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Title: Netta Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1500661h.html Language: English Date first posted: Jun 2015 Most recent update: Jun 2015 This eBook was produced by Paul Moulder 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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NETTA SHERLOCK'S unsteady voice dropped to a hoarse, unsteady whisper. Her long, slender fingers dragged the travelling cloak from about her neck, and she panted like one who has been hard put to it to escape from imminent danger.
"Quick!" she said. "Give me some water, bathe my head with eau-de-Cologne. I hope they noticed nothing in the hall. How stiflingly hot it is, Amy."
Amy Burke discreetly said nothing. Her mistress lay back on the couch in the luxuriously-appointed bedroom, her dark, stormy eyes half closed. She reclined there for some time till the trembling fit passed away and the white bosom ceased to heave so violently. Then she looked around with scorn on her face.
"So we have got here at last, Amy," she said. "I am an honoured guest at Loudwater Priory! Just think of it, Amy! Two years ago I was fiddling for my living in the streets, outside public-houses, jeered at and pitied and insulted! And now!"
And now she was in a bedroom a young duchess might have envied.
"I have schemed and lied and plotted to get here," she went on. "I forced them to ask me. If Sir John and Lady Langworthy only knew the truth!"
"It was a dangerous thing to do," the maid murmured. "Especially just now, seeing that we are so close to Coalend. If any of the people recognize you—"
"But I had to come, Amy. The inaction was slowly driving me mad. For Reggie's sake—oh, I could do anything for Reggie's sake! You don't know everything. Amy; indeed, it would be impossible to tell you. But the secret is here in this house, the key may be in this room for all I know, and if I can find it, then the disgrace will be lifted from my lover's name. Amy, I must succeed."
The little maid with the firm lips and steady eyes smiled. If Netta Sherlock made up her mind to succeed, she would assuredly do so. Had not that indomitable will and genius taken her far already? It was the old story of talent struggling for life amidst the most sordid surroundings. A happy home in childhood, the death of the mother followed by the breakdown and the pathetic end of the father, a soldier and a gentleman—these had been the chief landmarks in her brief career.
Bad as it was, there had been worse to follow. Love had entered into Netta's life to save her from utter despair. Time was when Reggie Masters had been a friend of the family. Reggie had found Netta out, and told the old, old story. Then the cloud of disgrace burst suddenly, exposure and humiliation and flight had followed with the rapidity of lightning, and Netta was alone again.
Reggie was innocent, Netta was sure of that. He had forwarded to her certain disjointed papers to read in Paris, where he had sent her to study. At first she had found them beyond her grasp, but gradually she mastered them. If she had only had money and influence, if people would only recognize her genius and individuality. But doubtless she would play her fiddle in the streets till she died.
Netta was rehearsing it all again dreamily—that dreadful night when she had eaten nothing all day; the fainting fit and the kindly old German who had asked questions; an engagement or two at a concert and enthusiastic paragraphs in the papers, It was a dream, it must have been. It seemed impossible that such great events could have happened in four and twenty brief months. And yet here was Netta now, the spoilt darling of Society. She had been interviewed in a score of papers, her photographs had sold freely, she had only to name her price for a performance and the money was there. Virtually it had been a romance in real life.
Netta paced up and down the room, quite herself again by this time.
"I'm dreadfully nervous and excited," she said, "I, who hardly know the meaning of the word except when I first go on the platform. But I shall be all right at dinner. And afterwards I shall play to them, as nobody has ever heard me play before."
"We don't stay here to-night?" Amy asked.
"I must be in town by the last train," Netta replied. "Early to-morrow morning—but you know nothing of that. Sir John has offered his motor car to drive me over to the junction to catch the 11.15 up train. Now, help me to dress for dinner. I'll have black lace and white roses. No, I'll have black alone without any relief. There will be no chance of my dress betraying me then."
Netta surveyed herself presently in the long cheval glass with a sigh of satisfaction. The dead black suited her dark eyes and soulful face to perfection.
"She couldn't recognize me," Netta murmured. "Who would recognize in Netta Sherlock the timid little Nellie Landon?"
Amy rushed into the room and closed the door. Her eyes were gleaming with excitement and something like fear.
"I have seen a ghost," she whispered. "Who do you suppose is here as a servant in a trusted position? But you will never guess, miss. It's Lucille Ganton!"
"She did not recognize you?" Netta asked, swiftly. "But that would be impossible. You were a mere child in Coalend when Lucille Ganton was tried and acquitted on a charge of poisoning her husband. But if she knows me again—"
A troubled frown gathered on Netta's face. She had come to Loudwater Priory on a difficult, not to say dangerous, mission. Indeed, but for the strong love she bore Reggie Masters she had never dared to come at all.
"I shall have to risk it," she said aloud. "Danger I apprehended, but not so soon as this. If that woman knows me, she will discover pretty well what I am doing here."
"You have greatly changed," Amy suggested. "I don't see how that woman—"
"She was in my mother's service years ago," Netta said quietly. "Her infamous partner in crime, Neil Jackman, was my father's valet. Strangely enough, Jackman found his way into the service of my lover before his misfortunes began. The secret of Mr. Masters's trouble lies in this house. Is it not strange, then, to find Lucille Ganton here? Depend upon it, Neil Jackman is not far off."
The hall with its lantern roof was a dream of beauty. Netta stood quite lost in it.
"Pardon me, miss, but are you doubtful of the way?" a respectful voice asked. "The door on the left leads to the drawing-room."
Netta concealed a start successfully. How vividly, those silky tones brought back the past!
"I was admiring the hall," Netta said, "I know my way. Why do you look at me like that?"
"Your face made me think of Coalend, miss," came the subtle reply.
"A place close by, is it not?" Netta asked carelessly. "I once had to stay there for a few hours. Why should I remind you of it?"
The woman muttered something; she was evidently baffled by the calm inquiry of Netta's eyes. A bell rippled in the distance, and the trim maid hurried away. But there was a queer, grim smile on her face as she vanished.
"Am I right or wrong?" she muttered. "The girl is so famous, and the other one... yet I see the likeness. Any way, Jackman will know."
To a certain extent the skirmish yielded victory to neither side. Neither Netta nor the maid Ganton was sure of her ground. With the doubt still in her mind Netta entered the drawing-room, which seemed to be pretty well filled with guests. Sir John Langworthy was a fine type of English sportsman, tall and well-knit, with an open, bronzed face and a kindly smile. He had a passion for music, and played the violin excellently for an amateur.
"You are rather late," he said. "You have not seen my wife yet; she was riding when you came. Oh! this is Mr. Falmer—Gordon Palmer—who will take you in to dinner. He is terribly learned from a musical point of view, and a most severe critic."
A tall man with a shining bald head and wonderfully massive dark eyebrows was bending over Netta's hand. There was something strong and commanding about Gordon Falmer, she thought. In age he might have been anything between forty and sixty. It was only when he smiled that a sinister expression clouded his face.
"Is it too much to ask you to play?" he suggested.
"Miss Sherlock is good nature itself," Sir John cried. "She has promised to play after dinner. Now, come along and see my wife."
A knot of well-dressed women by the fireplace faded away, and Netta found herself face to face with a slender woman clad entirely in white. She was still considerably under thirty, and her features were regular and handsome. In a portrait or miniature Lady Langworthy would have been pronounced perfection.
"So pleased to meet you," she said, with a smile on her face. "Lady Lessingham told me that you would not mind an informal invitation. But to go away so soon! Is it imperative to catch the last train to-night?"
Weirdly artificial as the woman seemed to be, there were warmth and sincerity in her voice. She looked up at her husband with a glance of real affection. And yet all the time it struck Netta that she was furtively watching every movement of Gordon Falmer. As he went about the room from one group to another with perfect ease of manner, those dark blue eyes followed him. They seemed to be dragged against their will. Here was the first thread of the mystery. Netta came back to her surroundings with a start.
"I must be back in town," she said. "I have a most important engagement early to-morrow'. Perhaps on some future occasion, if you will be so good."
Somebody on the other side of the room laughed, and it was as if a string had snapped between the hostess and her inscrutable guest.
"I am sure I beg your pardon," Lady Langworthy said. "I am a little absent at times. We shall always be delighted to see you; a few guests here more or less make no difference. And they say you are the soul of good nature."
"Why not?" Netta laughed. "I love my art, and if it gives pleasure to others it seems wrong to keep it to myself. I will play to you after dinner as long as you care to listen."
The big doors fell back and the butler announced dinner. Suddenly Lady Langworthy grew silent and almost rigid, and Netta felt, rather than saw, Gordon Falmer approaching. As she looked up she seemed to see two lightning sparks flash from his eyes. Then he smiled as he held out his arm.
"I understand that I am to have the pleasure," he said.
UNDER the shaded lights the dinner proceeded pleasantly. It was good to Netta to feel all this luxury and refinement; it softened the recollection of years of suffering.
She was herself again now, resolute and strong of purpose; she said little, but she watched carefully. She wondered who the man by her side was, and what he was doing here. Across the table was the white enigma of Lady Langworthy's face. Sometimes she would laugh and smile merrily; at intervals her eyes met those of Sir John, and her face lighted up tenderly. Surely a woman could not look like that unless she sincerely loved a man. And yet, beyond doubt, Hilda Langworthy held the secret that shadowed Reggie Masters's life.
Then her face would change again, growing wax-like and set as she felt the force of the strange man by Netta's side. He addressed her once or twice in a tone so low that Netta could scarcely catch the words, but Lady Langworthy always heard. It was the same more than once during dinner. The big mahogany doors were open, for the night was insufferably hot and close, and in the hall now and again Netta caught the watching face of Lucille Ganton. The knowledge of her danger braced her like a tonic.
They were in the drawing-room at length. Presently the men began to dribble in from the dining-room. It was getting late and the air was hotter. The electric lights seemed suddenly to pale; there was a rattle and a crash overhead that shook the house to its foundations.
"I'm afraid you will not get away to-night, Miss Sherlock," Sir John said, as he crossed over to Netta, accompanied by Gordon Falmer. "We are going to have a great storm. We shall pay pretty severely for this hot weather."
"All the same, I must go," Netta smiled. "It is most important. As I am to have the motor, you need not worry about your horses, because—"
Again the lights paled, again came the thunderous crash overhead. A few heavy drops splashed over the gravel drive, but the rain held off. The windows were wide open, but somebody pulled down the blinds. A servant entered and laid a violin case on the piano.
"I am going to ask you to play," Falmer remarked, the dark eyes under those thick brows bent on Netta. Just for the moment it occurred to her that she could not have refrained, even had she wished. "It's bad taste, but really after what you said before dinner—"
Netta smiled, though a slight shiver ran over her frame.
"I am not in the least like that," she said. "I love playing, with my whole heart and soul. Place a good fiddle close to me, and I can't keep my hands off it. I love it, and other people love it, so why should I not play?"
She took the fiddle tenderly from its place and deftly touched the strings.
She brought the bow crashing over the strings, and instantly the room was filled with liquid melody. For half an hour or more Netta held her audience spellbound. This was the kind of tribute to her genius that she liked and expected. There was a long fluttering sigh all round the room as the sobbing notes died away.
"The critics are right, for once," said Falmer, the first to recover himself. "Technique, expression, phrasing, all are perfect. That movement of Chopin's showed off your powers wonderfully. If you are not tired, will you give us something a little more—well—melodious?"
Netta smiled as she bent over the instrument again. She played something soft and soothing, with a sad melody running through it. Outside in the hall she could see that the servants had crept to listen. The music had drawn even them, as Netta's music drew everybody. Though she was rapt in the passion of her playing, she could see everything that was going on in that hall; she could see Lucille Ganton well to the front, a puzzled, half-satisfied expression on her face. Then the puzzled look cleared to one of pleased satisfaction, and the maid vanished. The bow slackened in Netta's fingers, and she stopped.
"Surely that is not all?"
"No," Netta said in some confusion. "Something—something has gone wrong with one of my strings. Oh, yes, I see what has happened, I will finish when I have repaired the mischief."
She bent over her fiddle, and did something industriously for a few seconds. She would almost have sacrificed her precious Cremona to know what Lucille Ganton was doing at that moment. As a matter of fact, the woman hurried past the servant's quarters, along a corridor, where at one time the offices of the Langworthy estates had been situated. At last she came to a room, the door of which she opened without ceremony.
A man sat writing, a neat-looking man, who might have passed for an exceedingly respectable City clerk. His hair was red, his eyes met nothing squarely, they were grey and shifty and cunning, with queer lights in them at certain times.
"Well," the man said impatiently, "what's the matter now?"
"It's exactly as I told you, Neil," Lucille said. "I felt pretty sure I recognized Nellie Landon. I want you to come and see.'"
"Come and see! You were in the Landon household as well as me. What do you want two witnesses for?"
"Because I want to be certain. You must have known her up to fifteen or so."
"Well, what if I did?" Jackman asked impatiently. "I've no doubt I should recognize the girl. She was for everlasting playing the fiddle. When I took service with Mr. Masters—"
"And helped in his ruin, and took a place under Gordon Falmer, who finished that ruin. Did you not hear of the fiddling girl that Mr. Masters took up and was going to marry, ay, would have married, had not the crash come?"
"I never happened to see her," Jackman said slowly.
"Well, she's in the house to-night. What is she here for? Because she knows that the root of the mystery is under this roof. And if she gets at the truth, good-bye to your scheme and mine. Do you understand that?"
The sinister grin had crept into Jackman's eyes.
"You're a sharp one," he said with some admiration. "But I expect you have made a mistake this time. If you were quite certain—"
"But I can't be, man. Oh, she is a clever one! I tried her before dinner, and failed. But you must see her for yourself and make sure. She's got to catch that train at the junction about midnight, and Watson is going to drive her over in the motor. So just before that time it will be your business to be hanging about the porch."
"I'll be there," he said. "But I'm sure you have found a mare's nest. Is that the girl playing? My word, she is a wonder!"
The wailing cry of the music filled the whole house. The melody was an unusual one that Netta had found for herself, and she only played it when she felt certain of the sympathy of her audience.
She played it now entirely from memory, with her eyes turned on the listeners. She knew that she had touched their hearts from the very first chords. Then she saw Gordon Falmer start as if he were about to say something, and noted the whiteness of his face, and the muscles standing out in knots on the back of his hand as he grasped a chair rigidly. His face grew whiter and still more set, and beads glistened on his forehead.
Netta played on till the air sobbed away and died like a sigh. Falmer's face was very white still, but not more white or more motionless than that of Lady Langworthy. He crossed over to Netta, and his eyes gleamed like fire into hers.
"Where did you get that?" he asked hoarsely.
There was a challenge in his tone. Netta's face flushed.
"That I cannot tell you," she said firmly. "I do not care to speak of it. The whole circumstances are connected with a most unhappy time of my life, you must understand."
Falmer uttered something that might have been a curse but for a sudden deafening crash of thunder. But the girl could see that her companion was agitated and nervous in no ordinary degree. She placed her violin in its case and closed the lid carefully.
"No more music to-night," she said as a murmur of protest arose. "The storm unsteadies me, and I am not doing my best. Besides, it is past eleven."
"But you can't possibly go out in this storm!" the host exclaimed. "True, it does not rain, but we shall have a deluge before long. Agreeably to your request, I have ordered the motor round, but I am certain that—"
"I must be going," she said. "Lady Langworthy, you will believe me when I say that nothing but urgent business takes me away. Good-bye."
Lady Langworthy muttered something. The play of the lightning was continuous. A group of guests crowded into the hall to see the plucky violinist depart. Outside on the lawn two figures lurked—Lucille and Jackman.
"I wish she'd come and get it over," the latter grumbled. "I loathe this kind of thing. A storm always takes the manhood out of me. I'm as frightened as a child."
"She's coming," Lucille said with some impatience. "Here she comes! Why doesn't she show her face? If she would only turn this way! Great powers of heaven—"
Suddenly the whole sky opened, and a blinding flood of light filled the horizon. There was a singeing smell, a deafening crash, the shrieks of women and, like magic, that which before had been a motor-car was a mass of crumpled metal.
"Back to the house!" Sir John cried. "I would not permit any guest of mine to start in such a storm as this. Thank God, here is the rain!"
The doors were closed; the rain came down with a snarl and a roar. The whole world seemed to echo to the reverberation of it. Lucille, almost blinded by the glare, had sunk to her knees, her hands pressed to her eyes. The sharp sting of the cold rain brought her to herself. She staggered to her feet and looked about her. Something soft lay huddled on the ground. She touched it and called, but no response came. Then in sheer agony and terror she screamed again and again. A door opened, and somebody came out.
"It's Mr. Jackman," Lucille shrieked. "He's killed, he's killed!"
The drive seemed to be full of men. The prostrate figure was raised and carried into the hall.
"He's not dead!" Falmer cried. "See how he has struggled to his feet."
Truly, Jackman was on his feet, his hands clasped to his face. A dreadful groan burst from him, and he tore madly at his eyes.
"Not dead," he yelled, "or injured; only, God help me, blind, blind, blind!"
NETTA covered her face with her hands as if to shut out the painful scene. The whole thing had been so vivid, and, above all, so unexpected. And yet the conviction forced itself upon the girl's mind that here was a good omen for her success.
Greatly daring, she approached the group gathered round the unhappy Jackman. He sat moaning and trembling on a chair whilst one of the house party examined his eyes. Fortunately a doctor was amongst the guests.
"He must be got to bed," the latter said presently. "Then he shall have a strong sleeping draught. I dare say it is only temporary."
The guests were returning to the drawing-room. The storm was passing away, and the air had grown cool and fresh. Netta drew the doctor on one side.
"Is it a very bad case?" she asked.
"Really I cannot tell," was the reply. "You see, it is out of my line. I am a heart specialist, in fact I am here more or less looking after Mr. Falmer. But one thing I am certain of—even under the best treatment that poor fellow will not see for many months, the optic nerve is paralysed."
Netta breathed more freely, though she could not help feeling ashamed of herself. But she was glad to feel she was safe. Then she turned the conversation.
"Mr. Falmer does not look like a weak man," she said.
"Nevertheless, his heart is in a very bad state. He pays me a large salary to watch after him; I am what you might call a private doctor."
"He must be a rich man, then?" Netta suggested. "Who is he?"
Dr. Mason Rayford confessed that he did not know. Falmer was one of the class of men who emerge from nowhere apparently with all the evidences of enormous wealth about them.
"He seems to have no feelings or emotions," Rayford went on. "I have only seen him moved really once, and that was to-night, when you played that exquisite melody. There is a romance somewhere if we could only fathom it."
Netta thought so too.
In the hall below most of the guests were chatting and laughing as if the accident of an hour ago had never been. Lady Langworthy, without her white mask, and looking charming and natural, came up to Netta and began to talk.
"Your bedroom is the fifth along the corridor by the big window," she said. "My maid has seen that you have everything for the night. You don't want to start too early, I hope?"
"Time makes little difference now," Netta said, "seeing that I have missed my appointment. Being tied to time is one of the things that always worry me."
Lady Langworthy laughed, and then her face suddenly grew rigid again. Netta knew that Gordon Falmer must be close by. His long shadow loomed in a sinister way between guest and hostess. He seemed to draw Lady Langworthy's glance to him.
"Then I am afraid that you do not wind your watch up regularly," he said.
Netta admitted the correctness of the charge. A joke hovered on her lips, but it seemed difficult to jest in the presence of this man with the strange eyebrows. He tapped his waistcoat pocket in what struck Netta as a significant manner.
"I always wind up my watch at one o'clock," he said.
It seemed absurd even to Netta, but it struck her that there was a note of warning in the seemingly inane speech. There must be a hidden meaning behind it. Lady Langworthy's face had grown still paler, and there was a mute appeal in her eyes. She looked like one who was fascinated by some poisonous snake, and was praying for help. Of course, it was pure imagination. Netta thought her nerves were unstrung, but she could not rid herself of that impression. She felt sure this woman was utterly in this man's power, and that he was using her for unworthy ends. Sir John came up at the same moment, and gently touched his wife's hair. She turned and smiled on him tenderly. Surely there was no acting here; Lady Langworthy loved her husband.
"A model pair," Falmer suggested with just the touch of a sneer. "My love is like a melody that's sweetly played in tune! Like your melody, in fact."
"Which one do you mean?" Netta asked guardedly.
"Why, that uncommon piece tonight. Won't you tell me where you got it?"
The question was pleading, and yet there was a hint of command in it. The dark eyes played like summer lightning over Netta's face, the heavy eyebrows cast a shadow over her, and for a moment Netta felt that she must give the desired information. But she put the impulse aside; come what might this man should not fascinate her.
"I cannot tell you," she said coldly. "I play that melody because I love it, and because it is a piece of inspiration. No piece so moves my audiences. But it is more or less connected with a sad time in my life, and I discuss that with nobody."
"Then you refuse to tell me where you got it?"
The dark eyes were flashing. He was a man accustomed to his own way, and not very scrupulous as to the means by which he attained his ends.
"Refuse is a strong word to use," Netta said. "Shall we say I decline to discuss the matter?"
Her eyes met those of her antagonist boldly. Falmer smiled and adroitly changed the subject. The house party was thinning by this time, and several of the guests had retired to rest. Netta rose with a wearied gesture.
"Night's candles are burning out," she said. "It is getting time to wind your watch, Mr. Falmer."
The speech was innocent, but Gordon Falmer started as if something had stung him. He glanced suspiciously at Netta, but she appeared to see nothing. But she knew for a certainty now that that little speech about the watch had a secret meaning. As she passed into her room she was still puzzling over the mystery. The chatter in the hall had ceased, and she could hear the sharp click of the electrics as the servants switched off the lights.
Very slowly and thoughtfully Netta undressed. One faint light had been left in the corridor. Netta lay in bed with her door not quite closed. She had come to explore a mystery, and she had not the slightest intention of throwing any chance away. She had come, greatly daring, on behalf of the man she loved; she was bold and resolute, and would do anything for Reggie.
That the key of the mystery was here she was morally certain. The partial recognition of Lucille Ganton and the presence of Neil Jackman proved it. But who was Gordon Falmer, and what had he to do with the matter? And why did he exercise a strange magnetic influence over Lady Langworthy?
The affair was not over yet, or Falmer would not have made that singular allusion to one o'clock.
Netta, not in the least inclined for sleep, watched the lobby, the darkness of which was broken by the narrow streak of light. The big clock over the stables struck the hour of one.
"I wish I had the gift of second sight," Netta murmured. "I wish I possessed the gift of fernseed that I could walk invisible. Then I—"
The girl paused suddenly. There came the sound of a suppressed cry, followed by the flash of some white body past the small slit of light which filtered in from the corridor. Some person was moving along swiftly, and in a manner that betokened familiarity with the mansion. Netta jumped out of bed and looked cautiously out of the door.
The doors were closely shut along the corridor, and nobody was to be seen. All the same, Netta did not feel like letting the chance pass. No guest would have given that strange, strangled cry, and remain absolutely silent afterwards. Netta hesitated with her hand upon the door. As she stood she heard a faint click, and the feeble light in the corridor went out.
Then there must be somebody there. The light could not go out without human agency. But where did the hand come from, and why—?
"How stupid of me!" Netta said half aloud. "Why, I had forgotten the double corridor, and the way into it. Something is going on in the old wing. It may have connexion with my dear boy, or it may not. I must see for myself."
Netta hurriedly dressed, and started with a box of matches. She would fumble her way along the corridor by the light of the waning moon. If she were discovered it would be easy to invent some apocryphal cat that was disturbing her slumbers. But nobody was about, and from some of the bedrooms proceeded an occasional snore. It was such a prosaic contrast to Netta's adventure that she smiled. At length she reached the door at the end of the corridor, and opening it carefully passed beyond. As she did so another door that seemed a long way off closed with a sullen bang that echoed like thunder down the corridor.
Netta's heart literally stood still for a moment. Surely a window or a door leading to the outer world must be open, or there would never have been so much draught. Netta lit one of her vestas, but it was blown out directly. She could hear now the sound of smothered voices and a laugh that was instantly suppressed. As Netta half turned to gather a little light from the great stained window she saw that a shadow was pressed against it, the figure of a man who seemed to be fumbling for something. The girl started back, as if fearful of being seen, till it dawned upon her that the glass was opaque and that nothing could be discovered from the outside.
Presently the violent draught ceased and the distant door banged again. Once more, with her hand for a shield, Netta lighted a match and trailed the faint illumination on the floor. The oak boards were thick with dust, and here down the centre of the corridor, going away from the window, was the clear imprint of a small foot that could only have belonged to a woman—and a lady at that. The impression was so fresh that it must have been made in the last few minutes.
Whose footprint was it, and where did it go? Netta asked the question in vain. But if she could not tell whose it was she would make sure on one point. She blew out the match, and hurriedly returned the way she had come. Then she tapped at Lady Langworthy's bedroom door.
No reply came, and Netta walked in. The lights were still up, the silken curtains of the bed were drawn, but no sound proceeded from behind them. Netta pulled the curtains aside, her little speech was ready framed to her lips, but there was no occasion to use it. The sheets were turned down and the silk and lace coverlet was thrown aside.
But the room was empty!
NETTA drew a long, deep breath. The mystery was here then, though, perhaps, this had nothing to do with the object of her search. The girl felt hot and uncomfortable as it flashed across her that she might be on the track of a vulgar intrigue. But being loyal and honourable, reflection satisfied her that that was extremely unlikely.
The more Netta thought over it the more certain was she that Falmer was in some way at the bottom of the mystery. The remark as to the winding up of his watch at one o'clock was little less than a command which Lady Langworthy had obeyed shrinkingly, as a reluctant dog comes to the lash. Netta must find out more about it.
She had not long to wait, for almost before she could leave the room Lady Langworthy entered.
"How much longer, dear heaven!" she murmured. "How far can I bear it, and—"
She paused, a sudden wave of crimson flushing her face. Yet—and Netta was only too glad to observe it—she did not look guilty. When she spoke her voice trembled, but her tones were cold and clear.
"I did not expect to find anybody here," she said. "I had merely been—"
She paused, for no ready falsehood rose to her lips. Netta forced a smile.
"I certainly did expect to find somebody here," she said. "I am sorry to intrude, but could you let me have a little eau-de-Cologne? These nervous headaches—"
It was Netta's turn to pause. Lady Langworthy regarded her steadily. The latter had recovered her composure, but she pressed her hand to her heart from time to time, as if its violent beating were a pain to her.
"Oh, you shall have the eau-de-Cologne," she said disdainfully. "Tell me, did you hear what I said when I came in just now?"
Netta nodded. She would have prevaricated if she could, but to do so was unfamiliar to her.
"I am very sorry I came," she said. "You are ill and in trouble. If I could help you in any way—"
"Nobody can help me. My trouble is my own. You will keep this to yourself?"
"Not a word of it shall be said to any of your friends," Netta murmured.
"That is all I ask. Here is the scent that you require. Goodnight."
Netta took the cut-glass bottle and withdrew—but not to sleep. Her brain was clear and excited, and she had no desire to close her eyes. She had touched the fringe of the mystery, and her own wish was to probe deeper. She walked boldly along the corridor until she came to the great window again. The stable clock struck three.
The moon was fading, but the first faint streaks of dawn filled the east with a pale pink flush. As Netta stood there the figure of the man she had seen some time ago was pressed once again against the lightening panes. A moment later and the large ventilator, working on a pivot, opened slowly, and then the stranger crept deftly in.
Netta restrained her first impulse to cry out. But as she saw the man's foot touch the floor she restrained herself. She stood behind the shadow of an old Flemish cabinet, and waited. Evidently the man knew his ground.
He advanced into the corridor coolly, and made his way through the little door leading to the corridor beyond. Taking her courage in both hands, Netta followed. Who could the man be, and what was he doing here?
Her wonder increased a moment later. The man paused and coolly lighted a cigarette. His back was still to Netta, so that even now she could not see his face. Then he began to whistle softly between his teeth the very tender and winsome air that Netta had played, the air which had had so strange an effect on Gordon Falmer.
Netta gasped. Where had this man picked up that tune? There were portions of it, liquid variations, that she had never played to any one outside her own house. And yet this man was whistling it with practised ease. It seemed to Netta that she must wake presently and find that the thing had been a long, strange dream.
But here was the stranger very much in the flesh, and the notes of the melody were low but perfectly clear. As Netta stood trembling with excitement from head to foot, another figure came in sight, and Gordon Falmer's dark eyes and shaggy brows emerged from the gloom.
"So you have come at last," he said. "Why have you kept me waiting?" He spoke in a hoarse whisper and seemed to be very much moved about something. If the police had been waiting for him outside he might have been less agitated.
"I came and I went," the stranger explained. "I have a friend outside who has little time to spare, and—"
"You don't mean to say that you have found Reginald Masters?"
Netta fairly caught her breath. But, eagerly as she followed the conversation, she was not so eager as Gordon Falmer was in asking the question. She was getting into the heart of the mystery; she was enjoying more good fortune than she had any right to expect.
"No such luck as that," the stranger said. "All the same, I came in before. I got as far as the door of your private sitting-room and then I heard voices. Place aux dames, you know; I recognized the voice of a lady, and I did not care to intrude."
"Lady Langworthy," Falmer said, indifferently. "She essayed to pit her will against mine; she has been showing fight, and I had to give her a lesson. I don't fancy she will threaten me again. Now, as to Masters?"
"I can tell you nothing about Masters. He has disappeared. I don't like it, because you don't know where he is going to strike. But I have settled the other matter. Let us go to your room, where we can have a smoke and a whisky and soda—this place is too confoundedly draughty for me."
Falmer turned on his heel and the other man followed. Netta crept after them at a respectful distance. She could not risk the chance of being discovered now. The pair passed out of the corridor into a side wing until they came to a room, the door of which they closed. Netta stood with her ear close to the door. But the room was very large, and the door very thick, and excepting a confused murmur of voices the girl heard nothing.
She crept back again to the door leading into the second corridor, and there sat down doggedly to wait. There was no chance of being disturbed by a servant, because the second corridor was rarely visited. Still, it would be as well to be on the safe side, Netta thought. She would have time to change into her morning dress before the intruder departed.
She hurried into her room and tore off her evening gown. Then she slipped into a plain grey serge and brushed her hair back. She bathed her face and hands with cold water, and the touch of it brightened her up, though she was not in the least degree sleepy.
Now nothing mattered. If anybody saw her she had merely got up early to examine the old house. It was practically daylight, and the person who was closeted with Falmer could not remain much longer. Moreover, it was pretty certain that he must leave by the way he had come. And Netta must see him. So far as she knew, he was a stranger to her, but he was an enemy of Reggie's, and to know whom she had to deal with was necessary.
Netta sat waiting till the clock struck five. The glorious sunshine was filling the corridor with streams of pallid blue and orange from the famous window. The household would be stirring soon; the watcher was beginning to despair. Perhaps the man had been let out by another door; but in that case, why had he come to the window? Then a board creaked, and a figure appeared at the end of the corridor.
Netta slipped behind one of the tapestry hangings. Her patience was to be rewarded at last; she would see the face of the enemy.
But it was no stranger that Netta looked upon after the vigil of the weary hours. The man was Gordon Falmer; Falmer with a white and troubled face and eyes full of a strange foreboding.
"Well, I think I'll go to bed," Netta said, catching herself in a heavy yawn. "Evidently my man has taken his departure by a more prosaic way. Still, I have found out a great deal, very much more than I expected. Reggie must know of this. If the dear boy had only given me an address where to write to him! But that will come in time."
Netta walked sleepily to her room, for Nature had gained the upper hand at last. Netta was hardly on the pillow before she was sound asleep. When she awoke Lady Langworthy was standing before her.
"I came to see if your head was all right," she said. "I sent your maid away. Have you forgotten about your headache?"
"It is a mere dream," Netta said, "like other things last night."
Lady Langworthy's face grew grave for a moment. "It is very good of you to say that," she answered.
"We all have our troubles, and some how they seem worse at night than at any other time. What is it?"
For Amy, the maid, had burst into the room, her eyes starting and her cheeks white as milk.
"A dreadful thing, my lady," she cried. "I have just heard it in the servants' hall. Dr. Rayford has just told Sir John, and he didn't like to disturb the household in the night—"
"What is wrong?" Netta demanded.
"It's about a gentleman called Mr. Falmer, miss. Dr. Rayford, who sleeps near him, heard a sound in the night, and went into the gentleman's room. He was dead."
"Gordon Falmer dead!" Lady Langworthy cried. "Impossible! That would be too good fortune to—what am I saying? Child, you are dreaming."
But it was no dream. Lady Langworthy and Netta hurried downstairs and encountered a grave-faced set of people in the morning-room. Dr. Rayford was speaking.
"There was no object in arousing everybody," he said. "As you know, I am a light sleeper, and I keep close to Mr. Falmer, as he frequently needs me in the night. Early this morning I heard him making a choking noise. I knew what that meant directly, so I hurried into his room. He was dead—he had died with awful celerity. If there had been anything to gain by it I should have aroused the house, but there wasn't. I dozed in a chair till late, or I should have let you know before."
"But it is impossible," Netta cried, "quite impossible that Mr. Falmer can be—"
The girl paused in some confusion, which Dr. Rayford seemed to misunderstand.
"It does seem hard to believe," he said. "Even to a medical man these things are terrible. One thing will be avoided; there need be no inquest. I am prepared to give a certificate of death, only I shall call in a local doctor to certify with me. This should be done without delay."
"What time did the poor man die?" asked Netta.
"It was just four o'clock," Rayford explained. "The sound of the stable clock woke me. There is no question as to the hour."
Netta turned away to hide her quivering face. Falmer had died at four o'clock, and yet she had seen him face to face in the gallery at five, an hour later. What new mystery was this?
NETTA considered whether she should say anything of what she had seen, or whether it would be better to keep the knowledge to herself. Very little would be gained by telling her story. Nobody would believe it.
On the face of the evidence, Dr. Rayford's statement would carry absolute conviction with it. Rayford was more or less Gordon Falmer's private medical adviser. He had been aroused early in the morning by suspicious sounds emanating from the room of his patient, and he had gone at once, only to find the unfortunate man dead. Besides, there was the lifeless clay upstairs at the present moment for anybody to examine.
Netta turned to Dr. Rayford eagerly.
"It is a most shocking thing," she said. "Tell me, did Mr. Falmer suffer from fits of any kind. I mean the faints that look like death?"
Rayford shook his head. He had never noticed anything of that kind. There was a quick, questioning glance in his eyes that bade Netta be careful.
"I always think these sudden deaths are so dreadful," she said. "I have ever had a horror of being buried alive. I suppose there have been authentic cases of such things?"
"A few," Rayford explained. "But they mostly exist in the lively imagination of newspaper reporters, and are generally born in America."
"And there are sham cases," Netta said. "I read some time ago of a man who could throw himself in a trance so that even the doctors were deceived."
Rayford admitted that also. Sir John came up at this moment.
"I have sent for Dr. Manning," he said. "You said you wanted the opinion of a colleague. Is there anybody else we can send for? Of course, you know where the poor fellow's relatives are to be found. If you will give me a few names I'll wire."
"I am as much in the dark as you are," said Rayford. "Practically, I have lived for eighteen months under the same roof as Falmer, but I know nothing of him. He may have been the son of a duke or a dustman for all I know. The man never alluded to himself at all. His solicitor is equally in the dark, for he told me so. Falmer was rich, but I haven't the least idea how he made his money. That man of his, Jackman, the poor fellow who had the accident last night, may tell you, but I doubt it."
Sir John bustled off in his kindly way to find Jackman. Most of the guests were busy consulting time-tables. Everybody seemed to be more or less affected by the tragedy, following so quickly upon the accident of the previous night, and all were anxious to get away but Netta. As a matter of fact, she was racking her brains for an excuse to stop. She had just touched the fringe of the mystery; her instinct told her that important developments were at hand. She watched Lady Langworthy closely. The latter was quiet and subdued, but every now and then a great glad light blazed into her eyes, and a certain curious relief was on her face.
"She is the happier for that man's death," Netta told herself; "that is, if he is dead. This maddening puzzle is getting worse and worse. Is Gordon Falmer dead, or is there some deeper conspiracy afoot in which Dr. Rayford is involved?"
Meanwhile Sir John was getting nothing out of Jackman. The latter, still too unhinged and ill by the shock to travel, sat huddled up in the housekeeper's room, his eyes bandaged in accordance with Rayford's instructions. He began to understand at length that his master was dead, and that Sir John was questioning him as to Palmer's antecedents.
"I know nothing, sir," Jackman said. "My brain is so confused, and I am so broken up by my terrible misfortune that I can't think, even. No, Sir John, I know nothing of my master. He was what you call a sphinx."
"But he had private letters, sometimes, Jackman?"
"Never, sir. Nothing but social letters and the like. For the eighteen months I have been with Mr. Falmer I have opened every letter that came. I believe my master had a past, though I never could get to the bottom of it."
Sir John smiled at this naive confession. Evidently there was something wrong, but there are many rich, self-made men in Society to-day who would shrink from searching investigation into their past. Sir John went back to the hall.
"I can make nothing of it," he said. "Ah, here is Dr. Manning at last!"
From without came the sound of horses' hoofs. A well-set-up, smart-looking man with a clean-shaven face and a clear eye dismounted from his horse, and gave the bridle to a servant, who was also mounted.
"I shall be here some time," he said. "Perhaps you had better take the horse round to the stables. Well, Sir John, this is a very sad business."
Netta stepped under the blind through the open window on to the drive. The atmosphere of the house was getting insufferable. She glanced up at the glossy horses, and the mounted servant civilly touched his hat to her, Netta looked up, and her heart beat wildly.
"Reggie," she whispered. "Reggie, is it really you?"
The handsome brown face of the groom quivered, but said nothing. Under pretence of admiring and petting the horses Netta drew closer. Her limbs were trembling beneath her, but outwardly she gave no sign of agitation.
"You heard what the doctor said," she murmured, "I am going across to the summer-house by the side of the lake. Will you join me there?"
The groom touched his hat again and rode slowly away. With heart that beat high and a flush on her face Netta made her way across the lawn. A minute later and her lover joined her. There was nobody in sight and they were not likely to be disturbed. No word was spoken for a long while, but those strong arms held Netta tightly, and her lips were warm with kisses. Her eyes were dim with tears as she looked up at length.
"Now, perhaps, you will tell me what all this means, Reggie," she asked.
"I am too bewildered to think, my darling," Reggie Masters smiled. "Fancy finding you here!"
"But, my dear boy, I was certain to find my way here sooner or later," Netta protested. "Those papers you gave me when you—you disappeared, supplied a hint where to look for the mystery. But I don't even know why you have run away."
"To put it plainly, I was accused of stealing £10,000."
"Dearest, I would never believe it of you. But tell me about it. You will not be needed for some time."
"Then let us sit down here where I can put my arms about you and feel your living presence. Oh, my dear, if you only knew how I have longed for you!"
Netta nestled closer to the speaker.
"And I for you, darling," she whispered. "I will never forget how you found me in the hour of my deep despair and set my feet on the ladder. And then you told me you loved me and wanted to make me your wife. You seemed to be rich then. Why, when I went for my year in Paris you had everything. I used to laugh at you because you insisted upon keeping your position as cashier in the big shipping office of Greening and Company."
"That was because I promised my father I would do something till I was thirty," Reggie said. "It was a good thing I did, because I lost all my money when you were in Paris. My dear, that money simply vanished—it was the most mysterious affair. But that I will tell you of another time. I kept that secret from you when you were in Paris, because I knew it would worry you, and that you would no longer let me pay your tuition fees. But I was getting £500 a year from Greening's people, and that was more than sufficient for my—wants—and yours."
Netta's eyes grew dim as she kissed the speaker tenderly.
"How noble, how generous of you!" she murmured. "If I had only known!"
"If you had only known, my darling, you would have come home at once, and your chances would have been wasted. Whereas you are world-famous and happy."
"Never happy so long as your name is under a cloud," Netta protested passionately. "I am famous, and I am growing rich, but it is all for your sake, Reggie. I got your one letter, but the second one you mentioned in your telegram never reached me, and you gave me no address. Therefore, I have been more or less working in the dark. I knew that I had to come here to discover certain things. Reggie, what is your association with Lady Langworthy?"
"Simply that I was madly in love with her two years ago."
Netta checked a jealous pang.
"I was infatuated with her," Reggie went on. "The infatuation lasted until Providence brought you and me together again, and then the old pure love of my boyhood revived, and I saw with clearer eyes. But I could never refrain from admiring Lady Langworthy."
"She was not Lady Langworthy then, Reggie?"
"No, she was Hilda Mallory, the brilliant young actress whose beauty and talent took London by storm. Sir John Langworthy was even then an admirer. Doubtless his money won him the day."
"I don't think so," said Netta, with a quiet sense of justice. "Lady Langworthy loves her husband. She is dreadfully unhappy about something; there was a man here who had a hold upon her. But that hold has been removed."
"You mean that the man has gone away?"
"No, that he is dead. The gentleman who died here this morning is the man who held Lady Langworthy's fate in the hollow of his hand. He was called Gordon Palmer, a rich man of mysterious antecedents. Do you happen to know the name?"
Reggie shook his head; he was bound to confess that the name conveyed nothing to him.
"I am glad to hear that Hilda Langworthy cares for her husband," he said. "Women understand these things better than men, so I suppose it must be a fact. Langworthy is a fine fellow, and deserves all the good fortune he gets. But Hilda Langworthy ruined me."
"Reggie, are you not going to tell me about it! Then I shall have a great deal to tell you."
"My dearest, I am going to tell you. My employer, old Mr. Greening, is very austere, and has a great objection to vice in any form. Gambling he especially holds in detestation. His son, Harold, is quite different. At his rooms and in the set he mingles with bridge is played for enormously high stakes. Now, in that set there happened to be Hilda Langworthy, Hilda Mallory that was. She had had a tremendous run of ill-luck, and had lost nearly £10,000.
"Of course, she could not hope to pay it. You know the consequences of defaulting in Society. You can commit any crime under the sun, and the doors of Society will never be closed to you; but if you repudiate your card debts you might as well commit suicide. Now, about this time it chanced that there was a big gamble going on at a dinner given in the house of my employer by his son. The old gentleman was away in the North of England on a very important piece of business, and I had to stay late at the office, waiting for a telegram. On the result of that telegram depended whether or not I parted with the sum of £10,000, which I had in notes in the safe. Never mind what the business was."
"But the gambling under the roof of one who so strongly objected!" Netta said.
"Well, you see he was away. Besides, if he had come home he would not have understood. He did not object to cards as cards, and as his son and his friends used private terms he was deluded into the belief that they were playing a shilling a hundred, whereas shillings meant pounds. So that they could gamble to their hearts' content under his very roof."
"It seems a very low thing to do," Netta said.
"Something of the same sort has occurred in other quarters before this, you know," Reggie said drily. "At any rate it was done by people of high degree. This big gambling was the talk of the clubs, and everybody knew how fearfully Hilda Mallory was dipped, everybody but Sir John, and it would have been dangerous to say anything to him about it.
"Well, the night of this party I was waiting in my office, as I told you just now, waiting for that message. Presently the telephone bell rang, and my employer spoke to me. At first I thought that it was a long-distance message, but presently I learnt that the business had gone off, and that Mr. Greening had returned home by an earlier train than had been expected. He wanted to see me as soon as possible at his private residence, and I was to take the bundle of notes with me. He said that he was expecting a further business call, and that if he was not in on my arrival I was to place the notes in the roll-top desk in his study and wait for him. If he did not come back in half an hour I need not stay longer.
"Well, the thing looked perfectly regular and in order, and I went. When the footman came to the door he said his master was not in, which was very natural, seeing that Mr. Greening had not come home at all, as you will hear presently. I waited for half an hour, and then I placed the notes in the desk, and pulled the top down. Those desks lock automatically, as you know, and I seemed to have made everything quite safe.
"As I reached the hall to go, Harold Greening came out of the room where the gambling was going on. He seemed surprised to hear his father was home again, and hustled me into the gambling party and made me sit down. They had forgotten their code of counting, and I had forgotten it. At the end of the rubber, I found, to my surprise, that I had won £200, and I refused to take it. They made me do so, greatly against my will, but I would not play any more. Presently I left the house richer by two separate hundred pound Bank of England notes.
"So far that was all right, and I was troubled by no suspicion of anything wrong. I did not worry even the next day when my employer failed to come to business. I thought nothing that the subject of talk of the club at luncheon time was that Hilda Mallory had paid her card debts. Next day the crash came. Mr. Greening asked me for those notes. I said what I had done. He said that he had recently used his desk, and that the notes were not there. He had not called me on the telephone; in fact he had not come home the night of the gambling party. From the very first I could see that he did not believe my story. But that is not the worst. I changed one of the notes I had won at bridge, and it was proved that that note had come out of the parcel that I had taken to Mr. Greening's house.
"There were only two Bank of England notes that could be traced, and these two notes had by some means been forced upon me. The other notes had come back from the Continent, where they had changed hands so frequently that their history could not be traced. And there I was. I lost my nerve, and disappeared, and so far that is the end of my story. But I feel sure that Lady Langworthy can explain the mystery."
"But I don't see where she comes in," Netta said.
"Don't you? I am certain she paid her gambling debts out of that money. You have a footing in the house, Netta; you say you have discovered strange things. It is for you to try to ascertain how far Lady Langworthy knows the truth. Now, what do you know?"
Netta briefly told her story. She had not quite finished when through the leaves she saw Sir John Langworthy crossing the lawn. She rose hurriedly.
"Stay here," she said. "I think Sir John is looking for me. If it is you who are wanted I will hold up my hand as a signal."
Sir John was coming across the grass with what looked like a large sheet of paper in his hand.
"I wanted to see you particularly, Miss Sherlock," he said.
