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Title: Collected Short Stories, Vol. VI Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1300981h.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.
THE tragic death of Lord Mornington, and the dramatic arrest of his nephew, Guy Windsor, in connection with the mysterious affair, formed one of the most exciting police episodes of last year. It will be just as well, perhaps, in the first instance, to set out the facts briefly and succinctly.
As everybody remembers, the late Lord Mornington had been an eccentric nobleman, a great collector of works of art, and a man who was known to be enormously rich. But for his ungovernable temper and arbitrary manners he probably would have occupied a high place in politics. He was by no means popular. He had practically no friends. He was a confirmed mysogynist. He made no secret of the fact that he trusted no one, believed in no one, and suspected everybody of an inclination to rob him. The only individual who succeeded in any way in keeping on fair terms with his Lordship was a nephew of his, Eric Kearton by name. Kearton was a young man of the greatest respectability. He had an even temperament and was one of the meek and mild type of people who invariably wear spectacles, and have a weakness for University extension lectures and such serious frivolities. Probably because here was a man he could bully and browbeat, Lord Mornington had given this relative of his the ran of his cottage.
It was near this cottage on the Yorkshire coast that the crime took place. From time to time Lord Mornington would quit London or his magnificent family seat near Chester, for a lonely spot on the Yorkshire coast, not very far from Hull, where he did entirely for himself, even to the cooking of his own food. He frequently stayed here for months, refusing to see anybody, with the exception of Kearton or Guy Windsor, and never so much as drawing a cheque. As a rule, when on these excursions, he drew three or four hundred pounds in cash, and used this till it was exhausted. The figure of the sturdy old man with his string bag and brown-paper parcels was a familiar one in Hull. It was quite a usual thing to see him striding out of the town with half-a-dozen herrings in one hand and a packet of groceries in the other. People had come to take Mornington quite as a matter of course, so that he was left to the solitude which he seemed to desire.
The old man's title devolved naturally upon his nephew Guy. But the estates were not entailed, and Lord Mornington could leave his property where he pleased. He had been understood to say that he meant to will it all to charities, but he was precisely the kind of man who dies eventually without making a will at all, thus enabling his legal heirs to come into their own at last.
In the meantime both nephews were poor enough. There was nothing wrong about Guy Windsor, but he appeared disinclined to settle down to anything; he spent most of his time in idle pleasure, and frequently knew what it was to be hard up for a sovereign. It was just at this time that affairs reached a crisis, and he conceived the idea of calling upon his uncle for assistance. The upshot was inevitable. The old man refused the request in the coarsest and plainest terms, and Guy Windsor, who was anything but a prudent young man, lost his temper and made use of threats which, unfortunately, were overheard by other people. The same day he left the cottage, saying that he was going to Hull on particular business, and that he meant to cross over to Holland the next day. An hour or two later, Eric Kearton, who had finished some literary work for his uncle, left the neighbourhood also, with a view to going over the Border for a day or two's fishing in one of the Scottish trout-streams.
At eleven o'clock the next morning the body of Lord Mornington was found in a thick mass of furze on a lonely spot near the edge of the cliffs. The cliffs were high and rugged here, portions of them were cut off from the mainland in the shape of spurs and rugged promontories, and here the sea-birds nested in great quantities. The spurs were almost inaccessible, therefore there were many rare and curious birds here which were not seen elsewhere, and which had become nearly extinct in the British Isles. It was one of the bird-hunters who found the body of the murdered man.
That he had been murdered there was no doubt. He lay on his back within a few feet of the edge of the cliff just away from a screen of gorse bushes. There was a deep stab over the region of the heart, wdiich had been fatal in its effect. So far as the police could judge, robbery was not the motive, for the old man's purse and watch and rings were intact; his papers had not been disturbed. The whole thing caused the greatest excitement in the neighbourhood, which excitement was doubled later on in the day as the intelligence came to hand that Guy Windsor had been arrested in Hull and charged with the commission of the crime. His threats were remembered now, and, what was more to the point, he had in his possession over three hundred pounds in gold, while only the day before he was known to be absolutely penniless. The young man had protested vigorously against the action of the police. He told an almost impossible story to account for the possession of so much money. He had been chosen—or so he said —by an old friend of his family to go to St. Petersburg at once, with a view to saving an Englishman there from serious disgrace. It was only a matter of hours, Windsor said. It was necessary that the money should be placed in the mysterious individual's hands, or a well-known family would be dishonoured. In ordinary circumstances this explanation would pass easily enough, but it was not good enough for the police. From their point of view it merely made matters worse.
It was in vain that Windsor raved and protested—in vain that he offered to find surety for his appearance. But the police were deaf to all his entreaties, and the next morning Guy Windsor was brought before the local magistrate charged with being concerned in the death of Lord Mornington. There was little or no evidence at the first hearing, but the police promised to bring forward further testimony, and Windsor was removed in custody till the next day.
As was only natural in the circumstances, the affair caused a tremendous sensation. The next day's papers teemed with details. The news was flashed from one end of the country to the other. In a few hours the whole nation was discussing the death of Lord Mornington.
From the first it was felt that the police had put their hands upon the guilty man.
Guy Windsor did not look in the least like a criminal as he stood in the dock the next morning. He listened with more or less impatience to the police evidence. The case dragged itself wearily along. One witness after another came forward, but the packed audience seemed to be doomed to disappointment in their expectations. It was nearly two o'clock before the chairman of the Bench hinted that the case had better be further adjourned, whereupon the barrister who defended the prisoner protested.
"At any rate, your Worships, I must ask for bail," he said. "I am prepared to admit that appearances are against my client, but nothing has actually been proved against him yet. And there is nothing to connect liim with the crime."
"The possession of all that money," the chairman suggested, "The prisoner is a poor man?"
"We can account for that," the lawyer said. "Professor Stewart, the eminent naturalist, will come down and give evidence on Tuesday, if necessary, and he will tell you exactly where the three hundred pounds found on my client came from. We shall prove that not a penny of it was ever in the possession of Lord Mornington. It is on these grounds that we demand bail."
There was a stir amongst the audience at this. Professor Stewart was a man of world-wide reputation. As an authority on birds and their habits he stood unrivalled. For the last three or four months he had more or less lived upon the cliffs, and Guy Windsor had been his constant companion. There was a certain amount of risk and hazard attached, which appealed to a young man of sporting instincts, and the great ornithologist had found him invaluable.
"And why is not Professor Stewart here?" the chairman asked. "He was in the neighbourhood two days ago."
Counsel for the prisoner proceeded to explain. The Professor had had some trouble with his bird-camera. He had gone off hot-foot to set it right. Besides, there were a lot of plates which he had recently exposed that he wished to have developed. They were still elaborating this point when Windsor's solicitor rushed into court, evidently labouring under some great excitement. He raised a telegram above his head.
"I have just heard from Professor Stewart," he cried. "I have had this long telegram from him. I know this interruption is out of order, your Worships, and I hope you will pardon me. Professor Stewart wires that he has just read all about the case, and that if you will adjourn till Tuesday, he pledges his word to bring forward such evidence as will clear the accused beyond the shadow of a doubt. You may see the telegram for yoursslves."
The flimsy paper was passed from hand to hand along the Bench, and each of the magistrates scanned it gravely. It was quite evident that the contents of the telegram had shaken them in their certainty of the prisoner's guilt. A man with the unrivalled reputation of Professor Stewart would scarcely have indited a message like that unless he had been absolutely sure of his ground. Not the least pregnant part of the telegram was the concluding line to the effect that the money found on the prisoner had been paid to him by the Professor himself, and that it was on the Professor's business that Windsor was going to St. Petersburg.
"After that," counsel said in tones of quiet triumph, "my application for bail must succeed. I will ask for an adjournment till Tuesday, so as to enable Professor Stewart to make all the necessary arrangements. Meanwhile, my client can get to St. Petersburg and back by that time."
"We shall want substantial bail," the chairman said hesitatingly. "Two securities of five thousand each."
The securities were tendered on the spot, and Guy Windsor left the court with his friends. To a certain extent the whole thing was irregular, but then the moral pressure was great, and just for a moment the police authorities were too staggered to protest. Naturally enough, this strange and startling evidence gave a new fillip to the interest which had been taken in the Mornington tragedy. It was late the same night before Professor Stewart returned to his own quarters, which consisted of rooms in a farmhouse on the side of the cliff. Amongst the distinguished man's first visitors was the inspector of police.
"I hope you won't mind my troubling you, sir," Inspector Wild said, "but I am greatly worried over this case. I wish to be fair. But the Bench had no business to grant that bail this morning. Of course, if you really think that your evidence will be conclusive--"
"I don't think anything about it," the Professor said, with a gleam behind his spectacles. "I am absolutely certain. On Tuesday morning I shall prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that Mr. Guy Windsor is absolutely innocent, which ought to satisfy even your scruples. But I shall go further than that. I shall be able to point out the actual murderer and hand him over to your custody. The whole proofs form a strange instance of the power of modern science, aided by a distinct intervention on the part of Providence. Now, my dear inspector, do you know anything about birds?"
"Well, no," said the inspector, somewhat disconcerted, "though I had a fine collection of eggs when I was a boy."
"Ah, in that case, you know most of the rare feathered visitors here, then. Did you ever hear, for instance, of a beautiful bird called the Swallows-tailed Kite?"
"He was a tradition when I was a boy," the inspector said. "But I don't think one of them has been seen for years. They are extinct."
"On the contrary, a pair of these birds are at present nesting on Steeple Crag. Steeple Crag, as you are aware, is one of the sharp spurs of cliff just off the mainland, where the body of Lord Mornington was found. I have seen them for myself, and between ourselves, if those birds hadn't been there, it is highly probable that young Guy Windsor would have been hanged for a crime he never committed. Now you can go home to supper and work the matter out for yourself. You won't get a single word out of me till Tuesday."
Left to himself, the Professor proceeded to the impromptu dark-room which he had made for himself in one of the cellars of the farmhouse. Apparently his work pleased him, for he returned presently with a bundle of photographs in his hand which he proceeded to lock carefully away in his safe. The whole of the next day he appeared to be closely occupied with his bird studies on the cliffs, but in reality he was searching for something which he appeared to have some difficulty in finding. He came upon it presently in a rugged cart-track leading to the heart of the moors, and then he chuckled to himself as he followed the trail till he struck a deserted road facing due north. He walked down to the village and despatched half-a-dozen telegrams. It was nearly midnight before a powerful-looking motor drove up in front of the farmhouse, and Stewart came out without delay. He was used to coming and going in this way, so that the farmer and his wife expressed no surprise.
Late on Monday evening, before Stewart returned, when he got into his rooms, he found Eric Kearton awaiting him. The latter appeared to be somewhat nervous and excitable. He removed his spectacles from time to time and wiped them, as if the beads of moisture thereon interfered with his sight.
"I came to see you. Professor," he said, "in response to your telegram. I am afraid that my evidence will not be of the slightest use; and if I gave it, I should probably do poor Guy more harm than good. You see, I left here very early on the day of the tragedy, and I have been fishing ever since."
"One never can tell," the Professor said cheerfully. "You see, I happen to know something, and I don't agree with you. Between ourselves, we shall manage to get Windsor off with flying colours. Now, you see if I don't prove to be a true prophet."
Once more Kearton wiped his spectacles nervously.
NATURALLY enough the little court-house was crammed to suffocation when Guy Windsor surrendered to his bail on Tuesday morning. People had come from far and near. Most of the leading newspapers had sent special reporters. The expectation of something out of the common did not appear likely to be gratified at first, for the prosecution began by the calling of Eric Kearton. Anything less like tragedy or anything more like middle-class mediocrity it was impossible to imagine. The shy little man stood in the witness-box wiping his spectacles nervously. The reporters leant back in their seats and studied the quaint rafters of the old Sessions House. Here was more material for descriptive matter than they were likely to make out of the witness.
As a matter of fact, Eric Kearton had very little to say. He could testify to the fact that Lord Mornington and Guy Windsor were not on the best of terms. He had been present and had heard most of the quarrel between the deceased and the accused man. At the end of a quarter of an hour counsel for the Crown waved the witness aside with an air of more or less contempt, and intimated that he might stand down. With a look of intense relief on his face, Kearton prepared to leave the witness-box.
"One moment, please," the defending barrister said suavely. "I should like to ask you a few questions. For instance, are you a single or a married man?"
A sudden hush fell upon the assembled spectators. Some instinct seemed to tell them that they were on the verge of the sensational. The reporters took up their pencils again.
"I—I beg your pardon," Kearton stammered.
"I asked you a plain question. Are you married or not?"
"I don't see," the witness said hesitatingly, "why--"
"Are you married or not?" counsel thundered.
The witness was understood to say that he was. He glanced in a timid, apprehensive way at his tormentor.
"Very good," the latter went on. "You are a married man. I put it to you that yours is a secret marriage, and that none of your friends know anything about it. I put it to you that you had good reason for concealing the fact from Lord Mornington."
"I deemed it wiser," Kearton murmured.
"Very good. I understand that your wife is a variety actress."
"That is so," the witness replied.
"Ah, well, now we understand. A secret marriage which had to be kept from your relative. You naturally had hopes of sharing some of his money? You know perfectly well that if you had disclosed the fact that you had made a mésalliance of this kind, you would never have been under your uncle's roof again?"
"There is no harm in it," the witness pleaded.
"Oh, certainly not," counsel said drily. "Are you on friendly terms with your wife? Haven't you rather neglected her of late? And didn't she threaten to write to Lord Mornington? As a matter of fact, now, didn't a letter from her to Lord Mornington arrive the day before his death? Now, please be careful, because I know what I am talking about, and I want a plain answer."
"I—I believe so," Kearton confessed.
"Thank you. Now, we will go a little further. Early on the morning of Lord Mornington's death, or late the night before, you went north for the purpose of fishing. I understand that till late last night you did not return to this neighbourhood. Now, sir, on your oath, are you prepared to swear that you were nowhere in the neighbourhood on the day the crime was committed?"
"Certainly I was not!" the witness cried.
"Very well. Now, how did you go to Scotland, and how did you return? I mean in what way did you travel?"
"Why, in the ordinary way. By train, of course."
"Oh, indeed! You didn't go either way by motor, I suppose? You didn't hire a motor in the first instance to take you to Scotland?"
The witness shook his head, but did not speak.
"In that case," the counsel went on, "you have never heard of Messrs. Greatorex, of Hull, the motor-garage people?"
Again the witness shook his head. He seemed bereft of the power of speech. He wiped his spectacles again.
"I have no further questions to ask for the present," the counsel said. "I shall be able to prove to your Worships later on that the witness hired a motor-car to take him to Scotland and bring him back again, and that he was actually seen within ten miles of here within an hour or so of Lord Mornington's death. It will save a great deal of time and trouble if I place Professor Stewart in the box without further delay. I rely upon him entirely to prove my case for me. Call Professor Stewart, please."
There was no studying the carved roof of the Sessions House now, for everybody was on the tiptoe of expectation. It was felt that here was a startling development which might change the whole current of public opinion. The Professor stepped into the box coolly and confidently. There was nothing in his manner to indicate what was going to take place.
"I believe you are a friend of the accused?" counsel asked.
"I know him very well, indeed," the Professor replied.
"And you have formed some estimate of his character, I suppose?"
"Well, yes, sir. He is a most intelligent young man. He takes a great interest in outdoor life and pursuits. I have found him very keen in regard to natural history; indeed, he has been of the greatest assistance to me in my study of bird life and in taking my photographs. I cannot speak too highly of him."
"You have found him trustworthy and reliable?"
"Oh, dear me, yes. Unfortunately Mr. Windsor has no inclination for indoor work. This is possibly his misfortune more than his fault. He has been brought up to do nothing, but I emphatically deny that he is the loafer that Lord Mornington took him to be. I have, besides, the highest opinion of his integrity."
"For instance, you would trust him with money?"
"I have already done so, sir," the Professor said calmly. "It was on behalf of a relative of mine that Mr. Windsor took his trip to St. Petersburg last vfeek. It was absolutely necessary that a certain young man should have the sum of three hundred pounds placed in his hands within something like twenty -four hours. You will excuse me going into details. As I could not undertake the journey myself, I asked Mr. Windsor to do so. The money found in his possession at the time of his arrest was paid over to him by me, and I can produce the cheque, which was cashed into sovereigns in Hull, if the Court would care to see it. For obvious reasons I must decline to give the name of the drawer."
Something like a mild sensation foUowed this statement. It was felt that one of the main props of the prosecution had been knocked away, and that the Crown case was considerably weakened. Everybody listened closely now.
"I don't think that will be necessary," counsel went on. "I understand. Professor, that you can tell us a good deal more about this matter. You have formed a theory--"
"I beg your pardon," the Professor interrupted. "I have no theories at all. What I shall lay before the Court is actual fact. I wish to produce, for the consideration of the Bench, a photograph which will establish beyond doubt the identity of the murderer."
"One moment," Windsor's lawyer said. "Touching this photograph, is it one that you took yourself?"
"Well, more or less," the Professor explained. "But perhaps I had better go into details. I have been fortunate enough since I have been here to obtain photographs of many rare birds that nest on the spurs and crags just off the mainland. These birds are perfectly safe where they are, for they can lay their eggs with impunity, a fact which doubtless brings so many of them here. A little time ago, and by the aid of my glasses, I saw that a pair of Swallow-tailed Kites were actually nesting upon Steeple Crag. I determined, by hook or by crook, to get a photograph of these birds.'
"How did you manage it?" counsel asked.
"I am just coming to that. Having located the exact nesting-spot, with the aid of an air-gun, I threw a fine line right across some bushes on the edge of the nest; in fact, I threw half-a-dozen of these lines, the ends of which were attached by a string to the shutter of my special camera by means of which I take these photographs. The Kites were so wild that it was useless for me to try and snap them myself. Therefore I hid my camera in a bunch of gorse bushes, with all my mechanical arrangements perfectly made, so that directly one of the birds dropped upon one of the strings the shutter would be released and the successful exposure made."
"Where was the camera placed?" counsel asked.
"In a patch of gorse bushes some twenty yards from the edge of the cliff."
"Leaving plenty of room for anybody to pass by, of course?"
"Oh, certainly; you see, I had to run the risk of that. The string was only the matter of a few inches from the ground, and anybody who had gone that way might have stumbled over it."
"And thus released the shutter, which possibly might have ended in the passer-by taking his own photograph."
"Precisely," the Professor said in quiet tones. "Any wanderer kicking his foot against the string could easily have taken his own photograph. If he had fallen heavily on the string, he probably would have pulled the camera down, and there would have been an end of my experiments for the time being."
"And did anything of the kind happen?" counsel asked.
"Something of the kind did take place," the Professor said solemnly. "When I went to regain possession of my camera, I found it lying face downwards in the bushes, and the plate had evidently been exposed. At first I naturally concluded that someone blundering along had done this, and I made my plans to lay my trap again. But certain information had come to my ears in the meantime, and it occurred to me that possibly the one exposed plate would tell me something which would throw a light upon the tragic death of Lord Mornington. You see, it so happens that his Lordship's body was picked up just in front of the gorse bushes where I had planted my special camera. Don't let Mr. Kearton go!"
The last words were uttered in a quick, impatient tone of voice. The disappearing figure of Kearton had paused in the doorway.
He muttered some excuse as he came back to his seat again. He was wiping his spectacles with trembling hands.
A queer sort of cry escaped Kearton's lips. The man in the dock stood there gripping the rails with convulsive force. As the Professor handed up to the Bench a glass negative and some printed photographs, there was a silence in the court-house which was absolutely felt.
It was a forcible and dramatic picture that was thus presented for inspection. In the background were the rugged cliffs with the spur of Steeple Crag standing out rude and ragged, the nesting birds upon it were visible from every part of the room. In the foreground were patches of gorse, and beyond a square of flat, even turf dotted with sea-pinks. In the centre of this stood two men, one old and grey, the other young and slender, his pale features set and white, his eyes half hidden behind spectacles. The old man had staggered back almost to his fall, his right arm was upraised to ward off a blow from the younger man, whose right hand was drawn back with a long knife held in his fingers. A spontaneous and startled cry broke from the spectators who lived in the locality. They had not the slightest difficulty in recognising the reeling figure of Lord Mornington, or in making out the features of his nephew, Eric Kearton. The photograph spoke for itself. It seemed to the onlookers that they were actually present at the tragedy which had excited the whole of England.
Windsor's lawyer looked appealingly at the Bench and shrugged his shoulders. It would have been an anti-climax now for him to say anything. As if by instinct two policemen walked across the court and stood on either side of Kearton. He swayed backwards and forwards with his hand to his throat, as if something were choking him. With a queer, strangled cry he fell to the ground and lay there still and unconscious...
"A close call that," said Windsor's counsel half an hour later, as he sat at lunch with his client and the Professor. "Altogether it was a lucky thing for my young friend here."
"Lucky!" the Professor cried. "I should call it a direct intervention of Providence."
A PELTING rain volleyed against the great glass dome of the terminus, a roaring wind boomed in the roof. Passengers, hurrying along the platform, glistened in big coats and tweed caps pulled close over their ears. By the platform the night express was drawn up—a glittering mass of green and gold, shimmering with electric lights, warm, inviting, and cozy.
Most of the corridor carriages and sleeping berths were full, for it was early in October still, and the Scotch exodus was not just yet. A few late comers were looking anxiously out for the guard. He came presently, an alert figure in blue and silver. Really, he was very sorry. But the train was unusually crowded, and he was doing the best he could. He was perfectly aware of the fact that his questioners represented a Cabinet Minister on his way to Balmoral and a prominent Lothian baronet, but there are limits even to the power of an express guard, on the Grand Coast Railway.
"Well, what's the matter with this?" the Minister demanded. "Here is an ordinary first-class coach that will do very well for us. Now, Catesby, unlock one of these doors and turn the lights on."
"Very sorry, my lord," the guard explained, "but it can't be done. Two of the carriages in the coach are quite full, as you see, and the other two are reserved. As a matter of fact, my lord, we are taking a body down to Lydmouth. Gentleman who is going to be buried there. And the other carriage is for the Imperial Bank of Scotland. Cashier going up north with specie, you understand."
It was all plain enough, and disgustingly logical. To intrude upon the presence of a body was perfectly impossible; to try and force the hand of the bank cashier equally out of the question. As head of a great financial house, the Minister knew that. A platform inspector bustled along presently, with his hand to his gold-laced cap.
"Saloon carriage being coupled up behind, my lord," he said.
The problem was solved. The guard glanced at his watch. It seemed to him that both the bank messenger and the undertaker were cutting it fine. The coffin came presently on a hand-truck—a black velvet pall lay over it, and on the sombre cloth a wreath or two of white lilies. The door of the carriage was closed presently, and the blinds drawn discreetly close. Following behind this came a barrow in charge of a couple of platform police. On the barrow were two square deal boxes, heavy out of all proportion to their size. These were deposited presently to the satisfaction of a little nervous-looking man in gold- rimmed glasses. Mr. George Skidmore, of the Imperial Bank, had his share of ordinary courage, but he had an imagination, too, and he particularly disliked these periodical trips to branch banks, in convoy, so to speak. He took no risks.
"Awful night, sir," the guard observed. "Rather lucky to get a carriage to yourself, sir. Don't suppose you would have done so only we're taking a corpse as far as Lydmouth, which is our first stop."
"Really?" Skidmore said carelessly. "Ill wind that blows nobody good, Catesby. I may be overcautious, but I much prefer a carriage to myself. And my people prefer it, too. That's why we always give the railway authorities a few days' notice. One can't be too careful, Catesby."
The guard supposed not. He was slightly, yet discreetly, amused to see Mr. Skidmore glance under the seats of the first-class carriage. Certainly there was nobody either there or on the racks. The carriage at the far side was locked, and so, now, was the door next the platform. The great glass dome was brilliantly lighted so that anything suspicious would have been detected instantly. The guard's whistle rang out shrill and clear, and Catesby had a glimpse of Mr. Skidmore making himself comfortable as he swung himself into his van. The great green and gold serpent with the brilliant electric eyes fought its way sinuously into the throat of the wet and riotous night on its first stage of over two hundred miles. Lydmouth would be the first stop.
