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Title: The Riddle of the Rail Author: Fred M White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1200691h.html Language: English Date first posted: January 2012 Date most recently updated: January 2012 This eBook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy. HTML version by 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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The foreman porter of the goods yard with two of his hands trailing behind him paused at length before a waggon in the midst of a clatter of laden trucks on the isolated siding and indicated it with grimy forefinger.
"Now get to it," he directed. "And don't you leave that van till it's empty, mind. Here's the manager of Tiptons downs in the office carrying on as if the Devon and Central Railway belonged to them. Says that he ought to have had the stuff three days ago."
"So 'e should," one of the porters said sotto voce.
"Yes, that's right enough, Bill," the foreman agreed. "It's this holiday excursion traffic that throws everything out and gives us double work for no more pay. But get on with it. Tiptons' lorry will be here any minute now."
The two railwaymen mounted the waggon and proceeded to strip back the heavy tarpaulin that lay over it to protect its somewhat fragile contents from the vagaries of the English climate. The van itself was filled with spring produce from the Warwickshire district—early gooseberries, potatoes, spring rhubarb and the like—which had been sent down to the West by goods train with a view to the Whitsuntide holidays. But, as the foreman said, the goods train had been shunted here and there over the hundred and fifty miles to make room for the various excursion trains radiating from the Midlands right down to what is known as the Cornish Riviera. It was rather unfortunate for the consignee of these perishable goods, but there was no help for it. All the railway authorities could do now was to expedite the unloading as quickly as possible, and then their side of the task was finished.
Hardly had half the tarpaulin been rolled back before one of the workmen looked across at his mate, who was tugging at the other end, and shouted something that the latter failed to understand.
"What's up, mate?" the second man asked. "Blime, but you look as if you'd seen a ghost, Bill!"
"You just come 'ere," the other man whispered hoarsely. "There, my lad, what d'you make of that?"
The speaker pointed to something lying on the top of a layer of baskets filled with early gooseberries. It was the body of a man, a middle-aged, well-dressed man with a small brown moustache and pointed beard, reclining there as if he had been asleep. But it was no ordinary sleep, as both the railwaymen, looking down upon him, knew only too well. They had seen too much of that sort of thing during the years in France to be mistaken.
"Yes, he's dead enough," the first man said, as he glanced into the face of his companion. "And it don't look as if there'd been any violence, either. No marks and no blood, nor nothing."
"Yes, an' no robbery, neither," the other man put in. "Just twig 'is watch chain an' the diamond pin in 'is scarf."
"Yes, an' that there hothouse rose in 'is buttonhole. He must 'ave crept into the waggon when it was waiting in one of the sidings with the object getting a lift on the cheap. An' yet a cove dressed as 'e is, with that gold watch chain and diamond pin an' all the rest of it, ain't the sort as can't pay 'is fare. Looks to me like a first-class passenger."
"Yes, you're about right there. You nip along as far as the office an' ask Mr. Gregory to come this way. This is a job not for the handlin' o' the likes of you and me."
A little later on, a man in authority came down into the siding. He asked a question or two, then made a brief inspection for himself and, without further delay, dispatched one of the workmen to Barnstaple police headquarters, in search of a superintendent.
A quarter of an hour later, the body of the dead man was lifted out on to the line for the inspection of the superintendent. He made a more or less perfunctory examination before he spoke.
"Um, I can't make this out at all. No signs of violence whatever, no bones broken and no blood. I am not a medical man, so I cannot say for certain, but I should say that the poor fellow has been dead for a day or two. One of you go along and fetch the ambulance, so that we can take the body as far as the mortuary."
Meanwhile, the superintendent, together with the man in authority, stood idly waiting there. To them presently came a little, inquisitive-looking man, with rimless pince-nez and an expression of something more than curiosity on his pinched features. He was lame as to his left leg, but he hopped along dexterously enough as he plied the superintendent with all sorts of questions.
"Now, look here," the superintendent said. "It's no use worrying me, Mr. Jagger, because I can't tell you any more than you know. Yes, the body was found on the top of a waggon load of vegetable matter! and there it lies for you to see for yourself. Who the man is and how he got there is a mystery, and probably will remain so till after the inquest. But I don't mind telling you that there are no signs of violence on the body, and nothing to suggest that the man did not die a natural death. And this much I don't mind saying. Whoever the man is, he wasn't short of money. Beyond his diamond pin and gold watch and chain, I found over forty pounds in his note-case. And that is all you will learn for the present."
"Oh, that's good enough to get on with," the little lame man said cheerfully. "You see, I must look after the interests of my paper, and, besides, I am the local correspondent on the 'Daily Bulletin.' I must get away and telephone this at once."
There was nothing more that could be done until the body of the dead man had been examined by the police doctor, and even he was comparatively puzzled when he made his examination in the mortuary, attended by the superintendent of police.
"I can't for the life of me make it out," he said. "I can see no sign of any marks that would indicate foul play. I can't find anything wrong, not even the slightest derangement of clothing. And look at that rose in the buttonhole. A Gloire de Dijon, unless I am greatly mistaken, and certainly a flower that must have come from a greenhouse at this time of the year. It is a bit faded, of course, but not a single leaf has been disturbed."
"Poison," the superintendent suggested. "Man poisoned and then his body carried, in the hours of darkness, and placed in the waggon. Not a bad way of getting rid of a corpse, so that it will eventually be found perhaps a hundred and fifty miles from where the crime was committed. See what I mean?"
"No, I confess that I do not," the doctor admitted. "I presume that train came direct from Brendham, or, at any rate was placed on rail somewhere in that district."
"Well, certainly the train started near about there and, in the ordinary course of things, wound have come straight through. But, you see, there has been such a tremendous amount of holiday traffic which has only been cleared off this morning, and that means that the goods train must have been held up three or four times on the way. Of course, I can't say without making inquiries, but the train might have been shunted in two or three places during the nights since it started for the West. However, we shall see."
"When would you like to have the inquest?" the doctor asked.
"Well, in the ordinary course of events, it ought to be to-morrow, but in the circumstances, I should like to have it postponed for another day, at least. You see, this appears to be something quite out of the common, and, in any case, it may be a few days before the man's friends turn up to identify him. He might be travelling on business and writing no letters, so that his relatives would not have the slightest idea that he was dead. I don't know why, but I feel that this is going to turn into a very big thing. One of those tragedies that the public freeze on to and all the papers lay themselves out for special features. We shall have half the reporters in London down here before to-morrow is out. That is why I want the inquest put off a bit, because I am quite certain that the Yard will have to have a hand in this business. In fact, I think I shall get on the telephone to London at once."
The superintendent was not far wrong in his conjecture, for the next morning's issue of the 'Daily Bulletin' came out with flaring headlines and a more or less pyrotechnic description of the strange event that had come to light in the goods-yard at Barnstaple station. All of which the superintendent recognised as the handwork of that smart reporter Jagger. He had scarcely assimilated the melodrama before he was called to the telephone. He could hear by the hum of the wire that he was on a long-distance call and it did not require much intelligence on his part to guess that Scotland Yard was at the other end of the line.
"Inspector Norcliff speaking," came the words, more or less distinctly. "That Westport headquarters? Oh yes, Mr. Grierson. About that railway mystery. Sorry I could not get on to you yesterday, but I was out of town all day. As a matter of fact, I have just read the account of the finding of the body in this morning's 'Daily Bulletin.' No fresh developments, I suppose?"
"No, sir," Grierson replied. "And, so far, no inquiries as regards the dead man. I may say that our doctor here is considerably puzzled. He agrees with me that there has been foul play somewhere, but there is no sign of that to be seen on the corpse. If you could only make it convenient to get down here—"
"Oh, you need not trouble about that," came the reply. "I am catching the eleven ten from town, and I am bringing one of our own medico-scientific experts with me."
With that, the brief conversation ended and the superintendent went back to his work. He was glad enough to hear that he was going to have the finest assistance that the brains of Scotland Yard could lend him, with a view to the solution to a case which he frankly admitted was a little outside his grasp.
"Well, that's all right, so far," he told himself. "I can't do any more for the present, though perhaps the 'Daily Bulletin' account might help in bringing forward somebody to identify the body."
Inspector Norcliff sat in the corner of a first-class carriage on the Western bound express with a companion seated opposite him. They had the compartment entirely to themselves, so that they could discuss what was already known as the Barnstaple mystery without being overheard. The inspector bore no sort of likeness to the average sleuth of fiction; indeed, he presented an appearance much more like a successful middle-aged business man than a hunter of his fellow creatures. He was tall and rather inclined to slimness, with grey moustache and nearly pointed beard, and his dress was that of a prosperous city man, such as might be seen by the hundred every morning on the suburban lines.
His companion, on the other hand, was insignificant looking, not to say shabby. He wore a blue serge suit, which might have been slept in, and a soft collar that resembled a rag more than anything else. But his keen, intellectual features and his high forehead proclaimed him to the thoughtful observer as an individual distinctly out of the common. And indeed, the man known as Vincent Trumble had more than a passing reputation amongst the ranks of those who are interested in psycho-analysis and medical jurisprudence. For the time being, at any rate, he was more or less attached to Scotland Yard and one of its most valued staff.
"Well, doctor, what do you make of it?" Norcliff asked.
Trumble looked up from the 'Daily Bulletin,' which he had been studying, word for word so far as the railway mystery was concerned, ever since the train steamed out of London.
"Oh, I am not going to commit myself, my friend," Trumble smiled. "All the same, this is a most interesting account. That reporter chap down at Westport must be a bit of a genius in his way. With very little to go upon he hasn't missed a single point."
"Yes, that's all very well," Norcliff said. "But it doesn't get us any further. Was that man murdered?"
"My dear chap, how on earth can I tell? If you ask me, as man to man, I should suggest that he was. Of course, there might have been some reason why he hid himself on the top of that vegetable waggon. For instance, he might be a fugitive from justice. If you accept that view, then there is nothing out of the way in the fact that he was wearing a valuable gold watch and chain and a diamond pin, to say nothing of the fact of his being in possession of some considerable means. The Midland police may have been after him, for all we know to the contrary."
"If they had been, I should have known it," Norcliff said.
"Oh no, you wouldn't, my friend. There has been no time. The hue and cry will not really begin until all the police offices in England have duly digested that sensational column in to-day's 'Daily Bulletin.' A point to me, I think, Inspector."
"One up, doctor," Norcliff smiled. "Go on."
"Oh, well, it is only a game, so far as we are concerned at present," the doctor said. "I am only showing you what might be. The man was getting away from his pursuers, and he hit upon that ingenious method of putting as much ground as possible between himself and those upon his track. Probably, he hoped to reach Plymouth or Falmouth and get passage on some outward-bound boat. And then, instead of a prosaic ending like that, he died suddenly on the way. We may be in pursuit of a phantom, after all."
"Yes, we might," Norcliff agreed, "but if he died a natural death, the post-mortem examination will show that."
"Of course it will. But there is another side to the question. Suppose it wasn't a natural death, and suppose the man was not running away from justice? Don't you think it most extraordinary thing that one who was evidently a professional or high-class business man should know exactly how to get on board that goods train? I mean, he could not have boarded it at the point of dispatch without being seen, because that smart little journalist managed to elicit the fact that the waggon was loaded in daylight. I don't know where he got the information, probably by asking fruit dealers in Westport. At any rate, there it is, and it's a guinea to a gooseberry that the journalistic faculty has not gone wrong."
"But what does it lead up to?" Norcliff asked.
"Well, it leads up to this. That dead man, whoever, he is, must have made a very careful study of railway procedure, so far as goods trains are concerned. He must have discovered that, in certain circumstances, covered waggons and the like might possibly be detained en route between the Midlands and Westport. I mean, he must have been cognisant of the fact that there were certain stopping places especially at this time of year. I take it that, usually, those fast goods trains go right through. They would not be much use for fruit trains if they didn't. But, on this particular occasion, the train was side-tracked on more than one occasion. We have to thank that Barnstaple reporter for that bit of information. Unless my deductions are entirely wrong, the dead man knew pretty well what was going to happen to that particular train. He knew that it could not be relied upon to get through during the Whitsun holiday traffic and that it would be shunted into a siding. And now I will come to an entirely opposite theory to the one I advanced just now. Let us suppose for a moment that somebody else knew all about this. Let us suppose that the other person knew pretty well what was going on and had discovered from the dead man exactly how he was going to escape. He knew, moreover, a particular siding where that train would be shunted. He wanted to get rid of the murdered man—"
"But you said just now—" Norcliff interrupted.
"Oh, never mind what I said just now. There were two of them in some big criminal business. The second man wanted to get rid of the first, and, knowing what his colleague knew about those trains, laid a little scheme to that end. In other words murdered him somewhere in the neighborhood of one of those stopping places and contrived to get the body hidden in the waggon, where it was found. Moreover, by so doing, he would make it almost impossible for you to lay your hand upon the exact spot where the crime was committed. It might have been no further west than Abbotsbury, or, on the other hand, it might have been as far as Bristol. You see, these sidings are some times in very lonely places, so that under cover of darkness it would not have been a difficult matter to handle a body. Of course, the details would have to be carefully planned beforehand and the victim lured to a certain spot, but a really clever criminal could manage that easily. However, we cannot get any further until we find out exactly where that waggon lay each night during the delayed journey between the Midlands and the West."
"Most ingenious," Norcliff said. "You have certainly given me something to think about doctor. Upon my word I shall be almost disappointed if we discover that that man died a natural death."
"Well, it would certainly be like Hamlet with the Prince left out," the doctor agreed. "Still, as King George said about the dumpling 'how the deuce did the apple get inside?' You've got to find out how a well-dressed, apparently prosperous man was discovered dead, hiding himself on the top of a railway truck. And, unless I am greatly mistaken, when you do discover that, you will find yourself on the track of a great criminal conspiracy."
They were still discussing the case from more points of view than one, when, finally, they stepped out of the train at Westport late in the afternoon to find Inspector Grierson on the platform awaiting them. Norcliff wasted no time in making the necessary introductions and then they moved off in the direction of the mortuary.
"I want to see that body, Mr. Superintendent," Trumble said. "I understand that your police doctor is a little uncertain."
"Well, he doesn't like to speak too positively, sir," the superintendent replied. "Perhaps you would like to see him too."
"Later on, certainly," Trumble said. "Meanwhile, I should like to have a chance of examining the body alone."
It was a long time before Trumble, busy in that gloomy little room, began to speak. He had examined the body of the dead man with a meticulous care that left nothing to chance. Then, at length, he turned to the others and proceeded to enlighten them.
"Of course, no one can be quite certain until after the post-mortem," he said. "I may be entirely wrong, but I have come to the conclusion that the deceased was murdered."
"Poison?" the superintendent suggested.
"Well, in a way. Not exactly poison, perhaps, but certainly some very powerful drug. I know the symptoms of most of the great poisoning results, that is, poisoning pure and simple. And yet I can detect no signs on the body of any poison of which I am cognisant. No congestion of the eyes, no contraction of the muscles, but every sign that the victim was at one time under the influence of a drug that rendered him absolutely unconscious."
"And then?" Norcliff asked. "And then?"
"Oh, I am not suggesting that he was placed in the waggon when he was insensible," the doctor said. "I am fully under the impression that he was dead at the time. He was murdered when the drug was at its height, quite simply and in a way that would show no signs of violence. It would only be necessary for his murderer to hold a folded towel over his mouth and nostrils when vitality was at its lowest ebb, and then he would have just faded out of life without the slightest appearance of a struggle. And that, in my considered opinion, is the way he was killed."
"The post-mortem should confirm that," Grierson said. "Then when the facts are disclosed at the inquest—"
Trumble turned on him like a terrier on a rat.
"There must be no such disclosure at the inquest," he snapped. "It would be fatal to our investigations. My idea is to do not more than give simple facts at the inquest and then ask for an adjournment for two or three weeks. And I am quite sure that in this my friend Norcliff will agree with me."
The local superintendent regarded Trumble with a puzzled expression. It was quite evident that he did not know what the latter had in the back of his mind.
"I am afraid I don't follow you, sir," he said.
"Well, it's this way," Trumble explained. "Let us take it for granted, for the moment, that this is a case of murder. Mind you, I am not going so far as to say definitely that it is, but permit me to assume it. If I am right, then the murderer, whoever he is, has committed something quite novel in the way of a crime. He has drugged his victim first and suffocated him afterwards with a view to deceiving the doctor who handles the case. It is hardly probable that the criminal knows anything about medical jurisprudence; indeed, it would be a very strange coincidence if he did. He is probably miles away now, hugging himself with the delusion that the verdict will be one of 'found dead.' He will naturally jump to the conclusion that he has deceived the doctors, and that though the case is mysterious enough there is no evidence of first-hand crime about it. But if it comes out at the inquest that the man was drugged and then suffocated and that my evidence proved such a contention up to the hilt, then the man for whom we are looking will be put upon his guard. But why should we go out of our way to do so?"
"Meaning that the inquest is to be a sort of blind?" the superintendent asked. "Deceiving the public."
"Well, you can call it that if you like. But I don't think we can work this little scheme without the aid of the coroner. You see, what I want at the first hearing is that there should be nothing but formal evidence tendered. Then you, Mr. Superintendent, can formally apply for a fortnight's adjournment in the interests of justice. Perhaps you will be good enough to attend to that."
"Yes, that's the idea," Norcliff interpolated. "You see the coroner and tell him all that we have discovered. Explain to him exactly what Mr. Trumble has in the back of his mind, and ask him to see that nothing beyond the mere formalities crops up. You never know what questions some fool of a juryman is likely to ask. Nothing more for the moment, is there, Trumble?"
Dr. Trumble, having said his say, intimated that he was perfectly satisfied with the position of affairs as far as it had gone, and with that the conference broke up. The two men from London went back to their hotel to dine, leaving local matters in the hands of the superintendent. There was nothing to do now but wait for the inquest, which was held, in due course, two days later in the Town Hall, and, as Norcliff predicted, caused a great sensation. Long before the proceedings commenced the building was packed and the press table full to overflowing.
"What did I tell you?" Norcliff muttered, as he and his companion made their way to the place allotted to them. "I told you we should have all the reporters in the country down here, and you can see for yourself that I am correct."
It was even as Norcliff had said. The railway mystery had gripped the public imagination and the cheap press was making the most of it. There was not much to go upon so far, but it was wonderful what they had done with the small amount of material at their disposal. They had gathered here now, from all over England, looking forward eagerly to sensational details in which they were going to be disappointed. It was not for any of them to know that Superintendent Grierson had seen the coroner and explained to him the exact position of affairs. And he, of course, had been only too willing to fall in with the suggestion that had emanated from Scotland Yard.
He took his seat, after the jury was sworn, and immediately got to business. First came the two railwaymen who had found the body, who had very little to say that was not already public property, and after them came the police surgeon, who had officially made a post-mortem. Even he had very little to disclose.
"I was called in, in the course of my duty," he said glibly, "to examine the body of deceased. So far as I can ascertain, the dead man came to a natural end. I am not saying I am right, sir, because the case presents peculiar features. I should say the dead man was about 50 years of age and there was nothing about the organs of the body to point to any particular cause of death."
"They were normal and healthy?" the coroner asked,
"Exactly, sir. The heart was sound and so were the arteries. In fact, quite a healthy subject, and, moreover, a man who has taken great care of himself, which was proved by the state in which I found both kidneys and liver."
'"Then you think it is a case of natural death?" the coroner asked.
"On the face of things, I should say yes, sir. But there are peculiar features of the case which I should prefer not to go into for the moment. If you will allow me to say so—"
"Oh, quite, quite," the coroner said a little anxiously. "You found no symptoms of poisoning, for instance?"
"Not the slightest trace. I may say that I had assistance in making my post-mortem from a distinguished colleague who happens to be here at the present moment, but whose name I need not mention, because he has nothing whatever to do with the case. Neither of us could find the slightest trace of poison, but, at the same time, we came to the conclusion that though the deceased seemed to be normal in every way he was not unacquainted with drugs."
"Which suggests an overdose," the coroner put in.
"It may be that," the witness said. "The deceased might have taken more than he was accustomed to, and if he had turned over on his face, as indeed he was discovered, with his head half buried in a basket of produce, then he might have suffocated. But, of course, all this is mere surmise on my part."
"Then you don't think it is a case of murder?" a juryman asked.
"I decline to express a definite opinion at the moment," the witness said cautiously. "But it is just possible that deceased was alive when he found his way into the railway waggon. I have had no time to apply certain tests which were suggested to me by my colleague, but perhaps, as the inquest is pretty sure to be adjourned, I shall be in a position to speak more freely at the next hearing."
The last few words were a plain hint to the coroner, and he promptly took them as such.
"Thank you, doctor," he said. "I don't think we shall want to trouble you any further. Call the superintendent."
The superintendent stepped up to the table and gabbled off his evidence in a professional manner. But nothing that he could say served to throw further light on the mystery.
"It is all very strange," the coroner murmured. "There has been a good deal of publicity given to this case; in fact, it seems to have attracted attention all over the country. This being so, it is remarkable that nobody has come forward to identify deceased. Here is a man who is apparently of the professional or prosperous business type, well dressed and bearing on his body certain valuables, who, apparently, seems to have no one who knows him and is without relatives. Of course, a good many people don't read the papers, but still, considering that the man had evidently travelled by the train between Brendham and Westport—"
"Interrupting you for the moment, sir," Norcliff said, "I would respectfully remind you that that has yet to be proved. To begin with, I have ascertained that the fruit train, or, at any fate, that particular fruit waggon, was made up at Brendham in the broad daylight. Therefore, the subject of this inquiry could not have started from that town. Moreover, those particular waggons were shunted on more than one occasion between Brendham and Westport, and twice, if not more, they were side-tracked during the hours of the night. That being the case—"
"Yes, yes, I quite see your point," the coroner said. "The mistake is mine. But still I cannot understand why it is that no one has come forward to identify the body. Am I to understand that no papers were found on it?"
"So the superintendent tells me," Norcliff said. "There was not a single scrap of writing of any sort. Moreover, there was no name or initial on the man's handkerchief or on any of his underclothing. I have looked in vain for the tab at the back of the coat collar, where the tailor usually has his name and place of business. That may have been carefully removed, but again I am speaking entirely without book."
"But the buttons on the clothing?" the coroner hinted.
"They were all plain buttons. And so were the buttons on the dead man's trousers, which very often bear the tailor's imprint."
"From all of which it would appear that deceased was taking special steps to preserve his anonymity."
"Possible," Norcliff agreed, "But so far I have seen nothing to lead me to believe so. What we have to do now is to trace the various stopping places of the train, so as to narrow down the two or three spots in which the dead man could have entered the train, or his body was carried there. You have had the medical evidence, sir, which does not throw much light upon the mystery, and, if I may say so, I fail to see the object of carrying this inquiry any further until I have had an opportunity for closer investigation."
"Which means that you apply for an adjournment?"
"That is right, sir," Norcliff said. "Would you be good enough to put it off till, say, this day fortnight?"
The coroner rose from his seat with alacrity.
"Very well," he said. "I quite agree with you, Inspector Norcliff. The case is adjourned till this day fortnight, at half-past ten in the morning, when all witnesses will be present."
With that, the disappointed audience filed out and the small army of press reporters turned disconsolately away. For a minute or two Norcliff and the rest of them lingered behind after the coroner had gone, and talked the situation over together, though there was very little in what had happened to take hold of.
"I suppose it's up to you now, sir," Superintendent Grierson said. "I don't see how I can do anything more for the present."
"I am inclined to agree with you," Norcliff said. "Of course, you will keep your eyes open in case anything should turn up, though I am not in the least sanguine. Out there are one or two little points to which I want to call your attention before we go any further. Now we have got rid of the possibility of inquisitive jurymen, I want to point out to you certain peculiarities in the clothing of the deceased. Of course, it is a common thing for a man, especially if he happens to be a single man, as the deceased might have been, to have his underclothing and linen unmarked. Your average bachelor buys just what he wants from time to time and sends it to his laundry without any means of identification, because he does not know any better. Whereas, if he were a married man, with women about him, then the articles I speak of would be branded with his name, or at least his initials. And this, I conclude, tends to prove that deceased was single. Quite a minor point, but it may turn out to be important later on. And, another thing. Did you notice anything peculiar about the clothing?"
"I can't say I did," the superintendent admitted.
"Well, first of all, he was wearing American shoes. No mistake about them. You know those brown shoes with knobby toes that the well-dressed Yankee always affects."
"Perfectly right," the superintendent admitted. "I ought to have noticed that, but I am afraid I didn't."
"Very well, then. Let us go a step further. The cut of the coat, very broad across the shoulder, and loose fitting. American again. Both the shoes and the suit of clothes were made in the United States. So probably, was the underclothing. Let us suppose, for a moment, that this man was a tourist, travelling about England, as so many Americans do, and getting into bad hands. He might have had thousands of pounds on him. This being the case, it would be an artful move on the part of the murderer or murderers to leave him his watch and chain and note-case, to say nothing of the diamond pin in his tie. If I am right in this surmise, then that accounts for the fact that nobody has come forward to claim the body. The man might have been in England a week, he might have been here six months. But somebody must have known him. I mean such people as hotel-keepers and bank cashiers. We can't get any sort of move on until we can lay hands upon somebody who can say who the man was or, at any rate, what he called himself. And yet, there is nothing by which we could identify him."
"Oh, yes, there is," a little squeaky voice broke in from the background. "I have an idea."
Norcliff turned somewhat angrily in the direction of the speaker. Then he saw, to his great annoyance, that he was face to face with the little lame journalist who had been responsible for the flaring article in the 'Daily Bulletin.'
"What the deuce are you doing here?" he demanded. "Now, tell me exactly what you came back for."
"I didn't come back at all," the little man smiled. "I haven't been away yet. I sat in a corner there, writing my report, and I suppose you didn't notice me. All the same, I shouldn't have butted in like this if I hadn't heard what you said and if I hadn't had something in the nature of a brain wave."
"Well, what is it?" Norcliff said more good-naturedly.
"Well, it's just this, Inspector. I am interested in this case. I was the first to get on to it, and the first to publish the facts. It was a bit of a scoop for me, and it ought to do me a spot of good. I am a bit ambitious, I am, and I think I am a cut above the country reporting job that keeps me down here. Now, I have been over that man's wardrobe as carefully as you have. And, if I am not greatly mistaken, I have discovered something like a clue."
"Out with it, then," Norcliff said encouragingly.
"Oh, half a mo'," the little man grinned. "Not quite so fast as all that. I've got to get a bit out of this, as well as you, and the 'Daily Bulletin' is going to know it. All I want is that my paper should come first. There is a job going in Fleet-street, and if I make good over this business, I stand a thundering good chance of getting it. You help me and I will help you."
"Quite fair," Norcliff said. "It wouldn't be the first time I got a tip from the press, and I am always ready to acknowledge it. I shall know where to put in a good word for you."
"O.K.," the little man smiled serenely. "Now, perhaps you will send somebody round to the police station and ask them to look among the dead man's effects and bring his collar back."
A few minutes later, and the little man stood before what he felt to be an interested group, with the double linen collar in his hand. He pointed to the inside of the neck-band.
"There you are," he said. "No maker's name on that collar, and, no sort of trade mark, I mean, it isn't called anything, like the 'Burlington' or the 'Acme,' or anything of that sort. But there is a mark on it, as you can see for yourself."
He handed over the strip of linen to Norcliff, who saw, in blurred marking-ink by the side of the button-hole, the letters XX.L. roughly scrawled and somewhat faint from constant washings.
"There you are," Jagger went on. "That's a laundry mark, that is. Wonder you didn't tumble to it before, Inspector."
"Well, I didn't," the Inspector said shortly. "Go on."
"Why, certainly. It's a laundry mark all right, and, moreover, a laundry of which the deceased was in the habit of making regular use, or the letters wouldn't have run and faded as they have."
"I don't quite see it," the Inspector said.
"Oh, can't you?" the little man jeered. "Must have been the same laundry, because if he had been in the habit of changing from one washing establishment to another, then there would be other marks. Now do you see what I mean?"
"Very smart, very smart indeed," Norcliff smiled encouragingly. "Certainly one to you, my friend. But it means a good deal of spade work to be done yet."
"Ah, that is where the press comes in and saves you all the trouble," the man Jagger grinned. "I am making up quite a good column for the 'Daily Bulletin,' and if I can work this bit in, it will round up my article very nicely. Now, what I want you to do, Inspector, is this. I want you to let me make an exact copy of that laundry mark and have it reproduced in the 'Bulletin'—exclusive to the 'Bulletin,' and all that sort of thing. With our million odd circulation that mark would be seen by at least five times as many people. It will be a very strange thing if amongst all that lot somebody doesn't come forward who knows all about the laundry mark."
"Really, Mr. Jagger, you ought to be one of ourselves," Norcliff smiled. "A most excellent idea. I suppose you will telephone your article presently in the ordinary way?"
"You bet I will," Jagger responded promptly.
"Very well, then. You send your article and allude to some mysterious clue that is coming along in time for the 'Bulletin,' not to-morrow, but the day after. Then I will have the mark photographed and printed this afternoon, and let you have a copy of it. A clever journalist like you will be able to make a second sensational article instead of one for your enterprising paper."
Jagger vanished, perfectly satisfied with what he regarded as a good morning's work, and, after that, Norcliff and Trumble went off in the direction of the station to make their inquiries there with regard to the movements of the fruit train between the time it left Brendham and the moment when the body was found at Westport.
"It will take some time gentlemen," the man in charge of the proper department told his visitors. "You see, for the greater part of last week, the whole of the traffic on our, and, indeed, every other line was disturbed by excursion work. It was heavier than usual, because Whitsuntide this year has been more than usually fine and warm, and practically everybody in the country was on the move. If it hadn't been for so many cars on the road, I don't know what we should have done. At any rate, the train in which the body was found ought to have reached us two or three days before it did. You see, the goods were perishable, and I daresay we shall have to pay a good deal out in damage, for the delay. But there it is, and I am quite sure that when I come to make the inquiries you want, I shall find that that fruit train was shunted at all sorts of places to make way for mainline and excursion traffic."
"Yes, I can quite see the point," Norcliff said. "But I want something more definite than that. I want to know the exact spot at which the fruit waggons were first shunted, the time of day or night, and how long they were detained in the various places where they had to remain. A sort of time-table, if you understand what I mean. If you tell your people that this information is needed by Scotland Yard, you ought to get it almost at once."
The traffic inspector smiled just a little pityingly.
"Oh, it isn't going to be as easy as all that," he said. "We are all still busy, making up for the time we lost last week, and every man is up to his eyes in it. If you get all that you want within the next three days, you will have to be satisfied."
There was apparently no help for it, and so Norcliff and his companion went off to kill time as best they could till they had something definite to go upon from the railway company.
"It is a most infernal nuisance," Norcliff said. "But I don't see how we can make the slightest move until these railway people stir themselves sufficiently to provide the information we want. Meanwhile, I suppose we must loaf about and wait."
It was four full days before anything definite transpired. Then it came, not at the hands of the railway company, but through the man Jagger who burst unceremoniously into the sitting room of the hotel where the investigators were located, waving a telegram triumphantly in his claw-like fingers.
"Got it," he cried excitedly. "Just received this from the office. The mark on the collar has been identified by a laundryman who called on the 'Bulletin' people about an hour ago."
"Excellent," Norcliff said. "But, before we go any farther, what does your paper propose to do about it?"
"Well, you don't suppose they are going to keep the original information in the office safe, do you?" Jagger grinned. "It is another scoop for the 'Bulletin,' and don't you forget it."
"My dear young friend," Norcliff said, very gently. "Your paper can have all the kudos that it wants. But you, with your ambitious outlook on life, can hardly expect to benefit. It's all very well to argue that the clue of the laundry mark was due to you, and, to a certain extent, it was. I ought to have thought about it myself, and, no doubt, I should have done so in time."
"But, all the same, you didn't," Jagger pointed out.
"Oh, I am willing to give you all that, but what I want at the present moment is to keep that information from the public. It would be a real misfortune if the 'Daily Bulletin' people came out to-morrow with one of its flaming headlines announcing the fact that some laundry person had identified the mark on the collar and that the police were hot upon the trail. Can't you see how that is going to ruin my work to say nothing of giving the murderer a warning to the effect that he had overlooked a most important detail whilst he was getting rid of the body?"
"Yes, I see all that," the little reporter said grudgingly.
"Very well, then. And perhaps you will also see that your usefulness comes to an end directly the 'Bulletin' publishes that information. You won't get the credit for it, because your people will merely allude to the work of their local representative. Whereas, if the information is kept secret for a day or two, then I shall probably be able to put a good deal more in your way. In fact, if you like, and the proprietors of your paper are willing, you can come along with me as a sort of special commissioner, and I will see to it that your journal gets in front of all its rivals. Otherwise, I shall have to appeal to the Home Office for an order prohibiting the 'Daily Bulletin' from publishing the information."
The little reporter was not slow to see that which was being offered him. Nor did he fail to weigh up the chances in his favor.
"Yes, that is very good of you. What do you want me to do? I mean, do immediately?"
"In the first instance, go down to the hotel office and ask them to put you through to your newspaper. Tell the local exchange that your business is connected with the Westport murder, and that you are acting on behalf of Scotland Yard. If you do that you will get through to them in a quarter the time."
"Number, please," the little man grinned. "I mean the number which Scotland Yard gives anywhere when they want the line held up at this end. See what I mean?"
Norcliff gave the talismanic number that Scotland Yard always uses in such cases so that Jagger found himself talking to his own head office in little less than five minutes. He came back presently, beaming with delight.
"It's all right," he said. "I got on to one of the big men and he saw the point at once. I asked him to send somebody round to the laundry and tell the man who called with that information that he was on no account to mention what he had discovered."
"Now, that was very thoughtful of you," Norcliff said. "As to the other matter, are you coming with us?"
"You bet," the little man said emphatically. "Any time you like to give me a call I shall be ready."
"So that's all right," Norcliff said. "I think the best thing you can do is to go as far as Brendham and wait for us there. We are coming up the line almost at once, that is, as soon as I have heard from the people here exactly what happened to the goods trucks between the starting point and Westport. You can find out, if you like, who it was who consigned the foods."
The lame reporter went off in a happy frame of mind, leaving Norcliff and his companion together.
"What's the next move?" Trumble asked.
"Well, the next move is to cover the ground between Brendham and here," Norcliff explained. "I had all the figures and a general time-table of the goods train delivered here before you came down to breakfast. I know exactly what time that train left Brendham on the Thursday before Whitsuntide, and where it was held up. It didn't go very far, to begin with; in fact the first stoppage was at Abbotsbury, which is not more than 25 miles from the big fruit centre. And there the vans were shunted into a siding for the night and, so far as I can make out, all the following day. Then, again, there was a delay of a good many hours at Gloucester, and much the same thing happened at Bristol. We are going to work backwards, with Bristol as our first stop."
But, as it turned out, there was little to be gained in the course of their inquiries in the big Western city. There the train had undoubtedly been held up, but investigations showed that it would have been impossible for anybody to convey a bulky thing like a human body, even under cover of the darkness, across the siding, and deposit the corpse under the tarpaulin. For here the siding had been brilliantly lighted, an essentially necessary course, seeing that there were some score of lines and rails, and that, moreover, shunting operations were taking place day and night.
Norcliff stood in the midst of those shining rails and pointed this out to his companion.
"It could not possibly have been done here," he said. "I can't see anybody conveying a body into a big yard like this with all those electrics turned on. Besides, there were scores of men working here, and there would have been positive danger to anybody attempting to cross those lines without knowledge of the workings of a big goods siding. And, even if the murderer had known all that, he must have been a giant in strength to carry a human body, all dead weight, and hide it in that van. Therefore, I think we can rule out Bristol and get on to Gloucester without delay."
But Gloucester turned out to be quite as hopeless as Bristol had proved. The goods train had been detained there in much the same condition, though, perhaps, on a comparatively smaller scale. But, at any rate, the scale was large enough to convince Norcliff that they had not yet reached the scene where the murderer had succeeded in getting rid of the body of his victim.
"Another blank," Norcliff said. "Now on to Abbotsbury. If we don't get something definite there, then I shall come to the conclusion that we are on the wrong track altogether, and that, moreover, the murderer must have been working with the aid of accomplices."
"I don't think so," Trumble said softly. "I can't see for a moment, a man who had worked out so cunning and skilful a crime calling in anybody to help him. No, I think that we shall find the key to that side of the mystery in Abbotsbury."
It was nearly dark when the two reached Abbotsbury, so that they decided to postpone further investigations till the following morning.
Those in authority at Abbotsbury were quite ready and willing to give Norcliff all the information in their power. A goods train for the West had been shunted on to a siding there fairly early on the evening of Whit-Saturday, having got as far as there from Brendham, which was the point of dispatch, and then been held up by the excursion traffic. In other words, the fruit van had been in a siding at Abbotsbury for the best part of twenty-four hours, before there had been any chance of dispatching it farther.
"I don't exactly follow what that means," Norcliff said to the goods foreman who had been detailed to assist him. "Let us have it quite clear. Am I to understand that the fruit train got no farther than here, and that it spent the whole of Saturday night and perhaps the best part of the following day in one of your sidings?"
"That's it, sir," the foreman said. "I can show you the exact spot where the fruit van stood."
"All right; come along, then," Norcliff said.
They set out down the line for the best part of half a mile. By the time the foreman pulled up, they were well clear of the station itself, and standing on a long siding with just one line of rails that seemed to be terminating almost in the open country. Certainly, it was quiet and lonely enough there, with a high-road on one side of the line and, on the other, four or five houses of the small villa type standing in their own ground.
"This looks rather more like it," Norcliff said, turning to his companion. "Quiet enough for anything. Nobody about after dark and, unless my eyes deceive me, the gardens of those houses abut actually, on to the sidings themselves. Yes, I begin to see my way. Is that a public house farther down the road?"
The foreman informed Norcliff that it was.
"And a very respectable place, too sir," he said. "But they don't do much trade in the ordinary way, because it is in rather a quiet, lonely spot. But there is some very good trout fishing in the neighborhood, and lots of gents from London come down here and stay at the White Hart for the trout."
"Oh, do they?" Norcliff asked. "I am rather fond of a day's fishing myself. I wonder if they would put us up."
"I feel sure they would, sir," the foreman replied. "The place is a little bigger than you think."
"We'll take rooms there for a day or two, doctor." Norcliff said, as he turned to the man by his side, and placed a ten-shilling Treasury note in his hand. "We shall not want you any more, my friend; at least, not for the present, at any rate."
The foreman went back to his work, and Norcliff and Trumble went through a gate into the road where the public house stood.
"We are on the right track, for a dollar," Norcliff said. "The very spot. No chance of interruption after dark, and the place as quiet as the grave before midnight. Unless I am greatly mistaken, one of those quiet little villa residences could tell a story. Yes, I think so. We'll just be two fishermen looking for a likely stream, and mine host of the White Hart will do the rest."
The proprietor of the White Hart, who apparently had at some time in his career been a gentleman's servant, welcomed the new-comers respectfully, and inquired what he could do for them.
"You can give us a couple of bedrooms, I suppose?" Norcliff asked "We may stay a few days; that is, if the fishing comes up to our expectations. We hear rather well of it."
"I don't think you will be disappointed, sir," the landlord said civilly. "It is just a bit early for our water but some good baskets of trout have been taken by my customers in the last day or two. And I can give you bedrooms, of course, sir. Do you want them at once, or in the course of a few days?"
"Oh, we will take them at once," Norcliff said. "Our traps are at Abbotsbury station in the cloak-room there, and perhaps you can send a man to fetch them. We have no rods or tackle with us, but my man will send them down from town in a day or two. Can you manage to send to the station?"
The landlord would send for the gentlemen's belongings at once. Meanwhile, would the gentlemen please to lunch at the hotel, or had they already made their arrangements?
"We'll both lunch and dine here," Norcliff said. "Meanwhile, we will go as far as Abbotsbury and collect our handbags from the hotel where we stopped last night. As it happens, my friend here has a certain amount of business to do in Abbotsbury. But we will be back here in time for luncheon at half-past one."
It was quite a good luncheon that the landlord of the White Hart provided, and the dinner that followed, in due course, was equally satisfactory. Then, after the house had closed for the night, Norcliff strolled into the bar, which fortunately was empty, and ordered himself a drink. It would be a pleasure, he said, if the landlord would join him in a whisky and soda.
"I am sure you are very good, sir," the landlord said. "Have you been in this neighborhood before?"
Norcliff replied, truthfully enough, that he had not.
"I had often wanted to," he said. "I have a weakness for these old towns, and that Abbey of yours has a great attraction for me. I could spend hours wandering about there. But don't you find this rather a quiet spot in the winter?"
"Oh, a man gets used to that sort of thing," the landlord smiled. "Besides, I have neighbors."
"Ah, so I noticed," Norcliff said casually. "It seems rather a pity that those four houses down the road should be looking right down on the railway track, with their gardens touching a siding. They must find it rather a nuisance."
"No, I don't think they do, sir. You see, it isn't very often that any shunting is done on that siding, because there is only a single line there, and most of the heavy work takes place on the far side of the station. You see, the siding is a comparatively new one, though the hedges at the bottom of the gardens were there before the siding was made, and when the ground that it stands on was a field. Quiet people they are."
