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Title: The Hand Invisible
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1200421.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: January 2012
Date most recently updated: January 2012

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------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: The Hand Invisible
Author: Fred M White

*

Author of "The Crimson Blind," "The Law of the Land," etc.

*

Published in The Windsor Magazine, July, 1912.

*



Fleetwood stumbled across the gangway of the Sheffield and staggered
into the arms of a purser. Just for a moment he was on the point of
collapse. By the time he had caught his breath again, and a little
colour was beginning to creep into his cheek, the boat was slowly
beginning to make its way out of the dock. It was yet very dark and
still, for the dawn was a full hour off, and the decks were deserted so
far as every passenger was concerned. The purser grinned good-naturedly
as he steadied Fleetwood on his shaking legs.

"That's a pretty near shave, sir," he said. "Did you manage to get your
baggage on board?"

"I have no baggage," Fleetwood explained. "I have practically nothing
besides my kitbag, and someone on the quay kindly threw that after me. I
hadn't even time to get a ticket. An hour ago I had not the least
intention of leaving England to-day."

The purser ceased to smile. Fleetwood had spoken candidly enough, he had
a frank, open way of looking the world in the face, but these little
things do not always spell honesty, and the purser had seen enough of
men and things not to take everything absolutely for granted.

"I think you had better see the captain, sir," he said.

"That's precisely what I want," Fleetwood replied.

Half an hour later he found himself closeted in the cabin of the
Sheffield with the captain. And Captain Butcher made no secret of the
fact that he did not like it at all.

"You must see for yourself that it is very unusual," he said. "Of
course, there's no help for it now. But if you had come to me half an
hour before, I might----"

"But, my dear sir," Fleetwood expostulated, "is it an unusual thing for
a business man to find himself compelled to catch a boat a moment's
notice? As I explained to your purser, I didn't know an hour ago whether
I should be leaving England to-day. It's a matter of life and death.
You've got me here for a fortnight--I can't run away--and you can keep
as close an eye upon me as you like; and, as far as my passage is
concerned, I can pay that ten times over. How does that strike you?"

Fleetwood took a sheaf of notes from his pocket-book and laid them on
the table. Butcher's face relaxed a little.

"Oh, well, we must make the best of it," he said. "I'm glad you
recognised my position in the matter. And now you'll be wanting a cabin.
By the way, you haven't told me if you intend to go the whole way with
us."

Fleetwood's face grew a little grim and hard.

"That I cannot say," he said. "Possibly my business may be finished by
the time we get to Madeira. I suppose in your time, captain, you have
seen many a drama played out with this ship for a background? And,
unless I'm greatly mistaken, you're going to watch one now. But that is
entirely between you and me. And now may I ask to be shown to my cabin?"

A day or two passed pleasantly enough, and gradually the Sheffield's
passengers began to shake down together. She was not a great boat, and
the saloon boasted no more than forty all told. For the most part, they
were Colonials, and not at all difficult from a social point of view.
There was a frankness and directness about Fleetwood that won for him a
certain degree of popularity. He had travelled widely--indeed, his
profession of mining engineer had enabled him to come in touch with many
countries in the world--he was a good talker and bridge player, so that
he was speedily on the best of terms with everybody. Captain Butcher had
long since forgotten his suspicions, so that Fleetwood's position was
quite a pleasant one.

There was only one passenger who appeared to hold aloof from the rest.
He was a dark, rather taciturn man, who had given the name of Cree. For
the rest, he was supposed to be a merchant with interests somewhere in
Rhodesia. There was something attractive and yet repellant about the
man, and on more than one occasion Fleetwood made an attempt to draw him
out. But, according to his own account, Cree's time was too occupied to
enable him to join in the festivities of the ship. He spent most of the
day in his cabin, and the only time he showed himself was after dinner
in the smoking-room, when the other male passengers were more or less
occupied with their bridge.

On the fifth night of the voyage the bridge play was over earlier than
usual. Fleetwood rose from the table with two companions, and made his
way over to the remote corner of the smoking-room where Cree was pulling
at his pipe in moody silence. He would have escaped if he could, only
just at the moment that the bridge was finished he had ordered another
whisky and soda, and one of the late players had insisted upon Cree
joining them, so that there was no help for it. It was not the first
drink by a good many that Cree had had since dinner, and the fact had
not escaped Fleetwood's attention.

Just for a moment or two the talk was general, then it veered gradually
round to the occult as understood by travellers who had studied the
subject in the East. Fleetwood spoke freely and well, for he knew Tibet,
and the ways of the Mahatma were familiar to him. His hearers followed
him with interest, and one of them, a tea-planter named Stephenson, had
a strange story, too, to tell. It was an interesting conversation, and
not the less so because Cree sat there nursing his long peg glass with a
shaky hand and openly sneering at Stephenson's yarn.

