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Title: Collected Short Stories, Vol. IV Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1300951h.html Language: English Date first posted: Mar 2013 Most recent update: Mar 2013 This eBook was produced by: 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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APART from numerous novels, most of which are accessible on-line at Project Gutenberg Australia and Roy Glashan's Library, Fred M. White published some 300 short stories. Many of these were written in the form of series about the same character or group of characters. PGA/RGL has already published e-book editions of those series currently available in digital form.
The present 17-volume edition of e-books is the first attempt to offer the reader a more-or-less comprehensive collection of Fred M. White's other short stories. These were harvested from a wide range of Internet resources and have already been published individually at Project Gutenberg Australia, in many cases with digitally-enhanced illustrations from the original medium of publication.
From the bibliographic information preceding each story, the reader will notice that many of them were extracted from newspapers published in Australia and New Zealand. Credit for preparing e-texts of these and numerous other stories included in this collection goes to Lyn and Maurie Mulcahy, who contributed them to PGA in the course of a long and on-going collaboration.
The stories included in the present collection are presented chronologically according to the publication date of the medium from which they were extracted. Since the stories from Australia and New Zealand presumably made their first appearance in British or American periodicals, the order in which they are given here does not correspond to the actual order of first publication.
This collection contains some 170 stories, but a lot more of Fred M. White's short fiction was still unobtainable at the time of compilation (March 2013). Information about the "missing stories" is given in a bibliographic note at the end of this volume. Perhaps they can be included in supplemental volumes at a later date.
Heaven and earth seemed blended together in a great whirling wheel. Nurse Clare was conscious of a faint smell of burning wood; in a dreamy kind of way she sat up, and asked what was the matter. Then it came back to her that there had been an accident, and that she was not in the least hurt. The carriage had run off the rails, had pitched sideways down a sloping bank, the feeble oil lamp was out, one frosty star indicated the angled window and the serene silence beyond.
Nurse Clare's first thought was for her patient. A dim black bundle loomed opposite her. The resolute-looking, clear-eyed nurse was herself again. She fumbled for the silver match-box at the end of her chatelaine, and struck a vesta. The carriage had fallen over at an angle of forty-five, the dark bundle opposite with a smaller bundle in its arms was fast asleep.
"There has been an accident," Nurse Clare said. "Our slip coach has run off the line. I haven't the remotest idea where we are, but I fancy that we have the coach to ourselves."
"And I slept through it," the other woman said. "I was utterly worn out. I was up all the night with my boy."
She hugged the bundle in her arms closer.
A few hours before these women had been strangers. They had drifted together half-way through a long railway journey, and gradually the story had been told. It was a tale of struggle and misfortune, a runaway match, and a stern, unforgiving father. Then, when things had been getting better, the young husband had been stricken down with smallpox, and the young wife's last desperate resource was a distant relative in the West of England.
The slip coach had fallen clear of the line. Clearly there was nobody else in it. And there was comfort behind that distant red gleam. Nurse Clare sped rapidly along the sleepers till she could see the great crimson star directly overhead, and the outline of a signal box beneath it.
"There has been an accident," she said. "The slip coach to Longford has gone off the rails. Nobody has been hurt, only I thought—"
A big bearded man came rattling down the stairway.
"I was getting anxious, Miss," he said. "My mate, who has just gone off duty, is telegraphing for assistance. Can I do anything?"
"We must make use of your box for the present," the nurse said. "Anything is better than the railway carriage. Is not Grinstead Priory close by?"
"It's no use you going over to Grinstead Priory," the big man said. "If you crawled up the drive at the last gasp it 'ud just please Squire to set his dogs on you and drive you away."
"That poor little body isn't going to have a case of pneumonia on her hands if I can help it," said Nurse Clare. "And as to his dogs, why I just love them."
Nurse Clare pushed her way along until she came at length to a deserted lodge, a pair of moss-clad gates leading into the throat of an avenue. By the light of a crescent moon Nurse Clare could make out a big sign, "Beware of the Dogs." There was a deep-mouthed baying not far off.
But Clare had little time to picture what might have been. She was suddenly transformed into a female Daniel in a den of lions. The frosty air boomed with the deep baying of hounds. Clare caught herself thinking of Topsy and Eva and Uncle Tom.
The great brutes raced towards her, howling as they came. Clare's heart gave one great bound, and then seemed to stop still. She was honestly and sincerely afraid now; she had fully expected to hear the huge hall door fly open at the first note of danger. But though lights blazed in every window, the house was ominously still and silent.
The little nurse stood rigidly there as the great hounds bounded towards here.
"Come here," Clare commanded. "Come here, sir."
The dog came with a shamed gliding movement. The others followed. Clare could see the lights gleaming on rows of polished tooth. She moved very slowly towards the hall door, she laid her fingers resolutely on the handle. Then she staggered into the hall and closed the door swiftly behind her.
Clare marched resolutely into one of the rooms—a noble dining-room with the table laid for dinner. There were covers for at least a score of guests. There were wines of the finest quality, an elegant repast, but everything, to the dishes on the sideboard, cold.
A fire of ripe acacia logs roared up the wide chimney. Before it there sat a man in a deep beehive chair, one foot resting on a stool. He was a grey man, grey as to his hair and eyes, and hard, clean cut features.
"Good evening!" he said in a deep sarcastic note. "I heard you outside. My hearing is good. You don't lack courage."
"If I had," Clare said; "those dogs of yours would have torn me to pieces. You heard me; and yet you took no steps—oh! shameless!"
"I cannot take steps of any kind at present," the man said grimly. "I have sprained my ankle badly. As to servants, there are none in the house. To-morrow a fresh set will arrive. What do you want here?"
Clare explained briefly. She would bring her charge there, whether Grinstead liked it or not.
"Mind you it is contraband of war," he said. "If I were not helpless, I tell you frankly I would have none of this. It is my mood at this time of the year to deck my table out as if I had a house full of people. The last happy time I had before I lost all faith in humanity was a Christmas. You see I have been decorating the walls with holly and the like. That is how I slipped and hurt my ankle. In doing so I displaced those pictures that lie on the floor. I shall be greatly obliged if you will replace them on their hooks. No, no, not that way—the face of the portraits to the wall."
Clare propped the portraits against the table. As her eyes fell upon them she gave a gasp of astonishment. They were beautifully painted, and must have been excellent portraits. Evidently, too, they were mother and daughter.
Clare hurried her companion up the avenue, and into the house, lest some misfortune should baulk her plans. Grinstead looked up grimly; then the black cloud shut down upon his face again. He would have risen only the pain in his foot brought him down again with a groan. Clare's companion stood there, as if dazed by the light.
"My daughter," Grinstead cried. "If you think to fool me like this—"
"Marmion knows me," Mrs. Lestrange said unsteadily. "See how he fawns upon me, and lick's my hand. Father don't send me away to-night. Let me stay here till the morning. Then I will go, and you shall see my face no more. My child—"
"Your child is safe," Nurse Clare said. "We shall stay here to-night. Give the boy to me."
Clare took a pillow from a chair, and laid the boy on it before the fire. His cheeks were rosy and flushed, the streaming firelight glistened upon the shining curls. With a sudden curiosity, Grinstead bent down to look. The big hound growled ominously.
"When I was in South Africa, I met a nurse. Head of a special mission, and called Ursula," said Clare, apropos of nothing apparently. "She was the head of a band of nurses equipped and sent out at her own expense. We all knew there was a sad story somewhere, and we all felt that she was not to blame. But we had to work too hard in those dark days to think of anything but our duty. Still, if ever there was an angel, Sister Ursula was one. Then enteric broke out, and she was one of the first to fall.
"I nursed her for a week, but it was obvious what the end would be, and just before she died she told me something of her history. She had married a man that she respected rather than loved, but he proved a good husband so far that she grew very fond of him in time. Then, some time after her little girl came, she made a discovery. By means of a deliberate lie her husband had separated her from the first love of her heart—"
"Ah," Grinstead said, hoarsely, "so she found that out?"
"Yes, she found it out. And that was why she left her husband and child without a word to go into a kind of convent. It was a dreadful shock to a proud nature like hers, and for years she nursed her sorrow alive. She might have forgiven that man had he sought her out, but he did not do so. And just before she died, before she had time to tell me who she was, she gave me this to give to her husband as a token of forgiveness. I am glad that I can hand it over to him at Christmas time."
From her purse Clare drew a simple wedding ring. "Now what do you think of this man?" Clare went on. "Because his wife leaves him he loses all faith in human nature. He looks upon himself as betrayed. And yet all those years he never thinks of the cruel lie by which he parted a woman from the man of her heart. He had only one point of view, for his own sin he can feel nothing. Why when his daughter gives him a lesson that love is better than all the world besides, he sees nothing in it but another personal grievance."
Grinstead had nothing to say: his sharp tongue was silenced, for all that Clare had said was positively true. He had forgotten that dishonourable lie, he had deliberately ignored everything but his own wrongs. Even after the lapse of years his face flushed as he thought of his wife's feelings when the truth came home to her. It was amazing now to realise that he had never for a moment dreamt that the fault might have been his.
"I should have looked till I found you," Clare said. "As it is I have found you quite by accident. Sir, the play is played out. It is for you to say what situation the curtain shall rise upon."
It was some time before Grinstead spoke. He was cast down and humiliated, a prey to bitter feelings, and yet his heart was lighter than it had been for years. He pointed to the blank pictures on the walls.
"Will you do me a little favour?" he asked. "You were so good as to hang up those portraits for me just now. I shall be very glad if you will please put them in—in a more favourable position."
The words cost Grinstead an effort as Clare could see. Without a word she turned the pictures round and dusted them.
"And now," she said. "We had better see what bedroom accommodation there is for us. I presume there are fires laid upstairs. And when that is all over I will look to your injured ankle. Come along."
She swept Eleanor Lestrange out of the room, leaving Grinstead to his own troubled thoughts. At his feet the boy lay looking up with dreamy eyes. They looked up at him from the floor; they seemed to smile down at him from the walls.
"Ain't you afraid of me?" he said clumsily. The boy rose and climbed on to Grinstead's knees.
"I'm not afraid of anybody," he said, "because everybody loves me."
Clare laid a hand upon Eleanor Lestrange's shoulder and drew her into the shadow. The firelight danced and flickered, and in the centre of it was Grinstead with the boy on his knees and his slim hands in the little fellow's curls.
"Your troubles are over," Clare whispered, "and I fancy I shall be here long enough to see your husband and your father shake hands yet."
And she did.
THE members of the Royal Crossboro' Golf Club were suffering from a periodical lack of incidents. For instance, nobody had done any holes "in one" lately, the merits and demerits of the "Haskell"* et hoc had been thoroughly thrashed out, so that the select smoking-room company were actually forced back upon quite mundane matters. The afternoon was too wet and windy even for golf, and the half-dozen members round the fire had finished the usual after-lunch abuse of the Green Committee.
"Nor'-west gale for the last week," growled one. "I suppose that's why we are kept on the back tee at the eighteenth hole. Old Seddon to blame, of course."
"Of course," said another of the smokers. "It means that every ball that's fairly well played falls in the Mole brook, and consequently is carried past Seddon's house and into his private grounds, where he collects them all. He hasn't bought a new ball for years."
One of the fathers of the club, smoking gravely in his favourite armchair, smiled meaningly. There was a deadly feud between Mr. Chorsley aforesaid and the wily Seddon, whose residence was quite close to the home green.
"I've stopped that," Chorsley said. "I had a wire grating fixed across the brook just as it passed through the hedge into Seddon's grounds. No more annexed Haskell's now. Did I ever tell you how Seddon served me the last time we played together in the Spring?"
The assembled company shuffled uneasily. They had all heard the story times out of number, how Seddon had played with his opponent's ball, and declared it to be his own. But then Mr. Chorsley was a real good fellow, and widely hospitable to boot, and the old old story was endured in silence. And Seddon was no favourite in the club.
"It's a strange thing," another member said, thoughtfully. "For the last month Frank Bruce has never made one decent drive over the Mole brook at the last hole. He is playing a better game than he has ever played in his life, and yet every time he comes to the last tee he slices his drive over the boundary into the brook, as it passes into Seddon's property."
"And never misses when he drops another ball down for a second drive," added another member.
"One way of getting round old Seddon," a further member remarked. "It's love for Mary Seddon, the old boy's niece, that upsets Bruce's nerve at the last hole. When he is in sight of the house he is thinking of the unattainable and other things."
"Is that really a fact?" Chorsley asked eagerly.
"Absolutely," the last speaker replied. "And whatever may be the faults of old Seddon, his niece Mary is really a nice girl. She'll have a fair amount of money, too, not that Bruce calculates on that. But Seddon's got a sorry nephew who comes down from the City now and again, and he's trying to force the little girl to marry him."
"Why doesn't Bruce take matters in his own hands?" Chorsley growled.
"Well, he can't quite do that. His prospects are good, and he is a really smart fellow, but as yet his income is small. Seddon has put his foot down. There is to be no more intercourse, nothing till Frank can show a clear income of £500 a year. When that comes Seddon magnanimously offers to withdraw all opposition. So it's long odds on the nephew."
Chorsley nodded thoughtfully. He was an easy going kind-hearted old gentleman, but he had a pretty temper of his own, and he hated Seddon heartily. He would have gone a long way to thwart the miserly man who laid traps for golf balls. His eyes twinkled as he looked into the fire. He began to see his way. He was not yet retired from the stockbroking firm from whence he derived a large portion of his big income.
"You'll see Bruce when he comes down to-night, Partridge," he said. "I wish you'd make up a match with him for me on Saturday, if he has nothing else on. Then you can both come afterwards and have dinner with me."
Partridge promised to arrange the matter if possible, and evidently meant it. Chorsley's little dinners were by no means to be despised. And though Frank Bruce was an infinitely better player than his elderly opponent, and though he was consumed by what looked like a hopeless passion for Mary Seddon, he fixed up the match without the slightest hesitation.
They came along well enough till the last teeing ground was reached. It was an interesting match, for at this point the rivals were all square. Everything depended upon the last hole. Below the tee was a broken sloping ground ending into the tiny but swiftly running Mole brook. Beyond was the fair green course and the red flag fluttering in the distance.
"My honour," said Bruce, as he seemed to be selecting a ball with unusual care. "My drive first. I must try and not miss this one. Latterly I can't manage this hole at all,"
He made his tee carefully, and placed a perfectly white new ball upon it. Mr. Chorsley made as if to get out of the way, and in doing so kicked the ball off the tee, so that it rolled into some heather. With a muttered apology, he replaced the dismantled ball.
"Now go on," he said. "Give me a good lead."
Bruce swung very slowly up, then his driver came down with a smashing force. Away went the ball, not straight across the course, but sliced away to the right well over the boundary fence and down till it hopped into the Mole brook in Seddon's grounds.
"Funny thing, isn't it?" Bruce said without the slightest emotion.
"Very," Chorsley said gravely. "But you'll do better next drive. Of course, you can tee up another ball and play three strokes. Go ahead."
Chorsley got a good drive, and Bruce a beautifully long raking shot. But the handicap was too strong, and he lost the hole by a stroke. He bore his defeat with singular philosophy.
"No use getting out of temper," he said.
"Not a bit," Chorsley chuckled. "See you later on at dinner time. Partridge has to leave early, but don't you hurry. I have a word or two for your private ear afterwards."
A LONG bubbling glass stood at Frank Bruce's elbow, and a long cigar between his teeth. The smoking-room was comfortably and not too brilliantly lighted; the glowing fire invited confidence.
Partridge had departed, and Bruce and his host were alone together. For a long time the former stared thoughtfully into the fire.
"Why don't you make up your mind to marry her in spite of him?" Chorsley asked.
"It wouldn't be fair," Bryce said, in the most natural manner, and as if there had been a long conversation on the subject nearest his heart. "I couldn't afford it yet, and, confound it, Mr. Chorsley, how could you possibly guess what I was thinking about?"
"So what the fellows at the club house say is perfectly true," Chorsley went on coolly. "Old Seddon plays the magnanimous, and what he'll do when you can show a clear £500 a year. Meanwhile, there is a rival in the path."
"Yes, confound him!" Bruce growled.
"Who has the ears of the wicked uncle. This wicked uncle watches the niece so carefully that she can't get a line out of the house, and you can't get a line into it. And yet you can put her on her guard when the rival is coming down, and if you want an interview when you come down here on Saturdays you know how to arrange it, don't you?"
Bruce looked up anxiously, and Chorsley smiled.
"Oh, I'm not going to give you away," he said. "It's one of the smartest tricks I've ever come across, and that is saying a good deal. A young fellow who can invent a dodge like that is certain to get on in the world, and I can give him a good start. Here is a golf ball. It is the one that you first put upon the last tee this morning. When I kicked it off the tee I replaced it with another. I know your secret, young man, and I congratulate you. Go up to the last tee in the morning, and drive that ball off in the way it should be driven, and when you see Miss Seddon at night ask for an interview with her uncle. Tell him you have your £500 a year all right, and, if he is incredulous, give him this letter. Now finish up your cigar, and be off."
* * * * *
At a quarter past nine the following night Frank Bruce was sitting in a secluded part of Mr. Seddon's grounds, and he was not alone. A pretty girl with dark eyes was by his side, and his arm was about her waist.
"I expected your message last night," Mary said.
"Well, I thought I had sent it," Bruce replied. "Mary, our little scheme has been found out. Mr. Chorsley took the marked ball, and substituted another for it."
"And I saw you drive off, and when I picked the ball up it was quite clean," Mary said, "But surely Mr. Chorsley would never have been so ill-natured--"
"Old Chorsley is a brick. And between ourselves, he would give a great deal to put a spoke in your uncle's wheel. On the whole we shall have no occasion to regret--"
An acid voice breaking in on the lovers' sweet converse thought otherwise. The tall, thin man demanded to know why he had been deceived like this, to which Bruce coolly responded that there had been no deception whatever. There was a stipulation as to an income of £500 a year--
"Which remains to be fulfilled," Seddon said, coldly.
"Perhaps when you read this letter you will think otherwise," Bruce said. "It is intended for you."
Seddon tore open the envelope contemptuously. His face changed as he read, and he bit his lip.
"I suppose you are aware of the contents of this letter," he said with an effort. "But, of course you are. In it Mr. Chorsley informs me that he is going out of the firm of Chorsley and Martin, and that the present manager comes in. Therefore you are offered the managership, with good prospects at a salary of £600 a year."
Bruce nodded coolly. But he was absolutely taken by surprise. All the same his enemy was utterly routed. He dropped the letter on the grass, and walked away with his hands behind him. Mary bent over her lover, and kissed him with delighted tears in her eyes.
"Do explain, Frank," she said, rapturously. "Do tell me how it happened."
"When I've seen Chorsley," Bruce muttered, "but not before, because I'm hanged if I know."
"Easiest thing in the world," Chorsley said, as he waved his cigar in front of him. "Why did you always slice it in the same direction? Why did you always get your ball off so clean? Because you were doing it on purpose. Again why? Because the object of your affection was near at hand. You wanted to signal to her. Then it occurred to me that if you wrote a message in blue pencil on a new golf ball, it wouldn't come out for some time. You do so, and you drive that ball into the brook, and Miss Seddon finds it. I got hold of a ball of yours, and I read the message making an appointment. By Jove, a splendid dodge--never heard of better. And so that's the way you managed your love affairs, eh. Well, If you can do so well with one thing you may do well with another, and that's why I gave you the chance of filling the new opening in our office. No, you need not thank me, I shall have a good servant, and I get even with Seddon at the same time. But there will be two things that I prophesy."
"And what are those?" Bruce asked.
"That you will miss no more drives on the last tee," Chorsley chuckled, "and that you will not be so prodigal with your 'rubbers' in the future."
THE little woman clung impulsively to Jim Stacey's hands as if they were buoys in a tempestuous sea and she drowning in the social gulf for want of a friend. And, indeed, Mrs. Arthur Lattimer was in a sorry case, as her pleading eyes would have told a less astute observer than her companion.
As to the scene itself, it was set for comedy rather than tragedy. Down below a new Russian contralto was delighting the ears of Lady Trevor's guests; the rooms were filled with all the best people; the little alcove where Stacey was sitting was a mass of fragrant Parma violets and cool, feathery ferns; the electric lights were demurely shaded; indeed, Lady Trevor always made a point of this discretion in her illuminations. There was no chance for the present of interruption, so that Stacey was in a position to listen to his companion's story without much fear of the inquisitive outsider. Gradually the look of terror began to fade from the grey eyes of Mrs. Arthur Lattimer.
"My dear lady," Stacey said, in his most soothing tones, "I shall have to get you to tell it me all over again. You see, I have been out of town for the last two or three days, and only received your hurried note an hour ago. You will admit that stating a case is not your strong point."
"What did I say?" Mrs. Lattimer asked. "I am half beside myself with trouble. Did I make it quite clear to you that I had lost the great Asturian emerald?"
"I gathered that," Stacey said. "I am also under the impression that the emerald was stolen."
"It was stolen, "Mrs. Lattimer affirmed. "I was wearing it—"
"Wearing it?" Stacey echoed. "Surely that was a little indiscreet. But how came the Empress of Asturia's jewel in your possession at all?"
"I had better explain, "Mrs. Lattimer went on. "As you know perfectly well, my husband is a dealer in precious stones. He is probably the greatest man in this line in Europe. You are also aware that the Empress of Asturia is in London at the present moment. She has a fancy to try to match that priceless stone; in fact, if possible, she wants two more like it. She came very quietly to our house in Mount Street and saw my husband on the subject. Of course, he held out little hope of being able to execute the commission, but he said that he had heard of a couple of likely stones in Venice, and that, if Her Majesty would leave the emerald with him, he would see what he could do. To make a long story short the stone was left with him, and up to three or four days ago was locked away in his safe—a small safe that he keeps in his study."
"Lattimer showed you the stone, of course?"
"I have my husband pretty well in hand," Mrs. Lattimer laughed. "He showed me the emerald the next day, and a sudden fancy to wear it came over me with irresistible force. It was no great matter for me to get possession of the key of the safe. My husband was away, too, for a night, and on Monday evening I went to a bridge party at Rutland House, wearing the emerald as a pin. I was just a little frightened to find my borrowed gem so greatly admired. We were having supper about twelve o'clock—a sort of informal affair at a sideboard in the drawing-room—and I was induced to hand the stone round. Without thinking, I unscrewed it from the pin and stood there laughing and chatting keeping my eyes open all the same."
"Knowing something of the kind of woman who is a professional bridge-player?" Stacey laughed.
"Precisely," Mrs. Lattimer said. "There were one or two present whom I would not trust very far. Well, in some extraordinary way the stone was lost. Nobody seemed to know where it was; nobody would confess to having taken it. I am afraid I lost my head for the moment. I know I said a few hard things; but there it is—that stone is gone, and unless I can recover it by midday to-morrow I am ruined, absolutely ruined."
"Your husband?" Stacey hinted.
"Knows nothing. I have not dared to tell him. I have waited till the last possible moment on chance of the stone being recovered. You see, I stole the key of the safe and made my husband believe that he had lost it. It is a wonderful safe of American make, and no one in London can unpick it. My husband telegraphed to New York to the makers to send a man over, and he arrives by the Celtic to-night. Unless the stone can be found first—"
Stacey nodded sympathetically. He quite appreciated the desperate condition of affairs.
"I see," he said, thoughtfully. "If the stone turns up, you will contrive to find the lost key and restore the gem to its hiding-place. And now I must ask you if you suspect anybody."
The pretty little woman flushed slightly. She glanced about her as if afraid that the Parma violets might become the avenue that leads up to a libel action.
"Yes," she whispered. "It is Mrs. Aubrey Beard."
"Oh!" Stacey muttered. "So the wind sets in that quarter. My dear lady, this is a serious thing. Mrs. Aubrey Beard has a high reputation. She is the wife of a Cabinet Minister, and, so far as I know, has none of the society vices—"
"Oh, hasn't she?" Mrs. Lattimer sneered. "Why, that woman is one of the most inveterate gamblers in London. It is an open secret that her bridge debts amount to over five thousand pounds—at least, they did last night, and I haven't heard that they were paid to—day. But this seems to be news to you?"
"Well, yes," Stacey admitted. "If Beard knew this there would be a separation. Now tell me, what grounds have you for making this accusation?"
"My dear Mr. Stacey, I am making no accusation whatever. I am merely telling you whom I suspect. To begin with, Mrs. Beard hardly touched the stone at all, though I could see her eyes flash strangely when she saw me wearing it. I have very little doubt that she guessed my little deception. You will remember that Mr. Aubrey Beard was in the Diplomatic Service at the Asturian capital, and that his wife would have every opportunity of becoming acquainted with the Royal jewels. At any rate, she hardly touched the gem, and seemed a great deal more interested in a dish of chocolate bon-bons in front of her. She is passionately fond of sweets."
"I suppose, practically, your supper consisted of that kind of thing?" Stacey asked. "Being no men present, you would naturally think very little—"
"Oh, of course," Mrs. Lattimer said, airily. "We had very little else besides a few grapes and a sandwich or two. Mrs. Beard was nibbling at her chocolates up to the very time we left. It was then that she dropped a remark which aroused all my suspicions. She said she hoped that I should find my emerald again, and that if the Empress of Asturia was seen wearing one very like mine I should not accuse her of theft."
"Really, now," Stacey said. "This is most interesting to a society novelist like myself. In other words, Mrs. Beard practically accused you of stealing the very thing that you charge her with appropriating. She let you know quite clearly that she guessed exactly what had happened. It was a hint to you that if you saw anything you would not dare to make it public. You have honoured me with a difficult problem to solve, and I have solved many. Mrs. Beard is a cleverer woman than I imagined; but suppose she has already disposed of the emerald?"
"But she hasn't," Mrs Lattimer whispered, eagerly. "If she had done so, she would have paid her bridge debts. You know how necessary it is to discharge obligations of that kind. I feel quite sure that the emerald still remains in Mrs. Beard's possession."
"Meaning that she has found no way of disposing of it?"
"Not yet. I have had her carefully watched, and I have come to the conclusion that her cousin, Ralph Adamson, is in the conspiracy. Of course, you know he is a great admirer of Mrs. Beard's; there is nothing wrong, but I am certain that he would do anything for her. I know he was at her house for a long time the day before yesterday, and that he subsequently paid a hurried visit to Amsterdam, where, I understand, it is a fairly easy matter to dispose of stolen jewels. If he had been successful with his errand, Mrs. Beard's bridge debts would have been paid by now. But what is the use of our talking like this? You know the whole story; you can see the dreadful position I am in. Is there any possible way of getting me out of the difficulty before to-morrow afternoon?"
"I have worked out some sort of a theme," Stacey said, thoughtfully. "Your letter was very incoherent, but now that I know all the facts I begin to feel sanguine. Tell me—"
"Oh, I will tell you anything. Your very presence gives me courage. I see that you are going to ask me a question of the utmost importance. What is it?"
"It is important," Stacey said, gravely. "I want you to try and remember exactly what sort of bon-bons Mrs. Beard was eating on the night that the robbery took place."
Mrs. Lattimer laughed in a vexed kind of way.
"What a frivolous creature you are!" she said. "As if a trivial thing like that could possibly matter."
"My dear lady," Stacey said, in a deeply impressive manner, "the point is distinctly and emphatically precious. I pray of you not to speak at random. Was it not somewhere in the Far East that the accidental swallowing of a grape—stone changed the destinies of a nation? Think it out carefully."
"You are a most extraordinary man," Mrs. Lattimer said, almost tearfully. "So far as I can recollect, the sweets in question were chocolate fondants filled with almond paste. Yes, I am quite sure that that is a fact, for I remember Mrs. Beard saying that almond paste was her favourite sweet."
