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Title: Collected Short Stories, Vol. XV Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1301081h.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.
THERE was nothing of the traditional explorer about Jim Craddock. He was not a strong, silent man with a stern brown face and marked absence of flesh, but he was a first "chop" hand at the game, all the same. Moreover, he wrote no books, he contemplated nothing in the way of geographical discovery to London societies, but his knowledge of Central Africa was extensive and peculiar, and if there was a remote corner of the Dark Continent where threepence was to be made, then assuredly Craddock was the man to find it. For the most part he was a freelance, though when times were bad he was not averse to enlisting under the banner of some trading company or as a guide to the sporting "blood" in search of big game. Usually, however, he preferred to work on his own, because this course allowed him to travel about just as he pleased, generally in the company of the humorist who carefully camouflaged himself under the name of Jan Stewer—a sort of left-handed compliment to the county that had given him birth. But, as to the rest, Stewer said nothing, except occasionally to hint that, like the Van Diemen's Land convicts in the old days, he had left his country for his country's good. It was only occasionally and in boastful moments that Stewer ever alluded to the fact, and then only in the presence of Craddock. He was a big strong bull of a man, with a marvellously cool nerve and a certain whimsical humour in time of danger that rendered him invaluable.
Craddock himself was small and lean and brown, with a merry eye and a fearsome taste for music which would have driven anybody but Stewer wild. He travelled the world with a sort of accordion arrangement of his own invention, and it was his proud boast that this weird instrument had had a more soothing effect on the gentle native than anything in the way of melody that had ever been heard on the Dark Continent. And now he was up amongst the Moghis, with an entirely fresh arrangement for capturing the senses of that somewhat turbulent people. It took the form of a gramophone with some exceedingly fine records, mostly of operatic stars.
Craddock and his friend were in that part of the world more or less by accident. They had been having an exceedingly bad time lately, and it had become necessary to seek fresh woods and pastures new, and, moreover, reports had reached Craddock to the effect that there was much ivory in that remote spot. This rumour, however, proved to be false, and, beyond a certain amount of exceedingly inferior rubber, there seemed to be little or nothing to recompense the friends for the risks that they were undoubtedly running. But this fact troubled Craddock not at all, and they wre not having a bad time. There was a prospect of more rubber in the spring, and, moreover, Bomba, the chief of the Moghis, was as friendly as they had any right to expect. They had no camp followers and very little in the way of ammunition, but they managed to make themselves understood, and from the very first the gramophone was the pronounced success that Craddock had confidently prophesied.
Nothing of this kind had ever appeared in those remote wilds before, and the dusky Bomba was amazingly impressed. After the first feeling of terror had worn off, and the tribe had come back timidly to the outside of Craddock's hut, there was a constant clamour for the devil voices. Certainly the great Caruso never had a more flattering or attentive audience.
"It's a real good egg, old man," Craddock told his friend. "I told you it would be, if we could only get the beggars to listen."
They were sitting in the moonlight in front of the hut, smoking their pipes after a most successful day, in which the gramophone had been greatly in evidence, and, consequently, Craddock was in the best of spirits. But Stewer appeared to be just a little dubious.
"Yes, it's all right up to now," he murmured; "but it ain't quite so lovely in the garden as you think. You're such a sanguine beggar, Jim. Old Bomba's all right, but I don't like the look of that chap Sambi."
"What's the matter with Sambi?" Craddock asked. "What can he do? He's only a sort of second-in-command, after all."
"Very likely; but he's got a big following here, and if he can down the old man and take his place, he'll do it. He's got quite a lot of the medicine men of the tribe on his side, and if those chaps like to kick up a bobbery, then the old man's number's up for sure."
"But how should this concern us?" Craddock asked.
"I'm just coming to that," Stewer went on. "About that gramophone of yours. Sambi wants it. He'd give his ears for it. He offered me two elephants for the machine yesterday."
"What's that?" Craddock asked. "Two elephants? Where's he going to get 'em from? Why, there isn't an elephant within five hundred miles!"
"I know, and that's just what makes me so uneasy. I ain't afraid of a shindy, as you know, but seeing that we two are alone, and that we've only got a pair of Mauser pistols between us, I'm not asking for any trouble. And, besides, I don't like that chap's eye. A cross-eyed nigger isn't pretty to look at, and Sambi is a rotten specimen of the breed. Last night, after you were asleep, Sambi came into the tent, and I'm sure he'd have walked off with the machine if I hadn't been awake. Directly I challenged him he was off like a hare, and no doubt he thinks I didn't recognise him, for I didn't mention it to him this morning—I thought it would be wiser not to. But he was after the gramophone all right, and he will stop at nothing to get it."
Craddock chuckled over his pipe.
"The beggar's welcome," he said. "But the machine isn't much good without the records and the needles, and I've taken precious good care of those. I'm not quite so careless as you think, Jan. These chaps don't know even that a needle is necessary, and, as to the records, I put 'em in their waterproof case down our well every night. I don't believe it will hurt them to get wet, but never mind about that. If Sambi gets hold of the goods, he won't be able to make the slightest use of them. Don't you get meeting trouble half-way, Jan. Besides, it ain't like you to talk in this way."
Stewer professed himself to be satisfied, but, all the same, he was anything but easy in his mind. For the next day or two he kept a close eye upon the wily and elusive Sambi, and the more he saw of that oblique-eyed individual, the more sure he was that trouble was looming in the distance. There were many mutterings and whisperings in corners between the second-in-command and the picturesque-looking ruffians who represented the medicine men of the tribe. There were occasions, too, in the evenings, when the natives sat in a circle round the Englishmen's hut and listened enraptured to some of the finest voices in the world, and at all of these Sambi was present, with those oblique, greedy eyes of his fixed with an intense longing on the gramophone. And two days later the gramophone was missing from Craddock's hut.
There was an immense outcry, of course, there were weepings and wailings and loud lamentations, such as usually accompanied the death of the chief, and at the same time Sambi was missing. He had gone up country somewhere, so Bomba said, to hold a palaver with a neighbouring tribe which looked like giving trouble. That there was a good deal of truth in this, Craddock knew, because he had heard the matter discussed before, but in the light of what Stewer had told him he could see plainly enough that the wily Sambi was intent upon killing two birds with one stone. He appeared to be greatly concerned at the disappearance of the devil box, but he knew perfectly well that it must come back to him in the course of a day or two.
"Oh, it's quite all right," he told Stewer. "Sambi's got it right enough, and he's taken it up country with him. He'll come back presently with some fairy story about having found the gramophone in the bush, and probably suggest that a few poor wretches should be sacrificed. Now, you see if I ain't a true prophet. Sambi is no fool, and it won't take him long to realise that 'Hamlet' is a poor play with the Dane left out."
It turned out exactly as Craddock had foreseen, for Sambi put in an appearance three days later with an air of vast importance and a little more obliquity of vision than usual, and proceeded to make a pompous declaration. He told the secretly amused Craddock that he had found the gramophone hidden away in a deserted hut far in a back country, and that he had discovered and punished the culprit, As a matter of fact, there were three culprits altogether, and they had all paid the dread penalty, which, as Stewer subsequently remarked, was probably the only true statement in the veracious narrative.
"Very good, very good, Sambi," Craddock said approvingly. "You have done the State some service—I mean, you are a nut in the detective line. I hope you enjoyed the gramophone. It must have cheered you amazingly on your diplomatic errand."
Sambi grinned somewhat uneasily. He was not entirely deficient of a sense of humour, and he seemed to grasp the fact dimly that his leg was being pulled. Then he shook his head mournfully.
"No spirit make it good," he said. "Me turn and turn the brass god at the end of the box, but no voice he come."
"I hope the fool hasn't broken the spring," Craddock said sotto voce, "Oh, that's all right, Sambi. The gods of the white man are a bit shy of a nigger. Perhaps I'll teach you some day. But look here, old son, what about that mission of yours? How are the Wambas coming along?"
Sambi immediately launched into a long explanation. Literally translated, the Wambas were particularly hot stuff, and never quite happy without their annual dust-up with their good neighbours, the Moghis—in fact, this little excursion appeared to take the same place with them as the annual visit to the seaside in more civilised climes. Sambi had apparently crossed the border with a view to settling some outstanding dispute, which apparently he had failed to do. According to his own account, there had been a violent eruption of party feeling, in which the Speaker of the Wamba House of Commons had lost his head in consequence of some personal remark he had made to the Leader of the Opposition, and, indeed, if Sambi was to be believed, he had narrowly escaped with his own life. Beyond a doubt the annual campaign was near at hand.
"I wonder if the beggar was lying?" Craddock remarked to Stewer, when they were alone again. "Oh, I know these people are always having these little differences of opinion, but somehow I have the impression that Sambi is lying. I can't get out of my head that in some way the gramophone is at the bottom of it, I can't see how, but that's my idea."
But apparently Sambi was telling the truth, for there were a great many signs during the next few days that a crisis was at hand. Bomba called his braves together round the council fire, and for many hours the air was rendered hideous with the din of conflicting opinions. An almost unholy calm fell on the protagonists, after which Bomba made his braves an impassioned speech. He stood there, a fine figure of a man in all his war-paint, with the scarlet cummerbund about his ample waist supporting a veritable battery of obsolete weapons. The women and children were sent to the interior, provisions were collected, and at dawn the following morning the hideous din of tom-toms proclaimed the fact that the motley army was setting forth with a view to putting a proper respect into the thick heads of the Wambas.
"Looks like a Wild West circus," Stewer laughed. "Upon my word, I've half a mind to take a hand at the game myself. Anything's better than loafing around here like this. Don't you think it would be just as well if we made tracks before they get back? It might save a painful parting, and we're not making our salt here."
"Oh, let's see it through," Craddock suggested. "But as to going along, that's quite another story. At any rate, we shall have the village to ourselves for the next week or so, and we shall be able to do as we like. Our friend Sambi is safe for the present, at any rate."
With that, Craddock knocked out his pipe and strolled into the hut for the usual siesta. He was followed a moment or two later by Stewer, and there they lay on their grass beds till late in the afternoon. It was an exceedingly hot day, and they were grateful for the peace and quietness after the constant din that kept the village in a state of turmoil throughout the day. And as Craddock lay there asleep, he began to dream strange things. He dreamt that he was being tortured, that his ankles and knees and wrists were bound with green hide thongs which seemed to be cutting into his very bones. The pain became so great at last that he woke to a dim realisation of the fact that this thing was true. He was lying on the flat of his back, bound exactly in the way he had seen in his uneasy slumbers. A thin rope of green hide was about his feet and ingeniously carried to his hands, which were kept some two feet apart by a piece of tough split bamboo, through which the thong was threaded so that it was impossible for him to get his hands together and work with his fingers on the green hide. It was as if a splint had been placed there, and even Craddock was bound to admire the exceedingly neat piece of work. He was forced to recognise the fact that he was absolutely helpless, and, in addition to this, he was drowsy and heavy, with a racking pain in his head and a bead of moisture on his forehead. He was so overcome that it was some little time before he realised that he was suffering from the effect of a powerful drug. He managed to drag himself to a sitting position presently, and looked somewhat drearily around him.
Presently he caught the eye of his companion, who was in precisely similar case. Then Stewer assumed a sitting position with some considerable difficulty, and the two regarded one another with blank faces.
"Well, we're up against it now all right," the Devonian said. "Great James, what a head I've got on me!"
"Well, we're companions in misfortune there," Craddock grinned. "Say, sonny, what do you make of it?"
"Oh, I don't know," Stewer said. "Looks to me as if we had got an enemy somewhere."
Craddock laughed cheerfully. This was the sort of situation in which he came out at his best.
"Now, that's very bright of you," he said. "But where's the nigger in the fence? There's not a man within miles of the village, and I don't suppose for a moment that the women are responsible for this little jest."
"Then whom do you suspect?" Stewer asked.
"Oh, that's an easy one," Craddock replied. "We've got to thank our ingenious friend Sambi for this. Yes, that's right. Sambi for a million. The more I think of it, the more plain it becomes. He walked off with the gramophone under pretence that he was off on some political mission. If he had understood the thing, he would never have come back; but because he had no records and no needles, he was done, and that's why he came back with that interesting little story about finding the thing in the woods and laying out the chaps that pinched it. The chap's mad to get hold of the machine, and this is how he means to do it. Everybody is away, and his little game is to torture us ingeniously until we are compelled to show him how it will work. Then he'll slope off with the whole apparatus, and probably plant himself down upon some simple unsophisticated tribe, and—well, it's pretty plain, old bird, isn't it?"
Stewer nodded emphatically. He was of entirely the same opinion as his friend, and therefore was fully alive to the gravity of the situation. These were a fairly gentle people they were amongst, but, after all, they were primitives, and both the captives knew only too well what was likely to happen now that Sambi's cupidity was fairly roused. Beyond doubt he had deserted his companions in the field, and had come back to the village with one great object smouldering in the back of his mind. It was just possible, as Craddock explained to Stewer, that there was no trouble with the Wamba tribe at all, but that Sambi had invented the whole thing with a view to getting rid of Bomba and all the rest of the crew whilst he put his plan of campaign into execution.
Meanwhile tney sat there stewing and sweating in the heat of the still afternoon, tugging in vain at their bonds and struggling for freedom. But though it was possible to crawl across the floor until they came in personal contact with one another, the devilish contrivance of those bamboo splints rendered every effort futile. And, to add to their futile fury, they could see on the shelf under the eaves of their hut their two revolvers and case of spare ammunition; but in their present helpless condition the weapons might have been a thousand miles away.
"It's no use," Craddock gasped presently. "We shall have to wait. Sambi is bound to come along presently, and we might be able to compromise with him."
Stewer grunted as he thought reluctantly of the useless pipe and tobacco in his pocket, whilst Craddock dragged himself to the door of the hut and stood blinking up at the sunshine. There was not a soul to be seen and not a sound to be heard, for the women and children had been removed in case of trouble on the frontier, and even the dogs had followed them. In a curious, detached sort of way Craddock stood there watching a colony of great white ants working about the base of a hill of dead vegetable refuse which they had thrown up just outside the hut. It was not a pleasant sight, because it recalled memories of old stories which he had heard in his wanderings. He knew, for instance, that one of the persuasive methods of the natives was to tie up a prisoner to a stake driven in the centre of an ant hill and leave him there to his reflections. If he remained long enough, he would be eaten bit by bit by those ferocious white ants, or driven mad by the torture of them. It was a thought that turned Craddock cold. He could see himself standing there, with those diabolical little brutes crawling all over him and gradually eating into his very vitals. For there were hundreds of thousands of them in one of those big heaps, to say nothing of the fact that they were the best part of an inch long.
And yet, even as Craddock lingered there, contemplating this dread tragedy, something of a plan was forming in his mind. It was when danger stared him in the face that he was at his best and brightest. He just turned to say something of this to Stewer, when the grinning Sambi hove in sight. He appeared to be on the best of terms with himself, for a vast smile seemed to split his face in twain and displayed a set of teeth that a mastiff might have envied.
"Well, you black rascal," Craddock cried, "what's the meaning of this? You cut these cords!"
Sambi grinned pleasantly and shook his head.
"No cut," he said. "We sit down and palaver."
With a murderous feeling in his heart, Craddock complied. There was nothing to gain by a display of passion, and it was just possible that by diplomacy he would be able to achieve his ends.
"Oh, all right," he said. "Now, then. I know pretty well what you want, you rascal, but you can't make us give you the best part of the devil box. Still, I'm ready to make a bargain with you."
"That is all good," Sambi grinned. "You give me the voice of the moon children, and the little god that rubs him on the chest and makes him talk, and presently I send one of the women to free you. You give me those, and the round black things that shine in the sun, and we are friends."
"Yes, and what then?" Craddock asked.
"Why, then I travel to the country beyond the rains with the devil box—to a far country where they make me king and there is much million ivories. You say 'Yes,' and it's done."
Craddock replied vigorously enough, in a sort of vernacular, to the effect that he was not taking any. He half expected some passionate outburst on Sambi's part, but it did not come. The wily nigger merely grinned and pointed significantly to the ant heap outside the hut. It was clear enough to Craddock now that Sambi had lured the tribe off on a wild-goose chase, so that he could work out the plot at his leisure.
"All good," Sambi said. "I give you food, but not the pipe, and in the morning you will think better of it."
He did not express himself quite so clearly, but that was the meaning. He lingered long enough to assure himself that the bonds of his prisoners were sound, after which he lounged out of the hut, to return a little later with food, which he placed on the floor for his captives to assimilate as best they might.
"What was the brute driving at?" Stewer asked. "I can't follow the lingo as well as you do. I know he was trying to drive a bargain with you over the gramophone, and I could see you weren't taking any. If you don't, what's going to be the upshot of the business?"
"Nothing very pleasant," Craddock grinned. "That black scamp's worked the whole thing out in his mind, and very cleverly he has done it. But he's a long way from getting the gramophone yet."
"And if he doesn't?" Stewer queried.
Craddock indicated the ant heap and elaborated the stories he had heard in connection with it.
"Ugh!" Stewer shuddered. "Sounds worse than the torture in the 'Mikado.' But you're not going to let it go as far as that, I suppose?"
"Not quite," Craddock said between his teeth, "but very nearly. I never was beaten by a nigger yet, and I'll be hanged if I'm going to start now. If only one of us could get rid of the hide through this splint, by wearing it away or cutting it, we should be free in five minutes. Once that happened, we should have our revolvers again, and Sambi's path of glory would end in something abrupt in the way of a grave. See my meaning?"
"Oh, I see your meaning plainly enough," Stewer grunted, "but how's it going to be done?"
"But it ain't impossible," Craddock said. "Only the remedy is a desperate one, and I suppose you have heard of the expedient called taking a hair from the dog that bit you? Now, that's exactly what I'm going to do. I am going to suffer a little to save us from suffering a lot, if you understand what I mean. And when the moon goes down this evening, I'll show you. I'm going to teach that confounded nigger a lesson."
With that, Craddock shut his teeth grimly and refused to say any more. But presently, as the night began to wear thin, and the moon slid behind the dense foliage at the back of the village, he crept out into the open and for a moment contemplated the conical mass of rubbish of which the ants' nest was composed. Then quite deliberately he lay down on his stomach and buried his two arms, with the long splint between them, in the crown of the nest. With sudden enlightenment Stewer watched him. He knew that Craddock, with his indomitable pluck and cheery courage, meant to keep his arms buried there until the little white devils in the nest had eaten their way through the thong that had been woven between the two holes at the end of the bamboo cane, and, stolid as he was, Stewer gasped with admiration at Craddock's amazing fortitude.
"Here, come out of it!" he cried. "It isn't worth while. Better let Sambi have the gramophone a thousand times over."
"I never was beaten by a nigger yet..." Craddock began, and then his voice trailed off into a whisper. Already the little white insects, raging furiously at this assault upon their citadel, were swarming all over his arms, until the blood began to stream from a hundred tiny punctures. And still he held on, suffering untold agonies, knowing full well that, if he could only hold up for a little longer, the white foe would cease to rage, and turn its attention to the succulent green hide with which he was bound. It was half an hour or more before Craddock, straining at his bonds, felt them relax like a piece of elastic. Then, with a fine effort, he snapped the last threads of green hide and rose to his feet with a pair of forearms dripping red.
"There!" he said, as he staggered giddily towards the hut. "Didn't I tell you it would be all right? But, my aunt, I wouldn't go through that again for all the gold in Africa! But no nigger—"
With that he fainted, and it was some moments before he came to himself again. He stripped himself to the buff, and, after carefully removing every ant from his clothing, proceeded to cut Stewer's bonds. This being done, he dressed those raw and bleeding arms of his, and then, though writhing in pain, sat down to await the dawn and Sambi's coming.
He came in due course, with a grin upon that ebony face of his, to find his prisoners squatting on the floor much as he had left them the night before.
"You are ready for me now?" he asked.
"That is so," Craddock drawled, as he turned over on his left side and covered Sambi with a revolver. "I guess you've hit it, my friend. I was never beaten by a nigger yet, and I'm too old to begin now."
Sambi, with all the fatality of his clan, folded his hands over his capacious stomach and waited for what was coming to him.
"My lord is a great man," he said, "and his days will be long on the earth. And behold, I am ready"
With that Craddock shot him neatly and artistically through the centre of the forehead, and he collapsed without a sound on the floor of the hut.
"Well, that's a good job done," Stewer said. "And what's the next item on the programme?"
"Well, I'm not quite sure," Craddock said. "Shall we bury him and say nothing about it, or shall we wait here till Bomba comes back, and tell him the whole story? If we bury him properly, those chaps, when they come back, may think that he was killed in battle; but my idea is to clear out altogether and leave them to draw their own conclusions. What do you say?"