With a significant smile Sir John Langworthy held out the big sheet of paper. It was music manuscript written in a cramped, classical hand. As Netta swept her practised eyes along the first few bars she saw to her intense surprise that it was the score of the little piece she had played the night before, that piece that had so agitated the dead man.
"I did not know that a copy existed," Netta said. "It is very strange."
"Very strange indeed," Sir John said thoughtfully. "I noticed how your playing of that piece affected the poor fellow. Where did it come from?"
"That I am sorry to have to decline to tell," Netta replied. "It is a private matter that I cannot disclose to anybody. If it is mentioned at the inquest—"
"There will be no inquest," Sir John said. "The cause of death is so well-known to Dr. Rayford that an inquest and post-mortem are not necessary, that is, of course, if Dr. Manning agrees, as I have not the slightest doubt he will."
At that moment Manning and Rayford came excitedly out of the house. The former's voice was loud and carried far. He seemed very much moved.
"I am certain of it!" he exclaimed. "My dear fellow, I wasn't doctor in a convict prison all these years for nothing. I tell you your man is an old gaol bird, and what is more he must have been a desperate rascal at one time, as those marks on the back—"
"But they might have been the result of an accident, my dear sir."
"Not a bit of it, my distinguished colleague. Those lines on the back of the dead man are marks of the cat. Those peculiar indentations around the wrist and ankles tell me Langworthy's guest had been many times in irons. Langworthy, you are well out of this."
Sir John listened in amazement to Manning's story. Netta had slipped away again, and was with her lover.
"We have only a few minutes left," she said. "Dr. Manning has come out and will be calling for you presently. Reggie, they have made a most startling discovery. They say Gordon Falmer is an old convict. It is an extraordinary affair altogether. First, the man is dead, and then I see him afterwards. As if I could mistake that long, thin face, and those bushy eyebrows—"
"What's that?" Reggie demanded suddenly. His face had grown very white and set. "Pray tell me about him; you did not give any details before, probably because you had such a lot to tell me. Now paint me a word picture of Gordon Falmer."
Netta sketched off the man rapidly, Reggie listening with breathless attention.
"Now we are getting on," he said at length. "I know that man now, I know him well. And I used to think he was my friend. But I have no time to go into that. Netta, that man has certain papers, papers that I must have. They are sure to be in his bedroom. It is a great risk, it is a horrible thing for me even to suggest you should do it, but—"
Netta rose to her feet, her eyes flashing and her breast heaving.
"But it shall be done," she said between her teeth.
NETTA would certainly do what she had promised. It was a strange task to set a young girl, but nobody else could undertake it. There was no time to settle anything more, for Dr. Manning was looking round for his groom. Sir John Langworthy stood scraping the gravel with his foot in a perplexed way. Shocked as he was at the tragedy under his roof, he was chagrined as well. For Sir John was proud, and if he had known of this before, Falmer had never been a guest at Loudwater.
"I can hardly believe it possible," he murmured.
"Well, why not?" Manning asked. "Look at the scores of rich people in Society to-day of whom one knows nothing. There is no reason why this thing should be talked about; it is only known to us, and there will be no inquest, as the cause of death is so plain to a practised medical eye. Would you like to be quite sure, Sir John?"
"Yes," said Langworthy sharply, "I should."
"Then by all means come this way. Williams, what do you want?"
The latter question was asked of Masters, who had pressed eagerly forward. He gave Manning one quick look, and the latter nodded. The little by-play was lost on the rest of the group. Manning strode off towards the house.
"You had better come along, Williams," he said.
"Get one of the under-gardeners to hold the horses. I am asking my man to come along, Sir John, because he is under the impression that he can help us. He rather fancies that Falmer is a person whom he knew, some time ago, in a domestic capacity, eh, Williams?"
In Palmer's bedroom the blinds were drawn and only a dim light stole into the chamber of death. The stricken man lay as if peacefully asleep, his hands folded upon his breast. There was a faint, sweet smell in the room that Manning perceived for the first time. He threw up his head, and sniffed suspiciously.
"I did not notice this before. What do you suppose it is!"
"Flowers," Langworthy explained. "The window is open, and this room looks out directly over one of the conservatories where I have some tropical blooms. On a hot day like this, the lights of the conservatory are sure to be up, hence the smell."
Manning looked doubtful, but he pressed the point no further. He approached the bed and stripped the covering gently away, after which he proceeded to turn the body half over. Then he disclosed a series of criss-cross lines on the back of the dead man.
"There!" he whispered. "What did I tell you! Those marks could only have been made in one way. I have attended too many men who were being flogged to be deceived. That man must have been imprisoned for some very grave crime, or he had never been flogged at all. Are you satisfied now, Sir John?"
"I am convinced," Langworthy admitted. "Really, a most unpleasant thing! But what are we to do with the man?"
"You will have to bury him here," said Manning. "Nobody is likely to turn up yet. I allow it is very unpleasant, but it will have to be done."
"Then will you oblige me by making the necessary arrangements in Coalend?" Sir John said. It was plain that he was terribly annoyed. "I don't understand these things. One thing is very obvious—if Falmer was the rich man he claimed to be, a plentiful crop of relations are certain to turn up sooner or later, which may mean the exhumation of the body for purposes of identification. There is an old disused vault in the churchyard where the body may be laid for the present."
Manning nodded his approval of this suggestion, and Langworthy quitted the room abruptly.
"There is nothing to remain for?" Rayford asked.
"Nothing to keep you here, my dear fellow," Manning replied. "With the help of my man, I will just take a few measurements, so as to save trouble."
Rayford had nothing further to say, and quitted the room. Then Manning softly closed the door and turned eagerly to his companion.
"Well," he asked, "what is it! Do you happen to know this man?"
"I know him by sight very well indeed," Reggie Masters replied. "He was at Mr. Greening's house the night of the card party. He wasn't playing, but looking on over Lady Langworthy's cards. He was the kind of man you would not easily mistake."
"And that is all you have to say?"
"For the present, yes. The rest will be a matter for investigation."
"Pity we can't photograph him," said Manning thoughtfully. "Our cue is to try to get some more details out of young Greening, whose guest your man was that night. Masters, would you mind closing that window for me?"
Manning gave the direction abruptly as if an idea suddenly occurred to him. The scent of the flowers from the conservatory was growing more powerful. But though the window was closed the smell did not disappear, but gradually grew stronger. Manning's kindly face had become hard and stern.
"Look here," he whispered. "Something is going on that I can't get to the bottom of. Knowing your history, and being an old friend of yours, I am convinced that you ire the victim of a foul conspiracy. What smell is this?"
"Not flowers, certainly," Reggie Masters said with conviction. "It reminds me of some powerful new drug. And yet I seem to have smelt it quite recently."
Manning said nothing for a moment and was pensively gazing at the still figure on the bed. Meanwhile Masters was struggling with a confused set of recollections. Where had he smelt that strange sweet drug before!
"I've got it," he cried. "Miller's Circus! You recollect my telling you of that singular performance on the part of that queer fellow at Miller's. As you know, I am fond of strange types of humanity, and that man fascinated me. Many times since that circus has been in Coalend I have been to see that show, and a day or two ago I scraped acquaintance with the performer in question; he even did me the honour of taking a drink at my expense. Well, to make a long story short, that man smelt just like the drug in this room."
"I must see him," said Manning. "I mean to know that fellow. I shall feel greatly surprised if there is not some connexion between the two. Look here."
In a professional way Manning had been arranging the clothing about the dead man. His measuring had bared the arm of the corpse. High up on the forearm was a curious tattoo mark, not the usual bird or beast or weird fish, but a neatly pricked-in copy of a pair of dice in red-brown and the pips in flaming red.
"The strangest piece of work I ever saw," Manning said. "Now, what does it mean?"
Masters had nothing to reply, for he was busy searching the room. Nothing rewarded his search beyond a packet of postcards and some torn scraps of paper in the grate. These he hurriedly collected together and slipped into his pocket. There was a step outside, and Rayford came in.
"Haven't you done yet?" he asked.
Manning explained that they had just finished. With a sign to Manning, Reggie disappeared discreetly with the remark that he would walk the horses as far as the lodge gates. He assumed that Netta would follow him, and she did, under pretence of fondling the steeds.
"I suppose you have found nothing?" she asked.
Reggie proceeded to explain. But there had been no chance of a thorough examination, and he still felt convinced that the papers he needed were there. He had hoped to save Netta her gruesome task, but if she did not care to attempt it, why——
But Netta would not hear of anything of the kind. She had given her promise, and would go through fire and water for the sake of the man she loved. She was going to stay at Loudwater for another night, as she had a concert at Fairford, which was not far away, to-morrow, and Sir John had kindly suggested that a journey to London and back was unnecessary.
"I almost asked myself," Netta admitted. "One word in conclusion, as I see Dr. Manning coming. Don't come here more often than you can help. We have nothing to fear from Neil Jackman now, but Lucille Ganton may recognize you. What deep game these two are playing it will be our business to find out. But don't let that woman recognize you."
DR. MANNING had finished his day's work; he had dined comfortably, and was reclining in his big chair with a well-earned cigar after dinner.
There was a tap at the door presently and Masters came in. His face had lighted up and his eyes were shining.
"I was just going to ring for you," Manning said. "I want you to do something for me, something more or less connected with the events of this morning. Of course you made nothing of those torn papers?"
"Well, I fancy I have," Reggie said guardedly. Evidently lie was keeping himself well in hand. "For the most part those papers conveyed nothing to one's mind. But there was one torn sheet that I put together and I lasted on a card. It looks like foreign note-paper, and is written in a cramped hand. There are only three words on it. See here."
Reggie laid the paper under the strong light of the electric reading-lamp. As he said, it was nothing more or less than a sheet of flimsy foreign note, with three words across the centre:
"Your next throw."
"Well, what do you make of that?" Manning asked.
"I could make nothing out of it at first," Peggie said, "except that it was some sign from a confederate. I was going to give it up altogether, when the solution came to me like a flash. It alludes to the dice."
"To the dice! What possible connexion can there be with the dice?"
"Well, the words say 'Your next throw.' That must allude to dice; at any rate it is a dicing metaphor, indicating that some dangerous or desperate enterprise is about to be attempted, and that the operator on this occasion was to have been Gordon Falmer. Isn't it more than curious that such a metaphor should have been used to a man who had two dice tattooed on his arm?"
"By Jove, you are right," Manning cried, excitedly. "It's some secret society or that kind of thing; I see exactly what you mean now. Unless it implied that Falmer was to be the victim of some vendetta, and the letter was sent as a warning."
"Do you mean that he might have been murdered in some way?"
"I don't. I am certain that Falmer died of heart disease. We have got a rough clue to work upon now, and it's odd if we don't make something out of it. What I want to know is the name of that drug we smelt so strongly to-day, and what it is. There is some far deeper mystery here than we are aware of."
"Well, we can go a bit farther on that track, anyway," Reggie smiled. "As I told you, my mysterious friend of Miller's Circus uses, or, at any rate, handles the same drug. Suppose I spend an hour watching the show and then try to draw my man afterwards?"
Manning nodded his approval of this course. Masters merely stopped to make some slight change in his attire, and this being done he made his way through the crowded streets of the busy seaport town till he came at length to the spot where Miller's International Circus had been erected.
Reggie nodded carelessly to the box-keeper, who knew him by sight, and took his place.
Reggie yawned his time away over a cigar; from where he sat he could see partly behind the scenes. A row appeared to be in progress, and from time to time angry voices penetrated into the ring. Reggie caught glimpses of a little dark man, who seemed to be restrained from doing something violent by his companions. Presently he burst from them and dashed into the arena.
He stood there swaying backwards and forwards, apparently hopelessly intoxicated. With a yell he staggered on just as Mme. Lestante, the queen of bare-backed riders, flashed by. There was a swerve and a stumble, and one of the horse's hoofs caught the intoxicated performer full on the side of the head. Then he toppled forward, and lay wriggling convulsively in the sawdust.
A murmur of horror followed from the spectators. Before anybody could interfere Reggie had jumped into the ring and raised the prostrate man as if he had been a child. Presently he laid down his burden out of sight on a pile of empty sacks.
"I hope he isn't killed," the big proprietor of the circus muttered. He stood there in his fur coat and heavy boots, scowling at the prostrate figure. "One of the greatest draws and one of the most troublesome rascals in the show. Is he badly hurt, Mr. Williams?"
Reggie was not able to tell. Presently the other opened his eyes and looked round.
"What's the matter?" he asked. His tone was quiet and refined, his accent perfect. "What was I doing, Miller?"
"Making a fool of yourself, as usual," the big man grunted. "Came here drunk and insisted upon going on at once,"
"Well, I can't go on to-night now," said Signor Lebandi, as he chose to call himself. "You'll have to make my excuses, Miller. My hat—what a head I've got!"
He reeled as he rose to his feet, and would have fallen but for Reggie.
"Better let me take you home," the latter said quietly. "One of the horses kicked you. The blow has sobered you, but you can't perform to-night. If one of these people will call a cab I'll see you are properly looked after."
A cab was called and driven away to Lebandi's lodgings. He had only one large bed-sitting-room, which was littered up with belongings of all sorts—boxing-gloves, foils, fishing-rods, bats, and the like. The atmosphere of the room was heavy with the raw drug that Reggie had noticed that morning at Loudwater.
But no bottles or glasses of any kind were to be seen. There was a perfect litter on the dressing-table, on which any number of small objects had been piled.
One or two things, however, attracted his attention—two tiny articles that he pounced upon and, without the slightest scruple, put into his pocket. Then he went off quietly down the stairs. The landlady was waiting below.
"He's better, I fancy," Reggie explained. "Only he must see a doctor. Don't let him have the chance of refusing. If he is not really better to-morrow send for Dr. Manning. You won't forget to send for Dr. Manning?"
"No better doctor in Coalend," was the reply. "I'll not forget that, sir."
Manning was still up when his servant returned. One quick glance at Reggie's face told him that the latter had news.
"My man was drunk, and met with an accident," Reggie explained. "I took the opportunity of conveying him home to his rooms. The fellow calls himself a Spaniard, yet his English is perfect, and his rooms are like those of a sporting 'Varsity undergraduate. There is a photo of a college set in which our man is one, unless I am greatly mistaken. And the whole room reeks of that drug which was so powerfully in evidence at Loudwater."
"You didn't manage to put your hand upon it?" Manning asked eagerly.
"I didn't," Reggie confessed. "I durst not go too far for fear he should wake up again. But I have so arranged it that you are to be called in professionally to-morrow, so we have made a good start."
"All the same, I imagine you have got something, Reggie."
"Well, I may as well confess that I have," Reggie said quietly. "I saw these on the dressing-table, and took the liberty of borrowing them. They look like being a most important clue to the mystery."
Reggie drew the small objects from his pockets, and laid them on the table. They were darkish brown irregular cubes with crimson patches on them. Manning could not repress a cry as his eyes lighted on them.
"Dice," he exclaimed, "dice made of human knuckle-bones, and painted as to the pips in a vivid scarlet! Where have I seen the like before?"
Reggie laughed as he turned the cubes over.
"Where is your memory?" he asked. "They are a facsimile of the dice tattooed on the arm of Gordon Falmer."
BY a piece of good luck Netta had managed to get her own way in the matter of staying another day at Loudwater.
Lady Langworthy seemed a different woman; the mask-like look had gone from her face; she no longer started at the slightest sound, nor glanced over her shoulder as if afraid of some dreadful unseen thing.
Netta noticed the change, and in some subtle way Lady Langworthy was aware of it. Perhaps she was thinking of the scene in her bedroom on the previous evening. The little luncheon party was a trifle constrained, but not unpleasant on the whole. Sir John went off to his study presently on the plea that he had letters to write. He could see no reason why Netta should not indulge in music of a suitable character.
"Oh, pray do play something!" Lady Langworthy exclaimed. "Something soothing. But do you mind being left alone for a little while! There are one or two small household matters that I must attend to, and as we shall have the house full again all next week I shall have no more favourable opportunity. I shan't be long."
Netta had not the least objection to being alone: in fact, she rather preferred it.
At that hour in the afternoon the maids would have nothing to do, and therefore it was improbable that any of them would be in the upper part of the mansion. She would lurk outside the room where Gordon Falmer lay, she might even enter it, and nobody would be any the wiser.
Yes, here was the room, the door of which was closed and locked, the key being gone. Netta was surprised at this discovery. Why had the key been taken away!
No servant was in the least likely to enter that room. The next room was not locked, and Netta crept in softly. She had expected to find a dressing-room, but it was a sort of study. Then she recollected that Gordon Falmer's suite boasted no dressing-room, but a kind of place that he had used as an office. There was a door opposite that led to his bedroom. There again the key was missing.
With a sigh of disappointment Netta turned away. She had promised Reggie to do certain daring things, but here was an obstacle that rendered her help impracticable. If the papers that Reggie required were not in the study, then it would be impossible to obtain them. Netta looked around for some desk or receptacle of the kind, but none was to be seen. The house was very-quiet, so quiet that Netta almost fancied that she heard somebody moving in the chamber of the dead man.
"I am getting nervous," she muttered. "It is pure fancy. And yet that smell—"
There was no fancy whatever as to the scent of a strong Turkish cigarette. It was not in the study, it was not in the corridor, and certainly did not come from Sir John Langworthy, who abhorred cigarettes of all kinds. It came beyond question from the death-chamber. Somebody locked in there was smoking a full-flavoured Turkish or Egyptian cigarette. The discovery thrilled Netta; she tingled to the finger tips. Then she crossed the floor and applied her eyes to the keyhole. She could hear nothing and see nothing beyond a dim space with a chair here and there. But presently the light became dimmer and of a more violet hue, and then Netta saw the smoke rising. What strange mystery was here, a mystery that grew larger the more it was probed!
Well, nothing was to be gained by lurking there, Netta thought, as she made her way back to the corridor. She looked cautiously out just in time to see Lucille Ganton coming down the corridor. She was creeping furtively along as if afraid of being seen. Netta drew back into the study again; she had no alternative but to do so. Perhaps Lucille Ganton was coming into the same room; indeed, nothing seemed more likely.
If Netta were discovered she was hopelessly lost. She looked rapidly around her for a hiding-place of some kind. There was nothing but a large cupboard, which appeared to be partially filled with a man's wardrobe. There was room for her, and very little chance of discovery. Netta squeezed in and pulled the door to. She had hardly clone so when Lucille entered.
Apparently she had no suspicion of anybody being present but herself. Netta could just catch sight of her face through the hinge of the door. Cunning and greed were written all over it. The woman lingered a moment, before she disappeared as quickly as she had come. Netta breathed a deep sigh of relief, but decided to remain where she was for a few minutes. The wisdom of this course became apparent a little later when Lucille Ganton returned literally dragging Neil Jackman after her. She bundled the latter into a chair without ceremony.
"There!" she whispered hoarsely. "Now we can talk without fear of interruption. There is not the slightest chance of anybody in the house venturing here. Why didn't you come before! Gordon Falmer is dead, but those papers still exist. We know they are in the house not far off—they may be in this room for all we know. Come, you must know where he used to keep them."
"Well, I don't," Jackman growled. "Didn't your precious master have any keys?" she asked.
"Not that I am aware of. Yes, he had a gold key on his watch-chain. I can't say what it was for; perhaps it was only an ornament."
Lucille Ganton rose and crossed over to the door leading to the bedroom. She turned the knob, and then shook it passionately. Something like a curse broke from Jackman.
"Why are you making that infernal noise?" he growled. "You can't do anything at this time of the day. It must be done after ten to-night. Help me off with my overcoat; it's warmer here than downstairs. I've been cold as death till now. And you need not worry yourself about keys. All the door keys on this corridor are interchangeable. I found that out days ago."
Jackman spoke in a hoarse whisper that Netta scarcely heard. It was a piece of valuable information, as valuable perhaps as the statement that Falmer carried a gold key on his watch-chain. She knew now that this precious couple were coming back after ten to hunt for some papers, probably the papers she herself was in search of. Well, dinner would neither be long nor formal to-night, and Netta made up her mind she would be here before ten.
"Well, that's good hearing," Lucille Ganton muttered as she released the door knob. "All the same, there is not much time to be lost. To-night at ten, then."
Through the slit of light passing the hinge of the cupboard door Netta saw Jackman rise. He fumbled his way to the door, partially guided by Lucille. When Netta ventured out at last the coast was clear. It might have been imagination, but she fancied that she heard something like a smothered laugh from the inner room.
She had to go to her own room and wash her face before the colour came into her cheeks again. But her step was steady, and she held her head high as she passed down the stairs. In the drawing-room Lady Langworthy was waiting for her.
"I was beginning to lose patience," she smiled, "I finished my work long ago. Now please let us have something soothing."
Netta played a piece or two, and then Lady Langworthy asked for a romance of Schubert's that Netta had in her room.
"I will go and fetch it," she said. "No, I will go myself; I hate to have servants pulling my music about. I shall not be more than a few minutes."
The girl came downstairs with the music in her hand. There was somebody, a caller evidently, in the hall talking to the butler. He had the mien of one who knew the house well. He half-turned and hesitated as the butler preceded him.
"This way, sir," the latter said. "This is the drawing-room. That used to be, but when my lady came she made several important alterations. The billiard-room is the old drawing-room."
Evidently an old friend of the family, Netta thought, but not an old friend of Lady Langworthy, for she was looking at the visitor's card with a glance of interrogation in her eyes. The well-dressed stranger advanced and bowed. He was not tall or muscular, yet his figure denoted strength; he had a brown face and beard, and his accent struck Netta as familiar.
"As a matter of fact, it was Sir John I came to see," he said. "In relation to the unfortunate thing that so recently happened here. I am Raymond Bond, a close relative of the dead man; I believe I am the only relative he had."
"Then I am sure that Sir John will be glad to see you," Lady Langworthy said more cordially. For the stranger, well-dressed and gentlemanly as he was, had not prepossessed her. "Lawrence, will you ask your master to come here?"
The butler bowed and disappeared, and the stranger rattled on agreeably. Netta sat there wondering where she had heard his voice before, her fingers idly touching the strings of her violin.
"A charming instrument," said the stranger. "Am I wrong in assuming that I have the pleasure of speaking to Miss Netta Sherlock! Ah, I thought not. If I interrupt you—"
"Pray play something," Lady Langworthy urged.
Netta brought her bow down on the strings without protest. It had suddenly come to her where she had heard that voice before. She plunged at once into the low, sad impromptu that had had so strange an effect on Falmer the night before.
AFTER the first two bars Netta had no longer any doubt in her mind. This was the man she had seen in the corridor on the preceding night, the man who had carelessly whistled the very theme she was now playing. She saw him start, watched the flickering terror in his eyes, noted the deadly white creeping like a filmy cloud under the healthy tan. Then he partially covered his face with his hands until the air was finished. By that time he was himself again.
"Lovely," he said. "Music like that moves me to the very soul."
When Sir John Langworthy came in he listened with a grave face to the stranger.
"I am glad somebody has turned up," he said presently. "Still, I expected this. No doubt you will give due legal proofs of all you say. In the meantime I have been compelled to make arrangements for the funeral to-morrow. Perhaps I had better tell you what they are." Mr. Bond was satisfied. It mattered very little where his relative was buried, seeing that there was no family vault or anything of that kind.
He bowed to Lady Langworthy, and Sir John rang the bell. A little constraint fell on the trio in the drawing-room after he had gone.
"Something wrong about that fellow," Langworthy said, in his direct way. "Or I should have offered him a bed here till after the funeral. Man with a past, evidently. I shall be glad when the whole thing is over and the house itself again."
The afternoon wore on, and the evening came with dinner in due course. It was not a long or elaborate meal, for Langworthy was simple in his habits when alone, so that a few minutes past nine saw Lady Langworthy and Netta in the drawing-room. Langworthy had lingered over a cigar and the late evening paper from Coalend.
"A little more music," Lady Langworthy pleaded. "Anything to soothe one's nerves. I shall be so glad when to-morrow is over. Something of Chopin's."
"I'll fetch some," Netta said. "Then I'll play to you as long as you like—I know that I shall be in the mood for it presently."
Netta crossed the room with limbs that trembled under her. She stood in the hall for a moment to regain her composure, then made her way resolutely up the stairs. The place was very quiet; there was small chance of being disturbed.
From the lock of her door Netta softly removed the key. Then she proceeded into the study adjoining Gordon Falmer's room, feebly lighted from the corridor, and turned the key in the lock. A moment later and she was in the chamber of the dead man. There was no occasion fortunately to turn on the electric light, for it was not yet really dark, so that after a while Netta could see everything. She saw the gleam of gold on the dressing-table, and knew that the dead man's watch was there. She crossed over and gently raised the chain. Sure enough a gold key was attached by a swivel. With a hand that was steady enough now, Netta detached it.
That this was the key of some private drawer or case was plain. It must be a small case, for the key was only a tiny thing.
With a shudder Netta resolutely put the fancy from her mind. Very swiftly she searched the room. But for a long time nothing rewarded her search. By the dressing-table, however, the Persian carpet had been disarranged slightly, and this circumstance impressed her. She had read of such hiding-places before. She pushed the carpet farther back, and presently a long black case came in sight. It was an oblong pocket-book filled with papers.
Netta had great difficulty in repressing a cry. If the key only fitted the gold embossed lock, then her search was rewarded. It was some time before her trembling hands allowed her to bring the key and lock together, but she was successful at length. There was a click and a spring, and half the embossed lock flew back. The pocket-book was stuffed with papers.
No need to tell Netta that she had found the papers she was in search of. There was no need to search any further. With a fierce exultation at her heart, Netta locked the door and dropped the key in her pocket. She had only now to return.
Her pleasant thoughts were broken off abruptly. Somebody was coming who appeared to be talking to somebody else. Netta was taken off her balance for a few seconds. She must not be found with these precious papers in her possession. She looked out for some place to hide them in as Falmer had done.
An overcoat lay carelessly spread out on the table. Quick as thought Netta hid the papers in the outer pocket. She had barely time to conceal herself in the closet before Jackman came in.
"Now where on earth did I put it?" he growled. "I thought I knew every spot here in the dark. I shall miss it if I don't take care. My head seems to be dazed. Anyway, I swear that I left it here. Where can the things have got to! Ah!"
The grumbling note changed to one of satisfaction as his fingers advanced to the table and touched the coat. He slipped the heavy garment on quickly.
"I can leave the rest to Lucille," he said. "She can manage that."
He shuffled from the room again, closely followed by Netta. The man could not see, so if she followed him now she might get the papers back. She was half stunned by the cruel shock that fortune had dealt her at the very moment when triumph seemed in her grasp. For the time being she had forgotten that Jackman had accidentally left his overcoat in the afternoon. His own stupid carelessness, instead of being his own undoing, looked likely to prove fatal to Netta's plans. Anyway, she must have those papers if she had to play the pick-pocket. Then a face appeared at the head of the stairs, and Netta dropped back with a half-hysterical inclination to burst into tears. Lucille Ganton had come to search for Jackman.
"He's come," she whispered. "Hurry up. It's so like a man to leave everything for the woman to do."
They disappeared down the stairs together, leaving Netta a prey to her own mixed emotions. She would have those papers at any cost yet. Fortunately, the man was blind, and had not the remotest idea of the valuable papers he had in his pocket. He would be pretty sure to return presently. Then, in the dead of the night, Netta would overhaul that coat. A few sympathetic questions would elicit the whereabouts of Jackman's room.
There were no signs of agitation on her face when she returned to the drawing-room. Sir John had just come in, for his dress shoes were slightly wet.
"I am afraid that Jackman's brain has been injured by his accident," he said. "He has suddenly made up his mind to go, and a friend came to fetch him. I should have liked to do something for him, but he refused even to tell me what his destination was."
Netta's music fell to the ground with a crash, a crash that stifled her cry. Sir John politely gathered up the scattered sheets.
"Do you mean that Jackman has gone for good?" she faltered.
"Certainly he has. It has been a dreadful business altogether."
Jackman had gone, taking his secret with him, and this man was in possession of the key of the mystery!
IT was a staggering, bitter blow for Netta. The penalty was a heavy one for losing her head for the fraction of a minute. She had been so desperately afraid of being discovered with those papers in her hand that she had forgotten to whom the great coat belonged, though with her own eyes she had actually seen Neil Jackman leave it on the table in the study next to Gordon Farmer's room.
But those very people were also after the same papers. At the instant it had struck Netta that she was doing a very clever thing. Even when Jackman had walked off with the coat she had not despaired. But now the outlook was hopeless. The only feeble ray of light Netta could see was that Jackman, being blind, might never discover what he had in the pocket of his overcoat. If the fine weather continued he might not wear it for weeks and weeks.
She must make an effort to repair the mischief she had done.
"Do you know," she said steadily, indeed she was surprised at her self-possession. "I feel a little guilty over the affair! I am sure that Jackman was out of doors last night to watch me leave. Of course, that is no new experience to me."
"With your reputation, I suppose not," Langworthy said politely.
"Indeed it is a great nuisance sometimes. Well, if Jackman had not gone out to see me off, he would never have met with his misfortune. I feel that I must do something for him, Sir John. If you happen to know where he has gone—"
"Hut, my dear young lady, I don't," Langworthy protested. "I fancy that Jackman is naturally of a taciturn and sullen disposition, qualities that probably recommended him to his late employer. I have seen him twice to-day, and could make nothing of him. All I understand is that some friend came for him with a view to taking the poor fellow to see a wonderful French doctor. When I asked about it just now I was practically told to mind my own business."
"Then he has gone to London?"
"That much I gathered. But that's rather a vague address, isn't it?"
Netta bitterly owned the truth of the suggestion.
She had done her best and had failed. Her only course was to see Reggie without delay, to-night, if possible. But that seemed out of the question. Netta was still seeking some way out when Lady Langworthy entered.
"Jack, I have been looking for you everywhere!" she exclaimed. "There is a note from Lord Bridlington. He is laid up with the gout, and wants you to take his place at the County Council to-morrow. He'd like to see you first—something about roads, I fancy. Will you run over?"
"I'll go now," said Langworthy, with a wry face. "I'll motor over. If I am late, as I probably shall be, don't sit up for me. It's a great nuisance, because I have been looking forward to hearing Miss Sherlock play."
The good-natured baronet hastened from the room, leaving his wife and Netta alone. For a long time the latter played whilst Lady Langworthy listened in dreamy delight. She seemed to be rapt in the beautiful music. Netta laid down her bow at length.
"I'll rest a while, if you don't mind," she said.
"Of course," Lady Langworthy cried. "How selfish of me! But I think I could go on listening to your playing for ever. Let me look at your fiddle."
Hilda Langworthy examined both violin and bow, to say nothing of the case, carefully. There were pockets in the case for resin and the like, and as one of them was laid bare by curious ringers a small oval photograph dropped out. Lady Langworthy took it up and dropped it with a cry.
"Reggie Masters," she said with a note of pain in her voice. "Where did you get this?"
The speaker turned away as if conscious that she had betrayed herself. Her face was very white, and Netta could see the muscles of her mouth quivering. A sudden inspiration came to her.
"That is the man I am engaged to," she said quietly. "Do you happen to know where he is to be found?"
Lady Langworthy shook her head sorrowfully. She was wandering restlessly about the room.
"Did he ever say anything about me?" she asked at length. "That he and I—in short that—"
"That he once loved you—yes? I think he called it an infatuation. Mind you, I should never have mentioned this unless you had found the photograph. I came here eagerly when I had the chance, because I wanted to see what you were like. Are you happy?"
Netta asked the question almost fiercely.
"I ought to be," she said. "I have one of the best husbands in the world, and I am devotedly attached to him. But though Jack is so kind and lovable, and so good, I am a little afraid of him. If I were to tell him the whole truth, for instance—"
The speaker paused in some confusion. Netta finished her sentence for her.
"The whole truth about Reggie Masters, for instance?" she suggested coldly.
"I dare not. Literally, I dare not," was the reply. "I see from your face that you deem me to be guilty of a great crime. But it is not true. Weak and foolish, and sinful, perhaps, but not criminal. The thing has haunted me night and day; it placed me in the power of a wicked man—"
"Who has no power over you any longer. Doesn't the death of Gordon Farmer make a difference?"
"You are a witch! How did you guess that? I tell you a great weight has been lifted from my mind, but that is not everything. Won't you try to believe that I am speaking the truth?"
It seemed impossible to look at this woman and feel I hat she was lying. And yet she was the cause of all the mischief and all the suffering of which Reggie Masters had been the victim.
"I am afraid that we are playing at cross purposes," Netta said coldly. "Doubtless for good reasons you refuse to give me your confidence; it is equally impossible for me to give you mine. At any rate, I am going to test your sincerity. There are reasons, mighty reasons, why I should go into Coalend to-night. I don't want anybody to know that I have been there, not even Sir John. Fortunately, he has gone out, and he is likely to be away till late. If you will let me have a motor, I can be back in a little over an hour. But the servants are not to know."
Lady Langworthy nodded and vanished. She came back presently saying that the motor would be ready at once; she had arranged all that.
"The late journey will arouse no suspicions," she said. "We often send the motor into Coalend as late as this with an important telegram. I make no curious inquiries as to your urgent errand, but I hope it means no harm to me."
"It means no harm to anybody living!" Netta cried. Outside came the sound of soft wheels on the gravel. In the hall Netta caught up a cloak and twisted a soft shawl round her head. Almost gaily she stepped into the great car.
"Drive to Dr. Manning's, in Coalend," she said. "I am sorry to bring you out so late, Steadman, but my business is really most important."
IT was dose upon eleven when the car pulled up before the house of Dr. Manning.
The doctor himself came to the door. Netta smilingly asked if he knew who she was.
"Of course I do," Manning laughed. "You are Miss Netta Sherlock. I have heard you play more than once, indeed, I hope to have that pleasure many times. But I know also what is between you and Reggie, or Williams, as he is called here. Did you come to see him? I'm not curious, of course, but—"
"I did come to see him," Netta explained. "I can't quite tell you everything, Dr. Manning, but I presume you know most things about us. To-night I made a great find, and to-night I had the cruel misfortune to lose it again. Reggie must know at once."
"You shall see Reggie now," Manning said, reaching for his hat. "He is watching a patient, who is suffering from a severe attack of delirium tremens. By a curious chance this patient seems to be mixed up with the plot against Reggie. When men are in his condition they let out things, hence the fact that Reggie is there."
Netta thought so, too, but she said nothing. A little while later she and Manning were walking along the deserted streets together, until at length they came to the poorer quarter of the town. Before a mean but respectable-looking house the doctor paused.
Manning passed into the house as if it all belonged to himself, and a moment later Reggie emerged. His handsome face was surprised and anxious as he caught sight of Netta. There was nobody in the street, no light in any of the windows, save that of the patient who called himself Signor Lebandi, so Reggie took Netta in his arms and kissed her passionately.
"Always glad to see you, my darling," he said. "That sweet pleading face is ever a joy to me. But there must be something wrong to bring you here to-night."
"It was something that I thought you ought to know, dearest," Netta whispered. "I had great good luck, followed by an equally great misfortune. I found Gordon Falmer's papers in his rooms. I had them in my hands. And within a few minutes I had as completely lost them again."
"Hadn't you better explain, little woman?" Reggie suggested.
Netta proceeded to go into details. She had half expected a meed of blame from Reggie, but there was no reproach in his eyes, only pitiful sympathy.
"Poor little girl," he said tenderly. "It was cruel hard tuck, and might have happened to anybody. And yet it was a clever thought of yours about the overcoat. The whole thing reads like a romance. There is the blind villain in happy ignorance that he is carrying about I he very thing that he is looking for. Did any novelist ever think of a better situation than that!"
"It's a situation of great peril for you," Netta said.
"My dearest girl, I cannot be worse off than I am at present," Reggie replied. "That fellow Jackman must be discovered at once."
"I was afraid that you would blame me," Netta said. "It seemed so hard to have found the truth so soon and lose it before we could use our power. Lady Langworthy is not at the bottom of it, Reggie."
"I wish I could think so, darling. Still, you must have some foundation for what you say."
"Well, she loves her husband. She loves him so much that she is afraid of him because of his honour and integrity. My belief is that she committed some terrible indiscretion that placed her in the power of that rascal, Gordon Falmer. She knows that you and I are engaged, because she found your photograph in my violin case. That much I told her. But she would tell me nothing save that one day she hoped to make known the truth. She lent me the car to come over and see you to-night."
"My dearest girl, you never told her that I was here!"
"My dearest boy, I told her nothing. And she is afraid of me. If I told her husband even the little I know I might ruin her."
Reggie nodded thoughtfully. He began to see that there was a good deal in what Netta said.
"I am leaving Loudwater Priory to-morrow," the latter continued. "To-morrow night I have a concert, after which I go to London for a brief engagement. If I can do anything, Reggie!"
Reggie kissed the speaker passionately again.
"You have done wonders," he said. "But you must get back to the Priory now. Good night, my darling."
Manning came out as soon as Reggie had taken his place. Very thoughtfully the two walked back as far as the doctor's house. Steadman nodded sleepily in front of the car.
"Reggie has given me an outline of what has happened," Manning said. "You may rest assured that no stone will be left unturned to get on the track of that fellow Jackman. I am going to see the thing to the bottom if it costs me my whole fortune. It's a good thing for you two, my dear, that I have been a steady old bachelor all my life."
"It's a great blessing that we have so good and kind a friend," Netta said feelingly. "What Reggie would have done without you I really don't know."
"Oh, come, that's all nonsense!" Manning cried. "I brought Reggie into the world, I watched him grow up. If he had been a poor boy he would have gone into the profession and taken my practice and fortune ultimately. If I can't trace that mysteriously vanished fortune of his he will have mine, anyway. But depend upon it, we shall get to the bottom of this business yet. I am old-fashioned enough to believe that truth and justice are certain to prevail in the long run. Now I am going to pack you carefully in your motor again, and send you home to bed. Wake up, Steadman."
Steadman started sleepily and tumbled off the car. He jerked violently at one of the levers, and the silent motor became a thing of life. A moment later and the acetylene lamps were fading away into the heart of the night.
"A pretty girl, a talented girl, and a plucky one," Manning said, as he turned into the house. "Happy fellow, Reggie! I only hope he'll have good luck tonight."
Meanwhile Masters was busy in the sick chamber again. "Is there anything more I can do for you?" he asked gently.
The sick man made no reply. He closed his eyes, and seemed to sleep for a time. Reggie could hear his deep, regular breathing as he moved about the room. The man had not really slept for two nights, and Reggie half hoped his vigil would be a brief one. "Don't forget that it's your next throw," came distinctly from the bed. "Your next throw, and the last. Double sixes! Well, Of all the preposterous luck! A pair of trays to me! I'm done for. Light the signal."
Reggie crossed over to the bed. To all appearances his patient was fast asleep, for his eyes were closed. Was the man dreaming, or had his delusions taken another turn? There was a silence for a time, and then the keen, harsh voice broke, out again:
"Why the powers don't you light the signal? The three candles are there on the top of the cupboard, with the short piece in the middle. Can't you see it, you fool?"
Reggie looked around him almost involuntarily. Sure enough, on the top of a cupboard was a brass branch candelabra, with three candles in it, a shorter one being fixed in the centre socket.
Then this man had not been altogether dreaming. He lighted the candelabra and placed it as close to the blind as he dared. Downstairs in his coat pocket Reggie had left his cigarettes. As he looked into the front sitting-room, the blind of which was still up, he saw the figure of a man standing rigidly opposite the house.
Reggie's heart heat faster. In front of the house was a gas lamp that reflected more or less feebly on the opposite pavement. In this light Reggie saw the figure cross the road, and then he heard a hand at the lock. But that he had fastened previously. Should he open the door and confront the man, or should he let him try in vain to get into the house?
The problem was solved for Reggie by a muttered curse followed by a shuffling step.
"Drunk again," he heard a voice mutter. "What does he mean by that light? Probably not sober enough to remember the proper night. I'll try the window."
Reggie darted into the sitting-room. He could see outside without being seen. He saw a man try the window; he saw a long white face, with a hook nose, dark eyes, and shaggy eyebrows try the catch and then go off with a shrug of his shoulders.
"Good heavens!" Reggie cried. "Gordon Falmer, and in the flesh! Gordon Falmer, who lies dead at Loudwater Priory!"
MASTER'S heart was beating with a violence that almost suffocated him. His nerves were not so steady as he had imagined. For a long time the fear of arrest had been upon him haunting him like a nightmare.
What did it mean? Had the dead man a brother so like himself that nobody could tell the difference between them? Reggie's common sense rejected that theory. He went slowly to the bedroom again, turning the problem over in his mind. Lebandi was sleeping peacefully, breathing gently and regularly. There was a big armchair by the bedside, into which Masters flung himself. With closed eyes he debated the complication.
When he opened his eyes again it was well into the morning, and the patient was awake also. He also seemed to be puzzled about something, as a man intoxicated overnight will attempt to remember the events of the previous evening.
Manning turned up in due course, but the expected was not forthcoming, Lebandi was clear enough in his mind, and absolutely sober, but inclined to be suspicious. He seemed to imagine that Manning had some sinister design upon him. He wanted a strong tonic to enable him to get up and go out.
"I can't give you anything of the kind," Manning said curtly. "You are in bed through your own folly, and you must pay the penalty. I'll tell your landlady what to do, and I'll come and see you late this evening. Williams, you need not stay."
It was after dinner before Manning alluded to the matter again. All day long he had been thinking it over without arriving at any definite conclusion. He called Reggie into the dining-room and closed the door.
"Have you anything further to tell me?" he asked.
"Nothing," Reggie answered. "I have racked my brains with little effect."
"My own case," Manning grunted. "But I am not going to be beaten like this. I'll trot round to see my patient, and you had better come, too. Stay outside and wait for me, in case you are required."
Lebandi was not asleep, as Manning had half expected, but propped up in bed, his eyes blazing with excitement. In a casual way Manning asked if he had had any callers.
"Haven't seen a face," Lebandi said with some bitterness. "I might die like a dog here for all they care, and there isn't a more attractive turn in the 'show' than mine. Don't imagine I've been unduly excited entertaining shoals of visitors."
"Been out of bed?" he asked.
"Not a step," Lebandi said fiercely, "I couldn't, I'm that infernally weak. Why don't you give me something to put strength into my limbs?"
Manning murmured soothingly that it was only a matter of time. The patient had been taking liberties with a good constitution, and nature was having her revenge. Manning concluded that his patient had had an important letter which he had not been able to destroy for the simple reason that he could not leave his bed, and therefore that letter was in the room somewhere. Before leaving the house Manning had made up his mind to obtain possession of it.
"I shall have to give you a tonic after all," he said. "Your nerves are more frayed than I anticipated. A little something with morphia in it. Another long night's rest will do you all the good in the world."
From his bag Manning took a tiny phial and mixed the contents with water. Lebandi drank it down eagerly and then closed his eyes. A delicious sense of comfort stole over him and his fears seemed to vanish.
"My word, that goes to the right place," he muttered. "Doctor, why didn't you try that before? You can put out the lights now; I shan't worry about them any more. If you think that I—Call me in the morning—not too early—call me—call me—ah!"
There was a long contented sigh, and then silence from the bed. Manning bent over his patient and laid a hand on his pulse. A smile flickered over the doctor's face.
"Safe and sound," he muttered. "Upon my word, I am getting on. Fancy a respectable family physician actually stooping to drug a patient! But surely, if ever the end justifies the means, this is a case in point. Anyway, it was the safest way of finding that letter."
Manning handled his patient without the slightest hesitation. He knew there was little chance of Lebandi opening his eyes for several hours. The letter was in the bed somewhere, and Manning found it at length placed under the bolster.
He took it across to the candle and read it without the slightest scruple. The letter had the Paris postmark; It was written on thin flimsy paper; the writing was full of nourishes and florid words. Though it was written in English, the writer had evidently no native knowledge of the tongue.
"It is a great favour, mon ami, that I send the little parcel. There is enough and more than enough for the wants of so modest an individual as yourself. That simple fluid in the hands of an expert would render the whole of a large community insensible to the cares and troubles of this wicked world. Take care of it as you value your precious life. I shall throw double sixes when my turn comes."
The last sentence was heavily underscored. There was no heading and no signature, yet the letter had the same sweet faint smell that Manning had noticed in the bedroom of Gordon Falmer.
"So far so good," he muttered as he carefully replaced the letter. "We are dealing with a dangerous drug imported for a rascally purpose. It was this letter and the parcel that had so greatly excited my charming patient. But where is the drug?"
The most careful search failed to solve the question. Manning rapped his forehead presently.
"What a thickhead I am," he said. "It came by parcel, of course. It would not be prudent to send a thing like that in the letter. Probably the parcel arrived by a later post. Placed on the hall table by a careless landlady and forgotten. I'll go and see."
Sure enough on the ledge of the umbrella stand stood the parcel carefully sealed and packed, and marked "Plants with care" in the same flamboyant handwriting. Manning hesitated as he balanced the box in his hand. Dare he break the seals and run the risk? Lebandi was certain to ask for his parcel in the morning, and if it were missing his suspicions would be aroused.
"I'll risk it," Manning decided. "He can't wake before eleven to-morrow, and before that time I shall be here again. I can do what I require and send Masters back with the packet, an easy matter seeing that the front door is never locked at night."
He dropped the parcel in his pocket and returned home. When he arrived there he proceeded to light his reading lamp and examine the parcel. It was sealed in black wax at both ends, which had the impression of a quaint cipher ring.
"Cautious but by no means absolutely secure," Manning muttered. "A little damp plaster of Paris arid an impression from that and there you are. Black wax is no novelty, either. As I have so cunning a man to deal with it behoves me to be careful."