"Do you honestly believe all that nonsense?" he asked.

"Oh, you call it nonsense, do you?" Fleetwood said quietly. "I could
tell you a story which you'd have to believe. I suppose your opinion is
formed by what you read in the newspapers. They are not all to be
laughed at, you know, and I'd like to have a sporting bet with you, Mr.
Cree. I'll bet you a five-pound note that I can give you a demonstration
of occultism that will keep you here till I've finished. All I stipulate
is that you should listen for a quarter of an hour, and, if at the end
of that time you like to leave us, then the fiver is yours. Now, come,
is it a bet or not?"

An ugly sneer crossed Cree's face.

"I'll take you four times the amount," he said. "Now, what's it to
be--hypnotism or blindfold thought-reading, or that crystal-gazing
humbug? I've seen them all myself in different parts of the world, and,
if I had my way, I'd clap all those rogues in gaol. Here, waiter, bring
me another drink, and see that you put in some whisky this time that I
can taste."

"Which do you consider the cheapest form of humbug?" Fleetwood asked. "I
want to give you every chance."

"Oh, crystal-gazing," Cree muttered contemptuously.

"Then crystal-gazing it shall be. Didn't you say that you had got a
crystal somewhere, Stephenson?"

"I believe I have," Stephenson replied. "I've got the whole bag o'
tricks in my cabin."

Stephenson returned to the smoking-room a few minutes later with the
globe of glass in his hand. Fleetwood turned it round thoughtfully,
holding the sphere so that the rays of the electric light fell on it.
Then he placed it on the table and gazed long and earnestly at it, until
he seemed utterly lost to all surroundings. Cree would have uttered some
jibe had not Stephenson checked him with a warning glance. A moment or
two later, and Fleetwood began to speak. His voice sounded distant and
hollow, his eyes appeared to have lost their expression altogether.

"What do you see?" Stephenson asked.

"It's all blurred and indistinct at present," Fleetwood said. "Wait, and
it will grow clearer presently. Ah, I begin to make it out! Here is a
room--a room barely furnished, with no carpet on the floor; there is
only a table and a chair or two, and a roll-top desk between the two
windows. The room is a large one, the panels of the walls are of oak,
and the ceiling is the work of Inigo Jones or one of his pupils. It can
be nothing but a London house in a suburb which at one time was
fashionable. Now it is surrounded by slums and workmen's tenements,
because I can hear the shrill voices of women and the crying of
children. Though the room is so barely furnished, the two candelabra on
the writing-desk are old silver, and the clock on the mantelpiece is
genuine Sevres. It is just like the scene in 'Les Cloches de Corneville'
where Gaspard is discovered counting over his money."

"This is devilish interesting!" one of the audience murmured. "All
humbug, though, I suppose, Stephenson--eh?"

"I've seen too many strange things in the East to disbelieve, Maple,"
Stephenson whispered. "At any rate, our cynical friend yonder is not
altogether indifferent. Look at him."

Maple glanced in Cree's direction. His white, set face was twitching,
and his teeth were bare in an unsteady grin. As a waiter hovered near,
he indicated his empty glass. All this time Fleetwood was going on in a
steady monotone.

"The miser must be somewhere, though I cannot see him yet. His desk is
open, and in the light of the candles I can see some bags of money and
piles of bank-notes. Ah, he's beginning to come at last! He is a little,
dried-up man, with a black velvet skull-cap on his scant and silvery
hair. He closes the door behind him and looks about him fearfully as if
afraid of being seen. Despite his years and the yellow parchment of his
face, his black eyes have all the fire and vivacity of youth. See, he is
seated by his desk, turning over his money and counting it again and
again. The door opens, and a young girl comes in. She is dressed as if
she had just come out of the street; she is clad in shabby garments, and
her pretty face is pinched and wan. She looks as if she knew what it was
to go without proper food. Directly she comes in, the old man pulls down
the lid of his desk and turns towards her with an angry frown upon his
face. The girl is pleading for something, for she holds out her hands to
the old man, she falls on her knees at his feet. Then very reluctantly
and slowly he takes from his pocket a small silver coin, and hands it to
the girl with an expression of resignation on his face. But what have we
got here? The corner of the ragged blind is on one side, and the pale
outline of a face can be seen beyond the grimy pane. It is a white, set
face with dark, restless, greedy eyes, and a mouth slightly twisted on
the left side."

"So's mine, for that matter," Cree laughed.

No one else spoke--they were all deeply interested in following
Fleetwood's strange story. He did not appear to hear the interruption,
for he went on steadily.

