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Title: The Shadow of the Dead Hand Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1200231h.html Language: English Date first posted: January 2012 Date most recently updated: April 2012 This eBook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy. HTML version by Roy Glashan. 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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Roy Kindermere pocketed Mrs. Leverson's cheque with a smile and that easy grace of his and with a few well-chosen words, put on his hat and overcoat and left the great florid house, thankful that his uncongenial task was finished. If there was one thing more than another he hated, it was this 'Man from Blankney's' business, by which he was forced to get a living. Still, what was a man to do, when he had been brought up to nothing, and had, moreover, quarrelled with the one relative in the world who could and should have made his life at least worth living.
Not that the quarrel was any of Roy's seeking; indeed, it was a wonderful exploit on his part that he had managed to keep on terms of something like amity with his eccentric uncle, the Earl of Kindale. For Kindale was, to all practical purposes, a miser, a man who lived in one corner of his magnificent town house, waited upon by a single servant, and in the habit of taking his frugal meals at his club, where he spoke to nobody, and, on the other hand, nobody noticed him. For the rest, he was a cross-grained old gentleman, without a single drop of the milk of human kindness in his veins.
Some day or another all his wealth and all his property would go to Roy, for the simple reason that the old man could not leave it to anybody else. And, meanwhile, he cared little whether his next-of-kin lived or died, and so it came about that, after the war, the Honourable Roy Kindermere was thrown entirely on his own resources.
They led him eventually into the service of a big co-operative store, where he acted as a sort of commercial traveller. And then, by gradual degrees, he found himself in touch with the new rich, who liked his manners and irreproachable appearance, but that was not until Mrs. Leverson came along with her ostentation and her vulgar wealth, and made the tentative suggestion that Roy should attend one of her dinner parties, ostensibly at a guest.
What she really wanted was for her friends to read in the Press that amongst the dinner guests was the Honourable Roy Kindermere, the heir of the Earl of Kindale, and she was quite prepared to pay a handsome sum for the privilege. And Roy, needing money badly, and, moreover, the fortunate possessor of a keen sense of humour, fell in with the scheme readily enough.
But, thank goodness, that was done with—at any rate, for the present. It was getting late as he strolled along the West End streets in the direction of his humble lodgings until he came at length to Marrion-square. That exclusive locality was dark enough save for one house, where, apparently, some sort of festivity was in progress. Roy could hear the strains of a band and catch sight through an open window of a number of figures moving to the harmony of the music. He paused just for a moment to glance in with a certain fugitive curiosity, and then, just as he was moving on again, he caught the glimpse of a white arm upraised and, a second later, almost at his feet, fell a small bunch of flowers. It was almost as if some one was signalling to him.
He would have passed on, but something impelled him to pick up the blooms and look at them under the light of a street lamp. As he did so, a scrap of paper fluttered to his feet. This he picked up and read a pencil message as follows:—
"Help me from this house. Or take this to the police. I am desperate. Blue Twin Star."
It was very amazing, very extraordinary, to come across an adventure like this in the very heart of the West End, and in such dramatic circumstances. It seemed hard to connect a great house like this with crime or mystery.
Not that Roy hesitated, because here was an adventure after his own heart. He had all the dash and audacity, and that peculiar sense of humour which goes with his class. Moreover, the suggestion of beauty in distress appealed strongly to his manhood. He would go into the house and investigate for himself. If he were thrown out, then it would be easy to say that he had made a mistake, and, after that, he could trust to his personal appearance and his own name to save him from the mess.
He walked quietly up the steps and pushed open the front door, which was not fastened. Inside stood a solemn figure in black whom he rightly took to be a sort of major domo, and three or four footmen in splendid livery. There were no signs of either host or hostess, for which Roy was grateful. With a fine air he stripped off his silk-lined overcoat and handed it to one of the footmen; then, with all the sang froid in the world, he walked into the double dining-room where the dance was taking place.
Still there was no sign of any hostess, so that Roy could mingle with the guests and look around him. Then it seemed to him that a minute or two sufficed to show him the lady in distress who had summoned him so mysteriously. Yes, that was the girl.
She stood a little apart from the rest in a corner, a tall slim figure in a blue dress with a sort of diamond ornament in her hair which consisted of a pair of stones. No doubt the twin stars of the message. A beautiful girl, exquisitely fair, with eyes that matched her dress and an unconscious look of pleading in those amazing eyes of hers; and a sort of vivid anticipation, as if she were expecting something to happen.
"By Jove!" Roy murmured under his breath. "By Jove!"
Without hesitating another moment he crossed the room, threading his way decorously between the dancers until he came face to face with the lady of the blue eyes. He smiled slightly.
"Was that your message?" he whispered.
"Yes," she said. "And you found it?"
"Of course, or I should not be here. Please smile at me. Look at me as if we we're old friends. Yes, that's better. Now, where can we go and talk? Somewhere quiet."
The girl lightly laid her hand upon his arm, as if they were going to slide into the dance, then gradually piloted him through a door at the back into a sort of conservatory, which obviously led into the garden at the rear of the house.
"Ah, this will do capitally," Roy said. "Now, to begin with, my name is Roy Kindermere."
"Oh, really?" the girl said. "I have often heard my father mention you. Aren't you the nephew of that dreadful—"
"Yes, that's the man," Roy smiled. "Old Kindale. But never mind about that. What shall I call you?"
"My name," the girl said, "is Alcie Glynn. I don't suppose you have ever heard of me."
Roy murmured something appropriate, but, as a matter of fact, he had heard the name before. Moreover, he knew that this was the only child of a certain Rupert Glynn, a man of good family, and who at one time had been a welcome guest in most of the best houses in the land. But that was before he had fallen away from grace and had to resign his commission in the Red Guards in connection with some unsavoury card scandal. From that point on he had disappeared from Mayfair, and most of those who knew all about the underworld were fully cognisant of the fact that he was now known, or had been known, as one of the most expert card sharpers in Europe. The sort of man who follows fashion; in Paris one day, at Monte Carlo the next, and Cairo the day after. Anywhere young fools with money were to be found, and a polished man of the world could reap his harvest. But it was not for Roy to mention this, all the more as he understood that Glynn had died not so very long before.
"Does it very much matter?" Roy asked. "I have met scores of Glynns in my time. But tell me what does this mean? Am I to understand that a lady like yourself, evidently brought up to mix with people of our class, is actually detained in a great West End house as if she were a prisoner?"
"Yes, it does seem rather amazing," the girl smiled rather sadly. "But, all the same, it's true. Do you know Mr. Kindermere, that I practically possess no outdoor clothing to speak of. When my poor father died not so long ago on the Riviera he left me a note saying that I was to come here and see Mr. Murdstone."
"And who the dickens is Mr. Murdstone?"
"Why, the owner of this house, of course. He and my father were very friendly. Yet I never liked him. There is something horribly repulsive about the man. He seems to be rich, and, at any rate, there is no lack of money, but, all the same, this is little better than a gambling hall. Young men, yes, and young society women, come here night after night and play roulette and those sort of games for immense sums. And I have been forced to act as a kind of hostess. Oh, it's horrible."
Roy shut his teeth with a snap. He was beginning to understand. This beautiful girl was nothing but a lure to attract rich youth to the house. His blood boiled at the thought.
"Oh, that's the game, is it?" he murmured. "But what's going on to-night? What's the object of this dance?"
"Oh, there is no gambling this evening," the girl said. "Mr. Murdstone let the house for to-day to a certain Countess Visconti, whose daughter was married this morning. And this is part of the wedding festivities. You can imagine what a dreadful day it has been for me. This is why I got desperate, and threw that little note out of the window, hoping that somebody like you would find it."
Roy listened to all this, more or less bewildered. It seemed to him almost impossible that this sort of thing should be carried on almost openly, almost under the eyes of the police, in the midst of the West End, and in so fashionable a locality as Marrion-square. But he did not want to dwell upon that for the moment. He thoroughly believed every word that fell from the girl's lips, and it would be no fault of his if she were not in some safe haven before daylight. And already a half-formed plan had shaped itself in his mind.
"Now, look here," he began. "If you—"
He had no time to finish what he was saying, because of a sudden eruption in the shape of a young man, who lounged coolly into the conservatory and surveyed the two through his monocle.
"By gad," he drawled. "It's Roy Kindermere."
The new-comer seemed to be perfectly at home. There was an idiotic smile on his face, which was round and chubby, and his yellow curly hair gave him the air of an overgrown cherub. There were people who declared that Peter Lantary had been born without brains, and that it was a marvel how he, the son of a poor country gentleman, ever contrived to make a living. And yet he had his chambers in the Albany, and his manservant and his West End tailor, and he owed nobody. Moreover, he was to be seen wherever society gathered together, ruffling it with the best of them. He was popular too, in his way, despite his reputation of silly ass, and was acclaimed rightly as one of the best amateur comedians in the kingdom.
"Now, what on earth are you doing here, Roy?" he asked.
"If it comes to that, what are you doing here?" Kindermere countered. "This is not the sort of house where I should have expected to meet you. Miss Glynn, I hope you won't mind my speaking fairly candidly before my friend, Mr. Lantary. He is an old schoolfellow of mine, and, I think he may be able to help us."
"I am quite sure I can," Lantary drawled coolly. "You may be dashed surprised to hear, my dear young lady, that I have a pretty shrewd idea as to what you are doing here. And I have a more than shrewd idea as to the activities of your remarkable host. But what I want to know, for the moment, is what Roy is doing here. You weren't invited, old bean, were you?"
"Good lord, no," Roy exclaimed.
"Ah, I thought not. I was certain of that when I saw you come into the dance room. You might put me wise, old thing."
Without knowing exactly why, Kindermere proceeded to do so. Lantary was a great ass, of course, but then he had all the pluck and courage of his race, and Roy knew that he could depend upon him when the emergency arose, as it might do at any moment. Without waiting to be asked, Lantary threw himself into a seat and coolly proceeded to light a cigarette.
"Now, look here, children," he said. "This is just where little Peter Pan comes in. I don't want it generally known, and it ain't, but, you see, I have got my living to get, the same as the other poor beggars who went out under the mistaken impression that they were going to make England fit for heroes to live in. And, on the whole, I haven't done too very badly."
"So I have always imagined," Kindermere said drily. "How do you manage on nothing a year, Peter?"
Lantary eyed the speaker solemnly through his monocle.
"I am a private inquiry agent," he said. "Don't laugh. Without vanity, dear things, I am not quite such a fool as I look. And my chubby face and this monocle, that worries the life out of me, make jolly fine assets, don't you know. Why, people look upon me as next door to an idiot, by Jove. It doesn't matter what you say before Peter Lantary. Such a harmless ass! By gad, I am quite a new sort of detective. And who would think it to look at me? But I have done some pretty shrewd things, old bean, and I don't mind telling you that I am here tonight on business. All the criminals of the world don't live down in the East End of London—heaps of them knocking about in Rolls Royce cars, and those are the sort of birds I'm gunning for. That is why I got an invitation here to-night. But I am in no hurry, and when I spotted the fact that you had shoved yourself in this revue, Roy, I looked you up to see what the little game was."
"Well, now you know," Kindermere smiled. "And, since you are acquainted with the new underworld, perhaps you can give me a point or two as to the character of my involuntary host."
"Oh, I could write a whole book about that," Lantary replied. "And perhaps some day I shall. Very hot stuff, is our friend Felix Murdstone. But never mind him for the moment. What are you going to do with regard to Miss Glynn?"
"Well, upon my word. I hardly know," Roy said. "I have told you exactly how she is situated since the death of her father, whom you might have known—"
Lantary winked solemnly at the speaker, and Roy knew that he had no occasion to dilate further on that side of the story.
"Now, what can we do?" Roy went on.
"We can't leave Miss Glynn here. It seems monstrous to think it possible that a girl should be, to all intents and purposes, a prisoner here in the West End. Neither can I believe that her father would have known what was going to happen when he invited her to come here."
"Oh, I am sure he didn't," Alcie said almost tearfully. "I know that my father did not get on with the majority of people, and I suppose that is why so many of his acquaintances avoided him. But he was a real good father to me, and there was nothing he would not have done for my happiness. I came here quite cheerfully and willingly, because my father wished it, and I am certain that there is some reason why I have been so strangely treated—"
"Well, at any rate, you can't stay here any longer," Roy said impatiently. "Your friends and relations—"
"But I don't think I have any," the girl said helplessly. "My father never mentioned them. Whenever I spoke of his people, or my mother's, he always told me that I was not to allude to the subject. There was some quarrel, I think."
Roy listened to all this uneasily. He and Lantary, for the matter of that, knew perfectly well why the late Rupert Glynn never mentioned his relations. They had cast him off long ago. And, as to relatives on her mother's side, conditions had been just as hard and bitter. But to mention such a thing and to disclose a state of affairs of which the girl was absolutely ignorant would have been something like refined cruelty at that moment.
"Well, I suppose we must think out something," Roy said. "But how are you going to manage with regard to your wardrobe? I could smuggle you out of the house easily enough, but you can't walk about London in a blue ball dress and a couple of diamond stars. You see the difficulty? I suppose you have no maid?"
"I never had such a thing in my life," Alcie smiled.
"Then you couldn't go upstairs and pack your boxes and bring them down. But, by the way, where is Mr. Murdstone? And who is hostess on this auspicious occasion?"
"I can answer that," Lantary said. "The hostess, whose daughter was married this morning, is a bit of a mystery, like so many people nowadays. She has a flat in town, and a house down in the country where she entertains all sorts of queer people. I don't mean anarchists and that kind of thing, but the shy, foreign type who are supposed to be European capitalists and high financiers. And, by the way, Murdstone poses as being one of that lot. He is supposed to have made an immense fortune somewhere out in the wild and woolly West in connection with oil, or cattle, or bits of timber."
"Is he in the house?" Roy asked.
"Yes, he is," Lantary explained. "But this sort of thing is rather out of his line, so he contents himself with lending the house for the occasion, and, after showing up for an hour or so, he went into the library, for I was chatting with him just before you came in. I had my own reasons for wanting a little pi-jaw with him, but he wouldn't let me stay long. I could almost hear him saying to himself, 'Why does this putrid little ass with the eyeglass want to worry me like this?' With any luck, later on, he will know. But it's a jolly long row I've got to hoe first. But haven't we got something else to think of?"
"Oh, I haven't forgotten Miss Glynn," Roy said. "I only wanted to know if the coast was fairly clear so far as Murdstone was concerned. If he is well out of the way, it makes things easier."
"Well, I don't think you will be troubled with him, not for the next hour or two, at any rate. By Jove, this is an extraordinary adventure, isn't it? I wouldn't have missed it for worlds. Still, there is a practical side to it—"
"Yes, and we have got to solve it," Roy pointed out. "Get Miss Glynn away safely and put her under the protection of some one who will understand and look after her sympathetically. I suppose it couldn't do to go straight to Murdstone—"
"Wash it out, dear boy, wash it out," Lantary drawled. "You might just as well grab a cobra by the tail as come between Murdstone and his schemes. He's a man hunter, old cockins, I mean a man eater. And that's the only name for him. But I tell you what I can do. I can go and blather to the blighter and keep him talking in the library whilst you make your getaway. You smother Miss Glynn into a cloak and go through that door, where you will find yourself in the garden. Down at the far end is another door leading into the lane behind. At the corner of the street you can pick up a taxi. Oh, I know all about it. I have been studying the geography of this house for over a fortnight. So long."
With that, Lantary lounged out of the conservatory, leaving Roy and Alcie alone to their solitude.
"I think, on the whole, that Lantary's scheme is about the only one that is practical," Roy said. "And I am glad to have him with us. At any rate, he can keep the coast clear. Then I can take you to a flat not very far off, where I have a most kindly disposed but particularly eccentric old aunt, who will simply love to look after you when she has heard your story. As to your general wardrobe, you can send for that afterwards. What do you think?"
It was settled at length, after some natural reluctance on Alcie's part. Then Roy rose to regain his coat and hat. He was hardly back in the little alcove before Lantary crept to the room. There was nothing about him to betray the least perturbation or excitement, save that his hand shook a little.
"Looks to me, dear children," he said, "as if the problem had solved itself. Our friend, the man eater, is dead."
"Dead!" Alcie cried. "Dead?"
"Yes, dead, beyond the shadow of a doubt," Lantary murmured. "He is lying there, in the library, on the flat of his back with his face turned to the ceiling."
"You don't mean to say—" Roy began.
"Yes," Lantary said. "Murdered. No doubt of that."
Lantary made his announcement in so ordinary a tone of voice that the other two hardly grasped what he was saying for a few minutes. And then the horror of it burst upon them.
"Good heavens," Roy exclaimed under his breath. "In that case, the sooner we are out of the house the better."
"Well, not quite in that way," Lantary drawled. "The mere fact that Murdstone has been murdered is all the more reason why there should be no hurry on your part. To begin with, you would have rather a difficulty in explaining how you got here, Roy. And Miss Glynn would have to explain a thing or two. No, I am afraid you must stay for a bit, until I have seen Martin, and told him what has happened. After that, we shall have to make some explanation to the guests for getting them out of the house, and when that time comes you two can drift off with the rest. So you just stay here as if nothing had happened till I come back."
Lantary vanished, and made his way through the throng of dancers into the hall, where Martin, the butler and head of the household staff, lounged with the rest of the servants. He beckoned the big, silent man on one side, and led him down the corridor, at the end of which the library was situated.
"Now, look here, Martin," he said. "I have got something very serious to say to you. I suppose that your master knows practically everybody who is here tonight?"
"Well, sir, I can't speak as to that," the man called Martin replied. "You see most of the guests here are friends of Countess Visconti. We lent the house to her for the occasion of her daughter's marriage. But why are you asking all this, sir?"
"Well, for the simple reason that your master is lying dead in his library at the present moment, and there is not the slightest doubt that he has been brutally murdered. I happened to go in the library just now to speak to him on a little matter of business, and I found him on the hearthrug, in front of the fireplace dead. Oh, yes, there is no doubt that some enemy has done this thing."
The big man seemed to droop and wilt for a moment, then he looked at Lantary with a peculiar expression in his shifty eyes.
"What are we going to do about it, sir?" he asked.
"Well, there is only one thing for it," Lantary said. "Don't say a word to the servants yet, but go quietly into the library and call up Scotland Yard on your master's private telephone. When you have done that, come back to me again and I will tell you what I think we should do. The first thing, of course, is to get all these people out of the house, and that you can leave to me."
Martin stood there for a moment, as unwilling, or too frightened to undertake his task, before he turned away and went, with dragging footsteps, in the direction of the library. Then Lantary made his way through the thick of the dancers until he came to the spot where the Countess was seated. She was a tall strikingly handsome woman, with dark flashing eyes, and presented a wonderful appearance of youth, considering her years, which could not have been less than 40. She turned with an almost pitying smile to Lantary as she saw the expression on his face.
"Well, Mr. Lantary," she said. "Well? I see you want to ask me a question. What is the trouble?"
Lantary leaned over and whispered three words in her ear. With all her coolness, and the undoubted courage which showed itself in every line of her face, those striking features of hers took on a pallid hue, and she swayed slightly in her chair.
"The thing is impossible," she murmured. "Just at this time, when everything is going so—"
She checked herself suddenly but Lantary had not been slow to notice that she was more angry and alarmed than overcome by the force of this stupendous tragedy.
"Well, there it is," Lantary said. "Murdstone is dead enough, and there is no getting away from that. I suppose you understand that the first thing we have to do is to get these people out of the house? How do you propose to manage it?"
"Yes, I suppose that is up to me," the Countess said, with a far-away look in her eyes. "After all, they are my guests. I suppose the best thing we can do is to tell them that Mr. Murdstone has been seized with a sudden illness."
"Yes, that's the best thing," Lantary agreed. "You break the news to them, and I will see the police when they come. There is no reason why you should stay here after your friends have gone."
The Countess appeared as if about to say something, then, as suddenly, changed her mind. Lantary stopped just long enough to hear a whisper go round the room, and note the looks of consternations on the faces of the irresponsible throng. Even the music of the band ceased, as if the musicians had suddenly become conscious of the tragedy that had happened in their midst. And then a dead silence, broken here and there by hoarse whispers. After that, a steady stream of guests in the direction of the street, and the noise of cab whistles and the horns of motor cars outside. It was almost weird to see the way in which the great house emptied without any sort of ceremony, though, so far, it was impossible that any of the guests could have guessed at the real cause of the breaking up of the party.
Almost on the heels of the last of them came two representatives of Scotland Yard. The leader of the two entered the hall, and spoke with an air of authority to Martin.
"I am Inspector Dwight," he said. "I think you sent for me just now. This is my colleague, Inspector Carson. I understand that something has happened to your master, Mr. Murdstone."
Martin was the quiet, model servant again. There was nothing in his exterior to show that he was stirred to the depths.
"That's quite right, sir," he said. "I sent for you at the instigation of one of the guests, Mr. Lantary. It was Mr. Lantary who found the body. You see, sir, my master had lent the house to Counters Visconti for the night, because her daughter was married this morning, and, indeed, the wedding took place from here."
"Have you seen the body?" Dwight asked.
"Oh, yes, sir; indeed, sir, Mr. Lantary sent me into the library on purpose. He came straight to me from the library, and told me what had happened. Then he informed Madame—I mean the Countess—and she told her friends that Mr. Murdstone had been taken suddenly ill, and, of course, they all left."
"Oh, did they?" Dwight asked sharply. "That was quite wrong, and you ought to have known it. You should have communicated with me before saying a word to anybody. Nobody should have been permitted to leave this house till after the police had had a chance to make, at least, a preliminary investigation. Where is Mr. Lantary? Has he gone with the rest?"
"No, he hasn't," Lantary said, as he strolled casually into the hall. "I couldn't very well do that, Inspector, considering that I found the body, and asked Martin here to call you in. Matter of fact, nobody is here except the servants, together with a young lady who is staying in the house, and a friend of mine, Mr. Roy Kindermere. Perhaps I am to blame, because it was I who suggested to the Countess that she should dismiss her friends under the pretext that Mr. Murdstone had been taken ill. I was talking to the young lady, Miss Glynn, in the conservatory, together with Mr. Kindermere, just before I went into the library to say a few words to my host, or, rather, my deputy-host, and, to my horror, I found him lying dead before the fire place."
"Any signs of a struggle?" Dwight asked.
"Well, to a certain extent—yes. Oh, he was murdered, right enough! Stabbed to the heart with a big clasp-knife, which is lying on the rug by the side of the body. Of course, I didn't touch it, or anything else for that matter. You see, Inspector, I am by way of being a sort of investigator myself."
Inspector Dwight smiled rather sourly at the speaker.
"Yes, I know you are, Mr. Lantary," he said. "Society scandals, and all that sort of thing. Wasn't it you who first put us on the right track with regard to that Redhill business?"
"That is quite right," Lantary said cheerfully. "But don't you think we are wasting time talking here? Don't you think it would be just as well if we went into the library and had a look round. And you won't mind my coming along?"
"On the contrary," Dwight said briefly, "as you have discovered the body, you will be one of the principal witnesses."
The trio walked down the corridor and turned into the library, where Dwight switched on the lights. He stood there, in the big, handsome room, glancing round him, and then, crossing the thick carpet, bent over the dumb object lying there, stretched on the hearthrug. The big, white face was turned up to the ceiling, the long, powerful arms lay by the dead man's side. In the centre of his broad expanse of shirt front was a long slit, from which the blood was still oozing. Between Murdstone's feet was a clasp knife with a spring, such as sailors use, and the long double-edged blade was red with the blood of the victim. A chair had been overturned, an occasional table slanted against a settee, and the big writing table was a litter of confusion. A large inkpot had been overturned, and its contents still dropped on the floor.
"Murder, beyond the shadow of a doubt!" Dwight murmured. "Carson, I wish you would fetch the man Martin, will you?"
Martin came, stolid and indifferent without, followed presently by two of the liveried footmen. They glanced down at the body for a minute or two before Dwight swept them from the room.
"You all identify your master, of course," he said. "I only want you for the purpose of identification. And now, Mr. Lantary, what about the dead man's relations? You know most of London Society people. Has he any relatives in town?"
Lantary looked down with his glass firmly screwed in his eye.
"I may be wrong," he said. "One never knows, of course, but I should be very much surprised, Inspector, if you, or anybody else, can discover any of Murdstone's relatives in London; in fact, I don't believe that he had such a thing in the world."
"Are you altogether serious?" Dwight asked.
"My dear chappie," Lantary drawled. "Even I have my serious moments, and I want you to believe that this is one of them. I am no friend of Mr. Murdstone's, but I have my own reasons for a certain, shall we say feminine curiosity regarding the career of the late Felix Murdstone. It is nothing whatever to do with this case, but I do happen to know that Murdstone has no relations that is, in the sense that he is one of those aloof persons who seemed to come into the world without anybody being responsible for his being. Call him a self-made man if you like, who didn't want the world to know that he came out of—well—the gutter, and say, for the sake of argument, that his name wasn't Murdstone at all. But, really, this has nothing to do with the case. Who his enemies may be, or why he has come to this end, I don't know more than you do, but I am aware of the fact that you will have the greatest difficulty in establishing the fact that the unfortunate Murdstone had any next-of-kin at all. And that is that."
Dwight did not deign any reply. He and his colleague were hunting round the room for clues, but the end of half an hour failed to produce anything of the slightest moment. Nor, so far as the two inspectors could find, were there any finger-marks whatever besides those of the deceased himself.
