The largest and strongest man of the number changed swiftly to the side on which he came up, and dexterously closed with him and went down with him; but not before the heavy stick had descended smartly.
'Let him be!' said this man in a suppressed voice, as they struggled together on the grass. 'Fair play! His is the build of a girl to mine, and he's got a weight strapped to his back besides. Let him alone. I'll manage him.'
After a little rolling about, in a close scuffle which caused the faces of both to be besmeared with blood, the man took his knee from Neville's chest, and rose, saying: 'There! Now take him arm- in-arm, any two of you!'
It was immediately done.
'As to our being a pack of thieves, Mr. Landless,' said the man, as he spat out some blood, and wiped more from his face; 'you know better than that at midday. We wouldn't have touched you if you hadn't forced us. We're going to take you round to the high road, anyhow, and you'll find help enough against thieves there, if you want it.--Wipe his face, somebody; see how it's a-trickling down him!'
When his face was cleansed, Neville recognised in the speaker, Joe, driver of the Cloisterham omnibus, whom he had seen but once, and that on the day of his arrival.
'And what I recommend you for the present, is, don't talk, Mr. Landless. You'll find a friend waiting for you, at the high road-- gone ahead by the other way when we split into two parties--and you had much better say nothing till you come up with him. Bring that stick along, somebody else, and let's be moving!'
Utterly bewildered, Neville stared around him and said not a word. Walking between his two conductors, who held his arms in theirs, he went on, as in a dream, until they came again into the high road, and into the midst of a little group of people. The men who had turned back were among the group; and its central figures were Mr. Jasper and Mr. Crisparkle. Neville's conductors took him up to the Minor Canon, and there released him, as an act of deference to that gentleman.
'What is all this, sir? What is the matter? I feel as if I had lost my senses!' cried Neville, the group closing in around him.
'Where is my nephew?' asked Mr. Jasper, wildly.
'Where is your nephew?' repeated Neville, 'Why do you ask me?'
'I ask you,' retorted Jasper, 'because you were the last person in his company, and he is not to be found.'
'Not to be found!' cried Neville, aghast.
'Stay, stay,' said Mr. Crisparkle. 'Permit me, Jasper. Mr. Neville, you are confounded; collect your thoughts; it is of great importance that you should collect your thoughts; attend to me.'
'I will try, sir, but I seem mad.'
'You left Mr. Jasper last night with Edwin Drood?'
'At what hour?'
'Was it at twelve o'clock?' asked Neville, with his hand to his confused head, and appealing to Jasper.
'Quite right,' said Mr. Crisparkle; 'the hour Mr. Jasper has already named to me. You went down to the river together?'
'Undoubtedly. To see the action of the wind there.'
'What followed? How long did you stay there?'
'About ten minutes; I should say not more. We then walked together to your house, and he took leave of me at the door.'
'Did he say that he was going down to the river again?'
'No. He said that he was going straight back.'
The bystanders looked at one another, and at Mr. Crisparkle. To whom Mr. Jasper, who had been intensely watching Neville, said, in a low, distinct, suspicious voice: 'What are those stains upon his dress?'
All eyes were turned towards the blood upon his clothes.
'And here are the same stains upon this stick!' said Jasper, taking it from the hand of the man who held it. 'I know the stick to be his, and he carried it last night. What does this mean?'
'In the name of God, say what it means, Neville!' urged Mr. Crisparkle.
'That man and I,' said Neville, pointing out his late adversary, 'had a struggle for the stick just now, and you may see the same marks on him, sir. What was I to suppose, when I found myself molested by eight people? Could I dream of the true reason when they would give me none at all?'
They admitted that they had thought it discreet to be silent, and that the struggle had taken place.