"Clear," Stewer said laconically. "Quick!"
GERALD NETTLESHIP, private inquiry agent and general investigator, pending a promised appointment in connection with the Secret Service, and whilom a public schoolboy, regarded his pretty wife Ella with frank admiration. For she apparently had solved part of the problem that was worrying him sorely. If they could get hold of this five hundred pounds then the matter of the furnished flat they so greatly coveted would be solved, and they would have a house of their own instead of passing the approaching Christmas in lodgings. It had to be a cash transaction because the outgoing tenant—a friend of Nettleship's—was an Australian returning to his ranch after the war, and wanted the money. And Ella Nettleship was explaining how the desired sum might be obtained, and because she too had earned her living, till Gerald married her, in a private detective office, he listened with all due respect. He had been away in Manchester on business for the last week, and this new development had come as a startling surprise to him.
"Directly I read the notice in the Times," she said, "I went round and saw Sir Percival Kennelly at once. Very fortunately he was at home, and when I told him who you were and what we were both doing he was awfully nice—quite a dear, in fact? He at once agreed to give us a chance of getting to the bottom of the mystery, and offered a voluntary fifty pounds towards expenses. So, as you were away, I went down to The Grange at Overstrands and put in two days, investigating matters. And I believe, I really believe, Gerry dear, that I am on the track of the miscreants. As to the occult side of the mystery, we can rule that out at once."
"Of course," Nettleship laughed. "By Jove, 500 pounds reward! And nothing much in the way of expense. Good Heavens! I'd like to see you presiding over the turkey in our own flat at Christmas. Would you mind running over the details once more, Ellie?"
Ella proceeded to explain that the Grange at Overstrands was the property of Sir Percival Kennelly, a somewhat impoverished Baronet, who owned some considerable property on the East Coast, where he had sunk all he could raise in a golf course that had splendid possibilities, and that he was using the Grange as a dormy house in connection with the golf course, and he had obtained a license to sell all kinds of drinks. Until the course was perfect, and he could devote the beautiful old Grange for the use of golfers alone, he ran it as an ordinary public-house, with a bar where anybody could procure liquid refreshment. The house was in charge of a steward called Chiffner, an old retainer, who was quite beyond suspicion, and yet for some time past the most extraordinary things had been happening in the bedrooms of the old house after the golfing guests had retired for the night, so that the place was getting a bad name, and it looked as if much harm was being done to the links that a little time back appeared likely to become so popular. As this was a serious matter to Sir Percival, he had offered the reward of 500 pounds in the Times to any one who could solve the mystery. And before calling in the police he had offered Ella Nettleship a chance of earning the money wherewith to consummate the dream of spending the forthcoming Christmas in the flat upon which her heart was set.
So she had gone down to Overstrands ostensibly as a golfer, and had spent two nights in the Grange, where she had made her business known to the steward Chiffner, whom her detective instinct told her that she could implicitly trust. And there she ascertained that all the trouble arose in Room Five, and nowhere else. And in Room Five, sooner or later, Ella was going to pass the night. It was in this ancient apartment with its old portraits and pictures that the series of outrages had taken place. There were stories of ghosts and shadowy figures in the dead of night, and tales of visitors frightened out of their wits, to say nothing of various valuables missing, all of which was playing the very deuce with the golf club. And on no occasion had the locked door of Room Five been tampered with.
"What's the next move?" Nettleship asked, when he had mastered the story. "Shall we go down there in Christmas week on the suggestion of playing golf, and put up at the Grange? And why not engage Room Number Five, and see what is likely to happen?"
"Do you know," Ella murmured, "that is exactly what I thought of doing, but not quite in the way that you mean. We shan't eat our turkey in the flat this Yuletide, after all, but we shall have the money to take the flat over before Sladen starts for Australia, which will come to the same thing. No, we'll go down to the Grange on Christmas Eve, arriving very late—too late, in fact, to book a room at the hotel there, because they will have all gone. And I go on alone in a car, reaching the Grange about 11 o'clock. I tell Chiffner, who is more or less in my confidence, that I have had a breakdown, and he puts me in the haunted room for the night. In fact, that is all arranged with Chiffner."
"And what about me?" Nettleship asked.
"Oh, yes, I am expecting to meet my husband there, but he had been detained, and will probably get down by another car some time before morning. Now, mind, I have been in practically every bedroom of the Grange, and have taken measurements, and in Room Five I found that it is, without apparent reason, some nine feet narrower than the others in the same wing. What do you make of that?"
"Sounds like a clue," Nettleship muttered. "Is the place lighted by electricity, and does the haunted bedroom, where you are going to wait for me, boast an electric bell?"
Ella explained that there was no modern lighting, and that the bell was a pneumatic one with a long flex over the bed. So that if anything happened when she was supposed to be sleeping in the haunted room a ring at the bell would bring Nettleship hot-foot to her assistance. He would have to arrange to be hidden in the bar after the general company there had departed, all of which could be done with the connivance of the faithful Chiffner. With an arrangement like this Ella declared that she would be quite safe in Room Number Five if the 'ghost' in search of valuables made a raid on the mystery room in the night, as he was pretty sure to do when the apartment was occupied. So it was eventually arranged that Nettleship should go down to Overstrands under the pretence of golf and spy out the land.
And this he did, and as it was midweek found little difficulty in obtaining a room in the Grange itself. There he made friends with Chiffner, who, of course, was already in Ella's confidence. He played a little golf, but contented himself with asking a good many questions about people in the neighbourhood, especially such locals as made use of the public bar, which the owner of the Grange still retained until he had all his arrangements made.
Nettleship was looking over his 'Evening News' on the following afternoon, when he read something that brought him up all standing. "Have a look at this," he cried. "More trouble at the Grange last night. But read it for yourself."
Ella snatched up the paper and read as follows: "We have to report another mysterious occurrence at the Grange, Overstrands. Last night a travelling American on a golfing holiday presented himself at the Grange, there being only one room unoccupied, and that the mysterious Room Five, expressed himself anxious to sleep there, and that the story had no terrors for him. Moreover, he proclaimed the fact that he was armed, and an expert with a revolver. Two hours after he had retired, the steward was aroused by loud groans that appeared to proceed from the haunted chamber. On bursting the door open the unfortunate American was found unconscious, with a wound over his left breast. Up to the time of going to press, he had not recovered consciousness, and his condition is considered critical."
"What do you think of that?" Nettleship asked. "My dear girl, you really must not face a risk like that."
But Ella was obdurate. She was going through it now, whatever happened, and she pointed out the fact that no such surprise could possibly overtake her. It was shortly before ten o'clock on Christmas Eve, therefore, that an imperious lady, giving the name of Somerset, arrived at The Grange in a car, and explained in a haughty way that she had been delayed on the road by an accident. The steward was apologetic, and declared he had no room to spare, except the notorious Number Five, and that he could not expect the lady, in the circumstances, to take that.
"What nonsense," the visitor cried, "show me up to the room at once. Put my golf bag in the corner there, and carry my dressing-bag and jewel case upstairs."
Chiffner protested, all in vain, and presently the door of Room Five closed on the imperious lady, who was not seen again. Down in the bar a little later, the habitues were filing out through the front door. Just as this was closing on them a man walked in, as if he were a guest there, and followed the steward eagerly into the deserted bar.
"Well, Chiffner," he demanded, "how is everything going? I suppose my wife turned up?"
"That's all right, sir," Chiffner said. "Mrs. Nettleship, otherwise Mrs. Somerset, is up in her bedroom. It all worked beautifully. Everybody in the bar heard the conversation, especially the bit about the jewel-case."
"And what about your American visitor?" Nettleship asked. "Is he still here?"
Chiffner explained that the unfortunate man had been taken away in an ambulance, and that he was still unconscious.
"'I am very sorry to hear that," Nettleship said. "But we are near the end of the trouble. Now then, get all your servants off to bed, and we will sit here until the bell rings. I should think that might be in about an hour. I don't suppose the man we are after will wait longer than that. Of course, he was in the bar when my wife arrived, and he won't be able to resist the lure of that jewel case."
But more than an hour elapsed, and a clock outside was striking one when there came quick metallic ripple, and the little red star, bearing the number five on the indicator, agitated violently. Nettleship jumped to his feet, which he had encased in rubber-soled shoes, and raced up the staircase, until he stood outside number five. Chiffner, who followed, remained as directed, at the head of the stairs, whilst Nettleship gently pushed the door open an inch or two. That it was not properly closed was part of the programme.
Meanwhile, Ella had gone to bed gaily enough, and she proceeded more or less leisurely to set out her toilette-table and open her dressing-case. The jewels—theatrical, specially borrowed for the occasion—were placed somewhat ostentatiously on a side table between the two windows. By the feeble light of a couple of candles she glanced carelessly about her. The fire, which had been lighted, had nearly gone out, nor did Ella make an attempt to restore the cheerful blaze. She looked round the room, with its fine oak panelling, and the half-length portraits let into the walls, and, even with her fine courage and resolution, she shivered slightly as she saw the sombre eyes of a certain Sir Godfrey Kennelly apparently turned upon her with a reproachful gleam. But she recovered quickly enough, for she was not there to worry about dead-and-gone Kennellys, so she proceeded leisurely to remove her dress and let down her hair. It was a bit strange, perhaps, in doing this that she stood close against the wall, right under the portrait of the famous Sir Godfrey, and then, instead of removing the rest of her clothing, she donned a nightdress over the costume she was wearing, and, with every semblance of being ready for the night, threw herself on the bed and blew out the candle.
And there for an hour or more she lay in the pitch darkness pondering over the situation, and quite ready and eager for what was going to happen next. All this time she held in her right hand a little silver-plated revolver, and in the hollow of her left palm she gently caressed the bulb of the pneumatic bell.
She was not in the least frightened, but merely strung up and ready for instant action. She knew that her husband was downstairs, because she had heard the bolt of the front door shot home twice, which was the signal to her that Nettleship put in an appearance, as arranged. And, moreover, according to plan, the bedroom door was not quite closed, and, from time to time she could just catch the sound of voices below. Gradually, as she lay there, with her eyes wide open, and her senses keyed up to the highest point, she began to make out, in the very dim light, the outline of certain objects in the bedroom. And so she lay there, until she began to be haunted with an uneasy dread that all these delicately laid plans were going to miscarry. Was it possible, perhaps, that 'the ghost' might be afraid to try another coup so soon after the successful raid on the unfortunate American?
And just when Ella was beginning to make up her mind that the solution of the mystery would have to be postponed, there came a slight noise that might have been made by a rat behind the wainscot, and, after that, somewhere about the place where she judged the portrait of Sir Godfrey to be, two tiny points of brilliant flame radiated into the room, thin and keen, like a pair of lances. They moved slowly, much as slender searchlights might have done, Ella caught sight of them, all that fine courage and resolution returned.
Here were the eyes, those sinister eyes looking out from the notorious portrait as more than one unfortunate occupant of the room had professed to see them. And those eyes had been responsible for more than one tragedy. But upon this occasion, however, they were exercising no hypnotic effect upon the woman who lay there watching them from the bed. As Ella lay perfectly still, watching intently, the eyes moved lower down, until they remained some five feet or so from the oak-panelled wall. It was only just for a moment that they seemed to hesitate there, for they advanced slowly into the room, and swept with brilliant intensity across the bed.
Ella Nettleship, with half-veiled eyes, lay as still as death until the lights were switched off in the direction of the dressing-table. Here they concentrated for a second or two, and it seemed to Ella that she could see a hand stretched out in the direction of her jewel case. Evidently she was not wrong, for she saw the lure lifted from the table, and, with that, she gently pressed the bulb in the palm of her hand.
Then she lay perfectly still for possibly ten seconds before she heard the door of the bedroom creak, and it seemed to her that she could catch the sound of her husband's heavy breathing. And if she were right, it was up to him now to do the rest. Then something whizzed across the room, there came a choking sort of cry from the direction of the dressing table, and, after a short struggle, a mighty object collapsed with a dull thud on the floor. Followed a rush across the room, and a heavy impact as two bodies came together, and immediately there was a grunt and a groan as the intruder and the newcomer grappled with one another. A curse broke out of somewhere in the centre of the velvety darkness, and then another cry that seemed to be squeezed out of the centre of the gloom with more groans that stopped suddenly in the midst of a heavy fall. But assuredly those curses did not proceed from Nettleship's lips, and with this comfortable feeling, Ella reached out her hand for the box of matches on the little table by the side of the bed, and lighted her pair of candles.
As the flare lifted and dimly illuminated the room, Ella saw a strange sight. A man was lying on the floor by the dressing-table with Nettleship standing over him. Around the unfortunate intruder's neck was a cord, at the end of which were two brass balls that seemed to be twisted so tightly that the man lying there could barely breathe. But be that as it might, he was absolutely helpless, and Nettleship, breathing heavily, was bending over him with the air of a conqueror.
"You can get up, Ella," he gasped triumphantly. "I've got him all right. That was a real lucky shot of mine with a lasso. I could just make out the shape of his head in the gleam of those little torches that he has fastened to his mask, and I chanced it. So you see that my two years amongst the Texas cowboys were not wasted. Here, come along, Chiffner."
The steward came promptly enough, for, standing outside, he had heard all that was going on. He helped to remove the choking lasso from the throat of the man lying there, and lifted him to his feet. He cried out suddenly, "Gaylor!" he exclaimed. "It's Jim Gaylor."
"Ah, precisely as I had expected," Nettleship exclaimed. "Ella, this is Mr. James Gaylor, the son of the late baronet's butler. A regular bad lot, and only recently back in the neighbourhood after a long term of penal servitude. When I learnt this fact from Chiffner, I was pretty sure who was at the bottom of all the trouble. I can't understand why they didn't suspect it before. You see, as he was born here, he must have known all about the house and the secret passage leading from the back of the old monastery to the back of this room."
"I didn't know it, sir," Chiffner said.
"Well, as you have only recently come here to look after the place, how should you? You are quite right, Ella, when you said there was a missing space of eight feet, and that is right behind Sir Godfrey's portrait, which is painted on a sliding panel. This chap knew all about it, and very good use of his knowledge he has made. All these months he has been able to play the ghost of the haunted room, and well he has done it, for he has done no work since he came out of gaol, and he seems to have had plenty of money to spend in the bar downstairs. He hung about there, night after night, waiting for some one to take Room Five, and once he knew that a visitor was there, then the rest was easy. Chiffner, you had better telephone to the police station. I can look after this man till you come back."
The unfortunate Gaylor seemed to be taking no interest in the proceedings. He lay on the floor, weak and helpless, and evidently still suffering deeply from the cruel pressure of the lasso about his throat.
Ella smiled up into her husband's face,
"You have done splendidly," she said.
"Well, in a way I have," Nettleship said. "But most of the credit belongs to you. It was you who found out all about that missing space, and gave me the clue to the secret entrance to the house. Well, I managed to find that, and when I discovered that one of the men who came to drink here was the son of the late baronet's butler it seemed to me that I knew exactly where to put my hand on the criminal. You see, he was just the sort of man to know all about the mysteries of the house, and his past made him suspect. Now, let's get him out of the way, and go quietly to bed. This ought to be a rattling good Christmas for us, and when it is over we'll just go back to London and get into that little flat of ours without further delay."
SERGEANT DONALD MACNAUGHT, B Section, Frontier Police, came out of the Superintendent's office with his head in the air and the assurance that the commission provisionally promised him was as good as in his pocket. True, he was a stranger in the Harris Fork district, having been moved there quite recently for a specific purpose, and this was undeniably a drawback out there in the wild, where local knowledge is a big asset in the tracking down of criminals. But then Macnaught had a proper conceit of himself, which usually goes with a Scotchman who happens to be born in Belfast. And, moreover, Superintendent Donovan had given him a free hand, so it was up to him to justify himself and, in the course of time, emerge triumphantly in the silver stripes that marked the higher rank.
And, so far as the ambitious Sergeant could see, the matter was pretty plain sailing. He had laid his plans before the Superintendent, after a careful study of the map, and the great man had been pleased to nod his approval. Beyond question, the quarry, in the shape of that reckless desperado Jimmy Hayes, had been marked down only the day before in the settlement on the far side of the foothills which were known as Eagle Ridge. Hayes had come there in one of his meteoric flights, ostensibly to bury his wife, but really to display himself in his most heroic light to an admiring community which, be it whispered, tendered to the desperado its entire sympathy. They were a wild, rather lawless lot out there, and brute force was a ritual. Besides, Jimmy Hayes was a man of undeniable courage and resource, a sort of Western Robin Hood, with a dash of Claude Duval, and in his more conventional days had been exceedingly popular. Then the wild blood in him had broken out, away down west at Dingo City, where he had found himself involved with a set of gamblers who had the temerity to try and rob him under the guise of a friendly game of poker. There had been trouble over that, and Hayes had got away, leaving one man for dead. That was merely an incident. He lay low till that was forgotten, then returned to Harris Fork, where he was in partnership with a sort of hybrid Jew called Marks—a partnership which for a time was exceedingly successful. This was owing almost entirely to Hayes's courage and resource, and it might have ended in fortune on both sides but for the fact that Hayes had journeyed once more to Dingo City, where there had been more trouble with his old antagonists, and where another of them had bitten the dust. There was a hue and cry after this, so that for many months it was impossible for Hayes to show himself at Harris Fork, and after a time rumour had it that he was dead.
At any rate, Harris Fork saw him no more for the best part of a year, during which his wife did not hear from him, though she always declared that he would come back one of these days.
She was a little, fragile flower of a woman, totally unfitted for those high, cold altitudes, with their terrible winter of snow and frost, but there was no denying her courage and her hopefulness that some day, when the partnership would be dissolved, she and Hayes could go down South. The partnership was dissolved, after Hayes's disappearance, by Marks, who cut it abruptly short with the statement that he had lost money over it, and that, so far as he was concerned, Mrs. Hayes could shift for herself. In other words, he robbed her in the most cold-blooded fashion, so that she had to go out into the settlement and get her own living. And this she did until the hard work became too much for her, and just as winter was setting in, she died—murdered, the women said, to put money in the pockets of a scoundrel.
And then, on the day of her funeral, Hayes put in a dramatic appearance. Where he came from and how he knew what had happened, nobody could tell. He just appeared out of nowhere by the side of the grave, and when the ceremony was over he set out, with a cold grey eye and a grim line between his brows, to look for Marks. But Marks had somehow got to know what had happened, and he was nowhere to be found. He was found at last, and what Hayes regarded as an ill-directed shot smashed his shoulder-blade. Hayes probably left him for dead, and promptly disappeared. He would have stayed, in the ordinary course of events, and faced the music, but as there was a warrant out against him on two other charges, he probably realised the slenderness of his chances and vanished.
Within an hour the Superintendent at Harris Fork was in full possession of the facts. He may have had his own ideas on the subject, but his duty was plain. He had to arrest Hayes, and, as he himself was wanted elsewhere, he had placed the matter in Macnaught's hands. The Sergeant worked it all out. He himself would ride over in the direction of Harris Fork, and two sections were telegraphed to meet him from the frontier on the far side of Eagle Ridge. They would thus take the criminal between them, and the rest would be easy.
So Macnaught mounted his horse and started out to cross fifteen miles of broken mountain country between the station and Eagle Ridge. He had his map in his hand, and a photograph of the criminal, together with his description. He glanced at it again as he jogged along. Hayes, according to the printed matter, was a big, well-knit man, apparently about forty, with a clean-shaven broad face. The characteristics were not particularly marked, but it was good enough for Sergeant Macnaught, and he was feeling on good terms with himself as he made his way between the rocky passes to the high ground, with its fringes of pine, and visions of promotion lay before him. He was a kindly man, was Macnaught, despite the grim current of blood in his veins, because, you see, his mother had been Irish, and there were times when the sentimental mood dominated him.
He was not thinking of that now—he was thinking what the Superintendent had said, and he was just a little uncertain in his mind as to the weather. For the first big snows of the year were due, there had been a hard frost last night, and the weather has a great deal to say to the puny schemes of men in that wild North-West Territory. In the ordinary way the ride to Eagle Ridge was in the nature of a picnic, but if the snow came, then it might end in a race for life.
And over the high ground beyond, at the back of the nodding pines which looked down on Eagle Ridge, there were broken ragged splashes of cloud that gradually marshalled themselves together till the blackness of the pines was no blacker than the sky beyond. And then, when Macnaught was about half-way, the snow came down in earnest.