"Well, I think that is about all we can do for the present," Dwight said, finally. "I am going to lock up this room and put the official seal on the door. There is no occasion to call in the police surgeon to-night. He can do no good, and I should think the deceased has been dead for a couple of hours, at least."
"But there will be an inquest, won't there?" Lantary asked.
"Of course. And, I presume, a post mortem, too, though, as to that matter, it will be for the doctor to say."
"Would you mind my being present?" Lantary asked. "I mean, at the post mortem; or, at any rate, would you mind if I came along to-morrow morning when the doctor is here? Of course, I can't say that I can do any good, but I do think that I have spotted a little thing that may have a very important bearing on this case."
"And what may that be?" Dwight demanded.
"Ah, that, my dear fellow," Lantary smiled, "is little Willie's secret. You may allow me to come or not, just as you please, but if you don't you may come to regret it."
Dwight shrugged his shoulders impatiently.
"Oh, well," he said. "It doesn't matter one way or the other. If you like to make an appointment with the police surgeon over the telephone, I cannot see any possible objection."
With that, Lantary sauntered, almost casually, from the room, and went along to the little conservatory at the back of the dining-room, where he had left Kindermere and his companion. He knew perfectly well that they would not be disturbed and that no servant had gone near them. The household would be gathered together downstairs talking over this grim and unexpected tragedy to the exclusion of everything else. And in this Lantary was perfectly correct, for there, in the conservatory, the others were more or less impatiently waiting for him to return.
"Ah, here you are," he said. "Just as I anticipated. Now, Miss Glynn, you can't possibly stay in this house to-night. There is nobody here but the servants, and I am afraid you would have a rough time of it even if you did remain. Besides, there is nothing to stop you. I suggest that you go up to your bedroom and rummage about until you can find some sort of outdoor costume, and, after that, between us we will find you some sort of shelter."
"That I have already arranged," Kindermere explained. "It's frightfully late, of course, but that rather erratic aunt of mine goes to bed at all sorts of times—"
"By Jove!—the very thing!" Lantary cried. "You are talking of Lady Eva Manfred, of course!"
"Yes—that's right," Kindermere said. "I have just been telling Miss Glynn all about her. She won't mind in the least if I knock her up and ask her to take Miss Glynn in for a few days—or a few weeks for that matter."
"It's very good of you," Alcie said gratefully. "But are you quite sure that Lady Eva will not mind my—"
"She is the dearest old soul in the world," Lantary interrupted. "Eccentric to a degree, of course, and a member of all the queer societies on the face of the earth. But she has got a heart of gold. Why, she will be positively grateful to get a chance like this. Now, you nip off upstairs and see if you can't find some sort of change of kit while I run out and get hold of a taxi. You need not trouble about the servants—they are all down in the basement discussing this tragedy like a lot of ghouls round a body. And they won't care whether you are in the house or not."
Ten minutes later Alcie was down again, dressed for the street. Moreover, she carried a big suitcase in her hand.
"I managed to find my wardrobe," she said. "It was hidden away in the sort of cubby hole on the landing where I sleep. And now I am ready to go with you anywhere."
It was, perhaps, the best part of an hour later that Alcie found herself seated in the drawing-room of one of the big flats in Portland-gardens, telling her strange story to a little, bright-eyed woman with grey hair, and the face of an amiable hawk, who was seated opposite her, half-hidden in the folds of a gay kimono.
"What an extraordinary story!" Lady Eva Manfred exclaimed, when the dramatic events of the evening were told. "You poor, dear child! Ah!—it only seems the other day that your father was the handsomest officer in the Red Guards. And so popular, too. My dear, you are going to stay here just as long as you like. And don't you think you will be the least trouble, because you won't. And now I am going to put you to bed. You must be worn out after all this excitement. Roy, you can go as soon as you like, and take Mr. Lantary with you. Oh, yes, you can come round to lunch to-morrow, if you like, but not too early, if you don't mind."
Lantary saw Kindermere as far as his bed-sitting-room in Flight-street, and then walked thoughtfully home to his rooms. By this time dawn was beginning to show in the east, so that the little man with the eyeglass concluded philosophically enough that it was a waste of time to go to bed, particularly as he had a heavy day before him. He had his own peculiar reasons for taking more than a passing interest in the Marrion-square affair, and, indeed, it occupied him to the exclusion of everything else as he sat smoking one cigarette after another, until it was time for his bath and breakfast. Then he changed into a lounge suit, and, once he had broken his fast, he got on the telephone with the intention of calling up the police surgeon, Dr. May.
At the third attempt he was successful.
"That you, May?" he asked. "Good! This is Lantary calling. Remember me, don't you? Over that Redhill affair. Yes, of course you do. Have you heard anything from Scotland Yard yet with regard to trouble last night in Marrion-square?"
"Oh, yes," the voice at the other end of the wire said. "You mean Murdstone. Inspector Carson has been round this morning to tell me all about it. Also he told me he got most of his information from you. But Scotland Yard doesn't seem to be very fond of you. What have you been doing to them?"
"Oh, mere professional jealousy," Lantary said airily. "Of course, I am only an amateur at the game, and not one of those wonderful beings who know more than all Scotland Yard put together. You know, the sort of chaps you read of in books. My line is the society game. Blackmail and family troubles, black sheep that go astray, and, really, I am not bad at that sort of thing. And I was in Marrion-square last night almost purely on chance. Not altogether chance, you understand, but it was just a toss up whether I went or not. And now I am glad I did, as you and Scotland Yard will find out before the day is over."
"But what's all this about?" the voice asked.
"Oh, yes, I was almost forgetting that. You are going to make an examination of the body this morning, aren't you?"
"Yes. I have arranged that for 11 o'clock."
"Good, then I am coming along. Mind you, that was a promise Dwight made to me last night. Any post-mortem?"
"Well, that I can't say yet, but I should think not. There is no great occasion for that sort of thing when a man has been so obviously murdered."
"But an inquest, of course."
"Oh, undoubtedly. Not to-day, or even to-morrow, maybe, but why are you so anxious with regard to the inquest?"
Lantary made some inconsequent reply and promptly rang off. At the hour appointed he found himself inside the library at Marrion-square, together with Dr. May and Inspector Dwight, and taking apparently the most languid interest in the proceedings. It was not until the doctor had finished his examination that he spoke.
"Are you going to make a postmortem?" he asked.
"No occasion for that whatever," the doctor replied. "The man died of a stab administered by some person unknown, and that is about all that the inquest will prove."
"I hope so," Lantary said softly as he rubbed his hands together. "I sincerely hope so. In the best interests of justice, I should be sorry if anything startling transpired. Now, look here, Inspector, how many people have identified that body?"
"The butler, Martin, and two of the footmen," Dwight explained. "You were quite right as to the relatives. I have been trying all the morning to trace them, and have utterly failed. Mr. Murdstone had an office in the City, and neither of his clerks nor his manager can tell me anything about his antecedents."
"Just as I expected," Lantary murmured. "And now for my little surprise. You say that the body has been identified."
"Haven't I just told you so?" Dwight snapped.
"Yes, I know you did. But you told me wrong. Because the man lying there on the carpet isn't Murdstone at all."
Inspector Dwight smiled with the tolerant air of one who listens to the prattling of a little child. The mere idea that the man still lying there, on the floor of the library in Marrion-square, should be anybody but Felix Murdstone was too ridiculous even to argue about. There he was, in his own house, where he had been identified by two footmen, to say nothing of Martin, the butler, who could not possibly be mistaken. And yet, here was this chubby-faced little man with the eyeglass solemnly proclaiming that the body on the floor belonged to somebody else.
"Well," Dwight said. "I have heard some strange statements in my time, but if you will pardon me for saying so, nothing more ridiculous than the remark you have just made. Perhaps you will be good enough to tell me exactly what you mean."
Lantary smiled in his turn.
"You don't seem to have much imagination," he said. "That is the trouble with you Scotland Yard people. You pin yourselves down to what appears to be a fact, and there is no getting you away from it. You don't read many novels, I suppose?"
"Novels?" Dwight scoffed. "What have novels to do with it? I have something much better to do."
"Ah, that is rather a pity," Lantary lisped. "Because things are not always what they seem. When I tell you that the man lying there is not Felix Murdstone, I am telling you no more than the truth. Now, let's see exactly how things pan out. I find Murdstone, at least the man we regard as Murdstone, lying here, dead, and, obviously, murdered. I want to call your attention to the fact that the library window is a French one, and opens on to the garden. Being a hot night, it was open, so that anybody could enter from outside. It is a quiet garden, with plenty of shrubs, and, at the end of it, is a door leading into a lane. Please don't forget that. What I want to impress upon you is the fact that anybody could have stolen into the garden and thence into the library, where Murdstone was all alone. And that somebody killed him, beyond the shadow of a doubt."
"But Murdstone is lying there," Dwight said.
"Oh, no, he isn't, as I am going to prove to you presently. We will rule out the two footmen, if you like, because their evidence isn't worth much. They were in too great a state of agitation last night to take particular notice of the body. But Martin is a different affair altogether. Martin is going to prove my case. We will send for him presently, but, meanwhile, I am going to set a little trap. You see, I am a student of psychology, and I have come to the conclusion that I don't like Martin. There is something wrong about him. To begin with, when I told him last night that his master had been killed, his attitude was just a little too conventional. I don't say he didn't carry it off very well, but it struck me that he was acting. However, we will see. Dr. May, would you mind lending me the signet ring you are wearing on your little finger? It has your crest, I presume?"
May took the ring from his finger and handed it over to Lantary who proceeded to slip it on the hand of the man lying there on the floor. Even Dwight, with all his contempt for the amateur detective, appeared to be interested.
"Thank you," Lantary said. "Now, Inspector would you be good enough to ring the bell and tell somebody to ask Martin to step this way? The rest you can leave to me."
Martin came a few minutes later, quite cool and collected and perfectly deferential in his manner.
"You sent for me, gentlemen," he murmured.
"I sent for you," Lantary said. "Now, look here, Martin, I suppose there is no doubt whatever that it is your late master who is lying there, on the floor. It seems a strange thing to say, don't you know, but it is just possible that you might have made a mistake. Of course, I know that you identified Mr. Murdstone last night, and so did the footmen, but we want to be absolutely sure."
"Absolutely sure, sir?" Martin exclaimed. "There can't be any possible doubt about it. I have been in my master's service for years. I was with him, both in America and South Africa, long before I ever expected to end my days as a butler. We had a rough time of it abroad, before the tide turned, and Mr. Murdstone made all his money."
"Has he many friends?" Lantary asked.
"Well, no, sir, he hasn't. Sort of man who kept to himself. And as to relations, I don't believe he has one in the world. If you think there is any doubt, sir—"
"Oh, I am not suggesting that for a moment," Lantary interrupted. "All we want is to make absolutely certain. Your evidence and that of the footmen is quite sufficient for all practical purposes. There is only one thing, and that is in connection with the signet ring on Mr. Murdstone's finger. I mention this because it occurs to me that I have seen something very like it years ago. I suppose it isn't a recent purchase?"
"Oh, dear no, sir," Martin said glibly. "My master has had it for years. He bought it in an old curiosity shop in New York many years ago. In fact, he has worn it ever since. Looked upon it as a sort of mascot, he did."
"Oh, well, it doesn't matter very much," Lantary said carelessly. "Of course, there will be an inquest to-morrow, and you will have to come forward and identify the body. For the present, at any rate, we shan't want you any more, Martin."
The butler bowed deferentially, and left the room. Then Lantary turned triumphantly to Dwight.
"There," he cried. "What do you think of that? You saw how beautifully he fell into the trap I laid for him? You saw how glibly he lied. Of course, he took it for granted that Murdstone was in the habit of wearing a signet ring, and he made up his mind, on the spot, that he had never noticed it before. Of course, it is quite possible for a man to wear a ring, and somebody who comes in contact with him every day should not notice the fact. In other words, he was so anxious to identify the body that he was quite prepared to swear that Dr. May's ring belonged to his master. Have you any comment to make, Inspector?"
"Well, it is certainly very strange," Dwight admitted. "And I am quite prepared to take off my hat to you for the cleverness with which you lured Martin into telling a stupendous lie. Of course, you had some reason for doing so."
"Of course, I had," Lantary said. "First of all, I wanted to prove that Martin's evidence was worth nothing, and, in the second place, I want to convince you that the body lying there is not Murdstone, but that of somebody else. For some reason or another, Murdstone wanted to disappear, and he laid his plans accordingly. If that is so, and there is no reason to doubt it, Murdstone must have been in contact with a double. It might have been a twin brother, or somebody who bore a remarkable resemblance to him. You see what I mean? If I am correct, and Murdstone is the scoundrel that I take him for, then you can understand the advantage of being able to prove an alibi if Murdstone ever found himself in a tight corner. My theory is that Murdstone lured his alter ego into the house last night by means of the garden gate, and deliberately murdered him, so that he could disappear. It wouldn't be so very difficult when you come to think of it. The double is invited here at a certain time, and warned to put in an appearance in such a way that no one would know how he had entered the house. And that is not quite all. Just look at this."
With that, Lantary bent over the body, and, with a knife which he took from his pocket, lifted a portion of what appeared to be a wig from the dead man's head. It was only a tiny fragment, but quite sufficient to show that the hair was false, and that it had been attached to a shaven skull by something that might have been fish glue. But it was quite sufficient to convince Dwight that Lantary knew what he was talking about.
"There you are," the latter said. "What did I tell you? The double was lured here last night, and promptly murdered. There would have been plenty of time to shave his head with a safety razor and glue the wig on the head. Then, when the body was found, Martin came forward and identified it. Of course, that was all prearranged. Oh, I know it sounds fantastic to a degree, but I think you will agree that the thing is quite possible. Of course, Martin is in the conspiracy. Otherwise he wouldn't have lied so glibly over Dr. May's signet ring. Murdstone's idea was to get himself comfortably dead and buried and go on, fully convinced that he was free to carry on his nefarious career, whilst the police were under the impression that he was comfortably tucked away in the cemetery."
"You seem to know a lot about it," Dwight said.
"Yes, I do," Lantary smiled. "I know that the fellow was a blackmailer of the worst type. I know that he was expecting a good many thousand pounds from a friend of mine and that was why I was on his track. Probably he discovered that he was in danger, and, accordingly, carried out the ingenious scheme by which he got rid of his double and disappeared at the same time. When his affairs come to be investigated, you will find that he is not a millionaire at all, but that, on the contrary, he it desperately situated and almost penniless."
"Yes, that is all very well," Dwight said. "But when this cunning scheme of his is made public—"
"My dear sir," Lantary said impressively. "If you will take my advice, you won't make the scheme public at all. You will allow Martin to give his evidence at the inquest and leave the world to think that Murdstone is in his grave."
"What on earth for!" Dwight cried.
"I am afraid you are not quite so subtle as I thought you were," Lantary gibed. "My dear sir, can't you see what I am driving at? If we let the world know that Murdstone is just a common murderer he will at once be on his guard and it will take you all your time to lay hands upon him.
"Whereas, if he is allowed to labour under the delusion that the police regard him as dead and buried, then your task will be infinitely easier. You know now that Murdstone in alive. And another thing. You know that Martin is aware of the fact. Martin is in the conspiracy. And Martin will be certain to get in contact with his pseudo dead master. What I want you to do is to keep all these discoveries of ours a secret and not mention them at the inquest. Then you put one of your scouts to watch Martin, and, if you don't mind, I shall be greatly obliged if you will let me know when Martin gets in actual contact with the man who is supposed to be in his grave. If you make the real facts public you are going out of your way to make difficulties for yourself. And, at the same time, you will prevent me from carrying out the scheme that I have at the back of my mind. Now, think it over a minute or two before you decide one way or the other."
"Yes, I believe you are right," Dwight agreed. "Really, Mr. Lantary, I must compliment you on the way in which you have handled this business. You don't look like a detective, and that rather silly manner of yours must be a valuable asset. Yes, it shall be as you say. I will put one of my men to keep a close watch on Martin, and, directly he discovers anything of importance, I will let you know. Is there anything else I can do for you?"
Lantary left the house a little later and, in the course of the afternoon, looked up Kindermere and told him exactly what had happened. There was no reason why he should keep this startling discovery a secret from his friend, all the more especially as Kindermere was indirectly interested in the plot.
"All the same," he said. "I wouldn't mention this to Miss Glynn, if I were you. By the way, how is she? It is rather a curious fact that I used to know her father quite well."
"Oh, did you?" Kindermere cried. "Where was that? How long was it before he died?"
"Well, he didn't die in the ordinary sense of the word," Lantary explained. "I don't know whether she has told you the story or not, but Rupert Glynn was drowned in a yachting accident somewhere off Cannes. That, of course, was before she came to England, at her father's request, to stay with Murdstone. As a matter of fact, Rupert Glynn was little better than a card sharper. He had to leave his regiment in connection with a card scandal, and, of course, resigned from all his clubs. Then he went to the South of France, where he could more or less obliterate himself and, at the same time, find his way into society of a sort, though he ran the risk of being recognised and exposed. But I am quite certain that his daughter is absolutely ignorant of her father's past. You see, one way and another, he made a good deal of money by consorting with young fools bitten with the gambling fever, I was one of them."
"You?" Kindermere cried. "You?"
"Yes, me. That was about three years ago, before I cut my wisdom teeth. I used to fancy myself with the cards, and was under the impression that I was confoundedly unlucky when, all the time, I was being rooked right and left by the set I got into, a set that was headed by Rupert Glynn. But, mind you, he really wasn't a bad sort. There were times when he bitterly regretted his past, and I don't believe he would have embarked upon a swindling career if it hadn't been for the affection that he had for his daughter. You see, he was compelled to make thinks comfortable for her, and the only way he could do it was through the medium of the card-table. At any rate, he saved me from making an utter and complete fool of myself. That was at Monte Carlo. He asked me to dine with him one night, and, after dinner, he told me all about his past and showed me exactly how those scoundrels were robbing me of my money. You see, he and my father were in the same regiment. That was probably the reason why he opened my eyes. At any rate, it was an object lesson to me, and, since then, I have never touched a card, unless it was with my own friends. I know there were times when he didn't know where to turn for money, and I suppose that was why he sent his daughter over to London to stay with Murdstone. What the connection was between those two, I don't know, but I am going to find out. I strongly suspect that they were in some conspiracy together. But, of course, that is merely conjecture."
"It seems to be an extraordinary tangle," Kindermere commented. "At any rate, Alcie Glynn is safe for the present with that eccentric old aunt of mine. She can stay there as long as she likes, because the old lady has taken a fancy to her, and, so far as I can gather, used to be a friend of her mother's. But, be that at it may, she knew Alcie's father well enough, because I heard her say so. She told me that he was the handsomest man in the Red Guards, and, of course, she must know all about the scandal, though even to me, she has not mentioned it, so far. I was having lunch with them to-day, and we were talking things over. Alcie's idea is to get her own living. She wants to go into a shop, or something of that sort. But my aunt won't hear of that. Of course, she might go to her own relations, but she tells me that her mother's marriage gave mortal offence to them, and she is too proud to make the first advance. If I could only do anything—"
"You could," Lantary smiled. "You could marry her."
Kindermere flushed to the roots of his hair.
"That's rather a poor joke," he said. "She's is a very beautiful girl, and undoubtedly she possesses all the courage of her race. But, after what you have told me, I am all the more anxious to do what I can for her. I am not what you call precisely a ladies' man, Peter, but—"
"Yes, you needn't say any more. I can quite see how things are. Love at first sight, and all that sort of thing. But, my dear chap, you will forgive me if I remind you that you are as poor as she is. When that old relative of yours dies—"
"Ah, then it would be quite another matter," Kindermere sighed. "Here am I, getting my living in a way that I am positively ashamed of, rubbing shoulders with the new rich, who are only too anxious to have the heir to an earldom under their roofs and advertising the fact in the newspapers. Women like Mrs. Leverson, for instance. A good dinner and a £20 note. Just enough to keep me in food and clothes and pay for my bed sitting room. And yet, some of these days, I shall have goodness knows how many thousands a year and a castle to live in. But the old gentleman may live another ten years yet, and I couldn't offer myself to any girl in circumstances like these. I have put my pride in my pocket more than once, but Kindale will have none of me. It wasn't my fault that his sister married my father. And, by the way, before I forget it. Do you know that Mrs. Leverson is a friend of Murdstone's? I never met him at her house, but I know that he used to go there pretty frequently and that he did business with Leverson."
"That is interesting," Lantary said. "And all the more so, because Leverson is one of the very new rich. In fact, I have heard some strange stories about him. After what you have told me, I think I will keep an eye upon that son of Israel."
It was three days later before Lantary heard anything from Scotland Yard. Then one of the detective staff called upon him with a certain piece of information.
"Inspector Dwight asked me to come and see you, sir," he said, "with regard to the man Martin. I followed him last night to a house in the neighbourhood of Clapham, and there he stayed for some little time, I wasn't near enough to hear whom he asked for, but it was some man who, I gathered, was lodging in a terrace and, directly Martin gave his name, he was admitted. It was quite late at night, and nearly eleven o'clock before Martin came out of the house and walked across the Common. He was evidently afraid of being followed, because he had his coat collar turned up and his hat pulled down over his eyes. I lost sight of him at a turning in the road, and I was near enough to the house to see another man come out of the house and go in the same direction. I can't exactly tell you why, sir, but this other man gave me the impression of one who had come out to take a little exercise. Sort of furtive, like a man who is hiding from justice and waiting till night to get a breath of fresh air. I can give you the address, and, if you want me any further, of course, sir—"
"No, I think that will do," Lantary said. "You give me the address, and I will make it my business to keep an eye on the house till Martin turns up there again."
Two nights later Lantary strolled up and down outside the terrace near the Common, and, just before ten o'clock, his patience was rewarded by the sight of Martin coming down the road. A distant clock was striking eleven when Martin left the house and, almost immediately was followed by a man who emerged furtively and walked down the road in the direction of the Common. As he came under one of the electric light standards, he was in full sight of Lantary for a moment, but that moment was quite long enough.
Lantary fairly staggered back.
"The dead back from the tomb," he muttered to himself. "Surely I can't be mistaken. What on earth does it all mean? If that man isn't Rupert Glynn, then I can't believe the evidence of my own eyes. Rupert Glynn, drowned in the Mediterranean, and yet at the same time hiding in a tenement house near Clapham Common! The plot thickens."
It was characteristic of Lady Eva Manfred that she received Alcie with open arms. She would have done that with any one who had been brought along to her by her beloved nephew. She asked no question, mainly because she already knew a great deal concerning the past of her guest. Roy Kindermere had only to tell his relative that Alcie was the daughter of Rupert Glynn for her to rise to the occasion and do all she could to make things smooth for a girl who was alone in the world and absolutely penniless.
Not that Lady Eva had too much to spare for herself. Without being exactly grande dame, she was a notable figure in society, living in that comfortable flat of hers in Portland Gardens, where she entertained on a limited scale, and was, herself, welcomed in some of the best houses in the land. So far as her limited means were concerned, she was open-handed enough and transparent to a degree.
But there was one thing that she did not tell her nephew when he came to her, bringing Alcie to the shelter of that welcome roof. She did not tell him, for instance, that she had been something more than a friend of Rupert Glynn's in the old days, and that, perhaps, in happier circumstances, she might have married him. That was one of the precious things that she kept to herself, so that when Alcie came along she was only too delighted to make her welcome and do all she could for the girl's welfare.
She would have helped Kindermere if she had been in a position to do so; indeed, on more than one occasion she had thrown out one or two strong hints in that direction; but he, knowing exactly how she stood from a monetary point of view, had curtly refused to receive a single penny at her hands.
And now, in her impulsive way, she was working out a romance in her mind. It seemed impossible that any man who had once met Alcie could be absolutely indifferent to her. Roy would fall in love with her if he had not done so already, and, in the course of time, would marry her. It did not occur to the old lady that Roy was practically a pauper, and that Alcie was as poor herself as he was. True, in the course of time, when the Earle of Kindale had joined the majority, Roy would be a rich man and in a position to give Alcie everything that a girl could require. But then, the Earl was by no means on his last legs, and, in the meantime, would certainly refuse to do anything for the man who, some day, would step into his shoes.
More than once Lady Eva had gone out of her way to approach the miserly old nobleman with a view to inducing him to do something for Roy, but he had turned a deaf ear to her persuasion, and, indeed, had let Lady Eva know pretty plainly that he did not want to hear from her, and that, if she was foolish enough to go down to his place in Devonshire, he would refuse to see her.
A good deal of this Alcie had gathered from a casual conversation with Roy. In the meantime, Alcie could stay where she was, and so far as the future was concerned she need not have the least anxiety. She would have a home until such time as Roy was in a position to claim her for his wife.
"You are more than good to me," Alcie said gratefully. "Indeed, I don't know how to express my thanks for all that you are doing for me. But, dear Lady Eva, put yourself in my place. Do you think you could possibly allow yourself to be dependent on the charity of anybody? Really. I must find some occupation. Oh, I know that you were very friendly with my father in the old days, but that does not give me the right to force myself upon your hospitality."
"But, my dear girl, what can you do?"
