a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership
|BROWSE the site for other works by this author
(and our other authors) or get HELP Reading, Downloading and Converting files)
SEARCH the entire site with Google Site Search
Title: The Leopard's Spots Author: Fred M White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1000341h.html Language: English Date first posted: July 2010 Date most recently updated: July 2010 This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg 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 Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
GO TO Project Gutenberg Australia HOME PAGE
To all outward appearances Montagu Stagg was in what financial detectives call "easy circumstances." He had a charming little bungalow, which was supposed to be his own property (and wasn't), on the edge of Minchin Common, where he indulged every morning in a round of golf and devoted the rest of the day indifferently to financial pursuits and philanthropic objects. He was not a great golfer, but, because he knew his limitations and never allowed vaulting ambition to overleap itself, he won more matches than he lost, though he was always willing enough to liquidate the minatory half-crown in sustaining refreshment for the defeated foe. It was a fairly cheap way of earning a reputation for generosity, but it sufficed. A popular man, on the whole, a man of uncertain age by reason of a fine crop of patriarchal grey hair allied to a face round and innocent as that of a child, and, with no suggestion of evil on a complexion that many a woman might have envied. He looked like something between a man and boy, he had a constant flow of humorous small talk, and a joyous outlook on life that would have been a tonic to any liver-haunted pessimist.
A man, apparently, in the possession of an easy conscience and a comfortable balance in his bank, achieved either by his own efforts or by inheritance, it did not matter which. A man respected by his tradesmen, who never had to wait a day for their money, and who never deemed it necessary to make inquiries into those little slips of arithmetic which do happen occasionally, even in the books of the most highly respected shopkeeper.
People who knew Stagg best—and they were exceedingly few—declared that he was a philanthropist who lived down on the before mentioned common in his modest way so that he might have plenty of scope for his expeditions into the field of his efforts. But that was hardly correct. As a matter of fact, Montague Stagg was no philanthropist, and, in reality, lived up to every penny of a hardly-earned income, though occasions when he had to ask favours of his banker were few and far between. He lived in a neat little bungalow with its trim lawns and flower-beds with his niece, Stella Henson, and a small household staff. Stella had lived with her uncle as long as she could recollect. She was a typical bright and wholesome English girl, quite good-looking in a boyish sort of way, and eminently good-natured. Exceedingly popular with the Minchin lady golfers, and on the best of terms with most of the men. She was emphatically what might be called a good sort, open-hearted and generous, and, like so many girls of her type, utterly transformed on those rare occasions in which she condescended to get into evening dress. For the rest she acted as secretary to her uncle who dictated those brilliant journalistic articles to her; she typed his letters and saw that they were posted. In Stella's eyes Stagg was undoubtedly a great man, a publicist who devoted most of his spare time and that fine financial mind of his to giving advice to all and sundry who had money to invest. In other words, Stagg wrote articles for one or two obscure financial papers, and in the aforesaid papers he kept a standing advertisement to the effect that he was a gentleman well versed in city matters—a retired stockbroker, in fact—who gave gratis advice to would-be investors desirous of laying out their savings to the best advantage, which, no doubt, was very noble on Stagg's part, for, at any rate, those advertisements brought letters to Minchin Lodge in a constantly flowing stream and in every case they were most scrupulously answered.
It was early one afternoon towards the end of May that Stagg, pacing up and down his little study, was dictating replies to his secretary. He had pretty well finished with a big batch of correspondents, and he turned to the mantelpiece and lighted a well-earned cigarette.
"I think that is about all, my dear," he said. "What an extraordinary thing it is that these people learn no wisdom. Now, how many letters have we dealt with this morning?"
"Oh, quite fifty," Stella smiled.
"Fifty blithering idiots, if I may be allowed to say so. Now, I suppose these people on the average have about five and twenty pounds each to invest. You will notice, my child, that no one with what I call real means ever writes to the man who calls himself 'Frank Fair.'"
"Otherwise Montagu Stagg," Stella laughed. "Precisely, my dear. And if I may say so, a jolly good name, too. Now, 'Frank Fair' is a philanthropist. He is a sort of father confessor of the small investor. They write to me care of the papers I advertise in, and I save them from throwing away their hard-earned pennies to the city rascals who are always laying traps for the small investor. Now, on a moderate computation, you and I have saved a thousand pounds to-day. I don't say we have saved it altogether, because these people are sure to go off sooner or later and fool their cash away in some other direction. But you and I have done our best, Stella. We don't try and discourage people from gambling, because we know human nature better than that. But we can advise our confiding correspondents to apply to certain firms who will, at any rate, give them what I might call a good run for their money."
"That's true enough," Stella said.
All this to Stella was real enough. She had not the slightest doubt as to the integrity of her beloved uncle. She was quite convinced that those elaborate letters dictated by 'Frank Fair' to small investors in a breathless hurry to get rich quick were inspired by the purest motives. What she did not know, however, was that every letter was followed up within 24 hours by another letter despatched from an obscure office in the city to the would-be gambler advising him as to the certainly rich emoluments by the investment of a small sum in certain syndicates. And, needless to say, these circulars did not bear the signature of 'Frank Fair,' though they were directly inspired by him. To put it plainly, Stagg was making quite a handsome living by the ingenious expedient of writing letters to potential investors warning them off certain things, and, at the same time, by means of those bucket-shop circulars luring the cash into his coffers in quite another direction. It was a brilliant scheme, and redounded to the credit of 'Frank Fair,' alias Montagu Stagg, who was thus able to pose before his confiding young relative as a man of the highest and purest motives. Of course, Stella could know nothing of the little dingy office in the city where Stagg spent a couple of hours each afternoon sending out his circulars and posting them in person. It must not be imagined, of course, that all this money came to his net. If Stagg gleaned a daily ten per cent. of it, he was perfectly satisfied, and so the great game went on. As a matter of fact, Stagg was a cheery, breezy, humorous rascal, perfectly straight in all his dealings outside what he regarded as his legitimate business, and generous and easy-going to a fault. In other words, he spent his money as fast as he got it, as such men do, so that there were occasions when the exchequer ran perilously low.
Just at the moment the barometer pointed to stormy. But, on the other hand, the day's correspondence had been unusually prolific, and Stagg correspondingly expansive.
"Is that all, my child?" he asked. "I really must be getting to the city. I have two articles to write before dinner, and with any luck I shall be back by then. And I think you had better tell cook to grill the soles, not fry them. And you might call round at Smith's, the wine merchants—"
"There's one more letter," Stella said. "I kept it back to the last so as not to disturb you. It is a most extraordinary letter. Really, any one would think that the writer regarded you as a common thief."
Stagg looked just a little anxious.
"Eh, what's that? what's that?" he asked. "Some disappointed client, no doubt. Really, my dear child, the amount of human ingratitude one encounters is most discouraging. When did the letter come? This morning's batch? Well, read it out; I'd like to hear it."
Stella proceeded to read as follows:
May 19, 19—.
"I venture to address you on a little matter which I am sanguine that you will find interesting. Now, it so happens that a friend of mine, a lady friend in straitened circumstances and a widow of an officer in his Majesty's service, expressed some little time ago a natural desire to increase her very limited income. I am sure that a gentleman of the experience of Mr. Frank Fair will bear me out when I say that the case presents no phenomenal features. My dear sir, the world is crammed with sanguine unworldly widows (not to say orphans) who are filled with an eager longing to expand the elasticity of their scanty sovereigns. Otherwise, how would so many respectable gentlemen in spotless white waistcoats who permeate the city be able to afford Rolls-Royce cars and send their promising progeny to Public schools and the University? But I need not enlarge upon that. That is a subject to which Mr. Frank Fair has probably devoted more time than I have, and, believe me, as city editor and part proprietor of the 'Searchlight,' I am not altogether a child in such matters.
"Now, my lady friend, instead of coming to me, as she ought to have done, sold out a thousand pounds of Great Western preferred stock and went off adventuring in the city. She managed, by the interposition of Providence, to escape from the clutches of at least two of the aforesaid white-waistcoated gentlemen, and then, being still desirous of further exploits in the financial field, she conceived the brilliant idea of writing to Frank Fair. I suppose she had seen that distinguished philanthropist's advertisement in the papers.
"In reply Mr. Fair wrote a letter filled with the noblest sentiments and paternal advice. He strongly advised the lady to put her money back where she took it from, which, of course, was exceedingly fine of him, but he went on to say if it was necessary to her health that she should have what city circles call a flutter, he gave her the names of half a dozen firms which he ventured to recommend. And, strange to say, the next morning came a circular from a modest firm of outside brokers recommending a particular stock. Need I tell so astute a gentleman as Mr. Frank Fair what happened. The thousand pounds is no more, at least, so far as its original proprietor is concerned, and I strongly suspect that the whole of that sum found its way into the pockets of a firm that only exists to put good things in the way of idly-greedy people who are looking for a hundred per cent. interest on their money."
"Oh, this is monstrous, uncle," Stella cried. "One would almost think that the writer was sarcastic."
"Oh, not at all, my dear, not at all," Stagg said genially. "Evidently a man who fancies himself as a word painter. But pray proceed."
"Now, as the unfortunate lady is a friend of mine, and as I know something of the City, I have made it my business to thoroughly investigate the matter. It has taken me a couple of months to get to the bottom of it, but I assure you that I have done so. And in my opinion, and I may say in the opinion of an eminent King's Counsel, there are grounds for prosecution. But I am not vindictive. I have something more to do besides wasting my time on a lot of fools whose main anxiety seems to be separated from their money, and if I can get my friend's thousand pounds back again I shall be perfectly satisfied and say no more about the matter.
"To bring this about I cordially invite the co-operation of Mr. Frank Fair, otherwise Mr. Montagu Stagg, of Minchin, in the County Middlesex. I shall be at home this evening between ten and twelve, and if the aforesaid 'gentlemen' care to give me a call, a warm welcome awaits them. I really think that you will not fail me.
"Yours faithfully, Everard Stokes."
"What name did you say?" Stagg cried. "Oh, Everard Stokes. Quite a funny chap in his way, my dear, and a real good sort, though eccentric, very eccentric. He's a journalist and part proprietor of the paper he speaks of. Upon my word, I have a great mind to go and see him. Yes, I will. In which case I shall have to dine in town. Of course, my dear if I can do anything to get this poor woman's money back, I must."
Stagg spoke lightly enough, but all the boyishness left that smooth round face of his, and his eyes grew anxious enough once he found himself alone.
For, sooth to say, Montagu Stagg was in an exceedingly tight place. He had always known that sooner or later the fierce light of publicity must beat upon the dual identity of Montagu Stagg and Frank Fair, but a calamity like this had not come within his range of vision.
For every member of his particular tribe loathed and dreaded the name of Everard Stokes. To begin with, he knew every trick and turn in City rascality. He was a man of large means and particularly sardonic humour, and his great delight was in the running down of the Fairs and the Staggs wherever he found them and destroying them without mercy. By some means or another he had got to the bottom of Stagg's duel identity, and it needed no great foresight on Stagg's part to know that unless that thousand pounds was produced at once disaster would follow.
And just at that moment Stagg would have found it difficult to put his hands on a thousand pence. Things had not been going too well lately, and Stagg was not the sort of man to curtail his expenditure whatever happened. So, therefore, he decided to go up to town and call upon this doughty foe. Perhaps he could arrange a compromise, perhaps he could gain time. And if he could, then the tragedy would be averted.
He was very disturbed and uneasy in his mind, but that did not prevent him from putting in a couple of hours in his dingy city office, and dining discreetly and comfortably at the Ritz afterwards. He looked into a music hall for an hour or so, and then, as the clocks were striking eleven, made his way leisurely through the West End streets in the direction of Porchester-place. He loved prowling about the West End in the dark, declaring that he shared Charles Dickens's peculiarity in that direction, and more than once on these nocturnal ramblings he had come into possession of information which subsequently he had turned to considerable advantage. He reached his destination at length and then paused, realising that he was uncertain at which number in Porchester-place his enemy resided. But, at any rate, it was 21 or 22, so, after a moment's hesitation, he walked up the steps of 21 and rang the bell.
A few moments passed, then he rang again. It seemed to him that he could hear the sounds of shuffling feet on the other side of the door, then the fall of a heavy body, and after that silence again. He rang once more, this time impatiently, then a brilliant light shone over the fanlight, the door was thrown open and a tall, handsome woman in evening dress almost fell into his arms. He could see that her face was pale and agitated and deadly white under the powder and make up, but for all that there was no denying her attractions.
"Thank God you have come, doctor!" she gasped. "I had not expected you quite so soon. Your man told me on the telephone you wouldn't be home till after twelve. But come inside, do, and Heaven grant you are not too late."
Stagg followed without a moment's hesitation.
Stagg followed quietly along behind the spacious lady. He was not in the least alarmed or in any way put out by this striking and unexpected development of what should have been quite a commonplace situation. He looked rather like a middle-age Cupid with that innocent face and grey hair of his, but behind that deceptive exterior was a fine driving force, and a set of nerves as resilient as steel. And, besides, Stagg was a man who was consumed with an amazing curiosity, the sort of man who would not have hesitated to pick up a live bomb just for the sake of examining its mechanism. In the course of a long and somewhat chequered career he had had a good many adventures; in fact, he was always looking for them, and here was one after his own heart.
That something was seriously wrong in that large and luxuriously furnished mansion he did not doubt for a moment. The mere fact that he had been mistaken for a doctor summoned there in a great hurry only added to the tension of the situation. Of course, he could have at once proclaimed the fact that a mistake had been made, but he preferred to do nothing of the kind. There was something wrong, almost sinister, here, and it occurred to Stagg that he might turn the knowledge to distinct advantage. If necessary, he was quite prepared to pose as a doctor, so long as he could do so without betraying his ignorance on medical matters or contributing towards what might eventually be construed into a charge of manslaughter. He would see the matter through, at any rate as far as possible.
He crossed a large hall, lighted by a lantern roof, a big cosy affair with a parquet flooring smothered with fine Oriental rugs, with pictures on the walls and masses of greenery here and there. Everything pointed to luxury and refinement, and, what was far more important in Stagg's eyes, to the possession of considerable wealth. He could judge that at any rate from the dress of the woman in front of him. He could see that Paris was written all over it, and though his fair guide wore no jewellery, the fact did not in the least detract from the opulence of her appearance.
She led the way presently into what was evidently the dining-room. She motioned Stagg to a chair and dropped into one opposite. She spoke calmly enough, but it was evident to Stagg that she was suffering under the stress of some overpowering emotion, fear probably.
"I think I had better explain, Dr. Gilbert," she said. "The case is very urgent, you can imagine, but you ought to know the facts of the case."
"Oh, certainly," Stags murmured. "It will help me materially."
Stagg spoke glibly enough, for he was beginning to see his way. He was quite prepared to pose as a doctor, and if things became too hot presently he could easily get out by saying that there was a mistake somewhere, and that evidently it was some other practitioner that the lady had been so anxiously expecting. The coincidence would be a bit thin, perhaps, but it would be good enough when played by a cool hand.
"You know our friends in New York?' the woman asked.
"Well, I can't say that I do," Stagg said truthfully enough. "My dear madam, it would be far better, I think, if you began at the beginning."
A cold smile of contempt lit up the handsome features of the woman opposite for a moment. And she really was a remarkably handsome woman, tall and slim, beautifully proportioned, and conveying a suggestion of strength both physical and mental. She looked at Stagg out of a pair of fine dark eyes that seemed to illuminate and give life to a singularly white face that was almost severe in its classic moulding.
"Oh, nothing like being cautious, Dr. Gilbert,", she said with a faint suggestion of satire.
"I always think so, madam," Stagg agreed. "You called me up on the telephone, at least, so my man tells me, with an urgent request that I should come here now. Pray correct me if I am at all wrong.",
"Certainly I did. And you must know that I should not have done so if the matter had not been very pressing. Our friends in New York—you know who I mean."
Stagg gave a vague and comprehensive gesture with his hands.
"Very well, then," the woman went on. "Before we came over here I was told that if we needed a really capable medical man who would be discreet and silent—silent, mind—we could not do better than calling in Dr. Gilbert, of 17 Wilbey-crescent."
Stagg smiled. So far, so good. He knew now that he was Dr. Gilbert, of Wilbey-crescent. This, at any rate, was something to go on with.
"Well, madam," he said. "Without undue egotism, I think the description fits the man you are speaking about. You will find me discreet enough."
"Oh, I am sure I shall. But in this particular case, Dr. Gilbert, we want someone who is a little more than discreet. We require a doctor who would be absolutely silent whatever happens. And if there are grave risks to be taken, he must prepare to take them. And I need not say that he will be well paid for his trouble; in fact, doctor, if you can see your way to take a few risks, then whatever you like to charge will cheerfully be paid."
"Ah, that's only fair. There are such things, you know, as Medical Councils. Before now doctors have been struck off the register for what are termed irregular practices. I need not point out, my dear madam, what that means to a man who has an established reputation in the neighbourhood of Wilbey Crescent."
The woman looked at Stagg narrowly.
"If you will do what we require," she said, "then I am prepared to pay you a thousand pounds."
Stagg bowed cooly enough, but at the same time he was just a little thrilled. For here was the sum of which he was in urgent need. He knew that a few feet from him—next door, as a matter of fact—was a cold-blooded, slightly humorous gentleman, who would infallibly not rest until he saw Montagu Stagg standing in the dock unless at an early date that volatile individual could produce the sum in question. And here, perhaps, with a bit of luck, was that desirable consummation ready to drop into the hollow of his hand. He was going to be asked to commit some crime, of course, not necessarily a criminal act, but something that assuredly would bring him in contact with the authorities if it were found out. At the very least he was going to pose as a doctor, and perhaps give a medical certificate.
And, being a thorough man of the world, he knew perfectly well that no one would dream of paying him so large a sum unless an equally large service were rendered in exchange. And Montagu Stagg, though he had sailed very near the wind on one or two occasions, was not in the habit of dabbling in crime or anything that savoured of violence. But, on the other hand, he wanted that thousand pounds more than he had ever wanted money in his life, and he was going to see this thing through if he did not get too hot to handle.
"Pray proceed," he said. "So far, I am entirely with you, my dear lady. And when your American friends sent you to Dr. Gilbert they—er—shall we say, knew something. Of that there can be no possible doubt. And now, what can I do for you? Pray command me."
"It entirely depends upon circumstances," the woman said. "He may get better. If he does, then I am afraid that you will have to content yourself with your ordinary professional charges. But suppose he dies? Are you prepared to give a medical certificate? I mean, if a man died of a knife thrust, say, would you be prepared to certify that he succumbed to the effects of pneumonia? I am merely putting a case. And please don't forget, Dr. Gilbert, that the fee in that case will be on the scale that we have been discussing."
Stagg hesitated just for a moment. He was at grips with the situation now, and began to see what was required of him. He wanted that money very badly indeed, but even a thousand pounds can be purchased at too high a price. And if it came to becoming an accessory after the fact in a case of stark and unvarnished murder, then Montagu Stagg was not going on. Cheerful and humorous rascal, as he was, he had his own code of morality, and here he drew the line.
He ought to have turned his back upon the whole thing, he ought to have made an excuse for getting out of the house as soon as possible, but that overpowering curiosity of his, that insatiable thirst for romance, held him back. And besides, there was just a chance even now, of obtaining that rich reward without endangering his own safety.
Despite the luxury and affluence of his surroundings, despite the calm regal beauty of this woman and the richness of her dress, Stagg was not blind to the fact that he had blundered by accident into a nest of crime of the most violent kind, and that it behoved him to be careful. Moreover, he had not very much time. Before long the real Dr. Gilbert would turn up, and if he happened along now, then there might be another crime in which Stagg potentially figured as what the police courts call the body. Still, the woman had told him on the doorstep that she had not expected the man in question before midnight, and it still wanted half an hour to that.
"I quite understand. And now, don't you think that I had better see the—the—"
"Patient," the woman said. "You will find him exceedingly ill, Dr. Gilbert—in fact, I am astonished that he is still alive. It's a miracle."
"Well, pneumonia takes strange phases," Stagg said. "I am calling it pneumonia for the sake of argument. But tell me, where is the wound?"
"Just over the heart. A stab with an Italian dagger. It all took place as quickly as a dream. We were sitting here together just as the dinner things had been cleared away when those men rushed in and it was all over in a moment. You see, it would be different if we had our regular staff. But we only got in here this afternoon, and dinner was sent in already cooked from a neighbouring hotel. We have only one servant in the house, so far, and that is my husband's own man, who is a South American. To-morrow we are expecting all the servants. You quite understand Dr. Gilbert, that this is not our own house; we have merely taken it furnished for two or three months."
Stagg nodded gravely enough, for the situation was deepening. He was beginning to understand. These people were adventurers, not necessarily poor ones, but adventurers all the same, and it was quite clear that there was another set of undesirable characters somewhere in the neighbourhood who were at daggers drawn with the occupants of the house. Members of the same gang, perhaps, an opposing faction that had probably quarrelled over the division of the spoil. And in settling that little matter some unlucky individual had received a knife thrust which apparently was likely to be attended with fatal results. And, for some powerful reason or another, the whole thing was to be kept quiet. A complacent doctor, probably some extravagant black sheep of the profession, had been called in to give a false certificate, so that in the case of death the unfortunate man upstairs would be buried without the authorities being any the wiser. And here, therefore, Stagg was up against the great adventure of his life.
Even now he hesitated to turn his back upon it, though common sense told him that the sooner he got out of the house the better.
"I had better see the patient," he said.
"Certainly," the woman said. "Wait here for a moment, and I will go and see if everything is ready for you."
She swept out of the room, leaving Stagg rather pleased to have the opportunity of being alone for a moment or two. He wanted to collect his scattered thoughts and scheme a way out of the difficulty. As he sat there looking about him a manservant entered the room. He was a small, slight individual, a half-caste probably; his face was dark and swarthy and his hair long; moreover, he wore rings in his ears. He was dressed in a sort of half-evening attire, and in his hand he bore a decanter of port and a glass on a salver.
He placed the decanter on the table and signified to Stagg to help himself. Stagg would have asked a question or two, but from certain signs made by the foreigner he judged that the latter was both deaf and dumb. Evidently a convenient type of servant, but one of a sinister type that only added to the mystery that surrounded the house.
Stagg reached out a hand and filled himself a glass of wine. He tossed it off quickly, for he needed it, but after the first taste of the port he slowed down, and the next glass he drank slowly and delicately like the connoisseur that he was. He did not need anyone to tell him that he was drinking '63 port, and that it had matured to the hour.
"That's a drop of uncommonly good stuff," he told himself. "Now, what sort of a house have I struck? I seem to have got out of London altogether. Daggers and vendettas and a body in so refined a locality as Porchester-place! And the finest wine I think I ever tasted. I'll carry on for another quarter of an hour. There may be something in it yet."
He lay back in his chair gazing eagerly round him, and then presently a number of cases strewn about the dining table caught his eye. They were jewel cases beyond the shadow of a doubt, but all of them empty, as Stagg discovered for himself. On a little side table was a heap of twisted broken metal, beyond all question the settings from which a number of stones had recently been torn. Under the table, evidently thrown there in the struggle, or overlooked, was a five pointed diamond star of exquisite workmanship and great value, which Stagg slipped into his pocket. It might, or might not, be missed; but, in any case, it occurred to Stagg that he probably had as much right to it as anybody in the house, and here, at the very least, was something that represented the money that he so sorely needed. He had not been wasting his time.
He had hardly concealed the gem before the woman returned with the information that the patient was ready for the doctor.
"He is extremely bad," she said. "Little as I know of such matters, I am afraid he cannot last till the morning."
"You are speaking of your husband?" Stagg asked.
"Yes," the woman said coolly enough. "But perhaps you may think I am unduly alarmed. I see the man has been looking after you."
"Very well indeed," Stagg said. "That's the nicest glass of port I think I have ever tasted. By the way, madam, what is your servant's affliction?"
"He is deaf and dumb," the woman said. "But none the less valuable as a servant for that. Rather the contrary, because he cannot gossip. But please come this way."
Stagg followed her up the wide marble staircase into a spacious bedroom, where presently he made out a figure lying on the bed. The man lay there perfectly still. He was covered to the throat with a big eiderdown, his eyes were closed, and he seemed as if he were in a deep sleep.
"There's your patient," the woman whispered. "Perhaps you had better not see too much. The wound is just under the heart, a deep stab that bled profusely. He never spoke again after he was struck. But you can imagine the trouble that we had to get him up here."
With a curious feeling of unreality Stagg bent over the bed. He had seen men in extremis before, and the deadly pallor and the grim white lips were not lost upon him.
"I am too late," he said. "The man is dead."
Not for the first time during this strange business, Stagg was feeling most decidedly uncomfortable. Indeed, he might have admitted something worse than that, and now he was beginning heartily to regret the overpowering curiosity of his that had led him into his present dilemma.
And he did a bit of remarkably quick thinking as he stood there, by the side of the bed, looking down on that white, stiff face, and when at length he turned to the woman again he had made up his mind exactly what to do.
"This is an exceedingly serious matter, madam," he said, with great gravity. "There in not the slightest doubt that this unfortunate gentleman has been murdered."
"I don't think there is," the woman said coolly.
She spoke without the slightest trace of grief; she was just as cool as the man standing on the other side of the bed. Uneasy and anxious and frightened she was, no doubt, but she seemed to feel no sort of sympathy with the man whom she had spoken of to Stagg as her husband.
"An exceedingly serious matter," he repeated. "Moreover, one which I understand is not to be the subject of any judicial investigation. In other words, here is a crime which is to be concealed from the police. To do that it is necessary for me to give a false certificate. And I am to certify that the man died from natural causes."
"That's why I brought you here," the woman said. "I was advised to call you in, and I was informed that you would make no objection if the fee was sufficiently high."
Stagg wondered what manner of man Doctor Gilbert was. He prudently refrained from comment.
"Very well," he said. "I suppose you understand I shall have to write you a certificate. In return for which you will give me the sum agreed upon. Now, will you be good enough to tell me the name of the gentleman lying there?"
"Oh," the woman said, "I had not thought of that. Is it actually necessary?"
"Of course it is. What name shall I put?"
"Oh, say Richard Vassar.'"
"Richard Vassar. Very good. I suppose that is the name in which you took the house? Now, if you will stay here a moment I will go downstairs to the dining-room and make out the necessary document."
A moment later Stagg made his way down the stairs. But he did not go into the dining-room. He very quietly opened the front door and slipped out into the street. What was going to happen to the woman he neither knew nor cared. That was a matter of absolute indifference to him, so long as he saved his own skin. Not for all the money in London would he have placed on record his connection with this amazing crime. He was going to run no risk of standing in a dock charged with being an accessory in a case of murder. Nor was he going to be followed. He quietly crept along the pavement to the house next door and rang the bell. This was twenty-two, he saw, and therefore the residence of the man he had come out to find. The door was opened promptly, and a manservant asked his business. Stagg pushed his way into the hall and closed the door behind him. He was beginning to feel safe now.
"I am Mr. Montagu Stagg," he said. "And I am here to see Mr. Stokes by appointment."
"Very good, sir," the man said. "Will you please to come this way?"
Stagg found himself a minute or two later in a large, comfortably-furnished library where a man with a benevolent face and a black beard sat writing at a table. He rose as Stagg entered and indicated a chair.
"Sit down, Mr. Stagg," he said. "William, you might bring in the decanters and a glass or two."
All this sounded friendly enough, and Stagg began to be a little easier in his mind. He helped himself promptly to a stiff whisky and soda and took one of the cigarettes from a box that was lying on the table. Everard Stokes regarded his visitor with a sardonic smile on that big, keen, humorous face of his.
"That's right," he said. "Make yourself at home. I thought you would come. Upon my word you and I have met before. You haven't changed much since we were at Rugby together, Stagg. The same air of bland innocence which I must say is considerably enhanced by that beautiful white hair of yours. Just think of you being soapy Stagg!"
"That's all right," Stagg admitted. "And so you are Nosey Stokes. Well, well, what a small world it is after all."
"Yes, isn't it?" Stokes agreed. "Now, look here, we are not going to waste time talking about old days, so I'll get straight to the point. You got my letter, or you wouldn't be here. In one word, what are you going to do about it?"
"Well, I don't admit—" Stagg began.
"No? Then perhaps you would like to terminate the interview now and meet me face to face in a court of law. I always conduct my own cases, as you know, and it would be a fine thing to fight our differences out in public. It would be a fine thing for me, but whether it would be much to the advantage of 'Frank Fair' is quite another matter."
"A good point," Stagg smiled. "Quite a good point. Would you mind developing your case a little?"
"Oh, with pleasure," Stokes replied. "Now, 'Frank Fair' is a most ingenious gentleman. By the way, that nom de plume of yours is an absolute inspiration. It's so round and full, so suggestive of high integrity and lofty motive. And upon my word, my dear fellow, you look the part to perfection. I have some knowledge of the world and of plausible rascals generally; but when I look at you sitting there, upon my word, I could almost be tempted to follow your advice. I don't see how a man who looks like you could do anything wrong."
"You always were a funny chap," Stagg smiled.
"Well, so were you, for the matter of that. But let's get on. 'Frank Fair' is a philanthropist who gives up his time and spends his money for the benefit of poor people who have cash to invest and don't know where to place it at the best advantage. So they write to him and he points out the best things to put it in. He recommends certain investments which, for the most part, are good investments. But, at the same time, he invariably hints that part of the capital might be laid out in something more speculative. Then, next day, the victim gets a circular from, let us say, Abram MacOstrich, the eminent Scottish outside broker who has to sell just the very speculative stock that 'Frank Fair' recommends. So, you see, most of the money goes into something sound, but the balance into the wild-cat stuff that MacOstrich has to sell. Need I remark that MacOstrich and Fair are one? It's a clever scheme, Stagg, a devilish clever scheme, because it enables you, almost without reproach, to milk all your clients of something like twenty per cent, of their investments. A paying game, isn't it?"
Stagg smiled broadly. He was conscious that Stokes was taking in his beautifully cut morning coat, his shining patent leathers, and the exquisite pearl pin in his grey silk tie.
"Oh, fairly well," he said. "I don't complain. But there's no fortune in it."
"No, but there would be if you were more careful with your money," Stokes replied "Rascals of your type are always extravagant."
"Yes, I suppose I am a rascal," Stagg said thoughtfully. "But, after all, it's a relative word. My dear chap, look here. How many men do you know, how many big financiers with whom you exchange dinners would you trust as far as you could see them? You don't call them rascals, but successful business men. By comparison, I am a mere gleaner. But the point is, what do you want me to do?"
"Make good," Stokes said. "I shouldn't have troubled about you in the least, only the lady I speak of is in reduced circumstances. You had the whole of her thousand pounds. I suppose you were hard up at the time, and could not refrain from making one mouthful of it. But that money has got to be repaid, every penny of it. I am not vindictive, I am no financial Don Quixote out to tilt at the windmills of all the bucket-shops in the city of London. And if I did expose you in the 'Searchlight' you would be playing the same game in another neighbourhood within a week. Find that money, and we'll say no more about it. When can you pay it?"
"Upon my word, I don't know," Stagg said. "Not within less than a month. I am bound to admit that your letter came at a most inopportune time."
"Really? What about that little bungalow of yours down on Minchin Common?"
"Mortgaged to the last penny," Stagg said. "I can't do anything just yet, I can't really. But there, I never know. To-morrow's postbag might solve the whole difficulty. Suppose I come and see you in the course of a few days?"
"Suppose you come and see me to-morrow between 10 and 12?" Stokes said. "I have an idea that you might be useful to me in certain investigations. It's a big thing involving huge sums of money, and if I can bring about what I want it will be the finest advertisement the 'Searchlight' ever had. And I would cheerfully pay a heavy sum for it. Now, there is nothing in the way of city rascality that you haven't got at your fingertips. You know the ropes as few men do. And that innocent face of yours and that blandly benevolent grey hair ought to be a passport anywhere. It only just occurred to me on the spur of the moment, but the more I think it over the more I like the notion. Yes, you come in to-morrow morning any time before 12, and we'll talk it over."
"All right," Stagg said. "I can stay in town to-night at a little place I have, and I'll be along some time in the morning. I'll help myself to another drink it you don't mind, because I have had rather a shock this evening."
"Oh, indeed? But surely, after my letter, you must have been prepared for something—"
"Oh, I don't mean that," Stagg interrupted. "It was a different sort of shock altogether. But I'm not going to say anything about that. Well, here's luck. Nosey."
Stokes grinned sardonically.
"Same to you, my friend," he said. "Though you have had more luck than you deserve these many years past. Yet I am not displeased to see you again; you always were an amusing scamp, and I am rather partial to 'em."
Stagg turned his feet thoughtfully westward with just one fleeting glance at the house next door. He saw that it was all in darkness now, and wondered what the beautiful woman with the black eyes felt when she found out she had been mistaken in the character of the man she had welcomed into the house under a wrong impression. Had the right man turned up, and what took place when he made his appearance? Also, what manner of man was Dr. Gilbert of Wilby Crescent? And how were those people going to get out of the mess in which they had found themselves?
"Well, it's no business of mine," Stagg murmured to himself as he walked along. "I don't suppose I shall see any of those people again. All the same, I'll keep my eyes upon the papers for the next day or two, in case of developments, and I must certainly make a note of the name of Gilbert. Possibly Dr. Gilbert may be useful some of these days."
Stagg came at length to a respectable little house not vary far off, into which he let himself with his latchkey. He had a bedroom there, and quite a fair wardrobe, for on such occasions as he was detained late in town he put up there. For a long time he sat on the side of his bed smoking cigarettes and ruminating over the events of the evening. It occurred to him presently that he had an exceedingly valuable piece of jewellery in his pocket, and this he proceeded to examine carefully at his leisure by the aid of an electric reading lamp which he kept by the side of his bed. He was a bit of a connoisseur in most things, and his judgment told him that here was an article of considerable value. Not intrinsically, perhaps, but judging from the quaintness and old design of the setting evidently belonging, at one time, to some historic collection. There were two minute fractures on points of the star which suggested that at one time there had been two of them. The other one, no doubt, had already been broken up, probably not long before it came into Stagg's possession.
So far as he could judge, there had been a robbery of famous family gems lately, and they had found their way to the mysterious house in Porchester-place. And there, no doubt, there had been a quarrel over the division of the plunder leading up to a grim tragedy—in fact, the woman with the black eyes had as good as said so. That Stagg would hear more of this he felt certain. It must get in the papers before long, and until then, he would pursue a policy of masterly inactivity. If there was no inquiry, and no scandal, then he would remove their stones from the setting and dispose of them one by one. This would mean a considerable loss; but, on the other hand, would be perfectly safe, and, in any event, meant a couple of hundred pounds or so achieved by what Stagg humorously called no hindrance to present occupation. And with this pleasant thought in his mind he went to bed.
It was not long after ten the following morning that he found himself once more in Porchester-place. He was just mounting the steps of Stokes' house when he glanced at the windows next door. The blinds were all down, and in the dining-room window was a card to the effect that the premises would be let furnished; apply to Curtain and Co., Gloucester-road.
Here was a surprise. Beyond doubt the people next door had cleared out, bag and baggage; probably they had found some means of disposing of the body of the dead man and no doubt by this time the lady with the magnetic eyes and her deaf and dumb servant were far enough away.
"Oho," Stagg whispered softly. "The birds have flown. Well, I might have expected it. I think I'll just walk round as far as Curtain's and make a few inquiries. There is no hurry so far as Stokes is concerned."
Messrs Curtain and Co. were perfectly willing to give every information, especially to a distinguished looking client who informed them that he thought that the house in Porchester-place would suit his requirements exactly.
"But I thought it was let," he said. "I passed it yesterday afternoon—"
"So it was, sir," the clerk said. "A wealthy American gentleman and his wife. They paid a month's rent in advance, and we engaged servants for them. But the lady came in early this morning and informed us that pressing business called them back to the States again. They forfeited the month's rent and gave me a month's wages for each servant. So I slipped round just now and put a card on the window at once."
"Can you come round there with me?" Stagg asked.
The clerk not only could, but would. For half an hour or so Stagg wandered about the deserted house, searching in vain for any sort of clue. He did not ask the name of the people, because he knew only too well that the one they had given to the agents was assumed. But there was nothing anywhere likely to be the slightest use. The jewel cases had vanished, and so had the little pile of gold settings from which the stones had been carefully removed.
Upstairs in the big bedroom where Stagg had gazed upon the features of the dead man everything was in perfect order. The bed had been made and the eiderdown lay neatly upon it.
"I think that will do," Stagg said. "I'll come round and see your people in the course of the afternoon."
So swift a development on the very fringe of the mystery was not in the least surprising to Montagu Stagg. From what he had seen of the woman with the black eyes, he had naturally regarded her as capable of prompt decisions and coolness in the face of danger, and she had not belied that estimate. There was just a chance, therefore, that Stagg would hear of her no more. There was no reason, on the face of it, why she should be looked for; she had made quite a commonplace exit, she had settled all her liabilities, and everybody connected with the house in Porchester-place was therefore to the good. Besides, there was nothing very extraordinary in people's plans being changed at the last moment, and therefore no questions were likely to be asked. That was always provided that the woman had contrived in some way to get rid of the body of the man she called her husband, though Stagg was convinced that he was nothing of the kind.
There was nothing for it now except to call upon Everard Stokes, and advance the business in hand a further stage. But apparently the proprietor of the 'Searchlight' was not ready to go on. He appeared to be moody and preoccupied, and without any trace of that sardonic humour that Stagg had noticed on the night before.
"I shall have to put you off for a day or two," he said. "Something has happened since last night that ties me up. It is rather a troublesome piece of business, and worries me a great deal. I will write to you, but I don't suppose I shall be able to say anything definite within a week."
"And meanwhile?" Stagg asked.
"Oh, that's all right. Meanwhile, 'Frank Fair' can go on his prosperous way without any interference from me."
With which Stokes curtly dismissed his visitor, who went on his way with a tranquil mind. At any rate, he had gained a few days in which to turn round, and something might turn up meanwhile. Like all men of his class, Stagg was an enthusiastic admirer of the school of philosophy whose ritual is that sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, and his thoughts began to wander pleasantly in the direction of the Minchin golf links. He would get down there in time for luncheon at the Club House, and play an afternoon round. He armed himself with a sheaf of daily papers, none of which he had yet seen.
There was just the chance that there might be some allusion to the mystery of Porchester-place, and if there was Stagg determined not to overlook it. It was early yet for anything in the shape of publicity, and a most careful search failed to produce any result. Stagg put the whole thing from his mind; he lunched discreetly, after which he spent the afternoon in the open air, returning to tea presently, having achieved a victory that gave him particular satisfaction. There were only a few letters awaiting him which called for attention, and when those were despatched Stagg spent a quiet evening playing bezique with his niece Stella. Very likely there would be something in the papers to-morrow.
But there wasn't, and indeed it was the third day before anything transpired to throw light on Stagg's recent adventure. He was glancing through the 'Times' at breakfast, whilst at the other end of the table Stella was poring over the 'Mail.' She looked up presently with an eager glance.
"What an extraordinary thing!" she said. "I suppose there is something in the old saying that murder will out."
"Well, that all depends, my dear," Stagg replied. "I have a shrewd idea that many crimes of that sort never come to light at all. But why this philosophy?"
"Just listen to this," Stella said. "Last night a most remarkable thing happened at Seymour-street Station. I will give it you in my own words. Just about midnight there was a small explosion of gas in the cloakroom. It doesn't seem to have been very much; an escape under the floor boards that caught fire from a lighted match. But it blew up part of the flooring and scattered a good deal of heavy luggage about. One box was thrown on to the platform with such force that the top came off. What do you think they found inside?"
"Let me guess." Stagg said, "Now, by any chance did it contain a dead body?"
"You really are a wonderful man," Stella cried. "That is just what it did contain. The body of a man, dark and clean-shaven, apparently about 50 years of age. It says here that the man had been undoubtedly murdered. There was a wound in the region of the heart sufficient to kill a dozen people. The packing case was a long wooden affair which the police say was of foreign manufacture."
"Go on," Stagg said eagerly. "Go on."
"Oh, there isn't much more," Stella explained. "When the police came to make inquiries they found that the packing case had been left about 7 o'clock in the morning three days ago by a lady who was dressed in black and who wore a heavy veil. And so far that is all that is known. So there, you see, how impossible it is to keep these sort of things quiet. It looks to me like a direct intervention of Providence."
"Or a most extraordinary accident," Stagg said. "If I were a novelist I would make a good story out of this. But then I don't happen to be a novelist, and therefore I am probably as much in the dark as the police. Is that all that there is to the story, Stella?"
"I think, so," the girl said. "Yes, it is. Except that the body was taken to Seymour-street police station close by, and deposited in the mortuary there."
