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Title: The Green Bungalow Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1305941h.html Language: English Date first posted: Oct 2013 Most recent update: Oct 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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It was luncheon time at the Metropolitan Hotel, Brighton, and the great dining-room was comfortably filled with guests and casual visitors as Hilton Blythe strolled casually into the room with the intention of seeking one of his favourite window seats. He glanced casually round as if in search of some passing acquaintance before his keen eye picked out the little lady in lavender seated in an angle facing the King's Road with a companion. The most accomplished and daring card-sharper and swindler in Europe paused for a moment as if he had been struck by a bullet, but only for the fraction of a second, and then he was himself again.
A waiter crept up ingratiatingly, for they all knew Blythe there. His character mattered nothing to them, they appreciated his generous nature and the splendour of his largesse in the matter of tips. And your waiter knows a gentleman instinctively, and Hilton Blythe was most emphatically that so far as birth and breeding were concerned. Blythe was an assumed name, of course, but from what noble house the man really came was known only to a few, and they for the sake of their class never told. There were some of them who acknowledged him still, and occasionally helped him when times were bad, but, for the most part, Blythe went his own way and lived at the best hotels at home and abroad, for he was one of the type of men that everybody likes, despite his record, and he never by any chance brought scandal upon any caravanserai in which he might happen for the moment to be housed. It was high game he aimed at, and his reputation for audacity and courage was a by-word in the dark places of the world. For the rest, he looked exceedingly youthful for his forty-five years without a grey hair on his head, or in his carefully trained moustache, and there was no better dressed man in London.
He prided himself upon the fact that nothing shook him, but he had been shaken to his very marrow as his eye fell upon the lady in lavender seated in the angle of the window with her companion whom Blythe knew to be Roy Harley, a young man of family who had quite lately come into an unexpected fortune. It was Blythe's business to know these things, but any predatory ideas, so far as Harley was concerned, had no place in Blythe's mind.
Behind his eyeglass and that bland superiority of his, he was studying the lady in lavender intently. He saw a slight, fair girl, with grey-green eyes, and a suggestion of birth and breeding on that perfectly cut face of hers, he saw a little mouth, red and kissable enough, but well-moulded and determined, and he could see, in those expressive eyes, the fact that the girl's companion was more than a passing pleasure to her.
"My God," he murmured to himself. "So that's what the child has grown into. Fancy three years making all that difference. And yet she is exactly what I pictured she would become. If——"
Blythe turned, suddenly conscious of the fact that the waiter was standing by his side. He was the easy and assured man of the world again, with a definite object before him.
"Ah, Walters," he said, in his genial way. "Give me a corner seat, will you. Over there, in the window."
"Very sorry, sir," the waiter said. "That table is engaged. But I dare say——"
Blythe slipped his hand significantly into his waistcoat pocket, and the waiter smiled. There was not a waiter in the Metropolitan who was not ready to do anything that Blythe asked, and a moment or two later he was seated at the little table in the window close by the lady in lavender and her companion, and in a position to hear every word that passed.
"Well, weren't you astonished to see me?" Harley asked. "And now, what have you been doing all this long time? And what do you mean by running away from Scotland in all that hurry?"
The girl laughed happily.
"I thought it was you who ran away," she said.
"Well, perhaps I did, my dear Nettie," Harley said. "But there, it is wonderful what a change three months will bring about. When we were staying together at Markham's place, you and I and Prest, because the others didn't count, I was a poor man with nothing but my pay in the Guards to live upon. But it's all different now, as I explained to you. Oh I wasn't blind, Nettie, I know that Walter Prest was just as much in love with you as I was, and I know how unhappy you were with that old aunt of yours. Oh, Lady Rachel is a fair terror. And, because I knew that you liked Prest, and that he was a rich man, I thought it best. Oh, well, my dear, you know what I mean. But things have changed now. I never expected that crabbed old godfather of mine to leave me a bob, whereas he left me everything. And here am I down here with my own yacht at Shorehaven, and, by the grace of God I run up against you on the front this morning. Could the fates be any kinder to a man? But never mind about me, what have you been doing, and why are you hiding yourself down here? I went over to Littlehampton and actually bearded the formidable Aunt Rachel in her den."
"And she told you she had washed her hands of me," Nettie laughed. "Roy, I couldn't stand it any longer. That aristocratic poverty fretted me horribly. And then again, I was always having my dead father's past thrown in my teeth. I have almost forgotten him, but whatever he was, I wish he were alive now, because I have the fondest memories of him."
The man at the next table stirred uneasily, and he looked out of the window, seeing nothing.
"But we need not go into that," Nettie went on. "I made up my mind to get my own living, so, for two months, I worked like a slave at typewriting and shorthand, and my teacher got me an secretarial job with a distinguished traveller and sportsman who was living down here. Did you ever hear of Mark Shute?"
The listener at the next table nearly jumped out of his chair. But the lovers noticed nothing.
"Now, that's a strange thing," Harley cried. "But I am more or less down here with Shute. We are going yachting together. Hasn't he got a bungalow at Shorehaven?"
"That's the man," Nettie said. "The Green Bungalow at Shorehaven belongs to him, and I go there most mornings whilst he dictates his book of travel to me. It's an easy job, because the rest of the day is my own, and I have most comfortable rooms in College Road, Kemp Town way, and I believe I am really happy for the first time in my life. I like my work, and it is nice to feel that I am earning my own living."
"Well, you won't be for long, anyway," Harley said boldly. "Come out on to the front, and let's have a long, delicious afternoon together. My word, won't Prest be surprised when I tell him that I have met you like this? I am not afraid of him now, Nettie."
"There never was any reason why you should be," Nettie whispered. "What a small world it is, Roy. Fancy you being a friend of Mr. Shute's."
"Yes, he's quite a good chap. And that reminds me, I am going over to his bungalow after dinner this evening with Prest, and a man called Andrew Macglendy for a game of poker. Prest asked me to get a pack or two of cards. He's off somewhere to-day and he tells me that there are no cards in the bungalow. I suppose there is some shop not far off where I could get a few packs."
"Oh, yes," Nettie said. "There is Weston's, in Castle Square, where I get all my paper from. We can call in there on the way back from our walk."
But still they lingered, and still Blythe sat there, apparently busy with his lunch, listening to every word that was said, and studying the girl in lavender from every angle. It seemed to him that he had got the whole story now, and that he knew exactly how things stood. And the girl a few yards away turned ever and again in his direction, regarding approvingly the well-set-up handsome middle-aged man, and wondered who he was. Roy Harley could have told her, though he merely knew Blythe by name, as more or less a soldier of fortune who obtained his living by dubious means, though he had never been actually found out, and still moved in quite respectable society. Harley had only met him once or twice, and what he saw of the man he rather liked. He had been more or less warned against him, but then Harley had been poor for a man holding a commission in the Guards, and he had learnt his worldly wisdom in the hard school of poverty.
He was hardly conscious, however, just now that Blythe was near him. He had eyes only for the girl by his side, and, so far as the rest of the room was concerned, it might have been empty. And still they lingered there, as if loth to leave their intimate little table, and seek the sunshine of that warm October day outside on the famous front. But they rose presently, and made their way along the front in the direction of Kemp Town, and from thence through Sussex Square on to the East Brighton Golf Links. It would be quiet enough there, the day was warm and dry, and they had all the vast solitude of the Downs before them, except for a few enthusiastic golfers who saw them not at all. They sat down presently on the hillside looking toward Ovingdean, and there the rest of the world seemed to matter nothing.
"This has been a wonderful day," Harley said. "I never dreamt when I got up this morning that we should be lunching together. I have been trying to find you for over a month. I wonder what our frigid old aunt would say if she knew that you were living within twenty miles of her."
"Oh, what does it matter?" Nettie laughed happily. "She would be very angry, of course, and she would be horrified to think that Frond was getting her own living."
"But not for long, as I told you just now," Harley said meaningly. "Look here, Nettie. You will have to chuck that job of yours, we'll go quietly off and get married, and tell all our friends afterwards."
"You have never asked me yet," Nettie laughed unsteadily.
Without more ado, Harley gathered her into his arms and kissed her squarely on the lips.
"Oh, what does it matter?" he asked. "What does anything matter, so long as there is a perfect understanding between us?"
And with that Nettie gave a smile of infinite content. Nothing in the world would stand between her and her happiness now.
It was shortly after nine o'clock when Harley walked down the steps of the Metropolitan Hotel and made his way in the direction of Brunswick Square. There he stopped at No. 201, and rang the bell. In response, there appeared a manservant, correctly attired enough, but somewhat dark of skin, and speaking a soft accent that suggested vaguely South America. In answer to Harley's question he replied that Mr. Macglendy was at that moment in the drawing-room with the mistress of the house, and two other gentlemen, whom Harley placed in his mind as Prest, his friend and rival, and Mark Shute. Macglendy he did know, but found him to be a tall, rather handsome spare man, with a prominent nose of the Jewish type, and a splendid beard that flowed over his chest. He was a pleasant mannered man enough, shrewd and worldly, with a pronounced Scotch accent that seemed also grotesque with a man who carried a Semitic suggestion in every line and gesture of him. Mrs. Macglendy appeared to be absolutely pale and colourless, like a sort of frightened atomaton that moved and spoke in a dream, and, quite evidently under the hypnotic influence of her husband. Her face was an absolute mask, and her manner exceedingly refined and polished, with a suggestion, every now and then, of one who, in her earlier days, had been au fait with the very best society. But after the first convulsive greeting she dropped back to her seat like a toy that has run down and spoke not another word until the others rose to go.
"Well, we had better be getting along, I think," Shute suggested. "By the way, Harley, I suppose you didn't forget to bring those cards along that I asked you for? I am afraid if you did, we shall be more or less in the cart."
"Oh, that's all right," Harley said. "I bought a couple of packs this afternoon, and they are in my pocket at the present moment. I am ready, if the rest of you are."
"And the car is at the door," Macglendy said.
They drove along the front presently, past Shoreham until they came at length to the road that leads down to the group of bungalows on the Shorehaven beach. Here the car was dismissed, with instructions to the chauffeur to return shortly after midnight, and the little party made their way over the shingle in the direction of a sort of bluff on the left side of the beach, where they could see the outline of a bungalow that stood a hundred yards or so apart from the other buildings. So far as Harley could see, there was behind the bungalow a sort of floating landing stage, locked in on either side by concrete bastions. The bungalow itself had been fashioned at some remote period out of a wreck, and indeed, in the uncertain moonlight, it looked very like a ship itself.
"Rum old place, isn't it?" Shute said, as he opened the door and switched on the lights. "I have taken it furnished for a year from an eccentric old mariner who made his money out of salving operations. This old wreck is one of the speculations, and he turned it into a living house. It's the ideal spot for man who has literary work to do, and that's why I took it. Every convenience you see, even to electric light and cooking. When I am rusticating, I can look after myself and dispense with a servant. I have even got a landing stage here, with a floating raft—the very thing for your yacht, Harley. I have half a mind to go into the smuggling trade. I believe I could work it quite easily. What do you say, Harley, to joining up with that yacht of yours?"
Harley made some laughing reply, but he was too interested in the common sitting-room to the bungalow to take much heed of what his companions were saying. It was a quaint, odd-shaped room, with large portholes on either side, in fact, it was the exact reproduction of a large and comfortable ship's cabin, and, in a good many ways, it reminded Harley of his own quarters on the yacht that he had invested in directly he had come into his money.
"And a verra nice comfortable hermitage it is," Macglendy said, in that broad Scotch accent of his. "Mon, ye could write here all the year round and never a sound. That book of yours ought to make interesting reading."
"Well, I think it should," Shute murmured. "I have been knocking about the world for the last twenty years, and I flatter myself I have had more adventures than most men."
"Yes," Macglendy said. "A striking example of the rolling stone that does gather moss."
"Oh, I haven't done so badly," Shute said modestly. "Now then, gather round the table whilst I get the drinks out. By the way, Harley where are those cards?"
"I put them on the mantlepiece," Harley said. "There they are, just behind you. I suppose they are all right. They were the best I could get at Weston's, and I thought two packs would be enough. If you want any more——"
"Oh, that's all right," Shute said. "That will be all right for to-night. You'd better take them down and tear all the wrappings off."
As Shute spoke, he dived into a little cupboard by the side of the fireplace and produced a large tantalus with a syphon or two of soda, and some glasses. Harley rose, and taking the two packs of cards from the spot where he had placed them, broke the twine around them, and tore off the covers. Then he poured the two packs out on the table from their cases, and Macglendy picked them up and allowed them to sift through his fingers in a professional sort of way which would not have been lost on older men of the world than Harley, and his old friend and school chum Prest, who sat watching Harley with a smile on that handsome, somewhat stupid face of his. For Prest was a soldier first and last and all the time. A man of considerable means who had taken up the Army seriously, and, to him, the honour of his regiment was almost a fetish.
"What are we going to play?" he asked.
"I don't care what it is," Harley said.
In his happy mood it was all the same to him. He was prepared for a long evening to play a game for which he cared practically nothing, and whatever game the others elected for he was quite willing to fall in with. One or two games were suggested and then they fell back by common consent upon poker.
"What about the stakes," Shute asked. "We are quite safe here from any interference on the part of the police, so I vote that for once in a way we have a real big gamble."
"Oh, don't make it verra high," Macglendy said. "I'm not so fond of your big stakes. Ah, no, I ken the value of money too well, and how hard it is to earn. But I'm thinking these young fellows with silvers spoons in their mouths will be wanting what they call a flutter, so, just for once in a way, I don't mind going as far as fifty pounds rises."
The others began to laugh, and Shute began to rally the Scotsman upon his caution, all of which was accepted in good part. Then they sat down to play in earnest, and for the best part of an hour hardly a word was spoken. Even Harley, careless and happy as he was, began to find himself under the fascination of the game.
And, from the very first, he won steadily. It seemed to him that he could do no wrong. The more he won, the more exuberant and reckless he became, whilst the others looked on with humorous comments, and the usual allusion to a beginner's luck. It was Prest who suffered more severely, for the Scotsman, in his cautious way, threw in his hand over and over again rather than take any unnecessary risks, and Prest was just about holding his own.
"Well, that's a most amazing thing," Prest exclaimed, as Harley called his hand for the fourth time, and laid two pairs on the table. "Talk about luck. Ah, there's one thing, my boy—don't forget that lucky in cards, unlucky in love."
It sounded almost a challenge, so that Harley looked up with a mocking smile in his eyes. He was laughing to himself to think that Prest would know all about that before long, so he gathered up his winnings, secure in his position, and the knowledge that he had honourably got the best of his old friend and rival.
"Yes, it is extraordinary how everything is going my way," he said. "I had a feeling when I sat down to-night that I was going to win. It seemed to me that everything was going my way, and I suppose that that is what made me reckless. I think it's what you Scottish people call fey, Mr. Macglendy."
"Och, aye," Macglendy said. "When the tide's with ye, nothing goes wrong. Ye could call the other man with nothing in your hand, and win even if you were holding four pieces of blotting paper. And if the luck's all out, then a straight flush is no more good to you than a sick headache. I've been through it myself."
Still the game went on, with occasional lapses for a cigarette or a visit to the tantalus, and still Harley won. It seemed impossible that he could do wrong. Then Macglendy dropped out for a hand or two, and stood watching the others. Suddenly a change came over his face, and, leaning over the table, he picked up a hand which had just been dealt by Harley to the other two.
"You'll excuse me," he said, in a harsh, husky voice. "It is verra unpleasant, but my duty is plain. These cards are marked."
Harley jumped to his feet as if something had shot him.
"Marked," he cried. "Marked. Two fresh packs of cards that I bought myself and opened in your presence. Mr. Macglendy, I am afraid I don't quite understand what you are saving."
"Aye, but I do," Macglendy said stolidly. "I am too old a hand at the game to be deceived. Look at this."
He took up a handful of the cards, and held them aslant so that the light caught the glaze on the backs. And on every card there was a sort of pattern in dull, tiny spots as if the glaze had been removed by a touch of acid. There was not a single card in either pack that did not show one of these patterns. Very slowly the Scotsman dropped them one by one on the table, and then turned a cold, passionless eye upon Harley.
"You see what I mean," he said. "They are all marked. And what's more, one of the cards is missing. I think ye'll find that it is the ace of spades, and, moreover, I think Mr. Harley will find the ace of spades in his jacket pocket."
Boiling with rage and indignation, Harley plunged his hands into his jacket pockets. Then, to his own dazed amazement, he produced a square of pasteboard that fluttered from his nerveless fingers on to the table under the eyes of his companions.
"The ace of spades," he whispered hoarsely. "Gentlemen, I swear by my Maker that I never placed that card there."
Hilton Blythe, soldier of fortune, card sharper, and man of the world, beautifully turned out and looking every inch the gentleman by birth and breeding that he undoubtedly was, turned into the dining-room of the Brighton Metropolitan the following afternoon to lunch as usual. He had come down there in search of a certain prey that had so far successfully eluded him, but now all thoughts of personal aggrandisement were thrown to the winds. With all that amazing courage and audacity of his, he was a kind-hearted man, loyal enough to his peers and ready to share his spoil with a friend. But there were bigger things to occupy his mind, ghosts from the past were rising and it behoved him to be up and doing lest one that he loved more than life itself was to find lasting unhappiness. In other words he had stumbled on the track of a very pretty conspiracy and he would not be content until he saw the righting of a wrong.
He passed along to the window seat that had been reserved for him as usual, hoping to see more of the young couple that had so intrigued him the day before. They would be lunching there again of course, for he had heard the arrangement made, but though he sat at his meal over long there was no sign of the lovers.
"I wonder," he muttered to himself, "I wonder if the game had begun already. But I hardly imagine that a criminal artist like Shute would do anything so crude."
A little anxiously he passed presently into one of the small rooms behind the famous palm lounge of the hotel with the intention of writing a note. The folding windows were open and he could see into the lounge. It was comparatively empty now for it was a fine afternoon and most of the hotel guests were out in the sunshine. But there almost under Blythe's eyes sat Harley and the girl who had so powerful an effect on the man who was spying on them at that moment. They could not see him in the shadow of the little room, but he could make out everything and hear every word that passed. Nor did it need much discrimination on his part to see that the two were in some bitter trouble.
"I couldn't get here before, I couldn't," Harley was saying. "I hope you didn't wait for me, dearest."
"In the lounge," Nettie explained. "When I realized that something had detained you, I went out and had a sandwich and a glass of milk. But what is it, Roy? You look dreadful."
"I came to tell you," Harley murmured. "I came as soon as I possibly could. My dearest girl, I hardly know how to begin. If anyone had told me yesterday that this trouble would fall upon me, I should have laughed. It would have seemed impossible, and yet, as I sit here before you, I am a convicted card-sharper, disgraced, and dishonoured in the eyes of my friends, and threatened with worse than that. I shall have to resign the membership of all my clubs, and, worse than that, give up my commission in the Guards. Oh, I don't say that this will be public property, because, if I do as I am told, or rather, commanded, the matter is going to be hushed up. But Prest was quite firm in his suggestion that I should throw up my commission and drop all my clubs."
"My dear boy, what on earth are you talking about?" Nettie demanded. "The thing is absurd—ridiculous. Why, if you told me yourself that you had done all these things, I wouldn't believe you."
"Yes, that is exactly as I hoped to hear you speak," Harley said, his face white and drawn. "So long as you believe in me, then there is something still left to wait for—I mean hope for. But I am so distracted that I don't know what I am talking about."
Blythe, half-hidden in the gloom of the writing-room, was following all this with the closest attention. There was a peculiar smile upon his face, and a certain grim look in his eyes that would perhaps have rendered Shute uncomfortable if he could have seen it. Quite unconsciously the two young people in the hour of their trouble were entertaining an angel unawares. It was Nettie, with that calm courage of hers, who first rose to the situation.
"Try and be calm," she said. "We are all alone here, and I want to hear everything. Nothing is quite as bad as it sounds at first, so, to please me, light a cigarette, and then tell me all about it. What is the trouble?"
"Well, it's like this," Harley said more calmly. "You know, I went off last night with the man you work for, to his bungalow at Shorehaven. Besides us two, there was Prest, who came at my invitation, and a man called Andrew Macglendy."
"I know him," Nettie said. "He is a traveller and a scientist who has taken a furnished house for the winter in Brunswick Square; a fair man, with a long, yellow beard."
"That's the chap," Harley said. "A very dignified man, who speaks with a strong Scottish accent. We went from his house in his car, and for an hour or two we played poker. From the very first I won steadily, I couldn't do any wrong. I suppose my luck was in, at any rate, I felt it was, and, after I knew that you cared for me, I had a sort of feeling that everything was going my way, and it did. Goodness knows how much I won, and the more I won, the more Walter Prest lost. I think the other two came out somewhere about equal. And then, all at once, I noticed that Macglendy had grown very quiet, and presently he stood out and watched us. Then, suddenly, he leant over the table, after I had dealt, and, in the coolest possible voice, said that the cards were marked."
"Marked!" Nettie exclaimed. "What does that mean?"
"Well, that they were gambler's cards, marked on the back with little signs of which a clever dealer could know exactly what cards his opponents held. Oh, it's quite an old trick, and has been worked over and over again. Of course, I jumped to my feet, and asked Macglendy to explain himself. Oh, he explained himself right enough—he proved his accusation up to the hilt, and, what was more, he accused me of having a missing ace in the pocket of my dining-jacket. And when I put my hand in to feel, sure enough the ace was there. Mind, I made no attempt to conceal it; I laid it on the table, and then you can imagine what happened. You see, unfortunately, they were my own cards—the cards that I bought from Weston's in Castle Square yesterday. I had taken them with me to the bungalow, and I broke the twine on them, and tore off the covers myself. The suggestion was that I had very cunningly opened both packs beforehand and doctored them, after which I had replaced the covers so carefully that they appeared to be intact. Heaven only knows how the whole thing was managed, but there it was. I had been caught cheating at cards, with two marked packs I provided myself, and I had won a lot of money from one of my very best friends. What could I say, Nettie; what could I do? I proclaimed my innocence. I swore that there must be some mistake here, but I hardly dared to suggest that I was the victim of a plot. You see, I was dealing with men of high repute, one of them being my oldest friend. You wouldn't suggest for a moment that Prest had anything to do with it."
"Oh, no," Nettie said. "Such an idea is unthinkable. Mr. Prest is a gentleman."
"And my rival," Harley said with a queer smile. "But I ought not to have said that. As a matter of fact, Walter Prest was the hardest of the lot. So far as Macglendy and Shute were concerned, they were quite satisfied to accept an apology from me, and an admission that I had done wrong. I was grateful for the way in which they behaved, but Prest was as hard as iron. You know what a keen soldier he is, you know how fanatical almost he is with regard to the honour of his regiment. Of course, he was most fearfully cut up, and in a great state of agitation, but, though he was quite willing that the matter should go no further, he was firm on the fact that I must send in my papers and resign the membership of all my clubs. As an officer in the Guards, he declared that he could do no less. He wanted to shake hands with me afterwards, and advised me to go abroad in the yacht for two or three years, until the thing was more or less forgotten, And, upon my word, Nettie, I was so broken up that I almost agreed. As I sat there with my miserable thoughts, it seemed to me that, at any rate, you might believe me——"
"Oh, I do, I do," Nettie cried. "I know that you are incapable of anything of the kind, and, even if it were true, then I would stand by your side and look the whole world in the face. We should be quite happy somewhere abroad, say South America, and we could see the world in that new yacht of yours. But then, you are innocent, Roy. I am convinced that you had nothing to do with this vile thing, and I am sure you will agree with me, when I say that this dreadful thing must be faced, and the truth brought to light."
Nettie spoke with a white, set face, and the suggestion of a tear in her eye, but the lines of the little red mouth were firm enough, and Blythe gently applauded her decision as he sat quietly at the writing table watching every change of expression.
"Now, that is just exactly what I expected you to say," Roy replied. "It makes me almost happy to hear you speak in that way. And you will be glad to hear that I refused the terms offered me. I declined to spend the rest of my life under a cloud, as I decline to accept your offer. I am not going to marry you and take you abroad, and leave scandalmongers to think that there is some guilty secret. I refused to entertain the suggestion and said that I should fight for my honour to the bitter finish. God knows how it is to be done, but there is no other way. And Prest was quite decent about it—he said he would give me a month to think it over; meanwhile, nothing would be done, and nothing would be said. I had half agreed to take Shute and Macglendy yachting with me, and perhaps I shall now, but this trouble has to be faced."
"Of course, it has," Nettie said warmly. "Do you think that there is anything wrong with these men? I don't mean Mr. Prest, but the other two. Isn't it possible that they have some design upon you—some reason for getting you into their hands? I feel in a mood now to suspect everybody. Oh, let's go outside and talk it over, I can't breathe properly here."
Blythe sat at the writing table after they had gone, turning what he had heard over in his mind. He had found something which he had more or less expected to find, and he was trying to see some way out of this tragedy into the light.
"I think I have heard something like it before," he muttered to himself. "Now, where have I heard of, or read about, a plot like this? It seems so familiar. Now, I wonder—ah! that's it. It's exactly the same thing over again. Now, what on earth is the name of that book, and where did I read it. I shall have to find out, of course, and it's any money that Shute has a copy. If he has, then so much the worse for him."
Andrew Macglendy had dined comfortably and well in his luxuriously appointed house 201, Brunswick Square, and sat at the dinner table smoking a choice cigar and drinking his coffee. Opposite him was his wife, a handsome woman, though somewhat faded, with grey hair, and a dead white face, and possessing about as much vitality as an automatic figure. There was something almost grotesque in the way she moved, when Macglendy spoke to her, and the look of almost abject horror on her face when he addressed her. For the rest, she was tall and slim, most exquisitely dressed, having the air and manner of one who, at some time or another, has known what it is to move in good society. But all that was warm and human had been ground out of that unfortunate woman years ago by one who, in every sense of the word, was her lord and master. Those who knew declared that Mrs. Macglendy was well-born, and that she was closely connected with more than one aristocratic family. She was supposed to have come to her husband years ago with a comfortable fortune of her own, but that had long been squandered by an extravagant husband, who now, to put it bluntly, more or less lived upon his wits.
Time was, when this woman had been young and full of life, and very much in love with the man considerably below her, and with whom she had run away, to the great scandal of her friends, who, from that moment, refused to recognise her existence. It had been somewhat of a romance in its way, but the romance was long since dead and forgotten, and it is no exaggeration to say that the poor, unhappy creature, went in daily fear of her life. She knew, only too well, through bitter experience, what kind of a life Andrew Macglendy was leading, for, in that brutal, foul-natured way of his, he made no secret of the fact. She had known times when she had gone literally hungry, and times when she was living in a sort of dazzling splendour, as she was just then, at Brunswick Square. This was one of the brighter intervals, but if Mrs. Macglendy had been consulted, she would have preferred those dark weeks of poverty.
