The Secret of the Garden, by Arthur Gask

Chapter 11

All that happened on that eventful Monday, so suddenly and unexpectedly to set the police upon my trail, was at the time a complete mystery to me, and I could hazard no guess then how it had come about that at a second’s notice, almost, I was again flying hot-foot from my enemies.

But everything was in due course made clear to me, and weeks after, in Brisbane, in a copy of the Queensland Picture Magazine I came across a representation of the actual photograph that had so nearly led to my undoing. Reprinted from an Adelaide paper, it was a picture showing the fall of Eaton Boy in the Steeple at Cheltenham.

It was in every way an excellent production, but in a spirit surely of malignant chance, nothing in it had come out clearer than had I.

There was I standing hunched up in Scut’s miserable attire, the battered hat, the flaming jersey and the awful baggy trousers, as I had feared I had been, right bang in the line of fire. My face was turned up straight towards the camera and every line and feature of it stood out as clear as day.

No wonder I had been spotted the moment the photograph had been printed. The miracle would have been if I had not!

It appeared, however, that the operator had been very busy that day and the photograph had not been developed until well on into the afternoon. Then a single print had been taken, and in a moment the fat was in the fire.

The photographer had rushed off like a scalded cat to the police station, the telephone bells had been set clanging in all directions, and shortly after six o’clock, much to the astonishment of the neighbours, a long black police car had avalanched up to the residence of the alcoholic Ebenezer Scut.

Scut had been still in bed when his peace had been so rudely disturbed, and, never at any time very bright in his intelligence, it had, happily for me, taken much longer than it should have done to obtain coherent replies to the police queries.

But he at last made it plain that he had been nowhere near the racecourse for four days, that he had not even left his bed since the previous Thursday, and that his mate Piper on the Saturday had borrowed his clothes, including the famous and filthy red jersey.

Asked to explain why he had lent Piper his garments, he had reluctantly admitted that he had thought the latter was doing him a good turn. He, Scut, had so often failed to report for work on the racecourse because of his drunken habits that the secretary had at last sworn he would sack him if it should happen again. So when Piper had burst in excitedly on the Saturday morning to announce he had found a temporary substitute, Scut had been ready to fall on his neck and hail him as a true friend.

This was the tale that Scut had told the detectives, and immediately suspicion was focused upon Piper and a move made towards the latter’s house. But Piper had been actually coming round to see how Scut was at the very time the police were there, and the police car and the policemen lounging in front of the house had instantly enlightened him, and he had torn off to warn me of the danger I was in.

But he had been spotted taking a short cut over the fence and the police, reinforced by a contingent from Woodville, had as nearly as anything caught him before he had had time to reach me.

All this I learnt afterwards but, as I have said, at the time everything was a puzzle to me. All I knew was that I was fleeing once again into the darkness with a cordon of danger drawn round me on every side.

It was well for me I knew every yard of the course, for the pain in my ankle came back almost at once and in a straight out run I should have had no chance at all. But I picked my way stealthily along by the thick box hedge surrounding the course and, coming at length to a hole that I knew was there, crawled through it on to the railway and from thence got quickly on to the great Port Road.

I really don’t think I had been at all frightened any part of the time. My chief feeling as far as I remember was one of anger, intense anger, that I was being so harassed again. I had everyone against me, I told myself, and it wasn’t fair. The whole organisation of the state was out to crush me, and it was like a big giant fighting a little boy.

But I wouldn’t give in, I swore. I would see them all in hell before they caught me. I would dodge them again. I turned up my coat collar and walked warily down the Port Road thinking desperately what I must do.

I knew I must act quickly. The Port Road wouldn’t be safe for long. In a few minutes it would be alive with policemen, and already I guessed the telephones were buzzing energetically all over the city.

But I could think of nothing I could do. Every plan that suggested itself to me I had to turn down. There was nowhere that I knew of where I could hide, and every moment my foot began to warn me the more and more insistently that any prolonged exertion was entirely out of the question.

With my mind in dreadful turmoil, about three minutes’ walking brought me to the railway crossing on the Port Road and then — without any premeditation on my part — my fate was decided for itself.

A train was about to go over the level crossing and the traffic was being held up. A big motor lorry there had been brought to a standstill, and I noticed that it was loaded well up with petrol tins. Suddenly I caught sight of a policeman in the distance and, panic-stricken and looking for anywhere to hide, I jumped on to the lorry and lay down among the tins. At the same instant the train thundered by. There were two sacks among the tins and frantically I pulled them over me. With a rough jerk the lorry started, quickly gathered pace, and in a few seconds it was rushing noisily towards the city.

