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Title: Collected Short Stories, Vol. VIII Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1301001h.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.
REX BRUNELL drummed on the table with carefully polished fingernails.
"Pinero," he said, "has aptly described a capitalist as a pawnbroker with an imagination. Now, I regard that as essentially true. I have had considerable experience with the fraternity in question, and incidentally I have been ruined by one of them. I can afford to tell you men this now, because I am about to get my own back—and more. I never met a capitalist yet who was not a nervous man, or one blessed with a good digestion. Goldmark is no exception to the rule."
James Goldmark smiled. The great man was entertaining a select circle of friends in his suite of rooms at the Majestic Hotel. There were four of them, all intimates of Rex Brunell, all of them with fingers more or less scarred by contact with high finance. "A fool and his money are soon parted," Goldmark said cynically. "Brunell was bound to lose his money. It struck me that I might as well have it as anybody else."
A laugh greeted this sally. It was quite characteristic of Goldmark. He grinned behind his glasses, his teeth were taut over the inevitable black cigar. A waiter came into the dining-room and laid a card on the table before Goldmark.
"I'll get you to excuse me one moment," the capitalist said, and vanished.
The smoke-laden air seem to clarify as the door closed upon Goldmark. Three pairs of glittering eager eyes were turned upon Brunell. He waved his hand carelessly.
"Patience," he said. "No explanation is needed. That man was going to make our fortunes. Instead of which he has practically beggared the lot of us. He is not in the least ashamed of himself. He has used us as a blind to deceive others. In a less effete civilisation than ours we should shoot him and pitch his black, attenuated carcase into the Thames. Now we dine with him instead. After all, it is only a question of financial methods. Goldmark adopts them and we don't. Therefore he gets the best of us. Now, I object to be ruined on principle. We all do, in fact. Therefore we are going to adopt his methods. I have thought it all out, and that is why we are here to-night. Watch me, play up to my lead, and all will be well. Hush! For the moment let us dissemble."
Goldmark returned to the dining-room again, followed by a dapper little man with a waxed moustache and a wonderfully groomed exterior. He brought the genuine Parisian flavour with him.
"It was not me, but you, that this gentleman wanted to see, Brunell," the financier explained. "The waiter delivered the card to me by mistake. I explained to Dr. Chassier that any friend of yours was a friend of mine. Doctor, a glass of champagne?"
"This is a pleasant surprise," Brunell cried. "Regan and Powell and Hartigan, this is my friend Dr. Chassier, of Paris University. I need not remind you that he is the great authority on the eye. Of his reputation I say nothing, because it speaks for itself. Now, this is kind of you, Chassier. I hope you have not come merely because I mentioned that certain unpleasant symptoms of mine "
"Well, partly," the doctor admitted with a smile. "The astigmatism you mentioned—nothing serious, of course, but still... I am glad to hear that you have dropped the cigarettes."
"Tobacco is bad in certain circumstances?" Goldmark asked. "Do have a glass of champagne."
The expert began to talk, at first quietly, till he warmed to his subject. It was "shop" of the kind that this neurotic age takes to so kindly. He spoke of the marvels of his branch of surgical science. He had them all quivering before long as to what particular form of ocular weakness they were suffering from. Goldmark sprawled across the table, puffing at his black cigar.
"Ugh! How it gets on one's nerves!" he shuddered. "I hope you chaps won't laugh at me, but those funny little globular discs that come flashing before one's eyes at times—"
"A pawnbroker with an imagination," Brunell murmured. "My dear fellow, I don't feel in the least like laughing. Anything wrong with the eyes— To think of it! And Chassier told me that I should lose my sight if I didn't chuck the cigarettes."
Goldmark laid down his cigar, gazed at it, and took it up again.
"Of course that is all bosh," he said uneasily.
"By no means, my dear sir," Chassier said gravely. "Cases of smoker's blindness are by no means uncommon. I had one case the other day—a man retired from your Guards. He came to me so far gone that I nearly paralysed him with strychnine. I had to. There were times when he could not rise from his bed. It was a long struggle, but I cured him. Another week later—"
Chassier shrugged his shoulders. The room had suddenly grown strangely silent. Goldmark pitched his cigar into the fireplace. He was pale and anxious; a little bead stood on his forehead.
"You could tell the symptoms at a glance?" he asked. "In my case, for instance?"
The specialist nodded. He crossed the room and touched Goldmark on the forehead and chin with the tips of his long white fingers. The gesture was typically professional. The sleek dark head of the capitalist was turned up to the light as Chassier lifted an eyelid.
"Heavens!" he muttered under his breath. "Man alive, but there is—Still—"
Goldmark caught the whispered words. They gripped his heart; he was suffocating. The room swam round him, the damp beads broke out on his face like a gentle rain.
"A pawnbroker with an imagination," Brunell repeated.
"Nothing of the sort," Chassier said drily. "There is no imagination here. Monsieur Goldmark, I should like to make a little test. There are certain things— drugs—that I always carry with me... Just a spot or two in a glass of water. No ill effect, I assure you... Merely to exaggerate certain features, so that I may be better able to judge of your—er—"
Goldmark watched the clear yellow drops measured into a champagne glass like a man who dreams.
"Is it as bad as all that?" he asked piteously.
"I have expressed no opinion," Chassier said professionally. "Please to drink this."
When Goldmark came to himself again, he was in a darkened room. He was conscious of the fact that he was still in possession of his sight, much as if he were seeing things under water. Everything was waved and blurred; stagnant things seemed to be in slow motion. In a way his surroundings were familiar; he was in his own arm-chair in his sitting-room at the hotel; he could dimly make out the outline of the table. This gripping paroxysm of fear passed presently; his scattered thoughts were growing coherent. What were they saying about all this in the City?
"Is there anybody here?" he asked.
"I am here," the voice of Chassier responded. "There is nothing to be alarmed about."
"I must have fainted," Goldmark groaned. "What is the matter with my eyes? And where are the others?"
"Well, they went home last night, of course. I asked them to leave me here. Your eyes will be quite normal, say, in a day or two. I had to use belladonna at once. Not a whisper of this has got out, of course. We thought that you would prefer it. But you'll have to cut those cigars off altogether. Another week or two, and you would be beyond my assistance. A pipe, now—"
"Never mind that," Goldmark cried. "I gather that I have been here all night. What time is it now?"
"About two o'clock on Wednesday afternoon."
"Good Heavens! I should have been in the City at ten. My people there will think that I have gone mad. Have they been here? Are any inquiries being made?"
"Your secretary called you up, of course. Several other inquiries, as a matter of fact. It seemed to me to be discreet to put them off. You are supposed to be suffering from acute gastritis brought about by eating some impregnated oysters. The people here are under the impression that I am a doctor who was specially summoned to attend you. I have had great financiers in my hands before, therefore I have taken special pains to disguise the truth. If your enemies in the City get hold of this—"
"By Heavens, I should be ruined!" Goldmark groaned. "They'd be at my throat in a moment. If anything happens to the Santa Anna group of mines just now, I'm done. I may not be able to see, but, by Jove, I can do business! Push my chair over to the telephone, please. I must call up Gregory."
Chassier raised no objection. So long as the patient made no use of his eyes, all would be well. Possibly they might have to be bandaged for a day or two, but, at any rate, they would be saved. Goldmark worried at the handle of the telephone savagely, and the reply came at length.
"Give me 99976 London Wall," he said. "What? Oh, yes! Is that you, Gregory. Here's a precious nice mess. Something gone wrong with my eyes. What? Told me I was smoking too many cigars. Well, that's just what Dr. Chassier, of Paris, says. Lucky thing for me he happened to be in London. I've got to stay in a darkened room for a day or two, though nobody knows it but yourself. Supposed to be suffering from acute gastritis. For Heaven's sake, keep this to yourself! What? What? Rather serious this is. I can only just hear what you say. See Razuli as to those mines. You might get 'em up at least two points before closing-time. Keep the game going till Saturday, when that matter over the Mexican concession is settled. Mind I am posted from time to time during the day. And tell everybody that I shall be in the City certain to-morrow."
The slow day dragged on, with frequent calls on the telephone. A nurse appeared presently and brought Goldmark food. She read the City article from The Times to him in a clear pleasant voice; she put him to bed in due course, with the intimation that she was close at hand in case he needed anything.
"It's all very good of you, doctor," Goldmark groaned. "You won't find me haggling over your fees when the time comes for payment. What a lucky thing it was that you happened to look up Brunell! Another week, and it would have been too late!"
"Another week, and it would have been too late," Chassier said gravely.
"Well, I am grateful," Goldmark replied. "On the whole, I'm not doing so badly. I never appreciated the telephone as I have done the last two days. Keeps me in constant touch with Gregory. Rather bad instrument, but I can just make out what he says. Odd thing is that he can hear me distinctly."
"A not uncommon peculiarity of telephones," Chassier replied. "Anyway, you can comfort yourself with the assurance that you are making rapid progress towards recovery. When you wake up to-morrow morning, you will be able to make out objects in this room quite distinctly. I shall come and ser you before the evening. I have another delicate operation to perform."
The telephone went utterly wrong about five o'clock, and Goldmark grizzled for the rest of the evening. It was quite early when the nurse insisted upon putting Goldmark to bed, followed by the administration of a medicine that filled him with a feeling of sublime contentment. He turned over contentedly and fell asleep. What did all the mines in the world matter to him just then?
A golden bath of sunshine filled the bedroom as Goldmark awoke in the morning. The blind was up as Goldmark turned round with a clear view before him. The queer sensation had gone from his eyes; familiar objects had assumed their proper proportions.
As a matter of fact, there was not one familiar object to be seen. Here was a strange bed in a strange room sparely furnished. On a chair Goldmark's clothes lay neatly folded. Here were his boots and frock coat and top hat together with a change of linen. On the dining table was all that was necessary for the toilette, including one of his own clean collars. Here also was his breakfast flanked by a Thermos flask of hot coffee. On the bed lay a copy of The Times as yet unfolded.
In his pyjamas Goldmark sprang from the bed and rushed into the sitting-room. There was nothing there but a table and arm-chair, together with the telephone in the corner. The rest of the house was empty. Down in the basement was the other end of the telephone into which Goldmark had been speaking for the past two days.
Now, what had happened to him? How had those fellows managed it, and why? How had they contrived to move him from the Majestic in the dead of the night and bring him to this desolated house?
Possibly that day's Times might throw a light on the darkness. It did.
THE STRANGE DISAPPEARANCE
OF MR. JAMES GOLDMARK
Little doubt is now expressed that Mr. Goldmark has been the victim of some accident, or that he has deliberately made away with himself. Since he so mysteriously vanished from the Majestic Hotel on the night of Wednesday last, nothing has been seen or heard of him. Nobody saw him leave the hotel, and no letter has come from him. It is hardly necessary to say that this remarkable mystery has created something like a panic in the City, especially in the mining market. Taking advantage of Mr. Goldmark's absence, the bears for the last two days have kept up a vigorous attack on the Santa Anna group, so that the stock was quoted yesterday as low as 11 3⁄4, after which it suddenly declined to 7 3⁄16, which price was freely offered by the bears—a striking contrast to the prices of Monday last. Scotland Yard is silent in the matter, and up to the time of going to press has nothing to communicate.
Jabez Goldmark was a man of nerves and imagination, nevertheless he kept his head at that crisis. He shaved, in cold water, without so much as a scratch, and partook of an excellent breakfast. He was so far awake to the situation that he subsequently took his cigar-case from his pocket and lighted one of the big black weeds.
He would very much liked to have met Dr. Chassier at that moment. He stifled his regrets as he stepped into a taxi and drove Citywards.
The cool and immaculate Gregory nearly fell off his padded chair as Goldmark strode into his office. The latter poured out a tornado of questions.
"Tell you all about it later on," he said. "Call it one of my little games, if you like. This affair is going to cost over half a million, but it can't be helped. "We've got to get those shares back to par again, and a few points over. Please 'phone our bankers to come here at once. I'll give the bears something to chew before four o'clock."
Friday, October 19, 19—, was a day long remembered in the City. The sight of Goldmark, cool and stern and immaculate outside the Stock Exchange, gave the bears cold fits. Then there were excursions and alarums, followed by a battle which lasted till three o'clock, and a subsequent flight of the bears, leaving their dead and murdered on the field. Goldmark figured it all out on the back of an old envelope.
"Cost me half a million, all the same," he said. "Only nobody need know that. And it's nobody's business where I have been the last two days. Gregory, ring up Mr. Brunell, and ask him where I can conveniently see him this evening."
"That's all right, sir," Gregory said a few minutes later. "Mr. Brunell will be very pleased to see you at his rooms to dinner this evening at eight o'clock."
Goldmark nodded his approval. At eight o'clock he strode into Brunell's room, to find himself confronted by Regan and Powell and Hartigan, as well as his host.
"I should like," he said quietly—"I should like a little explanation."
"Only natural," Brunell said politely. "I ordered dinner for 8.15 on purpose. We are not going to quarrel over this matter, my dear sir. And you are quite at liberty to make it public if you like. But, unless I am greatly mistaken, you will do nothing of the kind. The last thing in the world you want is for people to laugh at you. Now, you robbed me quite in the way of business, and no doubt enjoyed it. Anyway, I didn't. So I decided to fight you with your own weapons. It seemed to me that if it came to scheming, I could scheme as well as you can. That is why I invented a double for Dr. Chassier, and very well he acted his part. He came on the scene in the most natural manner in the world, and he frightened you very nearly to death. As I am fond of saying, a financier is a pawnbroker with an imagination. You have a most vivid imagination, and I played on it. When the sham Chassier gave you those drops to take, he drugged you. 'Chassier' had a room at the hotel close to yours, and we carried you there. You were placed in a big packing-case and smuggled over to Charing Cross, whence you were fetched to the house where the comedy was played out. Hartigan, who is great at theatricals, acted the part of your nurse. We had only to keep you quiet for a day or two, and the thing was done. As you may imagine, your disappearance created the wildest excitement. All sorts of things were said. You had committed suicide, you had absconded, you could not face your creditors. Your mines hardly needed the efforts of the bears to send them down with a bump. At the lowest point we all bought steadily. We knew that by to-day everything would be up again, and we bought till we could buy no longer. No, you are not going to teach us a lesson, as that flash in your eyes indicates, because we have unloaded already. By the way, how are your eyes feeling? Quite all right again?"
"You are a clever lot!" Goldmark sneered.
"I flatter myself that we are," Brunell said coolly. "That little artistic touch as to the telephone was quite smart. Gave you a telephone, and you could be more or less content. Regan fitted the 'phone, and added a few thicknesses of flannel over the transmitter so as to deaden the voice of Powell, who successfully played the part of your man Gregory. All the time you thought that everything was going well, Gregory was in a cold bath of perspiration over your disappearance. We got our knowledge of the drug business from a doctor whom we carefully pumped for information. I put the belladonna in your eyes, and the sham Chassier—whom you do not know even by sight, though he is one of your victims—administered the sleeping draught that put you all right again. Now, you must admit that all this is infinitely more artistic and civilised than taking you by the scruff of the neck and giving you the thrashing that you so richly deserve, Goldmark. We have got our own back, and a lot more. We have fined you half a million, and, so far as we are concerned, we are quite prepared to let bygones be bygones. What do you say?"
"I could get you five years if I liked!" Goldmark muttered.
"Precisely. The facts are beyond dispute. But are you going to do it? Are you going to let the whole world know how delightfully you have been fooled?"
Goldmark capitulated at discretion.
"Let us go in to dinner," he suggested.
"By all means," Brunell smiled. "Pawnbroker with an imagination, proceed. I've got some special cigars for you to try presently —very strong, but, in the circumstances, I know you won't mind that."
JELTHAM smote the chart lying on the bark of a fallen mimosa angrily.
"We've made no mistake, Hilton," he said; "it's that infernal chart that's wrong. I'll back my instruments against any that ever came out of Greenwich. I've figured out our position to an inch. According to mathematical formula, we should now be sailing over eighty fathoms of water. We should be within a mile of the treasure ship. As it is, we are two leagues from the sea, and on firm, hard ground whichever way we go." "It's certainly very exasperating," George Hilton murmured.
"It's maddening!" Feltham went on. "Who ever heard of a ship in the middle of an island? These treasure ships are never found except in a boy's story, though a good many fools like ourselves have sunk hard money looking for them. But, dash it all, one does expect to find the ocean where the ship has gone down—not a solid chunk of land like this!"
Hilton murmured something to the effect that he gave it up. He and Reggie Feltham had been unfortunate from the first. They had embarked every penny they could rake together in this venture of the sunken treasure, inspired in the first instance by an old chart and cipher, which had originally been in the possession of Admiral Sir Amyas Feltham, in the good old days when the Spanish Main had been the field, so to speak, of considerable profit to Elizabethan commanders. The founder of the Feltham fortunes, regarded in the light of romance, was a picturesque figure enough, but he had been a murderous old pirate, all the same. He left behind him considerable property, and inter alia the cipher and chart that was the cause of all the present mischief.
Unhappily, the march of civilisation was responsible for a generation that looked coldly upon the profession of buccaneering, and of recent years the Feltham fortunes had waned. There was very little now beyond the old family mansion and the old family pride. So when it had occurred to George Hilton to ask the head of the house for the hand of his daughter Alys, there had been what the early dramatists called "alarums and excursions," followed by the disgrace of a young couple and a tearful parting under one of the hundred and fifty oaks in which Charles II. is supposed to have hidden himse lf upon occasion—not necessarily Boscobel.
George Hilton was young, he was in love, he had the command of two thousand pounds, plus expectations from a distant—a very distant—relative. Here was a chance to show Alys and Sir Gregory Feltham what he was made of. He had seen the cipher and the chart, to question which, at Feltham Court, was flat blasphemy. The mere suggestion of the scheme was sufficient for Reggie Feltham. Anything was better than loafing about at home with hardly the price of a gun licence in his pocket. It was all very well to have the old house and all that lovely furniture, to say nothing of the pictures, but it was impossible to live on the contemplation of those treasures.
They started out filled with ambitious dreams and high spirits. They had learnt everything there was to learn, short of experience itself, but misfortune had dogged them from the first. They had been robbed right and left, and finally deserted by a rascally crew. Within a few leagues of their destination, their cutter had drifted on to a reef and became a total wreck, and they had been hard put to it to save their skins. And here they were on the very spot at last, only to find that, in the place of eighty fathoms of water, they were practically in the centre of an island!
"There is only one plausible explanation, so far as I can see," Hilton suggested. "The islands here are largely volcanic. There has been an earthquake here within the last century or so, and this island is the result. We shall be able to put the Admiralty chart right, anyway. And no doubt the treasure ship is here all right, only there are about a million tons of solid island on the top of it. We shall shut down the lid on our hopes in that direction. The question is, how are we going to get out of this?"
