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Title: Blackmail! Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1305411h.html Language: English Date first posted: Sep 2013 Most recent update: Sep 2013 This eBook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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A pool of light cast by the shaded lamps on the dinner table picked out the points of old silver and the ruby lakes in the cut-glass decanters. A pile of filberts stood up russet warm against gleaming mahogany. The cloth had been drawn, as was the post-prandial custom at Broadwater. Narcissus might have lingered lovingly over that polished, flawless board. Lancelot Massey put his claret down somewhat hastily, and Sir George sighed. The thought of a scratch on that mahogany poisoned his after-dinner cigarette.
"My dear boy," Sir George said, plaintively, "it cannot, must not be. Excuse me; your glass seemed to grate somewhat. I hope you haven't—"
Lance hastened to assure his uncle and his host that no damage had been done. The thin, handsome, white face opposite relaxed into a smile. Sir George looked upon himself more as the curator of a priceless gallery of art than the master of Broadwater. The big oak-panelled dining-room might have been looted for the Wallace collection, with advantage to the latter. Five generations of Masseys had been collectors. There were pictures beyond price, china with a history, intaglios of spotless pedigree. The prints and engravings at Broadwater had a national reputation. And Sir George was a man of letters. He published slim volumes of essays, poetry faintly clear on large margins. At present he was engaged on a play that would revolutionise the stage. That his mind was slightly going only Lancelot and the family physician knew. At 65 most of the Masseys became insane, in a highly-bred, gentlemanly way, the result of too much inter-marrying. Lance's mother had been a robust North Country girl, and Lance was very little of a Massey, as Sir George frequently reminded him. Still, he had all the refinement and artistic sense of the race; his novels were slowly lifting him to the front rank, and a recent comedy had brought him a reputation. And now he was down at Broadwater, re-writing a drama that had been going the rounds in England and in America for years.
It would not go begging now, though it required considerable alteration. Lance could see that in the light of recent experience. But the great novel idea was there. Some day that play was going to become classic.
"I tell you it cannot be," Sir George repeated.
Lance started guiltily. His blue eyes had gone far beyond the room. With his keen, delicate, and yet strong, clean-shaven face, he was not unlike an actor of high class.
"What is it that will not do, sir?" he asked.
"Why, this suggested marriage between you and our young relative, Lyn Verity. Now I am very fond of Lyn. She is beautiful and accomplished. She suggests Greuze to me, and Carnova, and, to a certain extent, Gainsborough. Physically speaking, there would be no more perfect chatelaine for Broadwater after I have gone. But the Veritys have allied themselves to the Masseys far too long. Lyn's father murdered her mother in America. I took my old friend's child into the house, and here she has been ever since. I am going to provide handsomely for Lyn. All the same, I have made up my mind that you are not to marry her."
Sir George spoke nervously, but with all the mulish obstinacy of the weak man. Lance's thin, clear-cut lips were pressed a little closer together.
"And if I make up my mind to please myself in this matter?" he suggested.
A quick ruby flush, like the bloom of a peach, came into Sir George's cheeks. His usually clear voice sounded a little cracked now, like the enamel on his Limoges plates. The words carried far. Few of the oak floors at Broadwater were carpeted.
"Then I should have to please myself," he said. "I cannot deprive you of the title; nobody can. But I may remind you that the property is not entailed. I can leave Broadwater and all its priceless possessions to whom I please. You are artistic, refined, a gentleman, and, like myself, a distinguished man of letters."
Lance smiled behind his hand.
"Very well. Here is an ideal place to do good work in. Look whatever way you will, and the eye is pleased, and the senses elevated. From early days you have regarded yourself as heir to all this. And it is in your power to become Sir Lancelot Massey of Broadwater. But if you defy me in this matter I will turn you out without a single shilling."
Again the travelling voice rose high and clear, again the faint red was lined on the speaker's cheeks. The madness was coming nearer and nearer. And Lance was discreetly silent. What was the use of arguing against a fixed principle like this? The time of monomania had arrived. And that had been a terrible business in America.
"I will think over what you say, sir," Lance murmured.
Sir George smiled. His face was transformed altogether. There was a certain wistful tenderness in his glance. He patted Lance's hand with his slim jewelled fingers.
"I'm glad," he said. "I am very fond of you, my dear boy. There is the painful suggestion of a scratch made by your glass. But it's nothing at all."
It was a great concession; there was something quite pathetic in the touch of comedy.
"And now I'll go and do an hour on my play," Sir George said. "I feel in the mood for it."
The play might have been a play at one time, but now it was little more than meaningless nonsense, as Lance knew. It was beautifully written, page by page, on sheets of Sir George's best vellum notepaper, one page corrected and passed approved every day, and carefully dated. There was even a one-time actor-manager on the premises, who acted as standing counsel for the great work. There was no harm in all this, but it would have given Lancelot exquisite pleasure to have kicked Malcolm Stott off the premises with great damage to that histrionic light.
Malcolm Stott was smoking cigarettes in the library. A short, fat man, with a round face and blue eyes of a slightly dissipated child. He looked so round and chubby and innocent that most people were apt to treat him quite as a boy. But there were deep lines under the blue eyes, the hair was white, and the plump fingers shook in the queer staccato way that tells its own tale to a man of the world. At one time Stott had climbed high in the profession; he had been the victim of a deep-seated conspiracy in two hemispheres, he said. As a matter of fact, he had washed his genius and his nerves out with whisky, and the innocent-looking boy was one of the most cold-blooded and unscrupulous rascals who ever smiled into the face of an honest man.
"I thought you'd come," he said. "I have a suggestion to make—a suggestion to improve the play. You recollect where George Martin is on the point of leaving home?"
Sir George assented eagerly. Stott pressed his hand to his side and groaned.
"The old weakness," he said faintly. "But do not mind me. It will pass."
Sir George suggested that there was brandy on the dining-room buffet. He would fetch a glass. Stott could not tolerate the idea of giving his worthy host so much trouble. He must fight down this weakness—the doctors had told him as much. In the dining-room he poured out half a tumbler of brandy, and tossed it down. Then he returned to the library with the decanter, and helped himself to a thimbleful with the air of a shuddering martyr.
"A good medicine, Sir George," he said, "especially to abstemious men like ourselves."
His eyes roamed round the room; he talked of the play and dramatic art in a trickly stream of words. An observing man would have said that the fellow was miserably ill-at-ease. But Sir George was too full of the new suggestion to think of anything else. He failed to note that Stott's eyes were ever on the door. Once the butler entered, and the little man shook as if he saw a warrant in the old servitor's glance.
"Black should be here with the letters from Swanley," he said. "I am expecting—"
"Yes, yes," Sir George interrupted. "I told Long to bring them in directly they came. Now as to that note left by George Martin when he is going to destroy himself. I rather fancy that was your brilliant idea, Stott?"
Stott modestly disclaimed the credit—which was soothing to the baronet's vanity. He sat under the glare of a reading lamp, with a litter of those thick sheets of paper about him. A footman came in with a pile of letters on a salver, and Sir George glanced at them in an absent way. Stott was looking at them, too, in a frightened, gasping fashion. A blue envelope with four flaring American stamps lay on the top of the pack. Stott upset them all clumsily, and gathered them again with a meek apology. All the same, a minute later the American letter was in his pocket, and he was helping himself to brandy with a liberal hand. A man escaping from the gallows with safety in his grasp could have looked no more ghastly.
"It's—it's the pain again," he stammered. "A little nausea as well. I'll lie down in my own room, and smoke a cigarette. I shall return presently if I am up to it. You will work late, Sir George?"
"I am interested," Massey replied. "The inspiration—the divine afflatus is upon me. Possibly I may be here till 2 o'clock—perhaps later. You may go, Stott."
It was a dismissal—bland, dignified, but firm. Stott went off with a grin on his face. But his lips were still ghastly blue, and he shuffled upstairs like one in the first stage of paralysis. He could not smoke just yet; he felt too sick for that. He took the letter from his pocket, opened it, and read it hastily. Then he burnt it, and ground the ashes into powder.
"A near thing, a very near thing," he murmured. "That man would strangle me if he only knew. And I cannot keep the knowledge from him much longer. A cable message, an inquiry through a lawyer, and I am ruined. Well, I must take the goods the gods provide—the little legacy and all the rest of it. Nobody will know how Sir George—What a fool I was not to bring that brandy decanter up here! I shall want most of it before morning."
From the point of the guide-book and the tourist, the drawing- room at Broadwater is not a show place. It has no great historic pictures, no priceless statues, or cases of china, or coins or cameos. But it has the most artistic furniture, the pictures are Greuzes and the like, and the tapestry is a dream. So also is the ceiling—a marvellous piece of coloring and design. There are deep stone windows, filled for the most part with stained glass, and at either end is a conservatory which opens into the room, so that it seems to be framed in flowers. A score of rare lamps, with all kinds of heavy shades, make the apartment wonderfully pleasing and restful to the eye. And here Lyn Verity made her court, and lived out most of her pleasing life.
She looked very like a dainty picture in black velvet as Lance came into the room. She turned from a pile of engravings to greet him, and when he took the dainty figure into his arms and kissed her she seemed to regard it as quite the natural thing to do.
"So you've been catching it, sir," Lyn said, with a charming smile. "Sir George's voice is a singularly penetrating one. Still, he might recollect that the servants have ears. When Long brought in my coffee I thought he was going to commiserate with me."
"I am afraid we shall have to take the law into our own hands, Lyn," said Lance.
Lyn smiled demurely. At the same time she looked a little anxious. She was very much in love with this man; all Broadwater was as nothing to her without him. And yet she hesitated for his sake to lose it all. They stood for some little time gazing into the wood fire, both troubled and anxious.
"He says I am to give you up, dearest," Lance said.
"I heard him," the girl replied, with the same dazzling smile. "I should imagine that most of the household must have heard him for that matter. But I don't quite see how you are going to give me up without the most unpleasant consequences, Lance. I believe that the law is particularly severe upon a—"
Lance laid his hand over the speaker's mouth. She was about to say something indiscreet—and walls have ears. His face was grave as hers was smiling.
"Darling," he said, "it is hateful to me to refer to that topic. But you know perfectly well what the dear old boy's objection is. It is ten years since that business happened, and we all took the story for granted. It was more or less investigated for Sir George at the time by Malcolm Stott, who then had a theatre of his own in New York. Isn't it just possible that the whole thing—"
"Should have been no more than a dreadful accident, Lance. You know what those awful American papers are like. Anything for a sensation. And I mistrust Stott. If Sir George were in his—I mean if he were as clear-headed as he used to be, he wouldn't tolerate that drinking, slimy little wretch in the house at all. Stott plays upon his vanity, of course. He pretends to believe in that impossible play."
"I wish that we could get rid of him; I shall never feel safe so long as he is in the house. And if he discovers our secret—"
"Ah!" Lance exclaimed, "I had never thought of that."
"It would be a dreadful weapon for him. And he has great influence over Sir George. And Sir George can leave his property where he chooses. Lance, there is a tragedy hanging over this house, and the tragedy is going to fall. How it will come I don't know, but I can feel it in the air. If you could clear my father's name—"
Lyn paused for a moment. Lance was regarding her with loving eye. He drew her to his side, and kissed the red lips that trembled ever so slightly.
"You have an idea," he whispered. "Tell me what it is."
"You are going to America before long," Lyn said, thoughtfully. "And you will have to be in New York some time, after your play is produced there. I want you to make inquiries; to sift the matter to the bottom. It never has been properly done; we have always taken too much for granted. We have only Malcolm Stott's word and the copy of an old newspaper. And Stott is your enemy and mine. It is to his interest to foster trouble between Sir George and yourself over me. Lance, I hate that man. I am afraid of him. And he is afraid in his turn; he is afraid of the American mails."
"What can he possibly have to be afraid of, Lyn?"
"I don't know. Being always here, I have the chance of watching him. Of late I have noticed that he is always hanging about when the morning and evening letters come. One day, a fortnight ago, I was down before him. There was an American letter for Sir George. A moment later, and Stott passed through the hall, and I missed that letter. And Sir George said the next day that he had had no American correspondence for a long time. He commented on the fact at breakfast, and Stott looked like a guilty wretch, caught red-handed. We must get to the bottom of it, Lance."
Lance was listening with grave attention. Personally he disliked Stott quite as much as Lyn appeared to do. He knew that the fellow had had large sums of money from Sir George; he felt him to be utterly unscrupulous. And he was playing on the baronet's weakness now. Nor was it the slightest use arguing with Sir George. His mind was going; he had all the obstinacy of the man of feeble intellect. Under these circumstances Stott might do a deal of mischief. But why should he steal those American letters? What had the fellow to fear from that quarter?
"Our policy is to be quiet," Lance said. "We must pretend to notice nothing, and keep our eyes open at the same time. Madison may produce my play at any time, and, if so, I shall be compelled to visit the States. Then I will do my best. And if I could only find that we have been mistaken, Lyn—"
He did not care to say more. Lyn was regarding him with slightly troubled eyes. His arm was about her waist still; she was absently playing with the silken collar of his dinner jacket. The door opened softly, and Malcolm Stott slid in. If he had noticed anything he did not show it in his face. He spoke with the easy air of one who feels pretty certain of his welcome.
"No, I won't stay," he said. "I came for a book for Sir George. If there is going to be any music I might perhaps be tempted—"
"There will be no music," Lyn said shortly. "I am going to bed."
She gave a little wave of her hand, and disappeared. Stott held the door for her politely. He did not look in the least crushed. But just for a moment there was a snarl on his lips, his teeth gleamed like those of a cur that would bite if it dared. It was gone in an instant as he turned to Lance with a smile.
"Sir George does not seem very well," he said. "I have been trying to persuade him to go to bed. But he does not appear disposed to follow my suggestion."
Lance went up to his own room presently. The whole house was in darkness now, save for the light in the hall and the gleaming slit of flame from the half-closed library. Stott and Sir George were discussing something in low tones. There was a rustle of papers, and the sound of a key turned crisply in a lock.
Lance lay for a long time thinking over what Lyn had told him. But he could hardly believe that Stott was really a dangerous character—a criminal character, that was. He had not nerve enough for that sort of thing. Even now he was creeping up to bed timidly, as if afraid of disturbing some of the sleeping household. Lance could catch the faint suggestion of cigarette smoke as Stott passed his door.
When he woke again it was broad daylight. He came uneasily out of a dream wherein some monster was holding him down by the shoulders, and presently this monster resolved itself into Long, the sedate family butler, who was shaking him violently. That Long should be guilty of such an outrage was almost amusing. Long excited was a unique circumstance.
"Has the house caught fire?" Lance asked. "Or are those intaglios—"
Then he paused. It was something worse than that. Long's face was white and quivering; he could not speak for the horror and agitation that lay upon him. Lance jumped out of bed with a sudden sickening sense of tragedy.
"What is it, Long?" he asked. "What has happened? Pull yourself together, man."
"Sir George!" Long gasped. "Lying dead in the library. Murdered!"
A fit of trembling shook the old retainer from head to foot. He pressed his hands to his eyes as if to shut out the horror that stood stark before them. It was some little time before he had the power to speak again.
"I came down first, sir," he said. "I mostly do, because Sir George scatters his papers about so, and he always likes me to tidy up before he is dressed. And—and there he was."
Long broke down like a child. Lance was huddling on his clothes with hands that trembled as if they were cold.
In the hall the sun was shining, making a broad band of light from the library door. Just for a moment Lancelot hesitated. His artistic nature recoiled from anything ghastly or horrible.
But the horrible had to be faced. Like most dreadful things, it was not quite so bad as a vivid imagination had painted it. Sir George lay as if asleep, resting his head on his arm, on the table. There was no spot or stain on the mass of papers there, but the left side was one horrible sticky mess, and there was a great dark circle on the Persian carpet. The white refined face, pallid as a statue now, looked wonderfully peaceful.
"Give me a hand here," said Lance, hoarsely. "He must be moved."
They laid the body back in the chair, and as they did so a razor dropped with a soft thud on the carpet. The dull noise startled Lance as if a pistol had been fired in his ear. He recognised the razor as one of an ivory-handled pair constantly used by Sir George. There was a wide red gash in the neck, whence the crimson stream had run down in the form of a grotesque, ill-drawn map.
"We can do no more now," Lance whispered. "Come away and lock the door. Get up one of the grooms, and send him into Swanley for Dr. Burlinson and Inspector Lawrence."
But the household was already aroused. By a kind of instinct everybody seemed to know what had happened without being told. A white-faced group stood whispering in the hall; a kitchen maid began to weep hysterically. Lyn, looking fresh and bright as the morning itself, stood with an air of wonder on her face. A horse's hoof could be heard spurning the gravel as he flew down the drive. Lance drew Lyn into the dining-room.
"What is it?" she asked. "Where is Sir George? Something dreadful has happened."
In a few words Lance told her; indeed, there was little to tell. Sir George Massey had been murdered in his library by some unknown person. Somebody must have got into the house. None of the servants could possibly have had anything to do with it. Lance had seen them all; had read the horror of their faces. And there was not one of them who had not been born and bred on the estate. They would have to look further afield for the criminal.
They stood in there, waiting and trembling. Stott crept into the room half-fearfully, as if half-expecting that the assassin was lurking there with a knife ready for him. His baby face was all quivering, his blue watery eyes were rounded with horror. As he came in, the room seemed to fill with a faint suggestion of brandy.
"I can't grasp it," he said. "I can't believe it. My old friend and patron murdered like this. And only last night he was so cheerful. And now he's dead."
Stott sat down and burst into maudlin tears. A dirty handkerchief trembled in his fingers. Nothing but the oppressive solemnity of the moment kept Lance from kicking him. He eyed the quivering little figure with disgust.
"Did you hear or see anything?" he asked.
"No," Stott said, from behind the quivering handkerchief, "I didn't. I left Sir George in the library at midnight, busy on his play. I had one of my neuralgic attacks. I hate the remedy, but I have no other resource—brandy. After that I slept soundly till just now."
Stott wept again, smiled feebly, and wiped his eyes. In that delicate way he conveyed the fact that he had gone to bed and passed the night in the heavy sleep of intoxication. Evidently the man knew nothing, and Lance dismissed certain suspicions with a feeling of shame. After all, the death of Sir George would be a serious loss to the fellow.
It seemed strange to see the work of the house-hold progressing as usual, to see Long bring in the Queen Anne breakfast service, and to catch the fragrance of coffee and ham. Breakfast lay on the table, but nobody thought of touching it save Dr. Burlinson, who came presently. And doctors must breakfast, whatever horrors may be.
"We won't go into the room till Lawrence comes," he said. "We might disturb some clue."
Presently the chief of the Swanley police arrived. He listened gravely to all Lance had to say, and then he asked for the key of the library. For some time he examined the room in silence.
"I should like to ask Long a few questions," he said.
Long came fearsome, as honest men often do when required by the officers of the law. He had been down first, certainly, and he had opened the house. He was quite certain that no door had been left open, that no window was unlatched. The house contained many things of almost priceless value, and every window on the ground floor had steel shutters. It was his duty to see that these were fastened, and he had not failed to go over the house twice each night for many years. Nobody could have got into the house.
"Nothing missing?" Lawrence asked.
"Nothing, sir—as far as I can judge," Long replied. "And Sir George kept no money in the house."
"Absolutely everything was paid by cheque," Lance explained.
The inspector looked puzzled. He would like to see the servants whilst Dr. Burlinson was making an examination of the body. But, as Lawrence expected, he could make nothing out of the servants who slept in the house. Truth and honesty were writ large on every face there. The mystery looked like becoming a national sensation.
"The carotid artery has been most neatly severed," Burlinson said. "Sir George must have been attacked from behind as he sat at the table."
"Any sign of a struggle?" Lawrence asked.
"Not the slightest. But Sir George was very feeble, and a comparatively firm grip of his shoulders for about half a minute or even less would have rendered him too weak to move. A daring woman might have done a thing like that."
With some hesitation Lance hazarded the suggestion that the wound might have been self-inflicted. Burlinson made no reply for a moment. Lawrence was softly walking round the room, examining everything even to the mass of papers on the table. They appeared to be of no great importance. The police inspector paused with a sheet of notepaper in his hand to catch the doctor's reply.
"I should be strongly inclined to scout the idea," the latter said; "especially as Sir George was one of the last men in the world to do such a thing. But, at the same time, the thing is possible. Suicides have frequently taken their lives in that manner. If your suggestion can be proved, I shall have nothing more to say."
"I have the proof here," Lawrence said quietly. "A letter written by Sir George on his own paper, apparently addressed to Mr.—, his nephew. Let me read it:—
"My dear Nephew,
"I am going away where none can follow. The secret that lies between us is gradually sapping my reason. But the time will come when you will discover that you cannot defy me when I am in my grave. I have no more to say; all I have to do is to act. One touch and the thread is cut, the problem solved. This is the last word that I shall ever write.
Lance took up the paper. Beyond doubt it was in his uncle's handwriting, on his own paper, and it was addressed to him. Here was a full confession of the suicide. The body of the letter was absolutely meaningless to him; but here it was in black and white that he had deliberately destroyed his own life.
"This seems to settle the whole matter," he said.
Lawrence evidently thought so. He looked just a little disappointed. Perhaps he felt that he had been done out of a sensational case. Burlinson looked still more disappointed. The suicide theory had been proved correct, and yet at the same time it seemed to him to be utterly beyond the bounds of reason.
"I have no more to say," he murmured. "The thing is settled. Everything is for the best. But I am not satisfied at all."
Lance said nothing. He felt in some strange way that he had been all through this before at some time. The letter was real, and yet it suggested a previous tragedy. Everybody knows the feeling. It was the first stage of a dream, with the consciousness that there was more to come.
The more the Massey tragedy came to be examined, the more mysterious it seemed. Yet there was the letter written in Sir George's own handwriting upon his own notepaper. The feeble brain in the feeble body had given way at last, and he had died by his own hand.
But though the Masseys were not regarded as an intellectual race, they had never been violent people. Nor had they ever displayed any morbid tendencies. Sir George's nearest approach to a passion meant no more than a slight raising of the high-pitched voice, and the mere suggestion of carmine on his cheeks.
What then did it mean? The deceased baronet's financial position had been a splendid one. He was justly proud of his house and his art treasures. He had been working on a play which some day was going to take the world by storm. Then, without the slightest warning, he had destroyed his own life, and had left a letter to say so.
Inspector Lawrence was inclined to think no more of the matter. He had all the evidence he required; there would be a more or less formal inquest, and the verdict of the jury would be temporary insanity. Sir George would rest with his fathers, and Sir Lancelot would reign in his stead. Burlinson shook his head. With Lancelot the doctor was discussing the matter in Lawrence's private room at Swanley.
"No chance of that letter being a forgery?" he suggested.
The letter lay open on the table. Lawrence smiled.
"You don't seem to be satisfied, doctor," he said.
"In strictest confidence, I don't mind saying that I am anything but satisfied," Burlinson replied. "As you know, I am practically out of business; in fact, I only attend a few of my very old patients, like Sir George. But I read a great deal, and I have lectured a great deal on brain diseases. I'll go bail for it that Sir George Massey was mentally sound—at any rate, I never knew a man less susceptible to the homicidal mania."
"And yet there is the letter before you."
Burlinson shook his head doubtfully. There was no getting over that letter. Lance was examining it through a strong magnifying glass.
"This is absolutely genuine," he said. "Forgery is out of the question. Would you mind telling me what you are driving at, Burlinson?"
But the doctor refused to be drawn.
"I'd like to spend an hour or so in Sir George's study," he said. "Can you manage that for me without rousing suspicion?"
"Why not come over with me this afternoon?" Lance said. "I have a long interview with Wallace and Wallace, my uncle's solicitors, after which I drive back to Broadwater. I shall be very pleased to have your company."
Burlinson assented eagerly—indeed Lance had never seen him quite so excited over anything before. He was not given to unnecessary speech as a rule, yet he evidently scented some mystery here, where all things appeared quite plain to others.
Wallace and Wallace were exceedingly pleased to see Sir Lancelot, indeed they had expected him before. The sole surviving partner of the old-established firm bowed him into the inner office. Gerald Wallace looked more like a sporting landed proprietor than anything else. But then he had been upon the friendliest terms with the county people all his life, and no better shot was to be found anywhere. His keen, shrewd face was very grave.
"I suppose you know something of the position of affairs, Sir Lancelot?" he asked.
"Oh, drop that, Wallace," Lance exclaimed, hastily. "At least till the dear old chap is in his grave. I would not have had this happen for anything. You did all Sir George's business. Did you ever detect anything of—of that kind about him?"
"Never!" Wallace said, emphatically. "Once get him interested in business, and he was as clear as crystal. His will shows that."
"I suppose you people made it, Wallace?"
"No, we didn't. But I've got it in my safe. An eminent barrister drew that will up under Sir George's instructions, through Mabey and Leesom, our London agents. It was signed in London by Sir George in the presence of two doctors, and subsequently handed over to us for safe custody. On certain conditions everything comes to you."
It was only human nature that Lance should breathe a little more freely on hearing this. He was no stranger to his late uncle's views on the matter of Lyn Verity, and his own feelings towards her, and he had half-feared some complications.
"What conditions are there?" he asked.
Wallace scraped his chin thoughtfully.
"Well, I am afraid that you will find them a bit irksome," he said. "Without being in the least offensive, I may venture to suggest that you are contemplating matrimony."
"People are so good as to say so," Lance smiled. "Miss Verity and myself."
"Exactly. Poor Verity was a client of mine, and the whole sad story is no secret from me. Well, Sir George left you everything on condition that you contracted no alliance with any family where the slightest trace of insanity had manifested itself. The will mentions no names, it merely contains that one stringent clause, and the executors are bound by it. It therefore follows that if you marry Miss Verity you lose every penny of this money."
It was some little time before Lance spoke again. The blow had fallen, and it had been more severe than he had anticipated. Only he knew how severe it was. He was filled by the burning injustice of the thing.
"You don't mean to say that a document like that would stand?" he cried.
"Indeed, I do, Massey. It has been drawn with the greatest care. Two of the greatest physicians in England witnessed the signature, and will be prepared to swear that the testator was in his right mind at the moment of execution. And the executors are both of them aware of the tragedy in Miss Verity's family."
"Who are the executors, Wallace?" Lance asked.
"Well, I'm one. My co-executor is not precisely the gentleman I should have picked out as a colleague, and had it been almost anybody else I should have declined to act. I'm sorry to say that the other man is Malcolm Stott."
Lance groaned. The idea of that crawling, drunken little wretch being so closely associated with him was repugnant to a degree. It was a bitter pill to swallow. How a refined man like Sir George could ever associate with such a man was a mystery.
"It is intolerable," he cried. "Anyway, I have you. Stott will never be sober enough to do any business. And I can kick him out of Broadwater at any time."
"You can get him out of the house," said Wallace, thoughtfully. "But until you are married into some sound, healthy family he can give you a lot of trouble. You see, till you are married he has a salary of £500 and expenses to investigate family ancestors and the like, so that you shall not bring any taint to Broadwater."
"Oh, I'm dreaming," Lance cried. "Let me get out into the fresh air. I'm in no state to do any business to-day, Wallace. It's Gilbert gone mad. I'll come back in a day or two and try to discuss the situation calmly. Good-bye."
He flung out of the office, and was a mile towards home before it dawned upon him that he had a trap at Swanley, and that he had promised to drive Burlinson to Broadwater.
It was a quiet drive to Broadwater, for Burlinson was a silent man given to intricate problems, and he seemed to have much on his mind at present. Lance also carried a load of care on his shoulders that would have astonished the doctor had he known. There was something blacker and uglier far than the mere loss of the family property.
"I've come to get a certain book from the library," Burlinson said meaningly, as the trap pulled up at length. "You understand what I mean?"
Lance nodded. Burlinson strolled away towards the library with the air of a man who is very much at home. Away across the park Stott, a Dutch doll figure, could be seen, fading away in the direction of the village. Lyn came out of the darkened morning room with a mass of cut flowers and trailing ferns in her hands. She looked a little pale and anxious; her deep dark dress threw up her face with a certain marble pallor.
"Lance," she whispered, "you look as if you had some bad news."
"Come into the billiard-room," Lance said. "There is something I want to tell you. You must try and be brave, darling. It is hard to know what is for the best."
Lyn listened to all Lance had to say. There was a look of pain in her clear eyes, and the little hands were trembling As Lance saw it, he drew her tenderly to his side.
"I must confess I never anticipated anything like this," he said.
"Oh, who could?" Lyn cried. "And I have ruined you, Lance. If I had not been so weak and selfish all might have been well. But who would have thought that Sir George—. Still, it is no use going back to that. I have ruined you, Lance. You have nothing."
"Nothing except a good income from my pen and you, dearest."
"And shall I always be held worthy of the sacrifice?"
"What sacrifice, Lyn? I always meant to marry you. Had Sir George lived I should not have waited much longer. He would have known in the course of time—"
"He would have forgiven us. Perhaps I counted too much on that."
"Never mind, sweetheart. It will all come right in the end. Meanwhile we must say nothing—not for a few days at least. As yet I have no official notice of my uncle's will."
"Failing you, whom does the property go to?"
"I declare I never troubled to inquire. I was so dreadfully upset over the first discovery that the future was driven out of my head. We can do no harm in keeping the secret for a few days longer. Now I should like to see you cheerfully going through your duties as if nothing out of the common had happened."
Lyn smiled unsteadily, and there was just the suspicion of a tear in her eye. But the pressure of her lips was warm and thrilling, and Lance was strangely comforted. If the worst came he had her. And he had his pen to fall back upon.
Burlinson appeared to be busy in the library. Nothing was disturbed there, the litter of papers still lay on the big table on which Sir George had fallen as if asleep. One or two of the topmost papers had been moved nearer to the window, a blind of which was slightly raised. There was a faint brown stain on one of the documents, a stain deeper towards the centre.
"Have you got to the bottom of the mystery?" Lance asked.
"I've made it still more puzzling," Burlinson replied. "Long tells me that every one of those papers was placed on the table by Sir George after dinner on the night he was mur—he died. Our poor friend committed suicide by cutting his carotid artery with a razor. At any rate he left a written confession of the fact that he had committed suicide. Now, just look at this paper. What do you see on it?"
"A stain that is rather like a big brown blur in the centre, doctor."
"Precisely. And you don't know what that stain was caused by?"
"I haven't the least idea. What is it?"
"Chloroform," Burlinson said, tapping the paper excitedly. "I have made all the tests, and find that a deal of that drug was dropped over the table. See! The stain is here—and here—and here—as if a bottle had been toppled over. There is a regular pattern of stains. After what Long tells me, I am forced to the belief that the chloroform was upset after those papers were placed on the table—in other words, late in the evening of the mur—tragedy. Now it is not to be imagined for a moment that Sir George drugged himself first and cut his throat after, is it? Nor is it credible that he took chloroform to ease the pain. If that had been so, we should have found the bottle. I have quite another theory on the subject."
In spite of himself and his troubles, Lance was interested. He was deeply puzzled, and indeed was Burlinson. The puzzle knotted at every fresh pull.
"Are you sure it is chloroform?" Lance asked.
"Sure as I am of my own name. I have made all the tests. Do you know what has happened? Sir George was murdered. He was chloroformed, and, whilst insensible, his throat was cut by the assassin, who upset the bottle of drug in his agitation. Nothing could possibly be plainer to my mind than that."
"But you forget all about the letter," Lance said.
"Hang the letter!" Burlinson cried. "That is part of some infernal conspiracy. Sir George has been foully murdered, and I don't rest till I've proved it."
No alteration had taken place whatever at Broadwater pending the funeral of Sir George, beyond the addition of Mrs. Sinclair, the late baronet's widowed sister—a mighty traveller, who had published books about all kinds of dangerous and unpleasant places. Usually Lucy Sinclair lived alone; but she was fond of Lyn, and, under the circumstances, Lyn was only too glad to have this friend and chaperon in the house.
"Why does that loathsome little beast stay here?" she asked, apropos of Stott.
Lyn smiled at the ingenuous language. Mrs. Sinclair was small and slight, with grey hair, and the sweetest and most amiable of faces. But her tongue was quick and ingenuous, and she boasted that she could use a revolver as well as most men.
"I'm afraid we can't get rid of him," Lyn remarked.
"Nonsense. Kick him our of the house. Pelt him with his own empty brandy bottles."
Lyn proceeded to explain—to Mrs. Sinclair's boundless indignation. But her anger did not blind her shrewd common-sense, and she was fain to own that she saw no way out of the difficulty. And she was by no means insensible to the state of affairs between Lyn and Lancelot.
"Well, there's plenty of time," she said, thoughtfully. "What we have to do now is to investigate the tragedy that darkened your father's life. There is something behind that to come out. But Stott is a grievous burden to bear, and I let him see it."
If Stott saw it he made no sign. But there were moments when those weak-looking blue eyes flashed, and the round doll face flushed with anger. Otherwise Stott seemed to take his new honors meekly enough. He had good quarters, and money to spend. But the man was the rankest coward at heart, and doubtless feared that any show of authority might perhaps end in his violent and painful expulsion from Broadwater.
"It is no fault of mine that I am placed in this invidious position," he bleated to Lance. "I have had it thrust upon me. A most extraordinary and unexpected thing! Old and broken-down as I am, the money is necessary to me. But I shall not be in the way, not the least in the way. A private room, and the mere suggestion of brandy when the pains come on—"
He looked meekly at Lance's lowering face. At any rate, there was no provision that the fellow should stay at Broadwater. Lance would make that pretty clear directly the funeral was over. Till then no steps could be taken. The adjourned inquest was to-morrow, and the funeral fixed for the same afternoon. After that it would be made pretty clear that Stott's room would be preferable to his company.
This further inquest was troubling Lance. It seemed to him that the thing might have been settled at the first hearing, only Burlinson stood in the way. And that certainly was a startling discovery of his over the chloroform. Also it struck Lance as curious that the doctor had said nothing on that head at the inquest. What did it mean?
But for the written confession of suicide it might have meant a good deal. But in the face of that letter it seemed to be robbed of all its significance. Nobody could possibly doubt the genuineness of that letter on Sir George's private notepaper. True, he had no reason whatever to take his life, but then men had done the same surprising thing before, even when they had not a trouble in the world.
The chloroform affair must have been a mere coincidence. Perhaps Sir George had made up his mind to take his life that way and had discarded it at the last moment. Or perhaps he had knocked the bottle over by accident and had had no more in the house. There was no reason why he should hide the bottle, but going on the theory that all would-be suicides are lunatics, the secrecy on that head was easily explained. No doubt Burlinson was building up some ingenious theory, but that letter must of necessity bring the whole flimsy fabric to the ground.
The adjourned inquest looked like being merely a formal affair. A few curious people had gathered in the billiard-room where the inquiry was to be held, the villagers and neighbors staying away out of compliment to the late owner of Broadwater. A few reporters had come, more as a matter of duty than anything else. So far as they could see, the whole affair was explained—in so formal a matter there would be very little of public interest to be gained.
The Coroner and witnesses went over the old lines again. Long proved beyond doubt that on the night of his master's death the windows and shutters were all fastened. He could further testify that he had opened every window and door himself the next morning. And he was quite positive that none of the art treasures of the house were missing.
Lawrence followed on much the same lines. He felt that his time was being wasted, and he was curt accordingly. He had examined every servant in the house, all of whom had been born and bred on the estate. He found one and all strongly attached to their late employer, and he was emphatically of opinion that not one of them was capable of anything in the way of serious crime. No, he had made no inquiries outside, he had not seen any object in doing so. All the experts agreed that the now notorious letter was in Sir George's handwriting, and there was an end of the matter.
The Coroner looked at his watch significantly, and glanced at the jury. He suggested that he had already taken up too much of their valuable time. If there were no more witnesses forthcoming he would proceed with his address, and the jury could then give their verdict, a verdict which they must already have made up their minds upon.
"My witnesses are exhausted, sir," Lawrence said.
Burlinson stood up. He had a few words to say. Oh, yes; he was quite ready to be sworn. He had been making certain investigations, and he had discovered one or two apparently trifling matters which might or might not have an important bearing later on. In the interests of justice he hoped the Coroner would not ask him to be more explicit. The reporters, scenting a mystery, began to grow busy.
"Can we assist you in any way, Dr. Burlinson?" the Coroner asked.
"You can assist me materially, sir," Burlinson replied. "I have come to the conclusion that there is a good deal more here than meets the eye. Of course, that letter is strong evidence to the contrary. But I should like the funeral adjourned till to-morrow because I have the strongest reasons for asking permission to make a post-mortem of the body."
Here was a sudden and unexpected development. The reporters were writing hard at the table; the sleepy jury were wide awake now. A long discussion followed.
"Well," the Coroner said, finally, "it is a case for the relatives of the deceased to decide."
"If they decline I shall lay certain facts before the Home Secretary," Burlinson remarked.
"I confess I am startled," Lawrence said. "And I may also remark that the whole thing is repugnant to me. At the same time I have every confidence that Dr. Burlinson has the strongest grounds for his request. I make no objection whatever."
"That is settled," the Coroner replied. "I take it this means postponing the funeral till to-morrow. To give Dr. Burlinson every opportunity of testing whatever theory he may have formed, this inquiry is adjourned to the same time and place this day month."
Stott was puzzled—in a frank, childish kind of way. What was Dr. Burlinson after? What clever idea had he got in that wonderful brain of his? Burlinson drove him out of the room and locked the door of the chamber where the examination took place. But Stott haunted the place all that day and part of the night as well. He hung over the coffin next day, he watched it laid to rest in the family vault as if it had some curious fascination for him. Then the blinds were drawn up at Broadwater, and the blessed sunshine filled the house once more. But there was no news of Burlinson, who had caught the 4.15 express at Swanley Junction to town directly after the funeral. Stott babbled of the doctor to everybody about him.
"And I do hope we shall be a little more cheerful now," he said.
Lance faced round upon him suddenly. The bleating voice, the watery eyes, and the plump features filled Lance with a sudden fury of exasperation.
"I don't think that need concern you," he said. "Under the terms of my uncle's will certain duties are assigned to you. You are appointed as a certain kind of matrimonial guardian to me—as a committee of inspection, in fact. But one does not necessarily have one's lawyer or one's guardian in the house. My uncle leaves you a certain sum under his will, and an income that lasts perhaps for a long time. When are you ready to go?"
"I have no money, Sir Lancelot," Stott bleated. "I thought perhaps I might stay here."
"Nothing of the kind," Lance said, sternly. "If you are in want of £500, I will advance that sum at once with the greatest possible pleasure. You cannot stay here."
"Oh, you want me to go at once? Yes, yes. We shall see, Sir Lancelot—we shall see."
"Confound the man! What are you driving at?"
Stott crept across the room and closed the door. His face was still youthful, his eyes mildly innocent, but his mouth had grown harder. He was trembling from head to foot with a fear that he strove in vain to throw off, but he held a strong card, and he was going to play it. Lance could have kicked the fellow with the greatest possible pleasure.