Meanwhile, she sat there, beautifully dressed, in that grotesque semblance of a wax doll, with her eyes turned towards her husband, as if to anticipate his slightest wish.
"Well," he said presently. "Well. What do you think of it? Isn't this a pleasant change from the last lodgings we had in Paris? And there you sit, without saying a single word, like a death's head at the feast, when you might be enjoying this spell of good fortune of ours. There, for Heaven's sake, don't start crying."
Macglendy spoke with no trace of a Scottish accent now. He displayed a tendency to clip certain of his words, and appeared to have some slight difficulty with his vowels. As he sat there, with a scowl upon his face and that queer English on his lips, he looked like what he was—a half-bred Russian Jew, who, in the early days, had learnt to speak English in a mean Glasgow-street, where he had been employed as junior assistant to a pawnbroker. But this was only when he was alone with his wife, and felt that he could unbend.
"If you'd been any use to me," he went on, "I should have been a millionaire by this time. Extraordinary thing, I can never kill that infernal honesty of yours. If you had listened to me, and played up to me as you could in the old days, when you were a dashed beautiful woman, then I could have done anything. With that bit of money you brought me, I could have gone to the top of the tree. There was nothing to stop me."
"What is it you want now?" the wife asked timidly.
"Only that you should behave yourself. Now, listen to me. I and Shute have got a dashed big thing on. There's any amount of money in it, and it's as safe as houses. I am not going to tell you what it is, because, if I do, you'll probably make a fool of yourself. We've got this place now, thanks to a bit of luck, and we are safe for the present, at any rate. There's a young friend of mine called Harley, who has just come into a hatful of money. He will probably come here a good deal during the next few days, and I want you to be nice to him. There is nobody who can do that sort of thing better than you if you try."
"I know the name," Mrs. Macglendy said mechanically. "If it is Roy Harley, I used to be a great friend of his mother's. Andrew, you are never going to ask me——"
"Drop it," Macglendy said brutally. "Drop it, I say. You are going to do just as you are told. Not another word, or you'll be sorry for it. Now, off you go, because I can hear Shute at the door. Not very fond of him, are you?"
With that, the unhappy woman discreetly vanished, as Shute came into the dining-room. He carefully closed the door behind him, and helped himself to a drink and a cigar.
"Upon my word, you are deuced comfortable here," he said. "Quite the baronial touch, with these panelled walls and old pictures. Nothing like a good setting when you've got a drama like ours to play. Now, look here, Andrew, I am sleeping in the bungalow to-night, because I shouldn't wonder if a load of that stuff turns up before morning, and, if so, I must be there to receive it."
"Ah, the saccharine," Macglendy laughed. "Quite a big lot this time, isn't it? Lord, what a game it is! Smuggled on to a little yacht and then brought by motor boat to the landing stage under the bungalow. There's no fortune in it, Mark, but it keeps things going whilst we are perfecting our plans for the big operation. And now that we've got Harley into our hands——"
"Um, are you quite sure that we have?" Shute asked. "He is an obstinate devil, and I shouldn't wonder if he decided it the last moment to fight the whole thing out."
"Oh, will he?" Macglendy sneered. "My dear fellow, he hasn't got a leg to stand on. We caught him cheating with his own cards, and the thing was done in the presence of his own particular pal, who lost a good many hundreds, don't forget. Oh no, he can't fight it. Nobody would believe him. He may kick and struggle, but before the month is up, he will bow to the inevitable, and, in the meanwhile, we shall be able to use his yacht whenever we want it. It was a very pretty idea of yours, and one of the best you have ever hit upon. I suppose it's quite original?"
"Well, I don't mind telling you that it isn't," Shute admitted. "I got it out of a book by an American, the name of which I forget for a moment. At any rate, I read it in New York, when I was laid up for a week or two some long time ago, and it struck me that the plot could be made use of in a practical way. These writing fellows often hit upon ingenious criminal schemes, which are useful to men like ourselves, and when chance threw Harley and his yacht in our way, I began to see how I could make use of that little romance I was telling you about. Of course, the saccharine smuggling is merely a blind. If we get caught, we can pretend that we did it more by way of a joke than anything else to settle a wager if you like. We shall probably get fined a couple of thousand pounds, but, so long as we are not found out, we are not only clearing expenses, but making quite a handsome thing out of it. But, as you know, I didn't rent the bungalow with its almost secret landing place merely to do the revenue authorities out of a certain amount of duty. I was waiting for the mug to come along, and when I happened upon Harley and his yacht, I knew that I had found him. You leave Harley alone, let him stew in his own juice for a week or two, and then you'll find he will be ready for anything. I shouldn't wonder if he felt desperate enough to join us. But even if he doesn't, we know exactly what to do. It's all worked out in the novel I told you about. You can have a look at the book, and see for yourself if you like. If all goes well, before long we shall be able to loot every big house within fifty miles of Brighton that happens to be fairly near the coast. I have marked down at least a dozen of these, and, what's more, I've got the plans. You see, most of these people only come down for week ends, for the shooting and that sort of thing, and I have managed to get a lot of information from servants, and people of that sort. I have got a whole lot of schemes worked out, and locked up in the safe in the bungalow, but it's necessary that we should have the run of some decent yacht which belongs to somebody absolutely beyond suspicion. And, so far as the world in general is concerned Harley is the very man for our purpose. We can use him as a sort of blind, and, whilst he doesn't know it, that yacht of his will be playing its part in the great game. My dear chap, it's one of the easiest things that ever happened. I want you to keep an eye upon Harley, and play up to him sympathetically. Tell him to do nothing for the month that Prest gave him, and suggest that there is some infernal mistake here that you might he able to put right. Have him to luncheon and dinner. Get your wife to make a fuss of him, she can play the game splendidly if she only likes. And now I must be off. I have got a taxi outside waiting to take me as far as the bungalow, and there I shall stay till the morning."
With that Shute went his way, full of the great scheme that he was playing, and wrapped in his own thoughts, came presently to Shorehaven, where he dismissed his taxi, and made his way quietly across the shingle in the direction of the bungalow. It was getting late now, and the beach was entirely deserted. Indeed, at that time of the year most of the bungalows were empty, and from only one or two did an odd light or so penetrate.
Very gently, Shute picked his way, until he came to the door of his own little retreat, and opened it with his latch-key. He threw the door of the dining-room back, and gave a gasp of surprise as he saw that the lights had been turned on.
On a big arm-chair near the glowing fireplace was seated a man in evening dress, who appeared to be deep in some yellow-covered volume which he was reading with interest. Then he looked up with a smile on his face at the astounded intruder.
"Good heavens," Shute cried. "It's Hilton Blythe. What in the name of fortune are you doing here? And how——"
"Ah, that's rather a long story," Blythe said, in his sweetest manner. "I got in through a window. I thought you would be back before long, and I waited, because I have a good deal to say to you, and, if you value your future, you will listen."
"What book have you got there?" Shute said suddenly.
"This," Blythe said, "is a detective story, called 'The Lonely House,' by one Preston Chandler. It's a most interesting story, and, as the poet says, thereby hangs a tale. It is so interesting that I propose to bore you with it. Now, sit down, and don't make any fuss. You know me well enough to be sure that I am going to have my own way, and if you wish to defy me—well——"
Shute burst into a torrent of curses, so loud and deep as to bring a look of something like pain to Blythe's features. Not that he was feeling any sort of resentment, because this display of temper was precisely what he wanted. Shute, cool and calculating, was a proposition to be tackled, but Shute in this passionate mood would be something like clay in the hands of the potter, where a cool diplomatist like Blythe was concerned.
"What the devil do you want here?" Shute said, catching his breath. "Why do you come butting into my affairs? I should have thought a man at the top of his profession, as you are, would have scorned to help himself to the property of a——"
"Brother thief. Precisely," Blythe said coolly. "Don't you think it would pay you a good deal better to sit down and talk the matter over quietly? You know what I am; you know that if once I made up my mind to a thing, it is not the slightest use to try and turn me. I came down here with a definite object in my mind, but fortunately for the man I had in my eye, I hit upon the trail of what I considered to be better game. No doubt it is annoying that the bird in question legitimately belongs to your barrel, but there you are. Now, I have got a pretty shrewd idea of what you are up to, and with your consent I am going to stand in."
"And if I refuse?" Shute snarled.
"Oh, you won't refuse, my dear fellow. People in our exclusive society are not usually in the habit of refusing anything that Hilton Blythe suggests. There have been cases, of course, but the other party to the contract, so to speak, has always been exceedingly sorry for it afterwards. And because I don't want to have any unpleasant mess with you, I came over here this evening to discuss the matter in an amicable spirit."
Shute raged up and down the sitting room whilst Blythe sat in his chair smoking a cigarette, and nursing the yellow-covered volume he had been reading on his knee. He was like some lion-tamer waiting for the rebellious animal to get over his passion, and realise that he was in the presence of his master.
"Ah, that's better," Blythe smiled, as Shute threw himself into a chair. "I thought you would come to see matters in a reasonable light. I suppose you have read this book?"
"Well, suppose I have. What about it?"
"Yes, I see you have read it, and a very ingenious story it is. With a mind like yours, of course, the possibilities of the story in the way of a practical conspiracy would appeal almost irresistible. Here is the credulous fool with money, the proud possessor of a yacht, and all you have to do is to get him in your power. Once that is done, you can use the yacht for smuggling purposes to cover still more deep designs. Now, it happens that I read that book some time ago, and when I came down here and saw what you were doing with young Roy Harley, I remembered all about that American story called 'The Lonely House.'"
"Ah," Shute muttered under his breath. "But go on."
"My dear fellow, is there any occasion to go on? I wanted to refresh my memory with another look at that story, and, feeling pretty sure that you had a copy in your bungalow, I burgled the premises and found it. And now I know pretty well what you and that rascal Macglendy are up to. And I am coming in. Oh, you can fling yourself about and curse as much as you like, but the fact remains. How you managed to get a clean honourable youngster like Harley under your thumb I don't know, because there is nothing of that in the book, and probably you worked out a little trap of your own. It doesn't matter two straws to me how you managed to throw the net over Harley, but I know that you have done so. And I know that your present game is smuggling saccharine."
"Are you quite sure of that?" Shute sneered.
"Well, that is what the characters in the story were doing, and you seem to have stuck to the text pretty faithfully. If you are up to some ulterior game on a bigger scale, then I shall be glad to hear of it at your convenience. Meanwhile, let me compliment you on these quarters of yours. Upon my word, this bungalow a little apart from the rest, with its almost secret landing place between those concrete walls, is an ideal as if it had been erected for the purpose of a cinematograph company."
"As a matter of fact, it was built by the Government during the war," Shute said sulkily. "Yes, it's all right from our point of view, but I don't quite see yet why we should take you in."
"Of course you don't," Blythe smiled amiably. "It's deuced hard lines to have to give away a third of the plunder, after you and Macglendy have done all the work, but then you see, I am more or less a master of the situation. Oh, I am not going to give you away. Dog does not eat dog, you know, but I can step in and spoil your little game by giving Harley a hint or two as to the company he is keeping. He, poor boy, has not the least idea that Macglendy is really a Jew with a picturesque name, and a swindler known to the police all over Europe. Harley regards you as a man of position and a mighty traveller, who is just at present writing a book of reminiscences. What you really are, we need not go into. Now come, what is the use of playing with me like this?"
Shute rose to his feet again, and paced up and down the room with a scowl on his face. He would like to have fought this man, he would like to have defied him, even if it came to personal violence. He and Blythe were alone in the bungalow in the dead of night, and in a table drawer, not far off, was a revolver which, swiftly handled, might have got Blythe out of the way for all time. And the thing would have been safe enough. One shot, and Blythe would cease to trouble him, then, with a weight at his feet, he might be dropped into the sea at the end of the concrete landing place, and his picturesque career would be over for good and all. Nor would any inquiries have been made, for Shute knew well enough that there was not a soul in England who would have mourned the death of the man who sat opposite to him with a mocking smile upon his face. These thoughts were so plainly expressed in Shute's eyes that Blythe laughed.
"I wouldn't try that on if I were you," he said.
"Try on what?" the startled Shute demanded.
"Oh, violence. I am a thought reader, you see, and I can see you looking at that little drawer in the card table yonder. Probably you have got a revolver there, but we don't want any melodrama. You are thinking that I shouldn't be missed, but there you are mistaken. I never do anything without taking precautions."
As if he had been a mechanical figure, suddenly run down, Shute dropped breathlessly into his chair.
"Curse you," he muttered. "Go on."
"My dear fellow, there is nothing to go on about. I thought it was understood that we were going into partnership over this business and that I was to have my share of the plunder. If that is settled, then I don't mind telling you that I have a little scheme of my own, by which you and Macglendy would benefit."
"Why didn't you say that before?" Shute growled. "Now, help yourself to a drink, and try one of those cigars. You have got to the bottom of the whole business. Any man must be a fool who tries to deceive Hilton Blythe. It's not a bad scheme we've got here but the profits are nothing like as large as you imagine. We smuggle saccharine on board a sort of a yacht we have hired, and we land it here from a motor boat. Then Macglendy, who frequently runs up to London on business, conceals the stuff in his car, and disposes of it at a tailor's shop in the Minories, where he is supposed to be in partnership with the people. Of course, if we had a really good yacht, like Harley's, and we could pose as friends of his, cruising about in the Channel, so a to avoid all sorts of suspicion, then we could carry on the trade in a wholesale way."
"I see," Blythe said thoughtfully. "Yes, it sounds good enough, but you've got to get Harley under your thumb first."
"That we have already done," Shute said with an ugly grin. "He doesn't realise the fact quite yet, but it's true, all the same."
"I don't want to go into that," Blythe said carelessly. "It is a thing that is much more in your line than mine. I may be a bit sentimental, but I never took advantage of an honest youngster yet, beyond relieving him of his spare cash. Still, when you've got a really big thing on, it's as well not to be too squeamish. And that reminds me, I told you just now that I have got a little scheme of my own on, which might bring in a thousand or two in the next two or three days, only unfortunately, I came down here without one or two of the necessary properties, as they say on the stage, and I am afraid my man has slipped through my fingers. I have got an appointment with him to-morrow afternoon, and it occurred to me that you might be able to lend me a pack or two of cards."
"Snide ones, I suppose?" Shute laughed.
"Well, that's what it comes to. I didn't arrange my Brighton trip with a view to that sort of thing, so I come away without any of my professional apparatus. I could get what I want from town by return of post, but that might be too late."
"As it happens I can let you have exactly what you require. You will find what you want in the drawer of that card-table yonder."
Blythe rose casually and strolled in the direction of the table. He saw exactly what he wanted to know at a glance—two packs of apparently unbroken cards which his professional eye recognised as the right thing, and, lying by the side of them, two further packs which were, to all appearance, the honest and genuine thing. He made no comment as to this, but, taking the packs he wanted, dropped them casually into his pocket, and came back to his seat. There was nothing in the expression on his face to show that he had made a startling discovery which, sooner or later, was destined to have a powerful effect upon the fortunes of Roy Harley.
"Yes, I think that will about do," he said. "We understand one another perfectly now, and we must have a meeting to discuss certain details that occur to me. I see that Macglendy is more or less in clover in Brunswick Square, and perhaps you could arrange a little dinner there. Now, I think I will be getting along. It's a fair walk to Brighton, but I shall enjoy it on a nice evening like this. So long, and don't take any further steps till you have heard from me again."
With that, Blythe put on his hat, and, helping himself to a fresh cigar, turned out into the night. Then he walked back to Brighton on the best of terms with himself.
With the air of a man who is without a single trouble, and in a position to look the whole world is the face, Blythe strolled down the Palace Pier the following afternoon. It was bright and sunny, with a warm wind blowing from the sea, but, as yet, the band was not playing, and there was only a sprinkling of people promenading up and down. It was some time before Blythe found what he wanted, but presently seated in a corner of the glass shelter, he made out the forms of Harley and Nettie, who appeared to be talking earnestly together and ignoring the rest of the visitors. They were talking so earnestly that it was possible for Blythe to take his seat on the far side of the shelter, in such a position that he could hear fairly well what was going on on the other side of the partition. Those wonderfully keen ears of his followed the conversation more or less coherently, and his quick wit fitted in the rest. He was frankly eavesdropping, but, from his point of view, it was in a good cause, and, indeed, there were cogent reasons why he could not come forward boldly and proclaim himself on behalf of the lovers.
There was a long silence just after Blythe had taken his seat, and it was Nettie who spoke first.
"Have you seen Mr. Prest?" she asked.
"Yes, I saw him this morning," Harley explained. "It was not very nice for me, but I felt bound to do it. Nettie, that man and I have been friends ever since I was a little chap in knickerbockers. We were brought up together. We were at Rugby and Sandhurst together, and we got our commissions on the same day. A better, cleaner, fellow never breathed. Of course, he and I were rivals when we met you in Scotland, but that didn't prevent us from being the best of friends, and because he had money and I had practically nothing beyond my pay, I tried to play the game as it should be played."
"Yes, I knew that," Nettie sighed. "And when you went away, and Walter asked me to marry him, I refused. I think he knew why, and I think he appreciated how well you were behaving. But, you see, I did not care for him, at least, not in that way, and now——"
"And now everything has changed," Harley said dismally. "Only a few hours ago, and I was the happiest man in England. But what is the good of talking about that? I went to see Prest this morning in his rooms, to try and make him believe that I am the victim of an extraordinary cruel piece of fortune."
"And he wouldn't listen to you, Roy?"
"My dear girl, he listened most patiently. He is so honestly cut up about the whole business as I am. He mentioned your name, and suggested that if I came and told you all about it, I should find you ready to take my part. He said, now that I am a rich man, it might be possible for you and me to go abroad."
"And so we shall, if things come to the worst," Nettie said resolutely. "But not until we have fought this thing out to the bitter end. I don't want to leave the country, Roy. If we must, we must, and we'll make the best of it, but if there is any possibility of getting rid of this slur, then we must stay. Couldn't you move Walter at all? Was he quite firm?"
"Well, you know how obstinate he can be. And he's absolutely obsessed about the honour of the regiment. He was more sorry for me than he could say, but he firmly believes that I deliberately cheated him, and, though he was ready to shake hands, and overlook the past, he would not hear a word about my staying in the Army. Not for his own sake, for the sake of our brother officers."
"Yes, I quite see the point," Nettie sighed. "It would not be a dishonourable thing for him to be friendly with you, but, on the other hand, it would be impossible for him to see you mixing with the rest of the officers on equal terms. I suppose that means that at the end of the month you will have to resign your commission."
"Yes, Prest made that quite clear. And the worst of it is that he is right. If I took the same view that he does, I should do exactly the same thing."
"Then we must do something," Nettie said. "We must try and find out how this dreadful thing happened. I cannot believe that you are a victim of a piece of ill-luck. It's absurd to suggest that you bought two packs of cards at a respectable tradesman's, only to discover that they were the sort of cards that are used by professional swindlers. That would be too ridiculous even for fiction."
"Yes, I suppose," Harley said miserably.
"Then let us go a little further, let us regard this much as we might a story in a magazine. There is a conspiracy against you, for some reason that we need not go into, and you have been lured to my employer's bungalow with the very object of getting this accusation fastened on to you."
"Sounds rather absurd, doesn't it?" Roy said.
"My dear boy, of course it does. You couldn't possibly suspect Walter Prest of doing a thing like that. Even if you are his rival he would never stoop to such a thing. And then again, Mr. Shute is a man of the highest reputation, and is known all over the world as a famous traveller. I can't see him associating with people capable of anything underhand, and, the same remark, of course applies to Mr. Macglendy. Oh, what a terrible tangle it is."
"And yet you can quite understand why all those people think I am guilty," Harley said, "I am beginning to wonder, Nettie, how it is that you believe in me."
"I believe in you because I have got to, because I must, and because my instinct tells me that you are the victim of some horrible mistake. And yet, the more I think of it, the more bewildered I get. My head is all in a whirl. Still, we have got the best part of a month before us, and surely something must happen before then."
The man on the other side of the glass screen smiled. He knew only too well what the next month would bring forth. He would have been glad enough to have gone to the other side of the windscreen there and then and told the lovers that they had nothing to fear, but that he could not do. And he smiled to himself again as he pictured Hilton Blythe, the polished swindler and man of the world, wasting valuable time over a mere affair of the heart. He rose presently and went off thoughtfully in the direction of the front. It was a long time, however, before he passed through the turnstiles and strolled along the King's Road until he came to the Metropolitan. There he took the lift and went up to his room.
He sat for an hour or so smoking a cigar, and looking out over the sea, then he jumped to his feet, and, opening a suit case, took out two packs of cards. One of them he had obtained from Shute, for professional purposes, and the other was one of the still unopened packs which he had also taken from the drawer of the card table in the bungalow.
"Yes, I think I shall be able to do something with these," he said to himself. "And now I give Weston's a call."
He found himself presently in the big shop at the corner of Castle Square, where he strolled up to the counter and requested the polite assistant to show him some playing cards.
"I want something like these if you have got them!" he said. "I dare say you have."
With that, he took the professional pack from an envelope, and spread them on the counter. The assistant took them up and examined them with a critical eye.
"I am afraid we can't do that, sir," he said. "To tell you the truth, there is very little demand for cards like these. You see, they are the finest Japanese make."
"Japanese?" Blythe echoed. "Do you mean to say that these cards come from Japan?"
"Certainly they do, sir. I remember that we got four packs for a gentleman some little time ago, and they cost us nearly ten shillings wholesale. You see, they are a very fine design, with a monogram on the back, and the rest being plain glaze."
"Yes, I noticed that, of course," Blythe said. "I should say that they would sell very easily."
"Of course, they would, sir. But then, you see, these sort of cards are rarely, if ever, used in the ordinary way. I believe they are only supplied to conjurers, because they can be so easily marked. There was a card scandal at the Metropolitan Hotel some two years ago, in which I happened to be called as a witness, and the cards which fell into the hands of the police were very like these. They were marked in all sorts of ingenious ways, generally with little dots in the corners where the glaze was removed by a slight touch of acid. Very clever they were indeed."
"You surprise me," Blythe said, with wonderful gravity. "Dear me, what extraordinary ways of getting a living some people seem to have. I shouldn't be at all surprised to find that these cards are marked. When I get back to my hotel I will see. But I should like very much to have some like them for ordinary use."
"Very sorry, sir," the assistant said. "But, as I told you before, they are rarely, if ever called for, because they are so easily soiled. I am quite sure you would not get anything like them in Brighton."
Blythe appeared to be somewhat disappointed. He put the cards back in their envelope, and replaced them in his pocket. When he had done that, he produced one of the other packs of unopened cards, which he had taken from the bungalow without saying anything to Shute about them. These he passed casually across the counter.
"Oh, well, it really doesn't matter. After all, one set of cards is quite as good as another. But what about these. They seem to be excellent cards. I have just got this one odd pack, and if you can match them for me I shall be obliged. You see, one odd pack of cards is not very much use."
The assistant took up the neat little package, and, as his eye lighted upon it, he smiled.
"These came from us," he said. "They must have been bought here. Our private mark is on them. You see that little cross on the side? I made that myself when we were taking stock. But I am sorry to disappoint you again sir. The last two packs of those cards I sold the day before yesterday to a gentleman who came in here. We shall have some more in a few days, but, meanwhile, I am, afraid I shall have to keep you waiting."
"Oh, no hurry," Blythe said cheerfully, "I will come back in a few days."
He was on the right track now, and he knew it. By the time he reached his hotel, he knew exactly what to do.
Blythe was almost inclined to smile at himself when he dwelt upon the part he had elected to play in a love comedy that apparently did not concern him in the least. He was getting on in life now despite his rather youthful appearance and his air of luxurious prosperity, and his methods of obtaining the gilded living that was almost second nature to him was not so easy as it seemed and moreover entailed a real amount of hard work and a deal of scheming. And yet here he was deliberately turning his back upon a golden opportunity of making a lot of money and actually watching the plump pigeon of his fluttering into the hands of a brother adventurer.
He was telling himself, half cynically, that there must be a certain vein of sentiment to his nature, and that this sort of thing must be suppressed, if he did not want to end his days in the workhouse. But, after all, Blythe had his good points, and impulses which, from sheer necessity, had to be forced into the background, and in his heart of hearts welcomed the chance of doing Roy Harley a good turn. There were times, years ago, when he had mixed freely enough in that sort of company, and occasionally, in his darker moments, he mourned his own lapse from the straight path more or less sincerely. And there were other reasons that impelled him to put aside altogether his predatory business and devote himself entirely to straightening out the tangle in which Harley had been deliberately involved by Shute and Macglendy.
He might have stopped the whole thing and exposed those two rascals in half a dozen crisp sentences. But then, that involved a certain amount of risk, and might have left behind it something whereby scandal could get a grip. On the whole, he decided, he must wait till the time came when he could show his hand remorselessly, and convince Walter Prest beyond the shadow of a doubt that his friend had been most cruelly used. It was dimly, as yet, that Blythe saw his way to a dramatic situation, where virtue would be triumphant and vice confounded, after the manner of a stage melodrama. And Blythe was not the man to hurry things when he knew perfectly well, that with a little patience, he would have all the cards in his hand. And there was really no reason why he should not benefit materially at the same time. If he could bring about the programme that was dimly simmering in the back of his mind, then he would make for the happiness of a girl in whom he took the deepest interest, and come out of the adventure with bursting pockets.
He waited a day or two before going back to the shop in Castle Square, with the intention of carrying the inquiry into the card business a little further. The assistant he had seen on the last occasion came forward smilingly, with the information that he was now prepared to supply Blythe with as many packs as he wanted of the particular sort of card which Harley had purchased in Castle Square on the afternoon of his fatal visit to the bungalow.
"Here you are, sir," he said. "You can take your pick of the new stock. They only came in this morning."
Blythe turned over the stock thoughtfully. These were exactly the same sort of cards that Harley had bought, and Blythe knew this, because a pack of them had been in his pocket on the last time he had entered the establishment in Castle Square.
"They look very nice," he said.
"There is nothing better in the trade, sir," the assistant replied. "They are rather expensive, of course, but we can do them at eight shillings. You will see, sir, that there are two different sorts, though exactly the same size. Landscapes on the back, in miniature, the rest plain white glaze. You will notice that on one pack appears a view of Buckingham Palace, and on the other a charming miniature of Sandringham. We call them the Royal packs."
"And very nice too," Blythe said. "I suppose these are just the same as the cards you sold the other day to a customer who took all you had left before I called."
"That's right, sir," the shopman said. "The gentleman you speak of left us with one odd pack."