The prospect was not altogether alluring; the Robinson Crusoe element was too strongly marked. There was nothing the matter with the island; the climate was perfect, there were fish and game and fruit in abundance. They had tobacco in their patent collapsible lifeboat, a couple of shot-guns and sporting rifles; their wardrobe was more than sufficient for the moment. Sooner or later a ship would come along and take them off, but that would probably be a matter of months.
"Let's make a survey of the island," Feltham suggested; "we might find gold here."
It was something to do, any rate. Apparently there was no gold, but there were orchids of price, had they only known it, brilliant tropical birds, and plenty of fish in the clear streams. For a mile or two back from the sea, the luxurious vegetation rioted, but beyond that was a strange, arid plain of dry, hot sand, practically covering the whole of the island, giving it a grotesque resemblance to a bald man with a fringe of hair. The sun beat down mercilessly on this forbidding-looking waste, where the sand rolled away to the horizon in long, irregular hollows. A mile or two distant the limb of a dead pine stood out erect and stark, like a warning signpost. The blinding sand radiated heat so that the grey landscape was all quivering. There was no sign of life here; no bird passed in the sky overhead; the whole place was one vast, oppressive silence. Feltham turned from the contemplation of it with a shudder.
"I should go mad if I looked at that for long," he said. "Fancy a desert like that in the midst of a jewel of an island like this! You're right about the earthquake, old chap. That stuff is all baked pretty fine, but it's volcanic, all the same. The whole desert must have been thrown up by some big volcanic disturbance. But how, in the name of Fate, did that solitary pine tree get there? I'd like to find that out."
2Better leave it at that," Hilton suggested —"too much of a nightmare. Look here!"
He strode a step or two across the sand, and turned over a log of wood with his foot. Three or four forbidding-looking land-crabs scuttled out, followed by the shining blackness of a scorpion.
"You can bet that the sand is full of those loathsome beasts," he said. "Still, I am going some day when it is cloudy. We shall be safe with a pair of sea-boots each.
I'm not sorry, on the whole, that we've got the island to ourselves; it is just as well. The devil!"
A rifle-shot rang out clear and crisp, and Feltham's panama fell over his left eye. With one accord they dropped flat on a heap of long, dry grass.
"Bit abrupt," Feltham said coolly. "No, I'm not hurt, but it was a pretty near thing. Rather lucky that we brought our guns with us."
They lay there snugly for a moment or two, discussing the situation. Locomotion was not a healthy form of exercise just then. Clearly there was somebody here who resented their intrusion on the island. Hilton began to grow restless.
"Stick up your hat again," he suggested. "Let's try and draw his fire and locate him. If there happens to be more than one of them, I guess and calculate we're in a tight place. If we can get back to the boat in safety, I vote that we change our diggings."
Feltham elevated the perforated panama on a stick. A second later the rifle rang out again, and Hilton popped up his head swiftly. Like a flash he was down again.
"He's over yonder by the mangoes," he said. "You stay here and lie low whilst I stalk the beggar. It's a bit of a risk, but something has to be done. If we stay here, we shall be potted like so many little rabbits. When I tip you our whistle, stick up your hat again. If I can draw his fire, I shall be able to open diplomatic relations with him."
Feltham lay there sweltering on the grass. The blistering heat seemed to be seething his brain. It seemed a long time before he heard the peculiar whistle that he knew so well. He lost no time in lifting his panama; the rifle spoke almost on the instant. Before the echo of it had died away, Hilton stepped from behind a tree with his gun to his shoulder.
"Put up your hands!" he said. He repeated the command in Spanish, and immediately a tall figure rose from a kneeling position and confronted him. There was a rapid motion of the stranger's arm, the hint of a blue-rimmed revolver barrel, but Hilton was too quick for him. His gun spoke, and the right arm of the stranger dropped to his side. Dropping the revolver, he turned, writhing with pain; he showed a fine set of white teeth in a convulsive grin. Strangely enough, his aspect was not wholly unfriendly.
"Call up the rest of the party," Hilton commanded. "Summon the balance of the garrison."
"I am quite alone, señor," the other said in passable English; "I have no friends here."
"Ah, a passion for solitude—the last thing in the way of Selkirks," Hilton responded. "Passion evidently developed to the verge of monomania. This accounts for your hospitable reception of self and partner. I shouldn't have winged you only you brought it on yourself. I'm afraid I've broken your arm."
Feltham came up at the same moment. He took in the situation at a glance.
"I had to do it," Hilton explained. "Our friend says he is quite alone. Let us introduce ourselves in due form. Reggie, this is Señor Alexander Selkirk."
"I understand," the Spaniard said. "Let the name pass. I prefer it to my own. I came here hoping to be quite alone. For four years nobody has come. To the world I am dead. If they find me, they will put a rope about my neck. In the eyes of the world I committed a great crime; in my eyes it was an act of vengeance. For it I forfeited my good name, my position, my friends. When I saw your boat, I thought that you were the representatives of the law. I said to myself: 'They are from Brazil.' That is why I tried to kill you. I bear no malice."
"That is uncommonly good of you," Feltham said. "We are English, as you see. To be quite candid, we came here hunting for a treasure ship, only to find that this island is unfortunately on the top of it. But you are in considerable pain. Let me help you as far as your house."
A significant smile played over the face of the Spaniard. In spite of his pain he was interested. It seemed almost impossible that he had heard of the treasure ship before.
"I shall be obliged," he said. "You are very kind. I have rude appliances in my hut. My wrist is merely broken, and only needs warm water and a bandage—a splint. Señors, I am in your hands. You are English gentlemen; my secret is. safe with you. I am going to show you my hiding-place. Will you be so good as to give me your arm?"
They came at length to a thicket of mimosa, a bush of which the Spaniard pushed aside, and revealed beyond a hut apparently built of ship's timbers. The glass in the windows had undoubtedly been taken from an ancient wreck. Inside was a large sitting-room, with a bedroom beyond. The whole place had a curiously home-like suggestivness to the Englishmen. There was a tall antique cabinet filled with china, a carved oak sideboard unmistakably Elizabethan, a brass lantern clock on a bracket. The Spaniard appeared to take all this for granted. He produced bandages and a splint. Hot water was to be had from a spring by the side of the hut. Here was proof of the volcanic origin of the island.
"I am obliged to you," the Spaniard murmured, when the rude surgery was finished. "I am feeling a bit faint, so, with your permission, I will retire till the mid-day meal. Meanwhile, it will be a gratification to me that you make yourselves at home here."
"Polite sort of assassin!" Feltham murmured, as he sauntered round the sitting-room. "Equally charmed to bury you or ask you to dinner! Now, I wonder where this fine old furniture came from? It's pretty certain that our pal didn't bring it with him, as he seems to have come here in a hurry. Just cast your eye over those sea-chests. And look at this old compass! It must have come out of a Spanish galleon. Those windows came from the poop of a privateer, I'll swear. It's a million to one that the Spaniard found these things on the island. Did he find the Sir Amyas as well?"
Sir Amyas was the missing treasure ship. Hilton replied flippantly, but he was deeply interested, all the same. He stopped suddenly before an ancient brass-bound mirror on the wall, and took from it a miniature. It was the miniature of a girl, painted on ivory with a crystal face. The setting was plain silver, and fitted tightly to the edges of the glass.
"In the name of Heaven, how did this get here?" he said excitedly. "A year ago I saw it at Feltham Court—in the east drawing-room, on the big buhl cabinet. Reggie, it's Alys!"
Feltham turned the miniature over in his hand. The face of his sister was smiling up at him; there was no mistaking her blue eyes and fair, w avy hair. She had a cap upon her head, a wrap of rose-point lace was about her shoulders. Something seemed to grip Feltham by the throat.
"You're right," he said huskily. "It's Alys, painted as she appeared dressed for that big fancy dance at the Chantrey two years ago, and in the same old frame I found in one of the attics. Pinch me, George, and let me make sure that I am awake!"
"Oh, you're awake, right enough," Hilton replied. "I almost wish it was a dream! Now, who is our host, when all is said and done? And why did he lie to us in this way? He must have been in England the last year or so; he must be acquainted with Feltham Court. It is out of the question to suppose that Alys gave him that miniature; he stole it. He—he fell in love with Alys. Reggie, we must force him to explain."
It was certainly a strange situation; there was something almost uncanny about it. Hilton put the little miniature back in its place, and strolled into the open. He was trying to persuade himself that his thoughts were entirely free from jealousy; he was trying to find some logical explanation of this amazing turn of affairs. It was three days later before he got his chance. Feltham was after some rare bird he was anxious to shoot; Hilton and his host were smoking in the shade.
"I am going to ask you a personal question," Hilton said. "You may answer it or not, as you feel inclined. When were you in England last, señor?"
"I have never been in England at all," the Spaniard said quietly.
Hilton lost control of himself for the moment; the hot blood flowed into his face.
"Oh, well," he said, "if you are going to tell me a deliberate lie, I'll go no further! I dare say I can—"
"Stop, señor!" the Spaniard commanded. "You are my guest, and that being the case, why—"
"I beg your pardon," Hilton forced himself to say. "But the proofs of your—your mistake—are so strong that—Oh, come, señor! If you have never been in England, where did you get Miss Alys Feltham's portrait from—I mean the miniature on the old brass mirror? You have a portrait of Feltham's sister there. We both recognised it instantly. Feltham recognised the old frame as one that he had found. A year ago that miniature was in a drawing-room at Feltham Court."
The Spaniard showed no sign of embarrassment. On the contrary, he was all polite incredulity.
"Is it possible?" he asked. "It is amazing—extraordinary! So the lady is in the flesh? She actually has an existence after all these years? You are jealous of me, señor?"
"I am engaged to the lady," Hilton said, with a touch of red on his face. "Look here!"
On the impulse of the moment he took a metal case from his pocket and opened it. Inside was the cabinet portrait of a young girl with blue eyes and fair, wavy hair. The Spaniard examined it long and carefully. There was something almost tender in his smile.
"You are quite justified," he said at length; "I can pardon your strong language now. And from the bottom of my heart I congratulate you, my friend. It is, indeed, a charming face, with a charming soul in those blue eyes. And behind it is the same lovely creature as the lady who presides over my household. Do you know that I value that miniature highly? I hold conversations with it; I stand the picture on the table as I eat. That beautiful face has a softening influence on me. But I have never been in England, all the same, and my picture never stood in an English drawing-room. It was painted by a man who has been in his grave over three hundred years."
"Still, it is Miss Feltham's likeness," Hilton persisted. "Feltham recognises the frame."
"I am not prepared to deny it," the Spaniard said. "If you compare your portrait with my miniature, you will not find one single point of difference. And if you could take wings and fly back to England now, you would see the miniature you speak of in its place. This is another one."
"But the thing is amazing—inexplicable!" Hilton protested.
"On the contrary, it is capable of the simplest explanation," the Spaniard said gravely. "Now, you and Mr. Feltham are gentlemen. You are out here on some adventure. What that adventure is I am beginning to guess. Mr. Feltham is a man of good family—he comes of a military stock?"
"Naval," Hilton explained. "The founder of the family was Sir Amyas Feltham, a sailor who did some heroic things in the reign of Queen Elizabeth."
"Oh, precisely! We Spaniards suffered at the hands of the English admirals in those days. Did this fine old sailor possess a ship that he called after his own name? Is there no story connected with a wreck and some buried treasure?"
"So you know all about it?" Hilton asked. "As a matter of fact, we are after the treasure. If it belongs to anybody at all, I suppose my friend Feltham has the first claim to it. But this island is on the top of the treasure, and there is an end of it."
"I fancy not," the Spaniard smiled. "Nature has her own way of arranging these things. Oh, it is a pretty romance altogether! It only needs the touch of the poor but gallant lover and the stern old Puritan father to make it complete."
"Those elements are not lacking," Hilton said grimly. "The Felthams are poor and proud. I also am proud—and poor. But the finding of the Sir Amyas is not likely to help us."
The Spaniard rose from his seat and tossed away his cigarette. There was a friendly light in his eyes.
"Come with me," he said. "Put on your sea-boots, and I will don mine. We are going to cross the belt where the scorpions and land-crabs are, to that solitary tree yonder. You will see what the tree really is when we get there. It is not more than an hour's walk."
With the spirit of adventure strong upon him, Hilton strode across the valley of sand. As he came near to the solitary tree, he could see that it was the mast of a ship. In a deep, billowy hollow a quaint old timber ship lay heeled over to starboard. The standing gear had gone years ago, the deck was bent and split, a family of scorpions had taken possession. Down below was all dust and mildew and decay, but the stout old furniture was as good as ever; the brasswork gleamed here and there where the passing dust-storms had scoured it. The figure-head, carved in the form of an admiral in full uniform, grinned down. Some of the carved lettering could still be read. With some little trouble, Hilton could make out the name of Sir Amyas.
"There is your treasure ship," the Spaniard said quietly. "Soon after it sank, some great upheaval of Nature lifted it from the bottom of the sea on to this immense area of sand. Gradually the coral island was built up around it. Nobody ever came here. If they did, they would never trouble to investigate this hideous desert. You have solved the problem, and found a ship in a desert. I cleared out most of the sand personally; it found me something to do when I first came here. Bit by bit I furnished my hut from what I found here. Amongst other things I found that miniature. It probably was the wife or daughter of that eminent buccaneer, Sir Amyas Feltham. In old families Nature reproduces herself, and that accounts for the lady of your choice being the image of her ancestress. I can quite imagine your astonishment when you picked up my miniature. If you had not seen it, you would have gone away from the island, and the treasure would have remained hidden."
"So the treasure really exists?" Hilton asked.
"Oh, the treasure is there, right enough," the Spaniard said. "There are gold plate and some gems to the value of perhaps a quarter of a million of your money. It is all yours. I have no need of it; money is a thing that I shall never require again. Only leave me in peace and keep my secret, and there is nothing else that I can ask you. I shall never go back to civilisation again."
"But this is very princely of you," Hilton protested.
"Not at all. I have no need of money. It may seem a strange thing to say, but I am quite happy here, or, at least, as happy as I shall be on earth again. There is only one favour I have to ask, and that is your permission to retain the miniature. When you come to tell the story to Miss Alys, I am quite sure that she will be pleased for me to retain the picture of her ancestress as souvenir of a most remarkable romance. I am sure that is what she will say."
The Spaniard spoke no more than the truth. The story is known only to three people, and, naturally enough, Mrs. Hilton is one of them.
"I am glad you gave him the picture, George," she said, "and I hope that no harm may come to him. Some of these days, when we get a little tired of our pretty house here, and want a change, I'll get you to take me out there and see the noble Spaniard."
"I'll do it with the greatest possible pleasure," Hilton said promptly.
BUSINESS was not all that it might be, and Mr. John Lenham, sole surviving partner in the firm of Mayfield and Co., of Bond Street, sat in his private office pondering over the problem of cutting down expenses. Really, nobody seemed to want anything in the way of expensive jewellery, for times were bad, and even the foreign colony in Park Lane was feeling the pressure. No doubt the demand for fine diamonds would revive some day, but, meanwhile, the house was hardly paying its expenses. Mr. Lenham thought of his expensive stock and sighed. He sighed for the good old times when—but it was no use to think of that.
From where he sat he could see into the street. He was not to busy that morning, and he was interested to see a carriage and pair of horses draw up before the palatial establishment. Really this looked quite like the old thing. A property turned out equipage before a Bond Street shop was getting as rare as a black swan.
And there was something out of the common in this particular equipage. It had an air of distinction about it, a flavor of old times; not exactly unique, perhaps, but suggestive of the old nobility before Park Lane came into existence and the governing classes took to dabbling on the Stock Exchange. Mr. Lenham was a well-read man, and he instantly thought of Thackeray.
There was nothing shabby about the carriage, though it was mounted on leather springs. The paint work was quite fresh, the varnish glittered in the sun, the harness on the big grey horses was of silver. The coachman had that subtle blend of bishop and prosperous hotel proprietor that coachmen used to have in the days before Shoreditch invaded Belgravia. The footman was only a little less dignified. Mr. Lenham was interested. He was reminded of the stories that his father used to tell.
He was not in the least surprised, therefore, to see descending from the carriage a most delightful old lady in a drawn silk Victorian bonnet. Her hair was beautifully white, her cheeks glowed with a fine healthy red. For the rest, she was clad in satin. She looked very sweet and amiable and refined, and yet withal surrounded by an atmosphere of the most tremendous dignity. It seemed rather incongruous that she should be followed by an immense black-muzzled brindled bulldog.
"Now I wonder who she is?" Lenham pondered. "Aristocrat to her fingertips, quite a survival of the good old school. Mr. Hoggenheimer doesn't dine with her."
Mr. Lenham had not long to wait for enlightenment on the point. A natty, frock-coated assistant rapped on the office door.
"Lady Mary Mountroyal would like to speak to you, sir," the assistant explained.
The name struck a familiar chord. The head of the Mountroyals, of course, was the Duke of Ravenspur, who had many relations. Rapidly Mr. Lenham fluttered over the pages of his Debrett. Lady Mary appeared to be the aunt of the present Duke, and her residence was Strathallen Castle, in the county of Inverness. She appeared to live there with her sister Susan. Here was some of the very best blood in the kingdom.
Mr. Lenham came in with his most grave and courteous manner to the counter. The dainty old lady seated there smiled quite pleasantly.
"It is very many years ago since I was here last, Mr. Lenham," she said. "Really, I am almost afraid to count them. It was in your father's time."
"We have been favored with much Mountroyal patronage, my lady," Lenham said.
"Yes, so my sister, Lady Susan, reminded me. She insisted that if we were to buy this present we should come here. For the bride, you know."
"I am afraid that I don't quite follow, my lady," Lenham murmured.
"Now, that is very stupid of me," Lady Mary replied. "That which is a great event to us is merely an incident in your large business, Mr. Lenham. I am not going to say that we altogether approve of the match; but there it is. My great-nephew, Lord Hindhead, is going to be married, you know. He is at present in America with his father."
Lenham had grasped it now. Lord Hindhead was the future Duke of Ravenspur, and latterly he had become engaged to a great American heiress. Unless the papers were greatly mistaken, he was about to marry a hundred million dollars. The ceremony was to take place in New York in the course of a few weeks.
"Lord Hindhead is a customer of ours," Lenham said.
"Quite so. Now, I may tell you, Mr. Lenham, that Hindhead is a great favorite of ours. The dear boy spent a deal of his youth with us at Strathallen—he was delicate in those days. We should have much preferred to see him marry at home, but we are getting old-fashioned, and, really, nobody takes any notice of what we say. We have sounded our great nephew and he does not seem to want anything for himself. He would much prefer that we sent the bride something. We thought that was rather nice of him."
"A very proper sentiment, my lady," Lenham murmured.