"What sort of people?" Norcliff asked.
"Well, one of the gentlemen is a retired bank manager. He came here thirty years ago, and will probably end his days in Abbotsbury. Then in another is a well-known tradesman in the town. The third belongs to a solicitor and the fourth is the property of retired clergyman, who is not in the best of health. You see, he spends quite half his time in the South of France."
Norcliff had elicited all this information in his own outwardly simple way, and the landlord would have been surprised if he could have seen the back of his customer's mind. Norcliff had almost at once dismissed the first three occupants of the houses, but there was something about this invalid clergyman that appealed to him.
"Oh, does he?" he said. "I wonder if he would be prepared to let his house during the time he is away. You see, there is fishing in the Avon—winter fishing, I mean—which is quite as good as your trout season. And if this old gentleman didn't want his house between say, September and May, then I think I might find him a tenant, if he would let his house furnished. I mean myself."
"Now that is an odd thing, sir," the landlord said. "The house is let furnished at the present moment, and has been for months. You see, the reverend gentleman rarely comes back home till the last week in May, and goes off again at the end of September. Something wrong with his chest, they tell me."
"Oh yes, and who has the house now?"
"A gentleman called Farr. He took the place over some time ago, together with the owner's elderly housekeeper and he has been living there ever since."
"An elderly man?" Norcliff asked tentatively.
"Well, I wouldn't go so far as to say that," the landlord said. "About forty-five, perhaps. Well-set-up gentleman, who looks as if he had seen service. In fact, a good many people here call him Captain Farr. But I don't know anything about that, sir. He comes here sometimes, but he doesn't say much, and keeps himself very much to himself. Not at all the sort of man you'd like to tackle with gloves, though I could do a bit myself that way at one time."
"But what on earth is a man like that doing down here?" Norcliff asked "Is he a fisherman, too?"
"Never cast a line as far as I know, sir. He told me one day not so long ago, that he came into the district with a view to purchasing a chicken and bee farm about ten miles away, and I believe he has been negotiating with the owner ever since. In fact I know he has, because the man who has the farm lives close to a brother of mine. Not that it is any business of mine."
"Or mine," Norcliff smiled. "I should like to have a chat with this Mr. Farr, because, if he is giving up the house down the road, then I might take it off his hands for a bit."
"I am afraid that can't be managed just now, sir," the landlord said. "That is, not unless you are staying for a week or so, because Mr. Farr shut up the house on the evening of Whit-Sunday and went away for a few days."
Here was interesting information, Norcliff thought, though it might lead to nothing in the end. Still, in the light of what he knew, it was rather strange that a man who kept himself very much to himself should take a house on the very edge of that siding and that he should shut it up and leave it just at the time when the fruit train was shunted into its solitary siding. A big, strong man, in the prime of life, and one who evidently possessed the muscular development in the highest possible degree.
"Ah, well, I suppose I must let the matter stand over, for the present, at any rate," Norcliff sad. "I suppose you have no idea where Mr. Farr has gone?"
"Well, I couldn't say for certain, sir, but on Saturday evening the old housekeeper I was speaking of came in to see my wife, and told her not to send any more eggs and butter up to the house until she came back again. You see, sir, I have a bit of a dairy, and I supply a fair amount of produce in the neighborhood."
"Then the housekeeper is not on the premises?"
"Oh no, sir; she has gone off to stay with some relations in Gloucester. And she did drop a word to the effect that Mr. Farr was going to Birmingham for a few days."
Norcliff went up to bed presently, feeling that he had not altogether wasted his time. Before he had finished, he was going to know a great deal more about the house—the garden of which ran down to the railway siding and was only separated from it by an old quickset hedge. Moreover, the tenant of the house had shut it up and gone away fairly early on Whit-Saturday, somewhere about the time, probably, when the fruit train was being dispatched from Brendham. Moreover, he was a man who appeared to be interested in farming, and, as a resident of some months standing, would have every opportunity of discovering all there was to be learnt in connection with the goods traffic in and around Abbotsbury. There was no reason whatever why he should not know that the fruit vans should be shunted off the main line only twenty miles away from the starting-place. He might have studied all that sort of thing out minutely through his experience of what he could see for himself during the short rush which made up the Easter holidays. It was more than probable that exactly the same thing had happened during the first holiday festival of the year, and that he had laid his plans accordingly. Of course, it was no more than mere conjecture at the moment, but the line of reasoning was sound enough to induce Norcliff to probe a great deal deeper into the comings and goings of the man who was known in the neighborhood as Captain Farr.
"All of which is distinctly fishy," he said to Trumble, when they met at the breakfast-table next morning. "We are going to look over that house and garden, and I shall be greatly surprised if we don't find something there to reward our pains. Whilst you are smoking your pipe I think I will slip down as far at Abbotsbury station and ask if that early vegetable train for the West was held up here at Easter precisely as it was on Whit-Saturday."
Norcliff was absent for the best part of an hour, and, when he came back, a mere glance at his face showed Trumble that the man from Scotland Yard had hot been wasting his time.
"It's all working out beautifully," he explained. "It appears that the same thing happens practically before every bank holiday. I am not talking about Christmas, but the other days, when the traffic is more than normal. Anyway, I have elicited the fact that the corresponding train, dispatched to the West on Easter Saturday, was held up in the same siding for a similar period. If Farr is the man we are after, then I take it he was aware of all that I have been telling you; and I am going to suppose, for the sake of my theory, that he took the house by the siding for the purpose of carrying out that dastardly crime."
"I am inclined to agree with you," Trumble said. "Now then, what's the next move?"
"A visit to the house by this railway," Norcliff said curtly.
Norcliff did not propose to waste much time in elaborating any particular scheme for seeing over the house by the siding in such a way as to prevent the neighbors talking.
"That won't matter in the least," he said. "All we have to do is to take care that nobody sees us entering the house, which will be my business. My suggestion is that we potter about the grounds for the moment, and if anybody sees us and asks questions, then I think we had better say that we are friends from a distance who have dropped in to call upon—by the way, what is the old gentleman's name? I quite forget to find that out."
"Well, I have," Tremble said. "As a matter of fact, he is the Reverend Walter Temperley."
"So that is that. We are in the neighborhood with the intention of doing a few days' fishing, and we happened to find out, to our great surprise, that our old Friend Temperley has a house in the neighborhood. This will enable us to go all over the garden and, after dark, enter the house. That, of course, will entail a little quiet burglary. Do you get the idea?"
"Oh, the idea is well enough, as far as it goes," Trumble said. "But it has certain drawbacks. Suppose this man Farr told the police he was going away and that they were to keep an eye upon the house? Just the sort of job that some zealous young constable would like, and if he happened to butt in—"
"Yes, I quite see your point. Perhaps, it would be as well if I went down to the police station here and revealed my identity to the head constable. Then he can drop a hint to his subordinates to be a little blind as to what is going on at the house by the side of the rails for the next night or so. I will just run down and see the chief, and then we will cross the line and see what we can find outside the house."
Half an hour later the two turned into the garden gate and walked boldly up a flagged path which was planted with roses on either side, and thence came to the porch. The garden appeared to be wonderfully well kept, and evidently the Reverend Walter Temperley was not disposed to allow his flower garden to fall into disorderly untidiness, though he was away from home for something like eight months in the year. Trumble pointed this out to his companion as they neared the porch.
"So I noticed," Norcliff said. "But then, you see, as the old gentleman is here all the summer, he would quite naturally make it a point that his temporary tenant had the garden properly cultivated, and, upon my word, it is a very nice garden. A beautifully trim lawn, with well-arranged flower-beds and a big glass porch that forms a sort of conservatory-entrance to the house."
It was exactly as Norcliff said. Outside the heavy front door a large glass porch had been erected, shut in by an outer glazed door, so that the enclosure formed something that represented an outdoor conservatory. Peeping in, the intruders could see a double row of hot-water pipes running the whole length of the place, which contained a perfect wealth of hothouse flowers. Moreover, the arched roof was covered with a magnificent rose tree, which just then was in the full flower of its beauty. The outer door was not locked, so that the intruders could walk in and inspect the little conservatory for themselves. Trumble looked up at the hanging blossoms, then turned to his companion.
"You notice anything particular here?" he asked.
"I can't say that I do," Norcliff admitted.
"Well, cast your mind back a day or two. Don't you remember noticing anything particular when you examined the dead body of the man in Westport? Something he was wearing?"
"By Jove, you are right!" Norcliff cried. "A faded rose in his button-hole. A hothouse flower."
"Yes, and a Gloire de Dijon bloom at that," Trumble said. "And so is this. Now, it is too early in the year for these roses to bloom out of doors, so, obviously, the flower in the dead man's buttonhole must have come out of a greenhouse. I don't say that this is the particular greenhouse, but it is certainly a most interesting coincidence. Let us assume for a moment that the particular blossom came off this tree."
"Upon my word, I shouldn't be surprised if you are right," Norcliff said. "Everything points in that direction. I feel practically certain that we are on the spot where the crime was committed, and what you have just discovered helps to prove my conclusion. Would you mind trying the front door?"
"No entrance that way," Trumble said, as he tamed the handle. "We shall have to go round to the back, where the kitchen garden is, and try our lack on that side."
They had hardly closed the glazed door behind them and stepped into the open when the sound of footsteps fell upon their ears. Almost at the same instant a man came round the corner from the back of the house. walking slowly and feeling his way with a stick as if his eyesight was defective, or as if he were totally blind. He was a very pleasant looking individual, young and well turned out, with a disarming smile upon his lips.
"Is there somebody here?" he asked. "Unfortunately, I cannot see who it is, but I thought I heard voices, and I am perfectly certain that I heard somebody's footsteps."
Norcliff looked swiftly at his companion, and made a sign to him to be silent. It was rather an unexpected interlude, and, just for the moment, Norcliff was disturbed by it.
"Yes, we're two strangers," he said; "friends of the Rev. Walter Temperley. We happened to be staying in the neighborhood, and we thought we would look him up. But apparently the house appears to be closed. Is our friend away?"
Before there was time for a reply, a sudden exclamation burst from Trumble, and he stepped forward eagerly.
"Good gracious," he cried. "Why, it's George Marchmont. What on earth are you doing here, George?"
"I don't quite place you," the young man said. "And yet the voice is familiar enough. Let me think for a moment. I've got it. You're my old friend, Trevor Trumble."
"You've guessed it all right," Trumble said. "Norcliff, this is a very old pal of mine. We were out in France together when I was serving with one of the big hospitals there, and Marchmont was in the artillery. You know I was out in France looking after the men who were suffering from temporary and other sorts of blindness, and Marchmont here came under my care. You know, blindness is caused by all sorts of things, even by shell shock, and that was Marchmont's trouble. But, my dear fellow, the last time I saw you, you were well on the way to recovery."
"So I was," The man called Marchmont smiled. "In fact, at the time of the Armistice I could see as well as you can. You told me to be particularly careful, and not run any sort of risk, and you warned me that even so much as a fly in my eye might affect me for years to come. I was so much better when I left the Army that I began to look about for something to do, and I forgot all about your warning. And now, you see, I am suffering for it."
"I must go into this presently," Trumble said. For the moment, at any rate, he had forgotten all about the Westport mystery. "I must see into your trouble, George, because I know the history of it from the first and it is just possible that I may be able to put you right again. Mind you, I am not saying definitely that I can do anything of the sort, but I might. If you are living here, and I can see you more or less professionally—"
"Oh, I am living here," Marchmont said. "About a mile down the road. I have a house there—"
"And your sister?" Trumble asked a little hastily.
"Sylvia, you mean. Oh, Sylvia is all right. She is keeping house for me. I didn't want her to bother, because I have learnt to look after myself, but she would insist upon giving up her hospital work, which she continued for a year or two after the war, and devote herself to her unfortunate brother. She is here."
The speaker raised his voice, and, in response, a girl came round the corner, a girl whose eyes lightened up and whose face showed every sign of pleasure and, perhaps something more when they lighted upon Trumble's shabby exterior.
"Why, it's Trevor Trumble," she cried. "Fancy meeting you again like this, after all these years. And just as untidy and careless of your personal appearance as ever."
"Just the same," Trumble agreed. "I suppose that is because I want some one to look after me. By the way, let me introduce my friend to you, in—er—Mr. Norcliff."
Trumble pulled himself up just in time. These people were very old friends of his, and, indeed, he had hoped at one time that Sylvia Marchmont might be something more, but that was no reason why he should forget his professional caution, the more especially that the last thing Norcliff would want just now would be to have himself identified by these strangers as Scotland Yard. Norcliff was quick to appreciate Trumble's motives.
"Yes," he said hastily. "You see, I happen to know the reverend gentleman who owns this house, and that is why I am here with my friend Trumble to call upon him. By chance we are in the neighborhood, and I didn't wish to lose the opportunity."
"A most delightful old man," Sylvia Marchmont said. "We have been on terms of great intimacy with him during the two years we have been living in the neighborhood, and our only regret is that he should be absent abroad so much. However, he will be back in two or three weeks, and if you are staying that length of time—"
"I shouldn't be surprised if we were," Norcliff said dryly. "But isn't the house let furnished?"
"That is so," the girl explained. "Let, for the present, to a Mr. Farr, who is quite a friend of ours, too; in fact, we were more or less responsible for bringing him and Mr. Temperley together. But Mr. Farr does not care much for the garden, and that is why my brother and myself undertook to see that it was kept in order."
"And very well you seem to have done it," Norcliff said, "if you will allow me to say so. I haven't much time for that sort of thing, but the garden strikes me as charming. Those wonderful roses in the porch, for instance. And I suppose that the rest of the property is just in as perfect order."
"Well, we do our best," Sylvia laughed. "And my brother helps as far as he can. But, of course, we have to have a man in three days a week, and he works here under my supervision."
"Mr. Farr ought to be greatly obliged to you," Norcliff said. "It must save him a good deal of trouble. I wonder if he would allow me to go into the house and write a few lines."
"Oh, you can go into the house," the girl said. "But Mr. Farr is away. He locked up the place last Saturday, and sent his old housekeeper home for a day or two. I don't suppose he will be back for another few days, but he will write to us beforehand."
"Quite a good chap, Farr," George Marchmont said, more or less incontinently. "I met him after I came back from a voyage that I took to the South Pacific, and he has been kindness itself ever since. I ran up against him quite by accident, and we have been seeing one another very often lately. In fact, it was my suggestion that he should come down here and take a furnished house whilst he looked about him for a poultry farm, not so much because he needed anything of the sort, but so that he could be within reach of Sylvia and myself. He has practically decided upon a place, and I believe that he is now in Birmingham seeing the owner."
Trumble listened to all this more or less impatiently. For some absurd reason, which he only realised faintly himself, he was feeling just a trifle jealous of this amiable Mr. Farr. There had been a time when he had hoped to establish something like permanent relations with Sylvia, but they had contrived in some mysterious way, to drift apart. Perhaps it was because the girl was wrapped up in the hospital work which she had commenced in those hectic days in France, and perhaps it was because he, Trumble, had been so careless with the conventions. Moreover, Sylvia intensely disliked his slack and untidy habits, which he persisted in, apart from his professional enthusiasm, and, more than once, she had been driven to expostulate with him. It was the motherly instinct that every woman has for the man for whom she cares, and perhaps she had gone a little too far. She realised if Trumble did not, that a man occupying as distinguished a position ought, at any rate, to try and dress up to it. And Trumble was the last man in the world to realise that, properly dressed, he was a man of quite outstanding and distinguished appearance. At any rate, there it was, and Trumble had almost got over the sore that he had felt at the time, but it was all back again now when he found himself face to face with this amazing and attractively pretty girl who smiled so sweetly at him, as if there never had been any cause of ill-feeling between them. Neither did she look a day older; indeed, Trumble asked himself indignantly why she should. She could not be a day over twenty-four, and there was nothing whatever about her to suggest that she had seen so much of the loathsome side of human nature. And this Farr, what sort of a man was he? Did he entertain any hopes that sooner or later, he and Sylvia......
Then Trumble put the matter out of his head entirely. There were far more important things to think of than that, though, for the moment, the man Farr was more interesting as an individual under suspicion than as a potential lover of the pretty girl who stood there smiling into Trumble's face.
It was Norcliff who brought him back to himself again.
"It seems to me," the latter said, "that we are wasting our time here. I don't think we need worry about leaving a note for Mr. Temperley, and, at any rate, I can write him at our hotel. We are staying at the 'White Hart,' Miss Marchmont."
"Oh, really," the girl cried. "That is on our way home. Our house is not more than a mile farther down the road. I was wondering, if you gentlemen had nothing better to do, if you would care to come along to our cottage and have tea with us."
"Personally, I should be delighted," Norcliff said, before Trumble could put in a word. "But if you don't mind, I should like to walk down the garden and have a look round. Please don't trouble to accompany me, Miss Marchmont. You can stay here and sit on this rustic seat and talk over old times with my friend the doctor here, whilst I am pottering about in the back."
Without waiting for any response, Norcliff turned away from the rest and went round to the rear of the house past a tennis lawn and then down a short flight of steps into the kitchen garden. There was a flagged path, straight down the middle of this, which ended in a thick quickset hedge which was already beginning to show signs of bud. In a short time it would be in full bloom, but, for the present, the buds hung in green clusters half hidden under the leaves which had been cut back after the manner of a yew hedge, so as to resemble a well kept emerald wall. And there, presently, Norcliff noticed, right at the bottom of the path, two or three withered sprays which had, comparatively recently, been broken off the living fence. The hedge itself was not more than four feet in height and a foot in thickness, so that, by leaning against it, Norcliff could see on to the ground on the far side. And there, again, he noticed a handful of the immature blooms and some odd leaves that had faded since they had been torn off.
"Very strange," he muttered to himself. "And very significant. However, that can remain for the present. It's a clue, anyway, or if it isn't that it's an indication. I don't think I can do anything further now until I can get into the house."
With that he turned and strolled back to the house where the others awaited him and, a little later, they were walking down the road in the direction of Marchmont's cottage, Trumble a little ahead with his old friend and Norcliff behind with Sylvia. It was easy enough for him to gather all the information he wanted from the girl, who chatted in the most unaffected manner.
"Yes, of course, it is a terrible misfortune from which my brother suffers," she said, in response to a remark from her companion. "And yet, at one time, he thought he was quite cured. Dr. Trumble's treatment was absolutely wonderful. He was so pleased about it, too, because the three of us were such great friends. And I am sure my brother will be able to see as well as you or I if he had only been content to stay in England instead of wandering abroad."
"Very fond of travelling, I suppose," Norcliff murmured.
"No, I don't think that was quite it," the girl replied. "You see, George had been knocking about the world for some few years before the war broke out. Australia and New Zealand and all over the Pacific. But I think he would have come back and settled down if my father had not lost nearly all his money through the war. Then there was not much left, only sufficient to keep us in fair comfort. And that if we stuck together. But then, you see, that is rather difficult, because people want to get married and all those foolish things. Of course, I don't really mean that, Mr. Norcliff, but you will see where the difficulty came in. So, before his eyes were really right, my brother set out travelling again, and found himself, eventually, in the South Pacific. I stayed at home, and went on with my hospital work until the great trouble happened. George was thousands of miles away when his sight suddenly failed him, so he had to be sent home, and I was compelled to turn my back upon my own profession and look after him. That is why, after a time, we came down here and bought the cottage in which we live. So long as we live together there is just a little more than enough for our wants, and, on the whole, we are far from being unhappy. It is a dreadful misfortune for George, all the same. He doesn't like anybody to allude to it, but there are times when he speaks freely, and I expect he will tell you all about it, now that he has come so happily in contact with his old friend Dr. Trumble again."
Norcliff nodded understandingly. In fact, he understood a great deal more than Sylvia imagined. So they chatted on in the friendliest possible way until they came, at length, to a small old-fashioned thatched cottage at the end of the lane with a rock garden in front of it, and a perfect deluge of spring flowers behind.
"Here we are," Sylvia said. "This is our little cottage. If you will sit outside in the sunshine, I will go in and get the tea. We only have one sitting-room, and that is why I shall ask you to stay outside until I am ready to receive you in state."
Norcliff sat there, forgetting, for a moment, his professional duties and the call that had brought him so far from Scotland Yard. It was quite enough for him, for the moment, that he should lie back in his seat and smoke one cigarette after another. It was a warm and drowsy afternoon for the time of year, so that Norcliff was perfectly content to lounge there and listen.
"You will have to come up to town," Trumble was saying. "I must have another look at those eyes of yours. My dear fellow, I can't understand it at all. When I saw you last you were practically as well as I am. All you had to do was to take care of yourself and not run any risks. I mean, risks of catching severe colds or any sort of diseases such as scarlet fever, for instance. If you had anything like this, then, of course—"
"But I didn't," Marchmont smiled. "I haven't had a day's illness since I left France."
"Do you really mean that?" Trumble asked. "It seems impossible to me. I had diagnosed your case so completely that I had nothing else to learn about it. There must have been some reason, some powerful reason why your sight failed. An accident?"
Marchmont shook his head smilingly.
"It was no accident," he said. "The thing was done designedly."
"What, do you mean you were purposely blinded?"
"Something like that," Marchmont said. "I don't mean to say that the man actually meant to deprive me of my sight—at least, not permanently. It was red pepper that did it."
Marchmont made his dramatic statement quietly enough, and even with the semblance of a smile on his face. But all the same, his listeners deduced the fact that there was drama behind it. Not that it mattered much so far as Norcliff and his companion were concerned, because they were more or less wasting time. But still an hour or so could not make all that difference, and it was not an easy matter to turn their backs upon a blind man, especially when Norcliff was wise to the knowledge that his comrade took more than a passing interest in Marchmont's sister.
"How do you mean?" Trumble asked. "Do you imply that the incident was deliberate?"
"I am afraid so. But, If you have an hour or so to spare, perhaps we had better get back to the origin of things. You see, when I was fighting in France, I made the acquaintance of a man whose name I need not mention, because he is dead, and, curiously enough, if he were still alive I don't suppose I should be here to-day, and I am quite sure that I should be in possession of my eyesight. It is very strange how one thing leads to another, and, what appears at one moment to be a trivial incident, resolves itself, later on, into a tragedy. At any rate, that was my case.
"My friend—let us call him Brown—was a queer sort of chap. A real good sort, and one of the kindest-hearted men I have ever met, though he did hide his generosity under a mask of cynical indifference. He always struck me as a man who has had a great disappointment in life and yet one who was never likely to talk about it, even to his most intimate friends. He was in my own regiment, and, gradually, we drifted together. I liked him and he liked me, without any effusive sentiment on either side. If he had any relations he never mentioned them, and when, eventually, he was killed, I didn't know in the least where to write the usual letter of condolence. I took a lot of trouble in the way of inquiries, but even the War Office could tell me nothing. I knew the poor chap was a gentleman, and, of course, being one myself, I recognised at once the free-masonry of the public schools. You can't mistake that sort of thing."
"That is true enough," Trumble admitted.
"Well, I never even knew which school. And the War Office could tell me nothing. The man called Brown had joined up at the beginning of the war, when they were glad enough to have athletes of his type, and it wasn't very long before he found himself in the commissioned ranks. He was some years older than myself, and he had travelled all over the world. There seemed to be no place where he had not been, and, from what he told me, he knew the Pacific like an open book. Of course, all that sort of thing is interesting to a man like myself, who always had an itch for travelling, but it didn't lead me much further until Brown was fatally wounded. We went over the top one night to cut some German wire, but, unfortunately, the foe had hit upon exactly the same idea as regards ours. They were a bit stronger than we were and we had to retire, leaving a handful of dead and carrying our wounded as best we could. Amongst the casualties was Brown—in fact, I hauled him into safety myself—but I could see, at once, that the poor chap was done for.
"We get him into the hospital and there they made him as comfortable as possible, but it was quite evident that he was finished. He realised that, and, early the next morning, an hour or so before he died, he sent for me. And of course I went.
"He was in no pain and perfectly conscious. And then, when we had both looked the facts in the face, he began to tell me a secret. He didn't mention his family or who he was, or where he came from, and I didn't ask. Evidently he had no desire to talk about that side of his past, so I humored him. And now I am coming to the point.
"What he wanted to talk about was this. He had spent some years in the Pacific, hunting for pearls, more especially amongst those islands where the fisheries were absolutely played out. Islands where nobody went because it was felt that to do so would be a mere waste of time. But Brown was not of that opinion. He knew a need deal about this subject, and his theory was that near a good many of those islands, especially those that had been left alone for twenty years or so, the pearls would be back again. And, as events turned out, he was right. He found an island and there were the pearls, right enough. Any amount of them. His scheme was to gather them himself and, when he had procured enough to make him rich, come home and settle down. With this intention, he landed on the island in question with enough provisions to last him six months and set to work quite alone, and doing his own diving.
"But even in the South Pacific you cannot do that sort of thing without attracting attention. Things get talked about. The mere fact that an eccentric Englishman had been landed by a certain boat on a desert island began to spread. Then a small, adventurous trader hove in sight one day and Brown knew that his secret was about to be discovered. During the two or three hours that the boat was working into the shore, Brown dumped the whole mass of pearl shell back into the lagoon and hid the treasure he had recovered where it would be safe. Then he told the captain of the schooner the truth, and, because he told the truth, the people on board refused to believe him. They only laughed at him for a fool, and he, falling in with their mood, agreed, telling them, at the same time, that his provisions were nearly exhausted and that, if they had not turned up providentially, he would have been face to face with starvation. It was a case of one bluff against another, with Brown sort of top dog at the finish. You see, he had made up his mind to stay on the schooner until they had been to an island of some size and then disembark and lie quietly until he could get some natives to take him back to the island again.
"Now, I dare say all that would have been quite O.K. if something else had not happened. Directly the schooner reached a certain island that boasted a small white population and a telegraph office, Brown heard something that put the pearl fishing entirely out of his mind. This was, you understand, late in 1914. He heard that England was at war with Germany, and that every man would be needed. Brown did not give the pearls a second thought after that. He got back to England as quickly as he could, and joined up. And, in the course of time, he was killed, as I have been telling you.
"But not before he had told me quietly in the hospital all about his adventures in the Southern Seas. You see, he wanted to do me a good turn. So he gave me a plan of that island, with the latitude and longitude, so that there would be no difficulty in finding it, and he asked me to keep the matter a secret. There was nobody else in the world that he cared about, and he knew that I had not much money of my own.
"'My dear old chap,' he said to me. 'You will want money later on. You have given up some of the best years of your life to this big fight, but in a way, it is nothing in comparison with the big fight that is coming to men like you when the war is over. George, old man, that hope about England being fit for heroes to live in is all very well, but when the war ends, as it will, in a few months, you will find it devilish hard to get a living. In a way you have wasted the years when you ought to be carving a career for yourself. And in the British Army to-day there are thousands like you. But I shouldn't worry about that if I were you. You've got a few hundreds left, I suppose?'
"I told him that I had, because I really have a small income and, during the whole of the war, I had saved the better part of my pay.
"'That's all right,' he said. 'You take my advice and go south and find that island. Take half a dozen natives with you and clear out those beds of all their pearls, before anybody tumbles to what is going on, and then clear out. With any luck you ought to pick up a fortune. It is there all right.'
"Well, half an hour later he was dead, and I had the plan safely in my pocket. As a matter of fact, I have it now. It has never left me since the day it came into my hands, though I know now that somebody was following me and watching me all the time."
"Then you really went?" Trumble asked.
"Went? Of course I did. It was just the sort of expedition that appealed to me. I couldn't settle down to regular work, anyhow. Mind you, I didn't forget what you said about my eyes, but I didn't see how a voyage round the world could hurt them. At any rate, I went, and, in the course of time, I found that island. I did not remain on it alone, because I could not have stood the solitude. But I took very good care to do all my own sorting. And this took place generally at night when my natives were asleep. Of course they knew that pearls were once found in the island and they laughed in their sleeves to see this fool of an Englishman wasting his time. Not that they minded, because they were being well paid and well fed, and the longer the expedition lasted, the better they would be pleased. But they didn't know that what Brown told me was absolutely correct."
"Then you really found the pearls?" Norcliff asked.
"I most certainly did," Marchmont replied. "A great many of them small, and of little value, but more than enough to pay the expense of the trip. But amongst them, after six months' work, I had discovered exactly 12 superfine stones, which were worth a fortune. The rest I hid on the island.
"By this time, I was getting tired of the loneliness, so I decided to break off for a bit. With the 12 pearls carefully hidden I went across to the main island about which I was telling you, and there took passage on a sort of liner for New York. It was on that liner that the trouble began, because, before I reached New York, the 'accident' of which I speak had happened to me and I had lost those 12 wonderful pearls."
"You mean they were stolen?" Norcliff asked.
"Beyond a shadow of a doubt," Marchmont went on. "Mind you, I had not the slightest idea that I was being watched or followed and I don't think I was. I mean that the thief, whoever he was, knew nothing about the island itself, or whence I came, because I had left my handful of natives behind me, intending to return to my private island again, after I had been to New York. I think it must have been at the hotel on Tagela that I was spotted, for an adventurer who was following up the lines of the man called Brown and suspected me of having pearls in my possession. At any rate, be that as it may, the man who robbed me was not far wrong in his deductions. You see, there are all sorts of unscrupulous and clever adventurers haunting those seas, so that our passengers were a very mixed lot. We had people who were travelling round the world for pleasure, American business men and a sprinkling of the fair sex, to say nothing of several men who carried their characters on their faces. Chaps to be distinctly avoided. But I felt so safe in my secret that these fellows never troubled me at all. Besides, I had a cabin to myself, so that I could not see anything to worry about. And that was where I was mistaken.
"The pearls were hidden under the lining of one of my cabin trunks. And, one night, when I went down to bed, which was pretty late because I had been playing poker in the smoking room, I found somebody overhauling that very trunk. I could not recognise him, because his back was turned towards me. He heard me coming, and made no sign until I was close behind him. Then he kicked my legs from under me by a backward movement, so that I fell. Before I could recover my feet, some hot stinging stuff was thrown into my eyes, but not before I recognised my assailant."
"Oh, then you would know him again," Norcliff suggested.
"Certainly, I should," Marchmont went on. "I had just time to visualise his features when the stuff was dashed into my eyes and I was left blind as I am till this moment."
"But you raised an alarm," Norcliff said. "You had the ship searched and all that sort of thing?"
"Of course I did, my dear fellow," Marchmont said. "But what was the use of that when I couldn't identify him? I hadn't the slightest idea how he was dressed, because I didn't notice it. And, moreover, it was quite impossible to say whether he was a gentleman or not. There was a tremendous fuss and bother and a great deal of questioning, but the pearls were gone, and I was blind, so that when I reached New York, all I could do was to wait patiently until my sister came over to bring me back to England, and, here I have been ever since. Not that I worried very much, because a blind man's requirements are not many, and my sister and myself have quite enough as long as we remain together. If I ever do recover my sight again I am going back to the South Pacific to pick up another fortune. I know it is waiting for me there, because those Kanakas I employed must have left the island ages ago and, no doubt, it is deserted now, exactly as I found it. And that in the end of the story. What do you think of it, Trumble?"
"Most deeply interesting," Trumble said. "And all the more so, because I shall be very much surprised if I find on a close examination, that your sight really is destroyed. I suppose you have been to a good many experts in the meantime?"
"Not one," Marchmont said. "Why should I? You told me if I didn't take care of my sight that any accident might destroy it. So what was the use of wasting money?"
"But why didn't you come to me, George?"
"Because, my dear fellow, I had lost sight of you altogether. I wrote to your old quarters in London after the war and the letter came back to me through the post office. For all I knew to the contrary, you might have gone abroad."
"Yes, I quite understand," Trumble said. "You see, after the war I turned into rather a fresh line. And I was in Paris for two years after the Armistice. I was so busy that I had forgotten all about you, though I ought to be ashamed to say it."
"But you surely don't mean to tell me that my injury is not absolutely permanent?" Marchmont asked.
"Well, I wouldn't go as far as to say that on the spur of the moment," Trumble replied. "But that sort of accident was not exactly what I meant. I referred more to diseases or illnesses, like rheumatic fever, for instance. Oh, I know that your optic nerves were weak, and that they required feeding, not to use a more technical phrase. Of course, a dash of cayenne pepper in eyes like yours might have caused absolute blindness, but, even after all this lapse of time I think the trouble might yield to treatment. I wish I had time, at present, to go into the matter. But, see you, my friend Norcliff and myself are down here on very important business which is not to be talked about. It may take us a month or it may take us six, but, in the meantime, I am absolutely at my friend's disposal. Still, you won't get any worse. I think I may tell you that without exciting your hopes."
And, with that, Trumble refused to say any more. They sat there, in the little cottage sitting-room over their tea, talking in a desultory fashion, with an occasional question from Norcliff that had a certain bearing on the situation. What he wanted, if possible, was to make the best of this quite unexpected clue to the doings of Farr, who, apparently, was on the best terms with the inhabitants of the cottage.
"I should have thought you would have found it rather dull down here," Norcliff said, with more guile than appeared on the surface. "Unless, perhaps, you have some congenial neighbors."
"Not many," Sylvia smiled. "There are one or two, of course, but Tewkesbury is rather an old-fashioned place, and most people here don't take quite the same broad view as we do. That is why I was glad when Mr. Farr came down here."
"A very old friend?" Norcliff asked.
"Not from a point of years," Sylvia explained. "But I think I told you that he was on the boat with George when he met with his accident and was robbed of his pearls. He was very kind and sympathetic, and George would have been quite at a loss without him. Then we lost sight of him for a time, and, when I happened to meet him in London, quite by accident, and he happened to ask me if I had a brother George, then I was only too glad to have an opportunity of thanking him for all he had done. It was I who persuaded him to come down to this neighborhood, because he had told me that he was looking for a chicken farm, with a view to occupying his spare hours, and I told him that I thought I could find him the very place he wanted. So he came and took Mr. Temperley's house. It was rather lucky that the place was empty at the time because we could see one another frequently and, as I undertook to look after Mr. Temperley's garden, there was no unpleasantness as there might have been had the house been let to a stranger."
"Very nice indeed," Norcliff murmured. "I suppose Mr. Farr is a man of many friends, one of those widely travelled men who frequently has intimates to come and stay with him."
"Well, no," Sylvia said thoughtfully "He has been all over the world, but he does not seem to have many friends. In fact, since he has been down here, he has had no one to stay with him. And yet he is a most genial companion."
"I suppose he knows the whole of the story that your brother has just been telling us," Norcliff asked carelessly.
"He knows the story well enough," Marchmont smiled. "But, more than that, nothing."
"He hasn't seen the plan of the island, for instance?"
"No, he hasn't," Marchmont said, quite emphatically. "I have that stowed away so carefully in the cottage that even my sister doesn't know where it is. I suppose a blind man gets a little suspicious, probably on account of his helplessness. But, much as I like Farr I haven't the slightest intention of taking him into my confidence to that extent. You see, it might be placing temptation in his way. I hope you two will not think I am speaking ungraciously, but I don't think I would even tell Trumble that."
"And quite right, too," Trumble said heartily. In a flash of inspiration he saw exactly what Norcliff was driving at. "Quite right, too. Doesn't do you any harm to try and visualise the time when your sight comes back and you can set out again upon a tour of adventure. Still, I must confess that what you say has aroused my curiosity and I should rather like to have a look at that plan myself."
"And so should I," Norcliff chimed in. "I know the feeling exactly. I suppose we have all got it. After all, men are only children of larger growth, and a good adventure yarn with treasure behind it excites us just as much as it did when we were kids. Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island and all that sort of thing. I shouldn't wonder if Farr felt the same."
"Oh, he does," Marchmont laughed. "He is always dropping hints about that plan. Of course he has never actually asked to see it, because he appreciates my particular outlook on the subject and would not force my confidence for worlds. But he thinks I am a fool, all the same. He says he has plenty of powerful friends who would form a syndicate on a fairly large scale and go out to the South Seas and work that fishery. He says that at the end of three years I should be a comparatively rich man."
"Which you don't want to be, if I read your character aright," Norcliff said. "At least, not in that commercial way. You don't want your dream of a restored sight and a year or two's adventure to make up for your enforced leisure ruined in that fashion."
"Emphatically not," Marchmont said, almost curtly.
It was an amazingly interesting story that Trumble had stumbled on in a totally unexpected fashion, and in the last place in the world where he expected to hear it. It seemed very strange to him that he should find this old friend of his, to say nothing of his sister Sylvia, almost in sight of the very spot where he and Norcliff hoped to attain such vital results. And the still stranger part of it was that Norcliff appeared to be almost as interested as he was himself. And Norcliff was not the man to waste his time.
It was because of this, perhaps, that Trumble waited for the next move on the part of his partner. He expected now that Norcliff with so much on his mind would want to get up without further delay and start about the business in hand. He knew perfectly well that the inspector would not take anybody else into his confidence, at least for the time being, and, moreover, time was going on. It would not do to spend much more time in that picturesque old cottage whilst the house by the side of the railway cutting awaited inspection. It was evident, too, that the man called Farr was somewhat erratic in his habits, and that he might return to his country abode almost at any moment. And, if he did that whilst they were wasting their time chatting in the cottage, then things were going to be made a great deal more difficult for the representative of Scotland Yard.
It was still fairly early, not much after 6 o'clock, and the two hours of daylight before them. And yet, strangely enough, Norcliff showed no signs of moving. On the contrary, he had started a conversation with George Marchmont, which had, apparently, nothing whatever to do with the case. Then he jerked his thumb over his shoulder and favored Trumble with a significant glance. Evidently he wanted to be alone with the blind man.
Trumble turned to Sylvia.
"I should rather like to have a look round this old garden of yours," he said. "Do come and show me the way."
Sylvia rose to her feet at once and, together, the two of them passed out into the garden. Trumble admired the arranging of the flowers there for a few moments, and then began to talk on general topics, more especially with regard to old times.
"It is very extraordinary, meeting you like this," he said.
"Very," Sylvia said dryly. "I admit it is only mere curiosity on my part, but I should like to know what you two were doing in Mr. Temperley's garden."
"Oh, well," Trumble said carelessly. "It really had nothing to do with me. It is more Norcliff's business. He seems to know something about the reverend gentleman, and I am bound to confess that I was not particularly interested. But let's talk about something else. Your brother and the matter of his sight. It seems a strange thing to me that he should sit quietly down and make no effort to see a specialist. Of course I am not going to say definitely that there is nothing vitally wrong, but I can't altogether believe that even a handful of cayenne pepper thrown direct into a man's face is likely to blind him permanently."
"And yet he gets no better," Sylvia said mournfully.
"My dear girl, has he made any effort to do so? Has he done anything whatever for himself? According to his own story, he has never been near a specialist. It would be wrong on my part to tell you that he is going to recover his sight, but it would be equally wrong on my part to tell you that he hasn't got a chance. And that is why I am going to take the case up. I have some very pressing business with Norcliff for perhaps a month, but, when that is off my hands, I shall devote a good deal of time to old George. You will have to shut up this cottage and come to London. You may have to stay there till late in the autumn, because this is going to be a slow business and I shall want to see George practically every day. You see, there is no organic trouble, there has been no kind of illness likely to so weaken the optic nerve as to render it useless for the future. I can't go into technical details with you, but I shall know what to do when the time comes. And, if I am very lucky indeed, there is just a bare possibility that a fortnight will see such a radical change in George's condition—"
"What, do you mean that he will be able to see?"
"Yes, even that. But you are not to say a word to him about it. Now, promise me that."
Sylvia gave the necessary promise eagerly enough.
"You are just the same as you always were," she smiled. "Amazingly optimistic where your own friends are concerned, and exceedingly diffident and shy when you come in contact with the world. It is strange to me that a man with a reputation like yours should be content to hide in the background whilst scientists with a quarter of your knowledge are regarded as famous and made a fuss of wherever they go. And, instead of making huge sums of money, as you ought to do, you go quietly about the world doing good to humanity as if you were ashamed of it. I wonder why?"
"Oh, I sometimes wonder why myself," Trumble replied. "But it doesn't matter. People benefit, and why should I arrogate myself the right to swagger about it?"
"You will never swagger about anything?" Sylvia laughed. "But, apart from all that, why do you go about as if you were a scarecrow? Look at that suit of clothes you are wearing at the present moment. You might have slept in them for years, and, as to that tie, it is not so much a tie as a rag. And I am perfectly certain that you haven't put on a clean collar for a week."
Trumble gazed at her with some alarm.
"Oh, come," he said. "It isn't as bad as all that. My dear girl, I assure you I am quite clean. Bath every morning, and all that sort of thing. Never neglect those things."
"But you don't have your hair cut," Sylvia went on mercilessly. "It is absolutely ragged. Such nice curly hair it would be if you would only take care of it. Do you know, Trevor, that the average woman would call you a very good-looking man, and they would be right if you only threw those glasses away."
"Mean to say I am a good-looking man," Trumble said, blushing faintly. "Good Lord, have I come to that?"
"A stupid remark," Sylvia replied. "Just as if a man was any the worse for being good-looking. And I am quite sure that those glasses of yours are nothing more than a silly affectation. When I called your attention just now to those tiny Alpine flowers in my rockery, you took them off in order to examine the blooms more carefully. Oh, I noticed it! And why not discard them altogether? Why hide those very nice eyes of yours?"
