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Title: The Turn of the Tide Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1201871h.html Language: English Date first posted: May 2012 Date most recently updated: March 2013 Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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CONTENTS I VERITY & CO., LTD II CROMBIES WHARF III A BROKEN LIFE IV THE UNEXPECTED GUEST V LOCK IS PUZZLED VI FOUND DROWNED VII ARCADES AMBO VIII A WOMAN'S WAY IX THE TEA-TIME HOUR X A MONTH'S ADJOURNMENT XI A MIDNIGHT INTRUDER XII THE NAVAL GROUP XIII 17 GREENCORN STREET XIV THE PATIENT WATCHER XV BEHIND THE DOOR XVI DOWN THE RIVER XVII THE LATCH KEY XVIII VERA'S GHOST XIX IN THE LABORATORY XX THE MAJOR SPEAKS XXI THE LIVE WIRE XXII THE KAMALOO COPPER TRUST XXIII THE LETTER BOOK XXIV FINDING THE PROOFS XXV THE CASE OF CIGARS XXVI THE HIDING-PLACE XXVII IN THE TRAP XXVIII ONE WAY OUT XXIX EXODUS XXX CROOT'S WAY OUT
The offices of Verity & CO. were situated in Great Bower Street, and had been a feature there for over two centuries. An old-fashioned easy-going firm from the old days, and spoken of with good-natured contempt by more progressive rivals, they were still out in the markets of the world for business, albeit there had not been a Verity in the firm for more than fifty years. They called themselves general merchants trading in mixed cargoes from all parts of the world and, as men go, Mortimer Croot, the present sole proprietor, was regarded as a man of integrity and substance. For fifteen years he had been manager and confidential clerk to an ailing owner, and when the latter was no more Croot quite naturally stepped into all there was left of the once great concern, together with the freehold house in Great Bower Street where the business was carried on. He was a man of fifty now, but looking a great deal less with his alert easy carriage and wiry upright figure and those blue-grey eyes looking out searchingly under shaggy brows. It seemed strange to those who knew him that Croot should be content to carry on in much the same way as his predecessors had done, and in the same old grimy offices looking out at the back on the Thames and in front contemplating a street of gloom and dirt as dingy and ruinous as a decayed tooth in an otherwise healthy set. Not a penny had been spent there any time the last three decades; no paint had brightened up the black front of those offices, which were just the same as they had been when George III was king and the Verities lived over the offices and warehouses, and footpads roamed the waterways by the river and the City lanes almost unmolested. The walls of the house were thick enough to withstand a siege almost, and most of the gloomy offices had iron bars still in front of the windows on the ground floor and basement. Behind the house lay a wide bare strip of ground which had once been a flourishing landing-place bordering on the river, and this was still known as Crombies Wharf, though it had been derelict as long as anyone in the City could remember. There were buildings on it still, strong buildings made of stone and with small windows now all boarded up as a protection against such of the Thames-side youth as disported themselves there after the tide of business had turned for the day. But Croot only smiled when it was suggested to him that he might get good money for this derelict land, and hinted vaguely that he knew what he was doing, and that in time his business friends would find that he was not so easy-going as he looked. So long as he had all he needed with enough for his wants and a little to spare and his charming house at Cray presided over by his adopted daughter Vera, he was not going to worry himself about money-grubbing...
The daily task was nearly over, and most of the staff had already left with the exception of the confidential clerk, Mark Gilmour, Miss Patricia Langley, private secretary and typist, and Geoffrey Rust, a subordinate who held a somewhat remarkable position in the office. He was a young man obviously set in the mould that turns out the clean and healthy athlete from our great public schools and universities. Not particularly handsome, for his features were too irregular, but very wholesome and good to look at, as more than one of his lady friends willingly testified. He was exceedingly well-dressed, his manners were easy and perfect, and he gave the idea of one who has not a single care in the world.
Discipline was relaxed now, and Rust was laughing and chatting with Patricia Langley in the outer office, beyond which the head of the firm was still at his desk. Pat Langley was a dark vivacious beauty, rather small, but with a perfect figure and a smiling face, which was, however, full of strength and resolution, as befitted one who, well-born and educated, had found herself face to face with the world at twenty-one, and had risen superior to her troubles. And she liked Geoffrey Rust perhaps more than she knew.
"Something attempted, something done, to earn a night's repose," Rust chanted. "Do you like the strenuous life, Pat?"
"Have you ever tried it?" the girl asked dryly.
"Oh, come! Haven't I been here every day for two years bar holidays? Am I not the little ray of sunshine in the office? But, thank goodness, my sentence is nearly worked out."
"And you come into your inheritance," Pat said thoughtfully.
"Regular romance, isn't it?" Rust said, showing his even teeth in that attractive smile of his. "City idyll with the real Daily Recorder flair. Pathetic orphan and only son of the type of Roman father who lives for business and never sees his loving offspring if he can avoid it. Dies in Spartan solitude, leaving a will to the effect that his white-haired boy shall, on leaving Oxford, go into a City office for two years and earn his living by the sweat of his brow for the said two years or forfeit his—what's the word?—patrimony. And I've done it, Pat. Now that it is nearly finished I don't regret it. Otherwise I should never have met you."
Patricia Langley smiled with a shadow of wild rose on her cheeks. Before she could reply Mortimer Croot came out of his office with his hat and overcoat on. He smiled in his turn. There was very little of the martinet about the head of the firm.
"I'm going now, Miss Langley," he said. "You might post the private letters that I have left on my desk. I shall have the pleasure of meeting you both again to-night, so I will not say adieu. Rust, you might tell Gilmour that I want him a moment."
Gilmour came in, well set up, grim and clean-shaven, with his suggestion of strength and reserve, very like a well-educated and gentlemanly prize-fighter, as Rust always thought. In the office it was whispered that Gilmour had a past, though nobody really knew anything, and Gilmour himself never made a friend of any of them. He had come there three years ago, and Croot had simply stated that in future everybody must take their orders from Gilmour whenever the head of the firm was absent. And so it remained.
"You wanted me, sir?" Gilmour asked in his quiet way.
"Only just to remind you," Croot replied genially. "Don't forget it is my little girl's birthday dinner to-night. We shall be disappointed if you turn us down, Gilmour."
Croot smiled pleasantly enough, but it seemed to Rust, usually the most unsuspecting of mortals, that he detected a challenge in his employer's eyes, and an answering gleam in Gilmour's.
"I'll do my best, sir," the latter replied. "But those last lot of quotations must be posted to-night. If I can't manage it, may I come down some time later in the evening, sir?"
Croot replied suitably, and Gilmour went back to his office. He was the sort of man who seems to love work for its own sake, and most evenings he was at his post till late and everybody else had gone, letting himself out and locking up, for the firm were of the old type that did not employ a resident watchman.
"I never cottoned to that chap somehow," Rust said to Miss Langley as they turned into the street. "And I hope he will never capture our little Vera. But I don't think Croot would stand that. Besides, Jack Ellis would have a word to say. May I walk as far as Cannon Street with you?"
Pat Langley also lived at Cray, and when Rust had seen her into her train he called a taxi and was wafted off to his own luxurious quarters in Orchard Street, for his daily work in the City by no means implied that he was on short commons so far as money was concerned. And very soon he would be his own master.
Though he passed most of his days in the dingy, dilapidated offices in Great Bower Street, Geoffrey Rust had his own circle of friends in the West End, and, of course, the fellow employés in the firm of Verity & Co. knew very little about this. So long as Geoffrey complied with what he regarded as the onerous terms of his father's will, what he did with his spare time was his own business entirely. Before he went home to his rooms in Orchard Street to dress for the dinner that Croot was giving that night in honour of his adopted daughter's birthday at the Moat House, Cray, which the young man would reach in his own car, he turned into the United Field Club for a cigarette and a cup of tea, and a chat with such kindred spirits in the world of sport as he was likely to meet there. The smoking-room was empty when he entered, and presently there came in a man who hailed him with enthusiasm.
This was his own particular friend Jack Ellis. He and Ellis had been at the same public school, and subsequently at Oxford together, where they had played for their College cricket eleven, and were both finally tried for the university team. They had neither of them got quite far enough for that crowning glory, but they were well known as two polished and reliable bats, and members of the famous and exclusive M.C.C. At holiday times they toured the country together, playing in various local cricket festivals, where they were both welcome guests.
Ellis, however, had his own living to get. He was an Irishman, and the only son of a man who had been a popular K.C. in his time, and who had died before he could achieve the fortune which at one time had seemed inevitable. He had, however, given his son what had seemed to him to be the best of educations, and when he died, Jack had to look to himself. He had been called to the Bar a year or two before, and, whilst waiting for briefs, was obtaining quite a good living in free-lance journalism. He had a graphic and fluent pen, and a positive thirst for adventure. He was a man utterly without fear, brave, and strong, with a strength which his somewhat slender figure altogether belied. He knew the East End like an open book; he had been in opium dens and dubious public houses, where many a robbery had been planned, and on more than one occasion had rendered Scotland Yard a distinct service. Just at the present moment he was deeply interested in the amazing series of robberies which were taking place almost daily on the Thames. Barges and lighters had been relieved of thousands of pounds' worth of valuable goods, and the river-police were at their wits' end to lay their hands upon the most daring and ingenious set of water-rats that the head of the service had come in contact with for many a long day. Ellis had suggested to the editor of the Daily Telephone that he should take up the matter on behalf of that great journal, and do his best to succeed where the authorities had failed. He pointed out that nothing might come of it, but if, on the other hand, he achieved success, then it would be a wonderful advertisement for the smartest of the morning journals.
The editor of the paper in question had jumped at the suggestion; he had placed ample funds at Ellis's discretion, and, for three months now, the latter had haunted the lower regions of the Thames almost night and day. So far, he had had no substantial success, but he was on the track of a daring and utterly unscrupulous gang now, and his hopes were high. During the past year, thieves had stolen from various lighters and barges property to the value of nearly a million sterling, and though some of the smaller fry had fallen into the hands of the police, the big men behind the conspiracy were, as yet, unknown. And they were quite big men, some of them, as Ellis had good reason to know. Despite his hot Irish blood, and that quick impulsiveness of his, he had a wonderful patience which would have surprised his friends, had they only known of it, and so he was waiting his time till he could strike a blow at the very root of the conspiracy.
Something of this he had confided to Rust; at any rate, Rust knew what his friend was doing, and on more than one occasion he had been out at night on the river in the swift little petrol launch which the Telephone had placed at the disposal of their commissioner. There was just the spice of danger about the proceeding which appealed to Rust's sporting instincts. It was he who introduced Ellis to the household at the Moat House, and, therefore, was more or less responsible for the fact that the Irishman had fallen over head and ears in love with Croot's adopted daughter, Vera.
"Ah, here we are," Ellis cried. "And, bedad, you are just the man I want to see. If you've got nothing better to do, perhaps you would like to join me to-night."
"An adventure, Sir Galahad, an adventure," Rust smiled. "I gather from your manner that it is something big, eh?"
"Well, that is as it may be," Ellis said a little more seriously. "But I am on the track, my boy, I'm on the track, and when the explosion comes, it will be a mighty big one. The man behind the whole scheme is a prize fish, and the public will sit up and take notice when the Telephone is in a position to speak. It is only a side show to-night, but if it comes off, then I shall have my fingers on a thread that ought to lead right to the centre of the web. I'd like to count upon you, Geoffrey."
"It sounds tempting enough," Rust observed. "But I am afraid there is nothing doing, so far as I am concerned. I have got an engagement I cannot possibly get out of. You see, it's Vera Croot's twentieth birthday, and the old man is giving a dinner in her honour at the Moat House."
Ellis's smiling face clouded slightly.
"Begad, I had almost forgotten that," he said. "In happier circumstances, I should be there myself, but old man Croot has a strong illogical prejudice against me. He seems to have got it into his head that I am keen on Vera myself."
"Well, isn't it true?" Rust asked.
"Bejabers, you're right there, old man, and I'll not deny it to an old friend like yourself. I was a fool, Geoff, I ought to have kept my thoughts to myself. Vera knows all about them, bless her, and she is just as miserable about the whole business as I am. Then, one night, three months ago, when I still had the run of Moat House, and was dining there, I was fool enough to sound the old man on the subject of the little darlin'. But I think I told you all about it before."
"I seem to have some recollection of it," Rust said dryly.
"Ah, now it's poking fun at me, you are. And I am dead in earnest, and if Vera is only willing I'll marry her in the face of a thousand Croots. She is not his flesh and blood, after all, and I am making enough to keep her quite comfortably. But what's the use of me talking like this? I have got the key of the street, so far as the Moat House is concerned, with a strong hint not to show my face there again. Oh, the old man was friendly enough, very bland and fatherly, and sort of sorry for the white-haired boy who dared to lift his eyes to one of the prettiest girls in the country, and a great heiress to boot. But he hasn't done with Jack Ellis yet."
As he spoke, Ellis dropped his voice and a fighting gleam came into his eyes. Something had evidently stirred him to the depths, and, just for a moment, the sunny, inconsequent Irishman had disappeared, and the primitive man seemed to be carved on his face.
"Why, what's the matter?" Rust cried.
"Ah, well," Ellis said, obviously forcing a laugh. "Tragedy is not in my line, though I have been getting pretty close to it in the last few days. But let's forget it. Perhaps you think I have overlooked the fact of Vera's birthday, but not so, my son, not so. I have a little thing here in my pocket that I want you to give her to-night when you get a quiet opportunity, and tell her that Jack Ellis is not the man to change."
"With pleasure," Rust said. "There are hidden depths in you, Jack, that few people give you credit for. But I know, and if all goes well, then Vera will be a lucky girl."
"That is very nice of you, Geoff," Ellis said with a certain sincerity. "I don't know so much about being a lucky girl, but I shall be a very fortunate man. And how is your little affair going on? You know what I mean!"
"What little affair are you speaking about?"
"Oh, come off it, Geoff; you never were made for a diplomatist. Vera isn't the only girl in the world. I was speaking of Patricia Langley. Do you think I am blind?"
"Ah, well," Rust said. "I suppose onlookers see most of the game. But Pat Langley has her father to think of. As long as the poor old major is in his present state of health she is not likely to listen to anything that I have to say. We are very good friends, and, indeed, I hope something more, but for the present I have to possess my soul in patience."
"Then, bedad, we're in the same boat," Ellis cried. "Still, you are a bloated plutocrat, living on unearned increment, and I am a poor devil of a hack journalist. Now, just let's have one cocktail together, and I must be off. I am only too sorry that I haven't you to rely upon to-night."
Left to himself in the solitude of the dingy old offices in Great Bower Street, Mark Gilmour sat down at his desk in a small back room looking out over the Thames, and proceeded to immerse himself in a mass of correspondence. He had the whole office for his own since the last of the clerks had departed, and a supreme silence reigned everywhere. At that hour in the evening Great Bower Street was absolutely deserted, for it was a business quarter entirely, and, save for a caretaker or night watchman here and there, there was probably not a soul within a quarter of a mile. Outside a gentle rain had commenced to fall through a curtain of fog, which rendered the young March night thick as a blanket. From time to time Gilmour could hear shouts and calls from the river, and occasionally a heavy dray rumbled along the cobbled street. The mice were busy behind the rotting wainscot and the decayed oak panelling on the walls. Once a rat ran across the floor, and dived into a hole by the side of what once had been a magnificent marble fireplace in the old days when Great Bower Street had been a residential quarter for opulent City merchants, what time George III was king. A big grandfather's clock ticked lazily in the corner of the office, and as it struck the hour of eight Gilmour rose and put away the mass of papers before him in a safe.
He appeared to have forgotten entirely that, at that very moment, he was due to dine at the Moat House, and if he had any recollection of this, then there was no sign of disappointment or regret upon that hard, white, battling face of his.
Long before this, he had closed the shutters of the office facing the river, so that not a single ray of light showed through the dusty, cobweb-clad window panes. He listened with a certain dour satisfaction to the dripping rain outside, then he crossed over and pressed his hand upon a spring in the centre of one of the oak panels, which seemed to release a slide, for one of the panels slipped back, exposing a square dark space beyond, from which he took a luncheon basket and carelessly emptied the contents upon the table. He ate the half of a chicken, and drank one or two whiskies and sodas, after which he put the basket back in its hiding-place and took from the same hidden receptacle a suit of blue dungaree overalls and a pair of top boots, india-rubber shod, which he drew over his own neat brown brogues.
Once this was done, he placed an electric torch in his pocket and went down into the black airless basement. This was devoted to offices now, and store-rooms for old ledgers and papers. Right at the back of what once had been a scullery was a flat stone in the floor, which Gilmour lifted with apparent ease, disclosing a flight of steps below, leading, presumedly, into the bowels of the earth. He flashed his torch into this forbidding opening, and whistled a few bars between his teeth. Then a head appeared, followed by a body, and Gilmour was no longer alone.
"That's right, Joe," he said. "Nothing like being punctual. What sort of a night is it?"
"A real beauty for us," the intruder said, in a voice that was hard and husky. "Black as your hat, and a fine rain falling. Can't see your hand in front of you. I have known the river pretty well all my life, but it took me all my time to get across. Got anything to drink about, mister?"
Without further preamble, Gilmour led the way up the stairs into his office. He watched his visitor keenly as the latter proceeded to pour a generous measure of almost raw spirit down his throat. He saw a short, thick-set individual with broad shoulders and legs like pillars standing before him, a man with a hard repulsive face and dreadful bloodshot eyes that bespoke a nature capable of anything. In his thick pilot jacket and trousers he conveyed the impression of one who is familiar with the sea and, indeed, his appearance did not belie him, for Joe Airey had been bred and born on the Thames side, and had passed most of his life in coasting vessels, and at one time might, indeed, have become a Thames pilot, but for the fact that he had found it impossible to remain sober for a week at a time. For the rest, he was utterly unscrupulous, hated work in every shape or form, but was ready to undergo untold danger and prolonged privation if he could only see a suitable reward at the end of it. He had been in jail more than once, and it was characteristic of the man that he was not in the least ashamed of the fact. From Gilmour's point of view he was a treasure, and the money that constantly found its way into his pocket from Croot's manager was exceedingly well-earned.
"It's a rare nice crib you've got 'ere, guv'nor," Airey exclaimed, as he glanced round the room. "Safer than any church, and bang on the spot. Might have been made for our purpose."
"I suspect it was," Gilmour said with one of his acid smiles. "You may depend upon it that the original Verity did a good deal in the smuggling line, or he would have blocked up those passages long ago. You see, this house was once part of the Tower defences, hence that secret waterway at the side of Crombies Wharf, and the underground passage leading to the house. But we needn't worry about that. What have you got to-night?"
"Magnetos," Airey whispered hoarsely. "About fifty cases of them, a nice compact little cargo, not taking up much room, and worth Gawd knows what, once we get 'em back to Germany again. But that's your business, guv'nor. I taps the stuff, and you shoves it away. Been trackin' it for days, I 'ave. They unloads it off the steamer Konig, and tows it up the river in a barge, not three hundred yards away, waiting to be unloaded, and only one man aboard and 'im not very much good."
"Lord, what a set of fools they are," Gilmour muttered. "After all the warnings they have had, too. Only one man, you say?"
"Well, there was two, guv'nor," Airey laughed coarsely. "But one of 'em put ashore for a drink, and 'e goes into one of the pubs we knows of, so I follows and gives the landlord a tip, and they put 'im to sleep proper between them. The cove I speak of won't be aboard the barge much afore to-morrow night, anyway."
"Then we had better get along," Gilmour said.
He was the man of action now, keen-eyed, quick and alert, with his fighting jaw stuck out, and a resolute look on his face. Satisfying himself that the front door was closed and fastened, he made his way, followed by his companion, into the scullery, and thence down the stone steps along a slimy dripping passage that ended presently in a large room, not unlike an underground swimming-bath, which was situated in the very foundations of the ruined building with the boarded-up windows on Crombies Wharf. There was at least five feet of water on the floor, and floating on it a small collapsible launch driven by a small but powerful motor engine.
"Ah, what a beauty," Airey said huskily. "The fastest little craft on the Thames. And silent, too, as mother's grave. But we'd better get along, guv'nor."
"If the tide is right," Gilmour said.
"Which it is, mister. It's right for two hours, anyway. You get up the grating, and we'll be off."
Without further comment Gilmour proceeded to set certain unseen machinery in motion. Then the slimy wooden wall at the far side of the building rose slowly and creakily some four or five feet, disclosing a sort of slip berth capable of holding a large barge beyond, and a few minutes later the launch had slid out of this on to the bosom of the Thames, where the ebb-tide was running strongly. On this, Airey took the helm and, pausing a moment to get his bearings, shot out into mid-stream. There were lights here and there, and occasionally some shouted order on the deck of an unseen steamer that loomed up, ghostly in the fog, through the curtain of fine rain. It was as if they had drifted into another world, but Airey knew exactly what he was doing, and steered the silent little launch along as if he were in the broad light of day.
They came presently with intense caution, and just touched the side of a barge. Airey made the launch secure, and then he and his companion climbed softly on to the deck. It was littered with small packages in deal cases, and Airey chuckled under his breath as he called Gilmour's attention to them.
"There's the stuff," he whispered. "All very politely and kindly laid out for us, as if we was expected. It almost goes to one's 'eart to rob people as confiding as them. No, we'll just go down the caboose and truss up the cove down there, and with any luck, with two or three voyages, we'll 'ave the whole of the boodle stowed away on the wharf in a couple of hours."
Silently as cats, they crossed the deck and crept down the companion ladder into the cabin. A man smoking a pipe and reading a newspaper was seated there in an attitude of easy security, but he was not quite as indifferent to his surroundings as the intruders had thought. His ear had caught a suspicious sound and, almost before Gilmour was in the cabin, he was on his feet. He clutched an iron bar lying by the side of the table, and flung it with all his force in Gilmour's face. It struck him on the shoulder and glanced off. Then the man's face strangely altered, and a sudden cry broke from his lips.
"Lieutenant Ray!" he exclaimed. "I thought you was dead. What are you doing here, you dirty dog?"
Gilmour made no reply. He dashed headlong at the speaker, and caught him by the throat. Airey hung on round the loins of the unfortunate watchman, who was forced to his knees. But the fighting light still blazed in his eyes.
"I know you," he said. "I know you now, and I know what you was doing when I see you last week. Gawd, do you want to murder me? 'Ere, 'elp, 'elp. They'll do for me."
"All right, I'm coming," a voice cried from the deck. "Hold on a minute, Bill; fend 'em off."
It was then that Gilmour showed the stuff he was made of. He dashed his fist to the point of the watchman's jaw, and the latter fell senseless without so much as a groan. Five seconds later, Gilmour and Airey were on the deck of the barge, and making for their boat. They waited not an instant to see in what strength the allies were, but dropped into the launch and, a minute later, were speeding for the shore, taking every risk in their headlong flight for safety. They could hear the alarm raised, then a shot or two and, as if by magic, a police boat came looming out of the fog almost on top of them. Followed another shout and a shrill whistle, and a further police boat moved right across their track. "There's only one thing to be done," Gilmour muttered. "Get out your knife and slit her up, Joe."
In less time than it takes to tell, the trim little craft began to sink, and the occupants were swimming for their lives. With his hand on Airey's shoulder, Gilmour struck out, confident in the local knowledge of his companion. This was not misplaced, for they came at length to the slip, and a few minutes later, spent and breathless, were behind the screen under the old house in Crombies Wharf. The screen was down at length, and they crept along the underground passage till Gilmour's office was reached.
"There's isn't a moment to lose," he gasped. "Did you ever know such infernal bad luck? The man on the barge recognized me; he was my boatswain's mate for three years when I was serving on the China station. And, what's more, he seems to know what I am doing. I shall have to bluff it out. I can't stay here, and I can't get back to my rooms in these wet clothes. I've got it! You cut across at once into Harbour Lane, and find George. Tell him to get his taxi out at once, because I want him to drive me as far as a place called Cray, in Kent. It's only about fifteen miles, and I ought to be there in an hour easy. If Bill Avory—that's the man on the barge—opens his mouth to the police, as he is pretty sure to, and if he really knows who I am, or what I am doing in this part of the world, they are certain to go round to my rooms to inquire. I told my landlady I was dining at Cray, and that I shouldn't be back till late. So she'll be all right. But don't stand staring at me, get a move on. Tell George I will be waiting at the corner for him in ten minutes. Here, stop a minute, I must have some dry clothes. Any old clothes of George's will do. Now, be off."
Once alone, Gilmour sat there, not heeding the cold and damp, and conscious only of the struggle for freedom. Then, when his patience was getting exhausted, he heard the purr of an engine outside, and made his way into the street where the taxi was awaiting him. He paused for a moment as he entered.
"That's all right, George," he said. "You know where to go. And don't worry about the speed limit. Get me to Cray as soon as you can, and drop me at the corner of the lane not far from the Moat House. I can change inside the cab, and you can do what you like with my wet clothes. Is the stuff inside?"
"That's all right, sir," the driver muttered.
In just under the hour the taxi reached Cray, and in his impromptu wardrobe, Gilmour got out and made his way through the lodge gates to the front of the house where he could see the lights blazing in the dining-room windows. A clock somewhere was striking ten.
As he stood there, he could hear the sounds of gaiety and laughter inside, then he crept forward, and very gently commenced to tap with his knuckles on one of the window panes, not quickly, but two or three taps with intervals between. Then it seemed to him that the conversation inside ceased, and he smiled to himself grimly.
Not more than twenty years ago the village of Cray had been a sporting estate owned by the Langley family, of which Major Owen Langley had been the head at the beginning of the twentieth century. He had distinguished himself in the Boer War, from which he returned with every prospect of a successful career. But the unfortunate death of his wife in the hunting field had left him a comparatively young man with one little girl, and he had sent in his papers and devoted himself to the managing of his estate and the bringing up of his child, Patricia.
In those days, the brick and mortar octopus ever stretching out from the Metropolis in search of fresh land to devour had been checked in a south-easterly direction by the barrier of the Moat estate, and for some years this had been a sort of oasis in the dreary waste of jerry-building orgies. But eventually Major Owen Langley had found himself drawn into the vortex. His revenues were falling, and he was compelled to find fresh avenues for the upkeep of the family dignity. So he began mildly to speculate in building land, under the guidance of the last of the Veritys, who lived then in an old Manor House on the edge of the estate, and when Jasper Verity was no more, Mortimer Croot took his place and, under his guidance, Major Langley plunged still deeper.
And then, when Patricia was about seventeen, the crash came. It had come quite unexpectedly, like a bolt from the blue on that particular summer evening when Croot had walked over from the Manor House and had told Langley in plain words exactly where he stood. Patricia still remembered that evening, how she had sat in the drawing-room listening to voices in the library raised more and more in anger, until a door had banged somewhere, and then there was silence. She had heard her father pacing up and down the library, and then the sound of a heavy fall which struck a sort of chill to her heart. She seemed to feel the trouble in the air.
She found her father lying on the hearthrug, a mere fragment of humanity, the shell of a man, with the soul and sense dead within it. And so, from that day to this, Langley had remained. He had lost all power over his limbs, and most of the control over his speech. There were days when he could say certain things coherently, and when he could manage to drag himself from one chair to another. But these intervals were few and far between, and for the most part he passed his days in a sort of moody dream, though he seemed to recognize Patricia's devotion and loving kindness.
But that was all, and then Patricia began to gather what had happened. They were absolutely ruined; there was nothing left of the property, and even Croot's exertions had resulted only in saving a pittance of a hundred a year out of the wreck. And so it came about that the girl and her father found themselves eventually in a little cottage just by the lodge gates, and Croot and his adopted daughter became owner and tenant of the Moat House.
Patricia realized that it was absolutely imperative for her to do something, and she very bravely learnt typewriting and shorthand, and accepted Croot's offer of employment in the dingy old offices in Great Bower Street. And there she had been diligently working for the last two years.
Meanwhile, the Cray estate was altered beyond recognition. Where fields and covers had been, large houses, surrounded by their own grounds, stood. Where the big orchard had been was now the prosperous and sinfully-expensive centre for the Cray shops and banks. Only the Moat House itself remained, with its charming grounds, and there Croot had been established for years.
He still took more than a passing interest in the unfortunate man who occupied one of his cottages more as a matter of charity than anything else. On Major Langley's good days, Croot frequently looked in and did his best to cheer up the unhappy late owner of the Moat estate. But all to no purpose, for, strange to say, Langley seemed to have conceived a bitter dislike for the man whom most people regarded as his best friend. Not that Croot took this in bad part; he recognized the mental affliction that lay at the back of it all, and behaved accordingly. To Patricia herself, he was always the counsellor and guide. He paid her handsomely, far more handsomely than her services warranted, and she was not blind to the fact. Whatever her father might think in that dark mind of his, she was grateful enough.
She came home on the evening of Vera Croot's birthday, and smilingly entered the little sitting-room where her father was seated. It was quite a small room, with a pleasant outlook over the Moat House grounds, and there Langley would sit day after day, looking out as if seeing nothing, with Heaven knows what queer thoughts mustered in the back of his diseased mind. He sat now in a big arm-chair before the old-fashioned fire-place, with a shaded lamp on the little table in the centre of the room. It was customary for one of the servants to come there from the Moat House on most evenings and look after the afflicted man's comfort until such time as Pat came back from the City. Then she would get his evening meal, and afterwards play a sort of patience with him for an hour or two until one of the gardeners from the Moat House came along and helped to put the invalid to bed. Then, if Pat happened to be spending the evening out, the man in question would remain in the kitchen of the cottage until she returned.
"Well, dad," she said cheerfully. "And what sort of a day have you had? Anybody been to see you?"
It happened to be one of Langley's best days, therefore he looked up with a smile as Pat entered. He spoke slowly and painfully, but his words were clear enough, and she could follow them.
"Oh, much the same as usual," he said. "The vicar came in this afternoon and, after he had gone, Lady Broadley appeared. I have not been at all lonely, my dear."
Then he seemed to lapse again into the old mood, and it was quite half an hour before he looked up again with something like the light of reason in his eyes. It was always like this, though there were sometimes days together when he never spoke at all.
"I am going out this evening," Pat said, speaking much as a mother speaks to a little child. "I think I told you that I was dining at the Moat House."
Something like a scowl deepened on the face of the invalid, and his pitifully-slack mouth quivered. Pat watched him apprehensively, because this was the ominous sign of one of those strange outbursts of rage of his, and they were usually followed by a period of utter exhaustion that filled Pat with anxiety.
"Don't you want me to go?" she asked. "I won't, if you would rather I stayed at home. But then, you see, it's Vera's birthday, and if I am not there, she will be cruelly disappointed. And you like Vera, don't you?"
"Oh, I like Vera well enough," the invalid said, in his slow, painful way. "She is a very nice girl, and I am glad that she is no relation to Croot really. She comes to see me nearly every day, and she always brings me something. No, my child, you must not disappoint Vera, though if I had my way—"
Langley broke off in some confusion and a glance in his daughter's direction which puzzled her exceedingly. She knew her father in his dark moods, she knew him in those dangerous bursts of rage of his, but she had never seen him with the light of a great cunning in his eyes before. The mere suggestion filled her with a sort of apprehension.
"I won't be late," she said. "And Sam will be here till I return. Mr. Croot said he would look in presently."
"I don't want him," Langley burst out with amazing energy. "Tell him I won't see him. I hate the fellow. If it hadn't been for him, we should be at the Moat House to-day."
The words came clearly enough, with a certain vigour behind them, but they were dragged out one by one, and curiously clipped at the end of each. Pat said nothing, wisely waiting for the petulant fit to pass away. She could not quite understand this phase of her father's mind. She could remember the day, and not very far remote either, when he and Croot had apparently been the best of friends. She could remember Croot warning the other more than once that some of his speculations were rash to the verge of danger. And when the crash had come, nobody could have been kinder and more considerate than Mortimer Croot. But for him she would never have obtained that position in the City, and many a little comfort enjoyed by the invalid would have been missing.
"All right," she said. "You shan't be worried unless you like. I will go up to the house and tell him not to come. I will say you are not very well this evening and don't want to be disturbed. I am sure he will understand."
Langley laid a shaking hand upon Pat's arm.
"You needn't do that," he mumbled. "I don't want you to do that. Let him come if he likes, it's all the same to me. If he thought for an instant that I—"
Again came the curious hesitation, and again came the look of cunning in Langley's faded eyes.
"Don't you mind me, my dear," he went on. "Put up with me, it won't be for much longer. I know I am a burden to everybody about me, and I dare say you think that I am not grateful. But you don't know everything, my dear, you don't know everything. Now you get me my tea, and then you can go and dress for your party. Ah, what a thing it is to be young! I was young myself once, and I have not yet forgotten it."
It was quite a long effort for Langley, with the words dragging slowly and painfully enough, until he seemed to fall back in his chair, utterly exhausted. Patricia turned away with the tears rising in her eyes, for there was something in the pathos of it that moved her strangely. It seemed sad that her father should speak of himself as an old man, considering that he had barely passed his forty-fifth birthday. There were times, it seemed to Pat, when he was getting better, and she had visions of him restored once more to health and strength, and battling with the world in an endeavour to repair his battered fortunes. Sometimes Pat hugged this delusion for a week at a time, until there came the inevitable relapse, when Owen Langley was worse than ever.
But she put these thoughts out of her mind now, and bustled cheerfully about the little room, preparing the tea. From time to time Langley looked at her with strangely understanding eyes, and the ghost of a smile playing about his lips. And she was very good to look at, with that brilliant dark beauty of hers, and the healthy glow on a face tinged like old ivory. It was as if the invalid were deriving comfort from some beautiful picture.
The meal was finished at length and tidied away, and a few minutes later Croot entered the room. He crossed the floor with that firm confident step of his, and a smile on his resolute lips. If he detected anything like austerity in Langley's glance, he did not show it as he held out his hand.
"I can't," Langley said querulously. "This is one of my very bad days. I can't lift my hand."
Croot smiled again, but Pat flushed a little guiltily. She knew things were not quite as bad as her father said, and in the light of what he had just told her she was feeling really uncomfortable. But Croot was absolutely at his ease.
"Oh, I quite understand," he said. "Don't you move on my account. I thought I would just run in and see how you were to-day. Do you remember what I was telling you the last time I was here? About that piece of land at the corner of Martin Lane? If you can't, don't worry."
"I remember," Langley said slowly. "It was the land we could not sell. It didn't rightly belong to me."
"That's right," Croot said encouragingly. "We thought it didn't belong to you, and we couldn't trace the title. And now, in dealing with the other land that once belonged to Martin himself, my lawyers have found something out. And if I am not greatly mistaken, we shall be able to convince any prospective purchaser that we are the rightful owners. No trouble about selling it either. What I mean is that with any luck I ought to be able to get you something like a thousand pounds for that plot of ground."
"Is that really so, Mr. Croot," Pat exclaimed. "What a godsend it would be. I hope you didn't have much trouble over it. You are a real good friend to us."
"Well, it was a bit complicated," Croot smiled cheerfully. "You know, Miss Pat, that when I get my teeth into a thing I don't often let go. There was something queer behind the business, but when the other people saw I was going to put my foot down, they were only too glad to come to terms. Oh, it's no trouble where the interests of my old friends are concerned. But I will try and make your father understand. Now, you run upstairs and dress, and we will walk up to the house together."
Croot, already in evening dress himself, smiled down in his blandest manner upon the grateful Pat. He seemed to be the very essence and embodiment of genial prosperity as he stood there, big and important, with his back to the fire. With a grateful word or two upon her lips Pat disappeared.
"I hope you can follow all I have been saying, Langley," Croot went on. "In investigating one set of deeds we came upon one from another set which had found its way into the parcel by accident. And that missing document is your title to the property in Martin's Lane. A sort of missing link, if you gather what I mean. Anyway, it's likely to be a lucky find, as far as you are concerned, and, unless I am greatly mistaken, you will be quite a thousand pounds better off in the course of a week or two. What are you going to do with it?"
"Keep it," Langley said with a burst of sudden energy. "Lock it up, hide it under my bed. No more investments for me. I wish to Heaven I had never heard the word mentioned."
He dropped back into his chair again, like the mere rag of a man, nor did he speak until Pat appeared. There was a smile on her lips, and a tinge of colour in her cheek as she stood there in her simple evening frock which she had made herself, but looking, as she always did, the essence of daintiness and refinement and good breeding. Even Langley smiled gently.
"I am quite ready for you, Mr. Croot," she said. "I shan't be very late, dad, and I will come into your room when I get back and make you comfortable for the night."
"We must be getting on," Croot said. "Nearly half-past seven already. Well, good night, Langley."
He passed out of the room with Pat by his side, and closed the door behind him. Then, as their footsteps died away, Langley sat up, alert and vigorous and, raising himself in his chair, stood on the hearthrug with his back to the fire.
"The damned swine," he muttered. "The smug oily scoundrel. Ah, well, I've waited a long time now, but my time is coming, and when it does, look to yourself, Mortimer Croot. Because you need not expect to get any sort of mercy from me."
It was mere sentiment on Pat's part, of course, but she never entered the Moat House without a certain feeling of regret, and perhaps another feeling which was akin to jealousy. Neither had she ever quite forgiven Croot for depriving her, more or less, of the home in which she had been born. Generally she was quite ready to admit the illogical position, but that did not check the pangs she was feeling as she crossed the big cosy panelled hall in the direction of the long drawing-room, where Vera Croot awaited her. Nothing had been changed, the old furniture was there, just as it had been any time the last three centuries, and but for the absence of the family portraits, the old impression remained intact. But it was only for a moment, and then Pat was herself again.
Before the big open grate, with its fire of logs, a figure was seated, a slender figure in white, with fair hair and a pair of engaging blue eyes. Vera was a pocket Venus in her way, very small and fragile, and yet not lacking sufficiency of courage, and an ardent sportswoman. For she was proficient at most games, though she hardly looked it as she sat there in perfect harmony with her surroundings, a study in lace and shimmering pearls.
"I am so glad you came first, Pat," she smiled. "I wanted to have two or three minutes with you before the rest of them came along. It is quite a big party to-night, including a distinguished scientist called Phillipson, and a member of the Government. To tell you the truth, I shall be glad when it is over."
They sat there chatting for a while, until the last of the guests had arrived, then the big folding doors of the drawing-room were thrown back and dinner was announced. They filed into the dining-room that Pat remembered so well, and sat, twelve of them in all, round a big oval table, on which were shaded lights and some magnificent orchids which had been in the conservatories under the old régime. It seemed to Pat that she could recognize every bloom. It was rather a depressing business for a moment or two, but there was consolation in the fact that Vera's taste was faultless. There was no jarring note here, and Pat, unfolding her napkin, resolutely set herself to pass an enjoyable evening.
Most of the people round the table were quite well known to her, and fully appreciated the situation. The one outstanding stranger was tall, with a high forehead and a short grey beard, a distinguished-looking man, who had been pointed out to Pat a few minutes before as Dr. Phillipson, the eminent scientist. He was talking now in a grave voice to his partner. Pat could not quite follow what they were saying, but from an odd word here and there she gathered that the subject was electric energy. Then she realized the fact that Croot was speaking to her.
"I beg your pardon," she said. "What were you saying, Mr. Croot? I am afraid I was not listening."
"Oh, well, it doesn't matter," Croot said. "Go on enjoying yourself. Don't mind me. I like to have young faces round my table, keeps us young, eh, general?"
"I don't admit that I am anything else," General Emerson replied. "A man is as young as he feels, eh, Croot? And if that is true, then you've nothing to worry about."
"No, I suppose not," Croot said. "Nothing like an outdoor life to keep one really fit. I don't get much of it now, unfortunately, but the twenty years I spent in Canada weren't wasted."
Pat sat listening idly to this conversation, until her partner Geoffrey Rust claimed her attention.
"Do you know," he said, "this is the first time that I have met you here on a state occasion. It must feel very strange to you to be sitting here where you have sat hundreds of times before and realize that this was once your own home."
Pat glanced at him with eyes suspiciously moist.
"I am trying to forget it," she said simply.
"Oh, Lord, I beg your pardon," Rust said under his breath. "If you can think of a more tactless remark than that, perhaps you will tell me. I am sorry, Pat."
"Please don't," Pat said. "After all, it is only a silly sentiment, and who knows but what I might be back here again some day in the same place where Vera is sitting now."
"Is that one of your pet dreams, then?"
"Oh, I don't know. Girls are silly creatures sometimes, and yet, stranger things have happened."
"That's true enough," Rust agreed. "Well, we must see what we can do. Fortunately, there are not many dreams of that sort that I could not gratify if you gave me the right, Pat, though I must confess that this one seems rather remote. But you never can tell, and perhaps, some day—"
"Please don't," Pat said. "It is rather a sore subject."
"Very well, we will say no more about it. Still, Croot may not live for ever, though he does look most confoundedly healthy. I suppose it wouldn't do for me to poison him secretly and spend some of my father's hard-earned thousands in buying the Moat House after the funeral? Of course, I know I am talking rubbish, but I want to see that smile of yours back in your eyes, Pat."
Patricia smiled gaily enough now, a little grateful perhaps to Rust for the frivolous note that he had introduced into the conversation. The elaborate meal went, on, with its many courses, and the soft-footed servants moving about in the shadows behind the pools of light cast on the table from the lamps. Most of the guests were laughing and talking easily enough now, and it would have been hard to believe that there was anything but happiness and gaiety concealed below the surface. And yet Rust, regarding his host from time to time, seemed to feel a sort of impression that the big man was not entirely at his ease. Perhaps Pat noticed it too, for they exchanged glances. At the same moment, as if there were some magnetic attraction between the three of them, Croot glanced across the table and smiled none too easily. There was a contraction between his brows suggestive of some physical pain.
"What on earth's the matter with him?" Rust murmured.
"Probably he has got one of his neuralgic touches," Pat replied. "When he was in Canada, years ago, he was lost for two days in a snowstorm, and was badly frost-bitten. He was telling me about it the other day in the office. He made light of it, but I know he suffers a good deal at times. Not for long, of course, but I believe it is severe while it lasts."
"What are you two conspiring about?" Croot asked.
"Ah, that is our secret," Rust replied. "We are not in the office now, sir. We are freeborn citizens, claiming the right to do as we please; in fact, we are democrats, both."
Croot made some facetious reply, and turned easily to his neighbour. It was all over in a moment, but it left a strange uneasy impression in Rust's mind. The dinner came to an end at length, the servants had departed, and the coffee and liqueurs were placed on the table. Cigarettes were handed round, so that it was exceedingly pleasant to lounge there round that perfectly-appointed table with its artistic litter of fruit and the wines glowing like gems in the cut-glass decanters, and listen to the rain dropping on the terrace outside, and the rising wind tossing and moaning in the trees.
"I tell you what it is, general," Croot was saying. "It is all very well for you to take that view, but—"
"What's that?" Vera cried suddenly.
From outside there came a gentle tapping, not regularly, but a soft vibration on the window-panes, that stopped and then commenced again. It was as if some one outside in the rain was trying to call attention to his presence.
"Ah, I know what it is," Croot said. "It's a loose Virginia creeper blowing about in the wind. I have told Edwards more than once to have it tied up again. You might remind him about it to-morrow morning, Vera. I—"
He stopped suddenly, with an expression of pain on his face. The man next to him half rose to his feet.
"All right," he whispered. "Quite all right. Another twinge of that infernal neuralgia of mine. Please don't take any notice of me. It will pass in a minute."
He bent his head over his dessert-plate, and tinkled on the edge of it with a silver fruit-knife. Then, once again, there came the tapping of the branch on the window quickly, and then slowly, and finally it stopped altogether. A minute later Croot ceased to fiddle with his dessert-knife, and the contracted frown between his brows passed and left him smiling.
"That's all right," he said, with a sigh of deep relief. "It is a pretty rotten business while it lasts, but fortunately for me it does not last very long. Here, what are you doing, general? I positively can't allow you to smoke one of your own cigars under my roof. You must have one of mine. If you will excuse me for a moment or two, I will get a box from the library. I have only smoked one myself, but they are quite the choicest I have ever been fortunate enough to get hold of. They were sent me by our agent in Havana. You must try one."