"So that is more or less decided. The question is, what shall we send? I confess that Lady Susan and myself have a little difference of opinion in that respect. The present must take the form of stones, of course; and there we part company. I came to you, Mr. Lenham, without saying anything to my sister. I thought that perhaps with your good taste you could help us a little in the selection."
"It would be a great pleasure, my lady. But, first of all, I should like to have some idea as to the amount you are desirous of spending."
"The amount?" Lady Mary asked, vaguely. "Of course. The amount! Well, let us say something in the region of five or six thousand pounds. I fancy my sister will be ready to meet me to that extent. Might I trouble you for a little water for my dog? I fear that poor Captain feels the heat. Lady Susan insisted upon his coming to town with us."
"A remarkably fine specimen of his kind," Lenham said. "So gentle, too."
"Up to a certain point, yes. We have a score or two at Strathallen. Most of the best bulldogs in England trace their decent back to Strathallen blood. It is really very kind of you to take all this trouble, Mr. Lenham. And now, as we have come to town on purpose to buy this wedding present, I should like to see some choice articles of yours. Lady Susan must be consulted in the final choice, but, unfortunately, she has a slight touch of her neuralgia, and cannot get out."
Lenham proceeded to give certain instructions, and speedily the glass counter was strewn with velvet-lined cases in which gems flashed and dazzled. There was nothing in the least common there, everything was of the best. There were necklets and pendants, and strings of glittering stones until Lady Mary was fain to place her hands to her face and protest that the display was too dazzling for her poor old eyes.
"You have really shown me too much," she said. "Even if it were left to myself, I could not possibly make a selection now. I feel as if I should like to take the whole lot. I could hesitate all day between that pendant and the parure of pearls and rubies. It has always been a weakness of mine that I couldn't make up my mind. I begin to feel sorry now that I didn't leave everything to Lady Susan. Perhaps if I saw one of those lovely things by itself I could make a selection. Those emeralds, for instance. My heart goes out to them. If, when my sister comes, you would produce the emeralds and nothing else it is just possible that—"
Lenham smiled to himself. There appeared to be a good deal of guile, after all, in this exquisite old lady, who bore such a strong resemblance, to one of Cosway's miniatures. But in spite of his amusement Lenham kept an eye to business. There was a chance here of selling two wedding presents instead of one.
"I shall be pleased to do as your Ladyship wishes," he said.
"Now that is very kind of you, Mr. Lenham. A little idea has just occurred to me. Could you come round to our hotel about four this afternoon and bring a lot of those lovely things with you? Or you might only bring the emeralds. On second thoughts I should prefer that you only brought the emeralds. I will tell my sister what I have done, and I am quite sure that she will approve of my choice."
Lenham would be delighted, of course. But he was not going to content himself with the emeralds alone. It was just possible that Lady Susan loathed emeralds.
Lenham knew human nature pretty well, and felt certain that Lady Mary was taking advantage of Lady Susan's neuralgia to steal a march on her. Even sisters who are devoted to each other are guilty of these little diplomacies. When Lenham called at the hotel that afternoon he would have a bagful of other stuff with him.
"I will do as you suggest, my lady," he said. "Where shall I call?"
Lady Mary gave the address. The name of the hotel suggested respectable dinginess, but doubtless it had been exclusive enough half a century ago. But then Lady Mary belonged to the type that never changes. She would probably have repudiated the Carlton or the Ritz with scorn. And in any case it did not matter.
At half-past four the same afternoon Lenham found himself in a sitting-room, furnished precisely as it had been furnished any time the last half century. It was on the first floor, and looked out upon dull red brick houses on the opposite side, which, like itself, were a miracle of ugliness. There were the Brussels carpet with the cauliflower roses on a red ground, the crystal chandeliers on the cold white marble mantelpiece, the chairs upholstered in some alleged velvet material. A large circular table in the centre of the room was littered with a mass of shimmering material that was obviously intended for use by the dressmaker. The table was smothered with it, the clinging folds reached to the floor. Before the fire the bulldog Captain lay licking his black muzzle and turning what seemed like a sour bloodshot eye on the intruder. Lenham felt a creeping up his legs.
A few moments later Lady Mary came in smilingly. "You are very punctual," she said. "My sister and I have a bed-room below this, and I heard you walking about. I have just been giving Lady Susan something for her neuralgia. It makes her very restless and a little ill-tempered. I told her about the emeralds. I am sorry to say that she does not approve of emeralds at all. Still, I am sanguine that when she sees them she may change her mind. If not—"
Lenham signified that it was of no consequence whatever. In any case, he was pleased and proud of the chance of waiting upon Lady Mary. He said nothing as to the contents of the black bag that had been placed on the floor.
"And, besides, there are other things besides emeralds," Lady Mary smiled. "I shall persuade my sister to come and see some of those other lovely things if she is better to-morrow. Still, I have quite set my heart on the emeralds."
"Your Ladyship could not make a better selection," Lenham said. It was time now to unmask his batteries. "I ventured to bring with me in case the emeralds did not—"
"Oh, I am sorry," Lady Mary cried, "That would defeat—but my sister is coming. If you have anything in your pocket that—"
"Not in my pocket, my lady," Lenham explained. "In that little black bag—"
"Then you will be so good as to hide the black bag. How fortunate it is that all this stuff, is littered about. Push the bag under the table. Quick."
Lenham complied discreetly. He laid the bag down carefully in the centre of one of the cauliflower roses and dropped the drapery over it. At the same moment the door of the room opened and Lady Susan came in. She was the exact counterpart of Lady Mary, though her features were a little more commanding and firm. She held a handkerchief to her face, and seemed to be suffering some amount of pain.
"My sister had been telling me what she has done," she said. "It is a great matter of regret to me that Lady Mary has set her mind upon emeralds for this auspicious occasion. In a general way we are devoted to each other; we hardly ever have a difference of opinion. But there are reasons, strong reasons, why I cannot associate myself with a gift of emeralds. If you have anything else with you, Mr. Lenham—"
"But, my dear Susan, surely you will look at the stones!" Lady Mary protested. She spoke just in time to present an indiscretion on Lenham's part. "Without the slightest desire to hurt your feelings, I am sure this prejudice—"
Lady Susan turned with a pallid smile, and said. "For my part, I plead guilty to the charge of prejudice. All the same I am sorry that you should have a wasted journey, Mr. Lenham, and I shall be glad if you will show me the emeralds. I am sure that Lady Mary will never be satisfied till I have looked at them."
Lady Mary checked what was evidently a strong inclination to tears. An unsteady little smile played about her lips. From his pocket Lenham produced the offending case and displayed the beautiful stones on the table. They certainly were very beautiful and very tempting. But Lady Susan's face never relaxed its grimness.
"I have not a word to say against them," she said. "The workmanship is perfect, but I have a strong dislike for emeralds. I am sure, my dear Mary, that you will not make a personal matter of this. We have never had a quarrel yet—"
Lady Mary took a filmy handkerchief from her pocket and pressed it to her eyes. She stood for an instant as if struggling with her feelings, and then with the scrap of lace still to her eyes left the room. Lady Susan sighed.
"An extremely sensitive nature," she said. "Sensitive and tender-hearted from a child! I fear that I have been somewhat hard upon my sister. It is very difficult to know how to deal with her sometimes. Still, I cannot give way on this matter. There are so many lovely things that we might select for Hindhead's bride. If you will excuse me for a moment I'll speak to Lady Mary."
"By all means," Lenham said politely. "Don't let me detain your Ladyship."
A moment later and Lenham had the room to himself. He was feeling quite easy in his mind. He began to see that he was going to sell the emeralds after all. In any case, he was going to sell something. The sisters would probably make up their quarrel, and in the exuberance of their emotion might probably select something valuable from the black bag. But, all the same, the little difference of opinion was some time in healing, for the clock ticked off half an hour and Lady Susan had not returned.
Lenham was beginning to get just a little uneasy. He could not, of course, put his hand on anything wrong. The ladies were here, and under the table was his black bag. Still, the frauds of jewel thieves are many and peculiar, and Lenham felt a strong desire to have a look at the little black bag just to make sure.
With this purpose apparent in his mind he took a step towards the table. As he did so a deep, angry growl burst from the bulldog standing before the fire. The bloodshot eyes gleamed murderously, the animal advanced on tiptoe. It seemed to Lenham as if he were suddenly turned to stone. A profuse perspiration stood on his forehead. With a certain desperate courage he advanced a hand in the direction of the bell. Another angry snarl and a flash of white teeth warned him to be careful.
Lenham took a pull at his courage. So long as he stood perfectly still nothing appeared likely to happen. Meanwhile the clock was ticking on towards five o'clock, and there was no sign of Lady Susan or her sister. Lenham could hear people moving about the house, and this was some sort of consolation to him. He ventured to call out presently; but then every move on his part affected the dog to still deeper animosity. Once more there was the deep growl and the flash of those great white fangs.
There was nothing for it now but to possess his soul in patience. But Lenham felt that he must know something of the fate of the black bag or perish in the attempt. With his muscles set and stiff he shuffled along by inches still he could touch the table. Very slowly and cautiously he managed to remove the black material, and, with his head on one side, look under the table.
He did not cry out; he did not give vent to any display of passion. For some little time now he had known exactly what had happened. At least, he had felt it in his bones that the black bag had gone. And the bag had not only vanished, but under the table was a large circular hole where the floor had been cut away and bodily removed, the carpet with the cauliflower roses into the bargain.
It was quite dark before anybody came into the room and flicked on the electric light. A waitress stood there regarding Lenham with suspicion and astonishment.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded.
"Get that dog away first," Lenham said, hoarsely. "I'll explain afterwards. If I move an inch that brute will fly at my throat."
But, strange to say, the bulldog had already vanished. Probably, from his canine point of view, his task was finished. He wagged his fragment of a tail at her and trotted heavily from the room. Lenham wiped the moisture from his forehead, and passed his tongue over his lips.
"Now, listen to me," he said. "I am a jeweller, and I have been robbed by two thieves staying in this house and passing themselves off as Lady Susan and Lady Mary Mountroyal. If you look at that hole in the floor you will see how the thing was done. I suppose it's no use to ask if these women are still in the house?"
"Gone an hour ago," the girl explained. "Sent off their luggage in advance this morning, and left in a taxi about three-quarters of an hour ago. I suppose they forgot the dog."
"No, they didn't," Lenham said, bitterly. "Nothing of the sort. That confounded dog was part of the programme. I daresay the brute knows exactly where to find them. If you have a telephone in the house, ring up Scotland Yard, and say that Mr. Lenham, of Bond-street, is here, and that he has been robbed in this house of some thousands of pounds' worth of jewellery. Of course, you people don't know anything about it; but the fact is there. I suppose that the ladies' bedroom was immediately underneath this?"
The scared-looking waitress responded that it was. At a sign from Lenham she went off in the direction of the telephone. Half an hour later Lenham, the manageress of the dingy hotel, and Inspector Farrow of Scotland Yard were discussing the situation.
"I'll do my best for you, sir," the latter said. "But I'm afraid it's not much good. The whole thing has been too cleverly planned for that."
"You'll not catch the women?" Lenham asked.
"Well, I'm not quite sure that they are women," Farrow replied. "I don't suppose that women could have cut through the ceiling like that, it looks to me as if you have been made the victim of two exceedingly clever actors. We might manage to get a clue by means of the dog, who is doubtless, back with his masters again by this time. On the other hand, they might have destroyed the dog. He served his part, and is not likely to be tried the same way again. They hired the horses and the carriage, and probably paid for them. In a quiet place like this it would be easy for those people to impersonate Lady Mary and Lady Susan Mountroyal, especially as the ladies never came to London from Scotland. On the whole, it's one of the smartest jewel robberies that ever came under my notice."
"And that's about all the consolation I shall get," Lenham groaned.
"I'm afraid so, sir," Farrow responded. "I can't hold out any hope to you; all I can do is to promise that I'll do my best."
The inspector from Scotland Yard is still doing his best.
THE car sobbed and staggered like a spent athlete at the end of a long run, then gave a kind of convulsive jerk and stopped altogether. Over the windscreen a thin, cold rain struck like whip-lashes. Dallas smote his half-frozen hands together. He had been dreading this for the last half-hour. From the back of the car came the sound of a voice swearing fluently.
"Not a bit of good, old chap," Dallas said. "We should have till tomorrow. I told you that beastly plug was wrong before we started. It was all very well for those good people to say that we were quite welcome to come any time, Dalton--"
"No good groaning," Dalton interrupted. "I funked an attack of malaria in that beastly hole of an hotel. We ought to have chucked it days ago and come on here. That's why I got you to telephone and clinch the business. The duck-shooting was all very well; but it's slow work, after all, and the 'pub' accommodation was vile. Give me a few pheasants and a comfortably-cooked dinner afterwards, such as we're tolerably certain to get at Walney Place. Your telegram--"
"May or may not have got there," Dallas cut in. "I know what these telegrams to local branch line stations mean. If there's nobody handy to despatch them, they don't go. As a rule, they are delivered by the rural postman in the morning. Still, its no time to discuss the shortcomings of the post-office. It's past ten o'clock, the car has broken down, and we're two miles or more from our destination. What's to he done?"
"Get the map out and find a short cut," Dalton suggested. "Shove the old car into the hedge and take our suit-cases with us. Lucky thing most of our traps went by train. Come along, old chap! If I catch cold, I'll get that infernal malaria on me to a dead certainty. Where's the dog?"
The big mastiff crept out of the body of the car as if to inquire whether or not his services were required. Stylo had been with his master in many lands, and many adventures had he seen. He blinked benevolently upon the scene now, but. Stylo was not always benevolent. He had his likes and dislikes, and, upon the authority of Dalton, had a fine eye for a "wrong un." This instinct had stood the sportsmen in good stead more than once.
"Put out the lamps and shove the car into the hedge," Dalton growled. "Think you'll get it clear from the map? You don't often go wrong at that game."
Dallas responded curtly that he had no intention making a mistake on this occasion. They fought their way in silence along the muddy lane and into the main road. It was cold, hard work, but there was a good meal and a warm fire awaiting them. They had taken Walney Place for two months pheasant-shooting--in fact, they had taken over the whole place, as Sir George Walney and his daughter Mabel were going abroad for some time, and the shooting, by all accounts, was good. Dallas had heard of the opportunity quite by accident, and in his quick, characteristic way had rushed the transaction through by means of his agent without further inquiry. He, like Dalton, was getting very tired of the "flighting," and still more tired of the mean Essex "hotel" where they had been putting up for the past two weeks. Sir George had asked till Saturday before he turned out, but he would be delighted to see his tenants at any time. They had only to send him a wire. Hence the telegram and the sudden exodus in the derelict motor-car.
They plunged along until they came to a pair of noble iron gates flanked by a lodge which appeared to be empty. Here was the place at last, and here was the home blazing with lights and apparently full of guests. The strains of a brilliantly played piano accompanying a voice singing some of the latest light opera music floated out on the chill air. The beautiful tenor solo merged into a duet of great power and finish of expression. Dalton looked a little uncomfortable.
"They seem to have some musical swells here," he muttered. "By Jove, that girl can sing! So can the man, for the matter of that. My boy, we've struck a big dinner-party, and the odds are about a hundred to one that our telegram has not been delivered!"
"Any money you're right," Dallas grumbled. "I don't half like it, old man."
Stylo was emphatically of the same opinion. He stood on the tips of his toes, the brown fur along his back bristling. The amber-hued eyes gleamed, the great white teeth glistened.
"What's the matter with the dog?" Dalton asked. "There's something wrong here, Dallas. Stylo never behaves like that unless there is mischief afoot. He don't dislike strangers, as a rule, and he's not generally rude to people in their own house. What are we getting at ? "
"Oh, don't ask me!" Dallas retorted. "There can't be anything wrong here. Yet I've rung and rung, and nobody comes. I'll hold on to the bell till I get an answer."
The ripple of the electric bell could be heard somewhere in the distance, but nobody came. It was cold and dismal out there, and Dallas was getting impatient; and all the time the brilliant playing and singing was going on as if the performers had never a care in the world. Somewhat angry, Dallas turned the handle and pushed the door open. The hall was fully lighted, the atmosphere was warm and fragrant, the shallow oak stairs with the crimson carpet gleamed with flowers and ferns. Stylo crept along on his toes in the same stealthy fashion, his fur standing fairly on end. With a low growl he crouched at the foot of the stairs like some great cat. It seemed as if he saw something that was quite invisible to his human companions.
"You may bet your life there is mischief here," Dalton whispered. "Stylo would never carry on like that unless he smelt something ugly."
"Well, if there is trouble up those stairs, it is likely to remain there for the present," Dallas said coolly. "The trouble is not likely to come down without a warm time with the dog. We'll leave Stylo to guard the fort. Let's get into one of the rooms. I've no fancy to stand here with the chance that somebody at the top of those stairs is covering me with a revolver."
There were four or five rooms on the ground floor. The billiard- and morning-rooms, though brilliantly lighted, were empty, as was the library. The drawing-room door was locked on the inside, and from it the steady strains of melody were pouring. Dallas knocked on the door, but no reply came. The tenor was singing again, the accompanist rippled on. In ordinary circumstances Dallas would have enjoy all this immensely, for he was a keen lover of music and no mean pianist himself. His ear detected two missing notes from the accompaniment, and he shivered. It seemed a very strange omission for so practised an exponent in the art of accompaniment.
"Well, this is certainly the queerest thing I ever struck," Dallas muttered. "The whole house deserted, no servants anywhere. so far as I can judge, and Stylo guarding something sinister upstairs! The drawing-room door locked, and yet that wonderful singing and playing is going on as if nothing had happened. Let's see the dining-room affords any relief."
An inspection of the dining-room only seemed to increase the mystery. A table set out for two, and covered with flowers and fruit, stood in the centre of the room. On two dessert plates was a litter of nutshells and peach skins. Them were a few dregs of champagne in the glasses, and on one of the dessert plates a cigarette which had burnt itself clean out; evidently it had been laid there fully lighted, and not taken up again. By the fire lay a long strip of grey silk, evidently torn from a lady's dress, and a tangled knot of roses, crushed and battered. By the side of it was a revolver with one chamber empty. A mirror, cracked and starred into a thousand pieces, told as to how the shot had been fired.
"Well, we've certainly struck it rich this time," Dalton said. "I wish that infernal music would stop; it's beginning to get on my nerves! We have all the elements of a tragedy here. There was e struggle, as that fragment of silk shows, to say nothing of the revolver. I could understand it better if it were not for the music in the drawing-room. Anybody outside would think the house was given over to the most abandoned gaiety. What do you make of it, Dallas?"
