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Title: The Vaults of Blackarden Castle Author: Arthur Gask * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1303211h.html Language: English Date first posted: June 2013 Date most recently August 2013 Produced by: Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg 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 Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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Those responsible for the brutal murders of six eminent atom bomb scientists had covered their tracks with consummate skill. Scotland Yard was baffled; Press and public were seriously alarmed.
Called in by the authorities at the eleventh hour, Gilbert Larose, the famous investigator, struck back at the conspirators but, caught in a web of intrigue, vengeance and espionage, faced almost certain death in the vaults of an ancient castle.
A high-speed mystery thriller with a dramatic climax by the renowned author of thirty popular novels.
CHAPTER I.—The Gentleman Thug
CHAPTER II.—At Night in the Garden
CHAPTER III.—Larose Picks up the Trail
CHAPTER V.—Gathering Clouds
CHAPTER VI.—The Lord of Blackarden Castle
CHAPTER VII.—The Vaults of Blackarden
CHAPTER VIII.—Until the Marsh Gives up its Dead
CHAPTER IX.—The Goddess of Vengeance
ONE BEAUTIFUL morning in early June in the year nineteen hundred and forty-eight a motorist was driving slowly along a lonely and rough road that wound between the salt marshes and the sea in the extreme north of the countryside of Norfolk. With his gun handy upon the seat beside him, he was hoping to get a shot at something, a duck, a teal, a snipe or indeed any kind of bird which might fly up from the marshes as he came by. His temperament was such that he would not mind if it were out of season or not.
Smartly dressed, he was a handsome, even distinguished-looking man. By name Leon Mangan, by occupation he was an art dealer. He was returning to Town after a wasted and unprofitable journey to look at some pictures belonging to a man who had written giving an altogether misleading description of what he had to sell. He had found the pictures not worth buying and in consequence was in a bad temper at having been induced to travel so far for nothing.
Some two miles beyond the little town of Wells-by-the-Sea, meeting no one upon the way, he came in sight of a good-sized bungalow that had only the road between it and the muddy foreshore which, now at low water, stretched for a mile and more uncovered by the sea.
In his preoccupation becoming only all at once aware that his engine was running badly, he pulled up and alighted to see what was causing the trouble. To his annoyance he found the water was running low in his radiator. With a curse at his carelessness he, however, congratulated himself that he was so near a habitation that things could soon be put right.
Driving up to the bungalow, he alighted again and walked up the short path of the little garden to the front door. Seeing no bell, he knocked briskly with his knuckles but getting no answer after a couple of minutes or so, he moved away to peer through the nearest window, the blinds of which were not drawn, into what was evidently the living-room. The bungalow was certainly in use for upon the table he saw a dish of fruit with a large pineapple in the centre. Also, upon the sideboard, were a syphon, a spirit tantalus and some tumblers.
Proceeding round to the back of the bungalow, he came upon the expected tank of rain-water, but to his disgust could find no pail or other utensil with which to carry away the required water to his radiator. Proceeding to investigate a small garage at the far side of the little yard, he found the door was shut and securely fastened with a good Yale lock. Peering through the cracks of the door he saw the garage was empty.
With no luck at the back door, upon a scrutiny through a window which was evidently that of the kitchen, he saw exactly what he was looking for, a good-sized pail. Always of quick decisions and with never any scruples where other people's property was concerned, he decided instantly to avail himself of its service.
Making his way back quickly to his car, he took a stout screw-driver and a tyre-lever from his tool-box and then, for a long minute, paused to take an intent look all round. Not a human being was to be seen anywhere. In both directions the road stretched empty and lonely along the shore and, with the tide such a long way out, a wide and unbroken sliminess lay between him and the sea. Behind the bungalow, the marsh lay desolate and unpathed as far as the eye could see.
"Hell!" he exclaimed disgustedly. "In what a foul place for anyone to have built a nice bungalow like this! The man who did it must be half out of his mind."
Satisfied he was quite free from any interruption, he returned again to the back of the bungalow and, with the aid of his tools, very soon had the window open and was climbing into the kitchen. His first intention had been only to get the water he wanted, but, his curiosity being aroused by the up-to-date appointments of the kitchen, he proceeded to go through the other rooms of the bungalow. It was evident to him at once that the owner must be a man of some means, as all the appointments were comfortable and even luxurious; good carpets upon all the floors, nothing cheap about any of the furniture, and the pieces of plate upon the sideboard in the dining-room were of sterling silver.
Pulling open the long drawer of the sideboard, he saw it was well stocked with spoons and forks, also of sterling silver, and his eyes sparkled and he drew in a deep breath as he realised in a flash what an opportunity for good profit lay before him. Why the stuff under his very eyes was worth a little mint of money and it was all his for the taking! A nice haul of easily negotiable articles!
There was no hesitation upon his part as to what he would do, and, making his way through the back door, he darted outside to have another searching look round.
No, as before, there was no sight of any human being and the surroundings of the bungalow could not have been more desolate than they were!
He proceeded to get into action at once.
First, to be all prepared, if need be, for a quick getaway he filled his radiator. Then, going back into the dining-room he helped himself to a generous four fingers of whisky. Its flavour was so agreeable that he guessed it was pre-war spirit, and concluded once again that the owner of the bungalow must be well-to-do and in quite comfortable circumstances.
Next, not wasting any more time, he proceeded to gather together upon the table the things he was intending to take away, the two silver candlesticks, a dainty silver hot-water jug of solid silver and all the plate he found in the long sideboard drawer. His final acquisition was a massive silver snuff-box which he found lying upon the desk. A good judge of all things silver he knew at once that the snuff-box was of early Georgian days, and he reckoned confidently that it would fetch as much as a couple of hundred guineas in any good art saleroom. It was beautifully chased and, for the moment, he was so engrossed in admiring it that he did not hear soft tiptoeing footfalls in the passage. Indeed, a few seconds later he sensed rather than saw a movement by the door.
Turning as quickly as the strike of a snake, his disconcerted gaze took in a small and red-headed elderly man, glaring at him with blazing eyes and covering him with an upraised pistol.
"Up with your hands," shouted the small man furiously. "Up with them like lightning, or I'll shoot you in the stomach. Up with them, quick! My gun's loaded. Quick!"
Mangan's heart had almost stopped beating and his face gone an ashen grey. Added to a realisation of his dreadful position at being caught red-handed in an act of shameful theft had come the almost stupefying feeling of amazement at recognising the man who was now threatening him with his pistol. He was a Professor Harleck Glenowen whom he had but recently met when dining in the company of some aristocratic friends. That the recognition, however, was not mutual he was quite sure, as they had met only once and, also, his (Mangan's) motoring cap, as he always wore it, was now pulled down well over his forehead, thus obscuring a good part of his face.
The devil! In his tranquil moments, even, this professor of most eccentric views had the reputation of being half mad, with all his cleverness only in part responsible for his actions. So now, in his present state of fury and excitement, if there was the slightest hesitation in complying with his order he might pull upon the trigger at once.
Cursing viciously under his breath, but rather than of all things receive a bullet in his stomach—he had seen plenty of such injuries in the Great War—Mangan's hands went up instantly.
"Now turn and face the wall," was the next order given in a snarling sternness, "and any tricks, mind you, and I'll put a bullet in your spine." The professor stuttered in his rage. "You damned thug, I'll be only too glad of the excuse."
A long minute's silence followed while the professor recovered his breath. "Got a gun on you?" he asked hoarsely. "But of course you have! Now you keep still. I'm going to search you."
Mangan thought it wisest to continue to keep silent, and breathing hard and pressing the muzzle of his pistol firmly against the middle of his captive's back, the professor with his disengaged hand proceeded methodically to go through every pocket.
"Ha, ha, the gun, as I expected!" he exclaimed gleefully as he drew out a small automatic. "A modern highwayman, are you, and up-to-date Charles Duval?" His voice rose in disgust. "And a knuckle-duster, too! Then you're worse than a highwayman, you are a murdering thug."
Coming upon the silver snuff-box in one of the side pockets of Mangan's jacket, he gave him a couple of vicious kicks in the legs. "You devil, and I so prized that, too!" He thrust his pistol harder than ever into Mangan's back. "A bigger blackguard even than you, my friend," he snarled, "has had his fingers in that box, as it belonged once to that arch scoundrel, Napoleon."
The search was soon over and, the contents of all Mangan's pockets laid out upon the table, he was next ordered to drop one hand at a time and unbutton his braces. "And you won't be able to run far, will you, you blackguard thief," sneered the professor, "with your trousers falling down? Now, I'll just put the table between us and you shall turn round and take off your cap, so that I can have a good look at you." He grinned sardonically. "This is the first time that, to my knowledge, I have had the experience of meeting a bona-fide thief."
A few moments later and the two men stood face to face. It might have been thought that the so smartly-dressed Mangan would have appeared overwhelmed in shame, first at having been caught red-handed as a thief, and now at being in the humiliating position at having to hold up his trousers to keep them from falling down his legs. On the contrary, however, his expression was a cold and disdainful one, and it was with contempt rather than anything else with which he regarded his captor. As for the latter—a quick hard stare and his face was frozen into an incredulous surprise.
For long moments neither of them spoke, and then the professor gasped, "Major Mangan, the dashing D.S.O.! The man I met at Blackarden Castle! The bosom friend of young Avon, Lord Delamarne's heir! God, it can't be true!" His voice rose to a shriek. "But it is, you gentlemanly blackguard, and so this is how you make your living, is it? Oh, you common, vulgar thief."
In his thirtieth year, Major Leon Sylvester Mangan, decorated with the Distinguished Service Order and at one time attached to a crack commando unit, was as gentlemanly a blackguard as it was possible to meet. A product thrown up by the licence and savagery of the second great war, he was without morals and with no scruples whatsoever. A veritable bird of prey in the good social world in which he moved, he was the more dangerous to the community because of his pleasing appearance and charming manners. Everyone always took to him at once. He was always well dressed in excellent taste.
The only son of a country doctor he had been sent to good schools and then on to Oxford University. To the great disappointment of his father, after his two years' residence he had come down without taking any degree. With an intelligence much above the ordinary, he could easily have distinguished himself had he so wished, but it was just that he seemed interested in nothing but sport and gambling.
Early in his 'Varsity days he had become mixed up with a fast sporting set of much greater means than his and, at once realising that he would not be able to keep pace with them upon the very moderate allowance he received from his father, he set about increasing his income in the only way he knew of, and that was his undoubted proficiency at cards.
He had always been good at all card games, but in his late schooldays when playing "ha'penny nap" or indeed any game where money was involved, because of his well-known cleverness at sleight of hand, was never allowed to shuffle the pack or deal the cards. He took it all in good part and considered it a great joke, complaining, however, with a grin that it was not fair to so cramp his style. Surely, he would argue humorously, he deserved some reward for the amount of time he gave to the practice of his speciality.
Going up to Oxford, he did not think it necessary to mention this little hobby of his to any of his card-playing friends. He must mind his step most carefully he told himself, as he was not playing with schoolboys now! He smiled to himself—still it might come in useful one day.
With the ideal temperament for a gambler, cool, collected and never losing his head, he was soon recognised by his fellow undergraduates as one of the best and most daring card players among them. Indeed, at poker, his favourite game, after a thick evening, particularly when the stakes had been high, it was good odds upon his having come out a winner.
Giving frequent little parties at his rooms, with plenty of drink always available, they were invariably well attended. As time went on, however, though there was never any suspicion of foul play against him, the opinion began gradually to be formed that these evenings were in the way of being most expensive ones for any but the most cautious and experienced players.
Something little short of a scandal occurred once when a young freshman lost nearly £300, with most of it going to his host. Still it was agreed by all who had been present then that Mangan himself was in no way to blame, as he had repeatedly warned the young fellow of his recklessness, and several times had expressed the wish of withdrawing from any further play.
His years at the 'Varsity ended, he was such a long while without attempting to settle down to any occupation that at last he had exhausted both his father's patience and the money the latter was prepared to spend upon him. After an angry quarrel with the very disappointed doctor, he left the parental roof with a final £20 in his pocket to make his way in life as best he could.
Right from the very beginning intending to do no really hard work, a worrying time followed for him, with his trying one occupation after another with no success. Certainly his nice manners and well-dressed appearance had landed for him straightaway a position in a good-class book shop in the West End, but he had only stuck to it for a few weeks and then with no notice to his employer, had not turned up on the Monday morning. After that he did a short time of assurance work, sold books upon commission, worked as a clerk to a bookmaker and finally was engaged in a little second-hand art and curiosity shop in Wardour Street. He came to apply for the position there upon seeing a card in the window notifying that a young man of good address was wanted as an assistant and, as he had no references to produce, was rather surprised at being taken on. However, the proprietor, Marcus Wardale, an easy-going and scholarly-looking man, appeared to be quite satisfied when Mangan told him he had been an undergraduate at Oxford for two years, and engaged him on the spot. The salary was only fifty shillings a week, just enough for him to live in the poorest way in the East End.
The work was very easy and consisted mainly in dusting the old-looking furniture and odds and ends of miscellaneous articles scattered untidily about the shop. Added to that, Mangan was often left in charge to delay any customers who came in from leaving before his employer returned from the many little 'business matters' which were continually taking him off for a few minutes during the day. Mangan, however, was soon of the opinion these journeys necessitated him going no farther than the nearest public-house, as he invariably smelt of spirits when he returned.
Another thing Mangan soon learnt was that the business done in the shop could not possibly be paying for the overhead expenses and even the small salary he himself was receiving. Very few customers came in, and often the day's takings could not have amounted to more than a few shillings. Considering all this, he suddenly realised the real money was being earned in the little room at the back of the shop, and that sellers and not buyers were the mainstay of his employer's business.
Almost everybody with anything to sell was taken into this little room, the door was shut and sometimes it was many minutes before the seller came out again. Also, he noticed that whatever transactions had taken place there, very rarely was any new article exposed in the shop for resale. Instead, his employer would find it necessary to go out at once upon one of these mysterious little business matters, though then he was absent for much longer than it would take him to go to the public house.
One afternoon after one of the proceedings, to his great surprise Wardale presented him with a ten-shilling note, "See here," he said with a knowing smile, "if you are ever asked any questions about any of the customers who have dropped in, you've to say you've never seen them before." He winked again. "You understand?"
Mangan pocketed the note with a grin. "All right," he said. "You can trust me. No one will get anything out of me, I promise you."
After that his employer gradually became much more confiding. "In this kind of business," he explained, "to make things pay we have occasionally to buy little odds and ends that it wouldn't do for the police to know about. Some of these chaps who come to me have picked up little trifles and I don't enquire too closely how they came to get them." He laughed. "Then, of course, I don't enter the transaction in my book and the police have no hold upon me. Oh, yes, they come and inspect the books sometimes and, once or twice, the blackguards have even made a search of everything here. That's why I never keep things bought in that way long upon the premises."
It was well his employer had so confided in Mangan, as shortly after this conversation, there was a brush with the police about a silver Queen Anne comfit box which they alleged Wardale had bought and, knowing quite well it was 'stolen goods,' had not entered the transaction into his purchase book. They declared the man who had sold it to him was a well-known bad character and had been recognised, when entering the shop, by someone who knew him.
Confronted with the suspect, who also strenuously denied the transaction, both the dealer and Mangan swore they had never set eyes upon him before. In consequence of these denials the police were unable to lay a charge against Wardale and were furious about it, because they were certain that in him they had found the 'fence' they had long been wanting to get into their hands. Mangan was delighted about the whole business and in his unsocial leanings had thought it great sport to back up his employer in his untruths.
With complete trust now in his assistant, Wardale at once raised his weekly wage to £5 and from then on there was not much about the transactions in the little shop about which he was kept in the dark. He was astonished at the amount of money which changed hands in the backroom in the buying of articles which had undoubtedly been stolen, and realised what a profitable business it was as long as one managed to get away with it.
He learnt it was well-known in the underworld that Wardale specialised in the buying of articles of old silver and that he was recognised as something of an authority in estimating their value. Mangan found out, too, that, apart from the good profits he made, as a conniosseur his employer delighted in handling beautiful things and was always sorry that he could keep so many of them in his possession for only such a short time. He tried, too, and not without success, to interest Mangan in all things silver, and, after any special deal in the back room, would call him in and explain what had made his purchase good-buying. Also, he lent him books upon the subject and was at all times most willing to pass on to him his expert knowledge.
Upon some days, too, when there was an art sale on anywhere within easy distance, the shop would be shut for a few hours, and the two of them would go to watch the bidding. The dealer would have marked upon the catalogue, beforehand, what price he thought certain articles would fetch, and Mangan found that he was never very much out in his reckonings.
Altogether Mangan was not unhappy in his occupation and made up his mind that one day he would take it on himself. However, when he had been at the shop for about eighteen months, the Great War started and, to his employer's regret, he left him at once to take his part in it. He realised it was the very calling he was fitted for and would give opportunity to his bold and reckless disposition, with no real hard work and certainly no sense of boredom. As a one-time Oxford University man, he was at once taken for a commission and so it was as Lieutenant Mangan he took part in the real fighting in France.
Efficient in every way, resourceful, brave to the point of recklessness and unmindful of all danger, he made an ideal soldier, and his promotion was rapid. Transferred with his regiment to take part in the African campaign and obtaining his captaincy, he was awarded the D.S.O. for conspicuous gallantry when, single-handed he wiped out a machine-gun nest with hand grenades.
The African campaign over, he volunteered to help the Resistance Movement in France and was dropped there by parachute. With a fair knowledge of the language, he speedily became the leader of a little band of patriots who operated from a hiding-place deep in the Auvergne Mountains. Time after time they would come down from their fastness and, long after night had fallen, with bullets, hand grenades, and their long razor-sharp knives deal out bloody punishment to the German soldiery.
Appearing unexpectedly in so many widely-separated places, they became known as "The Shadow Band" and many ineffectual attempts were made to trap them. Greatly daring, upon occasions they would work in only twos and threes and then make their way in the dead of night into the very heart of a town occupied in good force by the enemy. The next morning when it was discovered the ghastly things that had happened a veritable wave of terror would sweep through the Germans.
In his sheer lust for slaughter, no one was more brave and reckless than Mangan, and one story in particular was related of him. The Commandant of a certain district had become noted for his bestial treatment of anyone, man, woman or child upon whom had fallen the slightest suspicion of having supplied information to the partisans. His long suit was torturing little children before their parents' eyes.
It was resolved that he should die, but, well aware of the hatred in which he was held and the threat of a bloody death for ever hanging over him, the utmost precautions were being taken that no suspicious person should get even within shooting distance of him.
Weighing up all the chances, Mangan finally decided that he would carry out the execution himself, unaided and alone.
The Commandant had his headquarters in an old chateau situated in a big garden encircled by a high wall and, day and night, sentries were posted within a few yards of one another all round. To guard against all possible chances of treachery from inside, every night all the servants were dismissed to sleep in their own homes in the town. Then the doors were securely locked and bolted, and the iron shutters to every window screwed tightly into their positions. Nothing to make everything secure was left undone and the Commandant and the three members of his staff who slept in the chateau with him were confident no trouble would ever ensue.
Yet one morning the door had to be broken down to get into the chateau and, to everyone's horror and amazement, it was found the four inmates had all been killed during the night, with their throats cut from ear to ear. They had been slaughtered in their sleep, and the Germans never found out how the slayers had first got into the chateau and then, with their dreadful work accomplished, had managed to get away.
In telling the story afterwards, Mangan, who to his credit was never boastful, never disclosed to outsiders that he himself had been the actual killer. Indeed, he used to say that he only related the story to bring home to his listeners the profound execration in which the occupying German army was held by the French peasantry wherever the soldiers were stationed.
When asked, as of course he always was, how the killers had succeeded in getting into the chateau, he would relate how very simple it had been. "The Boches were so loathed," he would reply, "that French parents were even willing to risk their so-loved little children in the ghastly spirit of revenge." So, one of the servants who worked in the chateau, during the day, he would go on to relate, actually smuggled in her small daughter, only twelve years old, and hid her under the coal in a big cellar. Then, at night when all the chateau had quietened down, she climbed up on to the coal and pulled away the bar which held in place the large iron cover through which it was customary to pour in the coal from outside. Then one man, only one, he would emphasise, but he a most experienced killer, crept in from the garden where he had been hiding all day under a sack and finished off the inmates one by one, without awakening any of them.
Such was the story Mangan used to tell. He did not, however think it necessary to add that he had come away from the chateau that night with a nice little haul of booty taken off the dead men, including the Commandant's very valuable gold chronometer which was disposed of later in London for three hundred guineas.
The war ended and as Major Mangan now, with nothing better in sight, with his gratuity and some money he had saved, he bought himself in very cheaply as partner in the little second-hand shop in Wardour Street and, with his naturally strong character strengthened ten-fold by his war experiences, at once took command of everything.
His one-time employer was quite happy about it. Whisky had frayed his nerves almost down to breaking-point and he was very glad for anyone to do his thinking for him. So he just allowed Mangan to do what he liked, and the latter's changes in the conducting of the business were very thorough.
Calling the shop now the Etoile D'Argent after a famous Parisian one in the Rue de Rivoli, he had it entirely redecorated in an attractive style. Next, he got rid of all the old junk that had been lying about for years, and started to restock with things bought at country sales. There, he bought very cautiously at first, but, by closely following the bidding of other dealers and by making friends of some of them by asking their advice, he quickly began to acquire a good knowledge of the trade.
With those who furtively brought articles to the shop when there was all appearance of their having been dishonestly acquitted, he adopted a friendly as well as a business-like attitude. When he and his partner had decided what they would pay he would say firmly, "That's all we are prepared to give you now, but if you call back, say in a week's time, and we find we have realised more than we expected—then there'll be a bit more for you," and the sellers would go away quite assured that they were being treated fairly.
Making good money now, Mangan lived the life of a man about Town, with his friends and acquaintances apparently knowing nothing of the Wardour Street shop and believing him to be a man of independant means. His D.S.O. gave him something of a high standing among them, bringing as it did the right of entry into the Royal Enclosure at Ascot. Sponsored by former brother officers, he joined two quite good clubs. There, as in his old Oxford days, he found he could hold his own with anyone at cards and was as good a player as the best of them. Always a good judge of character, too, he knew when it was safe to do a little manipulating with the cards, and his clubs became a source of good income to him.
Acquiring a small but well-appointed flat in Fitzroy Square, he took to giving small card parties there, and it was pretty certain that he would come out in the right side if only in a small amount. As far as his own gains were concerned, he took care the same man never lost a good sum to him more than once.
* * * *
This then was the man whom Professor Glenowen was now abusing with every unpleasant word he could lay his tongue to. "And did you hope I shouldn't recognise you, you blackguard?" he sneered. "Was that why you were keeping so quiet?"
"Certainly not," said Mangan coolly, "I would have told you at once who I was if you had not been so ready with your talk about my stomach and your gun. You were so excited that if I had interrupted you with a word you might have shot me out of hand."
"And I almost wish I had now," snarled the professor. His eyes glared. "You would have shot me, wouldn't you, if you could have got in first?"
Mangan looked contemptuous. "Not for those few bits of stuff I was going to take. Do you think I'd have been such a fool as to commit murder for a few spoons and forks?"
"But you told us all openly in those tales the other night at Blackarden Castle," snapped the professor, "that killing had been your trade for so long in the war that you often felt you wanted to return to it."
Mangan shook his head frowningly. "That was only a joke, an after dinner joke when I'd had plenty of champagne." He spoke persuasively. "See here, Professor Glenowen, I know I was doing a dreadful thing in going to steal your silver and I'm thoroughly ashamed of myself. My only excuse is, and it's a very poor one, it was a sudden temptation on the spur of the moment. I was badly needing water for my radiator and couldn't find any pail to carry it to my car. Then I saw one through the kitchen window and climbed in to get it. I swear to you that I had no other thought in my mind. Still, I became curious about the other rooms and wandered in here." He shrugged his shoulders. "I saw the silver. I was tempted—and I fell." He spoke earnestly. "As I say, I know it was a dreadful thing to do—me, an old Oxford University man and one who held his Majesty's commision in the war."
"And that's the tale you'll tell the police, is it?" scoffed the professor. "Well, it's not likely to help you much." He spoke sharply. "What's your occupation—if you have any other occupation than the one I've caught you in today?"
"An art-dealer," replied Mangan. "I buy and sell anything valuable—" he smiled a cold smile, "—including all things silver."
The professor pointed to the pistol and the knuckleduster upon the table. "And these, I suppose," he asked grimly, "are the appliances you make use of in your calling?"
"Not necessarily," replied Mangan coolly, "but as most of my buying is done away from my place of business I often carry good sums in banknotes and, in these after-war days I have to be prepared for anything."
"You didn't know I had a bungalow here?" asked the professor eyeing him very intently.
Mangan shook his head. "No, I understand you lived in Town."
The professor frowned. "Then I suppose you know all about me? You had heard of me before we met at Lord Delamarne's?"
"Certainly, I had," agreed Mangan, who judged rightly that Glenowen was not averse to a little flattery. "Everyone knows about you. You are a well-known Communist and wrote that letter to The Times a little while ago, suggesting that anyone who shot those German scientists who have been brought out here by our Government to help make the atom-bomb would be quite justified in doing so. You said it would be an act of service to all humanity." He nodded. "I agree with you. The atom-bomb should be outlawed."
The professor looked thoughtful. "And you would shoot that Carl von Bressen and Otto Kernstein if you got the chance?"
"Shoot them as I would mad dogs," scowled Mangan, "if I could be sure of doing it without being caught. I'd shoot any German. I saw too much of their vile work when I was fighting with the Resistance Movement in France. They were inhuman beasts to any partisan they got hold of."
The sounds of a motor were heard in the distance and they both stopped speaking. A car came by the window slowing down, and it could be heard passing into the yard. Mangan's eyes opened to their widest and his jaw dropped.
"Don't faint," said the professor, looking very amused at Mangan's obvious uneasiness. "It isn't the police, only my man who's returned from an errand—" he smiled a grim smile as excited barks were heard in the passage "—and here's a friend of mine who would like to make your acquaintance."
A fierce-looking Alsatian burst into the room. "To heel, Pluto," shouted the professor peremptorily. "To heel, I tell you. Come here," and the big animal who, upon catching sight of Mangan, had bared his teeth and started to growl savagely, with obvious reluctance sidled up to his master and squatted at his feet.
The professor pocketed his own pistol, and swept Mangan's and the knuckle-duster off the table in a drawer in the desk. "You can do up your trousers," he said sharply, "but be very careful what you do and don't make any quick movement, as it might bring the dog upon you at once. Pluto is always savage with strangers." He looked mockingly at Mangan. "And how much of those adventures of yours in France you told us about that night when I met you at Blackarden Castle were really true?"
"Every word of them," replied Mangan with some indignation. "There was no need to exaggerate or lie. We were killers, every one of us, and as fierce and savage as any beast of the jungle ever is."
"But my opinion is that you're a coward," said the professor sharply. "You went as white as a ghost just now when this dog of mine came into the room."
"And was that to be wondered at?" snapped Mangan, furious at being so insulted by this insignificant-looking little man. "I am unarmed and he looks as dangerous a brute as I've ever met." He gritted his teeth savagely. "But give me my jacket over my left arm and my long commando knife in my right hand—" he looked contemptuous—"and I'll slit him open from midriff to stern as quick as you can see. I've killed scores such as he without getting a scratch."
"Oh, you have, have you?" commented the professor as if in some doubt. He regarded Mangan thoughtfully. "And it was you then who cut the throat of that German Commandant you told us about," he asked, "as well as those of his staff?"
"It was," replied Mangan curtly. "I don't boast about it, as things like that were all in our day's work. It was adventure and sport to us."
"And would be again?" queried the professor.
Mangan nodded. "I expect so, if those times ever come back again."
The professor seemed to have come to some resolution. "Well, I'll put you to the test, my fine cock-sparrow," he said grimly, "and just see the stuff you're really made of." He pointed to the silver upon the table. "Put those spoons and forks back where you found them. My man will be in in a minute or two to lay lunch and I hope I may have the pleasure of your company."
Mangan could not believe his ears. "Have lunch with you?" he queried. "Then——"
"I'm overlooking that little matter of your lapse," nodded the professor, "and, except for your pistol which I'll retain for the present, you can put back the other things into your pockets. Yes, we'll have lunch together." He spoke in a half smiling and half sneering tone, "And if you are as competent and fearless as you make yourself out to be, you will be delighted at the very thought of a project I am going to put before you."
A minute or so later a big and hefty man not unlike a prize-fighter in appearance came into the room. He gave Mangan a hard, long stare before proceeding to lay the table. A short conversation in Welsh proceeded between him and his master and then the latter turned to Mangan.
"Now if you happen to like them, Mr. Brown," he said, rubbing his hands as gleefully as a little child, "I can give you a great treat, jellied eels. Have you ever tasted them?"
"Can't say I have," replied Mangan. "Are they good?"
"Excellent!" exclaimed the professor. "To my thinking they have a flavour every bit as good as that of the turbot. After the eels there'll be a cold duck." He laughed. "It's funny, isn't it, that the three filthiest feeders in the world, the pig, the duck and the eel should all have the most delicate flavour of their kind? Nothing can excel the delicacy of their flesh and its flavour is wholly individual."
Mangan felt altogether stupified at what was happening. Only such a few minutes before he had been within an ace of having a bullet in his stomach and now—he was being invited in the most friendly manner possible to share a meal with the very man who had threatened him and whose goods he had actually been caught red-handed in the act of stealing.
Of course, the man was mad, but what in his madness was going to happen next?
With the two seated opposite to each other at the table they proceeded to enjoy what Mangan assured the gratified professor was as dainty a little meal as could have been provided anywhere. The atmosphere was most friendly, with the professor drawing out from his guest more of his adventures when fighting with the patriots of France. In particular the professor seemed to revel in the more gruesome details and his eyes sparkled at the recital of any episode where his guest mentioned having had resource to his big commando knife.
"Blood-thirsty little wretch!" scowled Mangan under his breath. "He's quite mental and would just love to set that big beast at me, and it wouldn't take much to make him do it, either."
The Alsatian had annoyed Mangan not a little the whole time they were having the meal and, to his irritation, he found himself continually glancing in the dog's direction. Stretched out upon the sofa, with his huge head resting upon his paws, never once had the big animal taken his eyes off him and, with the slightest movement Mangan had made in his chair, he had instantly lifted up his head and emitted a low growl. He had seemed ready to spring at him any moment.
The professor was obviously well aware of this little byplay which was going on and at length asked smilingly, "So my doggie fidgets you, does he? Don't you like Alsatians?"
Mangan choked down the rage at the half-mocking way in which the question had been put. "It isn't that I don't like them," he said carelessly, "but the Germans always used them and in consequence they are associated in my mind with the bestialities of the unspeakable Hun. So, whenever I see one now, my memory goes back to the many I have had to kill."
"They are good fighters?" queried the professor.
"The best," nodded Mangan, "but quite easy to kill if you face up to them when they attack you."
"Then you think," smiled the professor, "that if I took you both out into the yard and armed you, say with this carving knife here, my poor Pluto wouldn't stand much chance in the fight."
"The carving-knife would be no good," scoffed Mangan, "but give me a good cut-throat razor and it'd be all over in double quick time."
"And you wouldn't mind killing him?"
"Not at all," said Mangan. He smiled. "Haven't I told you killing is my trade."
"Good," nodded the professor, "then as I say, if you're the brave man you make yourself out to be you'll jump at a proposition I am going to put to you in a few minutes." He shook his head disapprovingly. "But with you being a one-time commando I am rather disappointed in you. You ought not to have allowed yourself to be caught as you were. Your car was under my observation from the moment you came down the road. I was not very far away, down by the edge of the sea, looking for specimens, and, though certainly it's understandable you might not have picked me up because my mackintosh is much the same colour as that of the mud, you ought to have been aware someone belonging to the bungalow was somewhere close about."
"How?" asked Mangan testily, annoyed at the superior and patronising way in which the professor was admonishing him.
"By my footprints in the mud, of course," returned the professor. "They start not half a dozen yards from where your car is standing, and you should have noticed they were only one-way ones. Therefore you should have known that the person who made them had not come back, but was somewhere about by the margin of the sea."
"I didn't see them at all," frowned Mangan.
"Then you should have done," said the professor, "as they were close under your very eyes." He turned the conversation abruptly. "By the by, as the bosom friend of his nephew I suppose you know Lord Delamarne quite well?"
Mangan was inclined to be non-committal. "I've stayed at the Castle a few times," he said, "but I can't say I know him well, as I think very few people do. He's a most reserved man."
The professor smiled a dry smile. "Well, with your partiality for old silver, no doubt you induced him to show you what he's got."
"I didn't have to induce him," snapped Mangan in continued irritability at the professor's sarcastic tone. "He was quite ready to show me some of the trifles he has in the cabinet in his study, but everybody knows he keeps back his best things for his own pleasure, hidden away."
The professor nodded. "Yes, in those underground passages, those walled-up dungeons of his, in a specially constructed steel chamber into which he thinks no burglar can break. As a Communist I regard it as a most selfish procedure and I'd love him to lose the lot." He laughed. "Why don't you have a go at them? I'm sure that with assistance from some of your criminal friends you'd be able to find a way to break in."
Mangan made no comment and regarded him with an angry, sullen face. The professor went on. "Oh, they'd be worth a lot of risk. No one has any idea what treasures he may have hidden there." He chuckled delightedly. "Now, I'll tell you something which will surprise you. You remember that 18th century silver kettle which fetched such a huge sum at Southby's last year, don't you?"
Mangan remembered it quite well, as at the time its sale had caused quite a mild sensation in the art world. The kettle had been a magnificent example of a silversmith's work when the Huguenots had first settled in London and it bore the stamp of having been made in 1715. The bidding had opened at a thousand guineas and gone up quickly to eighteen hundred in the favour of a well-known collector. Then when it seemed no further bid was going to be made and the auctioneer was in the very act or dropping his hammer, a shabby-looking man whom no one knew chipped in boldly with another hundred guineas.
For the moment the auctioneer hesitated as if doubtful about accepting the bid of a perfect stranger, but the latter held up a fist-full of banknotes and called out that all the money likely to be needed was there. Whereupon the bid was accepted, to be, however, immediately capped by another hundred from the collector. Quite confidently the stranger bid another fifty and then, ding-dong with no hesitation, the bidding went on until twenty-six hundred was reached. Whereupon the collector at once threw in his hand and the kettle was knocked down to the stranger who nonchalantly paid up with his banknotes and, placing his purchase in a shabby black bag, disappeared as unobtrusively as he had come. For a long time afterwards there was much speculation as to for whom the stranger had been acting, but nothing had been found out, so who was now in actual possession of the kettle was as great a mystery as ever.
Now questioned by the professor, Mangan said he remembered the sale and, as with everyone else, was curious as to who had been the buyer.
"I can tell you," laughed the professor exultingly. "It was bought on Lord Delamarne's behalf and he has got it now at the casde."
Mangan frowned sceptically. "He has showed it to you?" he asked.
The professor shook his head. "No, but I've spoken to someone to whom he has, and it's interesting how I came to know all about it. Some months ago I wanted some electric work done here and applied to a firm in Norwich who sent out an Italian workman who could only speak a few words of English. However, that didn't matter at all as I know Italian well. The man was here for three days and was delighted to talk to someone who spoke his mother tongue. He was a very intelligent chap—" he laughed "—and, of course, a Communist. We became very friendly."
The professor went on. "Talking about his experiences in England—the man had been over here only a few weeks—he mentioned that he had been recently doing a job for a very eccentric old gentleman and, if the old fellow had not owned a castle and been a lord, he might quite reasonably have suspected something very wrong was going on. There was such a secrecy about everything, and, before going down to an underground passage where some new wiring was wanted, he was actually blindfolded so that he should not learn how he had got there."
Mangan was intensely interested all at once. "You are sure it was Lord Delamarne," he exclaimed, "and that Blackarden was the casde?"
The professor nodded. "Of course! And during the three days the Italian was working there Delamarne was down underground with him the whole time. When they went down in the early morning they carried their mid-day meal with them so that they did not come up again until night. They spoke in French, but, having explained what wanted doing, this Italian said the lord hardly said a word to him. He said he felt a bit awed as everything was so silent and cold, and he knew he must be many, many feet below the castle, as he had counted seventy-six steps coming down a narrow stone stairway which, he says, at the time, he thought would never end."
"But surely Lord Delamarne," broke in Mangan, "would have——"
The professor held up his hand frowningly. "Wait until I've finished," he snapped, "and then you can ask what you like." He paused a few moments to collect the threads of thoughts and then went on. "Well, he worked at the beginning of a long passage, but while he was not watching him, which he says was not for many minutes at a time, Delamarne was busy doing something round a corner at the farther end, quite he thinks, fifty yards away.
"Well, upon the second day, wanting some more instruction as what next to do and with Delamarne round his corner, as a matter of course he went up the passage to speak to him. To his amazement he found him in a little room opening out from the solid stone wall. The room was brightly lit and, seated at a small table, Delamarne was busy polishing up a tall silver candlestick. All round the chamber in glass cabinets were articles of silver and the man says they flashed and sparkled under the light." The professor leant back in great good humour. "Now what do you think of that? Fancy our friend going to such extremes to protect whatever he has got, however valuable!"
Mangan pursed up his lips. "But it's not by any means unusual," he said. "Once the mania for collecting gets its grip on any man he is no longer normal and there is no accounting for his actions." He frowned. "But wasn't Lord Delamarne furious at the man having seen what he had?"
"Furious, and looked as if he would have liked to kill him," nodded the professor. "But he soon came round and was quite friendly with the man. He said that an Italian would be sure to like beautiful things and he started showing off his possessions one by one, and that is how it came about that the workman so distinctly remembers the kettle and the date 1715. The next day when he left, Delamarne gave him £10 as a present for his promise to never tell anyone what he had seen."
"And he told you," queried Mangan dryly, "directly he came here."
"No, not directly," corrected the professor, "not until we had got pretty friendly and become aware we were both Communists." He laughed. "Our mutual detestation of the so-called upper classes seemed to release him from his vow."
Mangan was silent for a few moments and then asked frowningly, "And do you mean to say the workman has absolutely no idea from what part of the castle that long stairway of those seventy-six steps started?"
The professor laughed. "Oh yes, he has a very good idea; in fact he says that while his blindfold journey was quite a lengthy one along several corridors with a lot of twists and turnings and commenced in Delamarne's study, he is quite sure it ended there too, as there was the feel of the same carpet under his feet and the same smell of books in his nostrils." The professor snapped his fingers together. "Well, you think it over, my friend. There should be some good pickings for you in that old castle if you set about getting them in a methodical way."
The meal over and cleared away the professor spoke in sharp and businesslike tones. "Now for what I want you to do. To begin with, however, as a Communist you must be a great admirer of Soviet Russia?"
"Certainly I am," agreed Mangan with no hesitation. "But for them we should not have won the war."
"And, as you have already told me," continued the professor, "you heartily disapprove of us English-speaking nations taking advantage of our possession of the atom bomb and threatening to use it against them."
"I do," nodded Mangan. "Its employment by all nations ought to be outlawed at once."
"And do you agree with me," went on the professor earnestly, "that bringing over these Germans should be stopped by all means possible, lawful or unlawful?"
Mangan pretended to stir in fierce indignation. "I most certainly do," he said angrily. "As I have already told you if only you had seen as I have what the Germans did to the French patriots during the occupation, the unbelievable tortures and sufferings they inflicted upon them—you would have no use for any Hun except to shoot him and get him under the ground as quickly as possible. From my experiences there's not a pin to choose between any of them. They are all devils."
"Exactly!" exclaimed the professor triumphantly. "That's the view I take." He paused a moment and then burst out, "And I want you to kill one of the worst of them who's been brought over here, that scoundrel, Dr. Carl von Bressen." His eyes gleamed fanatically. "I want him destroyed and I'll pay you well to do it. That's the proposition I am putting before you—to get rid of an enemy to all humankind."
For the moment Mangan was too amazed to make any comment. Certainly he had thought from the professor's preliminary remarks that he was leading up to some extraordinary proposition, but he, Mangan, had never expected he was going to be asked to carry out the deliberate murder of a prominent public man.
The professor went on in crisp and businesslike tones. "Yes, and I'm prepared to pay you the sum of £1,000 down for your killing him in any way you feel most convenient." His voice rose. "I want the whole world to learn that bringing these German scientists over here is not going to be tolerated and that there are decent men among us who are prepared to go to any length to stop it."
Mangan made no comment. He was thinking hard. Of course, the excited little man before him was stark, staring mad, but for all that his money was not mad and it should be easy to touch some of it.
The professor went on with great earnestness. "You must consider my position, Major Mangan, the position I occupy in the public eye. More than thirty years ago, I was made Professor of Natural Science at Cambridge University and I am not boasting when I tell you that for many years now I have been recognised as the greatest living authority in the world upon molluscs." He snapped his fingers together disdainfully. "Why, only a few years back I received the enormous fee of fifty thousand guineas—I wouldn't go for less—to travel to the United States and find out what was wrong with their oyster beds in Chesapeake Bay. The whole industry down the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico was threatened with extinction, but I was able to advise them what the trouble was and the rot was stopped at once."
"Fifty thousand guineas!" exclaimed Mangan, who was visibly surprised.
"Yes, and for about three weeks' work," nodded the professor. He smiled. "So you can realise I am a wealthy man and that £1,000 is nothing to me."
He held up one hand impressively. "But all my life long I have been known as a man of extreme social views and have been vilified and insulted and even turned out of my professorial chair at the University because of them. More than one attempt, too, has been made to tar and feather me by young blackguards spurred on by rival scientists who would have dearly loved to humiliate me in any way."
"Disgusting!" exclaimed Mangan, who nevertheless thought the idea of the tarring and feathering of the wasplike little professor rather amusing and would have greatly liked to have a good laugh.
"So do you wonder," asked the professor, "that I want to get my revenge? If this German doctor is killed, it will prove that I am not alone in the opinions I hold. So that's why I am offering you £1,000 for getting rid of the fellow." He smiled dryly. "Surely an excellent payment to you, considering that during the war, if half what you have told me is true, you have taken scores and scores of lives for the paltry pay of a few shillings a day."
Now completely recovered from the surprise, Mangan had made up his mind that he would agree to do what the professor wanted and get what money he could out of him in advance. Then he would have nothing more to do with him. The vicious little beast would have no hold upon him.
However, it seemed that the professor had read his thoughts, as he rapped out sharply, "But don't you imagine, my fine fellow," he snarled, "that I am going to trust you a single inch. I know your kind and won't part with a penny until the job's done."
Mangan's anger rose at the insulting way in which he was being addressed. "And how do you imagine I am going to trust you?" he asked equally as sharply. He looked scornful. "You might drag me into deliberate murder and then deny everything and pay me nothing." He shook his head. "No, I'm as distrustful of you as you say you are of me."
The professor raised on long forefinger significantly. "Ah, but you would have a hold upon me," he retorted instantly, "for if you carry out this first mission successfully, I shall have similar ones for you to do. I shall employ you again upon equally generous terms." He gritted his teeth. "This von Bressen is not the only blackguard I want put under the ground. He is only the first on the list. His colleague, Otto Bernstein, another damnable rogue, would come next, and then there are several others, Britishers, to their shame I regret, to follow after."
Mangan frowned. "But knowing nothing about you"—he remembered the vicious kicks the professor had given him and his frown changed to a grim smile—"except that people call you the mad professor, do you really think I should be fool enough to go out of this room and commit a deliberate murder on your promise to pay me £1,000 when I have done it?" He looked amused. "Surely you can't expect me to have as much faith in you as all that?"
The professor's jaw dropped and for the moment he did not seem to know how to reply. Then he said slowly and evidently with some reluctance, "I see your point and perhaps it's not altogether unreasonable." He considered a few moments. "Well, this is what I'll do. I'll give you £50 straight away as expenses, for you to go down to Cambridge—that's where the brute is living—and see exactly how the killing can be done. Find out all about him, his habits and his general way of life. Then come back to me and if I see you mean business I'll pay you another £100 on account."
"Not enough," said Mangan sharply. "I'll want £200 at least."
The professor hesitated. "All right," he said, "£200 it shall be, and then another £750 when the job is done."
Mangan appeared to consider. "But first tell me more about the man. Where he is living and how am I likely to catch him alone?"
"He is staying in one of the best private houses in Cambridge," said the professor, "Number ninety-four Trumpington Road. He sleeps and has all his meals there except lunch. The house is surrounded by a large garden and, when the weather allows it, he sits reading there after his dinner." He snapped his fingers together. "And that's all I'm going to tell you. The rest you must find out for yourself, so that when you come back to report progress to me I know you've really started on the job. The shooting should be quite easy."
"Then why don't you do it for yourself?" asked Mangan brusquely.
"Ah, but I'm too well known in Cambridge," was the instant reply, "and when anything happened to this man, it would be remembered I had been seen in the town. As I tell you, the shooting will be easy enough, but it will be the getting away afterwards that will be the risk. You must realise that I lived in Cambridge for longer than twenty years and mine is not an appearance that would lend to any disguise"—he laughed—"a little chap like me with my unforgettable red head."
"All right then," said Mangan after a long pause, "I'll take it on if I don't find the risk is too great. Still—mind you I shan't attempt it if I'm not perfectly sure of being able to get away afterwards. From what you say the shooting may be easy enough, but it'll be the getting away afterwards and leaving no trail behind that will be the snag."
They talked on for a long while and finally the professor handed over the £50 in banknotes. "Well, I expect to see you next Wednesday at my flat in St. John's Wood, at eight o'clock," he said, "eight o'clock sharp, and be sure and don't be late. I'm always punctual myself and expect other people to be so, too."
Mangan drove back to Town in a very unsettled frame of mind. One moment he was inclined to have nothing more to do with the professor, but the next the big money tempted him and he thought that perhaps he might see the whole thing through. At any rate, he told himself, he'd go down to Cambridge and find out enough about the German scientist to be able to claim the payment of the £200.
NOW WHILE it may not have been exactly true, as the professor had wanted to make out, that Mangan was the bosom friend of Lieutenant Chester Avon, certainly of late a strong friendship, which the elder man took good care should not cool, had sprung up between them.
As the nephew of Lord Delamarne and heir to the barony young Avon was a most useful person to know, because it was through him that the major had become acquainted with a number of people of good social position who, upon occasions, were not unwilling to risk fairly heavy sums at cards. Of course, highly taxed as they all were, few of them had anything like the large incomes they once had had, but it was symptomatic of the times that so many of them were dipping deeply into their capitals to enjoy to the full the old pleasures and luxuries of the pre-war days.
Lieutenant Avon was a good-looking young fellow of one and twenty and who, though having obtained his commission, had been just too late to see any real active service in the 1939-45 War. With the war over, he had continued in the Regular Army, but later, through the influence of his uncle had been given employment in the War Office.