For a minute or two I could hardly take in my good fortune. I lay under the dirty sacks scarce daring to breathe lest I should be seen as we passed by. Then gradually my confidence returned, and I laughed shakily that it had been so easy to get away. What a sell for the police again! I thought. Whatever was going to happen now, I was at least out of the immediate dangerous area, and my prospects were brighter with each yard the lorry drew away.

I wondered where the lorry was going to. It must have come straight from the Port, I knew, and loaded up as it was, its destination might be anywhere miles away from the city. In an hour or two even, I might find myself near some country town, and I should be able to slip away. I must be very careful, however, for once in the bush, if they had any idea where I was, they would put the black trackers on to me at once.

I waited anxiously to see which way the lorry would go.

In a few minutes we came to the confines of the city, and the lorry went straight on, as if it were going to pass right through. I was just rejoicing that, at any rate, somewhere in the country was evidently going to be its destination, when suddenly, just as we were right opposite The Grand Australasian Hotel, the lorry began to slow down.

I put my head out anxiously between the tins and, oh, horror! saw we were turning up the little lane into the garage of the hotel.

I had only an instant to make up my mind, but happily that instant was time enough. The entrance to the garage was narrow and ill-lighted, and the lorry had to slow down to a snail’s pace. I slipped off the back without a sound, and then, as an afterthought, pulled one of the sacks off after me. When lying on the lorry I had felt a spot of rain.

For a minute or two I stood exactly where I had got off. I was in the shadows and I wanted time to think.

If ever I had been in a predicament, I was in one now. I was right in the very heart of the city and, whichever way I went, I should have to pass along well lighted and well-frequented streets. All the police-stations, I knew, would have been warned by now, and still in the disreputable attire of Scut, I should be an easy mark to pick out, even among a crowd.

For the first time that night I began to be afraid.

I heard a noise behind me. Someone was coming out of the garage. There was no help for it. I must take my fate into my hands and go out into the street.

I have often thought since, on going over matters again, that if in my wanderings, when feverishly pursued by the police, I had met with both bad and good fortune, the good fortune had certainly always preponderated over the bad, and it undoubtedly was so in the events of that night.

It had been rotten bad luck, of course, that the lorry should have plumped me down where it did for, on the face of it, the position could not possibly have been worse. But once that misfortune had been got over, nothing could really have been kinder than the way in which chance treated me.

As I walked boldly out into the street it began to drizzle, and I wrapped the sack over my head. The pavement was thronged with people and I saw several policemen about. Two, in fact, were not twenty yards from me, and another one was on point duty at the corner. Although I must have cut a queer figure, no one took the slightest notice of me. They all appeared to be interested in their own affairs or hurrying to get out of the rain.

On the other side of the street, and directly opposite The Grand Australasian Hotel, there was a small piece of enclosed ornamental garden, and I crossed over to it at once, almost automatically, so it seemed, but really probably because I must have noticed there were fewer people passing on that side of the road, and also because it was not nearly so well lighted. I leaned back against the low railings and contemplatively considered which way I should go. It certainly did want a bit of considering, for whichever way I looked I could see policemen, and with my wretched foot I knew I couldn’t walk far. Whimsically I tried to imagine I was engaged in a game of chess, but for the life of me I couldn’t determine my next move.

I must have stood there quite an hour watching the traffic, and at the end of it I was just as undecided as ever.

Everything seemed again quite hopeless, and the desperation of it suddenly got on my nerves. I went over all the worries I had been through lately, and asked myself irritably if they were really worth fighting against any longer. I felt sick of the whole business and dazed, like a man in a dream. All at once, it came to me I didn’t mind what happened any longer.

I was tired of these continual excitements and just wanted to lie down and have a good rest.

I cocked my eye over the little bit of garden behind me. There was a high bed of flowers in the middle, with a low wall of rockery all round its sides. With half a chance, I told myself, I’d get over and have a sleep there.

And the chance came almost at the same moment as the idea entered my mind. There was a sudden noise of shouting at the street corner, a shriek from a woman somewhere, and I saw a car charging straight over the pavement in the direction of a big shop window. The steering gear had evidently gone wrong.

There was a fearful crash of breaking glass, a lot more shouting, and everyone rushed excitedly to see what was taking place.

Now was my chance, I thought. Whatever was happening was nothing to do with me. Every shop window in Adelaide might be broken for all I cared.

I scrambled desperately over the low railings and, stumbling across the strip of intervening lawn, in a few seconds was right in the middle of the bed of flowers.

To my surprise, there was a length of corrugated-iron there. It was being used to protect some seedlings from the night frosts and the ground was quite dry underneath. I tilted it up and, crawling under with my sack, quicker than it takes to tell it, was lying prone and once more at rest.

For the moment, I certainly couldn’t have been in a better place. I was entirely surrounded by a wall of chrysanthemums about two feet high, and although actually within a few yards of the traffic of one of the busiest streets, I was nevertheless as secure and secluded as if I were miles and miles away from the city itself.

I made a sort of pillow of the sack and, in only a few minutes, I believe, I went to sleep. I was tired out.

It was just midnight when I awoke. I think it must have been the striking of the Town Hall clock that woke me, and for the moment I couldn’t remember where I was. I was feeling rather cold and the pressure of the sheet of iron had made my shoulder ache.

There was a bright moon shining, and the city was wrapped in the silence of a grave. I leaned out from my hiding-place and peered cautiously between the stalks of the chrysanthemums. The streets were deserted and there was not a soul in sight. No, I was mistaken. There were two policemen standing by an electric standard at the intersection of the road. I watched them curiously. A car came purring up from the direction of the Port Road and immediately one of them stepped forward and held up his hand. The car pulled up, and I saw the policeman peer under the hood. Then there was some laughing, and a moment afterwards the car was driven away, and the policemen resumed their vigil by the electric standard.

Looking for me, I thought, and taking no chances I should be spirited away.

I don’t remember that I went to sleep again at all. I started worrying what the next day would hold in store, and everything seemed black and hopeless to the deepest depths of despair. I realised that I was at the end of my tether at last, and I fingered my automatic thankfully and many times saw to it that the safety catch came easily to the release.

I shall never know perhaps why I lived through the next day. Long before dawn I had resolved to shoot myself and get it over. Deliberately I had condemned myself to death, and so miserable and weary was I that I waited gladly for the end to come. I had no fear at all of death. It would be peace and rest at last and, although I had been beaten in the fight, I should never yet hear the mocking of my enemies. I really wanted to die, but still, wretched as I was and with all hope gone, I clung unreasonably to life. Hour after hour I gave myself reprieve. The dawn rose high, and I still lived. The morning passed, and I had done nothing. Noon came, and I was still fingering the trigger. A dreadful thirst seized me, and I was faint with hunger. My body ached in every joint from my cramped position, and I was stiff and sore from lying on the cold hard ground. I was in acute pain from my injured foot, and every evil that I could think of seemed to possess me, and yet I dallied on the chance that some miracle might happen.

I really don’t know what I expected, and how in any possible way it could happen now that I could get away. It was certain I could never pass again unchallenged along the streets. There was never anytime when there were not policemen in sight and, apart from that, it seemed to me as I lay watching that there was an air of actual inquisitiveness about each other apparent among the crowds that passed along the pavement near where I lay hidden. At the moment I thought it was only fancy, but if I had known the truth I need not have wondered about it at all.

It was actually expected by the police that I should be hiding somewhere in the vicinity of the place where I now was. I had been traced almost to the entrance of the garage of The Grand Australasian Hotel.

Although I flattered myself I had cleverly escaped unseen from the neighbourhood of the Cheltenham Racecourse, it appeared a signalman had seen me jump on to the lorry at the level crossing. He had thought nothing of it at the time, but later on when the cry was raised, he had communicated with the police and the destination of the load of petrol tins had been easily obtained. So when I thought I had puzzled everyone by my mysterious flitting away, the police were concentrating round the very place where I was hiding. They had actually gone so far as to search thoroughly through ever corner of The Grand Australasian Hotel itself, although to the little strip of garden opposite they had never given a thought.

All day long, between my troubled broodings, I was interested in the hotel too. From where I lay I could see so plainly everything that was going on at the front entrance, and from time to time I recognised many of the people going in and out. Many notabilities of the city went up the steps, and many of the great lights of the racing world appeared there too. I saw Judge Cartright go in to his lunch, and Drivel Jones too with one of his inevitable long cigars. I saw Sir Joseph Carnworthy of the Consolidated Bank, and, later, my heart beat wildly as I caught sight of Angas Forbes.

For at least ten minutes the big Scotchman stood on the entrance steps talking to some friends, and for the first time in all my adventures I was enabled to have a good look at the man who had brought about my downfall.

The first sight of him filled me with the bitterest feelings of hate and revenge, and I cursed him deeply for the agonies he had brought me.

If only he had been a little bit nearer, I would have chanced it and tried to shoot him where he stood. But I measured the distance with my eye and saw it was hopeless. I would only be giving greater pleasure to them when they would stand round me when I was lying dead.

Angas Forbes disappeared in a while, but long after he had gone in I was thinking of him, and towards the latter part of the day he had become quite an obsession in my thoughts.

Strange to my own mind, when my first fierce burst of anger was over, I could not for the life of me think very badly of the man. He might be stern and uncompromising in his actions but, for all that, he had rather a kind face, and to me he had seemed to be looking very sad. Every line of him told of force and energy but, hasty and quick though he might be in his decisions, it struck me he would be always just in the end.

