a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership
|BROWSE the site for other works by this author
(and our other authors) or get HELP Reading, Downloading and Converting files)
SEARCH the entire site with Google Site Search
Title: The Man of Death Author: Arthur Gask * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1203841h.html Language: English Date first posted: Oct 2012 Most recent update: Nov 2020 This eBook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy Colin Choat and Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
GO TO Project Gutenberg Australia HOME PAGE
IN a lonely house upon an unfrequented part of the Norfolk coast a retired Cambridge professor is living by himself. Gradually he becomes aware that his house, which is built upon the site of an age-old ruined church, is being watched. In his perplexity he appeals to Gilbert Larose. The mystery and dreadful happenings of all that follows after form another exciting chapter in the life-story of the one-time great international detective.
Here, Arthur Gask has again written one of those outstanding mystery stories which have secured for him his enviable reputation.
"MR. LAROSE, I am being watched," said the small, scholarly-looking man with the high forehead. "I live alone in a lonely house on a lonely shore, and I do not know what it means. I am concerned about what is going to happen next."
AGATHA WANDSWORTH never learnt who her parents were, which, under the circumstances, might perhaps have been considered a good thing, as her father had been a dissolute Norwegian sailor and her mother a disreputable and decidedly coarse young woman who had many times strayed from the paths of virtue and part of whose calling was that of an artist's model.
Agatha owed her surname to having been found by a patrolling policeman, one night when only a few-days-old baby, upon a seat on Wandsworth Common. Her Christian name had been given her because the date of her entry upon the books of the institution to which she had been taken was that of the fifth of February, the day of the Feast of the Virgin Martyr, St. Agatha.
From such lowly and unhappy beginnings of Agatha's recorded life it might have been thought she would show all signs of coming from some common stock. On the contrary, even from her very early childhood days she had all outward appearance of descent from aristocratic forebears. It might have been some far hark-back to the Viking ancestors of her father, or, again, to those of her mother, when in long bygone days they might perhaps have been people of distinction and refinement.
At any rate, however it had come about, Agatha grew up to be a very pretty girl, and through the several orphanages and homes which she passed her good looks were remarked upon by everyone who was brought in contact with her. She had shining golden hair, finely chiselled features, beautiful deep-blue eyes and a perfect complexion. She carried herself well and with perfect poise. She spoke nicely, too, and not a bit like any common girl.
If, however, she had this altogether attractive appearance, in disposition and temperament she was anything but as pleasing, and during all her institution years was a continual source of trouble to those in charge of her. It was not that she was bad-tempered, indeed she never got in tempers, but she was most untrustworthy in almost every way. She was untruthful, she cheated at her lessons, and she pilfered when there was anything she wanted and she got the chance to take it on the sly. When she was found out, which did not always happen, as she was sharp and full of resource, she would express herself as being most contrite and take her punishment with no complaints and without the slightest trace of sullenness. She was never rude to anyone.
One day after she had been brought up before the managing committee of the orphanage for stealing a private pot of strawberry jam belonging to one of the officers, the chairman spoke to the matron about her later.
"But I cannot believe," he said with a frown, "that she is so bad a girl as you all appear to think she is. She made a good impression on us as being so nicely-mannered and respectful. She seemed so sorry, too, for what she'd done."
"She always makes out she is sorry," retorted the matron sharply, "but it's all put on, and the next time she'll be as bad as ever again. She's a perfect little actress and you've got to live with her to find out what she really is. Of course she's very nice to speak to, but underneath she's as hard as flint and doesn't care what she does. She's the most cunning child I've ever had to do with."
The chairman appeared to be unconvinced. "Well, let us hope she'll get better as she gets older," he smiled. "At fourteen there's plenty of time for improvement. She's just at an awkward age, and you see if she doesn't get better as time goes on."
And certainly in the two years which followed it did seem that Agatha had improved a lot. She was not nearly so often called up for punishment and the matron was able to give the committee a much better report. In reality, however, Agatha had not changed at all. It was only that she had learnt to cover her tracks more and to keep from untruthfulness when it was likely she would be found out. Underneath she was just the same, hard as flint, as the matron had said, totally unscrupulous and selfish, and uncaring for any interests but her own.
It could not, however, have been said that her influence in the orphanage was a bad one. She never tried to influence her companions in any way. She was not interested enough in them for that and did not care what they did. She made no particular friends among them, gave no confidences and kept herself as much to herself as she could. Still, if she wanted anything from any other girl, she would make herself very nice to her, but when she had got what she wanted would straightway ignore her as if she were no longer aware of her existence. No such word as gratitude was in Agatha's vocabulary.
"We're always told that the face is an index to character," remarked one of the teachers to a colleague one day, "but it certainly isn't so with that Agatha Wandsworth. I was looking at her this morning and thought what a really nice girl she should be. She looked so sweet and gentle and no one would dream she was the cold and selfish little fish she is. She's cruel, too, and just loved drowning those kittens yesterday." She nodded. "I shall be very sorry for the man she marries."
The other laughed. "So shall I, but you see—in a year or two, wherever she goes, the boys will be all running after her."
"But she won't marry for love," went on the first teacher, "for I'm certain she'll never love anyone but herself. She's made that way, a selfish little beast."
"She would be quite clever, too, if she weren't so lazy," remarked her friend, "but I don't think anything will ever make her work."
When Agatha was sixteen, after the usual custom of the orphanage, she was put out to service, a place being found for her as general help with two old maiden ladies in Balham. It was not a big house, the old ladies were interested in her, and she soon saw it was going to be a comfortable situation. She was to receive £12 a year and, as her employers were particular about appearances, be provided with a natty uniform and caps. Agatha knew the cap and dress suited her and was quite pleased to wear them.
Up to then, during all her life she had spoken to no members of the opposite sex except clergymen, the doctors of the orphanages and the men on the committees of the boards of management. So, her first sex adventure came to her with a boy who delivered the bread, and his eyes boggled when she came to the back door. Gee, here was something good, he thought instantly. The prettiest girl he had seen, and he set about making a conquest at once.
"Good morning, Miss," he exclaimed, lifting his cap with a smirk. "So you're the new girl here, are you?"
"One white and one brown, please," snapped Agatha, looking at him and through him with a cold, hard stare.
"Certainly, Miss," said the boy. He beamed all over. "And I'm very pleased to meet you," but Agatha had returned into the house and shut the door and the conversation was ended.
The deliverer of bread and buns realised he had been badly snubbed, but, a decidedly good-looking young fellow and with the confidence begot of many conquests, he returned blithely to the attack the next day, with the offer of a chocolate from a gaudily-covered box which he produced from his pocket. Agatha, however, refused with a curt shake of her head, barely condescending to acknowledge his good morning as she turned away.
The following week, feeling sure the ripening of their acquaintance was only a matter of an attractive enough little present, one morning he held out to her a whole box of chocolates. "From our own shop, Miss," he explained proudly. "My dad's a confectioner as well as a baker and we have more customers than anyone else in Balham."
Agatha hesitated a moment—she had a fondness for chocolates—and then, with a half smile and a quick nod of thanks, accepted the gift. She did not, however, encourage any prolonging of the conversation.
The boy was disappointed, but consoled himself with the thought that at least he was making headway, and he had dreams of very soon taking her to the pictures, with exciting little adventures to follow after among the trees on the common. With this end in view, he subsequently presented her with some nougat, a packet of butter-scotch and quite a big bag of liquorice all-sorts. Emboldened by her acceptance of his gifts, though his conversations with her were still in a most fragmentary stage, one morning he ventured to stroke her bare arm as she was taking from him a loaf of brown bread.
The result surprised him. Without a moment's hesitation, she jerked up the arm he had stroked and gave him a slap on the face, a slap so hard that, with all his amorous longings, it stung him to anger and bad words.
"You damned little cat!" he swore, rubbing his bruised cheek. "You gobble up everything I bring and that's your gratitude, is it? Damn you!"
"Don't you ever touch me again," said Agatha calmly. "I don't like it"—she was cold and business-like—"and Mistress says bring a milk loaf to-morrow."
After that the boy made no more advances, getting, however, as he thought, something of a revenge by always addressing her familiarly as Aggy when he called with the bread. He had learnt her name was Agatha because he had once overheard one of her mistresses speaking to her. At heart he was a very chagrined boy, being quite at a loss to understand why he had not managed, as he called it, to click with her. Hitherto, he had always found servant girls good hunting and it was the first real set-back he had received in all his Don Juan career. It hurt his vanity and he was wondering if anything was going wrong with him and he was losing his punch.
He need not really, however, have lost any sleep over the matter, for had he only known it Agatha was the same with all of the opposite sex she was brought in contact. Physically she was as cold as an icicle and, as she grew older, came to realise no man or boy could ever stir the very slightest emotion in her. Handsome or plain, it was always the same. She was just not interested in them.
She got on well with her mistresses, the Misses Selina and Emma Brown, playing her cards beautifully and ingratiating herself with them until they had come to have the most perfect confidence in her. She played her part splendidly and, so demure and respectful when in their presence, they never dreamt what her private opinion of them was. She thought them old fools and often would have liked to shake them for their cranky ideas. In time, too, it began to gall her that she had always to be at their beck and call and often had to leave off the reading of some interesting book to attend to them.
As she had surmised when she had first arrived, the place was an easy one, and, the old ladies helping both with the cooking and the housework, she had plenty of leisure and was soon taking an absorbed delight in the really splendid collection of books that was in the house.
The old ladies' brother had been a retired Indian Civil Service official and, dying and bequeathing his library to them, for sentimental reasons they had not disposed of a single volume, though some of them were quite valuable. There were many hundreds of them and they filled an entire room almost from floor to ceiling. They comprised books on all sorts of subjects, including a large number of novels and romances, with most of the famous classical ones. Also, there were books, the contents of which would have made the old ladies' hair stand on end had they only been aware of what they were.
Agatha was allowed to take any book she chose, and, with the happenings of her life hitherto bounded by the dreary orphanage and charitable institution walls, it can be imagined the enchanted new world which now opened wide its gates before her. She found delight in the books of travel and, her imagination quickened by what she read, her feet wandered wondrously both through the populous streets of mighty far-off cities and the silent lonely lands in obscure corners of the earth.
She liked history and biographies, too, and to read about people who had risen to high positions from humble and lowly beginnings. She started then upon her first day-dreams and imagined herself as becoming famous, perhaps as a great actress or film star. While she liked romance and the beautiful settings which were nearly always given them, she could not understand charming maidens being so swept off their feet by the attentions of young men. She did not see much in it.
But of all the books of fiction, she was most enamoured with detective stories. There, the more abandoned the criminal and the more heartless his exploits, the more thrilled with him she was, and she felt very sorry when he was caught. Two large volumes, Famous Trials of the Century, she found particularly enthralling, but when the accused were found guilty she always thought they had been badly served.
By the time she had been with the old ladies a year they had such trust in her that she was given all the shopping to do. That suited her well, as thereby she was able to add quite a lot to her wages. A shilling here, a sixpence there added on to what she had actually paid came in very useful. She was developing into early womanhood, as she had been in her girlhood, without any conscience at all.
Naturally clever with her needle and showing good taste with everything she bought, with her wages raised to £16 and her income so augmented by her shopping expeditions, she was able to dress quite well and, in her out-door clothes, she had a most presentable appearance.
"Might come from the best of people!" nodded Miss Emma Brown once, watching through the window her start off upon one of her afternoon walks. "She looks a perfect little lady."
As time passed on, if Agatha's real introduction into a wider life had started with the catholic course of reading she was giving herself, it was undoubtedly helped on materially in an awakened interest in everything which was put upon the screen. She became an enthusiastic patron of picture theatres, and there again crime themes were what she liked best. A gangster picture with plenty of rough action and much firing of pistols delighted her. She was often so enthralled that she stayed out much later than she was allowed, to receive mild reproofs from her employers upon reaching home. If, however, it had been a night screening, it did not so much matter, as the old ladies were always early to bed, and generally asleep when she crept in. The next morning she would tell them she had been in quite a couple of hours before she really had. They were unsuspicious people and did not think her capable of deceiving them.
Upon her excursions, seeing her alone, men often tried to scrape up an acquaintance with her, but it never led them anywhere. If she felt inclined that way she would let them take her out somewhere to tea or dinner, but there it always ended and she never told them who she was or where she lived. Once, one of them, very determined to find out where she came from insisted upon walking home with her. She made no protest, but just ignored him until they met a patrolling policeman. Then she stopped and said with no emotion, "Constable, this man is annoying me. Send him away." She had seen such a happening once upon the screen and the request then had been just as effective as it turned out to be now. Most humiliated and scarlet with indignation, her cavalier, at the stern injunction of the policeman, had instantly slunk away.
When she was nineteen and had been three years with the old ladies, one of them, Miss Selina, the elder, died. Agatha was very glad, as Miss Selina was the more sensible of the two and several times lately, at any rate so Agatha thought, had scrutinised very hard the change which had been returned to her after a shopping expedition.
Only one relative, a middle-aged nephew from Birmingham, had come down to the funeral. He had been greatly taken with Agatha and returned home to his wife with a growing report of in what safe hands Aunt Emma was.
After that Agatha's life became freer than ever. She was soon completely dominating Miss Emma and doing exactly what she pleased. She went out to pictures much more often and came in only when the fancy took her, quite regardless of the comfort of the old lady. Sometimes, she would give her lunch and then coolly take herself off to the West End to look at the shops and afterwards stay to an evening screening, not returning home until late at night.
Miss Emma Brown, of a most gentle disposition, was now more or less an invalid, suffering greatly from rheumatism. Often she had to remain in bed for days at a time. Once, upon one of her bad days when she could not get up, Agatha had left her after an early lunch and not appeared before her again until the next morning. All the old lady had had to eat or drink after one o'clock had been some biscuits which had been upon the table by her bedside and a glass of water. She had not been feeling well enough to get up and make herself even a cup of tea. She had remonstrated timidly to Agatha.
"I didn't have enough to eat," she said plaintively, "and it makes me feel very weak this morning."
"Oh, Mum, but you had a good tea," said Agatha reproachfully. "You ate all that buttered toast and those two pieces of cake I brought you."
"But I didn't have any toast or cake," said Miss Emma with tears in her eyes. "I haven't seen anything of you since after lunch yesterday until just now."
"Oh, you forgot, Mum," said Agatha gently. "Why, you had a glass of hot milk, too, just before I said good night," and the old lady was so bewildered by Agatha's confident statement that she began to think her memory was going.
Still, her Birmingham nephew, happening to be up in town on business for a few hours the next day, and calling in to see her, she repeated her complaint to him. He was very astonished and at once went into the kitchen to speak to Agatha about it. Agatha smiled sadly. "Poor Miss Emma," she said, "she forgets. Her memory is failing a lot." She raised her innocent eyes to his. "I never left the house yesterday, Mr. Benson, and she had plenty to eat. I was in and out her room all day."
Of course the nephew believed her and told his wife that night that the old lady was failing fast.
About a month after his visit, soon after one o'clock one afternoon, Agatha took herself off to a picture theatre in Leicester Square where an absorbing thriller, The Black Gang, was to be screened for the first time in London. She left Miss Emma in bed and promised to be back in half an hour. She said she was only going out to change a book at a library close by. The picture came quite up to her expectations, indeed she enjoyed it so much that she resolved to remain in town for tea and see it again at the evening session.