So far Mr. Skidmore had nothing to worry him, nothing, that is, except the outside chance of a bad accident. He did not anticipate, however, that some miscreant might deliberately wreck the train on the off chance of looting those plain deal boxes. The class of thief that banks have to fear is not guilty of such clumsiness. Unquestionably nothing could happen on this side of Lydmouth. The train was roaring along now through the fierce gale at sixty odd miles an hour, Skidmore had the carriage to himself, and was not the snug, brilliantly lighted compartment made of steel? On one side was the carriage with the coffin; on the other side another compartment filled with a party of sportsmen going North. Skidmore had noticed the four of them playing bridge just before he slipped into his own carriage. Really, he had nothing to fear. He lay back comfortably wondering how Poe or Gaboriau would have handled such a situation with a successful robbery behind it. There are limits, of course, both to a novelist's imagination and a clever thief's process of invention. So, therefore....
Three hours and twenty minutes later the express pulled up at Lydmouth. The station clock indicated the hour to be 11.23. Catesby swung himself out of his van on to the shining wet platform. Only one passenger was waiting there, but nobody alighted. Catesby was sure of this, because he was on the flags before a door could be opened. He came forward to give a hand with the coffin in the compartment next to Skidmore's. Then he noticed, to his surprise, that the glass in the carriage window was smashed; he could see that the little cashier was huddled up strangely in one corner. And Catesby could see also that the two boxes of bullion were gone!
Catesby's heart was thumping against his ribs as he fumbled with his key. He laid his hand upon Skidmore's shoulder, but the latter did not move. The fair hair hung in a mass on the side of his forehead, and here it was fair no longer. There was a hole with something horribly red and slimy oozing from it. The carpet on the floor was piled up in a heap; there were red smears on the cushions. It was quite evident that a struggle had taken place here. The shattered glass in the window testified to that. And the boxes were gone, and Skidmore had been murdered by some assailant who had shot him through the brain. And this mysterious antagonist had got off with the bullion, too.
A thing incredible, amazing, impossible; but there it was. By some extraordinary method or another the audacious criminal had boarded an express train traveling at sixty miles an hour in the teeth of a gale. He had contrived to enter the cashier's carriage and remove specie to the amount of eight thousand pounds! It was impossible that only one man could have carried it. But all the same it was gone.
Catesby pulled himself together. He was perfectly certain that nobody at present on the train had been guilty of this thing. He was perfectly certain that nobody had left the train. Nobody could have done so after entering the station without the guard's knowledge, and to have attempted such a thing on the far side of the river bridge would have been certain death to anybody. There was a long viaduct here—posts and pillars and chains, with tragedy lurking anywhere for the madman who attempted such a thing. And until the viaduct was reached the express had not slackened speed. Besides, the thief who had the courage and intelligence and daring to carry out a robbery like this was not the man to leave an express train traveling at a speed of upwards of sixty miles an hour.
The train had to proceed, there was no help for it. There was a hurried conference between Catesby and the stationmaster; after that the electric lamps in the dead man's carriage were unshipped, and the blinds pulled down. The matter would be fully investigated when Edinburgh was reached, meanwhile the stationmaster at Lydmouth would telephone the Scotch capital and let them know there what they had to expect. Catesby crept into his van again, very queer and dizzy, and with a sensation in his legs suggestive of creeping paralysis.
Naturally, the mystery of the night express caused a great sensation. Nothing like it had been known since the great crime on the South Coast, which is connected with the name of Lefroy. But that was not so much a mystery as a man hunt. There the criminal had been identified. But here there was no trace and no clue whatever. It was in vain that the Scotland Yard authorities tried to shake the evidence of the guard, Catesby. He refused to make any admissions that would permit the police even to build up a theory. He was absolutely certain that Mr. Skidmore had been alone in the carriage at the moment that the express left London; he was absolutely certain that he had locked the door of the compartment, and the engine driver could testify that the train had never traveled at a less speed than sixty miles an hour until the bridge over the river leading into Lydmouth station was reached; even then nobody could have dropped off the train without the risk of certain death. Inspector Merrick was bound to admit this himself when he went over the spot. And the problem of the missing bullion boxes was quite as puzzling in its way as the mysterious way in which Mr. Skidmore had met his death.
There was no clue to this either. Certainly there had been a struggle, or there would not have been blood marks all over the place, and the window would have remained intact. Skidmore had probably been forced back into his seat, or he had collapsed there after the fatal shot was fired. The unfortunate man had been shot through the brain with an ordinary revolver of common pattern, so that for the purpose of proof the bullet was useless. There were no finger marks on the carriage door, a proof that the murderer had either worn gloves or that he had carefully removed all traces with a cloth of some kind. It was obvious, too, that a criminal of this class would take no risks, especially as there was no chance of his being hurried, seeing that he had had three clear hours for his work. The more the police went into the matter, the more puzzled they were. It was not a difficult matter to establish the bona fides of the passengers who traveled in the next coach with Skidmore, and as to the rest it did not matter. Nobody could possibly have left any of the corridor coaches without attracting notice; indeed, the very suggestion was absurd. And there the matter rested for three days.
It must not be supposed that the authorities had been altogether idle. Inspector Merrick spent most of his time traveling up and down the line by slow local trains on the off-chance of hearing some significant incident that might lead to a clue. There was one thing obvious—the bullion boxes must have been thrown off the train at some spot arranged between the active thief and his confederates. For this was too big a thing to be entirely the work of one man. Some of the gang must have been waiting along the line in readiness to receive the boxes and carry them to a place of safety. By this time, no doubt, the boxes themselves had been destroyed; but eight thousand pounds in gold takes some moving, and probably a conveyance, a motor for choice, had been employed for this purpose. But nobody appeared to have seen or heard anything suspicious on the night of the murder; no prowling gamekeeper or watcher had noticed anything out of the common. Along the Essex and Norfolk marshes, where the Grand Coast Railway wound along like a steel snake, they had taken their desolate and dreary way. True, the dead body of a man had been found in the fowling nets up in the mouth of the Little Ouse, and nobody seemed to know who he was; but there could be no connection between this unhappy individual and the express criminal. Merrick shook his head as he listened to this from a laborer in a roadside public house where he was making a frugal lunch on bread and cheese.
"What do you call fowling nets?" Merrick asked.
"Why, what they catches the birds in," the rustic explained. "Thousands and thousands of duck and teel and widgeon they catches at this time of year. There's miles of nets along the road—great big nets like fowl runs. Ye didn't happen to see any on 'em as ye came along in the train?"
"Now I come to think of it, yes," Merrick said thoughtfully. "I was rather struck by all that netting. So they catch sea birds that way?"
"Catches 'em by the thousand, they does. Birds fly against the netting in the dark and get entangled. Ducks they get by 'ticing 'em into a sort of cage with decoys. There's some of 'em stan's the best part of half a mile long. Covered in over the top like great cages. Ain't bad sport, either."
Merrick nodded. He recollected it all clearly now. He recalled the wide, desolate mud flats running right up to the railway embankment for some miles. At high tide the mud flats were under water, and out of these the great mass of network rose both horizontally and perpendicular. And in this tangle the dead body of a man had been found after the storm.
There was nothing really significant in the fact that the body had been discovered soon after the murder of Mr. George Skidmore. Still, there might be a connection between the two incidents. Merrick was going to make inquiries; he was after what looked like a million to one chance. But then Merrick was a detective with an imagination, which was one of the reasons why he had been appointed to the job. It was essentially a case for the theoretical man. It baffled all the established rules of the game.
Late the same afternoon Merrick arrived at Little Warlingham by means of a baker's cart. It was here that the body of the drowned man lay awaiting the slim chances of identity. If nothing transpired during the next eight and forty hours, the corpse would be buried by the parish authorities. The village policeman acted as Merrick's guide. It was an event in his life that he was not likely to forget.
"A stranger to these parts, I should say, sir," the local officer said. "He's in a shed at the back of the 'Blue Anchor,' where the inquest was held. If you come this way, I'll show him to you."
"Anything found on the body?"
"Absolutely nothing, sir. No mark on the clothing or linen, either. Probably washed off some ship in the storm. Pockets were quite empty, too. And no signs of foul play. There you are, sir!"
Casually enough Merrick bent over the still, white form lying there. The dead face was turned up to the light, Rembrandtesque, coming through the door. The detective straightened himself suddenly, and wiped his forehead.
"Stranger to you, sir, of course?" the local man said grimly.
"Well, no," Merrick retorted. "I happen to know the fellow quite well. I'm glad I came here."
Until it was quite too dark to see any longer Merrick was out on the mud flats asking questions. He appeared to be greatly interested in the wildfowlers and the many methods of catching their prey. He learned, incidentally, that on the night of the express murder most of the nets and lures had been washed away. He took minute particulars as to the state of the tide on the night in question; he wanted to know if the nets were capable of holding up against any great force. For instance, if a school of porpoises came along? Or if a fish eagle or an osprey found itself entangled in the meshes?
The fowlers smiled. They invited Merrick to try it for himself. On that stormy east coast it was foolish to take any risks. And Merrick was satisfied. As a matter of fact, he was more than satisfied.
He was really beginning to see his way at last. By the time he got back to his headquarters again he had practically reconstructed the crime. As he stood on the railway permanent way, gazing down into the network of the fowlers below, he smiled to himself. He could have tossed a biscuit on to the top of the long lengths of tarred and knotted rigging. Later on he telephoned to the London terminus of the Grand Coast Railway for the people there to place the services of Catesby at his disposal for a day or two. Could Catesby meet him at Lydmouth to-morrow?
The guard could and did. He frankly admitted that he was grateful for the little holiday. He looked as if he wanted it. The corners of his mouth twitched, his hands were shaky.
"It's nerves, Mr. Merrick," he explained. "We all suffer from them at times. Only we don't like the company to know it, ye understand? To tell the truth, I've never got over that affair at the Junction here eight years ago. I expect you remember that."
Merrick nodded. Catesby was alluding to a great railway tragedy which had taken place outside Lydmouth station some few years back. It had been a most disastrous affair for a local express, and Catesby had been acting as guard to the train. He spoke of it under his breath.
"I dream of it occasionally even now," he said. "The engine left the line and dragged the train over the embankment into the river. If you ask me how I managed to escape, I can't tell you. I never come into Lydmouth with the night express now without my head out of the window of the van right away from the viaduct till she pulls up at the station. And what's more, I never shall. It isn't fear, mind you, because I've as much pluck as any man. It's just nerves."
"We get 'em in our profession, too," Merrick smiled. "Did you happen to be looking out of the window on the night of the murder?"
"Yes, and every other night, too. Haven't I just told you so? Directly we strike the viaduct I come to my feet by instinct."
"Always look out the same side, I suppose?"
"Yes, on the left. That's the platform side, you understand."
"Then if anybody had left the train there—"
"Anybody left the train! Why we were traveling at fifty miles an hour when we reached the viaduct. Oh, yes, if anybody had left the train I should have been bound to see them, of course."
"But you can't see out of both windows at once."
"Nobody could leave the train by the other side. The stone parapet of the viaduct almost touches the footboard, and there's a drop of ninety feet below that. Of course I see what you are driving at, Mr. Merrick. Now look here. I locked Mr. Skidmore in the carriage myself, and I can prove that nobody got in before we left London. That would have been too dangerous a game so long as the train was passing any number of brilliantly lighted stations, and by the time we got into the open we were going at sixty miles an hour. That speed never slackened till we were just outside Lydmouth, and I was watching at the moment that our pace dropped. I had my head out of the window of my van till we pulled up by the platform. I am prepared to swear to all this if you like. Lord knows how the thing was done, and I don't suppose anybody else ever will."
"You are mistaken there," said Merrick drily. "Now, what puzzles you, of course, is the manner in which the murderer left the train."
"Well, isn't that the whole mystery?"
"Not to me. That's the part I really do know. Not that I can take any great credit to myself, because luck helped me. It was, perhaps, the most amazing piece of luck I have ever had. It was my duty, of course, to take no chances, and I didn't. But we'll come to that presently. Let it suffice for the moment that I know how the murderer left the train. What puzzles me is to know how he got on it. We can dismiss every other passenger in the train, and we need not look for an accomplice. There were accomplices, of course, but they were not on the express. Why didn't Mr. Skidmore travel in one of the corridor coaches?"
"He was too nervous. He always had a first-class carriage to himself. We knew he was coming, and that was why we attached an ordinary first-class coach to the train. We shouldn't do it for anybody, but Lord Rendelmore, the chairman of Mr. Skidmore's bank, is also one of our directors. The coach came in handy the other night because we had an order from a London undertaker to bring a corpse as far as here—to Lydmouth."
"Really! You would have to have a separate carriage for that."
"Naturally, Mr. Merrick. It was sort of killing two birds with one stone."
"I see. When did you hear about the undertaking job?"
"The same morning we heard from the bank that Mr. Skidmore was going to Lydmouth. We reserved a coach at once, and had it attached to the Express. The other carriages were filled with ordinary passengers."
"Why didn't I hear of this before?" Merrick asked.
"I don't know. It doesn't seem to me to be of much importance. You might just as well ask me questions as to the passengers' baggage."
"Everything is of importance," Merrick said sententiously. "In our profession, there are no such things as trifles. I suppose there will be no difficulty in getting at the facts of this corpse business. I'll make inquiries here presently."
So far Merrick professed himself to be satisfied. But there were still difficulties in the way. The station people had a clear recollection of the receipt of a coffin on the night of the tragedy, and, late as it was, the gruesome thing had been fetched away by the people whom it was consigned to. A plain hearse, drawn by one horse, had been driven into the station yard, the consignment note had been receipted in the usual way, and there was an end of the matter. Lydmouth was a big place, with nearly a quarter of a million of inhabitants, and would necessarily contain a good many people in the undertaking line. Clearly it was no business of the railway company to take this thing any further.
Merrick admitted that freely enough. It was nearly dark when he came back to the station, profoundly dissatisfied with a wasted afternoon.
"No good," he told Catesby. "At the same time there are consolations. And, after all, I am merely confirming my suspicions. I suppose your people here are on the telephone. If so, I should like to send a message to your head office. I want the name of the firm in London who consigned the coffin here. I suppose the stationmaster could manage this for me."
An hour or so later the information came. Merrick, at the telephone, wanted a little further assistance. Would the Grand Coast Railway call up the undertaker's firm whilst he held the line and ask the full particulars as to the body sent from London to Lydmouth. For half an hour Merrick stood patiently there till the reply came.
"Are you there? Is that Inspector Merrick? Oh, yes. Well, we have called up Lincoln & Co., the undertakers. We got on to the manager himself. He declares that the whole thing is a mistake. They have not sent a corpse over our trunk system for two months. I read the manager the letter asking for special facilities, a letter on the firm's own paper. The manager does not hesitate to say the whole thing is a forgery. I think he is right, Inspector. If we can do anything else for you—"
Merrick hung up the receiver and smiled as if pleased with himself. He turned to his companion, Catesby.
"It's all right," he said. "Is there any way we can get back to London to- night? The whole thing is perfectly plain, now."
Though Merrick returned to London thoroughly satisfied, he knew that the sequel was not just yet. There was much conjuring work to be done before it would be possible to place all the cards on the table. The Christmas holidays had arrived before Merrick obtained a couple of warrants, and, armed with these, he went down to Brighton on Boxing Day, and put up at the Hotel Regina, registering himself as Colonel Beaumont, sometime of the United States Field Forces. Merrick could pose as an authority on Cuba, for on one occasion he had been there for six months on the lookout for a defaulting bank manager. He had made certain changes in his appearance, and just now he bore little resemblance to Inspector Merrick of New Scotland Yard.
The big hotel on the front was full. There was a smart dance that same night, preceded by a children's party and Christmas tree. The house swarmed with young folks, and a good many nationalities were represented. On occasions like these somebody generally takes the lead, and by common consent the part of the chief of the events had been allotted to the Marquis de Branza.
To begin with, he was immensely rich. He had vast estates in Italy. He had been staying at the Regina for the past month, and it was whispered that his bill had reached three figures. He entertained lavishly; he was the soul of hospitality; he was going to buy a palace in Kings' Gardens, and more or less settle down in Brighton.
In addition to all this the Marquis was a handsome man, very fascinating, and a prime favorite with all the boys and girls at the Regina. He had his little peculiarities, of course—for instance, he paid for everything in gold. All his hotel bills were met with current coin.
Merrick had gleaned all this before he had been a day at the Regina. They were quite a happy family, and the Colonel speedily found himself at home. The Marquis welcomed him as if he owned the hotel, and as if everybody was his guest. The dance was a great success, as also were the presents in connection with the cotillon promoted by the Marquis.
At two o'clock the following morning the Marquis was entertaining a select party in the smoking-room. The ladies had all vanished by this time. The Marquis was speaking of his adventures. He really had quite a talent in that direction. Naturally, a man of his wealth was certain to be the mark for swindlers. Merrick listened with an approving smile. He knew that most of these stories were true, for they had all been recorded from time to time at Scotland Yard.
"You would have made an excellent detective, Marquis," he said. "You have made it quite clear where the police blundered over that Glasgow tragedy. I suppose you read all about the Grand Coast Railway murder."
The Marquis started ever so slightly. There was a questioning look in his eyes.
"Did you?" he said. "Naturally one would, Colonel. But a matter the most inexplicable. I gave him up. From the very first I gave him up. If the guard Catesby was not the guilty person, then I admit I have no theory."
One by one, the smoking-room company faded away. Presently only Merrick and the Marquis remained, save one guest who had fallen asleep in his chair. A sleepy waiter looked in and vanished again. The hotel was absolutely quiet now. Merrick, however, was wide awake enough; so, apparently, was the Marquis. All the same, he yawned ostentatiously.
"Let us to bed," he said. "To-morrow, perhaps—"
"No," Merrick said somewhat curtly. "I prefer to-night. Sit down."
The last two words came crisply and with a ring of command in them. The Marquis bowed as he dropped into a chair and lighted a fresh cigarette. A little red spot glowed on either of his brown cheeks, his eyes glittered.
"You want to speak to me, Colonel?" he said.
"Very much indeed. Now, you are an exceedingly clever man, Marquis, and you may be able to help me. It happens that I am deeply interested in the Grand Coast Express murder; in fact, I have devoted the last two months to its solution."
"With no success whatever, my dear Colonel?" the Marquis murmured.
"On the contrary, my dear Marquis, with absolute satisfaction. I am quite sure that you will be interested in my story."
The Marquis raised his cigarette graciously.
"You are very good to give me your confidence," he said. "Pray proceed."
"Thank you. I will not bore you with any preliminary details, for they are too recent to have faded from your memory. Sufficient that we have a murder committed in an express train; we have the disappearance of eight thousand pounds in gold, without any trace of the criminal. That he was on the train at the start is obvious. That he was not in any of the carriages conveying ordinary passengers is equally obvious. It is also certain that he left the train after the commission of the crime. Doubtless you read the evidence of the guard to prove that nobody left the train after the viaduct leading to Lydmouth station was reached. Therefore, the murderer contrived to make his escape when the express was traveling at sixty miles per hour."
"Is not all this superfluous?" the Marquis asked.
"Well, not quite. I am going to tell you how the murderer joined the train and how he left it after the murder and the robbery."
"You are going to tell me that! Is it possible?"
"I think so," Merrick said modestly. "Now, Mr. Skidmore had a compartment to himself. He was locked in the very last thing, and nobody joined the train afterward. Naturally a—well—an amateur detective like myself wanted to know who was in the adjoining compartments. Three of these could be dismissed at once. But in the fourth there was a corpse—"
"A corpse! But there was no mention of that at the inquest."
"No, but the fact remains. A corpse in a coffin. In a dark compartment with the blinds down. And, strangely enough, the firm of undertakers who consigned, or were supposed to consign, the body to Lydmouth denied the whole business. Therefore, it is only fair to suppose that the whole thing was a put-up job to get a compartment in the coach that Mr. Skidmore traveled by. I am going to assume that in that coffin the murderer lay concealed. But let me give you a light—your cigarette is out."
"I smoke no more," the Marquis said. "My throat, he is dry. And then—"
"Well, then, the first part is easy. The man gets out of the coffin and proceeds to fill it with some heavy substance which has been smuggled into the carriage under the pall. He screws the lid down and presently makes his way along the footboard to the next compartment. An athlete in good condition could do that; in fact, a sailor has done it in a drunken freak more than once. Mind you, I don't say that murder was intended in the first instance; but will presume that there was a struggle. The thief probably lost his temper, and perhaps Mr. Skidmore irritated him. Now, the rest was easy. It was easy to pack up the gold in leather bags, each containing a thousand sovereigns, and to drop them along the line at some spot previously agreed upon. I have no doubt that the murderer and his accomplices traveled many times up and down the line before the details were finally settled. Any way, there was no risk here. The broken packing cases were pitched out also, probably in some thick wood. Or they might have been weighted and cast into a stream. Are you interested?"
The Marquis gurgled. He had some difficulty in speaking.
"A little dangerous," he said. "Our ingenious friend could not possibly screw himself down in the coffin after returning to his compartment. And have you perceived the danger of discovery at Lydmouth?"
"Precisely," Merrick said drily. "It is refreshing to meet with so luminous a mind as yours. There were many dangers, many risks to take. The train might have been stopped, lots of things might have happened. It would be far better for the man to leave the express. And he did so!"
"The express at top speed! Impossible!"
"To the ordinary individual, yes. But then, you see, this was not an ordinary individual. He was—let us suppose—an acrobat, a man of great nerve and courage, accustomed to trapeze work and the use of the diving net."
"But Colonel, pardon me, where does the net come in?"
"The net came in at a place near Little Warlingham, on the Norfolk coast. There are miles of net up there, trap and flight nets close by the side of the line. These nets are wide and strong; they run many furlongs without supports, so that an acrobat could easily turn a somersault on to one of these at a given spot without the slightest risk. He could study out the precise spot carefully beforehand—there are lightships on the sands to act as guides. I have been down to the spot and studied it all out for myself. The thing is quite easy for the class of man I mean. I am not taking any great credit to myself, because I happened to see the body of the man who essayed that experiment. I recognized him for—"
"You recognized him! You knew who he was?"
"Certainly. He was Luigi Bianca, who used to perform in London years ago, with his brother Joseph, on the high trapeze. Then one of them got into trouble and subsequently embarked, as the papers say, on a career of crime. And when I saw the body of Luigi I knew at once that he had had a hand in the murder of Mr. Skidmore. When the right spot was reached the fellow took a header in the dark boldly enough, but he did not know that the storm had come with a very high October tide, and washed the nets away. He fell on the sands and dislocated his neck. But I had something to go on with. When I found out about the bogus corpse I began to see my way. I have been making careful inquiries ever since for the other criminal—"
"The other criminal! You mean to insinuate—"
"I insinuate nothing," Merrick said coldly; "naturally enough I wanted to find Joseph Bianca. He was the man who picked up the gold; he was the man who hired a car in London from Moss & Co., in Regent Street, for a week. This was to recover the gold and incidentally also to take up the thief who stole it. I wanted to find Joseph Bianca, and I've done it!"
The Marquis leaped to his feet. As he did so the man in the distant chair woke up and moved across the room.
"Don't make a fuss!" Merrick said quietly. "You will be able to explain presently—perhaps what you are doing here posing as a Marquis, and where you got all that ready money from. Meanwhile, let me inform you that I am Inspector Merrick, of Scotland Yard, and that this is Sergeant Matthews. Joseph Bianca, you are my prisoner, and I have a warrant for your arrest as an accessory before and after the fact for the murder of Mr. George Skidmore. Ask them to call us a cab, Matthews!"
Philip Stenning asked the question twice without getting a reply.
"I think we had better understand one another, Mabel," he said. "I have come all these thousands of miles in response to your letter, because I refuse to accept your suggestion as final. And, as to your liking Archer King, the mere suggestion is ridiculous."
Mabel Larchester found her voice at last.
"It seems so utterly hopeless," she murmured. "Isn't it four years since you went out to Australia, Phil? People suppose that my father is prosperous, but, when things come to be investigated, he will have to confess—"
"Oh," Stenning said in the same calm, constrained voice, "I think I begin to understand. You have grown old enough to see the advantage of throwing me over for a rich man like Archer King."