"Let us have a little friendly chat," he said; "a chat with no feelings on either side. I am sorry that you mean to insist upon the termination of my long association with the house. And I could have been of the greatest possible assistance to you."
"Pardon me if I fail to see it," Lance said, curtly.
"Not at all, Sir Lancelot." Stott rubbed his hands together. "Let me explain. For some little time before your late uncle's death there was a serious difference of opinion between you. 'Cherches la femme.' It is ever thus in matters of this kind. Rightly or wrongly, your uncle formed definite ideas as to your future matrimonial engagements. You also had ideas as strong in another direction. You had made up your mind to marry Miss Verity, and you went so far as to tell your uncle so. You follow me?"
"To the extent that this has nothing to do with you."
"Oh, yes it has. I am the umpire—you forget that. If your uncle had lived and you had persisted in your intentions, he would have disinherited you."
"That was on the cards when the tragedy took place."
Stott smiled. A legion of cunning devils seemed to be dancing in his eyes.
"Which brings me to my point," he went on. "Under the circumstances, the sudden death of your uncle would have been the best thing that could have happened to you. It would leave you the property, and freedom to marry whom you pleased. But how to manage it without arousing suspicion? What is the use of being a dramatist unless you can surmount a little difficulty like that? Happy thought! Get Sir George to write a letter conveying the idea that he had committed suicide."
"What on earth do you mean?" Lance burst out.
"Softly, softly," Stott whispered. He was smiling evilly. "You wrote a play once—the play you are revising now for early production. But you had no name then, and copies of that play lay neglected in more than one theatre both here and in America. I know where two of those copies are. And in that play a man is cajoled to write a letter which, if he died suddenly, would point to his own suicide. Suppose you got Sir George to make a copy of that letter for you, and kept it by you. Suppose you—er—removed him, and left that letter by his side."
"Stop!" Lance thundered. "This is madness. The letter—"
"Appears to be written by Sir George and actually is, Sir Lancelot. I have an excellent memory. You have your revised play in the house now. Go and read Act II., which contains that letter, and what will you find? The letter is word for word absolutely identical with the letter found by Sir George's side after his death!"
Lance opened his mouth to speak, but paused astonished. He had a good memory, too, and it came upon him at once with a blinding flash that what Stott said was absolutely true. How on earth the thing had been worked, how it had all been brought about, he could not see for the moment; indeed he was too confused to think at all.
"You—you couldn't identify me with the maddening mystery," he gasped.
"Could I not?" Stott said mildly, though with just the suggestion of a sneer. "I could recall that play to the minds of managers; I could write a letter which, if he died suddenly, would say that you put your cunning idea into force, and that you were so very cunning that you actually forgot to change the wording of the letter. That, of course, is what people call unconscious cerebration. You were using your own scheme, and unwittingly you used your own letter. Why you should do this thing is palpable. Once your uncle was out of the way, you could marry."
"Stop!" Lance cried. "Stop, or I'll strangle you. As there is a Heaven above us, I swear that I am innocent of this dreadful thing."
"Suppose I agree with you," Stott whispered. "Suppose I say that I am sure you are the victim of some subtle conspiracy. But that won't prevent the world from speaking up, once the truth leaks out. And no man likes being treated like a dog. And this dog has found his kennel a luxurious one."
"I'll not compromise with you," Lance said firmly. "But you—you needn't go to-day. I must have time to get this into my confused brain. Be off."
Stott stalked out, not without dignity. Then he fell headlong upstairs, with his hand upon his bursting heart, and coaxed a full wineglass of brandy between his clinking teeth.
The blinds were again up at Broadwater, but there were shadows everywhere. An uneasy sense of impending calamity hung over everyone, a feeling that something was going to happen. Yet Sir George was buried in the family vault now, and Burlinson made no sign. If he had anything startling to disclose at the forthcoming inquest, he kept the facts strictly to himself. But Lancelot was not thinking of that. He was amazed and stunned by the disclosures made by Malcolm Stott.
If that little mild-eyed scoundrel made the discovery public it would bear hard on Lance. And Stott was in a position to prove everything he said. More than one copy of the old disused play was still extant, and in each the letter of the suicide was identical with the letter left by Sir George. What infernal roguery was at the bottom of the whole business? And how had the thing been managed? Lance thought it all over till his brain fairly reeled. And the more he thought of it the worse it looked for him.
Sir George had not committed suicide—or so Burlinson said. Somebody had murdered him, after first ingeniously arranging matters to look like suicide. But who would believe this? Men don't write letters saying they have taken their own lives at the instigation of other people. But Burlinson insisted that here was an exception.
And whose interest was more particularly served by Sir George's death? Lance's, of course. It could easily be proved that he knew nothing of the peculiar nature of his uncle's will. It could be proved that Sir George warned him of the consequences to himself if he persisted in marrying Lyn Verity. With Sir George no more, Lance had the ground clear before him. And now to a great extent he was in Stott's power.
He ought to have kicked the little blackguard out of the house, but—he didn't. He would wait for a little time; perhaps some clue would present itself. And Stott smiled, and was so painfully polite to everybody that Lance was hard put to it to keep his hands off the man who was practically master of Broadwater.
The broadest hints were lost upon Stott. He held the situation, and he knew it. Lance appealed to his pride. The little man sat in the library puffing away at his eternal cigarettes and sipping brandy and water—strictly as a medicine, of course. Lyn heard part of the conversation as she stood in the hall arranging the flowers.
"Why kick?" Stott asked sweetly. "Why let your angry passions rise? As that French Johnny so aptly says, 'Je suis, Je reste?'"
"Not for an indefinite period, I hope," Lance suggested. "Don't you push me too far."
Stott's tremulous lips parted in something like a snarl, it was only for a moment, and the smile was on his round, soddened, baby face again.
"And don't you shove up against me," he said. "I've got all the cards in my hand, remember. Still, kick if you like. Marry Miss Verity, if you haven't done so already—"
He paused as Lance made a step towards him. He wriggled low down in his chair, and his blue watery eyes were pitiful. And yet there was a suggestion of venom about him.
"Now don't," he said. "I hate violence. It's so vulgar. Suppose you married Miss Verity, I could kick you out of the house the same day. And what would become of Broadwater and the money then? Why, it would revert to me—to me, mind you—to do as I pleased with till your eldest son became of age, subject to a small sum for maintenance. Ask Wallace and Wallace. And you can't upset the will, with its swell London doctors for witnesses."
"Did you suggest that?" Lance asked.
Stott flicked the ash off his cigarette in the coolest fashion.
"'Alone I did it,'" he quoted. "'A poor thing, but mine own.' The jest of the circumstance, the sport of fate, must look to himself. The fine flame of geniality in this breast has been turned to gall. For once in my life I thought of myself. And the worm turns. Not that the worm wants much—a little kindness and sympathy, and a little brandy. Strictly as a medicine, of course. I have no wish to be vindictive, but honor, my dear sir, honor compels me to respect the wishes of my late esteemed patron. It would cut me to the heart, but if you defy me—why, the noble order of the sack must be yours. If—"
Lance turned on his heel and walked away, ashamed and uneasy in his mind. How much did that little mild-eyed man know? And had he actually guessed a secret that Lance deemed to be strictly between Lyn and himself? And Lyn had passed into the morning-room, where she stood with a ghastly white face, and the flowers in her hand shaking like blossoms bent to the March gale. She heard Lance's step go by—she would fain have spoken to him and learnt the worst, but still she stood there with a growing terror in her eyes and a feeling of sickening horror at her heart.
Stott lay back in his chair with the air of a man who is well pleased. The cards were falling exactly as he intended; up to now every trick had been his. He looked across the park with a genial air of possession. He approved of the deer standing knee-deep in the bracken. "A little patience and cunning, and all this is mine," he murmured. "But these little scenes affect my heart, horribly. I'll go and walk over the demesne—stroll in my park. It is too fine a day to be in the house."
He passed through the open window down the drive, on the best of terms with himself. Away down the dim avenue a man was swaggering along—a seedy, man in a shiny frock coat and a raffish white hat set at a knowing angle. At the sight of Stott he feigned to be overcome with emotion. His great, coarse, red face exuded an oily mixture.
"And what the d—do you want, Martin Blake?" Stott asked with forcible feebleness.
Still, the fresh cigarette and unlighted match in his hand shook horribly. The red-faced man coolly appropriated the cigarette and match, and lighted the tobacco calmly. He blew a long, thin cloud from his lungs with a sigh of deep content.
"I've come down here," Blake said, with his head thrown back, "to share the plunder. You're a dirty little blackguard, Stott; and I've done some dirty tricks for you at about 13 for a shilling, and now I'm going to get a bit of my own back. Fleet-street, sir, is not what it was. Our Journal, 'The Mirror,' is no longer a terror to the evil-doer."
"In other words, the penny blackmailing financial weekly has had its day," Stott sneered.
"Put it as you please," Blake said calmly. "I have been cruelly disappointed. There was a man in the city whose nefarious career I proposed to shield from the garish light of day for a paltry hundred pounds. The miscreant kicked me downstairs and broke my collarbone. I sued the murderous ruffian for damages. A suborned jury and a prejudiced judge refused my plea and trampled on my wounded feelings. Then the proprietor of 'The Mirror' suggested a holiday. I collected £20 of outstanding advertisement money, and here I am, broke in the world—I, a journalist with a reputation in two hemispheres."
"Yes," said Stott, uneasily. "Here you are, certainly. What next?"
"Don't you be an ass," Blake said, cheerfully. "I've found all about your little game here; I know how it has been worked. There's money in this Broadwater tragedy—a dozen London papers will pay handsomely for light on the suicide's letter. I guessed you were in it from the first; indeed, I came here yesterday cocksure of finding you. And I've been asking questions—never was there such a beggar for asking questions as I am. It's a pretty scheme, Stott, but you're not going to have it all to yourself."
"I think so," Stott suggested mildly. "Oh, I think so."
The veins on the forehead of the big man thickened. Just for a moment there was something in the glint of Stott's eyes that suggested the futility of bullying.
"You're a nice sort of pal," Blake growled.
"I'm not a pal at all," Stott said in the same tone, "you may go to the devil in your own way for all I care. But you're not going to get a brass farthing out of me, and don't you forget it. You seem to know something about the tragedy and my young friend, Sir Lancelot Massey. Try him. Perhaps he may be disposed to come down handsomely to keep his name out of that immaculate 'Mirror' of yours."
Stott spoke quietly, but there was just the suspicion of a tremor in his voice. He shot a swift glance at Blake from under his brows. Blake had the air of one who has been painfully disappointed in a friend. He shook his head mournfully.
"You always were a hard little devil," he said, "despite that baby face of yours. But touching the baronet. Mild, quiet, sensitive, literary chap, isn't he?"
Stott nodded. He could read the other's mind like an open book. He could detect the timidity of the coward behind the manner of the bully.
"That's the man," he said. "If you know your business, he ought to be good for a hundred at least."
Blake tapped his breast pocket significantly. There he had two interviews with Lance already written—one on the side of the angels, the other of quite a different hue. If he still cherished any bitterness against Stott, he failed to show it on his face.
"I'll go and see him now," he said. "If you're about presently, I'll let you know the result. It takes a man with an American training to do a real live interview."
"I shall wait for the result with the greatest interest," Stott said drily.
He watched Blake swaggering away with a queer malignant gleam in his eye. He would have given a great deal to have known how much Blake really was aware of. These two had been in more than one shady transaction together; indeed, Blake was capable of anything for a few pounds. And Stott had never taken the fellow into his confidence. Still—
But he could not have known anything really damaging, or he would not have taken his rebuff so calmly. With a reassured grin, Stott watched him pass beyond the portico, and then for the next half-hour lay on his back tranquilly smoking cigarettes.
Long sniffed suspiciously at Blake, but asked him into the library. As Lancelot rose from the table, where he was writing letters, the heart of the intruder failed him. No quiet, sensitive, literary chap had any right to a keen eye and a square face like that.
"Your business, sir?" Lance asked curtly.
Blake plunged into it at once, fearful that delay might sap his oozing courage. The sound of his own rich oily voice restored his self-possession. He asked a host of questions which he proceeded to answer himself; he read the favorable interview unctuously.
"No harm in our publishing that?" he suggested.
"None at all," Lance said, politely.
"Quite so, Sir Lancelot. But there is another section of the public that—um—er—Permit me to read you the other side of the question."
He read rapidly. Lance listened quietly, with his head bent forward.
He might have been following an oration in Greek for all the emotion he displayed.
"And there I have finished," Blake said with a flourish. "As a statement of the case for the—er—prosecution, you must admit that there is a deal in my arguments. Frankly speaking, it does not matter a row of pins to us which article we publish. But I may venture to say that it may make a considerable difference to you, Sir Lancelot. A hundred pounds—"
Blake paused significantly. Lance looked up for the first time.
"I am to pay £100 to have the white story published," he said. "If not, you will publish the black one. That is what it comes to?"
"A luminous-minded man is a pleasure to meet," Blake said with enthusiasm.
"I appreciate the compliment," Lance said quietly. "Will you come outside with me?"
Blake had no objection whatever; he had no suspicions when Lance carelessly took a thin ash plant from the vestibule, and he chatted on till the drive was reached. Then Blake looked up and stepped back hurriedly.
"There is your reply," Lance said hoarsely. "And if I ever catch you here again—"
Blake stumbled headlong down the drive, writhing with the pain of half a score of blows about his shoulders. So maddened was he with the pain and fright that it was some little time before he became conscious of the fact that he was alone. Wide lines seemed to be burning across his back and shoulders. And then out of the mist of blackness and blind terror the quivering features of Stott gradually shaped themselves.
"You dirty little scoundrel," Blake screamed. "You miserable blackmailing rat. So you thought it would be a good joke to send me to see your baronet. I've got a score of scars across my back, and you shall pay for every one of them. Oh, I'll tear the bottom out of your snug little nest for you. I'll—I'll—"
"You can't do anything," Stott said mildly.
"Can't I? Because I didn't pretend to know. I'm not quite such a fool as I look. And I'll pull the skin off your baronet's back in the next issue of the 'Mirror.' And I'll ruin you, too. Let me once get to New York, and you're done for."
The queer smile died from Stott's face as Blake turned on his heel and shuffled into the road. He pressed his hand to his heart, as if to stifle the pain there. He called out to Blake, but his shaking blue lips made no sound. As he turned he saw the quiet tranquil eyes of Mrs. Lucy Sinclair regarding him.
"Our friend yonder seemed to be rather annoyed," she said.
"Our friend!" Stott stammered. "An acquaintance of mine, madam. But I don't suppose that you have ever seen Martin Blake."
"You are quite wrong," Mrs. Sinclair said, calmly. "I knew him quite well—in America."
The progress of affairs generally was not displeasing to Malcolm Stott. For the time being everything seemed to play into his hands. And now that he had got rid of his friend Martin Blake, and dealt Sir Lancelot a back-handed blow at the same time, he had only to wait, and everything would be his.
But there were drawbacks even here. What most men accomplish by courage Stott brought about by cunning. And his nerve had gone years before. Brandy may be a fine brace and stimulant, but it is certain to fail in the long run. There were times when Stott woke with a start in the night; times when he felt inclined to abandon the whole ingenious scheme and fly. And there were hours when the pain at his fluttering heart stifled him and doubled him up with agony. Later on Stott meant to give it up. But not yet; he could not do without it yet.
And there were other times, too, when the wily brain turned all confused and misty, and the elaborate scheme got tangled up like a child's dream. At those times the inevitable brandy did more harm than good.
Still, everything was going beautifully. Stott chuckled over his cigarette as he saw Lancelot come striding from the stables to the house, carrying a lemon-colored paper under his arm. Stott had no difficulty in recognising the "Mirror." And from the expression of Sir Lancelot's face, Blake had been as good as his word.
"Another trick to me," Stott chuckled. "Really, I am greatly obliged to Blake."
Lance came hurriedly into the morning-room, and Stott crept into the hall, where he could listen. He always listened to conversations; he picked up a bit of useful information that way. Lucy Sinclair looked up from her letter-writing.
"I hope it is nothing very serious," she suggested.
"It ought not to be," Lance said, "but still—Look here, aunt, that fellow Blake has been as good as his word. That fellow I thrashed, you know. Here is the whole story, with a suggestion that I am rather worse than the murderer of poor Sir George. And when I was coming out of Wallace's office just now, I met Lady Masefield and her girls, and they cut me dead."
"Very foolish of them," Mrs. Sinclair said, calmly.
"Of course. Still, that blackmailing 'Mirror' has made a fine case against me. And they have dragged Lyn into it. Otherwise, I shouldn't care so much. I'd give ten years of my life to get to the bottom of this wretched mystery."
"They might have left Lyn alone," said Lucy.
"Trust those blackguards for hitting on the tenderest spot. And the poor child looks worried and white enough already. Where is she?"
Lyn had gone out, Lucy Sinclair explained. She had come down with a dreadful headache, and the elder lady had suggested a stroll. The listener smiled as he heard. Lyn's white face and the dark rings under her eyes had not been lost upon him. There were other secrets in the house which he had to probe to the bottom. And a vague suspicion was growing into a certainty with Stott—if he could only prove it, if he could only make sure of that, the rest would be easy.
He smiled and chuckled, and stopped with a gasp. His lips were drawn back to his teeth with the agony he suffered. There was a blue tinge on his round face. He crawled away to his own rooms, where he helped himself liberally to brandy. He lay for a few minutes after the pain had ceased, trembling in every limb.
When he came down again, luncheon was ready. Lyn was there, pale and nervous, and Lucy Sinclair cool and collected at the foot of the table. As Stott entered, the murmur of conversation suddenly ceased. He smiled benignantly.
"Pray don't mind me," he remarked. "Mrs. Sinclair was saying—"
Mrs. Sinclair glanced at the speaker over her glasses.
"I was saying that I am going to London to-morrow," she responded. "And from thence it is highly probable that I shall have to go to New York—in connection with the publication of my new books of travel, and er—other things."
"I suppose you know New York very well," Stott murmured.
"As well as I know Broadwater. Wherever I go I always make friends with the journalists—even the humblest of them. From the 'World' and the 'Sun' down to the 'Record,' I know them all. Did you ever hear of the 'Record,' for instance?"
A sudden spasm of pain gripped Stott. The blue tinge was on his face, but the wild look in his eyes was not all a look of pain.
"I—I—yes," he stammered. "I used to advertise in the 'Record'—indeed, all the papers. But why should you pick upon that particular production?"
Stott was stammering still, and the glass that he carried to his lips clinked against his teeth. Lucy Sinclair was regarding him much as a naturalist would have regarded something new in the way of an ornithological specimen.
"A little idea that just occurred to me," Mrs. Sinclair said, calmly. "I recollect now that your friend Martin Blake was once sub-editor of the 'Record.'"
"He—he is no friend of mine," Stott stammered.
"Not now, perhaps," Mrs. Sinclair said, in the same analytical voice. "Which fact I gathered when I saw you together on Monday. But he used to be, in the days when you were a popular stage figure in New York. It seems a strange thing to say, but I recollect Martin Blake when he was, to all outward seeming, a gentleman."
"A very strange thing to say," Lance murmured grimly.
"Drink," Stott said, sadly. "The downfall of so many men of genius."
Mrs. Sinclair remarked pointedly that she had not far to look for examples, and Stott smiled. He was terribly afraid of this woman and her questions. And either by accident or design she had touched the mainspring of the whole complicated machinery. A gentle perspiration broke out on Stott as he realised how near she was to the root of things.
But Mrs. Sinclair's glance betrayed nothing. In a grave, pre-occupied way, Lyn was playing with her bread. At the least noise she started; she had the look of a hunted animal in her eyes. Lance addressed her twice before she replied.
Mrs. Sinclair alone seemed to be at her ease. She parried Stott's questions with the greatest dexterity, and utterly declined to say more on the subject of New York journalism. She watched the anxious, uneasy little man opposite her; she noticed his scared eyes. Presently Stott rose, and excused himself on the plea of tobacco.
"How much longer are you going to tolerate him, Lance?" Lyn asked.
Lance shrugged his shoulders. There were many things he did not care to tell Lyn.
"A month," Mrs. Sinclair said, suddenly. "Bear with him, Lyn, treat him as politely as you can. Before a month is past we shall have the pleasure of kicking the odious little wretch out of the house and handing him over to the police. My dears, you never did a better day's work in your life than when you asked me to take up my headquarters at Broadwater. Lucy Sinclair is going to be the fairy godmother. I shall see Stott and Blake in gaol and dance at your wedding yet."
A vivid flush of carmine poured like a wave over Lyn's lovely face, and the tears rose to her eyes. She laughed hysterically, and dashed the tears away.
"I am all right," she said. "Please don't take any notice of me. I fancied that I was born without nerves, and I find that I am mistaken. But whatever I do—please, please try and re-member that I did it for the best."
Lance looked up in astonishment. But the pleading voice had changed to a laugh, and for the rest of the day Lyn was in feverishly high spirits. It was a different Lyn who came down to dinner as Long was lighting the hall lamps.
Long stood gravely aside for his young mistress to pass. Nobody else was down yet; the afternoon's letters lay upon the hall table. Uppermost was a blue envelope with American stamps and postmark, addressed to Sir George Massey. It was the same class of envelope and the same writing as the letter Lyn had suggested that Stott had possessed himself of.
It was slightly gruesome to stand there, holding a missive addressed to a dead man. And yet there was the fascination of a mystery behind it. An irresistible desire to open the envelope came over Lyn. Hot pink fingers crooked under the flap, and the letter was open. Long saw and disapproved, but remained discreetly silent.
The letter was fairly long, but in a bold, flowing hand. As Lyn read on her face turned white, then crimson, and once more deadly white again. She seemed to have gone out of the present into another world altogether. The sound of a footstep on the polished oak floor brought her to herself again. Then she flashed up the stairs like a stream of light, palpitating and trembling with a new hope, and a wild, half-insane determination. When the dinner-gong sounded for the second time she came into the dining-room with eyes so lustrous and shining that Lance bent and kissed her as she passed him.
"My darling," he whispered. "You're yourself again to-night."
"I feel gay," Lyn laughed. "But you must not kiss me when Mr. Stott is about. Perhaps Aunt Lucy has inspired me with hope, perhaps I have made a little discovery of my own. But I am not going to think about that; to-night I am going to be entirely happy."
Lance came down the next morning with no feeling of coming evil upon him. On the contrary, he felt more hopeful and buoyant than he had done for some time. And it is only in books that the psychological forecast works out according to the mood of the character. Mrs. Lucy Sinclair seemed to share Lance's excellent spirits. Stott winked and shivered, and murmured that he had passed a bad night. His eyes were bleared, and there was a faint odor of brandy about him, early as it was.
"I hope nobody was ill in the night," he said. "I heard footsteps pass my door."
Mrs. Sinclair had not heard of any indisposition; she herself had slept soundly, and frankly owned that she wanted her breakfast. And why was Lyn keeping the kidneys waiting? She rang the bell, and instructed Long to ask Miss Lyn's maid if—
The maid came excitedly into the room. Her face was pale and agitated, her eyes were full of tears. For once even Long was startled out of his episcopal gravity.
"Well, what is it?" Mrs. Sinclair asked, sharply.
The maid found her voice at last. The words came tumbling over one another in a torrent.
"I can't find Miss Verity anywhere," she cried. "She—she told me I was not to call her this morning till half-past eight, as she was very tired. I ventured to go in just now, and she was not in her room."
"Gone for an early walk, perhaps," Lance suggested.
"Begging your pardon, Sir Lancelot, but Miss Lyn never slept in her bed at all. And she's taken away her dressing-bag and jewel-case."
It was true enough. Search high and low as they would, no sign of Lyn could be found. She had fled in the night, leaving no clue behind her. And nobody seemed able to throw the slightest light on the mystery. Lance turned in desperation to Long.
"Can you tell me anything about it?" he asked.
Long had an idea, if Sir Lance would pardon his presumption. Perhaps the letter addressed to Sir George had something to do with it. In his own calm, deliberate way Long told the story. Stott stood close by, gazing with bleared eyes, in a face as white as ashes.
"What sort of a letter?" he croaked. "And where from?"
"An American letter, Sir Lancelot," said Long, ignoring Stott altogether. "I'll swear to the stamps and the handwriting. A letter just like it came for Sir George not long ago. And Miss Lyn, she opened it, and she seemed struck all of a heap. But of course at the time I didn't think so much about it."
A peculiar gasping cry came from Stott, but nobody noticed it in the excitement of the moment. He stepped across to the sideboard and literally slopped some brandy into a glass. With both hands he held it to his lips. He glanced furtively round, and breathed the easier when he saw that nobody was heeding him.
"It is certainly strange," said Lance; "but, after all, this letter might not have had anything to do with the matter. If Miss Lyn had any fancy—"
"It's the madness!" said Stott, hoarsely; "the madness in the family."
The shot went home; it left Lance white to the lips. He could have strangled the speaker as he spoke, but that would not have removed the cruelly true suggestion. Why should not the family insanity have suddenly broken out in Lyn? It had done so with the same dire swiftness in the case of her father.
"If this is true," Lance murmured, "If it is true, why—"
He paused as Lyn's maid came into the room with an envelope in her hand.
"For you, madam," she said to Lucy Sinclair. "I found it beside mistress' bed."
Mrs. Sinclair read rapidly, and then dropped the letter carefully into the heart of the fire. There was a queer light in her eyes.
"How blind we have all been!" she cried. "Order a carriage round at once, Lance. No, I am going alone. You are the very last person who is to be allowed to accompany me."
Long meekly suggested that dinner had been getting cold for some time, but Lance warned him aside impatiently. Nevertheless the most troubled of mortals must eat, though whether Lance was consuming bisque or chicken broth he could not have said.
He looked wearily down the perfectly appointed table, at the graceful ferns and flowers, and Stott's white face all the more pallid behind a screen of scarlet geraniums. And Stott seemed to be equally averse to his food. Long filled his champagne glass four times with a distant air. In Stott's eyes there was a fluctuating terror that Lance failed to see.
"How—how devilish quiet the place is," Stott said irritably.
Lance did not hear. Lyn filled up his thoughts to the exclusion of everything else. And for the last three days not one word or sign had come from her. And, what was equally remarkable, no line had come from Aunt Lucy. And she had driven off post-haste, without escort of any kind, and now she, too, seemed to have vanished.
It was quiet there, as Stott said. For the last two days he had wandered about the house, peeping into the dim shadows as if fearful of finding some nameless horror there. And Long had ventured to remonstrate over the amount of brandy daily ordered by that most undesirable guest.
Stott sat opposite his host with twitching lips, and hands that played queer muscular tricks upon him. And plate after plate he had pushed from him untasted. He had not dared to shave himself for the last day or two, and the ostentatious diamond stud in his shirt front proclaimed aloud the fact that he had not changed his linen for some days. Truly a strange object in a perfectly appointed house like Broadwater!
Long and his subordinates had retired, leaving the decanter and the silver cigarette boxes on the table. Lance was smoking in moody silence. He was wondering in a vague kind of way how much more wine Stott could possibly consume without being carried to bed. And if his face was an index to his mind, what a horror spun in that muddled brain of his!
"You're killing yourself," Lance said curtly.
"So much the better for you," Stott retorted. Irritation on his part was so rare that Lance looked up in some surprise. "You'll be rid of me then, and free to marry whom you please. Next of kin and no provision made for the property after my death. Lord! If I'd been in your place I should have been murdered long ago."
There came a strange insane gleam into his eyes; he grasped a dessert knife with just a touch of his old histrionic genius. He was so perfectly the personification of murder that Lance started back in something like alarm.
The intensity of the little scene fascinated him. Stott was stealing towards him stealthily. He had never done anything finer than this in his whole stage career. Lance knew now what his uncle meant by saying that Stott was the finest actor of his day. Perhaps he was going through some scene in some forgotten play. Anyway there was murder in his face. And Lance suddenly realised how dangerous this man might be on occasion.
"Put down that knife," he said. "You make my flesh creep."
Stott came on steadily. He was like a man in the dark, feeling for something. Closer and closer he came, whilst Lance watched him in fascinated amazement. It came to him suddenly that the brandy had done its work, and the man was mad. Still he had no fear of a personal encounter, and a dessert knife is no formidable weapon.
Clearly Stott was beside himself for a moment. All his muscles had grown tense and rigid, his lips were muttering strange things.
"It's got to be done!" came the harsh whisper. "Yes, got to be done! Where's the brandy?"
He paused, the knife fell from his hand. The dull eyes cleared like those of a tired sleeper awakened. The trembling hands fumbled along the table.
"Brandy!" he yelled. "For God's sake give me brandy!"
The horror was no longer simulated. Stott stood, rocking backwards and forwards, screaming of strange things and imploring brandy. The whole house would be aroused at this rate. Somewhat against his conscience, Lance procured the poisonous fluid. Stott slopped half of it on the floor, the other half he managed to tilt between his chattering teeth.
"I'd better send for Burlinson," Lance suggested.
"No doctor," Stott said, hoarsely. "I'm—I'm better now. It was that face. You saw it?"
"I didn't. And if it was any more horrible than yours, I'd rather not."
"A white face all over blood—a face that came from America with a five-cent stamp upon it. There were three of them altogether, but Miss Verity got the last one."
Stott was off, wandering again, but the hideous horror was gone from his eyes. He swayed to and fro in his chair like a man drunk with sleep. And as he talked, the references to something from America became more frequent. Something from America had arrived, and that something had got into the hands of Miss Verity. And it was vital that Stott should recover that package. Lance listened, with a growing conviction that Stott was betraying useful secrets. It was all mixed up with missing letters and Martin Blake, and a certain cunning newspaper scheme that nobody was to know anything about.
"What was the name of the paper?" Lance asked.
Stott made no reply. His head dropped lower on to the bosom of his dingy shirt, and a faint strangled snore came from his lips. He had fallen into a drunken slumber.
"Better leave him where he is," Lance muttered. "What a soddened little wretch, it is."
Lance passed into the smoking-room, where he sat for a long time over his cigar. It was long past midnight, and the household were all asleep, before Lance had thought it all out. He felt now that Stott's allusion to the American letters was something more than the vaporings of a diseased brain. Lyn had warned him of the manner in which Stott had taken American letters before. Therefore, there must have been something that he was more than anxious to keep from Sir George's ears.
Again, Lyn had so strangely disappeared after reading one of these same letters. The sight of Stott's face when he heard that Lyn had read that letter came back to Lance with luminous force. And for the last few days Stott had displayed a miserable anxiety, quite out of proportion to his interest in the future of the house. Beyond doubt, Lyn's disappearance had been a rare fright to him—he had been drinking more heavily in consequence. Why? And how did that rascal Martin Blake become mixed up in the business? If only Stott would give some kind of key to the mystery!
Lance thought it all out in the silence of the midnight hour. He sat there somewhat oppressed by the solitude of it until the silence was slit by a yell that echoed through the house and brought Lance with a start to his feet.
Again and again that horrible scream rang from the direction of the dining-room. There was a sound of trampling feet and the crash of broken glass as Lance rushed into the room. Stott stood there with eyes blazing like coals, his lips parted, his whole gaze strained upon some horror he had evolved out of his brandy-soaked brain. He had gathered up an armful of glasses of various kinds, and one after the other was hurling them at the opposite wall. What with the screams and the steady twinkling smash of glass, the thing was full of a nameless horror.
"Stop!" Lance cried. "Are you mad?"
"Take him away," Stott screamed. "His face is all over blood. Make him shut those scarlet eyes of his, and I'll say no more. There! I got him. Down he went that time. No, he's up again. And his face is covered all over with fur like a cat's. Ah!"
Again came the cry—the cry of the man who suffers horribly, and Long burst into the room, followed by a dazed footman or two.
"Thank heaven you are all right, sir," said Long. "So it's that brute."
"Mr. Stott isn't well," said Lance with a suggestion of reproof on his face.
Long made some proposition as to fetching a bucket of water, which Lance discreetly ignored. The fusilade of glass had ceased now, but the horrible screams continued. Out of the gloom behind the dining-room door a frightened maid-servant or two peeped at the strange scene.
"Everybody is to go to bed except Long," Lance commanded. "I am sorry to have disturbed you. The whole thing is most fearful and humiliating to me."
They got the wretched man up to his room at length, and then for the next hour were busily engaged in preventing him from doing violence to himself. Strong, healthy men, as Lance and Long were, they were both heartily glad when Burlinson arrived. He took in the situation at a glance.
"Delirium tremens," he said curtly. "Fancy dragging a hard-working doctor out of his first sleep for the sake of a soddened wretch like that. Oh, I'll do my best, of course. I had no difficulty in gleaning what was the matter from Jackson."
"I'm afraid it is a bad case," said Lance.
"About as bad a one as possible, Massey. If he doesn't get sleep I wouldn't give twopence for his life by this time to-morrow. How the fellow manages it with a heart so hopelessly diseased as his beats me. Take his clothes off whilst I get my syringe ready."
It was no light matter to undress the raving moaning figure pursued by the furies of his own creation, but it was accomplished at last—at least so far as his outer garments were concerned. And they had to hold him down to do as much.
"Not my clothes," he screamed. "The air is full of winged ants—great hairy things with stings. They will cluster all over my body. Keep them off."
"Humor him as much as possible," Burlinson muttered from the depth of his bag. "I can manage now if you can roll up one of his sleeves. My word, your friend has no reckless profligacy as far as clean linen is concerned. Did he dine in that shirt?"
"He has done so for the past fortnight," Lance said grimly. "The fine dingy hue of the shirt front throws up the diamond stud so artistically."
"Hold him down," said Burlinson. "I shan't be a minute."
Yelling and fighting, Stott was held down whilst Burlinson applied his syringe to the wasted arm. After the lapse of a few minutes the cries grew fainter, and then ceased altogether. Stott lay back on the bed, sleeping the sleep of one who is utterly exhausted.
"It's a fearful mental and physical strain," said Burlinson, and he laid his ear to the sleeping man's heart. "What a wonderful natural constitution the fellow must have."
"Hadn't Jackson better stay here?" Lance asked.
"No occasion," said Burlinson. "I made the dose pretty strong. He won't wake for many hours. I'll just undo his collar, and then he'll be all right."
The doctor unloosened the neck band, and turned the shirt sleeve down. Then he paused in his quick muttered speech to examine a stain on the cuff. The dirty irregular patch seemed to fascinate him. In the coolest possible manner he took a pair of scissors from his pocket, nicked the edge of the cuff, and tore it clear away from the sleeve. Under Lance's astonished eyes he folded up the linen and dropped it into his bag.
"Do you collect that class of curios?" Lance asked, drily.
"When they are of sufficient interest," Burlinson responded as drily. "If I am not greatly mistaken, I have made a rather important discovery to-night, and one that may make a great difference to your future prospects. And now, if you have any glasses left, I should like a suggestion of whisky in a big soda and a cigar."
Lance led the way to the smoking-room. He was filled with a curiosity that Burlinson utterly refused to gratify.
"I'm not going to tell you anything at all," said the doctor. "I have made a discovery or two which will come out at the inquest. I'm going to give Swanley something to talk about, beyond the silly suggestion that you got your poor uncle out of the way so that you could marry Lyn Verity when you pleased."
Lance winced slightly and the color crept into his cheek.
"They have been reading that wretched 'Mirror,' I suppose?" he asked.
"My dear fellow, the whole article has been printed verbatim in the 'Swanley Gazette.' And without prejudice, it is a very clever article indeed. How that letter came to be written by poor Sir George is a mystery that I would give a deal to solve. I know that you had nothing to do with it, and I also know that it was quite superfluous—because Sir George never committed suicide at all."
"But the letter in his own handwriting proves it."
"Bosh! It doesn't prove anything at all. It's an important link in a very plausible theory, but no more. Sir George didn't commit suicide."
"My dear Burlinson, your dogmatic suggestion is not evidence. And public opinion is dead against you. Personally, I don't know what to think about it. The more I think, the more confused I get altogether."
Burlinson rose, emptied his glass, and tossed his cigar into the fire. He smiled with the supreme air of the man who knows things.
"I am going to demonstrate that Sir George was murdered," he said; "indeed, I don't mind going a step farther, and saying that before very long we shall be able to lay our hands upon the actual criminal."
Lance came down to breakfast with the knowledge that he had a trying day before him. Long in a lofty voice informed him that Stott was better, but that under the circumstances he had no inclination to rise at present.
"And he's very anxious to know if he said anything foolish, Sir Lancelot," Long concluded.
Lance smiled grimly. He could quite understand Stott's feelings in that respect. But there were other feelings to think of besides the bibulous comedian, seeing that this was the day fixed for the adjourned inquest into the death of Sir George. As Lance toyed with his breakfast he could see the public had already begun to gather in the park.
There would be a big muster, he thought, bitterly. After that sensational "Mirror" article, popular excitement over the case had been worked up in a most remarkable manner. Already a large section had made up their minds that Lance was guilty of the murder of his uncle, and were ready to blame the police for their supineness in the matter. And more than one erstwhile friendly face had been turned from Lance of late.
There were letters on the table, only one of which interested Lance at all. It was just a few lines from Lucy Sinclair, written from the Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool, telling Lance that he need not worry about Lyn, and that he would hear no more for a week or so. All this pointed to the fact that Mrs. Sinclair was going to America. But why this further mystery? With a feeling of irritation and disgust, Lance pitched the letter into the fire.
The leaden minutes kept lagging on, and the crowd in the park thickened. Not a tenth part of these people would ever get into the house. A little knot of journalists were prowling about the garden, and one enterprising lady in spectacles and close-cropped hair was busy taking snapshots. Lance was not displeased to see a few figures in uniform.
Midday boomed out slowly from the big stable clock; the doors were thrown back, and the public crowded into the ballroom. The place was packed with a mass of perspiring humanity; they flowed right away to the Coroner's table. For once in his life Long was helpless. An indignity like this had been beyond his most uneasy dreams.
Lance pushed his way up to the table with a feeling that every eye was upon him. He could see that the Coroner was looking unusually grave and that he had a yellow-hued paper in his hand, beyond doubt a current copy of the "Mirror."
"Before we formally open the proceedings, I have a few remarks to make," he said. "I have a copy of a weekly paper called the 'Mirror.' In this paper is a gross libel on Sir Lancelot Massey. But Sir Lancelot will probably look after his own interests. The libel is a flagrant contempt of Court; a direction to the jury, and a practical settlement of the matter before the inquiry is concluded. Legal steps will be taken to punish the guilty parties; meanwhile, I hope that any of the jury who have read that article will put it out of their minds."
One of the twelve shook his head doggedly.
The sight of a thing in print is wonderfully convincing to the mind of the ignorant. And the shock-headed juryman had a standing grievance against the family of Massey.
"Supposin' as how it's true?" he said, truculently.
"Perhaps Sir Lancelot would like to make a statement?" the Coroner suggested.
