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Title: The Man with the Squeaky Voice Author: R A J Walling (1869-1949) * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 0900551h.html Language: English Date first posted: August 2009 Date most recently updated: August 2009 Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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CONTENTS PART I. THE MAN WITH THE SQUEAKY VOICE I. II. III. IV. V. VI. VII. VIII. IX. X. XI. PART II. BARLOW TAKES A HAND I. II. III. IV. V. VI. VII. VIII. IX. X. XI. PART III. IN THE DARK ALL CATS ARE GRAY I. II. III. IV. V. VI. VII. VIII. IX. X. XI. XII.
Tod Challenger, cutting off the end of his cigar, watched the Man with the Squeaky Voice steer his way between the dining tables, glancing nervously from side to side, and disappear through the doorway.
"By Heaven, Masters!" said he, "if ever I saw Fear in a man's eyes, that's where."
"A strange, furtive fellow," said I.
"Furtive, is it? Your vocabulary wants a tonic, my son. He's simply soused in Fear! He was even afraid of you! What better evidence do you want?"
I flicked an almond at Tod, though he was by much my senior.
"He seemed quite chatty with you, Tod. Merely proof that I've the far more formidable personality."
"He was chatty with me because I'm an American. The formidable element in your personality, young Masters, was that you're an Englishman. And at this moment Pasty-face is afraid of his fellow-countrymen. When he heard your pretty Oxford accents, he just went green!"
Tod's picturesque account of it was roughly true. The dining-room at the Antlers Hotel had been rather full, and a waiter had taken us to a small square table at which already sat a man of middle age, who looked annoyed at the disturbance of his solitude. A well-preserved man, with hardly a gray hair, he wore a thick dark mustache. His figure was athletic, but he had the sallowest complexion I have ever seen and the squeakiest voice I have ever heard.
Challenger has the American capacity for intercourse highly developed, and the charm that disarms resentment. So before he had eaten his soup he had the squeaky-voiced man in amicable conversation.
He seemed a well-educated man, and, in spite of his peculiarities, would not have been an unpleasant companion but for his furtive nervousness of manner.
Then it was as Tod said. I had no sooner opened my mouth than he froze up. He dropped his fork on the table and looked at me with a start of alarm. His pallid face took on a literally ghastly hue. Presently he rose, squeaked a word of apology, and was winding his way out between the tables.
We did not see him again.
"That man," Tod summed up, "is living in Hell."
Tod Challenger and I had become friends in London. I was almost a greenhorn in the office of the Morning Telegram, and Tod, a man of forty, was a mature and even a famous journalist. His American paper used the Morning Telegram services and had an office in that new and lordly building of ours which was one of the wonders of Fleet Street. Having taken a liking to me, Tod had persuaded Allen, the news-editor, to commission me for a series of articles on what he called "the American scene." It simply meant a jolly tour of the United States in Tod's company. Now, almost at the end of it, we had come down to Colorado Springs to have a quiet day or two at the Antlers Hotel. And here on our first evening we met the Man with the Squeaky Voice.
Yet even his curious voice and Tod's startling observation on him would hardly have fixed the pallid traveler in my mind but for the reminder of the following morning.
Tod met an acquaintance in the lobby as we were crossing it to get an after-breakfast smoke on the terrace and gorge ourselves with mountains. He began:
Then checked himself as the man passed him without speaking. But he came after us and sat on the same seat five minutes later.
"Sorry to choke your greeting, Challenger," he said, "but I didn't want my name mentioned aloud in the lobby. However--bird's on the wing, so it don't matter now."
"Then allow me to make known to you Mr. Masters, of London. This is Mr. Lennox, of Washington, Masters."
Though the name did not then convey to me so much as it came to do, I had heard of Lennox as a top-notcher in the Secret Service.
"Masters is in my trade, Lennox, so he can be guaranteed not to ask any indiscreet questions."
"No harm done. In fact, I was looking for a Britisher, Mr. Masters. Your Embassy's interested in him. But I'm an hour or so late. He went south this morning. However, I've cabled Pueblo to keep up with him. Going to San Francisco by the Rio Grande, I expect."
Tod made no comment, and I lived up to his character of me.
"Wonder if you hit his trail here? Queer chap with a face like a corpse and a voice like a toy doll?"
"I guess I'd a talk with him over dinner last night, Lennox. All about nothing. I said to Masters that the man was afraid of something--"
"Oh, he's not afraid of me," said Lennox. "He don't know me. All the same, I'd give a dollar to see his dossier in Connecticut Avenue."
Tod told me a few things about Lennox after he had passed on. Lennox had one of those indeterminate but exciting jobs which combine the detective with the minor diplomatist. His opposite number in London was Barlow, who had all the privileges and none of the responsibilities of Scotland Yard.
"There must be something more than commonly queer about friend Pasty-face," said Tod, "or Lennox wouldn't be chasing him. I wonder what? I've got a sort of echo in my memory-box of a pale face and a high voice, but I can't fix it. What have I heard about that in the past few months? Something, Masters! No, I didn't hear it. I read it. I can see the words in type. 'Pale face, high voice.' Must have been a police description of somebody. Shake it up, Masters--"
Then all at once it came to me.
"Why, of course, Tod!" I cried, "it was in the Allenstein case--"
"Bullyboy! You've got it. The confidential clerk! Great Scott!--he's pretty lively for a man who's been burnt to a cinder, isn't he?"
The idea that we had dined in Colorado Springs in April with a man who had been incinerated in London in January seemed far-fetched. Yet it set me thinking back over the facts of the Allenstein case.
It was one of the big sensations of recent times. Allenstein's Bank, a trustee affair with premises in Bishopsgate Street, had been the subject of an unprecedented outrage at the beginning of January. The only thing comparable with it was the coup of the previous year at the Crédit Bordelais in Paris. Barlow always thought the two things were not unconnected.
The staff of Allenstein's had worked late on Wednesday the second of January, as is customary for bank staffs at the New Year. The last man left, or was supposed to have gone, about one in the morning. Before the city went to work on Thursday, the premises of Allenstein's Bank did not exist except as a heap of smoking débris. The fire had been noticed at four o'clock by a constable patrolling Bishopsgate. The fire brigade could do nothing with it. They had forced a way in, rescued the night watchman badly injured, and then immediately an explosion had brought down the whole place in hopeless ruin.
The night watchman, who had been found unconscious in a passage outside the door of the Board Room, had come round at the end and cried out:
"Mr. Grice! Oh, Mr. Grice!"
Then he had died.
The significance of his cry lay in the fact that Mr. Grice was the head clerk of the Bank, and was thought to have been the last of the staff to leave. But Mr. Grice was never seen again; and it was concluded that he must have been trapped in the burning building.
Exploration of the ruins revealed after three days that the fire was no accident but a deliberate arson. The strong rooms had been forced, presumably by explosives, every safe ransacked, and all tangible valuables removed. One of the worst losses was a small safe within a safe, which had contained the jewelry of Lady Vanstead, deposited for safe keeping during her absence for the winter in the West Indies. The jewels, which were of great price, included the Ramchunder Diamond, a famous heirloom said to be of fabulous value.
The depredation spelt ruin for many people; but the chief sufferer was Draycott Vincent, the chairman of the concern. This notable personality had come to the rescue of Allenstein's Bank a year before when the City had expected not exactly a smash but a reconstruction and absorption into a bigger company on terms which would have left the stockholders in a highly unfavorable position. Vincent, with a fortune recently acquired in America, was induced to apply his money and his brilliant talents to the revivification of Allenstein's. He had put into it everything he owned. The disaster reduced him to beggary. After a few weeks spent in scraping up what he could from the wreck of his fortune, his brief career came to an end. London knew him no more. It was noticed in those sorrowful days that the horrible death of Grice, who had been his confidential right-hand man at the Bank, affected him even more deeply than his personal ruin.
Now, Grice had been described, at the time when his fate remained uncertain, as a man with a notably pale complexion and a very high-pitched voice. And here was Tod Challenger suggesting that Grice had dined with us at the Antlers Hotel and that Lennox had just left us to pick up his trail!
It was not until September in London that the Man with the Squeaky Voice came into the picture again. About that time the Foreign Office had wind up--one of its periodical fits of nerves.
We in the Morning Telegram office, being used to scares in Whitehall, did not put much on it. If two burglaries at the Foreign Office were so cleverly done that the second took place under the very noses of the people investigating the first, we were quite ready to exploit the affair for all it was worth as a newspaper sensation.
It was a quarter past eleven. Four of us were in Allen's room looking over the sheets of the Telegram fresh from the press, when the door opened to admit a brisk and sanguine man of forty, wearing horn-rimmed glasses.
"Hello, Tod!" we chorused.
"Anything juicy for me to-night?"
"Only young Master's story of the dastardly plot against the honor and safety of Old England, Tod," said Flaherty. He was our wild Irishman, who wrote leaders. "Somebody's been in to have a look at the Foreign Office silver, and young Masters, with the connivance of Whitehall and Scotland Yard, has deduced from this simple fact--"
"Yes, Mike--I've seen it." said Tod. "So you boys don't give a damn for the great plot? You don't reckon anybody would ever get up a plot in England--"
"Not in London, Tod. It's not done. It's démodé. The last plot in London was a fizzle. It happened on the fifth of November, 1605. Since then the practice is frowned upon. Englishmen don't like to be made ridiculous. Now, in Chicago, Tod--or in Dublin, for that matter--"
"Well, looks as if you've got a plot coming to you in London this time, boys!"
His tone made us look up, inquisitive, and Allen dropped his pipe.
"What's in the wind, Tod?"
"Yes, I know--but the Home Office puts Barlow on to everything these days."
"Barlow and Fougère of the Sureté."
"Ah!--but Paris is just as nervous as London: sees a conspirator behind every lamp-post."
"Barlow and Fougère--and Lennox."
"You mean Lennox of Washington?" Allen pursed his lips to a whistle. Challenger nodded.
"You can follow up, Allen. Now if Masters is through for the night, I'm going to take him along."
When in London, Tod lived in rooms at the Victoria Hotel. Having pushed forward his long chair for me, dismissed the waiter, and foraged in his sideboard for cigars, he asked the question which brought leaping back to memory that night at the Antlers Hotel.
"Masters," he said, "do you remember the Man with the Squeaky Voice we dined with at Colorado Springs?"
"Perfectly, Tod. And Lennox--good Lord! Anything to do with what you said to Allen?"
I jumped up from the long chair.
"Hi! young man," he laughed, "sit still. There's no hurry. Just listen. I was down in Whitehall the day of that first affair at the Foreign Office--when was it? Tuesday week?--and I passed the squeaker on the pavement."
"Good Lord!" I exclaimed. "Are you sure?"
"Couldn't mistake his pasty face--and what's more, I heard him speak. No--he didn't recognize me. He called up a passing taxi and told the man to drive him to Paddington. You can guess what I did--"
"Called the next taxi and followed him to Paddington," said I.
"Full marks for acumen. Have a cigar. At Paddington he bought a ticket for a place named Kenwick. Know it?"
"No, but I've passed it in the train. Down in Berkshire."
"Yes--I didn't quite know whether it was Berkshire or Wiltshire. Anyhow, that's where he went."
He contemplated the glowing end of his cigar for a moment.
"I wonder if Allen would give you leave, young man, on a roving commission without wanting to know too much about it?"
"I daresay. Why?"
"I want some help. I'm on a stunt. I wouldn't share't with anybody else--but I'd let you in because I could trust you. That cab ride to Paddington started me on some comic experiences, Masters."
He told me the strange tale. Once seen again, the pasty-faced man had fixed himself in his imagination and refused to be exorcised.
"Pasty-face--Paddington--Kenwick...they ran in my mind all night. And Lennox. And the Embassy in Washington. And that look of fear--it was still there when he dived into the taxi in Whitehall. So Wednesday morning, I too went to Paddington station and took a ticket to Kenwick."
"You've found something!" I exclaimed. "Anything to do with--"
"Well, with Lennox and Fougère--and Barlow--with the plot you think is coming to us?"
"Steady, young man," said Tod. "We won't cross the river before we get there. I've found just nothing--only the possibility of a considerable something. But I've met a bunch of grand people I'd like you to know."
"I can't get leave to go meeting jolly people, Tod."
"No, but you can to seize a chance of the best beat Allen ever thought of in his dreams. Suppose you could solve the Allenstein mystery?"
I shook my head.
"You aren't hanging on that slender thread, are you, Tod? You'll come a cropper."
"I'm not hanging on anything. I'm just digging. Pasty-face interests me. He has a secret and I mean to get it, whatever it is. The grand people are more or less incidental--or accidental. Just the accident that Mrs. Anderson-Orr was late for her train and tumbled into the same compartment with me."
"Translate a bit, Tod," said I. "You're getting too cryptic."
"Mrs. Anderson-Orr of Ferry Grange, Kenwick."
"Is she one of the jolly ones?"
"You've said it, Masters. She's just jolly. I shouldn't call her an English type--not exactly. Nothing stilted or stand-offish about Mrs. Anderson-Orr, voyez-vous."
I stared hard at Tod's quizzical face.
"At the same time, quite comme-il-faut, if you take me.
"Afraid I don't take you, Tod. What's the joke?"
"Well--a lady, tall, slim, dark, intense, most intense, dressed like a wealthy woman of good taste, tumbles into the compartment just as the train moves out. She's a bit breathless, and while she's getting her bellows going I vet her. Forty-five, I should think--may be younger. Good-looking in a striking way. Dark eyes--intense, as I said. Then there's some business about letting windows up and down. Anyhow, I have occasion to say a word or two, and she just squeaks with delight, 'Oh, you're an American!' Can't tell how she thought it: you'd never guess I was an American, would you, from hearing me say, 'Would you like the window up, ma'am?'"
"Mrs. Anderson-Orr simply dotes on Americans, and you can bet she'd never have been so sweet to an Englishman as she was to me. Before we got to Newbury, where we changed, I'd learned all about her. Widow of a City man. One daughter. Lived at Ferry Grange not far from Kenwick. Specialized in French fiction. Was a Proust fan. Dropped into French tags on the slightest provocation. Had very advanced views--à la mode, of course. When she heard I was going to Kenwick gave me a general invitation to haunt Ferry Grange. Exchanged cards. And then, my dear Masters, think of the luck of it--she talked about Pasty-face."
"Mais oui, my dear Masters, Pasty-face, the veritable, mon dieu! Ferry Grange is all agog about Parkinson--that's his name. Seems there's very little society in that location, and when a man so striking as Pasty-face comes as a paying guest in one of the few big houses of the place, and then goes to ground, so to speak, the very little society begins to gossip and speculate about him. He's a godsend. Something to talk about. I stayed at Kenwick nearly a week. I heard a lot about Parkinson."
"Where is he?--at Ferry Grange?"
"Holy Moses--no! He's been taken in as a paying guest by an old fellow called Abbott at a house up the river, Morley's Holt."
I started and saw Tod looking at me intently.
"Where have I seen those names?"
"I know--in The Times! A letter in big type this morning--about the F.O. affair: inefficiency of the police, slackness of the aliens regulations, peril of the nation, England for the foreigner, country going to the dogs--a lovely bit of jelly-bellied flag-flapping! Signed 'Richard Abbott, Morley's Holt, Berks.'"
"Full marks for memory, young Masters," said Tod. "There's an unconscious reflection of it in your F.O. story in the Telegram. And what d'you make of it? Your jelly-bellied flag-flapper--though he's nothing of the sort, by the way--advertises for a paying guest, and the playful gods send him--Parkinson!"
"Why not, indeed?--if the British Embassy in Washington was looking for Parkinson to pat him on the back and commission him to write patriotic letters, and if Lennox came over here to tell Barlow what a jolly dog Parkinson is, and they called over Fougère from Paris to let him know too--"
"Whew!--stop, Tod! Don't drown me in irony. You think--?"
"I'm thinking sixty seconds to the minute," said Tod. "I'm thinking if we can dig out Parkinson we're on to the mightiest scoop ever. I'm thinking you boys at the Telegram are so blasé that you'd want your lovely new office blown up before you'd believe the yarn this promises to yield. I've seen old Abbott once or twice. He's friendly with the Anderson-Orrs. He can't quite place his paying guest--thinks he's some sort of morose recluse."
"Have you seen him down there, Tod?--Parkinson, I mean?"
"No, and I can't discover anybody but Abbott who has. But I mean to unearth him. It's not easy: wait till you see what kind of joint Morley's Holt is. That's why I want you. Are you game?"
"Yes, Tod, I'm game."
"We might have a rough house," he remarked. "Well--"
"And you'd better put your gun in your pocket."
"All right, Tod--but this is England, you know."
"Don't you come the superior Britisher over me, young man! I know you all think a policeman's whistle is the most lethal weapon that a self-respecting Englishman should ever carry. But anybody who goes exploring Morley's Holt with me has got to have a gun."
And that was how I got started on the adventure that led me into so many tight corners and creepy excitements--and made me acquainted with Janet Anderson-Orr.
There are more strikingly beautiful parts of England than the broad valley through which the River Kennett flows in its journey from Wiltshire to join the Thames, but few more interesting to lovers of river meadows, park-like woods, hamlets of thatched houses, little square-towered churches, and low misty hills on the sky-line. A bit of real England, old, unspoilt.
I had often passed Kenwick Station in trains which never stopped there. It was a mere station--a couple of platforms set in a solitary countryside with no village in view. The railway, cutting across a big bend of the river, had left Kenwick five miles away, but named a station after it.
Tod and I were the only passengers who stopped off the slow train from Newbury. A car stood waiting in the road outside. Its driver pitched away a cigarette end as we approached him.
"Here you are, Usher," said Tod. "Got my cable all right?"
"I'm here, ain't I?"
His tone astonished me. The four words conveyed as plainly as if he had said it: Why the deuce ask a tomfool question like that? Tod smiled as though the curtness was not in the least distasteful to him. I looked over its author--a vaguely dirty and disheveled figure in an engineer's overall, very greasy, who wanted a haircut and had not shaved to-day. He turned to the car, pulled out a soiled cardboard packet, tried to extract a cigarette which was not there, and flung the packet from him.
"Have a Chesterfield, Usher," said Tod.
"American fags--three whiffs and a burnt lip!" he answered, ungraciously; but he took one, and offered his burning match to Tod. "Whereto? King's Arms?"
"No," said Tod, "not now. Drive us to Ferry Grange."
"That--!" He checked the epithet that came to his lips. "I never go near the ruddy place."
"Well--go as near as you care to. Drop us at your place if you like."
"I'll drive you up to the gate, Mr. Challenger, but not inside. I can't stand that woman. She gets on my nerves. Talk about the ruddy idle rich--"
"Talk about 'em some other time, Usher," Tod suggested.
"Never did an honest day's work in their lives--"
Tod had got into the car.
"And treat a workin' man like dirt--"
I followed Tod.
"All right. Wait an' see, Mr. Challenger. When the bottom dog gets on top--"
What was to happen in that contingency was lost as he went round to the front of the old car and cranked up. We shattered the rich silence of five miles of lanes, by meadows and little woods now glowing with the colors of the Fall, and came out on a wider road running at right angles. A signpost showed to the right "Kenwick 3 miles" and to the left "Morley Ferry 3 miles." Some 300 yards before the junction we passed a cottage. Usher waved his hand to a woman standing in the doorway. At the junction itself an advertisement board announced that the Half Way House garage was 500 yards down the road. I had then, of course, no idea how important to me the position of these two buildings would become.
On the right of the main road as we drove there were occasional glimpses of the river across the meadows. Half a mile beyond the corner the car stopped at an open gate giving admittance to a drive.
"Here we are at the doors of the idle rich!" said Tod, jumping out. The driver looked down his dirty nose with comic disdain. "You might get our bags to the King's Arms for the afternoon, Usher."
"All right," said he, locked over his steering wheel, and spun the dust of Ferry Grange off his tires.
Tod led the way into the drive.
"In the name of Dick Turpin, what sort of bandit have you picked up there, Tod?" I asked.
"Bandit's the word--you've said it. He keeps a garage. But, my dear Masters, try keeping a roadside garage yourself and then tell me what you think of the Idle Rich and the Social Revolution in the Coming By-and-by!"
Ferry Grange was chiefly remarkable because there was no ferry in the neighborhood and it had never been a grange. Its builder had atoned for giving it an inappropriate name by putting it down in a very lovely spot. Passing through a drive fringed with tall rhododendrons, which must have been a gorgeous blaze in early summer, we came upon it--a long, low house lying in sunshine at the top of a lawn that sloped gently to the river. A spot of vivid color in the green scene was a large-spreading Japanese umbrella stretched above a deck chair and against a dark bank of cedars.
"Mrs. Anderson-Orr knows how to choose her fixings--the juste-milieu," said Tod as we walked across the turf. Then I saw that the long chair supported a long woman who was playing with the ears of a chow. A murmur reached us in a low contralto.
"Que veux-tu, petit chinois?"
I looked at Tod. He was twinkling. An Englishwoman with a Scotch name talking baby French to a Chinese dog under a Japanese umbrella.
I suppose she had been well aware of our approach, but she looked up suddenly and seemed to catch sight of us. I knew by a flash of divination that she was going to say "Ciel!" And she did.
"Ciel! It's Mr. Challenger. Where have you been? And--?"
"This is Mr. Masters of London," said Tod, taking her hand. "I brought him down to see Kenwick, and I hoped you'd possibly ask us both to lunch."
"Of course. Delighted. We're only a few--Mr. Webb and Mr. Oddie; but I rather think Mr. Abbott may be blowing in. I was just going to see about things. You'll find the others down there."
She reached out her long arm and Tod pulled her upright.
Mrs. Anderson-Orr was a woman of notable mien. Tall--her dark eyes came level with mine, and I'm not short--of a rich dusky complexion, with lots of brown hair nearly black, she had a well-proportioned figure and moved gracefully. She utterly belied the cheapness of her pose. Her look swept quickly by me and Tod, but in that moment I felt as if I had been categorized and labeled.
"So au revoir," said she, and passed towards the house.
"What an extraordinary woman!" I exclaimed. Tod grinned.
"Ferry Grange is a find," said he. "You'll see."
As I did, not long after. We strolled down to the river. Sounds of shouting and laughter, splashing and sousing grew louder as we went. Their authors burst into our view when we rounded a clump of willows and stood on a gravel walk by the river bank. They were all in the water, four of them, and the laughter sprung from the antics performed by a little tubby man in a tight Oxford costume getting into an unsinkable boat--his round, ruddy face shining with water, fun, and exercise. His companions were a young man and two girls. They did not see us standing on the bank for several minutes. When the tubby fellow caught sight of us, he yelled, "I spy strangers!" and they all looked up.
"Good morning, everybody," said Tod. "We won't interrupt the revels of the nymphs and dryads--"
"Coming ashore, sir," the tubby man said. "See you later."
One of the nymphs had, in fact, fled to the shelter of the boat house already. The other, in a red cap, hung on to the side of the boat and regarded us. The young man, a fair, athletic fellow, swam away. We had broken up the party.
"Who are they, Tod?" I asked.
We turned back towards the house.
"The porpoise is Joshua Webb--lives at a place called Lorimer House, down the river. Another of Bill Usher's idle rich. I believe he made a fortune out of a patent hair-waver. I like Joshua. The youth is a protégé of his, George Oddie. Can't make him out--bit of a spellbinder, given to holding forth, a sort of polite Bill Usher. The girls are Janet Anderson-Orr, the daughter--the one in the red cap, and Helen Adamson, a friend of hers, stays--or lives, perhaps--with the Anderson-Orrs--a very proper young person."
And what had we to do with this casual gallery of miscellaneous people? Tod smiled at my question--that irritating smile which Forty so often bestows on Twenty-five. They were, he said, our means of approach to Parkinson and I ought to be mighty thankful it was so pleasant. There were only three houses in the neighborhood except Bill Usher's--Abbott's, Joshua Webb's, and Mrs. Anderson-Orr's. We must have some sort of point d'appui--
"You're picking up Mrs. Anderson-Orr's tricks," I interrupted him.
He made a grimace at me. Well--we must have a location, and Ferry Grange, being liberty hall for everybody, was the best base of operations. I had to admit afterwards that Tod was right. Unforeseen as the consequences were, we should never have come by any knowledge of Parkinson and all that Parkinson meant if we had not been able to use Ferry Grange.
Mrs. Anderson-Orr met us on the lawn and we were talking to her there when the four amphibians came romping back from the river.
Mr. Webb came first with Miss Anderson-Orr. She was a straight, slim girl. Her mother might have been like that when young, but the girl was not so tall and she had an athlete's carriage. About two and twenty, I thought...highly intelligent...a little reserved...a lovely complexion, warmly dark...her eyes were very alert...there was a spring in her...muscles taut...she had dark, cloudy hair...
It was my way to vet people like that, as Tod said--an irresistible instinct. Possibly it made me seem rude. But Miss Anderson-Orr was vetting me with equal persistence while she talked--weather, water, if I liked tennis, America and Epstein's sculpture. Miss Anderson-Orr took not the least interest in my opinions on these high matters; but she was obviously curious about me. And about Tod. Her dark eyes seemed to be divining the purposes of the two strangers who had suddenly shot into the world of Ferry Grange.
By good luck I sat next her at lunch. We made quite a large party in the low dining-room, for just as we were going in, a saloon car, driven by a chauffeur in green uniform, swept up to the porch, and Mrs. Anderson-Orr swept forward to greet the rather distinguished-looking man who got out. It was Mr. Abbott.
He did homage to his hostess, greeted his acquaintances, shook hands with Tod, and bowed to me when my name was mentioned. Abbott was as little like the jelly-bellied flag-flapper of my imagination as Mrs. Anderson-Orr was like an Eskimo squaw. A man of fifty, very quiet and gentle, the paragon of courtesy to the women, he forced nothing in his talk. I liked his style; I liked his strong, clean-shaven face under a thatch of graying hair; and I liked his steadfast gray eyes. The only disfigurement of a rather striking masculine fineness was a birthmark on his right cheek.
He chopped opinions with Mrs. Anderson-Orr on French poetry, and was quite prepared to believe, if she wished it, that the Expressionists were great people, though he had so far had difficulty in getting past the Symbolists and his real, old-fashioned enthusiasm stopped short at the Romantics. Now, Victor Hugo...
We should never have got a glimpse at the English Abbott brooding on his country's welfare but for Joshua Webb, who, at the other end of the table, unconscious of the literary discussion, barged in--
"Hi, Abbott! That was a dam' fine letter of yours in The Times yesterday."
"Glad you liked it, Webb."
He seemed a little disconcerted to be put out of his stride on Victor Hugo.
"I should say so--what! Look around you here at Kenwick and see good old England--and then think of these dam' Bolshies and what they'd do to it. And London's full of 'em! When I was in business--"
Joshua launched upon a flood of picturesque denunciation of the alien population of East London.
When he ceased for lack of breath, winding up with the opinion that all aliens should be put on a ship and dumped overboard in deep water, Oddie remarked:
"Joshua, you know you wouldn't kill a rabbit."
"Perhaps not--a rabbit's part of the English landscape. But don't you talk to me, George! You're a Bolshy yourself," said he affectionately.
"I think we're going wide of the mark." Abbott drew all eyes to him by the new tone in his voice. "I don't attack the Bolshies, as you call them, Webb. The Bolshies will never hurt England. A more subtle menace than that worries me. The trouble is, the Government won't see it, don't believe it--any more than they believed in the German menace fifteen years ago. Your supercilious Englishman, entrenched in Whitehall--Mr. Challenger, you know the type--"
"I'm one of Mr. Webb's aliens," said Tod. "You can't expect me to have an opinion."
"But you know the type. It's the ruling type in England. Until a murder's committed it pretends there's no such thing as a gun. Then it says, 'Dear me! What extraordinary people there are in the world!' The existence of a very big and a very diabolical and a very secret plot against the Empire is plain to anybody with more eyes than a mole. There's menace in the very air! Look at the state of our gilt-edged securities! What's it mean? A. clandestine attack on the credit of the country--getting at the Empire in its heart--"
"You thrill me!" came the low tones of Mrs. Anderson-Orr's voice. "No--I'm not afraid. I'm just thrilled!"
So there was, after all, a jelly-bellied flag-flapper concealed under Abbott's polished exterior! It was like a scene in burlesque. I looked at the girl beside me and had difficulty in keeping a straight face. Then I looked beyond her to Tod and saw that he was staring intently at Abbott. But surely there could be no relation between hard real life--Barlow and Lennox and Fougère--and this comic scene in a riverside villa?
The Great Menace was not the only thing that thrilled Mrs. Anderson-Orr. To my surprise I caught a look of intelligence between her and Tod, and immediately after, she said:
"But there's something that thrills me still more, Mr. Abbott--that mysterious Mr. Farquharson, is it--?"
"You mean my paying guest--Parkinson?" Abbott frowned a little.
"Parkinson--yes," said Mrs. Anderson-Orr; "I'm never any good at names. Mr. Parkinson--has anybody ever seen him?"
It appeared that nobody had seen him except Webb, who had come across a man in a heated dispute with Usher at the Half Way House, and thought it must be he.
"That terrible man!" exclaimed Mrs. Anderson-Orr. (It appeared that Usher thrilled her too.) "I feel like a worm when he speaks to me--only he doesn't now. He looks at me as if--brrr!--fancy Usher in a revolution! Á la lanterne!--only there aren't any lamp-posts about here, are there?"
We got back to Parkinson by degrees. Mr. Abbott thought he must be the man Webb had seen quarreling with Usher. Parkinson had a repair done to his car and Usher overcharged him--so he said.
"But on the whole I shouldn't call him a quarrelsome man. Quite inoffensive. Very retiring. I just see him at meal times. Otherwise he's in his room, or walking in the grounds. Occasionally he goes to London."
It sounded very mysterious, Mrs. Anderson-Orr thought. Truly thrilling that a Mystery should descend upon Kenwick in answer to an advertisement for a paying guest. And--
"Juste ciel!" she cried. "Suppose he should be--should have--but no! It's impossible!"
It was at all events incoherent. But Tod, in his quietest way, interpreted it.
"You mean--if he should have anything to do with what Mr. Abbott calls the Menace?"
Mrs. Anderson-Orr thrilled visibly.
"I trust not," said Abbott, fervently. "In these sylvan glades? Good God! I don't look for the Menace here. Poor Mr. Parkinson!--how horrified he would be if he knew we were discussing him in this connection!"
In the afternoon Mrs. Anderson-Orr and Tod and I watched lawn tennis played by the two girls with Webb and Oddie. The rotund Joshua dashed about the court with the same astonishing agility he had displayed in the water. But the player of the party was Miss Anderson-Orr. She had a service like a rifle shot and volleyed and placed the ball in the style of a Wimbledon champion.
I was to learn that whatever Janet did was well done.
"Look here, Tod," said I when I was able to get a private word with him. "Did you and the lady fix up that farce of drawing the old buffer at lunch-time? And what was the game?"
"Parkinson's my game all the time," said he. "I admit that I've not tried to repress Mrs. Anderson-Orr's natural curiosity about him. A highly intelligent woman, that. But hist!--lo--she comes, and Joshua her devoted slave. Got Joshua? Clodpate worshiping Minerva--and Minerva being rather fond of him. Why do tall women like podgy men, and the other way about?"
I did not stop to solve Tod's problem. Oddie and Miss Adamson seemed to pair off on any provocation. They now left Miss Anderson-Orr swinging her racket alone as she came up from the court, and I repaired her loneliness by asking her to show me the gardens.
I had a memorable half hour with her. She ticked off the rose garden and the rock garden perfunctorily, and then led me to the path beyond the boathouse along the river bank, which she said was her pet walk. She listened to both commonplace and persiflage without much apparent interest.
"Are you staying long at Kenwick?" she asked while we stood watching the trout marking under some alders.
"As long as you'll endure me," said I.
She made a moue and looked me in the eyes.
"I'm a very matter-of-fact, straightforward person, Mr. Masters," she said.
"Then--I don't know how long I shall stay at Kenwick. Challenger and I are together for a sort of vacation, with no fixed plans."
"You're a journalist, aren't you? And Mr. Challenger too? Well, your... sort of vacation's no affair of mine. But my mother is. I don't want her dragged into your...vacation--you understand?"
I had a momentary impulse to pretend I did not understand, but her eyes were on me, and, holding them, I found it impossible even to prevaricate.
"Challenger's a very discreet fellow," I said.
"No doubt--but he's also very astute, and he's middle-aged, and he's very keen, and he's wily, and he has rather a way with him. I thought of tackling him last week when he was here; but I believe, if he wanted anything very badly, he'd be likely to take no notice of a mere girl. You're a bit different--I feel on more level terms with you."
I murmured--nothing articulate.
"Mr. Challenger does want something very badly, doesn't he? He wants to find out about this Parkinson man. And he's playing up to my mother with the idea that she'll be useful. I just won't have her used!"
"I'm afraid I can't--"
"Yes, you can! You can tell Mr. Challenger what I say. I won't have my mother used! If he wants to use anybody, let him use me."
"My dear Miss Anderson-Orr--"
She stamped her foot angrily.
"Don't Miss Anderson-Orr me! If you must call me something, call me Orr.
"Very well, Miss Orr. I don't know that Challenger wants to use anybody. But you--!"
"Yes--I! Why not? I can tell Mr. Challenger more about Parkinson than anybody in Kenwick. But I won't tell either him or you a thing until he drops this nonsense with my mother."
"You know about Parkinson!" I exclaimed. "What do you know about Parkinson?"
The suggestion hit me like an electric shock. But having roused my curiosity to an intolerable point, this surprising girl turned on her heel and said:
"Let's go back."
Tod and I walked from Ferry Grange after we had taken tea with the party on the lawn, intending to call at Usher's and get him to drive us to Kenwick and the King's Arms. Tod was tickled to death, as he said, by Miss Anderson-Orr's outburst, which I dutifully reported to him. The chick defending the hen! Nevertheless he was as curious as I about her claim to knowledge of Parkinson.
"It needs exploring, Masters," he said. "You'll do it nicely--you're not middle-aged, and you can pretend to be as dense as Salt Lake." Tod was twinkling at me again. "You may tell her that I now and here forswear any intention, desire or purpose to use her mother--what the devil did she mean? Keen girl!--she's as nippy as a chipmunk."
I had seen chipmunks when I was in the Rockies with Tod, and though they were very charming little creatures I did not think Miss Anderson-Orr resembled a chipmunk even remotely. But I did not want Tod twinkling at me again: he made me feel so extremely young when he did that. I was telling him that I would see her and pass on his message, when we came in sight of the garage.
"Hello!" cried Tod; "there's a public meeting!"
In fact there were three men standing by the petrol pumps in excited talk over a newspaper. A car rested at the roadside.
One of the men, standing with a black cape around his shoulders, examined the newspaper; the second gesticulated and spoke loudly--his voice reached us fifty yards away; the third, attired in whites, stood swinging a tennis racket.
"It's Oddie," said Tod, "and the bandit orating--and, yes!--friend Abbott reading the paper."
A queerly excited little group, with two detached spectators--a tow-headed youth in overalls greasier than Usher's, standing in the doorway of the garage, and the chauffeur of Mr. Abbott's car, who sat listening and looking with an amused smile on his face until he saw us coming, and then composed his features to appropriate gravity. Usher saw his glance towards us, and ceased his oration. The last words we heard were "ruddy capitalists and lazy rentiers."
"Good afternoon," said Abbott. "On the way to Kenwick? I'm going in. Glad to give you a lift." We thanked him.
"You haven't seen the evening paper? I was just showing it to Usher when Mr. Oddie came up. Another outrage--private house of an under secretary this time. Curious sequel to our talk at lunch. See what the paper says?--here it is: 'The authorities can no longer afford to neglect the warnings they have received that these things mean a determined, organized, deliberate attempt to undermine the foundations of the country's credit. We call attention again to the thoughtful analysis of the correspondent who wrote to The Times yesterday. Unless we are to believe that the Government is supine and does not care whether the Empire--'"
Abbott read on. It might have been a parody of the things he said at luncheon.
Usher snorted whenever he came to the word Empire. Oddie swung his tennis racket and looked bored. The chauffeur squared his striking jaw and stared stolidly out under his black eyebrows.
"Ah, well," said Abbott, stuffing the paper in his pocket. "You've filled up, Usher? How much?"
The bandit took the money of the lazy rentier sullenly and hid it away somewhere inside his grubby garment. We got into the car, and rode behind Abbott and his driver to the village.
"I shall be nervous about letting Parkinson see the paper," he said to Tod. "He gets so depressed about these things. He'd almost give you the impression that he was afraid of being attacked himself."
"Oh?" said Tod. "Is Mr. Parkinson greatly interested in public affairs?"
"Not greatly, I think. Only, when he reads this sort of stuff he gets miserable. The other day, Paynter here was reading that letter I sent to The Times, and he spoke to Parkinson about it. You've no idea of the effect it had on him. Extraordinary! Was it not, Paynter?"
"Mr. Parkinson certainly seemed greatly disturbed, sir," the chauffeur answered.
"Little bit--?" Tod pointed to his forehead.
"Oh, absolutely not, Mr. Challenger! I wouldn't give you that idea for a moment."
He set us down at the King's Arms, the inn in the middle of the straggling village street. Tod was greeted by the landlord as soon as he stepped inside.
"Ah, Mr. Challenger--a telegram for you. Didn't know whether to send it out by Usher when he came with the bags or leave it. Then I thought he might miss you--"
Tod had already torn open the brown envelope. He whistled and handed the telegram to me. I read:
"Urgent. Must see you. Can you be in London tonight? Reply, Lennox, Victoria."
"That's put the lid on it, Masters. Your special leave and all--"
For a moment I thought Tod was assuming that because he had been called back to London I too must go. Then I saw that he was twinkling again.
We looked up a train for him, found there was time to dine first, sent off a telegram in reply, and settled down over a chop to plans.
"You'll stay and do that bit of exploration? Lucky dog!" said Tod. "I haven't an earthly idea what Lennox wants--"
But surely, I thought, the message must relate to Parkinson.
Tod shook his head.
"Not a smell of must about it," he affirmed. "Lennox and I are old friends. It might be anything. So Parkinson's up to you for the present, young man. Explore hard. I'll probably be down again to-morrow. I did want to get Parkinson for ourselves--think what a beat it would be! But if it should happen that Lennox is trailing him still, there's only one thing to do. We'll have to share him with Lennox--more's the pity."
I saw him off at the station. His last injunction was to cultivate the chipmunk--and to "make it snappy."
I made it snappy by ringing up Ferry Grange in the morning and asking for Miss Anderson-Orr. She seemed pleased when I told her of Tod's undertaking, and still more so when I said he had gone back to London.
"I like Mr. Challenger," she remarked, "but he's too clever. I'm afraid of him. Now, you--"
I assured her that on that score she had no reason whatever to be afraid of me.
She asked me thereupon to take an elementary lesson in cleverness by arriving at Ferry Grange not before three in the afternoon and saying nothing to anybody about my program...The telephone went dead.
In the bright sunshine of that September morning, shining on the woods and meadows and shimmering back from the windless surface of the river, Tod and Parkinson and Lennox and the whole boiling of them suddenly became of no importance whatever. It seemed a waste of money for the proprietors of the Telegram to have built a palatial office in London just for the sake of accommodating people like Allen and Flaherty and me and printing what we wrote about people like Lennox and Barlow. This was the real thing--England!--where the Kennett kept on flowing from the hills down to the Thames, and the clock in the church tower struck the hours, and the woods turned from green to russet and black and back to green for ever and ever.
I pulled up on the deserted tow-path and laughed aloud at myself. What magic in the air had suddenly turned me to rhetoric, so that I went along flicking the seeds off the tall docks with my stick and composing flowery speeches to myself?
A girl's dark eyes, clear and candid and resolute. What did all the Parkinsons and all the newspaper beats in the world matter so long as you could hold those eyes honestly with yours?
There was no message from Tod before I set out in the afternoon to walk by the river to Ferry Grange. A maid took me at once to the lawn, where Janet lay in her mother's long chair under the cedar.
"Drag up that stool," said she. "Everybody's out. Mother's playing bridge. I hate bridge. Helen's gone to pretend to play golf with George Oddie. I hate--Well, golf's more congenial to their habits than tennis. Also more propitious to their frame of mind--which as you must have noticed is sticky. They ooze sentiment. I hate sentiment worse than I hate bridge, don't you?"
I professed a strong dislike of sentiment, and put up a silent prayer to be forgiven for lying in a good cause.
"Well, that's all right. We shall get on. Now tell me what's the clever Mr. Challenger's game? What's he want with Parkinson? And why did he bring you down here and fling you at our heads?"
She was a disconcerting young woman, but those honest eyes assured me that we could have a fair deal.
"Tit for tat," said I; "if you'll tell me what you know about Parkinson, I'll disgorge in turn all I know."
"Are you friendly to Mr. Parkinson? Or--"
"Neither friendly nor unfriendly," I interrupted her. "Challenger and I met Parkinson only once. We're interested in him only as journalists, and there's not the least personal feeling about it. The thing began this way--"
And I told her about the episode at Colorado Springs, Tod's encounter with Parkinson in London, and the suspicion in his mind that Parkinson might be at the bottom of a business that had long puzzled the authorities. As I talked and she regarded me with her level impartial look, it became increasingly difficult to put even a gloss of reason and respectability on our proceedings.
I felt how much better Tod would have dealt with it, and my story tailed off lamely.
The criticism of her eyes exploded in one contemptuous sentence:
"I think it's just beastly!"
I had no reply to that. It reflected the thoughts that had come into my mind as I spoke. She looked away from me towards the river.
"I shan't help you," she said. "I hate it all. I'll keep my promise to tell you what I know, but on conditions. You're to promise you won't use it to annoy Mr. Parkinson, and you're not to tell Mr. Challenger about it unless he gives the same promise."
In the mood which had begun in the morning and was deepened now that I sat on this quiet lawn with her, I would have promised her anything.
"I can't speak for Challenger," said I. "As for me, I wash my hands of it. You can tell me or not, just as you like. I shall be content. I'll go back to London, tell Allen there's nothing in it, and end my leave."
"You'd do that! Really?"
There was a momentary doubt in her look, but I met it steadily, and she sat up and leaned towards me.
"If you'd do that," she said, "you might do something else--"
"You might help me--and Mr. Parkinson." She did not seem conscious of having flung a bomb at me.
"You!--and Parkinson!" I cried. "What have you to do with Parkinson?"
A dozen disquieting thoughts flashed through me. The signs of intelligence which I thought had passed between Tod and her mother. Her passionate demand that her mother should not be "used."
"I've got your promise," she said. "You wash your hands of Mr. Challenger's schemes, whatever they are. Now, come for a walk, and I'll tell you my tale."
It was a strange and in one part a moving tale that she told me as we walked up and down by the alders on the river bank.
In a tiny community like theirs, Parkinson, who came out of the blue in answer to Abbott's advertisement for a paying guest, had been a nine days' wonder. Nobody ever saw him. Abbott himself was puzzled about him.
"Why did Abbott want a paying guest?" I asked. "He doesn't look like a lodging-house keeper."
"Not a bit, does he?" she laughed.
