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Title: The Adventures of Romney Pringle Author: R. Austin Freeman & John Pitcairn writing as Clifford Ashdown * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1402871h.html Language: English Date first posted: Nov 2014 Most recent update: Nov 2014 This eBook was produced by Colin Choat and Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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IN the course of the present year there died suddenly at Sandwich a gentleman who had only a short time previously taken up his residence in one of the curious old red-brick houses which, surrounded by large gardens, sleepily nestle in the shade of its venerable towers. He was reputed wealthy, his name given as Romney, being popularly supposed to denote ancestral, if not actual, connection with the town and district of that name on the South Coast. A man of highly-cultured tastes and of rare and varied information, he led a very retired life, divided between his books, the cataloguing of a valuable collection of antique gems, and cycle-rides into the surrounding country--for he was an ardent cyclist. A chance meeting on the Sandwich Flats, whereon he had lost his way one misty evening, was the commencement of a close friendship with the present writers, who, on Mr. Romney's demise soon after, were found to be designated his literary executors. A series of MS. stories, apparently intended for publication, furnished the sole explanation of this somewhat surprising provision. Whether, as might be imagined from their intimate record of the chief actor's career, they were derived from the notes of actual experience, or whether they were simply the result of imagination, they are here presented exactly as left by the author.
AS six o'clock struck the procession of the un-dined began to stream beneath the electric arcade which graces the entrance to Cristiani's. The doors swung unceasingly; the mirrors no longer reflected a mere squadron of tables and erect serviettes; a hum of conversation now mingled with the clatter of knives and the popping of corks; and the brisk scurry of waiters' slippers replaced the stillness of the afternoon.
Although the restaurant had been crowded some time before he arrived, Mr Romney Pringle had secured his favourite seat opposite the feminine print after Gainsborough, and in the intervals of feeding listened to a selection from Mascagni through a convenient electrophone, price sixpence in the slot. It was a warm night for the time of year, a muggy spell having succeeded a week of biting north-east wind, and as the evening wore on the atmosphere grew somewhat oppressive, more particularly to those who had dined well. Its effects were not very visible on Pringle, whose complexion (a small port-wine mark on his right cheek its only blemish) was of that fairness which imparts to its fortunate possessor the air of youth until long past forty; especially in a man who shaves clean, and habitually goes to bed before two in the morning.
As the smoke from Pringle's havana wreathed upwards to an extractor, his eye fell, not for the first time, upon a diner at the next table. He was elderly, probably on the wrong side of sixty, but with his erect figure might easily have claimed a few years' grace, while the retired soldier spoke in his scrupulous neatness, and in the trim of a carefully tended moustache. He had finished his dinner some little time, but remained seated, studying a letter with an intentness more due to its subject than to its length, which Pringle could see was by no means excessive. At last, with a gesture almost equally compounded of weariness and disgust, he rose and was helped into his overcoat by a waiter, who held the door for him in the obsequious manner of his kind.
The languid attention which Pringle at first bestowed on his neighbour had by this time given place to a deeper interest, and as the swing-doors closed behind the old gentleman, he scarcely repressed a start, when he saw lying beneath the vacant table the identical letter which had received such careful study. His first impulse was to run after the old gentleman and restore the paper, but by this time he had disappeared, and the waiter being also invisible, Pringle sat down and read:
The Assyrian Rejuvenator Co.,
82, Barbican, E.C.
Dear Sir—We regret to hear of the failure of the "Rejuvenator" in your hands. This is possibly due to your not having followed the directions for its use sufficiently closely, but I must point out that we do not guarantee its infallible success. As it is an expensive preparation, we do not admit the justice of your contention that our charges are exorbitant. In any case we cannot entertain your request to return the whole or any part of the fees. Should you act upon your threat to take proceedings for the recovery of the same, we must hold your good self responsible for any publicity which may follow your trial of the preparation.
272, Piccadilly, W.
To Pringle this businesslike communication hardly seemed to deserve so much consideration as Colonel Sandstream had given it, but having read and pondered it over afresh, he walked back to his chambers in Furnival's Inn.
He lived at No. 33, on the left as you enter from Holborn, and anyone who, scaling the stone stairs, reached the second floor, might observe on the entrance to the front set of chambers the legend, "Mr Romney Pringle, Literary Agent." According to high authority, the reason of being of the literary agent is to act as a buffer between the ravening publisher and his prey. But although a very fine oak bureau with capacious pigeon-holes stood conspicuously in Pringle's sitting-room, it was tenanted by no rolls of MS, or type-written sheets. Indeed, little or no business appeared to be transacted in the chambers. The buffer was at present idle, if it could be said to have ever worked! It was "resting" to use the theatrical expression.
Mr Pringle was an early riser, and as nine o'clock chimed the next morning from the brass lantern-clock which ticked sedately on a mantel unencumbered by the usual litter of a bachelor's quarters, he had already spent some time in consideration of last night's incident, and a further study of the letter had only served thoroughly to arouse his curiosity, and decided him to investigate the affair of the mysterious "Rejuvenator." Unlocking a cupboard in the bottom of the bureau, he disclosed a regiment of bottles and jars. Sprinkling a few drops from one on to a hare's-foot, he succeeded, with a little friction, in entirely removing the port-wine mark from his cheek. Then from another phial he saturated a sponge and rubbed it into his eyebrows, which turned in the process from their original yellow to a jetty black. From a box of several, he selected a waxed moustache (that most facile article of disguise), and having attached it with a few drops of spirit-gum, covered his scalp with a black wig, which, as is commonly the case, remained an aggressive fraud in spite of the most assiduous adjustment. Satisfied with the completeness of his disguise, he sallied out in search of the offices of the "Assyrian Rejuvenator," affecting a military bearing which his slim but tall and straight-backed figure readily enabled him to assume.
"My name is Parkins—Major Parkins," said Pringle, as he opened the door of a mean-looking room on the second floor of No. 82, Barbican. He addressed an oleaginous-looking gentleman, whose curly locks and beard suggested the winged bulls of Nineveh, and who appeared to be the sole representative of the concern. The latter bowed politely, and handed him a chair.
"I have been asked," Pringle continued, "by a friend who saw your advertisement to call upon you for some further information."
Now the subject of rejuvenation being a delicate one, especially where ladies are concerned, the business of the company was mainly transacted through the post. So seldom, indeed, did a client desire a personal interview, that the Assyrian-looking gentleman jumped to the conclusion that his visitor was interested in quite another matter.
"Ah yes! You refer to "Pelosia"," he said briskly. "Allow me to read you an extract from the prospectus."
And before Pringle could reply he proceeded to read from a small leaflet with unctuous elocution:
"Pelosia. The sovereign remedy of Mud has long been used with the greatest success in the celebrated baths of Schwalbach and Franzensbad. The proprietors of Pelosia having noted the beneficial effect which many of the lower animals derive from the consumption of earth with their food, have been led to investigate the internal uses of mud. The success which has crowned the treatment of some of the longest-standing cases of dyspepsia (the disease so characteristic of this neurotic age), has induced them to admit the world at large to its benefits. To thoroughly safeguard the public, the proprietors have secured the sole right to the alluvial deposits of a stream remote from human habitation, and consequently above any suspicion of contamination. Careful analysis has shown that the deposit in this particular locality, consisting of finely divided mineral particles, practically free from organic admixture, is calculated to give the most gratifying results. The proprietors are prepared to quote special terms for public institutions."
"Many thanks," said Pringle, as the other momentarily paused for breath; "but I think you are under a slight misapprehension. I called on you with reference to the 'Assyrian Rejuvenator.' Have I mistaken the offices?"
"Pray excuse my absurd mistake! I am secretary of the 'Assyrian Rejuvenator Company,' who are also the proprietors of 'Pelosia'." And in evident concern he regarded Pringle fixedly.
It was not the first time he had known a diffident person to assume an interest in the senility of an absent friend, and he mentally decided that Pringle's waxed moustache, its blue-blackness speaking loudly of hair-dye, together with the unmistakable wig, were evidence of the decrepitude for which his new customer presumably sought the Company's assistance.
"Ours, my dear sir," he resumed, leaning back in his chair, and placing the tips of his fingers in apposition—"Ours is a world-renowned specific for removing the ravages which time effects in the human frame. It is a secret which has been handed down for many generations in the family of the original proprietor. Its success is frequently remarkable, and its absolute failure is impossible. It is not a drug, it is not a cosmetic, yet it contains the properties of both. It is agreeable and soothing to use, and being best administered during the hours of sleep does not interfere with the ordinary avocations of every-day life. The price is so moderate—ten and sixpence, including the Government stamp—that it could only prove remunerative with an enormous sale. If you—ah, on behalf of your friend!—would care to purchase a bottle, I shall be most happy to explain its operation."
Mr Pringle laid a half sovereign and a sixpence on the table, and the secretary, diving into a large packing-case which stood on one side, extracted a parcel. This contained a cardboard box adorned with a representation of Blake's preposterous illustration to "The Grave," in which a centenarian on crutches is hobbling into a species of banker's strongroom with a rocky top, whereon is seated a youth clothed in nothing, and with an ecstatic expression.
"This," said Mr Jacobs impressively, "is the entire apparatus!" And he opened the box, displaying a moderate-sized phial and a spirit-lamp with a little tin dish attached. "On retiring to rest, a teaspoonful of the contents of the bottle is poured into the receptacle above the lamp, which is then lighted, and the preparation being vaporized is inhaled by the patient. It is best to concentrate the thoughts on some object of beauty whilst the delicious aroma sooths the patient to sleep."
"But how does it act?" inquired the Major a trifle impatiently.
"In this way," replied the imperturbable secretary. "Remember that the appearance of age is largely due to wrinkles; that is to say, to the skin losing its elasticity and fulness—so true is it that beauty is only skin-deep." Here he laughed gaily. "The joints grow stiff from loss of their natural tone, the figure stoops, and the vital organs decline their functions from the same cause. In a word, old age is due to a loss of elasticity, and that is the very property which the "Rejuvenator" imparts to the system, if inhaled for a few hours daily."
Mr Pringle diplomatically succeeded in maintaining his gravity while the merits of the "Rejuvenator" were expounded, and it was not until he had bidden Mr Jacobs a courteous farewell, and was safely outside the office, that he allowed the fastening of his moustache to be disturbed by an expansive grin.
About nine o'clock the same evening the housekeeper of the Barbican offices was returning from market, her thoughts centred on the savoury piece of fried fish she was carrying home for supper.
"Mrs Smith?" said a man's voice behind her, as she produced her latch-key.
"My name's 'Odges," she replied unguardedly, dropping the key in her agitation.
"You're the housekeeper, aren't you?" said the stranger, picking up the key and handing it to her politely.
"Lor', sir! You did give me a turn," she faltered.
"Very sorry, I'm sure. I only want to know where I can find Mr Jacobs, of the "Assyrian Rejuvenator Company"."
"Well, sir, he told me I wasn't to give his address to anyone. Not that I know it either, sir, for I always send the letters to Mr Weeks."
"I'll see you're not found fault with. I know he won't mind your telling me." A sovereign clinked against the latch-key in her palm.
For a second she hesitated, then her eye caught the glint of the gold, and she fell.
"All I know, sir, is that when Mr Jacobs is away I send the letters—and a rare lot there are—to Mr Newton Weeks, at the Northumberland Avenue Hotel."
"Is he one of the firm?"
"I don't know, sir, but there's no one comes here but Mr Jacobs."
"Thank you very much, and good night," said the stranger; and he strode down Barbican, leaving Mrs Hodges staring at the coin in her hand as if doubting whether, like fairy gold, it might not disappear even as she gazed.
The next day Mr Jacobs received a letter at his hotel:
Sir—My friend Col. Sandstream informs me he has communicated with the police, and has sworn an information against you in respect of the moneys you have obtained from him, as he alleges, by false pretences. Although I am convinced that his statements are true, a fact which I can more readily grasp after my interview with you today, I give you this warning in order that you may make your escape before it is too late. Do not misunderstand my motives; I have not the slightest desire to save you from the punishment you so richly deserve. I am simply anxious to rescue my old friend from the ridiculous position he will occupy before the world should he prosecute you.
Your obedient servant,
Joseph Parkins, Major.
Newton Weeks, Esq.,
Northumberland Avenue Hotel.
Mr Jacobs read this declaration of war with very mixed feelings.
So his visitor of yesterday was the friend of Colonel Sandstream! Obviously come to get up evidence against him. Knowing old dog, that Sandstream! But then how had they run him to earth? That looked as if the police had got their fingers in the pie. Mrs Hodges was discreet. She would never have given the address to any but the police. It was annoying, though, after all his precautions; seemed as if the game was really up at last. Well, it was bound to come some day, and he had been in tighter places before. He could hardly complain; the "Rejuvenator" had been going very well lately. But suppose the whole thing was a plant—a dodge to intimidate him?
He read the letter through again. The writer had been careful to omit his address, but it seemed plausible enough on the face of it. Anyhow, whatever the major's real motive might be, he couldn't afford to neglect the warning, and the one clear thing was that London was an unhealthy place for him just at present. He would pack up, so as to be ready for all emergencies, and drive round to Barbican and reconnoitre. Then, if things looked fishy, he could go to Cannon Street and catch the 11.5 Continental. He'd show them that Harry Jacobs wasn't the man to be bluffed out of his claim!
Mr Jacobs stopped his cab some doors from the "Rejuvenator" office, and was in the act of alighting when he paused, spellbound at the apparition of Pringle. The latter was loitering outside No. 82, and as the cab drew up he ostentatiously consulted a large pocket-book, and glanced several times from its pages to the countenance of his victim as if comparing a description. Attired in a long overcoat, a bowler hat, and wearing thick boots of a constabulary pattern to the nervous imagination of Mr Jacobs, he afforded startling evidence of the police interest in the establishment; and this idea was confirmed when Pringle, as if satisfied with his scrutiny, drew a paper from the pocket-book and made a movement in his direction. Without waiting for further developments, Mr Jacobs retreated into the cab and hoarsely whispered through the trap-door, "Cannon Street as hard as you can go!"
The cabman wrenched the horse's head round. He had been an interested spectator of the scene, and sympathised with the evident desire of his fare to escape what appeared to be the long arm of the law. At this moment a "crawling" hansom came up, and was promptly hailed by Pringle.
"Follow that cab and don't lose it on any account!" he cried, as he stood on the step and pointed vigorously after the receding hansom.
While Mr Jacobs careered down Barbican, his cabman looked back in time to observe this expressive pantomime, and with the instinct of a true sportsman lashed the unfortunate brute into a hand-gallop. But the observant eye of a policeman checked this moderate exhibition of speed just as they were rounding the sharp corner into Aldersgate Street, and had not a lumbering railway van intervened Pringle would have caught him up and brought the farce to an awkward finish. But the van saved the situation. The moment's respite was all that the chase needed, and in response to the promises of largesse, frantically roared by Mr Jacobs through the trap-door, he was soon bounding and bumping over the wood pavement with Pringle well in the rear.
Then ensued a mad stampede down Aldersgate Street.
In and out, between the crowded files of vans and 'buses, the two cabs wound a zig-zag course; the horses slipping and skating over the greasy surface, or ploughing up the mud as their bits skidded them within inches of a collision. In vain did policemen roar to them to stop—the order fell on heedless ears. In vain did officious boys wave intimidating arms, or make futile grabs at the harness of the apparent runaways. Did a cart dart unexpectedly from out a side street, the inevitable disaster failed to come off. Did an obstacle loom dead ahead of them, it melted into thin air as they approached. Triumphantly they piloted the narrowest of straits, and dashed unscathed into St Martin's-le-Grand.
There was a block in Newgate Street, and the cross traffic was stopped. Mr Jacobs' hansom nipped through a temporary gap, grazing the pole of an omnibus, and being lustily anathematised in the process. But Pringle's cabman, attempting to follow, was imperiously waved back by a policeman.
"No go, I'm afraid, sir!" was the man's comment, as they crossed into St Paul's Churchyard after a three minutes' wait. "I can't see him nowhere."
"Never mind," said Pringle cheerfully. "Go to Charing Cross telegraph office."
There he sent the following message:
TO MRS HODGES, 82, BARBICAN. CALLED AWAY TO COUNTRY. MR WEEKS WILL TAKE CHARGE OF OFFICE—JACOBS.
About two the same afternoon, Pringle, wearing the wig and moustache of Major Parkins, rang the housekeeper's bell at 82.
"I'm Mr Weeks," he stated, as Mrs Hodges emerged from the bowels of the earth. "Mr Jacobs has had to leave town, and has asked me to take charge of the office."
"Oh yes, sir! I've had a telegram from Mr Jacobs to say so. You know the way up, I suppose."
"I think so. But Mr Jacobs forgot to send me the office key."
"I'd better lend you mine, then, sir, till you can hear from Mr Jacobs." She fumbled in her voluminous pocket. "I hope nothing's the matter with him?"
"Oh dear no! He found he needed a short holiday, that's all," Pringle reassured her, and taking the key from the confiding woman he climbed to the second floor.
Sitting down at the secretarial desk, he sent a quick glance round the office. A poor creature, that Jacobs, he reflected, for all his rascality, or he wouldn't have been scared so easily. And he drew a piece of wax from his pocket and took a careful impression of the key.
He had not been in possession of the "Rejuvenator" offices for very long before he discovered that Mr Jacobs' desire to break out in a fresh place had proved abortive. It will be remembered that on the occasion of his interview with that gentleman, Mr Jacobs assumed that Pringle's visit had reference to "Pelosia," whose virtues he extolled in a leaflet composed in his own very pronounced style. A large package in the office Pringle found to contain many thousands of these effusions, which had apparently been laid aside for some considerable time. From the absence in the daily correspondence of any inquiries thereafter, it was clear that the public had failed to realize the advantages of the internal administration of mud, so that Mr Jacobs had been forced to stick to the swindle that was already in existence. After all, the latter was a paying concern—eminently so! Besides, the patent-medicine trade is rather overdone.
The price of the "Assyrian Rejuvenator" was such as to render the early cashing of remittances an easy matter. Ten-and-sixpence being a sum for which the average banker demurs to honour a cheque, the payments were usually made in postal orders; and Pringle acquired a larger faith in Carlyle's opinion of the majority of his fellow-creatures as he cashed the previous day's takings at the General Post Office on his way up to Barbican each morning. The business was indeed a flourishing one, and his satisfaction was only alloyed by the probability of some legal interference, at the instance of Colonel Sandstream, with the further operations of the Company. But for the present Fortune smiled, and Pringle continued energetically to despatch parcels of the "Rejuvenator" in response to the daily shower of postal orders. In this indeed he had little trouble, for he had found many gross of parcels duly packed and ready for posting.
One day while engaged in the process, which had grown quite a mechanical one by that time, he listened absently to a slow but determined step which ascended the stairs and paused on the landing outside. Above, on the third floor, was an importer of cigars made in Germany, and the visitor evidently delayed the further climb until he had regained his wind. Presently, after a preliminary pant or two, he got under weigh again, but proceeded only as far as the "Rejuvenator" door, to which he gave a peremptory thump, and, opening it, walked in without further ceremony.
There was no need for him to announce himself. Pringle recognized him at first glance, although he had never seen him since the eventful evening at Cristiani's restaurant.
"I'm Colonel Sandstream!" he growled, looking round him savagely.
"Delighted to see you, sir," said Pringle with assurance. "Pray be seated," he added politely.
"Who am I speaking to?"
"My name is Newton Weeks. I am——"
"I don't want to see you!" interrupted the Colonel testily. "I want to see the secretary of this concern. I've no time to waste either."
"I regret to say that Mr Jacobs——"
"Ah, yes! That's the name. Where is he?" again interrupted the old gentleman.
"Mr Jacobs is at present out of town."
"Well, I'm not going to run after him. When will he be here again?"
"It is quite impossible for me to tell. But I was just now going to say that as the managing director of the company I am also acting as secretary during Mr Jacobs' absence."
"What do you say your name is?" demanded the other, still ignoring the chair which Pringle had offered him.