The girl looked swiftly up into his face. He could see how her lips were trembling, how she was trying to force herself to say something other than what he wished to hear. She twisted her hands together painfully.
"Oh, it isn't that," she cried. "If it were nothing but money, I shouldn't care. Even for my father I couldn't marry a man like Archer King."
"This is just what I feared," Stenning went on. "Is it a large amount that your father has—"
"I don't know," Mabel said miserably.
"Now, listen. I don't want anybody to know that I am back here. I walked over from Rothesay Junction on purpose to avoid people. But you are not going to marry Archer King. Is he in the village now?"
"I saw him this afternoon," Mabel murmured.
A clock somewhere in the distance was chiming the hour of ten. Most of the houses in the little village were in darkness by this time. At some distance away on the hillside two windows gleamed brightly yellow through the gloom.
"That is Rothesay House," Phillip said, as if speaking to himself. "And those windows are in Archer King's library upstairs. I have been there more than once, and I am going there again this evening. When I come away you will be free."
He stooped, and lightly brushed her forehead with his lips. Then he turned and plunged into the darkness and gloom of the shrubbery. Just for a moment or two Mabel hesitated. She knew by this time that the servants in the house had gone to bed. She knew that for the next hour or two it would be very little use to expect her father. It would be safe to follow Stenning. There would be no risk in leaving the house open to the world; in a quiet place like that there was no one to take precautions against. And Phillip Stenning had embarked upon a dangerous errand. She feared for him more for his courage and resolution than she did for the results likely to accrue to herself. A clock somewhere was striking eleven, as she turned into the drive leading to Rothesay House. She pulled up and stood in the shadow, waiting patiently for she knew not what.
* * * * *
Philip Stenning walked round the house twice in the shadow of the darkness. He knew the place almost as well as he knew his own home. Years before it had come into the possession of King, he had been a welcome guest there as a boy. He could see now that the lights were out all over the house, save for the two gleaming windows upstairs, which gave light to the library. Just for a moment Phil stood there with his hand on the bell-pull. He had proved to himself that the servants were all upstairs. It was fair to assume that King would answer the summons himself. But this did seem sufficiently dramatic to please Stenning. He wanted to take the man utterly off his guard, entirely by surprise, to frighten him into giving up that suspected document before he could recover his nerve and cunning. It might be just possible, Stenning thought, to get into the house other than by the front door. He moved round to the side entrance. He fumbled over the window-sash. It seemed to him that one of the catches was broken. The window yielded to the pressure, and a moment later he was inside.
All this had taken time, and, just as Stenning entered the house, he heard the clock on the staircase strike the three-quarters after eleven. He stood there in the velvety darkness trying to recall his knowledge of the house. In the daylight it would have been easy enough. But now it was somewhat of a different matter.
Slowly the pieces of the puzzle came together in his brain. He groped his way along until he came at length to the big square hall. He could feel the soft carpet under his feet. He was beginning to make out the outline of the objects there. A thin slit of light lay like a lance along the stairs and across the floor. Evidently the library door was open, and this faint streak of illumination came from there. Stenning stood at the foot of the staircase, listening intently. His four years of Australian training was standing him in good stead now. He was not in the least afraid, not in the least nervous. He had himself under perfect control. And yet it seemed to him that he could hear stealthy whispers somewhere, and the creaking of the old oak stairs, as if someone were creeping up them. The little slice of light glimmered on the banisters, and then Stenning could have sworn that he saw a hand, dull and brown, laid on the glittering oak just for a minute. It was not the hand, white or brown, of an Englishman; it seemed to Stenning to be of a dull copper hue. But of that he could not be certain, for the light was not strong enough, and a moment later the dusky fingers vanished. Just as he had anticipated, the library door was open. He could see a lamp gleaming on the table. He could make out the form of Archer King there bending over his correspondence. He sat with his left cheek resting on his hand. His right arm appeared to be moving, as if his pen were travelling over the paper. Stenning stepped across the room and tapped smartly on Archer King's shoulder.
"I want a word with you," he said. "Do you hear?"
The man sitting by the table made no sign or motion. He sat there, without moving a muscle. His pen had dropped from his fingers.
"Oh, take your time," Stenning went on. "'I have come for that document you hold—the paper which gives you such a power over George Larchester."
Still, there was no sign from the man by the table. Nothing but a quiet chuckle which was almost instantly suppressed. With his open hand Stenning dealt King a blow on the side of his head. He fell from his chair, and crashed upon the floor. There was no great noise, the blow was not so heavy as all that. But King lay there with his head curiously twisted under his left shoulder. He lay there still and motionless, without a sound.
Was the fellow dead? It was a chance in a million. He might have fallen like that 10,000 times without injury. But there was no recalling it now. The man had pitched head-long upon the polished floor. A broken neck? He was gone beyond hope of surgery, and Stenning stood there knowing that he was this man's murderer.
He was out in the garden now, hurrying across the lawn. He did not seem to be aware for a moment or two that Mabel Larchester was by his side. She reached and touched his wet, clammy hand.
"What has happened?" she whispered. "What is it?"
"Archer King is dead," Stenning said hoarsely. "And I have killed him. Nothing seems to matter after that."
Stenning sat in his hotel, thinking of his recent ride through the darkness along the coast line, to the big town he had now safely reached. It was Mabel's idea that his discarded bicycle should be pushed over the cliffs into the sea, where it would lie unheeded till it rusted beyond recognition. It was Mabel who suggested that Stenning should go from thence to London, back to the hotel where he had left his belongings. He had started in his head-long way, and everything had gone smoothly, the more so, perhaps, because Stenning was reckless and desperate, and took few precautions. That had been five days ago, now, and yet nothing had happened. The papers were more or less full of the Rothesay affair. It was just the kind of thing that appealed to the popular imagination. The inquest that day was eagerly being looked forward to. Stenning could hear the boys in the street shouting it oot. He stepped into the roadway, and bought one of the damp sheets.
"Miss Mabel Larchester was the next witness. Her story was to the effect that on the night of the tragedy, she had occasion to go from her own house as far as the residence of the deceased gentleman. It was very late when she started, so late, indeed, that she did not arrive outside Rothesay House till a few minutes before twelve. The clock had struck twelve before she rang the bell; which she did three times before she made anybody hear. On the butler tardily appearing, she asked to see Mr. King. The butler went upstairs to the library and returned a few moments later with the horrifying intelligence that Mr. King was dead.
"The Coroner: 'Now, did you happen to see anything to arouse your suspicions? Little things are sometimes of importance.'
"'There is only one thing. As I said before, it was just a few minutes past twelve when I rang the bell of Rothesay House. As I crossed the lawn I looked up at the library windows, and I saw a figure cross between the light and the blind. It was not the figure of Mr. King. That would be, as far as I recollect, about six minutes past twelve. I am quite sure of this because I heard the stable clock strike the midnight hour.'"
Stenning dropped the paper at this point, and allowed himself to think. Surely, it seemed to him that Mabel was mistaken. Perhaps she had placed the hour at past twelve to shield him. There was not much more besides the evidence of the doctor, which went far to disprove the theory of King's death being due to an accident. The doctor declined to believe that a man could have fallen from his chair and broken his neck in this fashion. A broken neck was instantaneous death, of course, so that he could not have crawled into the room.
"The Coroner: 'You feel quite convinced that the deceased man met with foul play?'
"'I think so. At any rate, I think there is something mysterious in this matter which calls for investigation.'
"At this point Inspector Dainton appealed for a week's adjournment. He claimed to have discovered an important document which seemed to throw light upon the mysterious affair.
"The inquest was accordingly adjourned till the next Friday, when, we are informed, sensational developments are likely to arise. In the meantime the police are exceedingly reticent. Inspector Dainton informs us that he has not the slightest doubt of a satisfactory solution at almost any moment."
There was nothing for Phillip Stenning to do but to possess his soul in patience. He went in and out of his hotel much like any other man who might have business in the big city; he only came back late in the evening. He was killing time as best he could. No word or sign had come from Mabel, nor had he made any attempt to communicate with her. This had been an understood thing between them. Possibly, the evening papers on Friday afternoon would have something sensational to say. Not that it in the least mattered, Stenning told himself. Archer King was dead, and he had killed him, and the most ingenious police theory could not alter the fact. It was nearly six o'clock on Friday night before the Rothesay House tragedy was on everybody's lips again. The whole of London seemed to ring with it. As Stenning walked along it seemed as if those voices were mocking him. Stenning passed his hand across his eyes. He thrust sixpence into the hand of one of the newsboys. He hurried along to his hotel, and locked himself in his room. Then, with a shaking hand, he tore open the paper.
"Important Arrest—Sensational Statement by Inspector Dainton. The Prisoner in the Dock—Full Confession of the Crime."
Then he began to read.
"One of the most extraordinary disclosures of modern times took place this morning before the local magistrates in the case of the mysterious murder at Rothesay House. Lallah Rehn, described as a native of Borneo, was placed in the dock charged with the wilful murder of Mr. Archer King, on the 5th inst. The arrest had been kept profoundly quiet, and the courthouse was more or less deserted when Inspector Dainton got up to tell his extraordinary story. It would be as well, perhaps, to give the narrative in his own words.
"'As your worship is aware,' he said, 'the inquest on Mr. King was adjourned at my request, so that I could follow up a certain clue which I had come upon in an examination of Mr. King's private papers. In the course of my search, I found a large foolscap envelope duly sealed with a superscription to the effect that it was only to be opened in case of the owner's death by violence. Being more or less satisfied that Mr. King had died by violence, the packet was opened by myself in the presence of Mr. King's solicitor. In it we found a number of letters written to Mr. King from some place in Borneo, the letters being signed by one Lallah Rehn. I should like your worship to read these letters which are all the more illuminating because, as a methodical man, Mr. King had placed in the envelopes copies of his replies. It seems that at one time the prisoner and Mr. King were in a sort of partnership. They had obtained important concessions relating to the rubber industry, out of which, I gather, Mr. King made a large fortune. It seems, also, from a careful perusal of these letters, that Mr. King had treated his partner exceedingly shabbily. In fact, I may go so far as to say that the prisoner was deliberately cheated out of his just due. This seems to have affected his mind to a certain extent, and in more than one of his letters he threatens Mr. King with a peculiar kind of death, doubtless some native form of murder, which Mr. King probably was aware of. I may tell your worship that these letters were meant to fall into the hands of the police, in case anything happened to Mr. King, and in one of Mr. King's communications placed in the envelope he says so quite cynically. I presume his idea was that the prisoner should not escape, in case he was successful in his attempt to take the life of his late partner. We are not altogether successful in saying how the crime was committed, but, in the course of time, witnesses may be able to clear up that point.
"'Immediately after reading these letters, I caused inquiries to be made, and last night the prisoner was arrested in Hull. I shall be able to prove to you that he was at Rothesay House the day before the murder, where he was accidentally seen by one of the servants, and that the butler saw him again in the grounds when he returned to the house about ten o'clock. Other evidence will be given you to connect the prisoner with the crime. There is nothing more for the present, except that I should like a remand until to-morrow morning to enable the authorities to perfect their case.'
"The Chairman: 'I suppose the prisoner is not represented? Does he happen to know any English?'
"Inspector Dainton: 'The letters I spoke of, sir, are written in English. The prisoner is a man of some education. Probably, he will want to employ a solicitor.'
"At this point the prisoner raised his head. He had apparently been taking no interest in the proceedings. He displayed a countenance of considerable intelligence. His features appeared to be rather prepossessing than otherwise.
"'I want no counsel, your Worship,' he said. 'It is all exactly as your chief of the police says. King, he was my partner. King, he was a great scoundrel, and robbed me of all that I possessed. He left me penniless, he refused to do anything for me. It is all at his door that the death of my wife and daughter lie. And I have waited all this time for my revenge. Oh, I would have got away if I could. I never expected that King would leave these letters behind him. I saw King the day before he died, but he laughed at me. I pretended that I did not care. I went away as if everything were hopeless, but I came back the next night, and got in through the scullery window. I crept to the library. I killed him there and then, as he sat bending over the desk. You would like, perhaps, me to show you how it is done, and I will show you.'
"The few people in court followed the prisoners movements with breathless interest. He took from round his waist a soft silk sash, which he proceeded to fold and place across his throat. He knotted the two ends firmly to the rail of the dock, and he proceeded to twist his right arm in the folds behind him.
"'You have heard of the Thugs in India?' he explained. 'The white man thinks that Thugs are extinct, but that is not so. You throw your scarf round the victim's neck; then, with your knee in his back, you pull him backwards, and you twist the silk just so, and his neck snaps like a twig, and your enemy lies dead at your feet. If you will watch me, you will see how easy it is. It was half-past eleven when I entered King's house. When the clock struck the quarter after twelve, I was a mile away, and in that time he died without a word, and no one could say how he perished. And as I do not wish to linger in one of your English gaols, and a life is nothing for me, why, all I have to do is this, and—'
"The horrified spectators saw the unfortunate man give a quick wrench of his body to the left, whereupon he imediately fell prostrate upon the floor of the dock, where he lay till a doctor could be summoned. It subsequently transpired that his neck was broken, that he had taken his own life just in the same manner as that in which he had destroyed Mr. King. There were absolutely no marks of violence, and, but for these sensational developments, there is little doubt that the murderer of Mr. Archer King would have remained amongst the unsolved mysteries of which there have been far too many of late."
The paper fell from Stenning's hand. He saw it all clearly now. It came back to him vividly. He shuddered as he pictured himself standing behind Archer King, and pouring out his wrath and scorn upon a dead man. He recollected the brown hand on the banister. It seemed to him that he could never forget the noise of King's fall from the chair. And then the mist cleared from Stenning's eyes, and he saw that he was free. There would be no more hiding and mystery for him. He could go back in the course of time with his head high in the air. He could claim his wife. Then he dropped his head on his hands, and slept soundly for the first time for many days.—"M.A.P."
IT WAS all very well for the General to assert his independence, to proclaim the fact that he was not going to be put upon by anybody, but it was none the less awkward for Ethel Lance, who was mainly responsible for the maintenance of law and order in the old fire-eater's family. This was not the first time the same thing had happened, but it had never taken place on Christmas Eve before. To make a long story short, General Francis had been quarrelling with his servants, and one word leading to another, the upshot ot the mischief was that the domestics left in a body, to the General's great delight and the corresponding dismay of Miss Lance.
"It's all very well," she said, "but what are we going to do now? Do you know there is absolutely not a single servant left in the house? Do you understand that?"
"And a good thing, too, my dear, General Francis chuckled. They are the plague of one's life. If I had known how things had altered since my young days I would have spent the rest of my life in India. No trouble with them out there."
Which was precisely the source of all the mischief. General Francis had spent more years than he cared to count in the service of his country and he had not yet succeeded in bringing himself in line with modern British ideas. It was, no doubt, a fine thing to take out his cheque book and pay them off grandly one at a time; but who was going to take their places? Seagrave Grange was by a means a large house, but it required at least half a dozen servants to run the place properly, added to which it was some twenty miles from the nearest town. Between now and Christmas Day it would be absolutely impossible for Ethel to supply a fresh domestic staff. More than this, casual help was at a premium. Even the humblest of cottager's wives liked if possible to spend Christmas in the bosom of their family. It was fortunate, perhaps, that the few expected guests were all relatives, who could be put off by telegram.
"Well, there is only one thing for it," Ethel said resignedly. "We shall have to send messages to everybody not to come, and we shall have to do the best we can for ourselves. I suppose you understand what that means, uncle? You must make your own bed and get your own breakfast. I don't suppose it will be any particular hardship to an old campaigner like yourself, and, no doubt, I can manage. But it is impossible that there should be cooking of any kind in the circumstances."
The General drew himself up erect. The smile of the conqueror was on his face. For the moment he stood on the hearthrug in front of the dining-room fire, feeling that he had done well by his country. But the mood would pass presently, as Ethel very well knew, for the General was a man who had a weakness for his dinner and the other good things of this life.
"Where there's a will there's a way," he said cheerfully. Oh, no doubt you will find somebody to come and give you a hand. I daresay there are plenty of deserving women in the neighbourhood who have been cooks and all that kind of thing in their younger days. I don't want much myself just a bit of fish, and a bird and a savoury for dinner. It's hard luck if an old soldier like myself can't make shift, and do without a parcel of inefficient servants."
In spite of her perplexity Ethel laughed aloud. She was wondering where the genius was to come from, capable of cooking the little dinner which the General had sketched out so airily for himself. There were, doubtless, working men's wives in the neighbourhood who eked out a scanty living by an occasional odd day's work, but from a gastronomic point of view, they were hardly likely to satisfy the General's modest requirements. And despite her annoyance, Ethel could not really find it in her heart of hearts to be angry with her uncle. He seemed to take everything for granted. He seemed absolutely certain that he had done the right thing. Ethel stood there for a moment or two, looking out through the windows across the snowy landscape lying white and silent outside. There had been two heavy falls of snow lately, so that it was a matter of some difficulty to reach the nearest village and if something had to be done, that same must he done speedily, and before darkness fell. The bare trees were swaying wildly in the wind, the leaden-grey sky gave promise of more snow to come. The General turned away from the fire and rubbed his hands briskly.
"It's setting low," he muttered. "Why aren't there any logs here? And the coal scuttle is empty. Confound the people. They might have taken the trouble to see to this before they went."
"And now you'll have to see to it yourself." Ethel laughed. "Do you happen to know where the coal and wood are kept? because if you don't I must show you. And whilst you are about it, you had better get in a good supply or we shall have the kitchen fire out, too, to say nothing of the drawing-room and the bedroom."
"I've got to do that?" the General said in a choking voice.
"Well, of course," Ethel responded sweetly. My dear uncle, you hardly expect me to do things of that sort!"
General Francis snorted furiously. A deep pink spread over his cheeks. He was beginning faintly to realise that he was likely to pay a penalty for his headstrong folly. All the same he followed Ethel quietly and grimly enough down the stone-flagged passages until they came to a large square yard surrounded by outhouses. The were five or six inches of wet snow on the pavement, and the General breathed a silent prayer that his chronic rheumatism might escape the fruits of his rashness.
"You'll find all you want over there," Ethel went on. "You can amuse yourselfby filling up all the buckets and baskets and carrying them into the kitchen. You had better get in a big supply, because it looks like more snow, and goodness knows how deep it will be before morning. As to myself, I will go as far as the village and see if I can get some sort of assistance."
It was no far cry to the village, but the task was a little more difficult than Ethel had anticipated. The fine snow had drifted by the wind into masses here and there, so that progress was slow and painful. Ethel shuddered to herself as she thought how dangerous the way would be if she happened to be detained in the village till after dark. But she put these gruesome thoughts from her mind now, and trudged bravely on till at length the place was reached.
It was just as she had anticipated. News of the exodus from Seagrave Grange had already reached the villagers, and some of them were disposed to be amused over the trouble which had overtaken General Francis. Some, on the other hand, were sympathetic enough, but the same story came to Ethel's ears with wearisome monotony. Everybody who cared to turn out had been engaged for the festive season. And as to the rest, they made no secret of the fact that Christmas Day was a sacred one to them, so far as their families were concerned. It was very annoying and very disheartening, but there was nothing else for it, and Ethel turned disconsolately homeward in the gathering dusk. She had been detained by more than one forlorn hope, so that at length when she turned her back upon the glowing red lights of the village the darkness had nearly fallen. It was strange how weird and unfamiliar the landscape had grown, how all the well-known marks seemed to become merged in the snow. Yet Ethel had walked that same path hundreds of times before. She have been almost ready to have attempted it blindfold. Yet now she felt all misty and confused, with a certain horror lest she had taken a wrong road. The darkness shut down, too, with appalling swiftness. The trees were rocking in the wind, a stinging powder of snow tingled on the girl's face, until she winced in positive pain. She turned her back to the gale for one moment while she fought for breath, then she staggered on again till the great white drift rose up beyond her knees, and further progress became impossible. It seemed to the girl that her mind was going now, and that she was sinking into a dreamless sleep. She remembered in a vague kind of way tales and stories of travellers lost in the snow, and how they had actually lain down and perished within a stone's throw of warmth and safety.
With a great effort she struggled to her feet and attempted to push her way forward. It was just a chance now whether she made her way through or not, for the darkness was thick and black as velvet. She could feel nothing but the tingle of the snow on her face. All she knew was that whatever happened she must keep upon her feet, that the least weakness or fear on her part would bring the end about. She braced herself up presently and cried aloud for help. Surely it was possible that somebody was abroad in the neighbourhood, for, dark and desolate as it was, she was yet within half a mile of the village, and almost within hearing distance of civilisation. She bitterly regretted that she had not accepted the offer of a lantern which one of the villagers had tendered her. Once more she opened her lips and cried aloud, and this time it seemed as if her call was not in vain. Surely she could hear someone coming whistling down the road. Surely that spot of light dancing before her eyes must be a lantern carried by some guardian angel in the shape of a villager. Once more the scream for assistance broke distractedly from the girl's lips.
"All right!" a welcome voice said cheerfully. "I'm coming. Stay where you are and I am certain to find you."
Ethel's heart seemed to stand still for a moment, then the blood rushed back to her veins again, the feeling of numbness and sleepiness passed away. A moment later she was looking up into the face of the man who carried the lantern, and he was gazing concernedly into her own. A light of recognition came into his eyes.
"Why, Ethel," he exclaimed. "What are you. doing here? Don't you know how dangerous it is to be out in a storm like this To think I should run against you like this the very day I come home. But perhaps you have not yet forgiven me."
"Oh, take me back to the Grange," Ethel moaned. "Thank heaven you came in time. It is only a few minutes since I left the village, and yet I am absolutely exhausted. I came down here to see if I could find some assistance. All our servants have gone away, and the General and myself are quite alone in the house."
Roger Keene suppressed a smile, for the General's queer notions of discipline were well known to the young sailor, who was now hastening home to his father's house. Sir Roger Keene's residence lay fairly close to Seagrave Grange. There had been a time, two years ago, when Roger and Ethel had been something more than friends, but some stupid misunderstanding had arisen between them, and a long voyage in the Chinese seas seemed to have nipped the romance in the bud.
"And so you are absolutely dependent upon yourselves," Roger said cheerfully. "How like the General it is. Nobody but he would have chosen a time like this to get rid of all his servants. But I dare say we shall find some way out of the difficulty. The first thing is to get you home again. Just you lean on my arm and trust to me to pull you through. It is a precious lucky thing that I thought of borrowing a lantern in the village. I don't believe I should have got home without it."
"But you will be snowed up yourself," Ethel protested. "And they will be anxious about you at home. And, besides, I don't see why you should go out of your way like this for my sake, especially after the way in which I..."
Ethel broke off in some confusion. It seemed to her that Roger pressed her arm to his affectionately.
"I think I know what you are going to say," he whispered. "But we will go into all that later on. As a matter of fact, my people won't he in the least alarmed, because they don't expect me till to-morrow, which is Christmas Day, and lots of things might happen between now and then. You are not to say another word till you are warm and comfortable again and have had some hot food. You are under my protection now. How stupid we have been, Ethel."
Ethel made no attempt to deny the charge. She was feeling strangely happy- and comfortable, despite their slow progress and the sting of snowflakes on her cheeks. They managed to pick their way between the snowdrifts, thanks to the friendly light of the lantern, until presently Seagrave Grange loomed out of the darkness, and the warmth of tho dining-room was reached at length, A great fire blazed upon the hearth. General Francis had managed to light the lamps, both of which were smoking horribly. The anxiety cleared from his face as Ethel came into the room.
"I was beginning to feel terribly worried," he said. "Hallo, Roger, is that you? How did you come here?" Roger Keene proceeded to briefly explain. Without ceremony he extinguished one of the lamps and relighted it dexterously. In a few moments both lamps were burning brightly.
"Now you go off to your room at once," said Roger, cheerfully. "By the time you get downstairs I will make you some tea. I dare say you have got a kettle and hot water somewhere. If you don't know where it is, I can find it. But don't you worry, General. You just sit down and smoke a cigar and leave it to me. One doesn't knock about for two or three years in a coasting squadron without learning a thing or two. I flatter myself I can show you a way to do without servants altogether. After we have had tea we'll overhaul the larder and see if I can't cook you a dinner which, at any rate, will have the charm of novelty. It is a lucky thing that I happened to come along just at the rjght time."