The plaster of Paris was moistened, and a sharp impression of the seal taken. This Manning dried by the aid of a gas-fire, and adroit manipulation soon furnished him with an exact impression of the cipher ring. Even then he betrayed no negligence, opening the wrapper and spreading it out so that the exact folds were preserved. There was a small box packed with cotton-wool inside, and in the centre of it an ordinary drug phial filled with some white liquid. Slipping on a pair of glasses Manning withdrew the cork and smelt the liquid.
"The same odour as that in Falmer's room," he said. "Something new in medicine, unless I am greatly mistaken, I'd give something to know what the graduated doses are, That you, Masters? Come in, and join in a most interesting experiment."
NATURALLY Reggie was deeply interested in Manning's story. He had his own ideas on the subject, but it was not the time to speak. Manning poured out two or three drops of the liquid on to a sheet of clear glass, and examined them under the microscope.
"It's new to me," he admitted; "in fact, it's probably new to the profession, but I can give a pretty shrewd guess at its effects. My boy, we are on the track now with a vengeance. You have heard of the Indian fakirs who arc placed in coffins and subsequently buried for months at a time?"
"Yes, but I never believed a word of it," Reggie said with some contempt.
"It's as true as you are standing there, my boy. No European scientist has ever discovered how it is done, but it's a fact. The fakirs are enclosed in a sealed coffin and buried. At the end of weeks they are dug up none the worse for their adventure. My boy, we have found the secret of suspended animation."
"What do you mean?"
"Why, exactly what I say. Undoubtedly this is the stuff the fakirs use to produce the suspension of vitality when they are going to be buried alive, and what is more, I have calculated pretty accurately what would be the dose for a strong man. At any risks I must have a third of this bottle. There is not much risk, seeing that Lebandi cannot tell the quantity that was sent. Give me one of those empty phials from the shelf; a clean one."
Manning abstracted a little less than a third of the drug, corked the bottle tightly, and locked it in his safe. Then as carefully he recorked and sealed the original phial with the aid of his plaster of Paris seal, which was used again when the parcel was made up.
"There!" Manning said, as he surveyed his work with some pride. "I flatter myself that nobody would dream the packet had been tampered with. I've mistaken my calling—I ought to have been at least the detective one reads of in fiction. You shall run round presently and place that on the shelf of the umbrella stand in the hall of Lebandi's lodgings. This has been a good night's work, Reggie."
Masters looked up with a peculiar smile on his face.
"It's going to be a better night's work before we have finished," he said. "I suppose Gordon Farmer was buried to-day?"
"That was the arrangement. At two o'clock. I ought to know, as I made all the arrangements myself. What are you driving at?"
"Surely you see the vast ramifications of your discovery? I will not rest until I see the inside of Gordon Farmer's coffin. A coffin is not difficult to open; a screwdriver, and there you are."
Manning jumped to his feet.
"Strange that that idea had never occurred to me," he said. "It would be more regular to apply to the Home Office for an order in the usual way, but such a course—"
"Such a course would expose our game to the very people we want to keep in ignorance," Reggie cried impatiently.
The getting to Loudwater was a very simple matter. The parcel was left at Lebandi's lodgings, a screw-driver was procured, and that was the whole of the outfit. As for light—one of their lamps would do for that.
Not a soul was encountered all the way to Loudwater village; the grey tower loomed dim across the churchyard, which fortunately, was some distance from the hamlet. It was easy to find the way, and easy to remove the flat stone from the top of the vault. As Manning had anticipated, it had merely been replaced after the funeral, leaving the masons to cement it at some future time.
The stone was pulled up, and a narrow flight of steps exposed. With a lamp in his hand Manning descended. "Pull the stone down again," he whispered. "One can easily raise it from the inside. This is the kind of occasion when the village policeman is apt to make himself inconvenient."
It was dry and warm inside; the plain oak coffin with its brass furniture lay in one corner. With a hand that trembled slightly, Manning produced his screw-driver. He hoped that his unskilled touch would leave no signs on the oak. But he need have had no fear of that. The screws were perfectly made, and fitted with ease into their drilled sockets, so that in a few minutes the lid of the coffin was off and resting on the floor.
"Why, there's nothing there," he said. "Reggie, the coffin is empty!"
No body lay between those polished oak boards; there was nothing but a mass of clothing, soaked with water to give it weight, and cunningly wrapped in oilskins!
MANNING and Reggie stared at one another in speechless astonishment. Not for a moment had they anticipated such a discovery as this. But there lay the coffin which had been recently buried as containing the remains of Gordon Falmer, and in it was nothing but a mass of wet clothing.
"We could have spared our battery," Manning said at length. "I begin to believe you are right, Reggie. Gordon Falmer is still alive, though he has some powerful incentive to make people believe that he is dead."
"The dice and the dice marks," Reggie said. "They induced Falmer to take this step."
"Probably. Well, it seems to me that there are some powerful weapons in our hands. But that idea of soaking garments in water and weighting the coffin was decidedly ingenious. Now, let us repair the mischief, and go as quickly as possible."
A little time later and the two were on the road to Coalend. Nobody was any the wiser for the evening's work. There was nothing to do now but wait upon events. A private inquiry agent had already been engaged to track Jackman down. It was late in the afternoon when Manning received a visit from Netta. She had finished her concert, and was on her way to London. As a matter of fact she had come to see Reggie, and Manning smuggled her into a room leading out of the surgery.
"You can talk here to your heart's content," he said.
But Netta's time was limited, as she had to catch her train. She listened with astonishment to the story of the previous evening's adventure. She had not been mistaken, as she had felt from the first, when she had seen Falmer in the corridor an hour or so after he was reported to be dead. Nor was she greatly concerned in Falmer now.
Reggie explained what was being clone in the matter of Neil Jackman, and with that Netta was fain to be content. She glanced hurriedly at her watch.
"I must go or I shall miss my train," she said. "I have been asked to stay for a week at the Priory after my Albert Hall concert, and I have consented. In the meantime I am staying with the Honourable George and Mrs. Tremullion in Berkeley Street. If you hear anything of Jackman don't forget to send me a telegram."
Reggie gave the desired assurance, and Netta went her way. A magnificent motor-car met Netta at Paddington. A smiling lady with a pleasant face and nice grey hair gave the girl a warm welcome. The Honourable Mrs. Tremullion was a popular figure in Society, as also was her husband, a man who had at one time been a brilliant ornament of the Colonial Bar. The Hon. George Tremullion was a great jurist, and his knowledge of crimes and criminals was supposed to be unique. The unexpected inheritance of a large fortune rendered hard work unnecessary, and Tremullion had transferred his studies to England.
"So glad to see you again, dear," Mrs. Tremullion said warmly. "Are you coming to be quiet with us, or would you like a little social relaxation?"
"Quietness for a day or two, decidedly," Netta laughed. "I have been having all sorts of adventures, heroic and otherwise. It has reminded me of old times."
"There would have been no old times if you had remembered your mother's old friends and written to me," Mrs. Tremullion said, with a shade of reproach in her tones. "My dear, you look better and happier than I have seen you look for a long time. Netta, you don't mean to say that you have found—"
"Reggie." Netta finished the sentence in a whisper. The tale took a long time to tell, but Netta had an interested listener.
"My dear, it sounds like a veritable romance," Mrs. Tremullion said, when the recital had come to an end. "It is all utterly puzzling and bewildering. The touch about the letter and the dead is like a page of De Boisgobey. I should hardly have believed that such things existed but for the strange tales George tells. You must confide this story to my husband."
"But, my dear old friend," Netta protested, "to worry Mr. Tremullion—"
"Nonsense! You will not worry him in the least. George will be of the greatest assistance to you."
A little against her will, Netta allowed herself to be persuaded. Tremullion liked to smoke a cigar in the dining-room after dinner, and Mrs. Tremullion generally sat there with him. He smiled as Netta began her story. Evidently he was going to be bored with the recital of some elementary fraud. But as the tale proceeded his attention deepened. His cigar went out, and he did not light it again. His visible interest flattered Netta, and she told her story well.
"I dare say the whole thing is commonplace to you," the girl exclaimed. "To me it is bewildering. Mixed up in crime as you have been, a recital like mine must seem tedious!"
Tremullion lighted his cigar again. His clean-shaven mouth was twitching, and his highly-strung, refined face betrayed his intense eagerness. He was back in the old life once more.
"A beautiful case," he said, "and a most ingenious problem. After the rubbish that is so constantly brought to me it is a real treat to get a problem like this. I must see this Gordon Palmer, who seems to be a veritable prince of rascals."
"But he has powerful enemies all the same," Netta suggested. "He must have been in mortal fear, or he never would have elected to pass for dead and buried."
"My dear child, of course he has powerful enemies. A man of that kind always has. And why do you suppose he had to obliterate himself like that?"
"Because of the dice, or rather the secret society of which the dice is an emblem," said Netta.
"Spoken like a book," Tremullion cried. "Now I know a great deal about secret societies. They exist in all countries; some of them are thousands of years old. There have been secret societies since the world began. Some are harmless, some exceedingly dangerous. But the most dangerous are those that exist for apparently legitimate purposes."
"Is the dice society one of the latter?" Netta asked.
"Entirely," was the reply. "Mind you, I don't know very much about the '36,' as they are called, except that it is an Australian secret society. But I understand that it is the most dangerous association of the lot."
"Then it is what they call a 'push' out yonder," Netta cried. "I have heard of them. Are they not very violent and cruel and remorseless?"
"They are and they are not," Tremullion proceeded to explain. "Each particular town has its 'push.' All the members are sworn by the most tremendous oaths, and if they betray the society the penalties are of the direst. It is little use for a man to run away. I speak with knowledge, because I have been a member of a 'push' myself."
"Really!" Netta cried. "How interesting! But how did you manage to get in?"
"It was a matter of disguise, backed up by a fair knowledge of my subject. I worked for six months in a certain neighbourhood and attended my 'push' lodge regularly. Mind you, these people are not hooligans or larrikins, for many of them are steady, respectable men, and die when the time comes with no blood on their conscience. But I have seen men lashed till they fainted for some violation of the laws of the 'push'! They take their punishment and show no malice afterwards. But their vengeance is terrible."
"I don't know when I have been so interested," Netta cried. "And this dice society—"
"Is supposed to be the worst. With three throws of two dice you might get treble sixes, which is 36—and this is called the '36' society in the 'push.' As Gordon Falmer appears to have double sixes, he has been a president of the society. My idea is that he betrayed his trust and fled to England, and that he has been discovered."
"You mean that he was a spy of the police?"
"No. The police know nothing of the '36'—it only came to me by an accident. Probably Falmer eloped with the club funds, which were very considerable, I understand."
Tremullion would have said more, but the entrance of a footman with a telegram on a salver interrupted the conversation. The telegram was handed to Netta, who tore it open.
"Here is a strange coincidence," she cried. "This is from Reggie. He tells me that Jackman has been traced to the vicinity of Rupert Street, Whitechapel, and then lost sight of. Mr. Tremullion. I'm going to find where Jackman is myself to-night."
Netta flashed from the room. She came back presently with her violin in her hand and a long black cloak over her shoulders. As the cloak fell away the shabbiest jacket stood revealed. Tremullion looked at the girl partly in amazement and partly in curiosity. His eyes asked a question.
"Play in the streets," Netta cried. "As I used to do. I know Rupert Street well. Let me go and find Jackman!"
CORA TREMULLION rose in protest, but the famous jurist raised no objection.
"But it seems such a wild and dangerous freak to do," Mrs. Tremullion urged.
"Not at all," Netta smiled. "You seem to forget that I had to do this sort of thing for two years, and got quite used to it. To feel that I am doing something for Reggie will be reward enough for me."
Netta stood smiling and confident. Tremullion made no attempt to detain her. But after she had gone he went quickly to his own room, where he requested his wife to follow him. In an incredibly short time Tremullion was transformed into a veritable coster of the most approved type.
"I thought it as well," he explained to his wife. "Mind you, I think the girl was right to go, and as she knows the ropes so well she is as likely as not to make a valuable discovery. But she must be protected. 'Pon my word, Cora, this is like old times."
"Which you promised me should never be repeated," Mrs. Tremullion said with faint reproach.
"Well, anyway, there's no danger here," he said cheerfully. "I am merely going to follow our sweet and plucky young friend, and see that she comes to no harm. Now, please get me a big overcoat. I know where to leave it."
Meanwhile, secure in her shabby dress and veil, Netta went in a 'bus to Commercial Road. Around the raucous, flaming public-house the usual army of loafers sprawled and cast longing eyes at the swinging plate-glass doors as the light caught them.
Netta drew a quick breath, the place seemed to stifle her, and yet she had been used to it at one time. As she stood idly playing with her bow a girl accosted her. The girl was none too sober, but her face was not unpleasant.
"Give us a tune," she said. "Strike up something lively, and we'll all dance. Come along."
Netta struck into a lively dance. She did not care to play too well, for that might have attracted more attention than she bargained for. But in any case Netta could not help playing well, as the music seemed to get into the feet of the people around her. She played again and again, half a dozen times, till she was fain to protest. She had not come here for this.
"She's one of the right sort!" the girl who had accosted her cried. "Give her a chance. Here's six coppers for you, my dear, which would have been more, but times is hard."
Netta passed on, a little ashamed of the coppers in her pocket. She paused for a moment outside a flaring public-house and struck up a brilliant rondo. A noisy group of men, who were evidently affected by too much prosperity, stopped before her.
"That's too good to be wasted here," a big man who had the air of a miner cried. "Come inside, and play in there. Come inside, and there's a shilling for you."
A chorus of noisy approval followed this sentiment. One of the younger members of the party expressed a wish to see her face. Netta shrank back timidly.
"Leave the girl alone," the big man said. "Don't you see that she is a real good girl? And not very much used to this kind of thing, I'll bet a dollar. So long as she earns her money, what does her face matter? Now get along inside."
Netta followed dreamily. Ever and again some be-muddled wretch was forcibly ejected, while near the long counter a quarrel suddenly arose that excited the languid interest of the batman.
"Wot's the good o' that, Bill?" a piping voice said. "He can't see to hit you."
"Can't he?" asked another voice contemptuously. "He's as sober as me. I know's him—a nasty, low, sneaking cur who's got me into trouble before. I swore if ever I came across him agin I'd. knock his dirty head off, and I'm a-going to do it now."
"Then you will have to do it outside," a barman said promptly. "We can't have any fighting here."
"He's blind," the first shrill voice said, "Garn, I don't mean drunk. Result of a haccident, they tell me. You wouldn't go for to hit a man wot's blind, Ned."
Netta thrilled. She wondered if this were more than a mere coincidence. But afflictions of all sorts abound in the East End, and this was the Mecca of beggars. Nevertheless, Netta advanced mechanically down the room, playing all the time, though nobody seemed to heed. At any rate, she would not go away till she had had a sight of the blind man. She heard the noise subside and then somebody turned from the counter, and Netta shook from head to foot.
The blind man was Jackman. Netta crossed over to one of the boxes and sat down. She could not trust her limbs; she was agitated and unnerved more than she had imagined. A barman looked at her suspiciously and she ordered and paid for a bottle of lemonade.
She had now earned the right to sit there and watch for a moment. Jackman was drinking noisily and did not appear to be too sober. The man who had brought him had moved farther up the counter, to hear an exciting story of some prize fight that had either come off or was going to come off in the near future. The stranger's face was long and thin, he had dark eyes, and his eyebrows did not appear to exist. All the same—Netta, withdrawing into the gloom, recognized him.
In spite of his disguise she knew that she was almost face to face with Gordon Falmer! Though trembling from head to foot with excitement, she strained her ear to listen.
"Is it safe here?" she heard Jackman say.
"Oh, it's safe," the other replied. "There is nobody in the box on either side, and with all this din I defy any one to hear us. I've been looking for you everywhere. Why did you leave Loudwater in such a hurry?"
"Because it wasn't safe," Jackman said. "A man afflicted like me is at the mercy of anybody who comes along. Besides, a friend said lie had found some wonderful doctor who could cure me. He will cure me, but it's a long job. He's a funny chap, and fives in Gasson Street, close by."
Netta made a note of the address. It might prove useful.
"Well, you might have let me know," Falmer proceeded. "I had to lie low, for the '36' are on my track. I told you how the dodge was to work out. You should have stayed till I gave you the sign. Still, so long as you have the papers, it will be all right."
"Is it?" Jackman sneered. "Likely I should get the papers, blind as I am. I know nothing about them."
"Drop that, my friend," Falmer said with a sinister ring in his voice. "I placed the papers in a fiat case under the edge of the carpet in my room. When the play was over I went to get them, but they had gone. I concluded you had taken them."
"I am prepared to take my dying oath I never saw the papers," Jackman cried, with an earnestness that carried conviction with it. "If I were to die at this moment, I'm telling the truth. I was blind, I could do nothing. If they are gone, Lucille Ganton's got them. It was to our interest to work together, but I never trusted her for an instant."
Falmer swore a deep oath under his breath. Evidently he was greatly disturbed by this news,
"Then you must come with me," he said. "We'll take a cab outside, and drive to my place. I'm lying very low at present. Jackman, those papers must be found, even if I have to take Lucille Canton by the throat and drag them out of her. Come along."
As Falmer rose, Netta rose too. Then a man in the garb of a coster came and spoke to her in a friendly fashion that puzzled her for a moment, until he smiled, and she, to her great surprise, recognized Tremullion.
"I came to protect you," he whispered. "It is an old pastime with me. I have been watching you and those two men for some time. Is that your blind man, eh? And who is the other? I wish I could see his face; he is so familiar, in a way."
"Gordon Falmer," Netta said in a low voice. "Falmer and Jackman together. It has been by no means a bad day's work. There, Falmer is turning round, Do you know him?"
Falmer himself turned so that the light fell full on his face. It was with difficulty that Tremullion repressed a cry of astonishment. It was seldom he permitted himself that sensation.
Netta repeated her question before any reply came.
"Know him!" Tremullion said between his teeth. "I should say I did. My dear child, we are going to win, but the game will be full of danger."
THE air of the street struck fresh and sweet after the reek and heat of the public-house. The feeling of faintness and agitation left Netta as she walked along on her companion's arm. They looked a fitting and proper couple for the locality, and nobody took the faintest notice of them. Tremullion dived into a shop presently, where he received and put on his overcoat.
"I always use this news-shop," he explained. "It is kept by an old policeman, who helps me in my occasional wanderings. Well, your evening has not been wasted."
"Indeed it hasn't," Netta smiled. "I have had the most wonderful good luck."
"Good luck always follows good pluck," Tremullion replied. "But you are anxious to know what I can tell you about Gordon Falmer. To prevent complications we will call him Gordon Falmer, though that is not his real name. I have met him once or twice in Sydney. Taking him altogether, I should say that a choicer or more picturesque scoundrel never lived. Originally he belonged to honest labour, but he was much too clever to work when he could get other people to work for him, and subsequently he founded a religious sect. He robbed and plundered a great many silly women before he was exposed, though even then nobody would prosecute him, and he afterwards came out as a champion of labour. He finally disappeared, and it was said considerable strike funds disappeared, too. There are other matters which I need not mention."
They came at length to Berkeley Street, and Tremullion opened the door with his latchkey. It was as well the servants had gone to bed. Mrs. Tremullion greeted the adventurers with a smile, and a sigh of relief.
"I'm glad to see you are none the worse," she said, "I've been anxious about you. From your looks you have gained something for your pains."
Netta proceeded to explain.
"He is found!" Netta cried eagerly, "Oh, I forgot to tell you! When I was sitting in that box in the public-house I overheard Jackman tell Falmer that his eye-doctor lived in Gasson Street. Now, it will be the easiest thing to find out the name and address of an oculist who lives in Gasson Street, which is off Whitechapel Road."
"That's a very good point," Tremullion said, approvingly. "Come, I see you have a plan. What is it?"
"I thought it out coming along," Netta said. "I am going to have something the matter with my eyes. I am a poor girl who gets her living by her playing, so I cannot afford much; indeed, a specialist who lives in a place like Gasson Street is hardly likely to ask a big fee. I will go in the shabby frock and jacket I am wearing now, and keep my veil down because of my eyes. I shall then be able to find out about Jackman and where he lives. If I meet Falmer, my veil will save me from recognition. Is it not a good plan?"
Tremullion thought it was a very good plan indeed. So it came about the next afternoon that Netta found herself in the parlour behind the news-shop getting ready for her visit to Professor Henri D'Alroy, eye specialist, who had a house and surgery at No. 1, Gasson-Street, a fact that had been elicited from the Post Office Directory. Presently Netta knocked at the door of a mean-looking house in Gasson Street, and asked for Professor Henri D'Alroy.
A slight, graceful girl, with large grey eyes and a tangle of brown hair, informed Netta that the doctor was engaged, but would be free soon if Netta would step into the dining-room. The house was small and poor enough in all conscience, and the furniture old and decayed, though somebody seemed to have made a faint-hearted attempt to clean the rooms. Netta partially noticed this, but the girl with the grey eyes attracted her.
"You are Dr. D'Alroy's daughter?" she asked.
The girl shook her head. She was not certain what relation she was to D'Alroy, but she lived with him, and had done so since her mother died.
"Henri is very good to me," she exclaimed in her quaint, old-fashioned way. "He is very clever, but we are so dreadfully poor. Why should so clever a man be poor?"
Netta declined to discuss so tremendous a problem.
Little Marie suddenly ceased to prattle, and her gaze was fixed almost awfully on Netta's fiddle case.
"You play?" she asked eagerly. "I have a fiddle, too, a little one. And I love the music, love it with my whole heart and soul. If you would play to me—"
The suggestion came timidly. Netta hesitated before she opened her case. Then she touched the strings and glided softly into an impromptu of Chopin's. Netta had forgotten her errand, the incongruity of the situation, everything till the liquid music died away. As she turned she saw a little man with stiff grey hair and clean-shaven face standing in the doorway. He was tightly clad in a shabby frock-coat that creased into wrinkles as he bowed. His face had lighted with a fine enthusiasm.
"Ciel!" he cried. "What feeling, what soul, such execution! Madame is some great artist, surely."
Netta coloured as she laughed, and put her fiddle away. She was conscious of the absurdity of her position.
"I hope to be," she said, guardedly. "I played to oblige this dear little girl, and you will do me the favour of saying nothing about it to anybody. I find Marie is an artist. If I am correct I shall come and give her lessons."
"I will see what I can do," Netta went on. "Meanwhile, I have come to consult you professionally about my eyes. There is not much the matter, but, after playing so long, you see—"
He placed Netta in a chair, and for a time examined her eyes carefully. He shook his head dubiously, but on the whole there appeared to be no cause for alarm.
"Nothing really wrong," he said. "The eyes are tired. You must not practise any more by artificial light. I will give you an ointment of my own invention. Come and see me in a day or two."
"If you don't mind, I should like to come each day at the same time," Netta said. "One's eyes are such a serious matter, you know. I can afford to pay for this; I am not poor."
D'Alroy bowed and looked relieved. The longer Netta remained the more convinced she was that she was dealing with a gentleman. D'Alroy had hesitated till she proclaimed the fact that she could afford to pay.
"I shall be delighted," he murmured. "And the name of the charming and talented lady who—"
"Call me Landon," Netta replied, giving her own name. "Only nobody need know. I shall see next time what Marie's playing is like."
"We are not likely to speak," D'Alroy said with proud humility. "We are poor, but the people here are not of our class. Years ago when I was in Australia things were different. But now I have no degree; I am a professor, what the profession would call a quack."
"But surely," Netta cried, "with your talents it would be easy to—to—"
She hesitated, and D'Alroy went on, with a grave smile. Netta's ready sympathy induced most people to give her their confidence. D'Alroy tapped his palm with his forefinger.
"I had it," he said, "I had all the degrees. But my health was bad, so I went to Australia. It was not long before my name began to spread; there were more scientific truths and discoveries, you understand. There were successful operations that nobody else had dared to undertake. Then I had a great misfortune at the hands of a dreadful villain. If I had not retired from practice I should have lost my degrees. So I came back to England restored to health and broken in spirit to be a quack professor. But nobody knows the eye as I do."
"You want to be a friend of Marie, and so I tell you things," D'Alroy resumed. "I have many inventions to save time and pain, especially pain. It was the dream of my life to find something that should secure the patient freedom from pain—ay, even suspend vital activity for a time. I worked at that till I found it."
Netta thrilled. A sudden idea had come to her.
"What is the effect of this wonderful discovery?" she asked eagerly.
"Why, it produces a sleep like death," D'Alroy replied. "You take it and you are practically dead. You can be dead for a minute or a day, as I choose, according to the dose. It is a secret known to the fakirs in their living entombment. See, it is like this."
From a locked drawer D'Alroy produced a small bottle of colourless liquid, and drew out the cork. A faint, sweet, sickly perfume filled the air. D'Alroy was saying something, but what it was Netta had not the slightest idea in the dim light of her fresh discovery.
It was the drug that had been used in the case of Gordon Falmer.
IT was fortunate for Netta that the Frenchman was so wrapped up in the proud consciousness of his profound discovery. If a few words had sufficed to elucidate the mystery, she could not have said them at that moment. She listened in a dazed state whilst D'Alroy proceeded to explain.
"My drug can be taken in more ways than one," he said. "If you want total oblivion, you take it internally. If you want local effects it is applied outwardly. Some day I will proclaim this to the world, some day my assistant in Paris who makes this shall tell its story."
"But fortune and fame should be yours," Netta urged.
"Both, as I am perfectly well aware," D'Alroy said gravely. "It is for discoveries like this that you give titles to your scientists and erect statues to their memories. Some day, if this cloud rolls away, I will speak. But if the cloud should never roll away, ah, well!"
The little man shrugged his shoulders and sighed.
Netta felt that she was on the track of startling revelations.
"You've done very well indeed," Tremullion said, when he had heard the story. "I've been working at the problem all the morning, and now I am beginning to see my way to a pretty coup presently. Netta, what a brilliant detective you would have made!"
"Indeed, I should have made nothing of the kind," Netta retorted. "I should hate mean and sordid work like that. But for Reggie, I would not have touched it at all. Oh, I am not going to back out of it; you need not be afraid of that. I shall go almost daily to see my dear professor, whom I would trust with my eyes if they needed an operation."
"I wouldn't," Tremullion said drily. "It's odd how nearly all these people seem to be more or less mixed up with Australia. I shall have to come and see your professor, Netta. I dare say he is a fellow who had to give up his practice owing to some professional disgrace."
But Netta declined to take such a sinister view of the man. Whatever the professor's fault, it was nothing worse than poverty and misfortune, Netta felt certain. Besides, the professor was too transparent to make a good rogue. Netta was turning this point over in her mind as she made her way to D'Alroy's shabby house on the following afternoon.
She paused suddenly, with all her wits alert, as she caught sight of two figures on the opposite side of the street, a little in front of her. She had not the slightest difficulty in recognizing them as Jackman and the fellow who had been his companion in the public-house. They were walking slowly along, with Jackman hanging on the arm of his guide.
There was a still further cause for excitement, seeing that Jackman was wearing the very coat he wore when he left Loudwater, the overcoat in the pocket of which the precious papers had been hidden. If Netta could only get hold of that she could satisfy herself speedily whether the better part of her task would be in vain or not.
The two men went slowly on till they came to D'Alroy's house, which they entered. Apparently they could not proceed to the consulting-room at once, for Netta could see the low, cunning face of Jackman's companion looking over the wire blind in the dining-room. Then somebody with a bandaged eye came down the grimy steps, and the repulsive features in the window vanished. Secure in her disguise and the fact that her veil was down, Netta crossed the street and knocked at the door.
Marie opened the door and welcomed Netta shyly. Voices were talking in the inner room.
"All right," a stranger said; probably the man with the repulsive face, Netta thought. "No reason for me to be hanging about here. I'll come back in half an hour. What?"
"You need not trouble, sir," the smooth voice of the professor said. "I will see to that. Really, I must have the room made more tidy. Let me hang your coat up in the hall."
Jackman growled something, and his companion departed, banging the door behind him. Netta looked back as she entered the dining-room to see D'Alroy hanging a coat up in the hall. It looked as if her chance had come at last.
"What is the matter?" Marie asked. "You seem so strange to-day."
Netta laughed unsteadily. Could she not devise some ingenious excuse for getting Marie out of the way for a few moments?
"You have not brought your violin to-day," the child said.
"No, not to-day," Netta smiled. "Your—I mean the professor said I was to give myself a little rest. When my great day of triumph comes, and you are there to hear, why, you will be proud of me, and think of the time when we both sat in this room together."
The child's face flushed with enthusiasm. Evidently she possessed the artistic spirit.
"I shall be proud as a queen," she cried. "And you shall teach me. When my time comes I shall tell everybody what a famous mistress I had. Then we will have a great feast together—"
"Of chocolate cream and strawberry ices," Netta laughed. From where she sat she could see the coat and the hysterical desire to fly to it moved her again. "Fortunately these are not very expensive luxuries, so we might anticipate them, Marie. You know where the best shops are here. Take this shilling and buy what your heart desires."
Marie held out her hand eagerly for the shilling. It was painfully clear that even such humble joys were few and far between. Then she hung back and blushed.
"I'm dreadfully sorry," she stammered, "but I can't. I had forgotten that my shoes had gone to be mended. Henri would be angry if I went out in these."
"My dear girl," she said, "you shall not be disappointed. I'll fetch the sweets myself. Meanwhile you can be getting out the plates and glasses. I shall be back long before you are ready."
Netta passed into the hall and began to rummage in the pockets of the coat. As she was so engaged the hall door opened, and Netta jumped back into the dining-room with a start. Her heart was thumping-violently as if she had been detected in some crime. As she half turned she noted the features of Gordon Falmer. The thick, bushy eyebrows were gone, but the face and features were too indelibly marked on her memory for Netta to forget them.
She dropped her veil and signified that Marie must say nothing. Falmer had paused in the hall as if undecided what room to try, and then he came into the dining-room. Netta sat sedate and silent on a chair, glad from the bottom of her heart that the wire blinds made the room so dim. To her intense surprise Marie jumped up and greeted the newcomer with every demonstration of delight.
"So you have come at last," she said. "I thought I was never going to see you again."
Falmer raised the child in his arms, and kissed her. The joy of the meeting seemed mutual.
"But I see we are not alone," Farmer said. "My child, who is this lady?"
"It is a patient; I have been talking to her," Marie said demurely. Evidently the child was mindful of her compact. "Miss Landon has something the matter with her eyes."
Netta secretly blessed the child for her discretion.
"Well, Miss Landon could not have come to a better man," Falmer said, "though the professor would not pay me any compliments of that kind. But I have not come to stay; indeed it is at considerable risk—I mean inconvenience—that I am here at all. The professor has a patient whom I am anxious to see. Ah, I can hear his voice at this very moment. That you, Jackman?"
"That's me," a low voice growled. "Coming in a minute—the professor has nearly done with me."
By and by there were sounds as of somebody moving in the next room, and then the clang of footsteps on the bare boards of the hall. Falmer lifted up the little girl and kissed her before he strode out of the room. Netta could see Jackman fumbling for something.
"Your coat," the professor said, in what struck Netta as a deeply-agitated voice. "I beg of you many pardons. Your coat is here. Permit me to help you."
"Oh, don't trouble," Falmer said. "I'll manage that. I'll see Jackman home, as I wish to have a talk with him. Good-bye, professor. I have not had the pleasure of your society lately, but you need not be afraid that I shall forget you."
"I am not in the least alarmed as to that," D'Alroy said with sudden and bitter anger. "Good-bye, scoundrel!"
The last words were spoken in a whisper, but Netta heard them. The professor's face was white and agitated as he entered the room, but not whiter or more agitated than Netta's features behind her veil.
"One moment," the professor said. "I must wash my hands. When I come down I shall be myself again—I mean I shall be ready for you. I am a little tired, a little worried this morning, but the feeling will pass."
D'Alroy crept from the room with the laggard step of an old man. Suppressing her feelings, Netta turned to Marie with a smile. In the circumstances it was a very creditable smile.
"Is Mr.—I mean is that gentleman any relation of yours?" she asked.
"Oh, yes," Marie replied. "I wish he and Henri did not hate one another so much. Oh, yes; he is a relation. He is my father."
NETTA listened as Marie prattled on. Her head ached with disappointment and the shock of the repeated surprises.
"So that is your father," she said presently. "Why don't you live with him?"
"I don't live with him because he is so often away," Marie explained. "He has business that takes him all over the world. That is why I am here, and why Henri takes care of me."
Netta asked no further questions, for D'Alroy had returned. He looked a trifle more haggard than usual. Strange that the presence of Falmer seemed to carry a blight wherever he went save in the case of this child.
"Marie pleads that her boot-maker has disappointed her," Netta laughed. "Therefore she has not been able to procure certain delicacies we know of. I am going to buy them, and send them back by you, professor, if you will walk a little way with me."
Netta repeated her suggestion twice before D'Alroy seemed to catch it. He assented eagerly and gracefully. He was very silent as they went along before Netta boldly plunged into her subject.
"Mr. D'Alroy," she said, eagerly, "that man is a dangerous and unscrupulous villain."
"Never a greater," D'Alroy said mechanically. "My dear young lady, we are both thinking of the same man. What do you know of Gordon Falmer?"
"We will not go into that at present," Netta said. "He is Marie's father, she tells me. Of course, Marie is some relation of yours, or you would not—I mean—"
"You mean that I would not maintain her. Ah, but you are wrong; the child is no relation whatever to me. She is the daughter of a very dear friend who was going to marry me. But when Gordon Falmer came along I knew my hopes were vain. I knew him for the snake he was; I divined it from the first. He married Marie's mother and broke her heart; he ruined me, and then, when he was hard pressed, he brought the little one to my wreck of a home, and there she has been ever since. Ah, if I could only get rid of him!"
D'Alroy drew himself up and his eyes flashed. There was deep pity in Netta's heart.
"Poor as you are, he blackmails you?" she asked. "And he such a rich man, too."
"He blackmails me? Yes. He is like the daughter of the horse-leech, always crying, 'Give, give.' But he is not a rich man; his ill-gotten gains went long ago. And the vengeance is coming; it is coming slowly but surely. When the '36' find him—"
"Unless I am mistaken, the '36' have found him already."
D'Alroy stared at the speaker in amazement. Fear as well as astonishment crept over his face.
"What can you know of that?" he asked hoarsely. "What can you possibly know of that? Even I dare not ask too many questions, though the '36' indirectly ruined me. If you desire to live, to realize your honourable ambitions, say nothing of this to a soul."
D'Alroy raised his hat and silently departed, leaving Netta to make the best of this new phase in the problem. But she could make little out of it, nor could Tremullion when he heard the story.
Tremullion smoked a couple of cigars after dinner, thinking the matter out. Then he worked it all up in the form of a case, and his notes enabled him to grasp the threads and piece them together. On the whole it was one of the prettiest problems he had ever been confronted with.
"I begin to see my way dimly," he said at length. "But, it's no use building up a theory before one has some central fact to found upon. We shall have to go back to the beginning—at least, the beginning so far as we are concerned. We shall have to return to the point where Falmer established his hold upon Lady Langworthy. According to you, Lady Langworthy has done somebody a great wrong, and bitterly regrets it. She could have righted the wrong only she dared not, and Falmer would not let her."
"But she deems Falmer to be out of the way now," Netta urged.
"Quite correct, and that is a point to you," Tremullion went on. "So long as Lady Langworthy knows, or rather believes, that Falmer is out of the way, she may be disposed to speak. Now whom do you think she had wronged?"
"Reggie, beyond a doubt," Netta said eagerly. "Mind you, I don't believe that the wrong was done deliberately. Lady Langworthy was a tool. And when she found out that she had been so used, as Falmer cynically told her, she was afraid to speak. The ten thousand pounds that Reggie was supposed to have stolen were at the bottom of the matter."
"I don't see how," Tremullion said.
"Why, that money, actually the same money, went to pay Lady Langworthy's gambling debts. She was not Lady Langworthy then, but the point is immaterial."
"How stupid of me!" Tremullion exclaimed. "I had forgotten that. My dear Netta, I must ask Lady Langworthy here for a day or two. My wife will manage that. I want to study the woman, to find out the trouble. There is a state concert on Friday, to which I know Lady Langworthy is invited. My wife will ask her to stay here. They were friendly in Lady Langworthy's stage days."
Netta nodded approval, though she did not see how anything was going to come of this. But doubtless Tremullion had his own way of going about the business. A long letter was written and dispatched to Reggie, telling him of all that had happened, though Netta did not know that Tremullion had also written to Reggie asking him to get leave of absence and come to London for a day.
"I have heard from Hilda Langworthy," Mrs. Tremullion said the following day at luncheon. "She says it will be a great pleasure to stay with us, all the more as Sir John refuses to come up for the concert. She will be here before dinner."
"Very good, indeed," Tremullion smiled. "Couldn't be better. I'll go as far as the club, and hunt up young Greening. If I'm so lucky as to find him, I'll ask him to dinner."
The speaker looked significantly at Netta, lighted a cigarette, and departed. A little before five he wired that Percy Greening was coming to dinner, and that he hoped nobody else would be asked. Mrs. Tremullion smiled at the strange message—her husband seldom did anything without a reason.
"I am going to Paddington to meet Hilda Langworthy," she said. "No, there is not the slightest reason why you should come along; I should much prefer you did my flowers for me. Hillman is clever, but she hasn't your knack for such things."
Netta speedily lost herself in her occupation. She hardly heard the butler murmuring that somebody had come to see her, and it was not till Reggie Masters had his arm round her that she looked up. Her lips parted in a sweet and tender smile.
"My dear boy, this is a glad surprise," she cried. "But wasn't it rather risky?"
"I wore tinted glasses," Reggie explained. "Oh, my dear little sweetheart, will the day never come when I can look the whole world in the face? There is so little to discuss and yet so much. I suppose you know that Tremullion sent for me?"
"I didn't," Netta laughed. "All the same, I'm infinitely obliged. There is nobody at home, and I have nearly arranged the flowers. Ah, Reggie!"
A spell of blissful silence followed. With a gesture of dismay, Netta caught sight of her head in a Florentine mirror opposite.
"Really I must make my hair tidy before Mrs. Tremullion comes back," she said. "I won't be a minute. And you are to behave yourself properly when I return."
Netta fluttered from the room, leaving Reggie Masters alone. There were sounds of voices in the hall presently, and a laughing protest in tones that seemed familiar to Reggie. Then the drawing-room door opened and a tall, fair woman with wonderful blue eyes entered. She seemed to be amused about something, and then became conscious that she was not alone. A deep flush spread over Reggie's bronzed features, a fine contrast to the marble pallor of the new-comer.
"Reggie, Mr. Masters," she gasped, "I thought you had gone—that—that—"
"That you were not likely to see me again," Reggie said quietly. "Believe me, this meeting is of no seeking of mine. I came here at the request of Mr. Tremullion, and—"
"You will say nothing of this," she cried. "Ah, you will not say a word of this."
Hilda Langworthy glanced at the speaker, and understood the tie that bound these two together. She stood with her hand on her heart, not daring to speak, and yet eager to justify herself before the man she had injured.
"This is very painful," she remarked, "painful for both of us. Had I known I would not have come."
"Had I known I should never have spoilt your pleasure," Reggie said bitterly.
"Yes, that is how I should have expected you to speak," Lady Langworthy went on. "I have injured you deeply, I know, but I never did so deliberately. Oh, I don't mind Miss Sherlock hearing. I know what you are to each other; I have partly guessed why she came to Loudwater Priory."
Netta flushed, but said nothing. She saw that Lady Langworthy had not finished.
"Unwittingly I did you a great wrong," she proceeded. "I had done a foolish thing and had to pay the penalty of my folly; I was in despair. And when things were at the very worst a friend sent me anonymously the money to pay my gambling debts—£9,800 in all. It came to me with a typewritten note the very night I was at Percy Greening's party. It never occurred to me who sent it. I did not know till afterwards that it was you."
"That it was I!" Reggie cried. "And who told you that I had robbed my employer for the sake of a woman whom I had once loved and who had rejected me. Who told you that?"
"Gordon Falmer," Lady Langworthy whispered. She seemed to have some trouble in speaking.
"Then it is false," Reggie cried, "as false as the scoundrel who told you. How you paid your debts I cannot tell, certainly not with a single penny-piece that came from me."
LADY LANGWORTHY passed her hands across her eyes as if she had been suddenly aroused from a dream. She could hardly credit her ears, and yet Reggie was obviously telling the truth.
"But there was the money," she said. "As I said before, it came to me anonymously. At the time it was like a chapter from some romance... Of course, I ought not to have taken the money; I ought to have banked it till I could find the sender. But I was desperate; ruin, or something like it, stared me in the face. Besides, though the engagement was not announced, I had just promised Sir John Langworthy to marry him. I loved him."
The speaker paused and looked defiantly in the faces of her listeners. Netta softened.
"I believe that," she said, "I am sure you married your husband from pure affection."
"I thank you for that," Lady Langworthy faltered. "That is good and noble of you. But at the same time, I fancied that Mr. Masters cared for me; in other words—"
"For heaven's sake, don't let us prevaricate!" Reggie cried passionately. "I did love you; I was fascinated by your beauty and talents, as many men were. I had not then discovered Netta, had not learned that my heart had never wavered in its allegiance to her. You deemed me rich, and thought I had taken a delicate way to find money for your needs?"
"That was it," Lady Langworthy exclaimed eagerly. "If I had not guessed where the money came from, Gordon Falmer was at hand to enlighten me. The temptation was too strong; I could go to my future husband free from anxiety and shame. Afterwards I heard vaguely that you had got into trouble. It was only then, when it was too late, that Gordon Falmer told me the truth."
"But why should he drag you in?" Netta cried.
"Perhaps because he cared for me. But who can fathom the depths of a mind like his! My husband is rich and powerful, and a grip on a house like ours was no bad thing for Gordon Falmer. He had a hold on me that nothing but death could relax. He made me his slave and tool. He came to Loudwater Priory and left at his good will and pleasure. Fortunately my husband noticed nothing—he had the blindest trust in me. But now that Falmer is dead—"
The speaker paused and gave a long sigh of relief. Reggie looked at Netta meaningly. The time had not yet come for Lady Langworthy to be enlightened on that point.
"What do you want me to do?" she went on. "It is only in the last few minutes that I have learnt the truth. Gordon Falmer used to say that I was equally guilty with you—that people would say that I incited you to robbery to pay my debts. But tell me one thing—how did that money find its way into Falmer's hands? Of course, it was he who obtained the notes and placed the anonymous letter in the package."
Reggie told the story of the telephone message and of that evening visit to the house of Mr. Greening. Lady Langworthy followed with breathless attention. She tried to stammer out some apology, but she failed, and broke down entirely.
"What do you want me to do?" she asked again, with tears in her eyes. "Oh, I think you will admit that I am guilty of no more than stupendous folly. But I always meant to atone. If you like I will go to Sir John and tell him everything."
"That will have to be done, of course," Reggie said grimly. "But a confession such as you propose at present would ruin everything. When the moment comes to speak we will let you know."
Lady Langworthy avowed that she was prepared to do anything. Reggie bowed coldly to her, and left the room, followed by Netta. The door had hardly closed when it was announced that Mr. Percy Greening would like to see Mrs. Tremullion for a moment.
An immaculately dressed young man, with a glass in his weak, shifty blue eye, advanced and held out a perfectly-gloved hand to Lady Langworthy.
"Quite a pleasure," he murmured. "See so little of you now, don't you know? Fact is, I came to make an apology to Mrs. Tremullion. Her husband asked me to dinner, and I accepted for to-night. Absolutely forgot an important supper engagement that I can't get out of. Would you mind explaining that to Mrs. Tremullion? I'm in an awful hurry. Good-bye."
"Stop!" Lady Langworthy cried. "There was a time when you were not so eager to leave my society. I have a few words to say to you. I want you to recall the night of that bridge party, the night when Mr. Reggie Masters turned up. It was the evening before that trouble over the stolen notes."
"What is the use of dragging all that up again?" Percy Greening asked uneasily.
"I assure you I am not asking out of idle curiosity. I have learnt something to-day that has startled me. You know that Mr. Masters left that money in your father's desk?"
"I know he said so," Greening sneered feebly. "But nobody believes it for a moment."
"Pardon me, but I believe it implicitly. If there is nothing in it, why did you provide your friend, Gordon Falmer, with a duplicate key of the desk? Why was Falmer allowed to go into the library at the very moment Reggie Masters was in the house? And what do you suppose Falmer was doing in the library during those eventful moments?"
Greening started and turned pale. Hilda Langworthy had made a random shot, but the bullet had found its mark. A queer tinge spread over the young man's foolish face.
"Oh, come," he blurted weakly. "You are trying to bully me. Falmer had found something out, you know. Confound him, he was always finding things out about everybody. And he could always give you a good reason for what he was doing, however suspicious it was. But I say, don't show up the man. You are as deep in the mire as I am."
"You miserable, pitiful coward!" Lady Langworthy cried passionately. "If you had had the courage to speak a few words you might have saved an innocent man from disgrace. But you were afraid to speak because your father would have discovered the extent of the gambling that went on under his roof. He is a stern man, and would probably have disinherited you."
"He would have done it to a dead certainty," Greening whined. "Come, you were in it with us."
"I admit it freely, and deeply ashamed I am. But the time has not come to speak yet. When it does come you will have to make your confession like the rest of us. You had better break the thing to your father yourself and soften his wrath by degrees. This thing cannot rest where it is, but don't say that I have not warned you."
The wretched man crawled away looking very limp and washed out, despite his immaculate attire. He dismissed his taxi-cab, and decided to walk to his club. He needed air and exercise and a strong drink to pull himself together.