"I don't know," Alcie said sadly. "You see, I have been brought up to do nothing all my life. There were times, of course, when we were very poor, and times when my father seemed to have plenty of money. He never talked to me about his affairs, and, naturally, I was under the impression that he had some sort of an income. It was only when he met his death in the sea that I realised that there was nothing for me. And that was why I was so grateful when Mr. Murdstone came to Cannes and told me that my father wished me to live under his roof. I was under the impression that my father had money coming to him, but that it was held up, owing to some intricate law business which Mr. Murdstone had undertaken to put right. You can imagine what a shock it was to me when I found out that I was not only penniless, but being used as a sort of decoy in a house where young men came for the purpose of gambling. A prisoner. There is no other word for it. I have already told you how I was kept in that dreadful house, just as if I was in jail. There is a mystery somewhere, which I shall never solve, but it doesn't matter very much now that Mr. Murdstone is dead. But I must find some way of getting a living. I can't possibly stay here, eating the bread of charity. Perhaps you might get one of your friends to find me a situation in a milliner's shop. You know the sort of thing I mean. There are so many girls in my position to-day who are earning their living behind a counter. Do you think you could manage it?"
Lady Eva smiled reassuringly.
"Of course, my dear," she said. "If you really want to get your own living that way, then I dare say I can help you. But you mustn't be impatient. Now, go along with Roy and enjoy yourself. You are looking quite pale and worn out for want of exercise and fresh air. You must have had a dreadful time in Marrion-square, and I am not going to let you stay in the house, worrying yourself about the future. Go and put your hat on. Roy will be here in a few minutes, and I am going to ask him to take you on the river for the afternoon. He will be only too delighted."
"I was going to suggest something of the kind myself," Roy said, as he entered the flat a few minutes later. "What are we going to do with her, aunt? I only wish I could help."
"Oh, I know what you wish," Lady Eva laughed. "You would like to take her away from here and look after her for the rest of your life. Now, confess, aren't you half in love with her already?"
"It isn't a question of half," Roy said. "My dear aunt, I believe that I am as sentimental as you are. Of course, you have made up your mind that some of these days Alcie and myself will get married. Well, there is nothing I should like better. I believe I fell in love with her the first moment that I cheeked myself into that swagger house in Marrion-square."
"A regular romance," Lady Eva exclaimed. "Just the sort of episode that would appeal to the average novelist. But what have we to do? You know what a limited income mine is, and, even if I offered to help you—"
"I should gracefully refuse. I have tried all my friends and I have answered every advertisement that seemed at all likely, but nobody appears to want the services of an old public school boy who wasted some of the best years of his life in the war. Of course, there are thousands like myself, driving taxi-cabs and breaking stones on the road. The only thing I can do is to make another appeal to that flinty-hearted old relative of mine. But, of course, he will refuse to help me, even to the extent of a pound a week."
"I am afraid he will," Lady Eva said sadly. "It is very strange that people who have plenty of money should be absolutely incapable of enjoying it, or doing the slightest good with all their wealth. Kindale locks himself up in that beautiful old house of his, and the only thing that interests him is something in the way of a new find in the form of a picture or piece of antique silver. And the worst of it is, he may live another ten years. That is a dreadful thing to say, but the world would be all the better for his loss. Now, you run away with Alcie, and leave me to try and work out something for your mutual benefit."
It was a golden afternoon on the river for those two, practically alone in the world, seated in a punt under the shade in a back-water, and taking their tea, which Lady Eva had provided in a lunch basket for them. Such an afternoon when youth forgets all the troubles and trials of the world and thinks nothing of the future.
It was easy enough for Roy to forget that he was practically a pauper, living in a bed-sitting-room, and only getting a decent meal when some friend asked him out, or when he was spending his spare time in the flat in Portland Gardens.
"It is a beautiful world, Alcie," he said. "And the only drawback is the people in it. Not that I am worrying much about myself, because, so long as I have a roof over my head and a bit of bread and cheese to eat, I am fairly content. But you? What is going to become of you? That is what worries me."
He bent towards her and took her hand in his. It lay there naturally enough and, as her eyes met his, a delicate flush rose to her cheeks. He was not making love to her, and in some subtle way she knew the reason. She knew, without a single word from him, exactly what his feelings were, and she knew that she had met the one man in the world for her.
She laughed just a little unsteadily.
"Oh, I dare say I shall manage," she said. "Lady Eva wants me to stay with her, but you can see that it is impossible that I should do so. I don't think you will like me any less because I am too proud to be dependent upon other people, I dare say I can find a place in one of those society shops in Dover-street, or one of those places where aristocratic ladies sell frocks for about five times the price they cost. Or even a parlour maid. Don't you think I should make a very good parlour maid?"
"No, I don't," Roy smiled. "I don't mean that you would have any difficulty in learning the duties, but fancy a girl as sweetly attractive as you are answering the front door to a man about town. Why, he would want to make love to you on the spot."
"Then there is only one thing for it," Alcie laughed. "I shall have to start life as a land girl. Perhaps that eccentric, old uncle of yours would give me a job on one of his farms."
"By Jove," Roy cried. "That's not a bad idea. Sounds like a chapter from a romantic novel, doesn't it?"
Naturally enough, the tragedy at the house in Marrion- square gripped the public imagination, so that, when the inquest came to be held, there was a rush to be present to hear what would obviously be sensational details. As a matter of fact, there was nothing that even the Press could make much copy from. When the police came to make inquiries, they discovered that Felix Murdstone was not a millionaire at all, but, on the contrary, he had been up to his neck in debt. Even the house in Marrion-square was not his own, but had been rented furnished from an absentee landlord, who had not even received his first quarter's rent. The office in the city boasted no more than two clerks, and, when they came to be cross-examined they had to admit that their work was more or less of a sinecure, and that such correspondence as came to the firm was invariably dealt with by Felix Murdstone himself.
The room in which the inquiry was held was crammed to its utmost capacity. The first witness called was Countess Visconti. It will be remembered that the marriage of her daughter had taken place at Marrion-square, which had been lent to her for the purpose of the wedding reception and the evening party afterwards.
"He was an old friend of yours, I suppose?" the coroner asked.
"I couldn't go quite so far as that," the witness answered. "I met Mr. Murdstone some months ago at Monte Carlo, where we were on very friendly terms. When I came to England for my daughter's wedding he offered me the use of his house, as I had no residence of my own, and I gladly accepted it. Of course, like most people, I was under the impression that he was a millionaire, who had made his fortune in South America or South Africa. I am not quite sure which. At any rate, he was very kind to me."
The big, handsome woman with the dark, flashing eyes and pure olive complexion gave her evidence with complete self-possession. All the same, Lantary, who was watching the proceedings with the keenest interest, seemed to detect a certain uneasiness behind the calm manner in which the witness was speaking. And he was certain that she left the witness-box with a sigh of relief.
"That woman knows a great deal more than she proposes to tell," he whispered to Kindermere. "Of course, Murdstone might have extended his hospitality to her in his princely way, but I feel perfectly sure that there was some quid pro quo. A man who was practically bankrupt didn't spend at least five hundred pounds on a comparative stranger out of pure generosity. I am going to keep my eye on that beautiful mystery, and, unless I am greatly mistaken, she will be useful later on. However, that will keep."
With that, Lantary moved from the place where he was seated, and took his stand in the witness-box. He, as the public knew from the Press, was the first person to find the dead body lying in the library in Marrion-square, and it was just possible that he might have some sensational disclosure to make.
"I understand that you were in Marrion-square on the night of the murder?" the coroner suggested. "Were you a friend of Mr. Murdstone's? Or were you a guest of the Countess?"
"Well, I might say I was neither, sir," Lantary said, in that peculiarly simple way of his. "It was a mutual friend who procured me the invitation to the dance, and I went because I knew something of Mr. Murdstone, and I wanted to ask him a question concerning a certain matter, which is outside the scope of the inquiry."
"That, I think, is for me to decide," the coroner said. "You have just told us that you had your own reasons for going to the house and that you wanted to see Mr. Murdstone on some private business. Would you mind telling me what that business was?"
"With all due deference to the court, I must decline to do anything of the kind," Lantary said amiably. "I have talked that matter over with Inspector Dwight, who has the case in hand, and he quite agrees with me that, in the interests of justice, it would be wrong to go into that particular question at the present moment."
The coroner turned and looked at Dwight.
"Is that so, Inspector?" he asked.
"Quite right, sir," Dwight said. "We have our own reasons for keeping certain matters a secret. And I might remind you, sir, that the witness has come forward at the request of Scotland Yard because he was the first person to see the body."
"Oh, quite so," the coroner said. "Quite so. It doesn't matter much either way. Now, Mr. Lantary, if you please."
"Certainly, sir," Lantary said. "I reached the house rather late in the evening. He was rather a reserved sort of man and not in the least interested in the festivities. What his reasons were for lending his house to the last witness, I don't know, but he sort of obliterated himself and shut himself up in the library. After a time I went into the library, and the first thing I saw was Mr. Murdstone, lying on the hearthrug in front of the fireplace with a wound in his chest. The weapon was lying by his side, and practically in his hand. He was quite dead, as I saw at the first glance."
"Isn't it just possible that it might be a case of suicide?" the corner asked.
"Ah, that is not for me to say," Lantary replied. "It might have been. But, then, there were signs of a struggle, a chair overturned, and the inkpot on the writing-table dripping on the floor. Still, Dr. May, who was called in by the police, might have a different view. Personally, I think it is a case of murder. I have my own reasons for saying so, but, as they are only theories, I hesitate to mention them to the court."
A few more questions, and Lantary sauntered to his seat. Followed Dr. May, who had been called in to examine the body.
"Do you suggest suicide?" the coroner asked.
"No, sir, I don't," the witness said promptly. "I am quite certain that Mr. Murdstone was murdered. Everything points to that—the open window, the garden at the back, and the gate leading to a lane behind. Moreover, Mr. Murdstone was in the library by himself for the best part of an hour, as Martin, his servant, will tell you. I don't see how a man could commit suicide in the particular way in which the thing happened. To begin with, he was lying flat on his back, with the knife thrust through his shirt front and deep into the heart. If he had taken his own life the knife would have remained there, because, with such a wound, the victim would have died instantly. Moreover, he would not have fallen on his back, but on his face. Who ever committed the crime must have been standing opposite the dead man, and struck him suddenly with tremendous force with a dagger, which the police will produce, over the heart. Only a strong man could have done it. Then the victim would have fallen backwards, just as he was found, and, no doubt, the knife was dropped by his side after the murderer had struck the fatal blow. My idea is that the assassin was alarmed by some sound, and made his way out into the garden, leaving the knife behind, which he certainly would not have done had he not been apprehensive of being disturbed. I have no doubt it was a case of murder."
Once May had left the witness box, Martin came forward and corroborated the doctor in his statement. It only remained for Inspector Dwight to produce the dagger, which he did.
"Is there any chance of tracing the weapon?" the coroner asked.
"Ah, that I cannot say at present, sir," Dwight replied. "It is rather an uncommon pattern, and evidently bought for the purpose, because it is absolutely new. I don't propose to call any more witnesses to-day, sir, and, with your permission, I should like to have the proceedings adjourned for a fortnight."
It was all over at length, and the crowd streamed out into the street. Kindermere turned to speak to Lantary, but the latter had already vanished. Nor did he approach his friend for the next two or three days, seeing that he had certain inquiries to make which took up all his time.
It was on the third night that he set out and made his way as far as Clapham Common. There, neatly disguised, he hung about the mean street to which Martin had been traced on the off chance of once more seeing the man who came out late in the evening with a view to taking exercise on the Common. It was the second night that he had come down into the neighbourhood, and he intended to haunt the place until he found that for which he was looking.
He hung about the street until nearly midnight without the slightest sign of Rupert Glynn. It was easy enough to hide under cover of the darkness in the porch of the next house, and there he stood with infinite patience waiting for something to turn up. He would stay there till just after midnight, concluding that if he remained as long as that without seeing anything of Glynn the latter would not make his appearance—at any rate, on that night.
A clock somewhere in the neighbourhood was sounding twelve, and the whole locality was apparently sunk in slumber, when footsteps came echoing down the street. Lantary, alert on the instant, came out of his hiding-place and lay full length behind the railing, so that he could see the door of the next house. Then he saw a tall, muscular figure of an elderly man with rather long, grey hair and a flowing beard and moustache. As Lantary hoped, the stranger pulled up in front of the house where Glynn was hiding and knocked on the door. Almost immediately it was opened, and Glynn himself came out and fronted the stranger.
"Well?" the latter said. "Well? So, you see, I have found you. It's no use trying to hide from me."
Glynn staggered back.
"Good God, Murdstone!" he cried. "A clever disguise, but I recognise you by your voice. I suppose you want to see me?"
"That's the idea," Murdstone said.
Murdstone hesitated just for a moment whilst Glynn stood aside so that he might pass.
"Anybody in the house?' the former asked.
"Nobody you need be afraid of," Glynn sneered. "Nothing more formidable than my aged landlady, who is deaf and half blind, and who has probably been asleep for the last two hours."
With that he led the way along a passage dimly lighted with a spot of gas to a dingy sitting-room at the back of the house, which evidently represented his own quarters. It was dirty and shabbily furnished, and about it clung the atmosphere of stale tobacco.
"My rooms," Glynn said. "Quite palatial, aren't they? Sit down in the arm chair. The springs are broken, but it is not so uncomfortable for all that. Let me offer you a whisky and soda. The cigarettes are on the mantelpiece."
Murdstone helped himself liberally, and lighted a cigarette. He seemed to be quite at home, and not at all disturbed by the angry gleam in the eyes of his involuntary host.
"Now, what precisely is it you want?" Glynn asked. "I don't know how you managed to track me down here, nor does it matter much. But, since you are here, we might just as well have a heart to heart talk. To begin with, what have you done with my child?"
"Well, really, I can't tell you," Murdstone said, coolly. "When the bottom fell out of that little scheme of mine, I had to think of myself, and get out of the fix as best I could."
"Yes, you would," Glynn snarled. "But when I allowed Alcie to come to England, and you promised her a comfortable home under your roof, I didn't expect that you would leave her to the mercy of the world. Though, God knows, I have every reason under the sun for distrusting you. I am a bit of a rascal myself, Murdstone, but I am an angel of light compared to you."
"Oh, what's the good of quarrelling!" Murdstone said. "You may believe me or not, but I fully intended to play the game when I suggested that your daughter should come to England. You were on your last legs, and didn't know where to turn for a five-pound note, which meant that you would have to find accommodation somewhere about as good as your present quarters. I told you that I had made a fortune. I told you that I was practically a millionaire, and that I had taken a house in Marrion-square, where I meant to settle down and become a respectable member of society."
"That you never would be," Glynn said.
"Well, perhaps not. At any rate, I was on to a real good thing. It meant that I should, more or less, be the permanent master of the house in Marrion-square, and have the spending of something like twenty thousand a year. And so I did, for a time."
"Blackmail, of course."
"Well, you can call it that if you like. It was blackmail. You see, I managed to get hold of some compromising letters written by Harold Mostyn to a certain lady, who shall be nameless. But, of course, you know all about Mostyn."
"Up to a certain point," Glynn said. "I know that Mostyn was a young fool, who came into something like a couple of millions of money when his father died, and I knew that you had your eye on him when he was in the Riviera a year ago. A poor, timid creature, who hardly dared to call his soul his own."
"Quite right," Murdstone smiled. "Tame as a rabbit. And afraid of public opinion. Not a gentleman, of course, because his father made all that money during the war. Mostyn had social aspirations, and he quite believed me when told him that I could get him the entree to the best society in London. It was at my suggestion that he bought a lease of the house in Marrion-square and furnished it like a palace. And then I led him on. Of course, there was a woman in the case."
"Yes, and I can guess who the woman is," Glynn said. "Countess Visconti. Posing as the wife of a passionately jealous Italian count, who would not have hesitated to shed blood had occasion called for it. I can see the whole scheme just as plainly as if I had been in it myself. Of course, the Countess got hold of him, and he was fool enough to write her a whole lot of compromising letters."
"Precisely," Murdstone said coolly. "And, of course, those letters came into my hands. In other words, the lady in the case made me a present of them. On terms, of course, because she is not the woman to play a part in a scheme like that without getting her share of the plunder. My game was to pretend that the bogus count had found out all about it, and that unless he was handsomely paid for his silence something very serious would happen. In fact, I had that young fool in the hollow of my hand. He lent me his house, and he gave me all the money I asked for."
"Well!" Glynn asked. "And what then?"
"Ah, then some one else came on the scene. I don't know how on earth it was that Mostyn got acquainted with him, in fact. I rather suspect that the god in the car sought his friendship. You know the man I mean. A silly ass sort of individual who is by no means the fool that he looks. I am alluding to Peter Lantary."
Glynn almost started to his feet.
"Peter Lantary?" he cried. "Why, of course I know him. I knew his people intimately."
"One of the cleverest little devils that ever breathed," Murdstone said bitterly. "He looks like a congenital idiot, but there is a brain behind that eyeglass that I would give a bit to possess myself. Anyhow, by some means or another, he got in contact with Mostyn, and, of course, knowing something of me, he tumbled to what was going on. He laid a nice little trap for me, and I was fool enough to fall into it. Not a police trap, you understand, but a private detective affair and two or three people listening to what was going on. Then, of course, the whole thing came out, and if I hadn't disappeared, Lantary would probably have had me arrested. At any rate, he knocked the bottom out of my little scheme and practically ordered me out of the house. No more money from Mostyn as far as I am concerned, which is pretty rotten, because it looked to me as if I was tiled in for life. You see, I had got Mostyn under my thumb, and I could bleed him to any extent. Fact is, I was much too clever. Anyway, that is done with, and, besides, that American affair isn't finished with yet. So I decided to disappear."
"So I gather," Glynn said. "And let me compliment you upon your make-up. You look the benevolent old philosopher to the life. But was there any real reason why you should murder John Tilson? Couldn't you have managed it without running a risk like that?"
"Oh, then you know all about it, do you?"
"My dear man, of course I do. I read the papers regularly, in fact. I have practically nothing else to do. And when I saw that Felix Murdstone had been killed in the library of the house in Marrion-square, then I knew exactly what had happened. Was it really worth such a terrible risk as that?"
"Well, at any rate, I thought so," Murdstone replied. "You see, my scheme was wrecked, and I could not have gone on at Marrion-square anyhow. And then there was that business in America. I felt pretty sure that Lantary would not be satisfied to let me get off scot free, and that he would put the New York police on to me. If he had done so, then I should have been extradited, and, at the very least, got off with five years in Sing Sing prison. So I lured Tilson to Marrion-square, and killed him. Oh, I am telling you all this in cold blood, but it was a horrible business all the same. I had to disappear in circumstances that pointed to my own murder. I laid my plans very carefully, and everything was ready when Tilson came into the library, through the garden, and I was alone in the room waiting for him. I stabbed him to the heart, and he died without so much as a groan. You know how he has been acting as my double all these years, and how easy it would be for me if I had half an hour or so at my disposal to make that gruesome corpse look exactly like Felix Murdstone. Well, I did it, and now I am free. The police are under the impression that Felix Murdstone is in his grave, and they will never guess that the individual who sits here is actually the man who committed the crime. I am living very quietly in a private hotel in Evesham-road, under the name of Rogers. I have a certain amount of money to go on with, and it will be hard luck if I can't get on my legs again."
Murdstone sat there, telling the story as quietly as if he were relating some incident in everyday life. He sipped his whisky and soda and smoked his cigarette with an air of tranquil enjoyment that almost aroused the admiration of Glynn, horrified as he was by this cynical confession of a brutal crime.
"So that's that," Murdstone concluded. "And now, perhaps, you will be good enough to tell me your side of the story, because I didn't look you up for the mere purpose of asking after your health."
"No, I suppose not," Glynn sneered. "You must have had some powerful motive for letting me know that you had got Tilson out of the way as you have done, though, of course, I guessed what had happened directly I saw the Marrion-square affair reported in the papers. But if you think you are going to drag me into any more schemes of yours then you are vastly mistaken."
"Turning honest, I suppose," Murdstone gibed.
"Well, comparatively so, at any rate. After all, there is a good deal of difference between a mere card sharper and a cold-blooded murderer. When I made my great mistake, and fell away from grace, I had to get my living in the easiest way possible, and, being expert at all sorts of card games, that struck me as the best way of providing a home for that girl of mine. But I never deliberately cheated, at least not to any great extent. But I did a foolish thing, and placed myself within the reach of the police at Monte Carlo. And that is why I worked that business that might have been either drowning or suicide. I might have known that you would find me out, and put Martin on my track. But no more of it, thank you. And now, what has happened to my child? What have you done with her? Curse you, I am going to know."
"Upon my word of honour, for what it is worth, I cannot tell you," Murdstone said, and it was evident that he was speaking the truth. "I was in the very devil of a tight place, and there was no time to lose. Of course, when Tilson's body was found, everybody had to clear out of the house, and I suppose Alcie went with the rest. Mind you, I did make inquiries. The house in Marrion-square is shut up until the owner returns from the Continent, and, for the moment, at any rate, Martin remains there. Of course, he knows all about it. So I saw him and asked him if he knew what had become of Miss Glynn. He told me that he hadn't the slightest idea. I suppose he told you the same thing, because it was he who tracked you down here at my suggestion. You can always depend upon Martin when you want anything of that sort done. But, honestly, my dear chap, I haven't the remotest idea where your daughter is."
Glynn sat thinking the matter over for a minute or two.
"I believe you to that extent," he said. "Now, who was the last person you saw before Tilson came into the library at Marrion-square, and you murdered him!"
"Lantary," Murdstone said. "And I only wish to Heaven that I had taken his life instead of Tilson's."
"Then Lantary probably knows where Alcie is," Glynn said, with something like a sigh of relief. "I am obliged for the information. I will look him up, because he is an old friend of mine, and I once did him a very good turn. And you needn't come here any more, Murdstone. You and I have finished. I am pretty certain you came here to-night with some cunning scheme for making money in which I was intended to play a part. And, though I have very little money left, I am not going to rub shoulders with a man who has committed cold-blooded murder. And, mind, none of your dirty tricks. It is no use threatening me with the French police, because if you do anything of that sort, then I shall ask to see somebody of authority at Scotland Yard and acquaint him with the fact that Felix Murdstone is not in his grave, but very much alive. Oh, I am not in the least afraid of you. At the worst it will be no more than a term of imprisonment for me, but a hanging matter as far as you are concerned. And, now, when you have finished your drink, I shall be exceedingly pleased to see the last of you."
It was utterly useless for Murdstone to show his teeth, for he recognised clearly enough that the man he had hoped to enlist in a new scheme of robbery had the whip hand of him. A little later on, he left the house and walked down the road, with Lantary about a hundred yards behind. And when, at length, the latter had tracked his quarry as far as Evesham Road, he went quietly back to his own quarters, thinking that he had not wasted his time.
It was about tea time the next afternoon when Lantary walked along the Embankment in the direction of Scotland Yard. Once there he asked for Inspector Dwight, and was ushered into the latter's private room, where Dwight was awaiting him.
"Well," the inspector asked, "Any news?"
"Quite a lot, old bean," Lantary said, in his most inconsequent manner. "I know exactly where to put my hand upon Murdstone and how beautifully he is disguised. Of course, you can arrest him any moment you like, but I shouldn't do that, if I were you, at least not until we get to the bottom of a very pretty conspiracy. You can arrest Murdstone, of course, but it isn't much use doing that until we have some information as to the man he murdered. Who the fellow was, and why Murdstone wanted to get him out of the way, are two things that are utterly beyond me for the moment. Besides, you can't very well arrest a man for the murder of another man who is not in his grave, unless, of course, you know who the victim was, and what was his connection with Murdstone. That we have got to find out. And I shan't be satisfied until I do. I suppose you haven't had any inquiries in the last day or two for any individual who is missing from his home?"
"No, I can't say I have," Dwight admitted. "I see your point. And you think that Murdstone is playing some deep game?"
"I not only think that, but I know pretty well whom he expected to help him in his latest scheme. You see, Murdstone had to clear out of Marrion-square because the game was up as far as Mostyn was concerned. And Mostyn may be back at any moment."
"You don't mean to say that Mostyn is in it, too?" Dwight exclaimed. "Why, Mr. Mostyn is a millionaire!"
"Yes, I know that. And millionaires, especially half witted ones like young Mostyn, are just the sort of prey that men of the Murdstone type are always looking for. But perhaps I had better tell you all about it. You see, the house in Marrion-square belongs to Mostyn, and most people are under the impression that it was let furnished to Murdstone, who was one of the new millionaires who made a fortune in South America or South Africa. As a matter of fact, Murdstone is nothing of the sort. He is an adventurer of the worst type. And I happen to know that the New York police would be only too pleased to know where to lay hands upon him. Now, Mostyn did a very foolish thing. He came in contact with a certain woman with whom he became infatuated; and he made the usual common ass of himself. The whole thing was worked out by Murdstone, together with the woman, and for months past they have bled that young fool nearly white. There is an apocryphal husband in the background—the usual type of jealous, bloodthirsty, foreign husband who would not hesitate to cut Mostyn's throat if he discovered what was going on. I need not tell you this husband doesn't exist at all. But the mere threat of his being in the land of the living was quite enough to frighten Mostyn out of his life. Then Murdstone, pretending to be Mostyn's friend, goes to him and tells him that certain letters of his have fallen into the hands of a blackmailer, and that he, Murdstone, is only too willing to redeem them at a certain price. Can't you see how easily the thing was worked? Mostyn was persuaded to hide himself somewhere in Italy until the matter was amicably settled, and in the meantime let Murdstone have the run of his cheque book. Mostyn was in such a funk that he told a friend of mine the whole story, and that friend suggested that I should be called in to see what I could do in the matter. You see, I have a reputation amongst society people for being able to deal effectively with blackmailers. So I laid a neat little trap for Murdstone, and he, regarding me as nothing better than a fool, fell head long into it. Then I was able to tell him what I thought about him, and give him a few days to consider his position. I told him I must have those letters back, and that he must clear out of the house in Marrion-square, without delay. Which, in his own fashion, he did. And that is why, when you came to investigate his affairs, you discovered that he was practically a bankrupt. Also, I was perhaps foolish in letting him know I knew of his past in America, and that I had every intention of putting the New York police on his track. It is quite evident that he has been working for years with another man who is so like him that in case of trouble there was no great difficulty in proving an alibi. And then Murdstone had his happy thought. He would disappear in such a way as to convince the world that he had been murdered, whilst all the time he was the murderer himself. One of the cleverest schemes that has ever been conceived in the brain of a criminal. And now, perhaps, you can see why it would be just as well that you should hold your hand a bit until Murdstone makes the next move in the game. He has no money, at least no money to speak of, and he must find some before long, or his position will be precarious. I think you can leave me to keep an eye upon him."