For once in his life the General yielded up the reins of office to a younger man than himself. After all was said and done, they seemed to have ways of managing things in the Navy which certainly did not apply to the sister service. In an incredibly short space of time Roger had tea on the table. He had found bread and butter foraging about the kitchen, and presently the tea was flanked by a pile of hot buttered toast, to which all did ample justice.
"Upon my word, this is a unique experience," the General cried. "I have spent some queer Christmas Eves in my time, but never one like this before. I begin to feel almost glad that I got rid of those servants now. Better tea never tasted."
Roger Keene smiled discreetly. He knew the General well enough to feel that once the novelty had worn off he would soon be hungry again for the good things of life.
But for the present it was pleasant enough; it was pleasant to sit there round the glowing wood fire with the curtains tightly drawn, listening to the howl of the gale outside and the angry swish of snowflakes on the windows. It was, in sooth, a strange Christmas Eve, but the very strangeness of it added to its charm and piquancy. Ethel sat there in a big armchair, her eyes half-closed. She was still dwelling upon her miraculous escape; her heart was full of gratitude and tenderness towards Roger. But for him, she shuddered to think where she might be by this time.
Cut off from the world as they were, the evening passed swiftly enough, and Roger's impromptu dinner was voted as successful as his tea. There was one part of the meal which the absence of servants could not mar, and that was the wines. The General brought them up from the cellar himself. He decanted some curious old port with a reverence and respect which became its great age. He was beaming with delight now. He did not look in the least like the culprit who had brought all this about.
"Your very good health, Roger," he said, "and may this be the least pleasant moment in our lives. If you can possibly run over to-morrow and cook our meals for us, I daresay we shall get along till we can man the garrison again."
"I think I have a better plan than that," Roger said demurely. "I shall have to leave you to get your own breakfast, but you shall see me later in the day."
And Roger was quite as good as his word, for early in the forenoon on Christmas Day a comfortable-looking omnibus ploughed its way through the snow to Seagrave Grange, and Sir Roger Keene, followed by his son, alighted, and made their way into the house.
"A merry Christmas to you," the Baronet said heartily. "My dear General, why on earth did you not let me know what was going on? Here we are in that big house of mine with, no Christmas guests, for once in a way, except Roger, with enough, and more than enough, for a whole village, and you are actually starving here, with no one to help you. I am not going to listen to a single word. I'll send over a caretaker to look after the house, and meanwhile Miss Ethel and yourself are coming over to my place to stay till you can get settled again. Now, don't waste any time, because the sooner we're off the better. Just go upstairs and pack what you want, and we can get away in time for a bit of shooting before lunch."
There was no denying the breezy hospitality of the speaker, and half an hour later the 'bus was rolling down the drive again in the direction of Sir Roger Keene's house. They pulled up at length under the big portico; the huge doors were thrown open, and the cosy hall sent out an inviting warmth. Roger stretched out his hand and helped Ethel to the ground.
"As my future wife," he whispered; now, promise."
And the look in Ethel's eyes answered the question.
"That," said Ethel Marsh judicially, "is the least stupid remark you have made during our five weeks' acquaintance."
"Which means that I am improving," John Chesney murmured. "There is hope even for me. You cannot possibly understand how greatly I appreciate—"
The sentence trailed off incoherently, as if the effort had been all too much. It was hard to live up to the mental brilliance of Ethel Marsh. She had had the advantage, too, of a couple of seasons in town, whilst Chesney was of the country palpably. She also had the advantage of being distractingly pretty.
Really, she had hoped to make something of Chesney. It seemed to her that he was fitted for better things than tennis playing and riding and the like. It seemed strange that he should prefer this little cottage to the broader delights of surveying mankind from China to Peru.
The man had possibilities, too. For instance, he knew how to dress. There was an air about his flannels, a suggestion in his Norfolk suits. He had the knack of the tie so that it sat just right, and his boots... A clean cut face, very tanned, deep, clear, gray eyes, very steady. He was like a dog attached very much to a careless master. The thing had been going on for five weeks.
Ethel was staying with the Frodshams. They were poor for their position, albeit given to hospitality—at a price. Most people call this kind of thing taking in paying guests. It was a subject delicately veiled. Ethel had come down for a fortnight, and she had stayed five weeks. Verily the education of John Chesney was a slow process. Chesney was a visitor in the neighbourhood, too, he had a little furnished cottage just by the Goldney Park lodge gates, where a housekeeper did for him. As for the rest, he was silent. He was a very silent man.
It was too hot for tennis, and the two had wandered into the woods. A tiny trout stream bubbled by, the oak and beech ferns were wet with the spray of it. Between the trees lances of light fell, shafts of sunshine on Ethel's hair and face. It was at this point that Chesney made the original remark. It slipped from him as naturally as if he had been accustomed to that kind of thing.
"I am afraid you have got that from Mr. John Kennedy," Ethel said. "I am sure that you have seen Mr. Kennedy's comedy, 'Flies in Ointment.' Confess now!"
"Well, I have," Chesney confessed accordingly. "I—I saw it the night it was produced. On the whole it struck me as rather a feeble thing."
"Oh, really? We are getting on, Mr. Chesney. Let me tell you that I think it is the cleverest comedy I have ever seen."
"Yes! In that case you like the part of Dorothy Kent?"
Ethel's dainty colour deepened slightly. She glanced suspiciously at the speaker. But he was gazing solidly, stolidly into space—like a man who had just dined on beef. The idea was too preposterous. The idea of John Chesney chaffing her, chaffing anybody.
"I thought perhaps you did," Chesney went on. "Mrs. Kent is a bit of a butterfly, a good sort at the bottom, but decidedly of the species lepidopteroe—"
"Stop!" Ethel cried. "Where did you get that word from? Whence comes it in the vocabulary of a youth—a youth? Oh, you know what I mean."
"I believe it is a general name for insects," Chesney said humbly. "Mrs. Kent is a good sort, but a little conceited. Apt to fancy herself, you know. Young widows of her type often do. She is tired of the artificial existence of town and goes off into the country where she leads the simple life. She meets a young man there, who, well, upon my word, is rather like me. He was a bit of an ass—"
"He was nothing of the kind," Ethel cried indignantly. "He was splendid. And he made that woman love him, he made her acknowledge that she had met her match at last. And he turned out to be one of the most brilliant—"
"My dear Miss Ethel, after all it was only a play. You remind me of 'Mrs. Kent,' and you say that I remind you of the hero of the play who—"
"I didn't, Mr. Chesney. I said nothing of the kind. It is unfair of you—"
"When the likeness is plain enough," Chesney said stubbornly. "You are Mrs. Kent, and I am the hero of the comedy. Do you think that there is any possibility that some day you and me—of course, not yet, but—"
Miss Marsh sat there questioning the evidence of her coral-pink ears. She knew that she was furiously angry because she felt so cool about it. She knew that the more furious one was, the more calm and self-contained the senses become. The man meant nothing, either—one could see that by the respectful expression of his eye. Still—-
"You are quite wrong," Ethel said. "You have altogether misunderstood the 'motif' of the play. I presume you know what a 'motif' is?"
"I think so," Chesney said humbly. "It is a word they apply in music when you don't happen to understand what the composer—especially the modern composer—is driving at."
"Oh, let it pass," Ethel said hopelessly. "You have misunderstood the gist of the play, then! Walter Severn' in the comedy is a man of singular points. He is a great author. Instead of being that woman's plaything, he is her merciless analyst. The great scene in the play comes when she finds this out. Now, you do not for a moment presume to put yourself on a level with Walter Severn, do you?"
Chesney was bound to admit the height of his audacity. His eyes were fixed humbly on his Minerva, he was Telamachus seated at the feet of the goddess. And even yet he did not seem really cognisant of the enormity of his offence. He saw the sunlight on that sweetly serious face, he saw the beams playing with the golden meshes of her hair. No doubt he was fully conscious of his own inferiority, for he did not speak again. It was for him to wait. The silence deepened, in the heart of the wood a blackbird was piping madly on a blackthorn.
"Before you go away," Chesney hazarded, "I should very much like—"
"But I am not going away, at least not yet. Besides, I have a purpose to serve. I am waiting until those impossible people leave Goldney Park. I understand that they have already gone, but on that head I am not sure. I want to go over the house. The late owner, Mr. Mainbrace, was a great friend of my family. Before he died he was so good as to express a wish that the heir to the property should come and see us, and—but that part is altogether too ridiculous. And as an only daughter—"
"I see," Chesney said reflectively. "The heir and yourself. It sounds ridiculous. Now, if you had been in the least like the romantic type of young woman, perhaps—"
"How do you know that I am not? Am I like Byron's woman: 'Seek roses in December, ice in June.' Well, perhaps you are right. After all, one doesn't find ice in June. However, the heir to the Goldney Park estate and myself never met. He let the place to those awful Gosway people for three years, and went abroad. There was not even the suspicion of a romance. But I am curious to see the house all the same."
"Nothing easier, Miss Marsh. Let us go and see it after luncheon. The Gosways have gone, you may take my word for that, and only a caretaker is in possession. Will you come with me this afternoon?"
The prospect was not displeasing. Miss Marsh poised it in her mind for a few moments. There was Chesney's education to be thought of as well. On the whole, she decided that there might be less pleasant ways of spending a hot August afternoon.
"I think I'll come," she said, "I want to see the old furniture and the pictures. I love old furniture. Perhaps if the heir to the property had gone on his knees whilst I was seated on a priceless Chippendale settee, I might—"
"You might, but I don't think you would," Chesney interrupted. "What ever your faults may be I am sure you are not mercenary."
"Really! How good of you! The thing that we are apt to call depravity—"
"Is often another name for the promptings of poor human nature."
Miss Marsh turned and stared at the speaker. Really, his education was progressing at a most amazing rate. Without the least sign of mental distress he had delivered himself of an epigram. There was quite a flavour of Piccadilly about it. And Chesney did not appear in the least conscious of his achievement. Ethel rose and shook out the folds of her dainty muslin dress.
"Isn't it getting late?" she asked. "I'm sure it is lunch time. You can walk as far as the gate with me, and I will meet you here at three o'clock."
She passed thoughtfully across the lawn to the house, her pretty brows knitted in a thoughtful frown. Was she giving her pupil too much latitude? Certainly he had begun to show symptoms of an audacious presumption, which in the earlier days had been conspicuous by its absence. Whereupon Miss Marsh sighed three times without being in the least aware of the painful fact.
"This," said Chesney, "is the Norman Tower, built by John Mainbrace, who was the original founder of the family. The first two trees in the avenue of oaks that leads up to the house were planted by Queen Elizabeth. She also slept on several occasions in the house, indeed, the bedroom she occupied is intact to this day. The Virgin Queen seemed to pass most of her time apart from affairs of state, in occupying bedrooms, so that the descendants of her courtiers might be able to boast about it afterwards. Those who could not give the royal lady a shakedown had special bedrooms fitted up and lied about them. It was an innocent deception."
Miss Marsh eyed her pupil distrustfully. The educational progress was flattering, and at the same time a little disturbing. She had never seen Chesney in this gay and frivolous, not to say, excited mood before. The man was positively glib. There were distant flashes of wit in his discourse, too. And where did he get so close and intimate a knowledge of the old house from?
He knew every nook and corner. He took her through the grand old park where the herd of fallow deer were grazing, he showed her the Dutch and Italian gardens, he knew even the history of the sun-dial on the terrace. And yet they had not been within the house, though the great hall door stood hospitably open. They moved at length out of the glare of the sunshine into the grateful shadows. Glint of armour and gleam of canvas were all there. Ethel walked along in an ecstacy of quiet enjoyment. Rumour had not lied as to the artistic beauties of Goldney Park. The Mainbraces must have been a tasteful family. They had it all here from the oaken carvings of the wandering monks down through Grinling Gibbins and Pugin, and away to Chippendale and Adam, and other masters of the Georgian era. They came at length to the chamber sacred to the Virgin Queen, they contemplated the glorious view from the window in silent appreciation tinged with rapture.
"It's exquisite," Ethel said in a low voice. "If this were my house I should be very much tempted to commit an act of sacrilege. I should want this for my own room. I'm afraid I could not resist such an opportunity."
"Easily done," said Chesney. "No trouble to discover from the family archives that a mistake had been made and that Elizabeth of blessed memory had not slept in this room. Being strong minded she preferred a north aspect, and this is due south. You would get a reputation for sound historical knowledge as well."
Certainly the education was progressing. But Ethel let it pass. She was leaning out of the latticed windows with the creamy roses about her hair, she was falling unconsciously under the glamour of the place.
"It is exquisite," she sighed. "If this were only mine!"
"Well, it is not too late. The heir will be here before long probably. You have only to introduce the name of Mr. Mainbrace and say who you are, and then—"
"Oh, no. If I happened to be in love with a man—what am I saying? Of course, no girl who respects herself could possibly marry a man for the sake of his position. Even 'Mrs. Dorothy Kent,' to whom you compared me this morning was above that kind of thing. She married the man she loved after all, you know. But I forgot—you did not think much of the comedy."
"I didn't. I thought it was vague and incomplete. I am certain of it now. This is the real thing, the other was merely artificial. And when the hero brought 'Dorothy Kent' to the home of his ancestors he already knew, that she loved him. And I am glad to know that you would never marry a man like that because it gives me courage—"
"Gives you courage! Whatever for?"
"Why, to make a confession. You laughed at me just now when I presumed to criticise your favourite modern comedy. As a matter of fact, I have every right to criticise it. You see, I happen to be the author. I am 'John Kennedy!' I have been writing for the stage, or trying to write for the stage for years. I got my new idea from that old wish of my uncles that you and I should come together. It struck me as a pretty suggestion for a comedy."
"Stop, stop," Ethel cried. "One thing at a time, if you please. Positively you overwhelm me with surprise. In one breath you tell me that you are 'John Kennedy' and then, without giving a poor girl a chance, you say you are the owner of Goldney Park."
"But I didn't," Chesney protested. "I never said anything of the kind."
"No, but you inferred it. You say you got the idea from your uncle—I mean the suggestion that you and I—oh, I really cannot say it."
"I'm afraid I'm but a poor dramatist after all," Chesney said lamely. "I intended to keep that confession till after I had—but no matter. At any rate, there is no getting away from the fact that my pen name is 'John Kennedy.'"
"And you wrote 'Flies in Ointment?' And you have been laughing at me all this time? You were amused because I took you for a simple countryman, you whom men call the Sheridan of to-day! After all the pains I took with your education."
Ethel's voice rose hysterically. Points of flame stood out from the level of her memory of the past five weeks and scorched her. How this man must have been amused, how consumedly he must have laughed at her! And she had never guessed it, never once had she had an inkling of the truth.
"You have behaved disgracefully, cruelly," she said unsteadily.
"I don't think so," Chesney said coolly. "After all is said and done, we were both posing, you know. You were playing 'Mrs. Kent' to my hero. It seemed a pity to disturb so pleasant a pastoral. And no harm has been done."
Ethel was not quite so sure of that. But then for the nonce she was regarding the matter from a strictly personal point of view.
"I hardly think you were playing the game," she said.
"Why not? I come down here where nobody knows me. It is my whim to keep quiet the fact that Goldney Park belongs to me. As to my dramatic tastes, they don't concern anybody but myself. I take a cottage down here until those tenants of mine are ready to go. They are such utter bounders that I have no desire to disclose my identity to them. And so it falls about that I meet you. Then I recollect all that my uncle has said about you. I cultivate your acquaintance. It wasn't my fault that you took me for a countryman with no idea beyond riding a horse and shooting a pheasant. Your patronage was very pretty and pleasing, and I am one of those men who always laughs or cries inside. It is, perhaps, a misfortune that I can always joke with a grave face. But don't forget that the man who laughs inside is also the man who bleeds inside, and these feel the worse. Come, Ethel, you are not going to be angry because you have lost the game playing with your own weapons."
The education was finished, the schoolmaster was abroad—very much abroad. In his cool, masterful way Chesney had taken matters into his own hands. He was none the less handsome because he looked so stern, so sure of his ground.
"You are a man and I am a woman," she faltered.
"Of course, how could the comedy proceed otherwise? Now where shall we move these Elizabethan relics? After what you said just now they could not possibly remain here. Among the family archives I dare say—"
Chesney paused, he was conscious of the fact that two large diamond drops were stealing down Ethel's cheeks. It seemed the most natural thing in the world for him to cross over and take her hands in his.
"My dear child, what have I said to pain you," he said. "I am truly sorry."
"You—you take too much for granted," Ethel sobbed. "You make me feel so small and silly. And you have no right to assume that I—I could care for anybody simply because he happens to possess a p—p—place like Goldney Park—"
"But, my darling, I didn't. I was delighted when you said just now that you would never marry a man you did not care for, even if he could give you Chippendale for breakfast, so to speak. I watched your face then. I am sure that you were speaking from the bottom of your heart. I have been watching you for the last five weeks, my sweetheart. And they have been the happiest weeks in my life."
"Laughing at me, I suppose. It's all the same if you do laugh inside."
"No, I don't think I laughed," Chesney said thoughtfully. "I only know that I have been very much charmed. And besides, see how useful it has been to me to be in a position to hear all the weak points in my literary armour. When I come to write my next comedy it will be far in advance of 'Flies in Ointment.' I have learnt so much of human nature, you see."
Ethel winked the tears from her lids, her eyes were all the brighter for the passing shower, like a sky in April, Chesney thought. A smile was on her face, her lips were parted. As a lover Chesney was charming. She wondered how she was playing her part. But she need not have had any anxiety. There was nothing wanting in the eyes of the man opposite, and his face said so.
"You are going to put me into it?" she asked.
"Why, of course. There is no other woman so far as I can see. Why are you pulling my roses to pieces like that? Do you know that that rose-tree was planted a hundred years ago by Thomas a'Beckett, after the battle of Agincourt? My dear, I am so happy that I could talk nonsense all day. And I say, Ethel—"
The girl broke off one of the creamy roses and handed it shyly to Chesney.
"Vae victis," she said with a flushing smile. "It is yours. You have conquered."
"Yes, but I want all the fruits of victory. I ask for a hand and you give me a rose. Am I not going to have the hand as well as the rose, dear?"
He had the hand and the rose and the slender waist, he drew her towards him in his strong, masterful way, and his lips lay on hers in a lingering pressure. It was a long time before the girl looked up, then her eyes were full of shy happiness.
"What are you thinking about, darling?" Chesney asked.
"'Mrs. Kent,'" Ethel said demurely. "I know now why she met her master. And I know now why I met mine. And the new comedy—"
"Will be played out here between you and me, and it will never be written for the sake of a dull and indiscriminating public, sweetheart. I'll play my part—"
"And I'll try to play mine," Ethel whispered, as she laid her head cosily on the shoulder of her lover. "I will not be very original, Jack, and I hope you will not be disappointed."
"No fear," Jack said pithily. "No fear of that—'Mrs. Kent.'"
THE ROOM was in that artistic semi-darkness which adapts itself to the well-appointed dinner table. The meal was there, too, cooling under silver dishes half-hidden amongst a mass of green asparagus fern and flaming red tulips. One of the crimson blossoms had fallen out of place, and Mark Crunden stepped across and replaced it mechanically.
"I might have guessed you would do that," his wife said bitterly. "It is so typical of you. Ever you have been wasting your life and mine upon trifles."
"I have done my best for you and the child," Crunden murmured.
"Oh, yes, I know," Kate retorted. "Four years ago we were fairly well off. This house belonged to us. It was a joy and a pleasure to furnish it as we have done. And now how do we stand? The house has been sold, every stick and stone here is in the hands of the moneylenders, indeed, I was hard put to it to get the flowers for the dinner-table to night. And this, all because you've forgotten wife and child in pursuit of a theory. You are just as bad as the man who gambles away everything at Monte Carlo. But you need not look at me like that—our friends are not coming here to-night. I put them off by telegram, and now I'll go. You can take off your dress coat and go back to your books again. And as for me, well, I have friends who will be glad enough to have me for the present. And that is all arranged. I have ordered a cab to be at the door in half an hour for Nest and myself. We shan't trouble you any more. If you cared for me as you should... if you had ever cared for me as you should—"
"You are quite wrong." Crunden said quietly. "You will not believe me when I say that I have never ceased to care for you," although perhaps—but tell me why you have made up your mind to leave me in this drastic fashion? What have I done to-day that is worse than yesterday or the day before?"
For answer, Kate Crunden took from her pocket a small square of yellow cardboard. She tossed it half bitterly, half contemptuously amongst the flowers on the table. Crunden lifted it from the table, and his sensitive face flushed.
"Where did you get this from?" he asked.
"Oh, I found it," his wife said. "It dropped out of your pocket when I was clearing up your dressing-room this morning. It relates to a pearl cross, pawned by you for £150. And I am taking the child with me. Of course, I know that, legally speaking—"
A moment later, Mark Crunden was alone. He stood there in the perfectly-appointed dining room, trying to realise what he had lost. And now suddenly he had come to his senses. He was utterly and entirely ruined; he would have to leave that luxurious flat and start life entirely afresh.
In the course of the last four years there was only one sensible thing he could recollect having done. He had insured his life for £10,000, and by some extraordinary stroke of luck he had managed to keep up the premiums. Two days before he had recollected that the next premium was due, and that he had not as many pence as he required pounds to keep the policy alive. He had taken the cross and For one whole day he had sat in his study thinking the matter out. Gradually and by slow degrees he began to see his way. He was a failure, he had spoilt his own life, and he had dragged his wife's down to his own level. And then he began to see his way. It would be quite a simple thing to cheat the insurance company. There were ways of doing that to a scientific man like himself. For instance, there was his friend Bashford, who had the flat immediately below.
Bashford was a bacteriologist—in his laboratory there were scores of cults—on those little gelatine tablets death in a thousand hideous forms lurked. Really, the thing was ridiculously easy. Bashford was away for the day, and Crunden I had the run of his flat. It might mean anything from a long, lingering illness to a sudden death, and then Kate would be free.
Crunden did not care to question the morality of his action over the pearl cross. That was past and done with, at any rate. All he had to do now was to go down to Bashford's flat and choose his own method of settling his great account. He had Bashford's spare latchkey in his pocket. He knew that the latter would not be back until midnight, and he was quite aware of the fact that Bashford's deaf old housekeeper would be in bed by this time. Really, there was nothing in the way.
He was in the laboratory at length; he switched on the electric light. Everything was exactly as he had expected to find it. In an air-tight glass case rows of tubes were half filled with opaque masses of gelatine. Crunden studied them all studiously and coldly. He opened a glass case presently and took out one of three tiny tubes which were labelled with the mystic formula represented in plain English by "Asiatic Cholera." He slipped this into his pocket, and made his way back into his own study.
He stood there just a moment with the tube in his hand, trembling violently from head to foot. He wiped away the perspiration which streamed down his face; he wondered vaguely why he could be curious enough to listen to what a newsboy was shouting in the street below...
He dropped the broken pieces of the phial into the heart of the fire. He sat down calmly to read and smoke. He could hear the servants clearing away the unused dinner things now. A parlourmaid came into the library presently and asked if anything further was wanted before she went to bed. She had three or four letters on a tray, and Crunden asked her mechanically when they came.
"By the 9 o'clock post, sir," the girl explained. "I heard you go out, sir, just now, and I thought that you had taken them in yourself."
Crunden stretched out his hand for the letters. He recollected that he had seen them in the box. He opened them carelessly, with a smile. Really, letters did not much matter to him now. Two of them were peremptory requests for payment of accounts, a third was an invitation to dinner, and the last letter bore the imprint of a firm of solicitors who transacted all the business on behalf of Crunden's uncle, James Broadwood. Crunden cast his eye over it carelessly enough then he leapt to his feet and held the letter to the light.
With much regret we have to inform you, of the death of your uncle Mr James Broadwood, which took place at Nice on Monday last week. One of our representatives was with him at the time, having been summoned for the purpose of making our late client's will. Mr Broadwood died in a painfully sudden manner before this could be done, and, as he himself had destroyed his last will, we have to inform you that the whole ot the property reverts to you. As you are aware, this amounts to something over £100,000, and we await your instructions in the matter. Would you kindly give us a call? —Yours faithfully,
HARTOPP AND EVANS.
