E2PA7

E2PA7

'It's the best thing we've thought of. You really want to come?'

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'If you attempt to leave here without me I shall scream. Let's be starting.'

Bill picked Eustace up by his convenient tail.

'I read a story once,' he said, 'where a fellow was lugging a corpse through a wood, when suddenly--'

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'Stop right there,' said Elizabeth firmly.

During the conversation just recorded Dudley Pickering had been keeping a watchful eye on Bill and Elizabeth from the interior of a bush. His was not the ideal position for espionage, for he was too far off to hear what they said, and the light was too dim to enable him to see what it was that Bill was holding. It looked to Mr Pickering like a sack or bag of some sort. As time went by he became convinced that it was a sack, limp and empty at present, but destined later to receive and bulge with what he believed was technically known as the swag. When the two objects of vigilance concluded their lengthy consultation, and moved off in the direction of Lady Wetherby's woods, any doubts he may have had as to whether they were the criminals he had suspected them of being were dispersed. The whole thing worked out logically.

The Man, having spied out the land in his two visits to Lady Wetherby's house, was now about to break in. His accomplice would stand by with the sack. With a beating heart Mr Pickering gripped his revolver and moved round in the shadow of the shrubbery till he came to the gate, when he was just in time to see the guilty couple disappear into the woods. He followed them. He was glad to get on the move again. While he had been wedged into the bush, quite a lot of the bush had been wedged into him. Something sharp had pressed against the calf of his leg, and he had been pinched in a number of tender places. And he was convinced that one more of God's unpleasant creatures had got down the back of his neck.

Dudley Pickering moved through the wood as snakily as he could. Nature had shaped him more for stability than for snakiness, but he did his best. He tingled with the excitement of the chase, and endeavoured to creep through the undergrowth like one of those intelligent Indians of whom he had read so many years before in the pages of Mr Fenimore Cooper. In those days Dudley Pickering had not thought very highly of Fenimore Cooper, holding his work deficient in serious and scientific interest; but now it seemed to him that there had been something in the man after all, and he resolved to get some of his books and go over them again. He wished he had read them more carefully at the time, for they doubtless contained much information and many hints which would have come in handy just now. He seemed, for example, to recall characters in them who had the knack of going through forests without letting a single twig crack beneath their feet. Probably the author had told how this was done. In his unenlightened state it was beyond Mr Pickering. The wood seemed carpeted with twigs. Whenever he stepped he trod on one, and whenever he trod on one it cracked beneath his feet. There were moments when he felt gloomily that he might just as well be firing a machine-gun.

Bill, meanwhile, Elizabeth following close behind him, was ploughing his way onward. From time to time he would turn to administer some encouraging remark, for it had come home to him by now that encouraging remarks were what she needed very much in the present crisis of her affairs. She was showing him a new and hitherto unsuspected side of her character. The Elizabeth whom he had known--the valiant, self-reliant Elizabeth--had gone, leaving in her stead someone softer, more appealing, more approachable. It was this that was filling him with strange emotions as he led the way to their destination.

He was becoming more and more conscious of a sense of being drawn very near to Elizabeth, of a desire to soothe, comfort, and protect her. It was as if to-night he had discovered the missing key to a puzzle or the missing element in some chemical combination. Like most big men, his mind was essentially a protective mind; weakness drew out the best that was in him. And it was only to-night that Elizabeth had given any sign of having any weakness in her composition. That clear vision which had come to him on his long walk came again now, that vivid conviction that she was the only girl in the world for him.

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He was debating within himself the advisability of trying to find words to express this sentiment, when Mr Pickering, the modern Chingachgook, trod on another twig in the background and Elizabeth stopped abruptly with a little cry.

'What was that?' she demanded.

Bill had heard a noise too. It was impossible to be within a dozen yards of Mr Pickering, when on the trail, and not hear a noise. The suspicion that someone was following them did not come to him, for he was a man rather of common sense than of imagination, and common sense was asking him bluntly why the deuce anybody should want to tramp after them through a wood at that time of night. He caught the note of panic in Elizabeth's voice, and was soothing her.

'It was just a branch breaking. You hear all sorts of rum noises in a wood.'

'I believe it's the man with the pistol following us!'

'Nonsense. Why should he? Silly thing to do!' He spoke almost severely.

'Look!' cried Elizabeth.