"Yes, that will be all right," Dwight said. "I shall be only too pleased to have your assistance. You say you know where the man is living and exactly how he is made up."
"Yes, you can take that for granted. I know where he was last night, and I know the man that he is after to help him in the next scheme for plundering some unfortunate individual. Mind you, Dwight, I am personally interested. I don't mean interested to the extent of seeing the man hanged, but interested because certain friends of mine are mixed up in the crime. There is a man who once was a gentleman holding a commission in the Red Guards, which he had to leave in consequence of a card scandal, and I know where I can put my hands upon him at any moment. In fact, he did me a very good turn some three years ago, and I am not disposed to forget it. Also, he has a daughter who was under the roof of the house in Marrion-square on the night of the tragedy. Murdstone would give a great deal to know where she is at the moment, and I would gratify his curiosity if I felt that way inclined. She is a beautiful girl, and absolutely innocent of the vicious circle in which she has been entangled. Also, unless I am greatly mistaken, one of my particular pals is in love with her. But that we can leave for the moment. Now, reverting back to the night of the tragedy. You will remember that Martin came forward and identified the body of his master."
"Yes, I saw that," Dwight said.
"Of course you did. But didn't you notice that Martin took the whole thing quite coolly. I mean, he didn't seem to be in the least agitated. It was just as if he had expected trouble."
"You think that Martin knows all about it?"
"That it exactly what I do mean," Lantary smiled. "I thought so at the time. Martin knows as well as we do that Murdstone is still alive, and that the body found in the library in Marrion-square was that of another man, whose identity we have to discover. You see, your detective tracked Martin as far as a certain house near Clapham Common, and when he came and told me that I made it my business to keep an eye on Martin myself. And the very thing I expected to happen did happen."
"You mean that Martin is in the conspiracy?" Dwight asked.
"I am absolutely certain of it," Lantary replied. "And I am all the more certain after what happened last night. Oh, yes; Martin holds the key to the situation all right."
Peter Lantary had not meant precisely what he said when he told Inspector Dwight that the man Martin was the key to the situation or that, at any rate, he held the key to it. He did not doubt for a moment that Martin was one of the prime characters in the criminal cast, but there was one individual, at any rate, who could have told the police a great deal more. Naturally enough, Lantary wanted to get to the bottom of the business, but he wanted to do it in his own way, and show Scotland Yard that there were other people outside the organisation who could handle a mystery just as well as those who had been trained in the tracking down of professional criminals. Also, he had been just a little piqued by the way in which Dwight had treated him in the first instance. The inspector had, first of all, been inclined to smile at Peter's suggestion that the dead man was not Murdstone at all. And when he had, at length, been convinced that such was the fact, he had not gone out of his way to congratulate his amateur colleague. And Peter, with his sense of humour, and his persistent leg-pulling, was not likely to take Scotland Yard into his confidence until he was ready for the grand coup, which he began to see dimly shaping itself before him.
All the same, he wanted Martin carefully watched, and he saw no reason why Scotland Yard should not do what he called the donkey work, whilst he himself was engaged on the finer points of the problem. And the real critical point lay somewhere between Murdstone and the woman called Countess Visconti.
Just for the moment, at any rate, he did not propose to introduce the Countess to the notice of Dwight. It was quite plain to him that Dwight had not associated the beautiful adventuress directly with the crime, and there was no reason why he should until Lantary was in a position to put all his cards on the table.
"Ah, that will be all right." Dwight agreed. "I will put a special man on to shadow Martin, and let you know exactly what the latter is doing from day to day. Is there any more you want to tell me? Anything else in the back of your mind?"
"Several things," Lantary smiled. "But, if you don't mind, we will leave them out for the moment. You go your way and I will go mine. If you get to the gaol first, then I shall be only too ready to congratulate you. And if I score a bull's eye, then I will come along to you and show you the target, so to speak."
With that, Lantary helped himself to one of Dwight's cigarettes, and drifted out on to the Embankment. Just for the moment he had nothing in particular to do, nor was he concerning himself greatly with the conspiracy until late that night, when he had made up his mind to drop into the house near Clapham Common and give Glynn a more or less pleasant surprise. In the meantime he would go and call upon Lady Eva, with whom he was a great favourite, and who was always pleased to see him. He was fortunate enough to find her alone at lunch time, for Alcie had gone off for the afternoon somewhere with Kindermere, so that the coast was clear.
"Now you just sit down and make yourself quite at home," the old lady said. "You are going to share my lunch with me, and we are going to have a confidential talk afterwards. I want to know a good deal about Alcie, which she hasn't told me herself, mainly for the reason that the child has been kept more or less in the dark by that unfortunate father of hers. Ah, dear, it seems only the other day that he was one of the most popular men in London. A handsome fellow, who might have married anybody. Then came that terrible scandal, and he had to disappear."
"He wasn't married then, was he?" Peter asked.
"No, he wasn't," the old lady replied. "And that is just where I blame him. He always had been in love with Alcie's mother, and when he found himself disgraced and practically penniless it was a very selfish thing on his part to marry her. He ought never to have allowed her to make the sacrifice she did. Perhaps she was foolish, but, knowing all about it, she refused to release him, and became his wife in the face of the bitterest opposition from her own people. They turned their backs upon her, and she had nothing whatever to do with them until the day of her death. I believe I was the only one that she ever wrote to, though she always refused to come and see me, and, when I made an attempt to seek her out in the South of France, she managed to evade me. Of course, I can't tell the child all this, especially now that her poor father is dead.
"But he isn't dead," Lantary said quietly.
"Not dead!" Lady Eva exclaimed. "Why, he was drowned in the Mediterranean. I read about it in the papers."
"All the same, he wasn't drowned," Lantary explained. "You see, in some way or another he got into the hands of that scoundrel Murdstone, and, rather than join the rascal in some of his nefarious schemes, he hit upon the happy idea which led people to conclude that he was either drowned or that he had committed suicide. But I don't think any of the papers you speak of mentioned the finding of the body. As a matter of fact, I know where he is."
"What, here in London?" Lady Eva asked.
"Certainly he is here in London. I am not going to tell you where, because, for the moment, it is just as well that he should be hiding where he is. Mind you, the last person who is to learn this is Alcie. There are reasons why she should be kept in the dark until I am in a position to speak, and I am going to ask you to regard what I am saying in the strictest confidence."
"Why, of course," Lady Eva said. "You are a very clever young man, Peter, though few are aware of the fact. I know you will tell me all about it when the proper time comes. Meanwhile I am very much worried about the child. She is quite welcome to stay here as long as she likes, but that pride of hers gets in the way, and she insists that she must go out and get her own living. And here is Roy over head and ears in love with her, and she with him. If only I had a little more money of my own! But then, you see, my income is only an annuity, and goes elsewhere when I die. I have been thinking about Alcie ever since she came here. And I have got a bit of a scheme. You know that Roy will be a rich man one of these days, when he is the Earl of Kindale, of Kindale Castle, with something like £40,000 a year. But then Kindale may live for another 10 years. You know all about it. You know what a miserly, dried-up specimen of humanity he is. I suppose I am the only woman in London who ever told him candidly what I thought of him, and, really, I don't think he liked me any the less for it."
"Oh, I know all about him, of course," Peter said. "He collects old silver and old books, and probably has one of the finest libraries in the world. He comes to London once in about five years, and stays at his club. Do you think if I saw him—"
"No, I don't," Lady Eva interrupted. "I am going to see him. And I will tell you why. It is his hobby to farm his own homestead, where he loses quite a lot of money over his poultry. Not that that matters much, but he thinks nearly as much of those Rhode Island Reds of his as he does of his books. My idea is to induce him to give Alcie a job on his poultry farm. As a matter of fact, it was her suggestion. I shall tell him who she is and all about her, and, if I can induce him to give her a job, then I think I can leave the rest in her hands. I don't see how any man, even Kindale, could resist a girl like Alcie, and, at any rate I am going to do my best to get a job in Devonshire."
"Now that is not half a bad idea," Lantary smiled. "But how are you going to manage it? I understood from Roy that the dear old gentleman declined to see you when you went down to Devonshire, and that he refuses to even make Roy a small allowance. Really, it is a scandalous thing that a man living on a quarter of his income, should sit quietly down and let his successor starve for all he cares. Still, when he sees Alcie, as I hope he may, he will perhaps take a fancy to the girl. And if I were you I wouldn't let him know that she cares anything whatever about Kindermere. What is going to happen if you go down to Devonshire and he refuses to see you again?"
"Oh, I am not going down to Devonshire," the old lady laughed. "There is a big sale of books at Sotheby's next week, one of the biggest sales that has taken place for years. And I am quite sure that Kindale will not be able to resist the temptation of coming up for it. Then I shall force myself upon him, and it won't be my fault if he doesn't give Alcie her chance. I know from a neighbour of his that he is always changing his poultry maids, probably because they have such a dull time of it in that big, dreary house. At any rate, I can only fail, Peter."
"Well, it's a pretty sound scheme, all the same," Peter grinned. "And I wish you luck over it. If the old man takes to Alcie, and she makes herself essential to his commercial experiments, then, perhaps, it will soften the old man's heart. At the same time, we are talking a great deal of nonsense. Just as if we were writing a sentimental novel together. But one never knows."
It was well after 11 o'clock that evening when Peter Lantary made his way as far as the mean little street on the edge of Clapham Common. He did not want to take any risk, so that he had to wait until he was assured that neither Martin nor Murdstone were likely to call upon Glynn that evening. He could see, by the faint light shining through the glass over the door, that Glynn was still up, and it was just on the verge of midnight when he tapped very softly on one of the panels and waited until Glynn appeared.
He came shuffling along the passage and flung the door open with a defiant air. Then as suddenly his manner changed, and there was something like a smile on his face when he recognised Lantary.
"You?" he cried. "Peter Lantary. Does all the world know that I am in London? Don't you know that I am supposed to be dead? How did you find out that I am hiding here?"
"I can't very well tell you that, standing on the doorstep," Peter grinned. "I don't want to force myself upon you, but if you ask me inside, then I think I shall be able to tell you a few things that will interest you."
"Oh, come inside by all means," Glynn said. "If there is one man in the world I want to see more than another at the present moment, you are that individual. Come in, my dear, boy, come in. Let me offer you a drink and something to smoke."
"That is very good of you," Lantary said, as he dropped into a chair in the dingy little sitting room. "I dare say you are wondering why I am looking you up, and what brings me here at this time of the night. I had to come so late, because I don't want to run either into Murdstone or his man, Martin."
"You know all about that, do you?" Glynn cried.
"Yes, I know all about that and a great deal more. I know that Murdstone is supposed to be in his grave, while, at the same time, he is walking about London, most beautifully disguised, and passing as a certain Professor Rogers, who is connected with one of the American universities. I know that he has been here to see you, and that Martin managed to discover your hiding place. You see, my dear old chap, I want to put all my cards on the table, just as I want you to show me your hand. You know as well as I do that Murdstone murdered somebody who called to see him by arrangement on that dramatic night in Marrion-square, and I shall be greatly surprised if you are not in a position to tell me that unfortunate man's name."
"Oh, I can give you that, of course," Glynn said. "You see, on and off, I have been under Murdstone's thumb for years. We have done some disgraceful things together, but there came a time when he wanted to go a little too far and I had to decline to share his diabolical schemes. So I decided to disappear. The only trouble in the way was my daughter, Alcie. You see, I was right at the end of my resources, and I had not the slightest idea what was going to happen to the poor girl. Then Murdstone came to me with a story of how he had made a fortune, or at any rate, had the spending of one. In his own peculiar fashion he was rather fond of Alcie, and when he offered to look after her and make her more or less the mistress of that big house in Marrion-square then I decided to take advantage of his promise, and let her go. Of course, it was a foolish thing to do, but in the circumstances I had no alternative. So she went to London, under the impression that I was lying somewhere at the bottom of the Mediterranean, and, for the time being, I was content for her to believe it. You see, I don't want her to know what a scoundrel her father is. She never dreamt how I managed to get a living, though she must have wondered sometimes how it was that we were alternately prosperous or on the verge of abject poverty. Anyway, to make a long story short, Alcie came to London. And then after I had settled down here, to look round with a view to finding something to do, I was more than alarmed and startled to read the story of that murder in Marrion-square. You see, I happen to know a man called Tilson, who bears more than a passing likeness—"
"Ah, now we come to the point," Peter exclaimed. "So Tilson is the name of the man who was murdered. I suppose he was one of Murdstone's satellites, and quite under his sway. I can perfectly understand the advantage Murdstone saw in having a man about him who bears so strong a likeness to that rascal that they might easily pass for one another. My theory is that Murdstone had got himself into serious trouble, and that the only way out of it was to lure Tilson into Marrion-square and murder him quietly in the library, after which, with the aid of a proper disguise outfit, he could pass off the dead man as himself. He could do that all the more easily with Martin to come forward and swear that the man lying on the hearthrug in front of the fireplace was Murdstone himself."
"Yes, that is exactly how I figured it out," Glynn said.
"And you are right—you are quite right. Murdstone was living in Marrion-square on the fat of the land, having got the unfortunate owner of the house in his power, owing to a conspiracy between himself and that beautiful vampire called Countess Visconti."
"Oh, so she was in it, was she?" Glynn cried.
"Beyond the shadow of a doubt, dear old thing. Murdstone and she have been playing that game for years. The lovely woman living apart from a jealous husband, and luring rich young men to make love to her and write her compromising letters. But I stopped that game so far as Harold Mostyn was concerned, and Murdstone would have had to clear out of Marrion-square within the next few hours, whatever happened. But you read the account of the inquest in the papers, and you know that I was the first to find the body of the sham Murdstone. I understand that the Countess's daughter married fairly well, and that she knew no more of her mother's double life than Alcie knows about yours. So, you see—"
"Just one moment," Glynn interrupted. "What had become of Alcie? That's the one thing I want to find out."
"Oh, Alcie is all right," Lantary explained. "At the present moment she is staying with an old friend of yours, Lady Eva Manfred."
Glynn heaved a deep sigh of relief.
"Thank God for that," he cried. "There was a time when I might have married Lady Eva, and I probably should have done if I hadn't met Alcie's mother instead. Of course, I am perfectly satisfied to leave Alcie where she is. But, sooner or later, she must know the truth. And, in any case, she is the last person in the world to allow anybody else to keep her. How did she manage to get to Lady Eva's house in the first instance?"
Lantary proceeded to explain at some length.
"Ah, well, you don't know what a relief to me it is to hear what you have to say," Glynn murmured. "So the child is more or less in love with Roy Kindermere, is she? Well, she might do a great deal worse. His was a good record during the war and I believe he is as clean as the average man can be. But what has he got to live on? I am sure the old earl allows him nothing."
"Of course he doesn't," Lantary said. "It would be quite a pleasure for the old gentleman to know that Roy was keeping body and soul together by breaking stones on the road."
"Yes, I know he has that reputation, but, all the same, I have very good reason to know that Kindale is not quite as bad as he is painted. In his early days he met with a bitter disappointment—a love affair which changed his whole nature. As a matter of fact, I met him three or four times when Alcie was a little girl, and I was taking it easy in Algiers, after I had brought off a successful coup with cards. Nothing to boast of, of course, but for the time being, at any rate, I was leading an honourable life. And by the merest chance I was able to prevent the old gentleman being carried off by some brigands, who most certainly would have murdered him if I hadn't turned up in the nick of time. He was very grateful, and offered me all sorts of things. But just then, having a pocketful of money, it was my fancy to play the part of the preux chevalier and refuse to accept anything but thanks. Now, I wonder if I could do anything. I have no doubt that Kindale knows all about my past, but, in the face of what I have told you, he might consent to seeing me the next time he comes to town, and, if Alcie still wants to go on the land, as you tell me she does, then I don't see how Kindale can very well refuse to give her the chance. What do you say?"
It was getting on towards 2 o'clock in the morning before Lantary reached his own quarters and went to bed, feeling that his time had been by no means wasted. He would call upon Lady Eva in the course of the day, and give her an account of his interview with Glynn. But, as it happened, Lady Eva had gone out of town for a day or two, and taken Alcie with her. Lantary wondered if Kindermere had gone as well, but he found the latter an hour or two before dinner at a loose end in his bed-sitting room.
"I have been looking for you all over the place," he said. "I have got simply heaps of things to tell you, old man. I can't stay just now because I want a word or two with Inspector Dwight before he leaves his office. So get into your glad rags and meet me at the Carldorf at eight o'clock, when we can have a bit of dinner together. Unless you have something better to do."
Roy accepted eagerly enough, and Lantary went on his way to Scotland Yard, after which he changed, and made his way to the grill room of the Carldorf. He had hardly settled upon a table before he caught sight of a radiant vision in red, seated behind a clump of palms, evidently waiting for a companion. Without the slightest hesitation, Lantary crossed the floor and accosted her.
"Ah, Countess," he said, "I thought you were out of town. And who is the fortunate individual you are waiting for?"
The Countess turned those wonderful eyes of hers smilingly in the direction of the speaker. It seemed hard to believe that a woman with a complexion like hers and a fresh beauty that compares with that of a mere girl should be on the wrong side of forty, and that she should be, moreover, one of the most dangerous women in Europe. But there was nothing in the expression on Peter's face to imply anything but the deepest admiration, and perhaps even something that conveyed a deeper feeling.
"No, I have not been out of town," she said. "I have been up to my eyes in business. But now that my daughter is out of the way I can relax a little. Ah, here comes my friend."
As Lantary turned, he saw Murdstone come sauntering across the floor, quite at his ease. In his flowing, grey hair and beard and moustache, he might have passed for some great statesman or divine.
"Ah, Professor," the Countess said, "I did not expect you quite so early. Let me introduce you to my friend, Mr. Peter Lantary. This, Mr. Lantary, is Professor Rogers, of Cornell University in the United States. He is so learned that I am almost afraid of him."
"Quite an honour," Lantary stammered as if overcome by his good fortune in meeting so distinguished a man. "Is this your first visit to the old country, sir?"
The individual called Rogers was understood to say that it was. He was absolutely and entirely at his ease and Lantary secretly admired the magnificent piece of acting that the Countess's friend was putting over for his benefit. Had he not known the identity that was concealed behind that benevolent mane of hair and that long, flowing beard, he would never have guessed that he was face to face with Felix Murdstone. In all his experience, it was the finest piece of make-up he had ever seen. Even the voice had changed, there was no trace of any of those little mannerisms peculiar to Murdstone, and certainly his bland glance held no suggestion of the knowledge that he was amiably vis-a-vis to the man who had brought his schemes to the ground and ruined the finest coup that he had ever made in the course of his nefarious career. He knew, of course, who Lantary was, but Lantary, on the other hand, was perfectly certain that Murdstone was secure in his disguise. At the same time, Lantary was well aware of the fact that Murdstone was being utterly deceived, and in that fool's paradise he would remain until the time came for the law to step in and interfere.
"Yes, this is the first time I have been in England," the sham professor went on. "I am taking what I believe you call, in this country, a busman's holiday. You see, old manuscript and ancient books are an absolute obsession with me, and I am here to visit some of your finest libraries. Not altogether as a matter of pleasure, but with a view to obtaining certain manuscripts which we are anxious to have on the other side. I am hoping to meet Lord Kindale in a day or two, and, indeed, I have already written to him, asking permission to inspect his collection in Devonshire."
Lantary successfully concealed his surprise at hearing this statement. It seemed a strange coincidence that this amazingly clever scoundrel should be interested in Roy Kindermere's elderly relative's collection. And, then and there, it flashed into his mind that Murdstone was not so much concerned in ancient manuscripts as in Kindale's magnificent collection of old silver.
Here, then, was another side of the intricate problem, and here, also, was a piece of information which Lantary determined to put to good account a little later on. He excused himself a minute or two later, and strolled off in the direction of the table where he saw that Roy Kindermere was already awaiting him.
"You are rather wonderful," the Countess murmured to her companion. "Fancy coming face to face in this dramatic way with the man who practically ruined you! I was watching you very carefully, mon ami, and you never betrayed yourself by even the wink of an eyelash."
"Ah, that is one of the advantages of being a master in the art of disguise," Murdstone murmured. "Of course, that clever young man never for a moment dreamt the identity of the man with whom he was face to face. If he had, he must have betrayed himself. On the whole, I am very glad we have met."
"It certainly makes me feel easier in my mind," the Countess said. "But what was all that nonsense you were talking about in connection with that eccentric old nobleman?"
"My dear friend, it was no nonsense at all," Murdstone said. "You don't seem to understand that the unfortunate business in Marrion-square left me almost penniless. I thought that I was on to a good thing for the next ten years to come, and now I have got to start on something fresh. However, I generally have two strings to my bow, and that magnificent collection of old plate at Kindale Castle particularly appeals to me just now. I have had my eye upon it for some time. And you are going to help."
"Anything that I can do," the Countess murmured.
"Yes, precisely. We both want money badly, and I can't think of any better way to obtain it. If I can get away with all that stuff at Kindale there is a market for it in America."
"But, surely, with silver so well known—"
"Oh, that does not matter in the least. There are plenty of enthusiastic collectors in the States who are ready to buy anything. There are scores of historic pictures which have been stolen in Europe during the last few years reposing in secret hiding-places across the water, and paid for at a fancy price by collectors whose enthusiasm exceeds their honesty. And, now, let us get to business. I asked you to meet me here this evening so that we could lay our plans with regard to the treasures at Kindale Castle. You are going down to Devonshire in a day or two, and you are going to take a furnished house for a couple of months within a few miles of Kindale Castle. Anywhere between Barnstaple and Bideford will do. You will, of course, take a house with the servants left there, but you will provide your own car and your own chauffeur. You needn't stand still for a few pounds a week, because I will find that. And, the sooner you are off the better. Meanwhile, I have an appointment with Lord Kindale at the Athenian Club. He is in London for a day or two in connection with a big book sale, and I am going to try and induce him to sell me some of his superfluous manuscripts. I know that he has at least three copies of Shakespeare's first folio, and, if I offer him money enough, he is certain to give me the chance of buying one of these. I shall make him a magnificent offer, which I have not the slightest intention of carrying out, but that will give me the entree of the castle, and we can work the scheme from that furnished house that you are going to take over without delay. Now, just listen very carefully to what I have to say."
Meanwhile Lantary had strolled across the room and taken his place at the table where Roy Kindermere awaited him.
"Wasn't that the Countess Visconti to whom you were talking?" the latter asked. "And who is the benevolent old gentleman with the mass of hair who is talking to her?"
Lantary lowered his voice before he spoke.
"He calls himself Rogers," he said. "Professor Rogers, of Cornell University, in the United States. One of the greatest authorities on old books and manuscripts in the world. As a matter of fact, he expects to be invited down to Kindale Castle to do a deal with that curmudgeon of an uncle of yours."
"Oh, indeed?" Roy said. "Well, the old gentleman is always ready to sell duplicates if he can get a proper price. But it is rather strange, all the same, that you should run against the American professor just at this particular moment."
"As a matter of fact, he isn't an American professor at all," Lantary said coolly. "Don't look at him, please. Don't do anything to make him suspect that we are even discussing him. But that learned professor is none other than Felix Murdstone."
"Good lord," Roy exclaimed. "You don't actually mean that?"
"I do, indeed," Lantary replied. "Fine bit of make-up, isn't it? And, the best of it is that Murdstone is under the delusion that he has humbugged me as successfully as he has done other people. You would have laughed if you had seen us talking together as if we had met for the first time. Not, mind you, that I am blind to the serious side of the situation, but we can't take any definite steps until we can find somebody who will put us in touch with the friends and relatives of that man Tilson, who lies in a grave under the name of Felix Murdstone. Murdstone's idea, at the present moment, is to pull off a gigantic burglary down in Devonshire and get away with all your uncle's treasures. He didn't say so in as many words, but there is no question about it. Still, I am going to give his complacency a bit of a shock before many hours have passed."
"We seem to be dragged into this business up to our necks, whether we want to or not," Roy said. "Just at the very moment when Murdstone is planning his campaign down in Devonshire, my Aunt Eva is trying to arrange that Alcie Glynn should go down there, too."
"What I have already ascertained," Lantary said. "I talked it over with your aunt, and the sentimental side of the scheme appealed to her immensely. She seems to think that your uncle has only got to see Alcie to fall in love with her, just the same as you did. And, upon my word, old chap, there are more unlikely things. Besides, if the girl will insist upon getting her own living, she will be far happier doing so out of doors than shut up in a West End shop during this hot weather. By the way, when does your uncle come to town?"