The intense silence of the flat rang in Crunden's ears as if the whole place were full of ghostly machinery. It seemed to him presently that he could hear the sound of a latchkey in the front door, and that he could hear his wife's voice, and the eager tones of the child as if speaking through tears. It was no effort of his imagination; the whole thing was real enough.
Crunden groaned. "She has come back again. What, what is going to happen now?"
At that moment Crunden came nearer to common sense and absolute sanity than he had been for years. It was wonderful how plainly he saw things now. His outlook was none the less lucid, because it was too late to repair the mischief.
He would have to bear the thing as best hs could. He knew perfectly well that he had seen the last of his wife. She might have come back to the flat for some pressing reason or another, but not to see him. He clenched his teeth tightly together, and made up his mind that no agony shou!d force itself from his lips.
Why, he asked himself, had Kate come back again? He was very soon to learn that. He could hear everything that was going on in the dining room.
"And now you must go to bed," Kate was saying. "It is quite time all little children were fast asleep."
Crunden could hear the child laugh.
"But I am not sleepy," she protested. "You said you weren't coming back again here yet. And why didn't we stay with Aunt May? And what was she crying about? I saw her."
"Did you, dearie?" Kate asked absently. "Well, you see, she is in great trouble. She is just as fond of her little girl as I am of you. And just before we got there the doctor came to see Dorothy, and he was very much afraid that she is going to have a horrible thing that they call scarlet fever. That's why we couldn't stay there, and that's why Auntie May made me come back here for the present. And, you see, I haven't got any money to go anywhere else. You must try not to be disappointed."
"Oh, I am not," the child said cheerfully. "I am sorry for Dorothy, but not a bit sorry for myself. And so long as I have you and daddy, the rest doesn't matter a bit."
"You mustn't worry daddy," Kate went on. "You see, he's very busy just now, and there are many things—now you got to bed."
"Not without seeing daddy," the child said firmly.
Crunden crossed the floor swiftly and locked the door. He was beginning to realise now that there was a torture and a mental pain which was equal at least to the rack and stress of the body. He quivered as he heard the child tap gently at the door. He called out in a muffled voice that he would come to Nest's bedroom presently.
He heard the small feet patter away disconsolately, then he bent forward once again as the pain gripped him once more. This time the spasm was longer and more acute. When it had passed away he had barely strength to raise himself from his chair.
He would not let things go on like this Kate must really know. It would be better in the long run that she should know. He dragged himself across to the writing table and commenced to scrawl a few words hurriedly on a sheet of notepaper. The letter was not addressed to his wife, but to Bashford. It was chaotic enough; only a few words—barely legible, but it seemed to Crunden that it would serve his purpose. It would be sufficient at any rate to tell Bashford what had happened, and why this hideous thing had been done.
There was also a hint to the effect that the writer had received a letter from his solicitors intimating that there would be more than sufficient for Kate and the child. Crunden managed to scribble the address of this firm, then the pains were upon him again, and for the next five minutes his mind seemed almost to leave him.
Once more the trouble passed; once more he was able to see clearly. He did not know that the letter was crushed tightly in his left hand, and he was quite under the impression that it was still lying on the table. He managed to unlock the door. It occurred to him at that moment that a locked door might be regarded with some suspicion. He was absolutely out of control now. He had no longer any grip upon himself. He lay there clutching at the carpet; he realised presently that Kate was bending over him and trying to lift him from the floor.
"What can I do?" she whispered. "What is the trouble?"
"I don't know," Crunden said faintly. "Bashford—send for Bashford. Go and fetch, him."
"And leave you here like this! Oh, I cannot!"
Kate flew from the room, closing the door behind her, and the next moment she was hammering at the door of Bashford's flat.
"My husband!" she gasped. "He is asking for you. I am sure he is dying. Will you come at once?"
Bashford looked grim and hard as he bent over the prostrate body of his friend. His quick, keen glance took in the creased edge of the paper which Crunden was convlusively clenching in his left hand.
"Hot water," he said, curtly. "Hot water at once. Try and keep cool; everything depends upon your courage now. Yes, I know exactly what has happened. Crunden has been a little too enthusiastic in his scientific researches. Now, please."
Kate hurried off. Directly she had left the room Bashford stooped down and forced Cvunden's frozen fingers open. He ran a quick eye over the scrawled words he raced to his flat and hurried across to the glase case where the specimen tubes were placed. It needed only a glance to see which one of them was missing; then Bashford was in full possession of the facts, as if Crunden had told him everything.
"I shall be just in time," he murmured. "It is perhaps a fortunate thing that that particular phial should have contained a cultus a little less virulent than the others. And now for the remedy. I didn't expect such a speedy opportunity of trying my new cure. Still—"
Bashford was back in Crunden's flat a moment later, with a tiny bottle of some dark-coloured fluid, and a hypodermic syringe.
He bared the arm of the patient; he saw the slight shiver that ran through Cnmdsn's body as the needle pricked, him, then gradually the rigid limbs began to relax, and the patient breathed freely.
When Kate came in a few minutes later with the hot water she could see by the expression of Bashford's face that he was satisfied. She wondered perhaps why it was that he paid no attention to the hot water
"There is no occasion for that now," he said. "All we have to do is to get Crunden to bed and keep him warm. I will come in again the first thing in the morning, but I am quite sure that he will go on all right now."
"You are very good," Kate murmured.
"Oh, how glad I am that I was at home. And I am only here quite by accident. And he might have lain here and died, and I should have been none the wiser. But won't you tell me what it is? Won't you tell me what my husband has been suffering from?"
"I will tell you a great deal presently," Bashford said, with a certain grim emphasis. "Only you must help me to get him to bed first. You needn't be in the least afraid. He will sleep quite soundly, till morning now, and if you want me, I shall be close at hand. Now let us get him to bed."
It was an hour later before Bashford left, and in that time he had had a deal to say. Usually he was a man of a few words enough, but now he was eloquent. Kate Crunden listened with close attention, and when at length the door had closed behind Bashford she sat down in a chair in front of the fire, seeing stranger pictures in the glowing coals than ever she had seen before. For it is not an easy thing for a woman to admit after all these years that she might have been wrong.
* * * * *
Crunden opened his eyes and stared feebly about him. He was wondering where the light came from he lay there waiting for the next pain to grip him. He could not quite understand how he came to find himself in bed like this, and why the sun was shinng so brightly. A cool breath of air blew over bis face; it seemed to him that he could smell violets somewhere. He felt somewhat weak, too; he had a difficulty in raising his head. Then he saw that he was in his own room.
The place was more trim and tidy than, he had ever seen it before. There wae no litter of discarded clothing upon the floor as usual. Probably he had managed to drag himself to his voom and to get into bed, and for some extraordinary reason, he had slept till morning.
He began to wonder what had happened the previous night. He could not get rid of a haunting idea that his wife had found him there; he could still feel the touch of her arm about his neck. And here she was, bending over him with a quivering smile on her face, and asking him, with deep anxiety in her voice, how he felt.
Why, she had not spoken to him like that for two whole years. She looked just the same as she had done in the happy days which he had thought he had put behind him for ever. He could feel her hands under his head lifting his pillow, he could feel the caress of her cool fingers on his hair. And, above all, there was the tender glorious smile which he never ought to have lost, and which was his at one time for the asking. And, the wonder of it all was that here it was back again, and he had done absolutely nothing to deserve it.
"Kate," he murmured dreamily, "Kate."
She bent over him suddenly and kissed him. His arms were not so weak now they were not too weak to hold her to him for a moment. Then in some sudden way he knew that she understood, and that the whole story was hers as if he had told her. Here was something far better, then, than all those illusive phantom searches into the unattainable. He could see now how little it profited him to risk his own happiness in pursuit of the impossible. It was some little time before be spoke.
"Who told you, dear?" he asked.
Kate sat there smiling and happy now.
"It was Mr Bashford firet," she said. "It was only last night it all happened. I have come back because—"
"Yes, I know all that," Crunden interrupted. "I heard you telling Nest when you returned. And I was afraid to see the child because I felt that I was dying them. Perhaps I shall make you understand in time that I—"
"Oh I understand now," Kate went on. "I suppose you came to your senses. I suppose you realised your folly when it was almost too late. I don't know if we should really have found out if it hadn't been for that letter which Mr Bashford found in your hand. It is wonderful to see how he puts things together, but he didn't understand why you had done this thing, for he knew nothing about the pearl cross, for example. And now let me see if I can guess why you took the cross. You took it so that you could pay the premium on your insurance and leave little Nest and myself in comfort. Then after you had done this thing, after you had gone down to Mr Bashford's laboratory and possessed yourself of the awful stuff, you received a letter from the solicitors. I know all about that, because one of the firm has been inquiring for you this morning. And thank Heaven you are all right again now; you will be yourself again in a week or two. It was a noble thing to do."
"Most people would think not," Crunden said. "As a matter of fact, it was a cowardly thing to do. Still, if you will try to forgive me for what I have done—"
Kate smiled through her tears.
"Forgive you," she cried. "Why, you never asked for it. If you had only uttered one word of regret, I should have known then what I know now, that in spite of all I have never ceased to care for you. And, besides, how could I feel anything but affection for a man who loves Nest too?"
THE true story of the loss of the great pearl necklace has yet to be written. Of course, at the time it occupied the gossipy Society papers almost to the exclusion of everything else. Many journalists of the paragraphic type professed to give the authentic details, but as every paper varied in these matters, the general public felt that it had yet a good deal to learn. And the general public was right, because in no instance had a single one of those veracious journals come anywhere near the truth.
Of course, everybody knows the parties concerned in the story. For instance, there were Sir David Cordy and his daughter, together with Mr. George Goldsack, the wealthy American who subsequently married Miss Maud Cordy, but of Peter Prouse no mention was made. And as he was practically the hero of the romance, it will be seen at once that any true history of the missing necklace must be incomplete without him. But it was to Peter Prouse and nobody else that the whole merit of the scheme was due. But it will be just as well at this point, perhaps, to recapitulate the main facts, for the public has a short memory in these matters, and is apt to forget one sensation in the presence of another.
As everybody knows, Sir David Cordy is an exceedingly rich man. It really doesn't matter very much how he got his money, seeing that he was in absolute possession of it, and that he was the owner of one of the most magnificent houses in London. He was the owner, too, of many houses elsewhere, which embraced some of the finest partridge and grouse shooting in the country. He also possesses a steam-yacht which is a perfect dream in its way, and as he is inclined to lavish hospitality, he has a large and increasing circle of friends. In public, at any rate, nobody would venture to speak of Sir David as an unscrupulous and cold-blooded scoundrel, but there are a good many hard business men in the City of London who would not have the slightest hesitation in applying that epithet to him. Still, he has always managed to keep within the limits of the law; in fact, he employs half-a-dozen tame lawyers whose business it is to find out exactly how far he can go without bringing himself within reach of the lasso of the law. He is an exceedingly rich man, he gives great entertainments, and therefore he has no trouble whatever in finding himself welcome everywhere. There are a score of such men to-day, and some of them are not without honours, parliamentary and otherwise.
It was about this time that the announcement of the engagement between Miss Maud Cordy and Mr. George Goldsack was announced. Apart from the importance of the affair and the prominent position of the engaged couple, there were novel features which appealed to the Society press. For instance, Mr. Goldsack was one of the richest men in America, and for once he was reversing the programme. He was the rich American who was seeking a wife in England. He had just pulled off some big scheme of a corner in food of some sort; in fact, he had been successful in one of those rascally operations in which a certain type of American business man seems to delight. But as he had been succeasful, instead of emerging with disgraceful bankruptcy, Society clutched him to its bosom, and he found himself made much of. This was going to be the plutocratic marriage of the Season, and Sir David expanded accordingly. It was his bounden duty to give his daughter a present the like of which had never been seen before. There was no doubt from the first as to what form the present would take, seeing that a man of Sir David's antecedents and instincts can never possibly soar outside the regions of costly jewellery. Finally it was decided that the gift should take the shape of a pearl necklafce. Sir David had been dealing in pearls lately, and by means of a peculiarly sharp "spec" he had managed to get possession of some sixty pearls of remarkable purity far below their market value. They were honestly worth a thousand pounds apiece, even at their wholesale price, which fact Sir David did not conceal from such journalists as came along and asked personal questions. Long before the wedding-day everybody knew that Miss Cordy was going to have this unique thing amongst necklaces, and, indeed, it had been exhibited in the window of a Bond Street jeweller. It had been photographed too, for some of the illustrated papers.
In his dingy lodgings out Soho way, Peter Prouse read all about these things. He was getting on in life now, and his prospects were not so good as they might have been. He was a brilliantly clever man in his way, but like so many other brilliant men, he had managed to make a failure of his life. Incidentally he had been in jail, where he had served three years' penal servitude for a fraud in which he always argued he had been little or none to blame. One or two of his intimates were told that the real culprit was a man now rolling in wealth and luxury. And though he discreetly mentioned no names, there were certain people who knew quite well that Sir David Cordy was the man aimed at. And though it doesn't matter for the purpose of this story how far this is correct, it may at once be said that this was substantially true, and that, but for Cordy and certain forgotten transactions, Prouse would have probably been moving in very different circles to-day. As it was, he had a precarious and doubtful existence, more or less connected with advertisements and the cheaper press. Sometimes these led to comparative affluence, sometimes they left Prouse stranded on a very barren shore indeed. These adventures necessitated a constant change of address and a modest concealment of name under initials and other aliases of that sort. But for the last ten years Prouse had managed to evade the police, and at the time the story opens he was in a position of comparative affluence.
He sat there reading the papers and smoking cigarettes and discussing matters generally with his wife. She was considerably younger than himself, rather dainty and refined and innocent-looking. But it must not be inferred from this that she suffered any pangs of conscience or passed sleepless nights thinking of the ill-spent life of the man whom she was supposed to love, honour and obey. On the contrary, she was proud of his talents, and on more than one occasion §he had proved exceedingly useful in Prouse's little schemes of relieving the general public of the necessity of looking after its superfluous cash.
"What a world it is!" Mr, Prouse said. "Now, if this chap had his deserts, he would be in jail long ago. Instead of which, he's got more than he knows how to do with, and now he's going to marry his daughter to a man richer than himself. And he's going to give her a present which will be worth £60,000. Like to have a look at it, Maria? Here's a photograph of it in The Looking Glass. There's going to be a big reception in Park Lane next week so that the girl's friends can inspect the presents, and I see about sixty favoured guests are dining afterwards. I should like to get hold of those pearls! Why, they'd sell for a thousand pounds apiece anywhere. If I had that little lot, I could make at least £50,000, and then we could go and buy ourselves a little place in the country, same as you're always talking about. Upon my word, Maria, if I could do that man out of that necklace, I'd feel inclined almost to give it away. I'd like to get even with him. It's a different man I'd be if I had never come in contact with David Cordy."
Mrs. Prouse murmured her sympathy. She had heard this story a score of times before. But the prospect of comparative wealth and the little place in the country appealed to her. She recognised the fact that Peter was getting on in life, and that as yet he had made no provision for his old age.
"I'm afraid that's out of our reach," she said regretfully. "Besides, it's altogether too big a thing."
"I'm not altogether sure of that," Prouse said thoughtfully. "I was thinking about it last night. They say that hatred sharpens one's wits. Not that I am much of a fool at any time. How much money do we happen to have?"
"Oh, we haven't been lucky lately," Mrs. Prouse replied. "I suppose I've got a matter of about seventy pounds upstairs."
Prouse smiled approvingly.
"That's good enough," he said. "I suppose I can count upon you if you're wanted?"
Mrs. Prouse's pride was properly up in arms. She wanted to know if there had ever been a time when her husband could not count upon her. She reminded him pungently of the one or two occasions upon which her courage and resource had been the means of averting considerable trouble. Prouse duly apologised. He surveyed his wife's dainty prettiness and demure innocence with approval. Should he tell her his scheme or not? he asked himself. Perhaps it would be just as well not to trust her too far, for even the cleverest of women are apt to develop hysterical symptoms in moments of crises.
"All right," he said, "you shall know all about it later on. Meanwhile, I shall want about forty pounds of the money you've got upstairs, and if that forty pounds don't multiply itself by a thousand before the week's out, then my name isn't Peter Prouse. It's the right time of the year, too, and, so far as I can see, everything is in our favour. Now, don't ask a lot of questions, because I'm busy. All you've got to do is to act just as I tell you, and you shall have your little place in the country yet. As for me, I'm going down to St. Albans this evening, and I mayn't be back till to-morrow morning. Let's have the coin, old girl."
Mrs. Prouse fetched the money without protest, and discreetly refrained from asking unnecessary questions. Prouse duly returned from St. Albans the following day, apparently on the best of terms with himself. He asked if a big parcel had come for him, and Mrs. Prouse replied in the affirmative. She saw her husband leave the house presently neatly dressed and clean shaven, with his eyes smiling blandly behind gold-rimmed spectacles. He looked for all the world like a shopwalker or gentlemanly assistant in a West-end business, as his wife did not forget to inform him. The remark seemed to please him, for he muttered something to the effect that that was exactly what he meant to convey.
* * * * *
Sir David was busy, as usual, and he was slightly annoyed to be stopped in this way at the moment when he was leaving his house for the City. But possibly this smooth-spoken young man represented some West-end establishment, and Sir David was graciously pleased to give him five minutes of his time.
"My name is Balin,sir; I represent the firm of Messrs. Larkspur and Son, of Paris," the discreet young man murmured. "No doubt. Sir David, you have heard of Larkspur. The famous Paris florists, you know. We've just opened a branch in London. I thought, perhaps, if you haven't given your orders for the flowers for Miss Cordy's reception next Thursday—"
"I can't be bothered with that," Cordy grunted.
"Pardon me just for the moment, sir. You see, we work on different lines to the English florists. We supply flowers of an infinitely superior quality, and we make arrangements to take them back again. I can assure you, sir, that we can do you at half the price you paid Collins and Sons for the flowers for the big dance which you gave last week. I believe the scheme then, sir, was roses, was it not? For less money than that we will undertake a scheme which calls exclusively for the use of orchids. You see, sir, we could use the orchids again, as they are flowers which last a wonderfully long time, and nobody would be the least the wiser, if you care to favour us."
Sir David was just a little impressed. In spite of all his money, he dearly loved a bargain, and he would have gone a long way to save a sixpence. And the suggestion of the scheme of orchids appealed to him.
"I don't dislike your idea," Sir David said patronisingly, "but unfortunately my arrangements—"
"One moment, sir, just one moment. We are exceedingly anxious to get the custom of anyone like yourself. If you will permit me, I shall be exceedingly glad to decorate the tables where Miss Cordy's presents appear entirely with the green and gold orchids which created such a sensation last week in Paris, when the President was entertaining his royal visitors. These orchids are quite new, and cannot be bought for money. If you will permit me, I will decorate the tables with these flowers, and subsequently they can be moved to the dining-room for your dinner-party. I will send one of the cleverest of floral designers in London, and we shall be only too pleased to send the flowers and fetch them away without any charge whatever. The advertisement will more than repay us for the trouble we are taking."
Sir David promptly closed with the offer. It was one that appealed to his business instincts. It would cost him nothing, and it would be quite a piquant little item for the newspapers afterwards. He stood there chatting on the steps with the gentlemanly representative of Larkspur and Son for quite a long time. It was arranged, at length, that the flowers should come in the following Thursday, the day before the wedding, about three o'clock, so that there would be plenty of time to get the scheme properly set out before Miss Cordy's guests began to arrive for the inspection of the wedding presents. As it was cold March weather, the orchids would be sent in specially constructed vans which the firm always used for that purpose.
"I am greatly obliged to you, sir," Mr. Balin said. "Perhaps you might be good enough to drop a hint to your detective. I mean, sir, to the man from the private inquiry agency who always attends these functions to keep an eye on the presents."
"Oh, I haven't forgotten that, you may be sure," Sir David said. "Yes, my good man, you are quite right. My detectives on these occasions always come from Parker and Lee, of Charing Cross. I generally have the same man—a most reliable creature of the name of Taddy. Perhaps you have met him?"
"Oh, yes, sir," Balin said. "We have frequently met in great houses in the West End. And I am really most grateful to you, sir. You may rely upon my absolute attentions."
Cordy went his way with the air of a man who has done a good stroke of business. He was not quite so pleased, however, when he reached home early on the following Thursday afternoon to find that as yet there was no sign of the gentleman from Messrs. Larkspur or the deft-fingered young lady whose business it would be to arrange the orchids. Sir David fretted and fumed, for a man in his position naturally resents these little pin-pricks on the part of Providence. As a rule, they do not come into the scheme. But as the guests were beginning to arrive, and the dainty Society butterflies began to hover round the Empire tables on which the presents were laid out, Sir David was forced to control himself. The huge drawing-room was one blaze of electric lights now, the room was gradually filling with a chattering mob, and on the centre table furthest from the door lay the great pearl necklace. It was not much brighter than the many bright and envious eyes which were turned upon it, and as Sir David began to realise the importance of the occasion he expanded visibly. At the same moment half-a-dozen gorgeously attired footmen came in solemn procession bearing on silver salvers a really unique and beautiful collection of orchids. There was something so fine and distinguished about these gorgeous flowers that even the presents were forgotten for the moment. Behind the glittering cavalcade came the gentlemanly manager of Larkspur and Son, followed by a shrinking, modest-looking girl dressed in black, and apparently frightened and bewildered by the scheme of splendour in which she found herself.
"It is quite the fault of my assistant, Sir David," Mr. Balin said. "She foolishly forgot my instructions. Now, Miss Gordon, please get to work at once."
With this explanation, Mr. Balin vanished, and the shrinking girl proceeded to lay out her lovely flowers to the best advantage. She was dexterous enough in her work, and with a deft touch here and there proceeded to beautify the tables beyond recognition.
Sir David looked on approvingly. So also did the dark, clean-shaven man in the frock-coat and black tie who hovered near the table with the air of a waiter who is not quite sure that his handiwork will meet with complete approval. He was disguised as a guest, of course, but obviously enough he was a man sent there by Parker and Lee for the purpose of keeping an eye on the presents.
"Yes, they really are marvellous flowers," Sir David said pompously to an admiring guest. "I understand they were imported by my people especially from Paris. The collection originally belonged to an Oriental monarch. They tell me that this lot is worth a fabulous sum; that mixture of green and gold is superb. I understand they look far better on the dining-table. But you will have an opportunity of seeing that for yourself, my dear fellow. I must confess, for my own part, that I like something out of the common. If these things don't run to too great an amount, I think I shall buy them."
The demure little assistant smiled. She quite appreciated the situation. It was so like the man there to boast that he had another collection of these famous orchids besides the glorious wealth of bloom on the table. At this moment the crowd surged back from the tables, for another set of gorgeous footmen came in with the tea. It was at this point, when the scene was at its best and brightest, that the light suddenly went out and the brilliant assembly was plunged in darkness.
"Shut the door, sir," a voice said. "It's Taddy speaking to you. Sir David. I don't say it isn't all right, sir, but it's just possible that this is an impudent dodge—"
Cordy waited to hear no more. He plunged headlong across the room and closed the door with a bang. Some man in the crowd produced a box of matches from his pocket, and one of the gorgeous footmen remembered the gas which was in the drawing-room besides the electric light. It was never used, but still the brackets were retained in case of accidents. But it was a minute or more before the flickering lights faintly illuminated the big saloon, but in that moment the mischief was done. Taddy gasped in dismay as he pointed to the centre table, where the big pearl necklace was now conspicuous by its absence.
It is impossible adequately to convey the scene which followed. It was impossible too, to accuse anyone of the theft. For the next half-hour the bewildered guests huddled together, exchanging glances. And when the police, who had been frantically telephoned for, put in an appearance, they were equally at fault. As for Mr. Taddy, he could tell them nothing. The demure florist, standing by the table where she had been putting the finishing touches to the work, had seen and heard nothing whatever. Indeed, she seemed too utterly bewildered to understand what had happened. The sudden change from the brilliant light to the pitch darkness had had its effect on everybody there, but it was useless to stand idly discussing this great calamity. The thing was done, and there was an end of it, and the authorities were plainly of opinion that Miss Cordy would be lucky if she ever saw her necklace again. In the language of the paragraphists who pursued her so unceasingly, "she was utterly prostrate with grief." One or two intimates stayed to administer what consolation they could, but save for the idea of immediate bed and eau-de-cologne, no practical balm for Miss Oordy's stricken feelings emanated from that frivolous crowd.