It began with fine particles like spray; then, as the wind increased, it howled and swirled round Macnaught's head till his eyes were blind and he could see but a few feet in front of him. It was as if the whole world had been blotted out in a deluge of white—a howling, roaring world with a wind thrumming in the pines like harp-strings. It went on until the horse pul]ed up and, trembling in every muscle, refused to go any further. Macnaught dropped out of the saddle and sheltered himself as best he could behind his faithful beast. He stood there for an hour, until he was frozen to the very marrow, until every object in the dreary landscape was wiped out, and until he had not the remotest notion where he was. The white spindrift was knee-deep, and still creeping upwards like a tide, and then for the first time Macnaught recognised his peril. He turned his back to the wind and looked in the direction whence he had come—that was, as far as he could look any way. So far as he was concerned, he might have been inside the Arctic Circle. He dared not go back; to go forward was equal madness. But ever and again a torn wrack in the cloud showed the crest of pines on the distant hill, and he knew, at any rate, that Eagle Ridge lay over there. So he struggled on, walking his horse with increasing difficulty at every step, until he could move no further, then he fell helplessly to his knees, and the horse rolled over by his side.
How long this had been going on he did not know. He could only guess, by the fading light, that it was late in the afternoon, and that, unless a miracle happened, he would never see Harris Fork again. A certain dumb apathy filled him, a certain carelessness as to the future. Well, he had done his best, and there was an end of it. He would not be the first Mounted Policeman who had perished by the wayside in the execution of his duty.
It seemed to him that he slept a little, and that presently he woke with something calling him. The wreaths of snow were still volleying round his head, the white battalions of the gale were still screaming in his ears, and he was frozen to the very soul. But surely someone was calling to him, some voice in his ear beckoning him on? Then he recognised the sound as that of the bark of a dog.
A dog meant human companionship, a sledge, perhaps, and the thought of it galvanised Macnaught into life He struggled to his feet and yelled at the top of his voice. Then the dog barked again, and something that sounded like a faint "Hello!" was borne on the breast of the gale. Again Macnaught shouted, and this time a man unmistakably replied.
"Here we are," the voice said. "I'll find you."
It seemed an unconscionably long time— indeed, it was upwards of an hour—before two hands were placed under Macnaught's arms and he was dragged to his feet. As if conscious that help was at hand, the horse rose, too. And then followed a breathless struggle for life, which ended in another hour in front of a black cavity in the hillside —in other words, a cave with its back to the wind, into which Macnaught was dragged, together with his weary charger. Something trickled down his throat, he was conscious of warmth and the cuddling caress of furs, and then he realised that he was in a bit of a cave in which a fire was burning, and that a big man, with a careworn face and a brown beard streaked with grey, was looking at him in a kindly fashion.
"That was a close call," the stranger said.
"Aye, it was that," Macnaught replied. "But for you, I was down and out all right, and I'm not going to thank you. You must have had a bit of a struggle getting me here."
"Well, you are here," the stranger said. "And now let me give you something to eat. You snuggle up in those furs whilst I fry a rasher of bacon. This isn't going to last long; we'll have the frost back before daylight."
Macnaught ate presently and got his pipe going. Then he and his rescuer began to talk. The other man had been caught on his way through a pine path whence he was going down to the plain and the milder climate on the other side of the divide. He had been trading up at Eagle Ridge, and had, perhaps, been a little too anxious to get through the pass before the first snows fell. Luckily for him, he had his provisions and his dogs, and he had hit the cave in the hillside just at the psychological moment. His name, it appeared, was Prosser, and he was principally concerned in the fur trade. Then, under his eyes, he glanced casually at Macnaught's uniform.
"Policeman, ain't you?" he asked.
"That's so," Macnaught admitted. "I was on my way to Eagle Ridge on business."
The other man appeared to be interested.
"I think I can guess," he said. "After Jim Hayes, ain't you?"
There was no occasion to deny the fact, so Macnaught admitted it. He wanted to know if the other knew anything about the criminal.
"I have met him," Prosser said. "Fact is, Jim and I were quite good friends at one time. He's not a bad sort, but has a devil of a temper, and is quite reckless of consequences when he is roused. I was down at Dingo City, and saw both those troubles he was in there. And you can take it from me, stranger, that it wasn't his fault either time. And as to that poisonous scoundrel Marks, I ain't blamin' Jim in the least. When you know how he suffered at that man's hands, and how his wife's death was entirely due to that villain, you would have been sorry for Jim, policeman though you are."
"I am sorry for him now," Macnaught said. "But then my private opinion has got nothing to do with it. If half I hear is true, Marks asked for all he got."
"Aye, he did that," Prosser said. "I knew Mrs. Hayes well, and a dearer little woman But I'm not going into that. So you expect to get hold of Jim, eh?"
"Sure to," Macnaught said laconically. "He must have been mad to have come back like that."
"Well, I don't know," the other man drawled, as he sucked thoughtfully at his pipe. "Jim was sure fond of that pretty little wife of his. And I think, Sergeant, if you had ever seen her—"
Prosser broke off and stared intently into the stove as if he could see visions. He stroked his beard with the streaks of grey in it, and his eyes had a far-away look in them.
"I knew Jim Hayes pretty well," he went on, "and I knew what he had to put up with. A plucky little woman, she was, and never said a word when Jim made up his mind to come up here prospecting in the mines. Not as he ever meant to stay. His idea was to make a fortune and get South, and he was in a hurry, too, because he could see what the winters hereabouts were doing for his missus. And then he struck it, him and Marks together, and he did all the work and took all the risk—he had plenty of that, let me tell you—until he won through and made Marks's fortune. Then there was that trouble down in Dingo City. He ought never to have got into that by rights, but, as I am telling you, he was always a headlong, impulsive sort of fool, and he wasn't quite as good at poker as he thought he was. But he wasn't going to be robbed, all the same, and that was the cause of the trouble. Then he must needs go back there again, right amongst 'em, and that time he had to fight for his life, whatever folks may say. And if the Sheriff hadn't been in it, and hadn't been half afraid of the gang, no more would have been heard of it; but they made it out wilful murder, and Jim, he had to fly. Couldn't come back any more, couldn't see his wife, though he wrote to her—wrote her a letter that she never got, because Marks saw to that. And when he heard the truth, it was too late. He came back to attend his wife's funeral and kill Marks, and, if I know anything of Jim, he's plum sorry he didn't succeed. I am telling you all this, Sergeant, because I know you are after Jim—I knew it as soon as I saw your uniform. You were going to catch him between two fires the other side of Eagle Ridge, and, but for this storm, you probably would have done so. Now, isn't that right?"
"Perfectly right," Macnaught agreed. "But I doubt if we shall do it now. He's probably perished in this storm, and, after what you have told me, I am not sorry, though, mind you, there was promotion waiting for me."
"If you succeeded, eh? Well, perhaps you will yet."
"Oh, well, it's no pleasant job, mine," Macnaught said in half extenuation.
"I see—you have got to do as you are told?"
"That's right," Macnaught agreed. "But never mind about Hayes. You saved my life. It was a million to one against my getting through, and almost that against us finding our way here. And you must have known that, though you didn't mind taking your life in your hands with about as much chance of finding me as if I had been no more than a flake of snow. But you did it, and I don't know how to thank you."
"Oh, that's all right," Prosser said casually. "It's more thanks to the dog than to me."
He indicated the well-fed dog and the horse standing patiently in the corner, and refused to hear any more. So they sat there in the warmth, half buried in their furs, listening to the dying storm outside, and conscious presently of the increasing cold. Then Prosser rose and looked outside into a still white world where the wind had died to nothing, and overhead the stars, like spilt sheaves of golden grain, burned against a sky of granite.
"It will be fine going in the morning," Prosser said. "Hard as iron in an hour or two, by which time, with any luck, I'll be through the pass down on to the plains. But it will come back again. It will come again before noon."
With that he turned in, and the two men slept. It was broad daylight and well into the marrow of the morning before Macnaught crept out of his furs, only to find that Prosser and his team had gone. They must have been gone for some time, for the stove had burnt low, and the bacon which Prosser had cooked for his guest's breakfast lay tepid in its pan. Macnaught wondered at this sudden flight, until he recollected his host's prophecy that the storm would break again before long. Outside, the snow was frozen so hard that the tracks of the sledge were none too well marked. Over behind Eagle Ridge there was a violet haze, and near at hand a faint murmur within the pines that warned Macnaught of what was coming in the near future. So he hurried through his breakfast and slung himself on the back of his horse presently, and crossed the frozen plain in the direction of the settlement. He hurled along almost recklessly, for long before he reached Eagle Ridge the white cohorts were dancing about his head, so that he made the town and the big general store there with some difficulty. No sooner was he inside, seated in front of the stove, before the storm came down again in earnest. He sat there, turning over the events of the past few hours in his mind, and hoping that Prosser was through the pass before the demons of the air broke out again.
There were half a dozen men seated round the stove, members of the settlement, hard, lean settlers, miners and others, discussing the weather in their slow and deliberate way, when the door of the store was flung open and three men entered. Macnaught recognised them at a glance. They were the sergeant and two troopers who had been told off to help him. One look into their faces, and Macnaught knew that they had failed. And the other men seated round the stove looked, too. They wanted no one to tell them what this detachment of Mounted Police was doing in Eagle Ridge. Macnaught saw a smile pass from face to face, a smile of quiet triumph, as he knew, and an indication that these people here were all on the side of Hayes. And they knew that justice had been baffled.
"Hello! So you've got here?" Macnaught's fellow-sergeant greeted him. "Any luck?"
"Most infernally lucky to get here," Macnaught said.
"Same here," the other man responded. "The storm caught us last night, and we had to stop. Question, where is he now? Any of you men seen Jim Hayes?"
Again the slow smile went round the stove like a mental telegraphy. The police had failed, and every man listening rejoiced in the fact. A lean individual seated in a corner turned slowly to the questioner.
"Not since yesterday morning," he drawled. "Jim, he come unexpected, just out of nowhere, as it might be. And we 'uns here thinkin' him dead, and not one of us expecting him. He didn't come as you 'uns come now, sitting round the stove and passin' the time o' day. He come and stands by the side o' the grave where we was burying that wife o' his. It were yesterday mornin', an' most of us had turned out, because, you see, Jim's wife, she were sort o' popular, an' there wasn't one of us as wasn't ready to lend her a helpin' hand. She'd have died earlier, she would, but for some of us."
"Well, get on," the Sergeant said impatiently.
"You asked for facts an' I'm givin' 'em you, pard," the old man went on. "If ever a woman was murdered, it were Jim Hayes's wife. And who murdered her? It were that pesky skunk of a Marks—him as is lyin' in his hut now with a bullet through the shoulder that ought to have killed him, the dirty swab. Not as we knew it, because we didn't know as the claim had turned out so well. But we know it now, because yesterday, Jim he up and told us."
"Oh, do get on!" the Sergeant exclaimed.
"Oh, I'm comin' to it all right, mister. There we was round the grave of the whitest little woman in the State, and she done to death by Marks because he thought her husband was gone, and that he could rob her of what was her due, and she working to keep body and soul together, and half dying o' the cold! And if we'd only known it, we'd have had his black heart out o' him long ago!"
The Sergeant stirred impatiently, but nothing seemed to disturb the even tenor of the speaker.
"We was standin' round the grave," he said, "an' parson, he just spoke his last piece, when there comes a man pushing his way through the crowd, right and left, and he stands by the side o' the grave an' looks down at it sorrowful like, though his face was hard enough as if it had been frozen. And there 'e stands, and we wonderin', till I looks at 'im again, with his bowed head and bent shoulders, and that brown beard o' his with the streaks o' grey in it, an' I says to myself: 'By the livin' Moses, if it ain't Jim Hayes!' An' Jim Hayes it was—aye, Jim right enough."
The old man paused, with some sense of the dramatic values, and gazed triumphantly around him. Macnaught sat there, the illumination almost blinding him.
"Stop a moment," he said, in a voice that he hoped was steady. "How long had Jim Hayes had a beard? From our description of him—"
"I don't know nothin' about that," the old man said obstinately. "He used to be smooth-faced, but he's got a beard now right enough, and it was Jim, too. I calls out, and the others see I was right, an' Jim, he turns to us when it was all over, and he asks where Marks was, and when we'd heard his story we told him. So he lays out for Marks, an' late in the afternoon he got him. Left him for dead. Then he gets his team together and off he goes. And that's the truth, Sergeant, as any man around the stove will tell you."
A long silence followed, whilst every man was turning the problem over in his mind. Either Hayes had got away down the pass in the direction of the valleys on his way to the frontier, where he would be safe, or he had been caught in the big storm and had perished. As to this, they would know in time. But the one man there who could have told them everything sat sucking at his dead pipe and stared into the stove.
For Macnaught knew that Hayes had got away in safety, and, so far as he was concerned, there was one incident in the chronicles of the North-Western Police that would never be told.
THE strange and tragic disappearance of Eugene Lastaire created quite a sensation even outside musical circles. It was too big a thing for the newspapers to miss, and accordingly they made the most of it. From such meagre information as the Press could gather, Lastaire had left London for a remote village in Devonshire after a somewhat unpleasant interview with Dennie Morthoe at the National Opera House. Everybody knew Morthoe was the lessee of that famous building, and one of the leading impresarios in Europe. A rich man himself and a musician of undoubted power and genius, Morthoe's great ambition was to form a school of opera of his own, and for this purpose he had sunk a vast fortune in the National Opera House, where he had gathered around him a collection of the most famous singers and musicians in the world. And not the least amongst these was Eugene Lastaire.
He had come to Morthoe a few months before, without reputation and without introduction, from one of the big schools of music on the Continent. What his nationality was, Morthoe had never gathered, for on that point Lastaire was both shy and secretive. That there was native blood in his veins Morthoe had not the slightest doubt. All he could gather was that this protegé of his had drifted westward from somewhere on the American coast in the neighbourhood of the Gulf of Florida, and that he had picked up a certain amount of education where he could find it. He was very dark—so dark, indeed, that the suggestion of negro blood in his veins was apparent to most people, which might have accounted for his sensitive nature. But this mattered little or nothing to a broad-minded and cosmopolitan musician and sportsman like Morthoe. It was enough for him that Lastaire was a great musical genius, with an almost boundless future before him. Like most pioneers, he had had to struggle hard; but Morthoe saw to it from the first that he had his chance, so that within a few months the discerning critics began to point Lastaire out as the coming man. And, indeed, one or two of his compositions had already carried him a long way.
It was at this point that he came to Morthoe with a first complete act of a new opera which aroused Morthoe to a high pitch of enthusiasm. The wonderful colour and melody of the work appealed strongly to him, for here was not only a great musical attainment, but a breadth and originality that promised fine things in the future.
Morthoe had literally jumped at it. If the opera finished as it had begun, then without doubt the new work would see the light at the National Opera House. Lastaire was advised to go away and devote his whole time to the completion of his masterpiece.
With this commission in his pocket, he went down to the north coast of Devon, where he worked on the opera day and night, writing and publishing musical trifles in the meantime as a kind of relaxation. And it was one of these slight melodies of his that led up to the tragedy.
It was only a little trifle in the way of a folk song, a weird, haunting, curious bit of work, full of original touches and alive with the fire of genius. It had been published by a West End firm, and immediately jumped into popularity. A few days later a letter from Sir John Follett, the well-known English composer, had appeared in The Times, in which letter Follett deliberately accused Lastaire of stealing one of his own original melodies. Sir John's work had not yet been published, but he was able to prove on pretty conclusive evidence that he was the composer of the work that Lastaire had published. And naturally a man so prominent before the public and of such high standing was believed in preference to the passionate protest made by Lastaire that his melody had been inspired by some rude folk song that he had heard in his youth in the huts of the aborigines on the Gulf of Florida; but as he had no evidence to prove this, and as ho was in direct conflict with the great English composer, he suffered. Works of his were sent back by publishers, and it looked as if Lastaire's star was setting almost before it had begun to rise.
That a man of Lastaire's temperament should take the thing greatly to heart was only natural. Seeing himself baffled and defeated, not to say disgraced, and knowing that what he said was true, he had turned his back on London and gone into Devonshire. He had refused to see Morthoe, who still believed in him, and who, in spite of everything, was quite prepared to carry out his promise so far as the opera was concerned.
A day or two later Lastaire disappeared. He had gone for a lonely walk along the cliffs on a stormy afternoon, and he had never returned. His stick and hat were found, but though the days went on, no single trace of the missing musician had been discovered. Morthoe went down there himself to investigate, but, however, without result. And so a month passed, and Lastaire was beginning to be forgotten.
And then a strange thing happened.
One morning Sir John Follett burst into Morthoe 's office at the National Opera House in a great state of excitement. His kindly, rosy face showed signs of every concern, the eyes behind the gold-rimmed spectacles were full of remorse. He flung himself into a chair opposite Morthoe.
"Well, what's the matter?" Morthoe asked.
"Oh, my dear fellow," Follett said, "I hardly know how to tell you. I have behaved like a scoundrel, an absolute scoundrel! How on earth I came to forget it, I don't know. Look here, Morthoe, I feel like a thief! I am a thief! I have stolen a man's reputation!"
"Ah, you are talking of Lastaire!" Morthoe cried.
"I am. Now, you know what I told you. You know what I wrote to The Times. When I sent off that letter, I honestly believed every word of it. It wasn't true, Morthoe, it wasn't true! I feel as if I had that poor young man's blood on my soul! I murdered him!"
"Tell me all about it," Morthoe said soothingly.
"What is there to tell? You know as much about it as I do. I thought that Lastaire had managed to get sight of that melody of mine one day he called at the School of Music. He could have done so easily enough. And you know I proved that my melody was written before he thought of his. And now I am not so sure. Not so sure! I know that I have done him an injustice. My dear fellow, my melody wasn't original."
"What on earth " Morthoe began.
"Well, it was like this. Late last night I was looking over a pile of yellow manuscript that I bought years ago in Scotland. It's quaint stuff, and must have been written I don't know how many centuries ago—folk melodies from the Hebrides, melodies that go back to the beginning of music, melodies played on a sinew stretched on a bone— and quite unconsciously I must have adapted the disputed song from those manuscripts. You know how things go round and round in your mind till you begin to think they are your own—sort of unconscious plagiarism. Poets and novelists have done it, and why not musicians? I have compared my music with the source from which I obtained it, and the similarity is remarkable."
"That's very strange," Morthoe said. "And yet I don't know. Music, like language, must have come from somewhere. Some genius invented it in the Dark Ages, and it must have spread from continent to continent, very likely in the glacial period, before the great oceans were formed. I shouldn't be surprised if the folk music of the world had come from a common stock."
"Ah, that's the point." Follett said eagerly. "I am an Englishman, and I learnt my music in London. I wonder how much of my work has been inspired by this old folk stuff, if I only knew it? And all the time I have been priding myself that it is my own! I have done Lastaire an injustice. I don't doubt for a moment that he was telling the truth when he said that melody of his had been adapted from an air played on a tom-tom or suchlike instrument in some native village away yonder on the Gulf of Mexico. And here am I, past the meridian of life, cruel enough to kill a genius! That's what it comes to, Morthoe. I murdered that wonderful genius of yours. I am a thief, a charlatan living upon my musical memory! I can't tell you how distressed I am. What can I do? I can only write a letter to The Times, deploring my mistake, and do my best to give the dead man back his reputation. He was a genius, Morthoe."
"He was indeed," Morthoe sighed, "and if things had gone all right, he would have stood before the world as the composer of the most magnificent opera we have had for the last twenty-five years. I say that because I know, because I have the first act in my safe yonder. I have never shown it to a single soul, and I don't suppose I ever shall now—unless, perhaps, I play it as a fragment—because I should never be vandal enough to give anybody the commission to complete it. I was going to take that opera round the world. It was going to be the great new work with which I was proud to identify myself. The tour is all complete. We are going to Paris and Stockholm and Milan, thence to America and Australia, and come back to Long Beach and those famous winter resorts along the coast of Florida. We shall start in about six months' time, and probably be away for three years. It's the biggest world's tour undertaken by an operatic company. And, after what you have told me, I would give half what I possess to know that Eugene Lastaire was going with us. He was to have superintended the production of his own opera and, of course, conduct it. The rest of the time I had engaged him for first violin in the orchestra. This is a shocking business, Follett." "It is indeed," Follett groaned. "I am entirely in your hands, Morthoe. I'll do anything you like." "Yes, but what can you do?" Morthoe asked. "You can only write what you have told me to The Times, and do the best you can to rehabilitate the poor chap's memory." And so itcame about that the musical papers and others were flled for some days with the strange story that Sir John Follett had to tell. Reams were written on old folk songs, and one of the daily papers went so far as to print the facsimile of Follett's song and the crabbed inspiration from which it was derived. Undoubtedly a great reaction had begun in Lastaire's favour, and his memory was held to have been cleansed of all suspicion and dishonour.