"As a matter of fact, I believe he is in London now. He comes up at long intervals and stays at the Athenian Club. Of course, I never go near him, and he wouldn't see me if I asked him to. I believe he never pays for anything besides a cup of tea, and cadges all the food he wants from the buffet in the dining-room. But if anybody asks him out to have a meal, why, of course, he goes. And that will be Aunt Eva's opportunity. She will probably invite him round to her flat to dinner and make him acquainted with Alcie. The rest, of course, will be on the lap of the gods."
"Yes, and meantime, I am going to make it my business to get on the track of somebody who was acquainted with that unfortunate man, Tilson," Lantary said. "You see, it would be a great mistake on the part of the police if they arrested Murdstone for murder until they can establish something definite as regards Tilson. Of course, I know that they could lay Murdstone by the heels and strip him of his disguise, and, if the worst came to the worst, exhume the body of the murdered man. But it seems to me that they want something more cogent in the way of a proof than that. That fellow Martin could tell us, but, of course, he won't. And, unfortunately, Scotland Yard has received no inquiries with regard to anybody who has been missing lately. You see what I mean, old bean. Up to the present moment. Tilson is a sort of myth. And we want to turn that myth into reality, and, quite modestly, I think I am the man to do it."
With a definite object in front of her, Lady Eva lost no time in getting in contact with the eccentric old earl who had taken up his quarters at the Athenian Club. She knew perfectly well that he would be found most of the day in Sotheby's rooms, on the day before the sale, and there, at about 4 o'clock the following afternoon, she encountered him, pottering from table to table, and examining the various treasures through his silver-rimmed spectacles. Outwardly at any rate, there was little of the aristocrat about the sixth Earl of Kindale. He was clad in a shabby suit of tweed and a soft felt hat which was fit for nothing better than the adorning of a scarecrow in a wheat field, and, obviously, he had not changed his collar for the best part of a week.
"And what do you want?" was his uncompromising suggestion as Lady Eva laid her hand upon his arm.
"I don't know that I want anything particularly, Kindale," she said. "So far as my experience of you goes, the less anybody wants from you, the more pleased you are to see them, Still, I shall be glad if you will come and dine with me to-night."
The old gentleman grinned and nodded like an aged monkey. "Oh, all right, all right," he piped. "Might just as well get a meal out of you as anybody else. The usual time, I suppose? But, mind you, I ain't going to dress. Never dress if I can help it."
"No, you wouldn't," Lady Eva smiled. "You couldn't do that very well without putting on a clean shirt, and adding another shilling to your weekly washing bill. I want you to come round at about 8 o'clock and meet a young friend of mine who is anxious to find a job on the land. She wanted to go into a shop, but I persuaded her off that. Then I thought of you and your poultry farm, and the difficulty you always have in keeping your girls there."
"Quite right," the old gentleman growled. "Set of feather-headed hussies, who are never content with a good wage and a good house over their heads, but always want to be dancing or going to theatres, or something of that sort. And mind you I pay 'em well. Not that I want to, but because it is the only way in which I can get served. Three pounds a week, and waited on as if they were part of the household. Treated as ladies, and for the most part they are ladies. But that is not good enough for them these times. Why, only the day before yesterday two of them simply packed their boxes and went off without saying a word. And here am I, short-handed, just at the busiest time of the year. If that girl you speak of is really anxious to get her own living and ready to work, then she can step into the job to-morrow. But she won't like it. None of them likes it. It's too dull for the modern young woman."
"Well, at any rate, I think you will find that my young friend will be only too anxious to do all she can to earn her salary. If you don't like the look of her you have only to say so, and there will be the end of it. At any rate, I can promise you a good dinner."
"Oh, I will be there," Kindale said, quite amiably for him. "But I can't stay late. I have an appointment with an American at my club at 10 o'clock tonight. A book lover, like myself, who is anxious to do a deal with me over some Shakespeare folios. With any luck I shall make a thousand or two out of him. These Yanks don't mind what they pay so long as they get what they want."
Without the slightest change in his attire, Kindale put in an appearance at Lady Eva's flat a few minutes before eight, and was graciously pleased to partake of a cocktail which his hostess made for him with her own fair hands. He had had a good afternoon, he explained, and displayed an amount of amiability which was usually out of keeping with his crabby character.
"Now then," he said. "Where is the young woman?"
"She will be down in a minute," Lady Eva said. At the same time she carefully omitted to mention the fact that Roy Kindermere had only left the flat a few minutes before his lordship arrived. "I rather think you know her name—Alcie Glynn."
"Glynn, Glynn," Kindale snorted. "Any relation to a man named Rupert Glynn? Man who used to be in the Red Guards years ago. Got into trouble over a card scandal and had to leave his regiment."
"Yes, that's the man," Lady Eva explained. "Only, please don't mention that business when you come to talk to my young friend. She is absolutely ignorant as to her father's cloudy past, and, so far as I am concerned I want her to remain so. But, apparently, you seem to have met Rupert Glynn."
"Met him," the old man said. "Met him. Of course I have. Know all about him, too. A real bad lot, but, at the same time a gentleman. Still, I never worry about anybody's past, having no particular morals of my own. So the girl is not likely to learn anything from me. Still, I don't mind telling you I am rather curious to see her, because Glynn did me a great service some considerable time ago in Algiers, and saved my life. So if I can help his daughter without going out of my way or putting my hand in my pocket, then I will do so. What's she like to look at?"
At that moment, Alcie came into the room to answer the question for herself. She was just a little timid, and shy and inclined to be nervous, but she looked the old man straight in the face and answered his questions without the slightest hesitation. She was not afraid of him, either, which was rather a novel experience so far as his lordship was concerned where the weaker sex was in question. At the end of ten minutes it was quite plain that Alcie had made quite an impression upon Lord Kindale.
"I think she'll do, Eva," the old gentleman said. "Seems to have more common sense than most of her class. Deuced pretty too."
As he spoke, he regarded Alcie through his spectacles as if she had been some rare specimen which he was anxious to add to his collection. He spoke of her quite impersonally, and just as if she had not been present at all.
"And now, young woman," he said presently. "You think that you can tackle that job, can you?"
"I don't see why I shouldn't," Alcie said bravely. "It seems to be a matter of hard work more than anything else, and I am not a bit afraid of that?"
"Oh, it's hard work, right enough. Long hours, young woman, first thing in the morning till last thing at night. But you will be well fed, and well looked after, and have servants to wait upon you as if you were part of the household. Of course, I don't mean that you will have meals with me, and that sort of thing, because I never dine in the proper sense of the word. Just a sandwich or two and a glass of wine. But you won't be short of food. You can't get work out of people unless you feed them properly. I am not a generous man, and I never have been. But if you serve me properly, then I don't think you will have any occasion to grumble. I suppose, like all the rest of them, you'll be able to manage to get down to Devonshire in the course of a month or so."
"I can go down to Devonshire tomorrow, if you want me," Alcie said.
"Begad that's the proper spirit," the old man chuckled. "I am going back tomorrow myself. We will go down together, and you can tell me all about yourself. But, mind you, no first class or anything of that nonsense. I never travelled first class in my life, and I don't want to begin now. So let's sit down to dinner, and say no more about it."
It was a couple of hours later, after the business had been settled, that Kindale made one of his abrupt departures, and walked back to the Athenian Club. There he was informed that a visitor was waiting to see him in the strangers' room, and he turned into that rather bleak apartment, where the man who called himself Professor Rogers was seated over an evening paper.
"Oh, here you are," Kindale said, abruptly. "You are Rogers, of course. You want to come down to Kindale Castle and do a dicker with me over those Shakespeare folios, what? Sorry I can't ask you to have a drink, because we are not allowed to entertain strangers in the club. Well, when would you like to come down?"
"Some time in the course of next week," the sham professor said. "I have been invited to stay with a friend of mine who is taking a furnished house near Bideford, so that I can run over in the car, and we can discuss business. I don't mind telling you that I have an open commission to buy what I like, so I am looking forward to more than one deal, if your lordship is agreeable."
"Oh, my lordship is quite agreeable," Kindale chuckled. "Just drop me a line when you are ready, and I shall be prepared to meet you any afternoon between lunch and tea time. I have a lot of stuff that is likely to interest you, and I am open to sell anything pretty well, if the price is only tempting enough."
With that, Kindale dismissed his visitor with his usual abruptness, and Murdstone went his way, well satisfied, in the direction of the small private hotel in Evesham-street, where he was, for the moment, more or less in hiding. So far, everything promised to work out in accordance with his expectations. There would be no great hurry, either, though he was getting rather short of ready money, and the sooner he was on the spot where he had planned his next big coup the better. And, once the thing was done, he would hurry cross the Atlantic with the stolen treasure, and dispose of it in certain quarters, where he knew that he would be welcomed.
Yes, it was going to be all right, this time. He smiled as he sat smoking his cigar in his private sitting-room, working out the little details until the jar of the telephone brought him to his feet.
"Is that Professor Rogers?" a voice asked.
"It is," Murdstone said. "Who is that speaking?"
"Nobody that you know," came the reply. "But I shall be glad if you will tell me where I can find out what has become of John Tilson."
Murdstone reeled back from the telephone, the sweat pouring down his face. Then pulling himself together, he essayed to reply.
But no voice came from the other end, the wire was strangely dumb.
For perhaps the first time in his long career of crime, Felix Murdstone was genuinely frightened. It seemed to him that he had the whole scheme in the hollow of his hand. So far as he could see, looking round him on all sides, he had covered up every sign of a track. To begin with, the man called John Tilson was dead, and buried, without the police having the slightest idea that there had been any sort of underhand business, and, to all outward appearances, the broken and derelict Felix Murdstone lay in his grave.
That being so, what was there to be afraid of? There were others, of course, who knew the inner history of that amazing murder in Marrion-square, but Murdstone was not particularly afraid of them. He had Martin absolutely under his thumb. Martin was unscrupulous enough and ready for anything in the way of crime, but he was a minor rascal, after all, and would have been hard put to it to get a living had he not depended entirely upon the greater criminal who had bought him body and soul.
Then there was that beautiful adventuress, Countess Visconti. True, the time had come when she had managed a sufficiently brilliant marriage for her daughter, and had arranged for a son-in-law to whom she might apply when funds ran short. But, at the same time, she was a woman of the most reckless extravagance, and money in her hands melted like snow in the sunshine. Again there was a perfect understanding between them. For years now they had been working together, blackmailing on two continents, and robbing rich and foolish young men under threat of that shadowy husband who had always remained unseen in the background.
It seemed incredible to believe that either of these two individuals should have double-crossed Felix Murdstone with the aid of another man of whom he knew nothing. Even at the present moment he was engaged in half a dozen schemes, in which it was necessary to employ the assistance of the Countess, and, of course pay her a due proportion of the plunder. Then Martin was horribly afraid of the man for whose cunning he had so deep and lasting a respect.
Outside, these two people, then, who was it who could possibly have guessed at the truth buried behind the scheme which had culminated in that dramatic murder in Marrion-square?
But Murdstone would have to find out. Possibly Rupert had something to do with the matter. But then, on the other hand, Glynn was just as anxious to remain modestly in the background. He could hang Murdstone, of course, but, at the same time, he would have to come out in the open to do it, which might result in a long term of penal servitude so far as that broken gambler was concerned.
No, it seemed to Murdstone that he had nothing to be afraid of so far as Glynn was implicated. There only remained Peter Lantary, but then Lantary had only been concerned to save a weak-minded fool from further efforts at blackmail. On the whole, he was not going to worry about Lantary at present. All the same, he must see Martin and consult him as to this new and unexpected development.
Meanwhile, Martin was lying low in more or less obscure lodgings somewhere off Soho. It was not difficult to run him down, and an hour later Murdstone succeeded in doing so. The first glance at his master's face brought Martin abruptly to his feet.
"Is there anything very wrong, master?" he stammered.
"Ah, that is exactly what I can't tell you," Murdstone said. "Now, sit down again and listen to me. I have just had a telephone message from some unknown individual asking if I could tell him the whereabouts of John Tilson."
"You—you don't mean that, master!" Martin cried.
"Indeed, I do!" Murdstone snarled. "And I want to know what it means. You know why I had to get rid of John Tilson."
"There were many reasons," Martin suggested. "You had to disappear. And you had to disappear in such a way that the police should be under the impression that you were dead. And so they are, sir. I did my part right enough, and John Tilson was buried in the grave of Felix Murdstone. And here you are, most wonderfully disguised, the finest actor in the world, and no one any the wiser. And now you tell me that somebody has been inquiring of you, over the telephone, as to the whereabouts of John Tilson. I don't see how it could have happened—I really don't, sir."
"Oh, what is the good of talking like that?" Murdstone growled. "I tell you that an hour ago a man whose voice was quite strange to me, rang up Professor Rogers in Evesham-street and asked for information about Tilson. You could have knocked me down with a feather. I tell you I was frightened, Martin."
"But where did the voice come from, sir?"
"Ah, that I can't tell you, because I know no more than you do. There was just one question, put in a sneering voice, and, when I tried to carry on the conversation, the telephone went dead. Whoever the man was, he had no intention of saying anything further. But, mind you, it was a warning—and a warning from a man who is pretty sure of his ground. Now, look here, Martin, you know much more about Tilson than I did. He was about the cleverest hand at forgery that ever came under my influence. Rather a timid sort of man, as you know, and always kept himself very much in the background. But I have every reason to believe that he double-crossed me before he died, and that we owe it to him that the big scheme with Harold Mostyn came to the ground. Of course I can't say definitely, but I have a sort of vague idea that that clever little devil, Peter Lantary, must have got on our track in the first instance through Tilson. Of course, he always swore that Harold Mostyn came to him in the first place, but that I never believed. Now, you know that it has always been my habit to keep my subordinates at arm's length. I have always been the head of the fraternity, and experience taught me that the less I let them know of my habits the more they respected and were afraid of me. But you knew them more or less intimately, because it was your business to keep a close eye upon them, and so keep me in touch with all their movements. Now, Tilson! What about him? Who were his associates?"
"Well, he had a great many," Martin replied. "You see, we only wanted him when there was some neat bit of forgery to be done, and when he was not working for us he lived his own life. He was a good bit of a sportsman, too, and spent a lot of his time on the various golf links near London. The only man in the underworld who saw much of him was Rufus Wren."
"Wren?" Murdstone exclaimed. "I had forgotten all about Wren. Still, he couldn't have known much."
"He didn't know much, master," Martin said. "You see, we only wanted him occasionally. It was only when we were concerned with that Paris gang over the importation of cocaine from the Continent that Wren came into the picture. It is just possible that Tilson might have told Wren more than he ought to know, but, of course, I cannot say whether that is so or not. And, mind you, Wren is a bit of a snake in his way. A poisonous little animal, and as full of pluck and fight as a weasel. I haven't the remotest idea where to look for him, nor do I know what he has been doing during the last few months. You see, sir, when that cocaine business began to be too hot to handle, the few members of the gang who had the doing of it spread all over the Continent. I told them to do so, and warned them not to have any contact with each other. Still, Wren was a great friend of Tilson's, and he might—"
"Yes, he might," Murdstone said. "I can't think of anybody else. But you see the danger. Somebody knows something, and you must make it your business to find out who that somebody is. Lay your hands upon Wren and keep an eye closely upon him. Let me know about all his movements and, oh well, do just as you like. We have got to find out who it was who gave me that call over the telephone and silence him in some way. I tell you, Martin, I'm frightened. That call on the 'phone shook me up a good deal more than I can tell you. And don't forget that just at this present moment we have a very big thing on. Of course, I am talking about the Devonshire business. I don't want anything to stand in the way of that. But when we have pulled it off, as we ought to do, then I think our best plan is to get out of the country as quickly as possible, and stay on the other side of the water more or less indefinitely. I think I will look up the Countess and tell her what has happened."
The Countess Visconti was not in the least disposed to worry herself over the story that Murdstone had to tell.
"But why pester me about it?" she said in her careless, smiling way. "What's it got to do with me?"
"Yes, I thought you would talk like that. I suppose you think you are safe, whatever happens."
"Of course I am safe," the beautiful woman laughed. "I have always seen to that, my friend. When those tools of yours come making love to me and writing me compromising letters, I have only to pretend that they have been stolen by some blackmailing scoundrel, and that I am in terror lest they should fall into the hands of my husband. Then you come in and do the rest and we share the plunder between us. My dear man, you couldn't even prove that I had had my fair share of the money. Of course, I should be very sorry if you found yourself in trouble, because it would be rather a bore at my time of life to have to look up a fresh partner. But I want you to understand quite plainly that any trouble you may get into has nothing whatever to do with me. And if you have that firmly fixed in the back of your mind, then you can tell me what you want me to do. I am your friend no more, and if ever the police get hold of you nobody will be more horrified and shocked than the beautiful Counter Visconti. And now, what is the next move?"
It was utterly useless to argue with a woman like this, and Murdstone wisely refrained from doing so.
"What about the house in Devon?" he asked.
"Ah, for that I have already arranged," the Countess said. "We go down there at the end of next week."
Meanwhile, things had been moving in another direction. Alcie had gone down to Devonshire to Kindale Castle, together with the Earl, rejoicing in her freedom and independence and quite happy in the knowledge that she might be in a position, sooner or later, to move the old man's heart so far as Roy was concerned. It was an entirely innocent little conspiracy, and, at the very worst, could do no harm. At any rate, it meant that Alcie was no longer depending upon the bread of charity, but that she was to earn her own living in circumstances that promised to be pleasing.
For the moment, at any rate, she had her work to herself. There were servants of the agricultural type, labourers and so on, who helped her with those famous birds of the old earl's, and, in the course of two or three days, she had them all at her feet.
"And how are you getting on?" the earl asked a few days later, when he encountered Alcie on the outskirts of the home farm, amidst the pens and enclosures where the poultry was confined. "Very hard work, what? More than you can manage, eh?"
"Nothing of the kind," Alcie said, smiling bravely into the old man's face. "Of course, it is hard work, and I have a great deal to learn, but I like it, and I shall be just as happy if you will leave those beautiful birds to me without getting any more land girls to take the places of those who have left. I think I can manage all you want, with the help of those two village maidens and that funny old man with the red beard. He seems to know all about poultry. He has taught me more already than I thought I could learn."
"Oh, yes, old Wagstaff is quite a character in his way," the earl chuckled. "And if you manage to make friends with him, then you are a wonder. He hates women, and he wouldn't have consented to help you if he hadn't got past woodman's work, to which he has been brought up all his life. But then, it was either coming to the poultry yard or going to the workhouse."
"But he has served you faithfully all his life."
"Quite right," the earl chuckled. "And been well paid for it. My dear young lady, you mustn't talk to me like that. You won't find any philanthropy about me. I don't believe in spoiling old servants by giving them pensions and all that sort of thing. That was all very well in the days before the war, but now with those ruinous rates and taxes, it is as much as I can do to make my income go round. I daresay you think I am a very rich man."
"I am quit sure you are," Alcie said.
"Very well, my dear, we will let it go at that. But I shouldn't have been a rich man if I had given myself to a life of pleasure like most of my neighbours."
This was just a typical conversation between the two, and, like many others they had from time to time. There was something about this strange and remarkably independent young woman that seemed to appeal almost irresistibly to the eccentric old gentleman. He liked her ways and her manners, the proud carriage of her head and the daintiness of that trim figure. It might be one of his poses to stand before the world as a democrat who cared nothing for birth and breeding, but there was no greater autocrat in all Devon than the Earl of Kindale, and no one better equipped to recognise a lady when he saw one. It amused him to see Alcie about the estate in her breeches and gaiters, and the sort of smock frock she effected, but, at the same time it pleased him to see how quiet and competent she was and how thoroughly she grasped the outline of her work.
And then, on the sixth night of her stay, he encountered her in one of those beautiful, old Elizabethan rooms of his in search of a book from one of the well-filled shelves. She was no longer wearing her outdoor attire, but something neat and simple in the way of a black charmeuse frock that seemed to suit her slim figure to perfection. The old gentleman surveyed her through his eyeglass as if she had been some perfect specimen of butterfly. And yet she seemed to be in absolute accord with her surroundings.
"How nice we look to-night," he said. "Why all this dazzling and unaccustomed splendour?"
"I made the dress myself," Alcie said. "I think that a girl who has any sort of taste and who has learnt to use her needle can dress herself just as well on a few pounds as if she went with an unlimited purse into a Bond-street establishment. And don't forget, my lord, that I am as well born as you are."
"That is quite true, my dear," the old man said amiably. "Nothing like blood, after all. Blood on the farm and in the poultry-yard, yes, in the drawing-room, too, for that matter. Upon my word, I had almost forgotten what a girl of your stamp looks like. I mean, when she is in evening dress. And I am glad to see it, my dear, glad to see it. No reason to forget you are a member of the aristocracy, even if you do feed hens. But don't you feel a bit lonely here?"
"No, I can't say that I do," Alcie said thoughtfully. "This is such a lovely old house, and the rooms are so beautiful. It is a bit oppressive occasionally, especially when I am in the big library and nobody else there. But, of course, so long as you have your books and all those precious treasures of yours—"
"Yes, I suppose you think they fill up my whole life, and, as a rule, they do. But sometimes I am lonely enough, and when I look at you standing there before me like some lovely hothouse flower, I seem to have missed something out of my life."
"Oh, well, one can't have everything," Alcie laughed. "But I am detaining you, Lord Kindale."
"Not a bit of it," the old man chuckled. "Not a bit of it. Now, I wonder if you would like to come and sit with me in the library for on hour or so. As I told you, I don't dine, in the proper sense of the word, but I find the evenings, sometimes, hang very heavy on my hands. Why not come with me any night when you have had your dinner? Really, I am nothing to be afraid of."
"I am not in the least afraid of you," Alcie laughed. "Why should I be? As a matter of fact, I am rather sorry for you, Lord Kindale. You remind me of the man who cut off his nose to spite his face. What is the use of having a beautiful house like this filled with treasures, and nobody to see or appreciate them? And I suppose you have friends and relatives, like most of us?"
"Well, at any rate, I have a nephew," Kindale said. "Only we don't hit it off together. He is rather a bumptious young man, and absolutely full of sinful pride."
"Ah, you are talking about Mr. Roy Kindermere," Alcie said, without the suggestion of a blush. "Lady Eva has told me all about him. He lives more or less on his wits, doesn't he?"
"Something like that," the old man growled.
"Don't you think that is rather a pity? Don't you think it is wrong that the heir to all this grand property and this fine estate should be living in a bed-sitting-room in London getting his living as a labourer, or something like that? Of course, Lord Kindale, you may say that it is no business of mine—"
"It isn't, you impudent young woman," the old man growled, though there was a twinkle in his eye all the same. "That young man wanted to go one way and I wanted to go another—"
"And so you quarrelled. Well, I say it is a pity. I suppose you have forgotten all about his grand record in the war, and how he wasted some of the best years of his life there when he might have been training for some sort of profession? You will forgive me, Lord Kindale, please, but I am very fond of Lady Eva, and from what I have seen of Roy Kindermere—"
"Oh, you know the young rascal, do you, eh? Well, never mind about him now. At any rate, don't let us quarrel. Come into the library and we will talk about books."
Alcie made her way to her bedroom a little later on, well satisfied that she had not been wasting her time. The next day she was too busy to see much of the earl, and, indeed, her work took her to the far side of the estate, where she was interested in the hatching of some pheasants' eggs near the head keeper's cottage. From thence she passed through the woods with the intention of reaching the highway and making for home along the road.
She stopped just a moment in a thicket off the by-path, where she sat down on the trunk of a fallen tree and lighted a cigarette. She was not more than half way through this when two people came down the road, the one a tall man with a long grey beard and flowing silver hair, and the other a woman in a smartly cut suit of Harris tweeds, who was conversing gaily with her companion.
With a quickening of her pulses Alcie recognised the Countess Visconti. What was the woman doing in this part of the world, she wondered? She had known her for a friend of the dead and buried Murdstone, though there was nothing in common between the girl and the beautiful woman of the world. Indeed, they had only exchanged a few words during the whole time that Alcie was under the roof of that strange, sinister house in Marrion-square. She crouched a little closer, and watched those two through the trees.
That they were doing no good here she felt convinced. Even the benevolent looking stranger failed to impress Alcie as anything to do with honesty and benevolence. Then, a few minutes later, at the end of an intimate conversation, not a word of which reached Alcie's ears, the two in the road parted, Countess Visconti to retrace her steps, and her companion to stroll along the path in the attitude of one who is engrossed in the deepest thought. A few steps forward and another figure emerged, this time that of a small, active-looking man, with a red moustache and a pair of piercing black eyes.
"Ah, Professor Rogers, I think," the stranger said mockingly.
"Undoubtedly," the sham professor said calmly. "And you, my friend? What can I do for you?"
"A great deal," the stranger said. "To begin with, you can answer me a few pertinent questions. Imprimis, what's the game? And how do you propose to play it? Not that that matters much so long as Rufus Wren—that's me—has his share of the loot."
Alcie sat crouched up there listening intently to the rather curt conversation which was going on between the two men. She had not the slightest idea why she was so deeply interested, except the feeling that there was something wrong here, and that it was indirectly connected with the eccentric old nobleman who had so recently taken her into his employ. Moreover, it came to her, as she sat there, that she had seen the man addressed as Rogers before. Another glance at him and she was certain.