"What's all this leading up to?" Trumble asked. "You talk more like a man than a woman. Just as if I were some sort of pretty girl and you were making love to me. Now, what would you say if I complimented you on that lovely mass of hair of yours and your eyes that really are beautiful?"
"I should be very much pleased and flattered," Sylvia said.
She spoke a little hurriedly and nervously, and there was a wild dash of color in her cheeks. But it was obvious, even to Trumble, that she meant every word that she said.
"It would be no more than the truth," Trumble said sturdily.
"Well, I am glad you think so, because I value your good opinion a great deal more than you are aware of. I saw a lot of you in the war, remember, and you can't hide from me all the wonderful work you did there. You were absolutely splendid, and, because I took such an interest in you, I am bound to tell you that I was very much hurt and disappointed when you went away, after the Armistice, and hid yourself from us. Perhaps I ought not to tell you all this, because you may think it bold of me. And now, having got rid of that, let's talk about something else."
"Oh, no, you don't," Trumble said with a boldness that astonished himself. "We will keep on the same lines, if you don't mind. Mean to say you took an interest in me personally?"
"Of course I did, and so did every other nurse in the hospital. We knew, and that is why I was bold enough just now to speak so freely on the subject of your wardrobe."
"Never more flattered in my life," Trumble said, almost bashfully. "Would it be any pleasure to you if I—"
"Consulted a good West End tailor," Sylvia laughed. "Yes, it would. A silly vanity on my part, perhaps, but then, you see, I have a lot of friends in town, and if we are to see much of one another there, I won't want to be ashamed when you go about with me—oh, you know what I mean. Women think so much of those things and, after all, it is only proper vanity. Of course, if you are so utterly indifferent to public opinion—"
"I don't care a twopenny damn about public opinion," Trumble stammered. "But I do care a great deal about yours, Sylvia. I always did, but I never dreamt that you would ever take the slightest interest in me, though there were times when I was foolish enough to dream—well, all sorts of things."
"And why not?" Sylvia said boldly. "Why shouldn't you have dreams about any woman? You see, out there, in France, we had other things to think about. I don't think we met half a dozen times, except in the hospital, where, of course, we always had to be on our very best behavior. And quite properly, too."
"I think I am beginning to understand," Trumble said slowly. "And, the more I think of it, the more sure I am that you are right. Directly I get back to town—"
Trumble broke off suddenly, and swore softly to himself as he saw Norcliff coming down the path. For the time being he had absolutely and entirely forgotten the reasons that had brought him to Tewkesbury.
"All right, Norcliff," he said. "All right, I'm coming. Sorry to have kept you waiting."
Norcliff was smiling quietly to himself as he shook hands with Sylvia and turned into the road with Trumble.
"I am not blaming you," he said jokingly. "She is an exceedingly pretty girl, and, unless I am greatly mistaken, a highly intelligent one. You might do a great deal worse."
"My dear fellow, what are you talking about?" Trumble asked. "I have known Miss Marchmont for years. She was one of the best and most competent nurses out there in France."
"All the more reason why you should not have forgotten her. You won't mind my bit of mild chaff, will you? But we shall have to put little pleasures of this sort on one side and get on with our work. Step out; we have wasted too much time already."
"I am afraid we have," Trumble admitted. "But it seems to me, my mathematically-minded friend, that you are just as interested in that remarkable story as I am. I watched you when Marchmont was speaking and you followed him closely."
"Yes, I must confess that I did. Those sort of stories always interest a man of my profession, because you never know what they may lead to and where they may come in later on. Many a time in my professional career I have stumbled across that sort of odd crime and perhaps, a year later, found it to dovetail into a different criminal case altogether. I don't say that this is going to, but you never can tell."
"Then you don't regard it as information?"
"In connection with the train murder you mean? No, I don't. But it gave me a touch of inspiration, and I shall be surprised if it isn't useful later on."
"And, meanwhile, where are you going now?" Trumble asked.
"My dear fellow, we are going back to Mr. Temperley's garden and, if necessary, into Mr. Temperley's house. I am not going to say, even now, that this chap Farr has anything to do with the crime, but I have found out quite enough to make me suspicious. To begin with, his habits seem to me to be rather irregular. He comes and goes, locking his house up for a few days at a time, and then coming back again. Again, don't you think it is rather a strange thing that as soon as Farr met Miss Marchmont in London he consented to come down and take a furnished house in these parts? Rather a queer thing for a man to do, apparently on the spur of the moment, unless, of course, he happened to be in love with her."
"Oh, nonsense," Trumble said, a little hotly. "Why on earth should he be in love with her?"
"Well," Norcliff remarked, "I should think a single glance at the young lady would tell you that. What about yourself."
"Oh, hang myself!"
"All right, all right. No corns trodden on, I hope. To be quite serious, don't you think that the suggestion really came from the man's side? I mean, a sort of auto-suggestion, leaving Miss Marchmont under the impression that the idea was her own and not his. You see, Farr has been a good friend of Marchmont's, and his line of action was just the kind to appeal to a woman's sense of gratitude. Therefore, Miss Marchmont would be very glad to have him down here as a companion for her brother, and probably went out of her way to find a house for him. And there is yet another point of view, but I will not go into that for the moment. What we have to do just now is to assume that we are on the very spot where the body was conveyed to the goods train and search about for evidence. That is why I want to get back in the daylight, so that we can go over the garden. And if we cannot find anything there, then we will do a little quiet burglary and get into the house through the good old scullery window. Nothing like the scullery window for burglary, because it is always the weakest spot in the house, and, generally, the farthest from observation."
They turned into the garden presently, after assuring themselves that there was nobody about, and walked round the rear of the house. Beyond the tennis lawn were some steps leading to a rockery of sorts, and beyond this the neatly trimmed quickset hedge that divided the garden from the railway siding itself. Close to the hedge was a small patch of dry ground, so close, indeed, that in consequence of its want of moisture, nothing had been planted.
"Now, look at that hedge," Norcliff said. "You can see that it has been trimmed in the last week or two and all the rubbish removed. Yet I want you to notice, that, comparatively recently, three or four clusters of hawthorn buds have been broken away, and there they lie on that dry soil for anyone to see. When I looked over to the other side just now, while you I were talking to the Marchmont, I could see other broken ends."
"Yes, I see all that," Trumble said. "But I don't precisely grasp the significance of it."
"Oh, don't you?" Norcliff said. "Well, you will presently. Why has the hedge been damaged? Who wants to get over from the side on to the siding, or vice versa? I am telling you that, only about five yards down the line, was the spot where the fruit waggon was held up on the first occasion after it left Evesham."
"Yes, I've got that all right," Trumble said.
"Very well, then. The body had to be conveyed to the truck on the siding and hidden under the tarpaulin by the criminal, who knew very well that it would not be discovered until it reached Westport. That was the way in which he covered his tracks and left such a large margin as a hundred and fifty miles of search. That is, of course, if I am right and that this is the exact spot wherein the body entered the train. Just for the moment, I am assuming that it is. Also, I am assuming that the murder took place in the house behind us and that, under the cover of the darkness, it was conveyed to the truck on the siding. Quite obviously, there was only one way of handling the corpse, and that was by means of the garden path and over the hedge. That is why the hedge was damaged."
"Sounds very clear and logical," Trumble said. "But how was the body got over the hedge? If there was a confederate—"
"Oh, I don't think there was a confederate. There would not be any need of one. Farr is a big and powerful man and, as you know, the victim was slight and slim. It would have been no difficult matter to carry the victim down—"
"Yes, but what about this?" Trumble interrupted. "If a big, strong man climbed that fence, dragging a body with him, he would have caused a great deal more damage to that hedge than appears on the face of it. The hedge is hardly disturbed."
"I was just coming to that," Norcliff said. "You are perfectly right in what you say, and, if the murderer had acted in that fashion, then there would be something like a gap in the hedge. But there isn't. And so you must search for some other theory as to how the body was carried to the other side. Suppose the body lay on the rockery for a moment. Suppose the murderer went back to the house and fetched a step-ladder? Not that he needed anything of the sort, as I shall prove to you presently. Mind you, he was not blind to the fact that the damaged hedge might ultimately prove to be his undoing, so that he was careful accordingly. You see, the hedge is perfectly flat on the top, so that the body might have lain there for the few necessary moments without doing any damage at all. A few hours, and the flattened branches would have straightened themselves out again. Now, what do you see there?"
Norcliff pointed down to the small patch of dry ground close against the hedge. Looking carefully at his feet, Trumble could see four holes drilled in the ground at regular intervals so as to form a rough sort of square, some two feet across. The holes had crumbled a little on the sides, as if the stakes that had made them had been withdrawn. But the four holes were there plainly enough, and, apparently, Norcliff attached a great deal of importance to them. Trumble glanced up inquiringly.
"Well?" he said. "What is the significance of that?"
"Well, I thought it would have been plain enough," Norcliff smiled. "After the body was brought down to the house, it was laid on the top of the hedge. And then the murdered went back and brought with him what I believe to be a kitchen chair. He did not want to force his way through the hedge for reasons I have already pointed out to you. So he placed the kitchen chair against the green wall and vaulted over to the other side. Then he took the body from the top of the hedge and hid it in the waggon. Being a tall man, he could then lean against the hedge, and lift the chair over by the back on to the railway side and use it to vault back again. Then, all he had to do was to once more bend over and recover the chair, which he apparently did without doing any damage at all."
"Yes, it seems plausible enough," Trumble said. "But do you mean to say he was fool enough to leave those four holes there?"
"I should say that he was," Norcliff went on. "Those are just the stupid little things that criminals do forget. Even if he thought of it, he would conclude that the soil would, being so very dry, dribble back into the holes again and show no trace. Mind you, I am still only theorizing, and, when we get into the house, I may find that I am altogether wrong. And, if I am wrong, then we are simply wasting our time pretty considerably. But I don't think I shall be wrong. Still, on that point I cannot speak definitely until we have been in the house. Now, you just walk as far as the front gate and see that everything is quiet. And, if it is, come back and let me know and we will commit our burglary act."
Trumble came back in the course of a few minutes with the information that the coast was clear and informed his friend to that effect. Five minutes later, the scullery window was pushed back with a thin-bladed knife, and the two were in the house.
The two adventurers found themselves presently in the living rooms of the house. It was a small residence of the better villa type, with a drawing-room on the one side of the hall and a dining-room on the other. At the back was evidently what was the reverend owner's study, with a French window leading on to the lawn and, flanking it, the domestic offices. It was in this latter apartment Norcliff spent some little time. There were drawers in the writing desk and, again, in an old bureau which he opened in a dexterous fashion with the aid of what appeared to be a bent hairpin, to Trumble's great amusement. But, search as he might, nothing came to light in the least likely to help in the search.
"Absolutely blank," Norcliff confessed. "It is quite evident to me that the temporary tenant of this house has not been tampering with the owner's private papers."
"What about finger-prints?" Trumble suggested.
"Oh, there will be plenty of them. Both those of the old gentleman and the man called Farr. But they prove nothing, because Farr is legally the tenant of the house, and I have not the slightest doubt that he paid his rent before he came into the place. And, mind you, in spite of everything, I am not yet convinced that this Farr had anything to do with the crime. It might have been somebody else, and probably so it will turn out to be. The crime might have been committed in the dead of the night when Farr and the elderly housekeeper were both asleep."
"You mean that other people used this quiet residence as a sort of meeting house?" Trumble asked. "A couple of burglars, perhaps, who quarrelled over their prey after they had secured it."
"Well, why not? Such things have happened before. We don't know what treasures the old gentleman might have here."
"In that case, why not ask him?"
"Perhaps I shall have to," Norcliff said. "But I don't want to take your friends in my confidence just yet, neither do I want to alarm the old gentleman unless it is absolutely necessary. One thing at a time, my dear fellow. I am assuming that Farr, and Farr alone, is the guilty man and that he was playing a lone hand. To begin with, why did he lose track of the man he helped? By whom I mean George Marchmont. You see, it was more than a year after those two parted in London before Farr came on the scene again. And then he met Miss Marchmont quite by accident, or, at least, so she thought. But I am not quite so sure that it was an accident. My idea is that he looked her up and pretended to meet her as if the whole thing was a pleasant surprise. And then, for his purpose, it was the luckiest coincidence in the world to discover that Marchmont and his sister were living down here."
"Yes, I see what you mean," Trumble said. "But before the murderer could work out his scheme to a definite finish he must have found out a great deal about the railway system."
"Of course he did. He hit upon the ingenious idea of getting his victim as far as possible from the scene of the crime so as to cover his tracks. But that was only the beginning. Directly he had made up his mind what to do, he set about making inquiries. Probably he spent weeks travelling up and down the line looking for a likely spot to which to lure his victim. When I say a likely spot, I mean a quiet siding on to which certain trains were occasionally shunted. Not a very difficult matter we will admit, though one calling for a good deal of time and patience. And then, probably, he learnt all about the traffic confusion, which was likely to be caused by the holiday trains. I mean, at Easter and Whitsuntide. As soon as he tumbled to that particular source of obstruction, he began to see his way. He must have known, for instance, that the fruit train for the West would be shunted within a few yards of where we are standing and left there for a night. If he could only gain a footing, then he was all right, and, by a fortunate chance, he was able to get that footing exactly where he wanted it. Not only that, but he was able to be in almost daily contact with a blind man who is under great obligations to him, and moreover the blind man is possessed of a secret document which might mean millions to Farr if he could only get hold of it. And, from what I can gather from Marchmont, he has made every effort to do so."
"Yes, that is right enough," Trumble agreed. "I heard George Marchmont say so himself. But what is all this leading up to?"
"Oh, merely clearing the ground. And now, having more or less established my point, we will go a little farther. It is no use wasting our time in this part of the house, so we will see what we can find in the kitchen and scullery."
With that Norcliff led the way through a baize door into the kitchen. The place had been rendered neat and clean before the old housekeeper had departed on her brief holiday, a fact which Norcliff did not fail to point out to his companion.
"Everything clean and bright and exactly in its proper place," he said.
"My idea is that Farr left first leaving his housekeeper to lock up after he had gone. But he didn't go very far. He stayed hanging about in the neighborhood, taking care not to be seen, and, when he felt sure that the old lady was definitely off the premises, he crept back, and let himself in the front door with his latchkey. He came back, because he was expecting somebody and probably somebody who would not come to the house before dark, so that he would not be observed by anybody as he came along the road. Now, let us see what we can find. Ah, here we are."
Norcliff pointed to a windsor chair standing by the side of a well-scrubbed kitchen table.
"What do you make of that?" he asked.
"I don't make anything of it," Trumble admitted candidly.
"Not after what we saw in the garden? Those four holes close to the green hedge. My dear fellow, those four holes were made by the leg of that particular chair. If you examine them carefully, you will see that the lower part of the legs is covered with a thin cake of dry dirt. You may be perfectly sure that a really competent housekeeper would have noticed that and cleaned the legs before she departed on her holiday. Look at the extraordinary cleanliness and tidiness of the whole kitchen. In common parlance, you might eat your meals off the floor. And yet she allows one of her kitchen chairs to show dirt on all four legs. Oh, no, she would have done nothing of the kind. My theory leads me to believe that that chair was used and taken off the premises and brought back again some time after the old lady had left. The mere appearance of that chair tells me, as plainly as words can be spoken, that Farr sneaked back into the house again, after it was supposed to be closed, and waited for his victim as a spider waits for a fly."
"Yes, it all sounds very logical," Trumble said. "I can quite see that the chair was used in getting the body over the hedge where it had to be hidden in the railway waggon. I presume that there would be finger-marks on the back of the chair."
"Of course there would," Norcliff said. "But they would be blurred and practically useless for my purpose, because they would he inextricably mixed up with the marks of the house-keeper. If we are going to place any reliance on finger-prints, which, mind you, I am not altogether ignoring, I shall want something more definite than those which we are likely to get on the chair."
"I follow," Trumble said. "Let us hark back a bit. Do you remember, during the inquest, as far as it went, that the police doctor suggested that the dead man had been suffocated? His theory was that deceased had been heavily drugged, and that when he was absolutely insensible he was killed by having a linen pad, or something of that sort, pressed over his mouth and nose."
"Oh yes, of course I remember it," Norcliff said. "But I fail to see where the point comes in."
"Well, you can't very well drug a man against his will. You couldn't hold him down and stick a hypodermic syringe into any part of his body. And even if that had been done, we should have found the mark. No, the police doctor's theory and mine precisely tallied. The drug was administered almost certainly in spirits of some sort. What about that bottle over there?"
Trumble pointed to an empty whisky bottle standing on the kitchen table and two dull glasses which had contained liquor of some sort not so very long ago, because the sediment in both of them was not yet dry and little globules of moisture had trickled down the side of the two tumblers.
"There you are," Trumble said. "The man Farr was expecting turned up all right, and the two of them probably sat in the dining-room or the study to talk matters over with a drink apiece. You can almost see Farr producing that bottle and asking his companion to say when! I am quite sure that one of those glasses, at any rate, was drugged. But I shall be able to speak more definitely when I come to analyse the contents. But what beats me is why a man should be fool enough to leave potential evidence like that about for any policeman to see."
"My dear chap, that is your criminal all over," Norcliff smiled. "The cleverest of them make mistakes, or it would he a poor look-out for us at Scotland Yard. Perhaps Farr was in a hurry. Perhaps he didn't think it was worth while to trouble. And he thought he was safe, so he just brought the glasses and bottle in here and left the former for the housekeeper to wash up when she came back."
Trumble advanced to lift one of the glasses.
"Here, for heaven's sake don't do that," Norcliff said. "Don't you touch them. Try and realise that they are absolutely smothered in finger-marks, finger-prints of the dead man and Farr. We will have them photographed later on and, also, photographs of the prints of that poor chap in Westport. No, you leave them to me. I know exactly how to handle them, and when we have got them properly packed, we will take them to London and get the proper department at the Yard to see into the business in a workmanlike manner."
"Then you don't think we are likely to find anything more here at present?" Trumble asked.
"I am pretty certain we shan't. The best thing we can do is to get off the premises in case Farr turns up, and cut along to the White Hart and get some dinner. After that we can take a late train to London and carry on the business at that end. But, first of all, to pack those glasses."
The speaker looked around him as if in search of something before his eye fell upon an empty biscuit box, the half-size sort of biscuit box that measures some 12 inches by six. Very carefully indeed he lifted the two glasses daintily between his fingers by their extreme tops and placed them, some little distance apart, in the box.
"Now then," he said. "You hunt about until you find me a newspaper. There is sure to be one in the house somewhere."
Trumble came back a minute or two later with a week-old copy of the 'Times.' This Norcliff proceeded to fold into a pad, just big enough to fit the top of the biscuit box, and, with it, press the glasses so firmly down in their places that they could not possibly move. Then he jammed the lid on the top of the box and tied it firmly with a piece of cord which he found in the kitchen drawer.
"There," he said. "For the moment that suffices. Now I suppose you know what I want you to do next?"
"I think so," Trumble smiled. "You are going to take those glasses to London and get the finger-marks printed. And you probably will want me to go back as far as Westport and take the finger-print of the dead man and bring them to you to Scotland Yard with as little delay as possible."
"Yes, that is about right," Norcliff said. "That is exactly what I want you to do. Now then, come along, we don't want to be caught here if we can possibly help it. Besides, there are all sorts of things going on at the other end. We can't even guess at the identity of the dead man, so far. First of all, I must see that laundry woman and ascertain where the collar the dead man was wearing was washed. And, even then, we shall have to trace it to the place whence it was sent, and there is always the danger that some fool of a journalist, anxious to score over his colleagues, will blunder on the track of the laundry mark and give the whole show away. You see, I am most particularly anxious that this man Farr should not guess that we have even the shred of a clue in our hands. In a week's time it won't matter so much, but just now it is most important. Come along."
They dined together presently, and travelled as far as Gloucester, where they parted, somewhere about midnight, Norcliff on his way to town and Trumble retracing his steps in the direction of the West. It was quite early in the morning when Norcliff found himself in London, and, after a brief visit to his office and a hurried breakfast, made his way, early as it was, to the office of the 'Daily Bulletin.' The editor, of course, was not there at that hour, but the 'Bulletin' that published a companion journal under the title of the 'Evening Bulletin' had a part of the night staff still on duty so that Norcliff found no great difficulty in finding somebody in authority ready to receive him.
"Certainly, Inspector," the man in the big, untidy office said after a cursory glance at Norcliff's card. "Anything we can do to help you, of course. You have been exceedingly good to our local representative at Westport, and, therefore, I hope—"
"Oh yes, I saw Mr. Jagger," Norcliff smiled. "And I don't mind telling you that he was of great assistance to us. He is a very smart young man, and evidently wasting his talent in the country. Between ourselves, I promised him that he should have the first public information with regard to further developments, and I don't think the 'Bulletin' would hurt by helping me in this little matter."
"Awfully good of you," the man in the chair said. "And now, what precisely, can we do at the moment?"
"Well, in the first place, you can give me the address of that laundry where a particular collar was washed. I mean, the one worn by the man found dead at Westport. It was very good of you to keep the fact that the laundry had been traced out of your paper, though I can quite understand the temptation to reveal it."
"It was a temptation," the other admitted. "Still, I have no doubt that we shall benefit in the long run."
"I am quite sure you will," Norcliff said emphatically.
"Well, then, here is the name of the laundry you want. I have had it locked up in my desk ever since it came into the possession of the office, and no one has seen it beside myself. And I am quite sure that the man who brought the information has not spoken, because I told him that it would be very much to his interest if he kept his tongue well between his teeth. There you are, Inspector, and jolly good luck to you. Good day."
The journalist turned abruptly and plunged into his work, and, once outside in Fleet-street, Norcliff hailed taxi and was driven off in the direction of Willesren Green.
Once arrived there, he found himself immediately facing a long row of buildings, with the name of a laundry in white letters all across the top, and a wide stretch of drying ground behind.
A few questions, and the sight of his card produced the manageress, ready to do anything she could to oblige the great man who stood there smilingly before her. For some little time she could not put her finger upon what she wanted.
"Ah, here it is," she said. "You see, we have to keep a sort of register of all those marks and it is one of the banes of my life. We have so much casual work from the big hotels and, unless we are very careful, are liable to make mistakes in returning the stuff. You see, some of the gentlemen are shockingly careless in the matter of getting their linen marked, and it takes me half my time to sort things out. That is why we have to mark everything with figures and signs, so that if they come back to us again we shall know from what hotel they came. Look here, Inspector, there is the mark in my ledger, the same as the one on that particular collar."
"So I see," Norcliff said, after a close inspection. "But what I want to know is where that collar came from."
"Ah, that I can easily tell you. It came with a small parcel of linen from the Palatine Hotel in Northumberland-avenue. And there my information ends. I have no doubt, if you inquire at the Palatine, that they will be able to give you the name."
It was all working out very satisfactorily, Norcliff thought, as he drove back westward, and finally dismissed his taxi. At the door of the Palatine he carried on his inquiries. It only needed the sight of his card to stir the clerks in the office to almost frantic interest. Naturally enough, they had not for a moment connected the collar with the Westport murder, nor did Norcliff go out of his way to enlighten them. But the mere fact of an inspector of Scotland Yard asking all these pertinent questions seemed to exercise a magic influence on their wits.
Then, at last, the right man appeared.
"I think I can help you, sir," he said. "Yes, I recognise that mark. It is my business to recognise marks and sort out the laundry, so that it can go back to the owners of such goods who are staying in the hotel. The collar belongs to a Mr. Fishwick. It came back from the laundry about a week or more ago with a parcel for the same gentleman and it was placed in his bedroom."
"Where is Mr. Fishwick now?" Norcliff asked.
"Ah, that I cannot tell you," the clerk said. "Mr. Fishwick stays here very frequently, but at rather irregular intervals. Sometimes he is in London for a month, but sometimes only a day or two. He will go away, saying he will not be back for a week, but he may be seen in the hotel the next morning. He has a room reserved for him and pays for it, whether he occupies it or not."
"Oh, that is all you know about him?"
"More or less, sir. A rather reserved gentleman who keeps himself very much to himself and very seldom talks about his own business. I dare say that if I was in the same line myself I should be just as cautious as he is."
"Oh, what is his particular line?"
"Well, sir, he is the English representative of a great firm of American jewellers. One of the greatest houses in the world. They sell diamonds and pearls, both unset and in elaborate fittings."
Norcliff whistled to himself softly, under his breath. Here was a bit of startling information, of no great value, apparently, on the face of it, but opening up vast possibilities. The mere fact that the dead man, whose identity as Fishwick was established beyond the shadow of a doubt, was dealing very largely in precious stones, pointed to a big thing in the way of robbery and murder. For the moment, Norcliff put this thought aside.
"You say Mr. Fishwick is not here now?" he asked.
"No, sir. He hasn't been here for some days. He came back after a journey last Thursday and told me when he handed his bag over for custody in the office safe that he was staying till over the weekend. However, the following morning he came and collected a parcel from the cashier and went to Birmingham."
"Stop a minute," Norcliff said. "Before we go any further, are you sure he was on his way to Birmingham?"
"Perfectly, sir," the clerk replied. "I happened to be doing nothing at the time and, as the hall porter was otherwise engaged, I called a taxi myself and I heard Mr. Fishwick tell the man to drive him to Euston. And that is not quite all, either. Mr. Fishwick told one of my colleagues in the office that if any letters came for him, they were to be forwarded to the Grand Central Hotel, which is one of our group of hotels in Birmingham."
Norcliff walked out of the office in thoughtful mood. He was getting on the right track now, as the movements of the man Fishwick tended to prove. And, undoubtedly, he had gone to Birmingham on business bent, taking a valuable parcel with him from the office safe. And, moreover, Birmingham was not very far from Brendham.
"Yes, it matches all right," he told himself.
Trumble was detained at Westport a little longer than be expected. It was no difficult matter to take the finger-prints of the dead man lying in the mortuary awaiting burial, but that was not all there was to it. It was quite easy to keep in contact with Norcliff over the telephone, and, so far as Trumble could judge, his services would not be needed for the next day or two. Then again, it was necessary for the clerk in the office of the Palatine Hotel to travel down west and identify deceased as actually being the man Fishwick he had spoken of. It was imperative that this should be done, seeing that the body would have to be buried.
It was left to Trumble to see these matters through, and, when he had done so he telephoned to Norcliff.
"So that is all right," the latter said over the wire. "I don't think we need trouble any further about identification, though there are one or two more people with whom I am in touch who will confirm what the clerk of the Palatine said. Still, I have sufficient for my purpose and we need not bother any further."
"What shall I do now?" Trumble asked.
"Oh, well, that is in your own hands. You had better get back to London, I should think. I want you somewhere where I can get you at the first possible moment. Meanwhile, my address for the next forty-eight hours will be the Grand Central Hotel at Birmingham."
"What are you doing in Birmingham?" Tremble asked.
"Ah, that I do not propose to tell you over the 'phone," Norcliff said dryly. "All the same, I may want you, and if I send you a message or a wire, be prepared to join me. I take it that you will go back to London to-day to your own quarters."
"I don't think I shall," Trumble explained. "In fact, I was thinking of going as far as Abbotsbury and putting up at the same hotel where we stayed."
"What on earth is that for?"
"Oh, only a little idea of my own. There is one little matter that seems to have escaped your attention altogether. Our friends the Marchmonts haven't the slightest idea what we were doing in Abbotsbury. Neither do I intend to tell them. But isn't it just possible that this man Farr should have heard the name of Norcliff before? Being a potential criminal—"
"Now, do you know, I never though of that," Norcliff's voice came over the wire. "Stupid of me. Still, if you remember, we were taken by surprise in the garden, and I suppose it never occurred to you to give me another name."
"I must confess that that is so," Trumble said. "If I had given the matter a moment's thought, I should have called you Smith, or Brown or something like that. Of course it was no use pretending that I was anyone but myself, seeing that the Marchmont are old friends of mine and the best thing I could think of on the spur of the moment was to suggest that we were acquaintances of the old clergyman. Don't you think I had better get back to Abbotsbury and give the Marchmonts a warning? I don't mean anything that is likely to suggest to them that there is anything wrong with Farr, but merely to give a general idea that there are reasons why our visit to Abbotsbury should not be mentioned to anybody. Of course, if Farr is back again, then, to a certain extent, the mischief may be done. But if I can get there first and tell them—"
"Quite a good idea," Norcliff approved. "Yes, you go down there and stay at the White Hart. Anything more?"
There being nothing more, Trumble rang off, and as quickly as possible made his way back to Abbotsbury. There he heard, to his great relief, that Farr had not yet put in an appearance, but that he was expected home in the course of the evening. In fact, he had written his housekeeper to that effect, and the latter had already returned. There was nothing for it now but to make the suggestion to Marchmont boldly and openly.
"One thing I am going to ask you to do," Trumble said as he sipped his tea in the little sitting-room of the cottage. "I don't want your friend Farr to know that I am in any way connected with the Reverend Mr. Temperley. There are certain reasons why my visit to the old gentleman's house, accompanied by my friend Norcliff, should not be spoken of for a day or two. Nothing wrong, of course, but please, don't mention it."
"Certainly not," Marchmont said.
"It sounds very mysterious," Sylvia laughed. "But like my brother, I can keep a secret if I want to."
"Then that is all right," Trumble said carelessly. "Then we need not say any more about it. I have got rid of my friend Norcliff for the time being and, having nothing to do for day or two, I thought I would run down here and have a serious talk with you two. Now, look here, George, I hate the idea of taking you away from this charming cottage of yours, and can quite understand how a man afflicted as you are would hate the idea of being chained up in London for a week or two? But I think it will be quite plain that I cannot give you the attention you need day by day unless you are somewhere near me. I am not going to try any experiments upon you, but I propose to put you through a course of treatment, which means that I must see you at least twice daily. This being so, I shall have to find rooms for you in London. You will have to shut up the cottage and place yourself in my hands for a month, at the outside. It may be a great deal less, but that I cannot say until I have made a proper examination. Now then, when will you be in a position to leave here and come to town?"
Marchmont hesitated for a moment and seemed to turn his eyes in the direction of the chair where his sister was seated.
"What do you say, Sylvia?" he asked.
"Oh, my dear George," the girl said. "There is only one thing to say. Give me two days to pack up and find a caretaker and I shall be ready. It would be madness to throw away a chance like this. You must see that for yourself."
"Oh, I do," Marchmont said, "I do."
"Of course he does," Trumble said cheerfully. "Mind you, I am not guaranteeing success, and that is why I don't want you to say anything to anybody about it. Not even your friend Farr. If I am successful, it will be a pleasant surprise for him later on. You can say that you are going to town for a course of treatment as a kind of last resource, and that I have not held out any hope to you that you will ever recover. You see what I mean?"
"Yes, there is a good deal in what you say," Sylvia remarked. "But why this prejudice against Mr. Farr?"
"My dear Sylvia, there is no prejudice about it," Trumble said. "I have never seen Mr. Farr in my life, and I am quite prepared to believe he is all you say about him. It may be a fad on my part, but these are not the things to broadcast. You see, I have my reputation to think of. If I am successful, you can tell everybody you like; but if I fail, the more reticence the better. Call it conceit if you like. Now, let us regard that as settled. I go back to town the day after to-morrow and you both travel up with me. You haven't got to worry about quarters, because I know a nice little private hotel where you can stay and I can come in and visit you at any hour I need. And now, please give me another cup of tea, Sylvia, and we won't say any more about it."
Sylvia merely smiled, but Trumble could see that she was not easy in her mind with regard to the business. The next afternoon when he came up to the cottage she spoke to him again on the subject of what seemed to her to be unnecessary secrecy.
"Of course, I am more than grateful to you, Trevor," she said. "But why this mystery?"
"My dear girl, there is no mystery about it."
"Oh, yes, there is. I mean, as regards Mr. Farr. You have no idea what a friend he has been to us."
"I don't doubt it for a moment," Trumble said, a little dryly. "But that is not altogether the point. I think George was perfectly right in refusing to trust his secret with regard to those pearl fisheries to anybody. When he can see again and stands on the same level as his fellow-men, then it may be another matter. But even your favorite Mr. Farr is best kept in the dark. I take it that you think a great deal of him?"
"Why, naturally," Sylvia exclaimed. "In the circumstances, who wouldn't? And when you meet I shall be very much surprised if you don't like him as well as we do."
Trumble fought down a certain unreasoning jealousy that troubled him sorely just at the moment. He wanted to see this man whom he strongly suspected of being a criminal; he wanted to stand face to face with the individual who, he felt sure, was trying to lay hands on that plan that George Marchmont was hiding so jealously. And if Sylvia really cared for him, that is, cared for him beyond the limits of ordinary friendship, then she was destined to meet with something more than a disappointment later on.
"You will see him in due course," Sylvia smiled. "I shouldn't wonder if he came up this evening."
"In that case I think I will wait," Trumble said quietly.
"Yes, I wish you would," Sylvia said. "I don't know why, but I feel sure you are prejudiced against Mr. Farr, which is not in the least like you, Trevor. Why, here he is."
A tall, well-set-up man came with easy strides down the path to the end of the garden, where the other two were standing. It seemed to Trumble that there was nothing about him to suggest the criminal, for his rather handsome face was open enough and his blue eyes looked the whole world in the face.
"Oh, here you are," Sylvia cried. "George will be very pleased to see you again. And now, let me introduce Mr. Trumble, who is a very old friend of mine. Mr. Farr."
Meanwhile, Norcliff was not allowing the grass to grow under his feet. He had no need, for the moment, for the services of his colleague and was quite alone when he turned out of New-street station, Birmingham, and made his way in a taxi to the Grand Central Hotel. Once arrived there, he asked to see the manager, and was escorted into that individual's private office. The mere production of his card was sufficient to engage the attention of everybody.
"I will not detain you any longer than I can help," Norcliff said. "But I think you can give me a little information with regard to what the papers call the railway mystery."
The manager looked puzzled for a moment.
"Are you alluding to that affair at Westport?" he asked. "I mean the body found in the railway truck?"
"Precisely," Norcliff said. "You may not be aware of it, but I think you can help me."
"Certainly, if I possibly can," the puzzled manager said. "But seeing that I haven't the slightest idea who the man is, and, moreover, being under the impression that I never saw him in my life, I fail to see how I can possibly assist."
"On the face of it, perhaps, no. But I think that the name of Fishwick will be not altogether strange to you."
"Fishwick, Fishwick? Let me see. Oh, I know the man you mean. Quite an old customer of ours."
"Staying here last week I believe?"
"Certainly. He went away on Saturday rather suddenly, having changed his mind, or so I suppose. At any rate, he went. But what became of him afterwards, I don't know. But you don't mean to say, Inspector, that Mr. Fishwick—"
"Indeed I do," Norcliff said gravely. "Fishwick is the man who was found in a railway van at Barnstaple. I have that beyond the shadow of a doubt. I dare say you saw the reproduction of that laundry mark in the 'Daily Bulletin,' and by means of that mark, the manager of a certain laundry in London was in a position to put us in contact with your London hotel, the Palatine. That ought to be sufficient identification in itself. But, meanwhile, a clerk at the Palatine who knew Fishwick well has identified the body, so that we are no longer in doubt. Now, Mr. Fishwick, before he left London, deposited two cases of valuables, or rather three cases in the hotel safe. We know that he was on his way to Birmingham, because I have the number of the taxi that took him to the station. But though Fishwick left two packages of valuables in London, he took a third with him. Did he leave them with you, by any chance?"
"Certainly he did not," the manager said. "Almost directly he arrived here, he got on the telephone to one of the leading jewellers in Birmingham. I know that, because I heard him call up Mr. Fastnet himself and make an appointment for Saturday morning."
"Oh, indeed? I take it that this Mr Fastnet is one of your big men here. Where is his business?"
"Oh, he has two or three in Birmingham, but his headquarters is in Municipal-street. I understand the he does an enormous business in precious stones, probably the largest in England, outside London. You see, we have many rich manufacturers here who made money during the war and whose wives like to show their husband's wealth in the way that these women do. I understand it is no novelty for Mr. Fastnet to sell a diamond ornament or a rope of pearls up to the value of fifty thousand pounds. But perhaps you would like to call up Mr. Fastnet on the telephone yourself."
"Thank you," Norcliff said. "But just a moment first, please. Am I to understand that Mr. Fishwick came back to the hotel after seeing the jewel merchant and that he immediately packed up his bag and departed for some unknown locality?"
"So far as I know, yes," the manager said. "He went off in quite a hurry. He was on foot and took nothing with him, so far as I can understand, so that naturally we concluded that he was coming back again. You see, we always keep a bedroom for him whether he uses it or not, he is here so frequently. And a good many of the leading tradesmen visit him here. When they do, it is invariably at lunch time, and they are entertained in a private room. Mr. Fishwick was always very cautious, I know that he hated the idea of carrying valuables about on his person, because, more than once, he told me so. If he had anything extra special with him, he usually deposited it in the safe and only took it out when one of the big men came to lunch. You see, that sort of thing makes for safety. But last week he may have carried something of great value on his way to Mr. Fastnet's shop."
Ten minutes later, Norcliff was seated in the private room at the back of the great jewellery store in Municipal-street talking confidentially to the senior partner himself.
"Yes, it is a very rotten business altogether," Fastnet said. "I must confess that I never associated, for a moment, Mr. Fishwick with the man whose body was found in the railway van. But, after what you have just told me, there can be no shadow of doubt about it."
"Absolutely none," Norcliff said. "And now, Mr. Fastnet, let me go a little further. On Whit-Saturday morning Mr. Fishwick came here, by appointment, to show you something. I have a very strong suspicion that he brought you a parcel of considerable value."
"One of the most valuable parcels I have seen in the course of my career," the merchant said. "You see, Inspector, for a long time I have been looking for a dozen or so of pearls to complete a rope that I am making for the wife of perhaps the richest man in the Midlands. Money being no object, and a proper gradation of the pearls being absolutely essential, I have, for some time past been asking various dealers if they could accommodate me. Amongst the rest, I asked Mr. Fishwick. When he telephoned me from the Grand Central that he had got what I wanted, I naturally asked him to see me without delay. I could not go round to him, unfortunately, so he came here on the Saturday morning. He took from his pocket a handful of pearls which fairly surpassed anything I had ever seen. And yet, I was not surprised, because for some years Fishwick has been the London representative of Neidermeyers, of New York. I suppose they handle more fine pearls than any other firm in the world."
"One moment," Norcliff interrupted. "You have just said that Fishwick was the London representative of the firm you mention. Am I to infer from that that he no longer represents them?"
"That is so," Fastnet explained. "He left them a few months ago and, since then, he has been on his own. A thoroughly reliable man, and one with whom I have been doing business for years. I trusted him so much that I took his word when he said that the pearls had come into his hands in the ordinary way of business. At any rate, those pearls were just what I wanted, and I was anxious to have them. But, you must understand, I could not buy them just out of hand. I knew that it would be all right, of course, but the price asked was so big that in justification of myself, I felt that I must show them to my customer before I finally decided."
"So that the pearls were left with you?"
"They were. And now I come to think of it Mr. Fishwick appeared to be very anxious to get rid of them. I don't mean as a business deal—I mean that he seemed to be worried by the mere possession of them. My suggestion was that he should come back again with them on Tuesday when my customer would be present, but Fishwick did not seem to like the idea at all. He asked me, almost as a favor, to keep them in my safe, and there they are now. Are you any judge of such things, Inspector? Because, if you are, I should very much like to have the pleasure of showing them to you."
"Well, I am by way of being a bit of a quidnunc where the more valuable jewels are concerned," Norcliff admitted. "You see, up to the last year or two, my particular line has been in dealing with the international gang of jewel thieves. I had a course of instruction at Amsterdam. I believe I could tell the exact weight of a pearl in grains by the mere feel of it."
"Ah, in that case, I am going to give you a treat," the dealer smiled. "Excuse me for a moment while I go down to the strong-room with my cashier and get the stones."
Fastnet was back in a minute or two, carrying a small leather bag in his hand. There he proceeded to take from it a dozen or so small globular objects, each carefully wrapped in cotton wool. These he placed in a row before Norcliff's eyes.
"There," he exclaimed. "What do you think of that lot?"
"Wonderful!" Norcliff said, as he handled one pearl after another, almost with reverence. "A most amazing collection, and so perfectly graded too. You say that Fishwick brought you these?"
"Eh, what?" the jeweller cried. "Of course he did. Is there anything particularly wonderful about that?"
"Well, yes, I think so," Norcliff said thoughtfully. "Did you ever hear of an American lady called Van Geldt?"
"What diamond merchant in the world has not?" the jeweller asked.
"Yes, just so. But don't you remember, about a year ago, that Mrs. Van Geldt lost some pearls? The police in New York could not say definitely that they were stolen, but they are pretty sure of the fact, all the same. And those pearls Mrs. Van Geldt had only bought a short time before she lost them."
"Yes, I remember all that now," Fastnet said. "But you are not suggesting that there is any connection between the lady's loss and those pearls on the table before you?"
Norcliff smiled at the suggestion.
"I do," he said. "I told you I was a judge and I have the weights and measurements of those pearls at Scotland Yard. If they are not Mrs. Van Geldt's, then I am prepared to eat them."
