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Title: When Carruthers Laughed Author: Sapper (Herman Cyril McNeile) * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 0800521h.html Language: English Date first posted: Jun 2008 Most recent update: Sep 2013 This eBook was produced by Jon Jermey and updated by 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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HENRY ST. JOHN CARRUTHERS was something of an enigma. Where he lived I have no idea, except that it was somewhere north of Oxford Street. But we were both members of the Junior Strand, which, as all the world knows, is not a club frequented largely by the clergy or the more respectable lights of the legal profession. It is a pot-house frank and unashamed, but withal a thoroughly amusing one.
It is not a large club, and the general atmosphere in the smoking-room is one of conviviality. Honesty compels me to admit that the majority of the members would not find favour in the eyes of a confirmed temperance fanatic, but since the reverse is even truer the point is not of great interest. Anyway, it was there that I first met Henry St. John Carruthers.
He was, I should imagine, about thirty-six years of age—neither good-looking nor ugly. Not that a man's looks matter, but I mention it en passant. He was sitting next to me after lunch, and we drifted into conversation about something or other. I didn't even know his name. I have entirely forgotten what we talked about. But what I do remember, as having impressed me during our talk, is his eyes. Not their size or colour, but their expression.
I sat on for a few minutes after he had gone trying to interpret that expression. It wasn't exactly bored: it certainly wasn't conceited—and yet it contained both those characteristics. A sort of contemptuous resignation most nearly expresses it: the look of a man who is saying to himself—'Merciful heavens! what am I doing in this galaxy?'
And yet, I repeat, there was very little conceit about it: it was too impersonal to be in the slightest degree offensive.
"Rum fellow that," said the man sitting on the other side of me, after he had gone. "You never seem to get any further with him."
It was then I learnt his name and the fact that he was in business in the City. "A square peg in a round hole if ever there was one," went on my informant. "From the little I know of him he'd be happier in the French Foreign Legion than sitting with his knees under a desk."
Time went on and I saw a good deal of Henry St. John Carruthers. And as my acquaintance with him grew—not into anything that may be called friendship but into a certain degree of intimacy—I realised that my casual informant was right. That City desk was a round hole with a vengeance. And the fact supplied the clue to the expression in his eyes. It was the life he lived that it was directed against—and himself for living that life.
Not that he ever complained in so many words: he was not a man who ever asked for sympathy. It was his bed and he was going to lie on it; he asked no one else to share it with him. Very much alone did he strike me as being: a man who would go his own way and thank you to go yours. It would be idle to pretend that he was popular. And in view of his manner it was not surprising. His somewhat marked air of aloofness tended to put a damper on the spirits of men he found himself with.
"Hang it all!" said Bearsted, a stockbroker, one night as the door closed behind Carruthers. "Has anyone ever seen that fellow laugh?"
I thought over that remark during the next few days, and finally came to the surprising conclusion that it was true. I'd never considered the matter before, and now that it had been brought to my notice it struck me that I never had seen Henry St. John Carruthers laugh. I'd seen him smile, I'd seen a twinkle in his eye—but an outright laugh, never. So one evening I tackled him about it.
"Do you know, Carruthers," I said, "that in the course of the year since I first met you I've never seen you laugh?"
He stared at me for a moment; then he scratched his head.
"Haven't you?" he answered. "Don't I laugh? I wasn't aware of the fact. Though, incidentally, what there is to laugh at in life I don't know. Personally, I think it's too darned boring for words."
"Oh, come!" I said, "that's a bit scathing, isn't it? Everything has its funny side. Go and look steadily into the face of the Honourable James over there in the corner. That ought to do the trick."
"Thanks," he answered shortly, "I'd sooner keep the record unbroken. Besides, he wouldn't make me laugh: he'd make me cry. I suppose," he went on thoughtfully, "that there are uses for things like that in the world."
"Certainly," I answered. "The old man has some excellent shootings."
"Well, I wish to heaven you'd bag the son the next time you go there. Good Lord, he's coming over here!"
I glanced round: the Honourable James had risen and was bearing down on us.
"I say, dear old boy," he burbled, coming to rest in front of me, "my old governor wants me to bring down two guys next Saturday. Would you care to come?"
"Very much, James," I said.
"What about you, Carruthers?" went on James.
"Thanks, no," grunted the other. "I'm afraid I'm already engaged."
The Honourable James continued to burble, and after about two minutes Carruthers, with a strangled snort, got up and left.
"By Jove!" said James plaintively, "he never waited to hear the end of the story. You know, Bill,"—he waxed confidential—"I don't believe that fellow likes me."
"My dear James," I cried, "what put that idea into your head? I expect he's got an appointment."
"Yes—but he might have waited to hear the end of the story," repeated James. "No—I don't think he likes me. He never even laughed."
He drifted away—the personification of utter futility— leaving me shaking silently. I had been privileged to gaze on Carruthers's face as he left the room.
"It would take more than you, James, to make him laugh," I called after him. "In fact, if you ever do I'll stand you a drink."
A promise which I repeated to Carruthers when, half an hour later, he returned warily to the room.
"It's all right," I reassured him. "Our little James has gone. I gathered that he has a date with the most beautiful woman in London."
"Long may she keep him occupied," he grunted. "He is the most ghastly example of a Philandering Percy I've ever seen. Still, I suppose when a fellow has got the amount of money he possesses, beautiful women will suffer in silence."
And an hour later we rose to go home. The night was fine and warm, and refusing a waiting taxi we fell into step and walked. And Carruthers, I remember, was still inveighing against the system by which the Honourable Jameses of this world inherit totally undeserved wealth.
"Put that excrescence on his own feet," he argued, "and what would be the result? Take away his money and let him fight for his food, and where would he be?"
"Still," I murmured, "a man is the son of his father."
"Call that thing a man," he grunted. "Look here, I want a drink."
We were at the corner of Albemarle Street, and I glanced at my watch.
"It's half-past eleven," I remarked. "In a moment of mental aberration I joined the Sixty-Six a few weeks ago. Let's go there."
Now, the Sixty-Six, as all the world knows, is one of those night-clubs that spring up like mushrooms in a damp field, endure for a space, and then disappear into oblivion to the tune of a hundred-pound fine. The fact that they open a few weeks later as the Seventy-Seven, and the same performance is repeated, is neither here nor there.
"Right," said Henry St. John Carruthers. "One can only hope the police will not choose tonight to raid it!"
And at that moment he paused in the door and blasphemed. I glanced over his shoulder, and then, taking him gently by the arm, I propelled him across the room to a vacant table.
"If we get the police as well," I murmured, "our evening will not be wasted."
In the centre of the floor was the Honourable James. He hailed us with delight as we passed, and Carruthers sat down muttering horribly. "Can I never get away from that mess?" he demanded hopelessly. "I ask you—I ask you—look at him now!"
And assuredly the Honourable James was a pretty grim spectacle. I lay no claim to being a dancing man myself, but James attempting to Charleston was a sight on which no man might look unmoved. In fact, the only thing about the Honourable James which caused one any pleasure was his partner. To say that she was attractive would be simply banal: she was one of the most adorable creatures I have ever seen in my life. Moreover, she seemed to reciprocate James's obvious devotion. Three times did I see her return his fish—like glance of love with a slight drooping of her eyelids which spoke volumes.
"Evidently out to hook him," I remarked, turning to Carruthers. "Hullo! what has stung you?"
For he was leaning forward, staring at the girl with a completely new expression in his eyes.
"Good Lord!" he muttered, half to himself. "It can't be. And yet—"
He suddenly stood up and glanced round the room; then, equally abruptly, he sat down again. "It is." he remarked. "As I live—it is. How deuced funny!" And he grinned: he positively grinned.
"What is?" I demanded. "Elucidate."
"They will part him from his money," he went on happily. "And I hope they sock him good and strong."
"What the devil are you talking about?" I said peevishly.
"If you look over there to the right," he answered, "behind that woman in green, you will see a large and somewhat bull-necked man sitting at a table by himself. He is smoking a cigar, and gives one the impression that he owns the earth."
"I've got him," I said.
"Just a year ago," he continued, "I was over in Chicago. I was sitting in the lounge of my hotel talking to an American I knew who was something pretty big in the police. He'd been giving me a good deal of inside information about crime over there, when suddenly he leant forward and touched me on the arm. 'See that guy who has just come in,' he said, 'with a cigar sticking out of his face?'
"I saw him all right; you couldn't have helped it if you tried. 'Well, that bloke,' went on my pal, 'is just about the highest spot in the confidence game that we've got. He specialises in you Britishers, and I reckon he's parted more of you from your money than one is ever likely to be told about.'
"'What's his line?' I demanded.
"'Anything and everything,' he replied. 'From running bogus charities to blackmail. And he generally works with an amazingly pretty girl. There she is: just joined him.'
"'His wife?' I said. My pal shrugged his shoulders. 'I shouldn't imagine the Church has been over-worked in the matter,' he answered. 'But you can call her that.'"
Henry St. John Carruthers lay back in his chair and actually chuckled.
"You mean?" I said slowly.
"Precisely," he answered. "There they are. And so is dear James."
I glanced over at the table where the big man had been joined by James and the girl. He was smiling in the most friendly way and filling James's glass with more champagne. Then he handed him his cigar case, and James, coming out of a dream, helped himself. Then James relapsed into his dream to the extent of forgetting to light it. And the dream was what one would have expected in the circumstances.
Assuredly she was the most divinely pretty girl. And James was totally unable to take his eyes off her face. He was in the condition of trying to touch her hand under the table, of little by little moving his chair nearer hers, in the fond belief that the manoeuvre would pass unnoticed.
"Look here," I said, "we must do something."
"Why?" said Henry St. John Carruthers.
"Well, if what you say is right, they're going to blackmail that poor boob."
"And serve him darned well right," he answered shortly. "A man has got to buy his experience, and why should that horror be an exception?"
"That's going too far," I said, a little angrily. "You may not like him, but you can't let him be swindled by a couple of crooks."
He shrugged his shoulders indifferently. "I disagree entirely," he answered. "However, for the sake of argument, let's assume you're right. What do you suggest we should do?"
"Get James on one side and warn him," I said promptly.
"Try it," he remarked. "And then see the result. Do you really imagine, my dear chap, that you stand a dog's chance against that girl? The only result will be that you'll lose some good shooting."
"I don't care," I said doggedly. "Chance or no chance, I'm going to have a shot." I rose and crossed the room, leaving Carruthers smiling faintly.
"Excuse me, James," I said, bowing to the girl, "was it this week-end or next that you asked me to shoot?"
James had risen, and with my hand on his arm I drew him a little way from the table. "This coming one as ever is, old lad," he burbled. "I say, I want to introduce you to—"
"Look here, James," I interrupted urgently, "pay attention to what I'm saying." I was speaking in a low voice in his ear, and over his shoulder I saw the big man staring at me steadily. "These two people you're out with tonight are crooks."
"Crooks," bleated James. "Crooks?"
"For God's sake don't shout," I muttered. "Yes—crooks."
"Go to blazes!" said James succinctly. "And stay there. I'm going to marry this lady. What the dickens do you mean by crooks?"
He turned abruptly and sat down, leaving me standing there feeling a fool. And the feeling was not diminished by the look in the big man's eyes. I realised that he knew what I had come about; short of being deaf, he must have heard what James said. And his expression seconded James's remark as to my immediate destination.
"Well," said Henry St. John Carruthers, as I rejoined him. "What luck?"
"The silly fool can stew in his own juice," I answered shortly. "He says he's going to marry the girl."
"Quite possibly he may be," he remarked. "He's got enough money to make it worth her while. Well, I'm going to have another whisky-and-soda, and then I'm for bed."
"I still don't feel quite happy about it," I said. "After all, the old man is a very decent sort."
"Oh, dry up!" said Carruthers wearily. "You've done what you could, and you've got your answer. What the deuce is the good of worrying over a disease like that youth?" He finished his drink and rose. "I'm for the sheets. Coming?"
I followed him across the room, and we went into the cloakroom to get our hats.
James and his friends were still at their table, but though we passed close to them he took no notice of us. Which, when all was said and done, was hardly to be wondered at. I took my top-hat and put it on. As Carruthers said, he'd have to buy his experience.
And even as I was dismissing the matter from my mind the swing doors opened and the big man came in. His hands were in his pockets; the cigar still stuck out from his face. And he stood there in absolute silence, staring first at me and then at Carruthers. But principally at Carruthers.
It was an offensive stare, and I felt my pulse quicken a little. It was the stare that precedes a row: the stare that is designed to produce a row. And after a while—funnily enough, it seemed quite natural at the time—I faded out of the picture. Though it was I who had spoken to James, the issue narrowed down to the big man and Henry St. John Carruthers.
I think it was then that I realised for the first time that Carruthers was also a big man.
The depth of his chest was astonishing—and the broadness of his back. And with a queer little thrill I saw that his fists—big fists they were—were clenched at his sides. Moreover, for quite five seconds he had made no movement to take his opera hat, which was standing open on the counter beside him. He just stood staring at the big man, while the big man stared back at him. And neither the attendant nor I existed for either of them.
Then suddenly the music started, and with it the tension snapped. Like two dogs who have been eyeing one another and then at last move away, so did the big man pass back into the ballroom, while Carruthers turned round for his hat. And as he turned the swing door hit him in the side. Now, it was, I verily believe, accidental; the big man had passed through normally, and Carruthers being where he was, the door in swinging back had hit him.
But accident or no accident, the result was the same. Into Henry St. John Carruthers's eyes there came a look which spelt one word. And that word was murder.
That he was angry was not surprising. If there is one thing in this world which drives me to thoughts of battle, murder and sudden death, it is when a man lets a door swing in my face. But Carruthers was more than angry; he was white with rage. There was a pulse hammering in his throat, and for an appreciable time he stood there drumming with his fingers on the wall. Then he turned to me.
"The egregious James is lucky," he said quietly. "He shall not be parted from his money after all."
"You're not going to have a row in the club?" I said apprehensively. "It was an accident, I'm sure."
"An accident that I like not the savour of," he remarked in the same quiet voice. "But don't be alarmed; the sacred floor of the Sixty-Six shall not be desecrated."
"What do you propose to do?" I said, staring at him.
"If you care to wait and see, I shall be delighted to have your company," he answered. "If not, I'll say good night."
For a moment or two I hesitated; then, moved by a sudden impulse, I said: "I'll stand by to bail you out."
"Don't worry," he grunted. "If there's any bailing to be done, it won't be me."
He turned and left the room, and it was left to the attendant to sum up the situation. "Good night, sir," he said to me. "I reckon somebody is going to be 'urt."
So did I; and as I followed Carruthers up the stairs I had an attack of common sense. "Look here, old man," I remarked as I joined him in the street, "don't you think this jest has gone far enough? What's wrong with that bed you were talking about?"
It was then that Henry St. John Carruthers grew polite— astoundingly polite. And when a man grows polite at the same time that his nostrils are narrowed, the time for words is past. His hat was tilted back on his head: his hands were in his trouser pockets, and as he stood on the kerb he swayed a little on his heels. "I have already suggested that we should say good night," he said very distinctly—and held out his hand.
"Rot," I answered. "Where you go I go."
"Then shall we save our breath?" he remarked.
I shrugged my shoulders: the thing had got beyond me. And for a space of about ten minutes we smoked in silence. An occasional taxi went past in Piccadilly, and once a policeman strolled close by us along the pavement.
"Good night, officer," said Carruthers.
"Good night, gentlemen," he answered. "Looking for a taxi?"
"Shortly," said Carruthers, and the policeman walked on.
"He little knows," I murmured jocularly, "the desperadoes he has just encountered." And then, as he made no answer, I looked at him curiously. "What exactly are you going to do?" I said.
He held up his hand to a passing taxi. "Get in," he said curtly. "I want you to wait," he remarked to the man. "My friend and I will sit inside." He got in after me. "Do?" he said. "I'm going to break up that man."
And for a further space of ten minutes we smoked in silence, while I asked myself whether or not I was mad. To sit still solemnly waiting in a taxi, with the avowed intention of aiding and abetting, and quite possibly participating in, a street row was certainly a sufficient reason to induce the query. And yet a sort of excited curiosity kept me there. Mad or not, I intended to see the thing through.
"Sit back." Carruthers's voice cut in on my thoughts. "Here they come." I glanced through the window. Sure enough, there were the girl and James standing on the pavement. And a moment later the big man joined them. The commissionaire was calling up another taxi, and the instant they were in Carruthers leant out of the window. "Follow that car," he said. "And keep a good fifty yards behind."
"Right, sir," grinned the man, and we started.
Now, I have since wondered what Carruthers would have done had they lived at the top of a block of service flats. He'd have got at his quarry somehow, I'm convinced, but it might have seriously complicated matters. As it was, that side of the affair proved easy. Up St. John's Wood Road and past Swiss Cottage the chase lay, and we soon realised that our destination was one of those large and ultra-respectable houses in Hampstead. "Go past him when he pulls up," said Carruthers to the driver. "I'll tell you when to stop."
It was a detached house, standing back from the road, that their taxi halted in front of, and Carruthers stole a look at it as we went by. "Excellent," he muttered. "There's quite a bit of vegetation in the garden. And we'll have to reconnoitre the land first." He rapped on the window of the car, and we got out. "Keep in the shadow," he whispered, "and if you see a policeman say good night in an affable voice."
"Lord help me!" I groaned. "Lead on. I leave it to you."
We strolled back towards the house, when suddenly, to my horror, Carruthers started to sing. And at the same time I felt his hand grip my arm, and force me past the gate.
Just inside was standing a weasel-faced man, who stared at me as we went by. "The plot thickens," said Carruthers when we were out of earshot. "He will be your share."
"You're too generous," I remarked.
He swung me round again, and once more we walked past the house. Weasel-face was no longer there, but a light was shining from one of the ground-floor windows through a chink in the curtains.
"Now's our chance," he whispered. "Keep under cover of the bushes and don't make a sound."
The next instant he was through the gate, and I found time even then to marvel at the quickness of his movements—and the silence. He skirted round the edge of the lawn, while I followed him as rapidly as I could. By this time I was as excited as he was; considerably more so, in fact. Certainly he seemed as cool as a cucumber when I joined him underneath the window. "It's pretty grim," he breathed in my ear, "but I don't think it will last long. Listen."
And grim was not the word. At odd periods in my life I had heard the Honourable James in varying stages of fatuous imbecility. I had heard him in his cups. I had heard him endeavouring to tell humorous stories; but I had never heard him making love. And I sincerely trust I never shall again.
Gradually I wormed my way up till I could see into the room. Her arms were round his neck, and she was gazing into his eyes with a look of rapt adoration on her face. In fact, I was just beginning to feel thoroughly embarrassed—even an object like James might reasonably object to being watched in such a situation—when I heard a whisper in my ear: "Watch the door!"
It was slowly opening. Now, James had his back to it; the girl had not. And as it opened she kissed James firmly. James returned the compliment. And Carruthers chuckled.
"May heaven deliver us," he muttered, "but this came out of the Ark with Noah. Still, I suppose it's good enough for him."
Weasel-face was standing in the doorway—the picture of outraged horror. The girl had risen to her feet with a pitiful cry of terror, while James, plucking at his collar, was helping the situation by remarking: "I say, by Jove! what's this fellah want?"
"My husband!" gasped the girl.
"You hound!" hissed Weasel-face.
"Oh! but I say—dash it all!" spluttered the Honourable James.
And then Carruthers pushed up the window and vaulted into the room. "Good evening," he remarked affably. "Shall we cut out the rest?"
Weasel-face and the girl seemed bereft of speech; they just stood there staring at him blankly. In fact, only James seemed capable of utterance, and that was when he saw me. "Hullo, old lad!" he burbled. "What brings you here?"
"So it's you, is it?" came a harsh voice from the door. The big man was standing there chewing a cigar, and he came slowly towards Carruthers, staring at him through narrowed eyes. And once again I had a feeling of being out of the picture. The thing had narrowed down to the two of them. "May I ask what you're doing in my house?" said the big man.
"Waiting to give you a lesson in manners." answered Carruthers.
"Is that so?" said the big man softly, and a fist like a leg of mutton whizzed past Carruthers's ear. A believer in deeds, not words, evidently, but it is inadvisable to start scrapping with a cigar in your mouth. That cigar disintegrated suddenly, and the big man stepped back with a grunt as Carruthers caught him fairly on the mouth.
And then in perfect silence they got down to it. I was watching Weasel-face, but he made no attempt to interfere. A gentleman of discretion, he very wisely decided that the matter had passed beyond him. And no bad judge either, when two heavyweights are fighting for a knock-out in a room full of furniture.
Moreover, the big man could use his fists; there was no doubt about that. That first jolt on the face had roused the devil in him, and some of his blows, delivered with a grunt of rage, would have finished the thing then and there if they'd got home. But they didn't, and gradually his breathing began to grow stertorous, and he started to slog wildly.
It was a smash on the point of the jaw with the whole weight of the body behind it that ended it. It took the big man clean off his feet and landed him crumpled up in a corner, where he lay staring at his opponent with murder in his eyes.
"Had enough?" said Henry St. John Carruthers.
"I'll kill you for this," said the big man, but he made no movement to rise.
"Some other time I shall be at your service." remarked Carruthers politely. "Just now I think we will leave you. Come on, you fellows. I know of a haunt where a man may obtain beer."
We left as we had come—through the window, with the Honourable James clinging to us even closer than a brother.
"But I say, dear old chaps," he burbled for the twentieth time as we got into a belated taxi, "what's it all mean—what?"
"Dry up," said Carruthers morosely. "Things like you ought to have a nurse."
"But she never told me she was married," pursued James.
"May Allah deliver me!" Carruthers contemplated him dispassionately. "She surely told you, didn't she, that her father had a living in Gloucestershire?"
"Yorkshire, she said," remarked James.
"And that one brother was up at Oxford? I thought so. He used always to be in the Guards during the War."
"By Jove! then—you knew her," said James. "What an extraordinary coincidence!"
"I shall weep in a minute," said Carruthers pessimistically.
"Don't do that, old man," I answered. "Once or twice tonight I thought you were going to break your record. You got as far as grinning, anyhow. Can't you raise a laugh, even out of James?"
"Laugh," he groaned. "Laugh! Come on—here we are. Let's get down to that beer. Perhaps if I look at him quietly for half an hour I might."
We went upstairs, and I left them to go and wash my hands. And all of a sudden I became aware of a strange noise. It was a discordant sound, rising and falling at, intervals, and somewhat reminiscent of the female hyena calling to her mate. I suppose it must have been going on for about half a minute when the door burst open and the Honourable James rushed in.
"I say, dear old boy," he cried anxiously, "is that bloke Carruthers quite right in his head, and all that?"
"What's the matter?" I asked.
"Well, it was quite accidental, don't you know—what— but I never realised he was standing in the jolly old doorway. Just behind me, don't you know. And I went and unloosed the door, which caught him a frightful biff in the chest. I mean, I thought he'd be deuced annoyed and all that—but listen to him. Have you ever heard such a row? Do you see anything to laugh at?"
SANTOS was at its worst. The heat, like a stagnant pall, hung over the harbour: the few passengers who had not gone up to San Paolo lay about on deck and mopped their foreheads. And I was on the verge of dropping off to sleep when I saw them coming up the gangway.
They were new passengers and I studied them idly. The woman— she was little more than a girl—was of the fluffy type: pretty in a rather chocolate-box way, with fair hair and a charming figure. The sort that one expects to be the life and soul of the ship, dancing every dance, and, in the intervals, throwing quoits into receptacles ill-designed to receive them. And it came therefore as almost a shock when she stood close to my chair waiting for the man and I could see her face distinctly.
The expression lifeless is hackneyed, and yet I can think of no other word to describe adequately how her appearance struck me. She was wearing a wedding-ring, so presumably the man was her husband. He was arguing with a porter; perhaps it would be more correct to say that he was listening to the porter argue. And the result, as I guessed instinctively it would be, was the complete defeat of the Brazilian porter, who retired discomfited and cursing volubly.
Then the man turned round and came towards us. He was considerably older than the woman—twenty years at least, and he did not impress one favourably. Thin-lipped, thin-faced—one glance at him was enough to explain the rout of the porter. Also perchance, I reflected, his wife's expression.
As he approached her she seemed to make an effort to become more animated. She forced a smile, and the two of them went below together, leaving me wondering idly as to their story. Perhaps I was wrong; perhaps it was the overpowering heat that had made her look like a dead woman. At any rate, I should have plenty of time to study them on the way home to London. And on that I dozed off.
The next time I saw them was in the smoking-room, before dinner. He was having a drink, she was not. They were seated in a corner, and during the five minutes I was there neither of them spoke a word. In her evening frock she looked fluffier than ever, whilst the black and white of his evening clothes seemed to enhance the severity of his features. And once again I found myself wondering what lay behind it. Was it merely the old story of youth married to age, or was it something deeper?
Once or twice it seemed to me that he was watching her covertly, and that she, becoming aware of it, tried to pull herself together just as she had done on deck that afternoon. And suddenly it dawned on me. Whatever might be the cause of her depression, she was afraid of him.
The Doctor joined me, and I drew his attention to them. "They've never travelled with us before," he said, "so beyond telling you that their name is Longman, I can't help. He looks guaranteed to turn the butter rancid all right, Incidentally, they're at my table."
And after dinner I met him on deck. "There's something rum in the state of Denmark," he said. "I can't make those two out at all. I don't know whether she's been ill or what it is, but she's the dullest woman I've ever met in my life. Even young Granger couldn't get a word out of her, and he'd make the Sphinx do a music-hall turn. Just Yes and No, and not another blessed syllable. Tell you what, Parsons, she's terrified of that husband of hers."
"Just the conclusion I came to before dinner." I remarked.
"Look there," he said quietly. "Granger has asked her to dance, and she's fumed him down. Well, well, it takes all sorts to make a world, I suppose, but I'm glad some of the specimens are rare."
"I must confess I'm curious about them," I said.
"I'm afraid you'll have to remain so," he laughed. "I don't quite see anyone prattling brightly to them at breakfast and asking them the why and the wherefore."
But as it turned out, he was wrong. The first passenger to board the boat at Rio was Charlie Maxwell, who metaphorically fell into my arms on sight.
"Bill," he shouted, "surely Allah is good! My dear old boy, I had no idea you were in these parts."
"Taking a voyage for the good of my health, Charlie," I said. "What's the matter?"
For Charlie had suddenly straightened up and was staring over my shoulder with a strange look in his eyes. "So they're going home, are they?" he muttered. "That's going to make it a bit awkward for all concerned."
I looked round; a few yards away the Longmans were leaning over the rail. And at that moment the husband saw Charlie. He gave a slight start, and then his face became as mask-like as ever. His wife saw him, too, and gave a cry of delight.
"Uncle Charlie!" she cried and took a little run forward.
"Mary!" The husband's voice, harsh and imperious, cut through the air and she stopped, biting her lip.
"How are you, Mary, my dear?" said Charlie quietly. "I'd no idea you were going to be on board."
"Mary—go below." Again the husband's voice, and after a momentary hesitation she obeyed, leaving the two men facing one another.
"I believe I told you, Mr. Maxwell," said Longman, "that you were no longer included in the category of my wife's friends."
"I rather believe you did, Mr. Longman," drawled Charlie. "And my answer was that you could go to blazes, and stay there. You would merely be anticipating the ordinary course of events."
Three or four passengers were staring at the two men curiously, and for a moment I was afraid there was going to be a scene. Their voices had been low, but their attitude was obvious. And then with a shrug of his shoulders Longman turned away and followed his wife.
"Let's go and have a drink. Bill," said Charlie, "and then I must make certain that I am not at that swine's table."
"They are at the Doctor's," I told him. "But why Uncle Charlie?"
"Needless to say, she is not my niece, but I've known her since she was two. There once was a time when, if things had gone differently, she might have been my daughter. Her mother died on her arrival, and I'm fond of the kid."
"The doctor and I were puzzling over the menage last night," I said.
"One night I'll tell you about it," he said gravely, "if you'll both give me your word that you won't pass it on. It's one of life's tragedies."
The opportunity occurred a few evenings later. We had most unexpectedly run into bad weather, which kept the Doctor busy, but things settled down again after passing St. Vincent.
Don't ask me why she married him,—began Charlie Maxwell as we settled ourselves in the Doctor's cabin—for I'm bothered if I know. I once asked her the question myself, and I don't think she knows either. As I told you, Bill, her mother died when she was born, and for some reason or other she never quite hit it off with her father. Funny thing, too, for he was a very decent fellow, but they just didn't agree.
He was a stockbroker and pretty well-to-do, with a nice house down near Surbiton. And since I bore him no malice, particularly after his wife died, for having been the favoured one, I used often to go down and spend the weekend with him and play golf. And it was because of that that I was given the honorary rank of Uncle. I watched her grow up from a little toddler, through the flapper stage till she reached the marriageable age. Of course, I was out of England a tremendous amount, but I generally saw her two or three times a year. And you two fellows who have only seen her on board here—listless, silent, dead—will hardly believe what she was like then. To say that she was the life and soul of any show she was at is to state no more than the bare truth.
She was a topper, and the boy friends realised the fact. But strangely enough, in spite of her relations with her father, she showed no signs of accepting any of them, though I know several of 'em asked her. She used to bemoan the fact to me that they did so. 'It's never quite the same after you've given them the push' she said. 'And I don't want to get married for a long while.'
Judge, then, of my surprise when I came back to England a couple of years ago to find that she'd gone and done the deed. It was her father who told me when I met him in the club one day, and I could see at once he wasn't too pleased about it. 'Women beat me, Charlie,' he said. 'There's Mary, with a dozen fellows of her own age to be had for the lifting of a finger, goes and marries a man of our age. Financially he's a good match, and he seems devoted to her, but he ain't my idea of fun and laughter. Come down this week-end and have a look at him yourself. They're both stopping with me.'
'What's his particular worry in life?' I asked him.
'He goes in for research work,' he told me. 'He qualified as a doctor, and then some aunt died and left him a lot of money. So he doesn't practise, but devotes himself to original work on his own. A clever fellow.'
Well, I went down, and I got my first inkling into Mr. George Longman's character shortly after my arrival. Mary, as was her invariable custom, gave me a kiss, and I happened to see his face just after. And I was not surprised to overhear a remark a little later which was not intended for my ears.
'What nonsense, George,' she was saying, 'I've known Uncle Charlie since I was born.' I did not hear his reply, but the subject of their conversation was not hard to guess, and it did not start our relations too auspiciously. Of course, I was his age and all that sort of thing, and she was his wife, but for all there was to it I might really have been her uncle. Naturally, nothing was said about the matter, and neither of them had any idea that I had overheard. But—there it was.
Now both you fellows have seen Longman, and he was just the same then as he is now. He could talk well when he chose to on a variety of subjects, but it always seemed to me that behind all his conversation was a cold, analytical mind. Never once would he allow an argument of his to be influenced by the milk of human kindness. Sentiment had no place in his mental equipment; a thing was either proven or non proven. And the more I saw of him the more did I share her father's surprise at Mary having married him. On the surface she seemed happy enough, and he, in his peculiar and rather precise way, was undoubtedly very much in love with her. But on the second day after my arrival the rocks ahead began to show pretty clearly.
Her father, as usual, was in London, and at lunch I suggested a round of golf to Mary. There was no question of a three-ball, as Longman didn't play. To my intense surprise she looked rather hesitatingly at him, and asked him if he objected. And to my even greater surprise it was quite clear he did object. He didn't say so. Knowing who I was, and the terms I was on with the family, he hadn't the face to. But his consent to our round very nearly congealed the fish on the sideboard. So I tackled her about it on the way up to the links. 'Look here, Mary, my child,' I said, 'that husband of yours seems to have a nasty mind. Does he think I'm going to kiss you on the first tee?'
For a while she didn't answer; then it came out with a rush. 'It's awful. Uncle Charlie,' she cried. 'His jealousy is something unbelievable. Do you know that this is the first game of golf I've played with a man since my marriage?'
'Great Scott!' I said. 'I thought people like that only existed in books. What does he think you're going to do on a golf-links?'
'And it's not only that,' she continued. 'It's the same over everything. Dancing, for instance; he has a fit if I dance with anyone else. And as he doesn't care about it himself, there's simply no good going to one.'
We drove on in silence for a bit, and it was then that I asked her why she married him. Couldn't help it; that question just had to be put. And as I told you before, I don't think she knew herself. I think, perhaps, she'd been flattered a bit by a man of his brains running after her. Possibly before they were married he'd been a little more human. Anyway, that was the state of affairs two years ago. Now we're coming to the point.
The branch of research in which Longman was most interested was toxicology, with special reference to snake poisons. And he had undoubtedly studied the question very thoroughly. But he was very anxious to go for a time to some place abroad where he could observe the brutes first hand. And he started pumping me on the matter. I told him that all I knew about snakes was that they made me move quicker than anything else, but that for variety of specimens, each one more pestilential than the last, Brazil was hard to beat.
Then one of those extraordinary things happened that makes one wonder who pulls the strings. The very morning after we'd been talking about it I got a letter from a pal of mine telling me that he was going out to Brazil on some form of experimental work connected with snake bites and their antidotes. It was a semi-Government job, a bit up-country from Rio, and would I look him up next time I was there? It was such an amazing coincidence that I threw the letter over to Longman to read.
'If that's any use to you,' I said, 'I can easily give you an introduction to the writer.' He was delighted, and accordingly I asked them both to meet at my club, left em together, and forgot all about it.
A few months later I butted into Mary walking down Bond Street. I hadn't seen her in the interval, or her father, so I suggested lunch. 'Or,' I said jestingly, 'will George object?'
'George is in Brazil, Uncle Charlie,' she answered with a smile. 'So it will be a bit late if he does.'
'So he went, after all!' I cried. 'I'd forgotten all about it. Perhaps I shall see him out there.'
She clapped her hands together. 'You aren't going, are you?'
'Next week,' I told her, 'by the good ship Oregon.'
'But it's too wonderful,' she said. 'So am I. You'll be able to help me through all the difficulties.'
I laughed. 'The difficulties, my child,' I assured her, 'of going from London to Rio will not turn your hair grey. Now tell me all about what George is doing.'
Well, it appeared that George had gone out with this other fellow, leaving Mary to follow him if accommodation was suitable. The place seemed to be a sort of glorified snake farm, and they were carrying out experimental work with antidotes. George was there on his own in an unofficial capacity, and he had managed to obtain a house not far away. I knew the country near, though not the exact spot, and I was able to assure her that she would not be eaten by cannibals or lions, nor would she find an alligator in her bed. And ten days later the Oregon sailed, with us both on board.
Now, we who go down to the sea in ships for most of our lives have probably forgotten the ecstatic thrill of our first long voyage. And it was her first long voyage. Moreover, dear George's influence had been absent for some months. The result was what one would have expected; she was as excited as a dog with two tails. She danced every night; she played deck-tennis every day, and except at meals I saw very little of her. I was working on a report and my nose was pretty well down to it. A pity, because I might have spotted it sooner, though I don't know if it would have done much good if I had.
There was on board a youngster called Jack Callaghan, and a more delightful boy it would have been difficult to meet. And one morning—it was after they'd triced the tarpaulin up for a swimming bath—I happened to be strolling round the deck. It was early—before breakfast—and there were very few people about. But a splash in the pool below made me look over, and there were Mary and young Jack having a bathe. They were alone; they didn't see me, and they were ragging in the water. Then they got out and sat down side by side, and I was on the verge of calling out to them when he covered her hand with one of his and kissed her shoulder.
And Mary, to put it mildly, did not resent it.
I don't know why it came as a bit of a shock—my morals are fireproof. I suppose it was because it was Mary. However, I withdrew discreetly, and decided to keep my eyes open. Ship-board flirtations are so common and so harmless that I didn't anticipate any trouble, but I thought I'd watch 'em. And I very soon found out that this was a bit different.