Blythe made his purchase, ordering the same to be delivered to him at the Metropolitan, and he went on his way quite content with his morning's work. The next thing now was to scrape acquaintance with Roy Harley, and this was not difficult, in view of the fact that the latter himself was staying at the Metropolitan. The thing came about quite naturally enough in the lounge of the hotel, between tea and dinner time, and, at the end of half an hour, Harley was chatting freely with the most fascinating man he had ever met. At any moment there was the chance of an acquaintance strolling up to Harley and telling him that he had better be careful what he was doing, but these sorts of contretemps were no novelty to Blythe, and, in any case, he was prepared to run the risk.
"Try one of my cigarettes," Blythe said. "I think you will like them. They are made especially for me. I am rather particular about my tobacco. You see, I am a man who drinks practically nothing at all, and these cigarettes are my one great luxury."
The tobacco was excellent, and Harley was loud in praise of it. Almost before he knew what he was doing, he was telling this casual acquaintance a good deal about himself, and it never occurred to him that he was getting nothing in return.
"Yes," he said, "I came down here for a little change. I am in the Army, you know—the Guards to be particular—though I am seriously thinking of chucking the Service."
"That's rather a pity, isn't it," Blythe said in his most bland and fatherly way. "I always think it is a mistake for a young man not to have some sort of profession. It keeps him out of mischief. If I had stuck to my Army career, I should have been a happier man than I am to-day. Believe me, Mr. Harley, money isn't everything, though you may think it is."
"I haven't had money long enough to be a judge," Harley laughed. "I came quite unexpectedly into a fortune some time ago, and the first thing I did was to buy myself a yacht. She is off Shorehaven, and in my spare time I am cruising about the Channel. When this weather breaks, of course, I shall have to lay the boat up for the winter, but I don't want to as long as it keeps fine."
"Now, that's very interesting," Blythe said. "In happier days when I could afford that sort of thing I used to go out yachting myself. I wonder if you would think it a liberty if asked you to give me an afternoon on your boat?"
"With pleasure," Harley said eagerly. "Any time you like. I can't very well manage this week, because I have a good deal of troublesome business to attend to, and if I am going to leave the Army it will entail a journey or so to town."
It was quiet enough in the lounge, just in the corner where the two were seated, so that it was possible for Blythe to speak freely, without anybody hearing. He leant forward and laid his hand in friendly fashion upon Harley's knee.
"I hope you will pardon me being personal," he said. "But I am an older man than you, and I have seen a great deal of the world. I don't want to force your confidence on so short an acquaintance, but it is quite evident to me that you are in some sort of trouble. You are young, and evidently in the best of health, you have money, and friends, and yet you are in some great trouble. It is only when you get old and battered as I am that you can successfully hide that sort of thing from strangers."
Harley looked up a little haughtily.
"Indeed," he said in a distant manner. "You must be an exceedingly observant man, Mr. Blythe."
"I am," Blythe said with a directness that robbed the words of any suggestion of boasting. "My—er—profession compels me to be so. I thought perhaps I might be able to help you, but still if you resent my interference, I can only apologise and express regret at being so forward. Try another cigarette."
All this Blythe said naturally enough, so naturally, indeed, that Harley was quite disarmed. And, after all, there was no man living who was in more dire need of the help and assistance of a man of the world than was Roy Harley at that moment.
"I beg your pardon," he said. "I do not mean to be rude. As a matter of fact, I am rather worried over an unfortunate affair which is no fault of my own. Naturally, I don't want to talk about it, but if, in the course of a few days, things do not alter for the better, I may be able to avail myself of your offer. Believe me, I am not ungrateful, but these are reasons for the moment——"
"Oh, quite so, quite so," Blythe said with a wave of his cigarette. "But one thing I will say—whatever you do, don't you leave the Army unless you are absolutely compelled to."
"I don't quite understand," Harley said. "You speak as if you knew some powerful reason——"
"I know nothing definite," Blythe said. "I may have my suspicions, and all the more so because I am not altogether disinterested in a certain young lady. Well, I might just as well mention her name—I am speaking of Miss Frond."
"You know her?" Harley cried.
"I didn't say so," Blythe replied guardedly. "I simply said I was interested in her. You see I knew her father."
"Ah, the man who died rather mysteriously."
"So I understand. We were great friends at one time, and I knew Frond as well as I know myself. But if you don't mind, I would much rather you didn't mention this conversation to Miss Frond. Now take the advice of a man of the world, and do nothing till you are obliged to. And if matters reach a crisis, come to me. I should be only too glad to do anything to help the son of the man whom I used to know as Everard Harley."
"Oh, you knew my father, too?" Harley exclaimed. "Strange that I never heard him mention your name."
"Not in the least strange, my boy, if you knew all the circumstances. Now, let me be quite frank with you. I forced myself on you for the very purpose of having this conversation. I want you to realise that in me you have a friend whom you can rely upon, and I want you, when we meet casually, to treat me rather distantly, and as a mere nodding acquaintance. There are people watching who must be led to believe that there is no real bond between us. So keep your pecker up, and all will go well yet."
So saying, Blythe rose from his seat, and walked away, leaving Harley in a state of utter bewilderment. It seemed to him as if all the world was crumbling about his feet, and yet, in some vague way, he felt uplifted and comforted.
Blythe had more or less thrust himself into the confidence of Mark Shute, but not for a moment was he trusting to that rascally individual, or his equally shady acquaintance, Macglendy. He knew perfectly well that both of these would throw him over and defy him at the first opportunity, and it was up to him, therefore, to see that the opportunity did not arise. He had his underground methods of obtaining information, and when he left the Metropolitan Hotel about about half-past nine the same night, he had a quite definite object in view. He came down from his bedroom in the lift, and stole quietly out of the hall, with his coat collar turned up, so as to escape observation. To outward appearance he was in evening dress, but under his light overcoat was a workmanlike reefer suit of serge, and, in the pockets of his coat, he carried a pair of stout shoes, shod with india-rubber. He turned his steps westward and stopped, first of all, at the corner of Brunswick Square.
Turning into the square, he knocked at the door of 201, and inquired from the foreign-looking servant as to whether Mr. Shute happened to be with Mr. Macglendy. In reply, he was told that Shute had been dining there that evening, but that some quarter of an hour before, the master of the house and his guest had gone off somewhere in the motor.
"Very annoying," Blythe said. "I have come down from London to see Mr. Shute on most important business. I must see him this evening at all hazards. I suppose you don't happen to know where they have gone. If you can tell me, I shall be glad."
As Blythe spoke, he produced a scrap of paper from his ticket-pocket and displayed what appeared to be a Treasury note. The servant grinned, and his expression became friendly.
"I am not quite sure, sir," he said. "But I rather fancy they have gone to Mr. Shute's bungalow. But——"
"That will do," Blythe said. "That's all I want to know. I suppose I can get a taxi somewhere, can't I? I know all about the bungalow. I've been there before."
With that, the piece of paper changed hands, and Blythe turned on to the front, where he was fortunate enough to pick up a taxi, which whirled him as far as Shorehaven, where he got out, and bade the driver to wait.
"I may be an hour, I may be more," he said. "But there is a pound note to go on with. If you can't wait for me, then run back to Brighton, and send another cab here."
"Oh, I can wait for you all night, sir," the driver said. "It's always a pleasure to to anything for a gentleman like you."
Blythe crossed the shingle, and skirting round the lonely green bungalow, made his way over the high shoulder of sand and stone until he came at length to the cutting, where he could make out a small floating landing-stage resting on the water. It was possible to put a boat in there, even at low tide, with perfect safety, and without the slightest chance of observation. No doubt Shute had been right when he told Blythe that this secret landing-place had been constructed during the course of the war, at the time when the bungalow was in the occupation of the military, and, doubtless, that tiny jetty had witnessed more than one strange sight.
It was only a matter of a few yards from the jetty to the back of the bungalow, along a hollow channel with the shingle piled high on either side, so that Blythe, with all his professional instincts aroused, realised with a frank admiration what an ideal spot this was for the purpose that Shute had in view. He was still studying the ground carefully, under the shadow of the gloom, when suddenly out of the darkness and intense silence that reigned all round, came a single mournful cry that Blythe recognised as the call of the curlew.
Instantly, he picked up his ears. He did not need to be told that there was not a single curlew within ten miles of Shorehaven beach, so he stepped back behind a huge boulder, prepared to watch patiently for further developments. It was a long time before anything happened again, and Blythe's patience was nearly exhausted, when he made out a tiny point of flame, so small as to be almost invisible, that came, no doubt, through a hole in the shutter at the back of the bungalow. No sooner had this appeared, than the cry of the curlew was heard once more, and the pinpoint of light vanished.
"Now we shall see what we shall see," Blythe muttered.
He had not long to wait, for almost immediately, those quick ears of his made out a sound of footsteps coming from the bungalow in the direction of the beach, and then against the dim background of hazy light reflected on the sky from the street lamps of Brighton, appeared two figures that Blythe rightly guessed to be Macglendy and Shute. He could hear them muttering to themselves as they passed him, and made their way to the head of the jetty where they stopped as if waiting for something to happen.
It was no part of Blythe's game to betray his presence there so he sat crouched close behind the boulder, waiting for the next scene in the drama. It came presently in the form of a motor boat which pulled up in absolute silence alongside the landing-stage, and, after a short interval, Macglendy and his companion re-appeared carrying something that looked like small sacks in their hands.
It was quite clear what was happening. The motor boat, equipped with the very last thing in the way of a silencer had evidently put off from a yacht somewhere here in the offing, with one or two bags of the precious saccharine, and the cry of the curlew had been the signal to those two, waiting in the bungalow, that the stuff was close at hand. It was all so quiet that even Blythe, listening intently, could not hear the boat put off again, but it seemed to him that he could just make out the faint white line of her bows as she tacked before turning out to sea. He waited until Shute and Macglendy had disappeared, then he turned and followed.
He was just in time to reach the other two up before they closed the door behind them. He heard Macglendy cry out, and the next moment he was fighting for his life.
They were both upon him instantly, one of them clinging about his knees, whilst the other had him by the throat. This was not the first time by any means, that Blythe had found himself in a tight place, and he had not come down to that lonely spot to confront two absolutely reckless antagonists without being prepared. He managed presently to twist his right arm free, and work it into his coat pocket. Then he raised his arm and an instant later, Shute became painfully conscious of the fact that a small cold circle was being pressed tightly under his right ear.
"I think you had better drop it," Blythe said as coolly on he could. "If you don't I shall press the trigger, and subsequent proceedings will interest you no more."
This came under Blythe's breath, but there was no mistaking the grimness of the threat, and instantly Shute relaxed his hold. Blythe managed to kick himself free of Macglendy, then he turned and faced the pair of them calmly enough.
"Don't you think we had better go inside?" he suggested. "It's long odds that there is no one within a mile of us, but then you never can tell. Open the door."
Shute complied meekly enough, and led the way into the sitting-room which was furnished like the cabin of a yacht, and turned on the lights. He tossed the sack he was carrying on to the table, and savagely turning on Blythe, demanded to know what he meant by this strange line of action of his.
"We'll come to that presently," Blythe said. "My dear man, do you suppose that you and your pals here can do anything without my finding it out! Why, you couldn't cross the street without my knowing all about it. Besides, the arrangement was that I was to come into this thing and have third share. You promised me a day or two ago that I was to come down here when the next lot of stuff was landed, And, here you are, sneaking off in the dead of night behind my back, trying to rob a poor, hard working man of his reward. I am ashamed of you, Shute."
"Here, what is that?" Macglendy cried. "Good Lord, it's Hilton Blythe. Hilton Blythe. Hilton Blythe."
Macglendy repeated the name as if it had been a sort of talisman or thing of ill-omen of which he stood in mortal fear. He dropped every trace of his Scotch accent.
"That's right, my cunning little Jew boy," Blythe laughed. "And so your own confederate hasn't told you the story, has he? How on earth do you chaps expect to succeed when you don't even trust one another? I am sorry to disturb you, Moses, but there is no getting rid of the sad fact that I have tumbled to the whole game, and that I am going to have my share of the plunder. Of course, if Shute likes to keep you in the dark for his own purposes, that is nothing to do with me. I expected something of the sort, when I turned up to-night. Shute, you had better tell your friend all about it. I'll smoke a cigarette and listen."
Shute made some sort of a shamefaced confession to his confederate, who listened moodily enough, glancing malevolently at the smiling Blythe meanwhile.
"And now you understand," Blythe said. "I dare say Shute thought he could shake me off altogether. But he might have known by this time that I am not that sort of man. Also, I want you to understand that if this sort of thing happens again you will be exceedingly sorry for it. And now, if you don't mind, I should like to have a look at those samples you have just landed. I have never seen saccharine in my life, and I am rather curious to know what it is like. You might open one of those bags."
"What's the use of doing that?" Shute said uneasily. "You don't want to see the stuff. It's only concentrated sugar. Besides, it's all properly packed up, ready to go to Brunswick Square in the car, and from thence to London to-morrow. There is over a thousand pounds worth there, and so long as you get your proper share, I don't see what you have got to worry about. Here, let's have a drink."
"Rather heavy, isn't it?" Blythe said as he picked up one of the bags. "What's that noise inside?"
With that he whipped a knife out of his pocket and, cutting the mouth of the sack, poured its contents on the table. Mixed up with a certain quantity of bran was a glittering service of silver plate that gleamed invitingly in the lamplight.
"Oh-h," Blythe cried. "Oh-h, I don't seem to know everything yet. Perhaps one of you gentlemen will kindly explain. Really, this is a bigger thing than, in my innocence, I expected."
That marvellous instinct which had ever caused Blythe to do and say exactly the right thing at the right moment warned him that he had made a false move in insisting on having the sack opened at that particular moment. True, Shute had more or less grudgingly accepted him as a partner in the firm of Shute and Macglendy, but he knew that neither would trust him an inch further than necessary. Indeed, it was plain to him that they did not even trust one another, or else Shute had told his colleague what had happened so far as he, Blythe, was concerned. And here, at any rate, was another side to the business that Shute had not even hinted at.
In the ordinary course of things Blythe would have scorned to stoop to anything so mean as smuggling with its possible excursions into the realm of burglary, for he felt quite sure that the contents of the sack lying there before him, glittering temptingly in the electric light, presented the proceeds of downright, unadulterated crime. But, just at the moment, it was not for him to say anything about it. He was not thinking of anything just then but the means whereby he could solve the problem in which Harley and Nettie Frond were the central characters without betraying his interest in them to these undesirable confederates of his. Therefore, he bent over the table, and, with the eye of a connoisseur, began to examine the various pieces of plate.
"All this looks very nice," he said. "And, if I mistake not, the stuff is exceedingly valuable. Family plate, beyond the shadow of a doubt. Where did you get it from?"
"Well, I don't quite know," Shute said carelessly, after exchanging a glance with Macglendy. "You see I don't ask any questions. The stuff came to us from across the water, in the way of business, and it is for us, I suppose, to dispose of it and share the spoil with our friends on the other side. By that, of course, I mean the man who sent us the saccharine."
"That's very interesting," Blythe said. "I suppose by smuggling the stuff over here your friends escape paying duty, in the same way as they save duty on the saccharine. But you don't mean to tell me that you are going to dispose of valuable plate like this for the price of old silver?"
Shute shrugged his shoulders.
"Oh, well," he said. "One must do what one can. You know what it is when you are dealing with at receiver of stolen goods. He runs bigger risks than we do, and that, I suppose, is why he expects to get the lion's share."
"Ah, well, all that sort of thing is quite out of my line," Blythe said, with bland insolence. "This is the first time I have ever stooped to anything of the kind, and I think it will be the last."
"Then why stoop at all?" Macglendy said hoarsely.
Blythe turned upon him with a certain cat-like playfulness, but with a steely gleam in his eyes.
"Ah, my little Jew boy," he said. "I suppose you think that is a very pertinent question. But please don't speak to me like that again. I have my very good reasons for coming into this business, but those are entirely personal. Let me remind you that our unfortunate acquaintance, Mr. Roy Harley, was marked out by me before he came down to Brighton; in fact, I followed him here. And I could have stopped your game at once, had I liked."
All this, of course, was not strictly true, though, to a certain extent, it had a basis in fact, for Blythe had not followed Harley to Brighton, nor had he been particularly interested in that individual until he had tumbled more or less by accident, upon the budding romance which he had seen blossoming before his eyes in the dining-room of the Metropolitan Hotel. For Blythe, with all his predatory instincts, and constant need of money for that extravagant mode of life of his, had always prided himself on the fact that he never prayed upon his own class. The new rich, the accidental objects of capricious fortune, the prosperous business rogue, and all that fraternity were his quarry, but never had he taken advantage of the follies of youth amongst the clan from which he, himself, had fallen, like Lucifer, never to rise again.
Still, he was smiling quietly to himself as he tenderly handled the pieces of silver with a feeling that he had seen them before. Naturally enough, he knew a great deal about the crests and coats of arms of various aristocratic families and it seemed to him that with a little puzzling out, he would know where this service of plate came from. That it had been smuggled across the Channel in the ordinary way of business he did not believe for a moment. He knew little enough about saccharine, either, but what little he knew told him that that particular material was not smuggled in sacks, but in small packets that take a very space. And then it seemed to him that he had solved the problem. He was going to verify his facts, but it occurred to him that he knew now who was the owner of that fine service of old family plate.
"Well, it's all very interesting," he said. "But if you take my advice, you won't part with that stuff to any ordinary dealer in stolen goods. It's really magnificent stuff, and it looks to me very much like Cellini's own work. If it is so, it's worth anything up to three hundred shillings an ounce. So, on the whole, you had better keep it until we can find some extravagant fool of a foreign millionaire who will pay a fancy price for it, and won't care twopence how it came into our possession, so long as we can assume him it is genuine. Surely you can hide it somewhere here."
"That's certain," Shute said. "Upon my word, Macglendy, that's a very good suggestion. And, mind you, Blythe, there is plenty more where that came from."
"Oh! you are going in for burgling are you?" Blythe asked.
"Nothing of the kind," Shute said indignantly. "This is just a sort of side show, and I didn't tell you anything about it, because I thought it was no business of yours. If that aristocratic stomach of yours is too dainty to come down to the midnight business you need not touch it. But if you want to have a share in the saccharine profits, you will help us over Harley. The fact of the matter is we must have his yacht. We can't get on without it. We have been managing for some little time with a clumsy old barge that belongs to a Frenchman. But lately he's got the wind up, and he refuses to go any further. It was only by means of threats that we have kept him with us as long as we have."
"Ah, I begin to understand," Blythe said. "You need not be afraid of any interference on my part, but what I object to is being kept in the dark by my own partners. Now, why not sit quietly down and tell me the whole story. Give me names and places."
"Well, it's rather a long story," Shute said. "And I have got a great many things to do before daylight. Mind you, I have got to keep up my reputation as a well-known traveller, and a hunter of big game, and, besides, I am very much behind in the book I am writing. I shall have to sit up most of the night getting ready for my secretary who comes here every day to take down the work from dictation, and I must get certain chapters off to-morrow night. Why not go back in Macglendy's car and discuss the whole thing with him in Brunswick Square, over a cigar and a drink?"
It suited Blythe well enough to fall in with this arrangement. He knew perfectly well that Macglendy was the weaker and more pitiable rogue of the two, and that from him he would get far more information than ever he could squeeze out of Shute.
"Very well," he said. "That sounds quite satisfactory. But you don't mean to tell me that you have managed to interest Mr. Harley in this business."
"Lord, what do you take us for?" Shute asked angrily. "Harley is just a mug, a simple mug who fancies he knows something about card playing. He was down here a night or two ago——"
"What, playing cards with you two?" Blythe asked. "Poor chap! And how much did the bag run to?"
"It didn't come to anything ma tere," Macglendy grinned cunningly. "That was not the game at all. He came here to teach us a trick or two and win our money. At the end of the evening, he had won nothing from either of us, but a whole lot from a friend he called Prest. Then something went wrong with a card, and the ace of spades was missing from one of the packs."
"Ah, the old game," Blythe smiled. "Blackmail, and all that sort of thing. Hush the thing up, lend us a few thousands for a little scheme of ours——"
"Not quite right," Macglendy laughed. "We didn't want to borrow anything, only the yacht. You can take it for granted that we have got Harley in the hollow of our hands, and can do anything we like with him. Once the yacht is in our possession, we can do as we please with it, and he'll never know what we are up to. At the present moment he looks upon us as the only two friends he has in the world. That ought to satisfy you."
For the moment, at any rate, it did. Here was confirmation of Blythe's suspicions, beyond the shadow of a doubt, and once the ground was cleared in that direction he dexterously switched off the conversation to more general topics. He was quite prepared to go back with Macglendy, and discuss the business with him at length, but that would not be to-night, for it was very late, and, moreover, he would be busy all day to-morrow.
"I can't get away until after dinner," he said. "Your particular trout is not the only one in the stream. But suppose I came round to 201. Brunswick Square to-morrow evening about 10 o'clock."
"That will suit me well enough," Macglendy said genially. "Can I give you a lift back to Brighton?"
"It is hardly worth while," Blythe said. "Because you see, I have got a taxi waiting for me. So, if you don't mind I will get along at once. Till to-morrow night, au revoir."
With that, Blythe took his leave and went his way back to his taxi, exceedingly pleased with the evening's adventure. Shute and Macglendy regarded each other with a certain uneasiness when once they found themselves alone again.
"That man is a perfect devil," Macglendy said. "How on earth did he ever manage to push himself into this business?"
"Well, we needn't worry about that now," was the gloomy response. "We shall have to dance to his tune, and if we play him false, we shall never cease to regret it. The best thing you can do to-morrow night is to tell him everything and let him have it his own way. I wish to heaven I had strangled the brute to-night, and thrown his body in the sea. Nobody would ever have inquired about him, and I should feel a good deal safer than I do now."
Apparently Blythe was not so busy as he had pretended, for he was not up particularly early on the following morning, and after a leisurely breakfast he made his way round to the reference department of the Public Library and there asked the assistant to let him have a look at a copy of "The History of Heraldry." He had kept quite faithfully in his mind a definite impression of the crest and coat of arms he had seen the night before, and with a little searching of his memory, he found, at length, a coloured plate, over which was the name of the Earl of Fishbourne, followed by a brief biography of that distinguished family.
"Yes, that's it," Blythe said to himself. "Let me see, hasn't Fishbourne got a place not far from Arundel? Ah, here it is, Fishbourne Towers. About four miles from Littlehampton and within view of the coast. I've got some hazy recollection of having stayed there once when I was a boy. Yes, now I come to think of it, I remember it perfectly. And I remember hearing all about the Cellini plate picked up by the head of the family during the Napoleonic wars. By Jove! those were the days to live in. If I had been born then, I might have had quite a distinguished career. Yes, there is the griffin, supported by a pair of foxes, and the mailed fist above it. Now I begin to see my way. Those scoundrelly associates of mine have got hold of Fishbourne's matchless collection of plate, and, if I hadn't turned up there last night, it would have been sold for a song and melted down. Now, I think it will be safe at the bungalow until I can put the owner on the right track. But how on earth is it that he hasn't missed it?"
Blythe put up the book presently, and went along to the Post Office, where he bought a letter card, on which he wrote a few lines in a distinguished handwriting, and addressed to the Earl of Fishbourne, at Fishbourne Towers. Then he passed the rest of the day without seeing anything of the young couple, in whose welfare he was so deeply interested, and, after dining carefully and well, wended his way, just after 10 o'clock, to Brunswick Square.
He was ushered into the drawing-room with due respect by the foreign-looking man servant and in the big, perfectly appointed room on the first floor, found himself face to face with Macglendy, resplendent in evening dress, and looking the part of the gentleman in easy circumstances to the very life. For Macglendy was a plausible and adoptive scoundrel, with rather a fine presence, and a good manner, which accounted, in a large measure, for his success in the dubious occupation which he had elected to follow.
"Ah, my dear fellow," he said, quite after the fashion of one to the manner born. "I am delighted to see you. I don't think you have met my wife?"
Mrs. Macglendy rose, white and ghostly, as usual, in that strangely automatic manner of hers, from the piano at which she was seated, and held out her hand almost mechanically. Then her manner changed suddenly, she became like someone frozen, except with regard to her eyes, and she stood before Blythe as if her limbs refused to follow their office, and for a fraction of a second she was on the verge of collapse. With that long training of hers in the hands of a man who had gradually ground out all life and feeling, her vitality seemed to come back to her, and she murmured a few more or less appropriate words that might have come from the tomb.
Blythe had not been altogether unmoved, but only by the flicker of an eyelid did he betray the fact. His manner was perfect, as usual, he said just the right thing, in the right way, but stood watching all the time behind his mask, till it seemed to him that the unhappy woman in front of him began to breathe again.
"That will do," Macglendy said. "You had better cut along to your own room, because Mr. Blythe and myself have business to discuss. Now then come along."
"Really, I can't permit this," Blythe said smilingly. "We can't turn a lady out of her own drawing-room. Suppose you get those plans out in your own particular sanctum, and, when you are ready, I will come downstairs and join you. I couldn't leave Mrs. Macglendy quite like this, you know."
Macglendy looked a little annoyed with himself. He had forgotten, for the moment that Blythe was a gentleman by birth, and that there was nothing artificial about his politeness.
"Oh, very well," he said. "Perhaps that would he better. I shall be ready for you in about ten minutes. My wife will show you the way. Now, don't keep Mr. Blythe chattering here."
As the door closed upon Macglendy, the pale, almost motionless woman, standing there in front of Blythe, came to life.
"I must speak to you, Hilton," she said, "I must speak to somebody, or I shall go mad. If you only knew what a life I am leading here, if you only realised what the agony of all these years mean, you would indeed be sorry for me."
"My dear Lena," Blythe said, "I have been sorry for you always. I could never for the life or me understand how you came to marry that man. With your birth and training you must have known that he was not a gentleman. How did you come to meet him?"
"Ah, I have almost forgotten. It was abroad, in Paris, I think. But my memory is so dreadful I can't remember anything. You know what a lonely strict life Nettie and myself led. You can hardly imagine what a joy it was to us to have a spell of freedom. And during that time, I met him."
The woman was speaking in quick, breathless gasps, and Blythe did not fail to notice, the bitter emphasis on the last word.
"We knew nothing of the world," she went. "We were just like two children. Nettie was luckier than I."
"She was indeed," Blythe almost groaned. "She was saved by death after marrying a scoundrel, and yet I suppose she was fairly happy after she married, until she lost her life over the birth of her child. But don't let us rake up that past—there is no time. Tell me about yourself, and how you fell in that man's hands."