"Hang me if I now!" Dallas responded. "This is the kind of mystery that make you creep. If Sir George had suddenly gone mad--"
"But there are other people in the drawing~room. What about the tenor, for instance, and the lady with the rich contralto? She's a professional for money, and yet they've got the door locked. There are probably a great many people in there besides our host and his daughter. I dare say there is an explanation."
"It's an explanation they would find it hard to convince Stylo with," Dallas said grimly. "The dog would never behave like that if anything was not unduly wrong; I have never known the hound's instinct to fail. Besides, where are the servants? There is not a sign of one of them to be seen. I've no painful anxiety to make a fool of myself, but I have a great mind--"
"To break the drawing-room door," Dalton said eagerly. "Why not?"
"Because we might look foolish, old chap. Even with all this evidence, there may be nothing wrong; and it would be rather a liberty in another man's house,"
"But suppose those people are being held up?" Dalton urged. "I've heard of such things. The rascals who are responsible for all the mischief might be holding a concert."
"They might," Dallas admitted, as he looked moodily at the dining-room table, "but those two plates and glasses puzzle me. If Sir George has guests in the house--and we can hear ample evidence of it at this very moment--why did he and his daughter dine alone here together? And where did the other guests feed? You may argue that they came after dinner, but there are no wraps or coats in the hall. I noticed that just now. And you can't get over the revolver and the torn piece of silk. There-- they are beginning that concert all over again! I wish they'd stop. As you say, the whole thing gets on one's nerves. Well, we'll wait a bit."
Evidently the programme in the drawing- room was being repeated. Dalton and Dallas listened more or less mechanically. At the end of half an hour Dallas started. Something had jarred upon his musical ear. It seemed to be another of those little slips. Dalton addressed a remark to him, but he did not appear to hear. His face cleared, and a grim smile trembled on his lips.
"I believe I've got it," he said. "Yes, I'm pretty certain I've found a clue. The only wonder is that I did not see it before. It's very wonderful music, old man, but there is one flaw in it. Do you know what I mean "
"No, I'm hanged if I do!" Dalton admitted. "If we are wasting time here--"
" Well, we are not going to waste time any longer," Dallas exclaimed. "There it goes again, exactly in the same bar as it did before! I think I know now why the musicians did not dine here with Sir George and his daughter. They are not very expensive guests. Now, you stay here while go out of the house and see what I can see through the drawing-room window. You are quite safe here so long as Stylo guards the staircase. The source of all the mischief is overhead. I know now why the drawing-room door is locked. You don't mind?"
Dalton shrugged his shoulders indifferently.
"Not so long as we are likely to do something," he said. "I'll stay here and keep guard. I shall not want to hear a song again for years. If you can only stop that infernal row, I shall be grateful to you all my life. Get a move on you, old chap!"
Dallas slipped through the hall and out into the night. During the last moment or two things were growing clearer. What he was likely to find in the drawing-room he was not quite certain, but he had a pretty shrewd idea of what he was not going to find. His musical ear was standing him in good stead now. What the whole elaborate machinery meant he would discover later on. He came at length to the drawing-room window, and tapped smartly on the glass. There was just a bar's interval in the music, and it seemed to Dallas that he could hear somebody groaning. Then the brilliant concert broke out again.
There was nothing for it but to force a way in. Fortunately, the window was of the French type--one of those long double windows apparently designed with the benign purpose of giving the predatory visitor as little trouble as possible. Dallas pressed his shoulder steadily against the framework, digging his heels into the gravel. A flimsy brass bolt suddenly snapped, and Dallas fell on his back into the room. He was on his feet again in an instant, ready for attack. Not that he expected anything of the kind, but it was best to be ready.
The room was brilliantly lighted--a long, elegant room, perfectly appointed in every way. In one corner stood a grand piano, with a polished pedestal alongside it, and Dallas smiled grimly as his eye noted these things. In an arm-chair by the fireside an elderly man in dress-clothes was huddled up as if he were intoxicated or had fallen asleep in an uncomfortable position. But there was no suggestion of intoxication about him, as a closer examination disclosed.
Opposite the elderly gentleman was the slight figure of s girl dressed in some soft, white material. She appeared to be just as cramped and uncomfortable. The pretty, pleading face was pale as death, the blue eyes were dark with terror.
"Why do you torture us like this?" she whispered.
"Allow me to assist you," Dallas replied. "I see you are both tied up. There is not the least reason to be afraid of me, Miss Walney. I am Mr. Dallas."
The girl's lips quivered and she closed her eyes. Just for s moment it looked as if she were going to faint. Dallas drew a knife from his pocket and cut the cords. Then he turned to Sir George Walney and performed s similar office for him. He had not the least doubt as to the identity of the two. A little stiff and sore, Sir George rose to his feet.
"You have done me a great service, Mr. Dallas," he said. "How you came to be here at this very opportune moment, I don't know. Still, since you are here--"
"I sent you s telegram," Dallas explained. "We took you at your word. My friend Dalton is at the present moment in the dining-room. My telegram failed to reach you?"
"It certainly did," Sir George said. "The telegraphic service is by way of the railway station, and is absolutely unreliable. Will you oblige me by stopping that infernal music?"
Dallas shook his head.
"Would you mind waiting a moment?" he asked. "There are urgent reasons why the music should go on for a little longer. There are certain people in the house whom it would be unwise to alarm just yet. I should like to take them red-handed--"
"Do you mean to sa that they are still here ?" Sir George cried.
"I fancy so," Dallas smiled. "I have every reason to believe that we arrived at what the novelists used to call the psychological moment. My friend's dog Stylo is also of the same opinion. This is s very audacious outrage, Sir George."
Sir George groaned slightly. The anxious, strained look was in his eyes again.
"It is s most terrible business altogether," he murmured. "Mr. Dallas, I am not leaving this house because I have my particular desire to go abroad. I am going sway because I have to, because neither my child nor myself can stand the strain any longer. For the last year those scoundrels have haunted and hunted me. I have given them money until I can do so no longer. Unless they had a certain large sum to-day, they were going to-- Well, I need not go into that. I cannot raise money on the property, and I cannot dispose of the many treasures here, so I am helpless. There are urgent family reasons why I hesitate to proclaim the story abroad and invoke the aid of the police. To a certain extent, I have not done this because the Chief Constable of the county is an old friend of mine. I have a small measure of police protection, and the officers are instructed to do certain things if necessary. The house is more or less watched, and they know that. They came here to-night armed, and drove all my servants into the vaults under the old part of the house. The household staff is under lock and key. Then we were bound and conveyed here. They actually brought that electro-grammophone arrangement with them. You can see for yourself that it is connected with one of the switches that control my electric lights. By some simple automatic arrangement, the pieces are played over and over again. Do you understand why?"
"Perfectly," Dallas exclaimed. "A policeman passing along here would hear the music, and naturally conclude that everything was all right. The concert might go on till daylight, and the officer would not be any the wiser, And this would give your friends many hours' start."
"That is exactly what they were so good as to tell me," Sir George said dryly. "But how you came to get any grip of the situation is beyond me."
"And yet it is quite simple," Dallas explained. "I am by way of being a musician. I could not quite understand why the same concert should take place twice, and it puzzled me why the same false notes should he sung by brilliant musicians. Suddenly it flashed across my mind that the whole thing was mechanical. The situation began to unroll itself. There was the empty house, devoid of servants, the door was open, the drawing-room was apparently filled with guests, and yet we could not make anybody hear. Add to this the fact that the dog told me, as plain as if he could speak, that there was danger somewhere overhead. And vet all the time the concert was going on. That is why I wished to find out things for myself. But one thing you may rest assured of--you are not going to lose any of your treasures."
"Yon mean that you came in time to save them, Mr. Dallas?"
"As I have already informed you, the men are still here," Dallas explained. "The dog tells me so, and I have never known him to make a mistake. The question is, what are we going to do? If you like to hand them over to the police--"
Sir George looked s little uneasy. The girl laid a hand on his arm imploringly.
"Tell the truth." she pleaded. "My dear father, let everybody know. It is no fault of ours--we have not anything to be ashamed of, and in a few days the whole thing will be forgotten. I cannot go on living the life of the past year or so; it would drive me mad! Be guided by Mr. Dallas; act just as he suggests. At any rate, tell him the truth."
Sir George turned away for the moment, apparently struggling with himself. His face was very white and set as he came hack to the fireplace again.
"Perhaps I had better," he said. "If anything happens to me, I don't want my son and my little girl to suffer afterwards. I'l1 tell you everything, Mr. Dallas."
"Not here," Dallas said. "Let us go back to the dining-room. Dalton will wonder what has become of me. We shall have to go by way of the garden."
Dalton looked relieved as Dallas entered the room. He listened eagerly to the strange story. In the drawing-room the weird concert was still going on. From time to time there came something between a whimper and a growl from the dog patiently squatting at the foot of the stairs.
"What are you going to do?" Dallas asked.
"I am entirely in your hands," Sir George replied. "I have been foolish and cowardly. I should have put an end to this torture long ago. Call the police if you like."
With a grim smile on his lips, Dallas strode into the hall. He uttered a curt command to the dog, and made a motion with his hand towards the head of the stairs. With a deep bay Stylo dashed up the stairs; a second later came hoarse cries for help and the worrying noise of an animal out of all control. After the dog went Dallas. Lights flashed all around him.... It was two minutes later when he came down to the dining-room again, pushing before him two white-faced objects, their clothes hanging in shreds about them. Evidently the dog had lost no time.
"Here are your friends, Sir George," Dallas said. "you need not be afraid of them, for they are no longer dangerous. I noticed a couple of sacks in the corridor, and I have no doubt that they contain the plunder they got together ready for removal. The question now is what we are going to do with them. Shall I call for the police?"
Sir George held up s hand that was none too steady.
"Have patience with me just for a moment," he said. "The tall man on the left is my brother-in-law; I married his sister. People generally were under the impression that my late unhappy wife was an American. As a matter of fact, she came from an orphan asylum. I fell in love with her pretty face, and I had her educated. It was a most unhappy match from the first--how unhappy, my child does not know, because her mother died before she was old enough to understand things. It was a little money these men ask at first, and that humbly. But, by degrees they grew more greed. I found out that they belonged to one of the most dangerous gangs of thieves in London. For two years they have made my life a perfect misery to me. My daughter here learnt the truth at last, and she urged me to take strong measures. I doubt if I should have done so even now but for the dramatic appearance of you two gentlemen to-night. I should probably have put up with the loss, and pretended that I knew little or nothing about where the treasures had gone to. There will be a certain amount of scandal, of course, but I am ready to face it boldly now."
"You'll he sorry for this later on," the tall man growled.
"I don't think so," Sir George replied. "But I am not going to discuss the matter; there is going to be no more said. Mr. Dallas, will you be so good as to take the whistle from the side of the clock, and blow three times outside the front door? Mabel, take Mr. Dalton and show him where the servants are locked up. We must get the gentlemen some supper. No, you need not be afraid for me. This grand specimen of a dog will be all the protection I shall need."
The supper was done and ended, the story had been told again and again. Mabel Walney rose presently and declared that she was too tired to sit up any longer. Dallas opened the door for her, and at a sign followed her into the hall.
"Can I ever show my gratitude to you?" she asked. "You will not think that--that-that--"
"I shall always think of you as one of the bravest of women," Dallas said, as he held the little hand in his for a moment, "and what could s man want more than that?"
"I am sure that you will always be my friend," she said.
"Friendship is only the beginning," Dallas smiled. " I'm afraid I shall want more than that."
And in the course of time he had his own way there.
MISTRESS MARJORY FOTHERGAY rode astride like a man, for the chase was a stern one, and she was measuring a human life against the pace of her nag. She hugged the precious pardon to her breast as she swept along through the night in the direction of Mapleham. It was there that Guy Foster lay a prisoner in the hands of Colonel Clifford, and there he was to be shot at eight of the clock in the morning. The mere fact that Colonel Clifford hated him and would have watched his end with equanimity, not to say satisfaction, was the spur that pushed Marjory on.
Oh, she had had her luck—there was no doubt about that. It was sheer luck that flung her in the path of the King on his way to York. Perhaps if Nell Gwynn had not been there—What a pretty woman she was and how her eyes had sparkled as she handed the swan-quill pen to Charles. People might say what they liked about Nell, but Marjory had loved her at that moment. Guy Poster had been a fool—it was so like him to fling himself in the teeth of authority over so simple a matter as the rights of forestry over Cadham Forest, but really he had gone too far. They had caught him with arms in his hand and, well, he was going to be shot in the morning at Mapleham.
Now hanging or shooting is the poorest use you can put a man to, especially if he be a man like Guy Foster. For he was tall and strong and clear of eye, so that the women in these parts looked on him sweetly, and Mistress Marjory accounted herself the most fortunate of girls when he came wooing her and dropped his glove at her feet. And Colonel Clifford hated him from the bottom of his heart. There never had been any chance for the colonel, had he only known it, but then he was a bit of an egoist in his way and did not know it—a black man with a brooding eye and a furtive glance with venom in it. And he would have cheerfully committed murder for sweet Mistress Marjory's sake.
He was going to commit murder now with all the precedent and authorities on his side.
Guy Foster had been taken under arms and the penalty was short and to the point. He would be shot at daybreak and all Marjory's tears and pleas had moved him not at all. She was indiscreet, perhaps, in adding certain accusations of a more or less personal nature, but they left him cold.
Marjory had flung out of the presence of Clifford hot, flaming and tearful. She rode wildly out of Mapleham at odds with all the world and burning for a rescue. A couple of score of stalwarts well armed and the thing was done. It was to the full measure of her wrath and, in the full swing of her gallop that she came plump upon the cavalcade of the king on the way to York. And Charles, always with a keen and discriminating eye for a pretty girl, demanded speech with her. He got it.
"I am Mistress Marjory Fothergay of that house, sir," she said. "There is not a man left in the place for they have all died for you and yours. And the man I love is to be shot in the morning."
"That is a sorry use of good material, child," the King said. "Give him a name."
Marjory poured out her trouble. There was no more loyal lot than the Fosters. But they hated tyranny, and that edict as to the right of forestry over Cadham Forest was sheer tyranny and his majesty should know it. Then there came up something dazzlingly fair with blue eyes full of demure mischief, with a gleam in them that touched Marjory on the spot. Here was Mistress Nell Gwynn, of course, and Marjory felt the blood flaming into her face. Still, she was a woman and she was beginning to feel the sore need of one. And here was a woman, good luck, with pity and sympathy in her face.
"Now, what's to be done with this pretty thing?" the King laughed.
"What does one do with all pretty things, Charlie," Nelly said. "Give 'em a sugarplum. You're not going to let Clifford waste a good man like that."
"Do you know aught of Colonel Clifford, child?" the King asked.
The blood flamed into Marjory's face again and her eyes flushed. Nell of Old Drury watched her critically. She had a fine scent for a dramatic situation and here was one ready to her hand. She bent over and whispered a few words in the King's ear. He threw back his head and laughed.
"Say you so, Nell?" he asked. "Lord, how you women smell out a romance! Trust you for seeing the beauties of a situation! So it is like that. Mistress Marjory, you can dry your pretty eyes. Bring me a pen and ink so that you can set your heart at rest. Quick there with you."
And there under the amazed eyes of Mistress Marjory the pardon was signed and handed over to her by the King himself. Nell looked on with a smile.
"I have you to thank for this, Mistress Gwynn," Marjory said.
"Oh, la, la," Nell cried. "What a patter about a little thing like a lover. Maybe the time will come when you will hold this thing a grudge against me. But, thank me if you like."
"I—I should like to kiss you," Marjory flamed out.
"Odds bodkins, dearie, but you shall," Nell said. Her face had flamed scarlet, too, and her eyes were wet. "This Guy Foster of yours is a lucky man. And I am the happier for assisting you. You can tell your children when the time comes that Nell of Old Drury was not all bad."
"I shall tell them that she was one of the best and kindest of women," Marjory cried. There was a crimson stain on her checks; her voice shook strangely. "Farewell and God keep you, sire, I have no time to lose."
Marjory turned in her saddle and plunged into the forest. There was no time to be lost if she were to reach Mapleham by daylight. That would not give her more than an hour at the outside.
She came to Mapleham in the grey dawn dazed with the need for sleep and giddy with fatigue. The sentinel of the gate challenged her sulkily.
"You know who I am well enough, fellow," she said haughtily. "This is not the first time, you have been face to face with Mistress Marjory Fothergay. Look here."
She drew out the pardon and thrust the King's signature under the varlet's nose.
"Go and call your master," she said. "Drag him out of bed if you will. Tell him I am here and that I have a message for him from the King. And see to it that this is done at once. Conduct me to a place where I can remove the traces of my journey."
Another man at once came out and presently Marjory found herself in a private chamber more or less ready for the use of travellers. There was clean linen and fair water and a comfortable armchair, into which latter she dropped presently and closed her eyes. She must not sleep, she told herself, she would just rest there for a little while and recover a little from the deadly tiredness that numbed her brain. Her long lashes swept her cheek and she slept, slept in utter exhaustion.
Colonel Clifford stood biting his thumbs at his retainer. There was something in the back of his mind that prevented him from looking the man-at-arms in the face.
"What do you say the lady wants?" he asked.
"She came here demanding speech with your honour," the soldier said. "She has a message from the King."
"So. What have you done with her?"
"She is at present in one of the retiring rooms. She was there till your honour is ready. At present, so a kitchen wench tells me, she is asleep."
Clifford motioned the fellow away. He had learnt all he needed. Mistress Marjory was here with a pardon from the King. It would be a fare triumph for her lover and herself. She would ride out with him presently and they would laugh at him as they went. And she was asleep.
Colonel John Clifford had never loved before—he had no time for that sort of thing he told himself impetuously. And being a dark man with a sombre spleen, when the fever came it filled his blood with madness and blinded his eyes to aught but the demon of desire. And when fate had delivered Guy Foster into his hands it seemed to him that the path was smooth at last.
Mistress Marjory had come with a pardon from the King and she slept. She had travelled through the night, and was utterly worn out. And Clifford had no official knowledge of anything. Nobody would blame him if Foster was taken out and shot in an hour's time. And Mistress Marjory slept.
Marjory came to herself in an hour's time with a start. The dawn was breaking now and a golden light filled the east. She could not have slept long, but was it too long. She could hear the clash of arms and the tramp of feet outside, a hoarse command and the rattle of weapons. With a great fear in her heart, she crossed the flag-red floor and tried the door. It was locked.
Somebody had fastened the door on the outside, or perhaps there was some trick with the bolt. Mistress Marjory tugged at it desperately. She raised her voice in a cry and smote passionately on the oak panels.
The full glare of the truth was dawning upon her. Clifford had been told why she was here, he had grasped what her errand meant to him. And he would be able to say that he had no official cognisance of it. A message brought to him through one of his men-at-arms that Mistress Marjory Fothergay had a letter from the King meant nothing. She had not spoken of a pardon.