Most obliging and good-natured, he was by no means of a strong character and very easily led, but strange to say Mangan's influence over him was all for the best. Flattered by the dashing major's attentions, he was always willing to take his advice and, accordingly, Mangan saw to it that he avoided unsuitable companions and did not get mixed up with people whom it was undesirable for a future peer of the realm to know. He took particular care, too, that he should not become entangled in any close association with any of the other sex, who were always trying to set their caps at him.
Still, Mangan's interest and care were wholly selfish ones, for not only was he benefiting now by the young man's almost exclusive friendship, but also, looking ahead, he had his eyes upon the time when the young lieutenant would become the master of Blackarden Castle and in possession at any rate of most of what went with it.
Lord Delamarne was old and ailing and there was much speculation as to what he was worth. Certainly he must be a wealthy man, and ever since he had come into the barony, more than forty years previously, there had been persistent rumours of some treasure hidden away in the walled-up dungeons deep below his 600 year-old castle. It was said to have been brought over to England by his grandfather when the latter had returned from India after the 1857 mutiny.
So that evening upon his return to Town after his extraordinary encounter with Professor Glenowen in the latter's bungalow upon the Norfolk coast, ruminating over the conversation that had taken place between them, it was only natural Mangan should be thinking hard about both the professor himself and the Lord of Blackarden Castle. Accordingly, knowing young Lieutenant Avon was generally to be found at his club about that time of day, he thought it would be just as well to have a chat with him and clear up a few matters.
Finding him quite easily, as he had expected, after a few general remarks he enquired how his uncle was.
"As well as usual and more eccentric than ever," laughed Avon. "I was down there last week-end and his latest craze is that he believes someone may one day try to break in by burrowing under the Castle. So now he talks of having an expensive sound-detector installed so that he'll be able to hear if anyone is doing a bit of digging outside. It would be laughable if it weren't such a waste of money."
"The less for you to come into one day, my boy," laughed Mangan. He became serious. "But do you ever really believe that, as they say, he's got a lot of gold hidden away somewhere?"
The young man shrugged his shoulders. "Sometimes I do and then sometimes I think there's nothing in it. Still, you know uncle's a very shrewd businesslike man and always seems to have plenty of spending money. He's just bought another Botticelli and I believe paid four thousand guineas for it."
"But have you never mentioned to him," asked Mangan, "the rumour that his grandfather came back from India with a pot of money?"
Avon looked aghast. "I'd never dare to," he replied. "He'd snap my head off if I did. The only person whom we believe has ever started to mention it to him is that old Professor Glenowen whom you met the last time you were at the castle. It was a long time ago he began questioning him about it, and my uncle was so rude to him that it was years before he visited the place again. Before that they used to play a lot of chess together."
"Ah, talking about that professor," exclaimed Mangan, very pleased the conversation had come round to him, "is he really as mad as they make him out to be?"
"Only in his stupid Communist ideas," replied Avon, "and then he goes nuts at once. He seems, too, to have become much worse lately. Otherwise, he's a good-natured, amiable little fellow. Last year he heard that the Norwich Hospital was hard-up and at once plumped down a cheque for £2,000, and said there would be another £2,000 this year if they wanted it."
"And do you think he'll stump up if they ask for it?"
Avon looked surprised. "Of course he will! He's not the sort of chap to ever go back upon his word, and besides he's got pots of money, he could afford to give away. Those rotten books of his sell all over the world and bring in tremendous royalties."
Mangan was delighted he had so easily found out what he wanted. Evidently then he could be sure of the promised £1,000 if he earned it, and so he began at once to think much more favourably of the proposition the professor had put before him. The money would certainly be most useful and it was to be earned with practically no expenses at all. He had no qualms whatsoever about shooting the German scientist. Indeed, in a way the idea was quite pleasing to him, as it would be something of an exciting adventure. Still, he told himself, he wasn't going to rush blindly into the risk there undoubtedly would be of putting his neck into the hangman's noose. He would go slowly and examine first how great that risk would be.
Finally, he made up his mind that whether or not he would go the whole way, at any rate he would get something more out of this half-crazed little man by going down to Cambridge and making the few enquiries necessary to qualify for the further £200. Unless he found it would be an easy matter to plug the German scientist with little or no risk to himself, though making out to the professor that he was going to attempt to do so, he would let the whole thing slide. Then, after all, he would have earned £250 for a couple of days' work.
On the Sunday evening he went to his partner and told him that on the morrow he would be going away for a few days into the country. He said he had heard from one of his club friends of some good stuff that might be picked up from an elderly maiden lady near Nottingham, who, in order to meet the exorbitant taxes which had been imposed upon her, was now wanting to dispose of some of her old family plate.
However, rather uneasy as to how in his absence his partner would handle things if any of their rapidly-growing clientele of light-fingered gentry should come in with articles to sell, he gave him strict instructions that on no account was anything to be bought from them until he came back.
"Tell them," he said, "to call again at the end of the week. You know how active the police have been lately and, with them already suspicious of you, sooner or later it's certain they will set a trap to catch us."
His partner, with his nerves as usual in a bad way, was quite agreeable to do as he was told, being very glad to escape the responsibility. Indeed, it happened he was the more willing just then to do as he was ordered, because only a few weeks back two second-hand dealers had been caught making purchases and not entering the transactions in their purchase book. They had fallen into the traps set by the police, and both had been heavily fined, with their licences being taken away so that they had been thrown out of business. And since these happenings Mangan had been continually rubbing into him that it was only by sheer good luck he himself had not been caught long ago.
Mangan started for Cambridge early on the Monday morning, and the following Wednesday evening the professor was fidgeting about long before the appointed hour, eight o'clock, when he was due to appear at the flat. The professor, however, was quite certain Mangan would turn up with all plans cut and dried to commit the required murder. It was an act of humanity, he kept on telling himself, and he was hoping that if Mangan proved himself capable enough to carry out this first commission successfully, then it would be followed by more acts of a similar kind.
One day, he told himself, he would write a book about everything, of course to be published only after his death. Then the sneering world would learn he had not sat down meekly under all the abuse and insults he had received, but had played a bold and unselfish part in endeavouring to save mankind by removing some of its worst enemies.
Awaiting Mangan's arrival, he began to tick off on his fingers for the hundredth time some of those against whom, apart from their work upon the atom bomb, he had a particular personal spite. The first—there was that one-time professorial colleague of his, Professor Rodney, the low-minded brute who had once referred to him, Harleck Glenowen, as a mangy little red-headed Welsh ape. Ah, how he would love to hear of him having been finished off in the true commando way and found strangled, with his body all twisted up in convulsive agony and his swollen tongue lolling out of his ugly blue-black face. Then there was that Dr. Carmichael, who had said the padded room of a mental asylum was the only place for him, and Travers, the scavenging journalist, who had written openly in his newspaper that he ought to be put away.
Still, the second German physicist, Otto Bernstein, must come high on the list! He was a vile and Judas-like creature if ever there was one! Once grovelling at the feet of Adolf Hitler when it seemed the mighty Fuhrer of the Third Reich would dominate the world, he was now boasting that all along he had, in secret, hated his master and—but his musings were interrupted by the ringing of the front door bell, and in a few moments his expected and so welcome visitor was ushered into the room.
Mangan was in evening dress, his well-fitting dinner jacket showing him off to good advantage. The professor thought he looked the perfect type of officer and a gentleman, and congratulated himself he had discovered so presentable an assassin. Why, the man could go everywhere and mingle in the best society without anyone entertaining the slightest suspicion of what he really was!
"Good evening," said Mangan coldly and without offering to shake hands. "You expected I'd turn up, didn't you?"
"Of course I did," returned the professor. He spoke eagerly. "Then you've been to Cambridge and spied out the lie of the land?"
Mangan nodded. "I came back only this afternoon." He frowned. "But I learn you have been going round making enquiries about me. What do you mean by that?"
The professor tried to cover his obvious embarrassment with a little nervous laugh. "Oh, you've heard of that, have you?" he said. "Well, what could be more natural than that I should be interested in everything about someone to whom I am going to pay a large sum of money?" He nodded. "Yes, I looked up your private address in the phone book and just asked a few questions of the attendant at your block of flats." He shook his head in disgust. "But the dishonourable fellow, for the pound note I gave him, promised me most faithfully that he would not mention to you that I had been there and questioned him."
"Well, you certainly did not get much out of him for your money," scoffed Mangan. "He knows nothing about me."
"Oh, doesn't he?" laughed the professor. "At any rate he told me about that place in Wardour Street which you are running and call 'Etoile d'Argent.' I got that out of him."
It was now Mangan's turn to look disconcerted. "He did, did he?" he exclaimed. "Well, there's nothing in that. I told you I was an art-dealer, didn't I?" He frowned. "Still, I wonder how the devil he knew."
"A tenant of one of the other flats told him," said the professor. "He passes down Wardour Street quite often and has twice seen you going into the shop. Then he saw your name on the lintel over the door." Glenowen lifted up one hand impressively. "And it's probablly a good thing for you that attendant did tell me all about it, as after I'd been round to have a look at what sort of place you'd got, the idea struck me that the police are much more interested in you than you can have any idea. At any rate, I happened to notice a woman coming out of your shop and, barely ten minutes later and just by chance, I saw her again in a tea-shop in Leicester Square sitting between two men." He held Mangan's eyes with his own. "One of these men I know to be a detective from Scotland Yard."
Mangan cursed under his breath. "And how do you know he was a detective?" he snarled.
"Because last week I went to Scotland Yard myself and he came into the waiting-room to whisper to someone there. I have a good memory for faces and he's got a nose like you see in pictures of the Duke of Wellington. I had gone to the police with two threatening letters I had received." He dismissed the matter with a shake of his head and asked eagerly. "Well, you are prepared to carry out my little commission?"
"I'm prepared to attempt it," replied Mangan slowly, "but the risk is a big one for me, as he is guarded by a detective wherever he goes. This detective is a special and experienced one provided by the authorities in London. He's a Scotland Yard man."
"How do you know that?" asked the professor sharply.
Mangan shrugged his shoulders. "Everybody says so. It's the talk of the town." He laughed. "Oh, yes, I have earned that £200 right enough. I spent three days in Cambridge and ferreted out as much as I could. As you told me, the German is staying at Canon Drew's big house, the last but one in Trumpington Road. The Canon and his family are away from home, but two maid-servants have been left to look after the doctor and the guardian detective. The garden surrounding the house has walls quite eight feet high, with broken glass at the top to keep trespassers away. The detective motors the doctor to the University laboratories every morning just before nine and they come home again soon after six. Evidently they are being very watchful, as the big gate in the drive is shut and locked after the car has been driven in and the detective has searched the grounds. Still, I can see it will be quite impossible for me to get at him during the day. My only chance will be at night."
"And do you think you will be able to get him then?" asked the professor anxiously.
"I may be able to manage it if the weather is all right," replied Mangan, "for after he's had his dinner, if the night is fine and warm, as you mentioned, he does sit reading until quite late under a light from that summer-house on the other side of the garden. Then, upon the two nights that I was watching him, it was well after eleven before he went into the house. His bedroom is upon the ground floor, as I saw a light go up in a room there directly after he went in."
"And from where did you see all this?" asked the professor.
"From a tree in the garden of the next house," said Mangan. "The wall there was easier to get over and I climbed up a big oak which overlooks everything." He shrugged his shoulders. "But I don't see how I am going to get over the high wall surrounding the garden, as the broken glass at the top will make it very awkward. Still, I must climb over it somewhere to get near enough to shoot him with any certainty."
"But you needn't climb over where the glass is," said the professor quickly. "As it happens I know the house next door quite well. I used to visit there years ago, and you can get over from the garden there. If you go to the other end of the party wall separating the two houses you can climb on to the roof of a tool-shed built right against the wall. Then you will be only about a foot from the top and you can step over on to another shed in the Canon's garden and drop on to the ground. It couldn't be more simple."
"Good!" exclaimed Mangan. "I didn't know of that, and it'll certainly make things easier." He shook his head. "But there will be a bigger worry for me than that. My danger will be getting away after I've finished with the man. I've seen where I can cut the telephone wires, but I shall want a good long start to escape any cordon the police may draw round the district."
"But, you've got a fast car?" said the professor.
"That's nothing," exclaimed Mangan, "as the nearest place I can park it with any safety is a good quarter of a mile from the Canon's home, and I can't be noticed running like a madman to get to it."
A short silence followed, and the professor asked, "Well, when are you going to make the attempt? To-morrow night? The sooner the better, I think, while the fine weather holds."
Mangan shook his head. "No, not at any rate before Saturday. There's a circus opening in the town that night—thank goodness—in a field off the Newmarket Road and right at the other end of the town. The police will be kept busy there and, with lots of cars coming in from all round the district, mine is less likely to be remembered afterwards."
The ensuing conversation was protracted because Mangan insisted that, with the risk being so great, £1,000 was not enough. He wanted it raised to £1,500, with another payment straightaway of £300 down.
"Mind you," he said sharply, "I don't promise I can bring it off, but I'm certainly going to have a good try and, when you consider the risk I am running, you must agree it's worth every penny of the money."
With some demur the professor agreed to his terms and, going to a safe in the wall, abstracted a large packet of banknotes from which he counted out thirty £10 ones. Mangan made a mental note that the safe was of an old fashioned pattern and could be easily broken into.
"And when shall I see you again?" asked the professor, in some excitement. "Shall you ring me up?"
Mangan shook his head. "No, I'll come round one evening just before eight o'clock. It may be on Sunday, but it mayn't be until much later in the week. I'm not going to be hasty, but when and if I do strike I'll take good care it's at the most opportune time," and he spoke with such confidence that the professor was sure he was going to be successful.
The following morning Mangan arrived a little earlier than usual at the shop in Wardour Street and at once enquired as to how the business had been in his absence. His partner replied it had not been bad and that he had made a few small sales. He added that a woman had been in to sell two silver-plated entree dishes, but he had done no business with her and asked her to call again.
"She looked quite safe to me," he said, "and the dishes were well worth buying, but I told her to call again, and so she'll be coming in to-day or to-morrow."
Mangan made no comment, but when the woman duly arrived that same afternoon he eyed her intently. About thirty, she had a nice appearance and might have been a good-class domestic servant. She made it appear that she was rather nervous, as she kept glancing over her shoulder as she undid the parcel containing the entree dishes. They were of good quality and Mangan knew he would have no difficulty disposing of them. "They are yours?" he asked, and when she nodded, he said, "Well, have you taken them to anyone else to sell?"
She shook her head. "No, I came here because I was recommended by a gentleman friend. You bought something of his a little while ago."
"What did we buy?" asked Mangan carelessly.
"I don't know," she said, "but he told me you were quite fair and—" she lowered her eyes "—didn't make any fuss."
Mangan was quite enjoying the little comedy. "And how much do you want for them?" he asked.
"£5," she said firmly, "and I won't take less." She gave a little cough. "I shan't want a receipt."
Mangan smiled to himself. It was a sure thing the woman came from the police. The dishes were worth more than double what she was asking. However, he beat her down to a pound less.
"Then £4 it is," he said and at once produced one of the firm's billheads for her to write down her name and address.
"She was quite O.K.," said Fenton with animation, when she had gone, "and I'll take them straight round to old Beckstein. He'll give us twelve quid without a murmur. You see if he doesn't. We'll get them off the premises at once."
"No, we won't," snapped Mangan. "She was a police nark if ever I saw one. £4 was a ridiculous price if everything was all right, and I'll swear we shall be having detectives here within the next twenty-four hours. I'll enter the buying in the book at once."
His partner was inclined to be angry, and protested as much as he dared. However, the next morning his face took on a very different expression when the woman re-appeared with two detectives as an escort this time. The men showed their badges and one of them, pointing to the woman, demanded sharply, "You bought two silver dishes from this party here yesterday. Well, where are they? Are they still here?"
"Of course they are," replied Mangan, equally as sharply. "We never try to resell anything we have bought from people we don't know for at least a couple of weeks," and he produced the dishes from a cupboard.
"Show me the entry in your book," ordered the detective and, when he saw that everything was in order, he commented savagely. "Only £4 for them! You must have known they were stolen goods."
"We didn't," said Mangan coolly, "or we shouldn't have bought them. We are honest dealers here and £4 was quite a fair price, as it might have been months before we should have been able to dispose of them again."
"Well, we take them away with us," scowled the detective, "and you can call round later at the Yard for a refund of the money."
It was a very subdued Wardale who expressed his gratitude to his partner. "The luckiest day of my life when I came to know you, my boy," he said. "Upon my own, I should have been booked for quod as certain as eggs is eggs," and Mangan made the mental note that for one thing, at all events, he owed something to the mad professor.
It was a warm and balmy night in the beautiful town of Cambridge, and the celebrated nuclear physicist, Dr. von Bressen, with a long string of letters after his name, was lying back luxuriously in a comfortable big deck-chair just under the window of the summer-house across the lawn, in Canon Drew's large and high-walled garden.
He was smoking a good cigar and had several more in the case in his pocket. With a newspaper upon his knee and an interesting detective novel lying handy for when he wanted it, he was in that satisfied and happy frame of mind which follows upon a good dinner in its first stages of digestion.
Of real Teutonic appearance, stout and well-rounded with a short neck and bullet-shaped head and hanging flabby cheeks, he looked all over a man who would appreciate the good things in life.
There could be no doubt he had had a good dinner, as good almost, he told himself, as if there were no such things as rations, and the agreeable taste of everything was still lingering upon his palate. A plate of rich pea-soup, a good helping of a tender chicken which had been sent in as a present from a kind-hearted old Don whom he happened to have met in the laboratory in the University, plenty of delicious gravy and bread-sauce, roast potatoes and the best part of a whole dish of cabbage. To top off the meal there had been apple-pie and a generous slab of well-matured cheese. For drink there had been a large bottle of good beer.
He lay back smiling at his own thoughts. Of a truth those English were mad! Here was he, who had killed as many of their sons and brothers and fathers as he possibly could, and would kill as many more if ever he got the chance, living practically unrationed while they themselves were almost starving along upon half-filled unsatisfied bellies!
Yes, they were mad, and he had always hated them! Had it not always seemed to be their mission in the happenings of the world to stand between his great fatherland and the proving that his children were verily the master-race?
His memory harked back to when as a young lieutenant he had fought against them in the first World War, and he grinned that it certainly would not look well if all he had done then were put down in cold black and white. He had never been one to encourage those under his command to take prisoners if they could get out of it, and he remembered how, when there were none of his superior officers about, many a quick bayonet thrust had saved a lot of inconvenience if rations were coming up tardily to the front line.
He recalled, too, certain other happenings when he had been in France. By thunder, some of these French girls had been as pretty as anyone could want, and what did it matter a bit of rough handling and a few tears? They should have been proud of his attentions and consider it an honour if by good fortune they came to have a baby by him. Ah, they were great days then, and he never regretted anything he had done!
Then, in the last war, though he had certainly taken no part in the actual fighting, he had nevertheless strained every nerve so that his great country could win the race for the atom bomb. At work in those hidden laboratories in Peenemeunde he had not spared himself any hour of the day or night, with his hatred against the allies becoming accentuated with every bomb they dropped upon the beautiful cities of the Third Reich.
Still, he had once been most foolish and a lightly spoken but very stupid remark about the Fuehrer had resulted in his being thrown into a concentration camp. However, he had only said what he did because it happened he was in an evil temper that day and let his tongue outrun his discretion.
Of course, coming as he himself did from a noble family in East Prussia and steeped as he always had been in the proud traditions of his class, it was only natural he should resent their being ruled by Adolf Hitler, a man as common in origin as any menial in the Third Reich.
Certainly, he had always admired the way the Fuehrer had broken every promise he had made and ignored every solemn treaty when it was to his country's interest to do so, but it had always galled him when he thought of this one-time corporal barking out his orders to the General Staff, many of whom were German noblemen of long and distinguished ancestry.
So, when upon that particular morning he had been engaged upon some very intricate problem and not wanted to be disturbed, he knew he had lost his temper when the latest photograph of the Fuehrer had been brought round to be admired.
"Take it away," he had shouted. "He looks like a monkey on a stick."
Of course, immediately after he had spoken he had wished he hadn't said it, for he knew it would be reported. So two nights later he had not been surprised when he had been dragged from his bed and, handcuffed like some dirty Jew, thrust among some thousands of others in an enclosure surrounded by electrified barbed wire.
Oh, how he had suffered there! Cold and wet, horrible and scanty food, no proper sanitation, and shouted at and whipped by young criminal toughs who had been released from the prisons to be the camp guards!
Ten dreadful weeks he had spent there and then had come the disaster to Peenemeunde, a terrible one because they had been so near to the harnessing of the atom bomb which almost certainly would have meant their winning the war. When everyone had thought the very existence of all those wonderful laboratories upon that lonely stretch of the Baltic coast was a secret unknown to the Allies, one night over had come a thousand bombers, and within one single hour every building had been razed to the ground and more than five thousand most highly skilled workers killed.
Certainly, the Allies had paid dearly, as it had cost them thirty-nine bombers and the loss of more than three hundred of their crack Air Force men, but the blow had been a stunning one for the Third Reich and, no wonder, as he had heard afterwards, it had almost driven the Fuehrer out of his mind.
Still, as far as he, Carl von Bressen had been concerned it had had its bright side, as he had been immediately released from the concentration camp and put to his beloved work again. With so many eminent nuclear physicists killed, they could not do without him.
Another thing, too. When the war was over and lost, the record of his having been in a concentration camp had convinced these pig British that he had been a hater of the Nazi regime, with the result that they were now employing him and make his life run upon such comfortable and pleasant lines.
His so happy frame of mind following upon his good dinner had made him feel sleepy, and he dozed off deliciously for quite a long time. When he woke up again the garden was all in darkness, except for the electric light behind him and the faint new moon in the sky. He lit another cigar and picking up the newspaper started to read.
And at that moment a dark figure, as noiseless as a shadow, was dropping from the roof of the tool-shed into the garden.
Clad in dark overalls and wearing rubber-soled shoes, upon alighting to the ground, for several minutes Leon Mangan, for it was he, stood as still as a graven image, taking in all his surroundings. His heart was beating quickly.
Across the lawn, about thirty paces from him he saw the German lying back in the deck-chair, with the rays from the electric light behind him making his surroundings the only bright spot in the dark garden. A few paces nearer and he would have been a tempting shot. Indeed, even now, Mangan felt pretty sure he would be able to hit him in the head. But no, he told himself, with so much at stake he must take as few risks as possible and it was worrying him that he did not know where the detective was. Certainly, a light was showing from one of the ground floor windows at the end of the house, but he rather thought it must be the kitchen and if so, it meant the two maids had not yet gone to bed. However, they would probably be going soon, as he had just heard some church clock strike ten.
He melted into the shadows of a belt of trees to make his way round the garden and get to the back of the summer-house. Feeling no trace of nervousness now, he was thrilled with the adventure. It was his old French Resistance days over again and it might almost be as if he were stalking an enemy sentry.
Calling up every scrap of his Commando training, he planted every footstep with the softness of a cat. The trees were old and big and he slipped behind them, one by one, without the slightest sound.
When half-way round the garden, however, all of a sudden his very blood seemed to almost freeze in his veins, for he had smelt the smell of burning tobacco. On the instant he had realised it was not smoke wafted from the German's cigar. It was either cigarette smoke or that from a pipe, and it seemed to be coming from somewhere very close to him. He flattened himself behind the trunk of a big tree and, breathlessly, inch by inch, moved his head very slowly round.
Then, with all his self-control, he nearly uttered a starded exclamation, as his amazed eyes fell upon the outline of the dim figure of a man, leaning against a tree not half a dozen paces from where he himself was standing, a silent, meditative figure, puffing slowly at a cigarette. It did not take him two seconds to realise it was that of the detective guarding the man, he, Mangan, was intending to murder.
With his heart in his mouth, for the moment he was minded to draw back into the shadows and get out of the garden as quickly as he could. He would have to try again another night!
Then the spirit of the Commando stirred in him, and the memories of just such other nights surged up riotously into his mind, those warm and scented nights in Southern France when he and his little band of partisans had crept down from their fastness in the Auvergne Mountains and dealt out silent death to many a sleeping German.
His heart calmed down, and everything about him became as steady as a rock. This man near him should die too, die as had so many others at his hands, without a cry, without a moan, without even a sigh. Once he got his fingers about his neck he would make no sound again.
His thoughts came like lightning. But he could not grapple with him with his back against a tree! He must get him into the open and, preferably, in the attitude of bending down. A moment's hesitation, and his right hand dropped stealthily on to the ground. Without for one second taking his eyes off his intended victim, he groped for a lump of earth and began moulding it into a little ball. The earth under the trees was soft and easy to manipulate.
The ball ready, very slowly he straightened himself up and flipped it to a few feet to the left of the man leaning against the tree. The ball rustled among the leaves. The man heard it and Mangan saw him give a slight start. A few seconds later he stepped away a couple of paces or so from the tree and bent down as if he were searching on the ground to see what had disturbed him.
His back was now towards Mangan, and the latter, in a lightning movement, sprang upon him from behind and, gripping his neck fiercely with both hands, dug his fingers deeply into the soft flesh on either side of the throat. At the same time he forced him violently face downwards on to the ground.
With Mangan now astride his back and his arms pinioned by Mangan's knees, the man could do nothing but struggle ineffectively with his legs. He could utter no cry and he could not breathe. He was in the dreadful carotid hold. Now of all holds the carotid is one of the most deadly, as it cuts off all supply of blood to the heart by pressure in an extreme degree upon the great carotid arteries in the neck. The heart is thereby put out of action at once.
In a little over a minute the detective had passed into unconsciousness and ceased to struggle. In less than three he was dead.
With his breath coming in great gasps from his exertions, Mangan rose staggeringly to his feet and dragged the body deep among the trees. Then, for the first time since he had caught sight of the detective, he looked towards the deck-chair under the light. The German was still reading his newspaper. Obviously he had heard nothing!
Mangan wiped the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve and squatted down upon the ground to recover his breath. A fierce exhilaration thrilled through him. The savagery of the animal was possessing him. He had tasted blood again and he was back in his jungle days.
Very quickly recovering from his exertions, he considered what he must next do. He saw the light in the house suddenly go out. Good! Then he and the German had the garden all to themselves, and there was no need for any frantic hurry now.
A quarter of an hour later he was crouching a few paces behind the deck chair. The doctor was now engrossed in the reading of his book, and his interest in it was so great that he was puffing unconsciously upon a cigar that long since had gone dead and cold.
Now the more thoughtful among us in our meditative moments are so often realising the strange happenings that are going on all round, but surely none could have been more strange than what was now happening to Dr. Carl von Bressen in that still and silent garden surrounded by the high wall.
There he was, all unknowingly threatened with a most dreadful form of death, and its coming to him was being delayed minute by minute simply because he was wanting to finish the last pages of a detective story. Though the hour was getting very late, he felt he must read on until he learned if the police found out who was really the murderer.
And all the time his murderer was crouching just behind him in deeply cursing irritation at the delay. Eleven had struck long ago and there was no certainty that midnight would not strike, too, before the German got out of his chair.
The killing of the detective having been so silently accomplished, Mangan was now minded to get his second victim in the same way. Yet he could do nothing as long as the latter remained in his chair. With a short neck such as his, the matter would not be one of the best propositions at any time, and he must get right behind him to be certain of success.
The minutes passed and passed, and it seemed to the impatient watcher that the scientist would never finish his story. At last, however, he slapped the book to with a deep sigh and heaved himself slowly from his chair. He was most disappointed that the police had caught the murderer, as he was a damned clever fellow and deserved to get away!
He yawned deeply and, with a pleasurable anticipation of the comfortable bed awaiting him, picked up his chair and, carrying it into the summer-house, placed it against some others there and proceeded to switch off the light. Turning to make his way back to the house, he had not, however, taken half a dozen steps before—the avalanche descended.
It was soon over, with the garden wrapped in complete stillness once again.
Never more would Carl von Bressen gloat over his many crimes, never more would he chuckle in fond memory over the pretty French girls he had molested, and never more would he eat pork chops or read exciting detective stories. Passing forever into the shades, a brave soldier and with all the lust of his race for battle strong within him, he would soon be among the meek he had always so despised for inheriting the earth, only as they did—in coffins.
A few minutes later, Mangan, now wearing a pair of black gloves and with a little pocket torch to light his way, was prowling round the lower rooms of the canon's house. Mindful that he had heard from the professor that the reverend gentleman was something of a collector of art treasures, he was wondering if there might not be some small portable article he would be able to pocket and take away.
To his annoyance, however, he found two of the rooms were locked up, and he told himself he could not tempt fortune further by breaking into them. If the maids became aware of any suspicious noises, it was possible they might come down to find out what they meant. Then, if any outcries were made, they might be heard in the house in the adjoining garden. No, it was not worth the risk! He would get away quickly while the going was good.
However, coming to a small room where the door was ajar, he stepped inside and flashed his light round where the German and the detective were accustomed to have their meals, as the table was laid for the breakfast upon the morrow for two. The room was comfortably furnished and upon one side of the wall a row of etchings were hanging from a high picture-rail above. He knew very little about the value of etchings and passed them by, but his light happening to flash upon a small painting at the end of the row, he moved up closer to look at it. It was only about twelve inches by eighteen and, protected by a sheet of glass, it depicted the sun setting upon a field of ripened corn. Its delicacy and colouring were very beautiful.
Then he had almost to suppress a cry as he noted a small silver plate attached to the bottom of the frame, upon which was engraved "Jean Baptiste Corot, 1869."
"A genuine Corot," he gasped, "and probably one of his last works! Why it may be worth many hundreds of pounds! Gad, what a find!"
Jerking the wire of the little painting from off the picture-rail, he took the Corot into his hands and, with more excitement even than when brutal murder was filling all his thoughts, proceeded to open the frame at the back and with great care take out the canvas. One quick glance at its beauty, and he rolled it up and pushed it under his waistcoat. The empty frame he pushed well behind a heavy sideboard.
Then, so that the absence of the painting should not be noticed at once, he stood upon a chair and with the poker from the grate sidled the echings along the rail until, with a little more space between each of them, the whole space on the wall was filled.
Next, with no more delay, he left the house and, returning by the same way he had come, made all haste to where he had left his car. To his relief he found it had not been interfered with.
Well started upon his journey back to London, he had, however, gone barely a dozen miles and had just passed through Royston when, about to cross a bridge spanning a small and shallow stream, he got a blow-out in one of his back tyres.
Cursing angrily, not because of any fear of pursuit as he felt quite safe there, but because the job was going to be a dirty one, he sprang out of his car and started to put on the spare wheel. He had got as far as struggling to get it into its place when, by the headlights of his car, he saw a man approaching upon a bicycle, and it did not take him two seconds to grasp that the arrival was a patrolling constable.
"Let me help you, sir," said the constable, alighting from his machine and propping it up against the wall of the bridge so that the rays of the lamp fell straight upon Mangan's face. He stared hard and then exclaimed smilingly, "Oh, but I know you very well by sight, sir! You live near Fitzroy Square, don't you, and garage your car at Tom Pike's there? I've seen you often when I've been passing, and I never forget a face. You see, sir, I've only been down here for a few weeks. Before that I was stationed at the police station in Euston Road and, living in Cleveland Street, used often to pass through Fitzroy Square to go on duty." He added quickly, "Cut yourself, have you, sir?" and he pointed to what were obviously bloodstains upon Mangan's wrist and the back of his right hand.
Mangan cursed again. The German doctor's nose had bled and drenched Mangan's hand and sleeve, but he thought he had wiped it all off on the grass afterwards.
"Oh, it's nothing," he said quickly, "just a scratch."
The new wheel was soon put in position and the obliging constable proceeded to screw up the bolts. Pumping some air into the tyre, he let down the jack. Then, deciding more air was needed, he asked Mangan for his tyre-gauge and, the pressure being found to be not high enough, he resorted to the pump again.
In the meantime Mangan had been thinking hard, realising to the full how very awkward the meeting with this policeman might turn out to be. He knew quite well that later there would be searching and far-reaching enquiries about all motorists who had been seen upon the roads near Cambridge about midnight. The police would be able to determine pretty accurately about what time the murders had been committed in the garden, as it could only have been not long before the two murdered men were accustomed to go to bed.
Hell, then this interfering policeman would at once bark out about his encounter with him, Mangan, upon the road so near to Cambridge! He would be able to describe both him and his car and, worst still, tell whereabouts he lived. Oh, hell again; he would remember his bloodied wrist, too!
Mangan did not hesitate long in making up his mind what he must do. Already, it had been a night of violence for him and another murder, weighed against his own safety, was as nothing to him.
With his teeth clenched tightly together, in a furtive movement he picked up the heavy jack and struck with a terrific blow upon the back of the policeman's head. The latter sank down like a staggered ox and, snatching up the body Mangan dropped it over the bridge into the shallow stream below. In a few seconds the bicycle followed and now, in feverish haste, after grabbing up the tools spread about upon the ground, Mangan sprang into the car and started to resume his interrupted journey to Town. Cool and collected and with his wits about him, he turned out of the main road into the first byroad he came to, and in due course reached London by a long detour through Bishop's Stortford.
The next day being Sunday, the woman who looked after his flat did not put in an appearance, and it was not until mid-afternoon that Mangan had had his bath and dressed. He had no intention of going to the professor to claim his reward until the way he had successfully carried out his full mission of murder appeared in the daily newspapers and that, possibly, he expected might not be for two or three days.
However, the next morning he read in The Daily Megaphone that at some hour late on the previous Saturday night a most brutal murder had been committed upon the main Cambridge-London road near Royston. The news had come in just before the paper had gone to press as the paragraph was in consequence very brief. It stated, however, that a patrolling constable had apparently been knocked down and killed by a motor-car, with his body as well as the bicycle being afterwards thrown over a bridge into the stream below. It added the usual statement that the police were investigating the matter. The inquest was to be held that afternoon.
Mangan was rather puzzled there was nothing in the paper about any happening to the German scientist and the detective, but supposed for some reason of their own the authorities were deliberately withholding everything there. He was quite confident, however, that they would not be able to keep silence for long and looked forward with pleasurable anticipation to what the evening papers would contain.
Sure enough, there was no disappointment there, as the following day the Evening Cry in its early afternoon edition put forward a thrilling story under big headlines, recording that Dr. Carl von Bressen, the great nuclear physicist, along with Inspector Barwell, the well-known Scotland Yard detective who had been specially detailed to look after him, had been kidnapped on the Saturday night from the house in Cambridge where they had been staying and no clue had as yet been picked up to give any indication to where they had been taken.
The Evening Cry went on that, as was known to everyone, the eminent scientist had been brought from Frankfurt to give what service he could to the British authorities and had been working in the University laboratories in Cambridge. Quite aware there was a lot of resentment among certain people that a former enemy should now be being employed by the Government, an inspector of long experience had been detailed to keep a strict watch over him and never leave his side.
Installed in a suite of rooms in Canon Drew's house in Trumpington Road, the doctor and the inspector had been residing there for upwards of six weeks and both had appeared to be well satisfied with their treatment and surroundings. Canon Drew and his family were not in residence, having gone up to Scotland on a holiday, but two maids had been left in charge to look after the visitors and up to the previous Saturday evening everything had been as uneventful as could be.
Then, after his dinner the doctor, as was his custom upon warm evenings, had retired to the garden to smoke and read in a deckchair near the summer-house, while the inspector had sat on reading in the room where they had had their meal. That was how things had been until the maids went off to bed at their usual time of half past ten.
The night had passed quite quietly and the maids had heard no noises or cries. As had been arranged, the next morning breakfast was served at exactly nine o'clock and, as the two men were always so punctual in their habits, the maid who carried in the hot dishes and the tea was rather surprised not to find them already waiting in the room.
Wondering if they had overslept themselves, she knocked at both their doors—the rooms were adjoining—but to her great surprise obtained no answer from either of them. Returning into the kitchen and consulting her fellow servant, the two of them together went back to the bedrooms and after more ineffectual knocking ventured to open the doors. To their amazement they found both rooms were empty and the beds had not been slept in.
Aware of the importance of the German doctor, they were now thoroughly alarmed and went to the telephone at once to ring up the Cambridge police station. Finding the line was dead, they opened the gate in the drive with their key and running round to the people next door implored them to get in touch with the police with the least possible delay.
The police arrived in a few minutes and at once took a very grave view of the matter. Undoubtedly the two men had not gone away upon their own accords, but had been forcibly taken off. Their hats and overcoats had been left behind and, moreover, the doctor was wearing carpet slippers and the inspector indoor shoes. To confirm everything their car was in the garage.
A thorough search was made everywhere, but no light was thrown upon the disappearances. They were certainly most mysterious, as there were no signs of any struggle anywhere, everything seemed to be quite in order and, apparently, nothing was missing from the house.
The Evening Cry finished up by declaring it was not likely the matter would remain a mystery for long as, with the police combing the whole country, it was highly improbable the two men could be kept hidden away for an indefinite period of time.
Mangan chuckled in great amusement as he went through the article. Of course it would be no good approaching the professor yet, as he was quite certain a kidnapping would not satisfy him and he would refuse to cash up with the rest of the promised money. So he, Mangan, must wait until the police had found out a bit more and, with the hot weather now prevailing, he thought with a grin that should be very soon.
In the meantime the professor was in a perfect fever of exasperadon. Kidnapping was not what he had wanted! What was the good of that, as the men were bound to be found soon? He would not pay Mangan a penny more! He wondered why the latter was now keeping away from him and wondered also if the killing of that policeman upon the Cambridge road were his work as well!
Two days passed with no more information about the missing men, but on the Thursday the evening newspapers stirred themselves up to great excitement with shocking news.
Their bodies had been found! They had been lying all the time in the summer-house in the garden and there was all evidence the two men had met with dreadful deaths!
They had been throttled!
It appeared that with the gates in the drive now being kept open during the day, a grocer had driven his van right up to the house and, while he was engaged in talking to the maids, the fox terrier who always accompanied him upon his rounds had wandered into the garden and, with the lively curiosity of his breed, started sniffing about everywhere.
Suddenly the little animal had begun to bark vociferously and refusing the orders of his master to come back to the van the grocer had gone to see what the barking was about.
The dog was in the summer-house and greatly excited at something he had found. He had pushed his way in behind a big pile of deckchairs and was continuing to bark for all he was worth. The grocer bent down to pull him out and at once, as he told the reporters later, his nostrils were assailed with a horrible sickly odour and he saw a foot in a carpet slipper poking out.
At once starting to pull the chairs away, his horrified eyes fell upon two bodies, one on top of the other, pushed close against the wall.
Almost, as he said, terrified out of his wits, he rushed back into the house and got on the telephone, which had now been put right, to summon the police. The police arrived in furious haste and at once saw what, hardened as they were to gruesome things, was in a fair way to make them retch.
The newspapers continued that surely never in all the annals of black crime had two more dreadful murders been committed, as even to the untrained and most casual observer there could not be the slightest doubt as to how they had died.
The professor was about to start upon his evening meal when the newspaper was brought to him, and for the moment what he read so unnerved him that he had to get up from the table and mix himself a stiff brandy and soda. His face had gone a putty colour and his hands were so trembling that it was with difficulty he could bring the glass to his lips.
"Gad, but what a devil I have raised," he choked, "and there'll be all hell to pay if he's found out! He'll go for me next, too, if I anger him," and tottering over to his desk he took out a little automatic and, making sure it was fully loaded, put it into one of the side pockets of his jacket.
The brandy steadied him a lot and he smiled a sickly smile. "But it is only what I wanted," he whispered, "and I can't complain. No, if I give him his money everything will be quite all right. He's escaped so far, and so he's not likely to be caught now."
He returned to his meal and a small bottle of old claret on the top of the stiff brandy he had given himself soon began to restore his confidence.
"And he'll come to-night for the money," he told himself. "He's only been waiting until it was all in the newspapers." He chuckled. "But, oh, what a nerve he's got! I couldn't have picked upon a better man."
All the time he kept listening for the ringing of the front door bell. To his great disappointment, however, it did not ring, neither that evening nor the ensuing one either. Mangan's coming had been delayed by a slight attack of influenza and, always anxious about his health, he had kept to his bed until the temperature had gone down. So it was not until the Saturday evening that he put in an appearance at the professor's flat to claim the reward. He was all smiles as he took the professor's rather nervously proffered hand.
"Well, are you satisfied?" he asked. "Did I make a good job of it?"
"Excellent," exclaimed the professor, "and I've got the money all ready for you as you asked in £5 banknotes. Now tell me all about it?" and Mangan proceeded to relate what had happened.
"I had to deal with that detective," he said, "as unfortunately for himself he had got in my way. Still, I never expected that the bodies would have remained undiscovered for so long and had only reckoned upon their not being found until the next day. The deckchairs were only just propped up over them and the police must have been most casual in their search."
"But it was a very clever idea of yours," said the professor, "to think of putting them there." An anxious look came into his face. "But are you sure you left no trails behind?"
"Quite sure," nodded Mangan. "Had I left any, they would have been followed up long before this."
"And that policeman who was killed by the bridge?" smiled the professor slyly. "I guess that was your work, too?"
Mangan shook his head. He had no intention of letting the professor know too much. "No, I didn't come home that way. I went a long way round by way of Huntingdon and Bedford. I was taking as few risks as possible."
The professor looked very pleased. "Well, we'll just lie low for a week or two and then you'll go for that other German, Otto Bernstein."
"No, no," said Mangan quickly. "Not him for much longer than that. He'll be far too well guarded after what's happened to his colleague. We must let the excitement die down."
For the moment the professor looked very disappointed but then his face brightened. "Well, if not him," he said, "you can put paid to that Professor Rodney. He's another vicious brute, an enemy to all human kind."
"What's he done?" asked Mangan.
"More atom bomb work," nodded the professor, "and he's insulted me as well. He's an old enemy of mine. Now come to me again in a few days. By then I'll have everything cut and dried with the easiest way of getting him with no risk at all." He rubbed his hands together delightedly. "Gad, man, don't you realise we are making history, you and I. We shall be among the immortals one day. In years to come the world will put us up on pedestals and regard us as white-souled humanitarians, who at all risks to themselves——"
"Here, you cut that out," broke in Mangan savagely. "Don't you take in that if we're found out we shall both be hanged for it? It's no time for gloating over what's been done. So blot it out of your memory. Forget all about it and, whatever you do, never start talking about it with your friends." He spoke sharply and with some uneasiness in his tones. "You haven't discussed it with anyone yet, have you?"
"No, no," exclaimed the professor rather crestfallen. "As with you, I have had a bad cold and haven't been out of the flat this week. No, I've seen no one to talk to."
"Well, when you do," said Mangan with the utmost sternness, "you'll be the damnedest fool in the world if you bring it up, for you won't be able to prevent their seeing how pleased you are, and they may get suspicious that you've had a hand in it. Don't forget that letter you wrote to The Times when you practically said that anyone who killed any worker upon the atom bombs would be only committing justifiable homicide."
The professor looked uncomfortable. "Of course, I didn't know then what was going to happen," he excused himself, "but I see now it was a foolish letter for me to write."
"It certainly was," snapped Mangan, "and after your having broadcast such peculiar views my wonder is the police haven't been round to you already to ask some awkward questions." He regarded the puny little man before him and repressed a grin. "One thing in your favour is that the men were not shot, for if they had been the police might easily have been suspicious that you killed them yourself." A thought seemed to strike him and he asked frowningly, "But tell me—have you ever heard of anyone called Gilbert Larose?"
"Of course I have," replied the professor. "As a matter of fact I know him quite well. He lives at Carmel Abbey, only a few miles away from the bungalow of mine in Norfolk. But why do you ask?"
"Because," replied Mangan, "I saw in one of the papers yesterday that he had been a friend of that Inspector Barwell and had sworn he would find out who killed him. Who is he?"
"He's nothing now," said the professor, "because about fifteen or sixteen years ago he married a very rich woman and all he does is to look after her estate. However, years ago he was a detective at Scotland Yard and probably he knew the inspector then."
"Poof," scoffed Mangan, "only a policeman!"
The professor frowned uneasily. "Ah, but he was far more than that! He was their star crime investigator and, undoubtedly the best man they had ever had. They used to say he could pick up clues which no one else saw and always managed to get his man in the end. Yes, he's a most dangerous party for anyone to have against him."
"Rubbish!" snapped Mangan. "At any rate, for certain he'll never worry me. If there was anything to find out he'd have certainly found it before now. No, I'm quite safe, and so are you if you keep your trap shut."
However, when Mangan had gone off, the professor was still frowning uneasily. He didn't altogether like that news about Larose and to find out if there was anything in the wind must certainly have a little chat with the one-time detective. It should not be difficult. He'd pretend to be passing his way one day and drop in with a few oysters. Larose was a chatty fellow and always ready for a yarn.
THE DAY following upon the one when he had received his payment from the professor Mangan smiled a cold, grim smile when he read in the newspapers that the loss of the Corot painting had been discovered. It had not been done by either of the two maids but by Canon Drew himself who had come down from Scotland upon a flying visit to his house and, noticing at once that the painting was gone, had immediately informed the police.
Mangan was not surprised. He had anticipated it and, always shrewd and far-seeing, was realising that his possession of the painting was the one weak spot in his armour and which, if it became known, would be a most damnable piece of evidence, pointing direct to him as the double murderer.
He often wished he had left it alone, and several times was minded to burn it. However, each time he took it out of the drawer in which he had locked it, its delicate loveliness so appealed to him that he put it back there again with no hesitation at all. Still, he told himself frowningly, he would have to do something about it and do that something soon, if only to give him peace of mind. Though he had scoffed boldly at all the professor had told him about Gilbert Larose, some enquiries he had made at one of his clubs had been anything but reassuring.
Talking to some of the older members, he found they knew all about the one-time detective and were quite agreeable to recall old memories of the wonderful things he had done when in the Criminal Investigation Department at Scotland Yard. One loquacious old colonel in particular was most enthusiastic.
"Generally, he used to work all by himself," he said, "and for the time take no one into his confidence. Say a murder had been committed somewhere and not the slightest clue found. The public would grumble and swear at the police, but with the interest gradually dying down. Weeks and even months might pass, and then suddenly one morning everyone would start at seeing in their paper big headlines, 'Suspect committed for trial for the so-and-so murder.' 'Larose gets his man again.'"
"Wonderful!" sneered Mangan. "He must have been a remarkable man."
"He was," agreed the old colonel, "for all along like an old and well-trained bloodhound he'd been nosing up the trail, following tracks invisible to everybody else."
"Probably he'd had luck," smiled Mangan. "Most likely that was all."
The colonel shook his head. "No, no, it wasn't luck. It was all due to his great gift of imagination. As I tell you, his ways were so different from those of any other detective. It used to be said that, right off in the very beginning of a case he would put himself in the murderer's place and go back step by step along the way he had come." He held up his hand to emphasise his point. "So, if as they say he's now helping the police to find out who killed that German scientist and the detective who was supposed to be guarding him, I'd like to bet any money that he's spent hours in that garden where the two men were killed, in the darkness and at the same time of night as it all happened, just sitting still and thinking"—he laughed—"and maybe calling up the ghosts of the dead men to help him. Oh, yes, he was wonderful in his way, this chap, and I shouldn't like him to be after me now."