"We are getting on," Stacey said. "My education on the head of feminine gastronomy is somewhat limited, but I have a hazy kind of idea that these particular dainties are fairly large in size. They would be nearly as big as my thumb, I suppose?"
"Quite that," Mrs. Lattimer said, gravely.
"Ah! then your humble maker of romances is not to be baffled. My way lies clear before me. Now, one more question. Did I not understand from Lady Trevor that Mrs. Beard is going to put in an appearance here to-night?"
"So I believe," Mrs. Lattimer replied.
"She is giving a dinner to semi—Royalty and will not be here till comparatively late. I feel certain she will come, because I saw Ralph Adamson just now listening to the new contralto."
Stacey rose gaily from his seat and fell to admiring the banks of violets with which the room was lined. He caught Mrs. Lattimer's reproachful eye and smiled.
"À la bonne heure," he said. "Give yourself no further anxiety. The curtain is about to go up, the play will commence. If that emerald is still in the possession of Mrs. Aubrey Beard, I pledge you my word it shall be restored to you before you sleep to-night. Smile as you were wont to smile, and come with me."
THE great contralto had finished her song amidst the tepid applause which passes for enthusiasm in society, and for a moment the proceedings seemed to languish. In the great salon some two hundred of the chosen ones had gathered, waiting like children for someone to amuse them. A social entertainer followed, only to be received and dismissed in chilling silence, which it is to be hoped was somewhat compensated by the size of his cheque. Stacey came cheerfully forward and shook hands with his hostess.
"I began to think you were going to throw me over," she said. "So awfully good of you to offer to come here and amuse these people. Upon my word, society nowadays is worse than a set of school-children. What should we do without our society entertainers? You have such clever ideas! Is it possible that you have a new sensation for us to-night?"
Stacey intimated modestly that it was just on the cards. He noticed the reproachful way with which Mrs. Lattimer was regarding him. He sidled up to her presently.
"It is all part of the system," he said.
"Like Mr. Weller's reduced counsels. It is not when I smile that I am at my joyous zenith. I am here to-night exclusively on your business, and if I do play the clown there will be a good deal of the tragedian behind it. I promise you that there is a large percentage of method in my madness."
There was a murmur among the languid audience, a kind of electric thrill which was in itself a compliment to Stacey. Apart from his literary fame, as an originator of novel and frivolous amusements he had a reputation all his own. There was a good score of men and women present who could have told stories of his marvels, and who could have risen up and called him blessed had it been discreet to do so. There were others present who looked upon Jim Stacey as a mere society scribbler and charlatan, but these only added piquancy to the situation.
At the earnest request of Lady Trevor, Stacey proceeded to do a few simple experiments in the way of thought-reading. An immaculate youth, utterly bored and blasé, lounged up to him and remarked with casual insolence that he had seen this kind of thing just as well done, if not better, at a country fair. Stacey smiled indulgently.
"I dare say," he said. "But, you see, I have apparently mistaken the intellectual level of a portion of my audience. If you like I will endeavour to read your thoughts, provided always that you can concentrate your mind long enough upon any given topic."
"Tell me what is in my pocket, perhaps," the other said. "There is a challenge for you, Stacey."
"Which I accept," Stacey said, promptly.
"If anyone will blindfold me, I am prepared to give a strict account of the contents of Mr. Falconer's pockets, only he must promise me that he will think of nothing else during the whole of the experiment"
There was a ripple and stir amongst the audience, a kaleidoscope whirled and flashed on many-coloured vestments, and a sea of white faces turned in Stacey's direction. One of the ladies present emerged from the foam of fashion and whipped a cambric handkerchief across Stacey's eyes. His victim stood a little way off, so that the performer could just touch the tips of his fingers. There was a long, tense silence before Stacey commenced to speak.
"I begin to see," he said, in a thrilling voice, which began to carry conviction to a section of his audience. Whatever the man might have been, he certainly was a consummate actor.
"I begin to see into some of the secrets of the typical gilded youth of our exclusive society. Imprimis, in the vest-pocket, a gold cigarette-case; the cigarette-case is set with diamonds and bears in one corner two initials which are certainly not the initials of the fortunate owner. Inside the case are three cigarettes and half-a-dozen visiting-cards, which also do not bear the impress of the carrier's autograph. If Mr. Falconer likes I will read out the names printed on those cards, beginning at the bottom and working backwards to the top. The first card is that of a lady——"
"Here, I have had enough of this," Falconer burst out in some confusion. "I don't know who has been playing this trick upon me, but I consider it anything but good form, don't you know."
A ripple of laughter ran over the sea of eager faces as Falconer backed away from the table, his face a healthier and rosier red than it had been for some time past. Stacey's challenge to his victim to complete the experiment was met with a direct negative.
"Then you won't go on?" Stacey said, in his most insinuating manner. "Pity to break it off just at the interesting stage, don't you think? I was just about to tell your friends the story of that cheque in your waistcoat-pocket—"
Something like a cry of dismay broke from the unhappy Falconer, and the brilliant red of his face turned to a ghastly white. As he slipped away, Stacey turned to the audience and inquired if anybody else there would like to try the same experiment. Quite a little knot of men came forward.
"Cannot I induce some of the ladies to give me a chance?" Stacey pleaded. "It seems to me manifestly unfair—"
"Fortunately for us we have no pockets," Lady Trevor cried. "We keep all those things in our conscience. Positively, we shall have to send Mr. Stacey to Coventry if he does not hold his wonderful powers a little more in hand. I dare say there are men present who are so marvellously honourable and pure-minded that they have nothing to disclose. If there are any such here, let them come forward for Mr. Stacey to experiment upon."
"My dear Ada, what would be the use of that?" a frisky dowager shrieked at the top of her voice. "We don't want to sit here and listen to the simple annals of the good young man who died, so to speak. Won't someone kindly come forward—somebody with a terrible past——and let Mr. Stacey reveal the scandal for us?"
A frivolous laugh followed this suggestion, and somebody maliciously suggested that the speaker herself might afford information for many piquant revelations. A tall, military-looking man came forward and suggested a new variation of the interesting séance.
"Wouldn't it be much better," he said, "if we changed possessions with one another and gave Mr. Stacey a chance of guessing who the different articles belong to?"
"Wouldn't it be better," another man remarked, "to drop all this nonsense and proceed to something more rational? After all said and done, if Mr. Stacey can do this, he can forecast where things are hidden at a distance."
"Of course I can," Stacey said, with cheerful assurance. "Would you like to try me? Will somebody be good enough to give me a sheet of paper and envelope? I should prefer to have Lady Trevor's own letter-paper, so that there could be no suggestion of confederacy in the business. Will anybody come forward and write a note for me——only just a few words?"
As Stacey spoke he glanced significantly at Mrs. Lattimer, and indicated the man who was standing by her side. She seemed to understand by instinct exactly what he meant, for as the paper and envelope came along she snatched eagerly for it and placed it in the hands of the man by her side.
"You do it, Mr. Adamson," she said. "We can always trust you, because you are so cool and clear-headed, and if there is anything wrong you can easily detect it."
The tall young man with the dark eyes and waxed moustache shrugged his shoulders and smiled. Someone pushed forward a small table, on which stood an inkstand and a pen. The would-be writer gave Stacey a supercilious glance, and intimated that he was ready to begin.
"That is very good of you," Stacey said.
"Just a few words. Write—'It is not safe where it is. Bring it with you to-night.' No; there is nothing more. Lady Trevor, will you be good enough to hand me that little silver basket of sweetmeats which I see on the china cabinet behind you? All I want now is a small box—a cardboard box, about four inches square."
The whole audience was following the experiment breathlessly by now. It was almost pathetic to see the childlike way with which they gaped at Stacey. They watched him with breathless interest as he folded the note and placed it in the cardboard box. Then he very carefully picked out a chocolate fondant from the silver basket of sweetmeats and gravely placed it inside the box.
"This particular confection is not exactly what I wanted," he said, with the greatest possible solemnity. "I should have preferred a fondant tilled with almond paste. This I imagine to be Russian cream, but no matter. I will now proceed to tie up the box and place a name upon it. I will ask Lady Trevor not to look at the name, but to get one of the footmen to take it to the house for which it is intended. That is all, for the present."
Lady Trevor signalled to a passing servant and intimated that Stacey had best give the box into his custody direct.
"You are to go at once," she said, "and deliver this package at the address written on the outside; but perhaps Mr. Stacey would prefer that you placed it direct into the hands of the person for whom it is intended?"
"That was the idea, "Stacey said. "I shall have to crave your patience for half an hour or so, and, meanwhile, I shall be only too pleased to show you another form of entertainment. Before doing that I should like to have something in the way of supper and a cigarette. Surely Mr. Adamson is not going! Oh, come, seeing that you are part and parcel of my experiment I really cannot permit you to go in this way. Come along with me as far as the supper-room and join me in a glass of champagne and a cigarette."
Adamson turned and Stacey took him in a friendly way by the arm. Once in the hall the latter's manner changed and his face had grown stern. His eyes were hard and brilliant.
"Not yet, my friend," he said. "There are many things I can do, and many things I know which would astonish you if I were disposed to betray the secrets of the prison-house. If you are discreet and silent all will be well, but if you elect to defy me—well, there are certain episodes connected with a period of your life which would be just as well—"
THE supper had been over for some little time, and most of the guests who were not playing bridge or otherwise frivolously engaged had gathered in the salon intent upon seeing the sequel to Stacey's experiment. Mrs. Lattimer sat there with flushed cheeks and glittering eyes. The suggestion of the military-looking guest that an interchange of pockets should be made had been carried out. If this had been intended, as doubtless it was, to give Stacey a fall, it had been a long way from being successful.
He had snatched the handkerchief from his eyes and was just getting accustomed to the glare of the room when his glance met that of Mrs. Lattimer. She turned her head swiftly in the direction of the doorway, where stood a handsome woman, whose cold, beautiful face was watching somewhat critically the scene in front of her. It did not need a second look on Stacey's part to recognise Mrs. Aubrey Beard. He could see, too, that under that cold surface something in the nature of a volcano was raging. He could see that cold, icy bosom heave tempestuously, for the diamonds on her breast flashed and trembled like streams of living fire. Stacey quickly turned and whispered something in the ear of Ralph Adamson. The latter seemed to hesitate a moment; then, with bent head and lips that trembled, disappeared slowly through a doorway leading towards the conservatories. In the same cold, stately way Mrs. Aubrey Beard came forward and languidly asked the source of all this amusement.
Her glance at Stacey was icy enough—indeed, there was no love lost between them. It seemed hard to believe that this placid, emotionless creature could have been the reckless gambler that Mrs. Lattimer had proclaimed her.
"Ridiculous," she said, in her stately way. "It is preposterous to believe that Mr. Stacey could do these things without the aid of a confederate."
"Oh, they have their uses," Stacey said, airily. "For instance, I don't mind admitting now that some of this business to-night has been what I may be allowed to term a game of spoof. I have half-a-dozen friends here to—night who gave me all the information I wanted and acted as my lieutenants, and very well they did it, too, as you all must admit. But it is not all nonsense, as I am prepared to prove, if Mrs. Beard but challenged me."
"Is it worth while?" the fair beauty sneered. "I don't think anybody would accuse me of being Mr. Stacey's confederate. If he can guess—for it could be no more than guesswork —what is in my pocket he is welcome to his triumph."
Stacey's keen eyes blazed for a moment, then he resumed his normal expression. He asked for someone to blindfold him; he stood with the tips of his fingers touching the shoulders of his victim. The flesh, cold as it looked, seemed to burn under his touch.
He could hear the quick indrawing of the woman's breath. Every nerve in her body was quivering.
"I do not see much, "he said, in a dreamy kind of voice. "Nothing but a handkerchief in Mrs. Beard's corsage. But stop! There is a small object wrapped up in that handkerchief—a small cardboard box. I can see through that cardboard box now. Inside is an oblong object, brown and sweet to the taste; it is nothing more or less than a chocolate, an ordinary common chocolate filled with Russian cream; at least, I suppose it is filled with—Russian cream. Good heavens, some of you will remember—"
Stacey paused abruptly and tore the handkerchief from his face. He seemed to be greatly moved by some overpowering emotion; he glanced almost with horror into the eyes of the cold, stately woman opposite. She had not moved, she had not changed, save for a burning spot on either cheek and a peculiar convulsive twitching of her lower lip.
"This is more or less part of my experiment with the chocolate creams," Stacey said. "You will remember that a chocolate cream was the simple object that I placed in the cardboard box which was to be dispatched to an address known only to mysel£ I was challenged to discover a certain object hidden somewhere at a distance, and in my own mind I decided where that object was and what it was. Presently I will show you. Meanwhile, I ask Mrs. Beard to admit that I have been absolutely successful, and to produce the small box which she has wrapped in her handkerchief.
The speaker turned just for a moment and his eyes flashed a stern challenge into those of the woman opposite. Very slowly and reluctantly she placed her hand inside the bosom of her dress and produced a lace handkerchief in which lay the small cardboard box which Stacey had dispatched by hand of the footman. The breathless audience watched Stacey as he opened the box and took therefrom apparently the same bon-bon which he had placed in the receptacle some half-hour before.
"I see you are all utterly mystified," he said. "Indeed, I am quite sure that Mrs. Beard is as mystified as the rest. Before successfully concluding my little comedy I should like to have a few words with Mrs. Beard alone. I flatter myself that Mrs. Beard is just as anxious for a few words with me."
The woman bowed coldly. Not for an instant had she betrayed herself She led the way in the direction of the library, and once there Stacey closed the door. He wasted no time in words; he raised the chocolate fondant to the light and snapped it in two. From the inside there fell a wondrous green shining stone—none other than the famous emerald belonging to the Empress of Asturia. Stacey spoke no word: he stood there waiting for the inevitable explanation. Then Mrs. Beard began to speak.
"You are a wonderful man," she said, hoarsely. Her breath came fast, as if she had been running far. "I stole that emerald the night of the bridge party at Rutland House. I managed to conceal it, without being seen, in that chocolate fondant. I had my bridge debts to pay; I dared not tell my husband. I pass before the world as a cold, unfeeling woman, but my love for my husband has hitherto been the one passion of my life. I will not ask you how you have discovered all these things, for you would not tell me if I did. You seem to have guessed that my cousin, Ralph Adamson, was in the conspiracy, and you are correct. By what means you tricked him into writing those lines to-night, and getting me to place myself red-handed in the lion's jaws, I cannot pretend to understand, but there is the emerald and here is my confession. I have said a great deal for a proud woman like myself; all I ask you to do is to make it as easy for me as you can. If there is any exposure—"
"My dear madam, it is entirely in your hands to say whether there will be exposure or not," Stacey explained. "If you leave it to me,I will show you the way out. Mrs. Lattimer came to me with the facts, and I carefully engineered this little comedy with a view to saving my fair friend's reputation and sparing you a humiliating scandal. Still, it was not fair of you to try and close Mrs. Lattimer's mouth by letting her know that you were aware to whom this magnificent stone really belongs. By doing so you thought to frighten her and place her in such a position that she dare not accuse you of the theft. What we have to do now is to go back to the salon and make the dramatic announcement that I have been entirely successful in the matter of my experiment. If you could smile a little I should be greatly obliged. Yes, that is better. Now let us pretend to be talking upon quite indifferent topics. Anything will do."
There was a sudden hush in the conversation and a rustling of skirts as Stacey and Mrs Beard entered the salon. Mrs. Beard was smiling now; she beamed quite graciously upon her companion, though the brilliant red spots still burnt upon her cheeks like a stain.
"You will all be glad to know that my experiment has been a perfect success," Stacey said. "I was challenged to-night to say where some object was which was hidden at a distance. It is an open secret to you all that a few nights ago Mrs. Lattimer lost a valuable emerald; it occurred to me that the finding of this stone would be a fine trial for me, and incidentally an exceedingly good advertisement. I cannot betray the secrets of the prison-house and tell you the inner significance of the bon-bons, for that would be revealing my occult science. Sufficient to say I divined the hiding-place of the missing stone. It was carried away quite by accident that night in a fold of Mrs. Aubrey Beard's dress. Perhaps she was coming here to bring it back; at least, I will not insult the lady by any other supposition. At any rate, here is the missing emerald. It may have been a case of mental telepathy; it was very strange that it should occur to Mrs. Beard to search the folds of that dress at the very moment when I turned my will-power in the direction of the hiding-place of the stone."
Not a soul there but believed every word that Stacey uttered. His manner was complete and convincing. He turned towards Mrs. Lattimer and pressed the shining jewel into her hand.
"Not a word," he whispered. "Take it all for granted. If there were not so many fools in the world I could not have carried this thing off as I have to-night. I will call upon you to-morrow and explain everything. Meanwhile, go up to Mrs. Beard and thank her. Gush at her—kiss her, if you are not afraid of being frozen. Above all, be discreet and silent."
Stacey turned away and walked in the direction of the refreshment-room. He found Adamson there, moodily smoking.
"The play is over," he said. "The comedy is accomplished, and you will understand that this is emphatically a case where the least that is said is the soonest that is mended."
THE men stood facing each other, the one quick and eager, sanguine as to his eyes behind gold-rimmed glasses, the other bent and twisted with the reflection of some great tragedy on his face. A clock somewhere lazily chimed the half past eleven.
"What do I look like, Brownsden?" the twisted man asked hoarsely. "I know what a marvel you are in the indexing of the emotions. What do I look like?"
"Like a man who has done something years ago and just been found out, Ramsay," the other said. "It is almost a new expression to me, though I did see it once before in South Africa. He was a well-to-do, prosperous man, long married, respected, his crime twenty years old. And he was expecting hourly arrest Strange how those old things come to light. Make no mistake—yours is the face of an honest man. And yet!"
"Wonderful!" Ramsay muttered under his breath. "As a criminal psychologist, you have no equal in the world. It was your marvellous book on the ramifications of the criminal mind that first attracted you to me. And it was my privilege to do you some trifling service "
"To save my life and my reputation. If only I had your scientific knowledge!"
"Yes, yes," Ramsay said impatiently. "If ever I found myself in trouble, you promised to come and help me. Hence my telegram this morning. Brownsden, I am in the deepest distress—nobody but you can save me. Look round you."
The criminal specialist Brownsden looked around accordingly. Ramsay's dining-room in Upper Quadrant, Brighton, was an artistic one. It had evidently been furnished by a scholar and a man of taste. There was a marvellously carved oak sideboard, then a Queen Anne bookcase; a fireplace carved by Grindley Gibbons himself; the electric lights Were demurely shaded, only the flowers looked faded. The artistic reticence of it all struck the proper, soothing, refining chord.
"All mine," Ramsay said almost fiercely. "Gathered together bit by bit, pieced like some perfect old mosaic. It has been the one delight in a hard and gloomy life. All the house is the same. And the name of Dr. Alfred Ramsay is becoming known. Then it is all kicked away by a sudden and unexpected tragedy. Sit down."
Brownsden sat down obediently in a Cromwellian chair upholstered in speaking tapestry. It was his cue to get the other to talk. The deformed figure bobbed up and down over the soft red of the Persian carpet—words began to stream from him.
"I have been here now for four years," he began. "It was a hard struggle at first, but I had only myself to keep, and I managed to pull through. Then my books began to sell, but I did not get many patients—not that they mattered much. I kept to myself, with the result that I know nobody, and nobody here knows me except by name and sight. Yet I was not unhappy. I was making money until a month ago, when a sudden attack of nervous sleeplessness warned me that I was going too far. I decided on a month's cycling in the country—it has been very pleasant this Easter—and I went.
"A week before my departure it struck me as a good idea to let the house furnished, so I put an advertisement in the Morning Post. In reply I received a letter from a gentleman in London. I saw him by appointment, and—to make a long story short—he took the house for a month and paid the rent. Like me, my tenant was a man of the closet, an American, and he wanted a change. I was to leave the house just as it was, and my tenant would find his own servants. I gave my old housekeeper a holiday and started on my vacation.
"At the end of three weeks I was quite myself again, and longing to be in harness once more. Two days ago I was rather pleased to get a telegram from my tenant, saying that he had been called back to the States again by urgent business, and that he was leaving at once. He had sent the key to my agents. I telegraphed to my agents to send for my old housekeeper and explain to her what had happened, and to give her instructions to go home, saying that I would follow to-day. All this seems very bald, but I have not finished yet.
"I came back to-day, expecting no evil. I opened the door with my latch-key and came in here. To my surprise, I found the place dirty, the fire out, the flowers left by my tenant still in the rooms as you see them. Now, this is all so unlike my housekeeper that I was vaguely alarmed. I looked all over the house, finding nobody, until I entered my study and laboratory, which is at the back here. That was half an hour before I sent you my wire. As you are a man with no nerves, I will show you what I found. Come this way."
Brownsden rose and followed without a word. The laboratory and library had evidently been an artist's studio at one time —a large room with a dome-glazed roof. There was no carpet on the floor, the electric lights had not been turned on yet, so that Brownsden almost stumbled over some soft object that lay at his feet. He started back as the room suddenly flooded from the great arc light overhead and his eyes met the object on the floor. It was the body of an old woman in a neat black dress. Her silver hair was dabbled with blood; the scalp had been laid half open by a blow from some sharp instrument; the gnarled, knotted, hard-working hands were vigorously clenched. With an appearance of callousness, Brownsden bent over the body.
"This is your unfortunate housekeeper?" he asked. "How long has she been dead?"
Ramsay controlled himself with an effort; perhaps his companion's manner restrained him.
"I have not dared to. make a close examination," he said. "But there is little doubt that that brutal murder was committed between eighteen and twenty-four hours ago. Every symptom points to that being about the period of the crime."
"You have not discovered anything in the way of a clue, I suppose?"
Ramsay replied that he had not done so; in fact, he had not looked for anything of the kind. He had been too stunned at his discovery to be able to do anything logical. As soon as he had pulled himself together, he had stepped out and despatched his telegram to Brownsden.
"One more question," the latter said, "and that is an important one, as you will admit. Don't you think that it is a serious omission not to call in the police?"
"Well, yes," Ramsay said slowly, as if the words were being dragged from him. "Of course, I thought of that. A man like myself, who knows nobody, and who could not give anything very satisfactory in the way of a personal reference... But seeing that the crime is a day old "
"What does that matter?" Brownsden asked somewhat impatiently. "Of course, your hands are clean enough; one has only to look at the radiation of your eye-pupils to see that. But what with fools of officials and irresponsible cheap journalism--"
"I know, I know. But I wanted to have your views first. I could easily say that I got home at a later hour than was actually the truth; that you came with me--"
The old, strange terror was stealing over the man again, and Brownsden's manner changed. He was in the presence of no common fear; no ordinary case was here, he thought.
"All of which would be very unwise," he said. "Suppose somebody saw you come in? I dare say you rode from the station on your cycle? You did? Of course, you can get out of it by saying that you had no occasion to enter your study till a little time later. Also you would account for not seeing your housekeeper by the suggestion that she had mistaken your instructions. When did your tenant leave?"
"My tenant left at the time stated, or Mrs. Gannett would not be back at all. You need not speculate on my tenant, Brownsden. He was a man of standing; indeed, I met him to discuss terms, so he made the appointment at the American Legation in London. You may be sure that he does not count as a card in the game."
"Then we can rule that out," Brownsden muttered as he bent down to examine the body. "But one thing is quite certain—we must lose no time in sending for the police now. Hallo!"
The speech was broken off by the sharp intaking of the breath. As Ramsay drew near, he saw that Brownsden was gently opening the left hand of the murdered woman. A sharp edge of metal had caught his eye. Very gently he drew three coins from the knotted fingers, three half-crowns that seemed to be fresh from the Mint. On the face of it there was nothing unusual in their discovery, save that the suggestion that the murderer might have been fighting for some such small gain as that, for human life before now has been held more cheap. But there was a further discovery under the keen eye of Brownsden that gave the thing a deeper significance.
"This is very strange," he said, as he moved towards a shaded lamp on the table close by. "Here we have three brand new coins taken from the poor creature's hand, the bloom of the mould is still on them. Three perfect half-crowns with the head of Queen Victoria upon them. New coins fresh from the Mint, with the late Queen's head on them, and dated 1899!"
"Ring them," Ramsay burst out in a hoarse cry; "ring them!"
Brownsden proceeded to do so. But the coins rang true and clear—even the test by weight failed to prove them anything but perfect. Ramsay wiped his damp forehead and sighed in a kind of a subdued way. Brownsden's face was still corrugated in a frown.
"I don't understand it at all," he said. "These are genuine silver half-crowns, with never so much as a scratch on them, and yet dated nearly four years ago. Unless-- Ramsay, what kind of woman was your housekeeper? I mean as regards temperament."
"Hot-tempered and obstinate," Ramsay explained. "Inclined to have her own way. Very literal, too. You see, she had a lot of Scotch blood in her."
"I see. If anybody had come to her after your tenant had gone, to fetch some forgotten thing, she would not have given it without proof of the messenger's veracity, I suppose?"
"Indeed she wouldn't, not if it had been an empty sardine-tin."
"Um, that is quite what I expected. There is a pretty problem here, and I am already beginning to see my way clear. Your tenant departed in a breakneck hurry. Let us assume for the sake of argument that there was some pressing need for this. He either forgets something in his hurry, and somebody else who comes along is after the same thing. He tries to persuade your old housekeeper Gannett to part with that something, and she refuses. Hence the crime."
Ramsay nodded in a vague, unconcerned kind of way. Already Brownsden was on the way to the telephone that hung in a distant corner.
"The police," he explained tentatively. "There must be no hesitation any longer. You see--"
At the same moment the purring ripple of the telephone-bell rang out. Ramsay pulled himself together with an effort and took down the receiver. When he replaced the instrument, there was a particularly sickly green smile on his face.
"You ring up the police and explain for me," he said. "I have to go out at once. It appears that the East Sussex Hospital people are at their wits' ends for a surgeon for a case that came in half an hour ago. I must step round. Do you mind? I begin to wish I had never written that book on brain troubles."
Brownsden averred that he did not mind in the least. It was good to Ramsay to feel the fresh air on his face again. The house-surgeon apologised profoundly—he knew that Dr. Ramsay did not take cases like this as a rule; but operation-surgeons that were up to the particular case like this were few in Brighton, and unfortunately it had been impossible to get anyone of them on the telephone. It was a case of a motor accident. The gentleman had been driving his own car and in some way had come to grief. There was no wound to be seen, nothing to account for the deathlike trance in which the patient lay. Ramsay had forgotten his own troubles for the moment. He would be very pleased to see the patient at once.
The patient lay like a corpse on the bed— to all appearance he was dead. Ramsay's examination was thorough. He turned with a half -smile to the house-surgeon.
"No operation is necessary at all," he said. "There is nothing at all the matter with the brain. What the poor fellow is suffering from is paralysis of the spinal cord, due to the shock; I am prepared to stake my reputation upon it. An application of the battery will be all that is necessary. In three days your patient will be out again. Look here!"
Ramsay raised the lid of the sufferer's right eye. As he did so, he checked an exclamation. In an eager way he raised the lid of the other eye, and a half-puzzled, half-relieved expression crossed his face.
"You have run up against a stone wall?" the house-surgeon suggested.
"Indeed I have not," Ramsay said quickly. "I fancied that I had recognised the patient, but I appear to be mistaken. Try the battery, and let me know the result. Not that I have the least doubt what it will be, The spinal column is not injured; it is merely in a state of suspense. You will not mind if I run away now? I have a very unpleasant task before me."
Something like an hour had elapsed between the time that Ramsay had left Upper Quadrant and his return there. There were lights all over the house, and seated in the hall were two policemen, who sat stolidly nursing their helmets on their knees.