But unfortunately all this could not bring the dead man back to life again. Naturally enough, in a few days the incident was forgotten, except by Morthoe and one or two friends who had liked Lastaire, and were genuinely grieved over the mistake that had caused him, in a moment of despair, to lay violent hands upon himself. And so the time went on. Months passed, and the great world's tour of the Morthoe International Opera Company was drawing to a close. They had been all over Europe and the colonies in one long blaze of triumph, and at length they had reached the fashionable town of Long Beach, where all that counts in America had gathered for one of the most brilliant winter seasons that that famous spot had ever experienced. Big as Long Beach was, it was not big enough to detain Morthoe more than three nights.
On the third night it was his intention to conduct "La Bohème" himself, as he had conducted "Pagliacci" at the opening performance, filling up his time during the day with fishing in the bay, a sport of which he was passionately fond. The hotel in which he was staying was full of sportsmen, all of whom were there for the tarpon fishing, and with some of these Morthoe had gone out each morning until the last day of his stay there, when he took a boat and a native, and went out alone.
It was a perfect morning, with a light breeze blowing from the west, an ideal day for the sea. Here and there along the bay little islands and peninsulas were dotted, green oases in that glorious sea, where the few original natives who were left plied their craft and tilled their ground much as their forefathers had done any time since the world began. They were inviting little islands, these—indeed, some of them were of considerable extent—only a mile or two from the mainland, and therefore in close touch with the shore.
Morthoe sat there in the boat with a sort of glad feeling that he was alive, his mind intent on his sport, which, by the contrariness of things, was anything but good. He had not as yet succeeded in hooking one of the big silver fish to his own rod, and, as time was short, he was loth to leave that delectable corner of the earth until he had added to his sporting experiences.
The copper-coloured native working the boat shook his head gently. So far as Morthoe could gather from his jargon, he was deploring the fact that the wind was in the wrong direction for tarpon fishing, and that it would have been better if there had been a ripple on the water. But it lay now in one sheet of gold and opal and pallid blue right away to the misty horizon, where a few smudges of cloud were drifting inland from the sea. There was nothing else to do but to sit quietly in the boat, smoking and idling the time away until perhaps late in the afternoon a breeze would spring up, and then it might be possible to land a fish that was worthy of the occasion.
Morthoe sat there dreaming, with his pipe between his lips, after a luxurious luncheon and a glass or two of champagne. He was seated in the bow of the boat, making himself as comfortable as possible on a pile of sailcloth, and half asleep, when he suddenly sat up and looked at the dusky native in the stern. The man was gazing out to sea with eyes almost as sleepy as Morthoe's own, his lips were parted as he crooned a peculiar melody gently to himself .
And Morthoe recognised it instantly. It was the very air that had been the cause of all the trouble between Follett and Lastaire. Very quietly Morthoe sat there until the last bar was finished. There was no question about it. Beyond doubt, thousands of miles away from London, he was listening to a melody that had cost one man's life, and the melody, moreover, which was common to that languid sun-kissed coast and the rude salt breezes of the Hebrides. With a curious feeling upon him and with a voice not altogether steady, Morthoe addressed his guide.
"Where did you get that from, Sammy?" he said slowly. "I mean, who taught you the song you are singing?"
The native showed his yellow teeth in a grin.
"Nonebody taught me, sah," he said. "We all knows him. Him come from nowhere. Him sung by little piccaninnies as soon as dey knows anything. Fousands and fousands of years they sung him dese parts."
"What's it called?" Morthoe asked.
"Not called nothing, sah. Got no name, same as gentleman an' Sam here. You give me half dollar, an' I sing you more."
"Go on," Morthoe said good-naturedly. "Go on."
For the best part of an hour he listened, with an attention that Sam found decidedly flattering, to little snatches of queer haunting melody that sounded strange and yet familiar. Here and there Morthoe could undoubtedly pick out an air that bore a queer resemblance to more than one classical bit; but all this was as nothing to the startling discovery that there, floating on the heart of the glorious summer sea, he had found proof positive of the truth of Lastaire's statement.
He came back to himself presently, to the realisation of things, and the fact that a strong breeze had come up from behind a bank of black cloud sliding along the horizon, and that the boat was dipping and pitching on the sea, that carried white crests as far as the eye could reach. The whole character of the afternoon had changed, and Sam, deeply interested in a conscientious endeavour to earn his half dollar, had not noticed it. Then he ceased to chant in that monotonous way of his and got the oars out.
By this time there was not a craft in sight—all the rest of the fishermen had put in long ago—and along the beach the surf was screaming and beating in huge waves. Every moment now the sea was getting higher.
Five minutes ago they had been safe enough, and now, to all appearances, they were in dire peril. With the tide against them, they could not beat inshore; there was nothing for it now, so far as Morthoe could see, but to run before the gale and make for one of those little green islands on the sea.
"We're in danger, aren't we?" Morthoe asked.
"Much danger for you, sah," Sam said coolly. "We no get back—can't be done. Then we make for one of de banks, an' when boat bump all to pieces on sand, you swim."
"Oh, indeed," Morthoe said between his teeth. "I'm a fair swimmer, Sam. but I don't think I'd have much chance in a surf like that. What about you?"
"Oh, Sam all right," that worthy grinned. "Sam swim before he walk. You no worry 'bout Sam."
"I'm not," Morthoe said. "Now push on."
They pushed on accordingly through a white whirl of water in the direction of one of the green patches, which was now blurred and indistinct behind a curtain of flying foam and torrents of rain. They lurched forward, buffeted here and there by the wind, and carried over and over again out of their track by powerful cross-currents, so that a score of times they were swept past the beach that Sam was making for, and where he knew that the shelter of the curving shore might afford a possible landing for his passenger. For himself, he cared not at all; he knew every trick and turn of the tide and every swirl of the ocean current as he knew the palm of his own hand. He might be tossed presently like a cork on the surface of that boiling sea, but he had no doubt that the time would come when he would find himself with his feet on firm ground again. And so they struggled on, drifting here and there until darkness fell and they lay in the heart of the violet night with the storm halloing round them. There was no word spoken, for they were both busy enough in baling out the boat. And then presently, when Morthoe was beginning to wonder how much longer this was going on, something seemed to strike him and toss him as if he had been no heavier than a feather, and when he came down again he was struggling and fighting for his life in a howling waste of water. The boat had come down violently on the sands, and in the twinkling of an eye had been torn to matchwood.
With the desire to live strong within him, Morthoe struck out wildly, fighting in the darkness, half blind and breathless for what seemed to him to be hours. Then his knees encountered something soft and yielding, and a moment later he struggled to his feet. A big wave, rushing up the beach, caught him violently in the back and tossed him headlong on to a dry spit of sand. By some blind instinct he scrambled forward until, so far as he could see, he stood under the shadow of a fringe of palms, and then it began to be borne upon him that he was safe. A little while later he started to make his way inland, with the object of finding some habitation.
He was not in the least cold, for the night was soft and warm, nor was he conscious of any particular feeling of fatigue. He did not know what time it was, he did not much care. It could not be very late yet, because he could see the big electric arcs all along the fringe of the mainland, and the lights glittering redly in the hotel windows. He smiled to himself as he thought of the story he would have to tell on the morrow. Then just in front of him he saw a light glowing in what he took to be the window of a small native house. He hastened towards it, with the idea of food and dry clothing uppermost in his mind, then suddenly paused just outside, as the sound of music struck on his ear.
Somebody inside the hut was playing the violin, and playing it exceedingly well. And, strangely enough, the melody that wailed from those strings was the same that Morthoe had heard that afternoon, and the same that had led up to the tragedy of Lastaire.
With a curious feeling of tightening across the chest and a strange premonition that something was about to happen, Morthoe crept forward and opened the door of the hut. In the excitement of the moment he did not even stop to knock.
He saw a neat little room, lighted by one oil lamp that hung from the ceiling. He saw a heap of MSS. littered on the side-table, and a man with a violin in his hand standing before a sheet of music propped up in front of him. Very silently Morthoe crept forward.
"Ah, Lastaire!"he said. "Thank God, I have found you at last!"
EVERARD DIX was exceedingly sorry, but so far as he could see there was no help for it, as he explained to his friend, Max Clayton, as they sat over a cigar in the former's comfortable flat after dinner. Max Clayton was a writer of some repute, with aspirations in the direction of the stage, and Everard Dix had promised to finance the new comedy which was destined to mark an epoch in the history of the drama. And so on.
"It's a blow," Clayton murmured. "It's a blow, and there's no getting over it. But I know you too well to think that you would let me down without some very good reason."
"Oh, there's reason enough, all right," Dix groaned. "And I owe you an explanation. Now, you know what my business is, don't you?"
"Oh, something to do with paper, I believe," Clayton said vaguely. "Something in the City."
"Yes, we make paper, but only of a peculiar kind. It's the sort of stuff that bank notes and exchequer bonds and all those kind of things are printed on. With the possible exception of the Bank of England note paper, there is nothing like it, and we have always boasted that it cannot be forged. And that, my dear chap, is where we made a mistake, and that, indirectly, is why I can't let you have the money."
"That is interesting. Go on."
"Recently we lost one or two big contracts in America because a clever gang there have been extensively forging gold dollar bonds on a splendid imitation of our paper. Most of our paper has been supplied to a firm called Goldsack, in Liverpool, who are probably the biggest printers of Government and bank securities in the world. Amongst their secrets is a marvellous ink, the ingredients of which are only known to the heads of the firm themselves, and with that ink, plus our paper, we were able to laugh at forgers. But not now. My idea was to get a new paper that would only take the Goldsack ink, and that if the printing was tampered with the forgery would be detected at a glance. And I managed it."
"Then what have you got to worry about?" Clayton asked.
"Well, my idea was to get a paper that would show forgery by heat or damping, so that they would change colour. In other words, supposing you warmed one of those securities, or wetted it with a moistened finger, the ink would change colour, that is on a genuine bill. If the thing was a forgery then there would be no change. And I did it."
"Well," Clayton said. "If you've done that you ought to be a jolly sight better off than ever."
"I did it, and sent on a specimen of the work to Goldsack's in Liverpool. But it never got there. Three specimens went through the post, and none of them were delivered. Then we tried registering. The postman who delivered the registered letters was waylaid in a business lane in Liverpool, and robbed of his bag. That had been fairly early in the morning, before people were about, and not so difficult as it sounds. I telephoned Goldsacks, but I'm not quite sure they believe my story. Our paper is perfect, and I can do all we claim in connection with Goldsack ink. But I can't get the specimen up to Liverpool. I don't want to go myself, because those chaps will be watching me, and I don't feel inclined to trust anybody else. Now, can't you think of some scheme to get to Goldsack's without incurring the suspicions of those rascals? I don't want them to know anything about it. I want to make them feel that we have dropped the whole business, as it is too dangerous to go on with. You are an ingenious-minded chap, who has written a good many clever stories—can't you show me a way? It's worth thinking about, even if only for your own sake."
Clayton helped himself to a fresh cigar, and smoked thoughtfully.
"Did you ever read a story of Poe's called 'The Purloined Letter'?" he asked.
"I can't cay I have," Dix said languidly.
"Ah, well, that's a pity. It's all about a clever political Johnny who stole a compromising letter which he had to use daily, and which he hid from the police, who were searching for it day and night. They couldn't find it, because he had put it in a place where everybody could see it. It doesn't sound very much told in bald words, but it is one of the most convincing stories, in the English language."
"I begin to see your drift," Dix said more enthusiastically.
"Here, let me have a chance. And if you'll give me a dummy parcel, a kind of forgery of what I have to deliver, put up in a separate envelope with your seal on it, then I think I can properly fool those chaps. It's just as well, perhaps, in that envelope, to write a few lines to the effect that you have done the best you could, but that you regret to say that so far your efforts have not been crowned with success, and that in the meantime you are sorry that pressure of other business—well, you know what I mean. Give me that, and the real thing in another sealed envelope, and if I fail, well, I do."
Dix smiled behind his cigar.
"Oh, my dear chap, don't be absurd," he said. "You must come to grief. Why, you couldn't keep it secret for five minutes. Everybody would know what you are going to do, and you will be robbed of that paper long before you get to Liverpool. Besides, you have been in and out of my office every day for the last fortnight, and if there is treachery, as I suspect, then the foe will be certain to have a tip, and keep their eye on you if it gets known that you are even contemplating going to Liverpool. Oh, it's impossible."
"Look here," Clayton said eagerly. "I can only fail, like the rest of them. I want to walk into your office in my own inconsequent way, and ask you before your staff if you've got the stuff ready for me, as I propose to go to Liverpool, say, the day after to-morrow. You can frown and look annoyed, and take me into your private room, and there hand over to me the real thing. But the skeleton envelope must reach me without any one being any the wiser. I wonder if you'll give it to me to-night?"
"Oh, I can, of course."
"Then let me have it, and I will go to Liverpool by the night mail the day after to-morrow, having first come round to your office openly as arranged. Then, on the following evening, you dine with me at the Café Royal, and see me into a taxi on the way to Euston. Before I go, I shall openly ask the waiter to give me one of those glass flagons of special whisky they keep, and you will see me throw it into the bag by my side. Then all you've got to do is to go quietly to bed, and I'll come round within a week and collect that thousand pounds as per contract. Oh, you needn't worry, I'm not going to fail."
"Oh, very well," Dix said finally. "I'll make up a parcel now for you to take away, and the next scene of the comedy had better take place in my outer office after lunch on Thursday afternoon, which I think is the day you propose to go to Liverpool."
* * * * *
There were a score or more of clerks in the outer office as Clayton entered, on the following Thursday, including Dix himself, who had apparently just come back from lunch. Clayton hailed him in his usual free and easy style in a voice that could be heard all over the office.
"Well, here I am," he cried. "And I haven't much time to lose. I might, with any luck, be able to meet you this evening at the Café Royal for a mouthful of dinner before I catch the Liverpool express, but it is only a sporting chance, and if I am not there by 8 o'clock don't you wait. You had better give me those papers now—"
Dix frowned, and appeared to bite his lip. He glanced somewhat uneasily round the crowded office, and signified to Clayton to follow him into his private room.
"I suppose you know what you are doing," he said, dubiously. "I have put myself into your hands, as I said I would, but it looks to me as if you were simply asking for trouble. Didn't I tell you I suspected treachery in the office?"
"It's all a part of the programme," Clayton explained. "And all a part of the scheme I hinted at the other night. The master's voice, and all the rest of it. Now, give me that other parcel. I suppose it's all right. I guess you have got the genuine article this time?"
"Sure thing!" Dix responded. "And if you are successful you get the cheque, and I make—well, goodness knows how much. But tell me—"
"Not a single word, my boy. Now, you turn up at 8 o'clock, and don't worry yourself any more about it until you see me in London again."
It was a little after 8 that Clayton bustled into the Café Royal, and took a seat at a table where Dix was already waiting him. He was, apparently, in the highest spirits, he spoke freely in that somewhat strident voice of his, he did ample justice to a good dinner, and subsequently turned to the waiter with an order for one of those special flagons of whisky for which the house is famous. It came presently in the form of a little round flat bottle, the sort of thing that used to be called a pocket pistol, and this Clayton dropped carelessly into the kitbag that stood by the side of his chair. Half an hour later he got into a taxi, and made his way to Euston station. There he entered the express train, and placed this bag in a corner seat inside a first class corridor carriage. Then, as there was plenty of time to spare, he walked off down the long platform, apparently in search of papers. The guard's whistle had already gone when he boarded the train again and took his seat in the carriage.
The compartment was no longer empty. On one side of him was a well-dressed woman, more or less elaborately clad in furs, and on the opposite side a youngish man, well turned out and aristocratic-looking, who carried about him a subtle suggestion of the army. Just as the train was about to move out of the station the inspector came to examine the tickets, and the man on the opposite seat suggested that the inspector would be the richer by half a crown if he placed a reserved label on the carriage window next to the corridor.
"I hope you don't mind, sir," he said, as he turned smilingly to Clayton. "You see, we shan't be in Liverpool till 4 o'clock in the morning, and my wife and I hope to get a little sleep. People are fond of wandering about in these corridor trains from one compartment to another—"
"Oh, certainly," Clayton said. "That's rather a good idea of yours. I never thought of that. But, then, you see, I am not much of a traveller."
There was a certain amount of fitful conversation afterwards between the three occupants of the carriage, then gradually it ceased, and Clayton's companions appeared to slumber. It was nearly 12 o'clock before the dramatist reached his bag down from the rack, and proceeded to take a liberal portion of the special whisky from his flask, which he diluted in a travelling cup with a small quantity of soda. Then he finished his cigar, made himself as comfortable as possible, and in turn closed his eyes.
When he came to himself again the train had come to a standstill, apparently in some terminus, and Clayton came out of a confused dream to find that a porter was standing over him. Then, in a dazed kind of way, he heard the man's voice.
"Beg pardon, sir," he said. "But this train 'as been in for quite ten minutes. I shouldn't 'ave known you'd been 'ere at all, sir, only I 'appened to look into the carriage to see if there was any stray newspapers lying about. You must 'ave been very sound asleep."
"I suppose I was," Clayton admitted. "You don't mean to say that it is past 4 o'clock?"
"Ten minutes past, sir. But aren't you well?"
"I do feel most uncommonly stupid," Clayton said. "Here, take my bag and put it on a taxi."
Clayton stumbled out of the carriage in a dazed sort of way, and lurched along the deserted platform very much like a man who is getting over a fit of intoxication. His head was aching, and there was a nasty taste in his mouth. But this was not troubling him much, nor the fact discovered later on that the sealed packet which he had carried in the breast-pocket of his overcoat was missing. Apparently his travelling companions had vanished some time before, without making any attempt to wake him, and Clayton's thoughts were just a little confused as he drove along through the streets in the direction of the Adelphi Hotel. There he registered and went straight to bed, where he remained till well into the afternoon, by which time he was practically himself again. He partook of a hearty lunch, and then called for the local directory. He was busy for most of the afternoon and the best part of the evening, but apparently so pleased was he with the result of his labours that it was early in the following week that he made his way back to London again. During that time he made no attempt whatever to communicate with Dix, and it was Wednesday afternoon before the found himself free to call up Dix on the telephone, making an appointment to meet his friend at the latter's flat at 7 o'clock in the evening.
"Are you quite alone there?" he asked.
"Oh, yes," Dix said. "I am using the private 'phone of my own office. Yes, I'll see you at 7 o'clock; in fact, you'd better come round to dinner."
"That's all right," Clayton said. "And you mind it's a jolly good dinner, too, because I've earned it."
"Oh, you have, have you?" Dix asked. "Why on earth didn't you send me a wire, or call me up on the telephone. I've been worried to death about you."
"Not good enough," Clayton explained. "You might have been out, and possibly the very man in your employ whom you suspect might have answered the telephone. But I'll tell you all about it when we meet this evening. Ring off."
Dix did so reluctantly. He was waiting in his flat impatiently enough for Clayton to put in an appearance, which the latter did all in good time, though he refused to say a single word till he had done ample justice to a good dinner, and was lying back in his chair with a choice cigar between his lips.
"Now then, out with it," Dix said. "Or I shall do you a violence. Did you manage it?"
"In one word, I did," Clayton replied. "I handed over that skeleton security to old Goldsack himself, and gave him a pretty general idea of what was going on. When the old chap properly realised what a desperate gang we had been up against he was properly impressed. Of course, he treated me as your confidential agent, and I was permitted to see all the tests that your work was put to. No, you needn't ask any questions, they were all absolutely successful, and Goldsack told me that in future they would have no hesitation in using your new paper for all their best impressions. So you see I did get the thing through, as I said I should, and, what's more, those enemies of yours have gone off under the impression that all your efforts have been failures, and that they can return to the States under the happy delusion that they can continue their forgeries with impunity. Well, if the American police do their duty, the whole of the gang will be laid by the heels before many months are up. The best thing you can do is to sack the people you suspect, because you are likely to have some pretty fat orders from old Goldsack at an early date."
Dix drew a long breath of relief.
"Well, that's all right," he said. "My dear fellow, you have put me under an obligation that I can never repay. Of course, you shall have the money for your comedy, and more if necessary, and even then I shall be in your debt. But I don't quite understand how you worked it, all the same."