"There to lie until it is buried, I suppose. It looks to me like a case which the police will have great difficulty in bringing home to anybody. You said just now that murder will out. Well, of course, murder always will out; but it does not follow inevitably that the culprit will be discovered."
With which Stagg went on quietly with his breakfast. He had shown nothing besides a little mild interest in the paragraph that Stella had been discussing, and that healthy appetite of his was in no way impaired, but, at the same time, he knew perfectly well that here was another development of the mystery into which he had accidentally blundered.
For the man he had seen lying dead there in bed was dark and clean-shaven, and, moreover, must have been somewhere in the neighbourhood of fifty years of ago. And again, the unfortunate victim had died of a deep stab immediately under the heart. In addition to all this, the description of the woman given by the clerk in charge of the luggage office tallied more or less exactly with the woman with the black eyes. She also was tall and slender, and Stagg could imagine how she would look in a plain black dress and veil.
He said nothing more, however, till he had finished his breakfast, after which he retired to the library with a handful of morning papers, all of which he took and went through scrupulously with an eye to business.
Every one of those papers contained something about the Seymour-street mystery, as they called it, and here was one of them at length that had gone a little further than its contemporaries. The 'Daily Record' man had interviewed the clerk in the station office, and had evidently pressed him closely on the subject of the woman who had deposited the box there. The clerk had described her as elegantly and fashionably dressed, very tall and stylish, evidently a lady, and, moreover, he had gone on to say that he had been struck with those dark eyes of hers, which the veil she had been wearing did not entirely conceal. He was under the impression that she was a foreigner, for though she spoke quite good English there had been a slurring of certain letters and a hesitation over a word here and there.
"That's the woman for a million," Stagg told himself, "I think I will go as far as Seymour-street police station and make some excuse to look at the body."
Stagg travelled up to town an hour or two later and made his way in the direction of Seymour-street police station. He had planned out a scheme on the way up, and when he found himself confronted a little later by the sergeant of police, who asked his business, he knew exactly what to say. It was a very polite sergeant who came from behind a high desk to speak to him; but then Montagu Stagg, with that bland respectable air of his and his silver locks, to say nothing of his exquisite tailoring, always commanded respect anywhere.
"What can I do for you, sir?" the sergeant asked.
"I don't want to trouble you long," Stagg said. "But the fact is I want to go over the mortuary, if possible."
"Very good, sir," the sergeant said. "We don't usually admit the public unless there is some good reason for it, but, of course, a gentleman like you—"
"As a matter of fact, I am something of a journalist," Stagg said. "That is, I make a hobby of writing for the papers. It occupies my spare time. Now, I am greatly interested in this mysterious business that I read about in this morning's journals. I dare say you will laugh at me, but I have a theory. Does that strike you as strange?"
"Lord bless you, no, sir," the sergeant smiled. "Why, every other man you meet fancies himself as a detective. They reads novels and they reads the papers until they think as they knows more about it than all the police in the world. Why, we have had a dozen in here this morning already offering advice. Before the week's out we shall have hundreds of letters from all over the country."
"That's a left-handed compliment to me," Stagg smiled. "But I suppose occasionally you get assistance from the public."
"That's quite right, sir," the sergeant admitted. "But not from people with theories. You see, London's a big place, and if you want to do anything wrong you never quite know who's hanging about. It might be a cabman, or some chap going early to work who happens to see something a bit out of the common, and when he reads about some crime in the papers he comes along here and it may be that his little bit of a story is of the greatest importance. But that's another matter altogether, sir. And you may be one of that sort yourself. You may happen to know who the dead man is."
"I am quite sure I don't know anything of the sort," Stagg said hastily. "I am merely a theorist. Just the ordinary man in the street who has a brilliant idea. That's why I am here. Now, can I look at the body?"
"Come this way, sir," the sergeant said.
He led Stagg down a flight of steps along a stone-flagged corridor to a dark and dismal room at the back, round which was ranged a series of slate shelves. On three of these lay something gruesome and suggestive, outlined under white linen sheets. With all his coolness and nerve Stagg shuddered slightly as he looked round the depressing place, and waited for the sergeant to remove one of the sheets, which, quite coolly, and in a matter-of-fact way, he proceeded to do. Then he touched a switch and overhead, in a little alcove, a tongue of flame shot out, making a pinpoint of the surrounding gloom.
"There you are, sir," the sergeant said "That's the man you are looking for."
Stagg held back just for a moment.
"Before I go any further," he said, "I should like to know if you have any sort of a clue. I don't want to waste any time here looking at gruesome subjects if I am too late. What I mean is this. The woman who was responsible for leaving that body at Seymour-street Station must have conveyed it there in a cab, or something of that sort. She could not have carried it. You see what I mean. She probably had a taxi. Being in a hurry, as she undoubtedly was, a cab would have been too slow. I suppose there would be no difficulty in discovering the name of the cabman who drove a woman to Seymour-street Station yesterday morning?"
"No," the sergeant said dryly, "If it was a public conveyance. But doesn't it occur to you, sir, that a woman as clever as all that would'nt be such a fool as to call in the service of a cabman? Why, she would know that we should be on to it directly. As a matter of fact, every taxicab driver in London has already been approached. We do that by circular. And, so far, we have had no response. No, sir, it must have been a private car that took that body to the station. It's only a small station as you know, and there is not a single porter there who handled the box. I suggest that it was a private car, and that the driver carried that box himself as far as the cloakroom."
"The clerk would know that," Stagg suggested.
"He ought to, but he doesn't. He said he was busy at the time, and didn't see who brought the box inside. This is going to be a more difficult job than you think, sir."
Stagg moved forward and looked down into the white still face of the man lying there on the slab. The rays of the electric light were focussed on the waxen features, and as they stood out grimly Stagg saw that he had made no mistake. For here, beyond the shadow of a doubt, was the man that he had seen under the eiderdown in the bedroom of the big house in Porchester-place. He could regard that white mask all the more tranquilly because he had felt from the very first that he was going to see exactly what lay before him.
"I think that will do, sergeant," he said. "And thanks very much for all the trouble you have taken."
"Oh, it's no trouble, sir," the sergeant said in a somewhat disappointed tone. "Then you don't know him?"
"Assuredly I don't," Stagg said truthfully. "I didn't expect to do so when I came here. You will recollect that I am merely theorising."
Without reply, the sergeant started to rearrange the sheet over the dead man's face. As he did so, Stagg noticed a tiny spark of light on the waxen left hand, a spark of light caused by the lamp overhead shining on something that looked like a jewelled ornament. Stagg bent down and touched the glittering spark with reluctant fingers.
"This ought to give you some sort of a clue," he said. "It looks to me like a diamond ring."
"That's right, sir," the policeman said. "It hasn't been touched. As a matter of fact, we left it there for Identification purposes. A nice ring, isn't it?"
Stagg nodded. He was too busy examining the ring to reply for the moment, and too deeply interested. He could see that the ring was a five-pointed star, the exact imitation in miniature of the ornament that he had picked up in the dining-room at Por chester Place.
"I should say that is very valuable," he said. "Historic probably."
"That's what the Inspector thinks," the seargeant said. "It's rather a funny thing, sir, but a day or two ago we had a long cablegram from America with regard to a big jewel robbery in New York from the house of one of the leading millionaires there. And amongst the missing articles were two big five-pointed stars and a ring answering to that description. They were stolen two or three months ago, and we have every reason to believe that the thieves are in England. Of course, the public doesn't know that, and we have got our reasons for keeping it out of the papers."
"Very mysterious," Stagg said. "And very fascinating. At the same time, it knocks my theory on the head altogether, and I can only apologise for having troubled you. I suppose there is a big reward offered for the recovery of those gems?"
"You are right there," the sergeant said. "Ten thousand pounds. I think it will be. A fine chance for somebody who is not actually connected with the crime."
To do him justice Montagu Stagg was no hardened criminal. For instance, he had been perfectly right when he told Everard Stokes in that humorously philosophical way of his that there were many worse men than himself who died in the odour of sanctity and in the esteem of their fellow creatures. It was not much that Stagg wanted, merely a percentage of the money which most of his clients were bent on throwing away. It would have been easy enough for Stagg, in the guise of 'Frank Fair,' to have had the lot, whereas he was content with a margin, and really went out of his way to give disinterested advice of a valuable nature as to the balance.
But here, possibly, was an opportunity of raking in something substantial. By mere accident in connection with that insatiable curiosity of his, and the accidental ringing of the wrong bell, he had come in contact with a mystery which promised not only real tangible results, but a certain service rendered to the State. And because this was so Stagg devoted a good deal of his time for the next few days in an attempt to get to the bottom of the business.
But look which way he would, he was up against a blank wall on every side. To begin with, there was not a single word in the papers that he could in any way connect with the Porchester-place affair. And, so far as he knew, the police were still in utter darkness as to the identity of the man who had been found in the station cloak room. Apparently the woman with the dark eyes had got clear away from Porchester-place without any suspicion being excited, so that the further Stagg went into the matter the more puzzled he was. He could not even find any suggestion of a reward being offered for the recovery of the American millionaire's missing gems. Doubtless that would come all in good time, and, meanwhile, there was nothing for it but to wait patiently and go on with the daily toil. And this was precisely what Stagg did, pleasantly interspersed with interesting games of golf in which, as a rule, the diurnal half-crowns went his way. Occasionally he played a game with Stella, and over a comfortable dinner he discussed with her the mystery of the railway station cloak room. For Stella, like a good many other healthy-minded girls, was rather prone to a study of the darker side of humanity as expounded in the columns of the daily press. She had many theories on the subject, to all of which Stagg listened with a certain good natured tolerance.
"It is just possible," he said, "that there might be a quite prosaic explanation."
"Then, in that case, why don't the parties come forward?" Stella demanded. "And, oh, talking of mysteries, did you hear what happened on the links a day or two ago? I only heard it this afternoon from my caddie."
"Ah, what was that?" Stagg asked.
"Most extraordinary," Stella went on. "It was last Friday morning, quite early. The boy I am speaking of was going to the professional's shop, and as he passed the deep bunkers of the fifth hole saw a man lying on the sand. He was a well-dressed man, quite a gentleman from what the boy said, and seemed to be fast asleep. But there was blood on his face and on his shirt, which was exposed, and his hat was all smashed in. The caddie, being rather alarmed, told the professional's assistant, and when they got back to the bunker the man had vanished. I don't suppose there is much in it, but still, you never can tell. You see, uncle, the world is full of all sorts of extraordinary things if you know where to find them."
"Last Friday," Stagg said thoughtfully. "Let me see. That was the morning the discovery was made at the railway station. Yes, it was Friday morning."
"Do you think—" stella began eagerly.
"No. I don't, my dear child," Stagg replied. "How you women jump to conclusions."
All the same, Stagg made a note of the circumstance, as it was just possible that there was some connection between the two events. The mere fact that the golf caddie had made his discovery about the same time that the body from Porchester Place had been deposited in the railway station cloakroom certainly suggested a connecting link, thin and weak as it might be, and therefore Stagg made a note of it.
"And that's all you know?" he asked.
"That's all," Stella said. "But that boy was caddying for me this afternoon, and I asked him. He said that the man he spoke of was quite a gentleman, and he seemed to be rather annoyed when I pressed him on the point. He said, 'e thought 'e knowed a gentleman when 'e seen 'im,' and probably he was right. It was a young man, quite nice looking and well dressed, and clean shaven."
"That's very likely," Stagg said. "It is just possible that it was merely a bad case of what is commonly called the evening after the night before."
"What does that mean?" Stella asked.
Stagg smiled indulgently as he replied.
"Well, let's put it another way. Boys will be boys, and young men have to sow their wild oats. And occasionally they have a weakness for soaking those oats of theirs in alcohol first. In other words, there might have been what certain rapid youths call a gigantic spree, involving a good deal of noise and practical joking, allied with the consumption of much wine. In my hot youth I occasionally joined in a symposium of that kind. It sometimes produces an extraordinary haziness and a certain infirmity in the region of the knees, accompanied by an utter indifference as to where one sleeps. Now, when a young man is in that condition he might easily meet with a slight accident without in the least being aware of it. And he might wake up to find himself not in bed, but in a bunker on the golf links. My experience had never led me as far as that, but I have heard of such things. My dear child, I wouldn't construct a mystery out of this if I were you."
With which Stagg dived into 'The Times,' a paper he had not had the opportunity of seeing that day. He went through it very carefully with a view to finding something really useful, but nothing rewarded his search, so that he folded up his paper again and was about to throw it on one side when his eye chanced to encounter a few lines at the top of column three on the first page, that portion of the paper which is usually known as the Agony Column. There were only a few words altogether, but they were sufficient to rivet Stagg's attention like a magnet. They ran as follows:—"P—CH——R P-A-E. Any night this week after 8 o'clock, at Tagoni's. Best place to dine in London, 22."
"Now. I wonder," Stagg whispered softly, "I wonder. Those capital letters with the spaces can't mean anything else but Porchester-place. Yes, the blanks fit in quite correctly. It's Porchester-place right enough. And here we are again. Observe the 22 at the end, and that bit about the best place to dine in London is evidently dropped in to make it look like an advertisement. Somebody connected with the crime or somebody who had a hand in the robbery which was the cause of the crime, is communicating with certain persons through the medium of the papers. I think that is a fair assumption. And that being the case, it would be just as well, I think, if I make a point of dining at Tagoni's for the next few evenings; all this week, I think. I shall probably find nothing; on the other hand it may be time and money laid out to the greatest advantage, yes, I'll go."
A little while after Stagg strolled into the drawing-room where Stella was reading, and informed her that he was going to London on business that might detain him for some days. Would Stella therefore pack his bag for him?
"Oh, certainly, uncle," Stella replied. These sudden excursions were no surprise to her. "I will go and see to it at once. Are you coming back on Saturday?"
It was just after 8 o'clock before Stagg, beautifully turned out, and looking rather more distinguished than usual, strolled into the famous Venetian dining-room at Tagoni's and asked for a table. He had been there more than once before, so that the waiter recognised him for an aristocratic client and piloted him across the crowded room. So far as Stagg could see there was not an empty table anywhere, a fact that he pointed out presently to Senor Tagoni himself.
"It appears that I have come too late," he said in his usual pleasant fashion. "Your advertisement in the 'Times' appears to have been very successful."
The Italian, shrugged his shoulders.
"That was no doing of mine," he said. "We have no occasion for such methods, sir. An appointment, what you call the assignation. A meeting of the lovers, perhaps, what you will, but an advertisement, never."
Stagg smiled, for he had gained the information he needed, and presently he saw a vacant seat at a table for two, the other chair being occupied by a young man who was dining alone.
"That will do for me," Stagg said. "Tomorrow you will perhaps keep me a table—in fact, you might keep me a table all the week. Oh, there is no occasion to apologise. Besides, I rather like the look of that young man."
Stagg sat down and chose his dinner from the menu with meticulous care. He might, or might not, be in for an evening's adventure, but he was perfectly sure of the fact that this contingency was not going to spoil his dinner. When he had dispatched his fish, and finished his first glass of champagne, he turned to his vis-a-vis with some trivial remark with a view to opening a conversation. Like every man who fully appreciates the pleasures of the table, Stagg hated to dine in silence. But he spoke twice before the young man opposite looked up from his plate and seemed to hear what was said.
"I beg your pardon, sir," he said. "But I am afraid my thoughts were elsewhere. Yes, an excellent dinner."
"You are familiar with the place?" Stagg asked.
"I don't know," the other said vaguely.
It was a particularly astonishing remark, and one that arrested Stagg at once. He glanced keenly across the table. He saw a young man, exceedingly well dressed in a suit of grey flannel, probably the only morning suit in the restaurant; a young man with well cut features and clean-shaven, slightly anxious-looking mouth. An athlete and outdoor man beyond question from the clear bronze of his cheeks, under which, however, a curious sort of pallor lay. The light-blue eyes were keen and steadfast enough, but just a little absent, with a faint suggestion of fear in them. All this Stagg noticed in that quick way of his, though his face was innocent enough of curiosity.
"I don't quite understand you," he said. "How do you mean? You don't know—"
"I don't," the young man said, "I don't really."
"Oh, well, I suppose you mean you have forgotten whether you have been here before or not. I can understand that in the case of a man who has travelled a great deal, and I should hazard a guess that you have seen much of the world."
"I have indeed," the other man smiled oddly. "Europe, China, Japan, South Africa, to say nothing of the States. In my many adventures there was not one more singular than the one I am up against at the present moment."
"I should like to hear," Stagg said.
He settled himself down easily in his chair. It was no new thing for him to find people telling him their troubles. That innocent face of his, those smiling good-natured eyes, and, above all, his silvery hair, were assets in the shape of confidences that he had never known to fail. And that this young man was in some great trouble Stagg did not for a moment doubt. He lay back in his chair positively exuding sympathy and overflowing with fine benevolence.
"Pray tell me," he said. "You will find in me a good listener. And if I can help you—"
"Oh, I am sure you can," the young man said. "Anybody can see you are a gentleman, one accustomed to good society and in easy circumstances. You asked me just now if I have ever been here before, and I said I didn't know. And that, my dear sir, is the gospel truth. The waiters' faces are vaguely familiar, and so are some of the people dining here. I came here quite unconsciously, I might say, and yet I found my way to the vestibule and lounge as if I had been coming here every day of my life. But who I am, and what I am doing, is an absolute blank to me. In other words, I have lost my memory. I have been wandering about London for two days in the hope that I might meet someone who knew me. I have a bedroom in a little hotel off the Strand where I have established a sort of wardrobe, but who I am and where I came from I don't know more than the dead. Perhaps I am not an Englishman at all. I may be an American who is far away from home and friends; in which case, I might drift on indefinitely."
"Well, there's one thing you can rely upon," Stagg said. "You are no American with that accent. My dear young friend, you have public school and varsity written all over you, and that exceedingly well-cut flannel suit of yours could have come from nowhere but Bond-street. You are English, right enough. Now, tell me what you can recollect."
"Well, one day last week," the other said, "I woke up early in the morning out of doors on a common. I was all a mass of blood, my hat was smashed, and I had a nasty wound on the back of my head. I managed to wash myself in a pond, then in a local shop I bought myself a shirt and collar and a straw hat. I changed in a wood and burnt the other things, because, for some vague reason, I was afraid. I thought at first that I had been clubbed for the sake of my valuables. But I found all my money intact, what there was of it, and at the time it so happened I wasn't wearing a watch. Then I came on to London and put up at the place I told you about. But though I know that I have been all over the world, I can remember nothing that happened before last Friday morning. You can't imagine what a relief it is to tell somebody."
"I think I can," Stagg said sympathetically. "But why didn't you go to the nearest police station?"
The young man hesitated for a moment or two.
"I think I had better tell you," he said. "Now, sir, I ask you, do I look like a thief? Do I in any way resemble a criminal? I don't feel one. I have tried to feel one, but the mere idea is abhorrent to me. And yet I don't know, I really don't Mr.—er—'"
"Stagg. Montagu Stagg is my name."
"Well, I don't know, Mr. Stagg. Give me that paper, or hold it up in front of you. Now, what do you think of this? I found these things in an envelope in the outside pocket of my coat. I don't want anybody to see them, because it is just possible that somebody is watching me."
Stagg made a sort of shield of the evening paper, and on it the young man proceeded to pour a handful of glittering diamonds, together with an ornament set with the same sort of stones which looked to Stagg uncommonly like a five-pointed star. When he came to examine it more closely he saw from a tiny fracture on two of the edges that it was beyond question the counterpart of the star that he had picked up in the house in Porchester-place.
"Put those back in your pocket," he said sharply. "You are quite safe in my hands, and if it is any consolation to you, I implicitly believe all you have said. But, at the same time, you are in deadly peril. Never mind how I know, let it be sufficient that you are. Now, finish your dinner quickly and go out, and I will meet you in half an hour's time on the Embankment by Cleopatra's Needle. No; on second thoughts, wait. That is if you can trust me."
"Oh, yes," the young man said. "I do trust you. I must."
Montague Stagg beamed almost benignly into the troubled, sensitive face of the stranger on the other side of the table. For here was an adventure after the heart of Stagg, and one, moreover, that, properly handled, pointed to considerable pecuniary emolument. To do Stagg justice, however, it was not the unearned increment he was thinking so much about then as the safety of this new protege of his. For Stagg was above all things kind-hearted and generous, and even in the moment of the actual financial strain he would never have dreamt of taking a farthing from anyone in distress. That was not the sort of scoundrel he was. So he bent forward with a pleasing smile on his face and the full intention of helping the young man whatever happened. Then he glanced very cautiously round the restaurant, with a keen eye for anyone who might be watching them. He remembered that advertisement in the agony column of 'The Times,' and it seemed to him that the sooner he and the young man on the other side of the table were beyond the range of inquisitive eyes the better.
But, so far as Stagg could see, no one appeared to be watching them, and, indeed, most of the diners had disappeared by this time. Stagg bent forward and laid his hand impressively on the stranger's arm.
"My young friend," he said, "need I repeat that you are in considerable danger? I suppose your mind is capable of taking that much in."
The good-looking youth smiled sadly.
"My mind is as clear as yours," he said. "Save that everything is a blank as regards my past, there is nothing whatever the matter with my memory. Of course I am uneasy and a bit frightened, because, after all, I might be a criminal."
"Oh, well, not a deliberate one, I am sure," Stagg said reassuringly.
"You really believe that?" the young man asked.
"I do. I flatter myself that I am a man of the world, and I beg to assure you that I am not easily taken in. I know what young men are, mainly, perhaps, because I have been one myself. And I know that many people do foolish things on the spur of the moment. Now, you might have done a foolish thing. You might have been reckless, or extremely hard up, and, on the other hand, you might have done something from entirely chivalrous motives. Possibly there is a lady in the case, and if that is so then there is no limit to human folly. But that you are merely a plausible, well-educated criminal I decline to believe. I want you to regard me as your friend. Will you put yourself entirely in my hands?"
The young man smiled gratefully.
"There is nothing I should like better," he said. "I am as helpless as a child that is lost in a crowd. Oh, I was beginning to feel as if I should go mad when I met you. Oh, yes, I am entirely in your hands."
"In that case we had better be moving along," Stagg said cheerfully. "Now, listen to me, Mr.—Mr.—I don't know what to call you. Let us say 'Nemo.' I am a man of some means, whose spare time is given over to what I might call philosophic wanderings. I am a great admirer of the late Charles Dickens. I suppose you know who I mean?"
"Perfectly well," the young man smiled. "My memory is all right, except as regards myself; but pardon me if I fail to see the connection."
"Well, Dickens used to wander about London, studying human nature and looking for adventures, and there you have the only analogy between us. But you can quite see how this little experience has fascinated me. Here is a young man dining at an expensive restaurant with his pockets obviously full of stolen property. He tells me a story that most people would scoff at, but one which I am perfectly prepared to believe. My dear sir, I am convinced that you are the victim of some extraordinary conspiracy. Because I believe that, I am going to help you. Sooner or later we shall get to the truth, but meanwhile there is no reason why you should spend a good many days in prison. And, therefore, I am going to be an accessory after the fact, so to speak. Now, I have a small suite of rooms in a house in Caithness-road, which is not very far from here. It is a kind of superstar lodging-house, kept by a man who, as a boy, worked on my father's estate. His name is Josh, and for many years he was one of Pinkerton's detectives. I mean the famous band of American private detectives which it is just possible you may have heard of."
"That strikes a familiar chord," the young man said. "What I know about America and Pinkerton's is a mystery, but I do seem to have heard of them."
"Well, it doesn't matter," Stagg went on, "Josh is a capital chap, and entirely devoted to my interests. He will put you up for a few days till I can make other arrangements, and he will see to it that nobody but himself and his wife know of your presence in the house. And as to payment, well, I don't think I'll trouble about that for the moment."
"You forget," the stranger said, "that I am not short of money. How I got it I cannot say, but the fact remains that it is in my pocket."
"True," Stagg said thoughtfully. "True. Now, come along. We had better walk, and it would be just as well if we covered our tracks a bit."
"But why?" the stranger asked.
"You never can tell. You may be watched at the present moment. You can be certain that somebody has a keen interest in the stones you have just shown me. So, therefore, like Agag, we will tread delicately."
They made their way presently along Piccadilly, then suddenly turned back and retraced their steps until Stagg was satisfied, after which they made their way to Caithness Road. Here Stagg paused, and satisfying himself that there was no one in sight, opened the door of one of the neat little houses there with his latchkey and led the way into a quite luxuriously-furnished sitting-room on the ground floor. In response to the bell there entered a short, powerful-looking man with a high bald forehead, and a big black moustache, who limped rather painfully into the room and stood there as if waiting for orders.
"Sit down, Josh," Stagg said genially. "Unless I am very much mistaken, I have got a job for you after your own heart. Now, take a cigarette from my case, and listen."
The little man with the twisted leg sat himself upright on a straight-backed chair and turned a respectful ear to what Stagg had to say. Whereupon that philanthropist gave the attendant Josh an outline of what had happened, suppressing certain details which he deemed prudent to keep to himself.
"So there's the story, Josh," he said "What do you make of it?"
"Well, sir," Josh replied, "I should say that this gentleman here was sanbagged by some crook or another, and that they shoved the jewels into his pocket, hoping to get them back before long."
"Now, that's very shrewd of you," Stagg said. "I shouldn't be surprised to find that you are right. You wouldn't say that Mr. Nemo was a criminal, would you?"
Josh smiled under his black moustache.
"Lord, no, sir," he said. "He's a gentleman if ever I saw one. But he do look tired."
The stranger passed his hand across his forehead.
"I am utterly worn out," he said wearily.
They placed the mysterious stranger in a bed in a comfortable room at the back of the house, where he was soon in a profound sleep. It was the very best thing that could happen, Stagg said, as he preceded Josh down the stairs to the dining-room, where he ordered up the whisky and soda and, lighting a cigarette, threw himself into his chair, whilst Josh sat down on the other side of the fireplace.
"This is a rum go, sir," the latter said.
"Of all my many experiences, the strangest," Stagg replied. "I shouldn't be surprised if this turned out to be a very big thing, Albert. And if it is, then I shall want all your assistance. Our young friend can stay here for the present, and I want you to be particularly careful that no one discovers he is in the house. Of course, I will be responsible for his keep in the rooms. Now, the point is, have you got another lodger just now."
Josh responded to the effect that they had no other visitors just at the moment, and seeing that Stagg occupied one set of rooms and the unfortunate victim of circumstances was now installed in the other, there would not be much likelihood of trouble in that direction.
"You think the gentleman is being watched, sir?" he asked.
"I should think it is more than likely," Stagg said. "But 'you'll soon find that out. As an old detective, and a once prominent member of Pinkerton's, I can safely leave all that in your hands."
"I think you can, sir," Josh said. "If it wasn't for this confounded leg of mine, I would be with Pinkerton still."
This was a regret that Josh frequently alluded to. All his heart and soul had been in his work, and at one time he had bid fair to take a high position in the famous American detective force; but a lively adventure with certain desperate bank forgers of New York had ended in a general mix-up, in which Josh had had the misfortune to break his thigh. The injury had healed badly, with the result that Josh was lame for life. This, of course, acted very adversely in the case of a detective who, clever enough at disguises, could never disguise the foot of his pronounced lameness, which, of course, earmarked him so to speak amongst American criminals. Therefore, he had resigned from the force and married a little Englishwoman who ruled him with a rod of iron. He had come back to England and invested his savings in the house in Caithness Road, where he passed his time looking conscientiously after his lodgers and occupying his spare moments in a close study of such newspapers as devoted their columns to crime. He knew a goodly number of police officers, and on more than one occasion these representatives of the law found Albert Josh's advice valuable. For the rest, he had a weakness for sensational literature, and it was one of the great ambitions of his life to find a publisher for a criminal romance that he had written. He and Stagg were something more than master and servant, and Josh had never forgotten those early days of his when he had first begun to get his living as a farmer's boy on the Stagg estates. Those had long since gone the way of all flesh, but the link remained and some of the most enjoyable moments in Josh's life were when Stagg could pass a night or two in town and invited the ex-detective to a chat in the sitting-room over a whisky and soda and one of Stagg's choice cigarettes.
"I don't know, sir," Josh said. "But perhaps you wouldn't mind telling me some more about it."
"I will tell you the whole story, if you like," Stagg said. "Now listen."
Whereupon he told the interested Josh the whole narrative from the moment when he had mistaken the numbers of the house in Porchester-place till the time when the mysterious stranger had placed those diamonds on the table. From his pocket Josh produced a voluminous notebook.
"Half a minute, sir," he said. "Let me get it all down. We are on the verge of a big case here, and there is nothing I should like better than to have a hand in it. Now, first of all, you went in the wrong house."
"No doubt about that," Stagg said dryly.
"And there you saw a mysterious lady who introduced you to a dead body. From what I gather, sir, she didn't know it was a body till she took you upstairs."
"I don't think she did," Stagg said. "But she was so infernally cool about the whole thing that upon my word I hardly know. Still, if she had known the man had been dead, she would hardly have sent for me—I mean for Dr. Gilbert."
"No, that's a fair inference, sir. Anyway, the man was dead. And he died a violent death. And when you had found that out you thought it was about time to go."
"Well, it did occur to me that I might, with advantage, be engaged elsewhere," Stagg said dryly. "For once in a way that insatiable curiosity or mine had carried me too far. And as I did not want to be mixed up with any public case I gracefully obliterated myself."
"Did you see anything else suspicious?" Josh asked.
"No," Stagg said thoughtfully. "Only the matter of those fragments of gold setting on the dining room table and the diamond star I told you about. I wasn't going to think any more about it, and I don't suppose I should if I hadn't noticed the next morning when I went up to call Mr. Stokes that the house was all shut up. I wasn't surprised to find that, and though that insatiable curiosity of mine still troubled me I was going to hold it down till I read of that extraordinary happening in the station cloak room. I mean the little explosion there that led to the discovery of the body."
"Lord, sir, that was a funny case, wasn't it?" Josh asked. "I read all about that. I read all them things. Go on, sir."
"I thought it was you who were going on," Stagg said. "I told you how I went down to Seymour-street police station and saw that body lying in the mortuary."
"And recognised it as the man you saw in the bedroom, and perhaps more especially by the diamond ring on one of the fingers," Josh said eagerly. "I have been mixed up in some funny cases in my time, but never in one quite as complicated as this. And I shouldn't be at all surprised, sir, if the young man upstairs hasn't got something to do with it."
"I always said you were a shrewd man," Stagg remarked benignly. "I am entirely in agreement with you. From what I have told you it's quite plain that robbery, and a jewel robbery at that, was at the bottom of all the trouble in that mysterious house in Porchester-place. And when I am following it up through the medium of that advertisement in the Agony Column of 'The Times' which you remember pointed to an assignation of a certain restaurant, I blunder straight into a nameless young man who has his pockets full of magnificent diamonds which apparently have been recently removed from their settings. It doesn't matter two straws to us at present whether our young friend upstairs is one of the thieves or some innocent youth who has been used by the miscreants. Personally I am in his favour. But what I want to know now is where Dr. Gilbert comes in. I want you to find out for me what manner of man he is. He was supposed to be the complacent type of medical man who will certify anything for a big fee. Now, I am going to leave it to you to find out all about Dr. Gilbert. You are well in with the police, and I dare say they will help you to get in touch with the telephone people in the neighbourhood of Porchester Place. Mind you get on the track of the right Dr. Gilbert. There may be more than one of them near Porchester Place."
Montagu Stagg went back to his cottage at Minchin Common the following morning, having satisfied himself that this new protege of his would be carefully looked after. Moreover, Albert Josh was eminently calculated to do all that Stagg called the 'donkey' work with regard to such inquiries as were necessary in connection with these mysterious events which might, or might not, result in a considerable pecuniary gain to that deserving mortal Montagu Stagg.
He got back to his luxurious-quarters soon after breakfast, and set himself down in his library presently to go through the correspondence which, the last day or two, had been sadly neglected. It was good to be back there again with the windows opened to the beauty of the day, and the balmy sunshine that reflected on the lilac bushes and the hawthorn and the laburnums in full bloom. From where he sat, Stagg could see all across the far-famed Minchin Common golf links, dotted here and there with players, and just for a moment he was tempted to put aside his work and join the giddy throng. Tragedy and mystery seemed very far away just then.
But it was only for a moment. The table was littered with letters, and Stella Henson's typewriter stood there ready for the fray. Stagg sighed gently as he glanced round the luxuriously furnished room and lighted one of those choice cigarettes of his. Then he glanced up at the portrait of his deceased father on the wall, a handsome figure of a man in hunting kit and possessing the same benign smile and silver hair that were Stagg's own peculiar assets. He had been a popular old scoundrel, had Montagu Stagg senior, but there were moments when the dutiful son was half inclined to regret that his esteemed parent had not broken his neck in the hunting field 10 years previously to that lamentable catastrophe, in which case there would have been no need for such a person as 'Frank Fair,' or any cause for a more or less adventurous life in connection with the City.
These vague regrets, however, were cut short presently by the entrance of Stella, who greeted her uncle warmly. In her eyes he was one of the best and kindest men living, and, indeed, so far as she was concerned, she had every cause for this belief. She sat down smilingly to her typewriter and handed Stagg a big pile of correspondence.
"There you are, uncle," she said. "That is the whole lot. Let us get through with it as quick as possible, for it is really a sin to be indoors on a day like this."
"There I cordially agree with you, my dear," Stagg said, as he began to slip open the envelopes. "Just for a moment or two I was sorely tempted to make a holiday of it myself. But duty, my child, duty. We must not forget our less mentally endowed brothers and sisters who look to us for assistance over their—er—little investments. Oh, the usual batch, I see. All of them so anxious to throw their money away. Really, my dear child, I deserve every credit for the invention, of 'Frank Fair.' Now then, are you ready?"
For the best part of an hour the dictation of letters went on. They were letters of fatherly advice from the generous-hearted 'Frank Fair' to all and sundry who were anxious to turn their savings into fortunes at the earliest possible moment. By the time they had finished Montagu Stagg calculated that if his advice was followed—which he knew precious well it wouldn't be for the most part—he had saved his confiding clients something like fifty thousand pounds. He called the admiring Stella's attention to this fact, but he did not tell her that, with any luck, something like ten per cent, of that money would fall eventually into his hands. Not a bad morning's work, on the whole, and one well worth the trouble.
"Ah, my child," he said, "what rich rewards await even the humblest gleaner in the fields of philanthropy. We have spent perhaps an hour of our time, which is of no great value to people in our position, and goodness knows how many honest trusting people we have snatched from the talons of the bucket-shop keeper. Now we have done, almost. Here is one more letter which—er—um—"
Whereupon Stagg trailed off into silence, smoking his cigarette in a thoughtful way, and glancing from under his eyebrows at the sweetly attractive and pretty figure patiently sitting there in front of the typewriter. On the spur of the moment Stagg had almost read the letter aloud, a habit he had of dealing with most of his correspondence, but upon this occasion he glanced over the communication in silence.
To begin with, it was typewritten and eminently business-like. It was addressed to Stagg from the head office of the United Provincial Bank and ran thus:
"I am in receipt of your letter of even date covering drafts for L117 6s 3d, which has been placed to your credit as requested. At the same time I am returning to you herewith draft value L63 drawn in your favour by Geoffrey Hawthorne on Amalgamated London, Limited, which has come hack to us marked, as you see, 'signature irregular.'
"Awaiting your instructions,
"JOHN SHARLAND, Manager."
Stagg whistled softly to himself as he turned this letter over in his mind. There was really no reason why he should not read it aloud to his confidential secretary; but, at the same time, that inherent prudence of his told him that it would be just as well not to do so. As a matter of fact, the Geoffrey Hawthorne aforesaid had been introduced to Stagg by his niece, who had made his acquaintance a week or so before in the casual and cosmopolitan way in which young people do make friends in the realm of sport. So far as Stagg recollected, Hawthorne had come down there and had fallen in love with the links to such an extent that he had remained, putting up at the Dormy House and, apparently, devoting his entire attention to the Royal and Ancient game, in which he was an undoubted expert.
For the rest, he was young and pleasant to look at, beautifully appointed, both in looks and clothes, and, to the eye, at any rate, a most desirable specimen of the better class young American. Indeed, Stagg had been rather taken with him. He had a fine sense of humour, he was modest withal, and on three occasions, at least, Stagg had taken half a crown from him as the result of successful rounds of golf. Hawthorne had come to England, he said, purely on a matter of pleasure; he was reputed to be rich, and, moreover, he had been introduced to the club by a certain noble lord who was one of its original presidents and founders.
Stagg sat there turning the matter over in his mind. He was thinking of that afternoon nearly a week ago when he had strolled into the smoking-room of the club to find Hawthorne alone there, and in the course of conversation the latter had laughingly remarked that he really must go to town even if only to see his bankers. He had never been near them yet, he had come down for a day's golf and stayed for a week, and now he was down to his last five-pound note. Would Mr. Stagg mind cashing a cheque for sixty-three pounds for him? Stagg not only could but did, and here was that cheque practically returned to him, which, to say the least, was disturbing. And even philanthropists rarely view these things with equanimity.
Stagg folded up the letter and put it in his pocket.
"I think that will do, my dear," Stagg said. "We have cleared off all our arrears, and I am looking forward to a quiet week-end. Now what have you got for me this beautiful after noon? I should like something in the way of a foursome."
"I have got one arranged for you," Stella said. "I thought that you and I could have a game with Mr. Hawthorne and a French lady who has just come down here. She is staying at the hotel. She's not much good at the game, but she is wildly enthusiastic. I forget her name."
"Capital," Stagg beamed. "I suppose you have been playing every day since I have been away."
"Two rounds a day," Stella confessed. "With Mr. Hawthorne yesterday morning, and I was his partner in the afternoon. What a fine game he plays, uncle. Do you know, playing the full course, we got round in eighty-three?"
"Did you really, my dear? I rather gather you have seen a good deal of Mr. Hawthorne."
Stella coloured slightly.
"Oh, well, perhaps I have," she said carelessly. "I like him immensely. So different to our young men. It's so nice to meet a man who has travelled all over the world."
Stagg noticed the heightened colour and made a note of it. He was thinking pensively of the letter in his pocket. It did not follow, of course, that the returned cheque was a bad one. He knew that young men of leisure in the possession of ample means are somewhat scornful of business methods, and apt to be careless. But then, on the other hand, the fascinating Hawthorne had come there an entire stranger, without an introduction beyond chat of the noble president, who was notoriously easy-going himself and apt to ask no questions of his company so long as he found it sufficiently amusing. Most men in Stagg's position would have sought out the drawer of the cheque at once with a view to an explanation, but that was not Stagg's way. In any case, he would have an opportunity of doing so in the afternoon, so he put the whole thing out of his mind and went in cheerfully to his luncheon. A little later he and Stella set out for the links, where they found Hawthorne and his partner awaiting them.
The American came forward in that easy, natural manner of his and shook hands with the new-comers. Beyond the shadow of a doubt he was a presentable young man enough, and as Stagg glanced at him he felt easier in his mind with regard to the letter he had in his pocket.
"You both know Miss Branscome, I think." Hawthorne said "I found her here waiting for a game by sheer good luck."
"But the French lady?" Stella asked.
"Oh, she couldn't come," Hawthorne explained. "Some stupid business or another. I went to pick her up at the hotel, and she told me that her solicitor was coming down in connection with some urgent matter. But still—"
"Oh, that's all right," Stella said. "We shall have a much better match now we've got Eva Branscome."
They set out presently on their round, and at the end of it, as usually happened in matches where Stagg was engaged, he and Stella drew the usual half-crowns on the last green.
"A most enjoyable game," Stagg said. "A real ding-dong match from start to finish. We were lucky—yes, undoubtedly lucky. If I hadn't holed those three long puts, we should have been beaten out of sight. Now, you girls, go and make yourselves presentable then we'll all have tea on the terrace. Meanwhile Hawthorne and myself won't be any the worse for a cigarette and a whisky and soda."
"That's a sound proposition," Hawthorne said.
The two men moved off in the direction of the smoking-room, where they sat for a few minutes over their drinks by the open window, whence they could look out across the common. Stagg lay back in his chair with the air of a man who hasn't a single care in the world. He wore his most benign and fatherly smile, and the sun shining on that silver hair of his gave him the appearance of a young and cheerful grandfather.
"Ah," he said, "there are many worse lives than this, my boy. I suppose it appeals even to a man who has lived in an atmosphere of hustle all his life."
"Guess it does," Hawthorne said dryly. "But then, though I am an American, I never lived that life."
"You mean you were never in business?'"
"Well, no. A careful selection in the way of fathers saved me from that catastrophe. The old man made all the dollars, and a pretty considerable pile they are, and being a man of broad views, he don't object to my spending them. Ever since I came down from Harvard I have done nothing but enjoy myself, and as to business, I don't know a bill stamp from a dollar mark."
"Ah, I suppose that accounts for it," Stagg said dreamily.