Clifford had locked her in. He would keep her a prisoner till the execution was over. She looked round for some means of escape. The windows were high and narrow, but there was chairs that she could pile one on top of another. The hazard of it troubled her nothing. A moment or two later she was on the broad stone ledge looking into the courtyard below. There was a lead roof opposite from which she could easily reach the ground. And on the far side of the courtyard half a dozen men lounged with petronels in their hands. A door opened somewhere in the distance, there was a harsh sound of command and the men with the firearms drew up to attention.
Marjory measured the distance with her eye. It would be a desperate effort, but she would manage it. She drew a long breath and launched herself from the window ledge. She jumped just a little short, falling heavily on her hands and knees, shaken and breathless, but with a savage exultation at her heart. As she dropped, still panting and shaken, into the courtyard, Guy Foster came along blindfolded and led by two men-at-arms. As they placed him with his back to the wall, Marjory took the King's letter and fastened it to his heart.
"Send Colonel Clifford to me," she cried. "Where is the black-minded traitor?"
The words echoed across the courtyard. Clifford came forward.
"You have a message from the King for me," he said.
"I have his royal Majesty's pardon," Marjory cried. "See it is on the breast of your prisoner. Take the bandage from his eyes, and let him go, murderer."
Clifford started as if he had been stung. But his eyes dropped before the gleaming orbs of Marjory. He saw in that instant that the girl had guessed everything. It was only for a moment that he hesitated, and then he was himself again. With his own hand he slipped the bandage from Foster's eyes, and released him.
"You are free," he said curtly. "You can go. You are a fortunate man, my friend. And if you will permit me to offer you my hospitality—"
"My horse," Marjory commanded. "My horse. This place is offensive to me, I would stifle here."
Without another word Clifford turned on his heel. Foster caught Marjory in his arms.
"Sweetheart," he whispered. "How did you manage it? Tell me, dearest heart."
"Catch me," Marjory whispered, "for I am going to swoon. No, it is the joy that never kills."
THE evidence had been dead against the prisoner all day. He sat in the dock listening to the damning testimony like a man in a dream. To all practical purposes he was a man in a dream. The whole thing was a hideous nightmare from which he would awake, presently, sweating and trembling as one does on these occasions. It was all terribly real and grimly true to life, but still—
Otherwise—well, otherwise he was the victim of some insidious form of madness. He was suffering from the same kind of mania that impels law-abiding citizens secure in the affections of wife and family to rise up suddenly with uplifted weapon and red tragedy whispering in his ear. Perhaps he had been mad during the last few days. Perhaps he had forged that cheque for 2,000 and got Markwick to cash it in Liverpool. It was possible, after all, that the evidence of the doctor was true.
"I think we will adjourn on this point," the magistrate said. "Bail? As a matter of public duty, I ought to refuse bail. After listening to Dr. Swayland's evidence—yes, I quite recognise the state of the prisoner's health. But simply because he happens to be a morphiamaniac, I cannot see—"
The inspector in charge of the case did not oppose bail. Masters fumbled his way out of the dock and thence into the street. He did not fail to notice the grave look on his lawyer's face. The evidence had been terribly strong.
"You're lucky," the lawyer said. "Now the case is adjourned till Monday. That gives us two clear days to prepare our defence. But you will have to be more candid with me, Masters. You told me distinctly that you had not been to Liverpool—"
"I told you the truth," Masters said doggedly. "I have not been in Liverpool. I have not been out of London for the last three months."
The lawyer shrugged his shoulders. He was a little annoyed, too.
"How long have you been taking that infernal drug?" he asked. "I'm told that morphia plays all sorts of tricks with a man's memory, produces hallucinations, and so on. You may honestly believe that you have not been to Liverpool, and yet—"
"I've thought of all that," Masters smiled bitterly. "I'm either hopelessly mad or I am the victim of the vilest conspiracy ever invented. Consciously, I've never taken a grain of morphia in my life."
"But you heard what that Liverpool doctor said? Man of the highest standing, too. He swore to-day that he was called in to attend you in Liverpool on the evening of the day on which the forged cheque was cashed there. He found you in a state of coma induced by a heavy dose of morphia. Everything pointed to the fact that you were habitually given to the drug. Swayland swore to you in the most positive manner. So did the landlady of the house in Liverpool where you stayed."
Masters locked his hands together. He trembled with a sudden gust of passion.
"I give it up," he said. "I swear before heaven that I know nothing about it. Never in my life have I touched a drug. I have been before the magistrates every day this week; I have gone home at night, to my lonely quarters. Come and stay with me if you like; lock me in a room and see what happens. If I were a drug-fiend I should go mad before morning. But what is the use of talking about it? I want sleep—a good long night's rest to get my head right. I tell you those few days were all of a blank to me. I am still suffering from that infernal drug, but I never administered it to myself. Perhaps to-morrow I shall be able to recollect something."
Pannett, the lawyer, was fain to let it go at that. Masters had better come and see him to-morrow morning; meanwhile he would be wise to retire to his lodgings and keep as quiet as possible. With this resolution uppermost in his mind, Masters made his way home. He was an ambitious young man, with a fine prospect before him, and he was saving money with a view to getting married. The big farm where he was engaged had a warehouse out Marylebone way, and in one of the upper rooms there Masters had established himself. There was no rent to pay, which was a consideration, and the furniture would go presently to garnish the house he had in his eye when the right time came. An aged caretaker dusted the rooms and made the bed, and as to his meals, Masters got them all outside. There was no meanness on his part; it was merely prudence. Some of these days he was pretty certain to be asked to join his firm, and the more money he could bring in the better for his future prospects. The money was not quite what it had been, for Masters had been dabbling on the stock market, coming in at the wrong time for him, unfortunately. His shares would be all right presently, but just now they were depressed, and could only have been disposed of at a great sacrifice.
Masters came moodily into his room. There was nothing inviting about the place to-day, though usually he was rather proud of it. The furniture was frankly after the pattern which is spoken of as Tottenham Court Road, the carpet a 'Turkey,' the engravings on the walls after Sant and others of the same school. The paper was a self-colored green, with just a suggestion of art about it. The bed was folded away in a recess behind a curtain. Clearly in this respect Masters had a good deal to learn from an artistic point of view.
His moody face cleared as he saw who it was seated there in the saddle-back armchair. The atmosphere was flavored with cigarette smoke.
"Now this is really kind of you, Roscoe," Masters exclaimed. "I was just telling myself that I hadn't a friend in the world. I don't say I had quite given you up—"
"I owe to you too much for that," Roscoe replied. "You helped me when my trouble came, and I have not forgotten it. Had it not been for you, I should still be slaving at a desk instead of being a free man with a decent reputation as a writer."
"You mean a distinguished novelist," Masters smiled faintly. "You need not shake your head. Your last book, the 'Primrose Path,' has established your reputation. By the way, I have to thank you for getting your publishers to send me the book on the day of publication. I got it on Monday week. After that strange fainting fit of mine on the Wednesday before, my people insisted upon my taking a few days' holiday. They wanted me to go away, but really I could not afford it. I read your book for three evenings instead. I can't say how much I liked it."
"Despite the missing chapter?" Roscoe asked.
"What missing chapter?" Masters inquired. "My copy was complete."
"Indeed, it wasn't, if you got it from my publishers on Monday. As a matter of fact, a whole sheet of type was missing. There was an extraordinary blunder on the part of the binders which was discovered early on the aforesaid Monday. Only about six copies were despatched, and yours must have been one of them. It was Wednesday afternoon or Wednesday night that the bulk of the copies left my publishers. I am perfectly clear on this point. Your copy was incomplete, and it's very strange that so careful a reader as yourself should have overlooked the fact."
Masters shook his head obstinately.
"I didn't," he said. "Now, tell me what really was missing."
"Well, perhaps the most important chapter in the book. It was a very long chapter, and the whole story turns on it. It is where the hero meets 'Abergoyne,' and he tells him that the engagements to 'Nancy' cannot possibly—"
"But I remember that," Masters cried. "Your heroine overhears the conversation, and decides that it is her bounden duty to stand aside and—"
"But all that was not in your copy," Roscoe shouted.
"If it wasn't, then how did I manage to read it?" Masters retorted. "Let's clear up this mystery, at any rate. I have enough one way and another to madden me. There is my copy of your book on the shelf yonder. See for yourself."
Roscoe took down the volume eagerly. His restless fingers fluttered over the pages. He turned with an air of triumph to his companion.
"What did I tell you?" he demanded. "Pages from 120 to 152 are missing. You have only to look at the numbers and see that for yourself."
Masters appeared to give up the unequal contest.
"I am mad!" he said. "Either that, or I am the only sane man now left on the earth! The pages are clearly missing, and yet I have read them despite the fact that they are not in the book! Now, will you kindly explain how such a thing could possibly happen? After my illness, I slept all day on Monday and woke in the evening feeling better. I took up your book and read some ninety pages before going to bed. All Tuesday I was more or less in a state of coma, and again I came to in the evening, and ate some food that my old charwoman had apparently laid out for me, and I went on with your book. I have the most vivid recollection of this missing chapter sixteen, because to my mind it is by far the best part of the story. And yet you prove to me absolutely beyond a demonstration that I couldn't have read it, because it wasn't there! I haven't seen you for months, so there is no question of our having discussed your plot. And I don't for one moment believe that there is anything occult in this business. I am quite sure that it is capable of a plain explanation. Now, you are a man with a vivid imagination. Let us go over the thing from the start. You know the charges against me."
"Of course I do," Roscoe said. "You are accused of forging a cheque on the Liverpool bankers of your firm for 2,000. You went secretly to Liverpool when you were supposed to be lying ill here, and got Markwick, the cashier of your Liverpool office, to negotiate the cheque. It was an idiotic thing to do, because the forgery was bound to come out almost at once. It did come out, and one or two of the notes received, in change for the cheque were found here. You swore point blank that for the first three days of last week you were here in London, and that you had not left your rooms. On the other hand, Markwick swears that you called upon him at that time in Liverpool and got him to change the cheque. A respectable woman swears that you had her rooms for a day or two, and a doctor of repute who attended you proved your identity beyond question."
"Did you hear all the evidence today then?"
"Certainly I did. I attended the Court on purpose. I have been away for some weeks in Wales, and only heard of your trouble last night. In all the course of my experience I never heard anything so profoundly interesting. I have been turning it over in my mind ever since. I could not make head nor tail of it, and I was still absolutely in the dark when I came here. But I begin to see a little light now."
"Do you?" Masters sneered. "To me it is blacker than ever. This business of the missing chapter fairly dazes me."
"Well, so it did me for the moment," Roscoe said candidly. "But it fired my imagination, and I begin to see my way. I'm working the thing out as I should work out the plot of a story. What sort of a chap is Markwick?"
"Markwick? Oh, well, not particularly fascinating, suspicious and moody."
"Jealous of any change. Likely to benefit by your, er, trouble?"
"Probably. We are rivals, you understand. I got the post he expected to have. He did not like being moved to Liverpool."
"Oh, oh," Roscoe purred softly. He moved about the room restlessly, his eyes gleaming. "Two thousand pounds is a deal of money. If a man could possess himself of that and get rid of his most dangerous rival at the same time, it would be worth a little risk. And the thing could be done without a confederate. Upon my word, Masters, I begin to see my way. I want to be certain of one thing first; but there's little doubt about it."
"And what might that particular thing be?" Masters asked.
"Why, that you were in Liverpool on that eventful Tuesday. And you were. I have no more doubt of that than I have of my own identity."
Masters spread out his hands with a gesture of despair.
"Have it your own way," he said resignedly. "I am entirely at your disposal. You will go on to tell me presently that I am a morphiamaniac—say that my moral nature has been totally undermined by the drug and that I have committed forgery unconsciously."
"My boy," Roscoe said solemnly; "you did not commit the forgery at all. Now you have two clear days before you in which to make inquiries. That should be ample time. Let us go to Liverpool together this evening. You'd better let the police know that you are going, or they may be disposed to make trouble. Liverpool is a port, remember! We will go and see Dr. Swayland in the first place and ascertain from him the address where he called to see you. Then, we will go to that address and interview the landlady there. We may have some little trouble after that, but every criminal is a fool in some matters, and I don't suppose that we shall find our man any wiser than the rest. I have studied this subject pretty carefully, and I always find that your criminal commits some act of amazing folly. Even the most brilliant of them is tripped up by some puerile stupidity that the average schoolboy would have foreseen. It's the sanguine temperament that does it. And now what do you say to my suggestion?"
Masters caught at it eagerly enough. Anything was better than eating his heart out in the seclusion of his room. It was ten o'clock on the Saturday morning that Masters found himself face to face with Dr. Swayland. Roscoe had asked for a few words in private beforehand, and to this suggestion the doctor had agreed. Much to Masters's surprise, he came forward with extended hand.
"I am glad to see you again," he said. "You must believe me when I say that this is not the first time we have met, Mr. Masters. The evidence I gave against you yesterday was true in every detail. Frankly, I deemed you guilty. But Mr. Roscoe has propounded a theory so extraordinary and so ingenious that I began to have my doubts. Naturally, I took you for a morphiamaniac, and when I was called in you were suffering from that drug. Allow me to see your tongue—your pulse. Now if I may be permitted to look at the inside of your eyelids. No signs of a drug victim here. Somebody must have been administering some pretty severe doses to you surreptitiously. And yet they were careful not to give you more than your system could stand. When did it begin?"
"On the Friday before I was supposed to be in Liverpool," Masters explained. "I had gone back to the office after a light luncheon, and I collapsed at my desk. On the Sunday I was all right; but for the next three days I was unconscious till nightfall."
"You will please make a note of that, doctor," Roscoe said. "Till nightfall!"
"I did not call in a doctor because I hoped to get better," Masters went on. "I felt so much better up till bedtime. I think that is about all."
"Enough for the present," said Roscoe. "Now, doctor, will you please give me the address where you found my friend here on that eventful night. We will come back later in the day, and report progress. Let us be moving, Masters."
They came presently to the address given by Swayland, a small respectable house, the door of which was opened by a neat-looking, elderly woman of the housekeeper class. She started as she caught sight of Masters, and seemed inclined to close the door.
"You must really allow us to come inside," Roscoe said. "We particularly desire to see the room occupied by my friend here last week."
"Oh, well, there is no harm in that," the woman said grudgingly. "The room belonged to a lodger of mine who has gone away. He was only here for a little time, and, as the work took him about the country, he allowed me to make a few shillings when I got the chance of letting his apartment."
"Did he furnish the room himself?" Roscoe asked.
"Well, he did, sir," the landlady replied. "He was rather particular. It was a bed-sitting room and when he brought his own things here I stored my bits of sticks elsewhere. Mr. Claytor promised to have his stuff taken away, but he hasn't done it yet."
Roscoe's eyes sparkled. He stepped briskly along the passage.
"I'm glad to hear that," he said. "Come along, Masters. We need not trouble you my good woman. You need not be afraid that we shall steal anything. My dear Masters, we are very near to the end of your trouble. The amazing carelessness of the criminal, however clever he is, comes to our assistance. The ruffians have gained their end, and they have not troubled to take away the apparatus. Look at this."
Masters stood in the little sitting-room with a puzzled expression on his face. Roscoe stepped across to a book case on the wall, and took down a copy of the 'Primrose Path.' With an air of triumph he handed it to Masters.
"There is one mystery explained," he said. "You began my story in London with the incomplete copy, and you finished it here, with the amended edition of the book. Those cunning rascals foresaw everything. They knew that you would look for the book, and perhaps seek it outside the room. If you had done that you would have discovered that you were not in London, as you imagined, but in Liverpool. By Tuesday evening, they would have procured a proper copy of my story here, and that is the copy that you hold in your hand."
"I begin to see," Masters murmured. "But look at this room. It is the exact copy of mine in London! Pull down the blinds and light the gas, and it is the same room!"
"Precisely," Roscoe smiled. "By some cunning means yet to be discovered, you were dosed with morphia every morning early. For three night's you woke up with the impression that you were in your own room. You had food to eat, and you thought that your landlady had provided you with it. Besides, you were so dull and stupid with the drug that you had not the energy to ask anything. Of course, it was that business of the missing chapter that first set me on the right track. It would be so easy to get strong evidence against you by calling the doctor in. That was a stroke of genius. When we come to inquire we shall find that you were brought here by some stranger in a motor, and that the said motor conveyed you from here to London. You can see for yourself how careless the knaves have been. They got the money, and no doubt they intended to remove their goods and pictures, but probably they are too busy enjoying themselves instead. They fancy that the rope is round your neck, especially as some of the notes the cheque was exchanged for were found in your room. In your lonely quarters it was so easy to get at you, to convey you here, and take you back to London again. Of course Markwick is at the bottom of it—he and somebody called Claytor. The latter was the genius who furnished these rooms like yours. Now give me the address of your firm here, and I'll wire Markwick in the name of Claytor to meet us here at once. It is long odds that Claytor is away spending his share of the plunder, and, naturally, Markwick will be in a fright lest anything is wrong. Let's have the address."
An hour later the door of the room opened, and Markwick came in. He gave one glance at Masters, and another round the familiar apartment, and retracted his steps. His dark face grew pale and moist as Roscoe tackled him.
"No, you don't," he said. "You'll just stay here until I have finished talking to you. Now listen carefully to my story, Mr. Markwick, and correct me when I am wrong. I shall not be wrong very often, because I'm rather good at telling stories."
Markwick dropped sullenly into a chair. He nodded his head from time to time, but on the whole he had few corrections to make.
"What's the good of going on?" he muttered sullenly.
Roscoe smiled as he rang the bell.
"Not the least," he said. "Sorry to trouble you, my good woman but will you kindly call in a policeman. This gentleman needs his services."
THERE was a faint, half-amused smile smile on the g1rl's face, half contempt for herself and a certain feminine weakness which she obviously felt herself to be incapable of. We are not wholly masters of our fate, even at the mature age of twenty-four. We may he healthy and beautiful and rich—all of which Ellen Ridsdale undoubtedly was —but it is impossible to have everything.
She sat on the balcony of the Mimosa Beach Hotel, watching the fireflies flitting like a swarm of golden bees amongst the orange groves. She could hear the steady beat of the surf; the band in the ballroom beyond was playing a languorous Southern waltz. And here was a night surely carved out of heaven! Overhead was a powder of silver stars like the sheen of a bridal veil, the slanting rays of in moon that picked out grove and forest in an exquisite gold-edged tracery. There was no suggestion of poverty, or sorrow, or suffering here.