But Abbott was apparently not a wealthy man, and Morley's Holt was a big house. He made no secret of the fact that the money was important to him. It wasn't easy to get paying guests to stop at a place like Morley's Holt--remote, deep-buried in woods, and almost encircled by the river. Not a gay place. But for anybody who wanted perfect retirement the ideal place. Parkinson seemed to want that. He had not been seen in public except on the one occasion when Webb found him in altercation with Usher at the garage. When he left Morley's Holt it was in a closed car. He drove away on the London road. Abbott supposed that he went to London. "Never by train?" I asked.
Since Tod Challenger had seen him enter a train at Paddington, he must have used the train at least once. But she knew nothing of that.
Parkinson in a few weeks was established as a Mystery Man and the most exciting topic of conversation over the luncheon table, either at Ferry Grange or at Lorimer House.
Then one evening Janet met Parkinson.
"I've never told anybody else," said she, her eyes seeking mine, "not even mother. I couldn't. I don't know why I trust you--"
"But you do. Carry on. I'll keep the trust."
It happened on Tuesday of the previous week.
"Ah!" I exclaimed. She looked her inquiry. "That was the day Challenger saw him in London."
"That explains it!" she said. "He must have walked back from Kenwick Station and cut across the fields to avoid being seen on the road..."
She was fond of the river, and spent much time on it. That day her mother was in London. Helen Adamson and Oddie had gone off together on an excursion. She was alone. About six o'clock, she took a boat, as she often did, and pulled up the river, under the bridge at Morley Ferry and so on by the long and lonely reaches towards Morley's Holt. The stream took a great bend a mile above the bridge, curving first south and then north again and enclosing the thickly wooded peninsula which formed the Morley's Holt estate. On the South side, the river was bordered with willow and alder backed by level meadows stretching away towards the railway and cut by no road except the one over which we had driven from the station.
Janet set this topography out for me quite clearly. And I could imagine the startled look in her eyes when, opposite the thickest part of the Morley's Holt woods, the branches of an alder tree parted and through the September dusk a white face looked out at her not three yards away.
She twisted away from the bank and stopped rowing to stare at the apparition. The face looked long and earnestly at her, and then a hand went up to the mouth and patted the closed lips. Then it beckoned to her.
Janet's first impulse was to call out, "Who are you? What do you want?" But something in the expression of the face checked her. She said it was a terrible, hunted expression, a look of numb fear. There was appeal in it, too.
A girl might have been excused for pulling away and losing sight of such a spectacle. Janet instead pulled in to the bank.
"What is it?" she asked in a half whisper.
"Look up and down the river, young lady. Is there anything in sight?"
She was astonished by the squeaky old-mannish voice that came from the bushes. The face had not seemed an old face.
"There's never anything on the river," said Janet.
"And over there, in the woods--did you see anything moving?--any one watching?"
"Nothing," said Janet. "Why should any one watch?"
"You look a kind young lady. Will you do me a kindness?"
"Of course--if I can."
"Will you row me across the river and then forget all about me--and never tell any one you saw me here?"
"Why not?" said Janet. "There's nobody about. But you can't get in from there without wetting your feet. Move round to the other side of the clump, and I'll take you off."
So it went. He crouched in the stern of Janet's boat while she took the few strokes across the river. He landed and stood against a tree trunk.
"Don't go for a moment," said he. "Let me think...You have honest eyes, young lady--"
How it startled me to hear in another man's words the thought that had been in my mind ever since I looked into Janet's eyes!
"You have honest eyes. You might be willing to do a kindness without reward and without question. I wonder."
"What do you want me to do?" asked Janet.
"Wait, wait--wait a moment!" he answered in his hoarse squeak, then stole from trunk to trunk of half a dozen trees, peering into the gloom of the wood behind.
"First," he said, coming back to the bank, "I want you to believe I'm not mad. You've got imagination and courage, young lady, and you can understand that a man may do strange, eccentric things without being mad, can't you?"
"Of course. It's not very eccentric to ask for a ferry across a river where there's no bridge."
He gave a funny little snickering laugh.
"Why now, that's so!" said he. "But all the same, you'll forget it, won't you? That's one kindness. But there's another--a big thing. I must think about it. Are you often up the river? I've seen you sometimes. Do you come up every evening? Could you come to-morrow evening?"
"I daresay," said Janet. "Any particular time? About this time?"
"Between the lights--yes. I shall be here, on this spot. If anyone is in sight or hearing, pull on. Do not look for me. It's lonely here--but you never know. I will think about the big thing and be ready. I won't keep you. You shall get home for dinner."
"You know who I am?" said Janet, surprised.
"Yes, young lady, I know who you are. And you know who I am, but you're not to mention my name. You are kind. You would not wish to do me an injury. You'll wait till I tell you why?"
"All right," Janet assured him.
"Then to-morrow evening---seven o'clock. Au revoir, and God bless you."
As he spoke he had darted away among the trees.
The figure of the furtive Parkinson, his voice, his tremulous nervousness in that long-gone dinner hour at the Antlers Hotel, came back to me as Janet told her story. But it was Parkinson with a difference. He had been hardly more than a lay figure--a pawn in the exciting games that Tod Challenger and the secret service people played. Now, in Janet's interpretation he became a human being highly sentient.
She kept the appointment next day, and their interview was not interrupted. Parkinson was calmer, more coherent. Apparently he feared no intervention now, for he asked Janet to pass him the painter of her boat and tied it to a branch. Himself, he sat on an overcoat which he threw down on the bank. There as the dark came down over the woods and river, he made his confidence and preferred his request.
"I'm an unhappy man!" So he began. "Perhaps the unhappiest man in the world. You, young lady, are honest and unafraid. You go and you sleep in peace. I never have a moment's peace asleep or waking. Do you know the story of Frankenstein's Monster? Yes. But you can't conceive what it is to have made a Monster, to carry him on your back, never to be able to shake him off, to see him every time you look over your shoulder, driving you here, there, everywhere. Could you conceive of a man who hadn't a friend on earth--not one? If you could, you'd know me. And then you'd say, if there is such a man, why doesn't he make a hole in the water and have done with it? But what if that man had left in him a sense of duty and there was a duty undone, and he couldn't see a way of doing it? Think, young lady, what such a man would feel if suddenly it occurred to him that there might be somewhere in the world a possible friend--a person who wouldn't want to ask questions about the past, but would say, 'Here's a human being in trouble; let's lend him a hand simply because of that'?"
"There must be many such persons," said Janet.
"Ah, yes--you say that because you're young and generous. You don't know the world."
"Anyhow, I'm here. I don't want to ask questions. I'll lend you a hand myself."
"You! My dear young lady, you don't know what you say. Listen!--I'm beset by an enemy so that I dare hardly raise my voice above a whisper. Desperate enemy. Clever enemy..."
This self-raised idea, Janet said, brought his terrors on him again. He bent his ear to the woods, listening, and when he resumed it was in a softer murmur than before.
"If there was so much as a suspicion of this talk with you--" He shivered. "But a thought came to me once or twice when I watched you in your boat, and again yesterday. If you in your world so far away from mine knew a man--who would do a thing, discreetly, secretly, without asking questions, taking you on trust, just like doing a thing for the love of God--"
"What sort of thing?" Janet asked. She began now to have doubts about his sanity, she said.
"A simple thing, but not easy," he replied. "To take and pass on some information without seeking to know the source of it. To accept responsibility for it. To stand by it to the end and act on it, however impossible it seemed and whatever the consequences."
Janet said it was very vague and puzzling, and he answered with a startling clairvoyance:
"You think I'm mad!"
There was a little silence. Then he observed calmly: "It was a dream. A mad dream. There is no such man. I ought not to have spoken of it to you. But your eyes--so clear and friendly...Now you must forget it. Forget me. I'll dree my weird alone. Perhaps if you hear ill of me you'll understand, a little. No word of this to anybody--your mother or any of your friends here--that's agreed?"
"I know very few men," said Janet. "I can't think of any I could treat in--in the way you suggest. If I can't help you myself--"
"No, no," said he, rising and untying the painter.
"If I should think of anything--" Janet began.
"Pull up the river about dusk. I shall know if you are here. But better forget it. Yes, I beg you, forget it entirely--"
Then, Janet said, he stood stock still with the rope in his hand, as if a sudden idea had come to him.
"Could you memorize a date, a name, and a place?" he asked eagerly.
She said of course she could. And without noting it on paper? Very well--
"The date is the Fourth of October. That's easy to remember."
He hung onto the branch and leant over the boat to whisper:
"If you should hear of my death before the First of October, will you get this message to Mr. Herbert Lennox?--got the name? Lennox--at the Victoria Hotel in London. These are the three things: Fourth of October, Herbert Lennox, Victoria Hotel. Got them all?"
"Yes," said Janet, "I can remember that."
"And the message--bend over. I don't want the trees to hear." He whispered at her ear. "Tell him, 'The people you want will be at the Metropolitan on the Fourth of October.' A letter if there's time, or a telegram if there isn't. Do it anonymously. No need for you to appear in it--but it'll be a good deed. Only, you've to take my thanks for it now."
Telling it now, in open sunlight, Janet said, it seemed merely fantastic--a piece of lunacy. There, in the darkness under the trees, with Parkinson leaning over the boat and whispering in his uncanny voice, speaking of his death in that frightened way--
"It must have been ghastly," I said.
She wavered between the idea of his madness and the possibility that his fears were well-founded. One heard of such queer things--anything seemed possible in that place at that moment.
"Good-by," said Parkinson. "I don't expect to see you again. I shall know why if I don't. And I shall always be grateful."
He dropped the rope into the boat and was gone. She had not seen him since. The next day, Tod Challenger arrived in Kenwick in tow of her mother. At first she had suspicions about Tod. Was he the besetting enemy? Tod was clever. He played the part of the casual acquaintance perfectly; and Mrs. Anderson-Orr saw nothing ulterior in his performance. But with the knowledge she had, Janet put her own interpretation on Tod's manifest interest in the gossip about the Mystery Man of Kenwick, and it was not very favorable to Tod. That feeling passed away when she realized his true object--and she had vigorously expressed to me her opinion of that.
Now, she demanded, what did I make of it?
I did not know what to make of it except one thing--that by giving my promise to Janet I had killed a great chance of doing something for which the Telegram would have emptied the bank and Tod Challenger would have given his ears. For what question could there be that Parkinson's secret, whatever it was, was also the secret for which Lennox had crossed the Atlantic, and Barlow had called over the star artist of the Sureté?
But walking there on the bank of the river with Janet, I had no regret--only admiration for her nerve and courage. I put the alternatives to her.
Parkinson might be a lunatic in spite of the circumstantial evidence that his fears were warranted. To that she answered that he might be, but she did not think he was.
Well, then, he might be a criminal, and the Frankenstein's Monster of which he spoke might be what had provoked the search for him by Lennox. Possibly, said Janet to that. But he did not seem like a criminal, and if he was, no criminal had ever suffered more torture for his crime.
The fact was that, lunatic or criminal, Parkinson's helplessness had appealed to some deep instinct in Janet. He was a human creature in a tight corner who wanted assistance and she had chanced upon him: she had a feeling of destiny in it.
It was characteristic of Janet that the most sensational thing in her story--Parkinson's extraordinary message for Lennox--seemed of small importance to her. I saw some of its implications though not all. But she was concerned only with the fact that Parkinson went in daily terror, that he seemed to fear his death within a few days, and that he had asked her for help.
The meaning of the joyful little cry with which she received my promise had been dawning on me--"Perhaps you'll help me and Mr. Parkinson!" I was the predestined man, the person whose existence Parkinson doubted, the possible friend! It all led up to this.
We had thrashed it out. Janet's eyes said to me, What about it?
"You haven't been up the river since?" I asked.
"No. It was useless. I had no hope to give him. There wasn't a man. Only Joshua, who'd have forty fits at the notion of doing anything unconventional. And George Oddie--I don't like George Oddie."
"I suppose you wouldn't care to go up this evening?" said I, casually.
Her eyes lit up and she caught me by the hand.
"You would? Really? Honest-to-goodness?"
"There doesn't seem to be any other way about it," said I, "if I'm to get into your good books."
Thus about half-past six that evening; I launched myself at once upon the River Kennett and a sea of trouble.
Janet insisted on taking the oars. She said she was used to the river and knew its tricks. I was to go easy with the rudder and leave the navigation to her.
By a quarter after seven, when we were rounding the bend by Morley's Holt, darkness had almost come--and, as the boat slipped in and out of the dense shadows, a darkness so eerie that I looked in wonderment at the girl who had described those two strange scenes to me. She swung to-and-fro to the quiet, competent strokes of the oars as easily and steadily as though we had merely come for an evening promenade. But she spoke little.
At the place where the river seemed to run narrowest she pointed to the Southern bank. A large clump of alders showed black against the dim sky. But all was still and silent. No sign of a human figure. Parkinson did not appear...
Janet pulled evenly on round the bend and into the straight reach beyond it before either of us broke silence. It was lighter here, where woods gave place at last to meadows and the sheen of the last evening glow was on the water.
"Nothing doing to-night," said I. "Let me row you home--I'd like to."
We changed seats. I pulled gently down stream. As we approached the narrow place where the trees of Morley's Holt seemed to tower over the river, Janet said, softly:
"Let her drift now."
I ceased rowing and we fell down with the current, both gazing intently into the fringe of the woods.
No sound, no movement but the gentle swirl and lap of the water. We floated past the point where she had ferried Parkinson across, and we had given up hope of any issue to the voyage when Janet leaned forward and caught my arm, with a warning, "Sh-sh--d'you hear?"
There was a rustle and a crackle among the undergrowth. Somebody was moving there. We strained eyes and ears.
Then, like the fall of a thunderbolt, came a dazzling flash and roar. Janet squealed, her hand gripped my arm tight, and instinctively I dropped the port oar and pulled her down into the shell of the boat.
"Keep down, for God's sake!" I cried. "Hold on to the tiller and pull the port string hard. Keep down--keep down, Janet!"
For unfortunately, when I grabbed at her, the oar had slipped out of the rowlock and was lost. I pulled with the left. The crackling and crashing through the undergrowth sounded loud and close. There came to me at that instant a memory of what Tod had said about a rough house. Some excited impulse made me, still furiously pulling with the left hand, drag the revolver out of my hip-pocket, and when, three seconds later, the next shot came I let fly at the flash.
In my frenzy I pulled too hard for Janet to correct the course of the boat, and she slammed into a tangle of bushes under the bank. A lucky accident as it happened, for the third shot, whose flash I could not see, went overhead and splashed into the water. I had blundered into perfect cover.
We lay there still and breathless for several minutes, listening to the crunching of feet among leaves and twigs. There were no more shots. The sound of tramping died away. We were left in absolute silence again but for the sucking sound of the water against the boat's side and the occasional plop of a fish.
But I did not move, nor did Janet, half crouching and half lying in the boat between my knees, until complete darkness had come. Then I cautiously pushed the boat out from the thicket.
Neither of us spoke. We let her drift the seemingly interminable distance to the end of the bend and into the open reach before I shipped the oar again and Janet got back to the stern seat. And even then we did not speak till I felt water trickling around my feet and exclaimed about it.
"Yes, I know," said Janet. "There's a hole here just above the thwart. But I'm keeping my handkerchief stuffed in it. She won't hurt till we get back."
"You mean a shot hole? My God! If you--"
"Lucky you mauled me down when you did," said Janet, quietly.
But I trembled all over.
In Mrs. Anderson-Orr's well-appointed boathouse (electric light and every modern convenience) the thing which had happened out on the dark river half an hour before seemed like a preposterous dream. But when Janet stepped out of the boat and switched on the light, and we had hauled her up on the slip--there it was: a clean round bullet hole through the side just over the coxswain's seat, and water up over the bottom-boards.
The shot had passed across the boat downwards and gone through at a point which, when she was trimmed and the coxswain in place, was just below the water line. That was why we had not noticed a leak till Janet got back in her place and depressed the boat at the stern.
And a moment or two before that hole was made Janet had been sitting there. Even now that she stood looking at the damage and saying, "Well, that's one good oar lost, anyhow," I could hardly control my quaking limbs and speak with composure.
I saw a queer little smile pass over her face. I was using her familiar name on a very slight acquaintance. "Pardon--" I muttered.
"All right, all right," said Janet. "But we both hate sentiment, don't we? We aren't very popular this evening, but our joss is good so far. Let's be practical. What are we going to do about it?"
"I know what I'm going to do. I'm going to the police at Kenwick and tell them that two persons in a row boat passing the woods at Morley's Holt were fired at from the bank--and the rest is their funeral."
"Ye-es?" She hesitated over the word. "I wonder. I should think the people in this are a touch smarter than old Sergeant Warren at Kenwick. And if we draw attention to ourselves and them, what about Mr. Parkinson? We give him up?"
"Damn Parkinson!" I burst out.
In the last half hour, Parkinson had become of no account to me. I was obsessed by the thought that Janet might have been sitting on that thwart when the shot came. Parkinson!--
But the persistent loyalties of women are quite beyond the masculine comprehension. Janet had gone up the river to help Parkinson because he was helpless. What had happened only intensified her conception of his danger. He still existed for her as a living responsibility, whereas for me he had ceased to exist--at any rate for that night.
We wrangled this out in two minutes while we made all secure and shut the boathouse doors. I had to agree to do nothing till we could consider it at more leisure. I was destined to agree with whatever Janet suggested. Nothing was to be said to any one. Mrs. Anderson-Orr must be told that we had been on the river and lost an oar--to explain why we were late for dinner. I said I would not stay to dinner in that rig, but she overruled me there also. I must be on hand to give color to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.
That dinner was a devastating experience. Mrs. Anderson-Orr was in her best form. When she learned that we had been caught by darkness on the river we had a whole romantic procession of crépuscules, réflets d'eau, nuits noires, fonds du bois and other Gallic wild fowl. But Janet was splendid. It must have been excruciating for her, but she never betrayed a hint of impatience. Her loyalty to her mother exceeded all her other loyalties.
She only cracked when Oddie, who had brought back Helen Adamson from their excursion, after a long and penetrating inquisition of us with his eyes, began to ask questions. Her dislike of him came through when he insisted on knowing where we had been, how far up the river, where the oar was lost and why, and a multitude of things that did not concern him in the least. She almost told him to mind his own business. The strain was obvious to everybody but Mrs. Anderson-Orr. The Adamson girl looked flushed and uncomfortable, and when we sat afterwards in the lounge Oddie swallowed a cup of coffee, hurriedly excused himself, and went off. Helen Adamson, with a flaming face, had said good night and retired before I set out for Kenwick and the King's Arms, refusing Mrs. Anderson-Orr's pressing offer to send for the chauffeur to drive me back.
I had one word with Janet, who walked a yard or two down the drive with me.
"Sleep on it," she said, "and come over in the morning. We may be able to think of something."
I took her hard, firm hand.
"I can think of nothing but Thank God, Janet!" said I. She drew back her hand.
"All right," said she. "Be as pious as you like--but don't talk about it! Till to-morrow."
The interlude of dinner and (as Tod would have put it) the necessity to play up to Mrs. Anderson-Orr had stopped any consecutive speculation on the adventure. But when I walked down the drive between the rhododendron hedges in the darkness, a monstrous, intolerable sense of outrage rushed in. The danger was over. Janet had escaped. But the thought of it enraged me.
I could conjure no meaning into it.
Would the hidden enemy of Parkinson, if he existed, dare to risk a thing like that? If he was aware of the contact between Parkinson and Janet, who could he be?
On the other hand, Parkinson himself--Parkinson, perhaps a madman, perhaps a criminal...
What demon tempted me into the folly I committed that night I have never been able to remember. Nerves had something to do with it, probably: I was not quite my own man. But I remember being in an incandescent state of fury in which the vitally important thing seemed to be to get at somebody and do something.
At any rate, when I passed out of the Ferry Grange drive into the road, instead of turning left and east to go down the river towards Kenwick, I turned right and west, walking rapidly, crossed the bridge at Morley Ferry, and plunged along the road which seemed to tunnel through the trees of Morley's Holt.
There was a sort of song ringing in my head: "Get at it, get at it, get at it!" Who was Parkinson that he should drag her into this sordid violence? Parkinson was a furtive man running away from the consequences of his past. Or Parkinson was a lunatic. "Get at it, get at it, get at it!"
The road cut straight across the base of the peninsula formed by the great bend of the river. Half a mile on, I caught a glimpse of the sky. There was a clearing, and the road widened a little where the fences fell back to a gate and a house--plainly the lodge at the entrance to Morley's Holt. The house was dark and silent: I learned afterwards that it was not used. The gate--white-painted wood just showing in the mere hint of light--stood open.
"Get at it!"
I turned in unhesitatingly. I marched in dense darkness along a curling road, zigzagging from fence to fence, but blinding on in a fury for action. This drive wound through almost the whole depth of the peninsula. I had gone perhaps three-quarters of a mile before I saw a glimmer, and then I was close to it--the light that came through the dusty panes of a semi-circle of glass above a door. The vague thudding of a distant engine--probably a lighting set--was the only sound except my own footsteps. The glimmer revealed a portico with stucco pillars. My shoes clicked on the flagstones beneath.
Fumbling at the side of the door I found a long iron bell-handle hanging, and pulled. A great clangor shattered the silence of the woods--the bell was mounted in the portico above my head.
This, the first definite sound I had heard since I left Janet, seemed to burst the congestion in my head.
What had I done?
I had come late at night to the house of a respectable and inoffensive correspondent of The Times to explode on him a preposterous story, which he might or might not believe and I was forbidden to explain. I might tell him that somebody had been using his woods to take pot shots at a boat. And he would say, "Dear me--the police should be told about this!" And I was forbidden to tell the police...
While I stood trying to invent some plausible reason for ringing that alarming bell, at the same time I was conscious of a great curiosity as to what would happen when the door opened. The answer was long delayed. I began to hope that the bell had not been heard,--to consider the wisdom of walking away through the woods again whether it had been heard or not--
And then there was a shuffling on the stones inside, a bolt was shot back, and the door opened.
The light had come from a hanging oil-lamp in a little lobby. In the oblong of it was the silhouette of a man of middle height, who said:
"This is Morley's Holt?" I asked. "Yes, sir. Will you come inside? It is very dark in the porch."
The man stepped aside for me to pass in. Then I saw that it was the sharp-eyed chauffeur, Paynter, who had put off his uniform and wore a nondescript suit of black clothes.
"Oh, it's you, sir," he said.
"Ah--yes, Paynter. Is Mr. Parkinson at home?"
In the light of the lobby, talking to a servant, I controlled my voice and manner to a passable naturalness.
His eyebrows went up at the mention of Parkinson's name.
"I believe Mr. Parkinson is at home, sir. But doubt whether he will receive any one. Name, sir? Mr. Masters, I think?"
"Mr. John Masters, of London," said I.
"Have you an appointment?"
His hesitations were no matter for surprise. A casual Mr. Masters of London appeared in strange fashion, walking from nowhere, unheralded and unannounced, at a late hour of the night--who would not hesitate?
I told him I had no appointment, but was slightly known to Mr. Parkinson, though not by name.
"Mr. Parkinson," said he, "is a very difficult gentleman to see. He dislikes visitors. But of course--"
"You might mention to Mr. Parkinson that I had the pleasure once of meeting him at Colorado Springs."
"And where the devil is Colorado Springs?" The man did not say this. He looked it. With his lips he said, "Very good, sir. If you'll be good enough to wait in here, I will see about it. But I don't expect much--especially to-night."
He went into a little bare room at the side of the lobby, struck a match and lit a candle that stood on the mantelpiece. I waited in that room with the fleeting, guttering candle throwing shadows about for a full quarter of an hour. Once I heard his footstep in the lobby and the door opened as though he were coming in, but it closed again. Silence was intense. The house seemed dead.
My watch showed half past ten when the man came back, looking as though he thought it the height of unreason for a casual caller to give him so much trouble at that time of night. But what he said explained the dead silence.
"Sorry to have kept you so long, sir. But everybody seems to be gone to bed. I thought Mr. Abbott was writing in the library, but he wasn't there, and I had to wake up the maid and ask her if she knew where he was. She said he'd just gone to his room when she went up. Still--"
"I've given you an awful lot of bother," said I.
"Not at all, sir. Only Mr. Abbott seems to have retired. He doesn't answer my knock. He dislikes being disturbed. I hardly care to--"
"Oh, by no means disturb him," I said. "Mr. Parkinson himself--?"
He hemmed and hawed a little.
"I could try. But I'm afraid it's no good, sir. The fact is, Mr. Parkinson is busy preparing for a journey to London. He's catching the midnight train at Newbury, and he hasn't too much time."
Parkinson going to London in a hurry--after what happened in the evening!--
"I'm an awful nuisance," I admitted, "but if I could speak to Mr. Parkinson for a few moments--"
"I'll see, sir. I don't much fancy--still, I'll try."
Again I spent ten minutes in the bare room with the flickering candle. If I should see Parkinson, I hardly knew what to say to him; but at least I should be able to judge what manner of man Parkinson was.
I had a certain comfort in the feel of the revolver in my hip pocket.
The man returned with another apology for delay and a worried expression on his face. He had found Mr. Parkinson in the garage, he said, almost ready to start. Mr. Parkinson just about bit his nose off, and refused to see anybody.
My mood had cooled in this half hour of waiting. No longer did the need to "get at it" seem so imperative. It was impossible to force myself on Parkinson in this house if he declined to see me. Once more I excused myself to Paynter for the trouble I had given him, and presently I found myself in the drive again, almost feeling my way through the darkness.
I had gone perhaps about half way to the lodge when I heard the motor and suddenly the woods sprang to life in the powerful lights and my shadow on the road was elongated to infinity. I leaped aside and stopped for the car to pass. But it did not pass. Instead it pulled up alongside me.
In the glare of the lights I could see nobody, but a high voice made itself heard over the noise of the engine: "Mr. Masters?"
"Yes," said I.
"Is that Mr. Parkinson?"
"It is. Are you going to Kenwick? Can I give you a lift?"
A momentary coldness of caution came over me: a ride in a car through those woods with Parkinson, who might be a madman...
But after all, I had gone to much pains to see Parkinson, and now that he offered himself--I did not hesitate.
"Thanks," said I. "I wanted to see you rather urgently, or I shouldn't have come at this time of night."
He opened the door on the near side, and as I got in I caught a glimpse of a dark mustachioed face.
"Never mind the hour," said he in his piping way. "I know what you fellows are. Night and day is all the same to you. But I had to be on the move."
He had started the car again.
"What is it you wanted to see me about? You're a newspaper man, aren't you? Or so Mr. Abbott told me. I've got nothing to say to newspaper men--nothing whatever."
The streaming headlights illuminated the curling drive, and then the deserted lodge, and then the boles of the trees along the main road. Petrol and electricity put all the mystery and whispering silence of the woods to flight. But not more completely than Parkinson put to flight the theories I had formed and the character I had conceived of him.
"Well," said he, when we were in the straight road, "so you saw me at Colorado Springs. I don't remember you."
I recalled the dinner table.
"Ah, yes--" He searched his memory. "And another man with you. But look here, Mr. Masters, you oughtn't to try to spring these tricks on people. You aren't interested in reminiscences of Colorado Springs. Why not be candid?"
Why not, indeed? But the question left me speechless.
"You're down here with Tod Challenger to try to run a mystery to earth, eh? For God's sake drop it! Or go and try somewhere else. You don't want to have a tragedy on your hands, do you?"
Why not candor? But for the life of me I could not bring myself to candor. His manner took my breath away.
"It's all very well from your point of view. You want copy. But it's the very devil for me! Why am I rushing away at this time of night? Because of you and Mr. Challenger. You come down here and begin to be curious about me, and then--by God!--"
The car swerved across the road as a lurching figure sprang into the light and we almost ran it down.
"Phew! The drunken swine!"
Parkinson stepped on the accelerator, and the car rushed forward at a furious pace. For a thousand yards he was silent, intent on driving.
"Was he drunk, do you think?" he whined. "Or was it?--phew! I've got nerves...You come down here--and then, instead of being safe in this God-forsaken hole as I thought, they're after me in a few hours. I've had one narrow squeak to-night. How many more?--for heaven's sake leave me in peace. I'd hoped to have done with the life of the Wandering Jew. But now!--I see a gun behind every bush..."
Was it real? Or extraordinary good acting? This Parkinson, piping out his complaints to me in the queer voice that had impressed itself on my memory at Colorado Springs, was hardly the same Parkinson who had taken such remarkable precautions for secrecy with Janet. And yet, now that apparently the secret of his hiding place had been revealed to his enemies, why not?
"The narrow squeak to-night--?" I asked him.
"Ah, never mind--I got away in the dark. So far so good; they won't try again that way."
"Who knows? What are you fishing for? I tell you there's no copy in me. Ah!--did you see that?"
He turned his head quickly and the car swerved again.
I had seen it. A man by the roadside, who, as soon as the headlights lit his face, clambered over the fence and disappeared into a field. We had already crossed Morley Ferry Bridge and the entrance to Ferry Grange and were approaching Usher's garage. The man was Oddie. I had seen him, but I did not say so.
"It looked to me like--" He checked himself suddenly. "Ah, well, Mr. Masters, I want petrol here--at Usher's garage, do you know the place?"
He slowed up and came to rest at the junction of the road with the lane through which we had come from Kenwick Station the day before.
"The garage man lives a little way down that lane. I wonder if you'd rout him out for me? I don't want to leave the car."
"You'll be all right here?"
"Yes--too public here for...for anything. Risk of cars coming up. All right here. But I don't want to get out of the car. Usher's is a little house on the right hand side of the road."
I already had the door open.
"Very well," said I, "I'll fetch the bandit."
"Bandit! Ha--that's good. Bandit?--I should think so!"
He was amused by the title Tod and I had bestowed on William Usher, and his squeaky laughter followed me as I went into the lane. "I'll wait here and we can drive him down to the garage--that will save time," he called.
I have already said that Usher's cottage was three hundred yards in from the main road, and the garage five hundred yards from the junction. It took me, I judge, three minutes to reach the house. Usher himself opened the door to my rapping.
"What the 'ell--!" he began, and stopped when he saw me. He was in shirt and trousers and had his boots off.
"Sorry to disturb you, Mr. Usher, but petrol's wanted."
"Oh, it's you! I'm closed for the night. I suppose you ruddy well think the workin' man's got no right to a night's rest?"
"I don't think anything of the sort, Mr. Usher," I said as persuasively as I could. "But business is business. Car wants a fill up--"
"Whose car? Where's the car?"
"Mr. Parkinson's car--and he's waiting at the corner to drive you down to the garage."
"Oh, Mr. Parkinson, is it? And he's waitin' for me, is he? Well, he can ruddy well wait!"
I had difficulty in being patient with him. His truculence, so amusing by day, was trying just now. However, I said:
"Well, Mr. Usher--there's me as well as Parkinson, you know."
"Gentlemen are known by the company they keep," he snorted, "and I don't think any the more of you for being with Parkinson."
It was a tedious business. At last I persuaded him. But on no account would he ride in Parkinson's car--his feud with Parkinson had made his sky darker than usual, I supposed. He said he would cut across by the field path to the garage, and Mr. Ruddy Parkinson could ruddy well bring his ruddy car along by himself.
I escaped from the torrent of abuse, and returned to the corner to tell Parkinson. I looked at my watch at Usher's door: it showed a quarter past eleven. Parkinson would have to drive hell for leather to get to Newbury by midnight.
And when I came to the corner, Parkinson was not there. The road was silent and deserted.
First it occurred to me that he might have been irritated by the delay, feared to miss his train and gone on without me, trusting to luck to pick up petrol somewhere on the road. Then that he might have supposed I could get no answer at the cottage and that Usher was at the garage. In either case there was nothing for me to do but to walk on.
I padded off on the five minutes' walk to the garage. But long before I reached it, I saw the red rear light of a car, and knew that Parkinson had driven there on the chance of finding Usher.
As I came up I heard the engine running, and saw Usher unlocking a petrol pump. He stopped with his hand on the pipe when he saw me come into the light.
"Ullo!" said he, "where the 'ell have you been?"
I said Mr. Parkinson had driven on and left me to walk down.
Usher went to the rear of the car and unscrewed the cover of the tank, holding the nozzle of the petrol pipe in his left hand.
"Ask the blighter how much juice he wants," he growled.
I went round to the off side of the car. Parkinson was not in the driver's seat. He had apparently left it to lean out of the window on the side of the garage.
"How much petrol shall he put in?" I asked.
Parkinson did not answer. I called louder above the murmur of the engine. Still no answer.
Some rigid motionlessness in the figure of Parkinson as he leaned towards the window made my heart jump.
"Well, what's he say?" The gruff voice of Usher came from the back of the car.
I leaned into the car, stretching across the driver's wheel and scrutinized Parkinson. There was only the light reflected from the walls of the garage. It was very obscure. But I leaped back with a cry.
Usher came, trailing his petrol pipe. I pointed in.
He put his head through the window, uttered an inarticulate noise, and fetched an electric torch out of his pocket. He shone it on the features of Parkinson. They were a livid white. There was a red hole in his forehead, blackening.
"God! he's got his!"
Usher stood away from the car and pointed the torch into my eyes.
"What's this?" he shouted, and grabbed me by the arm. "What's the game?"
I shook him off angrily, and stepped back. He came after me.
"What's the game?" he repeated.
"Don't be an ass!" I cried. "There's been a tragedy--a crime."
"Yes--can't I see there's been a ruddy crime? But who did it? What's the game?"
There was nobody to see the horrid ferocity of that scene on a dark road where two men dodged each other, fearful and panting, in and out of the rays of a car's headlamps and a dead man sat in a rigid, helpless-looking bundle beside the wheel.
We seemed to grasp the foolishness of it at the same moment. We stopped and stared into each other's eyes.
"This is a mug's game," said Usher, at last. "I'm going to call the police."
"Of course," said I.
"You come with me." He jerked out the words. "Of course."
"Coming and asking for juice--and never sayin' a word about havin' a corpse' in the car," he grumbled.
"Good heavens, Usher! You don't suppose--"
"I don't suppose nothin'," he said. "But he's dead, ain't he?"
"But you don't suppose I'd play that trick on you? He was all right when I left him at the corner to go and fetch you out."
"Aw, well--talking won't mend nothin' nor bring him to life. All that'll have to be seen into. You come with me, and I'll ring up the police."
He unlocked the door of the garage and switched on a dim light. I followed him in, and stood by him on the oily floor while he telephoned to the police sergeant at Kenwick. While we waited in stony silence, with resentful eyes on one another, I heard the engine of the car outside still ticking over as though ready for Parkinson to put his foot on the accelerator.
Usher noticed it at the same moment. He shuddered.
"Stay where you are," said he. "I'll go out and stop the dam' thing in a minute."
From the moment when Usher's voice broke harshly into the silence, calling, "Hello! Is that the police?" to the arrival of a car bringing the Sergeant from Kenwick was perhaps half an hour. An interminable, unendurable half hour, while I sat on the running board of a car under repair and looked across two or three yards of oil-stained concrete to the disagreeable figure of Usher, who stood with his back to a disintegrated van, smoking gaspers and glowering at me. Out of his overalls (he had pulled an old khaki jacket over his shirt) he seemed shabbier than ever.
I made only one remark after he put up the telephone. "Did you hear a shot at all?" His answer was startling.
"There's no call for you to talk to me. Say anything you've got to say to the police."
Usher was regarding himself as my jailer and his garage as my temporary prison.
The sound of an approaching motor, traveling fast, was the first relief from the suspense of waiting. The car pulled up outside.
An elderly man in dark blue uniform came stooping through the wicket-door. He stopped and swept a look round the place. He was a bearded old gentleman with grizzly hair showing under his peaked cap. He had a rather benevolent expression.
"Well, Usher--what's this? what's this?" he said, briskly.
Even in the presence of Authority, Usher did not shed his surliness.
"I dunno. That's what you got to find out. Look in that car out there."
The Sergeant frowned, glanced from Usher to me and back, then strode to the entrance and squeezed himself through the little doorway. From where I sat he could not be seen. But I heard his exclamation and his sharp summons:
The door of a car slammed. There were running footsteps and a duet of exclamation. Presently the Sergeant bent his head to enter the garage again, looking less benevolent.
"Usher!" he barked, "what's this mean? What the devil do you mean by it?"
His face was white and angry; the old gentleman had received a shock. Over his shoulder I saw a helmet, and a younger face peeping into the grimy garage.
"What's it mean? 'Ow the 'ell should I know? Ask him."
Usher pointed his cigarette at me. The Sergeant flicked a look at me. But he finished with Usher first. With a menacing step towards him, he said:
"Look here, my man!--don't you take that tone with me. Stop using foul language. And throw away that beastly fag. Act decently. You know there's a dead man in that car. Now then?"
The old gentleman deflated Usher completely and instantly. Such is the power of a uniform in earnest.
"I dunno any more'n you, Sergeant. He brought 'im--" Usher threw down his cigarette end and trod on it as he nodded towards me.
"You--! Brought him--?"
The Sergeant swiveled round to me.
"That's not quite correct," I said. "I didn't bring him: he brought me."
The Sergeant stared as at a lunatic.
"If you wish," I added, "I'll tell you--"
He pursed his lips and pulled at his beard. "Lewis!" he called.
"Sir?" The Constable stepped over the sill of the door.
"Take the car and go back to Kenwick. Get the doctor. And bring out Farthing." The Inspector looked at his watch. "Farthing will be at Kenwick Bridge at half past twelve: I was to have met him there. You'll just do it. Hurry!"
The Constable saluted. We heard him start up his engine and leave.
"Now, sir," said the Sergeant to me.
"I left him alive in the car to go and knock up Usher--" I began.
The Sergeant stood pulling his beard and looking down on me where I sat on the running board.
"You realize this is a serious matter? You're volunteering a statement--"
And then in a flash the absurdity of the whole scene broke on me. It must be nearly an hour since Parkinson was killed--an hour in which the people who killed him must have got clean away. And I had been intimidated by an oaf like Usher half the time, and now I was going to enter on an endless argufication with an elderly country policeman. I ought to have said, "Get out and scour the country, call up every police officer for thirty miles around, and tell them to comb every square yard of the country for the desperado who's got Parkinson, because there's no knowing what he'll do next."
But it was no use saying a thing like that to this Sergeant. He had the body. He had two men who knew something about it.
"You should be careful what you say," he was warning me. "It looks as if this man's been murdered. I ask you no questions for the present. Except one--no, two. First, who are you, sir?"
I gave him my name and London address.
"You're staying in Kenwick? I think I saw you this morning. At the King's Arms, aren't you?"
"Yes, since yesterday."
"The other question--who is that?--I mean in the car?"
"It was Mr. Parkinson," said I.
"Ah--the Parkinson?--the man at Morley's Holt that all the gossip's about?"
"He'd been living at Morley's Holt for some weeks, I think."
The Sergeant sent a look to Usher, who nodded in confirmation.
"Usher says you brought him here. Go on--you want the truth out, I suppose? But you needn't incriminate yourself. You speak or not--as you please."
"Of course I want the truth, Sergeant," said I. "I can't incriminate myself. You'll see."
It was a fairly foolish boast. I did nothing but incriminate myself--at any rate in his eyes. In that wretched place, nerves frayed to rags, but still retaining a fatuous sense of superiority over the surly Usher and the country policeman, I had lost my perspective. I failed to perceive that unless I told the whole story from the beginning, with Tod and Janet in it, and gave the Sergeant the atmosphere of the whole thing, my account of the night's events would seem to him, who knew nothing of me or of Parkinson, a farrago of clumsy lies.
And I would not bring in Janet.
Some inhibition lay upon me: I could not endure the idea of dragging her into this sordid affair--perhaps of compelling her to tell to a policeman or in a court of law the story she had told me.
And I would not bring in Tod. I feared to think what Tod would say of my proceedings.
So I started in a way that made plausibility impossible, and I could see the Sergeant, as he listened silently, ingeminating, "Liar--oh, what a liar you are!" I started with my call at Morley's Holt to see Parkinson.
Why did I want to see Parkinson? Because I had met him at Colorado Springs. Yes, it was true I had been in Kenwick two days, and did not make my call at Morley's Holt till late at night on the second day. Yes, it was a queer place to visit late at night, when everybody was going to bed. Well, I did not go there earlier because I had been dining at Ferry Grange with Mrs. Anderson-Orr. No, I did not mention to any one at Ferry Grange that I was going to Morley's Holt. It was a sudden impulse. True it must have come upon me immediately after I left Ferry Grange--otherwise I should have gone to Kenwick, which was in the other direction...
"Mr. Masters," said the Sergeant, "it seems to me you had better say no more for the present."
"Oh, but I want to tell you, Sergeant--" I floundered on to the end. And at the end I would not bring in Oddie. There was the same inhibition on me. To have brought in Oddie would have involved Ferry Grange. And I meant to keep Ferry Grange out of it at all costs.
He did not believe a word of it--except that part which Usher's story confirmed. What he thought had happened--why he thought (if he ratiocinated at all, which I doubt) I should kill Parkinson and then fetch Usher to see what I had done--I could not imagine. But that was what he did think. I saw the suspicion growing in his eyes as I spoke.
The Constable, Lewis, returned at one o'clock with another helmeted man. The doctor was not available for another hour--had gone to attend a confinement in the country.
"Not that it matters much--he's dead as a door nail," said the Sergeant. He pulled at his beard, reflecting. "Lewis--you can drive that car? We'll put him in the back. You and Farthing can take him to the mortuary. Get the doctor there, when he returns, to have a look at him. He'll do the examination to-morrow. Usher--you keep quiet about this. I shall want you in the morning. You, sir"--he turned to me--"you'll accompany me."
The simple words sounded ugly as he said them.
"Certainly," said I. "Where do you want me to go?"
"I'll consider that," he replied, shortly.
While they were opening doors and making shuffling, grunting, nerve-jarring noises outside, Usher and I faced each other in the garage. I still sat on the running board; he leant against the van. Our eyes sought each other with hostile looks. There seemed something sardonic in his sullenness. He once drew a dirty cigarette-packet from his pocket, looked at it, glanced to the door, and put it away again.
The Sergeant's shout made us both jump.
"There's no petrol--the tank's dry."
Then I noticed that the engine had ceased to tick over: how long it had stopped I could not guess. Usher had forgotten it, too, in the intensity of our duel of the eyes. Now he went out. There was a clanking of metal, and a rush of liquid.
"A gallon or two will do," said the Sergeant.
The starter whirred, the engine revolved, the gears hummed. Parkinson was gone.
The Sergeant put his head in.
"Now, sir--if you'll come with me--"
Usher stood by the petrol pumps as I passed out, his ramshackle figure lit up by the headlights of the police car. I stepped in beside the Sergeant. We moved off.
The car had come from Kenwick and was facing towards Morley Ferry. The Sergeant drove straight on. I asked no questions about our destination. He was silent. Thus I traversed the road along which Parkinson had driven me two or three hours before: past Ferry Grange, where Janet was sleeping, over the bridge, into the woods--and through the gateway by the deserted lodge, and along the curling drive.
He pulled up before the portico. No light shone over the door. The house was in perfect darkness. The Sergeant got out and pulled the clanging bell. Its loud tongue startled birds; there was rustling and twittering long after its vibrations ceased.
In a minute or two, I heard a window sash raised and a woman's voice asked:
"Who's there? What do you want?"
The Sergeant had stepped out into the light of the headlamps and looked up.
"Can you see me?" he called.
"Yes, sir; it's Mr. Warren."
"Then rouse Mr. Abbott and say I want to speak to him."
