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Title: The Price of Silence Author: Fred M White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1200201h.html Language: English Date first posted: January 2012 Date most recently updated: February 2012 This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy and Roy Glashan 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
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Sir Wilton Oakes sat in the great library at Priors Gate, moodily contemplating a mass of papers that lay on the table before him. He was a man of about five and forty years of age, though he might have passed for considerably less, so well preserved was he, and so fine was his constitution. He had all the attributes of his ancient race—the hawklife face, the short upper lip, and the easy manner of one who is born to be the commander of men. And, indeed, from all outward appearance, his position was an enviable one, for he had recently entered into possession of that beautiful Elizabethan house, with its period furniture and the wide estates, which had been the heritage of the Oakes any time the last five hundred years. And now the old baronet was dead, and the man sitting at the library table reigned in his stead. He had come back from America, where he had been ever since he left school, come back too late to see the father to whom he had been a source of trouble and anxiety from the time he had come to a proper understanding of things. So the dead baronet had taken a drastic course a quarter of a century before, and England had seen no more of his successor until the old man had died and his son had crossed the Atlantic to reign in his stead.
And the less said about Sir Wilton's past the better. Nobody, except his dead father, knew what a disgrace he had been to the family, though certain neighbours might have guessed. It had been a lurid career out there in the big cities of the west, and on more than one occasion Sir Wilton Oakes had known what it was to experience the discipline of a gaol. But the proud, broken-hearted father had said nothing of this to a soul, had said nothing of those shameful letters which had come from this penitentiary and that, and of the constant call for money from his only child. And now that Wilton Oakes was back again, and society had more or less taken him to its bosom, he began to understand the extent of his own folly, and to see how perilously near he was to a state of things when he would be a baronet of long descent without a roof over his head, and nothing to console himself with besides his bare title.
It had taken him the best part of three months to realise this, but it had come home to him with sinister force now, as he bent over the mass of papers on the table. So far as he could see, the estate was mortgaged to the hilt, there were unpaid bills and claims pouring in from all directions. It was going to be a poor thing, after all, to be Sir Wilton Oakes of Priors Gate, unless some sort of a miracle happened, or he could sell his fascinating personality and fine, old title to some heiress. And there were reasons, pressing reasons, why he could not do that.
He sat there, moodily looking through the mullioned windows where the blue and gold device of the Oakes was emblazoned on the upper panes and from thence into the spreading park, which he would have to part with before long unless the miracle happened. As he sat there, he was reviewing his past life, and wondering, more or less idly, if it would be possible to renew that life in England, so as to secure himself the funds he so direly needed. It meant stark crime, naked and unashamed, but then, that was not likely to trouble him if he could only work out some scheme by which there was a maximum of profit and a minimum of danger. And there were few phases of criminology in which he had not indulged at one time or another—nothing short of murder had ever stopped him when temptation presented itself, and the prize was worth the risk.
Why shouldn't he begin it again? Why shouldn't he, as Sir Wilton Oakes of Priors Gate, embark, once more on those tortuous channels which had paid him so well in the past?
He would have a wonderful cover for his activities. Who would ever suspect a man with his title and position of deliberately lending himself to a series of burglaries, for instance? And yet he lived in the centre of a great residential county, inhabited for the most part by men of substantial financial standing, many of them the new rich, who took a sheer delight in the display of their war-earned wealth. The idea was not new perhaps, but it was not likely to be less effective for that.
For a long time Oakes sat there turning the problem over in his mind. He had come home after the death of his father with the full intention of taking over the estates and leading a more or less exemplary life in the future. He would have enough and more than enough for his wants, he would walk circumspectly and establish himself in the eyes of his neighbours, and in the course of time marry and carry on the succession. He had had a sort of uneasy feeling that his constant inroads on the family purse might have made a difference, but he had never expected such a state of affairs as an examination of his position disclosed. And he had, on one particular occasion, deliberately set out to rob his father.
He recalled that incident vividly as he brooded there over his cigar. He remembered the hypocritical, cringing letter he had written home, to the effect that he had seen the error of his ways and that henceforth he was making every effort to clean his assumed name of the disgrace that clung to it. He was occupying a responsible position in the offices of a great oil corporation, and being in the confidence of his employers, was in the possession of priceless information which would lead to a dazzling fortune if he could only command a few thousand pounds. Not for himself, oh, dear no, henceforth he would never ask his father for another penny. But if the long suffering parent could lay his hand upon ten thousand pounds, then this regenerate son of his could put him in the way of buying certain oil shares which, within a few years would represent millions of dollars. If his father would write to a certain address, which was that of the owner of the amazing property, he would be able to obtain possession of those precious shares. But he would have to write direct, because, so Wilton Oakes delicately suggested, it was impossible to ask the old man to trust him personally any further.
And this infamous scheme had been crowned with success. The money had found its way into Wilton Oakes' hands, and in exchange, his deluded parent had received a sheaf of worthless scrip which he had placed away in his safe under the full impression that it was going to lead to a golden return.
It was a most diabolical business altogether, and even now, when Wilton Oakes was established at Priors Gate and his father was in his grave he had no regrets. And those Judas pieces of silver, so to speak, had not done him the least good, seeing that they had been dissipated in a few months. So here he was, back at home again, the possessor of a hollow title, and a fine domain which would pass out of his hands in a few months unless the miracle he was scheming for, materialised. Still, as he sat here, surrounded with every evidence of wealth and luxury, he did not suggest the congenital criminal desperately put to it to keep his head above water. At any rate, nobody must know that, nobody must guess how near he was to the slippery edge of bankruptcy, and if there was any means, however desperate, of saving the situation, then Wilton Oakes swore to himself that he would not shrink from it.
He was still sitting there, deeply engrossed in his troubles, when his wandering eye caught sight of a car coming along the avenue through the park, and pulling up a moment or two later before the main entrance. Some neighbour, no doubt, Oakes told himself; some respectable man of family who had come over to worry him over a trivial local question. Then the door of the library opened and a man servant came respectfully in.
"A gentleman to see you, sir," he said.
"Who is he?" Oakes asked. "I am very busy just now, so you might ask him his name and business."
The servant departed silently, but he did not return. In his place appeared a queer, misshapen figure—a figure with a hump between his shoulders and with one long slender limb propping up the other. He might have been partly paralysed, he might have been the victim of some terrible accident. But there he was, more or less the wreck of a man, with a face of an early Greek, and the high forehead and wavy black hair of a Byron. Seated in a chair so that his deformities were hidden, he would have passed as an absolute model of manly beauty. There was a frank, pleasing smile on his face, and the stamp of intelligence that lifted him out of the common ruck.
He closed the door behind him and crept painfully in the direction of a chair near the table, where he could command the full view of his host. The pleasing smile was still upon his face, but there was no reciprocal warmth in Wilton Oakes' cold eyes.
"Well," said the newcomer. "Well, here I am, you see. My dear fellow, you didn't suppose you could shake me off in that casual way, did you? When you vanished so suddenly in New York last spring I thought you had been picked up by the police for some little indiscretion of which you had told your fidus Achates nothing. But when I began to make inquiries, I realised that you really had given me the slip and returned to England. And, upon my word, Wilton, old son, I don't blame you. So my old friend, Bill Carlton, turns out to be a baronet in disguise! Fancy that, now! And, upon my word, you have got very snug quarters here."
Oakes literally forced a smile to his lips. Inwardly he was consumed with rage. If anger and malice could have slain the intruder then he would have dropped dead there at Oakes' feet.
He had been so careful—so very careful to cover up his tracks from his criminal associates in America. He had always kept tight lips upon his birth and future prospects—a sort of pride, perhaps, or reticence in view of the time when he would have to return to England and occupy his present position. He had stolen away at the first favourable opportunity, without the slightest intention of returning to America again, calculating that it would be overwhelming odds against his ever coming in contact with one of the old gang. And now, here was the leader of them, the very brain and heart of that criminal fraternity, seated within a few feet and smiling at him in the old contemptuous superior sort of way.
"Look here, Primery," he said. "What's the good of this? Why did you follow me all the way from America? It doesn't in the least matter how you discovered that I had come into the title and the family estates. I never talked about them."
The man Primery helped himself to a cigarette.
"No, you didn't, Bill," he said. "Oh, by the way, I suppose I must call you Wilton now. Never mind that. My dear chap, I knew who you were and what you were years ago. You can't keep that sort of thing from me. Did you ever know any of our gang who could keep anything from me? Not that I should have followed you unless circumstances compelled me to do so. You could have turned respectable and married into the aristocracy as far as I was concerned. But just now America doesn't suit my delicate constitution, so I decided to spend a year in a more congenial atmosphere. That is why I came over, and that is why I lost no time in looking you up. Upon any word. I don't wonder at you turning your back upon the old life. If somebody gave me a place like this and a title to match—"
Oakes laid a finger on his lip, and pointed significantly to the door. There was someone coming along the corridor, and a moment later a girl entered the library. She looked round, and, seeing the intruder, would have retired had not Oakes called her back.
"Don't go away, Miss Venables," he cried. "I shall have finished my business with this gentleman presently."
The girl stood there more or less shyly in the doorway. She was not exactly beautiful in the strict sense of the word, but then, beauty has no comparison with charm, and Audrey Venables had that to the full. When she smiled the spectator forgot the rather fascinating irregularity of her features in the sunshine of her presence. She was neither tall, nor short, and the clear brown olive of her skin owed nothing to cheap art, but had been painted there in nature's own exquisite shades by the suns and rains of her own native land. She was plainly enough dressed, after the manner of one who spends most of her time in the open air, and she carried birth and breeding from her well poised head to her dainty finger tips. She was young, too, not more than three and twenty probably, but there was an intelligence on her face and an expression in her eyes that told not only of high intelligence but equally high courage.
"I am in no hurry, Sir Wilton," she said. "I came over from the rectory to help you with those letters. But if you are busy, I can easily run over again after tea."
Primery regarded this desirable vision with eyes that spoke of frank and honest admiration, and yet without the faintest suggestion of boldness in them. He struggled to his feet and stood up so that all his physical infirmities were apparent and appealed at once to everything that was womanly in the girl's nature.
"Won't you introduce me?" Primery smiled.
Oakes did the necessary in a grudging spirit.
"Mr. John Primery," he said, "an American gentleman and old friend of mine who is quite well known on the other side as a brilliant writer of short stories. He happens to be passing through Hampshire on his way from Southampton, so he thought that he would give me a look in. I am afraid I shan't be able to induce him to stay, much as I should like to."
It was a pretty plain intimation to Primery, but he ignored it and turned to the girl with one of his most fascinating smiles.
"I don't think my friend, Oakes, is quite correct, Miss Venables," he said. "You see, I am here on a long holiday, and this lovely place intrigues me. You live here, I presume?"
"I have lived here all my life," Audrey Venables said. "You see my father is rector of the parish, and I happen to be his only child. He is one of the men who married late in life, so he is quite old now, and it is my pleasure and privilege to look after him."
"Nearly blind," Oakes supplemented.
"Yes, I am sorry to say that is quite true, Mr. Primery," Audrey went on. "But I have not wasted my time here altogether. You see, for two years before his death, I acted as private secretary to Sir Wilton's father. And I am rather hoping that I shall be kept on. You see, it is a very small living, and there are many things that my father needs."
"I am quite sure he will keep you on," Primery said. "And I hope that you and I will be very good friends. Unfortunately I can't get about much, but there are a good many things I can do, and I am quite sure—"
"Yes, yes," Oakes broke in irritably. "You needn't stay any longer now, Miss Venables. I shall be glad if you will come along after tea. Meanwhile, myself and my friend—"
But Audrey had already discreetly vanished. The door had hardly closed behind her when Oakes turned angrily on his companion.
"Now look here, John," he said. "We had better understand one another at once. I have turned over a new leaf. It will take me all my time the next ten years to pull things together because my father left things in a devil of a mess, and—"
"And had his own son to thank for it," Primery interrupted calmly. "Why, you were bleeding him to death all the time we were working together. But do you mean to tell me honestly that things are as bad here as you say they are?"
"Every bit," Oakes growled, "The estate is mortgaged to the hilt, even the furniture doesn't belong to me. Of course, it looks very nice on the surface, and Sir Wilton Oakes of Priors Gate is a big bug in this neighbourhood, or at least, so the neighbours think. But frankly I haven't got a penny."
"Then it seems to me that I have arrived just at the psychological moment," Primery said. "If you chuck up all this, with an old title hanging to it, then you are a bigger fool than I take you for. My hat, and with your opportunities! What price Sir Wilton Oakes, of Priors Gate, burglar and criminal! Who would suspect for a moment that all the robberies were planned under this roof? I suppose I must have passed thirty or forty great houses on the way from Southampton here, all of them sitting up and asking to be robbed. My dear chap, there is literally millions in it, and only you and me to share the plunder. There isn't one of the old gang in New York who knows that I am over here, nor one of them who knows the whereabouts of the man we used to call Carlton. So we can make an entirely fresh start amongst the simple sons of the soil here, and get away with the plunder just how and when we please. You leave it to me. I'll work out the schemes as I always do, and I shan't shirk my share of the work either. Upon my word, it's ideal. Just about once a month we stroll quietly out one evening after everybody has gone to bed and come back an hour or two later with anything up to twenty thousand pounds worth of loot. And I know where to get rid of it, too. And all the rest of the time you will be a county magnate managing your estates and sitting on the local Bench and all the rest of it. And I shall pass as an old friend of yours, who saved your life in romantic circumstances out west, and these infirmities of mine will be supposed to be caused by it. So that you owe everything to me and are correspondingly grateful. You can tell people if you like that I am an American gentleman of some means, and they need never know that I am as much of an Englishman as any of the rest of them. And there is another thing they will never know."
"I understand," Oakes said. "You mean your—"
"Hush. Don't mention it. Never breathe a word of that even to me. Because that secret is vital to our plans, and you never know who may be listening. Upon my word, my dear chap, it was one of the luckiest days of my life when I traced you to England and decided to look you up. A man with a poetic disposition like mine and a lover of the beautiful in nature—"
"Oh, cut it out," Oakes said coarsely. "Cut it out. I know you like to pose as an intellectual."
"It's no pose at all," Primery said calmly. "If I weren't so fond of the good things of this life, I should take a cottage in the country somewhere and devote myself entirely to the pursuit of letters. In the right sort of cottage, with a bathroom and electric light, and the right sort of wife—and by Jove, that little girl who was here just now would be an ideal helpmate. I can keep my head about women as far as most men, but upon my word, Oakes, that little brown fairy fairly knocked me over."
"Oh, did she?" Oakes sneered. "You can come off the grass there as soon as you like. I have a nephew who comes down here occasionally, in fact, he is doing some business for me, a young fellow who looks like making his mark at the Bar. And if I don't marry, he will be Sir Cecil Oakes some of these days."
"Well?" Primery asked bluntly. "Well?"
"Well, those two are more or less engaged to be married. At any rate, I know there is an understanding between them. They were lovers as children. So you see, my friend—"
"I see nothing," Primery said with a gleam in his eye. "You know perfectly well that if I set my hand on a thing, I never take it back. And if I want to marry Audrey Venables, I will, in spite of a thousand Cecil Oakes. Don't you be a fool, old son. I can show you how to save the situation so that this lovely place will be free of debt, and you will be a rich man into the bargain. So shall I for that matter, but that is another story."
"You mean to stay here, then?" Oakes asked.
"Certainly I do," Primery replied. "Love's young dream and unlimited treasure! Lord, what a prospect!"
"And if I decline?" Oakes snarled.
"My dear fellow, you won't decline," Primery murmured sweetly. "You dare not. Think it over. Look at the prospect. We are safe, safe as the foundations of this house. And what am I demanding in return? Merely the right to live in this lovely old place—the price of my silence."
Sir Wilton Oakes paced up and down the terrace in front of Priors Gate, a prey to his own moody, thoughts. Not that he looked in the least like a man who is on the verge of serious financial trouble, but all the same, the black disaster was ever-present in the back of his mind, and, with all his cunning, he could see no way out of it. And now, just when things were at their very worst, Primery had dropped upon him like a bolt from the blue. Primery, with that wonderfully agile, criminal mind of his and his positive genius for predatory schemes. It might be possible, with the aid of this extraordinary man, to lift himself far above his financial worries; but then it would be an exceedingly difficult matter to get rid of the man afterwards. Not that Sir Wilton was in the least averse to anything, however criminal, that would free him from the fetters which he had helped to bind upon himself.
So he paced up and down there in the sunshine, just after the luncheon hour, turning over the desperate state of affairs in his mind. The grand old house behind him, with its ripe, red brick wall and twisted chimneys, and wonderful old mullioned windows, was certainly no setting for vulgar and sordid crime. The place seemed to sleep there in the haze, as it had done any time in the last five hundred years, and until now no Oakes had ever stained the honour of the cradle of his race. But then, no Oakes had been in so desperate a corner as the head of it was at that particular moment. He was still brooding over the dark prospect when someone came up the steps leading from the rose garden and hailed him.
"Hello, Uncle!" the newcomer said. "You didn't expect me this afternoon. Matter of fact, a friend of mine was motoring down from town in connection with the big wedding at Heron's Nest, so I thought I would come along. That little law suit, you know."
"Oh, yes," Oakes said vaguely. "The matter of that waterway. How are you getting on with it?"
Cecil Oakes, who one day would be Sir Cecil of Priors Gate, smiled cheerfully. It was rather a remote contingency at present, and young Cecil knew only too well that the title was likely to be a barren one when it came; but with the optimism born of youth he was not worrying much about that. He was a worthy scion of his race, tall, well set-up and athletic, and if things went well with him, would some day make a big mark at the Bar. Just now, however, he was interested in a minor lawsuit, which Wilton Oakes was contesting with a neighbour over the diversion of a trout stream which ran through his property. It was only a detail, but one that later on might lead to big events.
"Well, rather slowly at present," Cecil confessed. "I know there is an old deed somewhere that has an important bearing on our case, if I can only lay hands upon it. It may be up in the Long Gallery in one of those oak chests, so I thought I would run down and have a look for it."
Sir Wilton muttered something in reply; he had more important things to occupy his mind just then. Moreover, he wanted to be alone. From somewhere in the background came the click of a typewriter, and at the sound of it Cecil pricked up his ears.
"Is Miss Venables here?" he asked.
"Yes, she's in the rose parlour," Sir Wilton explained. "Typing my letters. Most useful girl, that. A secretary is a luxury I can very ill afford, but I shouldn't like to do without Audrey Venables if I could possibly avoid it."
A moment or two later Cecil Oakes slipped away into the house and went directly to the rose parlour where the girl was at work. She looked up with a smile and a gleam of welcome in her eyes as he came in. She seemed to be a part of the picture as she sat there, and, indeed, she had known Priors Gate ever since she could remember. She had played there as a child in the time of the old baronet with Cecil Oakes for her companion, and there was not a single secret passage or sliding panel in that grand old house with which she was not acquainted. And there were secret passages, and a veritable priest's hole which had been used in the old days when the Oakes family were a power in the land and one of the pillars of the Catholic faith. There were ways and means of getting about the house which were known only to Audrey and her lover, and which the present owner of the property had long since forgotten. It would have been a great sorrow to Audrey Venables if circumstances had deprived her of a free entrance to Priors Gate.
"It is really you?" she asked. "What has brought you down here just now, Cecil?"
"Well, aren't you glad to see me?" Cecil asked.
"Oh, you know I am," the girl murmured. "And all the more so because you were not expected. And I most particularly wanted to see you. Cecil, I am not very happy."
"What's wrong?" Cecil asked tenderly. "Nothing so far as you are personally concerned, surely?"
"Oh, no. It's about your uncle. I am sure there is something wrong going on here. If you ask me what it is I cannot tell you. Of course, I know Sir Wilton is worried about money, and I know that unless something like a miracle happens, that he will either have to sell it or let Priors Gate on a long lease. But that isn't what I mean. Ever since Mr. Primery came here—"
"And who the dickens is Mr. Primery?" Cecil asked.
"Oh, I had quite forgotten. Of course, you don't know him. An old friend of your uncle's from America. A novelist and poet, and one of the handsomest men I ever saw. A sort of Byron, with the face of a Greek god and the most beautiful manners. But, unfortunately, he is a cripple, bent and broken, and hardly fit to walk by himself. Most girls would rave over him, but somehow he repels me. He is most charming and fascinating, yet for some reason or another I mistrust him. And ever since he came here so mysteriously a little time ago, your uncle has been quite different. Don't ask me to explain, because I can't."
"Oh, I must see this wonderful man," Cecil said smilingly. "Has he come to live here altogether?"
"Well, it begins to look like it," Audrey said. "Not that it is any business of mine, of course—"
"Quite right, darling," Cecil said. "Don't let's discuss him. I've only half an hour to spare. I came down here with a friend who has gone to Heron's Nest on business, and he will want to be on his way back to town again with in an hour. I understand that your friend, Miss Stella Pryor, is going to be married shortly."
"Quite right," Audrey said. "I shall miss her terribly. You have no idea what a nice girl she is."
"But they are comparative newcomers, aren't they? At any rate, I have not met them yet."
"Well, Mr. Pryor bought Heron's Nest about a year ago, and has been living here ever since. You know what a huge place it is, and what a lot of money it must cost to keep up. Mr. Pryor himself is not what you would call a gentleman, though he is very lavish and open-handed with his hospitality. I believe he made a huge fortune in America, speculating, in oils."
"Oh," Cecil cried. "It's that Pryor, is it? Bertram Pryor. Ah, yes. One of those mysterious men who come out of nowhere, like the South African diamond merchants did twenty-five years ago. You see, my practice at the Bar takes me amongst city men, and I hear a good deal about the private lives of the rising generation of financiers. And I never heard anything good about Bertram Pryor; in fact, quite the reverse. Still, nothing succeeds like success, and he certainly seems to have established himself on a very solid foundation. So you don't like him?"
"I am afraid I don't," Audrey confessed. "But Stella Pryor is quite another matter. She is a lady, and I believe her mother was one before her. She is an orphan, you see, and the man she is going to marry is more or less one of ourselves, and is not in the least influenced by the fortune that Stella will inherit one of these days. At any rate, it is going to be a very fashionable affair, and all the county will be there. The presents are wonderful. There is a pearl necklace, given to the bride by her father, which must have cost at least forty thousand pounds. On Saturday night Mr. Pryor is giving a great dinner party with a dance afterwards, and everybody in the neighbourhood will be present. I rather wonder that you haven't had an invitation."
"Oh, well, I am not in the least keen," Cecil said. "No, never mind about the Pryors, or this mysterious Byronic stranger here—let's talk about our own affairs."
It was just half an hour later when Cecil made his way up the broad oak staircase and into the long gallery which was dotted here and there with ancient oak chests filled with various papers and documents. In one of these somewhere he felt certain he would come across the ancient deeds which were so vital to his case. For the best part of a couple of hours he searched one chest after the other, until at length he pounced with a little murmur of triumph upon the very thing of which he was in search. And then, just as he was about to close the lid of the carved muniment chest, a bundle of papers in a rubber band caught his eye.
He clutched at them eagerly, and removed the band. He stood there, absolutely lost to all that was going on around him with his eyes glued on the face of those crackling papers, and then, suddenly, coming back to himself again, was aware of the fact that he was no longer alone. A man was standing there, a yard or two away, a man with the face of a Byron, and the lofty intelligence of a god, a man with a queer misshapen body, and on his countenance a smile which would have disarmed the most critical. And then, without being told, Cecil knew that this was John Primery.
"I hope I am not intruding," the latter said, in his most charming manner. "But I think you must be Mr. Cecil Oakes."
"That is quite right," Cecil said. "And I think you must be the Mr. John Primery that Miss Venables was telling me about. I am looking for a document in connection with a small law suit that Sir Wilton is interested in, and I have just been fortunate enough to find it. I suppose from first to last I must have turned out at least twenty of these old chests."
"Treasure hunting," Primery smiled. "Really a most fascinating amusement. Wonderful old house this, isn't it? You can hardly conceive how it appeals to a novelist like myself. I can imagine you finding all sorts of wonderful things in those ancient chests. Treasures of silver and gold—"
"Well, for the most part, I have found nothing but old clothes," Cecil laughed. "Wardrobes belonging to dead and gone Oakes, right back to the time of Queen Elizabeth."
"And nothing more, I suppose?"
Primery asked the question lightly enough but just for one moment those eyes of his were bent upon the papers in Cecil's hand before they were turned away again. But Cecil had not failed to see that fleeting gleam and when at length Primery strolled away with a smile and a jest upon his lips, Cecil returned the papers he had found, not to their old hiding place, but behind a panel which he slid back in the wall and then carefully replaced.
"Just as well to be cautious," he murmured to himself. "By jove, what a find, that is, of course, if those papers are what I think they are. But there is plenty of time to go into that."
Then, with the deed he had come in search of carried ostentatiously in his hand, he went back to the rose parlour again.
Primery came down into the yellow drawing-room on the following Saturday evening just before seven o'clock to find Sir Wilton awaiting him there. Both men were arrayed in full evening attire, white ties and waistcoats and claw-hammer coats, as if prepared for some outstanding social function. There was an air of cheerful gaiety about the cripple which was not shared by his companion.
"Come, this will never do," Primery rallied his host. "You look as if you were going to a funeral, instead of a great dinner party in honour of a young and charming bride-to-be. My dear fellow, you don't seem to recognise the wonderful chance that fate has literally thrown in our way. I don't know anything about this man Pryor. In fact, I have never seen him so far as I know, but I suppose you have met him often enough during the time he has been down here."