It was later that very morning, in fact, that an elderly harridan with a face like a wet umbrella conceived it to be her duty, since I was Mrs. Longman's uncle, and though, of course, I would understand that she didn't want to make mischief, to tell me in the interests of all concerned, though really it was nothing to do with her and she was only too glad to see young people enjoying themselves, but that she was sure I wouldn't mind her mentioning that my charming niece was being a little indiscreet.
I didn't enlighten her on the relationship question, and pooh-poohed the whole thing. But in the course of the next two or three days I realised that the old woman was perfectly right. They were the talk of the whole ship. Literally, they were never out of one another's pockets. And I decided that it was time I did something. So I buttonholed Mary.
'Look here, my dear,' I said, 'for a few moments I'm going to be an uncle in reality. Have you forgotten that you're going out to a perfectly good husband?' I could see she understood, though she pretended not to at first. 'Your come-hither eye with young Jack is the one topic of conversation on board ship,' I went on. 'Do you think you're being quite fair to him—because it strikes me he's got it badly.'
And then she admitted it; they were in love with one another. Her marriage to George had been a hideous mistake, and all the usual palaver.
'It may have been, my dear,' I said, 'but it's a mistake which, unfortunately, cannot be rectified. Are you really serious about this, or is it just a bit of ship-board slap and tickle?'
Evidently it was not, and I began to foresee complications. What did they propose to do about it? I asked. They hadn't got as far as that yet, she told me, and I breathed again. In all probability they would never see one another again after we reached Rio, and the man who said that absence makes the heart grow fonder coined the most idiotic utterance in the language. But there was one thing that had to be seen to, and I tackled Callaghan that night. 'Look here, young feller,' I said, 'I want a few words with you. I hope you'll take em the right way, and not regard me as an impertinent outsider. Mary has told me how things are, and I'm extraordinarily sorry for both of you. However, it can't be helped. You've got to grin and bear it, as lots of other people have done before you. But I'm going to ask you to do one thing—a very important thing—a thing for Mary's sake. She, I assume, has told you about her husband, the manner of man he is. Well, I can confirm what she says. Without exception he is the most jealous individual I have ever met. Now almost certainly he will come on board to meet his wife at Rio, which brings me to the point. I do not want there to be the slightest possible chance— don't forget he's got an eye like a gimlet—of his spotting that there is anything between you two. So, for the love of Allah, get your good-byes over the night before we arrive, and behave as casual acquaintances in front of him. No sighs and soulful glances—for if he intercepts one he'll make her suffer for it afterwards.'
'The swine,' he muttered. 'Oh, how I wish I could ask her to come away with me, but I can't arrive at Cadaga with her in tow.'
'Where did you say?' I said slowly. 'Cadaga! My sainted aunt!'
'What's the matter?' He stared at me in surprise.
'The matter, my young friend,' I said, 'is that that has put the lid on it. Cadaga is not five miles from where Mary is going. I had hoped that several hundreds were going to be between you. Brutal, I admit, but far safer.' They hadn't realised it, of course; the geography of the country was unknown to them. And their reaction was wild joy. Mine was not. But there was nothing to be done about it. I talked to them both as seriously as I could, but what was the use? They promised to be careful, and see one another as little as possible, but with a man like Longman the only hope would be if they didn't see one another at all. However, as I say, there was nothing to be done except let matters take their own course and hope for the best. Doc, I'll have a spot of that whisky of yours.
It was four months later—continued Charlie Maxwell— that I picked up the threads again. Longman had met her at Rio as I anticipated, and Jack Callaghan, realising that it wasn't good-bye, had treated Mary with a casual indifference that satisfied even me. But a lot could happen in four months, and being in their vicinity I decided to look them up and see if anything had.
I arrived at Longman's house in the afternoon, to find Mary alone. He was down with his snakes, so we could talk freely.
'It can't go on, Uncle Charlie,' she said dully. 'Jack and I both realise that now. He's coming over tomorrow, and I'm going to say good-bye to him and tell him he mustn't come over again.'
'Poor kid,' I said. 'I'm frightfully sorry for you, but it does seem the only solution. Have you seen much of him?'
'Half a dozen times,' she answered. 'That's all.'
'And George doesn't suspect?'
'Oh no! He hasn't an idea. He never will have.'
'Well done,' I said. 'For I don't mind telling you now, Mary, that I've been devilish uneasy as to what was going to happen.'
And it was a fact—I had been. I had not thought it possible for those two to see one another and not give the whole show away, which, with a man of Longman's nature, would have spelled disaster. But when he came in and we started dinner, I had to admit that on the face of it Mary was quite right. He was exactly the same as ever, cold and precise to me, courteous to her. He talked in an interesting way of experiments he was carrying out, and by the end of the meal my fears were quite allayed. And then in a flash they returned. Mary had left us, and he had just lit a cigar. I don't know why I watched the operation particularly, but I remember thinking how typical it was of his character. The meticulous care with which the end was cut the delicate way the used match was deposited in the ash-tray; the slow exhalation of the smoke—in each separate movement one saw George Longman, who was now staring fixedly at me.
'Did you,' he said, speaking with extreme deliberation, 'see much of a young man called Callaghan on the way out?'
The question was utterly unexpected, but a kindly providence has endowed me with a face which enables me to win more money than I lose at poker. And I'll guarantee he got nothing out of me.
'Callaghan,' I answered thoughtfully. 'Callaghan! I remember him. A nice boy, who was always running round after some girl whose name I forget. Why do you ask?'
'He is on a plantation close to here,' he remarked, 'and has been over to see Mary once or twice. You forget the name of the girl, you say.'
'Completely,' I answered. 'She didn't get off at Rio, but went on to Buenos.' And speaking, knew that he knew I lied.
But his voice as he continued was quite expressionless. 'He has seemed very interested in some of my experiments. Strange, too, for I have never met a human being who is in such mortal terror of a snake. It is worse than terror, it is a peculiar revulsion which comes over him if a snake is near him, even though it is shut up in a box. And so, as I say, it is strange that he should go out of his way to accompany me to the farm!'
'Perhaps he is trying to overcome it.' I said casually. I couldn't get his line of country at the moment, though it was clear Mary and young Jack had been living in a fool's paradise.
'Perhaps,' he agreed. 'Or there may be some other motive; who knows?'
'Motive?' I said. 'A rather strange way of putting it, isn't it, Longman? It may surely be that he thinks it only polite to show an interest in your hobby.'
'Politic I think is le mot juste.' he remarked, and I knew the blighter had spotted it. Jack Callaghan wasn't going trotting round a snake farm when he might have been with Mary, unless they'd both deemed it wise. The trouble was that it evidently had not deceived Longman.
'Politic,' he repeated, as if the word pleased him. 'It's astonishing how blind some people can be, Maxwell. Are you quite sure that the girl whose name you forget went on to Buenos?' He didn't wait for an answer, but pushed back his chair and rose. 'You'll excuse me if I leave you,' he continued, 'but I am in the middle of an experiment down at the farm, which I must return to.' He went out through the open window, and for a while I sat on at the table. He knew; there was not a shadow of doubt about it. And the sooner Mary was aware of the fact the better. I didn't like his manner. I'll go further and say I was frightened of his manner.
And yet, I argued with myself, what could he do? Clearly, Jack must never come over again, whatever construction Longman might put on it. And I began to wonder if that was what he had been playing for. If he had gone straight to Mary or Callaghan, it might have precipitated a crisis he was anxious to avoid. And so he had adopted the roundabout method of sending them a warning through me.
At first Mary wouldn't believe me when I told her that he suspected her and Jack. It was perfectly true that Callaghan had been two or three times to the snake farm, because they had both thought it advisable, but what was there suspicious in that? And it wasn't until I metaphorically shook her, and made her understand that I wasn't inventing it, that she began to realise the situation. Like all people in love, she had blissfully believed that no one else knew, and now she had to adjust her outlook to include the fact that the one person of all others she wanted to keep in ignorance was fully aware of her secret.
'It won't matter after tomorrow,' she said a bit pitifully. 'I don't suppose I'll ever see Jack again. And we couldn't help falling in love with one another, could we?'
'Look here, my dear,' I said, 'I don't want to be brutal, but must there be tomorrow? Can't you put him off?'
'And not say good-bye!' she cried indignantly. 'How can you suggest such a thing? Besides, George knows he's coming.'
There was no more to be said and I let the subject drop. But I was uneasy. Try as I would I couldn't get rid of a premonition of trouble. For a man of Longman's nature to know his wife was in love with another man and not forbid that man the house, seemed amazing to me.
Charlie Maxwell paused and lit a cigarette.
Then he burst out suddenly: 'My God! I wish I knew the truth of what happened next day. I'm wrong: I do know it, but I can't prove it. We had lunch as usual, and after it was over that swine went off to his snake farm. His last words as he left us were to tell Mary to ask young Callaghan to stop for dinner.'
'You must be wrong, Uncle Charlie,' she said. 'He can't suspect.' She was all excited and keyed up. There would be an hour with him alone, at any rate. But as the afternoon passed and there was no sign of him, she got more and more unsettled. Useless for me to tell her that he must have been detained: he'd have telephoned if that had been the case. There must have been an accident, or he was ill or something. So I rang through for her to his station, to find that he had left just after lunch.
'Then he's been thrown from his pony!' she cried. 'Uncle Charlie, we must go and search along the track. I know the way, and it will be dark soon.'
I pulled out my car, and we started off. I, too, was feeling a bit uneasy. The youngster might have been thrown. We'd gone about a mile when suddenly she gripped my arm. 'There is his pony,' she said tensely. 'Tethered to the gate of the snake farm.'
I stopped the car. A chestnut cob was placidly grazing by the side of the road. 'He must be with George,' I said quietly. 'I'll go and see. You stop in the car.'
I went through the gate. What had kept the youngster there for four hours? 'Longman!' I shouted, and got an answering hail.
'Come in,' he cried. 'I've just got to finish this culture and then I'm through.'
'Have you seen young Callaghan?' I said.
'Not since early this afternoon. He left here about three hours ago. Isn't he at the house?'
'He is not,' I answered. 'And his pony is still tied up to the gate.'
He pushed back his chair and rose. 'What on earth can have happened?' he cried. 'He left me to go there, and since then I've been here in the laboratory.'
We went out and shouted his name. No answer. Mary had joined us. Once again we shouted. And this time we were answered. From a building about forty yards away there came peal after peal of wild laughter— laughter that froze the blood in one's veins.
'My God! What's that?' I muttered, and as I spoke I saw Longman's face. For a second he had let himself go, and his expression was one of devilish joy. Then the mask returned, and he began to run towards the sound. 'He's in the snake house,' he shouted, 'and he can't open the door from the inside.'
It was a Yale lock which shut automatically and I still wake up sweating sometimes at night when I remember those next few minutes. Inside the room were scores of snakes hissing venomously, and the demented youngster. He was sitting on the floor babbling foolishly, whilst every now and then he uttered a shout of laughter. He had gone mad, and when we pulled him out he struggled to get back. 'Pretty snakes,' he kept on saying. 'I like pretty snakes.'
Mary, poor child, was spared that part because she had fainted, and when we got Callaghan to the laboratory Longman and I faced one another. 'What a dreadful thing!' he said. 'And if only he had known, all those snakes are harmless. They have had their fangs removed.'
'How did he get in there?' I demanded.
'Curious, possibly, to see what was inside,' he said calmly. 'And then the door shut behind him.' And speaking, knew that I knew he lied.
Charlie Maxwell leaned back in his chair. "I have said things to men in my life," he continued, "which have seared their souls. I have fought men in my life, where if there had been weapons one of us would have died. But I have never said to any man what I said to George Longman that evening, while Jack Callaghan still babbled in his corner. And I have never been nearer to murdering any man without a weapon than I was when I fought George Longman that evening. I am as certain that he decoyed that poor boy into that foul place and shut him in as I am that I am sitting in this chair. Can't you picture the hours of mental agony the poor boy went through till his brain could stand it no more and his reason snapped?"
"Is he still insane?" asked the Doctor.
Charlie nodded. "A hopeless case. Mary had brain fever, and you see what she is now. I have never said anything to her—naturally, I had not a vestige of proof—and she still thinks it was an accident. At least," he added, as he rose, "I suppose she does. But she must think it funny that her husband has forbidden her to speak to me. And once or twice this voyage I've seen her look at him as if..."
He paused and lit another cigarette.
"As if," he repeated, "she would not rush to open the door of a snake house in which he was locked, even if the snakes were not harmless."
I SUPPOSE, as a law-abiding citizen, I should have informed the police; but I didn't. I think it was the barefaced impudence of the thing that intrigued me; and anyway, what would have been the use of telling a French gendarme the truth concerning the great Magor Diamond mystery? It had happened in England, as all the world knows, five years previously. But much water flows under the bridge in that time: other crimes had flitted across the stage, and even that nine days wonder was forgotten. Besides, as I say, the little blighter intrigued me.
I met him at Aix-les-Bains doing a cure. We were both staying at the Hotel Splendide, and once or twice I had run into him in the bar when we were allowing ourselves a slight fall from grace. He was a small man by the name of Martin—William Martin, of Birmingham. At least, that was what was entered up in the visitors' book; afterwards, I wondered.
His age I put down at about forty-five, though he might have been older. He was clean shaven and his hair was plentifully flecked with grey. But his hands were the most noticeable thing about him. He had for his height quite the longest fingers I have ever seen, especially the top joints, which he could bend back in a most uncanny way. They were, in fact, the fingers of a conjurer, and I was not surprised when, one evening, he did some amazing tricks with a pack of cards for the benefit of two or three of us who happened to be sitting with him. And then, just as he was going to bed he suddenly paused by the door in a startled way.
"Good gracious me, gentlemen," he cried, "how careless of me! You might have suspected all sorts of things."
And I'm dashed if he didn't produce from his pocket two cigarette-cases and a gold watch belonging to us! He roared with laughter, and we laughed too, though not quite so heartily.
"A little proof to the Colonel," he said as he left the room, "that what I can do as an amateur is easy money for the professional."
"Darned sight too easy," growled old Firebrace, who disliked being made a fool of. "Shouldn't wonder if the blighter ain't a professional himself. I know one thing: I wouldn't play cards with him for a pony." And yet no one could have been quieter than he was. He drank the waters and conformed strictly—or as strictly as anybody did—to the rules and regulations of the cure. He read a lot, principally lives and biographies, and he could talk sensibly on a variety of subjects. In fact, in his quiet way he was distinctly good value for money.
I forget what started the conversation on crime one evening. I was sitting alone with him, and I think there had been an account in the papers of some woman being run in for trying to smuggle silk things through Dover. At any rate, I know I made some remark as to the inequality of the age-old struggle between the criminal and the forces of law and order.
"Sooner or later they all get caught," I said, "and a very good thing too."
For a while he said nothing, though it struck me that the faintest of smiles twitched round his lips. Then: "All is perhaps a slight exaggeration," he remarked, "though I quite agree with your general statement. And yet, there is a fascination in pitting your wits against the whole resources of the police. Finger-prints: flying squads: wireless—all the powers of science ranged against you. Or perhaps I should say ranged against the man who does it." he added with a deprecating wave of the hand.
I bowed: words seemed unnecessary.
"Are you interested in what people call crime?" he asked.
"A rather peculiar way of putting it," I said. "Crime, I take it, is always crime."
"But there are varying degrees," he insisted. "In the eyes of the law perhaps you are right. But I maintain that the man who swindles a poor woman out of a shilling is an infinitely more despicable character, and should be punished far more severely, than the man who relieves a millionaire of several thousand pounds."
"A dangerous doctrine," I remarked; "though I suppose that, from a sentimental point of view, most people would agree with you."
"Now I," he continued, "have always been interested in the study of crime. And from a purely academic angle, I think I may claim to have as much knowledge on the subject as anyone, in the force or out of it. It has always fascinated me, the lone gamble against gigantic odds. And I feel a great admiration for a man when he brings off a big coup and gets away with it."
"Very few of them do," I put in.
"As you say," he agreed, "very few of them do. All the more power then to the very few."
"And even if they get away to begin with," I said, "the pitcher always goes to the well once too often."
"Always?" He raised his eyebrows. "I wonder."
"It's easy to wonder," I said, a little nettled. "There can be no proof either way. After all, if a man isn't caught, it may merely mean that he has given it up and is running straight."
"Of course," he agreed. "And yet that doesn't alter my argument. It may be that by the time he has given it up he has been so successful that it is unnecessary for him to continue. Naturally, I am not alluding to the petty burglar—the man who breaks into villa residences and pinches the spoons. The man I am referring to is the really big one, who plans perhaps one or, at the most, two coups a year. Who plots and plans and contrives for each of them as an artist does, and whose risk of being caught in his one coup is greater than the little man in his many, because he has so much more to contend with."
"Can you give an example?" I said, interested in spite of myself.
"Many," he answered. "There was the case of the two Vandycks stolen from the chateau of the Prince de Perpignan: the celebrated mail-bag robbery on the liner between Southampton and Cherbourg six months ago: a dozen I could mention. But I think that the one that might amuse you most was the removal of the great Magor diamond from its so-called lawful owner, Sir Rube Jenkins, five years ago."
"Why so-called?" I put in.
He shrugged his shoulders. "You surely know Rube Jenkins's past history," he said. "And the less said about it the better. To my own knowledge there were at least three men who had a prior claim to that stone. However, that is beside the point. Do you recall the story at all?"
"Vaguely," I said. "I remember there was the devil of a song and dance about it in the newspapers."
"And quite right, too," he remarked with spirit. "A work of art is a work of art, whatever be the medium in which it is expressed. And I maintain that that robbery was a very fine example of such a work. I will, if it does not bore you, run over the salient points of the case, and you can judge for yourself."
"There is nothing I should like more," I assured him.
He settled himself comfortably in his chair and lit a cigarette.
"To make things quite clear," he began, "I will go back some years. Mr. Rube Jenkins, as he then was, was one of those products of South Africa who made their money round Kimberley during the diamond rush. And, to put the matter mildly, he was not the most scrupulous of them. It was never brought home to him, but against his name in the dossiers out there the three letters I.D.B. were written in letters of red. Time went on, and from being the owner of a small store he grew to be a wealthy man and finally a millionaire many times over. And it was at that latter stage of his career that the great Magor diamond came into his possession in circumstances which do not bear looking into. At least two men got knifed in the process, and another was shot in a most suspicious manner. Anyway, Rube got the diamond, while three other men got varying terms of imprisonment. And it is of interest to note that all three of them, before they left the court for jail, swore openly from the dock that they would be even with him.
"A month or two later Rube returned to England, bringing with him his wife. And the lady was about the only thing Rube ever possessed in his life that he deserved. It is hard to say which was the more impossible being of the two. In fact, one can only paraphrase the old chestnut of the man at the country hotel: 'Waiter, if this is tea, bring me coffee; and if it's coffee, I'll have tea.' So with Rube and his wife. When you were with either of them alone, it was impossible not to believe that the other was less repulsive. So you sought the other, and found you were wrong. However, their wealth was fabulous, and when they bought Mexbridge Towers, and started spending a fortune on the Turf, Society gradually began to take them up. In fact, you may remember that the year War broke out the devastating spectacle was seen of both of them in the Royal Enclosure at Ascot.
"During the War they turned Mexbridge Towers into a hospital, supplied a Red Cross train in France, and did all the usual things necessary to turn Mrs. Jenkins into Lady of that ilk. And in the fullness of time Rube was made a Knight of the British Empire, which caused those who knew him best to shake with silent laughter.
"The War ended: the wounded were drafted away to other hospitals, and Sir Rube and Lady Jenkins returned to Mexbridge Towers prepared to continue their assault on Society. They bought Old Masters and tapestries, and first editions, and scattered them indiscriminately about the house. They had fifty gardeners, and twenty Rolls-Royces—or perhaps I've reversed the figures: they had grouse moors and deer forests, and salmon rivers. And finally they had the great Magor diamond.
"During the War this celebrated stone had been stored in the strong-room of Rube's bank in London, but now that they had come into residence again he determined that this, his crowning glory, must be on view. And so he had a specially embossed golden cabinet of incredible vulgarity made for it.
"You have doubtless passed at times the window of one of the super chocolate shops in London or Paris, and you have seen reposing in the middle one lone bon-bon. It lies there supreme, with nothing else to distract one's attention. This, then, was his idea. Alone, on a black velvet throne in the middle of the golden cabinet reposed the diamond. The lid was of glass, and cunningly concealed lights shone on this apple of his eye till the reflection almost dazzled the spectator.
"The cabinet, on its four monstrous legs, stood in a downstairs room, which at first sight struck one as being dangerous. But Rube was, in reality, taking no risks. Every known form of burglar-proof apparatus protected that apparently harmless-looking cabinet. The glass, though flawless, was an inch thick: the lock was a special combination, one that was reset daily by Rube himself. But he went much further than that. Not only were the windows and the door fitted with electric alarms that rang all over the house if they were tampered with, but the cabinet itself, when set, gave anyone who touched it a shock which, even if not strong enough to electrocute them, was powerful enough to lay them out temporarily. And when, in addition to all that, it was known that the diamond was always returned to the London bank when Sir Rube was not in residence, you will realise that it was a pretty tough nut for any burglar to crack.
"But there were still further difficulties to contend with. Two of the men who had gone to prison vowing vengeance against Rube were accounted for. One had died in jail: the other had gone over with the South African contingent and had been killed at Delville Wood. But the third, and most dangerous, still remained. And the Knight of the British Empire was taking no chances. In addition to carrying, himself, a six-shooter with which he was a deadly performer, he kept a couple of prize-fighting toughs about the place as a sort of personal bodyguard. They remained in the background if a house party was there, because their appearance was so awful that they used to spoil the guests' appetites if seen. But their orders were to deal in their own way with any unauthorised man whom they saw loitering in the grounds or near the house."
The little man paused and lit another cigarette.
"So, as I said before," he continued. "I think you will agree that the removal of the Magor diamond was a pretty tough proposition. And that being the case, it was all the greater incentive to the big men to try. Human nature is the same in all branches of life, and the greater the difficulties the keener the zest in overcoming them. But, though two or three attempts were made, failure was registered each time. One man, it is true, negotiated the burglar-proof window in some extraordinary way, but was defeated by the cabinet itself. In fact, when he was found next morning, he was only just alive.
"And so, as years passed and the great Magor diamond still remained in its golden casket. Sir Rube, though he never relaxed his precautions, became more or less contemptuous in his references to the abilities of what he was pleased to call the underworld.
"'Show me the man who will lift that stone he was wont to say, 'and I'll give ten thousand pounds to any charity you like to mention.'
"It was six years ago that the third man of whom I have told you was liberated from jail. His name was Mark Sanderson, and he was just about as dangerous a wild beast as you are ever likely to meet. He had always been a wrong un, but his life in prison had made him a hundred times worse. And, somewhat naturally, Rube Jenkins was the principal object of his hatred.
"No sooner had he landed in England than he began to write threatening letters, and Sir Rube at once put the matter in the hands of the police. With a very strange result—one of the strangest perhaps in the whole of the baffling case. Though he gave the police a description of the man, which they supplemented by reference to South Africa, no trace of Mark Sanderson was ever discovered. He was known to have embarked at Cape Town: he was known to have landed at Southampton, but from that moment he vanished completely, though the letters continued to arrive from widely separated parts of the country with monotonous regularity. It took, of course, a day at least for each one to arrive, and by that time the postmark was useless. Nevertheless, it was a very extraordinary thing, that a man for whom the entire police force was looking should be able to hide himself for nearly a year in England; for it was eleven months after Mark Sanderson landed that the robbery took place. During that time Sir Rube was not idle, He had an electrician down to overhaul and strengthen the whole system round the cabinet. He engaged another prize-fighter to make the total three. But one thing he would not do. To every suggestion that he should store the diamond permanently at his bank he turned a deaf ear. He utterly refused to confess to being frightened of Mark Sanderson, and to do that would have been tantamount to such a confession.
"And so we come to the house party which assembled at Mexbridge Towers for Ascot in the year of the crime, of which, even at the risk of boring you, I will give you a list. There were the Earl and Countess of Shotover; a Colonel and Mrs. Maddox; a stockbroker named Leader and his wife; Professor Rankel, the well-known art connoisseur and enthusiastic lepidopterist; Aaronhaus, the big Hatton Garden diamond man; two girls, whose names I forget, and the host and hostess.
"Not, as you will agree, a very well assorted lot, but Rube, even then, had to be content with what he could get. The Shotovers, as you know, go anywhere provided they are done well; Colonel Maddox and his wife were of much the same brand. They were all four of them chronically hard up. The stockbroker was the senior partner of the firm that Rube employed most; the diamond man was also a business acquaintance; while Professor Rankel had, after much pressing, been persuaded to come to give his opinion on the art treasures. And finally the two girls were there merely to make up the numbers.
"Such, then, was the party that went in to dinner on the night of the Gold Cup. They had all been over to the races: even the Professor had been inveigled into going for the first time in his life. 'It has been a long-standing promise of mine to come and see your collection,' he told his host, 'but attending a horse-race was not part of the bargain. However, if you insist, I will go.'
"And he had gone, leaving Shotover fainting in the hall at his rig. 'My dear Jenkins,' he said feebly, 'the little man can't wear a frock-coat and a bowler. He can't. He mustn't. We shall all be assassinated on the course. And what in the name of fortune is he taking a butterfly-net for?' It was, I may mention, a peculiar fad of the Professor's to carry a butterfly-net and killing-bottle with him wherever he went, and it was only with considerable difficulty, on this occasion, that he was persuaded to leave them in the car. So great was his enthusiasm for his hobby that had he seen any specimen he wanted fluttering over the course, he would probably have pursued it quite heedless of the racing. But the danger had been averted and a very cheerful party sat down to dine. Shotover had backed a couple of long-priced winners: a horse of Rube's had won one of the smaller races, and a Duchess had nodded to Lady Jenkins by mistake.
"Then quite suddenly the atmosphere changed. A letter was handed on a salver to Rube, and the instant he saw it his face turned purple.
"'When did this come?' he roared.
"'Just been delivered, Sir Rube,' said the butler.
"'Search the grounds, Wilcox,' cried his master. 'Tell Robinson and the others to look everywhere.' Robinson was the chief of the three prize-fighters. 'The insolence of the scoundrel!' he went on furiously. 'It's that blackguard Sanderson again. You remember I told you about him, Shotover?'
"'Why not open the note and see what he has to say?' said the other languidly. Which proceeding made matters worse. Sir Rube's voice became so suffused with rage as to become inaudible, and Lady Shotover, after a moment or two, calmly removed it from his hand.
"'You poor fish,' she read aloud, 'I dare you to hand round the diamond as usual tonight.'
"Now, I may tell you it was the invariable custom, when a house party assembled at Mexbridge Towers, to pass the Magor diamond round from hand to hand one evening after dinner. It was done with due ceremony, and the pleasing idea underlying the performance was that all the honoured guests should be able to say in the future that they had held in their hands for a moment a thing the value of which would have saved hundreds of poor people from starvation.
"'Dares me!' spluttered Sir Rube. 'Dares me! I'll show the rotten cur what I dare and what I don't! And what's more, I'll catch him this time, if he gives me half a chance. I'll show those blundering fools of police how to do their own job.'"
The meal proceeded, but the harmony of the evening was shattered. And things were not improved when they adjourned after dinner, by the Professor, who had in a fit of absent-mindedness left his butterfly-net on the sofa usually patronised by Mrs. Maddox. The lady was about to sit down when his shout of anguish rent the air. 'Woman!' he yelled, 'don't sit down.'
"By a supreme feat of contortion she complied with his request, and glaring at her wrathfully the Professor removed his net and killing-bottle.
"'Six sofas in this room', he rumbled, 'and you must needs choose this one!'
"'How dare you call me woman!' she said shrilly.
"'I thought you were one,' he answered calmly, 'but you know best. Anyway, whatever you are, there's no cause to break my butterfly-net.' He placed it carefully in a corner and began wandering round the room inspecting the pictures. And he was keeping up a running commentary on the unspeakable manner in which they were hung when his host entered with a large revolver in his hand. The ladies shrieked, but Sir Rube held up his hand reassuringly.
"'Please do not be alarmed', he remarked. 'I am just going to say a few words, if I may, for the benefit of those of you who do not know the facts. This evening at dinner the note which I received upset me greatly. It was from a man who has been annoying me considerably for some months past: a man, I may say, who imagines he has some grudge against me. Now, since this note was delivered by hand, the assumption is that the man is about the place. He dared me, you may remember, to carry out the little ceremony of handing round the great Magor diamond. Had it not been for this note I should have postponed it till the last evening of your visit; as it is, however, I propose to kill, if I can, two birds with one stone.
"'Knowing this man to be a desperate character, I think it more than likely that he will make some attempt at a hold-up. He is probably hoping that the effect of his note will be exactly what we are going to let it be. Bluff, you perceive, of the second degree. Now then—what will occur if my surmise is correct? He will enter by the window, which we will open to its full width, and cover us with his revolver. We shall all put up our hands, and at that moment my three men who are hidden on each side of the window will collar him from behind.'
"'That's all very well,' said the Professor, nervously, 'but supposing he lets off his gun? He might hit somebody.'
"'Don't you worry about that, Professor,' laughed Sir Rube. 'My men will see to that. And if there is any trouble, there is always this.' He patted his own revolver significantly. 'Now we will start. But there is one thing I beg of you, ladies—try to appear quite natural. Don't keep glancing at the window, or anything of that sort, or it may give the show away. Leader, would you mind opening it as wide as you can? Thank you. Now if we form a circle: that's right.'
"He placed his revolver on a table behind the cabinet, so that it was quite invisible from the window; then with a flourish he opened the lid. 'The great Magor diamond, ladies and gentlemen,' he said grandiloquently, but, in spite of his warning to the others, his eyes kept darting towards the window. 'The largest and most perfect stone in the world.'
"He picked it up on its velvet stand and with a low bow presented it to Lady Shotover. 'Take it in your hands and feel the weight, dear lady,' he cried. And then in an undertone he added: 'I'm getting back to my revolver.'
"It passed from hand to hand, and everybody dutifully gave forth gurgles of wonder and delight, though it was noticeable that it moved with a rapidity that suggested a red hot stone. No one had the slightest wish to be the temporary possessor of it when the expected visitor materialised. Until, that is, it came to the Professor, who was beyond any thought of such a trifle as the Magor diamond. One of the girls had put it in his hand, but he was quite unconscious of it. For he was staring at a spot on the carpet opposite him, and his eyes were almost coming out of his head.
"'Look,' he whispered hoarsely. 'Heavens! but it is. I know it is. Here, take the bauble.' He literally threw the diamond at Mrs. Maddox, who was sitting next to him, leaped like a maniac for his butterfly-net, and the next moment with a sweep he brought it down on the floor.
"'It is!' he shrieked in an ecstasy, examining the net. 'The killing-bottle! Give me the killing-bottle!'
"'What on earth is it?' cried his host irritably.
"'The killing-bottle! cried the Professor. 'Hurry! hurry!' Somebody gave him the bottle, and with infinite care he inserted it under the net. 'A Death's Head moth,' he explained. 'And a perfect specimen. What luck! What incredible luck!'
"He straightened up and beamed on the company.
"'What a ridiculous fuss to make over a butterfly!' said Mrs. Maddox acidly, but the Professor was impervious to insult. With his killing-bottle in his hands he sat crooning gently to himself, whilst every now and then he held it up to the light to examine it better.
"'After which entertaining interlude,' remarked his host sarcastically, 'we might perhaps return to the trifling subject of my diamond.'
"Mrs. Maddox was still holding it, and once more it started on its round, amidst a chorus of praise. But somehow it rang a little flat; the solemnity of the moment had been spoiled. And Sir Rube, quite justifiably, felt ruffled. Why the deuce did the little fool want to go prancing after a wretched moth in the middle of the ceremony?
"The diamond came to Aaronhaus. Now, at any rate, would come the real appreciation of an expert. 'What do you think of that, my boy?' he said complacently. 'Something like a diamond—what?'
"The Jew looked at it; then at his host. 'Very like it.' he agreed courteously. 'Of course, my dear Jenkins, I should have realised that with the possibility of this man trying to get your stone you would take additional precautions. Still, I congratulate you, I must say.' He examined it again critically. 'Perfect,' he remarked.. 'Perfect. Who did it for you?'
"A sudden silence settled on the room. 'What the hell are you talking about? said Sir Rube thickly.
"'This,' said the Jew. 'It's paste, and very perfect paste. And I wondered who had done it.'
"'You lie!' roared his host, snatching it out of the Jew's hand. He examined it himself; then he let it drop on the floor.
"'By God!' 'he said softly, 'you're right!' His eyes roved round the silent circle of people, and there was murder in them. Sir Rube Jenkins of Mexbridge Towers had departed; Rube Jenkins of the mining camp had taken his place. 'Which of you—did it?' he said even more softly.
"Lord Shotover rose to his feet. 'We have the misfortune to be your guests,' he remarked icily.. 'And as their temporary spokesman I have the honour to inform you that a man who can use the word you have just used in the presence of ladies is a cad and an outsider of the first water.'
"'Maybe,' said the other thickly, picking up his revolver. 'But no one leaves this room till my diamond is handed back. I'll give the culprit half a minute: if it's not forthcoming by then, I send for the police.'
"'What exactly is your accusation? demanded Colonel Maddox.
"'A very simple one,' said the other. 'In the course of my diamond being handed round, somebody has substituted this paste thing for it. Where is the real one?'
"'Probably in that ridiculous bottle of the Professor's,' said Mrs. Maddox venomously.
"One of the girls gave a nervous little laugh, and then gasped. For the entire room was staring at Professor Rankel, whose face had gone the colour of putty.
"'Ridiculous,' he spluttered. 'Absurd.' He clutched the bottle even tighter as Sir Rube advanced towards him. 'I tell you it is absurd!' he cried shrilly.
"'You look as if it was,' snarled his host, levelling his revolver at the Professor's head. 'Give me that bottle!'
"He snatched it from the other's hands, opened it and turned it upside down. And there fell out a very dead moth and the great Magor diamond.
"'You dirty little thief,' said Sir Rube softly as he picked it up. 'So that is why you were prancing round with a butterfly-net.' And then he broke off abruptly, and peered at the diamond. 'But I don't understand,' he stuttered. 'This is paste too!' And even the so-called Professor looked astounded.
"'Am I going dippy?' Sir Rube cried. 'Look, Aaronhaus! That's paste, isn't it?'
"'It certainly is,' agreed the Jew.
"'Then where is my diamond?' said Sir Rube feebly, and Colonel Maddox smiled behind his hand.
"'Where indeed?' he murmured pointedly.
"'What do you mean?' demanded the other.
"'As to where your diamond is, I'm afraid I can't help you,' said the soldier, 'except to remark that it certainly is not in this room.'
"'But it was,' spluttered the other. 'You all saw me take it out of the cabinet.'
"'We saw nothing of the sort,' answered the soldier. 'We saw you take something out of the cabinet which you told us was the diamond, and which we believed to be the diamond.' A murmur of assent came from the others. 'This—er—person,' continued Colonel Maddox, indicating the Professor, had evidently conceived the friendly idea of substituting a paste stone for the genuine one. Unfortunately—or, perhaps, in view of that chance shot of my wife's, fortunately for him—he only substituted one piece of paste for another.'
"'Do you mean to say I shouldn't have noticed that it was paste when I took it out?' cried Sir Rube.
"'Hold hard again,' said Lord Shotover. 'You didn't take it in your hand. You gave it to my wife on that velvet thing.'
"And once more there came a murmur of assent. 'I expect that man you were talking about stole it before we came in,' said one of the girls, and Sir Rube—all the bluster out of him—could only stare at her dazedly.
"'That is a possible solution,' agreed the soldier. 'And if so, I fear he's away by this time. But you must go back further. When was the last time you actually handled the diamond yourself, Jenkins?'