"I'll tell Mr. Paynter, sir," the voice came, and the window was shut again.
We waited long minutes, I in the car, Sergeant Warren--I remembered that Janet had mentioned the name--under the portico. Then a light fluttered into being over the door, bolts were moved, the door opened, and Paynter stood there in a dressing gown holding a candlestick.
"Sorry to turn you out, Mr. Paynter," said Warren. "But I must see Mr. Abbott--and at once."
"What's the matter, Sergeant? Anything serious?"
"Come inside, then. I'll call him. He won't like it. But--"
"I've a passenger in the car," Warren interrupted. "May he come in too?"
"Certainly, certainly. I'll light a lamp."
Paynter, having stood on a chair to light the lamp in the lobby, stepped down and almost dropped his candle when he saw me.
"Good God!--I beg pardon, sir. You startled me. Wasn't thinking to see you again so soon--"
His eyes passed from me to the Sergeant with a puzzled look.
"What shall I tell Mr. Abbott, Sergeant?"
"Tell him--but wait a moment, Mr. Paynter. You saw this gentleman to-night?"
"Yes. He called to see Mr. Parkinson."
"So he says. Well--tell Mr. Abbott--prepare him, you know, to hear bad news of Mr. Parkinson."
"Bad news? What bad news?" Paynter asked, staring with raised eyebrows. "Do you mean there's been an accident, Sergeant?"
"Ye-es--a sort of accident. Mr. Parkinson's--"
"Not--you don't mean--?"
Warren nodded. "Better break it to Mr. Abbott by degrees," he said.
"Did you see the accident, sir--or, you weren't in it?" Paynter spoke to me.
"Don't ask any questions now, Mr. Paynter," Warren urged him. "We'll get through it once and for all when we can see Mr. Abbott."
Paynter looked strangely at us, turned into the little room, lit the candle on the mantelpiece as before he had done for me, and asked us to wait there.
The Sergeant had not addressed me since we left Usher's garage, nor did he speak now that we were alone in the waiting room. I caught his eye once or twice surveying me with a bothered look. But he sat quite still and silent awaiting Paynter's return. In ten minutes Paynter came and conducted us upstairs to Abbott's dressing room, where we found the eloquent correspondent of The Times in his dressing gown, with his gray hair tousled, very worried and not too good-tempered.
"Ah, Sergeant," said he, "this is a sad surprise. Paynter has led me to fear the worst. Where did it happen? And how?--a collision? Mr. Masters"--he shook hands with me--"Paynter tells me you called to see Parkinson, and he was bearish about it. Were you--"
"Excuse me, sir," Warren broke in. "It's even worse than you think. May Mr. Paynter remain for a few moments? Thank you. You've been prepared for the worst. So I can tell you at once that Mr. Parkinson is dead. It was no accident--it was foul play."
Abbott drew back with a jerk, his face grew pale and the birthmark on his cheek stood out livid.
"Foul play! Good heavens!--Paynter. it was no hallucination, then? They've got him!"
The Sergeant's face was a picture of bewilderment.
"Got him, sir? Do you mean you know anything of this?--expected anything?"
"No, Warren. I can't say I expected anything. I hardly believed in it. But Mr. Parkinson undoubtedly feared something. He was always nervous--always on the jump. And last night he came to Paynter with such a strange story--he was nearly frantic. Tell him, Paynter."
Even now I had no inkling, no fore-vision of the diabolical luck that was overtaking me.
"Well, Sergeant," said Paynter, "Mr. Parkinson was certainly afraid of something: he showed it a hundred ways. I took the liberty to say to Mr. Abbott more than once that he was here at Morley's Holt to hide. He hardly ever went out of the grounds except in his car."
"Who was he? D'you know anything about him, Mr. Abbott?"
"Nothing at all. He answered an advertisement I put in The Times for a paying guest. He was the only one who answered it by coming to see me. I liked him: quiet, gentlemanly sort of man, if a little peculiar. Paynter liked him too, didn't you, Paynter? Although having another person here and another car to look after meant more work for you. There was something about poor Parkinson--"
"Indeed, sir, there was something about him," said Paynter. "As for the extra work, it was nothing. In spite of his peculiarities, I was much attracted to Mr. Parkinson, and, if I may say so, I think he was attracted to me in a way."
"Poor Parkinson," Mr. Abbott mused. "With that thin, high voice of his--did you ever see or hear him, Sergeant?"
"Never saw him till to-night--and as for hearing him--"
Mr. Abbott shivered.
"I can hardly believe it even now," he said: "I'd not seen him since the morning, when he told me he was going to London to-night. I'd no idea until this moment of what Paynter says happened this evening."
Warren looked at Paynter.
"He was out in the grounds this afternoon," Paynter continued his narrative. "He'd often go out and wander away in the deep woods for hours. Generally took a book with him. This afternoon he was longer than usual. He didn't come in till after dinner, when Mr. Abbott had gone to the library. Then he came rushing. Pale!--he was always pale; but now he was a ghost, all of a tremble. I asked him what was the matter. Says he, 'They've found me out!' 'Who?' says I. But he didn't answer--looked sort of suspicious at me. Then he said, 'I've been fired on from the river.'"
I do not know who was the more startled by this statement--Warren or myself. He uttered a cry. My pulse missed a beat.
Still, even at this eleventh hour, I did not see where it was leading. I thought of Janet--she might be dragged into the limelight after all if the tale of our trip up the river should have to come out.
"...He wouldn't tell me anything about it," Paynter went on. "He merely said people dangerous to him had got to know he was at Kenwick, and they might have better luck next time they tried for him, and he must go. He was so strange I doubted whether anything at all had happened. He wouldn't dine. He went to his room, and he stayed there till just before this gentleman called. He had a suit-case in his hand and said he was going to get the car ready. I asked him to let me do it, but he wouldn't have that. When you asked me to see whether he would receive you, sir, I found him with the petrol stick in his hand swearing because his tank was nearly empty and there weren't any tins in the garage. He said he'd have to stop at Usher's and see if he could get a fill-up there. He was in a state of excited temper, and when I spoke of Mr. Masters and said he'd met him at Colorado Springs he said Mr. Masters and Colorado Springs could go to hell. Mr. Masters went away, and about ten minutes afterwards Mr. Parkinson started. And that was the end of it."
The Sergeant, sitting on the very edge of a chair, was pulling his beard hard. Clearly he was surprised to find Paynter's story corroborating mine in every detail so far as it went.
"That's not quite the end of it," he said, "for Mr. Parkinson picked up this gentleman in the drive and took him on towards Kenwick."
"Oh!" said Abbott, with a curious look at me. "I don't want to interfere, Sergeant, but you haven't told me how--"
"I wish I could, sir. I've only this gentleman's word for it--and it's the most unbelievable story I ever heard."
"Oh--but Mr. Masters would not--"
There was a world of wonderment in his voice.
"I don't say he would, sir. But I told him just now he'd better say nothing at all than tell such a story." I opened my mouth to protest, but the old fellow went on, "And I tell him so again now. Mr. Parkinson was found shot in his car outside Usher's garage. Nobody knows who shot him. That's what we've got to discover. Would you mind leaving it at that, sir?"
"Extraordinary!" Abbott said, with a hint of impatience. "I don't see why I can't know. But still--if you say so, Sergeant, your word is law. Mr. Masters, I'm sorry you've been let in for trouble--but of course it will all be cleared up. Is there anything else you want to know here, Warren?"
"You'd like to examine it?"
"I think not to-night, sir. But I'll seal it if I may."
It was while Paynter took the Sergeant away to do this formality that I hurriedly told Abbott, in answer to his questions, what had actually happened. He listened agape.
"Terrible luck for you," he said. "But I shouldn't worry. You know what the country police are. As soon as the story of the shooting from the river comes out and they find out something about Parkinson--"
He shook me heartily by the hand when Warren returned and asked if I was ready to go.
The avalanche of my misfortunes roared down upon me at half past two in the morning. The clock in Kenwick church tower chimed just as Warren brought the car to a standstill before a house in the same street as the King's Arms. There was a lamp over the door on which were printed the words "Berkshire Constabulary." A light shone in the ground floor window. A constable stood in the doorway.
"Will you be good enough to step inside?" said Warren.
I followed him into a room fitted as an office and decorated with police notices. I had seen a hundred such rooms, but I never entered one less joyfully. The Constable came in after us.
"The doctor's had a look at him. He was tired and didn't want to do a post mortem to-night--so I told him what you said. We had a run through his clothes. No papers at all. A wallet full of notes--so it wasn't robbery. The most curious thing was this--"
The Constable put on a glove and took from the desk a revolver which he laid before the Sergeant. Warren leaned down to look, but he did not touch it.
"In his hip-pocket. So it couldn't have been--and anyway its fully loaded: hasn't been fired."
"Put it away carefully, Lewis. I'm told he had a suitcase."
"Yes--in the back of the car. Here 'tis." He picked up a leather bag from the corner of the room. "Keys in his pocket. Nothing in it but linen and shaving gear."
He threw open the cover and revealed the privacies of Parkinson's toilet. But nothing in all this afforded any clew to Parkinson's fate.
Warren turned to me where I stood on the other side of the desk and invited me to sit.
"I'm puzzled about you, sir. Mind, I'm not accusing you, and I'm not asking you to commit yourself," he said.
"You've been fairness itself, Sergeant," I assured him.
"What Mr. Abbott and Mr. Paynter said about an affair earlier in the evening makes a difference--perhaps. Would you like to tell me where you were at that time--say about seven to half past? If you could account for your movements between six and eight--"
The first rumble of the avalanche.
"Let me think," said I, while my skin turned hot and cold. Thinking, cool thinking, while I sat with those two uniformed men looking down on me with grave and curious eyes--impossible!
Having made the mistake of omitting to begin my story with the incident of the river, could I now go back to it?--impossible!
Janet--I could rely on Janet. But there was her mother, who knew we had been on the river. And there was Helen Adamson.
And there was Oddie! Oddie, who had been so inquisitive about it, almost offensive. Oddie, whose figure had been lurking in the back of my mind for the last three hours. Was it not Oddie who ought to be sitting in this chair devising explanations of his conduct, and "accounting for his movements"? But everything I had done and omitted to do made my position impossible.
It might all have to come out. Well--let them drag it out. I would say nothing to-night.
"I'm afraid, Sergeant," said I, "that before I make any statement at all I'd better consult my friends."
A lame conclusion to so much thinking. The Sergeant seemed to think so. He looked disappointed. He was truly puzzled. A kindly old boy--he wanted to find some excuse for believing me.
"You know best. Perhaps you're wise," he said. "But I shall have to detain you for inquiries. I'm sorry. That's all. You'll have to make yourself comfortable here for the night. You don't want any messages sent? It would hardly be well to wake up the King's Arms now."
Hot and cold!--I knew now how unfortunate people felt who were "detained for inquiries."
"Very well, Sergeant--if you think it necessary, of course--"
"As a matter of form I ought to search you. But if you'll just turn out your pockets--"
The avalanche crashed down and overwhelmed me. I had completely forgotten it--the thing which would turn the kindly old gentleman cudgeling his brains into a stern and inexorable policeman with a perfect case.
There was one moment when I had a wild idea of taking advantage of his courtesy and concealing it. Happily that passed. I turned out my pockets.
Handkerchief, pipe, pouch, cigarette case, card case, wallet, keys, pen-knife, fountain pen: the whole fancy shop that a man carries about with him. I laid them down on the desk.
"Oh, and there's this," I said, pulling the revolver out of my hip-pocket.
The Sergeant, like a man in a daze, stretched out his hand slowly and took it from me. He looked at it as if it had been a poisonous snake, and held the magazine under the light to examine it.
In the same slow fashion he turned his eyes back to me. They were no longer kindly: they were hostile and accusing. He said:
"By God, you're a cool customer!...Lewis!"
"This gun's got one barrel empty."
"I expected it, sir."
"Take a pen and sit there, Lewis. Now, Masters, what's your name?"
"John Masters, I charge you with killing and murdering one Parkinson, by shooting him with a revolver, in a motor car, between Morley's Holt and the Half Way House Garage in the parish of Kenwick, between the hours of ten and twelve P.M. on the 25th of September, 1929. And I caution you that anything you say in answer to the charge will be taken down in writing and given in evidence against you."
He waited, holding the pistol on the palm of his hand.
"I've said all I want to say, Sergeant. I certainly did not shoot Parkinson, and what I told you at the garage was exactly what happened."
Lewis's pen scratched along the paper. Warren took up the sheet.
"You say you did not shoot Parkinson, and what you told me at the garage is true."
"Do you want to communicate with any one?" I reflected for a moment.
"Yes. Will you ring up the Morning Telegram office in London? There'll be a man on duty in the news room. Ask for him. Tell him what you like about--this. But tell him to let Mr. Allen know and get hold of Mr. Challenger and ask him to come down as early as he can in the morning."
He made some demur against the proposal to ring a newspaper, but the regulations said nothing on that point and I insisted. There would be no "big beat" for the Telegram such as Tod had predicted--but at any rate it would be first with the news that one of its own staff was charged with murder!
The answering ring came soon. There was not much traffic on the wires at three in the morning. Warren spoke.
"A message to be sent to Mr. Allen and Mr. Challenger, urgent...Never mind who I am...Speaking from Kenwick, Berkshire, on behalf of Mr. Masters...Mr. Allen to be told that he is at present unable to communicate...Mr. Challenger to come to Kenwick as early as possible this morning, call at No. 23, Fore Street, and ask for Mr. Warren... Yes, I know it's very late...Urgent? Of course it's urgent or I shouldn't ring at this time of day...No, I can't tell you...Ring off!"
Wily old bird! So there was not even the satisfaction of a minor scoop.
"You might have told them what had happened, Sergeant," I said.
"I might. But I didn't," he replied, gruffly. "Lewis--see to a rug and a cushion on that sofa. You'll stay here to-night, Masters. Lewis--you stand guard till six, and tell Farthing to come on at six."
Waking and dozing, I spent the remnant of the night on Sergeant Warren's very hard horse-hair sofa. Every time I opened my eyes they fell on a row of bright buttons down the front of the blue tunic worn by the man who sat on a chair in front of the door.
"Did willfully and of malice aforethought kill and murder..."
However conscious of innocence a man may be, however certain that he stands in no real danger, it is a horrifying experience to be accused of murder, to observe the professional interest of the police in you--a less pleasant interest, even, than that of the surgeons as they come in and see you on the operating table--the staring eyes of the curious morbidly anxious to look upon the face of a man who may have killed his fellow. The word Murder has a nasty sound always; it falls with a peculiar ugliness and menace on the ears of the man who stands in the dock.
Or it did on mine when the dry, formal voice of a Petty Sessions Clerk read it out to me...
"That you did between the hours...in the parish of Kenwick... willfully and of malice aforethought kill and murder..."
It was a queer little scene--something like a large family party. By fatality, the ordinary meeting place of the Kenwick Petty Sessions was the Assembly Room of the King's Arms--a long, dusty, disheveled room, with faded paint and grimy windows, where apparently a hop was occasionally held. There was a row of pretentious chairs around the wall.
To get there I had to walk between Sergeant Warren and the yawning Constable, Lewis, a few yards down the street and through the passage of the King's Arms, gaped at by the servants and reproachfully regarded by the landlord.
The news of the affair at Usher's had not yet spread far, and there were few persons in the room. I looked around for Tod. He was not there.
But of all the people in the world, there was Janet!
I caught my breath when I saw her, sitting on the first of the public benches--Janet, with a touch of red in her hat setting off her dark hair, her eyes signaling bravely to me.
I was the only business of the day. When two magistrates and the clerk walked in, and all the people rumbled to their feet, it was like a scene on the stage: I almost expected the audience to burst into an opening chorus. But that mood quickly passed when my name was called and I stood up in front of Janet between two constables and heard those words--
"Did willfully kill and murder..."
The hearing was over in three minutes.
Sergeant Warren said he would give evidence of arrest only and ask for a remand till next day, Saturday, when he would probably be able to outline the case sufficiently to justify a longer remand. How queer it was to hear the old fellow intoning this jargon after the experiences we had been through a few hours before!
He then took the oath. He said nothing about the case. He began:--"I saw the prisoner at three A.M. to-day at the Police Office, Kenwick. I charged him on this charge and cautioned him. He replied, 'I did not shoot Parkinson, and what I told you at the garage is true.' I had previously seen him at the Half Way House Garage. If your worship please, that is all the evidence I propose to offer to-day."
The familiar ritual followed. I did not want to ask the Sergeant any questions. I had nothing to say in objection to the remand. I was remanded.
Janet's eyes were still signaling when I was marched out between the two constables and taken back to the Police Office. There Challenger waited for me, cool as ever.
"Hello, young Masters!--what's your trouble?" was his greeting as I escaped through the doorway from the scrutiny of the knot of people who had gathered in the street.
"Hello, Tod!...Sergeant," said I, "this is Mr. Challenger. You remember I sent a message to him--"
"One moment--" It was a pet exclamation of the Sergeant's. "Lewis and Farthing--you can wait outside. Have the car ready to catch the twelve ten train."
Now that he had got through the preliminaries of his job and had me safely tucked up with an order from the Court to convey me to Reading Gaol, the Sergeant lost some of his acerbity.
"I take it," he said to Tod, "you're not the prisoner's legal representative?"
"Nothing so grand, Officer. He's just a friend--one of the boys. But, as I sort of feel responsible for getting him into this joint, I'm naturally anxious to get him out as soon as convenient to you."
The Sergeant stared pityingly at the ignorance that imagined the majesty of the law in Kenwick could be dealt with thus.
"It's a bit more difficult than that, Tod," said I. "If the Sergeant would allow us to have a talk--?"
"You know you can't talk to anybody but your lawyer except in the presence of a constable. You can say what you like while we're waiting for the car. But if you'll take a bit of good advice, the best thing Mr. Challenger can do is to go and get a lawyer for you and leave it to him."
I caught a wink from Tod.
"Quite so, Officer," said he. "I understand he's got to spend a day or so in jail while you have a look round. He might want to send his love to his landlady or something, though."
"You've heard what happened, Tod?"
"Yes--and a big mouthful more," he laughed. "I understand you took old Parkinson for a ride, as they say in New York, shot him into the next world, and then asked our prize bandit to come and admire your handiwork! I call you a perfect mutt, young Masters. But never mind that--every murderer to his own taste! What lawyer will you have to squander your estate after you're turned off? And leave me your ukulele in your will--don't forget. And is there anybody I can say good-by to on your behalf?"
Sergeant Warren looked with manifest disapproval on this levity; but it had an extraordinarily cheering effect on me.
"There's lots to say to the lawyer, Tod," I answered. "I don't much care who 'tis--any good man. Tell Allen I'm sorry to have let the Telegram in for this sort of notoriety. And, oh--I saw Miss Anderson-Orr in Court. I wonder how she got to know about it so soon?"
"My precious innocent!--do you think you can do a great deed like this and hide your reputation under a bushel?"
"I thought it curious that she should know so soon..."
If Tod was to be any use to me, the first thing for him to do was to get in touch with Janet. But I could not tell him so in the presence of Sergeant Warren. Tod would see the significance of it if I stressed her name.
"I dined there last night," said I. "Perhaps if you could apologize for me to Mrs. Anderson-Orr and her daughter for tumbling out of their dining-room into--this?"
"Certainly--it's a deal. I'll see the girl and try to persuade her that all murderers are not as black as they're painted. You'll hear from me what she says about it--through the lawyer."
Whereupon Tod turned to Sergeant Warren and entertained that astonished old gentleman with a lurid recital of the horrors of the electric chair, reproaching the English authorities with great vigor for their slowness in taking up with modern scientific inventions.
He contrived a way, before I was summoned to leave the office, to whisper in my ear, "Look out for Barlow!"
Tod was great. He was a godsend. He was a cocktail, tonic and bromide all in one. The thought of Tod bustling about in my behalf sustained me through that pernicious journey in a slow train to Reading with a policeman sitting on each side of me, and through the nerve-tearing experience of hearing the iron gates clang behind me inside those dingy brick walls.
Prisoners on remand do not undergo the fiercest rigors of prison discipline. But prison is prison, and a man charged with murder is the object of special attention from his warders. The business of reception and registration, of searching and signing, of sitting down, getting up, walking and stopping to order, the sense of lost personality, vanished liberty, perfect helplessness, and at last silent lonesomeness in a cell--this is prison, even for a prisoner on remand.
I remembered that in English law, a man is presumed innocent until he is proved guilty. I was therefore presumed innocent, since I had not been proved guilty. I wondered whether Allen would one day take a front page screed in big type about the rewards of innocence as illustrated by the lot of a prisoner on remand in an English jail.
But Tod was in my mind--and especially what Tod had said about Barlow. If Barlow got on to this, he would soon make short work of the pedestrian assumptions of the country police. Slow-speaking, lackadaisical Barlow was a good friend of mine. I had been a good deal with Barlow, who looked and talked like a rather tired curate, but was the stand-by of Whitehall in politico-criminal matters. I had even tried to tap Barlow on the affair at the Foreign Office the other day...
"Look out for Barlow!"...Tod did not say that without intention.
I slept quite well that night. The bed was hard. A pestilent fellow with a torch opened the little hatch in the cell door twice and shone the thing into my eyes and woke me up. But I was thoroughly fatigued. The second day, I itched with anticipation of the visit of a lawyer with messages from Tod, and perhaps news of Janet. Nothing happened till late in the afternoon, when the key sounded in the cell-door.
I jumped up, expecting to see some strange face looking at me with the same beastly curiosity that everybody had displayed since Wednesday night. A dark uniform, plentifully decorated with white metal and a chain with keys--
"Here you are, sir."
A slight figure passed it and slipped into the cell. The door clashed.
"Barlow!" I cried.
"Well, young man--what d'you suppose you're doing here?"
His presence seemed to push out the walls of the cell. I was in contact with the world again.
"Tod promised to send a lawyer," I said.
"Well, you can have a lawyer if you like--but what about trying me first?"
How good it was to hear Barlow's parsonical drawl!
"Tell me all about it. I've heard what the police know, and what they say you said and did. Tell me the rest. And why you didn't tell them. We've got to get you out of here as quick as possible. So make it snappy, Mr. Masters."
"You've been talking to Tod," I said. "You're picking up his vernacular. How much has he told you--as to why we came down to Kenwick?"
"Down to Kenwick trying to be two smart Alecks and put one over on me and Lennox! I wouldn't have thought it of Mr. Challenger. Serve you right if you did swing! What I know is that you met this fellow by chance at Colorado Springs when Lennox was after him, and his features and his voice were so peculiar that when Mr. Challenger met him in London he recognized him, trailed him here, found he was hiding, and brought you down with the idea of doing a bit of amateur sleuth-work."
"You knew Tod had a fancy that Parkinson might be in something big that you were interested in?"
"Yes--and I've got a bone to pick with him there. Let's settle with you first. Mr. Challenger gets a call back to London to see Lennox about some American business--nothing to do with this. The next thing we hear is that you've shot Parkinson and been arrested for murder."
"We hear? Who's we?" I asked.
"Well, I hear."
"When do you hear?"
"I hear, to be exact, at four A.M. yesterday."
"From the Yard, of course. You don't think we allow cub journalists to go round murdering people and hear nothing about it, do you? But I suppose you really didn't shoot Parkinson, by any chance?"
"Well, you do your best to make folks think so. You dine at that double-barreled woman's house--what's she called?"
"You dine with Mrs. Anderson-Orr. Then, instead of going home to bed like a good Christian, you turn off the other way, walk down to that house, pitch up a yarn about Colorado Springs, and go off with Parkinson. Why on earth?"
I gazed at Barlow, astonished. He had heard nothing of our adventure on the river.
"Have you seen Tod since?" I asked.
"Yes--I was with him most of yesterday. In fact, I went with him yesterday morning, and I was in the offing when he saw you at the Police Station. He has a little sense left. As soon as he heard you were in the soup, he rang me up."
"How did he know I was in trouble? The Sergeant wouldn't have anything said to the Telegram office about it."
"I reckon he guessed you were the sort that would get into trouble--and he guessed right! But, of course, they aren't all goofs at the Telegram. They told him there was something fishy in a message they received in the small hours--and he got busy first thing."
"I'm fair game, Barlow. I'm a goof all right," I admitted. "I know 'twon't be easy to justify that visit to Morley's Holt. I was in an ungovernable temper, though not with Parkinson in particular, but with things in general. Do you know whether Tod had seen Miss Anderson-Orr before you left him?"
"He had. So had I."
And yet he had not heard of the river trip to Morley's Holt. I could understand that Janet would say nothing of it lest it should push me deeper into the mud. But her mother--Helen Adamson--Oddie, especially Oddie. If they had all been silent about it--
Barlow, in his lazy way, looked quizzically at me.
"Miss Anderson-Orr is quite well and bearing with fortitude the prospect of your execution, if that's what you want to know," said he.
"Don't be a silly ass, Barlow," said I. "I want to think a moment."
It was evident that Barlow must be told everything, and if any of it seemed incomprehensible to him explanation would have to wait on events.
"You didn't shoot Parkinson," said he. "But do you know who did?"
"Of course not."
"What about the story of an attack on him earlier in the evening? Did he tell you anything of that?"
"Nothing much--he just said he'd had a narrow squeak and got away in the dark. But, Barlow--"
"Half a tick. I want to fix a few things in my mind. According to the story you told the police, you left him at the corner of the lane--what time?"
"It took me about three minutes or less to walk up to the cottage, and I suppose I was two minutes talking to the bandit--"
"The what? Oh, Mr. Bill Usher--queer fish, that. Well--five minutes."
"And just as I left the cottage to walk back, I looked at my watch and it showed quarter past eleven."
"Then it took you seven minutes to get back to the garage--at least, it took me that when I did it this morning--twelve minutes altogether. You left Parkinson alive and kicking in the car at ten after eleven. Between that and twenty-two minutes after, the car had been moved down to the garage and Parkinson had been shot--or conversely, Parkinson had been shot and the car moved down to the garage. I wonder which?"
"I can't guess. But, Barlow, I must tell you something--"
"In a minute. Usher cut across from the cottage to the garage by a field path out of his garden. It's a hairpin corner, and this is a very short cut. In fact, it's exactly 250 yards as compared with 800 by road. Usher says he was in his socks when you left him. He had to put on his boots and a coat and find his keys. Say two minutes. Three minutes to walk across. And he's there two minutes before you, perhaps more as you probably hesitated a while at the corner wondering what had become of Parkinson and the car?"
"Yes, I did. I couldn't quite make up my mind whether he'd got impatient and gone off altogether. But the garage was on my way back to Kenwick anyhow, so I walked on."
"Well, when Usher got to the garage, the car was standing in the road outside, and he thought you were in it. That cuts down the possible time of the murder by two minutes."
"You can cut it down more than that, Barlow," I said. "The tail light of the car was visible to me for at least three minutes before I came up to it."
"Then, between ten past eleven and nineteen past eleven, the car was moved and the murder done. Nine minutes. Narrows it down, eh?"
"Yes, but, Barlow--there's something I must tell you--"
"About that narrow squeak in the dark? Yes, I thought so. Well--out with it, young man. Confess!"
I gave a startled glance at his half-closed eyes.
"What d'you mean--confess?"
"Well, it's fairly obvious, isn't it? You go down there in an ungovernable temper, as you say, and you've been itching for the last three minutes to tell me why, and a blind worm could see that you know something about Mr. Parkinson's rough house. Also--you seem to have an awkward habit of forgetting revolvers. They should always be remembered. The expert criminal never forgets how talkative revolvers are. So, young man, I can have an easy bet with you--that if you didn't shoot at Parkinson you shot at somebody else. Two tips for you: don't get in ungovernable tempers, and never forget revolvers."
"Goof is the word!" said I.
"Another tip: when the police ask you a question tell 'em the truth--all of it, if you can, but never anything else. Why in the name of common sense didn't you tell the Sergeant the truth about your gun?"
It took me a good ten minutes to put the whole story before Barlow, from the first interview with Janet to the arrival of Sergeant Warren at Usher's garage.
He sat on my bed listening with his eyelids down. He did not once interrupt or comment. But twice his eyes opened wide--when I told him of the message Parkinson had given Janet for Lennox, and when I mentioned having seen Oddie in the road between Ferry Grange and Usher's.
I had discharged myself of all the facts. Barlow sat silent for a minute or two.
"I've heard a good deal about the way of a man with a maid," said he, "but what gets me is the way of a maid with a man. Goof!--I should say so! I never heard anything like it. How does it feel, young fellow, to be responsible for a man's death?"
"For God's sake, what do you mean, Barlow?" I cried.
"Just that. I calculate that if you and Miss Whatser-name between you hadn't seen to it, Parkinson would be alive now. Not that it matters much. For he was going to get his, as Usher said, sooner or later. But that you, a young man of the world, and the newspaper world at that, should allow a girl to switch you off the promising line Mr. Challenger laid out and get you into this mess--well, it simply beats the band!"
It was hopeless to try to make Barlow see Janet as I saw Janet, or convey to him the atmosphere of Janet's pity. I did not try.
"All right, Barlow--I'm a goof. I've said it."
"But that young woman--she's a quick mover: I've a great respect for that young woman. See this? Lennox posted it to me last night."
He passed to me a telegram, handed in on Thursday afternoon at Hungerford:
"To Lennox, Victoria Hotel, London.--The people you want will be at the Metropolitan on the Fourth October."
So Janet had kept the promise she made to the unhappy man who trusted her because she had honest eyes. That was like Janet.
"Did Lennox know what the message meant, Barlow?" I asked. "Or was it a touch of madness? There was something queer about Parkinson, you know. Even in the few minutes I had with him--"
'T daresay--quite so. But you're asking and I'm not answering. I'll tell you one thing--that but for your story we'd not have known the message came from Parkinson; so you may have earned your keep from the Government in this hotel after all. Some day I'll tell you the rest. Now then, Mr. Masters, who killed Parkinson? Let's stick to the problem."
"I should say the people who had already attacked him in the woods--or accomplices of theirs,"
"Yes," he said with his eyes closed. "And twice five are ten. But who?"
"I'm not a detective, Barlow. Nor a wizard."
"And yet you've got something at the back of your mind that you won't bring forward. Why?"
Barlow was at his astutest when he sat thus, his eyelids down and an expression of intense boredom on his face.
"What's at the back of my mind?"
At all events if it had to come out, Barlow should drag it out.
"Question for question: what would the first common or garden fellow who heard your story say? You know as well as I do. He'd say, 'Why didn't the dam' fool tell the police what he'd seen and put 'em on the trail at once?'"
"Come off it, Mr. Masters! Trying the ingenuous on me! You ought to know better. I mean Oddie, of course. You've had Oddie in the background all the time. For some reason you wouldn't even suggest what would have occurred to a babe in arms. Why?"
"I told you all about it."
"But why not the police--or even Usher--at the very time, when the scent was hot?"
Again it was hopeless to make Barlow understand my mixture of motives, including a sense of fair play. Oddie's conduct was open to more than one interpretation.
I'd just been through a rather petulant scene with Oddie. And I could not forget the flaming face of Helen Adamson.
"I can't say why, Barlow. No particular reason."
"More girls, I suppose. However, I'd heard about Mr. Oddie already. So that's that. Now--"
Barlow was uncovering his wrist watch.
"Heard what about Oddie?"
"Can't stay to discuss it. You weren't the only person who saw Oddie--lucky for you! Now, I'm due off. Don't worry. We'll have you out in no time. But you really should be kept under lock and key for your own safety."
Barlow's handshake belied his words.
"I'll tell Mr. Challenger you're making a will in his favor, and Miss Thingumbob-Whatsername--ah, but she won't believe anything I tell her. Good-by, Mr. Masters."
As if by some magic understanding the door opened, there was a glimpse of white buttons and chain. Barlow was slipping out as he slipped in; but before the door closed again he turned to say:
"By the way, I can't give your kind regards to Mr. Oddie--he's left the neighborhood!"
The next time I talked to Barlow was twenty-four hours afterwards in more pleasant surroundings.
In the end of my brief unpleasantness with the police I rather sympathized with old Warren. His world of ideas had been suddenly blown to bits.
When I came into Court that morning on remand I stood for the last time between two constables. Warren immediately got up with a worried look on his face, told the two magistrates that he did not propose to call any evidence, and asked that the charge might be withdrawn. The magistrates had been primed--evidently; they merely nodded their assent to Warren and told me I was discharged. The two constables moved away from me. And that was all.
Nobody could remember when anything like it had happened before. The public had no particular grudge against me, but it was puzzled and annoyed--and poor old Warren came in for the brunt of the attack.
"Here's a monstrous crime. The police as usual arrest the wrong man, waste precious time in chasing a will o' the wisp, while the real culprit gets clear away under their noses..."
Some such thing as this the public said, and the newspapers said it in a dozen different keys and in much more ornate language during the next few days. Warren never had a chance to present the evidence on which he had arrested me. Some oracle in the background forbade him to carry the case an inch further. I was to be discharged and the public was never to know what had passed in Warren's office when he asked me to clear out my pockets. It was to forget me as soon as it could--and it succeeded in doing so in two days.
Barlow had effectively wiped the slate before beginning to write his own version on it. He was helped by the new and growing practice of permitting the police to use the coroner's court as a place of preliminary examination of accused persons and the Coroner himself as a kind of juge d'instruction on the French model. The Coroner in this instance had opened his inquest on the Thursday afternoon, taken evidence of identification from Paynter, and then adjourned for a month. The slate was clean.
I had gone back to the Police Office after the hearing to collect my property. They handed me a note:
"Meet me at Ferry Grange this afternoon. But don't let on about me. I'm a friend of Mr. Challenger--nothing more. Most important.--J. B."
I found at Ferry Grange that Barlow had been taken there by Tod, just as he took me, and had apparently become one more inmate of Liberty Hall. He was listening to Mrs. Anderson-Orr talking about it and about, enjoying her thrills at second hand, and admirably playing the part of a week-ender mildly interested in the local sensation. Or so I thought and Barlow thought.
We sat on the lawn, myself the center of a group of women--Mrs. Anderson-Orr, Janet, Helen Adamson--With Barlow lounging in a garden chair and veiling his eyes against the sunshine. Tod, having special work at the week-end, was back in London.
Janet and I had grasped hands hard.
"Thanks!" I said to her under my breath.
"I'm glad," said she.
Nothing more: I was immediately involved in explanations of the tragedy which thrilled Mrs. Anderson-Orr even more violently than Mr. Abbott's speeches. Everything in the story thrilled her--especially my most unconvincing account of the reason why I had gone to Morley's Holt after I left them and landed myself in jail instead of in bed at the King's Arms.
"Mon Dieu!" she exclaimed, when I described the walk through the woods and the clanging of the bell and "Mon Dieu!" when I came to the discovery of Parkinson's body-- "Mon Dieu--quelle horreur!"
But I noticed that Mrs. Anderson-Orr never once made any reference to our maladroit trip on the river. Nor did Helen Adamson, sitting quiet and demure, and paler than her wont.
Barlow lay back in his chair, his look lazily traveling round the group while Mrs. Anderson-Orr speculated on the great question: Who killed Parkinson? She was rich in suggestions; in particular she turned over with much relish a theory she had invented of an unhappy love affair and what she called a crime de passion. And she sighed, "Ah, l'amour, l'amour!..."
I leant to Janet and said a word. She got up.
"Coming for a walk along the river?" she invited me.
"May I come too?" said Barlow. "I'd like to see the river."
Butting in like that!--I threw a look of rage at Barlow. But his eyes warned me of a special purpose. When we reached the brink of the stream out of sight and hearing of the lawn, he said:
"Don't think me a pig, Miss Anderson-Orr. I really do know my manners. But I wanted Mr. Masters to explain me to you."
"Good Lord!" I cried. "What a life!"
"Only just tell her I'm not really a lounge-lizard or a curiosity-monger."
"Well," said I to Janet, "Barlow paid me a visit in Reading Gaol yesterday afternoon and it's because of him that I'm not in Reading Gaol now."
"Oh!" said Janet. "Oh, splendid!" with a look at Barlow which I envied him. And then after a moment: "All Mr. Challenger's friends seem to be anything but what they are, don't they? And I suppose Mr. Barlow knows--"
"Everything," I answered; "everything that you and I know. Also, everything we did."
"Then, as I was the person who got him into Reading Gaol, thank you, Mr. Barlow, for getting him out."
"I don't know about that," said Barlow, softly. "Let's wait and see whether he reforms. And you, young lady, too!" Janet raised her eyebrows. "But of course you couldn't possibly know what you were barging into; so, as the message you sent to Lennox yesterday may be very important--"
"The message I sent! You know about that?"
Janet pulled up in astonishment.
"Tell her," said he to me.
I explained Barlow to a bewildered Janet--his position and his job, his relations with Lennox, their search for clews to the Allenstein outrage. Her eyes opened wide.
"You think what happened to poor Mr. Parkinson may have something to do with this?" she asked.
Barlow nodded. "If we found in the pleasant parish of Kenwick the key to the thing we're after I shouldn't be paralyzed with surprise. Deep waters for you, young lady! But you jumped in yourself, you know. I may want your help now that we've saved Mr. Masters from the gallows. Since he says he didn't kill Parkinson, we must find somebody else to fit the halter on--somebody who, in a certain nine minutes of time on Wednesday night, was between Usher's garage and the corner of the lane, shot Parkinson dead, and got clear away while Usher and Mr. Masters were glaring at each other in the garage and waiting for the police."
"We're up against a queer and rather terrible thing, young lady. If you can help us to get to the bottom of the facts, you'll be solving a much more important question than any of the international mystery plots Mr. Masters specializes in--lord, what tripe these fellows do write! This is just crime--sordid, common crime. But crime organized by a super-brain, perfectly cold, unscrupulous, calculating, secret and relentless. And damned successful!" Barlow exclaimed; an unusual outburst for him.
"We want to get at the owner of that brain. He's dangerous. The brain which probably conceived and brought off the coup in Paris and certainly got away with the Allenstein business is not going to be satisfied with two big crimes. There will be others unless we can snaffle him. We've never had any luck in London. The people at the French Sureté are certain he's not to be found in Paris--and I believe 'em, because their methods are remarkably thorough and they don't stick at much. Lennox thought he had a snip once this Spring, when the British Embassy passed on to him a request from us, and he almost caught up his man at Colorado Springs, as Mr. Masters knows."
"I remember Lennox saying that he'd wired along the line and was pretty certain to get him," said I.
"Yes, but he didn't. He expected to intercept him at some place down the line--I've forgotten the name--"
"That's it. But when Pueblo got a squad ready to search the train--nothing doing. He wasn't there. Elusive!--just like trying to catch a streak of greased lightning in a basket of eels. And, young lady, how curious it would be if we had to come to sleepy Kenwick and Miss Anderson-Orr for the real stuff, the thing that's baffled--that's the orthodox newspaper word, ain't it, Masters?--baffled three secret services for a year?"
"I?" Janet looked her bepuzzlement.
"Perhaps," said Barlow. "The only little shred of a clew we have is a pallid face and a squeaky, high-pitched voice. Now that's gone. But let's consider who killed Parkinson, and when we've got the answer--well, we're home."
"Your super-brain was the enemy who beset Mr. Parkinson? That was what terrorized him?"
Barlow nodded to her. "But why was he afraid? Why did he come down here and hide? Why didn't he come to us and say straight out what he said to Lennox through you? Why was that message only to reach Lennox after his death? There's the problem. I can guess at reasons. But I want all the light I can get."
"Have you thought," Janet asked, "of his Frankenstein's Monster?"
"Yes, young lady--but how and why and where did he make that Monster? Either he had some share in the Allenstein business, or he had complete knowledge of it. And the Allenstein outrage was not only burglary and robbery but constructive murder."
"I don't think he was a man who would consciously have anything to do with murder," said Janet. "He didn't seem that sort of man to me."
"It would be very hard to say what sort of man may or may not have something to do with murder," Barlow observed. "As a matter of fact, I think you're right. But he was in the swim."
"Then," Janet pursued, "if he regretted it wouldn't he be quite likely to try and find a place where he could lie secure from enemies or accomplices and watch for a chance of putting things right? And then, if they suspected his intention and found him at Kenwick--"
"Well?" said Barlow, as she paused.
"I'm certain his meeting with me must have been spied on. The attempt to meet him again certainly was--and prevented. They didn't get him then. But the next time they made quite sure."
"Yes--well argued up to a point. It looks as if the attack on him in the woods on Wednesday evening was brought on by your presence in the neighborhood. And that in turn may have made murder inevitable. But there are snags--"
"As, for example," said I, "the question whether the attack last Wednesday evening was an attack on Parkinson at all."
I was thinking of the hole in the boat and Janet. Barlow brooded over it.
"Well, possibly. But there's a bigger snag. I can't get over it--the theory that Parkinson was hiding. How can we say he was hiding? He went freely to London. An enemy could have popped him off in London more easily than anywhere else. Also, if he could be definitely identified with the queer-voiced man in the Allenstein business he would be in far more danger in London than here. But undoubtedly he does appear to hide, and when he moves about he goes furtively. He's as mysterious as the Man in the Iron Mask. When he leaves the house, it's in a closed car. He is seen--and heard, don't forget that--by hardly anybody. On the one occasion when we know him to have gone to London by train--Warren has found that it was because his car was out of order--he comes stealing back across country, and I suppose if you hadn't happened to be on the river in your boat, he'd have swum over. Doesn't it show that Parkinson's cause of Fear was here? That he didn't come down to hide from it but to keep watch on it?"
This was indeed a new and startling light and opened up ugly possibilities.
"Here?" cried Janet.
"Yes--let's discover the person hereabouts, however well camouflaged, of whom Parkinson was afraid. Can you help? I suppose you know everybody in the place?"
I watched Janet's face while Barlow put this. It showed nothing but her bewilderment. But as for me I had cold shivers when I saw where he was tending.
"You don't suggest that your superman is a parishioner of Kenwick, do you, Barlow?"
I put the foolish question with some equally foolish idea of staving off the shock I saw was coming to Janet. He looked at me in surprise.
"If you haven't got some reason of your own for asking a damfool question like that," he said with unaccustomed sharpness, "you're treating a serious job with too much levity."
"Sorry, Barlow," I answered, "but I couldn't see where you were leading."
"You know very well where I'm leading," he declared, mercilessly. "We can narrow this thing down to a very fine point--the people who could have murdered Parkinson must have been within a few hundred yards of Usher's garage at any time between eleven and half-past on Wednesday night. We know Parkinson was afraid of some person or persons, visible or invisible in Kenwick. I think I already know all the visible people in Kenwick who could have been within five hundred yards of Usher's garage between eleven and half past, but I'm not quite sure, and I want Miss Anderson-Orr to help me if she can."
"Oh, but I--"
Janet's cry, stifled in an instant, was a cry of distress, and she impulsively grasped my arm as she shrank away from him.
"Let's tick them off," said Barlow. "There's Usher--"
"Usher!" I exclaimed. "Why Usher--"
"Why not Usher? He was one of the people who were within five hundred yards in the stipulated time. I don't at present think Usher is the man. But he could have done it. By cutting across the field-path, he reached the garage at least a minute before you, perhaps two if he hurried. What about Usher, young lady? How long has he been there?"
"Only a few months. I don't know much of him, except that he's a rough, violent-tempered man of extreme opinions, and that he doesn't like my mother. But I'm sure, Mr. Barlow--"
"We mustn't be quite sure until we know," said Barlow.