"Bother old Emma!" she said irritably. "Sleep will be better for her than a feed. At any rate she's got her biscuits and I'll chance it."
So it was nearly midnight when she got back home and, letting herself in with her key, tiptoed softly upstairs. Miss Emma's door was as she had left it, propped ajar with a chair. The night had turned cold and a chilling wind was blowing in from the open window. She thought she had better go in and shut it and pull down the blind, too. The moon was up and she peeped cautiously round the door. Then, to her amazement, she saw the old lady was lying all huddled up upon the floor just by the bed.
"Miss Emma," she called out quickly, "Miss Emma, what's happened to you? Are you hurt?"
She received no answer and, now thoroughly frightened, darted into the room and made to lift her employer back on to the bed. She desisted, however, immediately, for the moment she touched her she knew she was dead. The arms were as stiff as a board.
The clock in the hall chimed midnight. Agatha's heart beat painfully and she could hardly get her breath. Her first thought was to rush to the telephone and call up the doctor. Then she remembered, but only just in time and when upon the point of lifting the receiver, that if the doctor came then he would see the old lady had been dead many hours, and how would she, Agatha, be able to account for not having summoned him before?
From the reading of so many detective stories, she knew about rigor mortis and that the body did not begin to stiffen until after about eight hours. It was now midnight, and so her mistress must have died before four o'clock. Then how could she explain she had not been aware of it? There was no explanation she could give and everyone would learn she had left Miss Emma alone for all that long time.
She calmed down quickly and collected her thoughts. No, she would not ring up the doctor until the morning! Then it would be thought the old lady had died during the night and the stiffness of her body be expected as the natural thing!
She smiled rather nervously. Here was an adventure as thrilling as if it had come out of a book! She was alone in the house with a dead body and she was going to remain alone in it all night, until everything fitted in with the story she was going to tell! Like the crime heroes on the pictures, she had got the situation well in hand!
Her shock over, with no repugnance at the nearness of the body, she went methodically through the dead woman's things with a thoroughness she never had had the opportunity to do before. She found nothing much, however, to interest her except three pound notes in a drawer, two of which she annexed for herself.
Then she put herself to bed and had five hours of good sleep. Soon after six she got up, dressed herself nattily as she always did, made two cups of tea, one of which she drank herself, taking the other up to the dead woman's room. She was preparing everything so that her story should ring true.
At ten minutes to seven she rang up the doctor and, living close by, he was round in a few minutes. He was a dour, elderly Scotsman, with no interest in the other sex except as sick people, and so Agatha's prettiness was quite wasted on him. He proceeded to examine the body methodically while Agatha, rubbing her eyes vigorously, panted out her story in quick jerky breaths. Her mistress had seemed quite all right the previous night, and then, when she had brought her in the usual cup of morning tea, she had found her like this! Sob, sob, she was such a kind mistress and so good to everyone! She——
The doctor looked up and interrupted her sharply. "When did you last see her alive?" he asked with a frown.
"About nine last night," replied Agatha quaveringly, "when I brought in her glass of hot milk and some toast for her supper."
He looked at her hard for a long moment. "Tell me everything she had to eat yesterday," he said.
Agatha nodded tearfully. "Just plain things, nothing to hurt her. Toast and marmalade for her breakfast, a little cold lamb and mashed potato with some lettuce for her dinner, scrambled eggs for her tea and then toast and milk for supper."
He continued to stare hard at her. "What time did she have her tea?"
"Six o'clock," replied Agatha, "at the same time she always did."
The doctor picked up his hat. "There'll have to be an inquest," he said-curtly, "and you'll have to be there." He prepared to leave the room. "Now what's the telephone number of her nephew in Birmingham?"
Agatha had a great thrill when the police came to take away the body for the post-mortem which was to be made that afternoon. She was not so thrilled, however, when the nephew arrived that evening with his wife, for she thought the latter gave her a cold and disapproving look. The nephew did not seem too nice to her, either. They said very little to her and asked no questions. She partly understood that, as she learnt they had been to see the doctor upon their way from the railway station. They went out in the evening and she saw nothing more of them until breakfast the next morning.
They hurried over the meal, as the inquest was being held at nine o'clock. Everyone was punctual except the doctor, and, when some minutes had gone without his appearing, to save time, Agatha's evidence was taken first. She was wearing her best costume and looked very nice and as well-dressed as any woman there. There was nothing of the servant-girl about her and, though there were quite a number of people in the court, she showed no trace of nervousness. She spoke quietly and with perfect confidence.
She related everything exactly as she had told the doctor, how she had left Miss Emma Brown, seemingly as well as usual, the previous night a few minutes after nine o'clock, and how she had found her dead the next morning when she took in the early cup of tea at a quarter to seven. Then, in reply to the questions of the superintendent of police, she told everything which had happened the previous day, including what her mistress had had to eat.
She had nearly finished her statement when the doctor arrived and, in order that he might get back to his patients, her evidence was interrupted to take his.
The doctor said his patient had died from heart failure, probably following upon the shock of her slipping and falling on to the floor. She showed no signs of violence, however, and was not bruised in any way, undoubtedly because the carpet upon which she had fallen was thick and soft. He added she had had no business to be getting out of bed. He had given strict orders to that effect.
"And how long would you say the deceased had been dead," asked the coroner, "when you saw the body at seven o'clock yesterday morning?"
"From sixteen to seventeen hours," replied the doctor instantly. "She had been dead since between one and two in the afternoon of the previous day."
For just a few moments those present did not seem to take in the significance of what he had said. Then, with an almost audible gasp of surprise, they began looking wonderingly at one another and then at Agatha.
Had not that very pretty little maid said she had left her mistress alive and well at nine o'clock at night, seven hours later than when the doctor said the old lady had died? Had not the old lady, too, had an egg on toast for her six o'clock tea and, later, a glass of milk and biscuits for supper? What did it mean, this discrepancy in the evidence? Surely the doctor was getting muddled up?
The coroner was evidently most puzzled too. "She had been dead from sixteen to seventeen hours?" he exclaimed frowningly. "Are you sure of that, Doctor?"
"Perfectly sure," was the prompt reply. "Having had her midday meal at the usual hour of half-past twelve, she died less than an hour later, as the digestion of the contents of the stomach was only just starting."
The coroner threw a quick glance at Agatha and turned again to the doctor. "Then if we have been told that deceased was alive as late as nine o'clock in the evening of that day, it was not the exact truth?"
"Certainly not," snapped the doctor. "It was a downright lie." He nodded in the direction of Agatha. "The young woman who has just been giving evidence told me that when she fetched me yesterday morning to her dead mistress, but I knew from the advanced state of the rigor mortis, the moment I touched the body, that it was a falsehood. Rigor was fully established even to the lower extremities, and it would have taken about sixteen hours to complete that condition." He nodded. "I am confident no one had been near deceased since she had had that last meal, just after midday. She had been left totally unattended."
A deep hush came over the room in the long pause which ensued. All eyes were fixed upon Agatha. Her face had paled, but otherwise she looked exactly as she had looked before, gentle and quiet and without the slightest trace of any emotion.
"And of what, Doctor," asked the coroner at length, "did the undigested food you found in the stomach consist?"
"Meat, potato, lettuce and toast," was the instant reply. The coroner looked down at his notes.
"No eggs or milk?" he asked.
"Not a trace of either," said the doctor emphatically.
"Then one more question," said the coroner. "Is it your opinion that the death was hastened by neglect?"
The doctor shook his head. "No, not speaking generally. As I have stated, the body, for an old lady in her state of health, was quite sufficiently nourished. I do think, however, that if there had been anyone in attendance upon her when she had wanted something, as she apparently had, she would not have had to get out of bed to obtain it for herself. Then in that case she would have undoubtedly been alive to-day. There was no reason why she should not have lived for many years longer."
Agatha was called back into the witness-box. Inwardly she was in a state of dire consternation, and it was taking all her strength of will not to turn and attempt to run out of the room. But she pulled herself resolutely together and faced the coroner with calm, untroubled eyes.
"You have heard what Dr. Williams has just said?" he asked sternly. "Then do you still adhere to the statement you made to us?"
"Yes," nodded Agatha.
"Everything you told us was the truth?"
"Yes," nodded Agatha again.
"Then how did you pass your time yesterday after your mistress had had her lunch?"
"I did some sewing in the afternoon, I prepared the meals and I read before I went to bed."
"You did not leave the house in the afternoon?" was the final question.
"No, I never went out all day," said Agatha, and if anyone ever spoke the exact truth it appeared to many in the room, and particularly so to most of the men, it was being spoken then.
Agatha returned to her seat, thinking that at any rate the worst was over. She was, however, quite mistaken, for the superintendent at once proceeded to call three more witnesses. The first was a chemist whose shop was quite close to where the Misses Brown had lived, and he testified to having seen Agatha get on a West-End-bound bus just after one o'clock on the afternoon the doctor had stated Miss Emma Brown had died. He was positive both as to the time and that it was Agatha. He knew her very well, as she had often come to the shop for Miss Brown's medicine.
The other two witnesses were the chemist's wife and a woman friend of hers. They stated that on the night of the same day, just before eleven, they had seen Agatha come out of the Zenith Picture Theatre in Leicester Square, and, proceeding to Piccadilly Circus, mount a Balham bus. They had come home by the same bus, but had travelled inside, whereas Agatha had been on top. The bus reaching Balham, they had seen Agatha alight at the stop nearest to the Brown home. They did not think Agatha would have seen them. It was then nearly midnight. The coroner cross-examined them sharply, but they stuck to their story.
The coroner then proceeded to sum up and immediately referred to Agatha. He warned the jury that they must discard everything she had said, as she was undoubtedly a most untruthful witness. It was deplorable, but she was a young woman with no conscience or sense of duty. Intent upon her own selfish pleasure, she had left her sick mistress unattended all the afternoon and evening, and to hide the dreadful consequences of her neglect had lied deliberately and systematically. Unhappily, she could not, in law, receive any punishment for her conduct.
Turning to Miss Brown's death, he said that the cause of it was quite clear. She had died from natural causes, and that was the verdict they must bring in.
The jury retired and, rather to everyone's surprise, were away for longer than an hour. Returning at last into court, they gave their verdict as the coroner had directed, but added a rider—there were four women on the jury—that the witness Agatha Wandsworth should be severely censured for her neglect in leaving the deceased alone and unattended for so many hours.
It came out afterwards that the men on the jury, to a man, were unwilling to add the rider censuring Agatha, but the four women had been so insistent that in the end, in order to get back as quickly as possible to their respective occupations, they had given in.
The coroner called Agatha up to him and spoke to her with the utmost sternness. He said he was in entire agreement with the rider and, indeed, was so shocked with her untruthfulness that, notwithstanding her youth, he would have to consider whether he would not have to approach the Public Prosecutor with a view to her being put on trial for wilful perjury. He added he had never met with a more shocking case.
Returning home and wondering what was going to happen next, Agatha was followed very soon by the nephew and his wife, and the latter at once ordered her to pack her boxes and leave within the hour.
"Very well, Mum," said Agatha respectfully, "I'll get ready at once."
"And I hope your conscience will trouble you for all your life," went on the niece bitterly. "You're a downright heartless bad girl." Then, seeing Agatha standing so respectfully before her and feeling sorry so nice-looking a young girl should be turned homeless on to the streets, with perhaps not a penny in her pocket, she added sharply, "Have you any money? No, then are there any wages due to you?"
"Yes, Mum," replied Agatha, "two months."
It was an untruth, for she had been paid only the previous week, but she felt quite safe there, as she had never been in the habit of giving Miss Brown any receipt.
"I don't believe you," said the niece, "but all the same I will give you the money. How much did you get a month?"
Agatha immediately raised her wages to £24 a year, and accordingly was given £4. She packed her boxes and went out to get a taxi to take them away. She was intending to engage a room at a very clean-looking Coffee Palace she had once noticed in a street off Tottenham Court Road, but before she called up a taxi another idea suddenly came to her.
A woman who ran a small circulating library near Clapham Common, one of the several distant ones Agatha had been accustomed to patronise in her search for exciting fiction, had been bitterly complaining the last time she had gone in how badly she was in need of help. She had said that not only had she to attend to the lending out of the books, but to look after her three little children and do all the housework as well. Added to these activities, she was going backwards and forwards to the hospital where her husband was seriously ill with a broken hip. She was at her wits' end to know how to carry on.
Agatha called in at the library and, explaining that she was out of a situation owing to the sudden death of her employer—she made out she had been a companion-secretary to a 'writing lady'—offered her services, at any rate for a few weeks until she found something more suited to her. She added she knew a lot about books and would be willing to come for fifteen shillings a week and her board and lodging.
The woman jumped at the offer and Agatha took over her duties straightaway. She found her acquaintance with the classical novels of the Misses Brown's large collection of books most useful and, added to that, she soon realised she had quite a flair for knowing what the public wanted in the way of thrillers. Her good looks, too, brought in quite a number of new men customers. There was a typewriter in the office, and in her spare moments she made herself a competent master of the machine. To her great relief, she met no one who had known her at Balham and she heard nothing more of the coroner's threat.
When she had been at the library about six months, while liking the work, she began to tire of its limited scope, and started looking out for something better. About one thing she was quite determined—she would never go into domestic service again; and for another, she would give herself a much nicer name. With this latter end in view she had some good-class visiting cards engraved 'Miss Diana Camille Byron' and often took them out at night when alone in her bedroom to look at them for a long time and wonder where they would lead her.
One morning, going through the advertisements of their morning paper—she always made sure to be up early and get it first—she saw one for an assistant (female) who was wanted for a library attached to a museum in Norwich. She thought it would be the very position she wanted and, giving no reason to her employer, asked for the day off.
Nine o'clock found her on Liverpool Street Station buying a ticket for Norwich. Looking for something to read, she bought a shilling Guide to East Anglia at the bookstall and, a quick reader, during the journey had carefully gone through its contents.
Arriving at the ancient city, she at once proceeded to interview the head librarian. When one of his assistants took in her card and informed him for what purpose she was wanting to see him, though a little intrigued by the high-sounding names, he was inclined to feel annoyed at his time being taken up, as he thought he had already got in view the person he wanted.
However, when his eyes fell upon the aristocratic and very good-looking young woman who was ushered in to him, he was not quite so certain he had fully made up his mind, and proceeded to interview her with pleasurable interest. He was a scholarly-looking man just under sixty, rather impressionable and rather deaf.
She told him an artful story, some of it put together in bits from some of the romances she had read. She said she was twenty-three and with no parents. Her father was the late Colonel Byron who had been killed when on active service in India. For two years she had been managing a circulating library in Clapham. She gave it that high-sounding name, whereas it had really no name at all, just 'Mrs. Tomkins' over the door. She said she had had three assistants under her. She was, however, resigning her position as she wanted to get away from London. She wanted quiet, to study.
The librarian was certainly impressed with her appearance but a little doubtful if the work at the museum library would interest her sufficiently to make her a good assistant. She looked altogether too young and too pretty.
"But the books here, Miss Byron," he said hesitatingly, "would be very different from those to which you have been accustomed. Now in what particular direction do your tastes lie?"