"Accounts for what?" Hawthorne asked.
Stagg appeared to be looking at nothing, but he was watching the American all the same keenly.
"Well," he said, "I don't like to say anything about it, but that cheque you gave me—"
The American started, with an unmistakable look of fear in his eyes; but it was only for a moment, and then his expression was openly and frankly puzzled again. But in that second Stagg knew, nobody better.
"What's the matter with the cheque?" Hawthorne asked.
"Well, that's just what I am going to ask you to explain," Stagg said with a bland good humour that would have deceived a snake. "I am as puzzled as you are. My bankers wrote to me to the effect that the cheque was irregular."
Again came that look of fear, but Stagg went on as if he had noticed nothing.
"When I say irregular, I mean that the signature is irregular. Oh, they don't say anything about your financial soundness. It looks to me as if, by some careless slip, you had signed that cheque in a way which does not quite tally with the official signature that the bank holds. Now, I wonder if this is the proper explanation."
Hawthorne laughed and then apologised.
"I am awfully sorry, Mr. Stagg, really," he said. "But I expect that is the reason. You see when I decided to come to England I mailed the Amalgamated London Bank a few thousands and signed my letter Geoffrey A. Hawthorne. That's the way I do sign my letters, always. But I quite forgot to tell the bank people that when I sign cheques I drop the A out altogether."
"Ah, that's just what a careless young man would do," Stagg said.
"Well, there you are. I'll run up to town to-morrow or the next day and put it right. I may not go up till after the week-end, because I have got enough to go on with, and I don't want to miss my round with Miss Stella to-morrow morning. I wonder if you would mind letting me have that cheque back?"
"I haven't got it," Stagg lied easily. "I suppose it will come back to me with my vouchers in due course. Don't let it worry you. You can pay me in cash after you have been to London, and I'll let you have the cheque directly it comes to hand. Now let's go and have some tea."
"You are awfully good, Mr. Stagg," Hawthorne said.
"Oh, not at all, my boy, not at all," Stagg said benignly, "It's just the sort of foolish thing I used to do myself in my young days. Now come along and join the ladles, and think no more about it."
But Stagg himself was thinking a good deal about it. He had not forgotten that sudden look of fear on the face of the American, nor was he likely to do so. And he made a note of it with an eye to future developments.
It was not Stagg's way to seek out results, for his experience taught him that they gravitated naturally towards the man who knew how to wait for them. So he sat down on the terrace in the sunshine, smiling, and calm, and indulging in that humorous philosophy of his which made him a welcome companion everywhere. As he lounged there in his calm, benign way, he appeared to be the very model of a prosperous and easy gentleman who had not a single care in the world. He smiled still more blandly when Stella suggested that the attractive American and Miss Branscombe should come up from the hotel after dinner that evening and take a hand at bridge. And when they did come Stagg dispensed his hospitality and lost his money with the charming ease of a man who rather enjoys that sort of thing.
"To-morrow morning, then," Hawthorne said, as he shook hands with Stella at parting. "Would you mind beginning our round at 10 o'clock? It's rather early, I know, but I want to run up to London in the afternoon to see my new bankers. I shall get into serious trouble if I don't."
Stagg smiled meaningly, and the two men exchanged glances. But Stagg said nothing to the effect about the morrow being Saturday, when the banks would be closed at twelve o'clock, and so Hawthorne went his way with a pleasant feeling that he had left a good impression behind him.
"Oh, so you are going to play a round with him to-morrow morning, are you?" Stagg asked when he and Stella were alone. "If I were you I wouldn't see too much of that young man. I know I can trust you—indeed, it would be a bad day for me when I found that I couidn't—but it's just as well to be careful. We know nothing about him."
"I am sure he is very nice," Stella said, "and his manners are charming."
"Yes, I know that. But the fact remain that he is a perfect stranger to us."
"Introduced by our president, remember," Stella smiled.
"Who is the most easy-going man in England. A man in his lordship's position can afford to know anybody. But really, my dear child, the discussion isn't really worth elaborating."
With that Stagg dismissed the subject and thought no more about it. He played his own round the next morning with one of his familiar congeners, and returned to the Club House just before 12 in time to see Stella and Hawthorne crossing the links in the distance. Then he went tranquilly in to lunch, after which he sat sunning himself on the terrace until it was time to go out in the afternoon. Apparently, Hawthorne had gone to London, as he had said he would, for up to half-past 4, when Stagg returned to tea, there had been no sign of him. Stagg was just thinking of making his way homeward, when Hawthorne suddenly appeared on the terrace and dropped down in one of the comfortable basket chairs by the side of the elder man.
"I have been up to town," he said, "and I have put that matter right. It is just as I had told you. I had inadvertently signed that cheque as I usually signed my letters, and that is why it came back to you. I suppose these banking johnnies are right to be cautious over these matters. As a matter of fact, the manager was rather annoyed with me, but I explained to him how it happened. And now let me get out of your debt."
With which Hawthorne produced from his pocket a roll of notes and handed thirteen of these over to Stagg, who very gravely put his hand in his pocket and produced the change. Naturally enough; the younger man knew nothing of what was going on in the mind of his companion, though Stagg was busy enough trying to get to the bottom of the reason why Hawthorne should have told him this plausible lie. In the ordinary course of things it would not have mattered two straws to Stagg, seeing that he had got his money back, and, as a man of the world, it was nothing to him where that roll of notes had come from. He chuckled grimly to himself as he remembered that Hawthorne could not possibly have been in Fenchurch-street in time to see any manager. It was a small matter, but Stagg's experience taught him that these small discoveries often led to great results.
"Oh, that's all right," he said.
"Glad it's no worse," Hawthorne laughed. "You'll let me have that cheque back, won't you?"
It seemed to Stagg that the young man was particularly anxious on this point, which was another strange thing with regard to one who had boasted of not only being careless, but also of absolute ignorance on all business matters.
"You shall have it as soon as possible." Stagg said. "It will come to me in the ordinary course of events, and I will not fail to let you have it."
Hawthorne made some trivial reply and turned the conversation. They were still sitting in the sunshine, when there suddenly appeared on the terrace a tall, somewhat elaborately dressed woman of striking appearance and handsome face, who came smilingly in Hawthorne's direction and addressed him volubly in the most excellent French. An intimate knowledge of that language was one of Stagg's accomplishments. Then, as he looked up, he forgot everything else in the discovery that burst upon him with the force of a bombshell.
For the handsome woman who stood there smiling down was beyond all question the mysterious lady whom he had encountered in such romantic circumstances in the mysterious house in Porchester-place. She was changed in some way, she seemed younger and more free from care, her hair was dressed differently, and she appeared to have lost something in height. But, beyond the shadow of a doubt, it was the same woman.
Stagg looked away for a moment, until he could get his features under control, then he turned his eyes respectfully on the brilliant stranger. But if he expected any recognition in return for his own, he was disappointed. Not for one instant did that exquisitely dressed lady betray the faintest signs of embarrassment.
"Let me introduce Mr. Montagu Stagg," Hawthorne said. "The Princess de Gaucourt. This is the lady I was telling you about, Stagg."
The Princess held out her hand and Stagg bent over it gravely.
"Delighted to meet you," he murmured.
"You are a golfer, yes?" the woman asked in her own tongue. "I am sorry, Mr. Stagg, that I speak no English. I come to your so delightful links for one day and I stay on. I play the game in the place where I was born, that is Martinique. My family live there since the French Revolution."
Stagg murmured something appropriate. To use his own expression, he was getting his second wind. To say that he was carried away by admiration and amazement at this splendid exhibition of bluff would be only faintly to express his feelings. For, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the woman recognised him, unless, indeed, the amazing maze of circumstances in which he was involved embraced the very unlikely contingency that the woman in Porchester Place had a twin sister, the exact counterpart of herself, and even in the pages of fiction that particular situation had become hoary with antiquity. And here the woman stood smiling down into his face as if she had never seen him before, and carrying the whole thing off with the hardihood that compelled a boundless admiration.
"You are staying here long, Princess?" Stagg asked.
"At the hotel, yes," the Princess smiled. "Where I met Mr. Hawthorne, who has so kindly promised to help me with the game. You are a good player, yes? Ah, I see you are. Perhaps we might have a round together—."
"I should be delighted," Stagg said gravely. "Nothing would give me greater pleasure. Later on next week, perhaps, when I have got rid of some troublesome business."
The Princess went away presently with Hawthorne in her train, leaving Stagg in his chair to turn over these events in his mind. He was just a little shaken and confused, and it was some short time before he began to see his way clearly. Not that he showed anything in his face, for the benign features behind the eternal cigarette were bland and smiling as usual. What a strange, mysterious combination it was. And how everything seemed to settle around the peaceful atmosphere of the famous Minchin Common golf links. It was here, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the nameless and unfortunate young man had found himself when he came back to his senses after the murderous attack had been made upon him. For Stagg was quite sure that the young man who had been discovered by a caddie asleep in a bunker was the same individual he had christened Nemo after that dramatic encounter in the restaurant. And here was another young man, an American adventurer beyond question, who had made this statement in connection with his banking account and who told Stagg that he had obtained the wherewithal to discharge a liability by a visit to a banking establishment which must have been closed before Hawthorne had reached the city, even if he had gone there at all, which Stagg very much doubted. Indeed, if he had done so, he would have found the place closed, in which case there would have been no reason for all that elaborate prevarication. It was more than likely, therefore, that Hawthorne had obtained the money from the beautiful and fascinating Princess, by whose side he was walking in the direction of the hotel at that very moment. It was more than probable that the two were in collusion, though that, for the present, there was no means of discovering. But here was another opening under Stagg's very eyes, and he was going to follow it out. He would follow it up, if only out of sheer curiosity. There might be money in it later on, but that, for the moment, was a mere detail.
Stagg rose from his chair and sauntered off in the direction of the professional's shop. He had a club or two in his hand that were in need of some small repair, and these it was his intention to have looked to at once.
The big, brawny Scotchman who acted as club professional and general factotum was busy at his bench, and welcomed Stagg with a smile. He was always pleased to see Mr. Stagg, and indeed, these two were something like friends.
"Well, Andrew," Stagg said. "Making money, as usual, eh? When I get past work I am seriously thinking of turning golf professional myself. It's a nice easy occupation, and no great strain on the nerves, and highly remunerative. By the way, how many years have you paid income tax, Andrew?"
"Ah, weel, it's no that long time," Andrew replied. "And I'm no denying there's wairse ways o' making a liv'n. But ye will always be after your chaff, Mr. Stagg. Now, what may I be doing for you?"
"Now, there's a cautious Scotchman for you," Stagg said. "He talks like that and yet there's evidence of wealth all about him. I suppose you are going to light your pipe with that five-pound note later on, Andrew?"
As he spoke Stagg indicated a clean, crisp five-pound Bank of England note that lay on the bench amongst the tools. The Scotchman grinned broadly.
"Ah, weel," he said. "We aye have our big day sometimes. I got that from a French lady, a Princess by the same token, that came in here a while ago with the American gentleman. Not one word of English could that poor foreign body speak. But she wanted a whole set of clubs and a bag which I fitted her out with, and so delighted was she that she wouldn't take any change. And there you are, sir."
"Lucky man," Stagg said. "Look here, I want these three clubs bound. Get them done before Monday morning, and put them into my locker. How much, Andrew?"
"Well, just two shillin'," the professional said, "'ll be asking ye more than that."
"And quite enough, too," Stagg smiled.
He put his hand in his pocket and failed to find the necessary change. Could Andrew cash him a five-pound note? With just the semblance of a smile, Andrew said that he could. He unlocked his cash box, which he took from a small safe, and proceeded to place the two five-pound notes carefully inside, at the same time entering their numbers in a pocket book.
"Do you always do that?" Stagg asked.
"Always," the Scotchman said solemnly. "Not doing it once cost me one of those braw notes, and it was a lesson to me I never forgot. Funny things, notes, Mr. Stagg. I prefer the hard cash meself. And here's a funny thing, too, sir. Yon lady gave me a note, and now you have given me another. Maybe you know her?"
"I never saw her in my life till about an hour ago," Stagg said. "And then only for a few moments. Why?"
"Weel, sir, here's the funny thing. Those notes are numbered consecutively. You can see it yourself in my pocket book. Isn't that a funny thing, Mr. Stagg? Here's a lady you have hardly spoken to that gives me a five pound note, then you come into my shop with another that is issued from the bank at the same time, on the same day, and all in a little place no bigger than Minchin Common. I don't suppose yon same would happen again in a thousand year."
Stagg listened with a grave face. Here was confirmation beyond the shadow of a doubt that the brilliant adventuress and the wealthy young American were in collusion together. There was no question that Hawthorne had become alarmed in connection with that returned cheque, and that he had taken immediate steps to get out of Stagg's debt and to allay every suspicion that had ever been aroused. But for some reason which was yet to be explained he had been manifestly afraid to go to London and see the bank people, but on the other hand had obtained the necessary cash from the Princess.
It was all very strange and mysterious, and only served, so far, to complicate that which, in the first place, had been a most puzzling mystery.
As he walked homewards Stagg put it out of his mind altogether. He had got hold of a tangled thread at this end which might link up with other threads later on, but Stagg's instinct told him that the true solution was up there in London. And if there was any chance of getting hold of something tangible to go upon, Albert Josh was the man to do it. And Albert would move all in his own good time. Directly he had finished his present commission he would get on the telephone and call up his employer at Minchin Common. So, therefore, at any rate, until the beginning of the week Stagg was going to enjoy himself without worrying his mind over these complications. Like the late William Gladstone and other great men, he possessed the happy faculty of dismissing all vexatious subjects to such time as occasion required.
But almost directly he was inside the house Stella came to him with the information that Josh had called him up on the telephone and wanted to speak to him at once. Five minutes later Stagg was on the wire.
"Yes, that's me, sir," Josh replied. "Will you come up Monday morning? I have got something big for you. I would rather not discuss it on the telephone."
"I'll be there without fail," Stagg said.
It was not, however, on the cards of the gods that Montagu Stagg was destined to pass his usual placid Sunday in congenial peace. On that day, as a rule, he played no golf, he wrote a few private letters, then strolled over to the Club House to look at the Sunday papers and pass the time of day with his friends and neighbours. He usually turned himself out very nicely, neat grey flannels, with a quiet stripe in them, patent leathers and white spats, all of which added to that air of distinction of his, so that people, as a rule, rather liked to be seen on good terms with Montagu Stagg.
On this occasion, however, he ran almost into the arms of Everard Stokes, the caustic editor of the 'Searchlight,' who had driven over in his car. Like most celebrities, he was a member of the Minchin Common Golf Club, and passed an occasional Sunday there. In his shabby Knickerbockers and ragged old shooting coat he made a fine contrast to Stagg.
"Well, my worthy rascal," he said, "what mischief are you up to this morning? Upon my word, you look very nice—a subtle combination of archdeacon and sporting baronet. Any little game afoot, eh?"
"Here, steady on," Stagg said uneasily. "You don't know who may be listening."
"Oh, I don't want to give the game away," Stokes laughed. "But how are you getting on? I rather expected to see you with regard to that little matter of the unfortunate relict of the general officer—I mean the lady who consulted 'Frank Fair.' You had better come and see me to-morrow."
With that Stokes went his way, leaving, as usual, an unpleasant impression behind him; indeed, it was some minutes before Stagg recovered his cheery equanimity. For, sooth to say, he had forgotten all about the unfortunate lady who had approached, 'Frank Fair' on the subject of her investments. Stokes had been frank enough—indeed, almost brutally so—with regard to what he was prepared to do unless the lady in question recovered the whole of the money, which, it will be remembered, amounted to something like a thousand pounds. And this it was up to Stagg to find. Where it was coming from he had not the slightest idea, and the matter began to trouble him till he reflected that Stokes had intimated that there might be a way of earning the money if Stagg would fall in with the suggestion that Stokes had announced his intention of making. Indeed, it was Stokes himself who had postponed the issue.
Still, it was a fine morning, and Stagg, conscious of looking his best, and full of that feeling which a nice suit of clothes produces in the correct male mind, put the whole thing out of his head and forgot all about it. It was late in the evening, after he had dined and was ruminating over a cigar in his study when the trouble cropped up again in another form. Stagg had successfully choked off a suggestion on the part of Hawthorne that he should come in and play bridge, he had wanted to have a quiet hour to himself, and he was just in the marrow of his cigar when the telephone bell rang. Somewhere in the distance—the drawing-room to be correct—Stella was trying over some new music on the piano.
Stagg reached out for the telephone which he balanced on his knee and prepared himself to listen. He sat up as little more alertly as the tones of Josh's voice came over the wire.
And apparently Albert Josh was uneasy in his mind. He had rather a strange story to tell. It appeared that the unknown individual had expressed a desire to go for a bit of a stroll, and that he had done so, despite Josh's objections. He had gone out just after lunch and had not returned until just on ten o'clock. When he did so, he appeared to be in a state of agitation and fear almost bordering on insanity. He explained that he had been followed by two men who had finally accosted him in St. James' Park. Briefly put, they attempted to abduct him and carry him off in a taxi, in which act of violence they would undoubtedly have been successful but for the opportune interference of a curious colonial who had come along at the psychological moment. This individual had stopped to make inquiries, and seeing that something was radically wrong had promptly knocked the taxi driver out for the time, whereupon the other ruffian discreetly vanished, and the unknown had contrived, after a time, to reach a haven of safety.
"That's bad, Josh, very bad, indeed," Stagg murmured. "But I don't know that I am surprised—indeed, I might say that I expected something of the sort. Now, do you suppose those rascals know where our young friend is hiding?"
"Couldn't possibly say, sir," Josh replied. "But I should think it is very likely."
"Yes, I should think it is, and those people won't be satisfied with one attempt. I think I'll come up to-morrow morning and bring our young friend down here with me. He'll be fairly safe here, but things have come to a pretty pass when the registered driver of a taxi cab can he bribed to take part in an outrage like this."
"I don't think he was, sir," Josh explained. "I went round to the nearest police station just now to make a few discreet inquiries, and when I was talking to the sergeant there, who is an old friend of mine, a man who owns a taxi came in to complain that his had been stolen. He had gone into a public house just after six o'clock for a glass of beer, and when he came out, his cab was gone. Whilst I was still there there was a telephone message to say that the derelict taxi had been found just outside Lord's Cricket Ground. I didn't say anything, sir, but I just put two and two together, as you might do, and I came to the conclusion that this was the very cab that the chaps were going to take the young gentleman away in."
"You're right, Josh," Stagg said. "It's a most puzzling business altogether. However, I'll come up in the morning, and we can discuss the thing quietly. I have got something to tell you, too. Now, as to that house in Porchester Terrace. Did you go and see the house agents?"
"I did sir," Josh replied. "And, as I expected, the house was taken entirely by correspondence. Nobody ever saw the mysterious lady you told me about. She paid her rent with a cheque, and her references seemed so satisfactory they weren't even taken up."
"Yes, that's just what I anticipated," Stagg said. "Now as to this Dr. Gilbert. Have you managed to find anything about him?"
"Oh, yes, sir. I—"
Whereupon the telephone began to buzz and click so that Stagg resigned it in despair. Still, he had practically finished his conversatlon, whereupon he proceeded to finish his cigar also and sauntered into the drawingroom.
He sat down there and told Stella the story of the mysterious young man, and how he had met the latter in the restaurant, at the same time carefully omitting all details with regard to his adventures in Porchester Place. And as Stella listened her eyes began to glisten and her features glowed with sympathy. It was quite clear that in her the unfortunate stranger had found a friend even before they had met.
"Oh, bring the poor fellow down here by all means," she said. "I shall only be too delighted to do anything for you. But would it be quite safe, uncle?"
"Well, we must do the best we can," Stagg said. "I think we had better speak of him as a distant relative, a relation from abroad who has had a bad attack of sunstroke. We can fix up a name for him and keep him severely in the background."
Josh was glad enough to see his employer, even only because the responsibility was beginning to tell upon him.
"Oh, the young gentleman is well enough, sir," he said. "But terribly shaken. I can't make it out at all. He was absolutely beside himself when he came in last night, and if he is naturally a coward, then I am no judge of a man's looks."
Stagg thought of that keen, clean-shaven face and that resolutely cut mouth, and smiled at the suggestion.
"Our young friend is no coward," he said. "But he has had a big shock and, for the moment, at any rate, he is not normal. He will soon get on all right down at Minchin Common. I am going to take him with me, Josh, and keep him very quiet. I am going to pass him off as a young relative from India who was suffering from sunstroke, and who must be kept very quiet and see no one for weeks. I can give him a bedroom and sitting-room overlooking the golf links, and my niece will see that he is not lonely."
"Ah, that she will, sir," Josh said warmly. "I hope the young lady is quite well, sir."
"Miss Stella is always well. And now to business, Josh. Tell me all about this Dr. Gilbert, Josh. I don't suppose he has really got anything to do with the mystery, but you never can tell, and I don't believe in leaving anything out unfinished. Now as far as I can remember, the doctor I impersonated was the sort of shady practitioner who will do anything for a big fee. He had been recommended to the mysterious woman as being the type of individual who would give a death certificate, if necessary, without making inquiries. His name was Gilbert, and obviously he lives not far from Porchester-place. Wasn't the address number something Wilby-crescent?"
"I don't think we need worry about that, sir," Josh said. "Because I have got to the bottom of it. There are only two Dr. Gilberts, and one of them turns out to be an absolute impostor, a real wrong'un who was posing as a doctor with a Brussels degree. The police laid him by the heels months ago. Now, that's the man that the mysterious lady wanted, but she evidently mixed him up with another Doctor Gilbert who is quite a different class altogether. He is a gentleman who devotes himself entirely to science, what you call a theorist and a bit of a dreamer. If he wasn't, he would be on his way to the top of the tree by this time. You see, I happen to know all about him, because from time to time his mother stays in this house. She is rather a nice lady, the widow of a general officer. Very wild and flighty, and always thinking she is going to make a fortune by investing her money in all sorts of mad schemes."
Stagg drew a long breath. This was undoubtedly the lady who had brought him in contact so unpleasantly with Everard Stokes. It seemed to Stagg just then that the world was a very small place.
"Very interesting," he murmured. "Go on."
"Well, sir, it's like this," Josh said. "Mrs. Gilbert has got rid of nearly all her money, and in addition to that she had her son to educate. He ought to be helping her by this time, and would if he wasn't so taken up with all sorts of scientific theories. After he took his degree he went to America, where I met him. He was always hanging about police courts, and had a sort of theory that crime could be detected by scientific methods. Our people rather laughed at him, but on one occasion he was the greatest use to us. It was a big crime, and caused a great sensation st the time. And would you believe it, though we tracked those criminals down, and they were subsequently executed, entirely through the investigations of Dr. Gilbert, he declined to have his name mentioned. If he hadn't been so modest, he would have been talked about from one end of America to another, and his fortune would have been made. Instead of that, he slipped quietly home again, and started a what he calls practice at Wilby Crescent. But he is wasted as a mere doctor."
"Tell me something about it," Stagg asked.
"Well, it's like this, sir. A certain man disappeared. He was known to have been murdered, there was not the shadow of a doubt about that. He was got out of the way by a gang of New York hooligans at the instigation of a dissipated youth who benefited largely by the old man's death. So you see that robbery had nothing to do with it, and we made no effort to trace the murdered man's watch or ring or other valuables. What we wanted to know was what had become of him, what those chaps had done with the body. You see, sir, you can't have a prosecution for murder unless you can produce the body, or at any rate, prove how it has been disposed of. But the body of the murdered man had disappeared as if it had never existed. We began to give it up as a bad job, when young Dr. Gilbert came along asking questions. I can see him now, with those pale features of his and those innocent-looking eyes blinking behind his spectacles. He was like some intelligent kid over a lesson book. But there was a good deal of method in those questions of his. We laughed at him when we told him that the dead man had twenty-five gold dollars in his pocket at the time he vanished, and he said that this was of vital importance. Just twenty-five gold dollars. And what do you think he did? He got prowling about on the outskirts of the city until he located a certain limekiln which was only used occasionally. Of course we had a fair general idea who was at the bottom of this business, and I can tell you that we kept those chaps in sight night and day. This was a bit of a help to the doctor, and I suppose by keeping himself posted in the movements of those rascals he got on the right track. Anyway, he induced us to move most of the contents of that dead limekiln to a laboratory in New York, and at the end of a month he had practically reconstructed a skeleton from certain charred bones. We went to have a look at it, and when he told us that it contained the remains of the dead man, we laughed. To us it was a mere heap of dust. But when that heap of dust was reduced to a handful of ashes in a retort, we found, at the bottom of the retort, a lump of gold that represented just twenty-five dollars in sterling. I don't quite know how he did it, but he declared that that gold was twenty-five gold dollars fused down, and that it had been on the body when it was thrown into the limekiln."
"Sounds like Edgar Allen Poe at his best," Stagg murmured.
"Ah, I know those stories, sir," Josh said. "I read 'em all. But Mr. Poe never wrote a story like that. And, mind you, this was true. Then we gets hold of one of the criminals, a chap who hadn't very much grit, and we reconstructed the crime with the doctor as a sort of schoolmaster, blinking and stammering, but getting right to the point. I can see that tough now as his face gradually changed until he dropped into a chair, and before he knew what he was doing, told us all about it. I never saw a man so staggered in my life, sir, fairly knocked off his pins, he was. His jaw just dropped and he gibbered like an idiot. But he let up on the whole show, and his evidence electrocuted the lot of 'em. Of course the police didn't say anything about how they found these things out, because you don't make the criminal world presents of those kind of things. Dr. Gilbert, he had the right to make a splash about it in the scientific papers, but he is not that sort of man. He just packed up his traps and came home, and I should never have knowed he was here if I hadn't remembered how his mother used to talk about him. And that's the man you are looking for, sir."
"I must go and see him, certainly," Stagg said.
"I have arranged that too, sir," Josh said. "Any afternoon you like after two o'clock."
Stella had thrown herself heart and soul into the preparations for receiving the mysterious stranger into the family at the Bungalow. She had been greatly touched with what Stagg had told her, and, indeed, in any case, she would have gone out of her way to help any one, for kindheartedness was the atmosphere that always brooded over the house on Minchin Common, and with all his faults Stagg was eminently a good-natured and feeling man. It would be only fair to him to say that he would have done just as much for any unfortunate man or woman who had come within his orbit. He was a good bit of a rascal, it is true, but there was nothing of the wolf about him; and so long as he made enough to keep himself in comfort, he was quite prepared to share all that he had with any one in misfortune. He was, so to speak, a ten per cent rascal, and so long as this margin came his way, any one was welcome to the rest.
So that when Stagg came home after his interview with Josh, the young man found himself welcomed by an exceedingly pretty girl, who looked at him with a pair of frank, sympathising eyes, and a charming manner made him feel at home at once. He had not yet quite rid himself of the terror imposed upon him by the peril of the night before.
"I am afraid you must think me an awful coward, Miss Henson," he said. "But I can't help it, And yet in some vague, misty way I seem to know that I was not a coward at one time. It's all very strange."
"Can't you recollect anything?" Stella asked.
"Nothing whatever," the young man said. "At least, nothing that happened since I woke up somewhere in the country. I try and I try, but it only makes me uneasy and nervous, and then I get frightened. It was dreadful wandering about London meeting all those thousands of people and feeling as if one did not belong to their world. Perhaps, if I stayed down here in this quiet spot, my memory might come back to me."
Stella looked at him with misty eyes. There was something about the stranger that appealed to her, something inherent and manly and strong, despite the unsteadiness of his voice and the queer trembling of lips that looked as if they might be firm and reliant enough in ordinary conditions.
"Oh, I am quite sure you will," she said cheerfully. "We want you to feel quite at home here, just to settle down as one of the family and not trouble about anything till you are yourself again."
"Yes, and remember you are one of the family," Stagg interposed. "We must give you a name, my boy. Now, suppose we call you, now let me see—well—what do you say to Charles Grandison? It's the name of a once popular novelist, and easily remembered. Yes, you are Charles Grandison, a distant relative of mine, who has come home from India suffering from sunstroke. It is a bad case, because it interferes with a promising career. But we hope, by keeping you very quiet, that in the course of time you will be quite restored to health. I'll drop a judicious hint or two amongst our friends here that they had better ignore your existence. I'll tell them not to stop and speak to us when you are along. I think that is the best way, it's simple, and simplicity always pays."
And so it was arranged. A sunny, sitting-room at the back of the house, looking over the golf links, had been placed at the stranger's disposal, and there he read and smoked and watched the golfers on the links with a strange feeling that he had been there before.
Occasionally he wandered out by himself, but not too far away from the house, and now and then joined his host and hostess in a stroll after dinner.
It was on the third day that he made a discovery. They were crossing the links together after dinner as the dusk was falling, when Charles, to call him by the name he was known by, suddenly paused by the side of a big sand bunker.
"I have been here before," he said. "I thought so yesterday, but now I am certain. Every time I look out of my sitting-room window I have that peculiar feeling of familiarity. And yet I know that this is not common ground to me. I don't believe that I have ever been in England before, I felt that all the time I was walking about London. I seem to miss something. It wasn't the crowd, because I seem to understand crowds. But the setting was wrong some way. I seemed to want big buildings, very tall buildings, and a much bigger river than your Thames."
"Yes, and perhaps a statue of Liberty, and a big suspension bridge," Stagg suggested.
"Ah, you mean Brooklyn?" the young man cried. "Yes, that is it. New York."
Stagg whistled softly to himself, but said nothing. All this confirmed his own suspicion.
"But what makes you think you have been here before?" Stella asked.
"Well, that sand bunker. And that big patch of gorse at the back. That's the place where I was lying when I came to myself. I am absolutely certain of it. What happened after is very vague, because I was only subconscious at the time. But I am absolutely sure this was the place. Now, what was I doing her? Why did I come here?"
"Perhaps you didn't come," Stella suggested. "Perhaps after that brutal assault you were brought here in a motor and pitched down on the golf links. But I wouldn't worry about that, if I were you. Your memory will come back to you some of these days, and then everything will be clear."
The stranger pursued the subject no further. He was certainly better the last day or two, more restful and quiet, and more disposed to let things take their own course. He was profoundly grateful for all the kindness and attention he was receiving, and perhaps consoled by the knowledge that he had at any rate the wherewithal to pay for the accommodation that he was receiving at the hands of his new friends. The fact that Stagg laughed the suggestion to scorn by no means lessened the stranger's thankfulness of the fact that he had an ample supply of ready money in his pocket. He had a sort of feeling, too, that he had been accustomed to the free handling of money all his life, and somewhere in the back of that confused brain of his was a misty, jumbled memory of a large house somewhere or another where a small army of servants anticipated his every wish. But more than anything else he was particularly anxious that his new-found friends should not regard him as a criminal. More than once he discussed this with Stella.
"Of course you are not," she said. "Anybody could see that. You don't know how the wonderful jewels came into your possession, but some day it will be quite clear, and, indeed, I should not be at all surprised to find that they belong to you yourself. People don't lose valuable gems like those without advertising the fact, and my uncle tells me that there has been no suggestion of a big robbery anywhere. My dear Charles, one has only to look at your face to feel quite sure that you would not stoop to do anything wrong."
Charles looked into Stella's eyes with a gratitude in his own that moved her strangely. He was passionately grateful to these people, especially to Stella for all that she had done for him, and she, for her part, was full of that overflowing pity which, in a woman, so frequently blossoms into something far more lasting and tender.
"Well, Stella," he said, "if I have been unlucky, I have been very fortunate at the same time. I have made two friends, real friends. And perhaps some day I shall be able to show you how I appreciate them."
"I am quite sure you will," Stella said gently.
It was nearly the end of the week before Stagg found himself in town again. Josh had carried out all his master's instructions, and now was looking forward to a fresh development in the drama. What was Mr. Stagg going to do?
"Well, I don't think there is anything to do," Stagg said. "I am merely waiting on events. What I really came to town for was to see Dr. Gilbert."
"Well, that you can do any time, sir," Josh said. "Because he happens to be in the house at the present moment."
"Another coincidence," Stagg smiled.
"Not at all, sir, not at all. I told you that Mrs. Gilbert stays with us sometimes, and she is up in town for a few days now, and between you and me, sir, just as mad as ever. Wants to put all her money in a patent pump, she does. And the doctor, he's doing his best to dissuade her. There are certain people, sir, who ought never to have the command of money, and she's one or them. It you wait a few minutes you can catch the doctor as he comes downstairs. Perhaps I had better do it, and ask him to come in here and see you."
A little later Dr. Gilbert came into the room. He was a man of slender proportions, frail and delicate-looking, with pale features which were almost insignificant, and a pair of rather dreamy eyes blinking behind spectacles. His manner was quite shrinking as he addressed Stagg.
"You want to see me, I think," he said.
"Well, yes," Stagg said. "Would you mind sitting down? Now, Dr. Gilbert, you probably do not know that Josh was born on my father's property. In the early days he was one of our servants. Then he went to America, as you know, and rather distinguished himself in Pinkerton's force. There, I believe, he met you. He has a very high opinion of you, Dr. Gilbert. He was telling me a few days ago of an amazing case in New York in which you elicited the facts in connection with the murder where the whole American police were at fault."
"Indeed, sir," Gilbert said guardedly. "Indeed."
"Oh. you are too modest," Stagg went on. "I have never heard anything finer. Now, I am interested in a case that puzzles me exceedingly, and I am going to ask you to help."
"Not professionally," Gilbert said. "I cannot handle these cases for pay. I am a doctor. But I don't mind confessing that I am just as interested in mysterious crime as ever, and occasionally I do investigate a case, purely as a mental exercise. Sometimes I am right, and sometimes I am wrong, but if I happen to be right I drop a hint to the police on the strict understanding that my name is not to be mentioned. If I can help you on these terms, I shall be glad to do so."
Gilbert said all this with a stammering hesitation and nervousness that were almost painful to witness.
"Then I'll tell you the story," Stagg said.
It was only part of the story he told, suppressing certain details and watching his man carefully all the time. Then suddenly he was conscious of an extraordinary change in the little man opposite. The pinched, unsteady features grew hard and firm, the eyes behind the glasses seemed to blaze. Stagg was conscious of an uneasy feeling that he was being stripped of all his mental attributes and that those keen eyes behind the spectacles were looking into his very soul.
"I can do nothing for you, Mr. Stagg," Gilbert snapped. "I accept no half-confidences."
"I beg your pardon," Stagg stammered. It was seldom that he was disconcerted like this. "I—I well, perhaps I had better tell you the entire truth."
"If you please," Gilbert said coldly.
The little man was entirely dominating the situation now. It was as if he had imprisoned some insect under a magnifying glass and was dissecting it limb by limb. Making the best of what he deemed to be almost a humiliating position, Stagg told the story from first to last, omitting nothing that had happened from the moment when he entered the wrong house in Porchester Place to the time when he had escorted the unfortunate stranger to the bungalow on Minchin Common.
"And that's the whole and entire truth, Dr. Gilbert," he said. "I can assure you that I have kept nothing back from you. I hope you believe me."
"Certainly I do," Gilbert said, falling back almost instinctively on his apologetic manner. "I—I hope you don't think I was rude, Mr. Stagg; but really I cannot work with people who refuse me their confidence. It may be a gift on my part—I am not boasting about it—but I always know by instinct when people are keeping anything back."
"Then I am quite forgiven," Stagg said with one of his charming smiles.
"I don't think we need speak about it any further," Gilbert replied. "I gather that you want me to help you in this case, and I shall be very pleased to do so. Not as a professional business, you understand. I could not accept a fee, or anything of that sort. And now, let me return one confidence by another. The case you are so deeply interested in also fascinates me. I was vastly interested in the story of the body that was blown out of the cloakroom of the railway station through an explosion, because it struck me that here was one of those amazing crimes that show an almost abnormal cleverness on the part of the criminal. It is one of the sort of things that the American novelist Poe would have revelled in. I know I did. And now, let me ask you a few questions."
"A hundred, if you like," Stagg said heartily.
"Very well, then. On a certain night you went to a house in Porchester-place, carried there by curiosity or impertinence, it doesn't matter which, and found your way into the place by a happy accident that caused you to be mistaken for a certain doctor, a namesake of mine. But we don't want to worry about him. He has been out of the way for some time, and indeed I was instrumental in removing him."
"Yes, that's all correct," Stagg said.
"And in that house, passing as a doctor, you were shown a body. A man lying in bed recently dead, with signs of violence about him."
"Certainly," Stagg said. "I have seen dead men before, and I am quite sure the man in question had died of violence within a very short time. He must have been alive when I got into the house, or I wouldn't have been asked to go upstairs."
"Quite so, quite so. And subsequently when you read about that business at the cloak room you went to the mortuary with the idea that you were going to see the body of the man whom you saw in bed."
"I did," Stagg said. "It was a ghastly business, but I proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that I was right. I couldn't possibly mistake that face. And then, again, there was the curious ring on his finger I was telling you about. I made no mistake. The man who died whilst I was in the house was the man I saw in the mortuary. Would you mind going down there with me and having another look? They don't bury these cases for weeks, at least as long as there is any chance of identification. Will you go?"
"I have already been," Gilbert said quietly. "I went directly I read that case in the paper. And I am not saying you are wrong as to the identity of the man lying in the mortuary. But this I am sure of, and I can prove it beyond a demonstration to any scientific man. The man, when I saw him, had been dead at least six weeks, if not longer."
"You expect me to believe that, do you?" Stagg cried.
Forbes Gilbert smiled blandly. Despite the fact of his constitutional nervousness, he was quite human, and obviously enjoying the sensation which his extraordinary statement had aroused in Stagg's mind. He had lost a good deal of that hesitating manner, and was now speaking as an expert with a certain knowledge of his own ground.
"Ah, I thought I should surprise you, Mr. Stagg," he said. "But then I am accustomed to surprising people in my particular walk of life. Now, I dare say you regard me as an ordinary doctor. And I hope that does not sound unduly conceited. I mean, I suppose you look upon me as an ordinary practitioner."
"Quite wrong," Stagg said. "Don't forgot that Albert Josh is an old friend of mine who was born on my family property. I knew Albert long before he went to America, and I followed his career there with a great deal of interest. It was he who told me all about you. Now, doesn't it occur to you, Dr. Gilbert, that if I regarded you as an ordinary practioner I should not be here at the present moment? I know all about you. I know all about that amazing piece of work whereby you were instrumental in bringing those American criminals to justice. You reproached me just now with only giving half my confidence. I am quite prepared to give you the whole of it."
This was Montagu Stagg at his best—the bland, polished man of the world, the individual of high honour, quite prepared to go to the utmost limits in the way of candour. With his pleasant smile and open face, and that benign grey hair of his, he made, as he intended, a strong impression upon his companion. But, all the same, he was not giving Gilbert all his confidence, nor had he the slightest intention of doing so.
"I am quite with you," Gilbert said, "Go on, sir."
"For the present there is no more to say," Stagg replied. "I have already told you everything. And now you make an amazing statement that I find it almost impossible to believe. Nothing personal about that remark, of course."
"You think that I am romancing then?" Gilbert asked. "You decline to believe that the man you saw in the bedroom at 22 Porchester Place had been dead for the time I mentioned when you saw him lying there. Unless I am greatly mistaken, what I am telling you is an absolute fact."
"Do you mind if we argue it out?" Stagg said. "Not that I am disputing your statement, but because I have urgent reasons for knowing exactly where I stand before I go any further. Now, just think, doctor. I have told you how I got into the house. I have told you how that insatiable curiosity of mine has more than once led me into queer situations. But never anything so remarkable as this. Very well, then, I found my way into the house, through the simple accident of knocking at the wrong door. I am met by a beautiful and accomplished woman, and undoubtedly one accustomed to good society, who, very naturally, mistakes me for a doctor she has called in.
"I let that pass. It is just the sort of thing I would do. Probably I shouldn't have done so if I had been admitted in the ordinary way by a servant. I should have explained the mistake and gone off in the ordinary way. But that strangely beautiful woman with her foreign air and the suggestion of mystery, fascinated me. I had an instinct that something was wrong, and, well, I succumbed to the temptation. I might find myself in danger; on the other hand I might have found myself on the verge of an exceedingly pleasant adventure. As a matter of fact, I found myself face to face with a dead body, and, moreover, the body of a man who had been murdered."
"You are quite sure of that?" Gilbert smiled.
"Well, as sure as one can be of anything. Don't forget that I was told that there had been a scene of violence in the house. A quarrel, I judged it, between a set of polished and desperate criminals. You see, it wasn't for me to ask questions in my delicate position. I allowed myself to pass as the doctor, and having once placed myself in that position I had to go through with it. I was invited to see a wounded man who had been grievously hurt in the course of a quarrel. And when I did see him he was lying dead in bed. The marks of violence were plain enough, and, indeed, I was told that he had been stabbed in the region of the heart."