Mangan felt positively angry at what he stigmatised as the old colonel's childishness. "Old wives' tales," he commented disgustedly. "From what you tell me one could imagine he had radar leading him direct to the criminal."
"Yes, that's it!" exclaimed the colonel triumphantly. "You've put it in a nutshell. His imagination was the radar which was guiding him."
Now Mangan, though as iconoclastic and hard-boiled a man as could be found anywhere, had yet a hidden streak of superstition in him, and there could be no doubt that for a few days he was decidedly perturbed about Gilbert Larose. However, with the days and weeks passing and all the excitement about the Cambridge murders dying down, with no further mention of them appearing in the newspapers, he gradually recovered his nerve and became as confident as he ever had been that he was perfectly safe. He thrilled, too, at the exciting thought that he was so greatly a wanted man, a veritable little "Shadow Band" all by himself, with everyone stretching out their hands to catch him and yet with him being safe and untroubled in their very midst.
Accordingly, with the intention of keeping up this pleasurable mystery and excitement his thoughts were soon reverting to the professor's suggestions of executing more commissions for him. He was the more inclined to carry out the professor's wishes now, because it happened he was wanting a large sum of money rather badly.
Firstly, his partner, Wardale, with the plea of ill health, was anxious to dispose of his half of the business in Wardour Street. Although he did not say so, Mangan was very pleased about it, because, from meeting him often at the sales, he, Mangan, had become very friendly with another dealer who had a snug little business just off Hanover Square. This dealer was getting old and wanted to retire, too, but the sum he was demanding for the goodwill and stock of the business was the staggering one of £10,000.
Still, Mangan had gone through his books and realised the price was quite a moderate one, as the man had many wealthy customers and his turnover was a large one. So Mangan's idea was to buy out his Wardour Street partner as cheaply as he could by beating him down, and then get rid of the whole concern there altogether. He reckoned he would have no difficulty, having already in his mind's eye a probable purchaser.
Accordingly, he approached the professor and expressed his willingness to carry out another commission. The professor was delighted, though at the back of his mind he still harboured something of a lingering fear about Larose. He mentioned him again to Mangan.
"But I don't think he's doing much to help the police," he said. "though I do know he's been once to Scotland Yard to have a long conflab with his old friend, Chief Inspector Stone. I learned that from my housekeeper who's got a brother, a sergeant in the police force. However, I made an excuse to call in and see Larose a couple of weeks ago at Carmel Abbey, his place in Norfolk, and came away with the impression that he wasn't much interested in the matter. Upon my bringing round the conversation to what has happened, he just laughed and remarked that most people were thinking one German less in the world so much the better. No, I don't think we need worry about him."
"I never did," commented Mangan scornfully. "I don't believe a word of any of the tall stories they tell about him."
"Still," frowned the professor a trifle doubtfully, "I'll keep in touch with him and find out if he's much away from home just now. You see, he's a most conceited fellow and would just love to succeed where the police have failed." A sudden thought came to him and he snapped his fingers together. "Ah—it's funny, but I remember I saw him yesterday in the Strand, walking along with a man I know well by sight and one, too, I'd very much like you to get hold of. I only saw them for a few moments as I was passing by on the top of a bus."
"Who was the man," frowned Mangan, "from Scotland Yard?"
The professor shook his head. "No, he's a Captain Iver Selwyn. He was a Secret Service agent during the war, one of the most trusted as he was head of all the British Intelligence working inside Germany." He nodded. "It happens that by chance I came to learn a great secret about him. He was a capsule man, that is, he'd undergone a slight operation and had a glass capsule of cyanide of potassium embedded in the flesh underneath the top of his left arm. Then, if he had been caught by the Germans, so that he should not be made to disclose by torture who the other agents were, all he had to do was to strike himself a hard blow over the glass capsule and it would break and he'd be dead in less than a minute. They say he was given a £5,000 gratuity after the war."
"But if he's still in the Secret Service," said Mangan rather testily, "he's not likely to be interested in what has happened to von Bressen."
"Oh, isn't he?" exclaimed the professor. "I'm not so sure there, as they may be thinking it was the work of someone employed by the Baltic Embassy, and you know how envious the Baltics have always been about the atom bomb and how they would like to hinder any work upon it." He took a paper out of his wallet. "Well, never mind about Captain Selwyn now. We may try to get him later. For the moment I've a much easier job for you."
"Not Otto Bernstein?" queried Mangan with a frown. "He won't be easy."
"No, not him," said the professor, "as for the moment I can't find out where he is. He used to be staying in South Kensington, but they whisked him away somewhere after von Bressen's death. No, it's Professor Rodney you'll go for next. He's Professor of Physical Science at Oxford, another of the damned atom bomb mob, and I've made full enquiries about him. At present he's working here in London in a laboratory somewhere in Hampstead and walks home every evening by way of the Outer Circle by Regent's Park. He passes there regularly a few minutes after six o'clock. The Outer Circle is always fairly lonely, and I suggest you have a shot at him when you're going by at a good speed in your car."
"But how shall I know him?" asked Mangan.
"Very easily. He's got long white hair and walks with a pronounced stoop. I think he's about sixty-three. But to be sure you make no mistake about him you can see him at the pictures in Hampstead every Saturday night. He goes to the Victoria Picture Palace there and invariably sits in the very front row of the stalls because he's rather deaf. Once you've seen him you'll never forget him."
Then, in the ensuing weeks Mangan was well upon the way of acquiring the whole £10,000 needed for the purchase of the Hanover Street business, as he had carried out four more murderous commissions with ridiculous ease. Still considerably worried, however cunningly he was thinking he had hidden it, about his possession of the Corot painting, and now more embarrassed than ever by the large number of banknotes which the professor had paid over to him, he resolved to take further precautions for his safety.
If through some misfortune suspicion ever came to him, nothing must be found to back up that suspicion, and how then, he asked himself, even if he had burnt the incriminating painting, would he be able to account satisfactorily for the possession of all that money?
It would be ridiculous to attempt to hide the banknotes in his flat; he dared not pay them into any bank; and placing them in a safe deposit might turn out to be equally as dangerous.
Finally though, considering it risky in a different way and with no liking for the idea, he decided to take everything to a little shack which he had bought about a year previously on Canvey Island, in the Thames Estuary. Of course, he realised he would not be able to keep any proper watch on anything he left there and was quite aware of the thousands and thousands of all sorts of people who poured over the island at holiday times. Still, he was reckoning that the shack was much too poor looking for anyone to think it would be worth while breaking into. Then if they did, apart from a few articles of tinned food, a cheap camp bed, two chairs, some crockery, a few kitchen utensils and a small paraffin stove would be all they would find. The very cheapness of everything would never suggest that anything of value could be be hidden there.
Having at last made his decision, he motored down to Benfleet one dark evening and, leaving his car in a garage there, went on foot the rest of the way to where his shack was, just under the high sea wall. Shutting himself up inside, by the light only of an electric torch so as not to attract attention, he buried both the painting and the packet of banknotes a good two feet deep in the sand under one of the floorboards. Everything was well protected from the damp by being carefully wrapped round in a groundsheet.
Returning without event to his flat in Fitzroy Square, he breathed a great sigh of relief. At last he was quite safe and free to enjoy the exciting life he was now leading.
Certainly he was enjoying his life. The danger of his adventures thrilled him to the very core and the more the newspapers howled for the uncovering of the murderer among them the better he was pleased.
And there was no doubt he had ample grounds for pleasure there, as the public had been worked up into a state of frenzy that the police had not been able to discover anything. Murder after murder had been committed, they averred, with the authorities apparently standing idly by.
"What has happened to us?" shrieked the Daily Megaphone in its most yellow style. "Is it to be taken for granted that we all have to live in a land where law and order no longer prevail? Are we always to be at the mercy of a murderer who strikes unhindered where and when he wills? Six bloody crimes within three months and their perpetrator walking unconcerned in our very midst!"
"To all appearances," it went on, "these assassinations are all the work of one and the same man, and surely, from the happenings of all six of them taken together, some clue should have been picked up, something common to them all which should lead unerringly to the assassin?"
"What is Scotland Yard doing? They say nothing, they tell us nothing, and so we know nothing of what is going on! Now that is not as things should be. The public are not all fools and to the utmost extent they should be taken into the confidence of the authorities, as in many ways they might be of help. For instance, many might be acquainted with someone among them who possesses all the qualifications of the assassin, a bold and resolute individual of athletic build, very probably a returned soldier, who is seemingly well to do, runs a good car and is known to be in the possession of firearms. Possibly, he may not be a man who makes many friends and is reserved and moody in his disposition.
"Thousands among us may know of such a man and, once their attention is focussed, scores of us may perhaps notice something suspicious about him. At any rate the idea is worth trying, and Scotland Yard should certainly broadcast an appeal for help. Otherwise the community will continue to be at the mercy of this human beast of prey who, emerging from his jungle hiding place, leaves his dark trail of blood and violence behind him wherever he goes."
Mangan scoffed in amusement. "Let them catch me if they can. The proverbial searching for a needle in a bundle of hay!"
Still, at the back of his mind there was one uneasy doubt that he would never be found out and that doubt had begun to loom up larger and larger as the weeks had gone on. It was the professor himself of whom he was now afraid.
He was not at all pleased with the mental state of his half-crazy employer. The little man was now living in a constant whirl of excitement and every time he, Mangan, saw him he thought he seemed more unstable than ever. He couldn't keep still half a minute at a time and jumped about as if he were on springs, talking his head off all the while and exulting in the great services he was doing to humanity. He talked so quickly, too, that Mangan had to keep his distance to avoid the splutterings as he spoke.
One thing, however, gave Mangan some satisfaction, and that was that the cold nip in the autumn air had brought on the professor's annual bronchitis, with his medical man not permitting him to set foot out of doors. So, apparently he was having no contact with any outside people.
Still, though when taxed he denied it emphatically, Mangan felt almost certain that he had started upon writing his threatened memoirs, and Mangan was most uneasy about what he might be putting in them. Another thing, too, which was rather disturbing. The silly little fool had got a thick scrapbook in which he had pasted scores and scores of cuttings from the newspapers, all dealing with the murders.
Mangan had pointed out angrily to him that, if because of his so well-known unsocial views, the police ever came to interview him or even perhaps to make a search of his flat, the collection of all these cuttings would look very bad. After a lot of persuasion the professor had promised to burn his scrapbook and stop making any more such collections. However, Mangan did not think much of his promise, believing him to have now become a consummate little liar.
To make matters worse, the professor had taken to drinking a lot of champagne, and whenever Mangan appeared at the flat would insist upon his sharing with him the contents of a large bottle. He said, too, that he was now drinking it regularly with his meals, as he found it was the only thing which would steady his nerves. He added that he was taking it medicinally as a tonic and upon the advice of his medical man, who had told him to drink two bottles every day.
When Mangan frowningly hazarded the opinion that it was an expensive tonic the professor only laughed. "I have plenty of money," he said, "and never have to consider the expense. Yes, it is certainly pretty costly. I am paying nearly £60 a case."
So things were up to one evening when Mangan paid an unexpected visit to the professors flat. At the request of the professor he had arranged to come there the following evening to discuss another commission that the former had in view, but an unanticipated invitation to a card party where he thought he might be able to make some good money cropping up for that particular night, he decided to make an earlier visit to St. John's Wood and go there straight away.
Trying three times, however, to contact the professor over the phone and upon each occasion finding the line engaged, with his usual impatience he decided not to ring again but go to see him at once. It was a cold and foggy night and he knew he would be certain of finding him at home.
Arriving at the flat, the maid who answered the door knowing Mangan as a frequent and privileged visitor with no hesitation smilingly ushered him into the study where the professor was. To his annoyance Mangan found there was another visitor there, a tall and good-looking man of foreign appearance, seemingly in the middle thirties.
The professor looked most embarrassed and got very red. "This is Mr. Brown," he stammered to the stranger, "an old friend of mine. Brown, this is"—he hesitated a long moment—"Mr. Fernand from Madrid." He nodded smilingly to Mangan. "He says he can get me better champagne at only half the cost."
Mangan was not deceived. The man was no Spaniard. He was a Baltic if ever there was one, and he looked all over a soldier, too. However, he took the proferred hand smilingly and started to discuss Spanish and French wines, about which he was not surprised to find the other seemed to know very little, contenting himself with agreeing to everything he, Mangan, said. The man spoke excellent English.
They had not talked together for long when Mangan was sure he caught a meaning look pass between the professor and this Mr. Fernand, and the latter, with most polite bows, at once rose up and took his leave.
With his departure, the professor seemed more embarrassed than ever and began to talk very quickly about the next commission, with the object Mangan was sure of evading any question which might be asked about his Spanish visitor.
"But I'm not ready for you tonight," he said irritably.
"I expect to get the information I want tomorrow. If you can't come then, what about coming Sunday?" He heaved a big sigh. "That man tired me out and I want to go to bed at once. I feel my bronchitis is going to worry me tonight. So you won't think me rude, will you, if I ask you to go?"
Mangan was quite agreeable. Evidently, something not quite above board was going on and he wanted time to think over it. "All right, I'll come on Sunday," he said, "and I hope there'll be no other visitors about then. With your so well-known views, the fewer people who know I come to see you the better."
"Then Sunday will fit in admirably," said the professor, "as there won't be anyone here except me. The maids always go out on Sunday evenings."
Mangan was frowning hard as he let himself out of the flat. The professor had obviously been most annoyed that he had met his visitor, and there must be some good reason for it. The half-crazy little man was like a child in some ways, with all his passing emotions showing in his face, and he had just looked as if he had been caught doing something wrong. The devil! If he went wholly out if his mind there would be all hell to pay!
Walking up to his car which he had left about fifty yards away, to his amazement he found the professor's other visitor standing there and evidently waiting for him. The man raised his right hand in salute. "I thought this was your car," he said, "and at any rate I meant to catch you when you came out."
"What do you want?" asked Mangan, by no means too pleased at meeting the man again.
"I want to have a talk with you, Major Mangan," said the other man solemnly, "and it will be a most important one. Oh, yes, I know your real name and much more about you, too. That little fool is becoming as dangerous as a bomb both to you and us as well."
"But who are you?" asked Mangan with a sickly feeling in the pit of his stomach. "That you don't come from Madrid I am quite certain."
The man shook his head. "No, I'm a Baltic and come from the Embassy here. I'm Captain Feodor Michaeloff." He spoke sharply. "Now, where can we have this little talk?" and when Mangan stood hesitating, he went on, "Better come with me to the Embassy. Happily, I didn't come in my car. So you can drive me there."
"Jump in," said Mangan, his voice hoarse in his uneasiness. "I know where it is."
They made the drive in complete silence and, just before arriving at the important building in Portland Place, the captain suggested they should pull up in a little back street. "We'll go in by the side entrance," he said. "In these days you never know who's on the look-out."
In a very few minutes Mangan was installed in a small room upon the ground floor and the captain, closing the door very deliberately, drew a heavy curtain across the doorway.
"Now what about a good brandy and soda?" he said. "I think we need some kind of stimulant to face the situation we are up against."
The drinks mixed, Mangan imbibed a deep draught. He was feeling most uneasy, wondering what was coming next.
The captain at once came straight to the point. "Major Mangan," he said with the utmost gravity, "the excitement has been too much for Professor Glenowen and he has become stark, staring mad. He is right over the border-line now and, caring for no consequences both to himself and you, with very little encouragement will boast to anyone what you have done at his request, and,"—he frowned angrily—"as he's untruthfully making out now, at ours as well."
Then, noting Mangan's scared and ashen face, he went on quickly, "But you are perfectly safe with me, and indeed, all of us here are very pleased with what you have done. So don't have the very slightest worry about us. We shall never give you away."
Mangan steadied his voice with an effort. "But what did he tell you about me?" he asked hoarsely.
"Everything, I say," replied the captain, "from your killing von Bressen and the Scotland Yard detective to your unsuccessful attempt to get Iver Selwyn last week, Selwyn, the Secret Service man." He raised his hand warningly. "And worse still, he's got it all written down in some memoirs he's writing, the sums of money he has paid you, the dates and everything."
Mangan realised denials would be of no use and ground his teeth savagely. "How did he come to tell you?" he asked.
"He rang me up to come and see him. He said he had something very interesting to tell me, and he poured it all out as quickly as he could get his words. He showed me the book, too. You must understand we have known him for several years now and, at times, he has given us some quite useful information." The captain scowled. "Now, as I say, he has dragged us into all your killings and, in this very dangerous book he is writing, seems to be making out he employed you with our full knowledge and approval all along. If what he has written ever became known, of course it will do us a lot of harm in neutral countries."
"It won't become known," said Mangan savagely, "I'll see to that."
"But you won't be able to frighten him," warned the captain. "He is past all that. His mental condition is such that he gives no thought to any consequences."
"I won't frighten him," scowled Mangan. "I'll do much more than that. I'll stop him talking once and for all."
"That's the spirit," exclaimed the captain approvingly, "and I thought you'd take it that way. The sooner you get to work, the better. I'm afraid we can't help you in any way."
"Yes, you can," said Mangan quickly. "Give me an automatic. If I have to shoot him, I don't want the bullet to come from a gun I've used before. There must be no connection between finishing with him and anything previous that has happened."
"Ah, a good point that," nodded the captain. "Yes, of course you shall have one, but be very careful how you get rid of it afterwards. We shan't want it back here."
They chatted on for quite a long while, to all outward appearances two most gentlemanly men imbued with all the highest principles of a soldier's calling. Who would have ever dreamed they were discussing the carrying out of a coldblooded murder, almost as if it were a very ordinary and commonplace happening, liable to occur in everyone's life.
The following Monday morning, Sir Robert Edis, the Chief Commissioner of Police, and Chief Inspector Charles Stone, of the Criminal Investigation Department, were closeted together in Scotland Yard, in the former's room. Sir Robert, tall and erect in bearing, looked every inch of him the soldier, but upon first glance a stranger might not have taken the inspector for one of the shrewdest and most capable officers of the C.I.D. that he undoubtedly was.
Now in the middle fifties, Charlie Stone, as he was affectionately called in the Yard, was of massive build. He had a big heavy face, big head, and big grey eyes which looked out upon the world from under big and scraggy brows. In repose has face was set and stern, but for all that he was a kind-hearted man and full of humour.
Old in the ways of crime, he was wont to say laughingly that he loved meeting with a really clever criminal, with the pitting of wits against wits and his delving into the dark recesses of the other's mind. It was his boast that when he was about to question a man he could tell with his first glance if he were a liar or not.
The Chief smiled whimsically. "You know, Inspector," he said, "I'm quite heartened that your old friend Gilbert Larose has asked to see me. He wouldn't be ringing up for an interview if he hadn't something on his mind that he wants particularly to tell us."
"That's so, Sir Robert," commented the inspector in his big booming voice. "A bright boy, Gilbert, and he'd never waste our time for nothing."
"Now, I've met him and his wife socially," said the Chief, "but I've never been down to their place in Norfolk. I hear they live in great style."
"And they're as happy as if they were still a honeymoon couple," nodded Stone. "Yes, they've got a lovely house."
"You worked with him for several years, didn't you?"
"Seven exactly, sir, and in those few years he climbed higher in the public estimation than any of us who've been here thirty. He was a splendid colleague to work with, always so hopeful and bright."
The Chef Inspector puckered up his brows. "But I've heard some tales. He was a bit insubordinate, wasn't he?"
The Inspector laughed. "We never actually caught him at it, sir, but I've suspected more than once that when he judged there were extenuating circumstances he wasn't quite so active in getting his man as perhaps he might have been. Mind you, sir, we never could prove it, but that's what I thought."
The phone tinkled upon the Chief's tesk, and picking up the receiver, he said at once, "Then bring him in, please." He glanced back in the inspector. "Here he is."
About ten years younger than his old friend, Stone, Gilbert Larose certainly had all appearances of being a happy and contented man. Of medium height, he was good-looking with good features and a merry, smiling face. He was dressed well and tastefully, though there was nothing of the fop about him. As with the inspector, he gave one the impression of being a kind-hearted man. He shook hands with the Chief Commissioner and Stone.
"Now, Mr. Larose," smiled the Chief, "we hope you have come to help us about those six killings. We are not getting on too well here and, as you know, the public are clamouring for our blood. So, we are expecting great things from you, one of those brilliant flashes of intuition for which in the old days, I'm told, you were so famous."
"Well, Sir Robert," smiled back Larose, "though I've nothing very startling to tell you, I feel sure I can put you on the beginning of the trail." He shook his head. "No, it is not any cleverness upon my part that has led me to pick it up, but the foolishness and stupidity of the other fellow." He paused a long moment. "In my opinion it is that Professor Harleck Glenowen is the key man of all these crimes."
Inspector Stone frowned heavily and the Chief Commissioner opened his eyes very wide. "What," exclaimed the latter, "the little mad professor who wrote that damnable letter to The Times!" He frowned, too. "But a little chap like him couldn't have throttled those two men in Cambridge."
"I don't say he did," said Larose quickly, "and I wouldn't say he pistolled any of the others, as his nerves don't strike me as being good enough for him to be such a sure shot. He looks to me now as if he had taken to drinking. His hands are shaking and his lips tremulous. No, I don't think for a moment that he's been the actual murderer, but I do believe he knows who is, and might even have to put him up to everything."
"But how on earth could he induce any man to become a wholesale murderer?" asked the Chief Commissioner.
"Money does more than talk," said Larose earnestly, "it shrieks, and the war has thrown up plenty of bold, reckless fellows who will do anything if they are paid well enough. The murders of that Dr. von Bressen and Inspector Barwell looked in every particular a returned soldier's work to me and one who had been a commando for preference."
"And you have evidence pointing to the professor, definite evidence?" asked the Chief Commissioner sharply.
Larose spoke impressively. "Except for Inspector Barwell and the Ingatestone doctor, I can prove that he had animus against all the murdered men. Against three of them he had a personal spite."
"You know that for certain?" persisted the Chief.
Larose nodded. "As certain as I know I am sitting here. All last week I was collecting evidence and I can prove it up to the very hilt."
"Very good, then," said the Chief. "Now let's hear all about it."
"It began in this way," said Larose. "But first you must understand I have known Glenowen, it must be quite six or seven years. He has a seaside bungalow only a few miles from where I live, and I have met him socially at luncheons and dinners and an occasional evening at cards. I have always been interested in him, far more than he has been interested in me. In fact, when we have met he has hardly ever taken any notice of me, possibly because he comes of a good old Welsh family and is a University man, whereas everyone knows I was once only a policeman."
"A damned snob!" growled Stone. He regarded Larose affectionately. "You are as good as anyone, my boy."
"Then imagine my surprise," went on Larose, "when a few weeks ago he took to calling upon me quite often, with little presents of oysters, the first time not very long ago after the Cambridge murders. He brought round the conversation to them at once and remarked what terrible crimes they were. I thought what a damned little hypocrite he was, as everyone knew von Bressen's death was exactly what he wanted. It struck me, too, that he was rather queer in the way he talked. He spoke so quickly and was so voluble and kept on jumping from one thing to another as if he couldn't collect his ideas. Then the next time he called was just after the shooting of Professor Rodney in the Outer Circle of Regent's Park, and he seemed very excited about it. Later, when my suspicions about him had been aroused, I remembered it had struck me, subconsciously as it were, that there was something funny about the way he had kept turning away his eyes, just like a little child who had done something wrong and was wondering if he had been found out. I thought he was childishly curious, too, about what I had been doing lately, had I been up to Town much or had I been busy with work upon the estate."
"What did he say about his brother professor's murder?" asked the Chief.
"Oh, that it was a dreadful thing and he couldn't understand how no one was able to give a description of the car. He said Rodney had been a great friend of his and he was very upset about his death. Well, he came to see me four more times, upon each occasion talking a lot about the murders and wondering what the police were doing. The last time was exactly a fortnight ago, on a Monday and, harking back to the murders of von Bressen and Inspector Barwell, he remarked casually he supposed that by now the police had closed all their enquiries about them, realising that after all these weeks any discovery was hopeless."
The Chief Commissioner turned smilingly to Stone. "You see, Inspector, what some people think of us."
"I've been seeing that, sir," commented the inspector, grimly, "all the five and thirty years since as an innocent fellow I joined the Force."
Larose went on. "Then, when I told him that Scotland Yard never, as he called it, closed their enquiries and, though it might be many months yet before he read in his newspaper that the murderer had been caught, he would certainly hear about it one day, his expression all at once became so uneasy that I said laughingly, 'But it won't be you, Professor, that they'll catch. So you needn't lose any sleep there.'"
Larose paused here to light another cigarette. "Then, on the following Friday night," he said very solemnly, "a revelation came to me and almost in a few seconds I was certain Glenowen was implicated in all these crimes. Everything stood out so clearly and——"
"Upon the following Friday night, ten days ago, you say you were so certain," queried the Chief frowningly, "and yet you didn't come to us until today?"
"No," retorted Larose sharply. "I wanted more than my suspicions to lay before you. I wanted the evidence I now have. Yes, it was last Friday week, exactly a week after that Ingatestone doctor was shot, the last so far of the series of crimes and I can assure you, Sir Robert, I have been busy ever since." He smiled. "Inspector Stone here will tell you that I have always worked by myself until the time was ripe for team work to begin."
"That's so, Sir Robert," nodded Stone to the Chief, "and he was never one to send us off upon a wild-goose chase in all the years I've known him."
The Chief made no comment and Larose went on. "Now not only have I a large scrap-book of many hundreds of events which have been of interest to me, but also for many years I have kept a diary of important and unimportant happenings, the unimportant ones being such as a bitch having puppies or one of our cats having kittens, or about potatoes or what-not having been planted in the garden."
He drew in a deep breath. "Well, upon this particular Friday night, I took up my diary to see what date certain bulbs had been put in in one of my conservatories and, on the page where it opened, 'Professor Rodney Shot' caught my eye, with 'Glenowen called' just under that entry. Then, turning back the pages to get to where I wanted, I could not help being struck with the strange coincidences, as I thought at first, that 'Glenowen called' was written there in close proximity to the entries recording the murders of Dr. Carmichael, Arnold Travers, and lately, that of Dr. Henderson of Ingatestone. When the first two of these dreadful crimes had been committed he had come to see me the day after it had been done, and in regard to the third, the day before."
Larose paused for a long moment before going on very quickly. "At first, I admit I saw no particular signficance in the sequences of these entries, but then, suddenly, light seemed to come to me, and I literally gasped at my discovery. They meant, surely they could only mean that the professor was somehow mixed up with all these crimes, as they furnished so reasonable an explanation for his frequent visits to my home, his pumping me about the methods of the police and his wanting to find out if I myself had been away much from home lately, that is, I see now, to discover if I were back at my old trade, trying to pick up clues about these dreadful crimes. It all seemed as clear as day to me."
Neither the Chief Commissioner or Stone were ready with any comment. Their mouths were both half open and they stared intently at Larose. He went on briskly, "Now, though for private reasons, I wasn't able to leave home until the Monday, I didn't lose much time. Looking up my newspaper cuttings, I saw Professor Rodney had been staying with his married sister at Hampstead up to the evening he was killed, and on the Monday afternoon I called there to speak to her. I explained my coming with the fib that I had a slight acquaintance with her brother and, being in the neighbourhood, thought I must call to express my deep sympathy for her. I added, that Professor Harleck Glenowen who was a friend of mine had asked me to express his sympathy for her, too."
To the amazement of his listeners the face of Larose now became one broad and highly amused grin. "At what happened next, although the matter is so serious, whenever I think of it I can't help wanting to laugh. Directly I had mentioned the professor and said he was a friend of mine, I saw at once that I had put my foot in it. His sister looked as furious and as if she would like to scratch my eyes out. 'If I had known you were a friend of his,' she said angrily, 'I would have never let you come into the house. The horrid little hypocrite sending his condolences! Why, he and my poor brother had been deadly enemies for years! When they were at Cambridge together my brother had once referred to him as a little Welsh ape and he had never forgiven him for it. He was a spiteful little beast and we were sure it was he who kept on poisoning every dog we had. Strychnine baits were continually being thrown over into the garden and in the end it wasn't safe for us to keep any animals, either dogs or cats.'"
"That finished the interview," said Larose, "and I went next to Arnold Travers' people. To cut my story short, I learnt Travers had attacked the professor in his weekly column in the Sunday Bulletin, and had received a highly abusive letter from him on return. Passing on to Dr. Carmichael, I found he had answered the professor's infamous atom-bomb letter in The Times and given it as his opinion that a padded room was the right place for those who thought like him. He, too, had been honoured with an epistle from the professor, in which, among other abuse, he had been informed he was a disgrace to his honourable calling and most certainly as insane as any patient in his own mental asylum."
Larose paused here for another cigarette. "Now, I come lastly to that Dr. Henderson of Ingatestone, and his case was the hardest of them all. Interviewing his family and some of his friends I could find nothing whatsoever to link him up with the professor, no contact with him in any way. Indeed, it seemed probable that he might even have never heard of Glenowen. He was always kept very busy with a large practice in the surrounding district and, so I was told, often was too tired at nights to read the daily newspapers."
Larose made a grimace. "I wasted two whole days in interviewing people and then it dawned suddenly upon me that it was a case of mistaken identity, with the doctor having been taken for someone else and shot in his stead. Remember—whoever shot him had been hiding among the trees in a little plantation, upon a bank some three to four feet above the road and he had had to fire from some fifty to sixty feet away. The doctor was known everywhere as a fast driver and so, passing the spot where the assassin was waiting, the latter would have had to be very quick in the identification, and I reckoned he would have made it almost entirely by the car."
"Then was the car an unusual type?" asked the Chief.
"Yes, it was a blue Minerva single-seater, their very latest model only recently out of the factory, and to my disappointment I found it was the only one in the district. I enquired for miles and miles round, but no one knew of anyone except Dr. Henderson who had one. I visited scores and scores of garages on the main road for more than five and twenty miles, but got no satisfaction. Then, sick at heart and barely a couple of miles from Colchester, I scored a hit bang in the middle of the target and heard of the very car I wanted."
Larose looked very pleased with himself. "It was quite a small petrol station, and when I put the usual questions to the proprietor, did he know of anyone in the neighbourhood who ran a latest model of the blue Minerva, to my delight he replied that though he didn't know of anyone locally, yet a customer of his had been coming down from Town in one upon the last three preceding Sundays to see his mother who had been in a motor accident and was at present in the Colchester Hospital. He said he knew the old lady quite well, as she lived just up the road and he had looked after her Bentley for her for several years. Before the accident, when her son came to visit her he nearly always called in upon him, the garage man, for a fill of petrol. He was a fine gentleman."
Larose snapped his fingers together exultingly. "Then when I asked his name, I found I knew him. He was a Captain Iver Selwyn, and both he and I had worked for the British Intelligence during the last war."
"Does he know Professor Glenowen?" asked the Chief sharply.
"Yes, he has a slight acquaintance with him," nodded Larose. "He was introduced to him once at a meeting of the Royal Society. Unhappily, he told me that Glenowen knows more about him than he should through a maid who had left his, the captain's, service to go into that of the professor. The captain had dismissed her because she had been caught eavesdropping and he was strongly suspicious she had got hold of his keys once and gone through the contents of his desk."
"Then you've seen this Captain Selwyn in the course of these last few days?" asked the Chief.
"I got in touch with him yesterday," replied Larose, "after a lot of difficulty. I told him everything and gave him a very solemn warning to beware of another attempt to shoot him."
"But what animus, Gilbert," said Stone, "would Glenowen have had against him?"
"Only that he knows he is an Intelligence man," replied Larose, "and guesses, probably most correctly, too, that his present job is to look out for enemy agents among the workers on the atom-bomb," he frowned. "You know I think Glenowen is now getting right out of his mind and will be striking right and left at anyone he can." He looked from one to the other of his audience and asked with a smile, "Well, do you think I've made out any sort of a case."
"The strongest," said Stone emphatically. "Don't you think so, too, Sir Robert?"
"Most certainly," replied the Chief. He turned to Larose. "We are most intensely grateful to you, sir, and now, to add to our obligations, tell us what you think we should do. Knowing Glenowen as you do, in what way do you think we should approach him?"
"Bounce him into a confession," replied Larose instantly. "His nerves are just in that jittery state that, if you give him no warning and take him on the hop, he may not be able to pull himself sufficiently together to deny everything. At any rate, demand to look into his banking account to see if he's been drawing out any large sums of money lately. If my contention is correct that he's been financing all these assassinations, then depend upon it the assassin has been well paid."
"Where in St. John's Wood does he live?" asked Stone. "Oh, number seventeen in Grove Road, an old house that has been converted into two flats! Then, do you happen to know if he's at home now?"
"He was up to the day before yesterday," replied Larose, "because I rang him up then, making out I was an agent for a new carpet-sweeper and asking if I could call and give him a demonstration. One of the maids answered the phone and, going to enquire of her master, returned with the emphatic reply, 'No, certainly not.'"
"Good," exclaimed the inspector, "then we'll go out there at once and, to be on the safe side, I'll take a search-warrant with me. We won't waste a minute's time and——"
But the phone tinkled on the Chief Commissioner's desk, and he picked up the receiver. "Chief Commissioner here," he said, and a long minute's intense silence followed. Then, with a catch in his breath, the Chief asked sharply, "When?" Another silence ensued and he said, "All right. We'll be with you as quickly as possible."
He hung up the receiver and the two others in the room noted that his face had paled a little. "Gentlemen," he said grimly, "there will be no interview for anyone with Professor Glenowen this morning, as less than an hour ago he was found battered to death in his study. He was killed last night."
THEY STOOD round the body in the dead man's study while the police surgeon, bending down upon one knee, made a quick examination. "Two blows struck," he said briskly, "the first taking him from behind when he was standing up, and the second made when he was lying here prone. Either would have killed him and death would have been practically instantaneous. Very violent blows by a strong man! See in both places where the bone has been crashed in."
He bent lower to inspect more closely and tut-tutted several times. "A very callous murderer! Note, where, to steady the head for his second blow, he pressed his foot hard upon the poor man's neck. See the dirt there from the sole of his shoe." He nodded frowningly. "Yes, a very brutal individual, the assassin here!"
"About when do you think he was killed, Doctor?" asked Inspector Stone.
"I should say he's been dead all night. Rigor is well-established down to his legs, but I shall be able to tell you with more accuracy when I've made the P.M. Do you know when he had his last meal?"
It was the local police-sergeant who had first arrived upon the scene of the murder who answered the question. "His housekeeper says, Doctor, that the maid cleared away his evening meal just before seven."
The doctor nodded. "Good! Then according to how far digestion has proceeded we shall be able to tell within half an hour or so when he died. Yes, that bloodied poker there was undoubtedly the weapon. Its heavy knob would have made just such indentation as there." He picked up his bag and added with a smile, "Well, that's all I can say for the present, gentlemen, and it's up to you now to find the murderer."
With the departure of the police surgeon, the Chief Commissioner took his leave, too, and after Inspector Stone had turned out the pockets of the dead man, finding among other things a bunch of keys, the body was taken off in the ambulance. Some half an hour later, after the finger-mark expert had done all he wanted, Larose and Inspector Stone, in company with a second inspector, Inspector Isaac Mendel, sat themselves down and proceeded to go over everything.
Inspector Mendel, whom Stone generally picked to work with him, was in the early thirties and the youngest inspector attached to the Criminal Investigation Department at Scotland Yard. Undeniably good-looking in a dark Hebraic way and of a refined appearance, he owed his high position for one so young to sheer merit. Possessed of a lively imagination and remarkable powers of deduction, no one was better versed than he in the annals of crime, and, continually drawing upon that knowledge for inspiration, he had achieved not a few outstanding successes. He and Larose had met before and he held the latter in the highest esteem. Coming along in the car, he had been told briefly of Larose's suspicion of the professor.
"Now, Gilbert," said Stone with a grim smile, "with your knowledge of the dead man, tell us what you think of it. Are you inclined to make out this is a separate crime, or is it another of that series which has been so baffling us?"
"It's linked up with the others," replied Larose without the slightest hesitation. "Harleck Glenowen had raised up a devil to carry out those murders for him, a callous unscrupulous and clever devil who was shrewd enough to realise that his employer was now becoming a danger to him. He must have seen as well as I did that the professor was no longer a hundred per cent safe to hold any secret. As I told you, every time I saw him he seemed to me to be more and more like a little child, and you know how a little child bursts to tell all he knows."
"Perhaps he was keeping a diary," suggested Mendel. "I noticed the callous on his right forefinger was shiny and there was a trace of ink there, too. So that means he must have been writing since he last washed his hands, yet we found no manuscript or papers about."
"Excellent!" exclaimed Larose warmly. He made a wry face. "I must be getting old or I should have noticed that, too. Then maybe there had been papers in that safe and that's what his murderer had come after."
"We'll talk with the maids at once," said Stone. He nodded to Mendel. "Fetch the elder one in, first. I understand she's the cook-housekeeper."
"One moment," said Larose as Mendel was moving to the door. He turned to Stone. "Remember Captain Selwyn told me a maid of his whom he had dismissed had entered Glenowen's service. Well, perhaps the housekeeper is the one. Assume that she is, and she'll be so surprised at us knowing it that she'll think it best to be quite straightforward and open with us."
"A good idea," nodded Stone. "Bring her in, Mendel."
The cook-housekeeper was a small slim woman apparently in the middle forties. She had sharp features and a pointed nose. She wore glasses with thick lenses, and looked of the inquisitive kind.
Stone motioned her to a chair. "Your name, please?" he asked.
"Norah Wenn," she replied.
"And for how long have you been the cook-housekeeper here, Miss Wenn? Oh, two years! And before that, I believe you were with Captain Iver Selwyn?"
The woman's eyes boggled and her mouth opened. She cleared her throat and answered, "Yes."
Stone smiled kindly at her. "Now, Miss Wenn," he said, "this is a very dreadful business and I'm sure you'll want to help us all you can." He became confidential. "You see we think your poor master was killed by someone he knew quite well and whom he regarded as a friend, and of course he had opened the door to him himself. Now, was he expecting anyone to call last night?"
"Not that we know of, sir," replied the woman, "but then he very seldom tells us about his visitors and, if he's been expecting one, he's nearly always been ready to open the door himself directly he hears the bell ring. Sometimes, he's even been waiting on the doorstep for them."
"Has he had many visitors lately?"
"Not different ones, sir, only his doctor and two other gentlemen who have often been coming lately, a Mr. Brown and another one whose name we have never heard, he's a foreigner this gentleman and comes from some Embassy."
"How do you know he came from some Embassy?"
"Because Emma, sir—she's the other girl here—once overheard him say he couldn't stop long as he had to be back at the Embassy soon."
"You say he was a foreigner? Well, what sort of foreigner?"
"He didn't look like a Frenchman or an Italian or a German, sir, and Emma says she once heard Master call him Captain something ending with off, so we thought he must be a Russian. He was big and tall, with big front teeth like a horse."
"And had a loud laugh, the few times he laughed?" broke in Larose.
"Yes, sir, that's him," exclaimed the housekeeper in great surprise. "We could hear it then right away in the kitchen."
"I know him," said Larose, addressing himself to Stone. "I'll tell you about him later."
Stone went on with his examination. "And now this Mr. Brown—what about him?"
She shook her head. "We don't know anything about him, sir, either what he is or where he lives. He was a new friend of Master's and it's always puzzled us what he came here for. He always arrived about the same time, eight o'clock, but never stopped for much longer than half an hour, except once when Master had invited him to dinner."
"Has he been coming often?"
"Well, I should say about a dozen times."
"When did he start coming?"
"It must have been about the beginning of July. I know it was summer-time because Master took him out into the garden to show him some shooting with his pistols."
"What was he like to look at? Was he old or young?"
"Oh, quite young, sir. Emma—the other girl—says he's well under thirty. I can't tell you exactly what he's like, because I'm short-sighted and have never been close up to him. When he went into the garden that evening I saw him in the distance and could just make out that he was tall and well-built and soldierly and looked very smartly dressed. A real gentleman about Town, I thought."
"And you never opened the door to him?"
"No, sir. Nearly always Master must have known he was coming and was on the lookout to let him in himself. Still, Emma has let him in a few times. She says he is very good-looking."
"But do you think he always came by appointment as if there was some business between them?"
"Yes, all but once, sir, and that was one evening last week. Then Master had got that foreign gentleman with him when he called. Emma answered the door and, thinking she was doing quite right, showed him straight into the study. For some reason, Master was very angry with her afterwards for having done it and called her a stupid fool."
"How used he to come here, driving in his car, of course?"
"No, sir, not often in his car and then, when he did, he would leave it some little way up the road where it couldn't be seen from the windows here. We know that because one evening when Emma was coming home a car passed her in the road here and then pulled up. She saw Mr. Brown jump out and walk up to our house. She was just in time to see Master open the door to him."
"But how do you know," asked Stone, "that he didn't always leave his car up the road when he was visiting your master?"
"Because, generally, sir," she went on volubly, "he had got his gloves on and was carrying a walking-stick." She smiled. "The stick was a beautiful ebony one with a curved handle with a silver band round it. He used to leave it with his hat in the hall, and it was such a nice one that Emma brought it into the kitchen once to show me. When he was driving, of course, he had no stick, and then he had no hat, either. We thought he used to leave his hat in the car. That last evening, when he met the foreign gentleman here, he came in with no hat or stick. So we could tell he was driving. We happened to be certain of that because Emma went to the pillar-box almost directly after he had left here and was just in time to see his car starting away from the place where he usually left it."
Remembering her reputation as an eavesdropper when in her former situation with Captain Selwyn, Stone asked casually, "And when he was with your master what did they usually talk about?"
The housekeeper smiled slyly. "We don't know, sir. The door was always shut and they talked very quietly."
Stone thought for a moment. "And has your master been doing much writing lately?" he asked.
"Yes, sir, he's been very busy. You see he's not been able to go out lately because of his bronchitis and so he's been writing, instead."
"In a book?" queried Stone.
"No, sir, on sheets of paper and he's always locked them up in his safe, even if he's been away from his study only for a few minutes. He's been making a scrap-book, too, and pasting in a lot of cuttings, mostly about those dreadful murders that have been happening lately."
"But how do you know that?" frowned Stone.
"From the newspapers we clear out of his waste-paper basket every morning. We noticed the murder parts had been cut out."
"Did you ever actually see the scrap-book?"
"Only when he was pasting in the cuttings. He always kept the book locked up in his safe, along with his writings."
A pause followed before Stone asked, "Then you can give us no idea what this Mr. Brown came for?"
"None at all, sir," she replied, but, seeming to remember something, she added quickly, "Oh, we think he was as interested in pistols as Master was, and we believe Master must have given him some of his." She went on, "You see, sir, Master's great hobby was shooting with a pistol. He has a target fixed up in the rockery and some days he's been shooting quite a lot at it. He used to have seven or eight pistols and would spend hours some days cleaning and polishing them up. Then, lately, when he was doing the polishing we noticed he had not so many pistols as usual on the newspaper spread upon the table, quite three or four less, we thought."
"And where did he keep these pistols?" asked Stone.
"All except one, locked in his safe," she said. "This one he had always by him, either in the drawer in his desk during the day, or at night by the little table near his bed." She sighed. "Poor Master was always eccentric and of late we've thought he was getting worse."
"How worse?" queried Stone. "What did he do?"
She made a faint show of speaking with reluctance. "He seemed queer in his head, sir, we think from drinking too much wine. He had taken to laughing and talking to himself."
"And what did he say?" asked Stone. He smiled confidingly. "Come now, don't tell me you didn't try to listen. I know I should have done so. It wouldn't be human not to be curious."
She smiled back. "Well, yes, we did, sir, but we couldn't catch what he said. His door was always shut, and we could just hear him mumbling to himself and that was all."
A short silence followed before Stone said, "Well, to go back to that foreign gentleman—what did he come here for? Have you no more idea about him than you have of Mr. Brown?"
She shook her head. "None whatever, sir. All the many times he's been here we've never learnt anything."
"And when he came last week—do you think he came by arrangement? Was your master expecting him?"
"Oh, yes, we are sure he was waiting to answer his ring, but he was rather slow in getting to the door because he had to shut up the safe first, and so Emma nearly got there before him. She says he waved her back very crossly, but she dawdled long enough in the hall to see who it was he let in."
"How do you know he had to shut up his safe?" frowned Stone.
"Because, sir, we heard him bang it to. He always shut it with a bang you could hear all over the house. We heard it bang again a little later that evening—so we thought he'd been showing the foreign gentleman something."
"And what was in the safe?" smiled Stone. "Had it not become quite an interesting mystery to you?"
The housekeeper smiled back. "Yes, it had, sir, but only quite lately since Master had started to write so much. We had never heard it bang so often before."
Another short silence followed. "Well, thank you, Miss Wenn," said Stone. "That's all we want of you for the present. We'll be ringing the bell in a minute or two and then will you please send in the other young lady."
When the door closed behind her, Stone snapped his fingers together exultingly. "A sure thing, this Mr. Brown! Everything fits in—the time when he first took to calling upon the professor, those pistols which were given him so that he never used the same one twice and that's why all the bullets found in the murdered men came from different weapons. Then the manuscript he kept so carefully locked up in that safe, and the scrap-book, too. Those were what Mr. Brown came after, sure enough. Now a good description of him from other girl and we shall be well upon the trail."
Unhappily, however, the inspector soon found that no good description was going to be forthcoming, as Emma Hobson, the second girl, seemed anything but as sharp as the housekeeper. Not much over twenty, she was insipid and rather uninteresting with a pale, unhealthy colour. She had weak and watery eyes which she screwed up a lot when she was looking at anyone. There was nothing smart about her and she was dressed dowdily in clothes which seemed much too old for her. She appeared very nervous. Asked by Stone to describe Mr. Brown's appearance, she hesitated a long moment and then stammered out that he was tall and good-looking.
"But was he dark or fair?" asked Stone, trying with his most winning smile to put her at her ease.
She hesitated again. "I really can't tell you, sir," she replied. "I think he was half way in between."
Stone was very patient. "Well, to begin with, was he clean shaven?"
She nodded. "Yes, sir, he had no moustache."
"And what was the colour of his eyes?"
"I think, I think they were dark, sir," she said slowly. "No, I can't be sure. They may have been blue." Her voice shook. "I am very sorry, sir, but I am always bad at descriptions."
"But if you met him again would you recognise him?" asked Stone.
She brightened up. "Oh, yes, I should know him at once." She smirked. "As I say, sir, he is very good-looking. Besides, I should recognise his voice anywhere. It is such a nice one."
Stone tried something else. "Well, Miss Hobson, I understand he's been here to dinner once and you waited at the table. How long ago was that?"
"Not very long, sir. I should say only about a month."
"And what did your master and Mr. Brown talk about at this meal?" asked Stone. He smiled. "Being, as you say, such an interesting gentleman, of course you'll remember something of what they said."
"Oh, yes, I do, sir," smiled back the girl, "as we had thought Master was never interested in such things. It was all about sport and athletics and boxing and things like that."
"And so friendly as your master was with Mr. Brown," went on Stone, "Miss Wenn tells us he was yet very angry for you for showing him in without notice when that foreign gentleman was here."