"I am telling you," Mrs. Macglendy went on. "We were staying at the same hotel. He was so kind to us in our loneliness that I was attracted to him from the first. And then, you know how handsome he is, and what beautiful manners he can assume if he wants to. How easily poor women can be deceived. I did not know then that he was a common Jew, born in Glasgow, and brought up in a pawnbroker's shop. That knowledge was to come afterwards, when my family cast me off, and he had spent the small fortune that was coming to me. And when that was gone, he came out almost shamelessly in his true colours. Ah, Hilton I had my good looks then."
"You have them still," Blythe said. "You are very much like poor Nettie used to be in the old days. And, if you could get rid of that man, and well beyond the reach of his influence, then it would all come back to you again."
"That's just what I want," the unfortunate woman whispered. "I want to be free, I want to leave him. But I am perfectly helpless. I have no money, nothing except a lot of beautiful clothes that he lavishes upon me for his own evil purposes, and besides, if I left him, I should starve. I am quite sure that there are none of my old friends or relations who would give me shelter now."
"Ah, there you are absolutely wrong," Blythe said. "You see, I still retain the friendship of one or two of the old set. Of course, I don't go to their houses, and they pass me when we meet in the street. But if ever I were really in distress, and wanted enough to keep me in comfort, there are at least six men I could go to with a certainty that they would hold out a friendly hand. I need not mention them by name, because you know them just as well as I do. They probably think you have disappeared, because your scandal is an old one, indeed, some of them regard you as dead. But if you place yourself entirely in my hands, I think I can bring about a reconciliation. Are you ready to do that?"
"Oh, I am ready to do anything," the woman cried, flinging up her hands. "If I don't get away from here, I shall die, or put an end to myself. I am not alive, I am a mere frozen thing that moves by machinery. Of course, I eat and drink and sleep, but I know that my mind is gradually going. Hilton, for the sake of old times, and for the love you had for my sister, who cared for you to the end, kelp me, help me."
"My dear Lena, I have already told you that I will," Blythe said. "You must leave it entirely to me. It will take some time, and I have my hands fairly full for the present."
"With my husband's affairs. Surely you have not come so low as to be a partner of his? Because I know what he is doing. I never know what he and Shute are after, and he is the worse of the two. Ah, it is all very well for him to pose as a great sportsman and traveller, but even in my state, I hear things that are said, and sooner or later, the crash must come. I think my husband and Shute are the two greatest scoundrels in England."
"Well, my reputation is none too sweet, is it?" Blythe smiled, in that candid fashion of his. "I have forced myself upon those two, and it is no exaggeration to say that they hate me like poison. But they are afraid of me, and have to do exactly as they are told. Oh, I shall know how to deal with them when the time comes, but that will be in my own hour, and in my own way. Now, possess your soul in patience, and I will prepare the ground for you. When I send word for you to come, then you must come without a word. Just walk out of the house and meet me on the front, and I will have a car waiting for you. It may be next week, or it may be next month. Rest assured that there are still relations who remember you, and who will be glad to give you a home in future. But now, don't you think it would be just as well if I went downstairs and had my little chat with your husband. We don't want to arouse his suspicions."
Mrs. Macglendy took Blythe's hand and carried it to her lips in something like a passion of gratitude. It was the first sign of real life he had seen in her, and it seemed to him to give some sort of promise for the future. For, after all, this unhappy woman was barely in the prime of life.
"Please don't do that," he said. "I am not quite so hard as I thought I was. Now, come with me and show me the way to your husband's workroom, and say good night."
"How good you are, Hilton," the woman said. "But then, in spite of everything, you always were good and kind. And if you really can save me, then I shall owe you a debt of gratitude that I can never repay. I can feel my courage beginning to come back already."
Nettie Frond sat in her comfortable rooms in College Road after breakfast wondering what she was going to do with her unexpected holiday. She had come down to her morning meal quite prepared as usual to catch the motor 'bus presently and make her daily way as far as Shorehaven and spend the rest of the morning in the Green Bungalow, taking down Shute's book from his own lips. And here was a postcard from her employer to the effect that he and Macglendy had been quite unexpectedly called away on business and telling her that she was free until she heard from him again.
This was all to the good, of course, because the weather was still beautifully fine, and with any luck she would be able to give her whole time to Harley and the proper consideration of his affairs. So far nothing had happened, and the lovers were no nearer the solution of the mysterious happenings that threatened to ruin their future happiness. Some days had elapsed now since the ghastly tragedy in the bungalow, and unless something like a miracle transpired the end of the month would see the termination of Roy Harley's social career. Walter Prest had gone away, not caring to remain in Brighton any longer in the circumstances, and the last thing he had done had been to write a few lines to Harley telling him that it was just as well they should not meet again, and mentioning a certain date by which Harley should send in his papers.
So far as Nettie could see, there was no other way out of this horrible business. It was impossible to take anybody into their confidence, and, so far as Shute and Macglendy were concerned, the matter appeared to be at an end. For Nettie did not know anything about that fateful conversation between Harley and Blythe, because the latter had insisted that it should not be mentioned to a soul. However, Nettie would go out presently, and telephone to Harley at the Metropolitan Hotel, telling him that she was free for the next day or two and asking him to meet her somewhere in town.
She had come to this decision before she proceeded to open the rest of her correspondence. There were one or two items of no importance, and, finally, a note in an unknown handwriting, bearing the Hove postmark, which she opened with some curiosity.
It was just a few lines, signed Lena Macglendy, and asking Miss Frond if she could make it convenient to call at 201, Brunswick Square, just after six o'clock that evening. The matter was urgent, and Miss Frond was warned not to mention it to anybody else.
She knew, of course, something about Macglendy, but he had never been more than ordinarily polite to her, and she had only heard in a vague sort of way that he was married. She had more than once left letters and papers at Brunswick Square, but, so far, she had never been inside the house. She was wondering now, in a vague sort of way, whether this strange communication had anything to do with the trouble that was hanging over Roy's head. It seemed absurd to think so, but then, one never quite knew, and Nettie made up her mind there and then to keep the appointment.
She went out presently, to the nearest call office, and rang up Harley on the telephone. A voice at the other end, after some considerable delay, informed her that Captain Harley was not in the hotel. He had gone out after dinner the previous evening, and, so far, had not returned. It was rather annoying, but nothing to worry about, in the circumstances, in all probability, Harley had been spending the night on board his yacht.
There was nothing for it now but for Nettie to spend the day as best she could, and, just after six o'clock, she turned into Brunswick Square and rang the bell at Number 201. The foreign-looking servant let her in at once, and she found herself presently in the drawing-room shaking hands with the mistress of the house. She saw a tall, faded-looking woman, who still possessed the remains of considerable beauty, and who, in some strange manner, caused the girl to feel that they had met before. It was one of those vague, intangible sort of sensations that we are all subject to at times, and Nettie dismissed it as absurd. And yet, she could not throw the feeling off altogether—indeed, something impelled her to mention it.
"You are Mrs. Macglendy, of course," she said. "I had your letter this morning, and—well, here I am, But you know, Mrs. Macglendy, it is a most extraordinary thing, but I cannot help feeling that I have met you somewhere before."
"I should think that is impossible," Mrs. Macglendy smiled faintly. "You see, I rarely go out, and for some years past now I have spent most of my time in Paris. Do you know Paris?"
"I have never been out of England," Nettie said. "But, all the same, I am quite sure that we have met before."
Mrs. Macglendy glanced at herself in a glass, and a strange look crept into her eyes. But she made no comment, nothing beyond a suggestion that Nettie had made a mistake, and that she had been deceived by a chance resemblance to somebody else. Therefore, Nettie did not press the matter any further, but contented herself with waiting for her companion to proceed. She was quite impressed with the refined surroundings in which she found herself, and still more impressed with the whiteness and palpable sorrow of the woman who had so mysteriously invited her there.
"I think you wanted to see me," Nettie said, for the silence was beginning to grow oppressive. "Is there anything I can do for you, Mrs. Macglendy?"
"No, there is nothing that you can do for me, but there is a good deal you can do for yourself. Of course, if my husband found out, it would be a most disastrous thing for me. I ought not to interfere, because I dare say you will wonder why I am taking so much interest in the affairs of an absolute stranger, but I am not quite so much of a stranger, as you imagine. Many years ago, I knew your mother. She was something more than a friend of mine, and I was with her not long before she died."
"Indeed?" Nettie said. "Then perhaps you knew my father as well. I wonder if you could tell me something about him. My relatives never would. All I could find out from them was that he died not long after I was born."
"Ah, I couldn't do that," Mrs. Macglendy went on. "But I knew the man that your mother was engaged to previously. It was quite a remarkable story in it's way, but I don't think we need go into that. Now, I want you to be guided by me, if you will."
It seemed to Nettie that Mrs. Macglendy's manner had suddenly changed. She was no longer white and listless, her eye had a sparkle in them as she leant forward and laid her hand upon Nettie's knee.
"I am quite sure you mean well," Nettie said. "But I shall be glad if you will be a little more candid. You see, I am more or less alone in the world, with my living to get."
"But you are not bound to do that," Mrs. Macglendy said.
"Well, no," Nettie admitted. "That is true enough. I could go back to the aunt who brought me up if I liked, but life in that austere house was almost unbearable. I shall never voluntarily return to my aunt's roof. Perhaps you knew Lady——"
"I knew her very well indeed," Mrs. Macglendy said. "And perhaps you are right. But I don't want you to stay any longer where you are. And please don't think I am impertinent. I know what I am talking about, though I am afraid I cannot do more than hint it things. Miss Frond, do I look like a happy woman?"
It was a direct question that obviously came from the speaker's heart, and all Nettie's sympathy went out to her.
"No, you don't," she said fearlessly. "You look to me like a woman with a history. Oh, please don't mistake me. I mean one who is dreadfully unhappy through no fault of her own."
"My dear child, you could not have put it better if you had known me all your life. Of all the women in England I am the most miserable. And none the less so, because I brought it all upon myself. I shall have to go on suffering to the end, but that is no reason why I should sit quietly down and see a young life like yours wrecked for the want of a warning. I have told you that your mother was a friend of mine, and I could have told you a great deal more, if I only dared. But you must leave Mr. Shute, you must indeed. Don't ask me to say any more than that. I could not have even told you this, if my husband had not been away on business, and I——"
At that moment the manservant looked into the room and announced Mr. Blythe. The latter followed, and raised his eyes interrogatively as he saw Nettie seated there. He obviously paused for an introduction, which came in due course.
"I asked Miss Frond to come and see me," Mrs. Macglendy said with an appealing air, and the attitude of a child who feels that she might be doing something wrong.
"And why not?" Blythe said genially. "I am sorry to intrude, but I wanted to see your husband. Your man told me that he was away for a day or two, so perhaps you will give him this note. Miss Frond, I think, I have seen you before. Haven't you lunched once or twice lately at the Metropolitan with my acquaintance, Captain Harley? Or am I mistaken?"
"Oh, no," Nettie smiled. "You see, I am engaged to Captain Harley, though it is not common property at present."
Blythe murmured something appropriate to the occasion, and a moment or two later Nettie rose and took her leave. She had had her warning, and there was no occasion to linger there any longer. Blythe turned to Mrs. Macglendy.
"What's the meaning of all this?" he asked.
"I couldn't help it," Mrs. Macglendy said. "After what you told me, I could not allow that girl to stay where she was. I hope I haven't done any harm."
"I don't think so," Blythe said. "She must know all about it before long. But if you value the child's happiness, you will not interfere again without consulting me. Now, give this note to your husband when he comes back, and say no more about it. If you want me at any time a line to the Metropolitan will be sufficient."
Blythe turned out presently into the mellow sunshine of the soft October evening, and walked along the front. There were half a dozen newsboys running along the pavement with the six o'clock edition of a local evening paper. Blythe stopped and bought one, impelled by what the boy was crying, and opened the sheet. There in big letters inside was an announcement that instantly attracted his attention. It was just one big black headline, containing the words:
Daring Burglary at Fishbourne Towers
"Oho!" Blythe murmured to himself. "So things are beginning to move, are they? I wonder what the police would say if they knew how much I could tell them about this little business?"
It the seclusion of the lounge at the Metropolitan, Blythe read the details as far as they went. There was a good deal of it, and "our special correspondent" had evidently made the most of the information which he had been able to pick up.
"It appears," the paragraph ran, "that during the absence of Lord Fishbourne in London, a daring burglary took place a night or two ago at Fishbourne Towers. Late at night the thieves entered the butler's pantry by way of a window that opens on to a large open space at the back of the house, and looks across a field to the main road beyond. Everything was all right when the butler retired to bed about 11 o'clock in a room immediately behind his own pantry, where he slept soundly till morning. In the light of recent events it is suggested that he slept only too soundly, owing to the fact that, in some unaccountable manner, the daring thieves managed to drug him. According to our information the butler had supper alone shortly before 10 o'clock, and, with that he drank a couple of glasses of port wine out of his own decanter. Seen by our representative, the man declared that he had felt more than usually sleepy, and that he slept beyond his usual hour. This did not occur to him to be anything out of the common, and, as the big safe in the pantry containing the whole family plate had apparently not been tampered with, he thought no more about it. The family was away, and there was no occasion to go to the safe.
"On Lord Fishbourne's arrival at the Towers on the following evening, his lordship went at once to the butler's pantry and asked to see the contents of the safe. When it was opened, the famous Cellini dinner-service had vanished. It was usually put up in cases, which were wrapped in green baize sacks. Apparently, the thieves knew exactly what they were after for they had taken the almost unique service of plate, leaving everything else behind. It seems to have been an exceedingly neat piece of workmanship because the lock on the safe was uninjured, and immediately responded to the application of the butler's key. So far as we can ascertain, the safe in question was an old-fashioned one, which would present few difficulties to an up-to-date burglar.
"Seen by our representative Lord Fishbourne had a strange story to tell. He had been warned in London that something was wrong and had been advised anonymously to return to Fishbourne Towers and make inquiries at once, which he did. As to the rest his lordship was exceedingly reticent, though we hope to give further particulars in our next issue. All this was the more unfortunate, because Lord Fishbourne is entertaining a considerable number of guests at Fishbourne Towers this week-end."
Later: "We are informed at the moment of going to press that the thieves missed a rare chance, seeing that all Lady Fishbourne's jewels were in a drawer at the back of the safe. Lady Fishbourne, as everybody knows, is a daughter of Cyrus J. Corner, the great American millionaire and collector of precious stones. Indeed Lady Fishbourne's jewels are almost unique."
Blythe sat pondering over this information till it was time to dress for dinner, then he put the matter out of his mind altogether and went off to the theatre with a party of friends. It was after breakfast the following morning, just as he was leaving his hotel for a stroll on the front, that he found himself face to face with Nettie Frond. She seemed rather upset and disturbed as he paused before her in his bland fatherly way, and asked her if he could be of any sort of assistance.
"Well, really, I don't know," Nettie said resolutely. "You are a friend of Mrs. Macglendy's, and she, for some reason, takes an interest in me, so perhaps you can help. I wonder if you have seen Captain Harley this morning?"
"No, I haven't," Blythe said. "Hasn't he gone to London?"
"I don't think he would have done that without telling me," Nettie said. "He did not come back to the hotel the night before last, I know. Would you mind inquiring for me?"
Blythe intimated that it would be a pleasure to do so, and he emerged a minute or two later, just a little uneasy, though there was no suggestion of that on his smiling face. For the second night, Harley's rooms had not been occupied, and when Blythe suggested at the office that the missing man might be on his yacht, he was informed that the steward of the "Mayfly" had come on shore half an hour previously inquiring for news on his employer. That there might be something serious behind this, Blythe did not disguise from himself. But, for the present, at any rate, he had no intention of mentioning his suspicions to Nettie.
"I can't hear anything of the Captain," he said. "But he might be on the sea. However, I will make inquiries, and if, in the meantime, I can help you in any way, I shall be exceedingly pleased. Now, Miss Frond, I want you to regard me as a friend indeed. I am somewhat more than that if you only knew it. I may say that, to a certain extent, I am in Captain Harley's confidence. It will be an honour if you trust me."
He spoke in all sincerity, this soldier of fortune who respected no man and who regarded the world as his bank. And yet, at that moment, it would have been impossible even for the most cynical to have doubted that he meant exactly what he said. Most certainly Nettie did not do so, and, on the impulse of the moment, she told Blythe exactly what was troubling her.
"I don't know what to do," she said. "Only yesterday, I had a note from Mrs. Macglendy, asking me to call upon her. At first I thought she was just a little mad, then I realised that she was a woman in some great trouble."
"That is perfectly true," Blythe said gravely. "But please go on, Miss Frond. I am interrupting you."
"I was greatly impressed by what she said, though it was not very much after all. But she implored me, without delay, to give up my situation with Mr. Shute and seek something elsewhere. I think she would have told me a great deal more, only you happened to come into the room at the time. Still, I was so impressed that I had practically made up my mind to do what Mrs. Macglendy asked, and indeed I intended to go to on of the typewriting agencies this morning and seek a fresh situation. But, just as I was coming out of my lodgings I had a telegram from Mr. Shute telling me that I was to meet him this afternoon at Fishbourne Towers."
"What?" Blythe exclaimed. "What?"
"Meet him at Fishbourne Towers. He is staying there for a few days. He wants me to take my work and typewriter over there and tells me that I am to live in the house."
"Oh, did he really? Well, as far as I can see, you will have to go. In fact, I want you to go."
Nettie's information had fairly staggered Blythe, but, not for a moment did he show it. As he stood there, smiling into the girl's face, a score of ideas were rushing rapidly through his mind. Because what Nettie had just told him was throwing a flood of light on places which had hitherto been dark and mysterious.
"Do you really mean that?" Nettie asked in dismay.
"Yes, indeed I do, my dear young lady. You can hardly throw Mr. Shute over in this casual way, merely because the acquaintance of an hour has suggested it. Besides, if there is anything wrong, the mere fact of your leaving him so abruptly would only serve to arouse his suspicions. And there is another thing—I presume you have the interests of Captain Harley at heart?"
The colour flamed into Nettie's cheeks.
"Why, of course," she protested. "There is nothing I would not do for him. And, besides, he—he——"
"Is in great trouble," Blythe said gravely. "Never mind how I know that, but it is a big trouble, and one likely to affect his whole future, and, if I can help him, I will. I know a great deal more than you are aware of, and might tell you, in passing, that Captain Harley's father was a great friend of mine once. Now, if you will leave this thing entirely in my hands, I shall be greatly surprised and disappointed if I fail to find a way out. And because I am so interested in this matter, I want you to go to Fishbourne Towers just as if nothing had happened."
"But there is the trouble," Nettie protested. "You see, I know Lord and Lady Fishbourne quite well. I have stayed at the Towers two or three times. I am more or less in disgrace with my family, because I would insist upon going out into the world and seeking my own living. They have all lost sight of me, and I did not intend that they should find me again. And now you want me to go to Fishbourne Towers just as if nothing had happened. What an extraordinary complication it all is. Here is Mrs. Macglendy, who I never heard of till yesterday, interesting herself in my welfare, and now you come along, as if you had known me all my life. And yet I feel quite sure that both of you are my friends."
"That you may be sure of," Blythe said. "It is a terrible complication, and I very much fear it will be worse before it is better. It is mainly because of this that I want you particularly to go to Fishbourne Towers this afternoon. You will be there some days, and you must note everything that happens. Never mind what your friends over there say when they see you. That they will forget all about it in a few hours. Keep your eyes open, and watch Mr. Shute as a cat watches a mouse. And if Macglendy is staying over there too, which I strongly suspect, let me know. Write to me every day at the Metropolitan."
"Oh, I will, I will," Nettie said. "Do you know, Mr. Blythe, I feel like the heroine of a melodrama."
"Well, so you are, to every practical purpose," Blythe smiled. "You are the heroine who is striving to free the hero of the toils of the villains. Oh, yes, and the villains are there all right, and if you like I am the typical converted scoundrel who has repented at the last moment, and is doing his best for sheer sentimental reasons to restore the happiness of two young people. And with that I don't propose to say any more."
Blythe lifted his hat gradually and went on his way. There was a big problem in the back of his mind. What had become of Harley, and why were those two rascals keeping him out of the way? And until this point was settled, Blythe could not see clearly before him. But all the same, he was going to know, he was going to know if possible before he slept that night.
The great house known as Fishbourne Towers stood back some four miles from the sea on a wooded slope commanding the country for miles around. The present head of the house was a man of vigorous middle age and a sportsman to his finger tips. In his earlier days he had been a mighty hunter of big game, and on one of those far-flung excursions of his he had come in contact with Shute, then a man of some means, and not yet sunk into the ranks of pure adventurers. Hence a sort of friendship had sprung up between them that had never quite lapsed.
It was to this fine, hospitable old homestead that Nettie had been summoned sorely against her will. When she had set out deliberately to get her own living, and had turned her back on the frigid, aristocratic household of the titled relative to whom she owed her education, she had made up her mind to cut that sort of thing out altogether. And now she was being dragged into it again, into a set where she was well known, and, moreover, had been a welcome guest.
Still, she would have to go, she could not leave Shute at a moment's notice despite all that Mrs. Macglendy had said. And at the very moment in the train when she was wondering what Lady Fishbourne would say when they met, Fishbourne himself was seated on the long stone terrace before the house in the sunshine talking to his wife and explaining recent happenings to her. Lady Fishbourne, in that calm and placid way of hers, was taking the loss of the famous family plate philosophically. Not that she lacked curiosity.
"I'm dashed if I know what to make of it," Fishbourne was saying. "You were in Paris, remember, and I was on the point of running over to fetch you when I had an anonymous letter."
"What, the letter you were telling me about?"
"The same. By the way, I don't think I have shown it you yet, have I? I have got it in the house somewhere."
"Of course, you haven't shown it me," Lady Fishbourne said. "You seem to forget that I have just come back. But go on. You had an anonymous letter which, as usual, you ignored."
"I did," Fishbourne admitted sorrowfully. "It was a card letter, with the Brighton postmark, asking me to come down here at once, and go over my plate chest. And, surely enough, when I did get here yesterday, the Cellini service was missing. Of course, I don't suspect any of the servants, and the police seem to be utterly at fault, but there in no getting away from the fact that the stuff has gone. It's a bit of real good luck that the thieves did not get hold of your jewellery as well."
"Yes, I read all about that in the paper as I was coming down in the train this morning. But, tell me, how on earth did the reporters find out that my gems were here?"
On Fishbourne's face was a complacent smile.
"Oh, I let the chaps know that myself," he said. "Rather a clever dodge, I consider. You see, after what has happened, those chaps will never dare to come here again, and I thought it just as well to leave your jewels where they were. It's one of those stunts that clever people adopt to throw others off the scent. I rather flatter myself that I have done them this time."
"But you really don't propose to leave them where they are?"
"Indeed I do, my dear, and I am quite sure that any detective would say that I am doing the right thing. Let's ask Shute. He is a cunning beggar, and I am sure he will back me up."
Shute was coming along the terrace, followed by Macglendy, and, behind them a footman carrying a tea tray, for it was a wonderfully mild afternoon, and it had been decided to have tea out of doors. Shute lounged up in his easy way, and Macglendy, who seemed to be equally at home, dropped into a seat by the side of his hostess.
"Now, look here, you chaps," Fishbourne said. "I have just been talking to my wife about that mysterious robbery that took place here a day or two ago, when I was in London."
"Ah, very interesting," Shute drawled, "I suppose you haven't heard of the stuff, by any chance?"
"I haven't," Fishbourne replied. "But the strange thing is that the thieves left behind them something much more valuable intrinsically than the plate they got off with. Of course, the service was one of our most precious possessions, and I am exceedingly sorry to lose it."
"Did it ever occur to you to offer a reward?" Macglendy said with a side glance at his confederate. "It might not be melted up even yet. I am told that some of those receivers of stolen goods are exceedingly good judges of gold and silver, and though the thieves themselves were probably utterly ignorant of the value of their plunder, the same remark need not apply to the man who purchased the stuff. Very likely the set is still intact."
"I shouldn't be at all surprised," Shute said. "You see, there are lots of people, especially in America, who would be quite willing to buy the Cellini plate, even if they knew it had been stolen. Merely for the sake of possessing such a treasure. I know of two cases in point. So, if I were you Fishbourne, I would offer a reward, say of ten thousand pounds, on the off chance of getting it back. It might come off. You never know."
"I would pay that cheerfully," Fishbourne said.
Once more the confederates exchanged swift glances. They knew perfectly well where the stolen silver was hidden, at Blythe's suggestion, and if this thing could be worked, then they would make at least twice as much money as they had anticipated.
"I think I will do it," Fishbourne went on. "It can be done through one of those offices in the city, without having the police down upon us for offering to compound a felony. But I have not told you the biggest joke of the lot. I suppose you saw in the papers that my wife's jewellery was actually in the safe at the same time as the other stuff was stolen?"
"Oh, I saw it right enough," Shute said carelessly. "But all the same, I didn't believe it."
"Well, it was a fact, all the same," Fishbourne chuckled. "The whole of the collection was there, in a set of drawers at the back of the safe, and I don't mind telling you, as friends, that it is there still. It's my little dodge."
Shute looked out to sea, and Macglendy pretended to be interested in a herd of deer crossing the park. Neither of them dared to look at the other, but the same thought was rampant in the minds of both. It was more than annoying that, in their haste, they had overlooked a haul like this, but there was consolation in the fact that within a few yards of them, in an old safe that presented no trouble to an expert hand, was a collection of jewels in many ways the most remarkable and valuable in Europe. And here they were, guests in the house, trusted implicitly, and it would be hard indeed if they did not manage to get away with what they had left behind them.
"Yes, that was rather smart of you," Shute said. "Of course, the average burglar would come to the conclusion that the jewels were taken to a place of safety at once. And, in any case, a second burglary would be too dangerous a game. Yes, I should say that the jewels are all right where they are."
"That is just what I am gambling upon," Fishbourne said, very pleased with himself. "But, hello, what have we here? Who is the lady in the car? By Jove, Mary, unless my eyes deceive me, it must be Nettie Frond."
"Nonsense," Lady Fishbourne exclaimed. "Impossible. Nettie has disappeared, getting her living in a city office, or something of that sort, though I should be very pleased to see her again. Who is it, Mr. Shute? You seem to know."
"Oh, that's my secretary," Shute explained. "I had to ask Fishbourne's permission for her to come down here, because I am behindhand in my work, and I must put in a certain time each morning. As a matter of fact, her name is Frond, but, of course, I had no idea that she was a friend of yours."
"She is more than that," Fishbourne said. "She is a relation. She's stayed here lots of times, hasn't she, Mary?"
But, by this time, Lady Fishbourne had disappeared down the flight of steps leading to the great portico, where she welcomed Nettie with open arms.
"My dear child," she exclaimed. "Where have you been all this time, and what is the meaning of this? If you have come to pay us a surprise visit, you are more than welcome, but that old aunt of yours told me that you had run away to get your own living, and that probably by this time you had married a city clerk, or something of that sort, and living in Brixton, or some such horrible place. Well, I am glad to see you again."