Yes, she knew well enough, though she had never been sufficiently close to actually identify him. Twice during the last few days the big man with the leonine mane of hair and sweeping beard had been on the terrace in front of the castle with the earl, where apparently they had been engaged in some business. And Alcie knew well enough that the earl put business before everything. She had been at the castle quite long enough to understand that Kindale was not only a collector of old books and antique silver, but also a dealer in these things. No doubt the man addressed as Rogers had come down there on some commercial errand. At any rate, he had been in the castle grounds twice, and on this point Alcie had no sort of doubt. Nor was there anything about his external appearance to prejudice her in his favour.
And yet, at the same time, she could not suppress the feeling that this man was not all that he seemed. No doubt, sooner or later, she would discover why he had come down to the castle, but, in the meantime, something warned her to keep out of his way, and that she had every intention of doing.
Meanwhile she listened. It was a wrong thing to do, of course, but that inner knowledge did not deter her. She knew that in her drab garb and with her features hidden in the sun-bonnet she was wearing it would be hard to identify her, and perhaps this knowledge gave her courage to sit there quietly and listen to all that was taking place between the two men, only a few feet away.
"I shall be very glad to know what you mean?" the sham Professor said haughtily. "Evidently there is a mistake somewhere. I am an American professor, and down here on business which does not in the least concern you. Who do you take me for?"
The other man laughed none too pleasantly.
"I take you for precisely the person you describe yourself as being," he said. "That is Professor Rogers. But, all the same, I know perfectly well that you have nothing whatever to do with the famous university that you represent as your alma mater. In other words, the professor is merely a nom-de-plume."
"Most extraordinary!" the sham scientist murmured. "You say that I am Professor Rogers, and yet, at the same time, you say that I am not. You cannot have it both ways, my impetuous friend. If you accuse me of passing—"
"That is what I do accuse you of," the man who had given the name of Rufus Wren said meaningly. "So far as the university is concerned there is no Professor Rogers. You can tell the people in this country that stuff, for your own purposes, but it won't go down with me. Perhaps you will tell me next that you have never heard of Felix Murdstone. Well, have you?"
The man called Rogers shook his head doubtfully.
"Murdstone, Murdstone," he murmured. "Surely I have heard the name somewhere before. Oh, yes, I remember now. He was the sham millionaire who was found murdered in Marrion-square on the very night that your friend, Tilson, disappeared."
"Oh, you realise the importance of that point, do you?" Wren sneered. "Now, look here. Tilson was my greatest friend. A man of very dubious virtue, no doubt, but, as far as I am concerned, he was a man in every sense of the word. And I knew perfectly well that he was absolutely essential to that scoundrel, Murdstone, and all his schemes. That I can prove."
"But Murdstone is dead," Rogers smiled sadly. "He was murdered in Marrion-square, and, after the inquest and identification, was buried. You are not going to dispute that?"
"I am not going to dispute that, as you say," Wren said warily. "I know that, on the night of Murdstone's death, Tilson had an appointment. It was a secret appointment in the library at the house in Marrion-square, and Tilson made his way there via the garden and the library window. That much Tilson told me himself. Also he told me that things were not going as well as he had expected, and that he might have to disappear for a time. But before he did disappear he promised to let me know where I could find him. Whereas he did nothing of the kind. He merely vanished, and I am fairly convinced that he was made a victim of foul play. I feel sure he is dead, and if Murdstone were alive now he could tell us how and why. But Murdstone was not the chief rogue in the play."
"Really, my good man, I cannot see what all this has to do with me," the would-be Professor said patronisingly. "I never saw Tilson or Murdstone in my life."
"That," said Wren, coolly and deliberately, "is an infernal lie. Murdstone was a great scoundrel and a clever and daring thief. But he wasn't the head of the international gang of scoundrels and blackmailers who came over here because America was too hot to hold them. He was high up in the ranks of the rascals, but the head office was held by you, Professor Rogers. Oh, it's no use you shaking your head and smiling in that benignant way. Rogers was the leading spirit of the gang, and Murdstone his chief lieutenant. And that is why I have run down here with every intention of discovering what has become of John Tilson. If you had him murdered for your own purposes, then I warn you to look to yourself. If you have hidden him away for some good reason of your own, then the sooner you say so the better. Mind you, I have nothing to fear. The police are not after me. But they would give a good deal to hear some of the inner history of the man who calls himself Professor Rogers. And I am in a position to supply it. Now, once and for all, what has become of John Tilson?"
It was some little time before the disguised Murdstone replied. With lightning rapidity, he was turning over his chances in his mind. And, if Alcie had only known it, she was within an ace of seeing a murder committed in the silence of those woods.
"I think that we had better adjourn this conversation, if you don't mind," the disguised Murdstone said at length. "My dear sir, I am not going to argue as to whether you know anything about my past life or not. But this much I can tell you: I have never been a believer in violence, and I never shall be. What happened on that night in Marrion-square nobody can say, because Murdstone is dead. It is just possible that Tilson had an appointment in Marrion-square on that fateful evening, but, as to that, I am unable to say anything definite. And you are not going to argue that Murdstone did Tilson a mischief, because it looks to me very much as if it was the other way on. They might have had a quarrel, in which blows were exchanged; indeed, that is my reading of the case. And, if I am right, then Tilson is in hiding somewhere, and, no doubt, you will hear from him all in good time. More than this I cannot tell you, and if you want to pursue your inquiries further, why, in that case, I should recommend you to try the police."
With that, the disguised Murdstone turned his back upon the other man and walked quietly towards the road. Then the man who had given his name as Wren turned on his heel, and, in a few moments, had disappeared from Alcie's sight. As she rose from her somewhat cramped position, with the intention of returning to the castle, she was conscious of a third person emerging from the bushes. With a start of surprise she recognised the features of Peter Lantary.
"What!" she cried. "You here!"
"Oh, lord, yes," Peter grinned cheerfully. "I have been here for some time, doing exactly as you have; that is, listening to the conversation of two scoundrels. Now, tell me, Alcie, has that benevolent gentleman been over to the castle at all?"
"Twice, to my certain knowledge," Alcie explained. "I have not the remotest idea who he is, but I think that he has come down on some business which he is transacting with the earl, though I have never come actually face to face with him."
"That's good," Peter exclaimed. "I can't go into details yet, so that you will have to restrain your curiosity for the present. But you will greatly oblige me if you keep out of the way of Professor Rogers. I have my own very powerful reasons why he should not recognise Miss Alcie Glynn."
"Why, I have never seen the man in my life," Alcie cried. "I had a queer fancy at first, that I had seen him somewhere, but, of course, I couldn't say definitely. He seems to me an adventurer who has come down here on business—"
"Yes, the business of relieving the earl of a number of valuable books and all the old silver the castle contains. Now, look here, I am staying in the neighbourhood at a farm house on the edge of the moor, within a mile of the castle. And I don't mind telling you that Roy Kindermere has accompanied me. We are particularly anxious not to come into contact with Professor Rogers, at any rate, for the present, because that might spoil all our plans. But there is no reason why you shouldn't find out all you can about him, and let us know. I will give you the address, and, if anything transpires, you can write me a letter."
"Very well," Alcie said. "I will do my best to help, of course. I suppose you are quite sure you can't tell me any more?"
Peter shook his head smilingly.
"I could tell you a great deal more," he said, "but I am not going to. There you are. Take care that no one sees that address."
The man called Rogers strolled quietly through the woods as if he were merely a benevolent old gentleman with nothing on his mind. He came presently to the main road, and, in the course of time, to a long white house standing back behind a tennis lawn and a rose garden, a house almost embowered in trees, and in every way a picture of rural refinement and content.
Into a shady drawing-room, with the windows open on to the lawn, the man called Rogers made his way. And then, once secure from observation, he sat down and wiped the beads of perspiration from his forehead. Just for a moment he thought he was alone, until a cool, mocking voice in the corner of the room hailed him.
"You seem rather perturbed," the voice said. "Has something happened during the course of the morning?"
Rogers turned in the direction of the speaker.
"Oh, you are there, are you?" he asked. "Just for a moment I thought I had the room to myself. My dear Countess, I have had quite a shock since I went out. These constant worries are playing the dickens with my nerves. There was that call over the telephone, for instance. I haven't got over that yet. And, in the wood this morning, a perfect stranger walked up to me and asked me if I could tell him anything about the movements of John Tilson."
"And you told him to go and hang himself," the countess laughed.
"My dear friend, I did nothing of the kind. I did nothing of the kind, because this man, Rufus Wren, happens to know that the head of the gang of which we are such distinguished ornaments was known to his subordinates, not as Felix Murdstone, but as Rogers. Of course, you know the way I worked it. As Murdstone, I was known to the others, and gave them their orders, always telling them that this man Rogers was the brain centre of the conspiracy, and preferred to remain in the background. Of course, there was not any Rogers, as we know perfectly well."
"Well? I suppose Wren didn't know that!"
"Ah, that is where you make the mistake," Murdstone muttered. "He did know all about Rogers, though I am perfectly certain that he has not the least idea that Rogers and myself are one and the same person. Naturally, like everybody else, he thinks that Murdstone is in his grave, and I rather fancy he thinks that the same fate has overtaken his friend, Tilson. At any rate, he addressed me as Rogers, and he led me to understand, quite unmistakably, that, if he did not hear something fairly definite with regard to Tilson in the next few days, he will put the police on my track."
"And you never killed him," the countess hissed.
"No, I never killed him; neither would you, in the circumstances. Nobody could hear what we were saying, but half a dozen of the earl's servants might have been in the woods. But we must get him out of the way, Alma; we must get him out of the way, and I hate the idea of personal violence."
"So do I," the countess said coolly. "But still, I should never hesitate if my own skin was in danger. It is certainly unfortunate that this man should have cropped up just at the moment when we are on the point of getting away with perhaps half a million pounds' worth of property. But, if necessary, that man must be disposed of. What do you think is the best thing to do?"
"Oh, I don't know," the sham professor said miserably. "Given another two or three days, we shall be out of the country. And I was never more anxious to turn my back on these shores in my life. I am frightened, my dear, and that is the honest truth. Once we are clear, then we can leave it to this man, Wren, to do his worst. But no delay, if you don't mind. Can't you manage to set things going this very evening?"
"Do you mean lure the earl over here," the women asked.
"Well, that is the idea. Go over yourself presently and ask him to come round here to-night and dine with us. He will come fast enough. He would go anywhere for a good dinner and chuckle to himself because it cost him nothing. Then, with Martin to help me, later in the evening, we can hurry over to the castle and have the big car waiting in the road. Before morning we can have all the stuff on the yacht off the coast between here and Ilfracombe, and no suspicion whatever aroused. Of course, I would much rather wait till all the details are settled, but with that man Wren in the background I shan't know a moment's peace until we have cleared out of the country. You can stay here as long as you like, but I shall have to go back to London on business, which, in other words, means that I shall be on board the yacht making for America. You can stay and mingle your tears with the earl, and finding out, if, by any chance, the police hit upon the trail. And then, when your tenancy is up here, you can join me in America, and we can share all that money between us. And, upon my word, I could do with a year or two's peace and quiet. Somewhere in the Argentine, for instance.
"Yes, it sounds a very pleasant scheme," the countess laughed. "And perhaps you are right to hurry things up a bit. So I will take the car over to the castle this afternoon and try my fascinations on the dear old gentleman. The rest I shall leave to you."
* * * * * * *
It was somewhere near 8 o'clock the same evening when the Earl of Kindale came up the garden path and found himself in that long, cool drawing-room where the Countess Visconti greeted him with an almost pleasant warmth and welcome. It was nothing to her that the earl had not even taken the trouble to don a dinner jacket but had merely slipped into an antiquated blue serge suit, for which he did not attempt to utter the slightest apology.
"Now that is really too bad of you," she said. "You wouldn't say whether you would come and dine or not, so that I have made no attempt to provide anything but an ordinary meal. You see, Lord Kindale, I came down here for peace and quiet, after all the hurry and bustle attending my daughter's wedding. So, if my cook has only provided us with some cold meat and a salad, then you will have to put up with it, and not blame me. As to the Professor, he doesn't care what he eats, but he will be glad to see you."
"I should think he would," the old gentleman chuckled. "We are doing a deal together that ought to put thousands of pounds into his pocket. Mind you, I am making a very good thing out of it myself, but when he gets all those duplicates over in the States he will make five times as much as I could."
"You are doing the professor rather an injustice," the countess smiled. "He is not half so mercenary as you think. He loves old books and old silver for their own sake, and when he has to part with them it would be a real wrench for him. But do sit down, and let me offer you a cigarette, then I will make you one of those famous cocktails of mine, and after that we can go in to dinner, and take the goods that the gods provide."
It was an excellent meal that the trio sat down to presently, a meal over which the hostess had spent a good deal of anxious time, and the appropriate wines left nothing to be desired. An hour later, the earl lay back in his chair, perfectly satisfied with his surroundings, and at peace with all mankind. He sipped his port, and lighted the Corona cigar that the countess handed him out of a special box, whilst he listened drowsily to the conversation of the professor, who sat on the other side of the table.
"Now this is what I call real comfortable," the earl murmured. "Really, you two must come over to the Castle one of these early days, and have lunch with me. I can't boast a cellar like yours, Countess, and I don't suppose there is another cook to equal your chef in the county. But I have a few bottles of '63 port and just a little Napoleon brandy. I must fix up a day and let you know. The professor is coming up to-morrow to make his final selection, and after that we can put business out of our minds."
"With all the pleasure in life," the sham professor said. "Countess, you will be delighted with the Castle."
"I was more than delighted with what I saw this morning," the countess said. "But I shall look forward to seeing some of those wonderful old rooms, and, above all, the earl's pictures. Well, Martin, what is it you want now?"
Martin had come into the room, the very model of the soft-footed butler. He came forward respectfully.
"I am very sorry to disturb your ladyship," he said, "but there is some one on the telephone, asking for the professor. I think it it a trunk call from London."
Rogers rose with a resigned sigh.
"Yes, that's always the way," he said. "When you are enjoying yourself. Unless I am greatly mistaken, it is a message from an old friend of mine at the Athenian Club. If you will excuse me a minute or two. I will promise not to detain you long."
As the speaker slipped quietly from the room, the countess bent forward and filled up the earl's liqueur glass again. She watched him under her eyelids until he had drained the last drop, and then his head sank forward and, a minute or two later, he lay fast asleep over the dining table. It was as if he was dead.
The countess rose hurriedly and looked out into the hall where Martin was standing by the front door.
"It's all right," she said. "Get on with it."
The professor appeared out of nowhere, walking silently as a man does who wears rubber soles to his shoes. He had slipped out of his dinner jacket into a coat of rough tweed, and, with one glance round him, passed into the darkness.
"That will be all, Martin," he whispered. "Follow me, but not too close, if you don't mind."
Then Martin vanished into the night, in his turn, happily ignorant of the fact that Peter Lantary was close behind him.
Murdstone, in the insidious disguise of Professor Rogers, walked on in the darkness, knowing exactly what he was going to do and how he was going to do it. He had not been at Kindale Castle on one or two occasions without carefully studying his ground, and committing to memory the exact geography of the place. He knew precisely where the main treasures were to be found, and with any sort of luck he would be able to get away with them in the course of the next hour. All he wanted was some sixty intense minutes without interruption and the big coup would be accomplished.
He knew perfectly what had happened in the pleasant dining room where he had left the elderly earl in the company of Countess Visconti. He knew all about that potent little drug which had been dropped in the second glass of liqueur and the effect it would have upon Kindale. It needed no one to tell him that Kindale was now sleeping peacefully in the dining room and that the countess would see to it that no servant came in until at least an hour had elapsed. Then he calculated that the effects of the drug would have exhausted themselves and it would be an easy matter, afterwards, to rally the old gentleman from his little lapse from the conventions and get him to believe that he had been merely taking what is known as 'forty winks.' In other words, it was necessary to convince Kindale that the professor had not been off the premises at all and that he had been detained rather longer than he had expected at the telephone. The whole thing had been planned to the minutest detail, and all that was necessary now was to get on with the scheme and hide the plunder until Kindale discovered for himself that he had been robbed.
Indeed, it was just the sort of thing that the eccentric old man had been asking for during the last dozen years. As far as that wonderful library of his was concerned, no precautions whatever had been taken. The precious folios stood on their shelves, pretty well ready to be taken by anybody who wanted them. There was no night-watchman in the Castle, and only a mere handful of indoor servants to look after the few rooms which had not been closed. True, his lordship kept that priceless collection of silver of his carefully locked up in the safe during the night, but then so old-fashioned a contrivance would present practically no difficulties to so accomplished an artist as the man known as Professor Rogers.
Moreover, the sham Rogers was perfectly aware of the fact that by this time the whole of the Castle servants would have retired for the night. He was also quite alive to the knowledge that the servants' wing of the Castle was remote enough from the apartments where the treasures were stowed away. And, as to the making of an entrance into the library, the head of the gang had settled all that long ago. Therefore, he strode along in the darkness with Martin not far behind, hugging himself in the expectation of a successful haul that would leave him and the countess outside the pale of suspicion. There was a path through the woods across the fields that would bring him to the grand terrace in front of the Castle in the course of a few minutes. He would enter the quadrangle round which the Castle was built by way of the ancient portcullis and climb up the cloister that ran all round the green court on to the leads over them, which meant that he would be outside the long picture gallery with its latticed windows and diamond panes, the opening of which would be no task for an intelligent child. And there, at the end of the picture gallery, was the great library with its precious books and manuscripts, and in one corner of the room the safe which, to Rogers, would be no more trouble than cutting through a rotten cheese. He had all the implements in the pocket of his rough coat and Martin, behind him, was similarly equipped.
Five minutes later, and the two men had vanished.
They had hardly entered the big quadrangle and had commenced to swarm up the cloistered stonework when, two hundred yards behind, another figure emerged out of the darkness. It seemed to rise out of the shrubbery, like something that has come suddenly to life, and, simultaneously, another figure, stood beside it.
"Is that you?" the first phantom asked.
"Even so, Peter," the second shadow replied. "I have been here for half an hour, at least."
"Good," Peter Lantary exclaimed. "Good! Now, I suppose, you spotted those two blackguards?"
"They passed me so closely that I could have touched them," Roy Kindermere said. "They are in the quadrangle at the present minute, swarming up the pillars of the cloisters, on to the leads outside the picture gallery. Another ten minutes and they will be in the library. What are we going to do then?"
"Oh, all in good time," Lantary said. "I don't propose to follow them, if that is what you mean. We are going down the cliffs on to the beach, where I have a boat waiting, and, after that, we shall pull round the headland and land at the mouth of the smuggler's cave. You know the place I mean. That is, if you haven't forgotten the secret way into the Castle."
"Of course I haven't," Kindermere said. "I showed you the plan before we came down from town. My mother used to tell me about it when I was a small boy, intending to be a pirate and all that sort of thing, and I believe I could find my way into the castle through the smugglers' cave blindfold. The secret entrance is one of the traditions of the family, though I don't suppose it has been used for years. It may even be blocked up, for all I know."
"Well, I'll bet a bob it isn't," Lantary said, smilingly. "That uncle of yours is the last man in the world to interfere with those ancient landmarks. I suppose there was a time when the Kindales were no more honest than their neighbours."
"They were smugglers and wreckers, if that is what you mean," Roy replied. "Sort of Doones in their way. That was when the old English families lived by preying on their neighbours and robbing everybody right and left. But never mind that for the moment. What is the point of entering the Castle by the cave?"
"There are half-a-dozen points," Lantary grinned. "First of all, we want to take those chaps red-handed. But that is not quite artistic enough for so eminent a private detective as myself. I want to know what Murdstone, alias Rogers, is going to do with the stuff when he has got it. He can't very well bury it in the grounds, and he is much too wily a bird to take it back with him to that very pleasant house where the countess is resting. I haven't been listening outside the dining-room window and watching that fascinating adventuress for the last hour for nothing. My dear boy, your uncle is at presented seated in the dining-room there, with his head on the table, fast asleep."
"You mean that he has been drugged?" Roy asked.
"That is exactly what I do mean. He was drugged with his second glass of liqueur, just after Martin came into the dining-room with a bogus telephone trunk call for the benevolent individual with the long beard. Directly I spotted that, I followed Murdstone and Martin, and cut in front of them just behind the keeper's lodge. Then I gave you the signal, and here I am. Not that I am altogether satisfied, and I shan't be until I know exactly what Murdstone is going to do with his plunder."
"What's your idea as to that?" Kindermere asked.
"Well, I'll tell you. If you peep through that belt of trees on your right, you will see the Manacles lightship, which is eight miles out to sea, and, just in front of that, a riding light, which might be on a fishing smack, only it isn't."
"What is it, then?" Kindermere asked.
"It is a yacht. And it wasn't there two hours ago. A small steam yacht anchored up and waiting on events. Unless I am greatly mistaken, a petrol launch will be putting off from that vessel before long, and, when it reaches the beach to the left of the smugglers' cave, Murdstone will be there with all the plunder and remain long enough to see it shipped off to the yacht. Then he will make his way back as quickly as possible to the countess's charming retreat, by which time your uncle will probably be awake. You see, the idea is to persuade him that Murdstone never left the house at all. And he won't either, for some days to come. He will stay there and pretend to sympathise with his lordship over the loss of his treasures whilst the yacht probably crosses the Channel and anchors up somewhere off the Welsh Coast. Then, when all suspicion has been allayed, Murdstone will have urgent business in London, from whence he will slip off down to Cardiff or Newport, and go on board the yacht. And if he manages to wriggle through our fingers to-night, then it is long odds that we shall never see or hear of him again. And, once he is clear away the countess will leave north Devon and join that cunning rascal somewhere on the other side of the world. Of course, I may be all wrong, but that is how I worked it out. And now, the next thing we have to do is to follow the path down the cliffs on to the beach and embark in the boat, which will land us close to the mouth of the smugglers' cave. I suppose that you have no doubts as to your ability to guide us where we want to go?"
"Not the slightest," Kindermere explained. "It will be rather a rough journey, but there are no difficulties in the way, and if we work it properly, we shall emerge into the library through the secret door in the wainscot and hide ourselves behind the big oak screen, and be able to watch what those two miscreants are doing. Oh, you needn't have any apprehension on that score."
"Well, that is all I wanted to be sure of," Lantary went on. "But I thought that man Wren was going to help us."
"Well, where is he? It was your idea. In fact, it was you who got on his track through Rupert Glynn."
The words were hardly out of the speaker's mouth before the bushes parted and another figure hove in sight.
"Is that you, Wren?" Lantary whispered.
"That's me, right enough," Wren said, under his breath. "I have been waiting here for the last five minutes."
Lantary gave a little chuckle of satisfaction.
"Then the party is complete," he said. "That is, bar one. And I can't think where she has got to."
"She?" Kindermere cried. "Are you speaking of Alcie?"
"Yes, I am," Lantary said curtly. "I knew you wouldn't like it, but I didn't see how we could very well leave her out."
With that, Peter gave a faithful imitation of the calling of a nightjar, and immediately, there was a rustling in the bushes close by. Alcie stepped out and confronted the others.
"Here I am," she said, quietly. "I got your note, Mr. Lantary, but I don't know what you want at this time of the evening."
Lantary proceeded hurriedly to explain.
"You will have your uses presently," he said. "If I had doubted your courage and bravery for a moment I wouldn't have asked you. But then, you see, I don't. Now, Miss Alcie, where do you suppose the Earl of Kindale is at the present moment?"
"Why, in his library, of course," Alcie said quietly. "He went there about 7 o'clock, and said he was not to be disturbed. He had his glass of milk and little plate of sandwiches sent in, after which the servants were left to their own resources. If you will follow me a few yards. I will show you the light still burning in the library. It was there five minutes ago."
"All the same, our friend the earl is not in the castle," Lantary said amiably. "He is having his dinner with the Countess Visconti. And, unless we are moving quickly, there is likely to be a lot of trouble in our immediate neighbourhood. Wren, this is Miss Alcie Glynn, of whom you may have heard."
"Heard?" Wren exclaimed. "I should rather think I have. Oh, I am quite an old friend of her father's."
"You knew him some years before he died?" Alcie asked.
"Died?" Wren asked with a puzzled inflection. "How long has he been dead? I have been actually in his presence within a week. It was he who gave me—"
Alcie staggered back, with a little cry on her lips, and would have fallen had not Kindermere caught her in his arms.
"Steady, darling, steady," he whispered.
"My father—" Alcie went on brokenly. "He was drowned months ago in the Mediterranean. Otherwise I should never have come to England at all. It was to please him that I went to London and became an inmate in Mr. Murdstone's house."
"Well, we can't stop to explain all that now," Lantary said. "I ought to have warned you before, but, in the excitement of the moment, I forgot all about it. But what Mr. Wren says is perfectly correct. Your father is alive and well, and you will see him before long. But if I once begin explaining we shall be here all night. When I told you just now that Lord Kindale was not under his own roof I meant to convince you that something serious was wrong."
"Lead the way!" Alcie said bravely. "I am ready for anything now. I suppose there is some rascality afloat, in which I am indirectly interested. If you want me to show you the way into the castle and find out why the light is burning in the library, then I shall be able to do so. Shall we get along?"
"Certainly—but not exactly the way you want," Lantary said. "The point is—can you pilot us down to the beach?"
"Of course, I can," Alcie said, confidently. "I have learnt pretty well every inch of the ground by this time."
She led the way, with the others following. It was a matter of no great distance, nor had much time been wasted, seeing that it was barely a quarter of an hour since Murdstone and his companion had emerged from the villa on the Bideford-road. There was no hurry, as Lantary quite well knew, for it would take those scoundrels some little time to get all the treasures collected together, and transport them from the castle down the flight of steps at the end of the rose garden into the boat which he guessed would, by this time, be waiting to convey the plunder to the yacht.
