Title: The House with the High Wall Author: Arthur Gask * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1203881h.html Language: English Date first posted: Oct 2012 Most recent update: Dec 2020 This eBook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy, Colin Choat and Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of 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 of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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AROUND the extensive grounds of an estate in a quiet part of Suffolk a tall barbed-wire fence had been erected, and round an old house deep within these grounds had been built a high wall.
No one knew who lived there, for none was allowed to come near. It was a house of evil, and to guard the sinister secret it held, three murders had been done. But for murder and other fearful crimes against society comes a day of reckoning.
How the secret was discovered and how vengeance came at last form another thrilling episode in the brilliant career of the famous international detective, Gilbert Larose.
THE aftermath of war is always terrible. Peace is only for the dead, while unrest and disillusionment are the portion of the living. With the bloodshed dying down, the highways of the world are thronged with bewildered men and women walking aimlessly where once they trod with such resolution and such strength. To so many all ideals have gone, their old-time rules and values of life are shattered, and they understand best now only the language of the bayonet, the bullet and the bomb. Man is no longer their brother, and the battle is for the ruthless and the strong. To nations and individuals alike the tendency is to become beasts of prey.
Undeniably good-looking and naturally of a bright and happy disposition, Robert Selby Willoughby had always been a likeable sort of boy. Full of fun and go, with a great love of adventure and never lacking in courage, he had always been popular with most of his companions. In some ways, however, reckless and irresponsible, his moral code was certainly not one to be approved of by everybody, as it was a strange mixture of honourable observances and very lax appreciation of correct dealings with others.
Scorning to tell a downright lie to shield himself, he would yet cheerfully indulge in plenty to save someone else whose plight had happened to arouse his sympathy. With him, too, while to steal from another boy or a shop was unthinkable, to raid hen-roosts and orchards of neighbouring farmers was quite all right. Poaching, also, he considered quite a meritorious act and to snare a rabbit or, better still, a pheasant off someone else's land was something to which he thought no reasonably-minded person should object.
He was the only child of an amiable old clergyman in a little village in Devonshire, and these traits in his character, when they became uncovered—which, however, was not very often, as Robert was both cunning and resourceful—were most distressing to his parents. Indeed, it had been one of the most humiliating experiences of the reverend gentleman's whole life when he had to plead for leniency for his son in the local police-court when Robert had been caught red-handed by Lord Skelton's gamekeeper, instructing some village boys how to smoke down a lordly cock-pheasant from a tree with a torch of brown paper and powdered sulphur.
Just before he was eighteen Robert left Winchester College for Oxford, to study for a medical career. He liked his work and it seemed to steady him quite a lot. However, he had only just started to gain hospital experience at St. Jude's, in London, when he was drawn into the seething whirlpool of the war, and for nearly six years participated in dealing out to the unspeakable Hun every form of violence and horror of which the best brains in the Empire could conceive.
Bold and fearless, he had been early picked for commando work and upon the several occasions when he had been engaged in hand-to-hand encounters with the enemy the stark brutality of the unpleasant forms of death he had meted out to him had certainly done nothing to arouse or foster any respect for the sacredness of human life. At other times he had acquired no added respect, either, for the property of other people, as whenever and wherever he got the chance he had been accustomed to 'scrounge' and 'souvenir', putting the widest interpretation possible upon the latter word.
Any anti-social tendencies to which Robert had been inclined before the war, therefore, were in the way of being accentuated by the experiences of those dreadful days, and so, when he eventually donned civilian clothes again, his general outlook upon life was something of both a selfish and lawless one. Each for himself, he would say, and no need to keep strictly within the law unless there was a possibility of being caught if one did not.
Yet—with these unsocial leanings he continued to appear as nice a young fellow as anyone could want to meet. Charming manners and a winning smile upon the background of the proved courage of one who had fought well and bravely for his country were always irresistible when he particularly wanted to please.
With the war over and his mind most unsettled, he had no inclination for the long years of waiting to qualify as a doctor. Rather, he determined he would choose something easier where he could depend straightaway upon his own mother-wit to get rich quickly. He was helped to this decision by his coming into a few hundreds by the deaths of both his parents, who had been killed in an air-raid when upon a visit to some friends in Exeter. Of his mother he had been particularly fond and her loss was a great grief to him, stirring up more than ever his hatred of Germans and everything German.
Resolving to take a long holiday to make up for the hardships of his war years, he rented a small flat of three rooms in a little by-street in Bloomsbury and, among other diversions, started attending race-meetings. Following upon one very profitable afternoon at Sandown Park when he won more than £100, as with so many hopeful get-rich-quick dreamers before him, the idea suddenly took possession of him that he had found an ideal occupation and could easily make his living on the Turf.
In the following up of this idea he had sense enough to realise that he knew nothing about race-horses and must in consequence depend upon the knowledge of those who did. Then he argued that the daily papers would not employ writers at big salaries to supply their readers with information unless to some extent, at least, they delivered the goods. So, with a contemptuous disregard of all the hundreds and thousands of others who must have tried the same thing and made no success of it, he started to work out what he was confident would turn out to be a highly remunerative system.
For long hours in a public library he pored over the back files of three leading daily newspapers, methodically tabulating the racing selections of their sporting advisers during the previous many months. He noted they averaged slightly less than two winners in every six selections, and he drew up a graph showing in which particular races, one to six on the programme, they had met with their successes.
Then, upon going to the race-meetings, guided by this graph, he made his investments upon particular horses. If no winner had been given for race number one at six successive meetings—then it was reasonable to expect a success at the seventh. If all three sporting writers had failed in the same race during the same period of time—then the chances in favour of a win mounted accordingly.
It all seemed so very simple to him and at first, to his great delight, his system panned out well. Betting carefully and never plunging, six weeks found his bank account going up. He took no one into his confidence, always went to the races alone, and made a point of never getting into conversation with anyone on the course.
Upon the seventh Saturday afternoon, however, he had to break this last invariable rule, as in the pound enclosure at Hurst Park he ran into an old school-fellow of his at Winchester College by name of Arnold Ransome, and to his great annoyance, was accosted by him.
About his own age and in the same class at Winchester, he had never, however, been friendly with him or mixed in his set, as, his mother being the Honourable Mrs. Ransome and the daughter of a peer, young Ransome had never been anything but a bad snob. His family was an old county one, with a large estate in Hampshire, and reputed to be very wealthy. Robert had not seen Ransome since they had both left Winchester, almost together, but knew he had joined the Air Force and, later, had seen in the newspapers that he had been awarded the D.S.O.
They met after the third race, and for the moment it seemed they were not going to recognise each other. Then Ransome, nodding curtly, said, "Willoughby, isn't it? Ah, I thought so," but he did not offer to shake hands.
Robert nodded back equally as curtly, taking in covertly the other's expensive-looking get-up, his so-well-cut clothes, his fashionable panama hat, his beautiful gold wristlet watch, and the costly race glasses suspended over his shoulder.
After a few minutes' general conversation Ransome asked casually, "Doing any good?"
"Not too badly," replied Robert in as off-hand a tone as he could make it. "I got fives about the Doncaster Bell gelding and had quite a decent little win there."
Ransome pursed his lips. "Well, I'm doing rottenly," he frowned. "I was told Ginx's Baby was a good thing, but, as you saw, the beast ran like a pig." He eyed Robert intently. "Know anything for this race?"
Robert, really, did not. He had backed one of his system horses and, with it going down, was uncertain whether he was going to have another bet. However, outside his system, he had been thinking quite a lot about a horse called Tor Cross, not because he had heard anything good about him, but just on account of the name. Tor Cross was a little fishing village in Devonshire and he had once spent a nice holiday there. Superstitious, as are nearly all racing men, he had been thinking of having a pound on it.
Now, partly with the idea of impressing Ransome he was 'in the know', and partly because if the horse lost, as he probably would, he'd like to see this so-well-dressed snob lose a tidy bit of money, the sudden thought came to him that he'd pretend it was a good thing.
"Yes, it happens I do," he said, regarding Ransome very solemnly, "and I don't mind telling you if you promise not to back him until just before the start. He's being supported away from the course, and we want the starting price to be a good one." He warmed up in pretended enthusiasm. "He's almost a certain winner. He's Tor Cross and he's been especially saved for this race. You ought to get twenties."
Ransome expressed his thanks and they parted, arranging to meet again by the rails after the race, Robert, however, intending to give his old school-fellow a wide berth if the horse lost, which, as we have said, he was pretty confident he would.
Still, he told himself with some irritation, he did not now dare to leave the animal unbacked. If he won it would be damnable to think the stuck-up Ransome had perhaps picked up a nice packet, while he, Robert, had got nothing.
So, grudging what he thought was wasted money, he took £12 to 1 about Tor Cross and went up on the grandstand to watch the race, a welter of a mile.
Then followed for him some most unhappy moments, with his mouth going dry in his discomfiture. Tor Cross got off well from the barrier, was never farther back than fourth, and won easily.
His disgust was too deep for words. He had missed the chance of a lifetime and, worse than that, had no doubt put a fat wad of notes into the detested Ransome's pocket. However, he somewhat recovered his equanimity very quickly. At any rate, for one thing, he had won £12, and for another he would certainly get a good drink out of Ransome.
And certainly he did get a good drink, indeed, much better than he had ever expected, as Ransome, meeting him with a beaming face, linked his arm in his in the most friendly fashion, and escorted him straightaway into the bar under the grandstand to crack a large bottle of champagne. The wine cost five guineas, but Ransome was so pleased with himself that in his present mood he would not have minded if it had been ten.
"I got a hundred to six, my boy," he chortled over the sparkling drink, "and took it twice. Then I heard another bookie shouting twenties and couldn't help putting on a couple more quid." He patted his breast pocket. "Two hundred and forty in one hit's a decent little win."
Robert had all the appearance of being a happy man, too, as, according to his tale, he had had £25 on at starting price and hoped to get twenties at least. Apparently upon the best of terms now, the two remained together for the rest of the afternoon and then returned to town in Ransome's beautiful Bentley car. Not only that, but that same night Ransome stood a sumptuous dinner at the Rialto, with more champagne.
Discarding all his snobbishness, Ransome turned out to be a very pleasant companion. He could not have been more friendlily disposed towards Ransome, and was eager they should go to Kempton Park together upon the following Saturday. Accordingly he called for Robert then and drove him down. With their two heads together, though Robert mentioned nothing about his system, they managed to pick two winners. Ransome swore Robert had brought him luck and continued to be more grateful than ever. Very soon, too, he had an added reason for feeling grateful towards his newly-made friend.
One afternoon he got into an altercation at Hurst Park with a man who was roughly pushing everyone out of his way to get close up to the rails to watch the start of a race; the man threatened to punch Ransome's head, and looked like starting upon the business, too. The fellow was big and burly, and Ransome, being on the small side and of slight physique, would have stood little chance if the dispute had actually come to blows.
However, Robert at once interfered and, to the delight of the crowd, without the slightest hesitation, with a sharp push, sent the man sprawling on to the ground. The fellow sprang up in a blaze of fury and for the moment it looked as if a fight would ensue, but seeing Robert standing calm and contemptuous, and, apparently, in the poise of a well-seasoned boxer quite ready for anything that might happen, the man at once calmed down and walked muttering away.
After that afternoon, whenever Ransome was in town upon any Saturday, it became the usual thing for him to call for Robert and drive him down to any race-meeting that was on. With any luck, too, the day invariably ended with a dinner at some expensive restaurant or at Ransome's hotel, with Ransome always, as a favour, insisting upon paying.
Then came a moment of great triumph for Robert, and he had difficulty in suppressing the exaltation he felt. Ransome invited him to join the house-party his parents were giving for the racing of the Goodwood week. Their place, Waltham Chase, was not far from the race-course and, as they were one of the best county families and reputed to be very wealthy, Robert knew he would meet some of the tip-top Society people there. He expected, too, there would be some knowledgeable racing men among the other guests, with the chances in consequence being quite good for some nice winners.
He accepted the invitation with what he thought was just the right amount of enthusiasm and, accordingly, with the house-party starting on that day, one Saturday morning Ransome drove him down into Hampshire.
"As with most people now who've got any dough," confided Ransome on the way down, "my dad's living on his capital. The blasted taxes prevent anyone having a good time on his income, but Dad says he's going to have a bit of comfort as long as he's able to enjoy it."
And certainly Robert found the elder Ransome's idea of a bit of comfort was the best of everything money could buy. The Chase, standing in a big park of several hundreds of acres, was an old Elizabethan mansion, but in the course of time it had been much added to and modernised, no expense apparently having been spared. Its furnishings and appointments were on a lavish scale and, when Robert was shown into his room, with its beautiful tiled bathroom en suite, he could not help feeling a little awed.
He had learnt from Ransome that some thirty guests were expected and, reaching the Chase in time for luncheon, he found a number of them already arrived, including a few elderly people and a good sprinkling of pretty girls.
The afternoon turned out to be wet and cold, and it was apparent there would be only indoor amusements for that day. When luncheon was over, Ransome's mother, whom Robert found to be a very charming woman and most anxious that all her guests should enjoy themselves, came up and asked him if by any chance he could play chess. When he replied that he did and, indeed, was rather fond of the game, she exclaimed with great relief, "Oh, I'm so glad. I didn't know what to do with old Colonel Roxbury. He is a second cousin of mine and just hates cards. He won't play billiards either. All he cares for is chess."
So Robert was introduced to the colonel, a rather grumpy and frowning old man in the middle sixties, who, from his fiery red face, had all the appearance of not being averse to plenty of alcoholic refreshment. An enthusiastic chess player, once he had got possession of Robert, he was not disposed to let him go, and the games proceeded right up to dinner-time.
Nearly all the invited guests had arrived by then and they sat down, a big party, in the spacious old-world banqueting hall. Robert was thrilled with his surroundings, realising to the full what a mighty power money was in a stricken and impoverished world. Wherever he turned his eyes everything spoke of luxury and comfort; the soft and shaded candle-lights, the beautiful glass and silver, the delicious food and the sparkling wine. Then there was the service, with the butler as dignified and important as a Cabinet Minister, and the army of smartly-dressed maids ready at every moment to anticipate every diner's needs.
He was greatly impressed, too, with the appearance of some of the other guests. They all looked refined and well-bred, and there were some really pretty girls among them. Many of the women were wearing beautiful pieces of jewellery, especially, he noticed, the elder ones.
After dinner when everyone was gathered in the lounge, the old colonel plumped himself down beside him. Robert had seen him imbibing plenty of drink at dinner, but apparently the good wines had had no softening influence and his face was more frowning than ever. A few of the ladies had now got their little pet dogs with them and he commented sneeringly about it.
"No business to bring the smelly little beasts," he scowled, "when they're on a visit. Notice, too, how disgustingly some of the old women have got themselves up, much more even than the young girls." He nudged Robert with his elbow. "See the old bird there, that one by the ebony table?" He crinkled up his face. "What do you think of her?"
Robert looked in the direction he indicated and smiled. The woman he was referring to was decidedly more than elderly, and 'downright ugly' would by no means have been an uncharitable description of her appearance. Yet her dress was cut every bit as low as that of any of the young girls present, exposing a most generous amount of yellow and skinny bosom, upon which was strung a beautiful scintillating emerald necklace. This piece of jewellery, Robert thought, must surely be as valuable as that which any other woman was wearing.
Upon the colonel repeating his question with some irritation at having to ask it twice, Robert said laughingly, "What do I think of her? Well, not much. With that big nose of hers she looks like an old hawk and she shouldn't be wearing such a gorgeous necklace." He grinned. "It only draws attention to what's underneath."
"That's what I think," growled the colonel, "but you'll see she'll be wearing the damned thing every night she's here." He sneered. "The old ninny thinks it gives her sex appeal."
"Well, some of her people ought to tell her it looks bad on her," said Robert. He smiled. "And if she won't take any notice they might hide it away somewhere until we've all gone off again."
The colonel's eyes opened very wide. "Not a bad idea that," he nodded vehemently. "By Jove, no, it isn't."
"Do you know her?" smiled Robert, amused at the old man's decidedly vicious tone.
"Know her!" snarled the colonel. "I damned well ought to, seeing that she's my sister. Her late husband was that old Benjamin Nairne. He had pots of money and was always buying jewellery as an investment," and Robert was most annoyed at having been led to speak his mind so freely.
The next day it had fined up and in the morning the guests were able to have some tennis. The three courts were at the side of the house and protected from the north winds by a high grass bank running their whole length. On the top of the bank were a number of tall trees.
Nearly all the house-party had come out to watch the games, and were seated comfortably upon chairs and forms round the courts. Presently, a player returned a ball very high and, to everyone's amusement, it was seen to have become wedged among the branches of one of the trees upon the bank.
Robert, who was not playing at the moment, at once proceeded to climb the tree to retrieve it and, in doing so, got a good view of the country over the other side of the bank. Having climbed high enough to shake the ball free, as he turned to come down again he happened to catch sight of a man kneeling down at the foot of a big oak tree some couple of hundred yards or so away and, from the clothes and figure, recognised him at once as Colonel Roxbury.
Subconsciously he wondered what the old fellow was doing there, but at the moment the incident did not impress him sufficiently to cause him to mention it to anyone.
The game proceeded, but about a quarter of an hour later a dreadful bombshell burst among the assembled house-party when Mrs. Nairne came running out from the house with the startling news that her beautiful emerald necklace had suddenly disappeared. She was sure, she cried, that it had been stolen.
Everyone at once stopped playing and crowded round her to learn how it had happened, but she was so hysterical that it was some minutes before she could explain coherently.
Then it appeared she had been alone in her room, polishing up some pieces of her jewellery, and she had just finished the necklace and replaced it in its case, when she went into the adjoining bathroom to wash her hands.
She could not have been gone three minutes, she went on, when returning to her bedroom, she knew instantly that someone had been there in her absence, as the door was ajar and she was positive she had left it closed.
Added to that, one of her shoes was out upon the carpet in the middle of the room and—she almost choked in her distress here—the case with the emerald necklace had gone!
Mrs. Ransome spoke up at once. "But you must have made a mistake, Clara," she said sharply. "Who would want to take your necklace?"
"I don't know," wailed Mrs. Nairne, "but it's gone. Someone must have come in and taken it. We've searched everywhere and it isn't to be found."
"Who's we?" asked Mrs. Ransome, now beginning to look most uncomfortable.
"Your housekeeper and my own maid," was the tearful reply. "I rang for my maid at once and she fetched Mrs. James. We looked in every possible place, but there were no signs of it." She gulped down a big breath and added hesitatingly, "I am afraid one of your servants must have come in and taken it."
"Nonsense!" exclaimed Mrs. Ransome almost angrily now. "All my servants are perfectly honest and I know they'd never interfere with anything."
"Well, someone's taken it," insisted Mrs. Nairne, her tone taking on a note of anger, too, "and we mustn't lose a moment before calling in the police."
Mrs. Ransome had calmed down, and spoke persuasively, as if speaking to a little child. "I don't believe there'll be any need for that, dear," she said. "Come up with me now and we'll find it somewhere," and linking her arm in that of Mrs. Nairne, she started to lead her back to the house.
A sudden interruption, however, came from Colonel Roxbury, who had been listening open-mouthed to everything that had been said. "Here, you just wait a moment," he called out, "I can tell you what happened. I know who's taken it."
Instantly, all eyes were turned upon the colonel in amazement and it was evident from his broad smile that he was enjoying the sensation he had created. "Yes," he went on with a grin, "I saw the thief going off with it only a few minutes ago, but it wasn't one of the servants or one of us either." He chuckled. "It was a four-legged thief, one of those damned dogs the ladies have brought down here. I saw him going off with it through the hall door as I was sitting in the lounge, about a quarter of an hour ago."
The intense relief of everyone was apparent and, from anxiety, Mrs. Ransome's face became at once all smiles. "There you are, Clara," she exclaimed brightly. "I knew the mystery would be cleared up. Now we understand why one of your shoes was on the carpet in the middle of the room. Little dogs always go for shoes."
"But where's the necklace now?" almost shrieked Mrs. Nairne. "Didn't you take the case from him, Thomas?"
"Take it from him?" queried her brother, as if very surprised at being asked such a question. He shook his head. "No, not I. I didn't know what he was carrying in his mouth. I thought it was a bone."
"But the case wouldn't have looked like a bone," cried Mrs. Nairne furiously. "It's a green colour and oblong shaped."
"Just so," nodded the colonel, "and now I know what's missing, I remember it did look something like that."
"Oh, you fool, Thomas," snarled his sister. "Tell us at once where he took it."
Her brother shrugged his shoulders. "I can't," he said irritably. "I didn't follow him out. I just remained on sitting in the lounge."
"But whose dog was it?" asked Mrs. Ransome.
"Don't know that, either," replied the colonel. "All the little brutes look the same to me."
"Well, all the five dogs are here now," said Mrs. Ransome after a quick look round. "So whichever one took it can't have been away long. He'll have dropped the case close by."
"Oh, I don't know so much about that," remarked the colonel unpleasantly. "He was going pretty fast as he went out of the door."
Robert was choking back his amusement, quite certain it was all a trumped-up story about any dog having run off with the case.
Of course, it was the case itself the colonel had been hiding when he was kneeling down at the foot of that big tree. He had adopted his, Robert's, suggestion, and was intending to give his sister a good fright, as well as prevent her wearing the necklace during the rest of her stay.
Robert tried to catch the old man's eye and exchange a couple of knowing winks with him, but, a startling idea having come into his mind, he was immediately relieved that the colonel would not look his way.
His heart beat quickly at the possibilities which, all in a flash, he saw might now lie before him. What if he got hold of the jewel-case and hid it away in a different place where only he could find it again? Then later, when it was quite safe for him to do so, he could pick it up and have a ready-made fortune in his hands! What a glorious souvenir it would be! The old woman would not miss it much, either. She had plenty more jewellery to deck her skinny old body with, and she should remember she wouldn't be having any of it at all if he, and others like him, hadn't fought to keep the Hun away! They would have taken everything if they had only got to England! No, it wouldn't be a very wrong thing after all if he helped himself to some reward from one who could very well afford to give it!
In the meantime, no one for one moment doubting the colonel's story, the tennis was abandoned and everyone joined in a rigorous search all over the grounds adjacent to the house. They were confidently expecting the dog would have just dropped it somewhere so that it would be lying naked to the eye. However, as the case was of the same colour as that of the grass, they knew they would have to be very careful not to pass it over.
No success being at once forthcoming, the search was broken off for lunch, but resumed directly after the meal and continued all the afternoon. By then, nothing still happening, everyone was becoming disheartened, believing that either the little dog had carried the case on to the high road where it had been picked up by some dishonest person or, as an alternative, that he had dropped it into the River Arun which flowed through the grounds about half a mile away.
Mrs. Nairne kept on reiterating her demand that the police should be called in at once, but, to the great relief of everyone, because of the scandal that would have ensued, her brother would not hear of it.
"Don't be so silly, Clara," he insisted angrily. "If the police do come—what can they do more than we are doing now? No, we'll have another look round to-morrow. We're certain to pick it up somewhere if we keep on searching."
All the afternoon Robert had given the colonel a wide berth, fearful that he might want to let him into the joke and so spoil all his, Robert's, plan. However, by dinner-time he realised he need not worry there, as the old man appeared to be studiously avoiding him, evidently intending to have all the fun for himself.
Determined to lose no time in getting hold of the necklace, directly dinner was over and before any of the amusements of the evening had been started, Robert slipped out of the house. There was no moon showing, but by the light of the stars he had no difficulty in picking out the tree he wanted. Its gnarled roots were well exposed and, thrusting his arm among them, his heart beat tremulously as his hand came in contact with a small, hard object. There was no doubt what it was and, wrapped round in a piece of brown paper, there had been no attempt to bury it under the earth.
During the afternoon when searching with the others he had carefully considered where the new hiding-place should be, and had picked out a little rustic bridge spanning a small stream which emptied itself into the river farther down. It was quite a quarter of a mile from the house and had the added advantage that it was not visible from any of the windows.
He was thinking well ahead there, of the time when he would come to retrieve it. Certainly he would not dare to take it away with him, when, with the house-party ended, he would be leaving the Chase. Rather, he would wait weeks, and perhaps even months, and then come back one night and get it. Playing for such a high stake, he must not be the least bit impatient.
Hastening to the little bridge he had marked down in the afternoon, he thrust the packet well down under the supporting planking upon the bank of the stream, and wedged it in tightly there with some stones. However heavily any rains might fall, he was confident it would not get wet. Back in the house, he heaved a big sigh of relief that the worst of the adventure was over, and that he was quite safe.
The search was resumed the next morning, though it was obvious that hopes of success had now completely gone, with everyone sick of the whole business. Mrs. Nairne, however, looking as miserable as if she were going to be hanged, pleaded plaintively with them to go on. Her brother seemed to derive intense amusement in watching her wandering here, there and everywhere, hardly ever lifting her eyes from the ground.
"Don't you be such a worry-mutton, Clara," he laughed. "You'll get it back right enough. Most probably the dog will bring it back himself in the end. He knows where he has hidden it and, sooner or later, will dig it up like one of his buried bones."
Mrs. Nairne was not, however, to be comforted and, when she showed signs of hysterics at lunch, her host became desperate. So, in spite of all the colonel's protests, he drove into Chichester and brought back the Superintendent of Police with him.
The superintendent listened attentively to the whole story and, after questioning the colonel with some sharpness, gave it as his opinion that the first routine thing to be done now was to search the luggage of all the guests and the boxes of all the servants. To this, however, again because of the scandal, Mrs. Ransome was very averse, and she was most strongly backed up there by Colonel Roxbury, the latter stating angrily that he would rather buy his sister another necklace of equal value than have such an insult put upon his fellow-guests.
So the matter ended in the superintendent shrugging his shoulders, having two stiff drinks with Mr. Ransome, and then being driven back to Chichester.
Mrs. Nairne had given him a full and lengthy description of almost every stone in the necklace, averring tearfully she had cleaned it so many times that she would be able to recognise each particular emerald even if it were taken out of its setting. She valued the whole necklace at over £5,000, and the superintendent had assured her steps would at once be taken to catch anyone who might try to sell it. All pawnbrokers and dealers in precious stones would have received warning within forty-eight hours.
The succeeding days were most enjoyable ones for Robert. Thanks to three good winners given to the house-party by an owner among them, he came out well on the right side of the racing. Added to that, he was in a continual state of thrill at the very thought of the fortune which lay ready to his hand whenever it was perfectly safe to take it. He refused resolutely to let his conscience trouble him.
The colonel was giving him a lot of amusement. The old man seemed to have lost most of his grumpiness and was merry and full of jokes. While all the others wanted to abstain from talking about the missing necklace, he kept on bringing the matter up, always confidently predicting that it would be found before the house-party broke up.
He continued to annoy everyone by his tactlessness until the very moment when, upon the Thursday morning, the last day but one of the races, he saw them all start off for the race-course. Pleading that he felt an attack of lumbago pending, he was not going with them, but wished them all good luck and stood waving cheerfully as the cars drove away.
When they all returned home late in the afternoon, however, somewhat to his uneasiness, Robert instantly perceived that a great change had come over the practical joker. He looked very worried, and as if he were feeling really ill. He had no more jokes in him, either, and was grumpy and did not want to talk. The others noticed something wrong, too, but putting it down to the lumbago, suggested various remedies, which suggestions, however, were received most ungraciously by the sufferer.
At dinner, with the colonel hardly eating anything and, contrary to his usual habit, entering into none of the conversation, Robert began to feel rather scared. Of course he guessed what had happened.
The old man, undoubtedly with the intention of having the necklace found in some way or other, had gone to its hiding-place to get it and discovered to his horror that it was no longer there.
So what, Robert asked himself rather palpitatingly, was going to happen now? If the colonel's conscience forced him to confess what he had done, it might possibly be recalled by someone that about the very time when the necklace was being hidden, he, Robert, had been up in the branches of that tree shaking down the tennis ball and, in consequence, in a splendid position to see exactly where the hiding-place had been.
So he might, not unreasonably, become suspected and though, of course, nothing could ever be proved against him as long as he never attempted to get the necklace into his possession—what good would that be to him?
He must come for it some day and, when he did, if by any chance someone who knew him by sight, one of the many servants of the Chase for instance, reported his having been in the neighbourhood—why, detectives might be put upon his tracks at once, his flat might be searched and he might be caught, as it were, red-handed, with the necklace in his possession.
Yes, certainly the position was disturbing, with unpleasant possibilities of danger!
However, as that evening passed and the next day as well, with the colonel saying nothing and continuing to look in the very depths of depression, Robert began to feel fairly safe again. The loss of the necklace had caused everyone, and particularly, of course, the host and hostess, so much anxiety that it was evident the old man dared not face the telling of what he had done. He must be realising so clearly that if he made a clean breast of his cruel practical joke he would be roundly condemned by everyone, and stigmatised as being anything but an officer and a gentleman.
The house-party broke up on the Saturday, with Robert bidding a long good-bye to young Ransome, as the latter was going shortly to the United States on a visit to some relatives, and might be away a whole year.
Robert was rather sorry about that, as he had been hoping to hear through him of any further news there might be as to how Mrs. Nairne was continuing to take the loss of her necklace. Naturally, any wide publicity of its disappearance would make it more dangerous to dispose of, and he devoutly hoped no reward was going to be offered for its recovery.
As it happened, his fears as to publicity were quickly realised and, moreover, in a fashion that he saw was going to make things much more awkward for him than the mere offering of a reward. Somehow, a Sunday newspaper came to learn all that had taken place, undoubtedly, Robert surmised, through one of the servants in the Chase, and in its next issue made a most interesting story about it.
It was headed, "Good Win in Goodwood Week," and went on to detail how a little Pekinese dog had 'struck it lucky' at a certain fashionable house-party by going off with more than £5,000 in his mouth. It pictured the dreadful consternation of the house-party, their frantic searching in the grounds round the house, and with its lack of success, their probable uncomfortable suspicions of one another.
Altogether, it was a snappy little story which Robert had sense enough to realise would linger in people's memories for far longer than the mere offering of any reward. He scowled angrily. Now he would have to wait for months, perhaps even for years, before he would dare to attempt to dispose of his booty. Also, it would have to be a long time, and not just the couple of weeks or so he had intended, before it would be reasonably safe to steal back to that little rustic bridge and obtain possession of it.
About a week after the article appeared in the newspapers he had a letter from Ransome, just when the latter was upon the eve of sailing for the U.S.A. It was half a cursing letter and half a very amused one.
The grounds of the Chase, he wrote, were now worse than Hampstead Heath upon a Bank Holiday, with scores of trespassers climbing over the fence to chance their luck of finding the necklace! They came by night as well as by day, and after dark one could pick up the flashes of hundreds of little electric torches all over the grounds! The 'Guv'nor' was furious, and hurrying down from town a couple of fierce Alsatian dogs to put a stop to the prowlers! There might be sudden death for some of them pretty soon!
Robert had to laugh as he read the letter, but for all that he didn't quite like the thought of the crowd of searchers about, thinking it quite possible one of them by a lucky chance might happen to poke a stick under the planking of that little bridge. However, he sighed, he could do nothing.
Three months went by, with Robert still working upon his system, though by no means very happily now. Something seemed to have gone wrong with the beautiful machine he had built up with such care, and the wheels were no longer turning smoothly.
The great turf prophets seemed to have lost their punch and were not coming out true to label. Their winning selections were far between and, even when they did crop up, their prices were so poor that they by no means made up for the preceding losses.
Thus, with financial troubles looming up so very close, he became very worried, with his thoughts turning more and more to that little handful of green stones which held out to him such a rich and tempting prospect of easy salvation.
Now regarding the necklace as his own property, he thought disgustedly that he did not even know of how many stones it consisted. Indeed, he had only a very hazy idea of what the whole necklace looked like, as he had only seen it in that one cursory glance he had given when the old colonel had called his attention to its wearer, across the whole width of the big lounge.
Brooding so much about it, in time it became an obsession with him to get it into his possession as speedily as possible. Even if he did not at once try to sell any part of it, it would be a great thrill for him to hold it in his hands. He wanted to feel how heavy it was and see its stones flashing back the light. He wanted to realise such a fortune was already his.
He had long since to some extent mapped out how he would realise upon his booty. Not in his wildest dreams did he ever think of selling it as it was. Instead, he would pick out the emeralds and sell them one by one to different jewellers. It would be so easy to make up some sort of plausible tale about the one stone he was now selling as having come out of a ring belonging to some long-dead relation of his, and surely no one, he told himself, would be likely to be suspicious about a single stone.
With these last thoughts so often recurring to his mind, when his money was down to a little over £50, quite confident that the selling of even one emerald would put him on his feet again, he decided to wait no longer, but to go down into Hampshire with no further delay and put his good fortune to the test.
Accordingly, upon one unusually warm and pleasant day, for the end of November, he set off on a hired push-bicycle upon what he described to himself as the second phase of his great adventure.
BY nature painstaking, particularly when he was doing anything for himself, his commando training had impressed upon Robert to leave as little as possible to chance in all his undertakings, and that afternoon, when he was bicycling over the beautiful Hindhead country, he was confident he had got all his plans down to a nicety.
One thing only was not pleasing him. The bicycle had turned out to be something of an old crock, but it was the best one the man at the shop would let out on hire, even then making him deposit the full selling price of the machine, with the arrangement that when he returned it he would get all the money back, less ten shillings a day for the hire.
Not having been on a push-bicycle since his schooldays, he had resolved not to give himself too hard a ride and so, with his machine in the guard's van, he had taken the train as far as Guildford. From there he reckoned he would have little less than twenty miles to go before reaching the fencing enclosing the grounds of the Chase.
From his Ordnance map he had picked out about where he was going to climb over, in a little side lane some couple of hundred yards or so off the main road. However, he was not going straight there, but, instead, was intending to break his journey at the little village of Horton, about a mile distant from the lane. There he would have some sort of meal and wait until darkness had just fallen. A half-moon would be showing and he felt pretty confident he would be able to make a bee-line for the rustic bridge with no difficulty.
He was a little bit uneasy at the thought that he would be seen in daylight so near to the Chase. However, he knew the village at which he was going to stop was not generally patronised by the Ransome family or the staff, as there was a larger and much nearer one in the other direction. Still, he was taking a few precautions there, and with a raincoat buttoned up to his chin and a cap pulled down well over his eyes, was fairly confident he would escape recognition if any of the domestics did happen to see him. Another thing, he had purposely not shaved that morning, as he thought to make himself look common and uninteresting.
When but a short distance out of Guildford he was glad his ride was going to be a short one, as the bicycle became more uncomfortable with every mile he covered. The saddle was not at all to his liking, and he blamed himself many times that he had not made a try-out of the machine before he had hired it. Altogether, his progress was much slower than he had intended, with the result that he arrived at the village he had marked out a good half-hour later than he should have done. The village was certainly a small one, consisting only of a few straggling houses, one general shop, a little inn and a petrol service station and garage.
Two burly-looking men in bowler hats, one of them more than usually stout, were standing outside the inn as he rode up and parked his bicycle against the wall, and he noted they favoured him with hard stares before following him into the bar. Two labouring men were drinking there.
Arranging with the landlord for a pot of tea, tomatoes on toast and some bread and butter, he sat down to a mug of beer to wait until the meal was ready. The two men in the bowler hats proceeded to refresh themselves with beer, too, quickly downing a couple of pots as they conversed in low tones together. The labourers eyed them interestedly, seemingly disappointed that they finished their drinks so quickly and left the bar. Then one of them winked knowingly at his companion.
"'Tecs from London," he said laconically. "Inspectors from Scotland Yard."
"How do you know that?" asked the other.
"Young Harry at the garage told me," was the reply. "He took a squint at the driving licence in one of the pockets of the car."
For some reason he could not account for, Robert felt uneasy. What the devil were detectives doing in a little place like this?
To his relief, however, he was immediately to learn that, as the labourer who had first spoken went on, "Their petrol tank's leaking and Harry's soldering it up for them. They cursed like hell when he said it wouldn't be ready much before eight o'clock."
A minute or two later the landlord called to Robert that his tea was ready, but to his great annoyance he was shown into a small parlour where the two detectives had already started upon a meal.
"Good afternoon!" remarked the stout one pleasantly, and Robert had to reply. Indeed, both the room and the table were so small that, unless he had been downright rude, he could not have refused to take any notice.
"Had a long ride?" went on the detective.
"Not far," replied Robert, and he added carelessly, mentioning the first place that came into his mind, "only from Hastings."
"Oh, I call that a good way," smiled the other. "Anyhow, you've been lucky with weather, as it looks a bit like rain now. Got much farther to go?"
"Only to Horsham," replied Robert, cursing at being questioned, but putting it down to the natural curiosity of a policeman who probably wouldn't be happy unless he was asking something of somebody.
"Well, I hate cycling," said the man. "Haven't been on a bike since I was a boy."
"I like it," said Robert coldly, "and do quite a lot."
"We're motoring," went on the detective confidingly, "but, worse luck, have struck a spot of trouble here and"—he jerked his thumb in the direction in which the garage lay—"it'll take him a couple of hours, and perhaps longer, to put it right. Our petrol tank's leaking." He yawned. "Damned little uninteresting village this, although the country looks nice. We're thinking of taking a little walk after tea to fill in the time. So do you happen to know anywhere interesting to go to?" He laughed. "We don't want views, but'd like to get a nut or two. There ought to be plenty about in these lanes."
Robert shook his head. "Don't know the district," he said. "Never been here before."
The conversation languished. He hurried through his meal so as to finish before they did, being not particularly anxious they should see in which way he was going. Bidding them good evening, he paid for his meal and, mounting his bicycle, proceeded to ride leisurely away.
Directly he had left the room, the stout one at once remarked to the other with a frown, "Queer young chap, that, Sam! Something fishy about him to me!"
"Surly young cub!" frowned Sam. "At seeing us when he came in here he looked as uneasy as if he were bolting with a cash-box. He didn't like your asking him those questions about himself, either, Charlie."
"Exactly," replied Charlie. "And that was a pack of lies he told us about being such an ardent cyclist and all that. Why, when he rode up here on that old bike I saw the saddle was miles too high for him, and yet he didn't seem to know it. It looked to me as if he hadn't done any riding for years, and he wasn't dressed now for long cycling, either, with ordinary trousers tucked into his socks."
"Then you don't think he's come all that way from Hastings, as he said he had?"
"No, I don't," scoffed Charlie. "He's on no tour, as he wanted to make out. He's only got a little brown paper parcel on his carrier!"
"But what did he mean by lying to us?" asked Sam.
"That's what I'd like to know," growled the other. "He's doing something he shouldn't, of that I'm certain."
Sam looked amused. "You're too imaginative, old man," was his comment. "You always are." He laughed merrily. "Come on! Let's have another quick one before we toddle out for our little walk."
Proceeding more quickly when he was out of sight of the inn, Robert soon found the little lane he was looking for, much closer than he liked to the village where he'd had his tea, indeed much less than a mile away. It was long and narrow, with one side bordered by the fence round the Chase grounds and the other by a tall and thick hedge. He frowned when he could find nowhere to put his bicycle out of sight of anyone who might happen to pass along, but thought it wouldn't matter, as, from its appearance, the lane did not lead to anywhere important, and the chances were no one would be using it at that time of the evening. So he just laid his machine down by the shallow little ditch running the whole length of the lane and, with no delay, started to climb the fence.
The wood of the fence was rotten and he broke off a couple of the tops of the palings in getting over. Then, for a long minute he stood motionless, trying to pick up his bearings; soon, however, he realised it was not going to be as easy as he had thought.
For about ten yards skirting the fence the ground was all cleared of bushes and trees, but beyond that he was faced with the beginning of a dense wood. A few feet above the ground the branches of the trees interlocked, giving to the whole place so gloomy and forbidding an appearance that had he been of a nervous nature he might have felt scared by his surroundings. He had never been in that part of the Chase grounds before, and now began to feel troubled about the light. Certainly there was a bit of a moon showing, but it was hazy-looking, and, as that policeman had prophesied, rain was not far away. With the moon hidden by clouds, things might become very awkward.
However, he did not hesitate long, and proceeded to plunge boldly into the wood. For a couple of hundred yards or so he had to pick his way carefully and then, to his delight, the wood ended abruptly, and he realised it was only a belt of trees he had been passing through.
Before him now stretched a wide vista of park-like land, with only a few big trees scattered about here and there. He was able now to pick up the lights of the big house which he judged to be about a mile away.
Walking quickly forward, he soon found the little stream, and knew exactly where he was. The rustic bridge was now visible, about half-way between him and the house. His heart began to pump painfully. He was so near now to the object of all his hopes!
Very soon there was nothing but a stretch of the park-like land with three big trees between him and the bridge, and he was just quickening his pace in his eagerness, when, to his horror, he thought he saw a figure flitting between the trees. He was not quite certain, but on the instant he threw himself down and faded into the ground.
A minute passed, two, and then, thinking he must have been mistaken, he rose slowly to his feet and started to walk forward again. With his first step, however, not one but two figures darted from behind the trees and raced, as if for their very lives, in the direction opposite to that in which he was coming.
A furious curse was hovering upon his lips, but he did not have time to utter it, before his face cleared and broke into a relieved and delighted smile.
The fugitives were young boys and closely followed by a lurcher-looking dog who, even at that distance, showed by his running that he came of greyhound strain.
"Poachers!" exclaimed Robert, hoarse in his relief. "But, by hell, they gave me a shock!"