Agatha thought with suppressed amusement how scandalised he would be if she spoke the truth and said boldy crime and detective stories. Instead, however, she replied meekly, "History, archaeology and reading about old times." Then remembering what she had just read in the guide book, she added, "Particularly about old cities, old castles and archaeology, generally. I should love to know more about East Anglia than I do."
He seemed delighted with the answer. "Well, then the work here might suit you. Our books are nearly all old and it is for the manuscript room I should chiefly want you. Have you read any old books?"
Agatha was shrewd enough not to get out of her depth. "Not many," she replied hesitatingly, "but, of course, I have read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales." She spoke the truth there, but might have added she had found them very boring and skipped through them quickly. She hoped to goodness he wouldn't ask her anything about them, as she could remember very little. She need not, however, have worried, as she had started him upon one of his favourite themes, and he was quite prepared to do all the talking.
"Of course!" he exclaimed smilingly. "But there is no 'of course' about it, Miss Byron! I am sure very few young ladies of your age would have had intelligence enough to read them. They would infinitely prefer the trashy fiction so much in vogue to-day."
He talked on for quite a long while and then said in conclusion, "Well, I believe you are the very young lady I have been looking for and though, of course, the appointment rests in the hands of our committee, I think I can safely promise you will get it. You will know for certain next week." He smiled in a most friendly way as he added, "Myself, I am quite satisfied with you, but as a matter of formality I should like you to send me a reference and please let me have it at once."
So that night Agatha typed for herself a good recommendation, not too fulsome, but making it quite plain that Miss Diana Byron was a most trustworthy and desirable person for anyone to employ. She signed it with a grand flourish 'Alexander McFarlane, M.A., Oxon.' For her address she gave that of the little library, putting however, only Clapham High Road.
The following week she received notification that she had been appointed and the same morning left her employer greatly inconvenienced at her sudden departure. That, however, was of no moment to Agatha, for, as usual, she was thinking only of herself.
Two days later she started upon her duties at Norwich, at first just a little nervous she might not be able to carry them out properly, but, sharp and adaptable as she always was, she soon found everything going smoothly. The work was both light and easy, the chief requirement of whoever carried it on, apparently, being that she should be thoroughly trustworthy, as all the time she would be handling old books and manuscripts of almost priceless value.
As the days went by she often smiled exultingly to herself as she contrasted the lot of the little general servant, Agatha Wandsworth, of only a few months back, whom that vulgar baker boy had continued to address as Aggie up to the very last, with the stately Miss Diana Byron now following intellectual pursuits. Instead, too, of being paid a few shillings every Saturday as wages, she was now in receipt of a salary computed in aristocratic guineas. Three guineas a week was what she received, with the promise of an early increase if she proved satisfactory.
When she had been at the museum a few weeks, working with her chief, Dr. Bowery, a doctor of literature, a start was made to catalogue the large number of old manuscripts in the collection of the museum and she was most interested as he talked chattily to her about their values.
"For this," he remarked of one of about twenty leaves of vellum bound together with thongs, "only last year we were offered a thousand guineas by a rich American collector, but of course we would not take it. And of this," he said, holding up another, "its real value has never been appraised. The handwriting certainly belongs to the tenth century and it is believed to be one of Caedmon's poems. Ever heard of him?" he laughed, and when Agatha shook her head, he went on, "Well, he was the earliest Christian poet and died in six hundred and eighty. What little of his work has been handed down to us is beyond value. Many unscrupulous collectors would be prepared to pay large sums for anything of his and not divulge how they had obtained it."
The doctor was often called away, with Agatha then being alone in the room. With what treasures she was surrounded, she sighed often, and how easy it would be for her to take some! Why, if she could only find a purchaser, what money she could make, and how soon she would be set up for life!
Dr. Bowery's blood would have frozen in horror had he only known the thoughts which kept running in the pretty little head of his charming assistant.
WE are for ever being told by many worthy people that criminals are made and not born, yet, for all that, no plant can flourish unless it be in a fertile soil, and in the annals of dark crime this soil has many times been found in most unexpected places, places, too, where one would have imagined there could be no possible encouragement for the making of a criminal.
Ramon Anthony Ellister, to give him his full names, though born almost in the precincts of a cathedral and coming from an excellent family and educated in most respectable, conventional surroundings, had never been anything else than criminally inclined. It was certainly rather surprising, for his father had been an archdeacon and his mother, the daughter of a bishop, a woman of most kindly and gentle disposition. His many brothers and sisters, too, of whom there were eight, all grew up to be most respected members of the community, with seemingly no vice at all in them.
Ramon, however, had been a rebel against convention and authority from his earliest days and, proceeding to good schools, had been a nuisance to his masters and teachers all along. A good-looking boy, with nice features and a sharp, intelligent face, his eyes, to a critical observer, would nevertheless have always scored a bad point. They were of an intense light-blue colour, prominent, glassy and very hard. The first impression that he so often gave to strangers was that he was sizing them up, with his opinion not being altogether a flattering one. He was decidedly clever, but would work only when it pleased him, which was not very often.
The archdeacon was in receipt of a good stipend and had also some small private means. The largeness of his family, however, and providing them all with a good education, kept him, comparatively speaking, poor, and ready money, except for the absolutely necessary things of life, was always more or less tight.
Ramon was sent to Winchester College, where he was a success only at games, and afterwards, following the family tradition, on to Oxford, where he did no better, coming down without taking his degree.
University life had had a very bad and disturbing influence upon him, for he had mixed with young fellows plentifully supplied with money and had not been able to keep up the pace with them without getting heavily into debt. The old archdeacon had sighed heavily when, to save the family honour, he had had to draw upon his small capital and pay what Ramon owed.
At the 'varsity, because of his own straitened means, Ramon had noted with great bitterness the all-conquering power of money and, in consequence, had determined that the get-rich-quickly policy should be the one he would follow through life.
The only employment, however, which he had at first been able to obtain had been that of a private tutor to the so-called backward boy of a wealthy owner of a chain of grocery stores. The opulent grocer's country place was a palatial residence in Cambridgeshire, and there, for £150 per annum, Ramon was installed to furnish the mentally delinquent youth with a new cerebrum and render him wholly different from the half imbecile he really was.
Ramon would not have stayed there six months had not the house been only a few miles from Newmarket and, with a car at his disposal and the father coming down only for an occasional weekend, he was able, accompanied, of course, by his charge, to spend a lot of his time among trainers and jockeys on the celebrated heath. In that way Ramon gathered in quite a lot of information about racehorses, but, apparently, it was not of the best kind, as most of his salary, with unhappy regularity, disappeared in losing bets.
The grocer was very proud to tell all his friends he had got 'an Oxford toff' to teach his son, but not so pleased at the bad swear words the boy had picked up. Happily for Ramon, however, the boy's intelligence was not sufficiently advanced for him to explain lucidly how and in what way he had acquired this new vocabulary.
Ultimately, Ramon got sick of the job and threw it up, a week or two later, through family influence, obtaining employment in a stockbroker's office in the city, fondly hoping that in that occupation, when once 'in the know', he would one day buy shares for a few pence and sell them for many pounds.
He continued to be most interested in racing and was always on the look-out for winners at thirty-three and fifty to one. With no luck, however, for they would not come his way, and in consequence his four guineas, for that was his salary now, was generally considerably depleted at the end of the week.
The firm he was with was a good-class one with many wealthy clients, and big speculations and investments were being made every day. Sometimes he would gnash his teeth in envious rage as he noted substantial sums being made in the course of a few short hours. With a shrewd eye for rises and falls on the markets and calculating, except in getting rid of his own money in self-indulgence almost as soon as he received it, he often 'spotted' good things, and when they turned out all right and he saw fat cheques being despatched all round upon settling days, his mood was so murderous that he could hardly contain himself. He would do anything, he swore, to get money! If only he knew how to rob a bank!
One Sunday he bicycled down to Hampton Court to have lunch with a maiden aunt who was his godmother and quite well-to-do. She was tight with her money, though certainly she occasionally gave him a pound or two. Happening to be in a good humour that day, and under the mellowing influence of two glasses of good old port, she confided to him she had recently made a new will and put him down for a small legacy, some hundreds, she said.
Ramon thanked her warmly, but she would probably have almost had a stroke if she had only known what passed at once into his mind. He looked at her old scraggy neck and thought how easy she would be to throttle. He thought, too, of coming down another day with some powdered glass. Her sight was so bad that he felt sure he would be able to sprinkle it upon what she was eating without her noticing it. He had read somewhere that people could be killed in that way. He felt he couldn't wait for the money.
However, the old lady continued to smile amiably at him and, noting that his suit looked rather shabby and, altogether, his appearance was not as spick and span as usual, greatly to his astonishment, in parting she gave him a cheque for £5.
As it happened, the present could not possibly have come at a more opportune moment, as he was very hard up, his dress suit being in pawn. He had not known what he was going to do, as he had just received an invitation from Sir James Ellister, a baronet cousin of his father, to spend the following week-end at Bolton Park near Guildford. He had been thinking he would have to decline the invitation and had been most depressed in consequence. He had been to the Park once before and enjoyed the visit immensely.
Sir James was a very wealthy man and the best of everything was to be had at his table, with champagne always at dinner. Apart from that, Ramon knew there would be plenty of company and he would be meeting people of that class with whom he so loved to mingle—people with money.
He wrote at once accepting the invitation and got his suit out of pawn.
In later days and all his life long Ramon was to remember that Saturday he went down to Bolton Park, for that night he committed his first real crime and got away with it so easily that from that very hour his feet were set on the downward path. He robbed Colonel Leggett of £65 which he took out of his wallet.
It happened in this way. About three-quarters of an hour before dinner a number of the many guests who had been invited for the week-end were gathered in the big lounge hall and chatting animatedly together, when the colonel bustled in in a state of great excitement. He was so pleased with himself that he had to tell everyone his news.
He said he had come straight from the races which had been run at Sandown Park that afternoon and had won the nice sum of £300 in a cash bet.
"I had three hundred to nine against Gay Lady," he exclaimed gleefully, "and the little beauty just romped home. It was the easiest win of the afternoon," and, in support of his statement, he produced a bulky wallet from his breast pocket and held it out for everyone to see. "All in tenners and fivers," he went on. "I wouldn't take big notes as they are so easily lost. Gad, it was the biggest cash win I've ever had! I didn't know the bookmaker and he didn't know me. I just went up to him and said 'What price Gay Lady?' and he said, 'A hundred to three'. I said I'd take it three times, and he said 'Good' and there I was."
"Well, don't you go and lose it all next Saturday at Kempton," laughed Sir James. "There'll be some very tricky races there and the winners'll be hard to pick."
"But I shall pick them," laughed back the colonel confidently. "I'll be there all right and if I see you may be able to put you on to something good." He looked up at the clock. "But I say, I say, I shall be late for dinner if I don't hurry." He gave a bit of a hoarse cough. "I feel almost as if I've got a chill threatening and I'll have a good hot bath at once to shake it off," and he hastened away up the big staircase.
A few minutes later Ramon went up to dress, too, and, coming to a door not far from his own room, heard the splashing of water and the unmistakable loud cough of the old colonel.
He pulled up dead in his tracks. An idea had come to him and he caught his breath in his excitement. The door was not properly shut! It had only been pulled to and the colonel was in the adjoining bathroom, having his bath! His clothes would be lying about and in the pocket of his jacket would be the wallet with that £300 in notes!
He looked up and down the corridor. No one was in sight, and he made up his mind in a flash. In the passing of a few seconds he was inside the room and looking round for the clothes. There they were, and the jacket was lying on the bed! In an instant the wallet was in his hand and he was opening it. There were the notes, folded into a thick wad. Quick as lightning he pulled out a good number, thrust them into one of his trouser pockets, pushed back the wad into the wallet, returned the wallet to the jacket and was tiptoeing from the room. The whole business had not taken much longer than half a minute.
Gaining his own room without meeting anyone, he caught sight of his face in the mirror. It was ghastly pale and his eyes were as wide as saucers. He sank down into a big chair and for a few moments could hardly get his breath.
Calming down very quickly, however, he took the notes out of his pocket to see what he had got. There were five of £10 each and three £5 ones. They were none of them in sequence and, from their rumpled appearance, had evidently been well in circulation. He made a rapid calculation. Whew, £65, more than fifteen weeks' salary, and all obtained in about half a minute! What an easy way of getting money and how small had been the risk! The colonel had probably come for the week-end just as he had, and the chances were that the old man would not count the banknotes again until he got back home on the Monday. Then certainly he would be very puzzled to account for them being £65 short, but he would hardly think they had been stolen from him, for a thief would have surely taken the lot. No, most likely he would think he had dropped them on the racecourse when tucking the wad into his wallet! That would be the only reasonable explanation!
Ah, but he, Ramon, must be careful! He must provide for every eventuality! If the notes did happen to be missed and a search made, they must not be found on him. No, he would hide them away somewhere, certainly not in his room, and pick them up only at the very last moment before he was going away on the Monday morning.
He thought hard as he was dressing hurriedly for dinner, and finally sealed the notes in a Bolton Park envelope which he took from the writing-desk in his room. Then, sauntering out of the house just before dinner was announced, he thrust the envelope under the earth in the garden close to one of the walls where, if rain did come, it would not get wet.
Freed now from all anxiety, he enjoyed the evening immensely. He was given a pretty girl to take in to dinner, the meal was excellent and the wines exhilarating. Afterwards, he had several dances with charming partners and, finally, he went into the billiard-room and had a hundred up with Colonel Leggett. The old man was most friendly and they talked a lot about racing. Ramon announced he, too, would be going to the races at Kempton on the Saturday and so they arranged to look out for each other on the lawn before the grandstand.
As Ramon had surmised, the notes were not missed the next day, and on the Monday he returned to the city with them in his breast pocket.
All that week he lived in a state of considerable but subdued excitement, cudgelling his brains to think of more ways of making easy money. He thought of annexing cheques mailed to clients on settling days, but speedily discarded that idea as all the cheques were stamped 'not negotiable' and 'account payee'. Next, he wondered if old Gorham, the senior partner of the firm, was in the habit of carrying about with him anything worth having. The old chap was bent and frail, and he, Ramon, could easily find an opportunity of creeping up behind him on the private staircase and giving him a good push down. The fall would stun him and he, Ramon again, would be able to pick his pockets and slip away before help came. However, he gave up that idea, too. The whole business would be too risky and he might get nothing or very little for his pains, either.
The following Saturday afternoon he met Colonel Leggett at Kempton Park and the two got on together like a house on fire. Ramon was certain he must have discovered the loss of the £65 by now, and was most curious to find out how the colonel was thinking it had come about.
He was soon to know, for, just before they had finally decided which horse to back in the first race, the colonel nodded frowningly towards a stout, merry-looking bookmaker operating by the rails. "Don't back with that chap," he said. "He gave me £65 short last week, though I can't think how I didn't notice it at the time." He smiled wryly. "It must have been the half bottle of fizz I drank to celebrate, before I went to him to collect the money."
They had quite a pleasant afternoon, with both of them at the end being a few pounds in hand. Then it was agreed they should meet the following fortnight at Hurst Park. "I live close near there at East Molesey," said the colonel, "and I shall be delighted if you'll come home to dinner with me and stop the night. We're quite simple people and you won't have to dress. There'll be only my wife and I." He smiled. "No footmen. Nothing like at your relative's in Bolton Park." He closed one eye. "Still, I keep a good cellar and can put on a better Burgundy than Sir James has got."