"Rather a sweeping statement, that Mr. Inspector," Fastnet said. "Of course, you know as well as I do that most of the famous pearls in the world have histories and we, whose business it is to keep in touch with such things, know quite well where they are to be found. For instance, if you gave me half an hour I could make you a list of every historic gem in the world."
"Yes, except those that have been discovered from time to time," Norcliff smiled. "And, by that I mean new discoveries. I very much doubt if you could tell me where those pearls of Mrs. Van Geldt came from. Unless, of course, some famous rope was broken up for the purpose of making hers."
"Well, as a matter of fact, it wasn't," Fastnet said. "Of that I can assure you. Nobody quite knows where the dozen or so of pearls came from that forms the base of the necklace. You know what I mean—they are graded from the clasp downwards, increasing in size, and, to make a really unique rope, something exceedingly efficient must be found for what I may call the base of it. I was reading, not long ago, in a trade paper, an account of Mrs. Van Geldt's pearls, written by an expert who had actually had them in his hand. I dare say I could find that paper."
"Oh, I don't think that matters," Norcliff said.
"No, I don't suggest that it does, but it proves pretty conclusively that no historic necklace was broken up to form that wonderful collection of Mrs. Van Geldt's, which, taken one way and another, is probably the finest extant. But, if you ask me to tell you where those particular pearls came from, then, frankly I don't know. And, what is more, I don't think that the firm in New York who did the setting is any wiser than I am."
"Then you think that Mrs. Van Geldt supplied the pearls herself?"
"Yes, I do. But where she got them is a mystery. But she did get them and, according to what you say, they are lying there, under your eyes, at the present moment."
"I don't doubt it for an instant," Norcliff said. "However, it is an easy proof. The missing pearls were weighed and measured and photographed. I believe this was done at the instigation of the lady's husband, who is one of America's former business men and a millionaire a dozen times over. You can understand why he took these precautions. It would make it almost impossible for thieves to dispose of those pearls and for any jewel merchant to handle them with the prospect of profit before his eyes. When the pearls were stolen all the details of which I was just speaking were sent to every police headquarters in the world. And the strange part of it was that the thieves only took those 12 particular pearls, leaving the rest of the necklace behind them."
"But how was the robbery committed?"
"Ah, that I cannot tell, you. I have had very little to do with the case at this end, but all the details are at Scotland Yard, and if you like I will send them down to you."
"I shall be very glad if you will," Fastnet said. "You see, if what you say is correct I am placed in rather an awkward position."
"To a certain extent, perhaps. But, my dear sir, please remember that you have paid nothing for those gems and that they are more or less by accident in your possession. My theory is that some cunning scoundrel knew that Fishwick had the pearls and murdered him, being under the absolute conviction that he had them on him at the time of the crime. He hadn't, as we know, but he was very nervous when he came to you, or he would never have left those pearls in your custody, unless he had been afraid of violence somewhere. He left them for two reasons: Firstly, for safety, and, secondly, because he was pretty sure that you would induce your client to purchase them. Then he could have come along and collected the money, after which Mr. Fishwick would probably have never been heard of again. I don't say that he stole them himself, but I do say that he knew perfectly well that they had been stolen and that the thief was an accomplice. And when you told me that Fishwick was no longer in the employ of Neidermeyers I saw a ray of sunlight. I don't doubt, for a moment, that Fishwick had abandoned an honest career or that he had left Neidermeyers to traffic in contraband gems. You see, with his knowledge of the markets all over the world he would be in a unique position in that respect. Probably he had made money in this fashion, probably he wanted to bring off one more big coup and then retire, say to South America, on the proceeds. But evidently his accomplice or accomplices mistrusted him. He was lured down here and murdered at a certain house where I have been. Then, when the murderer discovered that he had had all his trouble for his pains, he carried out his original intention of placing the body on the railway van and thought no more about it. At least, that is my theory. What I have to do now is to trace Fishwick's movements between the last time he was in America and the day when he met with his death. Meanwhile, I think you had better take care of those stones, the more especially as nobody knows they are in your possession, and, in due course, I will communicate with you again."
They left it at that, and Norcliff went back thoughtfully to his hotel. He had barely finished a hurried meal and was smoking a cigarette in the lounge, when a little twisted figure accosted him. He looked up into the shrewd eyes of the diminutive pressman who called himself Jagger.
"Ah, Inspector," he said. "I believe you had forgotten all about me. You made me a promise—"
"Never mind about promises, for the moment," Norcliff interrupted. "Tell me what you are doing here."
"Ah, thereby hangs a tale," said Jagger with his head on one side. "Fact of the matter is that the 'Bulletin' people moved me up to town. They wanted, to give me a chance. I waited at Evesham as you told me to do so, but as it occurred to me that I was wasting my time there, I started out to do a bit of investigation on my own account. You see, as I began the big story for the 'Bulletin,' they decided to let me go on with it. If I can pull it off, then I am a made man. But it is going to be a bit of a job."
"It will be more of a job if you don't do as I tell you," Norcliff said grimly. "Why don't you stay at Brendham?"
"Why, haven't I just told you? Nothing doing there, so I came on here, knowing from what I gathered from my headquarters, that you were down here following up the clue of the laundry mark on the collar. So I wasn't far wrong, and if you had kept your eyes open a bit wider, you would have seen that I wasn't very far off. Oh, I know where you have been for the last hour or so, and I could give a pretty good guess why. Now, Inspector, am I wrong in coming to the conclusion that the poor chap was murdered because he was carrying certain valuables that the criminal wanted to get hold of? And again, was I wrong when I decided that the dead man had managed to slip his parcel of valuables to Mr. Fastnet?"
"Well, you certainly are a clever little devil," Norcliff admitted. "I am not going to admit or deny your question. Perhaps you would not mind telling me on what you base your logic?"
"Ah," said the birdlike Jagger, with a funny little laugh. "You keep your counsel and I will keep mine and, when the right time comes, we will put our heads together and see how many beans make five. Meanwhile, what do you know about Mrs. Van Geldt?"
Norcliff fairly started. The question was so sudden and unexpected that, for an instant or two he was almost thrown off his balance. How on earth had this crooked little journalist managed to blunder upon a clue like that?
"Mrs. Van Geldt?" Norcliff said musingly. "Oh, I know who you mean. That rich American society woman who made such a sensation when she came to England last year. The woman whose jewels are the envy of all who see them."
"Especially her pearls," Jagger chirped.
"Yes, I believe they are rather out of the common."
"Out of the common!" Jagger cried. "Great Scott, I should think they are. Or rather, I should think they were. Now, come, Inspector, you don't mean to tell me you don't know that she was robbed of those pearls a few months ago?"
Norcliff decided to make a more or less clean breast of it. "Oh, of course I knew that," he said. "It is common knowledge in police headquarters all over Europe."
"Yes, and I suppose that the police of the world have been looking for them ever since. Not very easy stuff to handle, eh? I mean that the thief could not sell them to any respectable merchant. I remember reading all that at the time in one of the exchanges, and it struck me as being rather cute on the part of old man Van Geldt to have those stones measured and photographed. And now, I will give you a bit of information. I am not as reticent as you are, and, besides, you promised to let me have the whole story before any other paper came on the scene. Do you know Mrs. Van Geldt?"
"Never saw her in my life," Norcliff admitted. "I know that she took a house in Grosvenor-square last year for the season. Beyond that, I am as ignorant as you are."
"A great deal more so," Jagger said coolly. "You don't know that she has taken the same house again this season and that she is already in London. Even the society papers have not got hold of that yet. I thought I would let you know."
Norcliff nodded gravely. It was important information and he would know how to use it when the time came.
"You are sure she is in London now?" he asked.
"Well, nominally. She has the house and the staff and all the rest of it. But what I should like to know, though I am quite sure you can't tell me, is what she is doing in Birmingham?"
With one swift glance, Trumble took in the man opposite him. He saw a person, very neatly turned out and quite a gentleman so far as appearances were concerned, and moreover one who seemed to be on the easiest terms with his surroundings. The rather handsome features were pleasant enough, and a majority of people would have been only too ready to take Felix Farr at his face valuation. It was, in a way, some gratification to Trumble to note that the other man's hair was growing slightly grey over the temples, and that his moustache was decidedly grizzled. A well-preserved man of about 50 years of age, so Trumble decided, and with that knowledge the slight hostility, born of certain jealousy, left him feeling easier in his mind.
He was glad, too, that Farr made no attempt to shake hands. Instead, he contented himself with a graceful raising of his soft hat and Trumble, in his turn, did the same.
"It is always a pleasure to meet any friend of my friends the Marchmonts," Farr said. "Charming little place they have here. Have you known them very long?"
"Oh, on and off, a good many years," Trumble said. "But this is the first time that I have visited this part and, indeed, I didn't know that my old comrade, George Marchmont even lived near Abbotsbury. We met entirely by accident and I may not tell you that I was exceedingly pleased to see them again. And, all the more so, because of that grievous affliction of his."
"You see, Mr. Farr, Dr. Trumble is quite an authority on eye troubles," Sylvia explained. "He wants George to go to London and stay there some time to undergo a special treatment."
Farr turned almost suddenly to Trumble.
"Oh," he said. "Oh? That's—er—rather good news, isn't it? Anything that sounds in the least hopeful—"
"Please don't begin to talk about hope," Trumble interrupted. He was not blind to a certain uneasiness in Farr's eyes and he was on his guard accordingly. "At least, I don't quite mean that. The impression I really want to convey is that these cases are never quite hopeless. At the best, I can only expect to give my friend George Marchmont a fraction of his sight back again. And even that will be a long job. Of course I may be mistaken, because we doctors can never be quite certain. But it will be a long job, and if, at the end of six months—"
Trumble trailed off incoherently, at the same time watching Farr out of the corner of his eye to catch any sign of relief on the face of the newcomer. And, surely enough, there it was, even though for a fleeting second, and Trumble did not fail to make a note of the fact. Farr murmured something appropriate to the occasion and then the conversation became less personal. But, all the same, Trumble was watching. He had the feeling that his time was not being wasted and that, with any luck, he was on the verge of a discovery. What that discovery was to lead to in time it was impossible for Trumble to fully realise.
"Evidently Farr had come there with the intention of making an afternoon of it. He strolled into the house presently with the air of one who is absolutely at home, and Trumble, outside in the open air, could hear the sound of voices in the cottage. Every now and again certain words came to his ears which convinced him that Farr was talking to his host on the subject of the treasure island in the South Pacific. The words were too broken for the listener to get any real grip upon the thread of the conversation, but it was quite enough to convince Trumble that Farr had come with some definite purpose at the back of his mind. Perhaps he was still a little startled and uneasy in the knowledge that Marchmont's blindness was not of an absolutely permanent nature. It seemed to Trumble that he had said enough on that head to put Farr off the track.
"Do you know, Trevor, I was rather disappointed to hear what you said just now," Sylvia said. "After what you have been telling us. I had the most sanguine hopes—"
"Precisely," Trumble replied. "And you can have them still. But there is no reason why anyone outside the three of us should be told that. In a way, it was a bit impertinent on the part of your friend Farr to press me as far as he did. And now, if you don't mind, we will talk about something else."
"Gladly," Sylvia laughed. "But I must confess that you gave me an awful fright just for the moment. Come down the garden and have a look at my roses. I am rather proud of them. They are not showing much bloom as yet, but I expect to have a great show later on. And you will stay and have tea, won't you?"
Trumble would be delighted, though he was not quite so pleased, presently, when he found that Farr, also, was to be one of the party. Still, he could not dispute the undoubted charm of the man and the brilliant way he talked about his adventures and experiences all over the world. It was getting dusk before the party finally broke up, which it did when Farr hastily glanced at his watch and jumped to his feet with an exclamation that he had important work to do and that he had no idea how late it was.
"The charm of your company, my dear Miss Sylvia," he said gallantry. "Dr. Trumble, are you walking my way?"
Trumble had no thoughts of anything of the kind. And yet it would be just as well, perhaps, if he lingered a little longer in the company of this fascinating stranger, and maybe discover something by a few adroit questions. So he passed down the road, side by side with Farr, until they came at length to the gate that led into the garden where Trumble and Norcliff had found so much to interest them. Farr opened the gate abruptly.
"Well, good-night, Dr. Trumble," he said. "I am sorry I can't ask you in. Some other time I shall be only too delighted to show you something in the way of hospitality."
Trumble murmured something by way of reply and the two parted. It was quite dark by this time, with no suggestion of a moon as Trumble prepared to cross the line to his hotel on the other side. Then, with a sudden impulse, he retraced his footsteps and, very quietly, passed through the gate into Farr's garden.
There were no lights in the front of the house, and none in the hall. Evidently Farr was in the habit of using the garden room at the back of the house that opened on to the tennis lawn. Trumble would have been hard put to it to say why he was there and what he expected to find, but that did not deter him from going on with the adventure. He had quite a fine natural eye for locality and, moreover, he had been over the same ground before. He found no difficulty, therefore, in reaching the back of the house and making his way behind the little group of herbaceous plants that fringed the grass and, there hidden, it might be possible to see what was going on in the garden room. He had been perfectly right in his deductions that this was the apartment generally used by Farr because the electric light had been turned on and the blind pulled down. There was just a thin slit of light showing under the bottom of the blinds, and presently Trumble stole out of his hiding place and applied his eye to the narrow rim between the bottom of the blind and the framework of the window. It was quite sufficient to afford him a fairly comprehensive view of the interior of the room and the figure of Farr standing by the side of a table in his shirt sleeves.
He stood there, thoughtfully smoking a cigarette and helping himself from time to time to a whisky and soda. There was a mass of odds and ends on the table, together with a small looking glass. This Farr, presently pulled a little closer to himself, and then, crossing the room, carefully locked the door.
Something mysterious was about to take place, and, with any luck, Trumble was going to see what it was. He had half expected to find somebody else present besides Farr, and it was with a certain sense of disappointment that he saw him lock the door. Once he had done this he set swiftly and cleverly to work.
He was disguising himself, that Trumble could see at a glance. Over his crisp grey hair he drew a still greyer wig with long hair at the back, falling over his shoulders, and giving him an extraordinary appearance of philanthropic benevolence. With the aid of the glass and the pigments on the table the wig was so naturally touched up that Trumble, looking as closely as he might, could not detect it from the real thing. Then the cheeks were plumped out and slightly reddened, and after that, a flowing beard with side whiskers that gave the man the appearance of one of the elder prophets. He smiled in the glass as he noted the effect, and then promptly began to divest himself of his outer clothing.
Five minutes later an elderly clergyman, and evidently one high up in the church, had taken the place of the volatile and fascinating Farr. The looking glass was folded up and placed, together with the mass of make-up on the table, in an oak cabinet at the corner of the room, the door of which Farr evidently kept locked. Then, with a shovel hat on his head, he crossed the room.
Trumble crept away quickly and hid himself in a mass of foliage just inside the gate. He waited until the sham clergyman emerged and followed him at a discreet distance, into the heart of the town. And there, before one of the ancient houses in the neighborhood of the Abbey, Farr stopped and rang a bell. The door was opened just at the moment that Trumble could almost have touched the man in front of him. He strained his ears to listen.
"Yes, I think the lady is in, sir," said the maid who answered the door. "But I understand that she does not want to be disturbed. If you happen to be a friend of hers, sir—"
"That will be all right," Farr said. "Will you kindly tell the lady that the Reverend Walter Temperley wishes to see her."
Norcliff looked with a certain humorous shrewdness at the diminutive speaker under his brows. He did not doubt for a moment that Jagger knew exactly what he was talking about, but how this newspaper sleuth had contrived to get upon the track of a woman believed by the detective not to be in England at all passed his understanding. Evidently there was something more than an ordinary mind behind those gleaming spectacles of Jagger's.
And, moreover, Jagger had made an exceedingly important discovery at an amazingly opportune time. Norcliff was as convinced as he possibly could be that the pearls he had lately seen in the office of the merchant, Fastnet, had been part of Mrs. Van Geldt's necklace. And here she was, in England, probably upon the same quest as he was himself. Still, he might be wrong there. Mrs. Van Geldt was the young wife of one of the astutest operators on Wall-street and she had won her position in society entirely from the base of her husband's extraordinary wealth. Moreover, she was comparatively well known in England, since it had been her custom of late to come over to London for the season and establish herself in one of the princely houses in Mayfair and there dispense the most profuse hospitality. The sort of thing that ambitious American women will do when they want to establish themselves firmly in the good graces of their fellow-countrymen and, to a much greater degree, their fellow-countrywomen. Norcliff knew a good deal about that. He knew, for instance, that the average American with means often failed to obtain a footing in what New York proudly called The Four Hundred and that it was ever so much easier to find a way into that exclusive circle by a circuitous route through London and create something like a sensation by a lavish display and boundless generosity and then with the aid of a well-paid aristocratic chaperone, find her way into the most exclusive circles. This being accomplished, it would be easy enough for a woman like Mrs. Van Geldt to find herself a welcome figure in New York, particularly when she was in a position to boast that she had made her bow to royalty and that she had become a familiar figure in ducal and other blue-blooded establishments.
This much, at any rate, Norcliff knew about Mrs. Van Geldt. More he hoped to find out before long. During the three or four years in which he had been engaged in the battle of wits with some of the cleverest international thieves in the world, he had learnt a great deal about the wives and female dependents of America's plutocracy. And, sooth to say, he had from time to time, been given by them great cause for anxiety. They came over to England, heralded by a sensational press and with their precious valuables duly catalogued in print for the light-fingered fraternity who stalked with the greatest patience during the time they were in England. And now, here was Mrs. Van Geldt once more upon British soil, established in a great house in Grosvenor-square and playing the old game in the same familiar way. That was all very well as far as it went, and, in a way, the knowledge was of value to Norcliff. But still, he would have been hard put to it to have answered Jagger's pertinent question as to what that fortunate woman was doing in Birmingham.
"You are quite sure she is here?" he asked.
"Oh, quite," Jagger replied. "You see I have a friend here on one of the local daily papers and he has had over two years' experience of American journalism. Interviewing celebrities and all that sort of thing. Amongst the other society stars he saw was Mrs. Van Geldt. I happened to meet him quite casually in the street and he told me that he had seen the woman in question entering a taxi just outside New Street station. Of course, I ought not to tell you this. I ought to pretend that I tracked her down after the fashion set by the great Sherlock. But, seeing that you are a friend, and relying on your promise to let me have the first news of any note in connection with the railway murder, I am telling you the more than simple truth."
"And you see the significance of it?" Norcliff asked.
"Oh, Lord, yes! You see, I am a bit of a reader, Inspector, especially with regard to the criminal side of my profession. And what I read I don't forget. I know as well as you do that Mrs. Van Geldt was robbed of some of those precious pearls of hers a considerable time ago—in fact, I read the story in the American Exchanges. What's the odds against the victim of the railway murder being mixed up with Mrs. Van Geldt? Of course that is only a sort of theory of mine, but you never know what ideas like that lead to. At any rate, you might like to know that Mrs. Van Geldt is here."
Norcliff nodded thoughtfully. He had not the least intention of telling this inquisitive little journalist how closely the railway mystery and the loss of Mrs. Van Geldt's pearls were connected. But all the same, he did not fail to appreciate the logical reasoning and the quickness with which Jagger had jumped to his conclusions.
"You didn't follow her, I suppose?"
"Well, to tell you the truth, I didn't," Jagger said. "I don't know why, except that the idea failed to occur to me for the moment. But now I wish I had. At any rate, I came in to tell you, and you can make what use of the information you like. Do you happen to know anything about Mrs. Van Geldt?"
"Not more than most people do," Norcliff was fain to confess. "But I can very easily find out. You see, the diamond thief and his associates are no longer in my line, and I have lost touch with them. But all the information I need is at Scotland Yard, and I can get it in the course of a day or two."
"Why in a day or two?" Jagger urged. "Do it now, inspector; do it now. Get on or get out and all that sort of thing. You may be wasting precious moments, for all you know to the contrary. Why not go to the police headquarters here and get on to Scotland Yard without delay? Use their wireless."
"Now, do you know that never occurred to me," Norcliff said innocently. "I suppose they have a set here."
"Of course they have," Jagger said impatiently. "I hadn't been a couple of hours here before I discovered that."
"Oh, then you know all about it, do you?"
"I know a good deal, anyhow," Jagger said. "It isn't so very long ago that the whole system was explained in a special article in the 'Times.' There seems to be no secret about it. You've got both receiving and transmitting sets in most of the big provincial centres, all of them under the directorship of Scotland Yard. More than that, you have wireless vans, carefully disguised, travelling about the country at 20 miles an hour and communicating direct with headquarters. These vans both receive and transmit, using a sort of cypher code. It was all in the 'Times.'"
"Yes, now I come to think of it, it was," Norcliff said. "Now, come along with me and see what we can do. The first thing is to find out all about Mrs. Van Geldt."
Together the two moved off until they reached their destination, where a few words of explanation put matters on a proper footing, and a little later in the top of the building Jagger was introduced for the first time, to the neat, workmanlike wireless set which, at the moment, had been shut down. Presently an operator or two came along and Norcliff explained what he required.
"It's like this," he said. "I want some information which I know is in the possession of Scotland Yard. I want you to call the Yard up and say that Inspector Norcliff is at this end. Of course, I can't handle the code, but you can."
"Certainly, Inspector," the operator smiled. "I shall be only too pleased to transmit any message you like to send. We have to transmit them in code for reasons that are obvious. And, of course, the same code is used in reply. My colleague here will take down what headquarters say and I shall be able to translate almost as quickly as I can speak. One gets used to it in a very short time; as one gets used to reading shorthand. But I need not waste my time in telling you all this Inspector Norcliff."
"That's right," Norcliff said. "But I think it will all exceedingly interesting to my friend Mr. Jagger here."
Jagger was emphatically of opinion that it would. He watched every movement out of those cunning little eyes of his and listened with his head on one side as something like a reply came back across the ether that sounded like some foreign jibberish, though it seemed plain enough to the man who stood by the muffled loud speaker with his notebook in his hand.
For the best part of half an hour or more, the droning voice came through the black funnel, until, at length, it shut off suddenly and a complete silence followed. The operator with the notebook turned smilingly to Norcliff.
"There you are, sir," he said. "That is the whole story as far as Scotland Yard knows it. And, if you would like to come down to my office, I will translate the message. You may want to make notes on it. And if so, I will translate slowly."
Down below, in the speaker's office, Norcliff and Jagger sat quietly listening to the story as it came clearly and not too fast from the lips of the man with the notebook.
"Oh, yes, we know all about Mrs. Van Geldt," the translator began. "She is the young wife of Mr. Cornelius Van Geldt, who is one of the big men on Wall-street. He is quite an elderly man, whose mind is entirely wrapped up in his business so that he is rarely seen in society and is quite an unknown figure at those brilliant receptions and parties that his wife is fond of giving. He cannot be far short of seventy, whilst Mrs. Van Geldt is, at the outside, five and twenty. He is a very hard man, with none too savoury a reputation in his dealings, but being successful, that covers a multitude of sins. Moreover, he is devoted to his young wife."
"Oh," Norcliff interrupted. "I expected that."
"A case of May and December," the man with the notebook smiled. "I suppose even the hardest of us has a soft spot somewhere. At any rate, according to what I have written down here, Van Geldt is fairly under his wife's thumb. Not that he allows her unlimited money to spend in cash, because he is too good a business man for that. But she can run up bills to any amount and, when he has checked them, he pays without a murmur. He seems to have an obsession for handling his own money, probably because he has found it so hard to make. But, roughly speaking, Mrs. Van Geldt can have what she wants. And, amongst other things she wanted a year or two ago, was to be able to boast that she possessed the finest pearl necklace in the world."
"Um, rather a big order," Norcliff murmured. "But, attainable, provided that there is a fortune to be spent."
"So Mr. Van Geldt seemed to find," the translator went on. "At any rate, the time came when the lady was allowed to have her own way and she set about her pet ambition. She did not employ one jewel merchant in New York, but half a dozen. You see, it was too big a thing for a single firm to handle. Not that it mattered much, because every merchant who had a particularly fine pearl to dispose of took it straight to Van Geldt's agent and offered it at a fancy price. The thing was talked about in the newspapers and created a great sensation. This meant, of course, that dealers in pearls from all over the world visited New York with any that they had distinctly out of the common. And, naturally, they asked big prices. And that is how the famous necklace was got together."
"All of it?" Norcliff asked. "Every pearl?"
"One moment," the operator said. "I cannot answer that question without looking further ahead in my notes."
He flicked the leaves over for a minute or two and then, apparently, found the information that he wanted.
"Ah, here it is," he said. "No, there were several pearls needed to make a clean job of it. These, needless to say, were the graduated gems that formed the base of the necklace. And when they did turn up, they came all at once."
"That I was quite prepared to hear," Norcliff said. "In fact, I should have been greatly disappointed if you had said anything to the contrary. The point is, where did they come from?"
"Ah, that nobody seems to know," the man with the notebook said. "So far as one can gather, they came in to Mrs. Van Geldt's hands direct. She showed them to her husband and, after they had been tested and approved by experts, they were used in the necklace. Heaven knows how much the old man paid for them. But there you are, and that, Inspector, is the history of the famous rope of pearls."
"Yes, but all that is more or less public property," Norcliff pointed out. "The papers had this at the time of the robbery. And, moreover, when the robbery took place, it was only those twelve pearls that were taken away. As far as I recollect, they were twisted on a gold wire in the shape of a pear, so that, if necessary, they could be detached and worn as a separate ornament. I don't quite know the facts of the robbery itself, but I am going to make it my business to ascertain. So far as my memory serves me, the case containing the pearls was intact with the exception of the big ones at the base. That was the cunning part of it. And now, if you don't mind going back over your notes again, I should like to hear a little more about Mrs. Van Geldt herself. I am sorry to interrupt you."
"Oh, not in the least," the man with the notebook smiled. "Let me see. Yes, here it is. Nothing is known of Mrs. Van Geldt until four years ago when she appeared on that Roof Garden with Zimmerstein's Midnight Follies. She was in the chorus at first and immediately attracted attention by her beauty and vivacity. She was taken up by the newspapers and the public generally and made much of. So much of that adulation would have turned the average girl's head. Naturally Zimmerstein, with a draw like that, was not giving anything away. He wasn't going to disclose the history of his find to inquisitive pressmen, and the more reticent he was, the greater became public curiosity. Mrs. Van Geldt was anything you like. She was the daughter of a millionaire who had adopted the stage for a whim. She was the only child of a Southern aristocrat who had met with a love disappointment. She had gone on the stage for a wager. All that sort of thing. But Zimmerstein said nothing, because he fully appreciated that there is no publicity equal to curiosity. In three months Mrs. Van Geldt was a star."
"What did she call herself?" Norcliff asked.
"Well, upon my word, I don't seem to have gathered who she was," the man with the notebook confessed. "I mean, I haven't got her stage name down here."
"It doesn't matter," Norcliff said. "I can get that whenever I want it. You can go on with the story."
"Well, there is not much more story to tell. There is not the slightest doubt that Mrs. Van Geldt was a girl of considerable natural cleverness, and, moreover, one who must have had a fairly good education. At any rate she managed to get hold of a rich husband and, from that moment, has shown no disposition to go back to her old life. But who she really is and whence she came originally apparently remains a mystery."
"Well, at any rate, it is all very interesting," Norcliff said. "Evidently one man knows, and that it Zimmerstein. If we really want to get to the bottom of the whole thing, the New York police will be able to persuade the Dutch impresario to open his mouth. I don't suppose he will be so reticent now that his former star is of no financial assistance to him."
"Well, that is for you to say, Inspector," the man with the notebook smiled. "Is there anything else I can tell you?"
"Not for the moment," Norcliff said. "If I think of anything else, I can come back again and make use of your wireless. Many thanks for all your trouble."
A moment or two later, Norcliff and his companion were walking thoughtfully along the street in the direction of the Grand Central Hotel, where the inspector was staying.
"Queer sort of yarn, isn't it?" Jagger asked.
"Very queer," Norcliff said. "And the strangest part of it is that Mrs. Van Geldt is in England again without the usual flourish of trumpets. Of course she has come over for the season and I should not be at all surprised to find that she has taken the same furnished house in Grosvenor-square as she had last year. At any rate we can discover that at our leisure."
"But what on earth is she doing here?" Jagger asked.
"Ah, there you have me guessing," Norcliff smiled. "It looks as if the lady came over here more or less incognito. At any rate, she seems to have avoided the press crowd, for I have seen no mention of her name in the society news which I make it my business to scan carefully in the papers every morning. Usually, ladies of Mrs. Van Geldt's position are only too willing to have their name broadcast. In fact, a great many of them pay for the privilege. But you come along with me and we can talk the matter over whilst we are eating a bit of supper. I had no idea it was so late. It must be nearly twelve o'clock. Unless you have something else to do."
"Oh, I am entirely at your disposal," Jagger said. "And I should most certainly like to carry this matter a little further. What do you suppose that woman is doing in Birmingham at this particular moment. And why has she come more or less secretly?"
"Ah, that we have got to find out," Norcliff said. "Now, here we are. Come up to my room and I will see what I can do in the way of providing you with something to eat and drink."
Leaving the lift on the third floor, Norcliff turned into his room and proceeded to ring the bell. Then he faced half round and cried out in astonishment when he saw that Trumble was there smoking a cigarette in the depths of a big arm chair.
"The doctor," he cried. "Now, what on earth are you doing here at this time of the night?"
"It is rather strange, isn't it?" Trumble laughed. "As a matter of fact, I have some important information for you. And as to the rest, I called up Scotland Yard from Abbotsbury just to make sure, and they told me that I should find you here. Then I was fortunate enough to catch a late train from Abbotsbury to Birmingham and—well—so to speak, here I am."
"And very pleased to see you," Norcliff said, as the three sat down to the supper provided by the waiter. "And now that we are alone I should like to know what you have picked up. You need not be afraid to speak before Jagger, because he seems to know almost as much about the business as I do. He has been giving me some most valuable information; in fact, I think he is wasted as a journalist and ought to come in with us. But never mind that for the moment. What did you come all this way to tell me?"
Without further waste of time, Trumble told his story, to which Norcliff listened with every sign of the liveliest satisfaction.
"Well, that's worth hearing, anyways," he exclaimed. "It looks to me as if we had got a more than usually astute scoundrel to deal with. The idea of impersonating the man whose house he occupies is distinctly ingenious."
"Unless he happens to be Temperley as well," Jagger put in. "It might be the case, inspector, eh?"
"Yes, it might be, but I don't think we should allow ourselves to be led away on side issues like that."
"Oh, I don't know," the irrepressible Jagger replied. "Tell you what, I have got another theory which may not appeal to you, but, again, as I said before, you never know. Supposing this sham clergyman cum Felix Farr should be calling upon a mysterious lady who turns out to be Mrs. Van Geldt. What price that?"
Mrs. Van Geldt knew from the moment that she met her elderly husband exactly what she wanted, and precisely how to get it. Not for a moment had she cared anything about him and she was quick to recognise that, on his side, there was none of that maudlin sentiment that often obsesses the middle-aged man in his search for a wife. She was a beautiful creature, a splendid young animal whose physical attractions none could deny and, having been brought up in a particularly hard school, she saw where her opportunity lay and grasped it with both hands. There were many advantages on her side, and she did not fail to make the most of them.
To begin with, nobody knew who she was or whence she came. She had a stage name, of course, but concerning her origin not even the smartest of the New York reporters could speak definitely. And, naturally enough, when she fell into the shrewd managerial hands of the famous Zimmerstein it was not for him to lift the veil. People could say and think what they liked. If it pleased them to believe that this new star was of aristocratic birth, so much the better. It all added to the advertisement, and Cora Klein was wise enough to see that Zimmerstein was perfectly right.
As a matter of fact he had picked her up in what the Americans call a one-stand vaudeville far out in the woolly West. He had managed to get rid of that drunken, dissipated old father of hers and, when Otto Klein died of drink two months later, nobody was more pleased than Zimmerstein himself.
"Ah, that removes one great difficulty, ma dear," he said to the bereaved daughter. "You come to New York with me and I make you vamous. But wait a leetle bit, dere is one or two things you haf to learn first. You are my pupil."
There was a great deal that Cora had to learn; three or four months of the hardest work she had ever done in her life. But she had ambition and grit and a wonderful adaptability, so great that even Zimmerstein, with all his experience, was amazed. He had put her in the right hands and, for the moment, had forgotten all about her. And when he saw her again at the end of the period of probation, he threw up his hands in astonishment.
"Ach, wonderful!" he exclaimed. "But did not I always say you vos great? Behold a lady!"
And, indeed, in so saying, Zimmerstein was not far from the mark. Gone was the deplorable accent, gone every trace of the old circus life and in the place of a mere lovely creature, absolutely ignorant of the world except its more base and material side, was a finished product fit to go anywhere and take her place in any sort of society. And moreover, she knew it.
There was nothing immoral about her; she had come through a trying period in the face of many temptations as pure and unsoiled as a girl living her life could possibly be. But, under that gay and inconsequent manner of hers, was a shrewd mind that saw a long way to an ultimate brilliant goal.
To begin with, she refused to make any contract with Zimmerstein. Not that she did this with any show of business acumen, but because she professed her unwillingness to take advantage of her patron's generosity until she had proved that she was worthy of it. She was quite willing to take a small salary to begin with, and, on the other hand, Zimmerstein was broad minded enough to increase that salary as time went on. But, somehow or another, he could never manage to induce Cora to sign a contract. It was not for him to know that so brilliant and versatile an actress should hate and loathe the stage from top to bottom. Her early life had been too hard to leave her any illusions, and she was quite ready to turn her back upon what promised to be a great career at the first moment that she saw a chance of setting her feet on the solid rock of prosperity. And this chance came when she met Van Geldt.
They had come together at some social gathering and, from the very first, the hard Wall-street magnate had been attracted. It was not the attraction of the moth for the star, or anything so romantic. Neither was Van Geldt in love with Cora. He appreciated her charms and talent and, above all, that amazing, diamond-hard acumen that he could read under those skin-deep charms of hers. He wanted to entertain, he wanted someone to look after that great, big, stone-fronted house of his on Fifth-avenue and bring all her talents to bear upon the personalities he wished to gather about him. He was a very big man indeed, was Van Geldt, but it was his ambition to be bigger still. Some day or another, if he lived, he was going to be the great international financier and the ruler of Cabinets. But, to do that successfully, it was absolutely necessary that he should have the proper surroundings in that fine old house of his, crammed with treasures from all parts of the world, in the midst of which he lived as simply as a soldier on the battlefield.
He put it to Cora quite plainly as a great business proposition and she promptly accepted it as such. It was in vain that Zimmerstein raged and stormed and then almost on his knees implored Cora not to abandon her career. He would make her great. He would lift her to the highest pinnacle of fame, so that she would go down to posterity with other queens of the stage.
But it was all in vain. Cora saw her chance and accepted it. Within a year of her first appearance in New York, she was mistress of one of its finest establishments, with the command of more money than she could possibly spend. Not so much money in cash, because Van Geldt was not given that way. But Cora could spend as much as she needed amongst the tradesmen and Van Geldt was always ready to foot the bills. It was an honorable bargain between them and both of them accepted the rules implicitly.
But Cora's ambition did not stop there. She had her own friends, of course—no woman who had been so prominently before the public as she could possibly lack a brilliant following. Actors and artists and all sorts of thing flocked to her house, but the exclusive ladies of the New York Four Hundred held aloof, and were likely to do so, unless something out of the common was going to happen, or Cora utterly failed to understand her business. From the very first, she could see her way into the most intimate New York coteries through the medium of London. Accordingly, she would go to London for the season and engage the services of some aristocratic chaperon, who would open every house to the lovely American who was still little more than a girl and who was the wife of one of the richest men in the world. And so, in the course of time, it was so.
Cora came back to America in time to find that she was the centre of publicity. She had seen to it, through the medium of the press agents—that her meteoric career in London and Scotland and Egypt and Monte Carlo, had not been overlooked. She came back having rubbed shoulders with royalty and more than once having spent a night under the same roof. And, because of this, she was in no hurry. She was not going to be patronised; she was going to pick her own particular circle, and, in the course of time, lead it. And because of this, the leaders of society in New York called upon her and made much of her—at least, as much of her as she would allow them. She was going to occupy no social seat, except in the centre of the first row of stalls, and she let them know it. She had youth and beauty and a fine sarcastic wit of her own, so that any attempt at patronage recoiled on the head of the woman who was hardy enough to try it. In other words, Cora was 'there.'
Nobody watched her flight upwards with greater delight and appreciation than the man who had found the means to gratify her ambitions to the full. It was just what Van Geldt wanted, and just what he expected, though Cora had rushed to the front much quicker than he had anticipated even in his most optimistic moments.
Mrs. Van Geldt was everywhere, Mrs. Van Geldt had her own special columns in the daily press, and Mrs. Van Geldt had already stepped over the heads of a dozen great ladies and taken their places as if she had been literally born to the purple.
It was just about this time that Cora made up her mind with regard to the pearl necklace. She was going to have the finest rope in the world, and she found her husband quite willing to fall in with the suggestion. After all, pearls were only another form of investment, and, moreover, represented a considerable saving in the way of income-tax. And, moreover, a bold and daring speculator like Van Geldt occasionally makes mistakes, and now and then finds himself in the iron grip of a group stronger than his own. It was the one fear that haunted Van Geldt. And if the time ever did come when he was down and out, then that wonderful pearl necklace would come in very handy after the fall.
But there was one point upon which he insisted.
"There are limits to all things," he told Cora. "All that I stipulate is that the outfit shouldn't cost a penny more than two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. That is, fifty thousand pounds English money, and that you must make do."
"Oh, I dare say I can manage," Cora said, knowing perfectly well that when Van Geldt said a thing he meant it. She was not particularly afraid of the old man, but if there was a man in the world she feared at all, it was that elderly husband of hers. She knew that he could be as hard as the nether millstone if he liked, and, though he never issued any commands, she was perfectly aware, from what he said, that he had reached his limit.
"Very well," she said. "I think that ought to do. After all is said and done, I don't suppose that even the finest necklace in the world would fetch more than that. I want something that will be talked about, something that those Press people make a great deal of, and I shan't be happy till I get it."
And thus it came about that the great pearl necklace was founded. It was no difficult matter to obtain the great majority of the stones from the various jewel dealers in New York, but when it came to the great pearls to form the base of the necklace, it was a different matter altogether. They came in so slowly, indeed, that more than once Cora was half-inclined to abandon the prospect altogether. She needed about a dozen of those semi-transparent little marbles to give her a treasure almost unique. But whence they were coming and how she had not the least idea. Moreover, what she had collected already had eaten a big hole in the amount of money that Van Geldt had allotted for the purpose. And when she told him this and hinted at a hundred thousand dollars more, he shut his mouth like a steel trap and refused to go any further. And Cora, knowing her man perhaps better than he knew himself, gracefully yielded and discreetly said no more about it.
But, all the same, she was not going to be baulked. She never had been beaten yet, and she refused to admit defeat now. And then the great temptation came her way.
It was at some social function of no particular importance that she had met the man who was in a position to help her. She had come out of the refreshment room alone, for once in a way, and there, in the solitude of the broad stairway, she had run almost into the arms of the man who called himself Vane Egerton.
Just for a moment she had some little difficulty in breathing. She had quite forgotten this man whom she had not seen since she was a child of 17, and whom, moreover, she had known in circumstances very different from her present surroundings.
"And what might you be doing here?" she demanded.
"Oh, then you have not forgotten me," Egerton said, with a laugh that had a sneer in it. "If it comes to that, I might just as well ask what you are doing here."
"I think the circumstances are rather different," Cora said coldly. "You see, I have won my way here. Oh, it is no use being modest about it. You know who I am, and probably all my history or the last two or three years. But I never expected to see you under a respectable roof like this."
"Meaning that I am not a gentleman?"
"Oh, well, it is a very elastic term, isn't it? Of course you were born a gentleman, and an English gentleman at that. And, no doubt, up to a certain point, you behave like one. I know the type. You see, I have spent the best part of a year in England, and I have met it over and over again. And a very fine type it is. But when I met you in Arizona you were hardly living up to the traditions of your ancestors, were you?"
"Well, perhaps not," Egerton agreed, with a little smile. "But look here, don't let's throw stones at one another. You keep my secret and I will keep yours."
"Oh! As if I had something to be ashamed of?"
"Well, not exactly that, but something you don't want talked about. I daresay, your position is an assured one now, but if New York learnt all about the old circus days.... Oh, I am not threatening you, and if you have any notions in your head with regard to blackmail, you can drop them at once. That isn't in my line at all. So you are the great Mrs. Van Geldt, and I am Vane Egerton, the son of an English baronet, who is travelling for pleasure. If we let it go at that, there is nothing to complain of."
"Certainly, as far as I am concerned," Cora smiled. "But you didn't follow me here to-night to tell me that. But don't deny that you have followed me, because my instincts tell me that you have been watching me for some time. What do you want?"
"Well, really," Egerton protested; "I don't see any occasion to put it quite as bluntly as that. Don't let's quarrel, Cora. Why should we? You can't help me particularly, but I can help you, and I am all the more anxious to do so, because my interests happen to lie in that direction. Cynical perhaps, but true."
Cora led the way to a quiet little lounge at the head of the stairs, and motioned Egerton to take a seat at her side.