Inspector Swann was in the study, and he had many questions to ask. So far as Ramsay could see, very few of them were to the point. But to the relief of the doctor, no questions were put as to the time when the body was found in the house when the police were sent for. The inspector was puzzled over the matter of the half-crowns, which were apparently genuine. Brownsden stood alone, smiling grimly as Ramsay answered the flood of questions poured over him.
"And now as to this tenant of yours, sir," Swann said. "When did he go away?"
"Probably the day before yesterday," Ramsay replied. "He sent the key to my agents, as you will find on inquiry at their offices; otherwise Mrs. Gannett could not have made ber way into the house—I am quite sure that you will find that she called at my agents' offices and got the key. If you expect to discover anything in that direction, you will be disappointed. But perhaps I had better give you the letter which opened negotiations—I mean the first letter my tenant wrote to me."
Swann nodded approval. All the time a couple of detectives in private clothes were making a thorough search of the house. There was a long French window at the back of the study, leading into a square yard, and here a man was looking with the aid of a lantern. He tapped on the ground, and a hollow sound rang out. Swann's sharp ears caught the clang.
"What's that?" he asked. "Have you any well or anything of that kind?"
"Only the inspection-chamber," Ramsay said carelessly. "You could hardly expect--"
Something between a snarl and a cough came from the detective outside. He pulled up the cover of the chamber and dragged out a square box. It seemed to be heavy, for he staggered with the weight of it as he carried it into the study. Swann looked inquiringly at Ramsay, who shook his head— assuredly the box was no property of his.
"This grows interesting," he said. "I have never seen that box before. What have you there, officer?"
A box full of broken scraps of white metal, a box full of plaster moulds and files, and chemicals of various kinds, some iron discs, and a press were handed out, until the whole contents stood confessed upon the table. The detective grinned and wiped his heated forehead. "The finest coining-plant I've seen, sir," he said; " and I've had some experience, too. Never saw anything so perfect in my life. What shall we do with it, sir?"
Swann was of opinion that a cab had better be called, and the stuff carried away. He took his own departure a little later, with the suggestion that nothing further could be done to-night. He carefully locked up the study and sealed it. He hinted that there was a deeper mystery here than met the eye; he would come again in the morning. Ramsay closed the door behind him and then staggered like a drunken man into the dining-room. With a shaking hand he poured himself out some brandy.
"There is more here than meets the eye," Brownsden quoted from Swann significantly. "You asked me to come down and help you. If you will confide in me--"
"I am going to," Ramsay broke out hoarsely. "I am going to do so. But it is far worse than I anticipated. You spoke a while ago of a man in Africa who lived cleanly for years, and yet whose past rose up against him at a time when—my God! it is my own case all over."
"If you will confide in me," Brownsden repeated, " I dare say that "
"I am going to confide in you," Ramsay whispered. "Great Heavens! the ghastliness of it! For I have served my time—three years for counterfeit coining!"
"THERE you have it," Ramsay said, as Brownsden merely nodded. The half-defiant snarl in his voice was almost pathetic. "Here is my story in a nutshell. I am a gentleman by birth, by education, by instinct. Never mind what the temptation was—under the same circumstances I would do it again. After that I met with this accident, that has crippled me for life; but even that had its compensations, for it indirectly gave me a fresh start in life—under my proper name this time."
"I fancy I see what you are afraid of," Brownsden said.
"Of course you do. I am a solitary man; nobody knows anything about me. In any case, after the death of poor Gannett, my past would be dragged up. That is why I asked you to come here. But the thing is even more hideous than I imagined. The discovery of that coining-plant was a catastrophe that I did not anticipate. Questions will be asked. I shall be invited to clear myself. It is fortunate that owing to my accident that cursed Bertillon prison system cannot be applied to me. None of my old associates would recognise me. And yet the peril to my social and literary name is very great. Can you help me without—without--"
"Letting your name be mentioned?" Brownsden said. "I fancy so. To-morrow you must do nothing and leave everything to me. I am going to London, and you must give me the name of the man who took your house. Be guided entirely by me and think of nothing but your hospital patient. Is it a bad case?"
Ramsay replied that the case was not nearly so bad as it looked. His further services would hardly be required. He was more interested in the fact that the patient's one eye was a blue and the other brown than anything else. Brownsden smiled behind his cigarette.
"Different-coloured eyes, with largish red veins in the whites?" he suggested. "Ah! you need not be surprised. I have made eyes my study as much as anything else, and I have noticed that that peculiarity is common when the eyes are of different colour. Now you had better go to bed. And mind, you are entirely in my hands."
Ramsay gave the desired assurance. He was utterly tired and worn out, and he slept far into the next day. Brownsden seemed equal to the occasion, for he managed to get breakfast of sorts; and he volunteered the statement that he had been out since daylight. Pulling a blind back, Ramsay could see a couple of policemen outside, moving along the idle crowd of curious loafers that collected there from time to time.
"I suppose it is useless to ask if you have done anything?" Ramsay said moodily.
"Well, I have," Brownsden said. "For instance, I am every minute expecting the cabman who drove your tenant, Mr. Walters, to the station from here. Of the two servants who were in the house, I can hear nothing, not even from the domestics next door. It appears they kept themselves to themselves very much indeed."
The cabman came a little later with a little surprise in store. He had been called to Upper Quadrant two days before. He had been called by a grocer close by, who had been requested to send a cab from the rank near him by telephone from Upper Quadrant.
"I presume you went to the station?" Brownsden asked.
"No, I didn't, sir; I didn't go nowhere. I put two bags and a case that looked like one of them typewriters a-top of the cab, and I waited for the gentleman to come out. I hadn't any notion then what I was wanted for. Just as the gentleman got on the step, with his rug over his arm, a motor comes up—regular swagger affair--"
"Stop a minute," Brownsden asked. "Did she look like a racer? Tell me how many men were inside and how they were dressed?"
"She did look like a racer, sir," the cabman went on. "The gents inside had furs and goggles same as they most have on good cars... Recognise 'em again, sir? No, can't say as I could."
"Excellent idea for disguise," Brownsden said half aloud. "Quick way for a man who wanted to get about the country. What happened after that?"
"Well, a few words passed, sir, that I could not hear. Then the bags were transferred to the motor from my cab, and I was told that I wasn't wanted. I got a couple o' bob for my trouble, and there was an end of the matter as far as I was concerned."
Brownsden seemed to be satisfied with this explanation, but he vouchsafed no further information. He hurriedly turned over the pages of a time-table.
"So far, so good," he said. "Now I am going to London. If you take my advice, you will not stir out of the house all day, because I may have to telephone or telegraph you. And don't forget that you are entirely in my hands."
"I could not wish for a more capable man," Ramsay said gratefully.
It was nearly five before the telephone rang out in the startled house, and by instinct Ramsay seemed to know that Brownsden was calling him from London. Brownsden's voice was low and clear, but there was a certain pleased ring about it that the listener liked.
"That you, Ramsay?" the voice asked. "Very good. I'm calling you from an office in Hatton Garden where they deal in raw metals. Before you do anything else, call up the East Sussex Hospital and ask how your patient is. Don't go and see him in any case; even if they ask you to do so, make some excuse. Ring up the hospital now I'll wait."
There was some little difficulty with the Exchange, owing to the main-line trunk connection, but the voice of the house-surgeon was heard at last. His information was a startling confirmation of Ramsay's diagnosis on the night before. The electrical treatment had acted like magic. The patient had so far recovered that he had insisted on leaving the hospital an hour before, though, of course, he was still very white and shaky. The main point was that he had gone off in a cab, presumedly to the Hotel Metropole.
Brownsden heard all this subsequently with somethinglike a chuckle. He would like to know if the Hotel Metropole people had seen a guest arriving answering to the same description. An inquiry elicited the fact that the caravansary people had not.
"All this is excellent," Brownsden called down the long wire. "I was quite right to turn my attention in the direction of your late tenant, Ramsay. The address that your letters went to was merely a place where communications may be addressed at a penny each, and where they are called for. The American Legation has known nobody by the name of Walters. The apparent puzzle that you met him there is quite easy. Any American subject can see the Ambassador by waiting long enough in the anteroom; and your man probably knew that, hence he fixed a certain time to meet you there. After he had seen you, he had only to slip away, telling the porter that he would call again. There is no doubt that you have been the victim of a gang of swindlers."
Ramsay was of the same opinion. On the whole, it struck him that the counterfeiters had hit upon a most ingenious and original way of carrying out their work undisturbed. All they had to do was to secure some well-furnished house in a good locality and then go to work. Brighton was a large place, and the neighbours would not be too inquisitive; it was possible to live in Brighton for years and never know the name of your next-door tenants. There was only one thing that really troubled Ramsay—had those people by any chance got an inkling of his past? Or was it merely coincidence?
Brownsden came down by the last train, apparently satisfied with his day's work.
"It's all right," he said. "I am delighted. If the police have only kept their discovery as to the coining-plant to themselves, everything will work out splendidly. But I fear that I shall put you to a little inconvenience to-morrow."
"Anything so long as you solve the mystery," Kamsay cried. "What do you propose to do?"
"Well," Brownsden said slowly, as he flicked the ashes from his cigarette, "I am going to have you arrested for the wilful murder of Martha Gannett!"
Ramsay stared open-mouthed at the speaker. His face had grown a shade paler. He walked up and down the room as if he were the sport of uncontrolled emotions.
THE arrest of Alfred Ramsay the following morning on a charge of wilful murder of Martha Grannett caused a profound sensation. Not that the crowd overflowing out of the police-court at ten o'clock that day had much for their money. The police evidence was very brief and bald, not to say convincing, and after a hearing of a few minutes a remand was granted. A young advocate applied tentatively for bail for his client— the police had not even made out a prima facie case. After some discussion the magistrates agreed to allow bail in two sureties of £2,000 each, which was tantamount to a refusal.
"I have not a single friend in the world," said Ramsay. "I will go to prison."
"The bail will be forthcoming to-morrow," the lawyer said.
* * * * *
It was quite dark the same evening when two figures approached Upper Quadrant from the road behind that leads to the Downs. They climbed carefully over the wall, and one of them admitted his companion to the house by way of the French window of the studio laboratory, which had been left open on purpose. The figures proceeded to pull up the cover of the inspection-chamber in the yard and deposit a black box within. After that they wrapped themselves up in long overcoats and lay on the floor of the study. It was evident that they expected a long vigil, for one slept whilst the other kept an eye open.
It was past one before a slight noise in the yard attracted the watcher's attention. He reached out a hand and touched his companion, who immediately sat up.
"They're moving," he whispered. "Get as near to the door as you can, and switch on the light when I give the signal. I knew they would come to-night."
There was a sound of metal in the yard presently, and then the two watchers smiled. Then the gleam of a lantern flashed out, and a heavy footstep came into the room. Somebody was panting with the force of expended energy. Then the light showed the black box removed from the inspection-chamber by the police the night before, and just replaced by the two watchers in the greatcoats. The man pulling the box chuckled, but his chuckle changed to a snarl and an oath as another figure bounded out of the throat of the darkness and fell upon him.
"You dog!" a voice said. "So I have got you, after all. You escaped me two days ago by means of that infernal motorcar of yours; but it's my turn now. I knew you'd come back for this."
"I'll have a knife into you presently," the man underneath hissed.
One of the watchers gave the signal, and the room was flooded with light. Just for an instant the two men fighting like mad dogs did not heed; then strong hands were laid upon them and they were wrenched apart. They stood up sullenly at length, with the cool, blue rim of a revolver-barrel pressed to the temples of each.
"This is a pretty good haul, Mr. Brownsden, eh?" the second watcher said cheerfully. "No need to ask if you know me—Inspector Wallis, of Scotland Yard, at your service. I wondered what had become of you, Joe. And you, too, Pattison. So Joe had the best of you, and you had made up your mind to murder him. Afraid of him, ain't you, Joe?"
The man addressed as Joe said something to the effect that his soi-disant colleague was a most murderous ruffian. The other burst out into imprecations.
"I'd have done it, too!" he cried. "Who found all the money? Who got that plant made? Nothing like it has ever been seen before. And because I had to keep out of the way for a bit, Joe leaves me in the lurch and comes down here. But somebody got me on his track again, and he'd ha' died here instead of that poor old woman if he hadn't got away in time."
"It was you who killed the housekeeper, of course?" Wallis asked quite coolly.
"It was an accident," the man addressed as Pattison said sullenly. "I knew that Joe hadn't got time to get the plant away, so I called for it as if I came from him. And there was that old girl playing with a mould that had been forgotten by my dear friend Joe in his hurry, to say nothing of leaving some of the new-milled half-crowns about. So one thing led to another, and I hit the old girl harder than I intended. But I've said quite enough."
"Quite enough," Wallis replied grimly. "Go and fetch Dr. Ramsay in, Mr. Brownsden."
A cab stood outside at the corner of the road, and in it was Ramsay. By the time that he reached the house, the handcuffs were on both prisoners.
"I'll explain everything presently," Brownsden said hurriedly. "Will you look at this man, who seems to be known professionally as 'Joe'? Have you seen him before?"
"Of course I have!" Ramsay cried. "I saw him under the name of Walters at the American Legation. It was he who took my house. I saw him also last night and the night before, at the East Sussex Hospital, where he had been taken after a motor accident. I should have recognised him before by the different colour of his eyes, but the pallor of illness makes a difference."
"Do you remember the gentleman?" Brownsden asked of the man Joe. "Is his face familiar to you?"
"Only once," the other man said with a shifty grill—" when I took his house. But what is the use of all these fool questions? It's a fair knock-out, and there's an end of it."
* * * * *
It was a little later, and Ramsay and Brownsden were alone. For the first time for two days the former found zest in the food that Brownsden had prepared for him. When he had finished, he looked up eagerly and asked for an explanation. He was utterly puzzled, he said.
"And yet it's pretty easy when it comes to be told," Brownsden said thoughtfully. "From the very first it seemed to me to be inevitable that your tenant had something to do with it. When we found that coining-plant, I was certain of it. You were the victim of an ingenious and up-to-date scheme. The idea of getting into a house like yours was admirable. I surmised from the first that Mr. 'Walters' was the coiner. When he went off in such a hurry, I felt quite sure that it was a case of diamond cut diamond. There is no such thing as honour amongst thieves. But you, personally, gave me a pretty clue when you spoke of the man in the hospital with the different-coloured eyes who had had a spill from a motor. Your tenant had eyes of two colours he had gone off hot-foot in a motor. Therefore it was only fair to assume that here was the man we wanted. Wallis compared my suspicions, and told me that he was looking for a man with different eyes, and he proceeded to tell me the history of the fellow he called Joe.
"When I heard by the telephone that Mr. 'Joe' had left the hospital, I felt pretty certain that he would try and get that plant back. But you were in the way. That is why you were arrested, and bail for a preposterous amount fixed. I arranged to bail you out very late at night, so that not a soul outside the police-station should know. Therefore to Mr. 'Joe' the coast was quite clear, and he would rush to your house with impunity. You see, there was just the chance that you would get bail on the morrow, as your lawyer hinted, so there was no time to be lost. The task was rendered all the more easy by the fact that 'Joe' knew your house as well as you know it yourself. So he came for the spoil—which we replaced—and we caught him. The other man coming along was not quite the piece of luck that it looks, because there is no little doubt that he had been watching 'Joe' all day. The other man was rather bounced into confessing to the murder of the poor old woman; but it quite exonerates you."
"Only I shall have to give evidence," Ramsay said. "And it is just possible--"
"No, you will not be required. 'Joe' did not know you, because I asked him on purpose to see. Your fears are quite groundless, Ramsay, and I congratulate you on your escape. It would have been precious hard lines on you, after all these years, if--"
"I cannot sufficiently thank you," Ramsay said in a broken voice. "Some day I may be in a position to show my gratitude for your wonderful skill and kindness. But there is one thing that puzzes me. When we tried the so-called counterfeit coins, they rang true. What does that mean?"
Brownsden smiled as he took another cigarette.
"They are true," he said. "They are made from genuine silver. It is possible to melt silver and yet get, cent for cent, profit on it over the counter. Gold can be treated the same way. The coins we found were not quite finished—they had not been sweated to give them the appearance of having been in circulation. See how simple it all is."
"Ah, yes," Ramsay said. "And yet how simple it would have been to have fixed this on me if my past had come to light. Good night. And if any thanks of mine can--"
THE case was going dead against the prisoner; sanguine as he was, he could see that for himself. He was conscious of an odd feeling of unreality. For instance, it seemed almost absurd that those half-dozen portly, respectable, well-groomed gentlemen on the Bench should be trying him, when only a few days ago half of them had dined with him at The Towers. There was the chairman of the Bench, for example, General Owen Sexton. The General had regarded the dinner invitation as a favor. He had dined well, and had secured some valuable information as to a prospective investment into the bargain.
The Bench seemed to feel it, too; for when they looked at the prisoner, it was with a half-apologetic glance, as who should say: "Really, it is no fault of ours, but rather the outcome of a wretched system." On the whole, the embarrassment was on the side of the Bench.
Not so with the general public. It was not every day that the little Assize-town had such a treat as this. A millionaire, the great man of the district, charged with wilful murder! It seemed almost incredible that any body of men should dare to bring such an accusation against Wilfred Scanlaw. Why, the man could have bought up all Illchester and never felt it.
And yet there it was, and the case was going badly for the prisoner. The stately butler from The Towers was telling the story. The deceased, who had been identified as one John Chagg, had called at The Towers on the night of March 15 and had asked to see Mr. Scanlaw. The butler had informed the late caller that his master never saw anybody on business after dinner, and that it was as much as his place was worth to disturb Mr. Scanlaw. When alone, Mr. Scanlaw invariably slept for an hour after dinner. It was an early house usually, and the servants were in bed by half-past ten. The stranger, however, had been very persistent. He had induced the butler to take his card into the library and place it where Mr. Scanlaw could see it when he woke. He would stay in the hall—he was in no hurry. It sounded just a little odd, but the servants went to bed leaving John Chagg still waiting to see the master of the house. Nobody thought any more of the matter; it had passed out of the mind of the butler until the body of John Chagg was found in the shrubbery at the back of the house late on the following day. The police had been called in, and they had made certain investigations. Questioned, Mr. Scanlaw denied that he had seen the deceased at all on the night in question; he denied that the man's features were known to him. If the butler's evidence had been correct, then Chagg must have grown tired of waiting and gone away. Was the front door open? the police desired to know. Yes, the front door had not been fastened, as Mr. Scanlaw noticed as he was going to bed; and on coming down in the morning he had blamed the servants for their inattention.
This was all very well, but the awkward thing was the fact that the dead man had a letter in his pocket from Scanlaw — a curt letter in which Chagg was told that he could do as he liked, but not one penny of blackmail would be got from the writer. The body of the letter, the address on the envelope, were all in Scanlaw's handwriting.
All this was pretty bad, but there was worse to follow. A big stick in the hallstand was found to be slightly stained with blood, so also was a shirt that had been found pushed at the back of the wardrobe in Mr. Scanlaw's bedroom. It was all very well for the jaunty, well-groomed London solicitor who had the case in hand to say that a perfect answer to the charge would be forthcoming. The lawyer in question, the well-known Edward Coxley, had shrugged his shoulders and promised to outline the career of the dead man later on, and prove that he was a particularly pestiferous type of blackmailer. There were even two sides to the denial of Chagg's identity by Mr. Scanlaw.
And even this was not all. On the face of the dead man was a peculiar mark, an indentation, deep in the skull, that had evidently been the result of a severe blow. According to the theory of the prosecution, the mark had been caused by a ring that Scanlaw was in the habit of wearing, a cameo signet-ring with a very large, irregular-edged stone. If this ring had been produced, said the police, the stone would have fitted the mark. A heavy blow would have been required to make so deep and perfect an indentation; but the prisoner was a strong man, and the prosecution was prepared to prove now that Scanlaw in his early days in America had been closely connected with the prize-ring.
Strangely enough, the ring was missing. The police had asked for it directly they had got an inkling of the manner in which the mark had been made, but they were met by an assertion on the part of the prisoner to the effect that the ring had been lost two days before, in the woods, where he had been rabbiting. All these things gradually piled up a case against the prisoner; already he was condemned by those in court.
The case dragged on wearily till the light in the court began to fade, and people were beginning to leave, feeling that the sensations of the day were exhausted. The tense attention of the afternoon had relaxed; people chatted listlessly; only one man seemed to be deeply interested. He was a little man, with a clean-shaven face and the mobile mouth of the actor. His eyes gleamed and flickered; he constantly dried his moist palms on a pocket-handkerchief. Once his eyes met those of the prisoner, and Scanlaw felt that he would know that face again anywhere.
The court adjourned at length, and Scanlaw stepped out of the box. Since he was before magistrates, and the case not yet proved, he had managed to procure bail. For the last two days he had walked out of the dock with his head erect and his mouth as hard as a steel trap; for the last two nights he had not gone home to The Towers, close by; rather, he had preferred to stay at the Crozier Hotel, and dine in the coffee-room before the eyes of all men. The little man with the clean-shaven mouth followed, dabbing his moist palms all the time.
"I'll try it," he muttered. "It's a desperate chance, but I'll try it. Pity he had not gone home, and then I should have been in a position to see him as I am and save the cost of a dinner that I can ill afford. Lucky there is the wardrobe to fall back upon."
At eight o'clock, Mr. Scanlaw sat down to dine in the coffee-room of the Crozier Hotel. Five minutes later, a clergyman with white hair came into the room and, as if quite casually, took his seat at the same table. Scanlaw frowned, but the man opposite did not heed. He ordered fish in a calm, bland, incisive manner that impresses even a waiter. He was half way through his fish before he addressed Scanlaw. He spoke in a low tone, and did not look at all at the man on the other side of the table. His speech was peculiar.
"Would you give a thousand pounds to be out of your present difficulty?" he asked. "Don't stare at me like that. Go on with your dinner as if I had made a remark about the weather."
The words were spoken calmly enough, and yet there was a suggestion of nervous, eager haste about them. In a strange, uneasy way, a spark of hope shot up in Scanlaw's breast.
"You are either a lunatic or a very clever man," he said, "Mr.—"
"Call me Jones — the Reverend John Jones. What's in a name? The thing we call a rose — but I must drop shop for the present. You say I am either a lunatic or a very clever man. Please pay me the compliment of believing me to be the latter. I have been watching you all day."
"Oh, then you are disguised, Mr. Jones." Scanlaw muttered. "I recognize you now. You are the little man who was rubbing his palms all the time. Seemed to be in trouble, too."
"So I am," said the other, still bending over his fish. "Not as bad as yours, but bitter trouble, and possible disgrace, for want of a thousand pounds. That rascal Edward Coxley, your lawyer, is at the bottom of it all. He looks very smart and gentlemanly, but for all that he is one of the most poisonous scoundrels that ever disgraced a dishonorable profession. Because he is utterly unscrupulous, I suppose you decided to employ him."
"Being innocent of the charge against me," Scanlaw began with dignity, "I must say—"
"Innocent be hanged!" the other man snapped. "You are as guilty as hell! You killed that blackmailing rascal as you would do again; and you will hang for it. If I am going to save your neck, there must be no foolish allusions between you and me."
"For the sake of argument, we will admit that I killed John Chagg," said Scanlaw hoarsely.
"That's better. Nobody can hear us, so I can talk freely. Before I leave here tonight, I am going to give you a written lot of questions and answers that you are to commit to memory before you sleep. Early to-morrow you had better show those questions to your lawyer, and suggest that he should put the questions and that you should answer them — in the witness-box. All this does not tally with the most honorable procedure of the court; but Coxley will not hesitate, the blackguard!"
"But what are you doing this for?" Scanlaw asked.
"A thousand pounds," was the prompt reply. "If I succeed, as I anticipate, you pay me that sum of money. As I am an actor — and I should have been a great actor but for the drink — you need not fear that my side of the thing will fail. I want that missing ring."
Scanlaw looked doubtfully at the speaker. Visions of a police trap rose to his mind. If this man was an enemy in disguise, he was giving away a piece of evidence that would hang him to a certainty. The other seemed to read Scanlaw's mind, for he smiled.
"I can quite see what is passing in your brain," he said. "But if you don't trust me, I can do nothing for you. If my plot fails through lack of confidence on my part, you will hang. Besides, you have tacitly admitted to me that you are the culprit. If you had been an innocent man, you would not have suffered my impertinence, but have got up and flung me through the window."
The voice of the speaker was nervous and shaky, but the words were cool enough. The clear logic was not lost on a well-endowed mind like Scanlaw's.
"The ring is in my waistcoat pocket at the present moment," he said.
"I am glad to hear it," the other answered. "I began to be afraid that it had been lost. It is so like your mingled prudence and audacity to carry that damning piece of evidence within arm's length of the police. Hand it over to me, please."
Wondering at his own confidence in a complete stranger, Scanlaw did as requested. His sanguine temperament and bull-dog courage had kept him up for the time, but there were minutes, like flashes of lightning before sightless eyes, when he realized the terrible gravity of his position.
"You are going to take a terrible risk," he said.
"Of course I am. Did I not tell you that I was in dire need of a thousand pounds? I would sell my soul for that money. I would take any hazard under the sun for it. You trust me, and I am going to trust you. No papers shall pass between us; and when you walk out of the dock a free man — as you will to-morrow — you shall pay me that sum in gold and notes. No; I am a bit of a rascal, but I have not fallen as low as blackmailing yet; and after that you will never hear from me again. But there is one little point."
"Let me hear it," Scanlaw said eagerly. He was becoming absurdly dependent upon this stranger. He began to feel quite an affection for him. "What do you want to know?"
"I want to know if you keep a motor-car. I have built up everything on that?"
"Of course I keep a motor-car; keep two, in fact. No modern millionaire is held to be complete and genuine without keeping a motor-car."
The pseudo-parson rubbed his hands together in the old, nervous manner; yet his eyes gleamed.
"Good!" he said. "As agent in advance for a popular company that shall be nameless, I have had a deal of experience with automobiles. Now, you must send a message to your chauffeur and get him out of the way for a couple of hours. Better still, change your mind and sleep at home to-night. Contrive to have the key left in your garage about nine o'clock to-night, and leave the rest to me. But, above all things, keep your chauffeur out of the way till after midnight. Have you got a full and proper grasp of that?"
Scaniaw nodded. Usually he had a fine contempt for the intellect of other men, but he felt that he had met more than his match now. His pulses were beating a little faster, and a fine bead of perspiration stood on his forehead. Was he going to stand whitewashed in the eyes of his fellows once more? The sense of crime was not on his conscience at all — he had rid the world of a pestiferous reptile, and there was an end of the matter.
"I will do exactly what you require," he said. "I'll get a cab here and go home. But before I do so, I should like to have some inkling of the method by which—"
"Not one word," the pseudo-clergyman said fiercely. "My good man, that would be fatal. It would only make you nervous and restless. You would be continually looking for your cue, and then you would spoil everything. The great thing in this matter is spontaneosity. Take this sheet of paper, with the questions and answers on it, and commit it to memory. Only do as you are told, and I promise that you shall be a thousand pounds poorer to-morrow night."
Scanlaw rose from the table and lighted a cigar. The coffee-room was empty by this time.
"I am going home now," he said. "I have trusted everything to your hands. If there is some further deep conspiracy against me—"
He hesitated, and there was a threatening flash in his eyes. The man at the table, drinking his claret calmly and smoking a cigarette, smiled.
"I am a well-connected man," he said. "There remain to me yet a few gentlemanly instincts. In the eyes of the law I am doing wrong. All the same, I can see no great crime in ridding the world of a blackmailer. Besides, I am in desperate need of money. I, too, am the victim of a conspiracy; and your rascally lawyer is going to share the plunder. I can see my way to save you, to put money in my purse, and spite Coxley at the same time. To get a man like that under one's thumb is a pleasant thing. Now go and muzzle your chauffeur, as arranged."