"Oh, I have dined with him and he has dined with me, if that is what you mean," Oakes muttered. "Great, big burly chap, clean shaven and blue about the chin, as if he had once been an actor or perhaps wore a big, black beard. A nasty customer to tackle I should say, and as strong as an ox. Fellow who has knocked about all over the world, and up to every move on the board."
"Yes, quite so. I expected to hear something like that," Primery said thoughtfully. "How did he make his money?"
"Oh, oils," Oakes explained. "He was in that Big Texas boom a few years ago, and got out just at the right time. You remember all about it, surely. One of the biggest swindles ever perpetrated on the public."
There came into Primery's eyes that peculiar gleam which Cecil Oakes had seen a day or two before in the long gallery, a gleam of malice, and triumph, and secret satisfaction which was entirely lost upon the brooding baronet.
"Oh that," he said. "That was the ramp you drew your poor old father into. Oh, yes, you did, it's no use frowning at me. I remember perfectly well. You were in New York, absolutely on your uppers, not knowing where to turn for a dollar, and so you played the prodigal son on the old man, and he was soft enough to send you ten thousand pounds to invest in Texas Oil shares. And you bought them at a few cents each and sent them home to the old gentleman as evidence of your penitence. It's no use trying to humbug me, Oakes. What became of those certificates?"
"How do I know?" Oakes growled. "They were absolutely worthless, and if the old man thought he was going to turn them into good money, then so much the worse for him."
"And you had the ten thousand pounds," Primery laughed. "And it lasted you just six months. However, we needn't worry about that. I am more concerned about to-night."
"Well, what about to-night?" Oakes asked truculently.
"Just to hear the man talk," Primery cried. "We are going to dine and spend the evening in the house of a millionaire who, at the present moment has something approaching a hundred thousand pounds worth of gems under his roof. Need I say I am alluding to the wedding presents of that very charming daughter of his. And with any luck, those will be in our possession before the week is out. We know where to dispose of the spoil, and how to do it without arousing the slightest suspicions. Of course, that man in Amsterdam will want the lion's share of the plunder, but we ought to be able to cut up thirty or forty thousand pounds between us. And just think what you could do with twenty thousand pounds at the present moment. You could pay off those two very pressing mortgages and have enough ready cash to carry on here for the next six months. And by that time we shall have looted half the big houses between here and Southampton. By the end of the year you ought to be quite clear and in the enjoyment of a princely income again. Sir Wilton Oakes of Priors Gate, and one of the most eligible bachelors in the county of Hampshire. After that, you have only to keep to the straight path with nothing to worry you henceforth. Why, good Lord, man, it's enough to make one's mouth water."
"Yes," Oakes growled. "It sounds very nice, I know. But how is the thing going to be done?"
"Why, my dear chap, have you ever known me to fail? Did you ever know one of my ingenious schemes go wrong? And, mind you, Sir Wilton Oakes is beyond suspicion. Everybody knows he is poor, but he is a baronet of high degree, and as to his shady past—well, that secret is buried in the grave with your poor old father. Nobody would suppose for a minute that you were mixed up in that sort of thing. And, I ask you, who would point a finger at a poor unfortunate cripple like myself, who can barely cross the room without assistance? And here we shall be honoured guests in the house where all that stuff is, and in a position to find out exactly where the treasure is hidden and how to get it. By the time we get back here to-night I shall have a perfect plan of Heron's Nest in my mind. I'll tell you later on how the thing will be worked. Meanwhile, you can enjoy yourself and think no more about it. Come along, I think I can hear the car at the door."
They came in due course to the great house known as Heron's Nest, and there in the big pink and gold drawing-room half the county awaited them. There were quite sixty guests altogether, and Bertram Pryor stood there with his back to the great carved mantel-piece dominating them all by sheer weight of personality, and the knowledge of the money that stood behind him. It was a glittering scene of refinement and gaiety, and Audrey Venables, sitting by herself in one corner of the huge, brilliantly-lighted apartment, felt almost bewildered by the splendour of her surroundings.
Then the great double doors were thrown back with a flourish, and dinner was announced. The guests flocked in, laughing and chattering gaily, with the bride-to-be and her bridegroom the centre of attraction, seated presently at a high table across the far end of the dining-room on either side of the burly host. Near to the bride was Audrey Venables and her dinner partner, and next to her, half-huddled in his seat, Primery, surveying the scene with a bland smile upon that beautiful face of his. Just opposite to him sat Sir Wilton, who, for the moment, had thrown aside his moodiness, and was, for the time being, at any rate, just a well-bred country gentleman surrounded by his peers.
As the dinner proceeded and the champagne corks began to pop, so did the conversation rise to a higher crescendo of mirth and bubbling laughter. And in the midst of it sat Primery like a Greek god at a feast, beaming benignly upon his more fortunate fellow-creatures and putting his physical misfortunes bravely behind him. He did not appear to be keenly watching everything that was going on around him, but all the same, he was; moreover, he was particularly interested in the big man who sat at the head of the table.
Then the cloth was cleared away, and a great galaxy of purple and golden fruit stood there in so many crystal bowls, whilst coffee and liqueurs and cigarettes were handed round. Primery was tapping absently with a silver knife on his desert fruit. At the same time, he caught Sir Wilton's eye for a moment.
Sir Wilton sat up alertly and listened to the tapping with all his ears. The Morse message came clearly.
"Look at our host," Primery was saying with gentle tinkles on his plate. "Look at his right hand. What do you see there?"
Back came the reply in the some code: "A red scar like a diamond, extending from the wrist to the knuckles. But what about it?"
"We shall come to that presently. Directly we get back in the drawing-room come and speak to me. Message finished."
With laughter and mirth and a soft swishing of feminine garments, the women drifted away and the men were left alone. Then one by one they finished their wine and vanished in their turn. Primery sauntered out in his slow, painful manner, and in the far corner of the drawing-room seemed to be busy with a volume of prints. A minute or two later Oakes dropped into a chair by his side.
"Something big," he murmured. "Found out a chink in the armour of our host? Or, what is it?"
"Do you remember a man called 'Bat' Bronson?" Primery said, with barely-moving lips. "The Texan?"
"What? Oh, of course I know of him. I never met him, and I never heard before that you did."
"Well, I never have—at least only just once, and I am certain he never spotted me. But I saw that scar on the back of his hand, and that's the sort of thing I don't forget."
"Then the millionaire Pryor is Bat Bronson, eh?"
"Yes; you can gamble all you're worth on that."
There was nothing in the expression on Oakes' face to show that he had just heard a piece of astounding intelligence. He knew intimately most of the leading characters in the American underworld, so that the name of Bronson was no strange one to him, though in the course of his nefarious transactions he had never come in contact with the one man who was perhaps, the king of them all. For Bronson was in a class of his own, he had had practically no confederates, and only a very limited circle, indeed, knew him by sight. And, moreover, the police had never managed to lay him by the heels, and indeed they had been glad enough when he had turned his back upon the land of his adoption, and returned to the East a few years ago. And here he was now, big, triumphant and successful, with a more or less established position in English society and Oakes chuckled at the mere thought. He knew that there were certain people in London who whispered things under their breath and hinted that the big oil king was no better than he should be, but nobody knew anything definite, and the mere weight of money had carried the man who called himself Pryor almost to the top of the social tree.
"Well, that is worth knowing," Oakes murmured. "Of course, I know all about him, though we never met. But, all the same, I don't quite see how we are going to benefit by the knowledge."
"Oh, don't you?" Primery smiled. "You leave that to me. And as soon as you get an opportunity, send Pryor across with some excuse, so that I can have a few words of conversation with him. I have got a scheme in the back of my mind, which I can work all on my own, and unless I am greatly mistaken, we shall pull off a big coup before we turn our backs upon Heron's Nest to-night. Now then, off you go, and don't waste any more time. I calculate we have got an hour and a half before the mob arrives for the dance, and in that time it seems to me that I shall be busy. Allons."
Oakes strolled across the drawing-room to the spot where Pryor was standing and holding forth in his large, flamboyant way. He managed to detach his host from the little group that he had gathered around him and skilfully piloted him across the room to the chair where Primery was seated.
"I don't want to detain you more than a minute or two," Primery said. "But I wanted to ask you a question. These engravings here. I see they are mostly American scenery. Now, as an American myself, I am interested in that sort of thing. I wonder if you could tell me where the portfolio came from?"
"I haven't the least idea," Pryor said. "As a matter of fact, I bought this, lock, stock and barrel, with everything just as it stands. Sorry I can't help you."
"Oh, it doesn't in the least matter," Primery smiled, with a pleasant expression upon that strangely handsome face of his, and a candidness that disguised a mind as evil and black as night. "You see, being a writer, certain things appeal to me. I have very few pleasures, Mr. Pryor, and when I am in pain—"
"It must be the devil," Pryor said, not unkindly. "I should have thought you would have found these sort of entertainments rather trying. Still, so long as you are here, you do just as you like. And if you want to be quiet for an hour or two, I can give you the run of my own private library."
"Now, that's very good of you," Primery said. "And indeed it is just what I was going to suggest. As a rule, I like to see the young people enjoying themselves, but when my neuritis comes on, as it does at any moment, then I must be alone. You see, I can always find something to think about. And a sheet of paper and a pen is absolute medicine to me. A cigar, too, I find to be a most excellent and soothing narcotic."
"Oh, that's all right," Pryor said in his most breezy fashion. "You come along with me, my friend, and I will find you a spot where you can have all you want and be as quiet as you please. Nobody ever goes into my den without my sanction, and even to-night when the house is full of guests, it will be empty. Come along, and I will make you comfortable."
"That is more than good of you," Primery said gratefully. "As a matter of fact, I may not want it at all. But, on the other hand, it may be necessary for me to be entirely alone. Those pains come and go in the most extraordinary way, and if this is one of my lucky evenings, then I shan't want to trouble you at all."
All the same, Primery lost no time in availing himself of his host's offer. He crawled painfully along a lofty corridor until Pryor turned at length into a sort of library on the side of the house with three windows that looked out on to the terrace. The crimson silk curtains were drawn now, and the cords which held them back in the day time lay on the carpet. The whole place was lined with books, and in the centre of the room was a Louis Seize table on which a mass of correspondence lay. There was no lack of stationery and all that sort of thing, so that Pryor indicated it with a comprehensive wave of his big hands."
"There you are," he said. "Notepaper of all sizes, both plain and embossed. If you want to make any notes, everything is ready to your hand. And if you want a drink, you have only to touch that brass knob by the side of the fireplace and help yourself. And here is a box of cigars."
"This is indeed hospitality," Primery smiled. "I shall be as happy as a sand-boy in here, though I hope I shan't want to use the room because I came here to-night to enjoy myself. If you don't mind, I think I will help myself to one of those cigars. Ah, Coronas, I see—my favourite smoke. I hate to trouble you, but have you such a thing as a cigar-cutter?"
Pryor put his hand into his trouser pocket and at the end of a thin gold chain produced a bunch of keys. Amongst these was a cigar clip and Primery's quick eye did not fail to detect also what he recognised as the small compact key of a safe. Moreover, he could see a safe let into the wall on the side of the room opposite the fireplace, and his quick mind jumped to the conclusion that the key and the safe were more than closely connected. Not that he said a word about this discovery as he nipped off the end of his Corona and placed a match to it.
"I am indeed in clover here," he said. "Do those long windows happen to open on the terrace?"
"Certainly they do," Pryor explained. "All the windows in the living-rooms do. Why do you ask?"
"Oh, I don't know," Primery said casually. "I am a restless sort of being, and rather prone to wandering about at night, especially when my pains trouble me. So that if they come on presently I may take it into my head to pull the curtains back and take a stroll on the terrace. I suppose you don't mind?"
Pryor shrugged his shoulders, it was all the same to him, he explained, and so long as his guests were satisfied, then he was perfectly happy.
"You don't mind if I leave you now?" he asked. "You are free to wander about the house wherever you like, and you may rely upon the fact that you won't be disturbed. And now, if there is nothing else I can do for you—"
A minute or two later, and Primery was alone. He glanced at the big French clock on the mantelpiece and saw that it still wanted a few minutes to ten o'clock. Within the next half-hour the guests for the dance would be arriving, and there was much to do in the meantime. Meanwhile, most of the men who had come over for the dinner were amusing themselves in the billiard-room, and the ladies of the party were upstairs putting themselves into elaborate toilets. With those quick ears of his, Primery listened intently, but not a sound broke the silence. He crept softly across the room and opened the door, so that if anybody came along the corridor, he would detect the footstep instantly. Not that it mattered much, because the critical moment was some way off yet, and the danger zone was still unentered.
Then he sat down to the big table, and wrote a short note in handwriting that he took some pains to disguise; indeed, he made two copies of it before he was satisfied, and then, placing the missive in an envelope, addressed it, and dropped it carefully into his breast pocket. With the cigar still between his teeth, he hobbled across the room and pushed back one of the silken curtains. A moment later the window was open, and he stepped gently on to the terrace outside, but not until he had picked up two of the long cords that held the curtains in place and had wound them into a neat coil and slipped them into his tail-coat pocket.
There was not a soul to be seen outside as he stepped along the terrace noiselessly as a cat and made his way, by the light of a thin slip of a moon, to the far end of the terrace and down a flight of steps, at the end of which he could see a small summer-house, built of stone and open on three sides to the elements. There was nothing here, besides a table and a couple of chairs, but it evidently served the purpose that Primery had in his mind, for he smiled softly to himself as he concealed his coils of silken rope under the table and then, as silently as he had come, made his way back to the library again. Nobody had been there in his absence, a fact of which he was certain, because the door was open just the three inches that he had drawn it back before he had emerged on to the terrace. Then he drew the curtains once more, and, taking a book from one of the shelves, sat down in a big armchair and began to read as if he had no other object in the world.
He glanced at the clock again, and saw that it was now close on eleven. He could hear the sound of motors coming and going outside, and presently the distant strain of music from the band and the scrape and swish of feet on the ball-room floor. And then, and not till then, he threw his book on one side and went along the corridor in the direction of the ballroom.
It was a brilliant scene enough, with its wonderful light and colouring, but it interested Primery not at all. He crept out in the vestibule, and, selecting a long, dark overcoat from one of the pegs there, softly opened the front door, and crept out into the night. One backward glance assured him that he had not been seen.
Pryor stood by the buffet just outside the ballroom beaming with bland patronage on his guests. This was the sort of thing he enjoyed, he loved the lavish display of his money and a wide-handed hospitality which had become notorious through the county. It was good to him to stand there posing as a self-made millionaire, and at the same time looking back at the past and remembering what he had been only a few years ago. And here he was now, floating on the very crests of the waves with England's best and brightest at his beck and call, and that only child of his about to make a marriage which would ally her with some of the most famous and historic families in the State. And Stella Pryor never so much as guessed the source from whence her father had derived his money. Her mother had died when she was quite a child, and until her father had decided to come back to the land of his birth, she had been at a school and college. And if Pryor had one redeeming quality, it was the love that he had for that little girl of his. It seemed to him, as he stood there, that this was the crowning moment of his life. He was surrounded by a little group of well-bred men who seemed to be hanging on his every word. For Pryor was a great pillar in the world of commerce, and the merest hint from his lips meant money to those who followed him. Nor was he niggardly with his tips, when in an expansive mood, as he was at present.
"I tell you, Lord Eversfield, it's a real good thing. I am a heavy holder myself, and I am increasing my grip," he was saying, in his big, strident voice. "However—well, what do you want? Why do you come interrupting me just now?"
"I beg your pardon, sir," the footman stammered. "But here is a letter for you."
"What!—a letter for me at this time of the night?"
"Well, sir—I mean a note," the servant apologised. "Brought to the front door just now by a gentleman who said I was to give it to you at once. Here it is, sir."
"Very strange!" Pryor said. "What was he like? Did he give you his name? Did you ask him in?"
"I am afraid I couldn't see what he was like," the footman explained. "It is very dark in the portico, but he was a tall gentleman, very slim, and he was wearing a long black overcoat."
"And he didn't ask to see me?"
"No, sir. He said he must apologise for troubling you at this time of night, and that he was in no hurry for an answer. But I was to give you the letter at once, and that was all, sir."
Pryor dismissed the servant with a wave of the hand, and with a word of apology, turned aside and tore open the envelope. Not one muscle of his face changed as he read, not one gleam of anger in his eyes, as he stood there with the paper in his hand.
'Bat' Bronson, alias Pryor,—
You didn't expect to hear from me, did you? Thought you were perfectly safe, eh? Thought that Bertram Pryor, of Heron's Nest, was too big a bug to be touched. But you never know, do you? Now, look here, Bat, I am up against it good and hard, and you have got to help me out. I don't want much—only enough to get me back to the States again; say a couple of hundred. It isn't good enough to come up to the house and ask for you, so I just shoved you in this note through one of your footmen. And I am waiting for you in that little summer-house at the bottom of the terrace. Slip away presently and bring the stuff with you. If you want to know my name you can get it presently.
Pryor stared at the writing and then smiled as he became conscious that he was being watched. He crushed the note in his waistcoat pocket as if he thought no more about it, but a few minutes later he vanished from the ballroom, and went along the corridor in the direction of the library in which he had placed Primary. The latter was still there, apparently deeply engrossed in a book, and he looked up with a pleasing smile as his host entered.
"I am still enjoying one of your excellent cigars," he said. "It's awfully good of you to give me the run of this place. And all the more so because I have just had one of my worst attacks for a year. But it has passed away now, and I was seriously contemplating a pilgrimage as far as the ballroom when you came in."
"That's right," Pryor said. "Make yourself at home. I am afraid I shall have to disturb you for a minute. There is something I want in that safe yonder. If you will excuse me—"
"Oh, of course," Primery said.
Pryor crossed the room, and, taking the thin gold chain from his pocket, selected a key attached to it, and proceeded to open the safe, the door of which he flung back whilst Primery, over the top of his book, was watching him intently. He had more than a fair idea of what was hidden in that safe, but just at the moment, it would have been madness to display anything in the way of curiosity. And moreover, he knew precisely what Pryor was after. Then Pryor dropped what appeared to be a bundle of papers in his pocket and locked the safe again.
"Just a little surprise for one of my friends," he explained. "Don't forget to come and join us directly you feel ready."
With that Pryor left the room, and almost as soon as the door had closed behind him, Primery was across the floor and had opened it again. Then he did a strange thing. He tiptoed to the window and very cautiously pulled back the silk curtains. Without the slightest noise he opened the window and then, standing on the ledge, pulled back the curtain behind him so close that not one gleam of light escaped from the library. And there he stood in a waiting attitude until he heard stealthy footsteps coming along the terrace, and a little later he smiled to himself as the big burly figure of Bertram Pryor slid by on his way to the summer house. It was dark enough now, and difficult to follow the retreating figure, but those dark eyes of Primery's seemed made for seeing in the dark, like those of a cat, and his tread close behind the man in front of him was as if he had been stepping on velvet. Then, as Pryor disappeared into the blackness of the summer-house, Primery jumped forward and struck him violently with some weapon he had in his hand at the base of the skull.
Pryor collapsed, a crumpled heap, on the floor of the summer-house. Then, very quickly, Primery thrust a gag between his teeth, and with a silken curtain cord, bound him from head to foot, and trussed him up as helplessly as a chicken. It was all done so neatly, and expeditiously that when Pryor came to himself a few minutes later he could not have moved hand or foot to save his life.
"You need not be in the least frightened," Primery said, in a smooth, cooing voice, entirely unlike his own. "I will see that you are looked after presently. Meanwhile, it is necessary you should stay where you are for half an hour at any rate. And now, if you don't mind, I will take the liberty of borrowing your keys."
The hapless victim stirred slightly, and some sort of a muffled sound came from his throat, but so tightly bound was he that he was helpless and in a minute or less the keys had been detached from the gold chain, and Primery was once more hobbling painfully along the terrace in the direction of the library.
And once back there, for the first time he closed and locked the door. Not that he was in the least afraid of being interrupted, but he was taking no risks. With the key at the end of the chain he unlocked the safe, and selecting a flat green leather case from the contents laid it on the table, and pressed the clasp.
He smiled to himself as he saw the light glinting and playing on a double row of the most perfect string of pearls he had ever seen in his life. This, beyond the shadow of a doubt, was the wonderful wedding present that Pryor was giving to his daughter. There was other and valuable loot in the safe besides, but for the moment, Primery was not concerned with that. What was puzzling him at the instant was a safe way of concealing those pearls so that he would be able to put his hands upon them when they were needed. He felt absolutely sure that he had established a perfect alibi, so far as he was concerned, but when the hue and cry began—as it would before long—and the alarm was given, to say nothing of the police being called in, he did not propose to be under the roof of Heron's Nest as a guest with the stolen property in his pocket. Some place just outside, perhaps a broken flag-stone in the terrace, a flower vase in the garden, anywhere, so long as it was possible when suspicion was relaxed, to get possession of them again.
Suddenly Primery pricked up his ears. From outside on the terrace came the sound of voices rising higher, and then a buzz of conversation from the ballroom and the sudden stopping of the band in the midst of a waltz. Like a hunted animal Primery looked around him and on the spur of the moment, slipped the case with the precious contents into his coat-tail pocket. He wanted no one to tell him that the alarm had been given, and that the hunt was already on foot. His own wonderful instinct told him that. He opened the library door and looked out.
Two excited young men were racing along in his direction.
"Is there anything wrong?" he asked.
"Wrong!" one of the guests said. "Wrong! I should just think there was! Johnny Airedale and Kitty Clive slipped out on the terrace just now between the dances and hanged if they didn't find our host in the summer-house down below trussed up like a bally chicken; and his keys gone. Some blighter sent him a note and he went to see the fellow and got a crack on the head."
"Why, I must have been close by at that time," Primery said. "I have only just come back into the house. I took a turn along the terrace, but I heard nothing, and, by Jove look here. There are Pryor's keys in the safe now. The whole thing must have happened in less than a minute. Where is Pryor now?"
The young man hadn't the faintest idea. Wilton Oakes emerged from the crowd and looked inquiringly at his confederate.
"It's all right," the latter, whispered. "I have got the bally pearls in my pocket. No time to hide them, thanks to those moonstruck young fools who invaded the summer-house before I was ready. Now what's to be done, Oakes? If I can't get away without being suspected, then we're done!"
It was easy enough, in the absolute confusion of the moment, for Primery to convey the information that he had the pearls in his coat-tail pocket to his confederate without anybody even noticing the fact that words had passed between them. Meanwhile, the music had stopped and already the glittering galaxy of guests had formed into small knots, discussing the dramatic event of the evening. So far nobody seemed to know anything except the two young men who had accosted Primery and, so far, nobody seemed in the least inclined to take the lead. In the babel of tongues, it was possible for Oakes to exchange a few more words with Primery.
"Is that an absolute fact?" he asked under his breath.
"Oh, it's a fact right enough," Primery smiled. "What I am mortally afraid of is that somebody should notice that I have the case in my pocket. I know it feels confoundedly uncomfortable."
"But how on earth did you manage it?"
Primery shook his head with an impatient gesture.
"Oh, cut all that out now," he said. "Here am I with the big loot on my person and no possible chance of getting away that I can see. If I had had another five minutes it would have been all right. But I quite forgot the fact that it was a beautiful evening and that some of those young people would be tempted outside. Moreover, the summer-house is an ideal place for a flirtation. But don't you trouble about me, I'll think of something or another. You make yourself busy. Fuss about and help the others to bring Pryor back into the house. Get on with it."
Oakes dived into the group nearest to him and began to give directions. Had anybody seen Pryor, he asked? Was he still in the summer-house? And, if so wouldn't it be as well to get him back under his own roof as soon as possible and perhaps ascertain from him information that might be of the least importance.
"Egad, you are quite right there, Oakes," a red-faced man, with the air of the soldier about him, exclaimed. "Come along, let us go as far as the summer-house."
Half a dozen men immediately followed his lead, leaving the rest of the party agog with expectation. It was a most amazing thing, a piece of sheer audacity, the like of which had probably never happened before. There was not a single man there who was not ready to be up and doing, but until Pryor had been brought back to the house and his story told it was impossible to do anything besides theorise. So they stood there waiting until Oakes and the rest returned from the summer-house.
Meanwhile, Primery had dropped into a chair. His face was pale and drawn as if in pain, though he seemed to be trying to smile bravely, as if his own troubles were as nothing in the face of this amazing disaster. But that astonishing mind of his was moving rapidly and already he began dimly to see a way in which he could get clear of the house without any suspicion being directed towards himself. And he knew his danger plainly enough. If the police were summoned by telephone, as they probably would be in a few minutes, and something like a systematic search was instituted, he might easily find himself within the grip of the law. And that, of course, was the very last thing he wanted.
So he sat there, smiling faintly, with his lips white and twisted, as if he were bravely resisting the temptation to cry out. And then Stella Pryor came across to him.
Her pretty face was all sympathy and womanly feeling. She had forgotten for the moment that this might be a serious matter, so far as she was concerned and mainly moved on behalf of this man with the twisted body and the beautiful, godlike face.
"You are not feeling very well, Mr. Primery?" she asked.
"Oh, please don't think anything about me at this moment," Primery said faintly. "You see, I suffer so much that pain is almost a second nature to me. I don't know why it is, but anything in the way of excitement always brings on that neuritis of mine. I have had one nasty turn to-night, and as a rule it lasts me for a day or two. If I wasn't so dreadfully cold—"
"Cold, on a night like this!" the girl exclaimed.