"'About three months ago.'
"The Colonel shrugged his shoulders. 'Then at any time during those three months the substitution may have taken place,' he remarked. I'm very sorry for you, my dear fellow, especially as I know you thought this place was burglar-proof. But in my humble opinion there's nothing that has yet been constructed by man that can't be opened by him. Don't you agree, Shotover?'
"'Most certainly,' said the other. 'Couldn't have put it clearer myself."
"And at that it was left. No trace of Mark Sanderson was ever discovered. In fact, he has never been heard of again. And, after much discussion, in which the soldier played a prominent part, it was decided that the Professor had been sufficiently punished by the disgrace he had incurred, and his share in the proceedings was glossed over."
The little man paused, and called the barman. "What's yours?" he said.
"But, dash it, man," I cried, "you can't leave it like that. What had really happened?"
"Well," he remarked, "the popular theory was the one put forward by the girl—that Mark Sanderson stole it while the party was at dinner, and then sent the note to make his revenge the more complete."
"And your theory?" I demanded.
"Is, of course, purely academic," he said, taking a sip of his drink. "You appreciate, naturally, the main difficulty that confronted the thief. To substitute a paste diamond for the genuine article was child's play, but to hide the real one was a very different matter. A police search is no joke. A thing the size of the Magor diamond would most certainly have been discovered. It was, therefore, imperative to prevent a search, and they hit on a very clever ruse to achieve their object.
"There were two paste stones. When the real diamond came to the Professor, he passed it on to Mrs. Maddox, and made a diversion over an imaginary moth. He had one already in the killing-bottle, and he slipped one of the paste stones in as well. Taking advantage of the excitement, Mrs. Maddox substituted the other paste stone for the genuine diamond, which finally came to Aaronhaus and was at once discovered, she having the real one in her bag.
"Now came the moment. She had already quarrelled with the Professor: what more natural than her acid remark about the killing-bottle? To the others it was an arrow at a venture, which, by a wild fluke, hit the mark; but the whole thing was, of course, carefully premeditated. And immediately a red herring was drawn over the trail.
"Then came in the Colonel, who proceeded to dominate the situation. He suggested a plausible theory to which everyone assented, and Sir Rube was so dumbfounded over the whole business that he agreed as well. The danger of a search was over.
"Now they were in clover. The only man who could possibly be arrested was the Professor, but there was nothing incriminating on him. True, he had evidently gone to Mexbridge Towers with the intention of stealing the diamond, but he hadn't succeeded. The utmost that could happen to him was a short term of imprisonment, and punishing him didn't help Sir Rube to get his diamond back, which was all he cared about.
"Finally, Mark Sanderson. Well, it is a strange coincidence, but on landing at Southampton he was met by a man who bore a slight resemblance to Colonel Maddox. And, but for the fact that three days later he was knifed and killed in a drunken brawl down in the East End, he might have figured more than he did in my story. But, since there were no papers on him, and nothing by which he could be identified, it occurred to the Colonel that he might profitably be kept alive to write threatening letters to Sir Rube. Another red herring, and a useful one: as I said, most people thought he was the thief."
"It's lucky for the thieves," I said, "that Sir Rube didn't handle the diamond when he gave it to Lady Shotover."
He drained his glass and stood up. "Yes," he agreed, "but it would have made no difference. The weights of the real and the paste stones were identical, and it was extremely improbable that he would examine it when he took it out. Anyway, that was a risk they had to run." He lit a cigarette. "Well, I must be getting along. A charming woman is getting up charades in aid of the local cats' home, and I'm performing."
"Really?" I said. "What part are you taking?"
A faint smile flickered round his lips, as he opened the door.
"That of a retired English colonel," he murmured.
ON an average Tim Anstruther and I meet about once every five years, and when we do my wife gets a telephone call to say that I am detained in London for the night on business.
Twenty-four hours is the minimum time for recovery. And so when I butted into him in Regent Street the other day, I went without further ado into a telephone booth and did the necessary. Then we adjourned for a small one.
An extraordinary chap—Tim. Providence in the shape of a father who had made something in jam, had endowed him with ample money, so that a rooted disinclination for any settled occupation was no drawback to him.
He had been able without inconvenience to lead the only life he wanted to—that of a wanderer in strange corners of the globe.
There seemed literally to be no spot he did not know, and if one could get him in a communicative mood he was the very best value for money I've ever met. The trouble was that getting him into such a mood was what necessitated twenty-four hours' recovery for people like myself.
But let it not be thought that this is going to be a record of inordinate consumption of alcohol: I have only put in this short introduction to emphasise the fact that on this occasion the mood occurred within half an hour of our meeting. And the reason of it was so amazing that even now I can hardly believe what he said. There must be a mistake: and yet...
We decided to lunch at the Royal Motor Club, that vast caravanserai which numbers its members by the ten thousands. And we were standing by the bar preparatory to feeding when a man I knew slightly, by the name of Finlay, came up and spoke to me.
I was surprised at seeing him there because he is a strict teetotaller, in addition to being perilously near, one of the unco guid. He specialises in charitable works, and you can always safely bet that he will try and touch you for his latest pet scheme. To cap it he is a churchwarden and carries round the plate on Sunday.
I forget what he wanted to talk to me about—something trifling, and he was just moving away when, somewhat to my surprise, Tim spoke to him. "Excuse me, sir," he said, "but weren't you out in Burma some years ago?"
Finlay paused and looked at him. "No, sir," he answered gravely. "I have never been out East."
"The last man I should imagine would have been, old boy," I said as Finlay moved away. "Unless it was a round the world trip in a liner."
"Let's have another, Bill," he remarked thoughtfully. "I'll swear I'm not mistaken."
I shrugged my shoulders. "Then why should he deny it?" I asked. "For I, on my side, will swear that there is nothing in Finlay's past that will not bear the closest investigation. Why, my dear boy, he damned near preaches in the Park."
"How long have you known him?"
"Four or five years. But only really as a club acquaintance." Out of the corner of his eye he was still watching Finlay, and I could see he was strangely excited.
"If I'm right," he said at length, "it's the most incredible thing that I have ever encountered in my life, and I've run against a few off and on."
"But if you'd known him out there he'd have remembered you," I objected.
"No: he wouldn't," said Tim. "Because he was so drunk on the one occasion I saw him that he couldn't remember anybody."
"Finlay drunk?" I remarked incredulously. "You must be wrong, Tim."
"Perhaps I am, Bill," he said after a while. "And perhaps I'm not. But one of my few assets is a memory for faces. A religious bloke, is he? Well, that covers a multitude of sins on occasions."
"I should be interested to hear which particular one it covers in his case," I said.
"Murder," remarked Tim quietly. "Cold blooded, brutal murder: planned out and premeditated over many years."
"My dear Tim," I protested feebly.
"And committed," he continued calmly, "since you've known him— to be correct, four years ago."
"But it's impossible," I spluttered. "You're pulling my leg. Who the deuce did he murder?"
"Look here, Bill," he said with a grin. "I may be talking the most appalling hot air, but I've got a hunch that I'm not. And anyway, the yarn might interest you. I'm busy all this afternoon, and I can't tell it to you over lunch: it's too long. But if you care to have a spot of dinner with me at my club, I'll spin it to you afterwards."
And at that we left it. Tim went off shortly after two, leaving me to my own devices, and as luck would have it I found myself in the smoking-room sitting next a man who knew Finlay far better than I did.
"It's mere idle curiosity on my part," I said, after a little desultory conversation, "but that man Finlay rather interests me. He was after me this morning for some society or other he's running at the moment. What does he do with himself when he's not touting round for money?"
My companion lit a cigarette. "I don't think he's got time for much else." he answered with a grin. "As a matter of fact, he's in a big jute firm in the City."
"How long has he been with them?"
"About five or six years. It was when he joined them that I first got to know him, because he came to live down close to me in Surrey, and being unmarried my missis and I started asking him over occasionally for dinner. A rum bird, but he's lonely, poor devil."
"Rum in what way?" I asked.
"Well, even the mildest story doesn't go down with him, for instance. He isn't exactly, shocked, but he simply gives one the impression that he regards you as a dirty little schoolboy. And, of course, on the subject of drink he is quite fanatical. Then again—women. Naturally, he is polite to my wife, but you can see at a glance that he dislikes the sex as a whole."
"What was he doing before he came to live there?"
"I don't know. He has never volunteered any information on the subject, and he's not the type of man you can question. From an odd remark or two he's made, I gathered he was in France during the War, and in the infantry."
"I suppose you don't happen to know if he's been out East," I hazarded.
My informant shook his head and rose. "He's never said anything about it," he answered, "but that doesn't mean that he may not have been. As I said, he's a rum 'un, but there's no doubt about it that in his own way he's a very decent fellow. He doesn't enliven a dinner table, but if I was in a hole he's a man I wouldn't hesitate to go to."
With a nod he was gone, leaving me to my thoughts. Assuredly Tim must have made a mistake: it was inconceivable to believe that such a man was a murderer. A chance likeness would account for it: any other solution was obviously absurd. In any case, how could he possibly say that a man he had met in Burma many years ago, and had never seen since, was responsible for a murder which had taken place recently. And so when we were comfortably seated in a corner of his club that evening I was prepared to listen to an interesting story, but Finlay was already acquitted.
Indeed, Tim himself had recanted, and admitted that it must be a question of an unusual likeness.
"Nevertheless," he remarked, "the story may interest you because it gives a very strange example of what an idee fixe will do to a man, and of the desperate passions which can be engendered by what on the face of it is a comparatively trivial thing. We admit even in England that under certain circumstances killing is justified. A man catching his wife with another man is one of them, and though we don't present him with a diploma of merit as they do in France, the chances are that he is let off lightly. Again, we have all of us heard of the overmastering rage that can be raised in a convict's breast if another convict hurts his pet mouse. I don't believe public opinion would ever tolerate that man being hanged, if in the heat of the moment he succeeded in killing the other. But my story concerns nothing so human as that: it concerns a gramophone record." He smiled as he saw my look of astonishment. "A common or garden gramophone record," he repeated. "Not even a valuable one, such, let us say, as one giving Caruso's actual voice which would be almost impossible to replace. It was just an ordinary record that could be bought by the dozen in any shop. However, of that in due course.
"We've got to go back to the year of grace 1910. I was doing a wander round in the East, and in the course of it I found myself up— country in Burma. The exact locality is of no importance, but I had been trekking for several weeks when I arrived at one of those little communities of white men which one finds scattered about in the back of beyond. Teak was the particular raison d'etre of this one, though the manner of living of the occupants varies but little whatever be the cause of their banishment. It was pestilentially hot: the rains were about due, and in consequence tempers were a bit on edge. The two married men had sent their wives down-country, so that even that small restraint was removed.
"The first man I butted into was a fellow called Congleton, whom I had met once or twice before. He was the manager, and one of the best. His liver wanted watching in the morning, but so do most people's out there. And he insisted that I should stop at his bungalow for as long as I liked.
"'The longer the better, Anstruther,' he said. 'Mary has gone back home, and I've got another six months before I'm due for leave. And, to tell you the truth, I'm fed up with my own and the rest of the company here.'
"So I agreed at any rate to remain a few days, and in the course of the first two I met the rest of the bunch. There was Rogerson, a great big hulking chap, foul mouthed always and violent in addition when he'd got a bit of liquor on board. There was Aldridge, quiet to the point of being almost morose, and two or three others whose parents had obviously not paid any attention to Kipling's dictum that East is East and West is West. Anyway, they don't come into the matter.
"You may remember that it was just about then that auction bridge was beginning, and it happened that I was the only man there who had any practical knowledge of the game. So, since they were all keen to learn, Rogerson and Aldridge came round each evening to Congleton's bungalow after tiffin, and I showed them the rudiments of it. And the third evening after my arrival, we sat down to our first genuine rubber.
"It was an electric sort of night: even the exertion of dealing made one sweat. There was a storm about, and every living thing seemed to know it. Not a sound broke the silence outside: it seemed as if a heavy blanket was pressing on one's head.
"Aldridge had just dealt, and Rogerson was on his left: don't forget they were absolute beginners. Aldridge called a spade, I think it was, and Rogerson, who was playing with me, was trying to remember what I had told him.
"'Now, I'm allowed to say two hearts,' he was beginning, when suddenly the silence was broken by the sound of church bells. The chimes came drifting through the open window and in my surprise I turned round in my chair. The thing was so unexpected, for I knew there was no church anywhere near. And the next moment I got a blow in the side that almost winded me. It was the edge of the table, pushed violently by Rogerson, who was standing up with the veins on his forehead like whipcord. 'Damn and curse that drunken sot!' he said savagely. 'How can a man be expected to think straight with that foul noise going on?'
"'Hold hard,' I remarked mildly. 'Until you very nearly winded me, I thought it was rather pretty.'
"'Sorry, Anstruther,' he cried, sitting down again. 'But you wouldn't think it pretty if you had to listen to that same blasted record over and over again night after night. It's enough to drive one perfectly frantic.'
"So it was a gramophone, and I asked who was the owner.
"'A man who calls himself Jones,' answered Congleton briefly. 'I'll tell you about him later. Get on with it, Rogerson: you ought to be used to it by now.'
"'One day, Congleton,' said the other, and his voice had an ugly ring in it, 'that record is going to die a nasty death. I say two hearts.'
"And so we went on with the game, while the church bells still continued to chime. Six times in succession was that record played, and at the end I confessed there was some justification for Rogerson's outburst. The monotony became maddening: one felt oneself on the verge of shouting—'For Heaven's sake, play something else.' But there was something rather intriguing about the whole thing, and I was not sorry when Aldridge got up after the second rubber and the two of them left.
"'What's the story of the gramophone player?' I asked my host.
"He pushed the whisky towards me and lit a cigarette. 'A fairly common one,' he answered, 'though it has one or two points about it that are of interest. Needless to say, his name is not Jones, though what it really is I have no idea. He arrived here about a year ago, pretty well done in, and as Mary was not here I gave him a shakedown for a couple of nights. Couldn't place him at all, and he volunteered no information about himself. But I soon found out that he was frankly impossible. Drink! Great Scott! old boy, his consumption per week would have floated a battleship. He seemed to have a certain amount of money, though where it came from I don't know, and apparently he still has since whisky has to be paid for. However, just as I was wondering how to get rid of him without being too rude, he settled the matter for me by saying he was going into the bungalow over the way. You can see the light now if you look through the window. It was in a very bad state of repair, but he didn't seem to mind, and he's done nothing to it since. Shortly after that I had to go on trek, and when I came back a month later I found him settled in. It was a little awkward with us being so close, for so far as I could make out he was practically never sober. Then one day a packing-case arrived, and that night the performance you heard this evening began. He'd sent for a gramophone, and some records, and from then on whenever he was not too tight to wind up the machine we were given a concert.
"At first it wasn't too bad; he varied the tunes. But after a time he became more and more set on the one he was playing tonight. How the darned thing hasn't got worn out, I don't know: I believe he must have got two or three of the same one. And one night when he'd played it about eight times, I felt I could stand it no more, and I went over to see him.
"'For the love of Allah, Jones,' I cried, 'give that tune a rest.'
"He was sitting at the table, with a photograph in his hand and a glass of neat whisky by his side. There was a filmy look in his eyes, and I doubt if he even saw me. Certainly my words didn't penetrate his brain. 'The river,' he said huskily, 'the river down Henley way, with the sun setting behind the hills and the sound of the church bells stealing softly over the fields.'
"'That's all very fine and large,' I answered irritably, 'but this isn't Henley. And the sun has set, and there aren't any fields—only a damned great forest. Can't you play something else, man?' His only answer was to switch back to the beginning of the tune, an operation which was not accomplished without difficulty. And then he started talking again—to himself, not to me. Honestly I don't think he knew I was there. And as I listened I learned the story of the man called Jones, and a certain pity took possession of me.
"There was a girl in it—the girl whose photograph he held in his hand. And there was no getting away from it, she was a fizzer. Evidently her people had a house on the river near Henley, and he and she had been engaged. Then she had been bathing one morning, and been drowned. Such, baldly, were the facts that I pieced together from his incoherent ramblings, and the rest was easy to fit in. It showed pitiable weakness on his part admittedly, but I could not help feeling a bit sorry for him. He'd simply let himself go, and the only thing left him was to get drunk and then, with the help of the record, dream that he was back again in a punt drifting down the river with his girl.' Congleton paused and shrugged his shoulders. 'He's a hopeless case: he can't last long at the rate he's going. And so I put up with it. At first it used to get on my nerves: Rogerson is passing through that stage at present. But now I've got used to it, and it doesn't worry me any more.'
"And on that we turned in. As Congleton had said, it showed abject weakness, but there was something a bit pathetic about the case. Drinking himself to death with a gramophone record as his only companion: one couldn't help being sorry for the poor devil. At the same time, I was frankly glad that it would not be my lot to have to go on listening to it ad nauseam. I was leaving two days later, and Rogerson was going on leave at the same time. And so the night before we started bridge was off, since he had to square up everything before he left. He'd been celebrating his approaching departure during the day, and when I saw him just before tiffin he was a bit sprung.
"'Got about two hours' work on accounts to do tonight,' he growled. 'And if that infernal machine tunes up, it'll be out of action for good.'
"A casual remark: I thought no more about it. And even when at ten o'clock the church bells started their nightly chime I had no premonition of trouble. Congleton was giving me one or two commissions to do for him in Rangoon: the record was half-way through, and then it happened. Six revolver shots rang out in rapid succession: the gramophone stopped: there was dead silence.
"But only for a few seconds: then there came a yell of such maniacal fury that we both sprang to our feet. It was followed by a heavy crash, and a grunting noise like a beast worrying its quarry. 'Quick!' shouted Congleton. 'This is serious.' We raced across the road to Joneses' bungalow, and the sight that met our eyes pulled us up short for a moment. Lying on the floor was Rogerson. He was unconscious, with a huge lump already forming on his forehead. Bending over him, making animal noises in his throat, was Jones. His hands were embedded in the flesh of the big man's throat: he was strangling him before our eyes. It took both of us all we knew to pull him off: he was mad drunk and fought like a tiger. In fact, it wasn't till Congleton caught him a beauty on the point of the jaw, and laid him out good and proper, that we could breathe again. Then we took stock of the room, which looked as if a bull elephant had run amok in it.
"In one corner was the gramophone splintered to bits, with the over-turned table beside it. Rogerson's revolver was by the door, and a broken bottle lay at his side, from which a pool of whisky had spread all over his clothes. Jones, his shirt ripped off, sprawled face downwards in the centre of the room, breathing stertorously. The jolt on the chin on top of the whisky he'd drunk would keep him quiet for some time, and so we straightened things up a bit, laid him on the bed, and turned our attention to Rogerson. He was still unconscious, and the bump on his forehead had grown to the size of a grape-fruit.
"'Caught him with that bottle,' grunted Congleton, 'so hard that he broke it. And it serves the damned fool right. We'd better cart him over to my place, Anstruther.'
"So we carried him over the road and dumped him in a chair, and half an hour later he opened his eyes. He stared round dazedly: then he put his hand to his head and groaned. 'What happened?' he muttered at length.
"'What would have happened if we hadn't come on the scene is that you'd have been strangled,' said Congleton curtly. 'He laid you out with a bottle of whisky, and it took both of us to get him off your throat. What on earth did you do?'
"'I suppose I was a bit of a fool,' said Rogerson sheepishly. 'But I was hard at work on accounts, and they drive me mad at the best of times, when that infernal record started. So I went across to his bungalow, and there he was with that cursed machine in front of him, babbling to himself. And I dunno what it was, but I suddenly saw red and shot it up.'
"'Well, it's mighty lucky for you that we were here or it's the last thing you would have shot up,' said Congleton tersely. 'It was a darned rotten thing to do, Rogerson. You're away tomorrow, and it's the only thing the poor devil's got left in the world.'
"'I'll send him one up from Rangoon,' muttered the other a bit shamefacedly. 'Great Scott! my head feels as if it had been hit by a pile-driver.'
"And the following day he and I left, without seeing Jones again. True to his word, he bought a gramophone and sent it upcountry, and with that the whole episode gradually faded from my mind." Tim Anstruther beckoned to a waiter. "Repeat the dose, Palmer," he said.
"About a year later," he continued, after he had lit his pipe. "I ran into Congleton in London. He was back, I discovered, for good, and finding London a far better place than an up-country station on the Irrawady. And while we were celebrating his return I asked him casually whether the man called Jones had drunk himself to death yet. To my surprise he looked quite serious.
"'Do you know, Anstruther,' he said, 'that if anything would convert me to the belief that the age of miracles is not past that case would. You will hardly believe it, but from that night he cut off drinking completely.'
"'Then it looks as if Rogerson did him a good turn,' I remarked.
"'It's the most amazing thing I have ever run across,' he continued. 'After you'd gone that morning I went over to see him. I found him lying on his bed staring at the ceiling, and holding in his hand the pieces of the broken record.
"Has Rogerson gone?" he said to me quietly.
"Yes," I answered. "He asked me to tell you that he was very sorry about it, and he's sending you up a new machine from Rangoon."
"Is he, indeed," he said, still in the same quiet voice. "Congleton, would you mind taking away the whisky you'll find in that cupboard. I shall never drink again, so it is useless to me. And I shall find it easier to start with if it's not there."
"Of course, I will," I told him. "I'll send my boy over for it."
"Thank you." he remarked. "And now don't let me keep you."
"I hung about a bit awkwardly, but as he took no further notice of me, I left him. Naturally I paid not the slightest attention to his remark about cutting the drink out, and in fact I forgot to send my boy to get it. But that evening when I got back from work I found eight bottles on my table: the reformation had started. And he was stone cold sober when the thing that worried me took place. Four days after you left I was passing his bungalow when once again I heard six shots in quick succession. I dashed up the veranda steps to find him sitting at the table with a smashed-up gramophone in front of him. He was white and shaking, which was only to be expected in someone who had knocked drink off completely, but, as I said before, he was sober."
"What's the great idea?" I asked.
"That gramophone has just arrived from Rangoon," he remarked.
"What an utterly childish thing to do," I said. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself." And then, Anstruther, he gave me a look which still haunts me. I would not have believed it possible that so much concentrated hatred could be seen in a man's eyes. "One day, Congleton," he said, "I shall do that to Rogerson himself." And I believe he means it.' Anstruther paused to relight his pipe. 'There was no doubt about it,' he continued, 'old Congleton was quite worried. Rogerson, it appeared, had been transferred elsewhere: Jones had vanished suddenly one morning and had not returned.'
"'He's probably gone back to the drink by now,' I said to Congleton, but he shook his head. 'Amazing though it may seem,' he remarked, 'I believe that his hatred of Rogerson is a bigger driving force than his craving for drink. And he realises that only by keeping off liquor will he be able to gratify that hatred. Sooner or later, Anstruther, you'll open your morning paper to find that Rogerson has been killed.'
"The years passed: the War came and somewhat naturally I'd completely forgotten the whole thing. Poor old Congleton was killed at Loos: Rogerson had wangled a staff job of sorts, and the man who called himself Jones had never been seen again. I was convinced, and so was Rogerson, whom I ran into once in France, that he had died of drink years ago: it seemed impossible to us that a man who had been so far gone could possibly recover. I did mention to him what Congleton had told me, but he merely roared with laughter.
"Drunken ravings, my dear boy!" he said. "And after what you've told me, all I regret is that I wasted my money buying the gramophone."
"And that was my opinion until one morning seven years later. I was having breakfast in the Carlton Hotel in Jo'burg, when a paragraph in the paper caught my eye. Here it is: read it for yourself." He handed me a cutting from his pocketbook: it ran as follows:
"The mysterious disappearance of Mr. Cyril Rogerson six months ago has at last been cleared up, in circumstances which leave no doubt that the unfortunate gentleman was brutally murdered. Our readers will doubtless remember the main facts of the case. Mr. Rogerson, of the well-known firm of Peat & Rogerson, left Johannesburg on a lengthy business tour through the Northern Transvaal and Rhodesia. Communications were received from him from various places, the last coming from Bulawayo about a month after he had started. From then on nothing further has been heard of him. At first no anxiety was felt: it was thought that he was starting on his return journey and was therefore bringing his reports with him instead of mailing them. But when a fortnight elapsed without any word from him, Mr. Peat informed the police who at once instituted inquiries, without any result. The reason for their failure is unfortunately now only too clear.
"A native who was trekking in the sparsely populated district south of Bulawayo was attracted by something unusual in a small gully a little distance from the path. He found to his horror that it was the skeleton of a man, and at once informed the authorities. A very brief examination showed that the dead man was Mr. Rogerson, who had been the victim of a singularly brutal crime. The actual reconstruction is difficult, as the skull had been picked clean by the vultures. But six bullets were discovered embedded in it, proving almost certainly that the murderer had continued to fire after his victim was dead. Robbery was not the motive, since the dead man's money was intact, but there was one peculiar feature which it is thought may provide a clue. By the side of the skeleton were placed the pieces of a broken gramophone record."
In silence I handed the cutting back to Tim. "What happened?" I asked.
"Nothing," he answered. "I told the authorities what I've told you, and they were very polite and thanked me. But I couldn't describe the man called Jones—for all I knew he might have grown a beard. And the crime was six months' old: he might be anywhere in the world."
"You think it was him?"
"Who else could it have been? Surely the gramophone record proves that. No, Bill: Congleton was right. His hatred of Rogerson was greater than his craving for drink. Year after year he had carried round that broken record, waiting and biding his time. And then at last he got his opportunity. How he did it we shall never know, but that Rogerson was killed by the man who called himself Jones is to my mind as certain as that night follows day. Rum, isn't it—the different things that different men require as a driving force in life, and the objects they put them to? For a man to cure himself of drink in order to become a murderer is a bit out of the ordinary, isn't it?"
"He may have relapsed afterwards," I said.
Tim rose and stretched himself. "Perhaps: who knows? Let's go round to your club and have a Turkish bath. Much talking has made me weary."
It was fairly empty when we got there: two or three men were sitting about in the outside room, and one with his back towards us and a towel round his waist was leaning over the paper table. I didn't see who it was, but as I passed him I noticed casually that he had tattooed between his shoulder-blades a really beautiful design of a ship in full sail. And at that moment he turned: it was Finlay.
"The very man," he said with a smile. "I know you can do a few good conjuring tricks, and I want you to come down one day next week and help me amuse some of my youngsters in Hoxton." I told him I would if I could, and looked at Tim. "I suppose your friend hasn't any parlour tricks," he remarked tentatively.
"None, I fear," said Tim slowly. "Are all the causes you work for such deserving ones?"
"I try to do my bit," answered the other, looking a little surprised.
We moved away, and the next remark Tim made was as we entered the hot room. "So he didn't relapse afterwards, Bill. I'd forgotten myself until five minutes ago that the man who called himself Jones had the picture of a ship in full sail tattooed between his shoulder-blades. I saw it that night when his shirt was ripped off. And what I'm trying to decide is whether to tell the police or to give him a fiver for his boys' home."
TO say that Sydney Marsham was wild would be to err on thelenient side. She was the maddest, most harum-scarum child that ever donned a skirt. In fact, she frequently didn't, until her mother and father combined in issuing an order that the said garment was indispensable for a young lady of seventeen, and that riding breeches, except on special occasions, would not do instead.
The more crack-brained the escapade, the more certain it was to attract her irresistibly. And it was useless trying to check her. Her mother had made one or two feeble attempts, but after a while she gave it up as hopeless. "She's you all over again, my dear—only she's a girl."
Thus to her husband, and he nodded and grinned. "Give the child her head; she'll be all right. Look at me—how I've settled down."
At the age of twenty Sydney Marsham had become a singularly lovely girl. It had always been obvious that she would be pretty, but maturity had more than fulfilled the early promise. And Mrs. Marsham, looking sometimes at the slim, lithe figure, and the perfect head set so proudly on a pair of boyish shoulders, grew a little anxious as she thought of the future. Who was the man going to be?
She was so impulsive—just like her father; so apt to let her heart run away with her judgment. But with a girl of Sydney's type the wrong man would be worse than a tragedy; it would be hell on earth.
So far she had had no serious cause for worry. There had been, of course, a few boy and girl affairs, but they had made no impression— certainly no lasting impression—on Sydney. One, with a Sandhurst cadet, had lasted nearly six months, but that had died naturally with his departure to join his regiment in India. True, he had written twice, but Jack—the terrier—had consumed the second effusion before it had been answered, and Sydney had forgotten the address. So that had finished that.
And it therefore came as a little shock to Mrs. Marsham when Sydney announced one morning at breakfast that she'd met a new he-man. No trace of her feelings, however, showed in her face as she asked placidly:
"Where, my darling?"
"In the sea," answered Sydney, her mouth full of buttered egg. "I raced him to the sunken rock, and he won!"
"But, my dear," reproved her mother mildly, "was he a complete stranger?"
"Well, darling," said Sydney. "I really don't know. It's a point. I must buy a book on etiquette. Surely if two people undress on the beach with only a rock between them, that should constitute an introduction."
Mr. Marsham chuckled behind his paper, and then tried to frown. "Look here, old thing," he grunted, "you really must be careful."
"Male parent's cue," laughed his daughter. "I am the soul of care, my beloved."
"I know, Sydney," he answered, "but, honest Injun, Kid, there are so many cads about these days. Who is this man? Did you find out?"
"He's taken the Manor House, Daddy. And he's really rather a pet."
"I heard it had been let to a Major Dacres," said her mother. "Bill, you'd better go up and call on him."
"All right, my dear—I will." He broke off suddenly. "Sydney, what on earth is the matter with Jack? He's behaving in the most extraordinary way."
She looked at the terrier with a puzzled frown.
"I don't know what's the matter with him," she answered. "He's been very strange the last few days. Jacko!"
The terrier, which was lying in a corner of the room motionless, with its head buried under its forepaws, rose a little unwillingly and came to her. For a time it wandered restlessly round her chair; then, sitting down, it began to lick her hand.
"Don't, Sydney—don't," cried her mother. "I hate to see a dog doing that."
"Jacko's different. Aren't you, my pet?"
"Still, I'd take him to Rogers if I were you," said her father. "He's not a bad vet. And I don't think the dog is fit." He pushed back his chair, and lit a cigarette. "What was it I heard about this fellow Dacres?" he went on thoughtfully. "I know, he's spent most of his life in the tropics."
"I was told he was a retired Army doctor," said Mrs. Marsham. "And a very brilliant man. And that he had come here to have a quiet place in which to carry on some research work."
"Listen to her. Daddy," laughed the girl. "I bet she knows the colour of his eyes better than I do. You darling—how is it you always find out everything? But what is far more to the point—what is the size of his bank balance?"
"Well, he can't be a pauper." said her father. "When I was down yesterday asking Dobbs when the deuce he proposed starting work on that petrol filling station, he said that all his men had been busy making alterations up at the Manor House. And with building what it is these days, you can't have that done for nothing."
"I will go up and investigate this morning," announced Sydney.
"Dear, you must wait till your father calls," protested her mother.
"Bless you, my pet," said the girl. "I'll be terribly proper. And there really was a rock between us, even if it was rather small. Come on, Jacko."
She strolled through the open windows into the garden, and after a moment's hesitation the terrier got up and followed her. He paused by his bowl of water and drank greedily—drank till the last drop was finished; then he gave a sudden odd little run forward and snapped at the air.
"There's something very funny about that dog," said Mr. Marsham uneasily. "Sydney, take Jack to the vet. this morning."
"All right, Daddy, I will. Come on, old man. And we'll call on the mystery man on the way," she finished mischievously.
No one would have been more surprised than Reggie Dacres at being called a mystery man. True, he was not of a talkative disposition; fifteen years of burial in impossible Backs of Beyond do not make for unnecessary conversation. But apart from that, a more direct individual seldom lived. The least curious of men himself, it never occurred to him that the arrival of a stranger in a quiet English place would arouse any interest whatever.
As Mrs. Marsham had said, he had come there to be undisturbed. The unexpected death of an aunt had provided him with enough money to chuck the Army and to devote his life to the only thing he cared about—original research work. What that work was, for the moment, he preferred not to say. Sufficient for it to be known if and when it was successful. So he told himself; and wild horses would not have wrung from him the admission that that was not the real reason for his reticence.
Some men, when they are walking hand in hand with the possibility of an agonising death, might not be averse to a little publicity; to Reggie Dacres the idea was abhorrent. The thought that success would cause untold thousands to rise and call him blessed had nothing to do with it; he could only visualise queues of newspaper reporters.
On this particular morning he felt singularly disinclined for work. When the slim figure of a girl, running over the sand with the sunlight glinting in her hair, insists on running over the paper you're trying to write on, the result is often the same. And at length, with a grunt of half-amused annoyance, he pushed back his chair and strolled into the garden.
For a while he leant over the gate, smoking a pipe and staring down the lane that led to the main road. And unconsciously the contrast struck him—the safe, sweet beauty of his present surroundings; the dangerous, exotic loveliness of the places in which most of his life had been spent, where death from a hundred causes lay in wait for the unwary.
Suddenly his eyes narrowed as the figure of a girl came into sight. She was a long way off, but not too far for him to recognise her. And once again he gave his little grunt of amusement and annoyance blended as he realised his pulse had quickened. But his face was quite impassive as she came abreast of him. "No worse for the swim, I hope," he remarked with a smile.
"Good Lord! no," laughed Sydney. "I do it every morning. What are you supposed to be doing?"
"Leaning over a gate," he answered politely.
"But how terribly naughty of you! I thought you spent the day battling with all sorts of abstruse problems."
"One's sins always find one out, don't they?" he said gravely. "But how do you know I'm not battling with one now?"
"You look altogether too peaceful," she answered. "Your teeth aren't gritting together and your fists aren't clenched. Are you really doing research work?"
Reggie Dacres nodded. "That's the idea."
"And it is a dead secret?"
"Not exactly," he smiled. "But, personally, I never believe in talking about things until I pull them off. You look such a fool, don't you, if you start gassing and then fail? For instance, do you see that bottle?" He pulled out from his pocket a small bottle with a distinctive red label on it. "Now, this is strictly between you and me. If I were to say that the stuff in there is going to be the means of saving millions of lives, and then, when it was put to the test, all it did was to produce nettle-rash, I should feel a pretty drivelling ass."
"Do you really think it will?" said Sydney a little breathlessly.
"I hope so." he answered. "But I'm not sure yet. That's a secret." he laughed. "Even from you." He slipped the bottle back in his pocket. "Don't pass it on, will you?" he continued. "I've come here for peace and quiet, and—"
He broke off abruptly, staring over her shoulder down the lane. "My heavens, look at that dog!"
The girl swung round. "It's Jacko, my terrier. He's a bit off colour; I'm just taking him to the vet."
But the man was paying no attention to her. Motionless, he stood there watching the dog, and suddenly Sydney felt a hand like a steel vice close on her arm. "Inside the gate, please, at once." Dacres's voice, sharp and peremptory, made her stare at him in amazement. "If this wasn't England, I should be certain. Tell me—has that dog been bitten lately? Had a fight or anything?"
"He has, as a matter of fact," said the girl coolly. "What on earth is the matter with you? You look quite frightened."
There was a hint of amused scorn in her voice, but the man took no notice. "What did he fight?"
The girl laughed openly. "What do you think? An elephant? He fought another dog, belonging to one of the fishermen, if you want to know."
"Do you know anything about the other dog's history?"
The terrier was coming nearer; shambling slowly along—head lolling, and snapping every now and then at the air.
"It's a dog he's had for months. It came ashore with some shipwrecked people last winter." She heard him draw in his breath shortly, and with a shrug of her shoulders she opened the gate. "Come, Jacko."
The terrier was close to her, and at the sound of her voice it sat down suddenly and gave a hoarse, strident bark, mouth open, head thrown back. A hideous sound, and one which to the man gave proof absolute.