"With pleasure," the general laughed. "It must be a nice thing to be a merchant prince and have agents in Havana. But please don't take all that trouble."
Croot smilingly rose to his feet and left the room. Once he had closed the door behind him the smile left his face, and a hard fighting expression came into his eyes. He looked along the corridor to see that the coast was clear, then moved swiftly along in the direction of the library. As he passed into the room he locked the door behind him and, feeling his way in the dark, found one of the windows at length, and pulling the blind on one side forced back the catch and opened the long French casement. He cracked his finger-joints and stood waiting.
Out of the gloom and rain a figure emerged and crept cautiously into the room. The window was fastened again, the blind dropped over it, and a flood of light disclosed the white anxious face of Mark Gilmour. He sat for a moment, panting like a man who had run far. He was shaking from head to foot.
"What is it?" Croot whispered. "Tell me in a few words. I can't stay with you more than a minute."
"Oh, I know that," Gilmour muttered. "I have been spotted. I had the nearest squeak in the world of finding myself in the hands of the police. I came down here in George's taxi as fast as I could. It's lucky that we were prepared for an emergency of this sort. The police will be after me presently—"
"Police?" gasped Croot. "Is it as bad as that?"
"Yes, damn it, man, didn't I tell you I had been spotted? An infernal piece of bad luck. Man on a barge I had served with on the China station. I believe he recognized me. At any rate, I am taking no risks. The boat is at the bottom of the river, but Joe Airey and myself managed to get away all right. If they do come along presently, then I have been here all the evening."
Croot was the man of action again now. He knew exactly what to do, and the precise way of doing it.
"All right," he said. "Leave it to me. Nothing like an alibi. Listen. You have been here for the last hour or more. You got down too late for dinner, so you walked straight into the house and into the library with the intention of joining us later, when we got back into the drawing-room. You will find all you want in my dressing-room. You know what I mean. Now then, go upstairs and change at once. No occasion for you to ring the bell, or anything of that sort, because everything is up there. You know the way, don't you?"
As Croot spoke he indicated a small door in the side of the library which opened on to a passage, at the foot of which was a staircase, leading to the upper floor, where Croot had his bed and dressing-room. He frequently sat half the night working in his library, and this arrangement suited him perfectly. It meant no disturbance of the other people in the house late at night, and, moreover, enabled him to be elsewhere at all sorts of sinister hours when Vera and the rest were under the impression that he was asleep. Croot was not the man to leave anything to chance.
"I think that will do," he said. "When I get back to the dining-room I will mention casually that you are here, and that you did not like to disturb us in the middle of our meal. I heard your message all right, I told them it was the branch of a creeper tapping on the window. Did you catch my reply?"
"Oh, I got that right enough," Gilmour muttered. "If I hadn't, I shouldn't have been waiting by the window here. Of course, it may be all a false alarm, but I am not taking any risks."
"Of course not," Croot agreed. "Now, perhaps you will go. But stop, lock the library door behind me in case of accidents, and unlock the door again when you come down. You look half-frozen. You'll find a fire in my dressing-room."
"I can do with it," Gilmour said. "I will tell you all about it later on when your friends have gone."
With that he disappeared through the small doorway, and Croot lingered till he heard footsteps overhead, then, hastily snatching a box of cigars from the cabinet, he went back to the dining-room.
"Sorry to keep you so long," he said. "But when I got to the library I found my man Gilmour there. It appears he got down here too late for dinner, so he wouldn't disturb us, and walked into the library. He will join us in the drawing-room presently."
"What a funny man he is, dad," Vera said. "It seems strange that a man who has been all those years in the Navy should be so shy. He might have come in and had dessert with us."
"He's a fine fellow, all the same," Croot said heartily. "Here you are, general, and I hope you will enjoy it."
They sat there for some little time longer, perhaps half an hour or more, whilst the general smoked his cigar—for which he had nothing but praise—and then, at a sign from Croot, Vera rose and, followed by the rest of the ladies, made her way across the hall into the drawing-room.
"Just another glass of port," Croot said. "Then we will follow. Rust, you might go as far as the library and ask Gilmour if he won't come and join us in a glass of wine. His devotion to duty has cost him a good dinner, but that is no reason why he should be penalised over his port."
"Certainly I will," Rust said.
He rose and left the room, and as he did so a footman came in with a visiting card on a salver.
"A gentleman wishes to see you on important business, sir," he said. "He won't keep you many minutes."
"Ask him into the library," Croot said quite coolly.
He made no comment, he did not change his expression by so much as the blink of an eyelid. And yet there was something ominous and dangerous about the shining pasteboard lying on the table. It bore the simple inscription of—
INSPECTOR RICHARD LOCK,
NEW SCOTLAND YARD.
Rust walked into the library, the lights of which were turned on now, and found Gilmour seated there smoking a cigarette, and more or less busy over what appeared to be a mass of accounts which lay on the big leather-bound table before him. There was no great friendship between the two men, though they were both in the same office, for Gilmour regarded Rust as a mere amateur and dilettante whose presence in Great Bower Street was a mere episode, and from Rust's point of view Gilmour was a money-making machine whose horizon was bounded by commercial opportunism. But they were guests under the same roof now, and it behoved Rust to be polite.
Still, Gilmour showed a very presentable appearance as he sat there in his immaculate evening dress, neat and well-groomed, as if he had just turned out of his chambers on his way to dine somewhere. He would have passed anywhere from the sleek well-brushed head to the patent leather pumps on his feet. He was warm and comfortable now, and it was almost impossible to connect him with the shivering hunted creature who had crept breathlessly into the library not more than half an hour ago.
"Hullo, Gilmour," Rust cried, "still hard at it. Scorning delights and leading laborious nights, as the poet would have said had he only thought of it. Never saw such a chap to work since my old father died. You missed a clinking good dinner, anyway."
"Somebody must work," Gilmour replied with the thin ghost of a sneer on his lips. "We can't all be mere probationers like you. Fact is, I was detained at the last moment and got here after you had all gone in to dinner. I got here by the train that reaches Cray at 8.30, and walked on with my pumps in my pocket like any other clerk enjoying his employer's bounty. So whilst you were dining I thought I would do a little work. Don't let me keep you from the feast of reason and the flow of soul, Rust. Such fleeting joys were over for me years ago."
"You talk like an old man," Rust retorted. "As a matter of fact, I came here to fetch you. The ladies have retired to the drawing-room, and the old port is on the festive board. Croot won't be happy till you come and sample it."
"You put it so nicely that I should be churlish to refuse," Gilmour said. "Lead the way, will you."
As Gilmour rose the door of the library opened and a footman entered, followed by a stranger who carried a hard felt hat in his hand. He was rather tall and powerful-looking, with a pair of keen black eyes, and his heavy chin was only partially concealed by the beard that covered it. He shot a glance at Rust and his companion, and the former had a queer feeling that the man with the beard was committing his features to memory. Gilmour did not seem to notice the stranger at all, or if he did assumed not to do so, for he strolled leisurely in the direction of the hall with a blank vacuousness on his face. But the hand that held the cigarette he was smoking was none too steady, if Rust had only been looking.
"Looks like a policeman," he laughed. "Come to arrest Croot on a charge of forgery, no doubt. The old story of the City man who is leading the double life, quite after the manner of the best detective stories. You are in it too, probably."
"Do you expect me to confess?" Gilmour asked with what was a poor attempt at gaiety. He was the type of man who always joked with a truculent air. "I should prefer to fight it out, Rust."
Geoffrey was quite sure of it. One glance at the thrust-out jaw and hard combative eyes of the other was sufficient to show that much. In a vague sort of way he wondered why it was that Gilmour always appeared to be living on the defensive. Was there something in his past that he was eager to conceal?
In the dining-room an eager and attentive group had gathered around Professor Phillipson, who was talking learnedly on the subject of crime. He was more or less attached to the Home Office in a capacity of adviser in certain matters, and apparently Croot was drawing him out. He stood, a commanding figure, with his back to the big carved fire-place, and somebody had turned on the pair of electric brackets on either side of the great carved grate.
"With all due deference, Mr. Croot," he was saying as Rust and his companion entered the room, "with all respect I submit that the limits of criminal ingenuity are not yet plumbed. As an example, take the latest form of burglar-proof safes and strong rooms so called. No sooner is one of these placed on the market than the trained thief comes along and demonstrates its futility. It is precisely the story of armour plate and the new projectile that can pierce it over again. Your modern super-criminal is no mere ruffian who resorts to force and violence, but a man of education, highly skilled and trained in the ways of his craft. He is the member of an established profession. Some of them have had public school and university educations. I once knew a man who served a seven years' apprenticeship to lithography and engraving in order to qualify as a bank-note forger. He made quite a fortune, and died in the odour of sanctity, so to speak. He was never convicted."
"Quite a new opening for our boys," Croot laughed. "Forgery and murder as a fine art. The quiet putting away of stubborn octogenarians who obstinately stand in the way of the waiting generation and all that sort of thing. But happily medical science is too advanced to permit of that, at any rate."
"So the world of optimists imagine," the professor said dryly, "but it is not so. To begin with, there are many poisons known to science that leave no sort of trace behind, but happily these are seldom within the reach of the homicidal criminal. Still, there are other ways. I have one of them under my observation at the present moment, a very cold-blooded affair."
"This is confoundedly interesting," the general said. "Do you mean an attempted murder?"
"No, I am alluding to an accomplished fact," the professor replied grimly. "A conspiracy to get a troublesome person out of the way. A man is picked up dead miles away from his own house. He has apparently been in the—"
The speaker stopped abruptly and bit his lip. He was like a man who has been talking to himself and suddenly wakes to realize when almost too late that he is the centre of a curious audience.
"Pardon me, gentlemen," he muttered, "but my professional zeal carries me too far. I had forgotten for the moment that the matter in question is at present entirely between me and the Home Office. I am afraid that I cannot tell you any more."
The professor puffed at his cigar again, and an awkward silence followed. Rust took up the thread.
"Haven't you forgotten something also, sir?" he asked, turning to Croot. "I mean your visitor in the library."
"Bless my soul, so I have," Croot cried. "Please excuse me, I will be back in a few minutes. If I am detained by some troublesome business, please join the ladies."
With this Croot strolled off leisurely in the direction of the library as if he had no single care in the world. There was a genial smile on his face as he confronted Inspector Lock and offered a gold cigarette case to the intruder.
"Not just at present, sir, if you don't mind," Lock said. "I have to apologize for coming here at this time of night, especially as I understand that you have friends to dinner."
"My daughter's birthday," Croot explained casually. "Quite an informal affair with nobody but old friends present. I assure you that I am quite at your service, Mr. Lock."
"Well, sir, it is like this," Lock proceeded. "As a general merchant yourself you must be aware that there has been quite a wholesale amount of plundering going on in connexion with the overseas carrying trade. Thousands of pounds' worth of goods are stolen every night from barges and lighters on the river. The river-police are at their wits' ends to cope with the trouble. The general direction of the new scheme has been placed in my hands."
"I am exceedingly glad to hear it," Croot said heartily. "It is high time that something was done. As a dealer in practically everything that comes from overseas I have been a great sufferer from these depredations. But no doubt you have heard that. I have complained often enough. Not that I lose much from the mere L.S.D. point of view, because I'm always heavily insured. But the insurance rates are getting alarmingly high, and there is the worry of not being able to make delivery. If you really have got on the track of these clever scoundrels I shall be delighted. I am quite convinced of the fact that they are not ordinary thieves. Their intelligence department is marvellous, and they go unerringly to the most valuable plunder and, what is more, know exactly where to find it. But perhaps you have discovered—"
"I think I have, sir," Lock interrupted. "I believe that the man who has worked the whole plan of campaign and who is in a position to supply almost priceless information is a man in your own employ, and but for a bit of bad luck we should have captured him red-handed an hour or two ago."
Croot jumped from his chair, and his cigar fell to the floor.
"God bless my soul," he cried. "Mr. Lock, you are not seriously asking me to believe that. Why, most of my people have been with me for years. Absolutely trustworthy."
"What about Mr. Gilmour, sir?" Lock asked.
Lock launched his bomb quietly enough, but there was no mistaking the gravity of his manner. It was almost as if he were making an accusation against Croot himself. The latter threw back his head and laughed as if something had amused him heartily.
"My dear sir," he said. "This is really funny. My manager and confidential second-in-command. Why, if Gilmour wanted money by the thousand at a time he has only to help himself to mine, and I should never find out. I am taking it very easy these times, and he has the control of everything. Besides, he knows that before long the business will be his. And Gilmour is no fool."
"He has been with you a long time?" Lock asked unmoved.
"Five years on this side, and more than that in Canada, where I came from to take over from Verity's when they retired, or rather the business retired from them. As a matter of fact, Gilmour was born somewhere in America, the Argentine, I believe, and he is the best servant I ever had. But stop a minute. You recognized him about a couple of hours ago on the Thames engaged in some underhand work and recognized him for my manager?"
"I didn't, Mr. Croot, but a man called Avory who was on the barge which was being raided did. He told me after the raid failed and the thieves got away that he recognized Gilmour as a man who was once in the Navy, and who had been in some sort of command in the ship where Avory was boatswain's mate. I was fortunate enough to find out where Gilmour is lodging, and went there to look for him, and was informed that he was dining out to-night."
"And so you came down to Cray to warn me and perhaps find out if my man was really dining from home as he gave his landlady to believe. He is in the house at the present moment. He was detained at the office too late to get here in time for the early stages of the meal, but he arrived by the train that reaches Cray from Charing Cross at 8.30, and is now in the dining-room."
Croot dropped all this out quite casually and without the slightest suggestion of triumph. It was much as if he were humouring some persistent child. He could see that Lock had lost a deal of his confidence, and that for the first time he seemed not so sure of his ground. But he was not yet entirely convinced.
"Don't you think you have made a mistake?" Croot insinuated.
"Very possibly, sir," Lock admitted cautiously. "But after having said so much I should like to make your mind quite easy on the matter. You see what I mean, sir?"
"Oh, I quite see what you mean," Croot laughed. "Your feelings do you credit. But let me assure you that so far as anything you have said goes I am quite easy in my mind. In the circumstances the best thing to do is to see Mr. Gilmour and examine him for yourself. Tell him frankly what this man Avory said, and give him the chance to clear himself in such a way as to avoid any sort of gossip or scandal. You will find him very reasonable."
"That would perhaps be the best way," Lock agreed. "Of course, Avory might have been led away by a chance likeness, and if that is so, why then we need say no more."
"Perhaps, but I don't think that Mr. Gilmour will be inclined to let the thing drop quite so casually as that," Croot interrupted. "He ought, at any rate, to have the chance of hearing what you have just told me. I'll ring for him if you don't mind."
Gilmour came a minute or two later, cool and self-possessed and entirely devoid of his usual aggressive assertiveness. He seemed quite at home there, and easy in his beautifully-cut clothes.
"I think you sent for me, sir," he murmured with no more than a casual glance at Lock. "May I ask what—"
"I think it is up to you to explain, inspector," Croot said.
Lock repeated his story again in tabloid form, whilst Gilmour listened with a smile on his face. He conveyed the impression of a child listening to some boring lecture from some despised master. Then he laughed quite good-naturedly.
"Quite amusing," he said. "So this faithful watchdog on board the barge claims to have recognized me for somebody who was once his superior officer in His Majesty's Navy. Incidentally, I may say that I never was in any navy. For all practical purposes I am a man without a country, being the son of an Englishman born in Los Angeles who married a Canadian woman. I spent most of my life in Canada, where Mr. Croot met me. Did this—er—Avory tell you what was my other alias when in the service?"
"I don't think he did," Lock admitted. "But you have quite convinced me that he has made a mistake. No doubt he has seen you in Great Bower Street and confused you with somebody he knew years ago. The mere fact that you were dining here—"
"But I wasn't," Gilmour carefully corrected. "I changed at the office and came on later, being detained at work till too late to reach here in time for the dinner. I arrived by the train from Charing Cross that reaches Cray at 8.30. I presume you found out my address and saw my housekeeper—"
"I got your address and the number of your flat from the telephone directory," Lock explained. "Avory gave me your name as Gilmour employed by Mr. Croot. He said he had known that you were in business in Great Bower Street for some time. It was your housekeeper who thought you might be down here."
Gilmour smiled to himself. He could see quite plainly how the officer had laid his trap to catch him.
"Oh, well," he said. "These chance likenesses are frequently the cause of trouble. But finally to dispel any further doubt in the matter, look at this."
From his waistcoat pocket Gilmour produced a slip of blue cardboard which he handed to Lock. It was a half of a first-class return ticket between Charing Cross and Cray, taken out that day.
"There you are," he said. "My ticket purchased at the booking office about 7.45 this evening by myself. The first half you can no doubt inspect at Cray station. And perhaps after that you may regard the alibi as proved, Mr. Lock."
"Quite," Lock said shortly. "There is obviously a mistake somewhere. I am sorry to trouble you, but I had to make inquiries. I wish you good night, gentlemen."
Though Jack Ellis would have smiled at any friend who called him a business man, he was quite thorough in his methods, and, once he had set his mind upon a thing, had the true bulldog grip. Whilst waiting for his chance at the Bar he had taken up journalism with all the cheery enthusiasm of his nature and, having some gift of expression and a natural nose for the essentials, had been more than successful from the start. He belonged naturally to the gregarious type of animal, and crowds, especially plebeian crowds, appealed to him irresistibly. So in search of "copy" he had gravitated to the East End, and when he had read of those impudent depredations along Thames-side he had started to investigate.
Luck had helped him from the first. He was utterly fearless; he had a fine knowledge of what was once called "the noble art of self-defence"; he was quite at home wherever a boat was to be found, and before many weeks had elapsed he knew as much about the lower reaches of the Thames as many a waterman who had spent all his life there. Before long his river-side sketches were quite a feature in the Daily Telephone, and after he had been of service to the river police on a certain memorable occasion he had enjoyed the confidence of the authorities, and a launch had been placed at his disposal by the pleased proprietors of his own paper.
He was doing good work for that enterprising journal, beyond the shadow of a doubt. To further his investigations he took rooms in the neighbourhood of Wapping, and mixed freely with the people who frequented the public houses and drinking shops there, often enough in disguise, and by this means and a judicious outlay in the way of liquid refreshments made friends in the best local quarters. It was in this way that he came in contact with the man called Bill Avory, an old naval man now engaged as a minder of barges.
Early on the afternoon of the day of the birthday dinner Ellis and the man Avory were seated in the bar parlour of the Green Bay, which was situated in a slum off Wapping High Street, peacefully engaged in drinking beer. In his thick pilot clothes and sea boots and with a short clay pipe in his mouth Ellis looked quite as disreputable and undesirable as his companion. But he had the satisfaction of knowing that he was not wasting his time.
"It's me and old Joe on the Stella to-night, guv'nor," Avory was saying. "We're taking a load o' stuff from the steamer Mark Henry above the Tower Bridge, an' we're a-watchin' of it to-night till the consignees can take it off in the mornin'. Machinery, it is, in packing-cases small an' 'andy for them chaps as is allus on the look-out for the right stuff. Motor parts mostly, I'm told. An' 'ere's wishin' I were well out of it. Wi' valuable stuff like that 'ere about, two on us ain't enough on the barge. If as 'ow you're out in your boat tonight you might give us a look-up, guv'nor."
"I'll do that with pleasure, Bill," Ellis replied. "So you think that the stuff is marked."
"Aye, I do that. You pipe that bloke over there with the red beard. Ah, 'e could tell yer somethin' if he'd a mind. Never done a day's work in 'is life, an' yet 'e's got a week-end cottage at 'Earn Bay, bless yer. Ony 'e don't think as anyone knows it."
Ellis glanced under his brows at the man with the red beard. He was drinking with half a dozen other men of a like kidney, and evidently carried weight with them. The bar was full of loafers and sodden-looking derelicts, all of them obviously work shy. The whole place reeked of stale beer and the sweet warm odour of gin. Outside in the dull leaden atmosphere of the lane the neglected child-life of the place played and fought and wept in the unsavoury gutters. But Ellis did not notice it.
"He doesn't look like a millionaire, Bill," Ellis smiled.
"An' 'e ain't, neither," Avory grinned. "Not but what 'e makes a goodish bit all the same. This 'ere is a big thing, guv'nor. It's my belief as there's 'eavy money behind the game, found by them wot lives in the country and drives their thousand-guinea moty-cars. Gents as drinks their wine regular and plays that Scotch crokay as they calls it on Sunday. I 'ears things, mind you, and I'll 'ave something good for you yet."
"I shouldn't wonder if you were right, Bill," Ellis said as he knocked out his pipe and strolled towards the door. "I shall be out in the boat to-night, and will give you a look up."
It was after seven o'clock before Ellis got back from the West and ate his simple supper in the dingy lodgings where he had elected to put up for the present. Then in the driving rain and mist he went down to the wharf where his motor-launch was moored, and a little later he was out on the bosom of the river. Not that he had any particular object in view except the chance of some adventure which might turn out useful from a journalistic point of view. It was a thick black night with a fine rain falling, and something in the nature of a fog hanging over the water. And so in the course of time Ellis drifted into the vicinity of the barge called the Stella, on board of which was Bill Avory and his mate. It would be just as well perhaps to give them a call and see how they were getting on.
He ran the motor-boat under the counter of the barge, and as he did so his nerves tightened up and his senses grew alert, for from the tiny cabin of the barge came a clear cry for help. In a few seconds Ellis had scrambled on to the deck. He shouted encouragement as if he were merely the advance guard of a party, and as he made out his bearings two figures shot by him and dropped into a boat on the far side of the barge and opposite to the quarter from whence he himself had come. Before he could interfere the boat was pushed off and had vanished into the fog. Out of the mists Ellis could see the faint outline of a police launch.
"All right," he shouted, "I'm Ellis. I'll see what is wrong here—you leg it after those chaps."
There came an answering cry, and Ellis dived into the cabin as Avory scrambled to his feet and began to have some hazy idea as to what had happened to himself.
"Mean to say that you are alone here?" Ellis asked.
"Looks like it, don't it?" Avory growled. "My mate went off to get some beer an hour ago, and 'e ain't back yet. Some of the gang got 'old of 'im most likely and nobbled 'im. But I tumbled to one of the rotten blighters any'ow."
"You mean to say that you recognized one of the gang?"
"Aye, that I did, guv'nor. Two of 'em comes creepin' down 'ere an' drops on the top of me before I knows as they are about. When I yells out an' I 'ears your voice the first chap catches me a clip on the jaw that knocks me out, but not afore I calls 'im by name an' I see as 'e pipes me. An' 'im a regular toff."
"Oh, indeed. Who might he be? Do I know him?"
"Very like. 'E's a sort of boss in one of the big offices in Great Bower Street, manager 'e calls hisself to Verity & Co. Name o' Gilmour they tells me. But that worn't the name I knowed 'im by when I were in the Navy. I spotted 'im ages ago as an old enemy, but I didn't say nothink, because I allus believe in letting bygones be bygones, and if the bloke likes to call hisself by another name it don't concern me. But the bloke what copped me on the jaw is the same as calls hisself Mr. Mark Gilmour."
Ellis sat there without comment, but seeing a deal of light in what hitherto had been a very dark place to him. A score of little things began to assume large proportions. But it was no part of his policy just then to say anything about this to his companion. He would know what to do when the time came.
"Perhaps I had better hail the next police boat and send off to find your mate," he suggested. "If the man has been got at it would be just as well to find out."
A little later Avory was relieved by a police patrol, and Ellis was getting Inspector Lock on the telephone.
Lock had quite a lot to say. A police patrol had very nearly caught the raiders and was under the impression that they had sunk their boat. If that was so, then the thieves must have been drowned, a solution that did not altogether satisfy Ellis. He had a suggestion to make.
"They were probably prepared for that," he said. "If you don't mind, it would be as well to find out at once where Gilmour is to be found. I know the man personally; I have met him more than once at his employer's house at Cray, and the more I see of him the less I like him. He may try to get to Cray to-night to establish an alibi. If he isn't at his fiat, and his housekeeper doesn't know where he is, wouldn't it be worth while to rush off to Mr. Croot's house at Cray and make inquiries?"
"Not at all a bad suggestion," Lock replied. "If Mr. Croot is in this business himself—"
"But that's all nonsense, you know, Lock."
"Probably, but you never can tell. Anyhow, there are both brains and unlimited money behind this business. I'll run down to Cray at once, and you can come and see me in the morning."
But there was nothing very definite for Ellis when he called on Lock the following day. He listened attentively to what the inspector had to say, and was forced to agree with him that Bill Avory had made a mistake in the identity of his man.
"He must have done," Lock said. "Gilmour was in the house when I got there not so long after the affray, and he was in evening dress and quite calm and collected. He was very frank as to his movements, and volunteered the information that he had come there too late for dinner by the train reaching Cray from Charing Cross at 8.30. He couldn't have got from the river in his wet clothes and changed and bathed and got to Cray in full rig before my arrival unless, of course, Croot was in the conspiracy. And that is a thing I am not suggesting. But the big point in Gilmour's favour is that railway ticket. I mean the return half of a first-class between Charing Cross and Cray. Only one first-class ticket was issued at Charing Cross to Cray by that particular train, and the outward half was duly delivered up at Cray, and, according to the number, the inward half was in Gilmour's possession. We can't get over that."
Jack Ellis was duly impressed by this statement. There was no getting away from the simple facts that went to prove that Gilmour was not the man who had raided the barge. And yet Bill Avory had been very positive in his statement. Was it possible that Avory himself was playing a trick on him. Lock voiced this suspicion in the next thing that he said.
"What do you know about this man Avory?" he asked.
"Well, not much," Jack confessed. "He has a daughter who is a housemaid at the Moat House, Cray, which is Mr. Croot's place, as you know. I happened on Avory one day when I was there, and he came to see the girl, and we began to talk on the way to the station. We became more or less friendly after that. But I will have another chat with Avory on the matter. He lives in lodgings not far from my temporary slum in Wapping, and as he is generally engaged on night work, I shall have plenty of chances. But I am afraid, after what you have said, that he has made a big mistake."
"Looks like it," Lock agreed, "very much like it. Did Avory happen to mention the name under which he had known, or believed he had known, this man Gilmour?"
"No, I don't think he did. If so, it escaped me in the excitement of the moment. But I can easily find that out."
"I wish you would, not that it will make much difference. I am afraid that we are on the wrong track this time, though I entirely agree with you that this business is not the work of the usual gang of river thieves. It's too big to begin with, and the scheme is too thorough. I can't see a common or garden receiver of stolen goods financing this problem. To begin with, they never do that on a big scale because the risks are too great. The master brain behind this scheme is getting away with thousands. The stolen stuff is smuggled away in some warehouse rented by somebody who has a reputation for high integrity, and from thence shipped abroad again through some firm or firms of innocent brokers who are handling the stuff in all good faith. And there is another thing which is still more important from our point of view. You must have noticed how these chaps invariably go for the really valuable cargoes. There is no wild raid, picking up anything that comes along. Oh dear, no. Nothing but the very best. In the office of some great outstanding firm of importers is a confidential clerk who has the privilege of knowing most of the valuable cargoes that come into the port of London, and how they are handled. This information is conveyed by some underground channel to the actual marauders themselves, and when the stuff is raided it is conveyed to some secret hiding-place for re-shipment abroad. I feel quite certain I am right so far."
"Then there are thieves on the other side of the water as well. A sort of international bureau, so to speak?"
"Not necessarily. It is difficult to earmark goods, especially after they have been repacked as these must be. I am afraid that you will have to wait a long time yet, Mr. Ellis, before you can give your paper a scoop over the river robberies. Anyhow, see Avory again, and try and get something more definite."
There was no more to be said for the moment, and Jack Ellis went on his way thoughtfully. For the moment at any rate his dream of a fine newspaper sensation was exploded. It had seemed to him that he had Gilmour in the hollow of his hand, and, moreover, everything had tallied with the theory he had formed. He had always disliked Gilmour from the first, and a fine instinct had told him that the latter was a dangerous rival so far as Vera Croot was concerned. Not that there were any outward signs that Croot was disposed to regard Gilmour as a prospective son-in-law, but from one or two little things Jack deduced the worst. And, moreover, since he had allowed Croot to know what his aspirations were, he had been quite courteously asked not to show his face at the Moat House again.
Vera had seemed to concur in this drastic ultimatum, but she was not taking it as quietly as her adopted father imagined; in fact, she was regarding herself as something of a martyr. That she was in correspondence with Ellis, Croot did not dream for a moment.
But there were other things to occupy Jack's attention for the moment. He had his more or less regular work on the Telephone, for one thing, so that he had no opportunity of seeing Bill Avory for the next day or two. Meanwhile, he heard nothing from Lock, and he was forced to the conclusion that he would have to look in other directions if he were to do anything big in the way of unearthing the gang responsible for those amazing robberies on the river. That they were still flourishing he could see by the daily papers.
Three days had elapsed before he found half an hour to spare, and dropped in at Scotland Yard to have a few minutes' chat with Lock, who, fortunately, was not busy at the time. He seemed rather grave and preoccupied as Ellis came in and dropped into a chair.
"You are just the man I wanted to see," he said. "Did you look up the night watchman Avory as you suggested?"
Ellis explained that he had not had the time. Lock looked more grave and disappointed than ever.
"Then you will never know now what was the name of the man in the Navy whom Avory took Gilmour for. Late last night Avory's body was found floating in one of the ponds at Hampstead—drowned. There were no marks on the body, and it looks like a case of suicide. His watch and his money were intact. Still, it's a very sinister happening in the face of what we know. He has just been identified by the woman with whom he lodged. What do you make of it?"
"To quote the one and only George Robey, 'that's that.'" Croot smiled knowingly as he saw the last of the discomfited Lock, and helped himself to another cigarette. "Still, it was rather a near shave, and I hope such a thing will not occur again."
"Sounds like a schoolmaster talking to an unruly boy," Gilmour laughed unpleasantly. "Anyone would think you were blaming me for what happened. It's a great game that we are after, and the profits are enormous, but the risks are nearly as big. So long as your hide is safe, what have you to complain of?"
"I'm not thinking of myself altogether, Mark."
"Perhaps not, but you are no philanthropist. You must admit that I was quite ready for our friend Lock to-night."
"Oh, I give you full marks for that; at any rate he was all at sea and quite satisfied that he was on the wrong track. That return ticket of yours was a real brain wave. How on earth did you manage it? A real ticket, too."
"Of course it was a real ticket. A forgery would have been detected at once. As I take practically all the risk and do all the dangerous work I naturally cover my tracks as far as possible. Besides, I had a feeling that something was going to happen this evening, Lord knows why. But I had. And it did. It was real bad luck to barge slick into a man who knew me years ago when I was in the Navy, and on my own ship, too. Bill Avory tumbled to me at once, though we have not met for at least ten years. And, what's more, he has been aware for some time that I have been engaged in the neighbourhood of Great Bower Street. Avory was always a decent fellow, though he had nothing to thank me for, and probably when he spotted me and realized that I was leading a presumedly decent life in the city he kept his own counsel."
"Then he knew all about your little—er—trouble?"
"Of course he did. He was on the Sharkstooth at the time of my arrest, and heard the result of the court-martial. Croot, we must get Avory out of the way, or he may spoil the whole game."
Gilmour's voice dropped to a whisper, and the expression on his face was not good to see. He was preaching the gospel of murder now, and Croot averted his eyes. Hardened rascal as he was he shuddered, and his heart sank in his breast. Gilmour seemed to sense what was passing in the mind of his confederate, for he smiled contemptuously.
"It wouldn't be the first time," he snarled, "and you need not pretend that you don't know it. That old workshop of mine has done us many a good turn since we started on the present stunt."
"You mean the place where you did your coining operations? I thought you had given that up long ago. It was a poor game you were at there, and the risks were great. When we joined forces you promised me that you would not—"
"And I didn't," Gilmour interrupted. "But I kept the workshop on because I still dabble in mechanical experiments, and the power that drives my plant costs me nothing. The South Thames Electric Corporation will never find out that I tapped their main cable to the extent of a 2,000-volt alternating current. I am still using it for my electric furnace. But the coining business is dead off. You showed me a better game than that. Why, we must have made over £100,000 during the last twelve months."
"Quite that," Croot chuckled. "It was a great day for me when I came back from Canada and found a footing in the firm of Verity & Co. They were absolutely on their last legs and the £5,000 I managed to scrape together just paid their debts. Did I ever tell you how I first got on to the business?"
"Not quite. Some man you met in Canada, wasn't it?"
"That's right. The shady sort of chap who leaves his country for his country's good. He was the son of an old trusted servant of Verity Brothers, and knew from the father all about the secret passage under the offices, and the history of Crombies Wharf. I learnt it quite by accident one night, and for the time being thought no more about it. Then it came to me like an inspiration. I could see a fortune in it for a man of courage who got hold of the business and posed as a respectable merchant and broker in all sorts of foreign produce. And it came off too. Then I found you and—well, I don't think that I need say any more."
"Not for the present," Gilmour said meaningly.
Croot took up the challenge. There were times when he did not feel quite easy with this lieutenant of his.
"What do you mean by that?" he demanded. "Ain't you satisfied with your share of the plunder?"
"So far as the mere money goes there is nothing to grumble at," Gilmour admitted. "I am taking all the risks, and if I happen to be caught red-handed then you get off on the plea that I am taking advantage of my position in your office to play the rogue. That was the understanding, and I am not squeaking at it. From the boodle point of view I have done very well and, given another year, I shall be in a position to chuck it. Then I shall settle down to a respectable life, and the little wife I have in my mind will never know anything about my shady past. I suppose it never occurred to you that a man like myself had dreams of a nice little place in the country with a golf links handy and a wife and kids. Now with a girl, for instance, like your little Vera—"
"You can drop that," Croot muttered with an ugly frown on his face. "You can cut that out at once, Mark."
"Why?" Gilmour asked. "Why? If you are good enough to be her adopted father I am good enough to be her real husband. And if she will have me, I am going to be, and so I tell you straight. It isn't as if you were an honest man."
A look almost of horror crept into Croot's eyes. The man was not all bad—probably there are few in the world who are—and in the darkness and crookedness of his lurid life the one shining spot was his affection for Vera. She had come to him at a time when all was blackness and despair, and there apparently was only one way out of the shadows. The orphan child of one of his unutterable associates, she had more or less adopted him, as children will, and in some strange inconsequent way she had filled a void that Croot was not even dimly aware of. In her presence he was another man; when the day's work was done and the dishonest schemes were left behind and Croot reached home in the evenings he could put all mean thoughts out of his crooked mind and life for the moment in the sunshine and wholesomeness of the girl who represented so much to him. And now here was his fellow rascal, his fidus Achates in crime, coolly suggesting that he should surrender her happiness to him—the man who had left the Navy with the brand of the thief on him, and one who sooner or later must be recognized by an old shipmate. And indeed this had happened in the case of Avory. Might it not happen again on some future occasion when Vera was married to him, in circumstances that would entail a full exposure of the truth? Such a thing would certainly break Vera's heart.
"She wouldn't look at you," Croot said. "Even if I gave my consent she would not have you. And if you think that I am going to put any pressure on the girl, why—"
"I am not asking you to do anything of the sort," Gilmour replied. "I don't want anything of the kind. I wouldn't have a wife on those terms if she came to me with a million. When the time comes for me to settle down I want to know that she is—But why go on? And I am perhaps conceited enough to believe that Vera is not entirely indifferent. Her manner to me—"
"Oh, I know all about that," Croot said impatiently. "The child is the same to everybody. She thinks that all the world is good and kind, and that is what has flattered your vanity. Did it ever occur to you that there might be another Richmond in the field? In other words, what the novelists call a rival?"
The memory of Jack Ellis had just flashed into his mind. He had been curt and hard enough with the man whom Geoffrey Rust had introduced into his household, but on the principle that any stick is good enough to beat a dog with, it seemed that the stick had come quite naturally to his hand now. He saw Gilmour's startled look and the dogged thrust of his great under-jaw.
"You mean that you have other views?" Gilmour asked.
"Well, perhaps I have, but I assure you that they are quite in the air so far. But don't forget that when parents scheme for the future of their children the young people are in the habit of making their own arrangements. This is an age when the emancipated feminine demands a latch-key—and generally gets it."
"Vera is not that sort of girl, Croot."
"There you and this deponent are in complete accord. But a woman's heart is a most irresponsible thing, Gilmour. You have met a man called Ellis here more than once, I think."
"A friend of Rust's, yes. Do you mean to say—"
"I do. A briefless barrister earning a precarious living by his pen. But he is a clean young fellow with a good record, and quite unmistakably a gentleman. Good-looking too, far more so than you are, my boy. And these things count with a girl. Moreover, Ellis will be very well off one of these days, and he came to me quite openly and asked my permission to pay his addresses to Vera."
"And you ordered the fellow out of the house?" Gilmour said.
"Well, not quite like that. I gathered that Vera was rather interested; in fact, she confessed as much. In the circumstances I refused to listen to anything serious, and asked Ellis not to come again, and he hasn't. Vera agreed to be guided by me for the moment, and there the thing stands. However, if you think that you still have a chance, why, my dear fellow—"
There was a mocking smile on Croot's lips that brought the blood flaming into Gilmour's cheek. The blow was utterly unexpected, and for the moment was a knock-down one. Nor was it possible to believe that Croot was telling anything but the truth.
"I never was more in earnest in my life," he said between his teeth. "And so long as I have your encouragement I shall go on. I will only take my answer from Vera herself. If Ellis likes to go on then perhaps I shall know how to deal with him."
Despite his rather jaunty smile Croot was listening to all this with a deal of uneasiness. He knew only too well what his confederate was capable of once he was roused. Up to now the big plundering scheme had progressed smoothly enough, and the great fortune was on the verge of maturing. But if love and jealousy came along and took a hand, then goodness only knew what complications might arise.
"For heaven's sake put it out of your mind," he said vigorously. "At any rate postpone it for six months. You talk like the villain in a transpontine melodrama. You can't murder Ellis and throw his body in the river. And you can't get Avory out of the way in that fashion either. If you can't have Vera, I will promise that the hated rival shall not ride off with her either."
There was something almost of entreaty in Croot's voice as he spoke. He was not unconscious of the tension in the atmosphere, and the expression on Gilmour's face rendered him uneasy. He had no sort of scruples of his own; he would have shrunk from nothing in the way of cold-blooded fraud or dishonesty, but personal violence was another thing altogether. He had seen that sort of thing brooding in the eyes of men before, and it was plainly indited on Gilmore's face now. And Croot was troubled in his mind.
Gilmour sat there with his mind travelling back over the past. He had known Vera for some time now, and had been on the warmest of terms with her ever since she had left school. They had played golf and tennis together, and he had taught her all she knew of games, much as if they had been brother and sister. But lately a subtle change had come over their relationship, a sort of reserve on Vera's part, as if in some way she had divined exactly what was passing in his mind. And now that Gilmour had told him all about Ellis, he could see precisely where the trouble lay.
"All right," he said. "Don't you worry about me, I shall know what to do when the time comes. But don't you think we had better get back to the drawing-room? We must have been talking here for quite a quarter of an hour, and your guests may think that there is something wrong. Besides, it is getting late."
Croot rose with a certain sense of relief, and yet, at the same time, he was conscious of a great deal more that he would have liked to say. As it was, he made no protest, and followed Gilmour into the drawing-room where the others were awaiting them.
"I must apologize for leaving you like this," he said. "But the fact is, I have been detained on a piece of important business which indirectly concerns my friend Gilmour. Oh, come, you are not going yet? Stay a little longer."
The general pointed to the clock.
"It's just on eleven," he said, "and I have come to the time of life when one recognizes the wisdom of early hours. Can I give you a lift, professor? My car passes the station, and I will drop you there if you like."
"I must fly," Patricia cried. "I had no idea it was so late. Good night, Vera."
"Just wait a minute," Rust said. "I will see you as far as your cottage. I have a car myself put up in the village. Can I drive you back to town, Gilmour?"
"That is very good of you," Gilmour said. "But I am staying the night here. I have still some business to discuss with Mr. Croot, and I want to get it off my mind before I go to bed."
With that the party broke up, and a minute or two later Patricia found herself walking down the avenue in the direction of the cottage, with Rust by her side. He was silent for a time, then he burst out suddenly:
"I am going to ask you a question," he said. "I don't want you to betray any confidences, but is there anything between our little Vera and that fellow Gilmour?"
"I wonder what put that into your head," Pat smiled. "I should say nothing whatever. I am not in Vera's confidence as far as that, but I don't think that she likes him. Of course, he is down here a good deal, and they play a lot of games together, but Jack Ellis has nothing to be afraid of."
"Ah, well, I am glad to hear that. But Gilmour is in love with Vera all right. If you don't believe it, you watch him. Frankly, I detest the man. There is something about him I cannot fathom. I could not put my prejudice into words, but I should be very sorry to trust Mark Gilmour a yard. Still, never mind about him. Let's talk about ourselves. How much longer do you mean to stay in the city, Pat?"
"Well, as to that, it seems to me that I have no choice," Pat said a little hurriedly. "In my position—"
"Oh, I know all about that," Rust broke in impatiently. "And I know that your father is your first consideration. But need that stand in our way? You know what I mean. We can't go on like this. In a very short time now, I shall be my own master, and in a position to give you everything—"
Pat laid an imploring hand on his arm.
"Not yet, Geoffrey," she said. "Not yet. Give me a little time longer. Aren't we happy enough as it is?"
"Oh, well," Rust agreed reluctantly, "it is entirely in your own hands. When you are ready, I am. For the present, at any rate, we'll leave it at that."
It was half an hour or so later when Gilmour came out of the library, having finished his work with Croot, and crossed the hall with the intention of going upstairs to his room. He was frequently down there at the Moat House, where sometimes he had to stay late, and therefore a bedroom was always at his disposal. Here he kept the necessary change, and a spare set of shaving tackle, in fact, he was quite at home in the house. He would have gone up to his room moodily enough now had he not noticed that a light was still burning in the drawing-room, and as he glanced into the open door he had a glimpse of Vera, standing there in front of the great carved fire-place. Her little slippered foot was on the curb, and she was looking dreamily into the soft blaze made by the wood fire, and it seemed to Gilmour as if in some way she was the spirit of the place. In that great dim room, with its sombre walls and warm brown colouring, she might have been born and bred there, so perfectly did she fit in with the picture. And yet Gilmour knew but too well that Vera had been the only child of a man who had gone out seeking his fortune in Canada over twenty years before, taking his delicate pretty little wife with him.
He had been a failure from the start, and the last man in the world who ought to have attempted a life of that sort. Out there his wife had pined and died in those harsh rude surroundings, leaving Vera on the hapless man's hands. And in time he had followed his wife over the borderland and, in a passing spasm of pity, Croot had adopted Vera. Not that he had cared much for her at first, because he was fiercely up against Fate himself, but gradually, as his fortunes mended, and he managed to scrape something like a home together, the child had grown upon him, until at length she became the centre of his life. It was the one white spot on an otherwise black career. What he was, and what he had been, Vera did not dream for a moment; she only knew that he had saved her from something like starvation, and she was almost passionately grateful for all his loving care and attention.
And now a kindly fate had made her mistress of this perfect household, a beautiful gem in a perfect setting, and as Gilmour stood watching her in the doorway all the mad longing to call her his rushed over him like a torrent. She was so small and dainty, so dazzlingly fair, with a complexion like a wild rose and a skin such as Greuze loved to paint. Conscious of his presence, she turned towards the door with a smile.
"What, not gone to bed yet?" Gilmour said a little breathlessly. "It is very late."
"I suppose it is," Vera replied. "I sat here dreaming over the fire, quite forgetting all about the time. But now that you remind me, I will say good night."
"Oh, don't run away like that," Gilmour replied. "Wait till your father has finished. He won't be many minutes. Besides, I have something to say to you."
"Dear me!" Vera laughed easily. "I hope it is nothing very serious. At any rate, you look grave enough. Now, whatever have I been doing? Are you staying here over the week-end?"
"There is nothing I should like better, but unfortunately there is something that I have to do to-morrow which I cannot put off. Usually, I keep Saturdays free, as you know, but this one is the exception to the rule. I must be in town in the afternoon. I don't think I can even come down on Sunday."