"But if that shot had been fired while I was walking up the road, Barlow, I should have heard it," said I.
"Leave it at that. Such things are deceptive. We also know that within five hundred yards of the garage at that time was--"
"Barlow! You can't!" I almost shouted.
"You can't say what you were going to say. Miss Anderson-Orr has no idea--"
"But she's got to have an idea, Mr. Masters. You don't think a thing like that can be hushed up? I told you yesterday."
"At least, let me tell her. Janet--there's a nasty thing to be told, which may affect you and your mother indirectly."
The trouble in her face was intense, but she said, "You'd better tell me."
"I saw the person Barlow was going to mention. In the light of the car lamps, just before we reached the corner of the lane. It was Oddie."
She looked up at me, as if expecting me to add something, waited a moment, and said:
The tone of relief in her voice was marked. Barlow noticed it and sent her an inquiring glance.
"That's curious," she resumed. "I expect he was going home to Lorimer House--it's not far away, you know."
"But you remember that Oddie left here for home even before I'd started." Somehow I knew that I could go on with the story and Janet would not be distressed. "Of course, I expect it's all right, and there's a perfectly good explanation. But Oddie acted in a funny way. As soon as the headlights showed him up, he jumped over the fence and into the field, and I saw no more of him."
Janet's brain was working well, as Barlow admitted afterwards.
"Did Mr. Parkinson see him?" she asked. "Because if he did--well, did he say anything?"
"Parkinson saw something, but he was driving, and I don't think he actually recognized Oddie. He was startled. He said to me, 'Did you see that? It looked to me like--' and then he switched off without saying any name. And I didn't tell him."
"So you see," said Barlow, "we must count in Oddie. What's more, he was seen after the murder getting out of a field into the lane near Usher's Cottage. There's a youth, George Bunbury, an assistant at Usher's, who lives with him. He was coming home from Kenwick where he'd been spending the evening, and in the lane a man jumped out from the hedge almost on top of him. He was startled and swore at the youth. He hasn't any doubt it was Oddie. He knows him well. Oddie, I believe, is sort of adopted by Mr. Webb, isn't he?"
"He lives with Mr. Webb," Janet said.
"He's been there I should think nearly twelve months."
"So? Well now, there's another person--"
The trouble came back to Janet's face, but at that moment, to my gratitude and hers, we heard a voice calling, "Hello, you people! Venez, donc! Don't you want some tea?"
And there was Mrs. Anderson-Orr waving to us from the bottom of the lawn. Barlow waved back. But as we turned he came between us and said in an undertone:
"You two don't seem to realize that you're up against a desperate thing. You're in personal danger, both of you. Keep your eyelids lifted--and suspect everybody!"
I had not a moment alone with Janet to discover the cause of her trouble. It was bad trouble. The way in which she flinched from Barlow when he came to close quarters with the question of times and persons--there was something Janet knew and could not tell, but Barlow would ferret out.
The question drummed in my head while the four of us walked back to the cedar tree where two maids were setting a tea-table and Joshua Webb sat talking to Helen Adamson. Mrs. Anderson-Orr prattled away in her accustomed style, but she stuck close to Janet. There was a subtle difference in her manner and about the whole scene a chilly air that did not seem proper to Ferry Grange. The formerly boisterous Webb was a strangely quiet and serious Webb, who merely nodded to Barlow when Mrs. Anderson-Orr introduced him, and, turning from his talk with Helen, drank tea silently. The hostess made no effort to harmonize us. It soon became apparent that they longed for us to depart.
There was a crow among the seagulls, and it was Barlow.
He talked politely for a few minutes with Janet and her mother while I vainly tried to get a few words out of Helen: she almost visibly flinched from me.
"Well, Masters," said Barlow, with a look that was a command, "I'm ready to drive you back to Kenwick if Mrs. Anderson-Orr will forgive us for deserting this lovely place."
The look quelled my impulse to rebel, but I contrived to say one word to Janet in the fuss of departure. "Steady!"
She gripped my hand.
"To-night if I can," said I. "If not--"
"I shall go to church at Kenwick to-morrow morning," said Janet, as Barlow turned to me and asked, "Ready?"
In Barlow's car I sat silent by his side until we were out of the drive and on the main road. Then he pulled up.
"Now, young man," he began, "it's time for us to come to an understanding."
"Good Lord, Barlow! Why this air of tragedy?"
I spoke more lightly than I felt.
"Tragedy be damned!" said Barlow. "If you're going to put spokes in my wheel, you go back to London tonight, 'toot sweet' as that extraordinary woman would say. I'd better have left you in jail. You'd have been safer."
"I'm not conscious--"
"You make me tired, Masters. Finicking about. Godswot!--d'you think I was born feeble-minded?" I never saw Barlow in such a temper. "She's a nice girl and a clever girl--a dam' sight cleverer than you. Get on with it and good luck to you--at the proper time. But that's not now. I take you into my confidence in a big thing, and you're actually thinking of going back on me. It can't be done--either for your sake or hers or mine. Understand that!"
He fired all this at me leaning with his elbows on the wheel and his face within twelve inches of mine.
"All right, Barlow," said I. "You're angry about something. Where've I gone wrong?"
"Not that you've gone wrong--but you were about to go."
He relapsed into his seat and his normal manner.
My intellect, he said, was not working full time, for even now I did not seem to sense the strength of the thing we were up against. I asked asinine questions. I affected to doubt whether there was any exceptional person in the case. It wasn't enough for me that a thing like the Allenstein affair had been followed by a desperately cruel and hideously clever murder. I made infantile jokes about Barlow's discovery of super-brains among the parishioners of Kenwick. (That seemed to have stuck in Barlow's throat.) I had just got to cut it out and give serious attention to what Barlow said, and jolly well look out for my own precious skin.
"Look here, young man," he wound up his sermon, "I don't talk about super-brains without meaning it. I've got no such great respect for other people's brains as to give 'em more credit than they deserve. But I think I do know whose is the brain behind this. No--I'm not going to tell you: I may be quite wrong. But whether he's here in Kenwick, camouflaged among your acquaintances, or hiding in secret, or operating at a distance--these crimes are his, and I mean to get at him. I've got my first glimpse of him, and I'm not going to have any hanky-panky from you because you think that young lady may be annoyed. So chew that over."
And then he put the conclusions he had reached at Ferry Grange. All these people, he said, were hiding up something--the double-barreled woman, the mousy girl, the Webb man. Barlow thought he knew what it was. He thought he knew why they were hiding it. Hadn't Webb got a matrimonial eye on Mrs. Anderson-Orr? At least, Warren said so. And the little mousy girl, hadn't she paired off with the man called Oddie? And wasn't Oddie an intimate of Webb's?
"Oddie's the secret," said Barlow. "Oddie in the road before the murder, Oddie jumping over the hedge after the murder, Oddie disappearing in the morning!--"
"Leaving by the first train for London."
"But he's in business in London--Webb's old business. He goes up three or four times a week."
"That may be; but this time he don't arrive there so's you can see him. At Kenwick they say, 'Oddie's at his business in London.' His business in London says, 'Nothing of the sort--he's at Kenwick.' Now, Masters, that queer bunch of folks on the lawn know where Oddie is and why. They are aware that I'm curious to know also. But you noticed that when I mentioned Oddie, the girl didn't seem to get much of a jerk?"
"I did--but that didn't surprise me, Barlow. She wasn't particularly fond of Oddie."
"No, I guess not. But she was mighty scared about the next person I was going to mention, wasn't she? Went all dithery. So there's somebody else in this besides Oddie. Bet you I know who it is."
I stared amazed. "You! You mean you guess?"
"No--I know. Bet you I know why they're scared, too. Your girl's fond of her mother, isn't she? And her mother's fond of Mr. Webb? Well--the next person I was going to mention was our friend Webb!"
I was staggered.
"Joshua!" I articulated, stupidly. Surely Webb, that portly little bundle of joyousness, could not be in the swim?
"Josh? Is that his name? God bless his godfathers!--they knew how," Barlow exclaimed with his first smile. "Yes--Josh, however surprising it may seem. I'm not ruling out anybody who was abroad in the neighborhood at the time of the crime. I don't accuse him. But he's put himself where I want to know a lot more about him. See what happened just now. D'you think if I went and said, 'Josh, where were you such and such a time on Wednesday night?' he'd tell me? Not on your life!"
"But where was he, Barlow?"
"I'll take you there directly. But--mind, no spokes in the wheel. I'm getting to the bottom of this, and I don't care whom I dig up. I won't be interfered with--not for anybody's beautiful eyes."
The suggestion behind Barlow's words left me speechless. He drove on. We had not gone far when a klaxon sounded behind us, Barlow moved in to the near side, and a large car ran by. The chauffeur sitting by the driver's side touched his cap as he passed. Immediately in front, the car pulled up and signaled to us to stop. Barlow drew up alongside.
"Anything the matter?" he shouted.
But there was nothing the matter. It was Mr. Abbott who leaned out of the window to speak to me, and Paynter who sat beside him.
"How do you do, Mr. Masters?" said Abbott, in his old-fashioned formal way. "Paynter said it was you in the car, and I thought I must stop to say a word. What an experience, yours!--though, thank God it was not--er--protracted. Of course, dear old Warren's idea was absurd on the face of it. Nevertheless I congratulate you on getting out--er, getting out of it so quickly."
"You're very good," I acknowledged. "It wasn't nice. But it's all over."
"You know poor Parkinson's funeral was this morning? I went--a melancholy hour. The morbidity of the public!--even in our quiet village. Warren tells me they have a clew. But they always have. I hope it will be a more plausible one this time."
"I hope so, indeed."
"You know, when I saw you last you gave me a great shock [I recalled him in his dressing gown] and I'm afraid I wasn't very hospitable."
"One doesn't expect lavish hospitality at three in the morning," I smiled.
"No--but I might have thought of asking you to come under different circumstances and look over Morley's Holt. Rather unkempt, but worth seeing. Will you do me the pleasure?"
"Delighted," said I.
Abbott had given an occasional glance at Barlow while he was speaking. I brought him into it:
"This is Mr. Barlow, of London, a friend of Mr. Challenger's. Mr. Abbott, of Morley's Holt, Barlow. I burst into his dressing room at the heels of a policeman on Wednesday night."
"How d'e do, Mr. Abbott?" said Barlow. "I remember the name. I think I saw a letter of yours in The Times recently."
Abbott literally bridled with pleasure.
"Ah, yes--a small contribution on a big subject. By the way, Mr. Masters, I'm returning to the charge--on the authorities' stone-blindness to the plainest pike-staffs. I've got the letter here in fact. [He tapped his pocket.] It's apropos of Parkinson. The waste of time in arresting you instead of getting on with the real business. Though I confess I'd not have believed that such a thing could happen here. You remember I scouted the idea that we'd anything to fear in Kenwick? Well, when will you come to see me?--Monday? Are you staying till then?"
"I expect Challenger will be down on Monday," I told him.
"Oh, do bring him along. And your friend, Mr.--?"
"Mr. Barlow--if you've nothing better to do?"
"Thanks. It'll be a pleasure," said Barlow.
"Then, Monday. Come over to lunch. Say one o'clock."
The car slipped away.
"Seems a genial old boy," said Barlow. "Not at all the kind of man I pictured writing that letter."
"He's far more intelligent than his letters," I answered. "But there's a strain of the J.B.F.F. in him--it comes out if anybody so much as whispers the word Empire."
"J.B.F.F.?--what in the name of Mike is that?"
"You know--in Stalky--the jelly-bellied flag-flapper. He flapped just a wee bit when I met him at Ferry Grange."
"Perhaps we can draw him on Monday. That's a good egg, by the way--Morley's Holt. We can go and see where that shooting was. I suppose you haven't thought out what may have happened then?"
I had thought a great deal, but could get no light on it. It was all so sudden and confused. "Just flashes in the dark, you know, Barlow. And there was Janet--Miss Anderson-Orr--"
"You thought they were firing at you?"
"Yes--what else could I think? For a time I had a wild notion that it was Parkinson himself--mad. That was why I went there that awful night to put the notion to the test. One shot went through the boat. Another hit the water just beyond it. Enough to make you think you were being fired at! But of course Parkinson's story put a different complexion on it. The shots might have been meant for him and reached us by accident."
"I'm thinking of possible traces at Morley's Holt," said Barlow. "We'll see--if Warren hasn't spoilt it all before then."
He switched round into the lane that passed Usher's cottage and drove quickly by it in the direction of Kenwick Station. About a mile beyond the cottage, a youth stood in the road. As Barlow stopped the car beside him I recognized the tow-haired superintendent of the petrol pumps at Usher's garage.
"Jump in behind, Bunbury," said Barlow. "When must you be back?"
"Seven o'clock, sir."
"Good. I'll land you here at half-past six."
He drove on till he came to a long, straight stretch of the road about half way to the Station. There he pulled up.
"Just a precaution," said he. "Bunbury and I don't want anybody but you to know we've had a chat this afternoon...Now, Bunbury, out with it!--the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, my lad. And not a word to anybody else about me or this gentleman. A lad who was where you were on Wednesday night stands a good chance of putting his head through a noose if he isn't very careful what he says."
"S'elp me, God, sir--" the boy began. He was hardly more than a boy--about nineteen.
"Never mind about taking the oath now," said Barlow; "later on, perhaps."
"I only meant I'd no more to do with it than an unborn baby, sir."
He was in a sweat of apprehension.
"So you say, and I'll believe you if you can account for every minute--all you did and all you saw between, say, ten and twelve on Wednesday night. Go on. Ten o'clock: you were at the King's Arms tap in Kenwick. You left at closing time. How many had you had?"
"So near's I can remember, five pints, sir."
Barlow gave me a wink.
"Stout fellow!" said he. "Not more than that?"
"Only five, sir, I swear," declared Bunbury, oblivious of any irony in Barlow.
"Let me see--five pints, four per cent, say nearly a gill of pure alcohol. Quite sober? Not a bit squiffy? Didn't see double?"
The boy hung his head, ashamed.
"I said I'd tell the truth. I was drunk, sir. Just rolling, like. I could stand up and walk, but it's true I did see double. I seen two of Mr. Oddie. And before that I seen two cars and two Mr. Parkinsons--and I scarce knew which to dodge."
I conjured up that lurching figure just escaping the wing of the car.
"Well, never mind. Go on. Ten o'clock you leave the King's Arms--"
"I went straight home--straight as I could. I mean, I didn't stop nowhere, not to speak of. I remember going past the garridge--"
"Just a minute, Bunbury," said Barlow. "How about the garage? See anything or anybody there?"
"No, sir. It was all closed up and dark."
"All right. You passed the garage--"
"And then I must have missed the turning into the lane, because I comes to Morley Ferry Bridge. I says to myself, 'Damn it, George, you're drunk,' and I turns back--"
"Easy all!" Barlow interrupted him. "How long after you saw the car did you get to the bridge and turn back?"
But this was beyond him. He could only remember that he had seen the car, and did reach the bridge and realize his error. He then returned, and this time he did not miss the lane.
"I can tell you, Barlow," said I. "He was not far this side of the bridge when we passed him--just outside Ferry Grange."
"That's under a mile from the corner of the lane. Twenty minutes? About, for him. Well, Bunbury, did you see anything or anybody else before you turned into the lane?"
"No, sir, not till I was down the lane. I was a bit far gone, and I leaned up against the fence to rest for a minute, and I s'pose I must have dozed, for, next thing, I feels somebody jerking the wire, and wakes up, and somebody jumps into the road close beside me, and says, 'Shsh!--keep back!' And I says, 'I can't keep back no further, Mr. Oddie'--because I recognized his voice. And he says, angry like, ''Ell! you're drunk. Get on home!' And so I goes home."
"Are you sure it was Oddie?" asked Barlow. "You couldn't see his face."
"No, 'twas too dark, and there were two of him. I was sort of looking between him. But I knows him well enough by his voice--and his manner of speaking."
"Wait a minute, Bunbury..."
Barlow, leaning over the back of the seat, closed his eyes for a few seconds.
"Is all this gospel?" he asked presently.
"May I die, sir, if--"
"All right--you'll die sure enough if you tell me a single thing that isn't true. You say you went home. Did the two Mr. Oddies stay there?"
"Don't know. I went home, and I never seen or heard any more of him."
"And where was it he came through the fence?"
"As near as I can tell, about half way from the corner of the lane to Mr. Usher's house."
"Could he get home to Lorimer House that way?"
"He'd have to climb the fence the other side of the road, cross two fields, and get in at the back."
"Could you show me the place?"
"Near abouts, I think I could."
"Very well, Bunbury, you shall. And then, after you'd left Mr. Oddie, you got home. What did you expect to find?--Mr. Usher up?"
"Yes--and a clout on the head for keeping him up."
But he weren't up--leastwise, I thought he weren't. I thought he'd gone to bed and left the door on the latch for me."
"You don't know what time that was? No? Well, what did you do?"
"I found a lamp lit in the kitchen. I weren't too sure about climbing the stairs, so I sat down there, listened to the clock ticking, and went to sleep."
"I waked up with the door opening and people talking. I seen Mr. Usher's back in the doorway, and heard somebody outside speaking."
"Hear what they said?"
"Yes. The man outside said, 'So that's all right, Usher--not a word about me, mind.' And Mr. Usher says, 'All right,' and shuts the door and comes in and sees me."
"And what about the clout on the head?"
"There weren't no clout. He stares a bit, and then comes over and looks in my eyes for a long time. And he says, very quiet like, 'George--you're drunk. Go to bed.' Just like that. And I went."
"Did you know the time then?"
"Yes, sir, it was a quarter past one by the kitchen clock. I reckon the sleep must have done me good, because I seen only one of Mr. Usher, and I seen the clock quite plain."
"It was unusual for Usher to come in at one in the morning. Did he say anything to you about where he'd been or what happened at the garage?"
"No, sir, he only said the words I've told you."
'And who was the man Usher talked to at the door, Bunbury?"
"It was Mr. Webb, sir."
Barlow threw a look at me. He had done with Mr. Bunbury for the time. He turned the car, drove back and discharged him at the place where we had picked him up, and said:
"Now, Bunbury, I suppose Mr. Usher don't get up very early on Sunday mornings?"
"No, sir, he lies in bed with the paper and does crossword puzzles."
"Well, then, to-morrow morning I shall be at the corner of the lane at seven o'clock. You're to meet me there and show me where Oddie came over the fence. And, on your life! not a word to any one."
We left him, standing open-mouthed and crestfallen in the road.
"Useful lad, that! What did I tell you, Masters? Don't we require to know a little more about Josh? And aren't we getting warm? Now we're going to put it across Usher--and then I think we'll deserve some dinner."
We found Usher tinkering with the car on whose running board I had sat through so nerve-racking a scene three nights before. Barlow's way with Usher was an intensification of his way with the tow-haired youth. This appeared to be his second visit to the garage, and I judged that at the first Usher had shown off his paces in the fashion that so highly amused Tod Challenger.
Usher looked up as we entered. He dropped his spanner on the floor with a clang when he saw me.
"Now, my man--" Barlow began.
"Don't you 'my man' me, my man!"
Usher at his surliest! He glared ferociously at Barlow.
"If you give me any of your damned impertinence," Barlow drawled, "I'll put you where you probably belong--in jail! I've a warrant for your arrest in my pocket--and damn me if I don't execute it unless you're civil."
Usher had put one foot forward with a threat. But Barlow's show of authority deflated him just as old Sergeant Warren's did. He drew back, said:
"Warrant? What for? Who are you?"
"My name's Barlow. I told you that yesterday. I have all the necessary authority to deal with you, my man. So just listen to me. When I came here and asked you some commonplace, polite questions, you didn't answer but began blowing off your Bolshy opinions about your neighbors and mankind in general. I don't stand for any more of that. Have you got me? You can stand on the soapbox as long as you like when I'm not there. Provided you keep out of jail. Soap-boxes not allowed in his Majesty's prisons."
Usher's expression was a comic mixture of anger and nervousness.
"If you're a policeman, why didn't you say so?" he asked. "I don't want any trouble with the police. Warrant? Arrest? What for?"
"If you don't know what for, so much the better for you, my man. We'll see. You can't bulldoze me--I know too many of your sort. You just answer a few questions, and answer truthfully. Come into your office with us and shut the door."
When, in the untidy matchboard shanty that served for an office, he had cleared enough room for us to sit and himself mounted a stool with an overalled leg on each side of it, Usher was an image of sullen wretchedness.
"You know," said Barlow, "that Mr. Masters here was wrongly arrested for the murder of Parkinson and has been discharged. It's my job to arrest the right man. It may be one of several people--and you're one of the several, Usher."
"Me! How the 'ell--"
He stopped as Barlow raised a warning hand and said: "I advise you not to argue about it. I'm not charging you--and therefore I couldn't make any use of what you say if you were charged afterwards. But it's quite evident that you could have done it, Usher, you know. You were here some little time before Mr. Masters came up. Why did you cut across the field path when you could have come in the car?"
"I couldn't have come in the car. The car was here already."
"But you didn't know that?"
"I didn't. But anyhow, it ain't so far across the field to the garage as 'tis to the corner of the lane."
"But that's not why you came across the field."
"No, it ain't. I don't mind telling what is. I didn't like Parkinson, and wouldn't ride in his ruddy car. I had a row with him about some repairs I did."
"Yes, that's all. I only saw him alive twice--when he brought the car here and when he took it away. Squeaky little pimp!--"
Usher's temper was running away with him again.
"Well, anyhow, you had, say, two minutes alone with him Wednesday night before Mr. Masters came up. And every minute of everybody concerned has to be accounted for. I want to know all that you did and saw and said between the time you left your house and the time you got back again. When you reached here the car was standing outside?"
"Yes it was. I thought Parkinson had got tired of waiting for him"--he nodded towards me--"or didn't care a curse what happened to him, or thought the garage might be open: the devil knows what a batchy old fool like him would think or do. Anyhow, there he was."
"How do you know it was Parkinson? You didn't go to speak to him?"
"Me speak to him! Not likely. If it hadn't been for obliging him"--he nodded my way again--"Parkinson could have waited till now before I turned out to sell him any gas. I--well, I just saw the car there--and I was opening up the pump when you came up: you saw me."
It did not need a brain so keen as Barlow's to note the slight hesitation in Usher's voice, a sort of catch when he said he just saw the car there. It struck even me. Barlow jumped in instantly.
"You've forgotten something, Usher," said he, quietly.
"Eh? What have I forgot?"
"What you saw at the same time when you saw the car and before you went to the petrol pump."
"I didn't see anything--not to be certain of."
"Heard, then--come now!" Barlow spoke sternly.
"Well--I heard footsteps in the road."
"Ah! Were they coming, going--or what?"
"How could I tell?"
"Of course you could tell. Don't shuffle!" said Barlow.
"In the end they went away," said Usher, with a baleful eye on his tormentor.
"Yes--but in the beginning," Barlow persisted. "If they went away afterwards, they must have come first."
"I didn't hear them coming."
"Then you must have heard them start. Now, Usher--where did they start from, eh?"
"I can't tell you. All I know is I heard them just as I came up to the gate."
"Close at hand then--yes? But hurrying--yes? Well, why not say straight out: 'Somebody was at the car when I came through the gate and startled them, and they hurried away'?"
Usher didn't stand it well.
"If you're so dam' certain about it," he broke out, "why ask me?"
Barlow took no notice of the interruption.
"Usher," he said, "you knew who it was. You saw him, or you saw them--even if they did try to keep out of the light. Tell the truth. You'd better--because I know it!"
"I didn't see clear enough to be sure--and I shan't put a name to 'em. I ain't going to land any one in trouble--and you can do what you dam' well like about it."
Barlow considered the lowering face for a minute or two, and said more gently:
"Well, we'll leave that. If you didn't see clearly, did you hear anything else?"
"Yes--I heard a car start and stop."
"A car?--sure?" Barlow seemed puzzled.
"Sure enough. I know the sound of a motor."
"Where was it?"
"Couldn't make out. Near by. But not in sight."
This was plainly as new a fact to Barlow as it was to me. He worried it from all sides with a sharp fire of questions. There was only one road and the car must have been on it not far from the garage. In which direction Usher could not tell. He thought it was not as far away as the lane--and there was no car in the lane, or even on the road between the lane and the garage, or I should have seen it. Therefore it must have been beyond the garage in the direction of Kenwick. It started and stopped--almost immediately. He did not hear it restart. But that was not surprising, for he was soon preoccupied with the discovery of Parkinson's body.
In his own rough way, Usher drew a striking picture--himself standing by the gate that led from the field path into the road shielding his eyes from the glare of the headlights with his left hand and peering into the darkness beyond their range, trying to make out two figures which he had glimpsed. Then hearing the noise of an engine. Then turning to the pumps, and presently seeing me come up from the opposite direction.
Barlow pondered it for a moment, gazing hard into Usher's eyes.
"Yes--that's all very well," said he. "But when you came through the gate and saw the car, you must have thought Parkinson was there waiting for petrol. Everything was normal so far as you knew. Why did you stand breathless looking down the road to see those two people who had hurried away?"
Usher snapped a surly jaw.
"You ain't going to get it out of me that way," he growled. "I've told you I won't put a name to 'em."
Barlow contemplated him silently, their eyes battling, but he did not pursue the question. Instead he asked:
"How long after you got to the gate did you hear the car down the road?"
To that Usher answered that he might have stood at the gate a minute or less. And he drew the inference that the people he had seen had reached the car, started off in it, and then stopped for some casual reason. He went to unlock the pump, and I came up. After that he thought no more either about people or car.
"Well," said Barlow, "go on now--to the time when the policemen had taken away Parkinson's body, and Warren had gone with Mr. Masters, and you were left alone to lock up. It was near one o'clock in the morning. Somebody came--"
"How the 'ell--!" Usher pulled up short in his favorite imprecation.
"Somebody came," Barlow repeated calmly. "One of your friends among the idle rich--one of the blinking bourgeoisie you love so dearly. Not so, Usher?"
"Well--what about it?" He tried to keep a brave face.
"One in the morning!--strange time for him to be blowing in for a chat, wasn't it? What about that?"
"I didn't ask him to come."
"I know--but didn't you think it queer that he should be prowling about that time of night?--that particular night?"
"I did think it queer. I told him so."
"And then you had a little talk, I suppose, about what had just happened--and perhaps he walked along with you after you'd shut up the garage, and you came to an agreement to keep your mouth shut about what you'd seen. Profitable agreement, Usher? How much of his idle riches did you get, or are you going to get?"
Usher paled under the grime of his face and flinched.
"That's my business. What Mr. Webb pays me for what I do for him is between us, ain't it? I look after his car."
"Afraid not, Usher. If you knew a bit of law you'd understand that there's a nasty name for that sort of trade. They call it conspiracy."
"I can't help what they call it," the man said doggedly. "No money's passed between Webb and me--and you can't prove anything."
"What I can prove will be seen all in good time," said Barlow. "I'd like to have a look at the bill you were going to send in to him for repairs! Now--this is how we stand, Usher. You saw Oddie and you saw Webb. I'm going to suppose that at first you'd no idea there was anything wrong, and that afterwards you were persuaded by Webb that nothing really was wrong in spite of appearances. You see--I'm being charitable. But listen to this, my good fellow--I shall leave off being charitable the minute I find you're crossing me, and I won't have any mercy on you."
Barlow got up and signaled to me.
"Just two words, Usher. Nothing to be said to anybody about me and my inquiries. Instant obedience if I ask for any further help or information. Is it a deal?"
"You've got the cards," said Usher. And that was his submission.
It was like Barlow, having apparently done with the man, to turn suddenly as he was leaving the office, and explode a fresh question on him.
"By the way, Usher, how did you spend the evening?"
Usher's brows lowered against this new attack.
"I was here working," said he.
"Don't know exactly. Till I went home and had a bite--not long before he came to the door," and he nodded in my direction.
"Anybody come while you were here?"
"Anybody helping you?"
"No. George Bunbury went off at six, and spent the evening in Kenwick--and got drunk."
Barlow frowned over this piece of gratuitous information.
"Who's George Bunbury?"
"He's my apprentice."
Barlow considered George Bunbury for a moment. Then he turned away.
"Very well," said he. "That's all for the present. But remember--no chin-wagging about me, on your life!"
Barlow took with me at the King's Arms the dinner he had earned, myself the object of much whispering curiosity among the servants. But before he could get it he was obliged to spend half an hour deciphering a long telegram in code from Lennox. He showed me the decoded message:
"Full inquiries Oddie. Not known in connection with X ..".
"Who's X?" I asked.
"Algebraical symbol--the unknown quantity, our superman. We call him X until we can equate him."
"...Reddish opinions. May be tool. But no traces found. Business man. Son of late H. G. Oddie, former partner Joshua Webb, manufacturer, High Street, Southwark. Adopted by Webb. Noted for extreme views at University. College. All time and movements accounted for except he was expected London Thursday and did not arrive. Not seen since. Convinced if Oddie leads to nothing some other clew will be found at Kenwick."
Barlow said he would like to spend a quiet evening smoking a pipe over the case and go to bed early. "I'm going, to be an early riser to-morrow." It was a hint to me to make myself scarce. I was not averse from the idea of an early bed-time. I had last slept in Reading Gaol, and it seemed a long while ago. But there was Janet...
"I think I shall go for a walk before I turn in, Barlow," said I.
"Go for a what?" he cried. "Is there a lunatic asylum near by? If so, turn in there and ask them to lock you up."
Barlow had risen and glared at me. "What's the uproar?" I asked.
"It must be congenital," he said. "You mean to say you don't realize even now that you're for it the first time they sight you? You've slipped through their hands once. Give 'em another chance--" He shrugged his shoulders. "If you must go to see the girl, take my car and drive like hell both ways."
"If you think it would be unwise to go--"
"That's a fatuous question. Is it unwise for a moth to fly into a candle? It is. But you can't stop him. You're grown up. I'm not your nurse. You ought to be all right in the car. But for heaven's sake be careful. And tell the girl to be careful too. They'll probably leave her alone anyhow. But you never know."
The headlights lit up her figure standing in the drive as I swept up in Barlow's car.
"Hello! I just came out on the off-chance you might turn up," said she. "Too much of a crowd in there...the three of 'em, still chewing over Mr. Barlow."
I was not sorry to be saved from Mrs. Anderson-Orr and Joshua to-night. We walked a little on the road.
So they had not been deceived about Barlow? Janet smiled. Nobody could deceive her mother, she said--not a dozen Barlows, not a hundred Challengers. But, as it happened, no astuteness of hers had been needed to unveil Barlow: Joshua had done that. Barlow must have rather thrown himself around she thought, in the two days of his stay at Kenwick; for Joshua knew all about his being a policeman and forming a theory that George Oddie was in the Parkinson affair. So you see--
"Janet--I can call you Janet, can't I?--"
"Anyhow it's better than Miss Anderson-Orr. You can call me Janet if you don't presume on it. And I'll call you Adolphus if you won't presume on that."
Janet was throwing out her defenses against sentiment again--and perhaps stalling off a part of the talk we must have.
"If you call me Adolphus, I shall retaliate with Hortensia or Ecscholzia, or something botanical," said I.
"But if you call me John, as my relations used to, all will be well."
"All right, John. And what were you going to say before you began to be personal?"
"I was going to say I thought we two might be perfectly candid with each other."
"Well, although I've only known you about five days, two of which you spent in jail--all right."
I began to display my candor at once. I said she must have perceived that Barlow would stick at nothing to get to the bottom of the Parkinson affair (although a murder was not exactly his pigeon) because he thought he could get at the bigger thing through it, and perhaps in the end find his way to the Unknown Quantity.
I told her how far Barlow had gone after the Oddie clew, and how Joshua had been dragged into it. I said it looked like being unpleasant for the people at Ferry Grange, and I hated the thought of unpleasantness for her. And finally I came round to the thing that really perturbed me.
What had the cry of alarm meant?
What was going to hurt her if Barlow had gone on to the next person on his list? I knew that he would have mentioned Joshua Webb next. Was that going to affect Janet--
"John--" she interrupted me (and it was the first time she had used the name in earnest) "I'm afraid you'll have to trust me."
There was no difficulty about trusting her. That wasn't the point: what did Janet fear?
"You wouldn't understand. And perhaps the fear was a chimera. I think it's quite absurd that Joshua Webb should be under suspicion, but, although he wants to be my stepfather and I rather like him, it wasn't Joshua that made me cry out. I don't think I can tell you, John. You'll have to trust me."
"All right, Janet. We'll drop it. If anything Barlow does worries you, or anybody--your mother for instance--remember that, though I'd like to see this cleared up, I shall be with you and against him. The deuce of it is that he noticed your anxiety about that name--"
"Never mind," said she. "I shall know how to deal with Mr. Barlow next time we meet. Now tell me about Reading Gaol..."
Barlow had already gone to bed when I returned to the King's Arms.
I sat with a pipe before the fire in the coffee-room indulging in an imaginary orgie of sentiment all the more violent because Janet would none of the real thing. What a girl she was! What a paragon of girls!--how open-minded, strong-winded, loyal, frank, clear-eyed, splendid, yes--and beautiful, unquestionably in a clean-run way--the dark eyes and the fine skin, the nervous, resolute hand--
And then I seemed to hear Janet calling me a fatuous sentimentalist and saying I ought to have been christened Adolphus! I knocked out the pipe and went to bed.
That night was an infernal carnival. I passed it between vivid dreams and startled awakings--dreaming some grotesque and horrible aspect of the Parkinson case, waking to dispel it. In one dream I killed Parkinson myself. Janet reproached and spurned me. Oddie and Webb and Barlow and Usher sat round and put me through the Third Degree. Usher, swollen to the dimensions of a giant, like some absurd caricature of a hairy Bolshevik, abused me profanely and threatened to brain me with a Brobdingnagian spanner.
And always there was the figure of Mrs. Anderson-Orr in the background saying Quelle horreur! or bursting into the circle crying Je sais tou!
Mrs. Anderson-Orr persisted remarkably in these nightmares, seeing how small was my acquaintance with her. So clear was her figure and so real her voice that in the last of them I woke right up, her words ringing in my ears--"I know everything! You clever men can't bulldoze me."
I jumped up and lit the candle--the King's Arms boasted no other bedroom light. To lie looking at the sporting prints on the wall and see the comforting, solid old furniture was better than going off into that realm of horrible fantasy. Now I was able to read logic into it. Mrs. Anderson-Orr, who had seemed a merely gushing and eccentric person on first acquaintance, had impressed Barlow with her cleverness, and Barlow was a good judge of character. Janet had said nobody could deceive her mother, and Janet was a good judge too. That sudden translation of Mrs. Anderson-Orr from a mere poseuse into a woman to reckon with had somehow made a deep impression on my sub-consciousness.
Curiously, the first subject of Barlow's talk when I met him at a very late breakfast was Mrs. Anderson-Orr. He had been out to keep his appointment with George Bunbury at seven o'clock. He came back hungry, zestful, and in high spirits.
"That's a dam' clever woman, Masters--that woman with the two-pronged name. Sorry!--I oughtn't to use monosyllables on a Sunday. A mighty clever woman. If you marry her daughter--"
"I say, Barlow--there's a limit of decency! I've known the girl less than a week."
"What the deuce does that matter? I state a hypothetical case. Note the 'if.' I say if you marry her daughter, you'll have a mother-in-law in a thousand. A clairvoyant, a thought-reader! Gosh!--get this, Masters: young George turned up a bit late at the trysting place this morning. We went down the lane. He wasn't as positive as the Pope about the spot he looked for. But when he'd sort of fixed it, who should come strolling down the lane but Mrs. Something-or-Other. Now, how did she know we had an appointment there, young George and I?"
"Don't be absurd, Barlow! Why should she know? She lives not far away. Webb's house is close by. She's friendly with Webb."
"M-m--yes. Not long after seven o'clock in the morning, remember. There's a limit, as you might say, of friendship. But, perpend, my young friend. She don't show up till George has taken his bearings and settled where he had his nap, and we're having a look at the fence. Then she and I, watching each other like cat and dog, catch sight of the same thing at the same time. I don't say anything about it to her, nor she to me. She's expressed her surprise at meeting me. She's said, 'Well, George, how are you?' She's mentioned the weather and the crisp morning air and a few other things, and said, 'Quel beau matin!' And she's preparing to pass on when she brings off her masterpiece. Gosh!--what a work of art. She lifts the top wire of the fence--a top strand of barbed wire it is--and stoops and gets through into the field. I rush over to help keep up the wire. She says, 'Thanks--it's liable to catch in one's clothes, isn't it? I sometimes cut across this way to Lorimer House. Only the other morning I tore my dress. Safe this time. Good morning, Mr. Barlow. Merci bien!' And away she goes. A perfect masterpiece! Can you beat it?"
"Shouldn't think it a very difficult feat for an active woman to climb through a wire fence, Barlow," said I.
"I return your compliment: don't be absurd. This is the thing we both saw at once," he said, dropping his toast to pull out a pocket book, from which he extracted a scrap of damp rag. "That's the place where she tore her dress one of those often mornings when she took a short cut to Lorimer House. When one hasn't got a cavalier like you, Mr. Barlow, to hold up the nasty wire for one, one's liable to tear one's dress, isn't one? Quite so, dear lady. And if, Mr. Barlow, you come across that bit of stuff while you're prying and poking around this way, you'll know when and how it got there, won't you, Mr. Barlow? Quite so, dear lady. Can you beat it, Masters?"
"It seems a bit far-fetched," I ventured.
Barlow shook his head.
"I can see 'em yesterday at Ferry Grange, after we left. I can hear 'em. 'That fellow Barlow's going to be a nuisance, Amelia,' or whatever her name is. 'Je te crois, Joshua!' 'He'll be nosing about everywhere, Amelia; he'll be getting at that drunken young swine, George. He'll go down there and see what he can find.' 'Mon Dieu, Joshua, I ripped a bit off my dress! If it should still be there he'll find that, Joshua!' 'Yes, Amelia, and the ground being very soft just there, he'll also find footprints.' 'So he will, Joshua! Que faire?' 'Damned if I know, Amelia.' 'But I do, Josh--I'm a resourceful woman, I am. I'll go down there first thing in the morning before he's likely to get at it. Sunday morning--nobody about. I'll find whether that bit of my dress is still there, and I'll see what can be done about the footprints.' 'Oh, Amelia--you are a resourceful woman. Let me kiss you!'"
I got a laugh out of Barlow's farcical fancy. But it was only momentary.
"If there's anything in your highly imaginative theory, Barlow--"
"Oh, come off it! You aren't writing a leading article, Masters. Anything in it? Why it yells at you! Remember the girl? Now--why was she scared stiff when I Went through that catalogue of people who were in the danger zone on Wednesday night? Because she knew who one of 'em was."
"But it's preposterous!" I cried.
"Can't see anything preposterous in it. Not that I think any ill of Mrs. Kellbo-Matta. I've a great admiration for her. But I'm not so sure of the prophet Joshua. Josh is fishy. Josh has got wind up. I want to know a lot more about Josh. And if Mrs. Echo-de-Paris can tell me some of it, she's got to."
Barlow's fertility in nicknames for Mrs. Anderson-Orr was exhaustless. He seemed to have a real dislike for double-barreled names, and especially for Anderson-Orr.
"What d'you mean, Barlow, by 'Got to'? Third Degree stuff?"
"Far from it, my precious innocent. Can you see me applying the Third Degree to that woman? Why, she'd revel in it. The thrills she'd get out of it--without being the least bit of use to me! No, she will tell me unawares--"
"Because, Barlow, if there was to be any Third Degree stuff with Mrs. Anderson-Orr, I should have to quit."
With what mock horror Barlow received the possibility of my desertion I need not relate. He implored me not to leave him in the lurch and indulged in many other pleasantries; but he did make it plain that he intended nothing whatever to discommode Mrs. Anderson-Orr: he would leave her to discover her secret to him by her own action.
Whether it was Barlow's perspicacity or whether it was sheer chance, the very next day seemed to provide exactly the kind of action that would be most luminous to Barlow.
We kept our luncheon engagement with Abbott. There were only two of us: Tod did not arrive at Kenwick in time. The place was "unkempt" as Abbott had said--but how friendly and cheerful in the daylight compared with its aspect on Wednesday night!
As Barlow steered along the untidy curling drive, he said, "Shan't have time to go down to the river after lunch. The old boy's sure to want us to go--but cry off, will you? I've got to get back. And it don't matter, because I had a good look at the place on my own yesterday."
"Oh?" said I wonderingly.
"Yes--while you were philandering I came up the river. I didn't go to the house. A little essence of Abbott goes a long way with me. Can't stand frequent doses. Journalists are bad enough, but--"
"Find anything?" I asked.
"Oh, just trampled undergrowth here and there--but in a big wild place like that, talk about needles in haystacks! No--nothing significant. Here we are--Gosh! that's been some house in its day," said he, as we swung round alongside the tall portico.
The luncheon was a simple affair, waited on by the girl who had shouted out the window to Warren. The man Paynter, who seemed to be one of those jacks-of-all-trades you find in moderate country houses, served wine and kept a general eye on arrangements.
There were only two topics--Parkinson and my ill-luck, and Abbott's letter to The Times. I asked him whether they had found anything in Parkinson's room that threw light either on Parkinson or on his enemies: but he evidently had some doubt whether he ought to discuss these matters in the presence of a stranger like Barlow--so at any rate I gathered from the polite glance he gave somewhat askance. He said merely that Sergeant Warren had fully examined the room and sealed it up again. What was discovered he had not heard, but, he gathered, nothing to elucidate the events of Wednesday night.
I caught a lift of Barlow's eyebrows and a twinkle of his eye while he listened to these sententious periods.
But they were nothing by contrast with the discourse we heard when Barlow mentioned the letter to The Times. Abbott got right into his stride, raised his banner, and flapped nobly until we had come to the end of the cigar and it was time to go. We were given to understand that the second letter, when it appeared, would flap even more vigorously.
The old fellow was disappointed that we could not have a look over the place. We must come again when the shadow of the dreadful tragedy had faded away ..
Barlow, during this hour or so, had appeared to labor under uneasy constraint. I put it down to the fact that he was playing a part, since Abbott might be supposed not to know his real character. I said something of this as we drove back. Barlow shook his head.
"Oh, no!--the old gentleman knew very well. In fact, everybody within five miles knows very well that I'm the Police Commissioner in disguise, and you're the Chief of the Criminal Investigation Department, still better disguised," he said, grinning. "He's only too polite to mention it. Quite the thing to maintain an air of mystery. Didn't you see his anxious look at me when you spoke of Parkinson's room? But look here, young man, this joy-riding and bean-feasting is a fearful waste of time. There's bigger business doing. I want to see Challenger, and then I'm going to ask you both to get busy."
Tod was at the King's Arms waiting.
"Got your message, Barlow," said he. "What's in the wind?"
"Great activity on all fronts," Barlow replied. "Large pieces of camouflage hung over the landscape in all directions. I'm hanging some of them myself. Much movement going on behind. I've got a line on Oddie. I've been to a magistrate and got a warrant for his arrest--"
"What for? Are you charging him with the murder? Got as far as that?" Tod asked, while I stared at Barlow, amazed that he had said nothing of this to me.