"Ah, that is one of the symptoms of my trouble," Primery said with the smile still upon his lips. "These attacks always make me feel as if I were packed in ice. Now, I wonder if you would mind getting my coat for me. It is a big fur coat hanging up in the vestibule under a grey Homberg hat. A coat with a beaver collar. I always wear it when I travel by car, even on the hottest days. Really, I hate to give so much trouble—"
But Stella was already gone. She came back a minute or two later carrying the big coat into which Primery slipped dexterously, and then dropped back on to his chair with a sign of relief. And it was a sigh of relief, too, because now he was huddled up in fur, and the square case in his coat-tail pocket no longer stood out at an awkward angle. He was secure for the present, at any rate, and if later on he could manage to get away in the confusion caused by this unexpected outrage, then he would be safe.
He was still sitting there when Oakes and the rescue party came back with Pryor in the midst of them. The latter appeared to be very little the worse for his adventure, save that he badly needed brushing, for his clothes were smothered in dust and that big, white, angry face of his was none too clean.
"How did it happen?" Oakes asked.
"Oh, I don't know," Pryor growled. "You see, directly I got into the summer-house—"
"But what brought you there?" the red-faced man asked.
Pryor hesitated just for a moment. It flashed across him for the first time that some sort of an explanation was necessary and that his guests would hardly be prepared to believe that he had gone as far as the summer-house merely for a breath of air. Then the recollection of the note in his waistcoat pocket dawned upon him. At least a dozen men had seen him take that from the hand of the footman and read it carefully.
"Well, it's like this," he fumbled. "Of course, I don't want it mentioned, because when these things get talked about they sometimes find their way into print, and that hampers the police. You saw that note I had to-night?"
Half a dozen voices testified to the fact.
"Well, that came from an old acquaintance of mine that I knew very well when I was in the States. A rather shady individual I must confess, but nothing really wrong as far as I knew. It seems that he found himself stranded in England with no money, and being in these parts, thought he would call upon me with a view to my assisting him. But when he found that I was entertaining guests he managed to scribble a note to me asking me to meet him in the summer-house and bring some money."
"You have got the note, of course," Primery suggested.
"Upon my word, I haven't," Pryor responded, though, as a matter of fact, the note was reposing in his waistcoat pocket at that very moment. "I tore it up. However, I decided that I would help the fellow, and I went to my safe in the small library and took out a handful of notes."
"I was present at the time," Primery reminded him. "You didn't leave the key in the safe, I suppose?"
"My dear fellow, of course I didn't. As a matter of fact, it is attached to my chain, and I never take it off. What happened after I left the room?"
"Well, I can hardly remember," Primery said regretfully. "Oh, yes, I got up and opened the window. Then I crawled as far as the end of the terrace and back again. I suppose I was away about three minutes altogether. Then I came back and shut the window and went on with my book. After that I heard a noise in the corridor, and when I went to see what was going on, I heard of your trouble. And then, I saw that the key was in the lock of the safe. The thief must have been wonderfully quick, that is, of course, if he took anything at all, which we don't know yet."
"No, by gad, we don't," the red-faced man said. "Best to find that out before we telephone for the police."
Pryor strode swiftly in the direction of the library and flung open the door of the safe. A great oath broke from his lips as he realised what was missing.
"The pearl necklace," he groaned "Cost me forty thousand pounds. My daughter's wedding present. Get on to the telephone, somebody, and advise the police. They don't seem to have taken anything else—perhaps because they hadn't time."
The whole house was thrilling with the knowledge of the robbery and in the noise and confusion the pain-racked Primery was the only one who seemed able to keep his head.
"But look here," he said. "I feel more or less responsible for this. If I hadn't left the library window open, the robbery couldn't very well have happened. Of course, the man you were going to help was responsible for it."
"That seems pretty obvious," Pryor muttered. "It was a regular plant. I was lured into the summer-house and directly I got inside I was struck on the back of the head by somebody who must have had eyes like a cat. Then I was trussed up and gagged, and in the few minutes I lay there, the thief, or thieves, must have pulled off the robbery and got away with the necklace. But that isn't going to interfere with the enjoyment of the evening. I want you people to go on just as if nothing had happened. My little girl has lost her necklace, but there are plenty more where it came from, and forty thousand won't break me, thank God. Now, please think no more about it, and when the police turn up, leave me to deal with them. I shall know what to do."
It sounded all very fine and noble, but there was a grin on Oakes' face as he winked at his comrade in crime.
"What's the next move, now?" he whispered.
"Oh, I think you can safely leave that to me," Primery replied. "And if you miss me presently and are told that I have gone back to Priors Gates, don't let the fact cause you any anxiety. The way out is fairly clear now."
It all sounded very grand and magnificent, and Pryor's guests were duly impressed by the lordly way in which their host had taken his immense loss. And, after all, he could very well afford it. So that presently the feeling of tense excitement died away, and the old touch on gaiety came back again. Primery, still huddled up in his furs and suffering with a sort of saintly patience, had dragged himself as far as the ballroom, where he sat watching the whirling figures gyrating round him. He was not particularly uneasy in his mind now, the more so because he had gathered that it would be a good hour or more before the police from Southampton could be on the scene of the robbery. Still, he would have felt a great deal more comfortable had one little matter been properly smoothed out before he turned his back upon Heron's Nest for the evening.
And that was the evidence of those silken window cords. The rescue party that had released Pryor from his toils had merely cast the ropes on one side and thought no more about them. But when the police came to investigate, they would certainly not overlook such a clue as that. And, moreover, Primery had been in the library during the whole time of the robbery. He must get those cords back into the library somehow or another, and, so far as he could see, would have to enlist the aid of Oakes. It was some little time before he deemed it safe to attract the other's attention.
"Now, look here," he said at the first opportunity. "Just listen... have you got that? Very well, then. You'll have to steal out of the house at the first possible moment and smuggle those cords back into the library. I am going home."
"But why?" Oakes expostulated.
"Because I have got the booty in my pocket, you fool! And you never know what the police will do when they turn up. I am going to get Pryor to run me back to your place because I am too ill to stay here any longer. You leave me to do my part and look after yours. It will be all right."
Oakes slid away, and presently Primery watched him disappear from the ballroom. Then Stella Pryor came across in her sweet and sympathetic way and inquired after the invalid.
"That is exceedingly nice of you," Primery smiled. "But I am afraid I shall have to get back to bed again. There are times when I can't stand the pain any longer, when I feel that I shall go mad unless I have an antidote, and then I treat myself to an injection of morphia. Only at very rare intervals, you understand, but emphatically to-night is one of them. And now, Miss Pryor, if you will do me a favour—"
"Anything in the world," Stella cried. "Very well, then. Get one of your chauffeurs to drive me in any sort of a car as far as Priors Gate and see me into the house. Then I shall inject my dose, and in a quarter of an hour I shall be in heaven. Could you manage this for me without fuss or bother?"
Stella not only could, but would do so willingly, so that a quarter of an hour later, Primery, chucking to himself, was bowling down the avenue in the direction of Priors Gate. Once there, he helped himself to a drink and a cigar, and then went to bed at peace with all the world. When he woke up, the sun was high in the heavens, and Oakes was standing by his side. Primery smiled with grim meaning as he caught sight of his accomplice.
"Well," he said, "did you manage that business all right? Did you get those cords into the library again?"
"Oh, that was easy," Oakes said. "It only took me a couple of minutes, but I was precious glad when I saw you leave the house, my boy. Now, get up and let us have some breakfast. There is no time to be lost in getting rid of those pearls and the sooner we do so the better. I suppose you have got some sort of a scheme?"
"I have got a very good scheme," Primery said. "Now, you clear out while I have my bath, and I will tell you all about it later on. We shall have to go for a bit of a trip for a day or two across the North Sea, and my suggestion is that we hire a yacht for the occasion. You see, we can go where we like, when we like, and no questions asked. And that is how we put the authorities off the scent. But we will talk about that presently."
An hour or two later, and the confederates were talking over their programme in the room known as the rose parlour, where, as a rule, Audrey Venables did her work. She was not expected that morning following the dance of the night before, so that the confederates had the place all to themselves free from interruption. The rose parlour was so called because of the pattern of the carving on the walls, which formed a series of garlands outlining every panel, and had been the work of some wandering artist back in the time of Elizabeth. The windows were mullioned in stone frame-work, and opened only at the top, so that it was almost impossible for anyone to enter the room from the garden. The door was a mediaeval archway of solid oak, studded with nails, and Oakes had had it fitted with a patent lock, so that occasionally when he had a litter of his private papers lying about, he could close the door behind him, and put the key in his pocket, feeling just as secure as if he had locked everything away in the safe.
"Now then," he said. "Let us hear all about it."
As he spoke, Primery put his hand in his pocket and produced the case of precious pearls. For the life of him Oakes could not refrain from a sigh of relief, which was not lost upon his astute companion. Primery smiled almost bitterly.
"So you don't trust me?" he gibed.
"Who said so?" Oakes retorted.
"My dear fellow, your manner is only too obvious. You thought I was going to get away last night, and leave you in the lurch. I know you did. I suppose some of these days you will begin to understand the limit of my ambition. Why, dash it, we are only just making a start. You can gamble on the fact that I am not likely to turn my back on a stronghold like Priors Gate when I can see the best part of half a million waiting for me. However, I am not going to quarrel. Now, look here, I want you to run us over to Southampton in the car this afternoon, where I know that there are at least three yachts that we can hire by the week. I suppose you can find the money necessary for that."
"Oh, that can be managed," Oakes said.
"Very well then. We'll potter about on a little cruise and eventually find ourselves at Hamburg. Then we slip off to Amsterdam and see the man I know there who will buy the pearls. There is no reason why we should not be off the day after to-tomorrow. And, if it makes your mind any the easier, you can take care of the booty yourself. Just chuck it in one of the drawers in your desk, and leave it there. Nothing like the sort of hiding place where everyone can find a thing, because that is the very last place where they look for it. Besides, when you shut that door and lock it, this room is as good as a safe any day."
It was shortly after 3 o'clock when the two adventurers set out on their errand, and they had hardly passed the lodge gates before Audrey came across the park from the Rectory. There were one or two little things she had left undone the day before, though, as a rule, she rarely worked in the afternoon. She came in gaily enough, only to find that the door of the rose parlour was closed against her, and to ascertain that both Oakes and Primery had gone to Southampton, and would not be back till late.
It was a small matter, but it annoyed the conscientious girl, who took a pride in her work and who, moreover, was anxious to have the following day clear because it so happened that she was expecting to see Cecil Oakes on the morrow. And unless the arrears of work were cleared off, she had not the slightest intention of asking Oakes if she might absent herself.
She stood in the big, oak-panelled hall, debating in her mind as to whether she dare put a certain project into action. She knew every turn and passage in the grand old house, she knew the secret way into the priest's room behind the fireplace in the dining-hall, and she knew, also, that there was a concealed passage leading from the hall behind the suite of apartments which terminated in the rose parlour, and how to manipulate the sliding panel which gave entrance to the rose parlour, and had done so ever since the Oakes fought on the side of the King in the Puritan wars. Many a time in her early childhood she and Cecil had used those hiding places in the course of their youthful games, and the thrill of it was with her now as she stood hesitating in the dusky hall.
Should she venture, was the question she was asking herself. She could slip in without being observed, and finish her work, and Oakes would be none the wiser. It was only a matter of two or three letters which she had thrown into a drawer in the big bureau, and an hour would see the end of her task.
She hesitated no longer. She pressed her hand on the centre of a wide, oak panel that gave freely to her touch, and an instant later she was feeling her way along the passage until she came to the end of it, then, taking, a match from her cigarette case, she touched it into flame and then, with her hand on another panel, found herself creeping almost guiltily into the rose parlour.
There was nobody about. All the servants were at the far end of the house, and for all they knew to the contrary she might have already quitted it. There was no occasion for her to use the typewriter, because, for once in a way, she could write those letters by hand. She had thrown them, the day before, into a drawer in the bureau, and now she reached for them with the intention of finishing her work as soon as possible and going back the way she came without fear of discovery. There was a certain spirit of adventure in the whole thing and her spirits rose as she pulled out the drawer. And there, on the top of the letters, lay a big, square, leather case. It was purely in the spirit of curiosity that Audrey opened it, and stood there, absolutely dazed by its beautiful contents. Then, suddenly, the truth flashed upon her.
"Stella's pearls," she murmured to herself through white lips. "Stella's wedding present. Oh!"
Audrey stood there almost petrified by her discovery. She was all alone, without the slightest chance of being discovered, so that she had plenty of time to turn this stupendous thing over in her mind. Nor was she in the least doubtful as to the crime that she had stumbled upon in this strange, accidental fashion. She knew perfectly well that those were Stella Pryor's pearls, because she already had had them in her hands more than once, and, besides, women do not make mistakes of that kind. Bertram Pryor had bought the pearls some little time before, and practically given them to his daughter, though he kept them in his safe until the time should come when they, with the rest of the wedding presents, would be laid out for inspection of admiring guests. But still, Stella was in a position to show them to her own friends, and Audrey, being one of these, was not likely to make a mistake.
Here were the pearls in their original case, just as they had come from the great firm in Bond-street, thrown more or less carelessly into the drawer in the bureau as if they had been no more than so many beads. Still, perhaps not so carelessly as might have been imagined at first sight. Because Sir Wilton had taken the precautions to lock the door of the rose parlour before he went away and nothing but force would have sufficed the thief, even had he known what the old bureau contained. It was quite evident, therefore, that Sir Wilton himself had placed the pearls in their present receptacle, and that he had gone away quite easy in his mind as to their safety. But how had he got possession of them? And why? The more Audrey thought of this, the more puzzled she became. She had been present when the jewels had been stolen, and so far as she could see Sir Wilton had had nothing to do with the robbery. And yet here the stuff was, a damning proof of her employer's guilt, look at it whichever way she would.
She had never quite liked the man. There had always been something about him that repelled her, though she would not have been able to put into words anything against him. She had been a welcome guest at Priors Gate ever since she could remember, and from the age of 17 onwards, had assisted the late baronet in keeping his affairs in order. And she knew, too, because she had had something to do with the correspondence, that Sir Wilton's father had sent him large sums of money, especially just towards the last. Not that it was any business of hers.
But this discovery was a different thing altogether. She must mention it to somebody, not necessarily Stella Pryor, but at any rate somebody that she could trust. Cecil Oakes was coming down on the morrow, and to him she would confess everything.
She closed the drawer and then made her way back cautiously into the hall. Nobody had seen her come and go, so, for the present, at any rate, she was absolutely safe.
It was just after luncheon the following afternoon when she went back to Priors Gate in the hope of meeting Cecil there. She found that he had come down from Town an hour or so before, and that at the present moment he was busy up in the Long Gallery, searching amongst the muniment chests for some missing document. He came forward joyfully to meet her.
"I thought you would come," he said.
"We shall have the place to ourselves all the afternoon."
"And where are the others?" Audrey asked.
"Oh, haven't you heard? They are not coming back for the next two or three days. The butler has had a telephone message this morning—something to do with a yacht, I believe."
Audrey drew a long breath of relief.
"Oh, I am so glad, Cecil," she murmured. "I have been wanting to talk to you on a matter that kept me awake all last night. There is something seriously wrong going on under this roof."
The grave look in her eyes was reflected in those of Cecil. He could see that she was not exactly frightened, but that something out of the common had seriously shaken her. He drew her to his side, and looked down lovingly into her face.
"Dearest, what is the matter?" he murmured. "You will tell me, surely. And if I can help you—"
Audrey hesitated, no longer. With Cecil's arms about her and his lips close to hers, she felt afraid of nothing. There was a perfect understanding between them, and though they might have to wait an indefinite period before they set out to face the world together, there never could be any concealment one from the other as far as those two were concerned.
"It really is a most dreadful thing, Cecil," Audrey murmured. "I daresay you will laugh at me, but ever since Sir Wilton came home, I have never felt quite happy here. I loved his father, and I was deeply sorry for him, because I knew how he suffered. And I went on because the money Sir Wilton pays me is so useful. But I am sure there is something very wrong about him."
"But have you got anything to go on? Oh, I know things are not as they ought to be, because I have made a little discovery of my own—a small thing at present, but likely to grow into something big. It is all in the air, so I am not going to say anything about it till I am absolutely convinced that I am right. But if you have anything really important, please tell me."
"I will do more than that," Audrey said. "You shall go with me and I will show you. Chance has been on our side, and we are not in the least likely to be disturbed. Do you remember the secret way into the rose parlour?"
"Of course I do," Cecil smiled. "It was one of our most thrilling adventures in those happy old days."
"Yes, and I don't believe that Sir Wilton knows anything about it. Or at any rate, he has forgotten. When he went away he carefully locked the door of the rose parlour, and yesterday I came along to finish some correspondence. I found I couldn't get into the room, so I used the secret passage. And in that old bureau I found something. Come and see what it is."
The old house was quiet enough as the two made their way along the secret passage and entered the rose parlour, where Audrey opened the drawer in the bureau and showed her companion a square red morocco case containing the missing gems. It only needed a glance on Cecil's part to realise what they were.
"By jove!—Miss Pryor's missing pearls!" he said, under his breath. "No question about it. Good heavens!—fancy an Oakes coming down to a thing like this! Unless I am greatly mistaken, that man Primery is one of the leading actors in this drama."
"But what are we going to do about it?" Audrey asked.
"Well, for the present—nothing. There are reasons why I shall keep my own counsel, but I can't go into the matter because I am not sure of my ground. I am afraid this is not the only thing, Audrey; at any rate, we will leave those things where they are, and perhaps before I go back to Town this evening I shall be able to think out a plan. Now, let us go back as far as the Long Gallery, where, possibly, you can help me. You know that I am acting for Sir Wilton in an action that he is bringing in connection with the diversion of a stream. It means a little more than that, because if the other party in the suit has the right to divert the stream then a considerable area of waste land goes with that right. And on that waste land I have every reason to believe that coal will be found. If I am right, then it will make a considerable difference to the fortunes of the Oakes family. I have already found one of the deeds, but the other one has, so far, eluded me. I have no doubt I shall find it in time. Meanwhile, there is another matter. You conducted nearly the whole of the late baronet's correspondence and from what you said just now, I think you must have written letters enclosing cheques to Sir Wilton. I don't suppose you know where those cheques are, but it is just possible that the counterfoils were not destroyed. I mean the stubs of old cheque books."
"Oh, I can show you scores of those," Audrey said. "The late baronet was the kind of a man who never destroyed anything, even letters from mere acquaintances. There are two or three chests in the Long Gallery full of them."
It was quite a couple of hours later before Audrey crossed the park, together with Cecil, and then the latter returned to the house, and, waiting his opportunity, once more slipped along the secret corridor into the rose parlour. He emerged presently and a little later was on his way to the station. But the next afternoon he was back again, and once more in the rose parlour, from whence he emerged finally with a queer smile on his face.
"I think that will about do," he murmured to himself. "I think that will give them something to worry about. By heavens, what a ghastly business it is altogether. The greatest scandal the county has ever seen. And I must prevent that, whatever happens. Sir Wilton Oakes, fifteenth baronet, a common swindler! What would the papers make of a chance like that? And yet for the life of me, I don't see how I can manage it without an exposure. What an infernal sweep the chap must be. But then, a man who would rob his own father would rob anybody."
Cecil was still turning this unsavoury thing over in his mind as he made his way back to London. Up to a certain point he had laid his plans carefully enough, but he would have a long way to go before he could settle the business to his entire satisfaction. And there were other things to think of as well, the forthcoming action over the disputed stream, and still another matter of which he had said nothing to Audrey for the time being. He would have to go down to Priors Gate more than once and make a thorough search of those chests in the Long Gallery. And when he went back there again at the end of the week, he found that Sir Wilton and Primery had returned from Southampton about an hour before.
They received him casually enough, and, so far as he could see, both of them were apparently undisturbed by any recent discovery. And Cecil smiled to himself as he realised that, up to the present, at any rate, his little scheme had not gone astray.
"Hello, what, back here again?" Sir Wilton said with easy bonhomie, as Cecil made his appearance. "Upon my word, you really are most attentive to your duties. I suppose you have come down over that case, eh? How is it going?"
"Oh, it's dragging on," Cecil smiled. "To tell the truth, I am purposely delaying it. And if you want to delay things in the law, it is not a very difficult matter. However, I have found one of those old deeds, and I feel quite sure the other is somewhere in the house. If I can only lay my hands upon it, then we have got a very strong case. I want you to understand that your title to all that waste land depends upon it."
"Yes, so I suppose," Oakes smiled. "And if there really is coal there, then there will be nobody more delighted than myself. Otherwise I shall have to let this old place and go and exist abroad in some Continental hovel. If you fail, I don't know who on earth is going to pay your fees, because I can't."
Cecil murmured something to the effect that he was quite prepared to take the risk as far as he was concerned, and then he began to talk about something else. It was quite clear to him that the conspirators had not the slightest idea of the discovery he had made in connection with the Pryor pearls, and so, for the present at least, he was quite content to let that go. He hoped that Sir Wilton had had a pleasant time at Southampton, and that the godlike Primery had benefited by the change.
"That is very good of you," Primery murmured, with the sweetest smile. "I am very fond of the sea. And when Sir Wilton suggested a week's cruise, I was delighted."
"Oh, that's the idea, is it?" Cecil cried.
"That is the idea," Oakes said, with great good-humour. "You see, a wanderer like myself gets restless and miserable, even when tied to such a lovely old place as this. So I thought I would go to the extravagance of chartering a private yacht for a week or so and pottering about the North Sea."
Cecil nodded carelessly. Not that he was deceived for a moment. He knew almost as well as if he had been told that this was a mere blind to enable the conspirators to get away with the pearls and plant them on the other side of the Channel, probably in Amsterdam or some such place, where receivers of stolen goods flourish and not too many questions are asked.
"Yes, it's all settled," Oakes explained. "We found what we wanted, and I have chartered the yacht. Not a very big affair, of course, but the Firefly is equipped with every comfort and luxury, and the owner's agent has agreed to have it in readiness for us on Monday morning. Just a week, you understand."
Cecil understood perfectly well. He knew that there were many owners who were only too glad of the chance of hiring out their yachts at such odd times as they were not needed. He knew, too, that no questions would be asked, so long as the money was all right, and in his acute, legal mind he fully appreciated the clever scheme which had been hatched between the conspirators for getting rid of the property which they had looted in so clever and ingenious a fashion. Still, it was not going to be quite so easy as Oakes and his colleague thought, but that, they would have to find out for themselves. It was no business of his to explain.
"Who is the owner of the yacht?" he asked.
"Well, that is rather a strange thing," Oakes said. "We went over a dozen or more boats, not one of which we cared for, until we came to the Firefly. She is exactly what we require, and I shall be only too delighted to buy her if I can raise the money. So when we had decided upon her and I went round to the agent with my cheque I casually asked who she belonged to. And what do you think I got by way of reply?"
"I haven't the remotest notion," Cecil confessed.
"Why, Bertram Pryor," Oakes cried. "My neighbour, Bertram Pryor. Wasn't that a bit of a coincidence?"
"Very strange," Cecil murmured. "Still, I know that Pryor has more than one craft of the sort, and it will be rather nice to think that you are sailing under the house-flag of a friend and neighbour. Does he know it yet?"
Sir Wilton Oakes did not know, nor did he particularly care. For a few minutes the conversation dragged on before Cecil excused himself on the ground that he had come down there on business, and accordingly vanished in the direction of the Long Gallery. Sir Wilton closed the door carefully behind him and came back to his chair. But he smiled significantly at his companion.
"Well," he asked. "What do you think about it?"
"Oh, I am satisfied enough," Primery said. "There ought to be no difficulty about it whatever now. By the way, I suppose that you have looked to see—"
"Oh, I have looked to see, all right. There is the case in the drawer of the bureau and the key of the rose parlour safely in my pocket. Even Miss Venables is not allowed in there unless she is under my own eye. And besides, I have given her a week's holiday. All we have got to do now is to smuggle those pearls on board the Firefly and then dodder across the North Sea like gentlemen of leisure with no particular object in view. When we reach Hamburg we will go on shore for the night, and then—"
"Oh, Hamburg be hanged," Primery cried. "Just think of the waste of time! We have got to get to Amsterdam, so why on earth not go there direct? We can go ashore for the night and dine at some first-class hotel, and, when it is dark, just drop in and see our man and complete the business. There is no point in flying all about Northern Europe in a motor car."
"Oh, very well, have it your own way," Oakes agreed. "It is all the same to me as long as we touch the money. My only regret is that you didn't get away with the lot."
"So I should if I had had a few more minutes," Primery grinned. "I understand there is another lot of pearls, to say nothing of a heap of diamonds, in the safe, where the other loot came from. I say, Oakes, wouldn't it be a real coup if we could only get hold of the rest of the stuff."
"Oh, that is impossible." Oakes said.
"You don't suppose a smart chap like Pryor is going to be caught a second time?"
"I don't know why not. You see, when a man has been once robbed, he always makes up his mind that no thief will ever visit him again. I suppose it's a natural way of looking at things. Anyway, I have got a little scheme at the back of my mind which I haven't quite worked out yet, but it's pretty sound as far as I have gone. Are you game for another attempt?"
"I?" Oakes cried. "Good Lord, yes. A dozen if you like, so long as we take reasonable precautions. It's all right as far as it goes, but even if we get all we expect, there won't be such a lot coming to me out of my share. It will tide over a rather desperate period, but nothing less than £100,000 is any real use to me."