"Newton Weeks," repeated the Colonel, making a note of the name on the back of an envelope.
"Managing director," added Pringle suavely.
"Well, Mr Weeks, if you represent the company—" this with a contemptuous glance from the middle of the room at his surroundings—"I've called with reference to a letter you've had the impertinence to send me."
"What was the date of it?" inquired Pringle innocently.
"I don't remember!" snapped the Colonel.
"May I ask what was the subject of the correspondence?"
"Why, this confounded "Rejuvenator" of yours, of course!"
"You see we have a very large amount of correspondence concerning the "Rejuvenator", and I'm afraid unless you have the letter with you——"
"I've lost it or mislaid it somewhere."
"That is unfortunate! Unless you can remember the contents I fear it will be quite impossible for me to do so."
"I remember them well enough! I'm not likely to forget them in a hurry. I asked you to return me the money your "Rejuvenator", as you call it, has cost me, because it's been quite useless, and in your reply you not only refused absolutely, but hinted that I dare not prosecute you."
As Pringle made no reply, he continued more savagely: "Would you like to hear my candid opinion of you?"
"We are always pleased to hear the opinion of our clients."
Pringle's calmness only appeared to exasperate the Colonel the more.
"Well, sir, you shall have it. I consider that letter the most impudent attempt at blackmail that I have ever heard of!" He ground out the words from between his clenched teeth in a voice of concentrated passion.
"Blackmail!" echoed Pringle, allowing an expression of horror to occupy his countenance.
"Yes, sir! Blackmail!" asseverated the Colonel, nodding his head vigorously.
"Of course," said Pringle, with a deprecating gesture, "I am aware that some correspondence has passed between us, but I cannot attempt to remember every word of it. At the same time, although you are pleased to put such an unfortunate construction upon it, I am sure there is some misunderstanding in the matter. I must positively decline to admit that there has been any attempt on the part of the company of such a nature as you allege."
"Oh! so you don't admit it, don't you? Perhaps you won't admit taking pounds and pounds of my money for your absurd concoction, which hasn't done me the least little bit of good in the world—nor ever will! And perhaps you won't admit refusing to return me my money? Eh? Perhaps you won't admit daring me to take proceedings because it would show up what an ass I've been! Don't talk to me, sir! Haugh!"
"I'm really very sorry that this unpleasantness has arisen," began Pringle, "but——"
"Pleasant or unpleasant, sir, I'm going to stop your little game! I mislaid your letter or I'd have called upon you before this. As you're the managing director I'm better pleased to see you than your precious secretary. Anyhow, I've come to tell you that you're a set of swindlers! Of swindlers, sir!"
"I can make every allowance for your feelings," said Pringle, drawing himself up with an air of pained dignity, "but I regret to see a holder of His Majesty's commission so deficient in self-control."
"Like your impertinence, sir!" vociferated the veteran. "I'll let the money go, and I'll prosecute the pair of you, no matter what it costs me! Yes, you, and your rascally secretary too! I'll go and swear an information against you this very day!" He bounced out of the room, and explosively snorted downstairs.
Pringle followed in the rear, and reached the outer door in time to hear him exclaim, "Mansion House Police Court," to the driver of a motor-cab, in which he appropriately clanked and rumbled out of sight.
Returning upstairs, Pringle busied himself in making a bonfire of the last few days' correspondence. Then, collecting the last batch of postal orders, he proceeded to cash them at the General Post Office, and walked back to Furnival's Inn. After all, the farce couldn't have lasted much longer.
Arrived at Furnival's Inn, Pringle rapidly divested himself of the wig and moustache, and, assuming his official port-wine mark, became once more the unemployed literary agent.
It was now half-past one, and, after lunching lightly at a near restaurant, he lighted a cigar and strolled leisurely eastward.
By the time he reached Barbican three o'clock was reverberating from St Paul's. He entered the private bar of a tavern nearly opposite, and sat down by a window which commanded a view of No. 82.
As time passed and the quarters continued to strike in rapid succession, Pringle felt constrained to order further refreshment; and he was lighting a third cigar before his patience was rewarded. Happening to glance up at the second floor window, he caught a glimpse of a strange man engaged in taking a momentary survey of the street below.
The march of events had been rapid. He had evidently resigned the secretaryship not a moment too soon!
Not long after the strange face had disappeared from the window, a four-wheeled cab stopped outside the tavern, and an individual wearing a pair of large blue spectacles, and carrying a Gladstone bag, got out and carefully scrutinized the offices of the "Rejuvenator." Mr Jacobs, for it was he, did not intend to be caught napping this time.
At length, being satisfied with the normal appearance of the premises, he crossed the road, and to Pringle's intense amusement, disappeared into the house opposite. The spectator had not long to wait for the next act of the drama.
About ten minutes after Mr Jacobs' disappearance, the man who had looked out of the window emerged from the house and beckoned to the waiting cab. As it drew up at the door, a second individual came down the steps, fast-holding Mr Jacobs by the arm. The latter, in very crestfallen guise, re-entered the vehicle, being closely followed by his captor; and the first man having taken his seat with them, the party adjourned to a destination as to which Pringle had no difficulty in hazarding a guess. Satisfying the barmaid, he sallied into the street. The "Rejuvenator" offices seemed once more to be deserted, and the postman entered in the course of his afternoon round. Pringle walked a few yards up the street and then, crossing as the postman re-appeared, turned back and entered the house boldly. Softly mounting the stairs, he knocked at the door. There was no response. He knocked again more loudly, and finally turned the handle. As he expected, it was locked securely, and, satisfied that the coast was clear, he inserted his own replica of the key and entered. The books tumbled on the floor in confused heaps, the wide-open and empty drawers, and the overturned packing-cases, showed how thoroughly the place had been ransacked in the search for compromising evidence. But Pringle took no further interest in these things. The letter-box was the sole object of his attention. He tore open the batch of newly-delivered letters, and crammed the postal orders into his pockets; then, secreting the correspondence behind a rifled packing-case, he silently locked the door.
As he strolled down the street, on a last visit to the General Post Office, the two detectives passed him on their way back in quest of the "Managing Director."
"RIEN ne va plus--the ball rolls!"
The silence was only broken by the rattle of the ivory ball over the diamond-shaped studs around the circumference of the disc. Every now and then there was a sharp click, as it struck a partition between two numbers and was viciously jerked on to the studs again.
Round and round the ball went. It was only for a minute, but to the men gathered by the green cloth it seemed a century. Suddenly the noise ceased. The disc continued to revolve, but the ball lay snug in one of the little pens.
The tailleur placed his finger on the capstan and stopped the disc.
"Twelve—rouge—manque—pair" he intoned monotonously. Then he raked the stakes off the spaces painted on the green cloth. The table had won for the eighth time in succession, with payment to hardly a single player. A kind of suppressed groan ran round the board, and the fleeced ones crowded to the bar at the end of the room for consolation.
The life at the marble caravanserais which largely do duty now for clubs was repellent to Mr. Romney Pringle and, doubtless on Pope's principle that "the proper study of mankind is MAN," the "Chrysanthemum Club" had many attractions for him. As to the club itself, while election was a process rather more exacting than a mere scrutiny by the hall-porter, the "Chrysanthemum" was not too exclusive; and, although situated in a fashionable street off Piccadilly, the subscription was a nominal one.
As Romney Pringle inhaled his cigarette and watched the last disastrous success of the table, a young man got up from the board and flung himself abruptly into a low chair opposite. Presently a waiter placed on the marble table at his elbow a bottle of Moet and Chandon, to which he applied himself assiduously. There was nothing in his appearance to differentiate him from any of the thousands of well-dressed and well-groomed men who frequent Clubland, but somehow or other, as they sat opposite one another, his eye continually caught that of Pringle, who at length rose and crossed the room. The club was not so large that a member need consider himself insulted did a stranger address bim without a previous introduction, and the other displayed no emotion when Pringle sat down beside him and entered into conversation.
"The table seems to be having all the luck tonight," he remarked.
"That's true," agreed the youth frankly. "I never heard of such luck."
"Been playing long?" inquired Pringle sympathetically.
"I'm not a member, you know. I was introduced as a visitor for the first time tonight." Then, growing confidential as the wine circulated in his brain, he continued, "I cashed a check for eighty pounds when 1 began to play, and I staked ten every time."
"So you lost it all?"
"Lost it all," the youth echoed gloomily.
"But why not go on? Professor Bond calculates that the chances in favor of the Bank are only thirty-seven to thirty-five."
"Fact is, my last sovereign went there," he tapped the bottle. "Think I'd better go now." And he rose somewhat unsteadily. His libations to Fortune had evidently commenced very early in the evening.
"Try your luck again," persuaded Pringle. "Allow me the pleasure of helping you to get your revenge," and he produced a handful of gold from his pocket.
"You're really very good, but—"
"Not at all! The luck's sure to turn by this time," urged the tempter.
"Well, I'll take eight pounds, and thanks awfully, Mr— Really I don't know your name; mine's Redmile."
"Mine is James," said Pringle. "Now in and win!"
Once more Redmile took his seat at the green board and watched the play eagerly. The table was no longer winning, and the interest in the game had revived. After a few turns he ventured a sovereign on the pair or even numbers. "Twenty-six" was called, and he was richer by as much more.
Still cautious, he placed three sovereigns below the first column of figures. "Nineteen" was the winning number, and six more sovereigns were added to his three.
"I congratulate you!" whispered Pringle behind him. "Didn't I say the luck would change?"
"A good guess," laughed Redmile. "Only let me win enough to redeem that check, and I shall be contented."
"Try the twelves," Pringle suggested.
Redmile arranged five sovereigns on the space allotted to the first twelve numbers.
"Thirty-one!" the tailleur called.
Pringle shrugged his shoulders as the money was raked into the bank.
Without looking round, but breathing heavily, Redmile placed a sovereign on rouge, another on impair, and after a second's hesitation dropped two more on twenty-one. Even as he withdrew his hand the tailleur uttered his parrot-cry "Rien ne va plus," and, spinning the disc, reversed the ball against it. "Twenty-one—rouge—passe—impair" he droned, as the ball rested.
Redmile had won seventy-two pounds at one stroke! He rose from the table and vigorously shook hands with Pringle.
"I've got eighty-two pounds altogether with me, and I must get that check back from the manager," he said, "Do you mind coming round to my rooms? Only as far as Dover Street, and I'll give you a check for what you so kindly lent me."
"With pleasure," said Pringle, as Redmile, now flushed with success in addition to the wine, darted off to redeem his check.
"I've had as much as is good for me or we'd have had another bottle to celebrate the occasion," he remarked as they strolled down Piccadilly.
"Rather more," thought Pringle, adding politely, "I should not have noticed it."
"Perhaps not; but I must have a clear head tomorrow. I'm in the F.O., you know, and we're very busy just now."
"Indeed!" exclaimed Pringle, much interested. "You must have had a harassing time lately—over this Congo affair, for instance?"
"Yes, harassing isn't the word to describe it. Come in!"
He drew out his latchkey, and after some ineffectual efforts succeeded in opening the door. Then he insisted on writing the check in spite of all Pringle's protestations and, opening a box of cigars, put whisky and soda on the table. The fresh air had completed the work of the alcohol. He was evidently becoming very drunk, and laughed insanely when, missing the tumbler, he directed the cascade from a syphon over the table-cloth.
"We'll just have a nightcap before you go," he hiccoughed. "Yes, as you were saying, we've had a deuce of a time lately. I'm one of Lord Tranmere's secretaries, and the berth's not all beer and sk-skittles? Why, you mightn't think it, but I have to examine every blessed dispatch and telegram that passes between London and Paris every day, Sundays and all; and that means some work just now, I can tell you! Yesterday was no d-day of rest for me."
He unlocked a despatch-box and held up an official envelope for Pringle to see, The direction was printed in bold letters:
On Her Britannic Majesty's Service
His Excellency the Right Honble.
The Viscount Strathclyde, G.C.B.,
Her Britannic Majesty's Ambassador
Extraordinary and Plen1potentiary,
Etc. Etc. Etc.
"This is the finish to the whole business," he said. "Rather short and sweet. I only finished dr-drafting it this evening. It will be franked by the Secretary of State in the morning, and I think by this time to-to-morrow the F.O. officials will sleep sounder in both capitals."
"Will they, indeed!" exclaimed Pringle. "I am delighted to find that diplomacy is not a lost art in England. But, talking of that, I suppose you know the story of the Queen's Messenger and that affair of the Emperor of Austria's razors?"
Redmile had never heard of it, and settled himself comfortably to listen. But as the combined result of his potations and the lateness of the hour, his head began to nod, and long before Pringle arrived at the climax of the story a loud snore proclaimed that his audience was asleep.
After waiting a little while to make sure of his host's unconsciousness, Pringle cautiously reached towards the despatch-box which still lay open on the tabic, and possessed himself of an addressed envelope and several sheets of foolscap embossed with the Foreign Office stamp. He then turned his attention to the waste-paper basket, and after a search, as noiseless as possible, among its rustling contents, found a torn envelope bearing a nearly perfect Foreign Office seal in wax. Placing all the stationery carefully in his pocket, he gave vent to a loud sneeze.
Redmile woke up with a start, and Pringle, as if finishing the story, remarked calmly, "So that's how the affair ended."
"Dear me! Fm awfully sorry," apologized Redmile thickly. "I'm afraid I've been asleep. It must have been that whisky that did it!"
"More likely the prosiness of my story," Pringle suggested with a smile. "But, anyhow, I must be moving."
"Come and look me up any time you're passing," said the other sleepily.
When he reached Furnival's Inn Pringle did not trouble to go to bed. He had a hard night's work before him and the dawn found him still busily engaged.
Drawing up the blinds he admitted the morning light. The Venetian mirror which hung above the mantel had seldom reflected such a scene of confusion as the usually neat room presented. Pringie's hat crowned one of the two choice pieces of delft which flanked the brass lantern-clock, while his overcoat sprawled limply across the reading-easel. On a table in one corner stood a glass vessel containing a chemical solution. In this, well coated with black-lead, was immersed the seal abstracted from the waste-paper basket, which, with a plate of copper, also hanging in the solution, was connected with the wires of a "Daniell's" chemical battery; in the course of the night the potent electricity had covered the wax with a deposit of copper sufficiently thick to form a perfect reverse intaglio of the seal. A centre-table was littered with pieces of paper, scrawled over with what appeared to be the attempts of a beginner in the art of writing. A closer inspection would have revealed a series of more or less successful reproductions of Redmile's handwriting—his check for eight pounds being pinned to a drawing-board and serving Pringle as a copy. With frequent reference to a Blue-book which lay open before him, Pringle penned a communication in a couple of short paragraphs, which he carefully copied onto one of the sheets of foolscap. Then, folding it into the envelope, he sealed it with a neat impression from the copper electrotype.
One thing only remained to complete the official appearance of the package; that was the "frank." Turning to the dado of dwarf bookcases which ran round the room, Pringle took down an album containing the portraits and autographs of celebrities of the day, and looked up that of the Foreign Secretary. Lord Transmere's signature was a bold and legible one, and with the skill of an expert copyist he soon had a facsimile of it written in the lower left-hand corner of the envelope.
Eight o'clock was striking just as he had finished. He rose and stretched himself languidly, when his eye fell on the check. Unpinning it from the board, he attached a "y" to the written word "eight," and deftly inserted a cipher after the somewhat unsteady figure which sprawled in the corner, thus converting it into a check for eighty pounds.
His task was now done, and after swallowing a cup of chocolate brewed over a spirit-lamp, he made a hurried but careful toilet. Endowed by Nature with a fresh complexion which did much to conceal the ravages of a sleepless night, he presented his usual youthful appearance on leaving the Inn, and having chartered a passing cab, was swallowed up in the sea of traffic already beginning to surge down Holborn.
Work, as a general rule, begins later at the Foreign Office than elsewhere, but although it was only a little past nine when Pringle dismissed his cab in Downing Street and entered the portico of Lord Palmerston's architectural freak, several cabs and a miniature brougham were already waiting in the quadrangle. He inquired at the door for Redmile, and was directed up the magnificent staircase to a waiting-room on the first floor.
"I will not detain Mr. Redmile long if he is at all busy," he remarked to the messenger who took his name.
"Mr. Redmile is always busy, sir," was the man's reply.
Pringle sat down and devoted himself to a study of The Times, and it was fully a quarter of an hour before the messenger returned and led him along a dismal and vault-like corridor to an apartment overlooking the Horse Guards' Parade.
The room was empty, but he had scarcely had time to seat himself when a side-door, through which he caught a glimpse of a vast and lofty room beyond, suddenly opened, and Redmile entered with a packet in his hand.
"Good-morning, er—Mr. James," he said rather stiffly, and remained standing.
"I must apologize for intruding upon you when you are so busy," Pringle commenced.
Redmile said nothing, but glanced at the paper he held, which Pringle at once recognized as the momentous despatch which the other in his vinous indiscretion had shown him the previous evening.
"I should not have troubled you so early," continued Pringle, "but on looking at your check when I got home I found that instead of repaying me my small loan you had drawn it for a much larger sum." And he handed the altered check to Redmile, who started when he saw the amount. He stared at it a second or two before he spoke, and then it was in a much more cordial tone.
"Pray sit down, Mr. James. Excuse my not having offered you a chair. I am really greatly obliged to you. As a man of honor, which I see you are, may I ask you to do what I shall regard as an even greater service—that is, to forget that you saw me at that infernal club? I had only been there once before with Lord Netherfield"—he named a well-known man-about-town—"and I should not have gone there again had I not dined rather too freely with an old friend last night. I remember very little of what occurred, and I need not tell you how fatal the events of last night would be to my official position if they became known."
"You may rely on me implicitly, Mr. Redmile. I do not play myself, and indeed I only regard the 'Chrysanthemum' as an interesting place to pass an idle hour. One can study there emotions more realistic than any which are travestied on the stage."
The whole time he was speaking Pringle's eyes never left the packet which Redmile had placed on the table. It was duly sealed and franked by the Secretary of State, the latter operation having evidently just been concluded when Redmile brought it into the room; and Pringlc, mentally comparing it with the one reposing in his coat pocket, decided that they bore a sufficient family likeness to render them practically indistinguishable. Suddenly starting up and turning to the window, he exclaimed, as he pointed to something outside, "Extraordinary!"
"What is the matter?" exclaimed Redmile, going up to the window and looking over the Park.
"Excuse me, but that man walking along there is the very image of Karazoff, the accomplice of Grenevitsky, who assassinated the Czar of Russia in '81'
"Is he, indeed?" said Redmile, gazing with much interest at an innocent-looking pedestrian who was approaching from the direction of the Mall.
"I never saw a more astounding likeness. You may remember that Grenevitsky shared the same fate as the Czar by the explosion of the bomb, but Karazoff, who was standing a little farther back, was unhurt, and was at once arrested."
"Did you see the assassination, then?"
"No; but I was in St. Petersburg afterwards, and saw Karazoff and the other accomplices hanged. I shall never forget his face as long as I live—he went to his death with the air of a martyr. How it snowed, too, that day!"
"Marvellous fanaticism," murmured Redmile, as the Nihilist's double, who was in point of fact a Congregationalist minister, ascended the steps leading to Downing Street. He continued to stare out of the window until the imperative whirr of an electric bell made him turn with a start.
"I must really ask you to excuse me," he said. "I have a most important despatch to send off to Paris, and there isn't a moment to lose. I'll send you another check as soon as I have some time to spare. Will you give me your address?"
"Don't let such a small matter as that trouble you. I will look in at your chambers again one evening—if I may."
"Pray do! Excuse me, but the Queen's messenger is waiting. I haven't a moment—good-morning—good-morning!"
Descending the grand staircase, Pringlc hurried into Parliament Street and, hailing a cab, drove back to his chambers. To resume the artificial port-wine mark was but the work of a moment after which he strolled leisurely into the City.
Making the circuit of the Bank, he turned into Throgmorton Street and entered a large doorway whose passage-walls were plastered with names from floor to ceiling. Opening a door on the ground floor, "Is Mr. Hedsor in?" he inquired.