The girl nodded. "Very angry, sir. I don't think I've ever seen him so angry before."
"But why?" asked Stone.
"He said he was doing some very important business, sir, with that foreign gentleman and hadn't wanted to be interrupted."
"But had this foreigner and Mr. Brown never visited your master together, at the same time before?"
"No, sir, they didn't even know each other, because when I was shutting the door that evening after I had shown in Mr. Brown I heard Master starting to introduce them to each other."
And that was all they could get out of her and, when she had been dismissed, the stout inspector made a wry face. "Bang goes all our hope of getting upon an easy trail. It's most disappointing."
Larose shook his head. "No, Charlie, we've still got an excellent chance. As I said just now, I'm sure I know who that foreigner is the housekeeper spoke about. He answers to the description of Captain Feodor Michaeloff, the senior attache at the Baltic Embassy with whom I did a little bit of work during the war when I was in the British Intelligence. He was a quiet reserved man, but a very capable one. So, if I go to him at once and tell him what's happened here before it has appeared in the newspapers, he'll certainly do his best with a description of this Brown, and, perhaps, even be able to tell us where he lives and all about him."
"But as likely as not he's mixed up in all this business too," growled Stone. "Some of those killings would not have been displeasing to his Embassy."
"Of course, we all know the Baltic lot are a bit rough," frowned Larose, "and in their own country hold life much cheaper than we do, but I hardly think they'll have dared to encourage killings here. Besides, consider how angry Glenowen was when, through the stupidity of this Emma, Brown was shown straight into the room where Michaeloff was. If Michaeloff knew all about what we imagine this Brown has been doing—then there would have been no earthly reason for the professor not wishing them to meet here and get to know each other. No, I'll go round and see Michaeloff at once and, with him and Glenowen having been friends, he should certainly be as anxious are we are to have his murderer brought to book."
The inspector saw the force of Larose's argument and proceeded to sum up the whole position. "So, if we are right about this Mr. Brown, this is how things stand. The perpetrator of all these murders is no longer a shadow to us. We now know him in the flesh, as an assassin who was hired by Professor Harleck Glenowen to carry on his dreadful work. Becoming fearful that his employer was now a danger to him or, on the other hand, being told there was no more blood-money for him to earn, he thought it safest to silence the one man who could give him away. So, of set and deliberate purpose and taking all precautions, he destroyed him. That is why we shall in all probability find no finger-marks or clumsy clues left behind him. We must not expect them and also, we can understand the rifled safe. It was a well-calculated and cold-blooded murder." He paused a few moments. "Now who is this man?"
"A returned soldier," said Larose promptly, "because one violent death after another came easily to him—a man of good physique and, more than probable, one who had had commando training because of those throttlings in Cambridge—almost certainly one who had held commissioned rank when in the Army, because he was educated enough to know the value of that Corot painting and also because he dined here once with Glenowen. The professor was not likely to have asked a common man to share a meal with him. Lastly, this assassin does not live far away from here because upon some occasions he must have come on foot carrying a walking stick with him."
"But we know he must have a car," frowned Stone, "because of what that housekeeper has told us and because of those poor devils he shot from one."
"Of course he has," agreed Larose, "but perhaps his normal occupation during the day is a sedentary one and he used to walk here for exercise. Mentioning cars of course again, he came back that night from Cambridge in one."
"A guess, Gilbert," smiled Stone, "because we can't be sure of anything there."
"Much more than a guess," smiled back Larose, "because to my thinking it was he who killed that policeman when the poor devil was returning home from his ten-mile patrol along the Cambridge-London road."
Stone shook his head. "We've no proof there."
"No actual proof," agreed Larose readily, "but there's a strong probability. You see—whoever it was who happened to come across the policeman that night met him coming from the opposite direction and did not overtake him. We know that, according to his schedule, just before midnight the policeman should have been somewhere in the neighbourhood of that bridge cycling towards Cambridge, where his subsequent killer must have been motoring away from that town."
"How do we know that?" asked Stone.
"Because," said Larose, "the policeman was killed and his body and bicycle thrown over the bridge on the off-side of the road, on the side of the road upon which he should not ordinarily have been. As I see it, the Cambridge assassin was motoring with all haste to Town when he met with some trouble to his car just when he arrived at the bridge, most probably he'd got a punctured tyre. The constable arrived upon the scene and, crossing over the road, offered to help him. Most likely he jacked up the wheel, because when his body was later examined in the mortuary there were traces of thick black grease upon his fingers and one naturally associates that kind of grease with a car-jack. The motorist had to kill the poor chap, so that later he should furnish no description of him or his car."
"It's plausible," commented Stone thoughtfully, "and we may be able to lay this other charge when we catch the bloody gendeman." He spoke briskly. "Well, I don't think for the moment that we can do anything more. So you, Gilbert, go off to see this friend of yours at the Baltic Embassy at once. If we can find out straight away who this Brown is we may be able to pick him up before he has the slightest idea anyone is looking for him."
"And with any luck and I find the captain in," said Larose, "I'll be reporting to you at the Yard within an hour."
However, he did not have the luck he had hoped for, as the captain was out and no one at the Embassy appeared to know where he had gone or what time he would be back. So it was not until well into the afternoon that Larose got speech with him and by then the news of the professor's murder was being well splashed in the early evening newspapers.
He appeared to be extraordinarily pleased to see Larose. "Just like old times to see you here," he said as he shook him warmly by the hand. "I'm delighted."
For some reason which for the moment he could not understand Larose repressed a frown. He indicated a spread-out newspaper lying upon the desk. "Then you've read what's happened to Professor Glenowen?" he asked.
"Yes, and what a dreadful thing," exclaimed the captain, throwing out his hands. "I've been wondering what could have been the motive for his murder. Was it robbery, do you think?"
"We can't be certain," said Larose. "At any rate the safe had been rifled."
"And I see he was killed last night," said the captain, tapping the newspapers upon his desk.
"The police surgeon says so," said Larose, "but it wasn't found out until quite late this morning. I happened to be calling on the Chief Commissioner when the news came through to Scotland Yard, and as one who had known the professor for some years I went up to St. John's Wood with him and the members of the C.I.D." He regarded the captain intently. "You were a friend of his, too, and were visiting him only last week, weren't you?"
The captain was a shrewd and capable man or he would certainly not have risen to his present position as senior attache at the Embassy. So now, repressing a start with difficulty, most puzzled and decidedly uneasy that Larose had come to learn of his visit to the professor the previous week, he realised his only course of action was not to deny it.
"Yes," he replied readily. "I was up there last Thursday evening." He made a grimace. "But I would not say the professor was exactly a friend of mine, as, with his well-publicised views as to the desirability of shooting everyone who was working on the atom bomb, for any of us here at the Embassy to claim friendship with him would discredit us very badly. People would argue we were encouraging him and that wouldn't have done at all. No, he was not a friend of mine, merely an acquaintance."
"And you met a Mr. Brown that evening up at his place, didn't you?" asked Larose, and upon the captain nodding carelessly he went on, "Well, Scotland Yard is very curious about that man, and learning you were a friend of mine asked me to come to you and find out all I could about him. They thought it would be less formal than coming themselves."
"Quite so," agreed the captain. His eyes opened as if in great surprise. "But they don't think he was the murderer, do they?"
"Not necessarily," replied Larose, "but they know from the maids that he's been visiting Glenowen quite a lot lately and therefore surmise the two must have been on pretty friendly terms." He spoke very seriously. "You must take in, captain, that as there is nothing to show that the house was broken into last night, they argue the professor himself must have admitted the murderer into the house as a seeming friend."
The captain spoke quickly. "But this Mr. Brown didn't look at all the type of man to harm anyone," he said. "He struck me as being a quiet and most inoffensive individual, much too shy, as I thought at the time, to be a commercial traveller."
"Oh, a commercial traveller, was he?" queried Larose. "Then what did he travel in?"
"Wines," replied the captain, "and Glenowen had expressly arranged for me to meet him in the hope that I would give him an order from the Embassy."
A sudden thought avalanched itself into Larose's mind and for a few moments he lowered his eyes so that the captain should not see the expression of surprise upon his face. Glancing up again, he asked quickly, "Well, what kind of man was he to look at? Unhappily, neither of the two maids there can give us any good description. The housekeeper says that though he has called a good many times she has never been close up to him, and she is very short sighted. As for the other girl, she is intensely stupid and can give us no description that will help us at all. So now all depends upon you to help us. What's he like?"
The captain considered. "He is a fairly good-looking man, about forty I should say. As far as I recollect, he is of medium height and build. He is clean shaven, rather fair than dark, and has weak blue eyes. He dresses rather slovenly."
"Did he strike you as being of a military type?" asked Larose.
The captain smiled. "No, certainly not. He holds himself badly and there is nothing smart about him."
"Would you call him an educated man, or did he belong to the working class?"
"Neither," replied the captain promptly. "He looked to me just like a clerk out of some office." He spoke quickly. "You must understand that I saw him for only a few minutes, five at the utmost, as I was anxious to get away. I had an appointment here at half past eight."
"Glenowen had arranged for you to come that evening?" asked Larose slowly. "Your visit wasn't just a chance one?"
"No, I had gone to see him on purpose, and he was expecting me to come. You see, he had phoned me earlier in the day with some cracked idea in his head that he must go to Moscow to have a talk with Marshal Stalin. He wanted to come here to discuss it with us, but we were not anxious to have him as a visitor for the reason I have told you, and so I went up to see him at his house instead."
"And he had arranged for that Mr. Brown to come at the same time," asked Larose carelessly, "so that, as you say, you could give him an order for some wine?"
"For some champagne," nodded the captain, "and he seemed rather hurt because I didn't do it, though I explained that all such matters were dealt with direct from Moscow."
"And that's all you can tell us about this Mr. Brown?" asked Larose after a short silence.
"Yes, that's all," nodded the captain. "I'm sorry, but I know nothing about the man, not even the name of the firm he represents."
Leaving the Embassy, Larose went straight to Scotland Yard and upon being shown into the inspector's room the latter asked eagerly, "You got a good description, eh?", but upon Larose shaking his head, he exclaimed incredulously, "What, you don't mean to tell me you have learnt nothing?"
"I've learnt a devil of a lot," said Larose grimly, "but not what we wanted or expected." He spoke very gravely. "Charlie, that Embassy friend of mine knows that chap we call Brown murdered the professor and is now trying to shield him in every way he can."
"Good God!" exclaimed Stone with his eyes as wide as saucers. "What makes you think that?"
"Because after declaring he'd seen Brown only once," replied Larose, "and knew absolutely nothing about him except that he was a commercial traveller in wines, he gave me a description so markedly different from everything the two girls said that it could only have been done to put us off being eager to pick up his trail."
"But in what way could it have been so different?" growled Stone. "They told us practically nothing at all."
"Ah, but they did say he was tall," said Larose, "whereas the captain told me he was only of medium height. Next, that girl Emma declares he looks under thirty, while Michaeloff says he's middle aged and about forty. Then that housekeeper was positive that, even seen by her only at a distance and with her being short sighted, he was smart and soldierly-looking, a regular man-about-Town were her words. However, Michaeloff says he held himself badly and looked slovenly, with nothing suggesting a soldier about him. Yes, Charlie, the whole time I was questioning the captain I am sure he was deliberately lying to me, with his only motive that he wanted us not to bother about finding Brown because he couldn't possibly have been the criminal."
"But one moment," frowned Stone. "If he had been, as you say, so wanting to deceive you—knowing you must have had some sort of description from those girls—surely he wouldn't have dared to risk giving you so directly an opposite one."
Larose held up his hand smilingly. "Ah, but I had set a trap for him there, Charlie, and he fell into it. Before we had come to his giving any description of this Brown right at the beginning of our talk I had caught him out in one downright lie, and so I gave him the opportunity to find out if he would tell a few more. You see, I had told him Glenowen's two maids had practically given us no description at all. One of them I had said was very short sighted and had never been close up to Brown, while the other was too damnably stupid to be able to describe him in any way."
"But in what lie had you caught him out?" asked Stone.
"Oh, he had told me, almost at once when we had started to talk, that of the express purpose the professor had arranged for him and Brown to meet that evening in the hope that he could give Brown an order from the Embassy for some wine. Now I knew that to be untrue because Glenowen had afterwards been so savage with Emma because, by her stupidity in showing Brown into the room where Michaeloff was, the two had met."
"But if he was lying to you so freely as you make out," asked Stone, "how was it he admitted quite readily that he had gone to see the professor by arrangement that night. He didn't try to deceive you then."
"Ah, but he evidently thought he'd better not," exclaimed Larose. "He didn't know what the maids had told me. I am sure that he's very puzzled how I came to know he was a friend of Glenowen's or, as he says, only an acquaintance. I saw his eyebrows go up when I mentioned it."
"Then if he had never given in his name to the maids," commented Stone, "when he was calling upon their master, depend upon it there was some fishy business going on between them."
"Yes," agreed Larose, "and he gave me what I thought was a very stupid explanation for his calling. He said he wanted to make Glenowen give up all idea, as the professor was so anxious to do, of going to Moscow to interview Stalin." He scoffed contemptuously. "Just as if any bad bronchitis sufferer such as the professor was would ever dream of going to Russia in the very worst months of the year. He wanted to make out he was only calling upon Glenowen to prevent him coming to the Embassy. He said that, with his well-publicised views about the desirability of shooting everyone who was working on the atom bomb, it was by no means desirable for the public to think he was a welcome visitor with them."
"And, of course," frowned Stone, "you gave him no idea that we are wanting this Brown for much more than murdering the professor?"
Larose scowled. "Do you think I'm quite a fool, Charlie? No, as I tell you I treated him as an enemy at once, and a very dangerous one, too, as if we are right in our conjectures that the captain is now as I say deliberately trying to shield Brown, then anything he learns he'll pass on to Brown straight away."
"If he knows Brown is Glenowen's murderer," frowned Stone, "then only Brown himself could have told him." He heaved a big sigh. "Where is your imagination, Gilbert, that wonderful imagination of yours? Can't you manage to dish out a bit when we've never wanted it more than we do now."
A long silence followed and then Larose sprang to his feet. "Here, let's use your telephone for a minute," he exclaimed. "I want to speak to that Wenn girl up at St. John's Wood. Now what was the professor's number?"
Contact was soon made with the professor's flat, with the housekeeper answering the phone herself. "Is that you, Miss Wenn?" asked Larose. "Well, I am one of Inspector Stone's two colleagues who were present when he was questioning you this morning and I want to know something. You remember you told us this morning that you had heard the door of the safe bang when your master had got that foreign gentleman in his room with him—I mean that evening when Mr. Brown called, too. Then can you tell me—did the door bang directly the foreigner arrived, or was it later after they had been talking together a little time? Now don't hurry as it's most important. Think carefully. Oh, there's no need to think? Splendid! You are quite sure."
A short silence followed, with Larose still with the receiver held closely to his ear. "What ... what," he exclaimed with some animation, "is she quite sure?. .. Why didn't she tell us before?. .. And she has no idea who the other man was?. .. Oh, oh!... And she is positive the car was Mr. Brown's?"
Some further conversation ensued and Larose hung up the receiver. He turned to the inspector. "Things are a bit clearer, Charlie," he said. "That evening Brown was bundled off not more than three minutes after the captain had gone and Emma, going out almost immediately after to post a letter, saw him standing by his car talking to some man. Before she got near enough to see what the man was like the two of them both jumped into the car and it was driven away." He spoke with some animation. "Now what do you make of that?"
"You want to make out," said Stone slowly, "that Michaeloff had something important to tell Brown and waited outside by his car to catch him when he came out." He frowned. "But how did he know it was Brown's car?"
"He mayn't have known it was Brown's car," said Larose, "but probably he had noticed that Brown had arrived at the professor's without a hat and therefore surmised he was not walking. At any rate, car or no car, I imagine he was waiting to catch Brown when he came out." He snapped his fingers together. "You asked for imagination and a long shot, Charlie, and I am giving it to you. Perhaps Glenowen, bursting with excitement, had taken his papers out of the safe to show them to him. They may have recorded all the murders Brown had done, so probably Michaeloff was becoming scared about Glenowen's state of mind, for don't forget, Charlie, we can't be certain that the Baltic lot hadn't all along been in Glenowen's confidence and known all about the murders. They may have been in it up to the neck with Brown, however, knowing nothing about their knowledge." He spoke impressively. "For what has that captain been coming up to see Glenowen about so many times lately and always at night? What was the interest between them?"
"And you suggest, then," said Stone thoughtfully, "that Michaeloff warned Brown of the danger he was in from what the professor had been writing and got locked up in his safe?"
"Yes, and also from his general mental condition," said Larose, "which was making him liable to blurt out everything to anyone upon the slightest provocation." He drew in a deep breath. "Oh, how it all fits in! Brown, most likely at the captain's instigation, committed yet another murder, not only to silence the professor but also to get those highly dangerous papers out of the safe."
"And there's yet more to incriminate Glenowen," said Stone significandy, "for from enquiries at his bank this morning we've learnt that in the last three months he's sold bonds to the value of more than £6,000 and drawn out all the money in £5 notes. Great Scott, if only we could get our hands on that Brown we'd almost certainly find he's got all that money now."
"But for the moment," said Larose with a grim smile, "our only hope there is to pick up a military-looking gent who's carrying an ebony walking-stick with a silver band upon the handle." He sighed. "I'd bet any money he and Brown are meeting to-night to have a good talk."
"And the devil of it," sighed back the inspector, "as you know well, we can't trail a man in London without him becoming aware of it if he's on the look-out."
"But don't worry unduly, Charlie," comforted Larose, "I've got an idea and directly it is practicable I'll come and see you again."
Larose was quite right in his surmise that the captain and the so-called Mr. Brown would be getting in touch with each other as speedily as possible, as by pre-arrangement the two met for dinner that evening at a small and unpretentious Italian restaurant just off Tottenham Court Road.
"And I've had two taxi rides, a short bus journey and a longish walk," said the captain, "to make sure no one was following me. Still, it was imperative even at some risk that I should see you at once, as things are in the way of becoming more dangerous than either of us could have thought." He spoke sharply. "Now have you heard of a man called Gilbert Larose?"
Mangan nodded sourly. "Yes, the ex-policeman," he said, "who married a rich wife."
"Which goes to show how smart he is," commented the captain. "Well, he came to see me this morning and, rather to my dismay, I learnt he's come out of his shell again and is working his hardest to help Scotland Yard get hold of this Mr. Brown. They've dropped like a plummet on to him as the killer of Glenowen."
Mangan felt an unpleasant sickly feeling in the pit of his stomach. "But I didn't leave the slightest clue behind," he said sharply. "I am sure of that. No one saw me arrive at the house and no one saw me leave. Also, I never had my gloves off the whole time."
"But if they trace you," asked the captain, "what alibi have you for yesterday evening?"
Mangan shrugged his shoulders. "Do I need one? I shall say I never left my flat from Saturday evening until this morning. I was in bed most of the Sunday with a touch of 'flu and only got up to get my meals. I have no help on Sunday and no one came near me."
"Anyone see you go out or come in?"
"I don't think so," said Mangan. "Remember all yesterday it was very foggy and by evening it was so thick that it took me the best part of an hour to get to St. John's Wood. I walked the whole way." He scowled. "But what had this Larose got to say?"
The captain gave him the gist of the conversation with Larose. "So you see," he concluded, "they've got no proper description of you and that's one splendid thing in your favour."
"Then how can they possibly trace me?" asked Mangan.
"I don't see how they can," said the captain thoughtfully, "but then when I worked with Larose in the Intelligence during the war he was always springing surprises. He's as cunning as a fox. Even in this present matter, I can't for the life of me make out how he came to know it was I who used to visit Glenowen. The many times I've been there I never gave my name and I'm quite sure Glenowen would have never mentioned it, as he was always scared lest his dealings with us should leak out."
"Another thing," asked Mangan hesitatingly. "Do you think it's only about the killing of Glenowen they want me? They have no suspicion about anything else I've done."
The captain was a long while before he replied and then he spoke very slowly. "I don't quite know," he said. "At any rate I didn't think so at the time while Larose was questioning me about you, but since then I've been wondering quite a lot. You see that damned little fool of a professor told me that when you were doing those other jobs for him he had been, what he called it, keeping in touch with Larose to try to find out through him how Scotland Yard was reacting to all the killings. With his bungalow near to Carmel Abbey he said he used often to go over for a chat. So——"
"The damned little fool!" swore Mangan. "Perhaps he made him suspicious."
"That's what I wonder," nodded the captain, "and this past hour I've been asking myself not a few times what had taken Larose down to Scotland Yard that he happened to be hobnobbing with the Chief Commissioner of Police at the very moment when the news of Glenowen's killing came through."
Mangan felt a sickening feeling again in the pit of his stomach. "But if they do trace me," he said sharply, "there isn't a shadow of anything which can link up with any of them."
The captain gave him an intent look. "What about that Corot painting, which you took that night from the canon's house in Cambridge?" he asked frowningly.
"Destroyed long ago," lied Mangan glibly, "and got rid of in the same way Glenowen's manuscript was, burnt sheet by sheet and put down the toilet." He smiled grimly. "He had written quite a lot about you and what you had got him to find out from your Army and Air Force friends. He mentioned particularly the £500 you had given him to pay that Air Force sergeant for a blue print of those new gun sights."
"Never mind about that now," said the captain testily. "That's all over and done with. Just concentrate upon what you're going to do to keep out of the hands of the police. Be thankful how darned lucky you are those two maids are such fools that they could give no adequate description of you."
"I am," laughed Mangan, "and most grateful as well to you for the not flattering description you gave this Larose of my appearance. It should make me quite safe."
Their meal over, they left the resaurant singly, with Mangan in quite a happy state of mind as he walked home to his flat in Fitzroy Square. That conceited cockscomb, Larose, he told himself, would have no miraculous success this time and he must be pretty despondent about it.
However, Mangan would certainly have not been quite so satisfied with everything had he been given to see the so hated Larose at that very moment. The one-time detective was returning from a visit he had just paid to the flat of the dead professor in St. John's Wood and he was smiling confidently. Emma had shown him out and he had left her looking flushed and very excited. As she told the housekeeper, she felt like a girl in a story book.
NOTWITHSTANDING HIS confident assertion to Captain Michaeloff that there was no possibility of his being traced, Mangan passed a very uneasy and restless night following upon his conversation with the Baltic Embassy attache while at their meal together in the little restaurant off Tottenham Court Road.
Certainly, among the millions of people in London the chances of his running up against the dead professor's maid and being recognised by her were infinitesimally small, but for all that, if she did put the police on to him, as things were at the present moment it would be realised at once that he was Glenowen's murderer.
He had lied to the captain when he had told him he had destroyed the professor's manuscript, as he had got every page of it now in a drawer in his desk in the adjoining room. He had kept it because it contained so many references to the professor's collaboration with the Baltic Embassy that, with an eye on the future, he sensed certain possibilities of blackmail. Besides the manuscript he had also more than £300 in £5 banknotes that he had found in the professor's safe, and as the notes were new and clean it was just possible some of these numbers might have been taken at the bank.
Considering all this, as he always did in any emergency, he acted quickly, and by nine o'clock the next morning was down again at his shack on Canvey Island. To his relief he found everything exactly as he had left it, and in a very few minutes his latest acquisitions were added to the others already there.
Driving back to Town he felt again in a perfectly assured frame of mind. Let all the detectives in the kingdom do their worst now, he told himself. They could not harm him. Even if by some unlucky chance they did manage to link him up with the dead professor's friend, Mr. Brown, it would not help them in any way. He would admit frankly that he had been upon terms of slight friendship with the professor, but upon the latter's dreadful death had not come forward to the police because he had nothing to tell them. It would be quite understandable, as no one liked to be mixed up, however slightly, with any murder.
A fortnight went by, with Scotland Yard at as dead an end as ever, and it looked as if the professor's murder was to be added to the already long list of dreadful undiscovered crimes.
Then one morning Larose rang up Inspector Stone, saying he was coming round to see him at once, as it was about time that the idea he, Larose, had all along been cultivating should now begin to bear fruit.
Stone was delighted, as all the years he had known Larose, as he had impressed upon the Chief Commissioner of Police, Larose's ideas had always been worth considering. However, he was certainly rather surprised when Larose turned up bringing a young girl with him.
"This young lady is going to help us," Larose said smilingly. "If you remember—you have met her before."
With his usual politeness, the inspector had risen to his feet upon the entrance of the girl and at once pulled out a chair for her to sit down. He had, however, no recollection of having seen her before and stared blankly.
The girl was smartly dressed in clothes evidently of the best quality. She wore a taking little hat and her hair was fashionably permed. She had just enough make-up to render her piquant little face attractive. She looked out smilingly from a dainty little pince-nez. With her nice little well-rounded figure the inspector thought she was a very pleasing proposition.
"But surely you remember her, inspector," said Larose in some amusement, "Miss Emma Hobson whom you met at the late Professor Glenowen's flat in St. John's Wood? You certainly asked her a lot of questions then."
Great Scot! and the inspector's heavy face broke into a broad smile. Yes, it was the maid, Emma, right enough, but what a change in her! Certainly fine feathers did make a fine bird and if he had not been told who she was he would never have recognised her. He bowed smilingly.
"Oh, of course, of course," he exclaimed, "and what a fashionable young lady she looks now!"
"Well, inspector," said Larose, "she is certain she will be able to recognise that Mr. Brown the moment she sees him, and so we are going to give her the chance. She has left St. John's Wood and is now staying with a cousin of my wife's in Berkeley Square. In the mornings and afternoons she will go about on her own, keeping her eyes well open all the time, but in the evenings she will have for her escort as presentable a young fellow as the Yard can provide and frequent those places of entertainment and amusement where it is likely a man-about-Town such as we imagine this Mr. Brown to be is likely to be found. I have explained everything to her and what an important part she is going to play in catching him."
The inspector was enthusiastic at once. "A splendid idea," he exclaimed warmly, "and on the face of it it looks quite hopeful. If that fellow has come into all this money we think he has he'll certainly want to give it a run and get rid of some of it on pleasure."
Larose took a paper out of his pocket. "And I've mapped out what I consider a suitable programme for her. Every evening she will dine at one of these fashionable restaurants mentioned here and afterwards go on to a theatre or some cinema or anything interesting that is going on. On Saturdays we shall want her all day, as she will have to go the round of the Metropolitan race meetings. In this way, even if it takes a good many weeks, I reckon that sooner or later she will be bound to spot the gentleman we want."
Stone addressed himself to the girl. "But are you sure, Miss Hobson," he asked doubtfully, "that you will be able to recognise him if you see him?"
The girl spoke confidently and in a pleasant tone of voice. "Quite sure, sir," she said. "Ever since I have known what I have to do I have recalled his face to my mind many, many times."
"And you can see much better now," asked Stone, "in those glasses you are wearing?"
"Oh yes, sir," she laughed, "a hundred times, and I am getting out of the way of screwing up my eyes whenever I look at anyone. I realise I ought to have had glasses long ago."
"Good," exclaimed Stone, "and we've got the very man here who'll do as a companion for you." He smiled. "He's well educated and good looking and might pass anywhere as a young baronet or even a peer of the realm."
"And Mr. Larose tells me, sir," said the girl a little hesitatingly, "that all I have to do is to recognise him and then my work is done. Mr. Larose is sure he won't remember me if I meet him face to face."
Thinking of the drab and uninteresting little servant girl whom he had met that morning those weeks ago in St. John's Wood, Stone smiled confidently. "I'm quite certain he won't," he assured her. "So, as you say, all you will have to do is to point him out and leave the rest to us."
And then commenced for Emma Hobson surely as an exciting a time as any young girl could ever wish to have. Mrs. Larose's cousin, a Mrs. Craven, was most interested and made a great fuss of her, making sure she always looked nice and attractive whenever she went out.
Of a morning she got up late after breakfast in bed, and from then until afternoon tea-time was free to roam about the West End whenever she liked. A few minutes before six her escort, Detective Gerald Halliard, called for her in a taxi, and a few minutes later they were seated at a table near the door in some fashionable restaurant, with Emma scrutinising every diner who came in.
The dinner over, she was whisked away to some theatre or picture-palace and there, by arrangement with the management, through the side of the curtain or screen quizzed all the seated patrons through a pair of strong Zeiss glasses. By the interval time she had been taken off to somewhere else where the same scrutiny with the glasses was gone through. On the Saturdays she was taken to one of the Parks for the race meeting and, seated in the grandstand, through the glasses again scanned round most carefully upon everyone there. All the time close handy were two other Scotland Yard men all ready to follow up the trail if she gave the signal that she had spotted Mr. Brown.
At first every moment she was expecting to see him, but as the days went by, though young Halliard saw to it that she did not relax her vigilance, she began to become less and less hopeful that she would meet with any success. Still, that did not worry her much, as privately she was not looking forward to the time when she would become a nonentity again. She was enjoying herself immensely and under the continued round of pleasure was unfolding herself like a pretty flower. She was bright and animated and had quite lost all her shyness when with young Halliard. Indeed, she had come to regard him as the Prince Charming of her maiden dreams. From amusement at her innocence and freshness, the young detective's feelings had begun to pass into a tender regard and sometimes, to her intense delight, he would hold her hand in the taxis, then sitting much closer to her than the occasion demanded. Altogether she was a very thrilled young woman in those supreme and maddening moments which come to us all only in the first love affair of our lives.
In the meantime, Mangan, all unconscious of the happiness he had brought to her, was enjoying himself, too. He had returned to his former way of life as the well-to-do man about Town. In good request everywhere, he was hail-fellow-well-met with men of the best social standing and a great favourite with members of the other sex. Many a young girl's heart fluttered delightedly as she felt his close contact to her as they danced in some fashionable restaurant or upon some ballroom floor.
As for his so recent bloody crimes, when he thought of them, which was not often, they had been just pleasurable and very profitable little adventures, it almost seemed, of many years ago. He gave no longer any thoughts to detectives or the unspeakable Gilbert Larose, and Scotland Yard was very far away.
One thing, however, was certainly puzzling him, as the usually very aloof Captain Michaeloff of the Baltic Embassy appeared to have taken a sudden fancy to him. He had sought his company quite a lot lately, going with him to social gatherings and twice entertaining him to a tete-a-tete dinner at the Baltic Embassy. Indeed, the captain was laying himself out to be so friendly that Mangan, in his naturally suspicious nature, was often asking himself what the man meant by it. "It's just as if he is weighing me up," he told himself once with a grin, "to see if I'm game enough to put a bullet in his Excellency." Mangan always felt a little bit annoyed that he had never been introduced to the Ambassador, or indeed never been allowed to see him.
A whole month went by, with the little one-time maid of St. John's Wood hearing nothing more of Larose. Then one morning the latter, speaking from his house in Norfolk, rang up the inspector.
"See here, Charlie," he said, "I've got a hunch that we've got the best chance ever of catching that fine gentleman, as to-night there's a good show on at the Shaftesbury Stadium. McRoy Parker and Toby Boiler are wrestling for the championship belt, and as they're both savage fellows everyone expects dirty business. So it's just the very thing to make a strong appeal to that killing brute. All the seats have been sold days and days ago, but that girl can go early and wait in the foyer to see the people pass in."
"Good for you, Gilbert," said Stone. "A great idea, and I'll see that she's there."
Then, about one o'clock the next morning, Larose got sleepily out of bed to answer a trunk call. He was, however, at once galvanised into complete wakefulness at what he heard. It was Inspector Stone speaking and he almost shrieked in his excitement. "We've got him, Gilbert," he cried, "got him lock, stock and barrel, and it all went off as clean as a whistle. She spotted him at once, and when the show was over we had a whole regiment of men waiting to trail him. Still, one of them would have been quite sufficient, as he just walked home to a flat he's got in Fitzroy Square and put himself to bed like any respectable citizen."
"You've not arrested him?" queried Larose in great excitement.
"No, for as yet we've not as you know got a single thing to go on. But we've picketed the building where his flat is and at seven o'clock in the morning I'm going in myself with a search warrant. We should click as easily as shelling peas, and in all probability find that picture and the money."
"But who is he?" asked Larose.
"Just the very kind of party you thought, Gilbert. A returned soldier, a one-time commando, and he fits the bill in every way. I tell you we've put in a week's enquiries in the last few hours since he let himself into his flat. He's a Major Leon Mangan, D.S.O., a tall and handsome wiry-looking chap who could throttle anyone in two minutes. He lives the life of a well-to-do Society man-about-Town, but oh boy, on the quiet he runs a smart art business in Wardour Street. No wonder he couldn't resist that valuable Corot painting."
"He has a car, of course?" asked Larose.
"Yes, a Sphinx, and he garages it at a service station close by in Fitzroy Square."
"Well, you be sure and find out from them there," ordered Larose impressively, "if they mended a punctured tyre for him upon the Monday following the Saturday night when those first two murders were committed in Cambridge. They are sure to keep a diary or day-book of some kind, and if they did—then I am sure this fellow killed the policeman on the bridge when the poor chap was helping him put on the spare wheel."
"All right," said Stone, "I'll be sure to see to that. Now I suppose you won't be coming up to be in at the kill."
"Unhappily I can't," said Larose, "though I'd very much like to. My wife's brother in Yorkshire is seriously ill and I've got to take her up there to-day. If it seems likely he's going to die I may have to remain up there for a few days. If not, I'll perhaps come back to-morrow or the day after and then I'll come straight on to you. In any case, don't phone me any more and expect me when you see me."
However, it was not until the Thursday that Larose turned up at Scotland Yard and then he found the inspector in the depths of a black depression.
"Well?" asked Larose.
"It isn't well, Gilbert," sighed Stone. "It's as ill as it can be"—he thumped upon his desk—"and though we are certain as can be that the fellow is the multiple murderer, there he is walking about as free as you and I with a leering smile upon his handsome, evil face." He sighed again. "We have absolutely nothing definite against him upon which to frame a charge."
"Tell me what happened," frowned Larose, "all the details, please."
"We were at his flat before seven on Sunday morning," began the inspector, "and he opened the door to us himself in his dressing-gown. Gad, if ever I saw guilt upon a man's face I saw it on his then! He went a dreadful greeny colour and looked as if he were going to faint. He had to lean up against the wall for support. Still, he's a well-plucked one and soon pulled himself together. He asked what we wanted and I produced my search warrant. 'What are you looking for?' he asked, and I told him several things. 'Good,' he remarked, with a mocking leer, 'and I hope you'll find them,' and he sat down and, smoking cigarette after cigarette, watched us with as great an amusement as if he were enjoying a funny play."
Stone shook his head mournfully. "Gilbert, I knew at once we should find nothing there. He was too devilish cheeky and looked so composed and cheerful all the time. Still, for two hours and longer we searched that flat so thoroughly that I'm sure a postage stamp even couldn't have been hidden away. He handed over his keys and we went through his safe and the papers in his desk and his bank pass-book as well. We went through all his clothes and the only thing he couldn't explain satisfactorily was a black overall hanging up in the wardrobe with a stain upon one of the sleeves which looked like blood, and which later did turn out to be human blood. Asked what he used it for, he replied for dirty work upon his car, but one night he had brought it up to the flat inadvertently from the garage and had forgotten to take it back again. He couldn't remember how long he had had it—it might have been quite a couple of years."
"Where had he bought it?" asked Larose. "Of course, you asked him?"
"Of course," nodded Stone, "but he said he didn't recollect. He thought it was either in Grimsby or Hull when he was touring about. 'But it's new,' I said contemptuously. 'It looks new,' he smiled, 'and I believe I've only put it on about a couple of times,' and I had to leave it at that."
Stone went on. "In the meantime Inspector Mendel had been busy at the garage where he kept his car. He had roused the proprietor and found, as you had expected, that he kept a day-book, checking up at what times his clients brought in and took out their cars, and the work done on them from time to time." He spoke solemnly. "Gilbert, you were damned right! On Monday, June 28th, they mended a puncture on the spare wheel."
"What did he say to that?" asked Larose.
"Wait a minute or two," said Stone, "all in its proper order." He went on, "The search of the flat finished, I invited him to come down here with me to be asked a few questions. He was quite willing and here we came, bringing with us the garage day-book. In the meantime, Inspector Ramsey had gone down to Wardour Street to search the shop there."
The inspector paused for a long moment. "Gilbert," he said impressively, "for five hours we grilled that fellow. There were four of us shooting questions at him all the time, the Chief Commissioner, Inspectors Mendel and Percival, and myself, and we didn't catch him out once. Of course, many of his answers were wholly unsatisfactory, but they didn't necessarily imply guilt. For instance, he told us he could remember where he went on that Sunday, June 27th, because he had had a puncture when coming back from Brighton late that night. He had gone down to Eastbourne in the morning and had a picnic lunch, with some sandwiches he had taken with him, on the Downs. He had lazed about near Beachy Head all the afternoon and then had gone to the Metropole at Brighton for dinner. After that he sat listening to the music on the pier and had not started for home until nearly midnight. Of course, he had had no companion with him, but he explained that was nearly always the case with him on Sundays, as after a busy week he liked the peace and quiet by himself."
"And upon the other days when crimes had been committed," asked Larose scoflingly, "of course he had taken his car out, too?"
"Yes," nodded Stone, "and upon many other days when no crimes were recorded as well. The devil of it was, according to the garage day-book he took his car out almost every day. So we have got nothing there."
"And how did he explain his many visits to Glenowen's?" asked Larose.
"Quite naturally! He had made his acquaintance one week-end when a guest of Lord Delamarne at Blackarden Castle in Norfolk. A friendship had sprung up between them and of an evening after dinner he often walked round to St. John's Wood to have a short chat with him and get a bit of exercise after being shut up in his place of business all day."
"And did he travel in champagne as that damned captain made out to me?" asked Larose.
Stone scowled. "No, but to back up what your Baltic friend had evidently told him he had said to you, he made out he was thinking of starting a bit of business on that line if he could get the big order Glenowen had told him he probably would get from the Baltic Embassy crowd."
"And he had been paying no large sums into his bank?"
Stone shook his head. "No, no trace of any. His balance then was under £200, and another thing—we have visited all the safe deposit places in London. He volunteered to come with us and we took him. No one had seen him before and his signature was in none of their books—no handwriting like his."
"Thats nothing," scoffed Larose. "He's got some other hiding place somewhere."
Stone shrugged his shoulders. "But how are we to find it? He's as cunning as a fox and, as I estimate his cautious character, he may not go near it for years. Of course, our trailing him to his flat must have been a terrible shock to him, but after the first couple of minutes he played the part of an innocent man and played it damned well, too. The Chief admits now that he's prejudiced in his favour and I quite understand it. The chap's got a splendid war record and that would go a long way to impressing another military man such as Sir Robert himself is."
"The Chief doesn't understand the criminal mind," snapped Larose, "such as you and I do."
"Of course he doesn't, Gilbert," sighed the inspector, "but for all that, if he had seen the fellow during those first couple of minutes or so after he had opened his door to us on Sunday morning I am sure even he would have been darned suspicious of his guilt. I tell you this Major Mangan looked awful."
A short silence followed and Larose remarked thoughtfully, "He must wonder how we got on to him as that Mr. Brown?"
"Oh, he does, Gilbert," said Stone, "and the second time he was down here—he came on Tuesday for more questioning—he asked point blank how we came to do so. Of course, we didn't tell him, and the Chief countered at once—a very shrewd thrust I thought—how he came to be masquerading at the professor's under an assumed name. He just laughed and said he wasn't masquerading at all. He said it was an eccentricity on Glenowen's part that he never liked his servants to know anything of his private affairs. He explained that the professor knew that his housekeeper had got the sack from her former place for listening at doors and so all the time she had been with him he had intended to gratify her curiosity as little as possible. So he called all his friends Black, Brown or White accordingly, as the fancy took him."
"A very lame excuse," scoffed Larose.
"Yes, and that and the matter of the black overall," nodded Stone, "and his lying to us that he had been specially invited by Glenowen to meet Captain Michaeloff that Thursday night are really the only points the Chief admits we have against him."
"But what's the strength of the black overall?" asked Larose. "I don't quite follow you there."
The inspector drew in a deep breath. "Mendel is very keen about it. His obsession is that this fine major bought it expressly to wear that night when he got into Canon Drew's garden and murdered those two men in the dark."
Larose made a grimace. "One up on me there," he nodded a little ruefully, "and it's not improbable he's right. I never gave it a thought." He changed the subject. "Did you find any weapons?"
"Yes, a German automatic, a Mauser, and he said he had brought it home from the war. He had got no licence for it and we collared it." The stout inspector heaved another of his big sighs. "Well, Gilbert, what are we to do now?"
Larose smiled a sickly smde. "Wait until he commits another murder, I suppose and see if we have better luck then. As our friend Michaeloff was so anxious to prevent us getting hold of him, it's pretty obvious the Baltic Embassy lot are quite aware what he's been doing and how successful he's been. So, it's quite on the cards they may consider him a useful tool and, when things have settled down a bit, give him another job to do. There are plenty of people they would like to see bumped off." He made a grimace. "Yes, as it seems now that we've shot our bolt, we'll have to wait for another mysterious murder to crop up."
The inspector raised his hand. "And you look out for yourself. Gilbert," he exclaimed warningly, "I'm a bit worried about you, for when I took in this fellow's clever, evil face that morning I thought at once that if ever I'd set eyes upon a man who could be venomous and spiteful against anyone who offended him I was looking at one then." He leant over and pulled open a drawer in his desk. "Now you just look at the photograph of him, which one of our photographers took unbeknown to him when he was down here on Sunday morning. It's only an enlarged snap, but it's a very good one and shows up every feature quite clearly."
Larose took the photograph he held out, and his eye-brows went up at once. "A good-looking face certainly, but, as you say, not a nice one. A regular dare-devil who'd be afraid of nothing. He doesn't look frightened here."
"And, by gad, he wasn't," agreed Stone instantly. "Directly he's got over that first minute's fright, he was as bold and confident all along. It was as good as a play watching him when we were questioning him. We Yard men he treated like dirt and was as rude as he possibly could be, but to the Chief he was most damnably polite and deferential, for all the world as if he were in the army again and speaking to a superior officer. Butter wouldn't have melted in his mouth and I didn't wonder the Chief was impressed."
"You say he was with the Resistance Movement in France?" asked Larose, with his eyes intent upon the photograph.
"Yes, and according to all accounts," replied Stone, "he did such a fine job there that the Huns were offering a huge reward to anyone who would catch or kill him. During the last year of the war he was the leader of a particular Partisan group near the Auvergne Mountains, the killer-in-chief of a little band." He laughed. "That's why he's taken to murder again so readily."
"Here, lend me this photo," said Larose, "or better still let's have a loan of the negative."
"No need to do either," said Stone, "as I've had a dozen taken off and enlarged in case they should ever come in useful. So you can keep that one for yourself." He looked very troubled. "But you take note of my warning, for Michaeloff is certain to have told him of your interest in the case and I should say he'll have good suspicions of you being responsible for most of his trouble. So you beware of his trying to get his revenge."
"I've already thought about it, Charlie," said Larose, "and am going to safeguard myself straight away. I believe in taking the bull by the horns and, if you give me the number of his shop in Wardour Street, I may go there this morning and have a little chat with him."
"Good God!" exclaimed the inspector, with his eyes opened very wide. "You mean make yourself known to him?"
"I might, Charlie," smiled Larose. "I'll see how the cat jumps."
Some half an hour later Larose went into the little shop in Wardour Street. There was a woman customer there and she was inspecting some vases. She was being attended to by a man whom Larose recognised at once as Major Mangan. Walking idly round, ostensibly to look over the various articles exposed for sale, he took good stock of him and could not but help regarding him with some approval. Undoubtedly good-looking, he carried himself well and there was a certain poise and dignity about him. He looked all over what people call a gentleman, and, but for Larose's long association with the criminal classes, he would not for one moment have credited him as being, as they believed, a callous murderer.
When the woman customer had gone out, Larose expressed his interest in a pair of small silver candlesticks, the price of which Mangan said was eighteen guineas. Larose demurred, it was too high and, after some little argument, it was agreed he should pay only sixteen.
"You'll take a cheque," he said, "and then I'll get you to mail them on to me at my home address. The cheque will be on a London bank and you can, of course, cash it before you put the candlesticks into the post."
Mangan was quite agreeable and, sitting down at a desk, Larose wrote out a cheque and, rising to his feet again, handed it over. Mangan glanced over it carelessly and then—his eye-brows straightened, his eyes flashed venomously and his face became black as thunder. "You—the Gilbert Larose who used to be in the C.I.D. at Scotland Yard," he asked hoarsely.
"The same," nodded Larose. He smiled. "Does it convey anything to you?"
"The hell it does," scowled Mangan savagely, "for if I'm not very much mistaken, it's you whom I have to thank for the indignities that have been put upon me these last few days—the searching through of my flat and the thousand questions from those uncouth men."
"And haven't you well deserved everything?" asked Larose mildly. His voice hardened. "Are you not damned lucky to be here as you are now, instead of shut up in some prison cell waiting for your trial upon more than one capital charge?"
"You think so?" sneered Mangan. "You're very clever, aren't you?"
"Not so very clever," laughed Larose, "but I've cultivated the knack of putting two and two together." He nodded significantly. "Remember I saw a lot of Professor Glenowen in those last weeks he lived and I gradually got to the bottom of his mind. Whenever you had done a job for him he came buzzing round me to try and find out what the police thought about it. At first I couldn't make out what he was after, but I tumbled to it at last."
"I know what you mean," scowled Mangan, "but the whole idea is preposterous. As for that little idiot professor—he was mad and the asylum was the proper place for him."
"An asylum or a coffin," commented Larose grimly, "and you realised that just a few hours before we picked you out as the killer. We were just that little bit too late and think——"
"I'm not interested in what you think," interrupted Mangan sharply. He regarded Larose intently. "But I admit I'm mildly curious as to how you came to find out Glenowen and I knew each other."
"Well, let's exchange information," smiled Larose blandly. "There are no witnesses and everything we say can be treated as confidential between ourselves. So you tell me, first, how the professor came to approach you with his dreadful proposition and then I'll——"
"He never made any propositions to me, dreadful or otherwise," broke in Mangan savagely, "and no one would have ever made the propositions you want to make out he did unless he were completely out of his mind. Only a madman would dream of such things."
"Well, but you have just said the professor was mad!" exclaimed Larose as if in great surprise. "So if he didn't make these dreadful suggestions to you—in what other way did you find he was not sane?"
For the moment, Mangan was obviously nonplussed, and his face flushed angrily. "Oh, I'm not going to discuss him or anyone else with you," he snarled. "In any case you are only trying to poke your beak into what doesn't concern you." He looked viciously at Larose. "As I have told you just now, Mr. Retired Policeman Larose, I am pretty certain I owe all this damned annoyance to you and I tell you straight I'm not the one to forget it." He gritted his teeth. "Sooner or later, I always repay for service or dis-service rendered."
"And that's exactly what's brought me here to see you this morning," Larose nodded with some animation. "My friends in Scotland Yard are sure you'll be trying to get your revenge somehow and so they've asked me to give you the message that if anything evil happens to me they'll come on to you at once—" he nodded again—"and you'll want a much better alibi then than you've put up in this present trouble."