"Now, then," she said. "What is it you particularly want?"
"Oh, it is rather a question of what you want. That pearl necklace of yours, for instance. The papers have been more or less full of it for weeks, and, when a paragraph or two came to my notice, I thought of you at once—because I can put my hand on those pearls of which you are short. Just a round dozen, my dear Cora, and quite the finest in the world."
"Where did you steal them?" Cora asked casually.
"Oh, come, why be so personal? I haven't stolen them, because they are not in my possession, though I can have them at a price. They belong to a man who has recently arrived in America, and who does not read the papers; in fact, I rather doubt if he can read. But I met him years ago in the course of my wanderings about the world, and ran up against him, quite by accident, in New York a few days ago. He has been prospecting in the South Pacific, and there he had an extraordinary piece of luck. At any rate, he has a dozen pearls that he wants to sell, though I don't think he quite realises their full value. But he has just brains enough to know that if he goes to a dealer here to sell them, he won't get half their value. And I told him that that was so. If he refuses the first offer and goes somewhere else, he will be followed, and the dealer in the second office into which he goes will be called up over the telephone with a view to dividing the plunder. I know all about that game. So I told him that I knew a lady who would give him a lot more for those pearls than he would get from any of the gang in New York. As a matter of fact, I have one of them in my pocket now. Perhaps you would like to have a look at it yourself."
Cora was interested, she was thrilled and intrigued, and no longer openly contemptuous as far as Egerton was concerned. If what he said was true, then she had come to the end of her search, and was in a position to gratify an ambition that had become almost an obsession. But then, on the other hand, she remembered her husband's warning. She was not to spend more than a certain amount, and she knew perfectly well that if she did this she would never be forgiven, and perhaps, what was much worse, her expenditure would be curtailed until she had paid off the difference. But, all the same, she was going to have these treasures at any cost.
"Oh, do let me look at it," she cried.
A moment later the pearl was in her hand. It seemed to be just as Egerton had described it to be, and was of a size the like of which she had never seen before. She was by way of being a judge by this time, because she had handled hundreds of pearls during the last few months, but never anything quite like this.
"It looks quite right," she said. "And the feel of it is perfect. But I couldn't say definitely for myself. And, besides, I am dealing with the person called Vane Egerton."
"Oh, quite right, quite right," Egerton said, not in the least annoyed. "You are wise to take every precaution. There are eleven more of these little chaps where this one came from. And they are yours at a price."
"Yes, I suppose they are, but suppose they belong to somebody else? Suppose they have come into your hands dishonestly? I think you know what I mean, Mr. Egerton."
"Quite," Egerton said calmly. "But these pearls, the twelve of them, are worth at least forty thousand pounds. There is nothing like them in the world. Now, as a woman of the world, ask yourself a question. They must have had an original owner some time or another, and if the owner had lost them, do you suppose that he would have kept the information to himself? Of course he wouldn't. He would have gone straight to the police and told them his sorrowful story. And within eight and forty hours every paper in the Anglo-Saxon language would have reams about it. Can't you see the headlines in the New York Press? Why, they would fairly hit you in the face! And yet you, with all your astuteness, ask me if I came by them honestly. My dear woman, I haven't come by them at all. I persuaded the finder to lend me that little gem that lies in the palm of your hand so that I could show it to you. I showed him what the papers said about your hobby, and promised him that if he would let me do the business he could get double as much from you as he would from anybody else, which is a simple fact. And I don't mind telling you that I shall make a pretty handsome picking for myself. I know you don't trust me, and I don't blame you. But here is a plain business transaction, and when it comes to handing over the cash the business can be done in your own drawing-room in the presence of half a dozen detectives, if necessary. And I will bring the man who found the pearls with me. Thirty-five thousand pounds is the price, and that is my last word."
"Yes, it sounds all right," Cora said thoughtfully. "Moreover, you are offering me just what I want. But, before I go any further, I must have a real expert opinion. So far as I can judge, this pearl is everything you claim it to be; but then, one never knows. If you will come with me—"
"Not the slightest occasion," Egerton interrupted. "I don't want to compromise you in any way. Suppose we were seen by some one who knew me in Arizona five years ago. You can see that I am more concerned for your reputation than I am for my own."
"That is very kind and thoughtful of you," Cora smiled. "But what, precisely, is the mode of procedure?"
"Dear lady," Egerton murmured. "The point I am driving at is obvious. You wisely don't trust me; on the other hand, I am entirely at your service. Why not take the pearl away with you and let me know later on if you are satisfied? Quite simple, what?"
The epic of the woman and her jewels has yet to be written. That is, unless one takes the temptation of Marguerita as a typical example. But it was very nearly an epic in the case of the woman whoso ambition it was to possess the finest pearl necklace in the world. And here the prize had been literally thrust into her hand by one whom she had known for years as a polished scoundrel. She was quite well aware that he was a man of education, and, in the cant sense of the word, a gentleman. But that Vane Egerton was anything but a rascal, she did not doubt; indeed she had every reason to hold to the contrary. He had been everything out there in the West—gambler, forger, cheat, anything that goes with congenial dishonesty. And here he was now back in society again, beautifully turned out and, apparently, highly prosperous, offering her the one thing that her soul most longed for.
"Very well," she said. "I am going to accept you at your word. I will take this pearl and show it to one of the regular experts, and then I will communicate with you."
"Ah, now you are talking business," Egerton smiled. "That is all I want you to do. And, when you have proved the value of the gem, you can have the rest to submit to the same authority. In other words, I am going to put all the pearls into your hands, trusting you implicitly to do the right thing. But one little stipulation before we part. I have told you the price, and there will be no reduction on that score. And I would much rather not accept a cheque. Notes or bearer bonds, if you like. Not that your husband will make any objection, I am sure."
"I think you are rather a little inclined to count your chickens before they are hatched, aren't you?" Cora asked. "Of course, you know that I have already spent a vast sum on my collection?"
"Yes—the papers," Egerton murmured vaguely.
"Of course. You have read it all in the press. And, so far, I have spent nearly all I am allowed to lay out, and it will not be an easy matter for me to induce my husband—"
"That I utterly refuse to believe," Egerton said with an air of gallantry. "I cannot see any man refusing you anything that you had made up your mind to have. However, that is neither here nor there. Let me know when you want me, and be as cautious as you like. A single line to the address I am giving you, saying that the pearl is genuine, will bring me along to any place you should care to appoint with the rest of them. Say your own house."
"Very well," Cora agreed. "In two or three days you will hear from me, and then, we can come to actual business."
Egerton bowed and went his way, leaving Cora with her head in a whirl. Just for the moment she was swept almost entirely off her feet. It was an unusual state for her, because she was a woman who kept an iron hand upon her emotions, but now the mere feel of that smooth little semi-transparent pebble in her hand set her thrilling from head to foot. She did not doubt for a moment that the pearl was one of the highest quality, or that the rest of them fell in any respect short of the original. And yet there were one or two awkward fences to negotiate before she could call those twelve little precious objects her own. She knew perfectly well that it was no use going to her husband. She would try, of course, but she knew exactly what he would say. Still, fairly early on the following morning, she called up her car and set out for Shiffany's, which, as everybody knows, is the finest jewellery establishment in the world.
She was quite a well-known figure in that palatial establishment, and there was something like a rush to attend to her needs. A little later on, she found herself in a private office with one in authority, and to him, without comment, she handed over the solitary pearl.
She could see the man's eyes sparkle as he examined it, she could see that he was face to face with something decidedly out of the common. He turned the pearl over in his hand, then he placed it on the delicate scales, and after that regarded it long and earnestly with the aid of a powerful magnifying glass.
"It would be interesting to know where madam procured this," he said. "Though, of course it would be more than indiscreet on my part to ask any questions."
"Well, let me ask a question," Cora smiled. "Is that pearl all that it looks. Or is it a forgery?"
"Oh, no forgery, madam. I never handled anything finer. There are very few pearls in the world to compare with it. It must have belonged to some historic collection."
"No, I am quite sure that it didn't," Cora explained. "You are not suggesting that it was stolen, are you?"
"Certainly not, so far as madam is concerned. That is the sort of pearl that, if it were missed by its fortunate owner, would be advertised all over the world."
"Oh, I don't think that you need trouble yourself on that score," Cora laughed. "At any rate, I am contemplating buying it with a view to adding to my own collection, and you may be astonished to hear that there are eleven more where it came from."
"Absolutely impossible, madam," the expert said.
"My good man, there is nothing impossible under the sun," Cora said coolly. "You see, there are thousands of people who know my ambition, as far as pearls are concerned, and I suppose that that is why the owner of this particular one came to me with it. Of course, I was immensely attracted, and all the more so when he left it in my hands for expert examination. Besides, if it ever belonged to a collection, it would be bored, which this is not."
"Yes, I have thought of that," the manager said. "It has certainly not been in the hands of any firm of jewellers. And you actually tell me that there are eleven more of these pearls, waiting on your decision. It sounds incredible."
"Nevertheless, I believe it to be a fact. However, we shall soon know, because the rest of the pearls will be handed over to me in the course of the week, and I shall bring them to you for your opinion. If they are all right, then I shall buy them, and that necklace of which you have heard will be complete."
"There will be nothing like it on the face of the globe," the expert said. "We are very much honored, madam, by your confidence, and I need hardly say that as regards what you have told us there shall be the strictest confidence."
Cora went on her way gaily enough, and later on in the morning, when she had finished her usual round of the shops, drove off down town in the direction of the offices of a famous firm of private inquiry agents, where she asked to see the manager. She was perfectly candid, as to her name and requirements.
"You see what I want," she said. "You must send me two of your best men just before four o'clock on Friday afternoon to my house on Fifth-avenue, where I shall know how to dispose of them. They will be hidden in a little room off my boudoir, with the door slightly opened, and if they hear me sort of accidentally touch a little bell on my centre table, they will come in at once. And I want them to be armed. I don't for a moment anticipate the slightest trouble, but it is just as well to be prepared."
This being finally settled, Cora drove back to the brown stone mansion on Fifth-avenue, and there gave herself up to thought. She was going to have those stones, she must have them; she would never be happy until the money was paid over and they were safely in her possession. But where the money was coming from she had not the slightest idea except one, and that she put out of her mind as too dangerous even to be contemplated. Still, if the worst came to the worst, she might fall back on that.
She dressed herself presently with more than usual care, and went down the stairs into the great dining-room, where she knew that her husband would be awaiting her. She was not dining out that evening, and as to Van Geldt, it was rarely indeed that he turned into Broadway after he had consumed his frugal dinner.
She burst upon him, a dazzling vision of beauty and charm and fascination. He stood there with his back to the fireplace contemplating her as he might have contemplated some rare and exquisite picture. There was nothing of the typical Wall-street man about Van Geldt. He was not lean and gaunt and hungry, neither had he the face of a prize-fighter nor the jaw of a shark. On the contrary, there was a certain mildness of aspect about him that suggested a benevolent family solicitor, or, perhaps, even a retired missionary. For Van Geldt was a connoisseur in his way, and he knew the finer points of beauty when he saw them. The prospect before his eyes filled him with a certain warm glow and a touch of happiness, in the feeling that all this loveliness belonged to him.
And Cora set herself out to please him, as she had never tried to please him before. She was sparkling and gay and tender by turns. She kept up a rippling flow of witticisms throughout the whole of the meal, and then, when it was over, she insisted upon pouring out Van Geldt's coffee herself and lighting his cigar. When they were alone together, Van Geldt turned to his wife.
"Well, what is it?" he asked. "Why am I honored to this extent to-night? Do you know, this is the first dinner we have shared in the last three weeks. And this morning you told me that you thought of going to the opera this evening."
"Oh, well," Cora said carelessly, "I changed my mind. Besides, there is something I want to show you."
"Something you want me to buy, I suppose?"
"I have heard worse guesses," Cora smiled.
With that she took the pearl from her bag hanging over the arm of her chair, and laid it on the table.
"There, what do you think of that?" she asked with a rippling laugh. "Did you ever see anything like it before?"
"Really, I don't know," Van Geldt said indifferently. "All these things are out of my line. A pearl, isn't it?"
"Yes, you stupid man. And one of the finest ever found. There isn't a finer in Europe or America. I am not going to tell you for the moment how it came into my hands, but as I have informed you more than once, I have been searching for ages for a dozen or so of pearls to finish my collection. And, by the greatest good luck, in the world, I have found them. This is a specimen. I had it valued this morning at Shiffany's, and they told me that if I could buy the whole lot for thirty-five thousand pounds English I might consider myself to be amazingly lucky."
"Oh, indeed! Are you going to buy them?"
"I believe I shall die if I don't," Cora said. "Lot's of women in New York would jump at the chance, even if it was only to spite me. But then, you see, I haven't any money."
"What, you actually mean to say—"
"Oh please don't go into that. You gave me a certain sum to spend on the pearl necklace, and it has practically all gone, though the rope is nothing like complete. It never will be complete until I have the stones of which that is one."
Van Geldt shook his head slowly and smilingly.
"Nothing doing, my dear," he said. "I went my limit when you were starting that very expensive stunt of yours. Haven't you had enough advertisement out of it already? You are asking me now to give you something like a quarter of a million dollars, and, honestly, I haven't got it. When I say I haven't got it, I can't put my hands upon a sum of ready money like that, without serious inconvenience. I suppose you don't know, my dear that we millionaires are often hard pushed to find a hundred thousand dollars in liquid cash. You shake your head, but it is a fact, all the same."
"Then you won't let me have the money?" Cora said pleadingly.
"I won't, because I can't," Van Geldt said quite firmly, "I am on the verge of a very big thing now, and I have raked together all the ready dollars I can."
"Then I suppose it is no use my trying to persuade you any further?" Cora said. "In that case I shall have to burgle your private safe. Don't be surprised if you find it empty some day."
Van Geldt laughed easily enough. It had always been a sort of whim with him to keep a considerable sum of money in negotiable bonds in the strong-room behind the library. It was his theory that no man ever quite knew when he might find himself plunged from uncountable riches into absolute poverty. Then once untoward fate took a hand, one never knows where misfortunes were going to end. He had seen this sort of thing, happen more than once in the course of his business career; he had seen men to whom Wall-street took off its hat one day trying in vain to borrow a few dollars on that same thoroughfare the next. So in the strong-room was what Van Geldt was in the habit of calling his last line of reserves. A fortune in negotiable bonds and other easily manipulated securities on which to fall back if misfortune or the machinations of his enemies took him unawares. Two or three bad deals or, worse still, a long and unexpected illness, might find him with his back to the wall at any time. And if ever he did find himself in that position, he was not going to be unarmed.
Cora knew all about this, of course. It had been a joke between them many times. Moreover, she knew the combination that opened the lock. It was a master combination, and Van Geldt had confided it to Cora in one of his candid moments, and told her what to do in case he met with an accident or had a sudden breakdown, which was the one great thing he dreaded because, in his experience, that peculiar form of madness had happened more than once in Wall-street. And there the stuff lay untouched, as it had lain for years.
It was with a smile upon her lips that Cora touched upon this secret understanding. And then she flitted gaily from it to another topic, much as a butterfly lilts from one flower to another. She did not waste any time in coaxing or the faint suggestion of tears, because she knew her husband far too well for that.
"Sorry I can't oblige you, my dear," Van Geldt said finally. "But the thing is impossible. Perhaps a little later on, when the big strain is relieved I might be able—"
"Not another word," Cora said. "I know how generous you are, and after all, well—it really does not matter."
All the same, she brooded over her lost opportunity for the next day or two; but scheme how she would, she could not see her way to raising the sum she wanted to crown her darling ambition. And all the time the demon of temptation was whispering in her ear. Van Geldt would never find out; he would never need that money for the emergency he contemplated, and long before he would ever have occasion to open the steel drawer in which those securities lay it would be possible for Cora, with due economy, to replace it. Not the same bonds, of course, but bonds belonging to the same corporation. Because Cora was as sharp and keen as Van Geldt himself, and she had not lived under the same roof with him all this time without learning something of the ramifications of high finance.
It was on the third day that she put these thoughts out of her mind and made her arrangements to receive Vane Egerton and the man to whom the pearls belonged. Half an hour before their arrival, the two armed detectives from the agency put in an appearance, and were brought up into Cora's own private sanctum. There she explained to them what they were to do, so that they were concealed behind a screen in the next room with the door ajar when Vane Egerton was announced and came upstairs with his companion.
Cora took them in with a sweeping glance, Egerton cool and self-possessed and most perfectly appointed, the other man a rough, sea-faring type of humanity who touched his forelock respectfully to Cora as he took his seat on the extreme edge of a chair.
"This is the man Kennedy I was telling you about," Egerton explained. "He it was who found those pearls. And, if you ask him he will tell you the whole story."
"As well as I can," the man called Kennedy growled under his breath. "But, Mr. Egerton, sir, you are quite wrong when you tells the lady as 'ow I found them there pearls."
"Well, it comes to the same thing," Egerton said.
"Not exactly as I did find 'em," the man on the edge of the chair said doggedly. "You see, lady, I'm a rough man, I am, and I ain't feeling none too comfortable in this yere beautiful room o' yours. Sort of feeling as I might break something if I breathes too 'ard. So you must jest let me tell my story in my own way."
"Oh, please do," Cora said. "And don't hurry."
"Well, it was like this, lady. I 'ad a pal, I 'ad, sort of chap wot was very like myself, only a deal cleverer and with a proper headpiece upon 'un. Still 'e was only a common sailor, an' many's the v'yages we've been together. And then I lost sight of 'im. Lost sight of 'im for three years, I did. The War, or somethink, anyway, it doesn't matter. And when I runs up ag'in 'im some time ago in Melbourne, I never sees such a change in a man in my life. Dyin' 'e was. Anybody could see that at a glance. But afore 'e went off, 'e told all about them pearls your ladyship is aware of, and just where he'd 'id them. I don't rightly know as 'e found them 'isself, but they didn't belong to nobody in partic'lar, and so thinks I to myself they might just as well be mine as anybody else's. They was found, original in the South Pacific, but where I don't no no more than the dead. And my mate, 'e tells me as if I could find 'em, they might be worth a few thousand dollars."
"And you found them?" Cora interrupted.
"Well, in a manner o' speaking, yes, madam. You see I ships on a fruit steamer as was working on that line, and we gets into bad weather so as we 'as to take to the boats—at least, some of us did, though I believe as the captain and the rest o' the crew managed to reach safety. An' this is where the story comes in."
"The really interesting part," Cora smiled encouragingly.
"Yus just as it is in books. We wasn't more than ten miles from the place where the pearls were 'idden. I knows exactly where to find 'em, and whilst my mates in the boat were makin' things snug on the island against the time we was taken off by a passing ship, I sets off to look for them stones. And, wot's more, I finds 'em. An' I brought 'em to America to turn 'em into money when I 'as the good luck to run against Mr. Egerton, who's bin a passenger on board a big tramp as I was working on some years ago, and then, thinks I, I'll ask 'is advice. An' I does."
"And a very lucky thing he did," Egerton said, turning to Cora. "If he had fallen into dishonest hands he would have been robbed surely enough. But he didn't," Egerton went on rapidly seeing a smile playing about the corners of Cora's mouth. "He was actually prepared to take ten thousand dollars for those pearls, and when I told him he had a fortune in his pocket, he was astounded. And that is why I have brought him here to-day to tell his story and show his treasure, so that you might be disposed to have the first chance to buy it, Mrs. Van Geldt."
"Ah, that was very kind and thoughtful of you," Cora said. "Have you got the pearls with you, Mr. Kennedy?"
By way of reply, Kennedy rose slowly to his feet and produced a little flexible leather purse from his pocket. Then he turned out the contents on to the table, and Cora lingered lovingly over them with eyes that sparkled like living fire.
"Oh, wonderful," she cried. "How lovely! And now, tell me Mr. Kennedy, what are you asking for your pearls?"
There the pearls lay before Cora's surprised and delighted eyes, twelve little globular objects, each a small fortune in itself. But it was not the intrinsic value that intrigued her so much as the knowledge that in the possession of those translucent lures she would possess something that no other woman in the world could claim as her own. And, on the top of this, the beauty of the gems!
She let them slide through her fingers, she caressed them lovingly, and touched them, one by one, with the tip of her pink tongue. No, she could never part with these pearls again! It was a temptation that no ordinary woman could resist.
And yet, the price! Thirty-five thousand pounds! A fortune, in itself! And she had practically nothing—nothing beyond her reputation and her credit and the knowledge that she was the wife of a millionaire. Yet, despite this fact, the pearls in her fingers were as much beyond her reach as if they had been behind iron bars. Still, she must have them, even if she had to go down on her knees to Van Geldt and implore him to let her have her way this once, with a promise to redeem the price by sheer economy.
And yet, as these thoughts were running swiftly through her mind, she knew perfectly well that it was absolutely hopeless. Her husband would not be angry, he would not reproach her with extravagance, but in that calm way of his he would be inflexible. And yet, by some means or other, the pearls must be hers.
She came out of her waking reverie and glanced across the table at Egerton who stood very quietly watching her.
"What is the price?" she asked.
"That I have already told you," Vane said. "And I need not remind you that I could probably procure more elsewhere. The question is, are you to be the purchaser, or not?"
"Why, of course," Cora smiled. "That is, if you don't mind leaving them with me for few days. I shall have to take them to my valuer, and if he says that they are all what they appear to be, then I will appoint a time when you can come here and collect the money in cash. I should prefer to pay that way."
"Quite reasonable," Egerton replied. "I have no complaint to make on that score. Suppose we leave the pearls with you for a week? That will give you plenty of time to ascertain whether they are genuine or not, and I can call and complete the transaction. Say this day week, at the same time."
Cora expressed her approval of that arrangement. She was not going to trust those precious pearls out of her sight, because they would remain in the private safe in her own bedroom until she could arrange for the man from Shiffany's to call in person and settle the matter beyond question. And, of course, Van Geldt would not be in the house at the time. In fact, ever since they had been married, Cora had never known her husband to be under the roof of the Fifth Avenue house between the hours of nine and six. And then, within a week, Egerton could call and take his money away, and there would be an end of the whole transaction.
"Very well," she said. "At the same time next Thursday. And when that times comes, I will give you your money in cash, or I will hand you the pearls back again."
A few minutes later and Cora was alone, gloating over those new-found treasures. She carried them to her room presently and locked them safely away. Within eight and forty hours, the pearls had been certified by the man from Shiffany's, and he had taken away the rest of those unique gems with a view to completing the necklace on the lines settled between himself and Cora.
The next thing, of course, was to inform Van Geldt what had happened. But not quite in the way that most honest people would have approved. She brought up the matter casually one night after dinner, and Van Geldt listened more or less abstractedly.
"Oh, you have found what you want have you," he asked.
"Oh yes," Cora explained. "I have had the greatest luck in the world. And Shiffany's tell me that my necklace will be unique. It is in their hands now and they are making a sort of loop of the new gems to form the base of it."
"Then that is all right." Van Geldt smiled as he emerged once more from the reverie into which he had fallen. "But where did the money come from?"
"Oh, that was comparatively easy," Cora said. "One can't have everything, so I parted with a lot of my diamonds. Indeed, I sold most of them. I would rather have that pearl necklace than all the diamonds and emeralds in the world. I shall have one unique thing, at any rate, and everybody will envy me."
"Yes, I suppose that means a great deal to a woman," Van Geldt smiled. "I should have liked to accommodate you, but just now I want all the ready cash upon which I can lay my hands. I am interested in a big railway combine, and if things come all right, I shall be president of a huge new combination. I have been financing one of the lines which had got into a bad way, mostly owing to mismanagement, and, if I can get the control of that, then I shall be able to dictate my own terms. But it may be necessary to find another million dollars or so to bolster up the line of which I am speaking, and that is why I am keeping a tight hand upon my banking account. I don't want, if I can help it, to touch those securities in my safe downstairs."
Cora glanced up in some alarm.
"Is it as bad as that?" she asked.
"Bad, my dear child, bad? Things could not be better. I am only saying what I am, because I want you to understand why I cannot let you run wild with my cheque book at the present moment. No, I don't think I shall have to go to the safe, but one never quite knows, and I must be on the right side."
The color came back into Cora's cheeks and she was glad enough to side-track the conversation on to other topics. At any rate, she had had her warning, and she would know how to act. And yet, at the same time Van Geldt had told her pretty plainly that there would be little or no risk as far as his private strong-room was concerned. Therefore the following morning, soon after her husband had departed for Wall-street, Cora stole into the library, and closing the door carefully behind her proceeded to open the great safe.
She knew exactly for what she was looking, and precisely where to find it. With those bearer bonds in her possession, she went up to her own room and there called up her broker on the telephone. He was a young man, well known in society, who did a good deal of that sort of thing for a select circle of lady clients who were fond of an occasional gamble in stocks and shares. A discreet young man, too, who could be thoroughly relied upon.
"Is that you, Mr. Cozens?" Cora said, directly she had got through. "Oh, yes, it is Mrs. Van Geldt speaking. I wish you would send one of your men round here to call for some securities I want to sell. They are Anglo-Texan bearer bonds."
"I shouldn't sell those, if I were you," the man responded. "They are high now, but likely to go still higher."
"Yes, I know," Cora said. "But I want the money. I have two hundred of them. All thousand-dollar bonds. Could you possibly put the matter through and let me have the cash to-day?"
"Delighted," came the voice over the telephone. "Of course, you know your own business best, Mrs. Van Geldt, but don't say I have not warned you. I will send one of my men round in a taxi within the next half-hour. What's that? Cash? Oh, yes, the messenger can return again before lunch-time with the money in notes. No trouble whatever, I assure you. Good morning."
Well, the thing was done, now, and there was an end of it. Within a couple of hours Cora had the money in her safe, and then she sat down to await the coming of Vane Egerton. He arrived presently in his quiet, almost languid, mood, and entered the room that Cora kept apart for her intimates with a smile on his face.
"Well, Cora?" he asked. "Well?"
"As a matter of fact, it is well," Cora said. "I find that the pearls are all you said they were, and at present they are in the hands of Messrs. Shiffany. Oh, yes, I have bought them, and I hope the great necklace will be complete, so that I can wear it next Wednesday to that big affair of Mrs. Tamberge's! You know the party I mean. I believe that several royalties will be present, and I think I can look forward to a sensation."
"I am quite sure you can," Egerton said admiringly. "You could do that, my dear Cora, if you hadn't so much as a jewel in the world. But, quite seriously, let me congratulate you upon possessing so unique a set of gems. Unfortunately, I shall not be present to see your triumph, though I might have managed it if I had known of it beforehand. I suppose the money is ready? Not that I want it for the moment, and if you haven't got it, an acknowledgment from your husband to the effect that he is good for the dollars, will be quite sufficient for Kennedy and myself."
"Oh, my husband doesn't do business like that," Cora laughed. "You see, this is entirely my own affair, and he knows very little about it. If you will wait here a minute or two, I will come back and pay you the amount due in hard cash."
She flitted out of the room and came back, a minute later, with a bundle of large currency notes which Egerton made some show of counting before putting them away in his pocket.
"Well, that is a good thing well done," he said. "Upon my word, Cora, you are a woman to be envied. Who would ever have thought that the little circus girl would have come to this high estate? But you will go higher still."
Cora swept him a little curtsy.
"That is my ambition." She smiled. "I think I am entitled to congratulate you. But one thing, please. This transaction is entirely one between ourselves."
"You can trust me implicitly," Egerton said.
Cora stood admiring herself in the long cheval glass in her dressing-room with that wonderful string of pearls about her neck. She had dressed up to her new treasures, and she was more than satisfied with the result. She was going to create a great sensation in the big mansion, only a few doors away from her house on Fifth-avenue, and she was looking forward to her triumph without so much as an extra heart-beat. She knew that there would be nobody present at that brilliant gathering who could compare with her in the way of beauty and charm and fascination. She was going to finish, eventually, absolutely at the head of the Four Hundred, and she confidently expected those marvellous pearls to carry her along in that direction. She would read all about it in the papers to-morrow; indeed, in imagination, she could almost read the description now. And if, occasionally, a little twinge of conscience pricked her, or the shadow of guilt hovered over her head, she put these troubles aside lightly, and trusted to the gods of happy chance to see her through. If the worst came to the worst, she could sell the rest of her extensive stock of jewellery and replace those bonds with others belonging to the same incorporated stock, so that if her husband ever came to need them he would be none the wiser for the change.
Moreover, she had elicited from him adroitly that the crisis to which he had alluded was not likely to recur, and this had made for ease of mind and a certain sense of recklessness. Van Geldt had seen the pearl necklace, which he dutifully admired as a husband should, but, from his point of view, it was no more than a mere toy, and his smile showed that he thought so.
"Better be careful with it, my dear," he said. "Every pearl crook in New York knows all about it by this time. You take my advice, and keep that necklace at the bank, and only get it out for special occasions. Then, if you like, I will have a replica made for you to wear in a general way, and, if you lose it, then the thieves will have the trouble for their pains. Everybody is aware that you have got the necklace, which, I understand, was shown in Shiffany's window before it was brought here, so that there can be no doubt as to its being the goods. And, if you wear an imitation, every woman will believe that it is the real thing."
It was quite a good suggestion, and Cora made up her mind to act on it. In due course, she would get the bank to hand over the necklace to Shiffany's, and then it would go back to the vaults again when the duplicate was completed.
But not to-night. To-night of all nights, she must wear that glorious toy about her white throat and move through the magnificent rooms of the big house down the street with the air of one who quite outshines her fellow women. Moreover, she was going alone. It was not the sort of entertainment to appeal to Van Geldt, and he had steadily declined to take any part in it.
So that Cora would have to chaperon herself. It was a perfect night, warm for the time of year, and with a somewhat heavy mist hanging over the city. And, it being absolutely dry under foot, Cora decided to walk the hundred yards or so that lay between her and her destination. It seemed ridiculous to order out the car to take her so small a distance.
She had not seen Van Geldt all day. For once in a way, he had not returned to dinner. He had told her that the big combine had reached a point when it would be possible, within a few hours, to spring it on the public. There were some final important details to be settled, and these might keep him late, so that it would be midnight before he was back on Fifth-avenue.
Five minutes later, Cora walked down the wide staircase, smothered in a scarlet wrap that fastened to her throat, and tripped down the more or less crowded pavement until she came to her destination. By that time the roadway for hundreds of yards in either direction was blocked by great flashing cars, discharging their dainty burdens on the velvet-pile carpet that led up to the big house. Then Cora, resplendently regal in a cunningly simple dress and those magnificent pearls about her throat, sailed up the head of the staircase where her hostess was awaiting her friends.
"Ah Cora," Mrs. Tamberge said with her pleasantest and sweetest smile. "Delighted to see you. My word, those are the pearls, are they? Wonderful, magnificent! I had a glance at them in Shiffany's window a day or two ago, and they filled me with envy. I am not a very murderous person as a rule, but, really, my dear, at that particular moment—but there, you know what I mean."
Cora passed on from group to group of people she knew, and through a great many other groups who were strangers to her. She was happily conscious of the sensation she was creating and, with the knowledge of this uppermost in her mind, gave herself up to the enjoyment of the evening. It was her triumph from first to last, and everybody seemed to be inclined to bow down and acknowledge it.
"You are the most wonderful thing I have ever met, Mrs. Van Geldt," her supper partner ventured to remark audaciously. "Upon my word, I look upon myself as specially honored."
It was the society broker Cozens who was speaking. There was no mistaking the sincere admiration in those rather audacious eyes of his, but then, Mostyn Cozens was rather a privileged person, and moreover, to him the secrets of half the women there were known. Not for nothing did he handle their financial affairs.
"You admire my pearls, then?" Cora asked with a smile.
"Dear lady, who wouldn't? I never saw anything like them. Not that a mere man's opinion is worth much. And you really have courage enough to come here with that huge fortune round your throat?"
"And why not?" Cora asked. "We are amongst friends here, fair women and brave men, and all that sort of thing. You are not seriously suggesting a hold up in Fifth-avenue, surely."
"Well, hardly. Still, you never know. The thing has been done in a big store in broad daylight, with hundreds of people in the street, and why not in Fifth-avenue under cover of the darkness? The thing could be done; you know. A sudden raid by three or four determined men and the holding up of the servants and the rest of us. We are absolutely unarmed."
"Oh, I am not afraid," Cora laughed. "But what a splendid thing it would be for the papers! One of the greatest houses in New York held up after midnight by some of those mysterious, fascinating crooks, and every woman robbed of her jewels, whilst the men were hurried into a corner at the point of a revolver. Yes, I suppose it would not be so very difficult. A confederate in the house to cut the telephone wires and all that kind of thing. Still, I am not afraid. Do you know that I walked here?"
"Is that a fact?" Cozens exclaimed. "You actually walked here with a king's ransom hanging round your neck? I hope you are not going to repeat your experiment on the way home."
Cora evaded a direct response. She had not the least intention of accepting this rather audacious young man's escort on the way back to her own establishment. As she had come, so she would return.
It was nearly three o'clock in the morning when Cora said adieu to her hostess and tripped lightly down the steps into the road. There was a constant stream of cars coming and going, and, even at that late hour, a handful of homeless outcasts watching all this ostentation and splendor with hungry eyes. A heavy mist hung over the road, so that within a few yards Cora was as much alone as if she had been in some quiet country place.
Then, out of the mist loomed a shadow, a queer elusive shadow as black as the night itself, and, an instant later, a bony hand clutched Cora's throat, and she was conscious that the other hand was snatching at the pearls about her neck. A wild scream burst from her lips, and, almost before it had finished, another figure appeared, apparently out of an area, and two shots rang out in quick succession. Then, the hand relaxed its grasp, and the shadow vanished as if it had never been.
A big policeman, holding a still-smoking revolver in his hand, came up to Cora and asked her if she was hurt.
"I was watching," he said. "In fact, I was down that area waiting instructions. But when I heard you scream, I guessed pretty well what had happened, and I fired at what looked to me like a man. Have you lost anything, lady?"
"I don't think so," Cora said. "I was walking home the few yards to my own house when I was attacked. I am Mrs. Van Geldt."
"I knew that, my lady," the policeman said. "There's two of us to-night specially told off to look after you. Are you quite sure you haven't lost anything?"
Hurriedly, Cora put her hand up to her breast, and then the awful truth flashed across her. The necklace itself was intact, but the loop at the bottom, with its 12 unique pearls, had been torn away and, no doubt, the thief had got clear with it.
"Part of my necklace has gone," she gasped. "The part I value most. No, please don't leave me. At any rate see me as far as my own door. I shall be quite safe then, because I have a latch key in my bag, and, after that, you can go off and give the alarm at once. But please don't leave me alone."
A minute later Cora found herself on the right side of her own front door, listening to the sound of the policeman's footsteps pounding down the road. She knew that she was practically alone in the house, for her husband and the servants would be gone to bed. Then she saw that there was a light in the library. She walked in there to see if Van Geldt was still sitting up.
Van Geldt was not sitting up at all. He was lying on his face in front of the strong-room door, without life or motion. The door of the strong-room was wide open, and Cora could see that the steel drawer containing the securities she had stolen had been pulled out.
Shaken to her soul, she bent over the prostrate body.
Cora had seen too many crises like this in her short exotic life to lose her head in such an emergency. It did hot need more than a cursory glance to tell her that Van Geldt was dead. There was no sign on his face or in the attitude of his body to suggest that a struggle had taken place, or that robbery had had anything to do with it. It looked as if he had collapsed there and died immediately after he had opened the door of the strong-room. And one glance into the room itself clearly proved to Cora that her husband had come there in search of that very parcel of securities which she had abstracted when she had made up her mind to buy the pearls. Undoubtedly, the sudden shock had killed him.
He would know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, exactly what had happened. He would know that his wife had robbed him in order to gratify her vanity, and, no doubt, the lightning flash of the discovery had brought his life to an end.
Cora realised this just as clearly as if she had been in the room and seen the whole thing happen. She could see Van Geldt coming home after his late meeting on purpose to procure those securities which, at the last moment, he had found that he needed. He was going to take them to that secret meeting of his, and, no doubt, he had let himself into the house with his own latch-key after the servants had gone to bed. For Van Geldt had been quite firm on that point. Unless, some festivity was going on in the house, he always insisted that the staff should be allowed to retire at an early hour. Doubtless, there had been nobody up when Van Geldt returned and went into the library with the intention of opening his strong-room. Then he had discovered his loss with that awful tragic result.
All this was clear in Cora's mind as she ran into the hall and switched on all the lights. Then she climbed the stairs to her maid's bedroom and aroused the woman from sleep.
"Get up, get up at once," she said. "Something has happened to your master. He is lying unconscious in the library and I am very much afraid that he is beyond human aid. I am going downstairs again to telephone for the doctor."
The frightened servants appeared, one by one, and then, at length, the fashionable doctor who attended the household from time to time when his services were needed. He listened to Cora's explanation as to how she had come home at that early hour of the morning to find her husband apparently dead in the library.
"Yes, I am very much afraid he is," the doctor said, after he had turned over the body and looked into the white, still face. "A case of sudden heart failure, I should say. Have you any idea what time he came back home?"
"Not the least," Cora said. "But perhaps the servants can tell you that. You had better ask them."
But the servants, with one accord, were quite emphatic in declaring that their master had not returned before they went to bed.
"In that case it is impossible for anybody to say whether he was alone or not," the doctor said. "I mean, did he or did he not, bring somebody with him? Or did he find some stranger already in the library? Has he been robbed?"
"Ah, that I could not possibly say," Cora murmured. "But I see no signs of a struggle anywhere."
The doctor admitted this to be the case. There was no sign of a struggle, nor was there any indication on the face of the dead man that he was suffering from any mental disturbance when he was stricken down. It was as if he had died in his sleep.
"There is no suggestion of robbery," the doctor hinted.
"Oh, no, I don't think so," Cora said. "I know pretty well what was in the safe, and it doesn't seem to me as if anything has been disturbed. Don't you think it would be just as well if we called in the police? We are wasting time here."
And the doctor leapt eagerly at the suggestion. He could see that Cora was very white and shaken and that, at the same time, she was quite under nervous control. So far as he was concerned, he could do no more. He lingered there until the arrival of the police, and, after telling them all he knew, he took his departure with a promise to return later in the day. There would be a post-mortem, of course, which he would have to conduct in person. It was the best part of two hours later before the representatives of the law left the house, having sealed the library and being firmly of opinion that neither robbery nor violence had had anything to do with the case. It was just natural death and no more. And that was the verdict of the jury, when the time came for them to pronounce judgment. It was a verdict backed up by the doctor's evidence and, indeed, there was no other conclusion at which to arrive.
Meanwhile, the affair created a great sensation throughout the whole of the American continent. One of the biggest and most successful financiers had died in the zenith of his career, leaving an enormous fortune to his young wife. All this Cora learnt in good time. She learnt that Van Geldt had left his secret meeting shortly after midnight with the intention of going to his house to procure certain bonds. And he had failed to return to the hotel where he and his financier friends were settling the great railroad deal.
That exclusive gathering had not troubled any more about him, because the business in hand was nearly finished before he left, and it was found, at the last moment, that the documents for which he had gone in search of were not needed.
All this Cora learnt from her husband's manager and confidential assistant. It was part of the case that did not come out in court seeing that there was no necessity for it.
"Do you know precisely, what he came for?" Cora asked the manager when he was telling her the story.
"Indeed, I have not the slightest idea," the latter said. "If any man was in Mr. Van Geldt's confidence, I was. But there were certain things that he told nobody. I don't even know what he was after on the night of his death. At any rate, whatever it was, it was not needed. Did you know, Mrs. Van Geldt?"
"Why ask me?" Cora said with an air of innocence. "Of course, I knew something of my husband's business, and I even know the combination that opened the strong-room door. Curiously enough, he told me that because he always had an idea that something might happen to him, something very much like what did take place. You are not suggesting that anything is missing, are you?"
"Oh, dear no, madam," the manager replied. "In any case, it makes very little difference so far as you are concerned. Everything at the offices is in absolute order, as your solicitors will tell you. Of course, certain big transactions will have to be dropped now, unless you instruct me to go on with them, which you will be able to do after your husband's will is read. But if you like to dispose of the business—"
"Oh there is nothing I should like better," Cora said. "I never want to hear that hateful word again. And I suppose that I shall have sufficient to live upon?"
The manager smiled respectfully.
"Well, yes," he said. "There will be something like ten million dollars at your disposal, probably more. And if you want to draw on the firm for any amount in reason, I shall be only too happy to make the necessary arrangements with our bankers."
It was only natural that the death of Van Geldt should have caused so much comment all over America. And, on top of it, was the story of the stolen pearls. A sort of double romance and melodrama occurring almost simultaneously to the same woman and she one of America's leading beauties. For days together, the press seemed to have nothing else to talk about. A thousand and one theories were advanced to account for the way in which the pearls had been stolen and amateur detectives from all over the States were advancing theories in their favorite newspapers.
But the police themselves were absolutely at fault. The head of the department in New York could hold out no hope to Cora that she would ever see her wonderful treasures again.