For Massey had arisen to his feet indignantly. He flashed a defiant glance round the room, but he could discern few friendly faces there.
"I am greatly obliged to you, sir," he said. "The representative of that rag yonder came to me with two interviews already written. The one was couched in the most complimentary language, the other was the tissue of lies most of you have seen. Unless I paid £100 down, the libel would be published in due course. I thrashed the scoundrel who made the suggestion, and he has not dared to take steps to bring me to justice."
"Have you got any proofs of that, sir?" asked the shock-headed man.
"I am afraid you must take my word for it," Lance said bitterly. "I am on my oath."
But the recalcitrant juryman refused to be convinced. He had ever been ready to abide by everything he saw in print, and the principles of a lifetime were not to be uprooted like this. Lance glanced at the Coroner, and the latter smiled.
"I am prepared to answer any questions that Mr. Potter may put to me," Lance said.
The Coroner was understood to say that the whole thing was irregular, but he made no further protest. Potter turned upon his quarry eagerly. He had had greatness thrust upon him. Under happier circumstances he would have made an excellent lawyer.
"You be engaged to Miss Verity?" he asked, tentatively.
Lance admitted the fact freely. He also confessed that his partiality for the lady in question had been the cause of friction between himself and Sir George, his uncle. All these facts were set out with brutal frankness in the "Mirror." The Coroner writhed uneasily in his chair as Mr. Potter proceeded to score points in rapid succession.
"Very well," the latter said. "If your uncle had lived and you had married Miss Verity you would have been a pauper. Therefore, it was lucky for you that your uncle died."
"Up to the present I fail to see it," Lance said, bitterly.
"But he did die, and you were like to benefit by it. You knew nothing about the will?"
"The will came as a great surprise to me."
"Just what that there 'Mirror' says," Potter exclaimed, triumphantly. "Also that you wanted Sir George out of the way. And then Sir George leaves a letter saying as how he's taken his own life. And that letter was copied from a play of yours. If you deny that—"
"I don't deny it," Lance interrupted. "The fact only makes the mystery all the more inexplicable. I have here in my pocket a copy of the play, containing a facsimile, or what is practically a facsimile, of that letter. But I had nothing to do with it."
"Um!" Potter grunted. "Somebody killed Sir George."
"Nobody killed Sir George," Lance cried. "He committed suicide. Beyond all possible doubt that letter was in his own handwriting. Every test absolutely proves the fact. Nothing you can say or do can alter that truth."
Potter shook his head and muttered something. He had blundered up against a stone wall, and this one solid fact had brought up his line of argument all standing. His was not the kind of intellect that can double back. He sat down in his chair and declared that he had no more questions to ask. But his dogged air seemed to say he was not in the least deceived by the cunning of Sir Lancelot.
"Perhaps it would be as well to thrash this matter out whilst we are about it," the Coroner suggested. "You were not on friendly terms with the deceased, Sir Lancelot?"
"Well, I should hardly go so far as that," Lance said.
"You mean that there was no actual quarrel?"
"My uncle never quarrelled with anybody. But I was very anxious to marry Miss Verity, and he was just as anxious to prevent me."
"Did he give any reason for his objection?"
"Yes. He recognised the fact that most of the Masseys were weak-minded, and he was very anxious for more robust blood in the family. And you see it is on record that insanity existed among the Veritys. Many here will know that."
"Miss Verity's father was the central figure of a distressing tragedy?"
"Quite so. That to a matter of record. Hence Sir George's horror of my approaching marriage. He told me—and he meant every word that he said—that if I persisted, everything that he could leave elsewhere would be alienated from me."
"Sir George had told you this more than once?"
"Frequently. It was a favorite topic with him latterly."
"Was the matter mentioned on the night of his death?"
"Yes, directly after dinner. The discussion took the form of an ultimatum. I did not see my poor uncle again till I found him in his chair, dead."
The Coroner looked grave, and Potter wagged his head sagely. On the face of it these were damning admissions. An uneasy stir ran through the packed audience. The mystery was apparently complete or insoluble, but here was the man confessing that he stood to benefit by the death of his uncle, and whose own composition had been recorded as evidence of suicide. If the audience had been polled at that moment, by an immense majority Lancelot Massey would have been voted as a dangerous and preternaturally cunning criminal.
Lance sat down at length, and Wallace stood up to give evidence. Asked if he had seen any reasons why his late client should have committed suicide, he declared that he had not. Sir George was not a strong-minded man, but he had a fine lucidity of mind.
"Then you saw nothing strange in his will?" the Coroner asked.
"Well, I won't go quite so far as that," Wallace said thoughtfully. "You see, my late client had a perfect mania on the subject of heredity. That he should have chosen such an executor as Mr. Malcolm Stott makes no difference to the case. The will itself shows great lucidity. It was drawn up by a great London firm and witnessed by two of the leading physicians of the day—Sir Spencer Wilkins and Sir Lionel Graves. Both of these gentlemen had examined my late client, and they will no doubt tell you what conclusions they formed, if necessary."
Again the audience stirred, for the names Wallace had mentioned were very exalted names indeed. The suicide during a temporary aberration of intellect theory was getting very thin. And the more thin the theory became the worse it looked for Lancelot Massey.
"Under ordinary circumstances everything would have gone to the present holder of the title?" the Coroner asked.
"I presume so," Wallace said guardedly. "Sir George was exceedingly fond of his nephew, and very proud of him into the bargain. But he was not the man to discuss family matters freely."
"You did not find him morbid-minded?"
"Not in the least. He had a horror of violence or extremes of any kind. Unless I had seen that letter I should have utterly declined to believe that he had committed suicide."
"You have no doubt as to the genuineness of the handwriting?"
"None whatever. Beyond question Sir George wrote that letter. No, I have no theory. I was never so utterly puzzled over a thing in my life."
There was a pause in the proceedings as Wallace resumed his seat, and then Dr. Burlinson nodded to the Coroner. He was perfectly cool and collected, save for the glittering gleam behind his glasses. He desired to be sworn in a dry, self-contained tone.
"If you can throw some light on the matter," the Coroner suggested, "why—"
He paused significantly. Nobody appeared to be particularly interested besides Massey. He felt his heart beating a little quicker than usual.
"It was at my instigation that the inquiry was adjourned," said the doctor. "Since the last hearing I have made a post-mortem examination of the deceased. At the time I decided that there was some strange mystery here, and events have justified my forecast. It is generally believed that Sir George died of wounds self-inflicted or otherwise by a razor."
The packed audience swayed forward eagerly. Even the Coroner was startled out of his official calm.
"Do you mean to combat that suggestion?" the latter asked.
"Certainly I do," Burlinson said fiercely. "On the face of it, my statement seems absurd. There was the wound, the blood, and the razor; but Sir George Massey didn't die that way all the same. When that razor was used he was dead already!"
A cry rose like one voice from the listeners, a cry of amazement and incredulity. It was some little time before silence could be restored.
"It sounds beyond the bounds of reason," the Coroner exclaimed. "Do you mean to say that after Sir George had made his written confession and destroyed himself, in some way yet to be disclosed, somebody made a murderous attack upon his dead body?"
Ears were strained to catch the reply. Burlinson stood quite calmly, not a bit affected by the excitement seething around him.
"That is exactly what I do mean to say," he replied; "and what is more, I am in a position to prove it. And in so grave a statement as this I am not going to stand by my own sole opinion. I have consulted Sir Spencer Wilkins and Sir Lionel Graves, both of whom were acquainted with Sir George's physical attributes, and they are of the same opinion as myself—that when my late patient was attacked with that razor he was already dead. Oh, I am not talking nonsense, I assure you."
Again the cry burst out, and once more excitement reigned supreme.
"You can tell us about it?" the Coroner suggested.
"I could in time, and I will," Burlinson said coolly; "but not now. You may adjourn the inquest to a further day if you will. But for the present, and in the interests of justice, I utterly decline to say another word."
The Coroner looked down at Inspector Lawrence, who nodded approval.
"Quite right, sir," the latter said. "I ask for an adjournment till this day fortnight."
Silverburn House sounds like a sufficiently important address off the Strand, and the palatial pile in question presents an imposing appearance. But Silverburn House is not entirely given over to colossal suites of offices; for instance, there are several suites of rooms up amongst the chimneys within the reach of the modest and retiring. Still, the address is the same, and appeals to the imagination, like the "rooms" of Dick Swiveller.
In one of these gables, like the modest violet, the "Mirror" flourished. The "offices" consisted of one room divided by means of a canvas screen. Not that it much mattered, for the "Mirror" people were shy of publicity—for themselves—and great literary deeds have oft been done in the most commonplace environment.
In this modest retreat many brilliant and atrocious libels were written by Ekstein, proprietor of the "Mirror," and his chief of the staff, Blake. These, with scurrilous cuttings from kindred periodicals, formed the weekly issue of the paper. It was deliciously simple, and it paid—for there were many timid victims who preferred the blackmail to publicity.
With a shade over his right eye and a bandage on his right wrist, Blake sat muttering and cursing over some peculiarly atrocious gossip, he was working up. The small Jew boy who made up the balance of the office staff was busily engaged killing flies with the aid of a piece of elastic. Ekstein himself was out on business. He had gone to draw £200 from the latest and most foolish of his victims, and Blake was wishing him back again. For "business" had been very slack of late, and Blake's breakfast had been of the sketchiest description. Moreover, he was without tobacco or the means of procuring it. All this added to Blake's natural anxiety. And this was the third time Ekstein had tried to draw that little cheque. The victim was a fool, but he seemed to be very fond of his money.
"Boaz," said Blake, "go as far as Gretton's office, and see if you can find the boss."
The small boy with the large nose put his elastic in his pocket and slid down the stairs. At the expiration of a long half-hour he came back breathless. His beautiful eyes gleamed with excitement, and he staggered round the office like a revolving Bailey on a certain historic occasion. Blake brought him up standing with a cuff that he did not in the least resent.
"Idiot!" Blake cried. "Have you seen the governor?"
"'Ave I seen the governor?" Boaz asked, ironically. "Rather! My hat! Going to Bow-street in a keb with a couple of 'tecs—and the prosecutor behind in a 'ansom keb. Prosecutor Mr. James Gretton. Charge, attempting to extract money by threats. 'Tec hidden in the room and 'eard it all—so a boy in Gretton's office told me."
Blake's big red face paled slightly. He was conscious of a queer lump in the back of his throat. So it had come at last. Well, they had had a good innings, but the result was inevitable. Sooner or later, they were bound to drop upon a shrewd man who looked quite otherwise, and Gretton, unfortunately, had proved to belong to the latter fraternity.
Then suddenly Blake grabbed his hat. He tore off his ink-stained office coat, and donned the frock which so sadly needed rejuvenation. In his own phraseology, he was in this thing "up to the neck." As soon as Ekstein was safely housed they would be after him. Already there was a heavy step on the stairs and a knock at the door. Visitors were not usually encouraged at the "Mirror" office. More than once much painful violence had followed their advent.
Blake dived under the table behind the screen.
"I'm out, Boaz," he whispered, hoarsely. "Gone into the country on business."
Boaz nodded, quite equal to the occasion. The visitor particularly desired to see Mr. Blake. With the bland and innocent gaze of a child, Boaz gave the desired information. A few minutes later, and Blake was creeping down the stairs with his heart in his mouth. Boaz calmly helped himself to some thirty shillings' worth of loose stamps, and turned his back on literature for all time.
Blake stood looking dizzily up the Strand. He had been in evil case before, but never in one quite so hard as this. He was in danger of imminent arrest; once the ball was started there would be no lack of evidence against him. And his Majesty's judges were prejudiced against blackmailing. Moreover, Blake had no credit, and his money was absolutely exhausted.
He was ready to do anything, murder if necessary, to put him in funds. He ought to be on his way to America by this time—or, say, Jersey. That was the way he had escaped once before—by way of Jersey and St. Malo in a fishing smack. But here he was, tied by the leg for the sake of a few paltry pounds. The whole thing had burst with such amazing suddenness that Blake was trembling and dazed still.
Then he became aware of the fact that somebody was addressing him. Gradually that somebody evolved itself into a white-haired lady with glasses—a lady with a penetrating glance and an exceedingly resolute chin. Blake removed his worn hat with a flourish. It was just possible that there might be a way out here.
"I am Mrs. Sinclair," the lady said. "I have come to London on purpose to see you. Perhaps you have not forgotten me."
Blake averred that he was ashamed to admit that such was the case. And yet he felt that he had seen those clear-cut features somewhere.
"What can I do for you?" he said politely. "It seems a strange request to make, but, if you happen to have such a thing as a sovereign about you for a few hours—"
"I haven't," Lucy Sinclair said gravely. "Still, when we get to America—"
"America?" Blake gasped. Certainly it was a morning of adventures. He had lost his occupation, he stood in imminent danger of arrest, and now he had come across a middle-aged lunatic of ladylike and pleasing appearance.
"America," Lucy Sinclair said firmly. "I have travelled in more congenial company, but that is a mere detail. Still, as you will travel steerage—. But I can see you want to know who I am. My name I have already told you. As to the rest, it was I who helped Colonel Borrowdaile over those silver mine frauds."
Blake gasped, and his big knees knocked together. There was a certain ghastly blue pallor on his face; a great bead of perspiration trickled down his forehead.
"You are not going to rake up that?" he asked.
"Neither that nor anything else," Mrs. Sinclair said gravely. "I am going to America for a certain purpose, and it is necessary that you should accompany me. I fancy I have stumbled upon a plot far more cunning than anything your brain ever devised—and that little scheme was worked out during the time you were connected with the New York 'Record.'"
"Not in my time," Blake stammered. "I was—was—"
"Comparatively honest then. That was before you found a fitting field for your greet talents. Here is my card. You are to call at that address at 3 o'clock."
Blake promised with alacrity. Fortune had played into his hand again. The very opportunity he was longing for had presented itself. His occupation was gone, he was utterly penniless and in hourly danger of arrest. America sounded like paradise to him—like a cool spring in a parched desert. And once across the water he could easily give this woman the slip.
"I shall only be too pleased to be of service to you," he said, in his most flamboyant manner. "And a trip to America is essential to my well-being just now. But literature, my dear lady, has its drawbacks. How often were some of its brightest lights—er—hard up. Goldsmith—Chatterton—"
"And Blake," Mrs. Sinclair said drily. "Here are five shillings—quite enough to last till 3 o'clock, provided that you don't squander it paying your debts, or other eccentricities of that kind. I propose to pay you liberally later on, but for the present I am not going to put temptation in your way. Sobriety may be painful, but it is absolutely necessary."
Lucy Sinclair turned on her heel, leaving Blake to the contemplation of the two half-crowns in his grimy hand. He made his way cautiously along the Embankment and so across Westminster Bridge. He would be safe there for the present. He invested twopence in having his beard removed, and a further eightpence in the purchase of a pair of cheap, tinted spectacles. At an old clothes emporium, he bartered his frock coat and top hat for a Norfolk jacket and a soft Homburg hat, thereby augmenting his exchequer to the extent of three shillings over the deal. When he had lunched and drunk and lighted a home-made cigarette he found the outlook of a far more roseate description. It was better than a cell at Bow-street, anyway. And his lunch had made a different man of him. He swaggered up the Strand presently, past Silverburn House, where a man in plain clothes was doing nothing with an obvious air. Blake chuckled.
He was punctual in calling at the private hotel where Mrs. Sinclair was staying. She treated him in a caustic manner that jarred on his nerves.
"Now I am going straight to the point," she said. "The other day you came down to Broadwater to see my nephew on business. He refused to be blackmailed over the matter, and he expressed his feelings with considerable freedom. Who put you up to that idea?"
"It came indirectly from Stott," Blake admitted. "Stott and I used to be friends."
"Yes, in the States. That is precisely the reason why you and I are going to America. Did it ever occur to you that Malcolm Stott is a far more acute man than yourself?"
"What? Just now?" Blake asked. "No, I can't say it has."
"I don't mean now. I mean before Stott dissolved his brains in alcohol. Yes, when the time comes I shall be in a position to prove that Stott used you on several occasions without you having the slightest knowledge of the fact. Even in his present condition he has used you again."
"Pardon me if I fail to see it, Madame."
"Well, it is in this way. Stott apparently had no further use for you. Then why did he let you know what snug quarters he had at Broadwater? Under ordinary circumstances he would have known that you would be always pestering him for money. To obtain that money you would not have hesitated to threaten Stott with an exposure of his past. And in the face of it, he lets you know where he is and what a good time he is having. Moreover, he contrives to inform you as to the strange coincidence of that letter of Sir George Massey's and the letter in my nephew's play. He also posts you as to Sir George's prejudice against Miss Verity and of my nephew's affection for her. Why?"
"I expect I'm extra dense to-day," Blake said sullenly.
"Then perhaps a mere woman may be permitted to enlighten you. Stott knew exactly how you were getting your living and how you would jump at the chance of so splendid an opportunity of levying blackmail. He also knew the temper of my nephew. He knew that you would get soundly thrashed—which you were, to my own great satisfaction. And Stott knew just what you would do out of revenge. His little scheme blackened my nephew's name, which was just what he wanted. He must have chuckled hugely when he saw you limping out of the park the other day."
Mrs. Sinclair's little shaft hit the mark. If she was bent on inflaming Blake against his quondam ally, she was succeeding beyond her utmost expectations. And Blake's respect for the clear-eyed woman before him was increasing rapidly. Hitherto he had only been angry with Stott because his scheme had failed; but now he could see matters in another light. Nor was the logic of the position lost upon him. Mrs. Sinclair had put it pithily and clearly, and there was reason in every word that she said. Blake ground his teeth as he saw how he had been fooled.
"Stott is a great scoundrel," he said.
"He is," Mrs. Sinclair replied. "Behind his baby face and watery eyes lies a brain that for cunning cannot be beaten. For years now that rascal has been working out a plan to get my late brother Sir George and the family estates into his grip. Ten years that scheme has been slowly ripening; for 10 years those cunning tentacles were wrapping round Sir George. He had no secrets from Stott, and Stott played his knowledge boldly. If something is not done soon all the property will pass to Stott. And there is but one way of defeating him, and that is to get to the root of the colossal lie on which the whole fabric is built. To trace that lie I have to go to the States and you have to accompany me. It is just as well to disguise yourself, because you will have to go amongst people whom it will be judicious to appear not to know. Do you understand?"
"Partly," Blake said. "If this is a game to knock Stott out you can count on me using every endeavor to assist you. Pay me well and I'll not trouble you over scruples. But I don't see why you want me."
"I was just coming to that. It is your knowledge of New York papers that I need—the papers of 10 years ago. I spoke just now of Borrowdaile and the mine frauds. You know how ingeniously the newspapers were worked for that, and you know that Stott was at the bottom of it all. Well, he had built up the wall of fraud and deceit round Broadwater in precisely the same way. Directly I saw you two together the other day it came upon me like an inspiration. And here was the very man I wanted to my hand—a man whom I had in my power. And this is why you are here to-day, and this is why you are going to America."
Blake nodded. His luck was in again. He would play his new-found ally fairly if it suited his book to do so, if not he would play her false. All the same he would have liked to have had a little more information to go upon.
"Do you allude to any particular New York paper?" he asked.
Mrs. Sinclair saw the drift of the question and smiled.
"I must not tell you too much," she replied. "But the paper I particularly refer to is the New York 'Record.' Amongst the dirty piles of the back numbers of that Journal lies the secret that is to save the Massey family from absolute ruin."
Martin Blake's dream was destined to an early awakening so far as money was concerned. He was going to have no royal time at Lucy Sinclair's expense. He was to be on board the "Campanella" at Liverpool on the following Thursday, and a steerage ticket had been procured for that purpose. As to the rest, Mrs. Sinclair had given him just three pounds to last five days, including his journey to Liverpool. His wardrobe could be replenished in New York.
"What have I done to deserve this generosity?" Blake asked bitterly. Mrs. Sinclair laughed aloud. One of the strong points of that remarkable lady's character was that she never lost her temper.
"Work first and pay after," she said. "As for your deserts, you are getting more than you are entitled to. Do you suppose I can't see that you are most anxious to get out of the country? If you could only have seen your face that morning I met you outside the 'Mirror' office! Then you shave off your beard and wear tinted glasses! I propose to pay you and to make use of you, but I don't trust you a single inch. Now go."
And Blake went meekly enough. Well, perhaps he could use this woman later on, though he had his doubts about it. At any rate she might have given him a hint as to what she was really after. What was it that lay buried amidst the musty flies of the "Record"? Blake was utterly at sea over the business. Still, he was bound to find out sooner or later, and then he would know how to make terms for himself. Meanwhile it was not unpleasant to sit in the modest room and puff a cigarette as he read that Ekstein had been committed for trial, and that the magistrate refused bail. Anything was better than a gaol, as Blake knew by experience.
Scarcely had Blake disappeared than Mrs. Sinclair got her modest belongings together and departed from London. She went down to Brighton by the 5.40 Pullman express, and drove at once to 5 Grove Park Villas, where she asked to see Miss Verity. Miss Verity was just having her dinner in her private room—if the lady would send in her name. Mrs. Sinclair gently insinuated her way into the house in her own quick style, and a moment later she was looking reproachfully at Lyn.
"No emotions yet," she said. "Finish your dinner first, or ring the bell and give me some. And whatever you do, don't weep into the soup."
Lyn laughed unsteadily, and choked back her tears. And she was grateful to Lucy Sinclair for the easy flippancy of her address. Also she was terribly lonely. A great thankfulness filled her heart as she looked into the other's strong, kindly face.
"How did you find me?" she asked presently.
"Intuition," Miss Sinclair said calmly. "My dear, of all the mental gifts, intuition is the foremost and most useful. You chose to run away, leaving a few vague words for me. Whether or not you did a wise thing makes no difference for the present. You ran away because you were frightened that a certain thing would be discovered. As far as I know, you have no relations in England. I have heard you say that as a child you were very happy in this house, and that the woman who keeps it used to be like a mother to you. And a few days ago you were longing for Brighton. I hate the place myself, but that is a detail. And everybody who has done anything foolish or is going to do anything foolish repairs to Brighton. I recollected the name of your friend here, and I just came absolutely certain of finding you."
Lyn kissed the smooth, straight brow of her friend affectionately.
"You are a darling!" she said; "and the most tactful woman in England. Most of my friends would have scolded me furiously; but I see you are going to do nothing of the kind. And though we have been over an hour sitting at the dinner table, you haven't asked me a single question."
Lucy Sinclair smiled benignly. She knew perfectly well that the girl would open her heart presently. She saw the color creeping back into the lovely face, she saw Lyn expanding out of the shell of her misery like a flower. And presently, when they had passed under the electric circles of the Palace Pier, and sat looking over at the Worthing Lights, Lyn began to talk.
"Do you know why I left Broadwater?" she asked.
"Fancy one woman asking another that question!"
"Aunt Lucy, I believe you would joke with a Lord Chancellor or an Archbishop. I left Broadwater because I was afraid to stay. Not that I minded for my own sake. It was for Lance that I was disturbed. And Stott appeared to be on the verge of making a discovery that would have ruined Lance. That little wretch was getting on my nerves, and therefore I came away."
"In which you acted very foolishly—" there was a note of reproach in Mrs. Sinclair's voice for the first time—"very foolishly indeed. Surely you might have gone away in a more rational and natural manner. And when you had gone, what did Stott say?"
"Something exceedingly unpleasant, no doubt."
"He said it was the family insanity breaking out in you."
Lyn's delicate face flamed scarlet. She shuddered as if something loathsome had touched her. It was some little time before she spoke again.
"He is very clever," she said. "If he only kept away from the brandy bottle he would beat us all. And fancy him thinking of a point like that! But I am not mad, Auntie—only reckless and troubled for the sake of the man I have ruined."
"Then why did you marry him, my child?" Mrs. Sinclair asked, calmly.
Lyn gave a little gasping cry. The color fled from her face, and left it with a tinge like old ivory.
"Did Lance tell you?" she whispered. "Did Stott find out, after all?"
"Not that I am aware of. Stott may suspect, though he has been careful not to betray himself to me. My dear, I guessed it. I felt quite certain that you were thinking more about Lance than yourself, which is the way of good women all the world over. You argued that if Stott found out he would crush Lance at a blow. And the creepy, crawly little wretch was getting on your nerves. And you have been married for some time."
"Wonderful woman! How did you find that out?"
"By a careful study of your character. It must have been some time ago, because you would never have consented to marry Lance after you had known of Sir George's will. Nor would Lance have compromised your future. It was a foolish thing to do, but there was nothing criminal or self-seeking about it. Am I not right?"
"Perfectly right, you amazing seer. I have been married nearly a year."
"And your marriage cannot be concealed much longer?"
"No. How wonderfully you seem to understand everything! The knowledge that the truth must be told soon is at once a terror and a delight to me. It need not be yet; it need not be for a month or more. Meanwhile I leave Lance with a free hand. And many things may happen in a month. I should like to go far, far away, for—for—you understand?"
"I understand perfectly, Lyn. And you shall go far away. I shall let Lance know that you are safe and well, and then you and I are going to New York. You need not look surprised; I am not going to cross the Atlantic at much physical inconvenience for amusement; I am going there to learn the truth of the tragedy that darkens your life, Lyn. And if I can prove that we have all been deluded, what then?"
"It will be like the ending of a fairy story," Lyn cried. "But I must not build up hope on that. Did we not have the pitiful story in black and white?"
Mrs. Sinclair opened her lips to say something, and then changed her mind.
"I am not so sure of it," she said. "At any rate, I am going to sift the thing to the bottom. Fortune has given me the very tool I required, and that tool is the avowed enemy of Malcolm Stott. And now, what was in that letter there was such a fuss about?"
"The letter!" Lyn stammered. "Did—did they know?"
"Long saw you. He was quite right to tell that you had opened an American letter addressed to Sir George, and that the contents seemed to greatly disturb you. And you should have seen Stott's face. A man about to be hanged would have looked like a comedian alongside of him!"
"Yes, because he knew that the letter referred to him!" Lyn cried, eagerly. "There were others from the same source that had been stolen. I helped myself to this one. Here it is."
She took the envelope from her pocket. Inside was a sheet of thin type-written paper with a few lines.
Are you going to take no heed of my warning?" it ran. "You
are being made the sport of a scoundrel, who is deliberately wrecking two
innocent lives for his own ends.
You are under a strange delusion.>
Go to Martin Blake, c/o "Mirror" office, Silverburn House. W.C., and pay him well for the story of the 'Record' office and July 17, 1888.
This is written by no friend of yours, but by one who would go far if he dared to injure Malcolm Stott.
Don't leave it till too late."
That was all—no heading or superscription or anything. To Lyn it conveyed nothing, but to Mrs. Sinclair every word was pregnant with the deepest meaning.
"This is really a great find," she said. "And that date is most important."
"Who is this Martin Blake?" Lyn asked.
Mrs. Sinclair laughed. Everything was working out for her wonderfully.
"My ally in the forthcoming campaign," she declared. "As a matter of fact I have known Martin Blake for years. He is almost as great a scoundrel as Malcolm Stott, and he will throw men over without the least compunction if he can better himself by so doing. But I have a stone in the sling for him if he attempts to play me false. And now I am not going to answer any more questions, and I am not going to say any more than this—before a month is past Stott will be powerless for further harm, and our king will come into his own again. How wonderfully effective those rings of electric light are!"
So it came about that Lyn walked home along the King's-road feeling happier than she had done for some considerable time. But Mrs. Sinclair would not hear of her writing to Lance so long as there was a chance of the letter falling into Stott's hands.
"Lance shall know you are with me," she said. "We can manage the American business far better than he, with my knowledge, and Lance is best at Broadwater keeping an eye on Stott. To-morrow you will have to look to your wardrobe."
The next two days passed quietly enough, and Thursday evening saw the two at Liverpool. Mrs. Sinclair satisfied herself that Blake was on board, and then with the utmost fortitude and resignation made up her mind to be seriously indisposed for the next three days. Long past Queenstown the sea was beautifully smooth, but Mrs. Sinclair refused to be comforted.
"I can't help it," she said. "Rough or smooth, it's all the same to me. It is one of the faults of my construction. Leave me to my dry biscuits and soda-water, and enjoy yourselves. On the third day I shall be as the best of you."
The voyage was a long delight to Lyn. The motion, the variety, the freshness brought back the color to her cheeks and the strength to her limbs. There was always something novel to look at, some bit of comedy to be studied. And on the fourth day there was a talk of private theatricals and a great demand for a little man who came creeping up on deck with pallid face and mild blue eyes. He was desolated, he said, but he was really not up to it. They must pray excuse him, as his acting days were over. At the first sound of the little man's voice Lyn fled below and summoned her aunt. That lady was prepared to come on deck looking none the worse for her indisposition.
"Auntie," Lyn said breathlessly, "I've a tremendous surprise in store for you."
Mrs. Sinclair declared that she was past the age of surprises, but she certainly gasped as she saw a little figure in a long deck chair, smoking a cigarette. He was quite by himself now, as the mob of amateur players had found a younger American actor who was by no means averse to be lionised.
The little figure in the deck chair looked round him, and his face grew pale as he saw Mrs. Sinclair. His hands were trembling, too, but that was a normal matter. He rolled out of the chair with an assumption of ease and bonhommie he was far from feeling. Lucy Sinclair could see the terror in his eyes; she saw how the shaking left hand was clutched over his heart.
"This," he gasped painfully, as if he had run far, "this is a totally unexpected pleasure. And Miss Verity also! This is a paradise made complete."
"You are easily satisfied with your paradise, Mr. Stott," Lucy said coldly.
"Then I should be difficult to please. So you are going to New York—I mean to the States. I also am going to the States. I was exceedingly ill after you left Broadwater, and my doctor insisted on a thorough change. I suggested Torquay—but he was adamant. 'A sea voyage or you are a dead man,' he said. For myself, as a dead man, I had no possible use, and voila tout. If you will excuse me for a moment—"
He turned away and staggered below. Mrs. Sinclair looked after him grimly.
"It was a nasty shock for him," she said. "Did you ever see a man in such a state of pitiable terror! It will take a very large dose of brandy to settle his nerves again. And yet I would not have this happen for a great deal."
"Why not, Auntie? He can do us no harm."
"Can he not? He is going to New York to try and destroy the very thing I am after. And he knows I am after it. I hope to goodness he hasn't seen Martin Blake on—"
A steward came up and placed a note in the speaker's hand. She hastily tore it open, and saw it was in Blake's handwriting.
"Danger," it ran. "Stott is aboard the Campanella. I have seen him, but he hasn't recognised me. Whatever you do don't let him know I am here."
Mrs. Sinclair tore the letter in tiny fragments.
"Does the man take me for a fool?" she said tartly. "Lyn, the play has commenced."
The packed perspiring mass stored signs of deepest dejection and disappointment. It was like the sudden downfall of the curtain ere the crux of the play in consequence of the sudden indisposition of the heroine. Burlinson was a great man in that part of the world, but never had his neighbors regarded him with the same awe as at present.
"Wouldn't they like to know!" he murmured to Lance. "Wouldn't they like to dissect me and see what I have got hidden in my brain."
"Have you got anything hidden in your brain?" Lance asked.
Burlinson watched the audience filing out with a queer grim smile.
"They've only got to wait till the next performance," he said. "And, as they paid nothing to come in, they can't logically grumble. And I have something concealed in my brain beyond the bee that you so broadly hint at. I said just now that poor Sir George was dead before that razor was laid to his throat, and I have the highest professional opinion behind me. And before long I am going to lay my hands on the criminal."
"Two criminals according to your own showing. What a maddening mystery it is!"
"Oh, I see what you are driving at. And you are logical, anyway. Now that we have the house to ourselves again, I'll go and see my patient."
By dint of threats and the assistance of the police, Broadwater had been restored to its usual placidity again. Lance gave a little sigh of satisfaction, and he lighted a cigarette and gazed thoughtfully across the peaceful park. The frightened deer were standing knee-deep in the bracken again; a couple of gorgeous pheasants strutted across the lawn.
Where was it all going to end, Lance wondered. And who were the two men who had been moved by such a deadly hatred of Sir George? Was it possible that the latter had belonged to some secret society? The idea of his being killed and then attacked, as he lay dead, was horrible. Perhaps he had had a sudden warning, and the fright had killed him. Perhaps that suicide's letter had been deliberately intended to hide the truth. Again, it was possible that Sir George had been forced to write it, and thus save possible exposure. And how had the assassin or assassins managed to enter and leave the house? It must have been suicide. When Burlinson's theory came to be tested it would collapse like a child's balloon.
Burlinson himself broke in upon his meditations. His patient was better, he said, and he had ordered him out into the fresh air.
"An interesting case," he said, drily, "and one that I desire to study. With that object I am going to invite myself here to dinner to-morrow night. And my patient must dine with us, too. Don't lacerate his feelings with any suggestion as to his room being preferable to his company."
"I don't think you need worry about that," Lance said, bitterly. "The art of insinuation is lost upon Stott. He can sit through the coldest evening of slights and contumely with a smile. Nothing short of dynamite will remove him when he not wanted."
"So much the better," Burlinson growled. "He's better, but his nerves are terribly shaken. I have been arousing his curiosity over my evidence to-day. And if you see and hear queer things from Stott to-morrow night it would be better to ignore them."
"I have been ignoring Stott's queer antics for years," Lance said bitterly. Burlinson smiled as if well pleased, and took his leave. Stott kept out of the way for the rest of the day, for which Lance was grateful. The former was evidently better, according to Long, who remarked that it looked like a case of reformation, seeing that the interesting patient had saved a little brandy out of a bottle in the course of four and twenty hours.
"Which I hope such moderation will last, Sir Lancelot," Long said gravely.
Lance rebuked this outburst of humor mildly, but the sarcasm appealed to him. From fleeting glances at Stott the latter seemed to be in sorry case. There was a wild, uneasy look in his eyes, a furtive, fearsome glance over his shoulder. The man shook like one in the last stage of palsy, it was a pitiable, unwholesome sight, and Lance shrank from it.
By dinner time the next night Stott appeared to have pulled himself together slightly. At any rate he looked a little more like a man as he came down to the drawing-room. He had had his hair cut, and his linen was clean for once. That he might have been in the habit of sleeping in his dress clothes was a detail.
Lancelot listened with distant politeness to Stott's prattle. There was a suggestion of self-depreciation about Stott that his host had never noticed before. And then the latter seemed to become suddenly aware of it himself, and grew self-assertive accordingly.
Burlinson came at length, to Lance's great relief, big, loud, and assertive. He dined with the air of one who fully appreciates the pleasures of the table, though he was a moderate man as a rule. He encouraged Stott to take wine with him. And in this respect Stott was amiability itself. It was not until the cloth had been drawn and Long had ushered his subordinates out of the room that Burlinson began to speak of the fortunes of the house.
He sat with his face in shadow, a long cigar between his teeth. There was just a glimpse of light on Stott's pallid, twitching features, and the trembling of his hand as he played with his cigarette. Across the flowers and the crystal decanters Burlinson watched him.
"Why didn't they finish the inquest to-day?" Stott asked.
There was an uneasy strain in his voice. Lancelot sat silent. Burlinson had some deep motive behind his speech. Lance wanted to see what it was.
"Because I wouldn't let 'em," Burlinson laughed. His jovial familiarity expanded Stott, unaccustomed as he was to that kind of thing at Broadwater. "Because, if I had kept quiet, the jury would have brought in a verdict of suicide."
Stott gave a queer little laugh; Burlinson flashed him a glance.
"Of course they would," said Stott. "And they would have been perfectly right."
"My dear sir, they would have been absolutely wrong. The art of argument is to admit the correct postulate of your opponent—to admit proven facts. It was a fact that by Sir George's side was found a letter in his own handwriting saying that he had committed suicide. I am not going to dispute that for a moment. He wrote the letter, and he intended to commit suicide—"
"He—he did so by cutting his throat with a razor," Stott cried, eagerly.
"Nothing of the kind, sir," Burlinson exclaimed. "Sir George couldn't have cut his throat with a razor, for the simple reason that when the razor was raised against my old friend he was dead already."
A strange, strangled kind of cry broke from Stott. The lighted match between his fingers burnt to the flesh, and yet he seemed to have no cognisance of the fact. There was horror in those blue, watery eyes; a sickening pallor on his face. Lance began to grow interested.
"You—you couldn't prove that," said Stott, in a faint piping voice.
"Indeed, I could, sir. I could prove it beyond a demonstration. And I have two great authorities behind me. When the assassin laid that razor to Sir George's neck he was already dead. Probably the miscreant imagined that he lay there asleep—with his head on his arms. I am prepared to admit that all these horrors increase the ghastliness of the business, but there they are."
"Then Sir George died a natural death after all," Stott cried.
Burlinson shot a significant glance in Lance's direction. It was a suggestion that the latter should take a hand in the game. He addressed himself personally to Stott, a thing he had not done for many months. And Stott appeared to be extravagantly grateful.
"You regard that as a logical suggestion?" he asked.
"Undoubtedly, undoubtedly," Stott piped. "The assassin came too late. Had he only delayed his coming for another day, Nature would have saved his soul from crime. In effect, that man was a murderer. And yet he did no murder."
"That is all very well," said Lance, forcing himself to be friendly with an effort. "But it does not get rid of the confession of suicide. If we accept Dr. Burlinson's statement as correct—"
"You will have to do so later on," the doctor interrupted, sotto voce.
"Very well. My uncle was not murdered—"
"I did not say that," Burlinson burst in again. "I said he was not murdered with that razor."
He paused and shot another swift glance at Stott. The latter was laughing in a strange, vacant way, with his eyes wide open and staring as if he saw something horrible a long way off.
"I don't quite follow you," Lance said.
"Then, let me make my meaning plain," Burlinson went on. "Your uncle died before the razor came on the scene. He was killed by being chloroformed. Somebody stood behind him and pressed a cloth saturated in that medicine over his face. I don't say the assassin meant to kill him that way, probably not—but Sir George had a weak heart, and he died."
Stott's rounded eyes came back from vacancy. He looked Burlinson up and down in a dazed kind of way. The cunning kinks in his soddened brain slowly came out of tangle.
"Then the thing is simple," he said. "We will put the would-be secret assassin on one side for the moment. Sir George meant to commit suicide, and wrote that letter deliberately. And then he took his own life with an overdose of chloroform."
"Overdose of fiddlesticks," Burlinson cried with well simulated petulance. "Man, I'm not talking about chloral but chloroform! Chloroform! Who ever heard of a man taking an overdose of that? And suppose he proceeded as you suggested. Directly he felt himself going Sir George would have dropped that soaked cloth and come to himself again. He couldn't have helped it. With oblivion upon him, would he have any sense to keep up the pressure? Not a bit of it. The pressure was applied by somebody who stood behind him. Like this."
Burlinson rose to his feet and came round to Stott's side. Rolling up his serviette into a rope he dexterously flung it over Stott's face and drew the bandage tight. The little man screamed and struggled as if fighting for his life. A chalky pallor came over his cheeks, big drops of moisture stood on his forehead.
