In A Crooked Way by Henry Seton Merriman

     "And let the counsel of thine own heart stand."

It was almost dark, and the Walkham River is much overhung in the parts that lie between Horrabridge and the old brickworks.

In the bed of the river a man stumbled heavily along, trusting more to his knowledge of the river than to his eyesight. He was fishing dexterously with flies that were almost white—flies which seemed to suit admirably the taste of those small brown trout which never have the sense to leave alone the fare provided for their larger white brethren.

Suddenly he hooked a larger fish, and, not daring to step back beneath the overhanging oak, he proceeded to tire his fish out in the deep water. In ten minutes he brought it to the landing-net, and as he turned to open his creel his heart leapt in his breast. A man was standing in the water not two feet behind him.

"Holloa," he gasped.

"I won't insult you by telling you not to be frightened," said the voice of a gentleman. There was no mistaking it. The speaker stood quite still, with the water bubbling round his legs. He was hatless, and his hair was cut quite short.

A thought flashed across the fisherman's slow brain. Like the rest of his craft, he was slower of mind than of hand.

"Yes," said the other, divining his thoughts, "I'm from Dartmoor. You probably heard of my escape two days ago."

"Yes," replied the other, quietly, while he wound in his line. "I heard of it."

"And where do they say I am?"

"Oh, the police have got a clue—as usual," replied the fisherman.

The escaped convict laughed bitterly, but the laugh broke off into a sickening cackle.

"I've been in those brickworks," he said, "all the time, meditating murder. I stole a loaf from a baker's cart; but man cannot live by bread alone; ah! Ha! ha!"

The fisherman held out his flask, which the other took, and opened the somewhat uncommon silver top with ease bred of knowledge.

He poured himself out a full glass and drank it off.

"I haven't had that taste in my mouth for four years," he said, returning the flask. "And you are guilty of felony!"

The fisherman probably knew this, for he merely laughed.

"Do you know Prince Town?" the convict asked abruptly.

The other nodded, glancing in the direction of the rising moor.

"And you've read the rules on the gate? Parcere subjectis, cut in the stone over the top. Good God!"

The fisherman nodded again.

"The question is," said the convict, after a pause, during which they had waded back to the bank, "whether you are going to help me or not? Heavens! I NEARLY killed you while you were playing that fish."

"Ya-as," drawled the fisherman. "I take it that you must have been tempted. I never heard you, owing to the rush of the water."

They were both big men, and the convict stared curiously into the long, clean-shaven face of this calm speaker. A smile actually flickered for a moment in his desperate eyes.

"What I want," he said, "is your mackintosh, your waders, and your hat—also your rod-case with a long stick in it. The handle of your landing-net will do. Where do you come from?"

"Plymouth. I am going back by the seven-thirty from Horrabridge."

"With a return ticket?"

"Yes."

"I should like that also."

The fisherman was slowly disjointing his rod.

"Suppose I told you to come and take 'em?" he said, with the drawl again.

The convict looked him up and down with a certain air of competent criticism.

"Then there would be a very pretty fight," he said, with a laugh, which he checked when he detected the savour of the prison-yard that was in it.

"We haven't time for the fight," said the fisherman.

And there came a hot gasp of excitement from the convict's lips. His stake was a very large one.

In the same slow, reflective manner, the fisherman unbuttoned the straps of his waders at the thigh, and sat down to unlace his brogues.

"Here," he said, "pull 'em off for me. They're so damnably sopped."

He held up his leg, and the convict pulled off the wet fishing-stockings with some technical skill.

He drew them on over his own stockinged legs, and the fisherman kicked the brogues towards him. In exchange the convict handed him his own shoes.

"Am I to wear these?" the fisherman asked, with something in his voice that might have been amusement.

"Yes; they're a little out of shape, I'm afraid. The Queen is no judge of a shoe."

"I guess not!" answered the other, lacing.

There was a little silence.

"I suppose," said the convict, with a curious eagerness, "that you have seen a bit of the world?"

"Here and there," answered the other, searching for the return half of his ticket.

"Should you think, now, that a girl would wait four years for a chap who, in the eyes of the world, was not worth waiting for?"

The fisherman, not being an absolute fool, knew that there was only one answer to give. But he was a kind-hearted man, so he told a lie. There was something about this convict that made him do it.

"Yes; I should think she would. Girls are not always rational, I guess."

The other said nothing. He took the mackintosh-coat and the creel and the rod-case without a word—even of thanks. His manners were brisker, as if the angler's lie had done him good. The change of costume was now complete, and the convict would pass anywhere for an innocent disciple of Isaac Walton.