Vera expressed her regret prettily enough, but it occurred to Gilmour that she heard what he was saying with a certain sense of relief, very much as if a schoolboy had just been informed that his master had been unavoidably detained. It might only have been a mere fancy, but Gilmour was uncomfortably aware of it.
"So our Sunday golf will have to be off," he said. "But that is not what I wanted to speak to you about. Vera, you and I have been very good friends for a long time now—"
"Of course we have," Vera cried, with widely-opened eyes. "You have been a splendid teacher. Where would my tennis and golf be but for you? It was you who taught me to love the outdoor life, and I am ever grateful. Of course, I am not big and strong like some girls are, but I think I can hold my own."
"Of course you can. You are a born little athlete. A sort of pocket Venus, with a touch of Diana. But do be serious for a moment, and listen to what I have to say. Did it ever occur to you that I am something more than a friend?"
Vera looked up swiftly. There was an extra touch of colour on her cheeks and a darker blue in her eyes, but her aspect was perfectly fearless now that she knew what was coming. She was small and slight, a mere handful of humanity that Gilmour could have taken and crushed between his fingers, but the courage was there, and she would know how to use it.
"I am very, very sorry, Mark," she said. "Of course, I could look into the fire with an assumption of innocence and ask you with the air of the stage ingénue what you meant, but you and I have been far too good friends for that. But only friends."
"Why? Surely I have my feelings, like other men, and I suppose you have your feelings, like other women. And you are not a child now, Vera, remember. You must have seen for some time past that I have more than a regard for you."
"Indeed, I haven't," Vera said, looking him straight in the face. "I have so many men friends, and I know that I treat them all alike. If I have said anything—"
"Oh, well," Gilmour admitted. "As to that, you certainly have nothing to reproach yourself with. But still—"
Vera looked up and met his glance steadily.
"Hadn't you better go on," she said. "It would be far better to let me know what is in your mind."
She spoke with a coolness and collectedness that she was far from feeling, though Gilmour did not know that. He was positively staggered to discover a new Vera altogether, and one the existence of whom he had not even contemplated. He knew, of course, that she had a fine measure of intelligence, but here was a personality that fairly baffled him, and filled him with a sort of impotent rage that almost drowned the wild passion that was surging in his mind. He burst out furiously.
"You are utterly unfeeling," he cried. "I wouldn't have believed it of you, Vera. This cold-bloodedness—"
"Please stop," Vera said quite calmly. "This is not true, and you know it perfectly well. Don't be dramatic. What you have been hinting at comes as a great surprise to me, and though I am sincerely sorry, I will ask you to say no more. What you suggest is utterly impossible. Oh, I am not going to pretend that I don't understand, because women always understand these things, but it cannot be, Mark, it never can. I can never marry a man whom I do not care for, and—well—oh, please don't say any more. All this is very distressing."
Gilmour reined himself in with an effort.
"Very well," he said harshly. "We will let the matter drop now, but I warn you that I have not finished. One thing I am going to ask you. Is there anybody else?"
Vera laughed whole-heartedly.
"Do you think you have a right to ask that question?" she demanded. "My dear Mark, you are distinctly impertinent."
Wild words rushed to Gilmour's lips, but he contrived to restrain them. There was something almost amusing in the idea that this girl, who was little better than the daughter of a working man, should stand there in the ancestral home of the Langleys in her priceless Paris gown, and with the pearls about her neck, and speak to him as if he were some footman who had forgotten himself. And yet she looked the part to perfection. Gilmour did not fail to note the correctness of her pose and the slightly disdainful smile that curved her lips. She was so absolutely calm and self-possessed too, and the more she maintained her good humour, the smaller and the meaner did he feel.
"Then there is no one else?" he asked.
"I have not said so," Vera replied. "And now, please be content to leave matters where they are. You have been rather rude, Mark, though I suppose you don't know it, and I should be more than sorry that this rather unpleasant interview made any difference in our friendship. Now shake hands and say good night."
She put her hand into his, and Gilmour bent over it to hide the raging misery that smouldered in his eyes. He was standing by the fireplace after Vera had gone, when Croot came into the room and stood watching him.
"Well," the latter said, "couldn't you leave it alone after what I told you? You don't usually make a mistake, Mark, but you have sadly blundered this time."
"You have been listening," Gilmour broke out furiously.
"Nothing of the kind, my dear fellow, nothing of the kind. Anyone with an eye in his head could see what had happened. Your very air of dejection gives you away. And don't say I didn't tell you what would happen. If you had only waited—"
"You speak as if the whole thing had your approval," Gilmour sneered. "Well, you haven't heard the last of it yet. And now, if you have quite done with me, I will go to bed. I must get back to town early in the morning, and I am afraid I shan't be able to come back this week-end. To tell you the truth, I am not quite satisfied over Inspector Lock's attitude. There are one or two little things that must be straightened out without delay."
Vera came down to breakfast the following morning, a little relieved, perhaps, to find that Gilmour had already departed, but otherwise absolutely untroubled in her mind. It was Saturday, and by way of being a holiday, and the afternoon was passed on the golf links in company with Patricia Langley, who had not given up her membership of the golf links, and was still a popular figure there. And then followed a perfect Sunday morning, with another tramp round the links with Patricia, and after lunch, when Croot was taking his Sunday afternoon siesta, Vera left the house, and going along the road past the lodge gates, turned into a small wood, where she found Jack Ellis waiting for her.
It was entirely wrong, and a gross deception on her adopted father, to whom she owed so much, but Vera reflected, as girls do, that she had given no promise not to see or communicate with Ellis, and, indeed, the matter had not even been mentioned. Though of course Croot had asked Ellis not to come to the house any more, which was a distinct blunder on Croot's part, and had only had the effect of driving Vera into her lover's arms. She knew all about him, she knew his clean record and his prospects for the future, and it seemed to her that Croot was adopting a line of petty tyranny quite foreign to his usual treatment of her. Why should he behave in this way, she argued to herself. Why this prejudice against a man with Ellis's record? And so gradually she had got into the way of meeting the man of her heart on such afternoons as she could get away from the house without being observed.
"Well, here we are again," Ellis said cheerfully. "Not that I like it very much. But I am not going to give you up for all the Croots in the world. What has he against me, Vera?"
"Nothing, as far as I can see," Vera replied.
She took her seat by the man's side on the trunk of a fallen tree and smiled into his eyes as he drew her to himself and kissed those soft, yielding lips of hers.
"I think it is nothing but pure prejudice," she went on, after a pause. "But you see, Jack, some fathers are like that."
"Like what?" the innocent Jack asked.
"Well, sort of dog in the mangerish, my dear boy. They hate the idea of their girls being married at all. The boys don't matter, they can look after themselves, but the girls are different. It's like giving her to a strange man, and after all, I suppose it is natural, because you never know how the strange man is going to turn out. We shall have to be patient, Jack."
"Bless those beautiful blue eyes of yours, I will be as patient as you like," Ellis cried. "And after all—well, you know what I mean. I am not a rich man, but I am making quite a good living out of my journalism, and I have had two or three briefs lately, as you know. I couldn't keep you in the luxury you are accustomed to, but I am earning quite enough to give you a nice little home, and when that old aunt of mine dies I shall be as well off as our friend, Geoffrey Rust. Look here, Vera, has your father any prejudice in favour of Gilmour?"
The quick blood mounted to Vera's cheeks.
"Now, whatever put that into your head?" she asked.
"Well, never mind. I believe that there is something in it, or you wouldn't look so strange. Has he been making love to you?"
"Perhaps I had better tell you all about it," Vera said. "But until Friday night, I never dreamt—"
She went on to tell her story, which was a thing she had never meant to disclose to a soul. But then, Jack was different from most people, and, anyway, he had surprised the secret out of her. He listened to all she had to say with a quietness and gravity that impressed Vera strangely. She could not understand why he was taking this view of a perfectly natural state of things.
"Of course, I never suspected it for a moment," she said. "For quite a long time now, Mark Gilmour has been a sort of big brother of mine. Before Geoffrey Rust introduced you into our house, Mark Gilmour was my instructor in all sorts of amusements. He taught me all the tennis and golf I know, and, of course, I am exceedingly grateful. And all the time, I never imagined—"
"Well, it's the most natural thing in the world," Ellis broke in. "I don't see how a man could live half his time with you without falling head over ears in love. And now I am going to tell you something that will perhaps disturb you. I would rather see any woman I liked dead than married to that man."
"That is a curious thing to say," Vera said gravely. "What do you know about Mark Gilmour?"
"Well, honestly, nothing; at least, not at present. But for the moment, I must not say any more. When the time comes for me to speak, you may depend upon it that I shall do so. It may be that there is serious trouble looming ahead, not only for Gilmour but for other people. I know I have aroused your curiosity, and indeed, I did not mean to tell you anything of this at all. Let's forget all about Gilmour for the moment, and keep in mind the fact that we have only one precious hour before us this afternoon. And, after all, perhaps I may be wrong."
"Let us hope you are," Vera said. "It's such a lovely afternoon that the idea of anything horrible seems so very far away. Now tell me all about that new work of yours."
Though it was not quite five o'clock on that sunny afternoon in early March when Ellis had met Vera in the little wood, Patricia had lighted the lamp in the sitting-room of the cottage and had given her father his tea. He sat before the fire gazing into the coals, with an expression on his face that seemed to Pat to be something new. As a rule, he remained perfectly silent for hours together, as if in a sort of sleep, but there was a queer alertness about him just then that pleased Pat, and at the same time somewhat disturbed her. And more than once since the luncheon things had been cleared away he had spoken to her of things in the past which she had deemed to be long ago forgotten. And, strangest thing of all, he had just asked for a book.
"Oh, do you really think you could follow it?" Pat asked. "Do you realize, dad, that you haven't looked at a book for two years? I should say it was more than that."
"Is it?" Langley said, with the ghost of a smile on his lips. He had displayed more command over his powers of speech than he had done since his seizure, and Pat was conscious of a little glow of hope as she looked at him. "Is it all that time really? Still, I think I could follow something light, and if you want to go out, my dear, I shall be quite all right."
"Well, I should like to get out for half an hour. I want to go as far as the old place and see Vera."
"Quite right, quite right," Langley observed. "She is a real nice girl, is Vera. And she comes to see me nearly every day, when you are in that hateful city. But perhaps you won't be there much longer, Pat; things may happen—"
Langley's voice trailed off into a mumble, and Pat looked at him a little anxiously. Had he got something at the back of his mind, she wondered, or had he guessed something of the relationship between herself and Geoffrey Rust? Then his glance caught her questioning gaze, and he began to speak again.
"Never mind about me," he said. "It was only a little thought that was passing through my mind. Put on your hat and go out, my child. I shall be quite all right."
A minute or two later Pat was walking through the shrubbery leading to the Moat House. At the bottom of the drive she came upon Vera on her way home.
"Oh, so you have been out too?" she cried. "I was just going up to the house to see you. Where have you been?"
"Shall I tell you the truth?" Vera asked. "My dear Pat, I have been carrying on with a young man. It is a dreadful confession, of course."
"In other words, you have been with Mr. Ellis. Vera, do you think that is quite frank on your part?"
"Oh, I don't know," Vera said. "And, in any case, you are as much to blame as anybody else."
"What precisely do you mean by that?" Pat asked.
"Well, my dear, if that young man of yours had not brought Jack to the Moat House I shouldn't have known him, and in that case we shouldn't have fallen in love with one another. Besides, it isn't fair, it isn't really. What is the matter with Jack, and why shouldn't I love him if I want to? Oh, I know what I owe to the man I call my father, but he is not really my father, and that makes all the difference, you see. Don't preach, Pat; I have had such a happy afternoon. Now, come along and have a cup of tea with me. You have already had it? Well, I don't think much of that for an excuse."
They entered the house together, and crossed the wide dim hall, every inch of which Pat knew as she knew her own hand. There were few days together without her being inside the old home, but the feeling of regret and the sense of desolation at her heart was nearly as keen now as it had been on the day when she first turned her back upon the home where she had been born. Perhaps Vera had divined something of this as she made Pat comfortable in a big arm-chair by the drawing-room fireside and rang for tea.
"You are a wonderful girl, Pat," she said. "I wish I had your self-command. Now, if it had been me, I should have hated you every time I came into the house. I don't think I could have come into the house at all. Pat, do you understand how it ever came about—I mean the circumstances that led to your father losing all his money?"
"I never had the heart to ask," Pat sighed. "Besides, it would have been quite useless if I had. From the moment when I found my father lying senseless in the library till the present moment, he has never been in a fit state to explain. I know that when his affairs came to be examined there was nothing left except a bundle of shares in some bankrupt company. Mr. Croot was very kind, and did his best, but it was hopeless from the first. You see, my father had been wildly gambling for years, though after they became friends I believe that Mr. Croot did his best to restrain him. Of course, I learnt a great deal about this sort of thing when I went into the city, and learnt something of business, but I would much rather not speak about it."
She lay back in her chair with the dainty old Worcester teacup in her hand, one from a set of which she had used many a time in that same spot in dispensing old-time hospitality. She was grateful, as always, to notice that nothing had been changed there. The same silk window curtains, the same Persian carpet on the floor, and the same old cabinets filled with priceless china standing against the panelled walls. All over the house, every well-remembered article was just as she had left it, and in the library the old Dutch cabinets with their secret drawers still stood as they had done for the last two hundred years.
"Doesn't it almost make you hate me?" Vera asked.
"My dear girl—" Pat smiled—"I think I have heard you say the same thing fifty times. And, besides, it is a great consolation to me to know that all these things I love so well are still here, within a quarter of a mile of the cottage door. Better than that they should be scattered far and wide, and perhaps some day when you are married to Jack Ellis—as you will be, sooner or later, I am sure—and Mr. Croot decides that a smaller house will be more comfortable for him, I may be mistress here again."
"Ah, wouldn't that be delightful!" Vera cried. "And why not? You are not very confiding, Pat, but I am in love myself, so I can read the signs in others. And when Geoffrey Rust has completed his probation, he will be quite rich, won't he?"
"Well, that is our dream," Pat said, looking thoughtfully into the fire. "It may be only a dream, but it is a very pleasing one. Still, we are getting on a lot too fast. Geoffrey has not even asked me to marry him yet."
"Oh, you humbug," Vera cried. "I suppose you learnt all this caution in the city. Now, I think—what's that?"
Outside someone was approaching the house and walking rather noisily upon the neatly-gravelled drive. Then a blue coat topped by a helmet appeared, and vanished past the drawing-room windows in the direction of the front door.
"A policeman," Vera went on with mild curiosity. "Now I wonder what he wants here this peaceful Sunday afternoon."
At that same moment, seated at his desk in the library, Croot was uneasily asking himself the same thing. A vivid recollection of what had happened on the Friday night filled him with a vague sense of impending trouble. But he rose coolly enough and went into the hall, when summoned by a servant to see the unwelcome visitor who was standing stiffly on the door mat.
"I beg your pardon, sir," the constable said. "But I am afraid I am come on rather unpleasant business. I believe that you have a housemaid here called Ada Avory."
Croot was suddenly conscious that a weight had been lifted from his mind. This could not possibly concern him.
"Really, I don't know," he said. "I don't take much interest in the servants. I will ask my daughter."
Vera came out into the hall at the sound of Croot's voice.
"Oh yes," she said. "Of course. The third housemaid. She has been with us some little time. Don't you remember, dad, it was Mr. Ellis who found her for me?"
Croot nodded vaguely. It was no further business of his, so he went back to his work in the library.
"Is there anything wrong?" Vera asked.
"Well, I can't exactly say, miss," the officer replied. "But this girl's father left his lodgings in Wapping on Saturday morning, and he hasn't been seen since. He is an old sailor, who was employed on the Thames as a night-watchman on barges that are filled with goods. A rough and ready man, I understand, and none too sober on occasion, beyond which there is nothing against him. He may have gone off on a jag, miss."
"A jag?" Vera echoed. "What do you mean?"
"Beg pardon, miss," the officer said in some confusion. "I meant to say a spree. A drunk. They does sometimes. On the other hand, it might be serious. So the landlady, she comes to us this afternoon and tells us all about it, so the sergeant sent me down here after we had found out that Ada Avory was in your employ. She might know where he is."
"Do you mean that you want to see her?" Vera asked.
"That's it, miss. If it isn't too much trouble."
Vera disappeared for a moment, to return a little later with a rather pretty, intelligent-looking girl whose face whitened and whose eyes filled with tears when she heard what the officer had to say. She shook her head when he asked her if she had heard or seen anything of her father during the last two or three days.
"No, indeed I haven't," she said. "What do you want me to do? Oh, don't tell me anything has happened to him."
"I am not suggesting it," the policeman said with gruff sympathy. "He might have picked up some old friends and gone off for a day or two. Being a man living by himself in lodgings, he had no call to tell anybody he was going."
"But father isn't a bit like that," the girl urged. "In that case, he would have been certain to have written to me. Besides, I always get a letter from him on Saturday."
"Then you had one yesterday?" Vera asked.
"No, I didn't," the girl replied. "Oh, I must go at once and see about it. Something must have happened."
Vera was full of practical sympathy at once.
"I don't want you to do anything in a hurry, Ada," she said. "Perhaps you are making yourself miserable for nothing. And besides, you can't gain anything by going off to-day, and I am quite sure the police are doing all they can. Now, why not wait till to-morrow, and I will get Jordan to run you down to Wapping in the small car. You must go and see Mr. Ellis. It was he who recommended you to me, remember."
Vera turned to the stolid figure in blue.
"I think that will be the best way," she said. "Mr. Ellis, who is a friend of mine, writes a great deal for the newspapers. He spends a lot of his time in the East End of London, along the river, where he has lodgings, and lives just like all the rest of them. He knows this poor girl's father quite well, and I think you will find him exceedingly useful. Ada, you give the policeman Mr. Ellis's address, and no doubt he will see Mr. Ellis, and tell him that you are coming down to Wapping tomorrow morning."
With that the constable departed, and the tearful housemaid went off to her own quarters. The drawing-room door being open all this time, Pat had been able to hear practically the whole of what had been taking place.
"Poor child," she said, when Vera returned at length. "I do hope that there is nothing wrong. If you like, when I get to the city to-morrow morning, I will ask Geoffrey to go as far as Wapping and see Jack Ellis for you. It is only a little way from Great Bower Street. Or perhaps you would like to come along."
"I am afraid I shouldn't be allowed to do that," Vera said regretfully. "Still, everything will be quite safe in the hands of Jack Ellis, and I dare say we are making a great deal out of nothing. It makes me feel quite nervous at times, when I think of Jack prowling about in that hateful part of London, dressed like a navvy, and spending half his time at low public-houses."
"Oh, he's right enough," Pat laughed. "He's a born journalist, and the sort of conscientious workman who prefers to get his local colour direct. I think those sketches of his in the Telephone are perfectly splendid. I know a novelist who says that Jack Ellis is one of the coming men."
And with that the conversation drifted into other channels, and the troubles of the pretty housemaid were forgotten. It was quite dark by the time that Pat left the Moat House, and made her way along the drive in the direction of the cottage. It was very still and quiet there, for a fine rain had commenced to fall, and all those people not in church were under cover. Pat turned out of the drive presently, and crossed the soft turf which led her by a back way behind the cottage. She passed round to the front door without the slightest sound, till she came nearly to the little rustic porch, passing the lighted sitting-room as she did so. One of the casement blinds was drawn slightly on one side, or had not been properly draped in the first place, so that she could see into the room, lighted as it was by the shaded lamp.
Then she drew her breath a little sharply as she realized the fact that her father was no longer seated in his chair. Just for a moment she was filled with a sort of panic.
He was not in the chair, neither was he on the floor, but as she stooped to get a clearer vision of the room through the displaced blind she saw that the major was standing bolt upright in front of the fire-place, and that he was apparently addressing some unseen person in violent invective, for his right hand was raised and his fist was clenched.
Pat darted through the front door and burst excitedly into the little room. As she did so, Langley turned, and all the rage with which his face was distorted disappeared as if it had been wiped off with a sponge. He made three steps across the floor, and dropped, breathing heavily, into his chair.
"What—what is the meaning of this?" Pat stammered.
"It is nothing, my child," Langley said, speaking in the old voice that Pat remembered so well. "A glimpse of daylight, a fleeting spasm of my old strength. But it is gone now. Please, promise me one thing, Pat. Promise me that you will never speak of this lapse of mine to a single soul. Forget it, like one forgets a dream of last week. Now promise."
"Oh, I promise," Pat said weakly, as she dropped into a chair almost as helpless as the man himself. "But it's wonderful. Perhaps one of these days—"
"You must not even think of that," Langley said sternly.
In a mean thoroughfare leading off High Street, Wapping, Ellis was seated at a common deal table busy with his typewriter. The room in which he sat was small and almost insufferably stuffy, but that did not seem to trouble him in the slightest. He was accustomed to these discomforts, and even the overpowering smell of fried fish which seemed to dominate the whole atmosphere passed unnoticed. He was dressed in a shabby suit of tweeds, which apparently had recently been disinterred from the rag bag, and a short clay pipe adorned his lips. He worked on for the best part of an hour, upon the special which he was writing for the Telephone, and which had a great deal to say with regard to the mission he was engaged upon for his paper. He had just heard from Inspector Lock that the dead body of Bill Avory had been taken out of one of the ponds on Hampstead Heath, and he was debating in his mind as to whether he should introduce the tragedy into his statement, or whether it might be impolitic to do so. Finally he decided to say nothing about it, and make inquiries for himself.
The unexpected death of Avory, which conveyed little enough to the ordinary intelligence, was illuminating to him, in view of his knowledge as to what was going on in connexion with those bold and startling robberies on the river. He did not doubt for a moment that Avory's death had been deliberately brought about by some enemy who had a pressing reason for getting the old sailor out of the way. He was still debating the matter in his mind when the door opened and Geoffrey Rust came in. He sniffed audibly, and hurriedly proceeded to light a cigarette.
"Well, here you are," he said. "This is my first visit to your Haroun al Raschid quarters, and, frankly, I don't like them. My dear chap, can't you write those articles of yours without poisoning yourself in an atmosphere like this?"
"Oh, I could," Ellis laughed. "But they wouldn't be the real thing. You see, I must mix with the people here, or I can't possibly sketch them in their true colours. Besides, it is not so bad. I have, at any rate, a beautifully clean bedroom, and the public baths are only just round the corner. Then, when I am tired of it, I put the key of my room in my pocket, and go back to my quarters in the West End. But what brings you here?"
Rust proceeded to explain. He had come down there at Vera's instigation, and he had brought Avory's daughter with him. At that very moment she was downstairs, talking to Ellis's landlady.
"You see, you are more or less responsible," Rust went on. "Through your queer friendship with this Bill Avory, his daughter found her way to the Moat House. Isn't this man Avory one of your river allies? I mean, doesn't he keep you posted in all the queer things those daring thieves are doing?"
"He did," Ellis said, with an exceedingly grave face. "But he can't do it any longer, because, you see, he's dead."
"Dead? As bad as that, is it?"
"Worse, as a matter of fact. I am perfectly certain that poor Bill Avory was murdered. I learnt not long ago from Inspector Lock, who has this queer business in hand, that Avory's body has just been taken out of a pond at Hampstead. So far as I can gather, there are no marks of violence on the corpse, and his watch and money were found in his pockets. In the ordinary course of events, this would be regarded as just a prosaic suicide. But knowing what I do, I call it murder."
"What, murder? You might be a little more explicit."
"My dear fellow, I can't," Ellis said, lowering his voice impressively. "My lips are sealed. You know why I came down here. It is not altogether to write lurid articles on the life of the submerged tenth; there was a more powerful motive than that. I told you about it long ago. It was my idea that these big robberies on the river were no mere exploits on the part of isolated gangs of thieves, but part of some elaborate criminal machinery, presided over by some one man with not only a gift for organization, but also the command of unlimited funds. In other words, a gentleman in the cant sense of the word, and a capitalist. Probably a merchant, and therefore in a position to handle thousands of pounds' worth of goods at a time without incurring the least suspicion."
"That sounds like a big order," Rust said thoughtfully.
"A very big order. But I am convinced that I am right, though I couldn't have said as much a week ago. I believe that I am on the track of the most daring set of scoundrels in the world, and if I told you who I thought was at the head of the conspiracy, you would fall off your chair in sheer astonishment. What would you think if I said that I had dined at the table and under the roof of the man who is pulling the strings?"
"Oh, I should have to believe it, of course," Rust said. "But is that all you have got to tell me?"
"For the present, certainly. My dear chap, I dare not tell you any more. All I can promise is that you shall know as soon as anybody else. I said that Avory had been murdered, and I stick to it, and, what is more, I could tell you who is responsible for this cold-blooded crime. But just now I have something else to think about. If you will sit down and smoke a cigarette, I will see that poor girl and break the news to her."
Ellis returned half an hour later, looking rather white and serious. He had performed his uncongenial task, and appeared rather anxious to get rid of his companion.
"You might get Miss Langley to tell Vera that it will be impossible for the girl to return to the Moat House for a day or two," he said. "I will do all that is necessary in the meantime. I have just called up Lock on the 'phone, and he tells me that the inquest will be held at Hampstead tomorrow morning. Meanwhile, it is my melancholy task to go as far as North London with Ada, so that she can identify the body. In the circumstances, my dear chap, I know you won't mind my turning you out."
With that Rust vanished promptly, and Ellis proceeded to pass a terribly distressing afternoon. The gruesome thing was done at length, and he went back to Wapping with his more or less distracted companion, and handed her over to the care of his landlady. The inquest was timed for ten o'clock the next morning, and he had made up his mind to be there, not that he expected anything startling in the way of developments, but perhaps he might hear something likely to prove useful in an investigation which had by this time become almost an obsession with him.
At a few minutes past ten the next morning he found himself in a depressing little public-house out Hampstead way, where in a dreary room the stolid jurymen were seated listening to what a business-like coroner had to say. Obviously, the official in question attached little importance to the inquiry, which, from his point of view, was quite a prosaic affair. He cut short what he had to say, and the police surgeon came forward to give evidence. At that moment a new-comer walked into the room, a tall, elderly man with a long grey beard and a high dome-like forehead, fringed with silver hair. He nodded absently to Ellis, who eagerly ranged up alongside him.
"I hope you haven't forgotten me, Professor Phillipson. I met you once or twice, if you remember, at the Moat House."
"Oh, I recollect you perfectly well, Mr. Ellis," the great man murmured. "I think you write those riverside articles in the Telephone, don't you? Most realistic work."
"It is very good of you to say so," Ellis replied. "But for my newspaper work, I shouldn't be here to-day. You see, the dead man was more or less a friend of mine, and I have every reason to believe that there is something mysterious—"
"Oh, have you indeed?" Phillipson interrupted in a harsh whisper. "Then, between ourselves, so have I. I am not here casually, I was sent here by the Home Office after I had laid certain facts before the authorities. I know I can trust your discretion, and possibly we can help one another."
With that the professor turned abruptly away, as if he did not want to continue the conversation, and quite tactfully Ellis appeared to be absorbed in what was going on. He heard what the police surgeon had to say with regard to his examination of the body, and it seemed to him that there was a kind of conspiracy afoot to keep certain things back.
"I have examined the body," the surgeon was saying. "And I have come to the conclusion that deceased had been in the water for quite eight and forty hours."
"You found no marks of violence?" the coroner asked.
"None whatever, sir. So far as I can ascertain, there was not even a superficial bruise."
"And no sign of internal injuries?"
"Absolutely none. Deceased was an exceedingly well-nourished man, with perfectly healthy organs, though their condition shows a tendency to alcoholic excess. But this, of course, has nothing to do with the cause of death, and I merely mentioned it in the course of my diagnosis."
"Yes, I think I see what you mean," the coroner said. "It is possible that the deceased was not altogether sober at the time of his death. Is that what you mean to imply?"
"Well, perhaps I ought not to go quite so far as that, sir," the doctor said. "But it might have been so. It is not for me to give a definite opinion, and I am not prepared to say that such was the case, but it might have been."
Ellis listened vaguely to what was going on. It occurred to him that in some ways the medical witness was evading the issue. Not that he was trying wilfully to deceive the coroner, but he certainly was leading him away from the crux of the matter. Ellis had had a good deal of experience in coroners' courts during the last few months, and he had made it his business to make himself quite familiar with the processes. Moreover, it seemed to him that the coroner was not averse from this herring being drawn across the trail, and Professor Phillipson, who was listening attentively, nodded from time to time as he caught the eye of the witness, and smiled approvingly. There was something here a great deal deeper and more significant than a mere inquiry into the death of a drunken old sailor, though Ellis would have hardly called Avory that.
So he sat there listening carefully, in that sordid little room, with its stuffy atmosphere, and its stolid jurymen, frankly bored with the whole proceedings, and wondered to himself how it was that three public officials should be more or less in league to throw dust in the eyes of the public. The rain dripped dismally outside, and in a corner of the room the dead man's daughter wept silently. There was only a handful of outside spectators, drawn there by morbid curiosity, and a couple of depressed-looking pressmen of the average reporter type, who had come there on the off-chance of picking up the threads of a sensation. But they had abandoned that expectation long ago, and their trained minds told them that there was nothing more than a paragraph to be made out of the present inquiry. The report would go somewhere on the back pages of the daily papers, and probably be summed up in half a dozen lines. And if there was anything behind this, then Ellis was going to make it his business to find out all about it.
The witness in the box droned on monotonously, giving his expert opinion on the cause of death, which apparently was one of ordinary drowning, though he did not say so in those exact words, and, strangely enough, the coroner did not press him on the point. Then came the man who had found the body and a local police constable, who had a few words to say. Ellis turned to Avory's daughter, and beckoned her to follow him outside.
"There is no occasion for you to stay here any longer," he said. "You had better get back to Wapping, where I will see you later on. You can stay down there till the funeral is over, and if there is anything I can do, you can count on me. I suppose your poor father left nothing behind him?"
"I don't think he had a penny in the world, sir," the girl said. "He was very liberal with his money, was father. I believe there are some books and papers which he wanted you to have, sir. But I don't know where I am going to get the money—"
"You can leave all that to me," Ellis said. "Your father and I were very good friends, and if money is wanted I shall be only too glad to find it. Now, you get back to Wapping, and I will come and see you later on. You had better write to your mistress and say you won't be back for a few days."
Waving the girl's grateful thanks on one side, Ellis returned to the dismal little room where the inquiry was being held, only to find that the doctor had finished his evidence, and that the coroner was beginning to address the jury. At that moment Professor Phillipson rose and interrupted the proceedings.
"If you don't mind, sir," he said, "I should like to have an adjournment over this case. As you are aware, I represent the Home Office in certain cases of this sort, and if I think I see something unusual, I ask that the proceedings be postponed. I don't wish to suggest for a moment, sir, that there is anything unusual or any ulterior motive, but in my very cursory examination of the body it seemed to me that I saw something not altogether normal. A mere nothing, as it were, and not at all suggestive of foul play, but in the interests of humanity and science I should like to have a further opportunity—"
"Oh, quite so, professor, quite so," said the coroner with a readiness that set all Ellis's suspicions at work again. "I can give my certificate for the burial, and I won't ask you to give a verdict now, for I may want to call upon you again. For the present, gentlemen, I wish you good morning."
Ellis followed the professor out into the open.
"Excuse me one moment, professor," he said. "But I think I can help you in this matter. There are circumstances of which you know nothing. Of course, I saw plainly enough that you wanted to carry this matter further without raising any suspicions. And I can help you very much, if you will confide in me. I know that in some way poor Avory was foully done to death, and I know that his murder—for it is nothing else—was brought about by the very man I am trying to lay by the heels. And if you will be good enough to confide in me, then I think before long I can put you in the way of getting at the bottom of a vast criminal conspiracy."
"Indeed," the professor said, evidently duly impressed. "Then you think that Avory was not drowned?"
"I am absolutely convinced of it, Dr. Phillipson."
Phillipson walked along gravely for some moments, as if considering the position as presented to him by Ellis. Then, suddenly, he seemed to make up his mind.
"You are quite right, Mr. Ellis," he said gravely. "I can tell you that Avory was dead before he was put in the water."
Croot had dined comfortably and well, as befitted a man who is in the enjoyment of perfect health, and, moreover, rejoices in a clean conscience. It was on the night following the inquiry into the death of Bill Avory, and Croot, together with Vera and Mark Gilmour, was seated at the dining table at the Moat House. It was rather a quiet meal, for Vera seemed to be engrossed in her own thoughts, and Gilmour had not forgotten the pregnant conversation which he had had with her at their last meeting. He was doing his best not to show this, and some of his humorous remarks seemed to Vera to be rather forced. Besides, she wanted to get away into the drawing-room, where an engrossing book awaited her.
"You won't mind my leaving you?" she said presently. "I don't feel like talking to-night."
"A little music, perhaps?" Gilmour suggested.
"Still less do I feel like music," Vera replied. "I am in a reading mood, and I don't want to be disturbed. Besides, I know you will have a great deal to talk about. So, if you are not staying here this evening, Mr. Gilmour, I will wish you good night."
"Good night," Gilmour said a little moodily. "As a matter of fact, I am not staying. I must catch the last train, and I hope you will get all the enjoyment you expect out of your book."
Croot smiled not unpleasantly to himself as the door closed behind Vera, and he and Gilmour were alone.
"It is no use," he said. "I told you it was no use. If you are the wise man I take you to be, Mark, you will put Vera out of your mind altogether. Unless I am mistaken, things are not going any too well at present, and it will take all that cleverness of yours to put matters right again."
Gilmour crossed over to the door and peeped out into the hall. Then he came back to the table again and poured himself out a glass of port. The cloth had been removed, and there was nothing on the polished mahogany now except decanters and glasses, and a large silver box containing the cigarettes.
"Just as well to be careful," Gilmour said. "I don't want any servants listening at the door. And now that we are alone together, with no chance of interruption, I can speak freely. Things are not going any too well. To begin with, those people in India are very dissatisfied with the last lot of champagne we sent them. They say that the brand is nothing like as good as they had the right to expect. They even hint that the cases have been changed."
"Oh, they do, do they?" Croot muttered.
"Yes, and I am not sure that they are wrong. Now, obviously we don't want a lot of correspondence about it. In our dealings with the stuff we pick up on the river, the thing we have most to dread is an inquiry. If that sort of thing is once set on foot, then we might find ourselves face to face with actual shippers. You know what that means, of course."
Croot nodded gravely. He knew only too well what trouble lay behind a set of searching questions.
"Very well," he said. "It will cost us a good deal of money, but you had better get the same number of cases of the real wine, and ship them out at once. Tell our people in Calcutta to sell the other stuff for any price they can get for it. Cable them that the genuine goods are on their way, and say that the whole mistake arose through the stupidity of an invoice clerk. It will mean a dead loss, but we can't take any risks."
"Well, as a matter of fact I have already done so," Gilmour said. "Another matter. The afternoon post brought a letter from your Argentine dealers asking us to send them a further large consignment of those Smyrna carpets. That is one of the biggest hauls we ever made, and put at least twenty thousand pounds into our pockets, because the stuff costing us nothing the cheque resulting was pure gain. And now those chaps want some more. I can't write and tell them that we can't get them, for that would only make them suspicious. We must manage to send them, somehow. Now what do you suggest?"
"There is only one thing to do," Croot muttered. "We shall have to buy a big consignment of Smyrna carpets through Verity's in the ordinary way of business, and ship them out to the Argentine at our own expense, because we should never be able to offer the stuff at the same price as we did before. Nor can we refuse to do business. Upon my word, Gilmour, I almost begin to wish that I hadn't touched this thing. I have a great mind to cut it altogether and retire on what I have made. Not that I run any risk."
"Yes, you took good care of that, didn't you?" Gilmour sneered.
"And why not?" Croot demanded. "The scheme was mine, it was my money that bought Verity's rotten business, and so brought Crombie's Wharf into my hands, without which we could not have touched it. I found you completely on your beam ends, thrown out of the Navy, having been convicted of absolute dishonesty, and I put you on your feet again. You are running a certain amount of risk, it is true, but if you haven't made a fool of yourself, you ought to be worth thirty thousand pounds at the present moment."
"Oh, that's all right," Gilmour said, showing his teeth unpleasantly. "But if anything happens I go down, and Mortimer Croot, Esquire, of the Moat House, Cray, walks about with his head in the air, envied and respected by all who know him. He will tell everybody how shocked he was to find his trusted employe had abused a confidential position to rob half the merchants in London. He would come forward at the trial and tell the jury how that scoundrel, Mark Gilmour, had been keeping a set of secret ledgers and letter books relating to the stolen properties. And he would make an appeal to the judge for mercy on the ground that the wretched Gilmour had been a good servant to him in every other respect. I can hear you saying it, I can see the judge smiling at you as you stand in the witness box, and complimenting you on your fine good nature. Good Lord, the hypocrisy of it all!"
"Well, why not?" Croot said, not in the least moved. "There is not the least reason why we should both suffer. You wouldn't be a bit happier if you thought I was in the next cell to your own. And besides, you wouldn't get more than a few years, and if I stood in the dock with you, what would become of your little fortune when you came out again? Whereas, whilst one of us retains his freedom, the other can look forward with certainty to coming into his little lot when the trouble is past. It isn't like you to talk in that way, Mark."
Gilmour muttered something under his breath. There was a vast amount of worldly wisdom in what Croot was saying, and he was perfectly well aware of the fact. Still, it galled him at times to know that if anything went wrong he would have to face the music, and the man who had inspired and financed the whole scheme would be holding up his head amongst honest people, and be accepted as one of themselves.
"Oh, very well," Gilmour said. "I won't pursue the subject, but it does gird me sometimes to hear you talk. And now, if you haven't any more to discuss, I think I will get along."
"One moment," Croot said, as Gilmour rose. "Have you heard any more from that seaman you told me about? You know what I mean. The man on the barge."
"Oh, you mean Avory," Gilmour said, without moving a muscle. "The man who was on the Sharkstooth with me? Well, he's dead. He died three or four days ago."
A queer spasmodic grin trembled about the corners of Croot's mouth. Just at that moment he would have given a good deal to know that he and Gilmour had never met.
"That is lucky for you," he managed to say, "exceedingly lucky. What did the poor fellow die of?"
"Well, he didn't die at all in the ordinary sense of the word," Gilmour replied, as he helped himself to a cigarette. "Most extraordinary thing. He was found drowned in a pond at Hampstead. What he was doing there, so far away from Wapping, goodness only knows. He wasn't robbed either, because a watch and some money were found on the body. As you say, it was rather lucky for me, because Avory might have made himself infernally unpleasant."
Gilmour rose and stole leisurely towards the door. When he had gone, and the front door of the house closed behind him, Croot drew a long deep breath, and wiped the beads of moisture off his forehead. Just for once in a way, he was feeling sore afraid. He had not dared to put any further questions to Gilmour, not that there had been any occasion to do anything of the sort, because he knew, as well as if Gilmour had confessed in his own cynical fashion, that Avory had been foully murdered.
"This is terrible," he whispered to himself. "Why did he tell me? I didn't want to know, and I should never have found out. I shall have to drop this business. I shall have to retire from the city altogether. If Gilmour likes to carry on by himself he can. I will have no more to do with it."
Then another thought flashed into his mind, a reflection that brought him to his feet and set him pacing restlessly round the table. It was horrible to contemplate the mere suggestion that this cold-blooded assassin had actually dared to ask that he should be welcomed to the Moat House as the recognized lover of little Vera. The mere thought of it caused Croot to clench his fists and grind his teeth with impotent rage. He knew perfectly well that Vera had declined quite pleasantly to hear a single word that Gilmour had to say on the subject, but the man came down to the Moat House regularly, and inevitably there were times when he and Vera were alone together.
And, in some way or another, this would have to be stopped. The idea of Vera walking about the grounds, or on the golf links, chatting and smiling into the face of a man whose hands were red with the blood of a fellow-creature, was absolutely maddening. For an hour or more Croot sat there with his head buried in his hands, trying to find some way out of the impasse. So deeply engrossed was he in his thoughts that he failed to hear Vera outside the door, nor did he look up until she was standing by his side, with her hand caressingly on his shoulder.
"A penny for your thoughts, dad," she said, smilingly.
With difficulty, Croot repressed a shudder. If Vera could have seen into his mind at that moment, she would have fled distractedly from the house, late as it was, and never looked upon his face again. He managed to force a smile to meet hers.
"Oh, business," he said. "Just a knotty little business problem that has been worrying me lately. Even we prosperous men have our worries, you know, Vera."
"Well, don't sit up too late over it," Vera said. "I am going to bed now. Good night, dad."
She closed the door behind her, to Croot's infinite relief, and then, as he sat there, the house gradually lapsed into silence, and he could hear nothing, except the tap, tap of Vera's slippers as she pattered about in her bedroom overhead. And then, some half hour later, it came more or less vaguely to Croot's highly-strung nerves that some one was moving about in the library.
He crept quietly out into the hall and very cautiously peered into the library, where he could see a thin wedge of light that seemed to come from an electric torch which had been laid flat on the table, so that the beam of light shone directly on the old-fashioned fastening of a big Chippendale secretaire that stood in the corner of the room. Croot could hear nothing, except what sounded like heavy breathing, nor could he make out more than the faint outline of the unwelcome intruder.
What was the man after? he wondered. There was nothing of the slightest importance in the house, for Croot had not so much as a fireproof safe there. He had no valuables stored away, and no securities, and, so far as the contents of the secretaire were concerned, he could remember nothing in there beyond a litter of private papers of no sort of value to a soul.
Now Croot was courageous to a certain extent; he had a fine cunning of his own, and a dogged determination of purpose which had carried him a long way. But he lacked the real force necessary to tackle a midnight intruder who had the vim and dogged nerve to burgle a house in this fashion. So that, instead of turning on the lights and making a bold dash for the burglar, Croot stood hesitating as to what to do next. Then the man in front of the secretaire rose and, just for an instant, Croot had a passing vision of his features. He was not wearing a mask in the ordinary way, but his mouth and the lower part of his face up to his eyes were hidden behind a black scarf which appeared to be fastened at the back of his neck. And Croot could see a strange gleam in those eyes that suggested a mind unhinged and unbalanced. Then the light vanished, and, almost before Croot knew what had happened, a pair of hands were fastened on his throat, and a hard, horny thumb in some kind of glove was pressing on his windpipe.
Taken utterly aback, Croot fought for what he knew was his life. The panic of fear that gripped him gave him extra strength, and he managed to tear himself free from that deadly clutch. Then something dashed with force into his face, and he staggered backwards, falling with his head against a big china vase on the floor and lapsed into unconsciousness. The vase toppled over, and crashed with a noise as loud as the bursting of a bomb.
Vera, creeping down the stairs in her slippered feet, in search of the book which she had left behind her, heard the noise, and flew along the hall in the direction of the library. She had not turned on the light, and now, in the excitement and fear of the moment, she lost her bearings, and was utterly at a loss to know just where she was standing. She called aloud, and then found herself in the centre of a ring of light that played full on her face. With a rare courage born of the peril of the moment she snatched at the torch, and by great good luck dragged it from the hand that was holding it. Then she found herself looking into a pair of gleaming eyes, and was conscious of a firm, clean-shaven mouth from which the black scarf had slipped. It was only for a moment, and then, half-fainting, Vera slid against the wall and dropped helplessly into an old oak chair that fortunately happened to be near enough to catch her. The intruder picked up his torch again quite coolly, and, walking through the doorway of a small morning-room, disappeared.
Half-dazed and wholly terrified, Vera managed to find the switch, and flooded the hall with light. For the moment, at any rate, she had forgotten the significance of the shattered vase, for she had seen something that was trembling on the edge of madness.
"Impossible," she whispered to herself. "I must be dreaming. And yet, how could I mistake that face? The face of a man who I know is absolutely beyond the reach—"
She fell forward fainting on the floor.
"That," Ellis said, "I am quite prepared to learn. I should have been very much surprised if it had been otherwise."