"Don't touch that dog! Don't touch that dog, I tell you!"
"Do you suppose I'm afraid of Jacko?" cried the girl scornfully. "Good old man! Is he coming to the vet. then?"
And before the man could move she bent down and picked up the terrier in her arms. So utterly unexpected was the action that for a moment he stood still. The dog was licking her hands, was on the point of licking her face before the power of movement came to him.
What happened then was rapid. In one stride he was beside her. His two hands shot out, gripping the dog by the collar. He wrenched it from her arms, and then he turned his back on her. Speechlessly she watched him; saw a sudden heave of his powerful shoulders; and the next moment the body of the terrier was lying on the ground at his feet.
He turned round—his face grim and set. "Come into the house at once, please. I must examine you immediately for any cuts on your hand."
It was then that full realisation came to her. He'd killed Jacko; he'd killed Jacko before her very eyes. Dimly she knew he'd said something; he might as well have spoken in Arabic for all the effect that the words had had on her. The blood was pounding in her head; her eyes were blazing. The feeling of stunned incredulity that this impossible thing could have happened was replaced by such wild passionate anger that, for the moment, Sydney Marsham was mad. She saw his face through a haze of red; had she possessed the means she would have killed him where he stood.
Instead she sprang at him like a tigress; saw him recoil instinctively as she struck. "You brute! You devil! You beast!"
She stood there gasping, wondering hazily why the blood was flowing from a deep cut on his cheek-bone. Between them lay the dead body of the terrier, and suddenly something snapped in her brain. She burst into a wild storm of sobs and knelt down beside it.
Once again those two strong hands shot out, gripping her by each arm. "Come into the house at once." came a voice full of quiet authority. "I will fix up that poor little fellow later."
For a moment or two she struggled furiously then quite suddenly she stood stock still. "You murderer!" she said calmly.
"Quite," he answered with equal calmness. "Will you come, or am I to take you?"
"You're to take your vile hands off me."
"The instant you promise to come I assure you I will," he returned grimly.
In silence she followed him into the house, and he opened a door leading out of the hall. "In here, please."
She found herself in a laboratory, and still in a half-dazed condition she watched him light a burner on the bench. Methodically he selected a thin piece of glass, from the end of which there stuck out a wire; and in a few seconds the wire was glowing white hot.
"Come here at once."
He took her hand and examined it. It was still wet from the dog's mouth, and, taking down a bottle from one of the shelves, he poured some of the contents on to a swab of cotton-wool.
"This will sting when it touches that scratch." he remarked. "And I'm afraid I've got to hurt you even more in a moment."
"It seems your favourite form of amusement," she said icily.
"Yes, I do it for fun." His voice was expressionless. "Now, stand by, please; I'm going to hurt you terribly. But that scratch has got to be cauterised."
He picked up the wire, and there was a sudden smell of burning flesh. One involuntary moan of pain did she give; then, white-faced, she stood stock still. "Good," he said quietly. "I congratulate you on your pluck."
He was staring at her gravely, and when she made no reply, he continued still in the same quiet voice. "As soon as you feel fit enough, perhaps you will go. I have to cauterise myself now, where your signet ring opened up my cheek, and it won't be a pleasant operation to witness."
He rang a bell, and a man-servant came into the room.
"Dennett, outside the gate you'll find a dead dog. Please bury it in the garden. On no account touch its mouth. Where's Binks?"
A joyful scurry of fat, flopping legs, and a spaniel shot through the door, yelping deliriously. For a moment or two the girl watched it jumping round the man; then she laughed harshly. "Are you going to kill him now?"
"Is it possible," he said in amazement, "that you are still in ignorance of why I killed your dog?"
"Complete," she answered. "I can only assume that you're mad."
A faint smile flickered across his lips. "The ailment is right; but you've got the wrong sufferer. Your terrier was mad."
"I don't believe you," she cried incredulously.
"That, I fear, does not alter the fact. When you have seen as much rabies as I have—which I trust you never will—you don't make a mistake about it. And when you've seen as many people die of hydrophobia as I have, you don't take any risks."
"He could have been cured," she said furiously.
"Impossible," he answered curtly. "Now do you mind going? I don't want to leave this place on my cheek any longer than necessary without attention."
"Yes; I'll go. And if ever I have a chance of getting even with you over this, I'll take it."
It was a rotten thing to say; it was a silly thing to say—and even as she said it she realised she was being unutterably cheap. But she was not quite prepared for the answer she received—an answer which fanned her anger to bursting point. "You want smacking with the business side of a hairbrush, but I really haven't time to attend to you at the moment. There is the door."
Which also was a stupid remark to make—very stupid. But Dacres had lost his temper with a woman for the first time in his life.
The trouble is that the mischief is always caused by foolish remarks of that type. Two days later the dog belonging to the fisherman having run amok, was duly put under by the vet., and Sydney had to admit to herself that Dacres had been right. But all the time ringing through her head were the words, "You want smacking—"
Out of a sort of morbid curiosity she had made inquiries about what happened to people bitten by mad dogs; had heard something of what hydrophobia meant. But it was "the business side of a hair-brush" that seemed more important than any symptoms.
And then an uncle of hers—a general who had done most of his soldiering abroad—came to stay. And from him she heard something about Dacres.
"A magnificent fellow, my dear," he had said. "One of the bravest men I've ever known. He's spent his life tackling foul diseases in fouler spots, with remarkably little hope of reward save death if he made a mistake. I wonder what he's doing here?"
Sydney neither knew nor cared. He was the man who "hadn't time to attend to her at the moment." Heavens! how she hated him! Conceited, overbearing brute—how dared he speak to her like that? And if at odd moments the thought stole into her mind that she fully deserved what he had said, and that she was deliberately fanning her rage to keep it alight, she dismissed it at once. How dare he say such a thing to her? How dare he? He might be a magnificent fellow, as her uncle said, but tackling foul diseases seemed to have caused the same adjective to apply to his manners.
Her father, when he heard what had happened—or, rather, a slightly expurgated version of what had happened—had straightway gone up to call on Dacres. And he had returned full of gratitude to the man who had acted so promptly.
"He asked me to tell you, my dear, how sorry he was at having had to do such a thing right in front of your eyes. But it never dawned on him that you wouldn't know Jack was mad. I suppose it's been such a common occurrence in his life that he assumed you, too, would recognise rabies."
Sydney had grunted noncommittally.
"His eye is all bound up," had gone on her father. "Tripped up and cut it, I gather. He also said you were the pluckiest girl he'd ever met."
And Sydney, who had been brushing her hair, had paused for a moment and looked at the brush. "How kind of him! I'm terribly nattered."
And then, as the days went on and lengthened into weeks, the feeling that she was behaving like a spoilt baby could no longer be beaten down. Twice had he been to dinner, and on each occasion she had almost openly ignored him. And when he had returned the compliment and invited them to his house, Sydney had suddenly developed a headache and refused to go.
But at last she forced herself to face matters fairly; things couldn't go on as they were. And because she was as straight as a die, she knew there was only one thing to do; and because, also, she was now being honest with herself, she knew that at the bottom of her heart she'd been wanting to do it for days.
He'd be an easy man, too—she felt that instinctively. If she just walked up to him, held out her hand and said: "I'm sorry," he'd take it in just the same spirit as she said it. There would be no arriere pensee about Reggie Dacres.
And so on the afternoon of the day which had brought this momentous decision, she told Uncle Jimmy to fall in for a walk.
"My dear," he said, "I'm going up to see Dacres this afternoon. He's about to carry out a very big experiment, and I'm frightfully curious to see what it is. He's refused to tell me up till now."
"Excellent, Jimmy, my dear," said Sydney. "I'll come with you. I want to talk to him."
"It struck me you didn't like him much," commented her uncle as they started.
"My maidenly modesty, dear uncle," she answered. "I just want to say one word to him, and then I'll leave you."
Which was once again the signal for the Fates that move the pieces to sit up and take notice. Things mustn't be allowed to adjust themselves quite as easily as that.
Certainly Uncle Jimmy gave her wonderful opportunity. Whether that incorrigibly sentimental warrior imagined that the one word was the answer to a very important question or not is beside the point. The only sure thing is that on some utterly fatuous excuse he left them alone in the very room where their last interview had taken place. And the words were trembling on her tongue; her hand was actually lifting when Dacres spoke.
"Still singing your little hymn of hate in the morning, Miss Marsham?"
Her hand dropped to her side, and she stared at him speechlessly. There was a faintly amused—to her mind almost contemptuous— glint in his eyes. So this was the man she'd been going to apologise to—this— this sneering brute. "Good heavens, my dear man!" she said contemptuously, "you don't imagine you were ever worth as much trouble as that, do you?"
And suddenly the smile flashed out on his face. "You perfectly adorable child!" he remarked. "What do you mean by telling such unholy tarradiddles?"
And the next instant he was gone, leaving her gasping. The conceit of the man; the ineffable conceit. To call her a child—an adorable child; to dare to imagine that she'd thought about him. The fact that she had, without cessation, had nothing to do with it; he couldn't know that...
She stared round the laboratory blankly; was there no way she could pierce the brute's abominable swank? And at that moment her eyes rested on a small bottle with a distinctive red label on it. She recognised it at once; it was the bottle he had taken out of his pocket the day he'd killed Jacko—the bottle the contents of which were to save millions of lives. For a moment she hesitated; then, glancing through the window, she saw Dacres and her uncle at the other end of the garden, standing by a small wooden shed. And she hesitated no longer. She had said she'd pay him back; she would. Two minutes later she had left the house.
Tea was over when Sydney, comfortably ensconced in a hammock at the end of the garden, saw her uncle step out on to the lawn. He was talking to her father, and even from the distance she could see that something unusual had happened. It wasn't like Uncle Jimmy to be agitated, and he was clearly in that condition now.
The two men were strolling towards her and suddenly she heard her father's voice: "Great Scott! what an appalling thing!" And somewhere down her spine there seemed to run a little trickle of cold water. "Do you hear what's happened, Sydney?" cried her father. "Get your uncle to tell you about it."
"Don't get uneasy, my dear," said her uncle reassuringly. "Dacres being the manner of man he is, there's no great damage done. But the pluck of the blighter—that's what gets me every time."
"Do you mind telling me what you're talking about?" said Sydney in a low voice. The trickle had become a rivulet.
"You know I told you about the big experiment he was going to carry out this afternoon?" began her uncle. And then he paused, for the girl's face was as white as the muslin frock she was wearing. "It's all right, Kid," he said with a smile. "He's quite all right."
"Oh, go on, please—go on," she cried urgently.
"Well, the experiment was one which not one man in ten thousand would have had the nerve to carry out. You know, don't you, that a tremendous number of deaths occur annually from snake-bites in India and elsewhere? And in India, particularly, the principal culprit is the cobra. Well, for months past Dacres has been experimenting with the idea of finding out some fairly simple antidote for the cobra venom; something that can be kept in every house—something that can be slipped into a man's pocket if he's out shooting or anything. And a little while ago he decided that he'd found it."
"Oh, no, no, no!"
If he heard the girl's little broken whisper he gave no sign; but then. Uncle Jimmy's appreciation of the situation in military parlance was a little wide of the mark.
"Now comes the point," he continued. "In a wooden shed in his garden he keeps a full-grown cobra—he's had it there for months. And this afternoon he'd determined to test his discovery. He asked me to go up in case—well, in case he was wrong. To tell people the truth— and to kill the cobra. Because, you see,"—the old soldier's eyes were shining—"if he was wrong, he wouldn't be there to kill the brute himself.
"And so," went on the General after a little pause, "that singularly gallant man proceeded this afternoon to face one of the most agonising deaths in the world. The antidote was in a little bottle, which he placed close at hand. I was standing at the door with a double-barrelled gun to shoot the cobra in case it escaped. And then I had the privilege of watching what was, I think, the bravest deed I've ever seen. He deliberately infuriated the cobra to make it bite him. He had covered up his left hand—all save two fingers, and it was at one of those that the snake struck. Then as calmly as if he were reaching for the cake at tea, he took up the bottle of antidote and poured it over his finger...And even as he did so his face changed.
"For the moment, I couldn't realise what had happened; and then, before I could speak, he had put the bitten finger on the muzzle of the gun and pulled the trigger. My first coherent thought was that he'd lost his nerve; that at the very end his courage had failed him. His face was white—a hand wound is one of the most painful there is— but he shut the door quite calmly and started to walk up to the house. And it wasn't till we got to the door that he spoke."
"Sorry, General," he said quietly, "the fault is mine. I quite forgot, like the silly ass that I am, that I'd put the antidote in another bottle. There was only water in that one."
"It's astounding how he could have made such a mistake," said Mr. Marsham. "My dear child—what's the matter with you? You look ghastly."
But Sydney was half-way to the house, and the General solemnly dug her father in the ribs. "You might find as good a son-in-law," he remarked, "but I'll be hanged if you could ever find a better."
Up to her bedroom tore Sydney. Her brain was whirling, and every now and then she caught her breath in a little sob. She hadn't known; she hadn't even had the remotest inkling when she'd done it. All she'd meant to do was to make him feel a fool when he tried his wonderful liquid and found that nothing happened. And instead—she'd done this...
Only one coherent thought was in her mind—she must get to him and explain. Beg his pardon on bended knee, grovel. He must have known that she had changed the stuff in the bottle, but he hadn't said anything. He never would say anything.
Breathless and panting, she arrived at his gate, clasping tightly in her hand the precious bottle into which she had poured the antidote. And suddenly she paused; she was staring at the wooden shed. The next moment, her mind made up, she was walking steadily towards it. She tried the door; it was not locked. But a sudden hiss from inside made her draw back instinctively. Then, with a little shake of her head, she opened the door and went in.
At first she saw nothing, until there came another hiss from close by her; and turning round, she saw the cobra. It was erect and swaying slightly, with hood extended; and she bit her hand to stop the scream of terror that rose to her lips. She stared fascinated at the brute-essence of evil personified, and then tremblingly she stretched out her hand towards it.
Came a deafening report from the doorway, and the head of the snake had disappeared; and all jumbled up like a bad dream she saw a still writhing body, felt a strong arm round her waist, realised that bending over her was a man whose chalk-white face was wet with sweat. Then blackness...
She was back in the laboratory when she came to. At first she thought she was alone, and then she saw Dacres. In his hand he held the bottle of antidote, and he was staring at her with an inscrutable expression.
"Feeling better?" he said gravely.
"I'm sorry I was such an idiot," she said shakily. "And oh! can you ever forgive me for that?" She was pointing at the bottle, and he placed it on the table.
"Why did you do it?" he asked.
"Because I was a fool, and deserve to be smacked with the business side of a hairbrush," she answered steadily. "But one thing I would like you to know. I had no idea, when I did it, as to what it was or that you were going to use it this afternoon." She bit her lip as she saw the bandages on his left hand. "I don't suppose you can forgive me; what I did was utterly inexcusable. I'm—I'm sorry."
With a little sob she buried her face in her hands.
"Of course I forgive you," he said. "The fault was mine in the first place."
"It wasn't," came a stifled choke. "I was a hateful beast."
"But it was exceedingly naughty of you to go into that shed at all. If I hadn't happened to see you from the house and arrived in time, you would most certainly have been bitten."
She raised her face and stared at him through her tears. "But I wanted to be bitten. That's why I went there. I wanted you to find out if the antidote worked."
"Good God!" Dacres sat down suddenly. And then again: "Good God!"
"Surely you understood that," she said desperately. "It was the least I could do to try and make up."
"You mean to say," said Dacres dazedly, "that, knowing there was a cobra in that shed, you deliberately went in there and risked your life to test my antidote?"
"I don't think I cared much about the antidote," she said with a tremulous little smile. "I wanted to show you I was sorry."
Without a word the man rose and walked over to the window. For if his life had depended on it he couldn't have spoken steadily at that moment. And it wasn't until he heard the sound of the door opening that he swung round.
He caught her just outside in the hall, and for a time they stared into one another's eyes in silence.
"Sydney," he said at length, and his voice was shaking badly. "Sydney, may I come and ask you a question in a day or two?"
"If you like," she answered steadily.
"Do you know what it is, my dear?"
And suddenly she smiled, her face very close to his.
"Of course I know what it is. And I know what the answer is. So why wait a day or two—to ask it?"
I AM on the horns of the most appalling dilemma. I don't know what I ought to do, and the more I think about it the more hopelessly difficult does it become. Listen, and I'll put the case to you. And if you can think of the right way out I shall be vastly obliged.
I shall have to go back a couple of years—nearly three— to the wedding of Lady Alice Denver to Mr. William Scrotton. You may remember it: it was one of the events, of the season. Blood marrying money, of course, though the illustrated weeklies glossed it over a bit. A bit—that's all: because nothing could gloss over Scrotton's appearance. Hardware, I think—or tinned food; anyway, the point is immaterial. He was a millionaire, which was all that mattered to Alice Denver.
You raise your eyebrows: I tell you I knew that girl. Better than most people. Hard: why, Scrotton's hardest tin was like putty compared to her. Beautiful undoubtedly; but underneath the beauty—rotten: rotten to the core.
Why Scrotton married her was best known to himself. He was just a plain, vulgar man, twenty years older than she. And she treated him like dirt. If it was for social advancement—he paid the price; if it was because he desired her, and was accustomed to having his desires gratified, well—I'm thinking he made a pretty bad bargain. The possession of a being who loathes you and despises you is a poor form of enjoyment. Why she married him is obvious. The Earls of Lakington have never been well off, and the present one—her father—was practically bankrupt, till Scrotton's money saved the situation.
The wedding took place at the height of the season, and to this day I don't know why I attended. I didn't know Scrotton: I didn't like his bride. The only reason why I had been honoured with an invitation was to ensure that I sent a present, and I should certainly never have been missed if I hadn't gone. However, that is beside the point: I did go. And now I wish to Heaven I hadn't.
The church was crammed with society people who had come to see the sale. Scrotton, with his neck bulging over his collar, looked worse than usual as he waited for his bride, and yet, of the two, I was the more sorry for him. Jove! If the poor devil could have heard the remarks a bunch of people in front of me were making about him!
I'd taken a seat right at the back of the church, and I'd been there about five minutes when a general craning of heads announced the bride's arrival. And I don't suppose Alice Denver had ever looked more beautiful in her life. White suited her. She went up the aisle on her father's arm, looking neither to the right hand nor to the left. And she gave one the impression of a block of ice. She knew—none better—the comments that were being made, and she called up all that scornful hardness of hers as if to challenge the gossipers to do their worst. It was a part of the price, and it had been duly reckoned.
It was just after the service commenced that I noticed him for the first time. He'd slipped into the end of my pew, and I put him down as a member of the general public who had managed to get in somehow. Or perhaps a reporter. He was dressed in a threadbare lounge suit, and his collar was none too clean. His face was emaciated: his age somewhere between thirty and forty. But the thing that riveted my attention after a time was his extreme restlessness. His hands were never still; his eyes—bright and feverish—kept darting all over the church, only to return always to the two figures standing in front of the altar.
And then quite suddenly it happened, and his voice rang through the church. "Stop! For God's sake—stop!"
It was a ghastly moment. The organ petered out abruptly: the choir ceased singing, and everyone craned round to see the cause of the interruption. He was standing up, his arms thrown out—and thus for a moment or two did he remain. Then, as if conscious of what he had done, his nerve seemed suddenly to go. And before anybody could stop him, he was out of the door and gone.
Horrified officials came hurrying up; old Lakington himself, in a state of pitiful agitation, almost ran down the aisle. The shock to him must have been terrific; to be deprived of the Scrotton money when he had to all intents and purposes felt it jangling in his pockets completely unnerved him. They appealed to me, and I told them that I thought it must be some madman who had eluded the guardians at the door. And that, at the time, is what I did think. At any rate, he had disappeared, and the pause was becoming more and more embarrassing. So, after a hurried conference, the organ let drive again, and a few minutes later Lady Alice Denver became Lady Alice Scrotton. And the Earl of Lakington breathed freely once again.
Somewhat naturally, so I was told afterwards, it was the sole topic of conversation at the reception. Everybody sympathised with the happy pair, and the general belief seemed to be that he was some unbalanced fanatic or Communist agitator who had deliberately tried to wreck the proceedings on some distorted question of principle.
That, as I say, is what I was told. Because I didn't go to the reception. And now I wish to Heaven I had. No; I didn't go—not being able to be in two places at once. And whilst the reception was being held, I was talking to the unbalanced fanatic in my rooms.
Why does one do these things? Why, for instance, when, on leaving the church, I saw his face in the crowd outside the door, did I not say to the nearest policeman—"There is the man who created the disturbance in church"? I don't know; let it suffice that I didn't. I merely stood chatting to one or two people, and keeping the corner of my eye fixed on him. And when he moved abruptly out of the onlookers and walked off rapidly, I followed him.
He swung round as I overtook him, and stared at me defiantly.
"May I ask the reason of your extraordinary outburst?" I said quietly.
"You may ask," he answered. "That's as far as it will get."
"Indeed!" I said. "You see that policeman? Can you suggest any good reason why I shouldn't give you in charge?"
"I wish to God you would," was his surprising reply. "If they sent me to prison for a few years I might be safe. Oh! don't think I'm mad: I'm as sane as you are."
"Doubtless," I agreed courteously. "So, proceeding on that assumption, perhaps you would be good enough to tell me why you did it. My rooms happen to be close by, where we shall be undisturbed."
For a moment or two he hesitated: then he gave a sudden harsh laugh.
"Very well, I will," he said. "On one condition—and one condition only. That you write down briefly what I am going to say to you, and post it to your bank or your lawyer tonight in a sealed envelope."
"Well, really—" I began doubtfully.
But now it was he who was insistent.
"Take me to your rooms," he demanded. "It's got to be told—this thing, and you'll do as well as anyone else."
That he was still in a very excited state was obvious, though he walked beside me in silence as far as my door. But his hands were twitching, and there was a queer light in his eyes that made one or two people we met stare at him curiously. In fact, once or twice I was on the point of suddenly remembering another appointment. But I didn't—more's the pity.
"Well, let's hear all about it," I said, as soon as we were comfortably settled. "Would you like a drink?"
"No, thanks," he answered. "Drink is a luxury that people in my financial position can't afford."
He lay back in his chair, and I waited for him to start. But his eyes were travelling round the room, and there was a twisted smile on his lips.
"God! How I envy you this!" He waved a comprehensive hand. "It's what I was brought up to expect—and look at me. I'm Eton, you know—and Balliol; though for the Lord's sake don't think I'm begging. Nor do I want to bore you with the oft-told tale of the gentleman who went wrong. We'll take all that for granted. Sufficient to say that when I was twenty-four I came the most almighty mucker, and was driven with oaths and curses into outer darkness by my family.
"But I didn't go alone; a girl came with me—my wife. And though it's a good few years ago now, the marvel of her sacrifice has increased rather than diminished. For she wasn't my wife when she came, you'll understand. It was just that for some inscrutable reason she had the love for me that passeth understanding—and that love has endured. Heaven knows how; it has been tested pretty high. Starvation, cold, even dirt—I've been through them all. And she's been with me—to make it easier." The queer look in his eyes had gone, and I turned and stared out of the window. There are moments when it is not good to look on a man's face.
"Six months ago," he continued abruptly, "I was starving, cold, and dirty. All three at the same time. I'd tramped the streets the whole day, and you may take it from me that the London streets in December are not pleasant places for anyone in the condition I was in. One begins to see things that aren't there, and hear noises that no one else does. And one begins to understand revolution and riot.
"It was about ten o'clock that I found myself sitting on a chair in one of the parks. How I got there I don't know; my last coherent recollection was passing Romano's, in the Strand, just as a man I had known came out with a girl. They got into a Rolls and drove away, while I would have sold my soul for the bits of bread they hadn't eaten."
He laughed shortly. "Don't worry; I won't bore you any more with that sort of stuff. But I want you to realise the condition I was in; it's rather important. Well—as I said, I found myself on this chair, and for how long I sat there I don't know. It can't have been long, because at eleven o'clock I found myself walking along Great Portland Street. I'd noticed the time on that clock by the Langham, so I'm sure about that. Incidentally, you're making notes of the principal points, aren't you? I'd like you particularly to remember that time.
"I walked on with a curious sense of unreality; you get it, you know, when your stomach is napping against your backbone. And at last I came to Sussex Place. I paused for a bit, and I remember wondering what the deuce I was doing there.
"It was as I was leaning against the railings that I noticed that the curtains of the lower room of the house opposite were blowing about in the open window. It was open at the bottom, and every now and then the flicker of firelight came through the opening. The street was deserted, and the thought occurred to me how easy it would be to get in. Warmth, at any rate; perhaps something small that might be pawned next morning—but warmth.
"Again my memory closes down; I have no recollection whatever of climbing into that house. But I got there, and for the next few minutes nothing mattered except huddling over that fire. Of the risk I ran I thought nothing; when the primitive necessities of life are wanting one doesn't worry over risks.
"At last I got up, and there on the table were sandwiches and drinks. Undoubtedly people who had gone out to some show and were returning later, I reflected. Well, I could only regret that my need was greater than theirs, and that if they had a servant who was careless enough to leave the window open they must take the consequences. And it was as I put out my hand to seize the food that my foot kicked against something under the table.
"You must remember that there was very little light in the room at the time; somewhat naturally I had not turned on the switch. But I can still feel the pricking at the back of my scalp, the sudden start of fear I gave at that unexpected contact. For intuitively I knew that there was something terrible under the table. Don't ask me how; I did. I had to force myself to bend down and look, and even as I did so I saw a thing which froze me where I stood—a dark, ominous pool that gleamed red in the firelight. I backed away step by step until I could see under the table, and then I almost screamed. A man was lying there, and it needed no second glance to tell that he was dead.
"How long I stood there staring at him I can't say, but at last my nerves had steadied themselves enough for me to go and see what had happened. He was lying with his legs under the table, and the rest of his body outside. He had on a smoking-jacket and a soft pleated shirt—the front of which was saturated with blood. His eyes were open and staring, with a look in them of terrible fear. And by his side there lay a fine-pointed stiletto, also covered with blood.
"Once again time stood still. It may have been a minute—it may have been five—before I bent and touched him, to find he was still quite warm. And then unreasoning panic seized me. The thing had only just been done; perhaps not two minutes before I had entered the room. The murderer must be in the house somewhere; possibly in the very room. And once again I almost screamed. I stared round like a trapped animal; my legs were powerless to move. I could realise with one side of my mind the ghastly danger of my position; but my brain wouldn't react as to what I was to do. It was panic—sheer panic."
He took a handkerchief from his pocket and mopped the sweat from his forehead with a hand that shook like a leaf.
"At last the power of action came back to me, and I took a step towards the window. To get away: that was my sole coherent thought. And I had actually got one leg over the sill, when suddenly the room was flooded with light and a woman stepped out from behind a screen near the door. She was staring at me calmly and dispassionately, and for a moment or two I stared back, taking in every detail of her face. It was beautiful—one of the most beautiful I have ever seen—but cold and hard. And then, even as I watched her, a faint triumphant smile curled round her lips. She took one look at the thing that lay sprawling on the floor, and then, quite deliberately, she screamed."
He leaned towards me, and the light was blazing in his eyes again. "Make a strong note of that, my friend; emphasise it in every possible way. Her scream was not due to what she saw: she knew it was there: she had known all along. I could read her mind, I tell you; I could trace every thought in that cold, calculating brain. It was she who had killed that man herself, and it was I who was to pay the penalty. I could see it as clearly as I see you now.
"She screamed again and again, and, by God, she could act. Her face now was distraught with horror as she stood there flattened against the wall. I heard footsteps outside in the hall, I saw the door opening, and then with one desperate effort I flung myself through the window and jumped. Jumped straight into the arms of a waiting policeman.
"'Let me go,' I yelled. 'I'm innocent. She did it.'
"'Maybe she did,' came a gruff voice. 'But we can't have you shouting in the Park like this. Wake up, and get a move on.'
"I was still sitting on the chair in the Park." He paused and, stretching out his hand, he took a cigarette. "May I?" he asked quietly.
"Of course," I answered. "Help yourself. But do you mean to tell me that all this song and dance you've been telling me was nothing but a dream?"
"Nothing but a dream—a terrible dream—until today. And so you wonder, don't you, wherein lies the connection between it and my behaviour in church? You shall hear. The man who was murdered in my dream was a man whom I had never seen before. He was a complete stranger to me—he is still. But today I saw him. What twist of Fate took me past that church I know not; but it's all in keeping, I tell you—all in keeping. The murdered man was today's bridegroom."
I stared at him speechlessly: there didn't seem to be anything to say.
"Mark you, sir," he went on gravely, "this is no question of hallucination. I make no attempt to explain it. For months that dream has been just a dream, though vivid to the point of reality in my mind. And this afternoon I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw the murdered man going into that church. I waited: I couldn't help it. I had to see the bride.
"I never had any doubt; during the quarter of an hour I stood there I never had any doubt. And when the woman who had stepped out from behind the screen stepped out of her car and took her father's arm it caused me no surprise. It seemed to me to be inevitable.
"And then—I wonder if you will understand?—I seemed to feel the coils of Fate closing down on me. I felt I must make a desperate effort to shake myself free, before it was too late. And some blind impulse stronger than me drove me into the church and made me do what I did. Foolish, I admit: I realise now that I've got to go through with it."
"Go through with what?" I cried a little irritably.
"My dream," he answered. "As surely as I am sitting here in this chair talking to you that woman will murder her husband, by stabbing him through the heart with a pointed stiletto. It will take place about half-past eleven one night in the house in Sussex Place, and I shall be in the room and be arrested for the murder. It won't be a dream next time."
"But," I cried angrily, "the remedy against that possibility lies in your own hands. Don't go near Sussex Place; or, if you do, don't break into any house where a window is open."
"That, I agree, is the only common-sense way of looking at it," he answered. "But there are other things in this world besides common sense. It is as surely ordained as the fact that one day both you and I will die. And when it happens, don't forget what I've told you this afternoon. You have taken notes: if you will, you can expand them a little. But I hold you to your promise to send them to your banker. I may need them."
And the next instant he was gone, leaving me in a state of complete bewilderment. Had I been listening to the ravings of a lunatic? Something inside me said No. Highly strung—obviously; but the man who had just left me was no madman. Then what did it mean?
For an hour or so I sat on wondering; then, with a smile at my own credulity, I amplified the notes I had jotted down more to humour him than anything else. I dated it and slipped it in an envelope. I sent the letter with a covering note to my bank. And—that, as I say, was nearly three years ago.
It was six months later that I left England. The strange interview had almost faded from my mind; I had seen no further trace of the dreamer. And when I heard that Mr. William and Lady Alice Scrotton had taken a large house in Berkeley Square, the small amount of interest that still remained in my mind evaporated. Evidently a crank and an impostor, I decided, who had for some reason only known to himself decided to interrupt the ceremony, and had then pitched me a fantastic yarn to save himself from being handed over to the police.
Well—you know who I am; you know that I went out with Perrin's Antarctic Expedition. You know that we were lost for months, and that we only returned two days ago. As far as the events of the world are concerned, I've been dead for over two years. And now you're beginning to understand my dilemma, aren't you? But I'll tell it to you in my own way. Since it happened a year ago, your own memory may be a little rusty.
I went to the club for luncheon the day after my return. And I fed with Sullington, the Gunner. We talked of men and matters, and it wasn't till we were in the smoking-room with cigars and a double old brandy—as befitted a returned wanderer—that he happened to mention Lady Alice Selby.
"And who the deuce is Lady Alice Selby?" I asked.
"Good heavens, man," he laughed. "I'd forgotten that there are no papers in the Antarctic. Scrotton's widow: Lakington's daughter."
"Scrotton's widow!" I gasped. "You mean Scrotton is dead?"
"Somewhat naturally, in order to possess a widow," he answered. "It's a year ago now. He was brutally murdered. Why—great Scott! man, what is the matter with you? You're as white as a sheet."
"Begin at the beginning," I said, "and tell me all about it."
"Well, there really isn't very much to tell," he answered. "And I wouldn't swear to remembering all the details. It seems that Scrotton was found dead on the floor of one of the downstairs rooms in his house one night. He'd been stabbed through the heart with some knife or other—"
"A pointed stiletto?" I remarked.
"Now you mention it, I think you're right," he said with a smile. "Been reading blood-and-thunder stuff down South to keep you warm, I suppose? However, it appears f that some down-at-heels fellow must have done it. Lady Alice practically caught him in the act. A ghastly thing for her—poor woman. Of course, I know that the marriage was hardly a love-match, but it's a bit over the odds to come suddenly into a room and find your husband lying dead in a pool of blood, with the murderer standing over him."
"She screamed—naturally?" I said.
"Oh yes! Like blazes. And the fellow made a dive through the window and landed straight in the arms of a policeman. Really rather fortunate that one happened to be there at that hour of the night."
"Yes," I agreed. "Sussex Place is a bit deserted round about midnight."
He nodded, and then he looked at me curiously. "But how the deuce did you know it happened in Sussex Place? Because, now I come to think of it, they had only just moved there from Berkeley Square."
"A lucky shot," I answered quietly. "Tell me, Sullington—who and what is Selby?"
"A fellow in the 10th Lancers." he said. "A very decent chap. And, strictly between ourselves, I don't think there was much doubt—even during the late Mr. Scrotton's lifetime—that he and Lady Alice were rather more than friendly. Of course, that must go no farther, and they're married now. But—well, you know."
"What happened to the man?" I said.
"They found him guilty and sentenced him to death," he answered. "And then he went mad or something—I forget exactly what it was. Anyway, I know he wasn't hanged, and I think he's in Broadmoor."
I finished my coffee, and a few minutes later I left the club. I felt I wanted to be alone to think things out. The whole affair was so utterly staggering; one had no previous experience to measure it by. And it was as I was fumbling with my latch-key that the final blow was dealt me. A woman darted across the street and, laying her hand on my arm, said: "Thank God! you've come back at last!"
I gazed at her dully. "Who are you?" I said, though I knew the answer before she spoke.
"I'm Mrs. Landon," she answered. "And now we can prove his innocence."
"So his name is Landon, is it?" I remarked. "You'd better come inside."
"If you knew how I've scanned the papers," she said, as she sat down. "Waiting, watching day by day for your return. You see, he didn't know your name; only the address. And then when it happened I came round here at once. He'd told me that he'd told a stranger of his dream, and I knew that if I could get at you it would be all right. And then I found you were in the Antarctic. Oh! I nearly went mad. But now it's going to be all right. He's not mad really; you and I know that. But they've put him in Broadmoor, because he went on talking about his dream. And he was queer. But I can nurse him all right; I know my Bill. And once that devil of a woman is found guilty and hanged, he'll get all right again. It's the feeling that he's innocent and that no one believes it that is doing all the trouble. Come; let's go now to the Home Secretary or someone and tell him everything."
"But look here, Mrs. Landon," I said desperately, "what reason did he give for entering the house at all?"
"Just that something stronger than himself took him there," she cried. "I've told you he's queer; you know it as well as I do. He's fey—at times. Why, look at the dream itself. It's come true in every detail. Oh I come," she went on in an agony; "come at once. Can't you see what every extra minute of a hell on earth like Broadmoor must mean to him— for it must be a hell on earth if you're not mad? I want to get him out; I shall go mad myself if I don't."
She had risen, and, as I still sat on in my chair, a dreadful suspicion dawned in her eyes. "You've got the paper, haven't you: the paper you promised to send to your bank?"
"I think so," I temporised. "Yes—I'm sure of it." I had to say it—poor soul, she was on the rack. "But it's too late to get it this afternoon," I went on. "Only, for Heaven's sake, Mrs. Landon, don't build too much on it. There are difficulties—well-nigh insurmountable difficulties."
I've seen scorn on a person's face before, but I've never withered under such a look as the one she gave me.