"That's very good of you," Nettie said, almost tearfully. "Do you know, I was almost afraid to come. What my aunt told you was quite right. I am getting my own living as secretary to Mr. Shute. You see, I learned typewriting and shorthand, and I was lucky enough to get an appointment almost at once. You can imagine my feelings when Mr. Shute wrote to me from here, and told me I must come at once. I was on the point of running away, when it occurred to me that I was bound to run against some of my old friends sooner or later, and, well, here I am."
"Quite a romance in its way," Lady Fishbourne smiled. "But you always were a lucky girl, Nettie, and, between ourselves, I don't wonder at you running away from that gloomy place in the north where you have been more or less a prisoner all these years. But come along and have some tea—we are having it out on the terrace."
It came somewhat as a surprise to Shute to discover that this usually quiet, efficient secretary of his, was connected with half the aristocracy, but he was not disposed to complain, because the fact made things all the easier for him.
"I am glad that you will be quite at home here, Miss Frond," he said. "And I am delighted to find that my lady assistant comes from so distinguished a stock."
"Ah, I shall have to behave myself, I see," Macglendy said. "Not that I shall be in the way, because I may be called from here at any moment. That is the unfortunate part of being a business man, Lord Fishbourne. I can never call my time my own, not even when I am taking what is called a holiday. Shute will tell you that."
"That's true enough," Shute said. "Not that I have any sympathy with him. You see, Fishbourne, these rich men make a slave of their business, instead of ruling it. And that is where men like ourselves have the advantage of them."
Macglendy sighed almost regretfully.
"Another year or two, perhaps," he said, "and I shall join the ranks of the unemployed. But I shall be no happier."
They sat there talking for some time, discussing, amongst other things, the manner in which Fishbourne had retained his wife's gems in the Castle, until at length, the shadows began to fall, and it was getting time to dress for dinner. A little later on Macglendy, who had changed, walked along one of the corridors until he came to Shute's room, where he knocked and entered. Shute was already dressed and lay on the Chesterfield in the bay window of the big oak-panelled room smoking a meditative cigarette.
"Come in," he said. "I rather wanted to see you. Well, here we are, my friend, right in the very heart of things, with a dozen big houses within a radius of half as many miles. I suppose you managed all about the yacht before you came away?"
"I did that," Macglendy grinned. "The whole thing is working out beautifully. I managed to get hold of Harley and you may take it for granted that he is safe for some days to come. It was rather a good notion of mine to tell Fishbourne that I might be called away at any moment, because that gives me a free hand, and I can return when I like, merely saying that I have managed to settle my little affairs quicker than I had intended."
"That's good hearing," Shute said. "And now, as to the yacht. Where is she lying at the present moment?"
"Not six miles away from here. It's a precious good thing for us that amongst your many accomplishments is the fact that you hold a master-mariner's certificate."
"Well, if it were otherwise, we shouldn't be here at all," Shute said. "I have got the whole programme mapped out, and from this room of mine I can escape through the window, by means of a rope ladder, at any time of the night, and get back again before morning. I shall be able to rob a dozen houses in the neighbourhood, and hand the stuff over to you, for you to smuggle on board the yacht, and convey it to the Green Bungalow. A couple of hours will be quite sufficient, and I shall be back in bed long before daylight, with no one any the wiser. But before we go any further and take any sort of risks, don't forget that the biggest plum of the whole lot is within a few yards of us at the present moment."
"Ah, Lady Fishbourne's jewels," Macglendy laughed. "In a rotten old safe that you and I could pick in half an hour. The thing is so easy that we shouldn't even need to use the yacht. We ought to manage from within the house. I don't suppose you have any intention of leaving these comfortable quarters for the next day or two. This is rather a new experience to me, and I don't mind confessing that I am enjoying it. I always had a weakness for playing the swell game since I was a youngster taking my first holiday. I had saved up ten pounds and was passing myself off at Scarborough as the Honourable Andrew Macglendy. But this, my boy, is the real thing, and I don't want to cut it short if I can help it."
"Oh, that's all right," Shute laughed. "There is no hurry for a couple of days, and in that time you can swank about to your hearts delight. We have got to think out a plan for getting hold of those stones and that will take some time."
Meanwhile, Nettie and her hostess were seated by the fireside on one of the smaller reception rooms talking over old times, and waiting for the gong to ring.
"Now, you've got to tell me everything," Lady Fishbourne said. "I want to know why you left your aunt in that mysterious manner, and what induced you to give up a life of luxury for real hard work and a bare living."
"I couldn't stand it any longer," Nettie said. "To begin with, there was always the suggestion that I was more or less in disgrace. It wasn't my fault that my mother ran away with a man her parents didn't approve of. And why should I be blamed for it? Oh, I know my mother died when I was quite a baby, and that my father followed her soon afterwards, but why vent the family displeasure upon me? And there is an air of mystery about the whole thing. Whenever I asked my aunt to tell me about my father, she became quite frigid, and declined to discuss the subject. And do you know, quite lately, I met a woman who reminded me strangely of my mother's earlier photographs. She is quite middle-aged, but the likeness is there, all the same. It puzzled me tremendously, and I only realised it when I was coming down here in the train. Tell me, Mary, have you known Mr. Macglendy very long?"
"I have never met him before," Lady Fishbourne explained. "Mr. Shute I know quite well, of course, indeed, he used to come to my father's house in America before I was married. He was a great sportsman, and that is where the sympathy comes in between Fishbourne and himself. I believe he asked if he could bring Mr. Macglendy down here to discuss some important business. Why?"
"Oh, really, I can't tell you," Nettie said vaguely. "But there is something about him that I distrust. He repels me, and I am sure he is both hard and cruel to his wife."
"Is that the woman you are talking about?" Lady Fishbourne asked. "The woman who is so like your mother?"
"Yes," Nettie said. "She sent for me and almost implored me on her knees to give up my post with Mr. Shute. I feel there is something wrong between those two men, and, all the more so, because if Roy Harley had not met them——"
"What's that?" Lady Fishbourne cried, "Roy Harley? Do you mean to say that you have seen him lately? Oh, I know you were staying in the same house with him in Scotland not very long ago, just before he came into his money, and a little bird whispered to me that if you had been more kind——"
"That's not quite true," Nettie whispered with a heightened colour. "I have always been fond of Roy, and he left the house where we were staying because, because——"
"Yes, because Walter Prest was there, and Roy thought it would be more honourable not to stand in the way. I know all about it, my dear, because I met Roy just afterwards at the Seatons, and he took me into his confidence. That was only a few days before his godfather died and left him all that money. Am I to understand that you met him again after you had left your aunt's?"
"I met him quite by accident in Brighton," Nettie confessed. "Mary, I never cared for anybody else, and when he told me everything from the time he left the north till he came into his money, I believe I was the happiest girl in England. We had arranged to be married almost at once, when a dreadful thing happened. I really must tell you—I must confide in somebody, and, seeing that you know so much, I know that Roy won't mind."
It was close and intimate in there, with the shaded lights, and the flicker from the fire, and there was an expression of sympathy on Lady Fishbourne's face that invited Nettie's confidence. Without further hesitation, she told the whole story of the card drama in the Green Bungalow, without suppressing anything.
"But it's monstrous," Lady Fishbourne cried, when at length the recital was finished. "I have only known Roy Harley since I was married, but I would trust him implicitly. He couldn't possibly have done such a thing. We must have it investigated. Don't you see, my dear child, that there is nothing to gain by all this secrecy? The thing must be fought out publicly, and Roy's character cleared. If he were guilty, as Walter Prest seems to think, then, of course, he must leave the Army. But I decline to believe it. There is either some extraordinary mistake here, or Roy has been the victim of some vile conspiracy. I should not like to suggest that Walter Prest knows anything about it."
"I am sure he doesn't," Nettie said. "He would never stoop to anything like that. But he seems to be certain than Roy worked the deception in a moment of temptation."
"But, my dear Nettie, where is the temptation? He did not need the money. He had seen you, and you had come to a perfect understanding before this dreadful thing happened. Why, at the present moment, we are hoping to get Roy down here. I know my husband has written him one or two letters to Brighton without any response, but perhaps that is because he is too miserable to reply. If you don't mind telling Jim some of the story, I will get him to go over to Brighton to-morrow in the car, and bring back Roy by force if necessary. You won't mind my doing that?"
"Oh, I don't know," Nettie said helplessly. "I hardly know what to do for the best, and for the last day or two Roy has been keeping out of my way. Oh, I do hope, Mary, that he is not doing anything desperate. But wouldn't it be rather strange if he came over here and stayed in the same house with two men who regard him as a detected card cheat?"
"Yes, that might be awkward," Lady Fishbourne said. "Still, something must be done, and I shan't be happy till I see Roy again. I'll mention it to Jim when we go to bed to-night."
In due course Fishbourne listened to his wife's story in silent astonishment. Then he burst out vehemently.
"What infernal rot," the cried. "Good Lord, fancy talking of Roy Harley as a card sharper! Tell you what it is, old girl, I'll make some excuse to get away to-morrow morning, and run the car into Brighton. If I don't bring Harley back with me, it will be my own fault. It wouldn't be a bad idea if we could have him over here and confront him with these two chaps and thrash the whole matter out. I am not going to let it stay where it is."
It was at about 11 o'clock the following morning when Shute and Nettie were at work in the small library and Macglendy was disposed of that Fishbourne set out for Brighton in search of Harley.
The afternoon passed, and it was drawing near towards dinner time when the car pulled up in front of the house. There was a certain frown on Fishbourne's face, and a moody look in his eyes as he strode into the hall where Lady Fishbourne awaited him.
"Is there anything wrong, Jim?" she asked.
Before making any reply, Fishbourne looked round the hall, and satisfied himself that he and his wife were alone.
"Very much wrong, I am afraid," he said. "Roy has disappeared. He hasn't been seen for days, and the matter will be placed in the hands of the police. Even the yacht has vanished. I don't know what to think about it, but I am very much afraid that Roy has done himself a mischief. Still, if I were you, I wouldn't say anything about it to Nettie until we can be quite sure."
"How dreadful," Lady Fishbourne whispered. "But surely it is too early to give up all hope yet?"
The kind-hearted owner of Fishbourne Towers had set out for Brighton more concerned over Roy Harley than he had cared to confess to Lady Fishbourne. To begin with he had in his pocket a letter from the manager of the Metropolitan Hotel calling attention to the fact that Mr. Harley had not been seen in the hotel for a day or two and that he had sent no instructions as to his belongings. He apologised for troubling his lordship, but, as a friend of Mr. Harley's, would he interest himself in the matter? Otherwise, the manager felt it his duty to consult the police, a thing he hesitated to do.
Lord Fishbourne drove straight to the hotel and interviewed the manager in his office. The latter had not much to say, but that little was very much to the point.
"I thought your lordship ought to know," he said. "Mr. Harley had gone leaving everything behind him, and no message of any kind. His yacht has gone too. It is very strange."
"I didn't know that he had a yacht," Fishbourne said. "You see, Allison, Mr. Harley has only quite recently come into money. Of course, you knew that he was a friend of mine and therefore you were quite justified in writing to me. Do you happen to know what sort of yacht it was?"
"Oh, quite a small affair," the manager said. "And hired at that. Mr. Harley told me in his friendly way that he had come into a fortune and that he was going in for yachting and that, meanwhile, he had chartered a small schooner. Three hands could manage it quite well. Also I understood from the gentleman that he had a master's certificate, as years ago he sailed his godfather's cutter."
"Perfectly true," Fishbourne said. "He has probably gone off for a day or two and has not troubled to let you know."
"I don't think so, my lord. He hasn't even taken a suit of pyjamas with him, even his purse was left in his bedroom. And that is not everything. The night of the first day that he came here he walked into this office and sat down for a chat. He seemed to be very pleased about something and hinted to me that an event had happened to make him very happy. Something to do with a lady, from one or two little things that he said. The next day he was just as correspondingly depressed. Indeed I never saw so remarkable a change in anybody. And then he vanished. I don't like it, my lord, I don't like it in the least, and that is why I ventured to write to you, knowing that your lordship was a friend of his."
"And you want me to act, Allison, I suppose?"
"I think so," the manager said. "I have said nothing, and I don't think there is any need at present for publicity, but perhaps it would be just as well to let the police know, so that they can make a few inquiries, and keep the matter out of the papers. Of course, the staff is beginning to talk. With a large body of servants like ours you can't expect anything else."
Fishbourne listened gravely, for the more he thought the matter over, the less he liked it. He would go to the police station presently, but, meanwhile, he would prefer to think out the situation whilst he was having his lunch.
There was the usual crowd in the coffee-room, but Fishbourne managed to get a seat near the window, where he could see what was going on on the front. He had nearly finished his meal and was about to turn to his coffee, when someone crossed the room and accosted him in a friendly fashion.
"It's a long time since we met," the newcomer said.
Fishbourne looked up in astonished displeasure.
"Er—Hilton Blythe, I think," he said. "You are quite right, it is a good many years since we met, and I am rather surprised that you should address me in so public a place."
"I have every excuse for it," Blythe said, without in the least changing colour. "But I think when you have heard what I have got to say you'll be quite ready to excuse me. Oh, I don't want to sit down and talk here. There is a little writing-room at the back of the big smoking-room, looking on to the lounge, and if you will give me a few minutes there, I promise that I won't waste your time. Moreover, I have no favours to ask."
Fishbourne looked up at the slim, perfectly-dressed figure before him, and realised that this was no predatory errand on the part of the man with whom he had been friendly enough in the old days.
"Very well," he said coldly. "I will follow you."
A minute or two later the two men were seated in the privacy of the little room. Quite at his ease, Blythe had crossed his legs and produced a gold cigarette case from his pocket. He did not make the mistake of offering it to his companion.
"Now, look here, Fishbourne," he said easily. "You will forgive me for calling you by the old name, won't you, because one never can quite forget the past. In the ordinary course of affairs I should have passed you without recognition, and yet I know, in spite of everything, that if I was in desperate need of a friend, you would come to me if I only asked you."
"That's true enough," Fishbourne said. "I wrote you to that effect when you disappeared from our midst and elected to take up your present—er—profession. I was one of the few who always recognised that you were not entirely to blame—but we need not go into that. What is it you want to talk about?"
"Well, in the first place, Roy Harley."
"Oh, really? Why are you interested in him?"
"I don't think we need go into that, Jim, I—I beg your pardon, but really, the sight of seeing you sitting opposite me—-. But I am interested in Harley. Never mind why. He is one of the cleanest boys I ever met, and, as I found out quite by accident, he is interested in a girl that I know something of."
"Now, that's a very strange thing," Fishbourne said. "Allison here seems to think that that is the cause of all the trouble. He is under the impression that Harley was engaged to some lady and that they had a quarrel."
"Ah, there he is wrong," Blythe replied. "Now, I dare say, you will be rather surprised to hear that the lady in question is at present staying under your roof."
Fishbourne smiled non-committally. He knew a good deal of this, of course, from what his wife had told him, but what really astonished him was the discovery that a man like Blythe should have so much intimate information. Perhaps Blythe saw what was passing in his mind, for he bent forward and laid a hand on Fishbourne's knee.
"Now, I want you, for the sake of old times, to be quite candid with me," he said. "By a sort of amazing accident, Nettie Frond is at present under your roof. I believe she is there in her capacity as secretary to a guest of yours called Mark Shute."
"Well, I can admit that much," Fishbourne said.
"My dear fellow, I want you to admit a great deal more. I felt sure that both you and Lady Fishbourne were delighted to see Miss Frond again, and I am equally certain that she took you both, or your wife, at any rate, into her confidence. Now, did she tell you that she was engaged to Roy Harley, and also that he had got into some serious trouble over a game of cards?"
Fishbourne hesitated for some little time before he replied. He was feeling somewhat out of his depth in this web of intrigue, and very inclined to doubt the wisdom of confiding in Blythe. But then he knew the other to be not wholly bad, and he could see that his companion was in deadly earnest. And in that quick, incisive way of Blythe's, the latter had a shrewd idea of what was going on in the other man's mind.
"I think you had better tell me," Blythe said. "There are things going on in this world that an honourable nature such as yours cannot grasp. There is a deep conspiracy here in which even you are more or less involved. In my peculiar walk of life, I am up against some of the keenest wits in the world. I mean, men who live by their wits, and who have no bowels of compassion whatever where money is concerned. I hope I shall never be quite as bad as that, though I have sunk very low. These men are my companions, frequently my confederates, if you like, and they look up to me with a certain amount of respect as the head of my profession. Now, I don't want to betray them to the police unless I am compelled to do so, and if you will leave this matter to me, I think you will be wise, because I am going to clear Roy Harley's name, and make it impossible for the breath of scandal to touch him. But I must do it in my own way, I must do it in a fashion that will compel Walter Prest to admit that he was mistaken. If I am right in that young man's character, he will be only too pleased to have the chance to do so. But I must do it in my own way, and in my own time."
"But if anything has happened to Harley——"
"Oh, I know what you mean. Of course, I can't say for an absolute certainty, but I am sure that he is all right. He has been made use of, and he'll be used still further if I don't interfere. You came here to-day because the manager sent for you."
"How did you know that?" Fishbourne asked.
"Well, I find that waiters, amongst other people, are very useful to me, and I always make it a point to be nice to them. And servants will talk sometimes, you know."
"Then you really know what I am here for?"
"Of course I do. That's why I intruded myself upon you just now. I could tell you the whole story if I liked, but because we scoundrels are more or less loyal to one another, I can't do anything of the kind. But this you may rely upon—I am deeply interested in the welfare of Miss Frond and Roy Harley, and I am not going to rest until I have made them happy. This, however, is a profound secret between us, and I want you to respect it."
"Assuredly," Fishbourne said. "But where is Harley? And why has he vanished in this mysterious fashion?"
"Well, frankly, I can't tell you, though I have my suspicions. Whatever you do, don't get near the police station. Go back home and tell your wife that you can find no trace of Harley, but that the matter is in safe hands. Be as mysterious as you like, but don't mention my name, please. If you can trust me so far, then I can promise you that all will be well, and, moreover, unless I am exceedingly unlucky, you will get your Cellini plate back again."
"Very well," Fishbourne said. "You have aroused my curiosity, but, for the sake of old times, I will trust you, and ask no further questions. But don't be longer than you can help."
With that, he rose and held out his hand, which Blythe took after a moment's hesitation.
"Thank you, my old friend," he said almost humbly. "You make me wish—but it is no use going into that."
Fishbourne went back home fully resolved to carry out all that Blythe had said, and contented himself with announcing that Harley had merely gone off for a day or two on his yacht. This he could not give chapter and verse for, but he professed himself quite to believe the story, though for perhaps the first time in his life he was deliberately misleading his wife. Nettie, however, was not disposed to share this sanguine view. There was no reason whatever why Roy should not have written to her, and she listened to what was being said in the privacy of one of the small drawing rooms with a certain amount of misgiving. Had she known of the interview between Fishbourne and Blythe, she might have been happier.
She came down to dinner presently, however, with a smile on her lips, and prepared to take her part in the conversation as if nothing had happened. She was dressed in something simple in the way of black, with no ornaments, except a few flowers which she had culled herself in one of the conservatories.
"You are just a little late," Lady Fishbourne smiled. "I hope Mr. Shute has not been working you too hard to-day."
"Indeed he hasn't," Nettie laughed. "We practically did nothing this morning. But I have had an accident with my watch."
"What, that pretty oval set in diamonds?" Lady Fishbourne asked. "The one that belonged to your mother?"
"Yes, indeed," Nettie explained. "I don't know how it happened. You know, I only wear it in the evenings, as a rule. I left it on my dressing table this morning——"
"I hope there have been no more burglaries," Shute said with a laugh. "In the present disturbed state of society, wasn't it rather foolish of you to leave it about?"
"I never thought of that," Nettie said, "At any rate, I left it on my dressing table, and when I went to my bedroom just now to change, I found it lying on the floor with the glass broken. I suppose some of it got into the works, for it had stopped."
"I am sorry to hear that," Shute said. "Usually you are the spirit of punctuality. And, talking about our work this morning, I am afraid I shall have to get you to make up for it to-night. You must give me an hour after eleven o'clock."
"What a thing it is to be a literary man," Lady Fishbourne said. "If I sit up after eleven o'clock at night, I am good for nothing all the next day."
Shute remarked that he thought the late evening was the best working time in the twenty-four hours. He had had a little room leading off the picture gallery allotted to him for his literary work, and there he and Nettie worked at all sorts of odd times. And it was all the same to her. He might keep her perhaps an hour or two after everybody had gone to bed, but, in that case, she would probably have the next day free. So that she lingered in the drawing room after Lady Fishbourne had said good-night, for she and her husband kept early hours, as befitted people who live the healthy outdoor life. Shute stood in front of the fireplace talking in his easy way as he smoked a final cigarette.
"I am sorry that Macglendy was called away on business this afternoon," he said. "That's the worst of being a man of affairs. Your time is never quite your own. If I were rich like Macglendy, I should cut the whole thing and go and live somewhere is South America. Or California might be good enough."
"But he is coming back to-morrow, isn't he?" Nettie asked.
"So he said. But you never can tell where he is concerned. Now, you sit quietly down and finish your cigarette while I go upstairs and get all the papers out. I will give you a call when I am ready, then I can come down and put the lights out, as I promised Fishbourne I would."
Shute sauntered out of the drawing room up the big staircase, and into the little room where he switched on the light. He got out his books and papers, and arranged the typewriter on a little table with its back to the fireplace. Then, carefully consulting his watch, he compared it with the clock on the mantelpiece, which latter he very slowly and cautiously put forward for an hour. It was just after eleven as he did so, and, this being done, he walked downstairs again and called to Nettie. She rose as he switched off the lights and followed him back to the little room again. Speaking in his usual light and airy way, he almost bustled her into her chair, and placed a pile of typing paper by her left hand. Then without another word he began to dictate.
He stopped every now and again to make certain corrections, which were interrupted from time to time by some personal anecdote of adventure, which Nettie usually found entertaining enough. But to-night he was more than usually discursive. At the end of an hour she had got through a certain amount of work, but not quite so much as usual, which Shute laughingly attributed to his constant interruptions. Still, a great many sheets lay presently to Nettie's right hand, and she was beginning to tire when suddenly Shute announced the fact that they had done enough for the evening, and that she might put away all her various impedimenta.
"My word," he said. "It's close on one o'clock. I had no idea it was so late. Quite meant to have finished that chapter this evening, and I have no doubt that I should have done so if I had not talked quite so much. Are you very tired?"
"Oh, I can go on, if you want me to," Nettie said.
Shute seemed to hesitate just for a moment.
"No, you won't," he said suddenly. "It is entirely my fault that we have not finished the chapter and I am not going to keep you up any longer. We will finish after breakfast, and, if it is a fine day, you can have the remainder to yourself."
Nettie rose thankfully enough from the table, for she had been in the open air all the day, and was feeling unusually tired. Not that she was in the least sleepy, because she was far too disturbed in her mind for that. Almost mechanically she said good-night to her employer and turned thankfully into her bedroom. Shute shut the door, and, removing the pendulum from the clock, compared the dial with his watch, and put it back to the correct time. Once he had done that, he shut off the lights and went into his own room. There he turned on the electrics, and lighted a cigarette. Seated in an arm-chair by the side of the bed was Macglendy.
"Well, you have taken your time over it," the latter grumbled. "It's past twelve o'clock, and you promised to be here by then. What on earth have you been up to?"
"Oh, I have not been wasting my time," Shute grinned. "As a matter of fact, I have been working an alibi. I have clearly established in Miss Frond's mind that it is past one. That's why I sneaked into her bedroom and temporarily put her watch out of action. Then I put the clock in my working room on for an hour, and, if anything does go wrong with our plans, then I can call her as a witness to prove the fact that we were still grinding away at our work when the clock struck one."
"Oh, nothing is going wrong," Macglendy said. "I was supposed to have gone off to London this morning in my car, which I have managed to get rid of in Brighton, and here I am, back in the house again, thanks to that rope ladder of yours. And the sooner we start to work, the better. I don't think the old butler is likely to trouble us, because I have seen to that. He would never expect to be doped twice, within the same week, and I am prepared to guarantee that he will not wake before morning. Now, if you are quite ready, we will make a start."
"Oh, there is no hurry," Shute said. "It's only a few minutes past twelve, so you might just as well let the household have a chance to properly settle down before we start operations in earnest. After that, it is only a matter of opening the butler's pantry from the outside, and clearing out the safe. In an hour's time I shall be back here again, and you will be in the motor boat on your way to the yacht. With any luck you will be back here again to-morrow in our car as if nothing had happened; indeed, it may be days before the robbery is discovered. What have you been doing since you left here this morning? Did you go to Brighton?"
"Of course I went to Brighton," Macglendy growled. "Somebody had to look after the trouble at that end, and as there was nobody else but me I had to do all the work. But I didn't go anywhere near Brunswick Square as you can imagine."
"No, I suppose not. Did you see anything of Blythe?"
"No, I didn't," Macglendy said. "It will be time enough to deal with him when we have finished this job. I suppose you don't intend that he should share in our present game?"
"Not if I can help it," Shute said. "But he is an awkward customer to deal with, and, if he finds out, there is certain to be trouble. However, if you are prepared to risk it, I am."
"Come on then. Let's get busy. I took the rope ladder that I got into this room with, and placed it on the chair yonder. Aren't you going to change your boots?"
Whilst this was going on, Nettie was still sitting in her room, wide enough awake, and not in the least inclined for bed. She was still worrying over Harley, and the strange way in which he appeared to be treating her, so that sleep was out of the question. She rose presently, and, putting out the light, threw up her window and drew the curtains aside. It was dark enough outside, with a thin moon, just slipping over the horizon into the hazy sky, but in the silence of the night she could make out certain dim objects as her eyes became accustomed to the gloom.
Then it seemed to her that she could hear strange scratchings not far off, and something like heavy breathing. Leaning out of the window, almost perilously, she could see round a corner of the house on to the terrace, and presently it seemed to her that a figure dropped from one of the bedroom windows followed by another. And as these figures strode across the terrace, with a thrill she recognised that one of them was Shute. She watched them almost dazedly till they disappeared from sight. Then she threw on her dressing gown and hastened along the corridor in the direction of Lady Fishbourne's bedroom. Thereon she knocked loudly.
Nettie almost repented what she had done before she had knocked on Lady Fishbourne's door. It seemed to her to be somewhat cowardly to make all this fuss and after all probably about nothing. Possibly she had been altogether mistaken and had not seen Shute after all. She had been quite sure of it at the moment but now in cold blood at that chilly hour in the early morning she was by no means certain. Besides, there had been a a burglary here lately and perhaps the police were secretly watching the house.