"I cannot understand how it happened," he told Cora, when she went round to headquarters to see him. "I don't suppose you know it, madam, but we had you under close observation from the very moment that those pearls were delivered to your house. I mean, directly after Shiffany had delivered the complete article. We had a hint to the effect that the robbery of those pearls would be undertaken from a certain quarter and we acted accordingly. You were watched from your doorstep to the house where you went. And it was one of our own men who hung about until you left Mrs. Tamberge's establishment with instructions not to lose sight of you. It was he who dashed out of the area and fired those two shots. But, as you know, he was just a little too late, and I might tell you quite candidly that I have not the remotest idea whose hand it was that robbed you."
"But the people you are speaking about," Cora suggested.
"Well, as a matter of fact, we have ascertained beyond the shadow of a doubt that the gang we had in view had nothing whatever to do with the robbery. They were able to prove complete alibis. And, to be quite candid, they were greatly disappointed to find that they had been forestalled. You see, madam, there are so many of those gangs in New York that we find great difficulty in keeping tabs with them. At any rate, I might just as well confess that we are utterly at sea over this business. We shall have to fall back upon the humiliating device of offering a big reward for the discovery of the missing gems. That may produce them, but even then we shall not be able to take proceedings."
"I am afraid I am not troubling much about that," Cora smiled. "All I want is my pearls back. And, if you can manage that for me, I shall be prepared to pay any price in reason."
"It should not be difficult," the policeman said. "Of course, those are marked stones and very difficult to dispose of. Leave it to me and I will do the best I can."
The man called Vane Egerton—which, as a matter of fact, was his proper name—sat in his apartment room in a small flat, just off Maddison Square, smoking a cigarette and evidently awaiting the coming of some expected guest. There was a box of cigars on the table, together with a syphon and glasses and a bottle of genuine Scotch whisky, procured from some dubious quarter, despite the laws of prohibition. And, on the table, also, was a small packet containing 12 large pearls. Egerton smiled from time to time as his eye fell on these, and the mere sight of them seemed to fill him with the liveliest satisfaction. When, at length, somebody tapped at the door, and he gave an answer in response, he did not trouble to remove those gleaming objects from the new-comer's gaze.
"Ah, here you are," he said, "I thought my message would fetch you. Sit down, Fishwick, and make yourself at home."
"Good Lord!" Fishwick exclaimed, "You don't mean to say you have got them? Well, you are a wonder!"
"Yes, there they are," Egerton smiled. "The twelve pearls that came so romantically into the possession of the seaman who called himself Kennedy. But I don't think we need worry any more about Kennedy. He is just a minor actor in the comedy and he was only too glad to get back to sea again, well rewarded for his labor. Therefore, exit Kennedy. And now, what about it?"
The man called Fishwick stroked his chin thoughtfully. He was rather a slightly built individual, quick and alert and looking the business man to his finger-tips.
"Well," he said. "I should like to hear a bit more about it first. You sold those pearls to Mrs. Van Geldt for a big sum of money, intending all the time, to get them back again. I don't think there need be any nice display of feeling between us two Egerton, because I know you and you know me."
"Oh, I know you right enough," Egerton said with the suggestion of a sneer. "You are a highly respectable man, trusted by your employers, and I suppose you have handled more valuable stones than any assistant or commissioner in the States. As Neidermeyer's traveller, both in America and Europe, you are known to the trade as quite a big noise. And all the time you have been with Neidermeyer's, you have been drawing a handsome income in commissions and playing the game with them as a strictly honorable and upright man. And all the time under that cloak, you have been handling stolen property worth millions. You have gone about disposing of literally tons of gems for people like myself, who have come into possession of them in circumstances, well—we need not discuss that."
"But why go into my biography like this?" Fishwick exclaimed.
"Oh, well, I thought it just as well to remind you. Now I think this is the biggest thing we have ever handled together and it will be one calling for all your cleverness arid resource. Now, can you handle those pearls on the table safely?"
"Ah, that is a question I have been asking myself ever since I got your note. I have had some pretty things through my hands between here and Europe and I have never failed yet to get rid of all the stones that you and others have trusted me with. And I don't mind telling you that I have done very well out of it. Another trip like the last, and I am out of this business altogether. I shall hand in my resignation to Neidermeyer's and they will accept it with great regret. Then they will probably give me a service of plate, or something of that sort, and I shall disappear."
"And where are you going to, my pretty maid?" Egerton smiled.
"Ah, well, that is no business of yours. It is a little paradise of my own, somewhere on the South American continent where the police are not too inquisitive, though I don't fear them very much. Still, you never know, and I am taking every precaution. I am in a position to go now, as a matter of fact, but I could do with a few more thousand dollars and that is why I am disposed to take up this pearl business."
"And you think you can manage it?"
"Oh I can manage it right enough. But not in America. Somewhere in Europe, I think. I am due out of the States in a week or two, and, if you like to trust those pearls to me—"
The speaker hesitated for a moment, as also did Egerton. He had never seen his companion in crime in quite the same mood as he appeared in that afternoon. There was a certain air of detachment about him that struck Egerton as peculiar. He had half a mind to make some excuse for breaking off the negotiations and attempt to dispose of the pearls himself. But that was a line of rascality of which he knew nothing. He knew how to obtain possession of articles of great price, but, the disposal thereof was a sealed book to him. Moreover, that meant something exceedingly delicate in the way of finesse and often led the man who did the work into serious trouble. On the whole, he preferred to hand the stuff over to be worked on commission and lie himself hidden in the background.
"It was a difficult job," he said reminiscently. "You see, the whole thing had to be worked within the distance of a few yards. Moreover, there were a good many people about, even at that late hour of the morning. And I had a hunch, as they say in these parts, that the police were keeping a close eye on our lovely Cora. And begad, I was right. I saw one of the flying squad lurking in the very next area to the one in which I was hidden and I had to take a big risk when I saw Cora coming along, knowing pretty well that she would scream out and that the fellow next door to me was armed. It was touch and go, I can tell you. It was only by the sheerest bad luck that I didn't get hold of the lot. Still, I managed to snatch the bulk of the plunder, and there it is, on the table for you to see. But a bullet passed within an inch of my head before I was shinning it off down the road and I managed to reach the car that was waiting for me and got clear. However, I managed it, so we need not discuss that point any further. Now, what I suggest is this. You take those pearls with you on your next trip to Europe and dispose of them. That is, if you can."
"Oh, there will be no 'if you can' about it," Fishwick boasted. "There are plenty of other women in the world who have the same ambition as Cora and they would not mind taking the risk. And, there are lots of dealers who would take the risk too. Big profit, you know, and no questions asked. Oh, my dear fellow, I know my business. However, please yourself."
Egerton hesitated no longer.
"Very well," he said. "That is your side of the game, and I am as ignorant as a child as regards it. Take the stuff and make the best you can out of it."
"Quite," Fishwick said, "But where do I come in?"
"Oh, halves, of course. We have always gone halves, haven't we? We went halves over that Arizona copper mine."
"Oh, did we?" Fishwick said dryly. "We didn't get much out of that, anyway. Not a penny, as far as I was concerned."
"Ah, that was because certain people opened their mouths a bit too soon," Egerton hastened to say. "Anyway, it is the only failure we have ever had. You trusted me over that matter, and I am going to trust you implicitly over this. Now then, help yourself and we will talk about something else."
Fishwick departed in due course with the pearls in his possession and for the best part of a week Egerton saw no more of his accomplice. And then, one evening, there came by post a few lines in Fishwick's handwriting that brought the blood into Egerton's face and set him pacing the room with curses on his lips. Only a few typewritten lines on a plain sheet of paper that ran thus:—
"By the time you get this, I shall be on my way to Europe with those pearls in my pocket. I don't think you need look to me for any share of the spoil, because, if you do, you are going to fall down badly. I shall be able to dispose of them and, when I have done so, I shall leave for the little paradise of which I told you within a month.
"You reminded me last time we met about that Arizona copper mine. You double-crossed me over that and got away with over two hundred thousand dollars, half of which belonged to me. I found it out almost directly, but I said nothing because I have been waiting my turn ever since. And now that turn has come.
"I have settled up affairs with my firm, by which I mean Neidermeyer's, and they understand that this is the last trip I shall ever take on their behalf. I am putting a few commissions through for them in Europe and, once they are complete I shall be a free man. They think I am coming back to America, but there they are wrong, because the land of my fathers, so to speak, lies in quite another direction.
"I may be in England longer than I expect, possibly a month or two, but I have not the least fear that you will follow me there, because, if ever a man left his country for his country's good, you are that distinguished individual."
For a long time Egerton paced up and down the floor of the room, his face black with rage and with something like murder in his heart. He knew that every word of the letter was true, and he knew that Fishwick had deliberately made use of him with a view to getting even over that Arizona copper business.
"Very well, my friend," he muttered under his breath. "You think I am afraid to go back to England, do you? But you don't know that I have been there for the best part of six months every year since I was invited so cordially to turn my back upon the good ancestral home. Well, Fishwick, we shall see."
Egerton turned and took down his telephone receiver. Then he called up the offices of the Cunard Line and promptly booked a passage to England by the next boat.
Fishwick, at once a trusted and reliable servant and an unmitigated scoundrel, turned his back upon New York for what he hoped was the last time. He had certain work for the great firm of Neidermeyer on the continent of Europe and, when that was finished, he would be a free agent in the future. Within a few months, he hoped to find himself somewhere in South America, where, for the rest of his life, he could live in ease and comfort.
For Fishwick was of a somewhat romantic turn of mind. He wanted the sunny skies and the luxurious foliage in the background, with palm beaches and blue lagoons, quite in accordance with the pattern laid down by certain novelists. And it would be no fault of his own if he failed to get away with all these things.
Still, he was not quite so easy in his mind as he might have been. He had done a great deal of shady work in his time in connection with Vane Egerton and, on nearly every occasion, Egerton had got away with the lion's share of the plunder. And though Fishwick had not shown that he felt this conduct on that part of his confederate, it had cost him a great searching of heart and a good many bitter and angry moments. He had waited patiently enough for the day when he could get even, and now that day had arrived.
Perhaps it would have been just as well if he had simply vanished with the pearls and never been heard of again. He had only to finish his work in Europe and then to step upon a steamer bound for Rio Grande, leaving Egerton to wonder what had become of him and what he had done with those twelve precious pearls. But, at the last, he could not restrain a wild longing to let Egerton know that he had not been fooled all these years and that he was getting his own back at last. Hence the letter that had caused Vane Egerton to figuratively tear his hair and set off in pursuit of his partner.
He knew perfectly well that Egerton was the last man to take such an affront lying down. He knew the vengeful and vindictive nature of the man, so that his heart was full of fear. Still he had got a good long start, and if he could keep out of Egerton's way for a month, then he would be absolutely safe.
He lingered a few days in Paris, settling a matter there, and then crossed over to London, where he put up as usual at the Palatine Hotel. Another week would see his legitimate business at an end, and he calculated that a further fortnight would enable him to get rid of those pearls at a very handsome profit.
Yet, all the time, the shadow of Egerton was hanging over him. That was perhaps why he took every step to hide his tracks. For this reason he removed all the marks from his clothing and reduced identity to a vanishing point. And then, when the right moment came for him to disappear, he left the Palatine with only the pearls in his possession and the two cases of valuables belonging to Neidermeyers were deposited in the hotel safe. At the last moment he would forward the receipt for these to Neidermeyer's financial agents in London with instructions to collect the cases, and then he, himself, would go out into the darkness, so to speak. It was rather a characteristic of his complex nature that he made no attempt to rob or deceive his legitimate employers. From that point of view he had always played a straight game; first, because it paid him to do so, and, secondly, because, under a great name like Neidermeyer's he could carry on his illicit work without danger of suspicion. And, once this was done, he made his way to Birmingham with the intention of trying to do a deal with the jeweller, Fastnet. He arrived there on the evening before Whit-Saturday and made arrangements over the telephone to see Fastnet the following day. He would have much preferred Fastnet to come and see him, but he dared not make a point of that, and he dared not linger much longer, because he had a vague idea that Egerton was not very far off. It was all very well to tell the latter that he was afraid to show his face in his native land, but it was by no means a certainty. Neither was Fishwick to know that, for some considerable time past, Egerton, under an assumed name and properly disguised, was in the habit of spending some months in the year in England. This was a vital matter which Fishwick was destined to find out, in good time.
Meanwhile, he must get rid of those pearls. He must persuade Fastnet to buy them and to ask no questions. He knew perfectly well that Fastnet had a client who was as keen on collecting pearls as Cora Van Geldt had been, because Fastnet had told him so during his last tour round the big dealers in England. But then, so far as Fishwick knew, Fastnet was a strictly honorable man and, not in the least likely to run any risks, even if he could see an enormous profit dangling before his eyes. And, moreover, Fastnet probably knew everything in connection with the recent troubles in New York. He would know, for instance, the details of Van Geldt's tragic death and most certainly be aware of the story of Cora Van Geldt's missing treasures. That was the matter that the police had seen to. No doubt by this time all police headquarters in Europe would have been supplied with details connected with the missing pearls. Still, there was just a chance, and, in any case, things like pearls are not so very easy to identify.
Of course, Fishwick was not to know that Van Geldt himself, before he died, had insisted upon those pearls being measured and weighed and photographed. That was an important item that did not enter into Fishwick's calculations. Anyway, if he could induce Fastnet to buy the gems, it didn't very much matter what happened afterwards, because he, Fishwick, would be thousands of miles away where he could afford to laugh at the authorities.
But Fastnet was certain to ask questions. And, this being admitted, it was up to Fishwick to tell him some plausible story as to how the things had come into his hands. Perhaps he could induce the Birmingham dealer to believe that they belonged to Neidermeyer's, and that they had come into the hands of that famous firm as security for a loan to some noted society women. Or perhaps he might fake up some sort of plausible story with a touch of Russia in it.
Yes, that was the idea. Russian crown jewels. Hidden by the man who had stolen them at the time of the imperial tragedy who had been waiting all these years for an opportunity to transfer them to America where they were offered for sale.
By the time that Fishwick stepped into Fastnet's office, he had got his story more or less pat. He laid the pearls on the table before Fastnet and asked his opinion of them.
Fastnet, of course, had been almost paralysed. These were just the pearls that he wanted and, in ordinary circumstances, he would have been ready to pay almost any price for them.
"Where on earth did they come from?" he asked.
"Oh, that," Fishwick, said coolly, "is a little more than I can tell you. Question is, would you like them?"
"Most assuredly I should like them," the jeweller replied. "They are precisely what I was looking for and never expected to get. I think I told you all about that the last time you were here."
"Yes, I remember that," Fishwick said. "And that is why I am here again. I could have sold them in Paris three times over but I remembered my promise to you and and there they are for your first refusal."
"For which I am obliged," Fastnet smiled. "But you can hardly expect me to buy a unique set like that without asking a few questions. If they were just ordinary pearls, I should not hesitate for a moment. But they are not. For all I know to the contrary, they might have been those stolen from Mrs. Van Geldt."
"They might, but they are not," Fishwick said coolly.
"Then where on earth did they come from?"
"Ah, that I can't tell you precisely. Can't you think of some country in Europe where such things were more or less plentiful before the war? I dare say millions of pounds worth of gems were stolen and subsequently lost in that big struggle. I mean looted from palaces and all that sort of thing and then hidden, never to be recovered again, because the man who originally stole them was killed in a fight, or perhaps a revolution."
Fastnet looked up with understanding in his eyes.
"Oh, that's the idea," he murmured softly. "Russian crown jewels and all that sort of thing. Belonging to nobody, unless you reckon with the Soviet Government. Ah, in that case, it is a very different matter. Can't you be more explicit?"
"No, I am afraid I can't, for the simple reason that there is nothing more to be explicit about," Fishwick said. "You know as well as I do that pre-war Russia was crammed with historic treasures. Crown jewels and the family heirlooms of grand dukes and all that sort of thing. And how much of it got away in the revolution? And how much more was left behind? Why, during the last two or three years, Russia has been more or less run on the proceeds of these family treasure houses. Well, that is where they came from anyway. And, if you like to buy them, they are yours at a price."
"Very good," Fastnet said. "They are exactly what I want and you may consider them as good as sold. But I have to consult my client first, because this transaction runs into big money. Come back to me again after the holidays are over and I will arrange for the lady to meet you here—"
"Yes, that's all right," Fishwick said hurriedly. "I will come any time you like to make an appointment. At the same time, I should be glad to leave these pearls in your hands. I never have been robbed yet, but, mind you, it is nervous work, and I have been walking about the streets with such things in my possession. I hope you won't mind if I ask you to take care of the stuff."
"You mean lock them up in my safe?"
"That is precisely what I do mean," Fishwick replied.
"Very well then, I will. And I will let you know when my client is ready for the interview. All the same, I would much rather you took the pearls away with you. Still—"
Fishwick returned to his hotel, feeling that his time had by no means been wasted. He had managed to interest Fastnet without in the least arousing his suspicions, and he knew enough of the world to be certain that the lady in question would never be able to resist those rosy treasures once she had caught sight of them. And, even if Fastnet decided at the last moment to back out, then it would be no difficult matter to obtain the lady's address and bring off the deal with her privately.
So here was Fishwick, more or less at a loose end for a day or two until the Whitsuntide holidays were over, and wondering what on earth to do with himself. He had absolutely finished with Neidermeyer after he had sat down and written a letter to their London agents, enclosing the receipt for two cases in the safe at the Palatine Hotel. And this being done, he wondered how he was going to kill time between now and next Wednesday or Thursday.
He was turning this matter over in his mind after luncheon when he noticed a letter in the grill outside the office addressed to himself and this he took from the rack, wondering who his correspondent writing from London might be. He sat back in the lounge with a cigar between his lips and tore open the envelope.
There was not much inside, only a few lines typed on plain paper, but those few lines filled him with dismay. A feeling of fear clutched at his heart as he read as follows:—
"Leaving England for good, are you? Going to spend the rest of your life somewhere down south in the eternal sunshine. And a very pretty arrangement, too. But not quite yet.
"In making your arrangements, you seem to have forgotten all about The Old Curiosity Shop. But other people haven't. If you value your future and your safety and don't want to come to an exceedingly unpleasant end, take the next train to Abbotsbury. And when you get up there, walk along the Worcester-road until about a mile out of the town you come to a country hotel called the White Hart. Then cross the line and walk back four houses. When you reach the last one, walk up to the front door, through the green-house where the roses are, and enter the house. You need not trouble to knock. Just walk straight in, through the hall to the garden room at the back and wait there. But don't do this until you are pretty sure that your movements are not watched. And, whatever happens, don't fail or—well, don't fail. Just remember Mr. Quilp!"
Fishwick read this again and again with the sweat pouring down his face. He knew, only too well, what that letter meant and at whose hands it had been dictated. And he knew, moreover, that he dared not defy so plain a warning. He was being carefully watched and every movement of his noted. Not that he had seen anything suspicious, but because now he knew.
The last thing in the world he wanted was to obey this summons. But he was bitterly conscious of the fact that if he did not do so then he would end up with a knife between his shoulders or his body floating lifeless, down some convenient river.
He would go, of course, and purchase his life at the price of those pearls. Whom, exactly, he was going to meet he could not guess, for there are many men in the underworld with whom he had come in contact during his illicit dealings in the last few years.
Well, if the worst came to the worst he would have to disgorge his prey and once he was resigned to the fact, he called up a taxi and left the hotel, and an hour and a half later found himself walking down the Worcester-road leading out of Abbotsbury.
Yes, this was the spot, right enough, for there was the White Hart, and on the other side of the railway siding four houses standing in their own neat grounds. He passed these, until he came to the last where he paused at the gate, and looking over it, saw the little greenhouse jutting out from the porch. Outwardly calm enough, but inwardly greatly disturbed, he made his way down the garden path, after satisfying himself that nobody was in sight. The inner door yielded to his touch when he turned the handle and passed along the hall into a room at the far end. And there, he saw a man standing with his back to the empty fireplace.
"Ah, Fishwick," he said. "So we meet again, my friend, a great deal quicker than you expected. I suppose you carried out my instructions? Nobody about when you came in?"
"Not so far as I could see," Fishwick stammered.
"That's good. Then there will be no one to know whether you ever came out or not. Now, sit down and let us talk it over. You made a great mistake, my friend, when you wrote and told me that Vane Egerton was afraid to show his face in England. Well, here he is, and I should like to know what you have to say about it."
"Oh, I am not afraid of you," Fishwick snarled.
"Oh, yes, you are," the other sneered. "You are trembling in your shoes at this very minute. I can see the beads of sweat on your forehead. Good Lord, to think that you should be such a fool! If you had played the game with me, we could have divided the plunder and you could have gone to the devil as far as I was concerned. You had served my purpose and I didn't want you any more. But that impudent letter of yours fairly got my goat, as they say in your country. If you had gone quietly off with those pearls and vanished, I should probably have done nothing. But when you threw me out a challenge, such as you did, then I felt in honor bound to take it up. Now then, where is the stuff?"
"Oh, it's all very well to talk like that," Fishwick said with some show of spirit. "Anyone would think you were an honest man talking to a pick-pocket. You robbed me over those oils and you can't deny it. I found it out at the time, but I said nothing because I was awaiting my opportunity. And when the opportunity came I took it, just as you would have done. If the position had been reversed, you would have acted in a precisely similar manner."
"Oh, well, perhaps I should," Egerton smilingly admitted. "So we will say no more about that. But I am not going to be done out of my share of that plunder. It's no use your harking back to that oil business, because that is over and done with long ago. Now, my friend, what have you done with the pearls?"
"I have done nothing with them," Fishwick said. "I have a customer in view who will probably buy them, but I can say nothing definite for the next few days."
Egerton smiled to himself. He did not in the least believe a word that his companion was saying. He felt as sure as he was of anything in the world, that those pearls were reposing at that moment, safely in the other man's pocket.
"Is that so," he asked, almost innocently. "Sit down and tell me all about it. Help yourself to a drink."
Fishwick proceeded to do so with some avidity.
Two minutes later he was lying on the flat of his back on the floor, lost to all eternity. Egerton stood over him, watching, until he was sure that the drug had taken effect, and then proceeded without haste, and with great deliberation, to search Fishwick's clothing for the gems which he felt certain were concealed somewhere about his person. But though he looked everywhere, and even tested the heels of Fishwick's shoes, nothing rewarded his efforts. It was quite evident that Fishwick had come there with the intention of striking some sort of a bargain with whoever he was destined to meet, and that he had taken the precaution to leave his valuables behind him. But where? That was the question that Egerton had to decide. And, until he was decided, he had not the slightest intention of allowing Fishwick out of his sight.
"Damn the fellow," he muttered under his breath. "Now what on earth am I going to do with him? I can't let him slip through my fingers again. I ought to have taken him by the throat and forced the truth out of him. As it is, as it is—"
Egerton sat there, cogitating, for a long time with the body of his confederate lying almost at his feet. The clock on the mantelpiece ticked the time slowly away, until the shadows began to fall and Egerton was still sitting there moodily waiting to make up his mind exactly what was to be done.
Then, just as the gloom was turning to darkness, the figure at Egerton's feet began to stir and Fishwick opened his eyes. In a fit of wild passion Egerton sprang at him and pressed his head on the carpet. He was beside himself with murderous rage. He was ready for anything to wreak his vengeance upon the man who had dared to play him false, the man he had been prepared to murder if necessary, because all his plans had been cunningly laid for a week or two beforehand. And he knew precisely how to get rid of the body in case the worst came to the worst, and Fishwick put up a fight for it in defence of the pearls.
But the pearls were not to be found. The man should die! He should pay the full penalty for his treachery.
Egerton snatched up a cushion from the sofa and pressed it with all his force upon the mouth and nostrils of the half-unconscious man. He didn't know how long he kept it there, but he did know when at length he uncovered the face of Fishwick that the latter was dead. And the knowledge troubled him nothing.
"Well, there is an end of that," he said to himself. "Some of these days this cursed temper of mine will get me into serious trouble. Still, I know exactly what to do and where to dispose of that carrion there. Rather a good thing that I had taken the trouble to provide for an emergency like this."
The leaden moments crept on until the room was black and dark. Then Egerton opened the window leading to the garden and, throwing the corpse of the dead man over his shoulder, carried it as far as the hedge abutting on the railway line. It was very dark......
Egerton had played his hand for a big stake and he had failed. For once in his life he had allowed that ungovernable temper of his to get the better of him, with the result that he had resorted to violence, which was a policy that he had steadily avoided in the past. It had always been his boast that never, in the course of his criminal career, had he allowed himself to lay murderous hands upon false friend or enemy. And yet, here he was, unless he was more than usually careful, face to face with a charge of murder. Not that he would have hesitated if it was a question of gaining possession of those precious pearls.
But when Fishwick had defied him openly and told him that he was bent on getting his own back again he could see no other way clear. And circumstances had played into his hands.
To begin with he was the type of cosmopolitan scoundrel who works all over the world. And Fishwick had been fatally wrong when he had taunted Egerton with the fact that the latter would not dare to show his face in England again. As a matter of fact, Egerton was in the habit of spending a good many months at odd times in his native land. But not as Vane Egerton. That would have been far too dangerous a game for a man who was more or less under the eye of the English police. That was why he usually masqueraded as the Reverend Walter Temperley with a quiet country villa on the outskirts of a picturesque old town. With a nom de plume like that and a plausible excuse for long absences in the South of France it was easy enough to deceive people with the delusion that here was a respectable old clergyman who was outside the pale of suspicion.
And then the time came when it was more or less necessary to drop the clerical disguise and appear under the name of Farr, posing as the tenant of the Reverend Walter Temperley. There was a certain amount of risk in this, because Farr might be recognised as Vane Egerton, but this troubled him little, because he was far enough from London and remote enough from the part of the country in which he was born to feel quite sure of his ground. Moreover, it was at his instigation that the Marchmonts had taken the cottage in the neighborhood.
It had been an exceedingly difficult matter to persuade George Marchmont to part with the secret of the mysterious island in the South Pacific; and, until Egerton had got to the bottom of that, he had no intention of disappearing from Tewkesbury altogether.
And now it seemed to him that he had successfully disposed of the body of his late comrade in crime. He had had a rare opportunity there, but one that he had not altogether overlooked long before Fishwick had shown his hand. He knew all about the traffic in land produce at that time of the year and, out of that knowledge, he had seen his way to get rid of Fishwick in circumstances that would utterly baffle the police when at length the body was found. On that head, at any rate, he had no qualms. With any luck, he knew that the body would not be brought to light until it had reached Devonshire. And, in this knowledge, he saw something like safety.
It would never he possible, he thought, for the police to track the crime to that modest little villa on the outskirts of Tewkesbury. And, even if they did, he would be far enough away by that time.
And yet he was by no means easy in his mind. To begin with, his present enterprise had ended in humiliating failure. He had come all this way with the intention of recovering those pearls, feeling sure that Fishwick would have the greatest difficulty in disposing of them, and yet they had vanished as if they had never existed. What had become of them? This was a question that Egerton had asked himself over and over again. Almost as soon as he had landed in England Fishwick had been carefully shadowed by one of Egerton's minor tools who was prepared to do anything for a little money. This creature of course, had no knowledge of the big scheme at the back of Egerton's mind, nor would he ever learn what it was. But he was quite efficient in his work and he kept Egerton advised of Fishwick's every movement until the latter arrived in England, when Egerton promptly took up the trail for himself.
Carefully disguised in his clerical attire, Egerton had followed Fishwick down to Birmingham and had actually seen him enter the premises of the jeweller called Fastnet. He had seen Fishwick emerge from the great establishment in Municipal-street and return to his hotel. Even there, when Fishwick was making his final preparations for leaving the Grand Central, Egerton, disguised as an elderly clergyman, was standing close to his elbow. He had seen Fishwick take that mysterious letter from the rack and had watched him furtively over the top of a newspaper, whilst he was reading it. He could almost see what was passing in his victim's mind. He knew with that cunning instinct of his, that Fishwick would obey the summons; indeed, he felt confident that he dared not refuse to do so. He looked forward, not many hours later, to an interview with Fishwick in which the latter would surrender at discretion and consent to part with the pearls or, at any rate, to share them with the man he had been foolish enough to defy. It was obvious to Egerton that Fishwick had called upon Fastnet with a view to disposing of the pearls, and this being so, the rest would be easy.
But what Egerton had overlooked entirely was the possibility of Fishwick leaving the pearls behind. It never occurred to the chief schemer that Fishwick would take such a precaution and come to the interview with the idea of driving a bargain. And yet, that was precisely what happened, and precisely the reason why Egerton had lost his head and committed that brutal murder in the exasperation born of a bitter disappointment.
Well, the thing was done now, and there was an end of it. Fishwick had done something with the pearls, probably handed them over to somebody for safe keeping. But who was that somebody? That was the question that was racking Egerton's mind. He knew that Fishwick was an exclusive sort of man who had no friends on this side of the Atlantic, therefore what had he done with the pearls?
And then, suddenly, Egerton saw daylight. It was amazing to him that he had not thought of it before. Of course, Fishwick had left the pearls with Fastnet, so that he could show them to some client. Egerton was as sure of this as he was of his own existence. Still, this got him very little farther. Fastnet was not in the least likely to part with those pearls, except to the man who had placed them in his custody. And when the body of Fishwick was identified, as it was bound to be, sooner or later, then Fastnet was all the more likely to hold those pearls until they were legally claimed. It was obvious, therefore, that Egerton was going to have all his trouble for his pains.
And then another idea occurred to him. In the month which had elapsed since the tragedy in New York a great deal had happened. The papers on both sides of the Atlantic were still harping upon that double disaster, and the name of Mrs. Van Geldt loomed large in the public eye. And all these details were by no means lost upon the man who passed, alternately, as Egerton, Farr and the Reverend Walter Temperley. He knew, for instance, from the printed word, that Cora Van Geldt was now an exceedingly rich woman and that she had disposed of the great Wall-street business. And he knew, moreover, that she had every intention of spending the summer in England. He had underground sources of information which led him to believe that the house in Grosvenor-square would see Cora entertaining on a limited scale towards the end of the London season. And he knew, what was much more important still, that Cora was offering a reward equivalent to ten thousand pounds English, for the recovery of those pearls.
Why, then, should he not be the fortunate man to get away with that large sum of money? There was danger in attempting to do so; it meant more or less coming out into the open, but the reward was great and Egerton, as usual, was none to flush of money. He belonged to the criminal type that spends as it goes. He made his money easily, and as easily lavished it. And, just now, he would have been almost ready to sell his soul for a reward like that. And he might manage it without due prominence.
He had only to wait till Cora came to England and then write her a letter asking her to meet him in Abbotsbury, or somewhere near there, and inform her where the pearls were lying. He need not tell her any more than that, she need not even know that he had ever heard of the man called Fishwick. Then he could go back to the States, whilst Cora was fighting out the matter for herself in England, and, in due time, he would receive Cora's cheque for the money. Murder or no murder, mystery or no mystery, those pearls belonged to Cora Van Geldt, who would have no difficulty in identifying them. All this would take time, of course, but it must be done more or less under the seal of secrecy and no questions asked. So far, Fastnet had lost nothing, because the pearls were not his and he would be ready enough to part with them when once the ownership was established. Really, an excellent idea.
Egerton smiled to himself as he thought of it. If this thing went off all right, then he was going to make as much out of the transaction as he had expected at the beginning. Not quite as much, perhaps, but a princely sum of money with which he could get away without the slightest risk to himself. And then another idea occurred to him. Why should Egerton appear at all? Why shouldn't the Reverend Walter Temperley be the god in the car?
Yes, that was the idea. The Reverend Walter Temperley would write a mysterious letter to Mrs. Van Geldt that would bring her hot foot to Birmingham, or Abbotsbury for that matter. As soon as he knew that Cora had crossed the Atlantic, then he would set to work upon that cunning scheme of his.
It was a fortnight later that a confidential letter signed by the Reverend Walter Temperley reached Cora Van Geldt within two days of her landing in England.
Very quietly, and accompanied only by her maid, Cora Van Geldt slipped out of London and made her way to Abbotsbury. There she came to an old house in the centre of the town where she inquired for lodging accommodation. The place was a shop, an old curiosity shop with a house over it, and in the fanlight a simple card with the one word 'Apartments.' It was an old man who answered the door, a rather reticent individual who had not very much to say except that his wife did let rooms and that most of their visitors regarded her as an excellent cook. If the lady wanted rooms for herself and her maid for a day or two, she could have them. And the price would be so much. Would madam kindly step in and inspect the rooms for herself?
They were excellent rooms and most charmingly furnished, which was rather a surprise to Cora. Still, she was American enough to appreciate the period furniture and the old leaded windows, to say nothing of the open grates in her bed and sitting-rooms. She explained that she only wanted to stay a day or two and that she was an American, passing through the district and staying in Abbotsbury because she had come down there to inspect its famous abbey.
It was on the evening of the second day when Cora was sitting in her room that the Reverend Walter Temperley was announced. She saw an elderly clergyman of benign expression, with grey hair and beard, who beamed at her mildly through his thick glasses.
"I am very sorry to intrude upon you, madam," the stranger said, in the throaty tones peculiar to the average cleric. "But, I wrote you a letter."
"Yes," Cora said. "You did. I presume that you are the Reverend Walter Temperley. Won't you sit down?"
The sham clergyman dropped into a seat and folded his hands over his knee. He seemed thoroughly at home.
"I dare say you are surprised," he began, "that you have heard from me at all. You see, I am a retired clergyman and most of my time I pass in the South of France. I have to live there all through the cold weather on account of my health, though I have a small pied-a-terre not very far away from here. In fact I have only just got back from Nice."
"Indeed," Cora said politely. "But I understood that you wanted to see me in connection with certain missing jewels of mine. You are not well enough to come up to London, and you ask me to meet you here, at the same time recommending these charming rooms. Well, here I am, Mr. Temperley. And now, what about it?"
"Ah," the clergyman smiled. "I have met a great many of your compatriots out there in France and they are all very much alike. Business-like, my dear lady, business-like."
"Quite," Cora smiled. "It is a characteristic of the race. And, besides, you asked me to come and see you on business. If you can inform me where the pearls are—"
"All in good time, dear lady, all in good time. It was rather singular that I should happen to read all about you in the papers. I do not study them much, as a rule, especially the American ones, though we always had the Paris edition of the 'New York Herald' in my hotel at Nice. And there one cold day, when I did not care to venture out, I read all about the tragic death of your husband and how you had lost some world-famous pearls practically at the same time. And of course, I read all about the reward you offered."
"But the pearls were not at Nice, were they?"
"Well, they were in a manner of speaking. But, before I tell you any more, madam, I must impress upon you the necessity of not bringing my name in the matter. Unless you give me that assurance, I am afraid that I cannot go any further."
Cora turned upon the speaker impatiently.
"Why, of course," she said. "I don't want to bring anybody into the matter. All I want is to get my pearls back as quickly as possible and to insure that I am prepared to pay a handsome reward. Not necessarily to you."
"My dear madame, the mere suggestion is an insult." Egerton said, with some show of indignation. "I have nothing whatever to do with it. You can keep the reward as far as I am concerned, though it is more than possible that a person whose name I will give you presently, will expect to receive that sum."
"And he shall have it," Cora said.
"Still that is more or less a matter of detail. You see, we clergymen are in the habit of receiving all sorts of extraordinary confidences. Even I, who hold the chaplaincy of a small English church near Nice, have heard stories strange enough to fill half a dozen novels. Generally, my dear madam, these secrets reach my ears when the subject is in extremis. In other words, under the seal of confession. There is a large cosmopolitan population out there and some of the people with whom I have come in contact have led very sordid lives. Thieves of all classes, well-dressed and well-educated scoundrels who are ready to prey upon anybody. And many quite charming women, for the matter of that."
"And one of these made a confession to you?"
"That is what it amounts to," Egerton went on. "And, strange to say, that confession concerns your pearls. A certain person who shall be nameless met with a motoring accident, quite recently, just outside Monte Carlo. When he realised he was dying he sent for me, and, naturally, I went. I will not tell you who he was, or of his extraordinary chequered career. He might have attained any position, had he only kept to the straight path. A most charming and delightful man. I can assure you it was a great shock to me when I learnt that he had been a thief and a scoundrel ever since he left school. And you can judge of my astonishment when he mentioned your name and spoke about your pearls."
"It seems almost incredible," Cora cried.
"Well, there it was, my dear madam. Precisely how long is it since you lost those precious possessions of yours?"
"Roughly speaking, about two months," Cora explained.
"Yes, that exactly tallies with what the man told me. It appears that he was the actual thief. And once the pearls were in his possession, he set about disposing of them. He gave them into the charge of a man named Fishwick, who, at that time, was representing the famous house of Neidermeyer in Europe. And, of course, I need not tell an American lady like yourself what sort of a reputation that particular establishment enjoys."
"Oh, I know Neidermeyer's all right," Cora smiled.
"Well, this man not only represented Neidermeyer's, but he was using their name as a cloak for disposing of thousands of pounds worth of ill-gotten jewels in England and France. And it was left to him to get rid of those things. And, no doubt, he would have done it, in time, but for the accident of which I am speaking."
"Oh," Cora cried. "You mean that this man Fishwick was the victim of the accident of which you told me just now."
"Pardon me, I said nothing of the kind," the sham clergyman murmured. "I am only giving you a certain amount of information. It is a very sad case altogether, in which a very charming and delightful woman is unfortunately mixed up. The accident I speak of will leave her without a penny in the world and that was mainly the concern of the criminal who told me all about the strange story. He wanted her to have no further pecuniary anxiety and, at the same time, he did not want her name mentioned in connection with your pearls. In other words, if those pearls are recovered and you are prepared to part with that reward, the money will go to the woman of whom I am speaking. I should ask you to send it to her direct."
"I would do it without the slightest hesitation," Cora said. "In fact, I would do practically anything to get those pearls back again. You will find no trouble on my side, Mr. Temperley, and no desire whatever to ask impertinent questions. I can't give you more than my word for it."
"And that word I am prepared to take," Egerton said gallantly. "Before I go, I will give you the woman's name and her address in Paris, to which the reward can be sent. And now, let me come to the point. It doesn't much matter how it happened, or in what circumstances. But your pearls, at the present moment, are not very many miles away from where we are seated."
"You don't say?" Cora exclaimed. "Where?"
"In point of fact, in Birmingham. Unless I am greatly mistaken, they lie at the present moment, in the safe of a big jewel dealer who has a large establishment in Municipal-street. His name is Fastnet and the pearls were handed over to him a little time ago with a view to a sale to some client. I cannot tell you how they got there without betraying a sacred confidence. But, I can assure you that they are there, and if you take my advice you will go and see this man Fastnet and tell him roughly what I have told you without, of course, mentioning my name. On the other hand, you can tell him all I said about Fishwick and, on investigation, that will prove to be true. Of course, it will take us some considerable time before this business is settled and the pearls handed over to you, but I have no doubt that, with the aid of the police and a respectable firm of solicitors, all will be well."
"Fine," Cora exclaimed. "I don't know how to thank you, Mr. Temperley. If there is anything I can do for you—"
A few minutes later, Egerton was walking down the street in a most pleasant frame of mind. He had achieved this object and told his tale in such a way that would lead him to pocketing that reward without the slightest touch of danger on his side.
But he did not know that, fifty yards behind him, his footsteps were being dogged in the darkness by Trevor Trumble.
"What are we going to do about it?" Trumble asked.
He was alluding, of course, to his startling discovery that the man Farr was, at the same time, known to certain people as the Reverend Walter Temperley. And, moreover, that under that guise he, Trumble, had run him down in the house in Abbotsbury, where he was actually calling upon Mrs. Van Geldt, or the astute little journalist was altogether wrong. Not that Norcliff thought so, because he was inclined to believe that Jagger actually had hit the mark. There were many little things that pointed to such a conclusion. In the first place, they knew that Cora Van Geldt was in the neighborhood, and, moreover, it was quite a logical conclusion that she was in England in search of her lost pearls. It was more than probable that she had come to the country almost on purpose to do so, and a fair conclusion that she had in some way got upon the track of the thief. On the face of this and what Trumble had discovered in Abbotsbury, Jagger was disposed to pride himself.
"That's it, you may depend upon it," he exclaimed. "Let us go a little further, Inspector. Suppose Mrs. Van Geldt didn't get hold of those pearls honestly? Oh, I don't mean that she stole them. But they might have been smuggled, or she might have bought them from some mysterious persons who had managed to get through the New York Customs. They might have been Bolshevik stuff. One could think of a dozen ways in which the lady obtained them. At any rate, they were phenomenal stones, and if they had been stolen from some historic necklace, then there would have been a hue and cry long before now. But not if they had belonged to some noble Russian family that had been murdered in the revolution, because there would be nobody left to kick-up a shindy. I should not be in the least surprised if Mrs. Van Geldt hadn't bought them from some international crook who afterwards stole them."
Norcliff smiled at the suggestion. He was to learn in due course how startlingly true that little man's deduction was.
"Possibly," he said. "And possibly this man Farr had something to do with it. Otherwise, why was he calling upon Mrs. Van Geldt disguised as a reverend gentleman, and why was that spoilt beauty more or less hiding herself in an obscure lodging house in the centre of a quiet place like Abbotsbury?"
"I think that is pretty obvious," Trumble suggested. "Mrs. Van Geldt is not the lady to come to Europe as if she were a sort of poor emigrant, especially as we know that she has taken the house in Grosvenor-square again. Of course, she has some reason for keeping her present movements a secret. And that man Farr knows the reason why. She came to Abbotsbury to meet him."