"Oh, I shall, shall I," sneered Mangan. "How anxious they must be about your good health?"
"Yes, and here's another thing, Major, that may interest you," said Larose, taking the photograph the inspector had given him out of his pocket and handing it over. He spoke casually. "Do you think it a good enough likeness for anyone to recognise you if you come snooping round where I live?"
Mangan took the photo and glared hard. "Where did you get that from?" he demanded.
"Telling's knowing," laughed Larose, "but they have evidently got you well tabbed at Scotland Yard and you won't be able to move about much now without being noticed," and when Mangan contemptuously tore the photo into many pieces, he laughed merrily. "They're getting a good many dozen taken off, so that one doesn't matter at all."
"Here, you get out of my shop," ordered Mangan angrily, "and take your damned cheque, too," and he tore up the cheque as he had done the photo. "Get out quick."
"A nice gentleman that," remarked Larose to himself as he walked up the street, "and certainly, as dear old Charlie said, of the very type to go for his revenge upon me. I must look out for myself, though I think he's pretty frightened now and will keep quiet for awhile—perhaps until we've had time to catch him in another way."
Now if Mangan was thinking Scotland Yard had shot their bolt and would slacken off in their enquiries, it was certainly not the case with Larose. The latter was quite sure the major had not only got those thousands of pounds in banknotes hidden away, but also, had secreted that Corot painting along with them, too. It was almost impossible he told himself for any judge of beautiful paintings to have brought himself to destroy one of the great Jean Baptiste Corot.
So, sooner or later when he had got over his fright, it was almost certain Mangan would not be able to resist the urge to go back to his hiding-place and see if what he had left there was safe. Surely then it was only a matter of time and great patience before the trail could be picked up?
With this end in view, Larose made his way next to the garage in Fitzroy Square. It was quite a small affair with apparently only two men working there. The elder of them at once came forward. "You Mr. Tom Pike?" asked Larose, "then can I have a word with you in private?"
Regarding him with a frown the man led the way into a little office. "You've been having some officers in from Scotland Yard lately," began Larose with a smile. "Now, I am nothing to do with them officially, though I am completely in their confidence, as years ago I was one of the Criminal Investigation Department myself. My name is Gilbert Larose and——"
The man's suspicious face at once broke into a pleasant smile. "Oh, you're Mr. Larose, are you?" he exclaimed. "I've heard a lot about you from my brother. He was at the Yard the same time as you were. Now, he's a sergeant at Hammersmith. Inspector Stone will remember him quite well."
"Good," said Larose, "then I am sure I can trust you, and you'll treat in strict confidence what I am going to tell you."
"Oh, you can trust me right enough," said Pike. "I'm not the one to babble." He shook his head. "I don't pretend to know what all these enquiries have been about, but as he's now going about just as usual it's evident Scotland Yard has got nothing on Major Mangan."
Larose looked doubtful. "I wouldn't quite say that, Mr. Pike. They still have the strongest suspicions about him, though it's quite true that as yet they haven't all the proof they want."
Tom Pike spoke hesitatingly. "May I ask you, sir, to tell me something of what the trouble is about? You see the major has been garaging here for quite a couple of years and I've always found him a straightforward and pleasant man to have any dealings with."
Larose nodded. "You probably would have. He has a nice way with him, and certainly has had a distinguished career in the army or they wouldn't have given him the D.S.O." He shook his head. "No, I can't tell you everything, but this I will say. They suspect him of having run down and killed that poor policeman from Royston upon the Saturday night before the Monday when you last repaired a punctured tyre for him. Do you happen to remember a country policeman being killed and his bicycle as well as his body being afterwards thrown over a bridge?"
"Happen to remember!" exclaimed Pike with a scowl. "My oath, yes! I knew him well. He was Bert Harkness and he used to pass here twice a day for years before he was transferred to the country. He was attached to the Euston Road Police-station and, living in Cleveland Street, came through the square every morning and evening, going on duty and coming off. It was a great shock to me to hear of his death, as I knew him so well."
For the moment Larose was speechless in his amazement, for it had flashed like lightning into his mind that if the dead policeman had known Mangan by sight what a vital reason the latter had had for murdering him.
"Great Scot!" he exclaimed hoarsely. "What a strange thing it happens you know him! Do you think he and Major Mangan had ever seen each other before?"
"For sure they had," said Pike emphatically, "and how could it not have been with Bert Harkness passing here every morning just before nine, the very time when the major generally picks up his car? Bert knew all about him, too, because we had discussed him together, but I don't suppose for a moment they had even spoken, as the major is a rather haughty sort of chap and wouldn't have taken any notice of a policeman, though he must have known him well enough by sight." His face darkened angrily. "So you think it was the major who killed him. Damn—I wish it could have been brought home to him!"
"But it's not about that I want you to help me," said Larose. "It's about quite another matter. We suspect him of having got some stolen things of great value hidden away and we haven't the remotest idea where. Now I don't suppose you know if he's got a place somewhere in the country, a cottage for instance?"
Pike shook his head. "No, I don't, sir. You see he has his car out almost every day and practically every week-end."
"And you've never learnt where he goes?"
"No, except that in the summer," said Pike, "when it's fine he goes a lot to the seaside. I am sure of that because he has often taken his bathing things with him. Oh, yes, and I saw him once one Sunday at Leigh-on-Sea, and another time my boy saw him coming out of a shop in Benflect, that's on the way to there. I fancy that when he wants to have a bathe he makes his journey as short as possible because of the petrol. It's damned short these days, as you know, and that's why he goes down the Thames Estuary way." He frowned. "Oh, and another thing I remember now. One evening when he had brought his car in and, later, we were cleaning it we noticed what a lot of sand there was, all about the car."
"When was that?" asked Larose.
"Only a few weeks ago, and it only struck us then as being peculiar because it was a day in the early part of the week when as a rule he uses his car only about Town."
Larose was thoughtful for a few moments and then went on, "Well, this is what I want you to do. If you keep a daily note for me from his speedometer of the miles he travels in his car, I'll pay you a fiver on the first of every month for your trouble. Also, keep your eyes open to notice anything unusual about his car, for instance, whether he's been off the bitumen and gone over muddy roads."
Larose left the garage well satisfied that he had enlisted as enthusiastic an ally as he could have hoped for. Pike was very bitter about the killing of his policeman friend, Bert, and would watch Mangan now with the eyes of a hawk.
Now the one-time detective was quite right in thinking that, with all his toughness and courage, Mangan had been badly shaken and would keep very quiet at any rate for a while. Though still perfectly confident that nothing could possibly be brought home to him, the fact that the police had somehow managed to trail him to his flat in Fitzroy Square nevertheless filled him with an uneasy pang whenever he thought about it. Cursing himself as a fool to think it possibly could be, it was yet exactly as if Larose had used that extra sense he was supposed to possess and picked up some clue that did not actually exist.
He would have greatly liked to talk things over with Captain Michaeloff, but knew that for the time being it was not possible, as two days previously the latter had gone abroad somewhere and would not be back for two or three weeks. He did not bother to ring up the Embassy about him as, with the friendship now prevailing between them, he was quite certain he would hear from him directly he returned.
Waiting rather impatiently, it was nearly three weeks before the phone rang one morning and he recognised it was the captain who was speaking. He seemed to Mangan to be in the best of spirits and invited him up to dinner at the Embassy that evening at eight o'clock. He apologised for giving Mangan such short notice, but explained he particularly wanted to see him about a little business matter and hoped he'd be able to come. Mangan accepted the invitation and the captain rang off.
Mangan grinned to himself. "So, I've been right all along. As I thought, he's been playing me up lately, and now I shall find out what he's been doing it for."
He had made up his mind exactly how he would meet the captain and, accordingly, when he was shown into him that evening, shook hands with him in his usual confident but rather casual way. The captain was all smiles and, from his manner, Mangan was quite certain, as he had been anticipating, he could not have heard anything about the trouble he, Mangan, had been in.
"And how have you been finding things, Major?" he asked.
"They're quite all right now," replied Mangan, "but I had an annoying time a little while back." He looked grimly at Michaeloff. "Somehow, but in what way I can only guess, the police identified me as that Mr. Brown and getting on for three weeks ago now came and searched my flat."
The captain looked dumbfounded and his face paled a little. "The devil!" he exclaimed. "What happened?"
Mangan shrugged his shoulders. "Nothing, of course! But they made me go down to Scotland Yard on the Sunday and the Tuesday and bombarded me with every question they could think of. I was honoured by the Chief Commissioner himself, Sir Robert Ellis, being present on both occasions," and he proceeded to tell Captain Michaeloff all that happened.
The captain was frowning hard as Mangan began his story, but towards the end his face had cleared and he no longer looked uneasy.
"Then they had absolutely nothing on you," he said sharply. "You are quite sure of that?"
"Quite," replied Mangan, "and the proof is they had to let me go. In parting the Chief Commissioner's manner was quite agreeable. Really, I believe he was feeling sorry for me and thought the whole thing a mare's nest." He grinned. "But those damned inspectors didn't and the expressions upon their faces was venomous right up to the very end."
"But you couldn't have been so clever as you thought," said Michaeloff, beginning to frown again. "You must have left some clue behind you that night or they wouldn't have been able to trail you as they have done."
"But I tell you I didn't leave any clue," said Mangan with some irritation. "If I had, surely it wouldn't have taken all this time for them to follow it up." He shook his head. "No, that damned Larose found out something in some other way—a lucky guess somewhere which happened to be right. I'm sure I owe it all to him."
"You probably do," scowled the captain, "but don't you think of starting to pay him out, at any rate not for a hell of a long time. He was quite right when he told you you'd be the first person they'd jump upon if anything happened to him."
"You trust me," nodded Mangan viciously, "and when anything does happen I shan't have done it myself. I know someone who was in the Resistance Movement in France with me who can hit a saucer every time at six hundred yards and I'll get him to take the job over. He'll jump at it if I will make it worth his while." He shook his head. "You see, Captain, I shall never be quite easy in my mind again until that devil's under the ground."
"And you have good reason there," said the captain, "for he hangs on like a bull-dog once he's got his teeth fixed into anything. Fancy, his having the impudence to come to make himself known to you." He frowned. "He didn't mention me by any chance, did he? No! Then did any of the others bring up my name when they were questioning you? They didn't, eh?" He looked thoughtful. "Well, that's exactly typical of Larose's cunning. He had expressly told them not to. He must be pretty certain now that I know something of what you've been doing and perhaps he even thinks we have been working together, with me as a sort of sleeping partner. So he wants me to believe he has no suspicion that I gave him a purposely wrong description of you as Mr. Brown, because he doesn't want to fall out with me."
"Why not?" frowned Mangan.
"Because he wants to continue friendly with me and perhaps call round for a chat in the hope that I may make a slip somewhere and give something away. As I tell you, he's as cunning as a fox is, this Mr. Gilbert Larose."
They continued to discuss the matter for some time and then the captain remarked in a crisp and business-like way, "Well, as all these weeks have gone by, they've evidently played all their cards and are not going to trouble you any more. So, now for this other matter I want to talk to you about." He eyed Mangan intently. "Now, we hear you are very friendly with young Lieutenant Avon, old Lord Delamarne's heir, and from time to time are a guest of his lordship at Blackarden Castle."
Mangan wondered how he had come to know that, but, by no means displeased the captain should be aware of his good standing in the social world, nodded carelessly. "Yes, I've stayed there several times, and I've just been invited to go up there again next month for a few days shooting. It's a most luxurious place to stay in. Everything of the very best, with vintage wines being poured out as if they cost no more than ginger-ale."
"What everyone knows!" said the captain sharply. "But has it never made you curious," he demanded, "how, besides giving away the large sums in charity that we read in the newspapers, he does, and being, too, such an ardent collector of costly and beautiful things, he yet in his private home manages to keep up all the extravagance of the old days, with men-servants and maid-servants and all the pomp and ceremony of a mediaeval lord, to say nothing of the vintage wines you mention? Haven't you ever wondered where he gets all the money from?" He shook his head. "He can't be doing it out of his income, with his taxes probably running into eighteen shillings in the pound."
"But if you know so much about him," smiled Mangan, "surely you must have heard that he's supposed to be drawing upon secret hoards that he's got hidden away in the underground parts of the castle?"
"You mean from what his grandfather had stolen," frowned the captain, "from some Rajah's palace at the time of the Indian Mutiny? Yes, of course we've heard that, but I don't believe it. In any case it's not the whole story of where he's been getting all this money he has been throwing about so lavishly."
"But you're not going to tell me," exclaimed Mangan, roused to great interest, "that you've found out he's got another gold-mine?"
"I am," nodded the captain, "and in the beginning it must have been many, many times of far greater value than anything his grandfather could have obtained from the mythical Rajah." He spoke impressively. "Now, Major Mangan, when you have heard what I am going to tell you, you will realise what a tremendous secret we are confiding to you and that it has only been done after the most careful consideration we can feel sure that, making it well worth your while, you will be true to your trust."
From his expression, Mangan did not seem altogether too pleased at the way the other was summing him up, but he made no comment, and the captain went on, "Yes, we know far more about you than you think, even to the way you are making your money in Wardour Street, with the police watching you like a cat after a mouse."
"Oh, they are, are they?" scowled Mangan. "How did you come to know that?"
"Our Intelligence Service is very good," replied the captain, "and we have agents placed in most unexpected places, places which would astonish you if I were free to tell you." He laughed slyly. "So we know you are what the world would call an absolutely bad and thoroughly unscrupulous man. Where your own interests are concerned you have no foolish, sentimental ideas of the sacredness of life or property and we notice——"
"But who are these 'we' you keep talking about?" broke in Mangan with some irritation. "Have you been starting a broadcast about me?"
The captain laughed again. "Certainly not! Over here, the 'we' means only His Excellency and myself. Beyond these shores it includes some of the heads of the Baltic Union. No, you need never worry that, so to speak, you are in our power, as what I am about to tell you will place us equally in yours." He spoke slowly. "Now this secret can be put in a very few words. Briefly—some thirty years ago Lord Delamarne came into possession of a portion of the Russian Crown jewels and ever since he has been disposing of them and taking the monies for his own use. What is now left of them lies hidden in the Blackarden vaults."
All his irritation now put to one side, Mangan's eyes opened very wide. "But how did he get hold of them?" he asked.
"It's not a long story," said the captain, "though it does go back for thirty years. It commenced in 1917 when Nicolas the Second, the then Czar of all the Russias, realised things were beginning to look very black for his regime and took precautions to ensure that the royal treasures should not fall into revolutionary hands. So, he divided them into portions, with each portion being entrusted into different hands to convey to a different place of safety. Much of the treasure was recovered in the succeeding years, but what a certain Colonel Alexis Rubin of the Czar's Own Hussars had taken away with him was never found. This officer, in particular, was energetically looked for, because it was known he had been entrusted with the most valuable portion of all sacramental vessels of almost unestimable value, jewelled pattens, chalices and crosses and, above all, a priceless richly diamond-studded Ikon, a replica of the Iberian Madonna."
"Whew! what a haul if you could have got hold of it!" whistled Mangan.
"Yes, it would have been a colossal one if we could have recovered everything," agreed the captain, "but this Colonel Rubin had absolutely vanished, with no traces of him or what he had taken away ever coming to light. In the end it came to be believed that he must have put the treasure away somewhere and, then dying, the secret of its hiding-place would be never found."
He drew in a deep breath. "So things were up to about six months ago and then came the startling news from one of our secret agents in New York—we always have agents watching over our interests in all parts of the world—that a magnificently jewelled chalice which, from its description with diamonds, emerald and three wonderfully perfect pigeon-blood rubies, we were certain was one of those this Colonel Rubin had carried away, had recently been put anonymously upon the market and sold for two hundred thousand dollars."
"No means of tracing where it came from?" asked Mangan.
"Not a hope," replied the captain, "but, from what we did find out, we were pretty certain it wasn't by any means the first things that had been disposed of by the same seller and that they had all, apparently, been smuggled into the U.S.A. from England."
He shrugged his shoulders. "Of course, that spurred us on to start the search for this Colonel Rubin all over again, and I take it to my credit that it was I, myself, who ultimately picked up his trail here in London. Quite certain that being attached to the Czarist Court he would have belonged to the Greek Orthodox Church, I enquired at the Greek Church here in Tavistock Square. The old sacristan remembered him quite well, but knew nothing of what had happened to him when he suddenly stopped coming to the church. Enquiring as to what friends Colonel Rubin had had, he had a clear recollection of two, a Father Benoist and, as he described him, a great English lord, Lord Delamarne. He remember this lord, because occasionally the colonel used to bring him into High Mass to listen to the music, and he believed used to stay with him in his castle in the country."
"And you've approached Lord Delamarne?" asked Mangan. "You have seen him yourself?"
"Not I," laughed the captain. "I did not dare to go near him, as I know he hates all of us here like poison. Still, we got a party whom we could absolutely trust to go down and talk to him, and he said he could tell at once that Delamarne was keeping something back, as he was most evasive in all his replies. At first he made out he did not remember the name at all, but then, upon consideration, he thought he had heard it mentioned, adding however, that he had met so many refugees from Russia about that time that he couldn't keep count of them."
"If he didn't want to tell you," frowned Mangan, "he certainly wouldn't. He's not a man you can brow-beat into anything."
"Failing there," went on the captain, "I got in touch with an aged sister of this Father Benoist, the other friend. The Father himself has been dead for more than twenty years. She was living alone in poor circumstances in Hammersmith and was most difficult to get anything out of, as she was very shaky and her memory was failing. She couldn't recollect having heard of anyone called Rubin, but then suddenly the Christian name of Alexis struck some chord of memory in her and piece by piece I wrung from her an extraordinary story. The gist of it was this."
The captain paused for a few moments before going on impressively. "She was with her brother in his last illness just before he died, and she said that when he was only semi-conscious he babbled a lot about someone called Alexis. She thought something was evidently on his mind about him, and she gathered from his broken sentences that he had once gone a long journey to bury him. He had said the Requiem Mass for him one night in a place that was very dark and cold and he spoke about vaults, and lanterns that gave only a dim light. She said he kept harping about this cold and darkness and it made her shiver and—" but here Michaeloff broke off his story and asked Mangan sharply, "Now what do you make of it?"
"That there had been a secret burial somewhere," said Mangan promptly, "most probably in the vaults of Blackarden Castle and that it was on the Father's conscience that he had been mixed up in something he didn't like to look back upon, something rather discreditable to his sacred calling."
"Exactly," exclaimed Michaeloff, "and the whole picture of everything is now quite clear to me. Colonel Rubin had taken the Czarist treasures with him to Blackarden Castle, he had died suddenly, and Delamarne was left in sole possession of a vast fortune."
A long silence followed and then Mangan asked, "And how long ago did you learn all this?"
"Only a few months, between three and four."
"And you have done nothing in the matter?"
Michaeloff shrugged his shoulders again. "What could we do, at least, openly? We have only one very strong suspicion in our minds, amounting, however, to a certainty, and if ever we could prove it up to the very hilt, we dare not approach the British Government. They would not acknowledge our title to the treasure."
"But if Delamarne has been dipping into it for all these years now," suggested Mangan, "can there be anything much left?"
The captain looked scornful. "Anything much left!" he exclaimed. "Why, we reckon that it was worth several millions to begin with and, selling it bit by bit as he has been doing, he can't have got rid of even a quarter of it yet. So, if we can lay our hands upon it with your help—just think what it will mean to you. We are quite agreeable that ten per cent should be your share."
Mangan's eyes glistened at the prospect. "But do you know," he asked, "where he's got it all hidden away?"
"There can be no question about that," said the captain. "In the vaults, of course, and once down there we think we should have no difficulty in finding it. As everybody has heard, all the underground parts of the castle were bricked up more than a hundred years ago and, since then, the only way down to them has been by way of a concealed stairway, the secret approach to which only the reigning lord of Blackarden knows." He frowned. "Surely you've heard all about that?"
Mangan lowered his eyes so that the captain should not see the expression in them. With a great thrill he was remembering what the dead professor had told him he had learnt about that stairway of seventy-two steps from the Italian electrician who had been working with such secrecy in the castle, and the idea was now surging up into his mind that if the finding of this great treasure was going to be so easy it might be possible he could obtain it for himself. So, he certainly would not tell the captain what he knew.
Looking up, he said aloud, "Yes, I've heard all about it—"—he smiled—"and so has everyone else in the castle and for many miles outside it, too. It's such common knowledge and has been known for such a long time that no one seems to be much interested in it now."
"Well, we are," smiled back the captain, "and we have gone so far in our investigations as to know within a few feet or so exactly where the door to that secret stairway opens into one of the walls of his study." He shook his head. "We haven't had it open yet, but, as I say, we know it is behind one of the oak panels there. We could get into it with a crowbar in a couple of minutes, but we don't want to do that if we can possibly help it. Our hope is to get those jewels and leave no traces behind how they have been taken."
"But how on earth did you find out what you have done?" asked Mangan in great astonishment.
The captain looked glum. "Up to a couple of months ago we had an agent planted in the castle and he was finding out quite a lot of things for us. Then—" but he broke off what he was about to say and asked sharply, "You've heard, haven't you, about that servant who disappeared so suddenly from the castle the month before last?"
"Yes, the footman there," nodded Mangan, "the third one, called Thomas. Was he the agent, and did you have to call him off?"
The captain shook his head. "No, Major Mangan," he said solemnly, "we did not call him off. He made a slip somewhere and got caught." He pursed up his lips. "No one will ever hear of him again."
Mangan whistled. "The devil!" he exclaimed. "Do you think it was Delamarne's work?"
"We are sure of it," said the captain, "and I warn you that you'll have to be on the look-out." He gritted his teeth. "That old lord is every bit as tough as we intend to be."
"But why should he have gone so far as to kill him?" asked Mangan. "Why didn't he just send him away from the castle?"
The captain shrugged his shoulders. "That's what we don't know. We think Delamarne must have caught him red-handed in something he was doing and realised he had found out too much. This chap of ours was a brave man and always ready to take great risks. In his last communication to us, which I am going to show you now, he writes that he has found this secret panel, but will have to wait for another night to find out how it works. One splendid thing he did do was to take to pieces the special lock fitted to the study door and send to us a carefully-drawn diagram of all its parts. So, we have been able to have a key made, and that should help you a lot in what we want you to do, as you will now be able to get into the study whenever you want to."
"But in what particular way am I to help you?" asked Mangan.
"Open some door and let us into the castle one night," said the captain. "That has been our great stumbling block, because of the bars and bolts and alarms that Delamarne has had fixed to all the doors. With you inside the castle, that can all be put right and a great difficulty got over."
"But even if you do get down into the vaults," said Mangan with the idea of treachery still upmost in his mind, "how is it you are so certain you will so easily find exactly where the jewels are hidden? Remember those vaults will probably extend all under the castle."
"But our opinion," went on the captain decisively, "is that there will be no elaborate hiding-place there. We think Delamarne is relying entirely upon the many precautions he has taken up above and banking upon the numerous alarms he has had installed everywhere. In any case, we have an excellent man in one of our Secret Police, whose speciality is searches such as this. He can smell out any hiding-place just like a terrier smelling out a rat. He would stick at nothing, either, and not mind what we gave him to do."
A short silence followed and Mangan asked, "But have you never thought of getting hold of the old lord somehow and giving him a twist or two to make him speak?"
The captain nodded grimly. "Yes, we have, and it's not altogether out of our minds yet. In fact, we bought Professor Glenowen's bungalow in case we have to resort to that. It's quite handy to the castle and, if we kidnapped him one morning when he was in the garden there, it would be such a little way to take him and get the whole business over quickly, perhaps even before he was missed." He laughed. "I expect you would be able to give us a wrinkle or two about the best way to make him loquacious, as quickly as possible."
Mangan laughed back. "Perhaps, I might. At any rate, we saw plenty of it in France. The Huns did it and we did it, too. Then, when we had got all the information we wanted—" he shrugged his shoulders—"well, dead men tell no tales."
The captain unlocked a drawer in his desk, and took out some papers. "This is what that poor fellow wrote us," he said, "perhaps only a few hours before he was killed and buried somewhere, most probably in the castle vaults. Draw your chair nearer and read what he wrote."
ON THE AFTERNOON of the day following upon Mangan's momentous conversation with Captain Michealoff of the Baltic Embassy, the old lord of Blackarden Castle in the county of Norfolk was sitting alone in his beautifully appointed study with its centuries-old oak panelled walls. He had a book in his hand, but his eyes were not upon its pages. Instead, they were staring thoughtfully out of the window, with the general expression of his face a frowning and rather troubled one.
There was a knock upon the door and, in response to his curt 'Come in,' Barlow, the castle butler, entered the room and held out to him a letter upon a massive silver salver.
"A young lady has brought it, my lord," he said deferentially. "She would not give her name and is waiting for an answer. I have shown her into the blue room."
His master took the letter without comment and opened it. It was very short and soon read. "How has she come?" he asked sharply.
"In a taxi from Norwich, my lord. She has a suitcase with her."
"A suitcase!" exclaimed his lordship.
"Yes, my lord, and she sent the taxi away."
His lordship regarded the butler with a heavy frown. "What kind of young lady is she?" he asked.
"Well dressed and well spoken. Not of a common class, my lord."
Lord Delamarne scowled and quite a long silence ensued before he ordered curtly, "Show her in."
Alfred Humbert Delamarne, the eleventh baron of his line, looked all over what he had been for the greater part of his life—a soldier. His long military career had been a distinguished one. As a young lieutenant he had fought under Lord Methuen in the Boer War and, after the disastrous defeat at Magersfontein, been awarded the Victoria Cross for conspicuous gallantry. Next, he had seen active service in Afghanistan and, finally, had been all through the First World War. He had been wounded twice in France, the second time being left with a slight limp.
Of medium height and physique, though now in his seventy-fifth year, he lacked nothing of a commanding presence, no doubt handed down to him by a long line of distinguished ancestors. His face was set and stern and his fierce old eyes looked out upon the world under heavy, bushy brows. Living very much within himself and a stranger to everyone, even to members of his own family, he seldom smiled and then only in a cold sarcastic way.
Altogether he looked a man with whom, despite his years, it would be unwise to attempt to play any tricks, and who would take command and exact obedience wherever he was. In not too good health, he was a great sufferer from neuritis and that at times made him intensely irritable and difficult to get on with.
The possessor of a large estate of many thousands of acres, the after-war taxation had naturally made great inroads into his income. Still, for all that, with everyone of the opinion he must be drawing largely upon his capital, he lived in much the same spacious way his forebears had done, with the pomp and ceremony of the castle being little different from that of the generations before him. A just but hard master, he ruled his dependants and numerous employees with the proverbial rod of iron. He was a widower, with two daughters but no male heir and, upon his death, the barony would pass to a nephew, the son of an only brother, long since passed away.
With all the many people surrounding him, and yet living the solitary and lonely life he did, his sole source of happiness was apparently the collection of valuable art treasures, to which he was continually adding. What little was known outside the castle of his old silver was the envy of other connoisseurs.
Such then was the man into whose presence now came tripping the pretty and lively Miss Penelope Smith. Of medium height, she had a good figure, very nice blue eyes, a perfect colouring, good profile, a determined little chin and a decidedly pretty mouth. Her nose was slightly retrousee but that in no way lessened the general attractiveness of her appearance. She looked a charming and very confident young woman.
His lordship had risen to his feet upon her entrance and, apparently in no way awed by his grim appearance, she approached him smilingly and held out her hand. With just the slightest hesitation he took it limply and motioned her to a chair.
"I am pleased to meet you, Lord Delamarne," she said in a cultured voice. "I saw your advertisement for a secretary in yesterday's Times and thought—" but on the instant his lordship glared angrily and he interrupted with great sterness, "But it expressly stated, did it not, that any applications for the position were to be made in writing to my agent, Mr. Henderson, and——"
But Miss Smith now interrupted in her turn. "But I thought, my lord," she said boldly, "that in my case that stipulation could be waived, as you were once a great friend of my parents and, before my mother died about six months ago, she told me a lot about you. She was a Mrs. Whitsun Smith and her Christian name was Angelica."
The expression upon his lordship's face changed abruptly from one of anger to one of some surprise, and he regarded her very curiously.
"Yes," continued the girl, "my father was a great friend of yours and my mother said that many years ago he saved your life."
So long a silence now followed that Miss Smith's face flushed and she seemed all suddenly to have lost some of her confidence. Evidently his lordship was not too pleased with what she had said, she thought, and he was going to deny all obligation to her dead father. However, she was mistaken there, as Lord Delamarne spoke at last.
"That is so, Miss Smith," he said, "and I have never forgotten it. It was in a village in the Punjab and he nursed me through an attack of bubonic plague. At a great risk to his own life he stayed with me when all the others had run away. He was a brave man and I had a great respect for him." He frowned. "But he has been dead now for a good many years, hasn't he?"
"Fourteen," nodded the girl. "I was only nine and remember very little about him. We ought to have been left well off as at the time of his death he was part owner of the Majestic Picture Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue, but my mother said we were cheated out of everything. We got nothing, but happily were able to live in comparative comfort because of an annuity father had bought her in his earlier days."
His lordship raised his eyebrows. "And your mother died this year?" he asked after a few moments.
"Yes, in January, from pneumonia, after only a week's illness."
"And have you any brothers and sisters?"
"No, none. I was the only child."
"And what is your occupation?"
The girl smiled. "I am afraid I have been something of a rolling stone, trying several. To begin with, I started training to become a hospital nurse, but for the past six months I have been in the orchestra of the Rialto as accompanist. I am a good pianist and can always earn my five or six guineas a week. For the moment I am on holiday."
His lordship frowned. "But proficiency at the piano is hardly the right training for the secretarial work such as I require."
The girl laughed. "Oh, but I was a journalist for four years before that and am quite capable at office work. When I saw your advertisement in The Times this morning and noticed the name it struck me at once that I would apply for the post." She looked amused. "The main reason, I think, because I wanted to learn at first hand how you important people carry on in these hard times.'
"What do you mean?" demanded his lordship sharply, "by wanting to learn at first hand, as you put it?"
"By seeing for myself with my own eyes," she replied. She shrugged her shoulders. "Heaven knows, I've had plenty of opportunity of learning through other people's, as I was for more than two years one of the social editresses of The Old Society World." She laughed. "Why, I've many times put in little paragraphs about your parties here. They were always good copy."
"Oh, they were, were they," he frowned. "Then may I ask who provided you with the information?"
"As often as not some of those who were going to be among your guests," she replied. "Naturally, they were proud to be invited and wanted their friends to know."
"So they wrote to your journal themselves, did they?" commented his lordship. He scowled. "I'd very much like to know who they were?"
Miss Smith shook her head. "Ah, but that I musn't tell you. Journals never give away the names of any of their correspondents through whom they get their news. Servants in the big houses, too, often wrote to tell us what they thought was interesting and earned a little money that way, a few shillings, but if we considered the information worth it perhaps a postal order for a pound."
"Disgraceful," commented his lordship, "your encouraging the tittle-tattle of the back stairs. And can you remember the names of any of the servants here who have approached you at any time?"
"I might if I tried," she laughed, "but as I say, it wouldn't be right for me to pass them on."
"Not if I made you a little present for doing so," he went on sharply, "of, say, five or ten pounds?"
"Certainly not," she replied with her face flushing again. "I am always loyal to those who have trusted me and I wouldn't sell my conscience for a paltry ten pounds."
"Not enough?" queried his lordship sarcastically. "Then what about if I offered you more, say twenty pounds this time?"
She spoke very sharply. "Please say no more about it, Lord Delamarne. I am not a girl who can be ever bought or sold." She laughed. "I think too much of myself for that." She went on quickly to stop any further persistence on his part. "I liked my work at the Rialto much better. I found it so interesting to watch the Society people who came in there to lunch and dine." She spoke earnestly. "Don't you think now you could give me a trial? My mother said you and my father were such great friends. You went everywhere together."
"That is so. We did," agreed his lordship, and after a few moments pause he added with a grim smile. "You see, young lady, your father was my valet."
"Your valet!" exclaimed the girl, as if unable to believe her ears. "Your servant, you mean?"
His lordship nodded. "Yes, my body servant, and the best I ever had. I was very sorry to part with him, but in the end I had to because his habits had become such intemperate ones that as often as not he was in no condition to carry out his duties."
Miss Smith was aghast. Her face had lost a lot of its pretty colour and she looked as if she was going to cry. "B-u-t, but," she stammered, "my mother told me he might be of noble birth. His real name was not Smith. There was a mystery as to who his parents were."
"Quite so," agreed his lordship. "He never knew them, as he was left one night upon the doorstep of the Foundling Hospital. It was on a Whitsunday, and that is why they gave him the name of Whitsun Smith."
For a few moments the girl could not speak in her emotion. She took out a dainty little lace handkerchief and dabbed her eyes. "But—I tell you he was a wealthy man. He was the part-proprietor of that great picture palace."
"He was the commissionaire there," said his lordship with his grim smile again, "the man who stood at the entrance and whistled up the taxis. Another thing—and I think it right you should be told—it was I who bought that annuity for your mother. When your father and I parted, I dared not trust him with a penny and so, instead, saw to it that his wife should never want."
Miss Smith made no pretence that she was not humiliated and gave way to her tears. "Then I am only an ordinary girl," she choked, "and I came here thinking I might be the equal of anybody and——"
"So you may be," interrupted his lordship and now, his cynical manner for the moment disappearing, he spoke quite kindly. "Your father may easily have been the offspring even of a duke or an earl. He was very handsome and certainly no common man." He smiled. "You, too, are anything but ordinary. You look a well-bred as well at an attractive girl."
Miss Smith smiled through her tears, and proceeded to dry her eyes. "Thank you for your compliment, my lord," she said. She rose to her feet. "I won't trouble you any further."
"No, no," ordered his lordship sharply, "you just sit down again. I'm interested in you and if I don't take you as my secretary, remembering your father's service I may be able to help you in some other way. I like spirit in a woman and I see you've got plenty." He regarded her with grim intent purpose. "But tell me what exactly was your idea in coming this long journey from London to see me to-day."
She seemed surprised at the question. "In the expectation, of course, that probably being the first applicant for the post you would appoint me as the secretary."
"Not in the expectation, I am sure, Miss Smith," he said dryly, "and hardly, I think, in the hope."
"Then what do you imagine I came for," she asked, bridling up a little in annoyance at the stern way in which he was regarding her, "to steal some of your art treasures?"
"But you are a butterfly, Miss Smith," he said, ignoring her question, "and secretarial work would be dull and uncongenial work for a girl such as you, accustomed to all kinds of excitement."
She flared up instantly. "I am not a butterfly, my lord. I've had far too many hard knocks in my life to be anything as weak as that." She looked amused. "If you must know—and I'll be quite frank about it—I'm a hard-boiled, calculating adventuress and I had hoped to get the situation here to better my prospects in life. Believing I might perhaps be of aristocratic birth myself"—her voice quavered—"until you woke me from my beautiful daydream there—I was thinking I should meet some nice people here and perhaps make a good match." She spoke defiantly. "Now you have the whole truth, and I'm not ashamed of it. I'm a very ordinary person, except for such few good looks as I happen to possess."
His lordship's grim face had broken into a dry smile. "But, as I have already said, you are anything but an ordinary person, Miss Smith. Indeed, I should say that you are unusually intelligent. It was a brainy idea of yours, too, so to speak, to force yourself upon me by sending away your taxi so that I should have to offer you some hospitality."
She was quite herself again and commented pertly, "And so now I suppose it'll be a cup of tea in the housekeeper's room and then you'll very considerately have me driven back to the station, saying goodbye with the promise that you'll think over what you can do for me and let me know."
His lordship shook his head. "No, as you have reminded me, your father was my friend as well as my servant, and so I shall do more than that cup of tea and the lift back to the station." He inclined his head with old-world courtesy. "I shall be very happy to have you here, as my guest, at any rate for a week or two."
She shook her head in turn. "Thank you kindly, my lord, but I think I'd rather not. It would be quite all right my meeting your family in the belief that I might perhaps be their social equal; but very different from my meeting them and their knowing that my father had been your servant."
"Tut, tut," frowned his lordship, "but no one is going to tell them that. I shall say he was a friend of mine in India and once saved my life. No one is to know upon what footing our relations were. You can give out that he was in the Indian Civil Service—a magistrate, you'd better say. It will be easy enough to deceive my younger daughter, Joan, as unhappily she is not too intelligent, but with my other daughter, Vera, you'll have to be more careful, as she is sharp and has all her wits about her. However, she is away on a visit at the present moment. One other thing—mention only that you are a journalist. Leave out that you work in the orchestra at that restaurant."
"I'm sure it's very kind of you," began Penelope hesitantly, "but I think——"
"It's not for you to think at all," said his lordship sharply. "I give the orders here. Then that's settled. You'll stay," and with Penelope sinking back into her chair again he touched a bell on his desk and, upon the butler re-appearing, ordered, "Tell Miss Joan I want her, please."
There was silence in the room, with them both busy with their thoughts until the daughter appeared. A little younger than Penelope, she certainly did not appear to be very clever. She had a round childlike face and big, innocent blue eyes. Lord Delamarne introduced them, describing Penelope as the daughter of an old friend whom he had known many years back in India.
"And she is going to stay with us for a little while," he explained. "So we must do our best to make her comfortable. You had better put her in the west wing."
So Penelope was led away by the smiling, friendly Joan to the room in the west wing, which she was given to understand was generally reserved for relations of the family. Her suitcase was brought up by a smartly-uniformed maid and she was left with the intimation that afternoon tea would be served in the lounge in a few moments.
Left by herself again, Penelope was inclined to give way to a little weep. "Fancy mother deceiving me like that!" she choked. "What a fool it made me look to the old man! Still, he was really very kind about it, and is evidently grateful for what father did for him."
She took in the beautifully-appointed room and her spirits rose. Here was every luxury she could think of—the rich carpet, the expensive-looking maplewood furniture, lights to be switched on wherever one wanted them, two big comfortable armchairs, the bed with its satin-covered eiderdown, and the charming little bathroom with all its shining accompaniments leading out of the heavily-curtained alcove.
She regarded herself critically in the big mirror round the dressing-table and felt even more comforted still. "Yes, Penelope, you're certainly not bad looking, and who knows what may happen to you. You may perhaps after all meet some really eligible young man who may take a fancy to you. For one thing, I'm quite sure that the old lord will never give you away. Instead, it might please his cynical humour to think some great and important family was taking into its bosom the daughter of his one-time valet. He'd get a lot of pleasure out of it."
She made a grimace here. "And so my father was a valet, and I know my dear mother was a girl who once served in a shop! So probably she was only just an ordinary girl behind the counter there when father met her." She sighed again. "Anyhow, I'm sure she must have been pretty enough then for any man to have taken to her."
She frowned. "But I must be very careful what I do here not to give myself away. Thank goodness I know how the rich people behave at table and what they eat and drink, and shan't be making any mistakes there. Also, I shan't be shy or awkward with anyone I meet. My journalistic work has been a splendid training for me."
With all her self-assurance, however, her heart beat a little quicker when a few hours later she took her seat at the long table in the big dining-room for dinner. Though there were only his lordship and Joan beside her, they were waited on in solemn pomp by the butler and a footman in the Delamarne livery. Still, she soon brightened up under the thrill of her surroundings, the soft lights of the candles on the table, the sparkling glassware and the exquisite napery.
So well aware she was well groomed and accustomed, as she had comforted herself, to the table ways of the distinguished patrons of the Rialto was soon completely at her ease, and Lord Delamarne, watching her covertly, wondered with some grim amusement what his other daughter, the Honourable Mrs. Riverton, would say when she returned from her visit and found this very prepossessing young woman installed en famille at the castle.
Apparently the meal was generally eaten in silence, and but for Penelope things would probably have been the same now. However, after a glass of unaccustomed champagne, she livened up a lot and by her naive remarks on several occasions drew from his lordship an unaccustomed smile. Discussing some of the many distinguished people she had seen coming into the Rialto, though as her host had suggested she did not mention where she had encountered them, much of what she said was witty and amusing. Indeed, though she was never to learn it, she was the cause of a lot of interest in the servants' hall that night, with both the butler and the footman who had been the one to wait on them at dinner admitting to other members of the castle staff that they were unable to quite size up the new arrival.
"Though she's only a plain Miss Smith, cook," remarked the butler as they were all partaking of their cold beef and pickles for supper, "she has evidently mixed with the very best people, and the way she described old Lord Morphett as the best Punch she had seen out of a Punch-and-Judy Show was too funny for words. Then when she went on to say that that nasty old Dowager Lady Caston always perked her old head round like an old rooster just about to give a good crow, even his lordship smiled! Yes, I tell you she's a lively young woman, as lively as they make them, and I wonder from where old Del picked her up."
The footman added his quota to the way the new secretary had enlivened the meal. "And, by cripes, cook, she almost made his lordship laugh outright once. She had said she once heard the Archbishop of Canterbury preach, and Miss Joan asked what his sermon had been about. 'Sin,' she replied. 'And what did he say about it?' asked old Del with that nasty sarcastic smile of his. Miss Smith was as solemn as an owl. 'Oh, he didn't approve of it,' she said, and I say the old boy almost laughed."
The ensuing few days were very happy ones for Penelope. She was thrilled with the comfort and luxury of everything and the beautiful surroundings both inside and outside the castle. Of Lord Delamarne she saw practically nothing except at meal times and then he spoke little to her. She noticed, however, that he was often regarding her intently, for all the world, she thought, as if he were summing her up and unable yet to make up his mind about something.
With Joan she had speedily become upon excellent terms and, being of a very simple disposition and apparently never able to keep anything to herself, the girl was soon confiding many private things to her. She said her father was very odd in many ways and except, when they had visitors, did not take notice of anyone. He loved to have the castle full of people, but it was really too much for him as he was failing in health, his blood pressure was unduly high, and from time to time he suffered so much from attacks of neuritis in one of his knees that then he could hardly drag himself along.
"Poor old man," exclaimed Penelope in real sympathy, "he hasn't much to live for at seventy-five, has he?"
"Oh yes, he has," retorted Joan at once. "He's wrapped up in his art treasures, particularly the old silver he's been collecting for many years. No one but himself knows how much of it he's got hidden below in the vaults. He's had a room fitted up there with electric lights and a radiator, and some days he spends hours and hours there, we think, gloating over his treasures."
"And that's all his happiness in life!" exclaimed Penelope.
"But it isn't all happiness by any means," said Joan, "as he's always living in fear of being robbed." She lowered her voice darkly. "And would you believe it, Penelope, neither my sister nor I, or anyone else in the castle, has ever been allowed to go down below. Even exactly where the door leading on to the stairway is has been a secret from us. All we know is that it's somewhere in his study."
Penelope looked incredulous. "But surely the servants who do the room must know?"
Joan laughed. "No, they don't. Only Anna, she's the head housemaid and has been here nearly thirty years, and we two girls are allowed there. We do all the dusting and sweeping and the door is always kept shut. Father locks it at night or whenever he goes out of the castle. As he's grown old he's got worse and worse, until secrecy is a perfect mania with him."
"But doesn't everyone think it's strange?" asked Penelope.
"Outsiders do," said Joan, "and no wonder stories got about of tremendous treasures being hidden down below. Of course, all of us here are accustomed to it and never take any notice, just looking upon it all as another of father's eccentricities." She looked troubled. "You know, we live in lots of secrets and mysteries here. About three months ago one of the footmen disappeared, and no one has any idea what happened to him. One night he just went up to his bedroom as usual and in the morning couldn't be found anywhere. He had not slept in his bed and he had left all his things behind him. He had just vanished as if he had been spirited away."
"What an extraordinary thing," exclaimed Penelope. "But didn't his people come enquiring after him?"
Joan shook her head. "Apparently he hadn't any, as no one came asking for him. He had been with us only a few weeks and we knew practically nothing about him. Father was very glum about it and, though he never mentioned it to us, we believe the references the man had brought with him when he was engaged were forged ones. So we know father must think his getting taken on here was part of a plan to rob him and he's been more nervy since."
"But what did the police do?" asked Penelope.
"Nothing! Of course, they were told about it, but there the matter ended. The only explanation anyone can think of is that he must have slipped out of the castle that night to have a swim in the sea—the sea is only about two miles from here—and got drowned. Still, his body was never found."
Then she went on to tell Penelope, without any reserve, of a secret love affair she was having with a young fellow whose father kept a provision shop in Norwich. It was the shop at which the castle dealt and that was how she had come to know him.
"He's such a dear boy," she said, "but father would be furious if he knew. Sometimes I meet him at night in the grounds, as it's the only place where we can talk to each other."
"But what about your cousin, young Mr. Chester Avon, who'll be the next Lord Delamarne?" asked Penelope. "I should have thought it would have been a good thing for the barony if you had married him."
"Father did think of it once," she said, "but then decided it would never do. He is very disappointed in Chester and says he couldn't have two such weak characters as him and me to carry on the line." She laughed shyly. "You see, Chester is something like me in disposition. He lets people make up his mind for him and gives in to them much too easily. Father says he's got no more backbone in him than a piece of jelly."
Penelope was very amused. "But if your father had decided you two should be married, would you both have agreed to it?"
Joan shrugged her shoulders. "I suppose we should have had to, as father always seems to get his own way." She spoke warmly. "But don't you start imagining my cousin is anything of a fool. He certainly is not, and it's only because he depends so much upon father that he always seems frightened of him. You see, he has only got his pay as a lieutenant in the Regular Army, and father allows him £300 a year. Besides, though the Blackarden estate is entailed, father has so much to leave besides that it would make a lot of difference to Chester if he kept him out of it all."
"Is he engaged?" asked Penelope.
Joan laughed. "No, and he wouldn't dare to be unless father had approved of the girl first. It seems rather humiliating, doesn't it? But then Chester is very good tempered and takes it all in a good-humoured way." She continued, "He has a great friend, too, in a Major Mangan, whom he says laughingly won't let him get too friendly with any of the girls who are setting their caps at him, and goodness only knows how many of them there are."
"I'd like to meet him," smiled Penelope. "I might set my cap at him, too."
"But he'll be difficult to catch," smiled back Joan, "as he's always rather shy with strange girls. However, you'll soon get the opportunity to see what you can do, as he's coming down this week-end. His regiment is stationed at Aldershot, but for the time being he's doing some temporary work at the War Office in Town and manages to get plenty of leave."
Penelope duly absorbed all this information about young Avon and wondered if he would do for her, or, rather, she for him. Evidently it was going to be Lord Delamarne who would decide whom the boy should marry and it struck her again there was no knowing what the old lord's cynical ideas of life generally might suggest to him. It might appeal to his cynical outlook on life generally to marry his one-time valet's daughter to the heir of the great Delamarne line.
Upon the fourth day following on her arrival at the castle and when Joan was busy on household duties, Lord Delamarne came out to Penelope, who was sitting alone on the terrace, and asked her to come into his study as he wanted to have a talk with her.