"I—I can't stand it," he said hoarsely. "I've got imagination—and my nerves are not what they were. And I've not got over the shock of my poor friend's death yet."
"Anyway, that was how the thing was done," Burlinson said callously. "There was a bit of a struggle, and the bottle of chloroform upset on that table amongst Sir George's papers. It was a two-ounce bottle with an indiarubber cork."
Stott jumped to his feet with a scream. Burlinson watched him narrowly, psychologically. The study seemed to give zest to his cigar.
"Those nerves of yours again?" he suggested.
Stott seemed to be fighting off something with his hands. He beat upon the air, he tugged at his throat as if to tear off unseen hands. Then he collapsed like a wet rag into his chair with a pitiful quivering groan.
"It's gone," he said. "A face—you never saw such a face! With an indiarubber cork. What new nonsense am I talking now!"
"An indiarubber cork," Burlinson went on, gravely. "Did I not say a two-ounce bottle?"
"You are blowing the suicide theory to the winds," said Lance, with a side glance at Stott.
"If you could only explain that letter—"
"I'll try to. Come, Mr. Stott, a distinguished actor like yourself should know something about ingenious plots and surprises. Can't you suggest a raison d'etre for that letter?"
Stott stammered out something, and reached for the brandy decanter. The glass clinked, and the strong spirit was slopped on the polished lake of mahogany in a manner that would have brought anguish to the soul of the late master of Broadwater.
"I can't!" he cried. "I can't think of anything to-night. I feel as if somebody had taken hold of my brains and squeezed them dry. The mystery maddens me. And an indiarubber cork!"
He repeated the last few words over and over again vaguely. Burlinson was studying him critically. Lance more curiously and with a heart that beat a little faster than usual.
"It might have been obtained by threats," Burlinson said with an eye upon the ceiling. "Sir George had a great horror of violence, and perhaps he wrote that letter to save strife or to gain time. Again, it might have been obtained by pure cunning. Again, it might have formed part of a series of papers. One thing regarding that letter seems to have escaped the attention of everybody but myself. There was a number in the right hand bottom corner."
"Number!" Lance cried. "I never noticed that."
"Sir George was in the habit of numbering his correspondence," said Stott. "He kept a record of all the letters he wrote and their numbers in a little book. Sir Lancelot knows that?"
Lance nodded. But Burlinson did not seem to be nonplussed.
"And the late baronet's correspondence was large?" he asked.
Lance and Stott replied that it was, generally reaching fifteen to twenty letters a day. Burlinson smiled with the air of one not to be beaten.
"Let us call it ten a day—or three hundred a month," he said. "By this time in the year that would be a total number of nearly 1800. And yet the number at the bottom of the letter was only 152. If that letter had been part of a series of MS. pages—"
Stott rose heavily from the table. He pressed his hand to his head. His eyes had a bright and yet a vacant look in them.
"I can't stand it," he cried. "I really can't stand it to-night. It sets me trembling. It is sleep that I want; God send me sleep to-night."
He staggered from the room, and up the stairs. Lance rose and crossed to the door, and shut it. Then he turned significantly to Burlinson.
"Let him go," said the doctor. "On the whole, it has been an excellent night's work."
Lance sat up long and late, pondering over all that Burlinson had done and said. From the mystic point of view the more he thought over it the more puzzled he was. And yet Burlinson had most emphatically declared that Sir George had not committed suicide.
"That man was dead before the razor touched him," Burlinson had said, as he stood with one foot in the stirrup at parting. "I am confirmed in that statement by two of the greatest authorities in the world. And as to a man committing suicide by administering chloroform to himself, why, the thing is too absurd. At the first touch of unconsciousness the will power naturally becomes dormant. A man would fall forward and just lie there till he came round again. Sir George was taken by surprise from behind, his heart was not equal to the strain and he died. We are on the track, and we are going to get to the root of the mystery yet."
"But what about that letter?" Lance asked.
"Oh, hang the letter!" Burlinson said irritably. "Good night."
With which he shook up his horse and cantered away down the drive. And after that Lance sat up and smoked half a dozen cigarettes without getting any nearer to the solution of the mystery than before. He knew now that Lyn was safe somewhere, and that he had no occasion to worry about her for the present. And yet the sense of unrest and miserable anxiety bore heavily upon him. It was hard to say where it would all end.
And Stott appeared to be equally troubled in his mind. He came down to breakfast the following morning—a most unusual thing for him to do. He looked a little more restless and nervous than usual, his shaky hands played with a little dry toast, he drank his tea with an air of thirsty greediness. And above all he was polite—so slavishly, fawning polite that Lance could have kicked him on the spot.
"A lovely morning," he purred. "The sort of day that gets into the blood and makes one feel glad to be alive."
Lance wondered what joy life could hold for the trembling broken wreck opposite him, but he held his peace. He noticed the birdlike curiosity in the eyes of his companion, and partly anticipated what was coming.
"Dr. Burlinson was very entertaining last night," he said.
"Indeed," Lance responded. "I should hardly have called him so."
"Well, interesting, then. All nonsense all the same. A sort of seance that thrills one at the time and makes one ashamed the next morning."
"It certainly thrilled you last night," Lance said, gravely.
"I admit it—admit it freely," Stott said, with an air of great candor. "Our inestimable friend got on my nerves terribly, which, as perhaps you have observed, are not quite what they ought to be. Eh, what?"
Lance observed gravely that the phenomenon in question had not been lost upon him, but Stott chose to ignore the sarcasm. He discussed Burlinson's theory volubly and with great earnestness. He desired to know what Lance thought about it. And beyond all these swiftly flowing words there was an uneasy restlessness that told its own tale.
"I confess that I am a convert to Dr. Burlinson's views," Lance said, watching Stott keenly the while from under his eyebrows. "If you had stayed up a little longer—but I had better not mention that."
Stott swallowed the execration that rose to his lips. He had dragged himself out of bed and down to breakfast on purpose to hear what had happened after his retirement last night. He cursed himself for his own cowardice, a cowardice that he was powerless to shake off.
"You decline to speak of that?" he asked, almost humbly.
"Emphatically," Lance replied. He was enjoying the imaginative terror of his vis-a-vis. "Later on, perhaps we may ask your opinion on certain things."
"But the motive—the motive?" Stott said, imploringly. "Before going any further you must find a motive. Without an adequate motive a theory is like emptying a reservoir with a sieve. Sir George was unusually respected; he had not a single enemy in the world. Under those circumstances why should anybody deprive him of life?"
"Seems hard, doesn't it?" said Lance. "But suppose a certain individual called A has a great influence over Sir George. He believes implicitly in A. Once show Sir George that A was not worthy of his confidence, and he would have put A outside the house without the smallest hesitation. Now there is somebody in America who knows a great deal to A's discredit. This somebody begins to write letters. Sooner or later the truth must come out. A is driven to desperation—the rest I leave to your vivid imagination. An actor like yourself must have played the part many times."
"You have more to say," Stott muttered, hoarsely.
"For the present nothing," Lance replied. "We know that more than one of the American letters came, and that more than one of them disappeared. We know that Miss Verity opened one, and thereupon she disappeared. And I fancy that if we could find Miss Verity now, she could throw a deal of light on the matter."
"And—and you don't know where she is?"
"For the present I am as much in the dark as you are. But I feel that fateful letter goes far to the root of the mystery. And I should not feel in the least surprised to find that Miss Verity has gone to America to find out for herself."
The cup slipped from Stott's hand and smashed upon the floor. He stood up gasping and choking as if he had swallowed something that had gone the wrong way. Lance watched him with cynical amusement. In some way or other he felt that the pitiful rascal was at the bottom of the whole business. That Stott had laid violent hands upon Sir George he could not bring himself to believe. The fellow was far too abject a coward for that. But he was at the bottom of it all the same. Had he not purloined those American letters, the contents of which he appeared to fear so terribly? And had not Lyn disappeared after she had been moved to open one of those foreign envelopes? And if Lance had not trusted Lyn so implicitly, he would have been hurt by her want of confidence in him.
"But the other letter?" Stott gasped, "the letter left by Sir George to say that—"
"I admit the stumbling-block there. But I am fast coming to regard that as a marvellous form of conjuring trick. That was a wonderfully good point that Burlinson made as to the number on the letter. People about to commit suicide are never quite so methodical as that."
"And where do you suppose the key is to be found?" Stott asked.
"The key is in the lock of Sir George's safe where his papers are kept," Lance replied.
Directly he uttered the words he repented of them. He saw anger, recollection, fear, chasing one another across Stott's white, soddened face. He saw that he had hit the blot and brought back to the listener certain vital things that he had forgotten. Lance was confirmed in one of the most important of his theories now, but at the same time he had been foolish enough to tell Stott exactly what to guard against.
The latter was struggling to fight down his emotion; already he was looking round for some avenue of escape. Never had he cursed himself over his cardinal sin as he did now. His recent illness and the horrors that the brandy bottle had brought upon him had caused him to forget vital details. A rocky course like his called for the clearest possible head; the overlooking of the minutest detail might at any moment bring the whole delicate cunning fabric to the ground. It was almost as if a man had committed some elaborate murder and left his card case behind.
"You will find very little in Sir George's safe," he said.
"Perhaps not," Lance replied, "but there can be no harm in looking there."
Stott had got himself in hand once more. He was fighting now for his future. He waved his hands loftily; he had a touch of the professional in his manner.
"Festina lente," he said. "The safe shall be examined all in good time. For the present you will pardon me if I remind you that the matter concerns me rather than yourself. So long as you are single Broadwater and its fortune is yours. But Sir George's personal effects are mine, my dear sir—mine. As his executor—"
"You refuse to examine the safe?" Lance burst out.
Stott deprecated the violence. It was not exactly what one gentleman had a right to expect from another. Lance rose from his chair and strode into the hall.
"We'll see about that," he said between his teeth. "We'll overhaul the safe, and you may exercise your legal authority afterwards. It's simply amazing that nobody ever thought of it before."
Stott staggered out bleating and protesting. He was as angry as he dared to be; there was fear as well as indignation in his watery blue eyes. He protested in the name of the law; he was quite certain that Lance was about to do something desperate in the way of contempt of Court. Heedless of these protestations, Lance made his way to the library.
The big iron safe was let into the corner of the wall. Lance and his companion reached it simultaneously. The former laid his hand upon the big brass knob and pulled vigorously. But the sheet-iron door held fast; there was no sign of a key to be seen.
"Somebody has stolen it," Stott began; "I say that somebody—"
The look of fear and disappointment faded from his face, and he burst into a forced laugh.
"You might have taken my friendly hint," he said. "Of course there is nothing—absolutely nothing—in that safe that anybody might not see. But when you attempt to override me I must—I really must—stand upon my legal rights. Therefore I felt it my duty to remove the key. When that safe is opened again it will be in the presence of my lawyers—if only as a safeguard. Then, my dear sir, you may examine the contents with the greatest possible pleasure."
It was so admirably done that Lance choked back a desire to contemptuous speech. Nothing could have been more magnificent than the ready lie that Stott had sprung upon him. For the man had not the least notion where the key was. Lance could see that, could recollect Stott's indignant and ashamed cry before he had recovered himself. And having made one bad slip, Lance was not going to make another. He allowed the thing to pass.
"Perhaps you are right," he said, coldly. "You are too clever for me."
Despite this indifference. Lance watched Stott pretty closely for the rest of the day. The latter wandered about the house in a disconsolate kind of way; his eyes seemed constantly in search of something, something that he could not find. Nor had Lance to ask himself many questions to elucidate the object of his search. The key of the safe was missing, and Stott was searching for it anywhere and everywhere.
Lance smiled grimly. He knew now that the safe contained a clue of some kind, or otherwise Stott would not have been so anxious and miserable. Moreover, the key must be somewhere; nobody in the house was capable of theft. Finally Stott gave up the search and departed for a walk. He came back shortly before dinner time, in a condition that filled Long with deep disgust. With his nerve-strings toned and tightened by his potations, Stott seemed disposed to be entertaining after the evening meal. He chatted gaily over the post-prandial cigarettes, Lance listening and weighing every word that fell from his lips.
"I've been chatting with Burlinson," Stott said, thickly. He helped himself to claret, and knocked his glass over to his great amusement.
"Clever fellow, Burlinson, though he does ride hobbies."
Lance muttered something coldly. As a matter of fact, Burlinson was in London, and he knew it.
"Burlinson understands me," Stott went on, his head swaying. "He appreciates the delicacy of the artistic nature. He knows what nerves are. What I want, he said, is a voyage. I ought to have a good sea voyage. I suggested America. Burlinson wouldn't hear of it. The Mediterranean was the place for me. So I went into Swanley, and booked my passage by telegram—and there you are. For the next few weeks you will have to do without Malcolm Stott. See here."
He pushed a telegram across the table, and immediately collapsed under it himself. Lance glanced at the flimsy. It was addressed to Stott at the Star Hotel, Swanley, and informed him that a cabin had been reserved for him aboard the "Campanella" next Thursday. Lance smiled grimly as he pocketed the telegram. The drunken little man had tried to deceive him over the Mediterranean; he was going to America instead. He rang the bell for Long.
"Get Jackson to help you to take that intoxicated creature to bed," he said. "See that he is made comfortable, and then come to me, Long."
Long complied, not without protest. Half an hour later he returned, a little more dignified than usual, with the information that Stott was sound asleep. If Sir Lancelot wanted anything—
"Perhaps you can help me in a little matter," Lance said. "I have been searching everywhere for the key of Sir George's safe, but I can't find it anywhere. I saw the key in the safe drawer on the afternoon of my uncle's death. If you have any idea what can have become of it—"
"That's all right, Sir Lancelot," Long said, calmly. "I used to put Sir George's papers away every night—except those he was engaged upon. And I locked them up myself the night as poor master died, and because that there—I mean Mr. Stott—was prying round and round the safe, why, I just took the liberty of turning the key in the safe and putting it in my own pocket."
"You mean to say you have got it now?" Lance asked, eagerly.
"In my pocket-book at this moment," Long replied. "If it was a liberty I apologise, Sir Lancelot. And I clean forgot all about it."
Under the circumstances Lance was disposed not merely to pardon the liberty, but to applaud it. But his face betrayed nothing of the satisfaction within him. He dropped the key carelessly into the pocket of his dinner jacket, and sat there smoking tranquilly for a time.
Once the servants were gone to bed, he crossed over to the library, and closed the door behind him. He was either going to find nothing, or he was going to find a great deal. The key rattled in the lock a little, for Lance was possessed of a strange unusual nervousness. Then he turned the steel firmly and the big door came silently open.
Lucy Sinclair, lying back in a long deck chair, announced casually to Lyn that she was going to give no more heed to Malcolm Stott until New York was reached.
"I feel that I am alive again," she said. "When you and Lance are comfortably settled down I shall travel once more. The motion, the constant change, the queer people to study, all exhilarate me. I am quite grateful to Stott for giving me this opportunity to live once more."
For the last day or two Stott had not been greatly in evidence. For one thing the number of people connected with the theatrical profession on board the Campanella was unusually large. A good proportion of them remembered Stott in his palmy days. Moreover, they were getting up a burlesque to be played the following night, and Stott was cast for one of the "old women"—that one only sees on the boards of a theatre.
"He means mischief," Lyn said from her own chair. "I heard two of the Crystal Rose Company discussing miracles after dinner last night, and one of them declared that the ages of miracles was still extant, seeing that Stott had been sober ever since he came aboard."
"That's for our benefit," Mrs. Sinclair yawned. "My dear child, Stott does mean mischief. That man is capable of any atrocity so long as he can thwart us. Do you suppose that he is on his way to America for the benefit of his health? Do you believe that he is keeping off the brandy, that is food and drink to him, from virtuous motives? Not a bit of it. There will be trouble presently and possibly danger. Meanwhile, 'Carpe diem.' Behold the wife of the 'Lumber King!' See how her diamond star gleams in the sunlight."
A flashily-dressed, good-humored-looking woman passed along the deck on her way to a chair. Her big, loud voice sounded pleasant, her profligacy with the aspirates called aloud for observation. Everybody on board knew the history of Mrs. Hank Lancey, wife of the "Lumber King;" indeed, everybody had it direct from that good lady's lips. At one time she had been a domestic servant, and her husband a dock laborer. And now the erstwhile domestic wore the famous Aphrodite diamond star and made friends by her frank, good-natured kindness everywhere.
"She knows it is in bad taste," Lyn smiled. "But, as she says herself, 'What's good taste to do with me? I like diamonds, and those who don't like my way can lump it.' Still, she and her stones make the purser's life a misery to him. Never a liner crossed the Atlantic without one smart thief aboard of her, and when temptation stares a man out of countenance like that—"
But Mrs. Sinclair was not listening; she had dropped into a placid slumber. Lyn rose and crossed the deck to the side. A dainty, little, fair woman accosted her almost timidly. Stott was rolling more or less gracefully along the white floor, smoking a cigarette. Lyn could ignore him altogether by affecting to be interested in her companion. As Stott passed he saluted flamboyantly. There was just the faintest bend of Lyn's dainty head.
"Why does Malcolm Stott hate you so?" the little fair woman asked. She spoke almost wistfully—as if inviting confidence and expecting to find the invitation repelled. For Sara Vesta, of the famous opera Vesta trio, had taken a huge fancy to Lyn, who was gracious and sweet to everybody. To the free, frank, and somewhat giddy little Bohemian, a character like Lyn's was a new study entirely. It was as if a child had encountered a fairy, or as if a princess had stooped to a barmaid. How the men could run after her when they had Lyn to talk to was a matter of contemptuous amusement to Sara.
"Do you think he hates me?" Lyn asked. "Won't you come and sit down?"
"Won't I!" Sara cried, a look of pleasure in her big blue eyes. "It's awfully good of you to make so much of me. Those men seem to imagine that I must needs always be frivolous. I wonder what they would say if they could see me at home with Tom and the boys!"
Lyn had heard of the two boys. That the fresh, youthful little creature by her side was the mother of two big boys was a constant source of wonderment to Lyn. Also that Sara Vesta hated the stage was another mild surprise. But the boys were at Rugby, and they would have fared ill but for the forty odd pounds per week earned in the service of the "Crystal Rose" syndicate.
"Do you know anything of Malcolm Stott?" Lyn asked.
"Do I not!" the other replied. "One of the most talented actors and greatest scoundrels of his time. Clever? Rather! Nothing, from a broad farce to high tragedy, came amiss to him. Why, if he had only left the brandy alone he might have been the greatest actor alive to-day, with a fortune as big as a Rockefeller's. I was more or less born in the National Theatre, New York, where Stott was actor-manager for years. I played there till I was twenty. Ah, Stott was a wonder in these days. He seemed to be able to do anything with anybody before he lost his magnetic touch. Then he get to drinking and speculating, and he was mixed up in some pretty shady transactions. When he lost his nerve it looked as if he had gone under. But he managed to worm round some weak-minded baronet who frequented the National a good deal, since when I am told he has been living in clover. Sir George somebody—"
"Do you mean Sir George Massey?" Lyn asked.
"Ah, that's the name. I remember him—a dainty-looking man, with a refined face. He used to come to the theatre with another gentleman called Verity."
"That was probably my father," Lyn said, quietly. "I was born in New York, and I can recollect that my father was always fond of theatre-going."
"Well, that's strange," Sara Vesta said, thoughtfully. "It all comes back to me now. I recollect that Sir George and Mr. Verity were good friends. After a time Sir George returned to England, and I never saw him again. But Mr. Verity used to come frequently; and I heard that he and Stott were mixed up in business together. There was a good deal of scandal over some mines, I remember; and it was said that the man who shot Mr. Verity—"
"I beg your pardon," Lyn interrupted. "My father committed suicide."
"Then he couldn't have been the Verity I knew," Sara went on. "They all said that the man I mean pulled all the chestnuts out of the fire for Stott, and that when the crash came he had all the blame for the disastrous outcome. If it had come off all right, Stott would have been rich; as it was, the thing was a fraud. Some ruined shareholder shot Verity on his own doorstep, and his wife saw the murder committed. The shock was too much for her, and she died two days afterwards."
Lyn listened in a kind of dream. Of course it was just possible that there were two Veritys connected with Sir George and Stott; but it did not seem probable. Yet on the other hand she had read it in the columns of a highly respectable paper that her father had killed her mother and deliberately taken his own life afterwards. The more Lyn thought over the matter the more puzzled she was. And the man who could have solved the whole mystery was strutting up and down the deck, smoking a cigarette and making himself unusually agreeable.
"Do you remember what this Mr. Verity was like?" Lyn asked.
"Tall—with dark hair and moustache and blue eyes. I recollect that because the combination is rather uncommon. He had a very pleasant smile, and showed a row of white teeth, and one of the bottom teeth was stopped with gold. Why, what is the matter?"
Just for a moment the crisp Atlantic seemed to submerge the sky, and the Campanella to go down, plunging to bottomless perdition. Lyn came out of a kind of waking dream to find the breeze fresh and cool on her forehead. Sara Vesta was regarding her with affectionate alarm.
"I have had a shock," she gasped. "Please, you are not to tell anybody, but you are speaking of my father. And—and I have always been told that he died in quite another way; indeed, I have seen the account of his death and the death of my mother in a respectable newspaper."
"Then I guess there are two Veritys," Sara Vesta exclaimed. "I'm plumb certain that the man I meant died as I say. Why, one of the National Stock Company was with the poor gentleman at the time. Take my advice—when you get to New York, make inquiries."
Lyn rose to her feet. She was still feeling a little sick and giddy. The sudden weight of the new discovery seemed to weigh her down. Sara Vesta had described her own father exactly; there could no longer be any doubt of his identity. And the little actress had been most clear and positive in her narrative. And yet Lyn had read that her father had died by his own hand! If what Sara said could be proved—why, she was free to acknowledge her marriage with Lance at any time.
"Perhaps you will excuse me for a little time," Lyn said. "I have been rather upset. You won't mind my asking you to say nothing as to this communication to anybody."
Mrs. Sinclair was a little inclined to be cross after her nap. The sight of Lyn's eyes gleaming in a face white as ashes roused all her faculties.
"Have you seen a ghost?" she asked. "Or are you not yourself?"
Lyn dropped into a chair by her aunt's side gratefully. Another moment and she felt that she must have fallen. It was some little time before Mrs. Sinclair emerged from the incoherent torrent of words that seemed to overwhelm her. Then her own marvellous intuition showed her the whole picture luminously.
"What do you make of it?" Lyn gasped. "And could that man have been my father?"
"I should say that there is not the slightest doubt of it," Mrs. Sinclair said, coolly.
"Then my talk with the pretty little woman yonder was providential. The coincidence—"
"There is no coincidence," Mrs. Sinclair interrupted. "What you have gleaned from Miss Vesta you could have discovered from the first intelligent New Yorker you came in contact with. Before we have landed a week we shall hear that story over and over again."
A light began to break in upon Lyn.
"Then you knew all the time?" she cried. "We are here to prove that my father—"
"We are here to try. I did not know anything about it. It was not till I got to Broadwater that I began to suspect. Stott was ruined; Stott knew Sir George and his peculiarities well, and he could always see a long way ahead. By way of an insurance for declining years he planned this thing out. He gave his proofs, and they were accepted blindly."
"But such proofs, aunt! Who could possibly have questioned them?"
"Anybody who had the pleasure of dipping into the private life of Malcolm Stott," Mrs. Sinclair said, drily. "And in the course of my extensive travels I have heard a great deal of that gentleman. What I heard determined me on taking this journey to New York. I didn't tell you too much, for fear of subsequent disappointment, but I must own that I am pretty sanguine. When I found Stott aboard I began to feel certain. If we have trouble from the man—"
"What possible trouble can he cause us?"
"Well, say danger," Mrs. Sinclair said, coolly. "If we have danger, then we shall know. Still I may be wrong, and I shouldn't advise you to build too highly on what you have heard."
Lyn was not inclined to do so. Most of us are disposed to believe implicitly everything that appears in print, and the story in cold type in a sober journal like the "Record" took a lot of explaining away. From a little distance Stott stood, furtively regarding the twain. And close by him was Sara Vesta, calmly studying his features. Just for a moment the mask had been dropped, and the real malignant nature of the man sat upon his face.
"What are you studying so intently, Miss Vesta?" a quiet voice asked.
Sara looked up with a smile. A big, loose-jointed man, smoking a long cigar, stood over her. Most people whose business took them across the great waters knew Carl May, president of the Standard Electrical Trust. And he seemed to know everybody in turn.
"I am making a study of malignant emotions," Sara replied. "It's a good thing for Europe and America generally that it takes five days to cross, because during that period, at present, two continents are rid of the presence of a thorough-paced scoundrel."
"Rather rough upon Stott, that," May drawled.
"I thought you would guess to whom I was alluding. And what was he talking to you about just now?"
"Oh, various things. Mrs. Hank Lancey's diamonds, for instance; and the folly of sporting them aboard ship. He's a clever chap, too; and seemed to be interested in electric lighting. He was wondering what might happen if the lights failed some night."
"Is that possible?" Sara asked, carelessly.
"Well, yes. But only for a little time, you understand. Suppose anybody accidentally smashed a lamp; it might fuse the wires and cause a short circuit, and thus plunge the saloon in darkness till the damage could be repaired. Or suppose you removed one of those little earthenware caps and snipped the little thin wire inside, you would cut off the connection."
Sara Vesta looked up with a shade of more interest in her big blue eyes. She began to see her way a little further ahead than did the big man by her side.
"How did that trouble Stott?" she asked.
"It did not trouble him at all," said May. "He was only asking questions in an intelligent kind of way. And it's really a very interesting subject. Stott is always full of plots and schemes for plays, and he thought he could see a situation here. There might be a short story hanging to it, but I don't see how it could work into a play."
"That's because you don't know anything about the stage," Sara said drily. "I can see a very good idea here. But I am not going to trouble you with that. Are you coming to see our burlesque to-morrow night? It will be highly original."
May responded that he hoped to have that pleasure. The burlesque promised to be the amusement par excellence of the voyage—and indeed it should be, seeing the number of stars engaged. That there had been practically no rehearsal only lent charm to the thing. So brilliant a company might have given a pleasing show without rehearsal at all.
May strolled away, leaving his companion to her own reflections. Stott had disappeared, and the deck was fast clearing for tea. Miss Vesta preferred a cigarette instead. She looked up at the rolling clouds overhead reflectively.
"What does he mean?" she murmured. "What is Stott up to now? It's some infernal mischief and harm to that pretty little girl that is at the bottom of it. 'Where was Moses when the light went out?' We shall see what we shall see."
The "Campanella" theatrical company had seen the curtains go down over a brilliant success. But the audience were not so spellbound as to have no thoughts of supper, and a steady stream of passengers flowed into the dining-room. Here and there an actor in some grotesque costume stood out conspicuously in the little black and white crowd.
"If we stay to change, it is manifest that we shall get no supper," Sara Vesta laughed as she passed Lyn. "So much for the gratitude of those we have amused."
The tables were full at length, with here and there an actress in full war-paint as a centre of attraction. Stott, for once in a way, was modest, and contented himself with a seat near the door. Still nearer the door Sara Vesta took her place. Her eyes were shining with an uneasy brilliancy, suggestive of something more than the excitement of the evening.
Carl May surveyed the scene from a side-table. He had contrived to find a seat near Lyn and Mrs. Sinclair. There was a harsh clatter of knives and forks and the chatter of conversation and a constant popping of corks. The full stream of the electric light played over the brilliant scene, flashing over diamonds and pearls and touching the great Aphrodite star with points of flame. Mrs. Hank Lancey was very much in evidence.
"I shouldn't like to sport a star like that," May said, indicating the ample breast of the Lumber King's better half, and its dazzling array of stones. "The less show you make on these liners the better. I've been across the pond scores of times, but never yet without at least two star swindlers amongst the saloon passengers."
"Do you mean to say there are any here to-night?" Lyn asked.
"I can see three," May said, coolly. "They are having a good time of it, and you would never guess who they are. But you see they have been solemnly warned by the captain that their identity is discovered, and consequently they are on their best behaviour. Otherwise I wouldn't give much for Mrs. Hank Lancey's hold on the Aphrodite."
"Delightful!" Mrs. Sinclair exclaimed. "I love rascals. But it is one thing to steal that brooch and another to get it off the ship."
"Bet you I'd get it in an hour and carry it away right under the noses of the police," May drawled, as he surveyed the glittering scene around him. "And so would those fellows—only they have been spotted. And Mrs. Hank is very careless."
At the same moment the Aphrodite star had been withdrawn from its proud owner's head, and was being handed round for inspection and admiration. From Mrs. Lancey's point of view the possession of diamonds was as nothing without admiration and envy. Yet there was no ostentation about her. She was as frankly pleased as a child whose toys are better than those of another child. Above the crash and the chatter her good-natured voice rose like a foghorn.
"It was after Hank had knocked the bottom out of the Kearly Combine that he bought it," she said. "The Combine crawled out 400,000 dollars to the bad, and Hank cornered that little pile. And Hank bought the Aphrodite as a memento of the occasion. Once belonged to Lucrezia Borgia, Mr. Stott says. Come and show us the cypher on the setting, Stott."
But Stott refused to move. As a rule publicity was as the sun to the flower of his artistic nature. But he seemed quite ill at ease now, and desirous of escaping attention. And he was hampered by his clothing, he said. It was so long since he had acted in burlesque that his Widow Twankey-like costume was a weariness and burden to the flesh. He sat toying with his supper with the aid of a small bottle of champagne, most of which still remained. He seemed restless and anxious, too, behind the mask of grease, paint, and powder that he wore.
"Is that one of your picturesque swindlers with the white waistcoat?" Mrs. Sinclair asked. "The man talking to one of the Vesta troupe. It was very foolish of me not to bring my glasses—I am afraid that I am missing most of the fun."
Lyn volunteered to fetch the missing spectacles. There was no chance of anybody leaving the saloon for the present, for there were speeches to come, and the efforts of one or two seriocomics in that direction proved to be not the least entertaining part of the programme. Lyn threaded her way between the tables and the waiters in the wake of Stott, who had slipped out unnoticed. The big Aphrodite star was still going round the table.
Lyn came back presently with the gold-rimmed pince-nez. In front of her in the corridor stood the bulky burlesque feminine figure of Stott, in earnest conversation with what appeared to be one of the steerage passengers. The latter was playing with something that looked like a pair of pincers or pliers. Perhaps he was one of the ship's engineers. Close handy was one of those square arrangements of earthenware cups one sees in connection with electric lighting on a large scale. A waiter passed and took no heed.
"Audacity!" Lyn heard Stott say. "You see how it pays, my friend. Certainly the light to-night is not all we could desire, and I am told the remedy is so simple. Two sneezes, mind."
Lyn slipped by unobserved. The incident was so natural as to pass unnoticed. But all the same, Lyn was a little at a loss to understand what two sneezes could have to do with the electric lighting of the saloon. Nor could she see that the illumination was not as usual.
She came back into the noisy saloon, followed by Stott. As she glanced round she saw that the Aphrodite star was blazing over the good-humored face of the owner. Stott poured out the rest of the champagne, and finished it in a gulp.
Presently somebody called for a song. A famous light comedian obliged; then there was another song and yet another. Something half-humorsome half-pathetic from one of the Vesta troupe followed. There was just a little silence at the finish, above which a double sneeze rose crisply. A torrent of applause followed, a snap, the electric light failed, and the saloon was plunged into pitchy darkness.
The thing was so sudden and unexpected that there was a profound silence for a moment. One or two of the women commenced to laugh hysterically, and there was a rustle of skirts.
"Please, please keep your seats," the captain said. "The damage will be repaired in a moment. Some very little thing has gone wrong—one of the wires has fused, perhaps. In less than five minutes I give you my word the lights will be on again."
Already a couple of engineers were busy upon the safety switchboard outside the saloon. One of the comedians rose and commenced to sing a light frothy song, that sounded none the less quaint and pleasing in the darkness. Before the last verse was reached the filaments in the chandeliers commenced to glow, and like a glad new tropical morning, the flood of white light poured back again.
It came as suddenly as it had gone—so suddenly that people rubbed their eyes until they were used to the great gleam again. Once more the chatter and laughter arose, and every face looked pleased and smiling, save that of the captain of the Campanella. For he was not pleased to be informed that there had been no fusing of the safety wire, but that two of them had been deliberately cut by some unknown person.
"This must be looked into, Clarke," the captain muttered to the purser. "You say you saw a man tampering with the service; then why didn't you—"
"But I thought he had been sent from the engine-room, sir," the purser pleaded. "No, I shouldn't know the man again. He did it all so coolly and naturally. Still, as nothing has happened—"
"Nothing," the captain cried, with a deep groan. "Nothing! Where are your eyes man? Look at Mrs. Hank Lancey, and tell me if you can see her Aphrodite star."
The words were uttered in a whisper, but they appeared to fall on eager ears. As if by magic almost everybody in the saloon appeared to miss the Aphrodite star simultaneously. The magnetic current communicated itself to Mrs. Lancey herself.
"Well, bless my stars," she exclaimed, placidly, "it's gone!"
The whole saloon was thrilling with excitement now; indeed, the only cool and collected individual there seemed to be the late owner of the jewel. And everybody knew now why the light had failed. With a pale face, Captain Benn crossed to the victim's side.
"Can you tell me anything about it?" he asked.
"Well, I can't," was the placid reply. "I never noticed anything. And I declare I haven't felt so vexed since Martha Soy's cat ate my canary."
A girl close by laughed, and Mrs. Lancey beamed upon her.
"But, there," she said, with amazing good humor, "it don't in the least matter. My old man said I was sure to lose it sooner or later, so he won't mind. We're disturbing the 'armony of the evening, Captain. Please say how sorry I am to give you all this trouble."
But Captain Benn's duty lay clearly before him. Moreover, his employers looked coldly on these kind of sensations, since they got into the papers and did the company harm. It was very amazing to see how Mrs. Lancey took her loss, but it would have been still more amazing had Captain Benn fallen in with her views.
"I am sorry that the matter cannot rest here," he said. "It is quite evident that a conspiracy has been formed aboard the boat to deprive Mrs. Lancey of her jewel. The purser informs me that just before the accident he saw what he now knows to be a stranger tampering with the electric lighting apparatus outside the saloon. I can hardly blame the purser for not interfering, seeing that he very naturally took the man for an employee in the engine-room. The idea, of course, was to put out the light and steal the diamond in the confusion. It seems a very hard thing to say, but the thief is probably in the saloon at the present moment."
Something like a sensation followed. People began to glance suspiciously at one another. Mrs. Lancey loudly lamented that the harmony of the evening had been spoilt, and that, if she didn't mind, the rest of the company could make themselves quite easy over the matter. Lyn listened, shaking with excitement from head to foot. The little scene between Stott and the man with the pliers came back to her now with lurid force. She no longer needed anybody to tell her the meaning of the phrase "two sneezes" now. She had heard them directly Sara Vesta had finished her song. As she glanced round the table, her eyes fell upon Sara Vesta. The latter was holding her handkerchief to her lips, and Lyn could see that the cambric was all stained with blood.
"You don't suggest that the diamond is here?" Stott asked.
"No, I don't," Benn replied, curtly. "It was probably snatched in the confusion and spirited away to some hiding-place. As we are all more or less implicated, including myself, I am going to suggest that whilst we all stay here the stewards and stewardesses make an exhaustive search of the cabins. It is not a pretty suggestion, and it will probably lead to nothing, but it is all I can think of at present. Still, if anybody objects—"
Benn paused significantly, and looked round the room. He saw plenty of white scared faces and angry red ones around him, but no protest came.
"Good idea," Stott cried. "Quite a diplomatic suggestion. Let us try and be cheerful. A good conscience, my friends, a good conscience, is everything."
Lyn gasped at the effrontery of the man. He looked smilingly around with the air of a man who knows nothing of the word "nerves."
"Why," Lyn cried, "not half an hour ago I saw—"
She paused and looked down in confusion. She had caught Sara Vesta's eye for an instant, and read a warning there. Sara was pale and trembling, and her lips seemed to be bleeding freely, but there was an air of stern hard triumph on her face. Fortunately, a score of voices, volunteering as many suggestions, prevented Lyn's indiscreet words from being heard. Sara Vesta came over to Lyn.
"Don't say a word," she whispered. "You have found something out, but never mind him. I know. And I have found something out also."
"What is the matter with your lip?" Lyn asked.
"Let us say I cut it when the light failed, on the edge of a broken glass," Sara Vesta replied. "Perhaps you will suggest that it looks more like the mark of a blow—but let that pass. Do you know that the lights were all out all over the ship for quite three minutes? I slipped into the corridor—"
"Surely that is an unwise confession to make just now," Lyn whispered.
Sara Vesta smiled as she glanced round the saloon. Mrs. Lancey was leaning back in her chair with an air of resignation on her face. It seemed strange to her that there should be such a fuss made over such a trifle. Presently the clamor ceased, and something like harmony reigned again. There were songs and recitations, it was true, but every time a steward came into the saloon, all heads were turned in his direction, as if they expected him to produce the missing gem, and denounce the vile culprit on the spot. A little before one o'clock, Captain Benn looked at his watch. He could not keep the passengers there all night, and the strain was getting too great for nerves to bear. He was on the point of suggesting an adjournment, when Clarke came in. The latter's face was stern, but his eyes fairly danced with delight.
"Permit me to have the pleasure of restoring your property, madam," he said. "We have found the star. For the rest of the voyage, if I may be permitted to lock it up in my safe—"
"Oh, dear, yes," Mrs. Lancey said, plaintively. "By all means. I never was so ashamed of myself spoiling the evening and all. Where did you find it now?"
Lyn could feel Sara Vesta trembling with excitement by her side. Her eyes were turned upon Stott, who was playing with his empty glass.
"In the soap box of one of our gentleman passenger's dressing case," Clarke said. "Just for the moment it is not discreet to mention names."
"Look at Stott!" Sara Vesta whispered fiercely. "Do look at Stott."
The individual in question had half-risen to his feet. Behind his grotesquely made-up features his face was livid with amazement and terror. He seemed to be dazed—stunned with the suddenness of some overwhelming catastrophe.
"Sold!" the Vesta whispered. "The engineer hoist with his own petard."
Stott's face was a perfect study in emotions. Disappointment, anger, a suggestion of fear, all were there, and all faded presently to a look of blank surprise. If the Aphrodite star had taken wings and flown from Captain Benn's hand he could not have been more amazed.
"Did you say a gentleman passenger?" he asked.
"A male one at any rate," Benn said, grimly. "If Mrs. Lancey likes to prosecute—"
But Mrs. Lancey declined to do anything of the kind—at any rate for the present. She had recovered her property, and doubtless the poor fellow had taken it under great temptation. Clarke, astutest of pursers, applauded this resolution. It was just as well that there should be no further scandal, at least not till the end of the voyage, when the "Campanella" people might have something to say on their own account.