"Difficulties!" she almost gasped. "What do you mean— difficulties? Don't you realise that that foul woman murdered her husband to get his money and to be able to marry her lover? And she goes free while my Bill is in Broadmoor. Difficulties? You're mad."
She turned away to control herself; then she faced me again. "I've said nothing," she went on quietly. "The truth has been trembling on the tip of my tongue a score of times, but I've bitten it back. I've realised that no one would believe me: that I should do more harm than good. But with you—it's different. There's no reason why they should disbelieve you—you who hold the proof in that paper. Tomorrow morning I'll come back. You'll have the paper by then, and we'll go together and get him out."
And then she left me.
It's midnight now, and I'm still as far off a solution as ever. What on earth am I to do? The more one looks at the matter, the more utterly damnable does it become.
I know perfectly well what I should say were I in the position of the Home Secretary and somebody came to me with such a story.
I should say—"Most interesting; but what does it prove? On your own showing this man is queer in the head—if not mad. He dreams a dream—a very vivid dream. In that dream he sees a murdered man and a woman—both strangers to him. Six months later he states that he saw these two people being married. Am I really to understand that this man remembered two dream faces over such a period of time? No, sir—common sense gives me a totally different solution. He thought he saw a likeness, and the thought grew to a fixed belief. It amounted to an obsession in his brain, so that he literally had to act along the lines of that obsession. You say yourself that something stronger than himself forced him into the house that night. To me that sounds remarkably like insanity; certainly no normal man would have done it. He was insane when he went there, and I see no reason to doubt that in his insanity he killed Scrotton himself. So he will remain where he is."
That's what I should say, and ninety-nine men out of a hundred would say the same thing. So what am I to do?
If I take that paper to the authorities, the whole thing will be made public. Mrs. Landon will see to that. I am convinced that we shall not benefit Landon, and I shall be in the pleasing position of having accused Lady Alice of murdering her husband. I don't like her, I admit— but her friends are mine also.
So what am I to do?
If I thought—honestly and conscientiously—that there was a chance of getting him out of it, I wouldn't hesitate. But I don't. And yet, in my own mind, I'm certain he's innocent. The prophecy of Sussex Place must be more than a mere coincidence. Only I can imagine a clever lawyer on the point!
He's innocent; but it will take more than a dream to prove it. And without proof—what's the use? I got the paper from the bank, and I've held a lighted match near it several times already. Wouldn't it be kinder in the long run?
In fact, at the moment my only coherent thought is that I wish I were still in the Antarctic.
I DO not profess to explain what I am going to set down. I hold no positive opinion on things psychic, one way or the other. Men of unassailable integrity have given the world their experience on such matters, which are open for all to read, and my contribution can add nothing to the wealth of material already collected. Nevertheless, for what it is worth, I am committing it to paper. I do it for my own satisfaction only: for reasons which will be obvious these words must never see the light of day in print. Because they either tell of a coincidence so amazing as to be well-nigh incredible, or else Sir Bryan Mertonbridge, sixteenth Baronet, of Mertonbridge Hall, Sussex, is a cold-blooded murderer. And since his house parties for Goodwood are famous throughout the county, it were madness for a humble bank manager to bring such an accusation against him, when proof is impossible.
It happened four years ago, but let it not be thought that time has clouded my memory. The incidents of that night in June are as clear in my mind as if they had occurred yesterday. Sometimes I wake now with the woman's last dying scream ringing in my ears, and jumping out of bed I pace up and down; my room asking myself again and again the same old question. Was it a coincidence, or was it not?
The sea wrack started to blow over the Downs about eight o'clock on the evening when it took place. It came like a dense white wall, blotting out the surrounding landscape, and covering the windscreen with a film of moisture more difficult to see through than heavy rain. My destination was Brighton, but never dreaming that such a mist would come down on me I had left the main coast road, and had taken a narrow inland one that wound along the foot of the Downs, connecting up a few scattered farms and hamlets that still escaped the daily ordeal of the charge of the motor heavy brigade. The road was good but narrow, with a ditch on each side, so that caution was necessary, owing to the mist making the grass slippery. The trouble, however, was the bad visibility, and after a time my rate of progress was reduced to less than ten miles an hour. Another difficulty was due to indifferent signposting, the few that there were only showing the next village and no large town.
I had been creeping along for about a quarter of an hour when I came to four cross roads, and getting out of the car I approached the signpost, one arm of which fortunately indicated Worthing. Once on the main road things might be better, so I decided to take it. But having slightly overshot the mark, I had to back the car, and it was then the mishap occurred. I reversed too far and the back wheels skidded into the ditch.
At first I thought nothing of it, but after repeated attempts to get her out, which only resulted in the wheels spinning round, I began to grow uneasy. And then came the final blow. There was a sharp click, and the wheels ceased to move though the engine was still running in gear. Either the cardan shaft or one arm of the back axle had broken. The car was helpless: it was now a question of being towed out.
I lit a cigarette and sized up the position. My map was a small-scale one, embracing the whole of England, and I knew the cross roads where I was would not be marked. The light was failing rapidly: worse still, the sea wrack was beginning to turn into genuine rain. My chances of finding a garage, even if I knew where to look for one, which could send out a breakdown gang at that hour, were remote. In fact, it was evident that the car at any rate would have to remain where it was till the morning. But I failed to see why I should keep it company. Sooner or later I must come to some habitation of sorts, where I. could be directed to an inn, or whose owner would perhaps put me up for the night. Anyway, I could not stop where I was, so leaving the car in the ditch I took the road for Worthing.
For twenty minutes I trudged along without meeting a soul or seeing the sign of a house. The rain was now pouring down, and having no mackintosh I was rapidly becoming wet to the skin. And then, just as I was beginning to despair of finding anything, the road jinked sharply to the right and I saw a pair of heavy iron gates in front of me. Beyond them was a small house—evidently the lodge of some big property.
It was in complete darkness, but at least it was something made of bricks and mortar, and pushing open one of the gates I approached it and knocked on the door. There was no answer, and after a while I realised it was empty. I went all round it in the hope of finding a window unlatched. Everything was tight shut: short of breaking a pane, there was no hope of getting in.
By that time the water was squelching in my shoes, and I was seriously cogitating as to whether it would not be worth while to smash a window, when it struck me that if this was a lodge, the big house must be fairly close at hand. So once again I started off up the drive: no one could refuse a dog shelter on such a night.
It was almost dark and, save for my footsteps on the gravel and the mournful dripping of the water from the trees, no sound broke the silence. I seemed to be in a world of my own, with nothing else living except the drenching rain. Was I never going to reach the house?
At length the trees bordering the drive stopped abruptly, and there loomed up ahead of me the outlines of a large mansion. But even as I quickened my pace my heart began to sink, for just as at the lodge I could see no light in any window. Surely, I reflected, this could not be empty too.
I found the front door. It was of oak, studded with iron bolts, and by the light of a match I saw a heavy old-fashioned bell-pull. For a few moments I hesitated: then, taking my courage in both hands, I gave it a sharp pull, only to jump nearly out of my skin the next second. For the bell rang just above my head, and the noise was deafening. Gradually it died away, and in the silence that followed I listened intently. If there was anyone in the house surely they must have heard it: to me the row had seemed enough to wake the dead. But the minutes passed and no one came; I realised that this house was empty too.
Cursing angrily, I turned away: there was nothing for it but to foot it back again. And then I saw a thing which pulled me up sharp: a small window to one side of the front door was open. I thought of that foul walk along the drive, and I made up my mind without more ado. Ten seconds later I was inside the house.
The room in which I found myself was a small cloak-room. Hats and coats hung on pegs around the walls: two shooting sticks and a bag of golf-clubs stood in one corner. So much I saw by the light of a match, but another more welcome object caught my eye—an electric-light switch. I had already made up my mind that should anyone appear I would make no attempt to conceal myself, but would say frankly who I was and my reasons for breaking in. And so I had no hesitation in turning on the light as I left and walked along a passage which led from the room. A door was at the end of it, and I pushed it open to find myself in a vast panelled hall.
Holding the door open to get the benefit of the light from the cloak-room I saw more switches beside me, and in a moment the place was brightly illuminated. It was even bigger than I had at first thought. At one end, opposite the front door, was a broad staircase, which branched both ways after the first flight. Facing me was a large open fireplace with logs arranged in it—logs which, to my joy, I saw were imitation ones fitted for an electric fire. In the middle stood a long refectory table, whilst all round the walls there hung paintings of men in the dress of bygone days. The family portrait gallery: evidently the house belonged to a man of ancient lineage. All that, however, could wait: my first necessity was to get moderately dry.
I fumed off some of the lights, and crossed to the fireplace, where I found the heat switch without difficulty. By this time I was sure that the house was empty, and, having returned to the cloak-room to get an overcoat, I took off my clothes and sat down in an armchair in front of the glowing logs. (I know these small details seem irrelevant, but I am putting them down to prove that my recollection of that night is still perfect.)
The hall was in semi-darkness. Two suits of armour standing sentinel on each side of the staircase gleamed red in the light of the fire: an overhead cluster threw a pool of white radiance on the polished table in the centre. Outside the rain still beat down pitilessly, and as I looked at my steaming clothes I thanked Heaven for that open window. And after a while I began to feel drowsy. A leaden weight settled on my eyelids: my head dropped forward: I fell asleep.
Suddenly, as so often happens when one is beat, I was wide awake again. Something had disturbed me—some noise, and as I listened intently I heard it again. It was the sound of wheels on the drive outside, and of horses. It was as if a coach and four was being driven up to the door, but the strangeness of such a conveyance at that hour of the night did not strike me for the moment. I was far too occupied in trying to think what excuse I was going to make for my presence in such unconventional garb. And then, even as with a jangling of bits the vehicle pulled up by the front door, I realised to my amazement that my clothes had been removed.
I tried to puzzle it out—to collect myself, but before I could think what I was going to say the door was flung open and a great gust of wind came sweeping in, making the candles on the table gutter. Candles! Who had put candles there and turned out the electric light? And who had laid supper?
I looked again towards the door: a woman had come in, and my embarrassment increased. She swept towards the table, and stood there, one hand resting on it, staring straight in front of her. Of me she took no notice whatever, though it seemed inconceivable that she had not seen me. And then, as she remained there motionless, my amazement grew: her dress was that of the Stuart period.
The front door shut and a man came into the circle of light. Magnificently handsome, with clean-cut, aquiline features he was dressed as the typical cavalier of King Charles's time. And as he stood drawing off his driving gauntlets, I realised what had happened. He was the owner of the house and there had been a fancy dress ball. Still, I was glad I had a man to explain things to.
He threw his gloves into a chair and came straight towards me. And the words of explanation were trembling on my tongue when he knelt down almost at my feet and stretched out his hands towards the blaze. He seemed oblivious of my presence, but what was even more amazing was the fire itself. For now great flames roared up the chimney from giant logs that blazed fiercely.
I glanced again at the woman; she had not moved. But on her face had come an expression that baffled me. Her eyes were resting on the man's back, and in them was a strange blending of contempt and fear.
The man rose and turned towards her, and instantly the look vanished, to be replaced by one of bored indifference.
"Welcome, my love," he said with a bow, "to your future home." Was it my imagination, or was there a sneer in his voice?
"You honour me, Sir James," she answered with a deep curtsy. "From a material point of view it leaves nothing to be desired."
"Your Ladyship will perhaps deign to explain?"
"Is it necessary?" she said coldly. "The subject is tedious to a degree."
"Nevertheless," he remarked—and now there was no attempt to conceal the sneer, "I must insist on an explanation of your Ladyship's remark."
"Ladyship!" Her face was white, and her eyes, for a moment, blazed hatred. "Would to God I had no right to the title."
He shot his lace ruffles languidly. "Somewhat higher in the social scale, my love," he murmured, "than Mistress Palmer of Mincing Lane. The latter is worthy, no doubt—but a trifle bourgeois."
"Perhaps so." Her voice was low and shaking. "At any rate, it was honest and clean."
He yawned. "They tell me your father is a pillar of respectability. In fact, I gather there is a talk of his being made an alderman, whatever that obscure office signifies."
"You coward," she cried tensely. "How dare you sneer at a man whose shoes you are not worthy to shine."
He raised his eyebrows and began to laugh silently. "Charming, charming!" he remarked. "I find you vastly diverting, my love, when you are in ill-humour. I bear no malice to the admirable Palmer, whose goods I am told are of passing fair quality. But now that you have become my wife, I must beg you to remember that conditions have changed."
He reverently lifted a bottle, encrusted and cobwebby. "From the sun-kissed plains of France," he continued. "The only other man in England who has this vintage is His Grace of Wessex. Permit me."
She shook her head, and stood facing him, her hands clenched. "What made you marry me, Sir James?" she said in a low voice.
"My dear!" he murmured with simulated surprise. "You have but to look in yonder mirror for your answer."
"You lie!" she cried. "I have but to look to your bank for my answer."
For a moment his eyes narrowed: the shaft had gone home. Then, with an elaborate gesture that was in itself an insult, he lifted his glass to his lips. "What perspicacity!" he murmured. "What deep insight into human nature! But surely, my dear Laura, you must have realised that a man in my position would hardly have married so far beneath him without some compensating advantage."
She turned white to the lips. "So at last you have admitted it," she said in a voice barely above a whisper. "Dear God! how I hate you."
"The point is immaterial," he cried harshly. "You are now Lady Mertonbridge: you will be good enough to comport yourself as such."
But she seemed hardly to have heard him: with her eyes fixed on the fire she went on almost as if talking to herself. And her voice was that of a dead woman. "Lady Mertonbridge! What a hideous mockery! Two days after that travesty of a service I found you kissing a common tavern wench. A week later you were away for two nights, and I overheard your man and my tirewoman laughing over it. Whose arms did you spend those nights in, Sir James? Which of your many mistresses? Or was it perchance Lady Rosa?"
He started violently and then controlled himself. "And what," he asked softly, "may you know of Lady Rosa?"
"There are things that reach even Mincing Lane, Sir James," she answered. "Even there your infatuation had been heard of and the barrier that stood between you—no money. I do not know her: I hope I never shall. But at any rate she has been saved a life that is worse than death."
"Your Ladyship is pleased to be melodramatic," he said angrily. "Shall I ring for your woman to prepare you for bed?"
"A moment. Sir James," she answered quietly. "This matter had best be settled now."
He paused, his hand already on the bell rope. "You do not imagine," she continued, "that after what you have admitted tonight, I should demean myself by continuing under your roof. Maybe you think that to be Lady Mertonbridge of Mertonbridge Hall is enough for an alderman's daughter. You are wrong. I admit my father was dazzled at the thought of such a match: I admit that I was deceived by your soft words and your flattery. But now, after just three weeks, the scales have dropped from my eyes: I know the truth. You married me for my money, and now you have tossed me aside like a worn-out glove. So be it: you shall have your money. That is nothing. But you will have it on my terms."
His face was masklike, though his eyes were smouldering dangerously. "And they are?"
"Tomorrow I return to my father. It is for you to make what excuse you like. Say," she added scornfully, "that an alderman's daughter felt herself unfitted for such an exalted position as that of your wife. If you choose to divorce me—which would doubtless be possible with your influence—the money will stop. You may remember that that clause was inserted in the marriage settlement: a pity for you, was it not, that my father feels so strongly about divorce? So I shall remain, still your wife, and you will receive your money."
He still stood with his back to her, trying evidently to see how this new development affected him. And then she continued. "It will at any rate have the merit of saving Lady Rosa or some other poor woman from the hell that I have suffered. Even Sir James Mertonbridge cannot commit bigamy."
And at that he understood, and his expression became that of a devil incarnate. If he divorced her he lost the money: if he did not she remained his wife. But when he turned round his face was masklike as ever. "We will go further into this in the morning, Laura," he said quietly. "You are tired now, and I insist on your drinking a glass of wine."
Her strength seemed to have suddenly given out: she sat by the table, her head sunk on her outstretched arms. And even as I looked at her, with my heart full of pity, a dreadful change came over the face of the man who stood by her side. He had just seen the way out, and I stared at him fascinated, whilst my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth.
Quietly he crossed to a cabinet that stood against the wall, and from it he took a small exquisitely cut glass bottle. Then he looked at his wife: she was still sitting motionless. With the bottle in his hand he returned to the table: then standing with his back to her he poured half its contents into a glass which he filled with wine. "Drink, my love," he said softly, and I strove to shout and warn her. But no sound came: I could only sit and watch helplessly.
She stretched out her hand for the glass with a gesture of utter weariness: she drank. And on the man's face there dawned a look of triumph. Once again I tried to shout, to dash from my chair and seize the glass. But it was too late. For perhaps five seconds she stared at him: then she sprang to her feet, her features already writhing in agony. Through the great vaulted hall there rang out one piercing scream— "You murderer!"—ere she sank down, clutching at the table. And with that, power of movement returned to me and I rushed at the man, to find myself lying on the floor bathed in sweat.
I stared round foolishly: the electric lights were still shining above me. My clothes lay by the glowing logs: the refectory table was bare. The whole thing had been a dream.
Gradually I pulled myself together, though my hands still shook with the vividness of it. And then feverishly I began to get back into my clothes. They were not quite dry, but nothing would have induced me to spend another minute in that hall. The rain had ceased: the faint light of dawn was filtering through the windows by the front door. And ten minutes later, having left everything exactly as I had found it, I was walking down the drive. Anything to get away from that haunted spot.
For hours I wandered aimlessly, my mind still obsessed with the nightmare, until at half-past seven I found myself opposite a garage where a sleepy-eyed lad was beginning to stir himself. He called the owner, who promised to go out himself and tow in my car. And then I crossed to the inn across the road and ordered breakfast.
It still seemed impossible to me that I had not actually witnessed that crime of years ago. In fact, the more I thought about it the more did I believe that I had done so: that for some strange reason my brain had been in such a condition that I had seen it re-enacted. They say that thought impressions can be left on matter: that there are people who can walk into a house where a murder has been committed hundreds of years before and reconstruct the crime. Had that been the case with me? I am not psychic: but perhaps my brain had been so attuned on that occasion that it had been receptive.
The landlord entered as I finished my meal, and proved communicative. "Mertonbridge Hall, sir? It's about a mile away."
So I had been walking round in circles since I left.
"Funny you should ask," he continued. "Mr. Parker—the butler—has only just left. He spent the night here, owing to the rain. The present baronet, sir? He's abroad at the moment. I gather things are a bit tight: same as with all of us. And Sir Bryan has always known how to spend his money. But if you're interested, sir, and you have nothing better to do you should go up to the Hall this afternoon. It's open to visitors between three and five every Tuesday, and Mr. Parker takes parties round."
And so at three o'clock I found myself once more walking up the drive. A motor-car passed me, full of Americans: another one stood at the front door. And, majestic in his morning coat, Mr. Parker received his visitors.
Fascinated I stared round the hall. There was the chair I had sat in: there was the cabinet from which Sir James had taken the poison. And then as my eyes glanced along the line of paintings I saw the man himself. He was the third from the end, and he was wearing the clothes I had seen him in in my dream.
Mr. Parker droned on: I heard not one word till the name Sir James caught my ear. "Sir James was the third baronet, ladies and gentlemen: there you see his portrait. And it was to him that occurred a terrible tragedy in this very 'all."
He paused impressively, marshalling us with his eye. "Coming 'ome with his bride he dismissed his servants, and sat down to supper at that hidentical table you see there in the middle of the room. Now Sir Humphrey—Sir James's father—whose portrait is hanging next to him, was a great traveller. And he had collected, in the course of his wanderings, some rare hantiques, which I am about to show you."
I was standing by the cabinet before he reached it and he looked at me suspiciously. "You see that bottle, now containing nothing more 'armful than water. But in those days it was filled with a deadly poison, manufactured by the Borgias themselves. Now what 'appened is not exactly clear, but it seems that after Sir James had pointed out the beauties of the collection to his young bride, he left her for a while to go upstairs. Suddenly a scream rang out, and dashing down he found her dead on the floor. Distracted and 'eart-broken he gazed wildly round, and found the bottle on the table, 'alf empty. What had 'appened can only be guessed at. Not wishing to frighten her he had not told her that the bottle was filled with poison. And she, taking it out—it was specially made to taste good by them Borgias—must have thought it was some rare old liqueur. Anyway, she drank some: and there on the night of her 'ome coming she died."
So that was the story he had told—and got away with.
"Months after, when this grief had lessened," he continued, "Sir James married the Lady Rosa Ferrington, and their eldest son—Sir Thomas—you see 'anging next his father."
"I suppose," said a voice, "that it was an accident. No question about its being murder, was there?" They all stared at me, and I realised the voice was mine.
"The Baronets of Mertonbridge 'All do not murder their wives," said Mr. Parker icily, regarding me as if I was something a trifle more insignificant than a cockroach.
"This h'ain't the movies, young man," remarked a stout woman with a permanent sniff, indignantly following Mr. Parker's flock.
I could have laughed aloud: if only they had known what I knew. And after a while I slipped quietly away, and left them to it, doubtless confirming Mr. Parker's opinion of my position in the scheme of things, when he failed to receive my contribution for his trouble.
The months slipped past into years and, only naturally, the memory of that dream grew dim. And then one morning I saw in the papers an announcement that brought it back to my mind.
SIR BRYAN MERTONBRIDGE, BART., AND MISS J. TOMKINS.
"An engagement is announced between Sir Bryan Mertonbridge, Bart., of Mertonbridge Hall, Sussex, and Joan, elder daughter of Mr. and Mrs. R. Tomkins, of Sydney, New South Wales."
And that, too, passed out of my head until the day I lunched with John Carmichael at his club—the day that I now look back on with a sort of horrified fascination. For I knew then what was going to happen, as surely as I knew that the sun was going to set. And yet—what could I have done?
He was sitting two tables away from us, magnificently handsome, with clean-cut aquiline features, and I knew the answer before I asked.
"That's Mertonbridge," said Carmichael. "Good looking, isn't he?"
"Not as good looking as the third baronet," I said, "though astoundingly like him."
"The third baronet! A bit before our time, old boy," he laughed.
"I have seen his portrait," I said briefly. "This fellow is engaged, isn't he?"
Carmichael nodded and lowered his voice. "Australian girl. The father rolls in it: wool or something. And it'll put Mertonbridge on his feet: he's absolutely in Queer Street. Up to his neck with money-lenders. It's that, of course, that made him do it, because—between ourselves—old Tomkins is a bit wild and woolly like his sheep, and the girl ain't a scream of beauty. Very worthy family and all that: pillars of the state, don't you know, but hardly what one would expect a Mertonbridge to marry into. What's the matter, old man: you're looking quite queer?"
"Nothing." I said, and my voice sounded strange to me. "By the way, wasn't there some other girl?"
"Yes: but it's not generally known. He and Lady Janet Pulborough have been crazy about one another for years. At one time there was a sort of engagement I believe, but old Storrington hasn't a bean, and if he had his daughter would see damned little of it. So it fell through. And it was then that Mertonbridge went abroad, and hooked the wool. By Jove! old boy, you're looking devilish funny. Are you certain there's nothing wrong?"
"Quite; thanks, Jack," I said. "I'll have a cup of coffee in the smoking-room."
Yes: I knew it then. I knew it, I say—and yet what could I do? That was six months ago, and you all saw it in the papers.
'DREADFUL TRAGEDY AT MERTONBRIDGE HALL
"A shocking tragedy occurred last night at Mertonbridge Hall, the Sussex seat of Sir Bryan Mertonbridge, Bart. It will be recalled that his wedding three weeks ago to Miss Joan Tomkins was one of the events of the season. It appears that the happy pair returned from their honeymoon yesterday afternoon, and that after dinner Sir Bryan, who is a noted traveller, was showing his bride some of the trophies he had collected in the course of his wanderings. Amongst them were some native darts, the tips of which are soaked in a deadly poison. He warned her particularly to be careful, and then a sudden call to the telephone took him from the room. While he was at the instrument, a piercing scream rang out, and dashing back he found the unfortunate lady writhing on the floor. Half a minute later she died in her husband's arms.
"What happened is only too clear. By some terrible mischance Lady Mertonbridge must have pricked her hand with one of the darts: the mark could be seen. And the poison, which is a native secret, did its deadly work. The sympathy of everybody will go out to the bereaved husband, who is quite prostrate with grief.
"An amazing coincidence is the fact that an almost similar tragedy occurred to one of Sir Bryan's ancestors—the third baronet."
Coincidence! All day long Mr. Parker's words have been ringing in my head—"The Baronets of Mertonbridge Hall do not murder their wives."
THE fair-haired man in the corner had taken no part in the conversation. He made the fifth of the group that had gathered itself together in the corner of the smoking-room, and I don't think any of us even knew his name. He had come on board the day before at Marseilles with his wife, and it was she who had attracted my attention at dinner to such an extent that I had remarked on her to Sturgis of the Gunners, who was sitting next me.
A pretty woman—extremely pretty, and judging by her face somewhere about thirty. Certainly not more, for there was not a wrinkle to be seen, and her arms and neck were those of a young woman. It was her hair that surprised one, and made one wonder if the age estimated was wrong. For though there was a lot of it, it was snow white.
"Some newfangled fashion," grunted Sturgis in answer to my comment. "Next year it will be pea-green. I'll bet you that woman is not out of the twenties yet."
But somehow she didn't look in the least of the type who go in for freak fancies of that sort. And her husband seemed to be the last man in the world who would marry one of the type. A more prosaic, matter-of-fact-looking Englishman I have seldom seen, and he was quiet to the point of dullness.
It was his first trip out East, we gathered, whereas we calculated that between the rest of us we had just topped the half-century. Which quite possibly accounted for his silence: we were talking of seas and places that, to him, were merely names out of an atlas. And also, as the evening grew older and tongues grew looser, some pretty tall stories began to fly around. Some were perfectly true; some—however, I will not labour the point.
I forget who it was who first started the discussion on tight corners and terrifying experiences generally. Cartwright spun a fairly useful one about three days in the company of some Chinese pirates waiting for a ransom he knew would never come; Sturgis specialised on a singularly unpleasant sect of priests somewhere up in Tibet. In fact, none of us disgraced ourselves, and I think we all had a comfortable feeling that our fair-haired friend was suitably impressed with the perils that lay in wait for the unwary.
"Of course," said Cartwright reassuringly, "it's only when you get off the beaten track that there's any danger. Otherwise you're as safe as you are in England."
The fair-haired man smiled a little thoughtfully. "What age would you put my wife at, gentlemen?" was his somewhat astounding remark.
"Well, really," said Sturgis, after a slightly embarrassed silence, "I—er—"
"I think you noticed her at dinner," went on the other quietly. "And I have a reason for my apparently strange question."
"Twenty-five," I said, determined to err on the right side.
"My wife will be twenty next July," he answered. "And seven months ago, when she was just nineteen, her hair was as dark as yours. Not illness, gentlemen: nothing of that sort. But when you made use of the phrase 'as safe as you are in England,' I couldn't help thinking of that change of colour."
"You mean she had some terrible shock?" said someone.
"Nothing to compare, of course, with that sect of priests in Tibet," he answered mildly, and Sturgis became engrossed in the bowl of his pipe. "Yes, she had a terrible shock."
"Which turned her hair white?" Cartwright looked at him with interest. "I've heard of such cases second-hand, but—Is it a matter which you can pass on, sir?"
The fair-haired man was silent for a moment or two. "Well, gentlemen," he said at length, "you will understand that it's not a thing which I care to talk about as a general rule. But on the condition that it goes no farther, and above all on the condition that no allusion should ever be made to it in front of my wife, I have no objection to telling you what happened.
"You will understand, of course, that much of it has been pieced together by me from what she told me after it happened: I was not there at the time. If I had been—"
His fists clenched suddenly, and a strained look came into his eyes.
"We had been married three months when it took place. Our honeymoon was over—I couldn't afford the time for a very long one—and we were settling into the house I had managed to get not far from Sunningdale.
"It was a nice little house—ten bedrooms sort of size, with a well-laid-out garden and about a couple of acres of rough ground in which my predecessor had planted a whole lot of prize rhododendrons. It had a tennis court and a garage, and the marvel to me was that it hadn't been snapped up the instant it came on the market. We found it by mere chance when we were motoring to look at another place, and the instant we saw it we knew that it would do us, and further that we meant to have it. An old caretaker—a strange-looking old woman—showed us over it, and we found that the inside was in just as good condition as the exterior. Which was not to be wondered at, seeing that she told us it had only been unoccupied about nine months.
"How comes it that it has remained empty all this time?" I asked her, for nine months in that locality is more than nine years elsewhere.
"She shrugged her shoulders and looked more bovine than before. Yes—the drains were all right, and the house wasn't damp and there weren't any rats—she could assure us of that. And the house agents could give us all other particulars.
"So off we went to the house agent. The rent was eminently satisfactory, and since he seemed a very decent sort of fellow I decided to put the matter to him point-blank. 'Look here,' I said, as man to man, 'is there a catch somewhere? I know it's your job to let the house, but this lady and I are shortly going to get married, and we don't want to be let down. And from what I know of the housing problem it's a mighty strange thing that a house of that type, in this locality, should have remained empty for nearly a year.'
"He didn't answer for a bit, but just sat at his desk fingering the plans. 'Are you a stranger to these parts?' he said at length.
"'Complete,' I answered.
"'Well,' he said, 'it's unprofessional, I suppose, but in view of the circumstances I'll tell you. Mark you, personally I think it's the most hopeless rot. It's a first-class property in first-class order; of its type and size it's out and away the best value I have on my books. But three years ago a singularly brutal murder was committed there.'
"'Three years!' I cried. 'But it's only been empty nine months!'
"'The next party that had it after the crime took place moved to a larger house,' he answered.
"'And you promise me that that is all there is against it?' I said.
"'Absolutely all', he assured me. 'You may have any tests you like carried out And then he looked at my fiancee and rubbed his chin. 'Dash it all,' he burst out, 'I got married myself once upon a time. The real trouble is—servants. There—I've let the cat out of the bag. You know what they are: difficult at the best of times these days. But that is where the rub comes. The party I told you of certainly did move to a larger house, but I don't think they would have if they had been able to keep a servant. Silly, hysterical girls—swearing that they saw things and heard noises: you know the sort of thing.'
"We thanked him warmly for having been so frank with us, and told him we'd think it over.
"'If I can do anything for you,' were his parting words, 'let me know. I've got a few possibles on my books, though none of them compares with that one. But if you do decide to take it, I would not, if I were you, get your servants locally.'
"Well, we went away, and we thought it over. It may sound perhaps a small point to some of you fellows—this servant question—but it isn't a small point to us stay-at-homes. And there was no doubt about it—the drawback was a very serious one. So serious that for a week we tried to find something else. But nothing that we saw approached the house at Sunningdale, either for comfort or convenience. And finally, to cut a long story short, we made up our minds to chance it.
"So I wrote and told the house agent of our decision, and in the stress and bustle of getting married, the matter more or less passed from my mind. Furniture I had in plenty, and it was not until the house had been completely repapered and fixed-up generally that I went down again.
"I went alone, I remember, as my fiancee was busy that day. It was principally to get some measurements, and I took down a sandwich lunch with me. The old caretaker was there, and I thought she eyed me a bit strangely as she opened the door, though she said nothing. In fact, I don't think I saw her again until just before I was going, when she came into the hall and stood looking at me.
"'What is it, Mrs. Gulliver?' I said. 'Do you want to ask me anything?
"'So you've taken the house', she remarked quietly.
"'I certainly have,' I answered. 'And a very charming little house it is.'
"She nodded her head once or twice, and her eyes never left my face.
"'What's the matter?' I cried irritably. 'Have you got something at the back of your mind about it? If so, please tell me.'
"'I've nothing at the back of my mind that you would be paying attention to,' she said. 'But that's not saying that I haven't got something there.'
"'Well, what is it?' I said. 'I shall certainly pay attention to it if it's anything serious.'
"'There's death in this house, Mr. Morgan,' she answered gravely. 'It's hanging over us: I can feel it.'
"Well, gentlemen, I can tell you I was furious. Just the sort of damned silly fatuous remark which would scare the average servant stiff and send her flying from the house. At least, that's how it struck me at the time. Now—well, now I'm not so certain. Looking back on the little interview I favoured Mrs. Gulliver with in that sunny, fresh-painted hall, there is one thing that stands out very clearly in my mind. And that was her impassive demeanour. She never raised her voice, even when I became thoroughly annoyed. She just stood there listening to what I had to say, and her quiet, steady eyes never wavered.
"'It's ridiculous,' I cried. 'Perfectly ridiculous. It's remarks like that which make it impossible to keep servants.'
"'Better that,' she said, 'than the other. For it will be a terrible death.'
"'But what earthly reason have you for making such a statement?' I fumed.
"'Maybe it's not earthly,' she answered.
"'Just because a murder was committed here,' I grunted. And then her last remark struck me. 'What do you mean—not earthly?'
"'There are things, Mr. Morgan, beyond our ken.' she said gravely. 'It was my mother's gift, and my grandmother's before her, and in turn it has come to me. Second sight, I believe they call it. But sometimes we know what is going to happen. And we are never wrong.'
"'And who, might I ask, is going to die?' I said facetiously.
"'Don't mock me, sir,' she said. 'No good ever came of that. I cannot tell you who is going to be killed, or when it is going to happen. But it is written.'
"'Be killed?' I repeated. 'Do you mean another murder?'
"'Aye,' she said gravely. 'Another murder. The thoughts come thronging into my mind sometimes, till I have to get up from my chair and go out of doors. Then they leave me. But I tell you there is evil threatening this house and they who live in it. Where it comes from I know not; but always it is the same thing—death. Death by violence.'
"There was no good saying anything or trying to argue about it. The woman was firmly convinced that what she said was right, and I had to leave it at that. The only thing I did do was to extract a promise from her that she would not mention the matter to the servants when they came.
"'I'll not mention it,' she said quietly, 'but for all that you won't keep them.'
"'And why not?' I snapped.
"'The tradesmen,' she answered.. 'When they call of a morning— they'll talk. They'll tell the cook what happened here three years ago. They'll tell her that you may hear strange sounds and see strange things in this house, and she will believe them.'
"'Exactly,' I said bitterly. 'And then they promptly will begin to hear strange sounds. Whereas if nothing was said to them they wouldn't.'
"'Maybe,' she answered. 'Maybe not.'
"She took a step towards me, almost her first movement since the interview had started. 'There's something, Mr. Morgan, that threatens this house. Don't ask me what it is, for that I can't tell you. I don't know myself. But it's there—it's always there. That I do know.'
"And the next instant she was gone, and I was alone in the cheerful sunlight. Now, what would any of you have done in my place? Probably just what I did—cursed furiously. While she had been with me her strange personality had impressed me in spite of myself; now that she had gone I merely remembered the stupid vapourings of a silly woman. And a servantless future. She wouldn't be able to hold her tongue, for all her promise to the contrary, when she met the servants. Not she; she wasn't the type. And there and then I determined that whatever else happened there should be no overlap. Mrs. Gulliver should be out of the house before the servants came in, even if it did mean some inconvenience to us. In ordinary circumstances, of course, we should have had the house open, with the servants installed, all ready for us on our return from our honeymoon. Now I decided that we would keep on Mrs. Gulliver until we came back, and then get rid of her one morning and bring the servants in in the afternoon. I felt that tradesmen's boys were, at any rate, less likely to unsettle the staff than that sombre-eyed woman."
The fair-haired man took a sip of his drink and knocked out his pipe.
"Well," he continued, "we returned. Two months ago, almost to a day, we returned."
Mrs. Gulliver was at the door to meet us, and we spent the afternoon in exploring the house. Everything was perfectly charming, and my wife was delighted. In fact, the only fly in the ointment was Mrs. Gulliver's cooking. I hadn't told my wife of the conversation I had had with the woman, and I had taken the first opportunity—when I saw Mrs. Gulliver alone—of telling her that if she said one word to my wife of what she had said to me a death by violence would occur in the house and her prophecy would be fulfilled. Because my wife thought that my idea of not having any overlap was merely due to my wish to prevent Mrs. Gulliver giving gruesome details of the murder to the servants, which might unsettle them.