Scanlaw walked quietly out and called a cab. A little time later he was at home, the old butler waiting his good pleasure. The butler was a well-paid servant, who deplored the grave condition of his master. He was too well paid to believe that Mr. Scanlaw would do anything of the kind.
"I have changed my mind and come home for the night, Stephens," the millionaire said. "It was a little too public in the hotel; and, besides, I have recollected some important papers that I have to go into. When this ridiculous charge fails, to-morrow—"
"I am glad to hear that, sir," Stephens said. "It always seemed to me—"
"Yes, yes, Stephens, I understand. Get me some brandy and soda-water and my cigars. You had better go to bed at the usual time, as if nothing had happened. By the way, is Gailand in the house? If so, I want him to go to Ford by the last train and see Maylor for me about those bearings. If everything goes well to-morrow, I shall go for a tour up North. I think that is all I shall want to-night."
The chauffeur came in obediently. The bearings had not come, he explained, a fact that Scanlaw was aware of before he asked the question. He seemed to be annoyed about something.
"Then you must go and fetch them to-night," he said.
"And come back here by an early train in the morning. Where are the keys of the motor-house?"
Gailand had left them in his bedroom over the stables. He would fetch them if his master required them. But Scanlaw waved the suggestion aside — he did not explain to Gailand that he had a master-key of all the locks about the house and estate.
"Never mind," he said. "It will do in the morning. Good night, Gailand."
It was a good hour before Scanlaw had a grip of the questions and answers that the pseudo-clergyman had written out for him. Even then he had only a hazy idea of what was the drift of the whole thing. It was like listening to a brilliant conversation on the telephone, when one side of the talk only could be heard — like an acrostic with an important link missing. Scanlaw abandoned the idea of solving the jumble at length.
He locked the paper carefully away and went outside in the silence of the night. His nerves were getting more frayed and ragged than he cared to admit; the dark silence was soothing. He passed onward to the back of the great house and alongside the new building where his two motor-cars were stored. One was all in pieces, as he knew, but the other was ready for use day and night — it was a whim of Scanlaw's.
He looked inside with a feeling partly of relief, partly of bewilderment. The door of the house was wide open, and the big car was gone!
The chairman and his brother magistrates came into court with an expression that plainly told that they wished the thing well over. The strong case for the prosecution was complete; it only remained for Scanlaw to reserve his defence and be committed for trial. Once that was done, there would be an end to Scanlaw's bail; he would have to go to jail, which was a most unpleasant course to adopt toward a man who gave such excellent dinners. The prim little barrister who appeared for the Crown looked at Mr. Coxley, the smart Bow Street attorney, as if conscious of the great social gulf between them, and intimated that he had no more to say. Mr. Coxley would pursue the usual course?
"Not on this occasion," Coxley said. "I propose to exercise the discretion vested in me and put my client in the box. I am adopting a most unusual course, I know; but I desire to save my client some weeks of anxiety and degradation. I shall try and prove the innocence of my client from his own story, and save the county the expense of an Assize trial."
The audience thrilled; they felt that they were going to get something for their money, after all. Scanlaw stepped from the dock into the witness-box; his hard, square face was absolutely devoid of emotion. He looked almost defiantly at his own lawyer.
"Let us go back to the night of the murder," Coxley said.
"Did you see the deceased man on that occasion, sir? Did you give Chagg an interview?"
"I did not," Scanlaw replied. "I did not, for the simple reason that I was not in the house between dinner and midnight."
"We will get to that presently," Coxley went on. "The prosecution has made a great deal of the fact that you denied all knowledge of Chagg, when at the same time you had written a letter to him telling him to do his worst. Can you reconcile those statements?"
"Nothing is easier," Scanlaw said slowly and distinctly. "I repeat that I never saw Chagg in my life. He wrote to me more than once, saying that he was in possession of certain papers, etc., relating to my past, and proposing that I should buy them for ten thousand pounds. He tried to see me, and I gave orders to have him kicked off the premises if he came again. Of course, I am speaking of my offices. Finally, I wrote the man the letter which was found in his pocket."
"What he suggested as to your past was false?" said Coxley.
"No, it was absolutely true," Scanlaw admitted with the greatest coolness. "My past is not altogether a blameless one — not that that has anything to do with the case. There are lots of people in America who could tell you a deal of my earlier life. Before Chagg came along, there was another man. I might have tried to buy his silence; only I felt that if I did so, others of the same gang would come along and try the same game."
"You feel quite sure that Chagg was only one of a set of fellows who—"
"I am certain of it, because I had had letters of the same kind before."
"Quite so," Coxley said with a smile. "A conspiracy, in fact. It is just possible that Chagg, after leaving your house, met a confederate, they quarrelled, and-"
"This is not a speech for the defence," the Crown representative said pithily. "If my learned friend will confine himself to the examination-in-chief "
"My learned friend" bowed and apologized. But he had made his point, which was the chief object in view.
"Let us get on," he said. "You say you were out all the evening. Please explain."
"The explanation is quite easy," said Scanlaw. "As my butler told the Bench, it is my custom when alone to go to sleep after dinner. I am never disturbed; the servants go to bed at the proper time and leave me severely alone. If Chagg was in the house, I did not know it. Soon after dinner I took a coat with a big collar — for the night was cold — and went out. My chauffeur was away, unfortunately, so I had to take my motor out myself. Without saying a word to anybody, I drove my car to Illchester and went to the Mitre Hotel there."
"Can you produce anybody to testify to that?" Coxley asked.
"I am afraid not," Scanlaw went on. "You see, it was Illchester Fair — pleasure fair; the hotels were full, and the streets crowded with people who came to see the show. I was muffled up, and my hat over my eyes. I went there to see a stranger who, curiously enough, had written me a letter relating to Chagg. The writer of the letter was a stranger to me, and he seemed to have a grudge against Chagg. He said if I would see him, he would tell me enough to get Chagg ten years. The address was 'The Mitre, Illchester,' a house of no repute, which was why I did not desire to be seen there. Hence I kept my collar up."
"This is getting very interesting," said Coxley. "You have kept that letter, of course."
"No," Scanlaw said sharply. "I handed it to you yesterday."
Coxley apologized and produced a letter from his papers. It was handed up to the Bench and passed from one magistrate to another. The letter was signed "ONE WHO KNOWS," the envelope, the date, the stamp, all appeared to be in perfect order.
"No signature, as your Worships will notice," Coxley said smoothly. "You thought it better to go and see the man than make an appointment which—"
"I acted, as usual, on the spur of the moment," Scanlaw proceeded. "I rather suspected another form of the conspiracy. It seemed to me if I took the writer of the letter by surprise—"
"And did you take the writer of the letter by surprise?"
"It was more or less mutual," said Scanlaw. "When I was going into the bar, a man accosted me and whispered my name. He did not give his, but suggested that he had written me a letter. The man in question looked like an actor in reduced circumstances."
"One moment," Coxley interrupted. "If you went over on your motor, and the streets were crowded—"
"I left my motor on the outskirts of the town, close to Illchester Priory, in the ditch on the left-hand side; it seemed best to walk. I sat in the bar talking to my man for some time. He gave me a great deal of information about Chagg — what, I will tell the Bench if they like — not that it would be of any assistance to their Worships. I was there from ten till ten minutes to twelve."
"After the house was closed?" a magistrate asked.
"Oh, no, sir," Scanlaw proceeded to explain. "Your Worships will recollect that during the three days of the Illchester Fair it is usual to extend the closing time till midnight."
The magistrate nodded; he had quite forgotten that. Coxley wanted to know if anything unusual had happened. Scanlaw's voice grew a trifle more husky.
"A very strange thing," he said. "The man I sat with knew a lot about me, because he, too, had passed a great deal of his time in America. A great deal has been made by the gentleman who appears for the Crown as to the mark on the forehead of the dead man Chagg, which mark, it is alleged, was made by my ring. My ring attracted the attention of the man in the bar at the 'Mitre,' and he told me that at one time it had belonged to his mother. He gave me the name of his mother, who had a second time married a man in America, who gave the ring to me."
"Did your friend in the 'Mitre' bar examine the ring?" Coxley asked.
"He did, he looked at it carefully. When we were talking, a man came in and had a hurried drink and passed out again. As he was going, my friend said it was Chagg. I got up on the spur of the moment and hurried after him. I was going to finish him off then and there. Unfortunately for me, a fight was going on outside, and the police intervened. Whilst I was in the press, the doors of the' Mitre' were closed, and I could not get back again."
"All this is a matter of common knowledge in Illchester," Coxley said suavely.
"Then I made up my mind to go home," Scanlaw resumed. "I went back home, and that is all I know of the matter. I did not worry about the ring, because I expected that my friend of the 'Mitre' bar would send it back to me."
"You produce the gentleman of the 'Mitre' bar?" the Crown counsel said.
"Not at present," Coxley was fain to admit. "But we are looking for him everywhere. He is agent in advance for a theatrical company, and therefore his work takes him into out-of-the-way places. He may not have heard of the case yet. If we can produce the gentleman in question, and his evidence is as my client states, then the prosecution falls to the ground."
The legal representative of the Crown stated that it did. According to the medical evidence, the crime had been committed between the hours of ten and twelve; indeed, the murdered man's watch, which had been broken in the struggle, had stopped at 11.25, to be precise. At that time Scanlaw was attempting to prove that he was fifteen miles away.
"Do you apply for an adjournment, Mr. Coxley?" the chairman asked.
"I am not quite in a position to say, sir," Coxley replied. "But I am going to place a policeman in the box who will swear that he tracked the wheels of Mr. Scanlaw's motor-car from the stable to the ditch by the side of Illchester Priory, and back again. That test was made and proved this morning, though Mr. Scanlaw's chauffeur was strongly of opinion that the big Panhard had not been out of the stables for three days prior to and following the murder. To go further, the state of the motor and the lowness of the petrol prove that. Beyond doubt Mr. Scanlaw was along the road and in the motor at Illchester on the night of the murder."
"But the murdered man was at Mr. Scanlaw's house?" the chairman suggested.
"We are not going to deny it," Coxley exclaimed. "He probably got tired and went away. Incidentally he took with him from a case in the hall a fine collection of old gold coins. I suggest that these coins aroused the cupidity of some confederate waiting outside, which led to the murder. Of course, it seems to me that if we could track those coins—"
A policeman stood up in court and held a handful of gold coins aloft. He had found them that very morning in a piece of tobacco paper, near to where the murder was committed. The packed spectators thrilled and rocked at the discovery. People there looked at Scanlaw's impassive face. The thin, hard features never changed a muscle.
The stir and fret was at its height when a little man, with the suggestion of an actor about him, bustled in. He had an air of agitation and fussy impatience. He apologized to the Bench for his want of ceremony.
"I have only just heard of this case, your Worships," he said. "My name is John Oliver. I am agent in advance for the Vestris Comedy Company. I am told that they are looking for me. I only heard of this case just now. But, seeing that Mr. Scanlaw was in my company on the night of the murder till nearly twelve o'clock, why—"
"Hadn't the man better be sworn?" the Crown counsel said tartly.
Mr. John Oliver wanted nothing better. He gave his evidence glibly, but to the point; in every respect he confirmed exactly what Scanlaw had said. The latter bent his head and covered his face with a handkerchief for a moment. He desired to hide the fierce delight in his eyes; he suppressed a strong desire to laugh and sing. As Coxley finished his questions, the little Crown lawyer shot up.
"About that ring," he said. "I am prepared to believe all that you have said, though, on your own confession, you are not a man of the highest integrity; but I am curious about that ring. Why were you so prejudiced against Chagg?"
"He was at one time a member of our company," Oliver said. "And a more thorough—"
"That will do. What did you do with the ring? That's the point."
"Upon my word, I forget," the witness cried. "When I pointed out to Mr. Scanlaw the man I deemed to be Chagg, I had the ring in my hand. To be perfectly candid, I had been drinking a good deal that night and I was a little muddled. I distinctly remember laying down the ring somewhere. If — if I could only recollect!... I've got it! We were sitting by the fireplace in the 'Mitre.' It is an old oak fireplace, with a fine overmantel carved with figures in niches. I put the ring in one of the little niches on the left-hand side of the fireplace in a vague kind of way. I suppose I must have had another drink and forgotten all about it. It is not a showy ring, and the overmantel is very dirty, I recollect. Unless the housemaids have been extra busy—which is not very likely, seeing that there would be a deal of pressure of work at the Fair time—the ring is very likely to be exactly where I placed it."
"We shall have to have an adjournment, after all," the chairman said.
"Not the least occasion for anything of the kind, your Worships," said Coxley cheerfully. "I would suggest that Sergeant Braithwaite go over to the post-office and telephone to the police-station at Illchester, telling them exactly what has happened. In less than ten minutes we shall know whether the story is confirmed or not."
The Bench nodded their approval of the suggestion. Excitement stood high; people were wiping their faces as if personally interested in the issue. Only the prisoner stood quite still and impassive all the time; he seemed to be the only one who took no interest in the proceedings. He gave the suggestion of regarding it all as a kind of farce, from which he was to be rescued by common sense and reason. The chairman on the Bench bent over and made some remark to him; possibly he was discounting the future and thinking of those little dinners. There was a general surging of bodies, a gasping of breath, as the sergeant of police came back into court, swelling with puffy importance.
"It seems, your Worship," he said, "as the witness is correct in that statement of hisn. The ring has been found by one of the ladies in the bar of the 'Mitre,' and has been handed over to the police at Illchester. If necessary, a special messenger "
"There is no necessity," the chairman said. "A full description of the ring has been in the hands of the Illchester police for some days, and they are perfectly well aware whether they have the proper ring or not. It seems quite natural that the pris— that Mr. Scanlaw should have forgotten his curious gem in that way, and that the witness should have left it on the mantelpiece. Do you propose to call any more witnesses, Mr. Coxley?"
Coxley smiling indicated that he was perfectly satisfied to leave matters in the hands of a bench of magistrates so singularly luminous-minded and clear-headed. Perhaps his friend who appeared on behalf of the prosecutor had a few words to say.
"I follow the same lead," the little barrister said politely. "I have no animus in the matter. I have simply to do my duty, and there is an end of it. The case has taken a totally unexpected turn in favor of the prisoner; and, so far as I can see, there is nothing more to be done besides look for the murderer of Chagg elsewhere." A loud murmur of applause followed the generous statement. The Bench put their heads together and whispered for a moment. Ten minutes later, and Scanlaw stepped out into the street a free man. An hour later, and he was lunching quietly at home with John Oliver opposite him. The door was closed, and the two men talked in whispers. From time to time Oliver fingered a thick pad of paper in his breast-pocket that crackled with a musical sound.
"A little imagination of the playwright, my dear sir," he said, "and a little good luck. You see, I did happen to be in the bar of the'Mitre' that night with a mysterious stranger whose collar was turned up. He was a friend of mine who had done something wrong, and I was smuggling him away. The inspiration came to me like a flash when I heard your case tried the first day. Then I worked out all those questions and answers between your lawyer and yourself. If I had not known Coxley to be a perfectly unscrupulous rascal, I dared not have tried that on. My next game was to get your chauffeur out of the way and make that very pretty confirmatory evidence as to the visit to Illchester and the motor left in the ditch by the Priory. That touch about the missing case of coins from the hall was also a pretty one, I flatter myself. As to smuggling the ring to the mantelpiece, that was quite easy. I placed it there myself before a full bar of drunken farmers and the like who were in from the Fair. Then I brought your motor back and lay low to wait for developments. I fancy I timed my dramatic entrance very prettily indeed. But all the same, luck was dead on your side—everything played into my hands. What a magnificent situation for a play it would make!"
"I trust the play will never be written," Scanlaw said hastily. "The mere hint of such a thing might mean ruin to me. You see the moral would be—"
Oliver chuckled as he helped himself to more champagne and took a fresh cigarette. He had a very pleasant and full-flavored turn of humor.
"The moral, my dear sir, is this," he said slyly. "That the average millionaire is always a lucky man, otherwise he would never be a millionaire. But there never was a luckier one than you."
THE extraordinary affair at 19 Grosvenor Gate, the town residence of the Duchess of Dumblane, occupied the public mind for at least three days—a remarkable testimony to the dramatic features of the case. The Duchess, as everybody knows, is a recognised leader of Society, very young and very pretty; also, according to her friends, who are capable of expressing an opinion, very foolish into the bargain. On the other hand, the Duke is a pillar of the Upper House, given to politics and striving to effect that economy which is necessary now with a nobleman who depends largely on his estates for his income.
The affair is briefly told as follows. The Duchess had been dining at a certain house where Royalty was expected—a dull, decorous, very full-dress affair—and for the purpose she had procured the family diamonds from the bank where they were usually kept. After the State dinner-party was over, her Grace had returned home and given the gems into the custody of her maid, afterwards going to a "bridge"-party in Stratton Street. The maid was told that she could go to bed if she liked, as her mistress would be very late.
At three o'clock the following morning, the Duchess returned home. The Duke was away in South Africa on some semi-political mission, so that the Duchess had the house to herself. According to her story, she had let herself into the house with a latch-key and had proceeded at once to her dressing-room.
A dreadful spectacle awaited her there. Helena, the maid, lay on the floor, absolutely unconscious, and bleeding from a wound on the face and another on the neck. The place was in great disorder—evidently a severe struggle had taken place. Greatly alarmed, the Duchess summoned the servants to her assistance, and the police were called in.
Helena was by no means so badly hurt as first appeared. Restored to consciousness, she had a queer, confused story to tell. She had put away her mistress's diamonds and had taken a book up which interested her.
That was about one o'clock in the morning. She had fallen asleep in the dressing-room, but was suddenly aware of the fact that somebody was in the room. Before she could jump up, she was grasped from behind; she struggled and called out; she was conscious of two blows, and then she recollected no more.
The natural inference was that the daring thief had come for the jewels. The thing had been carefully worked out by an expert gang, whom the police professed to know all about. Would the Duchess give them a minute list of the missing gems? And then came the most extraordinary part of the story. The jewels were not missing at all. The Duchess had gone through the cases, and they were all intact.
Harold Resbie had read all about it in the Daily Flash. The exceedingly popular novelist and social favourite smiled to himself as he read the story. Time was when it had been just on the cards that the Duchess of Dumblane might become Mrs. Harold Resbie. But the Duke had come along, and Harold had accepted the inevitable. It was not to be expected that Miss Florence Vane would resist a chance like that.
But that was two years ago, and Resbie had got over it by this time. He had so far got over it that he felt a little ashamed to think that he had ever given a serious thought to the pretty, silly, frivolous, and slightly selfish Duchess of Dumblane. They were still very good friends, as they had been for years; and when the little lady needed a tonic in the shape of a good scolding, she never sought it in vain at the hands of Harold Resbie.
He was just back from Monte Carlo now, where he had been dallying with the plot of a new novel. For the third day in succession the Daily Flash squeezed a column out of the Dumblane mystery, as they called it. The Duchess would be certain to be very piquant and very dramatic on the situation, and Resbie had made up his mind to call on her. A little note from the lady in question, imploring him to come round, as she was in great trouble, decided Resbie's mind for him. He would drop into Grosvenor Gate about tea-time.
The drawing-rooms were deserted as Resbie arrived. The Duchess, charmingly arrayed in a pink, silky wrap, awaited him. She could do no more than press the hand of the novelist and sink into a chair with a sigh of deep resignation. Four footmen contrived with great exertion to set out the tea, after which they retired, with strict injunctions to the effect that the Duchess was not at home to anybody.
"What is the trouble about?" Resbie asked.
"My dear Harold, don't you read the papers?" the Dnchess asked reproachfully. "Surely you know all about that most agitating affair which—"
"Well, you have forgotten that by this time, surely? Your nervous system—"
"Don't talk about nerves. I am a perfect wreck. When I think of that awful night—"
"But you haven't lost anything," Resbie said. "And as for nerves, that is all nonsense, thanks to the outdoor life you lived at the old Vicarage. If you had lost your jewels, for instance—"
"My dear Harold, that is exactly what has taken place."
Resbie's manner changed—he became interested instead of cynical.
"I don't understand. Of course, I read all about that mysterious outrage here. But you told the police that not so much as a finger-ring was missing."
"So I did, Harold; but it was not true, all the same. A heap of stuff was left, but all the fine family diamonds were gone. I dared not say a word about it, because I knew that Dumblane would be furious. He gave me the keys of his safe, and he made me promise that whenever I wore the diamonds, I would see that they were locked up personally. But it seemed to be all right, and I was dreadfully late for my bridge-party the other night. So I just handed the diamonds to Helena and went off."
"How long has Helena been in your service?" asked Resbie.
"My dear Harold, how suspicious you are! Helena is an absolute treasure. Besides, she came to me with a splendid recommendation from the Marquise de Boishardy."
"The Marquise being suspected of cheating at cards," said Resbie tentatively. "Lots of West End tradesmen are wondering where the Marquise has gone. This Helena—"
"Harold, I would stake my reputation on the probity of Helena."
"Very well; we will not pursue the investigation in that direction. What do you want me to do?"
"Really, I don't know," the Duchess said falteringly. "I confided in you because you are a novelist and have a strange gift for solving the workings of the human mind. Look how you prophesied that I should marry the Duke, even when you and I were practically engaged! I want you to take this case in hand and see if you can make anything of it. Of course, it's a dead secret "
"Really! Now, how many of your bosom friends know the truth?"
The Duchess was forced to admit that she had confided her story to a select few, but not more than twelve altogether. Those bosom friends were deeply interested. Resbie wanted to know if that was as far as things had gone at present.
"Almost," the Duchess said, speaking with a certain hesitation. "I almost wish now that I had told the police everything. But that is not the strangest part of the affair. When I mentioned the matter to Irene Charteris, she advised me to go to one of those marvellous creatures who look into crystals and keep black page-boys."
"So they did in the days of Queen Anne," Resbie said sarcastically. "You were to go and see this woman with a view to getting your diamonds back. If we read of these things in books, we laugh. Sane men and women consulting a vulgar charlatan who—"
"But she isn't," the Duchess exclaimed. "She really is marvellous. Why, she sent me her card the very day of my loss. When I saw her the day before yesterday—"
"She told you that there had been telepathic sympathy between you, eh?"
"My dear Harold, how did you know that?" the Duchess cried.
Resbie felt inclined to abandon the case as hopeless. And yet cleverer people than her Grace had believed thoroughly in that senseless tomfoolery.
"In the course of my profession I have met some of these people," he said. "This woman saw a possible chance of making money out of you. She gazed into the crystal and told you that you would get your gems back if you followed a certain course. Did she arrange for a séance at the house of that very foolish Mrs. Charteris, for instance?"
"Harold, it was absolutely wonderful!" the Duche§s cried. "When I got that card, I had vague hopes that something would come of it. I told Irene Charteris everything. She said that there was nobody like Madame Lesterre. A séance was arranged for the same evening—there were about a dozen of us present, all my dearest friends. It was a long time before the spiritual influence came, but it did come at last. Madame Lesterre is a lovely woman."
"They always are," Harold said cynically. "Otherwise they would never make salt."
"I declare she was beautiful; her face was inspired. She said that she saw a certain box, fitted with jasper and gold, with initials in the enamel on the lid. At once I recognised that she was describing the Louis Seize writing-table in my boudoir. She said she could see a drawer in this thing filled with cotton wool, and on the cotton wool was a case of shabby leather. Inside this case there were things glittering like fire."
"Well?" Resbie asked, interested in spite of himself, "and what happened then?"
"Why, I came home. It was vague, but soothing. I opened that particular drawer in my writing-table, and there was the very case that Lesterre had seen in her vision. When I came to look inside it, I found the diamond collar with the clasp that Charles I. gave to the family."
"Do you mean to say it was the grand collar that everybody knows of?" Resbie cried.
"Absolutely the same, Harold. Imagine my delight, imagine how cheerfully I paid Madame Lesterre's fee of a hundred guineas. In some marvellous way she had identified the thief in the crystal, and her will power had compelled the return of that collar."
"Wasn't her will power equal to getting all the swag back?" Resbie asked with a touch of the usual cynicism.
"No; I put that to Madame Lesterre. We have had two more of the séances since, and each time there has been a substantial result. Of course, those hundred-guinea fees are very trying, especially as I am so hard up just now. Of course, too, the story is sure to leak out when I have got all the gems back, and it will be the making of Lesterre. The thing will be in all the Society papers, and then she'll be able to charge what she likes."
"The most amazing thing I ever heard of," Resbie murmured.
"Yes, isn't it? Only I wish that it didn't cost such a lot of money. We're going to have a séance here to-morrow night, and quite lot of people are coming. They are all pledged to secrecy, of course. I hope they will find the tiara then—I'm very anxious about the tiara."
Resbie opened his mouth as if to say something; then he seemed to think better of it. He switched off the conversation slightly.
"I hope you will let me be one of the party," he suggested. "It's just possible that I may find a way of solving this wonderful mystery. But my selfishness causes me to forget the human side of the story. How is your maid?"
"Helena? Oh, she is getting on very well indeed. The wounds are more or less superficial, and the girl has a wonderful fund of nervous energy. She laughs at her adventure already."
"It's just possible that she is laughing at something else besides that," Resbie said darkly. "Don't keep her tied up to the house too much."
"My dear Harold, she was out the very next day. I wanted her to have assistance for the time, but she positively declined. Helena is a very remarkable girl."
"So I should imagine. Now, I've got an idea about this thing. It is the kind of idea that would only occur to a novelist, and in itself it would make a pretty plot for a smart story. Whether my theory will be supported by facts remains to be seen. You say you have a séance here to-morrow night. I shall come, as you have asked me; but I am to have a free hand in the matter and ask what questions I like. Also I am to dine with you here beforehand at 7.30. I flatter myself that I shall have a startling surprise in store for you."
"Are you not going to tell me any more than that?" the Duchess asked.
"Not a word," Resbie said firmly. "I don't want to have the whole thing spoilt at the start. Give me another cup of tea and let us talk about something else."
It was an hour later that Resbie left Grosvenor Gate and made his way eastward. His first stopping-place was at the offices of a well-known firm of private detectives, and for a little time he was closeted with the head of the firm. He did not want much, he said—only two persons watched carefully for the next four-and-twenty hours. He must have a full report from the agent delivered in person at his chambers by seven o'clock the following evening.
"There will be no difficulty about that," the inquiry agent said. "Anything more, sir?"
"No, Yes, by Jove! there is I was nearly forgetting the most important thing. I want one of your ladies to call upon me about five to-morrow. She must have plenty of pluck and be ready for a dashing adventure which, however, will only last a few moments. She had better be in some kind of disguise. Can you manage that?"
The head of the firm was understood to say that he could manage anything of the kind, and that it was merely a matter of money. Resbie went away %ell satisfied with his plans, so far as they had gone. There was only one other thing to do.
"It's a pretty scheme," he told himself, "and worthy of the brain of any novelist. It's all theory on my part up to now, but I'm ready to bet any money that my theory is the correct one. A pretty plot, and the credulity of fools! But when you find level-headed business men and prominent journalists dabbling in this sort of thing, what can one expect from a mob of Society women whose brains are represented by the letter X. Hansom!"
Resbie drove away to Bond Street, where he stopped at length and asked for Madame Lesterre. Madame was in, and she was at present disengaged. Resbie passed into the sacred chamber, furnished as such rooms always are. He saw a tall, graceful woman, with a sweet, sad face and dark, pathetic eyes. The face was right enough, he thought, but the mouth was thin, and the lines of it both greedy and ambitious.
"You came here out of idle curiosity, Mr. Resbie," the woman said.