For a moment they stood thus, looking at each other. Then the convict spoke.

"Can you lend me a fiver?" he asked.

"Oh yes!"

Carelessly opening his purse, and displaying a good number of bank-notes, he passed one to the unsteady hand held out.

"Want any more?" he asked, with a queer laugh.

"I'll take another if you can spare it."

A second note passed from hand to hand.

"Thanks," said the convict. "Now, tell me your name and address; I shall want to send these things back to you if—if I have any luck."

And the effort to steady his voice was quite apparent.

"Caleb S. Harkness, United States frigate Bruiser, now lying at Plymouth," replied the other, tersely.

"Ah! you are an American?"

"That is why I don't care a d—n for your laws."

"MR. Harkness—or what?"

"I'm her captain," he replied modestly.

They shook hands and parted.

It was only as he plodded along the Tavistock Road, limping in the regulation shoes, that the American remembered that he had quite omitted to ask the convict any questions. He had parted with his mackintosh, and it was pouring. Tavistock was two miles off, and he had no notion what trains there were to Plymouth. Yet he regretted nothing, and at times a queer smile flitted over his countenance. He was a man holding very decided views of his own upon most subjects, and no one suspected him of it, because he never sought to force them upon others. What he loved above all in men was that species of audacious and gentlemanly coolness which is found in greater perfection in the ranks of the British aristocracy than anywhere else in the world.

He was not the sort of man to be afraid of any one, or two, or three men—he had never, for a moment, thought of fearing the fellow who had gone off with his mackintosh, his waders, and his two five-pound notes. We all try to be our ideal, and Caleb S. Harkness prided himself on being the coolest man in the two hemispheres. He had met a cooler, and rather than acknowledge his inferiority he had parted with the valuables above mentioned, with no other guarantee of their safe return than a gentlemanly inflection of voice.

Two days later he received his waders, mackintosh, and brogues; also a new fishing-rod of the very best quality made in England, and two five-pound notes.

America loves to show her appreciation of her great sons, but she does not always do it wisely when she begins to cast honours about. If England showed the same appreciation, some of us would not be so cruelly industrious with our pens; but that is the affair of the British public, who suffer most.

Caleb S. Harkness was bound to get on. Firstly, because his audacity was unrivalled, and secondly, he knew it was wise to be audacious.

In due course he rose as high as he conveniently could in the Navy active, and turned his attention to the Navy passive, which latter means a nice little house in Washington, and the open arms of the best society in that enlightened city. Here also he got on, because men were even more impressed by his audacity than the sea had been. Also he developed a new talent. He found within himself an immense capacity for making others appear ridiculous, and there is no man in the world so sensitive as your American senator.

Thus in six years' time we find Caleb S. Harkness moving, not in the bed of an English trout-stream, but in the lap of Washingtonian luxury. It was a great night in the Government city, for England had sent one of her brightest stars to meet the luminaries of the United States in peaceful arbitration. The British Plenipotentiary had not yet been seen of the multitude—but he was the eldest son of a British Earl, and had a title of his own. That was enough for Washington, with some to spare for Boston and New York. Also he had proved himself equal to two American statesmen and their respective secretaries. He was, therefore, held in the highest esteem by all the political parties except that to which the worsted statesmen belonged.

The President's levee was better attended than usual; that is to say, there was not even room on the stairs, and America's first-born, as per election, had long ago lost all feeling in the digits of his right hand.

Caleb S. Harkness was moving about in the quieter rooms, awaiting the great crush, when a lady and a man entered and looked around them with some amusement.

"Lord!" ejaculated Admiral Harkness, when his slow and mournful eyes rested on the lady. The exclamation, if profane, was justified, for it is probable that the American had never before set eyes on such a masterpiece of the Creator's power. There was in this woman's being—in her eyes, her face, her every movement—that combination of nonchalance and dignity which comes to beautiful and bright-minded girls when they are beginning to leave girlhood behind them. She was moderately tall, with hair of living brown, and deep blue eyes full of life and sweetness. She was not slim, but held herself like a boy with the strength that comes of perfect proportion. She was one of those women who set a soldier or a sailor thinking what manner of men her brothers must be.

Caleb Harkness observed all this with the unobtrusive scrutiny of his nation. He was standing near a curtained doorway buttoning his glove, and some one coming behind him pushed against him.

"Beg pardon, Harkness," said a voice, and the Chief Secretary of the English Legation patted him on the shoulder. "Didn't see you. Looking for some one. By George, what a heat! Ah! there he is—thank goodness!"