"Just gone over to the House," replied a smart clerk.
"Would you kindly let him know Mr. Pringle would like to speak to him."
It was a band-boxed gentleman in morning costume, wearing a tall hat of effulgent glossiness, who entered the office soon after.
"How do you do, Mr. Pringle? How's literature?" was his greeting.
"Very quiet just now."
"Really?" And Pringle, with a smile, glanced round the office. A clerk was sitting ankle-deep in a pile of wrappers and envelopes, which gradually submerged his legs as he attacked a heap of letters and circulars; beside him another incessantly tapped correspondence out of a typewriter; while a third divided his attention between responses to the calls of a telephone and the sundering of a tape disgorged in endless snaky coils from the unresting little machine in one corner.
"Fact!" asseverated the broker, leading the way to a little den separated from the office by a glazed window-frame partition. "Truth is, Paris has got the blues, and ditch-water's sparkling compared to the present state of things."
"What about Consols today?"
"Consols? Not much in my line, you know."
"But I suppose you're open to do business?"
"Oh, of course it can be done. Depends what you want to do, though."
"Will you sell for me?"
"How much?" inquired the broker, producing a little book.
"What do you say to fifty thousand?"
The other looked dubiously at him, and sucked the top of his pencil. "There's always a large bear account open—I shall want good cover," he remarked after a pause.
"Will you take one per cent?"
"Why, yes, I'll take that. From anyone else I should ask two—indeed, I don't like it much at any price. They're high enough, goodness knows, now; but who's to say they won't go higher?"
"What are they at?"
Mr. Hedsor went into the outer office and consulted the board on which the tapes were impaled.
"A hundred and ten and an eighth," said he, returning. "Lord! what a price!"
"Well, I think I'll trust my luck," Pringlc remarked quietly.
"You need something better to trust to than luck in these hard times."
"Did you ever hear of a company called the 'Lobatsi Consolidated'?"
"Yes, you were lucky there, I own, for a mere bit of stagging."
"And wasn't there another called the 'Bokfontein Development* ?"
"By Jove! I never thought you'd get out of that as well as you did."
"And the Topsipitsi Deep Level'?"
"Oh, hang it all! Your proper place is inside the House. I'd forgotten the 'Topsipitsi.' Come out and have a drink."
The world was rather less tranquil when Mr. Hedsor awoke the next morning. Indeed, it was many years since the newspapers had offered the public such a sensational bill-of-fare as their posters promised. In the journals themselves the news was displayed in startling headlines, The Times so far forgetting its dignity as to double-lead its leader on the momentous news.
Towards one a.m. the previous night there had come over the wires from the matter-of-fact Reuter the following piece of news, which dislocated the "make-up" of the papers, reducing the sub-editors to a condition of frenzy:
"Paris.—In accordance, it is understood, with instructions from London, Lord Strathclyde leaves for Calais tomorrow, diplomatic relations having been abruptly broken off between the two countries."
Further particulars from "our own" correspondents confirmed the news, adding that crowds were parading the streets of Paris, singing patriotic songs, and smashing the windows of every shop which bore an English name. Troops were being held in readiness in case of emergencies with which the police would be unable to cope, as it was feared the opponents of the settled order of things would foment disturbances, which in the electric condition of the public mind might have serious results.
The news, although startling, was not altogether unexpected. For some time past the relations between France and England had been in the condition euphemistically described by diplomatists as "strained." Events in Africa had constituted a chronic source of friction, and the annexation of the Congo Free State by the French, who claimed rights of pre-emption, had brought matters to a crisis. Nevertheless, ii seemed as if the resources of diplomacy would heal the breach, and the public, lulled to a sense of tranquillity, were simply paralyzed by the morning's news, which burst on the nation like a thunderclap.
Some of the papers accused the Government of precipitancy, alleging that England was quite unprepared for war with such a Power as France, others preferred to look upon the war as having been inevitable, and only regretted that a more favorable opportunity had not been selected to commence hostilities; but they were unanimous in the opinion that we were about to enter upon a life-and-dceath struggle, which it would be impossible to confine to the two Powers chiefly concerned.
In every place where men congregated there was the wildest commotion. At the London railway stations, in the trains and omnibuses hastening to disgorge their daily suburban load, the tidings dwarfed every other topic.
Naturally it was at the Stock Exchange that the greatest excitement prevailed, and "Gorgonzola Hall" was in a delirious ferment. There had been a feeling of uneasiness for some days past, and even the most intensely aureate of gilt-edged securities had shown jelly-like movements. But on this eventful morning the bears carried all before them, and five minutes after the springing of the rattle which announces the commencement of busincss, prices had begun to crumble away like snow beneath the sun.
As the day wore on, and the news spread, the crowd outside the Exchange became a surging mob, which was swollen every second by the cabs depositing perspiring clients in search of absent brokers. Those privileged to pass the janitors had literally to fight their way in. One of the glass panels in the Shorter 's Court doorway was shivered early in the day, and its fellow had to be boarded over to protect it from a similar fate. Round in Capel Court half a dozen policemen had been posted as a breakwater, against which the uninitiated broke in impotent waves. And ever, as the glass doors swung to and fro, a dull, drumming, persistent roar, like the whirring of distant factory looms, reverberated down the passages, and mingled with the noise of the traffic on the clattering asphalt roadway.
About noon the tall slim figure of Romney Pringle joined the crowd around the Capel Court entrance, and after an arduous struggle succeeded in getting within hailing distance of the blue-coated porter, who as a rule reposes majestically in the leather chair by the door. The present was no time for repose, however, and in response to a fervent appeal from Pringle he condescended to transmit his inquiry for Mr. Hedsor through a speaking-tube to the arcana of the House.
Pringle had a weary wait of over half an hour before the broker appeared, and even then, so dense was the pressure of the crowd, mostly passing inward, that after a few ineffectual struggles Mr. Hedsor, whose stature was not of the bulkiest, was reduced to a desperate squirm at short intervals, with the sole purpose of retaining bis position, quite apart from any idea of making progress. How long this captivity might have lasted, or whether it might not have terminated in the incontinent collapse of the broker is uncertain, had not the janitor at length caught sight of him and, clearing a passage through the mob with an authoritative "By your leave," extracted him by the remnants of his coat collar.
"Whatever do you want?" gasped the palpitating broker, as he pettishly endeavored to adjust his tattered garments. "I'm frightfully busy." And, mopping his brow, he edged towards a clear space at the side, left by the eddying crowd.
"I'm sorry to trouble you, but I came to ask your advice as to what I had better do," apologized Pringle, as he dusted him down.
"Advice!" repeated the broker. "Why, I tell you, you ought to be one of us! You've got the luck of Old Nick himself! Who on earth would have thought this was going to happen? And I don't believe it would either, if you hadn't taken it into your head to do a bear."
"You see I have faith in my luck, as I told you yesterday. But what are Consols standing at now?"
"Standing do you call it? They're falling—falling, man!" The broker grinned sardonically; he was too breathless to laugh.
"Well, what have they fallen to?"
"Why, they were ninety-seven ten minutes ago, and the Lord only knows when they'll touch bottom! They were eighty-five in the Crimea, and this little show'll be worse than half a dozen Crimcas before it's done with."
"I suppose I ought to buy, then?"
"Oh, the innocence of the man! As if you didn't know the game to play! Lucky dog that you are." Mr. Hedsor sighed enviously and began to work a little sum in his notebook. "Look here: I sold fifty thou' for you yesterday at a hundred and nine three-eighths. If you buy another fifty at ninety-seven—or suppose we say ninety-six or thereabouts, you'll make thirteen per cent, more or less. Now I can't come out here again. You must just go round to the office and wait, and I'll telephone through to you as soon as the job's done. You can amuse yourself by figuring out how much you've made in the last twenty-four hours. Oh, you lucky dogl"
"Delighted, I'm sure," smiled Pringle sweetly. "And in that case you can hold over my check till the settlement."
"Right you are, my boy! And, look here, next time you've got a good thing you might give me the tip, and let's get in on the ground floor."
Pringle shook his head in deprecation as the broker, with a knowing wink, dived once more into the crowd, and was borne inwards with the stream.
Coasting along the outskirts of the turmoil, Pringle got safely down Throgmorton Street, only taking ten minutes over a journey which under ordinary circumstances he could have accomplished in as many seconds, and was about to enter the office when a tremendous hubbub arose, distinctly audible above the all-pervading uproar. From the height of the three or four steps up to the doorway he commanded a view of the scene. Looking back, he saw a newsboy crying the evening paper, surrounded by a yelling mob, which struggled and fought madly for the sheets. Presently a small group detached itself from the rest and frantically rushed towards the entrance to the Exchange in the wake of a hatless individual, who had seized a contents-bill which he waved triumphantly above his head. As it floated like a banner in the air Pringle with some little difficulty spelled out:
BRITISH AMBASSADOR HOAXED
FORGED PARIS DESPATCH
SCENE IN THE HOUSE OF COMMONS
He turned abruptly and entered the office, and even as he shut the door behind him the telephone gong whirred. He sprang to the receiver, and before the clerk could reach it twirled the bell-handle.
"Are you there?"
"Is it Mr. Barker?"
"Oh, all serene! Fifty thou' at ninety-six and a half."
"Thank you. How much do you make it?"
"I said about thirteen per cent, didn't I? Roughly, it's six thousand five hundred that you've made. I say, were you born with a silver spoon in your mouth? It's settlement day next week and I'll send you the full account. Ta-Ta!" Out in Throgmorton Street Pringle managcd to secure a paper and this was what he read:
THE THREATENED WAR AVERTED
STATEMENT BY THE FOREIGN UNDER-SECRETARY.
EXTRAORDINARY STORY. IS IT A HOAX?
When the House of Commons assembled today at noon there was an unusual attendance of members, and hardly a seat on the floor of the chamber was vacant, except on the Treasury Bench, whose sole tenant was the Foreign Under- Secretary. Immediately after prayers Mr. Grammaty rose and said:
"Sir, I have to crave the indulgence of the House for the purpose of making a statement on behalf of the Government in view of the very serious news published in the morning papers. The Government has never had any intention of breaking off diplomatic relations with France, and Lord Strathclyde, while doing so in all good faith, appears to have acted on misleading and unauthorized instructions. I can assure the House that the matter will form the subject of the most searching investigation, and in the meantime Lord Strathclyde has been requested to offer the amplest aapologies to the French Government. 1 am happy to inform the House that the relations of this country with France have never been more friendly than they are at the present moment."
This statement was received with profound silence, only broken by the cheers which arose on all sides at the conclusion. Immediately Mr. Grammaty resumed his seat the House rapidly emptied, and the lobby was thronged with members eagerly discussing the situation.
We understand that Lord Tranmere was in attendance at the Foreign Office at an unprecedented hour, and that a brisk exchange of telegrams between London and the Paris Embassy has been in progress all morning.
It is stated that our relations with France have within the last few days assumed a most amicable complexion, and no one was more surprised at the morning's news than the officials at the Foreign Office. Although the utmost reticence is being observed by the Department in question, we are in a position to state that the despatch in accordance with which Lord Strathclyde acted was nothing less than a clever forgery, which was mysteriously substituted for a genuine one of quite a different complexion. How or by what means the exchange was effected, and how the spurious document was allowed to reach the Paris Embassy undetected, appears to be an unsolved mystery pending the result of the investigation promised by the Government.
Pringle folded the paper and glanced at the scene around him. The individual so hotly denounced was not likely to stand in the pillory—the Chrysanthemum Club's cellar had insured that!
He walked on past the entrance to the Exchange. The murmur of the crowd which filled every approach was answered by a roar from the Temple of Mammon, deeper and more thunderous than any that had hitherto escaped the swing-doors, now wedged wide open by the surging mass.
The pendulum had swung back. The bulls were triumphantly rushing prices up again.
It was a warm morning towards the end of June, and London, that is to say the West End, was fast becoming an arid wilderness. But although almost everybody who was anybody had long left town, there was one place which enjoyed a popularity unaffected by the flight of fashion or the seasons.
The weirdly zoological collection which frequents the reading-room of the British Museum was very much in evidence. The juvenile and cheerful lady who edited the magazine, the elderly and unhappy one who copied hymns, the retired tragedian in the cloak who spent the day in sleep, were all there. So, too, was the red-whiskered gentleman of uncertain age, who seldom rested, but perambulated the room in search of the book which some one had always taken from the lower shelves just when he wanted to consult it. He was still on patrol-duty; his shuffles across the hills and valleys of the linoleum being almost the only sounds which broke the stillness of the warm, leathery atmosphere.
Perhaps it was on account of the heat, at any rate the blue dome was free from echoes of the groans, grunts, and still more fearsome noises with which the staple reader is wont to accompany his literary studies.
The reading-room was a locality which appealed to Mr. Pringle with a two-fold concern. As a (supposititious) literary agent he was bound to be interested in the focal point of modern hack-writing; but it was rather as a student of human nature that he frequented the chamber which has succeeded to the heritage of Grub Street.
The room, then, was very full, and Pringle had made the circular tour twice over before he espied a seat which another reader was in the act of vacating. It was at the end of one of the long desks, and taking a volume of Froude's England from the nearest shelf he sat down, Next to him was a man whom he at first took to be asleep, but a closer inspection showed that he was merely leaning back regarding the dome with an abstracted air. His uncropped hair and beard, together with a large pair of spectacles, gave him the look of a student, which was heightened by the sombrero-looking wide-awake which reposed on the shelf in front of him. He was evidently in search of inspiration from the vault above, as several sheets of notepaper on the desk appeared to be copies of a half-written letter which he was unable to finish. Littered all about were books of ponderous size, many resplendent with gilding, Peerages and directories, from the reference library, mingled in confusion with more recondite works from the inmost recesses of the establishment. Burke jostled Debrett, and was in turn overlaid by Dod, while Burke's County Families and sundry genealogies and court-guides were smothered by Zeimssen's many-volumed Medicine. Here and there about the heap were scattered stained and dirty clippings of newspaper, carefully backed with postage-stamp edging at the well-worn creases.
The creator of all this chaos was by no means a fluent writer, for Pringle had curiously watched him for perhaps half-an-hour before he completed the letter to his satisfaction. He then made a fair copy, and folded it into an envelope, which he addressed with elaborate care. Rising, he chanced with his elbow to push one of the medical tomes, which fell to ground with a resounding thud. As he stooped to pick it up, Pringle leant across and read the address on the laborious composition:
"The Most Noble the Marquis of Lundy,
65 Clarges Street, Mayfair, W."
Sorting out his volumes, the unknown took some of them up to the central desk to redeem the vouchers, and Pringle made use of the opportunity to exchange blotting-pads. As it happened, the two were stained in a not very dissimilar manner, and he had just time to complete the manoeuvre before his neighbour returned. Pringle's intuition was remarkably prophetic, for tearing his tickets in half and flinging them under the desk, the letter-writer deliberately proceeded to remove the top sheet of the blotter with a paper-knife! The mere possibility of the substitution did not appear to even enter his mind, and carefully placing the sheet, together with his other papers, in a leathern pocketbook, he walked out of the room.
As soon as he was gone, Pringle groped under the desk for the torn fragments of the tickets. The signature on one of them was intact, and he read in long-looped characters the name "Julius Schillinghammer."
Schillinghammer—he was a German, then, reflected Pringle. No wonder he found English composition such a labour. He looked too respectable for a begging letter-writer; besides, it was evident he regarded the letter as an important one, or why had he been so careful to remove the blotting-paper? But Pringle had lived long enough to be surprised at nothing, and congratulating himself on his opportune exchange of the blotters, he hastily appropriated the incriminating top-sheet and followed the German out. When Pringle reached the cloak-room, the way was blocked by an irascible old gentleman who had lost the tally for a small black bag, and was expressing grave doubts as to the logic of the attendant's refusal to return him his property. "Words" were passing freely, and Pringle lost several minutes in the endeavour to recover his own walking-stick. At length he got off, but, as he expected, there was no sign of the stranger in the entrance-hall. As he ran down the steps, however, he caught a glimpse of him passing out of the front-gate, and hurried across the gravel-path in time to see the German turn into Museum Street.
Crossing Oxford Street, Mr. Schillinghammer kept straight on through Drury Lane and Wych Street, then, skirting St. Clement Danes, he turned into Essex Street, and suddenly disappeared about half-way down. Pringle, who had followed all the time at an unobtrusive pace, fixed the spot by its vicinity to a street-lamp, and after what he judged a discreet interval, walked past. The house into which Mr. Schillinghammer had disappeared proved to be one of the smaller ones in the street, and, like the majority, was let in offices—or, to be exact, an office; for there was but a single brass-plate upon the door, and it bore the inscription—
Essex Private Inquiry Agency.
British and Continental.
Pringle strolled on down the slope of Essex Street towards the flight of steps leading to the Embankment. But he never reached that thoroughfare, for, pausing a moment at the top of the flight to take a perspective view of the 'Inquiry Agency', he saw a figure abruptly emerge from the office and walk with quick step towards the Strand. Without a moment's hesitation Pringle turned back and started in pursuit, for although garbed in the frock-coat and tall hat of advanced civilization, there was no mistaking the identity of Mr. Julius Schillinghammer!
At the top of the street the German paused, and appeared to be in search of a conveyance, as he carefully scrutinized the procession of omnibuses. A vacant garden-seat at length invited him to one bound westward, and Pringle, who had feigned absorption in the literary contents of a shop-window which accurately reflected the other's movements, ran after it, and took an inside seat as far as possible from the door. Towards Piccadilly his watchfulness increased, and as they drew near the Green Park it was rewarded by seeing Mr. Schillinghammer dismount and walk up Clarges Street. He was evidently in a hurry, and by the time Pringle, who had followed, but on the other side of the street, was abreast of No. 65, the German was engaged in conversation with a man-servant, to whom he was handing a letter. Pringle walked on, and, turning the corner into Bolton Row, looked back at the house; but the door was already closed, and as he ventured a step back into Clarges Street, he was just able to see Mr. Schillinghammer amble round the corner into Piccadilly.
Returning to Furnival's Inn, Pringle commenced the work of deciphering the hieroglyphics on the blotting-paper.
Mr. Schillinghammer appeared to have used a 'J' pen—a course which had its disadvantages as well as its advantages. For if the individual words were bold and distinct, the thickness of the pen had only served the more thoroughly to run one word into another on the blotting-paper. After some thought, Pringle decided to hunt first for any semblance to the signature on the book-ticket, and, with the aid of a looking-glass to reverse the script, he was at length rewarded by the sight of a blurred lius Schilling in one corner. This was satisfactory in so far as it offered proof that the writer had signed the letter with his own name. But when Pringle endeavoured, amid the confused mass of blots and smudges, to decipher some additional words, or even letters, the task appeared well-nigh hopeless. But he was not the man to be daunted by obstacles, however insurmountable they might at first sight appear, and he patiently returned to the charge, using the book-ticket to verify and distinguish the German's handwriting from that of any previous user of the pad. Fortunately the upper sheet was almost unblemished, and at the cost of a racking headache, his eyes almost blinded by the use of a magnifying-lens, he made out a series of words from the boldest part of the writing—doubtless derived from the fair copy of Mr. Schillinghammer's literary effort.
When set out on paper this is how they appeared—
92 Lang, seeing, possession, brother, business, good, heard, you, obtained, concealed, history, repair, value, thousand, inform, require, family, notes, nothing, be, and the signature.
There were also numerous fragments of words with a fair quantity of scattered conjunctions and articles. These he copied on to a separate sheet of paper, and after a laborious study of their relative sequence on the pad, he constructed a skeleton of the letter, thus:
92 Lang—seeing—an—mis—Chic—repair—occurred—possession—y—history—be—value—y's—family—you—doc—evi—cide—brothers— concealed—unde—inform—e— Englbusiness—y—many—thousand—require—good—obtain—notes—nothing—heard—fully—Julius Schillinghammer.
Having completed this patchwork, Pringle lit a cigarette, and, sitting down, took up a newspaper in the desperate endeavour to give his brain a short respite. It was the Park Lane Review that he had picked up, and although it required no great intellectual effort for its perusal, his thoughts incessantly strayed to the skeleton letter.