"Not quite so far. Charge?--being concerned in the death, etcetera. The charge don't matter much. It's Oddie I want. The police are on it. Hue and cry. Everybody will know this afternoon. All on the look out for Oddie. But, you know, Challenger, the warrant is only the salt and you have to get hold of the bird before you can put it on his tail. And Oddie's a fly bird."
Tod seemed rather overwhelmed by Barlow's loquacity.
"And all this means--just what, Barlow?"
"A job for you and Masters--to watch the activity on one of the fronts. Here's the association of ideas for you: when you think of Oddie you think of the prophet Joshua, and when you think of Joshua, you think of--what is it you call 'em over there, Tod?--his sweetie. Now, I think it looks as if Josh is trying to put one over on me. Probably Mrs. Arc-de-Triomphe invented it: rather too clever for a solo effort by Josh. But, pull devil, pull baker. I want two volunteers to go over the top."
"The man's gone potty, like Parkinson!" said Tod. "What the dickens are you getting at, Barlow?"
"I want two sleuths, each to glue his nose to the trail. It's like this. The prophet Joshua leaves for London by the 4.07 train this afternoon. It's the first time he's been to London since June. Enough to make you curious, isn't 't? Mrs. Cote-d'Or will depart for an unknown destination by motor car about five o'clock. I think her intention is that I should follow one of these trails--which one she probably does not much care--while things happen on the home front. I judge so by the infinite pains which have been taken to spread these plans before my innocent eyes. On the other hand, Mrs. Kensington-Gore may be even more subtle than that: she may have argued with herself that I should see through a single cross and put up a double one. Anyhow, I'm going to stick to the home front. Are you two willing to do the scouting?"
I was certainly not willing to spy on Mrs. Anderson-Orr. Tod, however, had none of my compunctions--thought he might enjoy trailing her. Distasteful as the whole scheme was to me, in the end I agreed to keep an eye on Webb, and I traveled to London in the same train with him.
At Kenwick Station you cannot lose yourself in the crowd, which consists of only one porter, and thus remain hidden from your fellow passenger. Joshua and I therefore traveled in the same compartment. I was smitten with helpless astonishment when I found not the morose and standoffish Joshua of Saturday afternoon but the jolly Joshua of the bathing party, indeed a more effusive Joshua than ever. If somebody had that morning left Joshua a great fortune or told him a supreme joke he could not have been in higher spirits.
I almost resented it. How could one get into a sleuthlike frame of mind if his quarry would sit in the opposite corner of the carriage and laugh and quiz and slap him on the knee, and insist upon being frank to the verge of impertinence? Something had happened to restore and even heighten Joshua's native hilarity. I suppose Barlow would have said that Something was what a first-class sleuth would discover--but I found myself instead rather enjoying Joshua, thinking what a rollicking sketch one could write of this almost spherical human container of merriment, and even sharing in the laughter which he raised at the expense of Barlow!
It appeared that Barlow had excited Joshua to exhausting fits of amusement by dogging his movements.
"You know, I oughtn't to do it--I feel that," said Joshua. "After all, though I only saw Parkinson once in my life, a murder's a nasty thing, and this one's very grim and mysterious. Nobody knows that better than you, eh? But, 'pon my life, I can't help being struck comic when I think of that chap! Coming down here and pretending--as if everybody who ever was in London didn't know all about Barlow! I'm always disappointed in great men when I see 'em. Never come up to expectations. And here's the great Mr. Barlow, who's supposed to know all the secrets of the world--and, what do you think, Mr. Masters?--I feel certain he believes I murdered Parkinson!"
Joshua bent over (this was one of the times when he slapped me on the knee) and went almost into an apoplexy of laughter.
"God bless my soul!" exclaimed Joshua, when he had recovered from this paroxysm, "this is what we pay a quarter of a million a year to the Secret Service for--so that Mr. Barlow can discover that Joshua Webb killed Parkinson!"
And he went off again.
What could the most determined detective do with a man like this? Before we ran into Paddington he had tickled himself into more paroxysms with anecdotes of Barlow prowling about the lanes looking for pins the murderer might have dropped, Barlow peeping through the hedges at the back of Lorimer House, Barlow gathering pearls of priceless information from the lips of that young scapegrace George Bunbury. But Joshua never mentioned Oddie. Nor Usher. And I was correspondingly mute on both subjects.
And what can the sleuth do with a quarry who insists on taking him in a taxi anywhere he wants to go? The proper course would have been for Joshua to take one taxi and me another, and for me to say to my driver, "Follow that cab--not too close, but for heaven's sake don't lose sight of him." But Joshua, not knowing in what capacity I accompanied him, would not be denied the privilege of driving me to any point I selected between Paddington and Southwark Bridge, he himself being on the way to the factory of permanent hair-wavers which he had created and Oddie was now running.
I had to choose quickly. So I elected for Fleet Street (which gave me access to the land of Alsatia where the Morning Telegram lived) and trusted to luck. I bungled my first trail very badly. By the time I had pretended to dodge, across the street and succeeded in finding another taxi, Joshua was hopelessly lost. The taxi driver no doubt thought me insane when I told him to go to the Telegram office which I could have reached in sixty seconds by walking.
The reception I had from the boys, Flaherty's torrent of words, Allen's command to write a series on "How It Feels to be Charged with Murder," the buzz of excitement in the office--all the demonstrations that made me realize myself as a national celebrity (for three days only)--are nothing to the point of the narrative. That came an hour afterwards when the quarry rang up the sleuth, asked him if he was at a loose end this evening, and whether he would dine and go to a show!
I went to my rooms and bathed and changed, and I dined with Joshua at his hotel. He favored the Effingham, in Howard Street, one of those several small hostelries in the quiet streets between the Strand and the River, near the Temple, which I believe still pay tribute in the form of rent to the Majesty of the Law. We dined well. Joshua dined very well. He got lit up. He spoke with emotion of the joys of the country, but, as he said, with a sparkling eye, London was London after all. Just once in a while, you know, my boy; now and then; occasionally. Joshua was in the repetitive stage of illumination. Finally, replete, seeing the world in a roseate light, we leaned back lordly in a taxi on the way to a West End Talkie. But before that Joshua had said:
"I'm an old fashioned fellow, Masters, my boy; I like the old ways, I do. Nothing like the old ways. What would you say if I gave you a toast--just a little sentiment--over the last glass? What would you say?"
What I did say was that the idea struck me as an excellent one.
Joshua delicately raised the basket in which the cobwebby bottle reposed, and filled my glass and his. He held the wine up to the light, and it glowed hardly more intensely than the rich color of Joshua's shining face.
"I give you," said he, "a Woman in a Thousand!"
"I drink to the Woman in a Thousand!" I replied.
For a moment I thought Joshua was going to maudle.
"Masters, my boy!" said he. "You're a nice young fellow. Choose your friends well, my boy. There's a lot to it. I don't want to be personal, but when I think of that chap Barlow--"
Whereupon, instead of maudling, Joshua had another spasm of mirth. In an instant he became solemn again.
"Shall I take you into my confidence, young man? I'm nearly old enough to be your father. I've been a widower twenty-five years. Twenty-five years is a long time. You can't be more than twenty-five. But I like you. Come on. Let's go to a show together. Make a night of it..."
Whatever confidence Joshua contemplated giving me evaporated and sailed away with the perfume of his port and the smoke of his cigar. At midnight, the sleuth brought the quarry back to his hotel and went up in the lift with him to his room and saw that he was in the fair way to a suit of pyjamas and a comfortable bed. And before he left, the quarry had vowed the sleuth to eternal brotherhood and engaged him to breakfast at nine in the morning.
Not being a seasoned vessel like Joshua, I had been quite unable to keep his pace, and was not so sorry for myself when I woke up as I imagined he must be. A little cool reflection not only convinced me that sleuthing was not my predestined mission in life, but also induced some doubts about the conclusions I had formed on Joshua the night before. He was truly a seasoned vessel and I was a greenhorn. There might be a measure of subtlety, hitherto unsuspected, in his attitude towards Barlow and his convivial treatment of me.
Came Tod, surprisingly bursting into my bedroom at half past eight, to confirm the suggestion that this farce had something more than a comic purpose.
"Hello, Tod!--thought you were trailing a lady in a motor car--"
"I am--or I have been--pardieu!" said Tod with a grimace. "By gum, young man, Barlow is the goods. No flies on Barlow!"
This testimonial to Barlow, coming on top of my morning reflections, still further impressed me with my tender verdancy. Under the jolly influence of Joshua, I had been quite convinced by midnight that Barlow was a highly overrated person. Now--
Tod had, with infinite precaution, tracked Mrs. Anderson-Orr in a very straightforward journey in her own motor-car, driven by her own chauffeur, to London. She stayed at the Melbury, a private hotel in Bloomsbury, and the chauffeur garaged the car near by. Mrs. Anderson-Orr did not leave the hotel during the evening. She was there now, and the car was still in the garage. With the aid of a little palm-oil Tod had been able to ascertain that she had ordered the car for 9.30, and he had rushed round to the Adelphi on the off-chance of finding me and comparing notes. The same lubricant had released into his hands two facts--
That Mrs. Anderson-Orr had rung up the Effingham Hotel in Howard Street at ten o'clock last evening and had rung off again immediately.
That she had repeated the call at 7.30 this morning and held a conversation lasting six minutes.
Upon this Tod had paid a visit to the Effingham Hotel and consulted the register.
"And found that Joshua is staying there," said I.
"That's what I call real sleuth-work," Tod remarked, with mocked admiration.
"I'd greatly like to have heard what Mrs. Anderson-Orr said to her powder-puff last night when she rung up Joshua and found he wasn't there, Tod," said I. And I told him the epic story of the sleuth and his quarry. I also said I was just setting out for the Effingham to breakfast with Joshua.
"Barlow is the goods, though, what say?" said Tod. "You and I, dogging the movements of a sentimental middle-aged couple who've agreed to have a razzle together in town! A sight for the gods. Wonder what Barlow's idea was? Wanted to be rid of us for a day or two, you bet. He's getting on to something. I shall have to oil up the jolly old typewriter soon. Now I'll walk along the Strand with you and say Hello to Joshua."
But when we arrived at the Effingham and asked for Joshua, the girl at the desk said:
"Mr. Masters? There's a note for you."
I opened it, and glanced at the signature--"Joshua Webb." Tod and I read it together:
Effingham Hotel, W.C. 2,
DEAR MR. MASTERS,
I am sorry to have to ask you to excuse me this morning. I find your friend B. has been a little more attentive than I like to me and my affairs. I will assume that you, whose company I enjoyed so much, were quite unaware of the extremely absurd and impolite conduct of B., and that another friend of yours will in due course realize that what he has done in respect of a certain lady is a poor return for the hospitality he has received. As I shall not, be returning here and expect to be absent from Kenwick for some little time, I imagine we are hardly likely to meet again.
Tod and I looked sorrily at each other.
"Punctured!" said Tod. "What a woman! I could have sworn she never saw so much as an eyelash of me. Come on, Masters! Bloomsbury's our last hope."
But the quarry had escaped from Bloomsbury. The Melbury knew her no more. Mrs. Anderson-Orr had given fresh orders. A gentleman called for her at half-past eight, and they went away in the car together.
"Breakfast at nine, my boy. Bring an appetite. I like you. I have confidence in you. But that chap, Barlow--he tickles me to death.." I could see Joshua swaying about as he pulled off his clothes.
On the steps of the Melbury, Tod and I exchanged condolences.
"Good old Erasmus!" said Tod. "Let the cobbler stick to his last, eh? Shall you go down to Kenwick again and face Barlow?"
I did not much care whether I faced Barlow or not. But I was certainly going down to Kenwick--by the next train.
I read Abbott's letter in The Times on the way down. It had the honor of large type and a place in the middle page, and was headed "The Murder in Berkshire."
Abbott began by saying that as his name had been necessarily mentioned in the reports of the tragedy at Kenwick he wrote reluctantly; but he felt an urge of public duty to point out how this case reénforced the arguments he had used in his previous letter. Rumors, he said, suggested a remote and mysterious motive for the murder of Mr. Parkinson. He could not discuss that, but he wanted to point out how the unimaginative traditions of the police, etc., etc...unfortunate arrest of a young man who obviously could not have any motive whatever for murdering Mr. Parkinson, involving concentration on a false clew while the real clews no doubt fade out, etc., etc...
"This," said Abbott, "is not mere slackness. I would be the last man to accuse our painstaking official world of slackness. It is just lack of imagination--the continuance of that outworn but persistent insular tradition that nothing really untoward can happen in England--and certainly nothing which has never happened before!..."
And having finished his peroration Abbott added a sort of postscript inviting people of like mind with himself to communicate with him, with the object of forming a kind of Vigilance Committee to watch these matters and bring pressure to bear on Parliament.
When I faced Barlow at Kenwick, he was almost as hilarious as Joshua. Several things conspired to make him merry. He had read Abbott's remarks about the Official Mind. He knew already the story of Joshua's binge down to the last detail. Our discomfiture that morning was no secret to him.
No, he said--he had not been talking to Tod on the phone...
"Then, Barlow," I protested, "you must have had professionals on the job, and why the deuce did you make fools of us by sending us off on that wild-goose chase?"
Barlow was not only hilarious. He was excessively secretive, chuckled over the London adventure, said we'd wrought better than we knew, done a jolly good day's work, and so forth, told me he was hot on the track of Oddie, and left it at that.
As he seemed to have no need and little desire for my company, I went off after lunch on foot to Ferry Grange. There that afternoon began the most sinister of all the developments of the Parkinson case.
The lawn at Ferry Grange was deserted. A maid came to me in the hall when I rang. She was dressed with hat and coat, and had been apparently just on the point of going out. Mrs. Anderson-Orr, she said, was not at home. Nor Miss Anderson-Orr. Mrs. Anderson-Orr was in London. Miss Janet was out. She did not know when Miss Janet would be in.
The maid spoke strangely, spasmodically, almost pantingly. I hesitated a moment or two.
Did she know where Miss Janet had gone? No? Then I thought I would wait on the lawn till she came back.
"Very good, sir--of course."
The girl looked so agitated that I said:
"Everything all right? You don't seem too well."
"Oh--Sir!" She broke down utterly, grabbed me by the lapels of my coat, and hung on, sobbing. Something queer here. My own pulse began to beat up.
"Better now? Calm yourself. What's up?" I said encouragingly.
"Oh, sir, I'm sorry. But--"
And then it came out in a torrent.
The mistress was away, and had taken Geeson, the only man about the place, to drive the car; and, in the absence of Miss Janet, only herself and the cook were left, and they could do nothing with her--
"Nothing with whom?" I asked, sharply.
"Miss Helen, sir. I do believe she's gone mad, and the telephone won't work, and we can't call the doctor. I was just going--"
"Where is she?"
"In her room asleep now. I was just going--"
"Never mind where you were going. Out with it, my girl: what's the matter? Where's Miss Janet?"
"I really and truly don't know, sir."
She was a young girl, very nervous, almost hysterical.
"Go and fetch the cook. Bring her to me. I'll wait here. Hurry!" I adjured her.
I was not kept waiting a minute. The cook came, breathless, eager: so glad I'd come--she'd been on the point of sending for the doctor--
"Where's Miss Janet?" I interrupted her impatiently
"I really don't know, sir."
"She's not with her mother?"
"No--Mistress went to London yesterday. Miss Janet was to have stayed here. She was here last night--"
"Yes, yes--don't beat about the bush, Cook. What's happened?"
My temples were thrumming.
"But this morning she wasn't here, and Miss Helen--well!--"
"What do you mean by wasn't here? Where was she?"
One asks silly, unanswerable questions under stress, and the pressure of the presentiment I felt about Janet was intolerable. But I might have asked questions till Doomsday and the cook could have told me nothing that mattered. All her information came from the maid, and it was this:
Miss Janet and Miss Helen had dined together, sat in the drawing room reading till ten o'clock, and then gone to bed. As there was no man on the premises, and Ferry Grange was a rather lonely house, and the terrible affair at Usher's garage had got on their nerves, Cook and the maid went round the house together and carefully bolted every window and shutter and locked every door till they felt quite safe in their citadel.
Cook slept undisturbed. Not so the maid. She heard noises in the night--could not say when, nor could she say what sort of noises: simply that sounds of some sort awakened her. It was still very dark. She stole out of bed and opened her door. Then she detected voices in the room below, which was Helen's. She recognized the voices--Janet's and Helen's. She thought she must have awakened soon after going off to sleep, and the two girls were having a last chat before retiring to bed; so she softly closed her door and got between the sheets again.
In the morning she was surprised when eight o'clock passed and Janet had not come down: she usually appeared at half past seven, and took a turn in the garden before breakfast at eight. At half past eight the maid went into her room. Janet was not there. She went to Helen's room. Helen was partly dressed and lying half on the floor and half on the sofa at the foot of her bed, and the bed was undisturbed.
The maid, greatly frightened, touched her shoulder. She turned and screamed out "George!" She looked so wild that the maid thought she had gone mad and rushed away to the cook, who returned with her to the room. Helen was demented, raving. She shrieked with laughter when they asked if she knew where Janet was. She could answer no questions. She was uncontrollable--apparently in high fever.
Cook ran down to the telephone to ring up the doctor at Kenwick, but could not get the exchange: the thing was out of order. The maid would not leave Cook in the house alone, and would not let Cook leave her. The morning passed in attempts to pacify Helen and make her go to bed. Cook tried her with aspirin. She would take no food and no medicine. At last they had persuaded her to drink a cup of tea. Cook had bethought her of two tiny pills left from some prescribed to make her sleep during a bout of neuralgia. She had dissolved both pills in the cup of tea, and in an hour Helen was sleeping like a log. They had lifted her on to her bed, covered her up, and the maid was about to set off for Usher's to ring up the doctor from there when I arrived.
I listened to all this with such patience as I could muster.
Helen was ill. But Helen could have a doctor. Whereas Janet--
"What can have become of Miss Janet?"
They goggled at me. Neither of them had any idea of what might have happened to Miss Janet. I had to take this into my own hands.
"Show me the telephone," I said.
But the telephone would not work. I tinkered with the terminals to no purpose. The telephone was dead.
"Stay here and keep guard," said I. "Touch nothing. I'll be back very soon."
With a hard-pumping heart I ran and loped the half mile to Usher's place. He looked up from his endless job on the dismantled car and scowled. I collected enough wind to say:
"Sorry to trouble, but may I use your telephone? Urgent."
He growled out, "If it's Barlow you want, he's down at Webb's."
"Webb's!" I stared down on him. "I understood Mr. Webb was away--"
"All right. I daresay he is"--and the surly devil turned back to his work and took no further notice of me. I would certainly not be obliged to him for even a telephone call. Anyhow, whether he was right about Barlow or not there would be a telephone at Webb's. I resumed the lope along the road and turned in for the first time at the gate of Lorimer House, wondering what Barlow could be at, but too pre-occupied with my fears for Janet to think hard about it.
Webb's drive was a straight road across a large meadow, fenced with wire, and the house was sheltered from the North and concealed from the road by a plantation of firs. I had passed through the little wood and come in sight of a walled garden and a low pitched roof beyond it when I saw Barlow come out of the stable yard opposite the garden. I shouted, but he had already seen and waited for me.
"Well run!" said he. "Training for a Marathon?"
"Don't play the goat, Barlow!" I pumped out. "Listen!"
Leaning against the wall of the stable-yard I told him breathlessly what I had found at Ferry Grange. He heard me out without interruption. Then he said, "I'll go over with you. Wait here a moment. Sit down!--you're all in. Get your breath."
He went back into the yard and was absent three or four minutes.
"Save your wind, Masters," he advised me as we started. "It's a mile. I'm not going to run--don't think it, not at my age. And I'll answer all the questions you're going to ask me. First, I don't know what's happened to your girl and I can't guess. Next, I took advantage of the absence of Josh to do a little perquisition on his premises, with interesting results. Next, I'm hot on the scent of Oddie. And next, the sudden and mysterious illness of Miss Adamson makes the scent livelier still. And finally, I have hopes of a great coup--if nobody will interfere with me and all my friends will do exactly what I ask 'em. Got that?"
"If you mean me, Barlow," I answered, "I'll not interfere in the least so long as you put no obstacle in the way of finding out what's happened to Miss Anderson-Orr. And I'll do anything you ask--barring another asinine expedition like yesterday's."
"You're worried," he said, soothingly. "I'll ask nothing unreasonable. But, on your honor, if you detect any special suggestion in anything I do, don't even blink an eyelid over it. I'm reaching a crisis...Now, about your Janet--has it occurred to you that there may be a very simple explanation? If you were still trailing Joshua and his inamorata, you might also find yourself trailing the girl, you know."
"You don't mean to insinuate, Barlow, that she--"
"Keep the foils on, young man!" he exclaimed. "Don't mean anything to any one's discredit. I just suggest that you may be getting wind up about nothing. Let's keep cool."
But even Barlow lost some of his complacency when we went into the question at Ferry Grange--and I had a striking lesson in his methods.
He first ingratiated himself with Cook and the maid (she was called Bessie), told them what plucky women they were, and succeeded in three minutes in getting their tails up.
A bit of a psycho-analyst in his way, Barlow! It was wonderful what a change came over them when he had rid them of their inferiority complex. Then we were able to get a lucid story of the night.
First he asked to see Helen. We tip-toed into her room. She slept under an eider down, as still as a dead girl, her face perfectly calm.
"Powerful dose you gave her, Cook!" said Barlow. "Best thing you could have done. Two pellets, eh? M-m--...twenty grains of hydrate of chloral, I shouldn't wonder. Probably she won't wake up for hours. She'll be all right, I expect--so don't trouble about doctors till then."
Helen's room revealed nothing: its disorder was Helen's own doing.
Janet's room--I remained on the threshold while Barlow explored Janet's room. And it was as he stood there and looked around long and patiently as if he would photograph every detail on his memory, that Barlow's complacency changed to anxiety. What I myself could see was chaotic confusion everywhere except on the white bed, which was neat and untouched. Clothes were scattered about the floor, chairs out of place, a wardrobe door half open--
Bessie began to apologize for the state of the place: she would have tidied up but for the trouble with Miss Helen.
Barlow turned sharply on her and asked: "This is how the room was when you came in this morning?"
"Miss Janet a tidy young lady as a rule?"
"Why," said Cook, "she's what I call finicky! Never a thing out of place."
"You were too flustered about Miss Helen, I suppose, Bessie, to give it a thought?"
"Never seen the room like this before?--No? Now step across here and don't touch anything, but look in the wardrobe and tell me what's missing. I suppose you know Miss Janet's things, more or less?"
The maid stood by Barlow's side. "Well?" said he.
"Her big blue coat's gone, sir."
"Any dress that you can remember?"
"No, sir--all the hangers are full."
"That frock on the floor there by the foot of the bed--did she wear that yesterday?"
"She had it on last evening, sir."
"Yes, she wore those."
"Don't see any walking shoes," said Barlow.
"I take them downstairs, sir, every evening."
"Now, Bessie, go back to the door. Don't touch anything."
He fished out of his pocket a pair of thin rubber gloves. "The window--always open by night?"
"Like that--down at the top? What's outside?" He stepped across, looked hard at sash and glass, and with gloved hands raised the lower half of the window and leaned out. "Sheer wall. Garden bed underneath. Your bedroom window above, Bessie?"
"Very well--we'll go up there...Very nice room, and so tidy," said Barlow. "You keep your window open same way, Bessie, I see. And that's where you woke up when you heard a noise. Don't know what noise?--you just woke up. Then you heard voices. Women's voices. And you went outside on the landing and heard the young ladies talking. Nothing strange in that. So you went to bed again. Didn't hear anything else? No moving furniture or bumping about in Miss Janet's room?"
"No, sir, nothing."
"Let's go downstairs," said Barlow.
We trooped down after him to the hall where the telephone stood on a side table.
Barlow picked up the receiver, listened, and put it on again. He walked out to the terrace, looked for the telephone wire coming across the grounds and traced it to its insulator on the eaves. Below that the wire hung loose. It had been snicked near the tube which led it into the house through the corner of a window frame. He glanced at me.
"Steady!" said he. "We'd better restore communications first."
From the same capacious pocket that held the rubber gloves, he produced a regular burglar's outfit of tools and a bit of flex. He had soon joined the ends of the wire. Back in the hall, he told Cook to ring up the exchange.
"Say nothing about this, nothing about me. Just say the telephone's been out of order all day and you want to know whether anybody's been calling you."
We stood round while Cook obeyed this instruction. We heard her say, "Trunk call? Where from? Bristol? Thank you..."
Barlow put his hand over the mouth of the transmitter.
"Now ask her what time the call came from Bristol and the name of the exchange," he whispered.
There was a wait this time.
"Yes?" said Cook. "At 12.15 from--what did you say?--Pilton?--No? F for father--oh, yes, Filton."
Barlow signed to Cook to ring off.
"Now, who opened up the house this morning?" he asked, his look flitting between the two women. "Or anyhow, who opened the hall door?...You, I see, Bessie!"
A blazing color had rushed over the girl's cheeks.
"If Cook had opened it, she'd have noticed that the bolts were all drawn and the chain off--"
The cook uttered an astonished cry and collapsed on a chair beside the telephone. The girl hung her head.
"Why didn't you tell the truth at the beginning?" Barlow said, not unkindly. "Then you'd not have been obliged to act a lie all day. You didn't wish your young mistress any harm, did you? No--you didn't guess what it meant at the time. But you must have guessed this morning."
"Oh, sir!" She began to cry.
"That's enough," said Barlow. "Stop that. It won't mend things. Was this the first time you'd let him in?"
"Oh, sir," she sobbed. "I didn't let him in. Indeed I didn't. Only she was afraid if she went to the door after we'd locked up, Cook might see her. And she begged me to go down and put it on the latch."
"Well? And then, when you woke up with the noises--if ever you'd been to sleep, which I doubt--you knew there was a man down there talking, and you knew who the man was. All right up to now--I don't say you meant anything wrong. But this morning--why didn't you tell the truth then? Eh? Come now--why not?"
"She was in such a way, sir--and I'd heard--"
"Yes?--what had you heard?"
"I'd heard what they said about him and the murder of Mr. Parkinson, sir, and I didn't believe it, and she--"
Bessie broke down finally.
I expect my face had offered the same vision of bewilderment as Cook's during this scene. Cook sat with her head against the wall and her eyes almost bolting as Barlow questioned the shaking maid. I stood transfixed with alarm.
"You've done a lot of harm," said he, taking her by the shoulder with a jerk, "and you'll have plenty of time to be sorry for yourself. Now be sorry for other people a minute or two and answer a few straight questions. Had Miss Helen seen Oddie here before?--I mean since Saturday?"
Between her spasms of sobbing she said she believed Miss Helen had talked to him out of the window on Sunday night. Did Miss Janet know of that? She thought Miss Janet did, and that it displeased her.
When did she go down and put the door on the latch? As soon as Cook was in her bedroom.
What time was it when she heard Oddie talking on the floor below her room? It was half past twelve.
Was Miss Janet speaking angrily? Very angrily. She was afraid, indeed, that Cook would hear the quarrel. She got panic-stricken and went back into her room and locked the door.
Did she listen again? Yes, but not till she had waited a long time. How long? Perhaps an hour. All that hour she heard nothing. Then there was a sound of bumping about below, and she was afraid--she could hardly say what she was afraid of--just afraid. She got out of bed and crept on to the landing. But then everything was still and dark. And that was all.
But such an All!
"Barlow, for God's sake say what you think has happened to her!" I begged him.
"Think! What the devil's the good of thinking?" he cried, savagely for him. "I'm going to find out."
We had left Bessie to the tender mercies of Cook, and were walking hot foot along the road to Usher's. I was curious to know why Barlow was without his own car. He said gruffly that he wanted to prowl about that afternoon without being bothered with a car.
At the garage, "Now, then, Usher!" he ordered, "get a move on. Drive us into Kenwick--and start now."
Usher was absolutely submissive. He dropped his job, cranked up his old car, and within three minutes we rattled and bumped past the gate of Lorimer House and on towards the village.
It was easy to see that Barlow had been greatly upset by the discovery at Ferry Grange. It had dislocated his ideas and interfered with his plans. His facetiousness of the morning had given place to a cold ferocity. He was even ferocious with me. For me alarm about Janet transcended everything else I felt. But he looked upon it, if not with annoyance, certainly with impatience.
Talking about Janet (and I could talk of nothing else) distracted him.
"For God's sake--"
More than once he began some such outburst and pulled up short. At last he said:
"Masters, I quite understand your anxiety, but I can't talk across the noise of this damned rattle-trap. I'll not lose a minute. We must find her, of course. But let me do a bit of thinking."
At the inn, when we pulled up, a group of men stood waiting for the door to open at six o'clock. They ceased an excited conversation as Barlow jumped out of the car. They looked askance at Usher as Barlow paid him and he swiveled the old car round the square. But I heard the name Oddie passing between two of them. To my surprise, Barlow, who had heard it too, stopped and spoke to one of them.
"What's that I heard? Any of you seen Oddie?"
"No, sir," a spokesman replied. "We were talking about Sergeant Warren--how he should say Oddie was the man they wanted for the murder--and how that Oddie was supposed to be hiding somewhere about here and he'd never gone to London at all."
"Ah, I've heard that too," said Barlow. "Now if any of you men should get hold of any information about Oddie and his whereabouts, it'll be worth a bit if you take it to Sergeant Warren or bring it to me here."
Whereupon he strode into the inn and I followed him.
"Why'd you do that, Barlow?" I asked. It was such an extraordinary thing for Barlow to do.
"I do nothing without good cause," he said, with another touch of his bad temper. Then he suddenly relented. "My dear fellow--you must be patient with me. I've had a set-back. Fact is, I want a great hue and cry for Oddie now. I want the whole district on his track, and all the help I can get. I've wired to Challenger to come down. When he does come I shall put him on to help Warren. This business at Ferry Grange will keep me out of it for a time; but everybody else must comb the countryside for Oddie..."
He got almost excited about it as, during the next three hours, he laid an intricate web of wires to trip the feet of Oddie. He called in Warren and urged him to get assistance from neighboring police divisions--to watch the woods and the river, to keep a sleepless eye on Usher, whom he did not trust, and to beat up the whole region. He spent a fortune on the telephone. He spoke to Lennox in London, told him how things stood, and made some obscure allusion to a coming coup which Lennox seemed to understand.
But the most thrilling thing he did, so far as I was concerned, was to ring up the police at Bristol. Having procured the chief of the detective staff, he declared himself.
"I shall be at Bristol at nine in the morning," he said. "In the meantime will you do two things for me? First, discover the source of a telephone call put through the Filton Exchange to-day at 12.15 t0 Kenwick 57?...
"Right. And then, keep a watch on any aeroplane leaving the Filton aerodrome between now and then? If a young woman answering the description I'll give you in a minute attempts to leave by aeroplane, or is taken to the aerodrome, stop her and detain whoever may be with her? What? Yes--you can call it abduction. Legally, she's too old to be abducted, but any port in a storm..."
"Now, Masters"--he handed the receiver to me--"describe her."
It was a puzzle, on the spur of the moment, to put Janet into the categories that the voice at the other end of the wire demanded.
Age--about 22. Height--about 5 feet 6. Figure--wiry, athletic. Hair--dark. Complexion--dark. Eyes--dark. Voice--a rather deep musical voice. (The other end of the wire boggled over this: it did not seem to fit the official idea of a police description.) A lady--yes. Dress?--
"Give me the thing," said Barlow, taking the telephone. "We're in a difficulty about dress," he called. "We think she may be wearing a big blue coat--yes, dark blue. Shoes--we can't say. I'll tell you about it in the morning. But you can see the sort of girl. High-stepper of the right sort. Stop any such girl. Stop all the girls you can find! What? No--I've nothing to go on about the aerodrome. It's only an idea. But important. Thanks. See you not later than nine."
"Barlow!" I exclaimed when we got back to his room. "You think that call from Bristol--"
"No, I don't go so far as to think. But I'm not missing any chances. It may have been Joshua or Mrs. You-know-her-name calling up. On the other hand it's not unlikely that the person who cut that telephone wire wanted to find out whether it had been restored--and if so, whether the wretched Adamson girl had recovered from her hysterics, and how much, if anything, was known yet about his damnable conduct. And the upshot of it is that I mean to spend a few hours to-morrow having a look at Bristol, and I don't think it'll be wasted time. Like to come along?"
"If I'd like, Barlow--!"
"Very well. We'll have a bit of supper. And then you go to bed. We start at six in the morning. We'll have some breakfast left ready for us. Get as much sleep as you can."
He had almost to push me into my big wainscoted bedroom at the last.
Be ready to start at six in the morning: very good. Get some sleep meanwhile: not so easy. Barlow had no personal interest in Janet. But I--
Sleep was out of the question.
Or so I thought till, the church clock having struck twelve, I did not hear it again till it struck two. I had slept.
And I could sleep again if it were not for that confounded rat or mouse which scratched and gnawed behind the wainscot or under the floor or wherever it was. I turned over, the bed creaked, the noise ceased. I dozed. But not soundly. The scratching and gnawing began again. I reached for a slipper and banged it on the floor. The vermin desisted.
These old houses, with their wooden walls--very handsome, but how they nurtured vermin! And--
Damn it all! I was awake, wide awake now, and why should I sleep, how could I sleep, when Janet--?--and I lay still wondering about Janet. Barlow was so certain that even the worst desperado--even a man who had committed murder--would do no harm to Janet. But how did Barlow know? He didn't know everything--
And there were those damned rats again! I turned over and made the bed creak. They stopped. I lay still. Immediately they began afresh.
But were they rats?
They were not rats! I suddenly became acutely conscious of the fact that they were not rats. There was a difference in the temperature of the room. I felt moving air upon my face. Rats could make no aperture large enough to produce that change of climate. In the pitch blackness of the room I knew as surely as if I saw it that the door was opening.
The door pierced the wall about six feet from the head of my bed, which stood just clear of the wall running at right angles, with enough room for a little bed table between. I had locked the door before getting into bed: the rats had unlocked it.
Half a dozen guesses as to what it meant, half a dozen things to do, passed through my mind like flashes of lightning.
To yell!--to raise the house: but the purpose for which the door was being opened would be accomplished long before a sleeping house could be raised at three in the morning.
To strike a light--I felt that a light was the last thing the door-opener desired: but it would make an easy target for him.
To slip out of bed and stand behind the door as it opened. To jump for my revolver, which I had left on the dressing table--
What I actually did first was to gain a little time by moving in bed and making it creak. The draught which had been passing across my face between door and window subsided. The door had been pulled close. Whoever was there meant not to enter till he had satisfied himself that I was sleeping soundly.
What I did next was to slide out between the bed and the wall, tiptoe to the dressing table, feel for my revolver, and finally creep under the bed. I lay there with my heart thumping so that it seemed to hit the floor audibly. But it was audible only to me. To the person listening outside the room was evidently silent, for a cold wind began to blow upon me again.
To lie there passive, breathing lightly, pulses throbbing and ears straining in the dark, while something moved noiselessly across the carpet, so stealthily that I was not aware of it till I heard the little sound it made as it reached the bedside, was a fierce ordeal.
Lungs and head were already bursting, and the gasp I gave and the thud of a heavy blow above me occurred at the same moment, and instantly after, the swish of two quick steps on the carpet. In a second I was out, sprawling head and shoulders beyond the bed hangings, and raised my gun to fire at the door in the dark--
But brain worked quicker than hand. I did not pull the trigger. I waited an instant, then scrambled up, pistol in hand, and groped my way to the door.
It was open. I passed into the corridor, and along it to Barlow's room, three doors away. He had locked it. I tried the handle. I suppose Barlow slept with an ear open, for he was on the other side almost as I knocked, saying, "Who's there?"
"Quick, Barlow!" said I in a whisper. He threw open the door, pointing an electric torch at me.
But Barlow seemed to grasp the thing before I had said six words. He took his revolver from under his pillow, and, switching off the torch, ran downstairs to the little lobby, I at his heels.
The door of the house was open. Barlow held it ajar, peering into the dark street. Then he closed and locked it noiselessly, and said, "No hope of catching him. Come up with me. Don't disturb the house."
By the light of Barlow's torch we examined the door of my room. The key, which I had left in the lock, had been turned from the outside with fine steel pliers. The bite of the steel on its shaft could be seen.
Barlow threw his light on the bed. He caught his breath and uttered a little painful sound in his throat.
As for me, I turned cold as he lifted the counterpane and showed a slit in it an inch wide--and in the blanket underneath another, and in the sheet, and in the pillow cover--
"Gosh!" said Barlow.
I had known what that thudding blow meant. But not till these dumb witnesses testified did I realize my escape--and my limbs shook uncontrollably.
Barlow patted me on the shoulder.
"Nasty jar," said he. "Get on some clothes and come to my room. I'll wait for you. It's serious: he meant--that!"
Had I done right? Should I have shouted or fired?
Righter than I could have hoped if I'd studied the question for ten years, said Barlow. Still, it was just God's mercy I had thought of it.
"But, Barlow, I never thought of it. Sheer funk, it was. I expected something very different--perhaps a shot. I thought he might take a shot at me and I might be able to fire at his flash--"
"Never mind about funk," said Barlow. "Everybody funks getting killed--"
He had locked his door and we sat whispering, he on the edge of his bed and I in the chair beside it.
"Funk? Funk be damned! But why'd you think he'd shoot? Not that clever gentleman? Attracting unnecessary attention to himself? Oh, no!"
"Who was it, Barlow? And why?"
He looked at me thoughtfully for a moment or two. He seemed to weigh his words.
"Didn't see him, Masters. Therefore can't say. But I think it was the same gentleman who paid a visit last light to the girl at Ferry Grange. And why? For the same reason--Parkinson. Parkinson's the reason. He knows you've both been in touch with Parkinson. Therefore you are dangerous to him. Parkinson may have told you something--"
"Barlow!" I exclaimed, as a horrible thought struck into my brain, "if he--"
"Steady!" said Barlow. "Think it out. As a matter of fact Parkinson did tell you something--or he told Miss Janet, which happened to be the same thing. Do you remember that it's the Fourth of October next Friday?"
"Barlow!" My agony would out. "If they'd attack me like--like that, what about Janet?"
"Now, young man, no nerves!" said he. "Miss Janet's a very different proposition from their point of view. They couldn't get you the way they got her. Let the worst come to the worst, if I fail altogether--and I fancy not, this time--we shall get Miss Janet after Friday if we don't get her before. Can we blow 'em up before Friday? That's the question. Masters!--I'd give a thousand pounds to have solved the riddle of Parkinson's death before Friday."
For me the riddle of Parkinson and the great coup that Barlow wanted to bring off were of no more importance than a rotten apple. I was in a panic about Janet, and all Barlow's assurance could not get me out of it. But, having contemplated for three seconds the glory of arriving at both solutions before Friday, he suddenly said the best thing I'd heard from him.
"Pull up your socks, young man! I'll do my best to find her. And I'll have a bet with you--that before we go to bed again she'll be safe and sound wherever you can induce her to go--only I bar Ferry Grange or any place within fifty miles of it."
Did he really mean it? Or was he only feeding me a cocktail? He did mean it, he said very positively, and if it didn't come off, the best calculation he ever made would be a beastly stumer. Tod would come down and keep guard on that triangle--Ferry Grange, Lorimer House, and Usher's garage--and we would go questing.
"Buck up, Masters!" he said. "Think as well as you can of yourself! Remember the Live Donkey and the Dead Lion. Well--no more sleep for poor William Barlow to-night, I suppose. A bath, the breakfast that's waiting, and then, hey for the road!"
If it was a mere cocktail, it worked. I felt far less miserable when, before sun-up, we were bowling along the road to the West.
Bristol is nearly sixty miles from Kenwick as the crow flies--rather more by the road mounting the skirts of the Wiltshire Downs and crossing into the watershed of the Avon by Bath. We were among the heavy traffic in the Eastern suburbs of the big city before nine o'clock, crawled along with tramcars and lorries to the maelstrom of Bristol Bridge, and so entered the quiet and dignified streets of that curious enclave which is the old Bristol of Cabot.
At the police headquarters, the detective inspector who had spoken to Barlow on the telephone awaited us. He received Barlow with deference.
"Traced your telephone call," he said. "An ineffective call--from a public call office."
"It would be, of course," Barlow grimaced. "But don't say it was a kiosk!--no, it couldn't be--they don't take trunk calls from the kiosks."
The call, said the chief, had been made at a little shop in Filton by a man--
Barlow's eyes twinkled in expectation.
He was disappointed. Unfortunately, the woman who kept the shop was busy serving customers at the time and the man just gave the exchange and number and went into the silence box to wait. She put in the call. In about three minutes the Filton Exchange told her there was no answer. She threw the information to him across a customer's head and he went away. She had taken no particular notice of him, and was so utterly unable to describe him that she could not say whether he was young or old. He was just a man who had failed to get a telephone call.
That was the first baulk.
The watch on the aerodrome proved that no young woman had left or attempted to leave, and no young woman of the description of Janet had been on the ground.
That was the second.
Well, said Barlow, it seemed pretty hopeless, but we would go to Filton and spy out the land if we could have a guide. The chief willingly lent us the man who had made the inquiries at Filton the evening before, a young plain-clothes officer, Duckham by name, and we left Bristol by the North for the vast bare plateau which is almost monopolized by the big aerodrome and the railways.
The shop in Filton village which contained the telephone call box was a characteristic village shop. It sold a wonderful miscellany of goods all up the gamut from greengrocery to drapery. Barlow sat in the car and had a good look at it. No use to ask further questions about the man who had tried to make the call? The detective thought not.
Then, said Barlow, we would take a trip round Filton and the neighborhood. He drove through every road where houses were to be seen, returning in half an hour to the village street.
"That," said Barlow, "seems to be the only shop of the kind in the place."
"I think it is--sort of pemmicanized department-store," the detective smiled.
"Would the woman tell you the truth about anything you asked her?"
"Oh, I think so."
"Then do you mind finding out whether anybody yesterday bought one of those very charming and quite moderate dresses for ladies, marked 'Latest Paris Style'?"
I started--and the detective opened his eyes wonderingly.
"And if so, ask her to tell you privately who bought it and where it went--if she knows?"
The detective got out and crossed the street on his curious mission.
"Just a shot into the brown," said Barlow in answer to my look. "He took her off in a great hurry--probably just threw the coat over her, and--well, we shall see."
In two minutes the detective came hurrying back.
"Very queer," he said. "I wish you'd come and see the woman. There's nobody in the shop now."
Barlow's eyes gleamed under their half-closed lids.
We found a ruddy-cheeked Gloucestershire woman behind the counter, looking flustered. She did not quite know, she said, whether she ought to answer questions about her customers' affairs.
Barlow's manner with her was perfect. He assured her that it was quite in order for her to give this information, and that if she only knew the romantic story which lay behind that simple transaction in her shop!--well, if the result was as happy as he expected, he would come back and tell her all about it. Barlow at his most seductive. Her qualms evaporated.
She had never been mixed up in any police affairs, she said.
"And I assure you, madam, that we aren't going to mix you up in any such unpleasantness," said Barlow. "What you tell us is for these four walls alone."
And so she told us. The blue frock had been bought by an occasional customer, a woman who lived in a cottage up by the aerodrome.
"A woman?" he said, with a hint of surprise in his tone.
Yes, a woman. Not that the frock was for herself. She was too old to wear a thing like that. She explained that it was a present for her daughter's birthday.