"Oh, well, it is only a question of time. As the poet says, 'There are hills beyond Pentland and seas beyond Firth,' and nobody is likely to suspect so great a man as Sir Wilton Oakes and that poor crippled companion of his—"
It was a day or two later before Oakes and his confederate set out in the car for Southampton. Primery climbed painfully into the car, and sat himself down in one corner smothered from head to foot with protecting furs. To look at him, no one would suspect for a moment that he was a skilled and daring criminal and one capable of acting on the instant in an emergency. They drove off down the drive and into the open country, talking freely on various matters—anything that was likely to attract the attention of the man at the wheel. In the course of time they reached their destination and, later on in the afternoon, boarded the yacht. There on deck, Primery was made comfortable in a long chair whilst Oakes was down below seeing to the cabin arrangements. The intention was to drop out with the next tide, which would be an hour before dusk, and drift out to sea. It was ten minutes before the time came for warping out of the harbour when Cecil Oakes suddenly appeared and jumped lightly down on the deck.
"That was a very near thing," he said. "I began to think I should be too late. Something happened to the train on the way down, or I might have been here earlier. I want Sir Wilton's signature to one or two documents. Where is he?"
Primery proceeded to explain, then Oakes appeared, none too pleased to see his young relative.
"I don't want to bother you," he said. "But I have managed to lay my hand upon that missing deed. There is a motion before the Court to-morrow, a mere side issue, but there are one or two documents which must have your signature. A mere matter of form, of course. Still, you understand—"
"Oh, very well. Come down in the cabin, and I'll get it done."
The legal-looking documents were duly signed and witnessed, and after that Cecil came on deck, followed by Oakes. And there they found a surprise awaiting them. Standing on the deck, big and important, was no less a person than Bertram Pryor. He was followed almost immediately by a servant carrying a couple of suitcases, which he laid down by the side of his master.
"Well, here we are," Pryor said. "I dare say you are surprised to see me, though for the time being, at any rate, the Firefly is no longer mine. The fact is, I have some important business on the other side of the North Sea, and it occurred to me that I would invite myself to join your party. In other words, Oakes, I don't mind telling you that I am coming along."
"Coming along?" Oakes stammered.
"Yes, my boy, why not? Pleasure and business combined. Neighbours and all that sort of thing. What about it?"
Oakes shot a quick glance at Primery, who returned it, and looked away, but it was not lost upon Cecil Oakes.
The little comedy being enacted upon the deck of the Firefly was not lost upon one person at least. Nor was it altogether unexpected, so far as Cecil Oakes was concerned. He had come down there following his uncle and Primery with quite a plausible excuse as to certain documents requiring a signature, but it was only an excuse, after all, because he wanted to make sure of his ground. And he knew, too, how embarrassing Sir Wilton and his confederate would find the presence of Bertram Pryor.
Still, that was no business of his. This unexpected development was none the less amusing for that. He could afford to stand quietly on one side and await developments. He had seen the glance that had passed between Primery and Sir Wilton, and he knew perfectly well what it meant.
"Well, what about it?" Pryor demanded, in his bluff, bullying way. "You don't seem to be altogether pleased to see me."
"It isn't that," Primery said in his silkiest tones. "But you must confess that your appearance was rather unexpected. Still, I am quite sure that my friend Oakes—"
"Oh, quite," Oakes hastened to put in. "My dear fellow, why not? It's all the same to us. We are just going to potter about for a week, and if we can drop you somewhere, I am sure that both Primery and myself will be delighted."
"Good," Pryor exclaimed. "You drop me at Amsterdam, where I have to see a man on business, and I shall be more than obliged to you. Just for one night, you understand. I suppose our young friend here isn't going to be one of the party?"
"Oh, dear—no," Cecil hastened to explain. "I ran down on a mere matter of business. And now that is finished I must get back to town as soon as possible."
But once ashore, Cecil made no move until he had seen the Firefly on her way to the open sea. Then he crossed the wharf, and without ceremony made his way on to the deck of a tug which was waiting there with steam up, ready to leave. Long before night fell he was out in the open channel on board the tug, which he himself had hired, with instructions to the skipper to keep the Firefly in sight. Truth to tell, Cecil was playing for high stakes, and though his means were limited, he was not disposed, just then, to consider a few pounds which he deemed to be well spent in the exceptional circumstances. And so, not very long after the Firefly came to anchor off Amsterdam, the tug was at rest also, and Cecil was keeping the other members of the party in sight.
Meanwhile, all was apparently friendly and amiable on board the Firefly. Whatever business Pryor had in Amsterdam he never alluded to it, neither did Oakes evince any curiosity on the point. But the latter was relieved to find that he and his involuntary guest were not staying at the same hotel.
"I frequently come here," Pryor exclaimed. "As you know, oil is my principal business. And the Dutch have their hands on that; in fact, if we are not careful, Holland will have a monopoly of the oil trade one of these days. I have a sort of partner here whose business it is to keep his eye on things and keep me wise with regard to current events. I am staying at the Hagenroyt Hotel. Do you happen to know it?"
"I have never been here before," Oakes said. "But my friend Primery has, and I am leaving all that to him."
"Oh, we are going to put up at the Prins Hals," Primery said, seeing that Oakes was waiting for a lead. "But what are you going to do afterwards, Mr. Pryor?"
"Oh, that's as things happen," Pryor laughed. "At any rate, I am not going to trouble you any more. I shall probably go to the Hook of Holland by train and thence to Flushing. But won't you two come and dine with me this evening?"
Primery regretfully murmured that that was out of the question so far as he was concerned. The crossing had shaken him up more than he had expected, and what he most wanted at that moment was a long night between the sheets. Pryor nodded by way of reply, and so the subject dropped. They parted with goodwill on either side, but all the same, Oakes drew a long sigh of relief as he saw Pryor's taxi disappear in the distance.
"'Well, we have got rid of him, at any rate," he said. "Do you think that he suspects anything?"
"No, I don't," Primary said. "He wanted to get across to Amsterdam without any of his business friends knowing anything about it, and with characteristic impudence, pushed himself on us. Still, it was rather disturbing to see him turn up at Southampton, knowing that we have got his pearls in our possession. I shouldn't give the fellow another thought if I were you."
Meanwhile, Pryor had finished his dinner and then had strolled out of the Hagenroyt Hotel with a cigar in his mouth, as if he were a mere tourist in search of a music hall. Then, after making quite sure that he was not watched, he loitered into a thoroughfare called Stadt-street, where he slackened his pace and began carefully to examine the numbers on the various houses. It was one of the very old-fashioned streets, with tall, narrow buildings on either side, and had evidently been at one time quite a fashionable quarter. It was still the pink of propriety and prosperity, and evidently given over to merchants and professional people. It was so quiet that, as Pryor rang the bell at No. 16, there was not a single soul in the street as far as he could see. He was not to know, of course, that he was being followed by Cecil Oakes, and that the latter was lurking in a portico, hidden by the darkness on the other side of the road. But Pryor, utterly unaware of this, rang the bell a second time, and waited until the glow of a lamp shot up over the fanlight, and the door opened cautiously a few inches. Pryor could see inside the spare figure of an oldish man with grey hair and beard and moustache, a highly respectable figure of a man dressed carefully in a suit of black.
"It's all right," Pryor whispered. "Open the door. There is not a soul about."
The door was opened just wide enough to admit the caller, and then closed and locked. Pryor looked round the square hall, with its pictures and engravings and old furniture, and nodded approvingly. The solid respectability of it appealed to him.
"Well, here we are, Vogler," he said. "You got my message, of course. Upon my word, I like this old place of yours. Who could possibly suspect a man living in a house like this?"
"We are not considering that point at all," the man addressed as Vogler said, in perfect English. "There is nobody in Amsterdam who regards me as anything but a retired merchant who came back to his fatherland a few years ago after making a fortune in America."
"Oh, you made your fortune all right," Pryor laughed. "But what enjoyment you get out of it, heaven only knows. Here you lead the life of a recluse on about twopence a week, with two servants to look after you, when you might be a power in the land. You must be worth a million if you are worth a penny."
The old man rubbed his hands thoughtfully together.
"I have all I want," he murmured. "And without a relation in the world. I like to sit here and pull the strings all over the globe and see the figures work. It is to me, like writing a play must be to a great dramatist. They come to me and they ask my advice, and I finance them, and I get richer year by year, ah, there is something in it, after all. But you, Pryor, don't understand. You have got what you call the dash. You must have a great big house in England, with a troop of servants and cars, though it is that you are skating on very thin ice all the time. And now you, whom people regard as a rich man, have come from England to borrow money from me. I feel it in my bones."
The speaker led the way into a small library at the back of the house, where he turned on the lights, and motioned his visitor to a chair. He produced a box of cigars, together with a spirit tantalus and a syphon of soda, and waited for Pryor to speak.
"It's like this," the latter said, at length. "Those Mexican Oil schemes the Rio Amalgamated."
The old man shot a suspicious glance across the table.
"But that is forgotten long ago," he exclaimed.
"So I thought," Pryor muttered. "But I find that I am mistaken. You remember all about it, don't you? When we got that concession we went to the American public with it. That was a few years ago, when you were living in the States. We took something like a million dollars for a barefaced swindle."
"It was all that," Vogler said calmly. "Yes, and then we decided to abandon it when we suddenly discovered that all the time we were on to a really good thing. The oil was there, right enough, and since then, two or three of us have made millions over it."
"Yes, that is quite right," Vogler said. "We set out to rob the American public, never dreaming that we were selling them an absolute gold mine, until Leeson came back to New York and told us what he had discovered. The oil was there. But we hadn't got the shares because we had sold them right and left, and they were in goodness knows how many hands. You must have sold at least fifty thousand shares. What became of them?"
"Oh, I'm hanged if I know," Pryor said indifferently. "I gave a good many of them away. And I know at least two people who passed them on to relatives as good things and made quite a lot out of them. Of course, they thought they were swindling their friends, but, Lord, if they had only known! Now look here, Vogler, I managed to trace a whole lot of those shares and so did you. But there were two blocks that we could find no trace of. Of course, they are worth pretty well anything the owners like to ask for them to-day."
"You need not tell me that, my friend," Vogler purred. "Ah, I know it as well as you do. But what is the worry? Why do you come to me on what I feel sure is a begging errand?"
"Because I am in trouble," Pryor said. "Much trouble."
"Oh, are you?" the old man murmured softly. "And it is something to do with those shares, of course."
"Well, it is," Pryor confessed. "There is one man in London who has managed to get hold of a block of them. They were planted on to him originally for value, and he paid the full price for them. When he realised that he had lost his money, he just chucked them into a drawer and forgot all about them. Then when we found what a treasure we had and set about recovering all those certificates, the man I speak of just lay low. And unfortunately he happened to run across Leeson just before he died. And he got the whole story out of Leeson. How he had sold a gold brick to the American public and that we discovered later on that the gold brick was solid metal after all. So this man knows all about the swindle and, moreover, is in a position to prove it. He is not content with the return he is getting on his investment and, to put it quite bluntly, at the present moment he is blackmailing me. Of course, he doesn't put it in that crude way. But he threatens to bring an action against me and expose the whole conspiracy. If he does, then there will be a pretty stink in the city, and I don't see how we are going to keep out of it."
"Why don't you pay him off?" Vogler asked.
"Because I haven't got the money," Pryor responded. "I am all tied up in a very big scheme; in fact, I haven't been so short for years. And if this man doesn't get what he wants in the next few days, he can ruin my credit in the city, and if that very astute lawyer of his likes to push matters to their extremity it will very likely be awkward for a certain man named Vogler, too."
Vogler sat there rubbing his hands softly together and listening with the semblance of a smile upon his lips.
"I am not in the least afraid, my friend," he said. "I am not afraid of anything. Whatever people say about me, it is all the same. When you get to my time of life it is little you care for the opinion of the world. But you, ah, you are different. You are in society. You have a great house, where you dispense lavish hospitality and your daughter, she is to marry into the English peerage. And that makes you frightened. That sends you to me to raise money to pay off this very clever man of the City of London, who is not merely content to take his princely dividends on Rio Oil Shares, but would blackmail you as well. If he came to me I should laugh in his face and slam the front door."
"Yes, but I can't very well do that," Pryor muttered. "You see, the position is very different as far as I am concerned. What I want is to get hold of the letter that this man extracted from Leeson before he died. And that is going to cost me something like £40,000. Once that letter is in my possession and destroyed, then I shall be able to breathe freely again. And I want you to lend it to me. I can give you ample security."
"You would not get it without," Vogler said quite amiably. "Now, take another cigar and tell me this big scheme of yours. If I like it, then you shall sell me a corner of it for £40,000 and your obligation to me is finished. Proceed."
It was the best part of half an hour before Pryor had finished, during which time Vogler sat there almost as immovable as a statue. It was a long time before he spoke.
"Yes," he said musingly. "Yes, it is good. I might say it is excellent. There is a tinge of dishonesty about it which appeals to me. But it is not the dishonesty that brings you within the grip of the law, and that is where I am attracted. You shall have this money, Pryor. I will see that it is paid in to your account, at any bank you mention, when the necessary preliminary documents are signed. Post them to me and I will read them over, and, all being well, the money you want is at your disposal. And now, if you don't mind, I shall be pleased if you will leave me. There is nothing else you have to say?"
"No, I don't think so. Only one little matter. I am not quite so safe in England as I thought I was. I don't know whether you read the English papers or not."
"I get leading papers of most European countries," Vogler smiled. "And, moreover, I can read them without the aid of a dictionary. For instance, I read about the valuable present you are making your daughter on the eve of her marriage."
"Then you know all about the robbery?" Pryor cried.
"Of course I do. And there were circumstances connected with it that greatly interested me. I would like to know, my friend, what you were doing in that summer-house when the attack was made upon you. Not taking the air, I think."
"Oh, I can tell you," Pryor said. "I had an anonymous letter. And that letter must have been written by a man who knew me very well in the past, because he reminded me that I was once known as 'Bat' Bronson. Don't ask me who sent that letter, because I couldn't identify the writing. But the writer knew my professional name out yonder, and he wanted money badly, not a lot, only a hundred or two to get him back to the States, and he asked me to meet him in the summer-house. Of course, I went. My idea was to get rid of the fellow at once for reasons that must be perfectly plain to you. So I stole down the terrace and directly I got in the summer-house somebody gave me a tremendous crack—but you must have read all about that in the papers."
"I did," Vogler said. "And so this man who knew you in the past managed in some sort of way to get clear with that wonderful necklace. Doesn't it all make you very uneasy in your mind?"
"Well, of course," Pryor admitted. "I thought when I had got safely to England that I should never hear any more of my murky past. Still, I won't stay here worrying you over my troubles."
"Another time, perhaps," Vogler smiled. "Meanwhile, I must turn you out because I am already late for another appointment."
Pryor drifted down the quiet, respectable street a little while later just too late to encounter a taxi-cab which pulled up at the corner of the road and discharged Sir Wilton Oakes and his friend Primery. The latter dragged himself along until they came to Vogler's house, where they rang the bell and were immediately admitted by the old man himself. Without a word he ushered them into the library at the back of the house, where he had removed all traces of his recent visitor, save for the open box of cigars on the table.
"Ah, my friends, sit down," he said. "I got your message, Primery. This, I presume, is Sir Wilton Oakes, though I seem to have heard of him in America by quite another name."
"The deuce you have," Oakes murmured uneasily.
"Ah well, we needn't go into that, it is so many people nowadays who prefer to remain under the cloak of some modest nom-de-plume. How many great business firms in your city of London are there to-day who are trading under the name of a single one of the firm? But let us not worry about that. You came to see me on business, and that is a thing I am always ready to discuss."
"You may call it business if you like," Primery said, with something like an unusual snarl on his lips. "But I prefer to call things by their proper name. I suppose one way and another, that you are the biggest 'fence' in Europe."
Vogler laughed gently. He seemed to see quite a deal of humour in this offensive rejoinder. He leant back in his chair with a smile upon his lips apparently master of the situation.
"You are not particularly apt in the choice of words, my young friend," he said. "But then one must make allowance for a man so cruelly afflicted by nature. Yes, I certainly am a dealer in art treasures of all kinds, and because I am not too particular in my inquiries as to where they come from, thieves like yourself call me a 'fence' A sort of Shylock, eh? But, my dear twisted Adonis, did it ever occur to you what a poor profession yours would be if people like myself did not lend you a helping hand?"
"Yes, at 60 per cent.," Primery retorted.
"Oh, never mind all that," Oakes said impatiently. "Let's get on with the business."
"Shall I guess what the business is?" Vogler said softly. "Let me make a little prophecy. You have come here all this way to sell me something. Is not that right?"
"Oh, that's right enough," Primery grinned.
"Very well, then. That something one of you has in his pocket. It is in a leather case and contains an article of jewellery."
"I don't call that much of a guess," Primery laughed. "You don't suppose we came here to sell you a house full of furniture."
"Perhaps not," Vogler went on with the same masked irony. "But you interrupt me. Let me go a little further. In that case is a valuable double rope of pearls. Correct me if I am wrong. And that double row of pearls a few days ago was presented by a certain Bertram Pryor to his daughter on the event of her marriage. It was stolen from Pryor's house by some very clever thieves, and the whole circumstances were reported in the papers. And now you have come to Amsterdam to ask me to buy those pearls. And, moreover you want for them more than you are going to get. Oh, I know what they cost, but if I pay you half—"
Primery turned almost savagely to his companion.
"Didn't I tell you we had the devil himself to deal with?" he snarled. "Here, turn the stuff out and let him have a look at it."
From his breast pocket Sir Wilton produced the morocco case and laid it on the table. Then he pressed the spring and disclosed the contents under the light of the shaded lamp.
"There," he cried. "What do you think of those? Did you ever handle anything finer, Mr. Vogler? Now, in one word, what are you prepared to give us for the lot?"
Vogler bent over the case, and as he did so, he drew a sharp breath. There was a sneering laugh on his lips.
"Five pounds," he snapped. "And I wouldn't offer you as much as that only the case happens to be a particularly good one. Rubbish, absolute rubbish! Nothing but shams!"
The old millionaire sat huddled up in his chair watching the two discomfited scoundrels with just the suggestion of a smile in those cunning eyes of his. He was not in the least disappointed over the turn of affairs, nor was he disposed to believe that Sir Wilton and his confederate were trying to work some sort of a fraud upon him. They would never do that. And besides, he could see from the expression of their faces that they were utterly dismayed.
"Do you really mean that?" Primery asked.
"Am I a man who generally introduces the comic element into business?" Vogler asked. "I tell you those beads are worthless. It is just like this, look."
He took one of the so-called pearls between his forefinger and thumb and pressed upon it gently. An instant later there was no more than a pinch of powder where something like a pearl had been.
"There," he said. "You see for yourselves. Very nice to look at, so long as you don't touch them, and likely to pass for the real thing by artificial light. But it seems a strange thing that men like you should have been deceived in this simple fashion. You could not even have examined the things."
"It is out of our line altogether," Oakes explained. "We know nothing whatever about gems."
"Ah, no," Vogler smiled. "It is your first attempt at burglary, and I hope for your sakes it will be the last. Your friend Pryor seems to have seen you coming and have laid a nice little trap for you. Or perhaps he is not the rich man you take him for, and that he is merely pretending to give his daughter a valuable rope, trusting to the fact of his position to prevent any questions being asked. You never can tell."
"But that is all rot," Oakes cried. "We know that Pryor is a millionaire. Look here, it doesn't matter how we got hold of those things, but they came out of a safe in Pryor's library, and they were conveyed to Priors Gate. I put them in a safe place and naturally troubled no more about them. Why should we examine the pearls? He had got them, and naturally took it for granted that they were what they represented themselves to be."
"Perhaps they were originally," Vogler smiled. "Then you are sure you are not up against someone cleverer than yourselves who managed to make an exchange."
"It would be impossible," Oakes proceeded. "The case was put in a drawer in an old bureau in the room where I do most of my business. It has a heavy door and windows through which no one could possibly get. Moreover, the door of my rose parlour is fitted with a lock. The key of which has never left my possession for a single moment."
"Well, it is very unfortunate as far as you are concerned," Vogler said coldly. "I can only conclude that the man Pryor is putting a magnificent bluff over his swell friends. He gives it out that he is presenting his daughter with a set of pearls which would be worth quite £40,000, and all the time they are so much rubbish. It is the sort of cheap swagger that many a man has indulged in before now. Anyhow, you are only wasting my time and yours, and as it is getting late—"
There was no help for it but to take the hint, and for the two discomfited conspirators, to retire as gracefully as possible. Without another word they crept out into the hall, and Vogler closed the front door behind them. Then he went back to his library again, and sat for some time with his cigar between his lips smiling to himself as he recalled the discomfiture of his late visitors. It was all the same to him whether they lost or gained, so long as he had not been called upon to put his hand in his own pocket.
"I wonder," he muttered to himself. "I wonder what the game is. I don't quite see my friend Bertram Pryor putting up a bluff like that. And yet you never can tell. I have an idea that I have not yet seen the end of the comedy. However—"
He sat up suddenly, as the gentle ripple of a bell struck on his ears. It was the front door, as he very well knew.
"More visitors," he chuckled. "I wonder who it is this time. I'll just go and see."
The front door opened into the darkness to expose the tall athletic figure of a man, evidently of the better class, who stood there with his hands in his overcoat pocket regarding Vogler with the calm air of inspection. From one of his pockets he produced a card which he handed to the owner of the house.
"You don't know me," he said. "And I don't suppose you have ever heard of me. But that is my name and address."
Vogler gazed at it curiously. There was no expression of astonishment or surprise or emotion of any kind in his face when he read that the card belonged to one, Cecil Oakes, who resided somewhere in the Inner Temple. But it did not take the old man ten seconds to realise that here was some relation to the man who had left his house only a few minutes before.
"And what can I do for you?" he asked.
"Well, at any rate, you can invite me inside and listen to what I have to say," Cecil said quite coolly. "I think that you know something of my uncle, Sir Wilton Oakes."
"I do," Vogler said, seeing that there was nothing to gain in denial. "In fact, he has not long left here."
"Yes, I know that," Cecil said. "I followed him here. And, as a matter of fact, I followed another man here. It was necessary to wait till your visitors were all gone, or I should not be bothering you at so late an hour in the evening."
Vogler smiled as he held the door wide open. He rather liked this young man with his cool indomitable courage and that commanding gleam in his eyes. Here was one, evidently, who was afraid of nothing, and who would not be deterred from his chosen path by any kind of difficulty and danger.
"Come inside, Mr. Oakes, come inside," Vogler said. "If you have any business to do with me I shall be prepared to listen. Now, sit down there and tell me all about it."
"Thank you," Cecil said. "Let me go straight to the point. Now, Mr. Vogler, I know a good deal about you. I know how long you were in the States, and how you got your living there. Of course, you are more or less retired from business now, and intend to die in the land of your birth. But I think there have been one or two occasions when you were not quite sure that you would ever find yourself outside New York harbour."
"So," Vogler smiled softly. "So, Mr. Oakes, I don't think that you really look like a blackmailer."
"I am greatly obliged by the compliment," Cecil smiled in return. "In fact, I am not. Really, I am more intrigued with your first visitor than your last two. I am referring to Mr. Bertram Pryor, who is, if I may say so, one of the most abandoned scoundrels in the City of London to-day."
"Really, Mr. Oakes! These are hard words."
"Perhaps so. But I am not mincing words. Now, listen, I am a barrister, as you will see by my card. Usually it is my business to take instructions from solicitors, who get up the case and hand it me in the form of a brief. But on the present occasion, I am taking a direct hand in the business, and acting more or less in the capacity of a private detective. That is why I am here to-night. Now, unless I am greatly mistaken, Bertram Pryor came here to-night to negotiate a loan. In other words, he wanted you to lend him £40,000 on good security."
"You seem to be singularly well informed," Vogler smiled.
"I am," Cecil said grimly. "Moreover, I will tell you why he wanted it. He told you he was being blackmailed by a certain individual who held some letters written by a man called Leeson, and that he wanted to buy these letters back."
"Go on," Vogler said. "Go on. You can't expect me to put all my cards on the table on a mere statement like that."
"Very well, then, we will go a step further. We will discuss in detail the matter of those Mexican Oil Shares, Rios, I think they were called. Correct me if I am wrong."
"So far you are perfectly sound, Mr. Oakes."
"Yes, I thought I was, Mr. Vogler. I am going to speak quite plainly. Originally you and Pryor and, to a certain extent my uncle, Sir Wilton Oakes, were interested in those Mexican concessions. The latter came in quite at a late date, when the real swindle was being perpetrated. Do you follow me?"
"And what was the real swindle?" Vogler asked.
"Oh, come, Mr. Vogler, you are much too clever a man to try and pass it off in that way. You bought those concessions after Leeson, your mining expert, sent in his report. It was a faked report, and it enabled you and your confederates to draw a few million dollars from the American public. You sold the shares right and left, and it was not until you had done this that you discovered how Leeson had deceived you. As a matter of fact, your oilfield was a veritable gold mine. Then you set yourselves to try and get those shares back again, and to a large extent succeeded. Some of them had found their way to England, where they were lost sight of, and I know of one instance, at least, where a large block of certificates are lying derelict and unvalued in the house of a man who paid £10,000 for them. Because, you see, he never found out that his shares had come back to something like twenty times their original value. But that is quite beside the point. I have a client—at least, I am representing a solicitor's client who bought a considerable number of Rio certificates at a nominal price merely as a speculation, and by some means or another, Bertram Pryor managed to get hold of him. But my client has letters to prove his claim to those negotiable oil bonds, and he is pressing for the delivery. After Leeson came home to England, a broken and ruined man, my client befriended him, and, in return, he made a full confession of the swindle. That letter I hold."
"And is my name mentioned in that letter?" Vogler asked.