Accordingly, Ramon dined and spent the night at his house and, keeping his eyes open, was very glad he'd come. The Leggetts were evidently quite well off, and though the two men did not dress for dinner Mrs. Leggett did. She wore quite a lot of jewellery, too, and Ramon guessed there would be a good bit more in her room, which was on the ground floor because she had a weak heart and could not go up and down stairs. He was no judge of jewellery, but thought that if the stones in the brooch she was wearing were real diamonds, they would be worth a considerable sum.
Greatly daring, the next morning when they were all sitting together in the garden, he made an excuse to go back into the house to get some cigarettes. He heard loud talking and laughing in the direction of the kitchen and was pretty certain all the three maids would be there. Making his plans during the night and intending to be all prepared for any opportunity he might get, a few minutes before he had pocketed a little file from the garage when he was with his host who was making some adjustments to his car.
He darted into Mrs. Leggett's bedroom and looked quickly about. Nothing valuable was in view, but, after pulling open several drawers, he found in one in the wardrobe what he was looking for, a jewel case. It was unlocked and, after one quick glance inside, which showed him, among quite a lot of pieces of other jewellery, the diamond-looking brooch of the previous night, he snapped to the lid and replaced the case where he had found it.
Without a moment's waste of time he examined the fastenings of the windows. They had only simple ordinary bolts, fixed on with two screws. With the screw-driver in his stout combination pocket-knife, he had the screws out in a minute and was filing hard at the screw threads. When the threads were almost, but not quite, filed away, he thrust them back in their holes and, his work for the time accomplished, darted out of the room as quickly as he had entered and leisurely rejoined the colonel and Mrs. Leggett on the lawn. Altogether he had been gone barely five minutes and he reckoned the stage was now all set for an easy burglary whenever he wanted to carry it out.
And carried out it was the next week upon the first dark night. The house stood in its own grounds, there was no dog, and everything was perfectly easy. He got the jewellery at the time he knew they would be at dinner, finding, however, that his work upon the screws had been quite unnecessary as one window was open at the top. He had ridden down on his bicycle and by ten o'clock was back home in his lodgings in West Kensington examining his booty. It was quite a nice little haul, although he had absolutely no idea as to its real value. There were several expensive-looking brooches, including the diamond one, quite a number of heavily jewelled rings, two bracelets and a beautiful little wrist-watch studded with diamonds.
He thought callously that probably Mrs. Leggett would have a bad heart attack when she discovered her loss, but was not in the slightest degree sorry for her. His hard, glassy eyes just sparkled exultingly and there was no regret at all for his despicable return of the kindly-natured old colonel's hospitality. He had no regrets, no remorse, absolutely no conscience at all.
Rather to his disappointment, he saw nothing in the newspapers in the ensuing days about the burglary and, to satisfy his curiosity, one night rang up the colonel with the excuse of finding out if he were attending the next race meeting at Sandown Park. The colonel replied he thought not, as his wife was very upset as their house had been burgled and most of her jewellery stolen. He went on that, very carelessly, the window of her room had been left open and the burglar had evidently got in that way. The police were not hopeful about catching him, but it was quite certain he must have been someone who was well acquainted with the house, because he knew exactly where to go and had taken nothing but the jewel case. No, there were no finger-marks, no clues of any kind.
The police said the only chance of catching the man was if he went to some pawnbroker or dealer and tried to sell the rings and brooches as they were. If he took the stones and sold them in twos and threes, then there was no hope at all, particularly so if he sold them abroad. The damned foreigners would buy anything if they got it cheap.
"I suppose, altogether, they were worth a lot of money," suggested Ramon, thrilled that he was now going to get some idea of their value.
"Good gracious, yes!" sighed the colonel. "A couple of thousand wouldn't buy them to-day."
Ramon hung up the receiver in a most delighted frame of mind. The future held out rosy prospects for him. Why, with even one thousand pounds he would be able to rent an office and start as an outside jobber himself! In the four years he had been with his present employers he had got to know quite a number of their clients and some of them he thought might be induced to do their business with him.
Still, in the ensuing weeks he was a most worried man. He had made up his mind to wait for his annual fortnight's holiday, in two months' time, and then run over to Paris and sell some of the stones. In the meantime he did not know where to keep the stolen jewellery. He had no secure lock-up place in his lodgings, and if he bought a small safe, both his landlady and her husband, who were a most gossiping couple, would become inquisitive at once. To make matters worse, their daughter was being courted by a policeman, who, of an evening, seemed always to be about the place.
Of course he had got rid of the jewel case; that he had filled with stones and thrown into the river one night from the towing path between Hammersmith and Putney, but the jewellery he had always to carry about with him. It was true they were in a money-belt, which he had bought and wore night and day, but he was always terrified he would meet with an accident in the street, be knocked down or run over and taken unconscious to a hospital. Then what would be thought when all this valuable jewellery was found upon him? Of course the police would be told, he would be questioned and, at the earliest moment, taken straight from the hospital to the nearest police station!
Thinking about it preyed upon his mind, and in time he became so nervous and hesitating when crossing any thoroughfare that he knew he was inviting the very catastrophe he so dreaded.
To make the belt less bulky he spent several nights prising the stones out of their settings and filing all the gold into dust, the only thing he did not interfere with being the diamond-studded wrist-watch. The gold dust made quite a little pile when he had finished, and he felt most uncomfortable when he took it into a shop in Wardour Street to sell it.
"Dental scrap?" queried the man behind the counter and Ramon nodded in great relief. He hadn't thought of that. "All right," went on the man, "come back the day after to-morrow. Name and address, please?"
Ramon gave both false, and breathed a sigh of relief when he was streets away from the shop without being followed. Of course the man was suspicious and that was why he had not paid him straightaway. He, Ramon, was lucky to have got off so lightly. He would give Wardour Street a wide berth in future.
A week later, however, happening to meet a dentist friend when having his lunch in the city, he asked him casually what he usually did with his dental scrap. "Sell it, of course," was the reply. "You don't think we throw it away, do you?"
"Do they give you the money at once?" asked Ramon.
"No, of course not. It's got to be assayed, first, to find out what it's worth," and Ramon realised what a fool he had been, and the next day called in Wardour Street to get the money. He was given £14 5s. without any comment.
His holidays came round at last, bringing with them, however, another anxiety. Dare he take all the stones over to France with him? What if the Customs people searched him for contraband? They would be sure to communicate with the English police at once! Even if he left the wrist-watch at home, the big diamonds and emeralds associated with the string of pearls would point straight to what the colonel's wife had lost! He would be questioned, enquiries would be made about him and he would be lost!
In the end he resolved to take over only the two biggest diamonds, those out of the big brooch, and these, to get safely through the Customs, he would carry in his mouth. All the other things he would hide in his mattress, risking that his landlady would notice when she made his bed that the mattress had been tampered with. Still, he consoled himself he would only be away three days, for, with the stones disposed of, he was intending to come straight back.
He went to Paris, by way of Newhaven and Dieppe, arriving without adventure, and the next morning picked out the best jeweller's shop in the Rue de Rivoli. Stating his business, he was taken in to one of the heads of the firm, who eyed him very intently. To see how he got on, Ramon was offering only one of the diamonds at first and, speaking in good French, he said it had belonged to his mother and been in the family many years.
The jeweller was most polite, but, explaining it was always desirable to know something about those who offered them valuable stones, asked Ramon if he were living in Paris.
Ramon shook his head. "No, I am only here on holiday for a few days. I live in London."
"Then why did you come to Paris to dispose of this stone?" asked the jeweller, with what Ramon thought was a decidedly suspicious note in his tones. "Why do you now come to us?"
"It's very simple," replied Ramon, who had got his tale all ready. "Three years ago I bought a ring here, but, getting tired of it, disposed of it recently in London." He laughed. "I got nearly as much as I paid you and so thought you must be a pretty reliable firm to have dealings with. You didn't overcharge me."
The jeweller seemed quite satisfied and, taking the diamond with him, left the room. He was, however, away for so long that Ramon began to get nervous, thinking the man must be ringing up the police. Just when the tension was beginning to be unbearable, he returned and said he was prepared to give £110 English money for the stone. Ramon pretended to make out it was rather less than he had expected but agreed to sell, whereupon the receipt was made out, which he signed 'William Nash'.
"And as the sum is not exactly a small one," said the jeweller, "just as a matter of form kindly put down the name of the hotel where you are staying and your home address in London."
Ramon was thoroughly frightened and could not get out of Paris quickly enough. He left by the night train and was not happy in his mind until he was back again in West Kensington the following morning. Then he laughed at his fears and cursed himself for having been such a fool. Of course the Paris jeweller had had no suspicion about him! It had been an ordinary business transaction and no doubt the man was pleased with himself for having made a good deal. Most probably he had paid only half the real value of the stone.
The mattress had not been interfered with and very quickly all the other stones were back in Ramon's belt. Having still eleven days of his holiday left, he resolved to spend them in Eastbourne and put up at the Westworth Hydropathic Hotel there. The Hydro was a select high-class private hotel, standing in its own grounds, and he had heard Sir James Ellister speak very well of it. The latter had said that not only did it keep an excellent table, but also one mixed with very nice people there.
Accordingly, with plenty of money to spend and determined to enjoy himself, Tuesday evening found Ramon installed in the Hydro, and he was soon of opinion he could not have done better. Everything came well up to his expectations. The social hostess introduced him to some nice girls, there was dancing and cards every evening and plenty of out-door amusements during the day.
There was no doubt that the visitors were well up in the social scale and all appeared to be well-to-do. Each night at dinner, as he looked round the big dining hall and noted the expensive-looking jewellery some of the women were wearing, he thought what nice pickings there would be for someone if he could only get into their rooms and help himself when they were absent during the day.
Still, he told himself with a frown, he would leave jewellery and precious stones alone in future, as they were much too difficult to dispose of with safety. He didn't know the ropes well enough and, though there must be plenty of buyers who would buy without asking any questions, he had no idea how to get in touch with them.
A first-class bridge-player, and the atmosphere of the Hydro being a friendly one, he got a game every night. The points he played for where never higher than two shillings a hundred and, coming out a winner three nights running, he regretted they had not been higher. At another table, occupied every night, he knew the play was for sixpence a point and he was greatly envious of people who were wealthy enough to win or lose upwards of £50 at a sitting and think nothing of it either way.
Two men who always played at this particular table interested him a lot; indeed, he had been interested in them almost from the first moment he had arrived at the Hydro. They were so smartly groomed and looked altogether such travelled and sophisticated men of the world. They were friends, and he had heard the elder, who appeared to be in the middle thirties, called Edgerton, while the other, some six or seven years younger, was Warden. They were great favourites at the Hydro and seemed to be continually running someone or other up to Beachy Head in their beautiful car to enjoy the view there.
They splashed their money about as if expense were nothing to them and, with their table in the dining-room not far from his, Ramon noted they always had champagne at dinner and sometimes at lunch too.
As with most of the visitors at the Hydro, they were interested in racing, and there being a meeting on the Saturday at Lewes, some twenty miles distant from Eastbourne, Ramon saw them set off in the morning with a fully-packed car, carrying not only its passengers but also a big luncheon hamper and a case of champagne. He himself followed later in a motor omnibus provided by the Hydro, and during the course of the afternoon ran into them several times. Recognising him as a fellow visitor at the Hydro, they always gave him a friendly nod and smile.
Ramon had several bets, but with no luck at first, and after the third race was nearly £20 to the bad. However, in the fourth race he fluked a lucky winner at twelve to one, having three pounds on the animal. He was just collecting his money when the two men happened to come by again and they stopped to congratulate him at having backed such a good-priced winner.
"Lucky chap!" exclaimed Edgerton. "But why didn't you give us the tip?"
"I didn't really think it had much chance," explained Ramon. "In fact, I only backed it because I've lost money on it several times and was afraid to let it run loose."
"Well, we can't grumble," laughed the other. "We had a nice big bet on Minerva in the youngster's and got six to one, when it started at only threes."
Getting back to the Hydro and having a cigarette by himself in the lounge, the two came up to speak to him again, plumping themselves down beside him. "Whew," exclaimed Edgerton, "but it's hard work making money on a racecourse, up and down the grandstand all the time! Still, between us we are up £70 odd on the afternoon." He made a grimace. "But with the last winning bet we had the damned bookmaker would insist on paying me the £40 all in dirty one-pound treasury notes. I expect he wanted to get rid of them because they were so really filthy. Anyhow, I didn't carry them on me a minute longer than I could help. I've just been up to my room and shoved them, well wrapped up in newspaper, at the bottom of my suit-case."
They talked on for a few minutes, discussing the afternoon's racing, and then the younger of them, Warden, said, "But I say, Gus, if we're going to that chemist's before dinner we must cut off now. It's nearly half-past six," and, rising with great haste, and with a nod to Ramon, they hurried from the lounge.
A couple of minutes or so later Ramon got up, too, to go to his room to change for dinner and then his eyes fell upon a Hydro bedroom key in the armchair where Edgerton had been sitting.
"Careless chap!" he exclaimed, picking up the key with the intention of handing it in at the office. "It would serve him right if——" but he stopped suddenly and looked round upon the others in the lounge. There was no one near him and no one appeared to have seen him pick up the key. He drew in a deep breath. Gad, why shouldn't he do it? As likely as not the fellow had been as careless in not locking his suit-case as he had been in dropping his bedroom key! If ten of the notes were taken probably they would never be missed! That Edgerton fellow would just pay them one by one as he spent them! The coast was all clear! He had gone to that chemist's and would be away at least ten minutes!
He thrust the key into his pocket and walked leisurely out of the lounge. In less than a minute, from the number on the key, he had found the right door and, opening it, was slipping into the room. The room was a double-bedded one with a bathroom adjoining. The bathroom door was slightly ajar. On the other side of the room was a luggage stand and upon it lay a large suit-case. That the suit-case was not locked was evidenced by a considerable portion of some undergarment hanging out under the lid.
Closing the door quietly but very quickly, Ramon tiptoed over to the suitcase and, flinging up the lid, thrust his hands deep down to feel for the newspaper packet of treasury notes. Then his blood almost froze in horror as he heard a noise behind him and, jerking himself round like lightning to see what it was, saw Edgerton and Warden darting out of the bathroom.
It was all over in three seconds, with his escape cut off by both of the men getting between him and the door. He was too terror-stricken to utter even the faintest cry of surprise.
Edgerton spoke very sternly. "Exactly, caught red-handed in the very act!" He smiled a grim, hard smile. "Now, young man, what have you to say for yourself?"
Ramon had nothing to say. He just stood stock-still, pale as death, and moistening over his dry lips with his tongue. Edgerton looked amused. "We thought you were like this, my boy," he went on, "and so set a trap for you. We guessed you'd fall in it and so you did." His face hardened. "We're house detectives and have had our eyes on you ever since you arrived. Now, have you anything to say before we ring for the manager and have you handed over to the police?"
But Ramon was still tongue-tied. His forehead was all pricked out in little beads of sweat and his hands felt dripping wet. It was a ghastly situation, bad enough in itself, but when his money belt came to be examined and the precious stones found it would be ten times worse.
"You have nothing to say?" asked Edgerton. He screwed up his eyes. "You call yourself Ellister, don't you? Well, are you any relation of Sir James Ellister of Bolton Park?"