Penelope's knees shook under her. So he had made up his mind as to whether or not he would engage her! It looked hopeful, as his manner was quite pleasant. Reaching the study and closing the door behind her, he motioned to a chair before the big desk and seated himself opposite her.
"By the bye," he began with a frown, "of course Joan has told you she has been meeting that young fellow in the grounds here at night?"
Most embarrassed at the question, Penelope put on a blank look and asked innocently, "Which young fellow? What do you mean, my lord?"
"Oh, don't be evasive," he said testily. "Of course you know all about it, as unhappily Joan is one of those foolish girls who can never keep any secrets to herself. I mean the boy from the provision shop in Norwich," and, waiting for no comment from Penelope, he went on grimly, "But I suppose that is another of your loyalties; all right in its way but not necessary in this case as I have learnt about everything. Well, you tell her from me that it must stop. If it doesn't, say I shall withdraw my custom from his father without any explanation and that will cause no little unpleasantness as well as pecuniary loss to him. I am not telling her myself because I don't want to get into a temper. It's not good for my health. You understand?"
Penelope nodded and he said frowningly, "Well, I have made up my mind to engage you and your salary will be six guineas a week." He spoke with an effort. "I realise that is more than just the ordinary secretary I need now. I require someone whom I can trust implicitly and to whom I can confide very private matters with no fear of their being passed on to anybody." He spoke sharply. "I think you are the right one there."
"Thank you so much for your good opinion of me, my lord," said Penelope warmly. "You won't be disappointed in me, I promise you."
"I don't think I shall," he said and he smiled his cold grim smile, "because I happen to know your pedigree. Your father was a man who, except for his one failing, would be as they put it, faithful unto death, and for your mother I had always the greatest respect in that way, too."
He frowned again. "Of course, Joan has told you about what people call my eccentricities—that I have secrets to hide and spend a lot of time in the underground parts of this castle. Also that I have kept from everyone the way down to them from this room. All this is quite true, but I have a perfect right, if I choose, to keep my private affairs to myself. They are nobody else's business." He looked troubled. "My anxiety now is that on one of these expeditions below, in my present ill health I may be suddenly taken ill, with no one being able to help me, and that is where I expect you to come in." He rose to his feet. "Now take good notice of what I am going to show you."
He pulled open a bottom drawer on one side of his desk and, lifting out some papers, showed her a small catch on the back. "Now this desk is clamped to the floor and when I pull that catch back it releases a spring behind that oak panel in the wall. Please take good notice that the panel is the seventh one from where the shelves of books begin. Now you go over and slide that panel back. Press hard first and then it will slip back behind panel number eight."
Thrilled in intense interest, Penelope did as she had been told and a door, covered over with thick felt, was exposed to view. Lord Delamarne explained that the felt had been placed there so that any tapping upon the wall should not give out any hollow sound. The door opened into a little narrow chamber about six feet in length, at the end of which there was another door. His lordship flashed a big electric torch.
"This chamber and the second door," he explained, "was arranged so that no draught should come up from below."
The second door opened and he flashed his torch upon a flight of narrow steps leading down to inky blackness below. "Seventy-two of them," he said, "but they're not steep and quite safe. Follow me."
The stairway seemed almost endless to Penelope, but at last they reached the bottom, and reaching up his arm Lord Delamarne switched on a light and Penelope gave a long "O-o-h!" as she saw a long and wide corridor, paved with huge stone flags, stretching before her until it reached the darkness in the distance. On either side were a number of gaping doorways with their massive wooden doors lying prone upon the ground.
"Are those the vaults in there?" she asked breathlessly, and though she spoke hardly above a whisper her voice echoed along the corridor.
"No, those are the dungeons," he replied. "In the course of the centuries the doors have fallen down because the ironwork of the hinges and fastenings have rotted away. The vaults are farther on."
"But how is it the air is so clear?" asked Penelope. "It's not a bit close or musty as I thought it would have been."
"That's because it's always circulating," he said. "It's drawn in through a deep well among the vaults and from openings high up in the chimneys in the castle above."
He led Penelope up the long corridor to a small dungeon round the corner at the far end of the corridor and, opening a small door, showed her a little chamber that had been fitted up to house the most valuable of his silver collection. There were glass cabinets all round the walls, a big comfortable armchair, a couch and a good-sized radiator.
"And this is where you'll find me," he said with a sad smile, "if ever I'm missing for too long. You shall have a duplicate key to the library door to get in whenever you want to." He eyed her intently. "You won't be afraid to come, will you?"
"Of course not," she replied. She laughed. "Though I expect there are plenty of ghosts gliding about down here."
"There should be if such things as ghosts exist," he said casually, "as in the cruel and torturing days of the Dark Ages many a poor wretch drew in his last breath here. Some of the lords of Blackarden of those times had not too good a reputation for kindness."
After giving Penelope a quick look round down some of the many passages leading out of the main corridor, Lord Delamarne led her up into his study again and made her manipulate the sliding panel many times to make certain she understood how to work it properly. "But do you really think, Lord Delamarne," she asked hesitatingly, "that all these precautions are necessary?"
"I certainly do," he answered solemnly. "There are many articles of great value below and I have good reason to believe that of late I have been watched. I am not an easily frightened man, Miss Smith, but I think it wise now to carry an automatic pistol always about with me," and he took one from his hip pocket and showed it to her. Then seeing the troubled expression on her face he added, "So you see in what a position of trust I am placing you."
"But I'm not really at all frightened," she said. "It's an adventure"—she laughed—"and didn't I tell you I was adventurous?"
"Good," he commented, "and I am certain I can depend upon you." He smiled quite pleasantly. "I admit it's something of a relief to me to realise that I have someone near me who can help if I need help."
Penelope was glad her position in the castle had been settled before the other daughter, Vera, the Honourable Mrs. Riverton, returned home. The latter had been married only a few months to a well-to-do landowner whose hobby was the breeding of stud cattle. Their house was about five miles from the castle, but Penelope had been given to understand that she would see plenty of both of them.
From the very first Vera was prepared to be quite friendly, but she was naturally very curious about her father having taken a girl for his secretary and put a lot of rather searching questions to Penelope. Still, the latter was every bit as shrewd as she was and, with all her answers ready for any questions that might be put, was sure she did not let slip anything she should not have done.
Penelope's next excitement was the arrival for a few days' stay of the heir to the barony. She liked him at once, and thought him a bright and happy young fellow whose great fault was that he was inclined to take life much too easily. He took a good eyeful of her when they were introduced and remarked smilingly that it was quite nice to see a new face at the castle and such a pretty one, too.
"Now you stop that, Chester," said Joan in mock reproach. "Miss Smith is quite a staid and proper young person and allows only father to pay her compliments like that. Isn't that so, Penelope?"
"Of course it is," laughed Penelope. "As I've told you, I'm a bit of a man-hater and have no time for any of them until they're well over forty."
"Oh, you want to be an old man's darling, do you, Miss Smith?" asked young Avon. He pretended to look pleased. "Well, with all my worries I'm ageing quickly and so shall soon be eligible," and he gave Penelope a wink which he intended should be a very knowing one.
But if Chester Avon were talkative and merry when alone with the two girls, he was very different when in the presence of his uncle, subsiding then into a very quiet and subdued young man. It was evident he stood in considerable awe of the lord of the castle, and the latter did not make things any better by continually frowning at him.
"Now you are here," said Lord Delamarne to him at lunch, "you may as well try to do something useful for once. You're to give Miss Smith a lesson or two in driving my car," and he gave the order in such a stern, cold way that it might have been thought he was imposing some unpleasant duty upon his nephew.
Penelope herself was delighted with the idea, as always of a hopeful and sanguine disposition, her daydreams had strengthened that there were great possibilities of conquest in young Avon if only she was tactful and played her cards carefully.
Actually brought now in contact with him, following upon all Joan had told her she was confident she had summed him up pretty accurately. A flirt in a timid and very cautious way, he could never have had a real sweetheart, let alone have been the lover of any girl! He was all virgin ground, just waiting for some enterprising and tactful young female to implant the deeper feelings in him!
However, with any conquest in contemplation, she knew quite well that he was not the only one to be considered and that there would be no chance of ultimate success except with the approval of Lord Delamarne himself. With the old lord's strong and masterful disposition, she was sure whom the heir would take for his wife would be decided by him, rather than by young Avon, who would most certainly do as he was told there.
Still, she was not without hope that eventually his lordship might come to approve of her as being quite suitable to be his nephew's wife. Already the old man had honoured her with a confidence he had certainly given to no one else, and it might be that in time she would become so indispensable to him that any liking Chester took for her would be pleasing, rather than otherwise, to him.
Anyhow, the first thing was to make the boy himself become attached to her and, with him now showing an obvious willingness to open a flirtation with her, she decided to give him plenty of encouragement. However, at the same time she would take good care to pretend to him that it was going to be a flirtation and nothing more. She would appear to be so frank and open about that that he would not think he need put up any defence against her or have to be in any way upon his guard.
Then—she thought her chance would come, as she would try to make the flirtation so delightful to him that, quite unknowingly in the end he would have plunged so deep that he would have no wish to draw back.
She sighed here when she summed it all up. But what a little fool she was! What chance had she, a mere employee in the castle, when almost certainly everyone there would be against her? The boy himself might indeed become fond of her without realising that all the time she had been purposely leading him on, but onlookers would have noticed it at once, and wouldn't Vera, for one, have started warning him against her. Vera was always very much inclined to be a jealous little cat.
Penelope was smiling again now. Well, if nothing came of her scheming at least she would see that she got some fun out of it. After all, she had all to gain and nothing to lose. It would be like acting a part in a play.
Then if indeed her manoeuvres were intended to be something of the nature of a play she certainly acted very well in it. The boy was allowed plenty of squeezes of her hand and got unmistakeable squeezes back in return. When, too, they were in the company of others, many sly and almost verging on ardent glances passed between them, laughing and yet provocative on her part and on his showing the undoubted pleasure he was feeling at the little intimacies which, unknown to everybody else, were making everything so interesting for both of them.
However, when upon the conclusion of the last driving lesson he suggested a kiss as a reward for his services, she declined with a pretty shake of her head.
"Not quite so soon, Boy!" she exclaimed reproachfully. "Why, I've known you for such a little time."
"Just one," he pleaded, "a very quick one."
"No, no," she whispered, "you can't have one now. Don't you see Vera has got her eyes upon us and keeps looking this way. So wait for a better time."
"All right," he said. "But you promise, don't you?"
"Yes, I'll keep one for you," she laughed. She flashed him one of her provocative glances. "Don't you think a kiss can be made so nice that it's a pity to take it too hurriedly?" and young Avon thought the denial of the kiss had been made so sweetly that it perhaps might have been almost as good as the kiss itself.
On the afternoon of the day upon which Avon had gone back to Town, Lord Delamarne remarked casually to Penelope when they were together in the study, "And pray what do you think of this precious nephew of mine, Miss Smith?"
"He's a very nice boy," replied Penelope in an equally casual tone, "but he's only a boy and hasn't half grown up yet."
"Well, he's taking a long while about it," grunted his lordship, "and I don't think he'll ever be a proper man. He's a young fool and can't say boo to a goose."
"But he's anything but a fool," returned Penelope instantly, "and if he doesn't talk much in front of you it's only because you frighten him so. You are frowning at him all the time."
"But he's no enterprise," said his lordship. "He never shows the least bit of go like other young fellows of his age."
"Oh, doesn't he?" commented Penelope with a laugh. "Well, he squeezed my hand hard enough when we were first being introduced and didn't seem at all backward then."
Rather to everyone's surprise, the boy appeared at the castle again on the following Saturday. He explained that his chief was away and thought, as he had nothing in particular to do, he might just as well come down and give Penelope another driving lesson or two.
Penelope was really delighted about it. At any rate, she told herself, she was not losing ground. She was the more heartened there because she was sure she could sense some different attitude of the boy towards her this time. He was quieter, even a little shy, and if he talked less to her she thought he nevertheless looked at her a good deal more.
"Good," she told herself with a little thrill, "he's interested in me now in a different sort of way to what he was on our first meeting. He's more respectful and nothing like as bold as he was last time."
She was very nice to him and even ventured to give him some advice. "Talk more to your uncle," she said, "and let him see you've got a mind of your own. Bring up the Baltic question to him and say they all seem only half-civilised to you. That'll please him a lot, as no one could hate them more than he does."
So to Lord Delamarne's astonishment that night at dinner Avon brought up world affairs and, in the short conversation that ensued, listened most deferentially to his uncle's views.
"You did splendidly, Mr. Avon," said Penelope afterwards. "Now before you come down next time read up some political news and ask for your uncle's opinion again. Make him realise that you're interested in other things besides sport. He's got a silly idea that you are never interested in serious matters."
On the Monday morning, in bidding the boy good-bye when they were in the conservatory together, she thanked him gratefully for the driving lessons he had given her. He coloured up and for a few moments they stood looking at each other without speaking.
"You're a nice boy," said Penelope gently and then, in the most natural way possible, she lifted up her face and gave him a quick kiss.
"Whew, that was nice," he said a little hoarsely. "I'd like a few more, please," but she put a finger on her lips and led the way smilingly out of the conservatory.
That night Lord Delamarne brought up his nephew again to Penelope. "Had a good time with him?" he asked grimly.
"Yes, he's been very nice," she nodded.
"Did you attempt any flirtation with him?" asked his lordship, looking at her very hard.
"I didn't get much chance there," laughed Penelope. "Vera saw to that. She left us alone together as little as possible."
"But I suppose," went on his lordship dryly, "as the adventuress you have told me you are, you've already got your eyes on him as a possible husband?"
She shook her head smilingly. "Hardly," she said, "as I'm years too old for him. When he marries it ought to be to a girl several years younger than he, otherwise he'll never stick to her. Now if I were his wife, in six months he'd be running round after someone else. I know his kind." She laughed merrily. "Besides, he'll never want to marry me, as he knows I'd order him about too much." She shook her head agin. "No, Lord Delamarne, you needn't ever think I'll set my cap there. I tell you I'm not in the running," and his lordship dropped the subject.
Now if Lord Delamarne were worried at the thought that unknown enemies might be closing in upon him—his anxiety was as nothing to that Larose should now be experiencing, for no one could have realised better than he did that he had just been in most deadly peril and, in all probability might soon be facing that same peril again.
The previous evening he had been shot at twice by someone firing at him with a rifle.
He had returned home to the abbey when it was beginning to get dark and, having put his car in the garage, was just in the very act of letting himself into the house in the full glare of the hall lights shining through the open doorway when he heard the whine of two bullets passing in quick succession close beside him. From his life's training always on the alert, his mind instantly registered an attempt to kill him and even as the reports of a rifle reached him he was hurling himself precipitately down into the hall.
Kicking the door to behind him, he sprang to his feet, pale and with little beads of sweat beginning to burst upon his forehead. Upon the opposite wall he saw where the two bullets had crashed in, with the holes being only a few inches from each other.
"Good shots!" he exclaimed hoarsely. "He was probably firing from that hill."
Darting like lightning over to the phone, not to his great surprise he found the line was dead. However, arguing that whether or not the would-be assassin would be thinking his bullets had hit their mark, he would now be speeding away from the neighbourhood as quickly as possible, he judged it quite safe to go outside again. So with all haste, taking out his car once more, he proceeded at once to a neighbouring house and within a very few minutes was on the phone and telling the Norwich superintendent of police what had happened.
"All right, Mr. Larose," said the superintendent, who had instantly taken in the situation, "I'll have an immediate SOS sent out all round. We'll block every road so that he can't get away."
"And look out for a returned soldier," warned Larose. "He must have been firing from the direction of the sea, due east and probably from the plantation on Dunton Hill, as from there he could look down straight into our drive and the front of the house. From the time of the report of the rifle followed upon the striking of the bullets, I reckon he must have been a good eight hundred yards away."
Having done all that in the circumstances he thought he could have done, he returned home, most thankful that it happened while his family were away. The elder boys were at boarding school and his wife with the younger children on a visit to Town.
"So that's that," he told himself with a wry smile. "Our good friend, Major Mangan, of course! He's a quick mover and has lost little time." He shook his head. "So I shall never be safe now until he's finished with." His face hardened. "I may have to kill him myself."
As can well be imagined, it was some time before he dropped off to sleep that night, and then when it was almost one o'clock in the morning he was awakened from his uneasy-slumber by the sounds of a car pulling up outside, and answering the door himself he found it was the superintendent of police from Norwich.
"You can rest easy, Mr. Larose," said the superintendent smilingly, "as we're practically certain we've got the man."
"You've got him, you say?" exclaimed Larose delightedly. "Splendid! Has he admitted anything?"
The superintendent shook his head solemnly. "He can't. He's dead. He was on a motor-bicycle, and attempting to get away from one of the King's Lynn patrol, ran head-on into a wall and was killed instantly from a broken neck."
Larose looked disappointed. "Then all you have against him is that he was trying to avoid the patrol? Had he got any rifle on the machine?"
"No, no rifle," said the superintendent. "We shall probably find that hidden in that wood." He nodded grimly. "But in one of his pockets we found three cartridges of the kind used in the new Service rifle, the Park-Riley. We shan't have the slightest difficulty of finding out all about him as he was carrying a driving licence made out for a Eric Rupert Haines, of an address in Hammersmith. Evidently he had no expectation he would be bailed up."
Larose looked more satisfied. "He must have been picked up very quickly," he commented.
The superintendent smiled. "Barely twenty minutes after I received your call. If he was quick—we were even quicker. The King's Lynn police—I have just come from them—had got the cordon working in their district in under a quarter of an hour. If you are right about his firing at you from that plantation on Dunton Hill, then in the following five and twenty minutes he covered nearly twenty-six miles. Undoubtedly he was reckoning that his speed would enable him to slip up North, or perhaps into some big town in the Midlands before the hue and cry had even been started in this county. I guess he was banking on that cut telephone wire."
"Well, you've done splendid, superintendent," said Larose warmly, he made a grimace, "that is, if you've got the right man."
"Oh, I think we can be pretty certain of that," said the superintendent. "His refusing to stop was damnably suspicious. The King's Lynn chaps heard his motor-bike coming when it was miles away and, knowing he would have to pass them, pulled up their car at once and sent one of their uniformed men ahead to give him plenty of warning to stop before he drew level with them. He slowed down and it looked as if he were going to do so, but then, when he was nearly up to the patrol car, which was stationed bang in the middle of the road, he accelerated in a flash and swerved sharply to slip by. He would have got by, too, if his machine hadn't skidded and crashed into that wall."
"What kind of man was he?" asked Larose.
"Not a common one by any means; about thirty, I should say. His hands were well kept and not accustomed to manual work. Under his overalls all his clothing was of good quality. His wrist watch was anything but a cheap one and in his pockets, among other things, were a wallet with twelve pounds in treasury notes and a silver cigarette case with the engraved initials E.R.H. As I have said, it is evident he had no expectation of being caught. We'll know all about him to-morrow."
Some thirty-six hours later Inspector Stone was telling Larose the rest of the story. "Mangan's work again," he said gloomily, "but as before not a shred of evidence against him. This Eric Rupert Haines was in the commando raid on Dieppe and we know Mangan was there, too, so it's no stretch of the imagination that they were acquainted with each other. One thing, it may be a small one but nevertheless it's significant, the Egyptian cigarettes that we noted when we raided Mangan's flat and those in this shooter's case were both of the same expensive brand. How's that for a bit of circumstantial evidence that they know each other?"
"Pretty good, Charlie," nodded Larose, "but unhappily we can't bring Mangan in on that. Still, I am in absolute agreement with you that he put this man on me to get his revenge."
"Still, my boy," smiled the inspector, "you'll have a bit of a breather now before Mangan can dig up another assassin. The exact ones he wants are surely not easy to be found." A thought struck him and he asked sharply, "Now of course you know that Lord Delamarne who lives not far from you?"
Larose nodded. "Yes, I know him," he said, "very slightly, however. We meet occasionally on the Bench. But why do you ask?"
Stone spoke impressively. "Because in the course of our enquiries about this blackguard, Mangan, we've learnt that he's on most friendly terms with young Lieutenant Avon, his lordship's nephew and the heir to the Blackarden estate."
"Oh, oh," exclaimed Larose, "that doesn't sound too good. I should say a fellow such as Mangan makes friends with no one unless he's going to get something out of him."
"What I think," agreed Stone, "is that old Delamarne ought to be warned. Mangan and this boy are pretty thick together, with young Avon often taking him visiting down to Blackarden Casde. Do you know the old lord well enough to have a confidential talk with him?"
"No, I don't," replied Larose at once. "Delamarne is at all times a proud and reserved old chap and has very fine friends. I fancy he remembers I was a policeman once and consequently his manner towards me is always cold and distant."
"Then you don't like to bring up Mangan to him?" asked Stone.
Larose considered. "I'm not particularly keen, Charlie," and then he added sharply, "But I'll have to do it. There's total war now between Mangan and me and I'm not going to be squeamish."
"But don't you forget you'll be treading on very delicate ground," warned the inspector, "for remember there's a law of libel, my boy, and if Mangan should go for you for slander"—he shrugged his shoulders—"well, as you know, there isn't a single definite thing against him."
"I'm not forgotting that," said Larose, "but I'm certainly not going to let that blackguard get off scot free. I'll have to think over what I can do."
So back home that same evening Larose sat down and penned a letter to the great lord of Blackarden Castle.
"Dear Lord Delamarne," he began, "I would like to have a chat with you on a private and very important matter. Will you kindly arrange a place of meeting somewhere, any day and time you like. It would be better if I did not come to you or you to me, for no one must learn I have approached you. If you write me, put the letter in the post office yourself, and if you phone me here don't mention my name, but asked for a Mr. Hill. I have no hesitation in writing to you like this, for as I say the matter is a most important one both to you and me, and when you have heard what I have to say I am sure you will agree with me there.
Lord Delamarne received the letter the next morning and read it through several times. Then for a long while he sat frowning heavily.
Finally he went into the phone cabinet himself and, getting in touch with "Mr. Hill," arranged to meet him the following day at noon at the County Club in Norwich.
BOTH Lord Delamarne and Larose were punctual at the rendezvous in the Norwich club on the following morning. They shook hands coldly, and Larose at once suggested they should have their talk in one of the cardrooms. "It will be quieter there and we shall be less likely to be interrupted."
Seated comfortably before the fire, Lord Delamarne eyed the younger man intently, in a guarded half-suspicious way. Ex-policeman though Larose might be, his lordship had to admit there was an air of distinction about him and he noted he looked very capable and sure of himself.
Larose opened the conversation without any delay. "I take it, my lord," he said, "that you keep yourself in touch with current affairs and so know all about the dreadful murders of some of those who were working upon the atom bomb and, later, that of Professor Glenowen?"
"I know what I've read in the newspapers," commented his lordship dryly, "but I have no inside information."
Larose smiled. "I hardly expected you would," he said. He went on, "Now you were well acquainted with the late Professor Glenowen, were you not?"
Lord Delamarne inclined his head. "I have known him for more than twenty years," he replied, "and he had many times, until of late years, been my guest at the castle."
Larose came straight to the point. "Then it will surprise you," he said sharply, "to be told there are the strongest reasons for believing that he instigated what are known as the atom bomb murders—the whole six of them."
His lordship sat up with a jerk and his eyebrows came together in a heavy frown. "Instigated!" he exclaimed. "Do you mean caused them to be done?"
"Yes, paid for them," said Larose calmly, "hired an assassin with huge sums to carry them out—picked the victims one by one, some only because they were working on the atom bomb, but others seemingly because he had a personal spite against them." He shook his head. "I know it seems incredible, but everything points to its being an actual fact."
"I don't believe it," said Lord Delamarne after a long pause. "Certainly I have always known Glenowen to be an excessively spiteful man, and admit that in the last year or so he appeared to have lost a lot of his mental balance, but to carry this spite to actual murder—well, I simply do not believe it. It's impossible."
"Well, you listen to me," said Larose, "and you'll soon realise how I came to the conclusions I did." He proceeded to relate the many visits the dead man had paid to Carmel Abbey, his continual interest to the point of gloating over them in the murders that had been taking place, and finally, how his, Larose's, suspicions had suddenly become aroused and how after patient investigation he had linked up the professor's interest in one way or another with every one of the murdered men.
With his eyes intently fixed on the face of Larose, Lord Delamarne had listened, without interrupting to ask a question or say a single word. At length, Larose stopped speaking, evidently expecting some comment to be made, and his lordship said grimly, "But Glenowen was himself murdered! How do you account for that?"
"Murdered by the assassin he had himself called into being," said Larose, "murdered by a shrewd, resolute and clever man who was far-seeing enough to realise that his employer, in his madness, had now become a dreadful danger to him," and he proceeded to relate the next part of his story, now dealing with the maniacal excitement of Glenowen and the memoirs of his life which he had evidently been writing.
"But why are you telling me all this?" queried his lordship with some irritation. "In what way does it concern me?"
"For the very good reason," replied Larose solemnly, "because it happens you are acquainted with Glenowen's murderer. You know him quite well."
His lordship's face was a study of angry amazement, but he made no comment and Larose went on, "Yes and I have asked you to meet me like this because I want to warn you. I know this murderer, too, and I am afraid he may now be marking you down for some evil purpose of his own." He shook his head. "Not necessarily murder this time, perhaps only robbery. Still, he's a man who would stick at nothing."
His lordship continued silent, and Larose said sharply, "Now, Lord Delamarne, you are known as a wealthy man and in the possession of many costly and beautiful things." He shrugged his shoulders. "I won't beat about the bush, but remind you frankly of the many rumours which you must be quite aware have been going about for years, to the effect that in the underground parts of your castle there are hidden treasures of incalculable value. Now"—and he lowered his voice to little above a whisper"—among your acquaintances or friends, among those to whom from time to time you have given the hospitality of the castle, can you think of any one of them who would fit the bill as a possible thief, or perhaps even worse than that if he turned his abilities into evil channels?"
"No, I can't," snapped out Lord Delamarne. "I am particular whom I choose as my friends."
Larose ignored his denial. "Don't answer so quickly, my lord," he reproved sharply. "Just think if among those guests who have stayed at the castle there has been a bold and resolute man, very capable, and whose history, as far as you have learnt, suggests that he would hold the lives and property of others very cheaply. Come, surely you can pick him out at once."
His lordship looked scornful. "I know whom you want me to pick out. You mean my nephew's friend, Major Mangan."
"Exactly!" exclaimed Larose. "Major Mangan, the distinguished soldier who was decorated with the D.S.O., the one-time officer in a crack Commando unit who fought with the Resistance Movement in France and who, if you draw him out, will talk of his many personal killings among the Huns when with his little band of patriots he was working from the Auvergne Mountains. Yes, that's the fine gentleman, and now I'll tell you what has been happening to him lately."
He related the many visits Mangan had paid to Professor Glenowen during the time the atom-bomb murders were going on, how he was known then to the professor's servants as 'Mr. Brown,' how from the night of the professor's murder he had vanished into the blue and for a long time could not be found, how he was finally tracked down by Scotland Yard, and finally, his, Larose's conversation with him in his shop in Wardour Street when he threatened to get his revenge in due time.
And all the while Lord Delamarne had listened in an absorbed concentration. The scornful expression had gradually passed from his face, and towards the end he had begun to look very troubled. With Larose's story apparently finished, speaking with an obvious effort, he said, "But you have really no evidence that anything is absolutely true, now have you, Mr. Larose?"
Larose shook his head. "No concrete evidence, my lord, and that is why Major Mangan is today walking about as free as you and I. All the evidence is circumstantial—" he spoke warmly, "but, Good God, how this circumstantial evidence piles up," he took a photograph out of his pocket, "even to this last piece, which is certainly as damnable as anything."
Lord Delamarne stared hard at the photo. "Of what is it?" he asked looking very puzzled.
"The lounge-hall at my place, Carmel Abbey," said Larose "and those marks on the wall where two rifle bullets crashed into the plaster." He spoke grimly. "Three nights ago, my lord, I was twice fired upon as I was entering my front door," and he proceeded to relate everything that had happened there.
"What a dreadful tale, or rather series of tales, you have told me," sighed Lord Delamarne. "It is true I know very little about this Major Mangan, and what I have learnt comes from my nephew Lieutenant Chester Avon. Still, he tells me the major moves in the best circles in Town and is of a high reputation. He says, too, he's well-off, of independent means."
"Independent means!" scoffed Larose. "Why, he is only an art and second-hand dealer in a small way and makes his living from that little shop I've just told you of in Wardour Street. For a long while, too, the police have been suspecting him of being a receiver of stolen goods. Several times they have raided the shop, though I admit they have not been able to catch him as yet."
"Then does Scotland Yard want to make out that he is working with a gang?" frowned his lordship.
Larose shook his head. "No, they don't say that. In the matter of the atom-bomb murders they at first thought that only he and Glenowen were involved in them, but later they realised the people of the Baltic Embassy were doing their utmost to prevent the major being traced and so, quite naturally, came to the conclusion they must be in it, too," and he related to Lord Delamarne how it had been found out Captain Michaeloff and Mangan knew each other, and the false description the former had so deliberately given to 'Mr. Brown!'
The old lord's eyes were opened very wide now and he was moistening over his dry lips with his tongue. God!—and his daily, hourly fear for many weeks of late had been that the Baltic people were watching him and trying to find out what he had to hide! He had been so sure it was they who had sent that third party to him to make enquiries those months back about Colonel Rubin whom he had known so many years ago! Then, worst of all, he had been fearful again that it had been they who had planted that footman in the Castle as a spy, that Footman, Thomas, whom he had caught in his dirty work and—but he broke off his train of thought to ask abruptly, "Tell me, Mr. Larose, if you had caught that man who fired at you the other evening, what would you have done to him?"
"Shot him like a mad dog," snarled Larose, "put an end to him without the slightest compunction!"
"And then," queried his lordship curiously, "you would have told the police what had happened? In effect, you would have given yourself up?"
"Not I," laughed Larose, "unless, of course, it were bound to become known I had shot him. If it were not, then after I had shot him and I should have come away, and left him just where he had fallen. I should have justified myself that, to the peril I had escaped, there was no need to add all the publicity and annoyance which would have benefited no one."
"You mean then that you would have taken the law into your own hands," asked his lordship, "and left it at that?"
"Exactly," nodded Larose, "and my conscience would have been very clear." He regarded his lordship intently. "But why do you ask?"
It appeared, however, that Lord Delamarne had not taken in the question, for he made no reply. A long silence followed, with him turning away his eyes from Larose and staring thoughtfully out of the window. At last he spoke hoarsely and with another effort.
"I am very grateful to you, Mr. Larose," he said, "for all you have told me. It was very kind of you to take such interest in me." He looked very troubled. "The whole matter means much more to me than you can have the slightest idea, in fact I realise I am in more danger than you would ever think. If it be true that Major Mangan is working with the Baltic Embassy, then I am in the hands of murderers. They are a vile lot these Baltic people and murder and assassination would be nothing to them."
Larose spoke as sympathetically as he could. "I know that, my lord and am very sorry to hear you speak as you do. But if I can help you in any way, I shall be very pleased to do so."
"I am sure of that," said Lord Delamarne warmly—he hesitated a few moments "and I think you are about the only person I should dare tell my troubles to. Now, I can't decide all at once. I must consider everything. Remember, I am an old man and can't make up my mind as quickly as I used to."
"Don't hurry, my lord," smiled Larose. "I am in no hurry. I have plenty of time."
"But I mean I can't decide straight off, today," said his lordship. "I must go home and think everything over." He hesitated. "Now, may I trespass more upon your kindness and meet you again somewhere tomorrow?"
"Anywhere you like," nodded Larose, "if you make it nearer home, so that neither of us will have to come too far."
His lordship considered a few moments. "Then what if I picked you up in my car in the main road just outside the gates of your drive? We could go to somewhere on the coast where no one is likely to see us."
"That'll do me," said Larose, "and make it eleven o'clock." He frowned. "But are you sure you can trust your chauffeur? Have you perfect confidence in him?"
His lordship smiled. "It isn't a him, it's a her, and she's a young woman of twenty-four."
"But have you had her for long?" asked Larose.
His lordship smiled again. "Only for a few weeks, but you need have no worry there as I knew both her parents. She can be trusted implicitly."
The next morning it was a very different Lord Delamarne who picked up Larose at the appointed place. All his cares seemed to have passed from him and he looked untroubled and even smiling.
Penelope was introduced and Larose admired the pert and pretty face so interestedly regarding him. "Nothing to be afraid of there," he told himself. "Quite trustworthy, very capable and very determined." He suppressed a grin. "But, if I'm anything of a judge of character, if the old lord doesn't look out, with all his grim and masterful ways; she'll soon be getting the upper hand of him."
They drove to a part of the coast not far from Sheringham, where at that time of year they had it all to themselves. Leaving Penelope in the car, the two men made their ways down the cliff and made themselves comfortable upon some big tussocks of seagrass at the bottom.
"Now, Mr. Larose," began his lordship, "I've made up my mind to tell you everything and when you've heard what I have to say, I am quite sure you will understand my hesitation yesterday." He drew in a deep breath. "Thirty years ago a trusted officer of the Czar Nicolas the Second, a Colonel Rubin, escaped from Russia bringing with him a very valuable portion of the Crown jewels. I had known him when as a young man I had been attached to the Baltic Embassy in St. Petersburg. To make a long story short, he came to stay with me at Blackarden Castle, and a few weeks after his arrival, however, he was stricken down with pneumonia and died, leaving the jewels in my possession in the Castle vaults." He paused a few moments. "Now, have you taken all that in?"
Larose nodded and he went on. "With all the Russian royal family so foully murdered and their country in possession of the bloody assassins, there was no one to whom I thought I was justified in rendering up the jewels. So I retained them and kept them as a secret to myself. Of course it was known to the revolutionaries that Colonel Rubin had been entrusted with them to carry away to a place of safety, but, apparently, no trace of him had been picked up and no one knew what had become of him. I may mention here that we had every reason to believe that not one word of his coming to Blackarden had ever leaked out and so upon his death, unknown to everyone except a priest of his Church, he was buried with great secrecy in the dead of night in the Castle vaults. This priest and I had dug the ground ourselves."
Lord Delamarne frowned. "Now, even had I been so basely inclined, there was no occasion for me to dispose of the jewels and make use of the money for myself. As it happened, I had other treasures of considerable value hidden away in the vaults. In the Indian Mutiny of 1857 my grandfather had acquired them in a way which was considered perfectly honourable and legitimate in those days, and I have been drawing upon it freely during all these later years of my life." He smiled grimly. "So all along there has been some truth in the rumours about hidden treasure which I am perfectly aware have been going round."
He went on, "The Czarist treasure, however, I regarded as a sacred trust and, not being able to hand it over to any rightful owner, very soon after its possession I began using it to mitigate the hardship of those who were suffering under the cruelty and harshness of the Bolshevik regime. Through secret channels I started selling the jewels, one by one so as not to attract attention, and giving the proceeds to societies who were helping the Russian refugees. This has now been going on for more than twenty-five years."
"All along, too, I was feeling quite confident that by no possibility would the treasure be stolen, for, as I expect you have heard, access to the vaults is impossible to anyone unless he knows the secret of getting down there. Nearly a hundred years ago my grandfather walled off all the lower parts of the castle and the only stairway left is a secret one through a panel in one of the walls of my study."
Lord Delamarne sighed heavily and his troubled look reappeared. "And so things were," he continued, "up to about between four and five months ago, and then a bomb was thrown into all my so-fancied security and I realised that, even after all these years, my secret was not safe. One morning I had a visit from a man, obviously a foreigner I realised the moment I set eyes on him, who told me he was a Hungarian and a teacher of music by profession. He said he had but recently escaped from a concentration camp near Budapest and had been asked by some relatives of a Colonel Rubin to try to find out what had become of him after he had left Russia just before the Revolution. He, this Hungarian, had been sent expressly to me because Colonel Rubin had confided to these relations that he was intending to come to me directly he reached England."
Lord Delamarne shook his head angrily. "I knew he was telling lies there, because at the time of his death Rubin had no relatives living, and again, engaged upon the highly secret mission that he was, he would have been the last person in the world to make known his intentions to anyone."
He shook his head. "Of course, while thinking it wisest to admit I had known the Colonel, I denied emphatically that he had ever stayed at the Castle. I said, too, I had been acquainted with him so slightly that, after thirty years, I hardly remembered what he was like. Still, the man kept on asking me the same questions over and over again and I could see he didn't believe me. At last, when I got rid of him, he left me in a state of very uneasy curiosity as to by whom he had been sent to question me. However, left in peace for a couple of months or so, I was confidently hoping I should be worried no more. Then a dreadful calamity happened. I caught one of my servants in the very act of tapping upon one of the walls of the study not far from where behind an oak panel, the stairway down to the vaults begins."
His lordship's face hardened and he went on grimly, "But the wretch never lived to pass on any discovery he might have made as—" he paused for a few moments "—he got what he deserved upon the spot."
Larose gasped incredulously. "You don't mean to tell me you killed him?" he asked.
Lord Delamarne nodded. "I do," he said. "I struck him on the forehead with a heavy poker and he died instantly. He was not a robust-looking man and his bones must have been very thin, as I could feel the poker crash in."
Larose gasped again and a short silence ensued, with Lord Delamarne regarding him with an amused smile. He went on, "It was in the middle of the night not far off two o'clock in the morning. I had not been able to get to sleep and, as I do, often I put on my dressing-gown and wandered round the Castle. Coming to the corridor into which my study opens, to my amazement I saw a light coming from under the door. More amazed still, I saw the door was not closed, but only pushed to. Almost holding my breath, I opened the door wider and put my head round." He held up his hand impressively. "There was this footman standing, as I say, actually close to the oak panel behind which lies the stairway leading to the vaults. Thrust into both his ears were the plug-ends of the rubber tubes of a doctor's stethoscope, and he was gently tapping upon the panel with his knuckles. I picked up a poker out of the grate and tiptoed towards him. For the moment, with his ears plugged as they were, he did not hear me coming, but then, turning round, one of his hands went like lightning to his hip-pocket and he sprang at me with a cry like that of a wild beast. I was too quick for him and struck as hard as I could at his head with the knobbed end of the poker."
He paused in his story to ask dryly, "Is that what you would have done, Mr. Larose?"
Larose frowned. "I don't know. I might have. Go on." He nodded. "Yes, of course I should. It was not a time for hesitation."
"For the moment," continued his lordship, "I remember I was filled with a dreadful consternation at what I had done, but that feeling passed instantly into one of fury when I bent down over him and realised what he had been intending for me." He nodded significantly. "The hand which he had thrust so quickly into his hip-pocket had got caught in the lining as it had been dragging out a vicious-looking knuckleduster. You see he was all prepared to go to any length if he was disturbed, so if my conscience had troubled me, I should have excused myself that I had acted in self-defence."
"But what did you do next?" asked Larose. "You carried the body down into the vaults."
"Yes, I took off his jacket and wrapped it round his head so that there should be no trail of blood, and half-carried and half-dragged it below."
Larose looked troubled. "Then, if ever you were suspected and a search was made his body could soon be found."
His lordship shook his head. "No, it is gone. It went within a few minutes of his death."
"But where to," asked Larose, very puzzled.
It seemed almost as if his lordship were repressing a smile. "I don't know. No one ever will."
Larose began to feel angry. He thought he was being fooled. "Is that meant to be a joke, my lord?" he asked with a frown.
"No, no," replied Lord Delamarne quickly. "I assure you it is the actual truth. Even a thousand men such as you, Mr. Larose, could not find it now." He bent forward. "There are many secrets about this grim old Castle of mine and one of them is that there is an underground river running underneath it, as in all certainty it has been running since the first stone of the castle walls was laid nearly seven hundred years ago. Down among the vaults there is what looks like a large well, but it is not a well, for at the bottom it opens into this river. You can lower a lantern nearly forty feet and see the black water passing by. When there have been heavy rains in the distant hills you can even hear it all through the vaults gurgling as it goes along." He nodded. "I tipped the body in it and in a moment it was gone."
"Good heavens," exclaimed Larose. "I'd like to see that well."
"You shall," said his lordship. "Directly this trouble has quieted down I'll show you over everything and you'll be greatly interested."
"But has no one ever tried to find out to where it goes?" asked Larose, very interested.
"Not in my time, or that of my father or his father before, him," said his lordship. "It has been taken for granted and the whole mystery left alone. However, it has always been thought by the very few who have been in the secret that it must finish up somewhere under the Ely marshes, as even in the longest droughts they never become dry." He looked very troubled. "But now to get back to this matter of it being suspected I may be still in possession of the Russian Crown jewels. What do you think of the whole position?"
"Was that footman a foreigner?" asked Larose.
"Certainly not! He was English right enough, and always struck me as being educated and much above the servant class."
"Well, I think it serious, very serious," replied Larose. He smiled. "I know it won't frighten you, as I don't think anything really would, but has the idea never entered into your mind that whoever are after these jewels may take a short cut and get hold of you to make you speak."
"You mean kidnapping and then torture?" said his lordship. He nodded. "Yes, I have, but then I very seldom leave the precincts of the castle grounds and there is always help from my men-servants within call." He patted his hip-pocket. "Besides, I am always armed. I always carry a Mawson automatic with me."
"Good," said Larose, "and, if you are ever cornered, don't be slow in using it. Remember—if it is this Baltic crowd who are after you, they are desperate men. They would kidnap you, torture you to make you speak and then without the slightest pity, kill you so that there should be no witnesses against them."
"Don't worry," said his lordship, "I shall be all ready to shoot first and think afterwards." He frowned. "But now about this Major Mangan. Granted he's all you make him out to be, there is not the slightest evidence as yet that these Baltic people have put him on to me. Don't forget he has been coming to the Castle, on and off for over a year, and now, upon this visit of his in a few days, it is not he who has sought me out but I who have invited him to visit me. Then how does that fit in with your idea that his coming means more danger to me?"
"Put in that way," agreed Larose readily, "I know it doesn't fit in at all, but considered from a different angle it suggests a deadly prospect. You tell me you have reason to believe that the Baltic Government is plotting against you—I have absolute proof they are upon friendly and even criminal terms with this Major Mangan—then if you are right about their plotting I, also am right about the danger to you."
Lord Delamarne shook his head. "No, you cannot be so certain there." He regarded Larose intendy. "Is it not possible that with a secret as great as this they have not dared to trust him, and so he knows nothing about it?"
A long silence followed and Larose shrugged his shoulders. "It is possible, and yet, knowing him to be the bold and evil man that he is, could anything better fit in with any plot to get hold of those jewels than to have such a confederate inside the Castle?"
"Well, I shall risk it," snapped his lordship, "and let him pay his visit in the ordinary way. I am now all prepared for anything which may happen and if more trouble is coming to me I want to bring it to a head." He spoke decisively. "You must realise, Mr. Larose, I don't want to live what remains of my life with his sword hanging over me. If I become certain that the danger, as I hoped, is not finished with the death of that footman, then I shall transfer every scrap of both my treasures into the safe custody of some bank and be done with the worry once and for all. The continued anxiety is too great for an old man."
"Then you would like to believe," said Larose thoughtfully, "that that footman was not after the Crown jewels."
His lordship hesitated. "I was hoping so," he said. "I was thinking he was just an ordinary thief who was coming after my valuable silver which is common knowledge I keep down in the vaults."
Larose considered. "But aware as you are now, my lord, that it is possible Major Mangan may be working with the Baltic Embassy, can't you see what a great risk you are running in receiving the major into the Castle as a guest?"
"But what can he do by himself?" asked his lordship testily. "He can't let anyone into the house on the quiet when we are all supposed to be in bed and asleep, as the alarms upon all the doors and windows on the ground floor, which are the only ones which matter, would prevent it. Every night at eleven I see these alarms are all set and no one can tamper with any one of them without starting the whole lot ringing. I designed them myself and I alone know how to operate them. All connected up together, they are electrically controlled from a master-switch in my bedroom."
"It sounds all right," said Larose, "but——"
"Then if anyone did manage to get into the castle," went on his lordship, "short of breaking down the door, he couldn't get into the study, as the lock there is a special one."
"But the footman got in," frowned Larose.
"Ah, but that was carelessness upon my part. I am sure I had not closed the door properly. Unhappily, I am inclined to do silly things like that, but now this secretary of mine comes everywhere with me at night to make sure I do not do such a thing again."
"What exactly does this girl know?" asked Larose.
"That my valuable silver is kept down in the vaults and how to get down there by the secret stairway. I thought it wisest to tell her that because of the possibility of being taken ill one day when I had gone down there, as usual, all by myself. Now I am going to trust her still more and warn her I am expecting an attempt may be made to rob me and that Major Mangan may be involved in it."
"And when is the major actually coming upon his visit?"
"Next Monday for four days to have a last go at the pheasants. There will be two other guns besides him and my nephew. No, he doesn't know these other men. They are very old friends of mine and live in the Midlands. He has never met them. They go away on the Friday, but the major is staying a day longer and returns to Town on the Saturday morning."
"Then as I take it," said Larose, "if there really is a plot being hatched to get hold of the jewels, Mangan's part in it will be only to get the thieves into the Castle. It will be they, and not he, who know where to find them."
"That is it," nodded his lordship. "After what you have told me, Mangan can have been brought only lately into the conspiracy."
They talked on for some time, with Larose's final warning that, if Lord Delamarne should notice anything suspicious about Mangan's actions, he was to ring up him, Larose, at once. "No, it's no trouble at all," he said. "If only for my own safety I want to lay him by the heels."
Going back to the car, Larose suggested they should return by way of the coast road so that they could pass the late professor's bungalow. "I'm rather curious there," he said, "as it has been sold privately and no one seems to know who's bought it. The buyer went to see Glenowen's sister, just asked the price and paid for it upon the nail, all in £5 notes. He gave no address, but said his name was Jenkins."
Coming within sight of the bungalow, they saw a man leaning over the garden fence, watching some sailing boats out to sea through a pair of glasses. Penelope was driving the car with both Lord Delamarne and Larose at the back. Seeing the man in the distance, more by instinct than anything else, Larose shrank into his corner and pulled his cap well down over his face. Upon them approaching nearer to the bungalow, apparently hearing the sound of the car, the man turned his glasses upon them.
Something familiar in his attitude struck Larose and a few moments later he whispered hoarsely to Lord Delamarne, "The devil! It's that attache from the Embassy I told you about, that Captain Michaeloff. Take a good eye-full of him in case he ever comes your way."
Some twenty yards or so before drawing level with him the man lowered his glasses and fixed his eyes upon them with a hard and intent stare. It was over in a few seconds and they had passed by. Through the window at the back of the car, much to the relief of Larose, he saw the man had returned to watching the sailing-boats out to sea.
"And what do you make of that?" asked Larose rather exultingly of his lordship who was frowning hard.
"If you are perfectly sure it was the man from the Embassy," said Lord Delamarne, "I don't like it over-much. It may go to confirm so much of what you have been telling me."
"Oh, it was Captain Michaeloff right enough," said Larose.