"That's perfectly true," Resbie said candidly, though be was a little moved by the swiftness of the woman's intuition. "And yet my curiosity is not idle. Fact is, I'm casting about for a plot for a new story; and as I was passing here, something came into my mind that may do. So I paid my two guineas at the door so that I could renew my acquaintance with this kind of atmosphere. I always find atmosphere is wonderfully stimulating to the imagination."
"Then yau do not believe in this kind of thing?" Lesterre asked. "The psychological—"
"I'm not quite certain that I believe in anything," Resbie laughed. "Let me smoke a cigarette here and have a chat for a few minutes whilst I get my atmosphere. Really, I feel as if I were going to get very good value for my two guineas."
Half an hour later, Resbie was back in his chambers again. He took a sheet of thick paper, and an envelope to match, and dictated a letter as follows to his secretary. There was no address to it, and no signature besides the initials—
Dear Madame Lesterre,—
I dare not sign my name, I dare not come and see you. I am in great distress. Will you help me? At nine o'clock to-morrow I shall be at the corner of Hilton Street, by the entrance to the Green Park. I hear you have a séance in Grosvenor Gate a little after that time. Will you ask your coachman to pull up at the spot I speak of, and I will tell you all I want to say through the window of your brougham. Don't fail; it is a matter of ten times your usual fee. Don't fail me. I.C.F.
"Post that. Miss Maynard, please," Resbie chuckled, "and say nothing about it. If you are a good girl, I'll tell you the original plot and its sequence, if all goes well."
What with police and pressmen and disinterested friends, the life of the Duchess was a burden to her. Also the excitement of the séances was getting on her nerves. She had a vague feeling that, piecemeal, she was going to recover the whole of her property; but, even then, the price she was paying for it was a high one. Also she was beginning to regret that she had taken certain friends into her confidence. She began to notice that people watched her suspiciously. A certain lady journalist had inserted a daring paragraph in a Society paper. To crown all, a leading official from Scotland Yard had inquired whether there were any truth in the persistent rumours that the stones had been stolen, after all.
Therefore it was that her Grace welcomed Harold Resbie to dinner with effusion. She declared herself to be utterly bored to death; she was nervous and uneasy. Resbie said something soothing. He looked very calm and confident as he came into the drawing-room.
"I'm sure some of those women have been talking," the Duchess said. "They all promised me most faithfully that they would not say anything to anybody. And yet people are actually hinting to me that for diplomatic reasons I am concealing the truth. A man who came from Scotland Yard to-day—"
"Oh, so they are getting hold of the truth also?" Resbie asked.
"It looks like it. Really, the number of falsehoods I have had to tell lately is enormous. And the daughter of a clergyman, too! If those people at Scotland Yard force me any further, I shall be really ill."
There was no exaggeration here, as the novelist conld see. The Duchess of Dumblane looked anxious and worried; there were dark rings under her blue eyes.
"You ought never to have kept the truth from Scotland Yard," Resbie said. "I have no doubt, had you wished it, they would have allowed the public to think that nothing was lost. As it is, you call them in to help you, and then you deliberately put them off the scent."
"I don't see what difference that could make," said the innocent Duchess.
"Why, it makes every difference, of course. It removes motive, for one thing; and it prevents the Yard people from looking for a confederate in the house. You may say what you like about your servants and their blameless integrity, but there was a confederate in the house.
"Now, I have taken this thing in my hands, and I am going to work it my own way. Unless I am greatly mistaken, I shall have the pleasure of handing all your jewels back to you in the course of the evening; but I must do it my own way, or not at all. In the first instance, it is imperative that I should have a few words with your maid. Send her into your boudoir presently for something or another, and I will follow. I came half an hour before my time for this purpose. There is no time to lose."
Resbie spoke sharply and sternly and in the voice of one who expects to be obeyed. A little later he strolled into the boudoir, where a pretty, dark girl with a vivacious face appeared to be looking for something. Resbie quietly closed the door behind him. There was not very much conversation, but it was mainly on the side of the novelist. All the same, the second gong for dinner rang before Resbie returned to the drawing-room.
"I was beginning to get quite alarmed," the Duchess said. "I do hope you have not upset Helena. She is by far the best maid that I ever had. If she gives me notice—"
"Oh, but she won't," Resbie said cheerfully. "One thing I can promise you with every confidence—if there is any notice given, it will come from you. Cheer up, your troubles are nearly over; you will sleep with an easy mind to-night. And now let us go into dinner. I shall not refer to the subject again."
It was an exquisite little dinner, and Resbie enjoyed it thoroughly in his critical way. He looked upon a good dinner as a distinct addition to the joys of life. The wines were poems in their way, and the subsequent cigarette had a flavour of its own. Resbie looked at his watch presently.
"We have been exactly an hour and a half over dinner," he said.
"Have you found it too long?" the Duchess laughed. "Personally, I look upon the time seated over dinner as so much hideous waste. All this fussy cooking is lost on me. I should like to go back to the soup and locally killed chicken of the dear old Vicarage days."
"No woman can dine," Resbie said thoughtfully. "It is an art that she never acquires. A bun and a glass of claret is what I saw a Princess dine off in Paris. What time do your people come?"
The Duchess remarked that the séance was fixed for a quarter to ten. She had asked some dozen of her bosom friends to see the manifestations. She was getting very restless and nervous again, as Resbie noticed from behind the pungent blue haze of his cigarette-smoke. She wished that the whole thing were over.
"Have half a glass of champagne," he said soothingly. "As you are never used to it, the wine will do you all the good in the world. I am glad to see that you keep your simple tastes. Drink that up and trust in me. I am not going to disappoint you."
The Duchess and her visitor had barely reached the drawing-room before some of the guests began to arrive. They were a smart, level-looking lot, as Resbie was bound to confess, so that their credulity over the powers of Madame Lesterre was all the more amazing. There are many remarkable things in the olla podrida called Society, but nothing more amazing than the belief in the charlatan who looks into crystals and foretells the future.
Resbie sternly repressed a desire to laugh at the whole thing, but he was not slow to see that the policy would be a mistaken one. The conversation turned on the occult. Madame Lesterre was a great favourite; but, on the other hand, there was a new star, in the shape of a mulatto, who was doing remarkable things. The atmosphere was false and meretricious, and Resbie began to long for a little fresh air.
Yet, on the face of it, Madame Lesterre had performed a wonderful thing. When the story became public, as it was bound to do, her fortune would be made; in future, she could always charge pretty well anything for a consultation.
Madame Lesterre was announced, and the audience fluttered respectfully to greet her. The dark face was a little pale, her eyes expressed both fear and indignation. She suffered herself to be led to a chair and surrounded by her admiring disciples.
"Your work has been too much for you to-day, Madame?" the Duchess said.
"My dear child, it is not that," Lesterre said, with a languid, insolent familiarity that roused Resbie to anger. If the woman had her deserts, she had been behind stone walls. "My friends, I have to-night been submitted to a most insufferable outrage. I received a note purporting to come from a client of mine who was in great trouble. I was to stop my brougham on my way here—give her a secret audience. I did so, and a woman in a veil looked into the window. Instantly she passed some pungent stuff on a handkerchief to my face, and I fainted. I could not call out, though I never quite lost my senses. I have a vague recollection of being searched, but fortunately for me I had left even my purse at home. Ornaments I never wear, as you good friends of mine are aware. Then the thief made off and was out of sight before I could recover my voice again. There is an experience for you!"
"You will place the matter in the hands of the police?" somebody suggested.
"No, I shall let it pass. The police say my methods are not legitimate, just as if I were a mere fortune-teller! We shall have the manifestations in here."
"Why not in the library?" said Resbie. "It is more spacious and more sympathetic."
Resbie's voice was low and level, so that nobody noticed the curious intonation of it except Madame Lesterre, who turned and looked at him sharply. Then she smiled, as one who recollects the face of a pleasant acquaintance. Resbie repeated his suggestion again.
"The library is certainly a more comfortable room," the Duchess said. "The dark doors have—"
"No, no!" Madame Lesterre cried. "In here, if you please! When I entered the house, I had no prejudices. But my temperament is a singular one and open to all kinds of passing influence. When I entered this room, I was in a state of nervous indignation. I was going to suggest that the manifestation be postponed to a future occasion. Then the charm of the room came over me, and my spirit was at rest. I feel that I am going to do great things to-night."
Resbie said no more. He had gained his point, though the others did not know it. He stood in the background, as if he took no further interest in the proceedings. Madame produced her crystal from her pocket and placed it on a little table. After that, in a deep, impressive voice she asked to have the door locked. Not only did Resbie lock the door, but he took the key from the lock and placed it in his pocket.
The lights were turned low, the manifestations had begun. For a long time the gazer looked into the glassy ball with a rapt attention. Her lips began to move, but no sound came from them; she grew rigid and stiff, she did not seem to breathe.
"I see something misty," the words came at length. "I see a soldier, a great General, dressed in the fashion of a bygone day. I see Eastern palaces and the hurry of fight. I see men fall; then I see the soldier with a magnificent diamond cross in his hand. It is set in gold snakes."
"Isn't it marvellous?" the Duchess whispered half-hysterically. "That is the Grand Cross that Lord George found at Delhi. Madame has never seen it, yet she describes it perfectly. She speaks again."
The march was going on. She told what she could see. She saw the cross suspended in mid-air; she saw it fall to the ground, and there it was picked up by invisible hands and conveyed to a black vase with gold figures upon it. Behind the vase was a picture of a child asleep.
"The Ming Cup," the Duchess cried. "The Ming Cup, in the far corner yonder, with the picture by Rubens behind it. Mr. Resbie, will you see what is in the cup? I am too nervous to look. It is possible that the missing Cross—"
The Duchess paused, unable to proceed any further. In a solemn, tense silence, Resbie crossed the room and lifted the cover from the priceless Ming Cup. He plunged his hand down until it touched some hard, brilliant surface. As he raised his hand again, and the electrics flashed up, a stream of fire, cross-shaped, struck the eyes of everybody.
"It is the Cross surely enough," Resbie said quietly. He was the only one there who seemed to have kept his head. "Madame has been wonderfully successful. I suppose this is the marvellous gem that I have heard so much about. Pray do another one."
But Madame Lesterre, half-fainting in a chair now, declined gently. The mental strain was too great; her poor frame could not stand two of these activities in one evening. Perhaps later on in the week, when she had recovered from the strain—"
Resbie turned away and looked into the crystal. His gaze grew grim and intent. He began to mutter. Madame Lesterre turned to him with an indulgent smile.
"Mr. Resbie is feeling the influence," she said. "The highly strung brain of the novelist will ever be a good one for the telepathic attraction. Do you see anything?"
"I see many things," Resbie said. "For instance, I see a plant, a very pretty plant indeed—"
"Eh, what?" Madame said sharply. "Do you mean to suggest that? But go on, go on."
"A plant," Resbie proceeded. "It grows rapidly and gives off seeds. One of these seeds bursts and turns into a bowl. It is like the great bowl with the Rose du Barri cover over there, on the top of the Chippendale cabinet. I dare not break the spell by going to look myself. But will somebody take off the cover and see what is inside? Unless I am greatly mistaken, it will be found to contain the Duchess's diamond tiara."
Madame Lesterre had grown strangely still and white. One of the elect crossed the room and took something from the bowl. It gleamed and glittered as it found the light. There was no question what it was, as the Duchess's delighted scream testified.
"I am getting on," Resbie said. "For a mere amateur, I am doing very well indeed. We need not go into details over the rest of the seeds, but keep strictly to business. Over there on the chimney-piece is an antique enamelled tea-caddy. If you will look inside there, somebody will find the necklace of pearls... Is that really so? Now please try that ginger-jar on the little pedestal... So that contains a breastplate of diamonds. As I am in form, and the strain not too much for me, I had better finish my innings. Try that Sheraton cabinet, under the big palm. Thank you... There, I fancy that is the lot. Really, I did not know that my powers were so wonderfully great."
Nobody spoke for a long time; they were all too surprised. But on a table before the Duchess stood the whole of the missing property. Madame Lesterre had risen to her feet and was looking defiantly towards the door. One or two of the sharper guests were beginning to get a grip of the truth. Then Madame turned and held the handle of the door. She was not well—she must get home. Without saying farewell to anybody, she waited till the door was opened and Resbie was escorting her down the stairs.
"I will see you off the premises," he said. "A wonderful manifestation, yours. It is a pity that you have made up your mind to leave England. I don't think I was misinformed when I heard that you were leaving for Paris to-morrow, with no intention of coming back to—er—practise here?"
Madame accepted her defeat gracefully enough, and Resbie returned to the drawing-room. He sat down under a perfect stream of cross-questions. He proceeded to explain when the babel ceased.
"It was quite an easy matter," he said. "When the Duchess told me, I regarded this as a put-up job between the maid Helena and somebody outside. When I saw the maid and recognised the fact that she was not in the least hurt, I felt certain of it. All that blood, etc., belonged to somebody else. I found the motive when I heard of that first manifestation. The whole thing had been schemed by Madame Lesterre, to give herself a unique advertisement. I worked the thing out like a story. The first thing I did was to set a watch on the maid Helena. I was not in the least surprised to find that she was in the habit of visiting Madame, nor was I surprised to find that Madame is her sister.
"Then I was certain of my put-up job. Robbery was not the motive; a marvellous new advertisement was. Helena had only to arrange where to hide the different gems, and there you are. That is what the novelist found out. Gradually the gems would be discovered, and Madame would stand on a higher pinnacle than she had ever done before. To make sure, I had her searched to-night. I did not care to take any risks. When I came here to-night, I took the liberty of seeing Helena and asking her a few questions. She confirmed it all; she told me how the thing was planned for to-night. So I decided to have my little surprise too. I got all the jewels from Helena and gave her instructions where to hide them in this room. No, I was not afraid of her going back upon me, for I took care to tell her, which is a fact, that I had a detective waiting outside the house in case there was any treachery. I worked my little surprise, and you thought it was Madame Lesterre. Like the shrewd woman she is, she gave in at once. I am afraid that none of you ladies will ever see her again, as she departs for Paris to-morrow, with no intention of returning to England."
The wind howled in the chimney so that the sparks from the wood fire raced upwards like millions of stars to meet the fury of the night. Then the gale was lulled for a moment, a strange white silence followed, and once again the rush of snowflakes on the windows.
Hetty Dane drew closer to the fire and shivered slightly. She could find it in her heart to wish that all the girls were back at school now, though term time was by no means a primrose path for her. Yet it was so lonely in the great gaunt house that she would even have welcomed Miss Adela and Julia Grimshaw back to their own fireside again. But those austere ladies were not likely to return just yet. Indeed, so far as Hetty could see, their homecoming was likely to be postponed for some days, seeing that the snow had been falling steadily for twenty-four hours now; and there was a prospect before Hetty of passing an exceedingly solitary Christmas. The Misses Grimshaw had departed leaving many rigid instructions behind them. They had intimated to Hetty that, if the weather did not become more propitious, they would probably stay in Castleford and pass Christmas with a brother who lived there.
Well, they would not return. Hetty had made up her mind on that point. As to the solitary Christmas, she cared little or nothing. There had been no festive season so far as she was concerned for some years past. Still, it was just a little unfortunate that the one servant remaining in the house should have sprained her ankle, and thus necessitated a stay in bed. Hetty would have to do all the work, but that she would not mind. She stood there before the fire, dreaming and wondering how many Christmases the old house had seen. It was a grand old place in its way, and at one time had been in the possession of an old county family, whose name was still remembered in the North. Doubtless, in times gone by, many a Yule log had blazed itself away upon that massive hearth, many a time had King Christmas held high revel there. Now it was all prim and bare, as befitted a ladies' school, cold and polished as the hearts of the two women who governed that select establishment.
For some time Hetty stood there, until at length she became conscious of the fact that someone was knocking at the front door. It was a somewhat feeble knock, only half heard above the fury of the gale: and, just for a moment, it occurred to Hetty that she was mistaken. Then the knock came again, followed by a groan. Scared and startled, Hetty hastily crossed the hall, and threw the door open. Had not she done this, had she given herself time to hesitate, she would probably have been afraid to do anything of the kind. She forgot all her fears now, as she saw the figure of a man on his hands and knees in the deep snow which had collected on the doorstep. A furious blast of wind set the old house humming, and a fine powder of snow drifted across the polished boards. With sudden strength that quite astonished herself, Hetty dragged the man inside, and pushed the door to again. She had to fight against the strength of the gale before she succeeded. When she turned her attention towards the newcomer, she did not fail to notice how dreadfully pale and drawn his features were. There was an ugly cut on the forehead from which the blood was flowing freely.
"You are badly hurt," Hetty said. "Sit down here, will you?"
She pushed an armchair up to the fire, and the stranger literally fell into it, without uttering a word. He appeared to be absolutely dazed and overcome; for some moments it was evident that he had not the slightest idea where he was. Then, gradually, as the grateful heat of the fire restored him of something like life again, he turned to Hetty and smiled. It was a pleasant, frank smile, which gave an attractive expression to a countenance which was not exactly handsome, yet pleasing.
"I am afraid I am giving you a lot of trouble," he said. "The fact is, I was going on to Castleford for tomorrow, and our train got snowed up in a cutting. There was a bit of an accident, and that was how I came to be hurt. I believe nobody was damaged but myself, so that when the guard came and told us we could get no further, everybody turned out of the train and went off to find accommodation in the village. I suppose I was a bit too much knocked about to keep up with the rest. Any way, I lost touch with them, and when the last breath of the blizzard came on I might have been miles away from help for all I knew to the contrary. I saw your light here, and, more by good luck than anything else, I managed to reach the house. I am sorry to trouble you."
"It is no trouble at all," Hetty said. "If you will sit here by the fire I will get some warm water to bathe your head. I daresay we can manage to make you comfortable for the night, but haven't you a bag or a portmanteau or something of that kind?"
The stranger replied that he fancied he must have left it on the doorstep. And, sure enough, there it was when Hetty opened the door again. Before half-an-hour had passed her visitor was quite himself again. He seemed to have a wonderful faculty for obtaining information without asking questions, and before Hetty realised that she had told him anything, he knew all about the Misses Grimshaw, to say nothing of the unfortunate servant, and her sprained ankle. In a calm, assured sort of way, he took the situation in his own hands. He might have been master of the house.
"This is a terrible dilemma," he said, with a smile. "It is my plain duty to take myself off at once, but I am not in the least inclined to do anything of the sort. I daresay I shall be able to find some sort of conveyance to-morrow. If you will be good enough to let me have two or three rugs I can make myself quite comfortable before the fire."
Hetty rather demurred to this, but George Barton was quite firm. He would keep up the fire, he said, so that Hetty would not have to light it on the following morning. When she did come down next day, something in the way of a surprise greeted her. There was a roaring fire in the hall, another had been made up in the dining-room, and the kettle was boiling gaily, in the kitchen. Moreover, the breakfast things were laid, and on the old-fashioned hob by the dining-room fire stood a dish of fresh eggs and bacon, flanked by a pile of steaming buttered toast. With a gay smile Barton pointed to his handiwork.
"I hope you don't mind," he said. "Of course, I know it is rather a liberty, but when I woke up this morning the fire was out and I was literally frozen. Then I thought of you and your damaged servant, and well, really, there was nothing else for it."
Hetty laughed aloud, such a laugh as the old house had not heard for years. It never occurred to her that her companion was looking at her with frank admiration in his blue eyes. George Barton was enjoying the situation.
"I daresay you wonder how I managed it," he said. "But, you see, I am used to this kind of thing. I have been a solitary man all my life, and for the last four or five years it has been a whim of mine to live in a tiny cottage, not far out of London, where I do everything myself. I do all my own housework and all my own cooking, though I daresay you would not approve of some of my methods. At any rate, this is done now, and I sincerely hope you will not think I have been taking a liberty."
"Indeed, no," Hetty cried, warmly. "I think it is exceedingly kind and thoughtful. But don't you think—"
"It is a pity to let the breakfast get cold," Barton laughed. "Afterwards I can go and prospect round and see if I can find some avenue to the village."
Barton came back presently with a sufficiently grave face and information to the effect that the snow round the house had drifted to a height of ten or fifteen feet, and that any attempt to get away was absolutely impossible.
"I am really afraid you will have to put up with me for a day or two," Barton said. "Of course it is very unpleasant for you."
Hetty replied suitably enough, and so the day wore on. It was cold and clear outside, a severe frost having followed the snow. Strange, as the situation was, it was still stranger how quickly Hetty fell in with the new order of things. Before evening fell she seemed to have known Barton all her life. She could hardly bring herself to believe that he was the cold, reserved man he professed to be. And then, gradually, she told him the story of her life, how both her parents had died when she was young, and how she had drifted into her present surroundings.
To all of this Barton listened with a quiet interest and sympathy, which Hetty felt to be very soothing. She was surprised at her own candour; she had no idea that she could talk so well and freely. And, on the other hand, she learnt a great deal about Barton, too. He chatted quite openly as they sat by the blazing fireside.
"There really is a great affinity between us," he said. "'Is it not strange that two solitary people like ourselves should drift together in this way? To think that we should be sitting opposite each other like this, chattering just as if we had known one another for years. Don't you think this would make a very excellent short story?"
"Do you know I have been thinking of that?" Hetty confessed. "I don't mind telling you that I am very fond of writing stories in my spare time. How glorious it would be to get a living that way and be independent of the Grimshaws for ever."
Hetty's face was grave and thoughtful as she gazed into the fire. Barton watched the pretty profile admiringly. Hetty was all unconscious of his glance; her thoughts were very far away just then.
"Unfortunately, many people have the same ambition," Barton said. "It is such a pleasant way of getting a living, and it looks so easy. I suppose your experience has been much the same as other people's?"
"I suppose so," Hetty laughed. "Every story but one I have ever written has been rejected, and then the other day I read somewhere that the best thing to do is to write from one's own experience. And I did write a story from my own experience, and sent it to the editor of the 'Imperial Magazine.' I am sure it is the best thing I ever did, and I have great hopes of it; though, as yet, I have heard nothing from the editor I sent it to."
"You wrote from your heart?" Barton asked.
Hetty's face flushed slightly, but the eyes which she turned on her companion were quite calm and steadfast.
"Yes," she said. "I put it all on paper. At first I was ashamed to say too much, but then, gradually, it became so easy and spontaneous that I knew I had done something good. Oh, if the story were only a success! Oh, if I could only get away from here, and the hard and narrow life! Those women mean well, but they are so cold and unsympathetic. You cannot conceive what a difficult matter it would be for me to explain—Oh! I don't mean that."
"I know exactly what you mean," Barton said. "You mean that my being in the house would place you in a cruel position. Believe me. I have thought of that, and I will set you straight. I would have gone away if I could, but you must see for yourself that such a thing is utterly impossible."
Hetty's face flushed crimson. She was too loyal and kindhearted to have uttered her own thoughts. She was vexed to find that Barton could so easily put them into words.
"I think I understand you better than you understand yourself," he said. "Do you suppose I don't know what an effort all this has cost you? Oh, dear, yes. And I shall never forget all your kindness to me. As yet I cannot realise it. I never expected to be talking freely and openly like this with anybody, least of all a woman. But I am allowing my sentiment to get the better of my common-sense. To-morrow I really must make another effort to get away from here. It will be a strange sort of Christmas Day, but, then, during the past ten or fifteen years, the festival has conveyed nothing to me. I only felt a little more remote and lonely than usual. And now let us be practical. Have you enough food in the house to carry us over another day?"
"Oh, you need not be afraid about that," Hetty, laughed. "I think we shall be able to manage. I won't vouch for the turkey or the mince pies but apart from those dainties I think we shall get on very well, only you must be careful with the butter."
"I will bear your warning in mind," said Barton gravely. "I am too extravagant with the toast. But, then, what can you expect from a mere average man like myself?"
Barton stood in the open air drinking in the beauty of the morning and the brilliancy of the sunshine. The world still lay under its white covering, but the hard frost had rendered the snow crisp and firm now, so that it was an easy matter to walk upon it without danger of going through the icy covering. Here was the avenue of escape for which Barton had been wishing. But now it had come he felt strangely reluctant to make the most of his opportunity. He ought to go away—that he knew perfectly well. It was his plain duty to do so. Instead of that, he made his way down to the village, where he found his fellow-travellers ensconced in a comfortable inn of more than average pretensions. When he returned to the schoolhouse again he was so laden with good things that Hetty opened her eyes in astonishment.
"I am going to be perfectly frank with you," Barton said. "The frost has rendered it quite an easy matter for me to get into the village. I believe that before the morning is over the line will be clear as far as Castleford. I ought to thank you heartily for all your kindness to me, and to say goodbye. As a matter of fact, I can't do anything of the sort. I feel longing to have one congenial Christmas again, and I was going to ask you to let me pass the day here. See, I have brought all these good things so that we may enjoy ourselves. Don't you think, Miss Dane, that as we have gone so far, we might just as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb?"
"It is all very, very wrong," Hetty murmured. "But, after all, it is good to find that one is still human. We will have a merry Christmas, and you shall stay with me, and help me to cook the dinner. What the Misses Grimshaw will say when they know, I tremble to think. The thought of them makes the situation piquant."
The day crept slowly on, and teatime was past and the lamps lighted. Barton had quite made up his mind what to do. He would stay till the evening was well advanced then he would take his bag and go down to the village inn, where he would stay till the morning. The one romance of his life was drawing to a close now, and the nearer he came to the last page the less he was inclined to close the volume. A quiet, blissful silence had fallen on the two as they sat over the fireside in the dining-room tracing pictures in the glowing coals. Barton stood up at length, and faced his companion. He regarded her flushed face and fair hair admiringly. She seemed to be so different from the quiet, demure little creature who had admitted him into the house not so very long ago. There was a dainty beauty about the girl now, born perhaps, of her unexpected happiness and the companionship of a congenial soul.
"Our little story is nearly at an end now," Barton said. "Another hour, and I must be gone. You have told me a good deal about yourself, but I have said little as regards my own life. Now let me make a confession to you. It was an accident that brought me here the other night, but the accident in question only anticipated events. I fully intended to call here this Christmas, and I should have done so in any case."
"But why?" Hetty cried. "Do you know anybody here?"
"I was born here," Barton said, quietly. "Time was when my family were people of position about here, but those days have gone for ever. My father was a hard-living, soured man, married to a woman who cared little or nothing for him. In fact, she had expected to wed money, and that was the source of all the trouble. There were three of us, two brothers and myself. My brothers were reckless sportsmen like my father; on the contrary, I cared for none of these things. I was too fond of dreaming and reading, so that gradually I became neglected and deserted, and at times was most cruelly used. I grew up to be solitary and secretive, and yet heaven knows there was never a man who had a more tender heart for the troubles of others. When the time came for me to leave home, I went away without one good-bye, and they were only too glad to get rid of me. Then the end came suddenly. My two brothers were drowned at sea, and my father broke his neck in the hunting-field. I came down here to see my mother, but she refused to have anything to do with me. Shortly before she died she sent me a letter, which I have kept ever since. It was no letter of forgiveness; it was a cold, hard, communication, telling me where I should find all that remained of the family property. Curiously enough, that letter never came into my possession until the other day. I will show it you in a minute or two."
"Yours is a sad story," Hetty murmured.
"A tragedy," Barton replied. "But, thank Heaven, it is not yet too late to avert it. I managed to live some way or another. I worked very hard at my writing until I obtained recognition, and finally I got the offer of an editorship, which meant a good, steady income for me, so that now I am practically beyond the reach of poverty. I never had any friends and no inclination to spend money, so that I am in a position—But we will come to that presently."