Ramon found his voice at last, a hoarse and trembling one. "No-o," he said stutteringly, "I'm not."
"I don't believe you," snapped Edgerton. "You've got something about you of the cut of his jib." He made a gesture of disgust. "What a scandal to bring upon your relations!"
Warden now spoke for the first time. "You're an habitual thief, aren't you?" he asked. "You make your living this way, don't you?"
Ramon pulled himself together and, summoning all his resolution, tried to look indignant. "No, I don't," he burst out furiously. "I've never done anything like this before." He began wondering if, after all, there were some way of getting out of it, and tried to excuse himself. "I didn't intend to take anything," he went on vehemently, "but when you told me that tale about the dirty treasury notes I wanted to see if it were true."
To his surprise they did not seem to be incredulous as he thought they would have been and he added, "I was just curious. That was all."
Edgerton looked very grave. "You tell us on your honour you were not going to take anything?" He looked round at his companion. "Do you think we can believe that, Bert?"
Warden shrugged his shoulders. "It is possible," he said. He nodded. "He may have done it on the spur of the moment, without thinking."
Edgerton considered. "Of course," he said slowly and as if weighing every word, "if it comes into court it will be a disgraceful thing for you and ruin your whole life." He looked troubled. "At the same time it won't be a good thing for the Hydro here. The scandal will give the place a bad name if visitors don't think they can stay here without the chance of being robbed." He pointed to a chair farthest away from the door. "You go and sit there," he said sharply, "and I'll consult with my colleague and see what is best to be done."
Ramon did as he was directed and the two men whispered together for a few minutes. To Ramon they seemed arguing, with Edgerton at first unwilling to act as the other wanted. Finally, however, it appeared they had come to some agreement and the elder man turned to Ramon again.
"See here," he said frowningly, "as the house detectives here we are allowed a certain amount of discretion, and so, giving you the benefit of the doubt, this is what we are willing to do." He spoke very sternly. "You are to leave the Hydro at once, after we have gone through your luggage to make sure you are taking away nothing you should not. Also, you are to pay a substantial sum to be given to charity. It must be at least £100. Now have you got that amount of money with you?"
Oh, the relief in Ramon's mind! At the same time—he was thinking hard. He was so slow in making any reply that Edgerton spoke again. "If you haven't the whole £100 you can pay what you can in cash," he said, "and for what is short you can give us a cheque. Have you got a cheque-book?"
Ramon nodded. "Yes, in the suit-case in my room." He wiped over his forehead with his handkerchief. "It is most kind of you and very sporting to accept my explanation."
"Where's the money?" asked Edgerton.
"It's in my room," said Ramon shakily. "I'll give it you."
"We don't want to ruin you," said Edgerton, "and, as I say, we want to save the Hydro from the scandal. Now what amount have you in cash?"
"Nearly the £100," said Ramon shakily, "—in my room." He looked thoroughly cowed. "If you come with me now you shall have it at once."
"All right," said Edgerton sternly, "but no tricks or trying to escape, or we'll take you down to the manager straightaway."
Accompanied by the two, and his legs being so wobbly that Warden had to take his arm, Ramon tottered along the passage to his room. His hands were so unsteady that Edgerton had to take his key and unlock the door for him. All three entered the room and closed the door behind them. Edgerton walked over to the suit-case. It was locked.
"Give me your keys," said Edgerton. "Tell me where the money is and I'll get it. You can sit down."
Ramon sat down, but made no attempt to put his hand in his pocket for the keys. He leant back in his chair, but not as one who was physically or mentally exhausted. He settled himself comfortably. The expression of his face had altered. It was no longer weak and pleading. He clamped his jaws resolutely together as he looked from one to the other of his two captors.
"Give me the key," ordered Edgerton peremptorily, "at once."
"One moment," said Ramon. He took out a cigarette and lighted it. After a few puffs he smiled. "Now, I'll talk to you two guys," he said briskly, "and straightaway"—his voice hardened—"you both take in you won't get a penny from me, not a single penny." He threw out his hands. "Where's your evidence against me? I haven't been near your room. I don't know what you mean. You come in here for a friendly drink—you can have one, there's the whisky and a syphon over there—and then start asking me for money. What do you mean? I tell you I don't understand it."
Edgerton's face was black as thunder and Warden's mouth was gaping in surprise. "You young fool!" snarled the former. "You can't bluff it out! There are two of us to bear witness, remember! And we're the house detectives."
Ramon gave a loud guffaw. "Detectives!" he jeered. He pointed to Warden. "Why, that chap was squiffy last night. I heard the porter talking about it this morning. He had had to help you carry him up to his room. A fine detective he is, drunk on duty!" He grinned a little sheepishly. "I admit you rattled me at first. You put the wind up me right enough, but, directly you suggested me paying money to be let off, I knew it was all a fake. Detectives wouldn't be willing to compound a felony and that's what you were doing." He flicked the ashes from his cigarette. "No, you're a couple of blackmailers. That's all you are, crooks!"
Edgerton could hardly get out his words. "Do you deny you came into my room and were searching through the suit-case for those notes?"
Ramon was quite collected. "Certainly not!" he remarked. He grinned again. "That is, speaking among ourselves as brother crooks. Yes, I went in to see what I could get. I'm on the make just as you are, though probably I'm not so well seasoned." He nodded towards a bottle of whisky on the table. "Have a drink and let's part on friendly terms. We'll leave one another alone."
A short silence followed and then Edgerton threw back his head and burst into a hearty laugh. "He's got us, Bert," he exclaimed to his companion. "It's a grand slam! He's taken all the tricks!" He turned back to Ramon and spoke seriously. "But I say, young fellow, as one of the fraternity you'll have to help us. Lend us £20. Cards last evening and the races this afternoon have cleaned us right out. We haven't even got enough to pay our bill here."
"Lend you £20!" exclaimed Ramon, inwardly most delighted at the turn things had taken. "That's pretty cool, isn't it? I should never get it back."
"Oh, but you would," said Edgerton, his face colouring angrily. "We can raise plenty of money when we get back to town and you won't lose a penny. We may pinch what we can from the public, but we always play fair among ourselves." He shook his head. "It's pretty evident you always work alone." He looked curiously at Ramon. "But see here, young cockerel, you don't make a regular living this way, do you? You've got some occupation, haven't you?"
"In the city," nodded Ramon. He smiled. "But I'm always on the look-out for easy money."
"And you're pretty smart at getting it, too," commented the other dryly. "We watched you last night when old Major Hankey dropped that fiver. We saw you put your foot on it and draw it under your chair. Then you dropped your handkerchief and picked it up. We didn't spoil sport. We only laughed, but it was that which made us try to touch you just now. You looked easy meat."
"I was," frowned Ramon. "I was a fool to think you'd leave loose money in a suit-case and bleat about it to a perfect stranger."
"Well, what about that £20?" asked Edgerton. "You'll get it back all right, as I've just told you." He took a small gold cigarette-case out of his pocket and held it up. "Make it £30 and you can hold this as security. It cost me fifty-five."
Ramon considered. "You've asked me personal questions," he said, "then what about yourself? Do you make your living this way, picking up things, I mean?"
"In any way we can," laughed Edgerton. "We're not particular."
"Well, there's plenty of jewellery stuff about in this Hydro," suggested Ramon, wondering if these men might be of any use to him to get rid of the jewels in his money belt.
Edgerton shook his head. "Too risky to meddle with a place like this. When I touch sparklers I get away quick and lively." He smiled. "Besides, a lot that you see here may not be genuine. For instance, the pearl necklace of that pretty little Mrs. James I saw you staring at the other night I'd swear is not worth more than a couple of tenners. Synthetic stuff, that's what it is." He looked round at his companion. "We were caught that way once, weren't we, Bert? Yes, badly caught. Went to a lot of risk and expense to get a string and then found fifteen quid was all they were worth. No, we stick to cards in places like this."
"And yet you say you lost last night!" remarked Ramon.
Edgerton nodded. "Bad luck. Poker's our strong suit, but there happens to be no one here who'll play. So we've had to fall back on bridge and my friend here is damned rotten at it. We had a simple easy code between us and yet he let me down every time."
"We had bad cards all the evening," frowned Warden, "and I only made a few mistakes."
"You made half a dozen, my son," frowned back Edgerton, "and they were catastrophic." An idea seemed to strike him and he looked hard at Ramon. "Some of the men were saying last night that you're a very good player."
"Pretty good," nodded Ramon carelessly. "At any rate, two years running I've been in the final in the annual tournament of a club I belong to, and apart from that, bridge is a hobby of mine. I once paid three guineas for an hour's lesson from Ronaldson. He was quite complimentary to me."
Edgerton whistled. "You're keen enough, are you, to have gone to Ronaldson? Whew, and I fancy myself as almost as good as anyone!" He spoke with animation. "Now you listen. I've got an idea. Last night we dropped more than £70 to old Williamson. You know him, the old chap with beady eyes and that big ugly nose. I saw you speaking to him this morning."
"Yes, he borrowed my newspaper," nodded Ramon.
"Just like him, the miserly old devil! He's Williamson here, but he's Ebenezer Levi in the city. He's a money-lender, of course. Well, he's booked to give us our revenge this evening, but I was going to cry off. Now you shall take Warden's place, and with our simple little code we'll skin him."
"But he mayn't be willing," frowned Ramon.
"He will be," asserted Edgerton confidently. "He's as greedy as they make them. He doesn't think much of our play, particularly after last night, and I don't wonder. Yes, he'll take us on all right, and we'll manage it this way. At the last moment, just when Warden and I are going to sit down, Warden shall say he doesn't feel quite up to a game to-night. So we'll look round for a fourth man to take his place. You will be standing close by. Let him ask you if we can manage it. It'll look better. If not, I will. Now are you agreeable?"
Ramon hesitated a long moment. "What's this code you talk about?" he asked.
"Very simple. I'll teach it to you in ten minutes and then we'll always know just what each other's hands are. You agree! Then all right. But you'll have to finance me. Better hand over £30. With any luck I'll pay you all back to-night."
Ramon regarded him intently. He certainly looked a most likeable fellow, capable, good-natured and, strangely enough, one who would keep his word. Edgerton sensed what was in Ramon's mind. "Honour among thieves," he laughed merrily. "It's quite true in my case. I never let down a pal, do I, Bert?"
Warden shook his head. "He's all right. He'll play fair with you and so will I"—he grinned—"now we know exactly what we three are."
Ramon handed over the money.
It was an unforgettable evening for Ramon. They took down old Williamson and his friend heavily, each of the two losing just over £75. The code worked well, though certainly they were helped by unusually good cards. Edgerton played faultlessly and Ramon backed him up well. It was no walk-over, however, for both the money-lender and his friend were good players and gave nothing away. Their faces were a study of baulked cupidity when they had to pay up.
"Damn it, we're leaving to-morrow," scowled Williamson, "or we'd get it all back. You had all the run of the cards."
Up in Ramon's room, over a last drink, Edgerton paid back the £30 and Ramon's last doubt about him was dissipated. The next day he ventured to show him the companion diamond to the one he had disposed of in Paris for £110. "It belonged to my mother," he explained.
"Of course it did!" smiled Edgerton. "In my day I've sold a lot of stuff which I said belonged to relations. All the same, I'm sure the buyers didn't believe me."
He examined the diamond carefully. "A very good stone," was his verdict, "and, to buy, it would cost anything up to £200. Still, selling where no questions were asked you'd be lucky if you got £70."
"And if you sold it openly to a jeweller?" asked Ramon.
"If you dared to, that might get you £20 or £30 more. Still, it would be a risk with a diamond of that size. You would be astonished how the Hatton Garden merchants can recognise almost every big stone which has passed through their hands years and years afterwards."
Ramon was in his twenty-eighth year when he met Edgerton and from that hour his whole life was altered and he passed at once into the ranks of the swell mob, that dangerous crowd who in all countries gives the authorities so much trouble. Educated men with all outward signs of respectability, they move in good-class society circles upon whose members they prey. Their activities come often under the notice of the police, but their personalities are hidden and they flit like shadows through the criminal world.
Edgerton introduced Ramon into several good-class clubs and, playing warily, they made good money in the card-rooms, only very occasionally, however, attempting to bring off a big thing, and then only when they had most carefully selected their victims. Edgerton could stack a pack of cards with the best of sharpers and, when dealing, give himself or his partners aces with the ability of a professional conjurer. He taught Ramon all he knew, and the latter, most capable with his hands, was an apt pupil, indeed in time quite equalling if not excelling the skill of his teacher.
Young Warden played a minor but very useful part in their adventures, his chief role being to get them introduced into wealthy circles. His father was the Honourable Lionel Warden, a most estimable old gentleman, always willing to be agreeable to his son's friends, with never the faintest idea, however, what sort of people those friends really were. Ostensibly, Warden helped Edgerton in his wine and spirit agency in Leadenhall Street, but the business was nearly wholly in the hands of a manager who just made things pay.
Ramon had realised his dream and set up as an outside stockbroker, making quite a good thing of it and in time far more than paying his way. For all that, appetite growing with eating, his main interest in life was the adventure of making money in unlawful ways. The partners had not a few successful robberies to their credit, precious stones and small portable objets d'art being their speciality, with their methods of acquirement, broadly speaking, always running on similar lines.
They favoured the country houses of wealthy people. One or other of them, never more than one at a time, would be staying as a guest there, and spy out the land. Before concluding his visit he would make possible the entry to be made later by tampering with the fastenings of some door or window, the favourite way being filing the threads of the screws as Ramon had done in his first venture, so that they had a poor hold in the wood and would push out easily. Then, with as little delay as possible, the house would be broken into.
Both Edgerton and Ramon had plenty of courage, but the former was dead against all forms of violence. Ramon, however, of a much more brutal temperament, had no such scruples and there had been a fierce quarrel once when he used a knuckle-duster with fatal effect upon a lodge-keeper who was trying to stop them as they were motoring away.
"But don't you realise that lifts the burglary on to a new plane," had stormed Edgerton, "and brings the homicide squad upon us. We're wanted now on the capital charge."
"And we'll remain wanted," said Ramon coolly. "They'll never catch us. They've not got the ghost of a clue."
"But it means, too," went on Edgerton angrily, "that everything we get is dead money to us. It'll be years almost before I dare approach any fence to get rid of the stuff. It's one thing to handle the proceeds of a simple burglary, but quite a different one when a murder's been tacked on to it. I've always told you that violence is against all my rules of life."
Ultimately, the quarrel was patched up, but Ramon was not altogether sorry when, a few months later, both Edgerton and Warden were drowned when upon a holiday and boating off the Cornish coast. Edgerton had been a strong swimmer and could have got to shore easily, but staying behind to help his companion, who was an indifferent one, had been too much for him and they had both been lost.
Ramon knew all the ropes now and, though his discreditable activities at cards were considerably curtailed for lack of a cheating partner, was not altogether sorry they were gone, as now no one was alive who knew he was wanted for murder.
Deep in the toils, however, of the excitement of pitting himself against the authorities and with unlawful adventures become the obsession of his life, as time went on he realised the difficulties in working all alone and so looked about for another partner. Ultimately he found one in Joseph Douro, the proprietor of a flash night-club. Becoming friendly together, they had soon sized each other up and come to a thorough understanding.