Professor Phillipson seemed to be deeply interested. He knew very little of Ellis beyond the fact that he had met him more than once at the Moat House, and had learnt that he was a brilliant member of the staff of the Telephone. He knew, of course, that the popular press generally takes a keen interest in criminal matters, and that occasionally these journals were of considerable assistance to the authorities at Scotland Yard. But here was the fringe of a deep mystery which was engaging the attention of the authorities, and one, moreover, which Inspector Lock had introduced to his notice with a hint to the effect that it was not to be mentioned outside a certain circle. And behold here was a mere journalist, or so the professor imagined, who was thrusting his way into the inner ring as calmly as if he were one of the elect.
"You have been very frank," Ellis said, reading something of what was passing through the professor's mind. "You will know before long that you have committed no indiscretion in more or less taking me into your confidence. As a matter of fact, Dr. Phillipson, I knew that poor fellow quite well. I have been out on the Thames with him many a night, and if he had not been done to death, as I am sure he was, I have no doubt that he would have been of the greatest assistance to me in an investigation I am making on behalf of my paper in connexion with those extraordinary robberies which have been taking place for more than a year now on the river. I believe that the leading spirit in those thefts was actually concerned in the murder of the man called Bill Avory. I should not have spoken to you this afternoon, but I know Inspector Lock quite well, and I felt convinced that you would not have been down here to-day unless he had asked you to come."
"Well, that's true enough," Phillipson admitted. "I see you know a great deal, Mr. Ellis, and, as far as I can, I will help you. Now, on three occasions in the last few months a body has been picked out of the water somewhere in precisely the same circumstances as surrounded the death of this man Avory."
"One moment," Ellis interrupted. "Can you tell me if the victims were always sailors or longshoremen."
"Yes, I believe that is the fact," Phillipson replied. "In each instance they were men from either Stepney or Wapping, and each of them was found some distance away from where he lived. Now, I ask you, Mr. Ellis, what could bring this unfortunate Avory at least five miles away from his house, when, so far as we know, he had not even an acquaintance in Hampstead?"
"Ah, that is what we have got to find out. Do you mean to say it was the same in every instance?"
"Absolutely. In the first case no great suspicion was aroused, though we were able to find out that the drowned man was not really drowned at all. That was more or less of an accident. But when the second case happened, and Scotland Yard called me in, I was certain that we had come in contact with something exceedingly sinister. And now I am convinced of it. When I tell you that Avory was dead before he was placed in the water, I am not guessing, Mr. Ellis, I am going on exact scientific data. I can't tell you as yet exactly how he was killed, but I shall be able to tell you within the next day or two. But stop a moment, perhaps you could help me. You knew this man Avory quite well. Did you happen to notice anything wrong with one of his hands?"
"No, I didn't," Ellis replied. "I am pretty sure there was nothing wrong with either of them. They were very strong capable hands, and I noticed that more than once. Broad and short, as sailors' hands always are, with broken nails, and spatulated fingers. No, there was nothing wrong."
The professor abruptly turned round and led the way to the little public-house where the inquest had been held. The sergeant in charge of the case was still on the spot, an after a few whispered words from the professor, they passed along the passage at the back of the house till they came to the outhouse in which the body of the unfortunate Bill Avory lay.
"Now, look and see," the professor murmured. "Look at Avory's hands, and tell me if you notice anything."
Ellis bent down and examined the roughened hands carefully. Then he straightened himself up quickly.
"Yes, I do," he said. "The right hand appears to be drawn and withered, and there is a scar across the palm that might have been caused by a burn. But would an ordinary burn draw up the muscles of the arm as this one seems to have done?"
"No, it wouldn't," the professor said dryly. "I would rather not be more explicit for the moment, but you shall know all in good time. Now, I want to impress upon you that in the three cases I have been speaking of, there was the same mark upon one hand in every instance. But this I will ask you not to mention, at any rate, not to mention in print."
"I should not dream of doing such a thing," Ellis said. "I am really much obliged to you, professor, and all the more so because I am convinced that you are helping the interests of justice, in so far taking me into your confidence. I suppose you would not like to tell me exactly what caused those marks?"
"I don't think I should," Phillipson said grimly. "And all the more so, because I am not absolutely certain myself. But one thing we have to do, and that is to avoid letting these miscreants know that we are on the right track. Perhaps you noticed at the inquest how the coroner avoided asking certain pertinent questions, and how there was no sort of allusion on the doctor's part to his finding water in the dead man's lungs, as would have been the case had he been merely drowned. And you heard what I said when I asked for an adjournment. The last thing in the world I want is to arouse the slightest uneasiness amongst the group of men who are responsible for these diabolical murders. You may have noticed that I was careful in putting them off the track."
"I did notice it," Ellis said. "In fact, if I had not done so, I should not be talking to you now. But probably some confederate was listening to the evidence."
"Oh, I don't think so," the professor said. "There has been no suspicion in either of these cases of any sensational happenings, and I am hoping that the murderers have become careless. You see, that is what you may call a mere item of news, and only worth a small paragraph in the back pages of the daily press. But I think, Mr. Ellis, that I can make it a national drama, which, of course, is the very last thing I want to do. And you think this is in some way connected with those robberies on the river?"
"I am absolutely certain of it," Ellis said with conviction. "But if you asked me for the slightest atom of proof at this moment I could not give it you. Still, if you will let me have your address and allow me to call upon you, I hope before long to give you something concrete, if I might be allowed to call you upon the telephone. That is, if you are not too busy."
Professor Phillipson handed over his card, and an invitation to Ellis to call and see him at any moment he chose. With that they went their different ways, Ellis returning to Wapping. For the next day or two he was too busy in connexion with the funeral arrangements to give much time to the problem that was occupying a good deal of his attention, but once that was over he was free to go back again to the matter of the robberies.
"Now, you had better get back to the Moat House," he said to Ada Avory. "But before you go, is there anything else that I can do to help you?"
"No, indeed, sir," the girl said with the tears in her eyes. "Your kindness has been wonderful, and I don't know how to thank you. I have cleared up all my father's affairs here, and I shall be only too glad to get to work again. But don't forget, sir, that there are one or two things that I have to hand over to you."
"I had forgotten," Ellis confessed. "There were some papers that your father had, written years ago by a young sailor who had quite a genius for writing fiction. I think he was drowned in the Chinese seas. It's such a long time since your father mentioned it that the matter had almost escaped my memory."
"That's right, sir," the girl went on. "He was a clever lad, and always writing. I don't suppose that what he left behind is of any value, but I know my father intended you to have it. I have a little black box here."
Ellis took the box away presently to his own lodgings, and in a spirit of more or less idle curiosity turned the contents out on to the table. There was a mass of manuscript, written in a crabbed, uneducated hand: short, pungent sketches of the sea, which Ellis could see, even from a casual glance, contained a good deal of graphic power, though the words were mostly ill-spelt, and the grammar left a good deal to be desired. He sat reading these for the best part of an hour, before he turned the key in the door of his sitting-room, and, changing into a suit of Harris tweeds, turned out into the road, and half an hour later was closeted with Inspector Lock in the latter's room at Scotland Yard.
"I am quite inclined to agree with you," the inspector said. "I have just been talking to Professor Phillipson on the telephone, and he told me all about his conversation with you two or three days ago. Of course, I cannot tell you exactly the lines he is working on, but he has not been wasting his time, and I hope that within the next few hours I shall know exactly how the man Avory came by his death. Which means, of course, that I shall know how the other two men were murdered."
"Stop a moment," Ellis said. "Now, let me see if I can work out a bit of logical deduction. I haven't the remotest notion of what the names of the other two men were, but I think I should be correct in saying that they were both bargemen, or night watchers, or something of that kind, connected with the lighters that come up the river, laden with goods for the various warehouses."
"Go on," Lock smiled. "So far, you are absolutely correct. But that doesn't prove much, does it?"
"Perhaps not. But surely it points to these men being got out of the way by the big gang who are responsible for all those robberies? Those unfortunate men were in a position to give certain evidence. They probably identified one of the gang, just as poor old Bill Avory did—"
"Or thought he did," Lock corrected.
"'Um. Are you quite sure he only thought he did? I doubt it. Oh yes, you are alluding to what you consider to be his mistake in accusing Mr. Mark Gilmour of being identical with the man Avory once knew on board the Sharkstooth."
"It must have been a mistake," Lock insisted. "Now, just consider the facts. Within a very short time of Avory being surprised on the barge you were talking to me on the telephone, and giving me the facts. What do I do? I go off direct to Cray, with the object of making sure of my ground, after having first looked up Gilmour's flat in the telephone directory, and ascertaining from his landlady he was dining out that night, and that he would not be back till morning. When I get down to the Moat House I see Mr. Croot, and explain to him. He merely laughs at me. He says that Mr. Gilmour is in the dining-room and invites him to come and see me. He is beautifully turned out in evening dress, as clean and immaculate as a new pin, and not in the least disturbed in his manner. Mind you, it would have been quite easy for him to tell me that he was in time for dinner, but he did nothing of the sort. He said that he had been detained late on business, and that he had changed in his flat, and reached Cray by a train that gets there at 8.30. In the circumstances, I couldn't deny it. The last time he was seen, if he was seen at all, was escaping from the river by swimming. Of course, he might have got down there and changed into evening clothes, but if we assume that, we must put down Mr. Croot as a deliberate liar. We must go even further, and suggest that he was a party to the conspiracy. Is that what you mean, Mr. Ellis?"
"Certainly I do," Ellis said coolly. "Why not? I am absolutely convinced that Avory made no mistake, and if I am right, then Croot must have shielded Gilmour. There must have been collusion. Gilmour got down there, probably in his wet clothes, or perhaps he changed them in a taxi as he drove down. You can bet your bottom dollar that these chaps have taxi and motor-car drivers in their pay. In that case, you will see that it would not have been difficult for Gilmour to get down to the Moat House and change into evening dress in one of the bedrooms. I know he frequently spends the week-end there, and has his own room, which is over the library. Probably in some way he gave Croot a signal. But that I can find out, because one of my particular friends was dining at the Moat House on the night in question. And, by Jove, now I come to think of it, so was Professor Phillipson."
"That is interesting," Lock cried. "But, stop a moment. To make assurance doubly sure, Gilmour handed me the return half of a first-class ticket from Charing Cross to Cray, taken out that evening, and given up on arrival at the latter station. Now, when I came to make inquiries, I found that only one first-class ticket from Cray was issued on the same night, the outer half of which was handed over at Cray by a tall man who was obviously in evening dress. I think you will admit that that will want some getting over. What do you think of that, Mr. Ellis?"
"Well, it certainly sounds like a bit of a poser," Ellis admitted. "But let us argue that Gilmour was a man who was taking no risks. On the night in question he was engaged in a dangerous occupation, with the possible chance of being identified. As a matter of fact, as it turns out he was identified. He wants an alibi, and if the alibi is not necessary, there is no harm done. But suppose he arranged with one of his confederates to go down to Cray by that train and hide the return half of the ticket where he could find it. It might have been hidden in half a dozen places. Now perhaps you begin to see how that business of the little bit of blue pasteboard helped to convince you that Avory had made a mistake. Don't you think the explanation is plausible?"
"Perhaps it is," Lock admitted.
"Very well then. In that case, it looks very much as if Gilmour was at the head of the gang on the river, and that he and his friends are behind the series of murders that got rid of those three unfortunate longshoremen. I am not saying for the moment that Croot knew anything about it, but if Gilmour was lying that night, as I feel quite convinced he was, then Croot must be in it. This is going to be a ghastly business, Lock."
"It is a ghastly business," Lock agreed. "And you will realize it thoroughly when Professor Phillipson has finished the experiments that he is working on. At any rate, after what you say, I will have a close watch kept on Gilmour's movements. If he is in this business, we shall have him before many days have passed."
A little before one o'clock on the following afternoon Ellis called up Geoffrey Rust on the telephone, at the office in Great Bower Street, and having assured himself that the man he wanted was at the other end of the wire, suggested that Rust should jump into a taxi, and come round to their club and lunch with him. He would not keep Rust long, he said, but he particularly wanted to see him on an urgent personal matter.
"Don't comment on it," he said. "Don't say a word, but come without saying where you are going."
"Right-o," Rust said cheerfully. "I will be there in twenty minutes at the outside."
Half an hour later he and Ellis were seated in the corner of the big dining-room apart from the rest of the members, where they could talk without interruption, or the chance of being overheard. There were very few people seated in the room that afternoon, and therefore Ellis could speak freely.
"What's the trouble?" Rust asked, as he unfolded his napkin. "I thought you sounded rather serious on the 'phone. Oysters? Thanks. And a glass of Chablis, if you don't mind."
Ellis watched the waiter out of earshot out of the corner of his eye, but he said nothing until their cutlets were served and there was no chance of interruption for at least a quarter of an hour. Then his manner changed entirely.
"I am going to give you a bit of a shock," he said. "I am going to let you into police secrets, old chap. You have heard all about those wholesale robberies that are taking place constantly on the river barges and lighters, in spite of all that the authorities can do to stop them. Stuff stolen to the extent of millions."
"That's common knowledge," Rust said. "In our office we are constantly up against it. And we suffer with the rest."
"Yes, I suppose you do, but there are compensations. Now everybody is agreed that this business is conducted on clever lines and backed by both brains and money. Suppose that it was worked by some big firm apparently doing legitimate business."
"By Jove! I never thought of that," Rust cried. "Still, now you come to mention it, I don't see why not."
"And suppose Croot was the rogue in the play?"
Rust repressed a desire to shout aloud. He looked at his companion with utter amazement.
"You're not pulling my leg by any chance?" he asked.
"Upon my word I almost wish I was," he said. "Whether he is or not remains to be proved, but Gilmour is to a dead certainty. I am out to get to the bottom of this thing, and that is why I am now living a sort of dog's life Wapping way on behalf of my paper. I am commissioned to dig the truth out. And, by the great horn spoon, I am doing it, thanks to a little luck."
"Mean to say that you have got there?" Rust gaped.
"Well, I won't go quite so far as that," Ellis said. "But I am well on the way. And now, if you will just smoke a cigarette and smile with an air of polite boredom as if I were telling you the story of some futile golf match, I'll get on. Whatever I may say, please don't look astonished."
"Sounds interesting," Geoffrey murmured. "To deceive any eavesdropper I will look as like a petrified owl as I can. Fire ahead, for on my honour you fairly intrigue me."
In an undertone and with a sharp eye for intruders Ellis proceeded to tell his story. It took some time, but at length he had related it down to the minutest detail. Rust whistled softly between his teeth. It was very much to him as if he had been reading some melodramatic novel. And yet on the face of it he could not doubt that his friend was on the right track.
"Amazing," he muttered. "And do you really think that your hard-hearted prospective father-in-law is behind this?"
"I don't see how it can be otherwise. Why should he deliberately shield Gilmour if he were innocent of the fact? Of course, he might have done it out of pure good nature, but I don't see him going quite so far as that. By some means or another, Gilmour managed to get down to the Moat House the night I am speaking of, and with Croot's help contrived to throw dust in the eyes of Inspector Lock. I know pretty well how the thing was worked, unless my theory is altogether wrong, but there are one or two details that I can't quite fit in. I must get my jig-saw puzzle perfect, otherwise I can't get on."
"And you want me to help you, I suppose?"
"That's the idea. And I think you can do it. I wasn't present on the night of the birthday dinner, for reasons which I need not go into, but you were, and that is why I have betrayed confidence, so to speak, and given you all this information. My notion is that by some means or another Gilmour managed to give Croot a signal. He must have raced off down there, hell for leather, directly he got out of the Thames—"
"But how do you know he was in the Thames?"
"Oh, I got that from the river-police patrol. They ran down the boat containing Gilmour and his confederate, and probably those two swam ashore. I dare say they had some place to make for, but we need not trouble about that for the moment. Then Gilmour got hold of some motor vehicle, probably belonging to one of the gang, and hurried off to the Moat House. Now, we know that not much more than an hour later he was seated in the library, bathed and dressed quite correctly, waiting there until the dinner was over, because he had got down too late to take a part in the proceedings. I contend that he could not have got into the house and changed into dress clothes without—"
"Oh, as to that," Rust interrupted. "I believe he keeps a set of dress clothes at the Moat House. I know he has a bedroom there, which is just over the library, and one that could be reached by a back staircase. But even then, my friend, he would not have dared to walk into the house at that time of night dressed like a tramp, for fear of running into one of the servants."
"Ah, that's just my idea," Ellis said. "That would have spoilt the whole thing. He must have been admitted by somebody in the know, but who could that some one be?"
"Well, certainly not one of the servants," Rust said. "They are not that type, any of them. Therefore, we are forced to act on the assumption that Croot took a hand at the game himself. I don't see how he could have done that."
"Perhaps you don't, off-hand. But just think a bit. You were at the dinner party, and it is not so long ago that you have forgotten all the details. I suppose you were sitting at the table for the best part of a couple of hours. I remember that Croot likes to sit round the dinner-table after the meal is over and smoke two or three cigarettes."
"That is precisely what we did do," Rust said. "It was a cheerful party on the whole, and there were some very interesting people there. Professor Phillipson, for one."
"Yes, I had forgotten that for the moment," Ellis said. "Of course he was. Now, did nothing happen? Did Croot sit there without going out of the room until the ladies had left?"
"I suppose so," Rust said. "No, by Jove! he didn't. I remember now that he was very anxious to try some new cigars of his. They were smokes that he had imported himself from Cuba, and he went to the library himself to fetch them."
"That doesn't sound like him," Ellis said. "Now, why did he go and fetch those cigars himself?"
"Oh, ask me an easy one," Rust said flippantly. "Perhaps he had got them locked up. Perhaps he was afraid to trust the key to the butler. A dozen reasons."
"That is all very well," Ellis said persistently. "But that doesn't sound much like Croot either. The man may have the bad taste to object to me, but that does not blind me to his few virtues. I have had those cigars in the house myself. I know where they are kept. They lie in a recess over the fire-place, quite a dozen boxes of them. I am certain that Croot never locked up any cigars. He must have had some powerful reason for leaving, then. Tell me exactly what happened."
"Well, it was like this. The general took a cigar from his case, and Croot jumped up immediately and said he couldn't allow his guest to smoke one of his weeds. And besides, he was very anxious for the old boy to try one of his own brand. So he jumped up at once, and came back in a few minutes—"
"How many minutes?" Ellis asked crisply.
"Oh, well, come to think of it, it might have been ten. The conversation was rather lively, and I couldn't say to a second. Anyway, Croot came back again with the box of cigars in his hand, and told us, incidentally, that Gilmour was in the library. I think he said the chap had got there too late for dinner, and was waiting to join us with the coffee."
"'Um, yes; in the face of what I have just told you, doesn't that strike you as rather significant?"
"Yes, I suppose it does. But I can't see how Croot knew that Gilmour had arrived at the last moment."
"Now, just think. Try and remember exactly what happened just before Croot got up in that abrupt way and rushed off to the library for the cigars. Did you happen to notice anything strange in his manner a few minutes before?"
"No, except that he complained of a twinge of neuralgia. He reminded us that once, years ago, in Canada, he had suffered from frost-bite, and that every now and then the neuralgia troubled the spot. He sat rather quiet, as if in pain, with his head hung down over his dessert-plate, but I saw nothing else."
"What was he doing with his dessert-plate?" Ellis persisted.
"Oh, come, really you can't expect—"
"My dear chap, I am asking you for the minutest details. If you can recollect so much as the breaking of a glass, I want you to tell me all about it. Surely there was something. I can't believe that Croot jumped up in that abrupt fashion without some powerful reason. Some signal, an owl hooting outside, any little thing like that that would strike you as trivial at the time."
Rust thought hard for a minute or two.
"It's all coming back to me now," he said presently. "Oh, I will tell you one little thing for what it's worth. During a slight lull in the conversation Vera sat up suddenly and wanted to know what the noise was outside."
"What sort of a noise was that?" Ellis demanded.
"Oh, a tapping on the window. Just as if a loose trail of a creeper was blown in the wind. It was rather a rough night, and we thought nothing of it, especially when Croot said he had told the gardener more than once to tie the thing up again."
"And you call that nothing," Ellis smiled. "Was it after that tapping on the window that Croot had his turn of neuralgia?"
"Yes, I think it was. I know he bent over his plate and told us to take no notice of him. The tapping went on for some little time, and then stopped altogether."
"And what was Croot doing meanwhile?"
"Oh, nothing, I suppose. Yes, he was though. He was fiddling with his dessert-knife on the edge of his plate."
Ellis rose abruptly to his feet. There was a smile in his eyes now, and a suggestion that something pleased him.
"That will do, Geoff," he said. "The tapping outside was a signal to Croot, and his playing with his dessert-knife on his plate was a reply to the man outside. A sort of Morse code. Now my chain of evidence is practically complete. I am not going to keep you any longer, so you can go back to the office again. I dare say they are wondering what has become of you."
"Not to any great extent," Rust grinned. "If I never went there again there would be no great outcry."
Ellis went thoughtfully back to Wapping, and once he had reached his rooms there lighted a cigarette and took from a cupboard the little black box of papers that Ada Avory had given him. He was a long time poring over the diary which had come into Avory's hands after the death of the sailor boy, and he read the ill-spelt ungrammatical pages there with considerable pleasure. For here had been a genius, a man who would have gone a long way had he lived and had the advantage of some education. With a little revision and alteration the matter would be quite fit for publication, and Ellis had it in his mind to overhaul the manuscript with a view to its appearance in due course in the literary pages of the Telephone. He put the stuff by presently, and then, with his mind more than half upon the events of the morning, began idly to turn over the contents of the box.
There was a good deal of lumber here and there, cuttings from papers, certificates of character, and the other odds and ends gathered by a man who has spent most of his life in remote corners of the world. And then Ellis sat up suddenly as he came upon a half-page photograph, evidently torn from some illustrated weekly paper like the Sketch, or the Tatter. It was just a group probably taken on board one of His Majesty's destroyers or gunboats, and represented two officers with a handful of men and petty officers seated on a deck with a background that looked to Ellis like a sandy palm-fringed beach in some tropic sea. There was no date on the paper, and no letterpress on the reverse side, so that it was not easy to say from what periodical it had been taken.
But Ellis was not concerned with that for the moment. What thrilled him was the fact that one of the two officers in blue with the gold lace on their sleeves was strangely familiar. He looked at it again and again, and then, taking a magnifying glass from a drawer in the table, applied it to the photograph. He drew a long breath, then whistled softly.
"Gilmour for a million," he muttered. "So poor old Bill Avory was not mistaken. Yes, that's Gilmour all right, no getting away from that thrust-out jaw of his. It will take a bit of time, but I shall locate the name of this journal yet. But what's this?"
Somebody had made a cross in ink over the head of the central figure in the photograph, and under another cross at the foot of the page were written the words—"Mark Gilmour, what ho!"
This was sarcastic, of course, and Ellis read it accordingly. No doubt the writing was Avory's, and the exclamation after it intended to convey a delicate doubt as to whether or not Gilmour was the right name. Beyond all question, Avory knew it himself, but then the old seaman was past giving evidence now.
Ellis turned over the papers idly, until he came at length to a visiting card with the name obliterated carefully, and under it in pencil the words "8.30 this evening sharp. 17 Greencorn Street."
"We are certainly getting on," Ellis told himself. "Now, I wonder where the deuce Greencorn Street is. I must really find out what is going on there. Perhaps I can locate it in the telephone directory. Anyhow, I am going to have a look at it."
The telephone directory, however, failed to make any mention of Greencorn Street, from which Ellis deduced the fact that it must be a very obscure thoroughfare, so he had to go out and look up the house he wanted at the nearest post office. He was not in the least surprised to find that Greencorn Street was not very far off, and consisted more or less of a blind alley leading from one of the dingy Wapping streets to the river, and terminating in a derelict piece of ground which had once been the site of a series of warehouses. But these had long been pulled down, and the ground on which they had stood had been given over as a sort of play-ground and dumping area for the neighbourhood. There was a wall of sorts round the desolate stretch of ground, and a battered board proclaiming the fact that it was for sale. At the corner of the road was a public house, apparently on its last legs, for the paint was peeling off the walls, and the creaking doors were black and greasy from contact with generations of unsavoury loafers. As Ellis passed down the road three or four of these derelicts in a state of drooping melancholy were propping up the wall of the public-house waiting patiently, no doubt, for some more prosperous ally who might be moved to take them inside and give them the beer for which their souls craved. They were the type of men who live in some mysterious fashion without work, and whose one idea or paradise is to sit in a reeking hostel with their feet in the sawdust and a pot of some stringent ale in front of them. They lounged there, addressing no word to one another, and eyed Ellis dejectedly as he passed. He knew at least two of them by name, and nodded as he went along. One of them looked up with a sort of gleam of hope in his rheumy eye before his head sank upon his breast again.
Ellis walked on, taking in his surroundings keenly. Beyond the public-house was a fried-fish shop, and beyond that appeared two or three blocks of tenement dwellings which obviously once had been warehouses. Then came another open space, and, beyond that, a series of cabin-like habitations, for the most part without roofs. He came at length to No. 17, which had evidently at some time been a ship-chandler's shop on a small scale. It consisted of two stories with a sort of workshop on one side, and a large ground-glass window abutting on the piece of ground which some sanguine owner apparently hoped to sell one of these days. So far as Ellis could see at a casual glance, and without stopping to attract attention, the place was empty, for the windows, both upstairs and down, were broken, and somebody had boarded up the front door with some rough deal scantlings. To all appearances nobody had crossed the threshold for years. On the other side of the road, as a marked contrast to this staggering desolation, was a garage devoted to the repair of commercial lorries, and here a good deal of activity was going on. But this was all the life and movement that the street presented, so that when Ellis retraced his footsteps he was little the wiser. Still, he was not going to let it go quite as easily as that.
On a table in the sitting-room he found a telegram waiting him. It only contained two or three words, and was unsigned, save for the solitary letter L. It ran thus:
"Evening Telephone of to-day. Page 5.—L."
This, as Ellis knew, came from Inspector Lock. It was curt and to the point, but probably embodied all that the astute sender had to say. It was not a difficult matter to walk as far as the Tower and purchase a copy of the paper, with which he came back to his room a little later. He spread the sheet out, and at once the big headlines caught his eye.
ANOTHER GREAT COUP BY THE RIVER GANG. VAST HAUL OF FURS.
"Late last night a lighter was observed drifting down the Thames, having apparently broken away from its moorings, thus constituting a danger with the heavy traffic on the river. When this was boarded by the police patrol, the four men on board, who had been left in charge, were discovered in what first appeared to be a state of helpless intoxication. But after they had been conveyed ashore, and the lighter secured to its moorings once again, the police surgeon attached to the Thames Court certified to the effect that the men in question were suffering from gas poisoning. The doctor was almost certain of this fact, because he had had personal experience of the effects of gas during three years in France. From what our representative could gather, the work had been so thoroughly done as to endanger the lives of the unfortunate victims, and, indeed, if they had not been promptly handled by one who was thoroughly conversant with the effects of gas poisoning, not one of them would have lived to tell the tale. But thanks to the assistance of other experts, the four men were able to sit up in hospital this morning and tell an amazing story. It appears that yesterday morning several hundred bales of almost priceless Canadian furs were taken off the steamship Princess Charming below Greenwich, and brought up to Limehouse Reach in the lighter Firefly, having been consigned to Messrs. Eden & Co. by their agents at Fort William. We are informed that these furs, which do not take up much room in comparison with their intrinsic value, were worth, in their rough state, about twenty thousand pounds. As it was impossible to get them off the lighter before Messrs. Eden's warehouses closed for the day, they were left on board, special precautions being taken to ensure their safety. Three of the men on the lighter are ex-constables connected with the river-police, and the fourth at one time was foreman in the employ of the firm to whom the furs were consigned. They were specially on the lookout for the gang of thieves who at present are holding the whole river-side in terror, and they were armed. About eight o'clock last night they were sitting down in the cabin with one of the three on deck, when, without any sort of warning, they became aware of the fact that the lighter was enveloped in what they deemed to be a sort of fog. Just as one of them began to get suspicious, and to fancy that things were not quite as they should be, they heard a muffled cry from the deck, followed by the fall of a body. Before they could rush up the ladder they were overcome by the fumes of what they had deemed to be an unusual type of fog, and, after that, they recollected no more. When the police boarded the lighter, which had been cut adrift from its moorings in some amazingly cunning way, it was found that the whole of the cargo of furs had disappeared and, moreover, that the watchman who had been on deck was bound and gagged.
"The watchman could give very little account of what had happened. He had
been seized from behind, and felled to the deck by a heavy blow, probably
delivered by a sandbag, on the back of his neck, after which he had been bound
and a gag thrust into his mouth. As he, too, was suffering from the effects of
gas poisoning, it is assumed that he was overpowered by the fumes rising from
the cabin as he lay insensible on the deck. One of the most extraordinary
features of the affair is the fact that the lighter had drifted quite a quarter
of a mile downstream without coming in contact with any other shipping. The
police were of opinion that the barge was cut out very quietly and towed
alongside some deserted wharf where the plunder was taken ashore and removed
presumably in motor-cars. At any rate, the four unfortunate men who were in
charge of the cargo seem to be just as mystified as everybody else. How the
poison-gas came into the cabin is a puzzle that is taxing the ingenuity of the
authorities to the uttermost. They are extremely reticent on the subject, but
are inclined to believe that the gas was smuggled on board by some confederate
and attached to an apparatus, probably some destructive acid in a tube which
was timed to eat away the cylinder and thus release the gas at what the thieves
knew to be the right moment. This, perhaps, is the greatest triumph these
audacious and daring thieves have so far achieved. Surely the police can do
something to put an end to these depredations which, erelong, will certainly
paralyse industry in the Port of London."
There was a good deal more to this effect, mere journalese which did not trouble Ellis in the slightest. At any rate, he knew now that the band of desperadoes led on by Mark Gilmour had achieved another magnificent coup. But it was one thing to know this, and quite another to prove it. He had no doubt whatever that Mark Gilmour was the brain and the master mind behind the greatest series of robberies that had ever taken place within three miles of St. Paul's. Nor did he doubt that the big finance necessary to carry the campaign through came from Mortimer Croot. And yet Ellis was no nearer a practical solution than he had been on the day when he had first taken up his residence in Wapping as a special commissioner of the Telephone. It would be an easy matter to raise an alarm, and take such steps as would put a stop to this sort of thing in the future, but that did not in the least appeal to Mr. Jack Ellis. He wanted to wind the whole thing up in a blaze of glory, and make his position sure in the journalistic world.
And there was another side of the question which touched him nearer still. He was very much in love with Vera Croot, and she with him. The knowledge that she was not really Vera Croot at all brought a certain amount of satisfaction, but not enough to render him easy in his mind. He had not forgotten the polite yet firm way in which Croot had forbidden him to come near the Moat House, nor was he blind to the fact that he had a dangerous rival in Mark Gilmour. He fairly tingled with anger as he thought of a beautiful innocent girl like Vera more or less in the hands of those two scoundrels. She would have to be disillusioned one of these days, and though the truth would come as a great shock to her, Vera would have to know it. And yet that time was a long way off.
It was all very well to be aware of the fact that Gilmour was leading those amazingly clever criminals, but how to prove it? How to bring it right home so that there could be no shadow of a doubt, and place those two men where they ought to be? If Avory had only lived, then it might have been possible to identify Gilmour with the naval officer who had once been his commander long ago in the China Seas. All that Ellis had to confirm this was a photograph torn from some unknown journal, and though it might be traced, it was certain to be a long business. And as Ellis turned this over in his mind, he remembered the visiting card which he had come upon in the little black box.
He took it up again and examined it carefully. Evidently the slip of pasteboard had not been in the box long, because, unlike the rest of the contents, which were yellow, and for the most part stained with sea water, it was clean and smooth, with hardly a soil upon it. And, moreover, it had been on the top of the box. It might be possible, therefore, that it had been handed over to Avory just before his death, and the address written on it so that there could be no mistake. It was more than probable that Avory had called at 17 Greencorn Street. It was more than possible, too, that he had met his death there.
Ellis jumped to his feet as this idea occurred to him. Yes, in a lonely spot behind the walls of that old house, with its broken windows and battered door, a cold-blooded crime might have been committed. According to the card, the time fixed for the meeting had been 8.30, which assuredly would not mean 8.30 in the morning. At that time of night the garage at the other side of the road would be silent, and the more Ellis thought over this the more sure he was that something important was to be learnt at that sinister abode in Greencorn Street. Somebody had evidently been using the place, or else that card would never have been found.
Ellis drifted along presently, and paused at length before the dingy public-house at the corner of the street in which now he was deeply interested. The loafers were still propping up the wall, and as he passed he lifted his finger to one of them. The man in question shot forward with some signs of life about him.
"Do you want me, guv'nor?" he asked almost plaintively.
"I do, Blue Peter," Ellis said. "I suppose you would like to earn half a crown? If you do as I tell you I will make it more. I might make it as much as a quid."
"Lor' lumme, guv'nor," the man addressed as Blue Peter cried, with tears in his voice. "I ain't touched a drop o' beer—"
"No, and you're not going to touch it now," Ellis said crisply. "I think you know something about me, don't you?"
"Yes, you're the bloke wot writes for the pipers. Poor ole Bill Avory, 'e told me abaht you."
"Yes, that's right, Peter. But you don't get any money till you earn it. Then you can drink yourself blind for all I care. I want you to watch that house at the corner of the street, No. 17. I want you to watch it day and night. Do you think you can manage to do that? If you can't you must get one of your pals to, and I will make it worth his while."
"Oh, I'll do it, guv'nor, Gor blime, many's the time I bin standin' 'ere from when the pubs open in the mornin' till they close at night an' me never stir. And if so be as I am called away, the Goat, or old Chiney, 'ere'll take my place."
"Very well then. If you see anybody go into that house, wait till they come out again, and follow them. Bring me a description of the man or men, and if you can manage to run them down, let me know where they are to be found. Not a cent in advance, mind."
Blue Peter nodded dismally. He would have much preferred a little something on account, but with visions of a beery paradise opening up before his bleary eyes, he set himself doggedly down to the task that lay before him.
He knew how to wait; he had been waiting for years, never very far away from that familiar spot, and always within scent of the beer which was meat and drink and earthly paradise to him. He waited until darkness fell, and then for an hour or two crept off to the unsavoury kennel where he slept, and occasionally ate such food as Providence threw in his way.
It was on the second afternoon that he shuffled along in the direction of the street in which Ellis's lodgings were situated with hope in his eyes, and more spring in his step than had been there for many a long year.
"I've got it, guv'nor," he said excitedly. "I seen 'im. 'E come dahn the street abaht 'arf an hour ago, just as I was goin' to get a bit o' grub, and I see 'im let 'imself aht o' number seventeen. I couldn't 'ave made no mistake, becos it's the only 'ouse on that side. Then 'e walks along up the 'Igh Street round by the Tower, an' me after 'im. Regular sort o' toff, 'e were. Then 'e goes into a office in Great Bower Street, and I was done."
"Oh, indeed? Whose office did he go into?"
"Name o' Verity & Co," Blue Peter said hoarsely. "And now, guv'nor, do you think I've earned me money?"
"That remains to be seen, Peter," Ellis laughed. "But at any rate, I am going to give it you all the same."
A shadow emerged out of the gloom and crept across the strip of no man's land alongside the ruined house at the corner of Greencorn Street. This was some eight and forty hours more or less before Ellis had been intrigued by certain facts which he had picked up from the columns of his own paper, after he had received the telegram from his friend and ally, Inspector Lock.
It was a dark night, with a thin rain falling, and some suggestion of a fog creeping up from the river. The figure crossing the open space worked along with the greatest caution until he came at length to the boarded-up entrance to the Greencorn Street house, and looking round to assure himself that he was absolutely alone he took a key from his pocket and inserted it in what appeared to be a crack between the rough scantlings with which the door was barricaded. Then the whole boarded space slid back noiselessly, disclosing nothing but a black darkness beyond. Then, as if by magic, the door dropped back, and the interior was flooded with light. Here was a passage leading to a good-sized room behind, which seemed to be empty, except for a large deal table, and two or three chairs.Doubtless, all the windows were closely shuttered, for the intruder moved about quite boldly, as if absolutely assured of his ground. He took off his slouch hat and the overcoat in which he was muffled to his eyebrows, and disclosed the features of Mark Gilmour.
He seemed to be waiting for somebody, for his air was alert, and his ears evidently were tuned to listening, until there came a sort of scraping from somewhere outside, then he turned out the light again and crept along the passage. Some one whispered outside, and the door was opened to admit another man who stood presently in the room at the back confronting Gilmour. This was his tool and slave, Joe Airey, the man who had been with him on the night when they had so narrowly escaped capture at the hands of the Thames police. Airey looked up into the face of his chief with a certain suggestion of sullen fear in his eyes. He had evidently been in great dread of the other.
"Well, here you are, Joe," Gilmour said. "Now, have you got all those facts I asked you about? Where were you last night?"
"In bed," Airey muttered. "Touch of the old trouble, sir."
"That's a lie," Gilmour said coldly. "You were down at Limehouse with some of your friends, and by ten o'clock you were so drunk that they had to take you home. I have warned you about that before. You can't do anything without my knowing about it, and the sooner you realize that the better. If this happens again you will find yourself in the hands of the police, and you know what that means. Five years if a day, and you will never know who struck you. You infernal fool."
Airey shot a glance of cold hate under his eyebrows at the speaker. He was absolutely under Gilmour's thumb, and he knew it. The bread he ate, and the beer he drank, and even the liberty he enjoyed lay in the hollow of Gilmour's hands. But at that moment the latter stood in peril, had he only known it.
"What a cold-blooded devil you are," Airey muttered. "Some day I shall break out and do you a mischief."
"Why not do it now?" Gilmour asked coldly. "You will never have a better chance. We are absolutely alone here, and there isn't a soul in the world besides ourselves who knows the secret of 17 Greencorn Street. You are a better man than I am physically, despite the amount of beer you drink, and if you left me for dead here I might not be found for years. But you are afraid, Joe, you are afraid, and you know it."
Airey made no reply. It was exactly as Gilmour had said—he was afraid, in deadly fear of the cold-blooded man opposite who would have sent him to the gallows without the least compunction had it suited his purpose to do so.
"Who brought you here?" Gilmour went on. "Who dug you out of a Canadian jail? Who paid your passage back to England and set you on your legs again? You needn't answer the questions unless you like, but so long as you are in my employ, you shall do exactly as I tell you. If you get drunk again you will get no further mercy from me. Sit down, you rascal."
The big powerful man who feared nothing on earth except his tormentor subsided meekly into a chair.
"Ah, that is better," Gilmour went on. "Help yourself to a cigarette. Now tell me all about it."
"Well, it's like this, sir," Airey replied. "The Princess Charming is down the river at the present moment with the stuff on board. The bales will be transferred to the lighter Firefly some time tomorrow, and be brought up the river opposite the long wharf waiting the instructions of Eden & Co. I got all that this morning. It isn't a big lot to handle, but it is worth more than its weight in gold. Canadian furs, it is."
"Now, that exactly tallies with my information," Gilmour smiled. "A fine lot, Joe, a very fine lot indeed. And if you are quite sure of your ground, we shall have the lot before eight and forty hours are over our heads. Who is looking after the stuff?"
"There will be four men on the lighter, sir," Airey explained. "Four good men, too. They ain't taking no risks this time. I know them chaps. Real hot stuff, the whole gang of 'em. If it comes to a fight, we'll get the worst of it."
"Yes, I suppose we should," Gilmour laughed. "But we don't fight with their weapons, Joe, and that's where we have 'em by the neck. When it comes to a case of brains versus muscle, brains has it every time. Now, if you have found out exactly where that lighter is going to tie up, the thing is as good as done."
"Oh, I can take you right to the spot when the time comes," Airey said confidentially. "What happens afterwards will be for you to decide, sir, but I can take you to the lighter, and I can show you the hatch under which the stuff is stowed. But if it comes to a scrap between us—"
"There is going to be no scrap," Gilmour said impatiently. "I have a much better plan than that. There is no reason why you and I shouldn't do the whole thing between us. There is a new boat, a little better and faster than the old one, waiting for us in the secret dock under Crombies Wharf, and the other part of the contract I have in here."
With that, Gilmour rose and, crossing the room, touched a secret spring concealed under the ragged rotting wall-paper, and immediately a section of the room slid away, leaving a cavity some eight feet square disclosed to the view. Inside this there seemed to be something shining dully, and as Gilmour turned on a switch, the regular purr of machinery commenced to hum. It moved smoothly and noiselessly, and made little more noise than a bee makes when it is poised above a bed of flowers. Airey moved forward and stretched out his hand as if to touch the dynamo.
"Here, drop that," Gilmour cried. "The wires are not insulated. There are two thousand volts alternating current there, drawn from the main cable that runs along the street. I managed to tap that with the help of a man who owed me a good turn, and the Electric Lighting Company little know that I have been drawing on their power. If you touch that parallel wire you are a dead man in the fraction of a second. I am going to show you something, Joe, something you never dreamt of."
From somewhere in the recesses of the hiding-place Gilmour produced a section of steel cable, such as is used for the mooring of ships. He laid this on the deal table in the full light of the lamp, and then by its side placed a small instrument in a neat little case no larger than a cigar box. When this was opened, it disclosed a small steel disk with sharp edges, something like a miniature circular saw. Two tiny wires were attached to the dynamo, and the saw began to revolve so rapidly that the human eye was not capable of following the revolutions.
"Now, look here," Gilmour said. "I just touch the end of this saw to the cable, and it is severed."
It was just as he said, the inch cable lay in two pieces on the table, and all that without the slightest sound.
"Now, I can store the little battery in the box, with enough power to cut three or four cables like that, and you can see for yourself that there is not the slightest noise. I can carry the whole thing in my pocket, so when the time comes and we make our raid on the Firefly we shall be able to cut her out, despite her hawsers, and warp her over to our wharf without the men on board being any the wiser. That is a neat little invention of my own, Joe, and one I worked out when I was an engineer-lieutenant in the Navy. What do you think of it?"
"It's a fair knock out," Joe said admiringly. "But you don't think, sir, as those chaps on board the Firefly will be sitting down in the cabin all night, do you? They are pretty sure to have one on deck, anyway."
"Very likely. Not that it makes the least difference. They will probably have one on sentry duty, and the others in the cabin, and they will be armed, of course, which will make them all the more confident and careless. But you can take it from me, Joe, that not one of the chaps below deck will ever know what stung them until it is hours too late, because that little idea is only one of my stunts. There is another, and a far better one than that. We'll come to it in good time."
"Yes, wasn't there something you wanted me to smuggle on board the Firefly?" Joe asked.
"Yes, that's right. But are you sure you can manage it?"
"Lord bless your soul, sir, it will be as easy as falling off a house. I shall be helping to unload the Princess Charming, and consequently no one will take much notice of me. And even if I can't manage it, there's two chaps down yonder ready to do most anything for a quid apiece, not as I means to trust 'em unless something happens as is unforeseen. But what do you want me to do, sir?"
By way of reply, Gilmour produced from the darkness of the cupboard a black cylinder some two inches in diameter and about a foot long. This had a sort of tap at one end, and was obviously some form of gas apparatus.
"Lift it up," Gilmour said. "It is not dangerous; at least, not at present. I suppose you could carry that without the slightest trouble, couldn't you?"
Airey smiled at the question. In his powerful hands the cylinder was not much more than a featherweight.
"That will be all right, sir," he said. "I could carry that in my waistcoat pocket almost. If you was to wrap it up in a bit of canvas it would pass quite easy for seaman's kit."
"Yes, that's just what I thought," Gilmour said. "Now, I want you to take that when I have quite finished with it and place it in some inconspicuous place in the cabin of the Firefly. You can drop it down behind one of the bulkheads, or shove it in the back of a locker. Anywhere where it is not likely to be noticed. And when you have done that, you can go about your business as if nothing had happened, and you need not worry yourself any more till you join me at Crombies Wharf when the right time comes. But there is something to be done first. Sit down and smoke your cigarette, Joe, and don't speak to me till I speak to you."
