“Good Lord! Good Lord! What shall I do?” cried the stranger, in an ecstasy of despair. “They’ve got her, that hell-hound Woodley and the blackguard parson. Come, man, come, if you really are her friend. Stand by me and we’ll save her, if I have to leave my carcass in Charlington Wood.”
He ran distractedly, his pistol in his hand, towards a gap in the hedge. Holmes followed him, and I, leaving the horse grazing beside the road, followed Holmes.
“This is where they came through,” said he, pointing to the marks of several feet upon the muddy path. “Halloa! Stop a minute! Who’s this in the bush?”
It was a young fellow about seventeen, dressed like an ostler, with leather cords and gaiters. He lay upon his back, his knees drawn up, a terrible cut upon his head. He was insensible, but alive. A glance at his wound told me that it had not penetrated the bone.
“That’s Peter, the groom,” cried the stranger. “He drove her. The beasts have pulled him off and clubbed him. Let him lie; we can’t do him any good, but we may save her from the worst fate that can befall a woman.”
We ran frantically down the path, which wound among the trees. We had reached the shrubbery which surrounded the house when Holmes pulled up.
“They didn’t go to the house. Here are their marks on the left—here, beside the laurel bushes. Ah! I said so.”
As he spoke, a woman’s shrill scream—a scream which vibrated with a frenzy of horror—burst from the thick, green clump of bushes in front of us. It ended suddenly on its highest note with a choke and a gurgle.
“This way! This way! They are in the bowling-alley,” cried the stranger, darting through the bushes. “Ah, the cowardly dogs! Follow me, gentlemen! Too late! too late! by the living Jingo!”
We had broken suddenly into a lovely glade of greensward surrounded by ancient trees. On the farther side of it, under the shadow of a mighty oak, there stood a singular group of three people. One was a woman, our client, drooping and faint, a handkerchief round her mouth. Opposite her stood a brutal, heavy-faced, red-moustached young man, his gaitered legs parted wide, one arm akimbo, the other waving a riding crop, his whole attitude suggestive of triumphant bravado. Between them an elderly, gray-bearded man, wearing a short surplice over a light tweed suit, had evidently just completed the wedding service, for he pocketed his prayer-book as we appeared, and slapped the sinister bridegroom upon the back in jovial congratulation.
“They’re married!” I gasped.
“Come on!” cried our guide, “come on!” He rushed across the glade, Holmes and I at his heels. As we approached, the lady staggered against the trunk of the tree for support. Williamson, the ex-clergyman, bowed to us with mock politeness, and the bully, Woodley, advanced with a shout of brutal and exultant laughter.
“You can take your beard off, Bob,” said he. “I know you, right enough. Well, you and your pals have just come in time for me to be able to introduce you to Mrs. Woodley.”
Our guide’s answer was a singular one. He snatched off the dark beard which had disguised him and threw it on the ground, disclosing a long, sallow, clean-shaven face below it. Then he raised his revolver and covered the young ruffian, who was advancing upon him with his dangerous riding-crop swinging in his hand.
“Yes,” said our ally, “I am Bob Carruthers, and I’ll see this woman righted, if I have to swing for it. I told you what I’d do if you molested her, and, by the Lord! I’ll be as good as my word.”
“You’re too late. She’s my wife.”
“No, she’s your widow.”
His revolver cracked, and I saw the blood spurt from the front of Woodley’s waistcoat. He spun round with a scream and fell upon his back, his hideous red face turning suddenly to a dreadful mottled pallor. The old man, still clad in his surplice, burst into such a string of foul oaths as I have never heard, and pulled out a revolver of his own, but, before he could raise it, he was looking down the barrel of Holmes’s weapon.
“Enough of this,” said my friend, coldly. “Drop that pistol! Watson, pick it up! Hold it to his head. Thank you. You, Carruthers, give me that revolver. We’ll have no more violence. Come, hand it over!”
“Who are you, then?”
“My name is Sherlock Holmes.”
“You have heard of me, I see. I will represent the official police until their arrival. Here, you!” he shouted to a frightened groom, who had appeared at the edge of the glade. “Come here. Take this note as hard as you can ride to Farnham.” He scribbled a few words upon a leaf from his notebook. “Give it to the superintendent at the police-station. Until he comes, I must detain you all under my personal custody.”
The strong, masterful personality of Holmes dominated the tragic scene, and all were equally puppets in his hands. Williamson and Carruthers found themselves carrying the wounded Woodley into the house, and I gave my arm to the frightened girl. The injured man was laid on his bed, and at Holmes’s request I examined him. I carried my report to where he sat in the old tapestry-hung dining-room with his two prisoners before him.
“He will live,” said I.
“What!” cried Carruthers, springing out of his chair. “I’ll go upstairs and finish him first. Do you tell me that that angel, is to be tied to Roaring Jack Woodley for life?”
“You need not concern yourself about that,” said Holmes. “There are two very good reasons why she should, under no circumstances, be his wife. In the first place, we are very safe in questioning Mr. Williamson’s right to solemnize a marriage.”
“I have been ordained,” cried the old rascal.
“And also unfrocked.”
“Once a clergyman, always a clergyman.”
“I think not. How about the license?”
“We had a license for the marriage. I have it here in my pocket.”
“Then you got it by trick. But, in any case a forced marriage is no marriage, but it is a very serious felony, as you will discover before you have finished. You’ll have time to think the point out during the next ten years or so, unless I am mistaken. As to you, Carruthers, you would have done better to keep your pistol in your pocket.”
“I begin to think so, Mr. Holmes, but when I thought of all the precaution I had taken to shield this girl—for I loved her, Mr. Holmes, and it is the only time that ever I knew what love was—it fairly drove me mad to think that she was in the power of the greatest brute and bully in South Africa—a man whose name is a holy terror from Kimberley to Johannesburg. Why, Mr. Holmes, you’ll hardly believe it, but ever since that girl has been in my employment I never once let her go past this house, where I knew the rascals were lurking, without following her on my bicycle, just to see that she came to no harm. I kept my distance from her, and I wore a beard, so that she should not recognize me, for she is a good and high-spirited girl, and she wouldn’t have stayed in my employment long if she had thought that I was following her about the country roads.”
“Why didn’t you tell her of her danger?”
“Because then, again, she would have left me, and I couldn’t bear to face that. Even if she couldn’t love me, it was a great deal to me just to see her dainty form about the house, and to hear the sound of her voice.”
“Well,” said I, “you call that love, Mr. Carruthers, but I should call it selfishness.”
“Maybe the two things go together. Anyhow, I couldn’t let her go. Besides, with this crowd about, it was well that she should have someone near to look after her. Then, when the cable came, I knew they were bound to make a move.”
Carruthers took a telegram from his pocket “That’s it,” said he.
It was short and concise:
The old man is dead.