"What's the good of that?" the demented young woman asked. "Besides, we've got a dinner-party to-night, and if those dreadful people have taken my necklace, why, then, my father must buy me another one. But please tell that young woman to take those dreadful orchids away. I shall never see an orchid again without thinking about this terrible afternoon."
The pretty little assistant stood there, blushing and trembling. She glanced appealingly to Sir David, who very naturally demurred to this exhibition of sentiment on his daughter's part. The orchids had cost him nothing, it is true, but then he had been looking forward to boasting and swaggering about them at his dinner-table later on, and this was one of the things which he enjoyed above everything. But for once in his life he had to give way.
"Better remove them," he muttered. "At any rate, I suppose I can have them on another occasion. Here, one of you men, go and order a cab and bring this young woman's baskets back. Pack them up and get them away at once. I can call round to your shop in the morning and explain."
It took some little time to pack the flowers, for the room was mainly occupied now by the police force, who were searching everywhere for the missing pearls. The little florist appeared to watch them with dazed fascination. Presently she realised that her curiosity was out of place, so she proceeded to entwine the stems of her flowers with cotton-wool, and to place them in their mossy boxes with almost loving care. It was really marvellous to see in how small a space those long trails and clusters of blooms folded when they were handled by expert fingers. A detective, evidently with a passion for flowers, watched the work with frank admiration.
"I didn't think you could have possibly done it, miss," he said. "Why, when we came in, those tables were one mass of glorious blooms, and now you've got them all packed away so that they would go into a good-sized dressing-case. They are very light, too."
"Yes, aren't they?" the assistant said, with a shy smile. "And I wonder how I managed so well, because I've never known my hand shake so much as it did just now. And I do hope that pretty young lady will get her necklace back again. It seemed such a horrible trick to play upon her. Do you suppose it really was a planned affair? Isn't it just possible that some guest took advantage of the accident?"
The speaker pulled up as if ashamed of her audacity in making such a suggestion. The detective shook his head meaningly. He was bound to admit, he said, that he had heard of such things. The little assistant sighed as she demurely left the room and made her way into the street. She was infinitely obliged to the gorgeous footman who had called her a cab, but really, she didn't want one, she had such a little distance to go, and she much preferred to walk. She disappeared down the street, and presently was crossing the Park in the westerly direction. Almost at the same moment one of the leading lights from Scotland Yard arrived at Park Lane with the demand to see Sir David at once.
"I am afraid it is a put-up thing, sir," he said. "I've been down to Parker and Lee's making inquiries. The man you had here just now was not their man at all. They couldn't send you Taddy, because he met with an accident, but they sent you another man equally reliable, who had instructions last night to be here at three o'clock. We have just found out that he never went home last evening at all. You may depend upon it that he has met with foul play. Probably he was lured into some den and heavily drugged. The man who came here and personated him, beyond all doubt was the thief. Of course, we can't tell quite how he managed it, and up to now we have found nothing wrong with the main switches of the electric light. But no doubt he managed to establish a short circuit somewhere, and directly the light went out he popped the necklace in his pocket."
"The scoundrel!" Sir David groaned. "I suppose you'll manage to get hold of him. He is sure to be some well-known criminal."
"Oh, of course," the inspector said soothingly. "We shall lay hands upon him right enough. I know it must have been intensely dark for the moment, but it's rather odd that the assistant from the florists didn't notice anything. She was actually arranging the flowers at the time. I don't suppose she can give us any information, but I should like to speak to her."
"You don't mean to suggest," Sir David cried, "that—"
"Oh, dear, no, sir. There's no shadow of doubt in my mind as to who the thief is, but one never knows."
"The girl's gone. I wanted her to rearrange the flowers in the dining-room for to-night's dinner, but my daughter wouldn't hear of it."
The inspector murmured that the matter was of little importance, and meanwhile the innocent florist was making her way by the circuitous route to the obscure lodging in Soho where Mr. Peter Prouse lived. He smiled largely and blandly as he saw the parcel which she was carrying in her hand.
"This is better luck than I expected," he said. "I thought we should have had to wait for those flowers at least till to-morrow morning. I thought we should have had to fetch them."
"Oh, the girl took a dislike to them," Mrs. Prouse explained. "She said she never wanted to see an orchid again, so Sir David told me to pack them up and take them back to the shop, and here I am. And now I am dying with curiosity—"
"Right you are," Prouse said immediately. "Unpack the flowers; do it carefully and lay them on the table."
"Just as if I should do it carelessly. I am too fond of flowers for that... There, now. And now tell me what possible connection there can be between these blooms and the disappearance of Miss Cordy's pearl necklace."
"That's quite easy enough," Prouse said. "Now, just pass me those three large sprays of blooms. Thank you. Now, I take this pair of tweezers and insert it in the gold and green cup at the base of this flower, which looks so exactly like a mouth—or, rather, like a glorified snapdragon. And from it I produce this pearl, which is worth at least a thousand pounds. You see, I go on doing this with the tweezers till I remove all the pearls which you see before you. See how beautifully they fit into the receptacles and how utterly impossible it would be to guess where they were. My idea, of course, was that the flowers would be removed by you to the dining-table, and when all those swells were discussing the loss of the pearls, they would be under their very eyes all the time. Then you would have gone round to the house to-morrow morning to fetch the flowers away, just as if they really did belong to Larkspur and Son, and as if you were an assistant in the shop. It was a million to one against Cordy's suspecting that there was anything wrong as far as you and the orchids were concerned. Now, I didn't tell you what the game was as far as you were concerned, and what risks you had to run, because it would have made you too horribly nervous. You would never have got out of the house all right if you knew you had the pearls in your possession. I wanted you to think the flowers were only part of the blind."
"I did think so," Mrs. Prouse said. "And you are quite right, Peter, I'm glad I didn't know."
"Oh, that's all right," Prouse said. "The rest was quite easy. You see, I had to get that private detective out of the way, and that was no great trouble. I managed to drug him all right, and then of course I had to take his place. It was easy for me to pose as the representative of Larkspur and Son, but it was not quite so easy to take you into the drawing-room of Park Lane and then to slip out of the house again and come back five or ten minutes later freshly made up to take the part of the Parker and Lee's detective. But I had been there in that role in the morning, so that the servants might get familiar with me. Still, an old hand at the game like myself managed to slip into a lavatory when all the servants were busy and alter my make-up a little. When I came back into the drawing-room, I studied exactly how the land lay, and almost before the lights were out I had my hand upon that necklace. I had only to cut the string, and all the pearls slipped into my hands. It didn't take me long to feel for the orchids and slip the pearls into those little green and gold mouths."
"But the light?" Mrs. Prouse asked.
"Oh, that was the easiest of the lot. When I was in the drawing-room early in the afternoon, I took one of the lamps off from a cluster near the table. When the time came, I had only to take my knife out of my pocket and touch the negative and positive poles in the lamp-socket with the steel blade. That short circuited it at once, and blew out the fuse. The rest was quite easy. But it's a pretty little scheme altogether, and I am quite proud of it. At any rate, I'm even with Cordy now. The only thing I regret is that I can't tell him whom he had to thank for the loss. But you can't have everything."
BY and by the two men would be making Empire. Later on, with any luck, that unknown portion of Africa would be added to the map and duly painted red. Then, perhaps, in the fulness of time, Stanning and Ridsdale would be largely in the newspapers, with C.B.'s after their names, and possibly fat commissionerships in the not remote future. It is a fascinating game, and has been played with brilliant success ever since the days of Drake and Frobisher and Hawkins. If the thing is successful, then these adventurers are patriots and explorers; if the thing fails, then they are no better than pirates, and are treated accordingly. And nobody understood the rules of the game better than Stanning and Ridsdale. They had gone into it with their eyes wide open; they had tired of the ordinary amusements of an effete civilisation, and, besides, they were both getting on in life. There were wrinkles under their eyes and grey patches on their temples, and a peculiar, nervous jerk of their hands which told its own story.
There were about two hundred and fifty of them altogether. As to the natives, they didn't count at all. They had been more or less pressed into the service; they were so many black cattle in a country where it was impossible to obtain mules. The Europeans were a mere handful, and of them the less said the better. For the most part, they would have preferred it that way. They were all in possession of antecedents, of course, but on this head they displayed a unanimous and striking modesty. Probably most of them had been in jail, and they all deserved to be, but they were just the sort of men that Ridsdale and Stanning wanted, for they knew no fear, and adventure was as the breath of their nostrils. It looked like being a big thing, too.
In the first place, no white man had ever been here before. The country was rich in produce; there was ivory to be had for the asking, and if the stories told by the natives were true, there was indiarubber back yonder behind the place where the chief of the tribes lived. Of course, there was the awful climate—the hot, steamy days and the heavy nights, when the fog fell like a blanket, and perspiring humanity shivered under its cold touch. There were fever and dysentery and all the rest of it, and no man knew what to-morrow would bring forth. But it was beautiful in its way, too. There were orchids here hanging from the trees, which collectors away in England would have given an ear to call their own. Provided the little force was not wiped out prematurely, then Stanning and Ridsdale began to see the outline of great possibilities. Probably, later on, they would reap their reward for all this; there were no newspaper correspondents present, so that they might carry out the campaign in the usual way. It is an axiom in the making of geography that dead men tell no tales.
And yet, somehow, things were not going quite so smoothly as they might, for here was a tribe that refused to come in. The men of it were not to be moved by blandishments or glass beads or biscuit-tins, and Winchester rifles appeared to have no terrors for them. More than one brush had ended in an undecided fashion, and progress was getting slow, until it began to dawn upon the leaders of the expedition that they were in a tight place. Their sentries were picked off at nights, and though they had every intention of moving in one direction, it gradually began to dawn upon Stanning and Ridsdale that they were being shepherded into quite another place. It was all very well to try and believe that their movements were made for strategic reasons, and because of the force of the foe who kept at respectful distance. But these two leaders had been in South Africa, and they recognised that there was method behind all this. There was something almost murderously civilised about it. The lesson had come right home that afternoon, when an advance party had been fallen upon and cut off to a man in a little ravine leading out into the plain. And when the advance party came to be buried, Stanning stood there whistling softly and scratching his head with a ruminative fore-finger. He was the more observant of the two, and he was seeing things now which were lost upon Ridsdale. When the two sat down gloomily to smoke, it was Stanning who pointed out certain things of moment.
"This is a serious business," Ridsdale said.
"My boy, it's more serious than you think," Stanning replied. "Now, just look at this. I picked it up this afternoon—in fact, I picked up a couple of dozen of them. If those chaps of ours find any of them, they won't move another yard."
"What is it?" Ridsdale asked languidly. He lay there half suffocated by the moist heat; his face seemed to be bathed in a kind of yellow varnish. "What have you got there?"
Stanning passed over a little, shining, brass cylinder for his companion's inspection.
"No reason to ask you if you know what this is," he said. "You've been through the Boer war, and you've seen the thing for yourself. It's the shell of a Mauser cartridge, my boy, and I've got a score more in my pocket. And every one of those poor devils we buried just now was shot with a No. 2 Mauser rifle of the very latest pattern. Why, it hasn't been out more than six months. Lord knows how it was that those chaps didn't notice. I suppose they thought that our little lot was picked off by a lot of old gas-pipes just in the usual way. I tell you, I don't like it, Ridsdale. I could have sworn that we were the first white men here, and yet that's impossible. Fancy coming across niggers in the middle of Africa armed with Mausers! And that's not the worst of it. Here's another shell. I picked it up quite by accident. You won't want to run your eye over it more than once to see that it's a Maxim cartridge. Fancy a nigger chief right off the map here with a force behind him armed up to date in this way! No wonder he refused to come into treaty with us. And the beggar's clever, too. He's running this little scrap quite on European lines. He's a kind of Cronje in the bud. And instead of us being marching on to Maryland and all that sort of thing, we are in a devilish tight place. I only began to realise it yesterday, and that confounded nigger knows it, too. If something out of the common doesn't happen, your mother and mine will never see their blue-eyed boys again."
"So you've spotted it, too?" Ridsdale asked. "I didn't like to say anything about it till I was certain. And so far as I can see, there is only one thing left to be done."
"'The good old rule, the simple plan,'" Stanning quoted—"the great game of bluff which has built up the British Empire and made it what it is. We shall have to wave the flag, my boy. We shall have to pose as a British force, and offer this mahogany Napoleon here the protection of the Union Jack. It may come off all right; on the other hand, it mayn't. If it does, then we shall get our little reward later on, and if it doesn't, then Portland prison may be our portion for some little time to come. We will send our friend an ultimatum. We will send something neat and not too gaudy in the way of a mission, asking the chief to come and see us. You write it—you are better at that sort of thing than I am—and make it flowery, old chap, whatever you do. Throw in a lot about the Empire on which the sun never sets."
Ridsdale dragged himself wearily in the direction of his tent. He sat down, and at the end of half an hour had evolved something satisfactory. It was finely decorated with some imposing looking pictures taken from packets of cigarettes. It was just the sort of thing to fill the heart of a simple savage with wonder and delight.
"I think that will do the trick," he said. "Those regimental colours from the cigarette packets come in fine. It looks like the work of a boy in a Council school. And now, I suppose, the best thing we can do is to send it off. With any luck, we ought to get some sort of a reply before sunset."
It was not a particularly easy matter to procure volunteers for the proud position of bearing the proclamation. But the thing was accomplished at length by a judicious admixture of threats and bullying, together with a couple of bottles of something peculiarly atrocious in the way of whisky. The deputation started presently under the guidance of a big ex-convict, who had, amongst other talents, the gift of tongues. He swayed slightly in his walk; he was filled contemporaneously with the importance of his mission and the lion's share of the aggressive whisky. The little company departed presently, and Ridsdale and Stanning sat down to await events. Even their spirits were damped by the outlook. The heat beat down upon them furiously; they lay there groaning and sweating, anxious to be up and doing something, and yet held in the grip of that enervating moisture. Presently it became too hot to smoke; they could only lounge there half torpid and almost too listless to fight the flies which hung round them in black, humming clouds. It was nearly sunset before a solitary native came in sight, the only one of the deputation, apparently.
"Where are the rest of them?" Stanning demanded.
The native made a motion by drawing his hand across his throat. He was absolutely livid under his black skin, his yellow eyeballs rolled in a fine frenzy of fear.
"All gone, master," he said—"all done for. I saw it. First one, then the other, and the lord of the black beard last of all. Me they spared, me they sent with a letter."
This was the gist of the story he had to tell, told in his own words. It was adorned with wild gesticulations and a certain fluency of description from which the listeners picked out the prominent features. Apparently, without waiting for any explanation, the native chief had had the deputation promptly murdered, with the exception of the fortunate individual saved from the holocaust to bring back a reply to Ridsdale's work of art.
"Did it seem to annoy him?" Ridsdale asked.
"He read," the native said. "He put up the one glass to his eye, same as my lord here--"
"What?" Stanning cried. "Here, steady on! Do you mean to tell me that this nigger wears an eyeglass like mine? Oh, the man's mad—frightened to death!"
But the native stuck stoutly to his story. He had gone alone into the presence of the mysterious great chief, all dressed in his feathers and his paint, and the great gold ring through his nose, and the great chief had read that illuminated address, and he had laughed and laughed till the tears ran down his face. Then he had summoned a woman, who came muffled to the eyes, and she had read and laughed, too, in tones like those of the bell-bird when he is calling to his mate. And after that the big chief had written something with a pen on a sheet of paper, and he had tossed it to the messenger, bidding him contemptuously to be gone and take it to the white men who had dared to send him there.
"Oh, tho man's raving!" Ridsdale said. "He's either that or he's a born journalist without knowing it. I suppose you could find novelists in this part of the world even. If this chap were only educated, he would knock some of those writing chaps at home silly. Still, it's clever. He's a humorist. Just think of a nigger with a ring through his nose and an eyeglass! And that touch about the fair female with a voice like a set of silver bells!"
"And the pen and paper," Stanning said. "Now, my son, produce the love-letter. Let's have the cream-laid note and the violet ink. Hand it over—the letter, you fool, the letter!"
The anguished native promptly dived his hand into his loin-cloth and produced a note. Surely enough it looked just the sort of letter to come from any civilised being with a nice taste in notepaper and a firm, neat handwriting. The letter was addressed to the commander of the British force, and inside was a short and pithy message couched in ironical phrase in an absolutely perfect grammar. Stanning gasped as he read it.
"The gist of it," he said faintly, "is: 'Don't you wish you might get it!' And it's written in French, of all languages in the world! Oh, we've gone mad, old chap! This infernal climate has been too much for us, and, for the time being, Reason totters on her throne. The dusky warrior who murders the envoy in cold blood is all right enough, for we've met him before, but the savage chief who has an eyeglass and writes letters upon notepaper with the Army and Navy Stores' imprint on the flap of the envelope must be a creature of imagination. He couldn't exist; the whole thing is impossible."
"Well, there it is, anyway," Ridsdale said. "I suppose we don't happen to have blundered on a tribe of white men who have been lost sight of for a few generations? No, that's quite impossible. I don't think a white man would have an embassy chopped up in that cold-blooded way. Still, the thing's pretty weird, old man. It gives me a queer sensation down my spine. I'd give something to get out of this!"
Stanning was emphatically of the same opinion. There was nothing for it now but to await the course of events. The darkness fell presently, and with it the night became sensibly cooler. It was possible to stand up now and to think and to act energetically. For an hour or more the two friends debated the matter, at the end of which time they decided that it would be better to fall back the way they had come. A long night march might take them outside the zone of danger. But here they were mistaken. A murderous fire broke out presently from both sides of the ravine, and the small advance guard fell back in confusion. Evidently it was too late to do anything now, and the only thing left was to concentrate forces and await the onslaught, which Ridsdale and Stanning knew now would come before morning.
They could only hope for the best. They could only clench their teeth with the determination to fight it out to the bitter end. It was a couple of hours before the dawn when the attack broke upon them from all sides with startling suddenness. A great searchlight flared amongst the trees; the wood seemed to be alive with black figures, some of which were armed with a Mauser rifle. Their fire was concentrated and murderous; they closed in more fiercely, till at length Ridsdale and Stanning and a couple of natives alone remained. A gigantic black figure came bounding through the undergrowth, and pointed a revolver at Ridsdale, but at that very moment another huge figure appeared from out the gloom, and snatched the weapon from the big fellow's hand. In the same instant a hoarse command rang out from somewhere, and the firing ceased and the searchlight died away. It was impossible to see a yard ahead in the intense darkness.
It was no time to wait and argue what this policy meant. Stanning clutched his companion by the arm, and together they staggered on through the night. They fought their way steadily with a grim courage and despair, knowing little where they went and what lay before them. But presently it seemed to them that the noise was dying away, and that for the time being, at any rate, they had reached a haven of safety. The first glimpse of the dawn was coming up now as they threw themselves down, spent and exhausted, upon the thick herbage.
"We've done it now!" Stanning gasped. "I should say that we were the only two left. So far we are lucky to be together. But where's it going to end? How are we going to find our way back again? Why, we haven't got so much as a revolver and a cartridge between us!"
Ridsdale had no suggestion to make; he was too utterly tired and worn out. Stanning's eyes were closing, too, and they lay there in a deep sleep of utter exhaustion hour after hour, until, when they woke again, the sun was beginning to slope behind the dim outline of the distant hills. So far as they could judge, according to English time, it must have been about six o'clock. And then came the knowledge simultaneously to both of them that they were ravenously hungry. Still, they had to get on, and that speedily. They were far enough away from their own camp, even if they had known the direction in which it lay. But by this time, no doubt, the camp had been wiped off the face of the forest, and little trace of it would remain. They had nothing beyond what they stood up in, no arms, and no provision to make a fire, even if they possessed the food to cook.
"We shall have to manage it somehow or other," Stanning said. "We can't sit quietly here and starve. What do you say to prospecting around till we can find a village? We can't be so very far away from a human habitation."
"Come along," Ridsdale said. "Anything's better than this."
It was a difficult and a hazardous matter, but they managed it at length. They found a village presently, lying on a high plateau of land, and in the background an imposing group of buildings—quite a small palace in its way—which evidently was the residence of the chief of the tribe. So far everything had gone well, and there was nothing for it now but to possess their souls in patience until such time as the village slept, and it would be possible to steal into one of the huts and procure food. It might be possible also to assimilate a rifle or two and a box of cartridges.
The darkness fell presently, and dim lights began to twinkle out in the village. Then the open windows of the imposing palace in the background burst into scores of points of gleaming flame. Ridsdale clutched his companion's arm.
"It's a land of magic," he whispered. "Electric lights, as I'm a living soul! Oh, there's no doubt of it! Look and see for yourself. Why, you can see the clusters on the ceiling! What on earth does it mean?"
"Come and see for yourself," a quiet voice came out of the darkness. "Now, don't move, gentlemen; I've got you covered with my revolver. I've been watching you for some time."
Ridsdale and his companion resigned themselves to the inevitable. They were too dazed and bewildered to make any resistance; besides, this was emphatically a case where discretion was the better part of valour. They walked circumspectly and discreetly, for on that point their guide was emphatic. They came presently to the outer gate of the palace, which was immediately closed behind them. Once inside, they gazed round them with a feeble mixture of admiration and surprise. Here was a large, wide hall furnished in luxurious fashion, perhaps a little reminiscent of Tottenham Court Road, but with an absolute eye to comfort for all that. The electric lights gleamed everywhere behind the yellow silk shades; there were pictures on the walls, and oriental vases and bowls filled with masses of white and gold and purple orchids. The feet of the weary adventurers sank luxuriously into thick carpet; their tired eyes turned wearily from the splendour and the luxury of it all. Ridsdale turned recklessly to his guide. The man was a European like himself, with the suggestion of a Frenchman about him.
"What's the name of this hotel?" Ridsdale asked. "I say, you might show us where the bathroom is. And if you can give us a pick-me-up before dinner, we should be obliged."
"A little patience," the guide said calmly. "Perhaps you would like to see the bathroom first. This way, please."
They followed, still marvelling, across a wide passage with many rooms leading out of it. The adventurers could see that there was a well-filled library as they passed, and further on a billiard-room, and again a music-room.
They were alone together presently in a large apartment lined with white tubs and fitted with two baths with silver appliances. They stood and grinned at one another.
"The Arabian Nights, by Jove!" Ridsdale cried. "Where's the one-eyed Calendar with the scented soap and the hot towel? Upon my word, if they give us a good dinner and show us the nigger with the eyeglass afterwards, I shall be quite prepared to die happy. Pity we didn't bring our dress-clothes with us, wasn't it?"
Stanning responded in a reckless mood. He was feeling now as if he cared little what happened; after this, life could possess no further surprises for him. They fairly revelled in the luxury of a bath. They came out presently, to find razors and shaving tackle awaiting them. Then their guide reappeared and conducted them down to a drawing-room which would have been worthy of Belgravia. And here, awaiting them, was a tall, graceful woman in evening-dress. She was dark and handsome enough in a way— she might have been some five-and-forty years of age—and she had a fascinating smile which rendered her face extremely youthful.
"I am very glad to see you," she said. "Which is Mr. Ridsdale and which is Mr. Stanning?... Oh, yes, it is quite delightful to see a white face again! It is thirteen years now since I spoke in English or French to anyone but my husband. I see you are wondering who my husband is. He was a little late in going to his dressing-room this evening, but he will be here presently to explain things for himself. He is the chief of the tribe, you know. I fancy one of you gentlemen owes his life to the prompt intervention of my husband last night--"
Stanning started and stammered something. Usually he was cool and collected enough, but he looked flushed and uncomfortable now.
"I—I don't understand," he blurted out.
The dazzling vision smiled sweetly.