In less than a minute he had reached the bridge and, almost suffocated in his excitement, was starting to grope under the planking of the little bridge. The stones with which he had blocked up his hiding-place were exactly as he had left them and evidently nothing had been disturbed. Lying prone upon the ground, he thrust in his arm up to the elbow and swept it round.
There was nothing there!
For the moment, such was his consternation that he could not take it in. Then his mouth grew dry, his breath came in laboured gasps and his whole body shook from his palpitating heart.
But it must be there! With the stones undisturbed as they had been, it was a million million chances against anyone having found the hiding-place! Then what had happened that the jewel-case was no longer there? It couldn't have been washed out by the stream having risen at some time, as there was no opening big enough to let it pass. Besides, no water could have ever reached there, as the hiding-place was as dry as a bone!
In frenzied haste he pushed up his coat sleeve as far as it would go and, this time, thrust his whole arm under the planking. He could reach now to the cross-beams of the bridge and his hand swept round and round in every corner.
"Nothing, nothing!" he breathed hoarsely, and then his fingers felt something peculiar that he knew was not dust or leaves. He grabbed a handful and, withdrawing his arm, found himself gazing blankly at some very finely-shredded morsels of dark paper mixed with something else of a much softer nature.
He stared and stared and then, as in a sudden flash, it came to him what it meant. "Hell, the paper it was wrapped in," he exclaimed, "and the leather for the jewel-case! Some animal has had its nest here."
With all his hopes instantaneously revived, thoughts came to him like lightning. He must prise up the planking of the bridge! The necklace would be somewhere there, unharmed but buried in the dust!
He looked round for something to use as a lever and, snatching up a fallen branch of a tree, jumped down into the half-dry bed of the little stream to see if he could more easily shift the planking from underneath.
And at that moment he heard in the far distance the baying of a hound.
The sweat burst out upon his forehead as, motionless as a graven image, he stood straining his ears to determine from which direction the sound came.
God—it might be the baying of one of those Alsatians! But it might be, also, that he was chained up in his kennel!
The baying was not repeated and he shook off his fears. Bah—he was in the mood now to take the very worst of risks, and if the damned dog came to tackle him he'd settle the brute quick and lively with this stick! If he were off a leash he'd arrive much quicker than his keeper and could easily be dealt with alone!
Once well below the bank of the little stream, he flashed a little torch to see if he could get the end of the branch anywhere between the planks of the bridge underneath, and quickly found the place he wanted. Suddenly, however, his eyes fell upon something hanging down from the crack where he was going to insert his lever—and his eyes boggled in amazement. Once again he was frozen into a startled immobility.
Right before his very eyes, strung upon what appeared to be a length of twisted wire, were dangling down some five or six pieces of what looked like glass broken from a green bottle. Even with the caked dirt with which they were in part covered, he could yet see that their colour was green and, as the wire to which they were attached swung gently to and fro in the wind, every now and then they flashed back the rays from his torch.
Oh heavens—it was the necklace!
With hands that shook far more than they had ever shaken in the worst of dreadful moments before impending battle, he reached up and took hold of it, drawing it very gently through the space between the planks.
The whole length came easily into his hands and, even at that moment of nerve-racking crisis, with the thought that the baying hound might now be hot upon his trail, he stopped to count the number of the stones. One and twenty, he counted and, from the weight of the necklace, he knew the setting must be of platinum.
With a muffled cry of triumph he awoke to action, and his movements were like lightning. Thrusting the necklace deep down into the breast pocket of his jacket, he sprang up out of the bed of the stream and was off like the wind, laughing almost hysterically with every step he took.
Gaining the trees behind which the poaching boys had been hiding, he almost stumbled over a dead rabbit lying on the grass, and he grabbed it up as he went by. "Better and better," he chuckled happily. "It's a nice fat one and the old woman shall cook it for me to-morrow."
Proceeding at a quick run, he soon reached the belt of trees surrounding the grounds, but then had to pull up to consider, not being able to pick up the exact place from where he had first come out of the wood. Hearing, however, the baying of the hound again, and this time much nearer, he chanced it and plunged in among the trees.
As he anticipated, the fence was not far away and he soon emerged into the cleared ground with the fence right in front of him. To his delight, he had miscalculated only to a very small extent, for not a dozen yards to one side he saw the palings whose tops he had broken down when he climbed over. He hurried across and had almost reached them when, in the damp and clinging air of the November night, his nostrils were suddenly assailed with the smell of tobacco smoke.
He pulled up dead in his tracks. There was no doubt about it. It was tobacco smoke, and it meant that someone who had been smoking had very recently passed by, or worse still—a horrible contingency—was just on the other side of the fence where he had left his bicycle.
Creeping cautiously forward, but well away now from the broken palings, he raised himself up on his toes and looked stealthily over into the lane. With difficulty he suppressed a furious oath, for there, not twenty paces from him, were the two detectives from the inn!
They were seated upon the little bank just under the thick hedge, with their mackintoshes spread out on the ground under them; and within arm's length, almost, was his bicycle. They were talking in low voices.
Damnation! By evil chance their walk to look for nuts had brought them to that very lane! Of course, they had recognised his bicycle by the not-too-tidy little brown-paper parcel upon his carrier and now were waiting for him to return! Damnation, again! The two detectives in front of him, and behind—that baying hound with perhaps a gamekeeper accompanying him!
Still, the policemen could really have nothing against him if he climbed boldly over at once and picked up his bicycle. They had no legitimate reason for stopping him. It was no business of theirs what he was doing and he could refuse to answer any questions and tell them to go to hell!
Ah, but that would make him more than ever a marked man to them, and open up horrible possibilities! He realised now that his answers to their questions must already have aroused their suspicions.
So what if, with nothing definite against him, but only out of suspicion, they had a quick warning sent out to all the neighbouring county police stations, stating they had encountered a man upon a bicycle in very suspicious circumstances and suggesting he be hauled up to give an account of himself?
Hell, then, if upon some trumped-up excuse the local police insisted upon searching him, they would find the necklace in his pocket and the whole game would be up at once. The police had long memories, and the broadcast sent out to them about the missing necklace in Goodwood Week would be remembered, and the necklace recognised with no difficulty.
No, no, he must shake off these detectives immediately, and they must not have another opportunity to question him as, if they did, the explanation he would have to invent would almost certainly increase whatever suspicions they had now. He must get away upon his bicycle with the least possible delay, and part company with it the very first moment he could. Then, if those devils in the lane did their worst and started a hue and cry—it would be for a man on a bicycle the county police would be told to look for, and a man without one would not attract their attention.
Still, he must continue to have the use of that bicycle for a short time. He would be helpless without it, as it must carry him to some railway station from where he could train up to town. Yes, his bicycle was his main hope now, but how the deuce could he get it without being brought in contact with the two detectives again?
Once more he heard the baying of the hound, and it came from not very far away now. He thought hard.
Now it might have been that, with danger threatening both in front and behind him, the dreadful position in which he now found himself quickened his wits. Or, again, it might have been that his commando training was still giving good service. At any rate, he did not have to think long, and—patting one of his overcoat pockets as if to make certain he had got in it what he needed—with something of a grin upon his face he darted away for about a hundred yards by the side of the fence and then, with the utmost care to make no noise, climbed over into the lane. The light was very dim and he could only just discern the figures of the detectives in the distance.
Now it was quite true, as Robert had surmised, that only a blind chance had brought the detectives that way. Sam had no idea it was too late in the year for any nuts to be found, but he remembered that once when a boy upon a Sunday-school excursion into the country he had found plenty in the lanes and, an out-and-out Cockney and giving little heed to seasonal conditions, he supposed they could be found now. Was not Christmas always the right time for nuts and was not Christmas only a few weeks away?
So, with the shifty young cyclist of the inn all forgotten now, they had turned hopefully into that dark and narrow lane as a most likely place for nuts—to their amazement at once coming upon Robert's bicycle lying upon the ground. As Robert had surmised, they recognised it instantly by the little brown-paper parcel on the carrier.
"The devil," exclaimed Charlie, in some excitement, "our young friend! Whew, just as I thought, the young gentleman is up to no good! Now what's he come here for?"
Opening the parcel upon the carrier, they were not much interested in its contents, as it contained only a slab of chocolate, a piece of cheese, a bread roll and a couple of apples. "His luggage for a cycling tour!" scoffed the stout inspector contemptuously. "Obviously it was going to be an extended one!" and he asked again, "What's he come here for?"
Sam was quite ready with various suggestions, from burglary, poaching, to a rendezvous with some girl, but his colleague promptly turned them all down. "Too early in the evening for burglary," he frowned, "and, besides, he's got no kit of tools." He grinned. "How could he break in anywhere with a slab of chocolate and two apples? No, and he's not here for poaching, either. He's not dressed for crawling about in damp woods." He looked very doubtful. "And it's not likely to be a girl, as I noticed the young blackguard hadn't had a shave this morning." He shook his head. "No, I can't imagine for what reason he's come here, but, as we've nearly a couple of hours on our hands, we'll give it a chance and wait for him to come back." He ground his teeth together. "Gad, won't it be a bit of sport to see his face? Going to Horsham, was he, and this lane is right in the opposite direction!" He strode over to the fence. "Look, that's where he got over. The break in those palings looks quite fresh."
The two sat on patiently, with their reward to be the disgusted surprise of the impudent young bounder who had been so off-hand to them at the inn. The stout detective was greatly looking forward to asking him some pertinent questions. "I'll roast him," he snarled, "and find out what he's really up to!"
About three-quarters of an hour went by, with the detectives enjoying their smoke, and then Sam clutched suddenly at the other's arm. "What's that?" he exclaimed. "What's that light? By cripes, he's started a fire up there!"
With widely opened eyes they stared up the lane. Flames were rising on one side from the shallow little ditch and, in the brief seconds before the men woke to action, reached a foot and more high. The two detectives sprang like lightning to their feet and, with a speed hardly to be expected from such heavy-looking men, raced to find out what was happening.
Even, however, as they reached the fire the flames had spent their fury and were fast dying down. All that was now left for the detectives to see were the smouldering remains of some sheets of newspaper that had evidently been spread wide open upon the ground.
"What the devil——" began the one called Charlie, but then, turning with the quickness of the strike of a snake to look backwards up the lane, he roared furiously, "Blast, he's diddled us! There he goes!"
Of course it was Robert who was going and, springing up on his bicycle, he did so at a speed that offered no possible hope of his being overtaken.
The detectives realised it was hopeless and, saving their breath, stood with angry faces watching him until he turned the short bend in the lane leading on to the highroad.
Then they turned and looked at each other, with the stout one's heavy face breaking into a highly amused smile. "Cute chap, that!" he exclaimed admiringly. "No country bumpkin there!" He slapped his comrade viciously on the shoulder. "What mugs we were, Sam! Think of us two old stagers letting a boy make suckers of us like that! Fancy that young devil squinting through the fence, seeing us sitting here, and no doubt grinning to himself how he was going to fool us! Bah; it's young curates we ought to be and not policemen!"
Picking up their mackintoshes to walk back to the village, another surprise awaited them, for, wrapped up in Charlie's, they found a dead rabbit.
"Gosh," exclaimed Charlie, regarding Sam with wondering eyes, "he left it for us as a present. Well, I'll be damned! The cheek of him!"
"You can keep my share of it," growled Sam. "I shouldn't wonder if it's not poisoned."
"No, no, it's not poisoned. He wouldn't have had time. It's only just been killed. Feel it. It's quite warm!"
"Then he was only a poacher after all," said Sam disgustedly. "Nothing worse than that?"
His colleague examined the rabbit and then frowned. "I'm not so sure there. This little animal was neither shot nor trapped. It was caught by a dog. See where he's mauled it on its back? Then if he was a poacher where's his dog? No, he's still a mystery, and I'd like very much to lay him by the heels." He nodded. "Now, if you don't want your share of this rabbit I'll take him home to the missus. She'll be darned grateful."
So into the main road again they walked leisurely, with the rabbit dangling at the detective's side. A couple of minutes or so later they were overtaken by a man who had come hurriedly after them. He had a gun over his shoulder and was accompanied by a big Alsatian dog.
"Here you," he called out angrily, "where did you get that rabbit from?"
His tone of voice was so offensive that the detective's answer was curt and brusque. "What's that to do with you?" he countered. "You mind your own business."
"Damn you," shouted the man. He jerked his head in the direction of the Chase fence. "You've been over on to our land. My dog smelt someone had been about, but I was just too late to catch you." His eyes glared. "I'm Mr. Ransome's gamekeeper, as I expect you know."
"We don't know," snapped the detective, "and we don't care two hoots if you are."
"Where did you get that rabbit from?" repeated the man. "I demand to know."
The man's manner was altogether so rude and overbearing that it would have given the detective quite a lot of pleasure to infuriate him as much as he could. However, it had suddenly dawned on him that they were not in the nicest of positions for detective-inspectors attached to Scotland Yard. Newspapers always loved to get hold of a bit of scandal about the police, and some sort of explanation was certainly needed for their being found upon the public highway in the possession of a rabbit which had just been killed. Obviously, they must have acquired it in some unusual way.
So he spoke mildly and with an amused smile. "It's quite simple," he said. "Not five minutes ago, a little way back, we saw a dog chasing the rabbit in the road. He caught it, and I took it away from him. That's all." He held up the rabbit admiringly. "A nice fat one, isn't it? It'll make a good meal for us when we are back in town."
"Where's your dog?" demanded the man truculently.
"Our dog!" exclaimed the detective in apparent surprise. "It wasn't our dog. We haven't got one. We'd never seen the brute before."
"I don't believe you," snapped the gamekeeper, "and so you'll just come along with me to the constable in the village and tell him who you are." He spoke menacingly. "If you don't come quietly, my dog here'll make you. I warn you he's not too good-tempered if I mark anyone to him."
The detective whipped a little automatic from his hip pocket and held it up for the other to see. "You try any tricks, my friend," he said sternly, "and you'll be wanting another dog."
"Ah, gunmen!" exclaimed the gamekeeper in some excitement. "Swell mobsmen from the city!"
"You fool," snarled the detective, "we're detective-inspectors from Scotland Yard," and he took a card out of his pocket and showed it.
The gamekeeper scowled in his disappointment. However, he was impressed. "All right," he said, sourly, "you can keep the rabbit," and he made off without making the slightest of apologies.
"Now we shall have to stick to that story," nodded Charlie. "We'll have to say we took it from a dog." He grinned. "Here, lend me your mac, Sam. I'd better wrap it up before some other nosey-parker comes along."
"You be damned," exclaimed Sam. "You're going to have the rabbit. So use your own mac. You're not going to have mine. I've heard rabbits have got fleas in their fur, and if anyone's going to do any scratching it'll be you and not me. Throw the damned thing away."
"Not I," exclaimed Charlie. "My pride's been wounded by being taken for a poacher and I'm certainly going to have some little compensation to wipe out the insult."
In the meantime Robert was making with all the haste he could for Portsmouth. He had looked up in his pocket time-table that there was an express from there at eight o'clock, with a non-stop run all the way to town, and he reckoned he'd be quite safe if he caught it.
Arriving at the railway station with five and twenty minutes to spare, his way of getting rid of his bicycle could not have been simpler. He just parked it outside the station and left it there, being quite certain some light-fingered gentleman would soon come along and pinch it. Five minutes later, having purchased his ticket for London, he had a peep out and saw the bicycle was still there. Returning again, however, just before the train was due to start, he saw, to his great relief, it was gone.
"Bang goes eight quid," he frowned, "but what's that to five thousand?" and he patted gloatingly the heavy little object in his breast pocket.
IT WAS upon a Monday night that Robert had returned home to his little flat in Ensum Street with the necklace, and in the first flush of his success all prospects seemed rosy ones.
The possession of the necklace was the greatest thrill that he had experienced in all his life, and in the next few days he was never tired of looking at it. With loving care he had cleaned it with a tooth-brush in tepid soapy water, so thoroughly that, so far as he could see, hardly any speck of dirt could be found anywhere in the setting of the stones, and, with a piece of chamois leather, he had spent hours polishing it up.
Then for more long hours he sat with it in his hand just looking at it and gloating over the way its glorious stones gleamed and sparkled and flashed back the light.
In broad daylight he would pull down the blind and, plunging the room in darkness, make play upon them with his small electric torch. The emeralds flickered and danced like little fairy fires, and he would hold his breath in his excitement, almost believing that they gave out actual heat.
Indeed, so enthralled was he with the necklace that, though at all times a man of quick action upon quick decision, he could not bear the thought of tampering with it and detaching the first stone. It seemed to him an act of sacrilege, profaning a sacred thing.
There was nowhere in the three small rooms which comprised his so-called flat that he could hide it and feel assured that a chance thief breaking in would not find it. The very thought that he might lose it making him feel almost ill, he carried it about with him always in a little secret pocket he had made in the lining of his waistcoat, so that with the slightest pressure of his elbow he could feel that it was there.
He was, however, soon to realise that the knowledge it was still upon his person was bringing him no real peace of mind, as, when out walking in the street, that same dreadful fear which had gripped him in the very hour when he had first obtained possession of the necklace was always haunting him. As before, he was terrified that, meeting with an accident, he would be taken to some hospital in an unconscious condition, and the necklace found upon him.
With this possibility always uppermost in his mind and getting worse every time he went out, he very soon became so nervous that, before starting to cross any busy thoroughfare, it became a habit with him to stand hesitating upon the pavement for minutes at a time before rushing precipitately across. The result was that twice he nearly brought about the very catastrophe he was fearing; indeed, upon the second occasion his escape was so narrow that the mudguard of a car actually grazed his leg and tore his trousers.
Returning home very much upset, he realised this state of anxiety could not be allowed to continue any longer, and that he must part with the necklace without any further delay. He would take out the emerald he was going to dispose of and then hide the necklace somewhere where it could not possibly be found by anyone but himself. In case, too, by some evil chance he came under suspicion upon selling the stone, he certainly was not going to let it be the beginning of a trail leading back to the necklace.
So that night he prised out a stone, choosing one at the top of the row, and the next day he buried the necklace at the foot of a tree in Epping Forest. The forest, he thought, was in every way an ideal spot for his purpose. Only twelve miles distant from London and once a Royal Park, it consists of five thousand acres of virgin forest and, though much frequented by summer holiday-makers, in its deepest parts it is so secluded that to all appearances no one ever comes there.
After traversing the forest from end to end and almost from side to side, carefully memorising the exact spot, he buried the necklace about six inches deep exactly six feet from the base of a lordly beech tree. He had well wrapped it round in a piece of rubber ground-sheet and enclosed it in a japanned metal pencil-case.
He sighed deeply when he came away, but was comforted by the thought that no one had been watching him, as the whole time he had been in the forest, it being almost mid-winter, he had not encountered another human being.
The next day being Saturday, he went to the races as usual and, with the probability of soon being in funds again by the sale of the emerald, was in such good spirits that he let himself go and risked £5 upon one of his system selections, to his great delight winning £20 over the race. Greatly daring, he put the whole £20 upon the favourite in the next race, this time picking up £45 and making a profit of £65 on the day.
Fearful of tempting Fate any further, he at once left the race-course, and that evening treated himself to the best dinner he could get at a first-class restaurant.
Now he was under no illusions that the most risky part of his adventure was about to begin. Every day, almost, he had been reading in the newspapers of the wave of crime which was sweeping through the country, of the many robberies taking place and of the activities of the police in running the criminals to earth. So he was quite aware he had no easy task before him to find a market for even his single emerald.
Of course it was a dishonest dealer he must get hold of, a man who would probably only give him half or even a third of the value of the stone as a return for believing any tale that was told and not being too curious. His difficulty now was to find this dishonest man.
However, his substantial win that week-end at the races had given him an idea that he thought might go a long way to solving the difficulty and, accordingly, the Monday morning found him promenading up and down Hatton Garden, interestedly regarding everything and everybody he saw. He was well aware that the Garden was the most important quarter in London for buying and selling precious stones and—he smiled every time he thought about it—he was wanting to get in touch now, not with a rogue, but with an honest dealer.
He stopped at one building and, looking at the list of tenants outside, picked out at random the name 'Reuben Leyden: Diamond Merchant' which, he decided, might be as good as any.
Leyden's office was one of many there, but he found it at once and walked through the open doorway into a largish room. Two girl clerks were there, along with a burly, pugilistic man attendant.
On Robert stating his business, and asking to see Mr. Leyden, the man disappeared into an inner room, in a few minutes, however, returning and motioning to Robert to come in. He followed Robert inside and, after pushing-to the door and not closing it, seated himself down at a small desk in the corner and began busying with some papers. Had Robert only known it, he had an automatic pistol in his hip pocket. The diamond dealer himself was seated behind a big table desk. Of a shrewd and intellectual countenance, he was a small and fragile-looking man getting on in years. He motioned Robert to a chair.
"I want to buy a diamond," said Robert, "but can't pay more than fifty pounds."
"Vot sort of diamond do you vant?" asked Leyden, speaking in a melodious tone of voice with a slight accent.
Robert shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know," he said. "Just some sort of good diamond." He explained. "I don't know anything about them, but I want a diamond that if I try to sell it at any time I shan't lose much. I mean that if I pay you fifty for one, a jeweller would buy it any time of me, say for forty pounds."
Leyden looked doubtful. "But you cannot get mooch of a stone for fifty pounds in dese days. Stones are very costly."
"Well, do the best you can for me," said Robert. He smiled, and tried a little flattery. "I've been recommended to you and told you will not cheat me."
Leyden spoke gravely. "No von is cheated here. I am an honest man. I vill see vot I can do for you for fifty pounds," and rising from his chair, he went round a screen behind his chair, and Robert heard the click of a door opening.
The dealer was gone quite two or three minutes and then returned and reseated himself at his desk. Beckoning to Robert to draw his chair nearer, he tipped a dozen or so of bright stones out of a little roll of tissue paper on to a piece of black velvet and for a short time proceeded to look them over carefully. At length he pushed one to the far end of the velvet. "Now vot about zat?" he asked. "It ees not of the first vater, but it ees good value for fifty pounds."
For the moment Robert was disappointed. It looked so very small compared with the emerald he had got sewed in his waistcoat pocket. "And it is worth fifty pounds?" he asked.
"Oh, yes! I tell you eet is goot value," nodded the dealer. "You would pay more in a shop."
"And if I take it to any shop to sell," went on Robert, "about how much would they pay me?"
Leyden threw out his hands. "Forty pounds, I should say—if they are honest men, and zen zey would sell eet again for sixty pounds. Zat you vill say ees goot profit, but zen zey may have to vait a long time before zey make a sale."
Robert bought the diamond, and his next visit was to a high-class jeweller in Oxford Street. Bringing out his diamond he asked what it would cost to put it in a gold ring for a lady. Upon being told six guineas, he asked how long it would take and frowned when he learnt it would be at least a week.
"But I tell you what I can do, sir," said the jeweller. "If you are not set upon keeping this particular diamond, I can let you have a ring with a stone of the same value and almost exactly like it straightaway."
"Let's look at it," said Robert, and the jeweller, bringing a case of rings from the window, took out one priced sixty-five pounds and handed him a big magnifying glass.
"See, sir," he said, "the stones are almost perfectly identical, of the same size find the same water."
"Are they good stoned?" asked Robert.
"Oh, yes, very good—and there's nothing to choose between them."
"Then if I bought this ring for sixty-five pounds," went on Robert, "and took it in to a pawnbroker to sell, would he give me anything like the same amount?"
The jeweller shook his head smilingly. "No, sir, and you could hardly expect it. In no luxury goods is there such a difference between the buying and selling prices as in precious stones. The profit has to be substantial because the sales are comparatively few and very erratic." He nodded. "But an honest pawnbroker, if you choose to go to one, should certainly give you forty pounds."
"They're not all honest?" suggested Robert.
The jeweller looked scornful. "But by no means so, and the black sheep among them make trade very bad for us jewellers, as the jewel thieves go to them and they are able to sell what they have stolen. With all these jewel robberies about, many people hesitate to buy precious gems."
"But surely," asked Robert, "the pawnbrokers would only buy stolen jewellery in a very small way? They wouldn't know enough to handle the best stuff?"
"Oh, wouldn't they?" laughed the jeweller. "I assure you, sir, there are some of the best and shrewdest judges of precious stones among them and, the more valuable the gems offered, the better they'd be pleased because of the profit they would make." He went on frowningly. "Unhappily, we know for certain that some pawnbrokers trading in little out-of-the-way streets are prepared to pay out thousands of pounds in spot cash at a time if what is offered to them is valuable enough."
"Then they're men of capital then," suggested Robert, "these little men in little sheets?"
The jeweller nodded. "Some of them. For example—until quite recently a certain pawnbroker was trading in a small back street off Clerkenwell. He'd only been there three years and before that worked on the bench of a watchmaker in Houndsditch. So he couldn't have started with very much capital. His shop was in a very poor quarter and anyone would have thought he made his living by lending out shillings upon articles of clothing to very poor people." He spoke impressively. "Well, sir, he died about six months ago and his will was proved at over £70,000. Now what do you think of that?"
Robert thought a lot, but contented himself by asking interestedly: "Hadn't the police ever had anything against him?"
The jeweller shook his head. "Nothing at all, but the police believe now he was a member of a combine, working with a gang."
Robert bought the ring, paying six guineas on the exchange, and thinking the information he had obtained had been well worth every penny of it.
"Now, after two honest men," he nodded to himself, "I must find a dishonest one, and be quite certain about it, too. Really, it's a great game pitting oneself against the law and even more exciting than sticking Boches." He grinned happily. "And it should be a more profitable one, too."
First he doctored the ring up a bit so that it should look worn. He gave it plenty of scratches, rubbed dust from the top of his wardrobe into the setting and, as a final treatment, considerably dulled down the brightness of the gold in the fumes from a stick of burning sulphur he had bought at a chemist's.
Then he commenced his pilgrimage to a number of pawnshops, meeting with receptions which varied at each place. Some pawnbrokers asked no questions at all, while others were much mote curious. There was quite a fair margin of difference in what they were prepared to pay for the ring, the highest offer being £37 10s. By the end of the afternoon he had called at nine shops and had marked down two men as being definitely dishonest, the worst of the two being one of two partners who operated in Pentonville Road.
Before entering the shop he had noted upon the lintel of the door the names of David and Fergus O'Shane, and when he went inside a red-haired man about five and thirty years of age, whom he rightly took for one of the partners, was leaning on the counter reading a newspaper. He looked up at once and regarded Robert intently with smallish eyes of a peculiar reddish-brown colour, set rather close together. Robert thought he looked cunning and bad-tempered, for some reason reminding him of a weasel. However, he spoke in a pleasant, gentle voice.
Robert produced the ring and, upon being asked how much he wanted for it, replied as usual seventy pounds. The man seemed very amused. "A joke!" he exclaimed merrily after he had given a quick glance at the ring through a big magnifying glass. "Seventy pounds! Goodness gracious, I have sold rings with better stones than that for twenty! Come now, I'll give you twenty pounds as diamonds have gone up a little lately."
"Seventy pounds is my price," said Robert firmly, being, however, not a little heartened at the thought that he had certainly found a bad rascal at last.
"Seventy pounds!" reiterated the man, still all smiles. "Why, if I paid you seventy pounds for anything I should want to know all your family history, who are your father and mother, where you live and how you come to have whatever you want to sell for that sum."
"Then if you only paid twenty," smiled back Robert, "you mean you would not have to be so inquisitive."
"No, certainly not," replied the man confidingly. "We all have to make a living, haven't we, and twenty pounds is not such a great matter after all." He changed the subject. "You were in the war, of course?" He shook his head sadly. "No, they wouldn't take me. My old heart's not too good. What were you in?"
"I was a commando," nodded Robert. "Dieppe! All over the place!"
"Lucky chap!" exclaimed the pawnbroker enviously. "Plenty of souvenirs, I'll bet!" He looked knowing.
They chatted friendlily together for a few minutes and then the pawnbroker returned again to the matter of the ring. "Tell you what," he said. "I'll stretch a point and give you five fivers. You won't? But Bible oath that's all it's worth. Come on then—say £27 10s. I'll not go a penny more."
Robert shook his head. "Fifty-five pounds is what I want," he said firmly. "I won't sell it for a penny less."
With a pretended sigh the pawnbroker handed the ring back. "Very well, young man," he said, "and now I suppose you'll be trying someone else. But if they don't raise my offer, then bring it back to me, will you?"
"To be sure I will," said Robert heartily.
"And if at any time you should have something else you want to get rid of," went on the pawnbroker, "give me the first chance of a deal. I'm Fergus O'Shane, of this firm, and"—he winked slyly—"am not too fussy about asking questions with people I feel I can trust. See? You just come to me." And Robert did see with much relief, as he was sure he had found the dishonest man he was wanting.
The pawnbroker for his part had summed Robert up at once as a man of a bold, adventurous nature who might perhaps have done plenty of 'souvineering' on the quiet, and instinct, if indeed he had had nothing else to go upon, had told Robert the pawnbroker was a rogue.
Of set purpose, Robert kept away from him for two days and then, on the third, walking smilingly into the shop, greeted him cordially as an old friend. On his side, the pawnbroker appeared most affable, too.
"Now, I've got something very good this time," said Robert, choking down as successfully as he could a quite natural nervousness at the realisation that the climax to his adventure had at last come, "but it may be too big for you to handle."
The pawnbroker looked amused. "Well, at the present moment," he lied, "we happen to have upwards of £5,000 in our safe here, and that should go a long way to paying for anything you have to sell. Show me what you've got."
"But wait a minute," said Robert warningly. He gave the pawnbroker a hard look. "The other day you were too miserly about that ring. I got £7 10s. more than you offered from a man in Soho. He paid me thirty-five pounds."
The pawnbroker looked pained. "I would have given you that at once," he said earnestly, "if I had thought you would have taken it. In fact I might even have sprung a few quid more." He shrugged his shoulders. "But you put me off any further bargaining by saying you wouldn't take less than fifty-five. I thought it was waste of breath going on." His face took on a cunning look. "Still, if I didn't satisfy you then—why do you come to me now?"
Robert had his answer ready. "Because what I am going to show you now has not paid probate. It belonged to my uncle and we didn't disclose he had left it."
"Another dead 'un," smiled the pawnbroker, "but this time it's an uncle. It's generally a mother or an aunt! Well, come on, let's see what you've got."
Robert produced the emerald and watched the other's face very intently as he handed it over the counter. The pawnbroker's face, however, was without any expression. On the instant he had drawn it in tightly.
"Now, I know that's very valuable," went on Robert, "because my uncle always regarded it as the best thing he had. Jewellery was one of his hobbies and he was a good judge. He bought it in Colombo upwards of twenty years ago and it came out of a ring."
"Rather big for a ring, isn't it?" suggested the pawnbroker slyly, and he searched Robert's face with one of his weasel-like intent looks.
Robert shook his head. "I don't know. I never saw it in a ring, but my uncle told me it came from one. The setting had got loose and he had taken it out in case it fell out and was lost." He frowned. "You can't make out it isn't a good stone."
"I don't intend to," said the pawnbroker. "I'll just take it inside for a minute or two." He laughed. "No, don't you run away. I'm not going to ring up the police. I'm only going to weigh it and all that. I shan't be long."
He disappeared into an inner room and was gone for several minutes. Then he came back with something of a frown upon his face.
"Quite a good stone," he said, "but it's not perfect. There's a slight chip at one corner and it's got an internal crack at one side," and he handed over a large magnifying glass so that Robert could examine the emerald with it. Under the strong glass Robert saw the chip quite plainly and wondered if he had done it, getting it out from the setting. He had heard emeralds were nothing like as hard as diamonds.
"Well, what do you want for it?" asked the pawnbroker, after Robert had had a good look.
Now Robert had priced the emerald to be worth about £250. In the preceding days since he had brought home the necklace he had spent many hours and walked many miles in looking in the windows of jewellers' shops, and was quite sure his reckoning of £250 was not far out. He had seen many articles of jewellery with an emerald not of as deep a green and not as appealing as his, ticketed round about that sum. So he replied firmly, "I want £125, and I'm not going to haggle. It's dirt cheap at that price, which I know is only half its value."
The pawnbroker shook his head sadly. "Look here, my friend," he said, "if you're going to try to insist upon as much as that we're both wasting time. I couldn't give it you. Why, man, I may have to wait many months before I sell it again, and then I shan't get as much as £125 myself. It isn't often we can sell a single stone like this by itself, and——" He broke off suddenly and asked with that gimlet look of his again, "By the by, are you sure this is the only stone you've got? This one isn't one of several, is it?"
"Certainly not," replied Robert angrily. "I've told you it came out of a ring, which——"
"You can't produce to show me," smiled the man. "No, no, don't get angry, but you see we pawnbrokers are told so many funny tales by our clients that we are never certain what to believe." He went on, "Well, another thing about my buying this stone from you. I have to think of the risk and——"
"But there's no risk," broke in Robert sharply. "Everything I've told you is the truth."
"How am I to know that?" asked the pawnbroker, so softly that it was almost a whisper. He pursed up his lips. "Why—ten minutes after you've left this shop the police may come rushing in saying there's been another robbery somewhere and asking if I've bought emeralds from anyone." He smiled friendlily. "I should, of course, swear I hadn't, but if that did happen you must see for yourself that it would make the time when I could sell it safely again very much longer, with me losing good money as interest all the time."
He spoke pleadingly. "Come now, be sensible. I'll give you fifty pounds, and it's a good price! What, you won't take it?"
Robert scowled. "Certainly I won't," he replied. "I'm not quite such a mug as that."
A short silence followed and then the pawnbroker slapped his hand sharply on the counter. "I'll go up to sixty," he said with quickly rising anger in his tones, "and if you won't take that—then get out quick and lively, and run into bad trouble the next place you go to."
Robert made no comment and the two stood glaring at each other, like angry dogs spoiling for a fight. Then in a split second the pawnbroker was all gentleness again. "You know, my friend," he said kindly, "I shall feel most sorry for you if you do go anywhere else, for you'll hardly find another dealer as easy as I am." He threw out his hands. "Why—the next chap may want to stick to the emerald until he's phoned up the police! Where would you be then? Ask yourself now?"
Robert did ask himself, and the answer was not a pleasant one. So, curse and grind his teeth as he might at being so swindled, he realised at once that in the end he would have to take whatever this swindler offered him. However, he did not give in easily and he told the pawnbroker what he thought of him and let him see in what a black rage he was before he finally left the shop with the sixty pounds in his pocket.
Still, after a couple of good drinks at a near-by public-house, he felt somewhat better, and a good lunch, which cost him nearly a pound, further helped to restore his peace of mind. After all, he consoled himself, sixty pounds was not altogether so bad. He had twenty stones left and obtaining the sum for each of them would mean £1,200, quite a tidy sum of money.
At the same time, giving himself all the consolation he could, his thoughts would hark back angrily to the man who had so swindled him. No doubt the swindling devil was now gloating over the bargain he had made and feeling very pleased with himself!
As it happened, however, within a few minutes of having grinned his customer out of the shop, the junior member of the firm of David and Fergus O'Shane was going through a very bad time, being severely castigated by his elder brother for having bungled things badly and perhaps missed one of the best chances of making a splendid haul he would ever have.
Some ten years older than his brother, not unlike him in appearance, with the same red head of hair, David was very similar in disposition too. His moral code, however, was if possible of an even lower order and in any mutual roguery he was always in it up to the neck. Indeed, it was the wonder of those who were privileged to know something of his private life how he had managed to keep out of the hands of the police for so long.
He missed Robert only by a few minutes, and when he returned to the shop his brother at once showed him the emerald he had acquired so cheaply, and gave a spicy account of how he had bested the man who had come to sell it. "I fairly frightened him into taking my offer," he chuckled, "though he looked as if he'd like to kill me for getting it so cheaply."
For a moment David had smiled approvingly, thinking it had been a smart piece of work. Suddenly, however, his face clouded over and he asked sharply, "But what about that notice in the Police List a few months ago? Did you look it up before you paid him the money?"
"What notice?" asked Fergus uneasily.
"About that necklace which was lost then," replied David with a frown, "from some house in the country where there was a racing party on. A dog was supposed to have taken it, and it was valued at over £5,000."
Fergus's jaw fell. "Yes, I remember now," he admitted slowly, "but I had forgotten all about it. It never entered into my mind."
"Get the lists," snapped his brother testily, and the two were quickly proceeding to go through the files of old Police Lists of missing articles, lists which from day to day are specially printed for the guidance of pawnbrokers. It didn't take long before they found the one they wanted and, after a quick glance through it, looked up significantly at each other.
David was the first to recover his speech, and he proceeded to slate his brother unmercifully. "You little fool," he exclaimed, "and it's any odds the chap has got the whole necklace! But you, with your damned smartness, have got one stone out of him and left it for someone else to get the other twenty. Oh, you were clever, weren't you, to send him off in such a rage that he won't come here again to do any more business?" He tapped the Police List with his fingers. "Why—you've let slip a £5,000 touch, just because you hadn't the imagination to take in that it was almost certain this stone was one of many. Bah, you little fool! If you were only big enough I'd make you become a dick. That's all you're fit for, taking bribes as a policeman to let people go."
His brother was the only person Fergus was afraid of. All his life he had been like that, from his boyhood days when they had been cutting peat in a bog together and then by a lucky theft had got hold of enough money to leave Donegal and fly their mother country to start life again across the water.
After a few minutes wilting under his brother's scorn, his natural courage, however, quickly asserted itself, and he grinned cunningly. "Don't curse any more, David," he said. "I'll find him. I'll run him to earth easily enough and perhaps get the whole necklace out of him for the price of another stone."
"How will you find him?" scowled his brother.
"I'll look out for him wherever the races are next Saturday," said Fergus. "I'm pretty sure he goes to races, as the first time he came here he'd got a pink sporting paper sticking out of his pocket. Yes, it's pretty certain I'll catch him there and then I'll trail him home without his seeing me. He shan't dodge me, I promise you."
Somewhat mollified at his brother's sharpness in having noticed the sporting paper, David recovered his temper and they recalled to each other as much as they could of the story which had appeared in the newspapers the week after the Goodwood races, and soon Fergus was certain Robert must have been one of the guests staying at the swell house.
"Too educated to be one of the servants," he said, "was rather a toff who thought something of himself. He told me he'd been a commando, but he didn't strike me as being extra tough by the little fight he put up about the price of that stone. He was scared at once when I told him the police might be coming here any moment to make enquiries. No, I'm certain we shall be able to frighten him again without much trouble."
Now it certainly was not a very subtle deduction on Fergus O'Shane's part that a man who bought sporting papers might probably attend race-meetings which were near-by, but for all that he thought himself mighty clever when he did spot Robert in the one-pound enclosure at Hurst Park the following Saturday.
All the afternoon, at a discreet distance, he kept him in view and was only two carriages behind his in the journey back to Waterloo. He trailed him to Oxford Street and for an hour and a half stood upon the pavement opposite while Robert had dinner at Frascati's Restaurant, not daring for one moment to take his eyes off the restaurant doors, lest his quarry should come out and he lose him.
Finally, it was just before eight o'clock when he watched him turn into Ensum Street, and seeing the street was a cul-de-sac, realised his shadowing was almost over. The street was short and narrow, consisting of only six small private houses that to all appearances had been built in early Victorian days. They were all upon one side of the street and faced a high blank wall. At the end there was another high wall, also blank. He dropped back quickly, so as not to overtake Robert, though, with his coat buttoned up to the neck and his cap pulled down well over his eyes, he was confident Robert would not recognise him.
Just before Robert reached the end of the street a man and woman came out of the last house and acknowledged his taking off his hat to them. "Saved you the trouble of using your latchkey, sir," said the woman loud enough for Fergus to hear. "You'll find your fire's all right. I lit it just before seven. Good night, sir," and the two came up the street towards Fergus, who was walking as slowly as he could.
Fergus gave them a good inspection as they passed. "Probably the landlord and landlady," ran his thoughts. "Most likely he's only got lodgings there," and then, seeing only one light was now showing in the house and that through a front window on the ground floor, he was confident his guess had been correct.
For quite five minutes, with no one else appearing in the street, Fergus padded softly up and down before the house in an endeavour to determine if Robert were alone, and, with only one single light continuing to burn, he was soon confident he was.
Now David had insisted that if his brother did come upon the man who had sold him the emerald, at Hurst Park, which he, David sneered scornfully, did not think he would, he was just to follow him to where he lived and then come back without having made a contact with him. They would have to consider most carefully what they must next do.
However, brimful of conceit that he could always do everything much better than anyone else and smarting under the continued nagging of his brother that he had almost certainly killed a goose which might have laid them many golden eggs, Fergus had determined, if he only got the chance, to carry off everything on his own bat.
He was absolutely certain Robert had got the necklace, complete with its remaining stones, because the half-timid and clumsy way in which he had bargained the other day was proof that it was his first approach to anyone to make a sale.
So, with absolute confidence in himself, he had brought £200 in banknotes with him, sure that when he had scared Robert sufficiently the latter would crumple up and think himself lucky to get even that sum without falling into the hands of the police.
Fearless as the weasel Robert had thought he resembled, and savage as one, too, Fergus was not in the least bit unwilling or afraid to tackle Robert alone. A bad judge of character, it never entered into his head that, at a pinch, the seller of the emerald might turn out to be every bit as bold and ruthless in his methods as was he. Instead, he regarded him only as a hesitating and chance breaker of the law who had obtained what he had by some lucky fluke.
With the little street as silent and lonely as the grave, Fergus drew in a deep breath and pushed gently upon the bell on the door, at once hearing it sound so loudly inside the house that it almost made him jump. Footsteps followed immediately, a light came up in the hall and Robert opened the door.