"Well, I came here to tell you," Clayton said. "And it's very simple, after all. Now, I knew perfectly well, from what you told me, that I should be followed to Liverpool. One of your clerks gave the game away after I was in your office last week, and we were shadowed to the Café Royal. In my overcoat pocket I had the dummy parcel, and in the lining of my kit bag was the real thing. When we were at the Café Royal I spotted the people who were after us. They were seated at the next table, and heard every word we said. They saw me take that parcel out of my overcoat pocket and put it back again. And, of course, they heard me order that whisky. When I got to Euston station I posted the genuine papers to myself, after taking them out of my kit bag and re-addressing them to the Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool, to make sure. When I returned to my carriage, there, sure enough, were the two people, a man and a woman, who had been dining at the Café Royal. Of course, they'd seen me put my kit bag in the corner of the carriage, but they didn't mind that. And I didn't mind the man tipping the guard to put a reserved notice on the carriage, because he said he and his wife wanted to sleep. Directly after we got to the Café Royal they also ordered a flagon of whisky, which, no doubt, they doctored on the way to Euston with the dope they had prepared for me, and when my back was turned, and my kit hag proving to be unlocked, the flagons were changed. You see, that prevented any violence, which people of that sort always avoid if they can. So, apparently, I walked into their trap with my eyes open, and when I was under the influence of the drug they took the bogus envelope out of my overcoat pocket, and, of course, from their point of view, all was lovely in the garden."
'"That stuff might have killed you," Dix exclaimed.
"Oh, no, those kind of people don't go in for drama like that. I guessed I was going to be drugged, and took the stuff because I wanted these people to know that I was insensible when they robbed me, and not shamming. And, besides, it was experience. I know now what it feels like to be drugged, and therefore, if ever I write about it, I shall do so at first hand. So you see, like a conjurer, I forced my card on those people, and they took it quite innocently. So there you are, that's the whole story. Anybody could have done it."
"Could they, indeed!" Dix murmured admiringly. "Well, I beg to differ. But, at any rate, you have earned your money, and I shall be only too pleased to pay it to you."
"IT seems to me," said the first conspirator, with the air of a man who makes a discovery, "it seems to me that we are lost."
"If you are discovered," murmured the second conspirator, "you are lost."
"Oh, yes, dramatically speaking, perhaps," the third conspirator put in. "All right on the stage, don't you know, but not here. If we are discovered we are saved. Driver, where are we?"
"Oh, don't ask me, gents all," the chauffeur said with absolute detachment. "I dunno. Somewhere in the neighbourhood of Regent's Park, though I ain't bettin' on it. 'Ackney coach,' 'ansom and taxicab man and boy for thirty year, and I never saw such a fog afore."
He spoke the truth—nobody had. Never had there been such a fog since London began. Four mild January days without a breath of wind had been followed by one of the most disastrous fires the Thames-side had ever known. Thousands of barrels of petroleum had lifted their dense pall of smoke into the heavy clouds, and now the falling fog had drifted the heavy, suffocating mass over the metropolis like some funeral pall. Like the plague of Egypt, the darkness could be felt.
Now, whatever atmospheric disaster the Fates have in store, the business of London must go on. Shops and offices must be attended to, and at all hazards the City of London must be achieved. The three conspirators had reached their offices some way, they had managed to get off those letters, and, perhaps for the first time in their lives, had no anathema for the telephone. For the rest, they shared a flat on the north side of Regent's Park, and, with the help of the gods, had all and sundry found their way back to dinner. You cannot easily discourage a stockbroker.
They should have been contented as they were; they had been wrong to attempt so heavy an overdraft on the bank of fate. They should have sent down to the floor below and asked Leckie—also safe back from the city—and been happy with an evening at bridge.
But they were young and ardent and flushed with success, and the black throat of the fog had no terrors for them. At any cost they were going to Lady Shoreham's fancy dress ball. There was not much more than a mile to go, their dresses were ready, and they really fancied themselves as three more or less picturesque anarchist conspirators. The dresses had a touch of the Mephistophelean, with vivid red slashed here and there; they wore black wigs, and their faces were masked. Also, they were three exceedingly well-set-up young men, with all the matchless audacity which is so necessary for success in the air of Copthall Avenue. They dreamt of the day when the big coup would come off, of the hour of the exclusive information when the big men would shiver and wonder what the trio would do next.
The inspiration had yet to come.
They managed to find a taxi right enough. A sovereign if he got them to Shoreham House within the hour, which offer in times of lesser stress would have been generous. The driver was inclined to be pessimistic, but he would do his best. Moreover, he had taken nothing all day. He fumbled his way along at a snail's pace, his heart in his mouth all the time. By the intervention of Providence he ran over nobody, he collided with no light standards, but—in ten minutes he was hopelessly lost, and appealed imploringly to all and collectively who passed to tell him where he was. The conundrum was a popular one that night, but, alas! the chosen who could answer it were few.
From out of the denseness of the fog came strange sounds. There were little cries of alarm, bleats of apology, the tinkle of metal on metal, and once the crash of broken glass. The first conspirator, who rejoiced in the name of Dick Willoughby, put his head out of the window.
"This is very interesting," he said. "Do you remember the ingenious excuse made by the city clerk for not getting to business during one foggy spell? He sent a telegram, you know: 'Sorry cannot reach offices to-day, as I have not yet got home yesterday!' Not bad, eh?"
Nobody laughed. The other conspirators, Bond and Machen, were getting anxious. It was just past 10, and apparently they were farther from their destination than ever. It was gradually being borne in on them that there was going to be no destination—if they escaped spending the night in a cab they would be lucky.
"I wish I was well out of this," Bond muttered.
A moment later and he nearly had his way. Out of the fog, barely a yard away, loomed another taxi; the driver pulled sharply to the left up a steep, grassy bank. What the grassy bank was doing there, apparently in the middle of the road, did not come for a moment within the area of speculation. For the fraction of a second, or so it seemed, the tension was great. Then the taxis cleared; there was an outline of white posts and rails, and the cab came to a standstill, apparently in a field.
"Now, where the dickens are we?" Willoughby asked.
"Somewhere out in Surrey, governor," the chauffeur growled, "unless some 'umorist 'as gone and shoved a tennis lawn down 'ere. Anyway, we're on grass inside somebody's gate. No doubt there's a 'ouse a bit farther on if one could only see it. Still, I'm in your 'ands."
Willoughby's mind was made up. In the vernacular of his clan, he was fed up with the whole thing. Besides, it was just possible that he stood on the edge of adventure, just a chance that destiny would waft a little excitement to them.
"Turn out, boys," he commanded. "We are going to throw ourselves on the mercy of the court. In other words, we are going to find the house and ask shelter for the night. Driver, here is your sovereign. If you like to look for another fare—"
"Not me, sir," the chauffeur said philosophically. "I am safe 'ere, and 'ere I stay. Inside the keb with me bit of supper an' packet of fags. Don't you worry about me."
They promised faithfully that they wouldn't, and went their way. Apparently the grounds about the house were fairly extensive, for the adventurers passed another tennis lawn before they reached what looked like a beacon gleam against the thickness of the fog. The trio were actually inside the porch before they realised the fact that the front door was hospitably open.
"Let's enter the house first and ring the bell afterwards," Machen suggested.
The suggestion was sufficiently unconventional to suggest itself to the others. They passed from the darkness and desolation of the gloom into a large square hall brilliantly lighted, warm and inviting. Never had a refined and luxurious English home looked so alluring before. A great wood fire crackled on the open hearth, there were trophies of the chase on the polished floor, some remarkably good pictures hung on the panelled walls. High up were stags' heads and racks of guns and a 'varsity oar, with a dark blue blade and Magdalen College arms mounted on a shield. The whole atmosphere was inviting and cosy to the last degree.
"Well, thank Heaven we've struck the trail of a sportsman," Bond exclaimed. "Let's hope that the proud possessor of all this splendour was in the Oxford boat with you, Willoughby. Golf clubs, too. Any odds the chap is a plus player. Ring the bell, Machen."
Machen complied vigorously. The ripple of it could be heard afar off. And no response came to the second and third summons. Willoughby laughed.
"An adventure, by George!" he cried. "Money on it, we're alone in the house. All the household has gone and lost itself in the fog. In my mind's eye I can picture the catastrophe. The hero failed to materialise for dinner. Being a fine sportsman, probably he is as handsome as a Greek god. He has a young and beautiful wife who is devoted to him. She went to look for him and lost herself. Then the butler went to look for her; and the cook followed the butler; and so on. Regular house that Jack built game."
"The fact remains that we are alone in the house," Bond said thoughtfully. "I refuse to connect tragedy with a place like this. Let's explore. Dining-room first. If they've left us some supper the measure of my gratitude will know no bounds. To be candid, I'm confoundedly hungry."
There were no less than five rooms leading from the hall. A blaze of light glittered everywhere, and everywhere was the same pleasing suggestion of comfort and luxury. The big dining-room was oak panelled throughout; there were racing and sporting cups on the old buffet, a fine army of gold-topped bottles, and on the table, with covers laid for half a dozen guests, a cold supper that suggested the Savoy or the Ritz at their best. Bond's mouth watered as he looked at it.
"Now, this is touching," he said. "This is really thoughtful. It is far more than I had expected. In the circumstances, they will hardly expect us to wait. Hallo."
The speaker wheeled suddenly round as there came to his ear a choking sound from the region of the doorway. He was just in time to grab a scared-faced page boy by the shoulder. Evidently the youth was fully under the impression that his last hour was come.
"What does all this mean?" Bond demanded. "Where are the servants, and you—er—your employer?"
"Master and missis couldn't get back," the stricken page gasped. "Got caught in the fog this side of Croydon. They sent a telegram; and if anybody turned up to supper the butler was to explain. They were to have supper first and go to Lady Shoreham's after."
"Then where's the butler and all the rest of them?"
"Next door, sir. The people are away, and the servants are giving a party. It's all right, sir—indeed, it is. You see, we expected nobody in this fog, and—and I went to see a friend on the other side. Left me in charge, they did. And if anybody turned up I was to—"
"My boy," Willoughby said kindly, "have no fear. It's a festive time, when one forgives—well, anything. Only show me the telegram, not necessarily for publication, but as a—very good. Mr. Everest will understand. We are his guests. And I am quite sure that he would not like us to wait. We are not going to disturb the servants; we are going to let them enjoy themselves. The lot of the average domestic is hard, and it is the duty of the rich, like ourselves, to treat them with every consideration. Let them come back when they like. We will wait upon ourselves. Put the cigars and cigarettes handy on the table, and go your way. That will do, George."
The page vanished. He was young; he came evidently from the country; his scruples were satisfied. And it would probably be ages before the servants returned.
"How did you get at the name of our esteemed host?" Machen asked.
"Idiot!" Willoughby explained. "I guessed that the name would be on the telegram. That was why I demanded to see the missive. Everest was in the boat the year after I came down. Gordon Everest, he is, and a year ago he married Miss Wanstead, only daughter of the Master of the Riding Hunt. Any amount of money, and a real good chap to boot. He'll laugh like anything when he hears of this little adventure of ours. Come and sup.; let us sample the flowing bowl. And may this not be the end of our night's adventures. We deserve something to make up for our disappointment. Bond, oblige me by opening one of those bottles. Here's to the gods of happy chance. May they never desert us in the the hour of adversity."
He helped himself generously to Perigord pie—it would have been bad taste, he explained, not to do due justice to Gordon Everest's hospitality. They ate gaily enough, despite the fact that they wore their masks, for Willoughby had insisted on that. He liked to be guarded against possible surprises, and at any moment the garrison was liable to invasion. And Willoughby liked to be ready. A man who means some day to be a Napoleon of the Stock Exchange must be like that.
"To our host and hostess," Bond cried, emptying his champagne glass and reaching for a cigarette. "May they live long and prosper. Upon my word, I am sorry they are not here. I am sorry for some of the other would-be roysterers at present wading about in this fog. How many are there of them at the present moment, like little Tommy Tucker, singing for their supper? Really, we ought to consider ourselves fortunate, brethren. We ought to stand by the gate and proffer hospitality to the passers-by. What say?"
Willoughby and Bond regarded the suggestion as an excellent one. All the same, Willoughby did not seem to be quite easy in his mind. He had a fancy for exploring the servants' quarters. The matter that troubled him he did not disclose to the others. He came back presently more cheerful—he was more cheerful still after a telephone call and a whispered conversation with some body at the other end of the line.
"Now I feel better," he proclaimed.
"You fellows leave too much to chance. The man armed is he who—who gets his blow in first. Ah! here they are. Now for it!"
A pink and white individual, clothed in a certain dignity and evening dress of sorts, came with none too much ceremony into the room. He was followed by a female of uncertain age, and anything but uncertain obesity, in black satin and many gold brooches. It needed no amazing foresight to distinguish these as the butler and cook to the establishment.
"So you've condescended to come back at last, Odgers," Willoughby said coolly. "Unless I am mistaken, that is Mrs. Marus behind you. You don't recognise me, Odgers?"
The butler frankly confessed himself at a disadvantage. The pink indignation had faded from his cheeks. Mrs. Marus's hysterical desire for the police was no longer uppermost in her mind. Here were no audacious burglars, taking advantage of the fog. And Odgers had passed all his prosaic life in good houses, and flattered himself that he recognised a gentleman when he saw one.
"We will remain anonymous, Odgers," Willoughby went on calmly. "Were I to remove my mask, you would know me—I mean all of us—at once. You see, we are more fortunate than Mr. Everest and your mistress—we have got here; and here we propose to stay. If your master manages to struggle home before daylight, or what passes for daylight, we will excuse them. We esteem ourselves fortunate in obtaining shelter and supper. You had better all go to bed, Odgers. No, I will answer the telephone. In all probability that is Mr. Everest calling."
Willoughby advanced calmly into the hall and took down the receiver. For a moment he seemed to listen to some message of grave import.
"Oh, yes," he said. "What? Absolutely. What! Oh, yes, we got here all right. But it was pure blind luck, I assure you. Eh? Go any farther? Not much. It's the unkindest fog London has ever seen. Where? Between Croydon and Clapham? A decent place? Well, you're lucky, old boy. You might still be prowling about the roads in the car. Yes, we are all three of us here. I fancy Odgers took us for burglars at first. We had a fancy to sup in our masks. Why, Ethel? Oh she's all right. Tell Odgers what? Oh, yes; certainly. Pyjamas in the back of the linen cupboard? Oh, for us. Thanks, old chap. So long."
Odgers looked relieved. Nothing had been said as to his escapade.
"You need not be alarmed as to your master and mistress," Willoughby said, as he hung up the receiver. "They have reached a place of safety. And I did not say anything about the supper party of yours, Odgers. Two of us will sleep in your master's room and one in the dressing-room. The pyjamas—but you heard what Mr. Everest said. You had better retire, Odgers, and leave the house to us."
Odgers raised no objection. On the whole, he was disposed to regard himself as well out of it.
"Well, you are a wonder!" Bond said admiringly. "I've been dreading the return of the vassals of the house. How on earth did you manage it, Willoughby!"
"My dear chap, it's nothing," Willoughby said modestly. "I wanted to get into the kitchen, because I felt quite sure that I should find the insurance cards there. They were in a dresser drawer—John Odgers, and Mary Marus, widow, and all the rest of them. Now, obviously, Odgers was the butler—with a name like that he couldn't be anything else. And Mary Marus must be the cook. Hence the easy familiarity with which I had their names on the tip of my tongue."
"But, my dear chap, Everest himself on the 'phone?" Machen protested.
"There was no Everest on the 'phone. I faked that call. There is an extension in the dining-room, and I rang up by lifting the extension receiver. I was afraid you would see me do it. My conversation with my good friend Gordon Everest was purely imaginary. I had to make the genial Odgers feel quite at his ease, and I flatter myself that I did so. We're absolutely safe now."
"Oh, you'll get on all right," Bond said admiringly. "But you always were a genius for finding the most ingenious way out of a scrape. Pity there are not four of us here to make up a table at bridge."
"Let's go out and find somebody," Machen suggested. "All we need is two or three balls of string, with an end tied to the front door, and—"
Willoughby held up a hand as a mysterious tapping was heard on the window.
"Here's your fourth at bridge," he said, "knocking to come in. Hope he plays 'auction.' Well?"
"Excuse me, gents." A hoarse voice broke the silence as the window was opened. "I'm your driver. Been sittin' in my keb for the last hour or more 'alf asleep. I thought I 'eard somebody callin' and I got up. A gent was standin' by the gate in the fog. Dismissed 'is keb, 'e 'ad; came an' said as the man was a fool. And now 'e—well, 'e don't know where 'e are."
"This is the hand of Providence," Willoughby said solemnly. "What's he like, driver?"
"Well, sir, as far as I can make out, 'e's rather old and thin, and in some kind of fancy dress. 'E—;"
A shout of laughter drowned the rest of the sentence.
"On his way to Lady Shoreham's dance for a dollar!" Bond shouted. "Well, he's come to the right place. The people who live in this house are friends of ours, cabby. We owe you something for bringing us here, if only by accident. Show the gentleman in."
The wayfarer came, tall and thin and extra cadaverous by reason of his close-fitting tights and black jerkin. He looked exceedingly bad-tempered; his hard mouth was set firm and savagely.
"This is a nice thing!" he exclaimed. "A nice thing to happen in a city like London! I presume you people have been kept from Lady Shoreham's dance by the fog. I you happen to know me—;"
An exclamation was on Bond's lips, but Willoughby laid a hand with a grip to it on his shoulder.
"We have none of us the pleasure, Sir," he said. "This, sir, is my house. I am Lord Bollinger, at your service. This is Colonel Kinlock, and here is my cousin, the Honourable John Driver."
Machen chocked slightly, but Willoughby was perfectly grave.
"We were also prevented from going to the dance," he went on, "so we supped here, and kept our masks on, trying to snatch a gaiety we do not feel. You said your name was—;"
"Smith," the stranger gabbled. "John Smith. Really, you are very kind, and supper would be acceptable. I presume you have such a thing in the house as a telephone. I have to send a message to my broker. I expected to meet him at the dance, but he would hardly turn out in this weather. I will 'phone him to his own house, as I have to get to Liverpool, on my way to America to-morrow. Business in a mild way, you understand."
Willoughby led the way to the telephone, and appeared to close the door behind him. All the same, he stood so that he could hear every word that passed. So could the other two, who had suddenly grown grave and silent The air of the Stock Exchange on them now.
"What's that, what's that!" came the raucous voice in the hall. "Not come home? What! Prefer to stay in the City, as the fog is so thick! Very full all day to-morrow. Quite right. Ring off, please. .. Hallo! Is that the Exchange? Give me 01707 City. .. That you, Starley? You know whose speaking! Yes, it's me, 'Wigs on the green.' Thought I'd give you the password. I'm going to Liverpool and New York. Sell W's. Sell and sell as long as you have anybody to buy. That'll do. Ring off."
"Nice old beauty, isn't he!" Bond whispered. "Let's murder him and bury him in the cellar. He'd have a fit if he only knew who we really are. Can't we manage to—;"
"We can," Willoughby said grimly. "We are going to make a jolly good thing out of this. We are acting on exclusive information. Old Gregory Hicks, who likes to call himself John Smith for the moment, has opened a great bear raid on W's which mean to the initiated Western Atlantic Rails. The old fox is off tomorrow to manipulate the stock across the water. He little thinks that he has delivered himself into the hands of three of the astutest intellects in Throgmorton Street, where—Soft! Here he comes."
Mr. John Smith, alias Gregory Hicks, one of the most grasping and unscrupulous millionaires who ever commanded respect in the City, came back looking on better terms with himself. He even went so far as to crack a joke or two, for he was not devoid of a sense of humour. He did not repudiate the Perigord pie, neither did he refuse the wine when it was red. But he refused to play bridge, and was glad enough an hour later to find himself in the dressing-room and a spare pair of pyjamas. There were baize doors on the landings, and Willoughby noted the fact with gratitude as he came down the stairs and reached for the 'phone.
"You must get him," he said. "Ring and ring, till you do. Give me your name and address and I'll send you a tenner for your trouble. What? You don't call that bribery. .. Oh, thanks, that you, Pallart? It's Willoughby. And it's Willoughby full of inside information. Now, listen carefully. Quite sure you've got all that? Now start out early to-morrow morning and sell till you're blind and blue in the face. Work the telephone or the cable all over England and the Continent."
"I'm in it, and Bond and Machen, and we're good for all we're got between us, and that's about £30,000. It would be downright flying in the face of Providence to miss a chance like this. Do we mind if you come in? Why, of course not. The more the merrier. Only do it boldly. So long."
In the dining-room Machen promptly opened a bottle of champagne. The three of them removed their masks, their faces were glad with smiles.
"Here's to Dame Fortune, who never, never deserts the bold," he said. "Willoughby, founder of our fortune, I look towards you. They say that the hour always produces the man—and it has. One drink and then we'll be off. We must not tempt Fortune too far. I dare say our cabby wouldn't mind—;"
"The fog is lifting," Machen said from the window.
Without another word they crept silently from the room, the richer for a fine evening's adventure on the wings of chance, and the richer also by the sum of something that was to prove over a hundred and fifty thousand pounds.