"Very much so," Cecil went on. "Oh I can assure you, the whole conspiracy will come out if my client is forced to take this case into open court. But, naturally he doesn't want to do that. He is a business man, who either wants delivery of those bonds, or—£40,000 in cash. And I think, from what I gather, it is just possible that Pryor came here tonight to ask you to lend him that money. I know he is tied up in a very big thing, and that, like other rich men, he is short of money occasionally. And he came to you for obvious reasons."
Vogler sat there doing some rapid thinking. He was getting an old man and not so swift in his conclusions as he had been a few years ago. Moreover, this nice-looking barrister seemed perfectly cool and absolutely assured of his ground. If what he said was true, then he might, if that case went into Court, make things exceedingly awkward for his opponents, he might even drag Vogler into the light of day, and if he did that—
"You are a most remarkably astute young man!" he said. "I can say that without flattery. I don't mind admitting to you that Pryor did come here to-night on the errand you speak of."
"And you promised him the money, I suppose?"
"On certain conditions—yes. But not without security. He told me he was being blackmailed."
"Then he told you a lie. He is only asked to make an act of common restitution. Now, Mr. Vogler, I shall be greatly obliged if you will refuse to have anything more to do with the transaction. I don't want to threaten, because threats are always weak, and, I don't want to interfere with the peaceful enjoyment of the autumn of your life. But there are great interests at stake, affecting the happiness of several people, and I am not going to stand quietly on one side and see those interests ruined. And you will also oblige me by saying nothing of my visit to Pryor."
"Oh, well, as far as that goes," Vogler said, "you can make your mind easy. I have lived in the world long enough to know that it is all for oneself and the devil take the hindermost. And now, is there anything else I can do for you?"
"Yes, I think there is," Cecil went on. "Did Sir Wilton Oakes and his friend Primery come her to-night more or less on what I might call a pawn-broking expedition? I don't think I need put it any more plainly than that."
The old man in the armchair chuckled.
"They did," he said. "And I don't mind telling you that they went away considerably disappointed."
"Yes, so I expected. And now, Mr. Vogler, I don't think that I need trouble you any further. I may have to come and see you again, but not unless anything goes wrong."
Meanwhile the discomfited adventurers made their way back to their hotel and into the seclusion of a private sitting-room where they sat discussing the events of the evening.
"Of all the rotten luck," Oakes burst out savagely. "Whoever would have expected that a man in Pryor's position would have played a trick like that on his own daughter?"
"Are you quite sure he did play a trick on his daughter?" Primery asked. "Because I am not. The thing was bound to be found out sooner or later. It looks to me as if somebody had played a trick upon you."
"But who could have done it? Who knew what we were after? And who could have had the slightest idea that that robbery at Heron's Nest was in any way connected with ourselves?"
"Well, that is what we have got to find out. I am quite convinced that somebody knew. Somebody found out that we had the pearls and that somebody kept a pretty close eye upon us."
"Maybe," Oakes said morosely. "But if you hadn't been so infernally clever this trouble couldn't have happened. I should have locked up those pearls in some secure place and not chucked them into a drawer in the old bureau, as you suggested."
"Well, you don't suppose I should have asked you to do that unless you had assured me that you always kept the key of the rose parlour on your person, and that nobody could get into the room without your knowledge and consent. However, it's no use snivelling like this over spilt milk. I am convinced that somebody got hold of the real contents of that case and substituted those shams in their place. Oh, I know it is a disturbing thought, because it naturally implies some exceedingly clever person is aware of what we are after. The only thing is to make the best of what has happened, and if Pryor really has played a trick upon Society, then it will be up to us to make him pay for it another way. Those pearls may have been sham in the first instance, but there is a fine lot of stuff in the safe at Heron's Nest that is genuine enough. I mean presents from the bridegroom to the bride, and other stuff sent in by society people. See what I mean? We'll get our own back and punish Pryor at the same time."
"Yes, and what is going to be done?" Oakes growled.
"Oh, you leave that to me. I have got half a scheme in the back of my head now. The best thing we can do is to get back to Priors Gate without delay."
"Oh, it's all very well for you to talk in that sanguine fashion," Oakes sneered. "But what about me? It took practically every penny of my spare cash to hire the Firefly, and where I am going to turn for money for the next week or two I don't know. I am absolutely broke to the world."
In the meantime, however, there was nothing for it but to cut the voyage short and get back to Hampshire, which the confederates did in the course of the next three days. And there they sat conspiring together whilst Primery worked on his scheme for getting hold of the contents of the safe at Heron's Nest, and Oakes was at his wits' end to keep his creditors at bay. He had seen nothing in the meantime of Audrey Venables because he had given her a week's holiday, and, in any case, he had no desire to dictate to her the sort of letters which, just then, he was compelled to write to his unfortunate creditors. So short of money was he, that on the fourth day he journeyed as far as town in the car with a small Corot taken from the wall in the yellow dining-room; and which he disposed of at a terrible sacrifice to a Bond-street picture dealer. With the proceeds in his pocket he returned to Priors Gate.
"Well, I have got a bit to go on with, at any rate," he said to Primery as they sat in the rose parlour after dinner. "Of course, I haven't the right to sell a single article of value in the house, because they are heirlooms and part of the entail. But when a man is as desperately hard up as I am, he doesn't hesitate over a thing like that. Now, how are you getting on?"
"Oh, pretty well," Primery smiled. "I have worked on my scheme all day, until I can't see a flaw in it. And I have been helped by this local newspaper."
He held up a copy of the "North Hampshire Gazette," a Saturday publication, mainly devoted to local news, and placed his finger on a column with a prominent heading.
"There you are," he said. "Read for yourself. 'The forthcoming society wedding. List of presents and donors.' Very thoughtful of that reporter chap to take all this trouble for us. Just run your eye down that column, leaving out the inevitable rubbish. We can pick the plums. Here they are, pearls and diamonds and emeralds and goodness knows what. Given by all the local swells for fifty miles round, to say nothing of costly trifles from Pryor's friends in the city. And all that staff lying in the safe from whence I took those pearls."
"How do you know that?" Oakes asked.
"My dear chap, it's a certainty. This paper was only published last night, and the literary artist who wrote this report says that he was favoured with a view of the presents at Heron's Nest yesterday afternoon. Of course, the stuff is there. And the next thing to do is to get hold of it."
"But how are you going to do that?" Oakes asked.
"Ah, you will see all in good time. There is a certain amount of spade work to be done first, but when we come to tackle the problem in real earnest it will be easy enough. But there are one or two points we have to make sure of. So to-night, very late, we will walk as far as Heron's Nest and spy out the land from the rose garden under the terrace. I have forgotten one or two details with regard to the geography of the place and I must refresh my memory in case of a surprise."
About the time, shortly after midnight, when the confederates were setting out upon their secret expedition, it so happened that Audrey Venables was crossing the fields in the direction of the village with an empty basket on her arm. By chance it fell out that the vicar had injured a tendon in his knee, which had prevented him from seeing an aged parishioner of his who was ill and moreover in need of nourishing food. So that Audrey, late as it was, had volunteered to go as far as the cottage with a basket full of good things, and see that the sufferer was made comfortable for the night. It was a quiet orderly village with no chance of lurking tramps and Audrey set out on her errand quite easy in her mind.
Then as she came across the grass in the direction of a stile leading into the road she pulled up instinctively as the sound of footsteps fell upon her ear and drew back until the men, whoever they were, had disappeared round the corner. It was a fairly light night, with an obscured moon, and Audrey gasped with astonishment as she peeped through the hedge into the road.
There she saw Sir Wilton Oakes, there was no mistaking him, but his companion was, for the moment, a stranger.
He was tall and slim, well set up and quite six feet in height, walking along with an easy elastic gait that bespoke an individual who was in the enjoyment of perfect health. One glance at his face and Audrey fell back in amazement.
"Mr. Primery," she whispered. "What does it mean?"
Almost with her heart in her mouth, Audrey stood in the shelter of her hiding-place, watching the men going down the road. She had had a shock so severe that, just for a minute or two, she felt almost physically sick. And then, with a great effort, she recalled her faltering courage in the face of what she knew to be a real danger. She had not, of course, the remotest idea why these two men were pacing the lonely road at midnight, but her instinct told her that they were up to no good. And there and then she made up her mind to act.
So far as the loneliness was concerned, she was not in the least perturbed. She was quite used to that sort of thing; moreover, she was young, and the active outdoor life she had led was all in her favour. She would follow those two and see what they were after. Long before now the old vicar would be in bed and asleep, so that there was not the slightest chance of being missed, even if this adventure lasted her half the night. She climbed the stile into the road, and commenced to stalk the two in front. It was no very difficult matter, seeing that the chance of meeting anyone was almost nil, and she knew that her footsteps would be deadened by the rough grass that lay on either side of the road. Nor, as it transpired, had she very far to go. The men in front turned out of the roadway presently, and, carefully avoiding the lodge at Heron's Nest, vanished into the park through a small, green gate some two hundred yards along the grey, stone wall. As they crept along the avenue toward the house, Audrey was not far behind them. She had the shelter of the trees on her side, and presently a mass of shrubs and ornamental bushes, behind which she could pause from time to time before breaking cover and getting nearer the main building. It was not possible to hear what the men were saying, but that did not matter much, because their object was plain enough. They were going to burgle Heron's Nest, or so at least Audrey imagined as she stood behind a shrub and watched them examining the windows. Then, to her great amazement, they disappeared inside.
Audrey stood there, wondering what she ought to do. Should she make an attempt to rouse the household, or would it perhaps be better to wait and try and ascertain what was taking place? She had not forgotten that one of these midnight marauders was no less a person than Sir Wilton Oakes, and uncle of the man whom she hoped some day to marry. It might be possible to spare the family and the countryside a glaring scandal, and it would be better, perhaps, to wait until Audrey had seen Cecil and laid these amazing facts before him. On the whole, she decided to wait and watch.
She did not know, of course, that Oakes and his companion were taking an entirely different line from that which they intended when they set out on their hazardous mission. She did not know that it was the discovery of a French window, accidentally left open, that decided Primery to change his plans.
"Well, here's a bit of luck," the latter whispered to his confederate as he pushed the window leading into one of the sitting-rooms open. "Upon my word, Pryor deserves to be robbed. Fancy leaving the window open, after all that has happened."
"What, are you going inside?" Oakes asked.
"Of course I am. Do you think I am going to throw away an opportunity like this? My dear old respectable baronet, we are going to do this thing now."
"But you can't. The thing is impossible."
"Oh, really; there is nothing impossible to John Primery when he has once made up his mind. Do you know the house pretty well? Anything about the bedrooms, for instance?"
"Yes, I suppose I do," Oakes admitted. "I used to come here a good deal when I was a boy, long before the late owners ever anticipated being turned out to make room for a man of Pryor's type. The main bedrooms are just over-head."
"And Pryor sleeps in the best of them, I dare swear. Well, we are going up-stairs to have a look at him."
"Oh, well, I suppose you have got some ingenious scheme in your mind," Oakes growled. "But I tell you, I don't like it."
"My dear chap, whenever did you like a thing when it came to the point of actual danger?" Primery smiled.
"I don't allow any man to call me a coward," Oakes breathed angrily. "Out yonder it was very different. If I got into trouble there, it was not Sir Wilton Oakes who faced the music, but a man who lived under an assumed name. Here it world be a different matter altogether. Sir Wilton Oakes—"
"Oh, curse Sir Wilton Oakes," Primery retorted. "You may be a big bug in your own way, but you are only a pauper after all. And you will go on being a pauper if you don't take the chances that providence throws in your way."
"Well, what is it then?" Oakes growled.
"It's this, my boy. Here we are, actually inside the house and the man we want asleep overhead. What is the good of putting it off. Why not do it now. Sounds like one of those business slogans, but it's pretty sound advice after all. I have got a torch in my pocket, and the little bottle of dope that I never travel without. And between the two of us—"
"What?" Oakes asked, aghast, "Do you actually propose to go up to Pryor's bedroom and drug him as he lies there?"
"That's the idea," Primary said coolly. "You know the room, and with the aid of the torch we can get there without making a noise. Once we have done that, we stuff a handkerchief over Pryor's mouth and nose, and hold it their till he goes quietly off. Then we borrow the key of his safe which is pretty certain to be under his pillow or in one of the pockets of his evening trousers and ransack the safe. Upon my word it is so easy that I am almost ashamed to suggest it."
With that Primery softly closed the window behind him and flashed the torch round the room. He took up a black silk cushion, and, with a pair of folding pocket scissors, cut two masks from the soft material and fitted them with cords which he removed from some tassels on the corners of the cushion.
"There you are, you see," he said. "Everything complete. No threads hanging out, and the flats all joined properly. Now come along and let's get on with it."
They crept very quietly up the stairs and along a wide landing out of which several bedroom doors led. Before one of these Oakes paused and pointed a finger. The torch was extinguished and Primery turned the handle of this door in absolute silence. He stood rigid for a moment listening until the regular breathing of somebody in the room satisfied him that Pryor was there and that, moreover, he was sunk in a profound sleep. Just for an instant the torch flashed across the bed and a second or two later the room was filled with the pungent odour of almonds.
"Now then," Primery whispered tersely. "Take the torch and just pick out Pryor with it, only take care not to flash it into his eyes. You can trust me to do the rest."
With just enough light to work, Primery went on with it in a perfectly cool and deliberate manner. He had the pad, which he had made out of a handkerchief, in his hand, and just as Pryor drowsily opened his eyes, the thing was thrust with great force against his nose and mouth, so that, though he struggled violently for a few seconds, he gradually lapsed into unconsciousness.
"There you are," Primery said. "Simple and easy as leading a blind horse along a dark lane. Unless I am very much mistaken it will be a good couple of hours before our man comes to himself again. And now to find the key of the safe. You can turn on the torch, but mind you keep it off the window, which I see is open. I will find the keys."
It was no difficult matter to lay hands upon the keys of Pryor's safe, and for the two scoundrels to make their way down to the library and open it. The house was steeped in the most profound silence, and the thieves had gone about their work without making the slightest noise. Primery inserted the key, and threw back the heavy iron door. As he did, he flashed the light inside and disclosed the contents.
"There you are," he said. "No shams there. No bogus necklaces, but good solid stuff sent in by substantial people. Of course, it isn't a fortune, but, with any luck, it ought to make up for what we lost over that Amsterdam business. Here load up your pockets, and when you have finished, you shall take the torch and I will clear up the rest of the stuff. Now, isn't this a lot better than putting things off till another night?"
Oakes growled an agreement, and in a few moments the safe was looted of practically everything of value there. After that, the confederates closed the window behind them and made their way across the terrace and into the shrubberies beyond.
"Well, I think we can congratulate ourselves on that," said Primery, drawing a long breath. "Nobody knows we have left Priors Gate and we shall be safely back there within an hour, without having encountered a single person on the road. If we do happen to meet some belated wayfarer, we can easily hide in the hedge and so far as I am concerned—hello! What's that?"
They had come, purely by accident, quite close to an ornamental shrub, behind which Audrey had concealed herself. She had heard every word of the conversation; she knew practically what had happened, and, so far as she was concerned, the adventure of the evening was at an end. She would go quietly back home and on the morrow go down to the village where there was a telephone call office and get in contact with Cecil in London. But, unhappily, as she moved backwards, a thorn caught in her dress and the light material tore with a rasping sound that seemed more than loud in the still night.
But Primery had heard it. His suspicions were aroused in an instant. Somebody was very near at hand, he felt certain. He raced across the intervening space and plunged into the bush as Audrey broke cover and fled into the darkness.
"What the devil was that?" Oakes croaked hoarsely.
"You don't mean to say you didn't see," Primery retorted. "Somebody hiding behind that bush. There she goes, a woman, though who she is and what the dickens she is doing here at this time of night the evil fates only know. But there is one thing certain, we have got to catch her. Come along."
"And what then?" Oakes asked as he pounded on behind.
"Well, we can settle that when we lay hands on the creature," Primery said between his teeth. "She must have followed us. And it's any odds she knows who you are. And if she guesses who I am, then we shall have to close her mouth effectually."
There was a nasty ominous ring an Primery's voice that sent a cold shiver all down Oakes' spine, callous and indifferent as he was. Because if Primery meant anything, he meant murder. If he really believed that this mysterious woman had recognised in this athletic figure the form of the unfortunate cripple staying at Priors Gate, then he would not be likely to hesitate at anything.
Meanwhile, in the confusion, Audrey had gained 70 or 80 yards start, and was racing over the grassy path at a pace that kept her for a long time well in front of her pursuers. She was a fine specimen of an open-air girl, an expert at tennis and golf, so that she moved as freely and gracefully as a boy. And, moreover, she knew exactly where she was going. If she could only maintain her lead for the next 10 minutes, there was a haven of safety at the lower end of the park from which she could smile at the pursuers. And every inch of the country was as familiar to her as an open book. She must not be caught, she must not, she told herself—it would never do for those men to know that they had been found out by one who was more or less part of Sir Wilton's household.
So she raced on down the slope until the ground fell away into a kind of wooded hollow through which ran a stream of considerable size. And just before the stone wall of the park was reached the river fell in a sheet of water some 15 yards wide over a series of rocks into a big still pool below. Audrey could hear the tumbling water as it drew nearer and nearer and the knowledge that she was almost safe spurred her on. She ran down by the side of the waterfall with Primery not more than 20 yards behind her and then, slipping over a grassy knoll, she vanished from his sight as if she had been taking part in some conjuring trick. When Primery reached the edge of the waterfall, there was not the slightest sign of the girl he was pursuing.
He looked about him in utter amazement. He turned to Oakes who now stood panting by his side.
"Where has she gone to?" he asked. "Three seconds ago I practically had my hand on her."
Oakes could only stare into the dim gloom of the dell and watch the white wall of water in front of him. He was just as puzzled and alarmed as his companion.
"Did you see her?" he asked. "I mean, did you see her face? Was she young or old?"
"Oh, old be hanged," Primery cried. "You never saw any but a young creature run like that. And if you ask me what she was like, I can't tell you. Very plainly, almost shabbily dressed, and might be the daughter of some local working man. But that is not the point. The question is, where is she?"
They searched here and there and everywhere. They wandered up and down the dell for the best part of an hour or more, until Oakes began to become uneasy. The woman, whoever she was, had managed to give them the slip, and was probably a mile or two away by this time. And there they were, with the chance of being discovered by one of Pryor's gamekeepers, with all that precious loot in their pockets. Oakes turned away sullenly.
"Oh, come on," he said. "Let's get out of this. The girl may be half way home by this time. It's a piece of infernal rotten luck, but if we go hanging about here, we may find some more bad luck when we get to Priors Gate. It never rains but it pours, and I have had enough for one night."
They turned reluctantly away and climbed up the slope back into the park again. But they were not shadowed this time, because Audrey had run quite sufficient risks for one might, and, moreover she knew as much as she wanted to know. She emerged, cool and not in the least frightened from behind the waterfall where she had hidden herself and made her way home in another direction from that which had been taken by the confederates. The little cave at the back of the waterfall was known practically only to Audrey and Cecil Oakes, and many a time had they used it in their childish games.
But Audrey was not feeling quite so calm and collected when once she was back again in the solitude of her bedroom. Evidently she had not been missed, for all the household was asleep, and she could hear her father's regular breathing as she passed his room. The reaction had come now, so that she lay in bed trembling from head to foot and sleepless till the first faint rays of dawn began to blush behind her window curtain. She did sleep for a few hours, and, carefully studying herself in the glass, she was pleased to see that her face bore no traces of last night's terrifying experiences. She and she alone was in possession of a terrible secret, two terrible secrets, in fact, and she had no illusion as to what might have happened to her if Primery realised that she had penetrated his disguise as a broken man. Whatever happened, she must never show in any way that she was aware of this. She knew only too well that under the roof at Priors Gate were two criminals, and, moreover, one of these an utterly reckless and unscrupulous foe, if anything came between him and his desires.
Still, she came down to breakfast cheerfully enough and then, when she had finished her household duties, went down to the village post office, there to get in touch with Cecil Oakes by means of a call through the local telephone office. So far, her week's holiday was not yet expired, and it was with a feeling of utter thankfulness that she realised that she would not have to rub shoulders with those two scoundrels for eight and forty hours at least.
It took her some little time to get her call through, and then, at length, she felt encouraged and strengthened as she heard Cecil's voice at the other end of the wire.
"Is that you, darling?" he asked. "Yes, I am Cecil speaking to you. There is nobody here, so you can say what you like. Anything happened at your end?"
As briefly as possible, within the limit of three minutes. Audrey sketched out the adventure of the night before. And not until she had actually finished did Cecil interrupt her. He was not unprepared for something of that kind, though the sheer audacity of it amazed him, and he had certainly not been prepared to hear that Primery was anything else than a hopeless cripple.
"Oh, I must come down this afternoon," he said. "Eh, what's that? Another three minutes. Certainly. Are you there Audrey? We can go on."
"I am listening," Audrey replied.
"Well, I was saying that I would come down this afternoon. I must. Good heavens, I couldn't leave you there in the clutches of those two scoundrels. Primery wouldn't hesitate to murder you if he guessed at half what you know. And I have been finding out a few things myself. My dear girl, Sir Wilton is nothing but an abandoned scoundrel. He nearly beggared his poor old father and at the finish robbed him of £10,000 in the most cold-blooded way. At least, he thought he had robbed him, but it looks to me as if that money is going to blossom into ten times the amount. It is rather a long story, and I can't tell you the whole of it over the wire, but I know where to put my hands on the proofs. They are in a secret spot at Priors Gate where I hid them myself, and you may be surprised to hear that Pryor was a partner in that same swindle. Very wonderful how one life crosses another, and how things come out when you least expect them. Mind, don't you go near Priors Gate till I have seen you. I shall be down by the train that gets in somewhere after six, and I will come over to your house at once."
"I don't have to go to Priors Gate for the next two days," Audrey said. "I had a week's holiday, you remember. And that isn't up for two days."
"Yes, I had forgotten that," Cecil's voice came over the wire. "A very fortunate thing, as it turns out. And now, don't you do anything till I have seen you."
Audrey gave a desired assurance and walked slowly and thoughtfully homewards. It was comparatively early yet and still wanted half an hour till nine o'clock, for there, in that simple household, they breakfasted early, and half the day's work was done before most households were really awake. There was going to be bother and trouble presently, Audrey thought, because she knew perfectly well what had taken place at Heron's Nest the night before. Not that she actually knew how the thing had been done, but she felt certain that a further robbery had taken place at Pryor's house, and that the whole countryside would be aghast with the news long before it was time for luncheon. So Audrey sat quietly down and waited for the information which was a practical certainty.
It was not more than an hour later before she knew the worst. She saw a groom mounted on a horse ride up to the front door with every sign of haste and agitation. She went out to meet him, and something in his white face caused her heart to throb.
"What is it, Wilson?" she asked. "Anything wrong?"
"Worse than that, miss," the groom stammered. "Miss Pryor sent me with a message. She wants you to go over and see her at once. You see, the master died last night."
"Died?" Audrey echoed. "Died!"
"Yes, miss," the groom stammered.
"But that is not the worst. We found him in the library. He was quite dead, and had been dead for some time. No, miss, it isn't what you think. You see the poor gentleman has been murdered."
"Murder!" Audrey murmured, white to the lips. "Mr. Pryor murdered! Then in that case—"
She paused and choked, pulling herself up just in time. Because the startling statement made by the groom was to her a dazzling flash of illumination. Another word or two and she would have told him, or at least intimated to him, that she was in a position to point an accusing finger at the guilty person. If Pryor had been killed in his own house during the dead of night then, assuredly, Sir Wilton and his dastardly accomplice had had a hand in the crime. Audrey, of course, could not say what had been going on inside Heron's Nest the night before, but she knew, at any rate, that Oakes and Primery were there for no good purpose. And she knew, moreover, that they had pursued her, doubtless with a view to keeping her from anything like a dangerous disclosure. She shuddered at the very thought of it. No wonder that those two had been anxious to lay violent hands upon her the night before!
But she could say nothing, at least, not yet. Certainly she could not speak her mind to this white-faced groom and neither could she take any steps whatever until she had seen Cecil Oakes.
"It sounds very terrible," she said. "I suppose you are quite sure that your employer was murdered?"
"I don't see that there could be any doubt of it, Miss, from what I have heard," the man replied. "From what I can understand, Miss, my master was disturbed in the night and came downstairs into the library where the safe is. At any rate, he was found dead there with the safe open and the key in it. And there wasn't much in the safe left that was worth carrying away. Looks as if the thieves killed him and took the key out of his pocket. But what am I to say to Miss Stella when I get back?"
"Oh, there is only one thing to say," Audrey replied. "Tell her that I will come over as soon as possible. It must be dreadful for her to be in that big house all alone."
The groom touched his hat and rode away, while Audrey hastened to tell her father what had happened, and what she proposed to do. She, herself, was shaken to the core by the account of this horrible and unnecessary crime, and still more by the dreadful knowledge that she was concealing in her own breast. Still, she put as brave a face as possible upon it, and almost immediately she set off across the fields in the direction of Heron's Nest. There the blinds were all drawn, and the house stood in the sunshine, with that nameless air of melancholy about it that speaks of tragedy. It was some time before anybody came to the door, and then it was a butler in morning clothes, who spoke in whispers.
"Yes, Miss," he said. "Dreadful business, isn't it? Miss Stella will be more than pleased to see you."
The dead man's only daughter was sitting alone in one of the smaller rooms, dry-eyed and dumb with the weight of the blow, until she caught sight of Audrey, upon whose neck she fell with a sudden passion of tears. It was sometime before she was able to speak; neither did Audrey attempt to check the flow of her grief.
"It's awful," the girl said at length. "I can't realise it. And all this within a week of my marriage. That will have to be put off now. Audrey, I may be wrong, but I have an idea that you did not care very much for my father."