From a drawer in the table Gilmour produced some pages of loose paper covered with what appeared to be mathematical calculations. There were thin spidery-looking diagrams too, and here and there a scrap of white lines on azure which were evidently part of what engineers would call a blue print. For the best part of an hour Gilmour bent over these with knotted brows, and his whole mind concentrated upon the figures before him. He went over these again and again, until he was absolutely satisfied that he had got everything correct to the minutest detail.
"Yes, I think that must be all right," he muttered, half to himself. "About thirty hours to the minute I should say. Joe, this is going to be a big thing."
Airey grinned. The bigger thing it was, the better it would be for himself. His share of the plunder was an infinitesimal one, but he fully appreciated the value of working upon a percentage basis, and at such times as there was no prospective raid in view he was permitted to do pretty well as he liked, and scatter his ill-gotten gains with a lavishness that generally accompanies the possession of money acquired dishonestly.
"So far, so good, Joe," Gilmour said with unusual good humour. "And now we will proceed to make the thing complete."
Diving once more into the hollow in which the dynamo lay concealed, Gilmour produced a small metal flask, something like a Thermos, only with the centre of it cut out, forming a hollow core, and this he slipped over the shoulder of the cylinder and clasped it firmly in its place with a number of metal wedges. Evidently the flask had been constructed on purpose, and though Airey was unaware of the fact, had been manufactured in the deserted house by Gilmour himself, aided by the dynamo and a small lathe that lay compact in the secret recess.
"You see this, Joe," Gilmour said. "This is a gas cylinder fully charged. When I file off the cock, which I shall do presently, because it is only in the way—"
"Eh, what's that, sir?" Airey said, a little uneasily. "You promised me as there should be no violence."
"Oh, that's all right," Gilmour said impatiently. "Do you suppose I want to murder those chaps?"
Airey looked up sullenly. He knew perfectly well that Gilmour would not stick at that even, if he could not see his way to get what he wanted otherwise.
"That's all very well, guv'nor," he said. "But what about poor old Bill Avory? I don't want to sile me 'ands—"
"Drop it," Gilmour said sternly. "Do you mean to say that you accuse me of having anything to do with Avory's death?"
"Well, I won't go so far as to say that, sir," Airey muttered, with some show of apology. "But Bill's dead, and from all accounts he died just at the right time for some people. Not as I had anything to do with it, thank the Lord. But if you tell me, sir, as it's all right, I am ready to go on. But I know something about gas. There's a bloke working near me in the docks as caught it proper in France, and that's over three year ago. He'll never be the same man again."
"My good ass," Gilmour said with a certain patient tolerance, "there is gas and gas. There is what they give you when you have a tooth out, and there is the sort that will put a man to sleep for two or three hours and leave him none the worse for it. And that's what is inside the cylinder."
"But how do you loose it off, sir? Mean to say as some one's got to go down in the cabin and turn on the cock?"
"I have a much better idea than that," Gilmour said. "A sort of automatic arrangement. Timed to work almost to a nicety. There is nothing for you to worry about, Joe; all you have to do is to obey me and leave the rest to—er—Providence, as the bishop said in the story."
Airey's scruples seemed to be satisfied, for he said no more. He was quite content to sit there smoking a cigarette and watching Gilmour complete his preparations. This consisted mainly in filing away the stopcock to the cylinder, and strengthening the weak part with a solution of fluxite. When this was at length accomplished the cylinder was wrapped up in a piece of sacking, and placed under Airey's arms. Half an hour later he was walking down the street with it, until at length he came to the nearest "Underground," and finally emerged into the open at Limehouse. He had his instructions. He was to send a telegram couched in certain words to Gilmour at his flat as soon as he had succeeded in secreting the cylinder somewhere in the cabin of the Firefly, and he was to be at a certain spot in the neighbourhood of Crombies Wharf at nine o'clock on the following night.
The telegram reached Gilmour when he was dining in his neat little flat, and he smiled to himself as he read the two or three carefully thought out words that constituted the message. He had still an hour or two before him in which to make his preparations and carefully cover his tracks in case anything went wrong. When he had finished his meal, and his elderly housekeeper came in with the coffee, he turned to her with a smile.
"I may be going out presently," he said. "If I do, and anybody rings me up, ask for me on the telephone at my club. That is, of course, if I do go out. It's not at all a pleasant night, and I should much prefer to sit here over the fire with a book. But then, you see, we business men are never quite our own masters. If you don't hear me moving in an hour's time, you will know that I am not going out at all. I have had such a heavy day that I almost think I will take risks and go to bed."
"Very good, sir," the housekeeper said. "In that case, you won't want to be disturbed."
"That is exactly what I mean," Gilmour smiled. "No, I shan't want anything. That will do for the present."
The housekeeper cleared the table with the exception of the coffee cup, and retired to her own quarters. Gilmour sat there for a little time, a neat trim figure in his dinner suit, and smoked a couple of cigarettes before he looked at the clock and realized it was just after eight. Then, very softly, he crept along the passage to his bedroom and closed the door behind him. Once inside, he made a rapid change in his toilet, dressing himself in a shabby suit of grey tweeds, and placing an old golf cap on the back of his head. Then he opened the door and looked out into the corridor.
"Mrs. Harris," he called. "I have changed my mind. I am so infernally tired that I am going to bed. If anybody rings me up on the telephone will you kindly tell them so?"
The housekeeper suitably responded from the kitchen without showing up at all, and Gilmour noisily closed the door of the bedroom. But he was not inside it, he was creeping like a cat along the corridor until he came to the front door, which he opened as silently as if he had been some astute burglar. Then, once outside, he clicked the latch as silently, and, assuring himself that his latchkey was in his pocket, walked down the stone stairway without troubling the man in charge of the lift.
He was fairly safe now, and all the more so because his bedroom door fastened with a safety catch, and unless something out of the common happened, he would be back home again and safe in bed in circumstances which would enable his landlady to declare to anybody that he had not left the flat after dinner. He managed to reach the street without encountering a soul. It was an easy matter after that to strike the Underground Railway and emerge in the course of time at Mark Lane station. He was taking no risks. He might have gone still farther, to Wapping, but no one would recognize him at Mark Lane, and from thence to Tower Hill was only a matter of a few minutes' walk. He arrived at length outside the offices of Verity & Co. in Great Bower Street, which thoroughfare was absolutely deserted now, so that there was no risk whatever in entering the building, which he proceeded to do with the aid of his latchkey and a box of matches in his pocket.
There was no chance of a light showing down in the basement, and here he switched on the electrics. He pulled aside the hidden stone on the floor and, almost as soon as he had done so, the rough unkempt head of Joe Airey appeared.
"Ah, here you are then," Gilmour said. "I thought you would be in time to-night. That is one of the advantages of being short of money, Joe. It makes you eager to get some more; and, moreover, it keeps you off the drink, my lad. Now, there is no hurry. Get out the whisky and soda, and we will sit down and talk for half an hour. But only one drink, mind. When we get back here after the business is finished you can take a bottle home with you if you like. You'll find the corkscrew in the drawer."
Airey helped himself to a liberal portion of whisky and passed the bottle over to his companion. Then he began to talk.
"It's quite all right, sir," he said. "I told you it would be. I made some excuse to get aboard the Firefly when they were loading up the stuff, and under one arm I carried a bale, and under the other the tube of stuff wrapped up in a bit of old sack. I misses my footing, I does, and down the hatchway I tumbles, taking care to tumble the right way up, and afore anybody knew anything had happened, I was back on deck again."
"Ah, then I suppose there was nobody in the cabin?"
"Not at that time in the morning there weren't, sir, so I shoves the stuff in the back of one of the lockers, and covers it over with a bit of newspaper. And then I gets on deck, and they asks me as if I'd hurt myself, and I just laughs. And I can tell you something also. I knows exactly where that stuff's to be found. In the fore-hatch. And you wouldn't guess as it was furs, because they've sort of doped them bales. But I keeps my eyes open, and I knows where to put me hand on the stuff, I do."
"And then you sheered off, I suppose?" Gilmour asked.
Airey chuckled to himself as he took a long pull at his whisky and soda. Evidently something was amusing him.
"Well, in a manner of speaking, yes," he said. "But not for very long. I goes back there just before dark and I sees the lighter being warped back into the stream. There was another one going up behind, in charge of two chaps what I know, and I asked 'em to give me a lift, because I wanted to get higher up the river. And, of course, they does it, not suspecting anything. So I hangs about on their boat, offering to take 'em ashore and do 'em proud when they've got their warp out, and they wasn't half ready, neither. So, standing on the deck and smoking my pipe, I sees where the Firefly's moored up to a inch. Lord bless you sir, I could take you to it blindfold."
"You have done very well, Joe, very well indeed," Gilmour said. "And you can rely upon me not to forget it when the time to share out comes. Now, what about those men on board the Firefly?"
"Just as I told you, sir," Airey replied. "There's four of them, and they ain't the sort o' chaps to take any sort of trouble lying down. Besides, they are picked entirely because they have got a valuable cargo, and are half expecting trouble of some sort. There isn't one of 'em who wasn't in the R.N.R. during the war pottering about the North Sea mine-sweeping and submarine hunting, and I tell you they know every move in the game. You and I have been up against one or two pretty tough propositions together, guv'nor, but never one quite so tough as this. And if it does come to a scrap, we shan't 'ave a dog's chance."
Gilmour smiled grimly. The suggestion of a hand to hand encounter troubled him not at all. It had never been part of his policy to run risks of that kind. There was something very crude and primitive about violence, to say nothing of the personal risk, and a touch of tactics beat it every time.
"You need not have the least anxiety about that," he said. "We are not even going to see those chaps, at least, only from a safe distance. The secret of our success up to now has been mainly due to the fact that nobody has the least idea who we are. We have never been in contact with our opponents—"
"Oh yes, we have, guv'nor," Airey pointed out. "What about that night on the barge when we run into Bill Avory, and he spotted you for an old acquaintance of his?"
"Oh, why do you keep on reminding me of the man?" Gilmour asked. "He is out of the way now, anyhow. Now, come along, I don't want to be talking here all night."
"My word, there ain't all that hurry," Airey growled. "We can't get off till the tide's right, and that will be quite another three-quarters of an hour."
They passed presently through the trap door leading to the passage below, and made their way along that dark and forbidding drain with its slimy walls and the oily moisture dripping in huge drops from the ceiling, until they came at length to the stagnant pool of water beneath the ruined building on Crombie's Wharf. Here was the new boat that Gilmour had spoken of.
"The very last word," he explained. "It was built for coast service to a new design, and just too late to be used in the war. I got it cheap, and it only arrived yesterday. You can take it all to pieces and carry it on a man's back. It came here by rail, and I put it together last night. There is a kind of well in the centre in which a couple of men can hide, and if there is any trouble the sides can be flattened so that it lies on the surface of a smooth stream only showing a couple of inches of gunwale. Why, on a fairly dark night a police-boat would pass it a dozen yards away without being any the wiser. And if they did see it, they would only take it for a bit of floating wreckage."
"That's a bit of all right, guv'nor," Airey said approvingly. "If you have only got an engine to match—"
"Oh, we've an engine to match right enough," Gilmour smiled. "Absolutely dead silent. That is what the designer was working on for two years, a boat that would float on the level of the water, with an engine that made no noise whatever. And there she is. What do you think of her?"
Airey responded luridly enough. He could see that when the boat was in proper trim, she would be large enough to handle a fair amount of cargo. For the next half hour or so they were busy on the boat, Gilmour explaining the mechanism, until Airey thoroughly understood all there was to be known about her.
"She's a real beauty," he burst out enthusiastically. "What would the old man say if he could only see her?"
"What old man are you talking about?" Gilmour asked coldly.
"Why, the boss, of course. Old man Croot. Don't he take any sort of interest in these little games of ours?"
"What, are you under the impression that Mr. Croot knows anything at all about it?" Gilmour asked. "If that is so, the sooner you get that idea out of your thick head the better. Mr. Croot is far too big a man to soil his fingers with this sort of thing. If it hadn't been for him, we could never have started on this sort of business. He doesn't even know about the underground passage. He is just a respectable man of business, and is quite content to make his money legitimately, and because that is so, no sort of suspicion attaches to me. I have worked it all out myself. It's my idea entirely, and because I am Mr. Croot's manager, and know all about the books and superintend the correspondence, I am in a position to know exactly where I can put my hand on the stuff that I want. But where you got the idea from that Mr. Croot knew anything about this matter, I can't understand."
"Well, upon my word, guv'nor, you are a bit of a masterpiece," Airey cried. "You must be a wonder to be able to run all this off your own bat."
Gilmour smiled with an air of superiority. He liked to mystify this raw assistant of his, and pose before him as a sort of superman to whom nothing came amiss. And assuredly he had done so. It had always been an understood thing between Croot and himself that the former was to be shielded at any cost, and up to now he had carried out his part of the bargain. If anything unforeseen happened, and Gilmour found himself in the hands of the law, it would be no bad thing for him to know that Croot had been held blameless, because in that case there would come a time in the future when he could go to Croot and recover his share of the plunder. Up to now, Croot had handled most of the proceeds of the robberies, and had invested them in his own name, Gilmour taking just what he wanted for personal expenses. Therefore, if a cruel Fate landed him sooner or later in jail, there would be no awkward questions asked as to what he had done with the money; and, in course of time, he would be able to turn his back on the old country with the comfortable assurance that his future was provided for. Therefore, come what may, he was not going to betray his employer. Nor had Croot any fear of this, so long as he held the purse-strings. He financed all the schemes, and took a rigid account of Gilmour's stewardship. But never, since the series of robberies first commenced, had he ever been down in the basement of the offices in Great Bower Street. He was not even going to take that risk.
There were moments when Gilmour reflected bitterly upon the fact that he was risking his liberty almost daily without the slightest danger to the man behind him. But then Gilmour had sense enough to see how he benefited by the arrangement.
"Did you ever speak to Mr. Croot?" he asked.
"No, I ain't, guv'nor," Joe replied. "Of course, I knows him by sight, but that's about all. Lord, 'e must be green."
"I don't think I should call him that," Gilmour smiled to himself. "He is an excellent man of business, and quite a good employer, but he is certainly not green. You see, Joe, he trusts me implicitly, and so far as the legitimate business is concerned, he hasn't any reason to regret it. Still, I am glad we have had this little conversation, because some day you might run up against Mr. Croot, and perhaps in one of your breezy moments you might drop something that you would be sorry for afterwards. But come along, it must be time now to get a move on."
Airey consulted an old-fashioned silver watch that he wore, and announced that the tide would serve. They pushed the boat along across the pool of water, and then very carefully the screen at the end of the vault was raised, and the boat slid out into a deep slipway along the side of the wharf, and thence with infinite caution out on to the face of the river.
It was very dark, with fitful gusts of wind blowing ever and again, and a thin curtain of rain was falling. But dark as it was, the black alleyway held no terrors for Airey, who took the wheel in his hand and steered into the throat of it as if he had been a cat, or as if it were broad daylight. Then suddenly he brought the boat round, and sat up listening intently.
"There she is, guv'nor," he whispered.
Something big and broad loomed out of the darkness, and as his eyes became accustomed to the thick murk, Gilmour could make out a shadowy outline that presently resolved itself into a barge. She was rather a large craft for her kind, and, so far as Gilmour could see, she was riding at anchor at the end of a string of barges which were looped to one another with hawsers. Then, very quietly, the motor-boat stole under the counter of the barge, and lay there, scraping her sides on the swell of the tide so that it was possible to hold on by the ladder and listen to what was going on.
Gilmour thrust his hand in his waistcoat pocket and produced a watch with a luminous face. It was just on ten o'clock by the tell-tale hands, and Gilmour made a rapid calculation in his head. There was half an hour or more to wait yet, by the end of which time Gilmour reckoned that things would be sufficiently advanced in the cabin of the lighter for him and his companion to set about their work without any fear from any of those on board, or of hindrance from a passing police patrol.
"What's she anchored up to, Joe?" he asked.
"Oh, that's all right, guv'nor," Airey whispered. "She is at the end of a string of barges, and fastened up to the rest with a couple of half-inch steel hawsers. Can't you feel how light she is riding? If we had that little instrument of yours—"
"Oh, we've that right enough," Gilmour said under his breath. "It's in the pocket of my coat, all ready charged. We will snip those hawsers when the time comes, and warp her across the stream into the slipway. Once we have done that, we shall be able to transfer the cargo to this little craft of ours, and run her back under the curtain again. That is, after we have shoved off the lighter to drift downstream. She may get cut in two on the way, but we can't afford to be particular about that. Can you hear anything?"
Airey listened intently. He could make out presently that there was somebody moving about on the deck of the lighter. He could hear the shuffling of feet, and catch the smell of some strong tobacco which evidently the watchman on deck was smoking. Then the unseen man whistled a few bars of a popular song, and lapsed into silence again. Two or three minutes later there was the sound of machinery somewhere, and then the sudden flashing of a light about three cables' length away.
"The police patrol," Airey whispered hoarsely. "They will be on top of us in a minute, guv'nor. And if they happen to spot us hanging on to this 'ere barge like a barnacle, then it is going to be pretty unhealthy for us."
Gilmour reached out his hand, and apparently touched a lever somewhere, for instantly the motor-boat commenced to flatten out until she was just flush with the water. Airey was dragged down into a sort of well, which had suddenly come out of nowhere, and he and Gilmour lay hidden till the police boat was just alongside. Then the circular beam of light shot out again, until the whole of the barge was focused in its rays.
"All right up there?" a voice asked. "Nothing wrong so far? I thought I would give you a hail."
"Oh, we're O.K., Mr. Andrews," the watchman replied cheerfully. "No occasion for you to worry about us."
"Well, I like your spirit. But don't be too cocksure, my friend. You're a hot lot, I know, but you are up against something big to-night. I was told to keep an eye on you, and I mean to do so. I'll be back in the course of an hour or so, when I will give you another hail."
The light went out as suddenly as it had come, leaving a blacker darkness behind it. Joe Airey, in the well under the boat, broke out in blasphemous whispers in praise of this last scientific method of throwing dust in the eyes of the authorities.
"Well, if that doesn't take the cake," he muttered. "They must have been within ten yards of us, guv'nor. And they didn't know nothing about it. Well, we know where we are now. We are safe till after eleven o'clock."
"Which is about as much time as we want," Gilmour said. "Another quarter of an hour, and we ought to be on board. I've a great mind to have a shot at it myself. Those three men in the cabin are as good as done for, but I am not quite so sure about the man on deck. If he would join them below, all well and good, but as long as he sticks up there, there is just the oft-chance that he will smell a rat and give the alarm."
"Be careful, guv'nor," Airey said.
But Gilmour was already cautiously climbing the ladder. As he reached the deck with his head in the air, and his nose sniffing the breeze, there came a whiff of something pungent and acrid that set all his pulses tingling. He crept noiselessly across the deck, closely followed by Airey in the direction of a dim human outline leaning against a bulwark, and smoking a pipe, the bowl of which was glowing freely in the wind. Then the smoker turned as if conscious of unseen danger, and his pipe fell to the deck. He faced round to find himself confronting Airey, who reached for his throat and grasped it before the watcher could utter a warning cry to his companions below. Like a flash Gilmour was behind him; something heavy and flexible struck the unfortunate man at the base of the skull, and he dropped to his knees, utterly unconscious of what had happened.
In a few seconds he was carefully trussed and a gag thrust into his mouth. Without a word Gilmour laid his hand upon Airey's shoulder, and drew him back in the direction of the ladder, down which they went into the boat again. As they reached the motor in silence, the strange pungent odour struck once more on Gilmour's nostrils. He sat up listening rigidly for five minutes, then he drew a long deep breath and dropped back into his seat again with the air of a man who is absolutely satisfied.
"So that's that," he snapped. "It's all right now, Joe; provided we are not interrupted, we'll have every bale of that stuff under Crombies Wharf before midnight. It isn't safe to go on board the lighter again yet, but with this breeze blowing we might venture a little farther in half an hour's time."
"But won't they be all right again by that time, sir?"
"Lord bless you, no," Gilmour said. "If they come to their senses by breakfast time to-morrow morning they will be well out of it. And you needn't wriggle about like that, Joe; it isn't going to be a hanging matter. I have experimented with the stuff too often for that. Those chaps will have fearful heads when they wake, and they won't be much use for the next few days, but nothing worse than that. Now, you just sit quietly down and keep your eyes open till I give you the word."
Twenty minutes crept along in leaden seconds before Gilmour sprang to his feet and made his way on to the deck of the lighter again. A spot of light from the electric torch showed the unfortunate watchman lying on his back with his eyes dosed, and apparently in a deep slumber.
"Well, upon my word, that's lucky," Gilmour chuckled. "Hang me if he isn't gassed too. He must have had a good whiff of the stuff as it came up the hatchway. Now come on, but you'd better cover your mouth and nostrils with your handkerchief."
They went together down the hatchway into the little cabin, where they found the three men snoring stertorously on the floor in various abandoned attitudes. The atmosphere was clear enough now, and it was possible to breathe freely without artificial aid. When the portholes were opened and the breeze allowed full play, five minutes sufficed to rid the whole lighter of any suggestion of poison gas. The work had been accomplished without the slightest hitch, and Gilmour grinned triumphantly.
"You did your share of the work all right, Joe," he said. "And I won't forget it. You had better take that cylinder from its hiding-place and drop it quietly overboard. We will set the police guessing. Of course they will tumble to the fact that the men have been gassed, but it's any odds they never find out how."
A few minutes later the little electric saw did its share of the business without the slightest noise, and by the time Gilmour and his companion were back in the motor-boat again the lighter was adrift. But the tide was slack now, so that it was an easy matter to warp the barge round and coax her across the river until her bow was in the slipway and the precious bundles of fur transferred to the deck of the motor. Twenty minutes later, the barge was blundering headlong down the river, and five minutes after that the motor-boat was safely hidden behind the screen, and her precious cargo conveyed to a place of safety. Gilmour smiled happily.
"And a very good night's work too," he said. "A long way the best we have ever had. Now, Joe, you see the advantage of running these sort of things with not too many hands. Just you and me, and George, with his motor-lorry and taxi-cab, and that's about all. You do all the heavy stuff and I find a market for the goods when they come into our possession. I know one or two of these gangs work in dozens, but what's the consequence? They are all picked up sooner or later, like Morton's lot were last summer. But they were a clumsy crew and their methods out of date, whereas with our combination we can strike just when and where we like, and keep the police guessing."
"Aye, you are a fair wonder, you are, guv'nor," Joe said. "There is nothing like brains after all. I suppose I had better be gettin' back now. Do you think another drink would hurt me?"
"No, I don't think it would. To tell you the truth, Joe, I feel a bit that way myself. I don't care what you have so long as you get home sober. Your money will reach you in the usual way within the next couple of days, and then you can take a few weeks holiday. I shan't want you again for a month, anyhow."
Joe Airey slid out presently through the front door of the dingy old office in Great Bower Street, and was speedily lost under cover of the night. He had done an excellent evening's work for himself, he would be the happy recipient of a hundred pounds within the next eight and forty hours, and best of all from his point of view, there would be no occasion for him to have to put any restraint on himself for some considerable time. He was going to enjoy his holiday with money in his pocket and not a care in the world.
Meanwhile, Gilmour sat in his office with the light turned on and certain ledgers and documents before him which he had taken from a safe concealed in one of the walls. There were shutters to the windows, so that not a ray of light escaped, and he was therefore free to work as long as he liked without fear of interruption. He wrote several letters on his typewriter, and these he copied and folded away into envelopes which were already addressed. Then they were stamped and placed in his pocket to be deposited in the first pillar box he came to on his way home.
He knew exactly what to do with the evening's ill-gotten gains. They would be brought secretly from their underground hiding-place, under Crombies Wharf, and shipped to their first destination on the motor-lorry belonging to the third member of the gang, the man who had driven him in a taxi-cab to Cray on the night which had nearly ended in absolute disaster. Then they would be transhipped by a firm that bought them in all good faith, to somewhere on the Continent, where they would be dressed and treated, and gradually absorbed in the ordinary course of business.
Gilmour put all his materials away at length, closed the safe and stretched himself wearily. It had been rather a trying evening, and he was feeling the strain of it now. He snapped off the lights and crept out into the road, having first assured himself that there was nobody in sight. It was too late now to think of going back by train, and there was a certain amount of danger in taking a taxi. Gilmour always avoided risks if he could, and besides, his present garb, stained and wet, to say nothing of his face, black and grimy, was not precisely calculated to appeal to any taxi-driver, especially when it was coupled with instructions to drive to a certain block of flats in the neighbourhood of the British Museum.
"I had better walk," Gilmour said to himself. "It is a rotten long way, and I am infernally tired. But still it would be a pity to spoil a night like this by some foolish carelessness."
He plodded on doggedly until at length he reached his destination, and walked into the big square hall, knowing perfectly well that at such an hour in the morning the night porter was certain to be asleep in his box, and therefore in no position to know who had come in at that late hour.
It was just as Gilmour had expected, and with a smile of grim amusement he tiptoed across the hall and walked up the stone stairs towards his flat. He slipped his hand into his trousers pocket to search for his latchkey, but to his great disgust it was not there. He searched again and again without success. He found the latchkey of his office, which did not so much matter, but the "Open Sesame" of his flat was not to be found.
He cursed aloud in his anger. There were only two things to be done. He must wake up his housekeeper, which was the last thing in the world he wanted to do, or he must creep downstairs again and arouse the night watchman who he knew kept a set of spare latchkeys under careful lock and key for some such emergency as this. Of the two alternatives, he chose the latter. It would never do to knock up his housekeeper in his present garb, especially as he had told her that he had gone to bed, and if she saw him dressed as he was at that moment she was bound to have her suspicions aroused. Nor could he stay on the landing all night, and the idea of going to a neighbouring hotel was unthinkable.
He hurried off down the stairs, and woke the caretaker.
"I have lost my latchkey, Parsons," he said. "I have had a bit of an adventure. I have been out playing golf all day and—Well, it doesn't matter, I am too tired to tell you now. Anyway, I got into a bit of a mess, and I have been in the wars, as you can see. Let me have a spare key, will you?"
The sleepy watchman found the spare key and handed it over with a polite hope that Mr. Gilmour was none the worse for what he had gone through.
"Oh, that's all right," Gilmour said. "It was rather a joke in its way. Good night, Parsons."
"Well, that's a rum go," the watchman said to himself when Gilmour had disappeared. "Been playing golf, has he? And only a few months ago he told me he never touched a club. What 'ave 'e been up to? Not as it's any business of mine, but he's such a respectable gentleman that really—"
And with that Parsons yawned himself to sleep again.
The last and most daring exploit on the part of the audacious river thieves excited wide comment just at a time when there was not much going on, and therefore the press accorded it a large measure of publicity. Strangely enough, with the exception of the Telephone, which had very little to say in the matter. But this policy was largely dictated by Ellis, who promised his people plenty of sensational detail in the near future.
He had much to go on now, and he lost no time in placing his information in the hands of Inspector Lock.
"Of course, you quite understand that I am doing this as much for my benefit as yours," he told Lock. "I want to help you all I can, but I have my paper to consider, and my own reputation at the same time. So long as the Telephone gets the exclusive facts when the right time comes, I am ready to place myself entirely in your hands. Do you see what I mean?"
"Absolutely," Lock smiled. "I gather that you have a good deal to tell me, or you would not be here this morning."
"That's true enough," Ellis said dryly. "Now listen. You remember my theory that Gilmour had everything arranged on the night he was to have dined at the Moat House to make his alibi unshakable?"
"Of course I recollect. Your idea was that Croot was behind the whole thing, and that it was some confederate who went down to Cray on the night in question and left the return half of a first-class ticket where Gilmour could find it. You thought that in some way Gilmour contrived to let his host know that he was in trouble—sort of signalling dodge, in fact. If you could prove this it would go a long way to convince me."
"I can prove it," Ellis said quietly. "I have been talking to my friend Geoffrey Rust, who was present at the dinner party, and he has given me some very valuable information. Before I go any further I may tell you that Mr. Rust is a man of very large means who, under the terms of his late father's will, has to spend some considerable time in a city office or forfeit the major portion of his fortune. He doesn't care a bit about the work, of course, and directly his time is up, he will turn his back upon commerce altogether. The whole thing is a farce. He goes to the office regularly enough, but he does very little, and has a good deal of time at his disposal. But mind you, Lock, he's no fool. He's an old friend and schoolfellow of mine, and he is keeping his eyes open. I took the responsibility of telling him all that I know, because I can trust him, and you will see for yourself what a grand thing it is to have somebody in Croot's office watching everything that is going on."
"That is very interesting," Lock said.
"I think I can interest you a little further," Ellis went on. "Now, as to the night of the dinner party. Undoubtedly signals passed, and I am going to prove it to you."
With that, Ellis proceeded to tell Lock the story of the mysterious tappings on the dining-room window, and of Croot's subsequent movements. When he had finished, Lock nodded his head approvingly, apparently quite convinced.
"It is extremely interesting," he said. "And I have not the slightest doubt that you are right. Those two people were using a Morse code, and of course the man outside the window was our man Gilmour. I must have him carefully watched. I think you can safely leave that to me."
"I can tell you more than that," Ellis continued, disclosing the photograph that had been torn from some illustrated paper, and this he followed up by telling Lock all he knew about the mysterious house in Greencorn Street.
"What that place has to do with the rest of the story I don't quite know yet," he said. "But I do know that Gilmour is the occupant, because I had him watched, and he went from there a morning or two ago back to the offices of Verity & Co. in Great Bower Street. It's very likely when I see Rust again that he will be able to help me out still further. Don't you think you could manage to have that place searched by your people? It must be done in the daytime, because I have an idea that Gilmour spends a lot of his time there at night."
"We can do that, of course," Lock said.
"Good. Let me know when you are ready, and I will arrange with my friend Rust to keep Gilmour out of the way. You can call me up at my proper lodgings on the telephone. And now what do you make of this last robbery?"
"I haven't really gone into it yet," Lock confessed. "It was a fine piece of work anyhow. Those people cut the lighter out and set it drifting down the Thames, fortunately without doing any damage; but they got off with the cargo all right, and no doubt by this time it is out of the country."
"I am quite sure it is," Ellis said. "You see, if Croot is behind this thing, what amazing facilities he and Gilmour have, not only for handling stolen goods, but knowing the exact whereabouts of the property before the raid is made. Why, my dear fellow, Gilmour might even get away with a cargo consigned to Verity & Co. itself, and collect the insurance money after they have sold the goods. It's a bigger proposition even than I thought."
"That's true," Lock agreed. "As far as I can ascertain, the watchers on board the lighter were rendered unconscious by some sort of poison gas. At first I thought the crew might have been in league with the thieves, but the doctors assured me that the men were and are still suffering from some form of gas poisoning. The cylinder must have been smuggled on board, but how it was released is a bit of a mystery."
"Oh, I don't think so," Ellis said. "It might have been done automatically. Clockwork or something of that sort, or perhaps some acid inserted in the tube timed to eat its way through and release the gas at a certain moment. Oh, I can think of a score of ways. Then when once the watchers on board the lighter were unconscious, the thieves could remove the gas cylinder and throw it into the river. You might see if you can drag it up. It's a thousand to one against your doing anything of the sort, but if you do, it might considerably help us. I shouldn't be at all surprised to find that Gilmour has some sort of a workshop at 17 Greencorn Street. Remember that according to Bill Avory he was in the Royal Navy at one time, and for all we know to the contrary he might have been an engineer lieutenant. If that is so, then he would be a man of high technical skill. A chemist probably, but certainly a man familiar with most machinery. I am going to leave this photograph with you, and ask you to see if you can manage to find the paper from which it originally came. Of course I don't mean the actual paper itself, but the date of the journal and the issue containing this photograph."
"Oh, that's only a matter of time," Lock said. "All these papers are filed at the British Museum, and in the course of a few days my ferrets are certain to worm it out."
"Yes, I expected you to say that," Ellis replied. "And when we have done that we shall be able to discover Gilmour's real name. Of course he wasn't called Gilmour when he was in the Navy. Unfortunately I was stupid enough not to ask Avory exactly what Gilmour was called in the old days. But if you can find out the name of the ship he was on, the Admiralty records will do the rest. Of course he left the Navy under a cloud."
"Not the slightest doubt of that," Lock said. "I think you can safely leave all these details to me."
"Well, we will leave it at that," Ellis said. "Now, has Professor Phillipson got any further? You remember all about the adjourned inquest on Avory, and how the professor hoped to be able to tell us the real cause of the poor chap's death. At any rate, he was dead before he was found in the water."
"To tell you the truth," Lock said, "I have been too busily engaged on other matters to give the thing a further thought. But I will get on the telephone presently and let you know."
Ellis went off presently and dropped into his club at lunch time, where he found Rust awaiting him.
"Oh, here you are," the latter cried. "Anything fresh?"
"I was going to ask you that. You have been keeping your eyes open, of course. How is Croot getting on?"
"Oh, haven't you heard?" Rust asked. "He has met with a bit of an accident. A most strange affair. Some one tried to burgle the Moat House a night or two ago, and Croot happened to hear what was going on and came to grips with the thief. He fell on the back of his head and cut himself rather badly. He is up again now, but he won't be at business for a day or two. I saw Vera last night, and it struck me that she was rather strange in her manner. I had forgotten to tell you that she found her father lying on his back in the library, and whether it was the shock or not I don't know, but Patricia says that she has been anything but herself ever since."
"I think I will run down and see her this afternoon," Ellis said. "We haven't met for some days, and if you will get Pat to call her up on the telephone when you get to the office and ask her to meet me at four o'clock at the usual place, I shall be obliged. If I don't hear from you in the course of an hour I shall know it's all right. Now, how about our friend Gilmour?"
"Oh, there is nothing much to report in that direction," Rust said. "He comes and goes rather mysteriously, but that might only be in the way of business. Still, rather a queer thing happened this morning. I was down in the basement of our offices looking up some old files in connexion with some transaction with another firm, and on the floor of the sort of vault where these papers are kept I picked up this."
Rust put his hand in his pocket and produced a Yale latchkey. On the one side of the disc was stamped the name of Gilmour, and on the next line, 5 Everard Mansions.
"I don't attach any importance to it," he went on. "But you may see something in it. It's quite evident that Gilmour dropped that latchkey, though what he was doing down in that part of the building, Heaven only knows. Now, what shall I do? Shall I give it back to him, or keep it?"
"You won't do either," Ellis said dryly. "You will hand it over to me. I might make up my mind one of these evenings to do a little burglary on my own account and overhaul Gilmour's flat. Or I might ask my friend, Inspector Lock, to undertake that little adventure himself. At any rate, it is a nice thing to know that I have the 'Open Sesame' to 5 Everard Mansions. Has Gilmour been asking about his lost key, by any chance?"
"I don't think so," Rust said. "If he had I should be sure to have heard of it. Probably he has got another by this time. But I should like to know in what circumstances he lost it. Have you any sort of idea?"
"Only a vague one. Now, look here, Geoff. You are quite familiar with the inner working of your office routine. Could you possibly arrange some night when we know that Gilmour is safely out of the way to show me over the building. I mean, have you a latch-key that opens the front door in Great Bower Street?"
"No, I haven't. I don't believe anybody has one except Croot and Gilmour. But it is quite an old-fashioned lock, and I have no doubt that your friend Lock would lend you one of his experts for half an hour if you wanted him."
"Now, that's not a bad idea," Ellis said. "I can't tell you why I want to go over those offices at present, but I shouldn't be at all surprised if it proved to be quite an education. However, we can talk about that later on."
It was well after three o'clock the same afternoon that Ellis found himself in the little wood behind the Moat House waiting for Vera. She came at length, looking pale and distressed, and not at all like her real self.
"My dearest girl," Ellis said anxiously. "What on earth's the matter? You look as if you had seen a ghost."
"I have had a very anxious time, Jack," Vera said, with an unsteady smile. "I suppose you heard what happened."
"Only this morning," Ellis said. "Geoff told me. Is your father very much the worse for his adventure?"
"Oh, he is not seriously ill, if that is what you mean. He was very badly shaken by his fall, and the cut in the back of his head was a nasty one. He is up this afternoon and talks about going to business to-morrow. But that, of course, is absurd. The doctor won't hear of anything of the kind. He will have to stay where he is for a week at the very least."
"Tell me something about it," Ellis asked. "Have the police found any sort of a clue?"
"Oh dear, I hope not," Vera cried suddenly.
"You hope not? My dear child, that is a most extraordinary thing to say! Anybody listening might assume that you had some interest in shielding the criminal."
Vera's eyes suddenly filled with tears. With his arm about her, Ellis could feel her trembling from head to foot.
"Tell me all about it," he whispered. "You have had a great shock, Vera. Didn't you find your father that night?"
"I was in the hall," Vera said. "I had come down to get a book that I had left in the drawing-room. It was quite dark, and I lost my sense of direction. When I reached the library door something gleamed, and I was the centre of a dazzling blaze of light. Then I heard a crash and a groan, and by the time I found the switch and turned on the lights I saw my father lying insensible on the floor. I believe I collapsed myself and fell into an oak chair in the shadow of the hall, and then the thief coolly walked past me and disappeared into the morning-room just for all the world as if he were familiar with the house and knew exactly where to go. Then I fainted and did not come back to myself until I felt the butler bending over me and asking me what was wrong."
"A most remarkable thing," Ellis cried. "Did you by any chance happen to recognize the intruder?"
"I did," Vera whispered. "I haven't dared to tell anyone else. I know you will think I am mad, but I must speak, and I know you will respect my confidence."
"Well, who was it, and why this mystery?"
Vera put her lips close to her companion's ear.
"It was Major Langley," she murmured.
Jack Ellis looked down into the pretty pathetic face of his companion with a sudden feeling of uneasiness. He was half inclined to smile, but the appeal for sympathy in Vera's eyes checked that impulse, and he kissed her instead. She must have been labouring under some delusion—she had been badly frightened, no doubt, and her mind was not yet back to the normal. The idea of Major Langley, that hopeless paralytic invalid, in the rôle of a burglar, was absolutely ludicrous. For some years now the man had not moved from his chair, and no one knew it better than Ellis, who on several occasions had been a guest in Patricia's cottage. And even if by some wild stretch of possibility he had the physical power, it seemed equally impossible that Langley should creep in the dead of night into his old home on some predatory expedition. He had never even seen the place since that fatal evening in the library when he had collapsed utterly after an interview with Mortimer Croot. But what that interview had been about Ellis had never learnt, for Croot was exceedingly reticent on the point, and had declined to give any information. He had hinted distantly that something had been very wrong in the major's affairs, and that he himself had gone out of his way to silence slanderous tongues. It had been rather cleverly done, and had had precisely the effect that Croot had intended.
"Do you realize what you are saying?" Ellis asked.
"Oh, I know it sounds like a nightmare," Vera replied. "But I am not mistaken, Jack. I couldn't be. I saw the major as plainly as I see you at the present moment, and the recollection of his face has haunted me ever since. That is why I am so glad you came here this afternoon. Oh, you can't understand the relief it is to me to tell somebody about it. I am frightened, Jack; I am afraid something dreadful is going to happen."
"Oh well, let us hope not. I take it from what you say that you haven't mentioned this matter to anybody."
"I dared not do so," Vera whispered.
"Ah, there I think you are wise. You had better leave it to me. I think that Pat ought to be told, but if you will be guided by me, you won't say anything to your father."
Ellis said this somewhat hurriedly, with a feeling that he was skating on very thin ice. With his knowledge of what was going on behind the scenes, the last thing he wanted for the moment was for Vera to know anything of the truth. He must conceal from her as far as possible the knowledge that her adopted father was suspected of being engaged in those desperate enterprises which were taking place upon the river. If he were, Vera would have to know sooner or later, and be removed from the sinister influence; but if she once had the slightest inkling of what was going on, then inevitably she would say or do something which would put Croot upon his guard.
"I think you had better leave this to me," Ellis said. "In the first place, I should like to consult Geoffrey Rust. After that we will decide what to do, but in the meantime you had better say nothing about it to Pat. I will see Rust to-morrow."
It was two days, however, before Ellis contrived to see his friend again, and in the meantime a good deal had happened. Rust was just as puzzled and perhaps quite as incredulous as Ellis had been. Meanwhile, he quite agreed that Vera's discovery should be kept a secret, except so far as Pat was concerned, and he promised to take an early opportunity that afternoon of taking her into his confidence. All the same, he was quite sure that she would tell him that Vera had been strangely mistaken.
"I can't believe it," he said. "You know what the major's condition is; you have seen him in the cottage lots of times. Some days he is better than others, but for the most part I regard his condition as quite hopeless. I wouldn't say as much to Pat for the world, because she is looking forward to the day when the poor old chap will be himself again. She argues that he is barely forty-five, and still in the prime of life. She talks like this on the major's good days, when he is quite sensible, and understands all that is going on. But I say nothing."
"Which is quite the wisest plan," Ellis agreed. "We had better leave it at that. You tell Pat all about it, and meet me here at luncheon to-morrow, and we will go into the matter further. Meanwhile, Lock has sent for me, and I believe we are going as far as Wimpole Street to have a consultation with Professor Phillipson in his laboratory. So long."
Ellis jumped into a taxi and hurried off to New Scotland Yard. There he found Lock awaiting him.
"Well," he asked, "any news of the foe? Anything doing the last two or three days?"
"Oh, I think so." Lock smiled. "We seem to be getting on. But it's a long business and we have far to go before we reach the daylight. But we shall get there all right. Now, you remember suggesting to me the last time we met that it might be worth our while to drag the bed of the river for that gas apparatus. That was a very good idea of yours, and we have acted on the suggestion. The odds were against us, of course, but unless I am greatly mistaken, we have found the thing we were looking for."
"Good," Ellis cried. "But how did you manage it?"
"Ah, that was a little inspiration of Professor Phillipson's. When I told him what had happened on the lighter the night those furs were stolen, he made an excellent suggestion. Instead of using drags, we fished for the thing near the spot where the lighter had been anchored up with a powerful magnet at the end of a wire connected with a battery. The professor rigged it up for us, being quite convinced that you were right when you said that those chaps had a gas cylinder concealed on board the lighter, which they would naturally throw overboard when they had finished with it."
"And you found it?" Rust asked eagerly.
"I think so," Lock said. "We found a score of things, one of which is going to help us in another case. But I don't want to go into that. What do you think of this?"
From a wooden box on the floor Lock produced a metal cylinder a little more than a foot long, which had evidently at some time contained gas. The cock had been filed off, and round one shoulder was a sort of steel collar bolted on to the body of the cylinder with metal wedges. The cylinder was empty, and underneath the collar the metal of it had been melted away as if it had either been subjected to a great heat, or consumed by some powerful acid.
"Oh, that's the thing all right," Ellis cried. "Seems to be pretty clear how the dodge was worked. The cylinder was full of gas, and in that Thermos flask necklace arrangement was some acid that eat through its coverings and through the envelope of the cylinder, thus releasing the gas. I suppose that would be timed to take effect almost to a minute. A man with any scientific knowledge could easily calculate it, and it is pretty plain to me that Gilmour possesses that particular information. But what has the professor got to say about it?"
"Well, if it is any satisfaction to you, his view is just the same," Lock said. "He was here about an hour ago, and made a thorough inspection of the cylinder. I think there is not the slightest doubt that we are on the right track. However, we will go along to Wimpole Street together, and you shall hear for yourself what the professor has to say."
"There is nothing I should like better," Ellis said. "By the way, how is his side of the business going on? You know what I mean—his investigation into the mysterious death of that unfortunate man Avory."
"Ah, that I cannot tell you. We have not discussed that angle of the matter. I know that he has not been idle, and, as a matter of fact, I have been taking a hand at the game too. I have never known the professor to be wrong, and when he told me that Avory was dead before he was found in the Hampstead pond, I accepted his word for it without question. Now, that being so, the murderer, or murderers, must have placed the corpse in the water after their work was finished. I decline to believe that Avory was at Hampstead at all; I believe he was done in not very far from the locality where he lived, and I am not quite sure that I can't put my finger on the right spot. But we will get to that when we call on the professor. My idea is that Avory was murdered, and his body conveyed to Hampstead in a cab or something of that sort. Or it might have been on a motor lorry."