And yet Nell Ridsdale was dreadfully unhappy. She had come down to Mimosa Beach with the prospect of unalloyed pleasure before her. The place was a winter paradise, with the oranges hanging ripe and luscious, the sea as blue as the eyes of Aphrodite. The woods and forests at the back of the Beach belonged to her for the most part. She was going to build her soul a lordly pleasure-house, and Hugh Cranston had come down to help her. There was nobody on the American continent more capable. He had graduated in honours in forestry; multi-millionaires along the Florida coast had risen up and called him blessed.
There was a romance behind it all, of course. Old man Eli Dankins, who had left Nell this smiling paradise, had been some kind of connection of Cranston's, who had one time every expectation of getting the deceased magnate's money. There had been a quarrel of some kind, and Denkins had changed his mind. Everything went to Miss Ellen Ridsdale, an English girl whom he had never seen. She was some sort of relative on his mother's side, but the kinsmanship was very remote.
So far the fairy story was complete. Nell Ridsdale had come out to Mimosa Beach all alone to look after the property there. She had the frank independence of one who had had four gears as a high school teacher, as one who had been left to fight her way in the world from an early age, and she had come under the sway of Hugh Cranston at once.
He had met her frankly from the first. He did not seem to grudge her the fortuitous circumstances that had deprived him of an immense fortune. He had offered his services in the rendition of the aforesaid "lordly pleasure-house," the transforming of the woods into a new Eden, and Nell had accepted gratefully. A firm in New York had told her that she would be lucky to get Cranston for the work, and Cranston, in is cheery way, seemed to share the same opinion. Besides, he had not a commission just then, and he was grateful for the opportunity.
"It's the chance of a lifetin1e," he told Nell. "I'll make this one of the show places of the South. Multi-millionaires will make pilgrimages to see it. I shall grow famous on the strength of it. My one crime will he wiped out, Miss Ridsdale."
"And what is that?" Nell asked.
"The crime called poverty. Oh,you need not laugh! It is a crime. And there are other penalties. Perhaps I shall be able to explain better what I mean later on."
It had been a happy time for the last three months. Nell hardly liked to admit to herself how really happy it had been. There had been adventures, too, by flood and fault. There was that little matter of the rattlesnake. How well Cranston had behaved over it! And the other time when they had lost their way! And this was the man she had robbed of a fortune! How handsome and strong and good-natured he was! What exquisite taste and good feeling he possessed! Still—
Nell sat there under the spangled canopy of the stars and pondered. She did not want to believe what Bedlake had told her. She refused to believe that Cranston was using her and her scheme of improvements as a blind for robbing the Davison Syndicate, who held the lands beyond her boundary. She could not credit the fact that Cranston had found gold there, and that he was working a secret hoard for himself. Bedlake disliked Cranston for some reason, though Nell had never asked herself why. All the same, she knew perfectly well. She knew that Bedlake would take the first opportunity of asking her to marry him—after he had got Cranston out of the way. Nell would have been furiously angry had anyone dared to suggest this, but she was aware of it, all the same. She was not aware of the fact that she was in love with Hugh Cranston, because she deliberately shut her eyes to the problem.
Bedlake had bound her to secrecy; he had contrived to let his suspicions fall as if his tongue had betrayed him against his will. Ha knew everything about it. Was he not himself acting on behalf of the Davison Syndicate? All the drawings and plans, all the correspondence, were locked up at the hacienda in the woods where Cranston lived and worked. Only one link in the evidence was needed, and Cranston would be arrested; and to-morrow the thing would be done.
Bedlake had just told her as much as that. He had spoken quietly and sorrowfully. The whole thing was exceedingly well done, but then Bedlake had taken no account of the thing called womanly instinct, that played so important a part in this matter. Nell had dismissed him under plea that she wished to be alone. She sat there—a white, still figure in her evening-dress; from her place she could see into the room beyond, where the hotel guests were dining. She could see Cranston's well-knit figure, could hear his laugh and see the frank joy of life in his eyes. It seemed impossible to believe that a man like that could be guilty, unless, perhaps, Bedlake?s evidence—
She would have to clear him, of course. She could not permit a man who had saved her life twice to be branded as a criminal, to stand in the dock. She might go as far as the hacienda and set it afire. She knew the path through the woods blindfold. From the hacienda it was possible to see the lights of the hotel. It was such a lovely night, too. She could slip away just as she was, with a cloak over her shoulders, and in an hour all the evidence that Bedlake had spoken about would be destroyed. The whole scheme was wild and emotional to the last degree. Nell had a vague recollection of having seen something like this on the stage. She had rather scoffed over it at the time. But the "prunes and prisms"* were in her mouth then; somehow it seemed quite different in Florida.
[* "Prunes and prisms". From a sententia of the prim and snobbish Mrs. General in Charles Dickens' novel Little Dorrit. "Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes and prism are all very good words for the lips." In the course of several chapters Dickens elaborates on the nature of "prunes and prisms" and how the Dorrit girls are oppressed by Mrs. General's snobbery and prim nature.]
She would do it. She knew where the petrol tank was: the rest was only a matter of a box of matches. She would tell Cranston afterwards; she would give him a large cheque and her pardon. He would promise her to go his way and sin no more. Tears came into Nell's eyes as she thought of it. He was only a young man, and doubtless he had many temptations.
She could hear the dim, distant music of the band as she made her way through the orange tangle towards the woods. Here was the winding shell road that she and Cranston had planned together, there was the stream that they had converted into a series of waterfalls. She could see the fine spray gleaming like molten silver in the moonlight. This was going to be a fine trout and salmon river later on. Beyond this would be a chain of silver lakes into the heart of the forest. Down there in the hollow stood the hacienda in its fringe of creepers. Here it was that Cranston lived absolutely alone. He had no use for such servants as the place afforded: most of his meals he took at the hotel.
There was no light in the place; it looked solitary under the moon. Nell hesitated just for a moment. It occurred to her that there was another way. Awkward questions were frequently asked about fires, but visitations by flood are more incidental. The dam at the top of the long waterfall was not quite finished; great blocks of masonry lay scattered about. If those new flood-gates could he lifted, and the great mass of water released, why—
Nell had a hazy idea as to how things should be done: Cranston had explained to her more than once. He had been rather concerned over these flood-gates. Here was a tool-shed, the door of which had been left carelessly open. Masses of implements lay about inside. Nell was heedless of the fact that her white satin shoes were in rags, that her dress was a mass of floating shreds. She was going to save one man from the fruits of his folly. There were certain things that she could not forget. After all said and done, the crowbar was not so heavy as she had expected. A girl who had played centre-forward for three years in her school hockey team does not lack certain qualities.
That was the spot, of course. By inserting the point of the crowbar under that lock, and using the cross-bar as a fulcrum, the thing was easy. Nell was heedless of the fact that she was standing up to her knees in water. The sensation of power and strength was not unpleasant. As she strained with her white bare arm, she could feel the gates shake and tremble. Some of the timbers gave way with a crack like a pistol-shot. It was as if the whole structure responded to her touch.
In reality, she little dreamt of the force she was playing with. A volume of clear green water came suddenly with the force of a battering-ram and carried her backwards. She went down under the first cruel assault of the mass, until it seemed to her that she was plumbing the depth of the Pacific. She came up presently, after an agony of time, reeling and breathless, her face to the bridal veil of stars that seemed to mock her. There was a roar in her ears like thunder. Something seemed to grasp her arm and wrench it from the socket.
"Good Heavens," a hoarse voice said, "what is the meaning of this?"
In a dim and distant way the voice sounded familiar. Even in that moment of dire peril Nell caught herself wondering where she had heard it before. Then it was borne in upon her that she was clinging to a rugged pinnacle of rock with Cranston's arm about her waist. She dashed the water from her eyes, she flung back the clinging masses of her hair.
"Is it you?" she asked weakly. "What are you doing here?"
"Upon may word, I don't quite know," Cranston said grimly. "I was going to turn in early, as a preparation for a stiff day to-morrow, when I saw a ghost standing by the flood-gates. Before I could make up my mind what was happening, the flood-gates broke. What were you doing there?"
Nell gasped. She could not explain; it was no time for that. She could see the angry yellow water rising upwards, could feel the force of it tugging at her heels.
"Is there any danger ?" she contrived to say.
Cranston echoed the word with a quick intaking of his breath. He would have spoken brutally enough if his companion had chanced to be a man. So far as he could see, escape was hopeless. In that moment, with his arm about her, Nell was happy. The moon shone on his face, grim and determined and without fear. Whatever his faults were, the man was no coward, and he was telling her more plainly than words could speak what the danger was.
"I—I never expected anything like this," Nell said unsteadily.
Cranston said nothing; it was no time for asking questions. He was measuring up the danger with a cold and critical eye. So far as he could see, they were doomed. There was no discomfort in the coldness of the water—the mildness of the season had taken all the sting out of that—but it was rising higher and higher, and dragging them downwards with a steady force from the surface of the rock. Once they lost their hold of that, the end was not far to see. The would be swept down into the valley headlong, battered and bruised out of all recognition. The weight of it was pressing on Nell now; her heart was beating like a drum. And yet she was conscious of no fear; she was strangely indifferent to that so long as Cranston was by her side. She could see that he was holding on for dear life; she could feel him quivering under the strain. There was no feeling of bitterness against him, no wild passion that the peril was all her doing—nothing but s certain nameless sense of shame and humiliation.
"Is there no way out of it all?" she asked.
Again Cranston made no reply. He was still counting up the odds. He could see no way out. The first lash and roar of the yellow flood had died away to a hoarse murmur, so deep and steady that it was possible to hear the band in the ballroom, to catch glimpses of passing figures. A knot of fireflies was tangled in a mass of foliage overhead; the music of the woods was not quite silent.
"Could we manage to steer a way down to the valley?"
"That will he inevitable in any case," Cranston said. "The rock we are on is giving way. If by a miracle we reached the valley, we should he no better off. The second dam is bound to give way, once the water in the lower one has escaped. There will be no liquor wall* [sic] to support it. This will sweep down the valley, and we'll—"
[* possibly a typographical error for "anchor wall."]
Nell could see the new danger for herself. If the upper dam gave way, the flood would form a new channel of its own, and, sweeping round in a semicircle, join the first wild rush lower down. She could feel the rock trembling and swaying under her feet; the yellow foam was under her armpits. Cranston was holding her closely to him, and she was strangely glad.
"Oh, my darling girl," he groaned, "why did you do it?"
He was speaking more to himself than to her, yet his eyes were alert and vigorous. Something dark and struggling came floating on the yellow bosom of the flood, with a tangle of tentacles twisting and tossing like some grotesque animal in pain. Cranston grabbed for it and slewed it round by sheer muscular force. He fairly gasped with the exertion of it.
"A tree," he grunted—"the trunk of a tree. We may possibly float off on it. The odds are that we shall he smashed up before we reach the valley, but there is a ghost of a chance."
"I will do just as you tell me," Nell said as a little child might have done.
Cranston swayed to and fro on the rock. He could feel it staggering like a drunken thing under his feet. He lifted Nell clear and laid her across the trunk of the tree. Then he shoved the trunk clear and held to it desperately with the bulldog courage of despair.
It was magnificent. In the midst of all the roaring peril, Nell could not fail to see that. He ought to have reviled her—he should have cursed her for interfering in this cheap and tawdry way—instead of which he had given his life to save hers. Bedlake was either a knave or a fool. No mean and cunning scoundrel could have acted in this splendid fashion. It would hare been far nobler and more honest to have spoken to Hugh Cranston and given him a chance to explain. Of course, he had an explanation; she was mad not to have thought of it before.
How strange that she should he working out this problem so calmly and logically! She ought to have been beside herself with terror, yet her prevailing emotion was pure humiliation. They were moving along swiftly now—down, down on a wall of yellow water into the valley. The roots of the tree dragged from time to time and checked the mad, headlong speed as an anchor might have done. Cranston lay out full length there, his eye glued on the track. Just before them the hacienda stood in the centre of a wild bulk of mad water. The tree struck it with a force that set the frail structure reeling, and stopped. The shock was almost painful.
"So far so good"" Cranston gasped. "We might win through now if the upper dam holds. But it won't: it may keep good for an hour, but no longer. Come inside."
The tree lay half out of the water, jammed across the front of the hacienda, forming a kind of barrier against the full force of the yellow tide. Cranston lifted his companion off the sloping trunk and carried her up the steps of the verandah. And yet the floor of the living-room was dry, though the building itself stood an island on a tossing sea. When the waters of the upper dam gave way, the place would collapse like a castle on the sands. There was a possible chance that the tree might hold, and to this Cranston pinned his faith. It was the only ark in sight.
He groped about in the semi-darkness of the house for matches. He lighted two of the lamps presently, and the room stood out clear and distinct. There was little or no comfort here, beyond a couple of deep basket-chairs and a smoking-table. The latter was littered with plans and papers. Nell could see how pale and set Cranston's features were: she saw that his hands were raw and bleeding. She wondered what the high school personages would say if they could see her now!
"You are the bravest woman I ever met," Cranston said; yet the words came grudgingly and as if they were forced from him. "But why did you do it?"
"I did it for your sake," Ne1l said simply; "I had to."
"Really!" Cranston laughed. "For my sake you have destroyed the work of weeks! For my sake you tore the gates away and made this smiling paradise a hideous wreck! But for the mere accident that I was going home early to-night, at the present moment you would be—well——The danger is not over yet; the worst of it has yet to come. You understand what I mean?"
"You want me to speak plainly?"
"That is it," Cranston replied grimly: "it is no time for social amenities. Will you kindly explain how I benefit by this reckless destruction?"
Nell winced under the cold contempt of the words. This man was looking at her with the whole story of his love and devotion in his eyes, yet he could speak like that. He could see the clear outline of her splendid form, he could see the masses of her hair shining and dripping in the lamplight, and he knew that she cared for him, as he cared for her. He took a step forward.
"Not yet—not et!" Nell said breathlessly. "I did it to save you. They told me that, if the truth came out, you would be prosecuted. The said you would go to gaol."
"Did they really? And who may 'they' be?"
"Mr.—Mr. Bedlake. I don't think he meant to tell me. He was—was—"
"Jealous of me. Did I not tell you it was no time for social amenities? Mr, Bedlake was jealous of me, and he tried to poison your mind. It is a great consolation to me to know that he failed. But would you mind telling me what I have done?"
"The Davison Syndicate," Neil said incoherently—"the land of theirs that joins mine They said that you were after their gold. They had found gold. Only you discovered it first, and you made a way underground and stole their money. All the evidence and correspondence is here in this house. They had only to lay their hands on it, and you were lost! And they are going to do so tomorrow; they are coming for that purpose in the morning. Mr. Bedlake told me. He didn't mean to tell me, but I—I got it out of him. And that is why I tried to save you. If I could only destroy everything—"
Cranston took another step forward and checked himself. His eyes were shining now.
"You don't suspect Bedlake of treachery?" he asked.
"I don't think so," Nell said; "he seems too—too transparent for that. If he has been deceived—"
But Cranston was listening no longer. From the distance came a muffled roar, then a staggering shock, and the house trembled to its foundations. Cranston snatched Nell up in his arms and carried her on to the verandah. A moving wall of water came raging towards them. Cranston fought his way up the trunk of the tree till he stood, panting and breathless, level with the roof. A moment later and the rolling tempest was upon them. The house bent and trembled and collapsed, leaving the outer walls and the roof timbers only standing, The rugged tree formed one side of a triangle locked together at the apex, whilst the torrent spent itself out below. There was just the flicker of a smile on Cranston's face.
"Blind luck," he said—"just blind luck! If we can hold out half an hour, we are safe."
Nell nestled down in the shelter of his arm. As the roar subsided to a hoarse gurgle, it was possible to hear the music of the band. The tangle of fireflies weaved and darted overhead heedless of the flood: the whole world seemed to he settling down on its foundations again.
"I'm glad I did it," Nell said, with a sudden wild, hysterical impulse—"yes glad!."
Cranston bent down and kissed her. It seemed the proper thing to do in the circumstances.
"So am I," he replied. "We're safe now. In half an hour's time we shall he able in wade back to the hotel. I owe Bedlake a great debt of gratitude."
"I don't think he quite meant it that way," Nell murmured.
"Perhaps not. He's not a bad fellow, though he is an awful ass. That Davison Syndicate is no more than a gang of sharpers. They have humbugged Bedlake, and got no end of money out of him under the pretence that they have found gold here. The gold they got came off your property. There is gold here on the outskirts, and I am the man who found it. Those people stole some of it and salted their claim. They robbed my safe to do so. They are not going to touch me. The story they told Bedlake was only just a pack of lies to get more money out of him."
"But if you found the gold," Nell pro- tested, "why didn't you—"
"Tell you? I was going to when I had everything ready for those ruffians. I didn't say anything about the gold because I did not want to spoil your pleasure. There isn't much of it, after all. If once there was a rush here, your lovely paradise would be spoilt for ever. Then you would have gone away, and I should never have seen you again, darling. You see, you are rich and I am poor."
"I am the richest girl in the world," Nell cried, " because I've got you, dear! And, without knowing it, I have wanted you all along. And I did you an injury—I took the property that was yours. And I want somebody to take care of me, Hugh ! If you can forgive my folly——"
Hugh took her in his arms and looked down into her beautiful face. Then she lifted her head and kissed him.
"I'm glad I did it," she said, "because you know now that I love you and—and—"
CYRUS T. COWMEADOW lay back puffing thoughtfully at his green cigar. Perhaps he was in rapt contemplation of the beauty of the night. Overhead was a powder of stars; in front of the restaurant kept by the polite Pietro Antelli the city lay in the fragrance of the April evening. Cyrus had dined both wisely and well, so also had little Antonio Broganza, the artist.
"Antonio, my brave," Cowmeadow said presently, "I begin to see my way."
Antonio smiled. When Cyrus T. began to see his way, the money began to flow; and, like all his clan, Antonio had not the gift for saving.
"Tell me the story again, Antonio," the American went on. "Who was the artist who painted the missing picture? Not that it much matters so long us he was ancient and famous. And be quite certain, my dark-eyed boy, that the facts are cold-drawn and planed at the edges."
"The great masterpiece of Guido, from the altar at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament here, you mean, signor," Antonio murmured. "Oh, yes! It was the glory of the chancel. It hung there for three centuries, till there was trouble with the French in 1740. Then the Guido he vanished and never more seen again. The French forces they included several soldiers of fortune, and one of them was a Lord Loring, sent away from England over some family trouble. Ancestor of Lord Loring who was ambassador at Rome odder day. 'E dead now, They say Guido at Loring Castle, in Scotland. But all that legend."
"What ho!" Cyrus quoted softly. "Proceed, sunny child of the South. And since that time the space over the altar has been blank. Suppose I could produce the picture? What would it fetch?"
"Hundred thousand pound," Antonio said promptly. "In America perhaps more. On the back of the picture one of the monks of San Bommo had written its story. Illuminated on vellum was the story, and attached to the back of the canvas. Also the story of what you calls pilgrimage to England to try and get the picture back. All in the museum here."