"Did you ever see such brazen effrontery?" Benn asked Clarke in the seclusion of his cabin.
"It was pretty artistic," Clarke responded, thoughtfully. "We must get our people in New York to take up the matter. You see the robbery was pretty smart, but the recovery was smarter, and it will all go to the credit of the boat. What looked like being a bad business for us may be turned into a very attractive advertisement."
"You're right," Benn said, emphatically. "It shall be done."
There was a good deal of speculation aboard the "Campanella" next day as to the hero of the diamond robbery, and many were the ingenious theories unfolded thereon. But the problem afforded more food for thought to Stott than anybody else. The more he thought over the matter the more puzzled he became. And his whole pretty scheme had fallen to the ground. Not only was he puzzled, but alarmed as well. Lyn's contention that he was at the bottom of the Aphrodite robbery was perfectly correct, but she little guessed why that historic stone had been stolen.
But Stott was more at sea altogether. He had hidden the stone in a certain place, and it had been found in another. Clarke and Captain Benn were not concealing anything. But how had the diamond changed places? Stott sat on the deck, smoking many cigarettes over this problem. Most of the saloon passengers passed in review before him as he sat there. Presently Sara Vesta sauntered along to her chair, and as Stott's eye noticed her swollen lip, inspiration came to him.
"There's the key of the puzzle!" he exclaimed. "What a fool I was not to think of it before. That's the woman for a million. I should enjoy a little chat with the lady who knows so much about the old National Theatre."
Stott came sauntering across as soon as he saw a vacant chair by Sara's side, and dropped into it with a smile that was almost caressing. In her turn the Vesta was quite as sweet. They might have been two old friends chatting together. Stott's compliments on the share of Sara Vesta to the previous evening's entertainment were graceful, if a little florid; and, not to be outdone, Sara was equally sincere as to his efforts at the Widow Twankey.
"Altogether a most varied and exciting evening," Sara said.
Stott took up the proffered cue instantly.
"With a most dramatic and unexpected finish," he said. "I hope you did not get that nasty blow on your face in the general confusion."
Stott's blue eyes twinkled as he spoke. But he could make nothing of his companion's face.
"Not precisely," she said, slowly. "I was sitting very near the door of the saloon when the lights suddenly went out. It was not a very original scheme, for it was part of 'The Rouge Domino' plot, you remember. It occurred to me at once that some robbery was afoot, so I slipped out into the corridor. It was dark there, as elsewhere—so I stood still, waiting. Sure enough, somebody passed me presently, and I made a grab for the individual. The mystic personage aimed a blow at me and struck me on the mouth."
"Um! Rather a nasty blow, too. A man, of course?"
"You would think so from the force of the assault," Sara said quietly. "But it must have been a woman because of her clothes. She had long open sleeves."
"How did you know that?" Stott asked sharply.
"Because I grabbed hold of one and tore a portion away. I have it here in my purse. The stuff is strong and tawdry, and intensely theatrical. And, another curious thing about it—the stuff is identical with the gown you wore last night."
Sara Vesta spoke in the same low even tones, but there was a quiet ring of meaning by no means lost on the listener. It was not pleasant to find that he was dealing with one who was quite as brilliantly clever as himself.
"A man dressed up as a woman, and so baffling the police," Sara said, slowly. "Also the lights in a ballroom suddenly extinguished—exactly the same as 'The Rouge Domino' plot. By the way, that was one of your favorite plays."
Stott said nothing for the moment. The game was going all against him. Still, it was just as well to find out who his antagonists were. And this woman was reading him off his whole scheme in the friendliest possible fashion. Most of his cunning plots were adapted from old comedies and melodramas, and Sara knew it. If she had accused him openly of the theft of the Aphrodite she could not have spoken any more plainly.
"So you think it was a man dressed up as a woman?" Stott asked.
"I am absolutely certain of it," Sara smiled amiably. "And the same man asked Carl May a great many questions as to the working of the electric light."
Stott lighted a cigarette. He knew all about it now, or thought he did. He cared nothing for the fact that this woman had found him out, seeing that no physical inconvenience was likely to follow.
"It would be a risky thing to give the thief a name," he suggested tentatively.
"I'm not going to," Sara replied. "It is no business of mine, especially as the whole scheme miscarried. And when the diamond was found in your cabin—"
"Mine! You don't mean to say that it was in my cabin that—"
"Indeed I do. I actually heard the purser say so. Even the cleverest men do foolish things at times. Of course, you may suggest that some busybody changed the hiding-place of the gem, but would it be worth your while to try and prove it?"
Sara smiled sweetly into Stott's face as she spoke. She had beaten him all along the line, and he knew it. In some subtle way she had not only grasped the whole scheme, but she also saw clearly what the scheme was intended to lead up to. A sudden rage shook the little man and brought the blood into his face.
"Shall we go and fight it out before the captain?" she laughed. "No? Oh, yes, I will excuse you, as you are not feeling very well. And don't take too much soda with your brandy."
Stott strode across the deck in blind fury. To be outwitted by a mere woman was humiliating. He had found out all about the mystery; he had made some startling discoveries since he had located Sara Vesta as the woman whom he had smitten from his path the night before; but the solution had brought him anything but satisfaction.
For the present, at any rate, the satisfaction was all on the side of Sara. She had let that little wretch see that she knew the whole of the story, which story she proceeded to relate to Lyn on the very first occasion. It was after tea that the opportunity came. Naturally the topic of the Aphrodite came up almost directly.
"It's very unpleasant," said Lyn. "For my part, I shall be glad when the voyage is over. I give Mrs. Lancey credit for her good nature, but the feeling that each man you look at may be the thief is very chilling. Why, it might be you or I!"
"It was exceedingly near being you," Sara said, coolly.
Lyn's lovely eyes opened with astonishment.
"My dear Miss Vesta!" she cried. "What do you mean? Why, I never left the saloon."
"And yet the diamond was in your and your aunt's cabin. Under different circumstances it would inevitably have been found there."
Lyn looked helplessly into the face of the speaker.
"But who could have been guilty of so vile a piece of treachery?" she asked.
"Isn't there one person on board who hates you?" said Sara. "Ah, you had forgotten Malcolm Stott. From what you have told me already I am pretty sure that he is here to thwart your inquiries and perhaps checkmate you altogether. Now suppose that he had three weeks or so in New York whilst you were detained—say, here on board. Would not that be fatal to your plans?"
"Probably," Lyn said, thoughtfully. "He thought that everything was safe, as far as America was concerned, and my aunt's visit here made him uneasy. Hence he came along."
"Given a few days' start, he could obliterate all traces?"
"I should say so, but I don't see what you are trying to prove."
"Nothing. I am leaving the proofs to you. It is imperative that Stott should handicap you for a time. He proceeds to do so by hatching the plot of the Aphrodite star. I have proved that he was at the bottom of it, and my evidence would convict him in a court of law. But we need not go into that just now. Stott planned the robbery and stole the star, not for the sake of gain, but so as to get Mrs. Sinclair and yourself into trouble. Directly the lights were extinguished last night I slipped out. Almost at once the man came. In my excitement I reached for him and received this blow on the mouth. Dark as it was, Stott went directly to your cabin and deposited the star there. He had evidently studied every inch of the ground, but so had I. You must not think I am too clever, because this is only a rechauffe of the plot of 'The Rouge Domino.' With the aid of a match I found the star in your cabin, and by way of a bit of revenge I removed it to Stott's cabin, where it was found."
"So he was the thief, and is known as such?" Lyn cried.
"Precisely," Sara said, drily. "Stott is hoist with his own petard."
"But why—why did he do this thing?"
"To create a scandal, of course—to have you arrested at New York for theft, and perhaps sentenced to a long term of imprisonment. Whether you had a long sentence or not would have been a matter of the sublimest indifference to Stott. He had calculated that it would be weeks before you could get bail, and whilst you were locked up, he could pursue his covering of the trail unmolested. You see what a dangerous man you have to deal with."
"But surely he can be punished?" Lyn exclaimed.
"My dear, you have the game in your own hands," Sara Vesta replied. "Let me see Mrs. Lancey for you, and give her an outline of the story. She is very good-natured and kind-hearted, and she would never prosecute the thief as a thief. But she will be angry enough when I tell her of the plot against you two innocent women. By way of giving a lesson, she might lay an information against him on Clarke's evidence. I don't know if I shouldn't get into trouble if my share came out," Sara concluded, thoughtfully, "but there is no danger of that. And, after all, Stott was the actual thief. And see what you gain. You are free to pursue your investigations in New York what time Stott is laid by the heels with never a friend to go bail for him. All's fair in love and war, and it would be flying in the face of Providence to lose a chance like this."
This more or less sound if dubious philosophy was shared by Mrs. Sinclair when the case was laid before her a little later. The "Campanella" would be off Sandy Hook a little before daylight, and there was no time to lose if anything was to be done. Nor had Sara Vesta misjudged the character of Mrs. Lancey. That good lady fell into a violent temper, for Lyn was a great favorite of hers, and she straightway repaired to Captain Benn with the information that she had changed her mind as to the diamond, and trusted that the thief would be arrested on the termination of the voyage.
Captain Benn smiled grim approval of this change of view.
"I am exceedingly glad to hear it, madam," he said. "Your precedent would have been an exceedingly bad one, and there are far too many frauds on ocean-going steamers as it is. At any rate it will free the 'Campanella' for some time to come."
Mrs. Lancey returned, fearful that she might say too much, and by daylight a police tender was alongside the big liner. The conference between an inspector and Mrs. Lancey and Clarke, the purser, was curt and to the point.
Meanwhile Stott had got everything together after the manner of an experienced traveller, and stood on deck calmly watching the bustle and confusion. A little dark man, accompanied by Benn, stepped up to him.
"Mr. Malcolm Stott, I believe," he said, politely.
"That is my name," Stott responded, blandly. "Is there anything I can do for you—"
"You can accompany me ashore, sir. I have a warrant for your arrest on an information sworn by Mrs. Lancey and purser Clarke charging you with stealing a diamond known as the Aphrodite star, and which stone was found in your cabin by Clarke and other witnesses. If you like to ride I have a car ready."
A snarling oath broke from Stott's blue lips; in his wild rage he could have fallen on the detective and destroyed him. But a sudden spasm at his heart recalled him to himself. He had been outplayed and outwitted, and the fate that he had intended for his antagonists had fallen on himself. Nor could he disguise from himself that he had stolen the diamond. In the face of that it was useless to whine about a conspiracy against himself.
"I'll come quietly," he said. "I have a perfect answer to the charge."
The detective grinned at the conventional reply.
"All right," he said. "Never heard of a charge that couldn't be disproved. Still if you have any powerful friends in New York you may be able to get bail."
Lance paused a moment before he investigated further. A feeling of nervousness possessed him—a feeling that he had never suffered from before. He caught himself wondering if Stott had any similar symptoms.
It was wonderfully still in the house to-night, so still that the scratching of a mouse behind a panel somewhere in the hall sounded painfully loud. And Lance stood before the safe as a burglar might have done. It was strange that he should not have thought about the safe before, and stranger still that the same idea had not occurred to Stott. But then Stott was in no condition to think of anything; the drink soddened brain could not grasp all the threads.
With a determined air and a smile for his weakness, Lance flung back the heavy door. Then he lighted one of the candles in the silver sconces and placed it in the metal throat of the safe. As a matter of fact, there was no reason for the presence of the safe at all, except that it was the proper thing to have in big country houses. The butler had his own strong room for the plate, and Sir George had been too good a man of business to keep deeds and securities on the premises. Consequently, the big vault was practically empty.
There were three shelves, the top one being bare, and on the bottom ledge a mass of papers and one envelope addressed to Stott. There appeared to be keys inside this. Lance gathered all the papers together, and laid them on the table. So far as he could see, the papers were duplicates of some manuscript or story told in dialogue.
Just for a little while Lance wondered what they were. But there was no great cause for bewilderment, as he speedily discovered. This, then, was the "play" Sir George had been engaged upon at the time of his death, and a fair copy of the same nearly finished. Every page was drafted and copied on Sir George's own thick vellum notepaper, every page with the Broadwater stamp on the top.
"Poor uncle!" Lance muttered. "So he had finished the great work, and had nearly done copying it out. I fear its intrinsic value would be nothing like the paper it is written upon. Um! I shall hardly find any clue here."
There was absolutely nothing else in the safe, except a packet of old letters, and, as Lance remarked, it was hardly likely that a clue was hidden here. The sense of disappointment was giving way to a curious desire to see what Sir George had made of his play. It was not late yet, and the house was very quiet. Lance lighted a cigarette and sorted the sheets out. At length he had the draft play and the fair copy arranged in two neat piles. Then he began to read, a look of pity on his face as he proceeded. It was impossible to read the thing honestly. Presently Lance was skipping over the pages languidly. Yes, there was the making of a strong play here, but it had been utterly spoilt by faults of construction. Farce and tragedy and comedy were mixed up in the most amazing fashion. At one point the story was quite lucid, at another absolutely vague and shadowy. There was a great deal about suicide that seemed to be utterly superfluous. On the other hand, the climax of the third act was strong enough for anything. Lance found himself wondering vaguely if Stott had had a hand in it. Really he was deeply interested in the climax of the third act. Would the hero commit suicide or not? It was the only logical sequence save one, and that one rose to Lance's mind at once. The hero was about to write a letter in which he tells the world he has died by his own hand; a whole page of the small letter paper in the wide handwriting was devoted to the "business" leading up to the dramatic development. Lance turned over hurriedly, only to find the broad heading of "Act IV."
What did it mean? Had Sir George gone rambling again just at the most telling part? The figures at the foot of the page caught Lance's eye. One of them was missing from the fair copy that he had been reading. No. 153 was missing, and—
Lance jumped to his feet swiftly as if a flash of lightning had suddenly played before his eyes. The whole truth had come to him in an instant. He wondered that he had not seen it before.
"The letter!" he cried aloud. "The identical letter written by Sir George."
He paused as the sound of his own voice rang in his ears, jarring on the stillness. In the dead silence of the night there is something very awesome in the sound of one's own voice. It seemed to send a cold chill down Lance's spine.
He dropped into a chair and continued his meditations in silence. But the whole thing lay before him as clear as daylight now. Strange, more than strange, that the missing page of the MS. and the letter left by Sir George should both be numbered 153!
Lance would have given a great deal to have had that letter in his own hand now. He tried to recall it word for word—the letter which had been copied from the one in his own derelict play. Well, he could go into his own room and procure a copy, but—
"Stupid!" Lance muttered. "Doubtless the letter is in the draft play. I'll see."
He fluttered the leaves over, and came to what he was after in due course. Yes, there it was exactly as he had hoped to find it—the suicide's letter followed by death, and the business that brought down the curtain on Act III. Burlinson was right—Sir George had certainly not taken his own life.
Lance saw his way to act at last. Very carefully, and smiling as he aid so, he put the fair copy of the play back into the safe. The draft copy he locked away securely in his own room. Stott should find nothing when he came to examine the safe that would scare him in any way. Stott must have plenty of rope so that the scoundrel might hang himself.
It would be to Stott's interest to destroy the revised copy of the play, and he would not fail to do so, never knowing that a rough but complete copy remained in Lance's hands. And Stott should have the key of the safe in such a manner that his suspicions would not be aroused. There were keys in the envelope addressed to Stott, and there was no reason why the key of the safe should not be added to them, if that envelope could only be opened.
Well that would be a comparatively easy matter. It only meant procuring a little hot water from the bathroom and soaking the flap open. This was done at length, the key of the safe interred inside, and the flap fastened down with a touch of gum and dried over a lamp. A careless suggestion that the envelope had been found in a drawer, and the thing was rounded off artistically.
"And now I'll go to bed," Lance told himself. "On the whole, it has been a good night's work."
It was some time after breakfast before Stott came down. He was looking white and cold and dreadfully bleared about the eyes. Also he was more irritable and snappish than usual. Those watery eyes were turned searchingly in all directions.
"I want a change," he said. "This place is getting on my nerves."
"Your change, and a permanent one is not likely to be long delayed," Lance said, significantly. "Go on the same as last night, and—"
"And go to the deuce in my own way," Stott growled. "My good sir, you need not count upon getting me out of the way so speedily. I like to enjoy myself."
"Enjoy yourself!" Lance exclaimed. "Good heavens!"
"Well. I repeat the expression. There is a lot of life in the old dog yet. Like Joey Bagstock, I am 'tough, sir—tough, and devilish sly.' Thought you said there were no letters for me!"
He indicated the envelope containing the keys with a trembling finger.
"That is not a letter," Lance explained, carelessly. "It's an envelope turned out of one of the drawers here, and addressed to you by Sir George. By the sound, I should say that there are keys inside. Perhaps the key of the safe is amongst them."
"In that case I am exceedingly obliged to you," Stott said, drily.
Lance smiled. He saw the insinuation, with a strong desire to kick the speaker upon him.
"I am not in the habit of opening other people's letters," he said. "And as to the safe—well, its contents cannot possibly interest me. In my cooler moments I have not the least desire to come between you and your legal rights."
But Stott was opening the envelope eagerly. He knew the key of the safe by sight, and his eyes gleamed as he saw it. It was impossible for him to conceal his relief and delight. He little thought how keenly Lance was watching him. His whole frame shook as he dropped the key into his watch pocket. He strove in vain to speak calmly.
"I must confess that this does look something like the key of the safe," he said. "However, that is a matter of indifference for the present. I don't propose to touch business again for some little time. Before everything I must consider my health. Therefore I am going for a voyage to the Mediterranean."
Lance smiled to himself, remembering the telegram he had seen the previous evening.
"You are going soon?" he asked.
"I may leave Broadwater to-day," Stott replied. "I am going to deprive you of my company."
"Don't mention it," Lance said, with grim politeness. "I should be grieved to think that any consideration for me interfered with your health and pleasure. Of course I shall find the house quiet, and I shall naturally miss your little flights of histrionic imagination, but I'll try and bear it. Broadwater will not be the same place without you."
Stott smiled, but there was something feline about the lines of his mouth. He hung about the house in a listless kind of way until after Lance had had his lunch and gone out, then he flew eagerly to the library. He had the door of the safe open directly. His nervous twitching fingers grasped the bulky MS. within.
"The play!" he whispered hoarsely, "and intact! This is far better luck than I deserved or expected. What a fool I was to forget all about the safe, and what a fool he was not to open that envelope! Still, I have got out of the mess, and nobody is a penny the wiser. And now to destroy this very damning evidence."
Stott locked the safe up, and retired to his room with the precious sheets. These he burnt one by one till they were all destroyed. After that, he hurriedly packed a couple of portmanteaus, and smoked a cigarette over a strong glass of brandy and soda.
"I'll have to go slow a bit," he muttered. "I'll have to keep my head clear for the next fortnight, and then I can snap my fingers at all of them. Lucky for me I have had nothing to spend my money on lately."
He changed his clothes, and swaggered down into the hall, where Long stood stiffly for him to pass.
"Just go and have a dog-cart ready to take me into Swanley to catch the 4.18," he said. "I am going for a week or two. Don't forget it."
Long replied pointedly that he certainly would not forget.
"And may you break your little neck or drink yourself to death meanwhile," Long added, under his breath, as he made his way to the kitchen with the good news. A week or two was not much, certainly—but it was something gained. And it would be no fault of Long's if Stott missed his train to Swanley.
"Be in good time, William," he said, almost pleadingly. "Don't be unpunctual. I can't breathe freely in the same 'ouse as that poisonous little creature."
"I'll be in time," William said, shortly. "I've got my feelings same as other people."
So it came about that at nearly the same time that Stott was swaggering into Swanley Station, Lance was reaching Burlinson's house with a bulky packet under his arm. The doctor was smoking in his library, with a big book of reference before him.
"You look as if you had made a discovery," he said. "Haven't seen you so pleased for a long time."
"Stott is going away," Lance responded. "He told me you had ordered him a sea voyage—"
"I never did anything of the kind," Burlinson replied.
"I know that perfectly well, doctor. The little rascal only wants to cover up his tracks. He said he was going to the Mediterranean, but as a matter of fact his passage is booked to New York. But if he knew what I have discovered he would not be so anxious to depart. Doctor, I have solved the problem of that famous letter."
"What—the letter that your uncle left behind him? Really!"
"Yes, really. I found the clue in the safe. I cannot understand why it never occurred to me to look there before. And all the time we have been puzzling our brains when the solution lay so openly and clearly before us."
"It doesn't lie clearly and openly before me," Burlinson growled.
"But it will in a few minutes. It's like one of the amazing conjuring tricks—almost childish when you discover how it is done. My uncle was writing a play—now don't growl, because this is of the most vital importance. Let me give you a resume of the first three acts. There! Now take the packet of MS. and open it at page 150. By reading the next two pages, after what I have told you, you will have a grip of the situation without unnecessary trouble. Now will you read those pages?"
Burlinson complied without hesitation. He read slowly, and with a puzzled face. But as he proceeded his face lightened. Then he gave a cry of astonishment.
"Why, this is the very letter!" he exclaimed.
"Not quite," said Lance. "That letter is with the police. This is the first copy. Now where did my uncle get it from—or, rather, who inspired it? Not I. I'm prepared to swear. And what is the number of the page that holds the text of the letter?"
"Number 153," Burlinson muttered.
"And what was the number on the letter held by the police?"
"Why, 153," Burlinson yelled. "Bless me, what a singular coincidence. The confession of suicide was no confession at all, but an extract from a play! Amazing! My dear young friend, does Stott know that you possess this evidence?"
"No," Lance said, quickly. "Stott is the last person in the world to know—at present."
Much as Lyn had always admired her aunt, she had never quite realised the force of that lady's character till now. As Lyn expressed it afterwards, she was as good as three men. And she seemed to know New York as well as Lyn knew Broadwater. Wherever Mrs. Sinclair went, she always appeared to be at home.
Despite her natural courage and coolness, Lyn felt slightly dazed. The big hotels, the hurrying crowds, the lifts, the colored waiters, all gave her a dreamy impression of things. And everything seemed to be done at such break-neck speed; the jangling of telephone bells was ever in her ears. To Mrs. Sinclair it all seemed natural enough.
"Now we are going to begin the campaign," Mrs. Sinclair said, briskly. "You'll soon get used to these big hotels, and we are so much safer here. However, thanks to your clever little actress friend, Stott can do us no harm for a few days, and we must make the most of our opportunity."
"What are we going to do first?" Lyn asked.
"Well, in the first place, as soon as we have dined, I'm going to call upon an old friend of mine—Colonel Borrowdaile by name. He was one of Stott's victims years ago; and I fancy that he can help us. But everything depends upon getting ahead of Stott."
"But you said he was safe for some time."
"Safe for the present. But it is just possible that he may be able to get bail. There are one or two pretty wealthy rogues in New York, who might not care to deny Stott bail if he called upon them for assistance. And Mrs. Lancey will never press the charge. In all probability she will go away after the first hearing, and not turn up again. In that case Stott will be free altogether."
Lyn deemed this to be highly probable. She was only just beginning to realise what a dangerous opponent Stott really was. His amazing audacity frightened her. And yet Stott must have had some very powerful motive to run the risk he did over the Aphrodite star. If he had wanted to steal the gem it would have been a different affair. But Stott had run all that mighty risk so that he could land his opponents in gaol, and get the start of them. Lyn shuddered to think what might have happened but for the foresight and shrewdness of Sara Vesta. But for her she and her aunt would have been in gaol at this moment to a certainty. As it was, Stott had been hoist with his own petard, and luck had given them the best of him. Still, there was hope behind it all. Would Stott have behaved like this unless he had something of vital importance to conceal? He was not the man to take such risks out of mere malice.
Mrs. Sinclair descended to the huge vestibule of the Grand Junction Hotel, and stood in the crowd there, looking about her for a moment. The place was packed with gesticulating business men, there was a babel of many tongues, a constant dodging in and out of telegraph boys, and the incessant shrill tinkle of telephone bells. The place was more like a stock market than the vestibule of a high-class hotel. Anybody seemed to use the place who liked.
Presently the object of Mrs. Sinclair's search came—a man dressed in a neat grey suit and a Homburg hat. His face was broad and red, and his eyes gleamed behind tinted spectacles.
"Well, Mr. Blake," Mrs. Sinclair asked, crisply, "have you found anything?"
"Check at the start," Blake replied. "I went down Morton's-avenue off Seventeenth-street, to have a look at the 'Record' office, and see if I could find out anything. There was no sign of the 'Record' anywhere; the whole block of buildings seems to be occupied by a big printing and publishing firm."
Mrs. Sinclair expressed her annoyance. She had certainly not expected this. In England a newspaper is a newspaper—and generally a permanent institution. And if the "Record" was dead, as seemed highly probable, then the search was going to be difficult indeed.
"Did you make inquiries?" Mrs. Sinclair asked.
"Oh, yes. I was a perfect note of interrogation. But the present firm seems to be a smart new one—run by a lot of sprightly hustlers who would look upon the events of ten years ago as ancient history. They seemed to regard me as a Rip Van Winkle."
Mrs. Sinclair nodded gravely. She quite appreciated the difficulty. Ten years in New York is like a century in the Old World. In that time great houses have toppled over and been forgotten; in that time many a paper has climbed to affluence. The "Record" appeared to have been washed away in the rolling business flood, and all traces of it lost.
"Still, there must be a file of the paper somewhere," Mrs. Sinclair said. "The public institutions—"
"Wouldn't file anything like that. The paper was much too insignificant. We shall just have to burrow round till we hit on the trail. There's sure to be a file somewhere."
Lucy Sinclair was certain of it, but she didn't say so. If no such thing existed Stott would never have left his snug quarters at Broadwater. A happy idea came to her.
"It is a matter for reward," she said. "I'm prepared to give £1000 for a file of the 'Record' for the year 1888. Now the thing does exist, and Stott knows where it is to be found."
"Stott is likely to remain in durance vile for some time."
"I don't fancy so. If he gets free you must contrive to see him. Assume that bygones are bygones and offer to assist him. You can always communicate with me by telephone so as to avoid suspicion. And £1000 is a deal of money."
Blake's dull eyes gleamed with covetous desire. It was indeed a large sum of money, more than ever he had earned before in the whole course of his shady career. This was better than blackmail, and there was no risk whatever.
"I'll do it," he said. "Stott never spotted me aboard the 'Campanella,' and he cannot possibly know that I have any connection with you. I'll go and see him; I'll say I landed to-day from the 'Empire City.' And if I want to see you later on—"
"I'm going to call upon Colonel Borrowdaile; you recollect him. I don't know his address here, but you can look it up in the directory. If anything happens telephone me."
Blake took off his hat, and departed the richer for a twenty dollar bill. For the first time he was really zealous for his employer. As he pushed his way through the noisy, eager crowd, he fully made up his mind to get that money. Hitherto he had been prepared to throw over Mrs. Sinclair if it suited his purpose to do so. But he had not forgotten that he owed Stott a grudge; the recollection of Sir Lancelot's ashplant still rankled deeply.
But Mrs. Sinclair's frame of mind was not nearly so pleasant. The discovery that the "Record" had been swept away, and that no trace of it remained, was a bitter blow to her. She had hoped to rush through this business and expose a vile conspiracy before Stott was free. She had preferred to have him arrested, and the whole thing threshed out in the Law Courts.
There was but one comfort—the file existed or Stott would not be here.
"And now to start the campaign," she said, in her most cheerful manner, to Lyn. "Give me the Directory. Um! 17 Grand Mansions, Steerforth-avenue. My friend is more prosperous than I anticipated. I only hope that he may be at home by this time."
They arrived presently at a luxuriously appointed flat, where they were informed by a colored servant that Colonel Borrowdaile was expected in presently, and would the ladies wait.
Mrs. Sinclair elected to do so, and whiled away the time admiring the fine pictures and engravings with which the walls of the drawing-room were covered. The whole room breathed an atmosphere of taste and refinement, from the silk blinds to the roses in the big dragon jars. A tall man, with stooping shoulders and a bald grey head, came in. His eyes were alert and keen, yet they looked as if a little tired and weary of the struggle. A successful man, perhaps, but evidently a disappointed one.
"Mrs. Sinclair!" he exclaimed, with genuine pleasure. "This is a surprise. Let me ring the bell for tea. Your niece. Not the daughter of my old friend, Verity?"
"Did you know my father?" Lyn cried. "What a wonderful coincidence!"
"Not at all," Mrs. Sinclair laughed. "We are here looking for coincidences. It would be a singular coincidence if we didn't find them. Irish, but you know what I mean."
"I knew your poor father very well indeed," Borrowdaile said.
"Then you know how be died?" Lyn asked, eagerly.
"Well, I'm not quite sure," Borrowdaile replied. "Yes, no doubt you think that is an amazing kind of reply, but the fact remains. I know that your father and mother died within a day or two of one another, but my own affairs at the time were so fearfully involved that I was almost beside myself over them. Some said that your father committed suicide after—"
"Taking the life of my mother," Lyn said quietly. "Please go on."
"Yes, yes. Perhaps Mrs. Sinclair will do me the honor of pouring out tea. I was not in New York at the time, but I read the story in one of the papers."
"Do you recollect the name of the paper?" Mrs. Sinclair asked.
"Oh, yes, I have every reason to do so. It was a little paper called the 'Record'—a sheet with a small circulation, but of pretty good repute in Wall-street. When I got my head clear again and I found time to come to New York the thing was forgotten, and Miss Verity here had been taken away. Subsequently I heard that the 'Record' story was all nonsense, and that Verity had been shot by some crazed speculator. I meant to have written to Verity's relatives in England, but I fear that my good resolutions came to nothing. After all, the family would see that that report was contradicted."
"They didn't," Mrs. Sinclair snapped. "They accepted the 'Record' story without question just because it happened to be in print. And I accepted it too—till I took up my quarters at Broadwater some time ago and found the mischief that report had worked. And who do you suppose sent that story over and has been living at Broadwater ever since on the strength of it? Why, Malcolm Stott."
Borrowdaile was moved at last.
"Tell me why you are here," he asked sternly. "Perhaps I can assist you."
Mrs. Sinclair told her story in a few words, Borrowdaile listening intently. The mere mention of Stott's name seemed to make a different man of him.
"I am going to give you all the assistance in my power," he said, presently. "I said just now that I have every reason to remember that issue of the 'Record.' At that time I was on the verge of being a rich man. In a manner of speaking Stott was my partner. As a matter of fact he was acting against me all the way through. We had a big deal in a certain promising mine. Stott got a paragraph in the 'Record' to the effect that the manager of the mine had absconded, and persuaded me to go and see for myself. The whole thing was a lie, but it served Stott's purpose. The shares went down to nothing, I was a ruined man, and barely escaped a prosecution. It is only quite lately that I have been able to look the world in the face again."
Mrs. Sinclair smiled. It did not seem a nice thing to do, but she had the air of one who holds the key to the situation.
"I am going to astonish everybody over this 'Record' business presently," she said. "Meanwhile, do you believe that Mr. Verity committed suicide?"
"No, I don't," Borrowdaile said. "He was murdered by a half-crazed speculator who was never brought to justice."
"Then why did the 'Record' account pass without contradiction?"
"That is easily explained. The whole thing happened at a time when America was in the throes of a great, a national, financial crisis. Great firms went down like houses of cards. The very next day James Fisher, the Railway Colossus, was stabbed to death in Wall-street, four leading men absconded, and two committed suicide in their offices. For days afterwards the big papers were crammed with details. Is it to be wondered that the Verity affair should have been overlooked in the face of what I am telling you? And he had no friends to look after him."
"And we got all the details from Stott, who sent Lyn home," Mrs. Sinclair reflected. "How Fate ever plays into the hands of those who have audacity enough to flout her! Still, I am going to surprise you all very much before long. For years Stott has preyed upon Sir George by a fraud—a fraud at the same time amazingly clever and amazingly simple. But we've got him now—it is all a matter of time."
"What do you want me to do?" Borrowdaile asked.
"Hunt me up some people who used to be with the 'Record.' Find me those who can say where a file is to be discovered. Surely somebody or other took a pride in the paper at one time. Only give me the file of the 'Record' for 1888, and Stott never sets foot in Broadwater again."
"If you think the file exists—"
"My dear friend, I know it. Otherwise Stott would not be here."
Borrowdaile admitted that there was logic behind this reasoning. He proceeded to expand his views on the subject, when the telephone behind him tinkled shrilly. A minute later he took the receiver from his ear, and handed it to Mrs. Sinclair.
"They have tracked you here," he smiled. "Somebody wants you at once."
Mrs. Sinclair listened intently for a few seconds; then she hung up the receiver and rung off. There was just a shade of anxiety on her face.
"I feared this," she said. "Stott has succeeded in getting bail. Who is Scott Loder, who has come forward to our friend's assistance?"
"Scott Loder?" Borrowdaile exclaimed. "Strange! Loder is a philanthropist—a shining light at meetings and all that kind of thing—the very last man you would expect to find in touch with Stott. Oh, he is a big power in New York."
"That sounds bad for us," Mrs. Sinclair laughed. "Anyway, the war has begun in earnest now. The question is—What is our next move to be?"
With a wild desire to do somebody an injury, Stott was led away. The blow had fallen upon him with crushing and unexpected force, and for the present he could see no way out of it.
And just now he was far too angry for any consecutive mental effort. He had been tricked and foiled in some way, but even his astuteness failed to show him how.
On the whole, the outlook was not pleasing. He had worked out his cunning scheme over the Aphrodite star, he had placed the gem so that it must ultimately be found in the cabin of one whom he desired to lay by the heels for a time, and the shock of Purser Clarke's statement had stunned him for the moment. He knew that his scheme had been detected and thwarted, but he had not the least idea how or by whom. And then to find out at the very last moment—when he had no time to prepare a counter-stroke—that he had been caught in his own trap was maddening.
And he dared not speak, he could not attempt to explain. Also he knew now that he had opponents as strong and as clever as himself to deal with. They had so contrived it that it would be he who lay by the heels instead of them, and that unless something was immediately done, his journey would be in vain. Stott crushed down the headlong hysterical passion that makes weak people dangerous at times, and desired that he might be set at liberty.
"I guess that you can be bailed till to-morrow," a lank inspector said. "And so on from day to day until this charge is settled. In a substantial amount."
"What do you call a substantial amount?" Stott asked, eagerly. "I'm pretty well off."
The inspector suggested ten thousand dollars, from which lofty standpoint he refused to move an inch. If Stott could not find the money, then Stott must remain in durance vile. If he knew of any responsible citizen who would come forward—
Stott retired to a cell with a packet of cigarettes and New York's official directory. It was just possible that amongst his old shady acquaintances there might be one who had turned his back on the old evil life and prospered beyond his deserts. But a three hours' study of that depressing volume brought no light to Stott's despairing soul. He fluttered over the leaves angrily with a careless gaze at the long columns of names until at length one caught his eye.
J. Scott Loder! Stott drew a breath of relief. The name was familiar, and the address was the same, too. The long list of numbers, in big leaded type, all suggested prosperity. A few questions elicited the fact that J. Scott Loder was of more than parochial importance. With an air of expansion Stott called for paper and envelope. The note he scribbled was curt and to the point. Then with philosophic calm Stott turned to his cigarettes and began to smoke. He would have liked a little brandy, too. But all in good time.
It was an hour or so later that a warder entered with the information that a gentleman desired to see Mr. Stott. Stott noticed as a good omen that the warder's manner was quite civil. A short, stout man, with bald head and grey whiskers, came in pompously. The grey frock suit, glossy hat, and well-flitting gaiters all spoke of prosperity. He held out two languid fingers, which Stott embraced, fervently. He was going to change all that presently.
The new-comer dropped into a seat and the door clicked behind the warder, and all his assurance vanished. He looked at Stott with troubled eyes, his heavy cheeks shook, there were beads of perspiration on his forehead.
"For heaven's sake, Stott," he stammered, "what—what did you mean by sending for me?"
Stott lighted a fresh cigarette with great deliberation. He was beginning to enjoy the situation; the dramatic possibilities of it were exceedingly promising. And here was a wealthy man. Stott knew the species too well to be deceived by a well-cut suit and a swaggering manner. Scott Loder reeked of prosperity. Despite all this, Stott had no intention of being bounced.
"I've got into a bit of a mess," he said, sketchily. "Perhaps you have heard of it?"
Loder nodded gloomily, and looked at his watch—a heavy gold chronometer.
"Well, that was part of a scheme," Stott continued. "But the beggars tumbled to the trick and put it back on me. If they can hold me up for a day or two I am done. If I can get away I will see the prosecutor in this matter, and if I don't persuade her to drop the charge I'll eat my hat. And I've sent for you to bail me out. Ten thousand dollars. A mere flea-bite."
Scott Loder shook his head gravely. Much as he would like to meet his old friend, he was afraid that it couldn't be done. He had his position to think of. It had pleased Providence to bless his efforts. He was in constant association with all that was best and purest in the city. Amongst those who walked the narrow path no name was more respected than that of Scott Loder. And, not to put too fine a point upon it, Malcolm Stott's reputation was—er—dubious. It was no question of money.
"Then lend me the cash, and I'll bail myself out!" cried Stott.
But the great and good man opposite could not see that either. Not that he valued money; he regarded his wealth merely as a sacred trust. He was sorry for Stott, sorry that he still walked the broad path of the degenerate, but he feared he could do nothing.
"In other words, you won't!" Stott said between his teeth.
"That is a harsh way of putting it," Loder sighed as he looked into his hat. "On moral grounds—strictly on moral grounds, I must decline."
Stott rose to his feet, filled with hysterical fury. At moments like this he was capable of anything. His frame of mind was eminently catlike. And, though a cat is a timid creature, she can be exceedingly dangerous in a corner.
"You canting hypocritical rascal!" Stott hissed. "You are rich and highly respectable, but it is all on the surface. You could always cant and whine and grovel when it suited your purpose, but you never had a generous or manly instinct about you. The leopard can't change his spots, my friend. At heart you are as big a rascal and cur as ever."
"My dear Stott," Loder stammered, "your words are actionable."
"And so my deeds are going to be, if you carry on like this. If you leave me here you do so at your own peril. And before night I shall write out a curt and pithy history of the past life of Scott Loder, philanthropist, and man of distinguished piety. I shall tell and prove—all about that Union Trust fire. I shall tell them—but you haven't forgotten the past. I can think of a score of papers here only too ready to print those spicy details. Put that exceedingly glossy hat of yours down, and let us go into details. Ah, that's better."
Loder dropped limply into a seat. All the unction and smug self-importance seemed to have left the man. It was as if somebody had pricked a balloon.
"You would lay yourself open to a criminal libel," he said feebly.
"Rot! What do I care for criminal libels? It would ruin you. Do what I desire, and I shall never trouble you again. But you have decided already; I can see it in your eye. And I won't over-embarrass you with my thanks—which, by the way, you don't deserve."