"That's highly probable," Gilbert said drily. "The question is, when was he stabbed."
"But, my dear fellow." Stagg protested, "they hadn't been in the house many hours. Certainly not long enough to get in their staff of servants. The only person of that type on the premises was the deaf and dumb foreigner I told you about, and, needless to say, I got nothing out of him. The next morning the house was empty. I told you all about my visit to the house agents, and what they said about the tenants having been recalled home again. As they had paid the rent in advance, it was quite natural that no inquiries should be made."
"Oh, let's get back to the point," Gilbert said. "You saw a man lying there dead in bed. On that score you are absolutely positive. You know he was dead?"
"Certain," Stagg said. "I have seen death before."
"Very well. We'll let it go at that, shall we? The man in bed was no more. And when you realised this, you very prudently got out of the house as soon as possible. You didn't want to be mixed up with a tragedy of that kind."
"Most assuredly I didn't," Stagg said.
"Under the pretence of writing a medical certificate you went down into the dining-room and from thence into the street. Now that woman had mistaken you for a doctor. Not the ordinary practitioner, but a man with the same name as myself, who would come there prepared to give any sort of certificate provided that his fee was big enough. It was not I who was summoned, but my namesake. No doubt a mistake was made when that woman looked up the name in the telephone directory. Now, Mr. Stagg, have you any idea why that woman sent for my namesake, when, according to your statement, she knew that the man in the bedroom was dead? Where was the occasion?"
"But did she know he was dead?" Stagg asked.
"My dear sir," Gilbert replied, "I have already told you that the man had been dead for weeks. That is, of course, if he is the same man whose body found its way to Seymour-street police station in such remarkable circumstances. I suppose it isn't you who has made a mistake here?"'
"Certainly not," Stagg said emphatically. "The man lying in bed there was the same man whose remains I saw lying in the Seymour-street mortuary. How can anybody be mistaken in such a case? There was the unfortunate individual lying in bed. There was a strong light on his face. I need only close my eyes now to see it in the minutest detail. Very well, then. The next thing that happens is my discovery to the effect that the house in Porchester-place has been evacuated within a few hours of the tenants taking possession. That I ascertained beyond the shadow of a doubt. I told you, if you remember, that I was all over the house the next morning and found it deserted. The body had disappeared, and, of course, it had been taken somewhere. My theory is that the people were alarmed, and that when they found that I had vanished, they took immediate steps to get away and cover up their tracks. This they seem to have done very successfully. But a dead body, you must admit, is an exceedingly awkward piece of luggage to handle, and therefore it had to be stowed away somewhere in some secret hiding place beyond the reach of discovery."
"Ah. I see." Gilbert said thoughtfully. "That is probably why they hit upon the idea of using the station cloak room. In this they were frustrated by one of those extraordinary accidents that might happen to anybody. You read the account of that explosion in the papers, and, impelled by what I may be pardoned for calling that insatiable curiosity of yours, you went to Seymour-street police station to view the body. You satisfied yourself it was the same man?"
"Of course I did," Stagg declared. "I knew that at a glance. And, besides, don't forget what I told you about the ring on the finger of the victim. That was the same man who was murdered at Porchester-place."
The doctor was listening now with half-closed eyes, but with a suggestion of rigid attention and a close knitting of the muscles of his mouth that spoke of the fact that every ounce of vitality in him was concentrated on the subject in hand.
"Ah," he said. "That brings us back to our original point. You say that the man was murdered a little time before you saw him. I, on the contrary am bold enough to declare that you were looking at the corpse of a man who died long before."
"But, why on earth—?" Stagg began.
"Ah," Gilbert smiled blandly. "Who can say? We will assume, for the sake of argument, if you like, that the woman you speak of was in urgent need of a death certificate given by an English doctor. She called in, or thought she had called in, the class of practitioner who would be quite ready to give a certificate without asking questions, and with just one perfunctory view of the body to justify him in the eyes of the law in case of trouble afterwards. It's been done before, and I am afraid that my namesake, who, by the way, is now in one of his Majesty's prisons, would probably have been complacent enough for the lady's purpose. But when she discovered that you were not a doctor there was no time to be lost. From what you tell me, no time was lost. Those people cleared out of the house at once, probably without waiting for the man they wanted, and, well, we needn't discuss the rest."
"But what could they want a certificate for?" Stagg asked. "What object could they have?"
Gilbert smiled as one smiles at the question of a child.
"With your limited knowledge of the criminal classes, that is a very natural query," he said. "Of course, you are an absolute novice at this sort of thing. I'm not."
The absolute novice smiled in his turn.
"Go on," he said. "I am very interested."
"Well, they might want that certificate for a score of reasons. Insurance frauds, a forged will, getting rid of the evidence of some premeditated crime. I could tell you of a dozen reasons."
"Very likely," Stagg said. "But it seems to me a most amazing thing for a set of criminals to cart about the body of a dead man for weeks. And there's one thing you may be sure of doctor. When those people took the house in Porchester-place they hadn't the slightest intention of evacuating it in a few hours. But that's the side issue we needn't discuss. What I want to know is this. How is it possible for people to do that kind of thing without detection? To put it as delicately as possible, dead bodies decay. You can't cart dead bodies about all over the country like carcases of frozen mutton."
A queer smile played round Gilbert's lips.
"My dear Mr. Stagg," he said, "that's exactly what you can do. I believe that little smile of yours has gone right to the heart of the question. It occurred to me directly I realised that the man you saw in Porchester place and the one in Seymour-street Police Station were the same. Can't you see how reasonable it is? Supposing that I commit a murder. And supposing that I have some urgent reasons for preserving the body. There might be a score of reasons, but I want you to grant that there may be one. What do I do with my scientific knowledge? I pack that body inside lead and enclose it in a casket. There is no great difficulty in explaining its weight. I am a scientist, if you like, and I have valuable specimens, prehistoric specimen which are likely to perish on exposure to the air. What do I do then? I go boldly and frankly to some cold-storage firm, and I deposit my body in one of their freezing vaults. I can leave it there for years if necessary. So long as I pay the fees, no questions are asked."
Despite his coolness and the steadiness of his nerves. Stagg gave an involuntary shudder.
"Sounds very gruesome," he commented.
"Of course it does, my dear sir. Don't forget we are dealing now with an exceedingly audacious and cold-blooded set of criminals. Beyond question, they are playing for a very big stake. I should gather from what you tell me that they are Americans, and, for some reason or other, they decided to bring that body over here. It wasn't difficult. The casket would be taken on board ship and placed in cold storage there, and directly they got to London the same process would be repeated. When you stood in the bedroom, looking at that dead man, I could quite understand how you thought that he had just expired. In your place I should have done the same thing. But you couldn't deceive me. You see, I went down to Seymour-street police station with a mind full of suspicion. I went because the case interested me. I went because I am a student of scientific crime. The ordinary doctor would have made a perfunctory examination, but then I am not a perfunctory doctor. Almost at once I saw signs about the hair and the finger nails which proved to me that the man had been dead for some time. I suppose I spent a couple of hours there altogether. You see, the police know me, and I have little privileges accorded to few people. I applied certain tests which are practically infallible. There were signs about the skin and hair which told their own tale to the trained eye of the scientist. I assure you, Mr. Stagg, that that unfortunate man had been dead for a long time, and beyond all question the body had been in cold storage. I once saw a man who had been taken out of a river in America; he had been frozen in the ice for weeks. I studied that case, and I found that the knowledge I gained was very useful. Moreover, I have every reason to believe that the victim in whom we are interested was an American. I prejudged that by his aquiline features and high cheek-bones. But as to my statement, I am positive. But we are only just beginning this business."
Stagg nodded thoughtfully. He was well enough aware of that. He had learnt a good deal this morning, and the more he thought the thing over the more convinced he was that there was a big thing here. If he played his cards properly, then he might make more in a week than he could make in what he called his legitimate business in the course of three years. He was thinking now of that five-pointed diamond star which had come so strangely into his possession and which was unquestionably part of the big New York robbery of which, at present, he had only the faintest details. The sergeant in charge at Seymour-street had said something about the offering of a huge reward, and it would be no fault of Stagg's if this reward did not find its way into his possession. If he could get it, himself without sharing it with anybody, he fully intended to do so. He was quite sure, too, that the mysterious business in Porchester-place was directly concerned with the disappearance of those gems in New York. He had assumed to have been absolutely candid with Gilbert, but there was a good deal that the latter did not know yet. He knew nothing, for instance, of the five-pointed diamond star, neither did he know anything of the unknown young man in hiding near Minchin Common, or anything of the plausible American called Geoffrey Hawthorne, and last, but not least, he was not aware of the fact that the heroine of the Porchester place affair was at present staying at a hotel at Minchin, and posing on the links there as Princess de Gaucourt.
All this information could be directed into the proper channel when the right time came. Meanwhile, Stagg decided that he was not wasting his time.
"It's an amazing case," he said. "Most amazing. What could the object of those people possibly be?"
"I am inclined to favour the idea of insurance frauds," Gilbert said. "I could tell you some extraordinary stories of insurance frauds in America. In one of them a body taken from place to place figured prominently. But then, you are not a student of crime. You know nothing of criminals."
"Oh, I have dabbled in it," Stagg said. "Merely as an amateur, of course."
He said this with a smile and an air of aloofness that properly impressed Gilbert. It was this blandness on Stagg's part that deceived most people.
"Well, I must go," Stagg went on. "But I shall come and see you again, Dr. Gilbert. The case is too interesting to drop."
Montagu Stagg, bland, smiling, prosperous looking, and apparently at peace with all the world, made his way from the house and walked along the streets with a more or less idle intention of calling on Everard Stokes. He had not seen the astute proprietor of the 'Searchlight' for some days now, and it occurred to him that it would be just as well to call at Porchester Place and assure Stokes that he had not forgotten the pressing matter of the widow and her little savings. There was not the slightest prospect at present of Stagg being able to do anything towards restoring the money which the lady in question had invested under the guidance of 'Frank Fair,' but it would be just as well, at any rate, to look Stokes up even if it was only an earnest of the fact that the business in question was not being ignored, He trusted to his own blandishments and ready tact to gain a further extension of time.
He walked along the sunny streets, careless and free, beautifully dressed and perfectly appointed like a man of leisure who has a long and prosperous day before him. And as he smoked a contemplative cigarette, he was thinking over the amazing incidents of the morning. Every step he took, and every yard he went carried him further into the heart of a mystery which he found not only amazingly fascinating, but capable, in his skilled hands, of being turned to considerable pecuniary advantage. Indeed, the interlocking events were something almost staggering.
Here, for instance, he had blundered on the track of a crime to which, in the way of a pendant, was attached something like ten thousand pounds; at any rate, that was the reward offered in connection with the diamond robbery in New York. So far, Stagg could see no direct connection between the dead body in Porchester Place and the New York crime with the exception of the diamond pointed star; but with that amazing instinct of his for such things, he divined the fact that if he could establish the identity of that dead body he would he a long way towards the desired haven. It was possible, perhaps, that the police would be in front of him; but, on the other hand, Stagg could console himself with the fact that he had a large amount of inside knowledge of which, so far, the police were ignorant. And, again, what a strange thing it was that Forbes Gilbert should be the son of the woman who had placed herself so innocently in the hands of 'Frank Fair.' This might lead to awkward disclosures later on, but meanwhile, it should prove a decided asset in which was the biggest case that Stagg had come in contact with so far.
He must, by some means or other, manage to keep Stokes quiet for the present. He wanted all his spare time to pursue his investigations. It was unfortunate, too, that things had not been going very well with him lately, and that his post-bag during the last day or two had disclosed no sign of a fish of magnitude likely to swim into his financial net. In that case he might have attempted to rob Peter for the purpose of paying Paul. It was not the kind of thing to commend itself to Stagg for more reasons than one; but if he could get rid of Stokes at this juncture, then he would be free to embark on the great adventure and concentrate his mind upon it.
He was fortunate enough to find Stokes at home. The proprietor of the 'Searchlight' was seated in his library deeply engrossed in a pile of correspondence that seemed to afford him a good deal of grim amusement. He waved Stagg to a seat, and indicated the cigarettes on the side table. Presently he looked up and smiled in a friendly fashion.
"Well, my boy," he said, "what are you doing here?"
"Oh, well, just a friendly call. I thought you would wonder what had become of me."
"I have not been unduly disturbed over that," Stokes grinned. "There are certain men whom one can safely leave to the protection of Providence, that is when they are not under the protection of the police."
Stagg smiled as he lighted a cigarette. All this was like so much water on a duck's back to him.
"You must have your little joke, Nosey," he said. "You'd be sarcastic even if it cost you money."
"You cost me money many a time," Stokes said. "But, upon my word, dealing with men of your class, it's worth it. But it's waste of time talking to you. Lord, how nice you look. You remind me of an aristocratic philanthropist. I'd like to know how much a year that grey hair of yours is worth. And I don't suppose there is a man in London who dresses better than you do. Really, my dear chap, when I come to lay you by the heels, as I shall have to do some day, it'll be a genuine regret to me. I shall feel like a man who has inadvertently put his foot through a beautiful picture."
"Then don't do it," Stagg said good humouredly. "My very disagreeable Nosey, why do you waste your time in the incessant pursuit of rascals? If you caught the whole crop in London to-morrow there would be just as many more in a week. And what's the world going to do after you are dead? Does that disturbing thought ever occur to you?"
"Oh, you are hopeless," Stokes said. "Now have you come here this morning to refund that money?"
"I haven't," Stagg said blandly. "And I don't see any prospect at present, either. Now, don't fly off the handle and threaten me, because that's no use at all. You are an ungrateful beggar, Nosey. You seem to forget that if there were no criminals there would be no 'Searchlight,' which means that you would be deprived of your living. You must give me another fortnight, you must indeed. These things can't be rushed. Now, is there any way I can help you?"
"All right," Stokes said. "Another month. If you like. But, mind you, that money has got to be found. Sit down, and let's talk. I was thinking about you when you came in, and I believe you are the very man I want. I am on the track of a very big financial swindle involving huge interests on both sides of the Atlantic. I have only heard a whisper or two of it as yet, but I can see it coming plainly enough, and if it develops in London, many thousands of would-be financial geniuses will be made very unhappy."
"You are doing this pro bono publico?" Stagg asked.
"Nothing of the sort," Stokes grinned. "I am doing for the benefit of the 'Searchlight,' and perhaps to gratify my own vanity. My dear fellow, you don't suppose I care twopence for the get-rich-quick idiots who are never so happy as when they are confiding their savings to some bucket-shop scoundrels. Not I. I am out for the glory of the 'Searchlight' and to gratify that hunting instinct that every man possesses. Some people hunt foxes, and stags, and wild game, but I hunt scoundrels. And, without flattery, I have had a pretty good bag. I may tell you that if you hadn't been an old schoolfellow of mine, you'd have been added to the collection too."
"Now, look here, Soapy. Suppose I can show you a way to earn that money that we were talking about? Suppose I am prepared to pay you a thousand pounds if you will undertake a certain work. It won't cost you anything, and as you have a pied-a-terre in London you will be on the spot. All you have got to do is to go about with certain information I shall give you with that bland air of yours and those nice clothes, and pose as being an innocent and honourable gentleman who is seeking around for an investment for a few thousand pounds."
Stagg sat up and listened.
"Now you are talking," he said. "I shall be delighted, my boy. Why, it's just in my line. Little dinners and lunches and all that kind of thing, eh? The grey-headed old innocent who will swallow everything that is told him. The man who has only heard of the city by reputation. And that debt wiped out. It's a deal, Nosey, it's a deal."
"Ah, I thought it would be," Stokes said dryly. "You are not blind to the chances of picking up a bit for yourself, eh?"
"Well, such a thought did occur to me," Stagg admitted.
"Well, I don't mind that as long as you do as I implicitly tell you. Now sit down and listen."
"It's like this," Stokes went on. "There are two or three people in London already, and more will follow presently, who are coming here to work one of the biggest rigs in shares which has ever been attempted. And, mind you, when I say this, I don't mean shares in bogus companies, and wild-cat rubbish, but shares in one of the biggest combinations of industrial trusts on the other side of the water. And behind this flutter are two Americans. They are not men of straw, but individuals who count their joint dollars by the hundred millions. You may wonder why they are in a thing like this, but there are certain men who never have enough. If they had all the money in the world, they would want more, not because they can enjoy it or spend it, but from sheer dollar hunger, and they are out now to rob the public in this country of ten million pounds. No more, and no less. I don't quite know how it is going to be worked yet. I don't even know the name of their men in London, because I have only the vaguest details, but that the thing is coming I am certain. Their presiding genius on the other side of the water is a man called Oakes—Silas Oakes."
Stagg whistled softly to himself.
"Silas Oakes?" he echoed. "Do you mean to say you are speaking of the great steel magnate?"
"That's the man," Stokes went on. "You would hardly think it possible, would you? Now, Oakes is at the bottom of it. My confidential informant tells me that he has planned the whole thing in a spirit of sheer revenge, because our Government influenced Canada against a big scheme of his that kept a few millions out of his pocket. Oakes is going to teach London a lesson. And that's about all I can tell you up to now. I know that things are moving, and I may want you at any time. Directly I get you on the telephone, come here and see me."
"I will that," Stagg said cheerfully. "What are you going to do? Expose the whole thing? It would be a thousand pities to do that until the last moment. Why, my dear chap, if you put a commission in my hands with full information we could make a fortune apiece out of these Yankees, and spoil their little game in London at the same time. You leave it to Montagu Stagg. You trust the innocent, confiding, country gentleman to bleat successfully enough until we have got our finger in the corner of the market."
"It would never do for me," Stokes said "But I don't mind you picking up a bit if you can. You are not to move till I give you notice, mind. None of your market-rigging prematurely. And don't forget that I have got a hold over you, Soapy. If you play the fool with me, I'll break you to a certainty."
"Oh, my dear chap," Stagg protested.
"All right, all right, only don't say I didn't warn you. And keep before you the fact that these chaps are criminals. It's the sort of crime that is not provided for on the statute books of any country, but it is a crime all the same. And my idea is to make these beggars suffer. The only way to make them suffer is to hit them through their pockets. When they have realised that they have lost a fortune instead of making one it will be quite time to expose them. I want to drive them out of the country. I want to make their names stink in the United States, which is a pretty big order as you can see. I want to so arouse public attention that our Government and the United States will be compelled to legislate for this sort of thing. Good heavens, why do these sort of men always want to make more money? Take Oakes, for instance. He could bathe in gold every day if he wanted to and let it all go down the waste pipe. But no, he's not satisfied. He's got a magnificent palace on Fifth-avenue and I suppose, the finest collection of gems in the world, and I am told that he isn't particular how he gets them. He'll buy a famous picture that has been stolen, and hang it in that underground museum of his to gloat over in secret. No other man would dare to do such a thing. But the mere joy of possession is enough for Oakes. I heard this morning that thieves had broken into his place the other day and got away with a rare haul."
Stagg's face betrayed no sign of surprise. He looked just as bland and smiling as usual as he carefully selected a fresh cigarette and lighted it with a steady hand.
"Indeed?" he murmured. "Indeed?"
He used the words mechanically, but his mind was a long way off at that moment. Was this another coincidence, he asked himself, or was it possible that Stokes was telling him something about the robbery of gems which he had heard mentioned at Seymour-street police station and which was connected with a ring on the finger of the murdered man?
Well, this might be so, and it might not, though it began to look to Stagg as if every road now was leading in the direction of Rome. At any rate, he had a curious feeling that the threads were converging.
"Tell me more about Oakes.'" he asked.
"I think I have told you everything, pretty well," Stokes said. "He is a cunning devil that. He has been working ramps all his life, theatrical sort of stunts that always end to his own advantage. For instance, about two years ago, his yacht was wrecked on the Gulf of Florida, and he was supposed to be drowned. But, Lord bless you, he wasn't drowned. It was all arranged. The yacht was wrecked on purpose, and, indeed, Oakes was not on her at the time. Somebody impersonated him whilst he stayed in New York to enjoy the sensation caused by his own death. Of course his rivals took advantage of the knowledge and started in to knock his stocks all over the market. You can imagine their consternation when he turned up, having been hidden in New York all the time, and pretending that he had been saved by a passing boat. Hundreds of the smaller operators, following the big sharks, were ruined, and something like a panic followed. And yet, no one tumbled to the facts, except one man who told me all about it. That's only one of Oakes's little playful schemes."
Stagg was barely listening now. His thoughts were very far away, going over the exciting events of the past few days. It was still a dim and knotty tangle, but, all the same, it seemed to him that he could see daylight glimmering away behind the darkness.
"Is Oakes coming over here himself?" he asked.
"I expect not," Stokes said. "He's rather too big a man for that. He's up to his little games again. About five or six weeks ago it was announced that he had met with a nasty accident, followed by a stroke of some sort, and that he had gone off to California to recuperate in a special train, and attended by half a dozen doctors. I shouldn't be at all surprised to read in to-morrow's papers that he is dead. But he won't be dead—I don't think I should believe he was even if I saw him lying in bed with a dagger in his heart."
Stagg checked the words that rose to his lips with an effort. An idea had flashed suddenly into his mind, an idea so wild and strange that it caused even his strong nerves to vibrate. It was only a chimera, a figment of the imagination perhaps, but it contained the germs of a practical thing, and, therefore, he was going to know definitely whether there was anything in it or not. He rose slowly from his chair.
"Well, I suppose that's all there is to it," he said. "Let me know when you want me, and I'll come along at once. I am looking forward to meeting these people."
With that he shook hands with Stokes and retraced his footsteps in the direction of Caithness-road. He was trying to marshal the array of amazing facts which had come to him in reeling succession like the drunken visions of a man who is steeped in alcohol. But he had reached his destination before he had even begun to get the various points into logical sequence. What he wanted to gather now was some further information as to the career of the American millionaire who was at the bottom of this nefarious scheme. And it seemed to Stagg that the most likely man for his purpose was Albert Josh. Josh was at home and quite ready to sit down in Stagg's private room and discuss the matter over a cigar.
"You are quite right, sir," he said. "What I don't know about Silas Oakes isn't worth knowing."
A contented little sigh trickled from Stagg's lips. He had a comfortable feeling that things were going his way, and with that sanguine nature of his he was beginning to see fat and rosy profits looming in the distance. And these would be legitimate profits, too, the result of certain hard work and mental ingenuity in which he shone. For Stagg was essentially the type of man who preferred to live honestly if he could. He was not blind to the dangers of the crooked path or to the fact that a man's soul becomes soiled by conflict with that sort of moral pitch that some men call business. He was eminently an aristocrat, both by birth and inclination, and if the sheer need of what he regarded as necessaries sometimes compelled him to the oblique, he regretted the necessity none the less.
Not that he was over scrupulous when the spur of need pressed deeply, nor was he blind to the humour of some of his expedients. But he was a man who loved his comforts, to say nothing of his little luxuries, and these had to be provided for. Otherwise, he often asked himself, what was the good of living at all? He wanted to be straight, and if fortune were with him at this juncture, then he would be able to follow the path of rectitude in future and all such pseudonyms as 'Frank Fair' and the like might be relegated to obscurity.
"Sit down, Josh, sit down." he said, with that mixture of bland amiability and patronage that Josh instinctively looked for in his employer. "Take a cigar. We'll open a bottle of wine later on. Now, you know that I am deeply interested in this matter of our unfortunate young friend, whom I believe to be the victim of some deep conspiracy on the part of certain scoundrels whom it will be our business to expose. I have found out a good deal, but I don't propose to confide in anybody at present. I don't mind telling you, Josh, that I have gifts in that direction of which you know nothing."
"You always had plenty of brains," Josh said respectfully. "Always, from a boy."
Perhaps if the little man with the black moustache had only known how thoroughly this compliment was deserved, he might have been a little more enthusiastic. Stagg smiled at the compliment, but it was no business of his to tell Josh what was in the back of his mind.
"That's very good of you, Josh," he said. "In my moments of leisure, when I am not looking after my property or playing golf, I am much interested in the study of human nature, and when I say that, I mean human nature at its worst. Not in a professional way like you, because I am a mere amateur with a mind incapable of grasping certain things. Still, the subject interests me, and it has interested me still more since that unfortunate young man has been under my roof."
"A nicer gentleman I never see, sir," Josh said. "And when I say gentleman, sir, I mean it."
"I don't think there is any doubt about that," Stagg said. "Which makes the case all the more remarkable. Now, here is a young follow, obviously well brought up, and accustomed to good society, wandering about London with his pockets full of money, looking not only for his own name, but for some one to claim him. Dash it all, Josh, he must have relations somewhere, and, moreover, relations moving in high circles. And yet, though some days have elapsed, there have been no inquiries for the missing youth, which naturally forces one to the conclusion that he is not English."
"I am quite sure he isn't sir," Josh said.
"Oh, you are, are you? Why?"
"Oh, many little things, sir. Little phrases, tricks of speech. The gentleman's clothes were made in Bond-street, no doubt, but he was made in America so to speak. Probably a young gentleman of means who is knocking about Europe enjoying himself and possibly not in the habit of writing home very often. What do you think, sir?"
"I am entirely with you, Josh," Stagg said. "We shall hear some inquiries sooner or later. A young man like that can't disappear without somebody wanting to know why. But we will come back to that presently. Never mind why, but I have a very good reason for wanting to hear all you can tell me with regard to Mr. Silas Oakes. I think you said that you could tell me a good deal."
"Is he a friend of yours, sir?" Josh asked.
"God bless me, no. I never heard of the man till this morning. A millionaire, isn't he?"
"A millionaire ten times over," Josh said "And a real bad 'un, sir. Bad to the very core. Sort of chap who would rather make a shilling dishonestly than eighteenpence by straight business."
"There are plenty of men like that," Stagg said sententiously. "I have met scores of them."
"Well, at any rate, Silos Oakes is one," Josh went on. "I came in contact with him in New York some years ago, just before I met with that little accident that finally put me out of the business. It was like this, sir. You see, Oakes had just finished building that big place of his on Fifth-avenue. Goodness knows what it cost him, and he didn't enjoy it, either. He had only one thought uppermost in his mind, and that was money gained any way as long as he got it. It became the fashion in those days for men of that class to build themselves gorgeous houses in New York. Sort of advertisement, I suppose. They didn't really live in them, you know. I don't think you could properly say that Oakes lived anywhere. He had historic carpets and furniture and famous pictures and a wonderful collection of jewels that he had gathered from all over the world. It was said at Pinkerton Headquarters that Oakes would buy historic gems from anybody, and that he did not care if they were stolen. Do you happen to remember, sir, the robbery of certain diamond ornaments from the palace of the Prince of Somebody who lived in Venice?"
"Of course I do," Stagg said. "Why, my dear fellow, those gems were of world-wide reputation."
"Yes, sir, and they were never recovered. There were lots of those stones that couldn't possibly be disguised, engraved diamonds and peculiarly shaped pearls, and so on. You would have thought they would have been of no more use to a thief that a sick headache. But one of our chaps at Pinkerton's, whose line was stolen jewels, always said that those stones were hidden away in Oakes's underground museum. Not that I saw them when I was there."
Stagg sat up suddenly.
"Oh, indeed," he said. "Do you mean to tell me that you have been inside that subterranean hiding place? How did it come about? Why did he take you there?
"Well, it was like this, sir," Josh said. "You may not know it, but I have made a study of locks. I don't mean ordinary door locks, I mean time combinations and the sort of thing that they put outside fireproof safes. Every strongroom has got its peculiar lock, and some of them are exceedingly ingenious. But I never met one yet that a scientific burglar couldn't get through if you gave him time. You see, sir, it's a constant battle between safe-makers and burglars, very much like a struggle between armour-plate and modern guns. A manufacturer of locks brings out something fresh, something that can't be tampered with, and almost before he can blow his nose, so to speak, your highly technical safe breaker has beaten it."
"I had heard something of this," Stagg murmured.
"Ah, sir, you don't know what those Yankee crooks are like. Clever! If they'd only devote themselves to legitimate business there isn't one who couldn't make a fortune. I suppose the sporting element appeals to them."
"Get on, Josh, get on," Stagg said gently.
"Beg you pardon, sir," Josh said. "When I get started on this subject I could talk all day. Well, it was like this, sir. Oakes, of course, had the very last thing in the way of combination locks and electric bells and all the rest of it. With a collection like his it was necessary. But that didn't prevent some thieves getting to his house one night. They were scared off, but it jolted Oakes up all right and he came round to our office in New York for advice."
"And he happened to see you?" Stagg asked eagerly.
"He sent for me, sir," Josh went on. "You see, I happened to be the authority on the matter. If you like, I'll show you my collection of locks presently. And every one of them has a history. Well, Oakes, asked me to go round to his place and go thoroughly into all the precautions he had taken. There were locks everywhere, alarms on every floor, steel-lined shutters, and goodness knows what else. Of course, old man Oakes was under the impression that he had got the last word in the way of a baffle, and, to a certain extent, he had. But if you want to keep on all fours with the modern thief you must keep on changing, and after going all over the house I was in a position to point out to our client where the weak spots lay. He was so pleased with what I told him and the advice I gave him that he actually took me all over the under-ground museum. It was a wonderful place, must have cost a mint of money. A sort of big, steel-lined cave, safe as the Bank of England, you'd say, but, all the same, it wasn't. I haven't the slightest doubt that more than one clever gang of housebreakers in New York had worked out some scheme for getting inside. Yes, and they'd have done it, too, if Oakes hadn't taken my advice and kept on changing his locks. Well, he took me all over the place as I have said, and showed me his treasures. A regular Aladdin's cave it was. Wonderful pictures and china and amazing jewels in big velvet cases. Fancy a man buying all that stuff merely to gloat over in a dark cellar. But then, that's the type of mind some of these money-grabbing millionaires have. And him miserable all the time because somebody might break in at any moment and get away with the goods. And I found out that my pal at Pinkerton's was quite right, sir. I saw a picture down there, fastened up against a wall with an electric light burning in front of it as if it had been a shrine. And what do you think that picture was?"
"I give it up, Josh," Stagg smiled.
"Well, sir, it was the Mont Beauvoir Venus. You remember, sir, the picture that was stolen from Mont Beauvoir Castle about 20 years ago."
"Oh, yes," Stagg said. "I recollect. It was a huge sensation at the time. But surely you must have been mistaken?"
"Not a bit of it sir," Josh said doggedly. "There were photographs of that picture circulated broadcast. I have got one of them amongst my collection here now. It was the Venus I was looking at right enough. I expect Oakes forgot all about it, or he didn't intend me to see it. Perhaps the curtain in front of it had been drawn by mistake, but there was the Venus that a big reward was still being offered for, and I have no doubt that Oakes bought it at his own price from the thief. And there it probably is still."
"And you said nothing about it, Josh?"
"Why should I, sir? I wasn't a policeman in the New York force. Pinkerton's are private detectives, in a huge way of business, but they are private detectives, all the same. I was sent round to that house by my firm to advise a client, and all I had to do was to keep to my task and see that I didn't open my mouth too wide. Lord bless you, sir, I could fill volumes with the stories I could tell you."
"Well, stick to Oakes for the present," Stagg said. "Did you happen to see any stolen jewels there?"
"I dare say I did," Josh said cheerfully. "Only I didn't happen to identify them as such. There was one lot that had belonged to Queen Something of another, only I have forgotten the name. All diamonds they were, a sort of crown arrangement composed of five-pointed stars, one interlocking with the other in a most ingenious way. I tell you, sir, that they were—"
"Here, hold on a minute," Stagg said. "Were these pointed stars anything like this?"
As Stagg spoke he put his hand in his pocket and produced from his purse the little diamond ornament that he picked up in the house in Porchester Place. This he handed to Josh who examined it carefully.
"Was it anything like that?" Stagg asked.
"Why, that's it exactly," Josh cried. "That might be one of the small stars off a bigger one. If it isn't a rude question, sir,—"
"Well, it won't be later on," Stagg smiled, as he replaced the ornament in his pocket. "A mere coincidence, Josh, a mere coincidence. But go on."
Stagg lay back blandly in his chair, apparently given over entirely to the rapt enjoyment of his cigar. It was impossible for Josh to know what was going on in the back of his mind, impossible for him to conceive how this unexpected disclosure was showing up light in a dark place. And again, it was not for Josh to know that he was in the presence of an intellect far superior to his own. For Stagg had realised early in life the value of keeping in the background his own diamond-pointed intelligence. He posed just as the ordinary everyday man, fond of sport and good living, and this blinding of the faculties had always stood him in good stead.
"You musn't imagine for an instant, Josh," he said, "that there is any connection between that treasure-house in New York and the little ornament I have just shown you. Now, apart from what you have just told me, what were the characteristics of this man Oakes?"
"Well, not worse than usual," Josh said. "An utterly unscrupulous man who started life as a newsboy. Then he drifted West and finally towards the Klondyke. After that he seems to have robbed and betrayed everybody he came in contact with, letting his friends down at every turn and profiting by his disloyalty. Eventually he got back to New York with a few thousand dollars, and it wasn't very long before he was beginning to keep them awake at nights in Wall Street. The rest you know, Sir. But he's a rare hard nut, and there's nothing he wouldn't do to make a dollar."
"No redeeming vices, Josh?"
"Not one, as far as I could hear, sir. Oh, yes. I was told that he had adopted a young relative and educated him as if he had been his own son. They say he was very fond of the boy, and, indeed I suppose all of us have a soft spot somewhere. And that's about all I can tell you, sir, I think."
"And very interesting, too," Stagg said. "I should like to have a look at that collection of yours some of these days, especially those photographs. By the way, I suppose you haven't got a photograph of Oakes amongst them?"
"Well, as a matter of fact I have, sir," Josh said. "It's a snap I took one day when I was in the house of Fifth Avenue. The old man didn't know I had taken it, and therefore it was just a little blurred."
"If you can put your hand on it, I should like to have it for a day or two," Stagg said. "I'll bring it back. I can't tell you why I am interested in this matter at present, but you'll know all in good time, and if you can help me, as I think you can, there will be quite a nice little present waiting for you. It may be a dangerous job, but I think, on the whole, that you will rather enjoy that."
Josh went off to the top of the house and came back presently with a small Kodak picture in his hand. As he had said, it was just a little blurred, but the strong, keen clean-shaven face of the money-maker taken by electric light stood out clearly enough, and Stagg saw at a glance that it was sufficient for his purpose. For the present it was too small for practical uses, but there were ways of getting over that, as Stagg very well knew, at a comparatively small outlay.
"Well, Josh," he said, "I must get along now. It will be a few days before matters develop as I hope, but you shall hear from me again as soon as I am ready for you. You shall have this negative back by the end of the week, and if it is half as useful to me as I expect, then I shall be able to reward you in proportion to your services."
"Oh, that's all right, sir," Josh said cheerfully. "I don't want anything for helping you."
"Ah," Stagg said. "The labourer is worthy of his hire."
Stagg turned his steps in the direction of Regent-street, where presently he dropped into a certain famous photographic establishment in that great thoroughfare. To the obliging assistant behind the counter he produced the snapshot with the desire that it should be enlarged to some twenty times its original size, and expressed a hope that it might be forwarded on to him at his private address in the course of a day or two. This being satisfactorily arranged, Stagg hailed a taxi and went off in the direction of his club, where he felt justified in indulging in a most luxurious and carefully-thought-out lunch Then, over a cup of coffee and a liqueur and a big Corona cigar, he sat in the almost deserted smoking-room going over recent events in his mind.
He was really beginning to see his way now; he was getting a series of intricate and tangled webs into his hands and laying them out in a form that began presently to resolve itself into a clear pattern. He knew certain things now that would have deeply interested the authorities of Scotland Yard, but all these things he resolved to keep to himself till such time as they could be disclosed to his own great advantage. But the really big discovery he had made, or thought he had made, was so vast and stupendous that he hardly dared to fix it in his own mind. But all the details were fairly clear, and it seemed to him that he had only to wait upon events with patience until the prize fell into his hands like a ripe plum.
Then be dismissed the subject altogether, a mental detachment which was a gift with him, and made his way back to Minchin. It was nearly four o'clock when he arrived to find that Stella and the young man whom he had called Charles Grandison had gone for a walk, and were not expected back till teatime. They came in presently, talking cheerfully together, and evidently on the best of terms with one another.
Stagg was pleased to see that the last few hours had brought about a great improvement in the young man whom he had taken under his wing. He seemed to have lost a great deal of that uneasy nervousness of his, and the suggestion of fear in his eyes had given place to a clear and open look that greatly impressed Stagg in his favour. For Stagg, like most men of his class, had the greatest admiration for probity and straightforwardness in others. A man of the world himself, and a keen judge of humanity in the abstract, he could not look the man he called Grandison in the face, and believe that he was anything but what he seemed. Apart from that lamentable lapse of memory, which fixed such a gulf between Grandison and his fellows, there was nothing to indicate that he was anything but normal. He chattered to Stella in the most natural way in the world, and made no attempt to conceal his admiration for her indeed, he might have done a great deal worse, for Stella was a glorious example of English girlhood, tall, clean of limb, and clear of skin, with dark, honest eyes that looked the whole world in the face with a smile for everybody.. If Stagg was proud of one thing in the world, it was his niece. It would be a bad day for him if ever she discovered the class of man her uncle really was, for there was a deep bond of affection between these two, that it would have taken a good deal to sever. And, in a way, Stagg was glad, too, as he noticed the growing friendship between the young people, for he had been just a little afraid of Stella's acquaintance with the fascinating young American who was at present cutting such a dashing figure on the golf links. And if Stagg was any judge of such matters, that was not likely to go much further.
"Well, where have you been?" he asked.
"Over the links in the direction of the lakes," Stella said. "We had a glorious walk. I only hope that Charles is not tired. Did we go too far?"
"Not half far enough," the young man said eagerly. "I am all right again now, Mr. Stagg, indeed I am. The last day or two has worked wonders with me. I seem to have got rid of all that tired feeling, and I don't feel afraid of anything."
It was obvious from the way he looked at Stagg that he was not boasting. Then just for a moment the wistful glance crept back into his eyes again.
"What's troubling you?" Stagg asked.
"Oh, nothing," Grandison replied "But that isn't quite true, Mr. Stagg. I ought to be grateful enough. I ought to be glad to think that I am in safe hands. Your kindness to me is beyond all words. And yet, every now and then when I try to think, it's maddening. Do you suppose my memory will ever come back to me?"
"Of course it will," Stagg said heartily. "When your body becomes absolutely normal you will find your mind active enough. My dear boy, if you could only realise what your face was like when I first saw you, and the difference I see in it to-day, you wouldn't worry in the least. Don't trouble to think. Be content to enjoy this lovely weather in this beautiful part of the country, and let matters take their course. I suppose you are sleeping better?"
"The last two nights, splendidly," Grandison said. "It is good to be here. Some day I may be able to repay you. Some day it may be proved that I have friends who will help me to show my gratitude in a substantial way. Meanwhile—"
"Meanwhile you are my honoured guest," Stagg said. "You are quite welcome to stay here as long as you like and make yourself thoroughly at home. Isn't that right, Stella?"
"Of course it is," Stella smiled. "Now, come out in the garden and have some tea, and let's talk about something more pleasant. Would you like a round presently, uncle?"
"My dear child," Stagg said, "nothing would delight me more. Only, unfortunately, I find there are a good many letters to attend to, and, in addition, there is a little scheme which I must work out before I can sit down to dinner with an easy mind. But why don't you get your tea over and play a few holes with our friend Charles here?"
"What do you say, Charles?" Stella asked.
"Well, I don't know," the young man said. "Directly Mr. Stagg suggested it I seemed as if I wanted to play. And now I don't know if I have ever had a club in my hand or not before. That seems a funny thing to say, doesn't it? But if you had a mind like mine you would understand."
Stella led the way to the tea-table in the garden. Here she dispensed her cakes and thin bread and butter in the sunshine whilst they talked of things that were likely to interest their guest. That is, current topics and such objects as presented themselves around them. Presently Stella slipped off in the direction of the house and returned a moment or two later carrying a driver and one or two old golf balls. She placed the latter on the tennis lawn that looked out over a gorse hedge to the open deserted common beyond.
"There," she said smilingly, "I am going to put you to a practical test, Charles. I am going to find out whether you have ever played golf before or not. I think you must have done. You are what they call built for a golfer. Now, take that driver in your hand and hit those balls away."
Grandison reached eagerly for the club, around the shaft of which he closed his hands instinctively, and with a smile Stagg saw that those fingers were interlocked in what golfers call the Vardon grip. The club was swung forward once or twice scientifically, and then the first ball was driven. It was a bad half-topped shot that only went a few yards, and the second attempt was no better.
But, with the third ball Grandison shaped differently. He took a firm open stance and, with a quick lightning swing, smote the small white object sweetly and truly for something like two hundred and forty yards. It was a really fine drive that could have been made only by an expert, and Stagg congratulated his young friend warmly.