Just as the faintest ray of light in a dark room is enough to indicate the position of an outlet, so a single syllable was the means of solving the riddle. Determined to concentrate his attention on the paper, he re-read a paragraph which his eye had skimmed without assimilating it.
An event which I predicted some weeks ago shows that alliances with the British aristocracy are still popular with our fair American cousins. It is now formally announced that the Marquis of Lundy is to be shortly married to Miss Petasöhn, the only child of the well-known Chicago millionaire, and who aroused so much interest by her beauty and graceful presence during the late season.
Flinging the paper aside, Pringle impulsively seized the skeleton letter. There it was, sure enough!—Chic—a fragmentary word which had hitherto baffled him completely. It stood for Chicago, of course! And, encouraged by the discovery, he sat down again, and studied the paper with avidity.
For many years the Lundy estates have been greatly impoverished, partly by bad seasons, but mainly by the extravagance and mismanagement of former owners; Thorpe Regis, the palatial family residence in Norfolk, having been long unoccupied. The present Marquis, as a younger son, had at one time little chance of succeeding to the title, had not the death of both his brothers opened the way for him. It is a curious fact that the late peer and his two sons all ended their lives by some misadventure; the eldest son being found dead in a wood as the result of a gun-accident when shooting; while the second, who bid fair to take a high position in the House of Commons, and had a brilliant future before him, took poison by mistake. The late Lord Lundy was drowned soon afterwards, having mistaken his way on a dark night. The present peer, better known as Lord William Pownall, has always been a favourite in society, and I understand he has been simply overwhelmed with congratulations on his approaching wedding, which will be one of the social events of the year.
Could Schillinghammer be a blackmailer, after all, Pringle pondered. There was notes plainly written, and also the significant term thousand. Were not the words almost enough to explain the whole letter? The German appeared to be asking for a thousand pounds in notes. That was a large sum to demand. It must be a valuable secret to have such a price put upon it. There was a hint at a family mystery to be read between the lines of the Park Lane Review. The riddle was certainly a very piquant one, and Pringle returned to his task with a renewed zest.
A little further search for disconnected words in the mazes of the blotting-paper, a little re-arrangement of the disjointed syllables, a happy guess or two, and he clothed the bare bones of the skeleton thus:—
92, Langbourne Street,
Seeing the announcement of your betrothal to Miss Petasöhn of Chicago, which I hope will repair your fortunes, it has occurred to me that I am in possession of facts concerning your family history which may be considered of value by the lady's family. When I tell you that I have documentary evidence of the suicide of your father and two brothers, facts which have been successfully concealed hitherto, you will understand my reasons for informing you that I wish to leave England and start a business in Germany. The sum of a thousand pounds is what I require, and should your lordship be good enough to assist me to obtain this sum in notes, I promise you nothing more shall be heard of the matter.
This, then, or something very like it, must have been the letter which Mr. Schillinghammer had not thought fit to trust to the post, and Pringle contemplated his solution of the mystery with very pardonable pride.
Obviously the paragraphs in the Park Lane Review had struck the key-note of Mr. Schillinghammer's little plot, whilst the details might have been worked up from papers which had come under his notice, most probably in the offices of the 'Inquiry Agency', of which he must be a member, if not the principal. As to the address, Pringle was already acquainted with it as a notorious place where letters were received, and he had little difficulty in recognizing it in the fragmentary address of the skeleton.
The next step was to make sure of the valuable information he had acquired. He had spent all the afternoon over his task. It had now gone six. Mr. Schillinghammer, it is true, had been denied the Marquis when he called, but it was probable that the latter, even if not dining at home, would be returning to dress shortly. He must be interviewed immediately.
Pringle had never much difficulty in removing the port-wine mark on his cheek with a little spirit, and a smart application of chemicals soon darkened his fair hair. Then, putting on a 'bowler' and a light covert-coat, he turned his face westward.
"Can I see Lord Lundy?"
The footman was discreetly doubtful, but if Pringle would give his name he would make inquiries.
"Tell his lordship I have an important message from the German gentleman who called here this morning," Pringle added, and a few minutes later was following the servant up-stairs.
He was ushered into a room on the first-floor, half library, half smoking-room, with the solid mahogany door and elegantly-carved mantel of an eighteenth-century London mansion. A tall young man, with a closely-cropped beard, was sitting smoking in an easy-chair. He half rose as the door opened, and, without acknowledging Pringle's bow, waited until the servant had retired before speaking.
"I was not expecting you before tomorrow," he said curtly; "but since you are here, be good enough to state your business briefly, as my time is limited."
"I must first tell your lordship that I have no interest in any German you are expecting, beyond being desirous of arresting him."
"Arresting him!" exclaimed the Marquis.
"Yes; I am a member of the Criminal Investigation Department, and have charge of the case of some foreign anarchists who are wanted on the Continent."
"May I ask why you trouble to come here then?" inquired the peer, only a trifle less icily.
"One of those anarchists, Hödel by name, was traced to this street to-day in company with a man named Eppelstein, who was seen to call here."
"Only this. By a gross neglect of duty on the part of the officer who was observing them, Hödel was lost sight of, and in the hope that your lordship will assist the ends of justice, I have come to ask you for some information as to his companion who called here."
"Pray sit down. May I ask your name?" and Lord Lundy pushed a box of cigars across the table towards Pringle.
"My name is Fosterberry," said Pringle, as he took a chair, respectfully declining the cigars.
"Well, I should be very glad to help you if I could, but the man who called here this morning didn't give the name of Hödel."
"No; it was his companion, Eppelstein, who came here."
"That wasn't the name either. I didn't see the man, as I was out at the time, but he left a letter which I found waiting for me this afternoon, and he said he would call again at half-past ten to-morrow morning."
"What name did he leave behind?"
"Schillinghammer? An alias I was unacquainted with. May I ask what his object was in calling here?"
Lord Lundy coughed and fidgeted in his chair.
"Pray excuse me," apologized Pringle. "It is, of course, no business of mine. I merely asked the question, as I presume your lordship is not acquainted with him."
"Acquainted with him! I never heard of the scoundrel before to-day!" exclaimed the peer, as he dealt the table beside him a resounding blow with his fist. Then, his indignation getting the better of his caution, he drew a letter from his pocket, "This is a letter he left for me. It seems as if the blackguard has got hold of some information which I have the best of reasons for wishing to keep private, and he offers not to make any use of it, but to leave the country if I will give him a thousand pounds."
"Indeed," mused Pringle. "This is news to me. I had no idea he did anything in that line. Not but what he is quite capable of it, but he must be getting in rather low water if he has begun to play such a risky game."
"All I can say is that he appears to be a professional blackmailer."
"May I ask your lordship if you intend to pay?"
"Well, I need hardly say I don't like it, but, so far as I can see, I must either allow him to bleed me like this, or I must submit to the loss of a very much larger sum; together with other inconveniences which cannot be estimated quite so easily."
As he spoke his eye wandered to the mantelpiece. There, in a silver frame, stood the photograph of a strikingly handsome girl. Across one corner had been scrawled in a bold, almost masculine hand—"à vous, Bernice Petasöhn.".
Pringle, who had followed the direction of his glance, took in these details before the marquis, recovering himself with a start, exclaimed almost pettishly—"Can't you arrest this Schillinghammer, or whatever his name is, when he comes here again tomorrow?"
"It's rather unfortunate that he is not wanted. He is well known to both the London and Continental police as an associate of foreign anarchists, but Hödel is the man we are really anxious to arrest."
"You can't possibly arrest the other brute, then?"
"I'm afraid not. I have no doubt he is as great a scoundrel as Hödel, especially after what your lordship has just told me; but as the German police have not applied for his extradition, we have no grounds for interfering with him. Of course, my lord, if you are ready to proceed against him for attempting to blackmail you, the matter becomes a very simple one, and we shall be—"
"No, no, no! Publicity is the very thing of all others I want to avoid," exclaimed the peer hurriedly, adding, "and he knows it too."
"Then I'm afraid there's nothing for it but to pay."
Lord Lundy sighed and passed his hand wearily across his brow.
"You can't advise anything else?" he asked despondently.
"The case is really a very clear one," argued Pringle. "If, as you say, this man is able to do your lordship some substantial injury, which you are naturally anxious to avoid, and if at the same time you are unwilling to avail yourself of the protection of the law, what other course is open to you?"
The peer drummed an impatient tattoo on the table without speaking for a few minutes. "I thought," he remarked at length, "of giving him only half what he asks for now, and of sending the remainder to be paid to him personally by a German banker."
"A very excellent plan," agreed Pringle. "You will make certain at any rate that he is safely out of the country. Under the circumstances, I should advise you to give him cash, You see a cheque has obvious disadvantages if you wish to keep the affair private, and if you give him notes and he had any difficulty in passing them, as he might have, your object would be again defeated. I am sorry," he added, as he arose to go, "that I can be of no service to your lordship in the matter."
"Not at all," exclaimed the marquis, "your advice has been most valuable." And ringing the bell for the footman, he politely bowed Pringle out.
About half-past ten the next morning Lord Lundy was sitting in his study. A number of letters lay unopened on the desk, and he held a newspaper in front of him. But he did not read. His eyes were fixed upon the photograph on the mantelpiece. At length, as he continued to gaze, a tear slowly trickled down his cheek, and, as it pattered against the crisp sheet upon his knee, he started and, flinging the paper down, moved towards the desk. At this moment the distant rattle of an electric-bell ascended from the hall, and stopping short he turned away, and strode nervously up and down the room.
"Mr. Schillinghammer, my lord," the footman said, and ushered that gentleman in according to orders.
The marquis took up a position on the hearthrug, and Mr. Schillinghammer saluted him with a profound bow, which he supplemented by a sweep of the tall hat as the servant withdrew.
"I have de honour—" he began, but the peer cut him short.
"Have the goodness, sir," he exclaimed, "to dispense with any unnecessary formalities. I have read the letter which you left here yesterday. What is the information you have to sell?" He remained standing, as perforce did Mr. Schillinghammer.
"Some information which may be useful to Misder Petasöhn."
"Then why not take it to Mr. Petasöhn?"
"It is a madder of commerce. I coom to you. I have someding valuable to sell. You do not buy it. Very well, I go to Misder Petasöhn. I will tell him for noding. Berhaps he pay me after I tell him—berhaps not. But he will be gradeful. I have lived in America. I have been an employé of Misder Petasöhn in his great pig-business. I know the American fader. He is more particular than de English. I will tell Misder Petasöhn your fader killed himself, likewise your two broders. He will not led his daughter marry such a family-man. Dat is all. I coom to you first, den if you do not buy I go on to Misder Petasöhn and tell what I know. And den, my lord, and den, and den—you lose Miss Petasöhn, de great, great heiress!" Here he spread his arms expansively.
"How did you obtain this valuable information?" inquired Lord Lundy, with difficulty repressing his inclination to kick Mr. Schillinghammer downstairs.
"I am a brivate inquiry agent! It is my brofession to know everyding about everybody," and he smiled superciliously.
"But have you no documents or papers to give me if I consent to pay you? What proofs have you of your statement?"
The German produced his pocketbook, and extracted from it the bundle of papers and cuttings which Pringle had seen in his possession at the Museum.
"Here," said he, "you give me a tousand pounds and dey are yours."
He held the bundle towards Lord Lundy, who received it with an air of disgust which he took no pains to conceal, but sitting down at the desk, untied the piece of tape surrounding it, and fastidiously handling the uppermost paper, commenced to read. Tossing it contemptuously aside when he had done, he took up the next slip, and so on, till he had perused the whole budget.
"Are you aware of the value of this collection of papers'?" he asked, turning suddenly towards Mr. Schillinghammer, and laying his hand upon the scattered heap as he spoke.
"I have told you what is de brice I ask," replied the inquiry agent doggedly.
"You are insolent, sir! These papers are worth at the very most about half-a-crown, and you have the effrontery to ask me to give you a thousand pounds for them!"
"It is my silence I will sell you—not de pabers. Dey may be worth only half-a-crown, but de newspabers are out of brint, and de oders cost much money to collect. I do not desire to sell de pabers. I will give dem to you if you buy my silence."
"You are most generous," remarked the peer dryly.
"You say, where are my broofs?" continued Mr. Schillinghammer, without noticing the sarcasm. "You have dem dere beside you in black and white, Every one nearly who ever knew has forgot de matter, and Misder Petasöhn will not believe me if I cannot show him dose pabers. Dere are de accounts of de inquests on your broders and your fader. All died by deir own hand. De Doctor say your broder could not fire by accident de gun. De valet of your older broder say he bought de poison for him to take. Dere is copy of de corresbondence with de Insurance Office which refused to pay your fader's life-policy because he killed himself. Dese have cost much money and time to get, but I tink Misder Petasöhn will understand dat."
"I wonder you are not afraid to let such valuable documents leave your possession for a moment."
"Noplesse oplige," returned Mr. Schillinghammer, with another bow and wave of his hat, adding with a snigger, "Beside, dere is no fire in de grate."
Once again did Mr. Schillinghammer narrowly escape a rapid ejectment from the room; but Lord Lundy simply asked, "I consent to your terms, what will you do?"
"I will return to Germany. I desire to start a business in Hamburg."
"But what security have I that you will leave England?"
"De word of one gentleman to anoder!"
"I prefer to trust to something more tangible. I will send you the money as soon as I am sure you have actually reached Germany."
"But I cannot reach Germany widout de money!" Mr. Schillinghammer expostulated. "I have not de tariff! I have also money owing for rent, and food, and bills! I am a poor, very poor man, but I will not rob my creditors. I am honest!"
"I will pay you five hundred pounds now, and will send the rest to Germany as soon as I know you have arrived."
"No, it will not do," said the German decisively. "Misder Petasöhn shall help me return to Germany." And he made towards the door.
"Stop!" exclaimed the Marquis, taking something from the writing-desk. "See, here are five hundred sovereigns." He dropped a canvas-bag upon the table with a thud.
At the very threshold Mr. Schillinghammer paused, and Lord Lundy hastened to pursue his advantage.
"If you will return to Germany at once, an order shall be sent to a Hamburg banker to pay you another five hundred."
Painful was Mr. Schillinghammer's situation! Impelled in one direction by his innate distrust of his fellow-beings, in another by the sight, or, to be more accurate, by the sound of the specie, he wavered and stood irresolutely fingering the door-handle. At length the irresistible argument of a cash transaction prevailed, as the Marquis had calculated, over every obstacle, and drawn to the table by the magnetic attraction of the gold, Mr. Schillinghammer, oblivious of the pressing claims of his creditors, exclaimed with reckless generosity, "I will be fair wid you. Here are de pabers, my lord. I will start for Hamburg to-night."
Seizing the bag, he stuffed it into his coat-pocket. At the door he turned, "I wish your lordship all health and happiness;" and with a final bow and wave of the hat towards the photograph, added, "and her ladyship also!"
Despite the weightiness of the specie, it was with an elastic step that the blackmailer left the house. The street happened to be almost deserted, except for a four-wheeler which was waiting a few doors off. As Mr. Schillinghammer approached, he observed that a man was standing beside its open door; he was tall and clean-shaven, wore a bowler hat and a covert-coat, also he was shod in an uncompromisingly stout pair of boots: in short, it was Mr. Romney Pringle.
The German passed on unsuspectingly, but Pringle seized him by the arm.
"Mr. Schillinghammer, I believe?" And before the latter had regained sufficient presence of mind to deny his identity, Pringle continued—"I am Inspector Fosterberry, of the Criminal Investigation Department, and I arrest you on a warrant for obtaining money by threats and false pretences from the Marquis of Lundy. I must ask you to come with me quietly."
He gently but firmly urged Mr. Schillinghammer into the cab, and still grasping his arm, sat down beside him and closed the door. The cabman, who had received his instructions, drove up Clarges Street, and they had traversed Mayfair before Mr. Schillinghammer recovered from the astonishment which, for the moment, had rendered him speechless.
"Why do you arrest me?" he demanded, after several ineffectual efforts to speak.
"I have already told you. The warrant has been issued on the sworn information of the Marquis of Lundy."
"He is a liar! I am a respectable man."
"You will have every opportunity of explaining matters; in the meantime you must come with me."
"Where are we going? I will not go to de prison."
"I am taking you before the sitting magistrate at Marlborough Street police-court."
"I will not go! I warn you it is a serious madder. I am a German subject—I will write to de German ambassador! You will be severely punished!" And volubly protesting, he began to struggle violently, and endeavoured to reach the door-handle. But he was muscularly flabby and out of condition, and Pringle had little difficulty in overpowering him. They were crossing Bond Street, and Pringle had reasons of his own for wishing to avoid a scene just there.
"If you don't keep still I shall be compelled to handcuff you," warned Pringle. "What's this? A revolver! I must take it from you."
He had been feeling a hard lump in the breast of Mr. Schillinghammer's coat, and inserting his free hand, he drew out the bag of sovereigns and placed it in his own pocket. Mr. Schillinghammer's nerves, although severely tried, were not too shattered to quench all resentment at this high-handed proceeding had not the cab stopped at this moment.
"What's the matter?" asked Pringle, putting his head out.
"'Ere we are, sir," said the cabman, pointing ahead with his whip. The cab had traversed Regent Street and Argyll Place and was now drawn up at the end of Great Marlborough Street. Pringle stepped on to the pavement, and stared intently in the direction of the police-court a few yards further on, as if waiting for some one to appear. Meanwhile Mr. Schillinghammer, with an agility with which he could hardly have been credited, scrambled through the open window on the off-side of the cab. Alighting, he nearly fell into the arms of a constable who was crossing the road.
"Hulloa! What's the little game?" said the man.
But Mr. Schillinghammer, ignoring the question, dodged round the cab and raced frantically up Argyll Street.
The constable looked at Pringle, who was still regarding the police-court with undiminished interest, apparently quite unaware of Mr. Schillinghammer's movements.
"What did he want to get out of the window for?" said the gentleman in blue inquisitively.
"Window!" said Pringle, turning with a well-assumed start, and looking into the cab. "Do you mean the cab-window? By Jingo, so he has! Here, help me to stop him—he's my prisoner!"
The constable, with a condescending grin at Pringle's innocence, obligingly started in pursuit of Mr. Schillinghammer, who by this time was nearly in Oxford Street. Pringle slipped a half-sovereign into the cabman's hand, and followed at a pace scarcely commensurate with any great interest in the prospective capture. Halfway up Argyll Street he turned short off to the left, and entering Regent Street, hailed a cab.
As the policeman, having reached Oxford Street, stood hopelessly scanning the crowd for a glimpse of the blackmailer, Pringle drove by on his way to Furnival's Inn.
"YOU'LL have to ground-bait very carefully," said the chatty old gentleman. "You won't do much with the roach unless you do. I found them quite off yesterday."
"Which is the best Broad for the fishing?" inquired Pringle as he reached across the table for the coffee.
"Pike! ah, poor sport just now," was the irrelevant reply. "No good before September."
Pringle repeated his question.
"Eh? Yes, I'm on my way back to Stanlowe after breakfast. Sorry I didn't hear you. I've gone rather deaf since I saw you last, and I can't find my conversation-tube this morning."
Since he first took his seat at the table, the deaf one had treated Pringle with a cordiality unusual, to say the least of it, between total strangers, and it began to dawn upon him that the old gentleman mistook him for some one else. Mr. Pringle, having turned his back on the shadowy literary agency which he professed in Furnival's Inn, had been bronzing his fair complexion for the last few days in the East Anglian sun. The fishing had proved disappointing, although the yachting had afforded some slender compensation, and the quietude of the little inn was not distasteful to a town-dweller.
"Have I had the pleasure of meeting you before?" roared Pringle, as politely as the elevation of his voice permitted.
"Windrush? I've not seen him for a week or so. He was asking if I had heard anything of you the last time I went over."
He was certainly very deaf, and a connected conversation seemed hopeless.
"Who is that? I'm afraid I don't know him," Pringle vociferated in a supreme effort at disillusion.