MR. LEON BEN ISRAEL had been waiting in his office in Silver Square, Hatton Gardens, for Inspector Rhys, of Scotland Yard, with an impatience that almost amounted to frenzy.
"There, one thing at a time," the Inspector said. "Now, let me see if I've got the facts right. The night before last, about 5 o'clock, when you were closing down for the day, two strangers called upon you. At that moment, your three assistants were upstairs, and you were alone in this room, where we are talking now. I think your safe was open."
"That is quite right," Ben Israel said. "My safe usually is open about 5 o'clock. You see, I always lock it myself, and set the combination before I leave."
"I quite understand," Rhys replied. "Mind you, that's a habit of yours that any smart thief could find out."
"Yes, I suppose it is," Ben Israel reflected. "Well, I was quite alone when they came in, and, as they appeared to be gentleman, I had no suspicious. I was just about to secure the safe when they fell upon me suddenly and what you call knocked me out. But they were not quite quick enough, because I got my hands on one man's face, and I must have twisted his nose pretty well off. After that, I remember no more till I found two of my clerks bending over me and, as soon as I was equal to it, we went through the safe. Now, strange, to say, Inspector, there was nothing missing with the exception of a pearl which I had in a tiny wooden box. Good Lord, they might have taken fifty thousand pounds worth of stuff, but they didn't—only the pearl."
"Was it a very valuable stone?"
"Oh, yes," Ben Israel groaned. "One of the finest in the world. It was pledged with me for a comparatively small sum, a week or two ago, and I took it without question. You will perhaps remember, Inspector, that a little time back Princess Zenia of Monarcho lost a pearl necklace in the Cranleigh Restaurant where she was dining. I don't mean to say that she actually lost it, because, as a matter of fact, the string, if I may so call it, gave way, and the pearls were scattered all over the floor. They were all picked up, with the exception of one, but that one was the finest of the lot, and was at the base of the necklace. Of course, somebody stole it. But when that pearl was pledged with me, I had no thought of the Princess. It was only afterwards, when I heard the details, that I came to the conclusion that I had the missing pearl in my safe. You may say that I ought to have given it up, indeed, I meant to, but not at a loss to myself, if I could help it, and that's about all there is to it, Inspector. I want you to find, for me, the men who robbed me, and, when you have done that. I shall be quite content."
"Yes, I expect you would," the Inspector said drily. "You don't seem to be aware of the fact that a reward of two thousand pounds is offered for the missing pearl, and it's long odds that you didn't advance that much of it."
Mr. Ben Israel groaned dismally.
"I didn't," he confessed. "So if you can find those men and get the pearl back. I shall be fortunate."
"Oh, no doubt, no doubt," Rhys said. "But you can't arrest prisoners without some sort of clue. Now, tell me, did those chaps leave anything behind them?"
"Well, I'm not quite sure as to that," Ben Israel said. "I certainly found something that struck me as rather curious, but how it came into my office, I can't tell."
With that, the eminent jeweller took a small object, wrapped in a piece of tissue paper, from a drawer in his desk. It had the appearance of a glass marble, opaque for the most part, with a tiny medallion in the centre of green enamel, slightly flecked with blue. Rhys examined it with keen interest.
"Where did you find this?" he asked.
"Oh, close to the safe. I don't know if, but it looks very much to me like an artificial eye."
"That's exactly what it is," Rhys announced. "And a very fine piece of work, too. I am not going to say that one of those men dropped it during the attack upon you, but it looks very much as if something of the sort had happened. If you don't mind, I'll take this with me, because it might prove a valuable clue. Now, tell me, who pawned that pearl with you?"
"Ah, that I don't know," Ben Israel said mournfully. "He had every appearance of being a gentleman, tall and well-dressed, with a neat, black moustache, and a scar over one eye. That's all I can tell you."
"Well, that's not bad for a start," the Inspector said. "Don't make any sort of statement, and don't allow those reporter fellows to get anything out of you. It's just possible that, in a day or two, I shall have something important to tell you."
With that, Inspector Rhys made his way thoughtfully westward and came, at length, to a house, not far from the Admiralty Arch, where he stopped, and giving his name, was admitted presently into the presence of a little man in spectacles.
"Good morning, Dr. Johnson," he said. "I come to you for a bit of advice. I know that you are a specialist as far as artificial aids are concerned, and that you have done a good deal during the war to supply our unfortunate men with the necessary equipment. Artificial eyes, for instance."
"That's quite in my line," the little man said.
"So I am told. Now, there were a good many men in the Army of doubtful antecedents who are now at liberty. Some of these, of course, must have lost limbs or eyes, and a good many of them, no doubt, came to you for advice. Now, will you kindly look at this."
With that, Rhys took the eye from his pocket, and handed it across to the little Professor. The latter examined it with the eye of an expert before he passed it back again.
"A very fine piece of work," he said. "There's only one man in London who could have turned out an eye like that. You see how cleverly those little flecks of blue are mingled with the grey of the iris. It must have been faithfully copied from the owner's remaining eye. You would like to know who made it?"
"I came for no other purpose," Rhys said. "If you can tell me, you are furthering the interests of justice."
"Oh, well, in that case, I have no further scruples. The man who made that eye is called Elias, and he works alone in a little shop in Mead-street, off the Tottenham Court Road. It is the third house on the left hand side—you can't mistake it, and perhaps you had better mention my name."
A few minutes later, and the inspector was on his way to the street in question. He found an old-fashioned shop, very small and stuffy, as if it had been overlooked in the general improvements and forgotten. As Rhys stepped inside, he noticed at a bench in the back of the shop a small, dried-up looking individual working under a powerful light with a shade over his eyes. He seemed to be doing something with a delicate instrument, and was so engrossed that Rhys had to speak twice before the old man looked up and noticed his presence.
"I am Inspector Rhys, of Scotland Yard," the officer said. "And I have been sent to you by Dr. Johnson, who tells me that you can give me certain information. He says you are the best artificial eye maker in London, and that all the fine work for our wounded soldiers passed through your hands. Now, without any further argument, did you happen to make this?"
The old man's eyes lighted up as he saw the little object that Rhys laid on the desk before him.
"Yes, sir," he said. "I made that. That is my workmanship, sure, and one of my biggest triumphs, if I may say so. It is no easy matter to get those little points of colouring."
"Then you know, who this was made for?"
"Most assuredly I do. The man came to me with an order from a Government Department, and I not only made that eye, but I did all the enamel colour work before it was fired. All the work was done here, in this room, day by day, with the patient sitting on that chair yonder."
"Perhaps you can tell me his name?"
Elias reached down a slender-looking volume from a shelf over his desk, and proceeded to turn over the leaves.
"Yes, here it is," he said presently. "Though really there was no occasion to look. The man that eye was made for is called Calgar, and he lost his own eye not long before the war finished. He used to be a lieutenant, but got into trouble and was dismissed from the service. Rather a bad lot, I should say. It's a funny thing, but he came to me, only two days ago, for a fresh eye. He said he had lost the one I made for him, and that was evidently the truth, because that bit of glass you brought me was the original eye that I made. Now I am making another one for him. Here it is, Inspector. For some reason or another he wanted the back of it hollowed out. He said the original eye was a bit heavy, so you see, I am making a hollow eye, and if he doesn't find that comfortable, I suggest that he should fill it with some sort of hard wax. It's only a fad, of course."
Rhys, however, was not quite so sure of that, but he made no comment, and asked no questions, except as to where the man Calgar was to he found. He gave a hint to the effect that there was something serious behind this investigation, and warned Elias that he might find himself in trouble if he mentioned the fact that the Inspector had been to see him. All he wanted now, was the address to where the new eye was to be sent, and that Elias should communicate with him on the telephone directly the orb in question was in the post.
"I can't tell you where he lives," Elias said. "He is at a little flat in Carlisle Gardens with a gentleman called Massinger. I believe he is some sort of relation."
Rhys said nothing, but there was a sort of twinkle in his eye as he heard the name of Massinger. With a few final words of warning to the ancient artist in artificial eyes, he made his way back to Scotland Yard and at once called in one of his assistants.
"Look here, Walton," he said. "I've got that Silver Square safe robbery in hand. I may say I have got it so far in hand as to be practicably sure who the men are who made that assault upon Leon Ben Israel. Also I know why they did it. But, before I go any further, I must have a little more information. I have discovered that in a flat in Carlisle Gardens dwells a certain individual called Massinger. Ever heard of him? It's in your line, you know, and I want you to find out."
"Massinger, Massinger," Walton mused. "Oh, if it's the Massinger I know, then that's just his game. I had him in hand twice previous to 1914, and he slipped out of rather a nasty business because he volunteered for service. Till quite lately I haven't heard of him. But I know he was demobilised two or three months ago, and I gather, from what you say, sir, that he is up to his old tricks again."
"I am quite sure of it," Rhys said. "Well, there you are, Walton. I want you to find out all that this chap has been doing lately, and, if you can, whether he was dining at the Cranleigh Restaurant the night that the Princess Zenia of Monarcho was there and lost a pearl from her famous necklace. Wait a minute, that's not quite all. I am told that Massinger has a friend staying with him—a man called Calgar who is blind in one eye. He had, or has, an artificial one. Now, off you go, and get all this information for me as soon as possible."
Walton drifted into the office quite late the same evening with a fair budget of news for his chief. Massinger was living in a Carlisle Gardens flat, apparently in a condition of considerable prosperity. This was all the more strange, because, a little while back, he had been compelled to accept the hospitality of one of the Rowton Houses. Now he had the flat furnished, and was sharing it with a man called Calgar. Calgar had not been out the last day or two, in consequence of a slight accident, to all of which Rhys listened with placid satisfaction. It was quite plain to him that he was on the right track now, and equally clear that Calgar was more or less in hiding until the artificial eye that Elias was making for him could be delivered.
But there was a good deal to be done yet. In ordinary circumstances it would have been an easy matter to arrest Massinger and Calgar, and confront them with Ben Israel, but then the eminent jeweller had told the Inspector that his office was dimly lighted at the time of the assault, and that he was not prepared to identify his assailants. Therefore, it would be necessary to wait until he was in a position to strike a vital blow. And there was some hurry, too, because, on the following morning, Walton turned up with a fresh piece of information to the effect that Massinger and Calgar were giving up the flat in a day or two, and that already they had secured their passage to America.
This was somewhat disturbing. It pointed to the fact that those two shady individuals were leaving their country for a long term, and that, beyond the shadow of a doubt, they were taking the big pearl with them. On the other side of the water they would be able to get a good price for it, and no impertinent questions asked, provided they could smuggle it across, which would be no easy matter, considering the cleverness of the Customs House officials. That was, unless they could devise some ingenious hiding place for the pearl, which, no doubt, they had done. And Rhys smiled to himself as he recalled the various bits of information that he had gathered during the last few days. He began to see, quite plainly, where the pearl would be hidden, and before he slept that night he had worked out the drama to the last detail. All he had to do now, was to wait until the telephone message from Elias arrived, and that came all in good time.
It reached him the following afternoon, about four o'clock. The message ran to the effect that the new eye had been posted that morning, shortly after ten, and that it would probably reach Calgar somewhere near four o'clock the same afternoon. Almost on the top of this information came a further piece of news from Walton to the effect that Massinger and Calgar had packed up their belongings and were turning the flat over to the agents before noon the next day. They had ordered something rather special in the way of a dinner from an adjacent restaurant, which meal they intended to partake of in the seclusion of the flat.
It was about half-past ten before Rhys set out for Carlisle Gardens, and a little later he was shot up to the fifth floor in the lift. He rang the bell at No. 17, and was not at all surprised when Massinger himself came to the door. Evidently there were no servant left, or this would not have happened. Nor was Rhys long in realising that he had found the man he wanted. He saw a tall, slim, well-set-up individual with a slight, black moustache and a scar over his left eye. Massinger looked superciliously at his visitor and demanded to know what he wanted. Very dexterously Rhys inserted his foot inside the door and pushed his way into the hall.
"What the devil does this mean?" Massinger demanded.
"I think you had better take it quietly," Rhys said. "There is my card, from which you will see that I am representing Scotland Yard. Moreover, my business is not entirely with you—I also want to see your friend, Calgar."
"Calgar? Calgar?" Massinger bluffed. "Really, I don't know what you are talking about."
"It really isn't the slightest use," Rhys said, almost pityingly. "The man I speak of is in the dining-room. The Preston Restaurant people sent in a dinner for two to-night. You had better take it quietly, because, you see, I have got three of my men downstairs waiting if there's any trouble. I want you and Calgar on a charge of stealing a pearl from the Cranleigh restaurant on the night of the third instant, and also for fraudulently pawning the same with Mr. Leon Ben Israel, of Golden Square. Also, on a charge of robbing that gentleman with violence. Let me see, isn't that the dining-room door? Yes, I thought so. Now, will you be good enough to precede me, and, if you are foolish enough to try any violence—"
"Oh, that's not in my line," Massinger said insolently. "Of course, I know all about that lost pearl from the papers, and if you can find it here, you are welcome to keep it, as far as I am concerned. Come along and get it over."
In the dining-room Calgar was seated, smoking a cigarette and sipping his liqueur. Rhys noted with intense satisfaction that Massinger's accomplice was wearing his new eye. He introduced himself to that individual, and stated his business as crisply as he had done to Massinger.
"Now then," he said, "don't let's waste any further time. I know everything. I even know what a part Mr. Elias, of the Tottenham Court road, has played in this clever business. Calgar, would you be good enough to remove that new artificial eye of yours, or shall I call up my men and have it removed by force?"
There was no fight in either of the criminals as this remark fell from Rhys's lips. They stared at one another in consternation and then after a little prodding, Calgar, slowly and reluctantly, removed his false eye. As Rhys had expected, the hollow in the back had been filled with some hard waxen compound, which gave a little as Rhys crushed the thin, fine glass between his thumb and forefinger. As he did so, the missing pearl rolled out on the table and Rhys coolly dropped it in his pocket.
"Very neat, gentlemen," he said. "Very neat. And now perhaps you will put on your hats and come along with me."
THE MAN in the white waistcoat and undeniable spats was pleased to approve of the Major, and in this his wife was graciously pleased to agree. As a rule the Vellacotts were particular with regard to their friendships, as benefitted second generation people, with offspring at Winchester and Magdalen College, Oxford, but the Major had a way with him that few people could resist. And the Majestic Hotel at Sandbourne did not take everybody in.
"I like this place very much," the Major remarked to Vellacott after dinner on the Saturday night, they having had a day on the links together. "Like you, I have dropped into the habit of running down here for the week-end: The golf is none too good, as you know, but it is convenient to town, and we can't all run to Rolls-Royce cars."
It was a pleasant bit of chaff and touched Vellacott on the soft spot, because he was proud of his Rolls-Royce car in which he always made his weekend journeys to Sandbourne. In the city he was a dealer in bullion and specie, to say nothing of occasional excursions in the realms of pawnbroking, which latter transactions were restricted severely to advances upon family jewels, collections of historic plate, and the like. A little later he found himself talking freely and eloquently on the subject of city business, to one who appeared to be as interested and intelligent listener.
"Yes," said the Major, pulling at his cigar. "Yes. Do you know, Vellacott, I was precious near going into the city myself once. I wish I had now. Certain anxieties, of course, but no adventures, and no risks——-"
"Ah, there you are wrong," Vellacott said eagerly, "Why, my dear fellow, handling valuables as we do, we've got to be on the alert the whole time. Only last year we were very nearly done out of twenty thousand pounds."
"I hadn't thought of that," the Major said. "I suppose your strong room is like a bank. All sorts of patent locks, and ingenious devices, and all that sort of thing."
Vellacott winked across his whisky and soda.
"You never can tell," he said. "My strong room is especially built in the basement, and goes right under the pavement, flush with the curb. Moreover, on top is a round sheet of glass just like a coal chute, about eight inches thick, and the police have been told that the electric light is burning in the strong room every night, and if the light goes out, they will know there is something wrong. But still, there are times—"
"Oh, quite so, quite so," the Major said. "It's rather funny that you should introduce this subject, because I am rather interested in a device suggested to me by a young friend of mine for getting even with the sort of gentry you speak of. You see, I was an engineer myself, and I am rather a dab at mechanics. If I had the capital, I should try and develop it."
At the mention of the magic words "capital," and "development," Vellacott pricked up his ears. He was never averse to a proposition in which the risk was small, and the profit proportionately great. He leaned eagerly forward.
"Tell me all about it," he said. "If you have got a decent thing, I can introduce the capital."
"Well, it's like this," the Major said. "In a few words, it is an entirely new form of burgular alarm. One of those simple things that the wonder is it has never been thought of before. You attach it to your telephone at night, and by leaving the receiver off the hook, a bell rings at the other end of the wire if the door of the room where the telephone is, indeed, the slightest interruption sets the telephone going. Now, suppose, for instance, you had a private wire from your office to your house at Sutton—"
"I have," Vellacott cried. "I have,"
"So much the better. I suppose a good many of your city magnates have private wires? Well, in that case, you might be disposed to try it. I can carry a wire from your 'phone into the vault, and if the door of the vault is opened, my device will give you instant warning in your private house. I suppose I need not ask if you have got an extension of your telephone at home into your bedroom? You have? Very well, then. In that case, if anything was wrong, you would be instantly aroused in the middle of the night—call up Scotland Yard, and within a couple of minutes, the police are on the spot. This is rather a lucky day for me, I think. Some of these days, when you have half an hour to spare, I'd like to give you an experimental test. What about Saturday afternoon, when the office is closed?"
Vellacott beamed pleasantly on his companion.
"Now, do you know, that sounds real good," he said. "If only your invention is not too expensive—"
"Less than five pounds," the Major interrupted. "We should open a sort of central office to which all you city men should subscribe, and where an extra wire from each big office would converge and be numbered. Now, by another simple device those wires would give an alarm in that central office, where a couple of operators would be at work all night, and those wires would be numbered. All the operator had to do is to call up Scotland Yard, and tell them that something is wrong, say, with number ten. What do you think?"
"Think!" Vellacott cried with an enthusiasm rare at his time of life, "I think you've got a fortune there! Don't mention it to anybody else. I'll speak to my—er—friend in the city, and he'll find the money fast enough. Now, how long do you think it would be before we could try the thing?"
"Oh, I don't know," the Major said. "I might manage to get the machine itself ready within a week. Yes, I'm quite sure I can. But one part will take a little longer. Still, I can get the instrument itself inside your strong room. But I shall have to see it first. But isn't it rather a shame for me to rob you of you week-end holiday?"
"Not at all, not at all," Vellacott said, "Now, shall you by any chance be down here next week-end?"
The Major rather thought he would. He would probably turn up by the Friday afternoon, as usual, and thereupon, Vellacott made a proposal. They would dine together on Friday night, and, run up to London in the car after an early breakfast on the Saturday morning. If they started early enough, they could be in the city, inspect the strong room, and be back at the Majestic in time for lunch, after which they could play a well earned round of golf in the afternoon. To this suggestion the Major gave a cordial consent, and therefore, on the following Saturday morning, a little after eight o'clock, the two set out together in the Rolls-Royce car, and in due course arrived at the palatial offices in Moorgate-street.
"I have said nothing to my partner," Vellacott explained. "Neither have I mentioned the matter to my manager. This is the sort of thing that it is not well to talk about until it is accomplished. Now, come along, and have a look at the strong room."
With that, Vellacott dived down a flight of stone steps, and opened a massive door, which led into a room some twelve feet square. A light was burning in the room, and, overhead, the Major could see the disc of thick plate glass that Vellacott had explained to him. Round the strong room, on three sides, were small doors, and sliding trays faced with steel, and these, Vellacott had explained, contained not only masses of bullion, but some of the finest treasures in the world.
"I suppose every tray is locked?" the Major asked.
"Well, no," Vellacott said. "You see, if anybody could get through that door, they could get into the trays easily enough."
The Major asked no more questions, pertinent or otherwise. He took from his pocket a dainty little foot rule, and a note book, which he was exceedingly busy with for the next few minutes. There was something so businesslike about him that even Vellacott was impressed. Then he looked up from a mass of figures, and smiled with the air of a man who is quite pleased with himself, though he vouchsafed no information.
Half an hour later the two emerged from the vault and made their way into Moorgate-street, where the big car was awaiting them. Almost in front of the palatial premises of Vellacott and Co., a small group of workmen had congregated in the street. There were four of them altogether, and in their peaked caps was the badge of the Universal Electricity Company, the great corporation which supplied that part of London with its electric power. They had with them a closed-in truck, from the depths of which they had produced a sort of collapsible canvas tent, together with a mass of technical instruments, which the Major regarded with a favourable eye. It was evident that something had gone wrong with one of the cables, and that the gang of workmen was there to repair it. The Major stood watching them whilst waiting for his companion, and, presently he made a technical remark or two to the foreman.
