A rainy night had been followed by a glorious morning, and the heath-covered countryside, with the glowing clumps of flowering gorse, seemed all the more beautiful to eyes which were weary of the duns and drabs and slate grays of London. Holmes and I walked along the broad, sandy road inhaling the fresh morning air and rejoicing in the music of the birds and the fresh breath of the spring. From a rise of the road on the shoulder of Crooksbury Hill, we could see the grim Hall bristling out from amidst the ancient oaks, which, old as they were, were still younger than the building which they surrounded. Holmes pointed down the long tract of road which wound, a reddish yellow band, between the brown of the heath and the budding green of the woods. Far away, a black dot, we could see a vehicle moving in our direction. Holmes gave an exclamation of impatience.
“I have given a margin of half an hour,” said he. “If that is her trap, she must be making for the earlier train. I fear, Watson, that she will be past Charlington before we can possibly meet her.”
From the instant that we passed the rise, we could no longer see the vehicle, but we hastened onward at such a pace that my sedentary life began to tell upon me, and I was compelled to fall behind. Holmes, however, was always in training, for he had inexhaustible stores of nervous energy upon which to draw. His springy step never slowed until suddenly, when he was a hundred yards in front of me, he halted, and I saw him throw up his hand with a gesture of grief and despair. At the same instant an empty dog-cart, the horse cantering, the reins trailing, appeared round the curve of the road and rattled swiftly towards us.
Too late, Watson, too late!” cried Holmes, as I ran panting to his side. “Fool that I was not to allow for that earlier train! It’s abduction, Watson– abduction! Murder! Heaven knows what! Block the road! Stop the horse! That’s right. Now, jump in, and let us see if I can repair the consequences of my own blunder.”
We had sprung into the dog-cart, and Holmes, after turning the horse, gave it a sharp cut with the whip, and we flew back along the road. As we turned the curve, the whole stretch of road between the Hall and the heath was opened up. I grasped Holmes’s arm.
“That’s the man!” I gasped.
A solitary cyclist was coming towards us. His head was down and his shoulders rounded, as he put every ounce of energy that he possessed on to the pedals. He was flying like a racer. Suddenly he raised his bearded face, saw us close to him, and pulled up, springing from his machine. That coal-black beard was in singular contrast to the pallor of his face, and his eyes were as bright as if he had a fever. He stared at us and at the dog-cart. Then a look of amazement came over his face.
“Halloa! Stop there!” he shouted, holding his bicycle to block our road. “Where did you get that dog-cart? Pull up, man!” he yelled, drawing a pistol from his side pocket. “Pull up, I say, or, by George, I’ll put a bullet into your horse.”
Holmes threw the reins into my lap and sprang down from the cart.
“You’re the man we want to see. Where is Miss Violet Smith?” he said, in his quick, clear way.
“That’s what I’m asking you. You’re in her dog-cart. You ought to know where she is.”
“We met the dog-cart on the road. There was no one in it. We drove back to help the young lady.”
“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.”