Loder muttered something about moral grounds, but all the fight had gone out of him. Half-an-hour later Stott was driving to his hotel, where he dined and went early to bed. He partook of wine sparingly; he fought off the desire for brandy, though the effort left him all broken up and trembling. Still, there would be time for all that presently. Once let him get this business through, and afterwards he could drink as much as he liked.
Fortune seemed to be favoring him. The next day, at the first hearing of the charges relating to the Aphrodite Star, Stott learnt with satisfaction that Mrs. Lancey had gone to Nebraska, and would not return for a week. Therefore Stott had all that time to himself. He was busy writing letters for the rest of his day, and the following saw him at work in earnest.
In a car he rode from one business house to another, making inquiries. A great deal of time was subsequently passed in the neighborhood of the old-time "Record" office. It was quite late before Stott could see his way to lunch, and, this meal being dispatched, he went off on foot in the direction of the Bowery.
The Bowery of New York was no place for a man of average respectability any time of the day—but Stott seemed to have no fear. He came at length to a saloon, which he entered and called for a glass of brandy and soda-water. The room was dark but fairly clean, and the walls were plastered with the records of many classic prize fighters. A heavy-browed barman came forward with the information that there was no brandy or soda on the premises.
"All right," Stott responded, with a cheerful grin. "Give me some picric acid and oil of vitriol and petroleum. I'll have a long dose of petroleum in a fire-bucket."
The face of the waiter changed to what passed current with him for a smile.
"Didn't know you were one of us," he whispered. "Sorry the boss is away. But if you can give me a name to anybody in particular, I guess he can be sent for right away."
Stott reeled off half-a-dozen names of somewhat bizarre type without success. Most of the individuals in question seemed suffering under the burden of untoward circumstances. Two had had the misfortune to be hanged, a third had made New York extremely undesirable as a permanent residence, whilst the other three were at present located up the river at Sing Sing Prison.
"Well, what about Dandy and the Giraffe?" Stott asked, desperately.
"They're all right," the barman explained. "There was a big raid four months ago and the gentlemen in question managed to prove an alibi. But they'll have to lie low for a long time. Business been very bad lately. Don't suppose they'd mind taking a hand in a bit of sport again."
Stott remarked that he was very glad to hear it. Would the barman send for the twain? The barman had no objection, provided that he had some kind of a sign and symbol to show that business only was meant. There were so many "narks" and informers about that really—
"Oh, shut it down," Stott growled. "Say it's M.S.—all the way from England to see old friends. That will fetch them. But I'll trouble you for that brandy and soda first."
After a somewhat long pause a lank individual with a heavy evil face looked into the saloon. At the sight of Stott the evil face carried an evil smile, and a fearsome torrent of oaths testified to the pleasure of the long man at seeing Stott again.
"It's M.S. right enough," the new-comer growled huskily. "You can slide in, Dandy."
Thus addressed, another man in a seedy frock coat and villainously dirty hat came forward. He had a profusion of cheap rings on his grimy fingers and a huge gilt watch-chain that proclaimed aloud what a gigantic fraud it was.
"Drinks and drinks and more drinks," Stott cried. "Hard times, eh! Well, there's a five-dollar bill for each of you, and more where the other came from."
"Big job, boss?" Dandy asked, with a greedy, watery eye on the barkeeper.
"Well, no," Stott responded. "It isn't. It's small—but there is little risk about it, and nobody is likely to suspect us, or indeed anybody else. Nobody looks for firebugs in the cellars of millionaires. But little fish are sweet, boys."
"Any fish are sweet when your stomach's empty," Giraffe growled. "What's the figure?"
Stott tapped thoughtfully on the table before him.
"It'll run to a hundred dollars each," he said. "It's only a small affair in an empty cellar. Just a few barrels of the stuff and leave the rest to Providence. I've arranged to have possession of the cellar, and I will see that all the provisions are got in. Then you'll go to work some early night next week and start the fireworks. After that you'll go away and the next day collect the dust. It's just as easy as falling off a log."
The Giraffe and Dandy nodded approval. There was little here to appeal to their artistic abilities, nothing to write boldly in the red history of crime. But then business had been exceedingly bad lately, and in the present state of affairs a hundred dollars seemed a deal of money. Moreover, it was good to be seated in that favorite hostel again with poisonous whisky galore before them. Moreover, the boss was a hard man, and credit was a thing from which his soul revolted.
Stott proceeded to lay down his scheme minutely. He was not going to leave anything to chance. And two of the greatest rascals in New York followed him carefully. At the end of half an hour they had got the whole thing by heart.
"So far so good," said Stott, as he rose to leave. "I'll come here again to-morrow night, when I hope that everything will be ready. By the day after to-morrow the thing should be finished, and the dollars jingling in your pockets. So long."
Refreshed by his brandy, and secure in his future, Stott walked jauntily along in the direction of a fairer and sweeter section of the town. He was still in the purlieus when a tall heavy figure, in a Norfolk suit, accosted him with extravagant delight.
"Stott, by all that's holy!" he cried. "How long have you been here?"
"Blake!" Stott muttered. "Well, it's the unexpected that always happens. How did you get here?"
Blake proceeded to explain that he had landed the day before from the "Empire City." He had made a little error of judgment, and had deemed that a change of air would be beneficial. Stott turned away, so that Blake might not see the expression on his face. The little man was filled with the same hysterical passion that had convulsed him before. Murder was lurking in his eyes. Coward as he literally was, given him the opportunity he would have killed Blake at that moment.
When he turned round again he was smiling. In point of cunning and audacity, Blake was not now, nor ever had been, a match for Stott.
"And what are you doing?" he asked.
"Nothing," Blake admitted. "I've got a few dollars left, but they're going fast. Can you put me on to a job? I'm not in the least particular."
"A funny thing if you were," Stott said, cheerfully. "Still, I dare say I can find something for you to do. I'm pretty busy now, but if you meet me here to-morrow night at 9 I'll do my best to give you a show. And after that," he added sotto voce, "you can take all you can get to Mrs. Lucy Sinclair and welcome."
Dr. Burlinson waited for Lance to explain. From a cabinet he took a box of choice cigars, and passed it across to his visitor.
"I can see that this business is going to be more or less analytical—and analysis of motive is one of the most fascinating studies I know. The man who reduces that kind of thing to a science, and has the pluck to back his deductions, has a great career before him. So you fancy that you have solved the problem?"
"I am absolutely certain of it," Lance said quietly.
Burlinson nodded as he lay back smoking luxuriously.
"That's right," he said. "I like to hear a man speak like that. I shall listen with every confidence in you. And it is such an exceedingly pretty problem."
"Worthy of Wilkie Collins, Burlinson. Or Poe, or any of them. Most people argue that this or that is utterly impossible—except when they see it in the newspaper. I don't go so far as to say it is the unexpected that always happens."
"Get to the point," Burlinson muttered.
"Oh, I am coming to the point fast enough. My uncle was found dead, having by his side a letter to the effect that he had committed suicide. Not for a moment do we attempt to deny that the letter was in his own handwriting, because we know that it was. But you say, and you are prepared to prove, that my uncle didn't commit suicide—"
"That he didn't die from self-inflicted wounds," Dr. Burlinson corrected.
"Well, that will come to the same thing in the long run, as you will see. That letter to a great extent appears to have to do with me. It subsequently comes out that that letter is identically a copy of a letter introduced into a play of mine. From this certain enemies deduce the fact that I got my uncle to write that letter, and that when I saw a way to shield myself from possible consequences I killed him. On the face of it I had everything to gain by so doing. Once my uncle was dead, I came into the property and the title, and I was free to marry a certain young lady who was absolutely debarred to me before. The mere fact that I did not know my uncle had made a will to thwart this contingency is only so much further evidence against me. I make up my mind to get my uncle out of the way. But I don't do so in an ordinary way because I am a playwright. Then I hit upon a scheme inspired by a more or less successful drama of mine. I so manage that my uncle copies a letter from my play written by a would-be suicide, and behold I have in my hands tangible evidence that he, my uncle, is going to die by his own hand. Do you see?"
Burlinson nodded from behind the violet fragrant cloud of his own creation.
"Very logical," he said. "I am deeply interested. Pray proceed."
"Under ordinary circumstances the thing passes. Sir George is buried, nobody suspects, and I come into my own—at least, I should have done so but for the will that leaves my whole fortune in Stott's hands. He tells me that I should be wiser to wait; and then he goes on to prove a fact that I had forgotten—i.e., that my uncle's confession of suicide is identical with the confession of suicide of the hero of my play. Stott points out that if the fact becomes public it may be awkward for me. Imagine my frame of mind. Directly I begin to investigate. I find that Stott had stated no more than the truth. And then Stott proceeds by the most artful means to proclaim his discovery."
"It's a pretty strong case against you," Burlinson said.
"I admit it freely. In the hands of a clever K.C. it might be made fatal. But the more I think over matters the more I see the flaws. How does Stott come to know of the similarity of these two letters? You may say that as my play was hawked about for years, both here and in America, he might have read the MS. As a matter of fact, I am quite certain he has—because both in the play and in the tragedy we have just gone through the 'motif' is to murder a man and make it appear that he died by his own hand. But after the lapse of years it was quite impossible for Stott to recollect the text of that letter."
"With a drink-soddened brain like his, certainly not," said Burlinson.
"Quite so; but he could recollect the plot. And he could see behind it all an ingenious way of bringing me into trouble—obliquely, that is. Therefore it began to grow clear to me that Stott was in some way mixed up in the business. When you come to think of it, Stott was just as deeply interested in getting Sir George out of the way as myself. He knew what would happen afterwards; he knew that the estate would be thrown into his hands. And there was always the danger of something coming out greatly to his discredit from America. You recollect what I told you as to those American letters?"
Burlinson nodded brightly. He was beginning to see the drift of the argument.
"Very well. Sir George must go. But how? By my own play scheme. Sir George was writing a play also. Stott inspired Sir George with my plot. Sir George wrote all his MS. on his own notepaper. In the course of time he wrote that letter, not as a confession of his own suicide, but as part of his own play!"
Burlinson snorted—his only sign of excitement. He beamed approval on the speaker. It was all a subtle bit of analysis after his own heart.
"Good!" he exclaimed. "You are going to prove this?"
"I have proved it," Lance cried, striking the pile of paper on the table. "It is all here. The supposed confession of personal suicide fits into the play, it is numbered 153; the same number is on the fair copy which is in the hands of the police. Page 152 is the 'business' leading up to the letter. Page 154 is the 'business' of the attempt at death and the curtain on the act. No wonder, with so diabolically ingenious an idea, we did not come at the truth before."
"And the idea was your own all the time?" Burlinson suggested. "Of course Stott remembered your play. And it would be a fine thing to copy the fatal letter from your MS. Still, when he had completed his scheme, after the lapse of years he would have to refresh his memory as to the exact nature of that letter. Could he do so?"
"He could do so in two ways. More than one copy of that play was in existence. For all I know, Stott may have a copy in his own possession. If not he might have easily got at my new and revised edition at which I am at work now, seeing that I keep it in a writing-table drawer in the library, said drawer not being locked. Stott has most cunningly let the public know his case against me, and for the first time I have stated my case against Stott. That I am the victim of a vile conspiracy is certain. That Stott has his own reason for desiring the removal of my uncle is equally certain. We may go further and assume that Sir George was murdered. But by whom?"
"By Malcolm Stott, of course," Burlinson said, calmly.
"I don't fancy so. He was good enough to lay the train to work out his slimy scheme to the minutest detail, but he lacked the courage to do such a deed personally. And now what do you think of my argument?"
"Don't see any flaw in it at all," Burlinson muttered. "It's perfectly logical, and what's more, we've got any amount of documentary evidence to prove it. But you are wrong in your reading of Malcolm Stott's character. The man is a coward. He has been a coward all his lifetime. He is cruel and unfeeling. At the present time he is a nerveless wreck, incapable of the slightest act of courage. But medical jurisprudence proves triumphantly that the same class of criminal is capable of the most atrocious crimes. As a rule they are hysterical. Once they let themselves go, they are ready for anything. They are like cats—timid, but once touch the feline passions, and then look to yourself. I could quote scores of instances from Taylor to prove that you are wrong."
"Then you think that Stott—"
"My dear Massey, I am certain of it. But only at times under certain moods. I can give you an authentic case of a young girl, a girl timid to the verge of insanity, who murdered a younger sister because she was afraid of the latter telling her mother that the elder had stolen a penny. So fearful of punishment was the girl that she committed murder. No, you couldn't say that she was insane. And yet her nervous dread of punishment forced her to a terrible crime. There are many such instances of morbid murderers, and Stott suffers from the same thing. The cunning brain is going; it is being sapped by drink, and the fellow knows it. What do you suppose a fellow like that most dreads? A miserable and half-starved end. If Sir George had discovered his real character Stott would have been kicked into the street. And what would have become of him? It was here that the morbid-mindedness came in, plus the brandy and the overstrung mind."
"Then you think he was really capable of the crime?"
"I do, indeed. I have never seen a more likely subject. I don't mind telling you that I have suspected Stott from the first. He tried to prove too much; he was too subtle. He might have seen that his efforts to bring you in would certainly lead to trouble, which was the case. Put Stott in the witness-box and cross-examine him on the basis of that draft play, and he would be certain to commit himself before an hour is over his head. He would be in a state of mental funk; he would not know what his tormentor had behind him. His imagination would play him all kinds of tricks. We shall lay Malcolm Stott by the heels, never fear."
Lance lay back smoking his cigar thoughtfully. He had proved his case, but he smiled now as he began to see flaws in Burlinson's line of reasoning.
"There is a good deal to be cleared up yet," he said. "For instance, you have stated most positively that my poor uncle did not die from wounds caused by the razor."
Burlinson smiled at Lance's thoughts.
"I daresay that you imagine that you have got me there," he said. "I made that statement and I stick to it. Sir George was dead before that razor touched him. He died from failure of the heart's action, brought about by an overdose of chloroform. Stott meant to kill his victim, but his courage failed him at the last moment. Or say that he was afraid that there might be a deal of blood spilt; and that some of it should fall upon him. It doesn't in the least matter which way you put it. Stott procured the chloroform, and more or less stifled his victim. Sir George lay there still and insensible. Stott could not know that he was dead. If he had been aware of the fact we should never have seen that razor at all. You can imagine him standing over that inanimate body and wondering what would happen if it came to life again. It would mean ruin, and worse, to Stott. And here the savagery of the hysterical temperament comes in. The razor was used freely—it was one of Sir George's, and could be left behind—indeed, it was necessary to leave it behind—and there was the suicide's letter on the table, purloined from the play for the purpose. My dear fellow, the thing is as clear as daylight."
Lance was not disposed to question it. There was a deal of force and logic behind what Burlinson said. And, after all, the crime must have been committed by somebody in the house.
"If we could only find the real motive," he said.
"Motive! Why, the whole thing is fragrant of motive," Burlinson said. "Stott was getting in a tight place. This is a pretty powerful motive. Sir George out of the way, and he is practically master of Broadwater. What do you say to that as a motive? Then there were those American letters—"
"Ah, if we could only get hold of one of them!"
"Miss Verity did so. That is why Miss Verity and Mrs. Sinclair are at present in New York. And Stott is there also. I quite forgot to tell you that I had a long letter from Mrs. Sinclair to-day. No doubt you will get a letter in the course of the day. Mrs. Sinclair thinks there something diabolical going on relating to the story of Miss Verity's father, and she is in New York to get to the bottom of it. Also she is quite certain Stott is there to prevent her?"
Lance jumped to his feet excitedly.
"Tell me their address," he cried. "So long as Stott is about, those dear creatures are in danger. I'll leave England by the next boat."
"You'll do nothing more foolish than smoke another cigar," Burlinson said, coolly. "Mrs. Sinclair is quite capable of managing the business single-handed, and she has powerful friends. You are going to stay here, and help me to solve the mystery of the chloroform bottle with the indiarubber cork. Do you remember the point I made over that?"
"And Stott's face," Lance said, with a grim smile. "I can see the terror of it now, and realise what it meant in the light of recent discoveries. But tell me how you found out that that bottle had an indiarubber cork."
"Easy as anything," Burlinson laughed. "After I discovered that chloroform had been slopped about all over the table I made a search. And under one of the windows I found the cork, which at present is in my possession. Perhaps it bounced off the table, and could not be recovered; perhaps it was never missed, and the bottle buried in obvious forgetfulness of its existence. But the fact remains that I have the cork."
"Is it likely to prove a valuable clue?" Lance asked.
"It will stretch and stretch until it becomes a noose round Stott's neck," said Burlinson, with a rare poetic flight. "It's going to become the hilt of our most powerful weapon. And if you want to see the first thread or two run off the reel, and you have nothing better to do, perhaps you will come with me to Swanley."
Lance rose, and pitched his cigar into the fire.
"I should like nothing better," he cried. "I am ready any time."
Burlinson smoked his cigar down to the last fragrant puff before rising. He belonged to the class of men who never do anything in a hurry. And though Lance was naturally impatient, the calm assurance of the other's manner was soothing.
"Festina lente," Burlinson said, quoting his favorite motto. "No good thing was ever done in a hurry. We are going into Swanley presently on a little delicate business. When we come back I expect we shall have a pretty shrewd notion as to where the chloroform came from."
But the matter was not arranged quite so easily as Burlinson anticipated. There were no less than five chemists in Swanley, all doing prosperous trades, all supplying doctors in the town or close at hand, and all in a position to prove recent sales of chloroform. It was quite late in the afternoon before Burlinson seemed to hit the trail at last.
It was quite an old-fashioned shop in a side-street—a shop with the antiquated bulbous globes of amber and blue in the window and a great profusion of little weirdly-labelled drawers inside. A tall grey-haired man, who might from his manner have easily been taken for a distinguished consulting physician, saluted Burlinson gravely.
"And what can I do for you, sir?" he asked.
"Well, I fancy you can give me some information, Mr. Noakes," Burlinson replied. "If not, I shall be compelled to try outside Swanley."
Noakes bowed, with the air of a man who felt every confidence in the intellectual force of Swanley, and frowned at a prescription in his fat, white hand.
"Anything in my power, I am sure," he murmured.
"Well, it's about chloroform," said Burlinson. "We are doing a little bit of detective business, and all you say will be in strict confidence. I'm looking for a man who purchases chloroform in ounce bottles with an indiarubber cork. Now, do you ever sell it that way?"
"I don't sell much of it in any case," Noakes responded. "The sale is steadily declining in favor of ether, and cocaine, and the like. Only old-fashioned doctors buy it now."
"Or people with a limited medical knowledge?"
"We should not let them have it, sir."
"Quite so. That was the point I rather wanted to get at. You would not sell chloroform to the man in the street. But do you supply it to any regular customer, who likes to have indiarubber corks in the bottle?"
"Yes, sir, I do," Noakes responded. "Dr. Ruby, of Barkstone, always has it that way; indeed, I get it specially for him."
Burlinson's eyes gleamed with satisfaction. Here was something definite and tangible at length. Nor did he need anything in the way of special detective abilities to get all the information he desired. Noakes had nothing to conceal, and he was quite sure that his esteemed customer, Dr. Ruby, had nothing to hide, either. And Burlinson was widely known and respected.
It appeared from an examination of the chemist's books that no chloroform had been supplied to Dr. Ruby lately—not since the fifth of the month. Burlinson looked at Lance and nodded significantly. It was two days before the death of Sir George Massey.
"Did you get an order for that?" Burlinson asked.
Noakes paused a moment to consider, and finally replied that he thought not. So far as his recollection served him. Dr. Ruby called personally, and, after giving the order, went out, saying the stuff was to be sent to his trap at the Mitre yard a little before 7.
"Did you see Dr. Ruby?" Burlinson asked.
"No, sir, I didn't. I had gone out to see a neighbor and friend who had cut his hand badly. It was my assistant who casually mentioned the order on my return."
"Did your assistant know Dr. Ruby well?" Burlinson asked.
"Fairly. He has been with me for some months, and Dr. Ruby has been in several times. My assistant is a little short-sighted, but he can recognise everything in the shop."
"Um! That sounds right enough. So you sent the stuff?"
"I sent the stuff in due course by my errand boy. Naturally I asked him if he had delivered the bottle. He said that he had done so, into the doctor's hands."
"No possibility his making a mistake there?"
"Certainly not. The lad, who is a good, steady boy, was born in Dr. Ruby's parish."
Burlinson knitted his brows thoughtfully. He had evidently come upon a knot in the skein. His lips moved as if arguing with himself. Then his face cleared.
"Would it be dark by that time?" he asked.
"Yes. I recollect it was getting dark when I came in; and the boy hadn't started then. It must have been quite dark before he reached the Mitre yard."
The eager look died out of Burlinson's eyes, and he became commonplace. He intimated to Noakes that he had no more questions to ask. But on the whole he seemed to be satisfied as he marched down the street.
"I daresay all that was very clever," Lance said, drily, "but it conveyed nothing to me. What have you found, Sherlock Holmes?"
"I've found a great deal," Burlinson said, as drily. "And I'm going to find more. Now we're going to get a trap at the Mitre and drive over to call on Dr. Ruby."
"What do you expect to find there?"
"What I want to find out, and what I hope to find out, is that Ruby had nothing from Noakes on the fifth of this month," Burlinson said, enigmatically. "Yes, I know what you are going to remark. But you can't always believe everything that you see."
Burlinson declined to say any more on the topic until the residence of Dr. Ruby was reached. A low white house, with a steep thatch and a visionary outline of mullioned windows framed in roses aroused Lance's immediate and enthusiastic admiration. An elderly man, with long grey hair, was mowing a lawn already as smooth and trim as velvet. Not a single leaf was out of place.
"Now, you up-to-date young man," Burlinson cried. "What do you want with a mowing machine. To be quite consistent, you should have a scythe. But I don't despair of seeing your house lighted by electricity and connected with Swanley by telephone yet."
Dr. Ruby donned a coat of antiquated cut and led the way to a summer-house. He produced some excellent cigars, and insisted upon regaling his guests with some cider of his own bottling. The two doctors were at daggers drawn as regarded their medical views, and many and fierce were the arguments they had together. The elder man was bracing himself for an effort now.
"You want to fight?" Burlinson laughed. "I can see it in your eye, old friend. But not to-day. Such a lovely afternoon! I want you to answer a few questions for me, Ruby. Can you give me the recent dates of any chloroform you have purchased?"
"Eh, what?" Ruby asked. "Why, bless my soul. Have you come back to believe that—"
"No, no. To be consistent, you should not touch anaesthetics at all. I merely want to know the recent dates upon which you have purchased chloroform."
"There are no recent dates, my dear fellow. I haven't had occasion to use chloroform for over three months. I usually get it fresh, as I want it, in ounce bottles."
"With an indiarubber cork in it?"
"Invariably. And it always comes from Noakes at Swanley. But I assure you that I have not purchased a pennyworth since March."
"Not on the fifth of this month?"
"Certainly not. I wasn't at home. Don't you remember chaffing me a little while ago upon my speech at the Medical Congress at Sheffield? If you look at your 'Times' you will see that that speech was delivered on the fifth of the month."
"A very fine alibi," Burlinson said, gravely.
Ruby looked interested—but not so absorbingly interested as Lance in the light of his superior knowledge. Two people had been ready to testify on oath that Ruby was in Swanley on the fifth, and here he was ready to prove the contrary beyond further demonstration.
"I should very much like to know what you are driving at?" Ruby asked.
Burlinson proceeded to explain in detail. He omitted nothing whatever. He made it quite plain that some malignant person or another had done Sir George Massey to death by means of chloroform, and that the drug had been obtained for the purpose by some artful individual who impersonated Dr. Ruby. Burlinson made one reservation—he made no mention of Stott.
Ruby listened with astonishment that quickly gave place to anger.
"This must be looked into at once," he said. "I should like to go into Swanley and see Noakes' assistant without delay. I must convince him of his mistake."
But the matter was not so easy as the doctor anticipated. The assistant, a slight nervous youth in spectacles, seemed to be possessed of all the obstinacy of the timid. He recollected the dress and the hair, the slow, high speech, and the slight quivering of the fingers. Moreover, the errand boy was prepared to swear stoutly that he had met Dr. Ruby at the entrance to the Mitre yard and placed the bottle in his own hands.
"I don't see as 'ow I could ha' been mistook, sir," he said, doggedly. "It was your own voice, and Mr. Stead, the saddler, said 'good-night' and asked if the new 'sturtion' seeds were doing all right, and you said as they was."
"Amazing!" Ruby murmured. "I shall wake up presently and find that I have been dreaming. Did you notice any peculiarities about me, young man?"
"No, sir," the assistant said politely, but firmly. "I—I don't know what to say. It's extraordinary. I can see your hands as they were that day, only—only you had a brown stain on your fingers as if you had been playing with acids. Perhaps you don't recollect me asking you if you had burnt yourself, sir?"
"No," Ruby said, sharply. "I certainly don't."
"Was the stain on both hands?" Burlinson asked, eagerly.
"No," the assistant said, after a long pause, "only on the left."
Ruby broke out somewhat angrily. He was all for having this mystery cleared up at once. He would go to the police without delay. Meanwhile, he bound Noakes and his assistant over to secrecy. He would bring this masquerading ruffian to justice.
"And ruin all my plans," Burlinson said, quietly. "My dear old friend, like Brer Rabbit, you must 'lie low' for a time. Otherwise, you will be doing all you can to play into the hands of the man who murdered Sir George Massey."
Ruby gasped. All his anger had departed from him.
"Do you mean to say," he cried, "that that was the man who—"
"Personated you. There is no doubt of it."
"But why all this elaborate masquerade?"
"To get the chloroform, of course. The fellow could not have procured it as a stranger anywhere. Therefore, he decided to make up as you. And but for the fact of the indiarubber cork being lost out of the bottle, it's ten to one against anybody being any the wiser. By the merest accident in the world we have stumbled on a clue, and that clue is going to hang Sir George's murderer."
"But the likeness?" Ruby muttered; "the amazing likeness. Have you any idea—"
"I have a very strong one," Burlinson said, drily, "but you will pardon me if I keep it to myself for the present. In a day or two I shall probably want to see you again on the matter. Then I'll come along and pulverise you over that exploded germ theory of yours."
"You can't do it," Ruby cried, eagerly. "The mere presence of the bacilli—"
They left him arguing and gesticulating, unaware that he was addressing mere space. Burlinson and Lance were some distance on their way to Broadwater before the latter spoke.
"You have proved a great deal," he said, "and yet it only amounts to a little. Somebody impersonated Dr. Ruby, and obtained a bottle of chloroform in his name. But the assistant and the errand boy are both prepared to swear that they really saw your excitable old friend. How do you propose to dispose of their evidence?"
"I propose to show them that they are wrong, Massey. There is one important point that you forget. The assistant particularly noticed a bit of dark stain on Ruby's left hand. That he is prepared to swear to. But Ruby's hands are quite clean; and he does not deal with acids and tests—in fact, he is far too old-fashioned for anything of that kind. Still, the dark brown stain was on the fingers—the fingers that shook so strangely."
"The fellow might have been nervous."
"He was, of course. Now do you know anybody whose left hand is all stained, right up to the first joint of the fingers, stains caused by incessant cigarette smoking?"
A sudden cry came from Lance's lips.
"Fool that I was not to think of it before," he exclaimed. "Stott!"
"Stott, of course. The twitching hands, the stained fingers. Stott, the actor—the most marvellous comedian of his day. Ten minutes' study of Ruby would be enough for him. With his talent the rest would be easy. We've got him this time. And as to his wardrobe, that would be an easy matter. If we could find the wardrobe—"
"Or even get to know where it came from."
"Yes, yes. That might be managed. All those people go to Clarkson. The net is gradually closing round Stott—a little patience and we have him. Fancy all this blossoming, so to speak, from a little tiny bit of indiarubber."
Mrs. Sinclair came from the glittering saloon in full panoply of evening dress, looking as if she had no trouble in the world. She smiled quite pleasantly at Blake, who was waiting in the vestibule to see her. There was a restless anxiety about the man that boded no good for Stott. Mrs. Sinclair was a good judge of her fellow-creatures, and for the first time she felt quite sure that Blake was not going to play her false. The keen hungry look in his eyes was eloquent of a determination to gain the promised reward.
"I see you have news for me," Mrs. Sinclair said.
"Plenty," Blake murmured. "In the first place, I have seen Stott and patched up my quarrel with him. He imagines that I came over in the Empire City in consequence of trouble in England. I am posing as a man down on his luck who wants something to do."
"You have offered to help Stott, in fact?"
"That's it. There's a fine rascally scheme afoot, but I can't see how it affects you."
"Tell me what the idea is, and perhaps I shall be able to help you."
"Well, it's this way," Blake proceeded to explain. "Stott is using one of the worst gangs in New York for his own purpose. Have you ever heard of the 'fire bugs?'"
Mrs. Sinclair nodded, her eyes gleaming. Without knowing it, Mr. Blake had given her the key to the situation. Not that she said so, for the less Blake knew the better. She had not the slightest intention of confiding in the man.
"They are people who wilfully destroy property for the sake of the insurance?" she asked.
"The greatest rascals alive," Blake said, with a pretty indignation. "Up till quite recently those people were the terror of New York. For some years past the number of fires in New York has been out of all proportion to that elsewhere. The 'fire bugs' had reduced the system to a science. Every rascally trader who wished to defraud the insurance companies went to them. They had every appliance ready, so ingeniously arranged that there was no trace of their handiwork after. Lives were very frequently lost, but it made no difference to the 'fire bugs.' The thing only looked more realistic. Most of these men are serving long terms of imprisonment now, but two of the most dangerous are still at large. These men are now working for Stott."
"You mean that he has incendiary designs on some building?" Mrs. Sinclair asked.
"I am absolutely certain of it," Blake replied, emphatically. "If you think this has nothing to do with us, I should prefer to shirk that part of the business."
Mrs. Sinclair remarked with apparent carelessness that Stott might have many irons in the fire. But her voice was not quite steady when she spoke again.
"Do you happen to know where the proposed fire is to take place?" she asked.
Blake had come posted with that information. Mrs. Sinclair started slightly as he gave it. She saw quite clearly before her now. The building proposed to be destroyed was the very one where once the office of the "Record" had been.
"I think you had better see the thing through," she said. "One never knows when one may stumble upon valuable information. After all, this may be part of Stott's cunning design against me. To take you to a certain extent into my confidence, I may say that, inter alia, I am anxious to obtain a file of the 'Record' for the year 1888. Do you understand that?"
Blake pricked up his ears.
"Why, the paper was published at that very block of buildings!" he exclaimed.
"I am quite aware of that. And it seems to me that your opportunity of procuring me the thing I require is absolutely unique. If you can't get a file, you can get me half-a-dozen copies of 'The Record' for the 17th of July, 1888. Directly those papers are in my hands I am prepared to hand over my cheque for £500."
Blake's eyes gleamed. The thing looked ridiculously easy, and he was eager for the money.
And yet Mrs. Sinclair had driven a hard bargain and only provided him with enough to procure the ordinary necessities of life. At the present moment £500 appeared to be an inexhaustible sum. His heart warmed as he thought of the enjoyment of it.
"There won't be much trouble about that," he said. "I shall see Stott to-night—"
"Very well," Mrs. Sinclair replied, with an air of dismissal. "I leave it entirely to your discretion. Only let me have those papers as soon as possible."
Blake departed, sanguine himself, but leaving Mrs. Sinclair by no means to certain. She knew perfectly well why Stott had embarked on this dangerous step. He had no property in New York; he could not possibly expect to benefit by a fire, however disastrous. He was simply taking the means of removing something that it was imperative to destroy. And what was it that Stott was going to destroy? Mrs. Sinclair did not need to ask the question. The incineration of a mass of old "Records" was the motive. To gain that end Stott would have burnt New York.
Perhaps it would be as well to inform the police. But that might destroy all chance of getting the papers. Once they were procured, no time should be lost in informing the authorities of what was going on. Doubtless nothing would be done for a day or two. Blake had not hinted that the danger was imminent, as he would have done had it been so close. At any cost those papers must be procured. Mrs. Sinclair would have given a deal to know what floor they were upon. Had she known she would have probably have taken the matter into her own hands.
"And as it is we must wait!" she murmured.
Meanwhile Blake was striding through the Bowery with his hat cocked at a rakish angle, and feeling on the best of terms with himself. He was poor now, but he was going to be rich before long. Already he felt that Mrs. Sinclair's cheque was as good as in his pocket. He was going perfectly straight over this matter, because he could see that it was his interest to do so. He could never get anything like as much out of Stott, and that little rascal would play him false at the very first opportunity.
Therefore his greeting of Stott in the modest retirement of the choice saloon was extra cordial. The small man opened his teeth in an answering smile. Just for an instant his eyes flashed murder, but Blake failed to notice it. Ostensibly he was acting as Stott's agent in the matter, for the latter took no risks where he could procure a tool for the purpose.
"You have got everything ready?" Stott asked.
Blake took a written text from his pocket, and perused it thoughtfully.
"Everything," he said at length. "The petroleum from one place, the tubs from another, the hay from a third. The stuff is all delivered, and paid for; in fact, I saw the last parcel in this afternoon. And now I'll trouble you for those twenty dollars you promised me."
Stott handed over the coins grudgingly one by one. It was always a pain for him to part with hard cash. He smiled with an effort, and called for a bottle of champagne.
"I suppose you've finished with me now?" Blake asked.
Stott rather thought not. His face was hidden from Blake as he stooped to roll a cigarette, so that the latter could not see his eyes. When he spoke it was quite tranquilly.
"I fancy you had better see the thing through," he said. "My friend the Giraffe, and my equally dear friend Dandy, are murderous ruffians, and if they deemed it to their interest to get rid of me they would not hesitate to do so. Therefore I have no particular desire to be alone in that cellar with them."
Blake shrugged his shoulders indifferently. It was all the same to him, he said. It was not his cue to show Stott that he particularly desired to accompany the expedition, and that the latter was playing into his hands. Stott watched him all the time with his dull, blue eye.
"Spoken like a true pal," he said, boisterously. He had imbibed the major part of the champagne, and it was getting into his head. "No, I'll not have any more wine. I've been so steady lately that a little seems to do for me. Help me over this matter, and I'll pay you handsomely. You don't know how generous I can be when I'm fully wound up to it."
Blake cynically responded that he had never witnessed the rare mechanical process, at which pleasantry Stott laughed immoderately, and in the midst of his hilarity the Giraffe and Dandy slid into the room. They came furtively, as if every shadow held a policeman. They demanded drinks hoarsely, and refused to move until they were satisfied—a long and expensive process. It was nearly midnight before they evinced any desire to come to business.
"Well, I guess we had better be moving," the Giraffe growled, as he drew his vast length from a chair. "I'd like to get this thing through, and finger the stamps."
Dandy rose also, to Stott's great relief.
"We'll go first," he said. "We'll go and open the cellar. I'll leave the flap ready for you. In half an hour's time you can be back here with money jingling in your pockets, and if anything unpleasant happens, Mr. George Washington, barkeeper yonder, will be ready to swear that you were here all the evening."
Stott swaggered out easily, followed by Blake. The little man was very restless all the same, and from time to time pressed his hand upon his heart as if in great pain. His face grew so white and ghastly that Blake's attention was called to it.
"Better see a doctor," he suggested.
"No use," Stott said, hoarsely. "Perhaps when this business is over I shall have time—but not till then. It's an old-standing trouble, and will be the end of me eventually. By Jove, if I were to die now, what a good thing it would be for some people."
Stott chuckled as he went along. They came at length to their destination, where Stott paused and looked cautiously around. The whole street seemed to be deserted. He drew the cellar flap and descended, followed by Blake. Then he lighted a feeble lamp.
The cellar was practically bare save for a wooden keg or two and some empty tubs and some ropes of hay lying on the floor. Blake shivered slightly.
"A risky game," he muttered.
"Not a bit," Stott replied. "There will be no trace of the origin of the fire. And everybody knows that the people who own this block of buildings are beyond suspicion. Even if the thing should come to light, who can suspect me? I have no insurance and nothing to gain by a fire. Therefore why should I set the place ablaze? It is all going to be a pure accident."
Blake said no more for the present. He was looking keenly about him. Overhead, in reach of a tall man like himself, was a trap door working on hinges. Blake pushed it up.
"What have we here?" he asked.
"It was once the store-room of the 'Record' people," Stott said, carelessly. "All the types and machinery, all the books and files and papers were put in there, when the 'Record' got into the Bankruptcy Court and a receiver was appointed. And there it's likely to remain until the estate is closed."
Blake curbed down the cry that came to his lips. Here was the thing ready to his hand. He had been almost afraid that he would be compelled to arouse Stott's suspicions by asking questions. Instead of that, fortune had played directly into his hands. He managed to look around him in the same disinterested kind of way.
"A fine addition to the bonfire," he said.
"Cause and effect," Stott chuckled. "You don't understand that remark, eh? Well, I am sorry, because I shall have to keep the fun to myself. But, as you say, the materials are all here to give my fire a fine start."
"Anything of value up there?" Blake asked.
Stott made no reply for the moment; he was chuckling to himself.
"Better go and see," he said in a small choked voice; "better go and see."
Blake needed no further bidding. He drew himself up the ladder into the room above, and lighted a wax match. His quick eye took in everything. There was the file of the paper for 1888 and 1889—the last two years of its existence; there were piles and piles of unsold sheets tied up and labelled with the year and month outside. Before Blake had consumed his fourth match he had a score of the issue of the "Record" for the 17th of July, 1888, lying on the floor. It was some little time before he felt equal to joining Stott again.
By this time the others had arrived. Their method of work was peculiar and ingenious. They proceeded to fill two tubs with paraffin to the brim, and from one tub to the other across the floor long haybands of hay, also soaked in the oil, were placed. The haybands were twisted all along the walls and from hence through the trap door to the room above, where another brimming tub of oil was set. Then, all the tubs were strewn with old and dry champagne corks. Finally a candle was forced into the middle of the haybands and lighted. The candle would perhaps last half an hour; and as it burnt down would ignite the saturated hay, which would spread to the tub of paraffin, which would slop all aflame over the place, as the tub burnt down, so that in the course of time the whole place would be blazing with incredible fury. Many a time has this ingenious scheme been played, as New York knows to its cost.
The thing was finished at length on the upper floor, and Blake turned to go. His plan was simple. He would leave with the rest, and make an excuse to return, when he would gather up the papers, and, if there was time, extinguish the candle.
"So simple and yet so deadly," he muttered. "Are you coming, Stott?"
Stott was bending over the pile of "Records" with a smile.
"It seems to me," he said very sweetly, "that you have forgotten something. Aren't you going to take these papers with you?"
Blake gasped. For the first time he caught sight of Stott's eyes. He looked towards the trap door, but the Giraffe and Dandy barred the way.
"Why should I want those papers?" he ventured to say. "I don't—"
"Why, for your friend, Mrs. Sinclair, of course. I know all about it, you scoundrel. Giraffe, if he tries to move hit him over the head."