Very quietly and carefully they moved down the steep path, until at length they stood on the sandy beach, where Lantary's boat was moored ready to embark them for the two or three hundred yards round the headland to the smugglers' cave. They pushed off very silently, hugging the shore as closely as possible, until they had passed the headland, and drew the boat up again on to the sands at the very mouth of the smugglers' den.
"Listen!" Lantary whispered. "Just listen!"
Faintly, from a distance, came the soft chugging of a motor-boat. It drew nearer and nearer, until the four people crouching behind their boat could see the outline of the petrol launch which Lantary knew only too well had come from the yacht lying out there in the bay. There were three or four men on board the launch, talking under their breath, but quite loud enough for the listeners on the beach to hear what they were saying.
"This must be the spot." the man steering the launch said gruffly. "Just run her nose on the sand, George, and wait."
"There is nothing to do but wait," another voice broke the silence. "We've got to do exactly what the guv'nor says, and if he don't come down in an hour we shall know that something has gone wrong and get back to the yacht again to await further orders."
There was only a distance of some twenty yards between the two boats, but fortunately for the occupants of the first one a rugged barrier of rock intervened, so that the new-comers had no idea of what was happening a few yards away. Then, headed by Kindermere, Lantary's party crept noiselessly into the smugglers' cave and walked along the firm, sandy floor there until they came, at length, to what appeared to be nothing more than a solid wall of rock with a projecting spur that seemed as solid as the rest of its surroundings. Kindermere, producing an electric torch from his pocket, flashed the tiny ray of light on the face of the rock.
"Ah, here it is," he murmured. "Just exactly as it was on the plan, and precisely where my mother always said it was. Lantary, give me the lever, and we will see."
The short, powerful lever inserted between two crannies in the rock forced the apparently solid surface to half disappear, and there, beyond, they could discern a flight of broken steps. Once inside and on the stairway, the rock was pushed into position again, so that there was nothing to fear as far as the occupants of the motor-boat were concerned. Then up and up they went, until they came, at length, to what appeared to be an iron door, with a knob in the centre of it. This Kindermere pressed, and, very gradually, the door slid on one side, exposing some stout, open panelling at the back of it. Kindermere bent down and lifted the panel in a sort of sliding slot, and, almost immediately, a great square of light appeared on the other side of the opening.
"There," Kindermere whispered. "We are actually in the library. Don't make the slightest noise, but follow me on your hands and knees. I can hear the scoundrels at work."
It was exactly as Kindermere had said. They were absolutely in the great library, and just behind a huge, carved, open screen, which secluded one corner of that noble apartment. Through the tracery of the screen, and themselves obscured in the darkness, the intruders could see exactly what was going on.
They could see the sham professor standing at the far end of the room, in front of a great, old-fashioned safe that was built in the wall, and covered, when not in use, by a swinging shelf of books that hid it from observation. The lights in the room were fully on, no doubt just as Kindale had left them, so that the thieves were not hampered for want of illumination.
Just behind the man with the flowing beard was Martin, who had emptied his pockets of certain tools, so that they lay about his feet ready for use when the greatest safe breaker in the world should have occasion to make use of them.
"Upon my word, Martin," the professor was saying, "we need not have run the risk of bringing all that battery of stuff with us. If I had properly realised what a poor piece of stuff this safe is! Why, I believe I could open it with a bit of wire!"
The safe was primitive enough, aged, and rusted, and appeared to afford little or no resistance when a burglar knew his business. It was not even provided with a combination lock, so that the burglars had not even the trouble to find the key.
"It's sure a bit of all right, guv-nor," Martin said. "Some folks don't deserve to have valuables like what's behind that rusty old door. Just fancy hiding half a million pounds' worth of the finest silver in the world in a common rat-trap, for it is very little more. We shan't even want explosives. And you was quite right when you said that we didn't need any blow-lamp."
"Blow-lamp?" the sham professor coughed. "Here, hand me that saw. We'll get into this in five minutes."
For five minutes or more the thief worked steadily away, stripping off the outer plates, well knowing that once he was through these his simple task was done. And then, just as the saw had got fairly to work and was eating into the soft metal, the unexpected happened. The upper part of the door flew open, and out from it there shot what appeared to be two long, circular cutting knives. They came with a vicious swirl and force that knocked the burglar clean off his balance, and, at the same time, gripping him by the centre of his long, flowing beard. Then the opening closed again with a clang, and Murdstone lay insensible at the feet of his fellow criminal, entirely bereft of the disguise on the lower part of his face.
"My God," Wren cried. "Why it's—"
Instantly Lantary clapped his hand over the speaker's mouth.
"Not a word," he whispered. "Not a sound! What we have to do is to stay here and await events."
Martin gazed helplessly at the figure lying at his feet.
There came no sound from behind the open screen where four people were intently watching the other two figures, and wondering what was going to happen next. The man called Wren would have burst free and rushed forward but for Lantary's restraining hand upon his arm and the whispered words in his ear. It seemed quite an eternity before Martin bent over the body of the sham professor and satisfied himself, at length, that the latter was still alive.
Naturally, Martin had not the faintest idea that he was being watched. From his point of view, the Castle was as good as deserted. The earl was far enough away, and likely to remain where he was for some considerable time to come. The servants were in bed, and as to Alcie, Martin was not aware that she was within a hundred miles of Devonshire. The room was filled with softened lights behind their shades so that it was easy enough to see all around the great library, so that Martin could devote himself entirely to his employer without any suggestion of surprise weighing in his mind.
So far as he could see, the scheme had failed. There had been no thought of finding that infernal machine hidden away behind the plain front of the safe, and, even now, Martin had no idea whatever as to what had actually happened. It seemed to him as if half the door of the safe had clanged open and back again, throwing out two bars of steel that had come within an ace of crushing the body of the sham professor between them. They had certainly knocked him insensible, and, on flying back to their place, had wrenched away more than half of that long, flowing beard.
But what was the best thing to be done? That was the question that Martin asked himself again and again, until his mind began to function once more, and he could see, plainly enough, that the first thing to be done was to get Murdstone off the premises. He was not concerned, for the moment, as to what those people waiting down on the beach would think, because sooner or later, they would go away, knowing full well that the great scheme had failed.
Murdstone was breathing stertoriously, though no great harm had been done, so far as Martin could see. Then, with an effort, he dragged Murdstone to his feet and half carried, half dragged him through the open window of the library on to the terrace outside. Murdstone groaned and opened his eyes and feebly demanded to know what had happened to him.
"We'll go into that presently," Martin said. "I am going to leave you here for a minute or two, until I can find some way of lowering you down to the ground. And don't you make the slightest noise. We are not out of the wood yet."
With that, Martin returned to the library and looked about him until at last he saw what he wanted. That was a long, silk cord belonging to one of the heavy window curtains, and, with this slung under Murdstone's arms, the injured man was slowly lifted on to the stone parapet and then lowered as gently as could be managed, to the ground below by Martin. It was a great effort, and taxed the elder man's strength to the uttermost, but at length he was bending over the victim in an attempt to get the injured man on his shoulder.
Then he crossed the terrace through the rose garden, and into the path that led in the direction of the house where the Countess Visconti was impatiently waiting the issue.
For over an hour now she had been seated in the dining-room watching the man opposite her sound asleep with his head on his hands. There had been no interruption from any of the servants, because the temporary mistress of the house had seen to all that. She was not in the least afraid of any servant entering the room. For a time she waited the issue calmly and coolly, but as the hour passed and the hands of the clock on the mantelpiece crept along she was growing vaguely uneasy. She crossed the room quietly and pushed back the hands of the clock over 60 minutes. It was more than possible that the earl would not notice the time, so that, when he came to himself, she would be able to tell him, quite casually, that it had been only a few minutes since he had closed his eyes.
And still the seconds crept on. Crept on until there came the echo of a foot fall on the veranda and then, framed in the darkness, the face of Martin looking at her, and his forefinger bent in a beckoning attitude. Filled with apprehension now, the countess slipped out on to the verandah.
"Are we all alone here?" Martin whispered.
"I expect so," the countess replied. "I told the servants a long time ago that they could go to bed, and that they could clear the dining table in the morning. But what has happened?"
By way of reply, Martin pointed to a shapeless mass lying at his feet. The countess went eagerly forward.
"That," Martin said curtly, "is the master. He has met with an accident, and I don't know how badly he is hurt. We must get him into the house and put him to bed."
"Yes, and send for a doctor, I suppose," the countess sneered. "You must have taken leave of your senses, Martin, to suggest such a thing. I am not going to be dragged into this business. When I agreed to fall in with the plan and took this house here, I told your master that I had finished. Now, tell me all about it, and I will try and think of some way out of the trouble."
Martin rapidly sketched the incidents of the past hour or so, including the amazing happening in connection with that extraordinary old safe. The countess looked down at Murdstone lying there and drew back with a little cry of of dismay as she saw that he had been bereft of that long, flowing beard of his.
"I might just as well go into Bideford and give myself up to the police," she said. "I couldn't have him in the house, and send for a local doctor. There would be a scandal all over the place before to-morrow was out. And he doesn't seem in such great pain, either. It look's to me as if he had one or two ribs broken, and, with that beard gone—and I don't suppose he has another one in his suit cases. No, Martin. I can't possibly call in a local doctor. I couldn't put my head in a noose like that. Mr. Murdstone must disappear. He must be called back to London on important business. I will wait here while you go round and get the car."
"The car, madam; what for?"
"Why, to take Murdstone to London, you fool. Anywhere you like, so long as he is sufficiently far away from the scene of the trouble. Put him up in your own rooms, and let me know at the first moment where a letter will find you. You are going to get the car out and run it down the drive, and you and I together are going to make your master comfortable inside. Can't you see the danger of delay? Can't you see what is likely to happen if your master remains here. Get the car into the road at once and then come back to me."
It was only a matter of a few minutes before the car stood in the road and Murdstone, still groaning and more than half unconscious, was lifted inside. Then Martin took the wheel, and in a short time the car was speeding down the road.
Shaken and disturbed, and panting from her exertions, the countess crept back into the dining-room and stood watching Kindale until she had recovered her equanimity. Then she knocked a decanter off the table and the old earl opened his eyes.
"Here, where am I?" he asked. "'Pon my word, I must have fallen asleep. I suppose it was that second glass of liqueur that did it. You couldn't call me intoxicated, but certainly, I have not consumed so much port for years. Countess, I humbly beg your pardon. How long have I been asleep?"
Smilingly, the countess pointed to the clock.
"Only a few minutes," she laughed. "That is, if you can call it minutes at all. If you remember, Professor Rogers was called to the telephone, and, almost before he had gone, you closed your eyes and I did not care to disturb you."
"Where is the professor?" Kindale asked.
"Ah, that is a different matter, altogether. I am sorry to tell you that the professor met with a bit of an accident. He slipped on the polished floor in the hall and twisted his ankle. It was so badly swollen that Martin and myself had to carry him up to his bedroom. He is much easier now, and would not listen to me when I suggested that a doctor should be sent for. However, if he is not better in the morning, I shall have my own way over that. It was one of those ridiculous accidents that might have happened to anybody."
"Would he like to see me?" Kindale asked.
"No, I am quite sure be wouldn't," the countess said promptly. "When I left him just now, he was practically asleep."
"In that case. I think I had better make my adieux," the earl said regretfully. "I will come round in the morning to inquire how our dear friend is getting on, and I dare say, in the circumstances, you will be glad to get rid of me. You can tell the professor from me that there is no hurry, so far as our business is concerned, and that when he feels up to coming over to the Castle I shall be only too delighted to see him."
It was all working out so smoothly and naturally that the countess was convinced that the earl was entirely innocent of all that had been taking place during the last hour. She could go to her room presently, perfectly easy in her mind now that Murdstone was safely out of the way, and when the earl came over in the morning to inquire as to the condition of the injured man, she would be able to tell him with a straight face that the professor had been so much better that he had actually gone off to town in the car, with the intention of consulting his own doctor in London.
"Very well," she said. "I think perhaps you are right. Good night, Lord Kindale. It was very good of you to come over here and dine at a moment's notice, and I am only too sorry this unfortunate business has so disturbed the harmony of the evening."
"I hope you will ask me again," the earl said gallantly.
The Countess Visconti would have been a good deal less easy in her mind if she could have seen the expression on her late guest's face as he crossed the woods in the direction of the Castle. He chuckled to himself from time to time, and he chuckled still more when he came to the terrace and saw that the light was still burning in the library. He let himself in through a side door with his latchkey and made his way up the staircase on to the broad landing facing the picture gallery. He could see a thin pencil of light under one of the sitting room doors, and, in front of this door, he paused and rapped quietly with his knuckles.
"Ah, then you haven't gone to bed yet," he said, as Alcie appeared. "What are you doing at this time of night?"
"I was finishing a book before I went to bed," Alcie explained. "Is there anything I can do for you, Lord Kindale?"
"Yes, I fancy there is a good deal," the old gentleman grinned. "Would you mind coming as far as the library with me?"
Alcie followed willingly enough, and dropped into the big armchair indicated by her employer.
"Now, then," he said. "Go on."
"But what am I to tell you?" Alcie said.
"Tell me all that has happened this evening. Tell me everything that has taken place since I went out. You see at the last moment, I changed my mind, and, instead of eating my sandwiches in here I walked down the road and dined with the Countess Visconti, and an American friend of hers who calls himself Professor Rogers. I have reason to believe that certain people have been here in my absence. Of course, if you were shut up in your own room, then you can't tell me anything. But were you?"
"As a matter of fact, I wasn't," Alcie said coolly. "I didn't know you had gone, really, until I went out into the grounds to meet a friend of mine in answer to a note that he sent me. It was some time after that I discovered that you were no longer in the Castle. You see, this friend of mine—"
"Perhaps you had better tell me his name," Kindale suggested.
"Oh, very well. There were two friends, as a matter of fact. One was a man called Peter Lantary, and the other one was your own nephew, Roy Kindermere. Does that surprise you?"
"My dear," the old earl smiled. "Nothing surprises a man who has come to my time of life. But can you tell me why that nephew of mine is hanging about here and hiding himself?"
"He is doing nothing of the sort," Alcie said coldly. "He came down here with his friend, Mr. Lantary, to prevent you being robbed of all that old silver of yours."
"Oh, really?" the earl grinned. "Now I wonder why he should put himself out for a man who has systematically neglected him ever since he was a little chap in knickerbockers. He can't expect that I shall do anything for him."
"I think you are very ungrateful and cruel," Alcie said indignantly. "If you had been here to-night and seen what was going on—"
"That is exactly what I want you to tell me," Kindale gibed. "My dear young lady, why all this mystery?"
"Perhaps if you will let me tell you the story in my own way we shall get on a great deal better," Alcie retorted. "You will be surprised to hear that the Countess Visconti, who must indeed be practically a stranger to you—"
"In a way, yes," Kindale said. "But, my dear child, though I am a recluse, I flatter myself that I am a man of the world and, up to twenty years ago, there were few fashionable resorts both at home and abroad that I didn't know as well as I know my own Castle. That is why I am thoroughly acquainted with the lurid past of the lady who calls herself Countess Visconti. I never had the honour of her acquaintance, and we have never exchanged words till the last few days. But that doesn't matter. Alma Visconti is a thorough bad lot, and she has been mixed up with half the scoundrels of Europe ever since she was a girl. There is hardly a big blackmailing scheme within recent years in which she has not acted as a lure. Oh, I know. And when she came down here and made herself so friendly I could give a pretty fair guess as to what she was after. I was absolutely certain when that benevolent American professor came on the scene. Professor Rogers of Cornell, he called himself, but as a matter of fact there is no such individual connected with that famous seat of learning. I didn't want any one to tell me that those people came down here on purpose to rob me of all my precious treasures. But I was quite easy in my mind, because I knew exactly what would happen when they made their attempt. That is why I went off to dine with the countess this evening, and I must say that a better dinner I never sat down to. It was so good a dinner that I actually went to sleep afterwards. A most unpardonable solecism, for which I subsequently apologised. But when that dear lady told me that I had only been asleep a few minutes and pointed to the clock in her dining-room as evidence of the fact, I was convinced that she was not telling the truth. I see it is now past eleven o'clock, and if that dear lady had been correct it would only be a few minutes after ten. But that is all by the way. When I awoke again I was told that the dear professor had sprained his ankle, and that it had been found necessary to put him to bed. That, of course, was a brazen-faced lie, though, naturally, I pretended to believe it. I must have been asleep over an hour, and, during that time, the professor was out of my sight. In this house, unless I am greatly mistaken. But something must have gone wrong, because I feel convinced that the countess was telling me a half truth. Some accident must have happened to the learned gentleman. Now, perhaps you can tell me exactly what that accident was."
"Oh, I can do that," Alcie said. "Perhaps you will have a look at your safe and you will guess what it was."
Kindale crossed over to the rusty old safe and a queer, dry chuckle broke from his lips as he examined it.
"Ah, yes," he said. "I think I can understand. The professor was using a saw, or something of that kind on the face of the safe, and, in doing so, he released the mechanism. We have had that safe in the house for two hundred and fifty years. It was made for an ancestor of mine by an ingenious Italian monk who was a perfect master in the craft of locksmanship. It was he who set all those springs going and provided those steel arms that were intended to crush the life out of anybody who attempted to open the safe. It seems to me that Rogers had a narrow escape of his life."
"He had, indeed," Alcie said. "We were watching from behind that oak screen, and we thought he was dead. But he was only badly bruised and beyond the loss of his beard, a portion of which you can see sticking out from under one of those steel flaps, he was little the worse for his injuries. He was carried away by a man called Martin, who used to be butler to that extraordinary person, Felix Murdstone, who was murdered in Marrion-square."
"Oh, really," the old gentleman exclaimed. "You recognised him, of course. Because you, yourself, were actually staying in Marrion-square on the night of that sensational crime. But would you mind telling me who 'we' are? And, also, I should be glad to know how you all managed to get into the library."
Alcie proceeded to explain at some length. She spoke of Kindermere and Lantary, and the more or less mysterious Wren, after which she went on to tell the story from the moment that she met her friends outside the house until, at length, they emerged into the library through the secret door, leading up from the beach by the way of the smugglers' cave.
"Bless my soul, I had forgotten all about that," the old gentleman said. "I haven't thought of it for years. I suppose Roy learnt all about the cave from his mother. She knew every inch of that secret passage, and was never tired of using it in some of those games that she was so fond of playing. Dear me, how it all comes back to one, after the lapse of these years. I can see it all pretty plainly now. Martin must have managed to get Rogers back to the house where he was staying, but it's any odds that the professor is no longer under the countess's roof. If I were a betting man I would wager a large sum that Rogers is now on his way to London in that lovely lady's car. He dare not stay in the house, he dare not face a local doctor, especially now that he has lost that wonderfully benevolent beard of his. But, with my knowledge of those steel arms, I am pretty confident that he will have to lie up for some considerable time. Then, when we are ready, we will put the police on his track, and send him to the place where he should have gone many years ago. And let me tell you that you are the most brave as well as the most beautiful girl that I have even seen in my life. And if I were Roy Kindermere—"
The speaker paused significantly, and glanced shyly at Alcie, chuckling to notice that flush on her cheeks.
"That is a very cruel remark, Lord Kindale," she said. "I know that Roy cares for me and that—well, why shouldn't I confess it? Love at first sight. And you are the one man in the world who stands between us and our happiness."
"But suppose I approach Roy? Do you think he would listen to me after all these years?"
"My dear Lord Kindale, that depends exactly on how you approach him. If you do so as an act of charity, then he will not listen. But as your heir and the next in succession to the property, ah, that would be a different matter altogether. And now I am going to ask you a question, seeing that you appear to know so much. I had a great shock this evening. Mr. Wren told me that my father was not dead, as I thought, but that he is somewhere in London. Do you think that it is impossible for Mr. Wren to have made a mistake?"
"Of course he hasn't," the earl chuckled. "Your father is alive, and I am expecting him down here to-morrow."
Alcie, listening half-dazedly to what the earl was saying, struggled to believe the evidence of her senses. The whole thing was so strangely inexplicable, so sudden and unexpected. An hour or two ago and she had regarded that unfortunate father of hers as being beyond reach of trouble and now here was a second individual who quietly told her, and seemed to take it for granted, that Rupert Glynn was still in the flesh. Moreover, the earl was assuring her that before 24 hours had elapsed she would find herself face to face with the man she had mourned so truly.
"But I don't understand," she gasped. "Oh, what does it all mean? And who is this Mr. Wren who comes out of nowhere and tells me that my father is still alive? I had never heard of him till this evening, but, all the same, I have no fear. Don't you think you could tell me just a little more?"
"No, I don't," the old man said gruffly. "You come and breakfast with me to-morrow morning in the little room behind the library. Never mind about that confounded poultry. Tell Wagstaff that you are off duty for the day and that he must get those granddaughters of his to take your place for the moment. Off you go."
There was nothing for it but to obey, so Alcie crept away puzzled and bewildered and wondering vaguely if anything had happened to the universe. She lay in her bed, vainly trying to sleep, and the sun was high in the heavens when she came to herself and the knowledge that one of the older servants was standing by her bedside with a cup of tea in her hand.
"What is the meaning of this, Margaret?" she asked.
"His lordship's orders, miss," the elder woman explained. "I was to tell you that he would be waiting for you in the cedar parlour, where breakfast will be ready in half-an-hour."
So, then, the old gentleman had not changed his mind, Alcie thought. She dressed herself with more than usual care and went down to the cedar room, where she found Kindale awaiting her.
No, not the Kindale she knew, but a different man altogether. To begin with, he had had his long grey hair trimmed and his moustache and beard reduced to respectable proportions. Moreover, he had discarded the scarecrow suit which he invariably wore and, in the place of it, had donned a smart coat and vest of tweed and a pair of breeches which, evidently, had been made in Bond-street. He grinned with almost boyish delight as he saw the expression of bewilderment that spread over Alcie's face.
"Yes, quite the sporting dandy, aren't I?" he chuckled. "Do you remember your Dickens, my dear? Martin Chuzzlewit?"
"Yes, I think I know what you mean," Alcie smiled. "You are speaking of Todgers. 'Todgers can do it when Todgers likes.'"
"Capital," the old man chuckled, as he rubbed his hands together. "You see, I can turn out like a gentleman if I want to. So I went down to the village this morning and induced Jicks, the barber, to cut my hair. I think he looked upon me as having suddenly taken leave of my senses. But the effect, eh, what?"
"Beautiful," Alcie smiled. "You look at least ten years younger. But why this wonderful transformation?"
"The transformation is internally as well as externally," the old man went on, more gravely. "But we will come to all that presently. Now, you sit down and pour out the tea whilst I enjoy your company. It is the first really social meal I have had for goodness knows how long, and I am going to enjoy it."
He most certainly did, under Alcie's graceful administration, and when, at length, he had seated himself in a big arm-chair with a cigarette in his mouth, he seemed to have become another man.
"Now let's be serious," he said. "I dare say you wonder what sort of game I am playing. And, my dear Alcie, it isn't a game at all. You have only been here a few days, but, somehow, you seem to have made an extraordinary difference to the place. You are nothing like what I expected. I never anticipated for a moment that you would settle down to a dull life in the country with no one to talk to and no sort of gaiety."
"I have my living to get," Alcie reminded him.
"Oh, yes, of course. I had forgotten that for the moment. But, then, so had those other girls, confound them. But that did not prevent the majority of them packing up and clearing out of the place at the end of the first week. But you, I think, are quite satisfied to do your work here—"
"Oh, I am," Alcie said. "Indeed, I am. And I am quite sure that you meant to be kind to me."
"Um—but I am not so sure of that myself. Still, we need not go into that. Now, tell me, did you come down here with any ulterior object in your mind?"
"I don't in the least know what you mean," Alcie said.
"Oh, well, perhaps not," the old man muttered. "All the same, I am quite sure that that romantic lady, Eva, was not quite as innocent as you appear to be. I am perfectly certain that her idea was that your beauty and charm would make a decided impression upon my susceptible heart. Just like a chapter from one of those romantic novels in the 'Housemaid's Companion.' And then, when you had absolutely fascinated me, that nephew of mine would come in in some miraculous way on the scene, and—well, my dear, you know how all those stories invariably end. Oh, I know. You may not believe it, but there was a time when I was a young fool myself."
"But then, you see," Alcie smiled. "I don't read those sort of books. I know that Lady Eva Manfred is a darling, and that she took me in and looked after me when I hadn't a shilling in the world, and I didn't know where to seek a night's shelter. If there was a conspiracy, I had nothing to do with it. And, if you want me to speak plainly, I consider that Roy Kindermere has a legitimate grievance against Lord Kindale. What has he done? Never a dishonourable thing in his life, I am certain. And yet you turn your back upon him, and leave him to starve, as if he were a criminal. Of course, I ought not to talk to you in this way, but then, you see, I am very fond of Roy, and I want to see him properly treated."
"You are a very brave young woman," the old man smiled. "There are not half a dozen people in the world who would dare to speak to me as you are doing now. Perhaps it would be as well for me if there were. Then you really regard me as a selfish old man?"
"Don't you pride yourself on the fact?" Alcie asked coolly.
"Well, I suppose that has been my pose most of my life," the earl smiled, almost benignly. "I know that mine has been a very lonely existence down here."