"You could make a faithful copy of all that, Antonio?"
Antonio modestly thought that he could. His white teeth showed in a flashing smile.
"I am an artist," he said, "also a restorer. We have been restorers for three generations. I patch and darn, or I copy same as the original—makes no difference. And no expert he can say where or which. I copy you that picture if we could only find him."
"You mean that you have all the materials at hand, Antonio?"
"Right. O, signor. Old parchments, old vellums, old paper, and old pigments—pigments such as are not to he found anywhere else. When Garibaldi made trouble, they came from a monastery. My father wept tears of joy when he got them. I can clean paint and gilt and lettering off old vellum, and write them and paint them as I do please. And then comes the expert from Bond Street, and he say: 'Behold, illuminated page of fifteenth-century work.' And I smile."
"There are no flies on you, unsophisticated child of the sunny South," Cyrus said. "If ever there were, they have yielded to treatment. What was the famous Guido supposed to be like?"
"Sorta copy in the museum here," Antonio explained. "Dauba."
"So much the better. You could make up a copy of it?"
"To deceive the universe," Antonio said proudly. "I have the old canvas, the old pigments, and the old varnish, the secret of which is lost. In three months the blooming fools from Bonda Street would come and say: 'Behold the lost Guido!' But there is a flaw, signor."
"There is the very devil of a flaw, Antonio," Cyrus agreed.
"Yes, I thought you would spota him, signor. They say whence comes the Guido?
Tell um the story of him being found. And there I fail—I have not the imagination, not the blooming nerve. And I am not what you call taking confederates. If it all fell easily and naturally, you understand—"
"0h, I understand right enough," Cyrus said. "This is where Cyrus T. comes in. This is his department on the first floor. You make the picture, and I'll do the rest. Got an old frame?"
"Make an old frame," Antonio suggested, "A moulding from one and as beda from another, and clamps from a third. All genuine old material with the ancient gold on it."
"Right O, dear boy! Then break it in two and cover it with dust and cobwebs. Manage that?"
"Manage anything," Antonio said promptly. "All in your hands. And you say what price, Antonio?"
"Well, say two thousand pounds. If the whole of the Session's legislation passes, I'll call it five. More money than you ever made in your life, Antonio. No chance of the real picture turning up?"
"E never turn up," Antonio responded. "Lost or destroyed long ago. No fear!"
"Well, there certainly isn't much,"Cyrus admitted. "When can you get to work, Antonio?"
The clever little Italian could get to work at once. He would have to put other tasks aside, and he needed money. For the next three months he would have to think of nothing else. He could get along in the meantime with a thousand dollars. Cyrus T. promptly counted out the notes.
"Now, you set to work without any further delay," he said. "I'm going as far as Paris for a month, Funny thing if I happened to run up against Lord Loring there. Spends most of his time in Paris, he does. He flings it about, Antonio; it's a family weakness. He was in New York last fall, looking for beauty and intelligence embedded in a ton or two of dollars, but nothing materialized. Guess I'm going to be as good as a father to Lord Loring. I'll come back later and report progress."
IL was well towards the end of July before Cyrus T. returned to Florence. Antonio welcomed him with open arms. The great work progressed famously. Would the Signor Cowmeadow come round to the studio and look for himself? Cyrus replied dryly that he would.
"As the bridegroom said to the parson who asked if he would take the woman for his wife, I've come on purpose," he said drily. "I guess I'm going to be satisfied."
He was. As a matter of fact, he was never more satisfied. Never had he fully appreciated the craft and skill of the little man before. The picture was practically finished. It stood there in a wonderful frame of black and gold; the subdued tint of the ages clung to it like a fragrance. There was the sooty grime on the canvas, and there was the discoloured story of the great work in gold and black and blue, a little faded and stained, as it had come from the cunning hand of the monk centuries before. Bond Street would have passed it as genuine at a glance.
"It's great," Cyrus cried—"immense! If only the story was as good as the picture, we should just sit down and divide one hundred thousand pounds between us. But it ain't, Antonio—it ain't."
"Whata yer mean to say—there is the chance of being found out?"
"No, I don't, Antonio. The story's all right if we are content with a few thousands each. The trouble is, I can't think of a story whereby we can get the lot. To try the game on here means confederates, and you don't like confederates, Antonio."
Antonio was quite emphatic on that point.
"Very well, then; our game is to play for safety. If we 'discover' the picture here, there will be all kinds of inquiries and cross-examinations, and perhaps a battle between experts that'll keep the game going for years. I can put everything right if we are only modest. But the main part of the plunder is going to a blue-eyed boy, the head of a northern clan, who will never know his luck, and never know he did a bloated Chicago millionaire in the eye. By Jove, Antonio, I've got it! We s make ten thousand pounds apiece yet. Then you can return to your vineyard and die respectable."
A week or two later Cyrus T. departed en route for London. From Paris he had despatched a large case to a certain address in the fair town of Perth, where it was to remain till called for. At the Gare du Nord, Cyrus, quite by accident, he encountered Lord Loring. But then these "accidents" always do happen to the shrewd and far-seeing who never neglect the opportunities. The clean, well-set-up Englishman greeted Cyrus in the most friendly fashion. He rather liked the company of American millionaires. In the late autumn he was going out to America again. In common honesty to his long-enduring mortgagees, it was only fair that he should do something. He gladly fell in with the suggestion that he should share a coupé with Cowmeadow. Was Cyrus going over for the grouse?
"Well, I'm looking forward to a go at the birds," Cyrus explained. "I meant to take a shoot myself, but I got tangled up with a little gamble in Paris, and that kept me. Don't know that the two hundred thousand dollars I made on the deal was worth all the trouble. No chance of picking up a really good moor as late as this I suppose? I'd share one up to one thousand pounds."
Here was a chance direct from the hands of the gods, and Loring promptly and gratefully accepted it.
"I'm short-handed this year," he explained; "one or two good guns have failed me. The man who was going to have the shoot died suddenly. If you like to come in—"
"I'll certainly come and look at it," Cyrus said indifferently. "When are you going up?"
Loring replied that he was going up on the first of August. Would Cowmeadow come along and take pot luck at the Castle for a few days, and look round? There would be plenty of time to decide. With a frown on his face, Cyrus went through his engagement book.
"Sorry I can't manage it," he said. "But I can get away for a few days on the third. That do you?"
As a matter of fact, it did Lord Loring very well. He was going to make one thousand pounds that he had not in the least expected, and he was going to shoot his birds as well.
Cyrus turned up at Loring Castle on the day arranged, bringing no more than a couple of suitcases and a square deal package that he seemed to regard with considerable anxiety. He praised the grand old place, the rooms and the grounds; he was not satisfied until he had examined everything from parapet to basement. There was nothing suspicious about this; Loring had entertained Americans before now, and recognised the symptoms. For the next two days Cyrus ask nothing better than to prowl about the house, looking into any dark corner and finding interest everywhere. On the third evening be asked for a fire in his dressing-room, as the night was chilly. After this boon was granted, he locked the door and proceeded to open the deal cane. The covering was promptly consumed in the fire, and the contents of the box disposed of presently to Cyrus T.'s satisfaction. There was only one thing that marred his content—he was not quite sure, after all, whether or not he could stay for the shooting. His partner in New York was ill, and his old enemy, Gilead J. Broff, was taking advantage of the situation. At any moment he might be called to return home again.
"At any rate, I'll just chance it till the end of the week," he said. "Let's go and sit in that jolly old gun-room of yours and have a final cigar. Ever get any burglars here?"
"Never heard of such a thing," Lord Loring laughed.
"Well, the place is worth a visit," Cyrus responded. "Still, I suppose that old silver would not sell except or its face value. All the same, I like to sleep with a revolver under my pillow. I've got one in my dressing-room now."
Lord Loring smiled at the suggestion as he made his way up to bed. An hour later he was aroused by the whiplike crack of a revolver. The unexpected had happened. Then came a shout and a hoarse cry, and once more that spitting of the revolver. Loring staggered into the corridor and looked about him.
At the far end of the corridor there appeared Cyrus in a blaze of glory not entirely unconnected with the violent hues of his pyjamas, He staggered with his hand to his side; he suggested strife not wholly devoid of personal triumph.
"What on earth is the matter?" Loring demanded.
"Guess I've left my mark on them," Cyrus responded. "I winged one of the chaps—broke his arm. He managed to get out of the big window at the end of the corridor. What I want to know is what those chaps were after? What were they doing in the ruined west wing? "
"What chaps are you talking about?" Loring asked irritably.
"Why, the burglars, of course! I heard them go past my door. Always sleep with one eye open; you had to, out West, when I was a young man. Ought to have called you up, of course, but wasn't quite sure which your room is. So I followed them along the corridor to the deserted wing. Three of 'em altogether. They were pulling a whole lot of lumber about, as if looking for something. By sheer had luck I happened to sneeze. They were on to me like a flash. Pretty hot whilst it lasted, sonny, only was quicker with my gun than they were."
"What—you don't mean to say that they actually—"
"That's what I'm getting at," Cyrus said coolly. "I'll show you the bullet marks. I got one under the jaw with my fist, and winged another with a shot. Then they concluded to leave by a large majority. Only wish you had been there, my boy."
"Only wish I had," Loring said fervently. "But what on earth were those fellows doing there? It's not exaggerating to say that nothing in the whole wing has been touched for a century. The rooms are packed with lumber of all kinds. Everything superannuated is shoved in there"
"Well, I guess the best thing we can do is to go and see," Cyrus suggested. "Get your candlestick, and I'll fetch mine. Not that we shall find anything."
The big room bore signs of a struggle. A long splinter, obviously the work of a bullet, been torn from an angle of the panelled wall. A heap of rotting canvases in tarnished frames were scattered all over the floor. On one of these lay a sheet of paper, which Loring picked up. He saw at a lance that here was a rough sketch-plan of the old wing and some notes in pencil, evidently scratched there for the guidance of the burglars.
"Very odd!" he muttered. "Anybody would imagine that some treasure was buried here. Sort of Robert Louis Stevenson business. Left-hand corner under the pile, two from the bottom. What does that mean? Angle next to the dormer window. Dash it, there must be something here, Cowmeadow! Black and gold frame, illuminated description on the back of the canvas. Jove, it's a picture they're after!"
"Shouldn't wonder,"Cyrus responded: "Some forgotten picture they've got on the track of. Old family servant left a diary or something of that sort. They tell me these old stories are often handed down in the servants' hall from one generation to another. Silly game, for the most part, but they have been true sometimes. More than one masterpiece has been unearthed that way. There isn't one of those missing in your family, I suppose?"
"0h, well, we have plenty of legends," Loring said indifferently. "There's the story of the Guido, for instance—the big picture from the Church of the Blessed Sacrament at Florence. An ancestor of mine had it beyond doubt, but I'll take my oath he never brought it here. The old boy died suddenly, and they say his body-servant could have told a story. All bosh, of course!"
"Well, I guess I'm not so sure of that." Cyrus protested. "These old facts have a curious way of turning up again. I'll just see if there's anything in that paper, anyway."
Loring nodded as be proceeded to light a cigarette. He watched Cyrus pulling a heap of dusty frames about for the next half hour. Then the American gave a dramatic start.
"By the Great Jerusalem, I've found it!" he cried. "It was lying at my feet all the time. Those chaps had actually got on the scent before I intruded on them. Look at this!"
Loring came forward a little more eagerly. On the floor was a fine carved black-and-gold frame, and in it a picture partly cut away from the stretcher. The cut was clean and fresh, as the even edges of the canvas showed.
"This is what they were after," Cyrus said in a voice trembling with excitement. "They must have been actually cutting the picture away as I came in. What a find! Guess I know something about pictures. I've made money out of 'em. Help me to turn the frame ever. If there's a neat little illuminated panel of vellum on the back, I guess we've found the Florentine Guido."
Surely enough, the panel in question was on the back of the canvas. Cyrus reverently picked up the frame and carried it along the corridor to his room. He poked up the fire and helped himself to a cigarette—to steady his nerves, he said.
"Well, I guess you are up against the luck," he exclaimed. "Everything is going your way, sonny. You've got a little picture card there worth one hundred thousand pounds. You'd get that price for it in America in a week, and I'll guarantee to find you a customer."
"If you will, you shall have my grateful thanks," Loring said.
"And ten thousand pounds," Cyrus said coolly. "Guess we'll make a business deal of this. Never lose a chance of piling the dollars in what's pasted in my hat. Lots of men would have kept their necks shut and bought that picture or a few cents."
"Oh, well," Loring laughed, "I'm sure I'm quite agreeable! Only we shall have to hear first what experts have to say on the subject. It may only be a copy."
"Well, I'll give you e cheque for a hundred thousand dollars on the off-chance," Cyrus drawled. "Just you make out a little story on the subject and send it to The Times, and let the experts know that they are welcome here; and I'll stay and see the fun through?
Bond Street rose at the bait like one man. This letter in The Times had stirred the critics to the deepest depths. There was something in the direct simplicity of the story that appealed to them. And the local police were equally impressed. They noted the splintered panelling; they found an old type of revolver bullet that fitted a weapon they had discovered in the castle grounds. Four chambers in the revolver had been discharged. There were blood spots on the corridor window and the marks of feet on the flower-bed below. The authorities had an important clue, and an arrest might be expected at any moment. Most of the papers took up the story with alacrity, and the main-line expresses were packed with critics.
A score of the big dealers reached the castle during the next few days. There was only one opinion, and that unanimously in favour of the Guido. Beyond all question, it was the missing masterpiece from the altar of the old church at Florence. Everything tallied exactly; there was not a flaw to be detected anywhere; every detail of the legend dovetailed beautifully. At the very least the picture was worth ten thousand pounds. It might have to remain in the possession of the purchaser for some time—Americans were not buying just now—but Mr.Preset, of the famous firm of Preset & Co., was prepared to pay ten thousand pounds for the picture now.
Lord Loring politely declined; also he politely declined an offer of double the money from Sir George Doubleday, of Doubledays Limited, a few minutes later.
"My price is one hundred thousand pounds?" he said, "and I shall take nothing less. After to-day the picture will not be on view; I'm sending it to London."
Sir George sighed and shook his head. In the present state of the market—The market must have taken a surprising and gratifying turn for the better, for next day Sir George, on behalf of a distinguished client, made an offer of seventy thousand pounds. Loring tossed the telegram in the fire. Two days later came an urgent telephone message from Sir George, to the effect that he was brining his client down to see the picture, and that no doubt Lord Loring's desire would be accomplished. Two days later still The Times came out with the announcement that the famous Guido had changed hands for one hundred and ten thousand pounds, and that the fortunate possessor was Mr. Emanuel S. Blickstein, of Pittsburg, Pa. It was some hours later that Cyrus T. Cowmeadow left Loring Castle, plus ten thousand pounds and a promise to return in a day or two unless urgent business did not call him to Chicago. Probably it did, for Loring Castle has not seen the ingenious Cyrus from that day to this.
Cyrus T. reviewed the situation as he travelled back to London. He had done very well, inasmuch as the thing was safe, and anything like greed might have ruined the whole situation. The real lucky one was Lord Loring, who would never know what a friendly joke Fate had played on him. On the whole, Cyrus was proud of his artistic effect. Still, there was more money to be made, and Cyrus was going to lose no time in liquidating his stock whilst the market was still in his favour. The Guido had been removed to Mr. Blickstein's suite of rooms at the Imperial Hotel, and many receptions had been given in its favour. The rest of the time the Guido reposed in the hotel strong-room.
Cyrus called at the end of one of these receptions, and contrived to find his way into the private sitting-room of the great steel magnate. The Guido reposed in state upon an easel. Mr. Blickstein did not receive his visitor with fervour amounting to enthusiasm.
"What do you want?" he asked. "I told you not to come here again. The past is past, Cyrus."
"O.K.!" Cyrus said cheerfully. "I came here, my boy, to save you one hundred and ten thousand pounds."
"Oh, really! In what way? And what do you want for doing it?"
"Ten thousand pounds, my noble Semite," Cyrus went on. "Shut the door. Anybody near us? No? Then, my good Croesus— your Guido is a forgery! Never mind how I know—I do know! And I'm the only man in the world, bar one, who is acquainted with the fact."
"Oh, oh! Then Lord Loring—"
"Loring is as innocent as a child. Here, turn the picture over on its hook. Now look at that panel there. Genuine, you say? Very well, then; take off the bead round it and look on the other side of the vellum. You'll find some illuminated lettering on the reverse. In fact, the vellum was taken from a missal done ten years after Guido was dead or before he was born—I forget which. Then ask one cf those Bond Street prophets."
"I've been had!" Blickstein cried. "I'll have the law on everybody! I'll punish everybody, and—"
"My dear chap,"Cyrus said soothingly, "you'll do nothing of the kind. You'll keep your mouth shut, my friend. The picture has been passed by the leading experts of Europe as the real and genuine terrapin. It'll go down to generations yet to be born as the Guido, and, as time goes on, it will get more valuable. And if you're ever hard up for one hundred and twenty thousand pounds, you can raise the boodle on that postcard. Why tell anybody? Why make a fuss? Why let your enemies know that Emanuel S. has been had? It's good advice I'm giving yon, Emanuel, and I guess that it's cheap at ten thousand pounds. See?"
Blickstein controlled himself creditably. He also reached for his cheque book; he saw the soundness of Cowmeadow's reasoning.
"This is to be a secret between us?" he asked.
"Obviously," Cyrus said, "I'll take an open cheque, sonny."
"All right!" Blickstein snapped. "In that case, I'll make it payable to bearer."
The house-steward looked at the first footman, and the footman turned to the chamberlain. The latter was clinging to the Praxiteles bust for support. A row of silk-stockinged lackeys stared helplessly. Nothing like this had happened since the House of Ravenspur was first founded by William of the Ravenspur in the year of our Lord 1491. That the thing could have taken place at all in Ravenspur House, Grosvenor Square, was incredible. In a vague way the chamberlain blamed The Courier. Possibly The Comet had something to do with it. If not, why had this riot suddenly broken out in the West End?
It was five minutes to eight, and somebody had rung the hall bell. This was natural enough, seeing that his Grace was expecting five friends to dinner. The door had been opened with a rigid regard for high ceremonial by the exactly proper functionary. Then there had appeared, not the traditional gentleman in a fur coat and white tie, but five gentlemen minus the fur coat and also minus even a tie as well. To make the thing complete, they had not so much as a collar amongst them. To put it plainly, they were loafers of the worst type. Save that they appeared to be clean, there was nothing to be said in their favour. The leader of the little band swept the great glittering hall comprehensively with his resolver.