"Oh, he's at Axford House, under Fernhurst's care, you know. I forgot you were away North at the time."
Worse and worse, thought Pringle. And, abandoning any further attempt at explanation, he contented himself with smiling and bowing, as the other continued to discourse with the loudness characteristic of the deaf.
"Yes, it was a sad business!" the old gentleman continued, "but what we should have done without Percy, I don't know. Uncharitable people might say he's making a good thing out of it; but, after all, he's John's nearest relative, and he was certainly most devoted in the way he looked after his brother. Indeed, he acted most sensibly throughout, and was entirely guided by my advice in all that he did. I must say I never cared very much for him before, and between ourselves I had regarded him as a bit of an unscrupulous adventurer, but I've quite altered my opinion of him now." He rose and collected his fishing-tackle. "You should go over and see John at Axford. It's only the fourth station beyond Stanlowe. But you ought to know the way! Tell him I shall be over next week if you do." And cordially shaking hands, the chatty old gentleman mounted a dog-cart which had been brought round to the door, and drove off.
"Who is that deaf old gentleman?" inquired Pringle of the landlord's son as he entered the bar.
"What! Dr. Toddington? Didn't yew iver see him when yew was at Thorpe Stanlowe, sir? He's gone wonful deaf, sure."
Pringle gasped. Was the whole place inhabited by lunatics, he asked himself, or had he taken leave of his senses?
"Look here," he said desperately, "I never saw that old gentleman before, and I was never at Thorpe what-d'you-call-it in my life!"
"Ain't yew Mr. Coatbridge, then?"
"Certainly not!" Pringle repudiated.
"Sars o' mine! Noo I come te look at yew I see he hain't got that there mark on the cheek—beggin' yar pardon fur amentionin' it."
"But who is he?"
"He were a great friend o' Mr. Windrush."
"And who on earth is Mr. Windrush?"
"My oo'd master at Thorpe Stanlowe."
"Am I so like Mr. Coatbridge, then?"
"Like as tew peas, sir!"
Pringle remembered that on arriving at the inn he had never been asked for his name, also that he had been welcomed with effusion; facts which at the time he ascribed to the rustic simplicity of the place. "I suppose Dr. Toddington do you say his name is?—he thought I was Mr. Coatbridge, too?"
"Yes, sir! I toold him it were yew when he come here yes'day, an' he said he'd stop th' night jes' to see yew, but yew'd garn to bed any."
After all, then, mused Pringle, the chatty old gentleman was not so eccentric as he had thought. There were possibilities too in having a double!
"Does the Doctor live far away?" he asked at length.
"Up Thorpe Stanlowe, agin' th' Hall, sir. Matter o' 'leven mile from hare. Th' rain's kep' awa' wholly, sir, an' ef yew care fur a sail I could come now fawther's downd."
As they hoisted the little anchor and the sail filled, Pringle stretched his long limbs in the stern, and grasped the tiller in indolent attention to the discursive stream which flowed from the lips of the crew.
"See him theer, sir!" exclaimed the youth presently; "doon't he shine?"
The sedges rustled, shook, and then parted, as a foot or so of delicate olive-green, with a splash of yellow at the near end, shot whiplike from the bank. For a moment its lustrous belly-scales flashed in the sun, and then the snake glided gracefully into the water with a frog writhing between its powerful little jaws.
"Tropidonotos natrix," murmured Pringle with an expansive yawn.
"Iver see a fiery sarpent, sir?"
"Do you mean fireworks?"
"Noo, a rale livin' one."
"Can't say I ever did. Did you?"
"Noo. Mr. Windrush did, tho';" and hauling the sheet more aft, he sat down on the weather-gunwale, as the little craft heeled to the wind roaring in miniature hurricane across the lonely expanse of the Broad. "He were haunted by th' funniest kinds of kewerious impets an' things yew iver set eyes on, Ah! th' best master as iver breathed. I were under-gardener at Thorpe Stanlowe fur oover three yare. I were eighteen when I went theer, an' stayed till the place were broke up. Mr. Percy wanted me to stay—didn't want no truck with him! Soo's fawther were a-gettin' oo'd, an' couldn' manage th' place, I come hoome."
"Who was Mr. Percy?"
"The master's brother, leastways half-brother. Fawther married twice, they said. But he's th' master now, Ah, I'm a-wishin' it'd been him 'stids o' Mr. Windrush."
"Why, is Mr. Windrush dead?"
"Worser'n that," said the youth, shaking his head mysteriously. "Noo, things was all right afore Mr. Percy come te live 'long with th' master, but in 'bout six months Mr. Windrush went wrong in his head. Dr. Toddington said he mustn't be 'loone, soo Mr. Percy took te sleepin' in master's dressin'-room. I didn't see noo difference in him—seemed th' same kinder-spoken gen'l'man he'd always been. Howsiver, they called down 'nother doctor from Lun'on, an' I hard they took an' held a crowner's 'quest on him, for all the warl' as if he'd been dead! An' jury they said he must goo 'way to a mad'us, an' he's now at Axford. Doctor from Lon'on couldn't hev been much account anyways. I hard he thought Mr. Windrush drunk a won'ful lot, an' a soberer man niver breathed! Theer were one o' um lifted his little finger, but 't 'twasn't Mr. Windrush! Doon't I mind how oo'd Percy fell oover some rails in th' dark won night? Lork! His face were that swelled he couldn't see outer his eyes fur a week. Nex' day he took an' had th' rails a-painted with that theer whitey stuff that shines oof th' dark, an' th' keyhole a-painted, soo's he couldn't miss aseein' of it. Givin' hisself a nice character, I calls it. Ah! them tew differed as Wroxham and Barton. Oo'd Percy now'd niver take no notice o' yew 'cept he gonned yew some order or other. A'most th' only time I remember he iver did speak to me were once when Mr. Windrush were a-talkin' to me 'bout yottin', an' Percy were a-standin' by alistenin', an' a-grinnin' from are to are, an' he upped an' says I were only a fresh-water sailor, an' didn't know nothin' 'bout it—quite maliceful-like! Me, mind yew! Me as were born an' bred on th' Broads in the manner o' speakin'! Some said he'd been to sea hisself, an' I hard tell as he'd studied fur a doctor. Anyhow they said if Mr. Windrush hadn't took pity on him he'd have had to go to th' Work'us. Ah, he knowed a thing or two, did Percy."
"Yachting on the Broads for instance?" suggested Pringle slyly.
The youth snorted contemptuously. "Seems to me all he knowed an' all he didn't know'd have made a big book! Howsiver, he were a riddy kind o' chap. He were fur everlastin' 'sperimentin' with animals. Coachman's gals kep' guinea-pigs, an' they used to bring 'um to Percy when they got over-run. I hard 'um say he'd git 'um to bring all manner o' live animals; snakes like that theer, an' lizards, an' sech-like. Won day I found a pig jes' a-dyin' back o' the tuleshed, an' when I gonned it a tech, it shruck horrud! Seem'd 's if that's been shaved an' painted all over with sticky stuff. Won o' oo'd Percy's 'speriments, I thot. A'most th' only frien' he had were th' mad'us doctor fr' Axford wheer master is now. Dr. Fernhurst an' he were thick as thieves. Now th' house 'tis hired-let, an' Percy he lives up o' Lon'on. He's 'pointed to look tew th' money fur Mr. Windrush, an' lork! they've hot on th' right man fur that job!" Here the youth digressed into a chronicle of Stanlowe small-beer, and Pringle, who had been an attentive listener up to this point, fell into a reverie which lasted for the rest of the voyage.
The morning sail had given Pringle an appetite for lunch, and after a hearty meal he walked briskly to the little station and took the train to Axford. He had no difficulty in finding Dr. Fernhurst's asylum. It was a three-story Manor-house built in the prim but substantial style of Queen Anne's days, and as Pringle crossed the pleasaunce surrounding it, he noted, with the grateful eye of a connoisseur, the elaborate fanlight and the handsome pilasters which flanked the doorway supporting a pediment of chaste design. Pulling the wrought-iron bell-handle, he inquired for Mr. Windrush, and was ushered into a waiting-room. Here in a few moments he was joined by a smart young man looking like a superior valet, who introduced himself as the chief attendant of the Asylum.
"Dr. Fernhurst is out at present," he said, "but Mr. Windrush will be glad to see you if you will step this way. I believe, sir, that you are an old friend of his?"
"Not so very," replied Pringle ingenuously.
Ascending the stairs, they entered a room on the first-floor, with a cheerful outlook over a formal garden bordered with yew-trees fantastically trimmed into the shape of mushrooms, peacocks, chickens, and, in one instance, of a cup and saucer. "Mr. Windrush, here is your friend Mr. Coatbridge to see you," announced the attendant, immediately retiring and closing the door behind him. A tall, dejected-looking man, with a student's stoop and hair prematurely grey, rose hesitatingly, with an exclamation of surprise, from the chair in which he had been reading.
"Why, you're never Coatbridge!" he cried.
"Hush! Please don't speak so loudly—I have something for your private ear alone." Pringle sprang to the door and opening it, looked out for a moment, "Excuse me for this slight deception," he continued, as he resumed his seat: "I took the liberty of assuming the name of one whom I know to be your friend in order to have freer access to you."
The lunatic subsided irresolutely into his chair and began to nervously finger the leaves of the book he held. He did not attempt to read, although he kept his eyes downcast, but threw an occasional furtive glance at Pringle as he spoke. "My real name is Pringle," said that gentleman. "I live in London, and have accidentally acquired some information which leads me to think that the facts connected with your case appear to require investigation." Windrush started and opened his lips as if to speak, but he repressed the impulse and continued to listen intently. "How I got to know of it is of no immediate consequence. I have been lucky enough to find you alone, and, as we may be interrupted at any moment, we mustn't waste precious time. What I want you to understand at present is that I have come to see you with a view of extricating you from this very unpleasant position."
Still Windrush made no reply, but assuming a less constrained attitude he regarded Pringle more openly and with a shade less suspicion.
"I am inclined to think," continued Pringle, "that your old medical attendant, Dr. Toddington, has been the victim of a very suspicious train of circumstances."
"But surely," exclaimed Windrush, at length breaking silence, "you did not get your information from him? He is the last person in the world to throw any fresh light upon the case! Why, the old simpleton firmly believes I am insane, and has been the chief means of putting me here!"
"No, no! It was from quite a different source."
"I must confess," said Windrush after a pause, during which he appeared to be reflecting deeply; "I must confess that I am very curious as to the means by which you, a total stranger, have got to know so much about my private affairs."
"I will tell you with the greatest pleasure, only, as I said before, time is precious, and I must ask you not to waste it by interrupting me. I will be as brief as I can." And in a few words, Pringle informed him of his accidental interview with the Doctor and the innkeeper's son. "Now," he said in conclusion, "may I ask you to regard me as a friend, and to speak to me unreservedly?"
"I really don't know how you are going to help me, Mr. Pringle, but I can only say that I shall be eternally grateful to anyone who will rescue me from this miserable position. It is quite true that I see things at night, but I swear to you positively they are realities, and not delusions! Why, only last night I saw a fiery object of some sort while I was in bed. It was about six or eight inches long and appeared to run along the floor. I feel that if these things continue to trouble me much longer, my brain will indeed give way under the strain." He covered his face with his hands and sobbed passionately. "You must excuse me," said he, regaining his composure after a pause, during which Pringle had affected to be examining the garden, "but if you knew all that I have gone through during the last few months, you would wonder that I am as sensible as I am. I often wonder at it myself," he added with a melancholy smile.
"Do I understand you to say that these fiery apparitions only occur at nights'?" inquired Pringle.
"They have never appeared at any other time. As a rule I see them on first retiring. I cannot even have the poor consolation of believing they are merely a nightmare horror."
"I should very much like to look at the room where all these things take place. Is your bedroom anywhere near?"
"Only through here," Windrush led the way into an adjoining apartment where a man sat reading. "This is my attendant," he said, as the man rose on their entry and bowed.
"Would you mind asking him to inquire if Dr. Fernhurst is anywhere about the place? I should like to see him," said Pringle.
As the man departed on his errand, Pringle continued in a low voice, "I only want to get rid of him."
Windrush nodded with a look of intelligence, and opened a door on the further side of the room. The bedroom was plainly but substantially furnished, and overlooked the garden at a point where the clipped yews were replaced by a more pleasing vegetation, the mingled scent of jasmine and day-lily floating in through the open window.
"Where does that lead to?" asked Pringle, pointing to a door opposite the one by which they had entered.
"To Dr. Fernhurst's room. The door is usually locked, but either he or Bonting, the chief attendant, always sleeps there in case I should want their services during the night. Then Jenkinson, my own attendant, always sleeps in the ante-room. I am well looked after you see!" Again the melancholy smile.
Pringle went down on his hands and knees and commenced to make a rigid examination of the floor. The room was carpeted with a chocolate-coloured linoleum scattered over with a rug or two, and apparently presented nothing likely to repay such an elaborate investigation. After a prolonged tour of the room, including a temporary disappearance under the bedstead, Pringle rose to his feet and placed something carefully between the leaves of a book of cigarette-papers, just as the attendant was heard returning from a fruitless search.
"Dr. Fernhurst is nowhere about, sir, and is not expected back till late," the man announced.
"Never mind," said Pringle cheerily. "And now, Windrush, I must be going. I'm delighted to find you so comfortably housed and so well looked after. Keep up your spirits, I shall hope to see you again soon." He grasped Windrush's hand with an eloquent pressure which was gratefully returned.
Walking slowly back to the station, Pringle took the train to Thorpe Stanlowe, and inquired for Dr. Toddington. He had had to wait some time for the train at Axford, and the evening was drawing in as he approached the house. The doctor was reading, or rather dozing, in his study when the servant announced "Mr. Pringle." Seizing the conversation-tube which lay beside him, he adjusted it too late to grasp the name of his visitor, but rose to welcome the tall figure of Pringle as he entered, suave and well-groomed as ever.
"Pardon my intrusion at so late an hour," Pringle apologized in his most insinuating tones; "but will you allow me to consult an Encyclopaedia?"
The doctor courteously referred Pringle to a revolving bookcase and watched him curiously, as with the volume open at a plate of Lacertilia, he sat glancing from it every now and again to something in his hand, which he examined through a Coddington magnifier.
"I feel," said Pringle at length as he returned the volume to its place, "that I owe you an apology for making use of you in this very unceremonious fashion, especially when I tell you that I come here under false pretences."
"False pretences! I hardly follow you, Mr. Coatbridge," said the doctor stiffly.
"To make a long story short, I am not Mr. Coatbridge, although I am told I resemble him greatly. My real name is Pringle—here is my card, and I am a literary agent in London." He did not think it necessary to add the information that his agency was a sinecure!
The doctor rose abruptly, dropping the conversation-tube in his agitation. Pringle sprang forward to recover it, but was majestically motioned away by the old gentleman, and the two stood facing one another.
"I don't know, sir," began the doctor very slowly and deliberately, "on what ethical grounds you can justify your extraordinary conduct; under a false name, and assuming a false interest in an unfortunate man, you have succeeded in involving me in a very serious breach of professional etiquette."
"Excuse me," said Pringle, seizing the free end of the tube as the doctor paused in his somewhat pompous admonition; "I never assumed any name! I was not responsible for the innkeeper's mistake. I tried to explain to you this morning that I knew nothing of what you were talking about, but could not make you understand, and I have come now partly to explain matters, and partly to tell you that I have just left Mr. Windrush."
"Mr. Windrush! What your motives may be, sir, I cannot imagine, but if I may judge them from your mode of procedure they are of a nature that will scarcely bear investigation."
"I am painfully aware," said Pringle, "that my conduct must appear liable to misconstruction, but all I ask is that you bear with me for a moment. A mere accident has led me to think that Mr. Windrush has been the victim of a conspiracy to declare him insane, and this appears to me to be the work of the chief person to benefit by its success Percy Windrush!"
"May I ask where you acquired this information, which appears to seriously affect my professional character?"
"After you left this morning, I went for a sail on the Broad. The landlord's son said he had been in Mr. Windrush's service, and in the course of conversation he made statements—"
"And do you mean to tell me, sir, that you are relying on the chatter of an ignorant bumpkin like that!"
"He only suggested a line of thought, and the more I speculated upon it, the stronger grew my suspicions."
"I really am not prepared to go into the matter with you," returned the doctor icily; "but what I should like to know is how you gained access to Mr. Windrush? I may tell you that as legal difficulties arose in connection with the management of the estate, there was an 'inquisition' or inquiry before a Master in Lunacy with a jury, and by them Mr. Windrush was declared insane, and irresponsible. He then became the ward of the Lord Chancellor, and any interference with him is likely to be severely dealt with!"
"To confirm my theory of the case," said Pringle, "it was absolutely necessary that I should have an interview with him. As I appear to be so like his friend Coatbridge, it occurred to me that I would, just for that single occasion, assume his name. I was thus admitted to see him, and, as a result, I have now no doubt whatever that Percy was in the habit of introducing snakes and other animals which he had coated with luminous paint and so on, into John's bed-room. That explains his solicitude for his brother, shown by his sleeping in the next room, and the boy said that John only became queer after Percy's arrival."
"But how do you account for the visions still appearing?" inquired the doctor cautiously.
"Of course they do!" cried Pringle. "And they'll continue to appear so long as he remains under Dr. Fernhurst's care."
"What! Do you say that Dr. Fernhurst is concerned in the plot as well?"
"I know it! When I got to Axford this morning he was out—very luckily, as it happened! I gained Windrush's confidence after a little explanation; especially when he saw that I didn't ridicule his having seen some fiery animal last night, and then I got him to take me to the theatre of the apparitions, I managed to get rid of the attendant, and so had a good look round. As I anticipated, the room communicates with the doctor's own room, and under the bed I found this trace of the fiery object he saw." Pringle laid on the table his book of cigarette-papers, and carefully placing in his palm a morsel of what appeared to be one of the leaves, handed Toddington the magnifier, and motioned him to inspect the object through it.
"This," said Pringle, "appears to be a flake of cuticle such as lizards are periodically casting, and the lines on it correspond to those found on the head of the common green lizard. Now the Encyclopaedia, which I just consulted in case my memory was misleading me, gives this marking as a means of differentiating the species; therefore I know it was a common green lizard which Windrush saw in his room last night!"
"But I thought you said he told you it was fiery?"
"Turn down the light, please, while I reverse the scale. Thanks! Now look over here." Without the lamp the room was quite dark, and, as the doctor looked, a faint shimmering glow from the direction of Pringle's hand gradually dawned on his gaze.
"Will that satisfy you?" asked Pringle exultingly.
"Wonderful!" exclaimed the other in admiration; "you must really allow me to apologize for anything I may have said to hurt your feelings. But you will understand, if you put yourself in my place, how particularly unpleasant it was to find I had been discussing the private affairs of a patient and a friend with a stranger."
"I quite understand," said Pringle cordially. "But the question now is, how we can help Windrush?"
"I am afraid the others are too strong for us. Percy Windrush is his brother's committee, the person appointed to manage his affairs, and the other member of the committee with whom the charge of his person rests is Dr. Fernhurst. They have got it all their own way, I fear. As you say, he is never likely to recover as long as he remains in their hands. It would be no use calling the attention of the Lord Chancellor to your discoveries, and to help him to escape would be a criminal offence."
"That's no good at all," decided Pringle. "Percy is playing a very deep game, and this Fernhurst must be as thorough-paced a scoundrel as he, and no doubt gets well paid for his share of the work. No; the only thing to do is to take the bull by the horns, and frighten the pair of them out of the country! Then the 'hallucinations' will disappear, and Windrush can be officially declared of sound mind."
"I don't much like the idea," Toddington objected.
"There's nothing else to be done. Where's your evidence? Moral proof is not legal proof. Suppose you took proceedings and failed, as you would, for want of evidence, you'd be confronted with any amount of actions for libel and what not. No, no! You let me have all the documents in the case and any letters of Fernhurst's you have, and I'll see if I can't work on their terrors."