"What's the object of that?" Ellis asked.
"Why, to cover up tracks, of course. Get the body removed as far as possible from the scene of the crime. Besides, it surrounds the whole thing with an air of mystery, and perhaps suggests that Avory was leading a double life. I have made inquiries amongst his friends, and I can't connect him with Hampstead at all. The police there have been backing me up, and they can tell me nothing. I shouldn't mind making a small bet that Avory was never near Hampstead in his life. Some one wanted to get him out of the way, and perhaps you can guess who that some one was."
"Well, Gilmour for one," Ellis cried.
"Precisely. Gilmour knew that he was recognized by Avory on a certain night, and he was ready to take any risks to close the mouth of so dangerous a witness. And it is my belief he did it. But he couldn't have got the body away without assistance. He must have had some one in his confidence in a position to place a conveyance at his disposal and convey the corpse to Hampstead. Mind you, I am assuming that the crime was committed in Wapping."
"Of course it was," Ellis said. "I suppose you haven't forgotten the card I found amongst Avory's possessions and the mysterious address at 17 Greencorn Street. Oh, by the way, have you done anything in the matter of that particular house?"
"We will come to that presently," Lock said evasively, "after we have had our conversation with the professor. Meanwhile, you are interrupting me. I was saying just now something about a conveyance placed at, shall we say, Gilmour's disposal? So I began to make inquiries. I was looking for the man who has a taxi or a lorry by which ostensibly he gets a livelihood, and at the same time has a great deal of time on his hands, and a fair amount of money to waste, and I found him."
"Go on," Ellis cried eagerly. "Go on."
"Well, he is a man called George. He doesn't seem to have any name but George, at least, none of his neighbours seem to be aware that he has a surname. He lives in a yard which used to be a mews in the old days, and he does entirely for himself in one room over a stable loft. He has a lorry of sorts, and a taxi for which he holds a licence. He takes out the cab sometimes, but sometimes for days on end it is never outside the garage. It hasn't been outside the garage for two days to my certain knowledge. The fellow doesn't drink, at least not to excess, and he has no ostentatious vices, though he has plenty of money. Now, it struck me as odd that this man should be in a position to work one day a week and, moreover, that he required no assistance, despite the fact that he has two petrol conveyances. So I am having an eye kept upon him, and one of my best men has managed to scrape acquaintance with him. I have discovered that on the night when I went down to the Moat House, George's cab left the garage just about the time it would take Gilmour to drive from Wapping to Cray. That is about as far as I have got up to now, except that the evening following the big robbery of furs from the lighter on the river George's motor-lorry was out from just after dark till two o'clock in the morning. Of course, that proves nothing. But when I get a bit further in my investigations, we might find it very useful. But come along—let's get to Wimpole Street."
Professor Phillipson was in the laboratory and welcomed his visitors eagerly. Ellis gazed round the big scientific workshop with its test tubes and all kinds of elaborate and delicate machinery, noting all these with a journalistic eye and with a view to the future. There was something very interesting in a place like this, with its maps and drawings, and the hundreds of small bottles on the shelves neatly labelled, and all of them filled with strange objects that suggested something in the shape of nightmare dreams. The professor sat at a big table with a mass of papers before him, and he looked up eagerly as his visitors entered. He drew towards him a sheet of calculations, and laid a long slender hand on the sheet of paper.
"You have come at the right moment," he said. "I have just finished my analysis in connexion with the death of that unfortunate man William Avory. It was just as I told you. The poor fellow was dead before he was placed in the water, as I guessed at the time. You remember what I told you at the inquest, Mr. Ellis. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. It is no difficult matter to place a body in water without any marks of violence upon it, and with no injury to the internal organs, so as to delude everybody into the idea that death was due to drowning. But the people responsible for that did not know quite enough. They didn't know, for instance, that a drowned person has water in the lungs, and that there would be no moisture in the lungs of a corpse placed in the water—that is, a dead body placed in the water after decease. But of course the police surgeon knew that, and very wisely said nothing about it. When we come to the adjourned inquest he will speak candidly enough, because by that time I hope that our friend, Inspector Lock here, will have laid the miscreant by the heels. You can see now, Mr. Ellis, why we entered into that little conspiracy with the connivance of the coroner."
"Oh, I quite appreciate that, professor," Ellis said. "I don't want to be unduly inquisitive, but perhaps you can tell me how my unfortunate friend was killed."
"Ah, that I am in a position to do now beyond the shadow of a doubt. I have worked it all out, and I don't think there can possibly be a flaw in my diagnosis. You remember me calling your attention to certain marks like scalds or burns on one of the dead man's hands. It was a mere nothing, and would have escaped the attention of the average man, though to me it was eloquent enough. Avory was killed by an electric shock."
"What, do you mean deliberately?" Ellis asked.
"I have not the slightest doubt of it," the professor went on. "He must have been deliberately lured into some place, a workshop perhaps, where they use a deal of power. My analysis points to at least two thousand volts. Avory was induced, no doubt, to touch a live wire, which means that he died instantly. But nothing to notice except that little burn on one hand. We must find out now where that workshop is."
Lock allowed his gaze to wander round the room. Then he turned round and smiled at the speaker.
"This is where I come in," he murmured. "Because I can tell you exactly where this vile thing was done."
Saturday was usually a day that did not count for much in Great Bower Street, and indeed Croot had never been in the habit of attending the office at all on Saturdays. As a matter of fact, the office closed at twelve o'clock, and as likely as not Gilmour had gone off on the Friday evening on one of those mysterious week-end excursions of his which, had he known it, was occupying a good deal of Jack Ellis's attention. The latter knew that Gilmour had departed for the country early on the Saturday in question, and shortly after midday he put in an appearance in the hall of the block of flats called Everard Mansions and was asking questions of the caretaker.
He was going down to Cray to play golf himself by a train that would get him down to the Club House in time for lunch, where he hoped to be joined by Vera, together with Pat Langley and Geoffrey Rust. He had been denied the entrée of the Manor House, but nothing had been said as to his meeting Vera elsewhere, and as Croot was still confined to the house, Ellis was looking forward to what ought to prove a pleasant afternoon. True, there was delicate business to be discussed, but that ought not to detract from the pleasure of the day.
Ellis walked into the hall of the Mansions breezily enough, and inquired of the hall porter as to Gilmour's movements. He was dressed in the smartest of golfing kits, and hoped to pass himself off as a friend of Gilmour's without exciting suspicion.
"No, sir, Mr. Gilmour is not here," the porter replied in answer to Ellis's brief question. "I think he has gone off playing golf. He went away in a taxi, and told me that he shouldn't be back before Monday morning."
"Now, that's rather annoying," Ellis said. "I had hoped to catch him before he started. The fact is, I have a bit of property of his, something he lost which I picked up."
"It don't 'appen to be a latchkey, sir, I suppose?" the porter asked. "Because Mr. Gilmour lost one."
This was precisely what Ellis hoped to hear. It occurred to him that if Gilmour had come home late one evening he would be compelled either to knock up his housekeeper or invoke the assistance of the porter, who, in a well-arranged block of flats, is usually prepared for such an emergency.
"Well, as a matter of fact it is," he smiled. "Do you know when Mr. Gilmour lost his key?"
A good deal depended upon the answer, and Ellis awaited it with some anxiety, which he was at some pains to conceal.
"Oh, of course I can tell you that, sir," the porter replied. "It was Wednesday night. 'E came back very late, and asked me if I could help him. 'E didn't want to wake up 'is landlady, so 'e asked me for a spare key. I keep those locked up, and I lend them to the tenants, of course taking care to get 'em back in the morning. We has to be very particular about that, because it leads to trouble sometimes. If you have that key, sir, I shall be very glad to have it back again."
Ellis hesitated for a moment. He did not in the least want to part with the key, and, on the other hand, he could not obtain the desired information without approaching the porter on the subject. Some time or another it might be necessary to use the latch-key with a view to inspecting the interior of Gilmour's flat, but if Gilmour was to be informed that some friend of his had found the missing property, it would have to be given up again, and Ellis was not in the least anxious to have his name connected with the matter. At any rate, his morning had not been wasted, because he had ascertained beyond a doubt that Gilmour had been away from home till very late on the night of the last raid on the Thames, and this in itself was of great value.
He looked at the porter again. He saw a man with a suspiciously red face, and a pair of red eyes which told their own tale. Was it possible, he thought, to make it worth the porter's while to say nothing of this visit?
"Yes, I know Mr. Gilmour was late that night," he said. "Was he at all—well, you know what I mean?"
The porter grinned, and nodded his head.
"Been up to some lark, I think, sir," he said. "Come in with a shabby suit of clothes, and looked as if he had been sweeping a chimney. And in a rare bad temper, too. 'E would never 'ave woke me up unless 'e'd been obliged to, sir."
"Yes, I think I could tell you a good deal about that," Ellis said. "You never know what these respectable people are up to, porter. I should like to have a bit of fun with Mr. Gilmour over this. Only I don't want him to know it."
"Sort of pulling 'is leg, I suppose," the porter chuckled.
"Yes, that's it. Anyway, I have his key, and I will give it back to him when the proper time comes. But I don't want you to tell him that till I see you again. Don't you say anything about it, and here's a pound note for you. If you are discreet there will be another when the joke is finished."
The porter gave the desired assurance, and Ellis went his way on exceedingly good terms with himself. He had established an important fact, and one that might be of great value a little later on. He could quite understand why Gilmour had preferred to obtain a spare latchkey in preference to calling up his housekeeper. No doubt that worthy woman would be prepared to swear that her employer had not been off the premises after dinner on the night in question, and, moreover, make that declaration firmly believing it to be true. Ellis was therefore feeling very pleased with himself when he turned into the Club House to find Patricia Langley and Geoffrey Rust awaiting him at the luncheon table.
But there was no sign of Vera, and, moreover, a message had come from her to the effect that she had been detained at home in attendance on her adopted father, who was still confined to the house and who was not quite so well as he had been. Vera hoped to join them in the course of the afternoon.
"That's rather annoying," Ellis said. "I suppose we shall have to play a three ball, but that's a mere detail. Geoff, have you said anything to Pat on the subject we were speaking about?"
"Yes, I have," Rust replied. "We have just been talking about it. I think that Vera ought to know that we have taken Patricia into our confidence."
"I cannot understand it," Pat said. "I can't make it out at all. To me it's absolutely incredible. I have never seen my father in a fit state to move—"
She stopped abruptly, and her colour changed. For quite suddenly there flashed into her mind the recollection of that occasion when she had seen him standing before the fire-place in the little sitting-room looking into the glass and apparently shaking his fist at some imaginary enemy.
"Go on," Geoffrey said encouragingly. "Go on."
"Perhaps I had better tell you," Pat said. "It is a very small matter, but in the face of what Geoff has been telling me, rather significant."
She told them her story in a few words, and her companions exchanged glances. For this did not sound very like a man who had lain helpless for at least three years, and unable even to eat his own food without assistance.
"Yes, it is significant," Rust said thoughtfully. "I think, Pat, when you get back this afternoon, you had better tell your father what Vera says, and give him the opportunity of taking you into his confidence if he will. At any rate, we can't do any more till we see Vera. Let's have our lunch now, and go out and play our round."
It was nearly four o'clock before Vera came on the course, by which time the match was finished, and Pat on her way homewards, for she had felt compelled to get back and give her father his tea without waiting for her friend.
"If there is anything particular, you can come along and see me, Geoff," she said. "I am sorry to have missed Vera this afternoon, but I really must get away."
Vera came, looking pale and distracted, and indeed she had had anything but a pleasant time since breakfast. Croot was still confined to the house, and chafing against his captivity. He wanted to get back to work again, and Vera had found his irritability exceedingly trying. He did not want to be left alone; indeed at first he had almost forbidden her to leave the house. But perhaps the sight of her pale face had had its proper effect, for he suddenly changed his mind and ordered her to go for a walk. Whatever his vices might be, and however deeply he was in crime, there was no question of his affection for Vera. It was the one bright spot in an otherwise selfish and unscrupulous life. And Vera felt this, and was not ungrateful, though she was exceedingly unhappy, and from time to time she recalled certain little incidents from the past which assumed a strange significance in view of what Ellis had told her on the occasion of their last meeting.
She seemed to feel the coming trouble, the vague intangible catastrophe that hovered over the house, though she could not have said what it was, and why this thing haunted her. But haunt her it did, and she was bearing the marks of it as she joined the other two on the Club House veranda. There was no one else about, therefore they could talk quite freely.
"What have you done, Jack?" she asked.
"Well, not very much in your absence," Ellis said. "Pat knows now what you told me, and she is as mystified as you are. I wish she could have stayed and talked it over with us, but she said that she had to get back, and if we really wanted her she would come out again after tea."
"Hadn't I better go and see her?" Vera asked.
"Yes, you might do that after we are gone. I must get away by the 5.15. What are you going to do, Geoff?"
"Oh, I am in no hurry," Rust replied. "I rather thought of staying down here till Monday, putting up at the hotel."
"Right, we'll leave it at that then," Ellis said. "You go along to the cottage later on, Vera, and talk this matter over with Pat. But one thing I must impress upon you. This business of the burglary at the Moat House is a dead secret between the four of us, and it must not be mentioned to a soul."
"Not even my father?" Vera asked.
"Good Lord, no, he's the last person—oh, I don't quite mean that—I mean that no one must know about it."
Vera listened with a sinking heart. It was plain to her from Ellis's slip that he had some special reason why the story should be concealed from Mortimer Croot. All the old terrors were coming back to her now, and perhaps Ellis saw it, for he laid his hand almost protectingly on her arm.
"There is nothing to be frightened about," he said soothingly. "And I know you are no coward. There is going to be a good deal of trouble for us before long, Vera, and you will have to take your part in it with the rest. If I didn't feel quite sure that I could rely upon you, I should have said nothing."
"Oh, I am sure of that," Vera said. "I don't know why I feel nervous and full of dread, but I am."
"Courage," Ellis said, "courage. There is nothing that can hurt either of us, and when it is all over you will be the happier for it. Now, go along and see Pat. You can tell her everything you told us, and perhaps when we meet to-morrow in the afternoon we shall see our way clearer."
Meanwhile, Pat had gone thoughtfully homewards. She had been a good deal disturbed, naturally, by what Ellis had had to say, and she was still dazed and bewildered by the startling circumstances that had just been related to her. It seemed almost incredible to believe that her father had done this thing. In the first place, she had never known him, except on that one occasion, to leave his chair since that fatal night when she had found him on the floor of the Moat House library on the verge of death. He had been a long time recovering his power of speech, and the partial use of his limbs. He was a confirmed invalid, and seemed likely to remain so despite the fact that Pat in her more sanguine moments tried to delude herself that he was getting better. And here he was now, actually accused of walking unaided from the cottage in the dead of night to the Moat House, and there engaging in a cool and audacious burglary.
At any rate, she must ask him about it, because so far as she could gather, Vera was perfectly convinced of the truth of her story, and no questions had shaken her.
Major Langley was seated in his chair, waiting patiently for his tea in his usual attitude of apathy and dejection, but he looked up with a sudden gleam in his eye directly Pat asked him a plain and pointed question. Had he or had he not been outside the house at any time without her knowledge?
"Why do you ask?" Langley demanded, speaking in a voice that fairly took Patricia aback.
Without any prevarication she told him.
"It's true," he said. "I am not going to make any excuses, Pat. You have found me out, and I will make a clean breast of it."
He rose from his chair, and stood before the fire-place in the attitude of a man who is in full possession of all his strength and faculties. There was no sign of the invalid now.
"I found it out nearly a year ago," he said. "I found out that my strength was returning. When you are away at business and I am alone here, I take all sorts of exercise. There is a reason, a powerful reason, why I wanted to keep the knowledge to myself. Oh, you would have known all right when the proper time came. Pat, I have been robbed and swindled. You have been deprived of your inheritance by a cold-blooded scoundrel who deliberately plotted your father's ruin. I knew it the night I had that attack, and I was prepared to meet Croot on his own ground and defeat him. I had all the proofs ready, but that worry and anxiety was too much for me, and I collapsed at the very moment when I needed every ounce of my strength. For over two years you know what I was, but I am all right again now, and nobody outside the circle of our friends could guess it. I shall confront Croot when I am ready, and you will see him collapse like a bubble. But I must get my proofs, whatever happens, I must get my proofs."
"Where are they?" Pat asked.
"Ah, that I am not going to tell anybody. I dare not run the risk. But they exist not far from here, and Croot does not dream of it. You have heard me—"
Pat lifted a warning finger.
"Not another word," she whispered.
Langley looked at her inquiringly; then as his glance wandered round the room he saw the reason for this caution.
For Vera was standing in the doorway.
It was not until lunch-time on the following Monday that Ellis heard anything further as to what had transpired at Cray when he met Rust at the club. The latter had come along direct from the office for his usual leisurely hour or so.
"Well," Rust said, "I suppose you want to know, you know, like the man who called at the Circumlocum Office."
"Circumlocution Office," Ellis corrected. "Yes, I am rather interested. All about Major Langley, you know."
"I wasn't there, as a matter of fact," Rust proceeded to explain, "but Pat told me afterwards. Vera's amazing statement was absolutely true, my dear chap. The major was in the Moat House on the night in question. If you ask me why I can't tell you, because on that point he refused to say anything. But perhaps I had better begin at the beginning. When Pat got back to the cottage she told her father quite plainly what she had heard, and asked him for an explanation. Then he told her that for some considerable time past he had been practically all right. Moreover, he told her that he had been the victim of a vile conspiracy on Croot's part, and that he hoped before long to be able to prove it. He said he had adopted this method so that he might confront Croot when the right time came. What he was after in the Moat House, Heaven only knows, for he would say nothing about that. Of course, Vera does not dream of this. I talked it over with Pat, and we decided that it would never do to take her into our confidence on that particular matter just yet. But she knows now that she was not mistaken as to the identity of the midnight intruder, and she also knows that the major is himself again. You see, Vera walked into the cottage just at the moment when Pat was having it out with her father. That being so, he could not tell a deliberate lie, and therefore Vera was sworn to secrecy and told that she should know everything in good time. My idea is that Langley was after something at the Moat House which he knows to be hidden somewhere in the library. But at any rate that is all I can tell you."
"And quite enough, too," Ellis said. "Now, did you happen to see Croot over the week-end?"
"Certainly I did," Rust said. "And very irritable he was. There isn't much the matter with him, but the doctor insisted upon his staying in the house, and that seemed to worry him. He was very anxious to see Gilmour, and I had instructions to tell him to go down to the Moat House this evening and make arrangements to stay the night there."
"That's capital," Ellis cried. "Couldn't be better, because I have a little business on to-night, which requires Gilmour's absence. I will tell you what it is later on."
Having assured himself not long before the dinner hour that Gilmour had gone down to the Moat House for the night, Ellis made an appointment with Inspector Lock over the telephone to call upon him about ten o'clock that evening with a view to going as far as 17 Greencorn Street, and raiding the premises there. Just before the appointed time he was seated in Lock's office.
"Gilmour is out of the way for the night," he explained. "And so it occurred to me that here was our opportunity. Of course, I am taking it for granted that Gilmour is the mysterious occupant of the house in Greencorn Street, and that we are likely to learn a good deal when we get there. Now, listen, and I will tell you something that may be of use to you."
With that Ellis went on to tell the story of the way in which the latchkey of No. 5 Everard Mansions had found its way into his possession, and also of the inquiries he had made of the caretaker in the big block of flats.
"I have a little idea of my own," he went on. "From what I have just told you you will see that Gilmour got back to his flat very late on the night those furs were stolen. Moreover, he was in a very dirty condition, and dressed in some shabby old tweeds, which, he explained to the caretaker, was due to the fact that he had been playing golf. He also hinted that he had got into a bit of a mess afterwards, though we can take that for what it is worth. It is a lie, of course, all due to the fact that he had lost his latchkey. He must have sneaked out of his house on the night of the raid and reached the street without using the lift. Also, you will find, if you come to inquire, that he so contrived it as to leave his housekeeper under the impression that he had never left the flat that night at all. I suppose it is possible to ascertain if this really was the case."
"Oh, that is quite easy," Lock smiled. "I will put one of our lady detectives on to the job, and ask her to scrape acquaintance with the woman in question. She can call upon her, for instance, as a servant who is looking for a situation. There are dozens of ways. She will very soon find out what happened after Gilmour had had his dinner on the night of the raid. At a guess, I should say that Gilmour probably pretended to go to bed early. At any rate, I am willing to make a small bet that you are right. And if Gilmour really is out of the way—"
"Oh, that you can rely upon," Ellis interrupted.
"Then in that case we had better get along."
They went off together presently, and in the course of time reached the dingy thoroughfare in Wapping out of which Greencorn Street led. It was getting fairly late by this time, so that they had the byway practically to themselves. Not that Lock was taking any sort of risks. He waited for quite half an hour on the open patch of land by the side of the lonely house before he was satisfied that he and his companion were not being shadowed, then very cautiously he proceeded to examine the roughly boarded-up front door with the aid of a little torch.
"Ah, here we are," he said presently. "A very neatly-disguised keyhole. You can see it there, between the cracks and the board. I think I have a key to open that."
A minute or two later the whole of the boarding swung back, disclosing the doorway and the passage beyond, into which Lock darted, followed by his companion. He closed the door behind him, and they stood there in the thick velvety darkness. Then the torch was flashed on again, and Lock moved the speck of light around till he located the brasswork of a switch. Then he proceeded to flood the passage with light.
"Isn't that rather risky?" Ellis suggested.
"Oh, not a bit of it. You may depend upon it that every window is boarded up, so that not a ray of light shows."
And this proved to be the case. There was nothing in either of the rooms upstairs, and no sign that they had ever been occupied, neither was there anything like a gas-bracket or a single indication that the electric wires had been carried any higher than the ground floor. The broken dusty windowpanes were boarded up a foot or two inside the room, so that no air or light could penetrate, and having once satisfied himself of this, Lock made his way down the creaking rotten stairs again. So far as he could see, the only room that had been occupied was one at the back.
"Do you see anything suspicious here?" he asked.
"I can see nothing," Ellis laughed. "Only a strongly-made table and a couple of chairs."
"Ah, then it never occurred to you as strange that this room has been newly papered. I wonder why. And again, the room is much smaller than I judged from the outside. Narrow, as if a portion had been cut off. Unless I am greatly mistaken, we shall find something interesting behind that farther wall. But we must be careful not to make any mess, or our man will certainly find out that somebody has been investigating here."
Lock took from his pocket a small ivory rule with which he went over the floor, at the same time making certain calculations in a notebook. Then he looked up suddenly.
"Ah, what's this?" he asked. "That board leading from the door to the opposite wall has been taken up within the last few months. You can see the cracks in the dirt which are not visible anywhere else, and you will notice that the board runs under what should be the skirting on the far side. But no skirting is visible there, and the paper goes right down to the floor. As it only does so on that side of the room, there must be some reason for it, The wall on that side has been boarded up. Listen, don't you notice the hollow sound it gives?"
Lock tapped the board with his knuckles, and surely enough it rang out with a sort of dull echo. Undoubtedly there was woodwork behind that paper, but no sign of a door, though Lock examined the pattern of the wall-paper with meticulous care.
"There must be a spring there," he said. "And we have got to find it. Of course, I could have the place raided to-morrow morning if I liked, but I don't want to do that, because it would be giving the whole game away to our friend Gilmour. We must find the spring, or we are merely wasting our time here. Happy thought. Let us get up that floor-board."
The long plank in the floor was lifted without much trouble, showing in the hollow space below a long black snake-like object that ran from the outer wall across to the wooden partition concealed behind the florid wall-paper.
"By Jove! we are getting on to it all right now," Lock said. "That is the cable from which the lights come, and if I am not greatly mistaken has been taken off the main. I have dabbled a bit in electricity, and I know what I am talking about. Now, will you kindly tell me why a cable capable of carrying a load of at least two thousand volts has been installed in a shanty like this? No doubt that cable was built in the road to supply the garage opposite. There is something more than meets the eye here, Mr. Ellis. Before I go any farther, I should like to find the switch controlling the cable. As far as I can see, there are two different installations here. But if the power is fully on, then I don't want to monkey with it. If I should happen to touch a live wire behind that partition, Scotland Yard would certainly be deprived of one of its brightest ornaments. Now, would you mind taking the torch and seeing if you can find a switchboard somewhere just inside the front door, and ascertain if the power is on? It must be somewhere near the front door, because I can see no sign of a meter anywhere. If I am not altogether wrong, the main cable has been tapped, and consequently there is no record in the company's books of any power installation in this house."
With the torch in his hand Ellis proceeded to make a search for the switchboard, which he found, after a good deal of trouble, concealed behind a heap of rubbish just inside the front door. Having satisfied himself of the fact that the current was not running, he was about to return to the sitting-room when a small white object lying on the boards behind the door attracted his attention. He picked it up, and saw that it was a grimy envelope of some cheap paper which had evidently been pushed under the door by some one, but the thing that caused Ellis to whistle softly was the fact that the envelope was addressed in scrawling characters to "Mr. Gilmer."
"Here's a find," he exclaimed, as he handed over the envelope to Lock. "Evidently one of Gilmour's friends, though the spelling is wrong. I'd like to see what is inside that."
"You shall," Lock said promptly. "I will open that envelope. It's quite easy if you know how."
With a thin-bladed knife and a little care Lock released the flap of the envelope without in the least damaging the fabric. Inside it was a bill for some thirty odd pounds from a motor garage addressed to one Mr. George Pensum, of Ray's Mews, and a printed intimation at the foot to the effect that the account was much overdue, and that if it was not paid within the next seven days, proceedings would be taken without further notice.
"Ah, we are certainly getting on," Lock murmured. "And you will agree with me when I tell you that the taxi driver I told you about lives in Ray's Mews, and is known as George. I presume Pensum is his proper name. And look at this."
Inside the envelope was a scrap of paper addressed to "Mr. Gilmer," and some scrawling lines asking the recipient of the note to find the wherewithal to discharge the obligation, unless he wanted to make trouble. Lock chuckled as he read.
"Now, there is a bit of evidence for you," he said. "The taxi driver who does no work and who always has plenty of money is evidently one of Gilmour's confederates. It is undoubtedly the man who drove him down to the Moat House upon a certain historic occasion, and beyond question he knows the mystery of this sinister place, or he would never have pushed that note under the door for Gilmour to find. Gilmour is apparently the man who finds all the money, and our friend George expects him to provide this. We will seal that envelope up again and put it where we found it. I should much prefer to keep it, but that would be rather dangerous. If Gilmour finds that the note is not where George put it, he is certain to smell a rat, and that is the last thing we want. Still, we know where we are standing now, and we can afford to be patient. But we haven't found out what is behind that boarding yet."
Very grimly, and with infinite patience, Lock went over every inch of the boarded wall, knocking on it with his knuckles, and measuring from time to time, especially in the part that reached vertically upwards above the line from which the floor-board had been removed. Then suddenly he chuckled.
"I believe I have got it," he exclaimed. "There is something hard here, something that obtrudes."
The words were hardly out of his mouth before a section of the boarded wall commenced to move, and swung round like the circular glass door in an up-to-date hotel, displaying a large cavity behind, which appeared in the dim light to resemble the machine-room on board a modern liner. With the aid of the torch Lock localized a pair of switchboards, the smaller of which evidently controlled the lighting within the roomy recess. Rather cautiously he handled the buttons on this, taking great care not to touch the larger board, so that instantly the place radiated brilliantly.
"Ah, here we are," he said. "A fine up-to-date workshop. Now, I wonder what this means. I have a vague notion of what it has been used for, that is apart from its commercial value, but what is Gilmour doing with a plant like this? The last affair of the kind I had anything to do with was run by the most ingenious set of coiners that we ever laid by the heels. But we shall come to all that in good time, no doubt. Ah, here is the whole set-out, even to india-rubber gloves and rubber mats. There is enough power here to electrocute a regiment. Do you see that wire there? If I switched on the current and you touched it, you would be dead in the fraction of a second. Does that convey anything to you? No?"
"I am afraid I don't quite follow," Ellis said.
Lock lowered his voice impressively.
"My dear fellow," he murmured. "It is as plain as daylight. You know that the man Avory was lured here, and beyond the shadow of a doubt he was deliberately electrocuted in that closet."
Now and again when office matters were a little slack, Rust was in the habit of rushing off to the West End and there entertaining Patricia to a more or less elaborate lunch, and, Gilmour being away, and Croot still confined to the house, they were off on one of these unofficial excursions two mornings later. It was only a matter of an hour or so, and nobody was any the wiser.
They had finished a dainty little repast in the quiet exclusive restaurant that Rust usually patronized, and were talking generally over the coffee and cigarettes. Nobody was within earshot, and Rust was in confidential mood.
"I want you to tell me what happened the other day when you spoke to your father about that mysterious enterprise of his," he said. "I mean after Vera had gone. Oh, I know, of course, what he said in her presence, but has he confided in you since?"
"No, he hasn't," Pat confessed. "He seems to think that I am not to be trusted. I don't exactly mean that; I mean he wants a man friend to help him, and I suggested that you should come down with me and talk matters over. He likes you, Geoff, he liked you even before he knew who you were, and when he thought that you were just a clerk in Mr. Croot's office. He thinks you are quite clever, especially with regard to business matters."
"Where did he get that delusion from?"
"My dear boy," Pat smiled. "It is no delusion, and you know it. Oh, I know that you laugh at yourself and tell everybody that you will be only too glad to turn your back on the city, but I have had my eye upon you, and you are as competent as any of them. Now confess, hasn't your experience been of use to you?"
"Yes, I suppose it has," Rust admitted. "My father was quite right when he made that stipulation. I used to be a great fool as far as money was concerned, but I have learnt a lesson since I have been in the city. Not that I have grown mean, I hope, but I can tell the difference between the true and the false, and between ourselves, Pat, I have enjoyed my experience. You see, I am a member of the City Carlton Club, and though they regarded me as a greenhorn at first, I flatter myself that I have taught more than one shady city man a lesson."
"That is precisely what I told my father," Pat said. "I am quite sure you will be able to help him. If you like to come down with me this evening after business hours—"
Rust leant eagerly across the table.
"I am only too glad of the chance," he said. "Now, look here, Pat, I don't want to come merely as a business acquaintance. I want you to give me the right to help, and let me tell your father so. Here have I been making love to you for the last six months, and so far I haven't even kissed you."
"You are taking a lot for granted," Pat smiled, though her eyes told Rust a good deal.
"Oh, nonsense," he said. "I am not coming under any other conditions. What's the good of going on like this? You know I love you, Pat, but of course if you don't return—"
"Of course I do," Pat blushed. "But we can't talk about this sort of thing here. Good gracious, it's gone two o'clock."
They hurried back to the office, and shortly after six o'clock Rust found himself in the sitting-room of the little cottage listening to all that the major had to say.
"I have come down here, sir," Rust said, "to do anything I can for you. But there is something I must tell you first. You know all about me now; you know what my past has been, and what my future prospects are. For the best part of a year now I have been in love with Pat, as indeed I was before I knew that she was anything but a typist in the offices of Verity & Co., and if you are agreeable, after hearing me say this, all my time and all my resources are at your disposal."
For a few minutes the major sat in his chair saying nothing. He looked from Rust's face into Pat's blushing, smiling one, and his brooding eyes strangely softened.
"That's good hearing, my boy," he said. "Very good hearing. Pat's future has been one of my great anxieties, and now that that is assured a great weight is lifted off my mind. Of course, you can't expect to understand a father's feelings, but you must know what I mean. And yet, if I had not been the victim of a vile conspiracy, Pat would be far more favourably situated than the majority of girls in her own class."
"Well, that's settled, anyway," Rust said cheerfully. "Now perhaps you will tell me what I can do to help."
Major Langley lighted a cigarette, and passed his case over to Rust. He settled himself back in his chair and began to speak with a clearness and force that fairly astonished both listeners. He was no longer the helpless invalid, practically paralysed, and half deprived of his faculties. He spoke slowly and thoughtfully, and very much to the point.
"First of all," he said. "I am going to ask you a business question. You have been in the city now for nearly two years, and you must have learnt a good deal."
"Oh, I have picked up a thing or two," Rust said modestly.
"He has done far more than that, father," Pat cried. "If Geoff liked, he could make a good living in business."
"I dare say he could, my dear," the major went on. "At any rate, I am going to test him. Now, look here, Mr. Rust—I beg your pardon, I ought to have said Geoff—did you ever hear anything of a concern called the Kamaloo Copper Trust?"
"Well, as a matter of fact, I have," Rust said. "I have been dabbling in mines myself. There is a friend of mine at the club who is right in the swing. He hasn't much money himself, but I find the cash and he the exclusive information, and together we have done very well indeed. Now, wasn't this Kamaloo Copper Trust at one time better known as Broken Point?"
"That's right," the major cried eagerly. "My dear boy, practically every penny I had in the world was invested in the Broken Point Mine, and the man who induced me to take that plunge was Mortimer Croot. In those days—I am speaking of four years ago—Croot was living at the White Gates, which had been for a great many years the residence of an old friend of my family who knew the Verity family well. Verity was a splendid specimen of a business man, upright and honourable, as his father had been before him. But he was a little too old-fashioned for modern business, and so he gave up the concern many years before Croot was heard of, and retired to the Continent. But that has very little to do with what I am about to say. It was through my old friend that I came to know Croot, and it was he who induced me to begin speculating."
"In copper mines?" Rust asked.
"Well, not at first, that came afterwards. Then there was a day when Croot came to me and told me all about Broken Points. According to his account, there was no copper mine like it in the world. He had exclusive information, and a controlling interest. The figures were so splendid that I was fairly carried off my feet, and I suppose I was excited, too, in the belief that only Croot and myself and the mining engineer knew the real value of that wealth. I may say that in those days the company was not even formed. I was advised to take up debentures."
"That seems sound advice," Rust said.
"So I thought at the time. There were to be a thousand debentures of £100 each, and of these I took four hundred. You might think it was a mad thing to do, but I did it. Not all at once, mind you, but as a result of scores of conversations extending over many weeks. The reports were so alluring that I was fairly carried off my feet. I realized all I had, I even mortgaged my old house where the Langleys had lived for four centuries, to find the money. But that was not the worst. As time went on I began to invest in ordinary shares, until I was seriously crippled. But that did not trouble me, because I knew that directly the truth came out I should be able to sell my shares to get everything back, and give me a handsome balance, so that with ordinary good fortune I should be a very rich man. Not that I really wanted more than I had, but you know, my dear boy, how that fever grows upon you. Well, I had my debentures; they were brought to me, a few at a time, by Croot himself—just the ordinary bearer bonds with coupons attached, and these I deposited with my banker. I gave Croot my cheques personally, and he always insisted upon giving me a receipt for them. I thought that looked very straightforward, especially as the receipts not only mentioned the amount of the bonds, but actually quoted the numbers on them."
The major paused and lighted a fresh cigarette.
"Well, so it went on until the crash came. I was informed that the whole thing was a fraud from beginning to end, that the consulting engineer had fooled all concerned to the top of their bent, and that he had realized his own share of the plunder and disappeared. Croot came and told me that one night in my own library. He told me that he was as hard hit as I was, and that if he had not had an exceedingly prosperous business of his own, he would have been ruined. I must say he acted his part splendidly. There were tears in his eyes when he offered to make good as far as possible. But, of course, as a man of honour, I could not listen to that. Pat was more or less a child at the time, so it was not difficult to keep the truth from her."
"Are you quite sure you did, dad?" Pat asked softly.
"Well, at any rate I thought so, my dear. But let me get on. I was absolutely ruined, and I realized that the old place and all that it contained would have to go. And then one day, quite by accident, I learnt something which aroused my suspicions. I met a fellow victim and he gave me certain information. I went to my bank, and brought those debentures down here. And what do you think I found, Geoffrey?"
"I haven't the remotest idea," Rust said.
"I found that those debentures were forgeries. You see, there were only a thousand of them altogether, which means that each separate debenture would be numbered from 1 to 1,000. When I came to look at my own bonds, I found that the first number was 1,200."
"Is that really so?" Rust exclaimed. "Major, I should very much like to see those bonds myself."
"I dare say you would," the major said a little forlornly. "But unfortunately I can't tell you where they are, neither can I tell you where those receipts that I had from Croot are hidden. That, my dear boy, is just where my memory fails me. I am as strong and vigorous as ever I was, and my mind is as clear as yours. At least, it would be but for a queer hiatus here and there, little blind mental spots which baffle me. No, I know I didn't destroy them; I put them away somewhere very carefully, so that I should be able to confront Croot with them in my own time, and in a place of my own choosing. That they are still extant I am certain, but where? Ah, that's the rub. I shall recollect in time, in fact there are occasions when I dream of the exact spot, and when I come to myself again my mind is a blank on the subject. But curiously enough, these dreams always come to me when I am dozing in my chair here after lunch. Do you know, Geoff, I have only the vaguest idea of how I got to the Moat House the other night, and incidentally nearly killed Croot. I must have been walking in my sleep, a sort of unconscious drama."
"That wouldn't altogether account for it," Rust said.
"No, perhaps not; but I was there, and I knew I was there directly Pat mentioned the matter to me. Now, why?"
"I think that is pretty plain, sir," Rust said. "You got up in the middle of the night, half-asleep and half-awake, with the intention of going to the Moat House to find those documents. You must have concealed them somewhere there, and in certain phases of your mind you know exactly where to put your hands upon them. You see, you know every inch of the Moat House, and there isn't a scrap of your old furniture that does not stand exactly where it did when you were a boy. Surely there must be some—"
The major held up his hand suddenly.
"Yes, that's right," he said almost fiercely. "Secret hiding-places...queer old corner cupboards...but it's all gone again. It will come back to me some day."
He lay back in his chair for a few minutes in painful thought, then his brow cleared once more.
"You must come and talk this over again," he said. "Though perhaps I had better tell you the rest. I was waiting on the night of my seizure to confront Croot in the library with his rascality when I was stricken down. I suppose I was too wrought up, and that nature took her full penalty. But it was a marvellous escape for Croot, because I had everything ready for him, and I was standing up to get it when the crash came. Ah well, it will be my turn before we have finished."
"What a hypocrite he must be," Pat cried. "He came to me, when everybody thought that you would not live many weeks longer and when all the doctors said that your mind would never come back to the normal, and he told me that he had implored you over and over again not to dabble in speculations. He told me that he had not the remotest idea that you had invested a penny in anything, and I thought he was acting splendidly when he came forward and gave a fancy price for the Moat House just as it stood. I shall never be able to go back to Great Bower Street again."
"But you must," the major said harshly. "You must go on as if nothing had happened. I will tell you why presently. So you see, Geoff, how that man robbed me of all I possessed, and bought my old home with my own money. And now perhaps you will be able to help me to get it back again."
"I think there is little doubt about that," Rust said grimly. "I was telling you just now that I know a good deal about the mining market, and this you may take from me as correct. The Broken Point Mine was a sound one, the whole thing was an audacious swindle, and now that it is forgotten, Broken Points have blossomed into Kamaloo Copper Trusts, with Croot holding nine-tenths of the stock. Not in his own name, but it is his; and my partner whom I spoke about just now is in a position to prove it. But we must not be too hasty over this business, major; we will give Croot a little more rope, and if, in the meantime, there is anything else I can do for you, you have only to command my services."
"Yes, yes," the major cried eagerly. "There were certain letters that Croot wrote to me, private letters which I destroyed at the time as being of no value. But, of course, they went through Croot's letter book, and if I could get hold of that—"
"You shall," Rust said. "I know where all the old letter books are kept in the basement at Great Bower Street. I will make a note of this and look them up. If you can give me the approximate dates, I shall find them if they still exist. And that they do exist, I have not the slightest doubt. It won't be an easy business, but you can rely upon me, even if I have to turn burglar myself to get the volume in question."
"And that is about all, I think," Major Langley said, in summing up the situation. "You know now how that scoundrel Croot took advantage of my business ignorance and my confidence in him."
"But that is a long way from being all," Rust replied. "It seems to me that we are only just beginning. A great many things are becoming plain. Croot took you for a—"
"Fool," the major snapped, as Rust hesitated. "I might just as well say so at once, because it is quite true. And yet, mind you, I was not quite so densely ignorant as Croot imagined. I had learnt a good deal about the ways of the city, especially with regard to public companies. But where I made the mistake was in entirely trusting that man. Of course, I could bring him to his knees if I had the necessary proofs, but unfortunately I put them away so carefully that I have forgotten where to find them. But I don't see how we can do without."
"I am not so sure of that," Rust said after a thoughtful pause. "As far as I recollect, the Broken Point Company went into liquidation. There was nothing for their unfortunate creditors, and probably the official receiver sold the assets for a few pounds. But don't forget this, major, the records are all there in the Court of Bankruptcy. Those papers are never destroyed, and it seems to me that if you will allow me to place the matter in the hands of some smart solicitor we can dig out all we want from the archives. Do you happen to remember who the secretary of the Broken Point Company was?"
"Well, in the early days, Croot himself. He wasn't the big man then that he is now, and it was necessary to save expense."
"Ah, in that case he would give all the orders for printing and so on. It would be his business to see that the debentures were turned out by some respectable firm of lithographers. Then what was to prevent him ordering four hundred more of those debentures than he needed? The printers would supply them in all good faith, and number them, never dreaming for a moment that they were meant to be used for the purposes of fraud. That is, I mean, the extra ones. I know enough about this business to be aware that such documents generally bear the initials of the firm who print them, and if we go to these people they will no doubt examine their books, and, well, you see what I am driving at?"
"Of course I do," the major cried. "That is an excellent idea of yours, Geoff. But how are we going to trace Croot's connexion with the Kamaloo Company? We know now that he really is the company, in the name of a nominee; but whether we can pin him down to that is another matter."
"Oh, you leave that to me," Rust said. "I have the very man to ferret out all that sort of information. He is only a struggling person at present, but Montagu Gordon will go a long way. He is the man I was just telling you about. I find the money for those little flutters of ours, and he does the rest. Mines are his particular line. If what we think is correct, Gordon will be sure to find it out. I will see him to-morrow, and let you know the result in due course. But we shall have to be patient. We must not spoil things by undue haste."
"Oh, I can be patient enough," the major said grimly. "I have been playing patience for the last year. But since you mention prudence, don't you think it would be just as well if we said nothing about your engagement to Pat for the present. I mean, that Vera shouldn't know. There are too many people in this business already, and if anything should leak out—"
"Yes, I think you are right there," Rust interrupted. "But you must allow me to tell my friend Jack Ellis all about it. There are reasons why I must do so, though I would rather not mention them at the moment. Croot is implicated in other matters which we shall be able to prove in due course. There is a most amazing conspiracy going on, quite apart from this affair of yours, but I am not going to discuss that just now. As far as you are concerned, what I have to do is to find a certain letter book. Now, can you give me an approximate date?"
The major not only could, but did, and with this information in his pocket, Rust presently took his departure. It was late the same evening before he had an opportunity of seeing Ellis, who listened with the deepest interest to all that his friend had to say. He smiled grimly as he pictured to himself what was likely to happen when the proper moment came.
"Well, upon my word," he said. "Croot is a bigger rascal even than I thought. Well, here we are, with two strings to our bow, and it would be odd if both of them snapped. But you will have to be careful, my boy. If you get nosing about in the basement of Great Bower Street, you may arouse Gilmour's suspicions. You will have to be very cautious about that."
"Oh, I haven't forgotten that," Rust said. "I shall have to do it at night, when I know that Gilmour is out of the way. You see, he often works late in his office, and he has a spare key. Do you think I could get hold of a key?"
"I don't see why you shouldn't. Did you ever notice what sort of a lock there is on the office front door?"
"Well, at any rate it isn't a Yale, or anything of that sort," Rust said. "We are much too old-fashioned for that sort of thing. It is just an ordinary spring latch. You see, there is nothing in the office except books, which are locked in the safe, so there is no occasion to worry. What do you suggest?"