"That was all right," he said. "That was no fluke. Nobody but a first-class player could have done it."
"It was great." Stella beamed. "Uncle, doesn't his style rather remind you of Mr. Hawthorne's? Mr. Geoffrey Hawthorne, I mean."
"Hawthorne," Grandison exclaimed. "That's my name."
Here was another dramatic surprise, and, on the whole, not the least startling one that had come to Stagg in the course of the last 24 hours. He would have preferred to have heard that statement with Stella out of earshot, but, as that was impossible, he had to make the best of it. He glanced uneasily from one to the other of the young people, from Grandison's face, which had now grown hard and haggard, to the curious surprise, that he saw in Stella's eyes.
"Eh, what?" he said. "What do you mean?"
"I—I don't know," Grandison stammered stupidly. "But when Miss Henson mentioned that name I seemed to feel that it was mine. It's all gone again now. I dare say I was mistaken. Hawthorne. Hawthorne. Hawthorne. No."
He repeated the name three times with a curiously puzzled air, and then shook his head as if it had been a problem far beyond his grasp. Stella watched with eyes that had grown suddenly dim. There was something in this to her that was almost pathetic. But to Stagg that blankness of Grandison's mind came as a positive relief.
He wanted to get away and think over the recent development. He dismissed the young people presently on the way to the golf links, and then sat out there, in the sunshine, turning matters over in his mind until it was time to dress for dinner. For him he was curiously silent during meal, thankful, perhaps, to note that the young people were absorbed in discussing the golf that they had been playing earlier in the evening. For it had turned out exactly as Stella had prophesied. Grandison was really a fine player, a little short of practice, perhaps, but one who would be a decided acquisition to the links in the course of a day or two.
They went off to the drawing-room presently, and a minute or two later Stagg left the house.
It was a glorious evening, with a full moon shining over the country, so that Stagg found himself strolling across the links without an overcoat. There were other visitors taking advantage of the beauty of the night, and, amongst them he came presently upon the American, Hawthorne, accompanied by the woman whom he had introduced to his acquaintances as the Princess de Gaucourt. They were walking side by side across the short grass, talking earnestly together, but they broke off as Stagg approached them, and began to speak to him quite in the ordinary way.
There was no sign of recognition on the woman's face, and no suggestion that she and Stagg had ever been together under dramatic and tragic circumstances. Her manner was serene and confident, she spoke of the links and the course, and the excellent accommodation at the hotel as if she had been familiar with the golf links all her life. Nor could Stagg detect in her manner the slightest suggestion that she was in any fear of him. Well, if she liked to ignore the past, he was quite prepared to fall in with her whim. It seemed to him that he would know where to strike when the time came, and strike hard. Perhaps, sooner or later, he would have an opportunity of being alone with her, and then they would see who would get the better of the battle of wits between them.
Meanwhile, the conversation was light hearted and frivalous enough. They had been playing golf all day, they had had a great foursome with a well-known amateur and a lady champion, in which, alas, they had been beaten, and a considerable amount of money had changed hands.
"I had no idea the man was half so good, Mr Stagg," Hawthorne said. "I was conceited enough to think that we should get the best of them. Instead of which that little man walked off with over forty pounds of my money. He's going to give me my revenge to-morrow, but meanwhile I am quite cleaned out I wonder if you could oblige me again?"
Stagg was on the point of a polite refusal, remernbering the affair of the last cheque, when a brilliant idea suddenly flashed into his mind. Here was an opportunity of testing something that had been troubling him all the evening, something that would put a certain issue beyond all doubt.
"Why not?" he said. "You give me a cheque now and I will send my man along presently with the money. I have got about fifty pounds in notes in the house, I think."
"Good," Hawthorne said. "I really must open an account with the local bank here. You walk back with us to the hotel and I'll give you the cheque at once."
The three of them turned in the direction of the hotel, chatting gaily as they went, much as if they had been three pleasant acquaintances with nothing to think of but the enjoyment of the moment. Once inside, the Princess bade Stagg a gracious good-night and went off in the direction of the drawing-room.
With a word of excuse Hawthorne ran upstairs and came down presently with a cheque book in his hand. The smoking-room was deserted, so the two turned in there where Hawthorne crossed over to a table and began to write. He handed Stagg a cheque for fifty pounds, which the latter glanced at to see that it was in order, then he laughed. He saw that the cheque book was lying on the table in the window a few feet away, and he noticed something also that filled him with a certain sense of satisfaction. It was quite clear to that eagle sight of his that Hawthorne was no business man, for Stagg could see two or three of the counterfoils as they stood half on end, and he did not fail to grasp the fact that in no case were the counterfoils filled in. So Hawthorne was in the habit of drawing cheques without making any record of them, and, consequently, could not trace them except through the medium of his passbook. Well, that was all right. It was going to make Stagg's task all the easier in the future, and, at the same time, cover up any track that pointed in a suspicious direction.
With a cheery, careless laugh, Stagg glanced at the cheque, and then proceeded coolly enough to tear it into a score of pieces, and throw them into the grate.
"Here, what are you doing?" Hawthorne asked uneasily. "What's the matter, Mr. Stagg? I thought you were going to cash that cheque for me. Of course, I know, unfortunately, the last one went wrong; but it was really no fault of mine, and if you want to be nasty about it you might have been so in a less offensive manner. It would have been so easy for you to say you hadn't the money in the house."
"Of course it would have been easy," Stagg said coolly, "But it wouldn't have been true. And, of course, you know no gentleman tells a lie if he can possibly avoid it."
"What's wrong, then?" Hawthorne asked suddenly.
"My dear fellow, you have made exactly the same mistake as you made before," Stagg smiled. "I couldn't help laughing. You signed this cheque 'Geoffrey A. Hawthorne.' You don't want it to come back from the bank again, do you? I suppose I ought to have handed it back to you, but, on the spur of the moment, I tore it up. Give me another."
"Ah, that's the sort of stupid ass I am," Hawthorne laughed, but with evident relief. "All right, I'll give you another one. So good of you to remind me."
"Here, wait a bit," Stagg said. "Let's have a drink. Ring the bell in the corner behind you—no, not that one, it doesn't work—and order two whiskies and sodas."
As Hawthorne crossed the room in the direction of the bell, Stagg, who was standing by the table, reached out quickly and, bending over the cheque book, very swiftly and silently tore out one of the oblong pink slips and coolly placed it in the pocket of his dinner jacket. When Hawthorne returned from ringing the bell. Stagg was lighting a cigarette. A moment or two later the correct draft was made out, and, after the interchange of a few pleasantries, Stagg turned his back upon the hotel and went thoughtfully homewards across the moonlit common, very pleased with his evening's work.
He had a pretty clear plan in his mind as to what he was going to do with the blank cheque. As to the other one, he was not troubling much about that. Even if he lost the money, the fifty pounds he had advanced to Hawthorne would be well laid out at the price. And if his suspicions were correct—and he would know all about that in the course of the next twenty-four hours—then he had taken another long stride towards his goal.
The more Stagg thought the matter over, the more convinced he was that he was on the right track. He could see wide possibilities here, not only in the direction of those adventures that so delighted him from time to time, but also towards a substantial return for all the trouble that he was taking. And this, as a mater of fact, was the one thing that spurred him on. For there were times when he was beginning to feel the stress of life and the struggle for existence, desirable as it appeared to be on the outside, and if he could see his way to something definite in the way of a permanent income, then he was quite prepared to turn his back upon the city and all its works. This definite income he placed at fifteen hundred pounds—quite sufficient, he told himself, for a man who knew the whole philosophy of life and one who, moreover, had an excellent idea of how to take care of himself.
But there was a long way to go before this desirable consummation could be accomplished. It called for all Stagg's shrewdness and foresight. He sat up half the night until it seemed to him that the situation was reasonably clear, then he went to bed and slept like a child.
He put his correspondence aside till the morning, and announced to Stella that he had no intention of doing any work that day. He was going to potter about the garden all the morning, he said, and probably go to Town after an early lunch. He might be away for a day or two, but as to that, he could say nothing definite until he reached Caithness-road. After that he would telephone later on.
And so it came about presently that he found himself in the garden with the man called Grandison, whilst Stella was inside looking after her household duties. The two sat down presently in the little arbor over-looking the golf links, where they talked idly in the sunshine until, gradually, Stagg led the conversation round to the point he wanted to arrive at.
"I have been thinking, my boy," he said, in his blandest and most parental manner, "thinking over what you said when the name of Hawthorne was mentioned. There is a young man named Hawthorne staying here now, as you probably know. I think Stella mentioned him to you."
"Oh, yes," Grandison said. "He's an American, isn't he, a man of about my age?"
"Well, I should say he is rather older," Stagg said. "One of those clean-shaven, well-preserved men who might be of any age. If he told me he was 30 I should believe him, and if he said he was 45 I should see no reason to doubt his statement. He is quite a good golfer, by the way."
"Perhaps I shall meet him," Grandison said.
Stagg was pretty sure of it, but he said nothing.
"Oh, no doubt, no doubt," he replied. "But never mind about him now. It is your particular case that I have in my mind. Of course, as I told you yesterday, we shall be delighted to have you here as long as you like, but that is no reason why we shouldn't do our best to establish your identity. Now, look here, my boy. I feel quite sure that, when the name of Hawthorne was mentioned yesterday it struck a chord somewhere in your mind. I mean, who wouldn't have said what you said unless the name had moved you. Does it now?"
Grandison shook his head sorrowfully.
"No, not in the least," he said. "I can't think why the name impelled me to claim it as my own. Just for the moment it certainly did, but only for an instant, and then the past became all a blank again."
"Still, there must have been something in it," Stagg said thoughtfully. "There must. Why should you say all at once that your name was Hawthorne?"
"Heaven only knows," Grandison said forlornly.
"Look here." Stagg exclaimed as if a new idea had occurred to him. "Suppose we put it to a test. I suppose you know that very often, when things are written, they impress the mind a great deal more than the spoken word. The mere fact of seeing a name in ink before you may help in a way that you don't realise. Now, suppose we walk as far as the library, where you can sit down and write the name of Hawthorne on a piece of paper. By the way, what's your Christian name?"
Stagg threw the question at his companion swiftly, with the hope that perhaps it would stir something in his mind and compel him to a correct reply. But Grandison only shook his head with the same suggestion of melancholy.
"I don't know," he said.
"Never mind," Stagg replied. "Come along. We can only fail anyhow."
They turned their steps in the direction of the house, and presently Grandison found himself seated at the table with a sheet of paper before him. On a corresponding sheet Stagg had written the name of Hawthorne. He placed this before his companion, with a request that he would write the same word. Grandison took up his pen, and, after a slight hesitation, bent down and wrote the name of Hawthorne with the quick fluency of a man who has done the same thing many a time before. And as Stagg bent over him, he saw, with a thrill, that not only was the word 'Hawthorne' written, but the Christian name of 'Geoffrey' before it.
Stagg breathed a little quickly as he noticed it. It seemed to him that this little experiment of his was succeeding beyond his wildest expectations. Grandison had told him that he had not the faintest idea what his name was, and yet here he had dashed off what was evidently the desired information much as if he had been doing it all his life. Indeed, there was little doubt that he had. It was a strange thing, too, that there should be two Geoffrey A. Hawthornes, though the name on the paper before Stagg's eyes had no capital initial between the two words. Here, therefore, was the very signature that the man Hawthorne at the hotel had written on the amended cheque; in other words, the unfortunate individual sitting at the table there had inscribed upon that sheet of note paper the only signature which the manager of the Amalgamated London Bank would recognise on a cheque.
Stagg did not doubt for a moment that here were a few letters which would undoubtedly tap the banking resources placed by the genuine Hawthorne in the custody of the manager of the Amalgamated London Bank. Assuredly, Stagg was getting on. He took the blank cheque he had obtained the night before and placed it before his companion.
"Another little experiment," he said. "I read somewhere that these tests often prove to be a wonderful aid to memory. Now, here's a blank cheque of no particular value. I want you to take it and fill it in. Put in the date and make it payable to, let us say, James Grant, Esq., for ten pounds. It's a bearer cheque, not that that has anything to do with it. Draw the cheque and sign it as you signed that last piece of paper. Now, go on, please."
Quite implicitly, and without asking any questions, Grandison did as he was desired. With a careless air, Stagg threw the cheque on one side and gradually led the conversation into another direction. He was quite satisfied, so far—indeed, he was more than satisfied. He caught a train to Town just after lunch, and, once arrived in the City, he made his way to the head office of the Amalgamated Bank, where he presented the draft for payment. If anything went wrong he could easily say that the cheque had come into his hands from some casual acquaintance. He trusted to his bland manner and that fine appearance of his to carry matters through in case the validity of the cheque was questioned.
But the cashier behind the counter merely gave a glance at it and politely inquired of Stagg how he would take the money. Stagg gravely replied that he would like it in five-pound notes, and with these in his pocket he stepped out into Cheapside with the complacent feeling of a man who has done an exceedingly good morning's work. He had established, entirely to his own satisfaction, the fact that the man whom he called Grandison was the genuine Geoffrey Hawthorne, and that he was the young American who had come to London with a big credit at his bank. This was a big stride forward, and Stagg rejoiced accordingly.
Well, so far, so good. Stagg had a piece of priceless information which, in the course of time, no doubt, could be turned to his great advantage. He could not see so far exactly how this was to be done, he would have to think that out, but there was no hurry, and that mingled cleverness and lurk which had stood him in such excellent stead so far were not likely to desert him. He would go along presently and have another talk with Albert Josh. In the light of recent events Josh could no doubt give him certain further information.
Stagg strolled along slowly, with his face turned in a westerly direction through Cheapside, and thence to Ludgate Hill, where presently his eye caught the familiar big gold sign in front of the offices of the 'Searchlight.' It was just possible that Everard Stokes was in the office, so Stagg turned in there with the idea of passing the time of the day and seeing if there were any fresh developments. Stokes was not only on the premises, but would see Mr. Stagg at once.
"I am rather glad you called," he said, "I was going to drop you a line presently."
"That's good." Stagg said "Foe beginning to move? Any sign of the coming fray?"
"Well, they're certainly on the warpath," Stokes smiled. "My New York correspondents advise me that the conspiracy is in full train now, and the campaign for skinning the British public may be open at any moment. That doesn't mean that I am ready for you yet, because I am not. Still, I am neglecting no precautions. Now, look here, Stagg, you play golf nearly every day on Minchin Common, and you probably know all the visitors there. Have you come in contact with an engaging youth with nice manners and a slightly American accent, who calls himself Geoffrey Hawthorne?"
Stagg smiled. It was no call on his part to show Stokes how this interested him.
"Oh yes," he said. "A man of leisure, evidently, and, I presume, of considerable means. He's been down in my neighbourhood for two or three weeks. Quite a nice chap."
It was Stokes's turn to smile now.
"Yes, he would be," he said. "For the job he is engaged on a good presence and charming manner are absolutely essential, because, you see, he happens to be one of the men who is at the bottom of the campaign I told you about."
"That's interesting," Stagg said thoughtfully. "Is there a woman, a lovely woman, taking a hand at this game, too?"
"Ah, I hadn't thought of that," Stokes said. "All the same it's probable. Why do you ask?"
"Well, because there is a woman staying at the hotel, too. And I happen to know that she and Hawthorne are on terms of the greatest intimacy. They speak as if they had only met one another the last day or two, but that sort of thing doesn't deceive a hardened man of the world like me."
"What's her name?" Stokes asked.
"Well, she calls herself Princess de Gaucourt," Stagg explained. "She told me that she was a native of Martinique, and that this was her first visit to England. But her English is practically as good as yours and mine, and I don't believe she's any more of a princess than your office charwoman. I'm not talking about her manner or appearance, because those would do credit to any court in Europe. But, you see, I happen to know something. It's in no way connected with our little matter, so I am not going into details. Now, with your intimate knowledge of Continental rascality, does the name of Gaucourt convey anything to you?"
"I can't say it does," Stokes admitted. "But I could easily find out, if you like."
"I wish you would," Stagg said. "It may help me considerably. And now, I won't detain you any longer."
"Here, stop a bit," Stokes cried. "I haven't quite finished yet. Have you seen to-day's Times?"
"I just glanced at it," Stagg said.
"Well, there it is on the table, yonder. There's a whole column of stuff from a New York correspondent on the subject of a mysterious robbery of jewels in America. Now, I know my New York well, and, as an old pressman, I flatter myself that I can read between the lines. It is a very strange case. It appears that a gang of thieves managed to make their way into a fireproof safe or an underground vault and rob some prominent millionaire of about a bushel of historic diamonds. No names are given, but a big reward is offered. Now, why aren't names given? It isn't like a New York millionaire to hide his light under a bushel. Look at the advertisement—and those chaps are always after advertisements. But this particular specimen prefers to play the role of the modest violet. He doesn't want his name mentioned, he doesn't want anyone to know the locality of his house, and there is no police description of the missing gems. In fact, the case is not in the hands of the American police at all. It has been handed over to Pinkerton's. I suppose they are utterly baffled because they merely announce the big reward which will be paid for the return of the stones, and no questions asked.
"Oh I see," Stagg said. "Yes, I have heard of such cases before. The idea is to appeal to the cupidity of certain rascals, who, though they may not be the actual thieves themselves, are aware who the culprits are. I understand that these things are always discussed in criminal circles. Sort of intimate gossip amongst the aristocrats of the profession, much as leading politicians on both sides of the House discuss Government secrets. It's not a bad idea, Stokes. Somebody who gets to know comes forward quietly and gives Pinkerton's people a hint. You can never trust those sort of people. But why are you interested in this case?"
"Well, I can hardly tell you," Stokes said. "Only, you see, I am particularly absorbed just now in the career of Mr Silas Oakes. And, knowing something about that astute individual and the dubious way in which he has collected those treasures of his, I have an astute idea that he has been the victim of men whom I call his own class. Sort of dog rob dog. Diamond cut diamond."
"Upon my word, I believe you are right," Stagg said with an air of detachment, as if there were nothing in this matter that interested him. "I happen to know a man who has been inside Oakes' secret museum. I should say there are scores of stolen things there. Yet, how could a man describe the missing property, especially if it happened to have come into his hands through a different class of thief? But I don't see how this is going to help us."
Stagg might have nodded that he saw clearly enough how it was going to help him, but he said nothing of the kind. It seemed to him that this was a side-show which concerned Stokes not at all.
"It isn't going to help us," Stokes said shortly. "But I thought I'd tell you this as a little incident likely to cast a sidelight upon Silas Oakes' character. It is just possible, of course, that he is not the man that I have in my mind; but, all the same, I shouldn't mind gambling on the fact that I am right. Every instinct tells me so."
Stagg rose and put on his gloves. "Well, I must be off now," he said. "I am glad I dropped in. And now, if you can get any information for me about that woman down at Minchin Common, I shall be greatly obliged to you. She may not come within the reach of our campaign, but, on the other hand she may be intimately connected with it, and forewarned is forearmed, you know. Remember, Princess de Gaucourt, who is a native of Martinique, and passing as a stranger to England."
Stokes laughed as he made a note on his blotting pad.
"If she's the adventuress you take her for I shall be able to give you her complete dossier by the end of the week," he said. "I flatter myself there is no rascal, male or female in Europe who is not on my black book. Good-bye, Stagg. I would give money to look as bland and respectable as you do."
All this was as so much honey on the palate of Montagu Stagg. He, turned it over like a sweet morsel as he threaded his way along the crowded streets in the direction of Caithness-road. But, first of all, he dropped in on the famous photographic establishment in Regent-street on the possible chance that the enlarged photograph of the snapshot he had obtained from Josh was finished.
It was not a long job, especially if the establishment happened to be rather slack, and Stagg was pleased to hear that it would be delivered in the course of the afternoon if he cared to call for it after three o'clock, or, failing that, it would be despatched by post.
"No need to trouble about that," Stagg said in his blandest manner. "I shall be past this way after lunch. I'll call for it."
He paid for the work, and then strolled off in the direction of his club, where he selected a lunch with his usual meticulous care. It seemed to him no time now to study economy, and besides, he was a man who was particularly fastidious over his food, especially when he had heavy work before him. Accordingly he lunched in the dining-room amongst other men of his acquaintance, with whom he was exceedingly popular, and after that smoked a couple of cigars whilst he discussed golf and other mundane matters with the usual club idlers who are always ready for anything of the kind.
It seemed to him now that, if he played his cards correctly, he was on the verge of the biggest thing that he had ever come in contact with. Properly handled, it ought to bring him a fortune. It ought to enable him to regard his declining years with equanimity. Some day or another, no doubt, Stella would marry, and then the bungalow on Minchin Common would lose half its attractiveness. In that possible event Stagg had made up his mind to take a small suite of rooms in the hotel, and keep on his pied-a-terre in Caithness-road, so that, by dividing his time between the golf links and the West End he would not be sacrificing very much. And all this, of course, would be expensive, and it would need a good many thousands of pounds to shape it as sweetly as Stagg could wish.
He turned his back on the club at length, and, having collected the photograph in Regent-street, made his way to Caithness-road just before tea-time. Here the faithful Josh was waiting him, and together, in the privacy of Stagg's room, the photograph was displayed.
"Upon my word, Josh, they have made a very good thing of this," Stagg said. "I have never seen the man Oakes, but I feel convinced that is a good likeness."
Stagg spoke quietly enough and with his voice under perfect control, but, all the same, he was thrilled as he had never been thrilled in that well-ordered life of his before. But he had to hold himself in because he did not want even Josh to know what that stern, hard face on the sheet of paper conveyed to him. And it was a hard face, thin as a hatchet, with high cheek bones and wide fine lips, the whole illuminated by a pair of eyes that looked like those of a hawk. It might have been the portrait of a North American Indian with a white skin. And there was a world of power and strength and resolution in it, too. And here was a man who might have been a good friend, but certainly one who would have been a vengeful enemy.
"It's just like him, sir," Josh said. "My snap was taken some years ago, as you know, but a man whose skin is so tight over his bones as that doesn't change much. There may be a few more lines here and there, but nothing else."
"It's a striking face," Stagg said, "and one once seen never to be forgotten. And, by the way, Josh, do you happen to have seen to-day's 'Times?'"
"Indeed I have, sir," Josh replied, "I don't take it myself, but my lodger on the drawing room floor has it, and I am free to use the paper when he is not at home."
"Then you have read about that New York case?"
"I did, sir, and most interesting it was. Of course you know whom it applies to."
"I can give a pretty good guess," Stagg said dryly. "Those are Mr. Oakes's jewels that are missing, of course."
"Of course they are, sir. There's a rare chance for anybody who happens to be in the know. Fifty thousand dollars reward, and more, probably. Did you read it all, sir?"
"I haven't read a word of it," Stagg replied. "It was a friend of mine in the city who was telling me all about it. I don't even know when it happened."
"About six weeks ago, sir," Josh explained.
"Oh, six weeks," Stagg said slowly. "Dear me, six weeks. That tallies with what Dr. Gilbert—but I beg your pardon. Josh, I was thinking about something else."
"Yes, sir, six weeks," said the unsuspecting Josh. "Now that article struck me as being rather cleverly written. There is no mention in it all the way through of Mr. Silas Oakes, but just at the finish the writer manages to drag in an allusion to American millionaires generally with suggestions as to great collectors of curios in particular. He speaks of the fact that Mr. Oakes is lying seriously ill in Florida, where he is being looked after by a special staff. Now, that don't convey much to the man in the street, but it tells me a good deal. I can see as plainly as possible that Mr. Oakes has been the victim and 'The Times' correspondent in New York knows it too. Ah, if I was a few years younger, I'd like to have a cut at this myself. I should enjoy it immensely."
"Ah, well, you may yet," Stagg said. "You never can tell. Do you know, all this is very interesting, Josh. I enjoy these little talks with you very much. Now, look here, there's going to be trouble before long over that young man in my house. I don't mean that he himself will give trouble. I mean that there are people not very far off who are particularly anxious to get him out of the way. But you know that already. There's no danger to-day or to-morrow, but it may come at any time. If I want you, are you prepared to come down to Minchin Common and act the part of a watchdog? Come into my house as a kind of butler or something of that kind, whose business it will be to keep an eye on that unfortunate youth? The people I am afraid of haven't the faintest idea who you are, which will be all in our favour. What do you say?"
"Anything to serve you, sir," Josh said. "I can get away from here at any moment, and the missus can always do without me. If she knows it's anything to do you a service she won't make any objections."
"Then that's settled," Stagg said. "I may ring you up on the telephone at any time, and you will get down to Minchin Common as soon as possible. And I'm not going to ask you to work for nothing, Josh. If things turn out as I anticipate, it will be the best day's work you ever did in your life."
"Oh, don't you worry about that, sir," Josh said. "I don't want any pay for helping a Stagg. And as to the young man, the missus took a rare fancy to him. I suppose you don't happen to have found out who he is, sir?"
"As a matter of fact I am pretty clear on the point," Stagg said. "Unless I am greatly mistaken, I know exactly who ho is. Indeed, I might go further and say exactly where Silas Oakes is to be found at the present moment, and where the police can lay their hands upon the thieves who got away with all those jewels. But at my time of life, Josh, people don't act upon impulse. Like a certain statesman, they wait and see. And the more they wait and see as a rule the more they benefit. I am not particularly mercenary, Josh, but, on the other hand, I am not particularly rich, and it occurred to me that if there is a big reward going we might benefit as well as anybody else. Besides, there are a good many points to clear up before we can see to the end of this business. Now, pack up that photograph for me again and go downstairs, and call up Dr. Gilbert on the telephone. Tell him I should like to see him for a few minutes this afternoon if he can spare the time. I won't keep him long, but it's important."
Josh came back in a moment or two with the information that Gilbert was at home and would be pleased to see him at any moment.
Stagg found himself at 17 Wilby-crescent, a little later in a kind of queer museum at the back of Gilbert's consulting rooms, where he had the opportunity of seeing certain strange objects that appealed to his natural curiosity. They were skeletons of animals and queer objects in bottles of spirits, amazing charts, and, in fact, all the odds and ends that go to make up the sanctum of a man of science. Stagg was not accustomed to feel himself a minor object in the scheme of creation, but he seemed to dwarf now both mentally and physically in the presence of all this scientific learning. He was quite glad presently when the door opened and Gilbert beamed on him behind those gold-rimmed spectacles of his.
"Well, here we are again," Stagg said genially. "I have come to worry you once more."
"You are not worrying me in the least," Gilbert said. "I have practically finished for the day, and can give you an hour or two if you require it. Are there any fresh developments? But then you wouldn't have come if there hadn't been."
"That's true enough," Stagg admitted. "I am deeply interested in the matter that I told you about. And you will be interested, too, when I tell you that I have secured a photograph which ought to carry us a good long way forward."
"A photograph," Gilbert echoed.
"Yes, a photograph of an American millionaire. A great collector of historic treasures, particularly jewels. I suppose you find time to look at the papers occasionally?"
"As a matter of fact, I am a keen student of the Press," Gilbert admitted. "One of my recreations is to read 'The Times' every day from end to end."
"Then that's all right," Stagg exclaimed. "Then you know all about that strange case in New York?"
"Yes, I read every line of it."
"That being so, I need not go into details. Now, Dr. Gilbert, roughly speaking, my theory is this. You already know that a man was found dead in Porchester-place. You know that on my authority. You know that there was foul play somewhere, in which a dead body was mixed up. I have already explained to you how I formed the theory that robbery is at the bottom of it. But you proceeded to knock all my theories to smithereens by your statement that the man I saw in bed had been dead for at least six weeks."
"I see no reason to recede from that statement," Gilbert smiled "That is, of course, if the man you saw was the same individual whose body you subsequently inspected in the Seymour-street Police Station."
"And I see no reason to recede from my statement," Stagg said in a tone that was equally dry. "We both saw the same body, of that there can be no doubt, but that does not mean, of course, that the corpse you inspected was the same one that I saw lying dead in Porchester Place. As an exact scientist you want proof of that."
"I think it would be as well," Gilbert murmured.
"Then you shall have it. I have in this brown paper parcel a photograph. It is an enlargement taken from a snapshot made in New York some years ago. It was taken by a man who was born on my family property. I am talking about Albert Josh, of course. Now Josh, on one occasion, had the opportunity of going over the treasure-house that an American millionaire had built in the basement of his palace on Fifth-avenue. In that museum Josh recognised at least one priceless artistic treasure that had been stolen. I suppose you can conceive a rich man who is full of criminal instincts?"
"Not only that," Gilbert smiled, "but I have met at least two. I suppose you mean that this millionaire was not above buying artistic treasures on the cheap from thieves?"
"You have hit it exactly," Stagg said. "And the name of that man was Silas Oakes. I have every reason to believe that he is the individual alluded to in that remarkable article by the 'Times' New York correspondent. And now I get to the point. I don't believe that Mr. Silas Oakes is in Florida, I don't believe that he is anywhere in the flesh as far as that goes, because I have every reason to think that he is dead."
Gilbert sat up suddenly and stared.
"What!" he cried, "Is it possible that Silas Oakes and the man you saw lying in bed—"
"Is one and the same man, yes. And with your knowledge of the subject, I am going to prove it. I am going to show you a photograph of Silas Oakes as he was some years ago. It was a snapshot taken by Josh himself, and I have had it enlarged. I know it is the same man I saw lying in bed at Porchester-place, and I shall be greatly surprised if it isn't the same man that you saw in the mortuary. One naturally has to make allowances for the changes in a face over the course of a few years, but the type of head, with high cheek bones and dry hatchet features, doesn't change much. However—"
With this Stagg opened the parcel and laid the enlarged photograph on the table where the light could shine upon it. Very eagerly Gilbert leant forward and regarded it long and earnestly through his glasses.
"This is a remarkable thing, Mr. Stagg, a very remarkable thing," he said. "I have had some amazing cases in my hands from time to time of which the public knows nothing, but never anything as strange as this. It is impossible to fathom the mind of a criminal, because it is such a queer and complex mind, and very often one of amazing mental capacity. We shall have to leave other people to elicit the reason why a certain gang of scoundrels have elected to come three thousand miles with a corpse in their possession."
"Yes, that's all very well," Stagg said impatiently. "But I prefer to take things in their proper order. Now, first of all, am I right?"
"Undoubtedly you are right," Gilbert said. "There is no doubt as to the identity of that photograph. It is the man that I saw in the Seymour-street mortuary. I would swear to it anywhere. Now, what shall we do?"
"For the present nothing," Stagg said. "I came here to be confirmed in my opinion, not that I wanted any real confirmation. Now, tell me something. It's more in your line than mine. Here's a matter that is causing considerable sensation through the country. And, naturally enough, because you don't have hidden bodies blown out of cloak rooms on station platforms every day. Of course, I don't know what the police are doing, but I expect they are busy enough over it. And, naturally, the inference is that they wouldn't bury that body until they were obliged to. I mean they would keep it in the mortuary for identification purposes as long as possible."
"Oh, they do," Gilbert said. "They have special facilities for that sort of thing."
"Ah, that is just what I wanted to ascertain," Stagg cried "Now, what do you say to us going to Seymour-street now and having another look at the victim? Not that there is any real necessity, but one always likes to be sure. Once we are convinced that we are right, then I shall probably ask your assistance in another direction."
"Just as you like," Gilbert said. "I'll put my coat on and we'll go round at once. The police are always glad enough for me to take an interest in these cases."
They drove off presently in a taxi and came at length to the secluded police station where their destination lay. A stolid-looking constable kept them waiting for a minute or two in a whitewashed office whilst he summoned a sergeant. He in his turn, produced an Inspector.
"Why didn't you tell me it was Dr. Gilbert?" the latter asked. "Very sorry to keep you waiting, sir, but something has happened that we've got to keep absolutely quiet. I expect that's what the sergeant had got in his mind. I am only too sorry that we can't oblige you."
"Can't oblige me?" Gilbert said. "Why?"
The Inspector dropped his voice to a whisper.
"Well, it's like this, sir," he said. "That body vanished from the mortuary last night. Stolen? Yes, certainly."
It took a great deal to astonish Montagu Stagg, but he was assuredly enjoying that sensation as he listened to what the Inspector had to say. For once in his life he was utterly nonplussed, and he could only stand there, open-mouthed, waiting for the next development, and then he proceeded to pull himself together. He did not want that astute policeman to believe that he was deeply interested in the fate of the man whom he now knew to be Silas Oakes, the great American millionaire. He had come down there to pose as a sort of scientific dabbler under the guidance of Dr. Gilbert, who, of course, was a favourite guest as far as the police were concerned. A moment or two later Stagg was his bland self again.
"A most extraordinary thing, isn't it, Inspector?" he asked. "It seems almost incredible."
The inspector shrugged his shoulders.
"There's nothing incredible as far as we are concerned, sir," he said. "With the class of people we have to deal with, such things happen to us every day."
"But not in the police station surely," Stagg said. "This is almost as bad as a robbery in the Bank of England. How did it happen?"
"If I could tell you that, sir, we shouldn't be standing here at the present moment," the Inspector replied. "And yet when you come to think of it, it's not so very difficult after all. Come and look for yourself."
"Is it worth while?" Stagg asked coolly. "I am not particularly interested, Inspector. I merely came down here with Dr. Gilbert as an amateur in science. A disappointment, of course, but still—"
Stagg stepped on one side as if he had washed his hands entirely of the whole thing. Beneath that smooth manner and easy smile of his was a bitter disappointment that he had striven with some success to conceal. Nothing mattered now, so far as he could see; but, all the same he followed the Inspector into the gloomy mortuary, where the individual in charge explained how that audacious thing had come about.
And, indeed, it had not been difficult. The scheme had called more for quickness and audacity than anything else. The mortuary was little more than a shed at the back of the station, and situated in what might at one time have been a garden. The back wall was bounded by a somewhat quiet lane, given over principally to stables, which meant, of course, that after dark the thoroughfare in question would be more or less deserted. There was a window, too, at the back of the mortuary, the fastening of which had been forced. It had been an easy matter, once this was done, by a determined man or two to find their way inside. Naturally enough the police had not concerned themselves particularly with the protection of a place which was given over entirely to the storage of dead bodies, and, of course, it had not occurred to them that such an outrage would commend itself even to the most eccentric criminal. But, for once in a while, the absolutely unexpected had happened, as the Inspector proceeded to explain.
"You see how it is, gentlemen," he said. "I don't know how we could have done anything else."
"I don't agree with you." Gilbert said harshly. He spoke in a manner which quite surprised Stagg. "This is no ordinary case. This is no matter of a mere vulgar murderer, I am sure. Now, just think, Inspector. I don't suppose you ever heard of a murderer before that was anxious to preserve the body. It's unthinkable."
"Ah, well, sir," the Inspector said. "We've got to prove it's a murder first. I don't say it wasn't, but it might have been nothing of the kind."
"Not a bad point," Gilbert agreed. "But it doesn't absolve you all the same. Now, for some amazing reason or another, these people are anxious to preserve what I might call the body of their victim. They didn't destroy it or throw it in a river; they just carefully took care or it. Then, by an accident that might have happened to anybody, the corpse was blown out of its hiding place on to the platform of a railway station. I venture to say that nothing of the kind has happened before in the annals of the police court. You must have known that. And, knowing it, it was your duty to take special precautions to guard what I may call your evidence. But the mischief's done, and it's no use talking about it. When I tell you that I came down here prepared to give you some valuable evidence, I think you will agree that this is deplorable. How do you think the thieves got the body away?"
"Well, that woudn't be difficult," the crestfallen Inspector said "Those people, of course, would know where the body was. They read all about that in the newspapers. Very probably one of the parties concerned came here under pretence of looking for a missing friend when it woudn't be difficult to see exactly how matters stood. Why, to a really audacious criminal, the thing's easy."
"You needn't boast about it," Gilbert said dryly.
"I'm not, sir, I'm only pointing out an obvious fact. They could come here late at night and abstract the body by means of the window, which they undoubtedly did. Then a private car or a taxi would do the rest. They might even have stolen a taxi off the rank, or made a driver drunk, anything you like of that sort. And then the rest would be easy. I am very sorry, gentlemen. We are doing the best we can, and very likely we shall hit the trail again before long."
Apparently there was no more to be said, and therefore Stagg and Gilbert made their way gloomily in the direction of Caithness-road. This unexpected development had brought them absolutely face to face with a blank wall. In many ways it tended to confirm the theory they had been developing, but this unanticipated spiriting away of all evidence must, of necessity, put an end to their endeavours, for the time being, at any rate. But one thing was plain—there was some urgent reason why those criminals were so anxious to find themselves once more in possession of the body of their victim. Why, it would be Stagg's task to find out. Meanwhile it would be necessary to turn his attention in another direction.
He found himself presently seated with Gilbert in his sitting-room in Caithness-road, talking round and round the subject without getting any nearer to the point. It was the doctor who made the first practical suggestion.
"I can't tell you how interested I am in this case," he said. "I have formed theories about it which would strike you as very strange; indeed, they are so fantastic that I hardly care to discuss them, and I couldn't put them to the proof if I did. At least until we see the body. Now, Mr. Stagg, it is impossible for us to do that unless we can come across your friends in Porchester-place again. If you can find the woman, then we might get moving once more."
"Now that's not a bad idea," Stagg cried. "Because you see, I know exactly where the woman is. Didn't I tell you that she was down at Minchin Common?"
"I don't remember it," Gilbert said,
"Ah, perhaps I forgot. No doubt I meant to tell you, but our last conversation was rather hurried. Well, strange to say, she is down there, and, moreover, I have spoken to her."
"Spoken to her," Gilbert exclaimed. "Do you mean to say that the recognition was mutual?"
"I have not the slightest doubt about it," Stagg said. "She was introduced to me as an absolute stranger. When we met, which we did quite unexpectedly, there was not the faintest suggestion of recognition on her face. And, seeing that, I flatter myself that my features were equally blank. We played golf together, as a matter of fact."
"She must be a clever woman," Gilbert said. "And one whose nerves are under perfect control."
"Not the slightest doubt about that," Stagg agreed dryly. "But wasn't it a funny thing she should turn up close to my own house, and that she should be staying down there playing golf on my own course?"
"Ah, that, of course, is one of the little ironies of fate," Gilbert said. '"By the way, what does she call herself?"
"Princess de Gaucourt," Stagg explained. "A lady of Martinique who has never been in England before."
"Now, all this is very remarkable," Gilbert said. "And if you knew what was in the back of my mind you would see how it all tends to prove my theory. But you must agree, in any case, that we have some exceedingly clever people to deal with. I take it from what you say that that woman would deny that she had ever met you before. I suppose she hasn't left Minchin Common? I mean, she hasn't faded gracefully away, or made some excuse for quitting the neighbourhood?"
"Oh, dear, no," Stagg said. "She's not that class of woman at all. If I were to tackle her, she would tell me at once that I had made a mistake. I understood her to say she had just come from Paris, and she had fallen so violently in love with Minchin golf links that she had made up her mind to take a furnished house down there for the summer."
"Oh, really? Now, what's she like?"
"Exceedingly good to look at," Stagg said.
"Ah, those people generally are. What I mean is, what do you make of her? What nationality?"
"Decidedly cosmopolitan. English quite good, with a suggestion of a drawl and an accent. Mind you, her English improved as we went on. I mean, she was nearly all foreign at first, but when she forgot herself—"
"Quite so," Gilbert interrupted. "I suppose it would be possible that she hails from America."
"I should think that is very likely," Stagg said.
"Then, in that case, I should like to see her," Gilbert said. "If I could drop down accidentally—"
"That's easily arranged. Suppose you come down and stay for a day or two with me? You are the well-known scientist Forbes Gilbert, and you are suffering from overwork. Therefore I asked you to come down for a few days and play some golf. I wonder if you do play."
"I used to be rather fond of the game," Gilbert said. "But I have had to give it up lately. And, moreover, I know the course fairly well. I used to play there every other Saturday with a man called Quest. He's a brother scientist of mine. It's just possible you may know him."
"What, the man we called Mad Quest?" Stagg cried. "Oh, I know him well enough. We have never exchanged more than half a dozen words, but he is quite a well-known character down our way. A queer sort of man full of the wildest theories. For days together he will potter about the Club House, hardly speaking to a soul, and then, all at once, he is on the friendliest terms with everybody. I can never make up my mind whether he is a great liar or an absolute madman."
"Yes, that's my friend right enough," Gilbert said. "But I should hardly call him a liar."
"A good imitation, at any rate," Stagg said dryly. "He's a poor golfer, but that doesn't prevent him coming in sometimes and telling us all sorts of impossible exploits. Then he was always on the verge of inventing a golf ball full of frozen air or some such nonsense, that could carry five hundred yards. He promised me one of those, but, of course, I never saw it. When he was wound up he would talk that way for hours. But I suppose it's possible that he has brains."