Douro, in some ways, was as unscrupulous as anyone could have wished and, well educated and with charming manners and address, would have passed anywhere as a gentleman. Of Spanish extraction, he had been the manager of a fashionable hotel in Buenos Aires, but, becoming involved in a fight where a man had been knifed and subsequently died, he had had to fly the country as quickly as he could. A man of courage, and a great gambler, in some ways he was a man very much after Ramon's own heart.
They had worked together for a time and then Douro had introduced a third partner to work with them. He was Braddock by name, a civil engineer by profession, a Bachelor of Science. Ramon had not at first altogether liked his association with them, as, though educated and well-spoken, his appearance was not too prepossessing. He looked too much on the surface what he was, a hard and tough customer of a bad type.
The two partners, however, had wanted him badly at the time, as they were intending to bring off a good scoop in a city warehouse where a safe had had to be opened. The robbery had been quite successful, and as the new recruit had handled the night-watchman so roughly that he died of his injuries the next day, Ramon had become somewhat reconciled to him, as the man had now every reason to hold his tongue. Later, too, upon several occasions he was most helpful to them. When Ramon was thirty-four he was in good circumstances and, in the city, was making quite all he really needed. He rented a luxurious flat in South Kensington and a bungalow on the Norfolk Broads where he spent most of the generous holidays and week-ends he gave himself. He attended nearly all the race meetings in the vicinity of town and occasionally owned a jumper himself.
He was not married and, indeed, generally speaking, was not much interested in the other sex. The great majority of them he thought weak, and he had no time for weakness of any kind. Certainly he had had a few affairs, but they had been only of a passing nature, and he had soon tired. With the entree into some of the best circles and good-looking and of undoubtedly distinguished appearance, he could have married well had he wanted to, but it was the chase and not the quarry which appealed to him. He told himself he would never take any woman 'for keeps'.
One morning he was seated at breakfast in his flat, reading the morning newspaper, and that he was intensely interested in it was evidenced by his allowing his breakfast to get cold. He was reading about the burglary of two nights back at Bentham Hall in Norfolk. Apparently, it had been a thorough job, not carried out, however, without a tragedy, as old Jevons, the Hall butler, had met his death when, presumably, attempting to defend his master's property. He had been struck two savage blows on the head, either of which would have killed him, and had been found the next morning, cold and stiff, close by the rifled cases which had contained Sir Jeremy Rollison's treasures.
Sir Jeremy had been robbed, not only of almost all his valuable silver, but also of a dozen and more of priceless medieval manuscripts. The burglars had left behind no clues whatsoever and it appeared the police had little chance of catching them.
Ramon smiled to himself. No, the police had certainly no chance! It was as good a job as he had ever engineered and, except for the unexpected appearance of the butler, had been carried out without a hitch. He had been a guest at the Hall the previous week and had thoroughly prepared the ground. He had made certain where everyone slept, where everything was kept, and he had seen to it that the getting in would be perfectly easy.
He frowned to himself when he thought of the butler. "But I had to silence him and make certain, too, that he was dead," he muttered. "I had no choice, for as he stood gaping at us he must have heard that fool Douro call me Ramon. Certainly he wouldn't have been able to recognise me then, but the name would have struck him and he'd have remembered it afterwards. It's such a damned uncommon name."
His thoughts ran on. "The only regret I have in having done it is now that those two will know they have a hold on me. I wouldn't stake my life that if Douro were in a hole he wouldn't turn on me, and, faced with a hanging, Braddock, too, might show the yellow streak."
He smiled, an evil smile on his handsome face. "Well, Edgerton and Warden were drowned when out boating, and so why not, if it became necessary, Douro and Braddock? I could take them for a sail and anything might happen. I know Douro can't swim."
Finishing his breakfast and entering his study, he took the stolen manuscripts, whose loss Sir Jeremy was so grieving about, out of a drawer and proceeded to go carefully through one of them. He knew nothing about old manuscripts and it had been only an afterthought which had made him snatch them up. It had struck him that anything Sir Jeremy collected must be of some value.
Going through them carelessly the previous evening, he had suddenly become most interested in this particular one, scenting the possibility of making, with any luck, a great profit out of it.
This particular manuscript, in quaint old English characters and rather troublesome to read, had been written in the year fifteen hundred and fifty seven and dealt with the spoliation of the monasteries by "Ye Renegade King, Henry ye Eighth of England", and it told of a priest, one Father Francesco, who had been instrumental in preventing "muche golde and treasure" from falling into the wicked king's hands. It related how one night this Father had set out from the Benedictine Abbey in Bury St. Edmunds and with a packhorse, heavily laden with the treasure, and how from that hour no man had heard anything more of him or of what he had been carrying away. It was known that, rather than the gold and gloriously bejewelled sacramental vessels falling into the hands of the evil king, he had vowed they should be interred for ever with him in some unknown and nameless grave.
Ramon was so greatly interested because he was sure that, by a strange freak of chance, he knew where Francesco had died and been buried. Giosue Carducci, the Italian poet, had been one of his mother's grandfathers, and through him there had come down to her, as a family heirloom, a Catholic breviary many hundreds of years old. Ramon had often seen the prayer book, and on the fly-leaf was inscribed, in sprawling and scarcely decipherable characters, "Francesco, ye humble servante of God and ye great Cardinal Wolsey, St. Cyprian's, Norfolk. Anno Domini 1549."
Ramon was thrilled at the idea of discovering where the priest had been buried. If he turned out to be the same Francesco who had outwitted King Henry VIII all those hundreds of years ago, and the date certainly made it look like it, then, perhaps, at his request, all this gold stuff had been buried with him. St. Cyprian's was undoubtedly a church or religious house of some kind and, being in Norfolk, should not be hard to locate. He nodded to himself. He would say nothing to Douro or Braddock about it.
A little later, on his way up to the city, he called in at a public library in Knightsbridge to consult a Clerical Directory and was very disappointed he could find no mention of a church called St. Cyprian's. Then he suddenly remembered with much uneasiness the many churches in East Anglia which, during the last hundred years, had been overwhelmed by the encroachment of the sea. Norwich would be where, he told himself, he would learn all about them.
Accordingly, the following Friday, going down to his bungalow on the Broads for a long week-end, he called in at Norwich, and was referred at once to the library of a Norwich museum, being told he could there learn all he wanted to know about the old churches of East Anglia.
At the museum he was informed they had a book which they believed covered all the churches and religious houses which had ever existed, in both Norfolk and Suffolk, but, as it was old and very valuable, it was not generally open to the public. However, if he gave them his card, with the consent of the head librarian, he would probably be allowed to examine the book, though, of course, he would not be allowed to take it out of the room.
So Ramon sent in his card and, after filling in a form, was taken into the manuscript room and passed over to its sole occupant, a young girl typing upon a desk in the corner. With all his usual indifference to the other sex, Ramon could not help noticing how pretty she was. She proceeded to attend to him at once and from a glass case produced a thick and heavy book and laid it carefully upon a small table. Pulling up a chair, he sat down and proceeded to go through it.
There was no doubt about it being very old. Its pages were yellow and stained and the print small and hard to read. It had no index. With his impatient nature, he sighed heavily at the task before him, but at once started to go through it, scanning down the pages as quickly as he could, making sure, however, he would not miss what he wanted. It was a long business and nearly a whole hour had passed before he came upon a record of the Church of St. Cyprian. To his great disappointment, he read it had been burnt down during the reign of James I in 1610. It had been situated on the coast, near the village of Blackstone in Norfolk. Then followed its history and a long description of its architecture. Much of the detail was technical and Ramon did not understand it. For all that, he realised, it would be most valuable if any search were made in the ruins for the burial place of that Father Francesco. As the one-time chaplain to the great Cardinal Wolsey, he felt sure his importance would have been such that he had been interred in the vaults below the church and not in any churchyard.
He was thinking he would have to laboriously copy everything down when, happening to glance round, he saw the young woman had left the desk and was, apparently, no longer in the room.
Always a man of quick decisions, as quick as lightning, he took out his pen-knife and with deft strokes, but, with all his haste, made with great care, proceeded to cut the entire page from the book. He had just finished when he heard what sounded like a deep sigh behind him, and, springing to his feet and turning swiftly round, to his consternation saw the girl whom he had thought had left the room standing within three paces of him. She was staring at him with lips parted and widely-opened eyes.
In a flash he realised what had happened. She had not left the room, but only moved from her desk, and, the colour of her dress harmonising with that of the wall, he had not noticed her when he had given his quick look round.
For a long moment the two stood staring at each other, both speechless in their surprise. Ramon, however, recovered first and, with hands he could feel were unsteady, snatched out his wallet and abstracted from it two £5 notes. He held them out towards her.
The girl gave them a quick glance and then looked back to him. She made no movement to take the notes.
Ramon realised that things looked very awkward. He had been caught red-handed and there was no possible excuse that he could make. The girl had only to raise her voice and help would immediately be forthcoming from the adjoining room. He smiled ruefully at the truly terrible position he was in. Then, to his unbounded relief, the girl smiled too. She reached for the notes and, crushing them in her hand, returned unconcernedly to her desk.
Ramon thrust the page into his pocket, picked up his hat and with a deep bow, and a smiling nod of thanks to the girl, turned quickly round and proceeded to leave the room.
Neither had spoken a word, and it had been all over in less than a minute. Thus was Ramon Ellister's first meeting with Agatha Wandsworth.
He was glad to be out in the street again. "Gad, that was a tight corner," he muttered, "and for a few moments it looked devilish awkward! What a careless fool I was not to see she was still in the room! But what a sensible girl she is and what a pretty one, too! Now if ever I'm idiot enough to marry, she'd be the kind of woman I'd choose."
The next morning he motored along the coast road towards Blackstone, but came upon no ruins of any church. He called in at the village inn to have a drink and make enquiries.
"But if you came along the coast road, sir," said the landlord, "you must have passed it. It's about three-quarters of a mile from here, just behind a low squat-looking house. There's not much of the church standing, but what's left is right behind the house. Part of the old church wall is the back wall of the house."
Ramon remembered passing the house. "Anyone living there?" he asked.
"Yes, sir, Professor Mildmay. He's very clever, though peculiar in a lot of his ways. He lives there all alone and writes books."
"No servant?" queried Ramon.
"Mrs. Binks, sir, from the village here. She goes up every morning for some hours, and there's a jobbing gardener and handyman once a week."
"The house looks very old," said Ramon.
"It is old, sir. I've heard tell more than a hundred years. Folks say it was built for smugglers and that's why there's a little window in a sort of loft above the front door. The smugglers used to flash a light there. Some years ago this professor bought the entire place for, I think, £1,000."
Ramon was now so sure he was on a good thing that he resolved to buy the house and make his investigations at his leisure. Motoring back slowly past the house, he picked out the remains of two of the church pillars, now overgrown with ivy. He was half minded to call at once upon this eccentric professor and ask him to sell. However, he told himself he must not appear too eager and so would phone him in a casual sort of way.
Accordingly, that afternoon he got speech with the professor and, saying he was an artist and had taken a sudden fancy to the place, offered to buy it for £1,200. The professor replied politely enough that the house was not for sale, but, for all that, Ramon suggested he should think the offer over. On the Monday Ramon rang up from town, now raising his offer to £1,500. The professor again refused, this time rather irritably. Finally, a few days later Ramon rang up for the third time and stated he was prepared to give £2,000. The professor was now downright angry and, repeating he would not sell at any price, ordered him sharply not to annoy him by ringing up any more.
"All right," snarled Ramon when he had hung up the receiver, "I'll get at you, you little devil, in another way," and that night, realising it was going to be no one-man job, reluctantly took Douro and Braddock into his confidence. He explained everything and showed them the prayer book which he had borrowed from his mother.
"And this is going to be no potty £100 business," he told them, "far more likely it'll run into fifty or a hundred thousand pounds. The monasteries had tremendous treasures in those days and what that monk went off with is certain to have been buried with him in the vaults. And it shouldn't be difficult to get at, either, as, once being a smuggler's house, there's almost sure to be a secret way down from it into what was once the burial place below the church. So, we'll mark down this damned professor straightaway and find out what'll be the best way to deal with him. We're not going to be put off, whatever we have to do. It may turn out to be the best job we have handled."
"MR. LAROSE, I am being watched," said the small scholarly-looking man with the high forehead. "I live alone in a lonely house on a lonely shore and I do not know what it means. I am concerned about what is going to happen next."
Gilbert Larose, a one-time international detective, had had a meteoric career when attached to the Criminal Investigation Department of Scotland Yard, rising to a chief inspectorship in his thirtieth year. Now for six years happily married to the wealthy widow of Sir Charles Ardane, he had left the C.I.D. and was living at Carmel Abbey in Norfolk. Still on the right side of forty, he was a good-looking man with a bright, humorous face and very shrewd blue eyes. Notwithstanding his life as a country gentleman, he was still interested in all matters connected with his old calling and strangers often brought their difficulties and mysteries to him. Just now he was contemplatively regarding the card a visitor had just handed to him; "Professor Mildmay, The Gap House, Blackstone, Norfolk." Underneath was pencilled, "F.R.S., M.D., F.R.C.P."
It was one beautiful morning in late spring, and the two men were seated in the library of the Abbey. Larose looked up and surveyed his visitor intently. "Are you still in practice, Professor?" he asked.
"No, no," replied the other quickly, "I gave up practice five and twenty years ago to accept the Chair of Anthropology at Cambridge University and occupied it up to eight years ago. Then I retired to devote almost my whole time to private study. I have been living by myself at Blackstone Gap ever since."
"Then how are you being watched?" asked Larose.
The professor frowned. "Strangers are continually coming to stare up at the house and I have even caught them taking photographs of it, back and front and both sides. Men stop for quite a long time to look over the low garden wall at my flowers, and, though except at the height of summer the shore is not much frequented, lately, whenever I move even a few hundred yards from the house, it always seems someone is about."
Larose was inclined to think his visitor was a crank, and smiled indulgently. "But about the flowers, Professor," he said, "nearly everyone likes nice flowers and surely it would not be unnatural for passers-by to stop to admire them?"
"Ah, but mine are not nice flowers," exclaimed the professor quickly. "They are just ordinary common ones and the garden is badly kept. Apart from that, some of the people who of late have stopped to look over the wall are not of the type, particularly one of them, who would be interested in flowers." He smiled in his turn. "Now, don't think I've got a bee in my bonnet, for I haven't. Long before I started to make the evolution of man as a social animal my life study, I had a good grounding in criminology; I was for three years a doctor in a prison." He nodded emphatically. "And I tell you that one of these gentlemen whom I have seen several times looking over my wall, to an expert such as I am, is of a criminal type, a most unpleasant-looking fellow."
Larose was now inclined to somewhat modify his opinion as to his visitor's crankiness and asked interestedly, "And how long has this watching, as you call it, been going on?"
"For about a fortnight," replied the professor, "and, as I say, the puzzle is I don't know where it is going to end. Why should any strangers have become so suddenly interested in me and my flowers and my house?" He shook his head vexatiously. "But there, I haven't put things before you in their proper order. There has been more than watching going on."
"Oh, more than just looking at your flowers?" exclaimed Larose.