"But that is not exactly what I am here for. I have been bound to dwell, to a certain extent, upon my solitude and loneliness, so that you should the more fully understand what is coming. A short time ago, out of the dreary rubbish that reaches me in shoals, I picked out a little story, which was a gem in its way. My experience told me at once that the writer was a woman, and that she was writing from her own heart. I pictured her sweet and sympathetic, daintily pretty and loving, and yet surrounded by jealous and sordid natures, which were gradually squeezing from her the light and colour that makes life worth living. I read that story again and again. I took it down to my solitary house and read it once more. Of course, there were faults in the story, but it was the sheer humanness of it that touched me. I did not write to the author: I made up my mind that when this Christmas came, and things were slack, I would go down and see her. It was rather an effort for a shy man like myself, but I am glad now that I made it, glad now that circumstance gave me an opportunity of appearing as my natural self and not as the artificial creature which Fate has made me."
Hetty sat listening, her face half-shaded by her hand, but this did not altogether hide the brilliant tint on her features or the misty look in her eyes.
"I think, I understand," she murmured. "There is no occasion for me to ask if you are the editor of the 'Imperial.'"
"You have guessed correctly," Barton went on. "I am the editor of the magazine in question, and you are the author of the short story that touched me so deeply. As I said before; I was coming down to see you, and I blundered upon you quite by accident. Very likely I should never have looked at that story at all, if I had not discovered from your notepaper that it came from the house where I was born. Otherwise, I might have handed it over to my assistant, whose sympathies do not at all lie with the sentimental type of narrative. What small things turn the current of our lives, and cause the stream to flow in another direction! But I am glad I came; how glad I am I cannot tell you."
Hetty looked up steadily: the delicate pink flush was still on her cheeks. But her eyes were true and steadfast.
"And I am, glad you came too," she said. "'Mr. Barton, I—I really hope you are not disappointed."
"Disappointed?" Barton cried. "It has been the pleasantest time of my life. Thoughtless people call these things coincidences, but there is a deeper significance in our meeting than that. I am going to publish your story, and I am going to pay you for it, though no money could buy the pleasure you have given me. No doubt you will write many other stories in my magazine and elsewhere."
"Do you think that I have the gift?" Hetty asked.
"That is one of your gifts," Barton said. "But you have others infinitely more precious; and now let me read my mother's letter, in which she tells me where to find all that remains of the family property..... You see, it is a cold, unfeeling letter, but that may pass for the present. And now to open the treasure-house."
Barton crossed the room and placed his hand upon the centre of one of the oak panels, and a moment later a little cavity stood revealed. In a matter of fact kind of way, he produced three or four shabby looking cases, which he opened and laid upon the table. Hetty gave a little cry of delight, for here were diamonds and sapphires and a beautiful pearl collar the like of which she had never seen before. Her slender fingers played with the gems, whilst Barton watched her as if the picture were pleasing to his eye.
"Put them on," he commanded. "I want to see how they look on you. Please don't hesitate."
Hetty smiled as a she clasped the collar about her neck and placed the stars in her fair hair. It was, indeed, a sweet and tempting vision that turned demurely to Barton.
"They are lovely," she said. "Once you have made me put them on I shall be sorry to part with them again."
Barton took the two hands in his and held them firmly. There was something about the action that the girl could not resent.
"Then why not keep them?" he said. "They are of no use to me; they never will be. You may say that you cannot accept a gift like that; but does it not strike you that there may be a way whereby your scruples can be overcome? Hetty, do you suppose that we came together by mere accident? Do you believe that it was nothing but sheer chance that sent your story to me? We are both lonely, we are both without friends in the world. You hate your life here the same as I loathe my own solitary existence. In the last few hours I have seen more of you than in ordinary circumstances I should have done in a month. I will not ask you to say yet that you care for me, but there will never be another girl in the world but yourself so far as I am concerned. Let us try the future together, and let your Christmas guest be more than a passing acquaintance. But you are silent: I have frightened you—"
"Indeed, no," Hetty murmured. "I am a little dazed, a little confused in my mind, and yet my heart tells me that you are pointing the way to happiness, to the new life which up to now I have only dreamt of. I have no doubt in time—"
"That is enough," Barton cried. "At least, it is enough for the present. Let me kiss you now and leave you, for it is time that I was gone. But in a few days—"
He stopped abruptly, then he bent down and kissed the girl upon the lips. When she turned again he was gone, and the door had closed softly behind him. But Hetty's heart was glad as she thought of the future and the many glorious morrows that lay before her.
IT was a bitter pill to swallow; still, there was grim satisfaction in the fact that the garrison had been a thorn in the side of Cromwell for three years past. But Basing House had fallen at last, and the great general had engineered the attack in person. The noise and roar of the fight had not yet died away, the chill October air rang to the clash of steel and the bursting of petronels, here and there the conflict spurted up again like a fire that is unquenched.
The rooms of the big house reeked with the smell of powder, on the walls the tread of heavy feet thundered, beyond in the darkness of the courtyard lay a huddled heap of the garrison. Cromwell had been in the thick of the fight a while ago, and now he was no more to be seen. Not that it mattered much, seeing that the house was won and the long siege ended. There was a high wind outside, and the hangings of the walls bellied fiercely to the draught. A woman came scudding across the great hall and ran into the refectory to the right. Colonel Barker's brows knitted as he noticed her beauty and the richness of her dress.
"This is no place for you," he said sourly. "You should have gotten away with the rest. Unless it may happen that you are a spy." "I am no spy," the woman said. "I am looking for my husband. If he is here--"
The girl—for she was little more—came to an abrupt pause, as if fearful that she was saying too much. She seemed to be timid and in great distress, though there was a suggestion of firmness in the little mouth, and the big, blue eyes did not lack courage.
"Who are you that comes here in a case like this?" Harker demanded.
"I am Sybil Harcombe, at your service, sir," the girl replied—"wife of Sir Walter Harcombe, who lies either dead or seriously wounded here. I came--"
"You came over here from Harcombe in the thick of the fight!" Harker exclaimed with uplifted eyebrows. "True 'tis that these children of evil do not lack courage. I must tell my Lord General of this. It may be no secret to you, madam, that Cromwell is anxious to meet your husband—a traitor like that."
"My husband is no traitor," Lady Harcombe replied hotly. "He came amongst you with his life in his hands to learn your plans. That he tricked and fooled your master I hold to be greatly to his credit. Do you call your creature Claypole a traitor? And yet he came into the garrison with the foul intent of betraying the house, as he has done."
"Claypole's service was rendered to the Lord," Harker said with a certain sour enthusiasm. "Your man serves the Host of Darkness. If he is here--"
Harker tapped the hilt of his sword significantly. Sybil Harcombe did not need to be told what would be the fate of her husband if he fell alive into the hands of the Roundheads. It was sufficient that he had weaned himself into the confidence of the Protector and gained more than one valuable secret. It was the kind of thing that Cromwell did not forget nor forgive.
And there was a new savour in the successful siege in the fact that Walter Harcombe was behind the walls of Basing House. A fresh blast of wind shook the arras again, a sound of strife burst forth, a man cut and bleeding staggered into the room. There was a sally of the garrison, a last despairing effort in the courtyard, he said. With something on his lips that would have passed for an oath from a Cavalier, Harker hurried away. The heavy door banged sullenly behind him, but still the arras stirred. Then a slim hand with rings upon it pushed the heavy stuff aside, and a voice whispered the name of Sybil. She crossed the floor as quickly as a fawn.
"Walter!" she whispered. "Walter! Surely God is very good to me to-night."
"My faith! but that is open to doubt, dearest," the man huddled on the floor behind the arras groaned. "Here am I with my sword-arm broken and a hole in my leg as big as a Roundhead's hypocrisy. I managed to crawl here with all the fight gone out of me, and old Noll standing there not ten yards away, looking as if he's lost his self-respect and found his true value. If he had only known!"
Sybil Harcombe shivered as she bent down and kissed the speaker. The spirit and flush of conflict had not yet quite died away, the clash of steel could be heard, and the sounds of musketry-firing. The sounds moved as the fugitives were chased from one part of the house to another. When order was restored, doubtless a careful search would be made, and the fate of Walter Harcombe was as good as sealed.
And yet there was a smile on his face, and naught of fear in those dark, insolent eyes of his.
"Cromwell will be back again," Sybil whispered. "'Tis said that he had raised the siege two days ago and pressed north, where he and his Ironsides are badly wanted, but for it that you were within the walls. Though why he has so fierce a hatred of you—"
"Because I know too much, sweetheart," Harcombe smiled. "There were private papers I became possessed of—the story of an early youth, none too well spent. Ecod, mistress, that man is at heart still one of us! Is he not the grandson of old Sir Harry Cromwell, of Hinchinbrook, who was the very pink of what a good Cavalier should be? Did not my father hide Noll himself at Harcombe Place what time--"
"Hush!" Sybil whispered. "We are burning the golden moments. They know not how I came here, they know nothing of the passage from here to Harcombe Place. Lie there till I see that the coast is clear. There is no time to be lost."
Sybil sped away, as if eagerly and piteously looking for some dead friend. The last embers of the fight had been stamped out under the heels of the Ironsides, the guard had been set in the big courtyard. Colonel Harker and the rest were making a hasty meal in the hall. Sybil came back presently with her finger to his lips.
"Come on," she said. "With the blessing of Providence, we shall reach the staircase. Lean on me, dear husband. Courage! You are worse hit than I thought for. But once at Harcombe Place, and you shall have all the attention possible—"
They crawled painfully across the hall and up the flagged staircase. Sybil had snatched off her husband's wig and wrapped him in a cloak that she had taken from a Parliamentary soldier, who had no need of such things in future. These were stern, hard times, and the girl's fingers did not so much as tremble. A big Puritan stood at the top of the stairs, with his petronel in the hollow of his arm. He would have challenged the couple as they came near, only Sybil signed for him to let them pass. Before the fellow could make parley. Sir Walter had tripped him neatly, so that he came clattering headlong down the stairs, and lay yelling and moaning there as if the Father of Lies were after him.
"Now quick!" Sybil cried. "You must make an effort, dear heart. Lean on me; let me bear the whole weight of your body. God be praised, we are here at last!"
With a desperate strength Sybil dragged Sir Walter into a little closet and closed the door behind. She was trembling and wet with her exertions. She fumbled along the wall till her hand touched an iron knob, and on this she pressed, with the result that the stone wall swung round, and a long, dark tunnel stood like the throat of a wolf. As the wall fell back again, there came yells and cries from the staircase. But the danger was past, and Sybil stood trembling in the velvet folds of the darkness, crying now like a very woman. Harcombe's uninjured arm was about her, and she was weeping on his shoulder.
"Come, mistress," he said, "do not give way yet. You are as brave as you are beautiful, and no man can say more than that. The danger is done."
"I am not so sure of that," Sybil said as she pressed forward. "Cromwell used to come here in the brave days—aye, and to Harcombe Place in your grandfather's time, too. Maybe he, too, had heard of the secret passage."
"Maybe," Harcombe said grimly. "But there is another secret at Harcombe Place that is known only to you and I and one other. If Noll comes there, you will know how to act."
"Aye, I shall know how to act," Sybil said with a certain fierce indrawing of her breath. "Whatever happens to me, you shall be saved, because the King has need of you. The knowledge that you possess may crown the King's troops with victory yet. It was a cruel, hard fate that shut you up in Basing House so long. If you had thought of the--"
"Dear heart of mine, I did think of it. But there were traitors in the house. I was watched night and day. And if those traitors had known, they had killed me treacherously and filled the house with Ironsides from Harcombe Place by means of the passage. I tried it once, but the danger was too great."
In the darkness the passage seemed to be interminably long, but the end came at length. Sybil had studied the place till she was as much at home in the pitchy darkness as she had been in broad daylight. Her slim fingers found the spring, a panel slid away, and a dazzling shaft of light came pouring into the tunnel from the hall at Harcombe Place. The old house, with its deep moat—the old house, part of which was below the bottom of the moat—seemed strangely, painfully silent after the turmoil of Basing. Harcombe could still hear the hum of conflict, like a revolving wheel in his brain.
"Get me a cordial, sweetheart," he said— "strong waters of some kind; and then old Andrew shall carry me to bed, for my arm hurts me grievously. It is good to get away from there—in the name of our Lord the King! what is that?"
Harcombe pointed with his long, buff gauntlet to a conical object lying on the oak, gate-legged table in the centre of the hall. It was nothing more nor less than a soft felt hat with a buckle at the side, a strange object to be seen in Harcombe Place, where everything that had the slightest savour of Puritanism was rigorously excluded.
"I am not suffering from any noisome vapours," Harcombe went on. "My mind is quite clear. So, therefore, that is the hat of an Ironside soldier, who is evidently making himself quite at home here in the house of my forefathers—some low scullion who should find a proper place in the kitchen. What has become of Andrew, that he--"
Sybil suddenly laid a finger on her husband's lips. For from the dimness of thestairway an aged servant was signalling violently. The house was strangely quiet. Harcombe caught the suggestion that there was danger of some kind in the air. Sybil crept up the stairs to the old servant, whose face was white and agitated. He looked like a dim vision of fear in the light of the torches in the corridor.
"Whatm is it, old friend?" Sybil asked. "Where does the danger lie?"
"There in the dining-parlour," the old man muttered. "Fierce men searching the house: a party there outside, so that retreat is cut off; and the devil himself in the parlour."
"The devil himself! Andrew, do you mean to say "
"Aye, indeed, my dear mistress. He came just in and took possession, for all the world as if he had been born to it. Nobody else but Oliver Cromwell."
Sybil could scarcely refrain a cry. Cromwell there in the house! How could he have guessed—how could he possibly have found out? Sybil was too astonished to do anything for the moment. Then the vividness of the danger came back to her with startling force. Cromwell was there; he had his bodyguard with him; and only the thickness of an oak door stood between him and the man he needed.
"Where are the servants?" Sybil asked. "Where are--"
"All taken away but me," Andrew said sadly. "I was too old and feeble, mayhap. But the others were swept off as if they had been chaff. Dear mistress, what is there for us to do? If my lord and master tries to escape by way of the open moor--"
"Your master is sorely wounded," Sybil interrupted. "It is only that great heart of his that keeps him going in the face of danger. Did he go far, he would die. And Cromwell may come out of that room at any moment. Get your master away, Andrew get him safe to the hiding-place, whilst I go and parley to gain time."
Sir Walter came very slowly up the stairs. His face was set and stern as he listened, yet his eyes were full of passionate affection as he talked to his wife. He would have said something, but she waved the speech aside.
"It is to be one or the other of you," she said. "I will go and reason with him. If he refuses to listen, which I expect, there must be no hesitation. There is the bare chance that you may get away yet. And if so, send me your gauntlet; let it be the message on the floor. If that comes down, I shall know that you are free. Praise be to God that there are none of our people in the house! It may be 'Good-bye'"
The door of the parlour creaked, and Andrew drew his master back. He snatched the hand of his wife and kissed it passionately. The next moment he had vanished in the darkness of the corridor. With a firm step, and a heart beating none the faster, Sybil slowly descended the stairs. She had her part to play now, and she was not going to flinch. There was desperate danger here, but at any cost the precious life of Sir Walter Harcombe must be saved. It mattered little how Cromwell had come to know that Harcombe had found his way back home, seeing that his danger was going to be as great, if not greater, than that of the master of Harcombe Place. If Walter succeeded in getting away, well and good; if not, the price would be a heavy one.
Quite ready for all that was going to happen, Sybil pushed her way into the parlour. The Protector stood there, moodily poking the wood fire with the toe of his riding-boot. The expression of his strong, heavy face did not change in the least.
"I sent for you," he said. "Why did you not come before?"
There was a harsh command in the question that brought the blood flaming to Sybil's face. Had this rude boor once been the close companion of gentlemen? she wondered. She had heard tales of Cromwell's early youth that did not tally with his middle age.
"I was abroad," she said. "I did not know of the honour before me, or I had been back sooner. Your courtesy and your kindness, sir, touch me to the heart. It is a sweet and blessed privilege that Harcombe Place boasts to-night."
The expression on Cromwell's face seemed unchanged. Sybil caught herself wondering whether or not there was a heart somewhere under that rugged breast.
"Shut the door," he said, unmoved. "Shut the door and let us talk."
"Talk by all means, because we must; but as to the door, shut it yourself, if such is your good pleasure. Have you consorted with kitchen-wenches so long that you have caught the manner of their lives? But I am wasting my time. What do you do here?"
"I came here on an errand that you can guess," Cromwell said. "I came here to seek your husband. How he escaped my men to-night passes my understanding. He was not with the dead nor with the wounded; he was nowhere to be found. That he had been sorely mauled, I had from one who was part of the undoing; and yet he has escaped me. The wounded fox creeps back to his earth. That is why I am here to-night."
"You expected to find my husband waiting for you with open arms?"
"Well, perhaps not that, mistress," Cromwell said, with a near approach to a smile. "If he is not here, then he is not far away. If he comes not here, then he goes to his friend Lord Mornington, at Carew Grange, where there are those who are ready to say 'Nay' to that."
"And if my husband does fall into your hands?"
"Then he will be shot," Cromwell said hoarsely. "An example to traitors, be it understood. We have been too easy with them in the past."
"Oh, yes, kindness of heart is ever your stumbling-block," Sybil said bitterly. "Man, have you no mercy, no feeling, no bowels of compassion? Here in this very house your own grandfather, then old Sir Harry Cromwell, of Hinchinbrook--"
"My ancestors are no part of me," Cromwell interrupted. "It was men like my grandfather, pandering to a profligate and wasteful What was that?"
IT was only a grating sound, like the turning of a key in a lock, but it brought the gleam of suspicion in the eyes of Cromwell. Sybil smiled as she saw his hand go to his side. It was good to know that this hard man had nerves and feelings.
"There is no cause for alarm," she said. "I am merely a woman, whose servants have been sent away, and your menials are close at hand. Do not be afraid."
"It sounded like something down below," Cromwell said. "My men are searching there in the vaults and passages in the basement of this old place. Mayhap they are on the right scent; but certain places here have been cunningly contrived. There is the iron cell, for instance."
"So you know of the iron cell!" Sybil cried. "But I had forgotten that you once enjoyed the full hospitality of this house. In return for all that kindness--"
"It is no time to speak of kindness," Cromwell burst out harshly. "When a kingdom as fair as ours is at stake, why-- But how should a woman know anything of such matters? I heard a sound like the turning of a key in a lock—it seemed to come from below. I have a curiosity to see that iron cellar of yours."
Sybil smiled to herself. Her face was deadly white now, her eyes gleamed with some strong tenacity of purpose. There was a suggestion of the martyr about her.
"And also the contents of the chamber," she said sneeringly. "You hope to find my husband in hiding there. Well, I have nothing to conceal. Follow me, and you shall know all there is to know about the iron cell. This way, sir."
Cromwell followed, his iron heels clanging on the pavement. Presently Sybil led the way down a long flight of stone steps which gave upon a slimy passage, the walls of which were green with some kind of growth; great drops fell from the arched roof. They were below the level of the moat now, in the oldest part of the house. In times gone by, prisoners had been kept in those damp vaults, unseen and unrecorded crimes had taken place there; for there had been Harcombes in those days whose names were as a white terror to the whole countryside. There were tales and legends still half-believed; but they were being forgotten now, seeing that the head of the family was a popular hero with his people.
Most of the cell doors stood open, but one was tightly closed. The door was of iron, with great brass studs on it, the handle was stiff, and taxed Sybil's strength to the uttermost. Cromwell stood by, impotent to help, for the secret of the door lay in the turning of the handle. The big, iron sheet rolled sullenly back at last, disclosing a black interior. A clanking footstep came down the corridor, and a sour-looking trooper, with a lantern in his hand, strode along.
"Give me your light, fellow," Cromwell said. "There are plenty of lanterns among you, and we need one. Have you found anything yet?"
"It has not yet been vouchsafed to us, my lord," the man said with a snivelling drawl; "but our feet are on the right path, peradventure."
Sybil smiled with some contempt. She took the lantern from the hand of the trooper and, passing up the steps that led to the door, held it high over her head. There was no moisture in the iron cell save for the beads on the walls, and the place was empty.
"There is nothing here," Sybil said. "Had I told you my husband was not concealed here, you would not have believed me. So your memory is a good one, and you have not forgotten some of the secrets of the house. Do you know all about this iron cell?"
The question was put with such significance that Cromwell stared at the speaker. He replied sullenly that he supposed that nothing had been concealed from him.
"Then you are quite wrong," the girl replied. "This cell is sheathed with iron. Do you know why it is so sheathed, whilst the other cells are of plain granite? Do you know why you have to come up a flight of stairs to reach it from the corridor?"
Sybil pointed to the short flight of steps that she and her companion had ascended to reach the iron room. Cromwell nodded, with the air of a man who takes little interest in the proceedings. All he knew or cared to know was that an enemy was concealed here, and that enemy must be driven from his hiding-place and destroyed. The man was doubtless down here in this curious underground world, and the troopers would move him presently.
"I see you don't know everything," Sybil said, "so I will proceed to explain. First, I will shut the door, so that we need not be disturbed... There! Now you are a prisoner; and unless I chose to show you the way, you could never open that iron sheet. I could keep you a prisoner here as long as I liked. Do you understand that?"
"I understand that I have company; and that so long as one is a prisoner, he is not without a companion. Come, mistress, you are concealing something from me."
"Not for long," Sybil said in a hard, even voice; " am going to explain everything. Did you ever hear how the old house was raided by the Hoptons, and their terrible fate?"
Cromwell waved his hand impatiently. He had heard some century-old story of the feud between the Hoptons and Harcombes, and how the castle of the former had been destroyed.
"Ah! it is by no means a dull story," Sybil said in the same hard, even tones. "They came here treacherously in the dead of the night—one hundred and nine of them—and our people fled to the vaults, where they were followed. The foe fell into the trap. And what happened? Next day, one hundred and nine corpses, fair and dark, rich and poor, lay out in the courtyard, and our people buried them. The Hoptons were wiped clean out, and we pulled their castle down stone by stone. Have you heard of that?"
"In my youth," Cromwell said impatiently. "The silly lie of some kitchen-wench."
"It was not a lie; it is absolutely true. And the only loss our people sustained was a young girl who had a hopeless passion for the then ruling head of the family. Somebody had to perish to save the house, and that girl chose to do so. The fact that she was dying at the time made the story the more touching—to people possessed of feeling at all."
"Meaning that I have none," Cromwell said sourly. "What really happened, mistress?"
"Oh. I see that I interest you at last!
The moat was tapped. The moat can be tapped from here, and these vaults and passages flooded with a great rush of water. In time the water would rise until this iron room were filled to the roof; there would be no end to it, because the moat is fed from the lake on the high ground over against Basing village. It was the rush of
those cruel waters that wiped the Hoptons out of existence."
"But the girl need not have died," Cromwell protested. "If she had cut off the flow of water--"
"She could not," Sybil went on. "The pressure from without is too great. Our machinery is too imperfect for that. The raised gates have to be forced down from without. They refused to work on that fatal night because the lake was in flood—a fact that had been overlooked. And so the heroine died, and the Hoptons raided the land no longer. It was a brave thing to do."
"It was a brave thing to do," Cromwell echoed. "For a woman it was a noble act."
"It was. We all think so. She did it to save the house she loved, as I might do it to save the man I loved. What one woman can do, another need not shrink from."
Cromwell started. Moody and preoccupied as he was, the full significance of the speech was not lost on him. The sombre eyes sought Sybil's face keenly. He saw a deadly white face, with a pair of eyes gleaming dangerously; he saw resolution— almost inspiration—and the fact was borne in upon him that his life was in peril.
"Do you mean to threaten me?" he
"No," Sybil said gently. "I mean nothing of the kind. My husband's life is in danger; he is, as you say, sorely wanted. And he is not very far off. Your ferret instinct has not played you false. If my man is taken now, the King's cause would suffer. The King has need of him. His life or death may change the whole fortunes of the day."
"We will not argue that," Cromwell muttered. "Those despatches--"
"And your private papers. It is your pleasure to call Walter Harcombe a spy and a traitor, and proclaim the fact that you are going to shoot him. Now, if you will write a message to your men outside calling them off, and send these roundheaded, prowling rats of yours from the house, I may--"
"These be brave words," Cromwell cried. "Woman, are you talking to me?"
"Aye, I am," Sybil said between her teeth. "And I am going to play the woman to-night. My husband must escape, or I pay the penalty with my life. I did not bring you here to threaten or to abuse. If my husband does not go free under an order from your own hand, you and I die. I will play Jeanne d'Arc to you; I will rid England of a cold-hearted tyrant, who plays the tune of his ambition to the melody of religion. Aye, I am not boasting."
There was danger here, and the great Parliamentarian gripped it. They were locked there together, and the secret of the way out of it was known only to a woman who had lost her senses for love of her husband. Cromwell crossed the cell and gripped Sybil by the wrist.
"There is not likely to be any danger now," he said.
"You think not?" The girl made an effort to free herself. "You may go if you can find the way out. Presently, when the moat is at flood, a great log of wood will glide down past the spies as if the stream had carried it down, and on that log will be my husband. He will get away right under the eyes of your vigilants. If they shoot him down, should he attempt to lower the flood-gates, then your fate and mine is sealed. And I shall be a saint in the memory of my husband. I shall go down to posterity as the woman who rid free England of a tyrant. Let me go!"
Sybil wrenched herself away suddenly and jumped heavily on a square plate let in the floor. She laughed as a hollow clang rang out, and almost instantly the silence of the place was broken with a shock and a roar, as if the whole house were in the throes of an earthquake. Every stone and every stick of timber creaked and groaned; the roaring came nearer and nearer, till the rush of it drowned every other sound. Sybil had been as good as her word; she had tapped the lake, and the flood was streaming through the house already.
Then she crossed over and pulled back the iron door. Already the passage outside, at the foot of the flight of stairs, was a white, foaming torrent. As Cromwell looked, he could see that the seething stream was rising higher and higher.
"Can you swim?" Sybil asked, pointing to the shimmering force below. "You cannot? Well, it would make no difference. Nobody could live in that dreadful whirlpool—the fall is too great. It joins;the river in the water-meadows below the house. See how it is creeping up—up, still higher, till it reaches the floor where we are standing. Oliver Cromwell, if there is any sincerity in your prayers, you will need them now. Look!"
The girl pointed with a steady hand to an object that came turning and twisting with the flood. It was the dead body of a man in full uniform—the trooper who had provided Cromwell with the lantern.
"Aye, well, you have reason to be proud of your work," Cromwell said bitterly.
"I am not proud of the thing which is no better than murder. Yet there is no shame to me when I think of the murder that you have planned. Come, if I can yet save vour life, will you take terms from me?"
It was a long time before Cromwell replied. He did not do so until the shining flood had risen above his ankles.
"You are the stuff that heroes are born from," he said with a certain grudging admiration. "It is because England has need of me, because God has called me to right a great wrong, that I yield. I dare not go and stand in the presence of my Maker feeling that I have betrayed His trust to save my stiff-necked pride. Your husband is free of me if you can stay the crime that you have done."
"I may fail," she said; "but presently the flood will bring me a message. If my husband's buff gauntlet comes down, I shall know that he has got beyond the confines of the house. That was the signal that he promised me. If he has been taken, then you and I die together. Have you ink and powder and a pen in your doublet?"
Cromwell signified that he had writing materials about him. He watched the waters rising almost up to his knees, the fear of death danced before his eyes. Presently along the shining bosom of the floor came the signal in the form of a buff gauntlet. Sybil snatched it np and took a tiny scrap of paper from the bosom of her dress.
"Now write a message on that, and write quickly," she said. "There is no time to be lost. The glove will float down the stream and out on the margin of the water-meadows. Old Andrew will be waiting for it; for Andrew and myself have tried the scheme more than once before, little dreaming how soon we should make use of it... Is that writing done?.... There!"
Sybil flung the glove afar out into the stream, and it slid away beyond the circle of light made by the lantern. Still the water crept up, until it reached the deep chest of the soldier, and nearly to the shoulders of the woman. The flood was very cold; but Sybil made no sign, for within she glowed with the consciousness of a great victory.