"Perhaps that was because I didn't understand him," Audrey said evasively. "But then, you see, I know nothing at all about business, and Mr. Pryor did not seem to care for anything else."
"Oh, I know he was a hard man," the bereaved girl went on. "He was hard, even to me, but I believe that was only his manner. But don't let's talk about it. This house is full of police. They seem to have come from all parts of the country, and they have asked questions of the servants until the whole staff is absolutely dazed. One of them has been in here with me for nearly an hour. And what can I tell him? What do I know? Oh, it's dreadful, and I can't stop here, for the present at any rate, indeed I can't."
"Neither shall you," Audrey said. "You shall come and stay with me for the next few days. When I go, I shall take you along, Stella. But don't you know anything?"
Stella Pryor wiped her eyes, and made a resolute attempt to come back to the realities of things.
"Nothing, absolutely nothing," she murmured. "Only that I heard my father moving about long before daylight; indeed, I am almost sure he came downstairs. But I didn't take any notice of that because it has happened so many times before. But what I can't understand is how that wretch got hold of the key of the safe. My father always carried it in the day time, and it was never out of his possession. He certainly would not have gone downstairs with it."
"Unless he wanted something out of the safe."
"Yes, that is possible," Stella admitted. "But I don't think the scheme was carried out in that way. That man, whoever he was, came to rob the safe of all those presents. He must have known they were there. And isn't it strange that a robbery should have taken place here twice within a few days?"
Audrey murmured something in the way of a reply. She could not face her companion for the moment, because it was still more strange that she herself should know the miscreants who had been responsible for both those robberies.
"And what happened then?" she asked.
"Then they killed my poor father. He was stabbed to the heart, and must have died instantly. It is a great consolation to me to know that he did not suffer."
Before Audrey could reply, the door opened and a middle-aged man, clean shaven, with grey hair and a pleasant expression, looked in and murmured something by way of an apology. He was no stranger to Audrey, who accosted him by name.
"Come in, Captain Summers," she said. "I expected to find that you would be here. This is a very horrible business."
"Yes, and a very puzzling one," the Chief Constable of the County replied. "The further we go into it, the more tangled it becomes. One of my men has just made a discovery that throws some sort of light upon the crime. At any rate, it establishes the fact that there was not one criminal, but two."
With that dreadful secret hugged to her breast, Audrey listened, praying that she might not betray herself.
"And what is that?" she asked.
"Well, we have discovered that the window in one of the smaller sitting rooms must have been left open, and I am convinced that that was the way the thieves came. In the room I speak of we found a black silk cushion from which the covering had been torn. And on the carpet, close by, were fragments showing that that cover had been cut and trimmed with the intention of making a couple of masks. The cords on one of the tassels was evidently used to make ties for those masks. The information may not be worth much, but still it is something to go on with. But why two of the thieves? That, is what puzzles me. And what happened when Mr. Pryor came downstairs? And why did he come downstairs?"
Captain Summers put these questions more as if he was speaking to himself than anything else, so that there was no occasion for Audrey to reply. The door of the sitting-room opened again and another man, obviously a detective in plain clothes, came in and addressed himself to his Chief.
"What do you make of this, sir?" he asked as he held out an object to Summers. "I have just found it upstairs amongst the bed clothes in the room where Mr. Pryor was sleeping."
Captain Summers took the object in his hand and unfolded it so that it resolved itself into a white cambric handkerchief. So far as the Chief Constable could see, there was no mark on the thing, not even a laundry mark or a monogram.
"Well, what about it?" he asked.
"Smell it, sir," the detective said laconically.
Summers made a wry face as he put the handkerchief to his nose. Then his eyes gleamed.
"You are right, Richards," he said. "Ether or chloroform, or some drugging mixture. And you say you actually found this in Mr. Pryor's bed. Most extraordinary. He must have been dosed as he lay asleep, deliberately rendered insensible by the men who were after the key of his safe. That I can understand plainly enough. But why, after successfully working a scheme like that, did those miscreants carry their victim down into the library and murder him? That, at any rate, is what they seem to have done."
The mystery was certainly growing deeper, so deep, indeed, that the chief constable came to a sudden decision.
"Look here, Richards," he said. "We are getting out of our depth. Unless there were actually two sets of thieves at work at the same time, I cannot possibly comprehend how that poor gentleman was left drugged in his own bed some time in the night and then found murdered in his library only a few hours later. We shall have to get Scotland Yard into this. Miss Pryor I need hardly ask you if there is a telephone in the house."
"There are two, as a matter of fact," Stella replied. "One the ordinary public service, and another, a private wire between the house and my father's office in London. You will find the public telephone in the little room leading out of the hall. But I do hope, Captain, you are quite satisfied that none of the servants has anything whatever to do with this terrible business."
"Oh, I am quite convinced of that," Summers replied. "Those men came after your wedding presents, Miss Pryor, and they seem to have got away with them quite successfully. They may be the same gang who managed to lift your pearl necklace; on the other hand, they may be another set altogether. But the responsibility is a bit too big for me, and I am going to share it with Scotland Yard. And I won't worry you any more than I can help."
"She won't be here," Audrey interposed. "She is coming to stay with me for a few days. You see, this house—"
"Quite so!" Summers nodded. "Quite so, Miss Venables. In the circumstances, a very wise decision."
Audrey and her grief-stricken companion had departed at length, leaving the house of mourning behind them. Apparently, Stella Pryor had no relations on her father's side to help her, and those closely connected with her mother's people were at some distance away. But Audrey paused at the village post office and dispatched a sheaf of telegrams to certain addresses given her by Stella, so that in the course of a few hours the girl would be no longer alone. These maternal relatives would doubtless see to all the funeral arrangements; but, in the meantime, there was nothing to do but wait.
"Well, that is all we can do for the moment," Audrey said. "And now you are coming to the vicarage, and I am going to put you into the spare bedroom and leave you to yourself. I suppose you haven't eaten anything this morning?"
"I have never given it a thought," Stella said.
"Oh, well, you must have something—you really must. For the present, at any rate, you are entirely in my hands. Just something light and simple, and then you are going to lie down and try to get a little sleep. Oh, yes, you will; I know you think that you won't, but it is easy to see that you are absolutely worn out, and there is nothing in the world like a few hours' real rest."
Stella surrendered herself entirely into the hands of her capable friend, and even ate quite a good lunch, much to her own surprise. After that, she admitted herself to be utterly tired, so that Audrey took her upstairs at once into the pleasant chintz covered bedroom where she was thankful to lie down. As she rested on the bed Audrey pulled back her sleeves, and proceeded to lave her friend's face with warm water.
"Don't you find that comforting?" she asked.
"Very," Stella said gratefully. "But what's that on your arm? Where did you get that terrible scratch from?"
"Have I got a scratch?" Audrey asked. "Why, so I have. Oh, I remember now. I tore it on a thorn bush."
But she did not proceed to say on what thorn bush. It was a very long and ugly scratch, reaching from the elbow almost to the wrist, though, strangely enough, she had not noticed it before.
But she did not need to ask whence it came. She had sustained it the night before when she had fallen almost into the arms of Oakes and Primery and had torn herself free of the bush in which she was hiding just prior to a wild dash for safety.
"Oh, it's nothing," she said carelessly. "Now, not another word. Close your eyes and go to sleep."
Audrey left the room, and an hour later stole carefully back to find that Stella was sleeping peacefully. There was nothing now but to wait until the evening when she would have a chance to discuss all these amazing happenings with her lover. She was sitting in the quaint seclusion of the vicarage garden and entirely hidden from the house when Cecil appeared.
"Ah, my dearest girl, I thought I should find you here," he said. "Give me one little kiss, and then we will sit down and quietly discuss your escapade last night. But first of all, is it really true that Pryor has been murdered? It was the first thing I heard when I stepped out of the train on to the platform, in fact the stationmaster was absolutely full of it."
Audrey proceeded to explain. She told Cecil all the events of the morning, and how Stella was sleeping not very far away, to all of which Cecil listened with becoming gravity.
"This is a horrible business," he said. "And all the more so, because I am afraid that Sir Wilton—"
He paused as if ashamed to put his thoughts into words.
"We must talk about it," Audrey said. "I am afraid this is going to be the worst scandal the county has ever known, Cecil, I couldn't say too much on the telephone this morning, but those two men who followed me last night were your uncle and Primery. Not the Primery you know, but a different man altogether. A powerful athlete, in full possession of all his limbs, and one who would undoubtedly have done me a mischief if he could have laid hands on me. They knew that I had followed them, and also that I was perfectly aware of what they were after at Heron's Nest. I am certain from the few words I overheard that they were the men who got away with all that jewellery last night. And I don't see who could have murdered Mr. Pryor unless they had been the culprits. Still, there are most extraordinary complications. Listen."
Cecil listened accordingly, whilst Audrey told him all that she had heard from the lips of Captain Summers that morning.
"Most extraordinary!" he exclaimed. "It must have been either two gangs working independently, or perhaps my uncle and Primery were engineering some diabolically clever scheme to put the police off their track. However, one thing is certain—you must, in no circumstances, go to Priors Gate again—I mean, not alone."
"Why not?" Audrey said.
''Because it is too terrible a risk. You think you were not recognised last night, and probably you are right. But, on the other hand, you may be wrong. And if you are, Primery will take any steps, however desperate, to get you out of the way. And he will be helped by the gentleman known as Sir Wilton Oakes. Can't you see the terrible danger of it?"
"Perhaps you are right," Audrey said. "At any rate, I will not go back for a day or two, as I can easily find an excuse for prolonging my holiday. And in the meantime—"
"And in the meantime I am going to act," Cecil said, sternly. "It is no fault of mine that my uncle happens to be one of the most abandoned scoundrels on earth. I began to think so some time ago, and when I found certain documents which I hid behind one of the secret panels in the Long Gallery, I was certain of it."
"Won't you tell me the story?" Audrey asked.
"Of course, I will," Cecil said. "In fact, I came down almost on purpose. You see, it's like this. You know all about that waterway business, of course. I took that up because I felt sure that the law is on the side of our family, and I worked at it con amore. Then I came up against a snag. A certain deed was missing, which might have been destroyed. But when you told me that the late baronet always kept every letter or document in his possession, I decided to make a search. And in one of the numerous chests in the Long Gallery I found what I wanted. Almost simultaneously I found something else; but just as I put up my hand on that something else I looked up and saw Primery watching. Mind you, up to that moment, I hadn't suspected the man at all. I regarded him as a clever and patient man—a sort of Byron who bore his physical misfortunes a great deal better than that poet ever did. But just for an instant there was an ugly gleam in his eye and I noticed it."
"He knew what you had found, then?" Audrey asked.
"Well, I can't say that, but I have a very shrewd suspicion. So when he went away I took those other documents and placed them in a recess behind one of the secret panels. They were innocent looking papers enough, being nothing more than share certificates in a Mexican oil company. But, you see, I knew all about them, because a client of mine was a considerable holder in the same company, and he could not get his certificates from Bertram Pryor."
"Mr. Pryor?" Audrey exclaimed. "Was he in it, too?"
"Oh yes. Strictly between ourselves, as big a scoundrel as the rest of them. You see, many years ago, Pryor was what the Americans call a crook. He used to be known amongst his associates as 'Bat' Bronson, and there was nothing in the way of crime that he turned his back on. He and one or two other men out in the States got hold of an oil concession, and they sent a tool of theirs, a mining engineer, to report on the property. That man's name was Leeson, and he is now dead. His duty was to make a glowing report of the oilfields, and the game was for Bronson and his associates to advertise the stock and flood the market with it. But, as a matter of fact, Leeson's report was genuine though, for his own purposes, he kept this to himself. But he wrote to my client in London who once did him a good turn, and told him the real facts. Then Bronson, alias Pryor, and his friends came to realise that they had got a real good thing instead of a bogus property, and they set to work to get those certificates back again. And they got most of them—at least, Pryor did, and that was the foundation of his fortune. There was another rascal in the scheme, a Dutchman named Vogler, who is also a very prominent buyer of stolen goods, but I have seen Vogler, and he will have to do anything I tell him."
"But I don't quite understand," Audrey said. "What has all this to do with the papers you found and hid behind the panel?"
"I am just coming to that," Cecil went on. "Now, some years ago my uncle, Sir Wilton, was a considerable holder of those oil shares. He didn't know the value of them, so he hit upon the idea of selling them, at their full price to his unfortunate father. He played the penitent and the prodigal, saying that he was fortunate enough to be able to make reparation at length, and that he was coming home. Well he sent those certificates to the poor old man, and in return got a cheque for £10,000. That money he spent in his reckless way, and when he realised the truth that the shares were worth anything up to ten times their face value, came home to try to get hold of them. But, in the meanwhile, his father had died and he couldn't find those certificates anywhere. And I did. That is what I hid behind the secret panel."
"But, Cecil, dear, they don't belong to you."
"No, that is the unfortunate part of it," Cecil groaned. "They belong to the scamp who sold them, and they will make a rich man of him, that is, perhaps, because there is a good deal of ground to clear before I am going to show my hand."
Audrey was about to make some reply when a little maid-servant appeared and stood before her, waiting.
"Well, what is it, Alice?" she asked.
"A gentleman to see you miss," the trim little servant responded. "He is waiting in the drawing-room. He's that lame gentleman from Priors Gate. Mr. Primery, he said."
"Ask him if he wouldn't mind coming this way," Audrey said to the little maid who stood waiting there, after having proclaimed the fact that Primery was in the house. "Say I shall be glad to see him. I think that will do, Alice."
Cecil glanced at his fiancee and smiled significantly as the servant disappeared in the direction of the house.
"Well, of all the infernal cheek!" he said. "I suppose you can guess why he is so anxious to see you."
"I think so," Audrey murmured. "He is not feeling very easy in his mind. He has some dim suspicion as to what happened last night, and he wants to make sure of his ground. I don't think he will be very pleased to find that you are here."
And evidently Primery wasn't, for a look of annoyance crossed that handsome face of his as he caught sight of Cecil. It was only for an instant, and then he was smiling again in his charming and fascinating manner—a pathetic figure of a man with the face of an angel and the body of a Quasimodo. It seemed hard to identify the twisted body and those distorted limbs with a reckless and daring criminal, and, moreover, one possessed of every physical faculty.
He smiled as he dropped into a garden chair.
"I am sorry to intrude," he murmured. "But I was taking a little painful exercise down the road and I thought I would look in for a moment. But what are you doing here, Oakes?"
"Is it of much consequence?" Cecil asked. "As a matter of fact, I ran down on business connected with that waterway and I propose to spend the night at Priors Gate. But before coming round there, I called on Miss Venables to ask her if she could tell me anything more about last night's dreadful tragedy."
"Yes, a most shocking thing, wasn't it?" Primery asked without changing a single muscle on his face. "A queer business altogether. As far as I can see the second robbery was probably carried out by those audacious criminals who got away with the sha—I mean pearls. Just the sort of thing that such a clever gang would do. I suppose you don't know anything?"
"Of course, I don't. I am merely making inquiries. Perhaps you might possibly enlighten me?"
There was no note of challenge in Cecil's voice, but, oddly enough, Primary seemed to resent the suggestion.
"I," he cried. "A poor, helpless cripple like myself! But, of course, you are only joking. But, on the other hand, it is just possible that Miss Venables might have hit upon some sort of a clue. For instance, she is often out late at night in the quiet country lanes, especially since the vicar has been laid up. Indeed, as I crept through the village just now, I heard quite by accident that an aged invalid parishioner was visited by Miss Venables last night at a very late hour. Correct me if I am wrong."
As Primery spoke he looked straight into Audrey's eyes. There was not a trace of malice in his speech, but what he said gave her quite a thrill, because it seemed to her that Primery was deliberately inviting something in the way of a confidence.
"That is perfectly true," she said, in a voice as steady as she could make it. "I was out very late last night, looking after an old invalid lady who cannot attend to herself. I generally feed her the last thing and make her comfortable for the night. But if I had seen anything suspicious, I should most certainly have mentioned it when I saw Captain Summers at Heron's Nest this morning."
As Audrey spoke, she pushed back a lock of hair that had fallen on to her forehead and, in doing so, her loose sleeve fell back. And then she saw something in Primery's eyes that was confirmation strong as proof of holy writ. She saw his eyes gleam as he caught sight of the long scratch on her arm, and then she knew as if he had shouted the fact aloud to the heavens that he had guessed beyond the shadow of a doubt the identity of the girl whom he had pursued the night before. It was a tense moment, yet it passed with an easy remark from Primery's lips, but so far as Audrey was concerned, the mischief had been done. He knew who had been watching him the night before, but even now he was probably not quite sure that Audrey had identified him in his new guise of a man of action.
Primery crawled away a little later, after exerting himself to make as favourable an impression as possible. As he disappeared Audrey turned eagerly to her lover.
"He knows," she whispered. "He knows. He was challenging me when he spoke about that old woman who lives in the lane beyond the village. And he saw this scratch on my arm."
"My word, it's an ugly tear!" Cecil exclaimed.
"Yes, I did it last night when I was flinging myself from the bush behind which I was hiding. I tore my sleeve and it was the noise made by the tearing that aroused Primery's suspicions. Oh, he knows all about it, and yet in his clever way he is probably convinced that I saw nothing of what was passing in his mind."
"I don't like it," Cecil murmured. "I don't like it a bit. That man will do you a mischief if he can, and I am quite sure that my uncle will help him. I think I had better make it my business to remain down here for the next few days—"
"Oh, what a horrible thing it is altogether," Audrey cried. "To think that a man, born and bred like Sir Wilton, should stoop so low! To rob his old father in that heartless fashion. What are we going to do, Cecil? We can't possibly shield those people. If they murdered poor Mr. Pryor—"
"Well, do you know I am not quite so sure that they did," Cecil said. "There is no doubt that they robbed him, or rather, robbed Stella of the rest of her wedding presents. But after drugging the unfortunate man in his own bedroom, it would have been a perfectly senseless thing to carry him down to the library and murder him, when they could have gone quietly away with all they wanted. You may depend upon it that all the rest of those wedding presents are hidden away somewhere at Priors Gate."
"Yet somebody murdered the poor man. And I think we ought to tell Captain Summers what we know."
"Yes, I suppose we should," Cecil agreed. "But it would be a most fearful scandal."
"Still, it is our duty, and perhaps if we tell the truth it may lead to the recovery of the pearl necklace."
Cecil laughed a little despite himself.
"Oh, they haven't got that, my dear," he said.
"Haven't got it? Why, didn't I find it myself in the rose parlour? Didn't I tell you all about it?"
"Of course you did, darling, and I got hold of it. I made my way into the rose parlour the same way as you did, and took the necklace away. Then I bought a cheap imitation the next day and substituted one for the other. Being sure of their booty, they never even troubled to look at the necklace a second time. At any rate, the real necklace is lying at my bankers, and I propose to hand it over to Stella when the proper time comes. Of course, we shall pledge her to secrecy, or at least we should have done so but for this dreadful tragedy. Really now, I don't know what to think or what to do. If Sir Wilton Oakes and his strange familiar are guilty of murder, then it is our plain duty to say so at whatever cost. That they are two vulgar, swindling thieves is beyond the shadow of a doubt. The best thing I can do is to go straight along to Priors Gate and confront them. You see, I know so much. I know pretty well how they got the necklace, and I know where they tried to dispose of it. I actually interviewed the receiver of stolen goods who laughed in their faces and told them that they had taken all the trouble to get hold of a mere sham. And I have got that man, whose name is Vogler, more or less in the hollow of my hand. Still, I don't like to do that until I have chapter and verse for everything. It will be bad enough to sit down and dine with them to-night and carry on just as if I regarded them as two honest men. But after what has just happened I think I will stay in the neighbourhood a few days, even if it is only for your sake. Audrey, you may not realise it, but you are in danger. If those two men could get hold of you now, I don't think they would hesitate at—I mean I don't think they would hesitate at anything."
Meanwhile, Primery had made the best of his way back to Priors Gate as fast as his disguises would permit. He burst in upon Sir Wilton who was busy with his correspondence.
"I told you so," he said as he closed the door carefully behind him. "That girl knows all about it."
"What girl are you talking about?" Oakes growled.
"Why, Audrey Venables, of course. On her own confession to me just now in the vicarage garden she had to admit that she was out beyond the village after midnight last night, and, as if that wasn't enough, I saw on her arm a long scratch from the elbow to the wrist. That was made last night when she was escaping from the bush in which she was hiding. She carried it off very well, but I could read confusion in her face. That interfering nephew of yours was there, and I suppose he will be along presently as he said he was staying with you this evening. I don't know whether the girl has told him or not, but I should rather think that she hasn't. You see, she may not like to accuse young Cecil's uncle of being a vulgar burglar."
"I wish to heaven we had never touched the thing," Oakes burst out. "I don't say it wasn't very clever and I don't say that you didn't carry it out admirably. But in a quiet place like this, there is always the risk of somebody watching. A robbery like ours would have been infinitely safer in the heart of a big town. But if what you say is right, what are we going to do?"
"Sit tight, and, if necessary, deny everything. You see, the police can't prove anything against us."
"Oh, can't they? Don't forget that we have all that loot under this roof at the present moment."
"Oh, well, we can very soon get rid of that," Primery said. "What do you say to another trip across the water?"
"What, Amsterdam again?" Oakes sneered. "I should have thought that our last experience would have been enough."
"Yes, my dear fellow, but we must get rid of the stuff. It isn't safe to keep it in the house. We really don't know what Audrey Venables has told, and, for all we know to the contrary Summers may be on his way here with a search warrant."
"And if he comes, he won't find anything," Oakes growled. "I will defy all Scotland Yard to discover the hiding place where I have hidden that stuff. Still, you are quite right, and the sooner we get rid of it the better. Besides, I want the money desperately. If I don't have some precious soon, then we shall have the bailiffs in Priors Gate and all the country will be jabbering about it within two hours."
"Well, we can easily stop that," Primery laughed. "Look here. We will go to town as soon as we can fix things up, using the car and cross the Channel by the first convenient boat. We can invent some excuse for being away two or three days. When your nephew turns up presently, tell him that you have important business in Paris very soon, and that I am going with you for a change. Then we can slip off to Amsterdam and show that rascal Vogler something that he will be glad enough to buy. And then, when we come back again, we can make a thorough search of the house for those Rio oil certificates, which you are sure are hidden somewhere about the place. Once those are in your possession, you are a rich man."
"Oh, I know they are in the house somewhere," Oakes said. "It was one of the old man's peculiarities never to destroy anything in writing. He probably shoved them somewhere away in one of the thousand and one ancient hiding places and forgot all about them. Probably up in the Long Gallery."
"Yes, perhaps," Primery snapped. "But don't forget that that nephew of yours has been poking about on and off for weeks amongst those muniment chests. I know he found something one afternoon that surprised him, because I was just by at the time. Do you think that he would be likely to put them in his pocket?"
"Oh, lord, no," Oakes said. "Cecil is one of those confoundedly honourable men. Besides, what does he know about Rio certificates? No, no, those shares are somewhere, and we shall find them if we only look far enough. But I like that scheme of yours with regard to getting rid of our plunder. I'll drop a casual hint to Cecil as to the 'Paris' trip when he comes in."
It was with this resolution that Cecil was confronted when he walked into the house just before dinner time. He made no comment nor did he show any surprise. There was nothing in his face to tell the confederates that he knew exactly what they were doing and why they were crossing to the Continent. Also, he knew that they were not going to Paris at all, but that the old house in Stadt-street, Amsterdam, was their destination.
"Oh, really," he said "Then you won't mind if I make Priors Gate my headquarters for the next two or three days?"
"Not in the least, my boy, not in the least," Oakes said with a fine simulation of hospitality. "The servants will look after you after we have gone, which may not be for a day or two yet. It all depends on my letters. By the way, how is the case going?"
"Oh, the case is going on very well indeed," Cecil said. "I have got my facts all in order, and I flatter myself that we shall win hands down. Still, there are one or two little points outstanding and one or two local witnesses to see. I shall be able to interview them while you are away, in fact, I am going to call on one of them when I have had my dinner."
But once the meal was finished and Cecil was free to do as he liked, it was not towards the village that he turned his footsteps. He walked the two miles between Priors Gate and a sub-post office where he knew that he could use a public telephone for the purpose of despatching a telegram. He could have done that in his own village, but there were reasons why he preferred adopting another course. It was addressed to Vogler and ran as follows:—
FRIENDS ON THE WAY TO SEE YOU. WOULD STRONGLY ADVISE YOU TO HAVE NOTHING DO WITH THE BUSINESS THEY ARE ABOUT PROPOSE. THIS, THE ONLY INTIMATION.—OAKES.
"Yes, I think that will put that old rascal Vogler on his guard. After a hint like that he won't be too anxious to purchase any valuable from this part of the world."
It was still quite early when Cecil returned to the village. Shortly after nine he found himself back again at Priors Gate and, perforce, joined the other two over a cigar.
"Well," Oakes asked. "Was that all right?"
"Quite successful," Cecil smiled. "I can assure you that I have not been wasting my time. I suppose you don't happen to have heard anything fresh with regard to the Pryor murder?"
"Not a word," Primery said. "A most mysterious affair. And, as far as I am concerned, I am not altogether convinced that robbery was the main motive."
"Yes, but the safe was rifled and the key found in the door," Cecil pointed out. "The criminal, whoever he was, must have got away with a lot of valuables, because I understand that all Miss Pryor's wedding presents were locked up in the library."