"That, then, was the position when we arrived back at the house. The servants were due in three days, and until then we should have to put up with the cooking.
"Well, as I've said before, it was a charming little place. I spent the next day pottering around with my wife, planning out improvements in the garden, and the more I saw of it the less I thought of Mrs. Gulliver's strange words to me a few weeks previously. She had said nothing more, but then, save for one brief interview when I had sworn her to silence, I had not seen her alone. Her face was expressionless, and she performed her work—save the cooking—quietly and efficiently.
"The following day I had to go up to London. There were a lot of arrears of work waiting for me in the office, and I only just got back in time for dinner. And the first thing I noticed was that my wife seemed a little thoughtful and preoccupied.
"'Marjorie Thurston came to see me this afternoon,' she said as we sat down.
"Mrs. Thurston was a pal of hers who lived at Ascot.
"'And what had she got to say for herself?' I asked.
"'Jack,' she said, 'I rather wish we hadn't taken this house.'
"I swore under my breath, and consigned Mrs. Thurston elsewhere. I could guess what she had been saying.
"'She gave me the details of the murder," went on my wife. Perfectly horrible. A brute of a man who lived here and killed his wife. He— and I could see that she was looking a bit white—'he cut off her head.'
"'Well, my dear,' I said prosaically, 'it seems to me that if you're going to murder someone it doesn't much matter how you do it. The result is much the same.'
"'Oh, I know that,' she cried. 'But it all seems so horrible. And they say that he haunts the place.'
"'Confound Marjorie Thurston,' I said angrily. 'She'd got no right to fill you up with a cock-and-bull story of that sort. You don't believe it, of course?'
"'No, of course not,' she answered, but it wasn't a very convincing No. 'It's the servants I'm thinking of. They're bound to hear of it.'
"'Let's leave that trouble till it comes,' I said.
"And on the surface, at any rate, we did leave it. We discussed the moving of furniture to different places, and what particular car we were going to buy, and a hundred and one other things, till it was time to go to bed. In fact, I thought she had forgotten about it, until I noticed her glance over her shoulder suddenly as we went upstairs. The hall was in darkness, and she clutched my arm.
"'Jack,' she whispered, 'Jack—don't you feel it?'
"'Feel what?' I said, impressed in spite of myself.
"'Something evil,' she said, and her voice was shaking. 'Horrible and black. It's gone now, but—'
"With a little shiver she went on up the stairs, and I followed her. And you can take it from me that for the first time in my life I was annoyed with her. I had felt absolutely nothing, and I put it down to imagination. I didn't say anything. I didn't see that there was any good to be gained by doing so. But the thing annoyed me. If she was going to give way to these hysterical fears, there certainly would be no chance of keeping any servants.
"However, she said nothing more, and when the next morning dawned bright and sunny she seemed to be her normal self again. Which was a relief, seeing that I had to go up to London again.
"But before I went I asked Mrs. Gulliver if she had said anything to my wife. She absolutely denied it, and denied it so quietly and convincingly that I believed her. And in view of what happened, gentlemen, that fact is an interesting one. Mark you, I advance no explanation, and yet it seems clear to me that two people—my wife and Mrs. Gulliver—both experienced the same sensation in that house. I have since asked my wife if she thought she saw or heard anything in the hall, and her answer is that she did not. In fact, the nearest that I can get to her sensation is that she suddenly felt herself opposed by a dreadful malign influence—one that wished her harm. She is positive that it was not imagination: she says that the sudden sensation was so marked as to be almost physical. Now, if her experience on the stairs had been due to what Mrs. Thurston had told her that afternoon, my contention is that she would have been affected differently. If it indeed had been imagination, as I thought at the time, it would have taken a more material form. In fact, I believe that Mrs. Thurston represented—if I may put it that way—the errand-boy school of thought, which grew out of idle tittle-tattle. And I believe that my wife's experience that night was a manifestation of what Mrs. Gulliver had told me. In short, that the house was, in the accepted sense of the word, not haunted, but that there was a sinister influence present—which, if we knew more of the things that lie on the borderline, should have warned us of the terrible danger we were in."
The sweat was gleaming in beads on the fair-haired man's forehead, and his neglected pipe lay beside him on the table.
"Gentlemen," he said, "I still find it difficult to talk calmly of that next night. I was unavoidably detained in London till the last train, and what happened has been told me disjointedly by that poor child. God! when I think of it, it almost drives me mad!
"I'd telephoned through to her to say that I couldn't get down till late. I asked her how she was, and she assured me she was quite all right. She was going to bed early, and she was going to have a fire lit in her bedroom to make it more cosy. Sandwiches and whisky would be left for me in the dining-room. Mrs. Gulliver was there, and she didn't feel in the least uneasy. It must have been just imagination the night before, and anyway I wasn't to dream of coming down early. And with that I left it, and went back to a business dinner with a quiet mind.
"I've got the rest of it out of her a bit here and a bit there, and I'll piece it together for you in the telling. She had her dinner at eight o'clock, and at ten o'clock she went to bed. I had a latchkey, of course, so she locked the front door, but left the light on in the hall. Then she went upstairs, and of one thing she is very positive: there was no repetition of the strange feeling she had experienced the night before.
"The fire was burning brightly in her bedroom, and after she had read for a bit she began to feel sleepy. So she switched off the light, having first glanced at the time to see how much longer I should be. It was eleven o'clock, and twelve-fifteen was the earliest at which I could be back. Then she dozed off.
"She seemed, she told me, hardly to have been asleep at all when she found herself wide awake again. Something had disturbed her, but she doesn't know what. And the time was a quarter to twelve. The fire had died down a bit and was throwing that flickerings jumping light about the room which makes it difficult to see clearly.
"She lay there in bed motionless and rigid, conscious only of one thing—that something was going to happen. And then she heard an unmistakable creak on the stairs, followed by a strange muttering noise. Again the stairs creaked and yet again, and she realised that someone was coming up.
"She knew it couldn't be me: she knew Mrs. Gulliver had gone to bed hours ago. Who was it—what was it—that was coming up the stairs? Well, it's easy to sit here in a well-lit smoking-room and ask why she didn't get out and lock the door. I asked her the same thing myself. The kid was just too pulverised with terror to move, gentlemen: she lay there in bed listening to those footsteps coming closer and her legs simply refused to act.
"And at last the footsteps ceased outside her door. Clear as anything she could hear the thing—whatever it was—muttering and chuckling to itself, and she just lay there rigid and sick with fear, staring at the door—waiting. After a moment or two the handle was cautiously turned and the door commenced to open. Inch by inch it was pushed back, but since it didn't open on to the bed she couldn't see who was on the other side. And then quite suddenly there came a hoarse chuckle.
"She almost screamed; may Heaven be praised that it was only almost! For the next instant a man came into the room, carrying a bundle in his hands. He walked slowly past the bed and sat down in a chair by the fire with his back to my wife. And she realised he hadn't seen her. He was muttering to himself and laughing, and after a while he deposited the bundle on the hearth-rug at his feet. It was about the size of a football, and it was wrapped up in what looked like a towel. And there he remained for three or four minutes whilst my wife, not daring to move, watched him from the bed. She tried to make out what he was saying to himself, but the few words she caught were just meaningless gibberish.
"At last a thought struck her. By the side of the bed was a push which rang a bell just outside Mrs. Gulliver's room. She glanced at the clock; it was still twenty minutes before I could hope to be back. And she felt that she would go mad if she had to endure this any longer. So with infinite care she stretched out her arm and rang the bell. She knew she couldn't hear it—it was too far away; but she also knew that it had been working that evening. So she waited—but nothing happened. She rang again and again—still nothing. And all the time the man sat there muttering and chuckling away to himself, whilst every now and then he lifted the bundle in his hands and held it in front of him.
"Another five minutes passed, and then the strain became too great. She must have given a little cry or made some sound, for the man swung round suddenly and stared at her. He stared at her in absolute silence; then he placed his bundle carefully on the floor and stood up. And I suppose utter despair and terror gave her the strength to move. For even as the man took a step towards her she flung the bedclothes off and darted through the door, banging it behind her. Then she fled downstairs and into the drawing-room. Behind her pounded the man, and by a second only did she get the door locked. There were French windows leading into the garden, and anything—anything to escape from the house."
The fair-haired man mopped his forehead, and his hand was shaking uncontrollably. "You've seen the fantastic shadows cast by moonlight, haven't you? Well, there was a moon that night, shining fitfully through the clouds—and on the windows through which she meant to escape two great shadows were dancing. There were men there—more men, and, clear above the mad pounding on the door behind her, she could hear them trying to force the window. And at that moment she gave up hope. The door was creaking on its hinges; she could hear the man on the other side hurling himself against it. And the crash of broken glass and the splintering of the door came simultaneously. She had a fleeting vision of the man who had been in her bedroom rushing in with something in his hand that gleamed, just as the other two men dashed aside the curtains and sprang into the room also. And the two of them hurled themselves at him savagely. One took him round the legs and brought him crashing to the floor; the other hit him a fearful blow behind the head with a loaded stick. And the man who had been upstairs lay still.
"'Good God, man!' said one of the newcomers, 'that was touch and go.'
"'Who is he?' said my wife faintly. 'He's been in my bedroom for twenty minutes.'
"The two men looked at one another significantly.
"'Are you all alone in the house, mum?' said the other.
"'My husband ought to be back at any moment.' she answered.
"'Well, I guess we'll stop with you anyway till he comes. Because we'll have to get a conveyance of some sort to take this bloke away in.'
"And it was just about then that I walked in.
"'A marvellous escape, sir,' said one of them to me when I'd heard briefly what had happened. 'He's a homicidal maniac, and he gave us the slip this evening.'
"'You followed him here, I suppose?'
"'Not exactly, sir. We guessed he'd come here. You see, he's the man that did the murder in this house three years ago. And if we hadn't come in time there would have been another done tonight."
The fair-haired man paused, and for a while no one spoke.
"What a ghastly experience!" said Sturgis. "I don't wonder your wife's hair turned white."
The other smiled grimly. "It wasn't that that did it. I was talking to the two warders below, when I heard scream after scream from my wife's bedroom. You see, the warders hadn't come in time to prevent a murder. For when I got to her, I found her staring at something that lay on the hearth-rug—something from which the coverings had slipped— something about the size of a football. Mrs. Thurston had been right as to how the original murder had been committed. He'd cut off his victim's head. And the only thing that had saved my wife was that the maniac had been to Mrs. Gulliver's room first. That was why the bell had not been answered."
"Great Scott!" muttered Cartwright. "Great Scott!"
"The psychology of the thing, gentlemen, is beyond me. The foolish talk about the house being haunted in the accepted sense of the word may be dismissed. But I do believe firmly that in some way or other beyond our ken the poor demented mind of that madman was able to project itself through space and make itself felt by certain personalities at its destination. How else can you account for the unfortunate housekeeper's feeling of impending evil—for my wife's sudden vivid li impression as she went up the stairs? They told me that sometimes he used to lie in a sort of coma for hours at a time. Was it then that his tortured spirit fled from his body, going always to the spot which drew it like a magnet? I know not. But thing I do know. If any of you require a nice unfurnished house in the Sunningdale district—"
"Holy smoke!" said Sturgis. "I'd sooner have my monastery in Tibet."
GENERAL SIR HUBERT LOVELACE, Bart., V.C., K.C.B., etc., etc., stepped out of his motor-car and ascended the steps to the front door of Lovelace Towers. As its name implies, it was the baronial seat, and its owner, having reached the top of the flight, proceeded to do what he always did do on similar occasions. First he inspected the consistency of the soil in the two large wooden flower-tubs that flanked the door, to make sure that his fool of a head gardener had applied neither too much nor too little water.
Having satisfied himself on this point, and decided that possibly after all he wouldn't sack the man, he faced about and inspected the ground that lay in front of him. Not that he expected to find anything new: in fact, had he done so the result would have been dreadful. He inspected it partly out of habit and partly out of that ingrained feeling of pride of possession which is born and bred of ownership. Even so, in days long gone by, had Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Hubert Lovelace gazed on the glittering ranks of the 10th Royal Lancers, when that magnificent regiment was drawn up on parade.
His scrutiny now was interrupted by a girl's voice speaking through an open window behind him.
"And how is himself? Feeling very much the monarch of all he surveys?"
The soldier's stern, rather aquiline face softened as he turned round.
"Impertinent minx," he remarked. "You'll be for orderly-room tomorrow morning if you talk to the Commanding Officer like that."
With a laugh she came out and slipped her arm through his. The same clear blue eyes, the same clear-cut profile proclaimed their relationship, and the man looked proudly at his daughter as she stood beside him.
"Did you have many for orderly-room today, Daddy?"
"About the same as usual," he answered. "That wretched fellow Griggs been poaching again; two motoring road-hogs; and Mrs. Panding knocked her husband down with a rolling-pin during her weekly drunk. Oh! and one of the usuals, of course."
"Another of them!" cried the girl. "It's funny they all seem to come here."
"They don't," snorted her father. "The scoundrels are just as bad everywhere else. And the trouble is that for swine of that type prison is a good deal more comfortable than knocking about outside. It's what they're after. Free board and lodging, and then they go on to another place and get the same. If I had my way I'd flog 'em. That would soon stop it."
"Still, there must be some genuine cases, Daddy," said the girl slowly.
"Then let 'em produce their papers, and papers that will stand the test of examination," said her father. "Not one man, Una, has been sent to prison by me or the bench without a thorough verification. And as for this impudent rascal today "—the worthy warrior plucked at his collar—"I—why, for two pins I'd have flogged him myself."
The girl glanced at him gravely, though a tiny smile flickered round the corners of her lips. She adored her father: she knew by heart the story of the episode that had entitled him to write those first two letters after his name: and she knew by heart also the real nature of the man. As did all his staff, who would willingly have lain down and let him walk over them. And when a man has reached that position with regard to those around him, what matter if he pretends to be a ferocious fellow?
"Bombastico furioso," she remarked, and her smile broadened. "What did this impudent rascal do today?"
But for once in a way her father failed to respond to her chaff. His face remained stern and set, and the girl realised that he was serious.
"He was begging, of course," said the General after a while. "No visible means of sustenance—the usual thing. But the case was aggravated by the medals he had the impudence to show. At least, by one of them. He dared to wear the D.C.M. 'Where are your discharge papers?' I asked him. He hadn't got any: they were lost. 'What Records Office will substantiate your claim?' I said to him."
"He couldn't tell me; he'd served in a Colonial unit, and didn't know if they even had such a thing as a Records Office. I asked him what Colonial contingent he had been with; he wouldn't say. I asked him where he won his D.C.M.; he wouldn't say. All he would say was that his name was John Brownlow. And then I read the Riot Act over him. I told him that it wasn't because he wouldn't, but because he couldn't. That he was an impudent impostor who had either stolen the medals or picked them up cheap in a pawnshop. I asked him if he realised that the D.C.M. in the Great War was worth many a V.C. before it, and how dare he masquerade with such a medal on his worthless chest?"
"What did he say. Daddy?" asked the girl.
"Nothing; he couldn't. He just stood there silent: a convicted impostor. I ordered him there and then to hand over his decorations, and told him that I would return them to him when he brought me some proof that he was entitled to wear them. And there they are." With a snort he produced them from his pocket.
"What did you give him, Daddy?" said his daughter.
"A month without the option," grunted the General. "Not that there was any option in his case: he hadn't a bean in his pocket. But it was "—he hesitated a moment—"it was the Colonial part that stuck."
Abruptly he turned and went indoors, and the girl, left to herself, sat down on the stone balustrade and stared over the park. It was many moons now since her father had alluded to the great overwhelming sorrow of his life—greater almost than the death, ten years ago, of his wife.
He was not a man who wore his heart on his sleeve, but she knew full well why it had been the Colonial part that stuck. For Jack—her only brother—had gone to France with the Australians and had died there. And in dying he had performed the most meritorious act of his life.
It was just one of those tragedies which sometimes happen so inexplicably. By all the laws of upbringing and heredity, Jack Lovelace should have been a top-notcher. Instead of that he had proved a permanent and continual disgrace and a drunkard. Expulsion from Eton had effectually prevented him from obtaining a commission in his father's old regiment, which would otherwise have been his automatically. And after that had occurred scrape after scrape—drink, always drink the cause. None of them was actually dishonest: in his queer, distorted way Jack had been the soul of honour. Until—there came one: the final one. That had been dishonest—legally. Morally: well—there's a difference. And it happened thus.
Amongst the varied assortment of men with whom he consorted was one Peter Drayton. And Peter Drayton was Jack's own particular friend: the worst of the whole bunch, as Sir Hubert frequently said. Their tastes were similar: their outlook on life the same. And they had been born a hundred years too late: that was their trouble.
In the old East India days they would undoubtedly have gone to that delectable country, amassed huge fortunes by methods of which the less said the better, and finally died in an odour of sanctity and gout somewhere in England. Unfortunately, that particular safety valve was denied them. The spirit was willing: the opportunities weak. London was their hunting-ground, and virgin forest in the tropics is safer.
To come back to it. Peter, finding his need for ready money rather more pressing than usual, went to the old-established firm of Jones & Jones and borrowed—how he did it is one of the world's insoluble mysteries—one thousand of the best at five per cent. Completely staggered at his success he omitted to notice that it was five per cent. per week.
Messrs. Jones & Jones, however, were not so forgetful, and the position shortly became acute. Having paid the first instalment of interest with the last fifty remaining of the capital, a deadlock ensued. And here Jack came in. An elderly aunt had just died, leaving him precisely a thousand pounds.
Now what was Jack's was Peter's, and what was Peter's was Jack's. Together they repaired to Jones & Jones to explain matters and repay the sum borrowed. Unfortunately, as Mr. Jones pointed out, there was a little question of three weeks more interest—a matter of one hundred and fifty pounds. The fact that the rate of interest was monstrous left him cold: had not Mr. Drayton signed the agreement? So with one accord they broke up the office, paying particular attention to the classical, if somewhat Hebraic features of Mr. Jones.
While it lasted it must have been great. They'd locked the door, and when they'd finished the poker looked like a hairpin. After that they each did six months' hard.
It was the end. The General gave his son five hundred pounds, packed him off to Australia, and forbade his name ever to be mentioned again. With a stiff upper lip the old soldier had carried on, and not even his wife quite realised the aching blank that was left in his life. No one to carry on: the line would pass—or go to a disgraced man. For in some things the father's code of honour was almost puritanical.
And then had come the atonement in France. For Jack had died—wonderfully. No more wonderfully perhaps than thousands of others; but he'd died with his back to the wall—in an isolated post— without thought of surrender. And the General's back had straightened since he'd heard the news; he was that manner of man.
It was Peter Drayton who had written to him—telling him the details. He'd been with Jack at the time—had been, in fact, the sole survivor.
"If ever," the letter had concluded, "a man deserved the V.C. it was your son. His behaviour in the face of what seemed certain death was magnificent, and but for him, and his example, the post would not have been held."
Una knew the letter by heart, and it came back to her now as she sat staring over the park. For there had been no question officially of recommending Jack for any decoration: the only intimation received had been the bald announcement of his death, and a colourless letter of regret from his platoon commander. And it had hurt her father. Not, as he had said on the only occasion she had ever heard him refer to the matter, that he attached any importance to the getting of a decoration. Enough for him that the boy had died as one of his line should die. He had done his duty, and that was enough. But still, in view of what Drayton had written, it seemed—odd. Surely he must have told the Commanding Officer. And if so, it was strange that nothing had been done. It would have been rather fine—though wild horses would not have dragged such an admission from the General—to have two V.C.'s in the family.
With a little sigh the girl rose and went indoors. "It was the Colonial part that stuck." Her father's words were ringing in her ears, and she wondered who the man was, who was even now doing his one month's hard—the man who had masqueraded with a D.C.M.
There had been so much of it—this old soldier stunt, and though, at first, her naturally soft heart had impelled her to take them all at their face value, gradually she had come round to her father's point of view. If they were genuine—let them prove it. Then there was always something for them at Lovelace Towers. If they weren't—it was a despicable form of fraud, and they deserved all they got. Particularly when they dared to use a medal for conspicuous gallantry. That made matters a thousand times worse. It seemed like robbing the dead of their honour.
She met her father as she crossed the hall. "I'm glad you gave that man a month, Daddy," she said. "I wish you'd given him more."
John Brownlow stood in the street outside the jail, looking about him with a faint smile. The prison authorities had returned him one shilling and four coppers, which represented his entire worldly wealth. They had also given him some excellent advice concerning the reprehensibility of his mode of life, and the advisability of at once finding some honest work. As to where it was to be obtained they were a little less concise, but when all is said and done, free advice and a free shave are more than a lot of us get during life.
There was some free information he'd had also given him by the prison doctor, a kindly man with a shrewd face. But that information was stale—stale and unprofitable. And useless, too, for a man whose capital is one shilling and fourpence.
After a while he turned and strolled towards the town that lay in the hollow below the prison. The smile was still on his lips as he jingled his fortune in his pocket—an introspective smile, the smile of a man who possesses that most wonderful of gifts—a real sense of humour. After all, there are worse things than having a clean chin and one and fourpence.
He walked on slowly down the main street of the country town. The shops were just beginning to open, and after mature consideration he entered a tobacconist's and bought a threepenny packet of cigarettes. One and a penny. Still, that was a shilling more than he'd had for some time now. In fact, it might almost be described as affluence. Shifting six loads of wood at threepence a load was certainly the way to become a millionaire.
Suddenly he stopped abruptly: a car was coming towards him. A girl was driving, and by her side sat General Sir Hubert Lovelace, Bart. The car passed him, and still he stood there staring with a strange look in his keen grey eyes.
"A fine old man," said the voice of the tobacconist behind him. "And a fine girl. Pity the boy turned out a wrong un."
"He did, did he?" said Brownlow.
"Terrible," remarked the tobacconist. "Fell in with all sorts of bad companions, he did. Robbed and stole and was sent to prison. And drank, too—so I've been told. Fair broke his father up for a time—him only having the one son, too. That was his daughter with him."
"The son is dead, is he?" said Brownlow quietly.
"Killed in the War. And a good job too. But he died, I'm told, as a Lovelace should die, surrounded by dead 'Uns." A faint smile flickered over his listener's lips and was gone. "Yes—he died well. And my niece—wot was in service up at Lovelace Towers at the time— says as how he ought to have been given a medal. Miss Una—that's the daughter—told her as much. It's made the General a bit stern. If there's one thing that sends him off the deep end it's a man masquerading with medals that ain't his, to get people's sympathy. Sort of feels his son not having one, I suppose. Well, good morning to you."
He turned back into his shop, and with no fixed idea in his mind John Brownlow swung round and walked in the direction the car had gone. Masquerading with medals that weren't his! And suddenly the humour of the situation struck him and he smiled. Truly life was a gorgeous jest if you took it the right way—and had he not got a shilling and a penny in his pocket? Far more, he reflected gravely, than many men who had betted in monkeys.
Suddenly he paused and leant up against some railings. One of his paroxysms was coming on, and they left him so terribly exhausted. This one was mild—only about two minutes, and luckily there was no one to see. For John Brownlow, when he started to cough, was not a pretty sight.
He rested for a little: then he strolled on again. And as he rounded a bend in the road he saw the Lovelace car drawn up outside the station. The girl was getting in, and the London train which was even then steaming out of the station evidently contained her father. And a moment later she drove past him, all unconscious of the broken-down waster who stared at her so intently from the pavement, with that faint smile twitching once more round his lips.
He watched her disappear from sight; then realising that he was in a cul-de-sac which only led to the station, he turned and followed the car. It was all one to him.
For an hour he walked along briskly until, rounding a bend in the road, he came on a sight that made him pause abruptly and then go forward at a run. The car was standing by the side of the road, and peering into the bonnet was Una Lovelace. But it wasn't that which had caused his haste: it was the appearance of an unpleasant-looking tramp, who was creeping up behind the unsuspecting girl's back. The tramp was so intent on his victim that he never noticed John Brownlow, and he had his hands on her before the other man could get up.
With a little cry she swung round, though there was no sign of fear on her face. And the next instant, with a sound like the crack of two billiard balls, Brownlow's fist took the tramp on the jaw. He staggered back with a snarl, but he was a powerful brute, and, what was more to the point, he had a heavy stick in his hand. And the next two minutes were rapid ones.
An unarmed man is at a disadvantage against one with a cudgel, and when in addition the unarmed man has red-hot knives going through his chest, the thing becomes hopeless. He tried to close, but the tramp was too wary. And with a sudden sinking feeling he realised that all the odds were on the tramp. If only the swine had been unarmed.
"Get the car going, Miss Lovelace, if you can," he said tensely. "And clear out...Damn."
The tramp had seized his opportunity, and only Brownlow's hastily flung-up arm had saved his head. And his "Damn" announced the result. It wasn't the first time he'd had an arm broken, and only too well he knew the meaning of that sickening numbness.
"Quick," he gasped. "Quick—for God's sake! I'm all right."
And then suddenly Brownlow's eyes grew bright He forgot the pain: forgot everything save the strategy necessary for the moment. For the girl had come round the back of the car with a heavy spanner in her hand. She was behind the tramp, and at all costs he must be prevented from looking round. So with one wild dart, broken arm and all, John Brownlow sprang forward. Thud came the stick on his head and he felt something wet trickling down his neck; crack came the spanner on the tramp's jaw and he dropped without a sound into the road.
"Beautiful," said Brownlow weakly. "Beautiful." And he swayed dangerously.
"Into the car," said the girl quietly. "You're going to faint in a minute, and I can't lift you."
And then she made a little dart forward to hold him up, but it was too late. With a little sigh John Brownlow collapsed on to the dusty road and lay still.
"Good Lord, old thing! What's the new game?'"
"Thank Heaven, you've come. Tony," cried the girl, as a large young man got rapidly out of his car. "The situation was getting a bit beyond me. That object"—she continued, pointing to the tramp— "attacked me as I was trying to adjust the magneto. And then that other object came on the scene and attacked the tramp." She indicated Brownlow with the spanner.
"Good for him," said the large young man.
"The tramp knocked him out, just as I knocked the tramp out. With this." She brandished the spanner. "And, Tony, I think I'll sit down a moment." His arm was round her waist in an instant, and she gave a little laugh that was half a sob. "He seems to know me, Tony," she said at length. "But I'm sure I don't know him."
"Some labourer, old thing," said the large young man soothingly. "Look here—leave it all to me. Are you fit to drive your bus home? You are. Good! Then pop along. I'll take this sportsman straight off to the hospital; and I'll take the other swine straight off to the police-station. And then I'll come along up and see you."
Which was how I, being in charge of the aforesaid hospital, came into the picture, and decided that after due reflection to tell this story. Not that I thought, when Tony Barston delivered a dusty wreck with a bloodstained head at the door, that there was any story in it. It all seemed most prosaic. But subsequently—However, all in due course.
It was three hours later that he recovered consciousness and turned a pair of puzzled grey eyes on me.
"You're in hospital, my man," I said. "Broken arm and a clip on the head. But you did well. My congratulations."
"How is Miss Lovelace?" he asked, and I looked at him quickly. For the voice was the voice of a man who had been to an English public school.
"Quite all right," I said. "And now—for purposes of verification—I'd like some particulars about you. What's your name?"
"Brownlow," he answered. "John Brownlow." And then he smiled faintly. "I'm on a walking tour."
"Where you ought to be is in a sanatorium," I said shortly. "I've been overhauling you while you were unconscious."
"Deuced kind of you. Doctor," he remarked. "My trouble is that most of these English sanatoria are so cheap and nasty that they're quite impossible for a man of my means."
And then he started to cough. My God! how that poor devil racked himself: it was pitiful to watch.
"Bellows to mend," he spluttered at length. "But they're beyond mending now."
"When did it start?" I said.
"France—gas." he whispered, and lay back exhausted.
There was a knock on the door behind me and a policeman entered. "Can I get an account from him now, sir, as to what happened? We've got the other bloke in the cells." He stopped short and gave a little whistle. "Well, I'm blowed." And he was staring at John Brownlow's face.
"Do you know him?" I said, leading him from the room.
"He was only let out this morning, sir," he answered. "The General gave him a month for sleeping in Giles's barn and being in possession of medals that wasn't his."
"Is that so?" I said thoughtfully. "Anyway, he's not fit to talk now; you must come back later." And with that I went to John Brownlow. "Look here, Brownlow," I said, "I don't want to pry into your private affairs. But I don't suppose I shall be saying anything you don't know when I tell you that you're a pretty sick man."
He grinned feebly. "How long do you give me, Doctor?"
"If it hadn't been for this show this morning—a few months with reasonable care. As it is—it's weakened you badly. Now, how comes it that you, with about the quarter of one lung left as the result of gas, and so many bullet wounds in your body that you look like a slice of plum cake, were sent to prison for a month by Sir Hubert? You could have proved your case a genuine one."
"Think so?" he answered casually. "Perhaps I didn't want to." And then he raised himself on his elbow and stared at me. "There comes a time, Doctor, when one sees things in their true perspective. I came to these parts on my—on my walking tour, by pure chance. I didn't even know Lovelace Towers was in the district. But there is a destiny that shapes our ends—though I didn't believe it once. And maybe this morning's little effort will help to pay—a big debt."
And not another word could I get out of him.
It was when I got back in the evening that I noticed the change. The nurse told me he'd been light-headed during the afternoon, and then she looked at me curiously. "He's done nothing but talk about Sir Hubert, Doctor," she said. "And that son of his. Keeps on saying that he should have had the D.C.M.—and swearing at someone else—somebody called Milligan."
I glanced at John Brownlow, and the change that betokens the coming of the Big Sleep was much more apparent. And even as I looked at him he sat up in bed.
"By God! Joe Milligan," he cried, "if you tell the old man, I'll murder you. I taught him, I say: I taught him. It's my fault."
"Steady, old man," I said. "Steady."
"To hell with you!" he shouted. "Do you promise?"
"Yes; I promise," I answered, and it pacified him at once.
"He's been like that the whole time,' she whispered, and I nodded.
"It's not for much longer, nurse. I don't think he can last the night."
It was about eight o'clock that John Brownlow opened his eyes, and they were sane once more.
"I want to see Sir Hubert," he whispered, as I bent over his bed. "Please get him. It's urgent."
"I'll try," I said, and went to the telephone.
I explained matters to the General and he said he'd come at once. Then I went back to Brownlow, and he nodded his head as if satisfied. He didn't speak for a while, but just lay there in bed staring out of the window.
"It's the last time I'll see that, isn't it, Doctor?" he said at length.
"Humanly speaking, it is." I answered quietly, and a faint smile crossed his face.
"Tell me about Sir Hubert's son," was his next remark, and I looked at him in astonishment.
"He was killed in the War," I said, and he shook his head irritably.
"I know that," he cried. "But what does his father think about it? He heard, didn't he? He got a letter telling him."
"He got a letter from a man called Drayton," I answered. "Saying that Jack had died finely. And that he ought to have been given a decoration."
"Good," muttered Brownlow. And with that he closed his eyes once more and lay motionless. Once, in fact, I thought he'd gone, but he opened them again and shook his head. "Not yet, Doc.; but I wish the General would come."
He came ten minutes later, and Una was with him. And the old man had brought John Brownlow's decorations with him.
"I want to thank you," said the girl very gently, "for what you did for me this morning. I don't know what would have happened if you hadn't come along."
"I guess you'd have still laid the blighter out," answered Brownlow, with a smile. "It was the peach of a blow, Miss Lovelace."
And then the General stepped forward. "My man," he said gravely, "the doctor has told me of your condition. I fear I did you a grave injustice the other day when I sentenced you to a month's imprisonment. But you may remember that you refused to give any particulars of yourself, which is my only excuse. May I try and make amends now by returning you the medals which I am sure you have every right to wear, and thanking you from the bottom of my heart for your splendid action this morning."
He laid the medals in John Brownlow's hand, and I thought that, for an instant, a strange look of pride shone in the dying man's face. His hand closed round them; then he dropped them on the blanket. "I guess I'd sooner you kept them, General," he said clearly. "You deserve them far more than I do—at least, the only one that counts. That should have been your son's by right."
"What do you mean?" said the General, and his voice shook a little.
"You had a letter, didn't you, from a man called Drayton—Peter Drayton—telling you of the magnificent manner in which your son died?" And now we were all staring at him tensely. "When Drayton was killed," he went on quietly—"you knew that, didn't you?—I read that letter. And I very nearly didn't send it. I thought you might write and make inquiries as to why no award had been made to your son. You see, I was the sole survivor, and if there was a medal going, I wanted it. Not that I'd done anything to deserve it—your son had. But he was dead—and I was alive. In fact, it was only because he was dead, that I was alive—he'd saved my life at the risk of his own."
John Brownlow shrugged his shoulders. "I've no excuses to offer; I got my medal. For I was the only person who was alive to tell the story. And I told—mine."
"I see," said the General quietly. "Well, there's no more to be said about it. Once again I thank you for your action this morning."
"There's one more thing I have to say," went on Brownlow. "I saw a good deal of Drayton and your son during the War, and I formed my own conclusions for what they're worth. I guess that we were none of us plaster saints, but of one thing I'm sure. If it hadn't been for Drayton's rotten influence, your boy would have turned out very differently."
He lay back on his pillows exhausted, and I signed to Sir Hubert and his daughter to go. And it wasn't till he heard the sound of their car as it drove away that Brownlow reopened his eyes. He looked at the medals still lying on the bed; then he looked at me.
"Ever been out East, Doctor?" he muttered. "If so—you'll understand. Tid apa."
"Tid apa." (Nothing matters.)
And two hours later John Brownlow died.
Which would have been the end as far as I was concerned, save for a strange coincidence. A pointless end to a pointless story, as so many ends and stories are—apparently. It's so rare that one gets below the surface, and finds out the truth.
It was some three months later, and I was up in London for a dinner given by the Overseas Club. I went with a pal and it wasn't until half-way through the meal that I spoke to the man on my right. And automatically I glanced at the card in front of him.
"Mr. J. Milligan."
The name seemed vaguely familiar, and yet for the moment I couldn't place it. Milligan—J. Milligan—We talked in a desultory fashion for a few minutes—music-hall and boxing, I think—when suddenly it came to me.
"By God! Joe Milligan, if you tell the old man, I'll murder you."
The words came back to me as dearly as if they'd been spoken aloud, and acting on an impulse I asked Mr. Milligan a question.
"Excuse me," I said. "But is your name Joe?"
He looked at me surprised. "It is. Why?"
"Did you ever know a man called John Brownlow?"
"John Brownlow," he said thoughtfully. "Not that I'm aware of."
"Or Peter Drayton?"
"Drayton," he cried. "Good Lord! I should think I did. A tough nut was Master Peter—very tough. But a gallant scoundrel. I was his platoon commander for months in France. I wonder what has become of the blackguard."
It was my turn now to look surprised. "I gather he was killed, wasn't he? Killed in '16."
"Well, I saw him in '20 very much alive," he answered. "But he was a hopeless wrong 'un. And yet he had his redeeming features. He was the most extraordinarily loyal fellow to his pals, which is an attribute you don't often meet in the type. Great Scott, yes. Know Drayton; I should think I did. Why, I nearly court-martialled him once. He came into my bivouac when we pulled out after a stunt and threatened to murder me if I didn't glorify one of his pals who'd been killed."
I didn't interrupt him, and after a while he laughed. "That, mark you, to a man who had just recommended him for a V.C., though they only gave him a D.C.M. I couldn't be angry with the blighter, so I did what he asked me and escaped death. But they're boring today—those old tales."
"Not always," I said quietly. "What sort of a man to look at was this fellow Drayton?"