And when Pringle departed, his pockets bulged with a miscellaneous collection of documents.
A day or two after, as Mr. Percy Windrush was sitting in his chambers, he was informed that a messenger from Dr. Fernhurst was waiting to see him.
"What does he want?" he asked.
"He wouldn't tell me, sir," replied the servant. "He says his message is for you only, and very important."
"Bring him up then," and Percy began to bite his nails. As managing his brother's estate he had let Thorpe Stanlowe, himself retiring to chambers in Piccadilly, where he lived as much a Sybarite as his somewhat gross ideals permitted.
"What's the matter?" he snapped, as the messenger, a spruce young man with side-whiskers, entered the room.
"Dr. Fernhurst told me to give you this letter, sir, and await your reply," he said with a respectful bow.
Percy opened the letter in some trepidation, and read:—
Axford, July 25.
I send this by my chief attendant (Bonting), as I must have an answer this afternoon. Jenkinson, the attendant I selected for John, as not being too 'cute, came home drunk last night, and when I reprimanded him, got very cheeky before some of the others, so I sacked him on the spot. This morning he asked to see me privately concerning John, and then told me he knew all about it! He said he didn't mind leaving, as he wanted to join his brother at the new gold-fields of Adansi; but, unless I would give him £500 down, he would split to the L.C.'s visitor. I can't think how he got to know, but he said enough to show he does know, so there seems no help for it. Fortunately he agrees to go by the mail which leaves in a couple of days, and I hear most people leave their bodies at Adansi—even if their spirits return! Bonting will see him safely off. Please give Bonting the cash in small notes. A cheque will only lead to delay and possible complications.
Yours in haste,
Having read this letter, Windrush scanned it closely, as if hoping to read into it another meaning than that which appeared on the surface.
"The doctor was rather in a hurry when he wrote this?" he remarked at length.
"I didn't see him write it, sir, but I know that he was rather upset this morning."
Windrush hastily scribbled a note, and enclosing a cheque in it, rang the bell. "James," to the servant, "take this round to the Bank, and bring me back the answer as soon as possible."
"What had upset the doctor then?" he continued.
"Why, sir, I'm sorry to say that Mr. Windrush's attendant got drunk, and was very insolent to the doctor yesterday, so he dismissed him. But as he wants to go out to Africa, the doctor has very kindly helped him to a passage."
"Ah, very kind of the doctor, to be sure!" remarked Percy dryly. "I don't remember your face; have you been long with Dr. Fernhurst?"
"Not a great while, sir."
Percy again took up his pen. He was not a very ready correspondent, and sucked the holder for a minute or so between each sentence, so that it was only as the servant returned from the Bank that he finished his letter. Taking the packet, he enclosed it with the letter in a stout envelope, and handed it to Dr. Fernhurst's messenger.
"Be as quick as you can back," he said. "The doctor wants this as soon as possible, but be careful; its contents are valuable."
Pringle, for it was he, retired with a sense of having satisfactorily played the first hand in his game of bluff. He congratulated himself that his powers of penmanship had not deteriorated. True, Percy had detected a change in what purported to be Fernhurst's writing, but then that was explained by his presumed agitation at the time. Ah, they would both, in sober truth, be agitated before they were much older! Lucky he had secured some stamped paper when he was at the Asylum! Matters wouldn't have been quite so simple if old Toddington had refused to part with the correspondence. And as he passed eastward on an omnibus, Pringle opened Percy's letter, and having carefully pocketed the bank-notes, read with much satisfaction—
I enclose fifty tenners as you ask, but you must distinctly understand this sort of thing can't go on. If you had only been careful, the brute could never have blackmailed me like this, I shall have to knock it off your next few cheques, as my balance will be nearly gone. Look out whom you choose to mind John, in future. Better come and see me as soon as you have got rid of Jenkinson and matters have shaken down a bit.
Arrived at his chambers at Furnival's Inn, Mr. Pringle's first care was to dispense with his whiskers and resume his official port-wine mark. Then he devoted the rest of the day to the concoction of two letters which would fire the train he had just laid. This was the first:—
I packed Jenkinson off with his five hundred pounds the day but one after Bonting saw you. When he had gone I took a look round his room, and found some tom-up paper which I had the curiosity to piece together. The skunk seems to have been playing a double game. So far as I could make out he has told old Toddington, and there was something about payment for making a statutory declaration for a warrant for conspiracy! Whatever this means, I think it better to take a holiday at your expense. Join me at Grand Hotel, Paris.
In haste, yours,
And this the second:
Communicate with me through "Standard," col. 2. I leave for the Continent at once, and should advise you to ditto. Just discovered that old Toddington has got wind of everything, and employed a detective who saw John the other day when you were out. T. intends to apply for warrant for conspiracy You can join me in Paris in a few days, when we can see how matters are going.
"THE flowers are beautiful," commented Pringle. "It was certainly very kind of Mr. Windrush to send them all this way. Is this your first visit to London?"
"Farst time, sir; an' beggin' yar pardon, it bates me how people live here. Fared's ef I couldn't brathe in them streets."
"So you're back in Mr. Windrush's service?" said Pringle, as he finished his note of thanks.
"O—o, I were rale glad to get back agin to th' oo'd place! I could ha' jumped outer my skin when master asked me to come back's head-gardener. I felt that horrud shut in th' bar all day, an' fawther were a-gettin' tired o' doin' nothin' and thought he'd like te work for a yare or tew more."
"But I thought the place was let."
"They went oof end o' las month. Master wouldn't 'new th' lease, as he were a-livin' 'long o' Dr. Toddington till they went."
"Then things are just as they were before?"
"Same ivery way, sir—'ceptin' won!" The youth grinned knowingly.
"Mr. Percy! Thorpe Stanlowe'll see him noo more. I hard he'd gone abroad fur fear they'd put him in Norwich Castle fur makin' tew free with th' money while master were 'way. Guilty conscience most-like!"
"Very probably!" agreed Pringle. "Then I shan't find you at the inn if I come down for any more yachting."
"Oo, fawther'll be glad to see yew an' len' yew th' cutter. Thank yew kindly, sir—my best respec's te yew, sir!"
MR. ROMNEY PRINGLE was hunting through a portfolio of engravings in the afternoon.
One of the old prints which lightened the warm distemper of the sitting-room walls had just been summarily displaced. The cord breaking, it had reached the floor a complete wreck, a flower-bowl overturned in the descent having poured its cascade across the broken glass to the utter ruin of the print beneath. A substitute was required, and finding a worthy successor in a 'Diogenes' of Salvator Rosa, engraved in laborious but beautiful line, Pringle was about to replace the portfolio when there came a knock at the outer door. Rising, he admitted a tall, slightly-stooping, grey-haired gentleman of spare habit, who seized his unresisting hand and shook it warmly.
"Why, surely you haven't forgotten me!" exclaimed the stranger, desisting as he observed a stony expression to gather over the face of his host. Pringle started, while his features relaxed into the winning smile which so ably seconded the magnetism of his address.
"What! Can it be Mr. Windrush?"
"Why, of course it is! But how stupid of me!—I ought to have remembered that you've only met me once before, and at that time I looked rather different from what I am now."
"Not so very different," was Pringle's tactful reply. "You certainly bore up manfully under a strain which would have crushed most people."
"Ah, that miserable Asylum! I shall never forget it, nor the way I was made to appear insane. And above all, I shall never forget the noble manner in which you worked for my release after you discovered the villainy of my brother and his accomplice."
"You have already thanked me beyond my deserts. Pray let us talk of something else. How kind of you to come and visit me!"
"Well, you've never come and seen me all this time, so I came to see if you were still alive!"
"You see my time is so much occupied with my work as a literary agent that my visits to any friends are necessarily angelic," and Pringle, with calm mendacity, waved his hands towards the empty bureau.
"Well, I've come now to ask your advice, and, if you can suggest it, your help."
"If you think my advice worth having, I shall be only too pleased to give it to you, but I'm afraid you rather over-rate my powers."
"Ah, I see you've all the modesty of true genius. But I won't waste time with compliments. Well now, a cousin of mine lives near me; her husband is head of one of the oldest families in our county, and I have always been on very affectionate terms with her. Well, I'm sorry to say she has lately got in with a rather fast set, and being in pressing need of about a thousand pounds, she took a very fine diamond star, which is a sort of family heirloom, to some West-end jewellers who do that sort of thing, and got an advance, and as she didn't want her husband to know anything about it, she got these people to make her a facsimile in paste. About a week or two ago, she found the central stone had dropped out. The jewellers said they couldn't replace it in under a week, and she was at her wit's end, for they were entertaining a party of friends, and her husband would have wondered if she had never worn the diamonds all the time. Well, the jewellers suggested letting her have the real star, on hire for fifty pounds, until the sham stone was replaced, but they insisted on her giving them a cheque for the thousand they had lent her with interest, they agreeing to hold it over and return it to her when she returned the real diamonds. So she wore the star once or twice for the look of the thing, and then put it away. After the party broke up yesterday, she found to her horror the jewel-case was empty. She says it had been opened at the hinges."
"Ah, yes! By driving out the pins."
"That's it, Well, she was in despair. The jewellers would present the cheque if she didn't return the star; as she hadn't got more than a hundred or two at the bank, it would be dishonoured; and then her husband would learn the whole affair in the most disagreeable manner possible. Yesterday, she drove over to my place, and told me all, so I offered to lend her the money, and I came to town this morning and got her cheque back together with the paste. But we want to recover the real stones, and as she dreads having anything to do with the police—as you may suppose—I have come to ask your advice."
"Were there any traces of a burglary?"
"So far as I understand her, none. But it is possible that an expert might have found them."
"It seems to me," observed Pringle, "that the theft of an article so easily traceable, and so difficult to dispose of, could only be the work of a very stupid amateur, or of a very clever thief. Since the affair was managed so neatly, we are forced back on the latter alternative. Now an experienced jewel-thief would soon dispose of the stones, so it's doubtful if you'll ever see them again in the same form."
"Would you like to see the facsimile?"
"Of all things! Have you got it here?"
For reply Windrush drew a black leather case from his pocket, and opening it, displayed on a bed of blue velvet, what appeared to be a diamond star of such dazzling lustre as to deceive any eye but that of an expert.
"Very nice indeed," commented Pringle. "Evidently the work of a first-class artist. Would you have any objection to leaving it with me?"
"How long will you want to keep it?"
"It's rather how long can your cousin spare it?"
"Well, her husband is going for two or three weeks' yachting, so she can safely spare it for that time."
"That will do nicely," said Pringle, adding as the other rose to go, "Are you returning to Norfolk to-day?"
"No. I was afraid I mightn't catch you in, so I took a bed at the Great Eastern. Besides, it's gone six now, so I should have had to stop over-night in any case."
"If you are willing I should like to accompany you so far. By the bye, I was going to speak to you on rather a painful subject. Your brother Percy—have you heard anything of him lately?"
"As you say, it is a painful subject! In return for nothing but kindness from me, to not only make me appear insane, but to nearly drive me so in reality! You know, Mr. Pringle, no one better, what I suffered. I don't think I'm a vindictive man, but I feel that I cannot, at all events at present, hold any communication with him. My cousin saw him recently. Indeed, I understand he was staying with them last week, for although people know we are not on speaking terms, I think I have managed to keep the real reason a secret."
"No, there is nothing to be gained by washing your dirty linen in public."
"Do you think," Windrush said, as they stood an hour later in the vestibule of the hotel, "do you think it would help you to run down and take a look at the place? I am sure my cousin would be pleased to see you, and I need hardly say how delighted I shall be to put you up."
"Not just at present, thank you," declined Pringle; "I should like to do so eventually, and whilst I think of it I'll just go and get a time-table. Good-bye for the present. You mustn't be disappointed if you don't hear anything of me for a week or so."
Descending the sloping approach, Pringle entered the station. It was nearing half-past seven, and there was much bustle antecedent to the starting of the eight o'clock boat express, Having purchased his time-table, Pringle was about to return, when a hubbub arose by the booking-office, and he lingered a moment to listen.
"I tell yer, the cab stopped at my pitch! The eight-continental, ain't it, sir?"
"The gent 'anded the bag to me, didn't yer, sir? An' yer sez second class fur 'Arridge."
Two porters, very much in the attitude of the mothers in the judgment of Solomon as usually depicted, had seized the opposite ends of a Gladstone bag, whilst the owner, a burly, somewhat bloated individual, stood grasping a hold-all, in detached amusement at the scene. The contest merged into an East-End picturesqueness of abuse, when one of the men, espying an elderly lady possessed of a large quantity of luggage as yet unappropriated, abruptly raised the siege, and dropping the bag, went in pursuit of this more desirable client.
The appearance of the traveller was commonplace enough, but, as he moved off under the wing of the victorious porter, Pringle felt certain he had seen him before, and not so very long ago either. Staring absently after the man, he turned over in his mind all the likely and most of the unlikely places where they could have met, till a spasm of reminiscence showed him a luxuriously-furnished set of chambers. It was 256 Piccadilly of course, and equally of course the traveller was Percy Windrush! Harwich by the eight o'clock boat express! Pringle found himself wondering where on earth Percy could be going to. His objective could only be Rotterdam, but that was not a pleasure resort, while the slenderness of his luggage was incompatible with a more extended continental tour. He felt a sense of irritation against Percy for worrying him with such a problem. He turned impatiently to go, but suddenly stopped as a chance remark of John Windrush blazed vividly in his recollection—"My cousin saw him recently... he was staying with them last week."
Pringle sat down to reflect. This was the situation, it seemed. Percy's failure to keep his brother in an asylum, and their consequent rupture had deprived him of an easy means of livelihood. He was, no doubt, hard put to it for money, and unlikely to stop at anything to obtain it. He would know the way about his cousin's house, he could choose his opportunity, while his relationship would shield him from any suspicion. What more likely than that he had taken the diamonds, and if so, was now on his way to dispose of them? Pringle looked up the time-table. The boat was due at Rotterdam the next morning. At the very outside, to follow Percy to the Continent and back would not take more than three days, and he decided that the clue was worth following up. A bell clanged furiously. There was no time to lose, and the question of luggage had to be considered! Just by the booking-office stood one of those convenient toilet-establishments where hair-cutting and shaving are combined with the provision of travellers' requisites. Entering, he made a hurried investment, and emerged the richer by a bag packed with toilet and sleeping necessaries. Then, booking a through-passage to Rotterdam, he took his seat in the train a few seconds before it started. On arriving at Parkestone Quay he just obtained a glimpse of Percy Windrush hurrying, the first of all, on board the packet, where he promptly disappeared below, and as the night had set in dark and stormy, Pringle followed his example and was soon fast asleep.
The North Sea was in anything but a propitious mood when he awoke. The 'Hook of Holland' route was not then in existence, and the crossing which, as a general rule, averaged twelve hours, now bid fair to lengthen into sixteen. It was a prolonged agony to the majority of the passengers, to whom the arrival and passing of the breakfast-hour had proved an event of no interest. Few but Pringle had dared to brave the wet and draughty horrors of the upper-deck, and it was only as the steamer entered the Maas, and Rotterdam with its wilderness of trees and masts appeared in sight, that a limp and draggled procession emerged from the saloon. As the deck filled, Pringle ceased his promenade and drew towards the rearmost rank. Nosing her way through the maze of shipping, the steamer slowly passed to her berth beside the Hull and Dunkirk packets, and was neatly moored alongside the tree-planted Boompjes where the shadows were already beginning to lengthen. The formalities of the Customs had been completed in the stream, and the crowd rapidly thinned and dispersed as the passengers streamed up the gangways on to grateful terra firma.
Percy was almost the last to appear, having remained below throughout; Pringle remembered that he was said to be a seasoned sailor, so he could hardly have stopped there on account of the prevalent malady. Recalling the historical precedent of Nelson only to dismiss it as inapplicable, he felt sure that Percy's reason for enduring such undoubted personal inconvenience could only have arisen from a desire to escape observation, and was more than ever determined not to lose sight of him. Pringle had little fear of being recognized himself. Although he had had no opportunity of removing his official port-wine mark as the putative literary agent, Percy would scarcely recognize, even if he remembered, the whiskered asylum-attendant in the slim, clean-shaven figure in the lounge-suit who followed him.
Resisting the siren importunities of the hotel touts, Pringle briskly strode across the elm-planted quay. He found Percy had already crossed the Scheepmaker's Haven by one of the innumerable swing-bridges of the city, and was upon another which spanned the Wijn Haven. Pringle followed, and Percy took the direction of the central railway-station. Beyond the Bourse he turned to the left towards the fish-market, and crossing the Zoete Bridge, passed by the Boijmann Gallery, and struck up Zand Straat. Block succeeded block along the street, and Pringle began to wonder when the promenade would end, when suddenly Percy dived down a turning on the right labelled Spoorweg Straat, which led towards the Delfsche Canal, and ascended the steps of a modest-looking house displaying the legend "Hotel Rotterdamsche."
As Pringle withdrew for a space into Zand Straat, he noted that his pursuit had landed him in anything but a select quarter of the town. The region of the best hotels and public buildings had been long left behind, and although there were plenty of large houses visible, their aspect was distinctly second-rate. Having waited sufficiently long to avoid any appearance of espionage, Pringle turned back into Spoorweg Straat, and entering the hotel, inquired for accommodation in his native tongue the real lingua franca of the civilized world. For reply the clerk, whose knowledge of English appeared limited, handed him a dirty-looking visitors'-book. Pringle took up a pen, and glancing at the name last written, read in characters whose faintness indicated recent blotting, "Philip Winter." Percy had retained his own initials, although for some occult reason he had changed his name. Pringle was studying the signature, when the clerk laid a grimy, impatient finger on the first vacant line, and thus recalled to his surroundings, Pringle boldly signed "John M'Hugh," as a name well in keeping with the commercial atmosphere in which he found himself.
"Will you de straat or de vest overlook?" inquired the clerk; adding as a possible inducement, "Best for gentlemen de vest."
Realizing that he was asked to choose between an outlook to the street or the canal, Pringle selected the gentlemanly alternative, and hastened to reply, "The water—vest, vest!"
Following a porter with his bag, he was ushered up to a room on the first floor, at the end of a long and rather dark passage. The window opened on a broad balcony which ran the width of the house, and afforded a picturesque glimpse of the canal. Rather was it a basin, terminating one of the capillary offshoots of the main stream. It was bordered as usual with fine trees, whose branches seemed to form part and parcel of the spars of the craft which thronged the water, except towards the middle, where a fair-way, covered with the ubiquitous green scum, resembled a flat meadow. Pringle stepped to the window, which stood ajar, and leaned over the rail of the balcony. Gazing abstractedly at the shipping, the polished wood-work glistening in the sun which flashed again from innumerable points of bright metal, the calm unbroken by any sight or sound of task, he allowed the restful influence of the scene to steal lazily over him. But the sudden closing of a door near by, and a few words spoken in English broke the spell, and once again focused his thoughts on Percy Windrush.
"So here you are at last! I thought you'd have been here before me." The voice sounded through the next window, which must have been open, although its wooden sun-blind stood half across the balcony and effectually concealed it.
"Ma tear Mishdare Winder! It is a long, long way to come. I am poor man, and de hotel egspenche is great."
"Yes, I know all about that. I know you're the richest poor man in Amsterdam. Have you taken a room here?"
"Noomber eighteen—joost obbosite."
"Well, never mind the number so long as you are here. Have you brought any money with you?"
"That's all right then. Is it cash as I told you?"
"Yes, goot bank English notes."
"You old villain! Every one of them 'known and stopped', I suppose, that you've bought at eighty per cent. discount, and expect me to take at face-value." And the speaker gave an audible snort of disgust.
"We are all Hebrew and gendlemen in de stone trade," was the dignified response.
"So I've heard," Windrush observed acidly. "Well, suppose we come to business. I didn't invite you here to exchange compliments."