The water was not moving now, it came no higher. Had the signal reached its destination? Cromwell asked himself. It was characteristic of the man that be displayed no kind of feeling, and yet his face lightened invisibly as he saw the horn buttons of his coat emerging one by one as the stream began to subside. There was a steady, sucking noise in the corridor, the steps crept in sight one by one, until the floor appeared once more.
"Now, sir," Sybil said. She spoke bravely enough, though a deadly fear was gripping her. "Now we can get to the level of the house again, where no damage will have been done, and you and I can exchange pretty courtesies by the side of a roaring fire. I take it that you feel a certain inconvenience from your adventure?"
"Some dry clothing?" Cromwell said.
"It shall be forthcoming. I pray of you to go upstairs and take the first room to the right. I go to change my own attire. Then perhaps you will permit me to extend my hospitality, seeing that the house is not strange to you. As a mark of my distinguished favour, I have shown you a secret of the house which is not revealed to every stranger. Ah! I hear Andrew."
Old Andrew had come back to the house, his withered face broken with many emotions. When the great Parliamentarian came down to the parlour, clad in dry clothing, he found Sybil awaiting him. Her face was flushed now and her eyes unduly bright. In a deep chair on the other side of the fire sat Sir Walter Harcombe. One of Sybil's hands was on his shoulder, the other he held proudly and lovingly.
"'Sdeath, sir!" he said; "but these be brave times. And so you have measured your wit against that of a woman, and gotten a fall, as many a better man has done before you. Presently, when you are gone, I shall try and tell this dear wife of mine what I think of her. Come, sir, you will drink a cup of the best to the sweetest heroine who ever risked her life for the sake of the unworthy fellow who was privileged to call himself a husband. As a courtesy, as a medicine, as a toast—call it what you will. And shake hands upon it."
"As a toast, then," Cromwell said in a deep voice, as he raised the needed cordial to his lips. "Madam, my profoundest respects to you. But the draught is a bitter one, and my stomach likes it not at all. So if you will suffer me to depart--"
He raised his fingers to his cap and saluted gravely. Then he turned on his heels and quitted the room, clanging the door sullenly behind.
IT seemed to Jack Clifford as if a lid had been shut down somewhere and the noise and roar of London stifled out of existence. Everything was so quiet there, so different to what he had imagined the interior of a newspaper office to be. There was no bustle, no struggling or noise, merely a suite of silent, green rooms where men worked feverishly under the light of shaded lamps. Wickham, the editor of the Daily Herald, welcomed Clifford into his own sanctum and indicated a chair.
"I hope you don't mind," he said. "As a matter of fact, I have sent for you professionally. To put the case in a nutshell, we have been receiving from time to time exceedingly valuable pieces of news from a mysterious old man who calls himself Levetsky. I don't mind telling you that I regard this as a nom de plume. The man has been to see me more than once, and he always comes with something very startling in the way of news, especially news relating to the Eastern Europe problem."
"Your paper appears to be very well served in that respect," Chfford said. "On more than one occasion you have fairly startled London. That letter from the Kaiser, for instance."
"My dear fellow, that was no thanks to our enterprise. A verbatim copy of the letter was supplied by this Levetsky. He would accept no payment, he refused to give any account of himself, and left us to publish it as we liked. You see, we have always taken the side of the Progressive Party in Russia, and I understood Levetsky to say that be was merely showing his gratitude. I hesitated for a long time before publishing that letter, but, as all the world knows now, I was perfectly justified in doing so. On no less than six occasions we have brought off the most remarkable coups, and all owing to that extraordinary old man who comes and goes in the most mysterious fashion and who is never wrong. Which brings me to the point. About nine o'clock to-night, Levetsky called to see me, but I was busily engaged then and could not give him an interview. I sent a message down to ask him to come back about half-past ten, to which he replied that he might not be able to do so; at the same time he sent me a few lines in an envelope—I presume, as a guarantee of his bona fides. I tell you I fairly jumped when I read the contents of that note."
As he spoke, Wickham bent forward and whispered into Clifford's ear. His voice was low and impressive.
"I don't want a soul to know this," he said. "According to this morning's papers, the Czar was more or less a prisoner in the Kremlin Palace, practically owing his life to the courage of a regiment of Cossacks. That is what all Europe believes, but Levetsky tells me that the Czar is at present in England and is hiding at Buckingham Palace at this very moment. I tell you, Clifford, this is the kind of "scoop" that makes an editor's blood tingle. Common sense inspires me to trust Levetsky implicitly and make a blazing feature of his information in to-morrow morning's Herald. The man has never played me false yet, and I don't see why he should now, but I have got a fit of editorial stage fright upon me and I dare not risk it."
"I'm not surprised," Clifford said. "I can see your dilemma exactly. Here is a chance of a lifetime, and yet if the information proves to be false, you do your paper incalculable damage. But tell me, where do I come in?"
"Well," Wickham said, "you are the one man in London I can trust in a crisis like this. An old Secret Service man like you is better than half-a-dozen detectives. I quite expect that Levetsky will come back here about half-past ten, and I shall see him and get full particulars. I want you to wait outside in the corridor and follow Levetsky. Find out all about him, and according to your report, so I shall act in the matter of this exclusive information. It does not matter if you fail to make your report to me before half-past one this morning, as we don't go to press till after two,"
Clifford looked up eagerly with the light of battle gleaming in his eyes. Here was an adventure after his own heart—something dark and mysterious, and with a strong suggestion of danger about it. He nodded briskly.
"You can count me in," he said. "I only wish I was dressed better for the part. One does not generally go off on this sort of excursion in an opera-hat and a dress-suit. Still, I dare say I can manage to borrow an old overcoat from one of the staff."
The matter was arranged to Clifford's satisfaction. He waw still talking to Wickham when an assistant came up and whispered something to his editor. The latter turned immediately to Mr. Clifford.
"Here's our man," he said. "If you wait outside, you will get a glimpse of him as he comes up the stairs."
It was too dark in the corridor for Clifford to get more than a hazy impression of the visitor. He was of medium height, and would have looked taller but for a painful stoop in the shoulders. He dragged his left leg after him as if it had been maimed in some accident; altogether he suggested an old man who had suffered much by contact with the world. The slightly aquiline features were almost smothered with a mass of black moustache and beard, the eyes were hidden beneath the shadow of a large-brimmed hat; altogether the purveyor of exclusive information bore a strong resemblance to the typical Nihilist of the stage.
* * * * *
It was half an hour later before Chfford had an opportunity of shadowing his quarry. The old man passed down Tudor Street on to the Embankment and turned presently into one of the walks beyond Temple Gardens. The electric lights cast clean shadows of the trees on the gravel, beyond the shrubs where was an inky mass of darkness. The old man limped along for some time, with Clifford strolling some twenty yards in the rear, then he turned round suddenly and waited till the amateur detective was alongside. It was quite clear to Clifford's mind that Levetsky meant to speak to him.
"You will pardon me," he said, "but I am going to ask you to do me a favour. It is only a small matter."
Somewhat to Clifford's surprise, the speaker's English was not only correct and bespoke a man of education, but there was a ring in it which proclaimed the fact that Levetsky was accustomed to giving orders and in the habit of being obeyed.
"Certainly," Clifford said pohtely. The adventure was shaping after his own heart. "I shall be only too delighted. My knowledge of London, like that of a certain historic personage in fiction, is extensive and peculiar. My purse, alas! is not so extensive, though it may be equally peculiar. Still—"
"Mr. Clifford will have his joke," the Russian said, with a quiet smile. "I think you will admit, sir, that one good turn deserves another. I am not in the least annoyed that Mr. Wickham had me followed to-night; he has the interests of his paper to safeguard, and he was prudent to act as he did. My good fortune lies in the knowledge that Mr. Wickham selected Mr. Jack Clifford to play the part of his detective."
"This is gratifying," Clifford said. "This, if I may so put it, is fame. But I fail to see why I should go out of my way—"
"Precisely," Levetsky smiled. "A little time ago, you were interested on behalf of a certain Cabinet Minister who had become entangled with a lady whom we will simply speak of as the Countess. He wanted to prove what you suspected—that the Countess was no more than a police spy and an adventuress. In this case, luck stood you in good stead, for an anonymous letter which you received enabled you to persuade the Countess that the air of London was dangerous to a constitution like hers. Not to make too long a story of it, Mr. Clifford, I sent you that letter."
"Did you really?" Chfford exclaimed. "Now, that was devilish—I mean, exceedingly thoughtful of you. You may command my services in any way you wish."
Levetsky's manner changed; he became suddenly curt and stern. With a swift, flashing glance around him, he drew Clifford behind a clump of bushes and commanded him to take off his overcoat. Once this was done, Levetsky took a pair of scissors from his pocket, and, coolly untying Clifford's cravat and unfastening his collar, he proceeded to cut away the whole of the shirt-front and neckband, to which extraordinary proceeding Clifford acquiesced without a murmur. It was one of the strange, bizarre kind of things that he was accustomed to himself.
"This is all very well," he said, "but what am I going to do?"
"You are going to be me," Levetsky said. "See, I discard my coat and the scarf which is about my neck, then I place this apology for a dress-shirt about my breast, and tie the collar, so. Also, I take your opera-hat like this, then I slip on the overcoat, so, and button the two bottom buttons. In the darkness of the night I pass for a gentleman going home after dinner. Then I dress you up like this: I place over your face my ragged moustache and beard, then my wig and the slouch hat. When the man who is watching for me by Cleopatra's Needle sees me emerge from the Gardens, he says to himself: 'That is not my man'; then, when he sees you coming out of the Gardens, he says: 'Ah I here is the old fox! Let me follow him.' But I do not want to be followed, because I am going to your Buckingham Palace; on the other hand, I want you to be followed. You will walk straight from here down the Embankment and over Westminster Bridge. Your adventure will not be entirely free from danger, so that if you are afraid—"
"I am not in the least afraid," Clifford said. "On the contrary, I am looking forward to the adventure with great eagerness. If I am kidnapped—"
"Which is more than probable," Levetsky said coolly. "In that event, you must ask your captors to send for Colonel Azoff. Unless I am greatly mistaken, the gallant colonel is an old official acquaintance of yours, and it would be a great misfortune to him if anything happened to you at this moment."
"That is right," Clifford said drily. "A little matter of forgery which would be exceedingly awkward for a member of the Russian Ambassador's staff if the thing became public."
Levetsky smiled with the air of a man who knows all the circumstances of the case. He stood in the darkness; then, as he bent forward and a ray of light flickered for a moment on his face, Clifford could see that his aspect had entirely changed. He was no longer bent and old; he stood there alert and vigorous, his powerful face as if cut in marble. There was a long scar on the left cheek. All this Clifford noted in the winking of an eye. It was not for him to ask questions. He was ready to obey.
"What am I to do now?" he desired.
"Merely to carry out instructions," Levetsky said. "Now that you are figuring in my disguise, I see a resemblance to me which is remarkable. Unfortunately, my enemies have penetrated my disguise, and this is why you are appearing, so to speak, as a wolf in sheep's clothing. I dare say so clever a mimic as yourself could copy my slouch and my limp. All you have to do now is to walk along the Embankment and stroll across Westminster Bridge. As your bishop said in the story, we can leave the rest to Providence."
SOMEWHERE or another a clock with a remarkably sweet chime was striking the hour of eleven. Clifford sat up and began slowly to collect his thoughts and review the events of the past hour or so. He could distinctly remember limping across Westminster Bridge; he recollected that he had paused there to look down into the water; the bridge had been singularly quiet for that time of night. There were practically no passengers on foot, so that Clifford seemed to have London to himself. He was enjoying the adventure keenly enough; he half expected at any moment to be pounced upon by something weird in the way of a malefactor, so that he took no notice of two men who came along arm in arm, as if they had just left the Houses of Parliament. In a casual sort of way Clifford could see that they were in evening dress; just before reaching him, one of them paused to light a cigarette. The match went out, and Clifford understood the smoker to say that it was his last.
"You got a match?" he said, addressing Clifford as a man of that class would speak to the derelict.
Chfford fumbled in his pocket; he did not notice that the second man had dropped behind him, and an instant later a grip of steel was about his throat. Something sweet and pungent was crammed into his mouth and nostrils; the whole world fainted away into a kind of easy dream. Clifford's last recollection was the sound of a cab-whistle and the jog-trot of a horse on the roadway.
It had all come back to him now. He was feeling a little dizzy and sick from the effects of the drug, but his head was rapidly clearing, and his courage came leaping to his finger-tips. At any rate, he had not been decoyed into any loathsome den, for the apartment in which he found himself was a singularly well-furnished one, and could only have belonged to a house in the best part of the West End. From the absence of noise, Clifford guessed that he was at the back of the house. He saw that the three windows were shuttered and fastened with iron bars. A closer examination revealed the fact that the bars had been screwed into the shutters. Also the heavy door was locked on the outside. All this Clifford found out for himself with the aid of a box of vestas, then his eyes fell upon the artistic arrangements of electric light, there was the snap of a switch or two, and the fine room was bathed in a flood of subdued illumination.
Clifford surveyed himself critically in a fine old Florentine mirror suspended over the fireplace. Evidently his captors had handled him more or less carefully, for, beyond a slight disarrangement of his wig, his disguise remained intact. He had probably been brought here and placed on the couch to recover from the effects of the drug. The more he looked around him, the more convinced he was that he had been forcibly conveyed to the house of someone who did not lack means and whose resources were ample. A box of cigarettes, flanked by a pint bottle of champagne and glasses, stood on a side table which in itself was an admirable specimen of Chippendale's earlier methods. "This is thoughtful," Clifford murmured to himself. "It would be ungenerous not to accept such a delicate hospitality."
Clifford drank the wine and smoked a cigarette in ruminative silence. It was borne in upon him presently that he was not alone in the house, as he had at first imagined. It had occurred to him that those who were in search of Levetsky had probably hired a house for the purpose of spiriting their prisoner away. But presently Clifford could hear the ripple of an electric bell, the opening and shutting of distant doors, and then a man's voice laughing heartily. The man was not alone, evidently, for his mirth appeared to be shared by a woman, whose delicate treble mingled musically with the bass of her companion. So far as Clifford could judge, the sound came from an adjoining room. Then, as his upturned glance detected a large ventilator, Clifford understood. The ventilator was open, and by means of a trinity of chairs it was possible to look into the next apartment.
This room was furnished, if possible, more luxuriously than the prison-house. A couple of servants in livery were engaged in removing the remains of an elaborate supper, round a card-table by the fireplace two men and two women were seated. Clifford's features expanded into something like a grin as he noticed the face of one of the men there, but the grin became a chuckle as he took in the woman with the diamonds in her hair. Clifford had made up his mind what to do. He removed the chairs and, crossing over to the fireplace, coolly rang the bell.
There was a sound presently as if the card-party had been disturbed; there was a click in the lock, and the door opened to admit a figure, tall and well proportioned. The newcomer was in evening dress; Clifford recognised him for one of the card-players.
"What do you want?" he asked haughtily. "There is everything here that you can possibly require; if you are disposed to be quiet, you will come to no harm for the present."
"It is not the present that troubles me," Clifford said. "I am thinking of the future. What are you going to do with me? I cannot remain here."
"You are not likely to remain here," the other said with a grin. "The air of this country does not agree with you; besides, you are too busy with affairs which should not concern you. Once you are back in Russia, we shall know how to deal with you."
"Oh, indeed," Clifford said drily. "You are perhaps aware of the fact that there is no extradition for political offences in England. "If I choose to object—"
"You will not be in a condition to object," the other man said. "Pouf! The thing is as easy as kissing you hand. You are our brother—our poor brother who is sick unto death. A little more or less of that drug with which you became acquainted to-night, and you are in a condition of practical insensibility all the way from London to Paris. We travel with a doctor from the Embassy who is certifying as to your condition. A little more of that drug, and you wake to find yourself in St. Petersburg. You understand?"
"Oh, precisely," Clifford said. "From your point of view the programme does not contain a single flaw. But in the first place I will ask you whom you take me for?"
The other man bowed and smiled. There was a strange, meaning look in his eyes.
"In diplomacy it is always well to be discreet," he said. "If I ask for you at your rooms, I inquire for Levetsky. I know you by no other name. St. Petersburg will know you by no other name. To go still further, Siberia will know you by no other name; and when you tell the governor of Tobolsk gaol that you are not Levetsky, but —er—a much more important personage, he will laugh at you and place your petition to the Czar in the stove."
"I need not go so far to petition the Czar," Clifford said. "A hansom cab would take me to His Majesty in ten minutes. Pshaw! Do you think I don't know that the Little Father is in Buckingham Palace at the present moment?"
Clifford was enjoying his part in the comedy immensely. He had thrown himself into the part of Levetsky heart and soul. It was a pure pleasure to him now to see the look of amazement and alarm which had spread itself out over the face of his companion.
"What I say is evidently news to you," he went on. "It is probably news to the Embassy also—but send Colonel Azoff to me."
"Azoff?" the big man stammered. "I—I don't understand what you mean. Besides, he is not—"
"Oh, yes, he is," CHfford cried. "He is in the next room playing cards with Countess Czerny. Tell him that if he doesn't come to me at once, nothing can save him from standing in Bow Street dock to-morrow morning on a charge of forging the signature of—well, we need not mention the name of the nobleman."
The listener passed his hand across his forehead as if to gather together his scattered thoughts. He muttered something under his breath and cast a malignant glance in Clifford's direction. Then he turned on his heel and left the room, carefully locking the door behind him. No sooner had he gone than Clifford buttoned the borrowed coat around him and removed every trace of his disguise, which he carefully stuffed away under the couch. He could hear the whispers and muttered conversation in the next room, but there was no more laughter and no further sounds of gay enjoyment. The key clicked in the lock again, and Colonel Azoff entered the room. Clifford was standing looking into the fireplace, so that it was impossible for the new-comer to see his face.
"What is the meaning of this?" Azoff demanded, "and who are you to send me so insulting a message, by—"
"Softly, my dear Colonel," Clifford said as he wheeled round. "You are always so headlong, so impetuous. You do not seem to realise that I have run a considerable risk, and incurred a considerable danger also, to see you to-night. But won't you sit down? It is so much better than standing."
No reply came from Colonel Boris Azoff, of the Czar's Household. He stood there gnawing at the end of his waxed moustache, his dark eyes fairly bulging from his head. He seemed utterly incapable for the moment of comprehending the fact of Clifford's presence. The latter lay back in an armchair in sheer joy of the situation.
"You are not well," he said. "Something seems to have upset you. You do not seem to understand why I am here—"
"But how did you get here?" the Colonel burst out at length. "We thought—we thought—that we had laid hold, but I must not mention that name. My dear fellow, you are in great danger here. You must get away at once. At any risks, I must clear you out of the house. This is no place for you."
"But where am I?" Clifford asked. "In what part of London?"
Azoff' made no reply. He seemed to be utterly lost in contemplation of a problem beyond his mental grasp.
"I must not tell you," he said presently. "I could not betray a confidence like that. There has been some terrible mistake here. In the exercise of our duty we have been endeavouring to lay hands upon—upon a man called Levetsky. I could have sworn to-night that I saw Levetsky carried into this room—"
"Impossible!" Clifton cried. "The man you call Levetsky is at the present moment at Buckingham Palace, where he is having an interview with your Emperor."
It was the crowning stroke in Clifford's little comedy. He saw Azoff stagger back as if he had been struck with a whip-lash. He saw the great drops standing out on the Russian's forehead. Then, with a wonderful effort, Azoff pulled himself together and threw the door wide open. Silently he beckoned Clifford to follow him into the great wide hall. A moment later and Clifford was pushed violently down the steps into the roadway, and the door was banged behind him. He could hear the shooting of bolts and the rattling of chains, followed by a long ripple of electric bells. Clifford could make out the outline of trees opposite, and a long row of fine houses stretching on either hand. It was just a moment before he could make up his mind to the exact locality in which he stood.
"Belgrave Square," he muttered. "795, Belgrave Square. I must not forget the number. I must find out who lives here. Hi, cabby! I want you to drive me as far as the office of the Morning Herald; an extra shilling if you get me there in twenty minutes."
The cabman grinned as Clifford jumped into the hansom, the horse's head was turned towards the East as they flew along.
WICKHAM was pacing restlessly up and down his office as Clifford came in and cast aside his slouch hat and cloak and demanded that someone should take a note to his rooms and procure him a shirt and collar.
"Oh, Heavens, yes!" Wickham said irritably. "You can have a whole hosier's shop if you like. But you look as if you have been having a good time of it. Only do get to the point."
"I have had an excellent time of it," Clifford said cheerfully. "But I know what you want. Our friend Levetsky has not come back, and you are worrying yourself into fiddlestrings as to whether or not you shall publish that important news about the Czar. Well, you can do it; it is absolutely correct."
"Is that really so?" Wickham exclaimed. "You are quite sure of it? But, seeing that there is plenty of time, you might just as well relate your adventures."
Clifford proceeded to tell his story at considerable length. He saw the face of his companion gradually clearing as he went on with his convincing narrative.
"Then I'll risk it," Wickham said. "There is only one thing wanted to round off the account perfectly. Of course, it is out of the question to believe that the man who calls himself Levetsky is no more than an obscure refugee who has suffered at the hands of the Russian Government. It is equally absurd to say that the Czar would come on a secret mission to England merely to meet this clever old man. If we could only get at his name—"
"I have," Clifford said coolly. "I am prepared to bet anything you like in reason that I can give you the proper name of the man who calls himself Levetsky. Mind you, it would be a distinct breach of faith on my part to do so without our mysterious friend's permission. But the first thing we have to do, it seems to me, is to find out who lives at 795 Belgrave Square. Just hand me over the London Directory, will you?"
The volume in question stood on Wickham's desk, and Clifford rapidly fluttered over the leaves. He was not a man usually given to the display of emotion, but his face was a study in astonishment as he bent down once again to read the figures.
"Well, if this doesn't beat me I " he cried. "Number 795, Belgrave Square, owner and occupier. Prince Boris Gassells. Good Heavens, Wickham, if you only knew what I know, what an eye-opener it would be for you! Of course, the name of Prince Boris Gassells is quite familiar to you?"
"Rather," Wickham said drily. "Why, he was the man who last year very nearly succeeded in bringing about a proper Russian constitution. If he had had his own way, Russia would have a parliament like England by this time. As it was, the old official party deliberately conspired to ruin the Prince, and he escaped with his life by getting away to England. I understand that when he arrived here he was practically penniless, for his estates were confiscated. Mark me, if that man had had a better chance, he would have saved Russia, and the official gang knew it. It is any odds, Clifford, that the Czar is here now with the sole intention of settling matters with the Prince."
"You've got it," Clifford said drily. "Wonderful what a grasp a journalistic mind has! At any rate, there is one thing you may be sure of—Levetsky will not return to-night, and you may set about preparing your big 'scoop' with an easy mind. I'll drop in and see you to-morrow evening, and I shall be greatly astonished if I am not in a position to afford you matter enough for one of the most sensational articles that ever bucked up the circulation of a newspaper. Good night."
* * * * *
London seethed with excitement next morning, once the true inwardness of page five of the Morning Herald was grasped. The air was full of rumours which were more or less dissipated as the day went on by an official acknowledgment of the fact that His Imperial Majesty the Czar had paid a flying visit to London for the purpose of consulting King Edward on matters of a private family nature. It was also intimated that the Emperor was already on his way back home, and that he was accompanied by Prince Boris Gassells, and that important constitutional changes were in contemplation. It mattered very little to Wickham what the evening papers had to say. They were welcome enough to their crumbs of late information, for the cake had been his. He was therefore prepared to receive Clifford in a genial frame of mind when the latter put in an appearance at the Herald office after dinner.
"I can tell you the story in a few words," Clifford said. "I gave you an elaborate description last night of what happened to me at that house in Belgrave Square. My main cause for astonishment was the audacious trick played by my friend Colonel Azoff and his companions on the man called Levetsky. Now, you told me that Prince Boris Gassells came to England a poor man. You had utterly forgotten that he used to spend six months of the year in London, and that he had a house of his own in Belgrave Square. After his disgrace he let the house furnished and thus found means to live. On this occasion the house was not let, and the Prince lived there in strict retirement with one old servant, occupying between them a small room in the basement. Colonel Azoff and the other man, whose name I cannot ascertain, wanted to get hold of Levetsky and take him back to St. Petersburg. I know how anxious they were to do that, or I should not have had so striking an adventure last night. But just mark the audacity of these people. They actually obtained possession of the Prince's house and conveyed Levetsky —that is, myself—there where no one would dream of looking for him. They were perfectly safe, as you will see quite plainly. But, mind you, they knew what I only discovered last night, and what you have suspected for some time—namely, that this so-called Levetsky was a man in a much higher position than he pretended to be. My dear fellow, you are very sharp as a rule, cannot you guess who our friend Levetsky really is?"
Wickham shook his head as if the puzzle was too much for him. He turned eagerly to Clifford for an explanation. The latter rose and walked excitedly up and down the room. "Why, the Prince himself, of course," he cried. "Azoff and his companions knew that all the time. They also knew that the Czar was in England, and they were perfectly well aware what he came for. As those people belong to the corrupt Court party, it was absolutely essential to move the Prince out of the way. Therefore they managed to get into his house and plant their own servants there. Then they, fearful perhaps that he should tumble to their scheme, set out to kidnap him and keep him a prisoner in his own residence. The thing was audacious and yet so absurdly simple. As soon as ever I looked at the Directory last night, I guessed exactly what had happened. I had my suspicions before, mind you, for I had a swift glimpse of Gassells when he was changing dresses with me. No wonder, my dear fellow, that this shabby old 'Levetsky' was in a position to come down to your office and give you these wonderful pieces of exclusive information. You will also see why he was so anxious for it to be known that the Czar was in London. Depend upon it, before many days are over, both of us will hear from St. Petersburg, from the Prince direct. And now, my dear chap, if you cannot make a really interesting column out of what I have just told you, why, you are not the brilliant and versatile journalist that I take you for."
Wickham grinned as he reached for a pad of copy-paper and a quill pen. The light of inspiration that gleamed from behind his golden spectacles was striking. He held out a warm hand to Clifford.
"I can't thank you now," he said. "I am going to be exceedingly busy for the next hour or two. Good night, my pearl of Secret Service agents, and pleasant dreams to you!"
THE tragic circumstances in which Professor Egerton Street disappeared from London and the world of science, of which he was such a distinguished ornament, are not generally known to the public. Most people are under the impression that the eclipse followed as a natural consequence on the sudden death of Mrs. Street, but a few people knew that the tragedy was precipitated by the professor himself. He was supposed to have injected a certain serum—previously tried upon his own person—and the death of the lady was due to septic poisoning.
Be that as it may, the circumstances never became public property. Most people looked upon the whole thing as an accident. Anyway, Street disappeared from University College Hospital, and his place knew him no more. He was supposed to be pursuing a series of studies in West Africa with the view to the stamping out of malarial fever, but that, after all, was only a rumour. Street had been a rather dour kind of enthusiast, very secretive, and possessing practically no friends. Basil Warburton, the entomologist, had seen him once at Liverpool Street Station with a variety of cases that gave him the air of a travelling naturalist. The two savants had exchanged a few words, but Street had not been communicative. He looked lean and brown and hollow-eyed; he gave just a hint of certain new discoveries. He wanted to know if Warburton had heard anything of a certain new red spider—locally called the "Red Speck "—an account of which had filtered home from Madagascar. As it happened, Warburton had not only heard of the spider, but he actually possessed a few live specimens. He says that Street's face lighted up in the most extraordinary manner on hearing this.