"There's no mistaking those horse teeth and that long face of his. Still, it may be only just a coincidence. Our Secret Service has been well aware that he and Glenowen used to visit each other in Town and, probably, the captain has been a visitor to the bungalow here as well. So, it isn't unreasonable to suppose that if he had taken a fancy to it, he would buy it when it came into the market. He would certainly get it very cheaply."
"But the Russian Crown jewels in my Castle," said his lordship, looking very troubled, "and now those who would give so much to obtain them only such a few miles away. Surely the vultures are gathering for the carcase?"
"Well, if they have, they've come jolly early," laughed Larose, "as it is not until next week friend Mangan is going to appear." He shook his head. "No, my lord, don't become pessimistic, a lot may happen before these vultures you mention may get anything in their beaks and then, maybe, they won't be in a condition to enjoy it."
Having dropped Larose where they had picked him up, Lord Delamarne moved over in the car to sit beside Penelope. For some minutes they drove on in silence and then his lordship asked casually, "and I suppose you've heard of Mr. Larose?"
"Who hasn't?" nodded Penelope. "Besides, Vera has told me a lot about him."
"Vera!" frowned his lordship. "But what on earth made her bring him up to you?"
"Because she thinks now that I am a detective," said Penelope. She laughed merrily. "It is really very funny. At first she was intensely jealous of your confiding so much in me, as she guesses I have been down into the vaults with you. She couldn't make it out. Then all suddenly she said light came to her and she realised I was a woman detective. She thinks now you have brought me here, either to help guard your priceless silver or else to clear up the mystery of that footman's disappearance."
"Has she questioned you?" he asked sharply.
"Oh, yes, a lot! But I said I had sworn to keep everything secret and so I have told her nothing. She's quite satisfied now and has stopped asking any more questions. I've made her promise most solemnly not to give me away to anyone, not even to Joan."
"H'm!" said his lordship, and after a few moments he asked, "I suppose you can guess why I didn't want anyone to know why I was meeting Mr. Larose this morning?"
Penelope nodded. "Yes, it's something to do with those thieves whom you expect may some day try to rob you of your silver collection."
"Yes, and one whom we have reason to suspect," he said dryly, "may be among the visitors who are coming to stay with me for the shooting in a few days." He smiled grimly. "I shall want you to watch him."
Penelope was thrilled. "Oh, how exciting! I shall love that. I've always fancied I should make a good detective as I note everything about everyone."
"And what have you noted about me?" he asked with a frown.
Penelope laughed again. "For one thing you are inclined to be suspicious about every car that comes near us. When we are meeting or passing one I notice your hand goes to your hip-pocket, as if you had got a pistol there." She went on. "But tell me who's this visitor whom you will be wanting me to watch?"
"A friend of my nephew's, I regret to say," he said, "a Major Mangan, a distinguished soldier!"
"Major Mangan!" she exclaimed, very surprised. "Oh, I know him, or rather I've seen him. Tall, dark and good-looking, and his hair is always plastered well down. At one time he used to come into the 'Rialto' quite a lot. Besides, I heard about him in my Society journalist days."
"What did you hear about him?" frowned his lordship.
"Nothing much to his credit," she said. "He's a regular man about Town, plays cards for high stakes, and they say he's always to be seen with men richer than himself."
His lordship looked uneasy. "Then you shall keep your eyes upon him when he's about here—" he spoke sternly "—but mind you, not a word about it to my nephew, as I'm not quite certain Chester can keep a secret."
"But you're wrong there, my lord," said Penelope instantly. "When he likes, Mr. Avon can be as sensible as anybody. You're prejudiced against him because he's been tied to his mother's apron strings for so long."
Lord Delamarne made no comment and the conversation died down. Arriving back at the Castle, rather to his lordship's surprise because it was so early in the week, he saw his nephew's car parked in the drive. The old man gave Penelope a hard searching glance, but she looked placid and unruffled and as if the car being there was of no interest to her.
"Did you know he was coming here today?" he asked sharply.
"Who coming?" she asked. "Oh, Mr. Avon!" She shook her head. "No, he wouldn't tell me." She smiled roguishly. "We are not as interested in each other as much as all that."
Still Lord Delamarne noticed it was a very bright smile young Avon gave the pretty secretary. "I've got a fortnight's leave, sir," he said to his uncle, "and thought I'd get my eye in for the long-tails next week by having a pot at the rabbits."
It was quite a happy week for Penelope, and, with her duties light and her employer allowing her plenty of freedom, she saw plenty of the heir of Blackarden Castle. In her own mind she had no doubt she was now getting him well in tow, though chances of any love-making were very few as Joan or Vera were always about. Still, upon two occasions they managed to exchange kisses in the conservatory, picquancy being added to them the second time by knowing Lord Delamarne was just outside talking to one of the gardeners.
Holding to her settled plan of campaign, she made very light of the kisses and never appeared to be too willing for them. "Don't you see, Boy," she whispered, "if we get caught it will only mean that I shall be sent away, and the kissing isn't worth it. There's no background behind it for me. It's only just a pleasant little interlude," and he whispered back to her not to be so brutal.
The day before the shooting party was due to arrive, Penelope was alone with Lord Delamarne in their little office, and the latter remarked frowningly. "Now, young lady, I shall be depending a lot upon you these next few days. I want you to pay a lot of attention to this Major Mangan. You understand?"
"No, I don't," said Penelope instantly. "What exactly are you expecting me to do?"
His lordship spoke impressively. "As I have told you, I imagine him to be the spy Mr. Larose is expecting him to be and that he is working with that man we saw in the garden of Professor Glenowen's bungalow the other day. So, put yourself in his place and think what you would do. To begin with, you would want to find out how you could get a confederate into the Castle at night when everyone was in bed. You would be interested in the alarms upon the doors and windows, and would like to find out how they work, so that you could tamper with them from inside. You would be interested in what times we all went up to our rooms. You understand now, don't you?"
Penelope nodded. "You mean I am to notice if he seems curious about little things that would not interest the ordinary person?"
"That's it," said his lordship. "Curious about little things. Then we don't know if that footman who left so suddenly had any suspicions that the secret stairway down into the vaults lead out of my study." He eyed her intently. "On the face of it, that seems probable, for if someone hadn't found out something about that stairway there would be no sense in breaking into the Castle and then not know what to do next."
Penelope made a grimace. "It all seems horrible to me," she said, "as if we were standing upon the brink of some dreadful precipice."
"It may be we are," commented his lordship, looking however, quite cheerful, "but, forewarned, as we are we shan't be the ones to fall over it. Mr. Larose is all ready to come here at once if I give him a call." He went on. "So assuming these possible thieves know something about that secret stairway, they will be very interested in my study, and in that case Major Mangan will try to get a look round there whenever he can." He frowned. "What it all amounts to is that we shall have to keep an eye on his movements all the time he's here." A thought struck him. "Of course you will not mention about the major to my nephew."
"Of course I shan't," said Penelope indignantly. "Whatever Mr. Avon's gifts may be, he's no actor and if he were in our confidence Major Mangan would guess from his manner that something was going on against him." She laughed. "The other day I asked Mr. Avon not to stare at me so hard or you all might begin to think he was getting unduly interested in me." She shrugged her shoulders. "But it didn't make any difference. He stares at me just the same."
"So I have noticed," remarked his lordship dryly, and he asked sharply. "Has he kissed you yet?"
Penelope regarded him reproachfully. "What a question to put to me, my lord! Do you forget you were young yourself once?"
"That's no answer to my question," frowned his lordship.
Penelope looked amused. "Well, as that is a strictly private matter," she said, "I don't consider I am obliged to tell you the truth." Her eyes twinkled. "So my answer, my lord, is in the negative."
Lord Delamarne smiled back. "Well, I'm only telling you for your own good. I believe my nephew is very casual in his dealings with young women and no matter what kisses he may give you he'll never want you for his wife."
"I know that, my lord," agreed Penelope promptly. "I may be all right to flirt with and not the kind of woman he'd like to have ordering him about." She spoke sharply. "He knows I'd stop half of his forty cigarettes a day and most of his double whiskies."
The following day just in time for lunch, the three expected visitors duly arrived, two of them together from Leicester and the Major from Town. Penelope was greatly impressed with the Major and thought his manners and general bearing charming.
Joan had told Penelope he would talk to each of the three girls as if he were in love with her and, in spite of her customary self-assurance, his compliments to Penelope, given in such a tactful way that no one could take an exception to them, made it difficult for her not to blush.
"But you mustn't talk to Miss Smith like that," laughed Joan, when it happened once that Lord Delamarne was not present. "As I tell everyone, Father is the only man here allowed to admire her. She's only been in the Castle a few weeks and yet she's more in his confidence than anyone else." She looked slily at Penelope. "Sometimes they are shut up together for hours in that musty old study of his," and Penelope would have liked to have slapped Joan's face for being such a little fool.
In the afternoon it had started to rain hard and there were no outdoor amusements. So everyone adjourned into one of the long sheds in the Castle grounds and they had a shooting competition with pistols.
The major and young Avon had both got their own pistols and, lending them round, quite an interesting contest ensued. As was expected the major won, but, rather to everyone's and particularly Lord Delamarne's astonishment, Avon was only a few points behind.
"You've come on a lot lately, haven't you?" queried his lordship of his nephew.
"But I've always been pretty good, sir," replied Avon. "At Aldershot I was the best in our mess," and, from his lordship's expression, Penelope realised his nephew had gone up in his estimation.
The shooting match over, the major insisted he must take all their photographs in the big lounge hall. "I've brought my daylight developer with me as well as my camera," he said smilingly. "So I can run through the whole thing at once, and there'll be no waiting for any of you to see how good-looking you all are."
So, taking great care that they were all standing exactly as he wanted them, he posed them with their backs to the age-old massive front door, and, later, gave them a clear and very good little snap. Everyone was enthusiastic except Penelope who for some reason appeared to be very thoughtful.
Dinner that evening was a very merry one, with the gallant major undoubtedly the star guest and at his best as a raconteur of witty stories. Many times during the meal the old lord was feeling very puzzled. One moment he was regarding Mangan as a consummate actor and the next—he was anathematising Gilbert Larose as a consummate fool.
At the usual hour of eleven o'clock that night, accompanied now, as a matter of general routine by Penelope to see that he omitted nothing, Lord Delamarne made the rounds of the ground floor of the Castle to be certain everything was in order for the night. The round completed, he remarked to Penelope with a slow, sarcastic smile, "Nothing to report as yet, Miss Smith? No suspicious actions of our amusing friend?"
"Nothing much," replied Penelope casually, "except that I notice in those snaps he got an excellent picture of the wiring of the big alarm upon the front door. Of course it may have been only just a coincidence but, with one of those snaps in his hand, there would be no need for anyone to be seen studying closely how the wires are laid," and his lordship's sarcastic smile at once changed into a heavy frown.
And certainly a little while later, Lord Delamarne would have frowned more heavily still had he been able to see what the Major was doing when the latter had retired to his bedroom for the night. With one of his snap-shots in one hand and a carefully drawn diagram in the other, he was interestedly comparing the two. Apparently his inspection was satisfactory, as he was smiling happily when he placed them in a wallet, and locked the wallet up in one of the large suit-cases he had brought with him.
The following day nothing was seen of the shooting party from breakfast-time until they returned home at dusk. Then the Major made himself as agreeable as ever and in the hour before dinner went with Penelope into the picture gallery to admire the painting there.
"What a wonderful artist this chap Botticelli was," he remarked as they stood before the painting of a beautiful young girl admiring her reflections in a pool. "Note the intense poetic feeling he's put into this child's face, innocent, virginal and yet withal the passion which would one day be awakened when a lover came her way. Yes, it's a wonderful piece of art."
"Yes, it's wonderful," agreed Penelope. "A pity the girl couldn't always remain like that."
"Not at all!" laughed Mangan. "We all have to run one predestined path and life would be very barren if it were all promise and no fulfilment." He changed the conversation. "Talking about wonders—what a wonderful old chap the old lord is, even now as full of energy as I expect he was twenty years ago. But then I expect he takes good care of himself! Does he sleep soundly at night, do you know?" and he proceeded to ask several more questions which seemed to suggest both to Penelope and his lordship to whom she related the conversation later, that he was trying to find out if he, Lord Delamarne, would be hearing any movements about the Castle at night.
And that and the matter of the snap-shot were the only things that kept suspicion alive in Lord Delamarne's mind until the fourth evening of Major Mangan's visit to the Castle and then the old lord got a nasty shock. He had no longer any doubt that Mangan was working with the Baltic Embassy.
After dinner that evening the Major announced he had got a bit of a headache and, as it was a fine night, would like to go for a sharp walk. As an after-thought, he asked if he could borrow a bicycle. Provided with a machine, he declined young Avon's offer to accompany him, and promising to be back well before eleven, the time when the Castle was closed for the night, set off by himself.
Directly he had gone Lord Delamarne made a sign to Penelope to follow him from the room. He looked very troubled. "Miss Smith," he said sharply, "I believe he's gone to see those men at the professor's bungalow. I want you to bicycle there to try and find out. If you use the bye-roads it can't be more than seven miles and you should do it in an hour. Do you mind going?"
Penelope's heart beat very fast, but she replied readily-enough, "Not at all, my lord. It will be very exciting."
"But, for Heaven's sake you mustn't let him see you," went on his lordship quickly. "Remember, if he has gone there it is proof he is an evil man." He hesitated a moment. "No, I don't like sending you. It may mean real danger to you."
"But I don't mind," said Penelope grimly. "I'll risk it and I'll dress myself so that if he does meet me on the road he won't recognise me in passing. I'll put Joan's dark overalls over my clothes and do up my head in a shawl. You see, he won't be expecting anyone has followed him and so won't be suspicious." She looked anxious. "But how can I get near the bungalow without being seen? As well as I remember it's so open all round."
"Approach it by the way he won't be going," said his lordship, "by the way we came in the car the other day. Don't go nearer than about fifty yards and hide with your bicycle among the marsh grass at the side of the road. I'll give you a pair of glasses to take with you and you can watch the bungalow through them."
"And how long am I to wait there?" asked Penelope.
"Until about a quarter past ten," replied his lordship. "He'll not dare to stay a minute later than that if he's to be back here by eleven." The habitual sternness of his face for the moment passed away and he went on hoarsely, "It's not a girl's work I am giving you and Heaven forgive me if any harm comes to you. Here—take this pistol of mine with you. Do you know how to use it?"
"Yes, I've shot several times with Mr. Avon's," she nodded, and she hoped he would not note the blush which had come into her face.
"And if you're threatened," he said sharply, "don't hesitate a second before you fire. You'll have the advantage there, for, even if they recognise you, they won't expect you to be armed," and his last words were, "If you're not back within half an hour of Major Mangan's return I'll come in the car to see what's happened to you."
It was a thrilling ride for Penelope and she was panting far more from excitement than from exercise when finally she and her bicycle were hidden among the coarse high tussles of grass within fifty yards of the bungalow. It was a beautiful still night with a half moon showing and just a touch of frost in the air. The sea was only a few yards from her and the lapping of its waves and the cries of the marsh birds were the only sounds that came to her ears. She thought how strange life was, all peace and quiet and beauty about her and yet so near were probably evil men upon whom in a few moments she might have to try to inflict a dreadful form of death if her own safety was in danger.
She could see light behind the drawn blinds of the windows of the bungalow.
Five, ten minutes passed and she began to get impatient and even disappointed that nothing was happening. Perhaps, it was all a mistake! Those at the bungalow might be harmless and innocent people and Major Mangan might not have come there at all! Perhaps, everything was a mistake, with the Major being harmless, too, and it being in no one's mind to break into the Castle! Then she would have been sent upon a fool's errand and had all her trouble and excitement for nothing!
She withstood her doubts for a few more minutes and then, rising to her feet, proceeded to walk stealthily towards the bungalow. The soft sand deadened all sounds of her footsteps.
Arriving level with the bungalow, she heard men's voices inside, and someone laughed. She looked round and then her heart almost stopped beating as she saw a bicycle propped up against the side of the bungalow. Hesitating a few moments, she was about to return to her hiding-place when a thought struck her. Greatly daring, she tiptoed up the short garden path and put her hand upon the extinguished lamp on the bicycle. It was quite warm, and so it's light could have been put out for only a very few minutes. To add to the certainty that the bicycle was the one that Major Mangan had been riding, she suddenly heard him speaking in the bungalow.
A great fear of the danger she was in surged through her. She remembered the warning Lord Delamarne had so recently given and realised now he must have been keeping back so much of what he knew. So if she were caught, these men of evil might shoot her with the callousness they would a dog.
Then, too scared to stay to listen to what was being said in the bungalow, she darted back on to the road. Turning to run to where her bicycle was hidden, her eyes fell suddenly upon a garage in the yard. It's doors were yawning wide and the moon showed up clearly a big car just inside. It was jacked up in the front and close near upon the ground lay a wheel and an inner tube. The bonnet of the engine had been taken off and was propped up against one of the doors. A number of tools were scattered about upon a sheet of canvas spread upon the ground. "So I'm all right there," she breathed, "Even if I'm seen they can't follow me in that."
In a few seconds she was back in her hiding-place and her watch had commenced again. Happily, however, it did not last long this time, for very soon the door of the bungalow opened and three men came out. Focussing her glasses upon them, though really it wasn't necessary, she recognised one as Major Mangan and another as the tall man with the horselike teeth whom she had seen those few days back when she had been passing the bungalow in Lord Delamarne's car.
Their voices came up clearly on the still frosty air. "Damn you," she heard Mangan say angrily, "I was so reckoning upon getting a lift back with my bicycle nearly all the way; I am so sore and stiff now that the riding will be purgatory."
"Sorry, old man," laughed Captain Michaeloff, "but, as I say, with the light in the garage gone bung, we can't do anything more to the car until the morning. There are two or three hours work to put everything right." He spoke sharply. "Now have you taken everything in. You are just to do your little bit and then fade out of the picture altogether. We can't have you coming into the limelight as, if we meet with no success this time, we may want you again."
Mangan rode off grumbling, sitting as lightly upon the saddle as he could to ease the soreness brought on by his unaccustomed riding on a bicycle. He was furiously angry.
And his feelings would have been far worse than those of anger had he but heard what the two men were saying when they were back in the bungalow! "After all, I've come not to trust that fellow," scowled Captain Michaeloff, "and so we'll let him know as little as we can. He'll get no blasted ten per cent whatever happens. We'll make out we found nothing."
"I don't trust him, either," agreed the other. "He's just the sort of chap to double-cross us and cut our throats if he gets half a chance."
Mangan reached the Castle a few minutes before eleven outwardly as smiling and good-humoured as ever, but inwardly in a black rage and cursing deeply at his soreness.
Penelope was only just behind him and, indeed at the end of the journey, had to slow down so that she should not overtake him in the drive. Lord Delamarne listened to her story with a dry mouth and most uncomfortable feeling of alarm. He expressed his gratitude to her. "You've done splendidly, my dear," he said warmly. He nodded significantly. "And I won't forget it."
The other three men were still playing cards and Mangan sat down and joined in some poker. Seeing the coast was clear, Lord Delamarne went into the cabinet and rang up Larose to whom he related everything that had happened. The one-time detective was quite cheerful about it.
"Now we know exactly where we are," he said, "and with any luck we ought to be able to catch them all red-handed. From the scrap of conversation your girl overheard they are evidently quite confident of being able to get into the Castle. So it evidently looks as if Mangan had found some way of short-circuiting those electric alarms."
"But I could lock him in his room," said Lord Delamarne, "and the——"
"But that would be no good," said Larose instantly, "as it would leave the whole matter in the doubtful condition it is now and you wouldn't learn who were your enemies, and would have to go on worrying all your life. No, let them actually get into the Castle and we'll grab the Major at the same time and he'll get a long sentence, too."
"Then we shall want plenty of help," said Lord Delamarne, apparendy in no way alarmed by the grim prospect before him.
"Well you've got your nephew and the three men-servants," said Larose, "but don't say a word to any of them until the last moment when we get them out of their beds."
"The blackguards are not likely to come tonight," said his lordship, "with their car in the condition my secretary says it is."
"No, and it may be in their minds, too," said Larose, "to wait until these other two visitors of yours have gone away." He hesitated a few moments. "But look here, Lord Delamarne, would you rather call in the police and let them handle the whole thing?"
"No, no," exclaimed his lordship at once. "I don't want that. It would mean I would have to explain how it was I knew they were coming, and too many questions would be asked, with too much publicity all round."
"That's what I think," said Larose, "and we all ought to be competent enough to manage the whole thing by ourselves. After all, there'll be only three of them to deal with, and, taken unawares, we should be able to down them easily. Then, when they're all trussed up we'll call in the police."
"And when will you be coming over to the Castle?" asked Lord Delamarne.
"Upon the tick of midnight," replied Larose, "I'll be waiting outside the main door for you to let me in. I don't think for a minute that these gentry will turn up before one or two, and we'll give them no chance to put up a fight. In a way that'll be rather a pity, for I'd dearly love a good excuse to use my gun," and Lord Delamarne came away from the phone thinking what a blood-thirsty customer the one-time detective was.
THE NEXT day was indeed a long one for the lord of Blackarden and many, many times he wondered if all their surmises would fall like a house of cards to the ground and the dawn break on the morrow with nothing having happened. He wondered the more that evening at dinner with the gallant major at his best. The other two visitors having gone away that morning, there were only five of them at the meal, and to young Avon's secret annoyance, his friend paying his accustomed attention to the ladies seemed yet to look at Penelope far more than at anybody else.
Mangan was certainly in a happy frame of mind. The more he thought about it the more he was pleased that all he had to do in the forthcoming attempt to obtain possession of the jewels was to get Captain Michaeloff and his companion into the castle. Very doubtful that they would meet with the easy success they were anticipating, he wanted to be mixed up in the whole business as little as possible. Looking ahead to the time when Avon would be lord of the castle and a plump pigeon to be plucked, whether or not Michaeloff did manage to get hold of the jewels, he was determined no suspicion should have fallen upon himself.
So, with that end in view, he had made no effort to get into the study with the key they had provided him and look for the secret panel in the wall leading to the stairway. All he had done was to make certain he had found the way to tamper successfully with the alarm on the front door, and he was quite sure he had got that all right.
The missing footman had undoubtedly been a highly skilled electrician and following the instructions he had remitted to the Embassy during his stay at the castle Mangan was now provided with an ingenious little appliance into which the electric current servicing the alarms could be temporarily diverted, thus rendering unnecessary any cutting of the wires. Thanks to an excellent blueprint of this appliance and the photograph of the big alarm on the front door which he had so cunningly obtained, Mangan was confident he knew exactly where to fix the gadget. So all was satisfactory there, and directly the other two conspirators were safely inside the castle he would go back to his bedroom and, later, no one would have any idea that he had ever come out of it.
Thinking things over, he continued to be the more and more amused at the captain being so sure that, once down in the vaults, he would be able to find what he wanted without any trouble. Knowing Lord Delamarne to be a very shrewd and capable old man, he did not for one moment imagine his lordship would have just plumped down his treasures anywhere, perhaps in a convenient suitcase all exposed to view and handy for the first person to pick up when he came along. Rather, he thought they would be in a hiding place even harder to locate than was the entrance to the secret stairway in the study. The captain was so confident, too, about this latter problem. To deal with any difficulty there, he had said that his companion would be coming all prepared, if necessary, to tear down the panels one by one until they had found what they were wanting. He was of the opinion that it would prove quite an easy matter.
Dinner over and with no one apparently keen on any cards, the rest of the evening was passed in conversation and music. Soon after eleven they all went to bed and long before midnight the old castle was wrapped in slumber. At midnight, almost to the minute, Larose was let into the big hall to find Lord Delamarne and Penelope all ready for him.
"Everything all right?" he whispered.
Lord Delamarne nodded. "Yes, Mangan went up to his room a long time ago and Miss Smith says he's put out his light. She is going to wait here to call us if necessary while I take you down below." He turned to Penelope. "I'll leave the panel open on the chance that you may have to fetch us."
"But they won't come yet for an hour or two," said Larose, "I'm pretty sure of that. The major is certain to have warned them that you're a bit of a night bird and don't get to sleep early."
Lord Delamarne led Larose into his study and showed him with some pride his ingenious way of dealing with the oak panel. "I am sure it would need a very imaginative person to think of this catch in the drawer of my desk. Now we'll go down below. The steps are quite easy though there are plenty of them."
In a couple of minutes or so Larose was gazing with not a little awe down the long corridor with the score and more of wide-open gaping dungeons opening into it. "Oh, what tales these old walls could tell," he whispered, "if only they could speak! What ghastly horrors they must have seen!"
"I'm afraid so," nodded his lordship, "but I don't suppose they've looked down upon more suffering than is going on in the world to-day. With the passing of the years those Baltic friends of ours are every bit as cruel and inhuman as were my ancestors of those many generations back." He made a grimace. "I shouldn't like to find myself in their hands to-day."
Larose was greatly intrigued with the comfortable little room his lordship had built for himself among all the gruesome surroundings, and he whistled when he noted the amount of valuable silver it contained. "Whew! I don't wonder you're afraid of being robbed. There would be a fine haul for anyone here."
Upon his asking to see the well into which the body of the footman had been dropped, his lordship took a coil of rope and a small oil lantern out of a cupboard. "I keep these here," he explained, "so that if by evil chance anyone ever succeeded in getting down into these vaults he should not associate them with the well and go lowering the lantern into it to see what's at the bottom." He nodded. "I have tried to provide for everything."
Making their way round to the well, his lordship lit the lantern and lowered it down with the piece of rope. The water of the so mysterious river was seen to be running swiftly, and from the height at which they were looking down it seemed black as ink. Lord Delamarne said, however, that when any of it was brought up in a bucket it was always bright and clear.
"And is the water always running as swiftly as it is now?" asked Larose.
"Always," replied his lordship, "and, as I have told you, it appears to have been doing so for ever and ever. In my father's and grandfather's times it was just the same."
"And now where have you got all those beautiful treasures hidden away?" asked Larose.
Returning to the main corridor, Lord Delamarne pointed to a large paving flag at the foot of one of the massive walls. "They're under that one," he said, "though from the closeness it is set to the other flags you would never think it would lift up quite easily. Still, it does." He pointed to another big flag about ten feet away. "That is the key-stone one. You prise that one up and then grope for a long iron rod. Push on that and this stone comes up, though it's all that distance away. Good idea, isn't it? I don't think anyone would tumble to it."
They were taking a last look into the little room where all the beautiful silver articles were displayed, when, without a second's warning, Larose was suddenly struck down on to the ground by a vicious blow on the head, while at the same time Lord Delamarne was seized roughly from behind and his arms pinioned tightly to his sides. The attacks had avalanched so quickly that neither of them had had the slightest chance of defending himself.
"Now you, Larose, don't you start to get up," shouted a vicious voice which Larose, even in his half-stunned condition, to his intense mortification recognised as that of Captain Michaeloff of the Baltic Embassy. "Don't move or I'll plug you instantly," and blinking his eyes to clear them from the blood which was trickling down from a cut in his forehead Larose saw he was being covered by a pistol at a most unpleasantly close range.
Then, still pointing his automatic at Larose, the captain stepped back a few paces and grabbed at the length of rope which Lord Delamarne had been using at the well. "Most handy!" he jeered, and as quickly almost as it takes to tell the one-time detective was effectively trussed up and propped against the wall.
They were indeed agonising moments for Larose. It was not the fear only of what might be coming for him that was making his breathing painful and his mouth go dry. It was the bitter humiliation at having allowed himself to be caught as he had been and, above all, by the lying and treacherous attache of the Baltic Embassy.
It was now the turn of Lord Delamarne who all the time had been held tightly by the captain's companion. With the rope knotted painfully round his wrists and ankles, he was propped up by the side of Larose, and everything now secure Michaeloff took out and lit a cigarette.
"Splendid!" he exclaimed, dropping into his ordinary tone of voice. "It couldn't have gone off better! Everything made easy for us, the secret panel left open, the lights all on and even the piece of rope all handy for us to tie you both up!" He laughed merrily. "Why, it is just as if you've been expecting us and got everything ready."
His mood changed and he bent down over Larose, thrusting his face very close to his. "And this comes of your interfering, you poor boob of a policeman," he jeered. "I've no pity for you, as you've deserved everything you're now going to get." He pretended to be shocked. "But just fancy a clever fellow like you letting yourself be caught like this!" He scowled angrily. "Why didn't you keep your nose out of what was no business of yours? First annoying a fine gentleman like Major Mangan and now, no doubt, coming here to boss this old fool's affairs." He shook his head. "I'm ashamed of you, Mr. Policeman Larose."
He turned his attention to Lord Delamarne. "Well, my lord," he said smilingly, "you've had a good run for your money, or rather I should say, with other people's money, but the devil has caught up with you at last and you've got to pay up all you owe." His voice hardened angrily. "You miserable old wretch, what have you done with the body of poor Ivan Menk"—he bowed ironically—"I beg your pardon, I mean that of the footman, Thomas. Got his body buried somewhere down here, of course? Oh, you won't talk, eh? Well, I guess you'll be talking quite a lot in a minute or two." He turned back to Larose. "And you'll be talking, too, Mr. Policeman, when we're warming up your fingers a bit."
He stopped speaking for a few moments and regarded the two prisoners thoughtfully. "I think we'd better get down to business at once," he said to his companion, "and we'll take the old boy first."
He spoke very sternly. "Now, Lord Delamarne, no nonsense and tell us without any bother where you're hiding what's left of those crown jewels. You'll have to speak, man, and if you're sensible about it when we've got what we want we may even let you go free. It's different with the policeman here. He knows too much and we'll have to put him to sleep. Now, Lord Delamarne, are you or are you not going to tell us, without any more persuasion, where those jewels are hidden? Come on. Make up your mind. Quick!"
A long, dead silence followed and the vaults were very still. The eyes of Lord Delamarne were burning like coals of fire, his face was deathly pale and he was keeping his lips tightly shut. The face of Larose was pale, too, and his forehead was pricked out in little beads of sweat. His expression, however, was one of calmness and he did not seem at all afraid.
"Very well then, my lord," snapped Michaeloff viciously. "If you won't speak we'll have to make you." He took a box of matches out of his pocket and nodded to his companion. "Hold his hands quite still, Joseph, and push out one of his fingers. We'll soon have him chattering like a monkey."
The captain moved up close to Lord Delamarne and, striking a match, waited the few moments until it was burning brightly. Then——
Now Captain Michaeloff would certainly not have been quite so confident in his mocking at Larose for having landed himself into such an humiliating and unescapable position had he then but been aware exactly what had followed upon him, the captain, being admitted into the castle by Mangan. His coming and that of his companion had by no means been as unnoticed as he was so imagining, and it had happened in this way.
Left alone in the darkness of the big lounge-hall to keep watch until Lord Delamarne and Larose should return from the vaults, Penelope had curled herself up comfortably upon a big settee and, worn out by the excitement of everything, almost at once dropped peacefully to sleep. It may be she would have been more vigilant had not Larose been so confident in his assertion that no one was likely to arrive for a good couple of hours. At any rate she tried to excuse herself afterwards with the thought that had there been any chance of an earlier arriving she would certainly not have allowed herself to be so comfortable on the settee, to say nothing of closing her eyes.
Her sleep was not a heavy one and, looking back later, she thought it must have been the draught of cold air on the stealthy opening of the hall door which disturbed her. At any rate, she awoke suddenly to hear low voices close to her, and opening her eyes to her dreadful horror saw Mangan and two other men standing not a dozen feet from her.
"Now give me your key, major," whispered one of them sharply, "and you go back to your room without an instant's waiting. Whatever you may hear don't stir out of it," and in the dim light she saw Mangan tiptoe off at once in the direction of the other end of the castle where his room was. The two other men disappeared along the corridor which led to Lord Delamarne's study.
Overwhelmed with shame that she had been so unfaithful to her trust and trembling in every limb with terror at what she saw was now happening, for a few moments Penelope continued to lie as if spellbound where she was. Happily, however, the shock passed quickly and, springing to her feet, she darted off after the two men, just in time to see them let themselves into the study.
"My God," she wailed, "and he was going to leave the panel open for me! They'll go straight down and murder them!"
For the moment she stood in panicky hesitation not knowing what she could do. Her heart was beating painfully and she breathed only with difficulty. Then an inspiration came to her, and taking to her heels she rushed pantingly up the wide staircase leading to the upper floors. She would call Chester Avon and take him down into the vaults! That the two men would not stop at murder she was sure, but perhaps Chester would be able to shoot them first! Then a horrible doubt seized her. She did not think Chester a coward, but it always took time for him to make up his mind. Well, she must make up his mind for him! She must give him no time to think!
Letting herself quickly into Chester's room, which happily was in a different wing from where the major's was, she closed the door with frantic haste gently behind her and darted over to the bed. With the moon shining through the windows, there was plenty of light, and one glance showed her he was fast asleep. She put her hand over his mouth and hissed sharply into his ear, "Chester, wake up! Wake up at once!"
He was roused instantly. "Penelope, you little darling," he exclaimed, and he caught hold of one of her arms. "You——"
"Don't be a fool," she snapped. "Get up at once. There are thieves in the castle and they've gone down into the vaults. Your uncle and Gilbert Larose, the detective, are down there and they'll be murdered if you're not quick."
"But——" began Chester.
"Don't talk," she choked, "Don't wait for me to explain. I'll tell you everything as we go along. Put on some clothes quick! You're to come down into the vaults with me," and half lugging him out of bed she threw his trousers and jacket at him.
With his wits still in something of a haze from his so sudden an awakening from sleep, young Avon did as Penelope had ordered and she saw to it that he did it quickly, too. "Now, where's your pistol?" she asked, and he got it out of a drawer. "It's not loaded, you say!" she exclaimed disgustedly. "Then load it, quick!" but to her exasperation it was several minutes before he could find the cartridges, which in his quickly rising excitement he did remember having wrapped up in some pyjamas because their cardboard container had broken. Finally, there was more delay when, running down the corridor, Penelope dropped her keys of the study door and it was quite an appreciable time before they could pick it up by the light of the small torch which she was carrying.
"But why haven't you fetched Major Mangan?" whispered Chester as they were tremblingly making their way down the long stairway leading to the vaults. "He'd be the very man for anything like this. Why didn't you wake him up?"
"Because he's an evil man and is in this thieving, too," whispered back Penelope. "It was he whom I saw let these two thieves into the castle, but he's gone back to his bedroom now so as to pretend he's had nothing to do with it. Oh yes, your uncle knows what he is and we've been watching him all the time he's been here. But don't talk about him now. You'll hear everything presently," and Chester was stunned to silence in his amazement.
At last gaining the bottom of the stairway they saw the corridor stretching long and dark before them, though where it turned round the corner at its end they could see there was a light burning. They could hear someone speaking. Their hearts beat rapidly.
"Come on, quick!" whispered Penelope hoarsely. "Hold your pistol ready and if you have to fire, fire instantly. Don't wait to think. Do as I tell you."
They ran quickly forward, with Penelope gripping fiercely to young Avon's arm. They could hear the same person speaking, with him now breaking into a jeering laugh.
"Let go my arm," ordered Avon sharply. "I can't use my pistol with you clinging to it."
Reaching the corner, they pulled up in a stride and peered stealthily round. Penelope choked back a scream. There, only a few yards away, the old lord and Larose were lying back bound and helpless with the two men whom Mangan had let into the castle standing menacingly over them. The men had got their backs turned towards her.
She felt she was going to faint. But it could not be true, she told herself. She was in the horrors of a dreadful dream and would wake up presently to know it had been all unreal! Her eyes, at first intent upon Lord Delamarne, wandered over to Larose and it came to her suddenly that he had seen them and was staring hard in their direction. Subconsciously she noted how pale he was, though the expression on his face was yet calm and untroubled. She thought even that he was half smiling. With a start she came out of her dream. He was asking them for help.
She glanced up quickly to Chester by her side, wondering fearfully how at this supreme moment he was affected and at once was filled with a most thankful relief. Certainly, she knew he had never been particularly fond of his uncle, but to see now the proud lord of the castle, the head of the Blackarden line, being treated with such indignities and with his grim, old face white as death, was undoubtedly rousing the boy to a savage fury. Clenching his teeth tightly he raised his pistol arm, and she saw that it was as steady as a rock.
Then at that moment she saw that while one of the men was dragging forward Lord Delamarne's tightly-bound hands, the other was striking a match.
"They're going to burn his fingers!" she choked to Avon.
"Quick! Quick! Shoot him! Aim at his head, and the other one's too! Quick!"
The pistol cracked sharply and the senior attache of the Baltic Embassy crashed to the ground. His companion turned as quick as the strike of a snake, with his hand reaching for his hip pocket, but the pistol cracked again and he went down with a bullet between his eyes.
The acrid reek of cordite filled the air and a long, deep silence fell upon the vaults. The wheel of fortune had turned so quickly that for the moment no one there could take in what had happened. Young Avon was trembling as if in a palsy, and his widely-staring eyes were fixed with horror-struck intent on the bodies of the men he had killed. The heads of both of them were lying in pools of blood. One of the bodies was quite still, but the other was kicking convulsively.
It was Larose who recovered first. "Splendid!" he called out hoarsely. "Two magnificent shots!"
His voice aroused Avon like a douche of icy water and he darted towards his uncle, but he tripped over Michaeloff's body and measured his length heavily on the hard stone flags. Instantly half springing to his feet, he sank down again with a cry of pain. He had twisted his ankle under him.
So it was Penelope who was first by Lord Delamarne's side and began with badly shaking hands to untie his bonds. "Good girl," his lordship whispered weakly. He smiled affectionately at his nephew. "And good boy, too. I'm very proud of you."
"Splendid of them both," called out Larose gaily. He laughed happily. "Oh, the thankfulness when I saw you both come round that corner! I think it was the best moment of my life." He nodded at Avon. "Two as pretty shots as I've seen, and I congratulate you, young fellow. We are all proud of you."
In turn freed by Penelope from his bonds, Larose bent over Avon to examine his foot. "A nasty fall," he exclaimed, as he propped him up against the wall, "and don't try to get up again for a few minutes." He turned to Penelope. "Are we safe for a little while, do you think, young lady, from that devil of a major?"
The reaction was now beginning to tell upon Penelope, and white and very shaky-looking she sank down by the side of Lord Delamarne, who was still unequal to getting up on his feet again. "Yes, quite safe, I am sure, Mr. Larose," she said. "He had a key of the study door from somewhere, but I saw him give it up"—her voice choked as she threw a quick glance at the body of Captain Michaeloff—"to that man there. So, as I shut the study door before we came down here, he can't have followed us," and she related brokenly everything that had happened and how finally Mangan had been sent back to his bedroom.
"And you don't think, my lord," asked Larose of Lord Delamarne, "that the sound of that gun will have reached up into the castle?"
Young Avon was now looking very sick. To the pain of his injured ankle was now added something of remorse that he had taken the lives of two men, and he was very near to breaking down. "Oh, how dreadful it all is!" he exclaimed shakily. "Still, no one could call it murder! I was quite justified in shooting them, was I not?"
"Justified!" exclaimed Larose, as if in great astonishment at such a question being asked. "I should just think you were! Why, don't you realise that you saved both our lives?" He scowled. "Far more than that even, as those beasts were going to torture us before they killed us. You saw the lighted match they were going to put to your uncle's fingers." He smiled approvingly. "Yes, my boy, you did a very meritorious action in killing them and no one would blame you."
"But what a business the police will make of it," said Avon, looking the very picture of misery. "They'll——"
"Know nothing about it," interrupted Larose sharply. "If none of us four here say anything, not a word of what's just happened need ever come out. I shall take what remains of these wretches away with me and hide them where they'll never be found. So no one will ever learn anything." He turned to Lord Delamarne, "That is your wish, is it not, my lord?"
Lord Dclamarne's colour had come back and he seemed almost himself again. He understood what Larose meant. "Yes, that will be best," he said. "If we keep our heads, there need be no publicity."
"But Major Mangan will know," said Avon, looking very-puzzled. "Penelope has told us he let them into the castle and knew where they were coming to get the silver here."
"And he'll think they got it," said Larose, "and have gone away. Later, when he hears nothing more of them, he'll be the most puzzled man in the world, but he'll never guess what has happened. Of course, he won't dare to approach the police, as that would incriminate himself." He turned again to Lord Delamarne. "I understand this Mangan is leaving the castle in the morning."
"Yes, directly after breakfast," nodded his lordship. He smiled a grim smile. "And I shan't be about to bid him good-bye. I'm not a good enough actor to trust myself to speak to him."
"And your nephew mustn't see him either," said Larose peremptorily. He smiled at Penelope. "This young lady must say he's hurt his ankle so badly and is in such pain that he doesn't want to speak to anybody. Now we'll take Mr. Avon straight up to bed and Miss Smith will put a wet compress on his ankle and remain with him until he feels more comfortable."
So, with Larose and Penelope supporting him, Avon was taken up to his room and then Larose returned to Lord Delamarne. "Really," he said, "things could hardly have gone better except that we can't bring that vile Mangan in. He'll have to be allowed to get off scot free again, though later he'll certainly be in a dreadfully worried state of mind as to what has happened. What will they be thinking, too, at the Embassy? By gad, I'd like to see their faces when their senior attache doesn't turn up." He regarded the two bodies thoughtfully. "Well, I think we'd better search these departed gentlemen before they go into your private graveyard."
The first thing Michaeloff's pocket yielded was a plan of the ground floor of the castle. "Know that handwriting?" asked Larose. "As was to be expected, Mangan's, of course! Oh, how the case against him is proved up to the hilt! But oh, the devil, that we can't make any move against him!"
Some few minutes later returning up into the castle, Larose made ready to pick up his car which he had cached in a byroad among some trees. "And their car will be about somewhere close at hand, too, but of course in the direction of the way they came to get here. So, to round off the whole business properly, I'll have to look for it to-morrow as early as possible before anyone else comes upon it. I'll take it a good many miles away if we can't think how to get rid of it altogether."
In the big hall they inspected with great interest the little appliance with which Mangan had short-circuited the wires on the alarm on the front door. "No, we won't touch it," whispered Larose, "for they must have arranged with Mangan for him to come down and take it off before it gets light and, also, re-bolt the front door. Unhappily, we shall never know all that was in their minds, but it looks as if they were darned confident of getting hold of the jewels without any difficulty. No, we mustn't let Mangan have the slightest suspicion about anything, and as I say he'll be the most puzzled man in the kingdom in the course of the next few days."
Waving away his lord's thanks, he bade him good-bye with the arrangement that he would return to the castle on the morrow as soon as the coast was clear. "Get Miss Penelope to give me a ring," he said, "directly that brute has gone away."
So the grim old castle soon sank into silence again, though for four of its inmates, as can be well imagined, there was little sleep that night. His lordship was not unduly troubled, and was thinking most how he could adequately repay the three persons who had been of such service to him. Penelope's thoughts were of Chester Avon, how bravely he had responded to her urging and whether, with the great secret now between them, he would want her to become his wife. The old lord, she was sure, could induce him to do anything he, the old lord, wanted. Chester himself was giving little thought to Penelope. His ankle was hurting him far too much, and the remembrance that he had killed two men was very distressing to him.
As for Mangan, his great anxiety was that he would fall asleep and not awaken in time to remove the little appliance on the alarm before the servants were about. Keeping himself awake with some difficulty, he got out of bed with a curse just before five and went down into the hall to attend to it. He had given them time enough, he told himself, and if the alarm did go off when they let themselves out of the castle, then they would have to make the best of things and get away quickly. At any rate, he had done all that had been asked of him.
Returning to his room, he got two hours and more of sound sleep before the first breakfast gong awakened him. He dressed and packed hurriedly, glad to think that if anything had been taken from the vaults he would be well away before the loss had been discovered. Whatever had happened he was quite confident the old lord would never have the slightest suspicion of him.
Sitting down to breakfast, at first Penelope was the only other one there and he thought she was looking rather tired and pale. However, she was just as bright and animated as usual, and told a harrowing tale of poor Chester slipping on the stairs the previous night and hurting his ankle badly. He had had no sleep all night, she said, but had now dropped off to sleep and was not to be disturbed.
Mangan made out how sorry he was and, indeed, looked so troubled that Penelope would dearly have liked to slap his face for his hypocrisy. However, she smiled sweetly and promised to give Chester his condolences directly he awoke.
At that moment Joan appeared and, having made her apologies for being late, turned to Penelope and began reproving her in mock severity for some pieces of mud she had just found on the carpet in the study. "They must have come off your shoes," she said, "as I know father didn't go outside all yesterday to get his feet dirty, and he and you were the only ones to be in the study all day."
"But I'm sure I couldn't have been so careless," began Penelope indignantly. "I—" but, it flashed into her mind who it must have been who had brought the mud in, she stopped speaking and coloured up in her sudden embarrassment.
"Ah, I don't wonder you are now looking ashamed of yourself," laughed Joan. "You are a careless girl." She explained to Mangan, "You see, major, father is always so fussy about this old study of his that only one particular housemaid and I are allowed in there to tidy and clean it up. We've just been doing it and that's how I've come to find Penelope out. She ought to be punished; now oughtn't she?"
It was with difficulty Mangan could find appropriate words to express his agreement with what she had said, as idea upon idea was rushing into his mind and he was thinking that he could now see with something like clearness exactly what had happened during the preceding night. Michaeloff had found the crown jewels and got away with them in safety! What else could it all mean?
Mud upon the study carpet! Then it had been Michaeloff and the other man who had carried it there! And nothing else unusual had been noticed in the study as it had been swept and tidied this morning! No broken panels in the wall and no appearance of anything having been disturbed! Everything quite orderly! Then, of course, it would only be that the search had been successful, and everything had gone off quickly and smoothly.
The meal over and Mangan's good-byes said, he could not get on his way to the bungalow speedily enough. For the moment he was putting out of his mind the thought that any attempt would be made to cheat him out of his share of the treasure. Of course, he told himself, those at the Embassy would be realising he was too dangerous a man to double-cross in any way, and so he thrilled at the idea that in such a few minutes now he would be feasting his eyes upon what at one time had adorned the persons of the great beauties of the Russian Court.
However, at length arriving at the bungalow, he received a terrible shock and all his so-rosy expectations went crashing to the ground.
The bungalow was locked up and there was no one there!
For a few moments he could not take it in and stood speechless in his astonishment and dismay. Surely Michaeloff would not have dared to treat him like this? He had known he was coming and knew, too, that he had to wait for him!
Striding round to the garage he found the door there was locked, too, and looking through the cracks he saw there was no car there. He swore savagely. Then that cursed Michaeloff had dared! He was treating him as if he were his servant and, by hell, he'd make him pay for it!
Throwing himself into his car with his face as black as thunder, he started on his long journey back to Town.
LAROSE WAS round at the castle within half an hour of Penelope's message that the coast was all clear and quickly engaged in a most earnest conversation with Lord Delamarne.
"I have been thinking, my lord," he said, "that although we've finished with about the worst man at the Baltic Embassy you're still not out of danger, and the sword will continue to hang over you. Of course, the Embassy people will be profoundly mystified with the disappearance of those two men, but it's not likely to put them off coming after those jewels again. Rather, I should say, they'll be more certain than ever that they were right in their conjectures and that you've got them hidden here."