There was a pause in the conversation, and Pringle stepped gingerly towards the sun-blind. He did not advance too closely, but contented himself with an occasional glance between the hinges, which afforded him a very fair view of the room. Windrush was partially undressing, so as to remove a wash-leather packet which hung next his skin by a cord round the neck. Ripping it open with a pocketknife, he removed several layers of tissue-paper, and finally a mass of cotton wool surrounding a diamond-star. As he held it up towards his companion, Pringle involuntarily grasped his own pocket to satisfy himself of the safety of the facsimile, so accurately did the two match in every particular. As for the Jew, from his gloating gaze, and the fondling gesture with which he handled it, the sight was one to rouse his utmost cupidity.
At length, as the other made no movement, but continued to stare, Percy broke the silence.
"Now then, Israels, what do you say?"
"Dey are very fair stones."
"Fair! 'Fair', do you call them? You don't see such stones as they are every day, nor yet every year!"
"Dey are goot. I do not call dem de best."
"Look here, my Amsterdammer! It's not what you call them, but what I know they are. D'ye see?"
"What do you know they are?"
"I know they're worth every penny of three thousand pounds!"
Israels dropped the star on the table as if it had burnt him.
"Dree dousand!" he echoed, with an expression of amazement as his huckstering instincts asserted themselves.
"That's what I said."
"Dree 'underd you mean for surely!"
"I said three thousand and I meant it, and well you know it!"
"You are joking, Misdare Winder, to ask dat."
"You old fool! I didn't say I asked three thousand for them, did I?" growled Percy.
"Den what do you ask?" inquired Israels feebly.
"Fifteen hundred," said Percy with decision.
"To rob me you 'ave called me 'ere!" shrilly cried the Jew.
"Not much!" retorted Percy contemptuously, "Do you think if I wanted to do that I should have chosen this place?"
The Jew made no reply, but glanced uneasily through the window at the canal beyond.
"Look here, now," continued Percy. "I don't want any more humbug. You take 'em, or, by crumbs! I'll get some one who will."
"It cannot be done," said the Jew simply.
"Fifteen hundred's the figure," repeated Percy, as he leaned forward and clutched the star.
"I 'ave not so much," protested the Jew.
"All right, I'll find some one else who has," said Percy deliberately, and he commenced to wrap the jewel up again.
"Say one dousand," pleaded Israels.
Percy rose and pointed to the door.
"See," continued the Jew coaxingly, "I give you twelve 'underd."
"Fifteen," replied Percy firmly.
"Say twelve!" and Israels produced a wallet and flourished a handful of crisp paper in Percy's face.
"No! I tell you for the last time Fifteen! And little enough too!" Percy clenched his ultimatum with a resounding slap on the table.
Loudly protesting that he was a ruined man, Israels reluctantly counted out the notes in front of the inexorable Percy, who affected to be engaged in examining the diamonds, which he held in full view of the other. When the notes lay, a rustling heap, upon the table, Percy pushed the star across to the Jew, who pounced upon it, and after another admiring glance, bundled it into a handbag which he jealously locked.
Percy, with a condescending air, counted the notes over again, whistling carelessly the while, then turning to Israels—
"Well, old stick-in-the-mud!" he said graciously, "I'll stand you a dinner. Yes, by Jingo! at the Weimar! There's nothing eatable to be got here. And then we'll go to the Diergaarden—it's slow, but it's the only thing to do in this cursed place."
"You are doo kind, Misdare Winder," sniggered the diamond-merchant, as he retired with the precious handbag.
The clock was nearing five when Pringle descended to the frowsy dining-room and reserved a seat for the table d'hôte. Then lighting a cigarette, he strolled out, and was soon absorbed in an inspection of the shop-windows of Zand Straat. He had not left the hotel very far behind, when Percy Windrush passed him with a jaunty swagger, which kept Israels, delighted with the prospect of a meal at another man's expense, at a perpetual trot. Still interested in the merchandise displayed in the shops, Pringle contrived to keep the pair in sight until they were safely housed in the Weimar, about the only passable restaurant in all Rotterdam; then boarding a tramcar, he returned northwards, and arriving at the hotel towards six, was assured by the evidence of most of his senses of the actuality of the table d'hôte.
Practically the whole hotel was dining, and the upper floors were quite deserted when he ascended to his room. The vault-like passage with the closing day was darker than ever, and the doorways of all the rooms were sunk in obscurity. Not a sound was to be heard except the distant murmur arising from the ground-floor, and after waiting a few minutes he tried the door of No. 18. As he expected, it was locked, and returning to his own room he took out the key and examined it. The simplicity of the wards augured little complication in any of the locks, and taking a bunch of skeleton keys from his vest-pocket, he selected the most likely-looking one. Once more he attacked No. 18, and after a little manipulation, the skeleton-key shot the bolt, and he entered. Carefully closing the door behind him, and re-locking it, he looked about for the handbag. It was nowhere to be seen! Israels had certainly not taken it out with him. Could he have given it into the custody of the landlord? But the Jew's suspicious nature had negatived such an obvious precaution, and a very short search disclosed it under the far corner of the bed. As in most bags, especially when of continental make, the lock presented little difficulty to an expert, and a few minutes' work enabled Pringle to open it, and, having swathed the paste star in the solicitous wrappings of the genuine one, to pocket the latter leaving the paste in its stead. Then he locked the bag and returned it to its hiding-place.
He listened. All was quiet. Unlocking the door, he carefully closed and locked it again, then walked down-stairs without encountering a soul.
Dinner over, he endeavoured to amuse himself with a stroll through the town, but the intolerable dulness of the place drove him back to bed by ten o'clock, and notwithstanding the warmth of the night he soon dropped off to sleep. It seemed to him that he had slept for hours when he awoke with a start as the bed vibrated to a violent concussion. As he sat up his first thought was of the jewel-case. It was safe under the pillow where he had placed it on retiring. The moon had clouded, but there was sufficient light entering by the window for him to see that nothing was amiss in the room. The great clock of St. Lawrence struck one. Another concussion: then a confused bumping and jarring sounded somewhere near. He sprang out of bed, and opening the window looked on to the balcony. The sun-blinds were now hooked back, and he was just in time to see the windows of the next room start and burst open, as the flimsy fastenings gave way under the impact of a heavy weight.
Creeping to the window, Pringle looked in, and dimly discerned the creator of the disturbance in Percy Windrush, who, after a futile attempt to remove his boots, had reeled against the window, and now lay, fully dressed, snoring in a drunken stupor on the floor. Pringle waited and listened, But these vagaries had failed to rouse attention elsewhere, and the nasal solo was undisturbed. Percy had rolled inward as he fell, and Pringle easily effected an entrance. He had only had a single opportunity of closely inspecting Percy before, and that was when the fortunes of the latter were at their zenith; times had changed since then! The younger Windrush was by no means an attractive object as he lay. His features, no doubt pleasing enough at one time, were bloated and drink-sodden, his limbs were flabby, and his waist, a region difficult to define, perilously approached the sixties. His linen was dirty, his clothes of loud cut, and with his swaggering air, proclaimed him the dissipated blackguard he was. Such then was the man against whom he had already pitted his wits and come off victoriously. Like most clever rogues, Percy had the wit to conceive an ingenious scheme, but at the psychological moment, his luck or his courage (which in such cases may be held to be synonymous) had deserted him.
The quarter struck from St. Lawrence. It was dangerous to remain long. Percy's slumbers were not so comatose that he could not be roused, and even as the clock struck, he turned over and muttered the refrain of some ditty—an item probably from the evening's entertainment.
A thought exploded in Pringle's mind. What a brilliant opportunity! It was now or not at all! He hurriedly glanced around. Percy's 'hold-all' lay, collapsed and empty, in a corner where it had been tossed after unpacking. On a table near it stood the small Gladstone. Pringle gently pressed the lock and peeped in. A travelling-flask (empty), a change of linen (Percy had some claims to conventional decency), a panacea against headaches, a pipe, a golf-cap, pyjamas, a Baedeker, a pair of slippers—and that was all!
Strange that they were nowhere visible. But the bag would hardly have been unlocked in that case. Could Percy have gone one better than the Jew, and have handed them to the landlord for safe keeping? One more look round. Pringle tried the drawers in the rickety dressing-table. They were empty of all but dust and fluff; of course no one but a lunatic would have put them there—or a drunkard! Stay, what about his pockets? A wallet would be too large to be concealed very easily. He stepped towards the sleeper. The breath roared stertorously through his nostrils; his lips had ceased to move; and the uncomfortable position in which he lay, with one arm doubled under him, showed his complete and happy oblivion to externals. Pringle tenderly felt the ponderous carcass. The light was dim, and touch was about the only sense available. The coat gaped widely; there was something bulky inside. He cautiously withdrew a bundle from the breast-pocket. The sensation on pressing it, even more than a glance in the faint light, revealed it a letter-case stuffed to bursting with the bank-notes Mr. Israels had paid over that afternoon. A cloud slipped off the moon, and he counted them feverishly. One hundred and four tens, and twenty-three twenties. To seize them, and return the empty wallet to its owner's pocket was the work of a moment more. For the second time, and still unknown to Percy, had Pringle bested him; he might be forgiven the contemptuous smile with which he regarded his prostrate adversary. The snores still reverberated through the darkness, as he strode over the mountainous body, and out on to the balcony. How to close the windows was the difficulty, but after a little persuasion he succeeded in inducing the crazy bolt to tentatively engage the slot, and so conceal his retreat.
Pringle had slept long and soundly, and the morning had nearly "risen on mid-noon" when his slumbers were rudely disturbed by a torrent of abuse.
"You are a tief! A robber!! A rogue-villain!!!" The voice shrilled in crescendo as fresh terms of reproach in the English language crowded on the memory of the speaker.
As Pringle awoke, his head still dizzy with the profound and dreamless stupor which had crowned the stirring events of last night, he was in some doubt as to the origin of the uproar; but as memory returned he realized that it must be due to his own achievements. It was from the next chamber that the sounds of discord arose, and setting his door ajar, the better to hear, he commenced a leisurely toilet to the accompaniment of an acrimonious duet.
"What d'you want to wake me up for with your infernal row?" growled a deep bass, in farcical contrast to the falsetto of its interlocutor.
"Gij hebt mij bezwendeld! Hets altemaal fopperij!! Ik zal gij voor den vrederegter doen verschijnen!!!" ("You have swindled me! These are rubbish!! I will have you brought before the justice of the peace!!!") The words culminated in a scream, and were followed by a noise as if the speaker were executing a kind of double-shuffle round the room in his agitation.
"What are you talking about, you old fool? What is it you want?"
"De ster diamant!"
"Talk English, will you? Damn you!"
"De stones!—you haf swintled me! Where are de real ones?"
"Here, get out of the room! You're drunk!"
"Drunk! Gij hebt mij bezwendeld!"
"You're mad then!" roared the bass with a hail of expletives.
"You are a pig-dog!" returned the falsetto, and to judge from an intermittent bouncing on the floor, he resumed his saltatory exercise.
"Let me see the (adjective) thing." A pause. "Well, what's all the fuss about?"
"Dey are paste! Give back my money."
"Paste be damned!"
"My money! I will call de police!"
"Here, take your money! I'll sell 'em to a man who knows good stuff when he sees it. Why, where the—" Another pause. Then suddenly the bass thundered, "You infernal Jew, you've robbed me!"
"You 'ave robbed me! My money or de police!"
"You dirty little swab, you know you've got it!"
"I 'ave it not!"
"Where are the notes then? Didn't you make me drunk last night at the Weimar? You thought you'd get the stones for nothing, eh? But I've got 'em, and by Jingo I'll stick to them!"
"Dey are paste."
"They're good enough for me. You can keep the notes you stole last night."
"It is you are a tief!"
"You stinking old hound, I'll wring your infernal neck!"
"Politie—Moord! Moord! Poltcie!" was gasped jerkily as from a body in a state of violent succussion.
Pringle walked calmly down-stairs and settled his bill.
"I rather think two gentlemen are fighting a duel up-stairs," he remarked in an apprehensive tone.
As he sallied out on his way to the quay, a series of loud shrieks, followed by the crashing of glass and other sounds of destruction, summoned the scandalized proprietor and a posse of waiters to the scene of strife.
THE postman with resounding knock insinuated half-a-dozen packages into the slit in the outer door. He breathed hard, for it was a climb to the second floor, and then with heavy foot clattered down the stone stairs into Furnival's Inn. As the cataract descended between the two doors Mr. Pringle dropped his newspaper and stretched to his full length with a yawn; then, rolling out of his chair, he opened the inner door and gathered up the harvest of the mail. It was mostly composed of circulars; these he carelessly flung upon the table, and turned to the single letter among them. It was addressed with clerkly precision, Romney Pringle, Esq., Literary Agent, 33 Furnival's Inn, London, E. C.
Such a mode of address was quite a novelty in Pringle's experience. Was his inexistent literary agency about to be vivified? And wondering, he opened the envelope.
Chapel Street, Wurzleford, August 25th.
Having recent occasion to visit a solicitor in the same block in connection with the affairs of a deceased friend, I made a note of your address, and shortly propose to avail myself of your kind offices in publishing a novel on the temperance question. I intend to call it Drouthy Neebors, as I have adopted the Scotch dialect which appears to be so very popular and, I apprehend, remunerative. Having no practical acquaintance with the same, I think of making a study of it on the spot during my approaching month's holiday—most likely in the Island of Skye, where I presume the language may be a fair guide to that so much in favour. I shall start as soon as I can find a substitute and, if not unduly troubling you, should be greatly obliged by your inserting the enclosed advertisement for me in the Undenominational Banner. Your kindly doing so may lead to an earlier insertion than I could obtain for it through the local agent and so save me a week's delay. Thanking you in anticipation, believe me to be your very grateful and obliged
Adolphus Honeyby (Pastor)
Although "Literary Agent" stared conspicuously from his door, Pringle's title had never hitherto induced an author, of however aspiring a type, to disturb the privacy of his chambers, and it was with an amused sense of the perfection of his disguise that he lighted a cigarette and sat down to think over Mr. Honeyby's proposal. Wurzleford Wurzleford? There seemed to be a familiar sound about the name. Surely he had read of it somewhere. He turned to the Society journal that he had been reading when the postman knocked.
Since leaving Sandringham the Maharajah of Satpura has been paying a round of farewell visits prior to his return to India in October. His Highness is well known as the owner of the famous Harabadi diamond, which is said to flash red and violet with every movement of its wearer, and his jewels were the sensation of the various state functions which he attended in native costume last season.
I understand that the Maharajah is expected about the end of next week at Eastlingbury, the magnificent Sussex seat of Lord Wurzleford, and, as a man of wide and liberal culture, his Highness will doubtless be much interested in this ancestral home of one of our oldest noble families.
Mr. Honeyby ought to have no difficulty in getting a locum tenens, thought Pringle, as he laid down the paper. He wondered how would be to—? It was risky, but worth trying! Why let a good thing go a-begging? He had a good mind to take the berth himself! Wurzleford seemed an attractive little place. Well, its attractiveness would certainly not be lessened for him when the Maharajah arrived! At the very least it might prove an agreeable holiday, and any case would lead to a new and probably amusing experience of human nature. Smiling at the ludicrous audacity of the idea, Pringle strolled up to the mantelpiece and interrogated himself in the Venetian mirror. Minus the delible port-wine mark, a pair of pince-nez, blackened hair, and a small strip of easily applied whisker would be sufficient disguise. He thoughtfully lighted another cigarette.
But the necessity of testimonials occurred to him. Why not say had sent the originals with an application he was making for a permanent appointment, and merely show Honeyby the type-written copies? He seemed an innocent old ass, and Pringle would trust to audacity to carry him through. He could write to Wurzleford from any Bloomsbury address, and follow the letter before Honeyby had time to reply. He had little doubt that he could clench matters when it came to a personal interview; especially as Honeyby seemed very anxious to be off. There remained the knotty point of doctrine. Well, the Farringdon Street barrows, the grave of theological literature, could furnish any number of volumes of sermons, and it would be strange if they could not supply in addition a very efficient battery of controversial shot and shell. In the meantime he could get up the foundation of his 'Undenominational' opinions from the Encyclopaedia. And taking a volume of the Britannica, he was soon absorbed in its perusal.
Mr. Honeyby's advertisement duly appeared in the Banner, and was answered by a telegram announcing the application of the 'Rev. Charles Courtley', who followed close on the heels of his message. Although surprised at the wonderfully rapid effect of the advertisement, the pastor was disinclined to quarrel with his good luck, and was too eager to be released to waste much time over preliminary inquiries. Indeed, he could think of little but the collection of material for his novel, and fretted to commence it. 'Mr. Courtley's' manner and appearance, to say nothing of his very flattering testimonials, were all that could be desired; his acquaintance with controversial doctrine was profound, and the pastor, innocently wondering how such brilliance had failed to attain a more eminent place in the denomination, had eagerly ratified his engagement.
"Well, I must say, Mr. Courtley, you seem to know so well what will be expected of you, that I really don't think I need wait over tonight," remarked Mr. Honeyby towards the end of the interview.
"I presume there will be no objection to my riding the bicycle I have brought with me?" asked Pringle, in his new character.
"Not at all—by no means! I've often thought of taking to one myself. Some of the church-members live at such a distance, you see. Besides, there is nothing derogatory in it. Lord Wurzleford, for instance, is always riding about, and so are some of the party he has down for the shooting. There is some Indian prince or other with them, I believe."
"The Maharajah of Satpura?" Pringle suggested.
"Yes, I think that is the name; do you know him?" asked Mr. Honeyby, impressed by the other's air of refinement.
"No—I only saw it mentioned in the Park Lane Review," said Pringle simply.
So Mr. Honeyby departed for London, en route for the north, by an even earlier train than he had hoped for.
About an hour afterwards Pringle was resting by the wayside, rather winded by cycling up one of the early undulations of the Downs which may be seen rising nearly everywhere on the Wurzleford horizon. He had followed the public road, here unfenced for some miles, through Eastlingbury Park, and now lay idle on the springy turf. The harebells stirred with a dry rustle in the imperceptible breeze, and all around him rose the music of the clumsy little iron-bells, clanking rhythmically to every movement of the wethers as they crisply mowed the herbage closer than any power of scythe. As Pringle drank in the beauty of the prospect, a cyclist made his appearance in the act of coasting down the hill beyond. Suddenly he swerved from side to side; his course grew more erratic, the zigzags wider: it was clear that he had lost control of the machine. As he shot with increasing momentum down the slope, a white figure mounted the crest behind, and pursued him with wild-waving arms, and shouts which were faintly carried onward by the wind.
In the valley beyond the two hills flowed the Wurzle, and the road, taking a sharp turn, crossed it by a little bridge with brick parapets; without careful steering, a cyclist with any way on, would surely strike one or other side of the bridge, with the prospect of a ducking, if not of a worse catastrophe. Quickly grasping the situation, Pringle mounted his machine, sprinted down to the bridge and over it, flinging himself off in time to seize the runaway by his handlebar. He was a portly, dark-complexioned gentleman in a Norfolk suit, and he clung desperately to Pringle as together they rolled into a ditch. By this time the white figure, a native servant, had overtaken his master, whom he helped to rise with a profusion of salaams, and then gathered up the shattered fragments of the bicycle.
"I must apologize for dragging you off your machine," said Pringle, when he too had picked himself up. "But I think you were in for a bad accident."
"No apology is necessary for saving my life, sir," protested the stout gentleman in excellent English. "My tire was punctured on the hill, so the brake refused to act. But may I ask your name?"
As Pringle handed him a card inscribed, "Rev. Charles Courtley," the other continued, "I am the Maharajah of Satpura, and I hope to have the pleasure of thanking you more fully on a less exciting occasion." He bowed politely, with a smile disclosing a lustrous set of white teeth, and leaning on the servant's arm, moved towards a group of cyclists who were cautiously descending scene of his disaster.
In the jog-trot routine of the sleepy little place, where one day was very much like another, and in the study of the queer people among whom Pringle found himself a sort of deity, the days rapidly passed. To some of the church-members his bicycle had appeared rather a startling innovation, but his tact had smoothed over all difficulties, while the feminine Undenominationalists would have forgiven much to such an engaging personality, for Pringle well knew how to ingratiate himself with the more influential half of humanity. It was believed that his eloquence had, in itself, been the means of recalling several seceders to the fold, and it was even whispered that on several occasions gold coins graced the collection-plates—an event unprecedented in the history of the connection!