"You will be doing me—you will be doing the world in general an inestimable service if you will come down to my place at Crawley and bring a 'Red Speck ' or two with you. Warburton, I am on the eve of realising a most stupendous discovery. If my deductions are correct, malarial fever is at an end. Those fellows are quite correct—the mosquito and kindred insects are at the bottom of the mischief. I've been digging at the remedy for two years, and I've touched bottom. It would be an insult to your intelligence to ask you if you have heard of insect grafting."
Warburton replied that he had experimented in that direction himself. Articles on the subject had appeared in several of the leading domestic magazines. The thing was a little flashy and meretricious, and no good was likely to result from it. Warburton proceeded to speak of a hybrid dragon-fly he had grafted, but the larvae had perished, probably had not fructified. Street's eyes gleamed.
"I've conquered that," he whispered. "I've reached the breeding stage of the hybrid. The thing is not ripe for the public gaze yet, but I'll show it to you. Come down on Friday and spend a week-end at Crawley with me, and bring your red spiders along."
The offer was too tempting to be refused. Besides, Street was no pauper genius, but a well-to-do man in a position to carry out his experiments regardless of outlay. Warburton found the house pleasantly situated, the long ranges of glass had been stripped of vine and fern and flower, and given over entirely to the breeding of insects. It was rather a chilly March day, with fitful bursts of warm sunshine, so that Warburton found the glass-houses unpleasantly warm ever and again.
Street had certainly mastered his subject. He seemed to have every kind of insect in his greenhouses. In one warm corner, behind a series of thin muslin cloths, a cloud of gauzy little creatures seemed to sing and buzz in the still air.
"Mosquitoes?" Warburton suggested. "Well, they could do very little harm at this time of the year if they escaped. But where did they come from? I could localise every mosquito known to science, but I never saw any that size before."
"I bred them myself," Street proceeded to explain. "The original stock was grafted. Watch, and you will see that the wings are different. There is a dash of the tsetse fly in those fellows. I've had an arm as thick as your thigh from a hite of theirs. What do you think of them?"
Street led the way into another compartment of the greenhouse. The heat was unpleasant; the floor was of sand with fragments of volcanic rock scattered here and there. With the aid of a stick, Street stirred up the stones, and immediately a colony of tarantulas straddled over the sandy floor.
"Nothing wonderful about them," the professor remarked. "But you will see presently why I need them. Roughly speaking, my idea is to kill malaria by a war of extermination. Devise or breed some insect that will prey on the mosquito et hoc. Of course, you will argue that the remedy is as bad as the disease. That we shall see. What I want to get hold of by grafting is a slow-breeding insect that will be easy to grapple with when he has done his work. But he is to be a ferocious, poisonous fellow, and to a certain extent a clean feeder. I mean he need not be wholly carnivorous. Now suppose we take the Mexican hornet, which is one of the most dangerous of his tribe. Then we want a little of the tenacious ferocity of the spider, and here the tarantula comes in. My ideal warrior must be strong of flight and quick on the wing, and here enters the dragon-fly. This element gives the slow breed—for dragon-flies only come to maturity at the end of three years. Does this sound very weird to you?"
"No," Warburton said thoughtfully. "Nothing sounds extravagant to the scientiflc mind. Yours is going to be by way of a water insect as well. Still, even if you have succeded in producing fruitful hybrids, the ideal insect is the work of a lifetime."
"It is the work of exactly three years," Street said quietly. "The problem is solved, and the warm bursts of sunshine the last few days have done it. I have never mentioned the matter to a soul before, but I am going to let you into my confidence. The third generation, the perfected thing, has hatched out in a glory that was beyond all my dreams. Come and see."
Street led the way to the far end of the greenhouse, where a part of the dome roof had been removed. The heat was tempered by the outer air, yet it stood well up to 80 degrees. In one corner was a large gauze wire cage, not unlike a huge meat-safe, and hanging from the far wall were a series of soft-looking balls that closely resembled the nest of the mason wasp, though they were on a much larger scale. The sides of the blotting-paper structures were honeycombed like a sandbank where a colony of martins had built their nests. There was no sound of life until the little terrier hanging on Street's heels snapped at a fly and struck the wire gauze with his paws. Then the unseen colony set up a short, pinging hum, something like the screams of a flight of rifle bullets. From a shelf behind him Street took a little brown mouse from its cage. Swiftly he lifted the door of the exaggerated meat-safe and deposited the mouse inside.
A moment later and an insect darted from one of the honeycombs. The darting beat of its red wings hummed in the silence of the greenhouse like a hawk. Warburton was loud in his admiration—he had never seen anything like it before.
The creature was some nine inches from tip to tip of those wonderful translucent amber and purple wings. They trembled and flashed like jewels in the light. The body of the insect was some five inches, marked like a hornet for half the distance, the tail being covered with fine, down-like feathers, and tinted from bright red to brilliant peacock blue. The eyes were of deep green, the long legs were curved as the talons of a hawk. Warburton's admiration was absolutely justified and sincere. He had never seen anything like it before. It was so beautiful and yet so repulsive, so soft and noiseless, yet so tigerishly suggestive.
"You have not boasted in vain," he said. "Your hybrid is perfect, if, as you say, this is the third generation. Born here from the parent stock? Then there is no limit to the monsters of scientific creation. Is—is he dangerous?"
By way of reply. Street pointed to the mouse huddled up on the bottom of the cage. The little animal seemed to be half dead with fear. The big hawk poised over him, swooped delicately, and his curved beak seemed to meet for an instant in the fur of the tiny rodent's shoulder. It was all in the twinkling of an eye, the brilliant fly was poising again, but the mouse was dead... Hardened scientist as he was, Warburton could not repress a shudder.
"They're hungry," Street said in his level voice. "What do they eat? Insects mostly. They are particularly fond of mosquitoes. Those fellows are going to exterminate them. They are only a means to an end. But they will eat honey and small grain and fruit. Mind you, there is a crumpled rose-leaf in every couch, and the poisonous quality of those fellows is a little beyond my expectation. I suppose it is the mixture of the acid poisons of the tarantula and Mexican hornet in their blood. Would their bite be fatal to man? Yes, it would. There are over ten thousand of those fellows in that collection of nests, though you would not think it. When I have succeeded in reducing their poisonous qualities, I shall export them to the mosquito swamps, and I'm much mistaken if they don't root out the mosquito and their tribe pretty quickly. Fancy that little beast getting loose in England at this time of year! Fancy a full nest of them in any hedgerow in the autumn!"
Warburton did not fancy it, and shuddered again. But the scientist was uppermost at the time.
"I should like to have a look at that mouse," he said. "I should like to know precisely the qualities and quantities of the poison that killed him. I'll take the body to Longstaff, and let him make an analysis, if you like. I fancy it would be worth while."
The idea struck Street as a good one. Very carefully he lifted the door of the cage and reached for the body of the mouse. But the little terrier was before him. The dog rushed in, banging furiously against the side of the cage. Street rose, unthinkingly, in his desire to recover the dog, so that the cage rocked and reeled, and with a scream as of a thousand flying bullets, the great quivering insects came pelting from the nests. How it all happened nobody knew. Warburton could never tell, but an instant later the cage was overturned, and the dome of the glasshouse was alive with a swarm of some thousands of the great insects. They rose higher and higher, darting and weaving in and out like a lovely pattern of perfect colouring. The humming scream of their anger was almost majestic. Faint and sick, Street was bending to and fro, holding his arm as if in some deadly pain.
"Quick!" he gasped. "I'm done for! One of them got me through the wrist. I had more or less been prepared for something of this kind. Look at the last few pages of Volume VI. of—"
Street collapsed on the floor, his sentence unfinished. Whether he was dead or alive Warburton did not know—he did not even seem to care. He was too fascinated to be frightened—he could not keep his eyes off that tangled, angry mass of lovely colour up in the dome. Death and destruction and hideous nightmare of terror lurked there. Then one of the amazing creatures darted through the dome light and poised in the air, the great purple and gold and amber cloud followed, and shone in the open air like some glorious rainbow of hues. And Street lay there dead and stark at the feet of his colleague.
Warburton crept outside, feeling sick and faint and shaky from the play of his imagination. Here was a deadly peril, such a peril as was sure to follow sooner or later upon the attempt to destroy the balance of nature. If a thousand or so of man-eating tigers had been let loose in Sussex, the effect, would have been less deadly and more paralysing than the escape of those beautiful insects. They were darting and playing now like a nimbus about the crown of a group of elm trees. Warburton could hear the pinging scream of their wings. They looked unutterably beautiful in the brilliant burst of sunshine, a thing of beauty terribly fascinating. But if they began to attack human life!
It would be impossible to fight the winged queens of the air. They could go like the wind whither they listed, bringing death and destruction everywhere. They were built for rapid flight—they might hold London captive one night and strike terror into Birmingham the next.
But Warburton had to pull himself together, he had to think of Street. The professor was dead enough, there were four or five livid red and white spots on his neck, as if the flesh had been cruelly gripped by a pair of pincers. The victim lay there quite peacefully, with a shadowy smile on his face. Death must have come very swiftly.
With the aid of a gardener, Warburton conveyed the body to the house. It was necessary to go through the formula of sending for a doctor, and that was a matter of time. Warburton would fetch his own man from town. This was outside the ken of the general practitioner. If only the trains had fitted in a little less awkwardly! Was there such a thing as a cycle about the house? The professor's motor-cycle was in its accustomed shed. Warburton grasped at the idea of action. He could ride to town on that. Anything to be doing something. Probably he would be back again before the local man arrived. Warburton sped along by way of Redhill and Reigate in the direction of London. It was borne in upon him presently that the roads were strangely deserted for the time of day. Nothing could be seen or heard for a long time, till the crest of a rise in the road disclosed a motor standing outside a blacksmith's shop. Warburton could hear the car humming as he raced along.
Two men coated in leather and hideously masked, racing men evidently, stood just inside the door. There was an air of excitement about them that Warburton did not fail to notice. One of the grotesque figures hailed him. From the Rembrandt shadows of the smithy a pair of hobnailed boots protruded, as if the rest of the owner had fallen there, overcome with beer.
"He's dead," one of the motor men jerked out. "Pulled up here just now for spanner, and found him lying like that. Have you seen anything of them?"
Warburton guessed what was meant. On the hood of the car he could discern a squashed yellow and red body or two, then caught in the sunshine the flutter of gauzy amber wings.
"Delirium tremens, gone mad," the other man said shakily. "What do you say to the car being attacked by a million of insects as big as a partridge and coloured like a poet's dream? Loveliest sight I have ever seen— at first. I made a grab at one, and he bit through my glove as if it had been a rose-leaf. Then the whole blooming lot made for us—quite a million of 'em. Frightened? Well, I should say so. But we were in armour, so to speak, and managed to beat them off. Got a couple of beautiful specimens, too, as dead as Queen Anne. And then we find the blacksmith dead, too. Perhaps they went for him.
Warburton fought down the physical sickness that seemed to hold him in a grip. As he dragged the dead smith to the light, he did not fail to notice the pincer-like mark on the flesh of the swarthy neck. One of the squashed hybrids was tightly grasped in his hand. Warburton asked feebly which way the swarm had gone. The motor driver pathetically requested to be given an easier one. Despite his forced hilarity, he was shaking like a leaf. He affirmed that he wanted London badly.
"And so do I," Warburton said between his teeth. "As it happens, I can tell you all about the business. Find the spanner and make your repairs. It sounds inhuman, but we must let that poor fellow lie there for the present. Get a move on you. I'll come along."
But the news had reached London first, the whole grotesque, maddening tragedy was being yelled by the newsboys along the Embankment. There was a telegram at his rooms waiting for Warburton from Crawley, saying that the inquest on Street would not be for a day or two, contrary to precedent. Before eight o'clock, the family of the unhappy smith had been interviewed; there was a column from an eye-witness, who had watched the attack on Mr. Cyrus A. Blyder's motor. A taxidermist in Holborn had a specimen of the deadly hybrid in his window, and the police were busy at the spot. Warburton himself was given over to the interviewers, who literally tore him to pieces. He had not meant to say anything, but he did not know the manners of the class. As a matter of fact, he told everything—and a great deal more.
The odd millions who had gone to bed overnight in ignorance of the new terror had it served up piping hot for breakfast next morning. A few more odd tragedies had dribbled in during the small hours. A rabbit-poacher at Esher had blundered into the clutch of a swarm sleeping on an elder bush, and his body, terribly distorted, had been found by a half-imbecile colleague in crime. Such is the effect produced on the nation by a cheap, pessimistic Press that thousands of people absented themselves from work during the day. But as the hours crept on, courage returned till midday, when the news spread like wildfire that a number of insects had been seen in a confectioner's shop in Regent Street. Curiosity overcame fear for the moment, and a rush was made westward. Surely enough, the news was true. Half-a-dozen pretty shop-assistants stood pale and frightened on the pavement, inside the shop something was humming and pinging and darting like a beautiful humming-bird poised over a vase of flowers. Presently something boomed overhead like the zipping song of many telegraph-wires in a gale of wind, and, as if by magic, the smart confectioner's shop was a veritable aviary of the beautiful hybrids. A thoughtless 'bus-driver made a slash at a darting insect with his whip, and instantly the gorgeous thing hummed at him and struck him in the throat.
With a scream of fear and pain, the man dropped from his box and lay writhing in the road. It was a crisp, clear day, but the unhappy driver was bathed in perspiration. He seemed to be frantic, half mad with the pain that he was suffering. He tore wildly at his collar, his lips were dripping with foam. But he did not die, as the professor and the smith had done, though the maddening pain was likely to produce complete physical exhaustion.
"He can't endure agony like that much longer," someone said, pushing his way through the crowd. "I'm a doctor. Bring him along to the nearest chemist's shop. This is a case for the hypodermic syringe and ether. It may be the means of saving the poor fellow's life."
There was no occasion to ask the crowd to stand aside. Fear had overcome curiosity, and the mob had melted into the air. The loot of the confectioner's shop was pretty well done by this time, the darkening air was humming again with the darting hybrids. Like wasps and bees, and others of their tribe, they might have been expected to seek some dark corner for shelter and rest, but possibly the glare of the electric lights had excited them. Never, perhaps, had the streets of the West End been so deserted as they were now. London had scuttled home like a colony of frightened rabbits directly darkness had set in; a creeping policeman or two along the Embankment discovered here and there a solitary hybrid banging his beautiful head against the arc lights, the buzzing of its wings making a weird sound.
All the same, the legislators of the country could not stand still merely because a brilliant and eccentric scientist had invented a new hybrid by the process of insect grafting. Most patriotic members of Parliament walked to their duties, for coachmen generally had flatly refused to turn out in the dark. The theatres might have closed their doors, for all the business they were doing; the music-halls were deserted. Some genius had suggested the arming of the police in Parliament Street with rackets, and this had been done. There had been up to ten o'clock a total bag of sixty hybrids. And there were still some ten thousand of them at large in London.
About ten o'clock the serenity of the House of Commons was marred by sounds of distress proceeding from the direction of the kitchen. A flying squadron of the hybrids had attacked the provisions there, and had been driven off by the pungent smoke of burnt brown paper. They came darting and hawking along the Corridor into the Chamber itself, poising high overhead like a flight of beautiful birds. The hum of their wings spoke of anger. An honourable member paused in his speech, and hastily made a truncheon of the newspaper from which he was quoting. Two of the gleaming terrors came in angry conflict, and dropped flopping and struggling on the table in front of the Speaker.
Dignity could stand it no longer. There was a mad rush from the Chamber. Outside, a big, sweating policeman was vigorously fighting off one of the foe with his racket. Professor Clements, member for St. Peter's, turned the collar of his coat up and called for a hansom. But no hansom was to be seen, so the savant had to make his way to Warburton's lodgings on foot. Warburton, tired and fagged, had just returned from Crawley. He had been down to the inquest on Street, he explained. Of course, the inquiry was adjourned, as it was likely to be many times yet.
"That's what I came to see you about," Clements said. "It is pretty fortunate that there is one man who can tell me the source of this diabolical invasion. What beautiful, Satanic things they are! And yet the whole idea is so disgustingly horrible. Fancy one of those things dropping on your face when you are asleep! The mere idea fills me with terror. Surely, Street must have been mad when he was inspired by this thing."
"I don't think so," Warburton said thoughtfully. "The root idea was logical enough—a way of exterminating the malarial insect with a slow-growing hybrid that man would successfully combat afterwards. I have no doubt that Street foresaw some such danger, and had schemed a way of meeting it. But, unfortunately, he had not time nor opportunity of telling me."
"Then you think that there is some way out of the mess?" Clements said. "If they were wild beasts, or anything of that kind , if they were merely malarial germs that we could fight with recognised weapons! But with those wonderfully flighted insects we are quite powerless. In eight-and-forty hours they will spread all over the kingdom. Having some of the habits of the wasp, they will break up into colonies and build nests. And what human agency have we to fight those nests? The loathsome, lovely creatures may take it into their heads to make an enemy of man. Good Heavens! the mere suggestion throws me into a cold perspiration."
"I dare say we shall find some way," Warburton began feebly. "And no doubt—"
"Yes, but the horror of it! You think that Street—"
"My dear fellow. Street was no blind enthusiast, who let his heart get the better of his head."
"Have you thought of looking amongst his papers and notes for anything likely to?"
Warburton jumped to his feet with a cry. A sudden light had broken in upon him.
"What a dolt I am!" he exclaimed. "I never thought of that. Why, as soon as the accident happened, Street turned to me and said something. What did he say? Ah, yes. 'Look at the last few pages of Volume VI. of—' alluding to his diary, no doubt. Come along, Clements."
"Where are you going at this time of the night?" Clements asked.
"Crawley," Warburton cried. "To inspect Volume VI. of poor Street's diary right away. We must get there at once, if we have to take a special train."
As it turned out, the special train to Crawley was necessary. It was no time for nice ceremonies, and Warburton ordered it without delay. An anxious superintendent stated that the enterprise would cost the voyagers nothing.
"Our directors ought to be glad to place half of our stock at the disposal of you gentlemen," he said. "Anything so long as you are trying to put an end to the state of terror. Why, since early this afternoon our main line of trains have been positively empty. Nobody is coming to London at present. A few insects holding up a big city like this! Seems almost incredible, doesn't it?"
It did, but there it was. Still, there was consolation in the idea that these two scientists were doing something as the special flew on into the darkness. There was a momentary stoppage at Three Bridges owing to a mineral train on the track; there was an unusual bustle going on in the small station, considering the time of night. Warburton leant eagerly out of the carriage windows. A couple of porters were busily engaged in pouring a stream of water from a hydrant into one of the waiting-rooms.
"We've got three of those beastly flies in there," the stationmaster explained. "We're trying to drown them out. There's a nice crisp touch in the air to-night."
Warburton started as a sudden idea came to him, but he said nothing to his companion. They were very silent until Street's house was reached. The place was absolutely deserted, for the servants had vanished. Nobody could be persuaded to face the hidden dangers of the house. Who could tell what dreadful monster would rise next? Street's body had been conveyed to an adjacent hotel, his own place was dark and desolate. Warburton settled the matter by breaking a window and entering the house that way. He fumbled about until he touched the electric switch, and presently the whole place way flooded with light, Street had had a full installation even into the greenhouses.
There were cases and cages all over the house. Even in what was the drawing-room Warburton and his companion could see those great safe-kind of arrangements from which the deadly hybrids had escaped. Clements idly rattled one with a stick, and instantly the whole structure hummed like a hive of angry bees. Quaint things like little flying lizards darted against the bars.
"This is as bad as delirium tremens," Clements murmured. "Now, what are those abortions, for instance? Are they intended to be for some good purpose, or are they as deadly dangerous as the hybrids? We dare not pry too far, because we don't know. And the only man who does know is dead. To clear the place and render it safe—why, good gracious! there may be thousands of eggs and larvse hatching at this house, not necessarily dangerous in their present condition, but—"
"I've found a way to deal with them," Warburton said hoarsely. "It's a desperate, not to say a drastic, remedy, but we shall have the approval of the State. Let us get this creepy business over as soon as possible, Clements. Come to the library and find the diaries. I am hoping that we may discover the balm of Gilead there."
The amateur housebreakers were only concerned with the sixth volume of Street's diaries. There was a mass of figures and calculations there that conveyed nothing to anybody but the writer, but towards the end of the paper-covered volume came something like a concise account of the apotheosis of the hybrids. At some length the origin of their being was set out, and then the measures by which they were to be successfully combated when their work was done.
"By Jove! the thing is fairly simple," Warburton cried. "I can see nothing here that speaks of an antidote to the bite of the creature. But they can be rendered harmless by the application of ammonia and eucalyptus to the skin—in fact, Street says that they will fly in terror before it, I should like to see the experiment tried. Come to the laboratory."
The necessary ingredients were found and mixed in the proportions set out, and then were rubbed by each man on his hands and face and neck. It was just possible that a close search of the greenhouses would discover another case of the beautiful hybrids. There were many cages picked out by the flare of the electric light, and many strange colonies of insects disturbed, before Warburton's eyes lighted on one of the zinc safes with a couple of the peculiar blotting-paper nests inside. A vigorous shaking filled the cage with a tangled, angry knot of dazzling colour. The screams of vibrating wings hummed in the air. Beating down the terror that possessed him, Warburton thrust his hand into the small door at the top of the cage. The insects darted back from him, one hit the top of the cage and fell back upon his sweating, pungent palm. It was all he could do to keep from screaming. It was hard to have full faith in the dead man's remedy.
But nothing happened. The great insect lay on the sticky palm, its wings palpitating gently. The long, beautifully marked body was bent backwards, then the wings were absolutely stilled. Warburton pulled his hand from the cage and dropped the hybrid on the floor.
"Dead," he said calmly. He was outwardly cool enough, though his lip was torn where the teeth had met it. "Dead as a door-nail. Paralysed by the odour given off from the compound, I expect. Clements, we've got to see this thing through now. You keep those diabolical flies stirred up to a pretty passion whilst I get a spray. We'll try it on the whole lot."
Clements nodded his approval of the suggestion. With a stick he kept the hive in a state of commotion. The wings of the creatures screamed angrily, the whole space was a dazzling flash of kaleidoscopic colour. It was very repulsive, and yet strangely, weirdly beautiful. Warburton came back presently with a fully charged bottle of spray in his hand. At a distance of a yard he proceeded to discharge the fine spray into the cage. The effect was like magic, the scream of those opalescent wings ceased, on the instant a cloud of insects sank to the bottom of the cage and lay there, a tangled heap of dead creatures. Warburton broke out into extravagant joy.
"Settled the whole business," he said. "In the cause of science, mind you, it is a pity. In the interests of humanity we should have preserved some of those creatures. But the country wouldn't stand it—the terror is too great. Still, if we can show the people quickly there is a sure and certain way out of the danger, why—"
Better not," Clements said thoughtfully. "No good ever came yet, and no good ever will come, by interfering with the balance of Nature. The demon that scotches the demon is always the worst demon of the lot. The winged terror has been bad enough, especially now that the master hand controlling it is no more. Street was thorough in his methods, he was a fanatic in the cause of science. And Heaven only knows what new horrors are concealed in those breeding-cages, and the larvae we found in those novel incubators in the boiler-house. Street knows, and he is dead. If we destroy everythinig—"
"We are going to," Warburton said grimly. "Let's go and find a bed somewhere— my nerves are pretty steady, but I would not sleep in this house for a V.C. Come along."
Warburton got through to London on the telephone early the next day, and the result of his interview with the Board of Agriculture and Spring Gardens was quite satisfactory. He would be back in town as earlv as possible, he said. But, meanwhile, there was much to be done. He was going to take the law into his own hands. A load or two of straw and a few gallons of paraffin were all that Warburton needed. Half an hour later, and Street's late residence, including his long stretch of glass, was a mass of calcined ruins. What secrets those grey ashes held would never be known...
It was late in the afternoon before Warburton and Clements reached London. There were more people in the streets than there had been yesterday, for the secret of the cure had been proclaimed, and some of the bolder spirits were venturing out again. The air reeked with the smell of mingled eucalyptus and ammonia. One of the evening papers had an account of the manner in which a County Council labourer covered with the mixture had tackled a score of the hybrids in a Mayfair house, and had overcome them with the greatest ease.
But there were nearly ten thousand of the insects to be accounted for, and people generally had not forgotten the horrors of the past few hours. A large concourse of interested spectators had gathered in the operating-theatre of the Metropohtan Hospital to see Warburton deal with a few of the hybrids taken in the butterfly nets for the special occasion. Half an hour later, an eager throng of men were scouring London, prepared to deal with the evil, when met. The run on ammonia and eucalyptus severely taxed the resources of the chemists' shops. Warburton looked thoughtfully contented as he walked to his rooms. He saw that the sky was clear, and that the sun was going down like a red ball in the west.
"The elements are coming to our assistance," he said. "If this weather goes on for eight-and-forty hours longer, the situation is absolutely saved. I'm sending a letter to the Central Press and Press Association to-night, asking them to see that it appears in every morning and evening paper in England to-morrow. See you later."
It was exactly how Warburton had hoped and asked for. His letter called attention to the fact that a severe frost seemed imminent, and that it looked likely to last for a day or two. If the frost maintained itself, it would be the duty of every householder to search his premises, and see that they entertained no specimen of the deadly hybrid. If they were driven out of doors, the first sharp frost would be fatal to them. They were bred practically from tropical insects, and therefore they could not stand cold. At the same time, it would be only prudent to see that the insects were quite dead, and not merely torpid. It was necessary, also, for everybody who found even one of the hybrids to report the fact to the Board of Agriculture. Not one of them must be left alive. An open window and the faintest touch of
ammonia and eucalyptus would be sufficient to drive the insects into the open air.
At the end of twenty-four hours the figures began to come in. Between London and Bedhill over eight thousand five hundred of the insects had been found, either dead or torpid, a great number of them being discovered clinging to the arches of the bridges over the river. The wave of terror rolled back, and London became itself again. To the satisfaction of everybody, the frost continued, so that on the morning of the second day over nine thousand seven hundred and fifty of the lovely hybrids had been accounted for. An odd specimen or two drifted here and there for the next week, and then eight days passed without further result. Beyond the few specimens kept and preserved at South Kensington, none remained.
"I fancy the danger is over," Warburton said to Clements, as they lunched together a few days later at the Athenaeum Club. "And yet it seems a pity, too."
"Great pity," Clements agreed, "It's a thousand pities, too, that Street died in so tragic a manner, for, unless I am greatly mistaken, a great secret perished with him. I would have given much to see the fight between the hybrids and the mosquitoes on the Gold Coast. And yet the situation would not have been without its terrors."
"What do you mean?" Warburton asked.
"Well, those hybrids would have increased in size in that congenial atmosphere. They would have developed habits of their own. And Street, after all, was working on a theory. Fancy a dozen of those hybrids as big as an eagle—"
"Don't!" Warburton shuddered. "The horror was quite bad enough as Street evolved it."
The titles of works by Fred M. White listed below were found in the on-line index of the A.P. Watt Records #11036, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The material in this collection documents sales of authors' works to publishing companies, newspapers, magazines, broadcasting corporations, and film studios. The on-line index lists the authors' names and the titles of their works, but does not say where and when these works were published, nor does it indicate whether a specific work is a novel or a short story. The collection itself is organised in a system of folders, each of which is identified by two numbers separated by a period. The following list of titles displays the folder number for each item in parentheses. For more information on the A.P. Watt collection, click on the link given above.
No source could be found for a work entitled The Missing Blade, mentioned in the following citation: "Fred M. White, author of 'The Edge of the Sword.' 'The Secret of the Sands,' 'Anonymous,' 'The Missing Blade' etc." (Introduction to the short story "The Arms Of Chance," The Queenslander, Brisbane, Australia, 27 Jul 1918).
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