbourhood be cleared of such desperate characters."

He drove away at once, and Dr. Lawrence and Jack walked up the hill to the school. Jack had given up the idea of his visit to Longhampton.

"If I were you, Haydon," said the Head, "I should go and rest a little. Sit down quietly in your study for an hour or two; you must feel badly shaken by your awful experience."

"Thank you, sir," replied Jack, "I will do as you say, though as a matter of fact I am practically recovered now. Luckily, I'm in first-rate condition, I'm not bothered with nerves."

"No," smiled Dr. Lawrence, "I suppose not. Still, I should be careful for a time if I were you."

At the Doctor's gate they parted, and Jack went to his own study and sat down. He could not keep his mind from his extraordinary adventure. Why had those fellows seized him, and what did they want? Would they be caught, and then would their secret be discovered? His mind worked over these points again and again, like a squirrel working the wheel in his cage.

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