The professor nodded. "Yes, much more; and one thing, to my thinking, has a decidedly sinister aspect. A woman—but I'll start right at the very beginning." He considered for a few moments and then went on. "About a month ago—- I think it was April the eighth, to be exact—a man rang me to know if he could buy The Gap House. He said he understood I had paid only £1,000 for it, but, as he had taken a great fancy to the place, he was prepared to give me £1,500. I turned the offer down at once, and told him the house wasn't for sale. As a matter of fact I couldn't have sold it if I had wanted to, as it belongs to a cousin of mine and I only rent it from him."
"Did this man give his name?" asked Larose.
"No, he gave no name. He only stated he was an artist. Though I gave him no encouragement, he wouldn't take my refusal as final and asked me to think it over. Two days later he rang me up again, now raising his offer to £2,000. I was quite rude to him and, refusing emphatically, cut the conversation short."
"And then the watching commenced almost at once?" asked Larose.
The professor nodded. "Soon afterwards!" He lowered his voice mysteriously. "And then a most singular happening occurred." He smiled. "You see, Mr. Larose, I may be considered eccentric, if peace and no disturbance to my work are eccentricity. My house is not a small one, but I have never liked anyone living inside with me. So, all these seven years I have had a daily woman coming up from the village, about three-quarters of a mile away. Her hours were from nine to two. She cleaned that part of the house I use and saw to my midday meal. After that I saw nothing of her until the next day. I have had the same woman with me all the time."
"And you've left her now in charge of the house, while you have come to see me?" asked Larose.
The professor shook his head. "No, I was going on to tell you she is no longer with me. She has become so crippled with rheumatism that she will never be fit for work again. A jobbing gardener and handy man from the same village, whom I have occasionally employed for some years and whom I can trust thoroughly, is on guard to-day. I have not as yet filled the woman's place. Well, as I found I could not get another local woman, I realised, however much I disliked the idea, that I should have to engage an all-time housekeeper who would live in. So last Friday I advertised in the Norwich Courier for one."
The professor's face here took on a grim look as he continued. "Then on the Sunday morning a candidate for the situation arrived on a bicycle and I interviewed her in the hall." He frowned heavily. "I didn't allow her to come any farther into the house, as one look at her was sufficient. I would never have dreamed of employing her. She was a gaunt, strong-looking woman, whose face at once seemed somehow vaguely familiar to me. I didn't like the look of her and thought her a criminal type. She was hard, with furtive eyes set close together, her forehead was receding and her facial angle bad." He scowled. "God, I wouldn't have had her in the house for a single night! She looked just the kind to cut my throat if I offended her."
Larose was amused at the professor's vehemence. "And you sent her packing?" he said.
"At once! I told her the situation was already filled and tried to get rid of her as quickly as possible, but she was persistent and actually started to argue with me. She spoke in a husky whisper and said she did not mind how small the salary was, as all she wanted was a quiet life. She was a widow and had lost her husband under tragic circumstances; he had been run over by a motor lorry before her very eyes, and she wanted to get away from streets and towns and try to forget it. Yes, I tell you she was persistent, but I managed to get rid of her at last and to close the door."
He took an envelope out of his pocket and went on impressively. "Then, when she was reluctantly going down the little path of my front garden, she went very slowly and kept turning round to stare at the house. I was watching her from the window of my room and saw her eyes roam all round the roof, exactly as if she were looking to see where she could get up. It happened I had my camera on the table—I am quite a good amateur photographer, and had had it out to shoot a big gull which had been sitting on the low wall—and I grabbed it up and, at one of her turnings round, got a good snap of her." He took an unmounted photograph out of his envelope and held it out to Larose. "Tell me what you think of it? My camera is an expensive one and I got it with a telescopic lens. See how beautifully her face comes out?"
"Hum," remarked Larose thoughtfully, "certainly not a nice face and it does rather suggest a criminal type!"
"But don't you notice something unusual about her altogether?" asked the professor excitedly. "Doesn't anything strike you? It did me the moment I had got the print."
Larose looked at the photograph very hard and then frowned. "I would almost say," he said slowly, "she was a man and not a woman. She has a pronounced masculine look and——"
"Exactly!" cried the professor exultantly. "And she was a man! I saw her yesterday when I was in Norwich, coming out of the Royal Hotel, and it gave me a great shock because I recognised her instantly. I knew, too, why her face, as I said, was vaguely familiar to me when she called. She was the unpleasant-looking man whom I had seen several times staring over the garden wall at my flowers."
"Did he see you looking at him in Norwich?" asked Larose.
"Yes; but fortunately not before I had had time to hide my astonishment. Oh, yes, he recognised me right enough, for his mouth gaped and for a few seconds he looked horribly embarrassed. Then he turned his back to me as quickly as he could and swung off up the street."
"What kind of fellow did he look?" asked Larose. "I mean was he in working clothes or well-dressed?"
"Oh, well-dressed," nodded the professor, "and so were the two men who were with him! It was so funny. He almost dragged them away with him, and as they went along, one on either side of him, from their intent sideways looks at him I am sure he was explaining to them the reason for his haste."
"This was only yesterday, you say?" said Larose.
The professor nodded again. "Yes, only yesterday, and that's what's made me come to you so quickly. It was the climax of everything." He looked very troubled. "Now, Mr. Larose, what does it all mean, this persisting in trying to buy my house, this coming to spy round and the sending of that man, dressed as a woman, to get taken on as housekeeper? I ask you, what does it all mean?"
Larose's interest was now thoroughly aroused. "It means they want something that's in the house," he said gravely. "There's no doubt about that. And it means, too, they're not going to be easily put off from trying to get it." He spoke sharply. "Tell me, is there anything peculiar about your house?"
The professor made a grimace. "I suppose some people would say there was. At any rate, it is built on the site where there was once a church, and it is known it was used by smugglers, generations ago."
"On the site of a church!" exclaimed Larose. "Then what became of the church?"
"It was burnt down right to the ground," replied the professor, "more than three hundred years ago. There are only two broken pillars standing, and part of a wall which forms the back wall of my house."
"Ho, ho!" exclaimed Larose animatedly. "Then, of course, it looks as if these men think there is something of value among the ruins and that's why they want the house! They believe, perhaps, they've found out some important secret."
"There is only one secret which could be found out," commented the professor a little testily, "and that"—he spoke most impressively—"is known only to two living persons, my cousin and myself."
"And may I ask what the secret is," smiled Larose, "or don't you want to tell me?"
"Oh, I'll tell you," said the professor readily, "if only because I've come to you as a sort of Father Confessor." He hesitated a moment and then dropped his voice to a whisper. "The secret is that there is a way down from my house into what were once the vaults of this church."
"And you imagine no one but you and your cousin know it?" asked Larose rather incredulously.
"I'm certain of it," replied the professor, "because of what I found in the vaults when I went down. There was all evidence no one had been there for more than eighty years." He smiled gleefully. "What do you think I discovered? Why, five ten-gallon casks of French brandy! Never been tapped! Just as they were when they had been brought there!"
"By Jove," laughed Larose, "that was a find!"
"Yes. And of course the casks had been left by the smugglers. There was a sort of account book there, too, all sere and yellow with age, and I could just make out the last entry had been made in November 1846. Now isn't that proof no one has been there since?"
"It certainly does look like it," agreed Larose; "but how do you account for the kegs having been forgotten?"
"Quite simply!" nodded the professor. "All the smugglers—of course they were the local fishermen—had been drowned in a fearful storm which swept round the Norfolk coast at the end of November in that year. I read about it in The Chronicles of East Anglia. It said the storm came up so suddenly that the menfolk of many little fishing villages were entirely wiped out. Indeed, that month the sea so encroached upon Blackstone Sands that all the little houses below the Gap, close to my house, had to be abandoned. For generations now there has been no trace left of any of the habitations."
"Most interesting!" exclaimed Larose. "And you say you've lived in this house for eight years! Then who owned it before you came there?"
"A clergyman from Norwich who had had it for more than thirty years and used it only as a holiday house. When he died it was put up for auction and my cousin was the only bidder. He bid £800, but ultimately took it and the adjoining land for £1,000. The whole site upon which the church once stood—it was called St. Cyprian's—belongs to him. Besides the two broken pillars, there are several big mounds of half-buried masonry lying about, drifted over by the sand and covered with tussocks of coarse sea-grass."
"Are there any fishermen near you now?" asked Larose.
The professor shook his head. "No, not one, and the nearest inhabited dwelling to me is a small coast-guard station a little more than half a mile away. That's the only inhabited house I can see from my house. Everywhere else is shut away from view by the cliffs and the rise of the land behind me."
"It must be very lonely for you," remarked Larose.
"It is, and though I'm anything but a timid man, I can't help feeling a little uneasy at the position I am in. Now, what do you advise me to do, Mr. Larose?"
"For one thing," smiled Larose, "buy a pistol if you haven't already got one and keep it always handy." His face became grave. "But I really don't know what advice to give you, except that you certainly ought not to go on living alone. There ought to be another man with you, and then this gang—for of course it is some kind of gang you're up against—would think twice before interfering with you." He shrugged his shoulders. "Otherwise I'm afraid they'll go on doing something. They seem so determined."
"That's what I think," nodded the professor, "and what troubles me quite a lot is that they're not needy men with no resources behind them. They appear to be well supplied with money, and, besides that, they don't look common, uneducated men. That one who was trying to pose to me as a woman, though unpleasant-looking and, to trained observers such as you and me, of a criminal type, with ordinary people might pass as a gentleman of sorts. The two others, too, I saw with him in Norwich, from the fleeting glance I got of them, might be professional men."
"Exactly," nodded Larose. "And from the educated classes have always sprung the most dangerous criminals!" A short silence followed and then the professor said earnestly, "Look here, sir, couldn't you come and have a look at the place? It'd give you an idea of how lonely and unprotected I am. It isn't far, only just over thirty miles from here."
"Yes, I certainly will," replied Larose. "You've interested me and I'd like to help you in any way I can." He frowned. "But I'm sorry I can't come to-day. I'm presiding at a public meeting this afternoon, and I shan't be free until nearly five o'clock."
"But couldn't you come after then," urged the professor. His face brightened. "What about stopping the night? I can put you up quite comfortably and there'll be a good meal, at any rate some cold fowl and ham, and, with a bit of luck, a lobster." He smiled in some amusement. "And don't forget there'll be some of that old brandy to sample, too."
"A-ah, that settles it," laughed Larose. "I know whereabouts the Gap is and I'll be with you about six o'clock."
It was, however, nearly seven before he turned off into the narrow road leading down to the Gap, and, when eventually coming in sight of what he knew must be the professor's house, he frowned heavily. "Gad," he exclaimed, "but what a lonely place! It needs some pluck to go on living here alone with all this mystery about!"
The squat-looking rambling house of one storey was situated on a low cliff between two much higher ones. Its little garden ran almost to the cliff's edge and was enclosed with a wall about four feet high. When Larose was only about two hundred yards away he suddenly heard firing, four shots ringing out in quick succession.
"Damnation!" he swore, speeding up his car quickly. "The devilry's already started and I may have come just too late!"
Tearing down the road which led to the back of the house, he was, however, greatly relieved to see the professor himself, interestedly regarding a good-sized tin which he had just taken off the wall.
"Ah, so you've come at last!" exclaimed the professor in some relief. "It's getting so late that I was beginning to be afraid you'd altered your mind."
"No, I was delayed," said Larose. "But what was all that shooting?"
The professor laughed happily. "Me! I bought a little pistol, as you advised me, at Fakenham on my way home, and I was trying it out to see how it went. I haven't fired one before." He made a grimace. "It appears I'm not much of a shot, as I've missed this old tin every time, and I wasn't far away either."
Larose garaged his car, in a big, roomy stable and the professor proceeded to show him round. "But don't go too near the cliff," he warned, "as it is always crumbling away. At high water the waves break right up on it, and there's a strong undercurrent which would drag you out to sea in no time. When the sea's rough even a good swimmer would stand a poor chance."
He pointed out to him the big heaps of fallen masonry and the two crumbling pillars which were all that remained upright. "See," he said, "it must have been quite a big and important church in its time. Still, that's nothing, as you know, for East Anglia. There are a good number of ruined churches round the coast and scores more have been lost by the encroachment of the sea. Do all the authorities can, this coast is still being gradually devoured as it has been for many hundreds of years."
"You've never poked about under those heaps of masonry, I suppose?" asked Larose.
The professor shook his head. "No, I haven't been interested enough." He nodded. "But when those walls fell I think their impact must have made a crack somewhere in the roof of those vaults underneath, for fresh air gets in somehow. I can't find out where, but I must be right, because the air there is never foul."
Larose took in everything all round. "You're lonely right enough," he said, "but as long as the phone wires are intact you're not quite cut off from the world." He looked at him with a grim smile. "If ever you find your line dead at night, then be prepared for trouble and have that pistol handy. Don't forget to keep it always with a full magazine."
They went into the house and the professor was evidently very proud of his possessions. "See the oak panelling," he said. "Isn't it splendid? All the wood inside is probably as good as the day it was put up. Look at the thickness of the walls, too. No damp gets in anywhere."
Larose nodded in appreciation. "And what a massive front door! It'd take some breaking down!"
"Oh, yes, I'm all safe when I'm locked in," laughed the professor. "There are iron shutters to every window in the house. Now for our little meal; but I'll light the lamp first. It's getting dark so early and there'll be a big storm soon, from the look of the sky."
Over the meal, and the old brandy, which Larose pronounced in absolute good faith as being as fine as any he had ever tasted, the professor explained how he had come to find the way down into the vaults. "One of those panels over there in the wall near the fireplace slides back," he said. "I only found it out just before last Christmas, and it was almost accidentally." He smiled. "Still, observation and deduction came in, too. If you remember we had some very cold nights last year, colder than I ever remember, or at any rate I felt them more, so I moved this table to where it is now, nearer to the fireplace. Then I noticed that sometimes when I struck a match the flame often bent slightly in a certain direction. It was a long while before I took it in and then it dawned upon me there was a slight draught coming from somewhere."
"Always?" asked Larose.
"No, only sometimes, and gradually I began to associate it with a strong wind blowing from the east. So one night, just out of curiosity, nothing more, for the draught was so slight it did not annoy me, I decided to find out where the draught came from. I struck match after match by the panelling and at last found where they flickered most. It was always at the junction of two particular panels. I pushed and shoved and, finally, forced the blade of a thin knife between the panels. Then, suddenly, hey presto! one of the panels moved, and I was able to slide it aside. You can imagine my amazement when I saw a big, gaping hole with the top of a ladder showing over the edge. But come on now, I'll take you down after I've lit the hurricane lantern."
He slid back the panel. "I will go down first and show a light below. The ladder's quite safe. It's of thick, solid oak and in good condition."
Descending the ladder, Larose found himself in a long, wide chamber, about seven feet in height, and with its far end lost in the shadows. Big, massive-looking stone flags formed the floor, and all around the walls were broad stone shelves. There was the strong, heavy smell of decaying masonry, but the air was not foul or damp. There was nothing movable in the chamber except the kegs of brandy.
The professor swung the lantern round. "I expect there were lots of coffins upon those shelves once," he said, "but the smugglers must have made a clean sweep of them when they came down." He pointed to a corner. "That's evidently where the door was which led up into the church. See the blackened end of the big oak beam sticking out from the blocking masonry? So it's pretty certain that when the roof of the burning church crashed down it brought that beam with it, which makes it quite sure no one has been down here from outside since the day of the fire."