"Oh, there are lots of things you don't understand," she said. "But you will get over your surprise in time. Of course, if you will come here, you will have to put up with the consequences. If you had both perished last night, you would have had nobody to blame but yourselves. Why can't you English leave people alone? Surely, if one likes to come all this way from civilisation, one has a right to a little peace and quietness. Oh, I don't blame you, but I know exactly what you were after. In a short time you find some excuse to quarrel with the natives, then you run up the British flag and build a light railway, and then you go home and write a book, and your Government gives you a knighthood and perhaps makes you a governor of some important island. I never pick up one of the English society papers without reading some charming little biography of this kind. It is only when you fail that you are called a thief and an adventurer. Still, I bear you no grudge, especially as you are going to make no geography out of this little affair. And it really was good of you to come all this way and give us a little variety in our monotonous lives. Now, I haven't the slightest intention of telling you who we are, and what strange freak of fortune brought us here, but there was a time when I knew the Park and Ascot and Cowes quite as well as you do. And I should be frightfully interested after dinner to hear all about my old friends. But here is my husband."
There came into the drawing-room at that moment the striking figure of a man in evening-dress. He was splendidly proportioned, a veritable mass of sinews. His face was burnt almost black, his blunt, short nose and somewhat sensual lips had a suggestion of the negro about them. Dyed and stained and dressed in the appropriate feathers, he would have passed even in the searching daylight for the very model of a negro chief. Looking at him carefully, Stanning could see where the nose had been pierced, and where on occasions this amazing specimen of humanity wore the heavy gold ring which the native envoy had spoken of. But there were no signs of it now, for the strange host carried his glass in his right eye as if to the manner born. Just for the moment a flicker of malicious amusement fell on his face, and his eyes grew hard and merciless. Beyond a doubt, this man had been reared in civilisation, but, all the same, he was a tiger. And at that moment Stanning could read clearly enough what was likely to happen. They had been brought here to amuse this savage and his wife, but that they were likely to return to civilisation to tell their story was a contingency so remote that it was not worthy of thought.
"I am exceedingly glad to meet you, gentlemen," the chief said in a harsh, grating voice. "I managed to save you last night at some little risk to myself. To a certain extent I am like the man in the Scriptures who spared Agag and the best of the spoil. Still, it was worth taking the risk. I knew it would amuse my wife and afford her a pleasant change. But, really, I owe you a grudge for coming here like this, because for many reasons strict privacy is essential to us. We won't talk about that; let us go in to dinner. We can play at society, at any rate, for the time being."
It was an excellent dinner; indeed, it seemed to Stanning and his companion that they had never sat down to a better. Here were the same luxuries which they would have found at the Carlton or the Savoy, here was the finest of champagne, the most curious thing in the way of liqueurs, and cigarettes which had been expressly manufactured for Royalty itself. And the table left nothing to be desired. There were three or four well-trained servants who did their work excellently.
"Ex-convicts," the strange host explained, when the coffee and cigars had circulated. "They are French, for the most part. And three out of the four have escaped from Toulon. But they serve our purpose excellently well, and for obvious reasons they are quite content to stay here. Of course, I need not tell you that the tribe which I have the honour to reign over does not dream of the way in which its chief spends his evenings. No nigger of the lot of them has ever been in here. But that only adds to the mystery and gives me greater hold upon them. Now, what do you gentlemen say to a game of billiards? We can talk and play at the same time, and I can give you any information you need. Not that it is likely to be of any service to you, but, still, out of courtesy to my guests--"
The smile was pleasant enough, but the tone none the less menacing. And, on the whole, it was a pleasant evening. The dramatic, unexpected suddenness of it alone gave it piquancy and charm in the eyes of the guests. It was only later on, in the seclusion of the bedroom, that the grimness of it appealed to them.
"Where's this going to end?" Ridsdale asked gloomily.
"It will end," Stanning said grimly, "when that tiger and his mate have had enough of it. It will end on the knot of a rope or at the impact of a bullet. You don't suppose that chap's going to let us get back to civilisation, do you? Not a bit of it, my boy. Do you know who he is? Because if you don't, I can tell you. He's George Templemore. I found that out last night. Of course, I should never have guessed if we hadn't got that letter which our envoy brought us. And when I saw the little exploit last night, it flashed upon me like a shot. You remember Templemore, don't you? He used to live in Paris years ago. One of the most awful blackguards I think I ever came across. But you seem to have forgotten the scandal."
"By Jove!" Ridsdale exclaimed. "Do you mean to say--"
"I do, my boy. And the charming lady who has been entertaining us to-night used to be known in the world of fashion as Marie Chesterton. Templemore robbed Chesterton of all he had, and then finally murdered the man who had been such a friend to him. And to make the thing all the more horrible, that fiend of a woman fled with her husband's murderer. They took any amount of loot with them. And they vanished in the most extraordinary manner. At any rate, although the police of Europe were looking for them everywhere, they were never found. And this is just the sort of wild, mad, plucky sort of thing that Templemore would do. Why, that chap would have walked into a den of lions if he had been dared to do it.; After seeing him, you can quite understand how he managed to get his influence over this tribe. You see, they didn't know anything about Mauser rifles when he came here first. And, mind you, he was perfectly safe here so long as the gangs of pirates like ourselves, masquerading as the forces of civilisation, did not come too far. In any case, we're not safe here, and the sooner we get out of it the better. I don't suppose our friend will get tired of us before the week's out, but I managed to find out where the arms were kept, and I know where the stables are, too. There are rifles and cartridges in the little room off the billiard-room and some really good horses in the stable. Now, is it good enough to stay here on the off-chance of that blackguard changing his mind at any moment, or would you like to make a move in the direction of England, home, and beauty without delay? It's very nice to sit down to a good dinner and to enjoy a good bath—and though we are pirates, we know it—but it isn't quite good enough to sit down again with a cold-blooded murderer."
"Soon as you like," Ridsdale whispered.
It was an hour or so before the dawn that they crept cautiously through the house, after helping themselves liberally to the chief's weapons. Then presently they led two horses out of the stables, making a detour of the village, after which they rode on hour after hour, till the sun was high in the heavens and all chance of pursuit was at an end.
"I think we can stop now," Stanning suggested, "and perhaps we are safe, after all. There's one thing in Templemore's favour. When we get home and tell this story, nobody will believe us. I know I shouldn't if anybody told it to me."
"I was sent to you," Mrs. Allardyce explained, "by Lady Moreland, who tells me that it is part of your business to let houses which are suffering from an evil reputation. There is 19, Aubrey Gardens, for instance, the place has now been empty for five years, and I am told that it ought to fetch at least six hundred a year. With a limited income like mine the matter is serious."
Mr. Bruce Abbey murmured his sympathy, and intimated that Mrs. Allardyce could do no better than to give him the details.
"Very well," she said. "The last tenant was a rich young man connected with the city. He was about to be married, the house was just furnished when one evening he came back rather earlier than usual, and when he went to bed, locked the door behind him. The next morning his man could not make him hear, and burst the door open. To his surprise, the room was empty, and my tenant has not been seen since. And here comes the really strange part of the mystery. My tenant's fiancee was discovered dead in her bed, though there was no suspicion of foul play attaching to the matter. After this, all sorts of complications arose, and finally we came to a kind of compromise by leaving the dead man's furniture at No. 19, so that my lawyers might let the house ready furnished. By a strange coincidence, Mr. Bentley Allen, the actor, and his wife became tenants of the house—the coincidence being, that they were cousins of my mysterious tenant. At the end of the week, Mrs. Allen declared that she would not stay in the house another moment, as she had seen the ghost of James Hartopp. Unless you can explain all this, I shall never make a penny out of the place again."
Mrs. Allardyce departed, leaving Abbey to grapple with his facts. In the course of the day he elicited the information that the missing man was the son of one George Hartopp, who some years before was head of a flourishing business in the city. Latterly, the Hartopp connection had fallen off considerably, so that the young man was hardly justified in taking a house like 19, Aubrey-gardens. Also, he had been mixed up in rather a shady set, which tended towards a certain theory which was shaping itself in Abbey's mind. The first thing was to discover the name of the lady to whom Hartopp had been engaged. Investigation showed that she was a certain Selina Snow, only daughter of Mrs. Snow, of Lexington-crescent, the widow of the notorious Chicago millionaire of that name. Abbey smiled as he read the letter containing these facts.
"Here, what a slice of luck," he muttered, "Fancy finding Mrs. Snow again! Evidently she is a cleverer woman than what I took her for. I think I'll run round and see Mr. Bentley Allen."
The comedian was busy in his flat looking over a new play. He listened gravely as Abbey stated his business, and professed himself ready to do anything which would lead to the clearing up of the mystery surrounding James Hartopp.
"I suppose you want to know all about my wife and her delusion over the ghost of James Hartopp," he said. "It was on the fifth evening after we had taken up our abode at Aubrey Gardens, and my wife had gone to her room to dress for dinner. The bedroom is behind the drawing-room, and I was in my dressing-room when I heard a fearful scream. I found my wife terrified and impressed with the belief that she had seen the ghost of James Hartopp. Of course, it sounded very absurd, but she said that he was pale and unshaven, and that he was smoking a cigarette. Strange to say, the place smelt strongly of smoke, and there was a pile of ashes by the door."
"What do you make of it?" Abbey asked.
"Overwork," Allen said. "We had a very long tour in the South, and my wife is far from well. I look upon the whole thing as nothing more than a delusion."
"I don't agree with you," Abbey said, quietly. "I am firmly convinced that she did see James Hartopp. Now, tell me, what do you suppose Miss Snow died of—I mean the girl to whom your cousin was engaged?"
"Oh, there was no doubt about that!" Allen exclaimed. "Beyond all question she was suffering from an old-standing complaint—heart failure, and all that kind of thing."
"Well, I don't wish to contradict you," Abbey said; "but I am sure that you are altogether wrong. You may laugh at me, if you like, but it is my firm conviction that Miss Snow is not dead at all, and I shall be in a position to prove it to you before many days have passed. This is one of the strangest cases I have ever handled."
"Well, I wish you luck with it," Allen said. "And now, if I can't tell you anything else, I shall be glad to be alone again, for I am exceedingly busy."
Abbey took the hint and departed. By the time he reached his office he had pretty well worked the matter out. It seemed quite plain. Hartopp had vanished from his locked bedroom, probably because his creditors were getting importunate. And Abbey knew a great deal about Miss Selina Snow and her sudden death. The girl and her mother had come within his influence in connection with quite another matter, and, this being so, Abbey saw his way how to act.
It was nearly dark when he left his office and walked in the direction of Aubrey Gardens. There was no caretaker in No. 19; but Abbey had the keys in his pocket. With the aid of an acetylene lantern he hoped to make one or two useful discoveries before long. His first visit was, naturally, to the bedroom where the ghost had appeared. By the side of the bed was a small ventilator let into a stained-glassed window some two feet square. With the aid of a chair. Abbey proceeded to investigate. The little window looked sheer down into the hall, as the lane of light in the gulf of darkness clearly showed. Abbey smiled to himself as he walked on towards the dressing room; he saw that somebody had dropped some cigarette-ash on the fender. The end of the cigarette had fallen inside. He picked it up and chuckled.
"Ah," he said. "This is Perique tobacco mixed with Havannah. Corelli and Co. on the end, Bond-street. Unless I am mistaken, Corelli have only had a Bond-street branch for a year or so, and this house has been empty more than twice that time. I wonder if it is possible, that the electric light has been left connected?"
The light flared out, and yet when Abbey went down in the basement he found the meter had been cut off. But a bare wire had been attached to the main close to the back door. A bit of clumsy amateur work, but enough to show Abbey that the house had been used. A moment later and Abbey was in Cornell's shop in Bond-street asking questions as to the cigarette end which he carried in his hand. A very gentlemanly assistant recognised the brand, but explained that it was never stocked, seeing that the cigarettes contained opium and were more or less of a sedative. As a matter of fact, the cigarettes were only made to order, and, doubtless, the stump that Abbey held in his hand had been one of a lot recently supplied to a lady who had called only yesterday for a further supply.
"Would you mind telling me where your customer lives?" Abbey asked, boldly. "As a matter of fact. I know her and her habits, and that is why I came here to inquire. I know that my request is somewhat unusual, and if you object—"
The assistant volunteered the address without hesitation.
Panton-street is quite a respectable thoroughfare, as Abbey well knew—a street once inhabited by doctors and lawyers and the like, but now given over to the letting of superior lodgings. A day later, and Abbey was established on the second floor suite for a more or less indefinite period, at the outlay of something like twenty-five shillings, payable in advance. Beyond a pair of blue spectacles, he had no disguise whatever.
The second day passed and the evening came with no practical results whatever. It was summer time, and Abbey appeared to have a weakness for smoking cigarettes in the gardens opposite, what time he wore a pair of tennis shoes. He was thus engaged on the second evening, when the door of his temporary lodgings opened and a tall, dark woman emerged. She pulled a veil over her face, and started as if on some definite errand up the road.
"My woman for a million!" Abbey murmured. "I felt certain of it. And if she is not going to 19 Aubrey Gardens, I'll eat my tennis shoes. Nice, comfortable wear they are for an evening like this, too."
Abbey chuckled as he prepared to follow. It was exactly as he had expected. The woman in the veil was fairly close to 19 Aubrey Gardens now. A street hawker selling music of the pirate variety was importuning the veiled figure to buy. Presently she tossed a coin to the fellow, and he rammed a few sheets of vilely-printed music into her hand. He turned away and passed Abbey, whistling as if he had other work to do. Abbey gave him a quick, suspicious glance as he passed.
"Gustave Markel, the banknote paper thief," Abbey muttered. "I hope the recognition was not mutual. Ah, there she goes."
Very coolly, the woman in the veil let herself in No. 19 with a latchkey. The darkness was gathering fast now, and Abbey was conscious that his heart was quickening. He crossed over to No. 19, and gently inserted his key in the door. It gave as silently as the grave, and the next instant Abbey was groping along like a cat in the velvet throat of darkness.
Bruce Abbey stood there in the midst of the purple shadows. He could discern very dim outlines here and there, for the shutters were closed, and there was no gleam of light from without. There was danger here, too, how great a danger he had not fully realised till he had recognised the identity of the pseudo vendor of street music. It was four years since Abbey had come across Gustave Markel, in connection with the disappearance of certain parcels of banknote paper, and Abbey knew what a poisonous scoundrel he had to deal with here.
Abbey shut his teeth tightly together, and resolved to see this affair through personally. There were deeper and more serious matters here than the mere solution of the mystery of the empty house. The intruder listened intently for a time, but no sound broke the dumming silence of his ears. Greatly daring, he produced his acetylene lamp, and flashed a quick lance of light around. The lambent flame picked out the stairway, and Abbey took a rapid mental photograph of his bearings. It seemed to him that he could hear something overhead. Very quietly he crept upwards. Surely enough somebody was busy in one of the rooms, somebody else was talking, there was a steady thud like the rattle of a hand printing-press. But the door of the room was locked as Abbey's nervous fingers discovered.
How to get those rats to move was the next problem. It would have been easy to call in the police, but Abbey's first duty was to his client, and be did not want any scandal if it could be avoided. The little man's brains were working rapidly. He wanted to disturb those people upstairs, but he desired to do it by natural means, something in the way of a plausible accident.
Illumination came at length with the recollection that the locked room overhead was brilliantly lighted. Abbey had seen that through the keyhole. Those people upstairs were doing something that required a good light, hence the way in which the electric wires in the basement had been manipulated. Why not cut that light off? It only required to remove a lamp from anywhere in the house, and short circuit the current by the application of a knife blade to the positive and negative poles in the lamp socket. This would instantly blow out the fuses and render every lamp inoperative. There would be nothing here to arouse suspicion.
With the aid of the acetylene lantern. Abbey unshipped a lamp and applied the blade of his knife to the poles. A second later, and there came the shuffle of feet overhead, and then footsteps coming down the stairs. A match scratched, a man's voice quietly swore. Abbey could hear a woman saying something also.
"Fuses gone," the man muttered.
"I told you they were not strong enough. Anyway, we can soon put that straight. Wait here till I run round to the nearest ironmonger's and get some fine copper wire. It is a confounded nuisance, all the same!"
The front door opened and closed quietly, there was pitchy darkness once more. Quite rigid, Abbey stood by the door of the dining-room; it seemed to him that he could hear the woman moving about quite close to him. As he stepped back instinctively, his foot touched a chair that scraped against the polished surround of the carpet, there was a muttered exclamation, and a hand touched Abbey on the breast. Instantly he grasped a supple white wrist, as quickly his arm was about the figure of the woman.
"I should strongly advise you not to cry out," Abbey said, breathlessly. "I should have preferred for the present to have remained hidden. But since you have discovered me—"
"Who are you?" the woman whispered. "Who are you?"
"Who I am is absolutely immaterial—your identity is quite a different matter. I should advise you not to struggle. I grant you that the situation is a strange, not to say alarming one, but that is surely nothing for Miss Selina Snow."
The woman merely gasped, but she was too absolutely astonished to struggle.
"I know all about you," Abbey went on. "Miss Selina Snow, only daughter and heiress of the late Ezra Snow of New York. The late Ezra was a clever man, but he died a little before his time, so that he left absolutely nothing. But you were too wise to let anybody know that, otherwise you would not have dragged your mother to England and posed here as a woman of great wealth. Do I interest you?"
The woman in Abbey's grasp shivered. It was horrible to be there in the velvet darkness in the grip of this stranger, who seemed to know everything.
"I do interest you." Abbey resumed. "It was a good time while it lasted, eh? But even London tradesmen get tired of giving credit. You had to look about you. You decreed to become the wife of Mr. James Hartopp. You thought one another rich; when you found out your mistake it was almost too late. That is why you two hit upon the desperate course of blackmailing Lord Rentonby, who put the case in the hands of a certain solicitor. His lordship was young, and having a distinguished political career before him, he decided to pay. But unhappily for you, the blackmail game seemed so good that you played it also on Sir Charles Gavern, who came to the same solicitor. Then to use a vulgarism, all the fat was in the fire. When Sir Charles discovered what was taking place he lost his temper, and instead of leaving it to the lawyer he came to your house and made a scene. He was not satisfied with that, but he must needs go and call on your lover and confederate, James Hartopp, hence the disappearance of the latter, hence your unhappy demise."
"Selina Snow was buried, and a proper certificate given," the woman said, sullenly.
"I do not doubt the certificate," said Abbey. "To my certain knowledge at least three of your servants were confederates. Long before you had planned a good and certain way of escape if the police ever wanted you. Near your house was a doctor whose name has since disappeared from the 'Medical Register.' He was one of the black sheep of a noble profession. I knew him, and the lawyer who I alluded to just now knew him also. We saved an innocent young girl's reputation from that scoundrel. And when I heard that he had given the certificate of Miss Snow's death from heart failure and that no inquest was necessary, I knew what to think."
"Oh, you are a clever man," the woman said, bitterly. "Go on!"
"Is there any need?" Abbey asked. "I could have opened the eyes of the police, but really it was no business of mine to do so, seeing that our clients had got off scot-free. I might have done the same as regards James Hartopp, but again it was no business of mine."
"Then why are you worrying me now?" the woman asked.
"Oh, now I am acting for a client, the lady who owns this house. She desires this mystery to be all cleared up, about the ghost that appeared to Mrs. Allen, and so on. Well, it was easy to guess who the ghost was. Of course, Hartopp wanted something from the safe in his dressing-room, and he chose the wrong time to steal into the house. He was smoking a cigarette at the time, you recollect. Well, that cigarette end interested me, but not nearly so much as the discovery of the other cigarette ends made by Corelli and Co., of Bond-street. As Corelli and Co. have only been in Bond-street for—"
"What a fool I have been!" the woman cried. "I had quite forgotten."
"Of course you had. But you are still wondering. You see, I was the confidential clerk of Mr. Ashton King, and it was I who interviewed you for Lord Rentonby. On that occasion you gave me a certain cigarette of Perique and Havannah tobacco. An soon as I found those stubs manufactured by Corelli and Co., I saw everything. This house was empty: it had a bad reputation; Hartopp possessed the key. There was a fine secret place to carry on any little conspiracy, such as banknote forgery and the like."
"Ah!" the woman gasped. "You are a fiend! Go on."
"Presently, perhaps. But unless I am greatly mistaken, that is Mr. Hartopp coming back. Now, I have no sentimental feeling in the case, and care nothing for your forgery, though I did see Gustave Markel pass you that bank paper to-night. Do as I ask you, and you are free to leave the house presently, but understand that I am going to lay Hartopp by the heels. The production of the pretty rascal is absolutely necessary for the welfare of my client. Mr. Hartopp is calling you. Please reply."
The woman obeyed without the slightest hesitation. Hartopp wanted a candle, and he was directed where to find one. A few minutes later and the light came up once more; a long ray of it shot down the stairs from the room above. Hartopp ran up nimbly, calling to his confederate to follow him.
"If I were you," Abbey said, grimly, "I should do nothing of the kind. I should quietly slide out of the front door and vanish discreetly. Let me go upstairs."
The woman drew a deep breath as Abbey released the grip on her arm. She appeared to display no feeling or emotion whatever; she knew quite well when she was beaten, for her companion in crime she cared nothing. There was a rustle of drapery, a little puff of cool air, and the front door opened and closed gently.
"I made no mistake in my judgment of her," Abbey muttered. "Now for my bird."
Hartopp stood in the centre of a blaze of light examining a sheet of crisp paper with an air of critical approval.
"I don't think they could be bettered, Selina," he said.
"Really, I don't think they could," Abbey said, coolly. "Miss Selina Snow has ceased to take an interest in engravings, however valuable, preferring scenery and travel at present. Now, I am armed, and the police are not far off. Sit down, James Hartopp, and take it quietly, or it will be all the worse for you. If you prefer to fight—"
But there was no fight, not an ounce left in the detected criminal. He listened quietly enough whilst Abbey recited the main heads of his discoveries, and he ticked them off with frequent raising of his dull eyes.
"What do you require of me?" he said at length.
"Why, to accompany me to Bow-street." Abbey explained. "Subsequently, the police can come here and take care of those little efforts of yours. James Hartopp's sensational story will make fine copy for the papers to-morrow. Come along. In a few weeks' time from now, Mrs. Allardyce can pick and choose her own tenants for this house. Curious phase of human nature, but there it is."
As Abbey had prophesied, the strange case of James Hartopp made a fine sensation in the cheaper press. Within a few days Abbey was the richer by a hundred pounds, and Mrs. Allardyce had secured a tenant, in every way desirable at a rent considerably in excess of any previous amount paid for that desirable mansion known as No. 19, Aubrey gardens.
THE flavour died out of James Costard's cigar. There was a taste in his mouth like that of ashes. It was not altogether, perhaps, the fault of the cigar, which was one usually retailed, if you are extravagant, at nine for the shilling. Costard was particular about his tobacco, but at the present moment he had something else to think about.
He sat there with his head on his hands gazing fixedly at the stage. His breath came with quick gasps through his short black teeth. A plentiful bead of moisture oozed out of his somewhat grimy features. Those strong, square thumbs were trembling, so were the brutal lines of the hard mouth. The stentorian noise of Costard's breathing roused the indignation of the lady behind, and the feathers in her large hat trembled in indignation. She wanted to know audibly why a certain class of people came to a music-hall merely for the sake of spoiling other people's pleasure. But Costard heard nothing of it, otherwise he would have been ready enough with repartee of a pungent and personal nature.
The atmosphere around him Was thick and dank. Behind the halo of tobaoco-smoke the stage loomed aggressively garish. A group of more or less competent actors were playing a boiled-down melodrama with all the intentness befitting their occupation. There was nothing particularly bright or fresh or oiiginal, not too much of the holding of the mirror up to Nature, so to speak; but, after all, the play is the thing, and it had gripped James Costard to the centre of his shrivelled soul. He turned to his companion, a man singularly like himself, who also for the time being had relaxed his grip upon his cigar and was regarding the stage with distended eyes.
"Joe," Costard said hoarsely, "I'll thank you to give me a pinch, old pard. Pinch me 'ard in the fleshy part of the thigh, if you'll be so good. I'll wake up presently and find it no more nor a bloomin' dream.""
"Shut up!" Joe Slagg growled unsympathetically.