And he went towards the lady and man who had just entered.

"Here, Monty, you're wanted at once," Harkness heard him say to the youth, who appeared to be a few years younger than his beautiful companion.

He spoke a few words to the lady, who replied laughingly, and the British Attache came towards Harkness.

"Harkness," he said; "want to introduce you to Lady Storrel."

The American followed with a smile on his lean face. He knew that he was being introduced to Lady Storrel merely because there happened to be no one else at hand and her cavalier was wanted elsewhere.

"Lady Storrel, let me present to you Admiral Harkness, the man," he added, over his shoulder, "who is going to make the United States the first Naval Power in the world."

And with a good-natured laugh the two men went off, speaking hurriedly together.

"Is that true?" asked the lady, smiling with that mixture of girlishness and English grand-ladyism, which was so new to Caleb S. Harkness.

"Quite," he answered; "but I am not going to tell you how."

"No, please don't. Of course, you are an American?"

"Yes; but you need not mind that."

"What do you mean?" she asked, looking at him frankly.

"I take it," he answered, with a twinkle in his grave eyes, which she saw, and liked him for, "that you want some one to listen to your impressions of—all this. It IS rum, is it not?"

She laughed. "Yes," she admitted, "it is—RUM."

In a few minutes they had found a seat beneath a marvellous stand of flowers, and she was chattering away like a schoolgirl while he listened, and added here and there a keen comment or a humorous suggestion.

Presently she began talking of herself, and in natural sequence of her husband, of their home in England, of his career, and her hatred of politics.

"And," she said suddenly, at the end of it, "here IS my husband."

Harkness followed the direction of her glance, and looked upon a man in English Court-dress coming towards them.

"Ah!" he said, in a peculiar, dull voice, "that is your husband?"

She was smiling upon the man who approached, beckoning to him to come with her eyes, as women sometimes do. She turned sharply upon Harkness, her attention caught by something in his voice.

"Yes?" she answered.

Harkness had risen with a clatter of his sword on the polished floor, and stood awaiting the introduction.

"My husband—Admiral Harkness."

The men bowed, and, before they could exchange a banal observation, the fair young man who had been called away came up.

"Phew, this is worse than Simla," he said; then, offering his arm to Lady Storrel, "Alice," he continued, "I have discovered some ices, THE most lovely ices."

They moved away, the lady favouring Harkness with a little nod, leaving the two tallest men in that assembly facing each other.

When they were gone, Caleb S. Harkness and Lord Storrel looked into each other's eyes.

"So," said Harkness, lapsing suddenly into a twang, "she waited."

The other nodded. He raised his perfectly gloved hand to his moustache, which he tugged pensively to either side.

"Yes," he answered; "she waited."

Then he looked round the room, and, seeing that they were almost alone, he moved towards the seat just vacated by his wife.

"Come and sit down," he said, "and I will tell you a little story."

"Does she know it?" enquired Harkness, when they were seated.

"No."

"Then I don't want to hear it! You'd better keep it to yourself, I reckon."

The Englishman gave a little laugh, and lapsed into silence—thinking abstractedly.

"I should like to tell you some of it, for my own sake. I don't want you to go away thinking—something that is not the fact."

"I would rather not have the story," persisted Harkness. This American had some strange notions of a bygone virtue called chivalry. "Give me a few facts—I will string them together."

Lord Storrel was sitting forward on his low chair, with his hands clasped between his knees. They were rather large hands—suggestive of manual labour.

"Suppose," he said, without looking round, "that a man is in a street row in Dublin, when no one knows he is even in the town. Suppose the—eh—English side of the question is getting battered, and he hits out and kills a drunken beast of an Irish agitator. Suppose an innocent man is accused of it and the right chap is forced to come forward and show up UNDER A FALSE NAME and gets five years. Suppose he escapes after three and a half, and goes home, saying that he has been in America, cattle ranching—having always been a scapegrace, and a ne'er-do-well, who never wrote home when he had gone off in a huff. Suppose he had tried all this for the sake of—a girl, and had carried it through—"

Caleb Harkness had discovered that the identity of the British Plenipotentiary had become known to some of the more curious of the President's guests, who were now mooning innocently around them as they sat. He moved in his chair as if to rise.

"Yes—I can suppose all that," he said.

The Englishman's nerve was marvellous. He saw what Harkness had seen a moment before, and over his face came the bland smile of an intelligent English man talking naval matters with an American admiral.

"Of course," he said, "I am at your mercy."

"I was at yours once; so now we are quits, I take it."

And the two big men rose and passed out of the room together.