But Blake stood there as if paralysed.
Blake stood with his foot almost on the trap door that led to safety with a feeling that he could not move to save his life. A more resolute and courageous man would have made a dash for it. But Blake had no grit of that kind. He knew perfectly well that the three men opposite him were arrant cowards, and that none of them would have dared to tackle him single-handed. United they were dangerous. He could see the snarl on Dandy's face, and the murderous gleam in the eyes of the Giraffe.
"I don't seem to understand," he stammered.
"I do, which is more to the purpose," Stott sneered. "You've shot your bolt."
"Is it a nark?" Dandy asked, huskily.
"That's what it comes to," Stott explained. "Here he is, as a spy on my movements, to get me into trouble if he can, and to spoil the plans I have been laying for years. And if he hurts me, he hurts you. See?"
The others saw right enough. If this spy were allowed to escape, they were in danger. Under such circumstances they had little scruple as to the taking of human life. They had very little feeling on the matter. Blake was a spy, and as such a danger in the path. They did not know that Stott had deliberately lured the unhappy Blake on to this, or that he was using them as a means of destroying Blake altogether. So long as the man lived he was a constant menace to Stott. Therefore he must die. And Blake knew it, too, and his heart turned to water within him.
"You have no right," he began, "to assume—"
"I'm assuming nothing," Stott snarled. "You haven't forgiven me for the way I made use of you in England a while ago; and so you joined forces with the very clever lady who is in New York just now. You didn't come here by the Empire City, you came on the Campanella, with Mrs. Sinclair. You thought you had utterly deceived me, but I smiled in your face and you never understood. I know perfectly well what you came here to-night for. But you are not going to get it—you are not going to get anything more. No cause for fear, boys—he's quite alone here."
"Body of a strange individual found in the ruins," Dandy grinned.
"Not recognisable. Supposed to be the cause of the fire," the Giraffe supplemented.
Stott smiled as he lighted a cigarette. Blake could have called aloud for mercy—he could have grovelled for it had he not known how useless the plea would be. He looked helplessly around the room for some avenue of escape. Evidently the room had been used at one time for damping paper for printing purposes, for in one corner was a permanent flat zinc bath or sink with a tap over it. The floor was packed with cases of type and frames and the like, a "Platen" machine peeped out from a mass of books and papers.
There was no avenue for escape anywhere. It was pretty evident what the friends meant to do. They would imprison Blake there, close the trap-door, and leave him to roast alive. Nobody could possibly hear his cries, and when his charred remains were found they would be regarded as the remains of an incendiary.
Blake stood there almost suffocated by his bursting, drumming heart, and wet from head to foot with the perspiration that poured off him. He knew that he was doomed, he knew that nothing less than a miracle could save him. The place was silent as the grave. He knew that no cry of his could possibly penetrate those walls.
He was none the less alarmed because his enemies showed no trace of passion. They did not appear to be in the least angry with him. He had to be removed, and he would be removed without heat or prejudice. Stott stood opposite him, grinning amiably.
"How long will the candle burn?" he asked. The "fire bugs" answered that it would be a matter of ten minutes before there was any danger. From a dark corner Stott produced a large bottle of champagne.
"My work is practically finished," he said. "I feel that I can let myself go now. The day after to-morrow, my dear Blake, I shall be on my way back to England again. My satisfaction will be mitigated by the thought that I shall never set eyes on you again. Therefore I am going to ask you to divide this bottle of champagne with me."
He cut the wire, and presently the amber liquid bubbled and flowed into two glasses. Blake shook his head. He was not going to drink. He would die first.
"Never neglect a chance of pulling yourself together," Stott sneered. "The wine will give you courage. And where there is no despair there is always hope."
"I never thought of that," said Blake. "Give me the glass."
He tilted the champagne down his parched throat and his heart rose a little.
"The trap-door is strong and the lock new," Stott smiled. "Still you may have a bit of luck. I am acting as a sportsman in giving you a chance. I might have tied you up—"
"No, you don't," Dandy said hoarsely. "That game's too dangerous in case things go wrong. And it strikes me that we'd better be moving."
"Nothing will go wrong," Stott cried. "You are too fine an artist for that. At the same time we had better be moving. Good-bye, Blake."
They were gone, the trap was lowered and the key turned before Blake realised that he was alone. He let off a yell that rang back muffled in his own ears. Under ordinary circumstances he would have grovelled on the floor and given up the struggle. But the champagne so ironically offered by Stott had not been entirely without effect.
Blake set his teeth tightly together. He would make one effort for freedom and revenge. He turned up the lamp that Stott had so thoughtfully provided. Once beyond that zone of dreaded fire and Stott's career would be at an end. Blake could see it all clearly before his eyes now. He thought of his employer and then of his presence here to-night. Almost mechanically he gathered up those fatal copies of the "Record" and folded them tightly together. He laid them in the zinc bath and proceeded to lay other papers over them. Then he turned the tap and flooded the sink with water. He would try and preserve those records because he knew that in some way they affected the plans that Stott had laid for his purpose.
The water gushed from the tap freely. A brilliant idea came to Blake. Why not let the sink run over and flood the room below? He cursed himself for a fool, inasmuch as he had not thought of it before. It might be too late. Round went the tap, and presently the floor was moist with water. But it looked like being a long and tedious business, and meanwhile that fateful piece of candle must be perilously near to the saturated hay.
If there was any way of forcing the trap-door, if it was possible to procure a weapon! But the hinges of the trap were screwed down firmly in the floor. A screwdriver would have done the business in two minutes; but there was no screwdriver handy. Blake's eyes roved wildly round him, till they fell upon the empty champagne bottle.
An instant later and the bottle was broken in half a dozen pieces. One at least of the big pieces had a sharp cutting edge. Blake twisted his handkerchief round the upper part and immediately fell to work to cut away the boards round the hinges. The champagne had given him courage; the bottle seemed like a tool to cut a way to freedom.
Meanwhile the water was finding its way through the boards to the room below. It could not have been more than two minutes since Stott and company had gone, and Blake calculated that another five minutes must elapse before the conflagration commenced. Once this started, he knew that there was little hope for him. His journalistic experiences in America had taught him something of the methods of the "fire bugs," and how wonderfully effective they were. Once the blaze started it would go like wildfire.
Blake worked away till his arm ached and the sweat blinded him. The sharp glass scored the floor boards and divided under the sides of the hinges. Using the corner of an iron "forme" for a lever, one set of hinges was wrenched away, and with a hoarse cry of triumph, Blake could see into the room below. The candle still burnt steadily, but it seemed to be near, perilously near, to the hayband now. With a sudden spasm of fear upon him Blake jumped upon the trap-door like a madman. It gave a little on one side, now, seeing that a hinge was released, but it held firmly all the same. A little stream of water trickled down into the room below. If it would only put the candle out!
With a yell, inspiration came to Blake. He darted to the sink, where the saturated papers were, and raised them streaming and flopping in his arm. He pressed the trap down as far to one side as possible, and let the whole mass drop into the room below. There was a slight hiss, a dull soaking flop, and the cellar became as dark as Erebus.
Blake rose to his feet, and danced about like a madman. He was saved—his own fertility of resource had saved him. With bitter irony Stott had given him the champagne, and that champagne had saved the situation. All the elaborate arrangement of petroleum and tubs and soaked haybands was no more dangerous now than a barrel of gunpowder at the bottom of the Atlantic.
For a little time Blake was beside himself with joy. He shouted and laughed and wept, full of the delight of life and and the pleasing knowledge that he was going to take a great revenge. Then it gradually came back to him that danger was not entirely averted. Stott and his friends would not go away comfortably to bed till they actually knew that their work was accomplished. And if there was no alarm of fire and no engines came screaming wildly down the street they would feel that in some way or other their efforts had miscarried.
Then they would come creeping cautiously back to know the reason why. The mere thought of this set Blake headlong to work again. He felt like a man endowed with new strength. With his improvised tool he slaved at his remaining hinge until he could get his lever to work again. There was a ripping of wood and a rending of steel, and the trap gave at length.
Taking the lamp cautiously in his hand, Blake dropped into the room below. He lifted the mass of papers from the candle, and shuddered to see that it had burned down till it was not much thicker than a shilling. Another minute and it would have been too late; once those bands had caught fire nothing in the world could have saved him. There would have been a dense volume of suffocating smoke and then a sheet of flame.
"But I'd better not think of that," Blake muttered. "I'll just pick out those half-score papers in the centre that seem to be dry, and then for the street."
There were quite a score of "Records" in the pile that were no more than damp at the edges. Blake folded them up tightly, and tried the door. It was locked on the outside. But after what he had gone through the knowledge did not discourage him. Stott and Company would be back presently. What he wanted was a weapon. He found it upstairs—a heavy, slanting wedge of iron used to tighten and lock up the type when in the "chase," and with this in his hand he sat down doggedly by the door and waited.
His patience was not unduly tried. A little while later and there were whispers outside, excited eager whispers, and a deep oath or two. A chuckle of satisfaction followed as the miscreants discovered that the door of the cellar was intact.
"The bird has not flown," said Stott. "Depend upon it, he's quite safe. Perhaps a draught put the candle out."
"Perhaps," the Giraffe said, hoarsely. "We'll make sure this time. Where's the key?"
Blake pulled himself together. In one hand he held the precious papers, the other gripped the weapon with nervous force. The door fell back, and the three conspirators tumbled in. Blake was striding out as a match flared blue and unsteady. With a cry, Dandy rushed for him.
Down came the iron wedge with crushing force on Dandy's head, and he fell like a stone. The Giraffe hung back for a moment, but Blake gave him no time. Once more the weapon descended, hitting the Giraffe on the arm, and breaking it just above the wrist. With a hysterical cry, Stott darted forward, something gleamed in his hand, and a moment later Blake felt the warm blood gushing from his side.
It was no time to ascertain the damage. Thrusting Stott on one side, Blake made for the street, calling aloud for the police as he did so. Stott followed for a little way until somebody in uniform hove in sight. And Stott was not lacking in audacity now.
"Arrest that man," he cried. "He has tried to murder me!"
"Arrest us both," Blake gasped. "See here, the little ruffian stabbed me, and I'm all over blood. Look here, officer. Take care of these papers; freeze to them and there's a hundred dollars for you to start with—and more to follow. Whatever you do don't lose sight of me, and don't lose sight of those papers. Now arrest us both."
Stott sheered off. His face was white and set, and there was murder in his eye. He quickened his pace as the policeman's whistle rang shrill and clear, and another man in uniform came up.
"Here," the first officer growled. "I've got a handful. Man been stabbed. You follow that little devil who's hurrying down the street, and arrest him on a charge of attempted murder. Never mind me, I shall manage to get the chap along. Step it, boss."
Blake staggered along feebly. He was feeling spent and done.
"Whatever happens, freeze to the papers," he groaned.
"All right, sonny, I'll take care of the calico. You lean on me, and we will get there in time. But I ain't over sanguine as to that century spot you promised me."
Blake contrived to draw a card from his pocket.
"Send for the lady at this address to-morrow," he said. "And she will tell you. Take care—"
"Ullo!" the officer cried. "Case for the ambulance here. The poor chap's fainted!"
Dr. Burlinson was slightly at fault in his suggestion that Stott had called in the aid of Clarkson over his perfect impersonation of Dr. Ruby. Lance, on the other hand, felt pretty sure that such was not the case.
"I don't fancy you are right there," he said, thoughtfully, as he and Burlinson discussed the matter over a post-prandial cigar. "Stott's amazing cunning would keep him from Clarkson's. You see, everybody knows of that famous establishment, and if anything leaked out by accident it would be the first place the police would go to. And a high-class firm like Clarkson's would give the police every assistance. We must look further afield."
"On the contrary, the enormous business transacted by the firm in question would be Stott's safeguard," Burlinson said. "At least, that's how I should argue it."
"Quite in the approved analytical way," Lance laughed. "Well, with my knowledge of the stage and the profession generally to help us, I shall be able to solve that point. I'll go to town to-morrow, and make the necessary inquiries."
Lance proved right in his contention. The big theatrical house could find no record of any transaction with Stott directly or indirectly. Of course, they recollected the name as that of a good customer at one time.
"You do a great deal outside the profession?" Lance suggested.
"Oh, yes," was the reply. "Of course, we have to be careful. And anything in the nature of a suspicious case is politely but firmly declined."
"And you have sent nothing down my way, I suppose?"
"Nothing at all. The only sort of set out anything like yours lately has been supplied to well-known actors. The disguise you are looking for never came from us."
Lance was satisfied that such was the case. Moreover, he was surprised and by no means pleased to hear that Clarkson had scores of rivals in the field—small firms for the most part, but small or large they all tended to the difficulty of the search.
At any of these Stott might have procured the disguise. In all probability it would take weeks to go round them. And whatever Stott might have procured from them, it was pretty certain that he had transacted no business in his own name. The usual method, as Lance ascertained, was to pay a deposit and to clear the balance when the costumes were returned to the firm. It looked like a long job.
"Long or short, it's got to be done," Burlinson said. "If once we can prove this, we shall hang Stott to a dead certainty."
"I've no particular desire to hang the fellow," Lance responded. "My great object is to clear my good name. And if Ruby's double was not Stott after all—"
"Nonsense. There is not the slightest doubt about it. What we want to find out now is where Stott had his letters sent. There are always places in every town where letters are taken in at a charge of a penny each, and I don't suppose Swanley is different to other towns. Now do you happen to know what favorite haunts Stott had in Swanley?"
"I don't," Lance said, thoughtfully, "but perhaps Lapthorne does. Lapthorne is one of the grooms, you know. He was generally picked out by Stott as his usual driver when he went anywhere. I never could quite understand why, because Lapthorne is a particularly dull lad. Perhaps, after all, Stott selected him because he was dull."
"That's it," Burlinson exclaimed. "Let's have Lapthorne in here."
The young groom came at length, nervous and hesitating, and wondering what crime he had committed. The mere fact that he had to give information to his superiors added to his confusion. So far as he recollected he had never been with Stott anywhere; he was not prepared to affirm that such an individual as Stott existed. It was all just as Sir Lancelot wished.
"What a witness for a smart counsel to handle," Burlinson muttered. "The man could be made to say anything. I am afraid he hardly understands our vernacular, Massey. Look here, Lapthorne."
"Please sir, I am looking there, sir," said the wretched groom.
"Good. Now listen to me. How many public-houses are there in Swanley?"
Lapthorne brightened visibly. He was getting on familiar ground now. There were twenty-seven "publics" in Swanley, not counting the two hotels.
"And how many of them have you been in with Mr. Stott?" the doctor asked.
"All of them, sir," Lapthorne replied, promptly, and proud of his information; "more than once."
Lance lay back in his chair and laughed aloud at Burlinson's discomfited face. But Burlinson was not going to be baffled now that he had got on the trail. There was one favorite hotel that Stott frequented much, a house called "The Black Cat," where he did certain betting business.
"With a local man?" Burlinson asked eagerly.
"No," Lapthorne replied, "with somebody at a distance. You see, the landlord of the 'Cat' used to be in a stable at Newmarket, and he knew a deal about racing. Mr. Stott's letters and telegrams went to the 'Cat.'"
The doctor smiled sweetly at his companion. "All in his own name?" he asked. "Oh, no, sir. Mr.—Mr.—what did he call himself?—I have fetched lots of letters for him. I remember—it was Mr. Masters that he called himself."
Burlinson intimated that he had no further need of Lapthorne's services, and the latter retired gratefully and perspiringly. The doctor was more than satisfied.
"So far so good," he said. "Wonderful what a lot of information you can get if you only go the right way about it. Our man got his disguise in the name of Masters, and the things were sent to him from somewhere to the 'Black Cat,' Swanley. We'll go into Swanley the first thing in the morning, and visit the public-house. It is hardly possible that the landlord of the place can be ignorant of Stott's real identity. An eccentric individual like Stott in a small place like Swanley could never conceal his real identity for long. It's long odds that everybody yonder knows what Stott is, and where he lives. So we'll go to this place and calmly ask for any letters, etc., belonging to Mr. Stott, alias Masters, as he is away from home, and desires them to be forwarded."
Everything fell out exactly as Burlinson had predicted. The landlord of the "Black Cat" recognised Lance, and greeted him respectfully. He was quite candid over the fact that he had several communications for Mr. Masters, who had not been near him lately, nor did he make the slightest objection to parting with the letters. If any more letters came he would send them to Broadwater.
Lance put the packages in his pocket, and drove with them to Burlinson's house. Most of the letters appeared to have no connection with the case, but there was one of them in a long blue envelope, with an embossed red stamp on the back. Lance thrilled as he read the legend. "Morse et Cie, Theatrical Costumier, 118 Wellington-street, Covent Garden, London, W.C."
"Got it!" Burlinson cried, excitedly. "We've run the fox to earth, for any money. That letter will tell us all about the costume. No, don't open it; don't run any unnecessary risks. The case is ripe now to be handed over to Lawrence, and he shall take the responsibility of reading that letter. Let me go over and inform him of our recent discoveries."
Inspector Lawrence listened to the interesting story with flattering attention. So far as he could judge there were no flaws in Burlinson's deductions. The whole thing seemed to fit in beautifully, from the finding of the cork down to the tell-tale tobacco stains on Stott's fingers.
"You are teaching me my own business," he said.
"Not at all," Burlinson replied. "My discovery of the spilt chloroform and the cork gave me a clue that the blindest could not avoid following. And now you know all about Dr. Ruby and the rest of it. You have heard our theory, and if you will be so good as to open that letter we are pretty sure that you will find it confirmed."
Lawrence opened the letter, and read aloud:—
Dear Sir,—We are greatly obliged by your cheque,
valued £6 14s 9d. being the amount of account duly enclosed and receipted,
and we are glad to hear that the costume was so greatly admired by your
audience and friends.
At the same time we beg to call your attention to the fact that we are not yet in receipt of our goods, in accordance with the terms that they are to be returned within three days if not otherwise specified.
We shall be glad to receive same, and beg to remain,
MORSE ET CIE.
The inspector's eyes gleamed. Here was indeed a find. It was pretty evident that Stott had forgotten to return the goods, and that the damning evidence was lying about somewhere.
"He couldn't have sent them from Broadwater," Lawrence mused. "That would have been too dangerous. The parcel was sent to the 'Black Cat,' and doubtless should have been returned in due course. I shouldn't mind hazarding an opinion that the parcel is there still."
"I'll go and see," Lance volunteered. "We shall soon know."
He came back presently with a large brown paper parcel under his arm. Once this was opened, what appeared to be a complete suit of Dr. Ruby's clothes stood confessed, even down to the old-fashioned latched shoes and frilled shirt. Every garment bore the name of Morse et Cie.
"I think you had better leave the rest to me," Lawrence said, excitedly. "It will take me all my time to get everything in trim for the adjourned inquest next Thursday. Look at the new witnesses I have to see and examine. But when Thursday does come there will be plenty of sensation for the public."
"I'm quite content to hand over the business to you," said Lance.
Thursday brought fresh hurt to the burdened soul of Long, for there was a greater scramble to hear the proceedings than ever. In a small place like Swanley it was impossible to keep matters secret, especially as so many people there had been exalted into high places. The landlord of the "Black Cat" had told his customers all he knew, and perhaps a little more, the chemist's assistant and errand boy were eagerly sought for, and even Lapthorne was confused with questions until he had not the faintest idea what had happened. A little dapper man with a waxed moustache had arrived in Swanley the night before, and was confidently believed to be the representative of the firm of Morse et Cie, down to give evidence at the inquest.
The big room was packed as Burlinson rose to give his evidence. He proved beyond question that Sir George Massey was dead before the razor touched his throat, and then he went on to speak of the discovery of the spilt chloroform and the finding of the cork. By production of the MS. play, and the fitting into it of the supposed suicide's letter, the theory of self-destruction was swept to the winds. As Lance turned away after giving his evidence he could plainly see that he had restored himself in the eyes of his neighbors.
Noakes, the chemist, followed, and after him Dr. Ruby, to refute the evidence of the chemist's assistant as to his alleged purchase of the chloroform. The audience were a little bewildered at this point, but the clear-headed ones began to see their way.
"What do you propose to prove, inspector?" asked the coroner.
The packed audience strained their ears to listen.
"We have already proved death by chloroform, sir," Lawrence replied. "We have proved that that bottle of chloroform came from Mr. Noake's shop, and it has been proved, on the evidence of Dr. Ruby, that somebody personated him to obtain that drug. That individual, who was known as Mr. Masters, procured his disguise from Messrs. Morse et Cie, of Covent Garden, and a representative of the firm will testify that they made up the disguise from a photograph of Dr. Ruby, supplied by Masters, and accompanied by a letter. The landlord of the 'Black Cat' will tell you what he knows of this Masters, who used his house, and what his real name is. It will be proved that 'Masters' had a separate banking account here for racing purposes, and that he drew a cheque on that account for the purpose of paying Morse et Cie."
The perspiring audience gasped. They were evidently going to have quite as much sensation as rumor had promised them. They followed every witness with rapt attention, none the less rapt because the key of the mystery had not yet presented itself to them. But long before the landlord of the "Black Cat" had given his evidence it was a foregone conclusion that this "Masters" was the man who had murdered Sir George Massey. Every word of the evidence was rapidly scored down by the reporters with an eye for "lineage," seeing that every daily paper in the kingdom would take all they could get of the Broadwater Mystery. The evidence was pretty well complete at last. The landlord of the now famous "Black Cat" deposed to all he knew about Masters. Yes, he knew that that was not his real name.
"Will you tell me what his real name was?" the coroner asked.
"Yes, sir," came the clear reply. "His real name was Malcolm Stott."
A loud cry followed this confession, which, however, was more than half-expected by some of the audience. And Stott was perfectly well known to most of them. A dapper clerk from the local bank produced the cheque drawn in favor of Morse et Cie., and deposed to the fact that he knew perfectly well that "Masters" and Malcolm Stott were one and the same.
There was no more to to be said or done, beyond the coroner's address to the jury, which was short and to the point. They had heard all the remarkable evidence just produced, and they could give their verdict according to that evidence. Without the slightest hesitation they found that Sir George Massey had been murdered by Malcolm Stott, by the use of an overdose of chloroform acting on a weak heart.
"That ends the matter for the present," said the Coroner. "I have to thank you, gentlemen, for your care and attention. Mr. Inspector, have you any application to make?"
"Yes, sir," he said. "On the finding of the jury I will ask you to issue your warrant for the arrest of Malcolm Stott for the murder of Sir George Massey."
Stott struck into the heart of the night with a terror of the darkness. For the moment at any rate there was no fight left in him—so hopelessly beaten was he that he could not feel the faintest pulse of passion. He would have abandoned the whole of his fair fortunes for one glass of brandy. But not so close—it was too dangerous.
His knowledge of New York was perfect. He recollected that near by was a night saloon, where the proprietor stood on good terms with the police. The place was practically deserted, but that was all the better. Stott wanted to think.
He tossed one glass of brandy down his throat and proceeded to ruminate upon another. All the salt seemed to have gone out of life; even tobacco had lost its flavor. For the more Stott thought over matters the blacker and darker they looked.
His intention had been to kill Blake. He had deliberately lured him into that little scheme with the "fire bugs" with the intention of getting a dangerous enemy out of the way. Instead of that, Blake had escaped with evidence of most vital importance to Mrs. Sinclair. And as soon as ever Blake was in a position to speak, he would make matters warm for his quondam ally.
But Blake had looked very like death as the policemen held him up. Perhaps, after all, those two stabs would be fatal. Stott hoped so.
But he could not see any way of keeping the newspapers out of Mrs. Sinclair's possession. Once she had them, the whole fabric would collapse about Stott's ears.
He went to bed a little later, and tossed about restlessly all night. Early the next morning he was outside Mrs. Sinclair's hotel. But the spot seemed to be too dangerous. Two of New York's most famous detectives were hanging about there. Stott's heart beat a little faster, and a touch of the old pain racked him.
Evidently it was not good enough to stay here. It might be possible to glean some kind of information down in the Bowery saloon. But the proprietor drove him out with curses and an intimation that if he valued his hide he had better keep clear of the place in future. Detectives had been present looking for Messrs. Giraffe and Dandy, who had apparently vanished into thin air.
"And don't you come here trying to get us into trouble," the man muttered. "If you do, I'll just sling you out quicker'n you can say rats. I don't know anything about it. Get a move on you, sonny."
Stott got a move on himself accordingly. All this looked very ugly, and not in the least as if Blake was beyond giving information. Still, it was just possible that the police had found the cellar with all the materials there ready for the fire. In that case they would know at once that the "fire bugs" had been at work, hence their solicitude on behalf of Dandy and Giraffe. There was comfort to be derived from this theory.
Stott breakfasted in a slightly easier frame of mind. He was almost cheerful as he lighted one of his eternal cigarettes. The "Herald" and the "Sun" lay on the table before him. He took them up eagerly. Why had he not thought of this before. The late editions of those enterprising journals were pretty certain to have something of the fracas.
He found it at length, but there was nothing reassuring. There was a pithy half-column headed flambuoyantly as to the "fire bugs" and giving a description of the police discovery of the cellar, with all its elaborately laid conflagration scheme. But this was not the worst. A man had been stabbed by the miscreants, and that man was in a bad way. Subsequently he had rallied a little, and made a statement to the police, concerning which statement the police were silent. Ere long they expected to have all the principals in custody, if Martin Blake's information was correct.
Martin Blake! The mere mention of the name sent a thrill down Stott's spine. Beyond question his old ally had made a statement, or how else had the police got his name correctly? He devoutly hoped that Mrs. Sinclair had not seen the paragraph.
But she had. It was the first thing that caught her eye after breakfast. She passed over the sheet for Lyn to read.
"But how does it concern us?" Lyn asked.
"Deeply, my child. Stott had made arrangements to burn down the 'Record' buildings so as to destroy all the evidence we are looking for. He drew Blake into the scheme. This was to be Blake's opportunity for getting that evidence. Perhaps Stott discovered that Blake was on our side—at any rate they half-killed the man between them. The fire broke down, and it is therefore fair to assume that the evidence exists still."
"But how can you make sure, auntie?"
"By going to see Blake. It says in the 'Herald' that he made a statement last night. If he can talk to the police, he can talk to me. I'm going to find him."
Mrs. Sinclair did so at length, but she failed to see Blake, for the simple reason that he was not in a fit state to see anyone. He was unconscious, and stood in considerable danger from the wound received the night before.
"Really in danger?" Mrs. Sinclair asked anxiously.
"Really," the police inspector replied. "Those big, heavy men always go down so easily. And the patient, to put it mildly, has not been particularly careful of himself. Still, if there is anything that I can possibly do for you—"
Mrs. Sinclair thought not—only she hoped that every care would be taken of the man. The inspector grimly assured her that in the interests of justice no precautions would be neglected. For the present it looked as if Mrs. Sinclair would have to be satisfied.
"Do you connect this affair with that attempt at arson?" she said.
"Certainly we do," the inspector said, significantly. "Besides, our patient made a statement. I am not at liberty to say anything about that statement. Oh, yes; the premises are being carefully watched. It is our duty to see to that."
Mrs. Sinclair departed easier in her mind. If the premises were carefully watched, Stott was no better off than he was before. Once back in her hotel, Mrs. Sinclair began to ask questions. Could Lyn recollect anything as to the 'Record' containing the account of her father's death?
"I have a copy of it at Broadwater," Lyn said. "I fancy I know the paper almost by heart. The account was at the top of the sixth column of page 5. It was nearly a column altogether. And the date of the paper was the 17th of July, 1888. On the first column was a report of a criminal trial against some great financial light. Also there was an article on night gambling saloons, and the result of a ward election. Oh, yes, I can see it all—"
Mrs. Sinclair sighed. Yesterday she had been so near to the solution of the mystery, and to-day it looked as far off as ever. So deeply was she immersed in speculation that a colored waiter, who entered the sitting-room, had to address her twice before he could attract her attention.
"Well, what is the matter?" she asked, sharply.
"Gentleman to see you downstairs," the waiter grinned. "Business of importance. Say he must see you at once—hab something to give you."
"Send him up," Mrs. Sinclair murmured. "Anybody in New York who has anything to give away deserves encouragement. Don't go, Lyn."
The stranger came up—a stiff-built, cunning-eyed man, with a marked Irish accent. Mrs. Sinclair sized him up at once. He had policeman written large all over him.
"And what can I do for you?" she asked.
"Me name's Grady," the intruder commenced. "At any rate if it isn't, Grady'll do as well as any other name. A party named Blake sent me here."
Mrs. Sinclair nodded.
"You are in the police, and have something to dispose of," she said. "Don't be afraid. So far as I am concerned you need never be anything but Grady."
The Irishman smiled more freely, and touched a parcel under his arm.
"Party name of Blake got himself disliked last night," he said. "When he came up to me some inimy of his had poked two holes in him wid a knife. Blake was carrying what seemed to be a bundle of old newspapers under his arm, and he gives them to me with a kyard. 'I'm done,' says he. 'You take them papers to the address on that kyard, and the lady'll give you a hundred dollars.' Faix, it's meself that's a confiding bhoy, and so I come—risking me position, what's a promising one. And if so be as I shall get them dollars—"
"Probably," Mrs. Sinclair said, as calmly as possible. "What are the papers?"
"Nothing more than so many copies of a paper called the 'Record,' all dated July 17, 1888. Now don't go to say as that I'm the victim of a crool fraud."
Mrs. Sinclair assured the speaker that he was nothing of the kind. Before his dazed eyes she counted out the money to the extent of a hundred dollars, and bade him depart. She then dropped down by the table, trembling in every limb.
"My dear," she said. "I'm getting old and shaky. I'm absolutely nervous. Would you be so good as to go over that pile of papers, and verify them?"
She sat down, white and trembling, whilst Lyn went over the papers. They were all perfectly correct, as Lyn could see at a glance. She was likely to remember that issue of the "Record" long after she had forgotten the most entrancing of literature. She could see headlines and advertisement blocks that were as familiar to her as her own name.
"And so they are all 'en regie?" Mrs. Sinclair asked.
"Certainly they are, auntie. But I don't see how this helps us."
"Oh, you will see presently unless I am greatly mistaken. Now open the papers, and lay them out on the floor side by side, folded back so as to display page 5."
Lyn did so quickly. Mrs. Sinclair was still sitting back in her chair, looking strangely white and agitated. She was coming to the end of her search; she would know in a moment whether she had triumphed or not.
"I've finished, auntie," Lyn said.
"Thank you, dear. Now will you please, if it does not distress you too much, read the column that tells of the manner of your father's death."
Lyn stooped down to comply; then she rubbed her eyes in astonishment. She dropped on her knees and gazed at one paper after another in dazed astonishment.
"Auntie, Auntie," she cried. "The report isn't here!"
Mrs. Sinclair rose with a queer unsteady smile on her face. It was a minute before she could trust herself to speak.
"You mean to say that you can't see the report?" she asked.
"Indeed, I can't," Lyn exclaimed. "It gave me quite a shock when I found that the report was not there. Where it ought to be is an account of some company meeting."
"Will you kindly look at the other papers, my dear?"
Lyn did so, one after the other, shaking her head all the time. She went over the list from end to end, but no sign of the sensational item could she find anywhere.
"There is no sign to be seen of it anywhere in any of the papers," she said.
Mrs. Sinclair put up her spectacles and came over and kissed Lyn tenderly. There was no sign of agitation about her now; a gleam of triumph shone in her eyes. She looked like one who had just finished a great and good and lasting labor.
"What does it all mean?" Lyn asked, wonderingly.
"It means that the fraud is exposed, my dear," Mrs. Sinclair said. "It means that your father was shot, as Colonel Borrowdaile told us, by a half-maddened speculator, and that your mother died of the shock. If we come to examine any of the New York papers under date July 17, 1888, we shall see the truth set out there. It means that we are in a position to prove beyond a demonstration that there was no madness in your family on either side, and that so far as you are concerned Lance can snap his fingers in Stott's face."
"But it seems so strange," Lyn cried. "I have at home a copy of the 'Record' of the same date as those lying on the floor, and my paper gives the whole tragedy chapter and verse. And here we can find no trace of it."
"Where did your copy of the 'Record' come from, Lyn?"
"It was sent from New York by Stott, of course."
"Of course. In those days Blake was on the 'Record,' and in those days he was more or less a creature of Stott's. The paper was a small one, printed upon an old-fashioned Wharfdale machine more adapted for book printing than anything else. The staff was small, and usually the whole edition of the paper was out by 10 o'clock in the morning. The type would lie on the machines, and the gas engines could be set going or stopped at leisure by anybody. Now suppose somebody got into the office and set up a column of type describing some item of news or another. And suppose he removed a column of something else. And suppose that—"
"Mr. Malcolm Stott to see you, Madam."
Mrs. Sinclair turned round sharply on the waiter, who stood with a card on a salver. There was a queer grim smile on her face. Lyn looked a little frightened.
"Why does he intrude upon us?" she asked.
Mrs. Sinclair waved the waiter from the room.
"Ask the gentleman up," she said grimly. "He could not have come at a more opportune moment."
It was a bad day for Stott, the worst day he could remember. For a long time past his nerves had been playing him strange tricks, and now they seemed to have deserted him altogether.
Never before had he been frightened of anything, beyond the horrors conjured up out of his own imagination, but he was afraid now. He no longer trusted his own judgment; he wanted somebody else to rely upon. Hitherto he had regarded everybody he came in contact with as puppets to be used in the scheme of life; now he shrank from the meanest.
Stott's brain was going now as well as his body, and he knew it. He had played his last card, and utterly failed. He would not have failed like this two years ago. He would not have been so foolish as to draw Blake into the matter. He would have laughed at the fellow, and led him a pretty chase in the wrong direction.
He would have given a great deal to know whether Mrs. Sinclair had benefited by Blake's marvellous escape. He would have given much to discover what the police had found out. He wanted a few words with his late allies.
But down in the Bowery he could hear nothing of them. There was the usual crowd of evil faces, men and women, and once Stott witnessed an arrest in the street. He saw the light of battle die out of the man's eyes, and the throng that he called upon turned from him. As he lingered to watch he saw another sight that brought the queer pain to his heart.
Two policemen were standing talking at a corner. Three men hurried past them presently, nodded, and disappeared down a side-street. Presently from the street came the patter of footsteps, and a man burst pantingly into sight. One of the policemen turned as if casually and extended the toe of his right foot.
The runner came down with a crash, and like a flash the officers were upon him. A knife flashed in the light, a truncheon came smashing on the fingers holding the knife, there was a howl like that of a mad dog, and the fugitive was secured.
Stott crept a little closer, with a feeling of apprehension upon him. As the captured man rose to his feet Stott saw that he was the Giraffe. And he knew that Dandy was not far off. Dandy came round the corner in the hands of three men in plain clothes, a swaggering smile on his pale face. He caught Stott's eye and made a sign.
Stott turned away with a savage oath. What a fool he had been to come here. Had he stayed away all might have been well. Whichever way he went luck seemed to be dead against him. For the sign meant that he had been "spotted" and would be followed; that if he abandoned his allies at this juncture it would be the worse for him.
He would have to stand by these men now or they would "give him away." He either had to do that or get from New York as soon as possible. But he could not leave New York yet. He would have to put his hand in his pocket and help these men.
Stott knew exactly where to go. He would have to seek out some low-lying attorney, and place in his hands the money for the defence of his late confederates. There were plenty of such legal lights in the vicinity, and a great many of them were known to Stott by name. Sooner or later his curiosity was going to cost him five hundred dollars. Anyway Dandy and Giraffe must know at once that he was doing the best for them, otherwise they might "give him away," and repent of their hastiness afterwards.
He found the man he wanted at length—a thin, hatchet-faced individual with a humorous mouth and an exceedingly dirty face. He smelt villainously of stale beer, and he expectorated so freely over his office floor that Stott's sensitive soul was filled with disgust.
"I guess we've met before," he drawled. "Your name is—?"
"Walker," Stott replied, with an admixture of irritation and humor. "Excellent name, Walker. Yours at present, I understand, is Saxon. It used to be—"
"Wall, I guess we'll allow that it used to be Walker—like yours," said Saxon, not in the least annoyed by Stott's insinuation. "What's the trouble?"
"So far as I am concerned, none. But there are two men who once did me a slight service. It was many years ago, before they fell into bad ways. Therefore I am desirous of doing them a good turn in return for their kindness."
Saxon took a fresh chew of tobacco, and expectorated with alarming exuberance.
"Gratitude is a holy thing, sir," he said. "It's rare, sir, like money—and also, like that blessed quality, 'it droppeth as the gentle dew from heaven.' The quotation will be appreciated by you, Mr.—"
"Walker—let us keep to Walker. I want to help these men."
"Certainly. It does you credit—which is a pretty thing so long as you don't ask me for it. A poor man like myself cannot afford the higher emotions. Their names?"
"Locally, the Giraffe and Dandy."
Saxon took his feet off the table and whistled.
"Old game," he whispered. "Saw it in the papers this morning. So they were in that bit of a fire last night? I guessed as much. Well, we won't ask any further questions. But it will be a tough job, and the alibi will run into money."
"I'm not to appear in it at all," Stott said, curtly.
"Of course not. What do you take me for? It's a risky business, and may cost more than one thinks, but I'll see it clear through for two hundred and fifty."
"Knock off the two hundred, and it's a bargain," said Stott.
Mr. Saxon was indignant—he was hurt. Did he not represent a learned profession? What would his colleagues say if they knew he was accepting such fees as that? But for his admiration for the genius of his friend—er—Walker, he should order the latter out of his office, and decline any further intercourse.
"Say a hundred and have done with it," said Stott, calmly.
"My dear sir, it's a bargain," Saxon cried. "I'll go and see my clients at once, and contrive to let them know who their friend is. Afterwards, if there is anything I can do for you—"
"There is something you can do for me," Stott muttered. "Go and see those fellows, and let me know exactly what has come to light. Meanwhile I will remain here. If any of your numerous clients, drop in, I'll detain them till you return."
Stott counted out ten ten-dollar bills with an air of profound regret, and Saxon stuffed them in his pocket. He clapped a seedy top hat on the side of his head, and swaggered out, leaving Stott to his own miserable reflections.
It was not good to be alone, but it was still worse to be perambulating the streets. Look which way he would Stott could not see one single bright speck on the horizon. When Saxon returned he welcomed him most effusively.
"Is it so very bad?" he asked eagerly.
"The case has assumed an unpleasant aspect," Saxon said with professional gravity. "I fear, I greatly fear, that my esteemed clients are in a bad way. An ill-conditioned ruffian has given them away. And all because one of my clients broke three of his ribs some time ago."
"Did they tell you all about it?"
"Well, under the seal of secrecy, yes. And the police seem to have got a clue as to the identity of the man who hired the cellar. Dandy bids me tell you that the police have been at that individual's hotel twice to-day. What's the matter?"
Stott's face grew pale, and he pressed his hand to his side. Much as his lips trembled, there was a half-humorous smile upon them.