Once again she knocked, but this time more timidly, but no kind of response came. Then suddenly changing her mind, and ashamed of her want of courage, she retraced her footsteps by the light of the single electric bulb she had switched on to show her the dim way along the corridor crowded as it was by the quaint old furniture and other ancient art treasures. She did not see Fishbourne's door open and her host in his silk pyjamas watching her discreetly as she turned back towards her own bedroom. Perhaps she was looking for something, he imagined, and had probably found it, so he refrained from saying anything and went back to his bed, turning out the lights he had blazed on when the knocking had disturbed him and thinking no more about the matter. There was nothing to worry about.
But it was a long time before Nettie crept into her bed. She was thoroughly awake now and sleep seemed very far off. But strain her ears as she would, she heard nothing further, and gradually she lapsed into slumber and the sun was shining brightly as she woke to the knowledge of another perfect day.
The rest of them were down in the morning-room and breakfast was nearly over, when she joined them.
"I must put the blame on my watch again," she smiled. "And, besides, I was very late last night."
"And moreover the fault was entirely mine," Shute said. "It must have been past one a long way before I realised how late it was and allowed my secretary to escape."
Fishbourne appeared as if about to say something then changed his mind. He was thinking about the little episode in the corridor the night before, and was, himself, inclined to believe that it had been much earlier when he had seen Nettie standing outside his wife's bedroom door. He seemed to recollect that the clock in his own bedroom had pointed to something after twelve when he shut down the lights and pulled the blankets over him. But it was not worth discussing the matter, and he had allowed it to pass.
They came to the end of their breakfast at length, and began to discuss the plans for the day, seeing that Nettie's services were not required till the evening, and the fact that Macglendy had telephoned, apparently from London, to say that he hoped, with any luck, to reach Fishbourne Towers by luncheon time. They were still discussing this problem when the staid old family butler came into the room in a state of mild excitement, and announced that Sir Jasper Vickery would like to see his lordship at once. Hard on the heels of the butler, there followed a little, red-faced man, in a state of considerable agitation, who, without waiting to say good morning, burst at once into his grievances.
"Look here, Fishbourne, by Jove," he said, "a dashed unpleasant thing happened at my place last night. The burglars got in, probably the same gang that robbed you."
"Is that so?" Fishbourne exclaimed. "I hope you caught the brutes. Or did they get away with the stuff?"
"Oh, they got away with it all right," the little baronet groaned. "It was between twelve and quarter to one. They managed to climb up the balcony, and forced the catch of my wife's dressing-room. We had been to a big show at the Brighton Hippodrome, in aid of some charity or other, and my wife was wearing most of her best jewellery. She left it on her dressing table when she went to bed, very foolishly, and, I suppose, by some means or other, the thieves got to know all about it. Anyway, they had all the stuff in their pockets when, in getting away, one of them managed to break a window pane. I heard that, and I roused the whole household. I actually saw them both. They went along the Lewes road, and we were following them in five minutes, but no good. I got back to the house and telephoned the police at Lewes and Brighton, and though they were on the spot almost at once, they could not find a single trace of those chaps anywhere. Of course, all the roads are being watched, and they tell me they will have the chaps to a dead certainty before night, and I wish I could believe it."
Fishbourne and his wife were loud enough in their condolences, whilst Nettie sat there, looking down at her plate, and not daring to glance in Shute's direction.
"That's rather strange," she said presently. "I thought I heard somebody about this house last night; in fact, I looked out of my window and saw them. They were on the corner of the terrace. I went to Lady Fishbourne's bedroom to tell her all about it, but she was fast asleep, and I did not like to disturb her."
"Well, we seem to be in the midst of strange things," Fishbourne laughed. "Now, what time would that be?"
"I don't know," Nettie said. "I was very tired last night, and I took no heed of the time."
"Still, you ought to have done so," Shute said in a tone of mild reproach. "Let me see, what time was it last night when we left off work? Pretty late, wasn't it? Ah, I remember now. When I looked at the clock in my working-room I saw that it was past one. I think I mentioned the matter, Miss Frond."
"You certainly did," Nettie agreed. "And, moreover, you apologised for keeping me up so late."
"Then there must be two of these gangs about," Vickery exclaimed. "It's not possible that the men who came to my house had the infernal cheek to come on here afterwards. They had plenty of time, as far as that goes."
"Well, if they did, I suppose my light scared them away," Fishbourne said. "I had got into bed when I heard Miss Frond knock on my wife's door and I hopped out to see what was going on. They would see the light, of course."
How true this was, Fishbourne hardly realised. For it was nothing but the sudden burst of light in his room that had scared Shute and his confederate in their attempt upon the safe, which they had intended to supplement with a visit to Vickery afterwards. And at that last moment, they had decided to leave their host's property alone for the time being, and content themselves with the other job, which they had planned for some time past. And Shute smiled to himself as he realised how perfectly that little scheme of his had worked out, and how, in case anything went wrong, he had established the neatest and most complete alibi. As he sat there listening to the disjointed conversation going on about him, he chuckled inwardly at the manner in which he and Macglendy had thrown their pursuers off the scent, and were safe in the knowledge that, whilst the roads inland were being diligently searched, Macglendy, in a motor-boat, was making his way out to sea.
"Well, something has got to be done about it," Vickery said fussily. "The police seem to be utterly useless. This is the third daring burglary we have had in the course of a week, and not so much as at sign of the thieves. I am going to get a man down from Scotland Yard. These locals are all very well, but they have no imagination. It's the work of one gang, beyond the shadow of a doubt. And, the sooner they are laid by the heels, the better."
But it was useless to stand there discussing the problem, and, shortly afterwards, the little baronet went his way, leaving the others to talk over what had happened, and make their arrangements for passing the day. Nettie crept up to her room presently, with her head in a whirl, and sat down to try and make something coherent out of what she had just heard. She was quite convinced now that she had seen Shute with someone else the night before on the terrace, and, if he had not been up to something wrong, why should he not have confessed that, for some reason or another, he had found it necessary to leave the house in the dead of the night.
It did not occur to Nettie, for the moment, to associate the burglary at Vickery's with Shute's escapade. But, at any rate, without getting herself into trouble, or making vague accusations which she could not substantiate, at any rate, she might write to Blythe and tell him everything that had happened. Beyond doubt, he knew a great deal more than she did, and, besides, she had come to Fishbourne Towers at his urgent request.
Thereupon, she sat down and wrote to Blythe at great length, omitting nothing, and telling him all the details that she had gathered as to the burglary at Vickery's. It was a long letter, and, by the time she had finished, and posted it herself in the village it was close upon luncheon-time, and when she entered the dining-room she saw that Macglendy had returned.
"Yes, I managed to get away," the latter was saying to Fishbourne. "I caught the last train down to Brighton, and motored over here as soon as I had dealt with my correspondence. But I am afraid that I can't stop here overnight, because I am going north to-morrow. Still, I must make the best of it."
It was not an unpleasant luncheon party, on the whole, though Nettie was somewhat quiet, watching Shute and Macglendy, who, however, appeared to be completely at their ease. The two drifted off presently on to the terrace, where they paced up and down smoking their cigars, and apparently enjoying the sunshine.
"Well," Shute murmured, "and how did it go?"
"Couldn't have been better. I flatter myself that it was a very neat job. Was there any trouble at this end?"
"No," Shute replied, "but there easily might have been, if I hadn't foreseen matters. The girl saw us last night. It was she who aroused Fishbourne, hence the light in the latter's window, and our change of plans. Vickery was here this morning, foaming at the mouth, but he let out that the robbery took place shortly after 12 o'clock and that is where my little scheme for altering the time came in. So, I am able to prove now, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that I was in the house at the time the burglary was committed, all of which goes to show that you can't be too careful. But I will tell you all the rest of it when we go to bed. Meanwhile, we had better go back to the house, and make ourselves agreeable. Fishbourne hasn't the slightest suspicion of anything wrong."
Blythe sat at his breakfast the following morning, turning over his correspondence, most of which was trivial enough, until he came to the letter from Nettie Frond. This he read with the deepest interest two or three times before he tore it into fragments and dropped it into his empty coffee cup. He smiled to himself to think that Nettie had told him a great deal more than she knew herself, because most of the things she had to say in her letter tallied exactly with a theory that he had built up in his mind.
But, all the same, he was a little anxious and uneasy. Another day had passed without a sign of Harley, and Blythe was beginning to feel that something was seriously wrong. He went out presently on to the front, and walked to the Hove lawns almost as far as Shorehaven. He stopped from time to time to scan such small craft out at sea that the glasses he had brought with him disclosed, and, presently, a more satisfied expression crossed his face.
Out there, some mile or two off the shore, was a vessel which he recognised at once as Harley's hired yacht. This was entirely to the good, and Blythe sat down on a seat to think it over. If Harley was on board, then there was no reason whatever why a visit should not be paid to him. If, on the other hand, he was not there, then it might be possible to discover some information about him. Therefore, a little time later, Blythe stepped on board a motor boat which conveyed him to the yacht, and he boarded her without the slightest hesitation. He knew perfectly well, at any rate, that Shute and Macglendy were out of the way, and that there was nothing to be feared so far as they were concerned. But once he had climbed the deck, he found himself doomed to disappointment. So far as he could see there was no one on board at all. It was only a small yacht, with a couple of tiny cabins, and a nutshell of a saloon, the sort of yacht that a good sailor man and three hands might handle easily. But there was no one on deck, or in either of the saloons, until presently Blythe unearthed a grimy youth in the cuddy.
"Where is everybody?" he asked.
"All gone ashore, sir," the boy explained. "Mr. Harley he told us last night as there would be nothin' doin' to-day, an' so they're ashore enjoyin' theirselves."
"Oh, indeed," Blythe said blandly. "So you are the crew, are you? The bosun tight, and the midshipmite, and the crew of the 'Nancy Bell.' How long have you been at sea?"
"Oh, I don't belong to 'em proper, sir," the boy replied. "Only they wants me now an' then, when they're goin' to sea these nice nights. We cruise along towards the east, maybe as far as Littlehampton, an' gets back in the daylight."
"That must he very enjoyable," Blythe said. "Were you off somewhere last night then?"
"That's right, sir. We goes off just after dark, and gets back here in time for breakfast. Not as I worries much about it, becos I ain't wanted after dinner time, and I goes to sleep."
"Then you don't know what happens? But where is Mr. Harley? Was he here last night?"
"Yes sir, he come aboard about half-past six, and precious bad he were. Been out in the sun, as they says. They had to 'elp 'im over the side, an' down 'e goes in 'is cabin——"
"Here, what's that?" Blythe demanded. "Do you mean to say that Mr. Harley was drunk when he come on board?"
"Not 'arf 'e wasn't. Why, Mr. Macglendy fairly, 'ad to carry 'im down to is bunk. An' 'e wasn't much better when 'e come ashore this mornin', an' that white as never was."
Blythe had a profound satisfaction in the knowledge that he wasn't wasting his time. Indeed, on the contrary, he was picking up a vast amount of invaluable information. He had learnt, at any rate, that Macglendy, who was supposed to be in London on business, had actually been on board the yacht by six o'clock the night before, and had sailed with her, probably as far as Littlehampton, which was within easy distance of the house where the burglary of the night before had been committed. But it seemed a strange thing indeed that Harley should be taking a hand deliberately in that midnight adventure. And yet it was not possible to disbelieve the boy who was telling his story in the most natural way in the world to a man who would have been able to detect a lie in a moment. Therefore, what did he mean by saying that Harley had come on board in a state of hopeless intoxication, and that, when he had left for the shore that morning, he had been in little better case? It seemed hard to believe that Harley, an athlete to his finger tips, with the keen eye of perfect health, could have so suddenly lapsed into such a state of moral weakness. No, there was something behind all this, something exceedingly sinister, and Blythe was going to get to the bottom of it. But where had Harley got to, and where had he been hiding himself all this time? It was quite clear, from what the boy said, that his employer was in the habit of remaining on shore all day and cruising about in the darkness. But to find Harley's retreat during the daytime was apt to be a difficult matter.
Blythe put his hand in his pocket and displayed a pound note to the delighted eyes of his small companion.
"Now listen to me, my lad," he said. "And pay careful attention to what I am saying. I am a great friend of Mr. Harley's, the best friend he has in the world, and I have come here to find him. Do you know where he is?"
"I don't, sir, and that's a fact," the boy said. "'E comes, an' 'e goes ashore in a motor boat, and I sees no more of him all day. If I knew, I'd tell you, right enough."
"I am quite sure of that," Blythe said, as he put the note into the boy's hand. "I must find him myself, I suppose. Now, I don't want anybody to know that I have been here to-day, and you are not to mention my visit to a soul. If you do, I am bound to find it out, and there will be an end, as far as you and I are concerned. But if you keep silent, and keep your eyes open at the same time, there will be two or three more of those notes for you before you are many days older. Look about you and, if you see anything strange happening, make a note of it."
The boy grinned as he tucked the note away in his pocket.
"Mum's the word sir," he said. "You leave it to me."
They parted on that, and Blythe made his way back to his hotel. He had learnt a great deal, but there was still much to find out, especially with regard to this apparently inexplicable conduct on the part of Harley. There was no reason to doubt that the boy had been correct when he said that his master was in the habit of coming on board in a state of helpless intoxication, and leaving the yacht the next morning more or less in the same condition. But why this extraordinary change of habit, and where was Harley passing the day? Probably in some remote place, where he was sleeping off the effects of his wild indulgences. And it did not seem possible to doubt that this hiding-place had been selected, for some cunning purpose, by Shute and his accomplice, Macglendy. And on this point Blythe was comparatively clear. If the yacht was being used for the purpose of conveying the result of those daring burglaries to Brighton, its seemed now to be pretty clear then it would be no bad thing for the thieves to have Harley's company on board the yacht. And when Harley was dragged ashore in the daytime, still under the influence of alcohol, it would be necessary to convey him to some exceedingly quiet spot, otherwise, the proceedings would be observed, and people who saw them would begin to talk.
Now where was this secret hiding place? It would of necessity be somewhere on the shore and remote enough from a beach which was more or less crowded all the year round. And then suddenly it flashed upon Blythe, and he cursed himself roundly for not realising where this was before. He went out, without delay, and despatched a telegram to Nettie asking her if both Macglendy and Shute were still at Fishbourne Towers and requiring to know if they were likely to be there at any rate till the following morning.
In the course of time a reply came to the effect that Shute had been there all the time, and that Macglendy had been on business in London all the previous day, though he had turned up at Fishbourne Towers shortly before luncheon, with the intention of remaining there till the next morning.
"That's all right," Blythe said to himself. "I shall have a free hand for some hours to come at any rate. So our friend Macglendy who was called away suddenly from Fishbourne Towers yesterday afternoon on business came here instead and went on board the yacht just after dark. They are walking very nicely into my trap. And now, to pay a visit to the Green Bungalow."
Still, it was nine o'clock before Blythe cautiously crossed the beach and made his way round to the back of the bungalow, which he entered as previously, by pushing back a window catch. He switched on the light and walked into the little sitting-room. It was very hot and stuffy in there, and evidently the windows had not been opened for some time. The room had slightly changed in appearance, for there were one or two pictures here and there, which Blythe had not observed on previous visits, and, indeed it struck him that some more or less successful attempt had been made to turn the sitting room into the semblance of a saloon on board a yacht. Then it dawned upon Blythe that the place itself was an exact copy of the little cabin which the boy on board the yacht had pointed out to him as the one usually occupied by Harley.
It was so strange a discovery, and so sinister in its significance that Blythe was almost startled for a moment. He was still more startled when he turned and made out the outline of a figure covered by a rug, that lay in an almost deathly silence on a couch under the window. Then the figure moved, and a lack-lustre eye was turned in Blythe's direction. Here was Harley, beyond the shadow of a doubt, and, on the floor by his side a tiny pill-box containing a few grains of white powder.
"Cocaine," Blythe whispered, as he touched a tiny fragment with his lips "By heavens, that's the game, is it? Here, for the love of God, wake up, Harley."
A wave of disgust and pity swept over Blythe. He had scanty tolerance for the minor weaknesses of poor human nature, and such frailties as drink and self-indulgence generally touched him not at all. At the first glance he was inclined to the opinion that Harley had been knocked over by the first breath of trouble and had flown to the drug as the cheapest way out of the tangle. If this was so, then it seemed to Blythe that he was wasting his time on an object utterly unworthy of Nettie Frond's affections. He was almost inclined to laugh at himself for a sentimental fool for ever putting his hand to this thing at all. Why should he worry about a weak fool who lacked the moral courage to fight for his own honour?
But this thing was not done with yet because there was someone else to think of besides Roy Harley. He must probe this thing to the bottom for Nettie's sake. If this man were not really worthy of her then it must be proved up to the hilt and she must be told. But, on the other hand Blythe reflected, he was dealing with too of the most abandoned scoundrels in Europe and this might be merely another phase in the dark conspiracy. At any rate he would have to satisfy himself beyond the shadow of a doubt.
"Pull yourself together," he said sternly. "Wake up. How did you manage to get into this state?"
Harley gazed at him with lack-lustre eyes. He was not conscious as yet that he had been spoken to at all. He did not realise that he was no longer alone in the room. Blythe bent down and shook him much as a terrier shakes a rat. The man lying there must be made to understand that this would not do at all.
"Get up," Blythe repeated. "I say, get up."
But Harley merely rolled his eyes round, and groaned. He put a trembling hand to his head.
"Do you know where you are?" he asked.
"I think so," Harley groaned. "I am on board my yacht."
Blythe made no reply for a moment, because suddenly he was seeing a good deal of light. He was beginning to comprehend the full audacity of the scheme which those two master rascals were carrying out. It was not quite clear to him yet, but gradually, as he stood there, looking down into Harley's white face, he was getting the threads of the web into his grasp. And, indeed, when he came to look round him, he saw a good deal of evidence calculated to produce a certain impression upon Harley's muddled intellect. To begin with the little sitting-room in the bungalow bore a striking likeness, now that certain changes had been made, to Harley's cabin on board the yacht and, moreover, the boy had informed Blythe that his master was conveyed backwards and forwards in a state which he had described in his own picturesque language. Blythe knew now, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Harley's craft was used by Shute and Macglendy in connection with their burglary exploits, and it might be necessary, later on, for them to prove that they were merely cruising about the Channel for pleasure, at the invitation of their host. And Harley might testify to the fact that he had been with them all the time, quite ignorant that, under the influence of a deadly drug, he had spent half his time in the Green Bungalow.
The more Blythe thought this over the more sure he was that he was on the right track. The first thing to do was to bring Harley more or less to his senses. He searched through the bungalow until he found what he wanted in the tiny kitchen. He boiled a kettle and proceeded to brew a strong cup of coffee, which he coaxed Harley to drink, and once he had him on his feet again, walked him up and down the room, and from thence into the fresh air outside. It was a long and weary task, but at the end of an hour, Harley was sitting up on the sofa more or less in possession of his faculties.
"Do you realise what has happened?" Blythe asked.
"I don't realise anything," Harley groaned. "I thought I was on board the yacht. I was on board the yacht, because I could hear them on deck overhead, and, now and again, a touch of spray came in through the open window. But I suppose I have been dreaming all that, or have I been very ill?"
"Well, not exactly that," Blythe said. "You have not only been drugged with cocaine, but you have been kept under influence of it constantly for the last few days. That is, of course, unless you have been indulging on your own account."
"Never in my life," Harley protested. "I have not even seen any of the stuff, to my knowledge. And, what's more, I have never taken anything to excess."
"Ah, that was what I hoped to hear," Blythe said. "Now, listen to me. You will remember our conversation in the Metropolitan Hotel, when you told me that you were in a deal of trouble. But you didn't tell me everything, though I know it, all the same. Now, for reasons which I need not go into, I am deeply interested in your future. I have already told you, if I remember rightly, that I was once a great friend of your father's. What I am now does not matter in the least, but I want to help you, and I still more want to help that dear girl who is engaged to you. You came down here with Shute and Macglendy, and an intimate pal of yours called Prest for a game of cards, and certain things happened."
"How on earth do you know that?" Harley demanded.
"Never mind. The fact remains that I do know it. And if I had been present on that occasion, I should not have been a bit wiser than I am now. You played poker, didn't you? You won for some considerable time, and your principal victim was your own friend. You can correct me if I am wrong. Later in the evening, Macglendy stood out and watched the rest of you playing. You dealt a hand, and Macglendy reached over and declared that the cards were marked."
"So they were," Harley groaned. "So they were."
"Oh, I am not going to contradict you. To all appearances, those cards were the same pack that you had bought at Weston's in Castle Square. You opened them yourself, and were absolutely paralysed to find that Macglendy's statement as correct. I suppose it never occurred to you as a strange thing that Shute, who lives here and is a regular card player, should ask you to call at Castle Square and get him two packs of cards."
"Well, no, it didn't," Harley said. "But now you come to mention it, it does seem strange. But how do you know all this? Are you a card player, by any chance?"
"My dear fellow, I more or less get my living at it. I am one of the most noted card players in Europe, and no man who knows my reputation would venture to sit down with me. I am telling you all this, because you are bound to find it out sooner or later."
"Oh, indeed," Harley stammered. "Then you are—are——"
"Precisely. That, in polite circles, is called a chevalier de l'industrie. You are a very young man who has not mixed with the world very much, or, before now, somebody would surely have pointed me out to you as a person to be avoided."
"And yet you say you were a friend of my father's?"
"That's true enough, but it was a great many years ago, when I never dreamt what fate had in store for me. But, because I was your father's friend I am doing my best to get you out of this trouble. I am little or no better than the men that you have got entangled with, which, on the whole, is none the worse for you, because you see, I am up to all their little tricks and dodges, and if you will do exactly what I tell you, I think I can promise in a few days to get you out of this mess and restore your good name to you. I could do the whole thing in an hour easily, but because I am a prominent person in the underworld, I don't want to do those two scoundrels any more harm than is necessary. To be quite cynical, my dear boy, it would not pay me to do so. I shall have to go on in the present way till I die, and it does not pay to make enemies when you come to my time of life, and, strange as it may seem, I have rather a high reputation amongst the set I belong to, as a man who is always ready to hold out a helping hand to a less clever scoundrel than myself."
"Why do you call yourself that?" Harley asked.
Blythe dropped his mask just for a moment, and the ghost of a bitter smile flickered on his lips.
"Because I am so," he said. "I made a great mistake once, years ago, and I have never been allowed to forget it. It spoilt my life, and made me the soured and embittered man that I am. There were one or two who held out a contemptuous hand, and offered to help me, but I would have none of it. But I would rather not go into all this. I want you to put yourself entirely in my hands, and I will save you. Never mind why. Some day I may tell you, and, on the other hand I may not. But there is one thing you may rest assured about. At the present moment, I am the only man in the world who can help you, and I am going to do so. But I shall have to ask you to trust me implicitly."
"Indeed, I will," Harley replied. "Tell me what you want me to do, and I will obey you to the letter."
"Very well, then, that's a bargain. Now, for the next day or two I want you to go on just as if nothing had happened. It is quite clear to me that those men found it necessary to keep you more or less in a condition of insensibility. They contrived, somehow, to administer a big dose of cocaine, which was supplemented from time to time, so that you had the haziest idea of where you were, or what you were doing. Sometimes you are on the yacht and sometimes you are here. When those chaps come back you must pretend that you are just as I found you. You won't have much difficulty in that, because you still look an absolute wreck. And if they attempt to give you any further doses of cocaine, as they probably will, then you must contrive not to take it. Throw it away, anything so that you retain your faculties. It won't be very easy for you to pretend that you have taken the stuff, and in any case I shan't keep you very long. And perhaps, by the end of the week, we may have a little gathering here, where I shall be able to prove to your friend, Prest, that you are not what he takes you to be. However, it is entirely in your own hands. And now, I must be going."
"I don't know why you should take all this trouble for me," Harley said gratefully. "But I will do exactly as you tell me, and if you can get me out of this mess you will not find me ungrateful."
"That's right," Blythe said. "Good night to you."
For the present, at any rate, Macglendy and Shute had finished their campaign, and the latter was back at Brighton again, working at his book in the morning, leaving Nettie free most afternoons to do as she pleased. So far, she had not seen Harley, who was no longer at the bungalow or on his yacht, for the simple reason that at Blythe's suggestion, he had gone off to London for a day or two, and had promised to remain there without communicating with anybody, until such time as Blythe sent for him. He had intimated to Nettie by letter that Harley was perfectly safe, but that, for the moment, it was essential that he should keep away from Brighton. He had asked Nettie to meet him, and, accordingly, they came together in the afternoon, somewhere on the front, and wandered up Kemp Town way until they found a quiet seat.
"Now, I dare say you have been wondering what has been going on all this time," Blythe said. "I can assure you that I have not been wasting my time. I suppose you haven't heard from Harley?"
"Not a word," Nettie said, almost tearfully.
"Oh, well, that's my fault more than his. I suppose you begin to realise now, that he get into very bad hands. I think Mrs. Macglendy implored you to leave Shute and find occupation elsewhere."
"Yes, I told you that before. And you told me that I was not to think about it until we had concluded our visit to Fishbourne Towers. I am more bewildered than ever. I went last night to call upon Mrs. Macglendy, but I was told in Brunswick Square that she was away, and would not be back for quite a long time."
"She is never coming back at all," Blythe said. "She has left her husband, and gone back to her own people. You see, Mrs. Macglendy is quite well connected. In fact, she is a relation of your own—your mother's sister, to be particular."
"Ah, that accounts for the likeness I saw," Nettie cried. "So she is my aunt. They would never speak about her at home, though I always understood that she married unfortunately."
"Indeed she did. She married one of the biggest scoundrels in Europe. I had no idea what had become of her till I found her, to my amazement, in Brunswick Square, and she asked me to help her. If she had stayed there much longer, she would, undoubtedly, have lost her reason. So I pulled a few strings, and now she has gone back to her own people. In fact, I helped her to get away, which is why you haven't seen me for a day or two. And now, as to your own affairs. Do you know where Walter Prest is to be found?"
"I know his address in London, if that's what you mean?"
"That's good," Blythe said. "I want you to write to him, and ask him to come down here and see you. You need not say why, but when he does come I want to be present. Say the day after to-morrow in the Metropolitan at lunch time."
"Yes, I will do that if you like," Nettie said.
"Then that's settled. I want you to tell me exactly what happened at Fishbourne Towers, without leaving out any details."
With that, Nettie told her story. She related all the circumstances connected with her brief visit, not forgetting the strange incident that she had witnessed on the last night but one of her stay, when she had seen Shute and another man on the terrace at Fishbourne Towers in the early hours of the morning.
"What time was it exactly?" Blythe asked.