September had been an exceptionally hot month, but one day was particularly oppressive. Sunset had brought the slightest relief, and at Eastlingbury that evening the heat was emphatically tropical. The wide-open windows availed nothing to cool the room. The very candles drooped crescent-wise, and singed their shades. Although the clouds were scudding high aloft, and cast transient shadows upon the lawn, no leaf stirred within the park. The hour was late, and the ladies had long withdrawn, but the men still sat listening. It was a story of the jungle—of a fight between a leopard and a samburdeer, and every one's pulse had quickened, and every one had wished the story longer.
"You are evidently an intrepid explorer, Mr. Courtley," commented the Earl, as his guest finished.
"And a keen observer," added the Maharajah. "I never heard a more realistic description of a fight. I have not had Mr. Courtley's good fortune to see such a thing in the jungle, although I frequently have wild-beast fights—satmaris, we call them—for the amusement of my good people of Satpura."
The Maharajah had found a little difficulty in inducing Lord Wurzleford to extend his hospitality to 'Mr. Courtley'. To begin with, the latter was an Undenominationalist, and only a substitute one at that! Then, too, the Maharajah had made his acquaintance in such a very unconventional manner. All the same, to please his Highness—
Pringle had thus a good deal of leeway to make up in the course of the evening, and it says much for his success, that the ladies were unanimous in regretting the necessity for leaving the dinner-table. Indeed, from the very first moment of his arrival, he had steadily advanced in favour. He had not only talked brilliantly himself, but had been the cause of brilliancy in others—or, at least, of what passes for brilliancy in smart circles. His stories appeared to be drawn from an inexhaustible fund. He had literally been everywhere and seen everything. As to the Maharajah, who had of late grown unutterably bored by the smart inanities of the house-party, the poor man hailed him with unutterable relief. Towards the end of dinner, a youth had remarked confidentially to the lady beside him that "that dissentin' fellow seemed a real good sort." He voiced the general opinion.
While Pringle, with the aid of a finger-bowl and some dessert-knives, was demonstrating the problem of the Nile Barrage to an interested audience, an earnest consultation was proceeding at the head of the table. The Maharajah, Lord Wurzleford, and the butler were in solemn conclave, and presently the first was seen to rise abruptly and retire in unconcealed agitation. So obviously did the host share this emotion, that the conversation flagged and died out; and amid an awkward pause, numerous inquiring glances, which good breeding could not entirely repress, were directed towards the head of the table, where the butler, with a pallid face, still exchanged an occasional word with his master.
With a view to breaking the oppressive silence, Pringle was it to resume his demonstration, when Lord Wurzleford anticipated him.
"Before we leave the table," said the peer in a constrained voice, "I want to tell you that a most unpleasant thing has happened under this roof. The apartments of the Maharajah of Satpura have been entered, and a quantity of jewellery is missing. I understand that someone was heard moving about the room only half-an-hour ago, and a strange man was met crossing the park towards Bleakdown not long after. I am sending into Eastlingbury for the police, and in the meantime the servants are scouring the park. Pray let the matter be kept secret from the ladies as long as possible."
Consternation was visible on every face, and amid a loud buzz of comment, the table was promptly deserted.
"Will you excuse me?" said Pringle as he approached Lord Wurzleford, whose self-possession appeared to have temporarily deserted him. "I know the Bleakdown road well, and have cycled over it several times. I rode out here on my machine, and perhaps I might be able to overtake the burglar. Every moment is of importance, and the police may be some time before they arrive."
"I am greatly obliged to you for the suggestion!" exclaimed the peer, adding with a dismal attempt at jocularity, "Perhaps you may succeed in doing his Highness a further service with your cycle."
Between four and five miles from Eastlingbury the high road leaves the park, and crosses the Great Southern Canal. The bridge is of comparatively low span, and a sloping way leads down from the road to the towing-path. As the gradient rose towards the bridge, Pringle slowed up, and steering on to the path, dismounted on the grass, and leant the machine against the hedge. He had caught sight of a man's figure, some eighty yards ahead, standing motionless on the hither side of the bridge; he appeared to be listening for sounds of pursuit. In the silence a distant clock was striking eleven, and the figure presently turned aside and disappeared. When Pringle reached the bridge, the grinding of feet upon the loose gravel echoed from beneath the arch, and stealing down the slope to the towing-path, he peered round the corner of the abutment.
The clouds had all disappeared by now, and the moon flashing from the water made twilight under the bridge. On his knees by the water's edge a man was busily securing a bundle with a cord. To and fro he wound it in crisscross fashion, and then threaded through the network what looked like an ebony ruler, which he drew from his pocket. A piece of cord dangled from the bundle, and holding it in one hand, he felt with the other along the board which edged the towing-path at this point. Presently he found something to which he tied the cord, and then lowered bundle and all into the canal.
For some time past a sound of footsteps approaching on the road above had been plainly audible to Pringle, although it was lost on the other, absorbed as he was in his task; now, as he rose from his cramped position, and was in the act of stretching himself, he paused and listened. At this moment Pringle slightly changed his position, and loosened a stone which plunged into the water. The man looked up, and catching sight of him, retreated with a muttered curse to the far side of the arch. For a second he scowled at the intruder, and then turned and began to run down the towing-path in the shadow of the bank.
"There he goes—See! On the towing-path!" shouted Pringle, as he scrambled up to the road and confronted two members of the county constabulary who were discussing the portent of the deserted bicycle. Seeing further concealment was useless, the fugitive now took to his heels in earnest, and ran hot-foot beside the canal with the two policemen and Pringle in pursuit.
But Pringle soon dropped behind; and when their footsteps were lost in the distance, he made his way back to the road, and hoisting the machine on his shoulder, carried it down the slope and rested it under the bridge. Groping along the wooden edging, his hand soon encountered the cord, and hauling on it with both hands, for the weight was not inconsiderable, he landed the bundle on the bank. What had appeared to be a ruler now proved to be a very neat jemmy folding in two. Admiring it with the interest of an expert, he dropped it into the water, and then ripped up the towel which formed the covering of the bundle. Although he anticipated the contents, he was scarcely prepared for the gorgeous spectacle which saluted him, and as he ran his hands through the confused heap of gold and jewels, they glittered like a milky way of stars even in the subdued pallor of the moonlight.
The striking of the half-hour warned him that time pressed, and taking a spanner from his cycle-wallet, he unshipped the handle-bar, and deftly packed it and the head-tube with the treasure. Some of the bulkier, and perhaps also less valuable articles had to be left; so rolling them up again in the towel, he sent them to join the folding-jemmy. Screwing the nuts home, he carried the cycle up to the road again, and pedalled briskly along the downgrade to Eastlingbury.
"Hi! Stop there!"
He had forgotten to light his lamp, and as a bull's-eye glared upon him, and a burly policeman seized his handle-bar, Pringle mentally began to assess the possible cost of this outrage upon the county bye-laws. But a semi-excited footman ran up, and turning another lamp upon him, at once saluted him respectfully.
"It's all right, Mr. Parker," said the footman. "This gentleman's a friend of his lordship's."
The policeman released the machine, and saluted Pringle in his turn.
"Sorry you were stopped, sir," apologized the footman, "but our orders is to watch all the roads for the burglar."
"Haven't they caught him yet?"
"No, sir! 'E doubled back into the park, and they lost 'im. One of the grooms, who was sent out on 'orseback, met the policemen who said they'd seen you, but didn't know where you'd got to after they lost the burglar. They were afraid 'e'd get back on to the road and make off on your bicycle, as you'd left it there, and they told the groom to ride back and tell us all to look out for a man on a bicycle."
"So you thought I was the burglar! But how did he get into the house?"
"Why, sir, the Indian king's 'ead man went up about ten to get the king's room ready. When 'e tried the door, 'e found 'e couldn' t open it. Then 'e called some of the other Indians up, and when they couldn't open it either, and they found the door wasn't locked at all, they said it was bewitched."
Here the policeman guffawed, and then stared fixedly at the moon, as if wondering whether that was the source of the hilarity. The footman glanced reprovingly at him, and continued.
"They came down into the servants' 'all, and the one who speaks English best told us about it. So I said, 'Let's get in through the window.' So we went round to the tennis-lawn, underneath the king's rooms. The windows were all open, just as they'd been left before dinner, because of the 'eat. There's an old ivy-tree grows there, sir, with big branches all along the wall, thick enough for a man to stand on. So Mr. Strong, the butler, climbed up, and us after 'im. We couldn't see much amiss at first, but the king's 'ead man fell on 'is knees, and turned 'is eyes up, and thumped 'imself on the chest, and said 'e was a dead man! And when we said why? 'e said all the king's jewels were gone. And sure enough, some cases that 'eld diamond and ruby brooches, and necklaces, and things, were all burst open and cleaned out, and a lot of others for rings and small things were lying about empty. And we found the burglar'd screwed wedges against the doors, and that was why they couldn't be opened. So we took them up and opened the doors, and Mr. Strong went down and reported it to 'is lordship, and 'e broke it to the king. But the 'ead man says the king took on about it terribly, and 'e's afraid the king'll take 'im and 'ave a wild elephant trample on 'is 'ead to execute 'im, when 'e gets back to India."
Here the footman paused for breath, and the constable seized the opportunity to assert himself.
"So you'll know the man again, if you should see him, sir," he chimed in.
"That I shall," Pringle asseverated.
"A pleasant-spoken gentleman as ever was!" observed the footman as Pringle rode away, and the policeman grunted emphatic assent.
Walking down North Street, the principal thoroughfare in the village, next morning, Pringle was accosted by a stranger. He was small but wiry in figure, dressed very neatly, and had the cut of a gentleman's servant out of livery.
"Are you Mr. Courtley, sir?" respectfully touching his hat.
"Yes. Can I be of any service to you?"
"I should like to have a quiet talk with you, sir, if I may call upon you."
"Shall we say six this evening, then?"
"If you please, sir."
Opining that here was a possible recruit for the connection gained by his eloquence, Pringle went on his way. He had just received a letter from Mr. Honeyby announcing his return, and was not dissatisfied at the prospect of the evening seeing the end of his masquerade. Not that it had grown irksome, but having exhausted the predatory resources of Wurzleford, he began to sigh for the London pavement. The pastor wrote that having completed his philological studies in the Island of Skye, he had decided to return South at once. But the chief reason for thus curtailing his stay was the extreme monotony of the climate, in which, according to local opinion, snow is the only variant to the eternal rain. Besides, he feared that the prevalent atmosphere of herring-curing had seriously impaired his digestion! On the whole, therefore, he thought it best to return, and might be expected home about twelve hours after his letter. He trusted, however, that Mr. Pringle would remain his guest; at all events until the end of the month.
Mr. Honeyby's study was an apartment on the ground-floor with an outlook, over a water-butt, to the garden. It partook somewhat of the nature of a stronghold, the door being a specially stout one, and the windows having the protection—so unusual in a country town—of iron bars. These precautions were due to Mr. Honeyby's nervous apprehensions of burglary after 'collection-days', when specie had to repose there for the night. It was none the less a cheerful room, and Pringle spent most of his indoor-time there. He was occupied in sorting some papers in readiness for the pastor's return, when, punctually as the clock struck six, the housekeeper knocked at his door.
"There's a young man come, sir, who says you're expecting him," she announced.
"Oh, ah! Show him in," said Pringle.
His chance acquaintance of the morning entered, and depositing his hat beneath a chair, touched his forehead and sat down. But no sooner had the door closed upon the woman than his manner underwent a complete change.
"I see you don't remember me," he said, leaning forward, and regarding Pringle steadily.
"No, I must confess you have rather the advantage of me," said Pringle distantly.
"And yet we have met before. Not so long ago either!"
"I have not the slightest recollection of ever having seen you before this morning," Pringle asserted tartly. He was nettled at the man's persistence, and felt inclined to resent the rather familiar manner in which he spoke.
"I must assist your memory then. The first time I had the pleasure of seeing you was last night."
"I should be glad to know where."
"Certainly!" Then very slowly and distinctly, "It was under a bridge on the Grand Southern Canal."
Pringle, in spite of his habitual composure, was unable to repress a slight start.
"I see you have not forgotten the circumstance. The time, I think, was about eleven p.m., wasn't it? Well, never mind that; the moon enabled me to get a better look at you than you got of me."
Pringle took refuge in a diplomatic silence, and the other walked across the room, and selecting the most comfortable chair, coolly produced a cigarette-case. Pringle observed, almost subconsciously, that it was a very neat gold one, with a monogram in one corner worked in diamonds.
"Will you smoke?" asked the man. "No? Well, you'll excuse me." And he leisurely kindled a cigarette, taking very detailed stock of Pringle while doing so.
"Now it's just as well we understood one another," he continued, as he settled himself in the chair. "My name is of no consequence, though I'm known to my associates as 'The Toff'; poor souls, they have such a profound respect for education! Now those who know me will tell you I'm not a man whom it pays to trifle with. Who you are, I don't know exactly, and I don't know that I very much care—it's rather an amusing thing, by the way, that no one else seems to be any the wiser! But what I do know"—here he sat straight up, and extended a menacing fist in Pringle's direction—"and what it'll be a healthy thing for you to understand, is that I'm not going to leave here to-night without that stuff!"
"My good man, what on earth are you talking about?" indulgently asked Pringle, who by this time had recovered his imperturbability.
"Now don't waste time; you don't look altogether a fool." 'The Toff' drew a revolver from his pocket, and carelessly counted the chambers which were all loaded. "One, two, three, four, five, six! I've got six reasons for what I've said. Let's see now—First, you saw me hiding the stuff; second, no one else did; third, it's not there now; fourth, the Maharajah hasn't got it; fifth, there's no news of its having been found by any one else; sixth, and last, therefore you've got it!" He checked the several heads of his reasoning, one by one, on the chambers of the revolver as one might tell them on the fingers.
"Very logically reasoned!" remarked Pringle calmly. "But may I inquire how it is you are so positive in all these statements?"
"I'm not the man to let the grass grow under my feet," said 'The Toff' vaingloriously. "I've been making inquiries all the morning, and right up to now! I hear the poor old Maharajah has gone to Scotland Yard for help. But it strikes me the affair will remain a mystery 'for ever and always', as the people say hereabouts. And, as I said just now, you seem to be rather a mystery to most people. I spotted you right enough last night, but I wanted to find out all I could about you from your amiable flock before I tackled you in person. Well, I think I have very good grounds for believing you to be an impostor. That's no concern of mine, of course, but I presume you have your own reasons for coming down here. Now, a word to your principal, and a hint or two judiciously dropped in a few quarters round the place, will soon make it too hot for you, and so your little game, whatever it may be, will be spoiled."
"But supposing I am unable to help you?"
"I can't suppose any such thing! I am going to stick to you like tar, my reverend sir, and if you think of doing a bolt"—he glanced at the revolver, and then put it in his pocket—"take my advice and only think of it!"
"Is that all you have to say?" asked Pringle.
"Not quite. Look here now! I've been planning this job for the last four months and more, and I'm not going to take all the risk, and let you or any one else collar all the profit. By George, you've mistaken your man if you think that! I am willing to even go the length of recognizing you as a partner, and giving you ten per cent. for your trouble in taking charge of the stuff, and bringing it to a place of safety and so on, but now you've got to shell out!"
"Very well," said Pringle, rising. "Let me first get the house-keeper out of the way."
"No larks now," growled 'The Toff'; adding peremptorily, "I give you a couple of minutes only—and leave the door open!"
Without replying, Pringle walked to the door, and slipping through, closed and double-locked it behind him before 'The Toff' had time to even rise from his chair.
"You white-livered cur! You—you infernal sneak!" vociferated the latter as Pringle crossed the hall.
Being summer-time, the fire-irons were absent from the study. There was no other lethal weapon wherewith to operate. Escape by the window was negatived by the bars.
For the time then 'The Toff' was a negligible quantity. Pringle ran down the kitchen-stairs. At the bottom was a gas-bracket, and stretching out his hand he turned on the gas as he passed. Out in the little kitchen there was much clattering of pots and dishes. The housekeeper was engaged in urgent culinary operations against Mr. Honeyby's return.
"Mrs. Johnson!" he bawled, as a furious knocking sounded from the study.
"Whatever's the matter, sir?" cried the startled woman.
"Escape of gas! We've been looking for it up-stairs! Don't you smell it out here? You must turn it off at the main!" He rattled off the alarming intelligence in well-simulated excitement.
"Gas it is!" she exclaimed nervously, as the familiar odour greeted her nostrils.
Now the meter, as is customary, resided in the coal-cellar, and as the faithful creature opened the door and stumbled forwards, she suddenly found herself stretched upon the floor, while all became darkness. It almost seemed as if she had received a push from behind, and her head whirling with the unexpected shock, she painfully arose from her rocky bed, and slowly groped towards the door. But for all her pulling and tugging it held fast and never gave an inch. Desisting, as the truth dawned upon her that in some mysterious way she had become a prisoner, she bleated plaintively for help, and began to hammer at the door with a lump of coal.
Up the stairs again, Pringle glanced at the hall-door, then shot the bolts top and bottom, and put the chain up. 'The Toff' seemed to be using some of the furniture as a battering-ram. Thunderous blows and the sharp splintering of wood showed that, despite his lack of tools, he was (however clumsily) engaged in the active work of his profession, and the door shivered and rattled ominously beneath the onslaught.
Pringle raced up-stairs, and in breathless haste tore off his clerical garb. Bang, bang, crash! He wished the door were iron. How 'The Toff' roused the echoes as he savagely laboured for freedom! And whenever he paused, a feeble diapason ascended from the basement. The study-door would soon give at this rate. Luckily the house stood at the end of the town, or the whole neighbourhood would have been roused by this time. He hunted for his cycling suit. Where could that wretched old woman have stowed it? Curse her officiousness! He almost thought of rushing down and releasing her that she might disclose its whereabouts. Every second was priceless. At last! Where had that button-hook hidden itself now? How stiff the box-cloth seemed—he had never noticed it before. Now the coat. Collar and tie? Yes, indeed, he had nearly forgotten he still wore the clerical tie. No matter, a muffler would hide it all. Cap—that was all! Gloves he could do without for once.
Bang, crash, crack!
With a last look round he turned to leave the room, and faced the window. A little way down the road a figure was approaching. Something about it looked familiar, he thought; seemed to be coming from the direction of the railway-station, too. He stared harder. So it was! There was no doubt about it! Swathed in a Scotch maud, his hand grasping a portmanteau, the Rev. Adolphus Honeyby advanced blithely in the autumn twilight.
Down the stairs Pringle bounded, three at a time. 'The Toff' could hear, but not see him as yet. The study-door was already tottering; one hinge had gone, Even as he landed with a thud at the foot of the stairs, "The Toff's" hand and arm appeared at the back of the door.
"I'd have blown the lock off if it wasn't for giving the show away," 'The Toff' snarled through his clenched teeth, as loudly as his panting respiration would permit. "I'll soon be through now, and then we'll square accounts!" What he said was a trifle more full-flavoured, but this will suffice.
Crash! bang!! crack!!! from the study-door.
Rat-a-tat-a-tat! was the sudden response from the hall-door. It was Mr. Honeyby knocking! And, startled at the noise, 'The Toff' took a momentary respite from his task.
Down to the basement once more, Mrs. Johnson's pummelling sounded louder away from the more virile efforts of the others. Fiercely 'The Toff' resumed his labours. What an uproar! Mr. Honeyby's curiosity could not stand much more of that. He would be round at the back presently. The bicycle stood by the garden-door. Pringle shook it slightly, and something rattled; the precious contents of the head and handle-bar were safe enough. He opened the door, and wheeled the machine down the back-garden, and out into the little lane behind.
Loud and louder banged the knocker. But as a triumphant crash and clatter of wood-work resounded from the house, Pringle rode into the fast-gathering darkness.
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