The light was behind Robert and the pawnbroker could not see the expression upon his face, but there was no doubt about his being startled, as the cigarette he was smoking dropped from his lips on to the passage floor.
Fergus immediately stretched out and put his foot upon it. "Don't be afraid," he whispered sharply. "I only want to speak to you for a few minutes. Let me come in. Don't be afraid. There's no one else but me," and, mechanically, Robert stepped aside for him to come in, and closed the door after him.
Without waiting for permission, Fergus walked up the short passage and went into the only room where a light was showing. Robert, who had now to all appearances, at any rate in part, recovered his composure, followed after him. His face, however, was black as thunder. "What do you want of me now?" he asked hoarsely.
Fergus was now all smiles. "Ah, I thought you'd recognise me!" he exclaimed. "My face isn't easily forgotten, is it? What do I want? I'll soon tell you. But let's sit down first. We can talk better," and for all the world as if he were an old friend, he proceeded to seat himself easily in a chair behind a small table.
Almost mechanically, but with a scowl, Robert sat down on the other side and Fergus at once asked pleasantly, "Surprised to see me? Of course you are!" He took a paper out of his breast pocket and held it out. "Well, first read this. It's a page from the Police List of missing articles which the police supply to all us pawnbrokers from day to day. It will interest you. It's that which has brought me here."
As in a dream, Robert took the paper and with difficulty suppressed an exclamation as he realised it was a description of the emerald necklace. It was most accurate in its details, as indeed it should have been as it was an exact copy of the sale declaration which old Benjamin Nairne had received thirty-odd years previously when he purchased the necklace in Paris for well over a hundred thousand francs at a time when francs stood at twenty-five to the English pound.
An icy feeling ran down Robert's spine, and his lips went dry and he swallowed hard as he took in all that the paper meant. With an effort he suppressed an oath and pulled his face into a wooden expression.
"You see," said Fergus casually, "when my brother came in the other day soon after you had gone he felt sure your emerald was one of a necklace which was given out as missing at the end of last July when the races at Goodwood were on. So we looked up our old files of the Police List and found out all about it at once. We remembered then that a dog was supposed to have taken it." He laughed merrily. "It appears that clever dog was you."
Still Robert made no comment. His eyes were still upon the paper he was holding in his hand, but his thoughts were far away. He had felt himself so secure, so safe, that he would never be found out, and now—a dark and yawning chasm had opened suddenly before his feet. Not only was he going to lose everything, not only were all his hopes of a fortune shattered, but also, it was possible he was in deadly danger from the man now speaking to him.
Fergus went on conversationally. "A bit of a shock, isn't it?" He tried to look sympathetic. "Still, you were devilish unlucky in picking upon that particular stone to sell first, because as you see it is described there as the only one with a flaw, an internal crack and a chip at the side." His hand shot out. "But wasn't I honest with you the other day? I told you then it was not faultless and you can see now that I was speaking the truth."
Robert found his voice at last. He did not admit or deny anything, but just asked, "How did you come to know I lived here?"
Fergus looked very pleased with himself. Even with the man he was intending to threaten and browbeat in a minute or two he could not restrain himself from showing his cleverness. "Oh," he exclaimed laughingly, "I just followed you from the races. I saw that pink sporting paper in your pocket the other day when you came in, and felt certain you would be going to Hurst Park this afternoon. So I went down there to catch you." He nodded. "Yes, I was your shadow all the afternoon, at the races, in the train to Waterloo, and from there on to Frascati's." He shook his head in mock reproof. "Then for an hour and a half I stood on the pavement in the cold waiting for you to come out again until I could follow you here." He spoke interestedly. "I hope they gave you a good dinner?"
Robert ignored his question. "And what do you think you'll get now you're here?" he asked sharply.
Fergus's face at once sobered down and his smiles were replaced by a look of the utmost sternness. "Ah, now you're talking business," he exclaimed. He spoke very slowly and deliberately. "I want that necklace off you, my friend, and I intend to have it, too."
Robert smiled for the first time. "You won't," he said. "I'm making no presents to-day."
"Then you don't deny you've got it?" asked Fergus as quick as he could get out the words. "You don't deny you stole it?"
Robert shook his head. "I say nothing," he said. "Everything is for you to prove."
"Very easy!" snapped Fergus. "You sold me one of the stones and——"
"I deny it," laughed Robert. "I've never seen you before you came in here just now. Where are your witnesses?"
"And it is known you were a guest at that swell house in Goodwood Week," went on Fergus, ignoring his query.
"Wrong again," said Robert. He lied easily. "Fortunately, I've never been within fifty miles of the place, so if, as you say, I've got the necklace—then someone must have passed it on to me and I don't see how you're going to identify him"—and he added with a grin—"or her."
Fergus was thinking hard. It wasn't going to be so easy as he had thought to bluff this fellow. He went on another tack. "See here, my friend," he said persuasively. "Now we've spotted who's got it, that necklace is not worth a penn'orth of putty to you." He threw out his hands. "We've only got to tip off the police that someone has been into our place—of course we'll give your description—trying to sell us a big emerald, and in an hour every dealer and every pawnbroker will be on the look-out for you. You'll be quite blocked and won't dare to show it to a soul."
"And if you had it," countered Robert, "how could you get rid of a big thing like a £5,000 necklace?"
"Quite easy," boasted Fergus. "We're in the swim. I know a gent in Hampstead who would put down £10,000 in two ticks—if it were anything good."
Robert spoke slowly. "Then if it's so easy for you—if I did happen to have this necklace, would you be agreeable to pay me £3,000 for it?"
Fergus looked aghast. £3,000, and all he had any intention of parting with was £200! He must deal with a firm hand with this fellow. He must give him a good fright at once.
"See here, you young fool," he snarled savagely. "If you don't come to light with that necklace straightaway, I'll put a bullet in you with no more arguing," and quick as lightning, he whipped out a little automatic from his pocket and pointed it threateningly, straight at Robert's forehead.
Robert's heart beat uncomfortably. Not a few times during the war he had seen pistol work done in cold blood upon very slight provocation, and he reckoned now, with this man in a temper, it wouldn't take much more for him to press upon the trigger. He would shoot first and think afterwards.
As if sensing what was passing in the other's mind, Fergus jeered mockingly. "You know I'm not bluffing. I can see that. I've shot men before. Never mind where." He shook his head. "And don't imagine there will be awkward consequences for me if I give you a bullet now. Not a soul knows I've come here to-night and, with the silencer on, the shot will only sound like the crack of a whip. No one will hear it outside."
"Put it down, you fool," ordered Robert sharply, "or you'll get nothing. I'm quite willing to strike a bargain." He nodded. "Yes, I admit I've got the necklace, but you don't think I'd be such an ass as to keep it here, do you? I've been all prepared for something to happen like this, though if anyone came I thought it'd be the police."
Fergus realised he was speaking the truth. "Well, where is it?" he snarled. "Now, no lying."
"What'd be the good of lying?" snarled back Robert. "If I've got to bargain with you as I say, I'll have to produce the necklace, won't I?" He paused a few moments. "It's buried by a certain beech tree in Epping Forest. I hid it there last Friday."
Fergus made no comment. His face was puckered in a frown and he was thinking hard. He still kept the pistol pointed at Robert, and the latter noted with some relief that the hand which held it was steady as a rock.
Robert went on lightly. "Yes, where else could I hide it but somewhere away from here, and then where else but in the country? If I'd hidden it in these rooms it would be found in two twinks." He shrugged his shoulders. "I did think of leaving it in a suitcase in the cloakroom of some railway station, but then remembered the police are always poking among things left there, and so didn't do it."
Fergus's face relaxed at last. "All right, I believe you," he said surlily, "and——" But they were the last words he ever spoke, as putting down the safety catch and lowering the pistol to return it to his pocket gave Robert his opportunity.
Like a flash of lightning his arm shot out and, catching Fergus just under the chin with his clenched fist, the terrific blow of a trained boxer lifted him bodily out of the chair and crashed him into the grate. His head struck sideways with great violence against the brickwork and, his neck dislocated, death was instantaneous. His head lay at a dreadful angle.
Robert had not had the slightest intention of deliberately inflicting a fatal injury upon the pawnbroker, but he had been furious at the thought that the latter had outwitted him. Added to that, the insolent and hectoring manner in which the latter had been addressing him had so roused his rage that, almost unthinkingly, he had lunged that dreadful blow.
Now, when, after a quick examination, he saw what had resulted, with not the slightest feeling of remorse for what he had done, he was yet aghast at the position in which he found himself. His face paled, he could hardly draw his breath and his forehead became pricked out in little beads of sweat.
Almost in a condition of stark panic, he switched off the light and, with the room in complete darkness except for the flickering of the fire, threw himself down heavily upon the sofa and tried to consider what he must do. For many minutes his brain seemed numb and he could not think coherently. All that he was able to take in was that he had killed a man and the presence of the dead body made it a situation of appalling danger to him.
Gradually, however, he began to get a grip of himself again, the beatings of his heart slowed down, his thoughts came clearer and he smiled a grim and confident smile. He had been in tight places before, and had got out of them, and he would get out of this one now. Certainly things looked very awkward, and, without doubt, terrible consequences for what he had done were now threatening him. On the other hand, however, the margin between this danger and perfect safety was a very narrow one. He had only to get the body away from the house and he would not be implicated in any way with the man's death.
All apart from what the dead man himself had said, it was a sure thing no one knew he had succeeded in running him down. As he had boasted, he had kept hot on his, Robert's, heels from the first moment he had set eyes upon him at Hurst Park, and therefore he had had no opportunity to let anyone know he was trailing him. No one was aware he had come to the house.
So, as the matter now stood, when the man's body came to be found, unless it were found exactly where he had died, it would be no pointer to whomsoever had killed him. Then, as now, no one would know the two had ever met.
Quite recovered now from his state of panic, and knowing his landlady and her husband would not be back for hours yet, as it was always to some picture they went on a Saturday night, he switched on the light again and, taking out a cigarette, proceeded to consider how he could get rid of the body, and it didn't take much thinking for him to realise there was only one way to do so. He must carry it up the street as far away from his home as possible and leave it there upon the pavement to be discovered it didn't matter by whom.
Naturally that would entail some few moments of terrible risk, but the risk was unavoidable. The only puzzle was when to take it.
At this time of the evening a whole hour might pass with no one coming into the street, and yet someone might appear at the very moment he started to carry away the body. If he waited until midnight, certainly the chances of meeting anyone were much smaller, but on the other hand, he knew the police were more active then, as coming home late at night, he had often seen patrols about.
He frowned heavily. Whichever way he acted, he would have to face those seconds of dreadful danger and there was no way that he could think of of lessening the risk. It was just chance, blind chance, whether or not he was caught with the body actually in his arms.
Then, suddenly, he heard a lot of noise outside in the street, the harsh grinding of car brakes, shouts and merry laughter, and the banging of car doors; and his face puckered up in his dismay.
Only too well he knew what they meant. The occupier of the second house from the beginning of the street was giving one of his not unusual Saturday-night parties. After dining at some restaurant, he and a number of friends would come round in their cars and sing and drink until well into the small hours of the Sunday morning. The annoying part of it was, too, that the singing so often attracted people to saunter down the street to listen to it, just out of curiosity.
With a curse, Robert switched off the lights again and tiptoeing to the street door opened it and looked out. Five cars he counted, and the nearest one was parked right opposite his window. He noted how slovenly it was parked, too, almost at right angles to the pavement.
"Drunken swine!" he scowled. "Some of them'll be half-tight already," and then, suddenly, his jaw dropped and a startled expression came into his face. He had noticed something—the significance of which burst like a bomb into his mind. The reveller who had parked his car so badly right opposite to him had left his ignition key in the dashboard!
He whistled softly. Gad, what a chance of getting rid of the body there was now, if only he had the nerve to take it! Here was a car actually waiting for him! When they were bellowing their drunken choruses he could get the car away without them hearing it! It was modern and looked almost new! So it should be easy to start and handle. Still—he must not waste a second in making sure!
His mind made up on the instant, he tiptoed out into the street, opened the door of the car and slipped on to the driver's seat. The gears moved easily, and he carefully checked everything upon the dashboard. Almost he thought he would start the engine to try it out, but decided against that as there was no singing to be heard up the street as yet.
Back in his room again, and with a most relieved expression upon his face, he proceeded swiftly, but with the utmost thoroughness, to go through the dead man's pockets, and his eyes gleamed as he came upon a wallet, stuffed, among other things, with a thick wad of banknotes. All else he found to interest him were a small leather-bound memorandum book and a bunch of keys.
Fetching a dark-coloured blanket from his bed, he wrapped it well round the body, surprised to find how small and light it was.
Very soon, with everything to his satisfaction, he switched off the light again and, carrying the body into the hall, laid it down while once more he opened the street door and looked out. No one was in sight and, in a matter of seconds, the body was upon the floor at the back of the car, his street door was shut again and he was sitting in the driver's seat—waiting for the first moment when he dare start the engine.
With all the command he had over himself his heart was beating painfully. He was playing for a high stake, and everything now hung upon a razor's edge—upon what was going to happen in the next few minutes. Certainly, the risk he was having to take was indeed a terrible one!
He was in a stolen car, with its all-unconscious owner only a few yards from him—there was the body of a man, whom the police would say he had murdered, not three feet behind him—and all his safety depended upon whether or not a dozen or so of half-tipsy drinkers would hear the noise of a car engine above their bellowing in the chorus of some song.
The waiting was agonising for him, but he stuck it out with the cold courage of a man who had weighed up all the risks and was prepared to face them. The only concession he made to his nerves was taking out a cigarette and lighting it.
Five minutes passed, ten minutes, a quarter of an hour, and the horrid fear began to grip him that the drinking party had forsaken singing for cards. Then, suddenly, and to his intense relief, he heard a piano starting and, though his mouth was dry and he could hardly swallow, he had to grin when he realised that the song chosen was 'John Brown's Body'.
With one hand hovering over the self-starter and with the other clutched tightly to the gear lever, he waited for the chorus to come on, and then in a split second the engine woke to life. With all his relief, he scowled as he realised he need not have waited a single second, as the engine started almost noiselessly. In half a minute he was clear of the little street and passing into the main road.
His face was now all smiles and, lighting another cigarette, he drove confidently along, soon passing through Hackney and picking up the Walthamstow Road. Epping Forest was once again his goal. The car went so beautifully that he regretted, with a sigh, that he would not be able to retain it as another souvenir.
The night was moonless, but bright and clear, and he drew in with delight the cold and frosty air. Reaching the confines of the forest, he dawdled along until the road was quite clear of other traffic, and then plunged boldly through a glade towards a part where the trees were thicker.
From his journey the previous week to hide the necklace, he had marked down in his mind a certain deep ditch, and he soon found it. He was out of the car in a trice and, stripping off the blanket, hid the body under a couple of feet or more of thick leaves.
Back upon the road again, the problem which at once occupied his mind was where to get rid of the car. Fate had been so kind to him that, a born gambler, he was sorely tempted now to trust her once again, as the fewer unusual happenings reported to the police that night the safer it would be for him.
Of course, Fergus O'Shane's sudden disappearance would be quickly reported to them and, he told himself, it would be just as well it should not coincide with the disappearance of a car from a little insignificant street such as was Ensum Street. Certainly, in all probability many other cars would have been reported as stolen that night and it was quite likely the police would try to link up the theft of one of them with the pawnbroker disappearing into the blue. So, if possible, it was best to prevent that occurring with the car he had taken.
Pulling up at a hotel in Walthamstow for a drink, he had a couple of brandies which settled everything in his mind and, giving no further thought to the risk, he drove the car back boldly to exactly where he had taken it from, even parking it as clumsily as before. The singing party was still going on and, looking at his watch, he saw he had been away for barely a full hour.
With his blanket over his arm, he let himself into his house and sighed happily to think he had passed through a time of perhaps the greatest danger in all his life. "And the next thing," he told himself, "is to have a good look through that memorandum book of his and see if there is anything interesting in it. I may find the address of that wealthy blackguard whom he said could put down £10,000. Certainly I'd like to meet him."
WHEN Robert had turned out upon the table the contents of the dead Fergus O'Shane's wallet, the expression of delight upon his face at finding the thick wad of banknotes amounting to no less than £200 consisted entirely of five and ten-pound ones, changed abruptly to an ugly frown when, from an expensive-looking little case of morocco leather, he drew out a photograph of Adolf Hitler.
It was one of the head only and enclosed in a flat little silver frame, embossed at the back with a gold swastika, with a small phoenix underneath. The photograph was undoubtedly an impressive one, and those intent, impelling eyes which had so bewildered so many in that dark world in which the mighty Fuehrer had once moved, stood out fearlessly and masterfully.
For a long minute Robert stared fascinated and as if unable to withdraw his gaze, but then, as his thoughts passed to the man who had been carrying the photo about with him, he cursed disgustedly.
Then this Fergus O'Shane had been a secret worshipper of Hitler and, if so, it was more than probable he had been a traitor to his country and spied for the enemy during the war! So, meeting his death in the way he had done, he had not received one tenth part of the punishment he had deserved! His death had been much too merciful a one! He should have been hanged, with plenty of time for him to brood over what was coming to him, instead of passing out, as he had done, under a chance and sudden blow.
So we can rather gather from Robert's indignation that his code of morals was a somewhat difficult proposition for the ordinary person to understand. Apparently he had no objection to himself despoiling individual members of the community—such as taking her much-prized emerald necklace from a sorrowing old lady—but he held in the utmost execration anyone who was willing to help outsiders to despoil the whole community in a different way.
In effect, his creed appeared to be that while you might be a thief, you must be a loyal one. You might rob your country, but you must love her all the time and hate all traitors who wished her ill.
And his gorge rose higher when he saw Fergus had also been carrying about him a little black-bordered card, in memoriam for the so-called martyrdom of two Irish patriots who had met their deaths at the hands of 'the brutal British murderers'. The names of the martyrs mentioned were quite unfamiliar to him, but he had no doubt they were murderers themselves who had been caught and justly hanged.
Indeed, Robert began to realise now that the real danger from his being connected with Fergus's death lay only in the revelation it might bring of his theft of the necklace. As for the death itself, it could at most be classed as manslaughter—and surely even the manslaughter of a proved traitor would be lightly punished. So, though it would be bad enough to be charged with theft, he breathed a little more freely.
An inspection of the little memorandum book was disappointing. With only a few pages filled there were several telephone numbers against initials. One, however, was of some interest, as against the initials I.B. the phone number had been deeply inked out, as if to make certain no one should know what it was.
As can be well imagined, Robert's mind was full of conjectures the next day. He was wondering how David O'Shane was now taking his brother's non-appearance and if he thought there were something sinister about it. He wondered, too, what sort of lives these two pawnbrokers had lived and if they were among that number referred to by the Oxford Street jeweller, as being the master buyers of stolen goods.
Then his thoughts took another turn. It was common knowledge that all the disloyal Irish were pro-German, and what if these two pawnbrokers had been spying for the enemy during the war, and, undiscovered, were still sympathising with and working for the Nazi cause?
Had there not been quite a lot in the newspapers lately from well-known people who ought to know what they were writing about warning the easy-going British people that they were sinking once again into that slothful somnolence which had so nearly brought about their downfall in the last war? Was it not known that there was now a pronounced revival of Nazi hopes in Germany and that they were whispering to one another they were not finished with and that their chance would assuredly come again? Worse still, was it not rumoured that they had sympathisers all over the world, even among the people of the Allied countries, including England?
Robert had read all this and, as one who had been in actual contact both with many German soldiers and civilians, had certainly been more than just mildly interested. Still, its significance had never really come home to him until he had found this so-beautifully cared-for photograph of Adolf Hitler in Fergus O'Shane's wallet, and now his interest was greatly stirred. Indeed, all of a sudden he was so interested that he thought he'd certainly try to find out as much about the other O'Shane as he could, and, if he were up to any traitorous tricks, expose him to the authorities.
On the Monday morning therefore he took a walk to Pentonville Road and had almost come to the pawnbroker's shop when he was greatly intrigued at catching sight of a man standing outside. He was smoking a cigarette and, apparently, idly regarding the traffic passing by.
Robert's heart gave a big bump. There was no doubt the man was David O'Shane, himself, as except for being considerably taller, he was very like his brother, with the same mop of red hair, the same shaped head and the same frowning and rather ill-tempered expression.
Not wishing to come under his notice even for a few moments, Robert crossed over the road and went into the bar of a conveniently placed public-house almost directly opposite. He ordered a drink and was pleased to find he could still see David O'Shane over the partly frosted glass of a large window.
No one happened to be in the bar except the man who came forward to serve him, and he soon turned out to be the landlord. He was a stout, pleasant-looking man, just beyond middle age, and he at once started a conversation.
"Returned man?" he asked. He smiled. "I thought so, you can generally tell 'em. What were you in?"
In such close proximity to the pawnbroker's shop, Robert thought he had better not say commando, and so replied he was in the Artillery.
"I lost two boys in the war," remarked the landlord sadly, "both killed towards the end, one in the landing in Normandy and the other in the Ardennes. Damned hard luck for my missus and me, as they were the last boys we'd got!"
They talked on for a few moments and then, the conversation languishing, Robert inclined his head towards the window and said with a smile, "Pawn-broking seems slack this morning. That chap's been standing there ever since I came in. I suppose he keeps the shop?"
The landlord craned his head over the glass. "Oh, him," he said contemptuously. "Yes, he's the pawnbroker. There are two of them there, he and his brother." He frowned. "Some mornings he spends half the time like that. Just doing nothing."
"Not doing much business then," suggested Robert.
The landlord nodded darkly. "A great many people would like to know exactly what his business is," he said. "They never seem to have many customers, those O'Shanes, yet they live privately in a good house in St. John's Wood and run a big car. I've seen them out in it on Sundays."
"He holds himself up straight," said Robert. "An old army man, I suppose?"
The landlord glared. "Old army man!" he sneered. "Irish Republican Army, that's what he's been! Stabbing and murdering in the dark, shooting people round corners and running away. That's all the fighting he'll have ever done!" He struck vigorously upon the counter with his fist. "Young fellow, I reckon that David O'Shane to be a thorough bad egg, and I don't care who hears me say it. He came into this bar one night and started running down the Empire until I told him if he didn't shut up I'd come over and knock his block off. That stopped him."
"A Sinn Feiner, probably!" exclaimed Robert.
The landlord nodded. "And, judging by his talk, one of the worst. No one knows what he and his brother have been up to, but, whatever it's been, they'll have been in it up to the neck, as I'm sure they're both crooks. The devil of it is they've never been caught."
"Haven't the police looked after them?" asked Robert.
"Sure they have," said the landlord, "but all along they've been too cunning for them. Yes, we'd all like to know where they get their money from. Certainly not from the bobs and two-bobs they make by lending out upon old clothes and kitchen stuff, and that's all they're likely to get from the folks round here."
The pawnbroker at length going back into his shop, Robert left the public-house and walked very thoughtfully up the road. What he had just learnt from the publican more than ever strengthened his inclination to find out all he could about the activities of this David O'Shane. It would give him something to do and be a break in the monotony of his life, for he was realising that doing nothing except go to race-meetings at the week-ends was not giving him anything like the interest he had thought it would.
It was adventure he wanted, and putting his spoke in this blackguard's wheel might give him plenty. The unfortunate part was he had no idea how to start. However, he saw his chance the following day when a paragraph appeared in several of the daily papers mentioning Fergus O'Shane's mysterious disappearance and asking anyone who had seen him to communicate with either the nearest police station or his brother, Mr. David O'Shane, of 102 Pentonville Road.
As before, in the matter of the necklace, Robert looked well ahead, determining that if any suspicions were aroused about him, nothing incriminating should be found to justify them. So, first, he burnt Fergus's wallet, and then everything he had kept out of what it contained, including the £200 in banknotes, he made into a small packet and buried just as he had buried the emerald necklace. This time, however, for a change, he chose a hiding-place under a tree in Richmond Park. All he kept back were two keys on a ring, and these he stuffed well into a crack in the wall of the backyard.
He had sense to see that there was nowhere in his little flat to hide anything. Under the carpet, under the flooring, up the chimney or stuck to the back of a picture, would be child's play to a professional searcher, but with nothing hidden anywhere, there would never be any worry for him.
Next, at a shop in Covent Garden, he bought a secondhand suit, quite presentable and in fair condition, but of nothing like the quality of the one he was now wearing. Also, he bought a cap and suitable footwear to go with it. Omitting a shave that morning, confident that he looked what he intended to pretend he was, on the Thursday, two days after the paragraph had appeared, he walked boldly into the pawnbroker's shop in Pentonville Road.
David O'Shane and an assistant were there, and, addressing the former, he asked in a tone of voice that he made as rough as he could, "You the party whose brother is missing?"
David nodded frowningly. "Yes, that's me," he said, and he glared at Robert in the same gimlet-like way that Fergus had done.
"Well, I saw him on Saturday afternoon," said Robert, "at the races at Hurst Park. He was in the one-pound enclosure."
"How do you know it was my brother?" snapped David, more frowningly than ever.
"I know him," said Robert. "I brought a couple of things in here once. He's very much like you but much shorter. Same red hair and plenty of colour in his face."
David made a motion with his arm and led Robert into a little room at the back of the shop. "Now, tell me about him," he said sharply.
"I've got nothing to tell," said Robert, "except that he was with another man. They were laughing and looking together at a sporting paper."
"What was the other man like?" came from David like a shot from a gun.
Robert considered. "Oh, a bit bigger than your brother, rather dark and showed his teeth a lot when he smiled. Well-dressed."
"Would you know him if you saw him again?"
"Yes, at once! I was a bit interested because they were looking as pleased as if they'd just backed a good winner and I was doing rotten."
"How long did you watch them?"
"Only a minute or two. Then I went off. I didn't see them again."
"Were you yourself in the pound enclosure, too?"
Robert laughed. "Not I. I've got no quids to throw away. I saw them through the rails. I was out on the course."
"What are you?"
"Demobbed man. Doing odd jobs, chauffeur, looking after cars, anything."
"What's your name, and where do you live?"
"Bob Willows and I'm staying with a sister in North End Road, Fulham."
David O'Shane spoke with a scowl. "I want to find that man my brother was with and it's urgent. Now, are you going to the races again on Saturday?"
Robert put on a stupid look. "I don't know. It all depends upon whether I've got a job that'll keep me away. I'll go if I can. I've been pretty lucky at the races lately."
"Well, I'll pay you to come with me on Saturday," said David. "Where are they being held? At Sandown Park? Well, you come here on Saturday morning and I'll drive you down. I'll give you a pound and, if you spot that man and find out where he lives, it'll mean a tenner and even more, if things turn out as I want them."
"You mean that if I see him," said Robert, "I'm to follow him home?"
"That's it," said David. He eyed him almost menacingly. "Can you keep your tongue and keep a secret?"
"You bet I can," grinned Robert. "You can't be in the army for more than six years and one of them in Germany without having something to keep dark." He shook his head. "Not very bad you know, but we did plenty of scrounging." He looked curious. "But what's the secret you want me to keep now?"
David spoke with the utmost gravity. "I believe something very serious may have happened to my brother through that man you saw him with. I believe my brother had got a good bit of money on him at the time."
Robert looked as solemn as he could. "Oh, that's it, is it? Then that man must be found. Have you any idea who he is?"
David scowled again. "No, I haven't. I know nothing except that he'd just come out of the army like yourself. He was a commando."
Robert whistled. "Commando!" He nodded ominously. "They'd stick at nothing, and it's any odds they've not shaken off the habit now they're back in civilian life." He picked up his cap. "All right, Boss, I'll be here Saturday at eleven."
So the following Saturday Robert went down to the races in a big luxurious car, and many times during the afternoon he'd have loved to have a good laugh.
There was he, having the best of everything, including a good lunch under the grandstand, his expenses being paid and in addition getting a pound note for being there. And all he had to do in return was to turn his head round every now and again to look for this imaginary man of the bronzed complexion who showed his teeth a lot when he smiled.
Robert thought it a great joke, all the greater because the man he was so deceiving was probably about as sharp and shrewd as anyone in that dark underworld of crime in which he moved.
The following week Robert was paid a daily retaining fee of ten shillings to walk up and down some of the main streets in the West End on the chance of spotting the man. Every day he would report to David who, at any rate, to get something for his money would occasionally give him his car to oil and clean. The car was garaged during business hours in a shed in the yard behind the shop. Every Saturday they would go to the races again, with Robert continuing to crane his head round and round for the wanted man.
And all the time, day after day, the pawnbroker treated Robert with the utmost coldness and reserve, never attempting to make any conversation and never speaking to him a word more than necessary. Indeed, his coldness was so offensive that many times Robert half thought he must have some suspicion about him, though how that could be, Robert could not imagine.
Most certainly David O'Shane alone knew that his brother was going to Hurst Park that Saturday afternoon to look out for the seller of the emerald, and had not he, Robert, apparently a perfectly bona fide stranger to them both, come forward and said he had seen him there? How possibly could he have made up the story and for what possible reason could the pawnbroker have come to suspect he had done so?
Robert felt he was upon perfectly safe ground, and yet for all that he could not shake off the idea that the pawnbroker was not without his suspicions of him. This suspicion, too, was somehow strengthened when Robert ventured to come in one afternoon in some excitement with the story that at last he had actually caught sight of the man. He said he had seen him going into Selfridge's in Oxford Street and, though following quickly, he had most unfortunately lost him among the crowd of shoppers there.
David received the news with an impassive face, staring, however, so hard at him for such a long time before making any comment that Robert felt himself growing hot and uncomfortable. Then the pawnbroker remarked grimly, "You were not very wide awake, were you, to let him get away in a shut-in place like a shop, when you were only a few yards from him?" and the only explanation Robert could give was that he believed the man had got an idea he was being looked for, and so had been extra quick in moving about.
When Robert, for some weeks, had been dancing attendance upon David O'Shane and getting no nearer finding out anything important about him, he did yet learn two things which were a little interesting, though the assistant who told him about them had no idea they were.
Upon several occasions, when coming in to see David and finding he was out, he had had short conversations with the assistant, Dan Hunt by name. The man was inclined to be merry and talkative, particularly so when he had had a drink or two, and Robert soon found he had not much liking for his employer.
"As cold as a fish, old David," he said once when Robert noticed he smelt strongly of spirits, "and never says a word to me unless he can help it. He's always ready, too, to blow a man up if he can get the chance."
"You're kept pretty busy?" asked Robert.
The man shook his head. "No, we don't get many customers coming in." He winked knowingly. "Still, I think the boss does a bit at the back door after hours. I've several times seen the lights up when I've happened to come by of a night. I live just round the corner." He winked again. "Things not put down on a ticket often pay pawnbrokers best, but, of course, you have to know your customer." He hiccupped loudly. "'Scuse me! Just had a refresher or two before I came in and it's made my bread-basket a bit windy."
"Did you know his brother Fergus?" asked Robert, delighted that the drinks were so loosening the man's tongue.
"Rather," nodded the assistant, "and a little devil he was, too. Worse than his brother! I detested him." He explained. "You see, I've known them both for years, and have often put in a few days here when one or other of them have been on holiday or ill. I'm used to the pawnbroking business, as I had a little shop myself once in Stepney, but I got into a bit of trouble with the police there and'll never be given a licence again." He grinned. "That's why this David takes me on. He knows I'm not a nark and'll never be friendly with the police."
"But about Fergus," asked Robert, "have you ever heard any ideas as to what's become of him?"
"Lots," nodded the man. "Some say he's hooked it with a nice wad of money, but I don't agree there, as he and his brother have always been very pally together." He nodded darkly. "No one will ever know what they've been up to for a long, long time now." He dropped his voice to a whisper. "Would you believe it—they've both taught themselves German and, though it's not generally known, I think they can speak it like natives."
"How do you know that?" asked Robert with a catch in his breath.
"Well, before the war—mind you, I've known them for donkey's years—I've often heard them gabbling like blood-brothers in German to Germans who've come in here, talking as quick as if they were speaking in ruddy English. Why, bless your heart, they've got scores of German books tucked away in that safe. They were put out of sight quick and lively when the guns began to go." His eyes gleamed. "Ah, that reminds me! I think he's got something very important in the safe now. He's been out twice this morning already, on quick bits of business, and both times when he's come back he's gone in at once to have a look at it to see if it's all right. I've seen him through the open door. Just as if to make sure it's as it was before, and then he's come out of the office again in only a couple of ticks." He chuckled. "Perhaps he thinks I might be trying to open it."
The delighted Robert was striking while the iron was hot. "Well, if Fergus didn't bolt with any cash," he asked, "what's become of him?"
The man shrugged his shoulders. "If the war was still on I'd say he'd been shot on the quiet, but as things are now I think he's got in a quarrel with some of his gunning pals—they've always been as thick as thieves with any disloyal Irishmen—and he's had a quiet stab in the back." He leaned over the counter and whispered alcoholically, "You mark my words—however long the boss keeps you hanging about here, you won't find him."
Robert was aghast. "How do you know I'm looking for him?"
Dan was all grins and jerked his thumb in the direction of the little room at the back. "I've got ears, haven't I, and isn't there a keyhole there? Ha, ha, you'd have never dreamt that, would you?" But Robert made no answer, for at that moment David came in.
Robert was greatly heartened by what the assistant had told him, and his flagging hopes that he would be able to find out something about David revived again. Great Scott! He was on a sure thing, but he must have patience and keep in with David as long as he could! If only things would move a bit quicker before the pawnbroker got tired of employing him.
The following Monday morning he came into the shop to learn if he were wanted to do anything to the car, as, with David often using it at week-ends, he generally was on that day.
David was out again, and the assistant was just coming away from the phone. "Call from Bury St. Edmunds," he told Robert conversationally. "The boss left his jack in the garage of The Mitre Hotel there yesterday and it's just been found. The garage man apologised for having said it couldn't have been left there, so evidently the boss has been phoning up and cursing him about it. The boss has been a lot on the phone this morning."
"An interesting old town, Bury," said Robert. "I was stationed near there for some weeks when we were training."
The assistant grinned. "That's the second time the boss has been there lately," he said. "So he's probably got some tart there."
"But how do you know he's been there before?" asked Robert, always ready for any crumb of news.
"Because he got some tobacco there about three weeks ago," was the reply, "and the little paper bag had got the Bury tobacconist's name and address on it." Dan laughed. "I tell you, there's not much that ever escapes me and——" But what he was going to add was cut short by the appearance of the pawnbroker, and he turned to him at once.
"Two calls, Boss," he said. "One from The Mitre Hotel in Bury St. Edmunds to say they found your jack. They asked for a Mr. David Brown, but I suppose they had got the name wrong. So I just said 'All right'. And the other call was that some gent you had rung up has come in now and will see you at nine o'clock to-night, but will you please ring up and say if that time will do."
"All right," nodded David curtly, and he was moving off when the assistant went on volubly:
"They said the call was from Hampstead and that you'd know who it was. They didn't mention the gent's name, but I overheard the party who was phoning—a young girl it sounded like—say very quietly to someone in the room with her, 'Is that all the message I'm to give, Mr. Bannerstein?'—so I suppose it is this Mr. Bannerstein who wants you."
David made no comment now, but Robert noted that his face had taken on an ugly scowl as he strode into the little office at the back of the shop and banged the door behind him.
Dan looked very amused. "See the way he glared at me," he chuckled, "but I brought in that Bannerstein name on purpose to let him know I knew who was wanting him. He just hates people to know anything about his business, as if he'd always got some great secret to hide."
"Perhaps he has," laughed Robert, wanting to lead the other on.
"Shouldn't wonder," nodded the assistant. "Very likely he's cooking up a bit of dirty work now to get the better of someone somehow." He frowned. "You know the boss is a bit pally with this Bannerstein chap, but I've never been able to get hold of his name before. I've answered the phone several times to that same girl and she's always been stand-offish and mysterious and refused to give any name or number. In fact she's rather narked me, and one day I'll——"
But the phone rang off sharply and David came back into the shop. "Don't want you to-day," he said curtly to Robert. "Look in to-morrow." And Robert left the shop repressing the excitement that he felt.
Walking quickly along, he proceeded to sum up the whole situation and, considering everything in its proper order, was confident he had at last found out something of great importance.
Firstly, he remembered that in those few minutes before he had died, Fergus O'Shane had let out a boast about a friend of his who could put down £10,000 for anything good that was brought to him and he had added that this man lived at Hampstead. Then in Fergus's little memorandum book there were the initials I.B. against a telephone number which had been heavily inked out. Now, the very inking out had always been suspicious to Robert's mind, as no one, he argued, would first put down a phone number and then, as if in an afterthought, deliberately obliterate it, unless he considered it unwise, or perhaps even dangerous, to have it on record.
Next, Fergus's brother was now in telephone communication with a man whose name commenced with a B, under circumstances which appeared almost equally as mysterious and as if great secrecy must be observed. So, to finalise everything, if this Mr. Bannerstein's initial turned out to be I, with him living in Hampstead, it seemed almost certain that he was the big fence Fergus had mentioned, with whom the O'Shanes were accustomed to have dealings when they had stolen articles of value to dispose of.
Going into a telephone call office and picking up a directory, Robert ran his eyes down the names commencing with B and was not at all surprised to find among them an Isaac Bannerstein, whose address was given as 24 Leander Road, Hampstead. Greatly elated at his discovery, to try to make sure he was the same Bannerstein to whom the pawnbroker was speaking, he rang up the number, and at once was certain he had got the right man.
A girl answered it. "This is Mr. Bannerstein's," she said sharply, and upon Robert saying he wanted to speak to a Mr. Huntley—the first name that came into his mind—she announced curtly, "There is no one of that name here. You've got the wrong number," and the phone went dead at once.
"That's the young woman, right enough, who was speaking to O'Shane," grinned Robert, "and evidently she's not been taught to waste time on politeness."
Curious as to the occupation of this Isaac Bannerstein, he thought it would not be a bad idea to go up to Hampstead and find out who he was. Rather expecting to find number 24 Leander Road some place of business, he, however, found the road consisted of all private houses and very good-class ones, too. Number 24 was one of the best there, with a short drive running up to the house. He noticed a fine-looking car standing before the front door, with a liveried chauffeur sitting upon the driving-seat.
Waiting about to see who came out to the car, his patience was rewarded in a few minutes, though all he got as the car went by was a fleeting glimpse of a dark-looking man, seemingly of middle age and rather good-looking.
It was quite a quarter of a mile away before he could find any place where he might make a few discreet enquiries, and then it was at a public-house where he obtained some information.
The barman knew Bannerstein by sight and said he was believed to be very well-off, being the proprietor of an art business in Bond Street known as the 'Pomme d'Or'.
"'Golden Apple', that means," explained the barman, "and he sells things which rich people buy, paintings and statues and carvings that are no good to anybody."
"He's got plenty of money, you say?" said Robert.
The barman nodded. "But he's supposed to be supporting the Terrorists in Palestine. At any rate, the police searched his house a little while ago for someone who was wanted. They didn't find the party, and Bannerstein was very indignant."
Robert came away most interested in what he had learnt; and he would have been more interested still had he been the fly upon the wall when David O'Shane came out to interview Bannerstein that night at the arranged hour of nine o'clock.
About five and forty years of age, with a clear-cut profile and clever, intellectual face, Isaac Bannerstein was certainly of an attractive appearance, though his good looks were rather marred by the restless and shifty nature of his eyes. They were seldom still and to a critical observer would suggest the workings of a cunning brain behind them.
He greeted David O'Shane with a pleasant smile, but did not offer to shake hands. "Well, what is it this time?" he asked.
O'Shane took an oblong jewel-case out of his pocket and, opening it, exposed quite a good-sized gold and jewelled pendant in the shape of a star. The star was studded all round with diamonds, but in the centre was a large ruby. He handed it to the Jew across the big table-desk on either side of which they were sitting.
Bannerstein took the pendant and for a long time sat regarding it in his hand. For once his eyes seemed to be keeping still. Then, with a quick movement which was habitual to him, he opened a drawer in his desk and took out a huge magnifying glass, about six inches across, proceeding to examine the pendant minutely, both back and front.
The deep silence that prevailed was at last broken by O'Shane. "A pigeon-blood ruby if ever there was one," he remarked. "I've never seen anything like it. It comes from Madrid and belongs to a noble family there who have had it for over two hundred years."
Bannerstein looked up at last and smiled a cold and crafty smile. "Yet, ten years ago, my friend," he said dryly, "I myself saw it in the State Museum in Munich. It is part of the regalia of the old Bavarian kings. It belonged to the Duchy of Bavaria long before Napoleon in 1805 conferred upon the head of the ruling house of the Wittelsbach the title of King. You will find all about its life-story in Vollenbach's Masterpieces of Art, a copy of which is in the British Museum."
O'Shane had got very red and his face was a study in embarrassment, but while he, apparently, was too astonished to speak, Bannerstein went on sternly, "So your lie is not good enough for me, Mr. David O'Shane. You must tell it to someone else," and he added scoffingly, "You got it from no noble family in Madrid!"
"I'm not a liar," O'Shane burst out hotly. "That was what I was told, anyhow."
"Well, in future," said Bannerstein suavely, "regard this particular informant as untruthful." He looked down at the pendant again. "Now what are you asking for this?"
"£20,000," said O'Shane firmly. "They won't take a penny less."
Bannerstein shook his head. "I can't give it," he said, "and no one else will, either." He leant across the desk. "I won't say it isn't worth it, because it is. Still, its value, though you may not know it, depends upon the exquisite workmanship of the gold setting. It is an authentic piece of the work of the great goldsmith, Benvenuto Cellini, designed and made by him when he was at the zenith of his genius, about 1550." He threw out his hands. "But where can I find a market for it? It would be recognised at once."