"Ah, that I cannot quite tell you. You see, I had had all accident with my watch, and, as there was no clock in my room——"
"Just a moment," Blythe interrupted. "I think you said you were working late that night, didn't you?"
"Very late. In fact, we didn't go into the room that Lord Fishbourne had put at our disposal long before the family went to bed. When we had finished, it was past one. I know that, because Mr. Shute jumped up suddenly and remarked how late it was."
"Now, that is a strange thing," Blythe said thoughtfully. "Because I remember reading in the 'Sussex Daily News' that the burglary at Vickery's Place happened just after twelve. And if this really was so, then I don't quite see how Shute and Macglendy could have been responsible for the trouble."
"What are you saying?" Nettie cried. "Besides, Mr. Macglendy was not in the house at all. He was called away on important business, and did not return till the next morning. Are you telling me that Mr. Shute is a common thief?"
"Well, that is the delicate impression I am trying to convey," Blythe said drily. "I have every reason to believe that all those burglaries were the work of those two. Of course, Shute has the entree of some historic houses, and, no doubt, he used his visit to Fishbourne to great effect. But you said just now that you had an accident with your watch. Tell me about it."
"But it sounds too trivial," Nettie said. "It is the watch I am wearing at the present moment, which I got repaired to-day. It used to belong to my mother. Don't you think it's a very nice one?'"
"Yes, I have seen it many a time," Blythe said carelessly. "I—I mean that—well, never mind what I mean. But tell me, just how did that accident happen?"
Nettie described the incident in a few words, and Blythe listened with rather a grim smile on his face.
"Ah, now I see the whole thing," he said. "Before you went into that writing-room Shute preceded you and put on the clock for an hour or so. Didn't he enter the room first?"
"He did," Nettie said. "He was there some minutes before I was. In fact he put all the writing materials out."
"Of course, he did, and altered the clock at the same time. He probably found out that there wasn't a clock in your bedroom, and no doubt, it was he himself who was responsible for the accident to your watch. Very neat, very neat indeed. If anything happened, he was in a position to prove that he was working with you at one o'clock in the morning, whereas a little after twelve he and Macglendy who, previously, was not very far off, were on their way to Vickery's. They were responsible for all these burglaries in houses which are all very near to the sea. They had only to carry the stuff in a motor-boat and place it on board Harley's yacht. And now, if you will listen carefully to me, I will tell you exactly how those men have been making use of your young man, and why it was necessary to play that trick upon him with regard to the cards."
Nettie sat listening for some time, almost spellbound with a web of intrigue which Blythe proceeded to unravel for her. At the end of half an hour, she understood the situation thoroughly. Then Blythe rose to go.
"I think I had better leave you here," he said. "It is just as well that we should not be seen together more than is necessary. You will write to Prest to-night and ask him to meet you and a friend at the Metropolitan the day after to-morrow, and lunch. You had better come together, and I will see that we have a private room. Don't worry yourself more than is necessary because everything is going to come right in the next few days."
Blythe drifted away, leaving Nettie to her own more or less distracted thoughts. She was horrified and shocked at the revelation she had just listened to, and the thought of going to the bungalow to-morrow, just as if nothing had happened, fairly terrified her. But then, she could see that the good name of her lover was more or less in her own hands, and, with that high courage of hers, she made up her mind to see this thing through to the end.
Meanwhile, Blythe went his way, perfectly satisfied with the progress of events. He had seen Harley before the latter left for London, and had gathered that for the present, at any rate, the two confederates had no further use for him. Perhaps the scene was getting a little hot, perhaps Shute and his confederate had made up their minds to give matters a rest. At any rate there was no further attempt to administer cocaine, and Harley was informed that he had been seriously unwell for a day or two, and that he had been nursed in a rough-and-ready way in the bungalow.
He had appeared to accept this statement without question, after which he had gone to the Metropolitan, and explained to the anxious manager there that he had been ill for a few days, during the time he was away, and that it had not occurred to anybody to notify the fact to the hotel. After that, he went off to London still retaining his room in the Metropolitan, and saying that he would be back at the end of the week.
Two days later Nettie received the letter she had expected to the effect that Prest was coming down by a morning train, and that he would gladly meet her in the lounge of the Metropolitan just before one o'clock. He came, bright-eyed, and eager, and ready to do anything that the girl asked. Still, the meeting was a trifle embarrassing, and it was some little time before they were on easy terms. Something like a frown crossed Prest's face as Blythe appeared and walked along the lounge in the direction of the little room where he had ordered luncheon to be set out.
"Who is the friend we are lunching with?" Prest asked.
"We had better go and see, I think," Nettie said. "I don't think you know him, but he is very anxious to meet you."
She passed into the private room, followed by Prest, and found Blythe awaiting them. He shook hands with Nettie, and then turned calmly and smilingly to her companion.
"I don't think we have met before," he said, "though possibly my name may be familiar to you."
"Yes, I am sorry to say it is," Prest said coldly. "My dear Nettie, you surely cannot be aware——"
"Sit down," Blythe commanded sternly. "This is no time for melodrama. I see you know who I am but that is no reason why you should make a scene. You are a gentleman, and a man of honour, Mr. Prest, and, as such, the honour of your dearest friend is as precious as your own. We are here to-day to save Roy Harley from a terrible charge, and I am going to show you that you have been wrong in your conclusions."
"If you can do that," Prest declared, "then I will sit down at the same table and be your guest with pleasure."
There was no mistaking the sincerity of Prest's declaration and a warm smile of gratitude flashed across Nettie's face. She had not altogether approved of his attitude with regard to Harley and his army career, though she could not in all honesty declare that Prest was anything but right. Still, it seemed to her that some vague way might have been found out of the tragedy without the drastic course of Roy's leaving the army altogether. But that was the mere woman's way of looking at it with sentiment overriding logic.
"I like to hear you speak like that," Blythe said. "If I had expected anything else I should not have induced Miss Frond to have lured you here to-day. If you will consent to put yourself entirely in my hands, Captain Prest, I will pledge my word, for what it is worth, that I can prove that your unfortunate friend has been the victim of a cruel fraud and conspiracy."
Prest looked rather uneasily at Nettie. He was still feeling just a little sore at what he considered to be a plot on the part of the girl and Blythe to get him down to Brighton. Moreover, he was still, more or less, in love with Nettie, though he recognised the hopelessness of his affection. He knew now that whatever happened she would stick to Harley in the face of public opinion, and in his heart of hearts he admired her all the more for it.
"It seems almost impossible," he said. "You were not present on that unfortunate occasion and I was. Are you asking me to believe that someone of the social standing of Mr. Shute and Mr. Macglendy would deliberately stoop to fraud Mr. Blythe?"
"What do you know of their social standing?" Blythe enquired. "You merely met them down here quite casually and Harley introduced you to them. They were not friends of his either. Then an evening at cards was suggested and you fell in with it. Shute is supposed to be a man of means and a great novelist and is writing a book on his experiences as a noted sportsman and traveller."
"Shute knows some very good people," Prest murmured.
"Oh, I am quite prepared to admit that this man is a gentleman by birth, and that some very good houses are open to him. But what has he been doing all the years he has been abroad? Nobody knows anything about that, except myself, and one or two others; and, as to Macglendy, he is merely a Jew, who started life in the humblest circumstances in Glasgow. That was where he picked up his Scottish accent. As a matter of fact, he has no money at all, and the same remark applies to Shute. I dare say you are wondering why I am taking such an interest in this business."
"Well, I must confess that I am," Prest said. "A man like yourself—I mean an individual——"
"Oh, I know exactly what you mean," Blythe smiled. "You had better speak freely. You are wondering why anyone with a shady reputation like mine should be so keenly interested in saving the good name of an absolute stranger?"
There was a pleasing smile on Blythe's face as he spoke. He stood there, calm and self-possessed, beautifully turned out, and looking anything but the class of man he was freely admitting himself to be. It seemed to Nettie to be almost impossible that here was one who had the shadiest of reputations all over the Continent.
"It is no use us pretending," Blythe went on. "I am what I am, and nothing short of a miracle will make me anything else. I am interested in this business, because Roy Harley's father was an intimate friend of mine, and I knew Miss Frond's mother equally well. Call it pure sentiment on my part if you like, but if you will be guided by me I will not only prove Harley's innocence, but I will show you exactly how the thing was done. More than that, I will give you a demonstration in the presence of Shute and Macglendy, and you shall see for yourself how they take it. I think, in common fairness to Harley, you ought to give me this opportunity."
"Oh, I will," Prest said warmly.
"I thought so. Now, let's sit down to luncheon and forget all about it, and after Miss Frond has gone I will explain to you exactly what I want you to do."
Prest sat down with none too good a grace. He was eager enough to help Harley if he could, though he was still anything but keen to sit down, especially with Nettie, at the same table with a man who had been pointed out to him as an individual who was distinctly to be avoided. Still, he took his place there, and, long before the meal was concluded, found himself more or less fascinated by the charming personality of his host. There was still a good deal to hear, a good deal of which did not concern Nettie, so that she allowed Blythe to bow her out presently, and went on her way with more hope than she had felt for days.
She was passing through the hall of the hotel, which was more or less in shadow at this time of the afternoon, and was about to leave when a figure rose from a corner seat and come towards her. With a thrill at her heart, she recognised Harley.
"I have been waiting for you for quite a long time," he said. "I knew you were lunching here to-day, because that strange creature, Blythe, wrote and told me to wait for you here about three o'clock. Shall we sit down?"
It was a secluded corner that Harley intimated, and somewhere apart from the nearest group of visitors so that they sat down there and Harley began to talk. He told Nettie the whole history of his recent adventures, and expressed the hope that the time was not far distant when he would have nothing more to fear.
"I don't know how Blythe is going to do it," he said. "But I have a most childlike faith in that man."
"He certainly is an extraordinary individual," Nettie said. "I suppose you know that Walter Prest has been lunching with us?"
"That is about all I do know," Harley said. "I am told to hold myself in readiness for any instructions I get. But you will have to leave the employ of that man Shute after all that has happened. You know him now for what he is, and if I had been aware of his antecedents, I should never have seen the inside of the Green Bungalow. You must not go near that hateful place."
"Oh, I am not in the least afraid, Roy," Nettie said. "It will only be for a day or two longer, and, besides, if I suddenly stop my work, won't Mr. Shute be suspicious? Don't you think that I might be doing you a great deal of harm?"
"Well, perhaps so," Harley admitted, reluctantly. "Still, I hate the idea of your being alone in that rather desolate spot with a man like that."
But Nettie made light of his fears. How could Shute possibly know that she was so far behind the scenes? He was not even aware of the fact that she and Harley were friendly, or that Blythe had even heard of her existence. It would be only for a day or two longer, and then she would be able to go her own way, and leave Shute to his own resources.
"Don't let's think about it," she said. "Let us talk of the future. I don't know how it is going to be done, but I feel absolutely certain that Mr. Blythe will be able to put everything right when the proper time comes. Whatever his principles may be he is an exceedingly clever man, and, for some reason or other, he takes the greatest possible interest in us. He must have been in a very different position at one time, because it is easy to see that he is a man of good birth and breeding, and possibly because he liked my mother, he wants to help me. And he will do it too, Roy. You will see before long that your troubles are over."
"Well, let us hope so, at any rate," Harley smiled. "It has been a terrible time for both of us, and if you had not been so loyal, I don't know what I should have done. Now, let us go outside, and sit in the sunshine."
Meanwhile, Blythe and Prest were still seated in the private room discussing the strange affair which had brought them together. There was a good deal to be settled, and it was nearly four o'clock before Prest rose and took his leave.
"You can count upon me," he said. "I am going back to town this afternoon, but if you send me a wire, I will come back here at any moment you like to mention. I am not feeling particularly happy over this business, for more reasons than I care to mention. You see, Roy Harley has always been a friend of mine. We were at school together, we joined the Army the same month, and we are both in the same battalion of the Guards. As a man of the world, Mr. Blythe, I think you will agree that I was quite right when I stipulated that Harley must either clear his character or leave the Army. It was a bitter decision to have to come to, and all the more so as we were rivals. You understand what I mean? And, on a certain occasion Harley behaved so well that I admired him all the more. He gave me my chance, but there was another party to be consulted, and when I found that it was all useless I resigned in Harley's favour. You can imagine my feelings then, when I had to take the course I mention. What else could I possibly do?"
"That is rather a flattering question," Blythe said, with an unsteady smile. "And, at the same time, it is rather humorous to think that the man called Hilton Blythe—though that is not my proper name by any means—should be appealed to by a soldier and a gentleman on a point of honour. Because you see, even in my world we have our code. And that is why I want to let those two men down as easily as possible. You see, to-morrow, they might be my confederates, though that is putting an extreme case. Still, if I can satisfy you beyond the shadow of a doubt that Harley has been the victim of a vile conspiracy, you may be disposed to be satisfied and not let the thing go any further."
"I shall be more than satisfied," Prest said. "Do what you suggest, and those two men can go to the devil their own way so far as I am concerned."
Whereupon they parted, and a few minutes later Blythe turned into a garage at the corner of Preston-street, and asked for a car to be placed at his disposal for the next hour or two. He paid his deposit, and seated himself in the motor.
"Where to, sir," the driver asked.
"Fishbourne Towers," Blythe replied. "I suppose you know where it is. Lord Fishbourne's place, near Arundel."
"Oh, that's all right, sir," the driver said. "I've been there before. I can get you there in an hour, easy."
Fishbourne came across the library where Blythe was awaiting him, with an expression on his face that was not unkindly, but certainly one of embarrassment.
"I got your telephone message," he said. "Though why you want to see me is past my understanding. My dear fellow, for the sake of old times, I am ready to do anything I can to help you, but, at the same time, I wish you had not come here."
"Well, it might certainly have been avoided," Blythe confessed. "But it is so many years since I was in a house of this sort last, that I could not resist the temptation. There was a time, once, when I was a welcome guest under your roof."
"No one regrets the reason why you are not still a friend of mine more than I do. But sit down and let us talk the matter over. I feel quite sure that you did not come here this afternoon merely to look at my family pictures, and to feel that once upon a time you were entitled to meet me on terms of perfect equality."
"That is perfectly true," Blythe said, "Don't let us have any sentiment for God's sake. I came here to-day, because I thought perhaps you would like to have your family plate back again."
"Well of course I should. And if you can show me a way, I think that you won't find me ungrateful."
"There is no question of gratitude between you and me, Fishbourne. You were one of the few who stood up for me when I was down in the depths, and I am not going to forget it. It is too late for me to come back now, and one way and another I have not done so badly. I could retire from the business at any moment with a comfortable fortune but I am not old enough yet. And that is why I hate taking a holiday. If I have too much time I begin to think, and when I begin to think, all the old devils come and gibber before me, and my thoughts turn to drink. There is no other man in the world I would have told, but my conscience still sorely troubles me at times. But that is the other side of the story. Now, I have got a car outside, and if you don't mind running into Brighton with me, I think I can show you a way to get hold of what you have lost."
"In that case, I will most certainly come," Fishbourne said. "Can I get you some tea, or something of that sort? No? Well a cigar or a cigarette?"
Blythe helped himself to a cigarette, which he smoked whilst his involuntary host was getting ready for the journey. Half an hour later, they were on their way back to Brighton, and talking over old times when they were boys together, very much as if there had been nothing to come between them since the days when they were at Eton. And, after this, Fishbourne's curiosity began to get the better of him, and he asked Blythe a number of questions.
"Perhaps I had better make a clean breast of it," the latter said. "I didn't want to do it, but I think you had better be put on your guard. What do you know of the man called Mark Shute?"
"Oh well, he is one of us. A man who has distinguished himself in his own walk of life, and one who, undoubtedly, has been a great game shot. Is there anything wrong with him?"
"Everything is wrong. You may say he is one of you, but I prefer to say he is one of us. You look surprised, but it is a fact all the same. You will search London in vain to find anyone who knows what Shute was doing during that fifteen years he was out of England, but there are plenty of men in South America, and notably in California, who could tell you. My dear fellow, he and Macglendy between them robbed you of the Cellini plate."
"Impossible," Fishbourne cried.
"Not at all. I could prove it to you, beyond a demonstration, if I liked. Not only did they take your plate, but they got hold of Lady Vickery's jewels, when they were actually under your roof, and, but for a bit of amazing good luck, they would have had Lady Fishbourne's gems as well. But I think I can restore everything, and I don't want the police to know anything about it. If you will consent to that, then I can put you right, and, what is more, I can clear Macglendy and Shute out of the country altogether."
"But why do you want to protect those scoundrels?"
"Well, let us call it an inverted version of noblesse oblige," Blythe smiled. "I suppose you have heard a proverb to the effect that dog does not eat dog. Do you follow me?"
"Perfectly," Fishbourne said gravely. "I suppose it is much the same all over the world. Still, I don't see why I should worry about it, especially if you can give me what you suggest. But I must confess that I am astonished. I should never have suspected Shute of anything of the sort, and that other man, Macglendy, seemed quite a decent fellow, though he obviously does not belong to the same class as Shute. And yet you tell me he is just as bad."
"Rather worse, I should say. Macglendy is handsome enough, and very distinguished in his fine features and yellow beard, but he happens to be a sort of half-bred Jew, who started life in the purlieus of Glasgow. Hence his Scotch brogue, and also his name."
"Well, I have heard of Scottish Jews," Fishbourne said, "and most of them claiming to belong to some famous clan, but I never met a better imitation than Macglendy."
"By Jove, there they are," Blythe cried. "Keep well back in the car, and don't let them see you with me, or else the whole game will be up."
They were just reaching the outskirts of Shorehaven, on the Worthing road, when another car passed, with Shute and Macglendy inside, evidently on their way to the Green Bungalow. But they saw nothing of the other two, for Blythe's eyes were a little too sharp, and the cars passed one another without recognition.
Shute was talking eagerly to his companion, and appeared to be on very good terms with himself as they passed swiftly along in the direction of Shorehaven. Arrived there, they left the car some little distance from the bungalow, and crossed the shingle up to the front door. Here Shute produced a latch-key, and, together with Macglendy, entered the house.
"We'll just sit down here and have a smoke and a drink," Shute said, "until it gets properly dark, and we can move all that stuff without attracting attention. The car will be quite safe where it is, and it is just as well we didn't bring a chauffeur with us. You can never be too careful."
He pulled down the blinds, and turned on the light. Then he produced a cigar box and a tantalus, with some glasses and a syphon, and placed them on the table.
"We'll just wait another hour," he said. "Then back to your place in Brunswick Square for a mouthful of food, and, after that, off to London with the stuff. I have found the right man to buy it, at quite a good price, and, upon my word, I am much obliged to Blythe for telling us that Fishbourne's plate was historic."
"Yes, that was rather a good tip, wasn't it?" Macglendy chuckled. "And there is no reason at all why he should have any share of this. At least, there is no reason why he should have a share of the money we get from the jewels. We had better drop the business as far as this part of the country is concerned, Shute. I don't know why, but I have got an impression that we are being watched. It is only one of my instincts, perhaps——"
"Oh, I don't think so," Shute said. "What makes you imagine that? Have you seen anything suspicious?"
"Well, I don't like the way in which my wife disappeared. I know she has gone back to her own people, where she can stay, as far as I am concerned. She is not much use to me now, since she has got to look so old, but I am sure her people didn't fetch her, and she would never have had the courage to go, unless somebody had helped. That is one of the reasons why I want to start somewhere else, and now that we have got Harley so securely in our hands, we shall be able to choose our own neighbourhood. By the way, what has become of young Harley?"
"Oh, I have turned him loose for the moment," Shute said contemptuously. "I believe he is in London. He is quite safe. He never suspected for a moment the trick we played upon him over that cocaine business, and still believes that he had some sort of mysterious illness. Before the month is out, he will have to chuck the Army, and people will wonder why. There will be all sorts of talk, because you never can help people talking, and you and I don't particularly want to. Besides, he will have to leave all his clubs, and that will be the worst scandal of the lot. When people begin to cold-shoulder him he will be pleased to fall back upon us, and then we can use him to our hearts' content. Socially speaking, you can regard Harley as dead and damned."
"Yes, that's right," Macglendy chuckled. "It will be a fine thing to have a man with us that we can do what we like with. And the mere fact that be has any amount of money does not make the arrangement any the less desirable. I know where most of the money will be within the next 12 months."
They sat there chuckling and drinking for some time, until it grew dark outside, and then Shute rose and remarked that it was time that they were moving. Saying this, he walked into the little kitchen at the back of the sitting room, and, removing the matting from the floor, pulled away a part of the skirting and raised three or four boards, disclosing underneath the mass of dry shingle upon which the bungalow was built.
"There never was such a hiding place, I think," he said. "All Scotland Yard might come down here and never be a bit the wiser. Now, come along, and help to put the stone on one side."
At the end of half an hour the shingle was piled in a corner of the kitchen, and under where it was lain, appeared a round iron lid, which was evidently the top of a hidden safe. Shute removed the lid, and plunged his hand down in the hollow circular, which was lined with steel. Then he rose suddenly and confronted Andrew with a face that was white and almost despairing.
"The stuff's gone," he gasped. "The damned thing is empty. Here, come and look for yourself."
Macglendy almost fell over in his sickening anxiety, but it was even as Shute had said. The jewels and plate had vanished.
Blythe said very little more until the Hotel Metropolitan was reached, and he had Fishbourne comfortably seated in his private room discussing a choice cigar. And this was exactly what it should be, for Fishbourne had no great desire to be seen with Blythe in any of the more public apartments. He was no more of a snob than most people, but the line had to be drawn somewhere. Blythe, however, was quite aware of this and the knowledge cost him a pang or two. It was many years now since he had sat down with one of his own class in a purely friendly way, and the ghosts of the past rose before him.
"Now, I dare say you are wondering what all this means," he said, just a little uneasily. "You are puzzled to understand why, with my record, I should be interfering in your affairs. In the first place I have already told you that I want nothing, and that is true. Call it sentiment if you like—you could use no better word."
"Then there is more here than meets the eye?"
"Assuredly there is, Fishbourne. I want to speak to you as one man to another, and as if we were on a perfect equality."
"Why not?" Fishbourne said, good-naturedly. "Why not?"
"Then I will go ahead. You are one of the few men who know my secret. It has been well kept, not for my sake but out of consideration for one I care much for. It is part of the punishment I have to bear, and I am not complaining; moreover, the secret is to be kept perhaps until my time comes. Then possibly I may choose to speak. Meanwhile the happiness of a certain person is in danger. Not to make a mystery of it, I mean Miss Frond. Did you know that there was an understanding between her and Roy Harley?"
"Not to be certain," Fishbourne remarked. "All the same, I am delighted to hear it. But look here—what has become of Harley? I am very concerned about him. From what I can make out he has got into some deuce of a mess, and has vanished. If you can put me wise so far as he is concerned I shall be grateful."
"As a matter of fact, Harley is in Brighton at the present moment," Blythe replied. "Now, if you are in no hurry, I will tell you a story that I think will interest you."
Fishbourne remarked that his time was entirely at Blythe's disposal, and the latter went into details telling in a manner that aroused Fishbourne's deepest interest. He walked up and down the room with a cigar in his mouth that was cold without the slightest degree being aware of the fact.
"Well, I'm dashed," he said. "So that's the game, is it? No wonder you are interested. And you came on all this drama quite by accident. No wonder you were anxious to put it all right. Now, look here, I am quite at your disposal, and am ready to do anything you please. But how are you going to convince Prest? He must be convinced and, in the circumstances you mention, he may not be content to accept your word for it that Shute and Macglendy are the scoundrels you say they are. See what I mean?"
"Oh, I see what you mean plainly enough. To put it in another form, my word is no better than Shute's. Oh, I have thought all that out, and I can see my way quite clearly. Now, if I want you, say the day after to-morrow, at about eleven o'clock in the evening, in this very room, are you prepared to come? Mind, I can answer no questions. All I can do is to assure you that, if you will help me in this matter in the way I mention, you will be doing a wonderful service to Roy Harley and the girl he is engaged to."
"That is quite good enough for me," Fishbourne said emphatically. "Tell me what to do, and I am your man."
"I am exceedingly grateful to you," Blythe said. "I must have a credible witness, who would bring me the right evidence at the right moment. I have already explained to you why I want to expose those two men without landing them in the hands of the police. You shall have your plate back, and Vickery shall have his wife's jewels. I am going to give you practical evidence of this."
With that, Blythe retired for a moment or two into his bedroom, which adjoined the sitting room, and returned presently, with a large portmanteau. From this, under the astonished eyes of Fishbourne, he produced the whole of the missing plate, in the green baize bags together with a number of shabby cases, containing a mass of gems, that glittered as the light fell upon them.
"There you are," he said, quietly. "Now, I don't want to take any credit for myself, but you must admit that, had I liked, I could have got off with all this stuff, and nobody would have been any the wiser. But, believe me, I had no temptation to do anything of the sort. We will shove all this in a taxi presently, and you can take it back to Fishbourne Towers. When you give Vickery his lot, you can suggest to him that you got the stuff back by compounding a felony, and give him a hint to keep his mouth shut. He can say he found the jewels in his own grounds, if you like."
"Well, I'm dashed," Fishbourne said. "I owe you something for this, anyway. What can I do to repay you?"
"By doing just what I ask," Blythe said. "I want you to come here the evening of the day after to-morrow at the time suggested, and walk into the room without knocking. I shall be greatly obliged if you could manage to appear precisely at eleven o'clock."
"That does not sound very difficult," Fishbourne laughed.
"Perhaps not. But that is not quite all. Have you ever been on Shorehaven Beach?"
"You mean what's called Bungalow Town. Yes, I know it quite well. I had a fancy to have a shanty there once myself, but it never came to anything."
"Then perhaps you know a place there called the Green Bungalow. It stands by itself, just at the end of the beach, and was used during the war by the naval authorities."
"Oh, I know it quite well," Fishbourne said. "I have been inside the place several times."
"That's all to the good," Blythe went on. "I want you to call there in the afternoon, before you come along here, and do a bit of quiet burglary. I will see to it that there is no one on the premises. If you go round to the back of the house, you will find that you can get in by pushing back the catch of the kitchen window. When you have done that, I want you to go into the sitting-room, in the corner of which you will find a small card-table, covered with a green cloth. There is a drawer at one end of it, and in this drawer you will see two new packs of cards. I borrowed one pack for a certain purpose, but I was careful to replace it later on. Put them in your pocket, and bring them here when you come. Don't produce them till I ask you to do so, and don't be in the least afraid when the time comes to proclaim openly how you got them."
"All this I will do, of course," Fishbourne said. "Upon my word, I am looking forward to the adventure. It reminds me of my hot youth, before I settled down to humdrum respectability. But aren't you going to tell me what all this means?"