"Well, this is a nice mess," he muttered as he walked along. "And just as things were going on so beautifully, Masters off in some distant colony and that scoundrel Falmer dead! Hilda Langworthy means to have the truth out at any cost. I could see that in her eyes. Still, so long as Falmer is dead, I don't see why all the blame should not be shifted on to—I beg pardon, I really—"
He paused and stopped as a stranger accosted him.
The stranger had a long thin face and a pair of dark searching eyes. Greening gasped; he staggered as the other took his arm.
"Falmer," he said in a dreary voice. "Falmer without his eyebrows, but Falmer in the flesh. You might have knocked me down with a feather when I heard your voice. In the name of all that is mysterious, what does this mean?"
"We won't discuss that," Falmer said grimly. "Suffice it that I had to disappear in a neat and natural manner. I chose to die as the best way out of a serious complication. There was a danger that you little dream of, a danger that would turn your heart to pulp and render you a useless imbecile. All the same, being dead has its drawbacks. I had feathered my nest beautifully, and now the rascal that I trusted—and I had to trust somebody, for the danger fell like a thunderbolt—defies me. He challenges me to proclaim my identity and take my property."
"In other words, Reggie Masters's property," Greening said with a feeble grin.
"Put it that way if you like," Falmer said coolly. "The fact remains that I am hard up. The fact is equally palpable that you are not. Therefore, I have to fell you that my body is not mouldering in the dust. I want funds, and you will supply them. In the course of the day you must send me a couple of hundred pounds."
Greening protested and writhed and wriggled. Positively his account was overdrawn; he dared not ask his father for more money. Falmer listened unmoved, a smile on his dark face.
"Stow it," he said. "If you have no money, try forgery. It won't be the first time. I shall look you up at your club at eleven to-night; see that you are there!"
Greening went miserably on his way, feeling that exertion was a hopeless and unnecessary thing. He would have to find this money, or Falmer would know the reason why.
Meanwhile Falmer passed on with the pleasing consciousness that he had done a fair day's work.
He came at length to the humble room where Jackman lived. The latter was lounging in a chair with an empty pipe between his lips, and an empty glass on the table. Considering that these two were master and man, Jackman's greeting was not too respectful.
"Well, you've come at last," he grunted. "I hope you've got some money, I'm stony broke, and sucking my pipe is poor sport. I want a few pounds to go on with."
"The money is all right," Falmer said cheerfully. "You can have what you want, because I am going to draw a good round sum to-night. Any letters or anything for me?"
"Only a small parcel," Jackman explained. "Feels like a pill-box. The fellow who delivered it never gave his name, but he struck me as a foreigner. He asked for you, and left the box."
"That's odd," Falmer muttered with a shade of anxiety on his face. "I didn't think anybody could have found me. But let me sec the box. Is that it on the table?"
He snatched eagerly at the box and tore off the lid. As he did so two brown dice with scarlet pips parted, and their sides dropped on the table. Falmer froze at the sight.
"The '36'!" he gasped. "Good heavens, Jackman, they are on my track again!"
NETTA was feeling the constant strain. Dearly as she loved the man for whom she was making such sacrifices, it was only natural that she should not forget her art. There were many social functions she could not postpone, such as engagements at great parties, and the like. The girl looked pale and worn out as she stood before the cheval-glass putting the last dainty touches to her evening dress. She was dining out that night and was to give a musical recital afterwards.
"For once in a way I would rather stay at home," Netta said to her hostess. "Usually I enjoy the applause and the triumph. It is such fierce delight to silence a roomful of chattering people, and hold them silent for half an hour."
"You will find that difficult in Mrs. Ardley-Trevor's drawing-room," Mrs. Tremullion laughed. "They are very rich and very new, though Mrs. Ardley-Trevor knew something of Society before she was married. Now they have been taken up by a duchess they will be a huge success. My husband says that Ardley-Trevor was once a contractor in Australia."
"Toujours Australia," Netta laughed as she rose at the intimation that the brougham was ready. "I thought at one time that we should have to go to Australia to solve the mystery, but it seems as if Australia were coming to us to save the trouble."
A long array of carriages lined the pavement in front of the Clarges Street house, where the Ardley-Trevors entertained in such magnificent style.
Netta dropped down into a nest of silken cushions, and calmly surveyed her companions. Most of them were known to her by sight—people of high position, a Cabinet Minister or two, a dignitary of the Church, and some literary people of the class who hang on to Society.
Netta suddenly sat up in her nest of cushions and her eyes gleamed. Her companion was saying something, but she had not the least idea what it was. Her glance had travelled to the far side of the room towards a small, wiry-looking man with a brown face and a peaked beard. It was the man called Raymond Bond, who had come to Loudwater Priory on behalf of the dead man, Gordon Falmer. Netta wondered what he was doing here. He was perfectly dressed and at his ease, as Netta did not fail to note.
Somebody brought up her host, and introduced him to Netta. He paid her one or two meaningless compliments, and then stood jingling the coins in his pockets. He had all the vulgar assurance of the new rich man, the pose of his body was important, his red cheeks were puffed out pompously. Yet he seemed singularly ill at ease: Raymond Bond lounged up at this moment.
"I trust you are going to play. Miss Sherlock," he said. "I hope you will not disappoint us."
"I am here to play," Netta smiled. "There will be no need for persuasion. It is a matter of business this time."
"Eighty guineas," said the host with wonted delicacy, "is a lot of money for a tune or two."
"So it is," said Bond. His white teeth showed in something like a snarl. "But how nice to be able to afford such luxuries! My good Ardley-Trevor, you are a very fortunate man."
The host flushed angrily, but said nothing. As he glanced at Bond there was a challenge in the latter's eye. It was as if the host resented the patronizing sarcasm, and yet dared not repel it. Netta was glad when Mrs. Ardley-Trevor signed to her to come to the piano.
"I can get nobody to do anything in your presence," she complained. "Of course, I can't ask Elsa Delbey to sing, as she is to be my attraction at my big charity concert and supper the night after to-morrow. I shall have to get you to start."
She drew the bow over the strings, and a long wailing note burst forth. Almost instantly the sea of talk subsided. Netta played and they were content to listen. The theme came to an end with a crash of chords, the soft sob of some tender dying melody, a marked silence, and then a perfect outburst of applause.
"The success of the season, undoubtedly," the Duchess of March said, surveying Netta through her glasses, as if she had been some pretty bird. "And a genuine success into the bargain. My dear Mrs. Ardley-Trevor, I hope you have secured Miss—er—Sherlock for your Friday night affair."
"Well, you see as a charity I could only afford one star," Mrs. Ardley-Trevor replied. "I have got Elsa Delbey."
The duchess shrugged her shoulders significantly.
Mrs. Ardley-Trevor washed her hands of further responsibility. Netta was pleased to be alone. She passed presently into a cool, dim salon full of flowers, and thence into a conservatory faintly lighted by the electrics in the billiard-room beyond. There she sat down under a group of palms listening to the cool splash of a fountain, and gradually her headache ceased and her eyes grew clear. She must have dozed, too, for she was aroused presently by the sound of voices from the billiard-room.
The first note that struck upon her drowsy senses was the name of Gordon Falmer. It seemed to drop out of the air, like a sudden echo. Netta sat up alert and vigorous. Wherever she went that mystery followed her. In the billiard-room, close to the doorway leading into the conservatory, sat Mr. Ardley-Trevor and Raymond Bond. There was drink in long glasses before them and both smoked cigarettes.
Netta sat quite still, having hardened her heart to listen. Raymond Bond was bending slightly forward with a queer cynical smile on his face. Mr. Ardley-Trevor was pale, or at least as pale as it was possible for a man with a face as florid as his to be.
"I fancy, my dear friend," Raymond Bond was saying in his most silky tones, tones however, that had a suggestion of a deadly menace. "I fancy we understand one another. At least, I understand you, and that is the main point. You don't altogether see what I am driving at?"
"I don't," Ardley-Trevor said sulkily. "You want me to ask those people to my house on Friday. You seem to forget that they are nobodies, that Society is hardly aware of their existence."
"Spoken like the exclusive exquisite you are! A man of your family antecedents is, of course, bound to be careful. But you are modest, my friend, modest, as great men are. You hide your talents under a bushel; you decline to speak of your early days. That is a pity, Ardley-Trevor, because your past would make very piquant reading for Society, where piquancy is a luxury. Now suppose I become your biographer; suppose I write your history on the walls and proclaim it on the housetops? I should be sorry to sketch those blessed days in Sydney, but—you have dropped your glass."
The host's glass had fallen on the marble floor and shivered into a thousand atoms. He glanced dully at Bond.
"Who are you?" he asked. "In heaven's name, who are you?"
"That, my friend, matters nothing. The point is that I know who you are. Now listen to me, and repeat after me. You are going to ask Stephen Falcon here on Friday. Go on."
"I am going to ask Stephen Falcon here on Friday," Ardley-Trevor said as a frightened child repeats a lesson.
"Good! You knew Falcon years ago. You knew him as an English lad of respectable parentage before he left England to seek his fortune. You know Falcon to be immensely rich. Repeat."
"I know Falcon to be immensely rich. I never saw the man, but that is a mere detail."
"Quite. So long as you puff up his riches the rest does not matter. I shall leave you to settle the matter with your wife in any way you please. Whatever you do does not concern me so long as I am obeyed, and so long as I get a card for Friday night. My dear friend, I should advise you to see that my card for Friday is not forgotten."
Ardley-Trevor nodded; he could not speak at the moment. Bond rose as if the conversation was finished, and strolled off towards the drawing-room. From' her hiding-place Netta saw her host shake his fist furiously at the retreating figure before he rose in turn and disappeared. Netta went into the billiard-room and thence into the hall. A quick inspiration had come into her mind. She appeared to be looking for somebody, a slight girl, with pale face and dark, sorrowful eyes. This was Elsa Delbey, the new contralto, who was rapidly coming to the front as a singer.
"I have been looking for you everywhere," Netta said hurriedly. "My dear Elsa, I want you to do me a great favour. I want you to cry off for Friday night and let me come in your place. It is a matter of the utmost importance to me. Be sure I'll make it up for you."
"It is much to ask," said the other girl thoughtfully. "But you have been so kind to me once or twice that—yes, Netta, I will do what you ask. But if you are doubtful as to your ability to fill my place—"
"A thousand thanks," Netta said fervently. "No fear of that. I'll not forget your kindness as long as I live."
NETTA had not overrated her power of diplomacy. She and Elsa Delbey had settled upon a plan of action before they parted. On Friday morning a note was delivered to the effect that Miss Delbey greatly regretted that a sore throat prevented her from being present in Clarges Street that night, but her friend, Miss Sherlock, had promised to find an even greater attraction to take her place. The same post brought an offer from Netta to supply the vacancy in the programme. She added that as the affair was a charity concert she would be happy to give her services gratuitously, only, of course, that must be a secret. Almost immediately a grateful note was delivered to Netta. Mrs. Ardley-Trevor had not been unmindful of the praise of the Duchess of March, and, besides, she could see her way now to put at least a further sum of fifty pounds in the coffers of the charity. She would not have given a street beggar a copper to save him from starvation, but the charity concert was the correct thing, and it mattered little how much it cost so that the papers said plenty about it.
"I fear you are after a will-o'-the-wisp," Tremullion said, as he listened to Netta's story. "You probably imagined you heard the name of Gordon Falmer, as it has been in your mind so much. But I am afraid you will learn very little to-night."
Netta did not share the opinion. It was eleven when she arrived at Clarges Street, and by that time most of the guests and the handful of those who were prepared to pay ten guineas for a seat in the handsome double drawing-room where the concert was held were assembled. A shock-headed pianist was playing an overture, but nobody paid the slightest attention. Netta from a seat near the door watched the late comers enter. She saw presently a superbly handsome woman in a black dress covered with silver stars come in and walk with complete self-possession up to her hostess. In her wake came a short, sturdy man with a resolute face and a hard, clean-shaven mouth. Despite his coolness, he looked precisely what a respectable mason or bricklayer would look if arrayed in evening dress for the first time.
"Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Falcon," the footman announced. "Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Falcon," he repeated, in a parrot fashion.
A faint, thin smile came over the face of Mrs. Ardley-Trevor. In the background Netta could see her host explaining to a small inquisitive group who the strangers were. The girl could almost hear him repeating the words that Bond had so carefully instilled into his mind two nights before.
The incident passed naturally. After all, there were people in the room with antecedents fully as mysterious as those of the newcomers. Tremullion was fond of classing certain sections of Society as those who had been in gaol, those who will be there, and those who ought to be. Netta smiled as she thought of the epigram. Presently it came to her turn to play, and, as usual, she received a marked demand for an encore at the end of the performance. Half unconsciously Netta slipped into the sad, haunting impromptu that had so moved Gordon Falmer.
Netta finished amidst a storm of applause. But she would not play again, the programme was a long one, and there were many popular favourites to follow. The interval came presently, and as the silken curtains of the stage dropped together the woman with the silver stars crossed over and seated herself by Netta's side.
"You are Miss Sherlock," she said, with perfect aplomb. Netta noticed that though she carried matters off quite well, at the same time there was a hard note in her voice, an absence of refinement about it, and she also saw that the diamond-ringed hands had known hard work in their time. "I have never had the pleasure of hearing you before. It is really wonderful."
"It is exceedingly good of you to say so," Netta murmured.
"Not at all. It is no more than your due. I don't know a note of music, of course; my early education was more or less nominal; but I love good playing. That last little thing of yours, for instance. Would you mind telling me who composed it and where you got it?"
"It was written by a friend," Netta said. "You would not know his name. There are sad memories surrounding that music that make me reluctant to speak of it."
Netta's tone of voice was polite, but distinct and final. There was a baffled look in the woman's eyes, yet it was the look of one who has not bowed at the last word. After that she was not surprised when Mrs. Falcon came up to her again.
"I heard your partner say there had been a stupid blunder over your motor car," she said. "We are going close to Berkeley Street. Shall we be permitted to drive you?"
Netta hesitated. Evidently these people had some strong reason for making her acquaintance. At the same moment the inane youth who had volunteered to call Netta's car came up with the information that there had been a mistake, and the car had gone home. Netta intuitively divined that Raymond Bond was at the bottom of the contretemps.
"It is very good of you, and I shall be very glad," Netta said. "Servants are such stupid creatures. When you are ready you will let me know."
By and by Netta was in the car of the mysterious Stephen Falcon. For a millionaire the car was not too well-appointed, but the house before which the conveyance drew up in Stafford Street left nothing to be desired. There were silken curtains in the windows, the boxes of flowers were fresh and wonderfully artistic as to effect.
"Tell the chauffeur to wait," Mrs. Falcon said to a servant. "He will have to take this young lady as far as Berkeley Street in a few minutes. Miss Sherlock, I wish you would come with me. I've some old-fashioned music that I should like you to take away with you to try. My—a friend used to play it in a way. It is original, and, as far as I can judge, the composer must have been a genius. Do come in."
Again Netta hesitated, but only for a moment. She felt she was taking part in some strange drama. More than once had Mrs. Falcon put a leading question to her, and she had seen husband and wife exchange glances. A footman, who looked awkward in his livery, opened the door of a great square hall that was superbly furnished. Beyond it was a room blazing with electric light, but on either side were other rooms not so well lighted, and, to Netta's surprise, she saw they were devoid of furniture. Her surprise was so manifest that she could not conceal it. She saw her host's strong brows contract, and a look of livid anger rise to his eyes. He was a man not to be trifled with; a man who would pursue any purpose to the bitter end.
Anyway, so far as the dining-room was concerned it was handsome in every particular. The old oak and pictures, the priceless prints, were perfect in their way. Netta noticed all this as her hostess went to fetch the music. She came back presently with a pile of yellow MS. music paper, scored all over with phrases in a cramped, crabbed writing. Netta had only to glance it over to see that she had come upon a mine of exquisite melody. The artistic sense was awakened and she forgot everything else.
"This is divine," she cried. "I have always said that the world has many musicians of which it knows nothing. Mrs. Falcon, where did you get these?"
"Like you, I must be reticent——"; the woman with the silver stars smiled. She was about to say more when there burst into the room an extraordinary apparition. It was a working man in cords and shirt sleeves, a big, brawny man, with a loud voice and a stagger in his walk that could only be attributed to one cause.
"So I've found you," he yelled. "Is that the way you go about your work, eh! I always said you were not to be trusted, and now I'm certain of it. Good job I got '36' to send me over to see what was in the wind. When they get my report by the next mail—"
"Silence, you drunken dog!" Falcon yelled. "Don't you see a lady is present? As for the fools yonder, you haven't sense or brain enough to know—Take that!"
Falcon's fist flashed out and with a heavy blow on the side of his head the big man went to the floor. Before Netta could say or do anything, Mrs. Falcon had seized her and bore her from the room.
"You must think no more of this," Mrs. Falcon said in a hoarse whisper. "We all have our troubles to bear, our skeletons in the cupboard, and this is ours. You will not mention this?"
The question was asked not in the voice of one who pleads for a favour, but as a command. Netta said she should cause her host and hostess no annoyance, and with that Mrs. Falcon was fain to be content.
"Stay a moment," she said, "whilst I fetch the music and see you to the car. I am afraid you will have to remain in the dark. But you have no cause to fear; a girl with a face like yours is not likely to be afraid of anything."
Netta replied that she was not in the least alarmed. She stood waiting, waiting. Her patience was exhausted at last and she began fumbling for a door. Here was a knob at any rate. She gently turned it, and looked into a room where a man was seated at a table bearing a shaded lamp. Over his eyes was a green screen. He seemed absorbed in work. On the table in front of him were a pair of dice made of human knuckle-bones, the pips a flaring scarlet.
Netta stepped back softly and closed the door, so that she stood in darkness once again.
TO Netta there was something thrilling in the sight of that young man with the scarlet-pipped dice before him.
She was not frightened, but she would have given a great deal to find herself in the streets again. And why did not Mrs. Falcon come with an apology and an explanation? But time fled and nobody appeared.
In the darkness it was impossible to find the exit, and soon Netta gave up trying. There might be some trapdoor or something of that kind. The thought caused her to shudder; in the blackness she was losing her nerve for the moment. How strangely silent it was! Had these people taken flight?
She heard a distant door slam, and then there came a glimmer of light. It was not much of a light, but it sufficed to show Netta the shape of the hall. She ought to have gone fearlessly forward and met the light, but she did nothing of the kind. All she wanted was a hiding-place. There was a curtain hanging over one of the doors, and the girl hid behind it.
The intruder was none other than Mrs. Falcon. She looked calm and collected as she moved along.
Evidently she was not looking for Netta, for she crossed the hall and entered the room where the young man was at work.
"I want you for a moment," Netta heard her say. "There has been a disturbance in the dining-room, and one of the electric reading lamps was upset. In consequence we have lost the light in the ground floor. Can you put it right?"
"Certainly," came the reply. "Nothing more simple if you understand it. There has been a short circuit and probably a fuse or two have gone. I'll go down to the meter. I hope you have given that fellow Jerome a lesson, for he sadly needs it."
Suddenly the light blazed up again, the electric gleams glowing everywhere. A moment later Falcon and the young man came into the hall. As if nothing had happened, the young man crossed to his own room and closed the door behind him. Netta's curtain was of a heavy yet loosely woven material and through it she could distinguish the faces of husband and wife.
"I think you did very wisely," Mrs. Falcon said mysteriously.
"I'm certain of it," was the curt reply. "That fellow will not set his authority over mine again. He will not be fit for much for some days. I could have taken him by the throat and choked the life out of him. Was the girl frightened?"
"I don't know. I hustled her out of the room as quickly as possible. Soon afterwards the lamp was upset and we were all in darkness. I expect she was alarmed and went away. Does the car happen to be still at the door?"
"No, it doesn't," Falcon replied, "because I have just been across to the pillar-box. Perhaps the chauffeur got tired of waiting. It isn't as if the car belonged to me."
But Mrs. Falcon dismissed the idea contemptuously. Miss Sherlock had gone home, and it would be her duty to call and explain certain things away.
"I mean to find out where she got that music," she said. "I will never rest till that mystery is cleared up. And if it is as I fancy, then look to yourselves."
"You must forget your private feelings," Falcon said.
"I will never forget them," Mrs. Falcon replied. "I'm with you heart and soul, as you know. It has ever been my dream, at least ever since I understood the significance of things, to be a leader of men. The '36' is the start of the new era. But nothing can be done in earnest till we have laid Gordon Falmer by the heels."
"We shall get him before long," Falcon growled.
"I don't doubt it. But I am becoming impatient. We can do nothing till that traitor is out of the way. We trusted him and he robbed us of our funds. Over £30,000 gone at one fell swoop. Perhaps he thought we should not follow him to England."
"I am afraid he has found that out," Falcon muttered.
Husband and wife moved off together, leaving Netta to breathe more freely. Meanwhile the house was quiet, and there was plenty of light everywhere. Netta stole from her hiding-place.
The coast seemed clear. She stepped back as she heard a footstep approaching, but the chance of escape was gone. She was looking into the face of a man, who was none other than Henri D'Alroy, the French doctor.
"What are you doing here?" he asked. "What unhappy fate is this? For the love of heaven, for the sake of your future happiness, and safety, leave this place at once."
NETTA stood irresolute. It seemed strange to meet D'Alroy, that peaceful man of science, in this nest of intrigue and crime. D'Alroy's face was sad and downcast; there was not the slightest trace of the desperado about him.
"Will you tell me how you came here?" he asked.
"The explanation is simple," Netta said. "I was at a party playing. Amongst the guests were Mr. and Mrs. Falcon. I played a certain piece of music, and they were fascinated by it. They asked me to come here, and promised me some music by an unknown composer which was said to be exquisite. Then a drunken man came in. I was hustled in here and the lights went out. That is all I can tell you."
There was a noise in the hall at this moment and the turning of a key in the lock. D'Alroy's face grew a trifle paler, but he was himself again.
"It's too late to go," he said. "They have locked the front door. You must stay till I have a chance to release you. Do you know what these people are?"
The question was asked fiercely under D'Alroy's breath. He had drawn Netta within the shadow of the curtain again. She nodded and pressed his hand. "They talked when I was hidden," she murmured. "I pretty well understand. But what are you doing here?"
"Hush! Let me speak. I was drawn into the infamous conspiracy when I was in Australia. I was a fool and a dreamer then, as I shall be a fool and a dreamer all my life. They wanted a clever man of science, and they approached me. As far as I could see, they had solved a great social problem. Little I knew about it! I was thoroughly implicated before I realized that they were removing what they called tyrants. The tyrants died one by one in different ways, and without my knowledge I was an accomplice to many of these crimes. But I will speak to you of that at a more favourable opportunity."
"But you managed to escape from their toils?" Netta asked eagerly.
"I never did and I never shall," D'Alroy said sadly. D'Alroy pushed back the curtain.
"I must go," he said. "Have patience and do not move from here."
Netta nodded, but she had promised more than she could perform. To stay in that close place was almost impossible. She feared the strain would be too much for her, and that she would be compelled to call out. But the feeling had to be suppressed; Netta was alone in a den of murderers, who would not hesitate to destroy her if they thought their secret in peril. Though the risk was great, Netta stepped out and crossed the hall.
The house was deadly quiet but for the murmur of voices from a distant room. Netta ran to the front door and tried it. It was locked. From her place she could hear the sound of voices still more distinctly. The hall looked familiar. Then Netta recollected that she had played once or twice in Stafford Street houses, and that they were all built more or less on the same model. There was Lady Sparker's house, for instance, the hall of which was just like this. Those steps led to the balcony round the ball-room, and the balcony ended in a long window, which was not far above the garden. It was a bit risky, but the drop was not great.
Netta ascended the flight of steps until she came to a doorway on the left. Her heart was beating high with hope now, for she had observed exactly the same at Lady Sparker's house. Beyond that doorway was the balcony of the ball-room, and at the end was the big window that opened on to the leads over the billiard-room which was only a few feet from the level of the garden. Once there, Netta felt she would be free.
All her fears had left her, but she did not forget the need of caution. She opened the door very gently and stepped out. Then she closed the door as swiftly and as quietly, and dropped to the ground behind the Moorish lattice that protected the balcony, for the room was flooded with light, and a score of men sat at a table in the body of the hall.
Netta hardly dared to breathe for a while. She felt certain that she had been discovered. But there was no sign of confusion or alarm in the men sitting round the table. Stephen Falcon was speaking, and there came no break in the rasping, monotonous tones. Creeping close to the lattice-work Netta could see through. Books and papers and pens and ink lay on the table, and grim-looking men sat around, in deadly earnest. At the foot of the table D'Alroy sat in a dejected attitude.
"What have you to say for yourself?" Falcon asked.
A murmur of harsh applause followed the question. It was repeated twice before D'Alroy looked up and realized that he was being addressed. He rose slowly to his feet.
"I have nothing to say," he answered. "What does it matter what I say? I came to you when it seemed to me you were doing what was right and good. You used me, and I allowed myself to be used with my eyes shut. Then came the awakening. I discovered you to be, in spite of your boasting of justice and the like, a den of murderers. You say Eli Bosenthal was removed. He was a good and kind man, and he had a family. You murdered him—I murdered him, if you like. But I did not betray you, as it was my obvious duty to do. I fled instead. There was a reason why I fled."
"The reason was Gordon Falmer's child," a thin voice said.
"That is true," D'Alroy went on. "I loved that child; I love her now. If it had not been for her not one of you would have been alive to-night. But for that little girl I should have handed you all over to the police. But that child has nobody to look to, and so I brought her to London. I have had a hard struggle to live, but I have managed it somehow. In the name of heaven, why can't you leave a poor old man alone?"
"Because you know too much," another voice said.
"Well, what if I do? I never belonged to you. Suppose you kill me, what then? Suppose I have described the events of recent years in the form of a narrative, to be opened by a friend at my death! In that case you would have done a fine thing for yourselves."
D'Alroy spoke without passion, and with not the slightest suggestion of a threat in his tones. The brief speech created a distinct impression in the hearts of his listeners. Stephen Falcon, seated at the head of the table, deemed it well to change his tone for one less truculent.
"We have no desire to harm you," he said. "You were not in sympathy with the 'push,' and when you found out our methods you sacrificed everything and disappeared. We had made up our minds to remove you; indeed, the order had gone forth. Fortunately, you had well hidden your traces for a time, and when we came to know that your flight meant no harm to us, our vengeance relaxed. But we found you out, as we are bound to find everybody out, and I sent you the message to-night that you dared not disobey."
"I should have disobeyed it," D'Alroy said calmly, "but for the child. A little time ago I heard that your poison was being instilled into more or less willing ears in England. Then my conscience reproached me. If I could have found somebody to take the child I should have gone straight to Scotland Yard and told everything I know."
An angry murmur followed this statement, a murmur that Falcon sternly suppressed.
"We shall not harm you or the child," he said. "We know that Falmer is alive. We know that he pretended to be dead and buried; we know what an ingenious scheme he worked out."
D'Alroy gasped and his pale face grew paler still. He looked about him in amazement.
"Are you sure of that?" he stammered. "I thought that the secret was mine alone. Do you mean to tell me that Gordon Falmer—but the thing is impossible, impossible."
"He was supposed to die," Falcon went on. "Palmer passed here as a millionaire. It was the showy nature of the man that first put us on his track, and assured us that he had not committed suicide in Sydney, as he would have had us believe. But that is not the point. Falmer lives, and you know where he is to be found."
D'Alroy muttered something. The white face was growing steadily resolute. There was the staunch look of the martyr as the light fell on his features. Netta could see everything from her hiding-place. She had forgotten her fears in the excitement of the scene.
"Tell us where we can lay hands on Falmer," Falcon proceeded, "and there is an end of the matter so far as you are concerned. You must know where he is, for Falmer had one virtue, and that was affection for his child. We have counted on that, and we know that Falmer has communicated with you. Now, are you going to tell us that address, or shall we drag it from you by force? There is no need to explain to an old hand like yourself what form that force will take."
D'Alroy shook his head resolutely, his face was white and set. There was a tense silence, broken only by the purr of a distant electric bell. The conspirators started and glanced eagerly at one another. Falcon smiled as he left his seat.
"A belated member of the 'push,' who has come without his key," he said. "No, you need have no fear of the police; they have never heard of our existence in this country. But, to prevent accident, I'll attend to that ring at the bell myself."
Falcon passed from the hall, and presently a rush of air testified that the door had been opened. There was a confused murmur of angry voices, and then a little, powerfully-built man with dark features and a crop of woolly hair dashed into the room.
"Well, you fools," he yelled, "you besotted fools, what are you doing? Give me a drink of some kind. I'm pretty well done up. But you've got to hear me speak, and don't you forget it."
Netta wondered where she had heard the new-comer before. Then it flashed upon her—the woolly hair and dark face. It was Lebandi, the circus performer.
VERY anxiously Netta waited for what was coming next. For some reason the plotters were in deadly opposition to D'Alroy. The girl noted their sullen faces, and in her heart she feared for the safety of the Frenchman.
Lebandi crossed the room and stood in front of D'Alroy. He looked haggard and drawn after his illness but there was a magnetic glance in his eyes that carried a warning to the others. Netta could not but admire the easy way Lebandi carried himself and the suggestion of strength in his powerful limbs.
"You are a set of fools!" he cried; "from Falcon down to the meanest, you are a set of fools. Where is the sense in playing out this shoddy drama? These are the methods of the penny gaff. I tell you violence is no good here; the police are far too powerful. D'Alroy has been a valuable servant to us."
Lebandi spoke with fluent English, and there was a refinement in his tones, Netta thought. A murmur of dissent followed, but Lebandi merely smiled.
"We dragged D'Alroy into it yonder," he said. "I helped to do it. But I was an enthusiast then; I thought we had a great future. Now, I know better. But that is beside the mark. D'Alroy served us well until he discovered the violent methods of the extreme section, and then he fled. He never betrayed us; he never would. Therefore, let him go."
"We can't settle matters like this," Falcon growled.
"We can't settle matters at all," Lebandi cried. "You'll never terrorize people in this country. Let the man go, I tell you."
Again came the growl of dissent.
"It is you who are arguing beside the point," Falcon exclaimed. "Nobody seeks to punish D'Alroy. We are here to punish a thief and a traitor, the man who ran away with thousands of pounds of our money. We have ascertained beyond doubt that D'Alroy knows where Falmer is to be found. That sham death did not deceive us. Falmer has one virtue—love for his child. D'Alroy has that child. Falmer we know to be in England. Is it likely he would be here without seeing that child? Therefore, D'Alroy knows where he is. Let him deny it if he can."
All eyes turned upon D'Alroy, who made no reply. He had only to protest that he knew nothing of Falmer or his movements, and there would have been an end of the matter, seeing that he had a powerful ally in Lebandi, but the lie stuck in his throat.
"What are you going to do with Falmer when you get him?" a man with his back to Netta asked. The voice struck her as being familiar. "Surely we have had violence enough."
"Take him by the throat and drag our money out of him," Falcon cried. "The man is rich; he has probably made a fortune by means of our funds. He is a millionaire."
"He is a beggar," the man with the familiar voice said. "I know for a fact that he had to blackmail an old acquaintance to raise money to leave England. All your funds were dissipated in reckless speculation. The poorest of us is no poorer than Gordon Falmer."
As the speaker turned half round Netta craned eagerly forward to get a glimpse of his face. She was right; she had seen that face before, with its sinister expression and peaked beard. The speaker was Raymond Bond.
"What our friend says is profoundly true," Lebandi put in.
A growl followed; somebody muttered something about a foreign spy. Lebandi laughed aloud, his face smiling with amused contempt at the charge.
"I am English with the best of you," he said; "and my Spanish mother was English at heart. I am a graduate of Oxford University. Had I not been a fool I would have been in a fine position now. But love of drink and adventure and the company of such poor cattle as yourselves has placed me where I am. Take my advice and let D'Alroy go. I'll find Falmer for you, never fear."
"Why should you particularly want to find him?" Falcon asked.
"Because I have a grudge against him; because there is a debt between us that has to be wiped out. I would do anything to have that man in my power; I would stick at nothing."
Lebandi's bitterness and the heat of his passion were not without effect on the listeners. Only Falcon was cold and impervious. He rapped the table before him sharply.
"All this is by the way," he said. "We are to punish Falmer."
"In other words, you are to murder him," Lebandi cried. "Without D'Alroy and his scientific knowledge—"
"We don't want that so long as we possess the fruits of D'Alroy's labours."
"Which you don't possess. You think you can get these things from Arti in Paris. Arti has broken his pledge to D'Alroy and sold some of the secret preparations made in Paris for you and myself and others high up in the councils of the '36.' But you can't get anymore from Arti, because Arti is dead. I had a telegram this afternoon."
"I am glad to hear it," D'Alroy cried. "From the bottom of my heart I am glad to hear it. As I stand here in the face of heaven I am a murderer. Not that I am guilty of actual crime, but I placed it in your power to commit violence without the fear of detection. Up to now that is all the good that my great discovery has done for the world. But never again."
"You mean that you refuse to carry out your oath?" Falcon cried.
"Put it that way if you like. The secret and the formula are mine. I came here to-night of my own will, I and have heard the best news I have heard for years. My preparations shall never be made up by another again. Now you may do the very worst. I defy you all!"
"This is rank insubordination," Falcon growled. "It must be punished. Ulric, unlock the drawer under the desk by you."
"Not a bit of it," Lebandi yelled. "The first man who lays a hand upon D'Alroy has to answer to me. He shall not be touched. You bloodthirsty ruffian, sit down."
"This to me," said Falcon. The veins in his forehead grew tense and hard, and a fine purple spread over his face. "Pull them both down and gag them. Gag and bind the pair of them, I say."
There was a loud clattering of falling seats and a rush for Lebandi and D'Alroy.
She saw one man stagger at Lebandi with clenched fist; she saw another fist shoot out and the big man toppled over and lay kicking on the floor. Another and another came, but it made no difference to Lebandi. He seemed all steel and whipcord; he wasted no blow. For an instant he slipped, but he was on his feet directly, as alert and vigorous as ever. There was no sound but the crash of blows and the heavy laboured breathing of savage men in deadly earnest.
"Get a couple of chairs and beat him down," Falcon veiled. "It is the only way. Two of those heavy chairs. We'll soon take the devil out of him. Give me that big ruler."
With a smile of contempt Lebandi lashed out again with renewed vigour. His blows landed here and there until he had cleared a space round him. Then his hand dropped behind him, and a blue, smooth ring glittered at the end of a heavy revolver. At the sight of it the men with the chairs dropped back.
"I didn't want to use this," Lebandi said. "If you fight fair I am a match for all of you. But you are only murderous cowards, after all. Now, listen to me, and understand I mean every word I say. The first man who advances towards me will have a bullet in his heart, even if it be Falcon himself. Then I shall walk out and leave you to settle the matter amongst you."
That the speaker meant every word was palpable. Lebandi had conquered and one by one the men slunk into their seats, looking to Falcon to make the next move.
"You shall go if you like," Falcon muttered. "We shall know how to deal with you another time. But yon can't take D'Alroy away from a crowd like this."
In the excitement of the moment Netta had stood up. Nobody had noticed her but D'Alroy. As he caught her eye his face was so full of horror and amazement that the girl had dropped again, suddenly conscious of the supreme folly of her action. Then she saw D'Alroy whisper something to Lebandi, who nodded.
"I can go when I please," D'Alroy said. "There are secrets known to the man of science that are worth all your strength. I will show you an experiment. If you like to detain me after it is done, I shall have no more to say. Look at this."
A spirit of curiosity shone in the eyes of the hearers. Angry as they were, they were like children, after all. D'Alroy drew down a swinging electric pendant and took out the lamp. At the same time he opened the blade of a knife which he had taken from his pocket. At a sign from him Lebandi crept towards the spot where Netta was. Nobody seemed to notice the movement.
"Now, what could be easier than this?" D'Alroy exclaimed. "Here are the positive and negative poles of the circuit, which I expose by taking the lamp from its socket. I press this steel blade against the one pole, and what happens? Nothing! But when I press this strip of metal against both poles, why—"
The sentence was not completed, but the action was. The effect was instantaneous, for the pressure of the thick metal on the poles set up a short-circuit; there was a blinding flash, and instantly the house was in total darkness.
So suddenly was it done that Netta could scarcely repress a cry. Then it struck her that all might have been done for her benefit. D'Alroy had gone to great lengths; he had spoken clearly and distinctly. Netta thought that somebody was very near to her in the dark. Then a hand touched her shoulder, another hand grasped her, and she was jerked not too politely to her feet.
"Come along," a hoarse voice whispered. "This is the way to the front door. Ask no questions, but when you are outside go home as quickly as you can. There, I've found the lock at last. Softly, please. Now you are free. Ask no questions, but go at once. I have other work to do yet."
The door closed behind Netta, and she was alone in the deserted street.
NETTA rang the bell timidly and to her relief Tremullion let her in. One glance at her pale face told him that it was no time to ask questions. He placed her in a chair, and forced her to drink a glass of wine. At her leisure Netta told the story of her adventures, after which Tremullion insisted upon a further glass of wine, and that Netta should go instantly to bed.
"The wine will make you sleep," he said. "You will be all right to-morrow."
As Tremullion had prophesied, Netta was quite herself in the morning. There was a letter from Reggie for her at breakfast time saying that he was coming up, and hoped to be at Berkeley Street a little after five.
"You ought to rest to-day," Tremullion said. "You are doing too much."
"I am bound to," Netta whispered. "Besides, I have a concert at half-past three in Grosvenor Square. But I'll try to snatch a nap after luncheon."
But Netta's plans were not destined to be carried out, for a footman came to her after luncheon with a card which bore the name of Mrs. Falcon, and a request that she would see the caller, if only for a few minutes. On the whole Netta deemed it policy not to refuse. Mrs. Falcon was dressed for calling, her car was at the door, and Netta and she greeted each other as if they were mere Society acquaintances. It was a perfect piece of acting on Netta's part, and she was inclined to be proud of it.
"I really came to apologize for last night," Mrs. Falcon said. "Between ourselves, my husband is peculiar and he has all sorts of creatures about the house. I hurried you away because I did not know what that dreadful fellow would say next. Then the lamps went out, and when I tried to find you, you had vanished. My chauffeur made a mistake; he did not understand he had to wait for you. My dear Miss Sherlock, I am afraid you had to walk home."
"I had," Netta smiled frankly. "I did not care to distress you. But I left my music behind; if you will be so good as to send it to me. I hope you got rid of your unpleasant visitor."
Mrs. Falcon gave Netta a shrewd glance from time to time, but the latter was easy and unconcerned; she had seen nothing, Mrs. Falcon was convinced. Netta would have liked to be rid of her, but she had no wish to arouse suspicions that were now sound asleep. She even smiled her thanks later when Mrs. Falcon offered to drive her as far as Grosvenor Square. There they shook hands as effusively as if they were the best friends in the world.
"I fancy I carried that off all right," Netta said to herself as she followed the footman up the broad stairs to the drawing-room. "What a friend that woman would be—or an enemy!"
The room was full of Society people. She found a quiet corner on the staircase and sat down to rest, with the fervent hope that nobody would disturb her. But a moment later and Raymond Bond stood smilingly before her. He sat down as if sure of his welcome.
"I have not had the pleasure of meeting you since that afternoon at Loudwater Priory," he said. "When I heard that you were to play this afternoon I could not refrain from coming."
"It is very good of you to say so," Netta replied coldly, "though one grows tired of adulation at times."
Netta turned half away, as if the conversation were ended.
"There is something I wish to ask you," he said. "Under certain conditions one has to approach such matters in a diplomatic spirit. But unfortunately there is no time for that. I want you to do me a favour—to give me the present address of Mr. Gordon Falmer."
The last words were spoken in a whisper, with just the suggestion of a menace. Bond was smiling as if he had asked the most natural question in the world, but his dark eyes glittered. Netta thrilled, but speedily recovered her self-possession.
"Doesn't that seem an extraordinary thing to ask?" she said. "You require a stranger like myself to give you the address of a man who is dead and buried."
"I fancy you and I know better than that," Bond said coolly.
"But how is that possible? You came to Loudwater Priory after his death; you represented yourself to be a relative of Mr. Falmer. And now you ask me this. Really, I know nothing about it. I do not take the faintest interest in Mr. Gordon Falmer."
Bond smiled as he examined his well-trimmed finger nails. They seemed to please him, for he smiled again. "Then why were you in his bedroom the night after his death?" he asked.
Netta made no reply; she could not have spoken just then to save her life.
The hostess of the afternoon came forward with a reproachful smile. She was sorry to disturb the tête-à-tête, but would Miss Sherlock play just once more? Netta rose with an alacrity she did not usually display on such occasions. Bond was smiling in his cool and self-possessed way again. He could afford to wait now that he had unmasked his battery. He knew he could force the girl's hand. Netta played a further piece before she slipped away and took a taxi to Berkeley Street. There was a gentleman waiting to see her, the footman said. In the drawing-room Reggie was alone.
"My darling, how pale you look," Reggie said, as he held the girl in his arms and looked tenderly at her. "I am afraid you are worrying yourself about me."
"There is something besides that, dearest," Netta said. "Let me sit down and rest my head against your shoulder for a time and forget all the trouble. Mrs. Tremullion will see that no one comes in here. Presently I will tell you of my amazing adventures during the past two days."
The story was told leisurely with long intervals, but Reggie had it at last. He was boiling with indignation against Bond, who had dared to threaten Netta in this way. But Netta had forgotten her trouble for the moment; it was good to be there with Reggie's arm about her and to listen to his voice.
"I seem to know the name of Raymond Bond, too," he said, after a thoughtful pause. "My late solicitor had a partner named Bond, and I fancy his name was Raymond. I never so much as saw the man, because Willis did all my business himself. But just before Willis died I dreamt, or somebody told me, that he had quarrelled with his partner, and they separated."
"But the present head of the firm would know," Netta urged.
"There is no firm now, sweetheart. When Willis died not a single paper of any kind was found in his possession. He had closed all his banking accounts; there was no property left. It was a most mysterious affair. Willis had all my securities and deeds, and not one of them could be found. That is how I lost my fortune. You see, I was careless about business matters, and trusted Willis implicitly. I didn't even know how my money was invested. I have been paid for my trust. Still, that is by the way. I should very much like to know if this Bond had any connexion with my late lawyer."
"Isn't there a thing called the Law List?" Netta suggested. "There's sure to be one in the library. Let me go down and ask Mr. Tremullion."
Tremullion produced the Law List, and turned to the London solicitors. But there was no Raymond Bond, though in a list for the year before the name appeared. Mr. Tremullion repudiated the idea that the man had been Omitted owing to an oversight; such things were next to impossible.
"I'll tell you what I'll do," he said. "I'll telephone to my own lawyer, who is on the council, and knows everything about London solicitors that there is to know. He is sure to be able to clear up the mystery. Go back to your lover, and doubtless when he is ready to go I shall have the information for you."
Netta went back to the drawing-room and explained what had happened. An hour passed more or less quickly, and then with a sigh Reggie said he must go.
He was beginning to despair of his fortune; the longer matters went on the more complicated they were getting. There were rifts of light here and there, but they only served to show the unutterable darkness in the valleys beyond.
"Oh, it will come all right!" Tremullion said cheerfully. "We are getting along famously. Look at the discoveries we have been making lately. By the way, I almost forgot what my lawyer said. It appears that the Raymond Bond—man with a peaked beard—"
"That's the man!" Netta cried. "Not a doubt of it. What of him?"
"Well, he was Willis's partner almost up to the hour of Willis's death. Why he does not appear in the Law List this year is because he was suspended for eighteen months for malpractices; if he had been prosecuted he might have suffered heavily. I supposed in some of the good houses where he has pushed himself they don't know that."
"Perhaps he could explain the mystery of the disappearance of all Willis's papers," Reggie suggested.
A sudden cry broke from Netta. The others looked at her inquiringly.
"Illumination!" Tremullion explained. "Netta has made a great discovery. I can see it in her eyes."
"I am sure he would do more than that," Netta said breathlessly. "I am sure that he could if he would tell us the story of the disappearance of Reggie's fortune!"
OTHER people were on the hunt for Falmer besides Masters and his friends. Gordon Falmer had made up his mind to leave England for a time; he would go to Paris, where if the "push" followed him he would have the whole gang expelled in a few hours. In London, if he sought the aid of the authorities, he would be asked to make a report, and his life would be in as much danger as if he had not spoken. Officially, he was dead and buried, beyond the reach of the "36."
But they had not been blinded; one of the "push" at any rate had tracked him to Whitechapel, and there left the customary warning. He had been warned also at Loudwater Priory, but that was before he had so gracefully departed this life.
"No getting away from them," he groaned, as he paced up and down the shabby room where Jackman had hidden himself for the time. "I thought I should be safe here. But no. I haven't any money; I am pretty well done till I can bleed Percy Greening again. He promised to let me have a cheque to-morrow. I'll send him a wire giving my address and asking for the money in notes. After I get that, it's odd if I don't baffle them yet."
"You ought not to be short of money," Jackman growled, "especially after that coup over young Masters. Where has it all gone?"
"I never touched a penny of it," Falmer said between his teeth. "I had to trust somebody, and I trusted the wrong man, it seems. He repudiates the whole transaction, and says if I am not satisfied I had better go to law about it. The dirty scoundrel!"
Jackman laughed unfeelingly and suggested bed. All next day Falmer read the papers and moodily smoked cigarettes. Postmen came and went, the last official messenger passed the house, and still nothing arrived from Greening. Falmer's face was white and ugly as he looked out of the window. He had no intention of being defied like this.
"So that boy means to bluff me," he said. "I don't like to risk going out, but that fellow must be brought to his senses. I'll go to his chambers to-night."
Falmer appeared presently, immaculate in evening dress. He looked the image of prosperity, and his clothes were strangely out of place in that mean room.
But nobody knew better than Falmer the advantage of being well dressed, even in moments of severe financial depression. He donned a light dust coat as he walked along. By and by he invested one of his few remaining florins in a taxi, which took him to the door of Greening's place.
Mr. Greening was at home, the footman said, and expecting company; would the gentleman come in? Falmer was shown into the dining-room. Two or three card tables were set out, and on them candles with shades were standing. In the next room somebody was talking.
"I am afraid I shall not be able to stay," Falmer said to the footman. "Tell your master I am here, give him this card, and say I should like to see him at once."
The footman carried the card into the inner room, where Raymond Bond was engaged in conversation with Greening, who seemed to be ill at ease. He laid the card downwards on the table with an intimation that he would come at once, but Bond's quick eye had caught the name.
"Now this is very fortunate," Bond said. "I am afraid that Falmer will have to wait for the present. He has come for money from you."
"I don't see you have any right to say that," Greening muttered.
"Of course I haven't, my dear fellow. All the same, it's true. And in the ordinary course you would not dare to refuse. Falmer knows too much for that. Still, just now I strongly object to your giving him money to take him out of England, because he has to do something for me first. Never mind what it is. So long as he procures funds he will refuse; bring him down on his marrow-bones and he must do whatever I ask him."
"But if I refuse," Greening stammered. "If I refuse, you see, I—"
"Run the risk of getting yourself into serious trouble," Bond said coolly. "I know perfectly well what a pretty little conspiracy Falmer could expose if he desired. But if you please that man you anger me, and I could expose you quite as effectively. Now, it is my policy to keep Falmer in England and keep him also as needy as I can. So you must refuse him everything. Did you hear that—refuse?"
Greening wriggled about wretchedly. As a matter of fact, he had the money that Falmer asked for actually in his pocket in notes. He had meant to give it to the man and get rid of him. But other people were arriving, and when Greening, with an uneasy grin on his face, entered the dining-room, Falmer was no longer alone.
Perhaps on the whole this was rather fortunate. Before a company like that Falmer could hardly demand a large sum of money. Greening greeted him effusively.
"I scarcely expected you," he said. "We are going to have a modest game of cards, and since you are here you had better join us."
Greening spoke rapidly without meeting the eye of the other. Anything to gain time, he thought, but Falmer was not the man to be put off like that.
"I'm sorry I can't play," he said sharply. "I have an appointment elsewhere. I came about that little matter I mentioned yesterday. Really, I'll not detain you more than a minute or two. Step into the other room."
Greening protested that there was plenty of time. As he looked up he caught Bond's eye glaring at him from the doorway. Bond crept into the room with a strange smile on his face, and as Falmer became conscious of the presence of the other a curse, not loud but deep, escaped him. He was not going to get any money here to-night. He would have to scheme some other way.
"Stay and play a few hands," Greening protested.
"Very well," said Falmer with a sudden and successful assumption of geniality. "Anything to oblige. Only you must be my banker, as I came out with no money or intention of playing."
Greening nodded eagerly. The unpleasant moment had been postponed, and that sufficed, according to his cheap philosophy. If he could only put the thing off he might pay Falmer another day and tell Bond that he had parted with nothing. For his part, Falmer had made up his mind not to depart without the money even if he sat there till daylight. Meanwhile his host had agreed to be his banker.
If he won he would take up his winnings and if he lost it did not matter, as he had not the faintest intention of paying.
"Fortune always favours the brave," Bond said with a cynical smile.
"So I have found," Falmer replied coolly. "The bigger the rascal the better luck he has, as a rule."
Bond remarked that he had known brilliant exceptions even to that rule, and Falmer ground his teeth. Nevertheless, it was a relief to hear that Bond was not going to play. Bond said he had not been very well lately, and the excitement of gambling upset him. He would smoke a cigar and read a book in the inner room, and come and look over the hands occasionally.
Falmer took stock of the company. They were a fatuous lot of youths, on the whole. Money they possessed, but little else besides. Falmer had ever been known as a cool and daring poker player. His spirits began to rise as he sized up his companions. After all, he might not want the money from Greening, on which money, he was sure, Bond had laid an embargo. If only the cards favoured him!
They did so from the very first. At the end of half an hour he was free from any obligation to his host; a big pile of gold lay before him, a trifle more than the two hundred pounds he had come for. He might have gone away, but chose to stay. These men were young and foolish; they were noisy and excited for the most part, as if they had dined freely.
"I'll make a haul," Falmer said to himself. "Why not take a thousand or two when my luck's in?"
Already some of the losers were beginning to grumble at Farmer's good fortune. Another hand or two and the pile of gold before him was doubled. Somebody proposed to raise the stakes, and Falmer assented. The noisy element grew quieter as the cards were dealt out. Falmer flashed them round the table with the dexterity of a practised player. He smiled as he looked at his hand. One or two players threw up their cards, and watched the rest.
Then two more dropped out, and only Falmer and his host and another young man with a weak face were playing.
"I'll raise you two hundred," Greening said. "Does anybody go better than that?"
The young man with the foolish face nodded. He seemed to be pleased with his hand.
"I'll raise you a thousand," he said. "Come, this is something like life! We haven't had such a flutter since the night poor Billy Grey shot himself. Well, sir, do you raise me?"
"I'll raise you a further thousand if you like," Falmer said, and dead silence came over the room.
"Then, if you like that, I am prepared to raise you another thousand."
"It's a war to the finish, between Algy and the strange gentleman," somebody explained. "They've raised each other a thousand already, and goodness knows where it is going to end."
Bond glanced over the hand of each player. He saw at once that Falmer was betting on a certainty. At this rate Falmer might leave the house with a fortune, and that did not suit Bond. Falmer calmly raised his opponent a further thousand, and then even Algy hesitated.
"I'm only a poor orphan boy," he said. "Really I dare not go farther. I'll throw my cards on the table, and pay ten shillings in the pound. Tell you what it is—"
"Stop!" Bond cried. "Keep your cards. There is something wrong here."
The words were coldly and slowly spoken. Falmer faltered for a moment. Bond picked up the alternative pack of cards, plain on the back, and precisely similar to those used in the deal.
"Algy," he said, sternly and deliberately, "you are being done. This man is cheating!"
FALMER jumped to his feet with an oath, his face white with rage. He grabbed for the pack of cards as if he would fling them in the face of his accuser, but Bond was too quick for him.
"Hold him back," he said. "If he struggles knock him down with a champagne bottle. It's not the first time I have seen that game tried on. Who dealt?"
"I did, if that's anything to do with it," Falmer said hoarsely.
"I think it could be proved that your dealing had a great deal to do with it," Bond went on, in the same cold, impassive way. "The backs of these two packs of cards are precisely similar. Will somebody examine the pack not in use and find me the aces?"
The unused pack was scattered face upwards on the table and the aces picked out. There were only three; the ace of spades was missing. An angry murmur followed the discovery.
"Need I say more?" Bond asked. "Ask Mr. Falmer to lift his foot up."
Falmer was pushed not too ceremoniously across the room. Under his foot was a small card that he had dropped when he palmed the other card that gave him so commanding a hand. He would have tried to bluff it out, but he saw that such a course was useless. He had taken advantage of his superior knowledge of cards and their ways to best these callow youths. A great coup had been in his grasp, and he had not hesitated. He stood pale and defiant, a challenge in his eyes.
But there was pluck among the gilded players, if there was nothing else. Even the simple-faced youth blazed with anger.
"You dirty swindler!" he cried. "How did you come into the company of honest men? If you were in my rooms I'd throw you down the stairs. Take that!"
He started forward and struck Falmer violently in the face. The creed of gamblers is the creed of the racecourse—no mercy for the detected swindler. A dozen blows followed. Falmer was hustled out of the room and literally flung down the stairs, and then into the road with his hat and coat after him. He lay there half stunned till a policeman picked him up.
The constable grinned as if he understood. Certainly he would show the gentleman the nearest chemist's shop. This cost Falmer another of his precious silver coins, and but for his silly rapacity he might have left with hundreds in his pocket.
"I'll take you to a chemist who is a regular hand at patching up these cases, sir," the officer said. "By the time he's done with you you'll look like a parson on Sunday morning."
The discreet and gentlemanly young chemist asked no questions. In that fashionable and "rapid" quarter of London he frequently had strange customers who paid handsomely and there was an end of the matter. The chemist was led to believe that there had been an accident.
"Put you right in no time, sir," he said. "Drink this first, sir, and you'll be better."
The powerful cordial brought new life and strength to Palmer's limbs. But there were ugly bruises on his face that he did not like. Still, skilful manipulation of coloured paints and a camel-hair brush wiped them out in the artificial light.
"There, sir, I flatter myself that is a good job," the chemist said, as he stepped back with the air of an artist and contemplated his work. "Can you see any flaw?"
Falmer was bound to admit that he couldn't, as he surveyed himself in the long glass at the back of the shop, after vigorously brushing the dirt off his clothes. The chemist smiled when asked what the fee was.
"I make no charge, sir," he said, "except for my materials, of course; say two shillings. As to the rest, why that depends entirely upon the gentlemen I have to deal with."
Falmer nodded carelessly as if the money were no object to him.
"Naturally," he said. "All the same, I shall have to defer that pleasure. I was glad to escape from the house where I had been playing, even with the loss of all that I had about me. I cannot pay my taxi till I get home. If you will give me your card I'll see that my steward forwards you a cheque for a couple of guineas."
The chemist smirked and bowed again. Evidently he had had a client of considerable importance. Falmer gave one quick glance in the mirror and started.
"Anything wrong, sir?" the chemist asked.
"No," Falmer replied hastily. "Only a twinge of pain in my left leg, I expect I shall have a good bit of pain when the bruised muscles begin to set. Goodnight."
But it was no bruised muscles that had caused Falmer to start and turn pale; it was the reflection of a face that he had caught sight of in the mirror.
"I must walk," Falmer reflected, "and try to throw that fellow off the scent. Let me see, is there any hotel here that has two exits? Ah, the Arlingford!"
Falmer entered the Arlingford boldly and asked for an acquaintance who was stopping there. He was not surprised to find that the gentleman in question was unknown in the house. Indeed, Falmer would have been considerably embarrassed if he had been. He apologized for the trouble he had given, and left by the other entrance, fancying that at any rate he had got rid of the man who was shadowing him. But standing under the lamp opposite was another man, who was already waiting for him.
"Curse them!" he muttered, with an angry snarl. "They seem to mean business to-night. Well, they may be very clever, but they won't get the better of me. They can't attack me in the open street; that is not part of the game. So come on, my fine fellows; I'll lead you a dance."
Falmer set off at a rapid pace, feeling sure his pursuers were close behind him. In Green Street a party was going on at a house; people were flitting up and down the steps; there was a long strip of crimson carpet on the pavement. A sudden idea came to Falmer. He glanced up and down at himself; his dress would pass.
"I'll go in here," he muttered. "The place seems to be crowded, which is all the better for me. Who lives here, boy?"
The newsboy said that it was the residence of Mrs. Inglis, the rich American widow. Falmer nodded; he knew Mrs. Inglis very well by name.
Unconcernedly Falmer strolled up the steps and into the hall. He handed his hat, and coat to a footman as coolly as if he had known the house for years, and slipped the ivory ticket number in his vest pocket. As usual, the audacity of the proceeding paid. The young footman had half hesitated, but Falmer's easy way had impressed him. It was late in the evening, too, and some of the more recent guests had asked not to be announced by name.
But there was another spectator of the little drama who had been leisurely passing through the crowd. He had stopped on recognizing Falmer, and had been an amused observer of his audacity. It was Tremullion, who was making his way home from the club. But he changed his mind and entered the house of the rich American widow instead. The footman recognized him; there was no difficulty here. Tremullion was not sure whether he had been asked to this particular reception, but that made no difference. He passed on to the drawing-room, where he met his hostess in dazzling diamonds.
"Fancy you coming," she said. "This is an unexpected honour."
"Fact is, I am looking for my wife," Tremullion explained. "I think she said she was coming here to-night."
"Well, she has come and gone," Mrs. Inglis explained. "Gone to Baroness Cotinga's dance. As you don't like dancing, you might make yourself agreeable here."
Tremullion passed on in search of his quarry. He found him in the refreshment-room, busy with a chicken salad and some champagne, for it had occurred to Falmer that he had not made a decent meal for some time past. Then another idea struck him. Mrs. Inglis was a collector of gold plate and the like; he had heard of the gallery, where these things were displayed. He finished his chicken and champagne, and strolled towards the gallery. He stood for a long time before a gold crown set with diamonds, then his hand stole out. Nobody was in sight.
"That is an excellent idea of yours," a thin, dry voice said in his ear. "Really, one wonders why it has never occurred to a Society swindler before. You come into a house to which you have not been invited. You have a good supper and the best champagne, and then you proceed to loot the treasures of your hostess."
Falmer glared round angrily. He had done nothing wrong—as yet—and the knowledge sustained him.
"Do you want me to throw you down the stairs?" he demanded.
"By all means, if you care to try it," Tremullion said quite pleasantly. "In the first place, I am a much stronger and more powerful man, and in the second, I am a friend of my hostess, whereas you are a swindler and have come here with nefarious designs on these treasures. It is a bold thing to do, because the loss of your eyebrows is not sufficient disguise to render the likeness of Mr. Gordon Falmer absolutely impossible of identification."
"I assure you there is some strange mistake," Falmer said.
"Of course there is, but the mistake is yours, not mine. If I call a policeman, and then ask you to explain who you are before Mrs. Inglis, it will be very awkward for you. I see you don't know who I am, but that is all the better. Do you smoke?"
Utterly bewildered, Falmer admitted that he did. Tremullion led the way into a balcony redolent of flowers, and indicated a chair. There was a calm commanding air about Tremullion that Falmer did not like. Nevertheless he sat down.
"That is more comfortable," Tremullion said. "Try one of my cigars; they are to be appreciated. And now, you scoundrel, you and I are going to have a thorough explanation."
GORDON FALMER mechanically took the cigar Tremullion offered him. He was terribly uncertain of his ground and as to what was going to happen next. Tremullion had placed him in an angle of the balcony, so that the light from behind shone on his face. Falmer would have moved, but his companion prevented him.
"Sit where you are," he said. "Kindly try to realize that I am master of the situation. When I followed you here to-night I knew you were not an invited guest. That was a logical conclusion to come to, seeing that Gordon Falmer is supposed to be dead. By no possible stretch of imagination could I believe that you had a card for to-night's reception. Nor could I bring myself to credit the fact that our charming hostess is in the conspiracy. Therefore, you came amongst total strangers, trusting to your audacity to pull you through."
"But for you it would have done so," Falmer said defiantly.
"Quite so. Not that the idea is original. Nor is the way you were looking at our good friend's art treasures original. Altogether, I am driven to think that you need money. That greatly surprises me when I consider how recently you robbed my young friend, Reginald Masters, of a large fortune. Where's that money?"
Falmer maintained a stubborn silence. Did this extraordinary stranger know everything, or was he bluffing?
"You can't answer me, which is perhaps good policy on your part," Tremullion went on. "We won't push that point for the present. But suppose I call in the police—suppose I say I caught you almost in the act of stealing our hostess's treasures? Asked to give an account of yourself you would fail. Then you would be taken away to a cell, and afterwards, in the terse language of the police-court, remanded for inquiries. After that the whole story would come out, and you would be in a worse plight than ever. And while you were languishing in prison, I should be getting to the bottom of the mystery of my friend, Mr. Masters's missing fortune. Do you follow me?"
"I'm bound to," Falmer growled. "I came here to-night because—"
"Because you were shadowed. You thought that by entering this house you would throw your pursuers off the track. That is why I watched you. Here I am a welcome guest, and that accounts for your safety. You have had an excellent meal, and now you are smoking a perfect cigar in the company of a gentleman. That is not bad for a man of your antecedents."
"It is by no means the first time," Falmer said angrily.
"Probably not. Your audacity is a gift. But you must not pose before me as a man of breeding. Your father was a labourer, and your mother a domestic servant. You went abroad and prospered; you might have obtained Cabinet rank and made a fortune had you chosen to keep straight. But you could not keep straight; men of your class never can. There is some virus in their blood that calls aloud for wrong-doing. You changed again; you became treasurer of the strongest and most dangerous 'push' that Australia has ever seen."
"Second sight," Falmer sneered. "Perhaps you don't mind telling me the name of the 'push' in question?"
"My good sir, any information I may possess is at your service. The 'push' is the '36,' you bear the badge of it on your body, and you bolted with their funds after a disastrous speculation that left you nearly penniless. Correct me if I am wrong."
"I think I'll beg another of your cigars," Falmer said in a curious thick voice.
"You are welcome to the whole case. Put a few in your pocket. You are not likely to get the chance of enjoying such a brand for some time to come. With what remained of those funds you came to England and posed as a Colonial millionaire. Naturally, you got into good houses; you came very near to marrying one of our most popular actresses, only she preferred a better man. But all the time you were very poor and in desperate need of money. You saw a chance of making a fortune at a stroke, and you took it. Now, only one thing puzzles me."
"And what might that happen to be?" Falmer asked.
"What you did with the fortune when it came into your hands—that is the point that troubles me."
"Then you had better find out," Falmer growled. "You are likely to get no assistance from me. Go on, clever man."
"I am delighted to hear it," Tremullion smiled. "To be told that important fact would deprive the whole case of its most subtle fascination. Rest assured of one thing, I mean to find out. In the first place, by a most ingenious fraud, you put Mr. Masters out of the way and get Lady Langworthy into your hands at the same time. One in hiding, and the other durst not speak. It was safe then to help yourself to Mr. Masters's fortune, and you did so. But what have you done with it?"
"Let us say that I have spent every penny of it," Falmer grinned.
"That you haven't, for the simple reason that you have had no time to do so. Before the money came into your possession almost you had to disappear. You had to make it look as if you were dead, and so escape the vengeance of the '36,' which had followed you to England. But you made a mess of it, probably because some of the 'push' knew as much about Henri D'Alroy's wonderful invention as you did yourself."
"So you know about that, too?" Falmer asked with a start.
"I know all about that, too. Anyway, the 'push' are after you, and that is why you turned in here to-night. That is also why I turned in. Falcon is after you and will show you no mercy. Nor why does he want to pose as a millionaire, too?"
"Falcon has ambitions of his own, as well as other people," Falmer sneered.
"I suppose so," said Tremullion, as he flicked off the ash of his cigar thoughtfully. "Now that man is no friend of yours, and therefore there is no reason why you should not give me information about him."
"Not a bit of it," Falmer cried. "Of course, he wants to punish me, but he has a long head of his own and a keen eye for the main chance. When these people found me they deemed me to be in a good position. It was Falcon's idea to meet me on level terms, and then get me my reward in a way that would cause a great sensation. He persuaded the 'push' to find means for him to pose here as a man of substance. A big house that is only partly furnished was taken, and Falcon began to make friends at once. So long as he possesses the credit of wealth he does not need much actual cash. Let Falcon bluff it amongst the capitalists of London for a year and the money he makes afterwards will be a matter of personal ambition."
Tremullion nodded. It was more or less as he had expected.
"I have never met a man of that class that I would trust," he said, "and I never will. Still, Falcon and his lot are not in the least likely to lose sight of you, my friend. You see, driven into a corner, you might deem it your duty to make awkward revelations to the police. If you will look down the street you will see a house with a light in the upper window. The light behind a blind appears to me to be three candles in a branch—rather a strange thing in a street that for the rest is lighted by electricity. Perhaps you know who lives in that house?"
"Oh, yes, and so do you," Falmer said impatiently. "It is Falcon's house."
"So I thought. And the light in the upper window is a signal. It is the same signal that drew you one night to the lodgings of Lebandi in Coalend. I suppose it is a signal to the 'push' that something is going on there to-night?"
"Why ask?" said Falmer with some irritation. "You know as well as I do what it is for. Probably to report as to my movements. Still, for the present I feel comfortable where I am, thanks to you. Really, it is very good of you."
But Tremullion made no reply for the moment. A sudden idea had come to him as he looked at the three dim lights in the window down the street.
"If you went there to-night," he asked, "do you think that you could get in?"
"They would be glad to see me," Falmer said dryly, "and I could get in well enough. It is only a matter of giving the signal, which is never changed. No traitors here, you understand."
"Oh, of course not," Tremullion said with the suggestion of a grin. "You would give the signal and pass in?"
"I should do nothing of the kind," Falmer replied. "There is a particular pass-key to a particular lock. We have those locks made wherever a lodge is opened. We all have keys, which makes it quite simple. If I wanted to go there very late and murder Falcon—as I have been strongly tempted to do several times lately—I should go and do it. But knock, oh no!"
"And this key you always carry with you?" Tremullion asked innocently.
"Yes, I have it with me now. Like to see it? Why, certainly. Like the key of a safe, is it not? There, what are you going to do with that key?"
Tremullion had risen and pitched the end of his cigar into the street. A tiny circle of light swept through the air, and then broke up into a shower of sparks. Tremullion dropped the key into his pocket.
"That is easily answered," he said coolly. "I am going to be present at the meeting to-night."
FALMER stared at his companion with unfeigned admiration.
"Go if you like," said Falmer. "I admire your courage, and should like to possess it. But I give you due warning. It is long odds you won't come back. If you are discovered you will be as good as a dead man."
Tremullion nodded grimly. He was not to be deterred.
"I shall pass muster," he said. "A big cloak and a slouch hat will disguise me. As to the rest, I have very little fear. But you might lend me your revolver. I want you to stay here till I come back, so that you will not miss the weapon. But no coquetting with our hostess's treasures, because if anything of that kind happens I shall make myself deucedly unpleasant."
Falmer threw himself back in his seat again. He had very snug and comfortable quarters here; if he wanted wine or cigars he had only to fetch them, and if any questions were asked he might say with truth that he was waiting for Tremullion. They had been seen together, so that no questions were likely to be asked.
But Tremullion was in no hurry. He passed into the large drawing-room, where he stood as if looking for somebody. Presently he found his man—a popular comedian who had just come in.
"Come here for a moment, Daubigny," he said. "I'm just off on a little expedition. Could you manage to fake my face for me, as you did the night we went off together?"
"I've a better idea than that, my boy," the comedian said. "I came here with Galton, who has been playing some outdoor theatricals at Stanmere House. He has his make-up box in a car, and is going to a late supper party. We'll fake you up in the car."
Under the skilful touches of Galton, Tremullion was speedily transformed beyond recognition. In spite of his dress clothes he looked like a hardy son of toil of the better class, cleaned up for the evening.
"Couldn't be better than that," said Daubigny, as he surveyed his handiwork with some pride. "If you won't be away long, Galton might lend you his cloak and that villainous slouch hat of his."
"Good!" Tremullion cried, "and, most assuredly, I shall not be long. Fetch the wraps, Daubigny, and let me be off. I am thirsting for my adventure."
With cool head and steady nerves Tremullion started on his errand. His hand did not tremble in the least as he placed the key in the lock of Falcon's door. He was armed, too, and there was a certain comfort in the knowledge.
He stood irresolute in the hall for a moment, listening for the sound of voices to guide him. They came at length at the end of a corridor, and he advanced down it. Still as cool as a cucumber, he pushed back a green baize door, and stood in a room with a long table, at which fourteen or fifteen men were seated. At the head of the table Falcon sat in evening dress. Nobody appeared to notice the new-comer, who dropped into a seat, prepared to pick up the hang of things by holding his tongue for the present. Falcon was speaking. Seemingly he had just come from some social function.
"There are more here to-night than I had expected," he said, "especially as I could not light the candles till late. Has anybody heard of Gordon Falmer? He fled after his warning."
"The traitor should never have had any warning," a deep voice said.
"We must obey the rules of the order," Falcon went on. "The necessity of a warning has been strictly laid down from the first, and the custom must be respected. Does anybody know of the man?"
Evidently the two men who had been shadowing their victim were not present. Tremullion thought it a good chance to create a favourable impression.
"I can tell you where he is," he said. "Closely pursued, he took refuge in a house close by, where a party is going on. He is there now and likely to remain. He will probably stay till daylight so as to lessen the risk of detection."
A murmur of approval followed. At least one member of the "push'' had a proper sense of duty. A hoarse voice asked his name. Tremullion recognized the speaker.
"No name, no name," he said, "because it's good sometimes to have more than one. At any rate, I was never dismissed from the Sydney police force for faking bribes."
A smothered laugh ensued, and the inquisitive speaker subsided growling into his chair. Tremullion began to regret his lost time. Evidently he would hear very little to-night. Like a meeting of the House of Commons on a dull evening, little or nothing was done beyond reporting progress.
One by one the members departed until only three were left. Then the third man went, and Tremullion was about to follow when Falcon detained him. Falcon crossed over leisurely until he came between Tremullion and the door, and then his manner changed entirely.
Tremullion smiled as he scented some adventure, after all. From a physical point of view he recognized that, he was no match for Falcon. The latter was scowling and his teeth were set.
"My lad," he said, "I should like a few words with you. Take that hat off and let me have a good look at your face."
"Oh, you've seen it before," Tremullion replied, "And if you're lucky you'll see it again. I dare say I could remind you of a few games in Sydney that would be best forgotten—by the world, at any rate. Now don't try to bully me, because I won't stand it."
Falcon muttered something under his breath. Tremullion's face puzzled him.
"Why are you here?" he asked.
"I am here because I am entitled to be here," was the enigmatic reply. "I've as much right to be here as you have. Are you the only one who can come to England to look for a fortune? I came with my own money, and I don't have a pocketful given me, as you did. Come where we can talk quietly. Mind, if you try any violence with me—"
"I wasn't going to," Falcon growled. "I only want to find out all about you, and I'll do it yet. If I thought you were not one of us you should never leave the house alive."
Tremullion shrugged his shoulders indifferently.
He followed Falcon into the dining-room, where the electric lights were fully turned on and then closed the door. He felt for the revolver in his pocket and its society was cheering. But he hoped to bring the man to his knees without threats or bloodshed.
"Now, sit down," Falcon said gruffly. "No need for any ceremony between us. In the first place, what is your name? Tell me the truth."
"My name is my own. It's not an alias, like yours."
The veins in Falcon's forehead thickened and his eyes flashed angrily.
"The young cock crows loudly," he said. "Perhaps you know my real name, my bantam?"
"Perhaps the cock is not so young as he looks. As to your real name, I should say you hardly recollect it yourself, you have had so many. Why, you are as big a scoundrel as Falmer. You want to be rich yourself and grind down those who are keeping you. Really, you care very little whether Gordon Falmer is punished or not, so long as your own game pans out right. Why, if I came to the next meeting of the '36' and gave them your true history they would murder you on sight, Stephen Raven."
Falcon had risen, his hand clenched and raised angrily, but as Tremullion proceeded he resumed his normal attitude. Despite his anger, there was a certain suggestion of fear in his eyes.
"I could go through your disgraceful past," Tremullion went on; "I could prove that you had been in gaol. Why, man alive, I sent you there."
"Who are you?" Falcon asked, hoarsely.
By way of reply Tremullion took the handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the paint from his face. The transformation was instantaneous and complete. Falcon staggered back.
"Tremullion," he whispered hoarsely. "That Tremullion! I knew I was dealing with no ordinary man directly you began to speak. So you have found me out?"
"Yes, I have found you out surely enough, but not before to-night. All the same, I had my suspicions when I began to question Falmer. Upon my word, Australia is to be congratulated on the absence of the pair of you. If I had my way I should keep you out of mischief now like a mad dog. Not that you will do any more mischief."
Falcon bit moodily at his finger-ends. He was beaten.
"I suppose you have some deep, cunning game on hand," he said presently. "If the others had not been so desperately afraid, I should have had you out of the way long ago. It was your knowledge that put me away; it was the things you learnt that were fatal to many of us. Of course I know you have only got to hold up your hand and I should be done for."
"He is a wise man who knows when he is beaten," Tremullion said cheerfully. "Even a man like you may have his uses, and I am going to use you. You will make a useful tool in getting to the bottom of a vile conspiracy. When that purpose is served, you may kill Falmer, or he may kill you, or you may both die, a fate which would not be displeasing. For the present, you are going to do exactly as I tell you; you are coming with me to the house where Gordon Falmer is waiting. You can have no excuse, because you are ready in evening dress, and any hostess would be delighted to welcome Mr. Stephen Falcon, the Australian millionaire."
"What are you driving at?" Falcon asked sullenly.
"Ah, that secret is mine. You have plenty of cunning but no imagination; that is why I have always got the better of you. Now, be so good as to put your overcoat on and come with me."
Falcon raised no objection. He had the profoundest respect for his companion and his ability to punish any treachery in marked and resolute fashion. At the same time, he would have given a great deal to know what was behind that busy brain of Tremullion. He followed the latter up the broad marble steps and out on to the balcony, where Falmer had been left. But no sign of Falmer was to be seen.
"In the refreshment-room," said Tremullion, keeping up his courage. "Stay here whilst I go and see."
Tremullion came back presently grim and silent and white about the lips. But there was a look in his eyes that boded ill to somebody.
"The meeting is adjourned," he said briefly. "The other rascal has left the house."
FALMER sat moodily smoking in the balcony and awaiting Tremullion's return. Not that he took profound interest in his tormentor. If Tremullion came to harm, if he was shot or stabbed or otherwise disposed of, Falmer would not have experienced the slightest regret. He pitched his cigar away and strolled amongst the guests. It was getting late, but there was no sign of any falling off in the brilliant throng. Anyway, it was safe enough here, and he was no longer afraid of being spotted for an intruder. He went to the refreshment-room, where he hastily swallowed two glasses of champagne.
A waiter hovered around in a suspicious manner that grated on Falmer's nerves. What did the fellow want, and why did he glance at him in that dubious manner? In similar circumstances waiters had made themselves offensive at times. Was the man a spy upon him! His movements were not dictated by idle curiosity. He came up to the table again and began to play restlessly with the silver after the manner of his tribe.
"What do you want?" Falmer asked savagely. "Why don't you go away?"
"Pardon," the waiter said. "Perhaps I make a mistake, perhaps your name is not Mr. Falmer—after all?"
"Well, it is," was the hot reply. "Though I don't see what that has to do with you."
"Not in the least, sir. To do with me it has nothing. Only there was a message. A message from a lady. She says if you want a drink presently you go to the American bar and ask for a mare's tail. There are some very good drinks at the American bar."
The German waiter moved off now with a final pat of the silver, as if he had accomplished his task. Falmer wondered what it meant. Nobody could do him any harm under that roof, and the message could not get him into trouble. Perhaps it was a warning. But Falmer could see no American bar and had to ask for it through another waiter, who pointed to the doorway at the end of the corridor. Here was an American bar on the most approved principle. The place was not full, as Falmer entered and called loudly for a mare's tail.
Almost immediately a woman in black appeared from behind a screen, and carried a long glass to a table as far from the bar as possible. Falmer followed, extremely curious to see what was going to happen. As he looked at the woman he saw that it was Lucille Ganton.
"Truly this is an evening of surprises," he muttered. "What brings you here?"
Lucille Ganton explained without looking at the speaker.
"Nothing wonderful about that," she said. "I was sick of Loudwater Priory; besides it was not safe to stay away from London, and I was wasting time there. So I invented a sick mother on the point of death as an excuse for leaving, and here I am."
"Yes, I see you are," Falmer said. "But that doesn't explain why you are here, particularly to-night."
"That is no accident. Whilst my schemes are maturing I have to live somewhere. So I go to a cousin of mine who occupies a pretty good position at Hilton's, and ask for work. He puts me on as waitress, and here I am. I happened to see you in the refreshment-room some time ago, and I sent a message."
"Which I got. And very pleased I am to see you, Lucille."
"Oh, I dare say. But it's little of me you would ever have seen again if your scheme for burying yourself had turned out trumps. But you see we got to know how the dodge was worked, and we are going to be well paid for our silence."
"I'll pay you, no fear of that," said Falmer, eagerly. "And when I say I am glad to see you, I mean every word of it. I suppose you've come to look for Jackman?"
"When I meet Jackman, I shall give him a piece of my mind."
"All right, only don't blame the fellow too much. What I want to know is where you hid those papers of mine? Jackman hasn't got them; I haven't got them, though they had vanished from the hiding-place; so they must be in your possession."
Lucille Ganton looked uneasily at the speaker.
"I don't understand you," she muttered. "I know nothing about the papers. You don't mean to say they are lost?"
The woman was speaking the truth; there was no hint of acting. For the moment Falmer and his companion looked at each other in blank consternation; it was an unpleasant surprise.
"Well, this is a fine game of cross purposes," the woman said, the first to recover herself. "I never expected anything like this. But it won't be long before the person who has the papers makes a move, and then we shall have to use our wits to get them back. I must see you when there is more time. That reminds me why I sent for you. Who do you suppose is here to-night?"
"Give it up," Falmer said wearily. "Another of my dear friends, I suppose."
"Oh, you may well say that! I was more amused than anything else when I spotted you first and thought you were supposed to be dead and buried. Under what name were you invited?"
"I was not invited at all; I am a perfect stranger to the lady of the house. But the 'push' is upon me, curse them, and they were pressing me very hard. To give them the slip, I popped in here and chanced it. It came off, as audacity always does. But you were saying that somebody I know—"
"Rather. Soon after I saw you he came here and had a drink. He didn't recognize me, for I took precious good care of that. It's the man Lebandi—"
Falmer started, and his face grew pale. Of all men he most dreaded Lebandi. And yet he was here, in this house, and any moment might enter the room.
"It seems impossible," he said, white to the very lips. "Why, when I left Coalend he was ill; had an attack of delirium tremens, or something like it. I wanted to see him and find out how much he had discovered, but I couldn't get into the house, though the signal was lighted. What is he doing here?"
"I don't know. Anyway, he looks very well now and drinks nothing. He had a lemon squash with a friend, and I heard him say that he had important business on hand which compelled him to be careful until it was finished. I guess you are the work in hand."
"I expect I am," said Falmer, trying to speak coolly. "But what is the fellow doing here? They don't entertain circus performers as guests in a house like this. Perhaps he—"
Palmer's voice trailed off, and became inarticulate. Had Lebandi traced him and entered the house with an audacity equal to his own? But that was out of the question. Lebandi's strange appearance would have attracted too much attention. People would ask who was the dark man with the woolly hair; inquiries would be made.
"Can he know the lady of the house?" Falmer asked.
"That he certainly does," Lucille replied. "I saw them go past the door just now talking together. There is nothing so strange in it, after all. I don't suppose the man's name is Lebandi any more than it's yours. He might be a gentleman for all I know to the contrary. Where did you meet him?"
"I met him in Australia," Falmer replied. "He was useful to me and we were rather friendly at one time. He was a man of enthusiasm, and became very prominent in the 'push.' If that fellow had not been so fond of drink, he would have done great things."
"Well, you are not friends now, at any rate," Lucille Ganton said coolly. "I dare say you served him one of the dirty tricks that you serve everybody sooner or later. But you can't say I haven't given you warning. Take my advice and get out of this as soon as you can. If Lebandi finds you here, there is likely to be a scene. Where's Jackman?"
"How should I know?" Falmer growled. "Jackman has his own reasons for lying low. As soon as I find out I'll tell you. Good night."
Falmer made his way into the corridor, where the guests appeared to be as numerous as ever. Much as he would have liked a further chat with Tremullion, he felt that he dared not stay any longer. It was possible to pass hours in a crowd like this without being seen, but on the other hand he might encounter Lebandi at any moment.
Falmer would walk downstairs and take his coat and leave, trusting that his enemies outside had lost patience and departed. But the crowd was very dense and progress slow. Amongst the people on the stairs was a lady with white hair, whom Falmer instinctively recognized as his hostess. She was laughing and talking with a small dark man by her side.
Falmer came to a sudden pause as he recognized Lebandi. The latter was perfectly dressed and quite at his ease as he chatted with his hostess. If these two had been anywhere else the avenue of escape would have been open. But there they stood, right in the way, with people passing and repassing them. In a fit of sudden resolution Falmer darted by, his head averted. A moment later he was congratulating himself on the fact that he had reached the hall in safety.
"I'll trouble you for my coat," he said as he handed his ticket to a footman. "Get it as soon as possible, as I am in a hurry. Now, make haste."
"Good night," a voice from the landing shouted, "Good night, I'll see to that in the morning."
Lebandi's voice, and he was coming down the stairs. In a sudden panic Falmer forgot everything but his own safety, and hurried from the house. For the time his nerves were unstrung. He had walked a mile or more before he discovered that he had forgotten his overcoat.
FALMER walked on in a dazed kind of way. He did not quite know what to do and hardly seemed to care. His enemies were pressing so strongly upon him that he felt almost inclined to throw the whole thing up. But the dogged perseverance of the man in time asserted itself
What to do next was the question. Plunged in thought, Falmer did not see that two men were following him closely, waiting for him to speak.
They were by no means choice specimens of humanity, and any policeman would have regarded them with suspicion.
"Well, here you are," one of the twain grumbled, as they ranged alongside of Falmer. "We have been waiting for you to come."
"What for?" Falmer asked, as he slowly came back to earth again. "I remember who you are. I could not get away before."
"Looks as if we were going to hang about all night," the second man grumbled.
"Well, and why not?" Falmer demanded in his deepest tones, turning a glance upon the ruffian that reduced him to silence. "Why not, so long as you are paid? Did you manage to get the letter delivered all right?"
"The letter was delivered an hour ago by a trusty messenger at the house where the young lady is spending the evening," the first speaker said. "What's the next move?"
"Why, to hang about and see if she takes the bait, you fool," Falmer said. "It matters nothing to you or anybody else what is in that letter, so long as it has the desired effect. I'm not sure, but I suspect she has papers that are of value to me, and the game is worth the candle. Now be off, or you may be too late."
The ruffians shambled away in obedience to the terse command. Perhaps their victim had already left the house, where she had been engaged to play that evening.
But Netta had not left the house yet. She had played her second piece when the note purporting to come from her lover was placed in her hand.
The girl read the letter and thrust it in her dress. She did not look alarmed, nor indeed was she after the first moment. It was a clever forgery, but it was a forgery, as Netta recognized. One or more of the scoundrels working against Reggie were at the bottom of this. With sudden daring Netta resolved to keep the appointment.
Not for an instant did she disguise the danger of the course she was about to undertake. But there was the chance of finding out something important. Netta played her last piece and then slipped out of the house. As she went she snatched up an old cloak belonging to some guest, who would look in vain for this piece of valuable property, and, violin in her hand, stepped down the street. She felt more safe with her beloved fiddle; it had pulled her through danger and difficulties before, and might do so again. Her case she could fetch in the morning.
A policeman gave Netta the idea where Cotton Street was and she took her way there swiftly.
She reached her destination at length with no desire to draw back from the adventure. She walked into the street in search of the number given in the letter—No. 175. When she found the number she paused for a moment. A girl came down the street, and noticed Netta. There was something, perhaps, in the aspect of the violin-player that told the resident that she was not of the same class as herself.
"Don't go in there," she said, huskily. "If you value your reputation keep clear of that. Good night, my dear!"
Netta's face flamed crimson as the speaker passed on. For so long a time she stood hesitating that a policeman stopped and asked her business.
"I—I am resting," Netta stammered, hoping that no vestige of her white frock showed under the hem of the cloak. "Besides, I am waiting for somebody."
She stepped into the road and produced her fiddle, on which she played a simple air. The sound of the music brought the girl's fleeting courage back. The policeman nodded approval, and marched off.
Meanwhile Netta played on, trying to review the situation. After what the girl had told her, she could not enter the house whence the letter from Reggie was supposed to have been despatched. Much as Netta would do for Reggie, she would draw the line at that.
She would walk along slowly, playing till she came to the end of the street. Then she would put up her fiddle and make the best of her way back again. One or two people stopped and listened, and the girl who had been so friendly came on the scene again.
"That's prime," the friendly girl said, as she came up. "I've heard people play worse than that who get heaps of money for it. Why don't you try to get something better? It's a good game fiddling in the street. Got any money to-night?"
"Not a penny," Netta was able to reply. "It—it has been a bad night."
"Bad night for all of us, I fancy," the girl responded. "I've had a bit of luck myself, and I like the look of you. Let me stand you some coffee and a slice?"
The speaker indicated a coffee-stall opposite. The place looked clean and respectable, and in marked contrast to the dingy wretchedness of the street. Netta's first impulse was to refuse the kindly meant invitation, then she hesitated. The girl knew the district well, and could perhaps give her certain information. A little later Netta was nibbling at the thick bread and butter and sipping the strong coffee. Two suspicious-looking ruffians lounged up and demanded something to eat. They appeared to take no notice of Netta and her companion; they were carrying on an argument in muffled tones, and each seemed to blame the other for something that had gone wrong.
"You look quite a lady!" Netta's companion exclaimed.
Netta coloured and bit her lip. She had forgotten that the strong lights of the coffee-stall threw her face up in high relief. The cloak was all right, and so was the hood of it, but nothing could disguise the pure colouring of Netta's face and the beautiful way she had done her hair.
"What you have been and what you are are two different things," she said. "Are you going?"
The girl nodded; her face had suddenly grown paler. A hoarse, unsteady voice from afar was heard yelling for "Liza."
"That's my husband," she said, "and he's drunk. He's a good man when he's all right, but when he's drunk he's a terror. Good-night."
"Must you really go?" Netta asked. "I am afraid you are in danger." The girl laughed bitterly, defiantly, but with fear in it. Netta recognized the tragedy that lay only partly hidden. She watched the girl as she turned into the darkness. The two men by her had ceased to wrangle and were regarding her suspiciously. Netta grabbed at her fiddle, and moved off quickly. As she did so her cloak caught in a nail by the side of the coffee-stall, and tore a long slit in it, disturbing the silken drapery below. Netta, however, was hardly conscious of the full measure of the catastrophe.
"Nice girl," one of the men grunted. "Know her, mate?"
"Never seen her before that I know of," the stall-keeper replied.
"Never mind about the girl," the other loafer said impatiently. "Come along and let's get to business, you fool, and don't hang here all night."
"What have you got in your mind?" asked the other as the two moved away.
"Got in my mind, you bloomin' idiot? The girl of course. You've been gaping at her all this time and yet you see nothing. There's her fiddle and there's her pretty frock under that old cloak which the nail so kindly tore for us. It's a bit of luck, William. Come along."
"Always got a good head on you, Jimmy," the other man said admiringly. "I'm game."
Netta was some way down the street by this time, when she gave a backward glance. That nail had betrayed her and the two men were following. The street was very quiet now. Netta put up her fiddle and began to play again.
She wanted to be absolutely sure that the men were following her. She had not long to wait. With a joyful cry one of them rushed up to her and clasped her in his arms.
"Why, Polly!" he cried in affected surprise, "fancy us finding you like this! And fancy you running away from your happy home, where you had every comfort and—"
"Ay, fancy it," the other ruffian growled. He had wrenched the cloak back and was searching Netta's pocket with a dexterity born of long practice. "Fancy it! Come along like a good girl and all will be forgiven."
Netta struggled frantically to be free. The street was deserted, but close behind her were the flaring gas lights of a public-house.
"Help," Netta said at length, "help, help, or—"
A hard hand closed over her lips, and a voice hissed in her ear:
"You she devil, keep quiet and you'll come to no harm. Make another row like that and give us away and I'll spoil that pretty face of yours. Take it quietly and you'll find us like lambs. How are you getting on, Jimmy?"
Jimmy grunted that he was having no success. Netta wondered despairingly when another wayfarer would pass. Then the door of the public-house opened and a figure emerged. A long piercing scream came from Netta's lips.
A TERRIBLE oath from one of the ruffians caused Netta to shudder and shrink back. These men were searching her pockets for hidden papers. The whole thing had been planned by Falmer as a forlorn hope. He knew more of Netta's movements than she had anticipated. But, then, he was so daring and clever.
"Help," Netta cried again, "these men are ill-treating me."
Two or three more figures now stood in the doorway of the public-house. The first of them came not too steadily into the roadway.
"It's a family quarrel," one of the blackguards exclaimed. "You see my Polly—here—"
"Garn," a voice in the background said, "you ain't got no Polly. I know you and your game, Bill, and if you don't drop it I'll bash your ugly nose for you."
"Leave the girl alone," came the threatening chorus.
It was time for the ruffians to desist, and they seemed to melt away into the crowd, which had become much thicker. In a dazed way Netta stooped to pick up her damaged fiddle.
"Will you please let me go?" she said. "I think those men were not sober, or perhaps they really took me for somebody they had lost. My poor little fiddle—"
"I have noticed your poor little fiddle," a kindly voice said. "Come to my room, and I will brush you down."
The listless crowd speedily dispersed. Scenes of strife and violence, or even worse were of almost hourly occurrence in Cotton Street, and a little matter like this was not worth much attention. Netta followed the woman with the pleasant voice down a court and into a room in a stuffy house that seemed to be filled with people, as indeed it was, for the place was let out to an infinite variety of lodgers.
"Your fiddle is a genuine Cremona," the stranger said. "And your dress came from Paris. Why are you masquerading here?"
"Question for question is quite fair," Netta said with a half-smile. "What are you, a lady, doing in such a vile quarter as this?"
"The answer is easy—dire necessity," the woman said sadly. "Long ago, when I was on the opera stage earning over three thousand a year, I never expected to come to this. I owe my misfortunes to the machinations of a villain. He took me off the stage, and said I was never to go back. But he did not mean it. In Italy I lost my voice owing to his violence—look here."
The speaker pointed to an old scar on her throat.
"He did that," she said. "And then I realized that my voice was gone, ay, and he had gone, too. They tell me that Gordon Falmer is rich—"
"Gordon Falmer!" Netta cried. "Do you mean to say that he—"
"Was my husband. Strange you should know him. Ah! I know you now, you famous girl! But what are you doing here?"
Something in the woman's face and manner moved Netta to confidence. Poor as the stranger seemed, and shabbily dressed as she was, she was evidently a lady. In a little while Netta found she was telling her everything.
"Mr. Reggie Masters is a lucky man," the other said. "And so you are running all this risk for the sake of the man you love? Well, I should have done the like at one time. And there were many men in the old days who would not have hesitated at any request, however wild, from Marie Leblanc."
"You are Marie Leblanc," Netta exclaimed. "Of course, as a child, I heard of you. Even to this day people are asking what became of you. I was reading some articles about your singing in a magazine only yesterday. Well, the world is a small place. Fancy my meeting the wife of Gordon Falmer like this. If you could tell me anything that would give me a hold on him!"
"Ay, I could do that!" Mme. Leblanc said with blazing eyes. "If you will come to me again—"
"I will not lose sight of you," Netta said.
"But I am afraid that you will, my dear. For a long time I have hidden my pride and my sorrow from the world, but my friends have found me out. In a few days I shall sail for Australia with some of them. I can begin teaching there, perhaps. Meanwhile—"
"It is getting very late," Netta said, as she rose. "I can find my way home."
"I dare say you could, my dear, but I won't let you go like this. Those two ruffians saw you come in here, they knew the crowd would soon disperse, and it is nearly midnight. Those men are quite ready to abduct you, if necessary. I'll see if they are gone."
Mme. Leblanc returned with a grave face.
"It is as I feared," she said. "They have secured a room on the ground floor and are sitting smoking and drinking with the door open, waiting till you go. I took care they should not see me, so no harm has been done. But directly you leave the house you will be in trouble again."
"Have you no man friend?" Netta suggested.
"Not one, or a woman friend either. During the two years I have been here I have never spoken to a soul beyond my landlord and a tradesman or so. But I can go to the house of your friends the Tremullions—"
"That is good of you," Netta said gratefully, "all the more so because I see you shrink from being recognized. Is there not some way of tricking those ruffians?"
"I dare say if I could only think of a plan," Mme. Leblanc said.
In an aimless way she had taken up Netta's fiddle and bow, and was seeing to the damaged strings. "It is a lovely violin," she said, "I am so glad it has not been badly injured. Once at Rome I played on one like this."
"Could you play now?" Netta asked. "Do try."
Mme. Leblanc shook her head, but she tried all the same. Her fingers were stiff and unaccustomed, as Netta did not fail to note, but she improved as she went on, and it was by no means a bad performance.
"With practice I might do yet," she said.
"I am sure you would do very well," Netta said with sincerity. "Anyhow, you have shown me a means to get free of these men and cheat them beautifully. I will leave my fiddle with you till to-morrow, when I shall call for it, and meanwhile you will lend me an old hat and veil.
"And what will be the good of that?" Mme. Leblanc asked.
"I will show you presently. Now, will you add to your many kindnesses and do me yet another favour? Will you see if those men are still there? If you can manage to overhear a little of their conversation I shall be glad."
Mme. Leblanc nodded and went away. She crept down the stairs to the room where the two rascals were still smoking and drinking.
"What does time matter?" the elder villain growled as he pulled at his pipe. "The later she stays the better for us. She can't remain in a den like this all night, and the streets are getting quieter every moment."
"Joe has the van at the corner," the other said.
"We can trust Joe to be ready. The game is to lie quiet for the girl close to this van, and then pop out and gag her before she can scream. When she is in the van everything will be as right as rain. The rest will be easy."
"Take her to Hornsey, I suppose?"
"That's the game. Get her into the lonely house at Hornsey, and then the old woman can search every garment she's got on. Twenty pounds for this night's job and a hundred pounds if we find those papers. After that, why, we can turn the girl out—"
"To put the traps on us before there's a chance to get away."
"Idiot! Do you suppose I haven't thought of that? You don't catch me napping, I tell you."
Grunts of admiration from the other ruffian greeted this suggestion. Mme. Leblanc crept away, her checks tingling with indignation. Netta smiled quite pleasantly when she heard. She had been running the bow across her fiddle.
"I am vastly obliged by their kind intentions," she laughed. "Also I beg to thank them for their delicacy of feeling. But I am not going for a ride in their van. Now give me the hat and veil, please."
Mme. Leblanc watched Netta with interest. She did not quite understand.
"Good night, dear friend, and thank you from the bottom of my heart," said Netta as she kissed the elder woman. "I have been trying my fiddle while you have been away. Will you kindly start and play for the next ten minutes? So long as these men hear the fiddle they will conclude that I am still here. They will hardly give me a glance as I pass their door, and I am not in the least likely to be caught."
Mme. Leblanc took up the fiddle and began to play. With a firm step and a heart that beat a little fast Netta crept down the stairs and boldly passed out at the front door. She looked into the room where the men were seated. One of them blew a kiss to her as she went.
"Very sorry I can't come along, my dear," he said. "But I am waiting till the Countess finishes her music lesson. Ta at!"
FALMER'S disappearance slightly disarranged Tremullion's plans. He had not expected it, especially as he had a shrewd idea that Falmer had nowhere to go. Tremullion had particularly desired to bring these two men together, and the half-amused contempt in Falcon's eyes roused him to some anger.
He gave a cry of surprise as a man with a tanned face and woolly hair came up and caught Falcon by the shoulder. They were standing on the stairs still, but nobody was in sight. Lebandi, for he it was, was consumed with rage.
"You scoundrel," he said hoarsely, "what are you doing here? You never came as an invited guest, of that I am certain. If you don't go at once I'll kick you out."
Lebandi would have put his threat into execution if Tremullion had not interfered. He stepped between the enraged speaker and the sullen-looking Falcon. He spoke quietly, but there was something in his eye that restrained Lebandi.
"Your hostess would hardly appreciate your good intentions," he said. "As a matter of fact, I brought Mr. Falcon to meet—well, a gentleman who seems to have gone. Unless I am mistaken, you and I are interested in the same case. I am Tremullion—Mr. George Tremullion—who at one time had a large practice at the Australian bar."
Lebandi's anger died out suddenly. It was evident the name was not strange to him.
"I beg your pardon," he said. "You are quite right. But the sight of this fellow enraged me. He has no business here; he is an adventurer. And, seeing there; is no reason for his presence, had he not better go?"
Tremullion was of the same opinion. But Falcon had solved the question by taking his hat and walking down the stairs. Lebandi would have passed on, but Tremullion detained him. He saw in him a possible ally.
"One moment," he said. "Perhaps you would like to know the name of the man I brought Falcon to meet?"
"I don't see how it can concern me," Lebandi said coldly.
"Indeed, it concerns you very much indeed," Tremullion replied. "I see you are questioning my taste in bringing Falcon. From one point of view it was questionable taste. But then, you see, I found Falmer here. Now do you understand what I am doing?"
"Falmer here! Is my relative entertaining all the scoundrels in London?"
Tremullion explained very candidly.
"Now, I want you to help me," he concluded. "I have every reason to believe you hate Falmer. You see I am frank."
"To a fault," Lebandi said bitterly. "But perhaps it is as well. I don't want to pose as the innocent victim of a designing scoundrel, because it is my own fault that I have fallen so low. But I should never have succumbed had it not been for Falmer. I was wild, and so my people sent me to Australia. I began to do well again till I met Falmer. From the very first I was his tool. Then he let me down badly and I—well, I got into gaol. Mind you, I had done nothing dishonourable. It was Falmer whose place I took in the dock. But I couldn't touch him then, for we were both too mixed up in that disgraceful 'push,' and he was a big man in it. Then I drifted into all sorts of things, till I finally came home as a circus performer. I was looking for Falmer. I was going to kill him. Drink and the low life had made me desperate. I knew how to lure on Falmer, and then he found out what my scheme was. Then he died! But I knew all about that, too, and got some of the stuff that was supposed to kill him from D'Alroy's agent in Paris—the man who actually made the stuff."
"I am pleased to know that I can rely upon you," Tremullion said. "I fancied that I could. Now, I'll try to find out what has become of Falmer."
Falmer was not in the house and Tremullion was forced to inquire of the footman. Had the one in the hall by any chance recalled the gentleman who had come in just before Tremullion—a tall gentleman, with a thin face and dark eyes? The footman cast his mind back.
"I fancy I do, sir," he said. "Oh yes, sir. He came in, and I half stopped him because his face was not familiar. But he seemed to know all about the house, and my mistress has some rather funny gentlemen who come to see her from America—walk into Buckingham Palace, they would. The gentleman went out about twenty minutes ago."
"He's coming back again, sir," another footman volunteered, "because he didn't take his overcoat."
Probably he went outside to have a word with one of the sleuth-hounds following him, Tremullion thought, but Lebandi, standing by, had another idea.
"Not a bit of it," he whispered as Tremullion put his thoughts into words. "The beggar caught sight of me and bolted. He was too frightened to stay. Of course, he knows I am a gentleman by birth and that my name is Westcott, but he would hardly expect to meet me here. Let us get his coat."
It was not difficult to procure Falmer's overcoat. The odds were against it, but there was a possibility of obtaining a letter that might give some clue to the man's address. There was a letter in the breast pocket, a letter in Falmer's handwriting, stamped and ready for posting. As soon as they were out of range of the prying eyes of the footman, Tremullion coolly tore it open.
"He must have an address in it," he said. "Ah, I thought so! The letter is vague and cautiously written, but it doesn't concern us in the least. Here is the address: 17, Rupert Street. Falmer says he is leaving the above address, and will write again in a few days. What do you say to going as far as 17, Rupert Street to-night?"
"By all means," Lebandi Westcott, to give him his proper name, said eagerly. "That fellow can't walk about London all night with nothing on but a dress suit. If he nips back and gets the coat whilst we are away it will give him an additional advantage."
Tremullion explained to the footman in the hall that he was going to call on his friend and would take the coat with him, which he proceeded to do. The strangely assorted couple stopped at length at the corner of Rupert Street, where they dismissed their cab. No. 17 had once been a house of some repute, but was now let out in small flats. A newsboy creeping up the stairs was stopped and a shilling thrust into his hand. The stunted gutter-child nodded and grinned. Evidently he knew that some information was expected of him. He had a garret at the top of the house and knew all the tenants by sight.
"They comes and goes, gentlemen," he said, "comes and goes. Now I'll take the floors from the top."
Three or four tenants were mentioned without any response on the part of the listeners. But the small boy interested them presently. On the second floor was a blind man, he said, who had come quite lately. An old woman came in to attend to his wants, and he rarely went out of the house. He had a friend, too, a tall gentleman with a big nose and dark eyes; in fact, he was in the blind man's room at the present moment.
"Come to the wrong house," Tremullion muttered. "Good-night, my lad."
The newsboy dragged his weary feet upstairs, glad to have earned a shilling so easily. On the landing Tremullion and Lebandi Westcott exchanged glances. They could not know that a door on the floor above them had softly opened, and that Falmer, leaning on the banisters, had heard pretty well all of the conversation. He started back and closed and locked, the door behind him. Jackman was sitting over the fireplace, half asleep.
"Wake up!" Falmer whispered fiercely. "Tremullion is below and has that demon Lebandi with him. How they have found us out goodness knows, but there they are. They'll come and pound on the door presently, and you must let them in and lie, as you only know how to lie."
"Can't I pretend to be asleep?" Jackman asked uneasily.
"What's the good of that? They will put some spy on my track and wait till daylight. There is just a chance that I may escape under cover of the night. Ah, there they are!"
There was a knocking at the door, quiet at first, but getting more peremptory. Falmer stepped into an inner room and waited. Presently he heard Jackman go grumbling to the door. But those outside could afford to wait with patience. They had tracked Falmer down, and they had tracked Jackman down also, which was much more important. Tremullion smiled at the thought of the papers in the blind man's overcoat pocket. Overcoats were playing quite a part in this mystery.
The door was opened at length, and Jackman stood snarling, wanting to know what the strangers were after at that time of the night. Westcott cut him short.
"No more of that nonsense," he said. "You've got Gordon Falmer here, the man who was supposed to have died of heart disease, you know. He was here a few minutes ago, and I'll swear he has not left the house since. Let's look into the inner room."
Jackman raised a protesting voice; he had forgotten the inner room, and in his blindness it was impossible for him to interfere. Westcott dashed into the room, but it was empty. The window was open, and from it there dangled a sheet. It was no great drop, and Falmer had taken very little risk. A loud cry of rage broke from Westcott.
"The bird has flown," he cried. "We might have thought of this. We've had all our pains for nothing, sir."
"Well, he can't have gone far," Tremullion replied, "and he hasn't any overcoat."
Jackman laughed with spiteful glee. He had not been so amused for a long time.
"Perhaps he has taken mine," he said. "It was hanging up behind the door, a big overcoat with a silk collar."
Tremullion caught his breath sharply. With one bound he covered the floor and looked into the room beyond. For the first time his rage and disappointment were manifest in his face.
"Quite right," he said between his teeth. "He has gone off with your overcoat."
FALMER had escaped for the moment, and he breathed more freely. He would have found it difficult to explain what he was afraid of and why he had fled, but his nerves were not what they once were, and he dreaded the vengeance of the man whom he knew as Lebandi, though he was aware that Lebandi was merely the Christian name to cover the surname of Westcott.
At any rate Falmer wanted nothing to eat, and he had a coat to conceal his dress clothes.
Why not go back to Greening, and bluff it out with him? The hour was very late, but Greening was not one of the young men who lived consistently up to the maxim of "Early to bed and early to rise." Falmer strolled along until he came to Greening's chambers. There were lights in the front window still, and the sounds of laughter came from within. Falmer decided to wait. It was not an easy matter, for an officious policeman passed every few minutes and fixed an eagle eye upon the watcher.
"You needn't waste your time on me," Falmer said in his loftiest manner. His dress and style of speech were not without their effect on the officer. "I don't want to go in, because it might prove unpleasant. But there is a silly young man yonder who is trying his best to lose a fortune at cards, and when he comes out I'm going to take him into custody. Do you follow me?"
Apparently the policeman did, for he saluted gravely and passed on. At the end of an hour, half a dozen noisy and not too sober, young men came out of Greening's rooms, Bond bringing up the rear. As soon as they had passed Falmer crossed the road and coolly opened the door. Dispensing with the formality of knocking, he entered Greening's sitting-room. The latter was moodily adding up a column of figures.
"Lost again," Falmer said flippantly. "What an explosion there'll be at home one of these days!"
Greening rubbed his eyes as he looked up. His voice was thick, and when he rose to his feet his legs moved unsteadily.
"Be off," he said thickly. "Don't dare to show your rascally face here again. I'm no saint, but I don't have cardsharpers under my roof. Get out."
"Sit down, you fool," Falmer said sternly. "You don't cheat at cards because you haven't the brains, or you'd do it fast enough. You'd do anything to prevent your father from knowing what a mess you are in. How will you pay the money you've lost to-night?"
Greening stammered something as he sank into his chair again. From the uneasy grin on his white face Falmer knew he had hit the mark.
"You'll have to come to me to show you the way out, as you always do," he went on. "I own I cheated at cards; indeed, who would not with such a chance before one! Only I had forgotten to reckon with Bond, who only did what he did because it's his cue to keep me out of funds. Still, that's all by the way. What about my £200?"
"You won't get £200 out of me," Greening said sulkily.
"Oh, yes, I will Give me what you promised and I'll show you a way out without going to your father. You are too horribly involved to turn back now."
"Upon my word and honour, I haven't got the money," Greening cried. "I haven't really. Those fellows cleaned me out of cash to-night."
It was a lie, and Falmer knew it. Very little hard cash had changed hands; the stakes played were too high.
"Then you must get the money in the morning," Falmer said. "Meanwhile I'll stay here. There is no other place I dare show myself at this time of the night. I'll sleep on the sofa and go before your man comes down. Give me a cigar."
Greening made no objection, being too drowsily drunk to protest. A minute or two later and he lay snoring loudly, and Falmer was alone with his own unpleasant thoughts.
He opened a fresh bottle of champagne and lighted a cigar. It was just getting light when he rose and went into the bedroom of his sleeping friend. Greening was fast asleep and no ordinary noise would have sufficed to wake him. Very coolly Falmer went through his pockets and overhauled the dressing-table.
"Not a very big catch," he said. "Fifty pounds in notes and gold. I think I'll go."
The first faint streaks of dawn were shining as Falmer reached the street. As he crossed the road a policeman accosted him. He was polite but firm.
"I shall be glad of your name and address, sir," he said. "I'm only doing my duty, but I have been watching you for some time. You told my mate that you were waiting for a young fellow to come out of the flat, but you went in instead, though the whole of Mr. Greening's party had left. Some of these fast young men leave their doors open when they come home late, and the consequence has been many robberies by thieves who are dressed as gentlemen. You understand?"
"Oh, quite," Falmer said coolly. "Fact is I went in to give Mr. Greening a piece of my mind. I assure you that there is no money on me."
"Of course, sir. All the same if you will step as far as the station with me—"
The tone was deferential but business-like.
"Lead the way," Falmer said in the same even voice. "I suppose you are doing your duty, but I call it outrageous."
The police-sergeant was humility itself. He could shield himself behind his authority, but there was something in his manner that testified that he felt he had made a capture. It would have been so easy for the other to invite the officer to Mr. Greening's chambers.
They passed along till they came to the garden of Langton Square. There Falmer stepped back, his teeth tightly set. He had been talking with the easy manner of a man of the world, when suddenly his fist shot out and caught the officer a murderous blow below the right ear. As the man fell Falmer swarmed over the railings of the garden and dropped on the grass on the other side, Which way he had gone it was impossible for the dazed constable to tell. By and by he managed to blow his whistle, and a constable came hurrying to the spot. The assaulted one rose to his feet.
"Was it the same fellow?" asked the new-comer.
Crouching on the grass, Falmer could hear every word.
"The man you spoke of," was the reply, "the man outside Mr. Greening's flat. He was in the house for some time, and when he came out I spoke to him and he answered me fairly enough. I thought I had made a mistake till he hit me that crack on the head."
Other officers hurried up, and the situation was explained to them. But whilst they were talking Falmer had crossed to the other side of the square and vaulted into the street again. With his dress shoes he ran like a hare, making no noise in the wooden roadway. He hailed a crawling cab and gave the first address that came into his head. Fortunately he had some small change, for he had taken every penny of Greening's ready money. It was daylight when he reached the docks.
The first thing was to get rid of his clothing. His description was at every police-station in London by this time, probably. But there were plenty of places to change his attire. All the shops were open now. There was one with a pile of sailors' slops in the window, and three brass balls over the door. Any toggery would serve as a disguise.
The business in the pawnshop was short and by no means to the advantage of Falmer. For a silk-lined dress suit he had to take thirty shillings, as dress suits were not much in the way of dock frequenters, and for a blue serge suit of inferior quality he paid three pounds. With a straw hat and a pair of brown boots his outfit was complete, and Falmer felt easier in his mind.
He turned away from the narrow street, the name of which he did not even know; indeed, he had to ask a few questions before he knew where he was. At a respectable-looking restaurant he made a hearty breakfast, after which he enjoyed a smoke. The pawn-tickets he tore up—it would be easy to replace the depleted wardrobe, for he did not see himself coming to a locality like this to redeem a suit of clothes. He looked up as he proceeded to light a fresh cigarette, and behold, Tremullion stood before him.
He had changed his clothes, for he wore a light suit of grey tweed. Although he hadn't been to bed, he looked perfectly fresh.
"No getting away from me," he said. "The system I patented in Australia I have tried with great success here. We tracked you to Jackman's lodgings, and through the window. A little knowledge and a little deduction did the rest. But that was a near squeak with the policeman."
"What the deuce do you want?" Falmer asked.
"Well, I want a great many things that I shall never get," Tremullion said amiably. "In the first place, breakfast. Bring me a kipper and some coffee, please. Really, this is quite like old times. I lost you for half an hour just now. Where did you change your clothes?"
"You can find out, since you are so clever," Falmer growled. "Now, what do you want?"
"Many things. First of all, I want you to know that you can't get away from me. I want you to know that you must not leave England. If you do I shall put the police on your track, to say nothing of the 'push.' What are your plans?"
"To be candid, I haven't the least idea," Falmer said. "All the same I'd give five years to know what you are driving at."
"You'll get the five years in due time," Tremullion smiled. "Where's your dress suit?"
"Well, there can be no harm in answering a question like that," Falmer said. "I pawned it not far from here, and obtained my present Bond Street style at the same emporium. I have not the slightest idea of redeeming my abandoned property."
"A sheer waste of time when West End tailors are so confiding," said Tremullion. "But you have a very poor appreciation of the services of your friends. There was no reason why you should have pawned the overcoat of your friend Jackman."
Tremullion smiled as he spoke, but hoped the shade of anxiety in his voice was not noticed. Falmer seemed to be thinking of other things as he glanced out of the window.
"He's got to take his chance," he said. "I did not want it. Anyhow, it can't be helped, seeing that I don't know—"
"But, man alive, you've got the pawn-tickets. You don't mean to say you have destroyed them?"
Falmer nodded carelessly. Tremullion turned away sick at heart and bitterly disappointed.
LOOKING bright and cheerful, and as if he had had a good night's rest, Tremullion ate a hearty breakfast, while he gave Netta a graphic account of his adventures.
Lady Langworthy came to breakfast in the midst of the discussion.
"Lady Langworthy may be of the greatest possible assistance," Tremullion said gravely. "We know now that, like the rest of us, she has been the victim of a scoundrel. When the time comes her evidence should be of the greatest service in clearing the name of Reggie Masters in his late employer's eyes. If the matter is properly handled, Sir John need not know anything."
But Lady Langworthy shook her head resolutely; there was a keen light in her eyes.
"He need not know yet," she said. "Indeed, if he did, his directness and regard for the truth might spoil everything. But I am going to tell him all at a suitable season."
Silently Netta applauded the resolution. She had never liked Hilda Langworthy so much as she did at that moment. And the notion that Reggie ought to come to town pleased her. She would suggest it to him without delay.
"Why shouldn't he come here?" Tremullion asked. "He would retain the name of Williams and readily pass as my secretary. In fact, I have been thinking of getting one for some time. It would be the wisest thing to do."
Netta's pretty eyes flashed her gratitude. The continued absence of Reggie was a trial to her. Busy as her life was, she nursed her trouble. She would write at once. Netta was still writing her letter when the butler said that a gentleman was waiting to see her in the drawing-room.
"Mr. Williams, who was here the other day, miss," the butler nodded.
Netta's heart gave a jump. Just as she was writing to Reggie he had turned up!
"My dearest, something is wrong," Netta whispered. "Something dreadful has happened."
She laid her hand softly on his shoulder, and he turned and kissed her fiercely. Netta clung to him, waiting for him to speak. She would try to be brave and cheerful whatever happened.
"Come and sit down on this sofa," Reggie said with a fine attempt at a smile. "Let me place my arm around you and look into that sweet face. I've very bad news for you, Netta."
"My dearest boy, I felt certain of it as soon as I came into the room," Netta said. "They have found out that you were in Coalend, and you will have to go."
"That's it. Somebody has been making mischief. Up to now Mr. Greening has taken no active steps to bring me to justice. I know that up to a day or two ago no warrant had been issued for my arrest. I suppose my late employer thought that I had fled the country. Anyhow, he has changed his mind, and the warrant has been issued. It seems that the police had traced me to Coalend, and they had, of course, to get their warrant verified by a magistrate. They went to old Tassell—you know what a gossiping old gentleman he is—and he told Manning. I had to leave without delay."
"It seems so hard," Netta said with tears in her eyes. "One almost feels like fighting it."
"I'm innocent," Reggie said proudly, "and yet I do not like giving myself up. If you like—"
Reggie paused as Lady Langworthy entered the room. She would have withdrawn after a word or two to Reggie, but Netta called her back.
"You ought to know everything," she said. "Reggie, will you explain why you are here?"
Reggie repeated what he had already said to Netta. Lady Langworthy's sympathy and distress were generous. She herself had done much to bring things to this pass.
"It is monstrous," she cried. "There must be some fresh design against your good name. Mr. Greening ought to know the truth. Shall I go and see him, and tell him what I know? I will gladly do so if either of you wish."
But the time was not ripe yet, Reggie thought. Mr. Greening was a hard man and would refuse to do anything until Reggie gave himself up. The fact that the young man had fled was evidence of guilt in the eyes of an employer who forgave no faults and pardoned no enemies.
"Isn't there a better way out of it than that?" Netta asked. "Of course, we could fall back upon Lady Langworthy's suggestion if the worst came to the worst. But I have another plan. The man who is at the bottom of all the mischief is Gordon Falmer. He planned Reggie's ruin, so that he might have Lady Langworthy in his power, and in some way manipulate Reggie's fortune at the same time. Not that Falmer seems to have benefited, for his schemes have gone wrong. But you may be sure that Jackman knows all about it. Jackman is living, blind and wretched, somewhere in the East End, and Falmer is hiding from powerful enemies. Why not buy Jackman over? It is all a question of money; thank goodness, I have plenty. What do you think of it?"
Reggie was disposed to be favourable, as was Mr. Tremullion when the new development was laid before him.
"It sounds commonplace," he said, "but then all crime is commonplace at the bottom. I have not the smallest doubt that Jackman could supply us—at a price—with exceedingly valuable information. At the same time, I intended to work out this thing and win off my own bat, so to speak. I wanted to get the best of these scoundrels by superior strategy. But since Reggie Masters is likely to find himself in trouble before long, there is no time to be lost. Who will see Jackman?"
"I'll do it," Netta said eagerly. "And Henri D'Alroy will help me. He will get Jackman round to his house, and between us we shall manage it. If Falmer escapes from England—"
"You need not have any anxiety on that score," Tremullion said dryly. "Falmer is being carefully watched. Besides, he has no money. The idea is to blackmail young Greening, and bolt with the plunder. I won't permit anything of the kind. On this point I have a powerful ally, though he has not the remotest idea that he is playing my game."
"Who is that?" Reggie asked.
"Why, Raymond Bond, who, I have ascertained beyond dispute, was at one time the partner of your late solicitor, Willis. He wants to keep Falmer here. My idea is that Falmer managed to get poor Willis's papers into his hands. Amongst these papers were your securities, Masters. But unfortunately for Falmer at this point the 'push' turned up. Falmer had to 'die.' Before he did so he had to trust to somebody, and that somebody was Bond. Bond has all those deeds and things, and now refuses to give them up, defying Falmer to claim possession."
"I believe you are right," Netta said eagerly. "That accounts for Bond being at Loudwater Priory on the night of Mr. Falmer's alleged death. They were settling their final plans. Oh, it is good to feel that one of our enemies is unconsciously working for us. But let me see Henri D'Alroy. I don't think any time should be lost."
Netta set out on her errand. As Netta entered the room the child rushed with a cry to meet her.
"Oh, this is good of you," she cried. "I am so lonely. You see Henri is away; he has been gone since late last night. For once we went to the theatre, and when we came back there was a letter for Henri. It was a letter he did not like, but he told me to ask no questions. He started to write a letter himself, but did not finish it, and went out."
Netta listened uneasily to the explanation. There was something wrong, she felt certain.
"You mean that the professor has not been back at all?" she asked.
"Not since last night. There is the letter he was writing. I don't know anything about it because I cannot read properly. But he would not mind your seeing it."
Netta took the sheet of paper from the blotting pad. The letter had no beginning and no end. It merely stated that the writer was ready and that he had made up his mind. It broke off suddenly, and underneath D'Alroy had scribbled the words, "God help the child."
AFTER a little consideration Netta thought she knew what had happened. Once again Henri D'Alroy had defied the 'push' and he had gone to his account.
"Henri is certain to come back," Netta said, with the bravest smile she could conjure up. "He has been called to some patient who is in extreme danger. You have plenty in the house?"
"Oh, yes," Marie replied. "Plenty of food and all that. I can cook and manage everything for myself splendidly. I am not afraid to stay here."
"Then I will leave you, my dear, and come back presently," Netta said. "I will look in before the afternoon is over, and if Henri has not come back you shall stay with me for the night. We will leave a note for the professor, saying what has become of you."
Marie clapped her hands; the prospect was delightful. The brave girl had not complained, but she had been terribly lonely. She kissed Netta gravely as the latter departed for Berkeley Street. Without doubt something serious had happened to the professor, and she must have Tremullion's advice at once. Jackman would keep for the present.
Mr. Tremullion could see nobody for the moment, the butler explained, as he was transacting business with a gentleman in the library. She wondered what he was doing here, but had no occasion to wonder long, for at that moment Tremullion came out of the library and smiled approval as he saw Netta.
"I have been moving a little on my own responsibility," he said. "In ten minutes I shall be glad if you will come into the library and bring Lady Langworthy with you. Meanwhile—"
Tremullion nodded his head significantly and was gone. Greening was sitting nervously by the big table, and looking like one who finds himself suddenly in a den of trained lions.
"As I was saying," Tremullion went on, "the matter stands thus. We know how Falmer managed that business of the stolen notes. We know that you were a party to the transaction. Now, suppose Lady Langworthy goes to your father and tells him everything?"
"I should be ruined," Greening stammered. "For heaven's sake, Tremullion—"
"Oh, don't let me have any of that nonsense. Do you suppose we are going to allow a good fellow like Masters to remain under a cloud for your sake? Mind you, it has got to come out presently. But what I want to know is this—why has your father, after the lapse of so many months, suddenly made up his mind to issue a warrant for Masters' arrest?"
"I didn't know he had done so," Greening said.
"What a pitiful liar you are," Tremullion said with deep contempt. "What's the use of trying to deceive an old lawyer like myself? The warrant was issued from Bow Street on a sworn information by the firm of Greening and Company, and was attested by your father as well as yourself. Now, why was it done?"
Percy Greening wiped his heated forehead; he looked everywhere rather than at his questioner.
"I didn't want to make it any worse," he said.
"But you know better," Tremullion said sternly. "You know that Reginald Masters was innocent of the initial charge, and it is infamous to tax him with the second."
Greening wriggled about in his chair uneasily. But Tremullion had not done with him yet.
"It would be as fair to charge you," he said. "You are heavily in debt for many of the dubious luxuries your plain old father despises. You owed Hartlib and Co., of Glasshouse Street, two thousand pounds for borrowed money. What would your father say to that? A few days ago you paid the moneylenders off. I should like to know where you got that money?"
A green, sickly hue spread over the face of the listener, and he gasped like a fish out of water.
"Securities don't disappear," he went on, "they can be traced. Ah, here are Lady Langworthy and Miss Sherlock. They are anxious to have a few words with you."
Hilda Langworthy and Netta came in together. Greening looked hungrily towards the door. But escape would have been a confession of defeat.
"I have ascertained the reason why proceedings are being taken against Reggie Masters," Tremullion explained to the ladies. "It seems that other property is missing. Also I have informed Mr. Greening that the warrant must be withdrawn, at any rate for the present. Of that there must be no doubt whatever."
"But my father," Greening gasped. "He is resolute. He would not listen to it for a moment."
"Well, you'll have to make him," Tremullion said relentlessly. "I have not the slightest doubt that you can elaborate some ingenious lie."
"Is there any necessity for further deceit?" Lady Langworthy cried scornfully. "What is to prevent me from going to Mr. Greening and telling him what I know? Reggie Masters shall never stand in the dock. I know that I can prevent that and I will. It is in the hands of this gentleman here."
Greening, wiping his hot, red face, wondered how much longer this would last. If Lady Langworthy carried out her threat he was ruined beyond recall.
"Indeed if you only knew everything you would be sorry for me," he said. "I'll—I'll do what I can. I'll see the authorities at once."
There was a chance that Mr. Greening, senior, would not do anything more now that he had put the matter in the hands of the police, but concern himself with his all-absorbing business, and think of nothing else. Perhaps Tremullion read these thoughts of the miserable young man, for there was a look of amused contempt on his face.
"A diplomatic tale to the authorities, and the thing is done," he said significantly.
Greening rose as if he regarded the interview at an end. He sighed with a sense of relief.
"I'll go and do what I can at once," he said. "If there is anything else that the ladies—"
But the ladies had sailed out of the room with their heads in the air. Greening felt that, in his turn, he had something distinctly in the way of a grievance.
"They had no call to treat a fellow like that," he whined. "Anybody would think that I was the thief who—"
"And so you are, or something very near it," Tremullion said, repressing a strong desire to kick his visitor from the room. "If you were not Falmer's accomplice you were a willing tool. Now you can go."
Greening rose with ready alacrity. He held out a hand which was promptly withdrawn as Tremullion glanced at his unhappy victim. "No, thanks," the former said pithily. "One has to draw the line somewhere, you know. Now go, or I shall forget myself and kick you off the premises."
The front door closed with a sullen bang behind Greening, and then Netta came with her news. Tremullion listened with a face, the gravity of which he made no attempt to hide.
"I don't like this," he murmured. "I don't like it a bit. I feel sure that the 'push' has been at work again. Falcon has dared to disobey me. I'll go and see him whilst you are on your way to Jackman's. Here's the address."
"Do you think that D'Alroy has come to harm?" Netta asked anxiously.
"Not to actual harm yet," Tremullion said. "I hope I shall be in time. I'll let Falcon know that the professor is under my protection. Really, those fellows are going too far."
Netta took a cab and drove off to the squalid quarter where Jackman was living. She had some difficulty in finding his room, but she reached it at last, and discovered Jackman alone and brooding over a fire, despite the fact that the apartment was warm to suffocation.
"I don't know who you are or what you are doing here," the man growled suspiciously. "What do you want?"
"I want you to help me about Professor D'Alroy," Netta said. "I am a patient of his. When I got to the house to-day the little girl who lives with him told me he had gone to see you."
"So he did last night," Jackman said, with a sudden change of manner. "But he hasn't been near me today. Are you sure you have not made a mistake?"
"Quite sure," Netta said. "Professor D'Alroy has not been home all night; he seems to have vanished. Now, can you tell me if he had any enemies here who—"
With a queer cry Jackman rose to his feet.
"My eyes," he cried, "my precious eyes! If I had known for a moment—but then, if I had my sight I should be in no need of the professor. If anything has happened to him, if those fellows—"
"You want help," Netta said. "I want help, Mr. Jackman. You shall not lose your eyes if I can save them. Tell me the truth and I'll do what I can."
"What truth do you want?" Jackman asked suspiciously. "And who may you be when you are at home?"
"That is a small matter," Netta replied. "I want the truth about the night when Gordon Falmer stole those notes from the desk in Mr. Greening's library. You can tell me about that."
"Yes," he said with a chuckle of low cunning. "Oh, yes, if I like I can tell you all about that."
IT seemed to Netta just for the moment that she held all the tangle of threads to the mystery.
"You are wasting valuable time," she said. "I tell you D'Alroy's life is in danger."
"If I only knew who you are," Jackman muttered. "A blind man is easily imposed upon."
"And all the more easily imposed upon when he insists upon remaining blind," Netta retorted. "Why should I, or anybody, worry about a man with a record like yours? To be candid, I did not come here to help you at all. But your house seemed to have been D'Alroy's last place of call, and that is why I came. You know that his life is in peril."
Jackman nodded; he knew that quite well. He was thinking of the "push."
"You are helpless," Netta pursued her advantage, "the life of a man who can be of precious use to you is in danger. You see I know everything. Can you tell me where our friend has gone?"
"The information is worth something," Jackman suggested.
"I am aware of that. But it comes to this—if you like to speak freely you shall not be punished, as Falmer will be punished, but you will be accepted as a witness instead. There is no occasion to give you a single penny; there is no reason why I should not let you stand in the dock with the other rascal. For the present you are helpless; indeed, you are likely to be helpless for some time to come."
"If you would only tell me your name," Jackman said with obvious hesitation.
"My name has nothing whatever to do with the case," Netta replied. "I will not make my offer again. The story of the crime is bound to come out; indeed, it is practically out already. You must make up your mind on which side of the fence you will climb down. You may have courage and resolution, but Mr. Percy Greening is not that sort of man at all."
Jackman started in his chair as the clever stroke went home. He had forgotten Greening altogether. This strange girl knew everything. On the whole, it would be to his advantage to speak.
"I had better tell you all about it," he said. "I was Mr. Falmer's confidential servant. He used to let me know a great deal of his affairs."
"He didn't tell you he was going through the solemn farce of dying of heart disease?" Netta asked.
"That is true. It was not till afterwards that I remembered the drug the 'push' used, and even then I didn't realize what the move meant. When I found out that the 'push' had arrived—"
"One moment," Netta interrupted. "Tell me what Mr. Raymond Bond had to do with it."
"It strikes me there is little I can tell you," Jackman said with grudging admiration. "Bond acted as Falmer's solicitor after the latter returned to England. My employer trusted Bond, much against my advice. So far as I can make out, Bond had Falmer's property in trust at the time of the supposed death, and afterwards declined to account for a penny. He said Falmer was dead and buried, and, of course, Falmer could not come into the open and prove the contrary."
"But the 'push' found out about that, Jackman?"
"Not they, miss. It was Bond who put them up to the truth. You see, for all Bond could defy Falmer to claim his property, Falmer was not dead. He is a man of marvellous cunning, and utterly without scruples, and Bond would not have lived long to enjoy another man's property. So, very wisely, Bond does not give my employer time to formulate any scheme, but puts the 'push' on his track to see that the next time he courts death he shall meet it for certain."
"Now, will you please continue the story?" Netta asked.
"There is not much to tell. So far as I could judge, Falmer was in love with the woman who is now Lady Langworthy. But she would not have anything to do with him, and I fancy he thought she preferred the attentions of Mr. Reginald Masters. Do you know him?"
"I knew him very well indeed," Netta replied steadily. "It was a case, then, of getting a hated rival out of the way?"
"To some extent I suppose it was. But Falmer's plans were deep, and he generally contrived to kill two birds with one stone. I knew there was mischief on hand by the way he used to sit over the fire at night smoking his cigar. After a bit I found that he was on terms with the elder Mr. Greening, and that they had done business together. Twice I was taken to the office of the old gentleman to make shorthand notes of the conversation. There was mischief here, because Falmer was promising to put through certain things that were quite out of his power to do, as I told him. He laughed, and said he had not the remotest intention of doing business with the old man. He asked if I could imitate his voice. I am rather good at that kind of thing; indeed, I could imitate your voice, miss, so that you would not know the difference."
Jackman changed his tone, and Netta almost laughed aloud. The deception was perfect.
"Well, I knew that there was mischief afoot, though I was not told all the plot. On a certain night I was to go with my master to Greening's house to wait upon him—my master, I mean. He was to lead the conversation at dinner into a certain channel at a certain time, and the whole thing was to resolve itself into a bit of information that could be obtained over the telephone. I was to go and ask for that information on the telephone. What I really did, when I closed the box where the telephone at Greening's is, was to telephone in Greening's voice to his office to Mr. Masters, asking him to bring the £10,000 and place it in the desk. If you have not heard that part of the story I am afraid that—"
"Go on," Netta said breathlessly. "I know all that side of the story. What happened then?"
"Why, I hung about with the duplicate key of the desk in my pocket till the coast was clear, and I could get the notes. These I placed in an envelope, inside of which was a typed message to Miss Hilda Mallory—Lady Langworthy, you know—sealed it up, and passed it to Falmer. You are a smart young lady, so I need not point out what happened next."
"It was a clever and a cruel plot," Netta cried; "all the same, it is not likely to do any permanent harm. By the way, did you ever discover those papers of Falmer's that you were after?"
"I am afraid I don't understand what you mean," said Jackman innocently.
"Oh, yes, you do, the papers relating to Mr. Reginald Masters' property—the property spirited out of the possession of Mr. Willis, the lawyer—Willis and Bond, you know; the papers you and Lucille Ganton were hunting for in Falmer's room the night after he was supposed to die."
Netta asked the question coolly, but her heart was beating faster than usual. Great results depended upon the answer to the question. Surprise and admiration lit up Jackman's face.
"Well, you are a deep one," he said. "I should like you for a partner, I should. We didn't find the papers and, what's more, we never shall. I'd have given a thousand pounds for them."
On the whole, Netta felt she had done a good afternoon's work. If Falmer—
The door burst open and Falmer reeled in. He had a long dust-coat over his blue serge suit, a racing coat, and as he peeled it off Netta saw that his collar and shirt were wet with blood. With a groan and a cry for brandy Falmer fell into a chair. In the street a taxi was moving off. Netta would have slipped away also, but Jackman called her back.
"Don't run away," he implored. "Mr. Falmer seems bad. I can't do anything for him. What's the matter?"
Netta hesitated. She did not want to be recognized. But she could not turn her back on this. Falmer had fallen to the floor, his eyes closed, his face white as death.
"He appears to have met with an accident," Netta said. "I'll do what I can and then go for a doctor."
With trembling fingers Netta undid the collar and shirt, and laid the breast bare. There was a wound from which the blood was flowing freely. As he turned again a pocket-book fell from his waistcoat, and dropped on the floor. The contents rustled like paper money. On the spur of the moment Netta slipped the book into her own pocket.
"We may be wasting precious time," she said. "I'll fetch a doctor. The poor fellow is unconscious, and there is a nasty wound in his chest."
Netta stepped into the road, and made her way to the nearest doctor. Then she examined the pocket-book. As she expected, it was full of bank-notes. On the outside of the case was the monogram P.G. in silver. The case and notes belonged to Percy Greening!
FORTUNATELY the doctor was at home and accompanied Netta to Jackman's room.
"It is a serious wound," the doctor said. "I don't think any vital part has been injured, but there has been a great loss of blood. Can you tell me anything about it?"
Netta could not.
"I'll patch him up as best I can, and send in a nurse presently," he said. "As soon as he is well enough to be moved, he must go to the hospital. When he is himself again I have no doubt he will have a story to tell the police. There is no time for details now."
On the whole Netta thought she was very well out of it, and was not at all displeased with her afternoon's work as she drove back to Berkeley Street. Lady Langworthy and her host were out at some social function, and it was nearly tea-time before Tremullion came back, looking cross and depressed. Netta's eyes questioned him eagerly.
"Absolutely a blank," he said. "I have been baffled and disappointed all the afternoon. And you?"
Netta told her story to Tremullion's intense interest and delight.
"Do you see the effect of it?" he asked. "It frees Reggie Masters. If that warrant is put into execution, I have only to go to the elder Greening and the thing is withdrawn. Not that there is not a great deal to be done. Reggie's future, for instance. He had better continue to lie low, as if the cloud still hung over him. Then, when the time comes we can scatter our thunderbolts. If we get hold of those papers—"
"Those papers are still in Jackman's overcoat pocket," Netta cried. "I asked him if he had found the papers, and he professed not to know what I meant. But when I reminded him of his and Lucille Ganton's hunt the night after Falmer's supposed death he altered his tone. He had not an idea of the value of the property in his overcoat pocket, nor had Falmer when he borrowed that coat as a disguise. Really, it is a most exciting search. Fancy one's valuable papers hidden in a pawnshop near the docks!"
"Which pawnshop will have to be found," Tremullion said grimly. "It may be a long search, or we may hit upon it at once. Anyhow, Falmer can do no harm for the present. Did you say he was badly hurt?"
"Not seriously, only he had lost a lot of blood," Netta explained. "Of course, I professed to come into the business quite casually, and, fortunately for our interests, Jackman cannot see. But your friend Mr. Percy Greening has played you false."
"What do you mean?" Tremullion asked.
"He has given Falmer money," Netta said. "He promised he would do nothing of the kind, but then you could not tell whether he would keep faith or not. What do you make of this?"
Netta produced the pocket-book and passed it over to Tremullion. The latter placed a pile of notes on the table to the extent of three thousand pounds, whistling as he did so. This was something more than a mere blackmailing transaction, he thought. Greening would never have given Falmer all that; indeed, the young man had not so much to give. He was a partner in a very rich firm, it was true, but at present his income was comparatively small.
"It's Greening's case," Tremullion said. "Indeed I have seen him use it often. But £3,000! He never meant to give Falmer that money; indeed, Falmer only asked £200. Now where did all this come from, and what did Greening intend to do with it?"
"He must have won it at cards," said Netta.
"Not he!" Tremullion cried contemptuously. "But I will get to the bottom of this. I'll see young Greening, and drag it out of him. If you'll wait here, I'll go now and settle matters."
Tremullion came back presently with the news that Greening's flat was locked up; his housekeeper and man—who was her husband—had gone into the country, and would not be back till late, so the caretaker said. A card on Greening's outer door announced that he would return about seven o'clock.
"Picnicking seems to be the order of the day," Tremullion grumbled. "I wonder if Greening's man and housekeeper can be in any way connected with—but that is impossible. Still, it's odd they should be engaged on much the same errand as the Falcon household."
"I begin to believe that Falmer stole that money," Netta said. "But I cannot imagine Mr. Percy Greening fighting to get it back."
"Well, no," Tremullion said dryly. "I hardly see him doing that. Probably the pocket-book was stolen in a prosaic and vulgar fashion, and Falmer, in his elation, forgot his ordinary prudence and came very near to his death at the hands of the 'push.' They have the most wily ways of luring on a victim; even a man like Falmer might be forgiven for falling into the trap. But for that pistol shot, to-night would have seen him on the other side of the Channel."
It was after dinner before Tremullion went to Greening's flat again, and still the two servants were absent, and still the card remained on the outer door. The hall-porter knew nothing of the movements of Mr. Greening; indeed, he had not seen him since the night before.
"I take no heed of that," he said with a grin. "Mr. Greening was most uncommon lively when he came home last night. There are some of them as I don't see for a day or two after a spree like that."
"But the housekeeper and the man?" Tremullion suggested.
"Oh, bless you, they be gone for a week's holiday. Did my wife tell you as they'd be back to-night? Well, it was a mistake. I shouldn't wonder if Mr. Greening had put out that card so as not to be disturbed. Like as not he's sleeping it off all this time."
Tremullion nodded as he went upstairs. At any rate he determined to see. With his back to the door and his feet in a crack in the tiled floor, Tremullion pressed. Something gave way presently, and he found himself in Greening's elegantly-appointed dining-room.
"If he's not in I shall look a fool," he muttered. "Nice thing to be accused of housebreaking at my time of life. Hullo, what have we here!"
Cigars and cigarette ends were scattered about all over the place. And here and there along the light green carpet were red spots that could be nothing else but blood. From the inner room came a snoring groan.
By the bedside, with his face down as if in the act of prayer, Percy Greening knelt. His face was a deep purple, a great wound ran from his skull to his nose, his hands were tied behind him, and a gag was thrust into his mouth.
To release him and place him on the bed with his collar open was the work of a minute. Then Tremullion yelled to the hall-porter to telephone for a doctor at once. Fortunately there was one on the premises, and he came immediately. It was a simple fracture of the skull, the result of a blow with some blunt weapon, which had ended in concussion of the brain. The victim must be put to bed and a nurse sent for. He might pull through, or he might not, seeing that his habits of life were by no means conducive to a rapid recovery. Tremullion listened gravely to this opinion.
"I'll set the telephone going," the doctor said. "There seems to have been a struggle here. Our patient does not look like a fighting man either."
Tremullion stopped and lifted something from the floor by the side of Greening's bed. It was only a trousers button with a long thread still hanging to it, as if it had been torn off in a desperate struggle—a black button with a tailor's name on it. With a grim smile of satisfaction, Tremullion put it in his pocket.
"A most valuable clue," he muttered. "A bit of metal worth half a farthing; but there is a fortune hanging to that thread."
GREENING lay on the bed as comfortable as possible in the circumstances.
"It's a most mysterious affair," Tremullion said to the doctor. "I think we had better wait upon events—I mean it might be a mistake to call in the police. They are not likely to get anything out of the patient for some time."
"He will not be able to make a statement for some days yet," the doctor replied. "There is sure to be fever later. I'll just step in and give the nurse a few final instructions before I leave."
Tremullion had the sitting-room to himself for a little. His keen eyes swept round the place with a view to something further in the shape of a clue. A quaint old Dutch bureau with a flap top stood open, and on it some letters, which Greening had evidently been writing—indeed, one letter was still unfinished. Without the smallest scruple Tremullion read it.
Here was something like a clue. The letter was in the nature of a confession. The writer had got into an awful scrape and meant to disappear. Certain things must come out and, if they did, the writer would be worse off than the poorest beggar. Therefore he had helped himself liberally and intended to go to South America. Would his own dear Mary share his lot? It would be a quiet life, but so long as they were together under the lovely skies of the glorious climate—
The letter broke off as if Greening had been interrupted in the midst of his rhapsody.
"Well, Greening and his scheme are knocked on the head for the present," Tremullion mused. "He must have been writing that letter when Falmer came in; the money probably lay on the desk. Falmer coolly appropriated it, and for once in his life Greening became dangerous. It must have been a pretty tough fight on both sides. I must carry the thing farther."
Tremullion drove as far as the little news-shop kept by the ex-policeman, where he had his stock of disguises. By and by he emerged in the character of a dock loafer, half sailor and half fireman, the class of man that hangs about the docks in hundreds. Boarding a 'bus he found himself presently near Thames Street, and thence he made his way to the river. For a long time he wandered about looking up the names of various shops, but without the success he expected. Finally he dropped into a public-house of the better class, where he was received with chilling dignity by the young lady behind the bar.
"I'm looking for a friend, a relative," Tremullion said to the chill goddess behind the bar; "only he doesn't seem to live hereabouts. I suppose shops in this district change hands pretty frequent?"
The haughty one inclined her head. She was understood to say that, apart from the licensed victualling trade, business was not in too flourishing a condition, and that tradesmen came and went in a strangely bewildering manner.
He paced up and down the hot stuffy streets till he needed refreshment. Two men in front turned into a house that looked quieter and more respectable than the rest, and Tremullion followed. One of the men looked like a butler in a cast-off suit of his master's, and the other was a mate or skipper of an ocean tramp. Tremullion caught himself listening vaguely.
"What will you have this time?" the butler-like stranger asked. "What shall we say, Mr. Gibbon?"
The other replied with a growl that he only worshipped at one shrine, which was rum. Tremullion drew back and sat down behind a partition with his Bass in his hand. There was nobody else in the bar, and the hoarse whispers of the two men carried far. Tremullion was all the more interested because in the man who resembled a gentleman's servant he recognized Greening's man, Jenks. It was a slice of luck and might lead to important results.
Tremullion patiently listened. Jenks was a particular man; he was thought highly of in his profession, and usually his choice of companions would not have been such as the aforesaid Gibbon.
"So you are going to South America," Jenks asked. "Pretty place, is it not?"
"Oh, it is well enough," growled the other; "better than being cramped up in a kettle like mine. If I hadn't been unlucky I'd be commanding a liner by now. But there you are!"
The speaker finished his drink at a gulp and pushed his glass for another. The source of Mr. Gibbon's ill-fortune was palpable to the listener.
"I suppose bad luck has a lot to do with it," Jenks said soothingly. "Hard work and poor pay seems to be the fate of most of us. But you get perquisites sometimes?"
"If you're speaking about smuggling, that game's played out," Gibbon replied. "So's running contraband."
"I don't mean that. I mean passengers. You ought to make that pay."
"Who're you getting at?" Gibbon snarled. "Passengers in an old tomato tin like mine! Grub fit to turn you sick, and half a crew to do the work. Oh, yes, I see my saloon passengers in their dress togs—"
"Once more, I don't mean that," said Jenks, sinking his voice to a confidential whisper. "I don't mean that class of passenger. Suppose I wanted to go abroad, particularly to South America, for my health. I'm fair worn out with dissipation and the like, and what I've been ordered is a thorough change. I come to you and offer to ship as a hand. I don't want my people to know anything about it; in fact, I want the thing kept as quiet as possible."
Gibbon started as he looked over the edge of the glass.
"I twig," he muttered. "Called abroad by urgent private affairs. A shy bloke as hates strange faces. Sort of man as suffers from delusions—fancies the police are after him and all that—about the most dangerous game you can tackle, Mr. Jenks."
"I suppose it is," Jenks said, with the air of a man who concedes the point. "All the same, it's a pity when there is so much money hanging to it. Now, I know a man who has a weakness for travelling in that style. He's pretty well off and don't mind paying for his fancy. A hundred pounds in hard cash is a lot of money, Mr. Gibbon."
"It is," Gibbon agreed heartily. "To a poor man it's a pile."
"And it need not stop there, Mr. Gibbon. My friend would want heaps of luxuries aboard, plenty of good drinks and the like. You've a tender heart, as anybody can see, and when you find your new hand is really ill, I'll warrant you'd take him into your own cabin."
"I know my duty to my fellow-men as well as anybody," Gibbon said with great dignity.
"Of course you do. Directly I saw your face I knew that. You see your passenger would be better off in your cabin. Besides, he would want somebody to talk to at times."
Jenks grinned jubilantly, and Gibbon responded. Plainly the fish was hooked.
"It's a dangerous game," the seaman said. "This 'ere victim of hard oppression of yours, not to give him a name—''
"By no means," Jenks said hastily. "No name. You sail the day after to-morrow with the early tide. That will be about half-past six. If my friend's wife decides to come with him—"
"Double fare, and say no more about it," Gibbon said promptly.
"Very good. Personally I don't fancy the lady will come. If she does she can be paid for then. Meanwhile, suppose I give you £50 down and you'll get the other £50 after the boat sails. See here."
Jenks produced a bag of gold and proceeded to count out fifty sovereigns into the itching palm of Mr. Gibbon. With a grin of satisfaction he thrust them into his pocket.
"So that's done," Jenks smiled. "All we have to do is to get some sort of kit. I suppose I can buy all I need at the Stores?"
"Stores be hanged," Gibbon growled. "Why do you want to go and put clues like that in the hands of the police? I mean your man wants to keep this quiet as possible. There's lots of places where you can get all you want for half the money. You've come to the right man for information and advice of that kind. Got half an hour to spare?"
"Half a day if needs be," Jenks said with quiet geniality.
"Then drink up and come along with me," Gibbon went on. "There's a new place not far from here where you can get anything from a set of sails to a darning needle."
It was a cunning scheme, as Tremullion felt bound to admit.
The two men passed slowly down the badly-paved street until they came to a shop, over which was suspended three brass balls. It was a showy shop for the neighbourhood, with plate-glass windows and brass letters at the base, though the stock was cheap and shoddy. As Jenks and his companion disappeared inside, Tremullion glanced at the name on the front.
"What luck!" he muttered. "'Elias Valdar, tailor.' The very place I wanted. Now I'll just take the button out and make certain. Then to make a note of the address."
The name on the trousers button and the name over the shop door corresponded to a letter.
BEFORE dinner Tremullion was at home with no traces of his recent disguise upon him. Netta was back again, but had no news of D'Alroy, and was getting very anxious about him. Tremullion said nothing about his discovery in connexion with the black metal button for fear of disappointment later, but he gave Netta a graphic description of the accident to Greening.
"There was a big fight between those two men," he said. "Falmer got the best of it, though I'll take good care he does not benefit by his ill-gotten gains. Still, that must wait for the present. What we have to do now is to find D'Alroy, and I shan't rest till I find him. What about the child you told me of? The poor thing cannot remain in the house alone."
"Of course not," Netta smiled. "It is like your good kind heart to think of her. So I took the liberty of fetching her, and she is under this roof at the present moment."
Tremullion approved warmly. He would like to see the child, and Netta hurried away to fetch her. Marie received Tremullion's advances with perfect self-possession. She was anxious about Henri, she said, but he had been away once before, and she had not liked to ask questions. But the child seemed to be happy where she now was; she loved the beautiful things about her, things the like of which she had never seen before. Netta was going to play to her, she said joyfully.
"In fact, I've brought my fiddle for the purpose," Netta said. "What shall it be, Marie?"
"Some of the Schubert," Marie said promptly. "And then that sad creepy thing to finish with."
Netta played for half an hour. Then she glided into the low, haunting melody that had had such an effect on Falmer and Raymond Bond. The music caught Tremullion's ear at once, as, indeed it caught the ear of everybody.
"What an exquisite thing!" he said. "Do you know I shall never forget that air again. I almost wish you had not played it. Eh, Marie?"
"It is perfect," Marie cried. "And yet I am sure I have heard it before. I have either heard it before or I have been born a second time. It recalls the days when I was a wee girl in Australia. I can see Henri talking to a gentleman with a dark face and a scar on his forehead. He was a noble gentleman to look at, and he did not call Henri D'Alroy, but something quite different. What was it, I wonder?"
"Was it De Bourneville, by any chance?" Tremullion asked with a curious catch in his voice.
"That's it," Marie almost screamed. "What a funny thing that you should know! Many times I have tried to think what that noble-looking gentleman called Henri."
"De Bourneville is the proper name of the man who calls himself D'Alroy," Tremullion explained.
"Falmer married her and broke her heart. De Bourneville went down and down until he disappeared. He was a man of good family; indeed, I fancy he was entitled to a handle to his name. I did him a great service once and he made me a handsome present, nothing less than a snuffbox set with diamonds that once had been the property of Louis XVI. I'll show it you."
From a case in the drawing-room Tremullion produced a superb box of vert enamel and gold, on the lid of which was a beautiful miniature with a circle of diamonds round it.
Tremullion glanced at the lid of the box in visible annoyance.
"Is there anything wrong?" Netta asked.
"Well, yes. One of the diamonds is missing. The last time I handled that box the stone was there. I'll take it round to Martin's after dinner, and get him to replace the stone."
"It's time to dress," Netta said, as Tremullion slipped the box into his breast pocket. "Past seven."
"I shan't dress to-night," Tremullion explained, "if you ladies will excuse me. I've work to do which I cannot put off. Before I go to bed I mean to know where D'Alroy is. It's time that child went to bed."
Marie was willing to do anything asked of her. Indeed the delights of the fairy room where she found herself atoned for the indignity of the early hour.
Marie laid her head upon the pillow and went happily off to sleep. At the dinner-table nobody expressed surprise to see Tremullion in the blue serge suit, as he had already explained that he had pressing business to attend to, though Mrs. Tremullion looked anxious. The host remained in the dining-room after the meal was finished.
"If a gentleman comes ask him in here," he said to the butler. "That's all I want just now."
The butler came in presently, followed by a visitor, who proved to be Reggie Masters. He had run down to Coalend, but was glad to find himself in London again.
"I suppose you got my wire," he said. "Now you are back you had better stay here. You shall see Netta before you go to bed; meanwhile a glass of wine."
"I had rather not," Reggie said.
"I insist upon a glass of port," Tremullion said firmly. "You have some pretty stiff work before you. We must find D'Alroy to-night. But I forget; you don't know that he is missing. Sit down and I'll tell you all that has happened lately."
Reggie breathed more easily as the recital was finished. Practically his troubles were over. After Jackman's confession no taint of prison could lie on him now.
Tremullion threw his cigar into the grate. A little later he and Reggie entered Falcon's house with the aid of Falmer's key. The hall possessed one light, but was quite deserted; from the distant room where the meeting was held there came loud voices. Presently, at a harsh word of command, the voices ceased, and the notes of an organ sounded out.
"They are a full lodge," Tremullion whispered. "The whole gang are present. They have a ceremonial on these occasions almost as elaborate as a Masonic arch chapter. Listen to the organ. Hullo!"
Tremullion's voice sank to the faintest whisper. Somebody was playing the organ, and playing it remarkably well. But that was not the fascinating part of the proceedings. The piece being performed on the organ was the very piece that on Netta's violin had so moved Tremullion.
"Do you recognize that?" he asked his companion. "Surely you have heard it before?"
"I have heard Netta play it scores of times," Reggie replied. "But I always understood that it was unpublished music that had been given to her by some dead friend."
"So did I; in fact, she would not discuss the matter with me. It's clearly a hymn among these people. Let us push the door open a crack and peep in."
It was risky, but Tremullion managed it. The room was full of people, all of them arrayed with scarves and aprons, like members of a Masonic Lodge. Falcon presided; it was evident that some trial was going on.
There was no name mentioned save the generic title of the "prisoner," but Tremullion concluded that D'Alroy was meant. The ceremony was grotesque and out of place, but the men were very much in earnest. Finally they were asked to hold up their hands, and with one accord they did so. Falcon smiled grimly.
"That is the verdict of you all," he said. "The next thing is the sentence. As you know, I never indicate that. I leave it to the majority of you to decide. There are three forms of punishment to fit the case. There are three tickets for each of the jury, giving the three punishments. Drop the one you vote for in the bowl and tear up the others."
One of the officials, more elaborately dressed than the rest, gravely handed round a silver bowl, into which each of the jury dropped a ticket.
"It is as I expected," he said. "By a large majority you have decided on number three. Bring the prisoner here, so that he may be informed—what's that?"
A sudden sneeze from Reggie Masters disturbed the profound silence that hitherto had only been broken by Falcon's voice. He flung from the table and hastened into the hall, as Tremullion flew back to the door. Something seemed to have gone wrong with the latch, for the door refused to open. Falcon advanced with an evil and suspicious gleam on his face. He had only seen Reggie, for Tremullion had doubled back into the comparative gloom of the hall. It was upon Reggie that Falcon was about to vent his fury, but Tremullion was a master of resource. To be taken now meant to be murdered beyond a doubt. Quick as a dart he took the diamond snuff box out of his pocket, and with a turn of the wrist flashed it forward. An instant later the contents were dashed into the face of Falcon.
With a scream and a yell he staggered back, literally tearing at his eyes.
"The villains are here," he shrieked. "They have thrown something in my face and made me blind."
The latch clicked true this time, the door opened and banged, and the adventurers were gone.
REGGIE and his companion stood panting in the street after their exertions. The former was hazy as to what had happened.
"Why did that fellow yell like an angry bull?" Reggie asked. "What was it you did to him?"
"Well, I pitched a lot of snuff into his face," Tremullion said coolly. "In this instance the snuff followed the sneeze, which is an inversion of the once popular process. It is only by a mere fluke I had the box in my pocket. Strange that D'Alroy should have provided the means of safety."
"Hope you haven't blinded the man," Reggie said.
"He must take his chance of that," Tremullion replied. "Those fellows would have murdered us had they captured us. This is the most dangerous combination I have ever known. Listen to them inside, what a row they are kicking up."
The half-empty house hummed like a hive of angry bees. There were loud cries and murmurs of dissent. The noise came nearer, and finally the front door burst open. Tremullion drew Reggie into the shadow of the porch next door. As the door of Falcon's house flew open with the noise of a pistol shot, the owner staggered out. His language was sulphurous; he was understood to be vowing vengeance against the world at large. Other members of the "push" had followed, vainly endeavouring to soothe their angry chief.
But Falcon would have none of it and threw aside his followers passionately. He rubbed his eyes like a madman, and his noisy cries served to collect a small crowd in that respectable street. A tall figure in blue coat and helmet suddenly appeared.
"Stop that row," he said gruffly, "and move on. What's the matter?"
Nobody took the slightest heed of the representative of the law. Falcon raved furiously, and his followers were still vainly trying to get him into the house. Tremullion coolly stepped into the crowd.
"I fancy there has been an accident," he said. "This gentleman lives here. From what I can gather somebody has thrown some irritating substance into his eyes, and the pain has maddened him."
The officer replied that he could not permit this tumult. He was sorry for what had happened, but if the disturbance did not cease it would be his duty to take the gentleman into custody. Falcon seemed to hear something of this, for his language moderated.
"I will take you back to the house," Tremullion said. "I know Mr. Falcon very well. When the pain has subsided he will be himself again. Come along."
Something familiar in the voice struck Falcon; his violence yielded a little. Tremullion gripped his arm firmly and pushed him along, followed by the rest of the gang. When they were gathered in the hall and the door was closed, Tremullion turned upon them.
"You had better all be off," he said. "Mr. Falcon can do no more to-night. It will be some time before his eyes recover from the shock. Be off, all of you."
Something like a growl of dissent followed. The men were uneasy and suspicious. They were in no mood to be dictated to by a stranger.
"Well, why don't you do as you are told?" Falcon demanded. "Be off, all of you. I don't know who this gentleman is, but he speaks sensibly enough. For heaven's sake, water and a sponge!"
Slowly and sullenly the "push" dispersed. A little while later Falcon was alone with Tremullion and Masters.
"I shall never see again," he groaned.
"Oh, yes, you will," Tremullion said cheerfully. "There is nothing to injure the sight permanently. It wants something corrosive to produce that effect. I dare say it will be a few clays before you see properly again. I am sure the snuff is very painful, but—"
"How do you know it was snuff," Falcon snarled. "Who told you so?"
"My dear sir, the snuff is all over your coat. Any child could see that. But, since I have answered your question politely enough, perhaps you will pay me a similar compliment. How did it happen?"
"I don't know. I heard somebody in the hall, and when I got there this stuff suddenly blinded me. But who are you, and how did you come here?"
"I heard the disturbance in the street. But you know perfectly well who I am. This is not the first time you have come in contact with George Tremullion."
Falcon ceased to bathe his eyes, and his whole manner suggested uneasiness.
"You came with me the other night to see Falmer," Tremullion went on. "Unfortunately, the pleasure had to be postponed. I suppose you were holding a special meeting of the 'push' to-night?"
"I dare say you know all about it," Falcon growled. "You seem to know everything."
The speaker's voice was surly, but he was palpably uneasy.
"A most important meeting," Tremullion murmured. "I have no doubt Falmer knew of it. Probably he had one of his spies here. You laugh? My good fellow, I could buy half your boasted 'push' at so much a head if it were worth my while, and yourself into the bargain. But I will know how to use you when the time comes."
"Oh, yes," Falcon said bitterly. "You were always one of the damnably clever ones."
"I think I always got the best of you and the like of you," Tremullion replied. "What I am going to say is this—Falmer was probably here to-night. He has a key like the rest. You discovered his presence by accident and he had taken precautions for safety. Falmer is your man."
Falcon's anger flared out afresh. He was disposed to agree with his visitor. He was still dabbing at his eyes when Mrs. Falcon entered.
"What is the meaning of this?" she demanded.
"There has been an accident," Tremullion answered in his politest tones. "There was an important meeting here to-night. What it was about I need not tell you, because you doubtless know already. Your husband detected what the parliamentary reports call a stranger in the house. The stranger was going to have a bad time, according to the official programme, but unfortunately he refused to be bound by the strict laws of the game. He did not throw dust in the eyes of his pursuers, but he threw something which was more painful, but more efficacious."
"A spy in the house!" Mrs. Falcon cried. "Do you mean to say—Stephen, was it Falmer?"
"Precisely my opinion," Tremullion said. "It must have been Falmer who threw the snuff. But I tell your husband his recovery is merely a matter of time. No permanent injury has been done."
"I have to thank you for your polite attentions," she said coldly. "At the same time I shall be glad to know who it is I have the pleasure of addressing."
"That I will gladly tell you," was the reply. "More than once lately you have reminded me of the charming Sara Reeves. Really, Australia is to be congratulated! You find the air of England so much more salubrious than that of Sydney?"
Once again her hands closed as if upon a weapon, but she remained silent.
"Now you pose as the wife of a millionaire," Tremullion went on, with growing sternness in his tone. "It is nice to be able to swindle tradesmen; it is nice to go into Society. But you will go into Society no more. You hear what I say? You may invent any lie to excuse your absence from the houses of desolate hostesses, but you go no more. You comprehend."
"Yes," said the woman, as if she were repeating a lesson, "I understand."
"Then there is no occasion for me to say more on that score," Tremullion said more lightly. "As to your husband, he seems to be suffering quite unnecessarily. He refuses to have advice, and can think of nothing but hot water fomentations, when he has at hand the very best advice in the world."
"You mean that it's very near Harley Street?" Falcon muttered.
"My good sir, I mean nothing of the kind. Really you are very dense to-night. The man I mean is close by, is famous in his way, and would do what he could for you con amore, notwithstanding that you are prepared to do him violence. Come, don't pretend ignorance."
"You had better come down to the level of our poor intellects," Mrs. Falcon sneered.
Tremullion's manner changed instantly and his mouth grew hard and stern.
"There is no occasion to do anything of the kind," he said. "You know I am alluding to Henri D'Alroy. What have you done with him, you scoundrel?"
THE sponge fell from Falcon's hand, and he turned his face towards the speaker in uneasy astonishment. Mrs. Falcon gazed at the floor. If Tremullion had expected to gain anything by his tour de force he was doomed to be disappointed. Falcon gave a short laugh.
"So you think D'Alroy is here," he said. "How did you come to get that idea into your head?"
"Strange delusion, is it not?" Tremullion said calmly. "Even the cleverest of us make mistakes at times. You have been using D'Alroy for years. You have used his knowledge to commit murder. He found you out, and fled. You followed him to England and he declined to give you any more of his drug. Honest men had died of its effects. He deemed that enough. So you held a meeting of the 'push,' and decided that D'Alroy must die. You had kidnapped him previously, but you went through the farce of a trial to-night, and D'Alroy, by the unanimous decision of the 'push,' was decreed to punishment No. 3. That was not so long ago."
Tremullion drove this thrust home steadily.
"You see how your boasted secrets are kept," Tremullion said mockingly. "Though I only arrived on the scene when the meeting had broken up in confusion, owing to the snuff business, I know everything. Shall I go on and tell you where D'Alroy is at the present moment?"
Falcon half hesitated, but the woman was herself again. Her face showed no signs of yielding.
"By all means," she said defiantly.
It was check for Tremullion, and Reggie, standing quietly by, wondered how he would get out of it. But Tremullion never hesitated. His face grew dark.
"So you defy me," he said. "The like of you have done so before and repented it in sackcloth and ashes. I might have been easy with you, but not now. But I don't fight with men who can't see. For some reason Falcon refuses professional assistance. Years ago Henri D'Alroy gave me a slight formula for a similar eye trouble, and that formula I have never forgotten. If you will give me pen and paper I'll write it down, and my friend here shall go and get it made up at once."
"That's fair," Falcon growled. "I can't say that I'm not obliged to you."
Mrs. Falcon produced paper and pen, and Tremullion proceeded to write rapidly. It was only a few lines that he tossed carelessly to Reggie with a request that he would take it to the nearest chemist. Reggie was moving towards the door when Tremullion called him back.
"One moment," he said. "Is the word 'aqua' there clear? It is of the greatest importance. Just look."
Reggie glanced down at the paper. The words thereon were written up and down after the manner of a physician's prescription, but it was no prescription at all, but a message: "Falcon is useless for the moment," it ran. "Search the house whilst I detain these people here. I'm sure that D'Alroy is concealed somewhere."
Reggie changed no muscle as he glanced at the paper. Then he looked up and nodded casually.
"The whole thing is plain," he said. "Nobody could misunderstand it. I'll take care, however, that there is no mistake about the 'aqua.'"
Reggie left the room, closing the door behind him.
The top floor was examined without success, and then Reggie descended to the next landing. Here was a room with a great, old-fashioned bed in it with a box-top and hangings. Reggie pushed the curtain on one side. As his feet played idly with the vallance he was conscious there was something solid behind it.
"Looks like a trap," he muttered. "By Jove, the bed is nothing but wire with gauze over it. I wonder—"
Reggie paused and listened intently. Perhaps there was a dog asleep under the bed, for he could hear breathing exactly like that of a fat, pampered pug. As he leant over to raise the gauze the whole framework came away. Beneath it lay the body of a man with his legs and arms strapped and a gag of cork between his teeth. To whip a knife from his pocket and release the bonds and drag the man out was the work of a minute or two.
"You and I are fated to meet," a faint voice said sarcastically. "The last time we met you were in the capacity of a gentleman's servant called Williams. Who are you now?"
Reggie laughed under his breath. The meeting was a very strange one.
"Let me remind you that you called yourself Lebandi," Reggie said. "The circus performer, you know, who had all the odds and ends of a 'varsity man in his rooms. As a matter of fact my name is Reginald Masters, at your service. Unless I am much mistaken you and I have a common end in view, the exposure and disgrace of Gordon Falmer. Is not that so?"
Lebandi's brow clouded for a moment.
"If that is your game then indeed we have a bond in common," he said.
"Do you know where D'Alroy is?" Reggie asked, as he returned with the water.
"Oh, so he has disappeared! Well, I'm not astonished. I gave him a warning, too. Depend upon it, poor old D'Alroy has had the happy dispatch."
"Not yet," Reggie said significantly.
Lebandi Westcott listened, not without amusement, to the story that Reggie had to tell.
"Then you may be certain that poor old D'Alroy is here," he said.
There was still time and no chance of their being discovered. From room to room they went without success until they came to the basement. Reggie softly closed the door leading to the hall.
"Nobody can hear us," lie said. "Why not give our friend a call?"
Lebandi Westcott put the suggestion into words. He called a second and a third time, and then from a door below there came the sound of faint knocks. Westcott's dark, foreign features were aglow with excitement.
"So far so good," he whispered eagerly. "We'll have him now if we have to pull the house down in the process. But hang me if I can locate those knocks."
The knocks came again presently, but seemed to proceed from the floor.
"Here it is," he said. "We never thought of the wine cellar. Come along."
There were vaults below with strong doors to them.
"Are you there, D'Alroy?" Lebandi Westcott asked loudly.
There was the faintest reply, but nothing more.
"I expect the poor old boy has fainted," he said. "The prospect of delivery has been too much for him. Only I wish we had some clue to the cell that contains him."
"There is your clue ready to hand," said Reggie with a thrill. "See, there is a trickle of wine under this door as if somebody had struggled inside. The spill is fresh and must come from more than one broken bottle. Give me the big pick from the coal cellar."
The big coal pick was produced, and four or five vigorous blows brought the door away. Something came down with the door, and that something proved to be the limp form of D'Alroy. Without hesitation Westcott smashed another bottle of sherry, and held some of it to the exhausted man's lips. By and by he was sitting up, and ready to tell his story.
"Not now," Reggie said anxiously. "Take him to Tremullion's house and wait for us. In the meantime lend me a pencil. We'll give the precious couple upstairs a pleasant surprise. Thanks. Now get D'Alroy away as soon as possible."
A few minutes afterwards Reggie returned to the room where Falcon and his wife were. He had not brought the stuff, he said, because the chemist was very busy, but he had promised to send it. Meanwhile he had brought back the original prescription, which he handed to Tremullion, because the chemist had made a note on it. A quick, pleased smile came over Tremullion's face as he read the additional words that Reggie had written.
"Well, we need not stay any longer," he said. "I hope you will forgive all my chaff about D'Alroy. As to the rest, I mean every word I say. But you can't hurt D'Alroy now, seeing that he is no longer in your power. He is now my guest and will remain under my roof so long as danger hangs over him. Good-night."
Tremullion went quietly away. A cry of passionate anger broke from Falcon.
"Go and see if he is right," he said. "I can fight with a man and get the best of him, but a devil like this is beyond me."
"IS that a man or a devil?" Falcon asked hoarsely as the door closed on Tremullion. "Fate itself conspires to help him. Look how he used to beat us in Sydney; and look at the cunning traps we used to set for him, and he never walked into one of them. And he turns up here just as we have everything in our hands. It's cruel, cruel!"
"It was a vain boast," Mrs. Falcon said breathlessly. "It couldn't be true. Why D'Alroy—"
"D'Alroy is where Tremullion says he is," Falcon growled. "I'd give anything to have my sight again. That man was fooling us; he came here to fool us and has succeeded. Did he look as if he were laughing at us?"
"No, he didn't. If I only dared, I would have taken a revolver and shot him. But the cartridges would have hung fire, or something of that kind. It is no use going on any longer."
"Why do you talk like that?"
"Because the game here is up. Tremullion said he would not let either of us show in Society again. Without that what is the use of our schemes? What do we care for the 'push'? I can pretend, but I don't believe in it. If I did, there would be no one more enthusiastic than myself. But we will fail, as we always do, because there are traitors in the camp."
"I don't see how you can prove that," Falcon said moodily.
"Neither do I. But it must be so, else how did Tremullion know so much? If we only knew who's been talking!"
"I'll tell you who it was," Falcon said excitedly; "it's that scoundrel Morgan. I noticed he was not in the meeting; he has not been near since—"
"Then how could he know anything about it?"
"He might have been in the house listening without showing up. He had his key. He has not been the same since that night I thrashed him for his conduct before the violin-playing girl, the night he was so drunk, I mean. Morgan is a dangerous man, too; he has no education, but a rugged power, and is more thought of by the council of the 'push' than I am. I don't know why he didn't come to-night."
"But I thought he did," Mrs. Falcon said. "I came home early because I was anxious to hear what had happened. Morgan was outside. But never mind about him now—what we have to do is to see if Tremullion's boast is true."
Falcon groaned as he took up the sponge again. He waved his wife away impatiently. They had been talking and wasting precious time. Mrs. Falcon was gone only a few minutes, and when she returned she was subdued and a little frightened.
"Well?" Falcon' demanded. "Was Tremullion boasting or not?"
"He never does brag," was the bitter response. "The bird has flown."
Falcon scowled and shook his head. It was his obvious duty to contradict his wife, but he knew she was speaking the truth. He must keep an eye upon that fellow Morgan, and take care he played no further tricks. The opportunity was offered sooner than Falcon had expected, for the door opened and Morgan walked into the room.
"Well, this is a pretty mess," he began before Mr. Falcon had a chance to say a word. "Why don't you go and tell the police what we are up to at once? I was coming down to the meeting late when I heard that row in the street. I've been talking to an inspector ever since; in fact, he insisted on my answering questions, as I had been seen here more than once."
"That's a pack of lies," Falcon said contemptuously. "You have betrayed us. There were strangers here to-night, and one of them half blinded me with some snuff that he threw in my face. I lost my head, I admit, and was a fool to make all that fuss in the street. But what does it matter if you have played the traitor and told Tremullion everything?"
"Tell whom?" Morgan screamed. "You don't mean to say that he's in this thing?"
There was such horror and amazement in the tones of the speaker that Falcon was staggered.
"You don't mean to tell me," he said, "that Tremullion is mixed up in this?"
"I do mean to tell you," Falcon muttered. "He lives close by. He was here a little while ago as if the whole place belonged to him. When he went away he coolly told me that if we needed the services of D'Alroy the Frenchman would be at his house."
"But you had the laugh there, my wily friend?"
"So I should with anybody but Tremullion. If that man says a thing you've got to believe it, even against the evidence of your senses. My wife went to see, and D'Alroy was gone. What is worse, Lebandi has fled too. I don't know how it was worked, but these are the facts."
"Then you'll have to disappear," Morgan said coolly. "You need not run away, or do anything foolish like that. This is where I come in."
"Not while I've my wits and courage left," Falcon said.
"What's the good of either in view of a decision of the council?" Morgan asked. "Some of the wiser heads did not want to send you to begin with. Even the impulsive ones repented before you had started. But I've got this order from Sydney; it came this afternoon. You are to report yourself in Sydney as soon as possible, and I am to take your place."
Falcon raged furiously. If this were true, then all his schemes would fall to the ground. He had come to carry out the vengeance of the "push," and propagate its doctrines in England, and he had done nothing but play for his own hand and squander the money entrusted to his care.
"I don't believe a word of it," Falcon cried. "It's all a silly lie."
"It's as true as the paper it's written on," Morgan replied.
"Let me see the papers," Mrs. Falcon said.
Morgan turned upon her with an open sneer. His deep-set eyes were shining with triumph.
"Not me," he said. "What have you to do with it? You are only a woman, who knows too much already. The paper will be produced at the next meeting of the 'push,' and not before."
Mrs. Falcon quietly glided up to the speaker. Like a flash she snatched the document from Morgan's fingers, and waved it over her head. With an oath the man followed her as she darted round the table. Falcon, despite his temporary blindness, seemed to realize what was going on. He felt for the maddened, shouting Morgan till he gripped him round the throat.
"My wife is going to read that paper," Falcon said between his teeth. "When she has done so you shall have it back again, but not before. If you don't lie still I'll smash your head."
Cursing and muttering, Morgan gave up the unequal contest. For half an hour or more he lay still whilst Falcon's wife read the paper. Then she tossed it on the table with a laugh.
"Let him get up and go off with his precious paper," she said, "and much good may it do him! We shall know how to deal with that when the time comes."
Morgan rose from the floor, grabbed the paper, rammed it savagely into his pocket, and without a word left the room.
"I suppose he was telling the truth," Falcon said moodily.
"No, he wasn't. The paper is a forgery. The signatures of three of the council looked genuine, but they can't be, because the paper bears an English watermark. It was a sheet of paper from the Sterry Mills in Kent."
"Then what does the fool expect to gain by it?"
"Can't you see? He has been in cable communication with the council. They have left him to play his own game till a letter can reach you. If you could only see!"
"I must see," Falcon cried. "Did ever an accident happen at so dreadful a time! Every hour will be worth a year before the job is finished."
"If we could only account for the money," Mrs. Falcon said.
"Oh, if we only could! But I can't. And it's at such a crisis that I am deprived of my sight. It's awful!"
He pressed his hands to his aching eyeballs with a gesture of despair. Suddenly a light flashed across the face of the woman watching him.
"I've got it!" she cried. "Fool, that I did not think of it before. The very man to cure you is not far away. Let us go and see him at once."
"Go and see whom? What do you mean? I'm too dazed and stunned to think to-night. Whom?
"Why, D'Alroy," the woman whispered. "At Tremullion's house. Come along! We'll see him now."
THE household at Tremullions had retired; there were lights only in the hall and dining-room. A thick cloud of smoke hung over the hall, for the rescued men, with Reggie and his host, were smoking cigarettes and indulging in whisky and soda. D'Alroy had declined tobacco, but a glass of light claret, which he sipped sparingly, was before him.
"I and my old friend De Bourneville will compare notes to-morrow," Tremullion said, indicating D'Alroy on his right hand. "All this mixing up of names is confusing. But for the present we have other things to occupy our attention. Not a bad night's work on the whole."
"My work is not finished yet," D'Alroy said. "Please call me by the name I have assumed. In the grave of my broken hopes the man called De Bourneville is buried. Badly as I have been used, I must not forget my duty to others. I have a patient to see to-night."
"Surely Jackman can wait till the morning," Reggie cried.
"Jackman must not wait," D'Alroy said with a firmness that was not to be looked for in him. "Though I do not know why you should be aware of my acquaintance with Jackman. Still, as I am properly rested, I must go. There is no occasion for any one to accompany me."
"On the contrary," Tremullion exclaimed, "there is every reason. Masters will go with you and take a taxi, which you will keep till you are ready to return here. Masters can stay in the taxi. My dear De—I mean, my dear D'Alroy, we cannot afford to lose sight of you at present."
D'Alroy made no demur to the arrangement. There was no difficulty in getting a taxi, so that a little later he and Reggie went off together. Jackman's eyes were in a critical state, D'Alroy explained, and they needed regular attention. The delay might be serious. As the taxi moved away and Tremullion stood watching it, he saw Falcon, led by his wife, cross the road. Obviously they were coming to see him. Lebandi, standing in the shadow, was informed of this in a whisper.
"I'll go into the billiard-room," he said. "It's as well these people shouldn't see me."
Tremullion led his visitors into the dining-room.
"Is there anything I can do for you?" Tremullion asked at length.
"Well, there is," Falcon said, coming with a rush to the point. "It's my eyes. In ordinary circumstances I could lie up for a day or two, but not now. Something has happened that requires all my power and energy—"
"Ah! the 'push' have found you out and you want your eyes! Is not that so?"
"Wonderful man," Falcon sneered. "That's right. I came to see D'Alroy. You told me he was here."
"I did; but you did not believe me. But that is not the point. D'Alroy has been here; he needed refreshment. If I did my duty I should hand you over to the police. But that would interfere with my plans and, besides, the time is not ripe yet. Still, you have made the rod for your own back, and it will fall sooner or later."
"D'Alroy," Falcon said impatiently. "Where is he? Nobody else can do me the good he can."
"Do you suppose that after all that has happened D'Alroy is going to help you? He has gone to see another patient."
Falcon swore aloud.
"There is no help for it," Tremullion said. "I'll speak to D'Alroy when he comes back. But if he does anything for you, he has a more forgiving spirit than I possess. Good night."
Tremullion showed his visitors out and went into the billiard-room, where Lebandi Westcott was practising cannons.
"It seems to me that is going to be an expensive pinch of snuff to our friend," he said. "It's almost a pity the injury is not permanent; it would keep Falcon out of further mischief. As a matter of fact, there is a split in the 'push' and Falcon will have to go. When they come to figures he will have a bad time. I wouldn't give six months' purchase for his life."
"When the proper season comes I will clear out that poisonous lot," Tremullion cried. "If I had stayed in Australia very little of the 'push' would be nourishing to-day. After this week I shall see my way to act. Let us have a game at billiards—it is no use thinking of going to bed till Masters and D'Alroy return. Spot or plain?"
Meanwhile, in his lodgings, where he still waited with more or less patience for D'Alroy, Jackman sat over the fireplace, brooding. In the inner room Falmer lay, refreshed and better for a good night's rest. He had made wonderful progress, considering everything. The nurse was taking a nap, which she had well earned, in an armchair opposite to that occupied by Jackman. She had asked to be called up if needed, but there was no likelihood of that. So far as Falmer was concerned, little was required but rest. There had been a certain loss of blood, but his vigorous constitution was pulling him round fast. The sooner he was gone the better, Jackman told himself moodily.
Still he sat up and listened as he heard a whisper from the inner room.
"Sit down close by the bed and let us talk," Falmer said in a low tone. "I have been awake for some time, and I am just longing to remember things. Did I kill him?"
"You're off your head," was Jackman's sympathetic response. "What's the good of talking nonsense? It was a great deal more like the other way about."
"He plugged me with his revolver," Falmer half explained. "I didn't fancy he had so much pluck. He was writing a letter when I went in, and his pocket-book was by his side. The little beast was going to bolt. I saw that by looking over his shoulder. Then he swore that he hadn't a penny in the world when I asked him for the two hundred pounds he promised—the rat! But that wasn't good enough for Gordon Falmer, so I grabbed the pocket-book. There were some thousands in notes. I might have known the beggar meant mischief, because he was so quiet. Some of them chaps are dangerous if you drive them into a corner. Then he plugged me. I didn't notice it at first, so I gagged and bound him and flung him in his room. When I got outside I felt like death. That is why I came in a taxi. It was a near thing, but I got here in safety."
"You are talking about young Greening?" Jackman asked.
"Of course I am. Give me my clothes. I'm not getting up, you fool; I only want to see that the money I risked so much for is safe. Off the foot of the bed! The moment I am fit I shall cross the Channel."
Falmer searched eagerly for the pocket-book which meant so much to him, and which he had risked so much to get, but his search was in vain.
"Curse you!" he whispered, "you have robbed me. If you have done this thing, if you have—"
"Oh, chuck it," Jackman muttered. "If you don't hold yourself in you'll burst something or other. I haven't seen your precious pocket-book."
"Has anybody been here?" he asked.
"No; oh yes, I had forgotten. A young lady came to see if D'Alroy was here. She said that D'Alroy had disappeared and that her friends were most anxious about him."
"That is the work of the 'push,' Jackman. What was she like?"
"As if I could tell you, seeing that I am blind! She spoke like a lady. I expect she was some poor patient of D'Alroy's. She had a pleasant voice that reminded me of one that I had heard before. It seems to be mixed up with my accident in some way."
"Was it Miss Sherlock, the violinist?" Falmer asked with sudden inspiration.
"Upon my word, I believe it was. When you collapsed I asked her to help me, as I was so useless. She seemed frightened and wanted to go away. But she couldn't refuse, you see."
"And she helped me as I lay on the floor, eh?"
"She helped you till the doctor came. I can't say any more than that."
"Then it's long odds she walked off with the pocket-book with the money in it. She was in my dressing-room on the night I was supposed to have died, for Bond told me so. I thought nothing of that at the time, as she might have entered by mistake. Bond had come into the house by the big window to see that I did not return from the grave too soon. Curse him, if I had only known that he was going—"
"To keep all Masters' money and defy you," Jackman grinned.
"That's exactly what he has done. I should like to know why she walked off with that pocket-book. It is a queer coincidence."
"Was she after those papers, too?" Jackman suggested. "I dare say Masters told her about them. Did she manage to get those papers, eh?"
Falmer sat ruminating. He was turning over everything in his mind. Could it be possible that—? He started up in bed.
"Look here," he said hoarsely. "You were in my dressing-room that night. Did you leave your overcoat there?"
"I did for a short time," Jackman answered. "Why do you ask?"
"It's as plain as possible," Falmer whispered. "The girl got those papers. What cursed luck not to have thought of it before!"
THE two men sat silent for a few minutes. The more Falmer thought of the matter the more sure was he that his deductions were correct. If Jackman had possessed his sight, assurance would have been doubly sure. For he had not concealed from his employer the fact that at one time he had been in the employ of Captain Landon, Netta's father. He would have recognized Netta at once; indeed it was in trying to recognize Netta that he had lost his sight.
"I dare say you are correct," he said moodily. "Personally, I give it up. We are done for, and you are done for, and you'll never live to enjoy a penny of your ill-gotten gains. I knew all about the way you fooled old Willis and got possession of everything belonging to Mr. Masters. I found out part, and Lucille Ganton discovered the rest. Oh, you can't keep much from a clever spy like me. We were going to wait till the 'push' got hold of you, and then divide the money. When the famous lady violinist came to Loudwater Priory it was Lucille Ganton who spotted her. But Lucille was not certain, and I was to confirm her suspicions. Then came my accident. I tell you I wasn't very keen on anything after that—it seemed as if there was a Providence, after all. Miss Landon, or Sherlock, as she called herself, came to Loudwater to get those papers—she was sent by Masters. As far as I can judge she got them and probably has them now."
"No, she hasn't, you fool," Falmer whispered. "If she had Bond would have been made to shell out double quick. But I forgot that you don't know anything about that. When I made up my mind to disappear gracefully from the troublesome world, I had to place my affairs in the hands of somebody. Like the idiot I was, I chose Bond, a suspended solicitor, who was painfully hard up. I was going to pay him well, so I let him into the secret. But I might have spared my tongue, for he had been one of the 'push' for a long time. When he got the affair pretty straight he simply defied me, said I was dead and dared not come to life again, curse him."
"That was very smart," Jackman grinned. It was a piece of rascality after his own heart. "And to clinch matters, Bond did put the 'push' on you?"
"He did. But for a bit of sheer bad luck I should have beaten him, after all. And now that girl comes along and robs me of the money that would have set me on my feet. It's very hard. Isn't that some one speaking?"
But the nurse was sleeping peacefully in her chair. It was not she who moved, but D'Alroy, who had just come in. He called softly to Jackman, who passed into the sitting-room. He said nothing about his recent adventures and the reason why he was detained.
"I should like a better light," he said. "Let us go into the bedroom, as usual."
Jackman demurred. He did not wish D'Alroy to see Falmer. But his eyes were more to him than aught else in the world. Falmer smiled as D'Alroy came into the room, followed by Jackman.
"So you are here," the Frenchman said calmly. "Always in trouble and danger. Your precious friends seem to have brought you to a fine pass. Come close to the window."
For a time D'Alroy busied himself with Jackman's eyes. He appeared to have forgotten all else. "Everything is going on very well," he said. "There is a marked improvement in the optic nerve. In a few days you will be able to see a little, but you must be careful. I'll come again to-morrow. Your danger is not so great as is that of the man in the bed there."
"You're right," Falmer said. "Just a moment, Henri. I must have a word with you. Jackman, go into the next room, and don't forget to close the door behind you."
Jackman shuffled off, muttering. At any rate he could listen. Still the nurse slumbered soundly in the chair, after the fashion of the over-tired. Long practice had enabled her to get rest in any circumstances. Jack-man crouched by the door.
"I want only a few words with you," Falmer said. "You have a young lady patient who plays the violin. I wish to know her name."
"There is no harm in telling that," D'Alroy replied, "though it is a case of heaven help those in whom you take an interest. The girl is called Miss Landon. She plays wonderfully."
"Well, I should say she did. To think that some day she will be famous. What is wrong with her eyes?"
"Not much; in fact, she is more nervous than anything else."
"I know," Falmer grinned. "The kind of patient a fashionable doctor likes. But Miss Landon is not in the least nervous about her eyes. She came to you professing to be poor, because you attended Jackman. Why, man, the girl you call Miss Landon is Netta Sherlock!"
"Is that really so?" D'Alroy cried. "I might have known that she was something out of the common. But what could a young lady like her want with—''
"With Jackman? Seems strange, doesn't it? She came here yesterday and took a pocket-book containing a large sum of money."
"Which money you stole from somebody else," D'Alroy said calmly.
"No, I didn't; it was for services rendered. Miss Sherlock deliberately stole it so that I should not leave the country. You must see her and get the pocket-book back. I don't care how you get it. If you fail I shall take the child out of your custody."
"Spoken like the scoundrel you are," said D'Alroy, rubbing his hands together. "How many times have you robbed me and embittered my life by that threat. But it is too late, Miss Sherlock has friends so powerful that I cannot interfere. Mr. Tremullion is one."
Falmer uttered a deep, bitter oath. His hands clicked together impatiently.
"So he is behind this," he muttered. "I might have guessed that from the first. Who's this?"
The door opened, and a man with a peaked beard walked in. At the sight of Bond, Falmer half sat up in bed, and then collapsed again. The former was smiling and at his ease, as he bowed genially to D'Alroy.
"I come at an inopportune time," he said. "Permit me to withdraw. I can return presently. My conversation with our good friend Falmer will keep."
Falmer laid a detaining hand on D'Alroy's arm as the other turned to go. His face was white and set, and the pupils of his eyes had expanded. If rage could kill, Bond would have been dead at the foot of the bed.
"This is the man who is the curse of my life," he said, between his teeth. "Sooner or later he will have his way, and I shall die. If he can't do it by fair means, he will by foul."
"Come, come," Bond smiled. "I only want you to sign a few papers that I have with me. The business is on the verge of completion at last. After that, I will help you to go where you like."
"That is a lie," Falmer said, in the same low, grating voice. "You will never let me go, you don't want me to go. Why? Because you are afraid of me. What is the use of all that money so long as the shadow of a vengeance like mine is waiting at your elbow. If I recover from this attack, then the 'push' will see me to my grave. I'm going to make a confession."
"Be silent, you headstrong fool!" Bond cried. "Be silent."
"Why should I be silent? Why should I care? Your ill-gotten money will never benefit me. But I will take care that it never benefits you. Henri D'Alroy, I robbed Reginald Masters of all his money, and this rascal has it under his care at the present moment."
"The man is mad," Bond said, uneasily. "Anyone can see that he is mad."
"He is perfectly sane," D'Alroy observed, in a curiously even voice. "For once in his life he is telling the truth. I doubt not it is an unusual experience, but there it is. Go on."
"Oh, I am going on," came the rasping voice from the bed. "Old Willis and I were friends, and when he got rid of his partner, Bond there, I helped to manage the old lawyer's affairs. He had Masters' securities in his charge, and I stole them. Willis was one of the secretive type of lawyers, who kept no clerks. The night he died I took possession of everything, and destroyed the papers I did not need. Then I was in possession of Masters' fortune. It was a double satisfaction to me, because I always hated that fellow. He told me once I was a scoundrel, and I said I should pay him out. By heavens, I did that. If you only knew!"
"I know everything, and Mr. Tremullion knows everything about the night of the party," said D'Alroy. "Miss Sherlock forced the confession from Jackman."
"Upon my word, I am astonished at the audacity of some people," Falmer said bitterly. "But from the first I knew it was all up when I found that Tremullion had a hand in the game. Anyhow, I have spoilt your sport, you smiling, brown-faced devil! Without certain papers—"
"And a certain overcoat," Bond snapped.
Both men paused suddenly, feeling they had each said too much. They eyed each other defiantly.
"Get that man out of the room," Falmer said faintly. "I have been talking too fast. If you would not mind waking up the nurse in the next room I shall be obliged to you. Good-bye, Bond; you are better off than I am, after all."
With a snarling sneer Bond turned and left the room.
"So that little girl did get the papers," he muttered, "and my solution of the reason why she had become so suddenly fond of the society of Jackman turns out to be correct. Well, we shall see."
Meanwhile D'Alroy had made preparations for leaving the house. At the corner of the street Reggie was waiting. Several men were lurking about, and one of them pulled up in blank astonishment as he stood before the Frenchman. D'Alroy could see the dice with the crimson pips exposed as he raised his arm.
"Yes, I am here," the Frenchman said calmly. "I am here, and you cannot understand it. Your master has met with an accident to his eyes, and I go to relieve him. But if one of you enters the house where Falcon lies ill, not one hand do I raise to help the man you call your chief. Do not say I have not warned you."
THE man stood before D'Alroy with vague astonishment. The Frenchman ought to have been safely bound and in the house of the chief of the "push." Yet he was here talking as calmly as if nothing had happened. For once D'Alroy saw his advantage and took it.
"Ah! my friend," he said, "I know more than you imagine—more than you know yourself. There is going to be trouble in the "push"; one of you—Morgan by name—aims to take Falcon's place. Whether or not he succeeds is a matter of no importance to me. But for the intervention of friends, I should have been your victim by this time. I need not remind you of the accident to Falcon."
"Somebody half-blinded him," the man growled. "It was a misfortune, especially now."
"Especially now, as you say. You are on the side of Falcon. Without his eyes he is useless, and he wants the man he has injured so much to give him back his sight."
"He came near to doing for his own doctor," the man said significantly.
"That is so. You were all prepared to murder me. When they lured me into that house I knew my time had come. But it made little difference; my secret was my own again, and at the risk of my life I determined to keep it. I am beyond your power now, because I have powerful friends who will protect me. Every one of you has been photographed, and can be identified. You cannot get rid of the tell-tale brand of the dice. If anything happens to me you will be hunted down and hanged as you deserve. Do you understand that?"
The man shifted uneasily. D'Alroy continued to speak in firm and fearless tones.
"Now let me give you a word of warning," he said. "You never seem to tire of your murderer's work. Need I remind you why so many of you are here to-night? You are after Falmer. The man is so ill that the slightest violence would mean his death. It would then appear that he had died by accident. Of course you all know that. Go at once to Falcon and tell him that unless that order is withdrawn, not a finger do I lay on his eyes; then I will do what I can for him, but not till then."
The man nodded and walked slowly down the street. One or two others joined him; there was a rapid and animated conversation, and presently the whole group of conspirators faded away. Reggie, in his taxi, was anxious for D'Alroy, and glad to see him again.
"So you have come out of that all right," he said.
"I have come out of it better than I expected," D'Alroy said with a thrill in his voice. "The light is beginning to pierce the clouds. I have heard much to interest you."
Reggie was fain to admit that he had. The taxi had driven to Tremullion's house in Berkeley Street before the recital was finished. A few hurried words passed, and then Tremullion hastily crossed over to Falcon's house. The latter had gone home to await events and welcomed Tremullion eagerly. There was no time to say much, for there was a rattle of latch-keys, and a small excited group of the "push" poured into the room. They did not notice Tremullion for the moment.
"We have seen D'Alroy," the leader said; "D'Alroy who, we thought, was safe and sound in the wine cellar here. He was coming out of Falmer's house, and dared to threaten me, saying that if we were not recalled he would not lay a finger on your eyes."
"Monsieur D'Alroy probably wanted to save you from being hanged," Tremullion said. "It was a foolish waste of sympathy, for that result is inevitable. But if one of you touches D'Alroy—"
An astonished silence followed. Who was this man, that he presumed to talk like this?
Falcon struck in. "It is all right," he said. "For the present Falmer is free from our attentions. We have more pressing things to occupy us. The gentleman is quite right."
"But who is this gentleman who interferes with us?" a voice asked.
"Let me tell you," Tremullion said in his silkiest manner. "My name is George Tremullion. It used to be a terror to evil-doers in Australia in the old days. Now, I know every one of you by name; I have the description and the past record of the lot; I even possess photographs. In a few days you must all leave these shores, unless you prefer the seclusion of an English gaol for an indefinite period. You must do as your leader tells you. Let every hound go back to his kennel at once."
The terse, stern tones were not without their effect. More than one man knew Tremullion by sight, and all knew him by reputation. Falcon signed them to go.
"There is nothing more to be done till you hear from me," he said.
Not until the house was cleared did Tremullion fetch D'Alroy. Under his skilful hands the pain in Falcon's eyes abated. There was nothing wrong with the sight; after a short rest his eyes would be as well as ever.
"I'll come and see you in the morning," D'Alroy said. "Meanwhile, you must go to bed. I will restore your sight intact, but by doing so I shall commit a crime against humanity."
Lebandi Westcott had long since returned to his lodgings, with a promise to come back next morning, and D'Alroy slept at Tremullion's. But he was not permitted to retire to rest before he had recited the whole of his recent conversation with Falmer. The first faint streaks of dawn were shining now, and Tremullion showed no disposition for repose. Reggie was too excited even to think of bed. Like his host, he lighted a cigarette.
"Sit down and talk things over," Tremullion said. "When it grows lighter we shall take a walk. Have some whisky and soda, and fill me a modest dose. In the first place, my dear Reggie, we may assume that you are free. Jackman's confession to Netta proves that. In a few days your name will be cleared. We shall prove to old Mr. Greening how you have been victimized. Young Greening shall be made to confess the part he played in the conspiracy. According to Falmer's confession to D'Alroy, you have been robbed of your fortune and the issue is in Bond's hands. But fortunately Bond cannot realize the securities, because certain papers are missing. These papers are lying at a pawnshop near the docks in the pocket of an overcoat belonging to Jackman."
"You really think they are there?" Reggie asked.
"I do, indeed. We know that Netta placed them in the coat pocket. Still, where we have the pull on Bond is this—we know the pawnbroker's address and he doesn't."
"But how did you find out the address?" Reggie cried.
"That I confess was a bit of luck," said Tremullion. "I ran against Falmer, as I told you, by the docks after he had pawned Jackman's overcoat and his dress clothes, and changed them for the serge. Falmer had torn up the pawn-tickets and I felt very sick about it. For the life of me, I didn't see how I was to recover the address."
"For the life of me I can't see now," Reggie murmured.
"Well, that is where my luck came in—luck and the trained power of observation combined. When I found Greening half dead in his rooms I realized what had happened. There was a struggle, and in the struggle a button was torn off the trousers of the assailant. It was a common enamelled button, of the class used on cheap clothes, such as a ready-made serge suit. You see, I knew the assailant to be Falmer, so that I had guessed to whom that button had belonged. I was also aware that Falmer was wearing a shoddy suit. Then it flashed upon me that the suit must have come from the pawnshop by the docks."
"Splendid!" Reggie cried. "If you could only trace the owner of the button."
"That I have already done," Tremullion said. "Here is the button. The name is stamped on it. What is it?"
"It is 'Elias Valdar, tailor,' with no address," Reggie said.
"My dear boy, fortunately we don't want any address," Tremullion said. "Such a name is not likely to occur more than once in the Directory. If the man were a new-comer the police will help us; but we need not trouble them. The same luck that gave me the button gave me Valdar's address. When I followed Greening's servant and that shabby captain to the slopshop where they were going to procure an outfit, I found to my great satisfaction that it was the establishment of Mr. Valdar."
"And you noted the address?" Reggie asked.
"Well, yes," Tremullion said dryly. "We shall visit the shop as soon as it is safe to do so without arousing suspicion. Now I shall have a bath and a cup of coffee, which I make on my spirit-lamp, and you had better do the same."
An hour later the pair set out. They came at length to the street, and then, with a fast-beating heart, Reggie stood opposite to a big shop with the name of Elias Valdar in gilt letters over the top.
"That's it, sure enough," he said excitedly. "But why is not the place opened? All the others are. It can't be that the business has come to an untimely end."
"Place looks too fresh for that," Tremullion muttered. "Let's knock at the door and ask."
They knocked, but nobody came. A small boy just opening the establishment next door eyed the visitors cunningly. There was nobody at home at Valdar's, he said. It was some Jewish feast-day, and Mr. Valdar had gone with his family to Margate for the week-end. Tremullion played with a half-sovereign that gleamed in the morning light.
"Try to get me his address," he said, "and this is yours. I dare say your master knows. It is a matter of business that will not stand delay."
The small boy darted into the gloom of the shop. As he did so Tremullion grasped the arm of his companion and pulled him behind a case of goods. Reggie wondered what the action meant.
"Look across the road," Tremullion whispered, "and tell me whom you see."
On the other side of the street, notebook in hand, Bond was smiling at the gold lettering above Valdar's shop.
THE boy seemed to be a long time gone, but he reappeared presently with a slip of paper in his hand. His employer was not certain, he said, but he thought that this was the address mentioned casually by Valdar a few days ago. Tremullion slipped the greasy bit of paper in his pocket, and again forcibly drew. Reggie behind some packing cases. Almost before the latter realized it Bond, too, had come into the shop.
"What's become of the people next door?" he asked. "You look a smart lad. If you like to earn a shilling—"
Tremullion reached out his foot and touched the precocious shop lad. He seemed to understand, for he did not hesitate a moment.
"It's a Jewish feast-day," he said. "Shop closed till dusk to-night, proprietor gone for the day to Epping Forest. Took all his family and left early, he did."
Bond parted somewhat unwillingly with the proffered shilling and left the shop. The small boy grinned as he looked after the retreating figure. Tremullion supplemented his half-sovereign with another.
"I ought not to encourage an art so brilliant as yours," he smiled, "because we have too many novelists already, but you've earned that money. Come along, Reggie. I mustn't lose sight of Bond. He's shrewder than I imagined. Now, how on earth did he spot that particular shop? Let's follow him at a respectful distance and think out the best plan of campaign."
Bond lounged at length into a house of call; evidently he had not yet had breakfast.
"He's going to hang about here," Tremullion reasoned. "If not, he would have gone West for his breakfast, being a man who likes things properly done. Hullo, Longworth!"
The man addressed as Longworth raised his hand in a military salute. Plain-clothes policeman was written over him from head to foot. His manner was respectful; in Longworth's opinion Tremullion was a magnificent detective spoilt.
"Good morning, sir," he said. "Haven't seen you in these parts for a long time. Is it the Durness affair you are interested in, or that matter of the Polish refugees?"
"Neither," Tremullion replied "Where are you bound for in your Sunday togs?"
"Tilbury Docks," Longworth said crisply, "a very neat long-firm fraud. Fact is, a man in this street is interested, or rather implicated. He's gone off for a bit of a holiday, it being a Jewish feast-day. But I fancy a trip to Margate will help me to find him."
Longworth grinned and passed on. Tremullion's hitherto impassive face rippled with excitement.
"I ought to sacrifice daily at Fortune's shrine," he said. "When luck begins to go with you, it doesn't half do it. Longworth is after the same man. If he gets him first we shall have no end of trouble to prove our case. Have you any money?"
"Only a few shillings," Reggie said.
"Well, take these twenty pounds, and don't hesitate to spend them if necessary. As Longworth is going by boat, he can't reach Margate before two. So confident is he of bagging his bird he is going to make a holiday of it. You go down by the express, which will land you at Margate by eleven or so. Then you will have plenty of time. Meanwhile, I'll keep my eye on Bond. With reasonable dispatch those papers should be ours tonight."
Reggie desired nothing better. After all the lagging months, here was action at last. Every step he took now was towards goal. How glad Netta would be to know that her efforts were to be crowned with success! Indeed, Reggie saw nothing but success before him as he ate his breakfast and prepared for his journey. The same joyful feeling pervaded him as he drove to Victoria; he felt equally hopeful as Margate came in sight.
Reggie stood beside the memorial clock tower and surveyed the packed sands. To look for his man in that crowd would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. He would try to discover his lodgings first. Even when these were found, Reggie was not much better off. Mr. Valdar and his family were there for a day or two, but had gone on the front. The beach and the jetty were doubtless the attraction, for, opined the landlady, Valdar belonged to the class that revels in a crowd.
But out of twenty thousand people it is not easy to pick out a face that one doesn't even know.
"Perhaps I'd better wait till dinner-time," Reggie suggested.
"Not much use in doing that, sir," the perspiring landlady said. "They don't come in to dinner, you see—it is so far from the sands. They generally have something at one of the cookshops in the colonnade. But I dare say they'll be back about seven."
Saying he would perhaps call then, Reggie went away. He must make his coup long before that, for Longworth probably knew his man by sight; he would give a pretty accurate description of him, and the police would help him. Reggie began to see that if luck helped him now he would have to meet it. It was one o'clock before he had examined the esplanade and started on the sands, but he had achieved nothing in two hours.
There were Jews in large numbers, respectable family men with their offspring. In a fit of desperation Reggie inquired of one whether he knew a person named Valdar. The man knew several Valdars, quite a colony of them in fact. But he had no knowledge of a general outfitter who had a business near the docks. Reggie asked the question again and again with no better luck. He walked along the whole front until he came again to the spot where he had accosted the first Jew. With a half-recognition he nodded and would have passed on, but the other hailed him. A ray of hope sprang up in Reggie's breast.
"I've got to hear about the man you want," the good-natured Semite said. "It's Elias Valdar. If you had told me that before it would have helped, mister. He's just come in from bathing. By the long row of machines yonder, billycock white hat with a towel round it and a brown holland coat. Has a little black beard and a red tie. Hope it's good business you're after."
"Exceedingly good business," Reggie smiled. "I thank you very much. Good-day."
There was his man sure enough, a small fat man dressed as the friendly Jew had described him. Though he looked cool and audacious, a restless eye told a story. Reggie walked up to him unconcernedly.
"Good afternoon," he said. "Can I have a word with you in private?"
The other folded his paper and breathed hard. There was a pallid hue under his clear olive skin. He looked about him anxiously.
"I don't know who you are," he said in a foreign voice. "What's wrong?"
"Well, we won't put it in that way," Reggie smiled. "Nor does it matter who I am. I called at your place of business to-day and found it closed. A neighbour gave me your address."
"Good heavens!" the discomfited Valdar cried. "What a fool I was! Bless me, what am I talking about! You were going to say, sir?"
"I was going to say that I have come from London to see you on business. You are a pawnbroker?"
"In a small way, but it doesn't pay. If you've got anything in the nature of jewellery to—"
"My dear sir, it's the other way about," Reggie interrupted. "I don't want to pledge, I want to redeem. A servant of mine, a rascal who is no longer in my employ, took away a coat that I valued. After a great deal of trouble I found he had pledged the coat with you. It is a lined coat of blue cloth."
"Doesn't convey much," said the other, who seemed at his ease now. Reggie turned aside whistling in a careless fashion. He must not appear too anxious. As his gaze wandered over the sands he saw Longworth strolling about in an aimless manner.
"Look there," Reggie whispered, "and then look down again. That is Inspector Longworth, of the London police. He has a warrant for your arrest on a charge of being concerned with a gang of long-firm swindlers. I know he is after you, because I heard him say so. I have only to hold up my hand and you are done for. But I'll not do that; and I'll help you if you'll help me. Now, let us try to make a deal. Give me the keys of your shop and tell me where to deliver them after I have finished. I must get that coat to-day, you understand. What do you say?"
Valdar's teeth were chattering, but he did as Reggie asked. The key was handed over, with a suggestion that Reggie could swallow it if he liked.
"No use to me any longer," Valdar said, big beads gathering on his forehead. "I can never go back. I've got some money. Here's two pounds. Get me a wig and a pair of blue spectacles. I'll wait till you return."
It was very wrong, but Reggie had given his promise. He was longer away than he had expected, and when he came back Valdar was not to be seen. A thin crowd was melting away near the station, a crowd with policemen in it. The friendly Jew spoke as Reggie passed.
"Too late, eh!" he said with a wink. "They've got your friend and taken him to the station. It's hard lines to be run in on a day like this, isn't it?"
Reggie agreed and passed on. There was still a fair crowd in the station, but they dispersed as Longworth got his prisoner into a waiting-room and shut the door. Reggie asked a porter what was the trouble. The man grinned.
"Done something wrong, sir," he said. "Bless your soul! we see lots of that kind of thing in holiday times. The inspector will take him back to town by the 4.15."
Reggie rushed to the stationmaster. He had hoped to go back by the 4.15, but he saw now that he must have a good start. He strode into the office with an air of authority.
"I want a special to Victoria," he said, "as soon as possible. I suppose it's a matter of twenty pounds, but 'I must have it."
WITH the infinite patience that characterized all his movements, Tremullion set himself the task of shadowing Bond. He had had nothing but a cup of coffee and a biscuit since dinner the previous night, but he did not mind that. He must not spoil sport when he had everything in his own hands. He waited doggedly, smoking cigarettes till Bond emerged from the restaurant A little man in a grey suit came along the street, and Bond stopped to speak to him. Tremullion smiled.
"A private inquiry agent," he said to himself. "Bond leaves nothing to chance. I wish they'd have a drink together and give me a chance to get some breakfast. Ah, that's better!"
Tremullion sighed with satisfaction as the two turned into a public-house. Tremullion dived into a café opposite. The coffee was bad, the eggs dubious, and the bacon of American origin, but Tremullion had had many worse meals than that, and he ate with the resignation of a philosopher. It was long past luncheon-time before Bond and his agent parted in Piccadilly. Then Tremullion walked up to Bond and accosted him.
"I've been looking for you," he said coolly; "you are the very man I want to see. It is about the matter of Falmer and your late partner, Willis, and yourself."
"What have I to do with that?" Bond asked uneasily.
"Well, I shall answer that conundrum fully presently," Tremullion replied. "When your partner died all his papers and securities had vanished. I know now where they went, because Falmer has made a confession. Most of the warrants and other documents were handed to you before Falmer made up his mind to die, but there are certain other papers that you can't do without, and these Falmer lost. They disappeared finally in mystery and an overcoat pocket. If I could only find them, and tell my story and Falmer's before a magistrate, what would happen?"
"If you could only find them?" Bond sneered.
"Oh, I know there is rivalry between us on that score," Tremullion said without anger. "But I mean to beat you. If you like to come to terms you can. If not, the police must settle it. I have no time to waste now, but I shall be glad to see you at my house at five o'clock to-day. On the whole, when you give the matter due consideration, you will see the advisability of coming. Don't waste more of your valuable time looking for the overcoat. It will be futile, I assure you."
Tremullion passed on, leaving Bond in a state of uneasiness and doubt. The former was not the man to make idle boasts—nobody knew that better than Bond.
He wished he had not met the man, that he had gone his own way. The sense of insecurity had unhinged him. He would see Falmer and ascertain what the latter had said. But here Bond was doomed to disappointment. Falmer was better, Jackman told him, but the nurse was in the bedroom and the doctor had given peremptory orders that the patient was to see nobody.
"Not that he'd see you in any case," Jackman growled. "Take my tip and hook it. We had a scene not long ago, and goodness knows what Falmer let out. D'Alroy heard everything, and he's as thick as he can be with that devil Tremullion. You can do nothing. They've got the net spread all round, and you'll find yourself in it before you know where you are."
With that Jackman banged the door in Bond's face, and left him to his own reflections. They were by no means pleasant, and Bond had ample food for thought at he walked away. Rack his brains as he might, he could see no way out of the maze. Finally he decided to call on Tremullion a little after five o'clock and was shown into the library. Tremullion was not there, but evidently the visitor had been expected, for the footman hardly troubled to ask his name. As the door closed behind the servant, Netta rose and came forward.
Bond greeted her with effusion. He thought he could manage a woman, even if she knew a great deal of what had taken place lately. Netta had been practising, for her violin was on the table and a bundle of music beside it.
"I am afraid I have come too late," Bond said.
"On the contrary, you are just in time," Netta replied. She was cool and collected. "Mr. Tremullion will not be long. You recognize this piece?"
Bond started as Netta held up the MS. It was the weird melody that had so startled him the first time he had heard it at Loudwater Priory.
"There is a history attached to that music," Netta said. "It was given to me by a young Italian genius when I was a child. I did not know then that the composer had been to Australia, and that at an early age his father had attached him to the 'push' of the '36.' He composed the music for your ceremonies, and that piece became your anthem."
"What do you mean?" Bond asked uneasily.
"Well, you won't deny that you are one of them?" Netta demanded. "The young musician left Australia to avoid the tyranny of the 'push,' and die of a broken blood-vessel. I wondered why you and Mr. Falmer were so agitated at the music, and it was only lately that I learnt the truth. The composer made me promise never to say where I got it, but there is no reason why I should conceal the facts from you. Mrs. Falcon gave me some more music by the same composer; that music, I suppose, had nothing to do with the 'push.' So there is a very simple explanation of an apparently strange matter. Your' push' has not done much good for you here."
"Why do you identify me with it?" Bond asked. Somehow the interview was not taking the form he had hoped, and, indeed, confidently expected. "If I have to deny—"
"Denial would be useless," Netta said coldly. "The thing has been proved to me beyond a demonstration, You got all you could out of Falmer and then helped him to 'die.' I saw you in the house that night. I saw you come in and go out by the window. That discovery was valuable to me and to my friends, and they made the best of it. And if you were not a member of the 'push,' how was it you put that infamous society on to Falmer after his supposed death?"
"It is useless to say more," Netta went on. "You had the securities and papers. That is why he was betrayed to the 'push,' and that is why in revenge he had told us what we know."
"All of which, of course, is capable of absolute proof," Bond sneered. "Just think what a credible story! Falmer dies and comes to life again. Who would believe that?"
"Why, that is a fact. We have Falmer in the flesh to prove it."
"Well, there is something in that," Bond admitted, less blatantly. "But as to the rest, Falmer worms himself into the confidence of my partner and steals everything. Well and good. But when he says he has handed it all over to me, who would believe him? It's simply ridiculous! If Masters can only tell us where certain securities were lodged, if he can prove by documentary evidence that—"
"He can," Netta cried. "Falmer did not trust you so completely as that. You have secreted certain funds in a bank, but, unfortunately, you can't take these funds out without transfers. Falmer kept those transfers in a pocket-book—"
"Which you stole and hid in the pocket of Jackman's overcoat," Bond said.
"Certainly I did. And when that coat is found you will be checkmated. We shall recover everything that was lost, and you will have had your trouble for your pains. It seems to me—"
Netta paused as the door opened and a footman entered with a telegram on a salver. Netta tore it open, and a radiant smile came over her face.
"There is no need to go into that now," the girl said with shining eyes. Bond wished he had dragged the telegram from the girl's hands and read the message for himself.
"At any rate, there will be an end of your 'push' so far as London is concerned," Netta said. "Mr. Tremullion has seen to that. They have had to go, root and branch. They had their warning last night, and were wise enough to decline an encounter with the police. Look for yourself."
Netta pointed to the other side of the road, a little way down. Some servants were piling luggage on a cab, and in a taxi sat Falcon and his wife.
"They are going to Paris," Netta said. "The financier has business there that requires his immediate attention. In a few days there will be rumours, the rumours will become facts, and half the West End tradesmen will learn that they have once more been swindled by brazen impudence and audacity. After these people leave our shores they will never return. The terrors of the 'push' are over. Your reign is ended also."
As Netta concluded the door opened and Tremullion walked in. He looked on the best of terms with himself.
"I purposely delayed my return till late," he said. "I wanted you to have a chat with Miss Sherlock. Bid you get my telegram, Netta?"
"I did," Netta said. "The news seemed too good to be true."
"But it is quite true," Tremullion said. "Bond, I will give you one chance, little as you deserve it. I want to know the name of the bank where the securities lie that you stole from Falmer and Falmer stole from Willis."
"You think I carry such things in my overcoat pocket?" Bond sneered.
"These things are no longer in anybody's overcoat pocket," Tremullion said quietly. "The hiding-place has been found and the value of the coat has gone down considerably. The papers you so greatly need are in my possession. And if seeing is believing, there they are."
Despite the sneer on Bond's face he was ill at ease. He knew enough of Tremullion to be aware that the latter made no boasts, and in this case he was palpably speaking the truth. It was a bitter disappointment, but Bond restrained his wrath.
"That's impossible," he said. "May I see the papers?"
"A denial and an admission in the same breath," said Tremullion with a smile. "Certainly you may see the papers, though I don't admit your right to do so. Here they are, everything in order. I may tell you for your delectation that this brave young lady found them. She was disturbed at the moment, and hid them in the pocket of the overcoat, forgetting that the coat belonged to Jackman. Before she could recover them Jackman came for his coat and went off with it. For days he had the precious documents in his possession, and remained in blissful ignorance of the fact. Then Falmer walked off with the coat, the unconscious bearer of documents that he was searching for high and low at the very time he wore it. What happened afterwards you already know. I compliment you on the way you have traced them, for you were very nearly successful this morning. I was disagreeably surprised to see you outside Elias Valdar's shop, but all's well that ends well. It has been easy to find the bank where Mr. Masters' securities are lodged, and it will be as easy to make our claim good when the manager sees these documents. On the whole, your rascality will not benefit you one penny."
"You are too clever for me," Bond said.
"Of course I am; I used you to play my game; it amused me to see how you worked to keep Falmer in England, which saved me a deal of trouble. It will amuse me still more when I hear you sentenced to a long term for fraud and conspiracy."
Bond started. For the first time he was uneasy and disturbed. Tremullion spoke in quiet tones, but there was no sign of any weakness about his face. Look which way he would, Bond could see no avenue of escape. He had benefited nothing by his crime, and was now practically penniless, with a grave charge hanging over his head.
"I think I had better go," he said. "There is nothing to be gained by staying here."
Nobody detained him, and he silently departed. He spent the next few hours most unpleasantly, but gradually a plan formed in his mind. One thing was certain—he could not remain in England any longer. If he could get some money! There was only one source open, and this he decided to take. He dressed for dinner and walked to Tremullion's. He intended to ask for Lady Langworthy on important business. Tremullion would be dressing and know nothing of the visit. Then Lady Langworthy must be threatened. If she had no money, he would take a diamond ornament or other jewellery. But Bond was saved the trouble of asking for Hilda Langworthy, for she was coming down the steps as he reached the house.
"I was going to see you," he said with a low bow. "Can you give me a few minutes?"
There was an eager look in the speaker's eyes, a hungry, threatening look that Lady Langworthy did not fail to notice. She signed the motor car to go and wait at the end of the street.
"Now, what do you want?" she asked. "I have not seen you since the night of that card party at Mr. Greening's—at least, not to talk to. What do you want with me? I am going to dine at the Café de la Terra But get on with your business."
"I'll be brief," Bond said. "I want money. I am in desperate need of a hundred pounds. I must leave England, never to return."
"That is a very pleasing piece of information," Lady Langworthy said.
"Oh, I can stand sarcasm," Bond snarled. "But I know too much for you to let me go too far. I know something that happened on that eventful night."
"I suppose you do, and on the strength of that you propose to blackmail me?
"Why put it in that disagreeable manner? Falmer is out of the way—he is doomed. All his enemies have fled, but nothing can save his life. He may last a year, but not longer. Then everybody is out of the way. The good name of Reginald Masters is cleared, so that you no longer have to reproach yourself with anything. I alone can speak, but I don't care to do so. Let me have money to go away, and I will never bother you again."
Lady Langworthy made no sign as she walked quietly along. Bond could judge nothing of her face, because it was muffled up in the fleecy wrap.
"Your proposal is very tempting," Hilda Langworthy said in even tones. "I am to give you money. But I have no ready cash."
"What does that matter? You have jewellery to spare. The diamond crescent in your hair, for instance."
"Or the family emeralds, perhaps. Once I begin that there will be no end to your rapacity. At regular, very regular, intervals you will send me threatening letters asking for money under fear of exposure to my husband. You guess that he knows nothing of the disgraceful incident to which you allude, and I confess that you are right. However—"
Hilda Langworthy paused, as if thinking over something.
"I am dining at the Café de la Terra, as I told you," she said, "and the matter will have to be thoroughly threshed out. Perhaps you will join me. What do you say?"
Bond was more than delighted. A lovely woman the cynosure of all eyes, and a dinner tête-à-tête—he had not bargained for such good luck. He had understood Lady Langworthy to say that she was dining in a private room. Bond handed his companion gravely into the car and stepped in after her. He did not understand why the little red room at the Café de la Terra had been laid for two, but he asked no questions. Possibly the second of the party had disappointed his hostess. Lady Langworthy called for telegram forms, one of which she filled and handed to the waiter.
Then she passed into an inner room and removed her wrap. She looked very lovely with the diamonds sparkling on her breast. There was a colour on her cheeks and a firmness in her eyes that Bond did not like. Lie liked it less still as the door opened and Sir John Langworthy came in.
"I got your telegram this morning," he said. "It was a pretty idea of yours to give this dinner before I started for Paris, Hilda. But what the deuce—"
Langworthy's manner changed as he saw Bond. Was this some trap? the latter wondered. But it could hardly be that, seeing that everything had been arranged before he presented himself. Hilda Langworthy crossed to the door, locked it, and placed the key in her pocket.
"I met Mr. Bond, and asked him to come here," Lady Langworthy said. "I suggested this little dinner, Jack, because I have a confession to make. A chance meeting—at least on my part—with Mr. Bond spurred me on. I have told the waiter not to serve dinner till half-past eight, so as to have plenty of time. If Mr. Bond will kindly sit down—"
"I'd rather not," Bond said hurriedly. "I had no idea that—if you will excuse me—really—"
"Jack, will you induce Mr. Bond to sit down?" Lady Langworthy said.
Langworthy's mind was beginning to grasp things. He stood over Bond, and the latter subsided in to a seat.
"Now, I am going to tell my story," Hilda said. "I could not tell it before, because it might have injured certain people in whom I am interested. I had hoped to tell it you alone to-night, Jack, but when I have finished you will see why I asked Mr. Bond to come. I am going back to the night of a certain card-party at the house of Mr. Greening. I know you do not approve of it, Jack, but if you look at me like that I shall never have the courage to proceed."
"I'm very sorry, dear," Langworthy said. "I'll not say another word."
Hilda Langworthy began her halting story, but took courage as she proceeded. She made no kind of comment and excused herself not at all. Finally the last word was uttered. For a while Sir John said nothing.
"I am sorry to hear this," he said at length, "more sorry than I can tell you. If you had only told me before—"
"I was afraid to," Lady Langworthy whispered. "You are so severe and stern about these things. It is not as if I didn't care for you, and, oh, if you knew how I have been punished!"
"We will speak of that presently," Sir John said. "So this gentleman knows the whole story, and he proposed to make a steady income out of it. I presume he was under the impression that you dared not tell me the truth. Well, sir, you see the truth has been told, so that you are not likely to be a pensioner of mine. Hilda, I am glad you brought this blackguard here to-night—very glad indeed."
There was a grim look on the speaker's face as he approached Bond. The latter jumped to his feet, and looked towards the door.
"I'll trouble you to let me go," he said. "I don't know why you should be glad that I accompanied Lady Langworthy here."
"Then I'll tell you why. I am going to give you the best thrashing you ever had in your life."
With a cry of alarm Bond rushed to the bell, but his antagonist was too much for him. "In the presence of a lady—" Bond gasped as he struggled in that powerful grip. "I am sure Lady Langworthy—"
"Is not going to interfere," Hilda said coolly. "I shall enjoy it immensely. Go on, Jack."
Sir John needed no further bidding. He dragged his victim over to where his cane lay on the top of his overcoat, and then rained blows upon him. In vain the miserable blackmailer writhed and struggled to be free, and pleaded for mercy. Not until his arm was tired and Bond's clothing was cut in strips did Langworthy desist. Then he politely helped the writhing victim on with his coat.
"Now, clear out, you hound, and never let me see you again," he said. "If you like to bring an action against me I shall be ready to meet you."
As Bond stumbled down the stairs, light mocking laughter followed him. But the laughter was perilously near to tears as Langworthy closed the door again.
"Can you forgive me, Jack?" Hilda whispered. "It was thoughtless of me, but I have suffered so. Do say that you will forgive me."
"If I loved you less I might be angry with you, darling," Sir John said. "But I am afraid that those we love can do things that others cannot. But you should have trusted me, Hilda."
He took the slender figure in his arms and kissed the trembling lips. For a long time no words were spoken between them, but a great weight seemed to have been lifted from Hilda Langworthy's breast.
"Don't go to Paris, Jack," she said. "Come back home with me. I want to enjoy our dear old home as I have never enjoyed it yet. If you like—"
The waiter came bustling in with dinner, evincing no surprise at the change of partner. It was a fairy repast, over which she forgot all her troubles. Dessert was on the table when the waiter came in, followed by a little, iron-grey man of severe aspect.
"I am Mr. Greening, at your service," he said. "Lady Langworthy sent me an urgent telegram, or I should never have entered a place like this. What can you have to say to me?"
GREENING took a chair in response to the invitation, but he was obviously out of place in this smart resort of fashion. Hilda Langworthy plunged into her story at once. She did not seek even to extenuate herself; her great idea was to clear the name of Reggie Masters. That she had done so was proved by the look of horror and disgust that gradually spread over Mr. Greening's features. He made no protest, asked no questions; long before the recital was finished it was clear that he was convinced.
"You need go no farther on that head," he said. "A more colossal instance of folly I never heard. I am glad and yet I am sorry. But of my sorrow I will say nothing. No wonder there are so many knaves in the world when the supply of victims is so great. I am an old man, with an only son, and to find that only son such a pitiful rascal—"
Mr. Greening paused, his face quivering.
"I always tried to believe that it was a mistake about Masters," he said, with a painful attempt to keep his voice steady. "But the evidence was so overwhelmingly strong against him. No business man would have accepted his story. To think that it was the doing of those scoundrels! But I will prosecute them all—Falmer and Jackman, and—well—and my own son. It is a duty I owe to society."
"You will surely never do that?" said Langworthy.
''My dear sir, I will do what I conceive to be my duty. On my return to London to-day I heard that my son had met with an accident. When I saw him he said that he had been robbed and ill-treated by some stranger who had found his way into the flat. Little did I think what it all meant. But to ask questions will only be to invite more lies. You hint it was a struggle between my unhappy son and Falmer for money."
"I think Mr. Tremullion will be able to prove that," Hilda said. "But please don't prosecute. Mr. Masters would not like it, and he is the injured party. You can send a statement to the Press that the mystery of the missing money has been cleared up, if you like, though I don't see that even that is necessary. I hope you won't be too hard on your son."
Greening's face grew grim again. The old man was terribly grieved and hurt at the discovery of his son's perfidy, but it was evident that nothing would deter him from doing what he considered to be his duty. He would go to his son's flat at once, he said.
"Let me come too," Hilda Langworthy pleaded, and Sir John nodded approvingly, "I was foolish and indiscreet, but I, too, have suffered, and I should like to come with you."
"So you shall," said Greening firmly. "You shall hear a full confession. If you have finished your dinner we will go at once. There is no need for Sir John—"
"To be present at the meeting," Langworthy said. "Quite so. I will wait here till you have done. This is one of the most painful evenings that I have ever spent. You are a just and high-minded man, Mr. Greening, but try to make allowances for those who are not so rigid and self-denying as yourself."
Greening's lips tightened; he made no promise. He was silent till the flat was reached. Percy Greening looked up as his father entered, but buried his head with a groan as he caught sight of Hilda Langworthy. The mere action was a confession in itself. There was no need to inquire why Lady Langworthy was present. Coldly and sternly Greening bade his unhappy son to look him in the face.
"I have heard everything," he said. "I have heard how you have been robbing me and of the manner I have been deceived. I could have forgiven that, but to say nothing when the honour of an innocent man was at stake is a crime that in my eyes is atrocious. Words fail to express my feelings. Sit up, you miserable boy, and tell the truth. The whole truth, mind, as you hope for mercy."
It was a stammering confession, but it was complete at last. Mr. Greening said nothing when the shameful recital was finished. Without one word he led the way back to the dining-room, where Sir John was waiting, and rang for a taxi.
"I must see my son again, alone," he said. "You can but faintly imagine what this means to me. But I would rather lose faith in those near and dear to me than that one innocent man should suffer. What I am going to do I have not yet decided—that will be a matter for careful consideration. One thing before you go—where is Mr. Masters to be found?"
Hilda Langworthy gave the address, which Greening wrote down methodically in his pocket-book. With a bow and no effort to shake hands with his guests, Mr. Greening turned away and returned to the sick-room, closing the door behind him.
"I hope he will not be hard," Hilda said. "I feel so happy to-night that I forgive everybody. I have not been really happy since we were married, Jack."
"To think I never noticed it," Langworthy cried. "My dear girl, I used to fancy you did not care for me, but I never dreamt—"
"Jack, it was because I cared for you too much. I tried to school myself. I tried to think what you would do when you learnt the truth. I expected you would send me away."
"As if I ever could send you away, my darling! Why, I can't even be angry with you, When I think of what you must have suffered all this time I can think of nothing else. But, thank God! that has all passed and ended now. We'll go back to Loudwater and get Reggie and Netta to stay with us. Reggie will be a rich man, and won't have to worry about the City any more. How glad Tremullion will be to hear what you have to say."
Meanwhile, Reggie and Netta were alone in the drawing-room. They were entirely happy. The clouds that threatened to obscure their happiness had drifted away for ever. To-morrow everything would be cleared up, Mr. Greening would be informed what had happened, and the lost fortune would be restored. Making plans for the future was a delightful occupation.
"And what about the fiddle, sweetheart?" Reggie asked.
"Oh, I shall never give up my fiddle!" Netta cried. "I shall keep it up as I always have done. But I will put aside ambition like a flower that has lost its aroma. The platform has seen me for the last time. When fresher and sweeter ties come—"
Netta's voice sank into a whisper and her face flushed. Reggie understood and kissed her.
"I am so glad to hear that, darling," he said. "You shall show the world that you can be a great artist and a perfect wife. You'll not keep me long, Netta?"
"I am yours when you like, darling," Netta said. "I have always loved you, as you know. But I do wish to go away and have a quiet time first with you. I should like a holiday at Loudwater Priory."
They talked on in this happy strain until the butler intimated that a gentleman desired to see Miss Sherlock and Mr. Masters. The butler looked puzzled at Reggie's name, but supposed it was all right. Then out of the shadow Mr. Greening emerged. He looked old and bent, and there was a sad, pleading expression in his eyes. The hand he held out shook slightly.
"Never mind how I have found you out," he said. "But to-night I have heard the most shameful confession that a poor, unhappy father ever had the ill fortune to listen to. Lady Langworthy told, me first, and the story has been confirmed by my son. Forgive me!"
"Stop!" cried Netta as she saw that Reggie was about to speak. "You know that to err is human and to forgive divine. You have treated Reggie very badly, but he bears no malice. Still more shamefully has he been treated by your son. You must admit that."
"Human shamelessness could go no farther," Greening murmured.
"Very well. If your son came here to-night truly penitent, despite all that has happened, I am sure Reggie would shake hands with him and forgive the past."
"It would be too much to ask any man," Greening observed.
"It wouldn't," Reggie said sincerely. "I should not hesitate. I have had a very dark and unhappy time; it has left a mark on me that will always remain, but I should forgive any enemy in the circumstances Netta mentions. You shall see me do it."
"What did I tell you?" Netta cried eagerly. "Now you ask us to forgive you. Why should we, when your heart is so hard against your son?"
The unerring logic appealed to the old man. A great struggle was going on within him. Finally the good angel won, and he held out his hand.
"You disarm me," he said. "But after the noble way you have behaved, I withdraw my words. I cannot allow myself to be outdone in generosity, and I will forgive. Thank God there are people left to point the way by example rather than precept. God bless you both!"
Mr. Greening shook hands again and hurried from the room. Scarcely had he gone when D'Alroy entered. He came with the news that Falmer had disappeared utterly, leaving no trace. Perhaps some mysterious friend had helped him with money; anyhow, he was gone, never to return.
"I'm going to Loudwater to undertake some experiments for Sir John," D'Alroy concluded. "He has very kindly placed a cottage at my disposal. It will be a pleasant change for the child."
Later, after Tremullion's return, Hilda Langworthy invited Netta and Reggie to stay a few weeks at Loudwater Priory. Tremullion had rented a house close by, or said he had, and had taken Lebandi Westcott into his employ as a private secretary.
"Come and see the dear old place at its best," Hilda said. "Under proper conditions nobody could be unhappy at Loudwater, and now that the clouds have rolled away our lives should be perfect. Jack and I are going to spend a honeymoon there, and that is why we are turning our backs on the season. I am too gloriously happy to care for the shams of Society. Do come!"
"We shall come with pleasure," Netta smiled. "It's a strange thing, but I was just saying to Reggie that I should so like an invitation to Loudwater. I hope we shall some and live near you, dear Hilda, for we both love the country, and I am sure we shall be great friends."
"That I am certain of," Hilda said, in tones almost touched to tears. "But at one time you did not realize what friends we were destined to become."
Netta refused to discuss the question. She passed into the flower-decked balcony where Reggie was standing looking up the silent street. She touched him gently, and he placed his arm about her waist.
"Netta, darling, what makes you look so happy?"
"We are going to Loudwater to-morrow," Netta said. "But why we are so happy now is that I shall be there with my happiness and my sweet content, and you, my dearest boy."
A cloud passed from the face of the moon and left it pure and white as Reggie stooped and kissed the queen of his heart.
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