"Well, everybody knows that," Primery said. "But it does not follow that greed was the object of the man who did Pryor to death. The man might have killed him out of revenge and then, as an after-thought, emptied the safe. It is fair to assume that the murderer was a man in desperate circumstances and that it suddenly occurred to him to fill his pockets with valuables. And, besides, it is common knowledge in the village that Miss Pryor heard her father come downstairs in the middle of the night. He might have had an appointment with his murderer for all we know, or the man might have aroused him from his sleep by throwing pebbles at his window. At any rate, we know that Pryor did come downstairs in the middle of the night, and, doubtless, let the criminal into the house. I don't see what other conclusion we can come to."
Cecil sat there listening, amazed at the coolness and audacity of this sham cripple who could, had he liked, have thrown a flood of light upon the amazing mystery of Priors Gate. Still, Cecil showed nothing of what was passing through his mind, and then turned the subject as if it no longer interested him. All the same he was decidedly pleased that he was shortly to have the house to himself so that he could pursue his investigations without the uncomfortable feeling that he might be watched. For three or four days, at least, the neighbourhood would not see those two scoundrels again and, in the meantime, anything might happen. It would be very pleasant to be in the house without them, and to be able to go about the day's work with the knowledge that no keen eyes were overlooking his work. So Cecil ate his breakfast and wrote his letters and, after an hour or so, with Audrey at the Vicarage, crossed the fields in the direction of Heron's Nest. Once arrived there, he asked to see Captain Summers on the off chance of his being on the premises, and a few minutes later he was talking to that individual in the dining-room. They were quite old friends, so that Cecil could speak more or less freely.
"This is a hideous affair, Summers," he said. "The worst that ever happened in the county. I got most of my knowledge secondhand, and possibly a good deal of it is incorrect. I don't want you to betray the secrets of the prison house, but if you will tell me the main features of the case, I may be able to help you."
"My dear fellow," Summers said earnestly, "I am as much in the dark as you are. We are all in the dark. I am expecting one or two big men from Scotland Yard almost directly, and I shall be only too glad to hand over the direction of affairs to them."
"Then you know nothing?" Cecil asked.
"Well, that is what it practically comes to. Still, there are one or two significant features which I can discuss with you, because they are already known to one or two others. What beats me is why Pryor found his way downstairs."
"I should say, from what I can gather, that he came down to meet somebody," Cecil remarked. "Miss Pryor has said that she heard her father go down in the middle of the night, and she certainly didn't hear him go back again. Moreover, she told me herself just now that this wandering about in the middle of the night was nothing new for her father. And this I can tell you in absolute confidence, Summers. At the time of his death Pryor might have been a millionaire and a big power in financial circles; but he started life as a real crook."
"Good Lord!" Summers cried. "Is that true?"
"Absolutely—as I can prove to you chapter and verse. You know that he made most of his money in the States, and that he is a comparative newcomer so far as the City of London is concerned. Years ago, in his early days, he was known in America to his shady associates as 'Bat' Bronson, and under that name he underwent more than one term of imprisonment. I found that out by investigations I made in connection with a case in which I am deeply interested. Don't you think it would be possible that a man could have a past like that and nobody in the underworld on this side of the Atlantic being ignorant of the fact? I suggest that some enemy of his, or some man desperately in need of money, knocked him up in the middle of the night and induced him to open a door or a window. Then there might have been a quarrel, probably over money—"
"Yes, but there are circumstances that make it almost impossible," Summers interrupted. "Pryor was certainly found dead and stabbed to the heart in the library whilst the safe door was wide open and the contents missing. But the amazing thing is that Pryor was drugged in his own bedroom, drugged there, of course, some time, probably hours, before the murder. I know that, because I have the handkerchief that he was gagged with in my pocket at the present moment. Here it is—see for yourself."
With that, Summers produced the handkerchief, and handed it over for Cecil's inspection. He unfolded it carefully and held it up widespread to the strong light of the window.
"This is an extraordinary thing—an amazing thing!" he exclaimed. "My dear Summers, this handkerchief is mine!"
Captain Summers was not only a soldier and a policeman, but a man who flattered himself that he possessed a phlegmatic temperament. All the same, he was not a little startled by the dramatic unexpectedness of Cecil Oakes's disclosure.
"What," he cried. "Do you mean to say that handkerchief belongs to you? Then, possibly, in that case, you may be able to tell me a great deal more."
Cecil smiled. He could, indeed, have told Summers a great deal more, and probably would have to when the right time came, but he was not going to cover his house with disgrace if he could possibly avoid it. Moreover, the present inquiry had nothing whatever to do with the shortcomings of Sir Wilton Oakes and his sinister companion, but was confined exclusively into an investigation concerning the murder of one Bertram Pryor. Still, on the spur of the moment he had blurted out the truth, and, at any rate, there was no going back upon a definite statement.
"Well, as to that," he said. "We can discuss details a little later. But that is my handkerchief, right enough. I would swear to it in a Court of Law anywhere."
"Then perhaps you wouldn't mind telling me how the thing found its way from your possession into Pryor's bedroom, where it was discovered. The handkerchief was undoubtedly used as a chloroform pad when the murdered man was drugged. But you say it is yours, and perhaps you can account for the way in which—"
"Oh, I had nothing to do with the crime, if that is what you mean," Cecil smiled. "But still, it is my property. It is one of a set of six that I bought in Malta over two years ago. As a matter of fact, the set was made for me. The Maltese natives are very clever at that sort of thing. If you look at the handkerchief carefully, you will see that it is a mixture of very fine linen thread and silk. You can't buy such things at any shop in England. They are so soft that you can pull them through a finger ring."
''Still, I suppose other people—"
"No doubt, no doubt," Cecil interrupted. "But if you will look at that handkerchief again, you will see in the centre of it the distinct mark from the toe of a hot iron, in other words, the remains of a scorch. I have noticed it myself many times."
"But that doesn't account—"
"Perhaps you will be good enough to let me finish," Cecil went on. "At that time I was spending much of my leisure at Priors Gate. I still have my own small suite of rooms, and a certain portion of my wardrobe is there. In one of the drawers I kept those handkerchiefs. I haven't used them for a long time, and probably they are there still. I will run over to Priors Gate presently and look into the matter. I shall be considerably astonished if I don't find that there are only five left. However, that can keep for the moment. But that handkerchief is mine, all the same."
Summers pondered over the matter for a minute or two. He knew perfectly well that Cecil had had nothing to do with the matter under inquiry, but, all the same, the discovery was an important one, and pointed to the fact that someone connected with the crime was in a position to help himself from Cecil's wardrobe. It was only a side clue, perhaps, but possibly later on it might lead to important developments.
"Very well," Summers said. "Let me know at your convenience. I am stopping in the village at the Oakes Arms, and if you like to drop in after dinner and smoke a cigar with me I shall be very pleased to see you. Now, is there anything else? It is only a mere shot of mine, but I have a sort of vague idea that you know more about this matter than you have said."
"Well, I do," Cecil said frankly. "And I shouldn't be surprised if it turns out that the man known as Bertram Pryor was not murdered, but committed suicide."
"But, my dear chap, that is impossible," Summers cried. "The man was stabbed to death. I don't say the wound might not have been self-inflicted, but in that case, what became of the weapon?"
"A very fair riposte," Cecil admitted. "But suppose somebody else got off with the weapon? Suppose another party altogether entered the library after Pryor was dead, on some criminal business, and, for his own purposes took away the dagger, or whatever it was with which Bertram Pryor was killed."
"Well, that's a bit of a theory," Summers admitted, "And I am bound to confess that such an idea would not have occurred to me. But why should the man commit suicide? He was in good health and in all the flower of his strength, to say nothing of being a millionaire. Those men don't commit suicide. No, not unless they are driven to it. It won't hold water, Oakes."
"Perhaps not," Cecil admitted. "But let us look at the point from another angle. Now, on the night that those unknown thieves stole Miss Pryor's necklace, Pryor received a mysterious note. In answer to that note, he went to the summer-house at the end of the terrace, where he was promptly knocked out and gagged and bound. Whilst he lay helpless there, the scoundrels borrowed the key of his safe and got off with their plunder. I wasn't present at the time, but I was told this afterwards by Miss Venables, who was, and indeed, the whole thing is common knowledge. When Pryor got that note, he folded it up and put it in his waistcoat pocket. I suppose it wasn't found?"
"I don't think it occurred to anybody to look for it," Summers said.
"Well, why not look for it now? Pryor was wearing a white dress waistcoat at the time and no doubt the garment in question was very much soiled when the owner got back to the house again. His man would probably throw it in the soiled linen basket where possibly it might be at the present moment."
"You seem to have missed your vocation," Summers said admiringly. "You ought to have been a policeman."
With that, he rang the bell, and when a servant appeared asked that Bertram Pryor's body servant might be sent to him. The man appeared at length and stood there to attention whilst Summers put him through a short interrogation.
"Quite right, sir." he said. "My late master did change his clothes after the assault, and put on fresh garments. I helped him to do so. Everything was soiled—"
"Oh, no doubt, no doubt," Summers said impatiently. "But what did you do with the white pique waistcoat?"
The manservant's face lighted up unexpectedly.
"Well, I threw it into the soiled linen basket," he said. "I was rather excited and I quite forgot to remove from the waistcoat a set of three valuable pearl buttons which I have been looking for ever since. I couldn't make out what had become of them, and I am much obliged to you sir, for the reminder."
"Where is the waistcoat now?" Summers asked.
"Packed up ready to go to the laundry," the valet said. "Would you like to see it, sir?"
"Yes, go and get it at once. Don't interfere with it in any way, but bring it to me here without delay."
Five minutes later the soiled and crumpled garment with its beautiful set of buttons was in Summers' hands. From one of the pockets he drew a crumpled piece of paper. He read it carefully and then handed it to Cecil.
"There you are," he said. "Evidently written to Pryor by one who knew him years ago. A lure, of course, but I should gather from the contents of that note that Pryor at one time was keeping very shady company. A man who is called 'Bat'—"
"I think I can enlighten you on that point, anyhow," Cecil said. "As a matter of fact. Pryor, or 'Bat' Bronson, was an old criminal. Not in this country, you must understand, but in the States. I found this out in connection with an oil company swindle which I am investigating on behalf of a client. There is very little doubt that if he had not died Pryor would, sooner or later, have stood in the dock. The man who wrote that note must have been an old confederate of his and evidently bore him a grudge. At the same time, the writer had plotted to get hold of that necklace by way of revenge and undoubtedly did so. Pryor dared not fail to keep that appointment, and that was why he went to the summer-house at the end of the terrace. In the excitement of what happened afterwards, he doubtless forgot that he had that scrap of paper in his pocket, and that is why it wasn't destroyed. Then came the second robbery, which I have not the slightest doubt was the work of the same man, or men, who committed the first. We shall have to find out if there were two of them."
Summers was about to reply when the door opened, and a man who was a stranger to Cecil came into the room. This, he was informed, was one of the experts from Scotland Yard, who had been called in to investigate, and so it transpired, his particular business was in connection with the tracing of finger marks and the like.
"Well, Mr. Sexton?" Summers inquired. "Well?"
"I have quite finished, sir," the intruder said. "And I have tested the points I have discovered with the apparatus that I brought down here on purpose."
"Then do I understand you have found some finger prints?"
"Three different sets," the expert explained. "They were on the safe and on the table and on the window ledge. Of course, I can't say whose they are, but undoubtedly three persons were in that room on the night of the murder. Very probably, when we come to compare the prints with our records at Scotland Yard we shall be able to throw a little more light on the matter. But it seems an extraordinary thing that so clever a lot of criminals should have left finger marks at all."
"Very," Summers agreed. "I take it you can't help us any further for the moment then?"
"I am afraid not, sir," the man called Sexton replied. "For the moment, at any rate, my task is finished."
Once they were alone again. Summers turned eagerly to his companion. There was a good deal that he had to learn yet.
"Well, that's that," he said. "Anyhow, you were quite right when you said that there was more than one man engaged in the murder. But who is the third?"
"Ah, that we have got to find out? Two men worked the robbery and probably killed Pryor, and the third came in afterwards for some purpose at present unknown. I was pretty certain that two people were engaged in the original crime, and equally sure that the third took away with him the weapon with which the deed was committed. You have a long way to go yet, Summers."
The chief constable admitted the fact sadly.
"I wish you would tell me a little more about Pryor," he said. "You see, in our business, every trifle helps."
"I would rather wait, if you don't mind," Cecil said. "There is a lot behind this sinister business, and I would much rather leave it till this evening, when we are all by ourselves. Meanwhile, I will go as far as Prior's Gate and look into the affair of the missing handkerchief. That must be cleared up first."
It was after tea, all the same before Cecil turned in through the big gates and made his way into the house. He found Sir Wilton and his companion in one of the smaller sitting rooms. They were smoking and drinking, as usual, and seemed to be anything but glad of his company. He exchanged a few casual remarks with them and then, just as he was turning from the room, Sir Wilton asked him if there was anything he could do for him before they left Priors Gate on their way to Paris. Cecil was pleased to hear that they were starting on their journey that same evening.
"Oh, I had quite forgotten all about that," Cecil said. "No, I don't think you need worry about me. I may remain two or three days, or I may go back to Town to-morrow. By the way, have you made your own arrangements?"
"That's all right," Oakes said. "We are leaving shortly after dinner and driving to town in the car."
"In that case," Cecil said. "I don't think I shall dine here, because I rather want to have a few words with my old friend Summers who is staying at the Oakes Arms."
"That's the policeman, isn't it?" Primery asked, with one of his most pleasant smiles. "The gallant captain who is investigating into the death of our friend Pryor."
"That's the man," Cecil said. "Quite an old friend of mine, and a fine sportsman. He asked me to spend the evening with him at the Oakes Arms and I propose to do so."
With that Cecil faded from the room. It was just as well, he thought, to tell these men where he was going, because such a course would obviate any suspicion on their part. Perhaps it did, for directly the door closed on the younger man, the others immediately plunged into a conversation which they were holding when Cecil came and interrupted their deliberations.
"I tell you it is not as easy as it looks," Primery was saying.
"What, about disposing of that stuff?"
"Oh, Lord, no, I am not worrying about the stuff at all. We shall manage that easily enough when we meet Vogler. It's the girl that is troubling me—the girl Venables."
"Are you quite sure you are right?" Oakes asked. "I don't exactly see that young woman running about the country at midnight."
"Not as a rule, perhaps, but I am perfectly certain that she it was who was hiding outside Heron's Nest on that night. I have practically proved it. You see, her father is laid up, and she does his parish work. She is a plucky sort of girl, and not afraid of a lonely lane late in the evening. She was away from home on the night in question, and only got back in the small hours.
"She was taking some dainties to an old woman on the outskirts of the village and followed us. Do you remember how we got on her track? Do you remember that tearing noise in the bush? Of course you do. And also how she bolted out when I made a dash for her hiding place. Of course we lost her because her local knowledge was far superior to ours, but she is the witness all right. Besides, when she was getting away she got a scratch on her arm from the elbow to the wrist, and I spotted it. I called to see her, and I can assure you that my time was not wasted. Moreover, she as good as admitted it, not in as many words, perhaps, but she was dreadfully confused, and blushed to the roots of her hair. Can't you see the danger? But for her, we should be absolutely safe. But here we have, right in the village, a witness who knows that we were inside Heron's Nest on the night of the murder and knows, which is equally serious, that John Primery is no broken cripple, but a whole man and a powerful athlete at that. Think what it means, my friend."
"But all this is surmise," Oakes said.
"You are a thundering sight too casual. That sanguine nature of yours has got you in trouble more than once. We can't afford to take the slightest risk. Mind you, I don't believe that the girl has mentioned her discovery to a soul yet, but she is bound to tell your nephew sooner or later. A girl can't keep a thing like that from the man she is engaged to. It's my opinion that she has kept her lips sealed up to the present because she is afraid to tell young Cecil what his uncle is. Now then, what are we going to do about it?"
Apparently Oakes had not the slightest idea. He filled himself another drink and sat there, smoking moodily, and staring out of the window, whilst Primery watched him impatiently.
"Well," the latter snarled. "Well?"
"I don't know what to do. I am driven almost mad by all these worries. Perhaps if we lie low—"
"Lie low," Primery sneered. "Yes, and sit down comfortably till the police come and fetch us. I tell you we must move and that without any delay. Now, listen to me, I have got a plan, and it must be carried out before morning."
Oakes listened moodily until Primery had finished and then he seemed to have made up his mind.
"Oh, very well," he assented. "Let it be as you say, but if anything goes wrong, we are done."
Meanwhile, Cecil Oakes had gone up to his bedroom with a view of investigating the matter of the missing handkerchief. It was just as he had expected. There, in a corner of a drawer in his wardrobe he found five of those delicate Maltese creations and the sixth was not to be found anywhere. Beyond doubt, somebody had been making free use of his belongings, because, in addition to the missing handkerchief, he could find no trace of two evening dress waistcoats. He smiled to himself as he made this discovery. He could give a pretty fair guess of what had become of the absent garments, but, for the present, that matter would keep. Doubtless, Primery, who had arrived at Priors Gate with none too plentiful a wardrobe, had been helping himself to various articles of wearing apparel and it was almost as plain as daylight now that it was Primery himself who had drugged Pryor on the night of his death. It was with a grim smile on his face that Cecil went down the stairs again and turned into the library, there to kill time until the moment came when he might walk down to the Oakes Arms and inform Summers that he had come to share a simple evening meal with him. He had no desire whatever to see the other occupants of Priors Gate at the moment. It was not that he feared Oakes so much as Primery. He knew that the latter would be watching him as a cat watches a mouse, studying every gesture of his and weighing every word that fell from his lips. And he particularly did not want to betray himself just yet. So far, he was under the impression that Oakes and his accomplice regarded him as being absolutely ignorant of all that had happened, where they were concerned. He was glad at last when 7 o'clock came and he found himself in the open air, crossing the park in the direction of the village and the Oakes Arms.
It was a long conference that he held in a private sitting-room of the pleasant, old-fashioned inn, and it was quite late before he set out on his return journey. And when he got back, he was met with the intelligence that his uncle and the latter's guest had departed to town in one of the cars not long after dark. It was good news to know that he had the house to himself.
He came down in the morning fairly early and breakfasted alone in one of the smaller sitting-rooms, after which he smoked a contemplative cigarette or two, and then turned his face in the direction of the village. He was going to see Audrey, and expected, as usual, to find her seated in the garden.
But Audrey was nowhere to be seen. Instead of the girl and her usual work basket under the shadow of the cedar tree beyond the tennis lawn there sat, not Audrey, but the vicar himself, propped up in an invalid chair with a book on his knee. He was quite an old man, grey and withered, and one who had married late in life, so that he was bent and aged before Audrey, who was the light of his life, had come to years of discretion. For the last fortnight he had been confined to the house, and was now basking contentedly in the warm sunshine. He greeted Cecil in the friendliest fashion, and invited him to take a seat by his side.
"I can't stay very long," Cecil said. "I am very glad to see you out again, Vicar, but I rather wanted a few words with Audrey. Shall I find her in the house?"
"No, I don't think you will," the old gentleman said in his thin treble. "You see, she is not at home, my boy. She is doing the works, which, unfortunately, I am unable to cope with. Old Mrs. Simmons is very bad again, and Audrey is looking after her. She went off about 9 o'clock last night, and she hasn't been back since. Perhaps you would like to go along the road and meet her."
"You mean she has been out all night?" Cecil cried, aghast.
"Precisely," the old man said. "But it's not the first time. Audrey is a wonderful girl in that respect."
Cecil stood there unable to speak. He had more than a shrewd idea why Audrey had not yet returned.
Cecil contrived to strangle the cry that rose to his lips. It seemed almost incredible to him that this rather senile old gentleman should regard Audrey's absence the whole night through with smiling equanimity. But then probably it was not the first time and, in any case, Mr. Venables knew nothing of the strange events which were going on almost within his own orbit.
But Cecil knew, all right. He did not want anyone to tell him that no ordinary circumstances were keeping Audrey all this time in a sick woman's cottage. Knowing what he knew, he could see the sinister trouble lying behind. Yet, at the same time, he might be wrong, and the last thing he wanted to do was to alarm the vicar in his present precarious stage of health.
"I am sorry to hear that," he contrived to say in an ordinary voice. "No doubt Audrey will be back presently, in fact, I think I will walk down the road and meet her. But if possible, I should like to have a word with Miss Stella Pryor first."
"You will find her in the drawing-room," the old man said.
Stella, a little more cheerful and like herself, was in the drawing-room of the vicarage and not alone. A young man with a pleasant face was seated by her side, and he rose with a smile of welcome as Cecil stepped through the open window. To tell the truth, Cecil was more than glad to find Stella's fiance on the premises. He knew the Hon. Mark Wickham well enough, and he felt that here was the ally that, before long, he would need. He contrived to get out of the room presently, and, at a sign, Wickham strolled after him into the garden, and from thence into the road.
"Anything wrong, old chap?" the latter asked.
"I am afraid so," Cecil said. "I can't stop to tell you now, but something terrible is happening, and I must get on the track of it at once. Now, would you mind, in the course of an hour, making your way as far as Priors Gate. My uncle is away, and so is that lame friend of his. Just ask for me, and, say I am expecting you. That is all for the moment."
"Certainly," Wickham replied. "But look here, Cecil, is there any more of this mysterious crime in the offing? Any more burglaries at Heron's Nest, for instance?"
"I don't think you need worry about that," Cecil replied. "And, between ourselves, Stella will have her pearl necklace back within the next two or three days. But that is not the point. What I greatly fear is that something terrible has happened to Audrey. Not a word of this to her father or Stella, mind. I can go into details when I meet you presently up at the house."
Wickham gave the desired assurance, and, with that, Cecil hurried along down the road. He was quite well acquainted, of course, with the cottage in which Audrey was supposed to have spent the night, and, once arrived there, he opened the door and walked into the little sitting-room, beyond which he could see another room where a very clean and a very old woman was lying in bed.
"Hello, Mrs. Simmons," he hailed her. "I was passing by and I thought I would look in and inquire how you are getting on. I suppose Miss Audrey hasn't been here this morning, has she?"
"Well, no, sir," the old lady responded. "And I take it kindly of you to come in in this friendly way. I am better, that I be, and that I told Miss Audrey last night. I don't think I shall need to worry her again, though she was good enough to offer to stay the night. But I couldn't ask her to do that."
Here were all Cecil's worst fears confirmed. Audrey had been there the evening before and had evidently set out for her home at a reasonable time. What that time was, it was Cecil's business to find out. He approached the subject lightly.
"Oh, she was here last night, eh?" he asked. "I suppose it wasn't late when she left you?"
"No, sir, but surely you know as much about that as I do? It were about nine, just when it was properly dark, when a boy come along with a note for her. She read it, and said she must go at once. And from a word or two as she dropped, I gathered as that note was from you, sir, and that you wanted to see her on some parish business up at the great house."
"Very funny how one forgets these things," Cecil said with a carelessness he was far from feeling. "I suppose it must have escaped my memory, for I didn't see her last night, after all. I must go along to the vicarage and make my apologies."
Once outside the cottage, it was not in the direction of the vicarage that Cecil turned his head. He made his way across the fields at top speed in the direction of Priors Gate, cursing himself for his folly as he went along, because he had wasted the evening before at the Oakes Arms when it had been almost imperative that he should keep an eye upon those two scoundrels, who had evidently contrived to lure Audrey into some sort of a trap.
There was no longer any doubt in his mind that Primery, with that uncanny instinct of his, had guessed who it was that had followed himself and Sir Wilton to Heron's Nest on the night of the murder. Audrey had seen them both and had managed to elude them when they set off in pursuit, but they were under no delusion as to whom they were following, and were about to embark upon another form of crime so as to save themselves from punishment. It was a desperate thing to do, but then those two were desperate criminals with the net closing round them and, at any cost, Audrey's mouth must be closed until they had made their escape and got clear of the country. And that they were going to turn their backs on England once and for all, Cecil no longer entertained the slightest doubt. They had lost the pearl necklace, it was true, but they were getting away with a large amount of valuable property which they hoped to turn into cash at the earliest possible moment through the medium of Vogler. That Vogler would turn them down mattered nothing for the moment. The scoundrels did not know that yet, and, in the mean time, they would certainly vent their spite upon the innocent cause of their present discomfiture. Cecil had visions of Audrey, gagged and bound, and perhaps left in some secret hiding place until she could be found, if she was found at all. Possibly Oakes had remembered one of the old hiding places in Priors Gate, where a victim might lie for days. He probably did not know all those hidden nooks and corners in the old house, it was obvious that he did not know the secret way into the rose parlour, or he assuredly would have guessed the trick that had been played upon him in connection with the stolen pearl necklace. But there were other secret ways besides that, and Cecil would explore the whole of them before he slept that night. It would be time enough to raise an alarm over Audrey's disappearance when he had exhausted all the resources at his own disposal.
There was no help for him at Priors Gate. The most delicate questions, put to the servants, elicited no information. They knew that somewhere about 9 o'clock the night before, Sir Wilton and his guest had departed for London in the car, but even on that point they could not speak authoritatively, because Sir Wilton had dined early and sent all the servants in the house to the village where a travelling cinema was giving an exhibition. The chauffeur himself was no longer on the premises, because Sir Wilton had given him a holiday for a day or two, and he was driving the big car himself. And the more that Cecil listened to this sort of thing, the more convinced he was that this was all part of some subtle plot to get Audrey into the hands of those miscreants. Her movements had been carefully watched. She had doubtless been traced to the cottage at the end the village and lured thence by the note which probably the man Primery had forged. There were plenty of specimens of Cecil's handwriting in the house, so that the difficulty would not be great. He could not see those men taking Audrey with them, and, therefore she must be a prisoner very near at hand.