"He is one of the most brilliant men I ever met," Gilbert said. "I know that he has been on the verge, more than once, of stupendous discoveries. I have dlscussed them with him—ways of stamping out disease. For years he has been on the borderland of a panacea for saving the arterial vessels from corrosion—that is, a thickening of the veins, which is one of the signs of senile decay. Whenever you see Quest in those quiet moods of his, then that magnificent intellect is getting very near to the verge of triumph. But, unfortunately for Quest, he suffers from reactions—what the faculty calls G.P.I. I suppose you know what that means?"
"A sort of mania, isn't it?" Stagg asked.
"Yes, a mania that produced death sooner or later. It carries off some men in a week, whilst others can combat it for years. Of course, it will kill Quest sooner or later, but I sincerely hope not until he reaches his goal. When he gets really bad he has sense enough to put himself under restraint. He goes into a private asylum kept by a friend of his, and there he remains till he gets normal again. But, unfortunately, this means long interruptions in his work."
"Oh, so that's why he disappears from time to time?" Stagg asked. "I went over to his place, 'The Wilderness,' once, when he showed me all sorts of extraordinary things in freezing tanks. He's got scores of those tanks there. He told me that in time he could freeze disease out of existence. Of course, I listened politely enough, but still—"
Stagg shrugged his shoulders eloquently.
"I believe he is very near the verge of it," Gilbert said seriously. "There's an immense deal of method in Quest's madness. I know that once he was on the eve of growing flowers from seeds in a few hours. Perhaps you have seen those pictures on the cinematograph which show, say, a bulb from the tuber to the complete flower in a few seconds. Well, Quest succeeded in doing that. Then he had one of his bad turns, during which he destroyed his formulae. The flowers in the garden at 'The Wilderness' were a perfect sight."
"Yes, I recollect that," Stagg said. "Poor chap, I wish I had known. I'm sorry I was abrupt with him. I saw him in the Club House a few days ago, but he said he was going away again. On these occasions he always shuts up the house, or lets it."
"I believe he does," Gilbert said. "Not that there is any occasion to do so, because he is quite a wealthy man. But let's get back to the point. You want me to come down to Minchin Common for a few days to play golf. As I have been working rather hard lately, I shall be delighted. Now, mind you, Stagg, it's just possible I know this woman. From what you tell me I gather that the whole of this criminal tangle was spun in America. As you know, America is a sort of open book to me, and whilst I was in New York I must have seen every criminal there. I don't mean to say that I actually met them, but I spent many an hour in the photographic gallery of rogues taken by the New York police, and I flatter myself that I have a pretty good memory. With any luck, I might know this woman, which should be a distinct advantage, because she couldn't possibly know me, as all my investigation work in the States was conducted in absolute private."
"That's all right," Stagg said. "Now, when will you come down? What do you say to to-morrow?"
"To-morrow will suit me as well as any other day. I'll contrive to be with you by lunch time, and you will take an early opportunity of making me acquainted with the beauiful adventuress. This ought to come about quite naturally."
"I'll see to that," Stagg said.
With that he dismissed his guest, all arrangements having been complete, and made his way back by the first available train to Minchin Common. He was feeling just a little dejected, and more than disappointed, with the result of the day's work. It had indeed been a bitter check to his plans, and, for the moment, at any rate, he could not see his way out of the alley into which bad luck had led him. Nothing could be done now until the missing body was recovered, but how this was to be done, Stagg had not the slightest idea.
And he was puzzled, too, as to the reason why the woman who called herself Princess de Gaucourt and the man passing as Hawthorne had come down to that quiet part of the country. He did not believe for a moment that they were on the track of the unfortunate Charles Grandison, whom, so far, they had not seen at Minchin, and even if they had known he was there Stagg could see nothing to be gained by these people coming openly into his neighbourhood. That somebody was interested in Grandison's movements was proved by the fact that an attempt had been made to kidnap him during the time that he was staying with Albert Josh, and surely the principals in the conspiracy would not take a hand themselves in the game of abduction? And assuredly they had not come to Minchin for the mere purpose of playing golf. The real reason Stagg would have to discover.
Montagu Stagg was not the sort of man to let his thoughts unduly dwell upon anything that he could not see his way clearly out of. He had been lucky all his life, and he had a comfortable assurance that things would come his way now if he only gave them time. So with that calm philosophy of his, he decided to put the burning subject aside until Gilbert put in an appearance at the bungalow. So he partook of an early tea and strolled off in the direction of the Club House with the idea of playing a few holes if he could find an opponent. There was a letter or two waiting for him in the rack just outside the bar, and he saw that one of these had Everard Stokes's initials on the left-hand corner. It was his habit to have certain letters which he did not want Stella to see addressed to him at the Club House, and it was characteristic of the man who never mixed up business and pleasure to leave those letters where they were till he had finished his game.
There was no one in the Club House and no one on the terrace, so that it looked as though Stagg would have his trouble for his pains when the Princess suddenly emerged from the ladles tea-room and came smilingly towards him with a bag of clubs in her hand. Her aspect was smilingly friendly.
"Ah, Mr. Stagg," she said, "You are all alone. You would like perhaps to play just a few holes?"
"I shall be delighted," Stagg said in his very best manner. "I have been cooped up in London all day, and nothing would give me greater pleasure."
They set off together, side by side, as if they had been friends of many years' standing. There was no suggestion that these two had come together for the first time a short time ago in circumstances that foreshadowed a crime of the first magnitude. It seemed as if there was every disposition on both sides to avoid an allusion to it; indeed, so utterly devoid of self-consciousness was the woman that Stagg was half inclined to believe that he had either made an extraordinary mistake or that his companions did not recognise him. So they chattered on as they proceeded from hole to hole upon a great variety of subjects until they found themselves on the far side of the course, and close to a long low hedge beyond which stood a creeper-clad house set in the centre of a garden that was one blaze of spring flowers.
"Isn't that lovely?" the Princess cried as she pointed in the direction of the house. "Ah, Mr. Stagg, your poet was quite right; there is no country in the world like England in the spring. I am so glad I came down here."
"Ah, it is a perfect spot, isn't it?" Stagg said. "I am looking forward to the time when I can be here always."
The Princess elevated her eyebrows inquiringly.
"Then you do not live here altogether?" she asked. "You are one of the business men, perhaps."
"Indeed I am," Stagg replied. "I have no office in London, but I have to go up two or three times a week. But not for much longer, I hope. By the way, where's Mr. Hawthorne?"
"Ah, he is in London, too. He went up yesterday afternoon and has not come back yet."
Here was information in the light of what Stagg had recently heard at Seymour-street police station. There was little doubt in his mind that Hawthorne had gone up to London the day before in connection with the successful attempt to recover the body from the police station mortuary. Stagg felt as sure of it as if he had been there and seen the whole operation. He knew perfectly well that it must have been something pressing to snatch Hawthorne away from the joys of the golf links.
"Is he coming back to-night?" he asked carelessly.
"I think so," the Princess said. "Like me, he intends to stay here a long time. But not at the hotel. You know I get so tired of hotel life. For three whole months I had nothing else in Paris."
"Well, as to that, it is not difficult to get rooms on Minchin Common," Stagg said.
The Princess laughed carelessly.
"Ah, your English rooms," she cried. "In them I have suffered. They are worse than the rooms in America when you go and stay up in the mountains. The awful food, the greasy chops and steaks, and the bacon every morning. No, no, Mr. Stagg, no rooms for me if I am to stay here. And so I take a house. I take that house there with the beautiful garden."
"What, that place over there?" Stagg asked.
"The same. It was all settled this morning, and I paid three months' rent in advance. The gentleman who owns it is a doctor who is ill. He goes away for the benefit of his health for three months, and I become the tenant of that lovely place. Don't you think I am fortunate, Mr. Stagg?"
"I am quite sure that Dr. Quest is," Stagg said gallantly. "So we are neighbours for three months, are we? I am sure that will be very pleasant. I'll ask my niece to call upon you, which I am sure she will be delighted to do. We can always do with people here who have seen something of the world."
Stagg spoke lightly enough, and there was nothing on the expression of his face to show that he did not mean exactly what he was saying; but, all the same, this statement on the Princess's part came as a surprise to him because it opened out wide possibilities in the way of speculation. And as he walked along by the woman's side uttering polished platitudes and conventional phrases, he was beginning to see a long way ahead of him. It seemed to him that he knew perfectly well why this woman and her partner in crime had taken the creeper-clad house on the edge of the common. But all this he would be able to debate in his mind when once more he was alone.
"You'll find it rather quiet here after Paris," he suggested. "There is nothing going on but golf."
"Ah, you cannot think how sick I became of Paris," the Princess said. "I have hundreds of friends there, and they gave me no rest day or night. Dances, dinners and theatres followed one another till I was worn out. I came here a perfect wreck, Mr. Stagg. I can show you Parisian papers which give one the impression that they were devoted entirely to the doings of the Princess de Gaucourt. Imagine to yourself how glad I was to get out of it. All I want now is a game of golf and what you call the simple life, with perhaps a rubber or two of bridge in the evening."
"Oh, we can certainly give you that," Stagg said heartily. "I think you will find that my niece and myself play quite a fair game. We shall be a pleasant party with Hawthorne to make up the table. By the way, you might give him a message from me. If he comes back in time this evening, I shall be glad to see him at the bungalow where I will make up a four."
"Ah, he will come no doubt, if he gets back in time," the Princess said. "He shall have your message. But it is time to return, is it not?"
They finished their short round, after which the Princess went off in the direction of the hotel, leaving Stagg to read his letters at leisure. One or two of them were of no importance, but the one in Stokes' own handwriting only added to the confusion in Staggs' mind.
"Dear Stagg (it ran),—
"Haven't you made a mistake about this de Gaucourt woman? I have had her looked up and I find that there really is such a person—a genuine simon-pure Princess who is a prominent social figure in Paris. Moreover, she was born in Martinique, and, as far as I can ascertain, has never been in England. A few days ago she made up her mind; that she was ill—probably the doctors played up to her—so she has gone out to some quiet retreat with a view to getting herself into condition again. Now, how does all this tally with what you told me? You don't suggest that your friend is the sort of woman who would be mixed up in something dishonourable. Evidently some one has blundered somewhere. You must either post me further particulars or run up to town and have another chat. I can't move any further at present. E.S."
"It seems to me," Stagg said to himself, "that I have got a deuce of a long way to go yet."
As Stagg had more than half expected, the American failed to put in an appearance at the bungalow. He telephoned from the hotel quite late in the evening to the effect that he had been detained in town till a late hour, and expressed his regret at having missed a pleasant game. But if it was all the same to Stagg he would come in the next night.
To this Stagg agreed heartily, knowing that Gilbert would be present and that the meeting might possibly lead to something satisfactory. At any, rate, no harm could be done.
It was just before luncheon that Gilbert put in an appearance, and a little later on was taken further into Stagg's confidence. He was told all about the mysterious' young man who had sat there at the luncheon table and who presently went off with Stella for a round on the links.
"What do you make of him, Gilbert?" Stagg asked. "I am asking you as an expert. Do you think, from what you have seen, that Grandison's mind is permanently injured?"
"It is impossible to say offhand," Gilbert said. "But if I had to express an opinion I should say decidedly not. Your young friend has had a great shock, and it is easy to see that his nervous condition is deplorable. But if you'd been a specialist yourself you couldn't have done better for him than you are doing. The peaceful quietness of this place, the well-cooked food, and plenty of air and exercise are the finest things in the world for that sort of trouble. You will find his memory will come back to him gradually—indeed, it might come back all at once. Any sudden shock might do it."
"Well, if we have luck, I think I can promise him that," Stagg said grimly. "Never mind now. It's no use banking on that till we know exactly where we are. I have told you all my suspicions about this young man, and who he is, and why he is in his present condition. I am going to put it to a further test presently. I have got a young man coming in to play bridge after dinner, and I shall be very curious to see how he behaves when he finds himself face to face with Charles Grandison. I tell you this so you may be prepared. Now, let's stroll over to the Club House. We can talk as we go."
"An excellent Idea," Gilbert said. "I suppose we shall probably come in contact with the Princess. By the way, have you told Quest that I am in the neighbourhood?"
"I don't think he is here," Stagg replied. "I understand that he is suffering from one of his bad turns, and has placed himself under restraint. By Jove, that reminds me. Strange that I should have forgotten. I was playing a few holes with the Princess yesterday and she told me that she had taken Quest's house for three months."
This simple statement seemed to have an extraordinary effect upon Gilbert. He stopped, and stared at Stagg in astonishment, then he laughed with a sort of silent mirth.
"And that conveys nothing to you?" he asked.
"Well, it struck me as rather strange," Stagg said. "I am quite sure the Princess is not the sort of woman to bury herself down here for three months."
"Unless there was a very powerful motive," Gilbert said. "And it seems to me that the powerful motive is plain before us. Why does that woman want to take a house when she can be more comfortable in an hotel? Why does she want to be bothered with servants' and all that sort of thing? Because there is a pressing need for it. She wanted that particular house. And why? Because it is the house of a scientist, a man who has all sorts of appliances of the most up-to-date description for the preserving of specimens. Why, my dear fellow, Quest told you that himself. Here is absolutely a cold storage right to the hands of these people. They have either had the most amazing luck or they have been inquiring very carefully with an idea of finding what they want in the heart of the country. It's not so difficult when you come to think of it. The man called Hawthorne goes to London, where he poses as a scientist interested in bacteriological pursuits who is in need of a house where he can carry on his experiments. He is anxious to know if the agents can put him in touch with a place where there are freezing tanks. He must have this. He probably goes to all the best agents in London, and, as Quest is in the habit of letting his house, the rest is comparatively easy. And why do they want this house? Can't you guess?"
"I must have been blind," Stagg said. "Here have I been groping about in the dark with the solution in my pocket. Those people laid their plans to get the body back again and, naturally, they must have a place where they can store it. Hence the fact that they are down here, where they have found a beau-ideal of a house for their purpose. It's another instance of the truth that you can procure anything you like if you have got money enough. By jove, what a piece of luck! We have the solution first hand."
"That's true enough," Gilbert said. "It's a fortunate thing, too, that I know Quest's house so well. We know now that that gruesome object will be brought down here and placed somewhere in Quest's house. Now, Mr. Stagg, do you think you could brace yourself up to a little burglary?"
Stagg smiled at the question.
"I am not so young as I used to be," he said. "But I don't think you will find anything the matter with my nerves. But softly, here comes the lady."
The Princess crossed the terrace of the Golf Club on her way to the tee where Hawthorne was apparently awaiting her. She favoured Stagg with a brilliant smile, but hardly glanced in the direction of his companion. Stagg turned and looked inquisitively towards Gilbert.
"I don't know," the latter said. "In the ordinary way I should say she was a stranger to me, and yet, in fashion, those features are quite familiar. I believe I have seen them before, but probably in a photograph which would account for a certain amount of mental confusion. Let me think. Yes, it's beginning to come to me now. I can see dimly a big book with pages of photographs in it, and a large whitewashed room in the Tombs Prison in New York. Or was it Sing Sing? Not that it matters. I can see the photograph of a beautiful woman. Immediately above one of a noted Chinese murderer called Chin Lang. Strange how one remembers these little things that don't matter and forgets the big ones. Still as long as I can locate the photograph I can get what I want by cabling to New York. I have got the American police cypher somewhere at home. And if once I get the real name I shall be all right. I am sorry to be so stupid, Stagg."
"Stupid be hanged," Stagg cried. "To my mind, that mental analysis of yours is pretty well perfect. Don't you worry, you can go up to-morrow if you like and fetch that cypher, and we can cable from here to New York. There's plenty of time unfortunately, almost too much time. Come on, let's play a few holes. Just time for nine."
It was shortly after eight before the man called Geoffrey Hawthorne, most beautifully turned out, and immaculately finished, walked into the drawing-room of the bungalow. The blinds had been drawn and the lamps lighted, for the evening had turned chilly, and a cheerful wood fire blazed in the grate. In front of this a bridge table had been laid out, with Stella sitting on one side of it and Charles Grandison on the other. At a writing table Stagg and Gilbert were smoking together.
"This is very good of you, Miss Henson," Hawthorne said. "I am sorry I couldn't come in last night. I have been detained for eight and forty hours in London on the most troublesome business."
"Oh, please don't mention it," Stella smiled. "Let me introduce you to Mr. Charles Grandison."
Grandison rose from his seat and bowed. He was apparently looking a perfect stranger in the face. From the table in the window the other two men were covertly watching. As Grandison held out his hand Hawthorne gasped, his jaw dropped, and all the healthy colour drained from his face. It was only for an instant, and then he was himself again.
"Did you see that?" Stagg whispered. "That pretty scoundrel knows our friend Charles right enough."
"Did you happen to notice that?" Stagg whispered.
Gilbert nodded and beamed through his spectacles. There was a new light in his eye now; a quick, eager, boyish gleam irradiated by humour together with a keen appreciation of the enjoyment of the moment. Hitherto he had pursued these criminal investigations of his from the cold, hard, mathematical point of view and with a sense of detachment from his surroundings, much as if he had been a sort of machine. But evidently he was not impervious to the human note and the softness of the atmosphere about him in that comfortable room with its gleaming lamps had evidently not been without its effect. He glanced from the young man standing there, still a little pale and shaky, but otherwise self-possessed to the charming face of Stella and the dog-like devotion in the eyes of the other young man who sat there eyeing Hawthorne as if he had been a complete stranger. And, to all practical purposes, in Grandison's present state of health, he was.
"That's all right," Gilbert murmured. "I think you will find that very little escapes me. Keep it up, Mr. Stagg, keep it up. I want to see that pretty young man feeling small. I don't know what you have got in the back of your mind, but you have evidently given him a jolt, and I want to watch the effect of it. So please go on."
By this time the three young people in front of the fire were beginning to talk quite in a natural way, so that it was possible for the elder men to carry on their conversation in an undertone without attracting attention.
Hawthorne was quite himself again by this time, and evinced a disposition to monopolise Stella in a way that caused the man in the arm-chair to glare at him almost angrily.
"Well, it's like this," Stagg went on in an undertone. "That very pretty young man, as you call him, is practically talking of himself. I mean that he is the impostor, and the man whom we call Grandison is the real Geoffrey Hawthorne. But I will explain it all to you presently. Now you'll understand now why our guest was so disturbed."
Gilbert chuckled, but asked no further questions. Presently he and Stagg moved across in the direction of the card table, where they proceeded to cut for partners. Grandison did not play. He excused himself frankly enough on the score of his defective memory.
"I don't know one card from another," he said. "At least, I know the names of them, but I haven't the least idea how to play bridge. And yet, mind you, I have a feeling that I used to play and be very fond of the game."
"You are an invalid, Mr. Grandison?" Hawthorne asked.
Now that Hawthorne had recovered his self-possession, he was beginning to feel his way. It was imperative, for more reasons than one, that he should know exactly how things stood with regard to the man whom he had met under such dramatic circumstances under Stagg's roof. That he had expected to meet Grandison was out of the question. But now that they had come in contact, it was essential to find out if this was merely an amazing coincidence or whether his host was deliberately setting a trap for him.
"I don't think you would call my young friend exactly an invalid," Stagg smiled. "He doesn't look one, at any rate. Unfortunately, he is suffering from loss of memory, and he has come down here for absolute quiet."
Hawthorne looked just a little easier, but even yet he was not quite satisfied.
"An accident?" he asked.
"Well, something like that," Stagg said. "I think the best way is to call it a fall. But don't let us say anything more about it. You sit there, Charles, and make yourself comfortable, whilst we go on playing.
"I should like to watch, if you don't mind," Grandison said. "I don't know why, but I feel rather interested."
There was no objection to this, of course, so the game proceeded until at length on a 'no trump' declaration, Gilbert went down rather badly, having messed up what appeared to be a certain game. Grandison chuckled.
"Why didn't you finesse your knave of diamonds?" he asked. "The queen was obviously on your right, and if you'd have done that you'd have brought in those two small hearts and made three more tricks."
"Here, what's that?" Stagg cried.
"Very remarkable," Hawthorne drawled. '"Here's a man who has lost his memory and cannot tell one card from another pointing to a mistake that only a good player could possibly have noticed. Mr. Stagg, you are evidently chaffing me."
"Oh, don't blame me," Stagg said. "Now, Charles, how on earth did you know that Dr. Gilbert had made that mistake?"
"I don't know," Grandison said. "What did I say? Oh, yes, I remember. It just came back to me for a moment, but almost before the words were out of my mouth my mind was as foggy as ever."
"You must have played a good game at one time," Gilbert said. "Nobody—"
"Oh, don't say anything more about it," Stagg said with a glance in the direction of Hawthorne. "Stella, my dear, I think it's your deal."
A couple of rubbers were played without further interruptions from Grandison, who seemed to have lost all interest in the proceedings, and then the conversation became more general.
"I understand that the Princess is leaving the hotel," Stagg said casually. "She told me she had taken a place called 'The Wilderness.' When does she get into it?"
"Oh, any old time," Hawthorne said. "Tomorrow perhaps. She's taken it for three months. Fell in love with it from a description a friend gave her. She might have got in it a fortnight ago if she'd liked."
Stagg glanced across the table at Gilbert. Here was information. So the taking of 'The Wilderness' was no new idea on the spur of the moment, but something that had been planned in advance and carefully prepared for. Quite unconscious that he had made a slip, Hawthorne went on sorting his cards as the conversation drifted to another topic. But this was by no means lost upon Stagg and Gilbert. It was some little time later that the telephone bell rang and Stagg came back with a message from the hotel from the Princess to the effect that she would like to see Hawthorne as soon as possible. One or two important parcels had come down from London by car, and nothing would do for the imperious lady but that they must be conveyed over to 'The Wilderness' and placed in the garage there at once. They were bulky boxes, and there was no room for them in the hotel.
"What a confounded nuisance!" Hawthorne said. "Why couldn't she have waited till tomorrow? Two days ago she hadn't the least idea when she was going into 'The Wilderness' at all. But women are always like that."
This was an obvious slip, of course, on Hawthorne's part, but in the vexation of the moment he did not appear to notice it. But the fact remained that within ten minutes he had told two different stories with regard to the tenancy of 'The Wilderness,' and two of his listeners, at least, made a note of it.
"Must you really go?" Stella asked regretfully. "It is quite early, Mr. Hawthorne. One more rubber?"
"I am afraid I can't," Hawthorne said. "I promised the Princess that if those things turned up I would see to them at once. You'll excuse me, I know."
He rose from the table and made his way in the direction of the hall. Stagg followed him and helped him on with his coat, then opened the front door, beyond which a brilliant moon was flooding the peaceful landscape.
"What a lovely night!" he exclaimed. "Almost a pity to be indoors. Slip on a coat, Gilbert, and let us walk across the common with Mr. Hawthorne. We'll just go as far as the hotel and back again."
"Delighted," Gilbert said. "My dear Stagg, you don't know what a treat this sort of thing is to me."
They strolled casually across the common chatting casually and smoking their cigars until they reached the hotel. There they bade Hawthorne good-night, and Stagg turned as if one idea was to get back home as soon as possible. But directly they were out of sight of the hotel behind the shelter of a friendly patch of gorse Stagg pulled up.
"Now my dear fellow," he said, "I need not tell you that I did not leave my comfortable fireside for the mere pleasure of walking across the common with that nice looking and beautifully-dressed scoundrel. And I might tell you at once that he is an imposter, name unknown at present, who is masquerading as Geoffrey Hawthorne, and no doubt making ducks and drakes with the banking account of the real man, whom we are calling Charles Grandison."
"And who is Charles Grandison?" Gilbert asked.
"Ah, that I cannot tell you at present, though I can make a pretty shrewd guess. But in a business like this shrewd guesses cut no ice, as the Yankees say. And, anyhow, for the moment it doesn't matter. You saw how confused that rascal was to-night when he came face to face with Grandison. I had to bring them together, if it was only to confirm my suspicions. And they were confirmed. Meanwhile we have other things to do. We are going to stay here and watch, until we see that little procession set out for 'The Wilderness.' It is a genial night, so we can't hurt much, and if we are late my household is sure to go to bed under the impression that we are detained at the hotel. As a matter of fact we are going to 'The Wilderness' presently."
"I think I understand," Gilbert said. "From what I gather 'The Wilderness' is empty. Didn't I understand that the Princess was going to bring her own servants?".
"Well, that's what I am counting on," Stagg said. "We'll just see those people off the premises, and when they have finished we are going to do a neat little job of burglary. I have no doubt we can find some way into the house."
"You can leave that to me," Gilbert said. "Don't forget that I have stayed there on one or two occasions. There is a little side door with a broken glass panel leading into shrubbery, or at least there used to be, and Quest is not the man to trouble about little things of that sort. But, tell me, what do you expect to find?"
"What do I expect to find?" Stagg echoed. "Rather what do I know I shall find? Just think it over. Those boxes arrive very late from town, and it is imperative that they should be placed at once in some safe hiding place. To say there is no room for them at the hotel is all nonsense. And they are not going to be put in any garage, either. Unless I am greatly mistaken, they are going to be conveyed straight into the house. And in one of these bodies is Silas Oakes's body. I speak quite plainly, because you and I know that the dead man we saw in the Mortuary is Silas Oakes. You don't doubt that, do you?"
"Not for a moment," Gilbert said, "There is little doubt that you are right either. It's all pretty plain now. Those people have taken 'The Wilderness' for one purpose alone. They want to preserve the mortal remains of Silas Oakes as long as possible. That young man gave the whole thing away when we were playing cards to-night. He told two stories, but it was pretty evident that those people took 'The Wilderness' because they needed what, in a perfectly frank and brutal way, I call cold storage. That accounts for their being in this neighbourhood, and therefore you see, it is no coincidence that brought about your second meeting with the adventuress who calls herself Princess de Gaucourt. Who she is doesn't matter for the moment, but we shall probably have her proper name to-morrow night when I hear in reply to my cable."
They stood there for some considerable time, until presently the sound of a car coming across the common from the direction of the hotel struck on their ears. From where they were hidden they could see the dark body of the car making its way along the narrow tarred road which led past the fifth hole in the direction of the big house on the opposite side of the open plain.
"Come on," Stagg said, "By taking a short cut through that group of pines yonder we shall be up to 'The Wilderness' gates almost as soon as they are. I am afraid you will get your feet rather damp, but it's no time to think of that."
They pushed their way quickly through the gorse and heather until they came at length to the broken ground that lay immediately in front of 'The Wilderness.' They had just time to hide themselves behind a group of laurels when the car swept up and Hawthorne got out.
The headlights were rather dim, and the lamp on the tail was barely strong enough to show the figures on the number plate. Evidently the idea was to attract as little attention as possible. Hawthorne, who had changed his coat and shoes, was followed immediately by a little dark man whom Stagg had no difficulty in recognising as the servant whom he had seen at Porchester-place. He wondered just for a moment whether the foreign looking individual was really deaf and dumb or not, but all doubts on that point were swept away when Hawthorne commenced to talk to him on the tips of his fingers. On the top of the car, in the moonlight, the two watchers could see an oblong case roughly nailed and corded, and with it a smaller object that looked very much like the sort of box that bankers use when they are transporting bullion from one branch to another.
With a good deal of trouble and a good deal of care the big package was removed from the top of the car and carried by Hawthorne and the deaf and dumb man into the hall. Then they carefully switched off the engine of the car and closed the door of the house behind them. Very cautiously Stagg crept out and examined the number plate.
"Here, look at this, Gilbert," he said. "This is an old Daimler car which has been recently dusted over. That is obviously, of course, to distract attention. You can see how old it is by the different parts."
"I guessed that by the noise it made as it came along," Gilbert said. "And look at the bonnet."
"Yes, and then look at the number plate. Painted yesterday, I should say. False one, of course. I wonder where they got this car from. Probably borrowed it from some garage—I mean borrowed it without the formality of asking the owner's consent. It's not a difficult thing to do, given the necessary audacity."
"No, I suppose not," Gilbert said. "Now, are we going to stay here till those chaps come outside, or are we going to follow them in and see what they are up to?"
"Follow them by all means," Stagg said. "Lead the way round to the door you mentioned."
Very quietly they made their way in the direction of the side door that Gilbert had spoken of. As he had confidently expected, the broken pane covered with a sheet of brown paper was still there, so that with the aid of a penknife there was no trouble to make a hole big enough to admit the passage of a man's hand, after which the turning of the key inside was an easy matter. A moment or two later, and Gilbert, with Stagg, was in the passage.
There was quite sufficient moonlight to show them where they stood, though it was dim enough ahead, and obviously required some local knowledge to make their way in the direction of the living rooms without attracting attention.
"What sort of lights are there here?" Stagg whispered.
"Electrics all over the place," Gilbert replied. "In that way the place is absolutely up to date. I know all about that. The house is lighted on the accumulator system, and I think there is probably enough power to last for a day or two. But you are not going to turn on the lights?"
"Not yet, my friend, not yet. But we shall possibly want to when those people clear out. They won't stay here all night, remember. And that car has probably got to go back to town."
They crept forward, feeling their way until they came at length to the door leading into the hall. There the lights had been turned on, and there Hawthorne and the deaf and dumb man were standing with a big case between them.
They were now beginning to feel that they were really on the verge of something like a solution of the tragedy. Neither of the two men standing in the black shadow and looking into that disc of brilliant light doubted for a moment but what they were within a few feet of all that remained of the great American millionaire, Silas Oakes. But then this knowledge was by no means sufficient, they had to go far further than that before the tangled web would be unravelled. They stood there watching whilst Hawthorne talked to the dark man rapidly on the tips of his fingers, but what he was saying was unfortunately hidden from the lookers-on, who did not happen to know anything of the language of signs. But obviously, there was some uncertainty as to what the conspirators were going to do next until finally they bent down, and taking the big case up between them, moved across the hall through a pair of swinging baize-doors down a long passage.
"Where are they going?" Stagg whispered. "As you know the house so well, you ought to be able to tell me."
"I think I can answer that question," Gilbert said. "The old wing of the house leads in that direction. At one time it consisted of storerooms and all that kind of thing, but when Quest bought the place he turned it into a series of laboratories and freezing tanks. I don't think there is any need to tell you what is going to happen. That body is going to be conveyed to a sort of vault where Quest keeps most of his precious specimens. It is steel-lined and practically air-tight, and all round it is a kind of skin where the freezing-pipes lie, and these are fed, from time to time, by gas cylinders. I don't mean coal gas, of course I mean the sort of gas that is used in ice rinks and places of that sort."
"Doesn't that call for technical knowledge?" Stagg asked.
"Oh, not much. Any intelligent man could pick up all that is required in a week. It's only a question of knowing how to use the cylinders. You may depend upon it, those two know what they are up to. We can only be patient and wait till they are gone. Then we can go over the place at our leisure. There are no windows in the ordinary sense of the word in the old wing, because they are all closely shuttered, and therefore when we turn the light on there is very little chance of attracting attention. But what do you suppose is in that other box?"
Gilbert pointed at the small bullion chest which, for the moment, Hawthorne and his assistant had left behind. It was a tempting object as it lay there, but there was danger in touching it yet, and Stagg refrained.
"I don't know," he said. "But we very probably shall know later on. Valuables, no doubt; I shouldn't wonder if it didn't happen to be the proceeds of that New York robbery, and if it is, we haven't wasted our time."
They stood there for a quarter of an hour or so until the sound of footsteps drove them back into the gloom again, as Hawthorne and the other man reappeared. They seemed to be easier in their mind now, and there was a good deal of laughter mixed up with the business of the conversation that went on between finger-tips. Then Hawthorne picked up the little box, which appeared to be exceedingly heavy, and staggered along under it in the direction of a small room that led out of the hall on the far side. As he and the deaf and dumb man disappeared Gilbert clutched his companion's arm.
"Come on," he whispered, "We must risk it. They are going into the small library. I know the room well. There's a safe in the corner by the window, and it's any odds that box is going to be placed in it. I suppose the man called Hawthorne has the key."
Without a moment's hesitation Stagg darted forward. He was not blind to the danger of the situation, but, from his point of view, it was essential to know that Gilbert was correct. The door of the library was open, so that they could get a view of what was going on inside. Gilbert had not been wrong, for Hawthorne took a key from his pocket and unlocked a fairly roomy safe by the far window. In this he proceeded to deposit the box, and almost immediately Stagg jumped back, dragging his companion with him into the friendly shadow.
"That's it." he whispered. "You were perfectly right. If that box doesn't contain the main proceeds of the New York robbery, then I am a far bigger fool than most people take me for. Eh, but what's this?"
At that moment the front door opened and a woman came in. She was cloaked from head to foot, but she had not taken the trouble to change her thin evening shoes which were soiled and wet, and there was no need for her to remove her head covering to be recognised instantly by Stagg as the woman who called herself Princess de Gaucourt.
"Who have we here?" Gilbert whispered.
"Can't you guess?" Stagg asked.
"Oh yes. The Princess, of course. You are quite right, Stagg, she is undoubtedly a beautiful woman. A strong capable woman, too. Eyes a bit too close together and lips a little thin, but the sort of woman that men sell their souls for. And ambition written on every line of her."
"Never mind about that for the moment," Stagg said in the same low tone, "The point is that you are seeing her face to face now with every advantage in your favour. Now, can you put a name to her? Is she the same woman as the one whose photograph you mentioned to me—the photograph in the police office?"
Gilbert gazed long and steadily at the women in the centre of the light, but no illumination came into his eyes.
"I am afraid it is no good Stagg," he said. "That sort of woman never does come out well in a photograph. You get the likeness but the power and the strength and the vivacity are things hidden from the camera. Besides, my woman was plainly dressed, as becomes a criminal. This one is attired like the Queen of Sheba. And yet I can't help feeling that there is something familiar about her."
"Huh," Stagg said. "She is going to speak."
"Where have you got to?" the Princess cried.
"Oh, it's all right," Hawthorne said as he emerged into the light. "We have done everything. Shoved it away where no one is likely to find it and where it will be safe for months beyond reach of those fools of police. And as to the small box. It's locked up in the safe."
"Ah, I can breathe again now," the Princess said. "A few days longer and we will show those people who they have to deal with. And then—"
"That's all very well," Hawthorne muttered "But what about that business of Geoffrey Hawthorne?"
The Princess shrugged her shoulders disdainfully.
"Why worry about him?" she asked. "He was a danger so long as he was wandering about London, presumably in his right mind; but now that you have established the fact of his being next door to an idiot, I don't see anything to trouble about. It's a bit of pure good luck, an amazing piece of fortune that we had no right to expect, especially after the blunder you made. Leave Hawthorne to those new-found friends of his. Leave him to the genial Mr. Stagg—"
"Who knows all about us, remember."
"Oh, does he?" the woman sneered. "He doesn't begin to know anything about us yet."
"Well, at any rate, he knows all about the business in Porchester Place. And he knows you."
"Oh, that's where you are wrong," the Princess said coolly. "He was a bit puzzled when we first met, but he is quite convinced now that I merely bear a strong likeness to some one he met in strange circumstances. Audacity, my dear boy, audacity; there's nothing like it in the world. Forward, and think no more of the estimable Stagg. All we have to do now is to keep on our way steadily and the big fortune is ours."
Hawthorne was silent, but he did not appear to be convinced. He turned to the deaf and dumb man and ticked off a message on the tips of his fingers. Immediately the other left the room, and a minute or two later the car was heard purring away into the distance.
The Princess had spoken confidentially enough, but it was quite evident to the two watchers that the man called Hawthorne was anything but easy in his mind. For a little time they conversed in low tones, till presently, with an impatient gesture, the woman flung in the direction of the door.
"Oh, come along," she said. "We can't stop chattering here all night. What on earth are you afraid of? You are nothing like the man you were a year ago. Here we are with everything in our hands again, the police baffled, and the object of our tender care under what is practically my own roof. Nobody will know that car came down from London. It'll be back in the garage in an hour's time and, after our faithful ally has done with it, it will be impossible for anybody to find that it has been out. And look at the stake. We've got those people in San Francisco exactly where we want them, and they'll have to pay our price whether they want to or not. Just think of it. Four million dollars to cut up between us two. And goodness knows what those jewels of Silas Oakes' are worth. Now, let's get back to the hotel."
"You ought not to have left it," Hawthorne muttered. "Why couldn't you have been content to stay there and gossip with the other women till I came back? Look at your shoes and stockings. I should like to know how you are going to account for them."
The woman laughed carelessly.
"Oh, you leave that to me," she said. "I was tempted by the moonlight. I was in a sentimental mood, and went further than I intended. And when I was crossing the common, I came in contact with you on your way back from the house of the genial Stagg. It is all so easy."
"I'm not quite so sure of that," Hawthorne said. "And I feel certain that Stagg isn't the fool you take him for. He is no mere inquisitive idiot who found his way by chance into the house in Porchester Place. And you want me to believe that the presence of Geoffrey Hawthorne under his roof is a mere coincidence. Of course, it may be, but the odds are a million to one against. You are too sanguine, that's always been your trouble. You are about the cleverest woman in the world, but you are always too ready to take risks. If you hadn't been you would have never seen the inside of Sing Sing Prison."
"I am vastly obliged to him for that bit of information," Gilbert whispered. "Thanks to it, I shall know exactly how to word my cable to-morrow."
"Oh, come on," the woman said. "Come on. I am positively expiring for a cigarette and a small drink before I go to bed. Let's get back to the hotel."
With that she flicked out the light, and a moment or two later the front door closed heavily. Stagg took out a cigarette and smoked it through. Once this was done, they went through the baize doors along the passage till they reached a square steel structure, which had been erected in the space where three rooms had been thrown into one. The atmosphere there was chill and cold, and the metal dome perspired until it looked like a frosty mound on an early winter's morning. There was a small door leading to this, but it was closed now, and evidently secured by a complicated lock.
"There it is," Gilbert said. "Inside there is the body of Silas Oakes. And there it may stay till the crack of doom, preserved for all time until it comes to be disturbed. Those are the freezing pipes, and those circular piles of metal in the corner are cylinders of gas. If you like, I will turn one on. If I do, you will see that as the gas emerges it becomes semi-solid, and falls like snow. I can't tell you exactly what it is, because that is rather out of my line, but I rather fancy it contains a certain proportion of liquid air. This is driven along the hollow pipes contained in the lining of the steel jacket, and they serve to keep that tank some fifty degrees below zero."
"Is there any way of getting inside?" Stagg asked. "I confess that my curiosity is aroused."
"I am afraid not," Gilbert replied. "I happen to know that that lock is of the very latest pattern. You see, where his inventions are concerned, Quest is an exceedingly secretive individual. I know that he got that lock from America—in fact, he told me so the last time I was down here. I don't suppose there are five men in England who could open it."
Stagg chuckled softly to himself.
"Well, I guess I know one of 'em," he said. "And that's Albert Josh. He's a specialist in locks, he's made a study of them all his life. When he was in the Pinkerton force they always called him in after a scientific burglary, and he could generally tell which particular gang had been at work. If it hadn't been for Josh, I should never have heard of Silas Oakes. But you know all about that, of course. Now, look here, Gilbert. These people are quite happy in their mind that they have got all they want down here, and, as it must take a few days to get the domestic staff together. I don't suppose that our fascinating friend will trouble this house much. Now, suppose I get Josh down here to-morrow night. I can tell him on the telephone exactly what we want and he can bring all his tools with him. Then we shall know where we stand. And, at the same time, we can have a look at the contents of the other safe. On the whole, this has been a jolly good night's work."
They left the house a minute or two later by means of a little side door, and, taking care to remain beyond observation in the moonlight, skirted the common until at length they reached the bungalow. On the hall table was a note for Stagg in Stella's handwriting. She and the household had retired for the night, but just before doing so there had come a call from London from Mr. Everard Stokes who wanted to speak to Stagg particularly—in fact, he must get in touch with him before he went to bed. He had declined to ring up the hotel where Stella was under the impression Stagg was, but whatever time the latter got home he was to be sure to give Stokes a call.
"I wonder what's the matter with him now," Stagg said. "It's rather unusual for him to be in such a hurry. Something out of the common must have occurred to set him off like this."
With that he took down the receiver and called Stokes. At the end of five minutes he heard that eminent journalist fuming and fussing at his own instrument.
"That you, Stagg?" he asked. "Oh yes. It's Stokes. I've been trying to get you the last hour and a half. I thought you never went out at night."
"Well, I don't often," Stagg said. "Eh, what's that? Too important to speak about at the hotel? Too many people in the lounge? Well, go on, I'm listening."
"I have had an amazing piece of information," Stokes said. "No, I'm not going to dlscuss it on the telephone at all. You must come up and see me the first thing in the morning."
"Oh, all right, if it's as pressing as all that. Is it in reference to the matter we have got in hand?"
"Certainly, you idiot, or I shouldn't have called you up," Stokes cried irritably.
"Oh, no occasion to lose your temper," Stagg said in his most genial way. "As a matter of fact, I also have made some startling discoveries in connection with the same thing. A regular night of adventure worthy of a shilling novel. You'll be astounded when I tell you. My dear chap, unless I am greatly mistaken, the whole gang is down here. I am not exactly a fool, as you know."