"I've been thinking of that, too," said Lord Delamarne, "and so am going to put everything into the care of my bank, of course under seal so that they won't know what they are keeping for me."
"But you can't drop the Embassy a postcard," smiled Larose, "telling them what you've done. You can't broadcast your valuables are no longer here, and the stakes are so high that the Baltic crowd certainly won't let the matter drop."
"But what can I do?" asked his lordship, looking very troubled. "I don't see that I can do anything."
"Oh yes, you can," said Larose, "and I've thought of a good way of shaking them off, if you're game enough to do it." He spoke impressively. "You must have a fire down in those vaults and make out you've lost all your valuable silver collection. You must broadcast that the vaults have been gutted."
His lordship frowned. "But that would mean I could never make any more use of the vaults," he said.
"No, it wouldn't," said Larose, "for you could confine the fire to exactly where you wanted it. There's only all that dried woodwork which would burn, and the fire couldn't spread up to the castle."
"It certainly couldn't do that," agreed his lordship. "The ceiling of the vaults is all stonework and above that there must be nearly sixty feet of earth baked as hard as cement before you come to the floors of the castle itself."
"But if you do it," said Larose, "you must make a thorough job of it and give out that the best part of your silver has gone. A great hullabaloo must be made, so that it gets plenty of publicity. Well, you think over the idea and, if you approve of it, I'll help you to carry it out."
He turned the conversation and spoke very seriously. "Now about the shooting of those two men and getting rid of the bodies in the way we have done—as far as I can see there is only one danger of discovery and that may possibly come"—he eyed his lordship intently—"from your nephew, young Avon."
"But he won't say anything," said his lordship instantly. "He'd be the last one to speak. You must have seen for yourself how dreadfully upset he was last night."
"I did," nodded Larose, "and that I think is the danger. He's got plenty of courage, but remember he's only a boy and a very sensitive one at that. Probably he's never actually killed anyone before, and now to have taken two lives himself may prey upon his mind and make him become morbid. It'll be continually in his thoughts and he'll dwell and dwell on it and, perhaps one day in a remorseful mood, even blurt it out to some sympathetic stranger."
"Oh, I don't think he'd ever do that," said his lordship quickly. "He's got sense enough to realise how terrible for us all the consequences would be."
"But conscience is a strange thing, my lord," said Larose very solemnly, "and in some people may almost take on a condition of disease. Then they become weak as water and take no thought of consequences. All they think of is to bring ease to their minds by confiding their troubles to someone." He smiled. "However, with your nephew we can prevent all chance of that by altering his whole way of life for him and giving him something else to think of." He spoke apologetically. "Forgive my interference, my lord," he hesitated just a moment, "but what about marrying him to that pretty secretary of yours?"
Lord Delamarne's face was almost without expression, except that he was now staring hard at Larose. The latter went on quickly, "Overlook her not being in the same social class as she is, for she is a girl of fine character and, as we saw last night, of good courage too. She'd be just the very one, so to speak, to take possession of his mind and order his way of life for him." He lowered his voice darkly. "Besides, as his wife she could never be asked to give evidence against him. Now what do you think about it?"
His lordship spoke almost casually. "I have already considered the matter, Mr. Larose," he replied. His face broke into an amused smile. "With the result that I have decided they are to be married practically straight away. As you say, the boy needs looking after, and I agree with you that my secretary will be the one to do it properly."
"Good, very good, my lord," exclaimed Larose, his face all smiles. "Are they interested in each other, do you know?"
"Well, they've exchanged kisses in the conservatory," said his lordship. "They didn't know I saw them, but I did, and so we may assume they were not physically distasteful to each other. Besides," and he spoke dryly, "Miss Penelope Smith is a young lady who will always love rather with her head than with her heart. So, if she's not an ardent mistress to him, at least she'll be a good mother."
"But she'll be more than that," said Larose. "He's a good-looking young fellow and she's nothing of a cold type of woman." He laughed. "You see if they don't supply you with a good line of heirs and heiresses in a very short time." He spoke briskly. "Now I've got the car key I took out of Michaeloff's pocket, so if you'll lend me a bicycle I'll go out and find the car. I'll have to drive it a good way away, as it had better not be found anywhere near here."
He went off to look for it and, rather to his lordship's anxiety, did not return until the afternoon was far advanced. He was looking very pleased with himself. "I've made a real good job of it," he smiled. "I found it easily enough in that little lane that turns off about a couple of hundred yards from the gates, and drove it a good twenty miles away where it now lies hidden under six or seven feet of water in a pool in a disused quarry off the Fakenham-Swaffham road. It may not be found for years and years."
His lordship looked very relieved. "But what a long way to have taken it!" he exclaimed.
"Yes, and the ride back on the bicycle," said Larose, "has made me pretty stiff, I can tell you." He laughed happily. "But it was a pleasant ride for all that, as I was chuckling all the time thinking of the puzzle that blessed Embassy'll be in. No captain, no other blackguard, no crown jewels, and no car! What the devil will they imagine can have happened?" He nodded. "They may even be suspicious of that precious major, thinking perhaps that he's double-crossed them and, bumping off the other two, vamoosed with jewels, car and everything."
"You took off the number plates, of course?" asked Lord Delamarne.
"Yes, and buried them a long way from the quarry," said Larose, "in a wood. Also the number of the engine is filed off. So we're all right there, too."
Lord Delamarne began again to express his gratitude to Larose, but the latter at once cut him short. "It's all been a great pleasure to me," he laughed, "an adventure upon which I shall always look back upon in happy remembrance. You know, they used to say at the Yard that in reality I was as big a criminal as any I'd sent to the seven-foot drop."
His lordship laughed back. "And I suppose that if everything were known they'd consider me a bad criminal, too." He shrugged his shoulders. "But I'm quite a law-abiding old man if people only leave me alone."
With Larose having left the castle, Lord Delamarne went up to his nephew's room. The boy's ankle was very swollen, and it was evident he would have to lie up for several days. His uncle told him Larose had hidden the bodies where they could never be found.
"So you can put the whole thing out of your mind," he said, "and forget it as if it had never happened." He went on a tone kinder, so the boy thought, than he had ever used to him before, "I'm very proud of you, Chester. You played a man's part last night and for reward I'm going to make you a very handsome present."
Chester got very red. "But it was really all due to Penelope," he said. "She arranged everything. She urged me on, and but for her"—he looked uncomfortable—"I confess I might never have dared to shoot them." He brightened up. "So she deserves the reward more than anyone, sir."
His lordship nodded. "I am most grateful to you both and she is going to share the reward with you. It is going to be a joint one."
Chester looked very puzzled. "And what will it be, sir?" he asked.
"A wedding breakfast," smiled his lordship, "after you've become man and wife in the chapel here. You are to ask her to marry you."
Chester was furiously red now. "You—you wish me to ask her, sir?" he said stammeringly. He shook his head. "But I don't think she'll want to. She's told me more than once that I'm not interesting enough for her to fall in love with."
"Well, you propose to her properly," said his lordship, "and I'm sure it will be all right." He smiled his old grim smile. "I think it was only me she was afraid of. She's a good girl and would not like to cross my wishes in any way."
He prepared to leave the room. "I'll send her up to have a talk with you."
He found Penelope in the office typing some letters. "My nephew is asking for you, Penelope," he said. "So you'd better go up and see what he wants." He patted her upon the shoulder. "I shall always call you Penelope now, as you're one of the family."
Penelope coloured up hotly. There was no mistaking the kindness of his words and her heart beat painfully.
"Very well, my lord," she said, steadying her voice with an effort. "But don't forget you said these letters must be answered to-day. So I won't be gone for long."
However, it was nearly half an hour before she returned, and she stood before him a very flushed and nervous young woman.
"Well, did he tell you what he wanted?" he asked slyly.
"But it is all your doing, my lord," she choked. Her eyes filled with tears. "And now that he says he is fond enough of me to want to marry me, I feel such a mean cheap thing, as I started to lead him on almost only as a sort of joke. I wasn't the least bit in love with him."
"But you like him, don't you?" asked his lordship sharply.
"Oh yes, very much," she replied instantly, "and after last night"—she hesitated just a moment—"if it isn't love I have for him, it's a great tenderness. He relied so much upon me then that I feel he needs someone like me to take care of him."
"Tut, tut, then don't doubt yourself any more," said his lordship testily. "I know you'll make him an excellent wife and I am very pleased you made him fond of you." He patted her on the shoulder again. "You're a good girl, Penelope, and I don't think you're quite all the little schemer you want to make out you are."
Penelope heaved a big sigh, half in joke and half in earnest. "But, my lord," she said as if very regretfully, "now I am an adventuress no longer."
"And you've no need to be," he smiled. "So you can just prepare yourself to settle down into the ordinary humdrum married life." He shrugged his shoulders. "And if, at any rate, it is partly my doing, I am quite honest in saying that I have never done anything with more pleasure in all my life." He pretended to frown. "Now, please, Miss Smith, will you get on with these letters at once."
In the next few ensuing weeks things moved very quickly in Blackarden Castle. With the speedy bricking up again of the broad way leading down to the vaults, the grisly secret that they held seemed to have passed altogether out of the minds of both Penelope and Chester Avon and no longer troubled them.
To Penelope, as the affianced wife of his heir and destined to carry on the Blackarden line, the old lord was now according a great respect, not unmixed in his grim stern way with real affection. That he was most grateful to her she was well aware, though it was with considerable hesitation that she accepted from him a generous cheque to provide herself with a trousseau.
Young Avon was in the seventh heaven of happiness and with Penelope regarding him with ever-mounting affection he blossomed out, even under his uncle's stern unsmiling eyes, as a young man of spirit, very different from the one-time shy and timid boy. In due time the wedding was celebrated very quietly in the castle chapel where for six hundred years and more the lords of Blackarden and their heirs had received the marriage sacrament, and they set off for a month's honeymoon in Devonshire and Cornwall.
We must now go back to the day following on the night of those momentous happenings in the castle vaults, when Mangan had returned to Town in such an evil temper because, as he was imagining, Captain Michaeloff had left the bungalow by the sea without waiting for him.
All that evening he remained at home in his flat in Fitzroy Square, confidently expecting that the very least the captain would do was to give him a ring and inform him exactly what had happened the previous night in the vaults of Blackarden Castle. However, to his mounting anger no ring came and, having waited until nine o'clock, he rang up the Embassy himself.
A girl answered the phone and said Captain Michaeloff was away from Town and it was not known when he would return. Asking who it was who was wanting him, Mangan replied curtly, "Mr. Smith." The following morning he rang up again. The same girl answered the phone and as before said that the captain was away. Ringing yet again the afternoon, Mangan received the same answer. That evening for the fourth time he rang up. "Oh, it's you, is it, Mr. Smith?" said the girl at once. "Then I have a message for you. Will you please call here to-night at nine o'clock," and Mangan replied sharply that he would.
By this time he had worked himself up into a state of fury at the offhand way in which he considered he was being treated. As he had received no information from the captain that the search for the jewels had been an unsuccessful one, he was taking it for granted that they had been found, and with no one ringing up to tell him that was so was of the opinion that the prospect of his getting his agreed share did not look at all rosy. Quite likely, he told himself, having got all the help out of him that they had wanted, they were now intending, with some excuse, to freeze him out altogether and give him nothing.
He swore savagely. Well, he would show them pretty quickly he was by no means the sort of man who could be treated like that!
So it was in the worst of humours that he arrived at the Embassy at nine o'clock. Declining curtly to give his name to the footman who answered the door, he just said he had an appointment with Captain Michaeloff.
"Oh yes, sir," said the footman at once. "Will you please come this way," and he was shown into a room different from that into which he had been accustomed to go when visiting Captain Michaeloff. There was no one in the room, but almost immediately a soldierly-looking man in evening clothes appeared and closed the door very carefully behind him. He bowed coldly to Mangan, and did not offer to shake hands.
"Major Mangan?" he asked. "I am General Volgorod," and Mangan knew he was in the presence of His Excellency the Ambassador.
A short silence followed, with the two men regarding each other intently. Then the Ambassador asked frowningly, "You've come with news of Captain Michaeloff?"
Mangan scowled. He was by no means awed by the Ambassador and as firm as ever in his resolve to stand no nonsense. "I've come," he said sharply, "to know why he has not communicated with me. Yesterday and to-day I rang up three times, to be told each time that he was not in Town. Then to-night, not an hour ago, I was given to understand he would see me if I came here at nine o'clock."
The Ambassador's frown deepened. "But, but," he said, equally as sharply, "it is from you I am expecting to receive the news of him. We have heard nothing since he left London five days ago. We are getting very anxious. We don't know what can have happened to him."
Mangan was sure he was lying and that it was all part of the plan to put him off from his share of the jewels. "But, of course, you must have heard from him," he said angrily. "Those three nights ago I let him into Blackarden Castle and the following morning when I called round at the bungalow I saw that he and his car had gone."
In his anxiety the Ambassador ignored Mangan's rude and disrespectful manner. "Then he can't have gone back there at all," he said earnestly. He threw out his hands. "This morning I sent one of my officers the long journey to that bungalow and he got back only a few minutes before you rang up to-night. He found the place shut up, as you tell me you did, but he got in through a window and saw that to all appearances no one had been in the place for some days. He says all the food was either stale or had gone bad, and all the cakes of soap in the rooms were hard and dry." He looked very troubled. "Now what has happened, Major Mangan? You must be able to tell us something."
Mangan did not make any reply. He stared harder than ever at the Ambassador. The latter went on persuasively, "Come, you can speak quite frankly, Major Mangan. Of course, I know what they were looking for in the castle and the part you were going to play to help them. So you need keep nothing back."
"I am not keeping anything back," replied Mangan in a surly tone. "I know nothing I can keep back."
"But tell me," went on the Ambassador, "what happened after you had let, as you say, Captain Michaeloff and the man with him into the castle?"
The Ambassador appeared to be so really troubled that for the moment Mangan's suspicions had in part died down.
"That's what I want to know," he said sharply. "I saw them safely into the castle and then, on the captain's insistence, went back up into my room."
"And you heard no disturbance during the night?" asked the Ambassador. "Well, what happened the next morning?"
"Nothing happened," said Mangan. "Everything was just the same as usual. I had my breakfast with one of Lord Delamarne's daughter and his secretary, and evidently nothing was upsetting them. And it was the same to-day when I rang up the castle to know how Lieutenant Avon was, as he had sprained his ankle. The daughter answered the phone and she was as chatty and friendly as could be."
The Ambassador looked most perplexed. "Then what has happened?" he asked. "Two men and a car can't disappear without leaving any trace."
"Of course, they can't," snapped Mangan, whose suspicions for some reason were now beginning to come back. He eyed the Ambassador intently. "You've approached the police, haven't you, to tell them an Embassy car is missing?"
"How could we?" asked the Ambassador sharply, as if surprised at the question being put. "You know perfectly well that, under the peculiar circumstances, we dare not face any publicity and make any attempt to trace it?"
"And Captain Michaeloff at the wheel would be quite aware of that, wouldn't he?" asked Mangan dryly. "He would know there would be no danger of his being followed." He spoke with a sneer that was only half veiled. "Then has it never struck you, your Excellency, that, having now obtained possession of those valuable jewels, the captain may possibly have gone off on an extended holiday to enjoy the proceeds of their sale for himself?"
The Ambassador bristled in rage. "To anyone knowing Captain Michaeloff," he snarled, "such an idea would occur only to the man of a treacherous mind himself." He glared angrily at Mangan. "Captain Michaeloff was the soul of honour, sir, and one of the most trusted officers we have."
Mangan shrugged his shoulders. "Well, the whole business seems devilish suspicious to me and I tell you that straight. It looks uncommonly like an excuse to avoid paying me the share I was promised."
The Ambassador's face went black as thunder, but his only answer was to push viciously on the bell and, the footman appearing, he said quietly, "Show this gentleman out," and Mangan took his departure with an ironical bow.
The now very worried Ambassador at once summoned the attache who was next to Captain Michaeloff in importance at the Embassy, and related to him everything that had taken place.
"But I wouldn't trust that fellow a yard," he said gloomily. "I am sure he was telling me a whole tissue of lies and it makes things look very black for Michaeloff and Joseph. I believe he betrayed everything to Lord Delamarne, and they took them by surprise and did away with them somehow." His voice shook. "We shall find they have disappeared just like that other poor fellow did. We shall hear nothing of them again."
"But their bodies must be hidden somewhere," said the attache doubtfully.
"Yes, but if they're not buried in those vaults," said the ambassador with a deep sigh, "how easy to have weighted them and buried them out to sea at night. Remember how resourceful that Major was when he was fighting with the patriots in France. We know he wouldn't hesitate at anything and don't forget the sea is not far away from Blackarden Castle."
"Well, we can always give him a taste of his own medicine," said the attache savagely. "It's a poor consolation, I know, but he certainly mustn't be allowed to go off unpunished. Remember we know a great deal more about him and his way of life than he can dream of, and we can easily catch him alone somewhere where the whole thing will be quite safe. The captain was very thorough in finding out everything possible about him before we asked him to help us. So just say the word and I'll put Boehm on to him at once."
"But we'll wait a little while," said the ambassador, "on the chance, the very slender one I am afraid, that some news may yet come in." He passed his hand over his forehead. "This has been a terrible shock."
And if His Excellency had received one shock, he was speedily going to receive another, as the following morning the newspapers were all featuring a devastating fire which had occurred in Blackarden Castle.
"HISTORIC SEVEN-HUNDRED-YEAR OLD CASTLE IN DANGER"
ran the headlines,
"THE VAULTS AND UNDERGROUND PARTS OF BLACKARDEN CASTLE GUTTED BY FIRE."
"LORD DELAMARNE LOSES HIS PRICELESS COLLECTION OF OLD SILVER."
It appeared that the previous afternoon dense clouds of black smoke had suddenly been seen issuing from the Castle chimneys and, with no accounting for them from any fire within the habited part of the Castle, it was at once realised that the conflagration must be coming from the underground vaults, the broad stairway down to which had been bricked off nearly a hundred years ago, leaving only a narrow, and to most people an unknown and secret one, leading up into Lord Delamarne's study.
"The Fire Brigade from Norwich was soon upon the scene," went on one of the papers, "and the brick wall forbidding access to the dungeons was at once battered down to get at the flames below where a great quantity of very dry woodwork was burning furiously. Happily, the conflagration being so far below, it could not travel up to the Castle itself and was quickly mastered. However, it is understood that Lord Delamarne has lost all his valuable collection of old silver, which for safety had been stored in a room he had fitted up for himself among the vaults. It is believed the fire originated in a fault in the electric light system his lordship had recently installed."
"And that means, too," sighed the Baltic ambassador, "that the Crown jewels have gone for ever. What a calamity, as there must have been millions of pounds worth still there!"
Of course, Mangan had read all about the fire, and he thought it gave him a splendid excuse for motoring down to the Castle at the week-end, not only to sympathise with his lordship, but to see how young Avon was getting on, as well. He was hoping, too, that he might be able to determine from Lord Delamarne's manner if any great calamity, such as the loss of the Crown jewels, had happened to him. He thought, also, that a little tactful pumping of the pretty secretary might tell him something. Undoubtedly, she would be more or less in his lordship's confidence.
Joan answered the phone and had just started to tell him about the fire when she broke off suddenly and said, "But Miss Smith is here and she says she has something very important to say to you."
Penelope spoke in a business-like and matter of fact way, at once cutting short his starting to speak about the fire. "Never mind about that," she said sharply. "I want to speak to you about something else, and I should have rung you up today if you hadn't come on the phone now." Her tone of voice was most decisive. "I have to tell you, Major Mangan, that I have become engaged to Mr. Avon and, as his future wife, it is my wish that the friendship between him and you should cease at once."
Mangan could not believe his cars. "What, what did you say?" he asked, with his eyes screwed up in his perplexity.
"You heard quite well," returned Penelope coldly. "It is my wish and Lord Delamarne's as well, he bids me expressly to tell you so, that you should hold no more communications with any of us, no phoning, no writing and no more visiting here. I can't put it plainer than that."
Mangan's voice was harsh in his fury and amazement. "But I demand some explanation," he began, "and——"
Penelope interrupted calmly. "The only explanation I shall give you," she said, "is that before coming here I was a journalist for some years and learnt enough about your way of living then to be quite sure your continued friendship with Mr. Avon is not to his best interests. Good morning, Major Mangan," and the telephone went dead.
Mangan's mouth was very dry and his face was black in anger. Never had he been so insulted before! What did it really mean, too? Had they come to learn anything of the part he had played that night at the Castle, or had they heard anything of the accusations the police had brought against him in connection with Professor Glenowen's death? No, he didn't think he need consider either of those contingencies. It was probably only that the little——, he called her a bad word, having been successful in trapping that weak young fool, Avon, into a promise of marriage, was jealous of his, Mangan's, influence over him, and so had poisoned the old lord's mind with some bits of scandal which, as a journalist, she had picked up about the money he was supposed to have won at cards. Yes, that was what it was! It was humiliating as well as annoying, but for the moment he could think of no practical way of venting his spite upon them.
So, as far as possible he put it all out of his mind, as he had plenty of other things to worry him. Trade had been bad in the art world and, knowing the police were now watching every step he took there, he had had to give up, at any rate for the time being, the most lucrative side of his business. He dared no longer to act as a fence, and had reluctantly refused many what would have been very profitable purchases. Added to that, he had been losing heavily at the races. Upon one wretched animal alone he had dropped over a thousand pounds. Altogether, things were in a bad way with him and, to keep his head above water, he saw he must soon dip into some of that money he had buried in his shack on Canvey Island. The idea of doing that frightened him, as he had not dared to go near the place since the morning he had placed the money he had taken from the Professor's safe there. He was always so fearful that the police had devised some subtle way of trailing him, exactly as they had once succeeded in following him to his flat.
In the meanwhile, if the police might have lost some of their interest in his doings, those at the Baltic Embassy had certainly not. Ten days having now passed with no news of their two missing men, they were regarding with sinister significance that Mangan had made no further enquiries at the Embassy as to whether they had heard anything more of them.
"There is no need for him to enquire," scoffed the Ambassador to the second attache who had now stepped into Captain Michaeloff's place. "He knows what's happened to them and, no doubt by now, has been well rewarded for his treachery. With his record as a killer to be hired well known to us, we were foolish to have trusted him. Yes, we'll put Boehm on to him at once, but we must be sure to find some place where he can be dealt with so that it'll look as if robbery were the only motive for what has happened."
And, in their judgment, the ideal place was found when it was learnt that Mangan had a bungalow upon Canvey Island, at certain unseasonable times as lonely a place as any assassin could wish for, and occasionally went down there at weekends. The knowledge came to them in this way.
When those at the Baltic Embassy became interested in anyone, either in a friendly or unfriendly way, it was their custom to find out everything they could about him and tabulate it for future reference. Nothing was too insignificant to put down, the man's friends and acquaintances, his habits and likes and dislikes, his recreations, and even matters of slight interest that he might have dropped in the course of conversation.
So, when upon one occasion Michaeloff and Mangan had been talking together, the latter had happened to mention that his watch had taken to stopping every now and then because one week sand must have got into it when he had forgotten it and left it on Canvey Island, the captain had put down in the memorandum that Mangan had got a bungalow there to which he went occasionally upon Saturdays and Sundays. The information was added that he used to spear eels in the dykes about the island and that he had stated the only drawback to his enjoyment was that his bungalow was so close to the high sea-wall surrounding the island that nothing could be seen from its windows of the ships passing up and down the Estuary. Still, the compensation was that it was very near to a hotel where a drink or good meal could be obtained should he want either of them. The captain had put down, too, that, with Mangan's reputation as a dealer in stolen goods, it was not improbable that in that bungalow he might, from time to time, hide things that he did not want the police to know anything about.
All this information, gone carefully through, was passed on to one of the many secret agents of the Embassy, a one-time follower of the sea, called Boehm, and to him was given the task of dealing with Mangan. Boehm was a wirey and ferrety-looking little fellow of slight physique to whom violence and even murder were of small account. An adept at throwing the knife and the use of the pistol, in his own country he had many kills to his credit. Life was held cheaply where he came from and, when well-paid, he was a very reliable man, stalking his prey with all the patience and cunning of a beast of the wilds.
The second attache had seen Mangan upon more than one occasion when the latter had been visiting the captain at the Embassy, and now gave Boehm a thorough description of what he was like. Not only that, but he produced a photograph of the Major, which after a long and patient search had been found in one of the weekly illustrated magazines. It had been taken about a year previously at a reunion of some of the Commandos who had taken part in the raid upon Dieppe. The attache expressly warned Boehm that a kill was all that was wanted from him, and then he was to get away from wherever he had satisfactorily dealt with Mangan as speedily and secretly as possible.
Told to expect to come upon Mangan on the island, most probably only at week-ends, Boehm started off one Saturday morning upon his quest, taking the train to Benfleet, the nearest railway station. He had brought his bicycle with him, but was intending to leave it in the station cloak-room every Sunday evening when, if unsuccessful, he would return to Town to wait for the next week-end. His orders were not to put up anywhere on the island for the Saturday night, but to get a bed somewhere in the surrounding district, at a different place, however, every time. He had been told the waiting might be a long business, perhaps running into several weeks, but he would certainly come upon Mangan in the end. In the light of what might follow later, he was not to enquire about Mangan anywhere by his name.
Boehm was a shrewd little man and soon came to the conclusion that it was a shack and not a bungalow that the Major owned, as there were no bungalows under the sea-wall itself adjacent to the only hotel which was situated upon the high sea-wall itself. However, there were twenty and more shacks which in every way answered to the description that had been given him, so far below the level of the sea-wall that no ships passing by could be seen from their windows and within two or three minutes walk of the hotel. So, to these shacks he intended to give all his attention. They were all of the same appearance, cheaply built, two-room affairs and, from what he could see through some uncurtained windows, with their flooring made up of loose boards. Each of them stood in its own little bit of ground, with a low fence round it and a few square yards of grass in front.
Starting upon his watching, he took up a position on the sea side of the wall, with his head just above the level of the top, so that he could look over, without attracting too much attention from anybody who passed by on the road below. It being winter-time, however, very few people went by, and with the first week-end he spent there, he realised his job was going to be as monotonous a one as possibly could be. Still, it never entered into his mind not to carry it through, and the only relaxation he would allow himself was on the Saturday evening at six o'clock and the Sunday morning at one when he went up to the hotel and treated himself to two glasses of beer.
Two, three, four, five week-ends passed without anything to interest him, but then upon the sixth, though he was never to become aware of it, a most momentous happening for him occurred.
He was brought in contact with the so-well known one-time detective, Gilbert Larose.
Two days previously Larose had received a letter from his wife's cousin in Berkeley Square.
My dear Gilbert,
I have two interesting things to tell you. The first, that little friend of yours, Emma Hobson, is going to be married to the very nice detective, Geoffrey Hilliard. They are very much in love with each other and I am sure will always bless the day when you brought them together. I have given her £50 for a wedding present and you are going to give her a like sum. She is going to be married from here in three weeks time. The second thing, Emma has just remembered that, when that beastly Major was having dinner that night with the late greatly lamented Professor Glenowen, she heard him say how much he enjoyed a Sunday's eel-spearing in the muddy dykes round Canvey Island. I thought that piece of information might turn out to be of some use to you.
Hoping you are behaving yourself,
Your affectionate cousin-in-law,
Larose was greatly interested in the letter and his lively imagination began to work at once. Canvey Island! Hundreds and hundreds of little bungalows and shacks all crowded together there, but any one of them which could be as isolated and lonely as if planted down in the middle of the Sahara Desert! Why, if as the police had for some time now been surmising, Mangan was indeed a dealer in stolen goods, it would be an ideal place in which to hide things away until he could dispose of them in safety! Then, of course, too, he might be keeping there the large sums of money which the professor had paid him, as well as the stolen Corot painting! Oh, what possibilities the idea opened up, and was it not strengthened by what Tom Pike, the garage man, had told him of his surmises that Mangan often motored somewhere down the Thames Estuary way upon fine Sundays?
Accordingly, most sanguine that his reasoning was sound, Larose had come down to Canvey Island upon that Saturday morning in happy expectation that he would almost certainly hear something about Mangan. Of course, he was quite aware that at that time of the year the island would be practically deserted by visiting holiday makers, but he was thinking that among the permanent residents, the shop-keepers and tradesmen, he would certainly find someone who would recognise Mangan by the photograph which had been taken of him that day when he was being questioned at Scotland Yard.
He was quite prepared to find that no one knew the Major by name. It might be there had been no occasion for Mangan to have mentioned it. Then, too, if his bungalow or shack, whichever it might be, was being used as a hiding place, if he ever had to give a name, it certainly would not have been his correct one. He was of much too cunning a nature for that.
Larose had motored down from Town, but, not wishing to attract attention, he had left his car in a garage close by in Benfleet and crossed to the island on foot. To give himself plenty of time for his enquiries, he was intending to put up for the night at the hotel on the sea-wall and not return to Town until the Sunday evening.
Beginning his enquiries in a most hopeful frame of mind, he nevertheless realised almost at once that he was going to be greatly disappointed. He got no encouragement at all. No one recognised the photograph, no one remembered anyone like it, no garage had serviced, as far as could be recollected, the car of such a man and no milkman had sold him milk.
In effect, no one knew anything about him, and Larose had drawn a complete blank.
Tramping all over the island, with dusk beginning to fall Larose felt almost inclined to laugh at his non-success. It was in every way so thorough and such a knock-down blow to his cocksureness that he had been so clever in his surmises. Indeed, but the aching of his legs from his long tramp, he would have gone back to Town that same night. However, he did not fancy the walk to Benfleet to pick up his car, and so turned into the hotel for dinner and a good night's rest. The meal was plain, but nicely cooked, and he grinned sheepishly when he was served with a good helping of stewed eels. They rubbed in his lack of success.
Revived by his meal, afterwards he sat in the comfortable lounge-bar and watched the lights of the ships going by. It was high tide and situated as the bar was it seemed little above the level of the water.
With, what he estimated, the greater than a million to one chance that he would run into Mangan himself, Larose had not come made-up, or altered his appearance in any way. Still, wearing a black leather motoring coat buttoned up to his chin and with dark glasses, he was confident no one would recognise him unless it happened he was being particularly looked for.
The bar had quite a number of patrons and he watched their coming and going without much interest until a man whom he was sure he had met somewhere before, came in. It was Boehm of the Baltic Embassy, and Larose, always prided himself that he never forgot a face, after a number of furtive glances in his direction, was most annoyed that he could not now place him. Yet, it should have been quite easy, he told himself vexatiously, as the man's appearance was an unusual one, with a dark and narrow face and with eyes which would remind anyone of those of a ferret.
As with himself, the man was evidendy a stranger to the others in the bar, with him passing the time of day to no one and no one taking any notice of him. Smoking cigarette after cigarette, he seemed mainly interested in watching the shipping through the windows, though Larose soon came to notice that, when the bar door opened, he always turned to have a quick look to see who had come in.
The man had two glasses of beer, but he was so slow in drinking them that they lasted until nearly closing time, when with no good-night to anyone he got up and went out. A few minutes later, when all who were not staying in the hotel had gone away, too, Larose remarked casually to the barman, "Curious-looking fellow, that little dark chap! I'm sure I've seen him before. Who is he, do you know?"
"No, I don't sir," replied the barman, "and no one else round here does, either. He's been dropping in for a drink now for quite a fair number of week-ends, but except on Saturdays and Sundays we never see anything of him. He's a bit of a mystery to us. He never says a word to anyone."
"Then doesn't he live about here?" asked Larose.
"No, sir, and no one knows where he does live, but it's certainly not on the island. He's got a bicycle and goes back over the bridge every blessed Saturday and Sunday night, but where he sleeps no one has any idea."
"But what does he do for a living?" asked Larose.
The barman looked amused. "He never seems to do anything. We think he's not quite right in his head. He turns up here on his bike regular every Saturday morning about ten, rides about a bit and then goes and sits upon the seawall a few hundred yards or so from here and keeps his eyes on everything that's going on. We think he must be watching for someone. He's got a pair of glasses and uses them a lot. One night when he came in the bar here he forgot the glasses and left them where he had been sitting. Before he remembered and rushed back to get them, we all had a look at them and a gent here said they were good 'uns and worth forty or fifty quid. Just fancy a chap like him with glasses worth all that money. It's damned funny to me."
Larose thought it was funny, too, and, thinking about it and the man himself kept him from dropping off to sleep for a long while. However, finally he slept soundly and awakened with a start when he heard the gong going for breakfast. He gave another start and a much bigger one this time when, jumping out of bed, it came to him in a sudden flash where he had seen the man with the ferret's eyes before.
It had been at the Baltic Embassy!
During the Great War, on Secret Service together, he and Captain Michaeloff had been on quite friendly terms. They had met many times and Larose had often been to the Embassy. Upon his arrival there one evening, he had seen the captain talking to a man in the hall and had thought the fellow to be of such a rodent-like appearance that later he had remarked laughingly about it. Whereupon the captain had told him the man was one of their best trusted Secret Service agents and had carried out many dangerous jobs for them. He had added with a smile, "And I should say his fondness for using the pistol is even greater than yours."
Now Larose was stirred to tremendous interest by his sudden discovery. "Whew," he whistled, "one of the crack Baltic agents! Then of course he's on some dirty business now! He's watching for someone whom he knows will come along if he waits long enough for him."
He hurried over his breakfast, so that he could go and look at the place where the barman had told him the man took up his position to watch. It was quite early as yet, and he reckoned he had a good half hour before he would arrive.
He located the spot easily enough by the large number of cigarette butts scattered about, and peered curiously over the top of the sea-wall to make out exactly what the watcher would be able to see. For one thing, he could mark every yard of the road which led to the bridge crossing the creek near Benfleet Railway Station and, for another, have a close-up view of the long row of small shacks which stretched in an unbroken line just across the road below, running parallel to the sea-wall. At the present time all these shacks appeared to be untenanted, which was not to be wondered at, he thought, as they would be bitterly cold in the winter months.
Moving a couple of hundred yards or so away, he took up a position where he would not be seen by the man and waited for him to arrive. He soon appeared upon his bicycle and, laying the machine down in the tall grass behind one of the shacks, climbed up over the sea-wall and started upon his usual watch. Half an hour of it, however, was quite enough for Larose and, chancing he would miss nothing, he went for a brisk walk, returning only in time for lunch at the hotel.
After that he took no more interest in the man until the afternoon began to wane. Then he started to walk back to Benfleet and pick up his car. He timed his pace so that he should have just crossed the bridge when darkness came. He wanted to find out in which direction the man would go when he had quitted the island, and he had no difficulty there. Rather as he had expected, the man turned into the railway station and, a minute later, was waiting upon the platform for the up-train, the smoke of which could now be seen in the distance. He had left his bicycle in the station cloak-room.
After the departure of the train Larose strolled into the station, ostensibly to obtain the correct time, but he asked casually of a porter standing by who the man was who had just ridden in on a bicycle. "I often see him," he said, "and wonder who he is." The porter did not know, but supplied the information that he left his machine with them every Sunday evening and picked it up again on the following Saturday morning. "He comes from Town," he added, "with a week-end excursion ticket."
In the week which followed Larose's thoughts were full of the ferrety-eyed man, for with his ever lively imagination some glimmering of what was the real truth was starting to take possession of his mind. What a coincidence it would be he told himself, if he and the Baltic Embassy were now trying to trail the same individual, he, however, wanting only to get hold of what the man had hidden away, while they, probably, were out for a bloody and murderous revenge!
Of course that would mean that the Baltic crowd had fallen out with Mangan because they were now considering he had done them some ill turn. In that case, of all races they would be the most dangerous, as recent events had shewn their civilisation to be only skin deep, with murder and assassination the natural return for anyone who had happened to cross their path.
It might be, his thoughts ran on, that any such falling out seemed highly improbable, but on the other hand how was the Embassy to imagine any explanation of the so-mysterious disappearance of Captain Michaeloff and his companion without bringing Mangan into the picture. They may have argued that, having been in such close touch with them that night in the Castle, he must know something of what happened to them therefore, by denying that he knew anything, it could only mean lies and treachery upon his part. They would be realising that to thwart them as thoroughly and completely as had been done suggested a lot of planning on someone's part, and they might be imagining it could not have been carried out with such overwhelming success without Mangan's aid.
However, Larose gave up speculating, with the only certain conclusion he had arrived at being that if it were indeed Mangan for whom the ferrety-eyed was now waiting, then the Embassy must be in possession of more information than he, Larose, had. They must be certain Mangan had a shack upon Canvey Island and, moreover, had a good idea about where it was situated.
The following Saturday morning he was again upon the island and had early taken up a position from where at a distance he would be able to watch everything that was going on. If nothing however, happened during the day, he told himself it would be the last time he himself would bother anyone. He would pass the whole thing on to Scotland Yard and leave it to them to do what they thought best.
In due time the man appeared as usual and the day began to pass away exactly as it had done the previous Saturday, except for the weather being now much more unpleasant. Misty conditions and a fine drizzling rain having set in, Larose cuddled himself despondently in his mackintosh and wished he was anywhere but where he now was. Back in his position after a good lunch at the hotel, he soon began to feel very sleepy. Leaning back under a high breakwater on the river side of the sea-wall and sheltered from the rain, he had difficulty in keeping his eyes open. Finally, he got tired of blinking them at the man in the distance, and dropped off altogether into a comfortable little sleep.
Afterwards he realised he must have slept for a full hour and longer before, happily always a light sleeper, he was awakened suddenly by the faint crash of breaking glass, followed almost instantly, one after another, by two sharp sounds as if someone were cracking a whip.
At any rate, that was what he thought when for a few brief seconds his brain was still sodden from sleep. Then, as in a flash of lightning, he realised they were reports of a pistol he had heard, and he sprang wide-awake to his feet to see that the man he had been watching was no longer in his accustomed place.
He ran quickly forward to where the man had been, but he was not anywhere in sight and the road running between the sea-wall and the line of shacks was quite deserted. Indeed, not a soul was to be seen anywhere. The air was mistier than ever and visibility was very bad.
For a few moments he stood hesitating and then, a bare fifty yards away, the man he was looking for came into sight wheeling his bicycle out from behind one of the shacks. Reaching the road, he mounted his machine and rode quickly away. He had not turned round and so had not seen Larose watching him.
"God," exclaimed Larose hoarsely, "then he has got his man! He has murdered somebody," and, without waiting a second and mindful of the crash of breaking glass that he heard, Larose ran quickly down the sea-wall to find a shack with a broken window.
It was close near and he came upon it almost at once. Darting up the short path, he saw there were spots of blood upon the sill below the broken window. Stopping dead in his tracks, his eyes roved round and he saw there was blood also upon the ground, directly underneath the handle of the closed door only a few feet away. Moving quickly over to the door, he turned the handle gingerly and, throwing the door wide open, peered into the shack.
A body was lying upon the floor, with its head turned sideways in a pool of blood and, with an instant's glance, he saw it was that of Leon Mangan. The blood had only just ceased welling from a bullet hole in the forehead. From the disturbed state of the dead man's jacket it looked as if the breast pocket had been rifled. Otherwise, it did not appear as if anything in the shack had been interfered with.
Larose drew in a deep breath and the beatings of his heart calmed down. With just another quick backward glance at the body, he left the shack and pulled the door to, as before, touching the handle as lightly as possible. Looking round in every direction, again there was not a soul in sight and, at a quick pace, he set off towards railway station.
He was in no anxiety that the murderer would not be picked up speedily and be within the cells in a very few hours. When about half a mile from the railway station, he heard the whistle of a train coming from the direction of Southend.
"An up-train!" he exclaimed. "Good, then they'll catch him as he comes off the train at Fenchurch Street. He'll be quite unsuspicious and will not have time to put up any fight."
Reaching the railway station at Benfleet, he walked in to speak to the station-master. "I'm Police," he announced laconically. "Now, a man with a bicycle got on that train, didn't he?"
"Yes," replied the station-master, "a smallish, dark fellow. He'd got a return-half to Fenchurch Street."
"That's the man," nodded Larose. "And he took his bicycle with him? Then, what's the number of its ticket? Now at what time does that train get to Fenchurch Street?"
"Five twenty-two if it's punctual."
Larose impressed upon the station-master the importance of strict silence, and proceeded to the garage where he had left his car. He put through a trunk-call to Inspector Stone's private number at Scotland Yard. Stone was off-duty, but to Larose's great relief the youthful Inspector Mendel came to the phone.
"It's Gilbert Larose speaking," said Larose. "Oh, you recognise my voice, do you? Of course you do! You don't often hear such a nice one! Now, you listen most carefully. I'm speaking from Hull's garage in Benfleet, close to the bridge crossing on to Canvey Island. No one as yet knows what I am going to tell you. I mean, I haven't communicated with the local police." He spoke slowly and impressively. "That Major Leon Mangan was murdered in a shack upon the island a little over half an hour ago. His killer is on the train from here which reaches Fenchurch Street at five twenty-two, five twenty-two. Got that all right? You can't mistake him. He's a small and dark man, with a narrow face and eyes set close together. He's an agent of the Baltic Embassy. He's got a cut, which was bleeding half an hour ago, on one of his fingers. You'll probably find the dead man's wallet on him. Also, he has a bicycle in the guard's van. Ticket number two four six. He thinks no one saw him and won't be suspicious. Still, he's carrying a gun and will draw on the instant. He's of a desperate class of men. Now have you got everything? Repeat it all to me."
Inspector Mendel repeated everything in a voice which, with all his usual self-control, was hoarse in emotion.
Larose went on, "Rout out Inspector Stone and come down here with him at once. You will see my car standing outside this garage. I shall be waiting for you. Oh, you must put on the best man you've got to make the arrest. Whom will you send?"
"Inspector Harker," replied Mendel. "You couldn't have a better man."
"All right," said Larose. "I know him. Get him to ring me up directly he's got the man. This is the number. I shall be waiting here and very anxious to know that it's gone off all right. You and Inspector Stone should be here by six."
As can be well imagined, there passed a very worried time waiting for the news to come of the arrest of the murderer, but it came through even earlier than he had dared to hope, just after half past five.
"Got him all right," came the gleeful voice of Inspector Harker, "all complete and true to label, ferret's eyes, cut finger, wallet, and bicycle in the guard's van. But by Jove, as you warned, he was quick with his gun! I think he must have recognised one of us, because he started to draw as he was getting out of the carriage, but we'd grabbed him before he could get his gun out. Yes, sir, nothing could have gone better."
Hardly had Larose come away from the phone when two police cars drew up at the garage. Inspector Stone was there and for a moment the gravity dropped from his face. "Gilbert again!" he laughed. "The naughty boy working all on his own!"
He changed into Larose's car to drive over to the island, and as they went along Larose told him quickly everything that had happened. "But, Charlie," he said earnestly, "for Heaven's sake leave me out of it. If those devils at the Embassy ever come to learn that I had a hand in it, I'll be the next one to go."
"You're quite right, my boy," nodded Stone, "and I promise you your name shall not come out." He chuckled. "We'll let the public imagine we've been working like beavers all these weeks and just biding our time." He turned to stare at Larose. "But why the devil did he come down here on a wretched rainy day like this?"
"The very kind of weather he'd prefer," said Larose, "when he would hope there would be no people about. As to why he came at all—" he shrugged his shoulders, "—who knows? Perhaps, if he's been hiding all that money here, he came to get hold of some of it. Young Avon heard the other day in Town that he's been losing a tremendous lot at the races lately. That would account for his taking the risk."
"And he came on foot, you say?" commented Stone.
"Yes, but you'll probably find that he's left his car somewhere in Benfleet. What I think happened was that this Embassy fellow saw him sneak into his shack and close the door after him. So, in case anyone should be coming along and get the business over as quickly as possible, he broke the glass and shot him through the window. He was cycling off again in a couple of minutes."
Arriving at the shack, for a few moments they stood in silence over the dead man. "Two bullets," said Stone softly, "and either one would have killed him." He looked round the shack. "And, if I'm not very much mistaken, under these floor-boards we shall find all we've been wanting for so long." He eyed Larose intently. "But why do you think they killed him?"
"Evidently they thought he knew too much," replied Larose evasively, "and so they did to him what they probably often do to those whom they imagine have become dangerous to them. For all we know, as you once suggested, perhaps the Embassy, Glenowen and Mangan were all working together." He looked at his watch. "Well, I'd better clear off now, but if you find anything here you might ring me up this evening at the Semiris and tell me all about it," and Stone promised he would.
The stout inspector was even better than his promise, for about ten o'clock he turned up in person at the hotel. He was looking very pleased with everything.
"The Corot painting," he exclaimed smilingly, "£5 notes that will take half a day to count and about a hundred pages of manuscript, the precious diary which the mad old professor had written up." He accepted the double whisky Larose had had brought to him. "A very happy ending, Gilbert, my boy, except that we shan't see Mangan in the dock," and Larose agreed with him there.
A week after Mangan's murder and the so speedy arrest of his murderer, Larose came to the Castle to tell Lord Delamarne everything that had happened up to date.
"The man makes no attempt to deny his guilt," he said, "but declares he was acting entirely upon his own, with robbery the only motive. Of course the Baltic Embassy pretends to be terribly shocked that anyone ever associated with them should have committed such a dreadful crime. In a roundabout way they are showing a lot of curiosity as to how he came to be caught so soon." He grinned. "But I am happy to say this curiosity of theirs is not going to be satisfied, or I should now be shaking in my shoes. They are a bloody-minded lot and, we can surmise, would go to any lengths to get their revenge."
"But what about those memoirs of Glenowen, which the police found in the shack?" asked his lordship. "Will they be made public?"
Larose shook his head. "No, and even their existence is not going to be allowed to come out." He shrugged his shoulders. "What would be the good? They prove conclusively that Glenowen had been spying for the Baltic Embassy ever since the ending of the war and, also, that those there were quite aware, at any rate in the end, that Mangan had committed all those so-called atom murders. Still from what the professor actually wrote down, and we must remember his memoirs were uncompleted, it is left doubtful if the Baltic people were co-instigators with him from the very beginning."
When Larose had left the Castle Lord Delamarne took out of his desk a letter he had received from Penelope only that same morning, and re-read it for the third time. It was bright and chatty, and written from a hotel in Torquay. After saying what a lovely time they were having and how very happy they both were, Penelope went on:
"Lord and Lady Brennington are staying in this hotel, too, and both ask to be very kindly remembered to you. For some reason her ladyship has taken a great fancy to us and will insist that we are to go next week upon a few days visit to their place, Brennington Towers, near Ashburton. Really, I am not very keen about it, but Chester is most anxious to go because she has promised him some good fox-hunting and so I have agreed to go. I like her ladyship well enough, except for her being such a dreadful snob. She is always sneering at those she calls 'the common people,' moaning how different we, our class, are from them. On the quiet, as I am sure you can understand, I am most amused about it, wondering what on earth she would say if she only knew whom my father had been. I believe she would be so furious that I almost think she would want to drive me from her door with a whip."
Lord Delamarne tore the letter into little pieces.
He was smiling to himself.
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