But though Cecil searched high and low, and turned out every hiding place he could think of, there was no sign of the missing girl. He stood outside the house presently and studied it with a critical eye. Was it not possible that he had overlooked some forgotten nook? He could not think of one, so he crossed the terrace to return to the house in absolute despair.
Then, suddenly, his eye caught sight a broken pane of glass in the big mullioned window of the rose parlour. One the lozenge-shaped panes had been pushed clear out of its lead frame and lay in fragments in the stone terrace. By the side of it was a small envelope sealed and bearing his own name on the outside. One glance showed him that it was Audrey's handwriting. He snatched it up eagerly and threw his eye over the contents. It was a disjointed little note, written in pencil, and under the stress of some great trouble. There were only two or three lines altogether. Thus:
"Lured here by a forged note. Am prisoner in the rose parlour. Just managed to get my hand free, but unable to move a yard. So pushed through window in hope of your finding it. Please—"
Just that, and nothing more. But it was quite sufficient to show Cecil that he had made no mistake in his estimate and that Audrey had actually been kidnapped by her two enemies. It was pretty clear now that she was no longer on the premises, but that she had been carried away by those two in the car, and perhaps deposited in safety in the care of some confederate miles away. He was still standing with the note in his hand when Wickham appeared. As shortly as possible, he explained the situation.
"Good Lord," the latter cried. "It's like melodrama. Look here, Cecil, we shall have to do something. I have got my car down here and if you like we'll follow them. There has been a good deal of rain lately and it is more than possible—"
"The very thing," Cecil cried. "Let's go as far as the garage and pick up the tracks of the big car. At any rate, anything is better than standing here doing nothing."
They ran down as far as the garage and Cecil threw open the doors. He looked inside with a puzzled expression on his face.
"Now what on earth does this mean?" he asked. "Both cars are gone, the limousine and the two-seater."
As Cecil was destined to learn later, his diagnosis of the plot against Audrey was not far wrong. She had gone into the village the night before on her errand of mercy with no thought of trouble in her mind, and with the full intention of staying with her old protegé till the morning. Then, about nine o'clock, a village boy had wandered into the cottage with a note in his hand which with a grin, he handed to Audrey. He had been given a shilling to bring it, coupled with the instructions to say nothing and just hand the envelope to the young lady who was looking after old Mrs. Simmons in the little house down the lane. This the messenger had done, and departed on his way blithely whistling.
Audrey had opened the envelope without the slightest suspicion of anything being wrong. There were only two or three lines in which she seemed to recognise as her lover's handwriting and, indeed, it bore a striking resemblance to Cecil's calligraphy in the dim light of a cheap oil lamp. It was to the effect that something quite unexpected had turned up at Priors Gate and Cecil would be very grateful if she would come up to the house as soon as possible where he would not detain her more than a few minutes. So, in the light of recent events, Audrey did not hesitate.
"I am afraid I shall have to leave you a bit," she said to her old charge. "But I will be back as soon as possible."
"Now, don't 'ee worry about that, dearie," the elderly woman exclaimed cheerfully. "I'll manage all right. Make too much fuss o' me, you do. Reg'lar spoils me. And don't 'ee trouble to come back unless it's quite convenient."
Audrey went away across the fields in the dark, for it was a good three miles by the road from the village to the big house. She was rather surprised when she got there, and rang the bell to find Sir Wilton himself answering the front door and bidding her enter. He seemed quite to understand why she was there.
"It's all right" he said. "Cecil is expecting you, and you will find him in the rose parlour."
But barely had Audrey reached the rose parlour, when she found herself followed by both Oakes and Primery, who closed the door behind them and bade her curtly to take a seat.
"So, that's all right," Oakes said, in a voice that Audrey had never heard him use before. "Oh, there is nothing to be frightened about if you only behave yourself. You need not look about you like that, because Cecil is not here. He is spending the evening down in the village with our mutual friend, Captain Summers and won't be back for a long time yet."
"Then he doesn't know I am here," Audrey cried.
"You never said a truer word in your life. He didn't write that note, either, as you might have found out if you had looked at it closely. It was I who wanted to see you. Now, listen. Nobody knows where you are, and nobody will miss you till some time to-morrow. You are quite aware of the fact that you more or less intended to spend the night with that old woman at the end of the village. Correct me if I am wrong.
"There is nothing to correct so far," Audrey declared. "Will you kindly explain the reason for this outrage?"
"Just as if you didn't know," Primery put in. "My dear young lady, you know too much, and because you know so much, it is our business to close your lips, at any rate, for a day or two. I may tell you that we three are alone in the house, and that none of the servants will be back before eleven. I mention this fact to save you from the trouble of calling for assistance. If you had not found out that I was not quite so much of a cripple—"
"You are no cripple at all," Audrey said with spirit. "It was very well done, but your limbs are as straight as mine. And why you chose to come here in that guise—"
"Is no business of yours, if I may be permitted to interrupt," Primery smiled. "Besides, we are not here to exchange compliments. Now, let us get down to business. The other night, when my friend Sir Wilton Oakes and myself were engaged on a little commercial transaction at Heron's Nest, you followed us. It was the last time you were playing Lady Bountiful to old Mrs. Simmons. But, of course, you remember that perfectly. At any rate, you followed us, and I have not the slightest doubt that you regard us as being responsible for the unfortunate death of Bertram Pryor."
"I am perfectly certain of it," Audrey cried.
"Ah, that is just what we feared," Primery retorted, with that pleasant smile still on his face. "Otherwise, we should not be enjoying your charming society at the present moment. Still, much as we regret the necessity, we must take care that you don't indulge in the feminine weakness for gossip. If I told you that we had nothing to do with Pryor's death you wouldn't believe me, and indeed, we should probably have great difficulty in persuading a soulless constabulary to view our conduct in a favourable light. You eluded us on that evening, and I think you might have eluded us still but for that scratch on your arm. But circumstances have been too strong for us, and we have come to the conclusion that a change of air would be beneficial to our several healths. Unless we can trust you to maintain silence—"
Audrey stood up and faced the speaker boldly.
"I will never do that," she said. "I make no bargain with murderers, and men who are jewel thieves. Sir Wilton, this is a great shock to me."
"It's a great shock to me," Oakes laughed brutally. "Now, my dear child, be reasonable. Give us your word of honour never to speak of what you have discovered, and you are free. If you maintain silence, things can go on exactly as they are."
"Never," Audrey cried. "Never, I tell you—"
She broke off abruptly and bit her lip. She would not let these men know now that Cecil Oakes had all the facts at his fingers' ends, she would let these men do their worst and then, when the time came, they would inevitably suffer.
"Very well then," Oakes said. "You leave us no alternative. You will be bound and conveyed to a place of safety, where you will be unable to speak till we have found shelter somewhere. Then you can say what you like, because the game is up, my dear. Sir Wilton Oakes disappears for ever, having first provided the county with the greatest scandal on record. Still, neither of us are quite as bad as you take us to be. Now Primery."
Primery stood up, no longer in the semblance of a broken man, but in the full possession of his virile strength. He produced a long length of silken cord with which he proceeded to tie up his prisoner so tightly that even her hands were fettered. And when this was done he placed Audrey carefully on a chair and, with Oakes, left the room, closing the door with a click behind him. And then Audrey was alone with her own painful thoughts.
What were they going to do with her, she wondered. Would they come back and gag her presently and throw her in one of the secret hiding places in the house and there leave her, helpless and starving until they could send a message from some secure hiding place, telling her friends where she was to be found? Or were they going to place her in the car and drive her to somewhere at a distance? It was idle, however, to speculate in this way, idle to give way to despair so long as a single scrap of hope was left. These men would be back presently and then it would be too late. She knew that there were no servants in the house, and she guessed that the chauffeur had been got rid of, so that it would take the miscreants some little time to get the car ready. She worked feverishly at her bonds, but quite in vain, except as to the fingers of her right hand.
And then the idea of writing a note to Cecil and pushing it through a broken pane in the window flashed on her. With infinite trouble and some little pain, she managed to creep as far as the writing table and pencil her note.
Then, with more trouble, she pushed it through the window and sat on the floor tearing at the cords that bound her. She had only four fingers, and those close to her knee, to help her, but at the end of a quarter of an hour she had managed to free herself half way up her legs, so that she could take tiny steps across the room. It was a time of sheer peril, so that she was ready to hesitate at nothing. She reached the secret panel in the wall and pushed it back, so that five minutes later, she wormed her way along the passage into the hall, and from thence to the front door without being seen.
Then she was out in the open air. She knew that it was all a question of minutes before her escape was discovered, and she knew that in her helpless condition she would not get very far without being followed. Then how to get beyond the reach of those scoundrels? The way came to her like an inspiration. She would hobble down as far as the garage and there push out the two seater.
She knew that in the garage was a small circular saw, and providentially reaching this in safety, she severed her bonds at the wrists. Another two minutes and the two-seater whizzed past the house at full speed and out into the road that led by a winding route to the village. With any luck, she was free. But not quite. As she spun along the road, she was conscious of the drone of another car behind her. She looked over her shoulder and realised that she was being followed. Still, she knew every inch of the road and presently, after skimming the edge of a disused stone quarry, she turned the small car at right angles and blundered along a sort of cart track right into the gorse and heather, trusting to good fortune that her action would not be seen in the darkness. She heard the big car thundering behind her, then a crash and a roar and a hideous scream, and after that, a strange, awful silence, that could be felt. It was not for her to know that the bigger car had trembled for an instant on the edge of the quarry and then had gone down to the depths headlong to destruction. Almost at the same moment, the diminutive two-seater came in contact with a big stone and Audrey pitched forward on the impact clear of the wind screen, and after that she recollected no more.
Cecil stood looking into the empty garage, just for the moment at a loss to know how to proceed. It was imperative that no time should be lost in following up the track of the missing Audrey, who might, or might not, have been, spirited away by the two criminals, but the absence of both cars was distinctly disturbing. It was Wickham who came promptly to the rescue.
"Look here, Cecil," he said. ''We are wasting precious time. What we have got to find out is who drove the second car. I suppose your uncle or his friend Primery drove the one. But it is scarcely probable that the chauffeur is in the conspiracy and that he drove the other. By the way, where is the chauffeur?"
"Oh, he has nothing to do with it," Cecil explained. "He is away on a short holiday—sent away probably, so that he would not be in a position to ask any awkward questions."
"Very well, then. That clears the ground so far. You can see the tracks of those two cars yourself—the big one with the cord tyres and the smaller one with Agrippas, and the small car started first. There the marks are, plain enough for a child to see. Now what do you make of that?"
Cecil had to confess that he could make nothing of it, except that there were two cars to follow instead of one. He stood there utterly at a loss to know what to do.
"It's lucky that I came over myself to see Stella in my own car," Wickham said. "Because we can use that. It's a six-cylinder tourer, and one of the latest on the road. I'll just run across to Heron's Nest and I'll meet you at the lodge gates with it."
He waited for no more, but vanished quickly down the drive whilst Cecil followed as far as the lodge gates. They were open, as usual, because there was no one living in the lodge, and, moreover, there was a right of way through the park. Hereabouts Cecil could see tracks of the two-seater leading the way, with those of the big car evidently following behind. After the recent rains, the main road was fairly soft so that there was no difficulty in picking up the trace of those two particular sets of tyres. The road itself was the main one from Southampton to London through the forest and ran in a sort of loop round the grounds of Priors Gate where, a bit further on, it touched upon the minor thoroughfare which ended at the village. Round the byroad it was at least three miles from the lodge gates to the vicarage, though across the fields it was less than a third of that distance. So far as Cecil could make out, the two cars had gone straight down the road, though they might have branched later on towards the village. But that he would not know until Wickham turned up with his speedy car.
The latter was back almost sooner then Cecil had dared to expect. Then, as quickly as they could, they slid over the main road, guided by the two pairs of tracks in front of them. It was comparatively early yet, so that there had been very little motor traffic on the main road, and it was an easy matter to follow the trail. This they did for the best part of two miles, then suddenly the track switched into a sort of side lane and at one point the heavier tyres ceased altogether. Wickham pulled up his car.
"Look at that," he said. "Most extraordinary thing. This is a rotten motoring road, little better than a cart track, leading on to the gorse and heather of the forest. You can see the marks of the smaller car ahead quite plainly. But where is the one that was following it? It's vanished altogether."
Cecil pointed a none too steady finger towards a dip in the track on the edge of which was the disused quarry. He knew with his intimate knowledge of the neighbourhood that a protecting rail had run along the edge of the quarry, but some thirty feet of it was gone now, and that quite recently, as he could see by the splintered wood shining white in the sunlight.
"Look at that!" Cecil said hoarsely.
"Good Lord, yes!" Wickham exclaimed. "An accident beyond the shadow of a doubt. But not to the small car, because I can see the wheel marks from where we are standing. Cecil, old chap, do you suppose that something terrible—"
"I am very much afraid so," Cecil said. "At any rate, we have got to find out. Let's get down and investigate."
They left the car and, scrambling down the slope by the side of the quarry, came to the bottom of it at length. It was a quarry that had not been used for years, so that the steep face of it was overgrown with brambles and luxuriant foliage. But, half-buried at the bottom, was Sir Wilton Oakes' big car, lying on its side, and a few feet away, the dead body of himself and Primery. Beyond the shadow of a doubt they had slipped over the side of the quarry in the darkness of the previous night, and plunged headlong to destruction. It was a gruesome discovery and a most unpleasant one, though Cecil was not so much concerned for his dead relative and his rascally confederate as with the fate of Audrey.
But, search as they might—and it was no casual investigation either—there was no sign of a third body. Cecil heaved a sigh of immense relief as the climbed out of the quarry back to the car again with the intention of tracing the wheel tracks of the little two-seater as far as it went. And they came upon that presently on the narrow path in the forest. It had come to a standstill against a mass of heather and gorse, and there, just in front of it, lay the still form of Audrey, just as if she had fallen asleep by the wayside, or as if she were in her own bed.
Just for one awful moment Cecil stood half-paralysed, in the presence of what he feared was a third tragedy. He hardly dared to move, so that it was Wickham who bent over that unconscious form and lifted the heavy head.
"It's all right," he said cheerfully. "I don't know, but I don't think there is very much the matter. Looks to me as if it is pretty bad concussion. There is no sign of a fracture anywhere, and she will be all right presently. Quite warm and comfortable, too. Luckily it was such a hot night. Now, give a hand here, old man, and help me to get her into the car. The best thing we can do is to take her as far as the cottage hospital."
For the moment, at any rate, the tragedy of the quarry was forgotten. Half an hour later, Audrey was quite comfortable in her hospital bed, and the village doctor gave quite a cheerful account of the condition of his patient.
"There is no external damage at all," he said. "And not the slightest sign of a fracture. She is breathing so easily and naturally that I am confident of no internal injury. It is just a heavy concussion, and probably, in a few hours she will regain consciousness and be none the worse for her adventure. But how on earth did the whole thing happen?"
"Ah, that we had better say nothing about for the moment," Cecil remarked. "Meanwhile, I am afraid that we must find you work elsewhere. There has been a bad accident in connection with that old quarry, and my uncle, Sir Wilton Oakes, and his friend, Primery, are both lying at the bottom of it, dead."
Altogether, it was a day of tremendous excitement for the little village, and all sorts of rumours were afloat. It was not until the bodies had been conveyed back to Priors Gate that Cecil found time for a few minutes conversation with Summers.
"Well we seem to have been in it up to our necks to-day," the latter said. "But tell me, how was it you found those two bodies and what did that accident of Miss Venables have to do with it? There must have been some connection."
Cecil proceeded to explain.
"Look here," he said. "It will be common property before long, so I had better tell you at once that my late uncle was nothing better than a common criminal. He was in gaol more than once in America, and when he came home he hadn't a shilling in his possession. He robbed his poor old father right and left, and not very long before his return to England he swindled the old gentleman out of £10,000 by inducing him to invest that sum in what appeared to be a bogus oil company. As a matter of fact, it wasn't a bogus concern at all, but a really rich field, though the promoters had not the least idea of it; at least, they hadn't till they had plundered a large number of American citizens, and then they found out their mistake. Their game then was to get all those shares back, and they did for the most part. I firmly believe that Sir Wilton came home on purpose to get the certificates he had sent to his father back in his possession. But by a bit of extraordinary luck I stopped that little game. I found the certificates and hid them. You see, I knew all about the swindle because a client of mine was a considerable holder. And just before Bertram Pryor died, we had commenced an action against him for a large block of Rio shares."
"What, was Pryor in it, too?" Summers cried.
"Oh, Lord, yes; up to his neck. I told you all about him. I told you that he lived in the States for years, and was known as 'Bat' Bronson. I believe he will turn out to be a rich man when things are wound up, but he was one of those oil swindlers, right enough, and he wasn't going to part to my client unless he was compelled to do so by a Court of law. We shall get them now, right enough, and also his daughter will get that pearl necklace of hers."
"What do you know about the pearl necklace?" Summers asked. "Do you mean to say you could put your hand upon it?"
"I mean to say that I have got it in my bank at the present moment," Cecil said coolly. "But perhaps I had better tell you that side of the story, too."
Summers listened with the deepest interest whilst Cecil told the story of the pearl necklace and the rose parlour and the subsequent comedy that was enacted in Amsterdam.
"Well, I'm dashed," Summers said. "We seem to have been entertaining a fine batch of scoundrels in this part of the world. But what about those oil shares that you found and hid in the Long Gallery? I suppose they are worth a good deal?"
"About £200,000," Cecil explained. "The new owner of Priors Gate will be quite a rich man. And, by Jove, yes, I'd almost forgotten, that'll be me, won't it?"
"Yes that will be you, right enough," Summers smiled. "It may be a little premature, perhaps, but my congratulations to you, Sir Cecil Oakes. And my congratulations to the county, too, because the neighbourhood will be well rid of a scoundrel like that. And now that you have cleared the ground up so thoroughly, let me tell you something that may be not displeasing. At any rate, I have proved that the late Sir Wilton was not a murderer."
"I never thought he was," Cecil observed. ''On the night of the second robbery I have always been sure that there were three people in the imbroglio, and, what's more, that the third party knew nothing whatever about the movements of the other two. And, by the way, before we get any further, I suppose you have examined the bodies you found in the quarry? Searched their pockets and so on?"
"Well, of course," Summers said. "And we found—"
"Yes, I know exactly what you found. You found all Stella Pryor's wedding presents. Naturally you would. That is what my uncle and his accomplice went for. That's why they drugged Pryor, because they wanted the key to his safe. They left him insensible in bed and got away with the plunder. After they had gone, the third man came along. Of course, this is all sheer theory on my part, but I am ready to gamble on it."
"You are certainly a very bright young man," Summers smiled. "We did find all that stuff on Oakes, and, as to the other man, why, he was arrested an hour ago at Portsmouth trying to dispose of a bearer bond certificate, which we knew he took from the safe at Heron's Nest. He was the man who made the third set of finger prints. And Scotland Yard is ready to confirm it. He is a sort of international crook who is known in the underworld as Mike the Writer—in other words, an exceedingly clever forger. One of our men laid hands on him, and he realised that the game was up and made a full confession. It appears that he was in desperate need of money and that he came down here to see Pryor. That would be about four o'clock in the morning. He woke Pryor up by throwing a stone through the latter's bedroom window. By that time, Pryor had thrown off the effects of the drug and came down to admit his visitor. From what I can gather, they had a bitter quarrel, because Pryor refused to find any money, possibly because he had no available cash, and in the end, the other man stabbed him. There was nothing in the safe in the way of personal property, so this crook took what he could and was foolish enough to try and turn it into money. He might have got away with it, only he was more or less in rags and half starved, so that he was given in custody by the person he tried to sell the bond to, and that was the end of him. And there is the story. And after what you have told me, every bit of it fits in beautifully. But, all the same there is going to be a big scandal. It will be absolutely impossible to keep all these details from the public. I am very sorry for you, Cecil, and I am still more sorry for Miss Pryor."
"Oh, well, we shall live it down," Cecil said. "From a gross material point of view the situation has its advantages. Moreover, Wickham is a thundering good chap, and very much in love with Stella Pryor. He will insist upon marrying her in spite of everything. And now, my dear fellow, if I can help you any further, you have only to say so, and the thing done."
Summers, however, seemed perfectly satisfied. From the point of view of his trained eye, nothing was left unexplained, so that Cecil was free to go off a little later on and look up Wickham, to whom he told the whole story.
"By Gad, old man, it's a horrible business," the latter said. "Dashed bad for you—"
"Oh, I don't know," Cecil said. "My hands are clean enough, and nobody can blame me because my predecessor was a thorough-paced blackguard. And at any rate, it is better that somebody who values the name and title should have it, than a scamp like my uncle. And thanks to those oil shares, I shall be able to keep up the place as it ought to be. At any rate, it will be better than stewing up in London trying to make a reputation at the Bar. You see, I am country bred and born. Oh, well, never mind about me. It is poor little Stella that I am so worried about."
"Don't you give yourself any anxiety about Stella," Wickham said almost grimly. "Stella isn't going to suffer. I don't care two straws what her father was. And I don't care if he left her without so much as a penny to her name."
"Oh, he won't do that," Cecil explained. "He was quite a rich man, and I suppose he honestly paid for that pearl necklace which I shall hand over all in good time. All the same, it is very pleasant to hear you talk like that, and to know that Stella has a real good friend to look after her. Long before she is a Countess the whole story will be forgotten. Whatever her father may have been, she is a splendid girl, and you are a lucky chap."
"Oh, I know that," Wickham laughed. "You can leave us to look after ourselves. And, if Audrey is all right—"
There was nothing for it now but to wait upon events. In the meantime, Bertram Pryor was buried and Stella was back at Heron's Nest once more. Then came the inquest on the bodies of Oakes and Primery, and after all the sorry business had been dragged out into the light of day, a verdict of accidental death had been returned. It was a horrible affair altogether, and Cecil was infinitely glad when it came to an end, and he could turn his back upon the village churchyard where the most disreputable member of the ancient family of Oakes was interned in the family vault and Primery decently buried in a modest grave.
It would be a nine days' wonder, of course, sooner or later it would be forgotten by the neighbourhood, and an exclusive corner of the county, which had never taken kindly to Sir Wilton Oakes. There were too many of them there who were more or less aware of his early history, and the dead baronet had known it, so that his bearing towards his traditional neighbours had never erred on the side of pleasantness and courtesy. But he was dead and buried now, and Cecil was eagerly welcomed in his stead. Everybody knew and respected him, so it was felt that the whole thing was a happy dispensation of Providence, and the locality welcomed it accordingly.
It was at the end of a crowded week that Audrey, sufficiently recovered to be removed to her own home, was back again at the vicarage where she was being lovingly attended by Stella. As far as possible, all these dreadful events had been concealed from the venerable old clergyman, who was under the impression that Audrey had met with some sort of an accident. And Stella, too, was rapidly becoming her old cheerful self. Her marriage, of course, would have to be postponed, but, in the circumstances, that mattered nothing.
"Oh, I don't mind," she said as she sat out under the cedar on the lawn with Audrey in a long, invalid seat by her side. "Besides, we can get married together. One of those romantic ceremonies which will enable the neighbours to forget all the horrible things of the last few weeks. And I am sure that nobody could have behaved more nobly than the man I am going to marry."
"I think we are both fortunate in that respect," Audrey said. "And here comes Cecil to answer for himself."
Cecil advanced across the lawn, and as he came up alongside the invalid chair Stella discreetly vanished.
"At last," Cecil said. "Do you know I have only seen you twice since that dreadful night, and then in the presence of other people. And one way and another, I have been so busy that I don't seem to have had a moment to myself. And even now I don't quite know what happened after you got that forged note."
Audrey smiled up into her lover's face. They were absolutely alone in that secluded corner of the garden, with no one to watch them, so that he slipped his hand behind her, and placed her head on his shoulder. Then he kissed her long and lovingly, and the look in Audrey's eyes was something better than any word could express.
"I hardly like to think of it," she said. "Of course, I never guessed for a moment that you hadn't sent the letter. I thought something dreadful had happened, and that you wanted to see me at once. So I slipped away, telling Mrs. Simmons I should be back in a short time, and went as far as Priors Gate."
"Your future home, little girl," Cecil interpolated.
"Ah, I had forgotten that for the moment," Audrey whispered. "Cecil we will make it a very different place from what it has been in the past. But let me go on. When I got to the house I was told that you were waiting for me in the rose parlour and there, almost before I realised it, I was a prisoner. They would have let me go if I had given my word not to mention anything I knew. Because, you see, that dreadful man Primery knew by the scratch on my arm that it was I who was hiding in the bushes on the night of Bertram Pryor's murder. And I am deeply grateful that they were not guilty of that. So they bound and left me in the rose parlour while they were getting the car ready. But I managed to release my hand so that I could write that note and I pushed it through a pane I had removed from the window. Then I escaped from the house, hobbling painfully as far as the garage, where I managed to get my hands free and run out the little car. They heard me going down the drive, of course, and I realised that they would catch me up before I could reach the village. That is why I turned into the cart track. And in their eagerness, they forgot about the quarry, and just before I was thrown out and rendered unconscious myself I heard a hideous crash and a scream of fear and then I knew that those two men had fallen over into the quarry. It was a dreadful moment, and I don't think that I shall ever forget it."
Cecil bent over and kissed her tenderly.
"Oh, yes, you will, sweetheart," he said. "I am going to marry you and take you for a long honeymoon in the South of Italy. Down there, you will soon learn to forget."
Audrey drew a long and happy sigh.
"Let's hope so," she whispered. "Let us hope that it will be the same with Stella as it is with us."
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