Costard shut up accordingly. After all, there seemed to be nothing in the stage performance to fill with fear the heart of a man who boasted, not without justice, that he didn't know what nerves were. To a certain extent, too, the story was commonplace enough. Here was the persecuted heroine, whose delicate husband was falsely accused of stealing the family diamonds from a hard-hearted uncle who had cast him adrift to die of consumption all alone in the hard-hearted world. Here, again, was the heroine compelled to toil as private secretary to the said hard-hearted uncle, so that she might find the means to keep the consumptive hero alive somewhere in the South of France. Apparently there was nothing to cause that unpleasant suggestion of dryness in the back of Jim Costard's throat, or to deprive Joe Slagg's tobacco of its exquisite flavour. And yet they were both following the performance as carefully and earnestly as if they were standing in the dock together charged with some heinous crime, and counsel for the Crown was unfolding some flawless indictment against them. There were others in the packed music-hall, either brutally indifferent, or critical, or damply tearful, according to their various temperaments. But in no case did the play grip a solitary spectator as it gripped those two friends and partners, James Costard and Joseph Slagg.
"I'd like to see the end of it," Costard muttered.
"So you will, you fool!" Slagg responded. "You've only got to wait another ten minutes. Not but what it's queer, as I own freely. Why, it's exactly the same as it was that night three years ago "
It was fortunate, perhaps, that the lady in the liberal hat behind appealed once again for silence. Slagg's reminiscences might have become dangerous, they might have even proved interesting to any plain-clothes police oflicer in the immediate vicinity. But, as a matter of fact, neither of the partners was in the least conscious of what was going on around them. They sat there breathless and perspiring, waiting with an excitement akin to pain for the development of the story.
It was reaching the acute stage now. In ten minutes more, at the outside, they would know the best or worst of it. And then, just as the heroine was taxing her maid with an act of perfidy which had admitted a predatory lover to the house of sorrows, a thin curl of blue smoke rose from the wings, a tiny tongue of flame zigzagged up the prompt flat—then, as if by magic, the whole thing burst into a dazzling blaze, and a thick, acrid smoke hid the stage from view. For the fraction of a second there was a dead silence, then the sound of a woman screaming shrilly in the gallery, and a second later the trampling rush of many feet in the direction of the exits. It was singular, perhaps, that the only people who kept their heads in that headlong stream were Costard and his partner. It was they who rose with one accord, uttering hoarse commands and shrieking lurid jibes and crimson insults. It was they who contrived to beat some spark and semblance of manhood into the cowards who were fighting there, heedless of women and children, for their own safety. Then, as the fireproof curtain came down and the spirals of smoke were whirled upwards, something like order was restored. The women ceased to cry and scream, the shrill treble of childish voices died away. From behind the fireproof curtain could be heard the steady thud-thud of a manual engine, the hiss of water on flame resounded through the emptying theatre.
They were all outside presently, a white-faced mob talking in whispers, a handful of helmeted policemen, a busy doctor here and there, a few ominous-looking ambulances. Costard and Slagg pushed their way through the huddled sheep and turned with common accord into a public-house not far off. They nodded to one another. It seemed to each that this was the time for heroic measures.
"A large brandy, with just a spot of water," Costard suggested tentatively, "that's mine."
"You were always one to think of things," Slagg coincided.
The necessary refreshment was procured and supplemented before Costard began to speak. He produced a fresh cigar and lighted it deliberately.
"Well, what do you think of it?" he asked.
"I dunno," Slagg replied. "My mind's all of a whirl, it is. It ain't the long arm of coincidence, I suppose?"
"What's that?" Costard asked suspiciously.
"Well, it's something what I 'eard in a play years ago. Sort of bad luck—you know what I mean. You think everything's goin' right, when all of a sudden somebody turns up as you thought was dead, or the night watchman's on the premises when you think as 'e's takin' 'is 'olidays. Just the same what 'appened in the play I'm talkin' about. Just as everything was goin' right and 'e was goin' to lead a honest life, up turns somebody as 'e couldn't out without gettin' 'is neck stretched, and 'e says, says 'e, 'The long arm of coincidence is reached for me.' Seems to have reached for us, too, don't it?"
Costard nodded moodily.
"That's about it," he grunted. "Three years ago it is since we got 'old of them stones at Darchester Terrace. Three years ago it is since them sparklers came into our 'ands in the way of business. You remember 'ow it 'appened, don't you?"
"Why, certainly," Slagg replied. "Old gent livin' more or less alone with three servants in Darchester Terrace. 'E ain't got much money, but 'e's got some family diamonds, what possesses what those newspapers call 'istoric interest, and one of them is engraved. We makes up our minds as we're goin' to 'ave them, and you, bein' a better-looking man than me, goes along, and in a short time you manages to win the affections of a nice-looking young female as possesses more beauty than commonsense "
"'Ere, 'old 'ard," Costard interrupted. "Don't forget you're talkin' of the lidy who 'as the honour to be my missus."
"I'd forgotten," Slagg said penitently. "And it's true, all the same. Well, you gets into the 'ouse, and you gets the stones, never knowin' for the moment as 'ow the old man 'as a nephew about the place. And I don't say it's your fault 'as the nephew was found subsequently lyin' at the bottom of the stairs, and that, so to speak, 'e's never been the same man since. Seein' as you'd got the stones in your pocket, and seein' as what your personal safety was in danger, you couldn't do nothing less than out 'im, though I don't 'old with violence myself. I didn't ask no questions at the time; I never asked what became of them stones "
"I've got 'em now," Costard said hoarsely.
"Never dared to part with 'em. And why? Because I was watched all the time; night and day those detectives had their eye upon me. Why, they even made a pretence of searching my room when my back was turned, and shammed that they was thieves all the time. For the best part of a year I couldn't move without bein' followed; not that it mattered, neither. 'Ow was the police to know that the very next night we was in the 'ouse of that old miser at Netting Hill, what we found dead in his bed? I've 'ad a bit of luck in my time, Joe, but nothin' like that. Why, there the poor old beggar lay dead, and all we 'ad to do was to 'elp ourselves to his money and securities; and when they found 'im afterwards, why, there was nothing to be said or done except bury 'im. They couldn't find no relative and they couldn't find no friends. And they comes to the natural conclusion that he couldn't have no money, and there we were on velvet, with a matter of ten thousand pounds between us, and not a soul the wiser."
Slagg chuckled greasily.
"And then we sets up in partnership, coal and corn dealers and general contractors. We turns our back upon a life of crime, and now we're honoured and respected and makin' more money than whatever we did on the cross. Why, bless you, with any luck, we shall be members of the Board of Guardians yet."
"Not me," Costard said contemptuously. "No Board of Guardians for me. It pays us a sight better to contract with 'em for coal and supplies. But that's business. That's the way to become honoured and respected, and perhaps finish up with a knighthood. But we're wandering from the point, as the newspaper chaps say. What about the long arm of coincidence? And what about the play we've been watching to-night? 'Ere we are with the old story set out. Why, the very 'set' is a copy of the room in Darchester Terrace, the same diamonds, 'ere's the same persecuted 'eroine secretly married to the old man's nepliew, 'ere's the 'eroine tumbling to the fact that the maid what she trusts so implicitly is at the bottom of the 'ole business. I don't like it, Joe. I don't like it a bit. Somebody knows all about it, and somebody's put it all into a play. And somebody'll be coming along to you one of these days doin' a little bit of blackmail. And you know what blackmail is."
Slagg grinned uncomfortably.
"I did it once," he muttered, "but it didn't pay. Leastways, it didn't pay the second time. I shouldn't have expected as 'ow such a slim-lookin', soft-spoken chap could 'ave been so 'andy with 'is fists. Knocked me about something cruel, he did. But you're quite right, mate, that there blackmail is a good business when you've got something to go on. And if these people start about us, we'll have nothing left in twelve months' time. But perhaps you're only frightenin' yourself unnecessarily. P'raps that long arm of coincidence "
"Long arm be 'anged!" Costard growled. "'Ow long is it since that little business at Darchester Terrace?"
"Three years," Slagg said promptly, "and a month."
"Very well, then, just look at your programme for to-night's show. Look at your programme and tell me what's the name of that 'ere play as we see this evenin'."
Slagg took the programme from his pocket and unfolded it.
"Whew!" he exclaimed. "It's called 'The Thirty-Seventh Month,' and this is the thirty-seventh month. You're quite right, mate. This thing means blackmail. Makes me feel cold up and down my spine. And yet I dunno. Seems to me as we should have been better off if we'd seen the end of the play. Been able to grip the situation, p'raps. And now it'll probably be months before the music-'all will be fit for another audience. And meanwhile "
"Ah, meanwhile," Costard said ruminatively. "That's the point of the 'ole thing, Joe. What we've got to find out is who wrote that little play, and all about 'im. I dare say that in the fire to-night the book of the play will be destroyed. But the cove what wrote it will certainly 'ave a copy, and we've got to find out who 'e is. We've got to make him safe. We've got, if necessary, to take steps to induce him—"
Costard paused significantly; for a respectable tradesman and a man of some substance, his expression was decidedly murderous. The man was frightened, too; of that there could be no question. His hard, strong mouth was twitching; thin beads of perspiration trickled down his face, carrying channels of dirt with them. For some little time the two men sat moodily sipping their brandy, until a third man came in and nodded as he passed their table.
"This is a bit of luck," Slagg murmured. "That's Tom Carver, stage carpenter at the music-'all, 'e is. I dare say 'e can give us a bit of information. Let's ask 'im over 'ere and stand 'im a drink."
The stage carpenter was nothing loth, and over his refreshment he had certain information to impart. The damage done to the stage had been considerable, most of the property had been burnt out, and there was no likelihood that the music-hall would open its doors again for at least two months.
"It's a pity," Costard said musingly. "It's 'ard on the artistes, and it's 'ard on those what gets a livin' by writin' them plays. Pretty little thing, that, you put up to-night. New author, ain't he? What's 'is name?"
"Party of the name of Braybrooke," the carpenter explained. "I don't know him myself. 'E's one of them amateurs, I'm told. 'E'll 'ave to' write that play all over again now. All the manuscript was burnt— in fact, there's precious little left except what happened to be in the manager's safe. But I dare say 'e's got a copy."
Costard and Slagg exchanged glances.
"'Appen to know where 'e lives?" the latter asked.
"Matter of fact," the stage carpenter went on, "I've got a letter to post to 'im in my pocket. Given me by the manager this evenin', it was. 'Mr. George Braybrooke, 15, Bodington Road, Kensington.' P'raps you wouldn't mind slipping it into the post for me. No, I won't 'ave another, now. I must get back to the theatre. P'raps I shall manage to get 'ome by daylight with any luck."
The speaker rose reluctantly and departed, leaving the letter on the table. Without wasting further words. Costard called for a Post Office Directory. The volume in question proved to be an old one, and contained no such address as Bodington Road in the Kensington postal district.
"More County Council interferences," Costard growled. "Depend upon it, they've been changin' the name of the street. Let's go round to the post-office and 'ave a squint at an up-to-date volume."
They found what they wanted presently, and Costard fluttered over the name in the road. A queer expression came over his face as he laid his dirty thumb on the open page.
"'Ere, this long arm of coincidence of yours seems to be busy," he said. "'Ere we are right enough. Bodington Road, Kensington, lately known as Darchester Terrace, and the number is 15, and it's the same 'ouse where we 'ad the little adventure over the diamonds three years a,go. Good old coincidence! Why, this is like some of them stories you read in the Sunday papers. What luck!"
"Don't see it," Slagg growled uneasily. "Makes it all the worse, don't it? I'd give five pounds to know 'ow this play ended. Five pounds! I'd give fifty."
Costard dragged his companion to the comparative seclusion of the street. He seemed easier in his mind now.
"You're goin' to know," he said. "You must keep your money in your pocket. Do you suppose the same people are still in that 'ouse? Not they. Just consider the look of it. It's a risk, Joe, that's what it is, a risk, and I'm goin' to take it. For one night only, as they say on the concert bill, I'm goin' to depart from the strict paths of virtue. I'm goin' to do a little bit of burglary again. Oh, it's safe enough. Why, I remember that 'ouse as well now as if I'd only been there last week. And I'm going to find that play, and I'm goin' to read it for myself, and I'm goin' to act accordingly. None of your blackmailin' for me. I'll know what to do when the time comes."
"Better wait," Slagg suggested.
"Not me," Costard said truculently. "Forewarned is forearmed. Besides, I'm curious to see this Mr. George Braybrooke. 'E knows a sight too much for me. 'E knows all about it, and 'e's poor, of course."
"'Ow do you know that?" Slagg asked.
Costard looked contemptuously at the speaker, "^
"'Ow do I know.''" he asked. "Why, ain't all those writer fellers poor. Look at Chatterton and Keats and forty more of 'em; they never 'ave a penny to bless themselves with. Now, you come round to-morrow night about seven o'clock, when the missus is out, and we'll settle this little matter."
"All right," Slagg said with an air of reluctance. "I suppose I must. Good night, James, and pleasant dreams."
JAMES COSTARD sat before the fire in his sitting-room, an unusual prey to unusually gloomy thoughts. Had he been a man of culture, he would possibly have called himself an optimist; as it was, he seldom suffered from what he would have called the "'ump." But this was one of those rare occasions, for his glass of peculiarly strident whisky stood untasted by his side, a mass of documents, relating to an exceedingly profitable and therefore particularly rascally contract, were unheeded. In a curious way he was proud of his new respetability. He was proud of his broadcloth suit, of his heavy gold watch-chain and diamond ring. He was proud of his house and his wife and her furs. He was proud, too, to find better and honester men than himself addressing him as "sir" and taking off their hats to him, and now he stood to lose everything.
The venture seemed safe enough. Mrs. Costard had retired to bed and would be fast asleep by this time. With any luck, Costard would be back home again in a couple of hours, and nobody any the wiser as to the result of his little trip. It would be no difficult matter, either, to procure the necessary tools. The coast had been carefully surveyed, and the time for action had arrived.
Costard let himself quietly out of the house and closed the door behind him. For the first time in his life he felt a certain dryness in his throat and a peculiar sensation in the region of his heart. A year or two ago these distressing symptoms would not have manifested themselves. If he had had no friends, he had, at any rate, no enemies, and in those days James Costard had no position to forfeit. But now things were different entirely. He would not like to admit that he was afraid, but it was a fact, all the same.
He came at length to Bodington Road, late Darchester Terrace, and stood there for a minute or two, to make sure that no inquisitive policeman was lingering in the neighbourhood. The street appeared to be absolutely quiet, most of the houses were now discreetly draped in darkness, there was nothing to be seen but an adventurous cat as Costard stole down the area of No. 15. He paused just for a moment to draw a pair of indiarubber overalls over his square-toed, respectable boots; he wanted no dark lantern, and as to the premises, he remembered them perfectly. His bump of locality amounted almost to genius, which was, perhaps, the chief cause why he had never yet actually come within the grip of the law. With a thin-bladed knife he pushed back the catch of the front kitchen window, and a moment later he was in the house.
It was all familiar enough now; his courage was coming back to him, a sense of elation filled him, much as it might have filled a reformed drunkard indulging, after the lapse of time, in a glass of spirits. He felt his way up the stairs, gliding along in the black, velvety darkness until lie reached the hall.
He stopped there to listen, but no sound broke the stillness of the house save the lazy ticking of the grandfather's clock somewhere on the first landing. The atmosphere was warm and clinging and familiar—not a stuffy atmosphere, but a clear and slightly fragrant one that Costard closely associated with old silver and jewels and watches of price. The very scent of it brought vividly back the recollection of more than one brilliantly successful midnight raid. So to speak, it was like the smell of the battle to the warhorse. All Costard's smug respectability dropped from his shoulders now. It would go hard, he told himself, if he did not take toll as recompense for all his trouble.
Not that he forgot his errand. He would have to look for something in the shape of a study where this mysterious George Braybrooke did his literary work. Costard had been reading the magazines of recent years. He had got to know something of the habits of the literary man from the perusal of more or less veracious illustrated interview's with writers of mark. Therefore, he did not expect to find himself confronted with any serious obstacle—such, for instance, as a fireproof safe. A brief investigation of the ground apartments with the aid of an electric torch showed him that he would have to look further afield. There was danger here, as he told himself, creeping up to the second floor.
The sweat was running down his face now as he cautiously tried one room after another. They were bedrooms, for the most part unoccupied, and there at last, at the end of a little corridor by the side of the bathroom, was the very thing he was looking for.
"Not the slightest doubt about it," Costard told himself. Here was a big table littered with papers and proofs, on the opposite side was an American roll-top desk with the flap pulled back. The room was lined with books. On the table stood an electric lamp connected by a flex to a wall plug. Undoubtedly Costard's luck was in now. Beyond any question he was in Mr. George Braybrooke's library. He could not quite understand the presence there of a hat and jacket, indicative of the fact that somewhere in the house was a lady who at that moment was in deep mourning. But this, though it might not have been indifferent to a Sherlock Holmes, was nothing to James Costard. It was a mere detail outside his province. What he had to do now, if possible, was to find the complete manuscript of "The Thirty-Seventh Month," and read it to the end.
It was not such an easy matter as he had expected, but presently he found it. The manuscript Was a rough copy, certainly, but in happened to be typed, and not for the first time in his career James Costard had to bless modern skill and modern advancement.
Yes, here it was, right enough. He hastily ran his eye over the first few pages, eith which he was already familiar. He came at length to that portion of the play which had been interrupted by the unfortunate fire at the theatre, and the further Costard read the more frightened and bewildered did he become,
"It's all here," he muttered to himself as he wiped the gathering beads from his forehead. "Every bit of it. And what's more, the writer of this stuff knows the part that my missus took in the business. And 'ow did 'e know I was fool enough to write Mary a letter? I told her to destroy it... Ah, she seems to have done so... And left a piece of it on the study floor. This Very same study as I'm in now too. Oh, this is worse than I anticipated! This 'ere Braybrooke seems to know everything—? every mortal thing, and no bloomin' error about It, I should like to see that chap, I should like to see him very much indeed. I wonder what 'e's like? I wonder if 'e's a cove what would be easily frightened! I wonder if I could manage to lure him down my way some night—but, no, a chap as clever as that wouldn't be a blithering fool. I'd give a 'undred pounds to know what 'is little game is. I'd give a trifle to know 'ow it was that the business of those diamonds never got into the papers. But what's the use of talkin' like this? Anyway, it couldn't be worse. And that chap's goin' to bide his time like they do in the story books. 'E'll wait till I've got more money. 'E'll wait till I'm Sir James Costard or something of that sort, and then 'e'll come along asking for ten thousand pounds, bold as brass. And I'll have to pay it, too. I only wish I'd got 'im 'ere!"
There was no doubt as to the sincerity of Costard's desire. At the moment he was ready for anything. He had raised his voice unconsciously. So absorbed was he in his work, with the aid of the electric torch, that he heard nothing at all of a sudden creaking on the stairs outside. He did not seem to realise for a full minute that the reading-lamp on the table had suddenly burst into flame, or that the two brackets over the fireplace were also flooding the room with a soft yellow radiance.
When he did so, a great and overwhelming: fear gripped Costard by the heart and heldl him there. Like most of the class, he was; not fond of light except in connection with a public-house or a music-hall. He stood there trembling and sweating in a ludicrous; state of terror, and glancing apprehensively in the direction of the door, as if he fearedl the advent of some tremendous presence. He regretted that he had not brought his. revolver with him, but profound cogitation: had resulted in the abandonment of any policy of that kind. He stood there breathing heavily, he saw the door swing back, and then there entered a tall, slender girl dressed from head to foot in the deepest mourning.
She had a singularly beautiful and refined face, none the less beautiful and refined because it had traces of considerable sorrow and suffering. But, all the same, the blue eyes were quite steady, and the little red mouth was absolutely firm.
"What are you doing here?" the girl asked.
For the moment Costard's repartee failed him. He had nothing to say, no ingenious argument to advance to account for his presence in a strange house at one o'clock in the morning. Much cleverer individuals than Costard would have found themselves at a loss for an argument in similar circumstances.
"What's that got to do with you?" he growled.
It was a futile sort of question, but it was. the best that Costard could put on the spur of the moment.
"This is my house," the girl explained.. "I should like to know what this conduct means,"
Costard was understood to say that he was looking for a gentleman named Braybrooke. He ventured to remark that he had found the front door open, and seeing that he himself and Mr. George Braybrooke were on friendly, not to say affectionate, terms "
"But this is absurd," said the girl, with a slight suggestion of a smile. "I am George Braybrooke—at least, that is the name I adopt for my literary work."
Costard caught his lip between his teeth, and this successfully strangled a curse of bitter disappointment.
"You wrote that little piece called 'The Thirty-Seventh Month'?" he exclaimed. "Why—why—why—"
"You have seen it?" the girl asked quietly.
"Yes, I have seen it," the discomfited Costard said. "And that is why—but you can understand."
Once more the girl smiled strangely.
"I think I do," she said. "Do you happen, for instance, to be a married man? Oh, yes, I see you are. Now, shall we assume that your wife's Christian name is Mary. I am right again, I presume. Let me guess again, and suggest that her name was Mary Winslow."
Costard wiped his heated forehead. The girl stood looking at him out of the depths of her blue eyes as if she were trying to read his inward thoughts.
"This is remarkable," she went on, "most remarkable. Do you know that for the last two years or more I have been engaged as private secretary to an uncle of mine, who, by the way, is dead now—in fact, we buried him a fortnight ago, and the contents of this house belong to me. I stayed on here as secretary to my uncle because I happen to have an invaUd husband whose state of health until quite recently has necessitated his living in the South of France. But you know all that, don't you?"
"I've seen something like it," Costard said earnestly. "I've seen something like it in that little play of yours."
"Of course. That is precisely why you are here this evening. But we will come to that presently. I made that story into a little stage play because it struck me it had strong dramatic possibilities. I will ask your opinion presently, seeing that you have witnessed the play as far as Fate allowed it to go. The cause of my husband's unfortunate state of health lies in the fact that he was nearly murdered three years ago by a ruffian who came here in search of some diamonds which belonged to my uncle. The diamonds disappeared, and my uncle took it into his head to believe that my husband stole them. In the face of facts, it was a ridiculous assumption, but te%re is no accounting for the vagaries of an old man in his second childhood. Much as I disliked it, I remained with my uncle so that I could keep my husband alive. But I guessed where the diamonds were. I dare say you wonder why the police were never put on the track of the mystery but, then, you see, my maid, Mary Winslow, was a great favourite of mine—she was my foster-sister, and on one occasion she saved my life. It is not for me to judge her, it is not for me to wonder that a girl like herself should give her heart to a man—well, like you, for instance. But it was all in the play. I needn't tell you any more about it, because I see you have already read it for yourself. You feared that someone who had got possession of your secret might blackmail you, and you wanted to see exactly how matters stood. Well, they say that truth is stranger than fiction."
"But how did you guess?" Costard stammered.
"I don't guess," the girl said. "I know. That is one of the advantages of possessing an artistic temperament. And so you are Mary Winslow's husband; you are the man who stole my uncle's jewels; you are the man who was nearly responsible for my husband's death three years ago. You don't look like a burglar now, you look like a man who is testing the virtues of respectability. And so you thought that I would blackmail you?"
"Lots of people would," Costard said defiantly.
"Very likely. Perhaps I may yet. It is entirely in your hands. There was no fuss made over the outrage I allude to, it never got into the papers, but the police had the matter in hand all the same. And I could have told them a deal more than I did, only I thought of the foster-sister of whom I was so fond, and I held my tongue. But I don't think you ever disposed of those diamonds—at least, the police said that the man they suspected, which, of course, was you, had not dared to make the attempt. Now, I have only to close the door and lock you in, and then—"
"'Ow much?" Costard said hoarsely. "Name your price."
"Oh, I am going to. My price is the diamonds which you have been unable to dispose of. Come, they are of no use to you, and they will make all the difference in the world to my husband and myself. Turn out your pockets. Give me your watch and chain and notebook. Put them on the table and leave them here, and I will wait till you return with the stones. I think it is a fair bargain."
Very slowly Costard did as he was directed. He breathed hoarsely, and his face shone in the lamplight.
"It's only fair," he muttered, "and I'll do it. And just you wait 'ere an hour and I'll be back again."
"I am sure of that," the girl said significantly. "And now go. If you lose no time, my husband and I will be able to catch the morning express to Paris to-morrow."
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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