"I never took you for that," Stokes retorted.
"All right, my boy, all right," the imperturbable Stagg responded. "Only it'll be a great deal better if you come down here tomorrow. We can talk just as well in my house as in your office. And when we have finished I promise that you shall have the whole thing at your fingers' ends. It ought to be by far the biggest scoop that the 'Searchlight' ever handled. Now, what do you say?"
"Sounds interesting," Stokes replied. "If you can really promise me that—"
"Yes, and a great ideal more," Stagg, said.
"I'll be there by eleven o'clock," was the prompt response.
Gilbert would have gone on to the dining room whilst this conversation was proceeding on the telephone, but Stagg detained him with a gesture, and he stood there smoking his cigar, and idly taking in a one-sided conversation that conveyed very little to him. It was only when the two men reached the library and Stagg got out the spirit decanters that Gilbert began to understand. It was getting rather late now, but neither of the two felt in the least like bed, and Stagg, at any rate, had a good deal to talk about.
"Sit down, my boy," he said in his most genial fashion. "I want you to feel absolutely at home here, because you have been exceedingly useful to me to-night, and though you don't look it you are as full of pluck as any man I ever met."
"That's very good of you," Gilbert said dryly. "What's all this leading up to?"
"Oh, I don't want anything, if that's what you mean," Stagg laughed. "Upon my word, I believe you enjoyed it."
"Well, to tell you the truth I did," Gilbert confessed, "It was quite a pleasure to me to realise I am not as old as I thought I was."
"But thirty-five is a ripe age," Stagg smiled.
"It is if you sit poring over books all day as I do," Gilbert said. "But go on, you have something to say to me."
"It's like this," Stagg went on. "And I don't mind confessing that I haven't told you all there is to be told."
He might have added that there was still a good deal that he did not intend to tell. But he could see clearly enough that the time had arrived now when at any rate an appearance of absolute candour must be adopted. By great good luck he had found a valuable ally, and, moreover, a man of great mental power and discernment, although Gilbert's innocent appearance and those spectacles of his gave him an air of simplicity that Stagg knew to be woefully deceptive. But it was impossible for the old leopard to change his spots altogether, and he proceeded with that suggestion of frank bonhomie of his which had deceived many men with mental claims almost equal to Gilbert's.
"The man I was talking to just now on the telephone was called Stokes. He is a sort of financial journalist who runs a paper called the 'Searchlight.' Stokes' great delight is in exposing rascals who trade upon the credulity of fools who have money to burn. It's rather an expensive hobby, but Stokes is a man who can afford to gratify it. It is just possible that you might have heard of him."
"Certainly I have," Gilbert said. "My mother knows him well. In fact, he has been advising her lately over an unfortunate investment of hers."
Stagg, bent over the decanter, was glad enough for an excuse to hide his momentary discomfiture. There was a little touch of colour in his cheeks, so that anybody who did not know him might have said that he was actually blushing. He had entirely forgotten, at any rate for the moment, that this guest of his was the son of the woman whom he had robbed of a thousand pounds. For that, at any rate, was what it came to. It was exceedingly disconcerting, and it was some moments before Stagg recovered his mental poise again. Not that he was in the least alarmed; he knew perfectly well that Stokes would never betray him so long as the money was found. When he spoke again it was the old bland, self-contained Stagg.
"Oh yes," he said. "Then you won't meet as strangers. To tell you the truth, I am under obligations to Stokes. He is a queer sort of chap and insists upon holding me responsible for a considerable loss sustained by an acquaintance of his through a piece of advice I gave her—I mean him. In fact, Stokes was very nasty about it, and I have promised to make the amount good—indeed, I think I ought to. A moral obligation, Gilbert, merely a moral obligation. But unfortunately I haven't the money. I mean I couldn't find it without great inconvenience. Between ourselves, I am not nearly as comfortably off as people think. Like other sanguine men, I have had my losses in the city. Most of us have."
"I am sorry to hear that," Gilbert murmured.
Stagg waved this aside almost carelessly.
"The luck of the game, the luck of the game," he said "Down to-day and up to-morrow. And now I come to the point. There's big money behind this thing, and if we can get through it successfully I shall not only be able to get rid of my obligation, but I shall put a small fortune in my pocket at the same time. Of course you'll share it."
"Oh, no," Gilbert said hastily. "I would much rather not. I earn quite sufficient for my own needs, and if I had money I should probably get slack. I'll help you all I can, but no reward, if you don't mind. I suppose you are thinking about that jewel robbery in New York."
"Precisely," Stagg said. "Now that's mixed up very closely with a certain commission that Stokes gave me, though he doesn't know it at present. He'll get the surprise of his life when he comes down here to-morrow, but I don't propose to tell him everything. Upon my word, I shall rather enjoy pulling that astute individual's leg. And I want to show him how clever a representative I am. Merely a little vanity, my dear Gilbert, a common failing with all."
Gilbert smiled. It seemed to him that he knew exactly what was passing in Stagg's mind. The latter was a business man dealing with a business man, and he naturally wanted to make the most of his reputation for astuteness.
Punctual to the moment, Stokes turned up the following morning, eager to hear what Stagg had to say. He found that individual in the garden talking with Gilbert and the others, and after the first few words of greeting a move was made in the direction of the library.
"By the way, what are you doing to-day?" Stagg asked Stella. "What are you going to do with our young friend here?"
"Oh, that's all arranged," Stella said. "We are going to lunch at the Club House with the Princess de Gaucourt and Mr. Hawthorne, and play a foursome in the afternoon."
"Oh, indeed," Stagg said softly. "Oh, indeed."
So evidently the man who called himself Hawthorne had not lost any time in acquainting the pseudo-princess of what had happened at the bungalow the night before, and indeed when Stagg came to think, he had had confirmation of that the night before when he and Gilbert were hiding in 'The Wilderness.' But this little statement on Stella's part was disturbing. Had those people something in the back of their minds, he wondered. But surely they would make no attempt at further outrage on the links in the broad light of day. And besides, Stella had said something about a foursome. Stagg drew Stella slightly on one side with an excuse to the effect that he had some instructions to give to her, whilst the others proceeded in the directlon of the house.
He looked rather grave as he took her gently, by the arm.
"I am sure I can trust you, my dear," he said. "And I am sure I can rely upon your assistance. Now, last night I made a singular discovery in connection with out young friend yonder. With any ordinary luck, we shall be able to restore him to his friends and establish his identity. But he has enemies, as you already know, powerful enemies who will stick at nothing. You will help him if you can, of course."
Stella looked up with a heightened colour in her cheeks and a soft expression in her eyes.
"Of course," she said. "I am very fond of Charles. He is so brave and patient, and he is—well—such a gentleman. And I am very sorry for him."
"Oh, it's like that, is it?" Stagg smiled. "Well, my dear child, it is entirely in your hands. Now I want you this afternoon to keep a close eye on those people you are playing with. Play more than a round if you can, go out after tea, and if those people make an excuse to leave you telephone from the Club House to me here at once. I can't tell you any more, but remember that they are dangerous."
With that Stagg turned his back upon the garden and made his way in the direction of the house. A sudden idea occurred to him, a method whereby he could put his theory to the test in the course of the afternoon without much fear of detection.
He paused just for an instant to get Josh on the telephone and instruct him to turn up at the bungalow before lunch without fail, then he joined Stokes and Gilbert in the library.
"Now, let's get to business," he said "You can speak freely enough before my friend Gilbert, who is helping me in the development I told you about last night—in fact, I should have been quite lost without him. But you tell your story first, Stokes. I shall come in later on."
"All right," Stokes said. "It's all about that financial scheme you are interested in. I told you that Silas Oakes had gone off down South to Florida or San Francisco or somewhere under the pretence that he was exceedingly ill. You remember all that, of course. From there he was going to work the big financial conspiracy in London. I know it has started, because my people have identified certain agents in town. But yesterday my man in America sent me a most amazing cablegram. He said that Oakes was dead, that he had been murdered by some disappointed speculator or something of that kind, and that his confederates were at their wits end to know what they were to be at. Also there are wild rumours that Oakes' body has been spirited away, which, of course, is all nonsense."
"Oh, no, it isn't, my boy," Stagg said. "Oakes' body is in England, and, what's more, it's hidden away within two miles of this very spot."
Stagg lay back in his chair smoking his cigarette in obvious enjoyment of the staggering surprise that he had driven into Stokes' mind. For once in his life, the latter individual was absolutely knocked off his feet.
"What on earth are you talking about?" he demanded. "Do you expect me to believe that?"
"Not at first, perhaps," Stagg said. "But it's true all the same, and my friend Dr. Gilbert sitting there will confirm everything that I say. Moreover, I think we shall be able to show you definite proof. Now, I have made arrangements to keep the coast clear this afternoon, and if you like we will go quietly off this afternoon and interview the remains of Silas Oakes. It's a most staggering story, and I can quite understand your feelings. What do you say?"
"Say," Stokes cried. "Why, of course. If that's true, we have got those people in the hollow of our hands. If you can produce that body, as you say you can, then we can stir up a sensation that will be talked about in financial circles on both sides of the Atlantic for the next ten years. It will be the death blow of the big-financial trusts. Why, I'd give ten thousand pounds cheerfully to-morrow morning if I could feel it in my bones that this thing is true."
"That's a bargain," Stagg said promptly. "It is. Now, those people haven't been faithful to one another. There has been a break-away on this side, and one of the trusted agents in London sent here by the Oakes gang has gone over to the enemy—in fact, I believe he came here with the full intention of doing so. I told you his name. He calls himself Geoffrey Hawthorne, and he is here now."
Stagg and Gilbert exchanged glances, but the latter said nothing, leaving all the talking in his host's hands.
"Yes, that's right enough," Stagg said. "And there's another Geoffrey Hawthorne that you didn't happen to be introduced to just now, but you'll meet him later on. I mean the young man in the garden who was talking to my niece. But one thing at a time, Stokes, this is too complicated a matter to be settled in a few words. What do you want to get at?"
"Well, if you can produce the body of Silas Oakes, I don't want to get at anything," Stokes said. "I told you there had been a split between those people, and the suggestion is that the traitors got hold of the body of the millionaire after he had been murdered and brought it to England."
"But whatever for?" Gilbert cried.
"You wouldn't know, of course," Stokes said. "But it's pretty plain to anybody like myself who has all the shady side of finance at his finger-tips. I want you to understand that, if Oakes were really dead, then the whole elaborate conspiracy falls to the ground. His was the master spirit and the cunning brain, and his the big financial backing. Once he was out of the way, those chaps couldn't go on. But if they pretended he was still alive, then they might bluff long enough to carry the scheme through. But it wasn't much use to do that so long as they hadn't got any body, because without that they are groping in the dark. I looked upon the whole story as a wild dream. But after what you people tell me, of course I have to change my point of view. Those traitors got hold of the body and smuggled it to England. Then from some hiding place they would be able to dictate terms to the wire-pullers in America by cable. They would probably demand half the plunder, failing which they would hand the dead body of Oakes over to the police and thus knock the bottom out of the big scheme. Now do you begin to see. It's an extraordinary mix up."
"What do you want to do?" Stagg asked.
"Well, first of all, I want to confirm all you say by my own eyesight," Stokes went on. "After what you tell me, I believe you, but that's not everything. Once I am convinced, then we can go ahead. We can call in the police, and after that, I flatter myself that the next issue of the Searchlight will be the most sensational document in modern journalism. And until I have seen what remains of that American millionaire, it seems to me there is no more to be said."
"Oh, that's easy enough," Stagg said blandly. "I think you will see that I haven't been idle."
"Idle!" Stokes cried. "You have done wonders! Upon my word, Soapy, you are an absolute marvel. Now, what do you say to showing me this body?"
"Oh, well," Stagg said. "It's not quite so easy as all that, you know. The body is behind a steel door and the lock is one of the best. But I think I have got a man who can open it—in fact, he will be down here by lunch-time. He's an old friend of mine who was born on my family property and was for years with Pinkerton's police in New York. As Gilbert will tell you, locks are his specialty. And moreover, Josh knew Oakes by sight. I think you must admit, Stokes, that I have left no stone unturned."
"You have done amazingly well," Stokes said with a certain grudging admiration.
"But are you quite sure that the coast is clear? No chance of interruption?"
"I am perfectly certain there isn't," Stagg chuckled. "Certain people, by over-reaching themselves, have placed themselves right in my hands. The only two people we have to fear are out on the golf links, where they are playing this afternoon with my niece, who has special instructions to keep an eye upon them. Oh, the coast is clear enough."
A few minutes before lunch-time Josh put in an appearance, and made the acquaintance of Everard Stokes. He was told what had taken place, and what he had to do, but the news did not seem in the least to worry him. He smiled with the air of a man who is quite capable of grappling with the task before him, at the same time tapping the little black bag which he carried in his hand.
"That'll be all right, gentlemen," he said. "Mr. Stagg told me it was a question of getting inside a vault, and I am quite sure there isn't one in England that I can't see the inside of in half an hour with the aid of this little tool bag of mine. You see, on this side of the water, we are nothing like so far advanced as they are in the States. And if it's a job in a private house, then it's as easy as kiss my hand. Do you happen to know, sir, what make of lock it is?"
"I can't say I do," Stagg said.
"I think I can tell you," Gilbert remarked. "You see, my mind is trained to observe little things. There is a small brass plate on the outside of that bolt and on it is the name of the maker, 'Warden-Tachland, London.'"
Josh smiled in an amused sort of way.
"Yes, fairly good," he said. "But it will be child's play to me. And what's more, I can promise you to get inside that safe without in any way injuring the lock. What I mean is this. I can get into the safe and out again without the people it belongs to knowing I have done anything of the sort. They'd never know who had been inside the vault. I have found that sort of thing rather useful more than once."
"Capital," Stagg replied. "Now, let's have lunch and then we'll go and get it over."
It was a somewhat long and elaborate lunch, for Stagg prided himself upon the little niceties of his hospitality, but it was over at length, and then together they set out for 'The Wilderness,' making a wide detour of the golf links in case anybody might be watching their movements. Far away in the distance Stagg could see the progress of a certain foursome in which he was interested moving in the direction of the fifth hole, whereupon he made a rapid mental calculation, after which he informed his friends that they had nothing whatever to fear for an hour and a half, and that the foe would be engaged on the golf links for at least that time.
"Twenty minutes will be enough for me, sir," Josh said.
They came at length to 'The Wilderness,' and made their way into the house by the little side door. Then Josh, with true detective instinct, proceeded to satisfy himself that there was nobody in the house before he set to work. Gilbert led the way down the passage until they stood presently in the icy cold chamber facing the big dome that glistened with a sort of hoary dew in the light of the electrics. Gilbert's trained eye showed him at once that somebody must have been there early that morning to see to the gas tubes, and he did not fail to note that three or four of them had been emptied since he and Stagg were there the night before.
Despite the cold, Josh stripped off his coat and immediately set to work. He had not boasted when he had said the lock presented no great difficulties so far as he was concerned. From the little black bag he produced one shiny steel instrument after another, and played about the lock with them very much like a dentist at work on a patient. Barely a quarter of an hour later there was a rumble and click of machinery inside, and then the heavy steel door swung open. It was a full five minutes before they could enter, and when they did so the cold was so intense that they fairly gasped for breath. Josh turned on a light in the dome and exposed, on the floor of the vault, an oblong box, the lid of which had been removed. Inside, swathed from head to foot with bandages, was a body with a thin keen hatchet face exposed.
"That's the man," Josh and Stagg cried in chorus. "That is the man. That's Silas Oakes."
They stood there staring down on the silent face for a minute or two, then turned away and left the house.
They walked for some way in silence in the direction of the common, where Stagg noticed, to his satisfaction, that the foursome was still in progress. So far, at any rate, he felt satisfied that they had not been followed or watched. Then gradually they fell into a discussion of recent events. Stagg was communicative enough now there was no reason why he should any longer disguise the course of his investigations from Stokes. For the latter was now committed to him in a considerable sum, and there could be still quite a small fortune left after the just claim of Gilbert's mother had been satisfied. Long before they reached the bungalow Stokes knew all there was to tell. He smiled quite gleefully.
"This is going to be the biggest thing in my journalistic career." he said. "By Gad, it's going to be the biggest thing in the history of journalism. Some plot, as the Yankees say, eh? Now, Stagg, will you feel annoyed with me if I say that I am still unsatisfied?"
"Not in the least," Stagg laughed. "You are one of the sort of chaps who never are satisfied."
"It isn't quite that," Stokes said. "As a conscientious journalist, I want my story complete. I don't want any tags hanging out. The play is all right, as far as it goes, but it isn't quite fit for stage production. I must have it complete. I know all about the conspiracy. I know that certain men turned traitor and took advantage of the fact that some speculator madman followed Silas Oakes down south and murdered him. I know of course, that this upset all the plans of his confederates. They could bluff for a certain time, but once their leader was dead they were bound to be up against it sooner or later. But perhaps, for all I know, the scheme was practically complete before Oakes died. Then we know certain of that gang broke away and brought Oakes's body to England. How the deuce they managed it, I don't know."
"It seems absurdly easy to me," Gilbert said quietly. "They were in the heart of a grazing country where cattle are slaughtered and brought down to the coast. And that being so it wouldn't be difficult at a comparatively small outlay to smuggle the body into a freezing van and convey it to the coast. After that, It could be carried on board a meat ship in the cold storage and brought to London. Then, again, what's the matter with one of those firms who store furs and all that kind of thing for the summer? It's very like a conjuring trick—amazing till you know how it's done."
"You are right," Stokes exclaimed. "That's how it was done. But, mind you, I'm still in the dark as regards certain details. Why did those people want to take a house in London? Why did they go through all that mystery that Stagg has just been telling us about? And why did they want a medical certificate? And again, where does that jewel robbery come in?"
"Oh, all in good time," Stagg said. "You shall have your story. Nosey, my boy, down to the last detail when we catch those people red-handed as we shall. They'll be glad enough to tell the truth then."
"Perhaps I can help, gentlemen," Josh put in. "I should rather like to have a look at the lady who calls herself Princess de Gaucourt. It's any money she is American, and if she is, it's long odds that I know her by sight. Don't forget I was in America for years, and that it was my duty to make myself acquainted with every big criminal."
"That's a good idea," Stagg said. "I tell you what we'll do. We won't dine at home, but drop in at the hotel at half-past seven, and join the table d'hote. Josh shall go with us. He's about my size, and I dare say I can fit him up with a dinner jacket. What do you say. Josh? Be quite like old times, wouldn't it?"
Josh put up his head like a war horse who sniffs the battle from afar. He was only too willing to fall in with the suggestion.
"Very well, gentlemen," he said. "And, if I am not very much mistaken, I shall be able to show you something."
They had tea out in the garden, where they were joined presently by Stella and Grandison. Stokes regarded the young man with the deepest interest. It seemed to him that it was pretty obvious who this stranger was, though, so far, it did not seem to have occurred to anybody else. Grandison, quite oblivious of the interest he was creating, sat down and made a hearty tea, whilst he and Stella talked eagerly over the events of the afternoon. Stagg beamed on them benignly.
"How did you get on?" he asked.
"Oh, we beat them handsomely enough," Stella said. "I wasn't much good, and the Princess was rather worse, but Charles played like a champion. For once in a way Mr. Hawthorne was off his game. It seemed to me that he had something on his mind. I asked them to come back to tea here, but Mr. Hawthorne said he had to go and see a friend who is staying in the neighbourhood on some rather unpleasant business, so we came back alone."
Stagg made no reply. It seemed to him that he had a shrewd idea of what that unpleasant business was, and how much more unpleasant it would be before it was finished. He dropped a remark presently to the effect that he and the others were dining at the hotel in connection with some little affair of their own, and Stella, who never asked any questions, regretted that she would not have the pleasure of entertaining the editor of the 'Searchlight' to the bungalow dining-room.
It wanted a few minutes to half-past 7 when the four of them set out in the direction of the hotel. It was a beautiful night, warm and balmy, and, being towards the end of the week, the hotel was comfortably full with people who had come down there for the week-end golf. The windows of the long dining-room were open, and a babel of conversation ran round the room as Stagg led his party and made his way to a little table which he had engaged over the telephone. He placed Josh with his back to the door, so that he could see everything that was going on from one end of the room to the other.
"There you are, Josh." he said. "That's the lady facing you in the window. The one in the black and gold. There, she's looking at her menu."
"I see her," Josh said coolly. "Seen her before? Why, certainly I have. I should know her in a million. That's the woman who was known to all the big men in the States as OK, and, my word, sir, she is OK, too. She's the smartest woman that ever breathed. There's nothing she doesn't know. And as to finance, she's got it at her fingertips. Princess, is she? Princess of swindlers.'
"What's her name?" Stokes asked.
"Ah, there speaks the journalist," Stagg smiled. "Yes, what's her name, Josh?"
"Olive Kesler. That's why she's called O.K. And a rattling good name it is. Why she started life, properly so called, as a typist in Wall-street. When I tell you that she was one of Silas Oakes's private secretaries for three years you will begin to see daylight. She stayed with him till she let him down and then he sacked her. For some reason he wouldn't prosecute, so she got off scot free, and she's been living like a millionaire herself ever since. Now perhaps you gentlemen can understand?"
"Yes, it's a big light," Stokes murmured. "What are you going to do, Josh?"'
"Well, sir," Josh said. "When she gets in the lounge I am going up to speak to her. She may know me, or she may not; but when I say, 'Hello, Olive,' or something of that kind, I guess it'll hit her up all right."
A quarter of an hour later Josh put his plan into execution. He strolled up to a couch in the lounge in which the woman was seated and accosted her familiarly.
"Hello, Olive," he said. "Who on earth would have expected to see you here, all this way from home?"
The others watching could see the woman gasp; could see the curious whitening of her lips, and then, before she could reply, the deaf and dumb man burst into the room, his face a mask of fear and horror.
Stella's instincts had not played her false when she came back from the golf links under the impression that the fascinating American had something on his mind. To her it was a mere incident that she had dismissed without a moment's thought, but it had conveyed a good deal to Stagg, and, moreover, there was a good deal of foundation for it. Hawthorne had gone back to the hotel gloomily enough and impatient of the chatter of the woman by his side. She, at any rate, it seemed, had quite failed to realise the seriousness of the situation.
"What's the matter with you?" the Princess asked. "What have you got to worry about? Surely everything is going our way. We were exceedingly fortunate in finding exactly what we wanted down here—"
"I'm not so sure about that," Hawthorne said. "I should be a great deal easier in my mind if we had never come in contact with that man Stagg. I know that you regard him as little better than a fool."
"And what else is he?" the Princess retorted. "An easy going specimen of an Englishman who lives quietly at home and has a mind for nothing but sport. You don't regard him as a danger, surely?"
"Well, I don't regard him as a fool. He looks very kind-hearted and benevolent, but from one or two shrewd remarks he dropped I gathered that his eyes are open. Look what he knows. Do you suppose for a moment that he didn't recognise you? Do you think that you properly fooled him?"
"Of course I did," the Princess said contemptuously. "How could he recognise me? I was dressed entirely differently that night in Porchester-place, and you have always told me that I can change my appearance more successfully than any woman you know. I am quite certain he suspects nothing."
"And therefore, like a woman, you are prepared to take every risk," Hawthorne sneered. "But remember that that dead certain view of yours has got you into trouble more than once. But for that little failing you would be the cleverest woman in the world. And there's another thing. What have you got to say to the fact that the real Geoffrey Hawthorne is under Stagg's roof? is that a coincidence, too."
"Why shouldn't it be? The last time you saw the man you are speaking of was here on the golf links."
Hawthorne shuddered slightly.
"Oh, I know, I know," he said hastily. "It was a most unpleasant business, but it had to be done."
The woman turned a cold hard eye upon him and shrugged her shoulders in a gesture of contempt.
"It was only half done," she hissed. "A faint-hearted business altogether. When you went so far, why didn't you finish it off properly? A little more power behind your arm, and one danger would have been finished."
"Good heavens," Hawthorne cried. "Do you realise what you are saying? I have been loyal enough to you, Olive, goodness knows, but I draw the line at—"
Hawthorne hesitated, and the woman in that hard cold-blooded way of hers finished the sentence for him.
"Murder," she said coolly. "Why not say it? And why not? You know what will happen to us if this thing goes wrong. We dare not go back to America, and Paris is too hot to hold me after the audacious way in which I passed myself off as the real Princess de Gaucourt. It only wants a little slip on our part now and the American police have us just where they want us. And that'll mean, at least 20 years apiece. I don't know what the punishment is for stealing the body of a millionaire, but I can give a pretty shrewd guess. If we sit tight a day or two longer and pull this thing off, we're all right. It's a big thing, remember, running into millions of dollars. Once they come our way we can buy a big yacht and go for a trip round the world till the whole thing has blown over. There are plenty of big towns in South America where we can have all we want and no questions asked, either, if the money is all right. Come, pull yourself together; don't be afraid of shadows.".
Hawthorne laughed unpleasantly.
"Oh, you call them shadows, do you?" he said. "I'll grant, if you like, that this man Stagg does not recognise you. We'll say that he is only a middle-aged old fool who found himself quite by accident in the centre of a big conspiracy, a meddler, what people here call a Paul Pry. In other words, a Nosey Parker. But he had sense enough, or humour enough, to allow himself to be mistaken for a doctor. You showed him the body of a man who had obviously died of foul play, and when he went off, pretending to write a medical certificate, he slipped quietly out of the house, no doubt on his way to the nearest police station."
"Very clever," the Princess said. "Very sound and logical. But don't forgot that the next day the house in Porchester-place was empty, and the birds had flown without leaving a trace behind them. Even the body had vanished."
"Yes," Hawthorne said. "To reappear only a few hours later on a railway station platform. Do you suppose Stagg didn't know all about that? Do you suppose he didn't read of it in the papers? Of course, he did."
"But if he didn't recognise me—"
"I'll grant you that, if you like. Say he didn't recognise you. How much further forward are we then? What's worrying me is the fact that Geoffrey Hawthorne is under Stagg's roof. He didn't know me, of course, because he had never seen me before, and it's certainly in our favour that he has entirely lost his memory as the result of an accident."
"An accident that you could throw a light on." the Princess said "In other words, you knocked him on the head and left him for dead on the night that Stagg saw me, left him for dead on the golf links here."
"Well, I'm not denying it. At any rate, I am not denying it as far as you are concerned."
"Then what on earth is there to be afraid of? What becomes or your extraordinary coincidence? Let's speak quite plainly: It was necessary that Geoffrey Hawthorne should be inveigled out of the way the night he tracked us down and followed us to Porchester-place, and I must say that you did that very cleverly. You wanted to get rid of him before you reached 'The Wilderness,' and you managed it, I don't know how, because I never asked you, and, so far as I am concerned, I don't care. Anyway, you did it. I suppose you knocked him on the head when you got out of the car end left him for dead in a bunker."
"Something like that," Hawthorne muttered.
"The young man comes to himself the next morning without knowing in the least where he is, and with his memory an absolute blank. Being obviously a gentleman, and with money in his pocket, he appeals to people of his own class. He comes in contact with Stagg, who takes him into his own house, where he is at the present moment. And you call that a coincidence. I say it is one of the most natural things in the world."
"So it would be, if things are exactly as you state, but they are not," Hawthorne retorted. "Have you forgotten that Hawthorne was subsequently seen in London, and that we traced him to Caithness-road? We very nearly had him back that night—in fact, we ought never to have lost sight of him. It was a great mistake on our part, Olive."
"It would have been if he had been all right, but he isn't. Don't forgot that the mere fact that he has lost his memory has enabled you to make use of his banking account. We should have been very awkwardly placed without it."
"That's true enough," Hawthorne admitted. "But I haven't dared to draw too much for fear of being found out. And, there again, we made a mistake. I told you how stupidly I signed the cheque that Stagg cashed for me with the wrong signature—in fact, I had to borrow the money from you to make it good. And that's another significant fact. Stagg has not returned that cheque to me yet. I have asked him for it two or three times, but he says that there is nothing to worry about and that when it comes back to him he will return it in due course. I wish to heaven I hadn't been such a fool!"
The Princess laughed carelessly.
"You are making mountains out of molehills, my friend," she said. "So far as I can see, everything is going right. All we have to do is to hold on for another day or two and those people in San Francisco must come to our terms. Once they do, we can disappear from here like the Arabs in the poem, leaving no trace behind.
"Yes, but every hour increases the danger," Hawthorne said. "Don't forget that, if you were wise, you would accept the terms those people in San Francisco offered us yesterday. I know it means a big sacrifice, but it would pay us better in the long run, and we should be safe. Think it over, Olive. What's the good of running all this risk when we might get away with a fortune in the next twenty-four hours? Let's cut the loss and send the key of 'The Wilderness' back to Quest's agents, saying that we are called out of England on pressing business. They won't mind two straws now they have got the money. Then we can smuggle that body away once more and get rid or it. Perhaps you can find the Dr. Gilbert you wanted; he'll give you a certificate fast enough, and then you can bury him."
The Princess smiled with cold contempt us she turned into the lounge of the hotel. A messenger boy came forward.
"A cablegram for madam," he said.
With the open cablegram in her hand the Princess walked casually up the stairs in the direction of her private sitting-room. She was followed by Hawthorne, who closed the door behind him, and then waited eagerly for his companion to explore the contents of the envelope. Very coolly she lighted a cigarette first, and then dropped into a chair as if she had not a single care or anxiety in the world. With a mingled feeling of irritation and admiration, Hawthorne watched her.
"Well, there's nothing the matter with your nerves, at any rate," he said. "But why pose before me, Olive? You must be just as anxious as I am to see the contents of that envelope. For goodness sake open it."
Very slowly the Princess tore open the envelope and ran her eyes over the contents. Cool and collected as she was there was something in the message that disturbed her. It contained only a few words, evidently in code, but they conveyed a plain meaning to the conspirators there.
"The river overflowed banks last night. Part of property swept away. Advise you take bonds to Paris and dispose of them as soon as possible. Fear Henshaw and Parsons both drowned—K."
So the cryptic messages ran, but the words were written in letters of fire to those two seated there in the seclusion of the private room. Even the Princess had turned a little pale, and Hawthorne groaned aloud.
"Well, it's all up," he said.
"It looks like it," the woman said between her teeth "The miserable coward. You see what's happened, they've backed down; they're afraid to go any further. It's evident to me that something has happened in New York of which we know nothing. Henshaw and Parsons have turned traitor. Well, it's only another dream dispelled. It means that no big financial scheme is going to be launched in London, and that we have had all our trouble for our pains."
"What's to be done?" Hawthorne asked.
"Done? We must get out of here as soon as possible. Not to-night, perhaps, but certainly some time to-morrow. The best thing we can do is to go to Spain."
"Yes, but what about that body? Don't forget that? We can't leave it where it is. Quest will be back sooner or later, and when he finds what we have left behind in that frozen tank of his there'll be the devil to pay. If we can get away to-morrow and lie low for a few weeks, then we are comparatively safe. Nobody has any interests in following us, but if we leave that body behind after having taken 'The Wilderness' we shall have half a dozen witnesses down here to prove our connection with the business. Now, what do you suggest?"
The Princess smoked a whole cigarette and lighted another before she spoke again.
"It's no use crying over split milk," she said thoughtfully "There goes the biggest dream we ever had, my boy. An hour or two ago we were looking forward to the possession of millions, and now we've only just got enough to take us as far as Madrid. If it wasn't for that body we would simply slip away to-morrow without incurring any suspicion; as it is, we cannot leave that evidence behind us."
"Yes, but how are we going to move it?"
"I think I had better leave that to you," the Princess said coolly. "You must get it away by some means or another. It doesn't matter where it is so long as the box is taken away from 'The Wilderness.' Now then, just think. We've got no time to waste; it must be done to-night as soon after dark as possible. All you want is a car and Henri to help you, and the thing is done. I should prefer to have the body decently buried with a proper medical certificate, and all that sort of thing, but there's no time for that. Get the box away and drive as far as Minchin Lakes, then you can take one of the punts on the lake and sink the box where there is deep water in the middle. It never will be found again, and even if it is after the lapse of time, no one can possibly recognise it."
"What do you know about the Minchin Lakes?" Hawthorne asked.
"Only from what a visitor told me. I know they are deep and surrounded by trees, and that occasionally people who are staying here go boating there. There is a little boat-house kept by an old man and a sort of landing stage that the boats are tied up to. It's a very solitary spot, no one goes near it after dark. You slip away just before dinner and pretend that you are dining out and take Henri with you."
"Yes, I know it sounds very easy," Hawthorne grumbled. "It's all very well for you to sit there and make these suggestions in that quick way of yours, but I can see obstacles everywhere. To begin with, we can't hire a car from the hotel—that would never do. We must have a car without a driver, and if the hotel people would consent, which they wouldn't, the mere fact of my wanting a car on those conditions would be commented on. This thing must be done as secretly as possible. We are not in London now where you can borrow a car by drugging the driver or breaking into a garage. I know we have done that once or twice successfully, but you can't do it down here."
"Why not?" the Princess asked coolly. "There are at least forty cars about the place—far too many, in fact, to be kept under cover. I saw at least five in the yard just now. You'll have to risk it. You'll have to take one of them on the off-chance of getting through all right. You leave that to me. I'll make it my business presently to find out who are staying in the hotel for the night, and which cars are going back to London. Then you can take your pick of the rest as soon as the stable yard gets quiet, and with any average luck, you ought to be back in an hour. I should hang about till after dusk, if I were you. Now then, pull yourself together, my boy, and with a little courage we shall be all right."
With that the Princess dismissed her companion and proceeded to dress for dinner. In her own clever way she elicited the information she required presently, and Hawthorne, waiting for instructions, got them in due course. He was told that there was a little roadster that had been placed for the night in a lean-to shed just outside the hotel grounds. The owner was his own driver, and, moreover, he was entertaining a small party of friends to dinner in a private room. So therefore he was not likely to be any the wiser. It was a small car, neglected and dust covered with an open body behind—in fact, just the very thing that Hawthorne required.
It was nearly dark before he stole cautiously along the road in the direction of the shed, followed by the deaf and dumb man, until he came to what he was seeking. He had helped himself to a tin of petrol from another car in passing, and this he knew would be sufficient for his purpose. The make of the car was of no importance to Hawthorne, for he was an experienced driver, and equally at home with machines of all manufacture. A little later he was speeding down the road and congratulating himself on the fact that he had got away without notice. But even if the car were missing it would be easy to bluff it out in some way. Once he has disposed of that gruesome burden, the rest mattered nothing.
He could concoct some story of a life-and death message which would probably be sufficient for the owner of the car, who would care little or nothing so long as his property was returned undamaged.
Hawthorne's spirits were rising now as he drove along the road in the direction of 'The Wilderness.' Of the loyalty of the man by his side he entertained no doubt. It was some years now since the deaf-mute had attached himself to Hawthorne's person, and the latter had never been able to shake him off since. Not that he particularly wanted to, because Henri was both silent and unscrupulous, and quite prepared to do anything he was told so long as he had a roof over his head and an occasional shilling to spend. He would be useful now in helping to convey that body to the car and subsequently hiding it under the water of the lake. When once this was done Hawthorne had made up his mind to get rid of his faithful retainer without scruple. He would be simply left behind when Hawthorne and the so-called Princess turned their backs on Minchin Common, and after that, what happened to him would be entirely a matter of indifference to Hawthorne.
They came at length to their destination, under the silence of the stars, and made their way into the house. The moon was not up yet, but the May sky was bright and clear, so that it was hardly necessary to turn on the light. Hawthorne led the way along the passage leading to the big steel dome under which the body of Silas Oakes lay hidden. He had come provided with the key, which he took from his pocket, and opened the door. As soon as it was possible to enter he switched on the light in the roof, and then signalled to Henri to help him. But the freezing cold of everything numbed them to the finger-tips, so that it was almost impossible to raise the heavy burden that lay there at their feet. Very rapidly Hawthorne ticked off a message on his fingers. What he wanted was a short piece or two of rope. He needed that in any case.
"Go and get some," he signed. "You're sure to find a piece somewhere. Get a move on."
Henri turned obediently away. As he passed the big door from which Hawthorne had removed the key, he pushed the steel partition further back so that it swung like a pendulum and clicked back till the lock caught. Hawthorne was a prisoner inside with the key in his pocket.
It has all happened in the twinkling of an eye, one of those little things that no can foresee, and which yet have far-reaching consequences. Hawthorne was safe enough inside there, and the man who remained on the far side of the door knew exactly the peril in which the other stood. And there was no opening the door from the inside either. Hawthorne had clearly forgotten that the heavy door, if pushed too far back, would swing the other way again with its own weight; but so it was, and there he was inside beyond the faintest hope of escape until someone came along and released him.
But how long could he live in an atmosphere like that? Not more than an hour at the outside. The deadly cold of the place and the restricted amount of air would be fatal ere long unless help was speedily procurable.
And even then it might be too late to save the life of Henri's beloved employer. And the rest mattered nothing. Hawthorne would be caught red-handed, the whole of his crimes wood be exposed, and he would be given over to justice with the certainty of a long term of imprisonment before him. But be that as it might, Hawthorne must be saved. Without a moment's hesitation Henri dashed from the house and flung himself into the car. Then be realised that the driving of it was beyond his powers.
He tumbled out again, and cramming his hat on the back of his head, raced across the common in the direction of the hotel. He was tired and worn-out, and his lungs were almost at bursting point as he stumbled into the lounge and rushed up to the princess, heedless of the sensation he was creating. Very quickly he ticked off the disastrous news on his finger tips.
As coolly as if he had brought an ordinary message the princess dismissed him. Almost instantly her mind was turned upon herself. Already she was wondering if it were possible for her to get away from the hotel by a late train to London. But somebody else had read the message of those finger tips. Josh, standing close by, read the signs plainly, and, in the light of his knowledge, knew exactly what was taking place.
"It won't do, Princess," he said coolly. "It really won't. You'll have to stay and see it out now, my dear. We can't allow you to leave your companion in the lurch."
"What do you mean?" the Princess asked coolly. "And who are you to force yourself upon me in this fashion?"
"Ah, you are just as clever as ever, Olive," Josh said. "But why bluff it out with me, who knew you so well when I was in the Pinkerton's force in New York? Better sit down and take it quietly. People are beginning to look at us. Let me light another cigarette for you."
It was evidently useless to continue that policy of haughty aloofness with so cool a hand as Josh. Therefore the Princess subsided on the lounge with quite a pleasant smile upon her face and assumed as attitude of intimacy until the other people there had forgotten the curious little scene which had just been enacted before their eyes.
"Well?" the woman said. "Well?"
"Ah, that's better." Josh replied. "That's the way to take it. Now, you see, I happen to be able to read deaf-and-dumb language, and I know exactly what that servant of yours was saying. It's all up, Olive, indeed it is. You have played a very big game that nearly came off, but fate has been a bit too strong for you. Don't forget I have known you ever since you were in Silas Oakes's office, when you were one his private secretaries."
"Oh, you know everything," the Princess sneered.
"Yes, I think I can say as much as that," Josh said quite cheerfully. "At any rate, I know where you have hidden the body of your late employer. I am perfectly well aware of his place of concealment, and how he got there. But doesn't it occur to you, all this time, that your confederate, the man who is posing as Geoffrey Hawthorne, is slowly dying in that little steel tank at 'The Wilderness?' Wouldn't it be just as well if you came along and helped us to release him?"
As Josh spoke he signed to his companions to come over in his direction. Stagg, with the others, crossed the room, and joined the little group on the couch just as if they had been a lot of friends talking together. The Princess gave them one cold indifferent glance and then, apparently recognising that she was something like a prisoner, lay back waiting to hear what was going to happen next.
"This is the Princess de Gaucourt," Josh said. "The lady I told you about who used to be one of the late Mr. Oakes's private secretaries. But we needn't go into that now. The fact is that the man who calls himself Hawthorne has accidentally got himself shut up in the freezing tank at 'The Wilderness,' and as the key is in his pocket, cannot get out, in other words, he is slowly dying there."
"He may be dead now," the Princess said. "What can we do? No one here could open that lock."
"Oh yes they can," Josh said cheerfully. "I can, for one. Don't you think we had better all slip out into the hall without attracting attention? Then we can order one of the big cars from the hotel and say that Mr. Hawthorne has met with an accident."
"I think that would be the best way," Stokes said.
As he spoke the Princess gave him a sidelong glance.
"Haven't we met before?" she asked.
"Very probably," Stokes replied. "I was on a New York paper for some years. My name is Stokes, and I am the proprietor of a London paper called the 'Searchlight.' It is just possible that you may have heard if it."