"Very likely," Jagger said. "But why should he disguise himself as a parson? If she knew him before, under another name and in another guise, there would be no occasion for him to pose as somebody else. Still, he obviously did so, and if Mrs. Van Geldt was here now she would probably tell us that she recently met the Rev. Walter Temperley for the first time. In other words, for some reason of his own, he was humbugging her, and the reason why he was doing so is a thing we have to find out. You may depend upon it that Farr has some deep scheme afoot for getting those pearls into his own possession. It's any odds he knows where they are, and he won't be happy till he handles them."
"It will take him all his time," Trumble said.
"Of course it will," Norcliff agreed. "At any rate, I am rather inclined to think there is something in what Jagger says, and I am disposed to shape my policy accordingly."
"How would it be to see Mrs. Van Geldt?" Jagger suggested.
"Not a bad idea," Norcliff approved. "But, on the whole, I should much prefer not to trouble the lady myself just at this moment, and it would be running a certain risk if Trumble came prominently into the open. Somebody else must do it?"
Jagger jumped eagerly at the opportunity.
"Let me," he said, "Why shouldn't I go? I am only an ordinary journalist, out for copy, and if I can interview Mrs. Van Geldt in the old curiosity shop on behalf of the 'Bulletin,' it ought to do me a bit of good. You know the sort of thing. The beautiful society lady who has come over here incognito with a view to seeing the beauties of ancient England and study them for herself before she settles down in London for the last part of the season. Just the right American touch. Abbotsbury and Stratford-on-Avon, and all that sort of thing and spending money on antiques. Just a whim of hers to spend a day or two in an old curiosity shop and finds herself run down by an astute English journalist. Oh, she will give me an interview fast enough when I tell her that it will appear in a London paper, and is certain to be copied by the New York press. I could find out a good deal that way, without the slightest suspicion as to my bona fides. And if Farr is watching, he will not have any suspicion, because it would be quite easy for me to prove that I am first and last a journalist and that I have no ulterior object in calling on the lady. I can ask her all about her plans for the future and, of course, it would be only natural if I brought up the subject of the stolen pearls. Now, Inspector do you think you can trust me as far as all that?"
"I don't see why I shouldn't," Norcliff agreed. "In fact, on the whole, I think it is a very good scheme. And I don't mind telling you I should like to know a good deal more about that old curiosity shop. It is quite evident to me that this man Farr is a most infernally clever international crook who spends half his time in England and half in America. That is a smart idea of his for being on this side of the water in the summer and on the other in the winter under pretence of residence in the South of France for the benefit of his health. I should not be at all surprised if that old curiosity shop was one of Farr's own little ideas through the medium of which he disposed of a lot of stolen property. You can see how easily it could be managed."
They talked the matter over for a little time further and finally it was arranged that Jagger should go to Abbotsbury the following morning and introduce himself to Mrs. Van Geldt. His luck stood him in its usual good stead and, shortly before 12 o'clock the following morning, he found himself seated in Mrs. Van Geldt's artistically furnished sitting-room quite at his ease in the presence of the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
"Of course, I know it is a liberty, madam," he said. "But, as an English pressman—"
"Oh, I know all about that," Cora said with her sweetest smile. "They are one of the curses of America. Indeed, I had the greatest difficulty in getting away from New York without bringing a dozen or so away with me. As a matter of fact, I managed to get away on the steamer without encountering one of them. Up to a certain point, my present visit to England is quite private."
"Yes, I suppose it would be, in the circumstances," Jagger murmured. "After all the trouble you have been through, naturally you would shrink from anything in the way of publicity. A double loss like that must have been terrible."
Cora sighed deeply and waited for Jagger to proceed. But the little man knew his business better than that. He favored Cora with a sympathetic glance and paused for her to resume.
"Yes," she said at length. "It was very dreadful and the loss of all those pearls—"
"You have not traced them, I presume?" Jagger asked.
"Well, do you know, I believe I have," Cora said confidentially. "The most extraordinary thing in the world. I cannot tell you the story, because it came to me under the seal of confidence. The dying man and the priest and all that sort of thing. A really remarkable romance. But, as I said before, I cannot go into any details. You must be content with what I have told you."
"Oh, of course, of course," Jagger hastened to say. "And in the meantime, you are down here studying the beauties of rural England. Am I right in saying, Mrs. Van Geldt, that you are a great collector of English period furniture?"
"I think every American is," Cora smiled. "As a matter of fact, I came down here to be quiet. A little later on I am returning to London, where I have taken the same house in Grosvenor-square that I occupied on the occasion of my last visit."
"And meanwhile, I suppose you will enjoy living in an old curiosity shop? Recommended you by a friend, I suppose?"
"Well, not precisely," Cora explained. "I really came down here in response to a letter I had. Not exactly an anonymous letter, but one that came to me intimating that if I put up here I might hear something regarding my missing treasures. You see, when the Reverend Walter—but now I am betraying confidence. You are a little to plausible, Mr. Jagger, and I am afraid you are tempting me to say too much. Indeed, if I was not the most amiable woman in the world, I should have refused to see you altogether. But the cute way in which you found me out was rather intriguing."
Jagger asked a few more questions, more or less of a general nature, edged here and there with one that had a double meaning and 10 minutes later he found himself in the street, by no means displeased with the way in which he had passed the morning.
It was nearly two o'clock when he entered Norcliff's room at the Grand Central with a smile on his face.
"Well?" the latter asked. "Do any good?"
"Oh, I think so," Jagger said. "I had to play my fish pretty carefully, but one important point I hit upon. Mrs. Van Geldt is down here in connection with the pearls and that reverend gentleman invited her. And, moreover, she knows where the goods are!"
'"Here, let us have it quite straight," Norcliff said. "Do you mean to say that a certain clergyman—"
"Call him the Reverend Walter Temperley," Jagger interrupted. "It must have been him, because she distinctly uttered the words 'The Reverend Walter.' This could not mean anybody else, especially as the doctor here actually traced the man Farr to that old curiosity shop, disguised as a clergyman."
"What is the name of the place?" Norcliff asked.
"As a matter of fact, it is called the Coeur de Lion, with a quaint sort of coat of arms over the front door. But I cannot see what that has to do with it."
"Perhaps not," Norcliff said. "But it will be useful for me to know that when I go into Abbotsbury later on and call upon Mrs. Van Geldt. I shall have to see her."
"Is that quite wise, just at present?" the irrepressible little journalist asked. "Don't you think we had better find out first exactly who this man Farr is? It's any money that Farr is an assumed name, just as the Reverend Temperley is. And how the Dickens does this chap Farr come to know all about the movements of Mrs. Van Geldt and why is he so anxious about the pearls?"
"I think that is pretty obvious," Trumble interpolated. "He is after the reward, of course. He must have seen all about that in the newspapers. As far as I can see, Farr must have been in America when those pearls were stolen. He must have known into whose hands they fell, and, very likely, they were taken from Mrs. Van Geldt by a confederate, then handed over to the unfortunate Fishwick for disposal. In his peculiar position he could handle a lot of that sort of stuff without suspicion falling on him. As Neidermeyer's representative, the police would never suspect him. Then I suppose he played his accomplice false, or the accomplice thought so, at any rate, and he was deliberately lured into the house by the railway siding and murdered by Farr who expected to get the pearls back, in which expectation he was disappointed, for the simple reason that they had been deposited with Fastnet. It looks to me, Inspector, as if we were getting things down pretty fine now. But who is this man Farr, exactly? He looks to me like a man who had a dozen aliases. The sort of man who works on both sides of the Atlantic, spending half his time here, and the other half in New York. You see, he pretends to be the Reverend Walter Temperley, a retired clergyman, who goes to the South of France every year for the benefit of his health, but as a matter of fact he does nothing of the sort, because all that time he is across the water. Then it suits him to let his house to a man named Farr—in other words, to himself—and tells my friends the Marchmonts that he has come down here with the idea of purchasing a chicken farm. See how neatly it all fits in. Now, my idea is that over in America he has another alias, and this we have to find out. Isn't there anybody amongst the police at Scotland Yard who has an intimate knowledge of American crooks—I mean a man who can identify Farr for who he really is? If we could manage that our task should be easy. And, there is another thing. We can't go on adjourning that inquest at Barnstaple for ever. Sooner or later the dead man's identity must be established, and, once it is, Farr will be put on his guard. Of course, he has cunning enough to know that the name of Fishwick will become public property sooner or later, but until that happens he feels himself absolutely safe. Of course, we know that Fishwick has been identified, but that is a secret to everybody else."
"Yes, I quite see your point," Norcliff said. "I dare say I can manage to keep the name of Fishwick out of the papers for another two or three weeks and perhaps it would be as well to do so. What would you suggest as the next move?"
"I think that is up to you," Trumble said. "Go and see Mrs. Van Geldt by all means and I don't think it would be a bad move to take her into your confidence."
"I am quite sure it wouldn't," Jagger chirruped. "That woman is as clever as she is beautiful. You will probably find her a good deal of help. It is all very well to say that women cannot keep a secret, but if Mrs. Van Geldt isn't the exception to the rule, then I don't know what I am talking about. You go and see her, Inspector, and put your cards on the table. Anyhow, the reverend gentleman is out for the reward and we might get hold of him by sending a bogus cheque, which he will pick up in due course, and we can lay hands upon him at that very moment."
"Yes, that sounds all right," Norcliff said. "Now, doctor, what are you doing for the moment?"
Trumble explained that he proposed returning to Abbotsbury there to see his friends the Marchmonts.
"You won't want me for a day or two," he said. "You will have plenty to do for the next eight and forty hours, and if you want me, a wire will bring me back as soon as possible. I have got a little idea of my own, which has been forming in my mind for some little time past. I may be altogether wrong, but, in the light of what I have heard to-day, I don't think I am. Besides, I want to get George Marchmont up to town. I have told you all about him and his blindness and the sooner he is in London the better. Between ourselves, I don't think it will be very long before my friend will have the use of his sight again. At any rate, I have got the rooms for them and I shall probably take him up to London to-morrow and make a start on my treatment. So, if you don't want me any more, I will just go and take train to Abbotsbury."
There being nothing further to detain Trumble, he lost no time and, late in the afternoon found himself outside the cottage door talking to Sylvia who was accompanied by Farr himself. It was a very difficult matter to treat that mysterious individual in a friendly way and to smile at him as if he were nothing more than a mere acquaintance. Still, Farr made no attempt to shake hands and for this Trumble felt almost grateful.
And there was yet another thing about the mysterious Farr that he resented, and that was the assumption of something more than familiarity between himself and Sylvia. That the girl thought highly of him and, that she was flattered by his attentions was palpable to Trumble, so much so that he had considerable difficulty in keeping a grip on his temper. It seemed to him to be a hideous thing that a girl like Sylvia should be in daily intercourse with a bloodstained scoundrel like Farr. Some of these early days, she must know the truth, but he, Trumble, must tell her himself.
And there was a good deal of consolation in the fact that, within a few hours, he was going to remove both Marchmont and Sylvia outside the influence of that handsome, plausible scoundrel.
"Ah, here comes our friend the doctor," Farr said in his inconsequent way. "I wonder what he wants this time, Sylvia."
"I have come to take our friends to London," Trumble contrived to say. "In fact, I have made all the necessary arrangements, and I hope that to-morrow night will see our friends in the rooms in town which I have taken for them."
"This is rather sudden, isn't it?" Sylvia asked. "But still, I think it can be managed. If you will wait here a moment, I will go into the cottage and tell George what you say."
She turned away, leaving the two men facing one another. It was very hard for Trumble to keep the antagonism he felt out of his face, but he managed to keep a grip on himself and he was by no means displeased to see the look of alarm and suspicion that dwelt for a minute or two in Farr's eyes.
"Do you think it is any real good?" the latter asked.
"I have told you before that I could not possibly say," Trumble replied. "Personally, I am not sanguine, and, in any case, it may be a long business. But I am going to do the best I can and I am quite sure you will wish me luck."
"Ah, of course, of course," Farr said hastily, evidently cheered by the suggestion that it might prove a long task. "But don't you think that our friend George is a bit foolish to keep that secret of his to himself? I mean that plan of the island where he found the pearl's. You know as well as I do that he is quite a poor man, and if he had the command of means so that he could travel and hear all the best music and all that sort of thing, he would be a much happier man. Now, my suggestion is that he should confide in me. We are quite old friends by this time, and I can serve him far better than anybody else. Besides, I have travelled all over the world and I flatter myself that I know the ropes. Why, I know the South Pacific as well as I know Paris and London. More than that, I wouldn't mind paying the whole shot. I mean, I would find all the money necessary for the expedition and, if it turned out to be a failure, I should not dream of charging old George a penny."
"That is very generous of you," Trumble forced himself to say. "Few men would go as far as that. Have you asked Marchmont about it? Have you made the suggestion to him?"
"I have suggested it till I am tired of the subject," Farr said with the semblance of a snarl. "Perhaps you will back me up. I have got to get along presently, because I have pressing business in Birmingham. Just give George a hint, will you?"
When Sylvia emerged from the cottage again, Farr was half way down the garden path, to Trumble's immense relief. Sylvia followed him with a glance until he was out of sight.
"Perhaps I am wrong," she said. "But it seems to me, Trevor, that you don't like our friend Farr."
"I have never said so," Trumble murmured guardedly.
"No, not in as many words," Sylvia smiled. "Surely you don't know anything against him?"
"Look here, Sylvia," Trumble burst out suddenly. "Honestly, is that man anything more to you than a friend?"
A warm color flooded Sylvia's cheeks.
"We have known him a long time now," she said. "And I have already told you how good he has been to George. You can't help liking and respecting a man who goes out of his way to help a comparative stranger. And besides, he is so good-looking and so cheerful. You couldn't look into the face of a man like that and doubt either his honor or his integrity."
Trumble groaned to himself in spirit. He was bound to confess that there was a good deal in what Sylvia said. Outwardly at any rate, there was nothing against this man Farr, he might have passed in any company as a man of birth and breeding, and there was nothing in his face to express the inner man.
"Yes, that's right enough," he admitted grudgingly. "Still, I am glad to hear you say that Farr is no more than a friend. I wonder if you can guess why, Sylvia?"
She looked up at him again under her long lashes, and a queer little smile wrinkled the corners of her lips. For the first time she noticed the change in the man who was speaking to her. To begin with, he was wearing a suit of clothes that had obviously been made for him by a tailor who knew his business; his collar and tie had a faint suggestion of Bond-street about them, and his tan shoes were almost resplendent. It was another Trumble altogether who stood there looking eagerly down into the girl's face.
"Why, Trevor," she said. "How you have changed! Just for the moment, I didn't notice it."
"Well?" Trumble challenged. "And who is responsible? Who is the girl who told me that I was little better than a scarecrow? And who asked me to make myself look respectable? Well, I have done it, Sylvia, though I don't think I would have troubled to listen to anybody else. And perhaps you can guess why?"
Sylvia looked down and swiftly up again.
"That is a great compliment to me," she said mischievously. "And, really the improvement is wonderful Trevor, I had no idea you were anything like so good-looking."
"Oh, well, if you only value me for that—"
"But I don't, I don't. Can't you understand that any girl who is genuinely fond.... I mean, any girl, well, you know what I mean. It's so nice to have one's friends looking so presentable. And, yet, there is another change. How stupid of me not to notice it at once! What have you done with your spectacles?"
"I left them behind me," Trumble said shame-facedly.
"Left them behind you! Which means, of course, that you never wanted them. Why did you wear them, Trevor? Why does every scientist wear glasses, just as every musician makes himself greasy and hideous with long hair. Mere affectation. Trevor, I had no idea that you were such a conceited man."
"But I am not," Trumble said humbly. "I am one of the most retiring of men. And, look you here, my child, I have done all this to oblige you, and you repay me by laughing."
"And you don't like doing it?"
"Well, as a matter of fact, I do," Trumble admitted. "When I came to look at myself in the glass this morning, I realised, for the first time in my life, that there was something in clothes after all. Don't you agree with me?"
"'A frog he would a-wooing go,'" Sylvia quoted. Then she looked down, blushing vividly. "No, I am sorry," she said contritely. "Of course, I didn't mean that."
"Are you quite sure?" Trumble said, speaking in a voice that Sylvia had never heard before. "As a matter of fact, froggy has come a-wooing, and he isn't going away until he has had his answer."
"And if he doesn't get the answer he hopes for? Then, I suppose the scarecrow will come back again?" Sylvia said, almost in a whisper. "Oh, Trevor, can't you understand that any woman who is fond of a man always likes him to look at his best? She wants to take him round amongst her friends, the same as she does her new doll, and make all the other little girls jealous. Please, Trevor, please let me go."
"Never in this world," Trevor said. "There was never anybody else but you and there never will be. Just think of what we have been through together. Just think of the old days when we were in France. And now, are you going to kiss me?"
They passed down the garden together, the world forgetting by the world forgot, and, for the moment, at any rate, selfishly oblivious to the blind man seated in the cottage. Then Sylvia came to herself with a start.
"Trevor," she said. "We must get back to George. He will wonder what has become of us. And, of course, he heard your voice. Let's go and tell him all about it."
The blind man, sitting patiently in his chair, looked up with a smile as the others entered. And, strangely enough, at the first sound of his sister's voice, he seemed to know what had happened.
"All right, you two," he said gaily. "No reason to tell me. So old Trevor has come up to the scratch at last, has he? What does he look like, Sylvia? You don't mean to say you have promised to marry him whilst he is wearing those old clothes you told me about?"
"Nothing of the sort," Trevor said indignantly. "Here is a different Trumble altogether, the like of which you never saw. 'And all for the love of a lady' too. Oh, my dear boy, I shall make quite a man about town before I have finished."
"Do you know that he has actually sacrificed his beloved spectacles?" Sylvia cried.
"Ah, evidently a very sad case," George Marchmont said sorrowfully. "I only wish I could see it for myself."
"You are going to, my boy, you are going to," Trumble said, laying his hand upon his friend's shoulder. "I haven't liked to say very much to you before now, but once I get you in London under my course of treatment you are going to have the use of your eyes again. And I think you know me well enough to believe that I should never be cruel enough to make a statement like that unless I was practically certain. That is why I am here this afternoon. I am coming back here in the morning to take you both to town into rooms which I have chosen for you, and there you will do exactly as you are told."
An unsteady smile flickered over Marchmont's face.
"You fill me with new hope," he said huskily. "I had never expected anything like this. God only knows what all this darkness has been to a man who, like myself, has always been accustomed to outdoor life. I feel inclined to run out of doors and shout all you have told me to the skies."
"Nothing of the sort," Trumble said sternly. "You are not to tell a single soul. Now, mind that, I am not joking. Not to a single soul. I have my reasons."
"What, not even Farr?" Marchmont asked.
"No, not even Farr. He knows I am going to take you to town because I have just told him so. And, more than that, he does not guess; in fact, I rather inferred that your case was hopeless."
"Just as you like," Marchmont said. "But I should like to have told Farr. He has been a jolly good friend to us, and I am sure that nobody would rejoice more than he. Do you know, Trevor, that man has offered more than once to make my fortune. He has offered to find all the money necessary to explore those pearl fisheries and put untold gold into my pocket. And if the thing was a failure it wasn't to cost me a penny. You see, he realised what the possession of money would be to a man in my position. Instead of living frugally in a little cottage like this I could travel about with Sylvia and hear all the world's best music, which is one of my greatest delights. And I was churlish enough to refuse."
"I often wondered why," Trumble murmured.
"Well, upon my word I can hardly tell you myself. I suppose, when you are blind and helpless as I am you become rather secretive and suspicious of the motives of even your dearest friends. Anyway, I didn't show that chart to Farr, and even Sylvia hasn't the remotest idea where it is at the present moment. Oh, yes, a blind man can hide things as well as anybody else. But, after what you have just told me I feel as if I should like to see Farr and hand that chart over to him to do as he likes."
"Oh, would you?" Trumble said grimly. "My dear boy, you are going to do nothing of the kind. There are reasons, very urgent reasons, why you should retain that secret. I want you to promise me that you will regard this conversation as absolutely secret. And if Farr comes over to see you in the morning, before you leave for London, then not a word of what I have been saying. Now, give me a cup of tea, and I will get back to Birmingham."
It was a very happy and elated Trumble who said good-bye to Sylvia at Abbotsbury station and made his way back to Birmingham. He would be over again in the morning, when he would expect Sylvia to have everything ready for the move to London.
"It is going to be quite all right," he told the girl, just as the train was moving out of the station. "What I prophesied to you and George is going to be something more than a dream. And when that is done, I shall have something to tell you of a very surprising nature. Perhaps I should be more correct in saying that it will be George who makes the dramatic disclosure that I have at the back of my mind."
It was just before dinner that Trumble strolled into Norcliff's private sitting-room in the Grand Central, to find his comrade in arms smoking a cigarette and reading the evening paper.
"Well," the former said. "Well, any news?"
"Oh, lots," Norcliff replied. "To begin with, I have seen Mrs. Van Geldt and we have called upon Fastnet. Beyond doubt, those pearls are Mrs. Van Geldt's missing property."
Quite timidly for him, little Jagger put a question to Norcliff. Had the latter any objection to being accompanied as far as the old curiosity shop by a competent and discreet newspaper man who could be relied upon in any sort of emergency?
"Do you mean to suggest that you should come along with me and interview Mr. Van Geldt?" Norcliff asked.
"Certainly, unless you have any objection."
"My dear young friend," Norcliff said dryly. "You are an exceedingly astute young man and I am bound to confess that you have been of considerable assistance to me. But I really don't think it would be exactly prudent to take you. Besides, for all we know to the contrary, Mrs. Van Geldt might have left Abbotsbury already. And in, any case, the fewer of us concerned, the better. We don't want to attract any attention. And there is always the possibility that the man we know as Farr is prowling about somewhere. I don't suppose he has the least idea who you are, and I am pretty certain that he doesn't identify me with Scotland Yard. Our friend the doctor saw to that. Still, you never know."
"Oh, very well," Jagger said. "At any rate, you won't mind my travelling as far as Abbotsbury with you? You see, I have already begun to write my story and I must have my local color right. The railway siding and the house close alongside and all that sort of thing. Moreover, I want to bring in the doctor's blind friend and his sister, because I have a hunch, as they say in the States, that both those people will prove to be part of the jig-saw puzzle that you have to solve. I want to tell my readers all about that picturesque thatched cottage where the blind man lives and how it comes into the narrative. A regular romance that ought to take up a whole page of my paper when the right time comes. Oh, I have got my chance, and I should be a fool if I did not take every advantage of it. So you won't mind my coming to Abbotsbury."
"I have not the slightest objection to your going as far as that," Norcliff said. "But you are not to be seen with me. I mean, we do not leave the station together. You can follow me at a discreet distance if you like, and if you see me enter the old curiosity shop you will know that the lady is at home. If that suits you then there is no more to be said."
Jagger was eager enough to fall in with Norcliff's views, and some considerable time later he turned away from the direction of the old curiosity shop, having satisfied himself that Norcliff was likely to stay inside the house for some time to come. Then he strolled more or less aimlessly away in the direction of the railway siding and the four houses abutting on it.
He did not know exactly what he was going to do or what he was likely to discover. But then one never knew, and something worthy of record might chance to turn up. He might even be fortunate enough to see the man Farr himself. So far he had never met the man who had already been practically proved to be a cold-blooded murderer, but he had heard his personal appearance discussed between Trumble and Norcliff, so that if he should chance to run against the individual in question, he would be able to recognise him. Moreover he had all the advantage on his side. He would know the man, but on the other hand the man would not know him. So he made his way slowly past the houses by the siding as if he were waiting for someone and paused to light a cigarette as he approached the last of the villas. This act enabled him to take a swift and comprehensive glance of what was going on around him, nor was he in the least pressed for time and quite prepared to hang about there for the best part of an hour if it should be necessary to do so.
And then luck served him. From the back of the house a figure emerged, followed by what appeared to be a working man with a spade in his hand. These two paused at the gate within a yard or two of Jagger, still intent on his cigarette, so that he could hear what passed between them. Not that he was in the least interested in that trivial conversation, because he was taking a swift mental picture of the man whom he knew to be Farr. Then, with a chuckle, he went on down the road and did not stop until he came to the little thatched cottage which he recognised as belonging to Marchmont and his sister. He knew, of course, that Farr and Marchmont were on intimate terms and that the former was in the habit of spending a good deal of his time at the cottage. And then as he took in the neat little garden and the old world building at the back of it something in the way of inspiration flashed into his mind.
"Now, that is not a bad idea," he told himself. "By Gad, I will put it to the Inspector directly I get back to the station. Might just as well go and wait for him there and get a mouthful of grub before returning to Birmingham."
Meanwhile, Norcliff had reached the old curiosity shop that stood in an ancient street, not very far from Abbotsbury's famous abbey. He did not ring the bell by the side of the private entrance, but strolled into the shop as if he were a tourist or something of that kind in search of antiques. He was surprised by the value and variety of the treasures there. Evidently this was a famous establishment and one that enthusiasts came from afar to see. Norcliff was not exactly a connoisseur, but he knew enough to see at once that this was no mere furnishing establishment.
From somewhere in the dusky back-ground, a slim figure of a middle-aged man appeared and asked the visitor's business.
Norcliff started slightly and then immediately became himself again. For in the man with the bald head and the black moustache he recognised an old criminal. The last time he had seen this man had been seven years ago at the now extinct Old Bailey. Norcliff had not been connected with the case himself, so that he was quite sure in his mind that the recognition was not mutual. Nor was he in the least inclined to call this shopkeeper by his proper name. All that would follow in due course, but meanwhile, his one task was to interview Mrs. Van Geldt. Perhaps later on he would be able to take an interest in the career of the man with the black moustache.
"No, I don't particularly want anything," he said. "At least, I don't want anything for the moment. I looked in because I was somewhat attracted by that Waterford glass you have in the window. I may come back later on and see if we can do a deal. I really came here to see a lady who is staying in your house."
"Oh, yes, sir," the man behind the counter said. "Mrs. Van Geldt. If you would be good enough to ring the bell at the side door and ask for the lady, I think it will be all right. Then we might do a little business afterwards, sir."
Norcliff rang the door bell in due course and was interviewed by Mrs. Van Geldt's maid. In the light of his recent discovery, he had no intention of disclosing his real name and occupation, so that a little diplomacy was necessary before he found himself in the presence of the woman he had come to seek.
"Your mistress will not know me," he said. "But if you tell her that a strange man is here who might be able to tell her something about those missing pearls of hers, she may see me."
The maid was quite sure that her mistress would. So that the rest was easy. Norcliff stood there, bowing to the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, a woman young and attractive and nothing like what he had expected.
"Yes," Cora said. "Yes. I don't know who you are or where you come from, but if you can tell me anything about those missing pearls of mine, I shall be more than grateful. As a matter of fact, I happen to know where they are. Still, I must be discreet. Would you mind telling me your name and what brought you here?"
Norcliff proclaimed his identity, at the same time handing his card over for Miss Van Geldt's inspection.
"You see why I am here now, perhaps," he said. "The loss of your pearls is only part of a big mystery with a terrible crime at the bottom of it. And I am the man who has been selected by Scotland Yard to solve the puzzle. Of course, I know where the missing pearls are at the present moment and how they came into the possession of the present holder. In fact, I have seen them."
"You have seen them," Mrs. Van Geldt cried.
"Yes, I have had them in my hand. I am quite convinced that they are yours, but, before we go much further, that fact will have to be proved beyond the shadow of a doubt. Now, will you do me a favor, Mrs. Van Geldt? I am ready to help you in every way I can, but, on the other hand, I shall have to ask your assistance. Will you meet me to-morrow morning at 11 o'clock at the establishment of Mr. Fastnet in Municipal-street in Birmingham?"
"I will meet you anywhere," Cora said impulsively.
"Then that is settled. I want you not to tell anybody where you are going, not even your maid. If you will be advised by me, you will stroll quietly out after breakfast, as if you were just taking a walk round the town and then hire a taxi cab and drive straight to Birmingham. This should not take you more than an hour and a half at the outside. What I want to guard against is that you should be followed. And now, Mrs. Van Geldt, would you answer me another question? Taking it for granted that those pearls belong to you, would you mind telling me where you got them from?"
"Where I got them from," Cora echoed.
"Precisely. I understand that those twelve pearls are almost unique, if not entirely so. Of course, they might have been stolen gems from Russia, otherwise I cannot conceive where they came from. You could not have purchased them in the open market without the fact being recorded widely in the press and the same thing would have happened if you had obtained them through a dealer. Now would you mind telling me the name of the man who sold them?"
"Not in the least," Cora smiled. "They came from a gentleman friend of mine named Vane Egerton."
Not a muscle of Norcliff's face moved at the unexpected and startling piece of information. Here, almost by chance, he had blundered upon a solution of more than half the problem. For the name of Vane Egerton was no strange one to him. It had come to Scotland Yard more than once through the New York police in connection with a series of daring robberies, but all of them so cunningly planned that the master criminal had eluded the meshes of the law. Here was a man who was well known in New York society moving in the best circles under his proper name, a member of exclusive clubs and all that sort of thing, and yet one who, at the same time, was being watched almost day and night by the greyhounds of the law. Some day or other he would fall into their clutches, some day or other he would make one false slip, and then the vultures would pounce. But in the meantime, it was the policy of the police to let the man have full rein lest he should be alarmed and take himself elsewhere.
More than that, Norcliff knew that Egerton belonged to a good English family, and that he had left home in deep disgrace, many years ago. All this of course was information of the most sensational kind. Moreover, it was perfectly clear now that Vane Egerton was none other than the man who called himself Farr, and who, occasionally posed when it suited him as the Reverend Walter Temperley.
"But you don't suspect him?" Cora went on.
"I did not say that I suspected anybody," Norcliff said diplomatically. "I am merely making inquiries, and though I don't suppose it matters very much to you, I think I shall be able to save you the amount of the reward you offer. However, we will come to that later. Where did Mr. Egerton get those pearls?"
"Really, I could not definitely say. He is always dealing in valuables; in fact, I think he got his living that way. When he brought the pearls to me, he told me that they had come to him through a sailor. In fact, he brought the sailor with him. Let me see, what was his name? Oh yes, Kennedy. The usual rough type of seafaring man who told rather a strange story as to the way in which the pearls had found their way into his possession. The sort of story you read in Jack London's books. So I bought them, and I suppose Mr. Egerton shared in the transaction."
"And that is all you can tell me?"
"Yes, that's all," Cora said. "You see it was a matter of indifference to me where those pearls came from. I was just glad to get them, and it seemed like a dispensation of Providence."
"But your husband—" Norcliff suggested.
"My dear man," Cora said coolly, "my husband never worried about anything except his own business. But say, Mr. Inspector, I am not likely to get myself in trouble over those pearls, am I? Perhaps I ought to have asked a few more questions, but then, you see, I was so mad to get hold of the things that I could not think about anything else! And I paid a big price for them."
"That I don't for a moment doubt," Norcliff smiled. "Neither need you worry yourself as to the consequences. All you have to do is to identify those pearls as your property and say whence you obtained them, after which you can leave the rest to us. I don't think I need worry you any more for the moment, and I shall hope to have the pleasure of meeting you in Municipal-street, Birmingham, to-morrow morning."
It was late in the evening when Norcliff joined the little journalist in Abbotsbury station. Quite frankly he told Jagger exactly what had happened, and what the programme was for the following morning. Jagger grinned happily in reply.
"Great stuff," he said. "This is going to be scoop of the century. Now, listen here Inspector. While you have been busy with the lady, I have not been wasting my time. I have been lucky enough to see the man Farr. Saw him standing at his front gate talking to his gardener. Fine figure of a chap, young for his years, and I should say a nasty customer to tackle in a row. Anybody less like a murderer it would be hard to imagine. The man looks the ideal of a country gentleman."
"Well, there is no doubt about his birth and family," Norcliff said. "I should say that his personal appearance is a great asset. But what have you got in the back of your mind?"
"Well, it's like this," Jagger explained, "When I was having my little chat with Mrs. Van Geldt, we talked on a variety of subjects that I did not mention to you, because they did not seem to have anything to do with the big story. Sort of leading up remarks on my part so as to give me time to ask her the questions I wanted answered just in the right way. And, in the course of that talk, I discovered that Mrs. Van Geldt had come down here to meet Farr, otherwise the Reverend Walter Temperley, and during the few hours she had been here she had fallen in love with the place. The real Yankee touch, Inspector. Plum crazy on antiques and all that sort of thing. I thought, from what she said, that she would like to go down into the shop and buy the whole place up. At any rate, she told me that she would stay down here a week or two and explore the neighborhood. Shakespeare's birthplace and all that sort of thing. Abbotsbury seems to have fascinated her stiff."
"I know," Norcliff said, "I have seen that sort of crase in Americans before. But what's the point, Jagger?"
"Sorry," Jagger said. "I had almost forgotten that. The point is, that Mrs. Van Geldt has more than half a mind to take a cottage down here. Week-end affair, where she can retire from the fatigues of the season. She doesn't want one of those sham cottages with electric light and loud speakers and half a dozen cars in the back yard. No, sir, she wants the real, genuine thing. Roses and thatch and so forth. And then the idea came to me. As a matter of fact, it came to me after we had started to-day. Now, the doctor is going to take his blind friend and his sister to town for a few weeks, and Mr. Marchmont, not being over-endowed with this world's goods, would probably like to let his cottage furnished. I am sure the lady would pay any rent that he cared to ask."
"Very likely. But where does the point come in?"
"Well, it's like this," Jagger grinned. "You leave it to me. I will see Mrs. Van Geldt after a chat with the doctor, and if the Marchmonts have no objection to letting their house, I will call upon Mrs. Van Geldt and offer it to her. I will conduct the lady over the premises myself. I should dearly love to see her face when this man whom we must now call Vane Egerton comes over in a day or two to say good-bye to the Marchmonts."
"But they are going to town to-morrow," Norcliff objected.
"Yes, I know. But why shouldn't they put it off for a day or two? There is no great hurry."
"Oh, I don't know that I am very enthusiastic," Norcliff said. "All the same, I can see what you are driving at. You want a highly dramatic situation to introduce into your story, and that highly dramatic situation will be the meeting of Mrs. Van Geldt with Egerton in the Marchmonts' cottage. Is that it?"
"You've guessed it first time," the little journalist admitted. "Then you don't think it worth trying?"
Norcliff pondered the matter for a minute or two.
"I will think it over," he said finally. "It may be the means of strengthening our hands, and, conversely, it may be the means of putting Egerton on his guard. However, we will talk it over to-morrow after Mrs. Van Geldt reaches Birmingham."
Jagger was wise enough to leave it at that, nor was the matter mentioned again, at any rate, for the moment.
It was just on the stroke of eleven the next morning when Norcliff strolled into Fastnet's establishment in Municipal-street and asked for the proprietor. Mr. Fastnet was awaiting the coming of the inspector, and welcomed him in the office. There they waited for some considerable time, so that Norcliff was beginning to get a little anxious when a taxi cab drove up before the shop.
"I am very sorry to keep you waiting," Cora said as she bustled into the room. "I guess that Abbotsbury of yours is a pretty sleepy place, and, anyhow, it was no easy matter to get a taxi so early in the morning. I had to show the man outside a handful of notes and promise him a big fare if he would start at once. He said he hadn't his breakfast, or some paltry excuse like that. So perhaps one of you gentlemen will send him to get something to eat, and tell him to come back in half an hour."
This being accomplished, the door of the office was closed and Fastnet produced the pearls. Cora gave one glance at them and threw up her hands with every manifestation of delight.
"Yes, those are my pearls," she cried. "I could swear to them anywhere. And it is lucky that you won't have to take my word alone. You see, before those pearls were handed over to Shiffany's to be made up with the rest of my rope they were all weighed and measured and even photographed. It was my husband who made that suggestion, and I was wise enough to follow it. Why, all these details, including the photograph, are in the hands of the police in New York, and very likely they have got them at Scotland Yard."
"They most certainly have," Norcliff smiled. "Now, all this is most satisfactory as far as it goes, Mrs. Van Geldt, but it doesn't go quite far enough for our purpose. I want you to say nothing of what has happened this morning, and whoever approaches you or writes to you, you are to take no notice. Even if that reverend gentleman calls upon you again with a mild inquiry as to why that cheque has not come along, you will please put him off. Make some excuse for not sending it, but don't do anything to incur his suspicions. And I think you will agree with me that, for the moment, your treasures are very much better where they are."
"Oh, that's all right," Cora said. "I am perfectly content to leave the pearls in the hands of Mr. Fastnet, because I don't want the responsibility of taking them from one place to another. I am not going to be robbed again if I can help it."
Jagger was particularly anxious to hear the result of the interview between Mrs. Van Geldt and Norcliff. He had already begun to work up his story, because it seemed to him that the time had come when it was safe enough to supply his paper with one or two sensational chapters without in any way interfering with the inspector's work. And Norcliff was quite candid as to the course of recent events. He and Trumble and Jagger sat in the private sitting-room in the Grand Central and talked the matter over as they had done on more than one occasion.
"Fine," the little journalist said. "Everything going exactly as it should. I gather from what you say, Inspector, that you know all about this man who calls himself Vane Egerton?"
"Indeed I don't," the Inspector replied. "I don't suppose anybody does, except that slippery person himself. But, anyhow, he is an Englishman, who belongs to one of our great families, and he disappeared from home many years ago, after a disgraceful business into which I need not go."
"Well, at any rate, we are pretty sure now that he is three persons rolled into one," Jagger went on. "To say nothing of the fact that he murdered Fishwick. But I have got another idea besides that. I don't know whether it has occurred to either of you two gentlemen, but I have a feeling at the back of my mind that this chap, Vane Egerton, calling himself Farr at the time, was the rascal who stole those pearls from the doctor's friend Marchmont. I don't see how he could have handled them otherwise."
Trumble smiled to himself and Norcliff nodded.
"It seems to me," the latter said, "that we have all hit upon the same discovery simultaneously."
"Well, that certainly was my idea," Trumble said. "And soon as ever I found my friends down here and heard all about Farr, alias Egerton, I felt pretty certain that he was the man that Marchmont had to thank for all his trouble. You see, Farr—I mean Egerton—was always so anxious to get hold of that chart. And, moreover, he went out of his way on board the steamer, where the trouble happened, to befriend a perfect stranger. I am absolutely certain that he followed George Marchmont half way across the world to get hold of those pearls. There would be no great difficulty about it. Once he had practically blinded my unfortunate friend, he was perfectly safe, and as long as Marchmont remains blind, then Farr—I must call him Farr—feels himself on sure ground. And that is the reason why I want to get away from here as soon as possible with Marchmont and operate upon his eyes. I shall have the assistance of two of the best men in London, and, between ourselves, I have not the least doubt as to the result. Of course, I didn't tell Farr so, because if I had, he would probably have disappeared altogether, and the murderer of Fishwick would never have been brought to justice. My idea is to confront Farr with Marchmont when the proper time comes, and, when I do, Marchmont will tell us that the man who robbed him is the man who, all this time, was pretending to be his friend. I think we ought to be able to manage that a little later on."
"Precisely my idea," Jagger cried. "Yes, I tumbled to that, too. Now look here, I can see a way to manage it. That is if you will put off your journey to London for a day or two, doctor."
"And why?" Trumble asked.
"Well, it's like this. As I have already explained to the inspector, Mrs. Van Geldt has a fancy for renting a cottage down in these parts. She wants the real thing, with roses over the front door and an ancient thatch, where she can run down for week-ends and lead the simple life. Where can she find a more ideal place than your friends', the Marchmonts, cottage? She would be an ideal tenant, too, and quite willing to pay any rent she was asked. And I dare say Mr. Marchmont could do with the money."
"Well, as a matter of fact, he could," Trumble said. "Upon my word, I rather like that idea of yours, Jagger. But how do you propose to bring it about?"
"Nothing easier in the world," Jagger grinned. "I can go and see Mrs. Van Geldt anytime I like. Nobody will suspect me of having anything to do with the inquiry over Fishwick's death, so that I shall be able to move about quite freely. Now, let me go over to Abbotsbury this afternoon and open my batteries."
"What do you say, Inspector?" Trumble asked.
"Oh, I have no objection," Norcliff said. "Perhaps you had better go over too, doctor. Only don't get into the same carriage with Jagger, because you may possibly be followed. Travel in the same train with him, if you like, and go straight to the cottage. Then you can tell your friends that the visit to town is put off for a day or two. But stop, the Marchmonts know nothing at all about the Fishwick mystery, or Mrs. Van Geldt's pearls, do they?"
"Of course they don't," Trumble said. "I deemed it prudent to keep them entirely in the dark. They still regard Farr as a great friend, and I don't propose to disturb that belief until the proper time comes. I can tell them that I cannot get to London for the next day or two and, at the same time, I can suggest the advisability of letting the cottage, provided that they can find a good tenant. Then I can tell them that I met Jagger, quite by accident, and that he is looking for a house for an American friend of his who wants just that type of cottage."
"That's the game," Jagger cried. "Then I will go and see Mrs. Van Geldt and try and induce her to come as far as the cottage. And if you can arrange to have Farr there at the same time, I think we can pull off something in the way of a dramatic meeting."