"But the police are not on the look-out for it," said O'Shane. He smiled for the first time. "It is not on their Pawnbrokers' List."
"Perhaps not," smiled back the Jew, "but there happens to be such a body as the Allied Commission and they are still searching with a fine comb for public treasure stolen all over Europe." He shook his head. "All the gems in this star will have to be sold separately, and I can only offer you half what you ask. That ruby will be very difficult to sell."
"Well, I certainly can't let you have it for £10,000," growled O'Shane, "until I've seen the sellers again, and that will probably be at this week-end. I have several other things quite as good that I could bring to you, but I'll settle about this one first."
"And, of course, you won't tell me who your clients are," smiled Bannerstein, "though, with your Irish Republican Army activities so widely suspected, it's not likely any Britishers would have chosen you to do the bargaining for them."
"Who says I'm suspected?" asked O'Shane sharply. "I've given up all that long ago."
Bannerstein shook his head. "The authorities don't think so," he said, "and that's why I have to be so careful when I telephone you." He nodded. "I have ways of knowing, and I assure you the police are keeping a good eye on you. They'd like very much to find out, too, what's happened to your missing brother. I happen to know that for certain."
O'Shane looked uneasy. "What," he scowled, "do they suspect me of having him bumped off?"
"I don't say that," said Bannerstein, "but you were so prompt in applying to them for help to find him that for some reason they're rather suspicious." He smiled a cold, grim smile. "Perhaps they think you only did it to cover yourself if, later, anything that looked awkward for you happened to come to light."
"The damned and bloody fools!" swore O'Shane. "Why, I've got a fellow now working for me to find out who murdered him!"
"Then you think he was murdered?" asked Bannerstein in some surprise.
"I'm pretty sure of it," nodded O'Shane. He hesitated a moment and then burst out, "See here, I'll tell you something." He looked hard at the Jew. "Now, do you remember the story that was going about last summer of a dog which had gone off with a necklace of emeralds worth £5,000, down in the country?"
"Certainly, I do," said Bannerstein. "It was at a house-party of Society people near Goodwood. It was a very interesting story."
"Well," said O'Shane frowningly, "a few days before my brother disappeared, one of the stones of that necklace was brought to him to buy, and I'm sure that was the beginning of what led to his death," and he proceeded to relate the whole story, beginning with the purchase of the stone and ending with his paying Robert to try to find the man who had sold it.
Bannerstein was greatly interested, and at the end of the story asked thoughtfully, "But are you sure this man you are now employing is not imposing upon you? Can you be certain he did see your brother at the races?"
"How else could he have known he would be there?" retorted O'Shane. "I don't believe my brother had ever been to a race-meeting in all his life before, and only he and I knew he was going that Saturday afternoon."
"And you continue to go to the races every week-end with this man?" asked Bannerstein.
O'Shane nodded. "And I pay him a pound every time for coming with me. It's only he who can pick out the man my brother was talking to."
"But has it never struck you," asked the Jew thoughtfully, "that he might be the man himself, the one who sold him the emerald?"
For a moment O'Shane looked thunderstruck, but then he replied sharply. "No, it hasn't and it doesn't strike me so now. Damnation, no! Why, if he did anything to my brother, I'd be the last person he'd want to meet and he'd keep away from my place as far as possible."
"But he mayn't have done anything to your brother," persisted Bannerstein, "and he mayn't be imposing upon you, either. He may certainly have been the man who sold the emerald and met your brother at the races afterwards." He threw out his hands. "But there, as far as he is concerned, the matter may have ended! He may have had nothing to do with your brother's disappearance and be quite innocent of the matter."
O'Shane's face was a study in perplexity. From long years of illicit dealings with the Jew he had come to have a great respect for his shrewdness and intelligence, and now he was undoubtedly impressed with what he had been saying.
Bannerstein went on smilingly. "I only put the idea before you because it strikes me it is more than possible you may still be in touch with the man who's got that emerald necklace. If so, frighten it out of him cheaply and I'll give you £2,000 for it."
They talked on for some while and then O'Shane left with the promise to ring up again the following Monday. His brain was in a whirl of indecision. One moment he was sure the Jew's idea was ridiculous, and the next he was piling up suspicion upon suspicion against Robert. Why was the latter, as a man of some undoubted education, content to be earning such a little money; how could he afford to buy the expensive brand of cigarettes he was always smoking, and how was it—subconsciously this last thought had often come into his mind—his hands were so clean and smooth for a man who, as he had said, had been earning his living as a motor-mechanic?
O'Shane scowled. Well, he would see into it.
In the meantime, for a long while after his visitor had gone Isaac Bannerstein was sitting at his desk looking very thoughtful. He seemed to be considering some difficult problem, and smoked cigarette after cigarette before coming to a decision. Finally, he touched a bell upon his desk and a smart-uniformed maid appeared. "Send Harker to me, please," he said, and in a minute or so his valet-chauffeur appeared.
"Sit down, Harker," he said. "I've a proposition to put before you. Help yourself to a cigarette."
There was no doubt Harker and his employer were upon easy and familiar terms, as the former, without a word of thanks, took the proffered cigarette from a silver and cedar-wood box upon the table and, pulling up a chair to the fire, sat down and stretched his legs luxuriously to get the best of the warmth. He was a small dark man, of undoubted Hebraic descent, with a large nose and cunning-looking little eyes. He had a noticeable scar upon his forehead.
"That David O'Shane has just been in," began Bannerstein, "and——"
"I don't like the man," grunted Harker, "and he's dangerous to have anything to do with. Scotland Yard has got a mark against him. As I've told you before, that policeman I know told me. This chap never passes his shop door without a curse because some relation of his was blown up when the I.R.A. planted that bomb in the cloakroom at Victoria Station. Yes, I tell you he's a marked man."
"I know that," nodded Bannerstein, "and I've always been extra careful in any dealings I've had with him. Well, he showed a very valuable diamond-studded star that he wanted to sell."
"Local stuff?" asked Harker.
Bannerstein shook his head. "No, an historic jewel that I recognised as having come from the State Museum at Munich, in Germany. It's worth a lot of money and he wanted £20,000 for it."
"Whew!" whistled Harker, with his eyes opened very wide. "Where did he get it from?"
"Ah, that's what I'd like to know," frowned Bannerstein, "but he wouldn't tell me. That's not all the tale, either, for he said he'd got more things of equal value to sell, but he wouldn't bring me those until he'd settled about this diamond star. I offered £10,000 for it, but he said he couldn't make a deal for as low as that until he'd consulted the people who were wanting to sell it."
"But wanting £20,000 for one piece of jewellery," exclaimed Harker almost incredulously, "and saying he'd got more stuff like it to come! Then he's got a big fortune to sell"—he spat into the fire—"and him the Irish underground rat, David O'Shane!" His little eyes glared. "Why, I wouldn't trust the likes of him with a penny!"
Bannerstein laughed. "But it's probably only because he is that underground rat, as you call him, that he's been given the things to sell. He's acting for German underground rats this time, some hiding-away Huns who are deep in the movement, and they're trusting him because they know he's anti-British and has been labelled I.R.A. for years."
Harker pursed up his lips. "Then in my opinion," he said sourly, "I think they'll be darned lucky if they get any of the money."
"Oh, but I don't think that," said Bannerstein quickly. "Whatever the O'Shanes may be, their hatred of the British would count higher with them than anything else. They'd be honest as clocks with any money that was going to be used to do Britain harm. I'm sure of that."
Harker looked unconvinced, but asked curiously, "Well, Guv'nor, what did you want to speak to me about?"
"I was thinking," said Bannerstein with a smile, "that perhaps it might be possible to save Mr. David O'Shane from any further worry about those jewels." He lowered his voice. "I've thought it well over and with any luck it should not be very difficult to lift them from his place in Pentonville Road."
Harker showed no surprise at the suggestion and was quite business-like. "How would you get in?" he asked. "He's sure to have burglar alarms on all the doors and windows."
"I know that," nodded Bannerstein, "but I was thinking of the roof. A few months ago when he bought that new car he took me round to his yard at the back to see it, and it struck me then that the roof would be easy to get into. It's a very old house, three stories high, and the roof isn't a very long way above that of the shed where he garages his car during the day. Of course, it would be simple as anything if you could get a ladder in the lane. I don't suppose anyone goes into the lane from the adjoining houses after business hours. As far as I could judge, no one sleeps in any of the shops at night. They're all lock-up business premises."
"What about his safe?" asked Harker. "He's sure to have got one."
"Of course he has, but it's an old-fashioned key one, no combination. He opened it once when I was there and the whole thing looked flimsy. He depends on the police station being so near. It's just round the corner, not a hundred and fifty yards away."
"But what about his house in St. John's Wood? It would be a rotten business if we went to all the risk of getting into his shop in Pentonville Road to find he kept his most valuable things at his private house."
Bannerstein shook his head. "I don't think that for one minute. The house in St. John's Wood is gloomy and secluded, not far from the Regent Canal and a long way from police help. Certainly, he's got another safe there, but it's a small one and could be carried off bodily."
"Well, suppose he always keeps these valuable things upon him," persisted Harker. "Remember bits of jewellery don't take up much room."
"But they do if they're in cases," retorted Bannerstein, "and this star he had with him to-night was in one." He shook his head. "No, I think we can be pretty certain that whatever he's got is in that old safe at the back of the shop. You see he would be pretty confident that no one would dream his shop in that poor neighbourhood would be worth breaking into."
Harker considered. "All right, then," he said after a few moments. "I'll go round to-morrow and have a look."
So it came about that the next morning when Robert was attending to O'Shane's car, he noticed a small, dark, Jewish-looking man pass more than once up the lane behind the pawnshop and, by a strange chance, he got a snapshot of him.
It happened in this way. With a view to finding out what took David O'Shane so mysteriously down to Bury St. Edmunds, he had resolved to go there himself and try to trace where the big car went after it had arrived at that town. The car was an ordinary six-cylinder Monash but it had a peculiar mascot upon the top of the radiator, a circle depicting the signs of the Zodiac, with a harp in the middle of it. Robert reckoned the harp was intended by O'Shane to be the Harp of Erin.
The mascot was so unusual that he reckoned also it would be easily remembered by people if they were shown a photograph of it. So he had brought his little pocket camera with him to get a good snapshot, and having finished cleaning the car, he backed it against the low wall separating the yard from the lane.
In order that by no chance should O'Shane come out and catch him, he was intending to take the photograph through the window of the garage. The light was fairly good, with the sun shining, but every now and then clouds flitted across.
With the camera ready in his hand he stood waiting for the propitious moment. All ready for it when it did come and the car was bathed in sunshine, he got two exposures, being rather amused when he realised that in the second one, besides the car, he had got the small dark man with his head uplifted, so it seemed, to the sky. It happened he had been passing by at that very moment.
Certainly he was amused, but his feelings were very much more than those of amusement when that same afternoon, walking up Old Bond Street to have a look at the Pomme d'Or run by this mysterious Isaac Bannerstein, his astonished gaze fell upon this same small dark man, now attired in a chauffeur's uniform, standing outside the art-shop door.
NOW there was no doubt the suggestion of Isaac Bannerstein that after all Robert might be the man who had sold the emerald had bitten deeply into David O'Shane's mind, and, when Robert came in the next morning, he gave him an even more than usually hard and intent stare. Robert could not help noticing it and could think of no other reason than that the pawnbroker was now intending to tell him he would not be wanted any more.
This idea, most disconcerting to Robert, nevertheless spurred him on to consider taking immediate steps to find out what was now actually locked up in the office safe. From the pawnbroker's continued watchfulness over it, he was sure it contained something of particular importance, and he kept on urging himself that if only he had the courage to act boldly, he could get a look inside it in the easiest way possible, as he was certain that of the two keys he had found upon the ring in the dead Fergus's pocket, one was that of the street door and the other that of the safe.
Upon his first coming to work for David O'Shane, he had believed that every night an alarm would have been set upon the street door, but a couple of weeks back a certain incident had made him think he was mistaken there.
One morning, his watch being a few minutes fast, it happened he had arrived at the pawnshop only a few yards behind David when the latter came to open it for the day, and he had been surprised at the quick and easy way in which the street door had been dealt with. It had only taken a few seconds. David had just pushed his key into the lock, given it a turn of his wrist, and then thrown the door wide open. He had walked straight into the shop and it was evident there had been no burglar-alarm upon the door to be disconnected.
The whole business had been so straightforward that Robert was quite sure he could carry it through in the same way if he only had the nerve to set about it.
Now it happened that Robert was quite wrong when he judged from David's manner that he was about to get rid of him. All he, David, was turning over in his mind was the idea that if, indeed, Robert had been the seller of the emerald—then, in all probability, the necklace was still in his possession, and how to set about getting possession of it was what was worrying him. In the meantime, however, to learn if Robert was really what he made himself out to be, a demobbed man out of work, he had engaged a woman whom he knew he could trust, to follow him home one evening and report the result. The woman was an ardent sympathiser with the I.R.A. and he had employed her before to carry messages to certain wanted Sinn Feiners who were in hiding from the police.
She had no difficulty in shadowing Robert to Ensum Street and, the next day, posing as employed by the London Directory, made enquiries as to all who were living in the house, learning among other things from his chattily-inclined landlady that Robert took most of his meals away from his flat. Not content with this information, she followed Robert the next evening to see where he went, and, when David O'Shane arrived back home at St. John's Wood on the Thursday evening, the full report was waiting for him.
"Re—Bob Willows," he read. "His real names are Robert Willoughby and he does not live in North End Road, Fulham. Instead, he occupies three furnished rooms at No. 6 Ensum Street, a little street of poor-class houses behind the British Museum. He has been there about six months and has, apparently, no settled occupation except going to the races every Saturday afternoon. During the week he makes a great study of a number of racing newspapers. He is of a very reserved disposition and talks very little about himself. During recent weeks he has been away for some hours every day and has told his landlady that he is taking a practical course in engineering. This may be quite true, as he wears working clothes during the day, changing into smarter ones when he goes out for his evening meal. Yesterday evening I followed him to Frascati's Restaurant in Oxford Street and, as I noticed the commissionaire at the door there touched his cap to him and said 'Good evening, sir', I take it he is a regular customer of the restaurant."
David frowned darkly as he read the report. "Now what the devil does all this mean?" he asked himself uneasily. He summed up everything. "For six months he's been living there, and for four and a half of them he did nothing except go to races at the week-ends. That means he was in no one's employ and certainly not working for the police. Then, suddenly, six weeks ago, he sees those notices in the newspapers about Fergus being missing and for some reason thrusts himself upon me, on his own. What the hell's he after?"
It has been mentioned that David had a great respect for Bannerstein's judgment and, after a short hesitation, he rang him up.
Getting him on the phone, he told him what the report said. "Now what do you think about it?"
Apparently Bannerstein didn't think much. He believed David must have made a mistake in first getting hold of the name and thought it sounded as if the man were quite honest and straightforward. As for the wrong address he had given—it might just be he didn't want the party who was letting him the rooms to become curious, which of course he or she would be if someone came making enquiries about him.
For the moment David was greatly relieved by Bannerstein's opinion, but he very soon became uneasy again. He couldn't enjoy the nice dinner his housekeeper had provided for him, and two stiff whiskies, later, brought him no peace of mind. Finally, with an oath of annoyance, he jerked on his overcoat and hat, and left the house. He would go down to the shop and see if everything was all right! One thing—the walk would do him good and shake up his liver! The time was just half-past nine.
Now, so strange is Fate, he was not the only one converging that night upon the pawnshop in Pentonville Road. Bannerstein and Harker had chosen it as the auspicious time to break in through the roof, and before nine o'clock had secreted themselves in the little yard abutting on the lane, provided with ropes and jemmies and other paraphernalia of the burglar's calling. They had chosen that comparatively early hour, because Harker's experience had taught him the police were never at their watchful best until well on towards midnight.
Robert, too, with his heart in his mouth, was making his way Pentonville Road-wards just a few minutes before David O'Shane had started upon his journey. At last, with his time as he thought getting short and his opportunity almost passing, he had boldly resolved to tackle the front door of the shop and the safe inside in the office.
The Pentonville Road was almost deserted, and with no hesitation on reaching the pawnshop, Robert inserted the smaller of his two keys into the lock of the street door and, the door opening at once, he passed into the shop and closed the door behind him. He held his breath in his excitement.
The shop was not quite dark, as light filtered through the peep-holes of the iron shutters spread across the long window, and, after waiting a minute or so, he could see quite plainly. Pulling on a pair of doeskin gloves, he tiptoed round the counter and opened the office door. It was still not pitch dark there, but he switched on his small torch as he inserted the long key of the bunch in the keyhole of the safe. It turned easily and he was just about to pull open the heavy door, when his heart almost stopped beating and with difficulty he suppressed a cry of terror.
He had heard stealthy footsteps on the floor above.
For several seconds he could not take it in, believing his senses must have played him false, but when distinct sounds came next from the creaking stairs, as if someone was coming down, he awoke to life and darted like an arrow from the little office. Fortunately, his shoes were rubber-soled and, quicker than it takes to tell, with no sound other than the violent thundering of his heart, he had hidden himself under the shop counter. His eyes, wide as saucers, were fixed unblinkingly upon the closed door at the foot of the stairs.
It opened stealthily and two dark shadows glided rather than tiptoed into view. One was much taller and bigger than the other, but it was the smaller one which carried a good-sized handbag. Robert could have screamed in terror as they approached nearer, but they both turned at right angles and went through the open door of the office. The door was gently pulled-to behind them and everything there was now in complete darkness.
Holding his breath, he strained his ears and eyes in a nerve-racking wonder as to what was going to happen next.
A few seconds' waiting, and a faint blur of light, as from an electric torch, silhouetted the only partly closed office door, and he heard a gasp of surprise followed by a hoarse whisper.
"God of my fathers," came the whisper clearly, "but he's left the key in the lock!"
Another gasp of surprise and then Robert picked up the sound of the safe door being swung open, followed now by a low whistle of amazement.
"Stacks of them!" he heard. "Why, there's a fortune here!" but on this instant there fell upon Robert's ears a sound other than voices and this time behind him.
Horror upon horror, and his heart almost stopped beating again! Someone was opening the street door!
It opened quickly and in the dimness he saw an arm stretch out. There was a sharp click, and the shop was flooded in a bright light. God, David O'Shane was standing in the doorway!
Looking back later, Robert was never certain that he could quite piece together in their proper place all the things that happened so quickly then.
He remembered two white and scared faces peeping round the office door. Then he was sure it was a shout from the pawnbroker which precipitated the catastrophe which followed. At any rate, O'Shane must have seen the two faces, for after his shout he darted over towards the shop-window and stretched up his arm to pull at something. The loud thunderous clang of a big alarm sounded and two men catapulted themselves out of the office. One of them, Robert recognised instantly as the short dark man he had seen in the lane.
They sprang towards the street door which was still wide open, but O'Shane, with one hand groping in his pocket as if for some weapon, darted across the shop to intercept them. Certainly he got between them and the door and actually caught hold of the smaller one, but the latter turned on him like a tiger and, with a short bar he was carrying, struck him a fearful blow on the head. Robert always thought he heard his skull crack like a coconut.
At any rate, O'Shane crashed heavily on to the floor and in a matter of seconds the two men had passed out into the street, banging the door to behind them.
Then Robert knew he lost his head, for he remembered running several times round the shop like a frightened rabbit, with difficulty avoiding the body upon the floor as he ran. He could not think where to hide himself or in which direction to make his escape.
At last, however, he remembered the stairs and, with some vague idea of getting out of a window at the back of the shop, he raced up them. Gaining the landing upon the first floor, he stopped hesitatingly for a few seconds, but then, glancing upwards, saw a patch of moonlit sky through the manhole in the ceiling above the landing of the second floor.
It was then that he believed he recovered his reason, for the thought at once avalanched itself into his mind that it was through that opening the two men must have broken in.
He raced up and to his delight saw a length of knotted rope hanging down from the manhole. It was not a minute's work to shin up it and he found himself only about a couple of feet or so from a hole in the roof of the building. Another length of rope was tied to a cross-beam and disappeared through the hole. Common sense told him the other end would stretch down into the yard.
Climbing through the hole in the slates with some difficulty, as his shoulders were broader than those of the men who had made it, he trusted himself fearlessly to the hanging rope and, foot by foot, lowered himself down.
In a couple of minutes at the most he was landed in the yard and in seconds after that was speeding up the lane. Gaining the end where the lane abutted into the street, he slowed down his pace to a leisurely walk as he went up the Pentonville Road.
And all the time, the alarm had been buzzing loudly like an unfriendly bee, but gradually the sound of it grew fainter and fainter and, finally, as he turned into the Gray's Inn Road, Robert could hear it no longer. With a deep sigh of infinite thankfulness he knew he was safe.
All his powers of calculation having returned, the first thing he did was to get rid of his gloves, as he was quite sure that, under a magnifying glass, particles of the ropes he had climbed up and down would be found clinging to them. One of them he threw behind a hoarding and the other, quite a mile away, he pushed down a drain.
Reaching home, he found the house, as it had been when he left it, in complete darkness, so he knew no one could prove he had not been indoors all the evening.
It can be well imagined what an almost sleepless night he passed. With all his war adventures, he knew he had just experienced his most narrow escape of all. He felt sure David O'Shane had been killed, and if so, if it became known he, Robert, had been in the pawnshop that night, he would be suspected of the murder. However, it would never become known, he told himself confidently. His escape had been as clean and untroubled as he could have wished. No one had seen him and he had left no trails behind. He wondered if Bannerstein and his man had escaped—for of course those two had been the burglars, with the man the actual murderer.
His thoughts ran on. He was sure he could understand how it had all come about.
Last Monday night, O'Shane had kept his appointment with Bannerstein and perhaps had taken valuables to him to sell. They had quarrelled about the sum to be paid for them and O'Shane had brought the jewels back with him. Then Bannerstein had sent his chauffeur to spy out the land, and they had decided to break in through the roof so that they should not disturb the burglar-alarms, and obtain everything O'Shane was holding, without making any payment at all! Then, by evil luck, O'Shane had taken it into his head to pay a visit to the shop at night, and had been murdered!
Of course if he, Robert, told all he knew, he might get them both hanged, but he didn't see how he could do it without exposing himself. Besides, after all, O'Shane, like his brother Fergus, had only got his deserts. By all accounts he was a bad man and it was a good thing for the country that he was dead. However, in one way, his death was annoying, as it would probably make it much more difficult to find out for whom he had been acting. That they were enemies of Great Britain he was pretty certain.
Then, Robert felt a more uneasy feeling at the pit of his stomach as he considered his own position now. Things were undoubtedly going to be rather unpleasant for him, as he would have to put up with a lot of questioning from the police. He couldn't just fade out of the picture as he would have liked to, for if he did it would arouse suspicions at once that he must have some very good reason for doing so.
Undoubtedly the assistant, Dan Hunt, would tell all he knew about him and most likely reveal that O'Shane was employing him to find his brother. So it was not the slightest use his attempting to lie low. He must face the music and, to escape complications, deviate as little as possible from the exact truth.
It was well after four o'clock before he at last dropped off to sleep, and then at seven he was up again to take in the morning newspaper. His face blanched and his heart bumped as he read, as he had quite expected, however, that David O'Shane was dead. Also, as he had expected, the murderers had not been caught.
There was only a short paragraph about it and it was headed, 'Pentonville Road Pawnbroker Murdered.' It went on to say that the loud sounding of a burglar-alarm had brought the police in hot haste to the pawnshop to find the pawnbroker lying, weltering in his blood, upon his shop floor. A blood-stained jemmy had been found near him. The criminals—for two men had been seen running away—had evidently been disturbed in their work, as, apparently, the contents of the safe were undisturbed. The police were investigating the matter.
"So they got nothing," nodded Robert, "and I'd like to go round to the Pomme d'Or now, and see how Isaac Bannerstein looks this morning." He made a grimace. "But business first, and I'll have to go and face the detectives."
Accordingly, just before nine o'clock, he arrived at the pawnshop in Pentonville Road, to find, as he had thought there would be, a small gaping crowd on the pavement round the street door. A policeman kept moving them on, while another stood guard by the door itself. A long, obviously police car was parked against the kerb.
Robert pushed his way up to the door. "I'm employed here," he said to the policeman on guard.
"What name?" asked the policeman and, following up his intention of keeping to as near the truth as possible, Robert replied "Willoughby".
The policeman opened the door to let him pass, and called out to another officer just inside the shop, "This man says he's employed here, Sergeant, by name of Willoughby," and, returning outside, he closed the door behind him.
With his breath coming a little uncomfortably, Robert gave a quick glance round. The small shop seemed crowded, and he thought he smelt a strong smell of uniforms. The only person present not in uniform was Dan Hunt, and he looked white and scared. The body of the dead man had been taken away and whatever blood there had been wiped up.
"You the man who attended to Mr. O'Shane's car?" asked a policeman in sergeant's uniform and, upon Robert nodding, he said, "Well, we want to question you, but we're not ready yet. You'll have to wait."
Robert moved up to the assistant. "Dreadful business," he whispered. "I saw it in the newspaper."
"So did I," said Hunt. He spoke in the lowest whisper possible. "Here, take my tip and say as little as possible. Only answer their questions. That's all I intend to do. As I told you, I got a stretch once, and I don't want any of them to know. Blast them!"
"But who on earth can have done it?" whispered back Robert.
"Oh, anyone," was the reply. "He'd got plenty of enemies," but at that moment his name was called and he was taken into the office.
In less than five minutes, however, he came out, and the sergeant beckoned Robert to go in.
Now it was one of the surprises of Robert's life, and by no means a pleasant one, to find that the two men seated at the small table there were the same two detectives he had met at that little country inn upon the evening when he had regained possession of the emerald necklace. He recognised them instantly, but hoped fearfully they would not remember him.
The stouter of the two, as once before Robert remembered, spoke first. "Your name?" he asked eyeing him intently, and then as Robert replied, "Willoughby," his eyebrows went up and he exclaimed sharply, "Gad! We've seen you before, haven't we? Aren't you the young man with the bicycle who got over the fence that night in the country?"
"And gave you the rabbit," nodded Robert boldly. "Yes, that's me. I remember you both quite well."
The inspector's eyes gleamed as he turned to his colleague. "Remember him, Sam? I thought you would." He turned to Robert again and asked very sternly, "What do you say your name is?"
"Willoughby," said Robert. "Robert Willoughby."
Frowning hard, the inspector searched among some papers on the table and picked up one. It was the report of the woman who had been sent to follow Robert and they had found it in the dead pawnbroker's pocket. The inspector ran through it quickly as if to refresh his memory, and then snapped at Robert like an angry dog. "But that's not the name under which you were known here?" he snarled.
Robert looked wooden. "It's the only name I've got," he said, and he added coolly as an afterthought, "or ever had."
"Where do you live?" was the next question, fired like a bullet from a gun.
"Number six Ensum Street," replied Robert, "just behind the British Museum. I've got a sort of flat there of three rooms."
"But that's not the address you gave Mr. O'Shane when he took you on," snapped the inspector. "You told him you lived in North End Road, Fulham."
"Quite so," nodded Robert, in no wise put out. "I didn't want them to know at my rooms in Ensum Street that I was working for a pawnbroker and what my work really was."
"Why not?" demanded the inspector suspiciously. "There's nothing wrong in being a chauffeur, is there?"
"But I wasn't really O'Shane's chauffeur," said Robert. "He was paying me to try and find out about his missing brother," and he went on to relate, with many reservations, however, how he had come to be acquainted with the pawnbroker.
The detectives certainly listened patiently to his story, but from the expressions upon their faces, it did not seem that either of them believed all he said. Then the inspector rapped out in what Robert thought uneasily was an almost menacing tone, "And when were you last in this shop?"
"Yesterday afternoon at five o'clock," replied Robert; "just before I left for home."
"And how did you spend the evening?"
"I went out for my evening meal at six o'clock. Got home about half-past seven and didn't go out again."
"And you can bring witnesses to verify that?"
Robert shook his head. "No, my landlady and her husband were out when I came in and didn't get home until nearly eleven o'clock. So, no one saw me after six o'clock."
After a quick significant glance at his colleague the inspector remarked grimly, "Well, we've not finished with you yet by a long chalk, and you'll have to come up to headquarters to be further questioned. In the meantime, I'll trouble you to hand over all your keys." He affected a great politeness. "If you've no objection we'd like to go through your flat!"
"What the devil for?" asked Robert sharply. "I've had nothing to do with this man's death."
"So you say, young man," retorted the inspector, "but I regarded you as a fishy customer when we met you that evening in the country, and I'm not altering my opinion now." He held out his hand. "Your keys, please," and, when Robert passed over only one, he scowled, "That's all you've got?"
Robert nodded. "It's the key of the street door. In my rooms there is nothing locked up. I've nothing of any value"—he grinned—"and nothing to hide."
With very little delay he was driven to Scotland Yard and, put in charge of a constable, was escorted to a small room while the inspector went off to make his report to the Chief Commissioner of Police.
Inspector Charles Stone was the senior of all the inspectors attached to the Yard and for more than thirty years had worked in the Criminal Investigation Department. In the middle fifties, he was esteemed as one of the shrewdest men they had ever had. Stout and heavy, his face was big and heavy too. Stern and uncompromising with all he suspected of wrong-doing, his large ox-like eyes, under big and bushy brows, could yet twinkle with humour when anything amused him.
The Commissioner received him cordially and motioned him to a chair. "There are some very unusual features about this crime, sir," began Stone briskly. "To begin with"—and he opened a handbag he had brought with him and placed some half-dozen jewel-cases upon the Chief's desk—"in the old-fashioned safe in this shabby little pawnshop in one of the poorest districts of London, we found jewellery of great value, amounting, I should say, to very many thousands of pounds. Just see what I've got here."
One by one the jewel-cases were opened and the Commissioner whistled when he saw what they contained—the beautiful Munich diamond-studded star, diamond necklaces, and rings and big brooches of flashing stones.
"Now if these are not imitations," went on the inspector, "and I——"
"No, they're not," broke in the Commissioner. "I'm sure we can be certain of that. They look like royal jewels to me."
"Exactly!" nodded the inspector. "They're loot from the Continent." He shrugged his shoulders. "Then how in the name of Heaven did this little fourth-rate pawnbroker get hold of them?"
"What was his reputation?" asked the Commissioner.
The inspector pursed his lips. "Bad, bad, thoroughly bad, though, officially, there's not a black mark against him. He's been too cunning for us. Of course, he was an Irishman and we are certain, though we never got the proof, that he was associated with the Irish Republican Army, and mixed up with some of those bomb explosions we've been having. He and his brother, Fergus O'Shane, who by the by disappeared most mysteriously some two months ago, were both bad eggs. We've suspected them for years of being receivers of stolen property, but, there again, it could never be brought home to them."
"And how was their place broken into last night?" asked the Commissioner.
"Ah," exclaimed Stone, "something very funny there, too. A most difficult entry was made through the roof above the third story and an elaborate kit of tools brought down to the safe"—he raised his hand impressively—"but in the burglars' possession were not only the proper key to the safe, but also the right key to the street door! They had no need to break in through the roof and no need to bring safe-opening tools, yet"—he shrugged his shoulders—"they did both, and we can't understand it."
"And they got nothing," asked the Commissioner, "nothing at all for their pains."
"Not as far as we know," said Stone, "for they were, apparently, interrupted just at the critical moment and had to bolt for their lives."
"And it is certain there were two of them?"
"Or, perhaps, three," nodded Stone, "and there's another mystery. Two were definitely seen by a man and woman from the upper window of a house across the road bolting up the street when the alarm began to ring, and a second woman from a back window of a house three houses farther down the road, declares she saw a man come out of O'Shane's yard and run up the lane, not directly the alarm began to ring, but she thinks about three or four minutes afterwards. This lane runs at the back of the house." He nodded frowningly. "I've got this man she thinks she saw here now, for you to question."
"Oh, then she recognised who he was!" exclaimed the Commissioner with some elation.
Stone looked troubled. "Not exactly! She said at first that she thought he was the chauffeur she had often seen from her window cleaning O'Shane's car, but when I questioned her sharply she went back on her statement and said she hadn't recognised him as the chauffeur in any way, but just associated him in her mind with the chauffeur because he was the only man she had ever noticed in the yard."
"And, of course, the chauffeur denies being there?"
Stone nodded. "Most emphatically." He went on slowly, "But it happens I've met this young man once before and thought then he was a fishy customer in some way," and he proceeded to tell at some length of his first meeting with Robert about two months before.
The Commissioner looked doubtful. "It isn't much to go upon, is it?" he remarked frowningly.
"On the face of it, no," agreed Stone, "but it's a remarkable coincidence I should think he was upon some dubious business then, and now come upon him a second time when he may well have been upon wrong-doing again."
"Well, bring him in," said the Commissioner, "and I'll see what I think of him."
So Robert was brought in and to his surprise the stern and military-looking man behind his desk smiled quite pleasantly as he motioned him to a chair.
"This is Sir Charles Egerton, the Chief Commissioner of Police," said Inspector Stone grimly, "and he wants to ask you a few questions. You had better keep strictly to the exact truth."
"Who are your people, Mr. Willoughby?" asked the Commissioner suavely, rather impressed with Robert's nice appearance.
"My father, who's dead now, was a clergyman in Devonshire, sir," replied Robert very quietly. "He was the rector of South Yardly, a little village near Plympton."
"You've served in the army, of course?"
"Yes, sir, six years. The last two I was a commando."
"And your discharge was an honourable one?"
"Yes, sir. I was never crimed for anything."
"Where were you educated?"
"At Winchester, sir—I was there for five years—and two years at Oxford."
The Commissioner frowned. "Then do you wonder we should think it strange that a man of your education should have been content to work for this pawnbroker for the few shillings you have been doing for all these weeks?"
"Not when I explain, sir," said Robert boldly. "It was only a temporary employment and it happened in this way. When I was demobbed nearly a year ago, in addition to my gratuity and deferred pay, I had come into a few hundreds from my father's estate. I had no occupation—I was hoping to follow medicine—and thought I would take a few months' holiday before deciding what to do. Then the idea came to me I could make a living by attending race-meetings. At first I got on fairly well, but gradually my capital began to dwindle. I was finding it rather boring, too, having nothing to do during the week except read racing papers. Then one morning I read in the newspapers that the brother of the pawnbroker who was killed last night—his name was Fergus O'Shane—had disappeared and his brother was asking for any information about him. So I went and told him I had seen him at the races at Hurst Park the previous Saturday afternoon."
"How did you know this brother?" asked the Commissioner.
"I had bought a penknife at his pawnshop once. That was the only time I had seen him."
"But how on earth did you come to remember him," was the frowning query, "if you had only seen him once?
"Well, he was easy to remember, sir—a red-haired, pugnacious-looking Irishman. Besides, we had had a bit of a row in the shop. He asked me if I'd been in the army, and when I told him I had been a commando, he started to run the army down and curse at all Britishers. So I cursed the Irish, and quite thought he was going to offer to fight me. I think he had been drinking."
"But how did you get to know his name?" was the next question, very sharply put. "He's not likely to have told you."
Robert shook his head. "No, he didn't, but after I had left him, I went into the public-house just opposite, across the road. The landlord there is an old 1914 War sergeant and, getting in conversation with him, I mentioned how abusive the pawnbroker opposite had been. He was standing outside the pawnshop door at that moment, and I pointed him out to the landlord through the window. The landlord called him 'that cursed Fergus O'Shane' and said he was a Sinn Feiner. That's how he stuck in my memory so well."
"And all this other O'Shane was paying you for your whole time," asked the Commissioner, "was ten shillings a day?"
"Plus a pound every Saturday," smiled Robert, "and being taken down to the races in a comfortable big car and having a good lunch given you and money for drinks as I lounged at the bar!"
"And you did really see this Fergus O'Shane at the races?" asked the Commissioner thoughtfully.
"Oh, yes," exclaimed Robert, "I saw him right enough and, what's more, I always believe his brother had some idea he had gone there, or he wouldn't have been so willing to keep me on, week after week. This David was by nature a very suspicious man, but I'm sure he was never suspicious of me. He knew I was speaking the truth."
A short silence followed and then the Commissioner asked, "And about that evening when you met Inspector Stone and his colleague. What were you up to over that fence?"
Robert was all prepared with his answer. "Well, sir, I'm rather shy about some things and if I'd remained in that lane"—he grinned—"I was afraid someone might come along the lane and see me. So, I just hopped over the fence for privacy. I wasn't doing anything wrong."
"But how do you explain," was the next query, "being so determined to ride off on your bicycle before these officers should question you, that you tricked them by burning that piece of newspaper to get them away from the machine?"
"Oh, that was only a joke," smiled Robert. "I'd heard from the talk in the bar of that little inn that they were policemen from London—someone had looked at a driving licence in one of the pockets of the car—and when I went into tea with them they seemed a bit inquisitive, asking where I'd been and where I was going, which rather annoyed me. I thought, 'Well, if they're so suspicious they might as well have a run for their money,' and my only reason for burning that piece of newspaper was to give them a bit more to think about. I suppose it was a silly thing to do, really." He grinned again.
The Commissioner asked a few more questions and then Robert was taken out to wait in the little room again. When he had gone the Commissioner smiled in some amusement at the stout inspector. "Very simple that explanation of why he got over the fence, wasn't it?" he remarked.
"If it's true!" grunted Stone.
"Well, we've nothing against him. We must let him go."
"But wait, sir, until we get the report from his rooms," said Stone, clinging to a last hope.
However, the inspector was speedily to be disappointed there, as nothing of an incriminating nature had been found in Robert's flat and, accordingly, he was informed he might go. Greatly relieved that his ordeal was over, Robert felt most hopeful no one would be interested any more in his association with the dead David O'Shane.
The inquest was held the following day, and a verdict of murder against persons unknown brought in by the jury at the Coroner's Court. Generally speaking, the public were not much interested in the matter, considering it only another of the many sordid crimes which had taken place since the ending of the war. For reasons of their own, the authorities had allowed no mention of the valuable jewels found in the safe to leak out. Though for the moment without the slightest clue, they were yet hoping to find out where they had come from. However, they were hardly optimistic enough to think the owner would come forward to claim them.
Not wishing to draw attention to himself, Dan Hunt, for the reason he had told Robert, had held his tongue as to the phone calls the pawnbroker had received, and so no one had any idea that the dead man might have been negotiating with the proprietor of the Pomme d'Or for their disposal.
Robert, himself, in possession of the dreadful secret as to at whose hands the pawnbroker had met his death, was not minded to help the police either. Instead, he was now cudgelling his brains to think in what way he could turn his knowledge to his own advantage. He was by no means a natural 'killer', yet, as we have seen, one legacy of his war years was his indifference to the value of human life, and he had no loathing or repugnance now for the man who was responsible for the pawnbroker's death. Had it been a cold-blooded and deliberate murder, his feelings would certainly have been different, and the sheer sporting instincts of his nature might have spurred him on to see that vengeance was exacted.
However, with his own eyes he had seen the killing had been done in a moment of frenzied terror, and as only one blow had been struck, with no fixed intention of actual murder in the killer's mind. Indeed, it had been rather an act of self-protection, not very different from his own when he had struck down David's brother, Fergus, that night when the latter had been threatening him at the pistol-point in his room.
Yes, his thoughts ran on, perhaps Bannerstein was not very much worse than he himself in his social lapses. The only difference might be that he, Robert, had fallen from grace through a chance temptation, whereas Bannerstein was an habitual offender. Certainly, he would like to get in touch with him, because, as far as he could see, he was the only person whom he would dare to approach to buy the emerald necklace.
He frowned uneasily here. He was not at all sure how much it would be wise to disclose to Bannerstein of what he knew about him. The Jew might turn out to be the leader of a dangerous gang, and if the security of any of them were seen to be threatened by his, Robert's, knowledge, they might take quick steps to deal with him in a most unpleasant way. Yes, he must be most careful how he approached him and watch every step he took with the utmost caution.
However, as things turned out, he need have been in no perplexity how to meet Bannerstein, as the latter made the first advances only a couple of days later.
Robert was walking down Oxford Street, making for Frascati's Restaurant, where he was intending to have his lunch, when a smiling well-dressed man stopped him. "Excuse me," said the man, "but you are Mr. Robert Willoughby, are you not?" and when Robert nodded in startled surprise, he went on, "Well, my name's Bannerstein, Isaac Bannerstein, and I'd like to have a little talk with you some time."
Robert's heart beat furiously, but he pulled his face into as indifferent an expression as possible. He was almost sure, though he could not be actually positive, that he recognised the man who was now addressing him as being the one who had been with Bannerstein's chauffeur upon the night of the murder. "What do you want?" he asked frowningly.
"As I say, a little talk," smiled Bannerstein, "about nothing very important, and I'm quite sure it would be interesting to us both."
"How do you know who I am?" asked Robert coldly and with no answering smile.
"I've been looking out for you," nodded Bannerstein. "I followed you from Ensum Street." He lowered his voice confidingly. "Our mutual friend, the late David O'Shane, had you followed home one night and learnt all about you. I'll tell you all about it some time." They were close to the Horseshoe Hotel, and he motioned towards it with his arm. "But let's go in there and have a quick one. I can only stop a minute as I've got a business lunch on at half-past one and I mustn't be late. Come on."