What sort of woman? A working-class woman--the latest Paris frock to be had in the Filton Emporium was undoubtedly just the sort of thing such a woman might buy for her daughter's birthday. There was nothing unusual in the transaction, and that was what made the rubicund good lady think police inquiries about it rather queer.
Barlow seemed disappointed. And no wonder. His clew was sinking with all hands. But he stuck to his questions.
Was the woman accustomed to buy drapery at the shop? The rubicund lady could not remember that she had ever bought any drapery before. Yes, she could give us precise directions about the cottage. It was a mile or more away, between the aerodrome and the great triangle formed by the railway tracks. She knew it well, because it had been formerly occupied by a farm-hand whose wife did all her business at the Emporium. The present people had come into possession not more than a year ago.
"Ah!" said Barlow, reviving.
He thanked her, repeated his promise to tell her a romantic story if his expectations were fulfilled, and suggested that for the present it might be desirable not to share it with anybody else.
"Looks like a wash-out," he said to the detective when we were in the car again. "But we'll try on. Show us the way."
"It would be a thousand pities if such a clew didn't work," said the eager young man. "But I'm rather curious, Mr. Barlow--"
"Simplest thing in the world, my dear fellow. Case of abduction--or rather of forcible removal. The girl was taken off as she was undressing to go to bed--"
"Good Lord!--in her own house?"
"Yes--a cheeky performance. We weren't quite sure--were we, Masters?--but it looked as if she'd been rushed off with a coat round her. When the cheery old lady said a woman had been to buy the frock I saw my little theory going West; for to tell the truth I'd thought of the girl as being in the custody of men or a man. However, we'll see."
"Damned neat, anyhow!"
But Barlow was not having any compliments at present. When his young friend had been in the game as long as Barlow, he'd realize that there was no limit to the eccentricity of coincidence, and that we were quite likely to find ourselves on a false trail. "But you'll have guessed, discreet young man as you are, that we're chasing a clew to that most atrocious murder at Kenwick--"
The detective nodded: "Of course."
"And we can't afford to neglect the slightest hint. So we'll explore this one right away if you don't mind."
Our instructions took us to a point on the high road about a mile from the shop. There were few houses in the neighborhood. The hangars of the aerodrome made a sky-line far away to the left. The network of railways was on our right. We had to leave the car at a white gate opening on to what had been a farm-track, and walk across two fields. The cottage came into view as we entered the second field, at a distance of four or five hundred yards. It was an insignificant place, apparently not very old, and quite undistinguished--a brick box with a slate roof. But it was in a curiously isolated position, out of sight of any other building, in a corner of the field, with the railway embankment towering higher than its roof, and some distance beyond it an accommodation bridge pierced in the embankment, under which, I supposed, cattle passed from one meadow to another.
We kept our eyes fixed on the house during the few minutes of the walk across the field, but saw no movement of any sort. Barlow pushed open the small wooden gate of the garden and we passed up to a tiny porch. Barlow did a postman's knock on the door.
"You two talk," he said. "I want to watch."
He got behind us.
Almost immediately the door was opened by a woman of middle age and shrinking manner, who waited for one of us to speak. The detective stepped over the sill of the door as he said, "Good morning. We've come to see the young lady."
She gave way to him reluctantly. "What young lady? There's no young lady here. You've made a mistake, young man."
"I think not, ma'am," he rejoined. "I mean the young lady who came yesterday morning."
"I tell you there's no young lady here," she repeated.
But Barlow had not needed to watch long. It was evident even to me that the woman was in a state of panic.
"That'll do!" Barlow exclaimed, coming forward. "Now, my good woman, you're for it, you know--and you'd better not tell any more lies. Go inside."
The door led into the kitchen place, and we crowded upon her there.
She sank to a chair, pale-faced and trembling.
"Now," said Barlow, "are you going to tell the truth?"
"There's nothing to tell," she said, dully.
"Very well." He stepped to the door, locked it, and put the key in his pocket. "I shall search the house. I give you one more chance to own up. It'll be better for you."
Her lips moved without speaking.
"Stay with her," he said to the detective. "Come on, Masters! No time to waste."
It was a small house of five rooms. A few moments were enough to explore it from floor to roof. The woman who sat trembling in the kitchen was the only human being in it besides ourselves; but in a small back bedroom Barlow found what he wanted. It had been recently occupied. The bed was not yet remade. A teacup stood on the box that served for dressing-table. It was half-filled with tea, still warm.
Barlow strode into the front room and looked from the window across the field we had traversed.
"How long did it take us to walk from that gate?" said he, pointing. "Three or four minutes? Time enough for a getaway..."
He rushed back to take one more look round the back room. It contained nothing, so far as we could see, to indicate who had drunk that half cup of tea. But when Barlow got down to grovel on the floor and look under the bed, he cried out in triumph, reached in to the wall and produced a pair of blue bedroom slippers that had been kicked there. He descended the stairs two at a time, and held out the slippers to the woman.
"Now," said he, "will you tell the truth?"
"I--don't know what you want me to tell you," she faltered.
"Who was with you here five minutes ago?"
"Where is he now?"
"He's gone out."
"He took the young lady with him. Where did he go?"
"How can I tell you?" Barlow leaned over her angrily.
"Are you a fool as well as a crook? Where are they? Do you know this is a hanging matter? There's murder in it--"
The woman collapsed. Her pale face went white as paper and she closed her eyes. Barlow took her by the shoulder and shook her.
"Wake up!" he growled. "Faint afterwards. Where are they?"
"I don't know," she gasped, looking fearfully into Barlow's frowning face. "They went out--somewhere--just to hide--till you'd gone."
Barlow relinquished his hold and pushed us out of the house. He looked around. In the little time that had passed since we entered the field nobody could have gone very far--it seemed almost impossible that they could even have got out of sight in that wide featureless landscape. Indeed they must have kept close to the house until we were inside, or we should infallibly have seen them. Barlow handed me a whistle.
"Masters--hop over that embankment. Blow hard the moment you see anything. Come on, Duckham, we'll take one each side of that lane."
The lane was a narrow road coming down from the direction of the aerodrome between thorn hedges--evidently the normal way of approach to the cottage. It followed a slight depression of the ground. Barlow and Duckham had separated, one each side of the hedge, dividing out the country, before I reached the top of the embankment and crossed the rails. I found myself then contemplating a vast triangle of pasture land with similar embankments on all three sides. Every object within it was clearly in view--and the only objects to be seen were a few cattle with their tails to the breeze, browsing on the now scanty grass. No fugitives had passed that way for in the hurried moments of our stay in the house (I suppose we were not more than three minutes) it was impossible for anybody to have reached either of the other embankments. But just one possibility occurred to me. I walked north along the track. A locomotive whistle shrieked behind me and a South Wales express came thundering down the line, passing with a flash and a roar. I could see Barlow and his companion scrutinizing the lane and its hedges, going away from me at a tangent. My own idea took me along the railway until I reached the point where that low accommodation bridge passed beneath it--a mere exiguous passage through the base of the embankment. There I dropped silently inside the triangle, and, half stogged in the soft ground trampled by cattle, peered cautiously into the opening. The embankment being lofty and broad-based, and the arch not more than eight feet high, this bridge had the darkness and dampness of a tunnel. I could see only the arc of daylight at the other end. Nothing was visible in the tunnel beyond the first few yards.
But though I could see nothing within, any person concealed there could have seen me plainly enough in silhouette. Therefore I put my head beyond the brickwork only far enough to look, and listened for any sound. Nothing came but the occasional drip of water from the incipient stalactites in the arch.
Perhaps a minute had gone when there arose a half-squelching, half-crackling sound, greatly magnified in that hollow megaphonic space. Continuing to peer, I saw the black figure of a man against the semi-circle of light, diminished to minute proportions in the long perspective. It disappeared.
The next instant I was plowing through the mud and darkness, with water dripping on me from the roof, stopping every few yards to listen. If my guess was right, he, knowing nothing of what had happened at the cottage, and supposing that if the three men he had seen coming over the field sought Janet, they had found no trace of her at his house, had gone to reconnoiter. In that case, he had left Janet in the tunnel. I estimated that he would crawl up the embankment to get a view of the house, and that then he would see Barlow and Duckham dividing the country about the lane. What he would do then there was no time to speculate. I calculated the chances of sound reaching him in the open. I risked it. I called in a moderate tone of voice:
It was as though a giant had shouted her name. It reverberated for several seconds. I listened with agonized intentness. As the noise I had made died down, a sound which was part cry, part sob joined on to it. Janet was there!
Then I threw caution away, and crying "Janet!" I plunged on, in a sweat of wonderment why she did not call or come to me.
I found her in the middle of the beastly place. My eyes having become used to the faint gray light that pervaded it, I saw her huddled on the reeking ground with her back against the wall.
No answer. In a fever of apprehension, I struck a match and bent down to her. Eyes closed, face ghostly, hair bedraggled, body limp. But she was not quite unconscious. Just as the flickering light went out I saw her eyelids move. One sane impulse came to me in the excitement. I took Barlow's whistle from my pocket and blew three or four long blasts which shrieked through the tunnel with ear-splitting fury.
Then I stooped and lifted her. She was supine, but could just stand on her feet. By instinct, not deliberation, I began half-carrying and half-dragging her the way I had come. It was, I imagine, a sub-conscious desire for light and a sub-conscious calculation that I should have more time if the man came back on his tracks through the tunnel after me than if I went towards him.
Though, as they told me afterwards they did not see him, he must have seen Barlow and Duckham running towards the embankment as soon as the whistle had sounded, and, realizing that it was impossible to get away in the open, dived into the tunnel again. For, as I labored slowly with my burden, I heard him crashing and splashing after us. He came at four times my speed. I had still several yards to go to the end when he was upon us.
"Get out if you can!" I said to Janet, releasing her.
I turned to face him. He was now in a half light that enabled me to see him better than he could see me. A rough-looking fellow, unkempt as Usher, and now bespattered with mud from his run through the slush. I gave a half glance over my shoulder. Janet was going on with her hand on the wall.
"Out o' the road!" he yelled, crouching.
"If you come a step further--" I began; but he was on me already. In a flash I had seen the blow aimed at my eyes, stooped and caught him by the legs. I had not played Rugby for nothing. He took a terrific purler on to his face in the mud. I scrambled on to him and tried to pin him down by the shoulders; but he was a hefty brute in a desperate rage. He grappled me, tried to use boots and teeth, and for a few horrible minutes we fought fiercely, rolling in the mud that blinded and half choked me. I got a grip on a bristly throat. With a jerk of his head, he bit into my arm. I struck him in the face. The obscene violence of it was only ended when Barlow and Duckham came plunging through the tunnel and pulled us apart.
He was a deplorable sight when Duckham, having slipped handcuffs on his wrists, hauled him to his feet--caked with mud from hair to heels, thoroughly tamed. No doubt I made an equally lamentable appearance.
"Is she here?" Barlow asked. I pointed to the open. We found her sitting faint and bemused at the foot of the embankment. She was dressed in the famous one-piece frock with her blue coat buttoned over it. She was hat-less, and on her feet were a pair of heavy shoes, now a mass of mire. She had not spoken, and was now unable to speak--hardly conscious of what happened. She seemed faintly to recognize me--no more.
Barlow pulled out a whisky flask and fingered it doubtfully.
"No," he said, "probably do more harm than good. Duckham, go on with this fellow. We'll bring the girl."
So Janet, still in a state of limp stupefaction, was carried back to the cottage by me and Barlow. Half an hour afterwards an astonished doctor stood by the bed where we had laid her and asked who had prescribed ethylic aldehyde for her. I had no acquaintance with this particular hell-broth, but Barlow seemed to know all about it, and as soon as it was mentioned he began to hunt the house, while I stayed watching the doctor's ministrations. It was a full hour after I found her in the tunnel when Janet got back full consciousness. Barlow then stood by, frowning, with a large phial in his hand. She smiled feebly when we came into her perception.
"Hello, Miss Janet! That's better," said Barlow. "Now we'll have you right as a trivet in no time."
"Hello, Mr. Barlow!" said she. "And you"--with a wan smile at me--"I'm afraid I've got you all into a bit of a mess!"
Within another hour, the fellow with whom I had scuffled in that foul tunnel, cleansed of all the tokens of battle except the black eye which so greatly disfigured his manly beauty, was on the way to the lock-up in Bristol on a provisional charge of assault--and I was on my way to London with Janet.
I had never before seen Barlow in an incandescent rage like that of this hour. His delight in the rescue of Janet was soon forgotten in the ferocity engendered by the sight of the hulking liar, calling himself Jim Williams, who coolly, insolently, confidently defied him. He told a ready-made story of having found Janet the previous morning lying unconscious and half-dressed in the field near his cottage and of having acted the Good Samaritan to her--even to the extent of attempting to hide her when he saw us coming to the house, fearing that we might be the gang which he supposed had dumped her at his doorstep!
His effrontery was equal to a Good Samaritan explanation of his wife's purchase of the little blue frock, and to a complete denial of any knowledge of the phial of dope which Barlow brandished in his face.
"Who hired you, you scoundrel?"
Barlow shot the question at him every minute, exhausted his armory of threats, tried every trick he knew to trip him without avail, and at last, in a fit of nausea, bundled him off to Bristol in Duckham's custody.
It was only a vague and unsatisfactory story, too, that he could get from Janet. She had been so heavily drugged that her mind was still in a fog. She remembered having been suddenly smothered in some sheet or blanket as she was undressing in her room at Ferry Grange. Then she recalled nothing more until she came to a dim consciousness in the wretched little bedroom. She had been ill all the day, only just able to comprehend the story the man and his wife put up about having found her in the field. Even now she had no idea where she was.
Barlow would not allow her to be pestered with cross-examination. He seemed to have a great urgency to get her away. He took me aside and explained it.
"Disappear, both of you!" said he. "You're dangerous to me; you only complicate things here. Take her away to safety--anywhere but Kenwick. Forget Kenwick and let it forget her and you too. London for choice. Is there a place where you can keep her lying doggo in London?"
There was only one place--my cousin Bertha Newsome's in Maida Vale.
"Very well. That'll do. You'll both be handy for the Fourth if you're wanted. It's next Friday, you know. And before Friday I'll have torn the heart out of Ananias! Just the one slip 'X' has made--this kidnaping of your girl. If you wouldn't punch my head I'd say it was worth it, Masters. It's given me something to bite on, and by gosh won't I bite!"
He hurriedly outlined his plan. With Ananias under lock and key, he'd have Sapphira eating out of his hand in no time. The discovery had been quick and secret, known to none but ourselves. He would not have to wait long before some communication was made to Williams--and then!--
"But the essence of the matter is--keep away from Kenwick. Let Kenwick sleep. Give me the London address, and let Lennox know as soon as you get there. Get away, Masters, and leave me a clear deck. Be on hand for Friday--that's all."
So in the afternoon I sat with Janet in the train. We had bought shoes and stockings and some sort of hat in Bristol. We had cleaned the mud off her coat, and she had dished up her appearance in the dressing room at the station. She was still in a miz-maze, but passively content, I thought, to have me with her. The first sign she gave of throwing off lassitude was a sudden curiosity about her destination. We had caught the afternoon express for London. I had secured a compartment and coerced her into taking some tea. Then it was as though she woke up all at once.
"This train--" she said; "it doesn't go to Kenwick?"
I had to break it to her: Barlow would not hear of her going back to Kenwick. I was to take her somewhere in London where she could hide up for a day or two while Barlow brought off his great coup.
"It was finding you at Filton, Janet, that put him on to it," I said. "I verily believe he's rather glad you were kidnaped--!"
She smiled at that--a momentary gleam.
"Anyhow, I've got to take you to my cousin in Maida Vale. She's got a big flat, a tame husband, and a telephone all complete. You're to wait there till further orders from Barlow."
She seemed to accept the inevitability of it. But she looked very thoughtful.
"I hope Mr. Barlow's on the right track," she said.
Her gravity and the hidden intention in this remark puzzled me for an instant. But happily I checked the question that sprang to my lips: I had forgotten Joshua and her mother! Knowing that if Barlow had to trample on his own mother in the chase for evidence he would not hesitate, I kept silence on that. Instead I drew out of Janet by degrees the story of her last night at Ferry Grange.
It was not easy. Janet wanted to gloze over the part Helen Adamson had played.
"You must be very fond of that girl, Janet," I ventured.
"Helen's a fool--but she's my only girl friend," was her answer to that. Just one more of Janet's loyalties.
Nevertheless Helen had tried her high about Oddie. She had never liked Oddie, and her mother only tolerated him because of Joshua. But something in his dour, fierce, gloomy character had infatuated Helen--appealed to the timidity in her. And something in Helen's timorous nature had fascinated Oddie. His introduction into Webb's household had been the one fly in the ointment of the little society at Kenwick.
"Still, I never thought any great evil of him," said Janet. "I just disliked him--that was all. Till that night--when we came back from the river..."
But from that time onward, there had been something terrifying in the air, and the terror increased unbearably when Oddie vanished immediately the news of the murder came out. The cold-blooded crime, done almost at the door of Ferry Grange, seemed to poison the air. Her mother and Joshua Webb went about as though burdened with intolerable secrets. Helen Adamson lived on the verge of hysteria.
"But your mother--" I began. And then I remembered Janet's alarm when Barlow was reciting his category of the persons who were within reach of Parkinson that night, and young George Bunbury's story of a scramble through a wire fence. Janet appeared not to catch any significance in my silence.
"Mother?" she said. "Joshua's anxiety worried her. There was a special reason--" She hesitated.
"Well, she didn't want any worry just then--nor did he." But she did not enlarge on this. She went on to the scene at Ferry Grange on the night of Oddie's visit. The maid's story that she and Helen went upstairs about ten o'clock was quite accurate. Janet, in Helen's room, giving her a dressing down about her foolishness over a fellow like Oddie, found her excited and intractable. She left her about eleven. In her room, she made up the fire and sat reading for half an hour or so--she could not say how long--and then was suddenly petrified with astonishment when she heard a sound of uncontrollable sobbing in the corridor and the rumble of a man's voice.
Janet made out her candles, opened the door, and looked. In the light that came from the open doorway of Helen's room she saw the girl in Oddie's arms. She was crying bitterly, and he consoling her.
"A disgusting spectacle!" was Janet's surprising remark--I supposed for my special benefit.
Considering Janet's own emphatic opinions about necking and sentimentalizing, her conduct in the next minute was quite in character.
She coughed, marched out of her room and confronted them without speaking. She caught Helen by the arm and pulled her away from the indignant Oddie, pushed her into her bedroom and shut the door on her. Then she pointed to the stairs.
Oddie began to bluster.
"The dirty dog!" said Janet. "Know what he said to me? He said I seemed to think I could go and keep any appointment I liked with any stray man and put up an excuse, but he couldn't so much as peep at Helen unless I poisoned him with hatred--and so on. So I said that if he wasn't out of the house in twenty seconds I'd ring up the police! He looked for a moment as if he'd strangle me there and then. But he thought better of it, and went. I was following him down to see him off the premises when Helen rushed out, crying 'George!' I gave her George! I shoved her back to her own room, and heard the house door close behind Oddie. The wonder to me was that the row didn't wake the house."
"It did," said I. And I told her how we had painfully extracted the truth from Bessie. Janet called her a "bleating hussy" and registered some resolutions about her to be put into force as soon as she got back to Ferry Grange...
Oddie gone, at any rate temporarily, Janet spent ten minutes in Helen's room which must have been highly distressing for that love-lorn maiden. This was not the first time Helen had seen Oddie since the murder of Parkinson.
"I read the Riot Act to her!" said Janet.
"What you should have done was to go down and lock the door after Oddie," I suggested.
"What need? It was a spring lock."
"Only the bleating hussy had put it on the catch," said I.
"Well, I didn't know that, and anyhow it would have taken more than a spring lock to keep him out if he wanted to come in, wouldn't it?"
I admitted that logic.
Janet then faced--on her own account--the question at which I shied: Knowing that Oddie was at large in Kenwick, that he had probably never been away from Kenwick, and that his alleged disappearance was a pretense to bamboozle the police, should she not have rung up the police on the instant?
Perhaps--but her answer was another loyalty: she disliked Oddie, but Helen loved him; Helen was a fool, but she was Helen. Joshua was a fool, but he was Joshua.
"What," I asked, "did you think could have induced Oddie to run the risk of an escapade like that?"
"I hadn't got to think," she replied. "I knew. He wanted Helen to go off with him--and it wasn't the first or the second time he'd tried. Don't ask any questions about it--John," she said looking me straight in the eyes as I bent across the compartment towards her, following her story. "Shan't answer them if you do. Helen's a whimpering fool, but she's modest and she's honest. You'll have to make the best you can of that."
I could make exactly nothing of it...
In her own room at last, Janet leisurely prepared for bed, never, of course, giving a thought to the possibility of a second invasion of the house.
It happened as she was undressing. A little sound, a sense of a presence in the room, and then her arms were pinioned and she was half smothered in the folds of some heavy thing thrown over her head.
The attack came so suddenly and the sequel was so rapid that she thought she never uttered a cry. She remembered being lifted off the ground. Then she felt stifled and lost consciousness. She knew nothing more till she came to a sort of dazed realization of herself in bed at Filton, which was probably six or seven hours afterwards.
She had evidently been drowned in chloroform fumes from the cloth thrown over her head. But it was not enough to account for the long hours of unconsciousness. Ananias and his phial had seen to that.
"What's it all mean, John?" she asked, quietly.
"Barlow says it means fear," said I.
"Fear of me? Why should he or anybody fear me?"
"As to you, Janet--wouldn't it be enough that you had surprised him like that?"
"Not unless he had really--"
She shuddered instead of completing her sentence. We both shirked the horror of Parkinson's murder.
"There's more than that," I said. "There's fear of both of us, not because of--what happened that night at Usher's, but because of our trip on the river. Janet!--we stumbled into a hornets' nest. We're both suspected of plotting with Parkinson against the hornets. Listen to what happened last night.."
As I told her of my adventure, Janet's face portrayed every lineament of horror and alarm. I recall that the train was rushing through Reading Station as I finished and she cried out:
"John!--" and impulsively leaned over to grasp my hand.
It took all my self-control to avoid a forbidden demonstration of sentiment when she did that.
"John! he can't have--"
But the lamentable fact was that whether he could have or not, there were those cuts in the bed coverings, and there was Barlow's theory, and it stood till somebody produced a better one. I could tape it all off neatly enough:
Parkinson in possession of the secret of the person whom Barlow knew as "X"; Parkinson known to have met Janet secretly; a strange young man coming on the scene and exploring the river with Janet...
Parkinson has suddenly become dangerous. Henceforth Parkinson and the secret of "X" cannot live in the same world together. Parkinson is removed...
Janet is watched for a day or two. She does not act as though she knew that secret. But they cannot be sure. Obvious reasons for being economical of crime in the case of Janet. But she surprised Oddie at Ferry Grange when Oddie was supposed to be far away: Janet must be put out of action till after the Fourth...
No such compunctions about me...I had better be put out of action permanently!
"Desperate and damnably clever," Barlow said of the kidnaping of Janet. If the trick should accidentally be discovered before the Fourth, to all appearances Janet would have been just dumped casually at the doorstep of a perfectly innocent house. A car comes up before daylight. Janet, bundled up in her blue coat, is deposited.
If nothing had happened to disturb the plan--if there had been no Barlow--Janet would probably have remained too ill to be moved from Filton till after the Fourth.
But now, with Barlow on the spot, the damnably clever scheme was on the point of collapse. He had the strings in his hands and it was the too damnably clever scheme that had presented him with the last of them--Jim Williams would infallibly lead him to the center of the web.
Janet listened quietly while I stated the theory in as orderly a way as I could. But her eyes were full of trouble. She sat silent till the train ran into Paddington.
In Bertha Newsome's admirable flat in Alderstone Mansions, Janet was received with the minimum of curiosity and the maximum of kindness. Bertha and her lawyer husband, who invariably treated me like the Prodigal Son on the rare occasions when I troubled their serenity, had made a half-comic protest against the enormity of my conduct in dragging the family's name through the police courts. But they both fell straightway in love with Janet. She soon entirely recovered from the drugging; though the trouble remained in her eyes.
On Thursday (which was the Third of October) I had an astonishing letter from Barlow, still at Bristol. He calmly announced that he could not be in London on the Fourth, that he had asked Lennox to look after anything that might happen at the Metropolitan, and to call on me and Tod Challenger for any help he wanted.
That Barlow should treat thus lightly the possibilities of the Fourth puzzled me to amazement. If there was a chance of getting a firm clew to Parkinson's death, surely it must be on this day and in this place, which Parkinson, with the shadow of death on him, had nominated? But that was what Barlow seemed not to think.
"I'm hot on the trail of X.," he wrote. "We've got the thug Williams remanded for a week--on the charge of assaulting the police in the execution of their duty! Any port in a storm! I've been devoting myself to the tearful lady who has the felicity of being married to a real Cave Man, and I think I'm well away with it. The truth will surprise you--it always does surprise a newspaper man. I'm lying low for a visitor from Kenwick, whom I expect to give the show away. But for heaven's sake, don't go near Kenwick, or let Tod go: I want Kenwick to forget us all. Don't be surprised if you hear of the arrest of Oddie at any moment; but don't go off the deep end about it. In fact don't be surprised at anything. Follow Lennox's instructions till you hear from me again."
Lennox's instructions were the cause of the following disposition of things on the following morning:
Lennox had temporarily joined the clerical staff of the Metropolitan Hotel and busied himself with a typewriter behind the great smooth counter in the lobby;
Tod sat in a taxi outside in Northumberland Avenue;
I smoked a cigarette and concealed myself behind a newspaper on a lounge in the lobby, with the entrance in full view.
We all watched ceaselessly for something. It might be for some person or persons we knew. Or it might be, Lennox said, something which would betray itself in a Teutonic accent and Semitic features. If a person with those characteristics appeared in the lobby and seemed to be keeping or waiting for an appointment, these were the arrangements:
Lennox would contrive to be present at the appointment unseen;
I was to watch for the return of the person who had kept it, and signal him to Tod;
Tod was to follow him wherever he went and ring up Lennox as soon as possible at his rooms in the Victoria.
The theory on which Barlow seemed to have based this plan was of the slenderest. It assumed a connection between the meeting at the Metropolitan and the Allenstein case. A great deal of the Allenstein booty had been liquidated--bearer bonds kept turning up from New York and Paris. But so far as could be found no attempt had yet been made to liquidate one of the most valuable parts of it--the diamonds of the Vanstead collection. That was why we were on the look-out for a person who might appear to have arrived recently from Amsterdam.
Parkinson's obscure message assumed some knowledge in Lennox which would put him wise to what was going on: neither Barlow nor Lennox could get a closer guess than this.
When I suggested to Lennox that trained detectives would be far better for such a job than greenhorns like us, he said it was precisely our greenness that made us valuable. If so much as the smell of a policeman hung about the place, there would be nothing doing.
Yet our vigil at the Metropolitan was in vain. The lobby buzzed with people; there was a constant procession in and out of the revolving doors; but we saw neither any person we knew nor any person with the stigmata prescribed by Lennox.
It was getting on for noon when Tod came hurrying through the doorway, glanced about and made straight for me.
"Tell Lennox," he said in a breathless whisper, "that Joshua Webb has just walked by, and Abbott's driven up in his car and gone into the Northumberland Hotel."
And Tod, having exploded this on me, rushed out again.
Lennox was taken on the hop. He scratched his head vigorously as I leaned over the counter to give him the news. "Divide et impera," he said, looking thoughtfully at me. "That looks like a wise guy's dodge. I guess I shall stay here, Mr. Masters. You go and see what's happening. Lie low if you can, and use Tod as a messenger if you want him."
"You don't for a moment think--"
"No time for thinking," he interrupted me. "This'll be a quick job. Get busy, will you?"
I got busy in great perturbation of mind. Joshua Webb, perhaps--but Abbott! It was preposterous. Still, Lennox was imperative, and I slipped out and on to the Northumberland, only a few yards distant. Abbott's car was drawn up near the door. Paynter saw me pass, smiled and touched his cap. In the lobby I played the same role as before--sitting on a lounge, with a newspaper ready as a protective screen.
Five minutes passed. I heard a clock strike noon. Then:
"Good morning, Mr. Masters!"
I jumped round and swore softly to myself. There was old Abbott smiling down on me. Putrid luck--to have been taken unaware. I greeted him as politely as my feelings would allow.
"Remarkable thing to find you here," said he. "You hadn't heard about the meeting by any chance?"
I felt my hair rising.
"Meeting? What meeting?" I babbled.
"Ah, no--of course, you wouldn't have heard. All came out of that last letter to The Times--you know, where I said I should be glad to hear from people who shared my views. I did hear from several. Lord Lesterfield was one, and he suggested a meeting to discuss what could be done to bring the authorities to their senses--"
I groaned inwardly. At such a moment to have to endure an oration from Abbott on the old theme--But he did not go on.
"You would not like to come?" he asked.
"Afraid it's impossible, Mr. Abbott."
"A pity--you'd be interested. Lord Lesterfield wrote a good deal about you--the victim, he said, of the crass stupidity and red tape of the official system--"
I kept my eyes on the door and prayed that Lord Lesterfield or some other flag-flapper would come quickly and take him away. And then he brought my attention back to him with a jolt.
"And, Mr. Masters, there'll be a friend of yours: I met Mr. Webb at the Charing Cross corner just now, and told him about it. He was waiting for a lady"--the old gentleman smiled archly, with a lift of the eyebrows--"but he's coming to the meeting--"
I daresay Abbott went on enlarging on the subject, but I can remember neither what he said nor any comment of my own. Possibly I just gaped at him. For suspicion and alarm descended on me in a flood.
Joshua! Janet's reticence: Janet's refusals...Janet knew of this meeting from Parkinson. Did Janet know of it from any other source?
Then, in the midst of the mental turmoil which Abbott had stirred in me, I saw Joshua himself come through the door.
In an instant he had perceived me standing with Abbott. He checked perceptibly in his brisk walk. For a moment I thought he would turn and go out again. But having realized that I saw him, he came forward.
"Well, well!" said Joshua, holding out his hand as cordially as if he had never written that curt little note to me, "who'd have thought of seeing you here? Regular meeting of the clans, ain't it? How are you? And how's Mr. Challenger? Did you come for Mr. Abbott's meeting?"
All these questions of Joshua's meant nothing at all. He paid no attention to Abbott. He did not want to know anything about my health or about Tod. Joshua was scrutinizing my face so closely that I almost flinched from his intent eyes. What Joshua was saying to me silently was, "Why the devil are you here? And what do you know? And is there anybody else here who knows anything? And what's the thing for me to do?"
I had said I was sorry to be unable to attend Mr. Abbott's meeting.
"Ah, well--I suppose it won't be a very long affair, will it, Abbott? Half an hour or so? Are you at a loose end for lunch? Would you care--"
The invitation seemed like a challenge. There was a diamond-cut-diamond look in Joshua's eyes as he spoke.
"I'm afraid--" said I.
"Oh--if it's inconvenient, some other time. Well, Mr. Abbott--"
But Abbott had moved away to the door. I had seen him beckoning. Paynter had come up, touched his hat and received an instruction. Abbott now returned to us.
"We'll go up if you're ready," said he. "Good morning, Mr. Masters. Remember me to Mr. Challenger when you see him."
And they went away to the elevator.
The collocution left me in a state of bewilderment. After all, the idea of pure coincidence in the assemblage of these people at this hour and in this place was incredible. Yet, if it was not coincidence, what was I to believe about it? I resumed my seat and the newspaper and pondered on it, watching the door, for ten minutes. I went outside and looked up and down the street. Paynter sat at the wheel of Abbott's car, looked up at me and smiled. Tod's taxi was still in place. I returned to the lobby. It was a little boring. I was making up my mind to go to Lennox and tell him the presence of Abbott could have nothing to do with our vigil, since he was there for a flag-flap and, whatever might be the truth about Webb, for the present he was safely tucked up under Abbott's wing. And then Lennox himself came in, almost on the run. He pulled up on meeting me and said, hastily:
"Have you seen him? Where is he?"
"Abbott?--yes, he's gone up in the lift with Webb."
"Abbott?--no, not Abbott! Van de Jacobstein, or whatever he is--the man with the nose and the sombrero."
I stared at him.
"'No such person has been here, Lennox."
"Bet you he has. Wait a second."
Lennox strode to the elevator, waited for the descent of the cage, and had a short colloquy with the attendant. Then he beckoned to me.
"Room 330, you say? Take us up, please."
Discharged into the soft carpeted corridor of the third floor, we found ourselves quite alone.
"Tod saw him," said Lennox by way of explanation.
"Crawling along the pavement, looking and waiting. He passed close to Tod, came along here and disappeared. It's a bit too plain to miss, ain't it? They're not taking any chances. They argue: 'Parkinson may have blown the gaff. Therefore we'll change the venue.' Anyhow, I'm going to see."
"What's in Room 330, then?"
"Abbott's precious meeting."
"But surely, Lennox, you don't--"
"Yes, I do. Three-seventeen," said he, looking at the numbers--"it'll be round this corner..."
Lennox omitted even the courtesy of a knock on the door. He tiptoed up to it, turned the handle, and he first, and then I, burst in upon Abbott's indignation meeting. I gave one sweeping look round. No gentleman who could possibly be named Van de Anythingstein was in the room. Half a dozen people sat round a table. They were all looking up at us with astonished faces.
"Ah!" said Abbott, seeing me, "so you've come along after all, Mr. Masters--and--?"
Lennox was quick in the uptake. He made a little bow, and I said, "Mr. Lennox--a friend. I suppose we're very late?"
Abbott was on his feet, dragging up two chairs to the table.
"Rather late. In fact, we'd just passed a resolution to form ourselves into a committee. However, Lord Lesterfield--you'll be interested to meet Mr. Masters. He's the young man who was arrested so stupidly in the affair of Parkinson."
The tall silver-haired man at the top of the table inclined his head, and as soon as Lennox and I were seated he began a speech...
The whole thing was absurd. How long it would have lasted if Lord Lesterfield had not either been very hungry or anxious to keep an important luncheon engagement I can't guess. But having held forth for a minute or two in "Ercles" vein and out-Abbotted Abbott in his sentiments about Officialdom, Lord Lesterfield proposed that we should be added to the committee and broke up the meeting.
Absurd!--and the person who best understood how absurd was Joshua. He bent on me all the time that intent eye of his, and there was extreme amusement behind its intensity.
But Lennox bore me away and we were the first of the party to reach the lobby. Lennox rushed out as he had rushed in, and tore down the street.
"Damn!" he cried as we came to the porch of the Metropolitan.
Tod's taxi was no longer there.
The "goldarned eel" had given him the slip again. And it was so simple. To divide our forces, and then lay a false trail--
"I'd give ten dollars and then a bit to know which of the bunch invented it!" he exclaimed.
"The bunch? What bunch?"
"Why, the bunch we saw in that room--the dam' committee: who else?"
"Good Lord, Lennox! You don't s'pose that Lord Lesterfield--"
"Don't know a thing about Lord Lesterfield," he interrupted, testily. "May be his lordship's as big a fool as the fool speech he made. May be he's a decoy. But one of the bunch is in it. Just shrieks at you. Ask yourself!"
I did ask myself, and the answer I got was that it was impossible to believe anybody in the "bunch" was the murderer of Parkinson or a criminal of any sort.
Lennox continued to fume. How he did hate to be the victim of a simple little trick! I reminded him that even if he had burst in upon what he thought to find, he would have been helpless without the police.
"Helpless? All I wanted," said he, "was just one look at the fellow that son of Abraham came to meet--that's all! Just one little look, and I'd know how to help myself to him. But whoever did it, the thing was finished before we got there. Dam' slick performance! Now Tod's our one white hope. If Tod can trail him."
As it happened, Tod had trailed him. His message came on the telephone to Lennox's rooms in the Victoria almost as soon as we reached there. Lennox leaped up at the sound of the buzzer.
"Tod?...That you?...Where?...Hatton Garden?...How far?...Ten minutes if we're lucky?...All right. We'll be there. Freeze on to him. If we miss you we come straight back, and you ring us up here again... Got it?...Good boy."
Hatton Garden, the little cul-de-sac off Holborn consesecrated to eminent lawyers and fabulously rich diamond merchants, sounded promising, though it was not easy to believe that any Jacobstein would lay so plain a trail. And there was no getting to Hatton Garden in ten minutes in the middle of the day. It took nearly half an hour, during which I thought more than once Lennox would run amok. But when we turned in at the gates of Hatton Garden, there was Tod's taxi standing by the curbstone near the entrance, with two policemen manifesting a close curiosity about him.
It was like a moving picture.
Our cabby, instructed by Lennox, stopped behind the first taxi. The policemen gave a signal to the man at the gate and closed up towards us. People behaving suspiciously in Hatton Garden!...Lennox leaned out at the window and summoned one of the constables. He gave him a card, and said:
"The gentleman in the cab ahead is Mr. Challenger, a friend of mine. We are all on business. Very simple. We want to see a man who's gone into one of these offices. You'll oblige us by not appearing to be interested in us."
"Sold you a pup," said the policeman, nonchalantly.
"Eh? Who has?"
"Looking for an old bean in a dago's cape, aren't you?"
"That's so. While your friend goes to the telephone kiosk, his driver thinks he may as well have a drink--and me gentleman thinks that's the proper time for him to do a bunk. Which he does. We've been waiting to see what would happen."
What did happen was that Lennox bolted out of the cab and addressed some highly colored reproaches to Tod's driver, who had himself a varied vocabulary but was no match for Lennox. He drove away, with his exact legal fare, past two grinning policemen.
Hatton Garden was as big a sell as the Metropolitan Hotel. Lennox went into the building which the Semitic gentleman had visited, but could get no trace of him there. The clerks of the three firms who occupied it with one accord affirmed that they could not identify a client on such a slight description.
The fox had gone effectually to earth.
On the pavement outside, with the two policemen in the offing, Tod told his tale. After he had warned me about Abbott and I had gone into the Northumberland, he saw Joshua ascend the steps. Then he saw Abbott come out and call up Paynter to speak to him. Paynter returned to the car. For some time there was nothing to note. Nothing until a manifestly Semitic personage had arrived on foot, stood outside the Metropolitan and looked up and down the street. He walked along to the Northumberland and did the same thing there, but after a moment went in.
"He never came in while I was there," said I.
Well, Tod declared, he appeared to go in. Tod then summoned Lennox, and Lennox followed. Almost immediately afterwards the man in the sombrero came out, went to the edge of the pavement and cocked his finger to the driver of Abbott's car, apparently under the impression that it was a taxi. He put his head in at the window and spoke to Paynter, who apparently undeceived him, and then stood on the curb until an empty cab came along, stopped it, and got in. Tod followed him to Hatton Garden.
And that was all.
Whatever meeting Parkinson had in mind had either not taken place, or had been contrived so skillfully that it had been held unobserved almost under our noses.
"So," said Lennox, "some one knew all about us and our plan, and we've been fooled to the top of our bent."
And, while Lennox blew off his disappointment and disgust, the impression of Joshua's amused smile was uncomfortably strong in my mind. The great day on which we had put so much was a depressing fiasco--a Black Friday. The depression endured for three days. Lennox sat tight at his hotel to be in quick communication with Barlow, who appeared suddenly to have lost all interest in the famous Fourth. Tod went off about his week-end work. I solaced myself by haunting Maida Vale.
I was at Maida Vale on the Monday afternoon, and Bertha Newsome was giving us tea when Lennox rang up with an urgent message from Barlow. We were to catch the 5.30 train for Kenwick, where he wanted us urgently. Tod was with Lennox when I joined him at Paddington Station. He was in a curious mood of excitement and elation. Things were going to happen. He pushed an evening paper under my eyes and pointed to a paragraph "from our own correspondent" at Newbury:
THE MURDER IN BERKSHIRE
The police are believed to have obtained important information about the mysterious murder of a Mr. Parkinson in a motor car on the road near Kenwick, in Berkshire, and it is expected that an arrest will be made immediately. It will be remembered that a warrant is out for the man, George Oddie, who has been missing since the night of the crime.
I could not share the elation of Lennox. Oddie was odious, and if Barlow had succeeded in fastening his guilt upon him--well, that would not grieve me. But I was glad to feign pre-occupation with the darkening landscape as the train sped westward and I worried at the possible consequences in the Ferry Grange household of Oddie's arrest. Joshua, Janet, her mother, Helen Adamson--how would they all be affected if, when the truth was told, it should be found that Oddie was not only the murderer of Parkinson, but also the secret desperado for whom the police had been searching for nearly a year?
Joshua especially--with his coincidental presence at the Northumberland Hotel, and that queer smile of his...
The Constable, Lewis, was at the station to meet us with the police car and an air of large importance. Lewis, having lived through some trying hours with me in the firm belief that I was a blood-stained felon, had ever since been eager to atone for that aspersion.
"Coming to grips at last, sir," he managed to say, aside. "And none too soon," he added, in a still more mysterious whisper.
That cryptic remark was explained in the first consultation on Barlow's message. It took place in the room where Warren had roasted me so fiercely on the night of the murder.
"Coming to grips at last--and none too soon," said Warren. From which I concluded both that the Sergeant had a habit of repeating himself and that my friend Lewis was an unconscious plagiarist.
"I see the newspaper says you're thinking of pinching George Oddie," said Lennox.
"The newspaper--!" The concentrated essence of contempt which Warren contrived to distill from this word! Tod and I smiled. "The newspapers never help. They always get in the way. But they're right this time: we're going to take Oddie--to-night, I hope. And quite time--"
Though the old gentleman took no credit, his innocent Vanity was rather sore about it; Oddie had been discovered not by him, but by Barlow. And where, if you please, did we think Oddie was--and had been all the time? We had not the least idea. Then he would surprise us: Oddie had just simply been at home at Lorimer House!--and when Sergeant Warren had settled Oddie's hash, we were given to understand, there would be a pretty little bone for Warren to pick with Mr. Joshua Webb, make no mistake. He would have the highly gratifying duty of pinching Mr. Joshua Webb for obstructing the course of justice, for harboring and comforting, for being accessory after the fact--Warren recited a long list of the legal variants of the charges he would make against Joshua Webb. (Joshua's queer smile and the trouble in Janet's eyes came rushing back into my mind.) It was true that Warren had suspected Oddie's presence in the neighborhood almost from the first; but at Webb's--! It just showed how human depravity lurked in the unlikeliest places and proved the truth of the old hard saying that a policeman should distrust everybody always.
However, he concluded, Barlow had done the trick, and now we should see what really was the cause of the queer things that were going on at Abbott's.
"Oh?" said Lennox. "Something fresh?"
We all pricked up our ears.
"Yes, sir--fresh is a very good word," the Sergeant declared, acidly. "I never heard of such colossal impudence."
With a little patience we extracted from him the sequence of events which, no doubt, had led up to Barlow's present volcanic outburst of action.
They began on Friday, Warren said, when Mr. Abbott returned to Morley's Holt from attending a meeting in London. He reached home about seven, just as it was dark. His man Paynter was putting up the car when he caught sight of a fellow slinking away from the house. As there was no other manservant about the place than himself, he knew this must be an intruder. He shouted and the fellow ran.
"Paynter went after him, but he got away into the woods the other side of the drive--you know how thick 'tis there, Mr. Masters--Paynter close on his heels. Then my beauty turns on him--and fires! Lucky for Paynter it was a blind shot. It didn't get him. But naturally he'd had enough. He went back to the house."