"I would much rather not, if it is all the same to you," Blythe said. "Why spoil the story by reading the last chapter first? I have worked it out carefully in my mind, and you may be sure that I am not going to fail. I have two exceedingly clever men to deal with, but nobody in my line has ever got the best of me yet, and I shall be greatly surprised if that happens now."
With this, Fishbourne had to be content. He went off presently in a taxi, with the portmanteau at his feet, and dropped in at the house of his friend Vickery on his way back. The latter opened his eyes widely enough when he caught sight of the familiar cases, and turned eagerly to Fishbourne for an explanation.
"Now, how on earth did all this come about?" he asked.
"Don't you think that you had better go through those cases first and see that they are all right?" Fishbourne suggested.
Vickery compiled and certified presently that not so much as a clasp was missing. He looked up to Fishbourne for an explanation, but the other merely smiled mysteriously.
"I am not going to tell you," he said. "It was a wonderful piece of luck, and you will be pleased to hear that my Cellini plate came back through the same channel. And it didn't cost me a halfpenny either. A man whom I befriended many years ago put me on the right track, and—well, there you are. He asked me to go and see him, and when the interview was finished I came back with all that stuff, and my own besides. But you are not to say a word about it to a soul. You can hint that you have got your valuables again, and take all the credit yourself, if you like. And if the police want to ask any awkward questions, refer them to me."
"Well, I suppose I ought to be satisfied," Vickery said. "And anyway, I am deucedly grateful to you. But my curiosity is amazing. Won't you give me even a hint?"
"Not a syllable," Fishbourne said, firmly. "You are too great a chatterbox for that. You couldn't keep your mouth shut to save your life, and would be certain to tell your wife, and once a woman knows the story, it will be all over the county."
"Then you don't intend to tell your own missus?"
"Not more than is necessary. Now, look here, Vickery, I particularly want this thing kept a secret, because it has to do with the happiness of people who have very little concern with your business and mine. And there is a man behind it whom I have a great respect for, though you would be astonished enough if I mentioned his name. So try and forget all about it, like the good fellow that you are, and be content with getting your wife's jewels back. It has been a wonderful slice of luck. That should be sufficient."
"Oh, very well," Vickery said, swallowing his obvious disappointment. "I am not ungrateful, old chap, I am not indeed. But, Lord, when I come to think of the questions I shall be asked, I am all in a cold sweat. I don't know what to say."
"That is why I am not going to tell you anything," Fishbourne laughed. "If you don't know, you can't tell."
"There is something to that," Vickery admitted. "Tell you what, come over here the day after to-morrow and dine and bring your wife with you. Then perhaps you will be able to help me out. I shall never get through by myself."
"Can't be done," Fishbourne said. "The game is not finished yet, and, on the date you mention, I am taking rather an important hand in it."
And with that the little baronet had to be content.
Blythe was not very far away from his hotel during the next day, because he knew perfectly well that it would not be long before Shute and Macglendy came in search of him. It was just after tea when he was seated in the Metropolitan lounge that the confederates came up and accosted him none too civilly.
"Now, don't make a scene here," Blythe said quietly. "If you have anything to say, follow me up to my private room."
There seemed to be no objection to this course, and, a few moments later, Shute was opening his batteries.
"You call yourself a friend," he said. "A nice way to treat anyone who has behaved towards you as we have done. But, we are not going to sit down quietly and be robbed in this way, are we Macglendy? Now, what have you done with that stuff?"
"I am not going to pretend to misunderstand you," Blythe said. "The stuff, as you call it, is already in the hands of those that it belongs to. I took the liberty of returning it, and if you are not satisfied, then the remedy is in your own hands."
"It's a damned lie," Shute foamed. "You have sold the stuff and put the money in your pocket."
"Well, if you like to think so," said Blythe, in his blandest possible way, "I suppose you must. But if you knew the truth, I have saved you from a good deal of—well—unpleasantness. I suppose it never occurred to you that the police were watching all this time? You have been just a trifle over bold."
"Do you really mean that?" Shute asked.
"Well, I mean that I have got you out of a serious mess, but, at the same time, you two will have to clear out of England and give an undertaking not to return. If you fail to do this, then you will find yourselves in gaol as sure as you are sitting opposite me. Fishbourne knows all about it. He knows that you robbed him of the Cellini plate, and that you used his house as a rendezvous for your raid on Vickery's place. When I tell you this, I think you will understand why it will be necessary for you to leave the country. When I discovered all this, I lost no time in putting matters right. You see, I knew Fishbourne long before I had the pleasure of the acquaintance of either of you, and, though we are no longer on visiting terms, he still has a sort of sneaking liking for me, and, when I saw him, I had very little difficulty in coming to an arrangement. Of course, if you like to repudiate the whole thing, you can, but, in the face of what I have told you, I don't think either of you will be disposed to do anything of the sort. Now, which is it to be? You have just about three days in which to make up your minds."
Shute glanced unhappily at his colleague, who sat there, in his chair, groaning to himself. All the fight had gone out of both of them, and they were just children in Blythe's hands.
"It's devilish awkward," Shute groaned. "Harley has managed to give us the slip, and ignores our letters and telegrams, and, on the top of that, we have lost a lot of stuff that would have been worth at least twenty thousand pounds to us, just at the moment when we are both infernally hard up. Macglendy and myself were at the end of our tether when we lifted all that plate and gems, and now we hardly know what to do."
"Yes, I quite understand," Blythe said, with a suggestion of sympathy. "But you had better go, all the same. Now, look here, I have got a suggestion to make. If you want a thousand or two to get away with, I think I can manage it. You come round here to-morrow evening, say, at ten o'clock, and I will have the pigeon waiting for you. Never mind, for a moment, who it is, though I rather think you have met him before. There is plenty of money there, and the man isn't afraid of losing it. We ought to cut up a little fortune between us. What do you say?"
The two rascals fairly tumbled over one another in their eagerness to accept.
"Then that is settled," Blythe said cheerfully. "If you come round here at ten to-morrow, we can talk over the plan of campaign so that there won't be any hitch. I am sorry I can't stay now, because I have other things to do. I suppose you have got some cards of the right sort? I came down here without anything of the kind. If you haven't, you might telegraph for some."
"That's all right," Shute grinned. "We have got the cards, all right. In fact, we got a fresh set only yesterday."
Blythe dismissed the two a minute or two later, and almost immediately went out and sent a telegram to Prest in London. In the course of the evening he got the expected reply, and next afternoon, met Shute and Macglendy again just after five o'clock, and for an hour or more they discussed their plans for the evening.
It was shortly after ten o'clock when Shute and Macglendy walked casually into Blythe's private room as if they were dropping in for a friendly chat, but they exchanged glances as they saw Prest seated there opposite Blythe. Still, they had no suspicions of what was going to take place, for Prest met them in the friendliest possible spirit, and, for some time, they sat chatting there as if they had been quite old friends.
Half an hour or so elapsed before Blythe quite skilfully, and apparently heartlessly, brought up the question of cards. Would Prest take a hand in a little flutter? Blythe insinuated that he had heard a good deal with regard to Prest's skill as a poker player, which game he knew just a little of himself, though he was prepared to learn at the hands of those more expert than himself.
"Oh, I don't mind," Prest said carelessly. "What do you want to play for? If we are going to play poker in earnest, then I like to have a real gamble."
"All right," Shute said. "In that case, I vote that we have no limit. Anybody got any cards?"
"As a matter of fact, I have got two packs in my pocket at the present moment," Prest said. "My overcoat is hanging up in the cloakroom, so if you will ring the bell, I will give my ticket to the waiter and he can get them. Funny thing that I should have those cards in my pocket, but I was expecting a man down to-night, who would want to play, but at the last moment he could not get away and so my cards come in after all."
The two packs came upstairs presently, and, after glancing at them in a casual way, Shute placed them on the mantelpiece. Then, whilst Blythe was holding Prest in conversation, Macglendy removed the cards from their resting place, and slipped them dexterously in his trousers pocket, at the same time producing two other packs which he had evidently concealed somewhere about his clothing. He threw them carelessly on the table, and Prest tore the covers off.
Then they sat down to play in earnest. At first, the fortunes of the evening seemed to vary, and then, so gradually, as to be almost imperceptible, the tide began to set against Prest. It seemed to him that he could do nothing right. He declared upon quite good hands, only to find himself face to face with something better in the keeping of his opponents. By the end of half an hour he was some hundreds of pounds on the wrong side.
"Very strange," he said. "I have been holding some really wonderful cards, but not wonderful enough. In all my experience I have never seen such amazing hands."
"Oh, I don't know," Blythe said. "I am not much more fortunate myself. It's these other two men who are winning all the money. If you don't mind, I think I will stand out for a hand."
Blythe rose from the table and proceeded to the sideboard apparently on hospitality bent. He stood there, drawing corks, and mixing drinks, after which he turned his back upon the players and appeared to be looking into the fire whilst he smoked a cigar. He could see everything that was going on in the looking glass, and every now and again he glanced at the clock. It still wanted ten minutes before Fishbourne was timed to appear, and he was waiting, quite impatiently, for him, for the hour to strike. He smiled to himself as he saw Prest go down again on a hand which, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, would have been a sure and certain winner.
"Upon my word, I believe the cards are bewitched to-night," Prest exclaimed. "Straight flushes and full houses are all the same apparently. Here, Blythe, you come and take my place for a bit. Perhaps if I sit out for half an hour and smoke a cigar, the luck will turn. Not that I am superstitious."
"Just a couple more hands," Blythe said. "And then I am with you. I want to mix you fellows a drink which I don't think any of you have tasted before. It's a sort of champagne cocktail."
"All right," Prest laughed. "Only don't be too long, because it might be a very expensive drink for me."
He took up the cards again and passed them on to Shute, whose turn it was to deal. The dealer gave the cards an extra shuffle, as was his right, and skilfully scattered the hands on the table. With his back still towards them, Blythe was watching carefully with the aid of the mirror. Then he turned suddenly round, before a declaration was made, and asked to have a look at the pack.
"What, is there anything wrong?" Shute asked.
"I am sure I don't know," Blythe answered. "Only it looked to me as if one of the cards was bent. Perhaps I am wrong. Go on, and don't mind me."
He crossed over to the sideboard, and stood there with one eye upon the clock. It was now within two or three minutes of eleven, and it seemed to Blythe that he could hear a footstep coming along the corridor in the direction of his sitting room. With a certain amount of excitement, which was quite foreign to his nature, he strolled casually across to the table, and, picking up a dozen or so of the unused cards lying on it, glanced at the backs, holding them slanting, so that the light might fall upon them.
"These cards are marked," he declared quietly.
"Marked!" Shute cried, as he jumped to his feet. "Blythe, what do you mean? What do you insinuate."
"I insinuate nothing," Blythe said. "I am making a plain statement, which I am in a position to prove."
The words were barely out of his mouth before the clock on the mantelpiece struck the hour and Fishbourne came into the room.
Shute gave one swift glance at Blythe and his mouth closed like a steel trap. What was in the wind he had not the least idea, but his instinct told him that it would be nothing to his advantage. Nor did he suppose for a moment that Blythe was going to play the traitor to his own class, that is, the class that latterly he had elected to belong to. For Shute, too, had fallen in much the same way as his more brilliant confrere, and this, to a certain extent, was more or less a bond of union between them. Not that he would have trusted Blythe in a professional matter any further than he could have helped. And this was the opening move in some new and ingenious scheme for their mutual advantage that Blythe had worked out without saying a word to his associates.
Macglendy, on the other hand, had edged towards the door directly he had caught sight of Fishbourne's face. He would have discreetly disappeared if Blythe had not been too quick for him.
"Oh, no," the latter said. "I really cannot permit you to run away in that fashion. We are all acquainted with one another, and there is no occasion to stand on ceremony."
Prest had risen to his feet cold and suspicious, and by far the most puzzled of them all. And yet he had a dim understanding of what was going on. It was a case of history repeating itself. For here he was much in the same case as Harley had been on that fateful night in the Green Bungalow when he had been fairly detected playing poker with marked cards that he had produced himself. For those were his cards lying there on the table, and they had come from his own pocket precisely as Harley had produced these with which he had contributed to his own downfall.
And yet, Blythe had promised that if Prest would place himself entirely in his hands, he, Blythe, would not only show how Harley had been treated, but, furthermore, would expose the whole conspiracy. Therefore, it was just as well to sit down quietly and to watch the development of events. At any rate, it was good to know that a man of Fishbourne's reputation was present, though he might have been there entirely by accident. At the same time, there was a rather grim touch of humour about the corners of Fishbourne's lips which suggested that his presence there was not entirely fortuitous.
"Ah, now that we are all here, I think it would be just as well to have an explanation," Blythe said quietly. "I am glad you have come, Fishbourne, because you are the one man I need. We have just been having a little unpleasantness. I want you, as an old hand at the game, to take up those cards, which we have just been playing with, and examine the backs of them carefully. Just as a hint, I might suggest that you hold them where the light can fall on the backs. If you do that, I think you will find that they are all marked in some way—that is, with little spots here and there, where the glaze has been removed."
Without hesitation, Fishbourne picked up the cards, and proceeded to examine them carefully.
"You are quite right," he said presently. "They are all marked. It's an old dodge, as I learnt to my cost in the old bachelor days when I was shooting in the Rocky Mountains. I used to come down to the settlements frequently, and play a deal of poker. It was an expensive game for me, but it taught me a certain amount of wisdom. I suppose I must have lost nearly ten thousand pounds before what our American cousins call a professional sport, to whom I had rendered a service, put me wise. I was robbed with cards exactly like those, and I understand that they are of Japanese make, and supplied for the use of swindlers. Oh, there is not the slightest doubt about it—the question is, who found them?"
"Our friend Prest," Blythe said smilingly. "They are his cards, and I don't think he will deny it."
"I do," Prest cried. "Oh, I don't mean to say that I did not bring two packs of cards with me, which I bought this afternoon at a shop called Weston's in Castle Square. But, before I go any further, I may say that I should not have got those cards at all if Mr. Blythe had not asked me to do so."
"That is absolutely true," Blythe went on, in the same pleasant way. "But I don't think Mr. Prest is going to tell us that those cards lying on the table are the same that he purchased."
"I can't explain," Prest replied. "Unless, perhaps, the assistant in Weston's shop gave me trick cards by mistake."
"In which case," Blythe said, "you are accusing a firm of honest tradesmen of dealing in swindlers' accessories. Surely you are not serious in going as far as that?"
Prest bit his lip, but remained silent. Macglendy was beginning to recover himself, and stood a little in the background waiting on events. It seemed to him that here was Blythe, working out some brilliant and original scheme to their mutual benefit. Shute was frankly puzzled, but deemed it wiser to say nothing.
"Well, there we are," Blythe went on. "When we started to play cards this evening we had no packs available, and Mr. Prest volunteered the statement that he had two packs in his overcoat pocket downstairs. They were fetched by a waiter, and Prest opened them himself. I don't think that he will deny that."
"Certainly not," Prest cried. "It is exactly as Mr. Blythe says. I sent for those cards, and I tore the covers off before they were shuffled. There they are, in the fireplace. Now please let's have a clear understanding. Am I accused of coming here this evening to play cards for heavy states with marked packs in my possession? Is that quite plain?"
"I don't see how it can be otherwise," Blythe said. "Come, Mr. Prest, be reasonable. Only a few days ago, exactly the same thing happened in a house called the Green Bungalow at Shorehaven, when Mr. Roy Harley was accused of the same thing. He is a friend of yours, and the case was so plain that you were bound to believe in Harley's guilt. I believe it worried you a great deal, but, all the same, you made it quite clear that if the scandal were to be hushed up, Harley must resign his commission in the Guards, and take his name off the books of all his clubs."
"That is perfectly true," Prest admitted. "It was a great grief to me to have to do so, and, all the more because there was a lady in the case, but I apologise for alluding to that. You see, in Harley's case, the evidence was so clear——"
"Yes, but isn't the case equally clear here?" Blythe smiled. "It seems to me that it is exactly on all fours with the other business. We cannot let the matter drop now."
"I can't understand it," Prest exclaimed. "It is utterly beyond me. It makes my blood boil to think that I should be accused of anything of the sort. Fishbourne, you know me well enough to give me credit for something——"
Prest broke down, unable to continue, Fishbourne came forward and laid his hand on the other's shoulder.
"Of course I do," he said. "Now, Blythe, don't you think this comedy has gone far enough?"
"Well, perhaps it has," Blythe replied. "I only wanted to drive it right home to Prest that a man might be innocent with a thousand deadly proofs against him. I want him to try and realise what Harley's feelings were that night in the Green Bungalow when his friend turned upon him and made certain harsh conditions. Oh, please don't interrupt me. In the circumstances, I should probably have done the same thing. It does not follow that an innocent man always has the appearance of being innocent, or carries his honesty in his countenance, as certain writers of fiction will have us believe. For instance, our young friend Prest would not impress a jury at the present moment. But that is all by the way. Now, Mr. Prest, in the face of what has just happened, can't you understand your friend Harley indignantly denying the charge made against him?"
"I don't know what to say," Prest stammered.
"Then let me say it for you. Harley was absolutely innocent, and so are you, as I am going to prove in a minute or two. In the excitement of the moment, you have forgotten that it was I who suggested that you should bring a pack of cards or two with you this evening. It was I who put your friend off, the reason for which you will see in due course. Now, when you came in here this evening, you took the two packs of cards from the waiter, and put them on the corner of the mantelpiece. When you sat down in a chair with your back to the fireplace Macglendy walked behind you and dropped these cards in his pocket. In the place of them, he produced two packs of trick cards, which had not been opened, and handed them to you to tear the covers off——"
It seemed to Shute that it was time to interfere. He came forward threateningly, and, just for a moment, it looked as if he were going to indulge in violence.
"Here, what is the meaning of all this?" he demanded truculently. "You can't carry it off in this high-handed way. Macglendy is a friend of mine, and I am not going to sit quietly down and see him accused of this sort of thing. Come along, Macglendy, let us leave these men to themselves."
"Oh, no, you don't," Fishbourne said. "If you want to leave the room, then you will have to fight me for the door key."
So saying, he turned the key in the lock, and dropped it in is pocket. He stood there, quite calmly, with his broad shoulders thrown back, and Shute wisely thought better of it.
"Very well," the latter said sulkily. "Let's have the whole thing out, and perhaps, when it is finished, I shall be able to tell you a chapter or two from the history of the polished scoundrel who calls himself Hilton Blythe."
"My dear sir," Blythe smiled blandly. "You cannot tell Lord Fishbourne more about myself than he knows already. There were times when we were great friends, the same as you and he were friends up to a few minutes ago. Now, sit down and take it quietly. Before I have done, you will be grateful that you did so, because otherwise before many hours are over your head, you would have found yourself in gaol in connection with a certain set of plate that we both know of. But please yourself. So far as I am concerned, you are free to leave the room. Now, Mr. Macglendy, are you in the same mind as your friend?"
Neither Macglendy nor Shute moved an inch.
Blythe was dominating the situation, as he always did. He knew now that he had these fellow rogues of his in the hollow of his hand, and he was going to do the best he could for them. As he had already explained to Fishbourne, dog does not eat dog, and if he could keep these men out of gaol, consistent with a determination to clear Harley's name, then he was going to do it.
"Now listen to me," he went on. "For certain reasons, those two men there made up their minds to get Roy Harley into their power. He had just come into a deal of money, and, moreover, he had a yacht upon which the partners had designs. So they lured him down to the Green Bungalow to play poker, and they got you, Prest, to join the party. At Shute's instigation Harley brought with him two packs of cards which he had purchased at Weston's in Castle Square, and these he produced on the night I am speaking about, and opened them himself. Now precisely the same thing happened as has happened to-night. The cards were changed by Macglendy, and certain prepared pack substituted for them. I know this is so, because the two packs bought by Harley were carelessly thrown into the drawer of the card table at the bungalow, and left there——"
"Can you prove that?" Shute queried.
"No, but I can," Fishbourne said. "I took the liberty of entering the bungalow which you mentioned at about five o'clock acting under instructions received, as they say in the police court, and there I found two unopened packs of cards which I produce."
He laid the unopened packs upon the table, and Blythe immediately took possession of them.
"Now, I am going to prove that these are the packs that Harley bought," he said. "See, I tear one of them open, and what do we find? A view of Sandringham in water colours on the one pack, and behold Windsor Castle on the other. Now, within a few hours almost, of those packs being purchased, I went to Weston's to try and match them. I wanted one pack of each. They are called the Royal cards by the way. I was told that they had only one pack left, and that the last pair had been brought the day before by a gentleman whom the assistant subsequently identified for me as Roy Harley. And that reminds me. On the night of the tragedy, as I may call it, Harley was found with a missing card in his pocket, the ace of spades, I think. Now, Fishbourne, if you will take up those cards that we were playing with when you came in—I mean the pack that was being actually dealt you will find that a card is missing. Kindly tell me which it is?"
"The King of Diamonds," Fishbourne said presently.
"Ah, precisely. Now, Mr. Prest, if you will put your hand into the pocket of your dinner jacket, I think you will find that the missing card is there. Am I right?"
To his own unutterable astonishment and dismay, Prest did as he was told, and laid the missing card on the table.
"I swear I never put it there," he stammered.
"Of course you didn't," Blythe said smilingly. "As a matter of fact, I put it there, just as Macglendy placed the Ace of Spades in Harley's pocket. But that was done designedly, and it had its due effect. What I am showing you now, is to prove to you beyond a demonstration, that your friend Harley was the victim of a cruel and calculating fraud. And now, after what has happened, you must admit that he is innocent."
"Oh, I do," Prest commented. "I do."
"Now, that's all very fine," Shute smiled. "But when we came here to-night Blythe knew well enough that we were out to rob Prest by means of marked cards. I might just as well confess it, now that Fishbourne knows all about me. I don't profess to understand what Blythe is driving at. He is one of the most cunning devils in Europe, and you can all depend upon it that he is using you for his own purposes."
"Not to make money," Blythe said calmly. "There are other reasons besides that. Now, own up. Didn't you lure Harley to the Green Bungalow, not so much to rob him, as to get him into your power, and ruin him socially? It suited your purpose to have an independent witness in the form of Mr. Prest, but that I don't want to go into. For the sake of your own skins, you had better admit all I say is correct. Because it is very possible that Lord Fishbourne may not be disposed to compound a felony."
"Very well," Shute said sulkily. "Have it your own way. We did all you say we did, and I don't mind admitting that Harley was a mere tool in our hands. We wanted the thing done in Mr. Prest's presence, because we knew perfectly well what course he would take. We did change those cards——"
"Ah, just a moment," Blythe said. "Macglendy, hand me the cards you changed just now."
With a somewhat shamefaced air, Macglendy produced the cards from a secret pocket, and laid them on the table. Blythe tore the covers off, and poured the cards through his hand.
"Ah, here we are," he said. "More Royal packs. Further proof positive if we really needed it. Fishbourne, I think you will see that there is no object in carrying this interview any further. You might give me that key, if you don't mind."
"With all the pleasure in life," Fishbourne said as he handed it over. "This has been rather a dramatic experience, but, at the same time, a painful one. A day or two ago these men were guests under my roof, and the recollection of it leaves an unpleasant taste in one's mouth. I am not going to prosecute either of you, but if you are not out of England within twenty-four hours, most certainly I shall change by mind. And now you know."
A minute or two later the two discomfited scoundrels were out in the corridor, followed by Blythe.
"Well, a nice friend you are," Shute said bitterly. "What is the meaning of all this play-acting stunt of yours?"
"Well, to a certain extent I will explain," Blythe said. "But I don't propose to tell you everything. There are reasons, very powerful reasons, why it was necessary to clear Harley's good name. Not that I am getting anything out of it, quite the contrary. But that need not concern you. I had to do what I said, and it was necessary that the thing should be accomplished in the presence of Prest. He will apologise to his friend now, and the incident will be closed. I was rather sorry to bring in Fishbourne, but if I had not, and bound him to secrecy, you would have been in the hands of the police long ago. It was a very foolish thing on your part, to try and deceive me over those burglaries, and do me out of my share of the plunder, and, by doing so, you very nearly landed yourselves in prison. You owe me a debt of gratitude for saving you from that, and listen, Fishbourne is quite serious in what he said just now about your leaving England. You are two wise birds in your way, and I don't think I need say any more. When you come to work it out, you will see that I have been a real friend to you both."
Blythe turned on his heel, and went back to the sitting room, quite content with his evening's work.
"Well, that is finished," he said. "Now, Mr. Prest, I leave you to make your own peace with your friend, Harley. You had better see him without delay, and explain everything that happened to-night. You need not dwell on my part of the drama."
"I will do it with pleasure," Prest said. "I will see Harley the first thing in the morning, and shake hands with him. But he owes you a great deal, though. I wonder——"
"Well, go on, say it," Blythe said. "You wonder why an old hardened sinner like myself should go out of his way to play a part in a dramatic love story. Well, that is my own business. Most of us get more sentimental as we grow older, though few people would accuse me of that sort of weakness. Still, there it is. You can tell Harley what you like but don't bring me into it any more than you can help. I require no thanks, and, in any case, I shall be out of reach of them to-morrow afternoon. As a matter of fact, I have pressing business in Paris, which I have shamefully neglected in my anxiety to see this thing through. We may meet again, or we may not. But now, if you don't mind, I will ask you to leave us, because I have a good many things to talk over with Lord Fishbourne. In the happy old days, he and I were great friends, and I would give a great deal to say that we were the same to-day. However, those are all vain regrets. So, if you don't mind shaking hands with me, and saying good night, I shall be more than obliged to you."
"What an extraordinary mixture of a man you are," Fishbourne said, when, at length, Prest had vanished. "My dear fellow, if you had only kept straight, you might have become anything."
"Yes, quite a tragedy in its way, isn't it?" Blythe smiled. "Still, even my life has its compensations, and I have thoroughly enjoyed this unusual experience. To begin with, I have brought two loving hearts together, and I have restored the wife of that scoundrel Macglendy to her friends. Perhaps, some of these days, when I am growing old, I may be disposed to see Miss Frond——"
"What? Aren't you going to tell her the truth?" Fishbourne cried. "Is she never to know?"
"You forget my compact," Blythe said, sadly. "I passed my word for what it is worth, to disappear from my world, and never be known again by my own name. The man you know vanished, and Hilton Blythe took his place. To everybody, except one or two of my very old friends, I am dead. The old scandal has been forgotten, and is rarely alluded to now."
"But still," Fishbourne said. "But still——"
"My dear old friend, if I may still call you so, I assure you there is no more to be said. The future lies in the lap of the gods, and I am too worldly wise to seek it. But it will always be a sweet and tender recollection to me that when Nettie Frond and her lover found themselves in bitter trouble, it was her own father who came out of the depths and saved the whole situation. And with that, I think, there is nothing more to be said."
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