As in a dream, Robert followed, and they were quickly lifting their glasses to each other. "Here's luck," laughed Bannerstein, "and no more murders in the family." He lowered his voice again. "Yes, that David O'Shane was a very suspicious fellow. He began to think you were bamboozling him about his brother, Fergus, and getting money under false pretences. That's why he had you followed."
Robert had quite recovered his composure. "He was welcome to," he said with a grim smile. "There was nothing much to find out."
"Of course not," agreed Bannerstein at once. He nodded. "But still, I'd like to tell you what he said he'd found out about you." He glanced at his wrist-watch—a most expensive-looking one, Robert noticed. "Well, when can we have our little chat? I'm sure you'll find it most interesting. What about a bit of dinner with me to-night, at my place in Hampstead, number twenty-four Leander Road? There'll be only my daughter and myself, and you needn't dress if you don't like." He laughed. "I'll give you some fine Burgundy that's forty years old. What about to-night at seven?"
Robert was now beginning to feel amused. There was no need to be afraid of this man. He'd like, too, to see inside his house.
"All right," he said. "I'll come." And, declining a return drink from him, Bannerstein was off like the wind.
IN a way Robert was greatly surprised that Isaac Bannerstein had asked him to come to dinner, for all the Jew could have learnt about him must have been from the pawnbroker, and to the latter he had been only a car mechanic who was willing to work for a few shillings a day. Now, however, Bannerstein was treating him as an equal, and his very remark about dressing or not dressing for the meal suggested he was quite aware he, Robert, was by no means as low in the social scale as he had been pretending.
So, considering everything, Robert's surprise was tinged with not a little uneasiness. He was not for one moment intending to underestimate Bannerstein. The latter was a far more intelligent and subtle man than David O'Shane had ever been and, almost certainly, he would be wanting to probe far more deeply into Robert's motives in being so willing to help the pawnbroker than the latter had done. Not unreasonably, he might be suspecting there was much more in it than lay upon the surface, particularly so now that the matter of those so valuable jewels had come into the picture.
Still, Robert smiled to himself, in for a penny, in for a pound, and, very much alive to any tricks Bannerstein might be intending to play, he felt himself quite capable of meeting the Jew boldly upon his own ground and giving him battle in any way he chose.
Accordingly, he duly presented himself that night at 24 Leander Road in a well-cut dinner suit, purchased at one of the best-class tailors in the Haymarket when, flush with money, he had first come out of the army.
Certainly, evening dress became him and, with his good figure and erect bearing, he looked as handsome and dashing a young fellow as anyone would wish to meet.
A smartly uniformed parlourmaid ushered him into Bannerstein's study, where his host greeted him smilingly and at once proceeded to mix him a cocktail.
"So nice of you to come," he said. He made a sort of grimace. "But I'm sorry we're not going to be so small a party as I anticipated. An acquaintance—I'd hardly call him a friend—is going to dine with us. I had to ask him, in fact he almost invited himself. He wants to get a subscription out of me for the Displaced Persons Fund. A most interesting man! He's Gilbert Larose! I expect you've heard of him?"
Robert shook his head. "I can't say I have. Who is he?"
"Well, for some fifteen or sixteen years now," smiled Bannerstein, "he's been the husband of the very wealthy widow, Lady Ardane, and living in great style at Carmel Abbey in Norfolk. Before that he was about the best-known detective at Scotland Yard."
"A detective!" exclaimed Robert, with just a little squirming in his stomach.
"Yes, and one of the greatest the Yard has ever had," nodded Bannerstein. "In homicidal cases his successes were prodigious and, when a murder had been committed, they used to say"—he smiled as if it were a good joke—"that he could see the very shadow the murderer had left upon the wall."
Robert smiled back. "Then they ought to take him round to Pentonville Road," he said, "and see what he can do at the pawnshop there."
"That's what I say," laughed Bannerstein. "It'd put him on his mettle, wouldn't it? But if you won't have another cocktail, let's go into the drawing-room. I'll introduce you to my daughter, Lena."
Realising how good and even distinguished-looking Bannerstein himself was, Robert was expecting his daughter to be a pretty girl, but he had had no thought of how pretty she would really turn out to be. At first sight, he thought her so lovely that, though as a rule he did not take much interest in the other sex, he almost gasped as he saw her.
Of medium height and with a beautifully-rounded little figure, she had almost perfect features. She had lovely long-lashed brown eyes, and her mouth was the shape of the classical cupid's bow, with the lips, however, being perhaps just a trifle full. The only suspicion of anything at all Jewish about her was her faintly olive complexion. The only jewellery she was wearing was a rope of pearls. She gave Robert a dazzling smile when he was introduced.
Her father seemed to have noticed the impression she had produced and looked very proud. "Well, if you'll excuse me, Mr. Willoughby," he said, "I've just one or two little things I wanted to get ready before Mr. Larose comes"—he pretended to look mournful—"for one thing to write him a cheque," and, with a smile at his daughter, he left the room.
"Sit down, Mr. Willoughby," said the girl, "and tell me about the fighting you did in the war. Father told me you were coming this evening and said you had been a commando."
"How the devil did he know that?" thought Robert uncomfortably, but he smiled at the girl. "Yes, I was a commando in the latter part of my war service."
"And have you ever killed anyone?" she asked.
"That was my job," he nodded.
"Then have you killed many?"
He nodded again. "But what a bloodthirsty young lady you are," he said smilingly, "to ask me such a question."
"I'm not bloodthirsty," she retorted warmly, "but I don't forget the agonies of agony the beast-like Germans inflicted upon my race, beginning even years before the war started." She shrugged her pretty shoulders. "Why, if I had been living in Germany then, what would have happened to me?" She answered her own question. "I should have been thrown to the young Nazi louts and outraged hundreds of times." She shook her head. "No, I don't mince matters. I have been a nurse for nearly three years in one of the hospitals of our faith and have heard almost unbelievable tales of horrors from the girls who came as patients there. My father's secretary is a Jewish girl and she has told me things, too, which made my blood run cold."
"Then in that case," smiled Robert, "I can, perhaps, help relieve your mind a little. Yes, thank Heaven, I've killed scores of those young Nazi louts you refer to."
"I'm very glad," she smiled sadly. "The more of them killed the better." She eyed him curiously. "From the look of you, I should say you'd never be afraid whatever you were doing. Perhaps you've not known what fear is!"
"Oh, haven't I?" exclaimed Robert. "Why, every time before a fight my legs would shake under me, my mouth would go all dry and I could hardly get my breath. But once I was in the fight, I didn't care what happened." He smiled. "Yes, I've done quite a good bit to avenge the cruelties your persecuted race has suffered."
"But I'm not all Jewess," she said. "My mother was a Gentile. Poor soul, she died ten years ago. She married twice, both times a Jew. I was her only child. I call Mr. Bannerstein Father, and I've adopted his name, but, really, I'm only his stepdaughter."
"Well, he's very proud of you," smiled Robert, for some reason which he did not attempt to analyse feeling very relieved at her disclosure. "Anyone can see that."
"And he's very kind to me," she said, "though he will not realise I'm nearly twenty-one." She laughed. "He's very strict with me and wants to keep me under his eyes the whole time."
At that moment the door opened and Bannerstein came in accompanied by Gilbert Larose. Not far off fifty, Larose was a smiling, happy-looking man, carrying his age well. His face was kind and even gentle, but for all that no judge of character would have held him to be one it would be expedient to play tricks with.
Introduced to Lena, he held her hand for perhaps a moment longer than he need have done. "And to think," he exclaimed, "that I nearly didn't accept your father's invitation to come here!" He smiled admiringly. "What I should have missed!"
The compliment was so obvious that the girl blushed—as Robert thought—divinely, and a jealous feeling stirred in him that he was not the one who had provoked the blush.
Introduced to Robert, Larose regarded him with some interest, liking at once his bold bearing and the way he carried himself; and in a few minutes the two men were chatting easily together.
It was a very merry meal, with its good service, rich viands, good wines and the luxurious surroundings of Bannerstein's tastefully furnished room. Lena sat opposite to Robert and, feasting his eyes upon her, he tasted little of what he ate. She looked so virginal and yet so self-possessed. Everything about her spoke of refinement and a sweet nature, and he could not understand her being associated in any way with a scoundrel like Bannerstein.
He almost felt he was in a dream and many times would have liked to rub his eyes to make sure he was awake and his environment actually real. Here were he and Bannerstein, two blackguards both wanted by the Law, and they were sitting cheek by jowl with a charmingly lovely girl, who, he was sure, was innocent of all wrong, and a man who, if he only knew what they were, would cheerfully be passing them over to the hangman to receive their deserts.
Presently Bannerstein, with a twinkle in his eye, tried to draw Larose out about crime. "A lot of dreadful things take place now," he remarked. "The world seems to have lost its sense of right and wrong."
"It'll pass," nodded Larose confidently. "It's just the adventure of war taking on another form, the adventure of crime, and we can't expect the passing to be a very pleasant one."
"Did you notice that murder of the pawnbroker," asked Bannerstein, "the one in Pentonville Road?"
Larose nodded. "A bad man himself, by all accounts," he said. "However, I believe the authorities are as much intrigued about what they found in his safe as to who murdered him."
"Oh, what did they find in there?" asked Bannerstein with some animation.
Larose hesitated a few moments. "Well, I hardly think it will be kept a secret for long," he said. "So, there's no harm in passing on the information I have received. They found quite a number of jewel-cases with gems of considerable value in them, almost a king's ransom, so I've heard."
"A king's ransom, in that little shabby pawnshop!" exclaimed Bannerstein in apparent great surprise. "I noticed a photograph of it in one of the newspapers last week, and thought then what a mean-looking little place it was." He tut-tutted several times. "Only fancy the flimsy old safe that would probably be there being stacked with jewels worth a king's ransom! What an extraordinary thing!"
"Yes, and it's extraordinary, too," nodded Larose, "no one coming forward to claim them. With all the publicity which has been given the owners must have seen about the pawnbroker being murdered."
"By the by," remarked Bannerstein, "I don't suppose you noticed in the papers a few weeks ago that the pawnbroker's brother had mysteriously disappeared and no trace could be found of him?"
"No, I didn't notice it," said Larose, "but it happens a friend of mine at Scotland Yard, Detective-Inspector Stone, told me about it this morning. Disappearances seem to be rather in vogue just now, as this inspector mentioned there had been one quite recently in Suffolk, the dreadful feature here being that his body has just been found seven or eight miles from where he lived, with a knife wound in the back."
A short silence followed, with Robert experiencing a horrible feeling in the pit of his stomach. Hell—if the inspector had happened to mention his name! Still, he didn't think that likely, as the detective had certainly scored no bull's-eye with him.
The girl broke the silence by asking, "And do criminals generally look what they are, Mr. Larose? I mean, are you suspicious directly from the moment you set eyes on them?"
Larose looked very amused. "Good gracious, no, young lady! Bless your innocent heart, some of the worst of them look as harmless and innocent as you and me!" He laughed merrily and made a motion with his arm in the direction of Bannerstein and Robert. "Why, as far as looks go, both your worthy father and this young gentleman here may perhaps be criminals of the deepest dye! They may both have done dreadful things and, perhaps, even buried bodies in dark woods!"
"But I don't think it very nice of you to suggest it," reproved Lena with a half-frown and half-smile.
"Oh, but I don't suggest it for one moment," retorted Larose with a bright smile. "I only mean to say that you can't always judge by appearances. I knew a murderer once who looked as kind and good as any Archbishop of Canterbury, and a young woman, too, who was as pretty as a peach, and yet it was found out she had poisoned three people—who had all had agonising deaths, with her so-lovely eyes fixed upon them as they had died."
"Then it seems anybody may be suspected of anything!" exclaimed Bannerstein, pretending to look very scared. "I feel frightened." He turned to Robert. "Don't you, too, Mr. Willoughby?"
"A bit," nodded Robert, and he was speaking the exact truth. It might almost have been as if Larose had been speaking seriously—as if he could smell out a wrong-doer as a cat would smell the presence of a mouse!
The meal over, Larose received a cheque for one hundred guineas from Bannerstein and smilingly took his leave. Robert's fears had calmed down, even more so when the one-time detective was bidding him a particularly friendly good-bye. "I always have a very soft spot in my heart for you young ex-service fellows," said Larose. "You risked so much for us old fogies that we can never be grateful enough," and he added laughingly, "If you're ever in a tight spot, my boy, you send for me and I'll get you out of it, if I can."
"Nice chap, that, Mr. Willoughby," said Bannerstein when Larose had gone. "You wouldn't think he'd got scores and scores of men hanged, would you?" He turned smilingly to Lena. "Now I'm going to take our friend away for a few minutes. So you must amuse yourself until I bring him back."
With the door closed behind them in the study, after motioning Robert to a chair and giving him a cigarette, Bannerstein spoke very sharply. "Now, Mr. Willoughby," he said, "don't think I'm your enemy, because I'm not. I only want to come to some arrangement with you, to your satisfaction as well as mine." He looked him very straight in the face and rapped out his next words in a rush. "You sold that emerald to Fergus O'Shane, met him later at the races and bumped him off somehow. You pinched that emerald necklace at the house-party and you've got it hidden away now." He snatched a paper out of one of the drawers of his desk and handed it across to Robert. "Here, look at this! A copy of the Tatler of August the third, last. Photograph of the Chase house-party at Goodwood races! See yourself in the group and your name underneath?" He nodded grimly. "After what David O'Shane told me about you in this very room, I put two and two together and went to some little trouble to find out all about you." He laughed sardonically. "A bit of a surprise, isn't it? And, of course, you——" but the door opened quickly and Lena came into the room.
"Sir Marcus de Chaine on the phone, Dad," she said. "He wants to speak to you."
Bannerstein was furious at the interruption. "Damn!" he swore angrily. "Tell him I'm not in."
"Oh, I can't do that," said the girl. "I've just told him you're here in your study."
"Damn!" swore Bannerstein again. He hesitated a few moments and then jumped to his feet. "Here, Willoughby, don't you run away. You keep where you are." He turned to Lena and his face was now all smiles. "You see he doesn't go off, dear. Be very nice to him and I'm sure he'll want to stay," and, darting out of the room, he banged the door behind him.
The girl looked frowningly at Robert. "What's upset him?" she asked. "Do you know?"
With a great effort Robert forced himself to smile. "Oh, it's nothing much," he said. "He was just in the middle of a story and didn't like being interrupted. That was all."
She looked relieved, and her face broke into a smile, too. "Well, he said I was to be very nice to you, didn't he?" she asked. "So I'd like to say at once what a lot of pleasure your coming to dine with us has given me."
"I've given you pleasure, have I?" queried Robert, looking very puzzled, the girl's surprising words having for the moment swept aside the terrifying ones of her stepfather.
Lena blushed. "Yes, I mean it's been such a pleasure for me to meet someone near my own age who's not of our faith." She laughed. "You see all our boys talk about is money and it doesn't interest me." She seemed to remember something. "Oh, are you fond of music?"
"Very," said Robert, "though, unhappily, I can play nothing but a tin whistle, and that very badly."
"Well, would you like to hear Busoni, the 'cellist? He's at the Wigmore Hall at three o'clock on Saturday. I've got two tickets you can have. A friend who was coming with me can't come. Would you care for them?"
"I'd love one" said Robert, "but I shouldn't know what to do with two."
"What! You've no girl friend you would like to take?"
He shook his head. "Not a single one!" He smiled. "I've never been interested in any girl until I met you to-night!"
"Flatterer!" she laughed.
He was perfectly serious. "No, it's quite true!" An idea came to him. "Here! What about you coming with me? That would be lovely."
She smiled archly, but shook her head. "My father wouldn't let me. I've told you he's very strict. Why, I've never been out with a Gentile boy in all my life."
"Then it's about time," nodded Robert decisively. "You needn't tell your father anything about it—at any rate, until the deed's done."
"Oh, but I daren't!" she exclaimed.
"Nonsense," he said, "of course you dare! If ever I saw courage in anyone—I see it in you." They heard the telephone ringing off, and he added quickly, "Well, that's settled! I'll be outside the Wigmore Hall on Saturday at ten minutes to three. Don't you disappoint me."
She regarded him thoughtfully with a curious, intent look, but made no reply; then, hearing her stepfather's quickly approaching footsteps, she gave him an arch look and put a finger on her lips.
Bannerstein bustled in. "Ah, still here!" he exclaimed jovially. "Then my daughter has done as I told her and made herself nice to you." He turned smilingly to Lena. "Well, run away now, dear. Mr. Willoughby and I are going to be busy for a few minutes," and she left the room obediently.
Bannerstein reseated himself in his chair behind the desk and fixed Robert with hard and intent eyes. Not, however, altogether pleased with what he saw, he frowned. He perceived something quite different now in the demeanour of the young man before him. He had left him dumbfounded and scared in his surprise, and now his expression was rather a bold and confident one. Something had happened to him!
And certainly, something had happened to Robert. The Jew's stepdaughter had vibrated some strange and new chord in him, and his old commando courage was sweeping through him with the fierceness of a tidal wave. For the moment he had lost all sense of fear and all anticipation that ill-fortune might be coming to him in the thrilling realisation that there was far more in life than living upon the proceeds of theft.
It was he who spoke first, and he spoke confidently, as if he were quite sure that, whatever situation was now facing him, he had got it well in hand.
"See here, Mr. Bannerstein," he said sharply. "I admit you gave me a bit of a fright just now, when I learnt what you had found out about me. I admit, too, I was rather scared at the idea of coming up here to your home to-night and——"
"Exactly," nodded Bannerstein with a grim and something of a menacing smile.
"Oh, but not because of what you might have known of me," exclaimed Robert sternly, "but because of what I know about you. No, no, wait a minute before you say anything more. It's my turn now."
He paused a few seconds to take out and light a cigarette and then went on conversationally, "Now, you have given me, as it were, a ball-to-ball description of a lot of what I have done, and so I'll return the compliment and tell you much of what you've been doing in the past week."
"Go on," sneered Bannerstein. "I'm listening."
"On Monday morning," began Robert, almost in a monotone, and as if he were reciting a piece he had learnt by heart, "David O'Shane rang you up. You were out, but on your return home your secretary rang O'Shane up, with the message that you would be pleased to see him that night at nine o'clock. Your name was not mentioned, but the girl said she was speaking from Hampstead and Mr. O'Shane would know who it was." Robert fibbed and added dryly, "In O'Shane's absence, it happens I was answering the phone and distinctly heard the girl say over her shoulder 'Is that all the message I am to give, Mr. Bannerstein?'" He looked amused. "That's how I came to know the message was from you."
Bannerstein scowled darkly, but made no comment, and Robert went on solemnly, "That same night O'Shane came up here with some valuable jewellery he had to sell. I presume you both could not agree as to the price to be paid, as I have every reason to believe O'Shane brought the jewellery back and returned it to his safe."
Robert now spoke very slowly. "The next morning, Mr. Bannerstein, your chauffeur came up the lane at the back of the pawnshop to reconnoitre how an entry could be made through the roof. He did not see me, but I saw him through the window of the garage."
"That's a lie," burst out Bannerstein. "He never left my place in Bond Street all day."
Robert whipped out of his breast pocket the snapshot he had taken, and threw it disdainfully upon the desk. "You can tear it up, if you like," he said dryly, "I have several more." He went on in grim accusing tones. "On the Thursday night, Mr. Bannerstein, you and your man broke in through the roof just after half-past nine, and, creeping down into the office, were about to set about opening the safe with some tools you had brought with you—when you found the safe was unlocked, with the key in the keyhole."
He paused for a few moments, noting that Bannerstein's face had now gone ghastly pale. His eyes were staring and he glared at Robert as if the latter were hypnotising him. Robert went on. "When you saw all the jewel-cases in the safe, you called out, 'Why, there's a fortune here! There are stacks of them!'" He raised his hand in emphasis. "I noticed, Mr. Bannerstein, that you made use of that same word 'stacks' at dinner to-night when you were talking to Mr. Larose."
"If it's not all a make-up story, this," burst out Bannerstein, with his face now glistening with sweat, "how do you come to imagine it?"
"Because, Mr. Bannerstein," said Robert, and his words came very slowly one by one, "I was watching you both from under the shop counter. I saw all that happened next, too—O'Shane coming in and sounding the alarm—your man striking him down and then you both running out of the door." He leant back in his chair. "That's what I know about you, Mr. Bannerstein, and it's plenty, too."
Bannerstein tried to put on a bold face, but for all that he was the colour of putty and his voice was harsh and shaking. "But you can prove nothing," he said, hardly able to get out his words.
Robert smiled. "I don't want to," he said. "As far as you and your man are concerned the matter is forgotten. I don't look upon you as murderers, either, as, from what I saw, the killing of O'Shane was an act of self-defence. He was getting out his gun and, if your man hadn't hit out at him when he did, both of you would almost certainly have stopped a bullet in the next few seconds." He nodded grimly. "No, I don't think of you as being worse than a thief"—he shrugged his shoulders rather sadly—"such as I myself have been in the matter of that emerald necklace."
Bannerstein wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead with his handkerchief. His colour had begun to come back.
"But you had gone there that night to steal again," he said with a cunning look. "You were after what was in that safe, just the same as we were."
"No, I wasn't," retorted Robert instantly. "I didn't know for certain what was in there, though, from O'Shane's manner during the previous few days, I thought there must be something of importance. My interest was—I believed O'Shane was still working for some Germans in hiding somewhere near London, just as he had been spying during the war."
"How do you know he'd been spying?" asked Bannerstein sharply.
"From what his brother Fergus had let out to me," lied Robert glibly, "when I met him that afternoon at the races. He'd had plenty to drink before he found me and then we had a few more together. He was half tight in the end, and became very boastful as to how clever he and his brother had been. We had quite a long talk together."
Bannerstein was the accuser again. "What did you do to him?" he asked very sharply. "I'm quite certain you've got rid of him somehow."
"Rubbish!" retorted Robert instantly. "The last I saw of him was when he was getting in a taxi about seven o'clock. He was going to meet someone on a freight boat, anchored somewhere off Wapping. I've always thought he must have fallen into the river and got drowned and his body swept out to sea. I tell you he was three parts drunk when he left me. I believe he trafficked in illicit drugs."
Bannerstein went on another tack. "And where had David got all those valuables from?" he asked. "Have you any idea?"
"Not the slightest," replied Robert, determined to take the Jew into no unnecessary confidences. "Still, I'm certain, from what his brother boasted, he was in touch with some German gang and that was why, with Fergus having disappeared, I went to work for him. I was trailing him all the time."
"You don't suppose I believe all you are telling me?" remarked Bannerstein with a sneering look.
Robert laughed. "I don't care whether you do or not." He nodded. "All I want you to understand is that you've got no whip-hand over me now."
"But you admit having that emerald necklace?" went on Bannerstein.
"Certainly," said Robert, "but I've hidden it away where no one else can find it. I've buried it under a tree in the country."
Bannerstein was quite his old self again. "Well, I'll buy it from you. I'll give you quite a good price."
Robert looked thoughtful. "But I'm not certain I'm going to sell it. In fact, I half think of sending it back to its owner." He frowned. "All this business lately has made me realise I'm getting into too deep water and I'd like to get out of it in time." He shook his head. "I'm not going to become an habitual criminal."
Bannerstein, realising he meant it, was very astounded. "Don't be a coward," he scowled. "You'll get over your fright in a day or two."
"Well, I'll see," said Robert slowly. He smiled. "One thing, if I do sell it it'll have to be to you. I know no one else to go to."
"But what's your ordinary occupation?" asked Bannerstein very curiously.
"Well, really, I'm a medical student. I've done a term at a hospital and can go back any day under the Government Rehabilitation Scheme to complete my course."
Bannerstein sniffed. "Hard work, and you'll have to hang about such a long time before you qualify. Now you bring along the necklace to me and I'll deal with you as a friend."
"But I'm rather afraid of you—as a friend," frowned Robert.
"What! Still afraid of me," exclaimed Bannerstein, "after this heart-to-heart talk about everything?"
"Not about everything," said Robert dryly. "We've said nothing about your being an active, though underground, supporter of the Terrorist movement in Palestine."
It was certainly a night of surprises for Bannerstein and, for the moment, he looked obviously embarrassed. However, he covered it up quickly. "A lie!" he exclaimed fiercely. "Who's been slandering me to you now?" And, when Robert thought it wisest to say it was Fergus O'Shane, he went on angrily, "People have been spreading that about just because it's known I am orthodox to my faith." He looked most uneasy. "I'm always so afraid it will get to my daughter's ears. It would shock her, as she's a most tender-hearted girl."
"Well, I shan't ever mention it to her," said Robert dryly, "you can be certain of that."
Taken into the drawing-room to bid Lena good-bye, he squeezed her hand ever so slightly, but did not flatter himself that she returned the pressure. Still, she gave him one of the nicest of smiles and seconded her stepfather's invitation for him to come again. Bannerstein saw him to the front door and even offered to get the car out and drive him home. However, Robert said he would rather have a good walk.
Certainly it was a good walk, but so many thoughts were now stirring in his mind that Robert gave no heed to the distance and plodded frowningly along. He was feeling most depressed, apparently realising for the first time the significance of his mixing his life with the scoundrel that Bannerstein undoubtedly was and that the dead O'Shanes had been—all of them living upon the proceeds of crime.
How was it all going to end for him, he asked himself. Even if Bannerstein gave him a couple of thousand for the emerald necklace, that would not last for ever and what was he going to do then? Of course, he couldn't live by attending race-meetings—one day up and three or four days down! He realised it now, and it came home to him, too, that hundreds of thousands before him had tried similar systems and must have found them no good, or the bookmakers would have shut up their shutters long ago.
Well, what was going to happen to him? He must pull himself up sharp! No more of this crime business! He would live a decent life—he sighed heavily here—so that one day he would have something to offer to the girl he wanted to make his wife. He would go back to the hospital and start life again!
Now there was no doubt at all, this sudden awakening was entirely due to the impression Lena Bannerstein had made upon him, and in the ensuing days she was continually in his mind. He looked forward to seeing her on the Saturday as he had never before looked forward to anything in his life. Although she had given him no promise she would meet him, over and over again he tried to assure himself she would come.
When, however, he did see her actually step out of a taxi that Saturday afternoon, a few minutes before three, his delight was so great that he realised how anxious he had been.
"I really ought not to have come," she exclaimed with a charming smile, "but I thought for once I'd have a little fling on my own and perhaps"—she looked uneasy here—"tell my father later what I had done."
They had a very happy afternoon together and afterwards Robert took her to a cafe for tea. "But when can I see you again?" he asked when they were walking to where she could pick up the Hampstead bus.
"Is there any necessity for that?" she asked, half pretending to be surprised he had put the question.
"Of course there is," replied Robert warmly. "I shall be a lost soul until I do. I'll tell you what. Your father said he'd be pleased for me to come again, so I'll take him at his word and come up to your place one evening next week. Which evening shall it be?"
She hesitated. "But my father won't be taken in," she laughed, "that it's him you've come up to see."
"I don't suppose he will," said Robert stoutly. "I'll let him understand straightaway that it's you I want to talk to. It's only natural, isn't it?"
"He wouldn't think so," she said. She dropped her eyes demurely. "He would be horrified if he thought I was encouraging a follower who wasn't of our faith."
"Are you an orthodox Jewess?" he asked, a little uncomfortable at daring to ask the question.
"I'm not, particularly," she laughed. "I've got a foot in both camps. I've read and thought too much to be narrow-minded." She saw her bus in the distance and added quickly, "Well, if you must come up, make it Tuesday night, about eight. Father has a meeting that night and won't be home till late, probably not until after ten. When you arrive, ask to see him first. I don't want to start the maids talking. Oh, and one thing more—promise you won't want to stop too long. Not more than an hour."
"No time could be too long for me," he said fervently. "Good-bye," and, seeing her safe into the bus, he watched it until it was out of sight.
Filled with his new resolve, Robert spent a busy two days. On the Sunday he recovered the emerald necklace and, finding Colonel Roxbury's address in the phone book, posted it off to him straightaway to where he saw he lived in Mayfair. He had not the slightest regret in parting with it, filled with the thought that now he had found a jewel of much greater price.
On the Monday morning he retrieved from under the tree in Richmond Park the £200 in notes he had taken from Fergus O'Shane's wallet. He felt no compunction in making use of them, as he told himself they only made up the price which justly should have been paid for the emerald. He believed himself to be quite safe in passing them as they were none of them in consecutive numbers, and, from the appearance, had all been well in circulation. It was his intention one day to send the whole £260 to the colonel.
In the afternoon he called round at his old hospital and made arrangements to restart there at the beginning of the next term. Fortunately, when he first entered the hospital his father had paid up in a lump sum all fees until he should qualify, thereby, as is usual in the procedure of medical schools, making him a perpetual student. With his conscience now much less troublesome, he looked forward eagerly to meeting Lena again the following night, with his mind now fully made up that one day he would ask her to become his wife.
However, he was under no delusions there. One moment he thought it a piece of colossal impudence on his part, while the next it seemed quite the natural thing, if he could only make Lena fond of him. If they came to care for each other—what mattered anything else? Certainly, for the time being he would have little to offer her. To his credit, he never considered whether Lena would have money of her own.
He smiled a grim smile here. Isaac Bannerstein was going to be the great snag, for of course he would do his utmost to prevent any engagement. He wondered if the latter would tell his stepdaughter that he, Robert, had been a thief. He might not dare to tell her so openly, because of what could be told about him in return! Still, without doubt he would do his best to spoil everything.
On the Tuesday evening, he arrived in Leander Road, punctual to the minute, and asked the parlourmaid who opened the door to him if Bannerstein were at home. The girl replied no, but added that Miss Bannerstein was, whereupon after a few moments of apparent hesitation, Robert said he would like to see her, and, accordingly, was shown into the drawing-room where Lena was playing at the piano. She rose up immediately and greeted him friendlily.
Now Robert had come up with the firm intention of kissing her, and, to be quite truthful, Lena, too, was expecting that to happen. She had told herself many times during the day that she would not be averse to his doing so. Naturally of a warm and passionate disposition, it had come to her recently that she was missing a lot in life as, all along, she had been so circumstanced that no one had ever made love to her.
She could not understand why, but no boy of the faith she had been brought up in had ever had the slightest appeal for her. Strangely enough, she liked neither their looks nor their ways, and they were the only ones her stepfather had allowed her to meet socially. With nothing of the yielding submissive nature of the ordinary Jewish girl, she had always resented it, too, when he had from time to time impressed upon her the desirability of certain young frequenters of the Synagogue. Indeed, his very urging had been quite enough to prejudice her against them at once, for, with all his care and fondness of her, she had never liked the type of men whom he chose as his friends and brought up to the house. To her there was not the slightest romance about them.
Towards Robert, however, almost from the very first moment she set eyes on him, she felt quite different: she liked the courage and self-assurance she saw in his face. He was decidedly good-looking, too, and she admired his bold air of independence. So with these thoughts running through her mind and with those running in Robert's, the curtain was all ready to go up upon the first act of a pleasing little romance.
Still, though they did not show it to each other, they were both not a little embarrassed to begin with, and Robert wondered if he would ever dare to attempt to kiss the cool and self-possessed young woman before him. She looked so virginal and dainty, too, as if immune to all the coarse instincts of humankind.
She pointed smilingly to the clock upon the mantelshelf. "Now remember our contract. You promised you would not stay longer than an hour."
"I didn't promise," laughed Robert. "It was just a hurried suggestion of yours and I had no part in it." He became serious. "You know, Miss Bannerstein, though I had seen you only twice before to-night, you have been already exerting a wonderful influence for good over me. Ever since I came out of the Army I have been wasting my time, living upon a small legacy that was left me, and practically doing nothing except going to race-meetings, and I tell you frankly that now you have made me thoroughly ashamed of myself."
"And with what result?" she asked, covering up her embarrassment with a silvery laugh.
"I've been back to my old hospital this morning," nodded Robert, "and made arrangements to start work there again at the opening of the new session next month. I shall work furiously, too, to make up for lost time."
"But how have I influenced you?" she asked, quite aware she was putting a dangerous question.
Robert pointed to a large mirror. "Look in there," he said, "and you can see the answer for yourself." He spoke fervently. "You are the most lovely creature I or anyone else can have ever seen."
"Thank you," she smiled, and she could feel herself blushing furiously.
"Of course you are," went on Robert, "and you've brought home to me that no man deserves the best things in life unless he works for them." He laughed grimly. "I've seen one of them right before my eyes and I'm going to try to get it."
"Is that a sort of tentative proposal?" she asked, half mockingly and with a quick beating of the heart.
"Good heavens, no," replied Robert almost savagely. "I'll never dare to make one to you until I've got something decent to offer. At the present time I have nothing, but for all that I'd like you to understand"—he bowed smilingly—"I shall continue to be your most ardent admirer, though it may be only at a distance"—he sighed—"even if the door is banged in my face by learning you have married a much more worthy person than myself."
"Money is not everything," she said softly, turning away her eyes.
"Oh, isn't it?" he asked scornfully. "Then how would you like to be the wife of a poor man who for one thing couldn't give you the kind of beautiful clothes you now wear?"
"There might be compensations," she laughed. She rose abruptly to her feet. "But come, this conversation seems to be getting too personal. So would you like me to play for you? What shall I play?"
"Something suggesting blighted hopes," laughed Robert grimly, "and faithful suitors fading away."
"Then I'll play you Chopin's March Funebre," she laughed back, "though from its last triumphant chords the blighted hopes, as you call them, take a turn for the better in the end."
So he drew up a chair beside her and sat watching while she played—watching the beautiful profile, the downcast lashes of her eyes and every movement of the so-queenly poised little head. She played on and on from memory, all soft and gentle pieces, prone to call up the most tender feelings of the human heart.
Now it is not in human nature for a man and woman falling in love with each other to be alone together for long without something happening—and happen something very soon did.
Robert stood up. He leant over her and, putting his hand under her chin, tilted up her face and looked into her eyes. She was beautifully flushed, her so dainty lips were parted and she was breathing heavily. For a few seconds, however, she continued to play on mechanically, but, when his lips touched hers, she shivered rapturously, and is it to be wondered the last chords of a nocturne were blended into one long and heavenly kiss?
She pushed him away at last and stood up. "And so that's your idea of admiration at a distance, is it?" she asked pantingly. She smiled roguishly. "Then Heaven help the poor girl you come in close contact with. She'll be only a shadow on the ground."
"Oh, you little darling!" exclaimed Robert fervently. His eyes gleamed. "Then you'll wait to become my wife?"
"I don't know so much about the waiting," she said enigmatically. "But when you propose properly to me"—she gave him an arch smile—"I may not be unwilling to become the wife." She became business-like all at once. "But not a word of this to my stepfather for five weeks. No, I won't take this as a proposal, but I become of age next month and can then do exactly as I like." She nodded. "One thing, we shall be out of temptation for part of that time as on Thursday I'm going up to Edinburgh to stay with an aunt for three weeks."
Another kiss, even longer than the first one, and they said good-bye. Robert was in the seventh heaven of happiness and as can be imagined got little sleep that night. Lena, too, was sleepless almost until morning came. Awakened now so suddenly from her cold and virginal dreams to know what the raptures of passion really meant, she was yet fearful they might be snatched from her in some dreadful and unexpected way. Alas, so often is it so with maids and men! For ever and for ever looking forward and, when the promise of the dawn is of such glorious roseate hues, for ever fearful life may be taken before the day actually comes.
In the meantime with barely a month to pass before the spring session of the hospital would start, Robert set about in earnest to try to find out for whom David O'Shane had been intending to dispose of those almost priceless jewels he had been keeping in his safe. If he could only uncover them, he felt sure it would be in a nest of Nazis, hidden away somewhere near Bury St. Edmunds. That was all he had to help him at present, but it had come into his mind he might find out something more at O'Shane's private house in St. John's Wood.
Accordingly, he made his way there, but was greatly disappointed to find the house shut up, with the gates opening in to the big garden heavily padlocked. However, it happened that his luck was in, as a postman came by as he was looking through the gates, and he at once gave him an address in Putney to where he was forwarding on all letters that might come for Mrs. Blackson, the housekeeper.
So off to Putney Robert went, and the housekeeper was easily found. She was a pleasant-faced Irish woman apparently in the middle fifties. Robert explained he had known David O'Shane and, as an old friend of his, was now trying to help the police find out how he had come to his dreadful end. He was wondering, he said, if O'Shane's friends in the country could give him any information which might lead to picking up a clue.
"I mean those friends," he said, "to whom he used occasionally to go to spend the week-ends."
"But he didn't go for week-ends," said the housekeeper in a rich Irish brogue. "Only for the Sundays, and, during all the five years I've been with him, only once has he not come home the same day. Then he told me he got caught in a heavy shower and his clothes were so soaked that he had to stop the night somewhere to get them dried. He was very afraid of catching cold."
"And you don't know where he went?" asked Robert.
"No, only that he happened to mention once that it was near Bury St. Edmunds. He was a very reserved man, Mr. David, and never told anyone anything about his private affairs."
"It wasn't in the town itself?" said Robert.
"Oh no, in the country outside. I'm sure of that because sometimes he used to bring back country things, a pheasant or a rabbit or a dish of delicious trout. Besides, his boots were often so muddied when he came home that I knew he'd been off the bitumen roads."
"But I've never seen his car very muddy," said Robert.
"No, it never was," replied the housekeeper. "I think he left it at some hotel or garage in Bury St. Edmunds and walked on the rest of the way."
"But he must have been great friends with those he went to see," said Robert, "for him to go there so often."
"He was," she nodded. "He used to do a lot of shopping for them and was always taking down different things, boxes of sporting ammunition, silk flies for fishing and most expensive tinned stuff sometimes. I always used to think that whoever they were they must be pretty well off."
"A dreadful ending for Mr. O'Shane, wasn't it?" remarked Robert, preparing to take his leave.
"It was," she agreed. She seemed to remember something and went on, "Ah, but I half expected some accident or something would happen to him, as one night only a little while ago he brought home a big bunch of peacock's feathers and started putting them in a vase. They were lovely to look at, but I told him they brought ill-luck, and he burnt them at once." She smiled sadly. "Poor man, he went quite white, as he had all our Irish superstitions and believed in fairies and all that."
Robert went home very pleased with what he had learnt. Muddy shoes, pheasants, rabbits, trout and peacock's feathers! Each thing nothing by itself, but their cumulative value was considerable. He must find a house in the country a few miles out of Bury St. Edmunds, inhabited by well-to-do people, who kept peacocks, had some woods on their property and were not far from a stream where trout could be obtained. Really, it looked easy!
In the meanwhile, probably the most astonished man in the British Isles was old Colonel Roxbury. Returning with his sister, Mrs. Nairne, from a short visit to Eastbourne, he had found a small brown-paper packet awaiting him upon the desk in his study and, opening it, to his amazement had unwrapped from a piece of newspaper in a cardboard box which had once held cigarettes—the missing emerald necklace!
For a long minute he stood staring at it in his hand, unable to believe the evidence of his eyes. In a minute or so, however, the first shock of his amazement over, he whistled and proceeded to swear certain strong and meaty military oaths which he judged suitable for the occasion. Then, strangely enough, for a soldier who had fought in two wars, tears filled his eyes and he began to cry.
After all, he told himself, in spite of her funny ways, he was fond of his sister, and it had been a secret grief to him to note what a lot of happiness his foolish practical joke had taken out of her life. After all, they had grown old together and were the only two of the family left. Besides, she was very kind to him, looking after his comfort, seeing that his room was kept warm and his meals were what he liked to eat.
Presently, rather ashamed of his tears, he mopped his old eyes and most carefully examined the necklace. It seemed quite uninjured and was complete except for one stone. He scrutinised the handwriting on the brown paper, but at once shook his head. No one would be able to recognise whose it was, as the name and address were all in stiff upright Roman characters.
Then he noticed there was writing upon the inside of the lid of the cardboard box, also in those Roman letters, and he read, 'Sorry, old boy! Sudden temptation! Am horribly ashamed of myself! Sold the one stone missing! Will send cash one day! At present am hard up!' There was no signature.
Turning his attention to the piece of newspaper in which the necklace had been wrapped, he saw it was part of the first page of the Daily Megaphone. Something pencilled upon it at once caught his eye and he puckered up his face into a puzzled frown.
With a deep sigh he leant back in his chair and for many minutes gave himself up to reverie, trying hard and painfully to bring back to his memory every incident, however minute, of that week's stay at Waltham Chase. He thought on and on for a long time and shook his head many times. Still, at last he appeared satisfied and smiled triumphantly to himself.
Strange to relate, he said nothing to his sister that night at dinner, though she remarked he was very quiet.
The next morning he took the necklace to the family jeweller in Regent Street and, pledging him to secrecy, asked him to examine the necklace most carefully to determine if any of the twenty remaining stones had been tampered with.
The jeweller knew all about the necklace having been lost, but asked no questions and, producing a large magnifying glass, proceeded to go over every stone, one by one. After a long scrutiny, he gave it as his emphatic opinion that there had been no interference with any of them and that the necklace was as perfect and valuable as it ever had been, except for that one missing emerald.
"One thing, however, I notice, sir," he remarked smilingly. "There are very minute traces of dust or earth in the setting, as if the necklace had been buried in the earth or lain upon the ground for a long time."
The colonel made no comment. "But now about this missing stone," he said, "what would be the cost of another one?"
The jeweller considered. "About £350, I should say, sir, at their present price. Emeralds have gone up lately and good ones like these are hard to get hold of." He seemed to remember something. "Ah, but it happens I know where I can get a stone almost exactly like these, except that it's been slightly chipped at one corner. No one, however, would notice it except under a strong magnifying glass. Now, if you'd be content with that, it would cost you fifty pounds less, only £300."