A very devil he had been to me I knew, but, after all, I remembered Dr. Carmichael was his friend, and with everything he had done he had been acting always under the idea that I was a murderer and he was only avenging the dead man.

The long day waned and darkened, and with the fall of dusk there was all hell under the sheet of corrugated-iron, in the middle of the bed of chrysanthemums.

Every mental and physical suffering that could come to a man I thought then was mine, but my thirst, of all things, tormented me most.

I knew I was going to die, and the little automatic pistol, like a saviour, lay just beneath my head. I pressed my forehead on to its cool blue barrel, for my face was burning though my legs were icy cold. I was ready for death any moment, and yet I wanted a drink first.

I must get a drink somehow. The idea of water filled my thoughts, and I believed that, priest-like, it would give me physical absolution before I died. I must do something.

I raised myself on my elbow and then crawled out from under the sheet of iron.

The town hall clock struck seven.

Careless of who might see me, I sat upright among my bed of flowers, and then suddenly I happened to look up across to The Grand Australasian Hotel.

Angas Forbes was standing on the balcony of the first floor. For the moment he stood still, watching the stream of life that was flowing just below him in the street. Then he turned abruptly and went in. I saw the light go up in a room.

Mechanically I numbered off the room that he was occupying. It was the seventh from the direction of the entrance hall.

I was drunk with pain and suffering. Good, I would go and give him a call. The very least he could do was to give a drink of water.

I stood up and began weakly to rub my legs. Then I staggered across the strip of lawn, and at the second attempt succeeded in getting over the low railings. I crossed the road quite oblivious to how the traffic might deal with me, and the sudden grind of brakes and a hoarsely shouted curse from someone on the driving seat of a car were of no interest to me at all. I walked up the garage entrance of the hotel, turned up a little flight of stairs that I knew were there, passed through a small door and was in the luggage room of The Grand Australasian.

I knew the hotel well, and with no hesitation passed along a narrow corridor and reached the back service stairs used by the staff. In half a minute at most I had reached the first floor without having seen or been seen by a soul.

I sat down at the top of the stairs to have a rest. My hurried journey, short as it was, in my weak condition had taken away all my breath. It had also sobered me down a little, and with my mind much clearer I saw the perilous position I was in. Not that the danger worried me though; my only thought for the moment was that of getting something to drink.

I pulled myself to my legs and staggering shakily along, turned the handle of the first door I came to. It yielded at once and I walked in. There was a bright fire burning in the grate, but I looked for the light and switched it on.

I found myself in quite a fair-sized bedroom, and the first thing that caught my eyes was a bottle of whisky on the chest of drawers.

I believe I almost ran across the room to get that whisky and in a few seconds I had drawn an arm-chair up before the fire and was gloriously sipping a good stiff glass of the spirit.

Oh, the happy memory of those next ten minutes! The alcohol gave life and courage to me, and I no longer meant to die. It cheered all the senses in me and restored me at once to a sane, clear state of mind.

There should be still chances for me yet, I thought, and as evidencing the grip I had on myself again, although I would have dearly loved another drink of whisky, I resolutely put the idea away from me and to quench my thirst drank glass upon glass of water instead.

Then I remembered why I had come into the hotel, and a brain-wave surged through me that my salvation might lie there after all. I would get to speak to Angas Forbes, and drive into him that he was acting as an utterly wrong and mistaken man. In his persecution of me, he was doing everything his dead friend would have fought against and, by urging on the authorities as he was, he was nullifying all the efforts the latter would have surely made to save me from the law.

I got on to my feet at once but, as I stood up, I happened to look in the glass.

It was a dreadful face that looked back into mine. Ten days’ growth of stubbly beard; grime, mud and the stains of blood; cheeks sunken and drawn in, eyes hollow, and hair all matted and fouled with earth. I looked like a man who had risen from the tomb.

There was a big wash basin in the bedroom with hot and cold water laid on, and in a twinkling I had taken off my coat and was rolling up my sleeves. There was a razor on the dressing table, and after a moment’s hesitation I commandeered that too. Time after time I luxuriously bathed my face with the hot water and, when I had finally completed my ablutions, it was a very different person who was now reflected in the glass.

Scut’s awful clothes I could not remedy, and I was in no mood now with so much at stake to run further risks by remaining any longer in the room. Already I told myself, I had stayed too long already, and any moment, I realised, the occupant of the room might come in. So hastily I obliterated as far as possible all traces of my visit and, switching off the light, I tiptoed softly out into the corridor.

There were ten rooms facing me and, with a quickly beating heart, I located the one, seventh from the entrance hall. It was occupied, I saw, for the lights were up. I knocked quietly on the door and a voice bade me to come in.

I turned the handle quickly and, stepping into the room, closed the door gently behind me.

Angas Forbes was writing at a small table, and he immediately looked up.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54