"Oh, in that case you can leave it to me," Ellis said. "I can provide you within the next twenty-four hours with a key that will pick any ordinary lock. You see, I have an extensive and peculiar acquaintance down Wapping way with all sorts of shady people, including professional burglars, and for a few shillings I can get anything in that line."
"Then that's settled," Rust said. "You post the key to my rooms, and I will do the rest. I know where all those old letter books are, and I shall get away with the volume I require and nobody any the wiser. And now, if you have nothing more to say, I will go and see my man Gordon."
Mr. Montagu Gordon occupied a small office in a court leading off Fenchurch Lane, which had an important-sounding address, and shared a telephone with a dozen other similar rooms. It looked all right on paper, but up to now represented very little in the way of business, though doubtless that would come all in due course. Gordon himself was a little alert man with a head of dark slippery hair, and a nose which spoke eloquently of the owner's nationality. He was very beautifully turned out, a little too sleek and glossy perhaps as to the nap on his hat and the polish on his boots. There was nothing about him that suggested a Celtic origin, and probably his father before him had borne a name remote enough from Gordon, and more reminiscent of the old Jewish prophets. For the rest, he had achieved a public school education of sorts, and his manners left nothing to be desired.
He welcomed Rust with great cordiality, as he always did when dealing with men of sound financial position, and indeed his acquaintance with Rust had been greatly to his advantage up to now. He had a fine instinct for the place where the money lay, and he was astute enough to be perfectly honest in dealing with a man who had given him the opportunity of climbing the first few rungs of the ladder of fortune.
"Now, what can I do for you, Mr. Rust?" he asked.
Rust proceeded to explain. He had no intention of going into details, neither did he mention Croot's name, except casually.
"Well, you see, I have got hold of a bit of information," he explained. "There may be money in it, or there may not. I don't want to be more explicit just now."
"Oh, quite right, quite right," Gordon applauded softly. "Never open your mouth too wide, even with your business partners. But if there is any money behind this business, I should like to be in it. But perhaps you had better explain."
"Oh, I don't know whether there is any money in it or not," Rust said. "But, at any rate, you will be paid, and if it turns out a big thing you will know how to take care of yourself. For the moment it is like this. I want you to find out all about Broken Points, and its subsidiary company, the Kamaloo Copper Trust. I have every reason to believe that the whole thing is a swindle from start to finish, and unless I am greatly mistaken, my esteemed employer, Croot, is at the bottom of the whole conspiracy. In the early days of Broken Points he acted as secretary to the company, but I think he resigned that office long before Broken Points went into liquidation. Now, I want to know who owns the bulk of the shares in the Kamaloo Trust."
"Well, I can tell you that much," Gordon grinned. "Croot does. You see, Mr. Rust, mining shares are just in my line, and I have done a great deal with a certain quarter which I always find to be reliable. The information has cost me more than I can afford, but it will come back a thousandfold in due course."
"That is just what I expected you to say," Rust said. "Now I want you to get to the bottom of the whole business from start to finish. You can begin by digging about the bankruptcy records of Broken Points, right down to the moment when the Kamaloo Trust fell into Croot's hands. For that I am prepared to pay handsomely without asking any questions, and I don't mind adding five hundred pounds to that for your own trouble."
"That's a bet," Gordon said promptly. "Mind you, Croot is a big man now, and this business will want a little delicate handling. But when Croot took over Verity & Co., he had a hard struggle at first to keep his head above water. It has always been a mystery to me how he managed to make so much money with so little business. But that is no affair of mine. I know he really is Kamaloo Trust, but not in his own name. Mind you, I am not blaming him for that. As secretary to the old bankrupt company he naturally does not want to be identified with the new concern, which is going to turn out one of the biggest propositions on the market. But you can rely upon me to get all you want, Mr. Rust."
"I am perfectly sure of that," Rust said.
It was two days later before he got back to his proper quarters in the West End, to find a small envelope awaiting him. There was nothing inside it but a blank sheet of paper, and a peculiar looking key, which he placed carefully in his hip pocket. Then the next night, when he knew that Gilmour was safely out of the way down at Cray, he went off in the direction of the city, walking the whole distance until he came at length to Great Bower Street. The road was deserted, therefore it was an easy matter to fit the key in the lock and enter the premises, which he did, carefully closing the door behind him, and taking the precaution to push down the safety bolt in case of interruption, so that he would be able to hide himself in one of the cellars in the basement. Not that he had much fear of discovery, but he was taking no chances.
He made his way down to the cellars, where he turned on the electric light, and immediately went to work on a vast pile of old books and dusty documents, thrown more or less carelessly down in one corner. Here he knew were all the records of the office for the past four or five years, dumped there casually enough and quite forgotten. He took off his coat, and dropping on his knees, began to search for what he required.
There were twenty or thirty letter books at least, and the best part of two hours had elapsed before Rust found the particular volume of which he was in search. It was the ordinary type of copy letter book, filled with hundreds of flimsy sheets of tissue paper on which letters had been copied. Some of them were in type, and some were in ordinary longhand; but most of them were signed by Croot himself, therefore it was evident that Rust held in his hand one of the volumes devoted to the private business of the head of the firm. Turning more or less eagerly to the index, Rust found that the page therein devoted to Major Langley was quite comfortably filled. By means of this index, he could turn up the letters without making a long fatiguing search for them.
There was no hurry; it was late at night, the whole city seemed to be asleep, and there was practically no chance of being disturbed. Rust sat down on a pile of books, and commenced to read some of the letters at his leisure. He read through a score or two before a grim smile crossed his face.
"My word," he murmured to himself. "Croot must have been very sure of his ground to leave records like this hanging about. He probably regards the major as an utter fool. These letters in Croot's own handwriting prove that. Now, fancy a clever scoundrel like that just throwing this book down in this glory hole! He must have been mad not to have destroyed it. However, he is not likely to get a chance of doing that now."
With the air of a man who is perfectly satisfied with himself, Rust put the letter book on one side and proceeded to reduce the pile of volumes to something like the order in which he had found them. He was not going to take any risks of anyone finding out that some curious person had been investigating there. He had just put on his coat and was about to turn of the light, when something on the floor of the room arrested his attention. He stooped down to examine it closely, and saw that here was a large flat stone, such as was generally used to cover the top of an old well. He could see that there were cracks round the sides, and in the same spirit of curiosity he lifted the stone from its place.
"Hello," he said to himself, "what have we here? A flight of steps and an underground passage. A proper hiding-place for people engaged in robbing the river traffic. I think I had better see a little further into this."
With the aid of a box of wooden vestas, Rust explored the steps and the passage leading from them into the big underground vault which he correctly judged to be exactly under the ruined building that stood on Crombies Wharf. He was astute enough to drop each match-end in his pocket directly it had gone out, so that no trace of his visit might be seen.
He came presently to the large echoing vault with its dirty pool of water, and floating on it was the motor-boat that Gilmour and his confederates used for their nocturnal expeditions. But this was not the only object that met Rust's eager gaze as he looked about him by the dim light of a match. At one end of the great underground cavern was a pile of various sorts of merchandise in cases and bales. There were hundreds of these altogether, and Rust marked them with a glittering eye.
"Stolen property, every bit of it," he said to himself. "Now how the deuce did it get here? It wasn't brought in through the front door, though possibly it may be taken out that way. My word, I have struck Ali Baba's cave with a vengeance. How interested Ellis will be to hear all about this. I must come here again and bring him, not forgetting his friend, Inspector Lock."
Rust made his way thoughtfully up the stairs, and out into the street again with his head in a whirl.
Mr. Gordon was not the man to let the grass grow under his feet where the making of money was concerned, especially at a moment when a matter of £500 was something like financial stability to him, and accordingly he got to work at once. If he could handle that money within the next week or so, he could see his way to multiplying it tenfold at an early date. As yet, he was operating in an underground fashion, much as a mole works; but when the hour came, he fully intended to blossom out as a bold and audacious speculator on lines that seemed to him to be sound.
Ever since he had been in business, he had been picking up information. He knew all sorts of out-of-the-way secrets, little biographies of city people and so forth, and these he would know how to turn to account in due season. Above all, he specialized in the subterranean doings of various mining companies, therefore he had only to turn up certain documents and at once put his hand upon a few live facts in connexion with Broken Points.
At the end of the second day he had established the fact that the Broken Point business had been brought into the city by a genuine prospector, who had discovered that source of wealth for himself. He had met with the usual fate of such pioneers, and after being kicked from pillar to post for many months, had disposed of his concession for a nominal sum to Mortimer Croot, after which he had gone back to America disgusted with his treatment and resolving never to see the city again.
Apparently Croot had only half believed in the business himself. That was at a time when he was struggling to make his way, and at a period when his resources were strained to the uttermost to keep the firm of Verity & Co. above water. Then, seemingly, it had occurred to him that he might do something with his property through the medium of a gullible and trustful public. With that intention he had joined forces with a shady promotor who knew all the ropes and exactly how far to go without coming within the meshes of the law, and between the two of them they had put the Broken Point Company on the market with a flaming prospectus which asked for £100,000 in the form of a thousand debentures of £100 each, and half a million shares at a pound. This had not produced very much, but quite sufficient to remunerate the promoters for their enterprise. The scheme was launched just at a time when the public were inclined to speculate, therefore a certain number of debentures were taken, with a fair sprinkling of ordinary shares, so that when the schemers came to reckon up the spoil they found that they had a good many thousand pounds to divide. Then, in the ordinary course of events, Broken Points went their way towards the inevitable bankruptcy, and in a few weeks the whole thing was forgotten. It was the sort of thing that happens every day, and will go on happening so long as there remains a roof to St. Paul's.
But Croot had a little scheme of his own which he did not disclose to his partner. The money he had made more or less legitimately out of Broken Points was just sufficient to preserve his financial credit, but Croot was going much further than that. It seemed to him that he had a fine pigeon to pluck in Major Langley, and he proceeded to do it effectually. It was an easy matter to get a few more hundred debentures printed, and how he palmed these worthless documents on his innocent victim has already been told. This once done, and the major absolutely ruined, Croot forgot all about Broken Points for a time, at any rate. Then a scrap of information came his way, which taught him the full value of the original concession which in the early stages he had not believed in for a moment. Broken Points had only been a means to an end, but Croot became aware that it was an exceedingly valuable property. He purchased the assets for a song through some tool of his, and in due course Broken Points blossomed afresh as the Kamaloo Copper Trust with an entirely fresh board, behind which loomed Croot, with a name that was not his own.
All this, except the sale of worthless debentures, Mr. Montagu Gordon discovered in the course of a few hours. It was the sort of thing that excited his admiration, as a smart piece of business which had nothing criminal about it, that is, it did not come within the purview of the law. But though Rust had not taken Gordon very deeply into his confidence, the latter knew by instinct that there was more here than met the eye. He saw Rust the next day, and told him all this.
"Yes, you have done very well," Rust said. "Far better than I expected in so short a time."
"Are you going to prosecute?" Gordon asked. "Because I don't see that you have a case. This is quite a common business in the city, as you know."
"I am quite aware of that," Rust said dryly. "When I hit our friend Croot it will be in quite another direction. Still, all this is very valuable, and I shall know how to use it when the time comes. You see, a friend of mine was a shareholder in Broken Points to a very large extent—"
"Do you mean Major Langley?" Gordon asked.
"Well, as a matter of fact I do," Rust said. "Though I should very much like to know how you found that out."
"Quite easy, my dear sir, quite easy," Gordon said airily. "You see, I have been poking about in the bankruptcy court records relating to Broken Points, and the one shareholder who looms up largely is Major Langley, of the Moat House, Cray. He seems to have been a very heavy holder of debentures."
"Ah, that is the very point," Rust said. "He was, and between ourselves, I have the very gravest doubts over those debentures. Major Langley was ruined over that business, and if I can show misrepresentation and fraud, we ought to be in a position to compel Croot to disgorge under threat of a prosecution. From what I gather, he is in a position to pay."
"There is not the slightest doubt about it," Gordon said. "You can rely upon the accuracy of my information when I tell you that Croot is quite a rich man. Goodness knows how he did it, but the fact remains that the real stuff is there. Now, can I help you over the matter of those debentures?"
"Well, you can try, at any rate," Rust said. "I want to know what firm of law stationers printed them, and who gave the order. Wouldn't it be the secretary of the company?"
"Certainly. And that reminds me that in the early days Croot himself filled that office."
"Yes, that is just what I want to get at," Rust said. "Now if a dishonest secretary was prepared to take risks, and ready to put money in his pocket at all hazards, what is there to prevent him from ordering an extra hundred or two of those bearer bonds with coupons attached, and getting rid of them himself amongst his friends. Of course, I know it is a dangerous game, but if that secretary happened to know that the coupons on the genuine bonds would be valueless before the next interest was due, and that it would be useless for any banker to send them in for payment, I don't see that the risk would be so great after all."
Gordon whistled softly between his teeth.
"Is that the way the land lies, eh?" he asked.
"I think so," Rust replied. "Now, can you find out for me who printed those debentures? I don't mind increasing your fee if you can manage to tell me that."
"It would be robbing you," Gordon smiled. "The thing is too easy. You seem to have forgotten that all the creditors of Broken Points filed their statements of claim with the official receiver, and that they are on record in the bankruptcy court. All these rotten companies depend very largely on their printers for help in the way of circulars and prospectuses and share certificates, and so on. In the course of an hour, I am perfectly certain I can tell you the name of the firm who were responsible for the Broken Point printing. I will run round now if you like, and let you know before lunch."
Gordon came back presently with a smile on his face.
"Just as I told you," he said. "Here you are. There is the name of the firm who did all the printing, and, what is more, they never got a penny for it. Shall I see them, or will you?"
"Oh, I think I will go myself," Rust said.
"Very well. Now, let me give you a further hint. These law stationers are in the habit of issuing printed order forms, which are generally signed by the secretary of the company who is doing business with them. These, of course, they file for future reference, and it is pretty certain that the firm in question will be quite ready to produce them for you if you can show that you are not merely asking out of idle curiosity. More than that, I shall be greatly surprised if you don't discover that those printed order slips are all signed by Croot."
Rust went off presently and dropped into a large establishment in Chancery Lane, where he briefly stated his business, and he found himself presently talking to one of the partners.
"Of course, Mr. Rust," he said. "We are largely in the hands of our clients, and occasionally we do make a pretty bad debt. You see, printing shares and certificate debentures is very expensive work, and we charge accordingly. We were badly hit over Broken Points, and received nothing in consideration of a debt of some hundreds of pounds. If you can show us a way to get some of this back I shall be grateful. But I am not sanguine."
"I am quite sure I can," Rust said. "I believe I am on the track of a most amazing fraud, and if so, then you will get your money, even as a matter of precaution. I wonder if you would mind looking up your order forms from the secretary of Broken Points and letting me run my eye over them."
"Certainly," Mr. Egerton said. "If you will give me a quarter of an hour, I will find the documents for you."
He came back presently with a sheaf of printed order forms duly filled in, and signed in every instance in the name of Mortimer Croot. Rust turned these over until he came at length to the leaf dealing with the debenture bonds. His face was quite expressionless, but he drew a long breath as he saw that the order was for 1,500 of these, and not 1,000, as authorized by the Articles of Association of the Broken Points Company.
Here was evidence enough to damn Croot a hundred times over. With that paper in his hands, Rust could have gone to the criminal himself and compelled him there and then to restore every penny of the money he had lured from the major's pocket.
"I am very much obliged to you, Mr. Egerton," he said. "You know who I am, and I am sure my father's name must be familiar to you. If you will trust me with this document for a few days, I will see that you get your money."
"Well, in that case," Egerton said, "you can keep it altogether. I am not concerned with anything right or wrong—all I want is to be paid for my work."
Rust went off in triumph, and in the course of the afternoon met Ellis and told him all that had happened, including his adventure in the vaults under the offices in Great Bower Street. It was an interesting story that he had to tell, and Ellis listened to it without comment until the tale was completed.
"Well, upon my word, you haven't been wasting your time," he said. "This is great, my boy, absolutely great. Looks to me as if we had got Croot in the hollow of our hands. Whatever happens, the poor old major will be righted again, and it won't be long before he is back at the Moat House once more. However, we can talk about all that later on. But don't you think that Lock ought to know all about that underground storehouse?"
"I do," Rust agreed. "You had better come round this evening and have some dinner with me, and I will get Lock to join us. He will come fast enough when I let him know what is going on."
Lock was willing enough, so that just before seven o'clock the three of them foregathered in Rust's rooms, and over a tempting little meal discussed their plan of campaign.
"Upon my word, gentlemen," Lock said, "you two ought to be in the profession. I could not have done it any better myself. I have laid a little plant of my own, which I will tell you about in due course. It is only a sort of side show, but I have contrived to get a hint dropped in the proper quarter, and I shall be very surprised if, before long, our friend Gilmour doesn't come nibbling after the cheese. Still, it doesn't much matter. Now, when do you think will be a good opportunity for me to come with you to Great Bower Street, and run over the pirate's lair for myself?"
"Well, I should say to-morrow night," Rust said. "Gilmour is booked to dine and sleep at the Moat House. He has been doing that twice a week ever since Croot has been laid up. He will be out of the way then, and the coast clear. If you don't hear from me to the contrary, you had better meet Mr. Ellis and myself at the corner of Great Bower Street to-morrow night at ten o'clock."
Lock was content to leave it at that, and at the appointed hour the three of them entered the office in Great Bower Street and made their way by means of the basement into the big underground vault that lay under Crombies Wharf. With the aid of a powerful flash-light, Lock examined the place carefully.
"Well, this beats anything I have ever struck," he said. "No wonder those chaps baffled us. But I should like to know how they manage to get all this stuff away."
"Wouldn't you like to know first how they got it here?" Rust asked dryly. "We have got to find that out first. But what on earth has happened to the boat?"
"What boat?" Lock asked. "Oh, I remember now. The boat that they use to bring the stuff here. Looks to me as if they are off somewhere to-night, some of them. But for the life of me, I can't see how they manage to get that boat in and out. As far as I can see, the wall at the far end is absolutely solid."
"But it can't be," Ellis insisted. "There must be some sort of grating that lifts with the aid of machinery, and allows the boat to come in and out, according to the state of the tide. If by any chance they could—"
He stopped speaking suddenly, as a sort of creaking noise fell on their ears, and mysteriously a part of the back wall lifted and the nose of a motorboat crept in. The flash-light was turned off and the three adventurers slipped behind a pile of boxes, watching intently what was going on. Then they saw a dozen or so small compact-looking cases placed on a ledge against one of the walls, after which the boat disappeared as mysteriously as it had come, and the wall over the opening dropped into its place again. Lock moved eagerly forward and examined the freshly-deposited cases.
"Ah, we are in luck," he said. "This is part of the cheese I told you about. We shall have them in the trap before long. But softly—we haven't got the big rat yet."
Lock looked about him with a keen professional eye. He was trying to calculate exactly where he stood with regard to the position of the river in connexion with the site of the offices in Great Bower Street. The passage from the basement of the house to the big hiding-place under the ruined building on Crombies Wharf was a long one, and consequently the small underground lake must be some distance from the main street. With his knowledge of the locality, he knew that he must be close to the river.
"What do you make of it?" he asked. "If I were to hazard a guess myself, I should say that the Thames is just beyond that wall, and that there is a slipway up which the boat comes, and is safely stowed away here at certain states of the tide."
"There is not the slightest doubt about that," Ellis said. "Probably, at very high spring tides, this vault is full of water, but that only happens in October and March, and the tides are low just now. That is why these chaps can use the place as a storage for their stolen goods until they can get them away. But that must be rather a risky business."
"Unless, of course, the stuff is taken away in the same way that it comes," Rust suggested. "I don't think that even Gilmour would be audacious enough to handle stolen property through the front door of the offices."
"I think you are right," Lock said. "The stuff is stored here until the scent gets cold, and then fetched away again on a motor-launch when Gilmour has disposed of it. But what a magnificent hiding-place. Who would have thought of a secret lair like this right in the heart of the city? Now I begin to understand why the man we know as Croot spent all the money he could rake together to buy the business of Verity & Co. But we need not go into that yet. Mr. Rust, would you be good enough to count those neat little boxes which have just arrived by underground express? I am curious to see what you make of them."
The cases had been arranged on a shelf in a corner of the vault, whilst the trio had been hiding there. They had seen the two men who had brought them by the aid of their own flare-lamp, and there could be no possible mistake as to which were the newly-arrived goods:
"I make nineteen of them," Rust said when he had finished.
"Ah, that is precisely what I wanted to hear," Lock chuckled. "There were twenty of them. What I call ground bait. I had them laid so that those men could pick them up, indeed, it was an absolute trap. And they walked into it, just as I expected they would, because the man who carried the information was one of my own particular familiars whom they probably regarded as just a fool talking in his cups."
"But what are they?" Ellis asked.
"As fine a consignment of cigars as ever came from Cuba. They are separately sealed up hermetically, and I suppose each case contains about five thousand altogether. As a matter of fact, they were lent me by a shipper who has suffered a great deal lately, and when I assured him that he would get his property back all right, he was quite enthusiastic in his desire to help. But as I said just now, there were twenty cases, which means that those two men have taken one for themselves. It was rather better than I had dared to hope for, but you will see presently how it is going to help us. Mind you, I don't take a great deal of credit to myself over this business, because most of that belongs to you two gentlemen. It was Mr. Ellis who put me on the track first, and Mr. Rust who brought me here. After that, I applied the usual methods, and they are going to prove quite sufficient for our purpose. Now, did either of you happen to recognize either of those two men?"
"Not that I know of," Ellis said.
"Well, one of them was the man who drove Gilmour down to Cray on the night when this drama properly commenced. He is the chap I told you about, Mr. Ellis, and his name is George Pensum. He has a taxi-cab and a motor-lorry, and he lives in a place close by which is called Ray's Mews. The other rejoices in the name of Joe Airey. He it is who does all the rough work, and loads up the stolen cargoes. I shall have them both laid by the heels before morning, and if, as I hope, the missing case of cigars is found in Ray's Mews, our work is as good as done. There is a long way to go yet, of course, but the rest is a mere matter of patience. I don't think there is any occasion to stay here longer."
"Then we had better get back to my rooms again," Rust suggested.
"Oh yes," Lock said. "That reminds me, I have something to show you. I have it in my pocket, but I forgot all about it when we were talking of coming down to this place."
They crept cautiously up the passage into the office again, and being assured that they were not watched, made their way back to Rust's lodgings. There, when the cigarettes were lighted and the whisky and soda set out upon the table, Lock drew from his pocket a long envelope from which he took what appeared to be a magazine or periodical printed on thin paper.
"There you are, Mr. Rust," he said. "That is a copy of the Oriental Record, a weekly illustrated paper published in Hong-Kong, and printed some five years ago. On one of the pages you will find a photographic group that may interest you."
Rust fluttered over the leaves eagerly until he came at length to a photograph of a dozen people or so, evidently taken on the deck of some English destroyer or gunboat.
"Why, here is a portrait of Gilmour," he cried.
Ellis bent eagerly over his friend's shoulder.
"It is more than that," Ellis cried. "It is the same photograph that I found amongst Bill Avory's papers. I mean the photograph that had been cut from a magazine, without the letterpress."
"Well, the letterpress is there now," Lock said. "And perhaps you will read it for yourselves."
"Ah, now we know Gilmour's real name," Ellis said: "Evidently the central figure in the group is Engineer-Lieutenant George Ray, and that picture was taken on board the Sharkstooth."
"Absolutely correct," Lock smiled. "We had a good deal of trouble to get hold of that paper, but my people managed it, as I told you they would. As soon as it came into my possession, I spent a few hours at the Admiralty looking up the record of Engineer-Lieutenant George Ray. Now you can understand, Mr. Ellis, how it comes about that the person we know as Gilmour was so interested in all sorts of machinery. Hence the secret hiding-place in Greencorn Street, and all those electrical appliances there."
"Yes, yes," Rust said impatiently. "But tell us something more about the man's mysterious past."
"I am just coming to that," Lock said. "Ray was dismissed the Service ignominiously after an inquiry in which not only cheating at cards but a particularly impudent forgery were proved against him. After that he disappeared, and went to Canada, where, no doubt, he met our friend Croot. Out there, beyond question, this conspiracy was hatched. But of course all that will come out at the trial. To carry the matter a bit further, I may say that I called at a certain garage to ascertain if that little account we know of had been paid. I mean the bill we found in Greencorn Street, which George Pensum had pushed under the door for Gilmour to find. You will hardly believe it possible, but Gilmour actually paid it himself. He has been identified by the man who owns the garage, which, strangely enough, is exactly opposite 17 Greencorn Street. So you will see that we are getting on. I don't want either of you gentlemen to do anything for the next two or three days, because this is precisely where I come on the stage again. I am going to make an arrest or two, because it is necessary to have the men we saw to-night under lock and key."
"Here, steady on, Inspector," Ellis said. "Don't you forget that I owe a duty to my paper. If any of this leaks out, then I shan't get the exclusive I have been paying for."
"Oh, I don't think you need have any fear about that," Lock laughed. "Those men will be arrested and remanded in custody for a fortnight on a charge that has nothing to do, apparently, with the daring robberies on the river. It will be a case of suspicion of handling other people's property. I want to have those men where Gilmour can't get at them. You shall have your scoop all right; indeed, I am so grateful to you for what you have done that I am ready to go out of my way to assist you."
"That's all right," Ellis said. "Now, if there is nothing else, I think I had better be getting along. I want to see my editor to-night before he leaves the office."
It was some time in the middle of the morning following that Inspector Lock, together with one of his officers, walked into the small house in Ray's Mews, and there arrested the man called George Pensum as he sat luxuriously over a late breakfast.
"I have a warrant for your arrest," Lock said curtly. "You had better come quietly."
"That be hanged for a tale," Pensum blustered. "What have I done? Let's have a look at your warrant."
"There you are," Lock said curtly. "On a charge of receiving stolen property. I am not going so far as to say you stole it yourself, but I have every reason to believe that somewhere on the premises you have a case of cigars, consigned to Johnson & Company, of Crotched Friars."
It was largely a shot in the dark, but apparently was justified, for Pensum dropped his blustering manner, and the cigarette that he had blatantly lighted fell into his tea-cup. He said no more, nor did he move again until one of Lock's subordinates appeared from somewhere upstairs with the missing case of cigars in his arms. Lock successfully concealed a smile, for he knew now that he was on absolutely safe ground. On the following morning Pensum duly appeared before a magistrate and, on the application of the inspector, was remanded for a fortnight without bail. An hour later Joe Airey was also in custody on a somewhat similar charge. A week passed before Lock presented himself at the police-station, and asked to see Pensum in his cell.
He found him exceedingly nervous and subdued, after seven days' more or less solitary confinement, during which time he had been deprived of the strong drink that his soul loved, and, therefore, his nerves were somewhat shaken.
"What do you want with me?" he asked sullenly.
"Oh, I don't want to talk unless you do," Lock said. "You might be disposed to give me a bit of information, or you might not. That is entirely for you to say. Now, I know a good deal, George, a good deal more than you imagine. You are a goodish bit of a rascal, but you can't compare with the people behind you. And I may remind you there are far more serious charges against a man than stealing a box of cigars. There is murder, for instance, and if not exactly murder, there is another similar, which, as you are probably aware, carries much the same penalty. For instance, if I commit a murder and I employ you afterwards to get rid of the body, and you are convicted, you are just as likely to hang as I am."
Pensum sat there, gazing at Lock with wide open staring eyes. Every vestige of colour had drained out of his face, and Lock could see that he was trembling from head to foot. The inspector's line of diplomacy was not quite orthodox, perhaps, but he knew the man he had to deal with, and shaped his course accordingly.
"Oh, you needn't answer unless you like," he said. "I am not asking you to incriminate yourself, but if you like to tell me a few things, as I am sure you can, I will make it my business to put in a good word for you when the time comes. By the way, do you know anything about Greencorn Street?"
Pensum gasped. A queer spasm crossed his face and he seemed to have considerable difficulty in swallowing.
"Where is Greencorn Street?" he managed to say.
"Do you mean to tell me you don't know? Don't know the street where you have your own repairs done? Never had a bill there you couldn't pay? What's the matter with your memory, George? Wasn't there a time, a day or two ago, when you wrote a note to a friend of yours and pushed it under the door of 17 Greencorn Street? And wasn't there a bill in that note which your friend subsequently paid? Just think, George, just think."
Pensum looked up almost pitifully, and his lips shook.
"Don't you be 'ard upon me, guv'nor," he said. "I ain't as bad as some folks, and a pore chap's got to live."
"And not a bad living, either," Lock said. "Now, look here, George, you haven't done an honest day's work for years, yet you have a taxi-cab and a motor-lorry which are never off your premises unless it is at night. I suppose you do drive your taxi-cab at night sometimes? Ever take a customer as far as a place called Cray, for instance? I mean, a customer who was in a desperate hurry, and rather the worse for wear. Come, George, I think it will pay you to be candid. I want you to tell me all about that night, some three weeks ago, when a man came to you in a desperate state, and you drove him as far as Cray. I need not mention the man's name, though I know it as well as you do."
Pensum looked up with a certain grudging admiration.
"Strike me pink, guv'nor, you're a fair wonder," he said. "It looks as if I was in for it, and if so be as you can make it a bit easy for me, then I dunno as if it wouldn't be better to tell the truth. I did go down to Cray one night."
"You can speak freely," Lock said. "I am not promising to save you altogether, but I think I can keep you from dangling at the end of a rope in the yard of Wandsworth Prison one of these fine mornings. And now you can go on."
Quite eagerly Pensum told his story. He related with a lurid wealth of detail the various incidents that happened on the night that Gilmour had made his successful dash for the Moat House, and how he had provided his fare with a change of clothing, until at length he had finished, and stopped with an imploring eye turned in the direction of his tormentor.
"I 'ope you are going to believe me, guv'nor," he said fawningly. "It's Gawd's truth, it is indeed."
"So far as you have gone, I am sure it is," Lock said. "But we haven't come to the serious part yet. You are not going to tell me that the night we were speaking about is the only occasion on which you placed your taxi-cab at the disposal of the man whose name we need not mention. Now think, George, just think, and for your own sake, tell me the truth."
"I never," Pensum said. "I never."
"Well, it's your last chance. Did you never go to Hampstead late one night after visiting Greencorn Street, with something in your taxi-cab that you don't like to think about?"
Pensum jumped to his feet with the wild white horror in his eyes, and stared dreadfully at his questioner. Then he flung his hands high above his head and collapsed on the floor.
The offices of Verity & Co. closed promptly at midday on Saturdays, and usually a few minutes afterwards the premises were deserted till ten o'clock on the Monday. On this particular morning in April, most of the staff had already departed, and Gilmour was packing up his papers, when a visitor interrupted him. He bustled in confident and alert and obviously sure of his ground.
"Name of Beaven," he said. "Representing Markham Brothers. Sorry to detain you, Mr. Gilmour, but a rather unpleasant thing has happened, and no doubt you will be able to put it right."
Gilmour was on his guard in a moment. He scented danger here, and that prominent jaw of his was thrust slightly forward, but not in an aggressive way as yet. He wanted time to think.
"Half a minute," he said. "Just let me sign these letters, and then I am entirely at your disposal. I want to catch a train at Cannon Street in about forty minutes, but no doubt we can finish by then...Now, Mr. Beaven, I am ready for you."
With that Gilmour pushed his cigarette case across the table and smiled at his visitor quite amiably.
"Well, it's like this," the man called Beaven replied. "A day or two ago we purchased through our brokers some cases of fine Havana cigars, which I understand came through you."
Gilmour could see the danger plainly enough now, and he was thankful that it had not been sprung upon him too suddenly.
"Is that a fact?" he asked. "Not that I am disputing your word for a moment. I don't call the stuff to mind, but then we deal with all sorts of things and one cannot recollect everything. Still, I can look it up if you like."
"No need to do that," the other said. "I can assure you it is exactly as I state."
"How many cases of cigars, did you say?"
"Nineteen, to be exact. Yes, I am sure it was nineteen."
Gilmour knew all about it now. These were the cases of cigars that his confederates had picked up on a certain evening when working in his absence, on the information he had supplied to Airey and Pensum himself. He recollected now that there had been twenty cases, though they had informed him that one of these had been lost in transit. He had said nothing about it at the time, though he had had a shrewd idea that the missing case had been hypothecated by the thieves as their share of the plunder.
"Well, please go on," he said.
"We bought those cases of cigars for a wealthy client in Spain. Quite by accident they were seen as they were being shipped by a member of the firm of Johnson & Co., who claimed them for their own. Not only that, but he proved it. He said that the goods were stolen on their way up the Thames, and when we came to make inquiries, we found that they had made their way into your hands. Of course, I am not suggesting for an instant, Mr. Gilmour, that there is anything wrong as far as you are concerned, but there you are. You must have bought them in all innocence from some one who got hold of them dishonestly. There can be no other explanation."
"Very unpleasant," Gilmour murmured. "I think I recollect something of the transaction now. I am under the impression the cigars came to us from a Hamburg correspondent. But I will look into the matter on Monday and let you know. What view do Johnson's take of it? I suppose they have consulted the police?"
Gilmour asked the question in the most casual fashion, not for a moment displaying the anxiety that he was feeling, for he knew that a great deal depended on the reply. This was the first time that the scheme had gone wrong since he had started on his career of crime in Great Bower Street, and he was feeling the strain.
"Nothing of the kind," Beaven said. "We are all fed up with the police. These robberies go on almost daily, and nothing happens. Johnson's only care about being recompensed for their loss, and have named an amount which is but little more than your charge. Of course, we shall have to make that good and, in our turn, we naturally look to you to see us right. It's a matter of business, Mr. Gilmour, and nothing else."
"Oh, I quite understand," Gilmour said, speaking with a sense of relief that he managed to hide perfectly. "I quite agree with you as to what you say about the police. We have given them up in despair. You had better see Johnson's and tell them that if they will send us their invoices we will forward them a cheque for the full amount. In our turn we shall get the money back from the Hamburg correspondent or whoever else it was that sold the cigars to us."
"That is very satisfactory," Beaven said. "I will tell Johnson's what you say, and they can communicate with you direct. Stop a moment, wouldn't it be just as well if you sent us the cheque and leave us to settle with Johnson's. In that case, we can all keep our own counsel and say no more about it."
They settled it in that way, and Gilmour walked thoughtfully in the direction of Cannon Street Station. He had come very well out of an exceedingly tight place, but all the same he was worried and uneasy in his mind, because he could see that something had gone wrong somewhere, and that suspicious nature of his feared a trap. And yet the whole thing was natural enough. However, he would have time to think the matter over when he was alone in the train. Then later on he could discuss the matter with Croot, and guard against any such alarming accident in the future.
But he was not destined to get as far as Cray alone. Hardly had he taken his place in an empty first-class carriage before he was joined by Rust and Ellis. They were going down to Cray for the week-end for golf, and were staying at the Cray Arms Hotel. They talked on general topics, apparently in the most friendly fashion, though they were all thankful enough to part when they came to the end of their journey, for Gilmour's mind was full of the disturbing incident of the morning, and the other two men found it difficult enough to appear on absolutely friendly terms with the man whom they knew to be a thorough-paced scoundrel, and whose disgrace and exposure they were planning with the assistance of Lock.
Croot, who was still more or less confined to the house with the trouble that seemed to cling to him obstinately, welcomed Gilmour at the luncheon-table. As Vera was there, it was impossible for the moment for the conversation to be about anything but the most ordinary subjects and, moreover, there was a good deal of constraint between herself and Gilmour, as there had been ever since the night when he had asked her to marry him and she had refused.
"Are you playing golf this afternoon?" he asked.
"I don't think so," Vera replied. "I have strained my wrist. And besides, I promised to go down later on and help Pat Langley in the cottage garden."
"You will be back to tea, I hope?" Gilmour suggested.
Vera said that she might, and then presently she left the two men together in the library. As soon as the door was closed behind them and the cigarettes lighted, Gilmour told his story.
"Now, how on earth did you manage to make a blunder like that?" Croot demanded. "It might have been fatal."
"Well," Gilmour growled. "You can't go on for ever without making a few mistakes. I don't like it, Croot, I don't like it a bit. I can smell a trap."
"I dare say you can, though it looks to me more like a piece of sheer bad luck. You have managed up to now to work it well enough through those people at Rotterdam, and I don't see why you shouldn't go on. We shall have to pay Johnson & Co., of course, through Beaven, as you have arranged, but after all our loss is only the trifling sum by which their price exceeds that at which we sold. Not that it makes much difference to me, whatever happens."
"Oh, yes, you are all right in any case," Gilmour sneered. "Nobody can touch you. Mr. Croot has a high reputation, and if the unfortunate Mark Gilmour is laid by the heels, then nobody will be more grieved and surprised than his confiding employer. Wonderfully innocent, aren't you?"
"Oh, we have had this thing over half a dozen times," Croot said impatiently. "You knew from the very first exactly what the understanding was, and if you don't like to go on, why, I am ready to drop it to-morrow. We have both done exceedingly well out of the business, and though the average man never has quite enough, however rich he may be, I shan't hurt if I never make another penny. I will make a bargain with you. If you like, I will turn over the business of Verity & Co. to you free gratis and for nothing. You shall have the whole thing exactly as it stands. I will resign the city entirely, and spend the rest of my life as a country gentleman. I suppose when we come to balance up accounts there will be at least £40,000 coming to you, and you would be a fool if you did not keep straight in future."
"It sounds tempting," Gilmour said. "But it doesn't quite fit in with my ambitious ideas. I set out in the beginning to make £100,000, and when I get hold of that, then I will accept your offer. Meanwhile, I prefer things to go on as they are."
Croot shrugged his shoulders carelessly.
"Very well," he said. "Just as you like, but don't forget the fable of the pitcher that went too often to the well. It is a matter of indifference to me, because it is a case of heads I win tails you lose. The more money you make, the greater my share, and considering that I am running no risks whatever, I am quite content, whichever way you take it."
Gilmour wandered out into the garden presently just in time to intercept Vera on her way to the cottage. He walked as far as the gate with her, and then strolled across the golf links. He had hardly reached the Club House when he met Rust, who had just finished his round, and was going to call upon the Langleys.
"I haven't seen the old gentleman for some time," he explained. "I hear he is much better."
"So I am told," Gilmour said. "But it is only a flash in the pan, I expect. He will never be his old self again."
Rust smiled as he went his way. He stopped to say a few words to Vera and Pat, who were very busy planting out a spring border, and then he walked into the sitting-room of the cottage.
The major was eagerly awaiting him. He was sitting up, alert and vigorous, in his chair, his eye was clear and bright, and there was about him no suggestion of the confirmed invalid.
"Well," he asked eagerly. "Is there any news?"
"A good deal," Rust said. "But first of all, if you don't mind, I will close the window. It doesn't much matter if Pat hears what we are talking about, but she is not alone, and I don't want Vera to gather too much just at present. She looks worried and anxious enough in any case."
"Which is only natural," the major said. "She feels that there is something mysterious going on, and I am sure she resents being bound to secrecy. Sooner or later she must know everything, of course, poor child. Meanwhile, there is much to do, and I am getting very anxious to have everything out. Now, if you have anything to tell me, I shall be glad to hear it."
"I have a great deal to tell you," Rust said. "To begin with, I have proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that all you told me is absolutely correct. You were cruelly robbed by Croot in the most cold-blooded way, and when you told me that he had swindled you out of thousands of pounds by means of forged debentures, you were stating the case exactly. I think I said something to you about a man I know who is exceedingly clever in getting to the bottom of swindles of this sort. At any rate, I consulted him on the matter, and more or less took him into my confidence. He ferreted it all out. He discovered that Croot actually ordered five hundred extra copies of the debentures in his capacity as secretary, and what is more, at the present moment I have the order form for those bonds signed by Croot in my pocket."
The major jumped excitedly to his feet, then he sat down again at a sign from his companion.
"I beg your pardon, Geoff," he said. "But I forgot myself for a moment. That statement of yours startled me. Do you mean to say that you have Croot's actual signature?"
"Certainly I do. Croot ordered those debentures on purpose to deliver them to you. Moreover, they are numbered exactly as yours are. Now, I have been going into the thing carefully, and I find that under their Articles of Association, Broken Points Company had only power to issue a thousand debentures. Therefore, the swindle is plain for a child to see. If you can only produce those bonds, we can go to Croot to-morrow morning and compel him to disgorge every penny of his ill-gotten gains. Mind you, he can find it, because he is a rich man, quite apart from the money he extracted from you. There is not the least reason why we shouldn't make him pay the money you put down for your ordinary shares as well. That would be some thousands more, wouldn't it?"
The major lay back in his chair with a smile upon his lips. Already in imagination he was seeing himself back at the Moat House, basking in the sunshine of the old prosperity with many years of health and happiness before him.
"That is good hearing, Geoff," he said. "Very good hearing indeed. It will be a fine day for me when I stand face to face with Croot, and denounce him for the abandoned scoundrel that he is. And I am going to do it in the very room where I was stricken down with the illness that has made me a hopeless wreck all this time. I am going to turn him out of my library and drive him into the gutter that he came from. It will be a great revenge."
"Oh, I have every sympathy with you," Rust smiled. "But we have a long way to go yet. It will be time to talk like that when you can lay your hand on those debentures."
The major smiled again, a deep inscrutable smile.
"Go on, Geoff," he murmured. "I don't think you have finished yet. I have an idea you have much more to tell."
"I believe I have. To begin with, Croot is practically the owner of all the shares in Kamaloo Copper Trust. He bought the assets of Broken Points through a nominee, knowing perfectly well that he was purchasing a valuable property, and swindling the original shareholders out of their rights. When you want me to prove this I am quite prepared to do it. Moreover, I have found the letter-book you spoke about containing copies of the originals signed by Croot himself. I have read most of them through, and pretty damning documents they are. The book is in my suit-case at the hotel, and I will let you have it before I go back to town on Monday morning. Now, if you could only find those receipts you told me about, with the numbers of the debentures on them, and the debentures themselves, then we should be able to corner Croot at any time and bring him to his knees."
The major leant forward and whispered under his breath.
"That is already done, Geoff," he said. "It has all come back to me. I can put my hands on those papers when I please, because I know now exactly where they are hidden. They are at the Moat House, and Croot is within a yard or two of them every day. If he only knew, what would he say?"
Inspector Lock sat in his office a day or two later going over his facts and putting them into logical order. So far as he could see there was nothing wanting now, and he was in a position at any moment to make an important arrest. At the same time he much preferred, if possible, to take Gilmour red-handed, and for that purpose he had laid his plans accordingly. He had the man called Pensum and the other confederate Airey by the heels, and it seemed to him just possible that these two arrests might arouse Gilmour's suspicions and prevent him from going any further, at any rate for the present. Pensum he would have to detain in any case, but Airey had been arrested merely on suspicion, without any definite charge against him, and he had been released on his own recognizances with an intimation that he might or might not be wanted again. At the same time he had been warned, and Lock knew from his subordinates that Airey had made no attempt so far to communicate with Gilmour. Moreover, Gilmour had been away for a day or two on business in the North of England, a fact that suited Lock admirably, for it allowed him to make certain investigations without the fear of Gilmour getting to hear about them. He would therefore know exactly what to do when the time came, but the time was not quite yet. He had waited until Gilmour got back to London again before attempting further developments.
What he particularly wanted to do, of course, was to bring Croot within the sweep of his net. But so far there was nothing definite against him, who doubtless had taken every precaution to keep himself outside the shady business, though Lock did not doubt for a moment that Croot was the brains of the whole concern. It seemed impossible to believe that he could know nothing about the underground passage and the small lake under Crombies Wharf where the motor-boat was hidden, but while it was easy enough to suspect this, to prove the matter was a different thing altogether. No doubt, if Gilmour was arrested, Croot would be the very first to express his astonishment and indignation at the way in which his manager had used the premises in Great Bower Street for the purpose of those audacious robberies. Nor did Lock doubt that Croot and Gilmour were working on sharing terms. He felt certain that Gilmour would take his punishment without saying a word, and that when he had served his sentence he would get away with his share of the plunder, which was the very last thing that Lock wanted. He was not going to be satisfied until he could bring home the robberies to both of them. There was no hurry, and he was going to wait patiently enough until chance threw the proper opportunity into his way.