"But that's a lot of money," frowned the colonel. "Still, I suppose it'll have to be replaced. Yes, I'll go to the £300. No, don't send it, I'll call for it next week."
Leaving the jeweller's, the old man went next into a post office and made some enquiries. Obtaining the information he wanted, he hailed a taxi and drove away. Whatever his business, it made him rather late for lunch, a most unusual thing for him. His sister asked him where he'd been and he replied laughingly that he'd been paying a visit to an old lady friend.
Presently he remarked, "By the by, Hannah, directly the weather begins to get a little warmer, I think we'll go down to the Chase for a few days. We'll invite ourselves, but I'm sure Madge and Henry won't mind having us. We haven't seen them since that Goodwood week," and his sister acquiesced meekly, always hoping that one day, by some miraculous chance, she would herself come upon her beloved necklace in the Chase grounds.
That night, the last thing before going off to bed, the colonel burnt a piece of newspaper upon which was pencilled '6 Ensum Street'. So, through his own stupid carelessness, Robert's secret was a secret no longer.
All unbeknown to him, the colonel was now aware who had both taken and returned the emerald necklace, but, in his delight at the joyful surprise he was shortly to spring upon his sister, the old man was experiencing no rancour towards the thief. "Poor boy," he sighed, "I expect he was hard up! Sudden temptation, as he says! Still, it was partly my fault in putting it in his way. Yes, Thomas Roxbury, you were a damned old fool! That's what you were, and the best thing now is to keep the whole matter dark!"
A COUPLE of days later Robert was all prepared to set out for Bury St. Edmunds to try to locate these mysterious friends of the dead David O'Shane who had entrusted him with jewels of such great value to sell for them. Determined to ride in comfort this time, he had invested in a new bicycle and serviceable kitbag to strap upon the carrier.
The more he thought about his intended quest, the more and more certain he became that there was some very big secret to be found out, for why otherwise, he kept on asking himself, would the loss of so many thousands of pounds worth of jewels have been taken so tamely? If their hands were clean, the owners would surely have come forward at once and claimed the valuables, but with their continuing to hide themselves away, it must mean that for some very vital reason they dare not disclose themselves.
Upon the morning of his intended departure, he was seated at breakfast with his usual paper, the Daily Megaphone, propped up before him against the teapot, reading an article entitled, 'Another Mysterious Murder in Suffolk.' It related how the body of a gipsy who had been missing for nearly a week from his van had been found in a ditch not very far from the small village of Culford and there was no doubt he had been strangled.
An attempt had been made to cover over the body with earth and leaves and, from the unfrequented place where the ditch was situated, it was quite likely it might not have been found for a very long time had not a man gone rabbiting there with a dog, and the animal smelt it out. The gipsy was one of two brothers who had been travelling round the countryside, selling clothes-pegs and hand-made rush baskets. He had been last seen in the middle of the previous Tuesday morning when he had left the van, a good two miles distant from the spot where his body was eventually found. His brother stated he had gone to look for some stream somewhere where he could obtain more rushes for the baskets, as well as try to dispose of some clothes-pegs at the same time.
The Daily Megaphone here reminded its readers that it was the second murder in that part of Suffolk which had been recorded in the past two weeks, the other having been that of a road-mender whose body had been found in the Little Ouse, not far from Thetford, but quite seven miles from Wardwell village where the dead man had had his home.
'Now these two villages, Culford and Wardwell,' it went on, 'are barely two miles from each other and a certain sinister fact emerges quite clearly—near one of them the gipsy's body was found, and in the other lived the road-mender. So it needs no very great powers of deduction to assume that it is the same miscreant who is responsible for both these dreadful crimes and that he will be found somewhere in the vicinity of one or other of these villages.
'Certainly the two murders can only mean that somewhere in that beautiful Suffolk countryside there lurks a wretched being into whose disordered mind from time to time sweeps a maniacal urge to kill. It must be so, as through madness only can we account for them being committed. Both the poor fellows were in humble circumstances and could have been carrying upon their persons nothing which would have excited the greed of any sane individual. Surely, too, vengeance could not have been a motive for the crimes, for how, in the passing of a few short days, could both a lowly mender of roads and an equally lowly vendor of clothes-pegs have done such grievous wrong to some third party as to excite him to cut short their lives in two such terrible ways?
'No, we can be certain it is no sane person for whom the police have to look, but for someone who is mentally afflicted. Perhaps, too, he is a man who has only periodical bursts of madness and is quite normal at other times. So the task of finding him may be all the harder, if in his sane moments he is not aware of what he has done and, in consequence, exhibits no sign of furtive guilt. Still we can rest assured the authorities have considered all this and will leave no stone unturned to uncover the miscreant who who is spreading such terror in the villages round where he lives.'
"A madman is he?" frowned Robert. "Well, I'm not so sure of that. With my certain knowledge that somewhere not far from the town of Bury St. Edmunds there is some happening going on which at all costs must be kept secret, what if these two poor murdered wretches stumbled upon it by accident and, in consequence, paid the extreme penalty for their discovery? It is quite feasible, and these two dreadful crimes may help me not a little in finding that wasps' nest I want so badly."
So, after a long ride on his new machine, happily with the wind behind him all the way, it was with sanguine hopes Robert arrived at Bury St. Edmunds and at once proceeded to interview the man in charge of the garage attached to The Mitre Hotel.
"Of course, you remember that Mr. David Brown," he said, "whose motor-jack was mislaid here a couple of Sundays ago?" and when the man nodded surlily as if the recollection was not a particularly pleasant one, he added, "Well, I'm a lawyer and, to find out where a lot of his money went, I've come down to learn all I can about him. You needn't be afraid to speak, as he's dead now. He had a sudden stroke and died last week."
"Oh, dead is he?" exclaimed the man with some interest. "Well, I shouldn't think he's much loss to anyone. He was a nasty bad-tempered fellow."
Robert parted with a couple of half-crowns and went on. "Now, I understand he's been coming here a lot on Sundays. Do you happen to know who were the friends he went to visit?"
The man shook his head. "Sorry, sir, but I have no idea. He was always a bit of a mystery to us and, though he's been here many, many times, we never learnt anything about him. He was a very reserved man and never said a word more than he could help. We had no idea even where he lived until that Sunday when he gave me his 'phone number so that I could ring him up if we came across that missing jack of his."
Robert was very disappointed. "He came here only on Sundays?" he asked.
"Yes, sir, only on Sundays and always about the same time, just before noon. He'd leave the car here and then fetch it about four. He's been doing it for years—ever since I came here, and that's nearly six years."
"But do you think it was somewhere in the town he went?" asked Robert.
The man was emphatic. "No, sir, certainly not, for upon rainy days when he came back his boots and trousers were always muddy. Besides, he always looked a bit hot and sweaty then, as if he'd had a good walk. We always used to wonder why he didn't use his car as, generally, he had plenty of parcels to carry wherever he went."
"He used to bring some trout home occasionally," said Robert, hoping that that information might perhaps stir up the garage-man's imagination in some way.
"But I'm pretty sure he never caught them himself," said the man, "as I've never seen him with fishing tackle of any kind."
"Are there many places about here where you can get trout?" asked Robert.
"Plenty! There's a tributary of the Little Ouse that runs for twenty miles or more in the country east of the Bury-Thetford road. So I'm afraid that won't help you."
Not wanting to put too many of his clues before the same person, Robert bade the man good-bye without making any mention of peacocks. However, going next into a bookseller's and stationer's shop in whose windows were a number of cameras, he asked for a film for his pocket one. As he had expected, the only result was a little lecture from the shopkeeper on the scarcity of films and the heavy burden of restrictions, but it gave Robert the excuse to remark casually that he'd like to get a snap of some peacocks if he could. "Do you happen to know where I can see any?" he asked.
The man shook his head. "I don't know any particular place, for certain," he said, "but I believe some of the big country houses have them."
Going into the bar of The Mitre Hotel, he had no difficulty in bringing the conversation round to the two tragedies which had occurred recently. Indeed, the barmaid there was delighted to have an audience who, apparently, had not followed all the accounts of the murders in the newspapers.
From her story it appeared that Sam Bostock, the road-mender, had left his cottage in the small village of Wardwell about nine o'clock on the Sunday morning to go, as his wife had told the police, for a short walk. His companion had been a little cross-bred dog who had, however, returned home by himself in the late afternoon, looking very muddied, as if he had been rabbiting on his own account.
"Of course, it was not merely for a walk he had gone," smiled the barmaid knowingly, "as poor Sam had been known for many years as a regular poacher. It was rabbits or perhaps a nice fat pheasant he was after. Everyone thinks that."
She went on. "He should have been home as usual for the midday meal, but nothing whatsoever was heard of him until the following Saturday afternoon, when his body was seen by two boys entangled among the reeds in a lonely stretch of the Little Ouse not far from Euston Park."
"He had been stabbed through the back," she said, "right through to the heart, and the doctors said death must have been instantaneous. The inquest was held on the Monday and then it came out that, unless someone had given him a lift all that way from his home, he couldn't have been killed anywhere near where his body was found because of what he had got in his stomach. The doctors said the food there was only partly digested and as he had had his breakfast about eight o'clock, they were sure he was killed not later than ten, two hours afterwards. They thought, too, from the look of his skin, he had not been thrown into the river until many hours after he had been dead."
She sighed heavily. "Doesn't it all sound dreadful? You see we knew poor Sam so well, as, up to a couple or so of months ago, he worked on the roads around here and lived in Bury. Many a time have I served him with a drink in this very bar."
"Was he an old man?" asked Robert.
"No, quite young, certainly not thirty yet. Mr. Sykes, the Gov'nor here who keeps this hotel, was so interested that he went to the inquest and had a good talk, too, afterwards with Jim Larkins, the village constable at Euston. It was Jim who was first called in to get the body out of the river and the Gov'nor said he told him one rather funny thing that was not mentioned in the newspapers. When they fished the body out there'd been a lot of some kind of grease, which looked very much like butter, on poor Sam's jacket, particularly about the sleeves."
"And the gipsy, was he well known, too?" asked Robert.
"No, not so well as Sam," said the barmaid, "but people speak of him as being quite a pleasant, honest fellow"—she smiled—"that is as honest as you expect a gipsy to be, for they're always poaching and stealing wherever they get the chance." She shuddered. "His was a terrible death, too. The doctors say he had been seized by the throat so violently that the cartilage there had been all broken and squeezed together until he choked."
Certainly, the barmaid was most chattily inclined, and indeed would have been agreeable to go on for much longer if some more customers had not come and she had had to leave off to attend to them.
Robert went into the coffee-room of the hotel for his lunch, well pleased with what the barmaid had told him. One thing about the death of the road-mender certainly did stand out clearly. If he had had his breakfast at eight o'clock, left his home at nine, and according to the medical evidence at the inquest, been killed before ten—then, discarding the idea of any lift in a car having been given to him as highly improbable, the place where he had met his death would be, at the farthest, three to four miles from his home. That was as far as he would have walked in an hour.
Robert realised, however, that of course the police Would have been banking on that, too. Still, he was sure he had a good pull over them there, for while they would be looking for a madman who had been committing senseless murders, he, Robert, would be searching for some very purposeful, determined man or men who had killed for a definite and very specific reason.
His lunch over, he started his investigation by riding out to Culford, a little more than three miles from Bury and not very far from where the body of the gipsy had been found. He regretted at once that he had chosen to come there first, as he arrived at the village just as the inquest was over and everyone was trooping out of the Parochial Hall. Alighting from his bicycle he stood watching and, to his amazement and dismay, saw the Scotland Yard Inspector Stone among them.
Before he had time to pull his cap low down over his face in the hope of escaping recognition, the stout inspector caught sight of him. For a few moments he looked puzzled, but then he strode over towards him with a heavy frown, and asked sharply, "And what the blazes are you doing here?"
Robert was quite cool and collected. "Nothing much," he replied with a smile. "I just happened to be passing this way. It was quite by accident."
"I don't believe you," snapped the inspector. "Where are you living now?"
"Same place as before," replied Robert. "But what do you want to know for?"
"When did you come down here?"
"This morning. I rode down."
"Where are you going to sleep to-night?"
Robert laughed. "Any old place. I don't know yet. As I told you, I'm fond of cycling and I'm on another tour." He bridled up in assumed anger. "But why the hell are you asking me all these questions?" Then he grinned. "Are you wanting another rabbit?"
The inspector made no reply, but with upraised hand beckoned to someone among the crowd on the other side of the road, and a smart, alert-looking man at once came forward. He was not much over thirty and, though of a rather more refined type than the average police officer, was obviously one of them.
"Inspector Mendel," said Stone sternly, as he pointed to Robert, "take a good eyeful of this young gentleman here. If I'm not very much mistaken we shall be wanting him for something before long."
Robert bowed ironically to the newcomer. "Pleased to meet you, sir," he said pleasantly. "I'm Robert Willoughby and shall be at your service any time."
The stout inspector scowled. "Got him, Mendel?" he asked. "Good!" and, taking no further notice of Robert, the two moved over to their waiting car.
Robert felt quite satisfied, being sure that in the little exchange of compliments he had managed to hold his own, and remounting his bicycle, he set off again to go over as many places as he could in what remained of the afternoon.
He met with no success at all, either that day or the next. Certainly, among the many houses he looked at he did come upon two which in several ways answered all his requirements. They were both off the main road, both near a stream and at both he saw peacocks. However, one was a school and the other a country parsonage, with a most benevolent and mild-looking old gentleman as the incumbent.
He had, however, one great consolation that second day, as, upon returning to The Mitre Hotel, he found a letter from Lena waiting for him. He had written giving her that hotel as his address for the next few days.
Addressing him as 'My dear Robert', she had written a simple, chatty little letter about the happenings to her in Edinburgh, but it was only at the end that there was anything to please him. Then she wrote that she was missing him quite a lot—these three words underlined—and was looking forward to seeing him again. She signed herself, too, 'affectionately yours, Lena'.
He sighed happily and, with the optimism of those in love, was certain the letter would bring him good luck. Sure enough, it did, too, with his search coming to an end on the third afternoon, with the almost certain conviction that he had at last found the people he wanted.
Working rather nearer to Bury, just a little less than four miles away, he was crossing a lonely little stretch of heath when he met a boy upon a bicycle and, upon raising his hand for him to stop, the youngster did so at once.
The boy was about twelve or thirteen years of age, with a smiling, intelligent face, as rosy as an apple.
"See here, sonny," said Robert, starting his conversation in the usual way, "I want to get a photograph of some peacocks with my little camera here. Do you happen to know anyone who's got any?"
"Sure, Mister, I do," he replied. He grinned. "But the lady who's got them won't let you come near enough to take a photograph. You'll be nigh half a mile away."
"How's that?" asked Robert.
"A big fence, always kept well tarred to stop folks getting over, all round the land, Mister, and then a high wall round the house where she lives."
"Who is she? How long's she been here?" asked Robert, repressing the excitement that he felt.
"She's a Spanish lady," said the boy, "and she's been here from before I was born. She put up the fence when she came, but the wall's been built since the war."
"But where's the place? Near here?" asked Robert with some impatience.
The boy pointed with his arm. "Behind yon wood there. That's the end of her property."
"Well, you take me to it," said Robert, "and if you see any peacocks, I'll give you a shilling. No, it doesn't matter how far away they are, as I've got my field-glasses here."
The boy was quite willing, and mounting their bicycles, they rode off together. The boy chatted most intelligently. He said his name was Willie Dee, his father kept the inn, The White Owl, in Bartle St. Mary, and his grandfather used to be the sexton of the village church. His mother had been killed in an air-raid and he had no brothers or sisters.
In response to Robert's questioning he told him a lot about the foreign lady with the peacocks. She was called Mrs. Dona Bianca and she came from South America and was very rich. Her place was called The Priory and there were the ruins of an old abbey close to it. The Priory had been really a ruin, too, but she had rebuilt part of it and it was supposed to be quite comfortable to live in. However, the villagers hadn't seen much of it, because no one was allowed even into the large surrounding grounds, let alone to the house itself.
The gates to the grounds were always kept locked. There was, however, a little lodge just behind the gates, and a man lived there. He was another foreigner, a Spaniard, too. In fact, there were only foreigners on the place.
"But how many live there?" asked Robert, very interested but very puzzled.
The boy laughed. "Nobody exactly knows, but we think there are about six or seven; all are women except two, the man at the gate and a boy about eighteen. His name, is Manuel and he only knows a few words of English. That's why they trust him to go to the village, because he can't tell any tales. He fetches the letters and papers, and does a few errands at the shop."
"But where do they get their provisions from?" asked Robert.
"Most of them come from London. They've got a big car and it picks up cases from the railway station in Bury. No, they don't have many visitors now, not since the war; hardly anyone is ever seen to go in. Still, they mayn't be seen if they do, as The Priory is in a lonely place and the lane which leads to the gates goes nowhere else."
"They must be a very queer lot," said Robert, anxious to lead the boy on. "It doesn't seem as if they're quite right."
The boy laughed again. "No one thinks they are. They've got a strange religion, and people know they try to raise spirits from the dead. My father remembers that before the war visitors used to come and meetings were held there. When the wind was right, singing and beautiful music could be heard in the middle of the night. They must have a lovely organ."
"And is the Spanish lady old?" asked Robert.
"Getting on," nodded the boy. "I've seen her out in the car. She's big and fat, with big dark eyes. The car goes by very fast and they never stop to speak to anyone." He stretched out his arm. "There's the fence, Mister. They say it's four miles round. It must have cost her a tidy bit of money."
The fence was about six feet high, with stout palings and plenty of barbed wire at the top. All was generously tarred over and a sudden thought avalanched itself into Robert's mind. If the road-mender had come poaching here—then that grease upon his jacket might really have been butter used by those who killed him to get the tar-marks off his hands. They might have been thinking the tar would have given a pointer to where he had been. Certainly, it was a long shot, but it might be hitting the target for all that.
"Come along a bit farther round the fence, Mister," whispered the boy. "We shall be able to see the high wall then where the trees are not too thick. That's where I've seen the peacocks they've got."
A couple of hundred yards or so, and they peered through the palings. "There's the wall," said the boy. He became very excited. "And there's two peacocks on it now. Get out your glasses, Mister, quick!"
Robert's heart beat faster. The sky had clouded over and looked threatening. In the gloom, the high wall, though nearly half a mile away, to his stirred imagination looked an evil and sinister thing.
"Like to see the house?" asked the boy. "Then hop up on the branches of that tree." He grinned. "I know every yard of this fence and every tree near it."
Robert climbed up where directed, but it was by no means just the hop the boy had mentioned so casually. Instead, he climbed a good thirty feet before he could see the house behind the high wall. It was low and flat, and that most of it was very old was easily recognisable. The ruins of the abbey close by stood out stark and naked, covering quite a good lot of ground.
Suddenly he caught sight of two women walking slowly in front of the house. They both had scarves over their heads, but their backs were towards him and, though his glasses were good ones, he was greatly disappointed to get no glimpse of their faces.
"Don't stop too long, Mister," called out the boy, "as it looks like heavy rain coming and I'll have to bolt along to get home without getting into it."
Back on the ground, Robert asked curiously, "You say you know this fence well! Then what on earth do you come here for?"
The boy pointed between the palings. "Look at them rabbits, Mister," he laughed. "That's what I come after. There's no better spot for them for miles around."
"But with all this tar on the palings," said Robert, "don't you get filthy dirty climbing over?"
"Not I," laughed the boy. "No climbing on that tar for me." He nodded mysteriously. "I crawl under. I know a place where there's a blocked-up drain, but it isn't blocked up when I use it. I just pull away a couple of big paving stones and get in easily. I take good care to put them back when I come out." He laughed. "That's my little secret and I keep it dark from the other boys."
"But aren't you afraid?" said Robert. "Don't they keep any dogs?"
"They used to," said the boy. "Three of them, big wolf-dogs, but they all got poisoned. Everyone in the villages around was very angry about them being kept, as they used to jump over and kill the sheep." He nodded. "So someone, no one knows who, went on throwing baits over until in the end the three of them died."
They regained their bicycles, and as they proceeded to ride away Robert spoke very seriously to the boy. "See here, sonny," he said. "You just stop going into those grounds by yourself. It's very dangerous, I tell you, for, if they catch you, those foreigners might do anything to you. They wouldn't be too particular."
"But they won't catch me," laughed the boy. "With no dogs now, they can't run me down. As I say, too, they're most of them women."
"But what about that man at the gates?" suggested Robert.
"Oh, he's too big and heavy to run, and he's often drunk. A little while ago he forgot to shut the gates and two gents from London, who had blankets and clothes to sell, drove through in their van right up to the house. Oh, didn't they just catch it from the foreign lady! They told my dad afterwards that she swore at them something dreadful."
"And how long has she been having these gates kept locked like this?"
The boy considered. "Oh, on and off for as long as I remember, but she's only had the man at the lodge there since they built that high wall. She's been much worse since the war ended." He laughed. "They say she thinks everybody wants to kill her."
"But why do you want to keep on trespassing there," asked Robert, "if they get so angry with anyone coming near them?"
"For those rabbits, Mister," grinned the boy, "and it's a bit of sport, too. I'm a Boy Scout and it takes a lot to frighten me. Why, some nights I've been right up to their high wall and heard their voices as they talked. I couldn't tell what they said for they spoke foreign, but I could hear them laugh quite plainly."
"But it's horribly dangerous," urged Robert earnestly. "They might come up behind you and catch you unawares."
"Not they, Mister," said the boy. "They don't go out a-nights. It's ghosts they're afraid of then, for if any place has got them, it'd be that old abbey next door. Lots of monks were killed there when that King Henry the Eighth sent his soldiers to collar all their brass."
"And the ghosts don't frighten you?" asked Robert.
The boy shook his head. "No, I don't believe in 'em. I've never seen one and I've been there several times in the night, when I was after getting some young owls."
"But do you mean to tell me," frowned Robert, "that you've been right up to those ruins in the night, all by yourself?"
"Yes, Mister, I do," grinned the boy. "I've had a good look round there many times and got to know them pretty well." He nodded. "But if you could get my granddad to talk, he could tell you some good tales about them. He's eighty-five now, and as a boy used to go pinching the stones from there to help build his dad's house. He pretends to forget it now and doesn't talk much, but Dad says he knows secrets about The Priory and the abbey which no one else knows. He spends most of his time in bed now, but his memory is quite good when he wants it to be."
"Does he live in the village?" asked Robert.
"Yes, Mister, he's lived with us since Mum died as company for Dad. Dad's heart was nearly broke when Mum was killed and he's been a different man ever since. He hates all the Germans and would like to kill every one he sees. The day Mum was buried he went to enlist and go to fight them, but the military wouldn't take him because he was too old."
They rode on quickly as the threatening rain was at last beginning to fall, but they reached the inn before it started to come down in earnest.
"Only just in time, Mister," said the boy, "and it looks as if it had set in for the night." He grinned his merry grin. "Better have a bed here, and then you can have a good talk with Dad about that foreign lady and her ruins. He'll tell you all about her," and Robert thought the idea was quite a good one.
AS the rain continued to come down heavily and he did not relish even the short ride back to Bury in the wet, Robert acted upon the boy's suggestion and was remaining for the night at the inn. As he sat by himself at tea there was no doubt his mind was in a turmoil and that he was in a state of great perplexity. He was quite certain he had found the place where David O'Shane had been coming and equally certain there was something sinister about those who were now living there.
There must be some very good reason for the secrecy with which they were shrouding their lives and their determination that no one should approach near the house. Then, knowing what he did about O'Shane, surely their secret could only be that in some way they were carrying on treasonable activities to help the Nazi cause.
Granted all this, the question was what was he to do next. He must act very warily, for he had himself a lot to hide. He could not go to the police and tell them how his suspicions had first become aroused—he grinned to himself here—by what he had found in the wallet of the dead Fergus O'Shane. Yet, the whole case he was now trying to build up against those who were now living in the house behind the high wall depended entirely upon that suspicion which had first come into his mind.
Before he could approach the authorities he must have something definite to give them, some concrete evidence that something treasonable was going on, and for the life of him he did not see how he was going to get it.
His meal over, he went into the bar and sat chatting there with the landlord and the few customers who came in. The weather being what it was, during the whole evening only three appeared, and he picked up nothing of new interest from their conversation. Certainly, all they talked about was the murders, endorsing the general idea that some madman must have committed them. They were sure, however, that he was some stranger and no one who lived in the district.
The landlord himself, the father of the bright Willie Dee, did not say much. He was a sad and rather gloomy-looking man, but, for all that, he appeared shrewd and intelligent. When the time for the closing-up at length arrived, Robert was pleased to be invited to sit in the little private parlour, where, the night being chilly, there was a nice fire burning, and he at once brought round the conversation to The Priory.
"Young Willie took me to see the peacocks there," he said. "A nice, bright boy, your lad!"
"Oh, he's bright enough," agreed Dee. "He wants to know everything. He's always nosing about that old Priory and one day, I tell him, they'll catch him and there'll be a fuss."
"She must be queer, that Spanish woman," went on Robert. "What's her idea in wanting to keep everyone away from her place?"
"She's mad," said Dee. "She makes out she thinks some German will one day try to kill her because of the work she did in the war. She worked very hard for the Red Cross then, which rather surprised me."
"Why surprised you?" asked Robert curiously.
"Well, before the war," was the reply, "for years she used to have a lot of visitors and, from what I saw of them as they went through the village in their cars, many of them looked like damned Germans to me. I've often wondered, too, whether she was really German—because from what I've seen of her she doesn't look what I'd call Spanish." He eyed Robert intently. "You were in the war, of course, sir?"
"A commando!" nodded Robert. "Yes, I had six years of it."
"Six years, eh!" exclaimed Dee. "Ah, I guessed you'd seen a bit of service."
"But about these visitors?" asked Robert. "You say you thought some of them were Germans?"
"I'm sure they were," nodded Dee. "You'd know the type—heavy-looking, bullet-headed, and sat in their cars as if they'd got ramrods up their backs." He made a gesture of disgust. "Bah, I hate them. The bastards killed my poor wife in a daylight raid when she was doing a bit of shopping in Bury."
Robert took a sudden resolution. "See here, Mr. Dee," he said sharply, "you give me the impression of being a man who can keep a secret!"
Dee took his pipe out of his mouth in his surprise. "I guess you're right there," he said slowly. "I don't gossip about things I shouldn't."
"Well, I'll tell you something now," said Robert. He spoke very quietly. "I've come down here on purpose to find out all I can about those people who are living in that Priory. No, I've nothing to do with the police. I'm working entirely on my own"—and he added significantly—"for the present."
Dee looked very puzzled. "And what, may I ask, sir," he said curiously, "are you expecting to find out?"
"That they're working with the Nazis," snapped Robert, "that there's a nest of traitors there, that they spied for the Germans during the war and are still mixed up with them now."
"But—but," frowned Dee in great perplexity, "this Madame Bianca, the Spanish woman, was a friend of Lord Mildenbrook at Mildenbrook Towers, not a dozen miles from here—he died in '39. He was at the Admiralty and one of the finest gentlemen you could meet."
"Then she'd been deceiving him like everyone else," nodded Robert emphatically, "and very likely using his friendship to pick up little bits of information that she shouldn't have done." He shook his head. "No, I know I'm right. I first picked up a trace of her from the papers of a man who was killed in an accident only a little while ago, as vile a traitor as you could meet anywhere, a Sinn Feiner, a worker for the Irish Republican Army and—after he was dead—a proved sympathiser with the Nazis."
"And the papers you found mentioned Madame Bianca's name?" asked the astonished innkeeper.
"No," said Robert sharply, "it didn't mention any name and I'd never heard of hers then. I didn't even know where she lived, except that it was in a house in the country a few miles from Bury St. Edmunds. All I had now to help me was that the house was off a main road, approached by a lane very muddy in wet weather, and that peacocks were kept there."
Pausing a few moments to let his points sink in, he went on, "So I've put in several days scouting round here and when I at last came upon this old Priory—what else did I find besides the muddy lane leading up to it, the mysterious foreign lady living there and the peacocks on the wall?" He lowered his voice to slow and solemn tones. "I found a high tarred fence going for miles and miles round the grounds to keep all strangers away and a wall round the house so high that by no chance should anyone catch sight of those who were living there."
A short silence followed and then Dee asked huskily, "What do you think it means?"
"That's what I want to know," replied Robert briskly, "and what I intend to find out." He returned to his solemn tones. "And if these people really have some great secret to hide, Mr. Dee—and it certainly does seem so from the precautions they are taking—what do you think they would do if they caught someone whom they thought had found it out?"
"Why, kill him most likely," said Dee, stirring uneasily in his chair, "that is if the secret was so important as you say. Do anything to prevent him giving it away."
"Someone, for instance," went on Robert, pressing home his argument, "who had got over that fence to get a rabbit or two, or, perhaps, finding the gates had been left open again by that drunken gatekeeper, had gone straight up to the house to see if he could sell them something or, perhaps, do a bit of pinching on the sly?"
The innkeeper's face had whitened and his eyes were now wide as saucers. "Good God!" he exclaimed. "I see what you mean! You're thinking of poor Sam Bostock and that gipsy man! What a terrible idea!"
"Yes, terrible," nodded Robert gravely, "but surely not a bit more terrible than the millions of things the Germans did during the war? Did they ever hesitate a second when they thought murder was necessary?" He looked troubled. "Still, one thing I don't understand. If they killed these poor fellows, why didn't they bury the bodies somewhere in The Priory grounds, instead of taking them all that distance away to where they were found?"
The innkeeper shook his head. "But that Spanish woman wouldn't do that," he said emphatically. "She's queer in the head in some things and, when she first came here, everyone knows she used to hold meetings where she made out she could raise the spirits of people who were dead. Still, she's terribly afraid of places being haunted and wouldn't have bodies buried anywhere near where she lives."
"But she must have known," retorted Robert sharply, "that hundreds had been buried round that abbey. What about all the monks that had died there? Of course, they were buried in the vaults."
"Ah, but that's different, sir," said Dee. "They was all buried with rites of the Church. She thinks they would lie quiet then and their ghosts not come up to walk about. Still, she's mighty superstitious, and I know never goes far from the house after dark."
"But how do you know that," asked Robert doubtfully, "if she keeps everything about herself so dark?"
"But she wasn't always like that, sir," said Dee. "She was free and easy when she first came, and some of those visitors who used to stay with her for her meetings would sometimes drop in here for a drink. I listened to a lot of their jargon as they gassed to one another about dead spirits and hauntings and all that, and I noticed they always took care to get early to The Priory. They didn't seem to like those trees about the place after dark."
A thought seemed to strike him suddenly and he asked curiously, "But why, sir, are you talking so freely to me? I can't help you in any way."
"But I'm hoping you can," said Robert very solemnly. "Young Willie says that you and your father know secrets about this Priory which no one else does and I'm wondering if they'd be any good to me."
"What kind of secrets?" asked the innkeeper after a long pause.
"I don't know," said Robert with a smile, "but we often read of forgotten ways of getting into old houses like The Priory, or of secret rooms where people in hiding could be put away if any search were being made for them."
"I don't know any such secrets," said the innkeeper after a long pause, "but it's possible my old father might. If he ever learnt anything it's quite likely he never told anyone, as he's been a close man all his life and never talked much. He's upstairs now. He had a stroke a couple of years back and has been practically bedridden ever since." He nodded. "I'll have a talk with him to-morrow, but he's a bit cranky sometimes and if I don't happen to get him in the right mood he'll shut up like an oyster directly I start to ask him anything."
"Well, make a good effort," said Robert. "He might know something that would be of some use. You see I'm at a dead end until I get closer to these people. I want to see what they are like."
"I'll do my best," nodded Dee. "You can trust me for that." He spoke hesitatingly. "Now what you've been telling me, sir, is naturally a bit of a shock, but it's just come to me there may be something in it and I'll tell you why. It's a funny coincidence but it happens my cousin, Sid Blake of Bury, is at present doing some plumbing for that lady up at The Priory and only yesterday he was——"
"What, he's doing work for her in the house!" exclaimed Robert in great astonishment. "But I thought a stranger was never allowed inside?"
"She had to this time," said Dee, "as some of the pipes in the bathroom were leaking and they couldn't use the bath. He's been up there now for three days running and he was telling me yesterday that the whole time he's not seen a soul except the old woman and she's been watching him like a cat with a mouse. She's not allowed him to go anywhere except to the bathroom and he's had to eat his dinner there."
Robert whistled. "That looks funny, doesn't it? What's wrong with the others there that they're kept out of his sight?" A thought struck him and he asked sharply, "He's not yet finished the job there?"
"No, he thinks it'll take a couple more days. He's going there to-morrow again."
Robert's eyes glistened. "But I say, I say—what about his taking me with him as his assistant? Do you think he would? I'd give him a good tip."
Dee shook his head. "He wouldn't want that. If he did it, it would be for the joke. He's a rare one for a bit of fun."
"But is he a man you can trust?" asked Robert, his hopes beginning to rise.
Dee nodded. "He's all that. He was in the Mercantile Marine during the war and torpedoed twice. He hates the Germans like poison. They machine-gunned the raft he was clinging to, once, and killed some of his pals."
"Well, how can he be got hold of before he goes up there to-morrow?" asked Robert excitedly.
"No difficulty there," said Dee. "He passes here on his way and always calls in for a pint."
So it ended in Robert driving off in a high state of jubilation the next morning in the plumber's lorry, a very different-looking young fellow, however, to the neat and tidy one who had arrived the previous evening at the inn. He was wearing a grubby overall and old pair of trousers belonging to the innkeeper, he was unshaven and his face was not over-clean. Also, his hands were oily with the nails well ingrained with dirt.
The plumber was a jolly, rosy-cheeked fellow of middle age, with laughing eyes and a keen sense of humour. As Dee had surmised, he was enjoying the joke immensely, greatly looking forward to the surprise and annoyance with which he was sure he would be greeted upon his arrival at The Priory.
He was quite right there, for the trouble began the moment the gateman saw the plumber had got a companion. He demanded scowlingly who he was, and declined to let the lorry come in until he had first phoned up to the house. Dark and sallow, he looked what he was, of Spanish origin. However, his English was quite good as he went on he wasn't at all certain whether Madame would have any plumbing done that day as she was not feeling too well and would not be able to stand any noise.
"Well, I don't know whether I shall be able to come again," said the plumber testily. "I'm full up with other jobs."
The man returned into his lodge and they heard him speaking on the telephone. He appeared to be answering a lot of questions and once, before replying to one that had apparently been put to him, came up close to the window to have another long stare at Robert. Finally, he came outside again and, unlocking the gates, let the lorry come through. However, he made them wait until he had locked the gates again and then, jumping up on the back of the lorry, rode up with them to the house.
Robert kept his eyes well open. The drive was rather longer than he had expected, twice passing among trees which for the moment obscured all sight of the wall surrounding the house. The wall was high and substantially built, enclosing a garden of about an acre and with its opening round at the back opposite to the way they had come. The house was of two stories, long and low, and stood in the very middle of the garden. Though about a third of it was modern, the rest looked very old, with massive walls of great thickness.
The lady of the demesne was waiting at the big wooden gates to see them come in, and she looked all that Robert had been told she was, fat and heavy with a big whitish face and huge staring eyes. She took no notice of the plumber at all, but glared at Robert as if she perceived something unusual in his appearance.
"What's your name?" she asked sharply, and when, touching his cap, he replied, "Bert Burns, mum," she added sharply, "Returned soldier, I suppose? Then were you long in Germany?"
"Never went there, mum," fibbed Robert glibly. "I've a weak heart and was kept home all the time."
She made no comment, but, accompanying them to the bathroom upon the upper story, watched them take out their tools. Then, preparing to leave them to their work, she warned them on no account to leave the bathroom. "We have a savage bulldog here," she said, "and sometimes he wanders round the house. He's dangerous with strangers. So better keep the door shut, too. Another thing, don't smoke, please. I don't allow it anywhere. It's bad for my asthma."
When finally she had gone away, closing the door behind her, the plumber said loudly, "Now, Bert, get busy. I've brought you here to work," and he added in a whisper, "and she's the only party we shall set eyes on the whole day long. You see if I'm not right."
And certainly it did seem that he was, for not only did no one come near them all the morning, but Robert, through the window, saw no one moving about in the garden below. One consolation, however, he did have. The ruined abbey was only about a hundred and fifty yards away, and he spent a long while admiring it. Quite a fair portion of it remained standing, and he marvelled what many years of labour must have been spent in building it. Its walls appeared to be thicker even than those of The Priory.
Shortly before it was time for them to knock off for their midday meal, he suddenly heard the sounds of music. Someone was playing upon the organ and every sound was so strong and clear that it was evident the organ room was almost underneath them. The player, whoever he or she might have been, was playing beautifully and, with something of a start, Robert recognised the overture to Wagner's Die Meistersinger.
"Gad, isn't it beautiful?" he said to his companion. "Ever heard it before?"
"Heard it before!" exclaimed the plumber. "Bless your heart, I've heard it every blessed day I've come here. They've played it more than once, too. You see if we don't get it again in the afternoon."
"It was Hitler's favourite piece," whispered Robert in an awestruck tone.
The plumber whistled. "Then you can bet your life," he whispered back, "as you say, there must be damned Germans here."
"And she doesn't allow smoking," nodded Robert. "One of Hitler's great dislikes. So, there's no doubt those here are worshippers of that damned brute."
The organ went on, and they heard the glorious melody of Gotterdammerung—'The Twilight of the Gods'—then some pieces which Robert remembered only faintly, but rather thought were German folklore songs. Silence followed for some hours and then, as the plumber had predicted, Die Meistersinger came on again, followed by some pieces which took up quite a long time.
Robert was thrilled, both with the music and at the thought that every little strange new happening he came upon pointed more and more to something to do with the Nazi spirit which was still alive in so many German hearts.
Just before five Madame Bianca made her appearance again, watched them gather up their tools, and ushered them back to their truck. Not the least sign of another human being anywhere! Indeed, to all appearances she was the only person living in The Priory.
"And yet, I'll swear," remarked the plumber, as they were driving home, "that that bathroom gets plenty of use. What good would three towel-rails be for one person? Besides, if there was nothing to hide, why was everything cleared out of the bathroom before I came? No soap left about, no hairbrushes, no toothbrushes, no nothing! I wouldn't like to swear there's not half a dozen blokes living in that house and they were all tucked away somewhere so that we shouldn't see them."
"I wouldn't swear that either," nodded Robert. "There's something devilish fishy about the whole place."
"Well, sir, are you any the better for going there?" asked the plumber.
"Sure I am, Mr. Blake," said Robert heartily, "and I'm very much obliged to you for taking me. I must think what I can do next, but I'm quite certain I'll be able to do something."
Robert had phoned The Mitre Hotel that he mightn't return there for a few days and asked them to keep any letters that might come for him. So when, now, he arrived back at the inn in Bartle St. Mary, there was no question about his continuing to stay on there.
The innkeeper was very interested to hear how they had got on, but it was not until his cousin had gone off with a couple of pints under his belt, that he told Robert with some glee that he had good news for him.
"I've had a long talk with Dad," he said, "and admit I'm a bit astonished at what he's told me. I told you he was not a man who talked much, and I had some difficulty to get him to start, but, once he got going, I learnt a lot."
"But why didn't he want to talk at first?" asked Robert.
"Well, sir," replied the innkeeper, "he's got a bit pious since he's grown older and it seems his conscience has been pricking him for a long time for having pinched some stones and woodwork from that old abbey nearly seventy years ago. The poor old chap knows that at eighty-five he can't have much longer to live and he worries a bit about the bad things he's done in his life, thinking he'll be punished for them in the world to come."
"And what has he told you," asked Robert, hiding his impatience with some difficulty, "that is likely to help me?"
Dee spoke in a whisper. "For one thing—there's a secret passage from the abbey right down to underneath The Priory, opening into the wall of the large dining-hall where he thinks they have their meals."
"Good God!" exclaimed Robert excitedly. "And you can see into the room?"
"No, but you can hear quite plainly what anyone says. He thinks the ceiling there somehow acts as a sounding board."
"But if he found it out when he was a boy seventy-odd years ago," said Robert most disappointedly, "it was probably closed up when that woman rebuilt so much of the place."
Dee shook his head. "He says not, and he should know, as he worked for her on the rebuilding. He was the head mason."
"But did she employ local labour?" asked Robert, very astonished.
"Yes, all local men," nodded Dee. "That was seventeen or eighteen years ago when she first bought the place, and, probably, she never thought she'd have anything to hide."
"Can I talk to your father?" asked Robert.
"Yes, he expects you to. I'll take you up at once. You'll find he's quite all there. It's only that his memory is sometimes a bit slow and he has to think hard to remember things. Still, I'll take him a spot of brandy. That always brightens him up a lot."
The innkeeper's father was a frail-looking old man of an almost skeleton-like thinness and, propped up in bed, he looked on his last legs. However, he appeared to be quite intelligent, and smacked his lips when he saw the spot of brandy his son was bringing him. His voice was strong when he addressed Robert.
"So you're after Germans, are you?" he chuckled. "Good luck to you. I've always hated them."
Speaking slowly but very distinctly, he told Robert about the secret passage he had come across all those years ago. There was a broken flight of steps, he said, behind one of the small altars in what remained of the chapel. It had once led up to one of the towers but the wall at the top had fallen down and, in consequence, it led up only into the air. Just before it ended, however, it passed what had once been a small room, only part of whose walls were now standing. In one of them were the remains of a hearth and round a corner, about four feet up, there was a hole where some of the masonry had fallen away. A casual observer would not see the hole and, if he did, he would have no idea unless he climbed into it that there were stairs there.