"The girl vanishes, and a young man takes her place. He is a fine
youngster enough, with a bronzed face and blue eyes. But the bronzed
face is convulsed in rage now, and the blue eyes are blazing. Just for
the moment it looks as if the old man went in peril of his life; then
the young man throws himself down in the chair and begins to take his
boots off. He leaves his boots by the side of the fireplace, and
produces a pair of carpet slippers from a cupboard in the wall. It is
plain that the young man lives in the house, for he leaves the room
presently, and a door bangs sullenly in a bedroom overhead. The Sevres
clock over the mantelpiece strikes the hour of twelve. It is impossible
to tell the time by the face of the clock, because one of the hands is
missing."

"Waiter," Cree cried hoarsely, "more drink!"

"The white face disappears from the window. The door of the room opens,
and the white face and the uneasy, glittering eyes come in. The old man
turns from his desk, and for the first time his eyes are full of fear.
He crosses over to lay his hand upon the tattered bell-pull, but the
other man bars the way. The old man struggles. For his age, he is
marvellously strong and active, but at last he staggers and falls, and a
cry for help breaks from his lips. There is an open knife on the
mantelpiece--the sort of knife that sailors generally use. The knife has
probably been left there by the young man who is upstairs in his
bedroom. Oh, it is horrible to watch what follows! The old man lies
there in a pool of blood on the bare floor. He is dead. He has been
murdered by the man with the white face and the restless eyes."

"Upon my word, it sounds quite real!" Maple whispered. "I say, Mr. Cree,
you've lost your bet. It's quite half an hour since the seance
began--what?"

But Cree made no reply. He sat there absolutely engrossed in what was
going on. At every pause that Fleetwood made, he wriggled with an
impatience that was almost painful to witness.

"The knife lies on the floor by the dead man's side. Evidently the
murderer is no stranger to the house, because he knows exactly what to
do. He takes off his own shoes and picks up the pair of boots belonging
to the lad who is asleep upstairs. He dips the soles of the boots in the
pool of blood and slips them on his own feet. Then, snatching one of the
candles from the stand, he makes a series of red footsteps on the bare
boards leading into the hall. He is concocting evidence against the
innocent boy upstairs. He crosses to the desk and places everything he
can find there in a bag. There are a good many thousands' worth of
property--twenty-three thousand seven hundred and fifty, to be correct;
a memorandum in the old man's handwriting shows that. All grows
indistinct for a moment."

"You've lost your bet, Cree," Maple chuckled.

"It is all coming distinct again. And here is another man--a man who
gazes with horror at the object on the floor. This man pulls violently
at the bell, the young man from above comes down, the room is full of
people, and the police are here. They ask questions, they clear the
room, they find that knife and those tell-tale footprints. But they do
not find a pocket-book and a cake of tobacco manufactured by a firm in
Cape Town, which the man who discovered the body picked up, for the
simple reason that he has hidden these things in his pocket. Then the
young man with the blue eyes goes off in charge of the police, and once
more the crystal grows blurred and misty."

No word was uttered as Fleetwood rose and stretched himself. Apparently
Cree had forgotten all about his bet, for he sat there white and rigid,
his eyes strained and full of a certain awe. But Fleetwood had not
finished yet. He bent once more over the crystal, and began to speak
again.

"I see many pictures now. I see keen-eyed men bending over the
pocket-book and cake of tobacco. In some way I know that they are
detectives from Scotland Yard. The man who discovered the dead body must
have sent the evidence on to them. I see them comparing those boots with
the footprints; I see them examining the grease stains from the candle
across the floor. They are asking themselves why a young man who knows
the house so well should need a candle. They have found out all about
the owner of the pocket-book; they have discovered that he only landed
in England four hours before the murder, and they are after him before
he can leave the country again. But they are too late--he has already
vanished. Still, he is not destined to escape. For the man who
discovered the body is after him; and the pursuer has the advantage of
having seen a photograph of the murderer, and this advantage is all on
one side. It comes to me in some way that the murderer is a
ne'er-do-well nephew of the poor old man, who has come home on purpose
to rob him.

"And then I see long, black buildings and a forest of shipping, and I
see a vessel leaving the docks, and a man gain her decks just in the
nick of time. And I see myself at this moment with this crystal in my
hand."

[TheHandInvisible.jpg] "He seemed to be struggling hard for some form of
collected speech."

A strange, strangled cry came from Cree's lips as he rose unsteadily to
his feet. The empty glass fell from his hand and crashed upon the floor.
He seemed to be struggling hard for some form of collected speech.

"It's all arrant humbug!" he said hoarsely. "Did anyone ever hear such a
farrago of nonsense? How you men supposed to be possessed of
common-sense can sit down and listen to it, I don't know. For me, I'm
going to bed."

"Oh, that's all very well!" Maple protested. "If it's all nonsense like
that, why did you stay so long? You've lost your bet, though you seem to
have forgotten it."

"I was thinking of something else," Cree muttered. "I had actually
forgotten all about the bet. Still----"

He plunged his hand in his pocket, but Fleetwood shook his head. His
face was grim and hard now.