"Better not move, any of you," he commanded crisply. "Mr. Nobby, will you kindly remove the telephone receiver I see on the bracket yonder, and nip the wires? Now, my good men, listen to me. Pampered menials, lend me your ears. We are here to-night to dine with his Grace. The fact that he does not expect us adds piquancy to the situation. The anticipated guests are not coming, so that there is not likely in be any coldness between our noble host's fellow-diners. So far as I can ascertain, there are only two exits from the house, and the first one of you who opens the door is pretty certain to collect something in the shape of a bullet. Nobody is likely to call at this time of night, and nobody is likely to go out. You won't find it healthy to make the attempt. Now, which of your noble army of the unemployed is nearest in contact to the Duke? Whose fatiguing duty is it to take messages to your noble master?"
The chamberlain relaxed his hold on the Praxiteles and swallowed something. The ringleader of the little band smiled. His clothes were shabby to the last degree, his boots were in holes, he had a muffler round his neck in lieu of a collar; and that in itself would suffice to make the Apollo Belvedere look like a blackgard. Yet his face was clean, his eye clear, and he had that indefinite something about him that suggested power.
"Very well," he said. "Go and tell the Duke what has happened. Assure him that five men are here, prepared to do fall justice to his hospitality. Pâté de foie gras, quails on toast, ortolans à la Grosvenor Square, ham and cheese and onions—anything. Fetch your master."
The chamberlain staggered towards the grand marble staircase as if he were picking his way over the fragments of a broken and crumbling universe. He came back presently, followed by a tall, spare man, with a brown, hatchet face and a square, clean-shaven jaw. The firm mouth suggested humour, as, indeed, did the grey rather sunken eyes. The man with the revolver nodded approvingly. Here was something like an athlete, somebody not likely to stand any nonsense. The Duke did not appear to be in the least angry; there was nothing of the outraged patrician in his flashing eyes. On the contrary, a grim smile played about his lips.
"You have come to the wrong door," he said. "Wilkinson, take those good fellows into the kitchen and give them some cold meat and beer."
"Cold meat and beer, if you like," the man with the revolver said, "but not in the kitchen."
"No? Really, there is no satisfying you people nowadays—the influence of an incendiary and revolutionary press. You will want to be coming into the dining-room next."
"We are going into the dining-room," the leader said crisply. "In fact, we came on purpose. The little scheme occurred to us a day or two ago. We were reading The Daily Post in the library of the particular Rowton House* that we honour with our patronage. I may say that two of us, at any rate, have seen better days, your Grace."
* Rowton Houses were a chain of hostels built in London, England, by the Victorian philanthropist Lord Rowton to provide decent accommodation for working men in place of the squalid lodging houses of the time. Wikipedia
"I gather that from your accent," the Duke said. "Pray proceed"
"The other three have seen—well, worse. There was a paragraph in The Daily Post to the effect that, as usual,you were dining a select party of bosom friends to-night, on the occasion of your birthday. The names of your guests were given. I was asked if I had ever dined with a duke before. I replied, with truth, that I had. A polite query to les autres elicited the response, with truth, that they hadn't. Two of them added that they'd (luridly) like to. On the spur of the moment I promised them that they should. The outlay of a few coppers—my last—at a public telephone call office, some hour or so ago, cleared the way so far as your expected guests were concerned, and the rest was easy. We may be shabby, but we are clean. Two of my friends, in their keen anxiety not to do violence to your feelings, have gone so far as to have a bath. With the rest of us that kind of thing is still a habit. To be candid, we have eaten practically nothing for the last day or so. We have no desire to disturb the peace, but after taking all this risk—"
"Pray say no more," the Duke interrupted politely. "I am delighted to meet you. To tell the truth, I was feeling nervous about General Sir Thomas Brabazon and the prawn curry. It is borne in on me that you are not likely to be hypercritical. Gentlemen, I am delighted to meet you. Kindly follow me to the drawing-room. Wilkinson, let dinner be served as soon as possible. And you need not be afraid of awkward consequences. If you will withdraw your outposts, Mr.—er—"
"Jones," the man now without the revolver said. "Your Grace's implied assurance is sufficient. Nobby, step outside and call off the militia. Say their faithful services will he rewarded—well."
"Now," the Duke said, "Wilkinson, 're Mr.—er—Nobby half a sovereign, then show Mr. Nobby upstairs. What have I done to earn this priceless privilege? This way, gentlemen."
The man called Jones led the way. Now that all danger was past, he was feeling a little uneasy. He would have been annoyed had anybody told him that he was a trifle ashamed of himself. He had not expected the Duke to behave quite like this. There was no longer anything to fight for, no grim pleasure in watching his host's annoyance. He strolled along quite casually, forgetful of his attire and inclined to revert to the past. The big picture over the doorway was a Velasquez; he had never seen a finer pair of Corots than those over the Louis Seize commode. And surely that was the Millet? Where had he last seen it? Was it at Chateau D'Algon that shooting season, when—? But what was the use of thinking of that sort of thing?
It was much more amusing to watch Nobby, also the man called Ginger. They sat down on the edge of a couple of brocade and gilt Empire chairs and breathed heavily. All the fight had gone out of them for the moment. They were torpid in the presence of so much splendour. One other man, in a greasy frock-coat and ragged trousers, was critically studying a cabinet of famille verte china. The "Captain," as he was called, had an eye for form. The big doors were thrown back, and dinner was announced with a solemnity befitting the occasion. Nobby eyed a pair of resplendent footmen truculently.
"One sniff," he said, "and you gets it in the jaw! Savvy?"
No sniff broke the solemn silence. Here was a small room, cedar-panelled, in the centre a round table resplendent with glass and silver and flowers. In the velvety semi-darkness measures of silver and gold flashed their glowing facets from the sideboard. Nobby gave a little sigh. Like Blucher, he was feeling that here was a splendid city to sack. He sat on the edge of a chair, confronted and sustained by the near proximity of Ginger. What were all those bloomin' knives and forks for? What did any man want with more than one of each. The little cluster of glasses looked more promising. but some of them were distressingly small. A large pewter pot might have been the harbinger of better things. Nobby helped himself liberally to hors d'oeuvres. An indiscriminate mixture of anchovies and olives came as a shock to his unsophisticated palate. Still, not so bad.
"Champagne, sir?" asked as small and oily voice in his ear.
"If you must 'ave one on the jaw—" Nobby begun. "Champagne? Yes. Fill up all the bloomin' glasses so's to save time, and come back again when I rings the bell! Histers? I don't think!"
Oysters! Oh, reminiscences of Southend in purple patches, sunny glimpses of Margate, but never such oysters as those before. But why only six? And what was that stuff smothered in white sauce? At the suggestion from Ginger that it might be onion sauce, Nobby's eyes glistened.
"Tastes more like cheese, don't it, mate?" Ginger asked. "Fish o' some sort. And spinach. How'd I know it's spinach? Didn't I 'ave a coster's barrow once? Say, this champagne does me a treat! Well, what you got there? Roast pears? Not taking any. Snipe? What yer gettin' at?"
"They don't smell 'alf bad, Ginger," Nobby said. "'Ere, give me a 'andful. Prime!"
There are bones in snipe even when they are cunningly braised and sent up in a thick gravy, the base of which is old Madeira; but Nobby did not seem to be aware of the fact. A dreamy sense of happiness was stealing over him. He demanded, somewhat curtly, a second helping of the most delicious beef he had ever tasted. He informed the Duke amicably that it was impossible to get beef with such fat nowadays. It was not for the Duke to remark that Nobby was commenting favourably on a fine haunch of venison from his place in Yorkshire. Nobby was not particularly interested in the fruit, and the fount of champagne had suddenly dried up. In one of the tiny glasses by his elbow a footman had poured out a glass of amber fluid. Nobby took it at a gulp.
"If that's whisky," ho said, "why, it cops the bakery! Take some more? Why, yes, and give it me in one of those tumblers. If that don't make you feel good inside, Ginger— Shartons, is it? Try it, cully —try it, my lad!"
Ginger winked approvingly. He found himself presently behind a large cigar which, in his humble judgment, would have been better for the addition of a gold-lettered band. Very possibly the pampered menials had removed the band. There was coffee presently, but Nobby found it hard to recognise. There was some subtle difference between the black fluid in the thin cup and the turgid beverage of the stalls. Nobby watched his host dexterously tilt a small liqueur glass of old brandy into his cup. Common politeness called for a following of the suits. Nobby grabbed for the decanter and filled up his cup. He smacked his lips approvingly.
"These dukes know a bit," he whispered. "I do feel good, mate! If you brought me a church now on a hand-barrow, I wouldn't rob it! Tell me I was going to he hung to-morrow, and I wouldn't care!"
"Shall we adjourn to the drawing-room," the Duke asked, "or sit and chat here?"
Ginger propounded a conundrum.
"What do you think?" he asked with emphasis.
"We will look upon the proposal as carried," the Duke laughed. "Mr. Nobby, I trust that you have had a good dinner? You are enjoying yourself?"
"I'd like to take on the job regular," Nobby responded—"six days and Sunday! Mr. Jones, 'ere's to you good 'ealth. Reminds me of at story I read the other day—"
"I'd rather hear your own story," the Duke said. "Come, gentlemen, you owe me something. Tell me your own story. Mr. Nobby, if you please."
Nobby permitted himself to smile. He was feeling at peace with all mankind. His somewhat crude platform in the matter of dukes had shifted slightly. His views on the subject had been largely gathered from flamboyant posters at election time. Dukes were usually thin, elderly men with long, lean faces, and given to the rakish wearing of coronets with morning dress. Apparently there was another brand of duke altogether, and Nobby had struck him. Come to think of it, the Duke had good cause for annoyance. The whole thing was what Nobby would have called "a bit thick." Yet he had played the game like a man... And what a dinner!... That yellow stuff in the little glasses was fine. Nobby had had quite enough, and he was not blind to the fact. But somehow the Duke's liquor seemed to touch another spot. Nobby did not feel in the least quarrelsome, not at all disposed to defy the police and rage against the statutes. On the contrary, he was thinking of his boyhood days, of primroses and patches of sunlight in the woods, and his first rabbit —of illicit hares and partridges.
"Beg pardon!" he stammered. "Your Lordship's Grace asked me a question. If you takes me for a bloomin' Cockney, you're a—you're mistook. Bred and born in the country, I was—Wiltshire way. Always fond of it... birds' eggs, to begin with, then beating in the winter when Sir George had his big shoots. Mind you, I didn't care a 'ang for the stuff. Give the birds and rabbits away as soon as look at you. It's the sport as I liked. Regular gets into your blood, it does. If you say as a working chap ain't as fond of a hit of sport as a gentleman, then I say you're a—well, you're wrong. Anyway, there was precious few of them as could touch me at the game. And Sir George offered to make me a keeper, 'e did. But not me.
"Dare say it would have come out all right in the hend if it hadn't been for—Annie. I call her Annie, but that wasn't her proper name. And it was a toss up between me and Jim Baynham, the second keeper... When the big row came, and Baynham got his head laid open, they swore it on to me. I never touched him—never. I wasn't the sort of chap I am—I mean I was. But Baynham swore as it was the butt of my gun, and I got seven years. Of course, he knowed as I never touched 'im, and he knowed who did. But I got my seven years, and he got Annie. After you get seven years, you don't have much chance with the police. And that's all about it, your Dukeship. And that's why I see red when I gets into liquor. Pass the decanter, can't you?"
"Much the same as Nobby," Ginger burst out. He jerked his words like a school-boy repeating a lesson. "'Osses is my case, and my choice, too. Wanted to get rich too quick. Did the trick at Newmarket once too often, and got before the stewards. My owner he go off all right,and so did the bookmaker I was working for. Everything put on to Little Willie, of course. I suppose must have been worth a matter of ten thousand pounds at one time. How did it go? Don't ask me. 'A1f of it was swallowed up defendin' a case where me and some pals was charged with nobblin' a favourite for the Liverpool Cup. Did we get off? We did. Was we lucky? We was. Anyway, I'm selling race-cards to-day and gettin' a living—somehow. That's all."
Ginger helped himself defiantly to brandy. He wondered in a vague way why he had told this story. He had never mentioned it before to a soul amongst his associates. But then he knew nothing of the generous influence of good wine, though in a dim fashion he approved of his surroundings.
"And the gentleman on your left?" the Duke suggested.
The individual in question turned with a start. With his face on his hands, he was demurely contemplating the artistic confusion of the dinner-table. How well those peaches looked, with the tender flush of pink on them, against the flash of silver and the feathery droop of fern! He raised a long, lean face and regarded the Duke steadily.
"There is something in the atmosphere of this room that invites confidence," he said. He spoke with the manner and accent of one who new his world and understood it. "It is a great pleasure to me to sit down to a dinner like this once more. It is probably for the last time, but no matter. Would your Grace credit the fact that eight years ago I had a good practice in Harley Street?"
The Duke bowed. The look on the thin, intellectual face, with its clever, cynical mouth and the eyes with a certain sombre horror in them, appealed to him. Men show the signs of dissipation in many ways, as the Duke knew. He nodded with a smile of sympathy.
"I am quite prepared to believe you," he said.
"I am obliged to your Grace. I made my own way in the world. I took an open scholarship at Oxford from an obscure country grammar school. I did well there. It was a very hard struggle, and I was never robust. I got to Harley Street at length and married. You can't do any real good in Harley Street unless you are married. I am not going to blame her, but I married the wrong wife. I ought to have checked her extravagances at the beginning. I didn't. The struggle was worse than ever, and I wanted a holiday. Heavens, how I wanted that holiday! There were times when I was on the verge of absolute collapse. I had to stimulate myself. At first it was wine. But that didn't do. For a doctor in Harley Street that kind of thing is fatal. So, just to bridge over the gulf, I took the first dose of morphia. That year I made eight thousand pounds. That year I perform two operations that brought me in touch with the world, and at the end of that year I was taking five grains of morphia a day. It was the next year that I made that blunder over Lady— I mean I gave a wrong prescription. Then there was another operation followed by an inquest. It was in all the pagers, and I took all the blame. The morphia bottle was found in the bedroom, and I had to admit that it was mine. A year later and my place in Harley Street was sold under a distress for rent. Another few months, and I might—for, yes, sir, I had cured myself. I do a little writing for the medical papers. I dare say, if I put my pride in my pockets and went to some of my old colleagues—"
"I'm sorry," the Duke interrupted. "Pray don't say any more. If you will send me a card with your name and address on, I might—er—possibly—you understand. This has been a remarkable evening, gentlemen. Believe me, the pleasure has not been entirely on one side. Now, Mr. Jones, we should like to hear something from you, if you please. Seeing that you are, so to speak, the founder of the feast, it is only fair that you should contribute something to the harmony of the evening. I think that is the phrase they use at these unconventional gatherings. Silence, gentlemen, for Mr. Jones! Our popular colleague will now oblige."
Jones looked up almost with an air of defiance. For the moment he had almost forgotten. He had heard little or nothing of what was going on about him. He had forgotten his shabby, seedy clothes, the life that he had been leading; he was back in the past, and the surroundings were congenial.
"I gather that you have been telling stories," he said. "I listened and yet I did not hear. Adversity makes us acquainted with strange bed-fellows. If you look around you, I shall not he accused of any narrow or uncatholic taste in the selection of my companions. Like the doctor, I have seen better days, Curious that we should have nick-named him 'The Doctor' without knowing anything of his history."
"And you are 'The Captain,' though we know nothing of you," the last narrator intimated.
"I am," Jones went on. "I had forgotten that. As Mark Twain says, I was born of parents neither particularly poor nor conspicuously honest. Well, they were not poor, at any rate. They were in a position to send me into the Army, and keep me well supplied with money. But the Army, after a time, got too monotonous for me, and I went to Australia. I got a commission in the police there, and for four years I had the time of my life. Then I married. It's only four years ago. Just to think that so much can happen in so short a time! I'm speaking about the gold rush at Marrawatta, and the lawless scenes that followed. I dropped out of the force at that period, for I had done well, and my intention was to take up a station. If I'd lost money then and there——but I didn't. There was as chap I knew quite well, who was called the first mate, because he had something to do with a trading steamer. Well, he found gold, and a lot of it, and so did I. Unfortunately, perhaps, I kept my secret. The first mate boasted of his luck. And then he disappeared, and two months later his skeleton was found picked clean by the crows, and— well, they said I had murdered him for his money. They got to hear of my money, and by the skin of my teeth I escaped lynching. I got away without a rag to my back or a penny to my name. For years they hunted for me, until they discovered that I was drowned in the Parrawa river."
"The Parrawana river, isn't it?" the Duke asked.
"Perhaps. Come to think of it, you're right. I had to change my name and identity. I got back home, and nobody recognised me. I have no name, no friends, and no way of getting a living. I've done my best, but it's quite useless. The fear of arrest has never gone from me. My wife is in a situation in London, and I see her sometimes. Ah, what a pal that woman has been to me! But for her, I should have put 'Paid' to the account long ago. And if anybody had told me this morning that I should be talking like this before a lot of strangers—I suppose it's the old association, the dinner and the wines. If you ask me—"
"I do," the Duke said. "What was the first mate like? A man with beard and moustache and hair all over his face? Would you recognise him if he was clean-shaven? Didn't he have a peculiar toast when you drank with him? Didn't he cock his finger like this? Steady, my dear fellow—you have knocked your glass over!"
The man called Jones had risen to his feet, and stood regarding his host with dilated eyes. The Duke rose in his turn and glanced at his watch.
"Gentlemen, it is getting late," he said. "I shall hope to see you all again some day. Doctor, don't forget what I asked you. Messrs. Ginger and Nobby, we shall meet before long, when I may have something to your advantage. Mr. Jones, I'd like a ward with you when the others here gone."
They filed out presently, leaving the Duke and Jones alone.
"Is—is it possible?" the latter stammered.
"My dear Jocelyn," the Duke replied, "nothing is impossible. The first time I saw my face in the glass after I shaved, l did not know myself. Neither did anybody else. I didn't want them to. I never expected my present position. I should never have got it if the Majestic Queen had not gone down with five male relatives of mine aboard. I got the news by accident, and I left the old camp without telling a soul. With a clean-shaven face I walked through the camp, and nobody knew me I wanted to leave the old life behind. Till this moment I never guessed that there might he inquiries made. And you have suffered all this for my sake! And you were the best pal I had! Oh, I'll put it all right! I'll let them know that the first mate is still alive—
"Dick, where is your wife? What is she doing? In rooms of her own, working late typewriting? Let's go round there now. I won't sleep till I've had her forgiveness for all the trouble my silly conduct has caused her. Take my cheque-book and fill it in for what you want for the present. Only let us go and see your wife now."
Jocelyn swallowed something hard in the back of his throat.
"A|l right," he said—" only let me go first, Bill. You won't mind waiting half an hour outside in the cab?"
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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