A bitter smile crossed the woman's face. She was beginning to see daylight now. With her amazing grasp of International Finance which she had picked up in Oakes' office, she knew all the ramifications of the capitalist Press. Therefore the 'Searchlight' was familiar enough to her. And she knew, too, what a reputation it enjoyed, and, moreover, she could give a pretty shrewd guess now as to the hidden force working against her and those behind her from the first.
"All this is rather overpowering." she said. "Surely it doesn't want all you men to get the best of one weak woman? Mr. Stagg, I am ashamed of you. With that benevolent face of yours, you ought to know better."
"You should never judge by appearances," Stagg said. "My dear lady, do you suppose for a moment you deceived me? If so, it doesn't say much for that wonderful acumen of yours. But women are always sanguine creatures."
During this desultory conversation Josh had slipped out and arranged for the car. He came back a moment or two later, saying that it was waiting at the door, and with that they all hurried out and set off without delay in the direction of 'The Wilderness.' It was necessary to pass by the bungalow, so as to give Josh an opportunity of picking up his little bag of tools, after which they went along on their way until they reached their destination.
Here there was another interval of a quarter of an hour before the lock of the tank was sucessfully negotiated, and then, as soon as it was prudent, Josh and the others hurried inside.
They were barely in time. Hawthorne lay there, face forward over the body in the box, his eyes were closed and his breathing was so faint that just for a moment or two Josh, with his hand on the other's heart, thought that he was dead. But presently, under the ministrations of the rest, Hawthorne opened his eyes and looked around him.
"Where am I?" he asked faintly. "What has happened? And what are all you people doing here?"
Then he caught sight of the Princess and his glance wandered to Stagg. He was sufficiently awake now to see that something out of the common had taken place.
"Don't say anything," the Princess said. "Don't give yourself away. I haven't."
But the others were not listening. They were standing there in silent contemplation of that white face looking up at them from the outline of the oak chest. A little more now, and the mystery would be solved.
All this time Stella had asked no questions. She was perhaps conscious that something important was taking place, for she knew something of Everard Stokes, for was he not the man who had written that exceedingly unpleasant letter to her uncle some little time ago? Therefore, it must have struck her as a little strange that this open enemy should suddenly have appeared at the bungalow in the guise of a welcomed guest. Most people who came down to the bungalow were of the pleasant, easy, friendly type, devoted to golf and kindred amusements.
Stokes was a golfer, of course; but Stella was quite persuaded in her mind that the pursuit of the game was the last thing that had brought Stokes down there. Then, again, there was Dr. Gilbert, to say nothing of Josh, whose past was perfectly well known to Stella. That something important was going on she felt quite sure, but it was no business of hers to ask questions, and, besides, she knew she would be told all about it sooner or later. Therefore, like the sensible girl she was, she put the whole thing out of her mind and devoted herself entirely to her guest.
Grandison had been there some days now, and something more than a friendship had sprung up between the young people. And indeed, although Stella did not know it, it had already ripened into something more than that on her part.
She would have found it somewhat difficult to say how this had come about. How does a girl begin to fall in love with a man? What are the first symptoms of affection, and what is the mainspring that sets them going? Probably, no girl could say, and assuredly Stella had not asked herself, for the simple reason that she did not know. She only knew that she had taken an interest in Grandison from the first. There was something about him that appealed to her—the quiet, patient way in which he bore his trouble, perhaps. Or his almost passionate gratitude for the kindness he had received at the hands of everybody connected with the bungalow. Then again, those clean wholesome good looks of his were not without their charm. And perhaps, above everything, were the frankness and openness with which Grandison discussed himself to Stella.
They might have been friends of years' standing as they strolled about in the garden after tea, and again later on, when they had partaken of a simple little dinner. They were likely to be alone for the rest of the evening, so they walked about under the trees now bursting with pink and white bloom, for it was May, and all the hawthornes had come into flower almost in a single night.
"It's a very strange thing," Grandison said, "But you would hardly believe how the scent of those blossoms affects me. It makes everything so familiar."
"I have noticed that," Stella said. "I think most people have. You forget something; it goes out of your mind perhaps for years. Then you smell a flower, or catch the odour of the sea, and then it all comes back to you and makes you feel as if you had been doing all that sort of thing before. Do you know, I am glad to hear you say that."
"I wonder why," Grandison asked.
"Because it suggests that something is stirring in your mind. It seems to me that your memory is beginning to move."
"I wonder if it is," Grandison said hopefully. "And yet I don't remember ever noticing May blossom before. Can you tell me if it grows in America?"
"I am afraid I can't," Stella said. "But why America?"
"Well, I thought we were agreed that I came from America," Grandison smiled. "I don't know why we have come to that conclusion, except perhaps for the fact that if I had been English, somebody would have been advertising for me before this. Oh, I get so impatient sometimes."
He snatched a handful of pink blossom from the overhanging bough of a tree and pressed it to his nostrils.
"Ah, there it is again," he said. "Just like a flash of light in a dark place. It comes and goes in a most extraordinary way. I thought I had it then, but it's gone. Stella, do you think I shall always go on like this?"
"I am quite sure you won't," Stella said. "You don't realise what a different man you are since you came down here. At first you were nervous and timid, and you looked like a man who was recovering from a long illness. Now you are quite different. Look what you can do. What a good game of golf you play! Don't you understand, Charles, that these very sensations you speak of are favourable signs? But you musn't worry. You must let it all come back to you naturally. Think about nothing but amusement. If there was a theatre in the neighbourhood, I should insist upon you going. When you are in your present mood—"
"I should enjoy it immensely," Grandison exclaimed. "I suppose there isn't a theatre within reasonable distance? If your uncle is likely to be late we might get a taxi in the village and spend a pleasant evening together."
"Too far away," Stella said. "I am afraid the only thing our little village town boasts is a picture palace, and I don't suppose you would care for that."
"Pictures. Pictures," Grandison said, "Oh, I know. The very thing. Let's go."
Stella fell in with his mood at once. Anything within reason that he wanted he must have, and, besides, she was rather partial to that childish form of amusement herself. So presently they went off along the road in the direction of the little town of Minchin Hays, which was some mile or so away. They came presently to a brilliantly lighted portico of the hall in which the entertainment took place, and found themselves in due course seated together in the darkness.
It was the usual type of entertainment, a melodrama in which sheriffs and cowboys figured largely, a comic reel or two, and then an emotional play of the full-blooded American type, in which, as usual, vice held its sway for a time, and then the persecuted heroine and hero came richly into their own. There were detectives, of course, and motors and telephones, in which the great British public delight, accompanied by many scenes of outdoor life in the streets of New York.
It was all very simple, and all very unnatural, but it seemed to please the audience there and Stella herself frankly confessed her appreciation.
"I suppose it is very childish of me," she whispered. "But I have always liked these things."
"They certainly are excellent pictures," Grandison said. "I wonder how they manage those street scenes. The crowd passing up and down obviously has nothing to do with the drama, and yet they are taking no more notice of what is going on than they would if they were blind. Do you know, Stella—"
Grandison stopped suddenly and half rose from his seat.
"That's the place," he exclaimed. "That's the place."
In the excitement of the moment he had quite forgotten where he was. He stood up and pointed with a trembling finger to the brilliant white spot on the centre of the screen. People behind began to murmur, and a harsh voice in a Cockney accent commanded him to sit down. Stella laid a hand upon his arm and he subsided again.
"I am very sorry," he stammered. "But I had quite forgotten where I was. It was that picture that did it. That picture of Fifth Avenue."
The scene faded away off the screen and an interior followed. It was all part of the same drama, but Stella had lost the thread of it now and it ceased to interest her. She was thinking only of Grandison, and wondering what it was on the screen that had so greatly moved him.
"Tell me something," she whispered. "How did you know that you were looking at a photograph of Fifth Avenue?"
"I can't tell you," Grandison replied. "But I was. I know I was. I can feel it in my bones."
He sat there, looking with eyes that saw nothing in the direction of the screen. Presently the scene changed once more and the audience were back again face to face with a long wide thoroughfare with great houses along it, and in front of these a comedy scene was being enacted between the leading comedian and the unhappy heroine. It was a comparatively long scene and gave Grandison the opportunity he wanted.
"There it is again," he said eagerly. "Fifth Avenue, I am certain. Now, let me see. That brown stone house at the corner belongs to the Leydons, and the one next door is the property of Smart, the big real estate man. Yes, oh yes, I know it as well as if I had been there only yesterday. It's beginning to come back, Stella, it's beginning to come back."
Stella listened with a strange thrill and a quickening of her pulses. It was not for her to interrupt now; all she had to do was to sit there and listen to Grandison rambling on and picking up the threads as a child recovers some forgotten lesson. She could feel, rather than see, that her companion was trembling from head to foot with the stress of his feelings.
"Yes, that's right," he went on. "Now, where is the place I am looking for? What has become of it? Oh, how stupid I am. Of course, this picture was probably taken a year or two ago, before the house was altered. Yes, that's it. They put a balcony up. My uncle told me he was going to do so."
"What was the name of your uncle?" Stella asked softly.
"I don't know," Grandison said. "At least, he was not really my uncle. But that's his house, the one with the long portico. He lives there, I was almost born there. I've got it—Silas Oakes."
Once more Grandison rose to his feet, and once more the complaining voice behind him was heard. Then, with a murmured apology, Grandison sat down just as the third reel of the drama came to a conclusion and the lights were turned on. Stella could see that his face was deadly pale, and that a bead of perspiration stood on his forehead. He was breathing hard, too, as if he found the atmosphere oppressive.
"Shall we stay on?" Stella asked gently. "Or wouldn't it be better to get outside?"
"Oh, outside, by all means," Grandison replied. "I feel as if my head was bursting. This place seems to have got insufferably hot all at once I am restless and uneasy, I want to walk miles and miles. I am like a man who is looking for something and can't find it, though he knows where it is all the time. Do you mind, Stella?"
"I don't mind anything as long as it does you good," Stella said. "Let's go out and walk. The moon will be up by this time, and it's a lovely night. And I don't suppose the others will be back till late. We'll go back across the fields and round the far end of the golf links by the lakes. That is, if it would not be too far."
"Nothing will be too far for me," Grandison said. "But I was wondering if you could manage it."
Stella reassured him smilingly.
"Of course, I can. I am never tired. Do you know I often play two rounds of golf at this time of year, and put in a couple of hours in the garden afterwards. I should enjoy it."
They turned out of the main road presently, and wandered across the golf links in the direction of the lakes, which were half a mile, or so at the back of 'The Wilderness.' Perhaps if they had known of the amazing drama which was taking place in that lonely house, they would not have passed it so casually. But they were talking now in an intimate fashion, and every word that Grandison said interested Stella deeply.
"Now we can talk quietly," she said. "Would you mind telling me who Silas Oakes is?"
"I'm afraid I can't," Grandison confessed. "I could have told you a little time ago when we were inside that building, and I was looking at Fifth Avenue, but it seems to have all gone again. No, it hasn't quite. I can tell you now who Silas Oakes is, though, for the life of me, I can't recollect what is the connection between us. To begin with, he is a prominent American millionaire. A very queer sort of man, and not at all popular. Lots of people will tell you all sorts of stories about him. They say he has no heart and no feeling, and only cares for the making of money, But, for some reason or another, he was always very good to me. I don't know what I should have done without him."
"What do you mean by that?" Stella asked.
"Ah, there you have me. I can't tell you why he was good to me, and in what way, and I haven't the least idea why he should be so generous in my case when he was so grasping and hard with others. Do you know I feel just like a man who is reading a letter, the last page of which is missing. It's a queer sort of feeling; but I have an idea, all the time, that the missing page will turn up presently, and, mind you, I know that house quite well. I can see the interior of it plainly enough, I can see the big rooms with their elaborate furniture gathered together from all parts of the world, and I can see a big underground treasure house filled with all kinds of priceless objects. But, for some extraordinary reason or another, I can't tell you what I was doing in that house, and what right I had to be there. Then there is a bedroom and a sitting-room which seemed to belong to me, and a private servant. A little old man in black. What on earth was his name? Ah, it's no good, Stella; I am getting muddled up worse than ever."
Stella looked at him with a world of pity in her eyes.
"Then please don't try," she said. "Let it rest for a night; it may all come back to you to-morrow."
"Well, it might be all gone," Grandison said gloomily.
"I don't think it will, Charles. Just consider what a lot you have remembered tonight. What a long way we have progressed since you saw that picture. I feel quite convinced that after a good night's sleep you will be able to tell us a lot more. Oh, you are getting on famously."
"How good you are to me," Grandison said, almost passionately. "You are the best and kindest girl in the world, and the most beautiful. It is as if an angel from Heaven had come down to help me. And I will be calm, I will try and restrain myself. I hope you won't think I am altogether a selfish beast, Stella. I try not to be."
"I am quite sure you are not," Stella cried. "The way you bear your misfortunes is splendid. It must be almost maddening to be groping about in the dark as you are, looking for something you can't find. Just consider what we have learnt to-night. We know now that you come from America. You are quite familiar with New York, and one of your great friends there, one of your relatives probably, is a famous millionaire called Silas Oakes. Now, I think the best thing I can do is to type a long letter to Mr. Oakes, telling him everything and asking him to come over here or send someone who can identify you. We will put a photograph of you in the letter, and by the end of a fortnight you will know exactly who you are. And besides, I have an idea that once you are back to home amongst your familiar surroundings, your memory will return to you. You will have scores of people to remind you of many things, you will have your furniture and your books and all the things that remind you of the past. And then, perhaps, some day, when you are quite yourself again, you will come over and see us."
"How good you are," Grandison cried. "You are better than all the doctors in the world. If I had you with me always I know I should get all right again. But I am not quite so sure I want to go back to America. And I am sure I don't want to leave you, Stella. I have not known you long, but already I feel that I can't do without you."
The colour deepened on Stella's cheeks.
"Do you think you ought to talk like that?" she asked,
"Of course not," Grandison admitted. "I have no right to do anything of the kind. But I can't help it, Stella; I really can't. I am only part of a man, and the worst part too. But if the other half comes back I wonder if it would be of any use for me—oh, you know what I mean."
"I am sure it will," Stella said. "We have been very good friends, Charles, and perhaps I don't like you any the less because I have been so sorry for you, but—"
"Yes, but," Grandison said. "I understand. And you have given me hope to-night. There is one more question I must ask. It's a very impertinent question, but I must put it, because so much depends upon it. What I want to know is whether there is anybody else."
Stella turned her frank eyes upon him.
"There is no one else," she said. "There never has been. You know I am perfectly happy here with my uncle and my golf and the garden, where I pass much of my time but I haven't many friends. You see, my uncle's friends are mostly men of his own age, charming and delightful people, no doubt, but not interesting to a girl of my age, and I have met very few young men."
"Well, that's consoling, anyway," Grandison laughed. "This is rather a funny conversation, Stella. And yet I don't know. It seems natural enough for you and me. I suppose, too, that occasionally the idea of having a home of your own has crossed your mind?"
Stella laughed frankly enough.
"Of course it has," she said. "It seems to me that it must occur to every nice girl. But I have never really considered it as what my uncle would call a serious proposition. You see we have been such friends. He really is the dearest man, and he has been a father to me ever since I can remember. It would be a great grief to me to lose him."
They were strolling along quietly enough now talking in the confident way of two people who have known one another for years. And it seemed to Stella to be the most natural thing in the world that the man by her side should be asking her these intimate questions as if he had a perfect right to do so. It never seemed to occur to her to regard him as a stranger, and, therefore, she recognised the glow at her heart that this was the man she had been unconsciously looking for. He would be himself one of these days again, and all would be well.
They strolled along round by the lakes and back in front of 'The Wilderness' in a compative silence that was perhaps more confidential than any words would have been. And then, as 'The Wilderness' loomed up before them, Stella paused.
"Look there," she said. "There's a light in one of the windows, and a car standing just inside the gate; and there's Albert Josh coming down the drive. What is going on?"
A moment later Josh emerged on to the common and stopped suddenly in front of Stella and her companion.
"What's the matter?" she asked.
"A good deal, miss," Josh said. "Mr. Stagg and the other gentlemen have had a busy evening. But come inside, miss. I rather think, from what Dr. Gilbert said, that he wanted to speak to Mr. Grandison. Funny thing you should be walking this way, miss. But please come inside."
The so-called Princess faced her challengers with a hard look in her eyes. Whatever happened, she had no intention of giving herself away, and it was clear enough that she meant to fight to the last. Josh, watching her, and judging her from his intimate acquaintance with criminal nature, found himself admiring that splendid nerve and wondering what it might have accompllshed had it been turned into more legitimate channels.
"Don't you speak," the woman cried. "I won't."
But the man lying on the floor of the vault was incapable, so far, of taking the faintest interest in anything that was going on around him. He had been snatched back from the brink of the grave at the last possible moment, and, so far as he was concerned, the world mattered not at all. He could only lie there and groan feebly until at length they carried him into the dining-room, where Stagg proceeded to break open the sideboard and extract a portion of a bottle of brandy which happened to be left there. A spoonful or two of this was applied to Hawthorne's lips, and then, very gradually and slowly, he dragged himself into a sitting position, but it was some time before he began to get a grasp of the situation. Then his memory came back to him, and he glanced into those four hard, keen faces facing him under the full glare of the electric light, and the fighting instinct of the criminal began to come back to him. He was ready now.
"What is it, Olive?" he asked the woman.
"I can't tell you," she said curtly. "But with all these people about I should think you can guess."
"Oh, yes," Hawthorne said. "I got shut up inside that place there, and I don't recollect any more until somebody opened the door. How does my genial friend Stagg come into the picture?"
Stagg smiled in his most benevolent fashion. This was a bit of sheer and polished impudence exactly after his own heart. He knew perfectly well that in similar circumstances he would have carried it off precisely in the same way.
"Tell him, Stagg," Stokes said.
"With the greatest possible pleasure," Stagg observed. "My dear sir, you have been found out. It means that you and this talented and fascinating lady have about finished for the present, at any rate. It means, in the words of the melodrama, that all is discovered. We know how you brought the body of the late lamented Silas Oakes from America and the reasons why you have taken all the trouble to hide it from what the newspaper men would call the public gaze. In other words, Mr. Oakes had schemed out a wonderful campaign for depriving the British public of a considerable sum of money. We know all about that serious illness, and how Mr. Oakes went South with a retinue of nurses and doctors. Unfortunately, when he got there, he came in contact with a disappointed lunatic whom he had ruined, and that man murdered him. Of course, this put an end to the big conspiracy, though the group behind Oakes made up their minds to carry on if they could. But all this is no news to you. Now you and the lady who calls herself Princess de Gaucourt hit upon the bold idea of getting hold of Oakes' body and bringing it to Europe. As the lady yonder was once one of Mr. Oakes' secretaries, she no doubt learnt a great deal of his financial ambitions. She would know, for instance, that Oakes was contemplating his campaign in London. It doesn't matter how she got the information, but she evidently did get it. And your little scheme was to bring Oakes' body to London and through your confederates in America let the syndicate know that you would expose the whole thing and produce the body of the man who was supposed to be alive unless you had your share of the booty. I may not be quite right in all my details, but that's about what will be proved when the police take the matter up."
The Princess, seated in a big armchair with her legs crossed and smoking a cigarette, laughed almost pleasantly.
"Just one moment, Mr. Stagg," she said. "Would you be good enough to tell me what we are charged with? I want to know what crime we have committed."
"What crime?" Stagg echoed. "Well, my dear madam, I am afraid you have me there. It isn't murder, and it isn't abduction in the ordinary sense of the word, but I have no doubt whatever that the American penal code has some sort of a punishment for an offence like yours."
"I doubt it," the Princess said in the same collected fashion. "Let's admit, for the sake of argument, that all you say is correct. I am not Princess de Gaucourt, I am simply Olive Kesler, who, at one time, was in Mr. Oakes's office. There I learnt all about finance. There I had the run of his private papers and mastered certain schemes of his which had been maturing for years. And amongst them was the one which has brought us together. For ages now I have been watching Oakes carefully, and when he went South I knew the purpose that took him there. We went South, too, hardly knowing what we were going to do, and then we will assume that luck came our way. If it hadn't been that two of our gang turned traitors we should have made millions of dollars."
"Go on," Stagg said gently. "Go on."
"No, Mr. Stagg, I am not going on," the woman said. "It seems to me that I have admitted quite enough. You can form what theory you like, and you can prove it up to the hilt if you want to. Certain things have happened that it would be futile to deny, and I always know when I am beaten. But what I want to know is, what you are going to charge me with. You can't detain me here, because you have no warrant, and you have not been in touch with the police. If I want to leave England to-morrow, there is nothing to prevent me."
Stagg glanced a little dubiously at his companions, with the exception of Josh, who, a moment or two before, had faded quietly out of the room. The latter individual had been weighing up in his mind all that had passed, and it seemed to him that if he could find the telephone in the house he would be in a position to expedite matters. Stagg turned over the pointed question in his mind, then his eye fell on Hawthorne.
"Yes, that might be so," he said. "But I don't think this gentleman here will be in a position to travel for some time. In fact, it looks to me as if he is getting worse. Whilst we have been talking here like this it would have been just as well if someone had put him in a taxi and taken him back to the hotel and got him to bed at once."
"Just a moment," Gilbert put in quietly. "All the lady says may be correct, no doubt, but isn't there another charge that we appear to have overlooked? I think, Stagg, you made a suggestion that these people are intimately connected with a certain jewel robbery in New York."
For the first time since the interview began the woman calling herself Princes de Gaucourt showed signs of confusion. Her glance wandered uneasily in the direction of the safe in the corner of the room, and Stagg chuckled as he noticed it.
"No, you don't," he said. "We know perfectly well what you have got hidden in that little safe, and I have not the least intention of leaving the house till the arrival of the police. You can go if you like, madam, and take your friend with you. We'll walk home later on."
A few minutes later and the car was on its way back to the hotel with the Princess and her companion inside. They had hardly vanished before Josh appeared, followed by Stella and Grandison, who stood looking in confusion for an explanation. Josh whispered something in Gilbert's ear.
"The very thing," the latter said. "Mr. Grandison, would you kindly step this way?"
He piloted the young man down the passage in the direction of the tank, and there brought him suddenly face to face with all that remained of Silas Oakes. Grandison placed his hand before his face as if to shut out some blinding light.
"My uncle," he cried. "Or the man I call my uncle. Silas Oakes, and here. What does it mean? It's all come back to me now. There lies Silas Oakes, and here am I, his adopted son, Geoffrey Hawthorne."
Grandison stood there for some time in silence, looking down at the white, silent face like a man who struggles to obtain a hold upon himself. He was so profoundly moved that Gilbert, hardened as he was, turned aside and waited respectfully for the other to speak. Gilbert knew, too, from the expression of Grandison's features that the experiment had been successful. But it seemed to him all along that what Grandison needed was a sudden shock to restore the balance in his mind and bring him back to a sane level again. The first words that Grandison had uttered had sufficed to show Gilbert that his experiment had been successful.
Grandison turned slowly round and rubbed his eyes, much as a man does who has just come to himself after a long sleep.
"What does it mean?" he asked. "I don't understand it at all. The last time I saw Silas Oakes was in New York. I wonder how long ago that was."
"Don't you know?" Gilbert asked.
Grandison shook his head thoughtfully. "I don't," he said. "I haven't the remotest idea what time of year it is. Oh, yes, of course, it is in May. Miss Henson and myself were admiring the blossoms just before dark. Let me think. I was in New York towards the end of February. Yes, I had just come back from a golfing holiday in the south. As far as I recollect Mr. Oakes sent for me. Yes, he certainly sent for me. I am trying to recollect why. Ah, it is all rolling out beautifully now. Dr. Gilbert, I believe my memory has come back to me."
"There is not the slightest doubt of it," Gilbert said cheerfully. "Now, don't worry; you have got all the rest of your life in front of you, remember. Just let it come naturally—"
"Oh, it is," Grandison said. "Mr. Oakes wanted to see me before he went south. He said he was ill, but it seemed to me that there was not much the matter with him, probably overwork more than anything else. At any rate, he was going, and it was not his intention to return to New York for some months. I think he was rather afraid of certain people who were plotting to rob him of some of his treasures. But someone was always trying to do that. He gave me the duplicate keys of his museum, and asked me to go over it every day. If I found anything wrong I was to open a certain locked diary that he kept in the safe of which I had the key, and I should find all instructions there. I remember smiling at the suggestion at the time, but within a fortnight of Mr. Oakes' departure South, and when I was away for a day or so, somebody did get into the museum and manage to escape with a lot of diamonds that had once formed part of a great collection."
Grandison was speaking more quickly now, and the excitement of the moment was beginning to tell upon him. Gilbert soothed him down gently and led him away from the vault back along the corridor into the hall.
"Now you can go on again," he said. "As a matter of fact, I would much rather you waited till to-morrow to tell me all this, but I can see that your mind is full of it, and perhaps it would be kinder to allow you to continue."
"I found the diary," Grandison went on. "And then I learnt a great deal that I had not even suspected before. Of course I knew that Mr. Oakes had had his enemies, but I never believed half they said about him. I didn't believe, for instance, that he was a man who would buy stolen property. But I was wrong, Dr. Gilbert. I know now that the man I called my uncle was prepared to buy any historic treasure from anybody, no matter how they got hold of it. And I discovered exactly which articles in the museum had come into Mr. Oakes's possession through those suspicious channels. There was a whole list of them, and it was to be my duty, if anything happened to Mr. Oakes, to return them anonymously to their owners. Perhaps the finest set of jewels in the collection had once been the property of a noble family in Venice, and it was these jewels that the thieves had stolen. If I couldn't get them back by force—and this instruction applied to all stolen property—I was to place the matter in the hands of the Pinkerton police and offer a reward of fifty thousand dollars. No questions were to be asked, and no one was to know from whence the property had been stolen. You must see that it would have been impossible to have given a description of those diamonds in their setting, because once that was done the owner must have heard of it. I dare say it sounds all very big and complicated, but I think you will see what was in the back of Mr. Oakes's mind. At any rate, I carried out his instructions and the reward was offered. But I wasn't going to be content with that, because I could see a fine adventure in front of me. Mr. Oakes had a pretty fair idea as to who he expected would attempt to rob him. One or two names were given in the diary, and amongst them was that of a woman called Olive Kesler and a man named Broadwood. I may tell you now that this Broadwood is the same individual who has the amazing impudence to come down here and call himself Geoffrey Hawthorne before my face. It is true he didn't expect to find me at Minchin, and when we did meet I was in no position to contradict him, but he must have felt very uncomfortable."
"Then your name is really Hawthorne?" Gilbert asked.
"Certainly it is," the other replied. "I am Geoffrey Hawthorne, the adopted son of Silas Oakes, and, I think you will find, heir to all his property. Years ago, in the old days, Oakes did my father a great injury. The injury was forgiven, and a little later on my father was in a position to render Oakes a great service. He did it, and died a few months later, leaving me quite destitute, at a kind of charity school where I had been sent. Oakes sought me out, and from that moment nothing was too good for me. I went from Havard in due course just where I liked, spending money freely, because Oakes declined to have me in the business. He was fond of saying that my father was the only honest man in the world, and he wanted me to grow up like him."
At that moment Josh came out into the hall and requested Gilbert's presence in the library.
"You had better come along," the latter said. "It is just as well, perhaps, that you should interrupt your story at this point, because I can see that it is putting a strain upon you. I ought really to give you a sleeping draught and send you straight back to bed."
In the library a little group had gathered in front of the safe which Josh had successfully opened. On the floor lay a heap of glittering gems, some in settings and some without, but all the rare quaint settings were here, and it would only need the attention of a clever goldsmith to restore that priceless collection to its original beauty.
"There you are, gentlemen," Josh said. "There's the missing property for which Pinkertons' in New York are offering a handsome reward. Now, Inspector Edwards, I think you have got something to go on. You may not be in a position to arrest that woman for kidnapping a dead body, but you can take her in custody on suspicion of being in possession of stolen goods."
The local superintendent smiled.
"It's a most extraordinary story you have just told me," he said. "But it all seems to fit very nicely. What we have to do now is to lay that woman by the heels, together with her confederate, and I shall be able to make out a proper charge afterwards. She'll come before the magistrates charged with having stolen property in her possession, and I shall ask for a fortnight's remand. By that time we shall have somebody over here from America, and after that the rest should be easy. I suppose you don't mind, gentlemen, if I take possession of this property. It's rather necessary that I should."
"That's all right," Stagg said. "You came here on purpose. But, don't forget, Inspector Edwards, that there is a big reward offered, and I claim it."
"I'll make a note of that, sir," the Inspecter said. "And now I don't see why I should detain you gentlemen any longer. Good night, gentlemen. We shall probably meet tomorrow in the police court."
Despite her cool demeanour and the assurance with which she carried off the situation, the woman who called herself Princess de Gaucourt was by no means easy in her mind. She remembered only too well that inside the safe of the library in 'The Wilderness' was certain evidence which she knew was bound, in the long run, to bring her to justice. And, moreover, the enemies who had gathered round her as if they had fallen from the air seemed to know perfectly well what was in that safe. How they found it out was a mystery, but the main thing was that they had found it out, and if these jewels could not be recovered by some brilliant coup on her part, then she was likely to take a rest from the world for some time to come.
How had they discovered the secret hidingplace of the gems? The woman asked herself that question over and over again as she drove back to the hotel with the half-unconscious man by her side, but no satisfactory answer was forthcoming. There was only one thing to do now, and that was to turn her back as speedily as possible on her confederate Broadwood, and make her way out of the country without delay. She was not without means, she always kept a certain sum in reserve in cases of emergencies like this, and, so far as Broadwood was concerned, he would have to look to himself. She had a feeling in her mind that he had bungled somewhere, he had allowed himself to be deceived and followed, and, no doubt, Stagg and the rest had been in 'The Wilderness' each time that Broadwood had visited it. Every movement of his had been spied upon, and even if he hadn't been fool enough to allow himself to be trapped in the vault, he would have been hunted down in another way, so that it all came to the same thing in the long run.
All these things passed the woman's mind as she drove back to the hotel. Once there, she managed to get Broadwood up to his room, where he was undressed and put to bed by one of the men servants. It was easy enough to explain that he had met with an accident, and that after a good night's rest he would be himself in the morning.
And by the morning Olive Kesler intended to be far enough away. She would pack up all her portable property before she slept, and before the hotel was awake in the morning would be on her way across the common to catch the first train to London. This would mean, of course, the leaving behind of all her wardrobe, but that did not trouble her. It would not be the first time in the course of her career that she had escaped from justice in the garments that she stood up in. She sat there in the lounge till nearly midnight working out the whole scheme, sat there with a cigarette in her mouth, much as if she had not a single trouble in the world, but all the time that agile brain of hers was moving, and she was shaping a clear course in front of her. It seemed to her that she had got it pretty well straight at last when the door of the lounge opened, and a tall, spare man in the blue uniform and peaked cap of an Inspector of Police walked in. Apparently he knew exactly what he was doing and what he was after, for he crossed the lounge and stood in front of the woman, who regarded him coolly.
"Well, what do you want?" she asked.
"Olive Kesler," Inspector Edwards said. "Otherwise known as the Princess de Gaucourt. I have a warrant here for the arrest of yourself and a man passing as Geoffrey Hawthorne on a charge of being in receipt of stolen property."
"A warrant?" the woman echoed. "Really! You evidently haven't been long about it. I am quite ready."
And so it came about that the end of an hour saw the brilliant adventuress and her companion safely behind prison bars. It was not very much they had to listen to the following morning, but as the Inspector stood in the witness-box and gave his brief evidence the two prisoners in the dock heard quite enough to convince them that the whole of their conspiracy was unfolded, and that struggle as they might, there was no way out of the punishment in front of them. The whole proceedings only occupied a few minutes, and then they were back in their respective cells again.
It was a little later in the afternoon that the man called Broadwood, alias Geoffrey Hawthorne, sent for Inspector Edwards with the intimation that he had something to say. He lost no time in getting to the point.
"It's quite plain to me, Inspector," he said, "that the game is up. We have had a fine run for our money, and we came very near to pulling off the biggest thing in the world. But we failed, and I guess I know when I'm beaten. Now, see here, Inspector, would it help me if I tell you everything? Will it be any easier for me if I plead guilty?"
"That I cannot say," the Inspector replied. "It will certainly be in your favour, and I will see that it is represented in the proper quarter. You can make any statement you like, but it will be used against you. It's my duty to tell you that, and, now, go on."
"Now, you get a clerk in and let him take down what I say. It won't be very long, and I'll sign it afterwards."
It was only a brief statement, but it contained all the leading points, and when at length it was finished it seemed to the Inspector that his case was absolutely complete. It told how the woman called Olive Kesler had come to Broadwood some months ago with certain information that induced him to become her partner in the great conspiracy. Olive Kesler had been at one time one of Oakes's private secretaries, and, having a natural head for finance, and certain unscrupulous methods of her own, had contrived to get hold of and master a number of private papers which Oakes had obviously intended for his private use alone. And these documents contained the whole of the plans of the big financial conspiracy which it was intended to work at an early date through agents in London. It had been the intention of the conspirators to either forestall these operations or, by threatening to disclose them, to blackmail Oakes and the financial group who were assisting him. With the intention of getting hold of all the latest details Olive Kesler and Broadwood had made up their mind to follow Oakes South. But they needed money for this operation, and that money they obtained by an audacious burglary on the premises of the man upon whom their big designs centred. This robbery having been successfully accomplished, and one or two of the historic diamonds disposed of, they made their way to the south on the track of Oakes.
And there an extraordinary piece of luck in their favour presented itself. Oakes had been murdered on a lonely road in the broad light of day by a man whom he had ruined in business. This was a terrible blow for Oakes' colleagues, but once they realised it they began to rally. They smuggled the body back to the headquarters of the dead man, and concealed the disaster from the public. In the light of their knowledge, Olive Kesler and her companion began to look for a way of turning this business to advantage. It was the woman, apparently, who had conceived the audacious idea of kidnapping the body and conveying it to Europe. The idea was to take it to London and hold it as a kind of ransom. It was the woman, too, who was prompt to utilise the fact that they were in the centre of a district where refrigerator trains ran constantly to the coast in connection with cold storage vessels.
It was a wild, audacious scheme, but, like most plots calling for amazing courage and tenacity, succeeded without a hitch from start to finish. But the time came when the conspirators were hard pressed, and therefore made up their minds to get rid of that ghastly burden of theirs by obtaining a doctor's certificate and giving it decent burial. This would rid them of a great danger and at the same time leave them in a position to carry on their campaign of blackmail, for though the body of Oakes would have been buried it could still have been produced under an order from the Home Secretary. It was the unexpected check caused by the appearance of Montagu Stagg, passing himself off as a doctor, which led, at the very last moment, to the abandonment of the scheme, and as to the rest the police now know as much about that as anybody else.
The long tangle had unwound itself before magistrates, and subsequently at the Assizes, and when it was all done and finished with the woman Kesler and her companion vanished from the scene of their exploits to a place where they would be looked after for the next ten years to come. And the real Geoffrey Hawthorne had vanished, too. He would like to have stayed long enough to explain matters from his point of view, but almost immediately after breakfast the next morning he had been summoned to London to give certain information at Scotland Yard, and afterwards the representative of Silas Oakes waited upon him with a deal of business detail which in the circumstances could not be postponed. And after a good night's rest Hawthorne came to himself a different man. All the sense of oppression and mental mistiness had vanished, leaving him clear and vigorous. The healthy life he had been living for some days at Minchin Common had not been without their effect, and the regular exercise he had taken was responsible for the rest. It had been his intention to stay in town for a day or two, and then get back to Minchin Common, where he would have a good deal to say in view of the fact that he now had the clearest recollection of everything that happened since he left America, and the reasons that induced him to cross the Atlantic.
But many reasons interfered. To begin with, the best part of a week was passed in going through a maze of documents and figures, and after that there came an urgent summons from the lawyers in New York, so that, almost at a moment's notice, Hawthorne had to return to the States again to settle a number of pressing affairs on that side.
To begin with, all the stolen property in the underground museum would have to be sorted out and restored to its rightful owner. Hawthorne found New York ringing with the story when he got back. It was told again and again with a great wealth of detail and startling headlines. It did not require much time to see to this part of the business, but when it came to the lawyers, there was a good deal of delay and June had come to an end before Hawthorne could turn his back upon New York, having satisfied himself that everything was in order now and that the vast property he had come into was in safe hands.
There was a good deal of property, too, in England, but that Hawthorne decided he could look after himself.
It was one afternoon shortly before tea time that Hawthorne crossed the common and made his way into the garden of the bungalow, where he knew that Stella was awaiting him. He had written and told her that he was coming, and he was not displeased to find her alone under the shade of the trees with the tea table laid out in front of her.
She looked up at him with a smile and what appeared to be a shy welcome in her eyes as she held out her hand. But Hawthorne did not seem to see it. He placed his hands on her shoulders and looked down with a sort of bold admiration into her face. Then one of his arms slid around her neck, and, drawing her closer to him, he pressed his lips to hers as if it had been the most natural thing in the world. And indeed, it did seem natural enough to Stella when once the thing was done, and just as if she had been waiting for it.
"There," he said. "I couldn't help it, Stella, and I am not going to apologise in any case. It's just what it ought to be, just what it was intended to be from the first. I think you know that dearest, don't you?"
"I think so," Stella smiled. "In fact, I am sure of it, Geoffrey. It's very strange."
She dropped back into her chair and began pouring out the tea whilst Hawthorne watched her admiringly.
"How wonderfully well you look," she said.
"Oh, I am," Hawthorne cried. "I never felt better in my life. It seems impossible to believe that I am the same man who came here for the first time only a few weeks ago. Now, give me a cup of tea, and I will tell you all about it. There's a good deal to be told yet. By the way, how's the uncle? How's that wonderful man getting on? But for that amazing cleverness of his, goodness knows what would have happened. He earned every penny of that money, and I am glad he has got it. Do you know, Stella, I find that I have got a great deal more property in England than I thought. And I don't want to be bothered with it. I am going to ask your uncle to manage it for me. There's no man who could do it better. My idea is to offer him a thousand a year, or something of that sort. Then you and I can get married and get away for a year's honeymoon on the Continent. You would like that, wouldn't you?"
Stella drew a long deep breath.
"Oh, it would be lovely," she said. "And I am sure my uncle will be delighted. There is nothing he likes better than managing other people's business. Give him that and somebody to type his letters, and he's perfectly happy."
"Then that's settled," Hawthorne laughed. "And now, what about our own affair?"
"Not so fast," Stella smiled. "You are going to tell me how you got here in the first place."
"Oh, yes, I had almost forgotten. Well, it was like this. I told you, or I told somebody, that after the robbery you know of, I got on the track of the thieves through some private papers of my uncle's. Then I lost sight of them for quite a while. I know now, of course, that they went south, and that is how they eluded me. But I found out that they had come to London, and I followed them. I discovered that Olive Kesler and the man who passed himself off for me—and subsequently used my banking account when he thought I was out of the way—had taken a house in Porchester-place. Perhaps not realising what a dangerous crowd I had to deal with, I forced myself into the house early in the evening, and confronted those two people. That was the same night, by the way, that your uncle called there. Well, they pretended to give in and told me that all the jewels were down here at 'The Wilderness.' It was evident that quite as early as that they had made up their minds to take 'The Wilderness,' and I needn't remind you for what purpose. Well, Broadwood behaved like a coward. He trembled and turned pale, and but I know all that was mere dust in my eyes. The woman was just as bad, and I was so bucked with my success that I was too blind to see the trap they were laying for me. Broadwood offered there and then to take me down to Minchin and restore the stolen property to me. As I didn't trust those people a yard, you can imagine how I jumped at the offer. They led me to believe that at 'The Wilderness' they had a staff of servants and all the rest of it. Broadwood went off and got a car, and we drove down here. He was very friendly on the journey and behaved so quietly that I naturally looked upon the thing as a mere pleasure trip. But when we got near the common something went wrong with the car, and we had to get out. Of course, I know now that there was nothing wrong whatever. We walked across the links in the darkness towards 'The Wilderness,' and there when I was a bit in front that rascal dealt me a murderous blow on the back of the head and left me, under the impression that I was dead. He probably went straight back to town again, feeling that everything was safe, only to find that it was necessary to get the body of my unfortunate relative out of the way as soon as possible. You can fill in all the details for yourself. That's the story, and that's how I came to be found the next morning by one of the caddies lying half dead in a bunker, as you have heard. How I managed to get out of there and back to London goodness knows. Oh, and one thing more. Those gems that were found in my pocket. They were handed over to me in Porchester-place. They were really the bait that lured me to go on after the rest. But it's all right now, Stella, and instead of being the poor unfortunate I took myself for I am the luckiest and happiest man in the world. There's only one thing I want now, and you can give it me."
"I think you have got it already," Stella said with smiling eyes.
Hawthorne laughed happily, for he had only to look into Stella's face and realise that there was nothing wanting now.
This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia