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Title: The Mistletoe Bough
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1601331.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: Dec 2016
Date most recently updated: Dec 2016

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------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: The Mistletoe Bough
Author: Fred M White



The Mistletoe Bough


By


Fred M. White.


Published in the Chronicle (Adelaide, SA : 1895 - 1954), Saturday 17
December 1921.



It was getting late on Christmas Eve, but there were several people
about still, and the West-End had not quite simmered down from its
Christmas shopping. Round a corner there came suddenly three happy
roysterers, arm-in-arm, with song on their lips.

It all happened like a flash. A sudden bump, a half-insolent apology,
cut short by a savage expostulation, then a challenge, and the magical
appearance of the inevitable policeman. When the little blue-eyed man
came up the clamour was at its height.

"'Ere, 'alf a mo," the officer was saying, "not all at once, if you
please. Who makes the charge? That's what I want to know. If an assault
was committed, say so, or pass away."

"Rot!" the voice of a young roysterer broke in, throatily. "It was
quite an accident. We may be a bit excited, but we ain't drunk. Just
toddling along arm-in-arm, don't you know. We bumped into 'em, and
Billy Masters started to apologise, and the big, clean-shaven chap told
us to go to hell. So----"

"Better all come along with me to the station," the officer suggested.
"You can fight it out there."

But obviously they did not want that. Nor were the foe keen. The man
with the irresolute eyes came tentatively forward. He spoke in a timid,
hesitating way. "Can I be of any assistance?" he asked. "There seems to
be a misunderstanding. Christmas Eve and all that; and these gentlemen
evidently strangers to London. Americans, if I make no mistake. Been
dining at the Athenian, where I have just come from. I think if you
will look at my card, officer----"

The officer saluted, evidently impressed by the polished slip of
pasteboard with the legend, "Lord Esme Pollington, Bachelors' club,"
neatly engraved upon it.

"Very good, my lord," he said. "If your lordship makes yourself
responsible I've got no more to say. 'Night, gentlemen."

The young roysterers were sorry now, and frankly said so. The man of
the law faded away into the night. Lord Esme Pollington found himself
in conversation with the two Americans, the more pleased as they
were both going the same way. They came at length to a big block of
flats leading off Cranbrook-street. The tall man said a word to his
companion, and the latter nodded.

"We would like you to come in for a spell if it is not too late," he
said. "Just a highball and a cigarette. Fact is, Lord Pollington, I
have heard of you from friends in 'Frisco. Didn't you meet a man called
Richard Pyle out there?"

"Well, not quite," Pollington said. "I was to have done so--at
Christmas time, too--but circumstances prevented me. And--er--I'm not
Lord Pollington, but Lord Esme, being a younger son, you know. As you
are so kind I will come in for a few minutes."

"Fine!" the first speaker said. "Come right in. Fact is we are fixing
up a sporting tour, and we have taken a flat here for a month or so,
preferring it to a hotel. Man gone abroad, so we got the flat, servants
and all, dirt cheap. Now, my name's Jefferson Varteg, and my friend is
James Leasowe; both men of independent means and both belonging to old
Virginian families."

Pollington found himself presently in a finely appointed flat on the
third floor, in the cosy dining-room of which stood a piano with some
song music in the stand. He looked around him uneasily.

"I had no idea that there were ladies here," he said. "Do you think
that they will be----"

The big man with the clean-shaven face and broad, aggressive nose
laughed, as did his companion.

"You can cut that out," he said; "no women here. Varteg is quite the
big noise in the vocal line. If he hadn't been born with a silver spoon
in his mouth he would have made a fortune by it."

Pollington took Varteg in with humble admiration. He saw a rather
slight man, with black hair and neatly trimmed beard and the eyes of
the artist.

"Oh, I warble a bit," he laughed. "But sit down. Let me mix you a
drink. Shove those cards out of the way, Jim. You're a bit of a hand at
the pasteboard, ain't you, Pollington?"

"Well, yes," Pollington admitted, with the air of a man who is having
a weakness dragged out of him. "I suppose you heard that from some of
your San Francisco friends. I'm not physically strong, and I haven't
the nerve for game hunting, and I hate society. So what is a fellow who
has more money than is good for him to do?"

"I flatter myself that either of us could give you a good game of
poker," Leasowe said. "If you would like to come round early some
evening after dinner----"

"It would have to be Boxing Day, then," Pollington replied. "I am going
to Paris the next day. Say 10 o'clock, if it suits; and perhaps Varteg
will let me hear him sing. If there is one thing I do care for beside
cards it is vocal music."

Pollington drank his highball, and departed as quickly and quietly as
he had come. Leasowe threw himself into a chair and proceeded to light
a cigar.

"Gee!" he laughed, "what a partridge to pluck! Between the two of us we
ought to have a nice little financial deal. Sort of fancies himself,
don't he?"

* * * * *

Inspector Minter, of Scotland Yard, sat in his private office nursing a
kind of grievance. It was Christmas night, and by rights he should have
been in the bosom of his family in Balham. But Minter was a policeman
first and a mere man afterwards, and he was waiting to see a brother
sleuth who had come all across the Atlantic to meet him.

The visitor came at length--a rather sleepy-looking individual, with
apologetic grey-blue eyes and a hesitating manner that wore off a
little as the interview proceeded.

"Well, Mr. Ellis," Minter asked, "any luck? Did you find those men of
mine any service to you yesterday?"

Sutton Ellis, head of the Southern Section of Pinkerton's famous
private enquiry agents, rubbed his hands softly.

"Excellent," he murmured, "excellent. Of course, I was taking a liberty
when I butted in here and asked your assistance. But, as I explained
to you in my letter, we've taken up the Martin Everard business that
the New York police turned down a month or so ago. Gave it up as a bad
job, in fact. So the heirs to the property came to us, and we have it
in hand. I have carte blanche to do as I like and follow any likely
clue from hell to Connecticut. Money no object, Mr. Minter. The late
Martin Everard's nephew will spend a million dollars, if necessary, to
bring his uncle's murderer to the chair. And so I have followed a sort
of clue to London."

"So I gathered from your letter," Minter said. "And you want me to do
all I can unofficially. My hands are rather tied by the fact that this
is not a matter for the international police, but what I can do out of
hours, so to speak, I will do. Would you mind telling me a little more
about the case?"

"Only too pleased. It's like this, sir. The late Martin Everard was
one of the most prominent and popular men in 'Frisco. He was immensely
rich, and very generous, and his kindness to young men really deserving
of a helping hand was proverbial. Artists and authors and such like,
I mean. He lived in a great house in Oakshott-avenue, which is in one
of the fashionable suburbs of 'Frisco, where he had a magnificent
collection of treasures of all kinds. He was practically alone in the
house, bar the servants, and was in the habit of entertaining all sorts
and conditions of people at all hours of the day and night--generally
after the servants had gone to bed."

"Um! Decidedly eccentric, Mr. Ellis."

"Only up to a point. I should say more of a Bohemian; a sort of
cultured Bohemian. He was a criminologist, too, and some of the most
noted crooks were his guests from time to time. He liked to hear them
talk and boast of their clever exploits. He was warned about that sort
of thing, but he only laughed--they would never do him any harm, he
said. On Christmas Eve, a year ago he was found by his servants in the
big library, dead, and, indeed, murdered, beyond the shadow of a doubt.
He had been stabbed in the back as he sat at his desk; and the safe
in the corner of the room was open and a lot of valuables missing. So
far as the servants knew their master had had no visitors on the night
before; but they had all retired early, as usual, and he might have
admitted someone after they were in bed, which had often happened."

"Any sort of clue?" Minter asked.

"Not the ghost of one. Many arrests were made, but all to no purpose,
and so, gradually, the case was relegated to the category of mysteries
that are never solved. When the American police were tired of it the
case was turned over to us, and came into my hands mainly because I had
my headquarters in 'Frisco, and was chief of the Pinkerton Force there.
With the big money behind the problem I was instructed to concentrate
on it, and I did. I looked up the records and read the evidence against
every jay the police had detained. But all to no purpose--except as
concerned one man. I don't suppose that you ever heard of him, but his
real name is Richard Pyle."

"What you would call a typical Hodoo, I suppose?"

"I guess not," Sutton Ellis smiled. "A polished man of the world, well
educated, with perfect manners, and capable of passing muster anywhere.
A wrong 'un to his fingertips, and the cleverest gambling crook in the
universe. He was known to be with Mr. Everard on the day before the
murder, and after being detained was asked to account for his movements
between 10 o'clock on the night of the crime and midnight. The medical
evidence proved that the murder was committed between those hours. Pyle
swore that at 10 o'clock, and on till almost dawn, he was gambling in
his rooms with some friends who had gathered by his invitation to meet
a certain Lord Esme Pollington, whom you may have heard of, Mr. Minter."

"Certainly," Minter said. "He is the second son of the Marquess of
Rotherfield, and a rich man in his own right. A neurotic, who roams all
over the world in search of excitement, and a born gambler; in fact, it
is an obsession with him. We have got him out of dangerous trouble many
times."

"That's the man, sir. No atom of physical courage, but one who would
play poker with the devil, if he had the chance, for his own soul. A
fine player too. Well, Pyle's friends rolled up and testified to the
truth of his story. It had been a great night and had lasted until
morning. But when Pollington was sought for to substantiate this
evidence he could not be found. He had sailed early the next morning
for some unknown destination and for a long time nothing was heard of
him."

"I remember that," Minter said. "The family was in no end of a stew and
they came to us to make enquiries. Nothing in the papers, of course,
but all done quietly. No scandal. Finally Pollington came back and it
transpired that he had been right into China, playing fan-tan and such
diabolical games with the natives."

"So I gathered," Ellis said thoughtfully; "in fact, he told me so a
day or two ago. The American police thought that he had been put away
by Pyle's gang, but as you people didn't squeal it was no funeral of
theirs, and so they left it at that. But Pyle's lot swore, separately
and under separate examination, that Pyle and Pollington were there
that night, and there was nothing for it but to let Pyle go. And there
the Everard case came to a practical end, so far as the American police
were concerned. And Pollington had never heard a single word about it."

"But you have seen Pollington, haven't you?" Minter asked. "At least,
so I judged by your letter. Do you mean to say that he wasn't present
on the night of the gambling party?"

"No," Sutton Ellis said, drily. "I mean to say that it was Pyle who
wasn't present. He phoned to the effect that he was detained at the
last moment and might be late. Pollington stayed till about midnight,
but left then, as he had to catch his boat early the next morning. He
told me all this on Thursday night."

"That's one to you, certainly," Minter said. "But it is only negative
evidence so far. How did you find Pollington out?"

"Well, I don't mind admitting to you that that was quite an accident.
As a matter of fact, I am not in England on the Everard business at
all. But it's never far from my mind. I happened to see Pollington's
name in the 'Morning Post,' and when I realised that he wasn't
dead, as I thought, I called upon him and partly explained. And he put
himself entirely in my hands."

"Um! Better be careful," Miner suggested. "He's a queer sort. He'd
wriggle and twist and tell any sort of lie to get out of the publicity
of a case like yours. You mean to say that he had not heard a word
about the Everard case?"

"So he said at first; but I could see that he was not telling the
truth. My idea is that he got some inkling of the facts and promptly
cleared out. Not that it matters much. But he realises that he is quite
in my hands and must do as he is told, unless he wants to stand in the
witness-box in 'Frisco. Late to-morrow night he will be motoring to
Dover to catch the morning boat to France. I've worked it all out."

"What precisely are you driving at?" Minster asked.

"Well, Mr. Minter, you have your methods and we have ours, and we don't
show our tricks to the other conjurers," Ellis smiled sweetly. "I've
got a little scheme worked out on paper, and I want you to run your eye
over it. If you have no objection I should like your further assistance
if possible."

Minter glanced over the sheet and nodded approval.

"You can count on me," he said curtly. "But you are a long way off your
bird yet. Have you any sort of idea what this man Pyle is like? And
where is he?"

"I rather fancy he is in London, but am not sure as yet. I have never
seen the man whom I am after, and I have never met anybody who has.
After the Everard business he vanished from America and the world has
swallowed him. Out of the five men who were at that poker party two are
dead, one has been electrocuted, and the other two are wanted. But, by
sheer chance, I got hold of one sort of a clue that may win me through
if I can tack it on to a practical grip. As an old sportsman, when you
were an officer in the Indian Army, before you joined the force, did
you ever go out after duck and come back with your bag filled with
quail?"

"Yes, I see what you mean," Minter replied.

"Just so. And I fancy that is what is going to happen to me. This clue
I was telling you about. There was a chap in 'Frisco who had been in
trouble once or twice, and I had given him a helping hand, because
that sort of thing pays. He used to be a church organist, with a fair
teaching connection, before he went utterly wrong and took to burglary.
He gave me a tip over the Everard case. On the night of the murder
he was prowling about near Oakshott-avenue, and in Everard's house,
just after eleven o'clock, he heard somebody singing there to a piano
accompaniment. That's all, but I have not forgotten it or the name of
the song. I'm not going to say any more, and I'll not detain you any
longer, Mr. Minter. If you see that my little suggestion as laid down
in that piece of paper is carried out by your chaps I can do the rest."

Lord Esme Pollington, very nicely turned out and just a little warm
and nervous under the collar, set out about ten o'clock on the night
of Boxing Day to keep his appointment with Jefferson Varteg and his
friend, James Leasowe. Such a chance for a gamble on a big scale with
two so accomplished gamblers in the poker world had not come his
way for a long time and he was properly excited. At the flat he was
welcomed cordially enough by his new acquaintances and made at home,
quite naturally. The table had been set out and on it were two packs of
unopened cards, and on the side-board a gold-topped bottle or so and
some caviare sandwiches. A silver box of choice cigarettes stood open
on the card-table. Pollington wiped his hot and rather agitated face
and drew a deep breath.

"It gets me like this beforehand," he explained; "makes me feel like a
flapper at her first dance. When I get going it's all right. Would you
mind if I opened a window?"

Varteg flung open a window and pulled up the blind. The flat was too
high to be overlooked from the other side of the street. Pollington
murmured his thanks.

"Now I'm ready to begin," he said. "This is going to be historic, dear
boys, what? I haven't felt so like it since the night I was going to
meet the great Richard Pyle--and didn't."

"You never saw him, I think?" Varteg asked.

"No, old top. But I heard something after--months after it was. Met
a chap, whose name I have forgotten, in Pekin. Something about a man
called Everard, who lived in 'Frisco and who was murdered on the night
I was to have seen Pyle. I was well out of that Pyle business--might
have had to give evidence, and all that. That was one of the reasons
why I cleared out so quickly from 'Frisco. I didn't want to be mixed up
in any alibi business. But let's get on. There are some things that a
man doesn't like to think about."

They played for an hour or more, with varying fortunes. Pollington
holding his own against the two finest exponents he had ever
encountered. He was cool enough now and as collected as the others,
which was saying a great deal. When the Empire clock on the mantelpiece
struck the hour of eleven he was only a few pounds down. He sat up and
drew a long, deep breath.

"I'm not quite in such good condition as I thought," he confessed.
"Out of practice, I suppose. What say you chaps to a little rest and a
mouthful of something?"

"The very thing," Varteg cried. "A glass of champagne and a sandwich.
Jimmy, unchain the Clicquot."

"And a song to follow," Pollington suggested. "You promised me that,
Varteg. Something really decent. You chaps mightn't think it, but I
am really fond of good vocal music. A really good tenor is the finest
thing in the world, to my mind."

Varteg crossed over to the piano presently, and ran his hands over the
keys with the air of a man who loves them. He was no longer the keen
sportsman and reckless gambler, but a real musician with his heart in
it. His expression softened, and a dreamy look crept into his eyes, and
then he began to sing.

Pollington sat there entranced and carried away into another world
altogether. He listened to Beethoven's "Adelaide" and "The Message,"
and one other little gem from Schubert, and then almost aimlessly
crossed over to the piano and began idly to turn over a pile of music
on a stand.

"That was real fine," he said sincerely. "Man, you are a big genius.
It's a shame to push you too far, but I should like to have something
Christmassy. Are you above this old favorite?"

With a hand that trembled slightly and a strange light in his eyes, he
held up a copy of "The Mistletoe Bough."

"This one," he suggested. "It is a song that touches me every time."

"Not that!" Varteg cried, almost like a man in pain. "Not that! Still,
why not? A certain association. All right."

He sang with a pathos that went home to the listeners. The song ended,
he flung the music upon the floor. His face was wet now, and there was
something in his eyes that suggested a deep emotion. "And now let us
get on with our game, again. Enough of sentiment."

Pollington made no reply. Leasowe sat there nursing his strong chin
in his hand. The atmosphere seemed to be charged with some strange
electric force. Pollington crossed over to the open window and pitched
his cigarette end into the street. He watched it falling like a little
dying red star until he saw it dissolve in sparks on the pavement.
Somebody below whistled a few bars of a song softly; the clock on the
mantelshelf struck twelve. Footsteps shuffled somewhere.

"That's odd, that's very odd," Pollington said with a sort of hard
metallic tang in his voice, "but it brings Richard Pyle back to me.
The night he didn't meet me--the night of Martin Everard's murder. Man
I met in Pekin was a sort of musician who had gone wrong--came from
'Frisco. By chance he heard that very song most exquisitely sung in
Everard's house in Oakshott-avenue. Don't know why it all comes back to
me now. These are the sort of things that frighten a chap--like some
dreams."

"What the devil do you mean, Pollington?" Leasowe asked threateningly.
"My friend Varteg----"

Pollington said nothing. He appeared to be listening intently to
something that was moving outside. Varteg, in a sort of moist brown
study, was seated on the music-stool. The door of the room opened
very quietly and a hard face under a peaked cap looked in. Behind him
followed three others. But it was only Pollington who was aware of this
intrusion.

"What the devil do you mean?" Leasowe repeated.

"I have no quarrel with you," Pollington replied. "You may be an honest
man for all I know. I was merely saying----"

"Not good enough," Leasowe snarled. "Take that back or it will be the
worse for you. Now, Pollington!"

The other drew himself up, with no vestige of hesitation or nervousness
about him now.

"Pollington nothing," he snapped crisply. "I'm not Pollington; my name
is Sutton Ellis, of Pinkerton's Southern Section. And my friend in the
doorway is from Scotland Yard. You can put up your hands, Richard Pyle!"



THE END.


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