"I am infinitely obliged to Dandy," he said. "Mr. Saxon, I am going to ask you to so far forget the duty you owe to the dignity of your profession as to fetch me a large bottle of champagne and a pint of brandy. I've been so abstemious lately that at the present time I am literally suffering for a drink."
Saxon replied that he would do anything in the interests of suffering humanity. Also he incidentally asked where the money was. Stott produced a five-dollar bill that fluttered like a dry leaf in the wind, and Saxon closed upon it. He came back presently with the bottles, and produced two long soda-water glasses from a desk.
"If I do take a drink it's generally about this time," he said, genially, as he proceeded to divide the contents of the bottle. "A little too much brandy for the amount of champagne, but still—"
The lawyer himself drank slowly and with enjoyment. Stott raised his own brimming glass, charged with its half-pint of brandy, and poured it down his throat without an effort. Saxon looking on with honest admiration. He appreciated the artistic effort.
Slowly the blood began to creep back to Stott's face and lips, his hand grew steady, and his eyes cleared. He seemed to have left all the old nervousness behind him.
"Now, listen to me," he said. "A man was injured in that little affair last night, stabbed. He lies in the Police Hospital, Sixteenth-street. You are to try and see him for me at once if he is in a position to see anybody, and ascertain what he knows. His name is Martin Blake."
"Used to be a journalist here?"
"The same man. He can do me a great deal of mischief; in fact, he might have succeeded in so doing already. If he hasn't, then he's amenable to reason. It will be a case of money. Say that if he will consent to be silent for the present and hold on to those papers I'll give him £1000. Pounds, mind—not dollars. And there will be more to come. If Blake has recovered consciousness, you'll be able to check your way into the hospital if any man can."
Saxon nodded and winked. Whatever others might think, he had every confidence in his own ability.
"You are going to be handsomely paid for all this," Stott went on. "Meanwhile I fancy that I shall find the air of the Bowery beneficial for a day or two. If you could arrange for me to stay here and have my meals with you—"
"Consider it done," Saxon cried. "I've an inner room behind this, where I sleep, and you can have a shakedown on the floor. I'll arrange all about the meals and the rest. Thirty dollars a week, all in, will be pretty reasonable, I guess."
Between his teeth Stott said he thought Saxon was erring on the side of hospitality. The rascal was taking advantage, as Stott would have taken advantage of the other had the positions been reversed.
"And now you go and do my errand," he said.
Saxon strolled away jauntily, well pleased with his day's work. Stott sat there moodily smoking one cigarette after another, wondering where it was all going to end. What a time Saxon was! Perhaps something had happened to him. Or perhaps Blake was dead.
Saxon came at length with a big cigar in his mouth, and evidence upon him that he had been liberally slaking his thirst on the way.
"Well?" Stott asked impatiently. "Well?"
"It depends upon how you interpret the word," Saxon said. "On the whole, I was not quite so successful as I had anticipated."
"Do you mean that you did not see Blake?"
"Oh, I saw him right enough. He had rallied wonderfully, but was still in a weak state. I was passed in by the doctor as his brother, come post-haste from the sick bed of a distracted wife. Blake knew me directly, and he guessed that I had come from you. The doctor said I was not to excite him, but he did all that part of the business for himself."
"And you told him of my offer?"
"Yes; I said you would give him £1000 down and more to follow if he kept his mouth shut and also kept certain papers to himself. But the man wouldn't listen to reason."
"He declined an offer like that?" Stott groaned.
"He said it would be all the same if you offered a million," Saxon explained. "He affirmed that he would not trust you so far as he could see you; and that I was to say that Mrs. Sinclair was a lady who could be trusted, and that she had already made the same offer."
"Go back and say that £2000 in cash will be deposited to-morrow."
"Go slow, Walker. What's the good? I was particularly to tell you that the papers you are so keen about were placed in Mrs. Sinclair's possession this morning. I've got to go across the street to see a man who's in trouble. Like to see the evening paper?"
Saxon tossed an early edition of the "Sun" across the table, and strolled out. Stott took up the sheet mechanically, too stunned to realise his position yet. His brain was clear enough, but he felt so sleepy. He turned languidly to the late news. There was a double headline and black type:—
WHERE IS MALCOLM STOTT?
What did it mean? Surely those words were genuine, and no trick of the imagination. Stott had not been drinking enough for that yet. He must read the headlines. Here they were:
A theatrical plot.
A play in a play.
The suicide who did not commit suicide.
Startling story told by the cable from England.
Malcolm Stott's diabolical scheme.
Dr. Burlinson and the chloroform.
The indiarubber cork and the other doctor named Ruby.
The jury bring in a verdict of wilful murder against Malcolm Stott—who cannot be found.
Was seen in New York yesterday.
Where is Malcolm Stott?
The paper slipped to the floor, and Stott proceeded to light a cigarette with a steady hand. He cursed the American cable heartily. But for that he might have been safe. Now he was likely to be picked up at any moment.
What was he to do? Where could he go? Was the game really up, or was there a chance yet? His brain was moving very quickly now. He rose and put on his hat, and strode from the house. At any time or place he might be arrested.
There was just one more card to play.
"I'll do it," he muttered. "I'll go and see Mrs. Lucy Sinclair."
Stott strode out into the street feeling more like himself than he had done for some time. He knew perfectly well that he had come to the end of his tether at last. He knew his journey had been in vain. He would have found it difficult to give any reason for his present determination. He expected to get exactly nothing out of Mrs. Sinclair. He only wished now that he had sufficiently respected her great natural abilities before.
By this time she knew his scheme by heart. By this time, perhaps, she had seen the sensational paragraph in the "Sun," in which case Stott was quite aware that he would not get his interview. He might not get it in any case, seeing that he was likely to be arrested at any moment. There were plenty of police officials in New York who remembered him in the days of his glory.
He walked along jauntily, smoking his cigarette with the air of a man who has no trouble in the world. He heard his own name on every hand; boys were yelling it in the streets; it stared him in the face from a score of contents bills. Stott was about to become a celebrity for the second time in his life, and in quite a new direction. It is a distinction given to few men.
He came at length to Mrs. Sinclair's hotel, and sent in his card. He did not know whether to be pleased or otherwise when the colored waiter appeared to escort him upstairs. Evidently Mrs. Sinclair knew nothing as yet of the "Sun" special.
Stott passed into the room with his best bow. He had not the least idea what he was going to say; he approached a chair.
"Stand up," Mrs. Sinclair said crisply. "You are not to sit down."
She was seated herself, Lyn also, with her face in the shadow.
"I presume I am not worthy," Stott murmured.
"You have guessed it. You are not fit to sit down with ladies, or with any other honest people for that matter. I would prefer to see our waiter seated opposite us. Why do you bring your vile presence here? Why do you come?"
Mrs. Sinclair spoke almost sweetly. Nevertheless her words had a sting in them.
"I wanted to know what you knew," Stott replied.
He smiled, he bowed, the look on his face was fawning. Yet in a way he was acting a part, the part of an honorable gentleman wrongfully accused. He sidled toward a chair again, and Mrs. Sinclair laid her hand on the bell.
"If you do," she said, "I shall have you put out."
Stott murmured that the speaker wronged him. Mrs. Sinclair replied, in the same sweet manner, that in regarding Stott as the vilest criminal that crawled, she came very near to paying him a high compliment. Stott winced at last. Passion, anger, vituperation, all this he had expected, and had been prepared to combat—but the calm contempt, the elaborate assurance of victory maddened him. The sudden rage within him set up the agony of the heart again. He bent double over the table.
"The pain!" he gasped; "it will kill me sooner or later."
"Let it be sooner," Mrs. Sinclair replied. "It would be more considerate, and far more respectable, than the end to which you are inevitably designed. Your business, sir?"
"I came," Stott said with difficulty, "to make terms."
Mrs. Sinclair smiled and tapped the paper before her significantly. Lyn said nothing. Her face was studiously turned from Stott. Terribly as the man had caused her to suffer, she felt that she could forgive him now. He had hung round her neck a burden that at times she had hardly strength to bear. She had been ashamed of the tragedy, shy of the disgrace, fearful lest any trace of it belonged to her. And now the whole thing was wiped away, and she could rejoice in her husband and grow joyful over the coming child.
"Well," Mrs. Sinclair repeated, "your business?"
"In the strict sense of the word, I have none," Stott said. "You have made certain discoveries lately, upon the result of which I congratulate you. But there are other things to learn. On certain conditions I shall be happy to explain those certain things. If I may be permitted to take a chair and light a cigarette—a very mild one—"
"Certainly not. Stand or go. Indeed, there is no occasion for you to remain. Had I not been interested in your genus, you would have gone long ago. You can tell me nothing."
"On the contrary, I can tell you a great deal."
"Mostly fiction. I came over here to prove the falseness of certain statements of yours regarding Miss Verity's parentage and the cause of her parent's death. For your own ends you chose to make Sir George Massey believe that Miss Verity's father died by his own hand—a madman as well as a suicide. In pursuit of your own ends, and caring for nothing else, you cast a blight on a young life more cruel than the grave. Heaven only knows what mental anguish and torture this poor girl must have endured all these years. Bad as it was at first, it became worse when my niece gave her heart to Sir George's successor. And yet you watched all this day by day and month by month without the slightest feeling of remorse. Nay, you traded upon it and you encouraged it. For years you worked for one end. And when Sir George died it seemed at least as if everything had fallen into your hands—until I came on the scene."
Stott bowed to hide an unsteady smile.
"I take off my hat to your superior acumen," he said. "Pray, proceed. Let me see if you correctly read all the cards in my hand."
If he had thought to anger Mrs. Sinclair by his sneer he was mistaken. She listened perfectly unmoved, and with no measure in the quiet contempt of her voice shattered.
"I read your whole hand from the day of my arrival at Broadwater," she said. "But then I had some knowledge of the way in which you forced your cards before. I had not been to Broadwater for years—seeing that Sir George and I did not get on well together. After his death I was bound to come. Directly I heard of my eccentric relation's will I began to see my way. Before you left America, most distinctly for the good of this great Republic, you had sent certain proofs of Mr. Verity's death to Sir George. On the face of them those proofs were infallible. But then I had lived in New York for a long time, and I knew a great deal about you and your methods. Also I happened to know Colonel Borrowdaile and the way in which you had effected his ruin. Since I have been in New York this time I have discussed the whole matter with that gentleman. Need I proceed?"
"If you would be so good," Stott murmured. "You are interesting me deeply. The reading of the mind of another is always fascinating; to have one's own mind read correctly is enchanting. And I am likely to have so few pleasures in the future."
Mrs. Sinclair checked a desire to laugh. She was not blind to the humor of the situation, and the man was really a most magnificent rascal.
"Then we must hark back a little," she proceeded. "You wanted to discredit my nephew so as to get him helplessly into your hands, and here your cunning and rascality stood you in good stead, as usual. Of course, you had to have a tool for the purpose, and you chose your old one, Martin Blake. You cunningly contrived to let him know all about the suicide's letter which you had managed to get lifted from my nephew's play, feeling quite sure that Blake would see a magnificent opening for blackmail here. He did so, and he came to Broadwater with the familiar black and white interviews in his pocket, one or the other to appear in the 'Mirror' according to the firmness or squeezability of the victim. But you knew how your man would take it, and you judged him correctly. The black interview appeared, your end was gained, and you got rid of Blake effectually."
Mrs. Sinclair paused for a moment and glanced at Stott. His head was thrown back, there was a rapt smile on his face, he murmured delightfully.
"Clever," he said, "undeniably clever, but slightly historical."
"I appreciate your praise," Mrs. Sinclair replied. "A touch of the historic was necessary. It was very unfortunate for your scheme that I knew Martin Blake. I sought him out, and I had no difficulty in opening his eyes to the way you had treated him. After that I had little difficulty in persuading Blake to come to America."
"On the 'Campanella,'" Stott murmured. "I discovered that on the first day out."
"Of course you did, or you would never have stolen the 'Aphrodite star' and concealed it in my cabin. But we were too many for you there, and you fell into your own trap. You wanted to detain us here in custody, but we detained you instead. It will be pleasant for you to learn that that delay gave me the desired start and enabled me to defeat you and expose your rascally methods."
"Call them diplomatic, madam; it sounds so much better."
"Call them what you please. From the time I started I guessed that you had forged those proofs against Mr. Verity, as you forged them against Colonel Borrowdaile—by means of a paragraph inserted in one copy of a paper only. Therefore I had to find back numbers of the 'Record' of a certain date. You knew perfectly well what I was after, and that is why you came to America. When you heard that Miss Verity had gone away with that American letter, I had a good opportunity of studying your face. For once you looked the truth. Then it became a race as to whether you or I should find those old 'Records' first. As a matter of fact you did. I was not quite certain of it until I found that you meant to burn the place down. Then I put Blake on to you—not being aware that you knew that he was in my pay. You tried to murder him, but you failed. And therefore those precious copies of the 'Record' of the 17th of July, 1888, came into my hands. They are lying on the table there at the present moment. And in not one of them is there one single word touching the death of Mr. Verity or his wife."
"Quite a fascinating little mystery," Stott murmured.
"Yes, but disappointing from your point of view. On the face of it those proofs were beyond question. But we know now, what I suspected from the first—that you deceived everybody by having one copy of the 'Record' specially printed for Sir George to see. The artful cunning of the idea was perfect. And yet so easily managed."
"Not so easily managed," Stott said.
"Oh, yes, it was. You write a certain report, and you get it set up in type by a jobbing printer in a small way of business. Then this is stereotyped to the width of the 'Record' columns—I need not go into technical details. You get enough knowledge of machinery to start and stop one of the old-fashioned Wharfedale machines upon which the 'Record' used to be printed. You go down to the office very late, when everybody has gone, and find Blake there by appointment. You get rid of Blake for a time, you start the gas engine, after having unlocked the formes and placed your stereo in the place of half a column of removed type. A few turns of the roller and there is your specially cooked copy of the 'Record.' Perhaps I am wrong—perhaps you bribed the machinist or foreman printer; anyway, I have solved your scheme. Who it was who sent the anonymous letter to Sir George we neither know nor care. We have played the game out, and you have lost."
Just for a moment Stott did not seem to be listening, a kind of mist had come before his eyes; the pain at his heart racked him. When he came to himself again Mrs. Sinclair was regarding him with calm, contemptuous eyes. If she had shown a little triumph Stott had felt less small. But it was the gaze of one who has been assured of victory from the first.
"There is nothing more I can tell you," she said, "there is nothing more I have to say. We are going home without delay, and you drop out of our lives here to-day. We shall never see you more; you will never pollute the home life of Broadwater again. And there will be no more money for you. All this must be made public, for the sake of those who are near and dear to me. The consequences of that publicity to yourself are likely to be serious. And as I stand here now reading your vile little soul I can see not a trace in your face that you are sorry for what you have done."
Stott flamed out angrily. He would have given much not to have done it, but the woman had touched him at last. Heedless of the pain at his heart he turned angrily upon her.
"I am not sorry," he cried. "I am not ashamed. You talk about honest men and women! Bah! There are no honest men and women when they have the chance of fortune without risk of detection. I have known the world for 50 years intimately. I have known what you call honest men—dullards who could not see their opportunity. And they have all died poor or gone under. I have no sorrow for what I have done; I would do it all again. And had I known what you suspected—why, you would not be standing taunting me as you are now."
He paused, unable to speak for the pain that racked him. In the same calm, unemotional way Mrs. Sinclair rose and rang the ball. Lyn stood looking out of the window. The waiter came at length, and stood waiting for orders.
"Show that gentleman out," Mrs. Sinclair said. "And clearly understand that he is not to be admitted here again. If he comes, tell the manager he is a well-known rascal and swindler, and a dangerous character to be about a respectable hotel. Now, sir."
Stott gasped for words that failed him. In the same blind impotent rage he staggered to the lift, and from thence into the street. He did not come fully to himself until he had gone half-way down Fifth-avenue. There a hand touched him on the shoulder. He turned, and faced a grave-looking man in funeral black.
"Name of Malcolm Stott?" he said, tentatively.
"Such is fame!" Stott said, with dry lips and fleeting smile. "The widespread recognition is very gratifying to the feelings. What do you want?"
"Murder!" said the other. "Instruction by cable. Irregular, perhaps, but these are my instructions. For the murder of Sir George Massey. Want a car? Why, certainly."
There was merciful oblivion from the tinkling telephone and raucous newsboys as Mrs. Sinclair crossed the vestibule of her hotel. She had been early astir—early enough to realise the fact that New York does sleep sometimes, and that there are some hours not devoted to the pursuit of the almighty dollar. But the smartness, the alertness, the appalling greediness were coming back now, for it was close upon what the Yankee play fully calls breakfast time.
Lyn was already down when Mrs. Sinclair reached her room. She looked a little white and disturbed as she glanced up from her paper.
"I began to be frightened," she said. "We have 'dwelt in the midst of alarms' here to such an extent that when I found your room empty I was uneasy. Auntie, is it really necessary for me to stay here any longer?"
Mrs. Sinclair kissed the pretty pleading face.
"You want to get back to Broadwater?" she asked.
"To Broadwater and to Lance," Lyn confessed, rosily. "If you only knew how I have been hungering after Lance—especially now that the clouds have cleared away. I daresay it sounds very ungrateful and selfish, but—but—"
"I was young myself once, and know all about it. At any rate, you cannot say that the time has been badly spent. We have cleared your good name, and paved the way for a long and happy life at Broadwater. And we have so arranged it that Stott cannot interfere. And my letters this morning bring me further good news. Pinkerton's people have unearthed the doctor who attended your father after he was shot. He is going to let me have a sworn declaration in due course—not that the thing is necessary, but as you are going to become a grand chatelaine we must consider the feelings of the county. We'll say good-bye to Colonel Borrowdaile this afternoon, and catch the 'Campanella' back on Friday. And yet you don't look happy."
"I've had a great shock," Lyn murmured. "About poor Sir George. It's all in the 'Sun.'"
"You don't mean to say that they have arrested the criminal?"
"Yes I do. Here in New York. Can't you guess, auntie?"
Mrs. Sinclair removed her glasses, polished them, and replaced them carefully.
"Then it was Stott after all," she said without surprise.
"Yes, yes. But how did you guess that? Of course nobody who really knew him could have suspected Lance for a moment. But Stott! And you don't seem to be in the least surprised. I have not got over the horror of it yet."
"I was prejudiced against the man from the first," Mrs. Sinclair admitted. "But suspicion was nothing—even when I began to see my way to expose Stott's methods as to your parents. To most people there was something bewildering and baffling about the so-called suicide's letter. But when I learnt all about Lance's renovated play, the thing began to grow plain. As a matter of fact Stott was too cunning; he could see the scheme clearly before him, but his brain could not grasp the remoter contingencies. Indeed the mystery to me was that he had a brain at all. Did Dr. Burlinson find him out?"
"Auntie, I believe you are a wizard!" Lyn cried. "It is all here, columns of it. It reads like a chapter from some sensational romance. And Dr. Burlinson does seem to have been the hero of the play."
"Burlinson suspected Stott from the first. No, he did not tell me so—I knew it from intuition. Let me have a look at the 'Sun' for myself, then we will have breakfast and go out. After that we will go and see Colonel Borrowdaile and pack our boxes. I have lots of business in New York, but that must keep till I have seen you and Lance comfortably settled at Broadwater."
"Then you are not going to stay—"
"Not going to stay anywhere, my dear. Broadwater is a very charming place, and I am very fond of you too, but I couldn't settle down anywhere for long."
The day is not long enough for the average New Yorker, who has to be content with the same day that the slower Easterner is vouchsafed, but it was all too long for Lyn. She was counting the hours now until she should find herself on the "Campanella" again. And this time she felt she should enjoy the voyage. This time all doubts and troubles would be at rest. She was going back to her own again, with the knowledge that the sky was clear, and that there was no longer a cloud on her fair name.
Meanwhile Mrs. Sinclair was busy enough. A long and costly cablegram had been dispatched to Lance, telling him of the brilliant success of the expedition. Then she was free at length to turn her attention to Blake.
The latter was recovering rapidly from his wounds. In a day or two he would be free once more. He had the promised reward paid over to him by Mrs. Sinclair, and announced himself ready to go through a score of similar adventures at the same price.
"You had better stay where you are," Mrs. Sinclair suggested. "Fortunately for all parties concerned, London is no place for you at present."
"I am going to turn respectable," Blake said.
"Never!" Mrs. Sinclair replied, emphatically. "You couldn't do it. You would succumb to the strain in a month. And one thing pray bear in mind—when once that money is gone don't write to me for more. I have paid you handsomely, and I have done with you. So far as you and I are concerned this is the end. Our diplomatic relations are broken off."
With a cool little nod Mrs. Sinclair left the hospital and Blake for all time. She flattered herself that she knew an ingrained blackguard when she saw him, and she entertained no sanguine hopes of Blake's reformation. The next day she and Lyn joined the "Campanella."
Like an experienced traveller she shook down into her place at once. She had settled in her cabin long before the majority of the passengers had all their traps aboard. From a comfortable deck chair she was studying the bustle of humanity about her.
"We are going to enjoy ourselves this voyage," she said. "We have nothing on our minds, we have brought our business to a satisfactory conclusion, we have earned the reward of our labor. My dear, you are at liberty to talk about Lance, and Broadwater, as much as you like; but I decline to hear a word as to Blake and Stott et hoc, therefore—"
She paused and put up her glasses. A jauntily dressed little man, with an uneasy smirk, was crossing the gangway with a great grim-faced man on either side of him. A crowd of passengers stood back and regarded the little man open-mouthed.
"Stott!" Lyn gasped faintly. "What is he doing here?"
But Mrs. Sinclair had bustled away to see. Presently she returned with a frown on her usually placid features. She dropped angrily into a chair.
"Most annoying!" she exclaimed. "We shall be more or less mobbed all the way across when the passengers discover our identity. Those two men are Inspectors Miles and Crompton, of the Metropolitan Police. They came over here to bring the Columbia Bank forgers. I have had a little chat with Miles. It appears that Stott pleaded guilty to the charge yesterday, and asked to be sent to England. As Miles and Crompton were returning home, the prisoner was given into their charge."
"We shall have to make the best of it," Lyn groaned.
"Of course we shall. I have asked Inspector Miles as a favor to keep Stott as close as possible, and he has promised to do so. Did you see the little scoundrel bow to me? He might have been a courtier and I some grand lady."
And so it fell out pretty well as Mrs. Sinclair had prophesied. They were fairly mobbed by the other passengers for a day or two, until some new sensation came along. Of Stott they saw nothing—or heard nothing, beyond the fact that he was in indifferent health. The ship's doctor went so far as to say that he would never see his trial.
It was on the fourth day out that that functionary approached Mrs. Sinclair. She was reclining in a deep deck chair intent upon a novel.
"I am sorry to trouble you, Mrs. Sinclair," he said, "but I come from Stott. He says that he is anxious to see you."
"The anxiety is all on one side, Dr. Powell," Mrs. Sinclair said, freezingly.
"So I intimated to Stott," Powell replied. "But the wishes of a dying man.... And perhaps he has a confession to make. And he seemed very anxious to see you."
"Are you quite sure that he is a dying man?"
"Quite. The man's heart has evidently been hopelessly affected for years. It is a marvel to me that a man who has drunk so heavily has lasted so long. Stott has had two queer heart seizures to-day, and when the next comes it will finish him. It may come at any moment."
"And does your patient know this?"
"Oh, yes. It has caused him a great deal of cynical amusement. He is a fearful physical coward, and yet he is not afraid to die. He is amused at the fuss and attention that is made over him when he is going to die before we reach Queenstown."
"Dr. Powell," said Mrs. Sinclair, sharply, "I'll come and see your patient now."
Cool and collected as she was, Lucy Sinclair was somewhat shocked to see the change that a few days had wrought in Malcolm Stott. His red face had turned to a peculiar ghastly ground-rice hue, his lips were like faded leaves, he appeared to breathe with difficulty, and his voice was low. The twitching of the muscles indicated the presence of constant pain. But he was smoking the eternal cigarette, and had forced a smile to his lips.
"You will not regret coming to me," he said. He made an attempt at gallantry, but the smile had faded from his dry lips. "Doctor, you will please remain. My very attentive friends may leave me. I am going to escape them; I am going to a country where there is no extradition treaty."
"I wouldn't waste words," the doctor said, significantly.
"I am obliged for the hint. I brought you here, madam, to listen to a confession. The man who makes this confession is the murderer of Sir George Massey."
"I am quite aware of that," Mrs. Sinclair murmured.
"Yes, I know. You suspected me from the first. I have seen it in your face more than once. I killed Sir George Massey because I was afraid of being found out. I am a queer kind of coward. I am not in the least afraid of dying, but I was morbidly afraid of poverty. And an enemy of mine was writing anonymous letters to Sir George, calling his attention to my scheme over Miss Verity and her father."
Stott paused and moistened his lips.
"Sooner or later my vigilance would have escaped, and Sir George would have discovered the truth. He was very near it more than once. If he had done so I should have been kicked out of Broadwater to starve. You know what my plan was—you and I had it over together a day or two ago. Everything was in perfect train, and once Sir George was out of the way the Broadwater estates seemed as good as in my pocket.
"Therefore I decided that Sir George must go. But how? I thought that out carefully, and I managed to get that suicide letter written as part of Sir George's play! What a play! But no matter, seeing that it suited my purpose so well. Here was I with evidence in my possession that Sir George had committed suicide, and I only had to kill him. Nobody would suspect.
"How should I kill him? I was too great a coward for that. Still it had to be done. I thought and thought over that until the idea of chloroform came into my mind. The chloroform had to be obtained first. I elaborated a scheme for that. I personated Dr. Ruby, whom I had seen once or twice, and whose habits I had studied, and so I got the drug.
"My idea was to drug my man and cut his throat after. I brought myself to it at last. I stood behind him with the bottle and the handkerchief in my hand, and at the same moment he turned. In my agitation I slopped half the bottle over and lost the cork—the cork which was so fatal to me. But Sir George was not suspecting anything. He bent over the table again, and I gagged him. He gave a kind at a choking sigh, and his head fell forward. I was amazed at the swiftness of the chloroform. I did not know that I had killed Sir George.... I am rather hazy in my mind as to what happened afterwards. I suppose I used that razor. I laid my suicide letter on the table, and crept out of the room with the remains of the chloroform in my hand. As to the cork, I had forgotten all about it. And now you know everything...... I am very tired."
He lay back for a moment with his hand to his side. The blue tinge deepened on his cheeks. Just for a second it looked as if he had gone. Then the watery eyes opened again.
"You have expressed no regret," Mrs. Sinclair suggested.
"Neither do I feel any," Stott replied. "I am dying now. My death has been accelerated by the exciting events of the last few days, acting on a very weak heart. But I have no regret. If I had succeeded and lived I should have been rich. If I had failed and lived I should have been a half-starved wanderer on the face of the earth—I, Malcolm Stott, who had been feted and flattered like a prince in my time! If I had only left that accursed brandy alone! That and that only is the only regret that haunts me now. I should have been rich and honored and respected. As it is I am dying... 'Tis not so deep as a well or as wide as a church door, but 'tis enough.' ... What was I saying? The play is finished—the audience have gone home. The stage waits—the stage waits for Malcolm Stott. Ladies and gentlemen, the piece is withdrawn in consequence of the unavoidable absence of the chief performer."
The words died, as a broken harp string fades into nothingness.
Powell drew back from the bed, after looking into the white face.
"He is dead," he said, "Mrs. Sinclair, he has escaped them after all."
"Not escaped," Lucy Sinclair whispered. "There is a greater tribunal before him yet."
It was but natural that Lance should be anxious to know how recent disclosures affected his future prospects. Beyond the shadow of a doubt Malcolm Stott would suffer the extreme penalty of the law. To all practical purposes he was a dead man. Could he make such testamentary dispositions as would keep the fetters still bound?
It was a time of great anxiety for Lance. He knew nothing of the startling events on the other side of the Atlantic. It had never occurred to him that it was possible to purge the fair name of Lyn's parents, and thus defy Stott to do his worst. And if Stott perished, what then? It was not to be supposed that Stott had thought of making a will. He would care nothing for those who came after him. So long as his scheme resulted in his own advantage he would not trouble. He had no relatives to care or cater for.
There was a deal of horror and excitement amongst the servants at Broadwater. But at the back of all this was the grim satisfaction of knowing that Stott was done with.
"To think that I should have soiled my hands by carrying that scoundrel to bed!" Long said. "That I should have had to wait upon him like a gentleman, and call him 'sir,' and all the rest of it. And him not fit company for the wild beasts."
"Do you suppose they'll let us see him hung?" the coachman asked, hopefully.
So there was rejoicing in a grim sort of way in the servants'-hall, whilst care hung over the drawing-room. The first moment Lance had to spare he ordered round the dogcart, and drove into Swanley. It was market day, and the little town was crowded. The corn exchange square was full of farmers and the like. As the dogcart slackened, a big burly yeoman came out of the crowd and extended his hand.
"Good luck to you, Sir Lancelot," he cried. "There isn't one of us who hasn't been on your side from the first. And it's real glad that every farmer in the country is to see a Massey of Broadwater holding up his head again."
"I have never held it down," Lance said.
"No, and never will. Give Sir Lancelot a cheer."
They did heartily, as Lance passed along. He came to the "Mitre" at length. The drawing-room there, usually given over on market days to county magnates, was full. There was just the suggestion of a pause as Lance entered. Not a few of those people there had been pretty short-sighted lately.
There was a motion of the crowd, and Lord Riversbrook came forward, followed by his wife and daughters. Most people wondered what the Lord Lieutenant was going to say.
"We were going to call upon you this afternoon!" he exclaimed. "I am afraid we have not behaved quite as we might lately. But, believe me, my dear Massey, we never entertained the slightest doubt that your good name was—was—Hang it, man, let me shake hands with you. And Lady Riversbrook and the girls will tell you how sorry they are."
"I shall throw myself on Sir Lancelot's mercy," Lady Riversbrook laughed.
"And purchase a stronger pair of eye-glasses," Lance retorted.
"When is Lyn Verity coming back?" one of the girls asked.
Lance recognised the opportunity, and embraced it. Half of the county were in earshot, and listening eagerly. A bold statement now would save a deal of worrying explanation later on.
"Lyn Verity is not coming back at all," he said; "for the simple reason that there is no Lyn Verity. In future she will be known to you as Lady Massey. Foolishly, perhaps, Miss Verity and myself were secretly married some time ago. You all of you know now that Sir George objected to my engagement to Miss Verity, and why. My wife went away to allay suspicions, and so as to give me a free hand with a certain scoundrel who shall be nameless. Perhaps before long we shall be in a position to prove that the story of my wife's father's death is a pure fiction—in which case nothing can stand between us and the home we love so well. But whether that is so or not, nothing can alter the fact that Lyn Verity is now Lady Massey."
A little ripple of surprise followed this statement. Some of the elderly ladies there beamed upon Lance. They were positively grateful for the fine field of gossip he was giving them. In this respect Broadwater had behaved nobly of late.
"I am very glad to hear it," Lady Riversbrook declared. "And I sincerely hope that matters will end happily for you. I shall call as soon as your wife comes home."
That settled it. Lady Riversbrook had gone further than a mere declaration; she had issued a proclamation to the county, commanding them to call on the new Lady Massey at the first opportunity. Lance was cynically amused and at the same time perfectly satisfied. As Lance Massey, the author, nothing much mattered; as Sir Lancelot Massey, it was necessary to stand well with his neighbors.
He made his way through a mass of bowing congratulations to the offices of Wallace and Wallace. There he laid his doubts before Gerald Wallace.
"The point has not escaped us," said the latter. "I have been going over your uncle's will carefully. When Stott is out of the way, and that seems after all only a matter of time, you are free to marry whom you like."
"Provided that Stott has not made a will?"
"Precisely. But it's odds he's done nothing of the kind. He only lives for the moment. Once he is dead, who is going to carry over the detective business?"
"Then I can defy the law on that point?"
"Certainly you can. Who is to say you nay? When you marry—"
"My dear Wallace, I am married already. Lyn has been my wife for months."
Wallace shrugged his shoulders, and passed his congratulations. As a lawyer with half the county secrets in his possession, he was surprised at nothing. But his words were words of comfort to Lance. It looked to him as if he could regard Broadwater as his own now.
Still, the days were fairly anxious ones as they passed. There was news of a sort from America on the subject of Stott. He had been arrested in New York, he had pleaded guilty, and had requested to be brought back to England to be tried. Lance read that Stott was on his way home on the Campanella. He did not know who else was aboard this vessel.
Surely the Campanella was due by this time. Lance took up his "Standard" from the breakfast table languidly to see. He saw something instead that set his heart beating faster. He saw that the murderer of Sir George was dead.
There was not much of it, nothing beyond a mere statement to the effect that the Campanella had put into Queenstown, and that the notorious criminal, Malcolm Stott, accused of the murder of Sir George Massey, under such dramatic circumstances, had died on the voyage. Briefly interviewed, the doctor of the Campanella had confirmed the report. There was a further rumor to the effect that Stott had made full confession of the crime, and this was also confirmed by Dr. Powell, who had been present when the confession was made.
Perhaps Lance was not to be blamed that he drew a deep breath of relief as he read the pregnant paragraph. Stott had committed the one grateful and unselfish act of his life. In his grave all the scandal and trouble would be buried. And if he had died without making a will—but Lance felt pretty sure on this point. He read the paragraph aloud to Long.
"Well, Sir Lancelot," Long responded, "some people have all the virtues, and some have all the luck. Still, it was the best thing the fellow could have done. And if I could only see my dear mistress back again I should be happy."
Lance proceeded to explain that Lyn was now mistress in more than name. Long evinced no surprise.
"Lord believe you, sir!" he said. "I've known that all along."
"You have! And you never told anybody?"
"Not a soul, Sir Lance. It was no business of mine. And I found out quite by accident. But I shall be glad to tell them now if you've no objection."
"None at all," Lance said, gravely. "It must have been a great strain upon you, Long."
A little later in the day came a brief but pregnant telegram from Mrs. Sinclair to the effect that Lyn and herself had reached England, and that they would be home by tea-time. Long remarked excitedly that this was the happiest moment of his life.
Lance wandered restlessly about the house and grounds. It was a bitter-sweet kind of day for him. It was just possible that Lyn might bring some good news with her. And it would be hard to lose Broadwater now. Lance could see the trim lawns and the flowers and the path beyond where the deer moved.
Then gradually he put his restlessness from him. He was looking forward eagerly to meeting Lyn. He would take her in his arms and hold her there before the eyes of all the world. They had been happy before, but to some natures stolen fruit is not so sweet. And Lyn had been one of these. It was only her deep love for him that had led her towards a secret marriage.
Well, that was all over and done with now. By this time there was not a man, woman, or child within twenty miles of Broadwater who didn't know that Lyn Verity and Lady Massey were one and the same. It would be good to see Lyn again, to see that lively face, and gaze into those tender eyes.
It was a little before 6 o'clock that they came. Mrs. Sinclair had the placid air of a general fresh from a conquering campaign. Lyn's exquisite face was red, and her eyes shining. Long ran down and opened the door of the carriage with proud humility.
"Welcome home, my lady," he said. "This is a proud day for Broadwater."
Lyn laughed and blushed deeper. Lance came down the steps and caught her in his arms. Then their lips met, and there was a great peace in the minds of each.
"My darling!" Lance whispered. "My darling, I have missed you."
Lyn answered with her eyes only. There was a brightness and sweetness and radiancy about her that Lance had never seen before. She ran up the steps into the hall.
"How long have they known?" she asked.
"Oh, quite lately," Lance replied. "All except Long, who declares that he guessed from the first. The strain of keeping the secret loyally must have been immense. And all the county knows. I had a kind of informal reception at Swanley, and told everybody. Lady Riversbrook said she was delighted, and expressed her intention of calling soon. She also looked at the other ladies, as if to say she would know the reason if they failed to call also. And here's Mrs. Masters, to say that the best bed-chamber has been swept and garnished for the bride. If we do stay here—"
"Darling, we are going to stay," Lyn whispered. "The mystery is all cleared up. We have had adventures in America wilder and more wonderful than anything you ever put in a book. But you shall hear it all when I've changed my dress. I guess I'm dying for a cup of tea."
She ran up the stairs laughing, with all the sweet new joy of life upon her. Lance regarded her happy face lovingly. An exquisite figure in an exquisite setting.
"So we are going to stay here and be happy?" he said.
"The evil genius has been scotched and killed," Mrs. Sinclair smiled.
"And Auntie killed him," said Lyn. "My dearest old boy, we have come home with the most positive proofs that all Stott said about my father was a tissue of lies. That copy of the 'Record' was forged; it had been altered to suit the occasion. We have a proper copy—with nothing of the tragedy in it. My dear father was shot on his own doorstep by a mad speculator, and my mother died of the shock. And we have all this on the evidence of the doctor who attended them both."
"Then all that Stott said—"
"Was false. But he is a dead man, and the evil that he did is dead with him. Even if he were alive at this minute you could snap your fingers at him and order him out of the house. But, mind you, we did not find out all this without a deal of difficulty and danger. Auntie shall tell you all the rest in her own way. Lance, Auntie is the cleverest and bravest and most wonderful woman in the world."
"I have long suspected it," Mrs. Sinclair said, gravely.
"Don't be conceited," Lance cried. "Aunt Lucy, tell me your story at once."
Mrs. Sinclair proceeded to do so in her own inimitable way. It was a plain statement of fact, but it interested Lance exceedingly. He had only one regret—that he had not been permitted to join the expedition.
"We wanted somebody here," Mrs. Sinclair said. "And the change was good for Lyn. Has she told you the real reason why she ran away?"
Lyn blushed to the eyes as her glance rested tenderly on Lance. Her lips were trembling, but there was a proud and yet hopeful look on her face. And then Lance understood.
"You don't mean to say!" he exclaimed. "My dear little girl! My dear little wife."
Mrs. Sinclair rose discreetly, avowing that there was something that she must say to Mrs. Masters without delay. As she closed the door behind her Lance crossed the room. He drew his wife to his side, and her head rested on his shoulder for a time. They were too happy for words. Presently Lyn rose and crossed over to the open French windows. Lance followed.
"It is a lovely place," Lyn said. "I never quite appreciated how lovely it is until to-day. And we know now it is yours and mine; and will be for the—the one that is coming. Lance, I wonder if you are as glad as I am?"
"Darling, I am the proudest and happiest man in England. And you have gone through all this for me."
"For you and—and the other one. I always felt that the truth would come out some day. And Aunt Lucy is a wonderful woman. But for her—"
"Don't think about it, dearest. Let us be happy to-day."
Lyn rose and kissed Lance on the lips.
"To-day and to-morrow and every day," she whispered. "It is only those who have drained the cup of sorrow who can appreciate the sweetness and beauty of the happier day."
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