"Medium height; pair of very grey eyes. He was as full of bullet wounds as a colander is of holes, and he got the most frightful gassing on this very show I'm talking about. He stopped on in an isolated post after I'd given orders for everyone to retire, and, by God! he held it— alone. And when we counter-attacked we found him there—gassed and sick and shot to ribbons. How he ever pulled through I don't know. But the funny part of the yarn is why he stayed. It was just that strange loyalty I mentioned—loyalty to an even worse waster than himself. Fellow called Lovelace. Got a father who is a General and a V.C. man. And I was so wild at the time that for two pins I'd have written the old man and told him what manner of a rotter his son was. But Drayton made me promise not to—so I let it go. I'm glad now I did."
"And what," I asked, "was the particular crime of Lovelace?"
"He was drunk. Hopelessly, utterly, irredeemably drunk. But then he frequently was. I'd like to know what has become of Drayton. Funny you should think he was dead."
ON a certain warm day in June a cat was taking its evening walk through Huckleberry Mews. The cat was not particularly prepossessing, nor, incidentally, was the scene of its promenade. So the matter would hardly be worth while recording but for the fact that that stroll was the direct cause of a man being murdered. And this was the way of it.
The cat having explored several dustbins without any great success, came in due course to an open window, from which there exuded a smell so appetising that after a cautious look round puss jumped on to the sill. And not being greeted by a saucepan at her head she remained there prospecting. The smell came from a pot that sizzled on the range, but her attention did not turn as far afield as that. There, literally under her nose, was a succulent fillet of fish, and what more could any cat desire? Wherefore it came about that as the door opened and Mrs. Rubicon entered, she was just in time to see the cat and the fillet disappearing through the window at speed.
I will refrain from quoting Mrs. Rubicon's remarks, but shortly afterwards the good lady might have been seen to leave the house on her way to the nearest fish shop. It was getting late, and at any moment Mr. Rubicon would return and demand his supper in no uncertain voice. Which was why his wife did not take quite her usual care when she selected a portion of haddock to replace the stolen fillet. And it is also why both she and Mr. Rubicon awoke in the middle of the night in considerable pain. The haddock had done it on them, and Mr. Rubicon's language would have appalled the lady members of the Princess Club, which, as all the world knows, is a very exclusive mansion in the heart of the West End.
At this point it may well be asked why the lady members of the Princess Club should betray the smallest interest in Mr. Rubicon, or his remarks, and the matter shall be cleared up at once. Mr. Rubicon was the hall-porter, and daily sat in his office, controlling with genial firmness the destinies of mere men who ventured through the portals, the destinies of the members themselves, and above all, the destinies of their correspondence. And it was the last of these three items on which he prided himself most. Looking back over his ten years' service he could conscientiously say that he had never made a mistake. Letters which should be forwarded were forwarded at once, and letters which were not intended to be forwarded were safely pigeonholed. For it is a regrettable fact that quite a number of letters were wont to arrive for members which were marked "To await arrival" or "Not to be forwarded," and that almost invariably they were in male handwriting. The safety and discretion of Mr. Rubicon were well known, and further comment is unnecessary.
And so it transpired that the next morning, while Mr. Rubicon was still saying unprintable things in Huckleberry Mews, a letter arrived at the Princess Club addressed to Mrs. C. Tranter, and marked with both the warnings given above. Which should have been sufficient. Unfortunately Mr. Rubicon's assistant, who was temporarily holding the fort, was under notice to leave because of his extreme uncleanliness. And Mrs. C. Tranter was one of the several members who had on past occasions commented audibly on the dirt of his finger-nails. So the temporary arbiter of fate seized a pen and, with black malice, deliberately readdressed the letter to Mrs. C. Tranter's home in Surrey. Then, with exultation in his heart, and muttering words, one of which at any rate was more applicable to the canine breed than to Mrs. C. Tranter, he dropped the letter in the post-box. And from that moment cats, Rubicons, and temporary assistants fade out of the picture, and the timbre of the story must change. Up to date, certain levity has been not only permissible but almost necessary; now a more serious note must be struck.
Mr. Charles Tranter was not a very pleasant individual. He was fifty, so that he was in the early thirties when things were occurring in France. And for a man of that age to have made a fortune on indispensable work at home was not a good thing. But Charles Tranter did so, and once again further comment is unnecessary. He made it in something to do with chemicals, and he had the mind and appearance of the conventional chemist of fiction. He wore pince-nez and had a slight stoop, and owing to his being short-sighted he had a habit of thrusting his head forward when he spoke to one, so that he rather resembled a bird of prey.
However, a man cannot be blamed for his physical appearance, though it is frequently a guide to what lies underneath. And it was in his mental make-up that Charles Tranter failed to inspire any enthusiasm. His income was great; his meanness greater. And though, when he wished, he could be quite pleasant, he rarely wished. He was a bad mixer, and very touchy over what he considered his rights. All things which were hidden from Janet Fenton when she married him shortly after the War.
Why she did so is one of those mysteries which none of her friends could fathom. He had money, of course, and she had none. But no one could have put her in that category. Personally, I believe she was genuinely fond of him: it was one of those strange—to the onlooker— aberrations of mind which are unaccountable. But whatever the cause she married him, and in due course became the mistress of his house near Dorking.
The marriage, without being a failure, was not a success. He was still actively concerned in his business and went up to London every day; she, after a brief period of disillusionment, proceeded to make the best of things. Always a cheerful little soul, she realised that though she had made a bad bargain, it was not too bad to carry on with. He was kind according to his lights; in fact, but for one thing, she would have been quite happy. His jealousy was inconceivable.
At first she could hardly believe it. The most harmless conversation at a dinner party with the man next to her was sufficient to upset her husband; an occasion on which she had danced three times with the same partner caused a scene which lasted well into the small hours. And during that scene she told Charles Tranter one or two home truths; she was not a girl who baulked at her fences. She said nothing that caused a break, but she informed him quite clearly that she had not the slightest intention of giving up any of her friends, female or male; and that if he objected to her talking to a man for twenty minutes at a garden party it was his funeral. In fact, she handled the situation exactly as it should have been handled, and outwardly her husband acquiesced. Inwardly the leopard had not changed its spots. And so, when the leopard, who now only went to London twice a week, examined the afternoon post on the day following the events in Huckleberry Mews, he received a very definite shock. Why should a letter addressed to his wife at her club, in a handwriting unknown to him, but which looked more like a man's than a woman's be marked "To await arrival"? Why should "Not to be forwarded" be underlined twice? Obviously the hall-porter had blundered, but that had nothing to do with the letter he held in his hand.
Charles Tranter looked round the hall—it was deserted. And temptation grew on him. Janet was playing tennis with friends and would not be back for hours: it so happened that he himself had taken the letters from the box. And the temptation grew still more.
After a while he put his wife's other letters on the table and went to his study. He opened his own pile more slowly and methodically than usual: he docketed three receipts: he filed two bills. He even read through an advertisement for a patent manure...And all the while temptation grew and grew and grew. "To await arrival": "Not to be forwarded"...Who was it from?
He lit a cigarette, and found that his hand was shaking a little. Who was writing to Janet at the Princess Club? He picked up the letter and turned it over: there was no seal. He studied the postmark: N—something—BURY. Newbury! Janet had been to Newbury races some weeks previously: had stopped with friends. At least, so she had said: he did not know them himself. She had been several times lately: the wife was a very sick woman.
He put down the letter, and found that his hand was still shaking a little. And his mouth was dry. Why had the letter been sent to the club? There could only be one answer to that question—an answer he did not like. A clandestine correspondence which he would never have discovered but for this error on the part of one of the club staff. And Charles Tranter's eyes fumed to the ring of the gas-fire on which stood a kettle of water...Should he steam the letter open?
He pressed out his cigarette: the house seemed strangely still. The servants were at the other end: he would not be disturbed for hours. Time in plenty to do it, and then put back the refastened envelope. Janet would never know: no one would ever know.
Suddenly he made up his mind. If there was nothing in the contents that mattered no harm would have been done: if there was something, then it was his duty to find out about it. It was his plain right as Janet's husband to know what it was. And so Charles Tranter yielded to temptation and lit the gas in the ring.
The envelope opened more easily than he had expected: not the slightest suspicion of a tear, he reflected, with satisfaction. Naturally, the flap was damp, but it would soon dry. And then with the help of a gum bottle no trace of any tampering would be left. Of course, there was nothing in the letter: he knew Janet far too well. Some friend writing about frocks: women always plastered instructions on envelopes. Someone who did not know her home address, or had forgotten it...Someone who...And at that moment the whole room went black: he had seen the opening sentence.
"My utterly adored woman."
The letter dropped from his shaking hands, and lay on the carpet at his feet. A pulse that almost choked him was hammering in his throat: a wave of physical nausea swept over him.
"My utterly adored woman."
That, to his wife, from another man...
At last he controlled himself sufficiently to stoop down and pick up the letter. And then, with a certain grim deliberation, he read, very slowly, every single damning sentence that the man had written. He read them a second time: he read them a third. And having done so, he put the letter on the desk in front of him with hands that had ceased to shake.
There are sentences and sentences: there are phrases which can be taken in two ways, and phrases which can mean only one thing. And every single word of that letter came into the latter category. I know: I read it myself. Not the very faintest shadow of doubt could exist in anyone's mind as to what the relationship was between the writer who signed himself "Jacko" and the woman to whom it was written. He was her lover, and what he had written burned white hot.
The afternoon wore on and Charles Tranter sat motionless at his desk. The kettle had scorched a ring on the leather: the gas still burned in the grate. Every now and then he would pick up the letter and torture himself afresh, until he writhed with the mental agony of it and his nails bit into his flesh. His imagination grew more and more vivid, and gradually in his subconscious mind the certainty of what he was going to do took form. But it would have to be done carefully.
He replaced the kettle and turned out the gas. Then, putting the letter and envelope in his pocket, he rang the bell.
"Pack a suitcase for me, Garton," he said, when the butler appeared. "And tell Mrs. Tranter when she returns that I have been suddenly called up to London and shall be away for a couple of nights."
"Very good, sir," answered the man. "But Williams is over with the mistress."
"I will drive myself," said Tranter curtly, and the butler concealed his surprise. It was a new departure for Tranter to drive himself— generally he detested taking the wheel. So when, half an hour later, he watched his master turn into the main road, he voiced his feelings aloud.
"Wonder what's happened," he muttered to himself. "I've never seen the bloke look like he does this evening. Queer fish."
But had he known the cause of the bulge in the queer fish's pocket he might not have returned whistling to his pantry.
Now I want to be fair to Charles Tranter, and I like to think that his madness began that afternoon, when all the devils of jealousy assailed him in his study. Even to an ordinary man that letter would have been hell: to him it must have meant the uttermost depths of the pit. It was all so painfully clear: the sick friend—the visits to Newbury. Once he had telephoned her there, and the wife had answered. Janet was out, but she rang up shortly after, and he had suspected nothing. Why should he? But now he saw it all: the two women hanging together as women always did.
"Come round, darling: your fool of a husband has just rung up. I've told him you're out, but you'd better put a call through to him to keep him quiet."
His grip tightened on the steering wheel till his knuckles showed white and the car swerved dangerously. Steady! That sort of thing would not do: there must be no question of his being laid out by an accident now. Not, at any rate, until he had killed the man who signed himself Jacko.
He thought out his plans as he drove along. The address was on the paper, so that there would be no difficulty in finding him, and since he had got away from his own house without seeing Janet, she would not be able to warn her lover. That was why he had gone before her return: he could never have kept his knowledge from her quick eye. She could be dealt with later: he had not made up his mind yet what he was going to do with her. For the present Jacko was enough.
He arrived at Newbury about eight o'clock and, registering under the name of Johnson, he took a room at the Bull. Then, having ordered a large whisky and soda and some sandwiches, he sat down with the local telephone book in front of him. He had to find out the name of the man he was going to murder.
The number was 005, and he methodically went down every column. At last he came to it. 'Captain Jack Featherston, of Avondale Farm. That was the address on the letter: he had got his man.
He rose and went into the bar, leaving his sandwiches untouched. There was no hurry now; he could afford to bide his time. Another whisky and soda was what he wanted, and, taking it from the girl, he crossed to a corner. Two men by the bar looked at him covertly: Charles Tranter did not know that his face was like that of a corpse save for his eyes. And his eyes were not good to look on. Suddenly the name Avondale caught his ears, and something about old Feathers. So that was the devil's nickname, was it, Feathers?
He listened intently: a morbid curiosity possessed him to learn all he could about this man who had stolen his wife. But the men began talking of other things, and after a while he got up and joined them at the bar.
"Excuse me, gentlemen," he said, "but I could not help overhearing one of your remarks about Avondale Farm. Is it, by any chance, a Captain Jack Featherston who lives there?"
"That's right," said one of them.
"I wonder if it is a man I knew. Tall and dark—about forty."
"Wrong bird," answered the other promptly. "This Featherston is fair, and not a day more than thirty."
"Married?" queried Tranter, casually.
"No," was the answer. "Poor old Feathers can't afford the luxury of a wife."
"But he could afford the luxury of someone else's," thought Tranter. "Does he live there alone?" he asked.
"Yes, except for a deaf old woman who looks after him."
Tranter turned away, lest they should see the triumph in his eyes. Only one deaf old woman. And as he left the bar the two men glanced at each other.
"Rum customer." said one. "Seemed damned curious about Feathers."
"Rather too curious," answered the other uneasily. "I didn't like his looks at all. Still, Feathers is quite able to take care of himself. Do you know that fellow who has just gone out, Maud?"
The barmaid shook her head. "Just arrived," she said. "Name of Johnson. And that dial of his would turn the milk sour."
Quite unconscious of the interest he had aroused, Charles Tranter went to the garage. Alone—save for one old deaf woman! Luck was with him.
"Avondale Farm, sir?" said the man in charge. "Captain Featherston's. It's about five miles out on the Andover road. Will you be coming back tonight?"
"I shall," answered Tranter, and drove out of the yard. He drove slowly. Now that the moment had arrived he felt strangely cool. His scheme was mapped out in its main outline: details would have to take care of themselves. It was going to be a nuisance if Featherston had people dining with him, but it would only mean postponing it for two or three hours. And he did not mind waiting.
A notice-board loomed up, announcing that fresh eggs could be bought at Avondale Farm, a hundred yards farther on, and Charles Tranter stopped the car. He would walk the last bit, he decided, as he fingered the revolver in his pocket for the hundredth time. It was easier to reconnoitre on foot, and he must make sure Featherston was alone.
The farm stood back some fifty yards from the road, and for a while he stood by the gate, examining it. Light was streaming out from one of the downstairs rooms. Seated in a chair was a man with his feet on the leather fender that ringed the fireplace. He was smoking a pipe, and a reading lamp stood on a table beside him. Fair, with a short clipped moustache, he sat studying a small book in which he occasionally jotted something down.
Suddenly with a weary little gesture he flung it on the table, and, standing up, he stretched himself. Then he turned to a wireless set, and a moment later the time signal from Greenwich sounded. Nine o'clock.
"This is the National programme from London...Here is an S O S..."
A thin smile hovered round Tranter's lips as he stood in the shadow of some bushes on the other side of the drive. S O S! One would be wanted here soon. And then he began to shake with overmastering rage. There, standing by the open window, with his hands in his pockets, was the devil who had wrecked his life. In that very room Janet had sat: had been kissed. But never again. Nemesis was at hand. Not too quickly, of course: he would first play with "Jacko" a little. And with a great effort he pulled himself together and stepped out on to the drive.
The man at the window leaned forward. "Who's that?" he called out sharply. Tranter came into the light and Featherston stared at him.
"Good Lord!" he said. "Are you ill?" It was not a surprising question. Tranter looked like a man consumed with fever.
"Am I disturbing you?" Try as he would he could not prevent his voice from shaking, and Featherston whistled softly under his breath. Undoubtedly a very sick man.
"Disturbing me!" he laughed. "Not a bit. I've been balancing up my budget, and after that anything is an anti-climax. It strikes me you'd better have a drink."
He stopped the wireless, while Tranter climbed in through the window. Then, leaving the door open, Featherston went out of the room, to return a few moments later with tantalus and glasses. A queer-looking sort of tiger, he reflected, this sudden arrival out of the blue. But the man looked like death, and common humanity dictated asking him in. "Brandy or whisky?" he said genially. "They're both here. Help yourself."
But Tranter made no reply: with his hand gripping the revolver in his pocket, he stared at Featherston and went on staring. And at length Featherston frowned: sick his unexpected visitor might be, and undoubtedly was, but the fellow was proving a damned bore.
"When you've quite finished staring at me," he said curtly, "you might let me know what I can do for you. You don't appear to want a drink."
And Tranter spoke. "Are you Captain Featherston?"
Featherston raised his eyebrows. "I am. Who are you?"
"Do you ever sign your letters. 'Jacko'?"
Featherston stiffened, his pipe half-way to his mouth. "What the devil has that got to do with you?" he said slowly. "Are you crazy?"
"To do with me." croaked Tranter. "That's a good one, you swine: that's a good one."
He threw back his head and laughed: then, taking the letter from his pocket, he brandished it in front of Featherston.
"Do you recognise that, Jacko?" he shouted. "'My own adored woman.' And who is your own adored woman, you devil? My wife. I'm Tranter—"
"Put it away, you fool," roared Featherston, as Tranter's other hand came out of his pocket. Came a sharp report—then silence.
Curiously, dispassionately, Tranter stared at the body lying at his feet. Now that he had done it; now that he had killed his man, he felt strangely cool and collected. Featherston was quite dead: the bullet had gone through his heart. A motor-bus rumbled by on the road and Tranter went to the window. There was no one to be seen. All he had to do was to walk out of the house, get into his car and drive away. Everything had been so easy as to be almost laughable. Just one shot, and the man who had stolen his wife was dead. Of regret he felt not the slightest twinge: Captain Jack Featherston had richly deserved all he got. He would have liked to prolong things a little, but perhaps it had been better as it was. And "Jacko" had known before he died who it was who was going to kill him.
Moreover, he was safe: who would identify Mr. Johnson of the Bull, Newbury, with Charles Tranter of Dorking? He had no intention whatever of returning to the hotel: the body would almost certainly be discovered before he could get away in the morning. So by then he proposed to be at his club in London, having spent the night there. Safe! And with one last gloating look at the dead man sprawling on the floor, Charles Tranter turned out the light and left the house.
Now it is just conceivable that he might have got away with it for a time but for the fact that the man in charge of the garage at the Bull had noted, as was his invariable custom, the number of his car. And that being so, the chase was the swiftest on record. In fact, it was just before lunch next day that an inspector and a sergeant of police arrived at Charles Tranter's house. I was having a cocktail with Janet at the time.
"XYZ23," she said, in reply to their question. "Yes: that's the number of one of our cars. My husband has it in London at the moment. Why do you ask?"
"Your husband, madam? Is that Mr. Charles Tranter?"
"Yes," said Janet. And then, with quick alarm: "The poor old dear hasn't had an accident, has he?"
"Oh no, madam. Might I ask you to describe your husband?"
"Of course. He's fifty: tall, grey, with a stoop. And he wears pince-nez."
The inspector stared at the sergeant: the sergeant stared at the inspector. And for a space no one spoke.
"What is all the mystery, Inspector?" cried Janet irritably. "Why are you asking these questions?"
"Mrs. Tranter," said the inspector gravely, "do you know a man called Featherston? Captain Jack Featherston, who has a house near Newbury?"
"Featherston! Newbury! As a matter of fact I do—very slightly. I met him at my club the other day. There's another Mrs. Tranter who has just joined: and what is so confusing is that she is Mrs. C. Tranter, too. Mrs. Cyril Tranter. We're continually getting one another's letters. And the last time I was at the club, this Captain Featherston came to see her and was brought to me in mistake by a page-boy. She came up almost at once and called him Jack. So that must be the man you mean, though what it has to do with me I can't imagine."
She found out very soon. One of the most dreadful sounds I have ever heard came from just outside the open window. It rose and fell in hideous cachinnations—peal upon peal of wild, maniacal laughter. And while Janet, white-faced, shrank back in her chair, I followed the two policemen outside.
Charles Tranter had returned: Charles Tranter had learned the truth—too late. He was sitting on the grass with a revolver in one hand and the letter in the other. And he offered no resistance to the two officers when they took both things away from him. He only laughed and went on laughing. As he still does in Broadmoor, where he is detained during His Majesty's pleasure.
MAVIS HOUGHTON laid down her magazine and stared out of the window at the flat Thames valley. It was a non-stop run to Swindon, and then another hour by a slow train before she reached her destination. And what was the good of a magazine when the time could be spent so much more pleasantly in dreaming?
Even now she could hardly believe it true. Up to date her Christmases had been spent in No. 11, Pileditch Road, N.W.94, where her father saw panel patients daily and swore genially in the intervals. His heart was in research work, but that costs money; and with Robin at a public school and John at a preparatory, the research work had to wait. And so panel patients came and went, and Mavis—whose mother had died at John's appearance—looked after the house.
Then had come the letter. It had arrived a week ago, and her father, having read it, at once overrode her objections. "Not leave us for Christmas, Kidlet? Of course you will. It's about time Jane did do something beyond sending out cards with frosted angels on 'em. She's not a bad old thing really, and Hoxted Grange is just the place for a party."
So she went, though she'd almost chucked it up at Paddington. Robin had seen her off, and though he was an absolute sportsman he couldn't help looking just a little—well, dash it all, Pileditch Road and Hoxted Grange! But he scoffed at her when she half suggested it and talked rot continuously till the train started.
And now they were roaring through Maidenhead, and—marvel of marvels!—the country was white. There was literally snow, instead of the prevalent yellow ooze of N.W.94. Would it last? Were they really going to have the Christmas of fiction instead of the usual one of fact? They must: it would be too cruel if it all went and melted. And dances, and a big party and—
"It's good to feel like that, isn't it?"
A man's voice cut into her thoughts, and she turned round with a start. In her absorption she had forgotten all about the other occupant of her third-class carriage, though she had noticed him vaguely before they started. And now she found herself looking into the smiling face of a young man in the opposite corner. He was a large young man, and quite obviously a gentleman.
Mavis Houghton frowned. "I beg your pardon," she said coldly.
"I said that it was good to feel that everything was just top-hole, and that there's snowballing and dancing and a cheery house-party in sight." He still smiled, and suddenly so did she: she couldn't help it.
"May I ask how you discovered my thoughts?" she asked.
"Not very hard," he answered. "You see, I couldn't help overhearing some of your conversation with your brother at Paddington; and, for the rest, your face is expressive." He added that it was also singularly pretty—but the addition was mental.
"My brother," she remarked. "You seem very observant."
"When a boy who is exactly like you calls you a silly ass," said the man, "the conclusion is fairly obvious."
"Still," she persisted, "I know a lot of people who wouldn't have noticed."
"So do I," he agreed. "But then I know a lot of people who wouldn't notice their own noses. And who wouldn't have noticed that your mother is dead, your father is a doctor inclined to be untidy, and your brother is left-handed and keen on fives."
"But," she stammered, "how on earth...?"
He grinned and held out his cigarette-case to her tentatively.
"No, thank you," she said. "But please smoke yourself. Now tell me how you guessed all that?"
"Am I right?" he demanded.
"Well—first your mother. Everything you said to your brother showed that you usually run the house. You alluded specifically to your presents for your father and brother, but you never mentioned your mother. Had she been an invalid you would have done. Therefore I assumed she was dead. Secondly, you mentioned your father's stethoscope, and told your brother where it was. Now a doctor who doesn't know where his stethoscope is is inclined to be untidy. Thirdly, the skin on the palm of your brother's left hand is extremely hard, and he kept on rubbing the ball of his thumb. I've played fives myself and I know how a bruise there hurts—though I admit that was a bit of a fluke."
"You're the most disconcerting person," said the girl. "Are you a detective?"
"Not exactly," he laughed. "I assure you that it would be quite impossible for me to tell you in the fashion of Mr. Sherlock Holmes that the man who is just coming to look at our tickets is an ex-sergeant-major of Marines and that his wife keeps hens. But it's always been a hobby of mine ever since I was a boy. It amuses me to try and see things that other people don't. And it's astonishing, as I said before, how much they don't."
"You aren't an ex-sergeant-major of Marines, by any chance, are you?"
The ticket-collector paused in the door and stared at him. "I am not, sir. Why?"
"I only wondered. Does your wife keep hens?"
"I haven't got a wife, sir."
"Good: I mean, bad. Or whichever way you like. Happy Christmas!"
"My reputation shattered, you see," said the man gravely as the door closed.
"I think you're mad," she laughed helplessly.
"But joking apart," he went on, "it really is astonishing what people overlook. And it's almost always the obvious. The average person doesn't pay any attention to what is ordinary. If they saw an elephant walking down the Strand pulling a motor-bus they'd notice it at once."
"Yes; but that would be interesting." objected the girl.
"You don't think ordinary things are interesting?"
"I don't think the obvious is very interesting."
"Don't you?" he said with a cryptic smile. "I wonder."
He changed the conversation, and for Mavis Houghton the journey to Swindon passed all too quickly. Young men had not been plentiful in Pileditch Road, and those that had come were not particularly enthralling. But this stranger seemed to have been everywhere and to know everybody. Moreover, he was essentially not the type of man for whom a girl's programme is full when he asks her to dance.
"This is your train," he said, as he deposited her bag in a corner seat. "And you get to the station for Hoxted Grange in fifty minutes."
"Not caught this time," she laughed. "You saw it on the label."
"You're improving," he grinned. "And don't forget during the next few days what you said about the obvious."
The train started, and he stood bareheaded on the platform, watching it go. Then he turned and walked quickly away, and the girl leant back in her seat with a vague feeling of disappointment. He hadn't volunteered his name; after all, she reflected, why should he? They were just passing train acquaintances; it was more than unlikely that she would ever see him again. And yet she couldn't help hoping that amongst the Hon. Jane Frosdick's large circle of acquaintances, a large young man with very blue eyes was to be found. And further, that the aforesaid large young man would decide to call at Hoxted Grange during the next few days.
The house-party consisted of twelve, including herself, and she hadn't been in the house three hours before she knew she was going to enjoy herself. As her father had said, Aunt Jane was not a bad old thing, and she had the happy knack of keeping things going without giving people the impression that they were marshalled about like a personally conducted tour.
"It seems years since I've seen you. Mavis, my dear," she said as she went up with her to her bedroom. "And I only wish I could have asked young Robin. But I haven't got a spare corner. And, of course, we're short of servants. I can't get another housemaid for love or money, and only by the merest fluke did I manage to get a footman."
She rattled on, while her shrewd eyes took in every detail of her niece. "Pretty," she reflected, "very pretty. Wants dressing, but could carry her clothes well. Must really try and do something for her. Like her father; and a bit like Mary too. A fool, Mary; threw herself away, poor dear. Still, sisters and all that: girl was one of the family. What about Mark Terrill? Seemed to have plenty of money; knew the right people: thirty-five years old; good-looking. Send 'em in to dinner together."
"I'll have your tea sent up, my dear," she said at this juncture in her thoughts, "and then when you've changed I'll introduce you to the others."
"Thank you, Aunt Jane, so much."
The door closed behind her relative and Mavis sank into the arm-chair by the fire with a sigh of content. In Pileditch Road there were gas-stoves in the bedrooms. And suddenly she found herself thinking of the last remark the large young man had made to her on Swindon platform.
"Don't forget what you said about the obvious during the next few days."
At the moment it hadn't made very much impression on her; now, for some reason or other it came back to her mind. What had he meant? She had said that the obvious wasn't interesting. Well, why on earth was she not to forget that? A maid brought in the tea, and as she drank it, her mind was still busy. Could it mean that in some way or other he was going to be there? Why it should was beyond her; and yet, if there was any meaning at all in the remark, it must surely imply that he was involved in some way with those next few days. And if so—
However, at that point she took a pull at herself, changed out of her travelling clothes, and went downstairs. Her aunt, who was writing a letter, rose and met her at the foot of the stairs.
"You look charming, my dear child, perfectly charming. Come along to the billiard-room; they're playing slosh or fives or something. Hum! it's evidently something." she added grimly, as a loud crash of breaking glass heralded their arrival. "Really, you two are incorrigible. What have you smashed this time?"
The Heavenly Twins—Janet and Paul Wetherby—confronted them hand-in-hand.
"Now that's a most tactless moment to enter, Mrs. Frosdick," remarked Paul sadly. "It's the last pane of glass in that bookcase, and if you'd come in a minute later I could have blamed Terrill."
A man seated on the leather-topped fender laughed. "And probably got away with it, too," he said. "I can compete with one of you, but not with both combined."
He got up and bowed as his hostess introduced Mavis, and the irrepressible twins metaphorically hurled themselves upon her. "Come and play cork pool, snooker, slosh, pot the pink—anything you like," they chanted.
"I don't think I know any of them," she said doubtfully.
"Doesn't matter; you play with Terrill. He's far too good otherwise."
"Would you like to play, Miss Houghton?" said Terrill, rising. "Between us, let us beat the Heavenly Horrors."
"If you like," laughed Mavis. "But I warn you, I'm hopeless."
She was, but her partner wasn't. Even to her inexperienced eye, his skill was obvious. He carried her comfortably, though she only scored once and that by a fluke, and they won as they liked.
"Thanks so much," he said as he took her cue from her to put it in the rack. "We must have another some time." For a moment his eyes— dark brown unfathomable eyes—held hers, and then he strolled out of the room.
"Rum devil that!" said Paul Wetherby thoughtfully.
"I don't like him," said his sister decisively. "He always reminds me of a panther."
"He's very good at billiards." put in Mavis.
"There's nothing he isn't good at," said Paul, lighting a cigarette. "He's a marvellous shot; he's a plus man at golf; he rides as if he were part of his horse."
"For all that, young fellah," returned his sister, "I don't like the bird. Well, it's time for this child to dress for dinner."
True to her resolve, her aunt sent Mavis in to dinner with Terrill, and though the conversation was more or less general he contrived to devote himself pretty exclusively to entertaining her. And he was a very entertaining individual when he chose to exert himself. In a dark, somewhat foreign way he was very good-looking, and he had that gift of the good conversationalist of making his audience talk. Before dinner was half over there was nothing he didn't know of Pileditch Road and the family that lived under the roof of Number 11. And Aunt Jane, casting an occasional glance in their direction, congratulated herself on the course of events. Of course, she didn't know much about him; still, you always met him at decent houses, and really little Mavis ought to be thankful for anything.
"What's that, General?" She fumed to the man on her left. "My rubies: you'd like to see them? Certainly. I'll get Tom to show them to you after dinner."
"Bit dangerous keeping such historic stones in a country house like this, isn't it, Mrs. Frosdick?" Mark Terrill leant across towards his hostess. "I should say it was a burglar's paradise—a house of this sort," he continued.
"Why?" chorused the Heavenly Twins.
"I don't speak professionally," he smiled, "but with all these ground-floor windows, I should say entrance would be easy. Jove! General, do you remember Lampiter House?"
"I do, indeed," answered the soldier. "And as far as I know they never laid hands on the fellow."
"You mean the Duchess's emeralds?" said Tom Frosdick. "I remember reading about it in the papers."
"What happened?" asked Mavis eagerly.
"A burglary," said Terrill, smiling. "And a singularly daring one. It was just such a house-party as this, only a little larger. Nobody ever went to bed much before three o'clock, and there were swarms of servants all over the house. Nevertheless, the emeralds disappeared, and have never been heard of from that day to this. Nor have they ever caught the man. And it's not the only case, you know, Miss Houghton. During the last three or four years there have been several big robberies of that type—robberies where some big, very valuable piece of stuff has disappeared. The thief or thieves evidently specialise in precious stones—"
"You think it's the same man?" asked the girl.
He nodded. "I do—and Scotland Yard does too. In fact, it was a friend of mine—one of the Commissioners—who told me they were sure of it. It's the work, they think, of a singularly skilful man, who, so far— though they're a bit diffident over admitting that—has not left a single clue behind him. Apparently he won't touch gold owing to the difficulty of getting away with it: he sticks entirely to jewels. There were the emeralds we've just been talking about, and Lady Archer's pearls, and the diamonds belonging to Isaac Goldstein's wife, and three or four more as well."
"But how perfectly thrilling!" said the girl, and at that moment she happened to glance across the table. The footman was handing something to Janet Wetherby, and for the first time she noticed his face. It was the large young man with the blue eyes who had travelled down with her from London. And just for a moment those blue eyes met hers and twinkled slightly: then they were lowered deferentially once more.
Fortunately Terrill had fumed to the woman on his other side: fortunately, also, her aunt gave the signal for the ladies to rise very shortly after. So she made an excuse and fled upstairs to her room. The impertinence of it: the supreme impertinence! He must have known that she was a guest at the house in which he was going to take a situation. How dared he talk to her as he had done? She grew hot at the mere thought of their conversation on the way down. He'd offered her a cigarette...
And then came the next pressing point: how on earth was she to treat him? Supposing she met him in the passage or something when there was no one else about? Oh! the situation was intolerable. She couldn't tell her aunt, and besides, what was there to tell? It's not a crime to talk to someone in a railway carriage, and the man had seemed a gentleman. And then his parting remark came back to her. So that was what he had meant about the obvious, was it? So be it: it was obvious that he was a footman, and she didn't find it interesting.
With that she went downstairs where they had begun dancing. She danced four times with Mark Terrill, and three times with Paul Wetherby, and tried to persuade herself that it was beneath her dignity to think about the matter any more. If she happened to meet him alone she would give him a condescending nod and a cutting word or two, and the episode would be closed.
It was just before a general exodus to bed occurred that the ghastly suspicion dawned on her. She had been dancing with Terrill, who did it—as he did everything else—divinely.
"Perfect," he whispered. "Quite perfect. It's heaven to dance with you. Hullo!" he continued, glancing towards the end of the room, "here's your chance of seeing the Frosdick rubies. Though I expect you've seen them often."
"I haven't," she said. "Do let's go and have a look!"
They joined the little crowd which was standing round Tom Frosdick, and Mavis gave a little gasp as she saw the wonderful stones. They were historic, of course, as everyone knew, and their owner was expatiating on the story—with relish. It was a pastime that never bored him, and he had just got to the bit about the Indian Rajah and the series of strange murders, when, for the second time that evening. Mavis noticed the footman. He had come in with the butler, carrying a tray and drinks, and as she saw him she noticed that his eyes, gleaming strangely, were fixed on the rubies.
She never heard another word of the story: dimly she realised that her uncle had finished; mechanically she took the necklace in her hands and murmured some words of admiration.
It was clear: there wasn't a doubt about it in her own mind. Her travelling acquaintance was the mysterious burglar, of whom Mr. Terrill had been telling her at dinner. True, she had no proof, but she had a woman's intuition, which was far better. It accounted for everything—his charm, his cultured manner, his strange power of observation. They were impossible characteristics in a footman. But in a gentleman burglar, who had disguised himself as a footman, they were not only possible but likely. And suddenly she remembered that the cigarette case he had offered her in the train was of gold...
"Interesting," said Mark Terrill's voice in her ear, "but I'd far sooner have danced with you again. Miss Houghton."
She smiled at him almost mechanically, and asked him to bring her some lemonade. She wanted to be alone to think out this new development, though she couldn't help feeling flattered at his obvious interest in her. And as soon as she could, on the plea of being tired, she left him and went upstairs.
What was she going to do? It was one thing to have talked intimately to a footman coming down in the train: it was quite different when he turned out to be a burglar. She ought to tell her aunt; she knew she ought to tell her. And yet somehow she felt strangely reluctant to do so. She didn't try to analyse why she felt reluctant; she would have indignantly scouted the idea that it was anything to do with a pair of lazy blue eyes and a mouth which was permanently twisted in a cheery grin. Of course not; nothing whatever to do with it. It was simply because her aunt would be sleepy, and anyway she wasn't quite certain of the way to her room. She was sure nothing would happen that night; burglars always wanted time to spy out their ground. And tomorrow, somehow or other, she'd speak to him: tell him that she knew everything and that unless he left the house at once she would tell Mr. Frosdick, and he would send for the police. Or perhaps she would ask Mr. Terrill in confidence what he advised her to do...