Warren paused, enjoying the sensation his narrative visibly made upon us.
"Naturally," said Lennox. "I should keep out of the way of gun practice in the dark myself as a matter of principle. And then, Sergeant?"
"And then Paynter told Mr. Abbott, and Mr. Abbott was worried, but said it only bore out what he'd always held--that there was some conspiracy or vendetta going on, and Parkinson had been the center of it."
"Parkinson! But he's been dead many days," Lennox objected.
"Yes--but Parkinson lived at Morley's Holt. And suppose the man with the gun wanted something that Parkinson was supposed to have?"
Warren put forward this fresh and startling suggestion with much complacency.
"Go on, Sergeant," said Lennox. "Suppose he did--but this is more than a hunch. You know something--"
"Well--Saturday night, Paynter locked up, and he thought he'd have a look round the place. But this time he took a gun for himself--and a torch as well. He didn't find anybody in the yard; but at the end of the house--to the left of that portico, Mr. Masters--he stumbled against a ladder and thought he heard a footstep. He switched on the torch and again he saw a man dash across the drive for cover. And he up and fired at him. He must have missed him, because the next instant there was a flash and a shot from the wood, and Paynter skipped back round the house to safety."
"Ah!" said Lennox. "I begin to see. The ladder--"
"The ladder was up against the window of the room Parkinson had occupied."
"And though Paynter didn't think so, I'm pretty sure the man that scooted across the drive was Oddie."
A kind of horrible fascination began to creep over me as the net of circumstances closed in. Warren had it all pat--Oddie with a secret vendetta against Parkinson, attacking him in the woods and failing, waylaying him on the road and succeeding, hiding himself and biding his time protected by Joshua Webb, seeking some secret concealed in Parkinson's room, or perhaps the destruction of some piece of evidence so far undetected, trying on Friday night to get into the house and failing, trying a new way on Saturday and being scared off by Paynter--
"But, Sergeant," said I, "what could he have expected to find at Morley's Holt? You'd examined Parkinson's room before you sealed it."
"I took a general inventory. But that may mean little. Who's to know what he expected? Anyhow he tried his damnedest to get into the room, and didn't--simply because Paynter disturbed him just in time. I went out yesterday when Mr. Abbott rung me up. The window was still fastened on the inside. I broke the seal on the door and inspected the room to make perfectly sure. Nothing was disturbed. So I just sealed it up again. But I'm sorry for Mr. Abbott. If Mary wasn't a particularly well-plucked maid--"
"What's she got to do with it?"
"Well, if it weren't for Mary the old gentleman would be absolutely alone in the house now. Paynter simply wouldn't stick it any longer. He waited till I got out there yesterday. Then he said Mr. Abbott had better come into Kenwick and stay at the King's Arms till it was all over, or else I'd better send out some police to look after him. He declared it was a policeman's job to be fired at by criminals or madmen, not a chauffeur's. He was going. And he went."
"I guess I don't blame him," said Lennox.
"Nor I. I tried to get Mr. Abbott to shift, but he wouldn't hear of leaving--he's a stubborn old gent. And that girl--would you believe it?--she just cocked up her nose at Paynter and said she wasn't afraid of fifty Oddies! So I posted two men last night, one outside and one in--and nothing happened."
There was a lovable naïveté in the professional pride with which he said those three words.
"In fact, Oddie's number's up. I could have had him here now, only Mr. Barlow's instructions are very full and explicit--things to be done at certain times and in certain ways."
"Oh?" There was a world of curiosity in Lennox's voice.
"Yes--Mr. Barlow was very firm about it. When I said I'd go and take Oddie at once, he wouldn't hear of it. No--we must do exactly as he said, or we should spoil everything. Can't make sense of it myself. These are his orders: let everybody in Kenwick know that we're on Oddie's track and going to arrest him. And then sit tight and do nothing till--well, I suppose there's an idea at the back of it--"
"You bet!" said Lennox, in the same awakened way. "Till when, Sergeant?"
"Till further orders, which may come any time to-night. And as for you, Mr. Lennox--you're to be at the King's Arms in case he should want to speak to you."
If Lennox could see an idea in these strange dispositions of Barlow, it would not come either to Tod or myself.
But we were not left long to speculate about it. We had just eaten a scratch dinner at the King's Arms when Barlow rang through to Lennox.
"The play's about to begin, boys," said he as he came back to us from the telephone. (I saw no special significance in the phrase at that moment.) "First Act: Mr. Challenger and Mr. Masters go to bed right away and get a few hours' sleep. They will be called at 2.30. Second Act: the Sergeant and as many men as he can scrape up will call for Messrs. Challenger and Masters at 3 A.M. and they will depart with him. Third Act: arrest of George Oddie at Lorimer House."
"Has Barlow gone batchy, do you think?" Tod inquired.
"Seems a bit mad," Lennox confessed. "But knowing Barlow, I'll say there's method in his madness."
"What's your part in the play?" I inquired. "Or do you sit in the stalls?"
Lennox reminded me that he was technically an alien and had no business anyhow to interfere in a police matter in England. But he was to sit on the telephone and wait for another message. Full of wonderment at Barlow's eccentricity, Tod and I thought first of sitting up; but Lennox would not hear of it, and in the end I did get three hours of good sleep before Lennox shook me by the shoulder.
Old Warren, when he came, was like an emancipated boy. He had something to bite on now. No elusive detective business--just a straightforward police job after his own heart. His quarry was corralled. Half a dozen men, silence, speed--the thing was done.
Excellent old optimist!...
He had expected Lennox to make a third recruit to his army of four constables, two of them withdrawn from the guard at Morley's Holt. Lennox smiled his refusal.
"No, Sergeant; guess I'm out of this: no locus. I'll stand by here and wait for news from Barlow. Good luck. Looks as if you'll get the goods this time--but he's a whale of a vanisher, ain't he?"
Lennox's manner was something strange, but I put it down to diffidence about meddling in an English police affair, and in the excitement of the next hour I thought no more of it.
Warren had two cars, which, within twenty minutes, disgorged us all in the road outside the gate of Lorimer House. The new moon had set. It was a still, dark night. Warren switched off the car lights, assembled us all inside the gate and issued his instructions.
No talking--every movement as silent as possible--such and such a man to post himself here or there--Mr. Challenger and Mr. Masters to keep guard in the roadway between the house and the stable-yard--Lewis and Farthing to follow Warren.
"According to Mr. Barlow," he said, "Oddie's in the range of the old stable buildings. So far as I know there's only the one entrance, through the yard. But he may have found a window or trap-door, so you four men posted on the outside keep a smart look-out. I expect to get him inside. Possibly asleep. If so, all the better."
Excellent old optimist!...
We crept down the straight open drive along which I had hurried to Barlow with my news of Janet. We groped our way to the high wall of the stable-yard. Joshua's house, among its trees and shrubs, was dark and lifeless. The gates of the yard stood wide open. The little light in the sky enabled us to see the roof line of the buildings round, and that was all. This peaceful country scene looked as little like the haunt of a desperate criminal as anything on earth.
Warren waited while his four sentries stole away to their posts on the outside of the wall. Tod and me he placed in the drive, one on each side of the gateway to the yard. And, then, with his two henchmen, he assaulted the citadel.
It was a quick workmanlike job. One flash of his torch showed him the only vulnerable door--that at the top of an outside wooden staircase. From where we stood Tod and I could not see what he did, but we heard the thud of his footsteps as he ran up the stairs, a clink of iron, a crunch of wood, a door flung open. Then a light sprang up. We saw the forms of Warren and his two men moving inside. There was a hollow bang, and the light flickered away.
Sounds of various movements reached us. The light gleamed for an instant in a window on the ground floor. It shone under a door, flitted here and there.
Ten minutes passed.
"Drawn blank!" Tod said, softly.
Tod was right. Presently Warren and his two men were descending the staircase, no longer careful of silence or darkness. They moved with the torch round the yard examining doors. They came at last to the gateway.
"Not there," said Warren, lugubriously. "Been warned. Can't have gone long."
"Found his spoor, then, Sergeant?" Tod asked.
"Spoor! Like to come and see?"
The old gentleman was excusably petulant. We followed him across the yard. The door at the top of the wooden stairway gave access to two rooms over the stables, evidently the residence of a coachman in former days. But lately the abode of Mr. Oddie! No doubt of that. And, as Warren had said, not more lately than a few hours. In fact, Mr. Oddie had supped there that evening. In the first room were the remains of his supper on a table, and the embers of a fire in the little grate. He had furnished his retreat quite comfortably with chairs and rugs from the house--presumably with the connivance of Mr. Webb, as Warren vindictively pointed out. There were books and newspapers on one of the chairs. In the room beyond, a bed was neatly made, and some of Mr. Oddie's clothes hung over the foot of it.
Mr. Oddie had an old-fashioned drawing room lamp on an iron stand behind his chair, and had been able to pursue his literary occupations at night without observation because boards had been nailed over the window. It was a very neat cache.
The banging we heard had been caused by Lewis lifting a trap-door in the corner of the outer room, which revealed a ladder to the premises below. But small need to ransack the place. Plainly, Warren said, Mr. Oddie had been led to expect an attack on his citadel and had evacuated it in perfect order and safety. He was distinctly not there.
These discoveries naturally produced a more disturbing effect in me than even in Sergeant Warren. I had seen Barlow on this very spot the afternoon when I rushed after him to report Janet's disappearance. Could it be possible that Barlow had been within five yards of Oddie's hiding place and not discovered it? Tod's voice broke in upon my reflections.
"More in this than meets the eye, Sergeant."
"A whole lot!" said Warren, with a wrathful frown. "More than one person in the know--Webb and his servants too. Damn it!--I'll have 'em all for collusion! Webb and his yarn about Oddie going to London on business as usual! Webb not knowing where Oddie was! Let me get hold of Joshua Webb, and he'll soon see--"
We all leaped round as though a bomb had dropped in the room. Warren's torchlight fell on the face of Joshua Webb standing in the doorway at the top of the stairs--flitted over his figure (grotesque in a flowered dressing gown that fell in billows over his ample anterior) and over his bare feet in felt slippers, and then back to his face and his tousled hair. On the platform outside was Lennox.
"What shall I see, Sergeant?" Joshua repeated to the astounded Warren.
"The same," said Joshua, genially.
"What you'll see, Mr. Webb, is the inside of a police-cell unless you can give me a satisfactory explanation of--this"--he threw a look round the room--"but it'll take a bit of explaining, I shouldn't wonder."
Thus Warren, elaborately ironical, with Lewis and Farthing gaping over his shoulder.
"Quite ready to tell you anything you want to know, Sergeant, but not--"
"There's only one thing I want to know from you, Mr. Webb," Warren broke in, "and that is--where's Oddie?"
"Quite so, Sergeant--quite so. I can tell you a lot about Mr. Oddie, but if you aren't particularly keen on talking in a draughty place like this--what about coming across to the house now? Mr. Oddie's not here and he's not coming back here."
"You're doing a dangerous thing, Mr. Webb--you're accessory--"
Warren stopped short at a signal from Lennox.
"Two words with you, Sergeant," he said, beckoning him to the doorway. Warren stalked round Joshua to speak to Lennox. Joshua at once assailed us.
"Why!--it's Mr. Masters and Mr. Challenger. Fancy meeting you here! Excuse my undress, gentlemen. And how do you do?"
I forget what Tod said or did. As for me I never felt such a fool. I think an inane smile was my only answer to Joshua. Certainly his response was a deliberate wink. There was time for nothing more. Warren stepped back into the room and called to his constables:
"You can go out and bring the cars up to the house. Call off the men outside, and stand by for orders. Now, Mr. Webb--"
A little procession, with Warren's flickering torch lighting its way, went through the dark yard and across to the house. There the torch was unnecessary. A door stood open and rooms on the ground floor were lit up. Warren, Lennox, Tod and I trooped in after Joshua.
I had been putting two and two together and was more or less prepared for a surprise; but dear old Warren must have narrowly missed an apoplexy when in Joshua's drawing room he saw Mrs. Anderson-Orr leaning forward in a chair before the chimney-piece and trying to encourage a dying fire to revive. Mrs. Anderson-Orr, like Joshua, was in a dressing gown, but unlike Joshua she looked extremely well in it.
The rest of us pulled up short near the door, but Joshua went across to her as she dropped the poker exclaiming:
"Mon Dieu, quelle joule ! What! Mr. Challenger--and Mr. Masters? Tiens, tiens! How extraordinary! Pardon my deshabille. How are you all?"
"How do you do?" Tod recovered first, and went towards her with hand out. "You'll forgive us, Mrs. Anderson-Orr--"
"Tut, tut!" cried Joshua. "Not so--why, of course not so, Challenger. How could you think that? Allow me to introduce Mrs. Webb! I'd have preferred another sort of occasion, but still--on your head, Sergeant!"
I hardly perpended the comedy of this scene, in which a group of police and newspaper men, hot as they thought on the heels of a murderer, had burst in upon the honeymoon of a pair of middle-aged lovers.
I was too busy, during the few minutes it lasted, trying to wriggle out of a net of misunderstanding and to read something like reason into Barlow's behavior.
If, as it seemed, he had veritably sent me and Tod off on that day, as Tod had said, to chase a sentimental couple who wanted only to be by themselves...
And if, as I must suppose, Barlow had been well aware that Oddie was in the coachman's rooms at Lorimer House...
I was just conscious of a conversation between Tod and Mrs. Webb. I heard her say, two or three times, "Comme c'est drôle!" And then Lennox had spirited us out of the house.
There seemed to be an understanding between him and Joshua. Warren was left to extract his information about Oddie from Joshua in private: we were, as the new Mrs. Webb would have said, de trop. But before we went she had seized a moment to grasp my hand and wring it hard.
"I've heard all about Janet. Thank you, Mr. Masters," she said under her breath. "And all about you. Thank God it was no worse."
Which was not the least surprising thing that happened at Lorimer House.
Outside, Lennox, hurried and excited, bundled us into the car he had brought from Kenwick. There was no time then for me to adjust my slower-moving mind to the flood of entirely new ideas that set in with the discovery that the Webbs knew all about my adventures and Janet's, of which they could only have learned through Barlow.
"Now, you boys," said Lennox, when we were on the road, "that wasn't the play, after all--only the curtain raiser. The real thing's about to begin. We're to meet Barlow at Morley's Holt. He'll be there at daylight, and before that we've got to do a few things. The big show's on."
We rained questions on him, but he could tell us little except that Barlow had plotted and timed the whole thing to a hair--Warren's raid on the stable-yard at Lorimer House, Lennox's visit to Joshua Webb, the handing over of the Oddie end of the business to Warren and Webb to settle between them.
"What did you tell Warren to make him alter his tune so completely?" I asked.
"Just what Barlow told me--that he was to accept all Webb said on the subject as true, that Oddie was in Webb's house, and could be arrested at any moment if Warren thought, after he'd heard Webb, that he ought to be arrested."
"Then," I said, still struggling with that re-adjustment, "Oddie's not--"
"No, of course, he's not!" Tod broke in. "But ain't it time, Lennox, we had a spot of knowledge about what we're after? Oddie's just a turnip lantern, and he's never been anything else. He's got as much to do with this as I have with making the sea salt. Barlow's been telling the world about Oddie just to lull his man to sleep. But I think we ought to have a show-down before we go any farther."
"Tell Barlow," said Lennox, shortly. "But it's up to us to keep the contract, Tod. We can't let Barlow down now. He expects with our help to take his man, and have him safe in jail before breakfast."
"All right--I don't want to spoil sport. But I don't like being asked to go shooting in the dark. There's always a risk of winging the wrong pigeon."
"Don't suppose there'll be any pigeon-shooting, Tod. Not if I know Barlow. We've just got to keep watch. He wants us to get cover on the river-bank opposite Morley's Holt before daylight, note everything that happens, and wait for a signal from him."
The strangest part of Barlow's request was that Warren and the police were to know nothing of our movements.
"Why not Warren?" we asked. "Doesn't Barlow need all the help he can get?"
"I reckon he don't think Warren would help. Remember what I said about the shot we had in London? The very smell of a policeman--and it's all off. Barlow insists. So that's that. Which of you knows the location? What's the best way to get where he wants us without alarming anybody in those darned woods that might be curious about us?"
I laid the plan for that: to leave the car in the drive at Ferry Grange, strike off the road by the bridge and skirt the water till we reached the apex of the bend, opposite the point where Janet and I had been fired on in the boat. There we could command a longish reach of the river in each direction, and, if we split up, practically the whole circuit of Morley's Holt.
I had in mind, of course, some such expedient on Barlow's part as a beat-up of the woods which would drive any person hiding there towards the river. Why he would not employ the police for this I could not imagine. But Barlow was a law unto himself.
Lennox fell in with the plan. We parked the car between the rhododendron hedges at Ferry Grange, and plodded through the damp grass of the meadows. Lennox dropped out first and hid among the bushes where he could command the river almost down to the bridge. Tod went on to a spot that gave him a view of the northerly reach. I found a place at the point of the bend where the stream was narrowest, almost opposite Abbott's boat house. If Barlow was beating the woods towards the river, one of us was bound to see anybody who broke cover.
There had as yet been hardly light enough to make a man visible three yards away. But dawn broke as I crouched between the withes of a huge willow. Somewhere here Janet had seen the white face of Parkinson staring at her from among the branches. The sheen of the horizontal light from the East appeared on the water. The black formless mass of the woods on the other side was gradually fretted into the shapes of trees. It was a windless morning, without sound, save for the occasional and almost imperceptible plop of a heavy leaf on the water.
Any trampling of the brushwood across the river would certainly have been heard. There was none. Straining eyes and ears, as no doubt Tod and Lennox were doing in their places, I humped there till in the gray half-light anything that moved on either bank would have been visible and there was no further need for strain.
Then the first diversion occurred suddenly. My heart came into my mouth. The sound of a footstep and the rustling of branches reached me, not from the river, but close at hand.
A hand parted the withes, and Barlow's voice said, "Don't stir, Masters."
I felt a great release of tension. Barlow crawled in beside me.
"I've seen Lennox," he whispered. "I'm going on to Tod. I think we've got him this time. But for the Lord's sake don't stir or show yourself till you hear from me. Got your gun? If you hear me shout or fire, jump out and cover him. But not till then--no matter what happens."
A distant vibration caught his ear and mine at the same moment.
"Ah!" said Barlow. "Hear that? Remember--silence!--and don't budge till you hear me. I must get on to Tod."
He was gone.
The vibration, just audible at first, grew steadily louder, and became the roar of a motor. It increased incessantly till it reached a volume far beyond the noise of an ordinary car and came very close. Yet no public road was within half a mile and no racing car would take that twisting drive through the woods of Morley's Holt at such a pace.
In three minutes the sound had risen to ear-splitting thunder high overhead. I saw through the yellowing leaves the gray form of an aeroplane race by.
The secret of Barlow's ambuscade was out--we were to hold up a getaway by air.
Barlow's orders were precise. But I could not resist the temptation to part those withe fronds enough to see the plane as it made two wide circles over the great meadow.
It dropped all the time, and at the end of the second circuit flattened out and was almost skimming the ground as it passed me a hundred yards away. It came to rest in the middle of the field. Perhaps it was five hundred yards distant--perhaps not quite so much--not too far, at all events, for me to see the legend on the fuselage--GEB 0746--and the movements of the pilot. A tall figure, bundled up in much clothing, got lumbrously over the side of the fuselage and walked around the machine. The aviator stood with eyes directed towards me and the river. I saw the glint of a match and the smoke of a cigarette.
No sign came from Barlow. All up and down the river was silence, more intense now that the roar of the engine had ceased.
I had watched the aviator moving around, stretching arms, leaning against the machine, pulling a wire here and there, for perhaps ten interminable minutes. My watch showed twenty minutes to six.
At exactly twenty minutes to six, the second diversion came--a sound from across the river.
I turned to face the water again, peering through the willow to catch the first glimpse of the person whose quick pattering footsteps I had heard. He at any rate was not suspicious of watchers. He did not steal along, but walked boldly and rapidly. I heard him clear his throat. When his footsteps ceased they gave place to the rattling of an opening door.
He was at the boathouse.
If this meant that he was to cross the river, the supreme moment for Barlow was at hand. I could not guess whether Barlow, from his position with Tod, was able to hear these sounds or not; but if a boat put across he would see it. I was on wires, watching for the opening of the riverward door of the house.
But before it came, Barlow was at my side again, with a whispered warning. He had moved so silently that his hissing "Sh-sh!" was the first intimation of his presence. His eyes were wide open now, fastened on the boathouse door. His right hand pressed down on my arm.
The noises from the boathouse came utterly devoid of care or caution. Our presence was clearly unknown. A chain rattled. An oar clattered. Then the door was shoved open, a boat's stern came out, and with a push from the oar against the wall of the house, the boat leaped to the middle of the river. A gray-headed man stood in it. With two strokes of the oar canoe-wise he reached our bank, not three yards from us. And then--
I was sorry for Barlow: the anti-climax was so tremendous. The man who landed hurriedly and hitched the boat's painter round a pollarded willow was Mr. Abbott! Abbott, in his familiar black cape. Abbott with his grave deliberate movements.
The pressure of Barlow's hand on my arm continued. I hardly breathed.
Abbott climbed the bank into the meadow, pulled his cape round him, and stood so close to our retreat that I could see the birthmark on his face. He shaded his eyes from the Easterly light until he had located the aeroplane. He gazed for a few moments, and then walked towards it.
"That's torn it!" I thought, but did not speak until Abbott was out of all possible hearing. Then Barlow said, as if echoing my thought:
"Damnation! Why couldn't the old fool sleep on like a Christian?"
I did not know what was in Barlow's mind, but I reflected that the best of all Christians would have to possess a very easy conscience to sleep while that machine tore through the sky above the roof of his house.
"Curiosity is the curse of the human race," said Barlow. "Who'd have thought an old man like that would turn out of bed to see an aeroplane--even if it had landed in his own garden? But I guess the old boy will be startled when he finds Usher there--and Usher--well, I'd like to hear Usher's language."
"Usher!" I exclaimed, staggered. "You don't mean that's Usher?"
But Barlow did mean it. He would tell me all about it later on. For the present, just watch--watch for the passenger for whom the plane had come. There was a forlorn chance that he might still show up if old Abbott got off the stage in time. Not much of a chance--
Thus Barlow in a whisper, with his eyes on the 'plane and its pilot and the somber cloaked figure approaching it. Usher! Usher in this galley deranged all my ideas. But if Barlow was depending on an assignation with Usher, and Mr. Abbott's presence prevented it--what of Usher? Was he to be allowed to fly off again undisturbed?
"Suppose he takes alarm, Barlow?" I asked in a murmur. "Are you going to let him go?"
"Of course. He don't suspect we're watching. If Abbott butting in spoils it this morning--it'll be for another day. I'm not worrying about Usher. We can take him any old time. It's Usher's employer I want... Ah!--Abbott recognizes him."
The cloaked figure had reached the plane, and presently Abbott was engaged in a lively conversation with the aviator. There was much gesticulation. The conversation appeared to develop into a controversy. Abbott was pointing--we could see his cloak waving. Abbott was ordering Usher to depart!
Our hope of seeing the assignation kept and getting at last to the bottom of Parkinson's case melted away in the gray light: Usher obeyed Abbott. He went to the nose of the plane and swung the propeller. A crackle like machine-gun fire split the air. Usher climbed into his cockpit.
The next second, with a profane exclamation, Barlow leaped out of the willows, fired his pistol in the air, and began to run towards the machine. I dashed out after him, and right and left saw Tod and Lennox running too.
For Abbott had immediately climbed into the machine behind Usher, the engine had accelerated to a fearful scream, and the machine had moved.
We ran a hundred yards and stopped dead. It was hopeless, even if Barlow had been prepared to fire.
The plane taxied quickly down the meadow, gathered pace, reached fifty miles an hour in a few seconds, and took off. It made a great circle and came back climbing, came back insolently over our very heads, and raced away to the South. The sun came up as we stood gaping after it, and shone yellow on its wings. They flashed in the light. For a few minutes it was a flaming torch in the sky; for another few minutes a diminishing speck; and then it had gone.
The four of us looked in each other's faces dumb-foundered.
"Abbott!" said I, to break the silence. "Well, I'm damned!"
"What's that?" Lennox cried. "Did you say Abbott?"
"Yes--didn't you see it was Abbott?"
Lennox made no reply. He looked hard at Barlow, and Barlow looked hard at him.
"Are you surprised, Lennox?" said Tod. "I didn't think you would be. I'm not."
Barlow suddenly awoke from what had seemed like a stupor.
"We won't talk a lot of damned nonsense, if you please! I left my car the other side of Morley's Holt so as to make no noise down here. You fellows have one. Where is it?"
We told him.
"Then, action! Challenger, hurry on and get the car, will you? Bring it back to the bridge. I want to go to Lorimer House and send a telephone message."
"Well!" Tod exclaimed a quarter of an hour later, as the car slid away, "give me Barlow for vaudeville! Can you beat it, Lennox?"
Lennox's face wore a faint smile.
"Quick-change stuff," said he.
"Barlow's taken a nasty knock. He hadn't guessed Abbott."
"Who could have guessed Abbott?" I demanded.
"I could," said Tod. "I did. He was my first guess. The shooting of Parkinson shook it up, but I've been coming back to it since."
"Good Lord, Tod! It's absurd. How could Abbott have shot Parkinson?"
"Usual old way," said Tod--"with a gun. Think it out, young man."
"I shall have to think a long time before I can see Abbott shooting Parkinson," I retorted.
But of course I began to think at once. Abbott, the old gentleman who wrote letters to The Times and made patriotic orations! Impossible...
And then the sinister possibilities began to breed like flies--for all the time since Tod and I took that first journey to Kenwick, Abbott had known or could have known all we knew ourselves and all we did. He was aware of our movements and our sentiments. He was hovering round the Metropolitan on the critical day. But the begetter of the Allenstein outrage, the most daring and best concealed crime of modern times, the kidnaper of Janet, and the stealthy visitor to my bedroom--this apparently benevolent and likable, if cranky, old gentleman? What an actor! To have devised and carried out the cold-blooded murder of Parkinson--
But that was where I boggled. I could not see how, Whatever degree of cunning and cruelty one attributed to the apparently gentle Abbott, he could possibly have been at Usher's garage or near it when Parkinson was shot...
Lennox was very silent. He answered all Tod's speculations in monosyllables, and Barlow came back alone in the car before we had made any sense out of these events.
He seemed more composed.
"That was a bad break, you fellows," said he. "Knocked me off my perch! But I've spoken to Fougère. Every policeman in France will be on the look-out for him. And every policeman in England too--not that I expect him to land in England. Well!--old Abbott--!"
I looked triumphantly at Tod. If I had not been clever enough to suspect Abbott, neither had Barlow.
"I'd just as soon have suspected my own brother," said Barlow. "It don't seem feasible, Lennox."
"Well, it's mighty queer," Lennox admitted. "But we knew our man was an artist, Barlow."
"Artist? I should say! Here we've been waiting for the Unknown to materialize--and I thought we had him this morning--and all the time old Cheat-the-Gallows has been putting it over on us. How he must have laughed up his sleeve at our maneuvers! Artist!--why he deceived even Mrs. Anderson-Orr, and she's not what you'd call an ingénue, is she?"
His first annoyance passed, Barlow stood the ruin of his hopes very well. Bad joss, he said; but he had no doubt that a few hours would reverse it. The two scoundrels had gone off in the fond delusion that their departure was unseen and its method unknown. They would soon be jolly well undeceived.
We were "tearing a herring" (Tod's picturesque description of our much-needed breakfast) at the King's Arms when Barlow told us how and why he had laid his ambuscade. It originated in the discoveries he had made at Filton.
He found the wretched woman who had the misfortune to be the wife of the thug Jim Williams, like many such women, sturdily loyal to her husband. Barlow had vainly exercised all his ingenuity for days to trip her into some admission. She never betrayed herself to him. She probably had no actual fore-knowledge of the kidnaping, though she must have had suspicions.
So it was not at the cottage but at the aerodrome that he got on the track of Jim Williams's secret and of the reason why Janet was spirited away to Filton. In fact, the aerodrome itself was the secret, as he had guessed that afternoon at Ferry Grange. In one of the hangars stood a privately owned Moth, registered as GEB 0746, which had never been in the air since it was placed there in March. It had, however, been visited and inspected once by its owner, and its engine had been run up several times to keep it in condition.
The person who, at the owner's instructions, looked after the engine was a mechanic named Jim Williams, who lived in a cottage by the railway triangle. The owner was no other than Mr. William Usher, of the Half Way House Garage, Kenwick! On the one occasion when Mr. Usher came to Filton, he stayed with Mr. Williams at that Cottage.
Now Barlow had come to the conclusion that, whoever doped and abducted Janet, the man who drove her to Filton was Usher. And he estimated that, Mr. Williams being hors de combat and unable to communicate, it would not be long before Usher, receiving no news of Janet, would put in an appearance at Filton himself. Hence Barlow's letter to me and his decision to stay there.
As it happened, he had not to wait for Usher's arrival. Usher sent a herald in advance, in the shape of a letter to Williams. It never reached its addressee because it was delivered to Barlow instead. He showed it to us--a scrawl without address or signature:
"You've got to run her up and have everything ready by Monday evening. We're leaving here at daylight on Tuesday whether we've got the goods or not. Take a good look at wheels and under-carriage. She'll have to come down in a meadow by the river, rather rough. When I've gone you're to clear. Leave the girl food and money. He will get in touch with you and settle later on."
That intercepted missive made Barlow's way easy. He posted Duckham at the aerodrome, and, as soon as he heard that Usher had arrived and was going over the machine on Monday afternoon, laid the plan which we carried out. He then himself started for Kenwick. Greatly respecting the astuteness of his opponent, he had staged the arrest of Oddie as a blind, and kept the police and all of us out of the way till the last moment.
"I'd got to reckon with a master-mind," said he. "I'd exploited Oddie all along for two reasons. The first was to lull Usher into a sense of security--"
"If you knew the Bandit was in it, why didn't you get the bracelets on him at the start, Barlow?" Tod interrupted. Tod had taken a kind of humorous delight in the lurid Usher, and even now he seemed hardly to credit the patent facts about him.
"Why? Because if I'd even so much as blinked an eyelid about Usher, Mr. X would have been off--pst! like that--and good-by to all hope of getting at the bottom of things. I'd good cause to be wary of a fellow that could lie low in a little place like Kenwick and keep us all guessing so long, hadn't I? He'd certainly know instantly of every step we took. The remotest hint of the truth and it would all go phut. Whereas a demonstration about Oddie might dope him. But who the devil could have guessed old Abbott? He upsets the whole theory I'd formed about the hidden crook--and how the devil could he have been in the Allenstein business?"
"Tod says he guessed him from the first," said Lennox. "I'd thought of him too, but I couldn't see a chink through which he could have shot Parkinson. I don't now."
"Nor I," Barlow confessed.
"There's a missing link somewhere. Somebody's overlooked something essential. May be Masters--he was naturally highly excited that night. Or you may have."
"I think not." Barlow was emphatic. "I had a hunch about the murder which I should have tested if we hadn't been diverted to Filton. Then, there seemed to be a chance of killing the Allenstein bird and the Parkinson bird with one stone, and getting at the solution by a short cut. So I didn't go on with it. But now--"
"What's the theory?"
"Abbott upsets it. If Abbott--but even now I can't see Abbott in it. I based my theory on the fact that Parkinson's car was not out of sight for a single moment after he left Masters at the corner of the lane--not a single moment, mind you--and yet nobody saw or heard the shot that killed him."
We gaped at him.
"Not a single moment? I thought there were several minutes," said Lennox. "What's the new evidence?"
"Oddie's. Oddie saw the car stop to let Masters go up the lane to Usher's house. He saw the car move on. He walked in the same direction. He had the red light in view all the time. Nobody interfered with the car. He did not hear a shot. He reached the garage before Usher came. He looked into the car. Parkinson was there--and Parkinson was dead!"
"Oh--but that's preposterous, Barlow!" cried Tod. "Dead men can't drive cars. Oddie puts a strain on my credulity. Why didn't Oddie come forward and own up?"
"Oddie said nothing at first to anybody but Joshua Webb--for motives perfectly honorable to himself. And afterwards he said nothing because I told him to say nothing."
"Then Oddie," said I, "was not alone." For I recalled the vision of Usher standing at the field gate and peering into the darkness down the road, and hearing footsteps, and a car starting.
"No, Oddie was not alone, and that's corroboration of his evidence. My dear Masters--I'll bet your Janet never had any illusions about Oddie. You ask her. Smart girl, your Janet. Almost as smart as her mother. You're right, Lennox--there is a missing link. I thought I should have picked it up this morning. But Abbott's got me beat."
"Ye-es?" said Lennox, with a long drawl, and a long pause, looking at Barlow intently. "I should say there's nothing to do but get at that theory of yours, Barlow. Down there--at the house?"
What they expected to find at Morley's Holt I had no idea. The mental processes of Barlow and Lennox seemed to work on converging lines to the same end without speech between them.
What we did find was startling enough.
Half an hour after breakfast Barlow was rattling us past the empty lodge and down the derelict drive to the door of Abbott's house.
The maid came to the door in answer to Barlow's resounding peal on the big bell. She opened it a few inches on the chain.
"What do you want?" she asked, peeping through the aperture.
"It's all right, Mary," said Barlow. "We are police officers. Please open the door...Why were you nervous of us?" he asked her as she stood in the lobby staring her surprise at the invasion.
"Enough to make a person nervous," she answered, a little resentfully, "after what's happened, and all the tales going round--"
"Tales of people hiding in the woods, and shooting, and all the rest of it. As I said to Mr. Abbott, if it wasn't that he was a nice old gentleman and a good master, it's not many girls would stand it. And what's the matter now?"
Barlow looked her in the eyes a moment or so before he spoke.
"Well, Mary, I agree with you. It's not many girls--By the way, who's in the house?"
"Nobody but me."
"No other servants?"
"No, Mr. Paynter wouldn't stand it any longer after he saw that devil prowling about the place, and it's two days now that me and Mr. Abbott have been here alone."
"Ah," said Barlow, "and everything's all right so far? Not been disturbed since?"
"And where's Mr. Abbott now?"
"Out about somewhere. He went out to see some aeroplane he said he thought had come down in the meadows."
"Oh? What time was that? Did you see him go out?"
"No--I wasn't up and I didn't see him go out. It was just before six. Why?"
"How did you know he'd gone?"
"He came up and knocked on my door, and called through to tell me he was going out, and said he'd want his breakfast a bit earlier than usual."
Barlow took a long look at Lennox. A moment later we were mounting the staircase which I had last trodden with Paynter and Sergeant Warren. Both dressing room and bedroom were locked. Barlow did not hesitate. From his poacher's pocket he drew a long jemmy. In ten seconds the door of the bedroom was wrenched open.
We stepped into an obscure air, alarmingly drenched with the scent of burned material. Barlow, with an exclamation, groped his way across to the window, threw back the curtains and shutters and let in the gray morning light...
We stared around upon a scene of destruction.
Every door of every cupboard was open and every drawer; the floor littered with scraps. In the great fireplace a heap of black flakes showed where papers had been burned. The bed was disordered: Abbott had apparently slept in it at any rate for a part of the night. Barlow picked up a few of the bits of paper from the floor, looked at them and threw them down again. He took a bedroom candlestick from the dressing table. The candle had guttered into a shapeless mass, and there were paper ashes in its tray. Then Barlow and Lennox stood staring at the bed. It seemed to fascinate them. Their eyes met while Tod and I watched.
"Well?" said Barlow.
"Gosh!" said Lennox.
Barlow walked round the room. He examined the lock minus a key. He passed through the communicating door to the dressing room, and we followed him. It was in perfect order.
"Cool!--to go to bed, wake up to do this long job, wait for the noise of the 'plane, lock up, and be in the meadow at daylight"--Barlow reckoned it all up in a meditative way.
"Cool? It's the whole frigidaire!" said Lennox. "Too arctic to be true."
Their eyes met again and held.
"Think we'd better have a look round?"
"Seems so, Barlow."
Barlow went out into the corridor, and shouted through the echoing house, "Mary!"
The girl came running up.
"Don't get flurried, Mary. We want to go into every room in the house. Have you the keys?"
"No, but the rooms are all open--except Mr. Parkinson's room, and Mr. Warren's got the key of that," said Mary.
"Ah, yes--then we'll just see them one by one. You can stay here on the landing. I'll call if we want you."
Then began a complete peregrination of Morley's Holt. The room Parkinson had occupied was at the end of the corridor. The red seal with which Warren had secured it was intact over the keyhole. Every other bedroom on that floor was open. Only two contained any furniture. One was obviously a spare room that had long been out of use. The other, at the opposite end of the corridor from Parkinson's, showed signs of recent occupation. It had a low truckle bed, now tidily made, and some cheap bedroom fittings; a trunk, packed and corded, stood in a corner.
"Whose room is this, Mary?" Barlow called to the girl.
"That was Mr. Paynter's room," said she. "Mr. Abbott liked to have him on the same floor."
The second floor--the top of the house--contained a range of rooms for servants, and only Mary's own was in use. On the ground floor we walked quickly after Barlow through all the apartments--even into the kitchen quarters--a seemingly aimless ramble; but Tod and I were impressed by the haste and gravity of these two who had such an uncanny understanding and so much urgency in their mien.
The only pause they made was in the library, evidently the omphalos of this strange house. Here there was comfort and a sense of occupation. It had French windows giving on a little lawn at the western end of the building. Everything was in perfect order. The flat work-table in the middle of the room was piled on either side with neat bundles of papers, pamphlets, documents tidily arranged. Barlow picked up from the blotting pad some sheets of foolscap with a neat handwriting--the task on which Abbott had been engaged during the evening.
"Well, I'm damned!" he exclaimed, handing the sheets to me.
They were apparently the first draft of a further letter to The Times in which Abbott gave an account of the meeting which he had attended with Lord Lesterfield, and cited the resolution that had been passed.
"That puts the lid on it," said Barlow. "The old hustler was game to the last!"
Abbott's sudden leap into the limelight did more than derange Barlow's plans. It upset the whole train of his reasoning.
He could no longer be certain, indeed, of the very foundation from which he had started--the link between the Allenstein outrage and the murder of Parkinson. If we were to assume that Abbott's flight meant a guilty association with the Parkinson case--that he was in fact the god in the machine of Usher's letter--the link snapped. For Abbott had been at Morley's Holt several years and was well-known to everybody in Kenwick; his life up to the time of Parkinson's arrival there was an open book. Whereas both Barlow and Lennox had in their mind a person of very different stamp, whose life was anything but an open book. They worried out the argument as we stood round Abbott's neat table.
"He couldn't have been X," said Lennox.
"I wonder," Barlow mused. "He's an artist, as you said yourself, Lennox."
"Yes--but he'd have to be some artist to be in Kenwick and the West End of London at the same time. We've missed something somewhere."
"It's difficult, certainly. But if you're right, there must be a third man."
"I've always thought there were three," said Lennox. "Don't seem to me two could have handled it."
"There's just one way two could have handled it," Barlow replied. "We'll see directly."
He stepped into the hall and called again to the girl.
"Mary," said he, "listen: Mr. Abbott has gone away without warning. You may hear strange things. I want you to talk to nobody but me or Mr. Warren. You'd better not remain here. We shall send a policeman to look after the place. I suppose there's somebody in Kenwick you can stay with? Very well. Now, tell me, do you know Usher?"
"Did he come here much?"
"Not a lot--just to do things to Mr. Abbott's car, and lately to Mr. Parkinson's."
"Were he and Mr. Abbott friendly?"
"Not that I know of, sir," said Mary. "You'd hardly expect it. Mr. Abbott was always the grand gentleman, though a very nice gentleman, and Usher's such a rough customer--"
"I see. Not specially friendly--just a squire and a tradesman, eh? How about Usher and Mr. Parkinson?"
"I didn't see much of Mr. Parkinson myself. Don't know that I ever saw them together. But I did hear Mr. Paynter say not long ago that Usher and Mr. Parkinson had a flaming row about some car repairs."
"Ah, well, we've heard about that. Now, when was Usher here last?"
Mary's answer took our breath away. She boggled over it at first.
"I can hardly say, sir...I don't like to say."
Barlow's eyes and his voice hardened.
"You've got to say. Out with it, Mary. Every bit of it! Wasn't Usher here the night Mr. Parkinson was murdered?" She flinched.
"I don't know for certain...I thought he was. And then I thought I must have made a mistake."
Barlow gazed relentlessly into her eyes, but he was very patient--even gentle.
"Yes, Mary? Well, tell us why you first thought he was and then thought he wasn't, will you?"
It came out in snatches--how she had imagined she heard a car and looked through the kitchen window into the yard. It was very dark, and no car was to be seen; but she fancied a man passed quickly across the yard in the light from the window and she thought he looked like Usher. But nobody came to the house. She mentioned it to Paynter, who came in shortly after (he was in the midst of serving Mr. Abbott's dinner).
"Oh!" said Barlow, in a puzzled, questioning tone--"so early in the evening?"
About half past eight, Mary thought. Paynter knew nothing of Bill Usher being wanted, and said she was probably mistaken and there was nobody in the yard at all. Then he cried out, as if he'd suddenly thought of something, "By gum!" and told her Parkinson had come in complaining of being molested down in the woods, and had shut himself up in his room. Paynter thought Mr. Parkinson a bit queerer than usual, and didn't take much notice of it at the time, but now he said he'd better go and see if he was all right. Mary didn't give another thought to Usher after that till the story of the murder at the garage came out next day. Then she asked Paynter if she ought to say what she fancied she'd seen the night before. Paynter's idea was that if she couldn't swear to Usher she'd better say nothing. He said Usher was a silly d--- fool, but he didn't believe he was a rogue. If there was anything against Usher, the police would soon find it.
So Mary took Paynter's advice and held her tongue.
"If you couldn't swear to him, Mary," said Barlow, "what made you think it was Usher walked across the court?"
"I don't know--something about him. He seemed a slouching greasy chap. But it was only a sort of flash. I really couldn't swear anything on my oath."
Barlow stood reflecting for a space.
"Half past eight," he muttered. "What time was it when you knocked up the house, Masters? Between ten and half past, wasn't it? Mary--you remember that night. Wasn't it you who told Paynter Mr. Abbott had gone to bed when this gentleman called? How did you know that?"
"Mr. Paynter knocked at my door and asked if I'd seen Mr. Abbott since dinner. I said I'd met him in the hall not long before with his candle in his hand going up to bed."
"And between half past eight and half past ten you'd seen and heard nothing unusual?"
"No, sir," said Mary. "Afterwards I heard engines running in the yard, and that was unusual; but, of course, it was only Mr. Parkinson going off."
Barlow was silent, hesitating for a few moments with half-closed eyes. He opened them to meet Lennox's glance, and again some telepathic intelligence seemed to pass between them. Barlow dismissed the girl.
"Now, you fellows," said he, "set about it quick! Usher was here that night. He's concealed the fact. Problem: what part did Usher take in the murder of Parkinson?"
I raised the points that counted against Mary's story. Usher seemed to have accounted for his time. He was working at his garage all the evening until he went home, and when I called he was preparing for bed.
"Nobody saw him working at his garage," Barlow objected.