"I am rather glad these chaps are here," he said to Vellacott when the latter emerged. "They have given me an idea. I find that the main cable is close to the kerb, and upon my word, I think it would be possible to run a tunnel for my apparatus inside the channel. That would give me just what I want without disturbing existing arrangements. Um—yes, that's a rattling good idea."
"Oh, that's all very well," Vellacott grumbled. "But these fellows are always pulling the streets about. Hi, foreman, I hope you are not going to be very long over this job."
"I don't think so, sir," the foreman said, civilly enough. "I hope we shall finish to-night. If not, it will be some time to-morrow morning. That's why we came to-day, so as not to interfere with you gentlemen in business hours."
With that Vellacott turned away, and, before long, the big car had left London behind it. It was a beautiful morning, and Vellacott was looking forward eagerly to his afternoon's golf. He had little or nothing on his mind, business was not pressing, and it was just possible that he might take Monday off as well.
"I'll telephone my partner first thing in the morning," he said. "I suppose you are staying on for the present?"
"I think so," the Major said. "As a matter of fact I was down here all last week. If this invention comes off, then I and a plus golfer of my acquaintance are buying a furnished bungalow close to Sandwich. If it does materialise, I shall be pleased if you will come down and join us occasionally."
Vellacott replied emphatically that he would. They were discussing the question on the Monday morning before setting out for the day's golf, when a pert page boy in a veritable rash of buttons solemnly summoned Vellacott to the telephone. He came back a moment or two later, white, trembling, and almost incoherent, and in striking contrast to the Major, who lay back in a comfortable armchair enjoying his second after-breakfast cigarette.
"Good heavens, what's wrong?" the latter asked solicitously.
"The most awful thing," Vellacott gasped. "Our strong room was broken into between closing time on Saturday afternoon and the early hours of this morning. Nearly fifty thousand pounds' worth of valuables stolen. They only found out about a quarter of an hour ago when my partner got into the office."
"I've got it," the Major cried. "Depend upon it, those men we saw in the road were not bona fide workmen at all, but a gang of audacious thieves, led by some technical expert."
"It looks like it," Vellacott groaned. "But how did they manage it? How on earth did they manage to get through the walls of the safe?"
"Oh, that's easy enough," the Major explained. "They came along with a covered truck, which very likely had been stolen from the Universal Electricity Company, and it would be very easy to get hold of a set of badges. See, the whole thing looks so workmanlike and methodical that the police would suspect nothing. When things are done in this cool way, people take it for granted. But don't forget that the offices of the Universal Electricity Company would be probably closed at one o'clock on Saturday, after which all the employees would be away and those chaps would have all Saturday afternoon and all Sunday to work. Then once down the manhole, within a foot of the outer wall of your strong-room, it wouldn't have taken long to clear all the earth away, and expose the steel side. And don't forget that those chaps had got a tent over the hole, under cover of which they could work without the slightest fear of interruption. They could make as much flame and as much smoke as they liked, because that always goes with electrical repairs."
"The safe," Vellacott moaned. "The safe. With a solid foot of radio-steel—"
"Yes, into which the flame of an acetylene welding plant would eat as if the steel were so much rotten cheese. And, mind you, those plants are portable. You may depend upon it that those chaps have been planning this coup for months. Really, the more I think of it, the more I admire them. And then again, look how cleverly they arranged to carry off the swag! They carry it in that covered cart of theirs, and put all their tools on the top, then they coolly push the cart through the streets of London for miles until they come to their lair. Nobody would notice them, nobody would take the slightest heed of a Corporation cart going through the streets in broad daylight. You have been the victim of an absolutely priceless fraud."
"I have," Vellacott groaned. "I have. But I mustn't sit here. I must be off to London at once."
"Yes, I suppose you must," the Major said reluctantly. "If you are going up in the car, I'll come along with you."
"That's very good of you," Vellacott said gratefully. "To tell the truth, I feel too shaky to go alone."
Apparently, the Major's diagnosis had been correct, for when the two silent voyagers reached Moorgate-st. the police had already come to their own conclusions. Inquiries at the offices of the Universal Electricity Company elicited the fact that no employees of theirs had been near Moorgate-st. on the previous Saturday. But a covered cart and certain plant were missing from their stores, and these had been discovered a few minutes ago by the police, abandoned somewhere in the north of London. It was a powerful little plant, and given the necessary time was strong enough to have eaten its way through the dome of St. Paul's.
"Neat, very neat," the Inspector said, half-admiringly. "No one seems to have seen these men, at least, not near enough to identify them. It's very hard to spot a man when he's smothered in grease and dirt, but one of my men says that their leader was a tall man and wore a black moustache."
"Ah, there you are," the Major put in presently. "Now I happened to be waiting for Mr. Vellacott, and, having nothing to do exchanged a few words with the foreman. He was a fair, blue-eyed man, with a scar on his left cheek, and was as clean shaven as I am. As to the others, I didn't notice them. But if I can do anything now, or at any future time, you can command my services. If you ran lay your hand on the right man, I can identify him fast enough."
There was little more to be said or done. For the moment the thieves had got clean away with the spoil, and though the Inspector seemed to be confident enough he had really little hope of effecting a capture. It was a dreary afternoon that the Major spent with Vellacott, and night closed down at length with nothing in the way of a clue.
"Are you going back to Sandbourne?" the Major asked.
Vellacott shook his head sorrowfully.
"I am afraid not," he said. "I have 'phoned my wife to return by train, and she is coming. I may get down to Sandbourne at the end of the week, but it is very doubtful. I simply couldn't play golf in my present distracted state of mind."
"That's natural enough," the Major agreed. "And if this little speculation of mine comes off I hope to see you at Sandwich."
And with that they parted. Vellacott to look after his business and the Major to transact some pressing affair which took him somewhere down into the East End. It was late the following evening when he found himself once more in the Majestic at Sandbourne, and, after having partaken of an exceptionally good dinner, he repaired to his bedroom, where he wrote the following letter:—-
Dear Morrison,—I have the greatest pleasure in telling you that I have been eminently successful with regard to that little business of mine. I am not disposed to go into details, because they don't matter, in any case, but I told you that I strongly objected to becoming one of the Poorer Poor when there are so many Richer Rich knocking about. They are not bad fellows to dine and play golf with, but that wouldn't prevent them from squeezing the last farthing out of you tomorrow morning if you ran up against them in business. It was one of these genial swine who caused me to leave the Indian Army some years ago, with considerable celerity and secrecy, and you are one of the few men who know the story. But I swore to get my own back one of these days, and I have done it—never mind how.
To cut a long story short, you can conclude negotiations for the purchase of that bungalow, and, if you will telephone me here any time within the next two or three days. I will send my cheque along for my share. Some good golf and an occasional run up to town will satisfy my requirements for the future. So let me know directly you are ready. All the best, Yours, aye,
P.S.—I want to ask one of my friends down to Sandwich shortly. He's five handicap, and not a bad chap as business men go. He's one of the Richer Rich, but not quite so infernally so as he was last week.
MARTIN HOUSE for the first time in a lurid life was conscious of a fear. It was as if some high tension wire in his mechanism had suddenly relaxed, throwing his whole mental machinery out of gear. Just for an instant, and then he was himself again.
Still, the precious diary had gone—two minutes before it had been lying on the library table in its tin case, with the folio leaves neatly bound with wire clips, just as House had brought it back from the neverlands, from the interior of Brazil, where no white man had ever set foot before. Some day, that nightmare story would be told, but there was much to be done first, and the harvest of the great adventure to be reaped. And if some enemy behind the financial scene had got away with that priceless diary with its treasured secrets, then those five scalding, blistering years, were as dust.
One moment, and House was himself again. He rang the bell, and Herad, the butler, entered. He stood there the very pink and model of what a well-trained servant should be. He might have been cast in a mould and carefully dried in the sun. There was nothing about James Herad to suggest the fires of adventure.
"Did you ring, sir?" he asked with the right shade of deference. "I thought I heard the bell, sir."
"Close the door, Jim," House said in a whisper.
James Herad had heard that tone before. He had heard it on the reeling deck of a sloop in the South Pacific, he had heard it when he stood with a service rifle in his hand, when he was hot, spent, and raging with thirst, with a murderous mob of Pathans within twenty feet of the crumbling stockade and death was grinning in his bloodshot eyes. And Herad was an understanding man.
"Is it trouble, Captain?" he asked.
"Jim, my big diary has been stolen. I was working on it when Rogers passed the window and called to me. He seemed rather upset about something, so I stepped through the window and stood not more than a minute talking to him on the terrace. It seems that a rat has gnawed a hole in the back of one of the small reptile houses, and the two Martinique blindworms are nowhere to be found. They are probably hidden away in the mossy slope by the summer house overlooking the sea. But never mind about them now. When I got back in here the diary was gone."
"Somebody in the house then," Herad suggested.
"Not a doubt about that, Jim. But who? Captain Haines and Mr. Swainson I would go bail for, and as to Mr. Milton you know how harmless and helpless he is. See that nobody leaves the house without being watched. Get Rogers to help you. He was with us out yonder, and is to be relied on thoroughly. Keep a strict eye on the village post office. The thief might try to mail the diary to some accomplice. It would have to go by parcel post, as, with the tin case, it weighs about ten pounds. Call up Mr. Bly for me on the 'phone."
House sat down a little later with a big black cigar to think matters over. The loss of the diary would mean something like ruin to him and his daughter Etne. Practically all that he had in the world had been sunk in the purchase of the pretty little estate on the Sussex coast, which he had invested in when he returned from that wild adventure in higher Brazil. He and Bly and the rest had realised their fondest hopes there, and at the present moment, were in negotiation for the Government concessions necessary to turn that daring raid through hitherto unexplored territory, into substantial advantage. Two companies had already been formed, and the cash of scores of trusting friends invested in the promising adventure. But if certain unscrupulous business men in the city, whom House feared, got wind of what was still more or less in the air, then the whole airy fabric might collapse altogether.
This blow had been dealt him by somebody under his own roof, and there the sting lay. The servants were absolutely innocent, House was quite convinced of that. Both Herad and Rogers were true as steel. The same remark applied to Effie, his daughter. There only remained, then, Captain Haines and his wife, and John Swainson and his, and House had known these men for years both in India, where Haines held a commission in the Gurkhas, and had married the only child of a wealthy Calcutta merchant. There remained only one, Aubrey Milton, who was by way of being a sort of protegee of House's, a mild, harmless kind of youth with no money to speak of, and a burning desire to become another Robert Louis Stevenson. He had given birth to a slim volume of poems of the inevitable neurotic type, and he was anxious for House to find him some light, congenial employment in Fiji or elsewhere, where he could bask in a tropical climate and witch the world with noble penmanship. He had come to House with a letter of introduction from a recently deceased old chum of the pioneer's of Australia, and it was characteristic of House that he had given Milton the run of his establishment. House could not see Milton with nerve enough to steal anything more dangerous than a pin.
And yet the daring and audacious thief was in the house somewhere. House said nothing of his loss, and watched his guests with a stealthy furtiveness of which he was half ashamed. But watch as he would, the next two days pending the arrival of his friend and partner, Eldon Bly, he could detect nothing by so much as the flicker of an eyelid.
Bly arrived late on the third night, when most of the party had retired for the evening. He came, alert, vigorous, a little atomy of a man, with a thin hawk-like nose, and a restless black eye, that seemed to see everything. A distinguished career in the Indian Police had preceeded his partnership with House since when the two men had been inseparable, and now their fortunes were bound up in the concessions which they were still negotiating with a none too honest South American Republic. Bly went straight to the point.
"Yes, I had the main facts from you on the 'phone," he said rapidly. "The danger is plain. If the Mason gang got hold of that diary, we are done. They have the money behind them, and can outbid us with those Government officials."
"Right," House interrupted, "but some information has reached London from here. Not much, because the lookout has been too keen, but enough to justify Mason in inspiring his reptile rag, the 'Financial Post' with an article on our companies. And the same group are actually booming our El Maduros shares. I expect they are looking forward to controlling that venture before long. Perhaps you would like to see it. I've got the paper here."
But, strangely enough, the paper in question, which had been on the library table most of the day, was not to be found. Evidently some one interested in such matters had removed it, and Bly was disposed to regard this as significant.
"Who could have taken it?" he asked. "What about the poet chap you were speaking of?"
"Oh, Milton," House smiled. "He's only a child. What's puzzling me, is how the thief, whoever he is, managed to convey to the Mason gang that he had the diary, and give them the information on which that 'Post' article was based."
"What about the telephone?" Bly asked.
"Good Lord. I had forgotten all about that," House cried. "The thief might have managed that when we were playing tennis. I think you are right, old man, as usual. He 'phoned that he had got hold of the diary, and as an earnest of the fact he gave them such information as would enable them to print that article. But Mason's lot are more or less powerless until they can handle the diary itself, and so long as it is still near at hand—"
"That's our safeguard," Bly said thoughtfully. "The thief has not moved for fear of rousing suspicion. He has hidden the diary somewhere, and is content to wait until the scent grows cold. Now just think what happened on the morning you lost the book. Were you enticed to leave this room?"
"I wasn't," House explained. "Rogers came along the terrace in a great state because he had lost those two Martinique blindworms you gave me. He knew they were the only pair ever seen in England, and how rare they were, and I was very angry with him. However, it was a rat that was to blame. Ate a hole in the back of the hutch. We've got one back but the other has vanished completely."
"Bad luck," Bly murmured. "Though I could never understand your craze for running a sort of menagerie here."
"None of them dangerous," House pleaded. "Besides, it reminds me of old times. I wasn't with Rogers more than a minute, but when I got back here the diary was gone."
Bly pondered the point for some time in silence. One thing was certain—the thief was in the house.
"I should like to sleep on it," Bly said. "Is the same old woman still in charge of the village post office?"
House nodded absently. If Bly was seized with one of his happy inspirations as seemed probable from the more or less inconsequent question about the village post office, he was not in the least likely to be communicative until he was more sure of his ground. He moved about amongst the other guests the next day, exchanging notes with Haines and Swainson, both of whom he knew, and he made himself agreeable to Aubrey Milton, who struck him as being the last possibility in the way of an ass. The man seemed to be perfectly harmless, a weed of a creature, full of little mannerisms and affectations just as one might expect in the minor poet and would-be literary man sighing for the congenial atmosphere wherein to write the masterpiece that was to set the world ablaze. His vapid manner, his silly eyeglass that constantly fell from his watery orb, and his flowing tie, a la Byron, palled on Bly presently, and he ceased to sharpen his wit on the unconscious Milton.
The 'Mute Inglorious Milton' retired presently to his favourite alcove on the edge of the cliffs behind the reptile house, where he was supposed to be engaged on the first of the great novels which was in time to shake the literary world to its foundations.
"A lovely spot, an ideal writing place, Mr. Bly," he simpered. "I am looking forward to having you all to myself there this afternoon, and talking about those amazing scenes of tropical beauty with which you are so familiar. Ah, the inspiration of them! I shall never rest until I also have seen them with these eyes."
"I shall enjoy it immensely," Bly said drily.
He strolled away from the tennis ground presently and made his way towards the village, mooning along with the air of a man whose mind is an absolute blank. He gazed absently into the windows of the village shops until he drifted into the general store that did duty as the post office. It was quite empty as it generally was at that time of day, and the old lady in the horn spectacles behind the counter hailed him eagerly as an old acquaintance.
"Bless me if it ain't Mr. Bly," she exclaimed, "How be you, sir? Come down to see the captain again, yes, yes."
Bly sprawled over the counter talking in his most genial manner. Then gradually he contrived to lead the gossip into the channel he desired. Has Mrs. Lacy a general post office directory by any chance? He wanted the telegraphic registered address of a firm in London whose code he had forgotten. It was a long address, and he didn't want to waste money on superfluous words. Mrs. Lacey had unfortunately nothing of the kind but she was in sympathy with what Mr. Bly was asking for. And surely some of those addresses were strange reading. The captain—meaning House—sent off some funny ones now and then. But there was one gentleman who came in a few days ago and sent off a telegram, to a place in London with a registered address that fairly gave the good-natured old gossip the creeps. Of course she ought not to talk about it, but then Mr. Bly was different to most people, and he would not mention the fact. But the man she was speaking of had actually sent a wire addressed to 'Bloodshed, London.' Fairly made her creep, it did.
"What sort of a man?" Bly asked with a quizzical smile. "Did he look like a pirate? Was he armed?"
Bly's tone was jocular, but he was really interested.
"You're a rare gentleman for your joke," the old lady laughed. "I couldn't rightly say, sir. In motoring things, he were, and them goggles. And he sent that telegram, he did."
It was all quite wrong, of course, but Bly stayed there until he had contrived to have a good look at the original copy of the wire addressed to 'Bloodshed, London.' With the thin spidery writing clearly photographed on his mental retina, he strolled back to the house shortly before lunch time, just as Milton was crossing the tennis lawn on his way back from the alcove on the edge of the cliffs where he had presumedly been working. Bly retraced his steps until he came to the secluded spot which was immediately behind the range of glass houses, originally an aviary, where House kept his snakes and the few South American animals that formed his menagerie. In the alcove was a newspaper or two, and some sheets of original manuscript which Bly rightly judged to be in Milton's handwriting. He smiled in a pleased manner as he unblushingly read the poem on which the budding genius had been working. Then he folded up one of the newspapers and placed it in his pocket.
A little way off, Rogers was at work. He looked up and touched his hat as Bly approached. These two were old friends, and had been in many a tight place in the bad lands of unexplored Brazil together.
"Very pleased to see you again, sir," Rogers said. "We've lost one of them snakes of yours, I'm sorry to say, sir."
"Ah, so Mr. House told me. It's rather a pity, seeing that the Martinique blindworm is practically unique. I understand that you found the other one. I wouldn't give it up yet, Rogers."
"I haven't, sir," Rogers said. "He's probably hiding in the long mossy grass by the alcove. We haven't had any rain for over a month, and Sally, as I call her, must have moisture. She could snuggle down in that thick moss and hide for days, but when the rain comes she'll come back to be fed; that's if she's alive still."
Rogers moved off to his work, and for a moment Bly stood earnestly regarding the small square of thick mossy turf in front of the alcove. Undoubtedly the blindworm had come that way, when it had escaped, in preference to crossing the asphalt that surrounded the menagerie on the other three sides, and doubtless, had buried itself in the thick carpet of moss that underlay the course turf. Then Bly's keen trained eye made out the grooved track the snake had made in crossing the open ground. The track stopped suddenly and vanished underground. Prone on his face, Bly fumbled in the moss and parted it carefully with his fingers, using them as a comb. In the sunshine something glistened like a thin piece of rope made of gold and shimmering blue and emerald. Then there was a hiatus of an inch or two, and then the jewelled rope began again, to end once more some twelve inches further on in nothing. It was like a string of jewels on a broken thread, fractured in three places. But only eyes as keen as those of Bly would have detected it.
He gently touched the severed edges, and at the same time was careful not to move them. In that moment a fine flash of illumination had come to him, and, if he were not altogether mistaken, he had not only solved the mystery of the missing diary, but found the thief at the same time. It was one of those instances of luck that generally go to the man with the intimate knowledge.
It was nearly teatime before Bly had his chance to speak to his host alone in the library.
"Well," the latter asked eagerly, "I could see that you were on to something by the look in your eye when you came in to lunch. Mean to say that you have got to the bottom of it?"
"I believe I have," Bly said modestly. "But I can tell you more about that when I have had a look at your copy of the post office directory of registered telegraphic addresses. After that I want a strip of thin cardboard about a foot long and some three inches wide. Yes, I think that the diary is safe now."
House asked no questions. He knew Bly better than that. He produced the book that Bly required, and waited for further instructions. They were not long in coming.
"Look up 'Bloodshed, London,'" Bly snapped. "I think that they will prove to be old friends of yours."
"Mason, Blood, and Evershed," House announced presently. "That's the firm that Mason is head of. And a very fine nom de plume, too. Is this what you expected to get?"
"I should have been a bit sick otherwise," Bly said drily. "About a week ago somebody staying in this house sent a wire to Mason addressed to his firm, to the effect that the sender was staying in these parts for the present, and that he would communicate through the usual channel, but 'Bloodshed, London,' was on no account to try and reach the party who sent the wire from here. I know what I am talking about because I have seen the original wire, thanks to my friendship with Mrs. Lacy, of the post office. Now which of the men who are staying here arrived on a motor cycle?"
"Swainson did over a week ago, his wife coming by train. Mil—arrived here the same night, and so did Haines."
"Is the poet man enough to mount a petrol driven machine?"