But there were—steep stairs and they went down and down to right under the vaults. Then there was a long passage which was blocked at its far end by more fallen masonry. He had been right up to the end several times and when the rebuilding was going on, once, to his great astonishment, had heard people in The Priory talking quite plainly. He had been able to follow every word they had said.
"And there is no opening there?" said Robert, in disappointment. "You can't get into The Priory?"
The old man shook his head. "No, but you could if you removed some of the fallen stones at the end. Then I think, from the voices I heard, the passage would lead into the chimney."
"What chimney?" asked Robert.
"The chimney in the largest room in The Priory, the one the Spanish lady had made into the room where she has her meals. The hearth is quite six feet wide there."
Robert considered. "Do you think I could find that opening at the top of those stairs at night?"
"If you take a torch," nodded the old man. He grinned. "Take Willie with you. The young devil will find it as easy as shelling peas."
The following evening, directly it was dark, Robert and young Willie Dee set out upon their great adventure. "I wouldn't let him go with you," said the boy's father with a frown, "if I didn't know you had been a commando, but you chaps were pretty tough and, from all you were taught, I reckon you'll be more than a match for anyone you meet up there, if it comes to trouble."
"Thank you, Mr. Dee," smiled Robert. "I'll look after your boy right enough." He tapped his hip pocket. "And I've got a little friend here if I should happen to want him."
The boy was thrilled at the thought of Robert taking him, and confided he had sharpened his scout's knife to a razor's edge. Also, he proudly brought out a small torch and a compass.
"What's the compass for, son?" asked Robert.
"Oh, I tried it one night there in a fog," laughed the boy. "The high wall is exactly north of the place where we'll get under the fence. So we can't miss it coming back, however black the night is."
And certainly the night was black, with hardly a star showing, and it was not until they were a few yards from the long fence that they saw it. Willie found his secret place of getting into the grounds and, once inside, they stood still for a few moments to get their bearings.
"No, I won't go by your compass to get there," said Robert. "We'll skirt round by the fence and we're well round the other side of the house."
Walking carefully over the uneven ground and among the trees, at length they saw the high wall looming up before them. "Go right round it, Mister," whispered the boy, "until we come to the big gates. Then we can cut straight across to the abbey. Then we'll have to walk round the walls until we come to that tower in the east Granddad spoke about."
Reaching the big wooden gates, they saw through the chinks at the side the lights in the windows of the house. It was well they had come quietly as, not thirty yards away, a man, smoking a pipe, was pacing up and down the broad verandah. Passing the windows, he was silhouetted against the light and it came instantly into Robert's mind that if ever he had seen a German, he was looking at one then. There was no mistaking the bullet-shaped head set on square shoulders. They watched him for a minute or two and then, the faint drone of an aeroplane being heard in the distance, with a quick glance upwards to the sky he went through the long french windows into the house, pulling them to behind him.
"He doesn't want to run any chance of being spotted," thought Robert instantly. "Gad, how everything points to people being in hiding here!"
Resuming their approach to the ruined abbey, they found the east tower with no difficulty and, with the help of their torches, climbed carefully over the fallen masonry.
"That should be the altar," whispered Robert to the boy. "Yes, and that's the staircase. Now we must be very careful here, for a lot may have happened in all the years since your grandfather was last here. I'll go first and you keep a distance behind me."
On hands and knees Robert began to climb up, flashing his torch and testing each step well before he put any weight upon it, but all seemed as solid as it would have been the day when it was first put up—all those hundreds of years ago.
A great thrill surged through him when, about a dozen steps from where the torch showed him the staircase in the blackness of the sky, he came upon what had evidently been a room at one side of it. The big hearth in it was still mainly intact and, round the corner about four feet up, they saw the gaping hole. A draught was coming up through it and Robert was relieved to realise that there would be no danger of foul air below.
Flashing his torch, he saw the steps below and, climbing gingerly through the hole, let himself down upon them, closely followed by the boy who was breathing heavily in his excitement.
The steps were very steep, and seventy-four of them were counted before the bottom was reached and they found themselves standing in a long and narrow passage about seven feet high and extending as far as the rays of their torches reached. The air was bitterly cold and their feet were buried ankle-deep in white dust. The silence of the grave could have been no deeper.
"How are you feeling, Willie?" asked Robert with a grin. "Is this enough adventure for you?"
"It's exciting, ain't it, Mister," the boy grinned back, "but I was hoping we'd find some bats."
Proceeding along the passage, they had counted nearly two hundred paces when it began to go uphill. To their amazement and not a little to their relief the air began to feel a little warmer.
"We must be under The Priory now," whispered Robert, "or perhaps on a level with it." He touched the wall. "Perhaps this is all that divides us now from one of the rooms."
Suddenly, they heard the faint murmur of voices and the boy clutched Robert's arm.
"It's all right," Robert assured him. "It's only what your grandfather said, but I hope the devil we hear them plainer than that."
It was well perhaps that they had been warned by the murmurs, for barely twenty paces farther on just when they saw all further progress was blocked by a closely packed mass of fallen stones, the voices became quite distinct, and not only that, but they plainly smelt the agreeable odours of things nice to eat.
"Their dining-room," whispered Robert. "Just sit down on these blocks, sonny, and I'll listen to what they're talking about." His eyes glistened. "Oh, what a thrill! I may hear lots of their secrets now."
As he had expected, all the talking was being carried on in German, but that did not worry him, for as it happened he could follow it quite well. He had been good at languages at school, and German had been one of those he had taken for the preliminary examination in arts before he could be registered as a medical student. Added to that, six months in Germany after the surrender had greatly increased his knowledge of the language and, in consequence, he was quite confident he would now be able to follow almost everything he heard.
It was amazing how clear the voices were, and not only the voices, but the shuffling of feet and the moving about in the room, the pulling of a cork out of a bottle and even the clicking of the knives and forks on the plates.
So with his torch extinguished, and in the pitch darkness, seated next to the boy upon a block of stone, he prepared to listen intently and, within the short time of a couple of minutes or so, he was frowning hard. "Who the devil are they calling Mein Fuehrer now?" he asked himself. "Do they think they've got someone who'll be taking Hitler's place?"
It certainly was strange. He heard a woman's voice addressing someone as Mein Fuehrer, and a man answered her back in an imperative and strident tone. Then someone else said "Mein Fuehrer" and the same strident voice spoke again. The conversation went on with other voices bringing in "Mein Fuehrer", always in quite respectful tones and very different from those used by this man they were addressing.
They were talking about the future of the great fatherland and this Mein Fuehrer man was laying down the law as if he alone of them all there was in a position to know about it. He spoke fast and volubly, never at a loss for a word, and as Robert listened, a startled and incredulous expression began to dawn in his face.
God, he sounded like the real Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler himself!
Robert had often heard recordings of Hitler's voice—harsh, impelling and, once started, going on as if it would never stop. And here was this man speaking in exactly that way.
But surely Hitler was dead! Had he not shot himself with a pistol—through his mouth? Had he not blown the top of his head away when he was living in that underground shelter deep down in the earth upon the Reich Chancellery and had not his body been burnt afterwards in the Chancellery garden? Had not gallons and gallons of petrol been used to make the fire?
Certainly, after a long and careful enquiry among many of those who had been in the shelter at the time, it was admitted by the investigators that, at most, only three or four of them had actually seen the dead body, and all of these had been fanatical supporters of the Nazi cause, including Hitler's body-servant.
Then what if it had been a faked suicide and burning of the body, with Hitler being spirited away to safety somewhere? It was well known that the Russians refused to accept the certainty of his death, arguing, too, about the burning of the body, that the amount of petrol used could never have charred the bones to carbon dust. And yet a most thorough digging up of every foot of the Chancellery garden had yielded no sign of these bones.
However, for the moment, Robert dismissed all these speculations, and concentrated his attention upon what the different speakers were talking about. Certain parts of the conversation he could not follow, as it was spoken too quickly, particularly by the man the others were so continually addressing as Mein Fuehrer.
Still, he could grasp that the kernel of the talk was about something very important that was going to happen very soon; the exact date of this happening did not, however, seem to be known. When it did come it would come suddenly and without warning. They must be all prepared. Finally, the discussion had a lot to do with clothing, how to keep both warm and cool.
Robert tried hard to pick out how many different voices he heard and, helped not a little by the army rank everyone seemed to possess—most scrupulous use being always made of their proper titles—he came to the conclusion that seven persons were present at the meal. However, quite different from what young Willie Dee had told him was generally believed to be the case, he heard the voice of one woman only, and she—Dona Bianca.
For upwards of an hour the meal went on. Then came a moving of chairs and the shuffling of feet, as the diners made ready to leave the room. Finally their voices died away in the distance. Almost immediately the organ came on again with the so-favoured overture from Die Meistersinger.
"Come on, Willie," said Robert. "We've heard all we're likely to and so we'll trot back home and pretty quick, too, as this cold here is beginning to get into my bones. Still, I'm going to have a good look at those big gates again on the chance that I may be able to climb over and get a squint through the windows somehow."
However, after they had traversed the long passage and the steep stairway and emerged into the night again, when finally they reached the gates opening through the high wall and looked between the chinks, he realised any further enterprise was quite impracticable.
Three men, smoking cigars, were walking up and down the verandah and, apparently because the night was inclined to be chilly, were wearing long house-gowns and had scarves tied round their heads.
"Gee!" whispered Willie excitedly. "That's why people think they're women when they see them a long way away!"
"And people passing over in aeroplanes would think so, too," nodded Robert grimly. "They've been cunning, these chaps."
It was too far for the conversation between the three to be picked up distinctly, but Robert gathered that some of it was about sea-sickness and the best ways of preventing it.
Their journey back to the inn was uneventful, but Dee seemed very glad to see his boy back safe and sound. "Any success?" he asked Robert, when, with Willie packed off to bed, they were alone.
"A hell of a lot," nodded Robert. "There are at least six Germans hiding there and every one of them's an army man. I'd like to bet any money that some of them are the prisoners we've been reading about who've escaped from the camps here."
He gave the innkeeper a good account of their adventure, leaving out only one thing, his suspicion that the so-execrated Adolf Hitler was one of those hiding in The Priory. Before mentioning that to anyone he would have to do a lot of thinking. And certainly, when at last he had gone off to bed, he did consider everything for a long while before his disturbed mind would at last permit of his dropping off to sleep.
One moment it seemed fantastic and impossible that the once-mighty Fuehrer of the Third Reich could be still alive, and the next—he, could not put out of his mind how many things dove-tailed themselves in together to make it appear to be almost a certainty.
Surely The Priory was hiding a secret of some tremendous nature, one so important that it looked as if the lives of two men had been taken so that it should not become known to the authorities. Then there were the precautions that, even since the ending of the war, had been taken to keep everyone away as far as possible from The Priory. The long outside fence, always kept freshly tarred to make everyone disinclined to climb over; the big gates, always kept locked so that no strangers should wander in the grounds, and the high wall that had been built to prevent anyone from seeing those who might be moving about round the house. Last of all, trifles in one way, but of deadly significance in another, as pointing to Hitler being in hiding in The Priory—the continual playing of his favourite piece of music and the forbidding of all smoking in the house. Was it not well-known that Hitler insisted tobacco smoke brought on his asthmatical attacks?
Then suddenly an idea flashed into Robert's mind and brought peace at once. He would lay everything before Gilbert Larose and leave it to him to determine what should be done. He would go to see him on the morrow.
However, as it happened, by the morning he was running a high temperature and feeling far too sick to leave his bed. The time spent in the underground passage had been altogether too much for him and brought back a return of the malaria he had picked up more than three years previously in the marshlands in Italy. There was no help for it, but he knew he was in for three or four days in bed.
In the meantime Isaac Bannerstein had been getting most uneasy about Robert, feeling sure the latter had found out more than he had admitted about those for whom David O'Shane had been acting in the attempted disposing of the jewels. It was in Bannerstein's mind that those found in O'Shane's safe were only a part of a much greater quantity of treasure for which a market had to be found and, if only he could uncover who was wanting to dispose of them, good profit on perhaps a big scale might eventuate.
So he called round at Ensum Street, happening to arrive on the very morning Robert had gone away upon his bicycle and missing him only by a couple of hours. The landlady could give him no idea as to where Robert had gone, but said he had told her he might be away for three or four days.
Disappointed, but by no means intending to drop his enquiries, Bannerstein next sought out the Dan Hunt who had been David O'Shane's assistant since Fergus's disappearance. He did not even know the man's name, but soon found out that, and his address, too, by a few enquiries at the neighbouring public-houses, and unearthed him at his lodgings only a couple of streets away.
"Of course, you don't know who I am," he said smilingly, "but I'm a dealer in pictures, old china and many precious things and, hearing you worked with Mr. O'Shane as his assistant, I've come to you for a little help, which, of course, I'm prepared to pay for."
"What is it you want?" asked Dan very suspiciously.
Bannerstein's smile was more ingratiating than ever. "Well, as a buyer and seller of precious stones, I'm very curious about all that jewellery that was found in Mr. O'Shane's safe and——"
"But I've told the police I know nothing about it," broke in the assistant quickly. "It was as great a surprise to me as anyone else, for we never handled good stuff. Our lines were only odds and ends and clothes and things that people use in the house."
"I know that," nodded Bannerstein, "and it's why I'm so curious. Now, I've nothing whatever to do with the police"—he spoke confidingly—"and so couldn't you give me some little tip to help me find out from where he got this good stuff?"
Dan shook his head. "I'm sorry, I can't," he said slowly, "O'Shane never told me anything. He kept everything about himself in the dark."
"But come—think hard," persisted Bannerstein. "Didn't he have any unusual visitors sometimes, folks who looked as if they'd got a bit of money?"
"I've never seen them," said Dan with a grin. "Most of our customers looked as if they hadn't got a bean."
"Well, what about that swell car of his?" asked Bannerstein. "What use did he make of that?"
Dan's expression brightened instantly. "Ah, now you're talking!" he exclaimed. "Yes, I can tell you a bit there," and he went on to relate his suspicions about O'Shane's journeys to Bury St. Edmunds, suspicious because he was known as Mr. D. Brown at the garage of The Mitre Hotel there.
To Bannerstein that was quite enough to go on, and, giving Dan a pound note, he went away very pleased with what he had found out. Of course, being in the pawnshop with this by no means reserved assistant, no doubt Robert had heard all about Bury St. Edmunds, too, and, no doubt again, it would be there he had gone upon his bicycle.
However, because of important business, he could not manage to get down to Bury until the third day after his conversation with Dan and so, as it happened, he just missed Robert again, as it was the day upon which the latter had met Willie Dee and, subsequently, stopped the night at The White Owl Inn.
Driving himself down to Bury, Bannerstein pulled up his car a couple of hundred yards or so from The Mitre Hotel and proceeded to go the rest of the way on foot. Entering the lounge of the hotel, he found no one there, not even at the desk, and was just about to rap upon the counter with his knuckles to attract attention, when by chance his eyes fell upon the letter-rack close by upon the wall, and a very surprised expression came into his face.
There was a letter there, addressed to Robert, in his stepdaughter's handwriting!
He picked it out at once from among the half-dozen or so of other letters there because the envelope was one of the kind Lena invariably used in her correspondence; big and square and of an attractive lavender colour. Also, her handwriting was large and distinctive.
The letter-rack was in a large flat case enclosed with a glass door, but he assumed on the instant that the door could not be locked as it was not fully pushed-to. Tiptoeing to the rack, he extracted the letter like lightning and, tiptoeing again, had crossed the lounge and was out in the street quicker than it takes to tell.
"A stroke of luck, that!" he chuckled to himself. His face darkened again. "But what the hell is Lena doing writing to that man?"
Out of sight, round the corner, he did not hesitate to open the letter, and was furious as he scanned down it. It began, 'My dear Robert,' and it ended up with, 'Affectionately yours, Lena'. There was not much in it, except that as in the previous one, she mentioned how greatly she had come to miss him and how nice it would be when they met again.
Bannerstein could hardly contain his rage. "The cursed little Jezebel must have been carrying on with him under my very eyes! They've been meeting together somewhere and apparently if they're not already lovers, are well on the way to become so."
His rage in part calming down, his thoughts returned to the matter that had brought him down to Bury and, going into a call-office, he rang up The Mitre Hotel and asked to speak to Mr. Willoughby. He was told Robert was no longer there, but would probably be coming back in a few days. They had no idea where he had gone.
Next, going into the hotel garage, he asked to speak to the foreman there, and an oily-looking man appeared from underneath a car. Engaged upon a rush job that had to be completed within the hour, the man was not too pleased at being interrupted, and showed it plainly.
"Do I remember a Mr. David Brown?" he said testily. "Yes, I do, but I don't know who the parties are he used to come to see, where they live, or anything about them. I know no more than you do, so it's no blessed good you taking up my time asking questions."
"You've been asked them before, I see," said Bannerstein, hiding his disappointment under a sickly smile.
"Yes," nodded the man, preparing to dive back under the car, "a young lawyer chap with a bicycle was in here a few days ago, but he got no more out of me than you have. Good morning."
Outside again in the street, and making for his car, Bannerstein scowled in disgust. There was nothing more he could do and he'd had all his long journey for nothing, and would have to go back home empty-handed. It was most disappointing, and, worse still, that young devil Willoughby must have found out something. Of course he had, for he wouldn't be remaining in the neighbourhood if he hadn't! He'd picked up some clue, sure enough! And his damned impudence, too! With practically not a penny of his own, he had been making up to Lena, who was an heiress and who'd be a rich woman when she came of age—curse it—in a few days! Well, he, Bannerstein, would stop all that! He'd put a spoke in the young upstart's wheel!
For three days he fretted and fumed, wondering what Robert was doing. Then on the fourth day, he called round at Ensum Street again, to learn the landlady had had a letter that very morning from Robert. The latter had been laid up with an attack of malaria at The White Owl Inn in Bartle St. Mary, near Bury St. Edmunds. He was, however, much better now and hoped to be able to return home in a few days. In the meantime, if any letters had come for him, would she please send them on.
Bannerstein was delighted with what he had learnt. Of a most sanguine disposition, he felt more confident than ever that Robert had got upon the track of the parties for whom David O'Shane had been acting, otherwise he wouldn't be staying so long at this little village near Bury. He didn't believe he was ill, but was sure he had only written that as an excuse for his continued absence. He wouldn't have written to his landlady at all if he hadn't thought Lena might be sending him a letter there.
So, he, Bannerstein, would go down at once to this Bartle St. Mary and tackle Robert straightaway. Taking him so unexpectedly, he would very probably be able to bounce him out of all he knew, making him realise, too, that if there were any more valuables to be disposed of, the matter was much too big a thing for him to handle alone. He would propose their sharing everything together.
In the meantime, to get Robert conveniently out of the way and at the same time shame him in Lena's eyes, he would put Scotland Yard on to him for stealing that emerald necklace. He would, however, do it in such a manner that Robert would never know who had given him away, and so would not want to retaliate on him, Bannerstein, for having done so.
So he sat down and typed an anonymous letter to Inspector Stone, marking the envelope 'Strictly Private and Personal'.
Sir, it would be well to look into the affairs of Robert Willoughby of 6 Ensum Street, Bloomsbury. Last July he was staying as a guest of the Honourable Mrs. Ransome of Waltham Chase, near Goodwood, when a valuable emerald necklace was stolen. It was he who had taken it and, about four months later, in the beginning of December, he sold one of the twenty-one stones which made up the necklace to the pawnbroker David O'Shane of Pentonville Road, who was afterwards murdered. If he has not sold it, Willoughby is still in possession of the necklace. He is as cunning as a weasel.
"That'll settle him," he grinned viciously. "A nice little surprise for him when he returns home. They're certain to arrest him on suspicion, even if they don't get enough evidence to eventually convict him. Still, he may break down and make a full confession." He frowned here. "Though I hardly expect that."
Taking Harker to drive him, as he found a long journey at the wheel upsetting to his nerves, he motored down to Bartle St. Mary the next morning. Arriving at the inn, he found Robert sunning himself upon a bench outside and was very disappointed that he looked as if he was, and had been, really ill.
"I was so sorry to learn you had been ill," he exclaimed warmly. "I called in at Ensum Street to see you and your landlady gave me the news. So I thought I'd just run down to make sure you were being properly looked after."
Robert, however, was not taken in by this assumed anxiety about his health and, accordingly, experienced no surprise when the real reason for Bannerstein's coming down to see him came out.
"Of course, Willoughby," he smiled knowingly, "you've been after those friends of David O'Shane. Well, have you had any luck?"
"None at all," replied Robert, feeling too weak and tired to enter into any vigorous denial that that had been the reason for his being now found at Bartle St. Mary. "I'm as much in the dark as I ever was."
Realising he was going to get nothing out of Robert, Bannerstein at once formed another plan. He would get him back to London as quickly as possible and then return and do a bit of detective work on his own. David O'Shane's car had been a conspicuous one and, with a bit of patience, he was sanguine he would find someone who remembered it and could give him a pointer as to where it had been accustomed to go. He was certain that Robert had narrowed things down to somewhere in the neighbourhood of Bartle St. Mary, or otherwise he would not have been making the inn at that little village his headquarters.
So, continuing to pretend to be most friendly, he urged Robert to let him drive him back to town, in order that he could be looked after properly in his own rooms, with doctors close handy if they should be needed.
Rather to his surprise, Robert was quite agreeable and accepted the offer gratefully. As it happened, too weak in his legs yet to bicycle back, Robert, however, wanted to get to London as speedily as possible. Ringing up Larose at his home, Carmel Abbey in Norfolk, he had been told he was away motoring in the West of England, but in a day or two from now would be arriving in London to stay at his usual hotel, the Semiris, in the Haymarket.
So, following upon a warm good-bye to the innkeeper, to whom he whispered he would be returning very soon, the invalid was tucked snugly in the back of the car, with Bannerstein and his man in front. All unaware that Bannerstein knew anything about his having stayed at The Mitre Hotel, upon reaching Bury, through which they would have to pass, Robert was intending to ask for the car to be pulled up so that he could go in to see if there were any letters for him.
Then, just as they had reached the outskirts of the town, a big lorry, dashing out of a side-street, crashed heavily into the front of the car. The car was overturned, and, when its three occupants were dragged out, it was found Harker had been killed instantly, Bannerstein was unconscious, with injuries obviously of a most serious nature, while Robert had escaped with concussion and a broken leg.
The two injured men were rushed to hospital, with Bannerstein passing away within a very few minutes of his arrival there.
BY the next morning Robert had almost fully recovered from the shock of the accident, and was able to both think and speak coherently, and realise all that had happened. He made no pretence to himself that he was sorry Bannerstein was dead. Indeed, his only feeling was one of relief. Bannerstein had been a thoroughly bad man and certainly no friend of his. If he had come to learn of the attachment that had sprung up between him, Robert, and his stepdaughter, of course he would have done his utmost to prevent it going any farther, even to the extent of poisoning Lena's mind against him, by lies and, unhappily, truth.
Now he was dead, the matter of the theft of the emerald necklace might never come to Lena's knowledge and she need never know he had been a thief. His thoughts now turning to her, he asked the sister who was looking after him if someone could be sent round to The Mitre Hotel, as he expected there was a letter waiting for him there. "My name's Robert Willoughby," he added.
The sister looked puzzled. "Then I think your poor friend," she returned hesitatingly, "must have been for the letter, as when we turned the things out of his pockets to find out who he was, we found one addressed to Mr. Robert Willoughby at The Mitre Hotel."
Robert now looked very puzzled, too. "Oh, bring it to me, please," he said quickly. "He didn't tell me he had got one for me."
"But it's been opened," said the sister.
"Opened!" exclaimed Robert. He flushed hotly. "Is it from Edinburgh and signed Lena? Then he must have opened it by mistake and forgotten to tell me."
"Oh, what a treacherous devil!" he exclaimed when the nurse had gone. "But how on earth did he come to go to The Mitre Hotel, and why did they let him have it?" He smiled grimly. "My word, what trouble there would have been for us if he hadn't been killed!"
That evening, when the surgeon who had set his broken leg the previous day came round to see how he was getting on, he asked him as a great favour if he would very nicely get through a message for him on the phone. "It's so very important," he said, "that I hardly care to give it to one of the sisters."
"All right," said the good-natured young doctor, "I'll put it through for you at once. Who's it to?"
"To a Mr. Gilbert Larose," replied Robert, "and to-night he should be at the Semiris Hotel in the Haymarket."
The doctor's eyes opened wide. "Ah, Gilbert Larose, the one-time great detective!" he exclaimed. "I've heard about him. Now what do you want me to say?"
"Well, I've only met him once," exclaimed Robert rather awkwardly, "but I want you to give him my name, Robert Willoughby, and recall to his recollection that I met him a few weeks ago at dinner at Mr. Bannerstein's home in Hampstead. Remind him that he gave me a promise that if ever he could help me he would. Tell him what's happened here and that Mr. Bannerstein's been killed. Then say that I have something of very great importance to tell him, and that even a few hours' delay may spoil everything. Impress upon him how important I say it is, and that I'm sure if he comes to see me here I swear he'll never regret it. Now, have you taken that all in?"
The doctor nodded. "It's a matter of great urgency and you want him to come here at once. Good! Then I'll put the call in straightaway and, with any luck, I'll be speaking to him within a few minutes."
As it happened the doctor was back in less even than the specified few minutes. "Your luck's certainly in," he smiled. "I caught him just upon the point of going out. He'll come. He'll be down the first thing to-morrow morning."
"Did he remember me?" asked Robert.
"Yes, perfectly, and he said he was quite sure you would not be wanting him to come down all this way unless the matter were urgent."
Though Larose had sent word he would come early, Robert, mindful of the sixty-mile run from town, was greatly surprised to see him appear before eight o'clock. He was greatly relieved, as well, as it came to him in a flash that here was a man, strong, capable and confident, who would certainly handle the whole matter better than anyone else he could have picked.
"Well, young man," said Larose laughingly, after a sister had pulled a chair up to the bedside for him and then gone away to leave them alone, "I hope, bringing me down all this way, that you've got something very interesting to tell me, one murder at least."
Robert was unsmiling. "I think I've got two for you," he said, "and not only that, but I'm afraid I'm mixing you up in a matter that will be as difficult for you to deal with as anything you've ever touched in all your life."
Larose frowned in his surprise at Robert's grave tone. "Oh, as bad as that, is it? Well, let's hear what it is."
"Before this accident happened," said Robert, "I was coming up to see you to ask for help, but now that I've got this broken leg it isn't help from you I'm asking. I'm pushing the whole business on to you to take it over yourself."
"Good," smiled Larose, "I prefer acting on my own. Then there's no one to have any disagreement with."
"But first, Mr. Larose," went on Robert quickly, "in telling you what I'm going to, I know I'm placing myself completely in your hands, as everything I have done is not to my credit." He nodded grimly. "In fact, I shouldn't be here now if that stout friend of yours at Scotland Yard, that Inspector Stone, had found out half of what you're going to learn." He spoke with a rush. "Not to beat about the bush—I shall have to tell you two things I've done." He looked Larose straight in the face. "I stole an emerald necklace worth more than £5,000 once, and I killed a man and buried his body in Epping Forest."
Larose's face was the very picture of amazement. "My conscience," he exclaimed frowningly, "but you're a nice prize packet, aren't you?" The corners of his mouth twitched humorously. "And to think—the last time I saw you you were sitting opposite to that very pretty-looking Lena Bannerstein, too shy almost to say boo to a goose."
Robert's face lightened. "Yes, she is pretty, isn't she? And she's as good as she's pretty, too." He nodded defiantly. "I'm going to marry her one day."
Larose looked as stern as a judge who had got the black cap ready. "Go on with your story," he ordered, "and afterwards I'll see if you are fit to be the husband of any nice girl."
Robert did not seem at all nonplussed. "Oh, I'm not altogether bad," he said smilingly. "I sent the necklace back, and the man I killed was intending to blackmail me. Also, I didn't mean to kill him. That was an accident."
Larose made no comment. He would have liked to have smiled, too, but was withholding his judgment. Whatever the young man before him might be, he was certainly of a high courage, and he admired the way he was now placing all his safety in the hands of someone whom he had seen only once before.
Robert sketched briefly how he had come to steal the necklace, his selling one of the stones to Fergus O'Shane and how it happened the latter met his death that night in Ensum Street. Then he went on to relate what he found in the dead man's wallet.
"And I was furious," he said warmly. "The little beast had been carrying about Hitler's photograph in that beautiful little silver frame and I jumped to the conclusion—which you will learn in a minute or two was quite correct—that he and his damned brother David had been spying for Nazi Germany before the war."
Next, he told Larose about his trailing David, and his suspicions that there was something of great importance in the safe. Now bringing Bannerstein into the picture, he related to the amazed Larose the happenings in the pawnshop upon the night of the murder, his being taken to Scotland Yard to be questioned, and the Jew approaching him later with an invitation to dinner at his luxurious house in Hampstead.
"Ah, he was a proper devil, that Isaac Bannerstein!" he exclaimed. "Finding out I had been a guest at that Goodwood house-party last July, he had very cleverly put two and two together and thought he had got me in a strangle-hold. Just imagine how putty-coloured his face went when I turned the tables on him. He was terribly scared, too, when I told him I didn't want the friendship of a man who was supporting the Terrorists in Palestine."
Then he went on to explain how it happened he had come down to Bury St. Edmunds to try to find out for whom the pawnbroker had been acting in the sale of all that valuable jewellery, how he had met Willie Dee and from him and his father learnt so much about the mysterious Priory and its inmates.
"And I was certain, then," he said, "that I had come to the end of my journey, that I had found a house of evil hiding evil men, men in possession of a secret of such supreme importance to them that they have committed two murders to prevent its being known."
"You mean those of the road-mender and the gipsy?" interrupted Larose sharply.
"Yes," nodded Robert, "everything suggests that they met their deaths because they had been caught in The Priory grounds, probably the road-mender when he was poaching, and the gipsy because he had somehow managed to pass through the gates and gone up to the house to sell whatever he had brought with him."
Then he went on to relate how he and the boy had gone into the underground passage and come to where they could overhear the conversation that was going on in the dining-hall of The Priory. He drew in a long breath here and went on slowly and impressively, choosing every word most carefully, "And now I come to what you will find it very hard to believe, and upon whether or not you do believe it, will depend your judgment whether I have brought you down to-day upon a fool's errand or upon a matter of most vital importance to all the world. I am going to tell you something extraordinary."
Larose was frowning hard. There was no doubt he had been extremely interested in Robert's story all along and hitherto had seen no reason not to believe every single thing he had told him. Now, however, with Robert's last words, just the faintest suspicion of a doubt crept up into Larose's mind that Robert's mental balance might perhaps have been upset by the shock of the accident and that he was about to launch into some extravagant fancy that had no foundation in fact. It rather distressed him.
It seemed that Robert sensed what was passing in Larose's mind, for he burst out quickly, "Mr. Larose, Adolf Hitler was among those speaking in that room. No, no, don't turn it down at once, for with every minute that has passed since I heard those voices I am more and more convinced his was among them. Time after time, one after another addressed someone there as Mein Fuehrer. They spoke with the utmost respect and never for one moment attempted to out-shout what this Mein Fuehrer said. He took up most of the conversation and they seemed to be listening almost in reverence, as if they were listening to a god. Except for his voice, the room was as silent as the grave when he was speaking."
Larose made no comment. He was altogether too astonished to speak.
Robert went on, still speaking quickly. "Of course I had never actually heard Hitler's voice except on recordings and news-reels, but he spoke as it sounded then, volubly and in a torrent of words, as if he were addressing a big audience."
"What did he say?" asked Larose hoarsely.
Robert hesitated. "I've told you I can speak German and understand it, too, but I don't know it well enough to be able to follow everything when the speaker speaks very quickly. And so it was with this Mein Fuehrer then. I could not take in everything, but he was talking of the greatness of the Fatherland, how it could not be crushed and that it would rise again. In the next war they would start better prepared and——"
Robert broke off suddenly and plucked nervously at the bedclothes. "Oh, oh," he went on in obvious distress, "I am forgetting the most important thing of all. We must act quickly, for the Fuehrer is leaving England almost at once. They didn't know when, but the time might come at any moment now, and they had got everything prepared. It's to somewhere over the sea he is going, for they talked of sea-sickness and the best ways of preventing it. Also, they spoke of the clothes which those who were going would have to wear with the changes of climate they were going to meet, how to keep warm and how to keep cool."
"The devil!" exclaimed Larose, frowning hard. "You are sure they were talking about some journey they were planning?"
"No, not that they were planning," said Robert most uneasily, "but about one that had been already arranged and they were only waiting for the time to arrive when it would take place. I didn't grasp that for the moment, and it was only when I was thinking everything over afterwards that I realised the undercurrent of excitement in their talking." He spoke in obvious distress. "You see that wretched attack of malaria I had clouded my mind and I couldn't gather my thoughts properly." He spoke pleadingly. "You do think Hitler is there, don't you?"
Larose drew in a deep breath. "After all you've told me," he said slowly, "I'm very much inclined to think I do, however incredible it certainly does seem."
"But whom else could those men have been addressing as Mein Fuehrer?" asked Robert persistently. He went on. "And about that woman there. From what I saw of this Madame Bianca when I went up with the plumber, she's a domineering, truculent party, with no politeness for anyone, and yet—when she was talking to that Mein Fuehrer, she was as subdued and polite as if it was an honour to be speaking to him at all."
A moment's silence followed and then Larose said briskly, "All right, Willoughby, I'll see into it." He smiled. "Certainly, for the moment, your story did seem fantastic, but it's only what they're saying all over Germany now. I was there not three months ago and some of the Germans were saying openly that Hitler never killed himself. They declare he escaped from that bunker under the Chancellery by one of the underground-railway tunnels and that the escape was all planned before ever he went to shelter there."
"Well, what are you going to do?" asked Robert, as Larose had risen to his feet.
"Get a map out of my car," replied Larose, "and you're going to point out to me exactly where this Priory is and where I can park my car when I'm doing some investigating."
"But you're not going in broad daylight?" asked Robert aghast.
"Certainly not. I'll go there to-night, but I must first get a good idea of the lie of the land."
"Take that boy with you," said Robert. "He's as sharp as a needle."
Larose shook his head. "No, in jobs like this I always prefer to go alone." He smiled. "I may have to break into the house and I shouldn't want any witnesses then."
For a good half-hour they pored over the map, with Larose asking a thousand questions. Then he took his departure, promising, however, to return early in the afternoon. However, it was nearly four o'clock before he put in an appearance and then, to his surprise, he found Robert had got another visitor. Lena Bannerstein was sitting by the bed, and the instant thought came to him what a really lovely girl she was. Her pale face flushed prettily as he came up. He expressed his sincerest sympathy for her in the dreadful loss she had sustained in the death of her father.
They talked on for a few minutes and then she said suddenly to Larose, with a rather wan smile, "Now, Mr. Larose, I would be glad of your advice about this young man here. You can see he's a sick man, with this broken leg coming on the top of that attack of malaria. When he leaves this hospital the doctors say he'll need taking care of for some weeks, and he can't go back to his rooms for there's no one there to look after him."
"Certainly not," agreed Larose. "This accident must have shaken him tremendously and he'll probably feel the effects of the shock for a long time to come."
The girl blushed prettily. "Then I suggest that we get married by special licence directly he is able to be moved, so that I can look after him."
Larose's face showed his astonishment. "But—but," he exclaimed, "I didn't know you two were engaged, Miss Bannerstein!"
She got very hot. "Well, we're not really, but we were going to be, and though it may seem very dreadful of me marrying so soon after Father's death, I shan't mind what people think or say, as I'm sure it's the only way to have Robert looked after." She smiled. "You see I am myself a properly-trained nurse."
"And what does Robert say?" asked Larose, regarding the very embarrassed-looking Robert with a whimsical smile.
Lena laughed. "Oh, he's stupid! He says he's got no money and it isn't nice for a man who's earning none to sponge on a girl who's got plenty." Flashing Robert an affectionate smile, she rose to her feet. "Well, I'm off for a few minutes to have a cup of tea, and you, please, Mr. Larose, make Robert understand that if a man is really fond of a girl, whether she's got money or not should make no difference with him. It's quite as bad to reproach her for having money as it is to rub into her that she's got none."
The eyes of both the men were focused upon her until she had disappeared from the room, and then Larose turned to Robert and regarded him with a broad grin.
"Well, of all the young fellows I've ever met," he remarked dryly, "you're one of the luckiest of the lot." He made a grimace. "Just fancy a lovely creature like that having to egg you on to marry her. Why, I——"
"But it isn't only the matter of her money," said Robert sharply. "It's because I'm not sure it's fair to let her marry me without telling her what sort of man I've been."
Larose's face sobered down. "Forget it, son," he said. "That's all past and gone. You're a decent chap again now, and if I'm any judge of character, you'll be a good husband to her."
"Then you think I can marry her?" asked Robert.
"Certainly! You're not naturally a thief."
Robert smiled a dry smile. "Well, I'll just put you to the test, sir." He spoke slowly and deliberately. "If I came courting a daughter of yours, knowing what I've been, would you be pleased at the idea of my marrying her?"
Larose coloured uncomfortably. "A shrewd thrust, that—a very shrewd one!" he exclaimed. He held up his hand. "But wait a moment. Let me think!" His face broke into a smile. "Ah, I have it. If I saw what you've confessed to me you've done put down starkly upon a piece of paper in black and white—I'd say no emphatically, but, meeting you as I have and knowing all the attendant circumstances, if my girl really loved you I'd say yes." He nodded. "That's the honest truth."
"In spite of my having stolen that necklace?" persisted Robert.
Larose nodded again. "A sudden temptation, probably. After having lived the unnatural life all you young fellows did in the war, it was the craving for adventure more than anything else which made you fall."
"And what about my killing Fergus O'Shane?"
Larose smiled again. "I think you can forget that without any qualms of conscience. After all, it was done in self-defence, and if what we suspect is true, then he was better out of the way in any case. And even if the body is ever recovered in a recognisable state—which I very much doubt—I think the authorities would take the same view. . . . No, it seems a case of justifiable homicide if ever there was one." He laughed. "So you marry the girl and live happily ever after."
Then his face clouded. "But I'm sorry her father was what he was. Still, I suppose——"
"But he wasn't her father," broke in Robert. "She was only his stepdaughter."
"Ah, that's better!" exclaimed Larose. "With Bannerstein her father, there might have——" He broke off suddenly with a gesture of annoyance. "But here we're talking about your love affairs when there's something far more important to consider. I've been to that Priory and——"
"Not to the house itself!" exclaimed Robert.
"No, but I've scouted round and got a good idea of everything. I even got a glimpse of that fellow at the lodge. I was hiding among the trees. He was taking in vegetables from a man in a van, and plenty of them, too. So, they're certainly still all there. One thing—I couldn't find that place where you got under the fence. Still, that doesn't matter as I shall cut through the palings with a saw. It'll be quite easy. I have one in my car."
"But what do you intend to do then?" asked Robert uneasily.
Larose shook his head. "Don't know," he said. "It all depends upon circumstances. At any rate I'm going up to the house. Now what about those gates there? How high are they?"
He asked Robert several more questions about the approach to The Priory, but did not stay long. "Well, I must be off now," he said at last. "There are a few things I shall have to buy in the town. Good-bye, my boy, and don't worry. If I don't come to see you to-morrow, you shall have a message over the phone as early as I can manage it."
Robert passed a most uneasy night, and was very uneasy, too, when next morning hour after hour went by with no message coming through. However, to his immense relief, just before noon a nurse came tripping up to his bed.
"A Mr. Larose has just rung up," she said, "to find out how you are. He told me to tell you that the bridge-party was a great success and he enjoyed himself immensely. He won every game."
THE previous night had been one which young Willie Dee was convinced would stick in his memory for ever. His visit to the ruined abbey with Robert had been exciting enough, but that excitement was far and away surpassed by the amazing events he was shortly to witness.
Getting into The Priory grounds as usual in search of birds and the chance of a rabbit or two, he proceeded to make his way to the abbey and, coming to the high wall surrounding the garden of The Priory, moved up close to the big gates to get a peep through the sides. He was surprised to find the gates ajar but, thinking the opportunity too good to be missed, crept into the garden with the intention of getting upon the verandah. "And if there's a chink in the blinds," he thought breathlessly, "I might even get a sight of those fellows we heard the other night—and that'll be something to tell the young gent!"
Already, the night being still, he could plainly hear the voices of people talking in the house, and as he got nearer he was interested to see some bags and suitcases piled on the verandah.
He had covered about half the distance to the verandah, when his heart leapt into his mouth—crouching down by the big french window was a man, with his ear pressed close and in the attitude as if he were listening. And in one of his hands he was holding what looked like a large piece of paving-stone.
"A burglar!" whispered Willie, his legs suddenly feeling as if they were made of water; but even then he had to admit that the man did not fit into his idea of a burglar, for though he had a cap pulled down well over his forehead he looked neat and tidy in a dark overall. But Willie's imagination, fed on countless twopenny 'bloods' and detective films, did not fail him now. "A gentleman cracksman, that's what he is!" he breathed excitedly, and thought of the story he would tell his fellow Boy Scouts.
Still very scared, and fearing the man might turn round at any moment and see him, he darted to a big rhododendron bush and lay down behind it, wondering what on earth was going to happen next.