That might well be, I suggested, because there was not much traffic on the road and nobody had any particular reason for noticing whether he was there or not.
"And George Bunbury," said Barlow, "declared that the garage was closed when he went by."
George Bunbury, I pointed out, was drunk. He was so drunk that he saw two Oddies, two Parkinsons, and two cars!
"So he did," Barlow admitted. "That's a point, Lennox?"
"It's a whale of a point!" said Lennox.
Then, I asked, encouraged in my argument, how could Usher possibly have killed Parkinson before he opened his cottage door to me, seeing that I had left Parkinson in the car only three minutes ago? And how could he have killed him afterwards, if Oddie had seen Parkinson dead in the car before Usher reached the garage?
"That's a fact," said Barlow. "And yet Usher was here: I feel sure Usher was here. And Usher has fled for his life."
"May I ask Masters a question, Barlow?"
We turned to Tod, who had hitherto been a spectator.
"It may be a fool question," said he, "but here it is. Usher's garage isn't as big as the Coliseum, Masters. You described how you sat there waiting for the police--on the running board of a car under repair--and how Usher stood up against the side of an old van. Did you notice whether his flivver was in the garage?"
Lennox and Barlow immediately displayed the liveliest interest in this question.
"Ah!" they exclaimed, together, and looked expectantly at me.
I had not taken special note of the contents of the garage. But I started as another memory came to me.
"That engine!" I exclaimed.
"What engine?" said Barlow and Lennox together.
"Never gave it a thought till now--but when I came to the house that night I heard the thudding of an engine, rather dull and faint. I thought it was an electric light machine, but I forgot all about it, even when I found Paynter lighting up the place with lamps and candles."
"The flivver!" cried Barlow. "The flivver for a dollar! Can you remember whether the flivver was in the garage that night? Think hard, Masters."
I closed my eyes and tried to conjure up a picture of the place as I saw it that night--the dull yellow electric lights, the oily concrete, the discolored wood, and the walls of corrugated iron. Certainly no flivver entered into the picture. The space in front of the big doors, where the flivver usually stood, was empty: Usher looked malevolently at me across it.
"I couldn't put anything on it," I told them. "Maybe the flivver was there, but I don't remember seeing it."
I recounted what I did recall.
"Tod's on the mark!" Barlow exclaimed.
"Right there," said Lennox.
"If Usher's flivver was not in the garage, it was at Morley's Holt. It brought him here. The girl heard it. Some other car took him back. Don't that light things up, Lennox?"
"It's a flood-light, Barlow."
"Shall we go and see what car it was?"
"I'll say we will."
They spoke excitedly. At present no light flooded my obtuse intelligence--only a thicker obscurity. Barlow once more called the girl.
"Show the way to the garage, Mary."
She led us through stone-flagged passages to the back of the house, took a bunch of keys from a shelf, walked across a cobbled yard, and swung back the great doors.
The garage was occupied by two large closed cars of different makes but very similar appearance. The essential distinction between them was that one had black bodywork and the other dark blue.
The light began to dawn on me.
"Thanks, Mary," said Barlow. "We're going to take a look round. Which is Mr. Abbott's car and which was Mr. Parkinson's?"
"The blue one is Mr. Abbott's," she answered.
"That'll do then, Mary."
Barlow watched her walk back to the house, and then turned to me.
"There you are, Masters--now in which of those two cars did you ride from Morley's Holt to Usher's garage?"
I walked round, looking into both, scrutinizing them closely. But for the life of me I could not answer Barlow's question. It might have been either. There were little differences--in the rake of the steering pillars, the dashboard arrangements, and so on. Nothing that I could fix as characteristic.
"Impossible to say," I admitted.
"Not that it matters," said Barlow. "In the dark all cats are gray. But whichever one you rode in, Masters, you can bet your last dollar Usher drove in the other, and got to the garage before you."
"That may be, Barlow--but I don't see how it helps. Parkinson was certainly with me, and if Usher got to the garage before we arrived--"
"Remember that in the dark all cats are gray." Barlow repeated the proverb. "In the dark all cars are alike. In the dark--what about men?"
"Men?--do you mean--?"
I did not complete the sentence. The possibility that Barlow was suggesting suddenly broke in upon me.
"I mean that I've always wanted two cars and two drivers to explain the murder of Parkinson, and I've never had 'em till now. There was a sort of ghostly and unconvincing second car in the offing. You recall Usher's yarn? But I suspected that Usher had invented that car ad hoc. It was a convenient way of accounting for things he couldn't explain. Very first idea that would occur to him. He cockers up some unknown criminals who escape in an unknown car and we're left to guess that they were the same people who'd already had one go at Parkinson. A bit too perfect. So I didn't believe in that kind of car--I wanted another. And here 'tis."
"Why'd you want another, Barlow?"
"Because the one you rode in wouldn't do. Parkinson couldn't have been killed in it. That car was under observation almost every moment of the time; also, a shot couldn't have been fired into that car without being heard by every one within a quarter of a mile. But nobody had under observation the car that Usher drove. Here we've got two cars, so much alike that you can't say which of the two you rode in. If the car you left at the corner of the lane was not the same that you found afterwards at Usher's garage it all becomes as plain as a cement wall and the mystery of Parkinson's murder is solved. Don't you agree, Lennox?"
"Looks that way," said Lennox.
"And you, Tod?"
"I think you've got it, Barlow."
"And you, Masters?"
But I hadn't got it. Either I was blind or I looked at the thing from a perverse angle.
"Sorry, Barlow," said I. "You said once before I was a goof. Very likely you're right; but I still can't see how Parkinson could have been shifted from one car to the other, or why he should be shifted."
"Of course you can't. Neither can I. Because he wasn't."
I shrugged my shoulders and gave it up. For the third time Barlow said:
"In the dark all cats are gray." He paused.
"And cars look alike--and men," said I. "But how that will account for Parkinson being alive in one car and dead in another beats me."
"I quite understand how it beats you," he replied. "You've got a fixed idea--the idea that Parkinson was shot at a particular time--between ten minutes and twenty minutes past eleven. Suppose that idea's wrong? Suppose Parkinson had been shot a while before that?"
"Before--?" I gasped out the word, looking from one to the other of their three faces. "Then--am I really mad?"
"Not at all, Masters. You've only got a fixed idea. But you'll admit that if Parkinson was dead in the car that Usher drove from Morley's Holt before you left, the notion of dropping you before you reached the garage, arranging for that ten minutes when nobody would see a car and anything might happen, and leaving you to jolly well explain how you came to be in charge of a corpse--it was all a damned clever invention."
"I should say it was far too clever to be true, Barlow."
"No doubt, but you'd be wrong. Lennox and I would not say it was too clever to be invented by the person we have in mind--eh, Lennox?"
"No--I guess it's about up to his form," said Lennox.
"But you see what it involves, Barlow?" I persisted. "The man drove me from Morley's Holt. He talked to me most of the way. He spoke of his narrow squeak earlier in the evening. He urged me to stop all inquiries we were making about him. He was full of fear and nervousness--"
"I know all that," Barlow interrupted. "It's what's given you your fixed idea. But just think. What did you know of Parkinson? You'd seen him once for an hour months before--in circumstances which could hardly have fastened him in your memory. You knew he had a dark mustache and a pale face and a squeaky voice. Admit, Masters, that any man with those three qualifications could have been taken by you for Parkinson."
"And then remember that we're dealing with a criminal genius, a consummate actor, a master of disguise, a man who sticks at nothing. Why--it's simple! I can see him just gurgling with laughter when you disappeared down the lane, moving on as soon as you were out of hearing, saluting poor Parkinson's corpse as he passed on his way home to Morley's Holt and safety--"
"Old Abbott? Barlow--it's impossible!"
"I'd have said so myself till this morning. Abbott took me in, I'm not ashamed to confess it. But what other explanation is there? All those delays at the house while you were trying to see Parkinson...just to let Usher get away with it...picking you up on the road planting... the corpse on you...exactly the kind of devilry, subtle, daring, impudent, to appeal to the man who'd acted the role of the benevolent and foolish old gentleman writing letters to The Times denouncing his own crimes and scolding the police for not catching him! The paltriest disguise and the most elementary mimicry would do to bulldoze the young tenderfoot who was matching himself against the craftiest man in England."
If this truly was the explanation of part of the puzzle, it only deepened another part.
"But, Barlow," said I, "when did he kill Parkinson if your theory's right? And why did such a cynical genius have to kill Parkinson so crudely and land himself with a corpse to get rid of at all?"
"That's a cute question," said Barlow. "When was Parkinson killed? I don't know. Why was Usher at Morley's Holt? I'll speculate. Do you remember what I said to you before we'd got very far into the case? I said you and your Janet had put Parkinson's number up. He'd have been killed some time or other, no doubt, but the reason why he was killed that particular day was evidently the fear of a meeting between him and Miss Anderson-Orr. Can't you see Abbott dogging Parkinson, watching him in the woods day after day, till your boat comes up--then having a shot at him, and afterwards at you? And if he'd got you--can't you imagine the letters he'd have written to The Times about it?"
I witnessed with horrified fascination the building of Barlow's structure on the facts.
"He didn't get you, thank your lucky stars! But you'd been there, and he had it in for you. Clearly he summoned Usher soon after that. What was in his mind, and how and exactly when Parkinson left this world, I can only guess. He must have been killed not long before you got to the house. Paynter saw him come in after dinner time, when he went to his room to prepare for his journey--"
"But, Barlow," said I, "Paynter also saw him in the garage while I was there."
"I think not. I think Paynter, who could not find Mr. Abbott--you remember all those delays?--ultimately found the same pseudo-Parkinson that drove you to Usher's. I think that if you hadn't turned up by a kind of lucky miracle at Morley's Holt, the pseudo-Parkinson would have wished Paynter good night and have driven away ostensibly for Newbury, and the body of the real Parkinson would have been found in his car somewhere on the road a long way from Kenwick next morning. But Mr. Masters arrives at the house at the perfect psychological moment. That interfering person delivers himself into our hands. Keep your mind on those delays--all that waiting while Paynter was searching first for Abbott and then for Parkinson. Abbott must have become aware of the visit long before Paynter found him in the garage--"
"By Jove--yes!" I exclaimed.
"While I was waiting in that little room--the door half opened: I thought it was Paynter--"
"Well!--there you are," said Barlow. "Here's Masters ready to our hand. If we can plant Parkinson's corpse on him, we provide ourselves with a perfect alibi. It's a rich idea; we like it immensely. So come along, Usher! Stuff the body in the car! Off with you--"
"Barlow!" I cried; "it's too horrible!"
"Well," said Barlow, "murder's horrible anyhow, isn't it? The most horrible thing about murder is the murdering. You can't hurt a man when he's dead, however roughly you handle him. So, Usher--off with him! Stop outside your garage. Nobody will take any notice of a car outside a garage, even if anybody sees it. Then get away home. We'll see to it that somehow Mr. Masters is planted...We get our own car. In due course we take Mr. Masters on board. We amuse ourselves with a pretty piece of play-acting on the road. We appeal to Mr. Masters's better nature. We arouse his sympathy. We do a bit of dramatic stuff about shadows in the road. And how we chuckle! We even call out to him in our squeaky Parkinson voice when he goes down the lane. And Mr. Masters is planté là!--"
"Old Abbott, Barlow? All that invented by old Abbott? Even now I simply can't believe it."
And I spoke the absolute truth. I could not believe it.
"Well--is it sound reasoning, Lennox?"
"Seems to be the goods, Barlow. One or two things I'd like to masticate some. But that'll be for after."
But, Barlow and Lennox notwithstanding, my fixed idea persisted. I could not fit old Abbott into that picture.
Nor could Janet get Abbott into the picture.
While Barlow waited all that day for a vibration from one of the tentacles he had spread out in every direction, it was agreed that I might escort Janet back from London.
She met me in Janet-like style--held me at arm's length; but at the end of the arm was a hand that grasped mine firmly, and she greeted me as "John."
She met my news with equal forthrightness. She said:
Old Mr. Abbott was just old Mr. Abbott. Not for nothing had she known him all this time and met him constantly. He was rather a nice old man--a bit footling when he rode his conspiracy hobby, but a gentleman. And that settled it.
"Why," exclaimed Janet, "his servant girl's a better judge of character than all your Barlows! You watch it, John. I'd as soon suspect Joshua."
Which led me to confess to her the vague suspicions of Joshua that had flitted through my mind from time to time. I even told her of the farcical adventure of the Effingham Hotel and my night out with Joshua. It amused her. But not so greatly as her account of the reasons for the adventure astonished me.
"They'd arranged long before to be married that Tuesday in London. Got a special license--fixed it all up. When the murder of Mr. Parkinson threw everything into a muddle, Joshua said they'd better put it off. But my mother wouldn't hear of it. You know her--or, if you haven't got the hang of her yet, I can tell you, John, it's pretty hard to put her off her stroke."
"I don't know her as well as I hope to," said I, "but I think she'd make an ideal mother-in-law."
Janet did not deign to notice this impertinence.
"But," she went on, "your clever Mr. Barlow had found out a good deal about things before the Monday when they were to start. He'd found George Oddie in hiding, and why he hid, and he'd put a pistol at Joshua's head."
"Why did Oddie hide, and why was Joshua in collusion?" I asked. "Barlow's never told me that--except that Oddie had a perfectly honorable motive."
"Oh!" cried Janet. "That's what he calls it? I hope you've got different notions of honor, John." His tribulations had not modified Janet's dislike of Oddie. "Getting a soft-hearted and soft-headed girl into what she thought a compromising position and then being forced to lie like a gas-meter to save her face. Honor!"
"Helen?" said I. "Was it Helen with Oddie that night?"
"Yes. Mawkish, isn't it? Disgusting! He'd been trying to persuade her to elope. The little fool was too prim to elope and damn the consequences, and too weak to refuse to play about with the notion. D'you remember his bolting off in a hurry after dinner, and Helen going upstairs with a face like red flannel? She was to meet him and toy with his proposal a bit more. Filthy philandering! And it got them into this mess, for they were on the road when the car went by and just after they saw Mr. Parkinson dead in it outside Usher's. And then Helen threw a fit--not because poor Mr. Parkinson was killed, but because, if Oddie should let on about what they'd seen, she'd be dragged into it and people would know she'd been out with a man late at night! Phaugh! Did you ever?"
"Oddie must be very much in love with her, Janet," said I.
"Love! I hope you don't call that love. I call it sickly. If he'd spanked her and jerked her along to the police and told the truth--I do hate lying! And then they must drag good-natured old Joshua into it. Crawling across fields like a pair of poachers! Scrambling through fences and tearing their clothes. Scared out of their silly wits, they bumped into a drunken oaf! Afraid Usher had seen them. Afraid the boy would remember them. Getting Joshua to go and see Usher, and fish about to find out what Usher had seen, and stop Usher's mouth with a bribe. I admired Mr. Barlow. The way he cut through it all was fine. I'll bet he put it across George Oddie!"
Apparently Janet was not aware of her mother's share in the attempt to delude Barlow. I said nothing about it.
That "Phaugh!" dismissed the topic of Oddie and Helen Adamson. On Abbott she was absolutely dogmatic.
"It's absurd! Mr. Abbott shooting people, going about cutting telephone wires, playing that trick on me, trying to kill you! I ask you--!"
And yet Abbott had undoubtedly got up that morning, kept an appointment with the bandit and gone off in his aeroplane--and the police of Europe were now on the lookout for Abbott. She didn't care for that. When Mr. Abbott re-appeared, Barlow would have to think again. It was absurd.
Barlow next day camped at the end of the telephone wire: he had received in the morning a message telling him to expect news from Fougère. I took Lennox after lunch to make the acquaintance of Janet. He wanted to thank her for passing on Parkinson's message.
Ferry Grange was for the time deserted, and Janet was with her mother at Webb's. Thus it came about that I got my first glimpse of Oddie since the night when I had seen him in the road by the light of Parkinson's car. One of the most curious things in my experiences at Kenwick, perhaps, was the fact that I knew practically nothing of Oddie. He had been in the background of Ferry Grange--a rather unsympathetic figure. Janet disliked him, and therefore I disliked him too, for no special reason except his queer behavior on the hectic night of our adventure on the river. I had not been in his company ten minutes in Joshua's smoking room before I realized that Oddie was just nothing. The fond child of Joshua's imagination was a dour and sour-tempered fellow, who had only one distinction--his passion for the mousy girl. He could no more have murdered Parkinson, or kidnaped Janet, or tried to kill me than he could have composed the Ninth Symphony. It was one of the most whimsical tricks of human eccentricity that Joshua had a profound fondness for him and that Helen Adamson loved him almost more than she loved the conventions. It was no wonder that Janet found him intolerable and her mother thought him an unsuitable match for Helen.
The genius who had found some substantial use for Oddie was Barlow--who made of him the stalking horse behind which he hunted his prey.
Appropriately enough Oddie faded away soon after we had been received by Mrs. Webb in the drawing-room with a "Soyez le bienvenu!" Helen faded with him.
"Now, Mr. Lennox," said the new chatelaine of Lorimer House, when the introductions were done, "do tell us the truth about all this. What do you and Mr. Barlow really think?"
"We think we're up against it, Mrs. Webb. But we're expecting to hear that Abbott and Usher have been arrested in France."
"You thrill me! How many more people are you going to arrest? There was Mr. Masters first, and then George Oddie, and now dear old Mr. Abbott! I really feel that I may be arrested myself at any moment."
"I'm afraid," said Lennox in his smiling drawl, "you've got to miss that thrill. You wouldn't fill the bill. Unless you can honestly confess that you were the person who robbed Allenstein's Bank and caused the death of an unfortunate servant; and first quarreled with Parkinson about the loot and then killed Parkinson; and that you were also the person who played a nasty trick on Miss Janet, and just missed sending Mr. Masters to kingdom come--"
"Oh, oh--! What a catalogue of horrors!" she cried. "And do you and Mr. Barlow truly believe that our friend Mr. Abbott could have done all this?"
"He certainly could, ma'am," said Lennox. "As to whether he did--well, time will show."
"Time is certainly a wonderful detective," Mrs. Webb remarked; "but I don't think even time will show that Mr. Abbott was clever enough or wicked enough to be such a man as that."
"If you'll excuse me, ma'am, that's not quite the point. The question is whether the man who was clever enough to do all that and get away with it was also clever enough to be Mr. Abbott."
We all stared at Lennox for a perceptible instant, trying--at any rate I tried--to divine the subtlety of his saying.
"Ah!" said Mrs. Webb, breaking the pause. "There's that, Janet, eh? You wondered about that."
I saw Lennox's sharp glance in Janet's direction.
"Never mind me, mother. Let Mr. Lennox tell us about the man who could have been clever enough to be Mr. Abbott. You will, won't you?"
"Certainly," said Lennox. "The man Barlow and I have in mind, and have had in mind all along, is clever enough not only to be Mr. Abbott, but anybody else he pleases. He's a superman. He may have called himself Abbott or anything else. The name by which we know him best is Draycott Vincent--"
"Good Lord, Lennox!" I ejaculated. "Draycott Vincent? Why--"
"You want to remind me that Vincent was a partner in Allenstein's Bank and one of the greatest losers by the disaster? Quite so. It looked like that. And people missed Vincent and sympathized with him when he vanished out of the world. But Vincent is the man Barlow and I have been seeking for many months. He is the reason why you, Mr. Masters, got out of Reading Gaol so quickly. He is the reason why Barlow induced Mr. Webb--"
"Induced!--it is a beautiful word," murmured Mrs. Webb.
"Induced him to play up to the Oddie motif. He is the 'X' of our problem. Barlow traced him to Paris immediately after the robbery, and there lost him. We've never had a real trace of him since that till now. But last spring we got a hint. Vincent had a confidential clerk who was supposed to have been burnt to death when the bank went up. His name was Grice. He was a pale-faced man with a high-pitched voice. In March Barlow got a request through to us in Washington, by means of the British Embassy, to try to trace a man with a pale face and a high-pitched voice and an English accent. A passenger on a liner on the way to New York had thought he recognized Grice. He wrote home to a person who had suffered by the crash of Allenstein's, and the rumor had come to Barlow's ears. I was put on the trail. I lost it at Colorado Springs, as Mr. Masters will remember."
"Was it Grice?" asked Mrs. Webb.
"As sure as I'm Lennox."
"And Grice was Mr. Parkinson?"
"As sure as Parkinson's dead."
"But Mr. Parkinson went often to London. Surely he would run a risk of being recognized there?"
"I'd give a whole lot to know why Parkinson went to London on and off. I give a guess--that he was torn between two kinds of fear, and could never make up his mind to do what he wanted to do, which was to go to Barlow or to Scotland Yard, and say, 'Here it is.'"
"The big diamond of Lady Vanstead's collection. That's the one bit of the Allenstein loot that's never been traced. So you can see Parkinson with two kinds of fear--fear of his tyrant, Vincent, and fear of the law if he defies Vincent. We'll never know the exact part he played in the Allenstein affair. His name was on the lips of the poor fellow that died. That may mean nothing. But he went in terror of Vincent. You know in what awful terror, Miss Janet. I suspect that when he found himself chased out there in Colorado, he thought Vincent was trailing him, and not the police."
The haunted eyes of the man at Colorado Springs came back to me. It was a poignant drama that Lennox suggested--this subsidiary sinner struggling in the grasp of his master.
"I don't know," he said, "how Vincent drew him back after he had got clean away into the wilds. Why he didn't go and lose himself out there--with all Arizona and New Mexico open to him, after I'd missed him, I can't imagine. But he was drawn back. A shared crime is a fearful thing. They hate each other, but they can't keep apart."
Janet and I looked at each other, recalling the Frankenstein's Monster of Parkinson's story.
"I still can't see Mr. Abbott in all this," said Janet.
"It isn't in his character, that's all."
Lennox smiled upon this feminine angle of vision.
"Not in the character of the Abbott you know, of course," he said. "But for a job like this we'd got to have a man of extraordinary character--a kind of Protean man. Miss Janet, believe me, this fellow was the most accomplished actor in the world. I don't wonder at your doubts. But the evidence is all here--"
"If he is so talented an actor as you say"--the deep tones of Mrs. Webb broke in--"Mr. Lennox himself may have been deceived, pas possible?"
This was a new point of view with a vengeance!
"Mr. Lennox says he is superlative, Protean, wonderful. It occurs to me that he may be even more wonderful than Mr. Lennox thinks. C'est inoui, mais--"
And she ended with a shrug of the shoulders. The casual way in which she knocked Lennox off his perch!
"Now, let us stop dipping into the well of truth," she said, "and have some tea instead. It's pleasanter. Janet, will you see about it?"
Janet was handing round teacups when the maid came in with a telephone message from Barlow that he was on his way over. Evidently there was some new development. We had meant to drop the whole subject and relax over our tea; it was pleasanter, as our hostess suggested, but que voulez-vous? This vague message started us all going again.
It was Lennox who directly revived the main argument.
"Well, ma'am," he said, "you were saying just now something that has stuck in my mind. You wondered whether the mystery man wasn't clever enough to have deceived us twice over--or something like that? What's the little point you think we've missed?"
"Oh, it's just an idea, that's all. I couldn't dream of putting it up against your professional views. Besides--it isn't mine. Janet--c'est à vous!"
We all fixed our eyes on Janet.
"It's true I've an idea. But it may be worthless," said she.
"My dear young lady," said Lennox, "I shall welcome any intelligent outside viewpoint."
"But it seems absurd for a girl to have a theory when--"
"When the lords of creation are up against a blind wall? Do me the justice to think I'm a bit more modern than that!"
"Well, then, the man Vincent was a criminal genius. He had urgent reasons for hiding himself away till he had settled up the Allenstein affair--and he couldn't do that until he had settled with Mr. Parkinson. When I say hiding himself away, I mean his identity. It was not so much his person. He had to conceal his brains, his personality, and his wealth."
"All that," said Lennox.
"We know he was here at Kenwick. And we know he couldn't have done what he did unless he had been quite familiar with things here--knew Mr. Abbott and all of us--if he wasn't Mr. Abbott himself--and our houses and our ways. If not, he couldn't have played that trick on me, for example."
"You're going to assume that if he knew us in that way we must have known him? I don't see--but go on, Miss Janet."
"At any rate, he must have been able to dog Mr. Parkinson continually. He knew all about Mr. Parkinson's talks with me. Mr. Parkinson was not here of his own free will. He must have compelled Mr. Parkinson to come here, although he seemed to have come in answer to an advertisement for a paying guest. Therefore he must have known about the advertisement. That's clear, I think?"
Lennox, with knitted brows, nodded to her. "Go on," he repeated.
"It must be somebody we haven't accounted for during the time when he was driving Mr. Masters from Morley's Holt to the garage, during the night when he took me away, and during the night when he attacked Mr. Masters."
"He must have known of the appointment at the Metropolitan Hotel--and kept it."
"Kept it?" Barlow raised his eyebrows. "You think so? Well--?"
"He must have been able without anybody's knowledge to lurk around Morley's Holt those nights when Paynter detected the attempt to get into the house, and discovered the ladder outside Mr. Parkinson's window, and was fired at from the woods."
She was a little flushed as she stated her case and approached the climax.
"Yes, Miss Janet," said Barlow. "Produce a man who can fulfill all those conditions--and--"
"It's a very serious thing to say, Mr. Barlow. I know that. But I think there is such a man."
We strained our attention to her, all leaning over the table waiting for her next words.
"The man is Paynter himself," said she, quietly.
We cried out the name in a chorus of astonishment. "Paynter! But--"
The chauffeur, the man of all work, undistinguished, insignificant--this trivial, inconsiderable figure the redoubtable "X" of Barlow's equation? It was grotesque, impossible. Hard enough to accept the mild, scholarly old Mr. Abbott in such a role, despite the evidence of our own eyes. But Paynter? Oh, never, it was too absurd.
"Well," said Janet, "if I couldn't see Mr. Abbott in all this, as the rest of you do, I had to look around for somebody else in whom Mr. Barlow's super-criminal could have absolutely hidden his identity and camouflaged his brains and completely lost his personality. Insignificance was the strong card of his suit. What better cloak for a personality than the uniform of a servant?"
A strong question: Lennox saw that it was.
"But," said he, "it would have been a pretty tough job for this personality to conceal itself in broad daylight and in constant touch with all of us. So far as I know, Paynter never for an instant appeared to be anything but a servant."
"A superior servant," said Janet.
"Yes--but superior servants are not uncommon. Still, go on, Miss Janet. Let's have your answers to the obvious objections, not forgetting that Barlow and Masters both saw Abbott fly off with Usher last night--and Abbott and Usher are still missing!"
"Oh, what you men think you see!" retorted Janet. "Mr. Masters thought that he rode and talked with poor Mr. Parkinson hours after the murder! And as for Mr. Abbott being still missing, how about Paynter? Has any one seen him to-day?"
"Paynter has disappeared too!" Barlow had quietly arrived and now entered the doorway. "That is the latest development. What were you saying about him?"
Janet's astounding new theory was briefly summarized.
"I always thought there were three in it," admitted Barlow. "But Paynter as the man of mystery--no, no, my dear Miss Janet, unless you have something up your sleeve, some special fact unknown to the rest of us?"
"No, I've no such facts. I told them it was just an idea."
"Well, then, suppose Paynter was merely masquerading as a chauffeur--by the way, how long had he been with Abbott?"
"He was engaged in February. Mr. Abbott had been advertising for a chauffeur and handy man."
Barlow noted the date and cast a glance at Lennox.
"We'll assume he had been able to deceive Abbott all these months--that he found this a good place to lie low in' and the character of a servant a good disguise. That's possible, Lennox?"
"Quite--even likely," said Lennox, who had followed Janet's case with rapt attention.
"But then he gets Parkinson here. How does he do that?" Barlow asked.
A sudden light came to me.
"Barlow," said I, "when Abbott was answering Warren's questions about Parkinson that night, he said something to the effect that of all the people who replied to his advertisement for a paying guest Parkinson was the only one who came to see him."
"Gosh!"--Lennox's favorite exclamation--"that's a point, Barlow. If Paynter was the crook, he'd have ordered Parkinson to come. And there are ways a servant can influence his boss in a thing like that."
"There's something else, Barlow," I put in. "Abbott said at the same time that Paynter was rather fond of Parkinson, and Paynter said he thought Parkinson was also rather fond of him--'attracted to him,' I fancy was the phrase he used."
"Attracted to him! He said that? If..." Barlow paused. "What a colossal nerve if..."
He stopped and stared hard at Janet first and then at me.
"Do I remember rightly, Masters? Didn't it appear from what Abbott said to you and Warren that it was Paynter who told him about Parkinson's adventure in the woods?"
"Abbott hadn't seen Parkinson himself that evening?"
"No--Paynter said he rushed in after Mr. Abbott had finished dinner and gone to his library. Parkinson locked himself in his room and immediately began preparing for his journey."
"It might be, Lennox, mightn't it? Masters saw nobody but Paynter. There were all those delays. He might have been working out his plan and getting Usher away--just as we thought Abbott had done. I suppose he had ten minutes after Masters had left--time enough for a disguise. It might be. It'll fit so far."
"What about Usher? When did the bandit first begin to infest these pleasant scenes?" said Tod. "If he was here before Paynter came, the interesting theory breaks down."
Barlow shook his head.
"I've been thinking of that. No--Usher took over the derelict garage at Lady Day--end of March, after Paynter had started his job at Morley's Holt. And he surprised the owner by paying six months' rent in advance--and in cash. The dates are significant, Lennox, eh? You remember February--the hint from Paris, and the failure there? There was something in the newspapers about my visit--rumors that the Allenstein affair was approaching a crisis. If he determined to dig himself in as a chauffeur in a God-forsaken village in February because of that, and to have his satellite in overalls handy, and his infernal air machine ready for a last throw--there's no difficulty about that. But after--when Parkinson had been killed and all those other things happened? Can we fit Paynter into them?"
"The abduction of Miss Janet, for example," said Tod.
"No difficulty there. That was Usher. He'd been the go-between to Filton."
"And the attack on Masters?"
"Nor there. It was in the small hours of the morning. He'd never be missed from the house. I'm thinking rather of the appointment at the Metropolitan--and one other thing."
"Lennox!" cried Tod. "You remember what I told you about Jacobstein in Northumberland Avenue? The only man I saw him speak to was Paynter. You know--I thought he mistook him for a taxi-driver!"
"Gosh! So you did, Tod."
I pictured Paynter as I had seen him sitting there smiling, touching his cap--behaving like the Compleat Chauffeur...and, if Janet's idea was right, laughing in his sleeve as he observed all our maneuvers, telling the Semitic gentleman who put his head in at the window that there were no diamonds for him to-day, thank you--perhaps suggesting that a little later on!...
"But," said I, "it would be too big a strain on coincidence that Abbott should fix his meeting for that very day in that very street."
"It would," said Lennox, "unless Paynter counted for something in Abbott's selection of date and place."
"As clever as that?" I remarked, incredulous.
"Well--he wasn't much of a mutt, was he? But how he must have smiled at the meeting of the clans! You and me and Tod and Webb--for he saw us all, of course."
"Webb?" I exclaimed. "But Webb had been roped in by Mr. Abbott."
"Nobody more surprised than me to find Abbott in the neighborhood," said Joshua, speaking for the first time.
"I hadn't led him to expect Abbott, because I didn't know myself that Abbott would be there."
"You, Barlow?" I exclaimed. "Then Webb was another plant of yours?"
"You can call him a plant if you like. I've found him very useful all the way through. He was naturally anxious to help, and Mrs. Webb too, once we'd tuned our flutes. So he agreed to hang on to the skirts of chance that day. But I'd not divined either Abbott or Paynter."
But--we went on arguing out the Buts. The only one of any consequence was Barlow's second point--that Paynter to all appearances was the man who had discovered and announced the attempts to get into Parkinson's room. Yet, who knew anything of those attempts save Paynter himself--Paynter there with an innocent old gentleman and a very busy maid? It was a simple thing for Paynter to keep up the legend of a nefarious outsider who was trying to burgle Morley's Holt, easy to go out and fire a shot or two, pile on the evidence in readiness for his last desperate throw and his getaway, and then pretend to quit on the pretense that he was fed up with Morley's Holt and its mysteries.
"Miss Janet," said Barlow, "it's a possible solution. If it proves right I'll say it's the best bit of induction I've heard of in a month of Sundays. Kick me, Lennox, will you?"
But Janet would have no credit for a theory that might still prove to be wrong. It was only an idea, she insisted. Besides, if she had guessed right, there was still one mystery left: What had become of poor Mr. Abbott?
We looked at one another in startled awareness fast changing to consternation. So intent had we been on Janet's theory, fitting the clews together like some intricate mechanical puzzle, that what it boded for Abbott had escaped us; our minds had failed to function.
"Barlow!" Lennox's exclamation was a note of real alarm. "Barlow!--it may be a long sight worse than we thought."
"You've said it. Let's get on."
But they were met in the doorway by the maid with a missive for Barlow.
Barlow tore it open and ran his eye over it hastily.
"News at last," he said, "a long telegram from Paris, retransmitted by Fougère. Listen, all of you."
It was in French, rather mutilated by the British telegraph machine, but quite comprehensible. Barlow translated roughly:
"Aeroplane GEB 0746 landed yesterday at eleven hours ten kilometres from Corville, Manche. Not reported till evening. Aviator walked into Corville for supplies of essence. Supplies taken out by automobile. Aeroplane in stubble-field (so I translate chaume). Police visited this morning. On their arrival, aeroplane hurriedly started, made bad ascent, struck tree and crashed. Pilot and passenger both dead. Passenger does not correspond your description. Medium height, golden hair brown eyes. No birthmark. Well dressed. No papers except two hundred pounds English notes. Have sent two agents from Sureté."
"The plane's a sure thing," said Lennox.
"Yes--but the man--? Miss Janet wins, I think."
"He was good at disguises, Barlow."
"I know. But there's something you're not aware of. Did you ever notice the color of Abbott's eyes, Masters?"
"Yes," said I, "they're gray."
"Noticeably gray. Well--you can disguise nearly every other feature of the human body, but you can't change the color of your eyes. 'Golden hair, brown eyes'--that wipes Abbott clean off the slate. Miss Janet, what was it that first put you on the trail?"
It was just one phrase of Parkinson's, she explained, during that strange talk on the river bank: he spoke of piercing eyes which could bore through a wall, let alone a coppice. She cast about in her mind for some person whose eyes would scare her if she had any reason to fear their owner. Had we any of us ever noticed Paynter's eyes?
"Yes, Janet," I said, "more than once I noticed them--dark eyes, brilliant."
"Bold, dark, knowing eyes!" she said. And when the vision of them came to her, she set about trying to fit Paynter into the facts of the case, and she found that he fitted everywhere.
But Barlow had not waited for her to finish. He was out and starting his engine; and Lennox followed suit. Two cars rolled once more over the bridge, through the woods, and down the twisting drive of Morley's Holt. No Mary there now. A policeman sat on the plinth of one of the pilasters, reading a newspaper. He saluted as Barlow jumped out. It was Lewis.
"Ah, Lewis," Barlow said. "We're running through the house again. We may want you. Keep within call."
He and Lennox hurried in with Tod and me on their heels. This time there was no aimless ramble. They made for the staircase, and presently we were all crowding into Abbott's room.
Nothing had altered. The same gross disorder prevailed. Only the smell of burning had gone. Barlow collected all the scraps of paper on the floor, examined them, and put them aside on the dressing table. Apparently he found nothing that he wanted. The former telepathy between him and Lennox was renewed.
"There's only one possibility, Lennox."
"But the seal's still on the door, Barlow."
"I know. Still, what may this mean? I saw it yesterday--but then it had no meaning."
He picked up the candlestick from the dressing table, blew away the paper ash, and pointed to some spots of red adhering to the edge of the tray.
"By gosh!" Lennox exclaimed; "it may be!"
"We'll see whether it is. Warren has the key; but--"
He walked quickly down the corridor, applied his jemmy to Parkinson's door, and burst it open.
Lennox, who was behind him, uttered a cry. Tod and I looked over his shoulders into the room, and I fell back faint and trembling.
The room was a wreck. The bed had been torn to pieces, the mattress ripped open, its hair stuffing strewed the place. But it was not this chaos that made me feel sick...
Lying on the floor, broad on his back, wrapped in his dressing gown, was Abbott. And Abbott in Parkinson's room was unquestionably as dead as Parkinson...
He had died in the way it was intended I should die.
I looked on in a daze while Barlow and Lennox groveled about the room for a full ten minutes, and at the moment I hardly realized the significance of the cry that Lennox gave when, from among the mountain of rubbish that strewed the bed he pulled a tiny wash-leather bag, untwisted the string and poured into his hand a little stream of diamonds.
It was a necklace, whose center stone was a great gem which, even in the dull light of Parkinson's bedroom, sprayed around it a rainbow of dazzling color.
Abbott's death, its terrible circumstances, the unexpectedness of its discovery, shook up every one. It affected Janet deeply, though she was proud that he had not failed her faith in him.
It took Barlow nearly a week to reach and return from the little Norman town of Corville, satisfying all the requirements of the French authorities in the meantime. And then he left, feeling that at last he had got to the bottom of the Parkinson mystery.
He told me how he looked down on that golden head in its coffin, not doubting that he looked upon the head of the man who had been known to the world for a brief moment as Draycott Vincent. But he realized that without Janet's clew he would have failed to place the pallid features among those of the possible murderers of Parkinson. He could have sworn that he had never seen that man before.
Usher he had marked down from the first as an accomplice--the inevitable, the necessary accomplice of the master-mind--and he had left Usher undisturbed, sure that sooner or later the underling would bring him to the principal.
"Why inevitable and necessary, Barlow?" I asked.
"Because the Allenstein affair could not have been brought off without a mechanic--and a cool and skillful one. It was a mechanic's job to get into the safe that held Lady Vanstead's jewels. We had to assume him to account for the physical neatness of the job. That's where I placed Usher. Just the surly, disgruntled type to be the tool of a Draycott Vincent."
But if Barlow would not have known the fair-haired man, the officers who came from the Sureté in Paris knew him. They declared at once that he was a bank robber, Bartholomew Dexter. They took his finger prints and compared them with the Bertillon records in Paris to make sure. The Sureté up to now had held Dexter to be unique among criminals. This polyglot person--nobody could determine his nationality--had done what no other man of his type had ever before done within their experience. Having served two years in prison for a minor robbery, soon after his release he had made a great coup at the Crédit Bordelais in Paris, and had then disappeared entirely from the ranks of criminals. They lost sight of him as completely as though he had never existed. They looked upon him as their ewe-lamb--the one thief who had vanished from the world of thieves to enjoy his plunder and had not come back.
But (Barlow surmised) the Sureté must now yield up their ewe-lamb: he had certainly used the spoils of the robbery in Paris to make a great figure for a few months in London while he plotted a much bigger thing--the ruin of Allenstein's Bank.
The Allenstein Bank outrage startled the world at the beginning of January. Before the end of the month, Draycott Vincent, apparently crushed to earth by the blow, disappeared from London. Barlow, who had been put on to the case at the instance of other banks affected by the crash, examined the meteoric career of Vincent with something more than cynicism, for he could find no traces of him in America, whence he was supposed to have brought the fortune on which he based his operations in London. A hint came from Paris. Certain bearer bonds were being negotiated which suggested that the same sort of mind had been at work in Allenstein's that had designed the coup at the Crédit Bordelais. If so, he knew that he had to deal with no ordinary crook, but with a master of guile. He determined to conduct his hunt in secret, for the Paris clew evaporated as soon as he began to look into it. Some indiscreet journalist talked of pending "developments" in the Allenstein case. The realizations ceased immediately. Barlow was at a dead end till April. Then business commenced in America, and the tip came that Grice might still be alive and at work across the Atlantic.
In the meantime, Vincent had dug himself in down here at Kenwick, with his slave, Usher, at hand and everything ready for the final transformation.
In April Parkinson (I stick to the name by which we had all known him) had been a fugitive in Colorado. And he had the Vanstead diamonds with him. With them he had fled to America. And he brought them back from America when, with what threats it is easy to imagine, his master summoned him. In August he came to Morley's Holt to live the strange brief, harried end of his days.
How deep he was in the Allenstein crime was a secret destroyed by the roar of the gun in the woods. But deep, very deep. Deep enough to cause him to come, terror-stricken, to Morley's Holt at Paynter's command. And he was, up to the last, the possessor of the Vanstead diamonds. One can picture him, after his return, hesitating between the consequences of a confession to the police and the consequences of resisting Paynter's demand that he should yield up the loot. His terror mingled with remorse: he had worked himself up, just before his death, almost to the pitch of confession, as his talk with Janet showed.
What agonies of fear, of perquisition, of persecution, he must have suffered in that house, with Paynter menacing, demanding surrender of the jewels, and Usher hovering in the background as a subsidiary spy! There evidently came a time when an ultimatum was given. He was to disgorge before the Fourth of October, for on that day the jewels were to be negotiated in London. If before the Fourth Parkinson alive had not parted with them, Parkinson dead would not be able to defend them. As it happened, before that day came Paynter's hand was forced. Parkinson had been in touch with outsiders secretly. Parkinson had to die. And he was killed with no more compassion than a rat.
In the further inquisition which he made immediately at Morley's Holt, Barlow discovered that which turned Janet's idea into a certainty. He went straight for the corded trunk, left in Paynter's room (as Mary told us) to be sent to him "as soon as he had got another situation." Its chief content was a large and handsome case, with a silver plate engraved: "Lamarck, Perruquier, Passage Michel, Paris." A complete and various collection of materials of theatrical make-up filled it. There were grease paints and pencils, brushes and pads. There were admirable wigs of black and auburn hair. There was a set of highly convincing mustachios. The dark wig was unquestionably the principal element in his disguise as Paynter, the chauffeur and servant. We all recognized its sleek blackness.
This by itself would have been enough to prove Janet's intuition sound. But, as if ironically to overwhelm him with riches of evidence when his man had escaped him by the final and irretraceable road, Barlow found in the case a crammed envelope into which a grease pencil had been dropped. It bore a United States three-cent stamp, was postmarked at Clovis in New Mexico, dated the 5th of May, and addressed in a precise, clerkly hand, to "Mr. Paynter, at Morley's Holt, Kenwick, Berkshire, England."
"That settles it," said Barlow.
The homage of Barlow and Tod and Lennox to Janet was complete. But she expressed intense relief when they had all gone back to London on their several lawful occasions. She then reverted to her former attitude. She declared that we had all been debauched by sensation, that it was very bad for us, and that we required toning up. Especially I.
Her prescription for my complaint was tennis à l'outrance, as Mrs. Webb called it, in which she was always to be my opponent. She declined to be on the same side of the net with me, and quoted as a horrible example the kind of game that Oddie and Helen played when they were partners.
I live in hope. Both Joshua and Mrs. Webb hold up my arms.
We dined at Joshua's the night before I returned to Fleet Street. When the ladies had gone to the drawing-room, Joshua said, with a grin, holding up his glass to the light:
"My boy, what would you say if I gave you a little sentiment? Here's to a Woman in a Thousand!"
"With all my heart," said I. "Here's to a Woman in a Thousand!"
"Masters!" cried Joshua, reaching across to dig a finger into my shirt front, "you're a dam' fraud! You don't mean the same woman."
"Perhaps not, Webb," I confessed; "but she's a near relative."
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