He had not seen Pensum since the morning when he had visited him in his cell, and had seen him collapse when confronted by a certain suggestion. It was not for him to force Pensum's confidence, nor had he attempted to do so. He had left the man alone then, and had made no attempt to see him since. He did not want it said that he had taken unfair advantage of a prisoner, which might happen if Pensum was defended at his trial by some smart barrister. He had therefore accordingly left matters to one of his subordinates, with instructions to give Pensum every opportunity to speak, but at the same time to be very careful not to approach him on the subject. Meanwhile, Pensum was under remand on a charge of stealing the case of cigars from Messrs. Johnson & Co., and he was being given plenty of time in the solitude of his cell to make up his mind what to do for the best.
It will be remembered that Lock knew nothing of the other charge that was hanging over Croot's head. With regard to Croot and Major Langley, Ellis had had nothing to say to Lock. It was no business of the latter's, though it probably would be before the major was through with his old enemy.
A quarter of an hour later a plain-clothes officer walked into Lock's office and laid some papers on the table before him.
"I was just going to send for you, Jesson," Lock said. "I suppose you did what I told you to do?"
"I have done everything, sir," the sergeant replied. "Everything is ready, and I have every reason to believe that those people are planning to get hold of the stuff. They know it is there, and they know that the thing is easy. It is going to be a case of the cigars over again. Nice handy stuff in small packages, and very easy for anyone to handle."
"Ah, saccharine, isn't it?" Lock asked.
"That's right, sir, saccharine it is. It will have to be removed to-morrow night, because I have managed to convey to those chaps that the stuff will be shifted before long. They jumped at it. It will be some time to-morrow night, sir, certain."
"And we shall be there, Jesson, we shall be there," Lock said grimly. "I am going to leave all the details to you. You can make arrangements with the river-police to be in the right spot at the right time. Mind you, they are not to make an arrest; they must let those fellows get away with the stuff, and shadow them as far as the secret entrance to Crombies Wharf. We shall be waiting downstairs for them, and the rest will be easy. It will be very hard luck if we don't get Gilmour this time."
"Oh, he will be with them all right," Jesson said. "I know that much, because our man is pretending to stand in with them, and he declines to deal with anybody but a principal. He was told that he would see the principal afterwards and get his money."
"'Um. I suppose we can trust him all right?"
"I think you can leave that to me, sir," Jesson smiled. "He has been convicted once or twice, but it won't pay him to play us false, particularly as we can lay him by the heels on another charge if he tries anything of the sort."
"Yes, that sounds all right," Lock said. "Now, have you seen that man Pensum lately?"
"I saw him only this morning, sir. I have seen him several times lately. Of course, I was careful not to say anything to him, but just now he introduced the subject himself. Sort of a confession it was. I don't think he had anything to do with the death of Bill Avory. Avory was murdered by Gilmour at 17 Greencorn Street. As far as I can make out, he was lured there and deliberately put out of the way. You see, sir, Avory recognized Gilmour that night on the lighter about the time we first came into the business, and spoke to him by his proper name. The recognition was mutual. I know this was so, because Pensum told me. He did not get his information from Gilmour, but from the man who was with Gilmour the night the lighter was raided. Of course, you can see how awkward it was for Gilmour that he should be recognized by an old sailor who had served with him on board—"
"Yes, on board the Sharkstooth. His real name was George Ray—Engineer-Lieutenant George Ray. I know all about that, Jesson. Yes, I can quite understand why he wanted to close Avory's mouth. But go on, I am interrupting you."
"Well, it's like this, sir. Avory was lured to Greencorn Street, never guessing for a moment whom he was going to meet, or of course he never would have gone. What happened there nobody quite knows, because those two men were alone in the house together. Perhaps you know more about it than I do."
"Well, as a matter of fact, I do," Lock said thoughtfully. "I have been over 17 Greencorn Street, and I know all about it. You see, Ray, or Gilmour as we had better call him, is a bit of a mechanical genius, as he would be, having been an engineer-lieutenant in the Navy, and he has a fine lot of electrical plant hidden away in Greencorn Street. Now, why on earth does he want to have all that beautiful stuff secreted in a house that is supposed to be uninhabited? My idea is that before he joined forces with Mr.—well, never mind who—he was planning a wholesale coining business. I have had expert advice on that machinery, and from what I can gather, it is possible to take rough metal disks and stamp them out into florins and half-crowns without the aid of moulds or the melting-pot. But we need not go into that, Jesson. In that house is a dynamo run off the main with two thousand volts on an alternating current. The Electric Lighting Company is not receiving a penny for it, so of course the main has been tapped. Now do you begin to understand?"
"Ah, indeed I do, sir," Jesson exclaimed. "And that tallies with what Pensum told me. One night, some time ago, Gilmour went to him in a great state of excitement, and told him that a dreadful accident had happened at 17 Greencorn Street. He said that Avory had ventured in there, and that, quite by accident, he had been killed by coming in contact with an electric wire. At any rate, he was dead, and Gilmour's great anxiety was to get rid of the body. Of course, we know now that Avory was lured on to touch the live wire, but that will not be so easy to prove. At any rate, that is the theory I go upon."
"And quite right, too," Lock said. "Of course, we could not definitely prove it in a court of justice, but undoubtedly that was what happened. Proceed with your story, Jesson."
"Well, Gilmour told Pensum that he must help to get rid of the body. It would never do to call the police in and let them see the inside of 17 Greencorn Street. There were many reasons why that must be prevented. It would have been an easy matter for Gilmour to have carried the body out of the house in the darkness and throw it into the Thames, but that course was not entirely without risk. So Gilmour hit upon the happy idea of disposing of the body at a considerable distance, so that when it was found no suspicions would be attached to anybody within miles of Wapping. Also, it might appear that Avory had either fallen into a pond by accident or committed suicide. Therefore, Pensum was more or less compelled to take his taxi to Greencorn Street and hide the body inside. Then he was directed to take it as far as Hampstead very late at night, and put it in the pond himself. At any rate, that is what Pensum told me, and if you had heard him speak to me as he spoke just now, I am quite sure you would believe him, sir."
"Yes, I think I should," Lock said. "So that is Pensum's statement, is it?"
"Yes, sir, taken down and signed."
"Well, that is so much to the good. Professor Phillipson was quite right when he said that Avory had been electrocuted. But what about those other similar cases?"
"I don't think Pensum had anything to do with them, sir," Jesson said. "Gilmour must have employed somebody else. On two occasions, at any rate, he borrowed Pensum's taxi and was off with it for a long time. It is just possible that he had one or two confederates he wanted to get out of the way. But as to that, I suppose we shall never know the truth. We have got quite enough to go on with for our purpose."
"Yes, that's right enough. Now, you know what to do to-morrow night, don't you? You know where to meet me, and you know where the other men are to be stationed. I have been over the premises in Great Bower Street, and I have found out exactly how that boat comes and goes. At certain states of the tide it is possible for the boat to go and return by lifting a sort of wooden curtain at the side of the underground vault. This leads into a sort of water-lane connected with the river, much as a side street turns out of a main thoroughfare. The outside of the curtain is all mud and slime, and viewed from the exterior in daylight appears to be part of the wall of the slipway. But it isn't, Jesson, it isn't. No wonder those chaps were able to get away from right under the noses of the river police. But we shall have them to-morrow night. I think that is about all for the present."
It was getting late on the next evening when Lock, accompanied by Jesson and another officer, and Ellis and Rust, set out on their way to Great Bower Street. Lock would have much preferred to have gone unattended by these amateurs, but Ellis, at any rate, had made a strong point of being one of the party, and considering what the authorities owed to him, Lock did not see his way to refuse.
"I don't see how you can possibly leave me out," Ellis had protested. "You would never have got on to this business at all if it hadn't been for Rust and myself. Besides, how do you suppose I am going to make the real big splash for my paper unless I see the thing from start to finish? This midnight expedition of ours in underground London will be worth a couple of columns at least. Can't you see it for yourself—the secret passage, the underground lake upon which the boat floats, and the dramatic arrest of the man who has been robbing half the merchants in London with impunity for months. Oh no, my dear fellow, I am certainly not going to be out of this, unless you arrest me on some trumped-up charge, and lock me up for the night."
And so Ellis and his friend had been allowed to accompany the expedition. They reached the offices in Great Bower Street at length, and Lock admitted them by means of a skeleton key. He was careful to post two of his men outside in case of a surprise, not that he anticipated anything of the sort, but he was taking no risks. He had learnt an hour or so before that Gilmour had left his rooms, though his landlady was under the impression that he was not well and had retired for the night.
"That's the game he always plays upon her," Lock said. "I told you, Mr. Ellis, that I should find out all about it. One of our women detectives made friends with the housekeeper, and found out that on the night Gilmour lost his latchkey he was out, as the hall porter told you, dressed in a suit of shabby tweeds, though the old woman was prepared to swear that he went to bed before she did. I think you will find that when we come to lay our case before the court not a single link will be missing, unless perhaps Croot slips through our fingers."
"I don't think he will," Ellis said dryly. "I can see a way of dragging him in. At any rate, we can ask him a question he will find it very difficult to answer. How is he going to explain what happened the night that Gilmour got down to Cray and pretended that he had reached there too late for dinner."
"Well, upon my word, that had quite escaped my attention," Lock admitted. "You are quite right. But we will attend to that presently; meanwhile, we had better be getting on."
They made their way very cautiously down the underground passages through the vaults, and there they sat down patiently for the best part of two hours. Then suddenly they heard the creaking of wheels and the noise of something in motion, and after that muttered voices and the swish of rippling water. Lock rose to his feet and turned on his flarelight. The boat was there in the centre of the inky lake, with Gilmour and two men sitting in it. Something bright flashed in Lock's hand.
"Throw them up," Lock said crisply. "Throw them up. The first man who moves will be shot."
"What's the meaning of this?" Gilmour blustered.
"It means," Lock snapped, "that you are my prisoner."
Gilmour faced round with a bitter snarl on his lips. His right hand dropped almost mechanically to his side, but a threatening gesture from Lock caused him to refrain. His big combative jaw was thrust out, his eyes burned with a fierce hate, but he was powerless for the moment, and he knew it. With his hands held high above his head he poured out a stream of invective that seemed to hiss like water on fire. To Ellis and Rust looking on it was as if some wild animal were wriggling and writhing in a trap.
"Very fine," Lock said almost genially. "Quite a remarkable effort, but if you don't mind, I should like to see you bring that boat a little closer in. No, you can't get away as you came, because by this time the river patrol is close behind. Yes, that's better. Step up, Mr. Gilmour."
Ellis began to see now exactly how the secret passage into the river was worked. In the powerful flarelight that Lock held in his left hand he could make out a series of bars and chains on the slimy doorway, and certain heavy weights depending from a couple of rusty chains. It was quite plain that the whole system depended upon a series of counterweights which could be operated from either side of the slide without any particular effort, and when once the shutter had dropped into its place from the outside it would appear to be no more than part of the original wall.
"Very ingenious, isn't it?" he whispered to Rust. "And very easy at the same time. I expect that has been there hundreds of years; no doubt in the days when Great Bower Street was occupied by members of the aristocracy and all these offices were town houses. Can't you picture all sorts of intrigues going on here against the State? I can imagine the followers of the excited Charles II, and afterwards partisans of the unfortunate Duke of Monmouth, hiding and scheming here and being smuggled by that underground passage to craft on the river. Probably more than one traitor went his way thus to the Tower. By George! what a story I shall have to tell the Telephone readers."
But Rust was not listening. Just at that moment he had eyes only for Gilmour, who was standing a little way off, with his hands still above his head and glaring savagely at Lock. Behind him were the two men who had helped to man the boat. Lock turned sharply to one of his subordinates.
"Do you know these people, Williams?" he asked.
"Oh yes, sir," Williams of the river police said cheerfully. "I know both men quite well. The big chap with the one eye is called Dodger Grant, and he has been convicted a score of times for thefts from ships. The other man is an American, and badly wanted in New York. I have nearly had my hands on him half a dozen times, but every time he has managed to slip through my fingers. A very dangerous chap he is."
"Well, take them off," Lock said curtly. "I will deal with Mr. Gilmour myself."
A little later, and Gilmour, together with Lock and the other two, were in the basement office of the house in Great Bower Street. Gilmour turned furiously upon Rust.
"I suppose I have to thank you for this," he snarled. "I dare say you think you are very clever, but you don't know everything. You have a lot to learn yet."
"I don't think so," Rust said quietly. "In any case, it doesn't matter. If it is any satisfaction to you, I am the man who discovered the secret hiding-place and informed the police. But I did not do so out of personal motives; I acted as I did because a great wrong has been done to friends of mine, and I am making it my business to see it righted. As a matter of fact, Mr. Ellis can tell you a great deal more than I can."
Gilmour appeared about to say something, then he changed his mind. Lock stepped across to him and slipped a hand into Gilmour's hip pocket. From thence he produced a revolver, which he threw on the table in a corner of the office.
"Now we have done with that," he said, "we can talk more quietly. Mr. Gilmour, I have a warrant for your arrest. As a matter of fact, I have two warrants. If you want me to read them over to you, I shall be very pleased to do so."
Gilmour dropped into a chair and coolly took a cigarette from his case. He was quite himself now, the fighting light had died out of his eyes, and his big cruel chin was no longer thrust out.
"I might just as well admit myself beaten," he said. "You have caught me red-handed, and I shall know how to accept my punishment. What is the charge?"
Lock proceeded to explain. He told Gilmour candidly enough how he had laid a trap for him, and how he and his confederates had walked almost blindfold into it.
"Those boxes of cigars were marked," he said. "There was an identification sign in all of them. The same remark applies to those cases of saccharine which are on your motor-boat at the present moment. Your man Pensum is under remand now for stealing those cases of cigars. One of them was found in his possession."
"Ah, that accounts for it," Gilmour said. "I felt sure the fools had stolen one of them. If they hadn't, we should not be here at the present moment. Would you mind opening that cupboard, Inspector Lock? You see, I know who you are, and I won't pretend that I don't. You will find a bottle and glasses in there, also a syphon of soda water. In the circumstances, I suppose you won't mind my having a little drink."
Lock signified that he had no objection, and for a few minutes Gilmour sat there sipping his whisky and soda with the air of a man who is thoroughly enjoying himself. When he had finished and come to the end of his cigarette, he turned to Lock and intimated that he was quite ready.
"But first of all," he said, "perhaps you had better read that warrant over to me."
Lock proceeded to do so. At the very first word Gilmour sat up, and once more the angry hunted look came into his eyes.
"Where did you get that from?" he demanded.
"I don't quite follow you," Lock said.
"Well, you don't call me Gilmour, you speak of me as George Ray. Now, who in the name of fortune is George Ray?"
"Well, unless I am altogether mistaken, you are," Lock replied. "Really, I should have hardly thought that a clever man like you would have wasted his time in questioning my facts. You are George Ray, late Engineer-Lieutenant in His Majesty's Navy, and at the time when you were dismissed the Service you were second-in-command on board the Sharkstooth. Are you going to deny it?"
Gilmour bent forward, and just for a second or two he looked like an utterly broken man. He covered his face with his hands, and remained silent for quite a long time.
"Are you bound to charge me in that name?" he asked.
"Certainly I am," Lock replied. "It is your own name, and you are not going to deny it."
"It would be utterly useless," Gilmour almost whispered. "Of course, I know that I have been running this sort of risk for a long time, and I was quite prepared to meet it. But it never occurred to me that my proper name would ever be public property. I ask you as a favour, Inspector Lock, not to have me charged in the name of Ray. There is nothing to be gained by it, and a great scandal would be averted."
"I am afraid it is too late now," Lock said. "I am not a hard-hearted man, but I have my duty to do, and I must do it. You see, I applied for the warrants in your proper name, and no power on earth can change that now. But why?"
"Because I am not altogether shameless," Gilmour almost groaned. "I am thinking of my family. My mother is still alive, and I have sisters who are well and happily married. But what is the good of my talking about that? The mischief is done now, and there is an end of it. Now, as to your other charge."
"Ah, that is another matter altogether," Lock said gravely. "And I must first warn you that anything you say will be used in evidence against you. You are charged with luring one William Avory into your workshop at 17 Greencorn Street on a certain night which is mentioned in the indictment, and there murdering him by means of a highly-charged electric wire. Subsequently you are accused of placing the body in a taxi-cab and sending it off to Hampstead in the custody of George Pensum, who placed it in the pond at Hampstead where it was found. It is not altogether regular, but I may tell you that Pensum has made a full confession. And I may also tell you that Professor Phillipson is prepared to prove that Avory died of an electric shock. There are other similar cases, but I won't go into them at present."
"I think that will do," Gilmour said quietly. He was quite cool and collected now, and finished his drink with a steady hand. "I am much obliged to you for your candour, Inspector, and I don't think I will say any more at present."
With that, he stood up and held out his hands. Without a word Lock fitted a pair of handcuffs on them. Outside, a taxi was waiting, and at Lock's suggestion, both Ellis and Rust followed him into the cab. They drove along for some way in silence towards the police station, with Gilmour sitting in the corner like a statue. Then suddenly he jumped to his feet and flung himself violently against the door of the cab. Before Lock could pull him down again the door had given under the strain, and Gilmour made a wild dash for liberty. The cab was going swiftly along the deserted street, so that directly Gilmour touched the ground he twisted round like a scrap of paper in the wind, and crashed head first upon the greasy asphalt. As his head fell forward, the hind wheel of the cab went over him. When the taxi pulled up at length, Gilmour lay there quite unconscious and quite obviously very seriously hurt. They lifted him to his feet and laid him down on the pavement with his coat under his head.
"I think he is done for," Lock said. "Driver, go to the Thames Police Court at once and get an ambulance."
They waited in the deserted street for some time until the ambulance, accompanied by the police surgeon, arrived, and an examination of the wounded man was made.
"Rather serious, isn't it?" Lock asked.
"Very," the doctor said curtly. "Unless I am altogether mistaken, it's a bad fracture at the base of the skull. He must have done that when he fell, and the weight of the cab on the top of him has completed the mischief. I shall be very surprised indeed if the poor chap lives till morning."
They did what they could for Gilmour, who at length found quarters in the London Hospital, where he lay utterly unconscious on a bed, evidently waiting for the end. There was nothing to do now but to get back to Rust's rooms, where Lock accompanied them. He had not yet finished his night's work, he explained, but he could spare half an hour to discuss the events of the evening.
"Well, gentlemen," he said, "you can't say that you haven't had an exciting time."
"That is true enough," Rust said, as he poured himself out a generous dose of spirit. "I wouldn't go through it again for all the money in the world."
"I quite agree with you," Ellis remarked. "I wanted a sensational series of articles for my paper, but I did not expect anything quite so tragic as this."
They talked over the matter in low tones for some time, until at length the tension of the atmosphere relaxed and they began to get the events of the evening into proper proportion.
"I suppose there will be an end of these river robberies now," Ellis suggested. "Once the secret hiding-place in Crombies Wharf is closed, there won't be many more of these raids. But I don't believe we have got the chief rogue even yet."
"Ah, there I quite agree with you," Lock said. "It will take a great deal to convince me that Mr. Croot knew nothing about it. But to identify him with the robberies will be quite another thing. He must have known all about the secret of Crombies Wharf. When he took over the business of Verity & Co. a few years ago he was a poor struggling man. He had just come back from Canada, knowing very little about English business conditions. He has been running an old-fashioned concern on rather narrow lines, and yet, from all I can hear, he has made a large fortune. He couldn't have done that and been honest at the same time."
"We are quite aware of the fact," Rust laughed. "Perhaps it would be as well now to show you another side to Croot's character. Before long you will have to know it in your professional capacity. It is not a pretty story, but we have all the facts practically at our finger tips, and you will have the satisfaction before long of arresting Croot on another charge, though you may never be able to prove that he was behind Gilmour in those river robberies. Not that I despair of that."
"Neither do I," Lock said. "I shall be very interested to hear what Croot has to say when I ask him how he explains the fact that Gilmour went down to the Moat House one night in a taxi and subsequently appeared in evening dress at the birthday dinner party of Croot's adopted daughter."
"Yes, that will take a bit of answering," Ellis said. "Now, Geoff, tell the Inspector all about Broken Points."
With that, Rust proceeded to tell the story at length, and after it was finished Lock went off, leaving Ellis and Rust together. It was getting very late now, but neither of the friends seemed inclined to move, though Ellis suggested bed.
"Oh, I don't think you want to turn in yet," Rust said. "I feel as if I never should sleep again. It's been a ghastly evening, Jack, and it will be a long time before I forget it. Of course, everything is going to straighten itself out now, but what troubles me particularly at the moment is how Vera will take all this business when she comes to be told the truth."
"I hadn't overlooked that either," Ellis murmured. "It will be a great shock to her, but after all, she is young and strong, and Croot is no relation of hers. She will get over it in time, though I don't mind saying that I dread telling her."
"I think the sooner you do so the better," Rust said. "You had better run down to-morrow and see her. Or if you like, I will arrange it. I am going down to Cray to-morrow, anyway."
"Oh, things are moving in that direction, are they?"
"Most assuredly they are. I have arranged to see Croot to-morrow at the Moat House, and I am not going alone, because Major Langley accompanies me. Oh yes, we are ready to move, and when we have finished, Langley will come into his own again."
"What, you don't mean to say—"
"I do, Jack, I do. The major is quite clear in his mind again, and what's more, he knows now where all those vital papers are hidden in the Moat House. He can go straight to the spot and put his hand upon them. They are in the library almost under Croot's nose, and I am going to be present when they are found."
It still wanted some quarter of an hour from midnight when Ellis flung himself into a taxi outside Rust's rooms and directed the driver to take him to the offices of the Telephone. In the horror and excitement of the evening he had entirely forgotten the reason why he had first embarked upon the problem connected with those robberies on the river. He had been seated talking to Geoffrey Rust and discussing the future, when just after Rust had mentioned the fact that Major Langley was at last in a position to make a definite move, he had recollected the duty that he owed to his paper. No one knew better than himself how quickly these things get talked about; he was quite aware of the small army of hack journalists who always hang about a police station late at night on the off-chance of picking up some exclusive piece of information likely to lead to a paragraph which, properly manipulated, would keep the writer in comfort for a week. And if this happened, then the Telephone would be forestalled, and he would have his pains for nothing.
"By Jove, I must be off!" he cried. "If I start now I shall be able to get in two or three columns in time for the country edition. I will try and see you to-morrow, Geoff, and perhaps when we meet in the evening you will have something to say to me with regard to the interview with Croot."
With that he hurriedly departed, and a quarter of an hour later passed through the granite pillars of the Telephone offices in Fleet Street, and thrust himself into the sanctum of the news editor.
Mr. Donaldson did not appear to be particularly busy. On the contrary, he was deploring the fact that the present issue of his paper would be rather a commonplace one. There was plenty of time yet for something big, and Donaldson knew that the great thing was at hand directly he caught sight of Ellis's face.
"You've got a scoop for us, haven't you?" he asked.
"Well, rather," Ellis said. "Those river robberies. The leader has been arrested; in fact, I was present and saw it done. And, moreover, he is dead. Flung himself out of a taxi with the handcuffs on, and fractured his skull. But stop a minute. I am not quite sure that he is dead yet. But anyhow, he can't live till morning, and you can verify that by calling up the London Hospital on the 'phone. I have got it all here, Donaldson—arrest of the miscreants, a fine story of underground passages and secret vaults—quite in the style of the old-fashioned shilling shocker. Send me a smart typist to my room, and I will turn out two or three columns for you as fast as you can get it set up."
Donaldson rubbed his hands cheerfully. He was deeply interested in the river robberies, and it was he who had selected Ellis as the star representative to get to the bottom of it. He had never ceased to gird at the police, and the Telephone leaderettes on the subject had become quite a joke in Fleet Street.
"That's good," he said. "I can give you an hour and a half. Now, off you go and get on with it."
And so it came about that the Telephone duly appeared the next morning with flaming headlines and leaded type giving a full and particular account of those amazing river robberies from the time of their inception to the moment when Gilmour had been arrested. Gilmour's proper name was given, and some account of his past. The whole thing wound up at the end of three columns with a few lines to the effect that Gilmour had died in the London Hospital just as the Telephone was going to press.
Naturally enough, the thing created a tremendous sensation. Everybody was reading it, it was discussed in all the suburban trains as London's thousands flocked into the city on their daily business. A copy of the paper duly appeared on the breakfast table of the Moat House where Vera was seated alone, having just seen her father made comfortable in the library. She always made a practice of reading the Telephone, not only because she liked it, but because Jack Ellis was a prominent member of the staff.
She read on, line after line, with a white face and bated breath, whilst her breakfast grew cold, then she picked up her copy of the paper and walked unsteadily into the library. Croot looked up at her with a queer sinking at his heart as he noticed the pallor on her lips, and the look of horror in her eyes.
"What's wrong, my child?" he asked.
"Oh, a most dreadful thing has happened," Vera said breathlessly. "Mr. Gilmour was arrested last night in a sort of underground cave beneath your offices, and a lot of stolen property was found which had been taken from a ship on the river—Oh, I can't go on. You must read it for yourself. There are columns of it. They arrested Mr. Gilmour and took him to the police station in a taxi. He tried to escape, handcuffed as he was, and he met with a dreadful accident. He—he—"
"Do you mean to say he is dead?" Croot asked hoarsely.
"So it says in the Telephone," Vera sobbed.
Croot drew a long, deep breath of relief. He was not in the least disturbed to hear of the tragic end of his chief confederate, but he was immensely easier in his mind to know that it was now outside the power of Gilmour to betray him.
"This is very terrible," he said, trying to speak as if the news was almost too much for him. "I should never have imagined that Gilmour was capable of rascality like that. And all this time he has been using my offices for the purpose of those robberies. What was it you said about underground passages? My dear child, do you mean to say that they exist under the offices in Great Bower Street? I never dreamt of such a thing. But perhaps you had better let me have a look at the paper to see for myself. I am not fit for work, as you know, but really I shall have to go to London to-morrow."
Croot was thankful enough to be alone presently. For an hour or so he sat there poring over the story disclosed by the Telephone, a great deal more shaken than he cared to confess. By the time he had worked out his plan of campaign, and was just getting himself fairly well in hand again, the butler came into the library. His eyes were widely opened, and he seemed to be almost as disturbed as his employer. It seemed to Croot that this man also had been reading the Telephone.
"Well, what is it?" he asked impatiently.
"Major Langley to see you, sir," the butler said.
"Oh, indeed? I will come out. I don't want to worry him to leave his bath chair—"
"He is not in his bath chair, sir," the butler said. "He has walked here, and Mr. Rust is with him—"
"Walked," Croot cried. "You are not drunk, are you?"
"No, indeed, sir; not at all, sir. I was so surprised when I saw Major Langley standing on the doorstep that you might have knocked me down with a feather. Looks as well, he does, as if he's never had a day's illness in his life."
Croot rose to his feet. He had a strange feeling that he was face to face now with some crisis that it would take all his audacity and cleverness to survive. He managed to control his voice sufficiently to tell the servant to bring Major Langley into the library, and he stood with his back to the fireplace with a smile on his face to welcome his visitors.
"Apparently the age of miracles has not passed, Langley," he said, as he held out his hand. "I have known for some time that you have been getting better, but I never hoped to have the pleasure of welcoming you into your old home again. But sit down and tell me all about it. To whom does the credit of this amazing thing belong? Evidently your doctor is much cleverer than mine."
Langley stood there ignoring the outstretched hand. There was a fighting light in his eyes and stern compression of his lips that Croot did not like at all.
"I think we can dispense with all that," the major said. "Nor is there the least occasion for us to shake hands. This I can tell you. I have been getting gradually better for more than a year. Months ago I could walk as well as ever I did, and if you look at me, you will see that there is nothing the matter with my mind. I have been merely biding my time."
"That sounds rather like a threat," Croot laughed.
"Oh, it's no threat," Langley replied. "It's a plain statement of fact, as you will find to your cost before long. Four years ago, in this very room, I had a sudden seizure that left me broken in body and mind. For a long time after that I was a mere shell of humanity, a burden to myself and to everybody else; and, moreover, I was practically a pauper. It was very good of you, people said, to give me the shelter of a cottage in grounds that once belonged to me, and to take my daughter into your office so that she could earn enough to find her father in food. Ah, it was a happy day for you when I collapsed at your feet, and you were able to pose as a philanthropist and a friend. You probably thought it would not matter much, because I was the sort of fool that any business man could deceive, but—"
"Oh, pooh, this is mere drama," Croot smiled. "Take him away, Rust. The mere fact of his recovering the use of his limbs has turned his head."
"Sorry I can't do that," Rust said curtly; "I am here at the major's request, and I have promised to stay till he has finished what he has to say. I think you had better listen."
With a laugh, Croot flung himself down in a chair.
"Very well," he said. "I will humour him so far. I hope you won't mind my sitting down; I have not altogether recovered from that blow the burglar gave me that night."
"So I see," Langley said. "You will perhaps be surprised to hear that I was the burglar in question."
"You were? Oh, indeed! And why, pray?"
"I am just coming to that," the major said. "I came here like a thief in the dead of the night in search of certain papers that I placed in a secret drawer of that old Dutch secretaire some four years ago, the night before you visited me here and I was stricken down with my sudden illness. I suppose you don't realize that there is a secret drawer in that antique piece of furniture, but there is, and I used to keep my confidential documents there. Amongst others, 400 debentures in Broken Points."
Croot looked up swiftly. He was beginning to realize the danger now. His mind went quickly back to those old days when he was selling those forged documents to the major and taking his cheques in return.
"Go on," he said, quite steadily. "Go on."
"I appreciate your courtesy," the major said dryly. "I will go on. Those debentures were forgeries. There were only 1,000 officially issued altogether, and those were taken up by other people before I was induced to come in. As you wanted money badly you hit upon the ingenious idea of having a lot more of those certificates printed, knowing perfectly well that you could sell them to me. You did sell them to me, and at various times you received just £40,000 of my money. For these you gave me receipts, exceedingly business-like receipts, on which the numbers of the debentures appeared. They started with 1,001, and so on. Knowing perfectly well that you were going to make Broken Points into a bankrupt concern, you were certain that I should destroy those debentures when I found they were worthless, and therefore your fraud would never be discovered. But I did not destroy them. I placed them with my bankers, and when, through sheer accident, I discovered how I had been swindled, I brought the debentures down here and placed them in the secretaire. They are there now, and so are the receipts in your own handwriting."
"You are in a position to prove that?" Croot blustered.
"Certainly I am. In a few minutes you shall see them. But I am getting on a little too fast. On the occasion of our last interview in this room, when Fate played me such a scurvy trick, I was ready for you. You came to tell me that I was ruined, and to give me all your sympathy. My intention was to produce those documents and confound you where you stood. But the worry and anxiety was too much for me, and I collapsed literally at your feet, and from that moment you regarded me as good as dead. By great good fortune I had not taken the documents out of their hiding-place, so that you were unaware that they even existed. When I was stricken down you professed to be sorry for me; you told my daughter that you had tried your very best to keep me from gambling in your rotten mining company. You played the grand friend, helping a broken man to live. But I don't want to enlarge upon that. I am going now to produce all those documents and leave you to deal with them as you think fit. At any rate, I am going to have my money back, and, moreover, I am coming back to this old house of mine within the next few days."
"The man is clearly mad!" Croot cried. "Where is your proof of all this—those debentures, for instance?"
Major Langley turned swiftly to Rust.
"Tell him," he said. "I have hardly patience to say any more. Tell him what you know."
"Well, that is not very much," Rust said. "But perhaps I had better inform you, Mr. Croot, that the major has in his possession the order form given to the firm of law stationers who printed the debentures, and I may say that that order form is signed by you as secretary for and on behalf of the company. And I need not remind you that you had no power under your Articles of Association to issue more than 1,000 debentures."
"What, you have that order in my handwriting?" Croot burst out. "Where did it come from?"
"Well, as a matter of fact, I got it," Rust said. "I procured it through a friend of mind in the city who knows all about these things. He has the history of Broken Points at his finger tips. He can tell you, if you like, exactly how Broken Points was wrecked and the shareholders robbed of their money. From what he tells me the Kamaloo Trust Syndicate, having bought from the official receiver assets which he thought to be worthless, is pretty sure to become one of the most prosperous copper mines in the world. Also, he is prepared to prove that through a nominee you hold most of the shares. Really, Mr. Croot, I don't think it will pay you to bluff this thing out any further. I don't think you will find the major vindictive if you treat him properly, and therefore—"
Croot turned on the speaker with a snarl.
"You are a pretty sort of infernal rascal," he said. "So this is why you wormed yourself into my employ. If I had only known what you were after—"
Croot paused as the door opened and the butler looked in. "A gentleman to see you, sir," he said. "Inspector Lock of Scotland Yard. Shall I ask him in, sir?"
"Into the drawing-room," Croot said, passing his tongue over his dry lips. "Tell him I won't keep him a minute. I suppose, major, I have to thank you for this?"
Major Langley drew himself up and looked Croot straight in the face. He stood there, erect and confident with keen, penetrating eyes and every appearance of power and resolution. Save for the fact that his hair was slightly tinged with grey, he looked no more than his years, a man to be reckoned with.
"I think not," he said. "So far as I am concerned, this matter can be settled without the intervention of the police. But that is entirely in your hands, Mr. Croot."
"Then perhaps I have to thank Rust," Croot suggested.
"You are wrong again," Rust said. "I have nothing whatever to do with the Inspector's visit here, though I could give a pretty good guess at what is behind it. I don't think, Mr. Croot, you quite appreciate what a serious business this is. You may or may not have known what was going on in Great Bower Street, and certainly I don't think you were aware that murder—"
"Murder!" Croot cried. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that one of the important witnesses in the case was deliberately murdered, and that the police have proof of it. One of Gilmour's accomplices has made a confession. Now, the night Gilmour came down here and you let him into the house—But perhaps I had better not say anything about that."
And indeed Rust had already said too much, for he saw the sudden light that leapt into Croot's eyes and caught the sharp intake of his breath. It was only for an instant, then Croot was himself again. He shrugged his shoulders carelessly.
"Oh, that," he said. "Then that is easily explained. But as it does not concern you, I think I will defer discussion until I talk it over with the inspector."
Rust knew now that he had given Croot a warning, and that the latter saw his way to take advantage of it. He wished that he had not been dragged into the discussion at all.
"But perhaps we had better get along with our own business," Croot suggested. "Let us finish that, and then I can see what Inspector Lock wants. Major Langley, you have made an accusation against me. I call upon you to prove it."
"In that case," the major said, "I will trouble you for the key of the secretaire."
"It is not locked," Croot said.
Langley crossed the room and, throwing open the doors of the secretaire, pressed a spring in the back and a panel slid on one side. From an opening behind he took a mass of papers and laid them on a table. Here were the missing debentures, and a series of receipts in Croot's own handwriting.
"There," Langley said. "What have you to say to those? They are beyond all argument. It's rather strange that they should be hidden there, under your very nose, all this time, and you none the wiser. But the truth will out, and now you know exactly where you stand. I am not concerned with your other rascalities, but I am going to see this one righted; so if you return all the money you have stolen from me, and give up possession of this house within a month from to-day, then there is no more to be said. I ought to prosecute you, and I would do so but for the real affection I have for your adopted daughter. It may be weak on my part, perhaps, but if there is any way out of this dreadful mess without a scandal, I am ready to help."
"Well, that is really good of you, major," Croot said, genuinely touched for the first time. "I think that can be managed. To tell you the truth, I have been thinking for some time of going back to Canada. I am a wealthy man now, and I always preferred that country to this. If you will hold your hand, I will undertake within a month to make good and hand the Moat House back to you. If that is your only condition——"
"One more," Langley said, "and I have done. You must undertake to give back to every shareholder in Broken Points the money he lost, and if you will do that you can go to the devil your own way, so far as I am concerned."
A moment later, Croot bowed himself out of the room with the air of one who has come off best in a battle of wits. He walked straight into the drawing-room and asked Inspector Lock quite blandly what he could do for him.
"I think you know," Lock said. "The matter of those robberies on the river. No doubt you have seen the Telephone this morning, so I need not go into details."
"That is perfectly true," Croot said gravely. "I assure you, inspector, nobody is more shocked and grieved than I am. I trusted Gilmour implicitly, and I am bound to say that up to now he has proved a splendid servant. I need hardly say I had no idea that he was using his position to put money in his own pockets, and so far as I am concerned I hope the matter will be sifted to the bottom. Of course, I did know a good deal about the old buildings in Great Bower Street, and I have been in those vaults more than once. But I thought that secret was entirely mine. I have just been talking the matter over with my friends Major Langley and Mr. Rust, and they tell me that robbery is not the only charge."
Lock looked with admiration at the speaker. Here was a man after his own heart, prepared to bluff to the very end, and never so much as to flick an eyelid.
"And there is another thing," Croot went on. "It has been suggested that on a certain occasion some time ago—on the night of my adopted daughter's birthday, to be precise—I helped Gilmour out of a tight place. Well, I admit it. You see, I knew all about him; I knew him when he was in the Royal Navy. He made a bad break there, but after I met him in Canada I put him on his legs again. At one time in my early days I was getting my living on one of the Canadian Railways; in fact, I was a telegraph operator of sorts, so that I know something of the Morse code. So did Gilmour, for the matter of that. We used it once out West at a time when we were both in a very tight place. We often talked about it afterwards, and agreed that in certain circumstances it might be useful again. And it was. On the night of that birthday party I heard Gilmour signalling outside. He told me that he was in a desperate mess, and I made an excuse to help him. I managed to leave my guests and smuggle him into the bedroom he usually occupied, where I knew that he had a change of clothing and incidentally, a dress suit. I rather enjoyed that; it's the sort of stunt that always appeals to me. Afterwards Gilmour told me how he had laid his plans, and how he had sent a man down here travelling by a certain train in a first-class carriage—but we have had all that over before, inspector. Gilmour never told me the history of that night, nor did I press him, because it was no business of mine. No doubt I acted foolishly, but in the same circumstances, probably you would have done the same. I thought it just as well to tell you all this frankly, because otherwise you might have inferred that I was party to those raids on the river. But nothing of the kind. I shall be only too pleased to produce all my books and papers and even my private ledgers, and if you can trace anything to me, inspector, then I shall be quite prepared to defend myself."
It was an amazing tissue of lies, as Lock perfectly well knew, but at the same time he was not blind to the way in which Croot had strengthened his position by his apparently candid statement. He knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that Croot's criminality was as great as Gilmour's had been, but he realized that if Croot could only keep it up like that when he found himself in a court of law, no jury would ever be found to convict.
"I am much obliged to you, Mr. Croot," he said. "What you have just told me saves a good deal of trouble. As a matter of fact, I came down here on purpose to ask you a few questions on the very point that you have just made so clear. I may possibly have to call you at the inquest on the body of the man called Gilmour, but even that may be unnecessary."
With that Lock said no more, and presently took his leave, realizing grimly enough that for once in a way he had come off second best in an encounter with one of the coolest and most audacious criminals he had ever met.
"I am afraid it is no use going on with the business as far as Croot is concerned," he said presently, when he joined Major Langley and Rust at the cottage. "But perhaps I had better tell you what took place between Croot and myself...there, you see what I mean. He cut the ground from under my feet by a frank confession that he had helped Gilmour on the night of the birthday dinner-party. And the explanation was so plausible that most juries would believe it. That man is a born actor, and, moreover, he possesses a fine natural courage. At any rate, we have put an end to those robberies on the river, and seeing that Gilmour is dead I don't see that we can carry the case any further. So far as I am concerned, Croot is a free man."
"It is just as well, perhaps," Langley said. "I have no animus against the fellow, and I am very anxious that his adopted daughter should not suffer."
Meanwhile, Croot was talking matters over with Vera. He knew that he had extricated himself from a dangerous position, mainly due to the indiscretion of Geoffrey Rust in alluding to what had happened on the night of the birthday party, and he was feeling in a pleasant, expansive mood. Still, what he had to say was not particularly pleasant, and he was glad enough when it was all over.
"I am going back to Canada, my dear," he said. "For some time past I have been suffering a good deal with my lungs. I have said nothing to you about it, because I did not want to alarm you, but the doctors tell me that it is imperative that I should live in a dry climate. So I am going in a month's time, when I shall have settled everything. Oh, by the way, I understand that Major Langley has come into a good deal of money—some old shares that he bought through me—and I am going to give him the chance of buying back the Moat House."
"Oh, I am so glad to hear that," Vera cried. "I have never felt quite happy here, and all the more so because Pat always behaved so splendidly over it. But—but—are you going to take me with you? Will you live there always?"
"Oh no," Croot lied easily. "I shall be backwards and forwards a great deal. But I am not going to take you, my child, because you don't want to go. And I am not going to stand in the way of your happiness. I have been making some inquiries about that young man Ellis, and I find him very well spoken of. He is making quite enough to keep you in every comfort, and some of these early days he will be very well off. So I thought perhaps if I bought you a nice house in this neighbourhood and furnished it for you, you could get married before I went. A very quiet affair—just you and me and about two others some morning in a London church. You know what I mean?"
Vera looked at him with affectionate tears in her eyes. Was there ever such a man, she wondered. And, indeed, whatever Croot's faults might be, there was no questioning his affection for the girl who had come so strangely into his life.
"I don't know how to thank you," Vera said.
"Then don't thank me at all," Croot laughed. "Now, run along and tell your friend Pat all about it. Make your own arrangements, don't consult me, and when you have fixed upon the house you want and furnished it I will give you a cheque and you can get married just when and where you like. Now run upstairs and pack a suit-case for me, because I am going to Manchester this afternoon on business that will not be put off, and I may not be back for two or three weeks. But if you send me a telegram, I will come down in time for the ceremony. I like to hustle things like this when once I have made up my mind."
Vera went off with her head in a whirl, whilst Croot sat down to review the situation. By sheer pluck and audacity he had wriggled out of an exceedingly tight place, and it would be no fault of his own if he found himself in a similar situation again. He could well afford to make good the losses incurred by Langley and the unfortunate shareholders in Broken Points, and leave himself with a handsome fortune when this was done. Moreover, he would be perfectly happy on the other side of the Atlantic, from whence, probably, he would never return. He was shrewd enough to see that the less he came in contact with Langley and his friends in the future the better it would be for all parties. He would have to be present, of course, at Vera's wedding, but that would only be a matter of a few minutes, and then he could turn his back upon England for ever, happy in the knowledge that his past would never be mentioned in Vera's hearing.
"I am devilish well out of that," he told himself as he lighted a cigar. "And I will take care that it never happens again. But it was a close call, all the same."
Meanwhile, Vera, in the little sitting-room of the cottage, was telling her friends there quite breathlessly all about the wonderful thing that had happened during the last hour.
"I can't believe it," she cried, with shining eyes. "It seems almost too good to be true."
"Well, no one deserves it more than you do," Pat said. "You had better send a telegram to London and ask Jack to come down, and if he does we'll have a snug little supper in this tiny room to celebrate the occasion. Just us five, and nobody else. I suppose you have heard all about my father's good fortune?"
"Yes, dad told me all about that," Vera said innocently. "How glorious it will be, Pat, when you are back in your old home again. I have never been comfortable in the Moat House, and I think I should have been happier if you had resented my presence more. But before long I shall have a home of my own, and then I shall be able to come and see you with quite an easy mind. Of course, I shall miss my father, but he has promised to come frequently to England, which makes all the difference in the world."
"I don't think that will trouble you very long, my child," the major said. "When once you and Jack Ellis are settled in your new home, you will have a thousand different interests to occupy your attention. But what about me? I shall find the Moat House very lonely without Pat, who, I suppose, will want to follow your example and get married before long."
"I hope so," Rust laughed. "I have practically finished in Great Bower Street now, and I must have something to occupy my time. I think I shall take a house in this neighbourhood myself, even if it is only for the sake of the golf."
"Well, with four of us you won't be lonely," Pat said. "And anyway, we have all much to be thankful for."
"Amen to that," the major said.
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