"You will have to be very careful," Norcliff pointed out. "It would never do, just at this particular moment, for Mrs. Van Geldt to recognise her American acquaintance Vane Egerton in the presence of Mr. Marchmont and his sister. She would immediately address him as Egerton and then all the fat would be in the fire."
"Oh, that's easy enough," Jagger smiled. "Why not go to town this afternoon with your friends, as you arranged, doctor? Then, if they are quite agreeable, I can meet you as if by accident at the station, and you can get Miss Marchmont to hand me over the key of the cottage. I can tell her that the key will be returned to her if nothing comes of the business, and, as you can vouch for me, no suspicion will be aroused. Then we will get Egerton there—"
"Very neat," Norcliff said. "But how are you going to do it? I mean, how are you going to manage to assure yourself of Egerton's presence when you are taking Mrs. Van Geldt over the cottage?"
"Ah, there is the snag," Jagger admitted. "Upon my word that point escaped my attention. But suppose I gave some working man, of an out-of-work for that matter, a message, asking Egerton to come up to the cottage this afternoon, after they had gone, and see a lady—no, a prospective tenant who, at the very last moment, had expressed a desire to take the cottage furnished for a few months. Yes, that is the idea. I shall be there too, though of course I shall take good care to obliterate myself. I don't think there is anything in the scheme that is likely to arouse Egerton's suspicion, and if he doesn't come, then I shall have had my trouble for my pains."
"Very well," Norcliff said. "It isn't a bad idea of yours, though I can't see it is going to carry us very much farther. And, if everything goes right and Mrs. Van Geldt recognises Egerton, which she must do, there is just the possibility that he will be put on his guard. Have you thought of that?"
Jagger was quite sure that he had thought of everything.
"Of course I have," he said. "I am working out this story just as a novelist works out the plot of one of his books. And don't you worry about Egerton taking to his heels or any calamity of that sort, because he will not do anything of that kind. Don't you forget that he badly wants that five thousand pounds. I mean the reward Mrs. Van Geldt is offering for the recovery of the pearls. And don't you forget, again, that that little matter was all arranged between Mrs. Van Geldt and Egerton when the latter was masquerading as the Reverend Walter Temperley. Egerton won't go very far away until he has got that money. And, of course, he won't get it, because you have already put Mrs. Van Geldt on her guard. Now then, doctor, why not make some sort of a start?"
It was in due course, therefore, that the little journalist called upon Mrs. Van Geldt at the old curiosity shop, and was fortunate enough to find her on the premises.
"What, you again?" Cora smiled. "Really, Mr. Jagger, I am getting positively afraid of you. Now, what information concerning my dreadful past are you after this time?"
"Nothing of the kind, my dear madam," Jagger assured her. "As a matter of fact, some friends of mine who live about a mile from here are leaving for London this afternoon, where they expect to remain for a considerable period, and they are rather anxious to let their cottage. I think you will remember telling me, the last time I had the pleasure of seeing you, that you were looking for something of the sort in this neighborhood. If you are still of the same mind, I wonder if you would care to accompany me as far as the cottage at four o'clock this afternoon? It is just what you are asking for, and I think it would suit you admirably."
"A real cottage?" Cora smiled. "A seventeenth century cottage with roses and a thatched roof and all that."
"Precisely," Jagger said. "Time of Charles II., and just as you picture it. Small, of course, but beautifully furnished in the period style and every convenience."
"Then I will come," Cora said eagerly. "If you will be back here just before four o'clock with a taxi, I shall be ready for you. And, more than that, I am grateful to you for giving me the opportunity of looking over so charming a place."
"It's a pleasure," Jagger said gallantly.
It was all working out exactly the way in which Jagger hoped. To begin with he had the best part of an hour or more in which to carry out his preliminary plans. He found the messenger he wanted, and dispatched him as far as the villa adjacent to the railway siding, and, in due course, had the satisfaction or hearing that Mr. Farr would come up to the cottage about 4 o'clock. Then, a little before that time he picked up a taxi and called for Mrs. Van Geldt, whom he found eagerly awaiting him.
It is hardly necessary to say that Mrs. Van Geldt fell promptly in love with the cottage. It was precisely the sort of house that generally appeals to a certain type of American; indeed, within the first five minutes she asked Jagger if his friends would have any objection to sell. So far as she was concerned the owner could name their own price. They were still debating this point when they emerged into the garden just at the same moment that Egerton appeared at the gate. As he he came up the garden path Jagger turned a little on one side, as if he were admiring one of the roses, so that when Egerton and Mrs. Van Geldt came face to face Jagger had more or less obliterated himself, and was, apparently, out of earshot. Not that it really was so, because he was close enough to catch every word that passed between the two outside the cottage door.
He heard Mrs. Van Geldt's sudden cry of astonishment, and did not fail to note the chagrin on Egerton's face.
"Good gracious," Mrs. Van Geldt exclaimed. "Do my eyes deceive me, or am I seeing visions? In another phase of existence I should have said that you are Mr. Vane Egerton.
"A true bill," Egerton laughed uneasily as he pulled himself together. "But will you kindly tell me what you are doing here?"
He managed to ask the question naturally enough, but he was palpably shaky and uneasy, though Cora Van Geldt did not appear to notice it. Not so Jagger, who turned away with a grin as he appeared deeply engrossed in the flowers at his feet.
"Oh, that is easy enough," Mrs. Van Geldt said. "I am in England for a few months, and a little later on I am going to entertain on a mild scale in the same London house I took on the occasion of my last visit to England. Just now, in view of recent tragic events, I am living very quietly. And that is why I came down to these parts to look for one of those delightful cottages that some of my friends are always talking about. A quiet spot where I can spend peaceful weekends. I heard of this place by sheer accident. You see, I am staying in the town here, over an old curiosity shop that you might have heard of."
"Yes, I think I know the place," Egerton said casually. "You see, I have one or two acquaintances in Abbotsbury, and, being in the neighborhood, I thought I would look them up. The people who own this cottage are friends of I mine, and I offered to keep an eye on the place whilst they were away. But they never told me that they contemplated letting the place."
"They didn't," Cora said. "I heard all about them quite by accident, and it was all settled at the station. Now, tell me, are you back in England for good?"
"Oh dear, no," Egerton said easily. "I only ran across to see certain relatives of mine. In the course of a few days, I shall be going back again. But it is a most extraordinary thing that I should run against you like this. Any further news of the pearls?"
He put the question casually, and with something like a smile upon his face. He would have given a great deal to have avoided this meeting, but now that fate had thrust it upon him he would know how to go through with it to the finish. It was amusing to his hard and cynical nature to realise that the last time he had seen the lady before him had been in the guise of the Reverend Walter Temperley, when he had told her where the pearls were to be found and where the reward was to be sent. Also he was a little anxious because, up to now, there had been no sign of the expected cheque at the address which he had given Cora. Nor could he ask her anything like a straight question without betraying himself.
"Oh yes," Cora explained. "I haven't got the pearls back yet, but I have seen them. They are quite safe where they are, and as I can have them pretty well when I want them, I am not worrying."
"That is good news," Egerton said with feigned heartiness. "But how did you get on the track of them?"
Quite artlessly Cora told her story with Jagger grinning in the background. He could hear every word that was passing, and was satisfied that Egerton should ignore his existence.
"What an extraordinary story!" Egerton cried. "Fancy that old clergyman hitting upon those pearls in that fashion. It only shows you what a small place the world is. I am sorry I can't stay and talk to you now, Cora. As a matter of fact, I ought not to be here at all, but I got a message from my friends the Marchmonts, asking me to look in here this afternoon and see to certain little things which I need not trouble about if you have made up your mind to take the house. I suppose you are thinking of it?"
"I have absolutely made up my mind," Cora said. "I shall come in to-morrow and bring my maid with me. I am so enchanted with the place that I can hardly tear myself away from it. If you are staying in the neighborhood, you might give me a call."
Egerton gave the desired assurance and strolled leisurely out into the road. Directly he was alone, the expression on his face changed to one of perplexity and anger, and he increased his pace, hurrying along the road until he reached the town. There he made his way straight to the old curiosity shop and entered, pleased to find that he had the place to himself. The man with the bald head and the black moustache came forward and smiled knowingly.
"I didn't expect to see you this afternoon," he said.
"And I didn't expect to see you," Egerton snarled. "Now then, let's get to business. Tell your wife that if anybody comes she must look after them herself. Come into the office."
The man in the shop led the way into the office and closed the door carefully behind them. He took down the mouthpiece of a speaking tube and gave certain directions to some unseen person overhead. Then he turned, a little anxiously, to Egerton.
"Anything gone wrong?" he asked hoarsely.
"Oh, I am damned if I can tell," Egerton muttered. "I had the shock of my life this afternoon. I went up to the Marchmonts' cottage, in response to a message, and whom do you suppose I met there?"
"I am not guessing any conundrums," the other said.
"Well, as a matter of fact, it was Mrs. Van Geldt, your lodger, my friend. It appears she has fallen in love with the cottage, and has made up her mind to take it furnished."
"Well, suppose she has? How does that concern us?"
"Upon my word, Falcon," Egerton said bitterly, "you are a bigger fool than I took you for. The very last person I wanted to run against in this country was Mrs. Van Geldt. She knows my proper name, and if I had met her in the presence of Marchmont and his sister and she had insisted upon it that my name was Egerton, then all the fat would have been in the fire with a vengeance. They would know that Farr was merely an assumed name and, oh, well—you can see for yourself what a complicated business it would be. But by sheer good luck the Marchmonts had gone, so I was safe in that direction. But not for very long, I tell you, Falcon. I am infernally uneasy. I shall have to disappear for the time being, and as usual I am short of ready money. You must manage to raise me five hundred pounds in cash to-day, if you have to pledge some of the stock. But don't do it here. Collect a bag of valuables and pawn them in Birmingham. I will come in late to-night and pocket the proceeds. Nobody guesses that the old curiosity shop has been used for the last three years as the channel through which we dispose of stolen property. And nobody must know. But that money is vital."
"Yes, but what about the reward for those pearls?" the man called Falcon asked. "You ought to have got that before now. The Reverend Walter Temperley's trick was sound enough, and I am quite sure Mrs. Van Geldt does not guess that you have anything to do with that reverend gentleman."
"I don't think she does," Egerton said. "At any rate the money hadn't reached the proper quarter this morning. I shall have to leave you to collect it. And you can take your share of the money and send the rest on to an address which I shall give you by means of the old letter cypher in the 'Times' in the course of a day or two. So watch the agony column of that paper accordingly."
The man called Falcon turned his head aside to disguise a smile. He knew his partner through and through, and he had been anxious enough about his own share of Mrs. Van Geldt's reward. Now he could see his way to collecting it in safety.
"I must be off," Egerton said. "I must be off in the very first train in which I can get away. Meanwhile, you lie low and keep me posted through the medium of the cyphers. Nobody suspects you, and I am not in the least likely to give you away. My house will be shut up for a day or two, and the housekeeper will have a few days' holiday. But next Thursday night at 10 o'clock I shall be in my villa for an hour all alone, though the place will be in darkness. You must come along there directly you have cashed Mrs. Van Geldt's cheque, and bring me my share of the money. You can walk straight in, and you will find me in the garden room at the back. That is all for the present. I will come in just after dark this evening when you come back from Birmingham, and after that—well, after that everything depends upon circumstances."
"That will be all right," Falcon said. "I shall just have time to catch a train which will land me in Birmingham before the big pawnbrokers are closed. But I shan't catch that train if you stay here talking much longer."
Jagger related his story to Norcliff with a certain amount of pardonable pride. It seemed to him that he had done a good afternoon's work in the cause of justice, and he was just a little disappointed at the calm way in which Norcliff accepted his statement.
"Oh, that's all right, of course," Norcliff said. "But I don't see that you gain very much by it. You have established the fact that the man Farr and the other man called the Reverend Walter Temperley are identical with another person whose real name is Vane Egerton. Beyond that, where are we?"
"Well, I like that," Jagger protested indignantly. "Just as if that discovery is of no value."
"Of course it is. But I don't see how it puts the noose round Egerton's neck. There is no law to compel a man to keep to his own name. You seem to forget what we are after. Mind you, my lad, I am not out to write a three-volume novel for the 'Daily Bulletin,' but to hang a man who calls himself Farr. And I fail to see exactly how your semi-comedy helps very much. It seems a very long way indeed yet from proving that Fishwick was anywhere near Abbotsbury on the night he was murdered. We think he was, and, as a matter of fact, I know he was. But what I know is not likely to carry much weight before a judge and jury. Still, I won't say your information is useless, because it isn't."
"Then you think nothing of it?" the dejected Jagger asked.
"On the contrary, I think a good deal of it," Norcliff said with a broad smile. "I like to pull your leg sometimes, because you are so infernally cocksure. You are a smart little chap, Jagger, and I am quite sure that you will go far in your profession. But I wouldn't feel quite so sure of my ground, if I were you. Still, you have told me enough to enable me to compel Mrs. Van Geldt to come out into the open, which is a thing I want to do, because I am not quite sure in my mind that she is as innocent as she appears. I mean, she may know that those pearls were stolen in the first place. I don't say that she does, but she might. However, we shall see all about that in due course. To-morrow I am going off on a little quest of my own, and I don't want you. You shall know all about it when I come back, so you had better put in your time polishing up your story so as to be ready for me when I shall be able to give you all the material you want for your final chapter."
Jagger was quite content to leave it at that, and judiciously obliterated himself for the next three or four hours. Meanwhile, Norcliff journeyed once more to Abbotsbury, and dropped, casually, into the curiosity shop where the man with the black moustache and the bald head was polishing some old Irish glass. Falcon looked up with the ingratiating smile of the shopkeeper who sees a prospective customer, and civilly gave Norcliff good morning.
"I think I have had the pleasure of seeing you here before, sir," he said. "Didn't you look in an evening or two ago when you were calling on my lodger and ask to see some Waterford glass?"
"Perfectly correct," Norcliff said gravely.
"Well, here you are, sir. A fine lot of stuff that came in only yesterday. I haven't handled such a collection for a long time. And I can put it to you very cheaply."
"We will come to that presently," Norcliff said. "Now, look here, Mr. Falcon, you may not be aware of it, but we have met before."
"At some sale room, probably," Falcon smiled.
"I think not," Norcliff said. "If my memory serves me correctly—and it is a pretty good one—we met at the Old Bailey. That was some years ago. You may not recognise me, but I remember you perfectly well. I came into the court in connection with a case in which I was interested, and I saw you standing in the dock. I think that three years was the sentence, wasn't it?"
Falcon's jaw dropped as he stared at the speaker with uneasy astonishment. He was evidently shaken, and, before he could recover himself, Norcliff returned to the charge.
"Yes, I am quite sure I am right," he went on. "Three years for fraud and forgery, but not under the name of Falcon. The name matters very little, seeing that you are the man I mean. I would not deny it, if I were you, because you have been under the observation of the Birmingham police for some days, and they have your history all neatly written out at head-quarters. As a matter of fact, for the last year or two, ever since your employer put you into these premises, you have been dealing very largely in stolen goods. I mean the proceeds of many a big robbery have filtered through your hands from all parts of the world. At the same time, you have been carrying on a certain amount of legitimate business, being an expert in all kinds of valuables, and this, so far, has diverted suspicion from you. But it isn't your business at all. It belongs to a man who is known in these parts by the name of Farr. Sometimes he is also known in the clerical guise of the Reverend Walter Temperley. His real name, however, is Egerton—Vane Egerton."
The man called Falcon listened to all this with a white face and a look of fear in his eyes.
"Well, what do you want me to do, sir?" he asked.
"I want you to put yourself entirely in my hands," Norcliff went on. "There is my card, from which you will see that I am an inspector from Scotland Yard. You can take it from me if you like, that I am not charging you with anything in particular, and whether you figure again in the dock or not is entirely in your own hands. If you tell me the truth and do as I ask you, then you may get off scot free. But don't lie, because I know everything and if you attempt any of your tricks with me, you are going to suffer."
Falcon capitulated without the slightest signs of a struggle.
"Oh, Lord, yes, sir!" he said. "Anything you want to know."
Norcliff smiled to himself. It was a far easier task than he had anticipated, but he had no intention of telling Falcon that.
"Very well," he said. "Now, to begin with, what do you know in connection with Mrs. Van Geldt's missing pearls."
Falcon gazed, open-mouthed, at the speaker.
"You don't half know anything, you don't," he gasped, dropping into the vernacular of his tribe.
"I told you I know everything," Norcliff said sternly. "Now, go on and don't make any comments. The pearls."
"Oh, very good, sir; certainly sir. Those pearl's were stolen by Egerton during a voyage in a tramp steamer from the South Pacific. I know all about that, because Egerton told me."
"And you had your commission, I suppose?"
"Well, I am not going to deny that I didn't get a bit of a rake off. They were the finest pearls ever found. And Egerton risked a good deal to get them. He had to blind a man in the attempt, but that wasn't the sort of thing that troubled him much."
"And the name of the blind man was Mr. George Marchmont."
"Yes, you are a bit of a wonder," Falcon said in tones of involuntary admiration. "That was the gent. And after the pearls had been sold to Mrs. Van Geldt, Egerton made it his business to keep a close eye upon Mr. Marchmont, especially after he came down to this neighborhood to live. That is the meaning of the house by the railway and calling himself sometimes Farr and sometimes the Reverend Walter Temperley. You see, Egerton had got on to a good thing, but there, was a still better one if he could only pull of off."
"You mean the business of that chart, I suppose?"
"Ah well," Falcon sighed. "You said you knew everything and by gosh, you do. For a long time now, Egerton has been trying to get hold of that chart, but Mr. Marchmont wasn't having any. He looked upon Farr as his best friend, never knowing that this so-called friend was the very man who blinded him. But, in spite of all that, Mr. Marchmont wouldn't part with that chart."
"Yes, I am quite well aware of all this," Norcliff said. "But what do you know about Fishwick's murder?"
Falcon looked up, in wide-eyed astonishment.
"It's the first I have heard of that," he said. And he spoke so sincerely that Norcliff believed him.
"Of course, I knew Fishwick," he said. "He was one of us. Playing the double game of honest representative of Neidermeyer's and handling the stuff we got hold of at the same time. But you don't mean to tell me that Fishwick is dead?"
Norcliff went on to explain. He told Falcon how Fishwick and the man found under the tarpaulin in the goods train were one and the same person. He told Falcon practically everything he had discovered, having a purpose in the back of his mind for doing so.
"And now you must do just as I tell you," he concluded. "I suppose you know where Mrs. Van Geldt is going to send the cheque which she promised as a reward for recovery of her pearls. But of course you do. What I want to know at this particular moment is what you propose to do with that cheque when you have got it and where you are going to meet Egerton with the proceeds."
"Oh, I will tell you all about that, sir," Falcon said with an ingratiating smile. "When I get hold of that cheque and turn it into money, I am going to meet Egerton and share the spoil. He has gone away to-day and shut his house up."
"Yes, but he is coming back," Norcliff said swiftly.
"Now, how did you guess that?" Falcon asked. "Not that it matters very much, seeing that you do know. Well, it's like this, sir, I am going to meet Egerton at his house by the side of the railway next Thursday night at ten o'clock. The house will be all in darkness, but I know what to do."
"Very good," Norcliff said. "I will call for you on the way and we will go together. I really ought to put you under arrest as much for your own sake as mine. But you will be carefully watched, and if you make any attempt to communicate with Egerton—"
Meanwhile, Trumble was losing no time so far as his promise to George Marchmont was concerned. For the time being, at any rate, he put the railway mystery entirely out of his mind and devoted himself whole-heartedly to his friends. He had an intimation the day after he reached London that things were likely to stand still for the best part of a week, and that Norcliff had no intention of making an arrest until his plans were perfectly matured. And, moreover, when the arrest came, it would take a dramatic form in which it was more than possible that Trumble himself would take a hand.
Therefore he had nothing to worry about. What he had to do now was to keep Marchmont very quiet for a few hours in a dark room with a view to an operation on the morrow.
"Strictly speaking, it is not really an operation at all," he told Sylvia. "I can't understand why George has been content to let all this long time go by without having some really expert advice. Oh, yes, I know that he spent a few months in one or two hospitals, but he didn't go to the right place. Really, I don't believe he is blind at all. My idea is that the stuff thrown into his eyes paralysed the optic nerve, or perhaps it filled up the ducts with some irritating matter which they have never got rid of. At least, that is the opinion I formed when I gave George a casual examination at the cottage. If I am right, those ducts want cleaning out very much as if you were sweeping a chimney. Then when we have got rid of those inflammatory particles and washed the ducts clean the sight will probably return. The trouble was that George always had rather weak sight and I am afraid he always will have. But there is no reason why he shouldn't see as well as you or I with care, though, of course, he will have to wear powerful glasses for the rest of his life. Oh, I am quite sanguine!"
"It seems almost too good to be true," Sylvia murmured. "I would give anything in the world to see George with his sight back again. It has been a terrible trial to him, because he is so different from the average man. It isn't as if he was the sort of creature who is content to sit down in a chair and do nothing. He has always been a restless wanderer and I am afraid we shall never cure him of that. I am perfectly certain of one thing. If he does get his sight back, the first thing he will want will be to go off to the South Pacific again and find some more pearls."
"Well, why not?" Trumble smiled. "Why shouldn't he find another big lot? Then he can come home and buy a nice little property and settle down to the life of a country gentleman. And he won't have you to think about this time."
A few hours later Trumble emerged with a couple of his confreres from a dark room in the house where he had established Marchmont, with a smile on his face and something like triumph in his heart. In the sitting-room down below he found Sylvia anxiously awaiting him. One glance at his face was enough for her.
"You have been successful!" she cried.
"Successful?" Trumble echoed. "Of course I have. As things turned out it was really much easier than I had expected. There were certain hard particles in the ducts which we had to remove. And once the flow—but I need not go into that, because you wouldn't understand it. George is just coming nicely out of the anaesthetic now and you will be able to see him in the course of an hour. And, what is a great deal more important, he will be able to see you. Oh, yes, it's all right. At the very first sign of consciousness he looked up at me before the bandage was placed over his eyes and hailed me just as he would have done four years ago. Of course, he will have to stay in the dark till to-morrow, and then I think we shall be able to allow him a little latitude. I am going off now to get him the right sort of glasses which he will have to wear for a few days, but by the beginning of next week he will be able to walk about as if nothing had happened."
And so it turned out exactly as Trumble had prophesied. It was a time of great rejoicing for the trio, a quiet happy time during which Trumble deemed it his business to play the arbitrary taskmaster. What he seemed particularly to desire was that Marchmont should not appear in public. There were large gardens attached to the square in which the house was situated, and wandering about these, Marchmont gradually regained the full use of his sight, so that he could stand even bright sunshine without inconvenience, though not for a moment was he allowed to leave the house without the glasses provided for him by Trumble. It was not for him to know that Trumble had heard at considerable length from Norcliff and that it was imperative in the altered circumstances, that Egerton should not have the slightest idea of the important development which had taken place as regards Marchmont during the last day or two. In other words, Trumble was taking no risks. He did not anticipate for a moment that Marchmont might meet Egerton face to face; but he was certainly going to do his best to guard against such a contingency.
And Marchmont was so grateful that Trumble was actually embarrassed by all this show of feeling.
"My dear chap," he expostulated, "I have done nothing that any ordinary specialist could not have accomplished. I can't understand why you haven't been to one of them before. All you have to do now is to keep quiet for a bit and you will be as right as I am. You want to get in the country where you will have plenty of fresh air and as much freedom from dust as possible. That is a very important point, and I don't want you to forget it."
"Yes, I quite under stand that," Marchmont replied. "What a pity it was that we let the old cottage!"
"Oh, I don't know," Trumble smiled. "Perhaps you will be glad you did so before so very long. Anyway, there are other cottages, and if you like I will find one for you. And afterwards?"
"Oh, well, afterwards we'll have a go at that chart together. Mind you, I am just as keen on that game as ever I was. Besides, I don't want to spend the rest of my life living on three hundred pounds a year, and if ever I do get another haul of pearls from the reefs of that secret island of mine, I shall not allow myself to be robbed again. And I may meet the man who served me such a dirty trick before. Oh, I shall recognise him all right! That man's face is photographed on my memory indelibly. I can see him now, just as I saw him the night he came into my cabin. Then, now that I am no longer helpless, I think I shall look up my friend Farr and ask him to join in with me as he was so anxious to do. I think it would be only fair, especially as he offered to pay all expenses. If I run down to Abbotsbury and look him up—"
"I don't think I'd do that, if I were you," Trumble interrupted. "There are reasons why you should do nothing of the kind. I have got an amazingly unpleasant story to tell you, George, but I should like to do it when Sylvia is present. If you will wait until she comes in from her walk, then we can go into details."
Sylvia appeared in due course, bright and rosy after her stroll in the park, and then, at Trumble's instigation, she sat down by his side whilst he told his story. He told it at great length, with every detail, and the narrative was followed with a rapt attention on the part of the listeners. Not till he had actually finished did the slightest interruption come from the others.
"It seems incredible, amazing!" Sylvia cried.
"Farr, above all men in the world!" George exclaimed.
"Well, there it is," Trumble went on. "I think I have said enough to convince you, George, that you have been living in a fool's paradise all these years."
"But what are we going to do about it?" George asked.
"We are not going to do anything about it till we have heard from Norcliff," Trumble explained. "Everything is in his capable hands and it would be a great mistake on our part if we interfered. I have heard from Norcliff and now I am awaiting a further letter. He knows that you have recovered your sight, which means that you are likely to be an important witness when the villain comes to stand his trial. Meanwhile, we must stay here and wait on events."
And there being nothing else to do, they waited accordingly. But it was a great shock for both Marchmont and Sylvia. The mere thought of all this perfidy on the part of a man she had trusted so implicitly brought the blood flaming into Sylvia's face. But for the grace of God, she might even have found herself tied up for life to that scoundrel. She made a faint attempt to say something of this to Trumble, but he waved the suggestion aside.
"Don't talk about it," he said. "My dear girl, there are thousands of men in the world like Egerton. Presentable men, well-educated and utterly unscrupulous, who are ready to take advantage of their nearest and dearest friends. If I were you, I wouldn't mention Egerton's name again, I wouldn't even think of him."
"But it all seems too terrible," Sylvia murmured.
Trumble picked her up and kissed her. He looked almost sternly down into her eyes with his hands on her shoulders.
"You are not to think of it," he commanded. "My dear girl, anyone would imagine that you are to blame. Now, let's all go down to Eastbourne for a day or two and put up at some quiet hotel there. You will have plenty of worry and anxiety over this case later on, at least George will. But we must keep you out of it."
But the proposed flying visit to the south coast was not to take place, for an hour or two before their departure came a telegram that was very brief and to the point. Thus:—
"Meet me Abbotsbury, Thursday evening outside station. Quarter to ten. Not a moment later.—Norcliff."
"Yes, I rather expected this," Trumble said. "It means all of us. Oh yes, undoubtedly we shall have to go."
Under cover of the darkness there crossed the fields by a circuitous route the man called Farr or the Reverend Walter Temperley or Vane Egerton, as the case called for. He came presently to the house by the railway siding and, creeping softly as a cat, reached the conservatory porch where the roses were in full bloom. He was there that Thursday night to meet the man Falcon and obtain from him the proceeds of Mrs. Van Geldt's cheque. Nor did he for a moment anticipate that the funds would not be forthcoming.
He stepped into the darkened passage and, feeling his way along to the garden room at the back of the house, switched on the lights there. Then he glanced round the room.
He half expected to find Falcon there awaiting him. But it was not Falcon seated in the big armchair facing the door, but another man whose face was oddly familiar.
"Who the dickens are you?" he asked. "Where have I seen you before? Oh, yes, I remember now. You came to my friend Marchmont's cottage with Dr. Trumble. Your name is—"
"Well, strictly speaking, it isn't," Norcliff said, for he it was. "I forget under what name I was introduced by the doctor, but I am Inspector Norcliff, of Scotland Yard, and I am here to arrest you for the murder of one Fishwick."
The expression on Egerton's face was one of blank astonishment. Not for a moment did he betray himself; though for some days now, he had been terribly uneasy in his mind. He was astute enough to realise that Mrs. Van Geldt's presence in England was not altogether an accident and, more than once, he had had an uneasy feeling that he was being followed.
"What the devil do you mean?" he asked.
"I don't think you will gain anything by playing the innocent man," Norcliff said. "Because I have my duty to perform and I am going to carry it through. No, you needn't look towards the door, because there is no escape from that direction and the same remark applies to the window. If I were you I shouldn't attempt to put up a fight. Far better to come quietly."
Egerton dropped into a chair and faced the speaker resolutely. He was not going to give in yet.
"Do you happen to know to whom you are talking?" he asked.
"Most assuredly I do," Norcliff responded. "Your real name is Vane Egerton, alias Farr, alias the Reverend Walter Temperley. And, I may add that we have your finger-marks at Scotland Yard. Oh yes, you need not stare. I know you have never been in the hands of the police before, but we have those marks, all the same."
"It would be interesting to know how," Egerton said quite coolly. "Now, look here, Inspector, I should like to know something more about this before we go any further. You are going to arrest me, of course, still you won't mind answering a few questions."
"Not in the least," Norcliff said cheerfully. "Now, as to those finger-marks. I believe you have a pigskin cigar case mounted in silver which you are in the habit of using pretty frequently. But when you left here just before Whitsuntide the case remained on your writing-table yonder. Here it is. You are not going to deny that it is yours, because I found it in this very room. And from that we obtained your finger-prints."
"All very clever," Egerton sneered. "But how does that identify me with this Fishwick of whom you are speaking?"
"To answer that, I shall have to go a bit further back. Fishwick was a friend of yours in America, also he was the representative of the great firm of Neidermeyers, the jewel dealers. And, at the same time, he was hand in glove with you in the disposal of certain stolen goods, mostly gems of great value. Amongst other things, he handled Mrs. Van Geldt's pearls."
"All very interesting, Inspector, but go on."
"Mrs. Van Geldt's pearls were passed on to Fishwick after you had stolen them from the lady whose name I mentioned. But, in the first place, they came from you. Now, you are not going to deny that you stole those pearls of Mrs. Van Geldt in the first place because the lady is in England and will testify to the fact. Nor am I going to ask you where you got them from. I am not going to ask you that, because I know. But you stole them late one night on Fifth Avenue, after which you handed them over to Fishwick, knowing that he was coming to England on business on behalf of the firm, and would probably be in a position to dispose of them to some customer on this side of the water. I am not asking you to say you did or you didn't, because, that is a point for your counsel to fight out when you face a judge at the Central Criminal Court. Probably you repented parting with those pearls, because you had an idea that Fishwick was going to play you false. At any rate, you followed him to England and lured him here one night on the eve of Whitsuntide and murdered him. It was a big risk and, as things turned out, an absolutely wasted crime. It was a wasted crime for the simple reason that Fishwick hadn't the pearls on him, having left them for safety with a dealer called Fastnet in Birmingham. You didn't trust Fishwick and he didn't trust you, and that is why you had your trouble for your pains. Those pearls, at the present moment, are in the possession of Mr. Fastnet and, in due course of time will be handed over to Mrs. Van Geldt, pending the necessary legal inquiries as to their ownership. Mrs. Van Geldt knows you very well as Vane Egerton and you were perfectly safe in assuming that she didn't recognise you in the guise of the Reverend Walter Temperley when you called upon her at the old curiosity shop and told her that pretty story about the clergyman and the dying man."
"Really," Egerton drawled. "This amazing story leaves me bewildered, but absolutely cold. What in the name of fate have I to do with what you call the old curiosity shop?"
"Absolutely useless," Norcliff said curtly. "I have been all over the house in the last half hour, and I have found the whole of your clerical disguise. And I may tell you this. I have seen your tool, Falcon, and he has made a full confession. As soon as he realised that he was face to face with a long term of imprisonment, he didn't hesitate for a moment to give you away."
For the first time, Egerton was shaken. His lip shook and the muscles at the corners of his mouth twitched. A grey pallor crept over his face as he looked at Norcliff.
"Yes," the latter went on. "Falcon told us all he could. Whether you escape the capital charge or not, you will he tried for the robbery of those pearls. And I haven't finished yet."
"Go on," Egerton said hoarsely. "Tell me the worst."
"I thought I had already done so," Norcliff murmured. "I told you I was going to arrest you on a charge of the murder of Fishwick, who was killed in this very room on Whit-Saturday. Fishwick came here to see you and you killed him. You drugged him with a dose of whisky and, when he was lying absolutely insensible, you choked the life out of him probably with one of the cushions on that sofa. Then you carried the body of the dead man down the garden and laid it on the top of the hedge that divides the garden from the railway siding. You climbed over the hedge, using one of the windsor chairs out of your kitchen for the purpose. Then the body was placed under the tarpaulin of a fruit van and was subsequently discovered at Westport a day or two later. You know all about that, because you must have seen it in the papers."
Egerton shook his head, but none too resolutely.
"Of course you did," Norcliff repeated. "And I venture to say that the long adjournment of the inquest made you feel a bit uneasy. That adjournment I arranged for on purpose. I didn't want you or anybody else to find out the way in which my friend Mr. Trumble discovered how the poor fellow had been murdered. But there was no doubt about it, as you will hear, all in due course. It is a very strange thing to me that, after the care and cunning which you bestowed in luring Fishwick here and covering up your tracks, that you should have been so criminally careless after you had disposed of the body. For instance, you made no attempt to cover up the four holes made by that chair in the dry soil under the hedge. You were alone in the house, and yet you never troubled to wipe the soil off the feet of that chair. It is at Scotland Yard now and when the time comes will be produced as evidence against you."
"A point in your favor, I admit," Egerton said.
"I have not finished yet. Do you remember what became of the glasses, used on the night of the murder?"
Once more Egerton started violently. Then, with an effort, he faced his tormentor stolidly.
"What glasses do you mean?" he asked.
"The glasses you used when Fishwick called upon you on that particular Saturday night. You sat at this table and each of you had a drink of whisky and soda. You took the glasses away after the crime was committed and, with almost criminal carelessness put them in the kitchen sink. You didn't even trouble to wash them. We have those glasses at headquarters and they have been treated for finger-prints. On one of them are your prints and on the other those of Fishwick. More than that, the sediment in Fishwick's glass shows distinct signs of some sort of narcotic poisoning. We obtained Fishwick's finger-prints from his dead hands. And now, Mr. Egerton, I don't think I need tell you any more. I must warn you that anything you say will be taken down in evidence against you; but, of course, if you like to make a confession—You can tell me, for instance, where those pearls came from originally."
"That," Egerton said sullenly, "is my business."
"Oh, just as you like," Norcliff said casually. "Perhaps you would like to see the man from whom you stole them?"
Egerton showed his teeth in an evil grin.
"Yes, if you can produce him," he snarled.
Norcliff rose to his feet and threw open the door. As he did so, he switched on the hall light and then into the room came Trumble closely followed by George Marchmont.
"Ah, here you are," Norcliff said genially. "Now Mr. Marchmont, have you ever seen this man before?"
Egerton looked up swiftly. It seemed to him ridiculous that a blind man should be asked to identify him. But the blind man took a step forward and stared the other in the face.
"The man who stole the pearls from me," he cried. "The man who came into my cabin that night, on the tramp steamer, and did his best to destroy my sight. What is his name?"
Egerton looked from one to the other in almost pitiful helplessness. Then, like a flash, he realised what had happened. George Marchmont was no longer blind.
"Yes, that's the man," Marchmont went on. "I would swear to him anywhere. His face is indelibly fixed in my mind. Who is he? And what is he doing here to-night?"
"Then you haven't guessed?" Trumble asked.
"Guessed, my dear fellow, what do you want me to guess?"
"Perhaps I had better explain," Norcliff interposed. "This, Mr. Marchmont, is the man who calls himself Farr, the man who has professed to be your friend all these years, the criminal who stole your pearls. His real name is Egerton."
Egerton stood up and glared round him defiantly.
"Why deny it?" he cried. "Yes, Marchmont, I am the man who robbed you of your treasures and would have robbed you still further if you hadn't been so obstinate over that chart. And all this long time it has amused me to pose as your friend and earn your gratitude. I wouldn't tell you this, only there is a much more serious charge hanging over my head. Perhaps the inspector will explain."
With that Egerton flung himself back in his chair and lighted a cigarette. It was a characteristic piece of bravado on his part, with the knowledge behind it that perhaps he was enjoying a smoke for the last time in his life. He refused to say another word, but listened with a faint smile of amusement on his face as the inspector and Trumble proceeded to explain.
"Perhaps I ought to have told you all this before," Trumble said. "Anyhow, now you know why you were brought here to-night. For any further details I refer you to the inspector."
Norcliff finished his tabloid narrative with as few words as possible, then he went to the door again and two constables in uniform came heavily into the room.
"There is your man," Norcliff said. "You had better read the warrant to him, sergeant."
It was all over so far as Norcliff and Trumble were concerned, and a little later they were walking down the road with Marchmont in the direction of the cottage.
"What are we going to do now?" Trumble asked. "It is too late to get back to Birmingham to-night so the best thing we can do, Norcliff, is to go across the line and take up our old quarters at the White Hart. I dare say they can find us all beds."
"Not so far as I am concerned," Marchmont said. "It is rather fortunate, as things have turned out, that Mrs. Van Geldt has not taken over the cottage; in fact, she doesn't come in till to-morrow. So, to-night, Sylvia and myself are staying there. We can get back to town with you in the morning, Trumble, and then, I suppose, we can carry out that little trip to Eastbourne that was so rudely interrupted by our friend the inspector here. Won't you come as far as the cottage and have a whisky and soda with me?"
"That is very kind of you," Norcliff said. "You two go on and I will call in at the White Hart and see about our quarters. Then I can follow you on to the cottage, and if there are any points about this sordid business that I haven't explained yet, I shall be very pleased to tell Miss Marchmont all about them."
But Norcliff was not destined to get as far as the cottage quite so soon as he had expected. Rather to his surprise, he found the ubiquitous Jagger lying in wait for him at the corner of the lane leading to the crossing.
"How on earth did you get here?" the inspector asked.
"Never mind about that," the little man grinned. "No getting rid of me until the fall of the curtain. Oh, I know all about certain recent events. The arrest at the railway villa and so on. I wasn't very far off. Now you give me just ten minutes and after that I won't trouble you any more. Let me get the last chapter down in shorthand and little Jagger asks no more. I'll supply all the frills and then hey for London and the office of my paper. Look out for a newspaper story in the morning the like of which has never been equalled in point of style or dramatic intensity. Now don't make a fuss, old chap, but trot it out. You owe me more than a bit."
Norcliff surrendered at discretion. At the end of ten minutes Jagger closed his notebook with a snap.
"So that's that," he said. "My love to the bride and groom and say my piece of plate will materialise in due course. Something extra neat in the way of toast-racks. So long."
Norcliff smiled as he made his way to the cottage where Sylvia had been waiting anxiously for the others. She had not been taken entirely into Trumble's confidence. But now that the arrest was made and the inspector had that off his mind, it mattered little what anyone said on the subject of the amazing criminal who had been originally known as Vane Egerton.
"I am so glad you have come back," Sylvia said. "For the first time in my life, I have been afraid of being left alone. Now, Trevor, tell me what all this mystery means."
Trumble was only too willing to oblige. It was a long story, but he finished at length and, for a long time, Sylvia sat there, trying to grasp the essential features of the most amazing story of crime that she had ever heard in her uneventful life.
"It sounds to me absolutely incredible," she said. "Fancy all this long time George sitting in darkness in this very cottage under the impression that he owed a deep debt of gratitude to the very man who had robbed him and who had not hesitated to deprive him of his sight. And, sooner or later, I am quite sure that George would have parted with that chart of his. And, perhaps, if he had done so before now, that poor fellow would never have been murdered."
"I dare say I should," Marchmont said. "In fact, I have been on the verge of handing the chart over to Farr—I mean Egerton—half a dozen times over. And, mind you it has been a bit of a shock, because I trusted that man and would have done anything for him. Strangely enough, he didn't look like a rascal."
"Not a bit," Sylvia concurred. "With that handsome face of his, to say nothing of those steadfast blue eyes, he could look the whole world in the face and no one would ever suspect him. But please don't let us talk about him any more."
"Oh, I am quite willing," Marchmont laughed. "'All's well that ends well.' It is no end of a good motto."
"Yes, but will it end well?" Sylvia smiled. "Oh, I know you, George. As soon as you are absolutely all right again, you will be off on another of those expeditions of yours, and you will keep me on tenterhooks for years. You won't be happy till you have visited your magic island and made a fortune."
"Of course I shan't," Marchmont said. "You don't suppose, after these years of enforced idleness, I am going to sit quietly down again. It will be all very well for you, my child. You are going to marry a husband who has a great future before him, to say nothing of a private fortune of his own. But for that, I might be content to remain in England. But then, you see, I can so implicitly trust you with old Trevor, can't I, dear boy?"
Trumble glanced smilingly at Sylvia and she returned the look with a fond glance in her eyes that repaid him more than any words could have done. For the moment, at any rate, the tragedy was forgotten and three of the happiest people in the world sat round in the little cottage sitting-room as if such things as care and trouble and crime had passed entirely out of existence.
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