"Yen, I think he had Swainson's out one morning for an hour just after he came," House explained, "But why?"
"All in good time," Bly laughed. "Now get me that piece of cardboard, and go back to your guests again as if nothing had happened. If I am successful, just before dinner, as I expect to be, I will give you the tip and directly after dinner I want you to join me in the library for a few minutes. So long."
Bly vanished with his slip of cardboard, and House was left to possess his soul in patience as best he could. But in due course, he caught a triumphant gleam in Bly's eye and joined him in the library, leaving the guests enjoying their after dinner smoke on the terrace. Bly said nothing, but pointed to a square object on the table, a tin box that had apparently just been dug out of the wet ground. House gasped in astonishment.
"The diary!" he gurgled. "Good Lord, Bly, how—?
"Presently," Bly smiled. "Meanwhile there is something else to be done. Ask the poet to come this way."
House beckoned to Milton through the open French window, and that individual drifted in with his inane smile and the usual suggestion of aloof superiority that marked him always. But, as his shallow blue eyes lighted on the tin case on the library table in the direction of the door, it was a different man altogether who turned a fighting face towards Bly. The dilletante had vanished, a man of action suddenly stood in his place.
"No, you don't," Bly said between his teeth. "You stay here if you want to keep a whole skin, my friend. Now then—how long has your name been Aubrey Milton, and how did you contrive to get that forged reference from the late Mr. Brightwell, of Sydney? Come, you know what I mean—the letter of introduction that gave you the entree into this house?"
"Really, I don't understand you," Milton drawled. "Mr. Brightwell was an old friend of my father's and I stayed with him in Australia. If you doubt my bona fides—"
"We will come to that presently," Bly said grimly. "In the meantime, let me ask you a further question. And don't forget that I am in a position to force a reply. How long have you been in the pay of Mr. George Mason, of the firm of Mason, Blood, and Evershed? What did he offer you in exchange for Mr. House's diary?"
"Never heard of the man," Milton said indifferently.
Bly turned with a look almost of regret to House.
"Very sorry," he murmured, "but I am afraid that we shall have to make a police matter of this after all. You'll have to give this man into custody, House. Of course you want to avoid a scandal, but there are limits. I'll look after this chap whilst you call up the police at Brighton on the telephone."
Milton wilted slightly. But he was game still, and in spite of it all Bly respected the new Milton far more than the old one.
"Think again," Bly said almost pleasantly, "think again."
"Well, put your cards on the table," Milton snapped.
"Right. About a week ago, just after you got here, you sent a wire to Mason, the scoundrel who is trying to ruin your host, the effect that you were safely landed here and would communicate in due course, but that Mason was not to try and get you here. You borrowed Mr. Swainson's mackintoshes and goggles, so that the sender of the message should not be recognised, but you wouldn't deny your own handwriting on the message. Then you managed to get hold of that diary, which Mason had heard of through the treachery of a clerk once in our employ, and very cleverly you did it. You are a brilliant psychologist, Mr. Milton. And your acting is uncommonly neat. Most men would have bolted with the diary, but you knew better than that. You hid it instead, waiting for the thing to blow over. And I found it by the merest accident in the world."
"So I see," Milton said quite pleasantly. "You are too many for me, Mr. Bly. I am on Mason's staff, and I volunteered to lay hands on the diary, which would have meant a fortune to the firm. Incidentally, perhaps one for myself. But how on earth—?"
"Heard enough, House?" Bly interrupted. "Better pitch this chap out, and tell the others he was suddenly called away. Motor him over to Brighton, what?"
Milton departed presently, unconcerned to the last and quite without shame. He had failed in his mission when on the very verge of success, and that was the one thing that worried his predatory soul. He was easy and smiling to the last, and seemed to bear no malice. There was something almost fine in the way in which he asked House to convey his regrets to the others that he had not the time to make his own adieux.
"Well, there's a pretty scoundrel for you," House cried.
"Let's hope it will be the last," Bly smiled. "My dear old chap, you have a perfect magnetism for the average rotter. They come round you like flies. And you are no fool either. Any rascal can get the tale over you. I can call to mind a score of Miltons."
"Never mind about that," House grinned. "Tell me how you managed to touch bottom over this business."
"It wasn't very difficult up to a certain point," Bly said as he lighted a cigarette. "Moreover, I had luck. And I didn't suspect Milton at first because he played his idiotic part so well that he fairly deceived me. But somebody in the house was pulling the strings, and somebody in the house was in possession of the diary. From the precautions you took it was obvious that the book was still on the premises. All the same, I thought that I could get something from old Mrs. Lacey, at the post office, and I did. I found out that somebody in these parts had sent a wire to 'Bloodshed, London,' which turned out on investigation to be Mason, Blood, and Evershed, the people we have most to fear. I contrived to see the original of that telegram, and made a mental photograph of the handwriting. A little later on, in the alcove where our ci devant poet worked, I found some of his manuscript. It was the handwriting of the telegram. That, of course, was blind luck. So was the finding in the same place of the copy of the 'Financial Post' you couldn't lay your hands on. So there was the thief properly earmarked."
"But how about the diary?" House demanded eagerly.
"I'm just coming to that," Bly went on. "I knew then who had the diary. That was something to the good. Then I ran into Rogers, who told me all about the missing Martinique blindworm. The other one had been found in the moss on the open patch by the alcove. It occurred to me that perhaps the mate was lying perdu in the damp, so I had a look for it. I found the track, and then as suddenly lost it. Then I found the worm dead, and, moreover, cut into three pieces with some blunt instrument, probably a spade. After it had buried itself in the moss, somebody had plunged a spade into the turf for some reason, not once, but at least three times. Why? To dig a hole. Why did somebody want to dig a hole there? It came on me like a flash. To bury the diary there. Close to the spot where Milton passed most of his time. I should never have found the snake, only the brilliant sunshine was full upon the place, and I just caught a glimpse of the glittering gaudy skin. Then with my strip of cardboard, I felt for the slender parting in the mossy turf, where the spade had done its work, and, surely enough, the cardboard went in quite easily. Up came the loose covering of moss, and there in a hollow lay the diary in its tin case. Of course, Milton had no idea, when using his spade, that he was cutting through one of the rarest snakes in the world. And the blindworm was too deep in the moss for him to see it wriggling, or, perhaps he was nervous and in a desperate hurry. And that's all there is to it, partner."
THE BODY of Stephen Kelland had been found at half-past two in the morning, and Mrs. Larner, the old lady with whom the dead man had lodged, had gone off to the police station without arousing her neighbours. She was a grim, strong-minded old body, but if ever she had a weakness for one of her lodgers, it was for the dead man, who, up to yesterday, was acting editor of the "Mireshire County Herald."
On Thursday and Friday nights, which were publishing days, the dead man Kelland rarely reached home before 2 o'clock in the morning. Usually he let himself in with his latch key, and found his way to his room, which was at the back of the house, leading off the garden, where he rang a bell that communicated with the back basement apartment, where Mrs. Larner slept. There, over her bed, facing the window, she had a master switch with which she was in the habit of turning on the electric light when Kelland rang his bell, which she invariably heard, being a light sleeper, and so the light remained for precisely half an hour, at the end of which period it was turned off again, whether Kelland was in bed or not. It was one of the old lady's fads, a rule she would as soon have broken as she would the tables of the Commandments.
All this she explained to Venner as he sat opposite her in the ground floor sitting-room. She informed him that Kelland had come in just after 2, as she plainly heard, that he had fastened up the front door and gone into his own room. He rang as usual, a good long ring, which she heard immediately. Then the bell stopped more abruptly than usual, and was immediately followed by a heavy fall overhead. She would not have particularly noticed this, she said; the thing that aroused her suspicion was the fact that the light was not switched on in the room overhead. She knew that because her bed faced the window, looking into the back basement, and as this was lighted with white tiles so as to give as much illumination as possible, she would have noticed at once if the electric bulb in Mr. Kelland's sitting-room had been turned on. She had waited ten minutes without the darkness being broken, and then, feeling somewhat alarmed, she had slipped on part of her clothing and gone up the kitchen stairs to investigate.
"You can leave us now," Inspector Venner said. "Dr. Hack and myself will make the examination. Doctor, this is no suicide."
"Out of the question," the doctor responded. "You see, the poor fellow was standing on the right-hand side of the fireplace with his right hand on the bell, and was killed in the act of ringing it. Of course, I cannot speak quite definitely as yet, but a bullet from some weapon struck him immediately below the shoulder, and seems to have deflected through the heart. If I had found a revolver here with one chamber discharged, I should still be certain it was murder. No man could have shot himself in that way; there must have been somebody in the room."
The detective crossed the room to the open window, the blind of which was up, and the two old-fashioned casements thrown wide apart. Immediately underneath was the white tiled basement, some 10ft. deep, into which it would have been impossible for an assassin to have dropped, or indeed gained the room by that means, without arousing the landlady from her sleep in her back basement bedroom which had originally been used as a scullery.
"Nobody came or went this way," he said. "And if you look, you will see the switch by the door is still pushed up. No doubt Mr. Kelland came into the room and walked across to the fireplace to ring up his landlady without first pressing down the switch. I suppose that is rather a loud bell that rings down there in the basement."
With that, Venner crossed the room again and pressed his finger on the button. The clang that responded rang all over the house. With a little nod of approval, the police officer crossed to the window again and looked out through the still open window to the little old-world garden which faced, some 50 yards away, a similar avenue of houses, so that the two were back to back. They were situated in the ancient part of Padbury, and had been built perhaps a hundred years before. A party wall divided the two sets of gardens, a wall only a few feet in height.
"Did you know anything of the dead man?" Venner asked the doctor. "Was he a patient of yours by any chance?"
"Slightly tubercular," Hack responded. "That is why he always made a point of living practically behind open windows. I don't suppose his windows were ever closed. He was very careful about that sort of thing."
For some time after the doctor had left. Venner stood thoughtfully gazing out of the open window at the back of the houses in Watersmeet-avenue. They were houses built precisely on the same lines as those in Mayfield-avenue, and doubtless they both had been built at the same time. They were quite respectable houses, with basements, and two stories over, and each had its neat little garden in which the inhabitants appeared to take considerable pride. There were very few trees, the garden consisting mainly of flower beds and grass plots, with here and there a small greenhouse, with its back to the wall. It was quite a long time before Venner turned away and began a close examination of the sitting-room; all to no effect.
By this time the whole town was seething with excitement. Everybody was open-mouthed and everybody more than anxious to throw some light upon the mystery. But it was not till late in the afternoon, that Venner hit upon one of the residents in Watersmeet-avenue who was really in a position to tell him something worthy of note.
This was a retired seafarer named Kelly, who lived in Number 14, as a lodger who occupied a sitting-room at the back of the house, almost immediately facing that in which the tragedy had taken place. He had heard something, and had gone round to the police station to give his information. Confronted with Venner, he told his apparently simple story.
"You see, it was like this," he said. "I am a rotten sleeper, always have been. I am a great sufferer from asthma, and all yesterday and last night I had one of my worst attacks. From midnight till nearly three this morning I sat in my sitting-room with the window wide open, leaning out struggling for breath."
"And you saw something?" Venner asked.
"No, sir. I can't rightly say that I saw something, but some time after two o'clock I heard what sounded like a shot. I did not take much notice, but I don't think anybody else heard it, because I saw no lights anywhere, and heard nothing moving."
"And that is all?" Venner asked.
"Yes, that is all I can tell you, sir."
It was really a baffling mystery, but the old man could tell Venner no more. How had it been possible for the murderer to shoot down his victim in the pitch blackness of the sitting-room? And again, if Kelland had been murdered by a shot fired from the garden through the open window, how could the assassin be so sure of his aim? The mere fact that he was intimately acquainted with the ways and habits of his victim could not help him to that extent.
One thing, there was plenty of time. He walked back to the gardens in Mayfield-Avenue, and made a further examination of the basement outside Mrs. Larner's bedroom. It was some ten feet deep, and not more than four wide, enclosed on either side with a wall of polished white tiles, so that anybody down there would be held a prisoner unless he had something to stand on, so as to get a grip on the railing above his head. And there was nothing in the basement of any kind whatever. Certainly the assassin had not gone that way. He could not have shot his enemy and rushed down the basement stairs and out into the garden without attracting the attention of Mrs. Larner, who was wide awake at the time. And so Venner was forced to the conclusion that the murderer had not been in the house at all. He must have shot Kelland from the garden and escaped.
But this only made the problem harder still. It was, therefore, necessary at this point to try back a little, to make further inquiries, which Venner proceed to do. He elicited the fact that the dead man had only held his important post for the last few months, and that in the opinion of the office he had more or less supplanted one Barwick, who had by no means taken the set-back lying down. The proprietor of the "County Herald," Raymond Barringford, confirmed this. Venner found him at his country seat, just outside the town, and was received with every courtesy.
"I am terribly distressed over this dreadful business," he said. "If I had known a week ago what I know now, I should have got rid of both Kelland and Barwick."
"You were dissatisfied with both of them, then?"
"By no means. On the contrary, I had the highest opinion of Stephen Kelland, and I am bound to say that Barwick does his work exceedingly well. But he is jealous and easily touched, and extremely ready to take offence. One of those morbid sensitive natures that torments itself, and in his way quite a genius. He has a wonderful flair for the short story, and if he were not so morbid and prurient in his work, he might have gone far. That is a grievance of his against the editorial fraternity generally, but really some of his work is frankly disgusting."
"There was no quarrel between these two?"
"I don't think so. Barwick is not the man to openly quarrel with anybody. I hope you don't suspect that—"
"I don't suspect anybody," Venner interrupted. "I am not far advanced enough for that. And you may rest assured that anything you have said to me will be treated as confidential."
With that, Venner went back to Padbury very little wiser than he came. Then he repaired once more to the lodgings of the dead man and spent half the morning in the garden. He was about to turn away when a voice suddenly hailed him. It was a voice that seemed to come from nowhere, and one that that addressed him on terms that sounded like flippant familiarity.
"Hello, hello," it said. "Morning cocky."
Venner looked up to see a grey parrot seated on an overhanging bough, and evidently deeply enjoying his own demoniacal wit. Its head was on one side, and its little round, wicked eye twinkled with sly malice. Then the bird flew away and seemed to disappear through an open window opposite. Venner went back to the house and called Mrs. Larner up from the basement.
"To whom does that parrot belong," he asked. "It seems to be an exceedingly clever bird."
"Yes, isn't he a wonder, sir?" the old lady said. "He belongs to Mr. Barwick. I believe Mr. Barwick's family has had him for years. Jacko, they call him. He comes here just as if the place belongs to him, and I suppose in a measure it does, because Mr. Barwick lived here in Mr. Kelland's rooms a long time before the poor gentleman came to Padbury. Jacko flies all over the place, and everybody is glad to see him. In fine weather he lives in the gardens, but if it is cold or wet, he always comes back to his own rooms. You see, Mr. Kelland's window was always open, so there was no trouble about that."
Venner sighed deeply and thoughtfully.
"Oh, so Mr. Barwick used to live here, did he? Occupying Mr. Kelland's rooms? Why did he leave?"
"Well, you see, sir, we couldn't get on together very well. I have my own queer notions, and Mr. Barwick, he couldn't put up with them. I am all for economy, and Mr. Barwick, he didn't know the meaning of the word. He would come in late, and thought nothing of leaving his electric light on all night. So I had that master switch put in, and Mr. Barwick he gave me notice."
"Was he very late of nights?" Venner asked.
"Well, not so late as Mr. Kelland used to be on Thursday and Friday nights. But Mr. Kelland didn't mind. He used to laugh at me in a good-natured way, and said he should put me in a book some day. So Mr. Barwick left—"
"Where does he lodge now?" Venner asked.
"Just opposite, sir, in Watersmeet-avenue. There is his window, as you can see for yourself."
"Dear me, this is really interesting," Venner said thoughtfully. "Now, Mrs. Larner, I want you to do something for me. I want you to go into Mr. Kelland's room and ring the bell—I mean the bell that sounds in your bedroom. A good, long ring, if you won't mind."
As the old lady moved off to comply with this request, Venner strolled up as far as the end of the garden, where he stood in a listening attitude. At the end of a few seconds the electric bell trilled out sharp and clear, and a moment later Venner was on his way to the police station.
"Well, how are you getting on?" his Deputy Inspector asked.
"I think I am getting on very well indeed," Venner said. "But before I can go any further I want something done. I want you to make it possible for me to have the run of Number 15, Watersmeet-avenue, for a couple of hours or so, without anybody being any the wiser."
* * * * *
It was three days later when Venner strolled into Padbury Station with the intention of catching a train that left Padbury just before noon for Castleford, the country town, where the connection with the London express was made. He arrived a minute or two after Peter Barwick, who stood by the booking office, taking a first return to town. Five minutes later, they were seated in the same carriage together, and Venner saw to it that they were not interrupted. He also saw, with some interest, that Barwick was accompanied by a solid leather portmanteau, some three feet long. These men had spoken to one another more than once in the last day or so, and it was not difficult to drift into a pleasant conversation.
"A few days' holiday, eh?" Venner asked.
"No," Barwick explained. "I am going to town on the firm's business. I shall be back on Monday with any luck."
"Well, I am very pleased to have met you like this, because we shan't be interrupted, at any rate, not between here and Castleford. And there is something important I want to say to you."
Barwick looked up sharply, with a shade of suspicion in those brooding, sombre eyes of his.
"Anything I can do I am sure," he murmured.
"Yes, I thought you would say that," Venner replied. "It is about that unfortunate man, Kelland. We have three quarters of an hour before us, and I think I shall be able to say all I want to in that time. Now, in the first place I want to know why it was that you shot Stephen Kelland."
It was an unexpected homethrust, of the deadliest nature, but it did not seem to move Barwick in the slightest. He did not even change colour, and those moody eyes were quite steady.
"Do you want me to incriminate myself?" he asked.
"Not in the least," Venner replied. "You can refuse to reply if you like. When you arrive at Castleford I shall hand you over to the county authorities, and, so far as I am concerned, the case in at an end. You can speak, or you can remain as silent as you please."
"I admit nothing," Barwick said quietly. "Perhaps if you will put your cards on the table we can come to an understanding. Oh, I know when I am beaten, Mr. Venner."
"Very well," Venner said. "I will give you a general outline of my case. You were bitterly jealous of your late colleague, and you brooded over what you fancied to be your wrongs until the thing became an obsession with you. To begin with before you disagreed with Mrs. Larner, you occupied the rooms where Kelland died. You know all about the old lady's fads and habits, and you were perfectly aware of the fact that Kelland came home very late on Thursday and Friday nights. I understand that you got off on those evenings long before Stephen Kelland could leave. Now, you were in a back sitting room, some fifty or sixty feet away from Kelland's open window, and waiting for him to come back on the night of the murder. You knew the geography of Kelland's room as well as he knew it himself. You knew that he was in the habit of coming into the house in the dark and going straight to the bell and ringing it for the light to be turned on. With your intimate knowledge and your late military work, all you had to do was to train a rifle on the spot where you knew Kelland would stand when he had his fingers on the bell, and pull the trigger. Very possibly you had the rifle fixed in position on the window ledge, having trained it before it was dark. There was just the chance that you might not have killed your victim, but that was a small risk, and you were ready to take it. Directly you heard that bell sound in Mrs. Larner's basement you shot. It was a most brilliant criminal idea, and was unfortunately successful. But there was one thing you overlooked.
"Did I?" Barwick asked, dully. "What was that?"
"The evidence of the bullet. It was fired from a B.S.A. rifle which you had hidden away in your rooms, and, if I am not mistaken, you have the weapon in your portmanteau there in sections. You are going to get rid of it, but I think it would have been much safer if you had done that in Padbury. However, there never was a criminal yet who never made a mistake, and that is the small percentage that always runs in favour of the police. I am going to take possession of that portmanteau and hand it over to the chief constable at Castleford. I found the box of cartridges in the chimney of your bedroom when I searched your lodgings the day before yesterday."
"And that is your case?" Barwick asked, quietly.
"Yes, that is my case," Venner said.
"Then there is no more to be said. At least, except so far as I like to make a confession. But there is one question I should like to ask you. Did that confounded parrot of mine give me away?"
"To a certain extent, yes," Venner said. "But I think I could have managed without that evidence. Now, if you have anything to say I shall be glad to hear it, if not—"
"I don't think so," Barwick said with a queer twisted smile. "I will take my chance, and, honestly, I don't care whether I live or die. Well, here we are at Castleford, and, if I am not mistaken, there is the chief constable standing on the platform. I am a clever man, Mr. Venner, but not quite so clever as you. And there lies the whole tragedy. Now, then, put the handcuffs on—I am quite ready."
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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