He had not long to wait, as the man, straightening himself up, stepped back a pace or two and then struck violently with his piece of stone upon the window. There was a fearful crash and the man struck two more blows. Then, into the large hole he had made he thrust his arm like lightning and tore down both the blind and the curtain.
Even from where he was behind the rhododendron bush, Willie could see right into the well-lighted room where several people were sitting at a table. For a few seconds the man who had broken the window stood looking in, too. Then up went his right arm, there was the sharp crack of a pistol, and shrieks came from inside the room.
The man who had fired the pistol did not move, but stood still as a piece of stone, with his pistol hand half raised against his side. In a few seconds, however, he turned in a flash and, jumping off the verandah, ran quickly towards the big gates. Though not young, as Willie saw now, he was very quick upon his feet, and as he made no noise in running off the verandah he must have been wearing sand-shoes or soft shoes of some kind.
Shouts now came from inside the room, the french window was thrown wide open and several men ran out. They had got pistols, too, and started firing, but the man they were firing at was not hit and quickly disappeared.
As the men went indoors again Willie, quaking with fear, wondered whether it would be safe for him to get away, and was about to creep cautiously from his hiding-place when he saw three of the men come hurrying out again. Running quickly to and fro, they brought out armfuls of wood from one of the sheds and piled it in a heap upon the gravel drive in front of the house. A big tin of oil or petrol was thrown upon the wood and set alight.
What happened next nearly made Willie shriek in horror, and he began to wonder if after all the whole thing was some dreadful nightmare—he would have given anything to wake up and find himself comfortably in bed at The White Owl Inn.
Two men came out of the house, carrying another man with them; one held his shoulders and another his heels. In horrified fascination Willie watched them move towards the fire and throw their burden upon the flames; the man did not move, and he knew he must be already dead. The other men stood watching the fire for a few minutes, their faces a strange blend of grief and a sort of exaltation, and then ran back into the house.
In the next few seconds things moved fast. The big car was run out, the bags and suitcases off the verandah were thrown into it; then, to Willie's surprise, the Spanish lady, with a face as white as if she were dead, was lifted in, and it roared away.
Long before the dying hum of the car had faded right away, the boy, sick with fright, was running for his life. He had not, however, gone two hundred yards before it began to rain and, before he got out of The Priory grounds, it was coming down in torrents. When he at last reached home he was soaked through. He said nothing to his father, for even now the adventure seemed so fantastic that he was not sure that he had not dreamt it after all; and, cold and wet, he crept upstairs and put himself to bed, almost afraid to go to sleep lest another nightmare visit him.
It was perhaps twelve hours later that two police cars drove up to The Priory, and as soon as they entered the grounds it was evident that the errand on which they had come was not—as one or two of the more sceptical policemen were inclined to think—a wild-goose chase after all. Certainly the circumstances leading to their arrival were mysterious enough.
In the early hours of that morning a car had been heard to pull up outside the post office in Thetford, about twelve to thirteen miles distant from The Priory. Several people heard it, but probably no one would have thought it worth remembering had it not been for what followed.
The Thetford postmaster, going to clear the letter-box at five o'clock that morning, found among the letters a communication addressed to him and marked 'Very Urgent'. Not enclosed in an envelope, it was only a folded piece of paper, wrapped round a ten-pound banknote. The writing was all in stiff Roman characters, and told him to ring up Scotland Yard instantly with the following message:
Four or five German officers of high rank are in hiding in a house known as The Priory about a mile and a half from the village of Bartle St. Mary in Suffolk. Strongly urge you to raid the place instantly, as they have made all preparations to bolt away. They are men of desperate character and are probably all armed. The house is about three-quarters of a mile inside grounds surrounded by a high fence. You will have to break through the gates. The house itself is surrounded by a high wall and you will have to break through the gates there, too. I have cut the telephone wire between the lodge at the outer gates and the house. The Priory belongs to a Spanish woman known as Dona Bianca de Darelgo. Am strongly of opinion these German officers have escaped from prisoner-of-war camps.
At first the Thetford postmaster was inclined to disregard the whole thing as a hoax, but on second thoughts he found it hard to explain away thus the ten-pound note—the change from which, by the by, he was told to keep for himself. Quite rightly, he was of opinion no practical joker, however flush with money, would have wasted ten pounds. So, with a feeling of great excitement and self-importance, he got through to Scotland Yard and finally was put in touch with Inspector Mendel himself.
His imagination aroused, Mendel decided the message was certainly worth investigating, and within five minutes was awakening the Chief Commissioner of Police. To him, too, the enclosure of the ten-pound note made considerable appeal, and the whole thing ended in two car-loads of police, led by Stone and Mendel and equipped for every eventuality—even to tear bombs—setting out before seven o'clock.
By half-past eight The Priory had been located and, as there was no answer from the lodge, the big gates leading into the grounds were promptly forced. Arriving at the high wall surrounding the garden of the house, they found the gates there wide open and swinging to and fro in the wind.
It was just before they reached the house that, on the gravel drive, they came across the grim remnants of the scene young Willie had witnessed the previous night. Owing to the heavy downpour of rain, much of the body had escaped complete destruction, and its sex could be determined with little difficulty. The face was scorched beyond recognition, but, bending closely over it, Stone could see at once how the man had met his death; there was a small hole exactly in the centre of the forehead, a hole that could only have been caused by a bullet from a pistol.
"We'll come back to that later," barked Stone, and the little posse of police proceeded cautiously into the house, by way of the french window.
There was no sign anywhere of any living being, and somehow, hardened as he was to all ways of crime, Inspector Stone found himself shivering. For some reason he could not understand, he felt positively afraid—even awed. There was this beautifully appointed old house, with all the luxuries and refinements of the living—as silent as the grave and as if all suddenly it had become a veritable place of the dead.
Then he pulled himself up with a jerk. "Damn' nonsense—I must be getting old!" he muttered to himself, and looked round hurriedly to see whether his momentary weakness had been noticed. He need not have worried, for it was evident the rest of the party, to whom violent deaths were a common and everyday affair, were oppressed in the same way by the atmosphere of the house; they trod softly and spoke in hushed tones, whispering to one another. Each felt that he was in the presence of no ordinary crime; there was something unnatural and barbaric about the burning of that unknown body, and the scene that met their eyes as they entered the dining-room spoke of unmistakable panic and terror.
It needed only the quickest of glances for them to realise they were looking upon the remnants of an interrupted meal. Six diners had been seated at the round table, and the meal had consisted of a roast leg of mutton with red-currant jelly and several kinds of vegetables. All had well started upon what had been served to them, and there was a red wine in the glasses from two bottles on the table. By now the food had solidified upon the plates, the joint of mutton had become glued to its dish and the uncovered vegetables had staled and become dry and hard. Knives and forks were scattered, glasses were knocked over and chairs pushed back; most ominous of all, around the chair facing the shattered french window were splashes of blood—blood had spurted too upon the tablecloth, and on the carpet a pool had formed as big as a good-sized dinner-plate.
"It's clear enough, sir," said Inspector Mendel to Stone. "Someone—most probably the person who sent us that message—broke this window and shot that fellow through the head, and the rest were panic-stricken—guessed their hiding-place was found out and made a getaway as fast as they could."
"Seems so," grunted Stone. "But it's queer, all the same. What point was there in shooting one man out of six—and if they were in such a devil of a hurry, why waste time in burning the corpse? An attempt to hide his identity, perhaps—but then again, why?" His eyes glinted. "There's something big behind all this, Mendel—mark my words, there's something big." And, all his enthusiasm aroused once more, he turned to continue the search of the deserted house.
Now as we have already seen from the fact of the bags and suitcases piled on the verandah, it was clear that certain inmates of The Priory had been intending to leave shortly after that dinner; the search party, of course, could only surmise this from the result of their investigations upstairs, where they found that from three rooms all personal effects had been taken away. Moreover, from those three rooms all the linen, such as sheets and pillowcases, had been removed, and the beds made up—to suggest they were not going to be occupied again, at least for some time.
However, when the police entered the room that had been occupied by Dona Bianca, it was evident that her departure had not been intended. Everything was in wild disorder. Wardrobes had been flung open, chests of drawers had been ransacked and there were articles of women's clothing scattered everywhere about, as if it had been difficult for her to decide exactly what to take away with her and what to leave behind.
Rummaging in one of the cupboards, Inspector Stone suddenly gave a low whistle of amazement as he looked more closely at something he had pulled out of one of the recesses. He beckoned Mendel over to him, and that young man's eyes widened as he looked at the object in Stone's hand.
It was a photograph of Adolf Hitler, enclosed in a small silver frame embossed on the back with a gold swastika, with a phoenix underneath. It was in fact, had the inspectors only known, exactly the same as the one Robert had found in Fergus O'Shane's wallet.
"What did I tell you, my lad!" said Stone, in a low voice from which, however, he could not keep his excitement. "I tell you we're on to something big—there's far more in this than the hiding of a few escaped German officers——"
"You mean a sort of underground Nazi movement, sir?" broke in Mendel.
"Not so fast—not so fast," reproved Stone, a little disappointed that the young man had been so quick to voice what was in his, Stone's, own mind. "We don't know anything for certain yet. We've got to find out who the fellow outside is, and whether the killer was the man who sent this message—and we're going to make a few inquiries about this Dona Bianca, too!"
His excitement mounted when, in one of the kitchen drawers, the searchers found the rabbit-skinning knife of the murdered road-mender with his initials carved upon the handle, while in the scullery they came upon several dozen of the gipsy's clothes-pegs, newly made.
"That proves one thing, anyhow," said Stone decisively. "Both of them must have been murdered by someone in this house—and the only sound reason seems to be that they'd both seen something that had to be kept a secret. So they silenced them for good—the swine!"
After these momentous discoveries it was rather an anticlimax when one of the policemen entered from the garden holding some nondescript article gingerly. "Don't know whether this is anything important, sir," he said, handing it to Stone, "but I found it under a clump of rhododendron bushes in front of the house."
It was a boy's school-cap, old and rather ragged-looking, and so sodden by the recent downpour that there was no telling how long it had lain there.
Stone eyed it doubtfully. "H'm," he grunted, "I can't see what a kid could have had to do with any of these goings-on—and anyway this might have been lying there for months." Examining the cap more closely, he could just decipher a name scrawled upon the lining with an indelible pencil. "So it belongs to Willie Dee, eh? Well, let's hope young Willie, whoever he is, has got a new one by now—this one's about at the end of its tether."
And telling the policeman to throw it back in the bushes he turned back to what he considered far more important things.
However, the name Willie Dee stuck in his memory and that evening, going into the Bartle St. Mary inn for a drink, he heard another customer addressing the landlord as Mr. Dee.
At once pricking up his ears, he asked who was Willie Dee, and being told that he was the innkeeper's son, asked to speak to him.
"Well, Willie," he said when the boy entered, "where did you lose that old cap of yours?"
Willie went very red; he had been worrying about that all day. "I don't remember," he replied falteringly, "but it was a long while ago."
"No, it wasn't," snapped the detective, his suspicions aroused. "Don't be afraid. We know all about it. So tell us the truth."
And then Willie told the whole story, after which Inspector Stone, having mingled compliments on the boy's observation with rebukes for not having gone straight to the police, returned happily to The Priory to digest this new information.
What happened next can best be described by quoting from an article which appeared ten days later in the Sunday edition of the Daily Megaphone. It read:
There can be no doubt that the imagination of the public has been greatly stirred by what is known as 'The Priory Affair', for even the oldest among us can recall no mystery of a more absorbing interest. In part, too, a mystery it will probably always remain, for much of what happened in and around that sinister old house will never be told....
We must first ask ourselves who was the man who, like an avenger from God, came out of the blackness of that fatal night and sent the inmates of that evil house scurrying off for their very lives?
We would dearly like to know, too, whose charred body it was they left behind. The funeral pyre they had so hurriedly got together would no doubt have done its work effectively had it not been for the heavy downpour which must have come on almost directly after they had left.
But unhappily we can answer none of these questions, and with the washing up yesterday of the seventh body upon the sands of Deal—the last of The Priory inmates to be accounted for—we must regard the story of the happenings in that dreadful house as being for ever closed....
All we can do here is to recapitulate briefly the events which followed the lightning raid on The Priory. It was at once discovered, of course, that all the inmates had made a clean getaway, including the lady of The Priory, Dona Bianca de Darelgo; but, to the astonishment of the police, four days elapsed before they could pick up any tracks of their big car. With its description so widely broadcast, an eight-cylinder biscuit-coloured Minerva, they had expected to receive news of it within a few hours at most.
However, no one had seen such a car upon the roads and no garage reported as having serviced it with oil or petrol. Then, suddenly, the mystery was solved, for a detective, rummaging about, came upon a spray and some lacquer in one of the big Priory sheds. The car had been re-duccoed a green colour!
Everything was then easy, for it was found the car had been left at a little wayside garage in a small village a few miles out of Great Yarmouth.
A man, speaking perfect English and, according to the garage-man, with all the appearance of being an Englishman, had left it there the very morning after the raid upon The Priory, saying he wanted the valves re-ground and would call for it the following day. Nothing, however, had been heard of him since.
In the meantime it had been learnt, unhappily too late, that upon the night following the raid several persons, one of them a woman, had converged one at a time upon the ketch Emma Jane, lying against one of the quays in Great Yarmouth harbour. The ketch had immediately put to sea, to run the next day into that terrific storm, one of the worst the east coast had experienced for upwards of fifty years. The Emma Jane was seen by the coastguards to founder off the dreaded Goodwin Sands. No survivors were picked up.
However, with the wind prevailing later and the scour of the tide always fierce and strong after a big storm, one by one the bodies of those who had been upon the ketch were washed up on the shore between Deal and the South Foreland. Four of them were recognised as those of the escaped German officers and a fifth as that of Dona de Darelgo; the remaining two were those of a man and youth employed at The Priory. From finger-marks all about The Priory, the escaped officers had already been identified as notorious Nazis who had escaped some two years previously from the camp in the Welsh mountains near Llanberis. They were Major von Brunner, General Karl Branz, Professor Lebberstern and Dr. Heinrich. Had they not escaped when they did, three of these unpleasant gentlemen would ere this have been put on trial as war criminals.
Such are the bare facts, and had it not been for the fortuitous presence that fateful night of the young schoolboy William Dee we should not know now as much as we do, little as that is. Yet it seems almost certain that the killer and the party who sent on that message to Scotland Yard were one and the same man. Wheels within wheels—we can only surmise that the gang of traitors may have had in their midst a master-traitor who, awaiting his opportunity, took his revenge for some injury that had been done him. Who he was and why he acted as he did we shall, of course, never know.
It is only natural that such amazing events should give rise to the most fantastic rumours, and it is not for us to measure the claims of one against another. Until the mystery is solved, of course, such rumours will be inevitable. Certainly in this case the sea has given up its dead, but dead men tell no tales and the lips that might have told their secret are for ever stilled.
LAROSE came to see Robert at the hospital some days later, and arrived in as smiling and debonair a mood as usual.
"Well," said Robert eagerly, "what happened?"
"All that you have read in the newspapers," smiled Larose. "All that and more." His face sobered down. "You were quite right, my boy. It was Hitler himself who was there. I recognised him upon the instant I pulled down that curtain and the blind. The only difference in him from the Hitler of old was that he had grown a little stouter and was wearing a beard. For the moment, his eyes were just the same and they glared out haughtily at me as if I were a dog. Then their expression changed. He had seen the pistol in my hand and terror came into them. To my grief I could not prolong his agony, for the others were recovering from their surprise and one of them was reaching back to his hip pocket. So I put the bullet in him straightaway, and waited only just long enough to see the blood spurt from his forehead before I sprang away."
Robert was breathing hard. "You were lucky to escape," he said.
"Yes, and no," commented Larose. "I had the advantage of surprise, but I certainly didn't count upon them having their pistols so handy. One of their bullets ploughed through my clothes at the side and I could feel the hot sting of it as it went in and out. For the moment, indeed, I thought I had been hit. The luckiest thing is that that bright young friend of yours in the rhododendron bushes didn't see me close enough to describe me."
"But tell me," asked Robert, "did you go with the intention of killing Hitler if you found he was there?"
Larose shook his head. "The only intention I had was to hear his voice. I knew it well as I had heard him speak in Nuremberg the year before the war. Also, I had bought a record of part of his speech then, and had often played it over to friends at home. Still, in any case, after what you had told me, I was going to put the police on to those Germans, as I knew they must all be escapees from some prisoner-of-war camp of ours." He shrugged his shoulders. "However, when I saw that luggage all ready upon the verandah, I knew I must take desperate measures at once and when I did hear Hitler's voice, as you have heard, I broke that window and shot him. Whatever happened to the others, I determined he should not get into hiding again."
"And you're not going to tell anyone," asked Robert, "that the half-burnt body was Hitler's?"
"Certainly not," laughed Larose, "and neither are you." He spoke very solemnly. "That is going to be a secret between us—a secret for all our lives."
DIRECTLY Robert was allowed to leave the hospital he and Lena were married by special licence in Bury St. Edmunds. One of the hospital doctors was the best man and Larose gave the bride away. Always a great admirer of the other sex, the one-time international detective sighed a little enviously at Robert's good fortune.
"No commando tactics in dealing with her, my boy," he whispered laughingly, "and remember the husband should always regard himself as the fortunate and favoured lover. Never take anything for granted. That's where so many marriages fail."
With Lena at the wheel in her own car, the newly-weds drove straight away from the church door. They were going to stay at an hotel upon the sea front in Worthing until Robert had quite recovered, but Lena had made it clear that she was taking Robert away only as his nurse.
"I'm not going as your sweetheart or your wife, dear boy," she had insisted firmly. "I'm just going to look after you as if we were perfect strangers until you are strong and well again."
"And who's going to decide when I am?" frowned Robert, who was by no means pleased with the arrangement of separate rooms.
"I am," she replied, "and until then I expect you to do everything I tell you." She laughed happily. "Don't you imagine I married you in this indecent haste for any reason than to take care of you. When you are well and strong you can dismiss your nurse and, if I still like you well enough"—she blushed prettily—"I'll perhaps let you start your courting over again."
So, they had separate but adjoining rooms, and Lena was very strict about the love-making. She allowed no long kisses and never gave him more than a quick peck in return. Still, he was very proud of her and, every time they went down to meals, it thrilled him to note how everyone looked at her—particularly the men.
"The devil," he growled to himself once, "but they wouldn't be so envious of me if they knew how things are. If I didn't know better, I'd swear the little witch was as cold as a fish."
One day when they were seated at lunch in the big dining-room Lena said suddenly, "Don't turn round, Robert, but there are two men at a table by the window who can't take their eyes off us. I've never seen them before, but I think they must know you. Oh, yes, they've got up and are coming this way."
Sure enough, they did know Robert and in a few seconds he was introducing Lena to young Arnold Ransome's father and Colonel Roxbury.
With his guilty conscience going far deeper than merely pricking him, Robert felt horribly embarrassed at meeting the colonel again, but the old man was particularly nice to him and greeted him as warmly as if they were very old friends. Mr. Ransome was most pleasant, too, hardly for one moment, however, being able to keep his eyes away from Lena.
They had their coffee all together in the lounge and Mr. Ransome at once brought up the happenings of that Goodwood Week when Robert had been his guest.
"It's devilish funny meeting you to-day, Willoughby," he exclaimed, "for we've got something to tell you that will interest you immensely. You remember that emerald necklace Mrs. Nairne lost, don't you? Well, would you believe it, after all these months it was found yesterday morning and——"
"I found it," broke in the old colonel, laughingly. "Don't let me lose any of the credit. Yes, I found it snug and dry in a hole among the roots of one of those oak trees behind the tennis courts—not three hundred yards from the house. The case wasn't there. The necklace had evidently dropped out of it, and that damned little dog taken it and hidden it there." He turned smilingly to Lena. "Has your husband ever told you about that beautiful emerald necklace being lost? No, he hasn't! Then I'll tell you now. It's a most interesting story."
And with a great wealth of detail he proceeded to relate how he had seen the dog going off with something in his mouth, how it was realised later it must have been the case with the necklace inside it, and the intensive and most disappointing search which had followed.
"And to think," he concluded, all smiles, "that it was I who should have happened to find it. They had all jeered and laughed at me when I said I was positive it would be found one day." He chuckled delightedly. "Now the laugh is all upon my side."
"Oh, you dear old liar!" thought Robert. "What a nerve you've got!" However, he asked most interestedly, "But was it quite unhurt?"
"Quite!" replied the colonel, his eyes twinkling, "and my sister spent all yesterday afternoon and no doubt is still upon the job of polishing it up. It's like the return of a lost child to her."
When finally the two men got up to drive back home, in parting Mr. Ransome exacted a promise that the bridal couple would motor over to Waltham Chase on the morrow. When they had gone Lena remarked gaily, "That old colonel seems quite fond of you, Robert. I noticed he kept watching you in a most fatherly, affectionate way. You must have made a great impression upon him during that short Goodwood Week when you two were together," and her remark made Robert's conscience stab at him more uncomfortably than ever.
In the meantime, however, a cloud was gathering in Robert's sky and its shape was that of the form of the stout Inspector Charlie Stone of Scotland Yard.
Now it happened that in his revengeful spite against Robert the dead Bannerstein had over-reached himself by marking his letter to Inspector Stone as 'Strictly private and confidential'. The letter had arrived at the Yard the very day after the inspector had started upon a three weeks' fishing holiday in Scotland, and the constable in charge of Stone's private room had tucked it well away into a pigeon-hole above the desk so that no one should interfere with it. Then, upon Stone's return it had not been brought to his notice for nearly another fortnight.
He read it with a puzzled frown and then sent for Inspector Mendel, with whom he generally had most to do.
"Do you remember that young spark, Robert Willoughby," he asked of his colleague, "the man I pointed out to you as likely to fall into our hands one day—that afternoon when we had just come out of the inquest upon that gipsy down in Suffolk?" He handed over the letter. "Well, this is he. What do you think of it?"
Mendel read the letter carefully and Stone went on, "What is this emerald necklace this chap writes about? Do you remember anything about it?"
"Vaguely," nodded Mendel. "It was lost at some swell house-party near Goodwood."
"Well, look it up," ordered Stone, "and see also if there was a single emerald in the schedule of things found in that pawnbroker's safe. This Willoughby was being employed by him at the time of his murder."
Mendel was back within the hour. "This letter looks genuine," he said, "as the writer undoubtedly has inside information. There was a single emerald among the other jewels in that safe and I see it was one of considerable value. I've looked up the story of the missing necklace, too. It was worth over £5,000 and disappeared from Waltham Chase during the Goodwood race week. It was supposed to have been taken by a dog and dropped somewhere in the grounds."
"And where's this Waltham Chase?" asked Stone.
"Midway between the villages of Upper Waltham and Horton," said Mendel, "off the Chichester-Dorking road."
"Horton! Horton!" exclaimed Stone with a startled expression upon his face. "Gee, and that's the very place where I first met this Willoughby," and he told Mendel in a few words the story of their encounter and, later, their finding Robert had got over that fence. "Here, get an Ordnance map, quick."
The Ordnance map was produced and Stone snapped his fingers exultingly. "Exactly! And that fence he got over was the one enclosing the Chase grounds. See how it all fits in. He pinched that necklace in July, thought it wasn't safe to bring it away then, hid it somewhere in those grounds, and that November evening when we met him, thinking everything was all right by then, he'd gone back to pick it up." He rubbed his hands together. "Yes, we'll certainly go and have a talk to this young man. His selling that emerald to O'Shane may have some bearing upon O'Shane's murder, later—and remember, we've never found out yet what happened to the other O'Shane. There's something big behind it all. Now where does this Willoughby live?"
Robert's address in Ensum Street was looked up, but, upon proceeding there, it was found he had left, and his landlady had no idea where he had gone.
"I packed up all his things," she explained, "and gave them to a young lady who called for them more than three weeks ago. She said he'd been very ill and was going away for a rest and holiday."
"But can't you tell us of anyone who'll know where he's gone," asked Stone, "any of his relatives or friends?"
"Well, the only one I can think of," was the reply, "would be Mr. Ransome of Waltham Chase, near Chichester. He'd probably know."
"Good!" remarked Stone, when they were driving off in their car. "That'll suit us. We'll go down to-morrow."
So it happened that the following day just after lunch, the two detectives sent in their cards to Mr. Ransome, and the owner of the Chase scowled when he read the names. Any publicity to do with the police always annoyed him. He went frowningly into the room off the lounge where the inspectors had been put by the butler.
"Good afternoon," began Stone most politely, "we've come in connection with that emerald necklace that was lost here last year and——"
"Oh, then you'd better speak to the party who lost it," interrupted Mr. Ransome sharply, most relieved at being able to shelve the matter on to someone else, "or rather to her brother, Colonel Roxbury. He happens to be staying with us now. I'll send him into you."
Colonel Roxbury appeared. He seemed to be looking very puzzled. "We've come about that emerald necklace which was lost here last July," began Stone again. "We think we can throw some light upon its disappearance."
"Oh, you can, can you?" exclaimed the colonel, as if in great surprise. "Now that's very curious."
"It has come to our knowledge," went on Stone, "that a fellow-guest of yours at that house-party here, a young fellow of the name of Robert Willoughby, some months later disposed of a large emerald of considerable value to a pawnbroker in London, and we have every reason to believe it may have come from the missing necklace. If that be so, then it is probable the rest of the necklace is still in his possession and——"
"But—but," interrupted the colonel in great astonishment, "the necklace isn't missing. I found it myself yesterday in the grounds! You're making a great mistake somewhere."
Stone's amazement was quite apparent. "You've found it, you say?" he exclaimed. "Intact?"
"Yes, of course, intact," nodded the colonel. "Exactly as it was the day it was lost. That little dog had taken it into a hole under one of the trees."
"But there's a stone missing!" exclaimed the inspector. He took a little box out of his pocket. "Look—here it is," and he unwrapped a piece of tissue paper and produced a large emerald.
The colonel examined the stone interestedly. "It's certainly like ours," he admitted slowly. "But it doesn't belong to us." He moved towards the door. "Here, come along. I'll show you the necklace. My sister's got it on now. She says that in future she's never going to allow it to be out of her sight."
They went out through the hall door and the colonel indicated a group of people seated upon chairs on the lawn. "There's our little party," he exclaimed. "Oh, and young Mr. Willoughby's among them!" He raised his hand warningly. "Don't you dare to suggest he ever took it. He's a great friend of mine."
"And how long has he been here?" asked the inspector in a flash.
"Only since this morning," was the reply. "He's staying in Worthing and came over to lunch. He's just been married and is on his honeymoon. He's recovering from a dreadful motor accident and has to use a crutch."
The two inspectors were introduced to the little party on the lawn and everyone inclined their heads politely. Robert had recognised his old antagonist and his mouth had gone a little dry. He wondered what on earth had brought the detective there. Like lightning, however, he thought they couldn't have anything against him and he composed his face to an easy smile. He gave no indication that he had met Inspector Stone before, waiting for him to speak—if he wanted to.
Upon the colonel, in part, explaining why the detectives had come, Mrs. Nairne took off the necklace for the inspector to handle. "And it's exactly as it was when you lost it, Madam?" asked Stone grimly.
"Exactly!" replied Mrs. Nairne with a bright smile. "Oh, am I not lucky to have got it back safely after all these months?"
"Very lucky, I should say, Madam," remarked Stone dryly, and he could not forbear from flashing a covert look at Robert who was smiling blandly.
After more inclinations of heads all round, the inspectors took their leave, with Stone cursing deeply as they drove off in their car. "Damn it all!" he swore viciously. "I know I'm right and yet—what can we do?"
"Nothing," grinned Mendel. His mouth was watering. "But I say, wasn't that a lovely girl, standing next to Willoughby? Of course, she was the bride, and he's a damned lucky fellow."
Just when Robert and Lena were getting ready to bid everyone good-bye, the old colonel drew Robert to one side and asked him a question or two about what he was intending to do. Then he said suddenly and, obviously, with some embarrassment, "Look here, my boy, I've come to realise lately that I've been a very selfish old man in my life, and now I feel I'd like to help someone, if I could do any good." He cleared his throat. "So if it should ever happen you find a bit of money would be useful to you—you just let me know. I've got plenty, more than I shall ever want, and you'd be quite welcome to a thousand or two—say, if you want to buy into some practice when you're qualified."
Robert's face was as red as fire. He felt a horrible lump in his throat and could hardly speak clearly. "Thank you, sir, from the bottom of my heart," he said awkwardly, "but I'm sorry to tell you I've married a rich woman, and shall want for nothing."
"But it was a love-match," exclaimed the colonel instantly. "Anyone can see that." He squeezed Robert's arm affectionately. "Well, you're certainly a lucky fellow, if ever there was one. Still, if ever you are in need of anything don't forget old Tommy Roxbury is your friend," and Robert, remembering all the worry he knew he had brought upon him, felt as if he'd like to sink into the ground in shame.
During the drive back to Worthing and later, too, he appeared to be in such low spirits that Lena began to feel really anxious about him. However, remarking as casually as she could at dinner that he now seemed well enough to be able to do without his nurse, all her apprehensions were at once removed by the delight with which he received the news.
Laughing happily, he asked, "Now why are you blushing, dear?" but, turning away her eyes, and continuing to blush, she did not seem to consider his question needed any reply.
Some three months or so later Larose happened to meet Inspector Stone in Oxford Street, and took him into a hotel to have a drink. Seated in a quiet corner of the lounge, he began, as he generally did when they met, to twit his old friend about the failures of Scotland Yard.
"I don't happen to have noticed in the newspapers," he remarked with a sly grin, "that you've caught Jock Matters, the Finsbury Park murderer, yet."
The stout inspector frowned. "No, we haven't, but we've located where his wife is living and I've got six of my best men shadowing her night and day. He'll be visiting her soon, and then we'll nab him nice and easy. We're only waiting until she tries to take in a whole pint of milk instead of half a one in the morning, and then his little game will be up."
"Hopeful chap!" smiled Larose. "It looks quite simple the way you put it—an extra half-pint of milk and then you'll close the trap with the bird in it." He shook his head. "But you weren't too successful with that Priory case, were you, Charlie?"
Stone bridled. "Who says we weren't?" he spoke scoffingly. "The damned newspapers—and what do they know?" He lowered his voice darkly. "Gilbert, my boy, I could tell you something about that Priory business that would make your hair stand up on end, in spite of all that nice-smelling stuff you rub on to it."
"Well, let's hear it," laughed Larose. "You can trust me, and I promise not to pass it on."
The inspector looked round to see that no one was near. "Well, in the first place we've found out quite a lot about Dona Bianca that'll never be made public." Larose looked suitably impressed.
"Yes," went on Stone. "As soon as the first news appeared in the papers we had a hush-hush visit from the Honourable Sylvia Bowes—the daughter of old Lord Mildenbrook, you know. She told us an interesting tale. Apparently her grandmother, on a tour of Germany about fifty years ago, took a fancy to some young girl in Munich and brought her back as a maid. Later on, unfortunately, this German girl ran away with a Spaniard—found he wouldn't marry her, and had a pretty rough time until finally, joining some spiritualistic circle, she found she was a medium of considerable power——"
"And I can guess what's coming," interrupted Larose. "Somehow she made a fortune, came back to England, bought The Priory, and lived there as our old friend Dona Bianca."
"You astonish me, Gilbert," grinned Stone a trifle sheepishly. "Actually she'd made a proper Spanish marriage this time—hence the resounding name—and, being left a rich widow, did exactly as you so brilliantly deduced. But that isn't all, by a long way. Apparently she made herself known again to the Mildenbrooks, and impressed them by her powers of reading the future. All this was some years before the war, by the way. Well, now comes the amazing part."
"The whole story seems amazing, if you ask me," rejoined Larose.
"You ain't heard nothing yet, my boy," countered Stone triumphantly. "What it all boils down to is that Dona Bianca had a very valuable ring that had once belonged to Wagner and was keen to give it to Hitler, as she believed it to have miraculous healing powers and was also firmly convinced that Hitler was the most wonderful man on God's earth. After all, she was a German, though she always passed as a Spaniard and the Mildenbrooks kept her secret out of sympathy."
"That was rather foolish of them, certainly," said Larose.
"Well, I suppose it was, but at that time you know there were certain groups—quite innocent in themselves—who firmly believed in Germany's good faith, and after all we were all out for appeasement.. .. It's easy to be wise after the event.. .. Anyhow, the Honourable Sylvia admits that she'd been one of the bright young things who were so thick with the German Embassy staff, and with Ribbentrop in particular."
"The champagne salesman certainly had a way with him," murmured Larose, and, as if reminded by the reference to drink, ordered two more.
Stone sipped gratefully and put down his glass. "The result was that Dona Bianca finally asked Sylvia to arrange a meeting with Ribbentrop himself."
"To ask him to take the ring to Hitler?"
"More than that—to arrange for her to take it herself! It wasn't only the ring she was worrying about, but she'd got some important message to give him—no one knows what it was now, of course, but it's pretty sure it was some superstitious rigmarole that both of them would believe."
"But all that was highly suspicious! Why on earth didn't the Mildenbrooks come forward with all this—if not then, at least when war broke out? It was enough to get her interned at least."
"Too simple, my dear Gilbert, though exasperating. Old Mildenbrook himself died shortly before the war, and as for young Sylvia—well, with all due respect to her and in spite of the valuable information she's given us at last—she's a scatterbrained creature even now, and I don't suppose the thought ever crossed her mind."
Larose lifted his hands in despair. "Our helpful public!" he exclaimed. "But to get back to Dona Bianca—did she ever make the trip?"
"We don't know. The meeting with Ribbentrop came off, because our friend Sylvia was there for part of the time—it took place at The Priory. Whether the old girl was already a spy and bluffing the Mildenbrooks, or whether she came to some arrangement with Ribbentrop then, we shall never know—but it's obvious now that she did definitely act as a spy. And even"—and he leaned forward impressively—"even if she didn't go to Berlin then, we're pretty sure she was in contact with her beloved Fuehrer, if not throughout the war, then very near the end."
Larose had an uneasy premonition of what was coming, and he found it hard to appear unconcerned.
"I'll tell you something now," Stone whispered, "and it'll be one of the great surprises of your life." His lips barely moved. "We identified whose body it was those damned Germans left behind—the body with the bullet in its head."
"Oh, oh!" exclaimed Larose, looking as surprised as he felt, though for a different reason than the inspector supposed. "Then whose body was it?"
"Adolf Hitler's," breathed Stone, "the mighty Fuehrer's of the Third Reich."
Larose's face was a study and he felt a catch in his breath. "Impossible!" he gasped. "He had shot himself in that underground bunker two years before."
"Not he!" exclaimed Stone. "That was all a put-up job. He escaped from Germany and had been in hiding in that Priory for we don't know how long, perhaps from the very day Germany surrendered—and it was obviously Dona Bianca who suggested the hiding-place."
Larose was too astonished to be able to make any comment, and the inspector went on, "It was found out like this. That Bury St. Edmunds police-surgeon who did the post-mortem happened to have a hobby of collecting skulls and, on the quiet of course, he pinched that one. Taking it home, he got all the burnt flesh off it and cleaned it up nicely to make it look pretty-pretty for his collection. Then, only a couple of weeks or so after, his cousin who is a university professor of anatomy came to see him and with great pride he showed him the skull and told him its history."
"Who was the professor?" asked Larose sharply.
Stone shook his head. "Ah, I'm not going to tell you that. It would be giving too much away—if I haven't done so already, you old scoundrel—but I can say he's supposed to be one of the leading anatomists in the world." He went on. "Well, directly the professor clapped eyes upon the skull, this Bury doctor says he looked very startled. 'Gad,' he exclaimed excitedly, 'I'd swear that it's Hitler's—the same-shaped head, the same forehead and the same facial angle. Here, fetch some plasticine—quick!'"
"Had he ever seen Hitler?" demanded Larose breathlessly.
"Yes, the year before the war," replied Stone, "he attended a congress of doctors in Berlin and Hitler addressed them. He saw Hitler quite close and even shook hands with him. Well, they sent out for five bobs' worth of plasticine and the professor built up the face, with the cheeks, the nose, the eyes and the ears all complete." He spoke with the utmost gravity. "It became the very image of Hitler."
"Well, what next?" asked Larose impatiently, because Stone had stopped speaking to light another cigarette.
"What next?" smiled Stone, delighted he was so astonishing his friend. "The Government big-wigs were approached, the professor carted the skull over to Germany, one of Hitler's dentists was unearthed—he was in a concentration camp at the time—and, after he had written down a description of the work he had done in Hitler's mouth, the skull was shown to him and he pointed out that everything tallied exactly with that description. He was emphatic it was Hitler's skull."
"Did they tell this dentist how the skull had been obtained?" demanded Larose frowningly.
"No, no," exclaimed Stone, "that would never have done! They made out it had been dug up in the garden of the Berlin Chancellery where it had been said all along it had been buried after he was supposed to have shot himself. No, no, the British had given out his suicide was authentic and they didn't want to let it become known what fools they had made of themselves. Besides, it wouldn't have looked too good to those Russians to admit Hitler had been hiding for so long among us here. As likely as not, the Soviet would have said we had connived at it."
A short silence followed and then Larose said smilingly, "A very interesting story, Charlie, and you told it very well. We British are certainly not the mugs some other nations take us for."
"Ah, but that's not all," exclaimed Stone with great animation. "I'll tell you something else that will astonish you." He dropped his voice to a whisper again. "Do you know, Gilbert, it's quite on the cards we may yet catch that man who shot him. We half know who he is, and we're keeping a good look-out to lay him by the heels." He laughed gleefully. "Ha, ha, my boy, I thought that would give you a shock. Why—you've gone quite pale!"
And certainly Larose felt pale. A cold shiver was running up his spine, his mouth had suddenly gone dry and his legs were wobbling under him. So, they half knew who the killer was, did they? They were keeping a lookout for him?
God, he could not credit it, though if Charlie Stone said so—it must be true! He and the inspector had worked together for many years in the Criminal Investigation Department of Scotland Yard and he knew quite well his old friend had never been given to exaggeration. It was not the actual punishment for his 'crime' that he feared—after all, who could blame him for putting an end to such an inhuman scourge, even though his method was not strictly legal; what he dreaded most was the blow to his professional reputation, and the thought was a painful one.
But he made no comment. He waited for what Stone would tell him next.
Stone went on. "It was a fine bit of reasoning upon young Mendel's part. I've introduced Mendel to you, haven't I—that young Jew detective-inspector we've got at the Yard? Yes, yes, of course, I have. He's as sharp as a needle, that chap, and misses nothing. So, remembering that that innkeeper's son, Willie Dee, who had been a witness of the shooting had described the killer as looking neat and tidy in a dark overall—it struck him the overall might have been a new one and bought quite recently. There was another thing he remembered the boy had said, too. He had thought the man was wearing sand-shoes. By the by, you remember about that boy, don't you?"
Larose was quite himself again. "Of course I do," he nodded, "a very intelligent young fellow!"
Stone nodded back. "And the boy was quite right about those sand-shoes, as we found where the pistol-man had sawn an opening through the palings of that fence to get through into the grounds. Near this place we came upon plenty of imprints of these sand-shoes in the soft earth under the trees, and the interesting thing there was that the corrugations upon the soles were sharp and clear as if the sand-shoes had been quite new ones." He grinned all over his face. "So what did Mendel do?"
"Looked out to find a shop," replied Larose with a most uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach, "where someone had bought a dark overall and a pair of sand-shoes near to the day of the shooting."
"Upon the afternoon of the very day itself," exclaimed Stone triumphantly, "and he found the shop in the nearest town, Bury St. Edmunds." He frowned. "Unfortunately, though the girl in the clothier's shop remembers the buyer most distinctly, she could give us no adequate description of his appearance. All that she could tell us was that he was well-dressed and looked a gentleman."
Larose was breathing more easily now. "Then, if she saw him again," he asked, "would she be able to recognise him?"
"Oh, yes," exclaimed Stone, "she was sure she would recognise him at once, and she did recognise him, too, not half an hour later. She had been sent to the post office with some parcels and, as she passed The Mitre Hotel, she saw him coming out of the saloon bar there. She recognised him at once." He made a grimace. "Then what did mouldy old out-of-date Scotland Yard do? Why, they yanked her out of that clothes shop at once and paid her wages as an extra hand as a barmaid in that saloon bar. She's been there ever since. Yes, she's there now, just waiting for that buyer of the overall and sand-shoes to come in. When he does, the police station will be phoned up and he'll be trailed to where he lives."
"But if he does come in," commented Larose judicially, "and she does think she recognises him, you won't have much to go on, Charlie—only her bare word."
"No, no, we'll have much more than that," said the inspector emphatically. He looked very pleased with himself. "We'll have his place searched for an automatic which has fired that bullet we took out of Adolf Hitler's head. That's where we'll catch him, my boy, by taking him on the hop when he's not expecting us. As you well know, our expert will be able to prove if the bullet came from his gun." He looked suddenly at his watch and rose quickly to his feet. "But there, there, I mustn't stop to gossip for a minute longer. I've got a date with the Chief in a quarter of an hour. Good-bye, old chap, good-bye."
"And to think," murmured Larose when he had gone, "into what silly mistakes those of us who imagine we are so clever can fall! There was I, certain I could never be found out, and yet it only needed my going into that hotel again for a drink upon one of the several occasions I went to see young Willoughby at the hospital and—I should have been landed high and dry." He smiled a wry smile. "Now I shall have to keep clear of Bury St. Edmunds for the deuce of a long time and"—he heaved a big sigh—"part with the little automatic I've been carrying about for years and years. Really it is very sad!"
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