"And if I refuse to take the money?" he asked. "It is morally and
legally wrong to bet on a certainty, and it was a certainty from the
first that Mr. Cree would stay and hear every word that I had to utter.
We will defer the question of the bet till to-morrow morning. Meanwhile
I have to wish Mr. Cree good night, and may his dreams be as pleasant as
he deserves."

Without another word Cree turned on his heel and left the smoking-room.
He was followed a few moments later by Fleetwood, who declined to carry
the matter any further just then. He was tired and exhausted with his
mental effort, and, if the audience had anything further to say, he
would rather it was deferred till the next morning.

Maple and Stephenson followed him quietly and thoughtfully out of the
smoking-room.

"There's something devilish queer about this," the former exclaimed.
"Made me feel quite creepy. And did you happen to see Cree's face? Never
have I seen such abject funk in my life before. The chap was absolutely
livid. Now, what do you make of it, Stephenson? If it was humbug----"

But Stephenson declined to be drawn.

"Oh, it's no humbug," he said, "and, incidentally, it's no business of
ours. Keep your eyes open and ask no questions, and you'll see things
before long. Good night, old chap."

But Fleetwood had not retired to bed. He sat there smoking till far into
the night; his electrics were burning, and he seemed to be waiting for
something. It came presently towards morning; there was a timid tap on
the door, and a white, ghastly face looked in. The ghastliness of
feature and the glaring, tired eyes were in almost amusing contrast to
the gaudy suit of pyjamas that Cree was wearing.

"May I come in?" he stammered.

"I've been waiting for you for hours," Fleetwood said quietly. "Sit down
and tell your story in your own way."

But Cree paced up and down the cabin.

"I can't sit down," he whined. "Fleetwood, you are the devil! I've heard
of these things before, and I've never believed them; and yet I cannot
doubt the evidence of my senses. What brought those pictures in the
crystal? Why, out of millions of people, was I selected as the victim?"

"Oh, it is a picture from your own life, then?" Fleetwood asked.

"Oh, you know it you devil," Cree screamed, "and yet, as far as I know,
you were on this boat before the murder was committed."

"The murder of Stephen Syme, you mean?"

"Why should I deny it? Do you know, till to-night I never discovered
that I had left that pocket-book and that packet of tobacco behind me. I
could have screamed aloud when you got to that part of the story. If you
have tricked me----"

"Keep to the point," Fleetwood said sternly, "and remember that I never
asked you to make a confession."

"But the police are after me," Cree whined; "you told me all about it
when you were reading the crystal. And you had got it as clear as if you
had been there and seen it all yourself. I came back from South Africa
on purpose to see the old man and get money out of him. I didn't care
much how I obtained it, and nobody knew that I was coming. It was no
difficult matter to get into the house. When I saw the old man sitting
at his desk, with all that money about him--well, I am a desperate man,
and the temptation was too much for me. He was a miserable old miser. I
have known his own daughter appeal to him----"

"I know," Fleetwood said quietly. "I am engaged to Mary Syme, and I came
back on purpose to marry her. But I am saying a little bit too much. You
go on with your story."

"There is no more story to tell," Cree resumed. "The temptation was too
much for me. Within ten minutes I was out of the house and on my way to
the docks. I had all that money with me, and the comfortable assurance
that I should be on the 'Sheffield' before anybody knew that I was in
London. Oh, I'm not defending myself! It was a blackguardly thing on my
part to try and throw the blame on young Matthew Syme. Anyway, I shall
know how to meet my punishment when the time comes. You'll find all that
money in my cabin, and, as for the rest, it must take care of itself. I
can't sleep, Fleetwood--I dare not be alone!"

Cree clasped his hands to his eyes and rushed from the cabin. A moment
later there was a cry and a noise overhead, and a hoarse voice yelling
that a man was overboard.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Of course, he was utterly puzzled," Fleetwood told the captain. "He
died a firm believer in the dark mysteries of the crystal. You see, I
had chapter and verse of the things that happened, a day or two after
the 'Sheffield' left port, and Cree knew that every item was correct. I
was going to see old Syme, and I practically met Cree on the doorstep of
the miser's house as he was hurrying off after the murder. I knew him
from his photograph, but he did not know me. I heard him ask a boy to
get him a cab; I followed and heard the address given. Then I found the
evidence of the crime, and ten minutes after I was on Cree's track, only
just in time. Sentiment is all very well, but I was anxious to save the
money for the family. That is why I played that theatrical game and
frightened a confession out of him. If he had landed in South Africa, he
would certainly have got rid of the money, probably feeling that there
was a chance of being arrested. It sounds cheap, but it was very
effectual."

"Not so clever as he thought," Butcher smiled.

"No, or he would have guessed," Fleetwood replied. "And now I shall be
obliged if you will tell me what I owe you for all those expensive
marconigrams?"


THE END



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