"Yes, and I am sorry for you. I was sorry for you from the first moment we met. But whose fault was it?"
"Meaning mine, of course. Well, you are quite right, my child. I had two bitter disappointments in my early manhood, and I was fool enough to shut myself up with them for years. But I am not going to do so any longer. There is something better in the world than collecting old manuscripts and silver, though I have only realised it the last two or three days. Now, look here, Alcie. A long, long time ago, I knew your father. You were quite a little girl at the time, and, no doubt, you have forgotten me. But, out there, in Northern Africa, your father saved my life, and I have never quite forgotten it. At the time, he would receive nothing at my hands, though I did offer to help him—"
"But why did he need help?" Alcie asked. "Oh, I know that we were poor sometimes, but for the most part we had every luxury that we needed. Do you mean to say—"
"I mean to say a good deal," the old man went on. "And I am afraid I am going to hurt you a lot. Now, listen carefully to what I have to say, and don't interrupt."
It was quite a long time before the earl had finished speaking, and Alcie listened attentively to all that he had to say. She heard the story of her father's past, and how, towards the end, he came under the influence of the man called Felix Murdstone, who would inevitably have led his weaker companion into the clutches of the law. She learnt that her father all his life had been little better than an adventurer and a cheat, but that he had refused to ally himself to downright crime, and had escaped lasting ignominy by pretending to drown himself in the Mediterranean.
"Now, that man Murdstone was one of the greatest scoundrels on earth," the old man went on. "There are scores of men living to-day who have cursed the hour they met him. And I think you will find, later on, that the individual called Rufus Wren was one of them. However, that can wait for a moment. Your father sent you to England because his last desperate hope was that Murdstone would look after your welfare—"
"But he didn't," Alcie cried. "The house in Marrion-square was little better than a gambling hell. And I was the lure to bring young men with money into the house so that Murdstone and the Countess Visconti could plunder them shamelessly. I don't think that the countess's daughter knew anything about her mother's past any more than I knew about my father's. Anyway, I was not allowed to be alone with her long enough to learn anything of importance. And then came the night when Felix Murdstone was murdered in the library, and your nephew, Roy, came mercifully to my assistance and believed every word that I said, though appearances were against me. Of course, what you have just told me about my father is a terrible shock, but never did a girl have a more affectionate parent. And so he is actually coming down here to-day."
"That is so," the earl replied. "He wrote to me over a fortnight ago. In fact, before you arrived at all, and told me exactly how he was situated. Mind you, he didn't want to do it, he is just as proud as ever he was. But he told me practically everything, and asked if I could help him to get out to the other side of the world, where he hoped, yet, to do something decent and respectable before he died. So, being under such an obligation to Rupert Glynn I wrote and asked him to come down here, and he is coming. He ought to be here in time for dinner this evening. We will go and meet him together if you like. And now, as to another matter. What do you think I ought to do, so far as Roy is concerned?"
"I am not going to tell you," Alcie said spiritedly. "And all the more so, because you know precisely what your duty is in the matter. You ought never to have turned your back upon him. It wasn't his fault that his mother married against your wishes."
The earl listened with rather a wry smile on his face.
"You think I ought to take him in favour again?"
"There isn't any favour about it," Alcie said. "You ought to beg his pardon for the shameful way you have treated him, and ask him to come down here to take his proper place. I don't mean that he should live here and simply accept your money, because Roy is not that sort of man. He wouldn't do it, I know. But there is the Kindale Dower House standing empty, with all its beautiful furniture and those lovely gardens, where the heir to the estate has lived in the past when there has been no dowager to occupy the premises. Why, there are thousands of things that Roy would be only too glad to do. The estate is going to rack and ruin. Look at your farm buildings, and cottages. You ought to be ashamed of them. Oh, dear, I am afraid I am going too far. I am sorry."
"No occasion to be sorry at all, my dear," the old man said. "Everything you say is absolutely true. And I am ashamed of myself. Now, look here, I want you to do a little thing for me this morning, and, when you have done that, we will have lunch together in state in the dining-room, and you will find Roy there to meet you. I know where he is at the present moment, and I have sent him and his eccentric friend, Peter Lantary, an invitation to join us. And the rest, my dear, should be in your own hands."
Alcie listened with a radiant smile on her lovely face. It seemed as if she were suddenly walking in fairyland.
"I will try and thank you presently," she murmured. "Meanwhile, what is it you want me to do?"
"Oh, nothing very much. I should like you to go as far as that house down the road, where the Countess Visconti is staying, and give her my compliments, and a request to know how her friend, the learned Professor Rogers, is getting on. You know the man I mean. The sham American man of science who was here last night, trying to get into my safe. But he couldn't do it, my dear, nor could anybody else who does not know the secret. But he doesn't know yet that I have the least idea that he was paying me a visit whilst I was peacefully dining with his charming confederate. What I really want to know is if Rogers is still under the lady's roof. I have a strong impression that he isn't. But I should like to be certain before I go any further. Now, what do you say?"
Alcie was only too ready to fall in with the suggestion. She walked very quietly down the road, and, a quarter of an hour later, found herself in the long, low drawing-room, face to face with the countess, who made no effort to conceal her surprise on seeing Alcie under her temporary roof.
"My dear child," she cried. "What on earth are you doing down here? And what became of you on that dreadful night? I mean the night of Mr. Murdstone's murder."
"I couldn't very well remain there," Alcie said. "So I went off at once to stay with some friends. And it was one particular friend who induced Lord Kindale to give me a job as a land girl on his estate here. I have been here for more than a week."
"Oh, indeed," said the Countess, with a swift indrawing of her breath. "Do you find the occupation congenial?"
"I have nothing to complain about," Alcie said. "But I did not come here to talk about myself. Lord Kindale sent me here to inquire about the condition of Professor Rogers."
"Oh, I don't think he was very much hurt," the countess said carelessly. "Of course, you know that he sprained his ankle last night when his lordship was in the house."
"Then Lord Kindale can see him if he calls."
"Oh, dear, no," the countess smiled. "The professor was under the impression that he had sustained some serious injury, and he would not listen to calling in a local doctor. I am afraid he has very little faith in the average practitioner. At any rate, soon after breakfast this morning, he borrowed my car and one of my servants took him to London. Nothing I could say would keep him here, though I dare say he will be back in a few days."
"He didn't leave any message?" Alcie asked.
"Oh, but indeed he did," the countess cried. "He sent his kindest regards to Lord Kindale with the hope that he would return in a few days and complete that business at the Castle."
All this came very glibly from the countess's lips, and Alcie listened gravely, without betraying the fact that she knew every word to be part of a tissue of lies. She loitered there a few minutes, and then went back to the Castle with the information she had gathered.
Kindale listened to it with a sardonic smile.
"That is all that I wanted to know, my dear," he said. "And now you can make the best of your time until our guests arrive. By the way, I shouldn't wonder if you found Roy in the library. If you do, you needn't trouble about me for a bit."
Alcie went off with a bright light in her eyes, and a warm, red flush in her cheeks. And there, surely enough, in one of the big armchairs in a window overlooking the sea, she found Roy Kindermere smoking a cigarette. He threw this out of the window as Alcie approached, and held out both hands.
"You are truly wonderful," he said, as he drew her towards him. "I must have missed you, because Kindale told me that you had left the house a minute before I arrived. Did he tell you that he had sent for me? That he had invited me to luncheon?"
"Oh, I knew all about that," Alcie said shyly.
"Well, for the last half-hour we have been having a heart-to-heart talk. You couldn't exactly expect a man of his type to apologise, but he was quite meek for him, and frankly told me that he had been making a mistake, so far as I am concerned, all these years. And then, for the first time, I realised what a lonely old man he must have been. But, my dear, he would never have sent for me but for that inspiration on Lady Eva's part. He told me how he had been attracted to you from the very first, because you spoke your mind freely and told him exactly what you thought. At the end of half an hour we were on the friendliest possible terms—so friendly, indeed, that he informed me, quite in his best manner, that if I didn't marry you, I could—well—go to the devil as far as he was concerned. So like him, wasn't it?"
"And what did you say?" Alcie asked demurely.
"Say? My dearest girl, what did you expect me to say? I told him I didn't care two hoots about his money or his estate, but that you were the only girl in the world for me, whatever happened. Then he stood up and shook hands heartily, and, upon my word, I thought for a moment that he was going to kiss me. How on earth did you manage it, Alcie? How did you manage to convince him that you were the most wonderful creature that ever happened?"
"Oh, I don't know," Alcie murmured. "I was just my natural self. I think he appreciated the way in which I buckled to my work. And also understood why I treated him as I did. And, oh, Roy, isn't the whole thing splendid?"
There was only one fashion in which Roy could answer this question, and he did it promptly and emphatically.
"So that's going to be all right, little girl," he said. "We are going to have a grand luncheon presently to celebrate the event, and I am only too sorry that Peter won't be here."
"Oh, I am disappointed," Alcie said. "Why isn't he coming? What has detained him?"
"Oh, he's mad keen to get last night's business completed," Roy explained. "He has gone into Barnstaple to get in touch with Inspector Dwight over the telephone but with any luck he will be back here so that we can all have tea together. Indeed, I don't know how we could have got along without Peter."
Then followed the lunch, on which the earl had spread himself, and a thorough understanding as regards the future. It was a long and exceedingly pleasant meal, after which the earl absented himself under the plea that he had letters to write in the library, so that Roy and Alcie were free to sit in the rose garden and plan out all their movements for a long and happy future. There was nothing now between them and a lasting prosperity. It seemed as if they were absolutely alone in the world in that quiet corner of the rose garden looking out over the sea where, a little before teatime, Lantary burst in upon them in a state of fine excitement.
"Oh, here you are!" he cried. "I have just got back from Barnstaple with this copy of the 'North Devon Daily Gazette.' Let me draw your attention to these few lines in the stop press edition."
Eagerly Roy snatched the paper from his friend's hand. And there he read the few pregnant lines as follows:—
"Soon after noon to-day the London police arrested a man calling himself Professor Rogers in an obscure lodging in Soho, and detained him in connection with the recent dramatic murder in Marrion-square."
"I don't quite follow," Roy said, as he glanced from the paper to Lantary. "The whole thing is so inexplicably involved that it looks almost like a problem of Euclid to me. Mind, I haven't forgotten what you told me, but—here, Peter, old man, let's make some sort of a start at the beginning. In the first place, why did you go off and leave us so abruptly last night?"
"Because I had to," Lantary explained. "It was imperative that I should follow Martin, when he was carrying the unconscious body of Professor Rogers to the countess's house, because I had to know exactly what was going on. So I left Alcie and yourself, together with Wren not very far away, and tracked Martin as far as I wanted to shadow him. In the meanwhile, what did you do?"
"Well, practically nothing," Roy admitted. "As soon as I saw that Alcie was safe and not in the least frightened, I went back to our lodgings at the farmhouse, where we are staying, and took Wren with me. He is there now as far as I know to the contrary, and when you want him he will come."
"Yes, and meanwhile all sorts of strange things have happened," Alcie said. "To begin with, there has been a perfect reconciliation between Roy and his uncle."
"And Alcie brought it about," Roy said proudly. "My dear chap, there have been fault on both sides, and, perhaps, if I had been a little less proud and independent—"
"Well, that's good hearing," Lantary said. "And now, perhaps, you would like to know what happened when we parted last night."
"Of course we should," Alcie exclaimed. "And before we go any further I should like to know if either of you had anything to do with my father coming down here."
"Great Scot, you don't mean to say that?" Lantary exclaimed. "Of course. I knew your father wasn't dead. In fact, I have known it for some time. And it wasn't quite altogether an accident that enabled me to learn that your father was alive. You see, I was instrumental in saving my friend, Harold Mostyn from the clutches of that scoundrel Murdstone, and, when I had done that, I made up my mind that it would be no fault of mine if Murdstone did any more mischief. Then came that mysterious murder in Marrion-square, and it looked as if Providence had intervened to settle Murdstone's fate. As a matter of fact, Murdstone was not murdered at all."
"You absolutely amuse me," Alcie cried. "Then who was it who was identified as Murdstone?"
"A man called Tilson," Lantary went on with his explanation. "One of Murdstone's own gang. I can only tell you the outline roughly, because I have not yet verified all the links in the chain. So far as I can gather, this man Tilson bore a remarkable resemblance to Felix Murdstone; in fact, they were so much alike that the resemblance enabled Murdstone to be in two places at once, so to speak. Alibis, and all that kind of thing. But you will remember, Alcie, that I was in the house in Marrion-square on the night of the murder. Indeed, it was I who found the body. Bear that in mind, will you? Then Martin came forward and professed to believe that he was looking down at his dead master. That was the evidence that he gave at the inquest. But he knew that he was lying, because it was through his assistance that the cunning scheme was worked. You see, the time had come when Murdstone wanted to disappear, leaving all the world under the impression that he was dead. That was why Tilson was lured to Marrion-square that night, and killed in cold blood. It was quite easy for Murdstone as Tilson lay there to so disguise the dead man that he would pass for Murdstone himself. Even the police were fairly taken in for the moment. But I put them wise, as the Yankees say, and they pretended to believe that it was Murdstone himself who lay on the hearthrug in the library. They quite agreed with my scheme whereby Murdstone would go off under the comfortable impression that he was no longer in the flesh. And there was an end to Felix Murdstone, and directly he was apparently buried Professor Rogers came on the scene. Now do you see, Alcie?"
"Why, of course," Alcie cried. "You mean Murdstone and Rogers are one and the same. How stupid of me not to guess that last night when I saw that long beard torn away."
"Precisely," Lantary went on. "And perhaps you wonder why the police didn't immediately make the fraud public and set up a hue and cry for Murdstone, and at the same time, let the general public know that Tilson was the victim of the crime. But then, you see, they didn't know who the dead man was. You can't arrest a murderer very well for killing a man when they are not in a position to prove who he really was. So, on the whole, they preferred Tilson to be buried under the name of Murdstone, and lull the latter into a sense of false security. Of course, it will all come out now, but, at the time, it was a sound scheme to keep the whole matter a secret. Even Martin was under the impression that he had thrown dust in the eyes of the police. It was up to me to discover who Tilson really was, and I don't know how long it would have taken me to find out if I hadn't more or less tumbled over your father."
"Do you mean to say he was in London?" Alcie asked.
"Indeed he was," Lantary replied. "He came to London almost as soon as you did. He wanted to be near enough to you to ascertain for certain that Murdstone was treating you as well as he promised. And, of course, he wasn't. And your father didn't know what to do. You see, Murdstone so contrived it that your father was under the impression that the police were after him. It was a cunning story that Murdstone told him out there in France, but there was not a word of truth in it, all the same. Murdstone wanted to get your father absolutely under his thumb so that he could be compelled to do anything that was required. I hope you won't mind my speaking so plainly, but you must realise by this time that your father had—well—something of a past."
"I gathered that last night," Alcie whispered. "And I learnt a great deal more this morning when I was having a heart to heart talk with the earl, and he told me that my father was expected down here some time in the course of today."
"Ah, well, that makes my task a good deal easier," Lantary said with a sigh of relief. "You see, Murdstone was at the head of a gang of dangerous international thieves. Only he always pretended to his confederates that he was really the second in command, and that the head of the conspiracies was one professor Rogers who rarely, if ever, appeared in person. It was a cunning idea, because if anything went wrong, the police would be looking everywhere for Murdstone and never suspecting for a moment that directly the danger point was reached he would be hiding under his benevolent guise, long flowing beard and mane of grey hair and all the rest of it."
"But surely my father—" Alcie began.
"Oh yes, I know exactly what you are going to say," Lantary picked up the tale. "Your father refused to come into the big scheme. So did his old friend and colleague, Rufus Wren to say nothing of Tilson. They would not soil their hands with downright crime, and Tilson went so far as to threaten to expose his chief. That was why he was murdered. You see, Murdstone had no great fear either of your father or Wren, though he kept a close eye on them, all the same. But Tilson had to be got out of the way. To begin with, he was dangerous, and in the second place, it was necessary that Murdstone should disappear in such a way that the police should imagine that he was comfortably in his grave. But your father knew, because, in his disguise of Professor Rogers, Murdstone called upon him. I know that because I kept a close eye on Martin, and when I realised what was taking place I called on your father in his obscure lodgings and we talked the matter over at some length. I knew perfectly well last night that Rogers, alias Murdstone, would make an attempt to get away with the earl's plate and clear out of the country altogether. I knew he was frightened, because it was I who arranged that Wren should see him and ask him what had become of John Tilson. That Wren did down here. And the interview had the desired effect. So, you see, there was no time to be lost if Murdstone and his confederate, the countess, were to get out of the country."
"Oh, of course I know all that," Alcie said. "But, tell me, what happened last night? You see, the earl told me a good deal, because he had suspected the professor from the first, and he knew a great deal about the past history of Countess Visconti. Why, at his suggestion, I called upon the countess this morning and inquired after the professor, only to learn that he was no longer in the neighbourhood. He had met with an accident, the countess said, and had gone off in a car to see his doctor in London. But I suppose what I am saying is no news to you, Peter."
"Not a scrap," Lantary said. "I followed those two last night and I stayed long enough hanging about in the road to see Murdstone being driven away by Martin, and I guessed the reason why. I felt sure they were going to London, and directly I saw them start I walked into Bideford to the police station there and got on the telephone to Scotland Yard. I gave them a description of the car and asked them to 'phone to certain police headquarters on the road. I take it that they did so, because you can see from the paper I have just given you that Murdstone and Martin have been arrested, and I shouldn't wonder if the countess didn't find herself in custody before the day is out. It will be rather difficult to connect her with the affair at the Castle last night because she is a clever and cunning woman, and would refuse to put her head too far into the noose."
"Well, I suppose we can't do anything now but wait upon events," Roy suggested. "Won't you come in the Castle and see the earl? He will be most interested in your story."
"Certainly I will," Lantary said. "I have asked Dwight to call me up here if there is any fresh news."
The Earl of Kindale was pleased enough to see Lantary and listened to the extra ordinary story that he had to tell.
"Amazing!" he cried. "Most astounding! But why didn't you bring that man Wren along with you?"
"He wasn't particularly anxious to come," Lantary explained. "He has done his share of the business, and all he wants now is to get out of the country without any fuss or bother. But you know something of him, don't you?"
"I know all about his family," the earl smiled. "And I know something of the past of that unfortunate man, Tilson. Those two and Alcie's father were in the army together at one time, and they all of them went astray. Kipling's black sheep, don't you know. Fine chaps, all of them, only they could not go straight. Now perhaps you would like to look at that patent safe of mine."
With that, Kindale led the way into the library, and began to expound the virtues of his strong-room.
"It is a most ingenious mechanism," he said, "and, in the ordinary course of events, should have been fatal to Murdstone when he tried to saw through the outer case. Those steel bars are strong enough to crush the life out of anybody. You see, that safe is hardly damaged, except for a mark here and there, made by the saw. But Murdstone must have cut deep enough to set the mechanism in motion, and he came very near to ending his life in the experiment. So, you see why I am quite easy in my mind as to the safety of my collection. If I heard a thief in the night prowling about the library I should not take the trouble to get out of bed to come and see. I should expect to arrive down the next morning and find him lying dead by the side of the safe. And now, Alcie, go and put your hat on, because the car's at the door and I am going to take you as far as the station to meet your father."
Kindale and Alcie had hardly left the house before the telephone bell rang, and a servant appeared with the information that somebody wanted to speak to Mr. Lantary on the wire.
"Ah, that will be Inspector Dwight, for a million," Lantary said. "I shall have some news when I come back."
With that, Lantary went off to a little room at the back of the hall where the telephone had been set up, and closed the door carefully behind him before he took down the receiver.
"Hello," he said gently. "Hello, Lantary speaking. Who is that at the other end of the wire, please?"
"Dwight," came the reply. "I couldn't 'phone you before because there is always the chance of a message being overheard. I suppose you know that Murdstone was arrested."
"But that must have been hours ago," Lantary said cheerfully. "I have already read the news in one of the local evening papers. You don't mean to tell me he has escaped?"
"Not quite in the way you mean," Dwight said quietly. "I mean that the man is dead."
"Killed by his injuries?" Lantary asked eagerly.
"No, I can't say that. In fact, he was not so badly hurt as you might think. A couple of ribs broken, but nothing worse than that. So I arrested him and Martin and had the ambulance brought round to take Murdstone to a hospital. But he did us on the way. I suppose he had the stuff in his pocket."
"Meaning prussic acid?" Lantary asked.
"Well, the next best thing. Cyanide of potassium. He must have had a pellet in his waistcoat pocket and slipped it into his mouth on the way to the hospital. Anyhow, he is dead, and I don't see what we should gain by making the facts public. Of course, we could take proceedings against Martin, and I dare say we could make things very uncomfortable for the beautiful countess. But whether we should get a conviction or not is quite another thing. My inclination is to keep the thing out of the papers altogether. There is always a certain section of the public who take a sentimental view of every case, and some of the Press might blame us for burying a man under one name whilst at the time we knew that it was nothing more than a pseudonym. We can't punish Murdstone now, because he is beyond our grasp. However, I will let you know one way or the other within two or three days. Meanwhile, I will ask you to accept the grateful thanks of Scotland Yard for the amazingly clever way in which you have handled the business. That is all for the present."
It was an hour or two later before Lantary was in a position to describe the recent developments to the little party which had gathered under the roof of Kindale Castle. Meanwhile, Alcie had been seated quietly in another room talking over past events with her father. The revelation as to his past came as a shock to her, but she could not forget the fact that her welfare had always been his first concern, and that, so far as she knew, he had been one of the best and kindest parents in the world.
"I hoped you would not find all this out, my child," Glynn said presently. "I didn't want you to know about my past, because it has been forgotten long ago, and the name of Rupert Glynn has faded from the memory of all his old friends. I wrote and asked Kindale if I could come down here, and he replied that I should be perfectly welcome. But one thing he insisted upon and that was that you should hear my story from my own lips. And, perhaps, on the whole, it is as well, because now Roy Kindermere knows and you haven't to go through the humiliation of telling him."
"It would have been no humiliation," Alcie said gently. "Because, you see, Roy loves me, and anything that had happened in the past would not have made the slightest difference to his affection for me. And I dare say, in the course of time—"
"No, my child, no," Glynn said firmly. "I am not going to stay here, where I might meet old friends at any time, and I am not going to bring disgrace upon you through chance meetings. Everybody believes me to be dead, except the few that matter, and I am quite prepared to let it go at that. You see, I am a comparatively young man still, Alcie; not 45, and without a grey hair in my head. I am going out to Australia with Wren, who has the command of certain capital, and the earl has promised to put up my portion. You see, he is not really the man that most people take him for."
"Indeed he is not," Alcie said warmly. "He is really a kind and generous friend, only he has allowed himself to fall into a sort of hermit-like state, and come to imagine that there if no such thing as honour or honesty in the world. I felt that from the first moment we met, and, consequently, I was not in the least afraid of him. I think he liked that, father; at any rate, he likes some one who can stand up to him, and I did that, because my instinct told me that there was a heart of gold under all that rugged exterior of his. And when I brought him and Roy together, it was the happiest moment of my life. It would have been so even if there had been no sort of affection between Roy and myself. And now let us go back and join the others in the library."
There, in the library, they found Lantary telling the sequel to the story of the amazing crime in Marrion-square, just as he had heard it from Inspector Dwight, of Scotland Yard.
"Ah," the old man chuckled. "That inspector friend of yours, Lantary, is no fool. It would be a stupid thing if the police allowed the story to become public, and, so far as we are concerned, it is not likely to be mentioned. But I should like to see the countess's face when she hears."
"It's long odds that she knows by this time," Roy said. "At any rate, she must have seen the paragraph in the local evening paper to the effect that the sham professor had been laid by the heels. My dear uncle, I shouldn't be in the least surprised if that audacious lady were to write you a letter asking you to dine with her this evening. She has an almost divine audacity, and, in my mind, I can see her talking to you, and bewailing her misfortune in being beguiled into extending her hospitality to one of the world's greatest scoundrels, under the impression that she had been entertaining a man of science of world-wide repute. Oh, she'll stay down here and bluff it out, all right, but if I were you I should certainly not run the risk of dining with her—"
"Thanks very much, my boy," the earl said dryly. "I have no intention of doing anything of the sort. If she does write to me, I will send a diplomatic reply, containing certain information, which she will be able to read between the lines. Meanwhile, we will forget all about her, and we'll all dine in the state-room this evening to celebrate the great occasion. I can't give you much of a show at present, and I am not going to ask you to dress. But this I can promise you—Kindale Castle is going to be a very different place in the future. I am going to come out as the hospitable head of the county. And I am going to give Alcie and Roy the Dower House to live in when they are married, so that they can be near me, and run in and out of the Castle just as if it was their own. And I hope that that joyous occasion is not very far off."
"Not if I have my way," Roy said boldly.
Alcie glanced from one to the other with gleaming eyes and trying to realise that all this happiness had actually come into her life, which, only a few days ago, appeared to be dreary and blank. And yet, as if some fairy wand had been waved over the Castle, all that had been changed to warmth and sunshine.
"Well, my dear," the earl said. "What do you say?"
"Oh, I don't know what to say," Alcie cried. "It all seems so wonderful and so different from what it was only yesterday. And if Roy really wants me, and it will make you happy, uncle—I may call you uncle, mayn't I?—then I should like to spend a week or two with that dear Lady Eva, to whom I owe so much."
"That is a happy thought of yours," the earl said. "My dear child, it shall be just as you like."
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