With which resolve firmly taken. Mavis Houghton fell asleep. And it seemed to her that there was no perceptible gap between her last waking thought of a large young man with blue eyes and the arrival of a scared-looking maid with her early morning tea.
"A terrible thing, miss," said the girl. "The rubies have been stolen."
"What?" Mavis sat up in bed, staring at her with dilated eyes.
"Stolen in the night, miss," went on the girl. "The police are here, and no one's allowed to leave the house."
Mavis lay back on her pillows; it seemed to her as if the maid would be able to read her thoughts, so plainly must they be showing on her face. From outside came the sound of men's voices; the whole household was evidently up and about.
"Have they found—do they suspect anyone?" she asked the girl, a little faintly.
"Not so far, miss. There's a window open downstairs, which Charles—he's the new footman, miss—is positive he shut last night."
"How was it discovered, Elsie?"
"The master, miss, was down early this morning. He was a-going to take them with him to London to have something done to one of the fastenings, and when he opened the safe they was gone."
She dismissed the girl, and began to dress feverishly. Now that the thing she dreaded had happened, she felt conscious of only one thought. She didn't care if it was right or wrong, but she felt she must give him a chance if she could. See him alone, make him return the stones, and if he did so, she would promise not to give him away. He could emigrate to Australia or something, and try to earn an honest living.
She went downstairs to find the Heavenly Twins disconsolately seated in the hall.
"We're not allowed to leave the house," remarked Janet, "and we want to go ratting."
"I've confessed twice that I took 'em," said her brother, "and the second time the large, strong, square-faced man in charge got quite huffy."
Mavis fumed as her uncle came out of the library. Somewhat naturally he was looking worried, and with him were Terrill and the gentleman just alluded to by Paul Wetherby.
"It's quite obvious, Mr. Frosdick," Terrill was saying, "that there is only one thing to be done—make a complete search of everyone's belongings in the house. We should all prefer it, and if the guests don't object, surely the servants won't. If nothing is found, we can more or less assume that it is an outside agency. Don't you agree, Inspector?"
The inspector nodded. "It can do no harm, Mr. Frosdick."
"I don't like it, I tell you," he said. "'I would no more dream, of suspecting any of my quests than I would myself, and as for the servants—why, they've been with me for years." He paused suddenly. "Good Heavens! I forgot. The footman! He only came yesterday." For a moment Mavis felt as if her heart had stopped beating. "He had splendid references." Her uncle was speaking again. "Came from Lord Ditchling. And he seems excellent at his job."
"References can be forged," remarked the Inspector drily.
"Anyway, Mr. Frosdick," put in Terrill, "no one is accusing the man as yet. He will be in the same boat with all of us."
"That's true," agreed his host.
"But I think it will do no harm to send a wire to Lord Ditchling, giving a description of the man," said the Inspector. "If, by any chance, we should find that he is not the servant referred to in the references, I should feel justified in arresting him, even if we find no trace of the rubies. And now would it be possible, Mr. Frosdick, to get everyone together in some room and tell them what we propose to do?"
"Well, if I must, I must. Though I don't like it."
With a smile, Mark Terrill had crossed to Mavis.
"An extraordinary coincidence, isn't it," he said, "that only last night we were talking of this very thing?"
"Do you think, Mr. Terrill," she said, "that this is one of the same series of robberies that you were telling me about? Done by the same man?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "Impossible to tell. Miss Houghton. It looks rather like it. There's no trace of a finger-mark on the safe—not even a scratch, which shows, according to the Inspector, that it's the work of an expert. I've suggested to your uncle that there should be an exhaustive search of all our belongings, though, frankly, I fear that we shan't get much out of it. A criminal as clever as this one evidently is, doesn't leave his loot lying on the middle of the table."
"I heard you say something about the new footman," she said, and despite all her efforts, she felt that her voice shook a little. But apparently the man noticed nothing; he merely shrugged his shoulders once again.
"If the thing has been done by someone in the house; or if, as I think far more likely, it was done from outside by the help of a confederate in the house, it is only natural that the finger of suspicion should tend to point at a man who only arrived yesterday. Though, of course, it may be absolutely unfounded. I certainly hope so; he's a most excellent valet."
The search, as Mark Terrill had prophesied, produced nothing. When Mr. Frosdick had made his embarrassed little speech to the whole household, Mavis had kept on glancing at the footman. But no trace of guilt or fear had shown in his face; he had stood with the rest of the servants listening, so it had seemed to her, almost indifferently. And now it was all over; no trace of the rubies had been found. She was angry with herself at her feeling of relief; she was angry with herself that she should care one way or the other. But she knew that she hadn't expected them to be discovered in his possession; she felt he was far too clever for that. It was the answer to the telegram that she dreaded.
It came at three o'clock, and her uncle told the assembled house party the news.
"Afraid there's no doubt the new footman had a hand in it," he said gravely. "He doesn't tally in the slightest degree with Ditchling's description. The Inspector has gone off to get a warrant for his arrest."
So it was all over. She went upstairs to her room, feeling sick and miserable. If only he hadn't been so charming: if only—And then she saw him. He was in Mark Terrill's room tidying up, and the door was open.
For a moment she hesitated: then she made up her mind and went in. "They've gone for a warrant for your arrest," she said breathlessly. "Oh! go, go while there's time!"
He swung round and stared at her with a peculiar look in his eyes. "It's very sweet of you to warn me. Miss Houghton. You think I'm the burglar, do you?"
"Don't waste time," she implored. "I promise I won't say anything about meeting you in the train yesterday, and your—your being so different."
His mouth twisted into one of his lazy smiles. "I'm not a bit different," he said. "I'm just looking for the obvious. The trouble is that I can't find it."
She stared at him in amazement, as his keen, eager eyes went searching round the room. Assuredly, if this man were the thief his nerves must be of steel. And then suddenly on his face there dawned a look of suppressed excitement.
"What is it?" she cried.
He was staring at a row of cut-glass bottles which stood on Mark Terrill's dressing-table. There was hair lotion, and tooth-wash, and lavender water, and each bottle was ornately labelled.
"I've got it!" he almost shouted.
And at that moment her uncle, Mark Terrill and the Inspector appeared in the door.
"Mavis—what on earth?" began her uncle in amazement. Then he fumed furiously on the footman. "You scoundrel!" he cried, "what do you think you're doing?"
"Looking for your rubies, Mr. Frosdick," answered the other calmly. Unconsciously she glanced at Mark Terrill, and his eyes had narrowed to pin-pricks. "Moreover, I've found them."
"What!" shouted Mr. Frosdick. "Found 'em. Where?"
"In that bottle of tooth-wash."
For a moment there was dead silence, and then with a snarl of rage Terrill hurled himself at the speaker. But the large young man had a large young fist, and it and Mark Terrill's jaw met to the detriment of the jaw. In fact, the owner of the jaw remained blissfully unconscious on the floor during the next few minutes. And when he did finally stagger to his feet as well as a pair of handcuffs would allow, it was to find the ten wonderful Frosdick rubies ranged on the washstand, while in the basin beside them reposed his ruby red tooth-wash.
"There's your bird, Inspector," said the large young man quietly. "Incidentally this will be enough, but you might ask him about the Duchess of Lampiter's emeralds, and Lady Archer's pearls and a few other trifles."
"Who are you?" snarled Terrill.
"A student of the obvious." answered the large young man with a smile. "And it ought to afford you some amusement during the next few weeks to try and find out in what obvious point you gave yourself away."
Half an hour later, clothed normally once again, the large young man sat down to tea. "I feel I owe you an apology in the first place, Mrs. Frosdick," he remarked, "for substituting my unworthy self for your perfectly good footman. I may say that I'm on the staff of the Tribune, and newspaper men, as you know, are quite unscrupulous. However, to come to the goods! You probably know that during the last two or three years there have been about half a dozen really big jewel robberies. Our friend mentioned the Duchess of Lampiter's emeralds himself last night at dinner. That was one of them.
"Now off and on I've done a good deal of crime reporting, and it interests me. Moreover, I know one or two men at the Yard. And owing to certain points of similarity we became convinced that they were all the work of the same man. I forget who got the idea first, but one day someone took the trouble to get the lists of guests at each of the houses where the robberies had taken place. Some names occurred twice: some even three times, but only one occurred in every list—that of Mr. Mark Terrill. So we began to make inquiries about the gentleman. He apparently knew everybody worth knowing, but who he was and what his parents had been we couldn't find out. He seemed to have emerged into post-War society out of the blue. Before that his history was a blank.
"Well, as we all know, a good-looking bachelor with money can go to most places today. When, in addition, he's a first-class shot and athlete generally he becomes positively in demand. And Terrill was undoubtedly persona grata at most of the big houses. Moreover, there was absolutely nothing against him except the one suspicious fact that he was present at each of the robberies.
"A few days ago I found out that he was coming here for Christmas. And since the Frosdick rubies are well known, I wondered if there was any connection between the two facts. So I thought I'd come too, and try to find out. The difficulty was that, doubtless through an oversight, I hadn't received an invitation. And then there occurred one of those Heaven-sent chances that you read of in books but rarely meet in life. Your new footman is the son of the couple who keep the rooms in Clarges Street where I live.
"Nothing could have suited me better. As footman I knew I'd have to valet Terrill, which was exactly what I wanted to do. So I persuaded him to let me take his place. I had the dickens of a job to do so—he's a first-class fellow: but finally, after taking him round to Scotland Yard to prove I was all right, he consented.
"I got him to give me a few lessons in deportment, applied for leave from the chief, and came here instead of him. And my very first night the rubies disappeared. Well, it was a bit awkward for me. Personally I felt absolutely convinced that Terrill had taken them—the coincidence was altogether too extraordinary. But to feel convinced and have proof are two very different things. And it was quite obvious that suspicion was bound to fall on me. I could have cleared myself, I know—but it might have taken a day or two. And that day or two would have been fatal to any hopes of success. I had to get Terrill with the rubies in his possession. And the point was—where were they? Where had he hidden them?' I knew he had them, but where had he put them?
"Now, in his dressing-case I had discovered a pair of very fine forceps, of the type used by jewellers for gold and silver work. So I guessed that in all probability he had removed the rubies from their setting and disposed of the latter. It was fine work, as I noticed last night, and he could easily have broken it up into small pieces and got rid of it down the bath plug. That left only the separate rubies to hide—a much easier matter for him, and a much harder one for me.
"It was obvious—the hiding-place; it must be. Nothing was locked in his room; I'd examined every drawer. And I was almost in despair. Supposing, now that the search was over, he had them on him. I couldn't accuse him; being the object of suspicion myself it would have looked like a stupid bluff.
"And then suddenly it came to me. There it was right under my nose—the big cut-glass bottle of red tooth-wash. Not that I could see a sign of the rubies; the facets of the crystal and the colour of the liquid prevented that. In fact, it was a marvellous hiding-place, as the obvious generally is. But I knew the rubies were there."
"A very lucky guess," said Mr. Frosdick.
The large young man smiled and lit a cigarette. "No, Mr. Frosdick, not a guess but a certainty."
"But you said you couldn't see 'em."
"Correct," agreed the other. "I couldn't see 'em. But I could see something else which was just as good. Tooth-wash may be for use, and it may be for show. In the first case the level in the bottle diminishes, and in the second it remains stationary. But in neither case does it rise three inches."
"Young fellah," said Mr. Frosdick after a pause, "put it there." He held out his hand. "And since we now have a spare bedroom, the oversight about your invitation is remedied."
That evening Mavis Houghton danced twice with Paul Wetherby and five times with Kenneth Stretton.
"Terrill has one peculiarity which I didn't mention," remarked the latter gravely. "He generally makes love to someone in the house who is closely connected with his hostess. I think it is done professionally to avert suspicion."
"Indeed," she murmured. "How very unromantic."
"Any chance for an amateur?"
Her lips twitched slightly. "The least that a new guest can do is to endeavour to supply the gap left by the departure of his predecessor."
And suddenly he leant towards her. "Mavis—why did you warn me?"
"For a student of the obvious," she murmured, "you seem to be singularly dense."
"THE man who monkeys round with another man's wife is asking for trouble," said the ship's doctor. "And sooner or later he'll get it. He may even have to marry her."
Around us twinkled the lights of Naples: the summit of Vesuvius hung red, glowing in the darkness astern. And peace reigned on board. The ship's bore, with a boat-load of victims, had gone ashore to see the sights; we had the smoking-room to ourselves.
"Mit divorce and all its attendant mud," remarked Murgatroyd, of the Indian Army. "That's the foul part of it."
I knew Murgatroyd's history, and why he spoke feelingly. But that, as Kipling would say, is another story.
"Divorce is a filthy business," he continued. "Surely to Heaven if a marriage is a mistake and both parties know it, they should be able to make other arrangements without screaming stinking fish to the world at large! Instead of that they have to employ lawyers and intermediaries and pay through the nose for doing so."
"You're talking rot, old man." said the doctor, who did not know Murgatroyd's history. "You must have some basis for society which can't be broken just because a man dislikes his wife's face in the morning."
Murgatroyd laughed. "Don't be a fool. Doc. But if two married people have ceased to care about one another, and the woman meets another man whom she does love, surely they should be able to fix things between them a little less vulgarly than they can at present. To me it's inconceivable that once a man realises he has lost his wife he should want to keep her."
And then Sinclair spoke for the first time. He was a tall, spare man, with that hardbitten look about him that tells of a life most certainly not spent behind an office desk. A quiet sort of customer, through natural inclination and not from lack of material, one felt sure. I had had one or two short ones with him since leaving Tilbury, but had got no further.
"You suggest," he said, "that the three of them should discuss things as amicably as possible in the circumstances?"
"Emphatically," cried Murgatroyd.
"Without any lawyer to act as go-between?"
"Even more emphatically."
Sinclair leaned forward and tapped out his pipe, while a faint smile twitched round his lips. "And yet at times an intermediary has its advantages."
The Doctor held up his hand.
"Sinclair, that smile bewrayeth thee. I scent a story. The night is yet young; the horde of horrors will not be back for an hour at least. Steward, remove these dead men, and repeat the dose. Now, sir..."
You must go back twenty years (Sinclair began, when his pipe was drawing to his satisfaction) for the beginning of my tale. The madness had not then come upon Europe, and the world to most youngsters in their twenties seemed a pretty good place. Particularly the colonies. There was hope in a man's breast then—not the dry-rot that exists today. And if money was burned quicker, it was more quickly replaced.
I don't suppose I need waste my breath describing the Rand Club at Jo'burg to any of you fellows. And then, even as now, that big three-sided bar was as fruitful a spot for the burning as is to be found on any map. The millionaire of the day before rubbed shoulders with the millionaire of the moment. The man who was down and out bought a book of chits with his last remaining half-sovereign. And in that atmosphere there met two men.
They were of a type: both young, both as hard as nails. Both had been in the country for three or four years; both had tried their hands at a good many different things before finally settling down to farming down White River way. They were introduced to one another by a friend and found at once that they had a certain amount in common. Their farms were some thirty miles apart, and blasphemy against the Government on the water question formed one mutual grouse. But though, during the ten days they were in Jo'burg, they saw quite a lot of one another, they never became really intimate. Their characters and their outlook on life generally were too widely divergent.
Robert Caterham was slightly the elder of the two. He was a good-looking, powerfully built man, and very good company when he chose. But he had a violent temper, and was apt at times to become morose and surly. Especially if he had a little drink in him. Not that he drank—he didn't; in fact, he was rather abstemious. But if he did get one or two inside him he was liable to get angry if anyone contradicted him.
The other man's name was—er—Jack Somerset. (And if Sinclair paused slightly as he came to that name—well, it saves a lot of trouble not to tell a story in the first person.) Jack Somerset was a much more cheerful kind of customer; the sort of fellow who was in his element in a mess on a guest night when horse-play tricks demanding strength and a disregard of clothing are the order of the day. And it was during just such an evening with the regiment in Pretoria that one of the fundamental differences between the two men revealed itself.
Have you ever stood with your back to the edge of an open door and your hands clasped together over the top? The trick is to draw yourself up from that position until you are sitting astride the door. Now it is not a particularly easy thing to do. It requires considerable strength and knack; moreover, it can be distinctly painful to certain portions of one's anatomy.
Ragging about after mess one of the officers did the trick and then challenged the guests to go and do likewise. And to cut a long story short, Somerset succeeded and Caterham didn't. There was nothing to it: in five minutes the thing was forgotten and everyone was cock fighting. Forgotten, that is, by everyone except Caterham. He didn't say anything, naturally, but you could tell it by the expression on his face. He was furious at having been beaten even over such a trifling thing as that; and the fact that only two of the other officers managed it didn't alter the fact that Somerset had done it and he hadn't.
"Entirely knack, that fool door trick, I suppose," he said in the car, when they were motoring back to Jo'burg four hours later.
"What door trick?" answered Somerset, who had forgotten all about it.
"You must have done it before," persisted Caterham.
"Never seen it in my life till tonight," said Somerset.
"That's a good 'un," sneered Caterham, and Somerset sat up with a jerk.
"What the devil are you getting at?" he said quietly. "I repeat that I have never seen that trick before tonight."
Caterham mumbled an apology, and Somerset said no more. The thing was too small to quarrel over. But it revealed a certain angle in Caterham's composition that, up till then, Somerset had not suspected. And not a very pretty one.
The months passed by, and the two men—who had returned to White River two days after the guest-night episode—met fairly frequently at a club half-way between their farms. It was a typical small club which automatically forms itself in districts where white men are widely scattered. All right and excellent in their way: admirable meeting places to ventilate the eternal grumbles which men who farm give tongue to against everything in heaven and earth: absence of water; presence of locusts—and that hardy annual, the Government.
But they are dangerous places for men who have not got the essential gift of give and take. Tempers are apt to get a bit soured with a lonely life, and it is well to remember that though the man next to you has temporarily lost his, you, in all probability, were in the same condition yourself a week before. And that was the trouble with Caterham. As I mentioned before, he was a man who did not like argument when he'd had a couple, and the net result was that gradually he quarrelled with practically every member of the club. Except, funnily enough, Somerset.
The quarrels never amounted to anything serious, you'll understand; but after a while other fellows began to avoid him. They would pass the time of day if they met him in the bar, but you never saw him forming one of the cheery bunch dicing for the next round in a corner. Which was not for the good of Caterham's soul. And it was, therefore, with a feeling of real relief that Somerset heard one day that Caterham had gone to Durban to meet a girl who had come out from England to marry him.
"I never even knew he was engaged," said Somerset to the man who told him.
"Funny-tempered devil," grunted the other. "Can't say I envy the wench. Still, I shan't grumble if she keeps him away from the club a bit more. He's not my idea of a pleasant evening."
"He's not a bad fellow really," said Somerset. "And she may improve him. It's only when he gets a bit ginned up."
"Ginned up be blowed! You can't call three sundowners ginned up. And that's all he'd had a few nights ago when he was pulling out that darned sarcastic stuff of his with little Bill Taunton. What he wants is a cauliflower ear, and if he don't watch it, he'll get it one of these days."
It was a fortnight before Somerset saw Caterham again.
"I hear you've gone and done the trick," he said. "Congratulations and all the usual stuff."
"Thanks," answered Caterham without any wild enthusiasm. "Come over and have a meal some time."
"I'd like to," said Somerset. "Must leave your wife time to get settled in first."
"I wouldn't wait so long as that," was Caterham's somewhat cryptic reply. "Come next Friday."
And at that it was left. Caterham got into his car, leaving Somerset wondering.
Far be it from me (continued Sinclair after a pause) to deliver a homily on matrimony. But when considering a ceremony which, even under the most favourable conditions, so frequently goes wrong, there ought to be a law insisting on certain rudimentary precautions being taken before two people tie themselves up for good. Apparently the Caterham affair had been fixed up about a year previously, when he had been back to England for a few months settling some business matters. And it had been an affair of love at first sight, which, I am told, frequently proves a winner and as frequently does not. This came into the latter category.
Given, more favourable circumstances all might have been well. But South Africa is a hard country and a ruthless mistress, and from the very start Ruth Caterham hated it. The loneliness ate into her soul; those long, scorching hours, when her husband was out and she had nobody to talk to except the Kaffir boys, got on her nerves.
Naturally, that was not apparent to Jack Somerset the first time he went there. All he saw was a singularly lovely girl, trying, with pathetic eagerness, to fit into surroundings which were completely strange, to her. It wasn't her fault; it wasn't Caterham's. But if only one of the rudimentary precautions to which I've alluded had been taken, if only she had come and stayed with some married woman out there before taking the final step, it might all have been avoided. At any rate, she would have had a chance of discovering what life on a lonely farm was like, and whether she could stand it or not.
There was another factor in the situation, too—even more important than that. If a woman is really in love with a man she will put up with almost anything for his sake. And she will act so well that he will never realise that she is putting up. Ruth was not in love with her husband; she never had been. But as other people had done before, she had mistaken a somewhat hectic flirtation in the middle of a London season for the genuine article. And so the menage started in conditions about as unfavourable as could well be devised.
(Once again Sinclair paused and stared over the water, twinkling with the reflection of a thousand lights.)
I hold no brief for Jack Somerset (he went on thoughtfully), but he did try to fight against it. When he realised how things were with him, and that he loved Ruth Caterham as he had never believed it possible to love a woman, he kept away from their farm. It took him weeks before he did realise it—weeks during which he had been there frequently, weeks during which he had seen things getting more and more strained between Ruth and her husband. The farm was not going well, which made Caterham increasingly irritable, and increasingly inclined to take those two or three extra drinks that constituted his poison. In fact, it was obvious that something had to break somewhere.
As so often happens, the break came unexpectedly, and over a trifle. The three of them were sitting on the stoep after dinner, and Caterham made some remark about the boy's foul cooking. And that night Ruth had cooked the dinner herself. Admittedly it was a bad gaffe, on his part, but a laugh and a jest would have turned the whole thing off. Instead of which he said: "I didn't notice any difference." And that was the remark of a cad as well as a fool.
Then it started. She burst out crying, and between her tears said things she didn't really mean. He sneered back. And the third member of the party, feeling acutely uncomfortable, got up to leave. But the Fates wouldn't allow even that; the stage was set, the puppets had to perform.
"Don't go, for God's sake!" said Caterham, in a rasping voice. "You stop here and comfort her. I'm sick to death of it."
And he disappeared into the darkness.
"I say, dear," stammered Somerset, and then found he was staring into her eyes, with both her hands in his. And gradually her sobs ceased, and she stared back at him. Outside, the tree beetles kept up their endless chorus; inside, on that dimlit veranda, two of the marionettes danced to the pulling of the strings.
He didn't kiss her; he didn't touch her—save to hold her hands more tightly. And after a while he got up and moved away.
"Are you quite sure?" he said slowly.
"Quite," she answered.
"We must be, you know; we must be." He repeated it over and over again. "Quite, quite sure. I will go away, dear, so that we'll be certain. And then..."
"Yes, Jack." she whispered. "And then...?"
"I'll come back, and we'll tell him. Stick it till then, my darling."
He was away two months, leaving his farm in the charge of an assistant. As a matter of fact, he didn't mind very much about the farm. He was going to sell it, in any event. Things were occurring at home which made it necessary for him to go back to England in the near future. And not the least important of those things was that he had quite unexpectedly come into enough money to render him independent of work for the rest of his life.
At the end of the two months he went back. He knew—so far as a man may know; a glance at her face told him that she knew too. And so, for the first time, he took her in his arms and kissed her on the lips. Then they sat down to wait for Caterham.
"He'll take it hard, Jack," she said. "Not because he loves me— he doesn't. But his pride will be hurt. He loathes thinking someone else has beaten him."
He nodded. "I know, dear. I spotted that once before at a guest night in Pretoria."
"And he's jealous of you."
He looked at her quickly. "Of me? Why should he be?"
"I'm afraid I may have given things away that night. One can't help it—when one is very happy."
There was the short interlude, somewhat natural after such a remark, and then she grew serious again. "What are you going to say to him, Jack?"
The man gave a short laugh. "Tell him the truth, darling. That we love one another and that, therefore, things cannot continue as they are."
"Indeed? How vastly interesting!" They swung round; Caterham was standing behind them on the stoep. He was in soft slippers, so that they had not heard him approach, and a drink was in his hand. And, in spite of the sneering remark, there was a puzzled look on his face as if he could not believe his ears. "Might I trouble you to repeat that remark?" he continued.
"Certainly," said Somerset quietly. "I suppose I should say I'm sorry about it, Caterham, but Ruth and I are in love with one another."
The puzzled look had gone; a very different one had taken its place. And without a word he flung the contents of his glass in Somerset's face.
"You swine!" he said thickly.
Somerset kept his temper. "Can we discuss this matter without that sort of melodrama?" he remarked. "I realise it must be an infernal shock to you, but the thing has got to be faced. And since we aren't children, we might as well face it in a reasonable manner."
Caterham's answer was a whistling upper-cut that caught Somerset on the point of the jaw and knocked him down. Which brought the situation back to Nature. Lawyers, and prying chambermaids, and divorce courts may fill the bill in England, but when men are living in the crude places of the world they settle their differences crudely. And so, as the sun began to dip towards the horizon, those two men fought with the savage fighting that knows no Queensberry rules. And the woman watched, as woman has done through the ages.
I suppose that if this were a story intended for the Sunday afternoon consumption of the young, the outraged husband should have triumphed over the dissolute scoundrel who was trying to wreck his home. I fear I cannot oblige. Somerset beat him fairly and squarely, though the victor's face wasn't a pretty sight by the time he had finished. Blood was streaming from a cut over one eye, and his nose felt as if it were broken. But the man on the ground, propped on one elbow and snarling like a mad dog, had had enough.
"Now will you discuss it?" muttered Somerset.
Caterham didn't answer. With murder in his eyes, he scrambled to his feet and lurched through a group of terrified boys into the house. And suddenly the woman gave a scream.
"Jack! He's getting a rifle."
Then things moved. Somerset's car was by the door, and in an instant he had bundled her into the dickey.
"Lie on the floor, Ruth," he shouted, "and shut the top."
The engine started and he was away down the so-called drive, bumping and rocking from side to side. A bullet spat through the hood close to his head, followed by another. And then they were out on the open track and clear of the house. Not quite the film hero stuff, perhaps, but when a man who is temporarily mad with rage is looking at you from the wrong end of a gun and you have no weapon yourself, it is well not to stand on the order of your going.
Jack Somerset covered ten miles before he stopped, and the girl, white and shaken, got in beside him. Just behind her head was one of the bullet holes; putting her in the dickey had saved her life. But he said nothing, and with his arm round her shoulders they drove on.
"I want you to stay with Mrs. Sidmouth tonight, darling," he said after a while. "Say what you like to her, but, of course, this affair is bound to come out. The boys will talk. And then tomorrow we'll discuss things, when he's cooled down a bit."
"Where are you going, Jack?"
"I'll stop at the pub."
"Darling, I'm frightened. He'll be crazy tonight, and if he starts drinking..."
"Don't worry, my sweet. I'll see that you're O.K."
"I wasn't thinking of myself," she cried.
Jack Somerset laughed shortly.
"Dear heart—I'll have a gun of my own, once we get to town." And then a little inconsequently he added: "Poor devil."
He left her with Mrs. Sidmouth—a woman of understanding who could be trusted not to ask too many fool questions—and went to the local drug store for something for his face. That the whole story would be public property by the next day he knew, but he thought it possible that Caterham himself might come in that night. And so he went to the club. If Caterham did come that was where he would go, and Somerset was not shirking a meeting.
There were several men there when he arrived who stared at him curiously—the chemist had not been over-successful. But wisely they forebore to make any comment. His expression did not invite chaff.
He dined there and waited till eleven, but there was no sign of Caterham. Then he went to the hotel and to bed—but not to sleep. It was, of course, impossible to leave things as they were, and the sooner they were settled the better. He blamed Caterham not at all for fighting him. He could even bring himself to forgive the shooting, since no damage had been done. But what was exercising his mind was whether the blood-letting had done any good. Would Caterham—now that his first fury was over—be prepared to discuss the matter calmly?
He tried to argue out the rights and wrongs of the case as he lay in bed and stared up into the darkness. To the world it would be just the old eternal triangle and, shorn of trappings, that was exactly what it was. But those trappings did count, so far as the triangle itself was concerned. There had been nothing between Ruth and himself, except one kiss; the instant they were sure how things stood between them he had spoken to Caterham. There had been nothing clandestine about it; no blame could be attached to him on that score. True he had, according to the old tag, eaten the husband's salt; but one of the things Somerset had never yet fathomed was how a man could get to know a woman without eating at her house. And he had had no meal there since he had realised the truth. He never would have one again.
The night dragged wearily by, and always did his thoughts come back to the same point: how would Caterham square up with the situation? Would he—and this was the fear that haunted him most—would he refuse to divorce her? No ordinary man would do such a thing; but was Caterham ordinary? His wild rage of the previous afternoon was not extraordinary, but now that that was over, what was his reaction going to be? For Ruth was still his wife. He could not force her to return to his roof, and as she had money of her own she was independent of him financially. She could go back to England, as could Somerset. But if Caterham refused to set her free, what then?
Light was streaming through the window before he finally fell into a troubled sleep, and when he was called his brain again began turning over the problem. In any event, the whole thing would have to be gone into that day. He would go to Caterham's farm, leaving Ruth with Mrs. Sidmouth, and if Caterham shot him on sight—well, it was a risk that had to be run. So after breakfast he wrote her a note telling her what his plans were, and sent it round by one of the boys; he felt it was better not even to see her till matters were settled one way or the other. Then he got into his car and started, off for Caterham's farm.
It seemed strangely silent as he drove up to the door; there was no sign of a boy anywhere, and no sound of movement. He had no weapon with him; he had decided that it was better to go unarmed. If Caterham wished to shoot him, he could do so from a distance, and no revolver would help. And if he was in a reasonable mood the fact that Somerset was defenceless would help to keep him so.
There was still no sign of life as he walked round the house, and his footsteps rang loud as he reached the stoep. And then, quite suddenly, he saw Caterham seated at the dining-room table with his head between his hands. And in front of him was a bottle of whisky. For a moment Somerset paused; then he stepped into the room.
"A little earlier than I expected, Mr. Somerset," said Caterham without looking up, and he realised the interview was going to be difficult.
"Shall we talk this over quietly, Caterham?" he said.
"Is there anything to talk over?"
"A lot. In the first place, I want you to realise that there has been absolutely nothing wrong between Ruth and me."
Caterham raised his head and stared at him, and there was a look of such maniacal rage in his eyes that involuntarily Somerset recoiled a step.
"You liar," said Caterham, speaking through set lips.
"I am not a liar," repeated Somerset, controlling his temper. "If you will throw your mind back some weeks you may remember a night I dined here—the last night before I went away. You were foully rude to Ruth in front of me, and it was after you had gone that we found out how things were."
Caterham threw back his head and laughed discordantly.
"Because of that," continued Somerset, "I went away. We both thought it unfair to you that I should be over here until we were sure."
"And now you are sure," sneered Caterham.
"Exactly," said Somerset gravely. "We are sure. And I told you yesterday afternoon, which was the first possible occasion."
"Most considerate of you, Mr. Somerset. I appreciate it. And what do you propose should happen next?"
"That is what I am here to discuss. Presumably, now that you know the facts, you will divorce her as soon as it can be arranged."
"You presume a lot, Mr. Somerset."
"For God's sake, drop the Mister and talk sense. I'm sorry this has happened, but the thing is not so unique as all that. It's not the first time that a tangle of this sort has occurred. And in this case the matter is simplified by the fact that you don't love her."
"That doesn't alter the fact that you came here and stole my wife."
"You admit, then, that you don't love her?"
"She was my wife—mine. How dared you take her away in your car?"
"Because you were set for murder, Caterham. That's why I took her. And if she hadn't been in the dickey you would have murdered her. One of your shots would have gone through her head."
And once again Caterham threw back his head and laughed a laugh that it was not good to hear. Then he seized the whisky bottle and tipped the raw spirit down his throat.
"What a pity!" he cried. "It would have saved a lot of trouble, wouldn't it—if she hadn't been in the dickey. D'you think she'll ever go in your dickey again, Somerset?"
Somerset frowned. If Caterham got drunk nothing more could be done that morning.
"For Heaven's sake, man, listen!" he said. "Quit boozing whisky, and let's get down to it. Will you or will you not start divorce proceedings?"
"Of course I will, Somerset, just as soon as you ask me to."
Somerset stared at him. What was the meaning of this sudden change?
"Then I ask you now to do so."
"You must talk it over again with Ruth first," said Caterham. "I insist upon that. And you must write me a joint letter on the subject."
His voice was getting thick, and Somerset cursed under his breath. Caterham was getting drunk.
"Just wait here a moment, Somerset, while I write a note. I want you to give it to Ruth with my love. And I hope you'll both be very happy."
He rose unsteadily and went out of the room, leaving Somerset to pace up and down with quick, jerky steps. Did he mean it, or was it merely a drunken whim which would be forgotten in a few hours? It was that final gulp of neat whisky that had done the mischief, and when he returned about ten minutes later Somerset saw he was worse.
"Can't write letter," he announced, as he stood swaying by the door. "So you tell my dear wife, Somerset, that I should like to hear from her on the subject. And don't forget one thing. Very partic—particular thish. Ask her to take—second ride in dickey."
He burst into roars of laughter, and Somerset eyed him with disgust. There was no good prolonging the interview; he could only hope that the man would stick to what he had said. So he went back to his car and drove off. And, as he took a last glance at the farm, he saw Caterham standing by the door staring after him intently.
He drove straight to Mrs. Sidmouth's house. Ruth would want to know what had happened as soon as possible. And the first thing he saw as he walked through the hall was his note to her lying unopened. He was looking at it, puzzled, when Mrs. Sidmouth joined him.
"Has Ruth gone out?" he asked.
"Come in here, young man," she said severely. "You're going to get a scolding." She closed the door. "What do you mean by running away with another man's wife quite as precipitately as you did yesterday? It was really very naughty of you."
"Dear Mrs. Sidmouth," he said with a smile. "I know you're perfectly right. And you shall tick me off as much as you like later. Just now, though, I'm very anxious to see Ruth. Please tell her I'm here."
"I can't, because she isn't here herself. She did what I suggested when Mr. Caterham came here last night. He'd found out somehow that you'd brought her here to me. And so—Mr. Somerset, what are you looking like that for?"
Jack Somerset stood very still. Every atom of blood seemed to have drained from his heart, hideous foreboding gripped him. And then he heard a voice speaking. It was his own.
"You—didn't—let—her—go—back," said the voice jerkily.
"A tiff—a bad tiff...Only fair to him—"
The words followed him as he crossed the hall, walking like a palsied man. And then, for an eternity, he stood on the front door steps staring at his car below. He was dimly conscious that Mrs. Sidmouth was talking, and then the voice spoke again.
"The dickey," it croaked. "The dickey. Open the dickey."
Wonderingly, she did so. Ruth Caterham was inside. She had taken her second ride wedged round with sacks, and with a bullet through her brain.
Sinclair passed his hand over his forehead, and for a space no one spoke.
"We found out afterwards," he went on after a while, "that he'd shot her early that morning, and it was then that the boys had run away. They'd been arguing all the night, and then I suppose something snapped, when he realised she wouldn't go back to him. And he'd put the body in the car when he'd pretended to write the note."
"Did they hang him?" asked someone.
Sinclair shook his head and rose. "No. He had used another bullet by the time they reached his farm. Which all seems to show that there are advantages in employing an intermediary, Murgatroyd. Even a man of Caterham's peculiar disposition would hardly have murdered a respectable solicitor and put his body in a taxi."
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