"It looks like it," agreed Larose. He tapped the pavement with his foot and pointed to the faint lettering upon some of the flags. "But there must be a lot of coffins underneath. Can you make out any of the names?"
"Only on one," replied the professor, "and they have puzzled me a lot. Come over here." He placed the lantern on the ground, and indicated a flag close by. "Look, if you get the light right, you can pick out some of the words quite clearly." He traced upon the flag with his finger.
"See—some words you can't read and then you can make out quite plainly, 'Francesco, ye Humble Servante of God'. After that something-something, and then comes 'Thomas Wolsey. In ye Year of Our Lorde 1551'."
"The great Cardinal Wolsey!" exclaimed Larose. "That's a find, isn't it? Fancy him being buried here! By Jove, perhaps that's what these men are after, the cardinal buried with his jewelled mitre and a lot of valuable things!"
The professor shook his head. "But that can't be! That's all wrong! Cardinal Wolsey was buried in the Abbey at Leicester. I've looked up my history to make sure. Besides, he didn't die in 1551. It was in 1530, long before Henry VIII, who was probably going to behead him. Henry died seventeen years after, in 1547." He laughed. "I've tried to get my cousin to come down and look at these additions to his property. He lives in Penzance and won't make the long journey, chiefly, I think, because he's a golf maniac and almost lives only for the game. Not even the brandy would tempt him down. He's a retired naval man, Commodore Smith, and a bachelor like myself."
Larose was still looking at the flag with 'Thomas Wolsey' cut into it. He frowned as if very puzzled. "But is it likely," he asked, "that an untrue inscription would have been put on that stone? What on earth would it have been done for"—he shrugged his shoulders—"unless there were two Thomas Wolseys?"
"I hardly think that," said the professor, "and I tell you it's puzzled me quite a lot. Frankly, I don't pretend to understand it."
Returning up into the house and closing the secret panel, the professor went on briskly, "Well, what do you make of it all, Mr. Larose? What's the verdict? To my thinking it's nothing in those vaults they're after. It's something in this house they want, or otherwise they wouldn't have tried to plant that woman-man here as my housekeeper."
"But if that's so," asked Larose, "why should they have been taking photographs, as you say they did, of the outside of the house and particularly of the back part where there's only that thick wall? No, no, as I take it, it is something they believe is hidden in the vaults they're after, and their main interest in the house is because it has been built upon what was part of the church. They took those photographs to estimate from the general picture they got over exactly what part it stands."
"But how would it help them in any way," frowned back the professor, "to have a confederate here in my house?"
"Because, having satisfied themselves that the vaults do lie underneath the house, they suspect—what you know for certain—that there is a way here of getting down to them."
"But why should they suspect that at all?" argued the professor. "We know for certain that no one has suspected it for at least eighty years, and why should they be thinking of it now?"
"Probably," laughed Larose, "because their wits have been sharpened by something they believe they have learnt about what is hidden in those vaults. They have been put on the alert and, making enquiries about this house, what is more likely than that they have learnt it was used by smugglers once? Then wouldn't it follow, too, that if the smugglers hadn't discovered a way down they would have made one?"
The professor sighed. "I suppose so. At any rate, as you put it, it all sounds feasible." He made a wry face. "Well, what do you suggest I do now?"
"Sit tight," replied Larose, "and——"
"Oh, I'll sit tight," burst in the professor. "I'm not a coward and I won't give in to anyone. I'll shoot them down like dogs if they come interfering with me. I'm not afraid."
"And get a man here to live with you," said Larose, "at any rate for a time."
"I've been thinking all to-day that I ought to do that," said the professor, "and I intend to write to that cousin of mine, straightaway. He's lived an adventurous life and is as tough as blazes, so that if I pitch it hot and strong that there's real danger here, that something is threatening me, I half think he'll pack his trunks and, golf or no golf, come right away. At any rate I'm going to try to get him. He's ten years younger than I am and will stand no nonsense from anyone."
"That's it," laughed Larose, "That's the very kind of man you want. Mention my name and tell him I think the matter's serious. Tell him, too, that I'm sure it would be worth his while to see if there's anything of value in those vaults."
They talked on upon all kinds of subjects until late in the night, with Larose finding the professor a most interesting companion. The latter was a man of wide reading and had travelled in many parts of the world. Physically, with all his sixty-three years, he was full of energy, and there was no doubt about his courage, too. He was game as a pebble and, in a way, quite thrilled about the mystery in which he was now involved.
In parting next morning, Larose said he would be seeing him again very shortly. He was motoring up to town that morning and did not quite know when he would be back. When in town, he promised he would look up an archaeologist friend he had at the British Museum and try to find out something about the church over part of which the house had been built.
"And I'll ask him about this Francesco," he concluded, "and what is his explanation, too, of Cardinal Wolsey's name being on that tombstone. As well as being an archaeologist he's a well-known historian and I may find out quite a lot from him. Of course, I'll bind him to secrecy about the whole business."
It happened, however, that Larose did not get back home as soon as he had been expecting and it was just a week when he returned to Carmel Abbey. Then, rather to his anxiety, he learnt that the professor had rung for him several times, leaving the message that he wanted to see him as soon as possible, as the matter was urgent.
He went at once to the phone and was somewhat relieved when he heard the professor's voice in answer. "Yes," exclaimed the latter eagerly, "I want to see you very badly. I can't say what for over the phone, but the matter's really urgent."
"Will it wait until to-morrow?" asked Larose.
"Well, if you possibly could, I'd rather you came straightaway, and, when you hear what I've got to tell you, I'm sure you won't think me unreasonable. That cousin of mine arrived only an hour ago, and he says I must try and get you to come at once."
"All right," said Larose, "I'll start as soon as I possibly can, but there are a few little matters I must attend to first."
It was late in the afternoon when he drove up to the house by the Gap and he found the professor and his cousin in the garden. There was an air of subdued excitement about them both. He was introduced to the commodore and liked his appearance at once. In the middle fifties, he was of much stouter build than his cousin, and, with big fearless blue eyes and a strong, determined face, he looked all over, as his cousin had said, a man who would be afraid of nothing.
"I've heard of you, Mr. Larose," he smiled grimly, "and you're just the chap we want. My cousin here thinks he has got himself in a bit of a mess. I think he has, too. He's always so hasty and impetuous."
"In a bit of a mess!" exclaimed Larose, very surprised. "Then what have you done, Professor?"
The professor gave a wry smile. "I've shot one of those men, the one who came up here dressed as a woman. I shot him six days ago, the night after you were here."
"Did you hurt him much?" asked Larose frowningly.
"Hurt him!" exclaimed the professor rather uncomfortably. "Why, I killed him! I shot him in the back of the head as he was running away."
"Good God!" exclaimed Larose, "I've not heard anything about it! How do the police take it?"
The professor laughed nervously. "They don't know. I hadn't told anyone about it until I told my cousin this afternoon and now I'm telling you."
"Good God!" exclaimed Larose again. "But what have you done with the body?"
"Buried it. Buried the next night but one. I couldn't wait any longer, until I'd heard from you. I had to act on my own. I buried it deep in the sand by one of those heaps of masonry. It's a good five feet down and the grave was easy to dig. You can't see any signs now that the sand has been disturbed."
For the moment Larose was altogether too flabbergasted to make any comment, but the commodore remarked with a grin, "Little devil, isn't he? I wouldn't have thought he'd got it in him." He made a motion towards the house. "But let's go inside and he'll tell you the whole story. It was like a sheep turning on a pack of wolves, as funny as anything I've ever heard."
With them all seated in his study, the professor proceeded to tell Larose what had happened, and he told it crisply and quickly, without wasting a word.
He said that about half-past ten on the night after Larose had stayed with him he heard a sudden knocking on the front door. It had startled him, but he had taken no notice, thinking that whoever was knocking, getting no answer, would go away. However, the knocking had continued and so he had gone into the passage and called out to know who it was and what they wanted. A man had shouted back that he had lost his way. He had told him to take either the path or the road at the back, as either would take him to the village. Then the man had said he had hurt his leg, but he, the professor, had replied he couldn't help that and added he never opened the door to anyone at night. But the man wouldn't go away and continued banging and kicking at the door for quite a long time before he stopped.
The professor nodded significantly. "With my ear close to the crack of the door, though I couldn't hear what was said, I could hear talking. So I knew there was more than one man there and I realised the matter was serious, particularly so, as, trying to ring up the exchange, I found the line was dead. Nothing happened for about five minutes and then, to my terror, I heard a heavy thudding on the back door and in a flash realised what they were doing. They had lifted up one of the big lumps of masonry lying about and were using it as a battering-ram to break in."
"A damned rotten situation," commented the commodore to Larose, "and I don't wonder he began to feel uncomfortable."
"Uncomfortable!" exclaimed the professor. "Why, I was almost scared to death, for I knew that if I didn't do something at once they would get in. Then it crashed into my mind that attack was often the best defence and so, holding my little pistol before me, I opened the front door very quietly and crept round the side of the house to the back."
"Good man!" nodded his cousin. He patted the professor on the back. "You were a gallant little fellow and I'm proud of you."
"I must tell you here," went on the professor, "that, though there was a bit of a moon out, it was a boisterous, gusty night, and clouds kept scudding over, making everything pitch-black. Turning the corner of the house, I saw three men by the back door. I was only just in time to catch sight of them before a cloud passed over. They were on the point of giving another heave with their battering-ram when I gave a fearful yell and let go three bullets, one after the other, as quickly as I could."
"Did you aim directly at them?" asked Larose frowningly.
"Sure! I had forgotten all my fright and was just boiling over with rage. Yes, I aimed straight at them, but knew the next morning that I'd missed them all when I found three bullet holes in the side of the big shed behind them. Still, it put the wind up them and they dropped the battering-ram like a red-hot coal and started to bolt off for the garden wall. Then the moon went in and I couldn't see them any more."
The professor sighed heavily here. "Then what followed just shows what chance can do. Aiming straight at them, I had missed them all, but firing two more shots, quite at random because it was then pitch-dark, I must have hit one of them just before he got to the wall."
"Did he cry out?" asked Larose.
"Not a sound," replied the professor. "I didn't know I'd hit him. I went back into the house and there was no more trouble during the night. The next morning I went outside the moment it got light enough, to see where they had cut the telephone wires and if I could mend them." He nodded significantly.
"But I found they hadn't cut them at all, just crossed them over and made a short circuit"—he looked very grave—"which can only mean things were going to be made very unpleasant for me. It looks as if——"
"I tell him," broke in the commodore, "it meant that they were going to occupy the house. It wasn't just a tip-and-run raid. They were going to stop here and didn't want the chance of any telephone men coming because it was found out there was a fault in the line." He shrugged his shoulders. "What they were going to do with Eric no one can say, but as he found a hypodermic syringe and some knock-out tablets of Evipan Sodium in the dead man's pockets, it looks as if they were not going to be too nice to him. But there, I'm spoiling the story. Go on, Eric."
"One moment," frowned Larose. "How was it none of all this noise and shooting was heard? I should have thought the men at the coastguard station would have heard something. They're always on the watch."
"Ah, but the wind was in the wrong direction," explained the professor, "and I've told you it was a gusty night." He went on. "Well, I put the wires right and was just about to return indoors when among the tall sea-grass I caught sight of the body of a man lying close to the foot of the wall. Imagine my horror, for, from the blood on the ground, I saw his death had been a violent one, and I realised instantly it must have been I who had killed him. He was lying on his side. I had a clear view of his face and I recognised him at once."
The professor smiled nervously. "I was seized with panic. My only thought was to hide him. There was not a soul in sight and, grabbing the body by the heels, I dragged it into the woodshed and closed it and padlocked the door. Then I came in here to think what I should do."
"Why didn't you ring up the police immediately?" asked Larose with a frown. "You had every excuse for what you had done."
"But I thought I hadn't," choked the professor. "I had shot him in the back of the head and that meant he had been running away and not attacking me. So, instead of the police, I rang you up. They told me you were away, but I was hoping all day you would return and I wanted you to tell me what I must do."
"I should have told you instantly," said Larose sharply, "to get in touch with the authorities. Heaven knows, I'm not an undue stickler for what is called 'Law and Order', but when anyone has taken life, either accidentally or, as in your case, on the urge of self-defence, he ought to put himself under the protection of the law at once." He spoke testily. "Just realise your position now. You may easily be landed into dreadful trouble, for an anonymous letter to the police and they'll be round here straightaway to make enquiries. These men must know you've killed their companion and hidden his body somewhere."
"But they don't know that," retorted the professor hotly. "I'm sure they believe he fell over the cliff and got drowned. I am certain that's their idea, for the next morning at low tide there were two men searching along the shore and, for ever so long, among those rocks about a mile away. I looked at them through my glasses, which, unhappily, are not very strong ones. Still, I could see they had got their hats pulled down low over their faces, just as if they were not intending me to see what they were like if I were watching."
"Was the tide high that night when they were trying to break in?" asked Larose.
"Right up to the very cliff," replied the professor, "and a fierce wind, blowing straight onshore, was piling up tremendous seas down below. You must understand, Mr. Larose, it was by the path along the cliff they all tried to escape and on a dark night it would have been a terribly dangerous way to go."
"It strikes me," said the commodore, "that, while the blackguards at first might have been uncertain as to what had happened to their companion, now they must be quite certain he got drowned. If my cousin had shot him they would, of course, have been expecting to read all about it in the newspapers. There would have been an inquest and no end of fuss."
"And it was that fuss I didn't want," went on the professor warmly. "By then I had got over my first fright and was furious at the thought of being exposed to a horrible publicity. The newspapers would have been full of what had happened, and I should have been badgered with endless questions and probably severely censured for having shot the fellow when he was running away." He held up his hand warningly. "Besides, if those two men learnt I had killed their companion, I could never have gone on living here in peace. There would always have been the thought in my mind that they would be coming one day for their revenge."
"He's quite right there," nodded the commodore. "They're professional criminals, those men, and they'd stick at nothing." He turned to his cousin. "Show Mr. Larose what else you found in the dead man's pocket besides that hypodermic syringe."
The professor pulled open a drawer in his desk and pulled out a little collection tied up in a big handkerchief. "The syringe and bottle of drug," he pointed out, "a little case of tools, £6 15s. in money, a silver cigarette case, a bunch of skeleton keys, and"—his eyes sparkled—"a nice hefty knuckle-duster!"
Larose regarded the articles frowningly. "Were there no papers on him," he asked, "no letters of any kind to give an idea who he was?"
"Not a single one. I went through him very thoroughly. There was no tag on any of his clothes and no laundry marks, either. He was certainly not a working-man, as his hands were not calloused or rough and his nails were nicely trimmed. He was wearing a gold signet ring. I didn't take it off."
"But why did you bury him?" asked Larose with some irritation. "If you were going to get rid of the body, and as one man to another I don't altogether blame you, why on earth didn't you throw it in the sea? With the sea at your very door!"
The professor shook his head. "No good! No good at all! It wasn't practical! The sea was dead calm then and didn't come up to the cliff. Besides that, they were beautiful moonlight nights and it was any odds on the coast-guards seeing me lugging the body down across the sands."
"And another thing," said his cousin. "If he had got the body into the sea—even if it had drifted some distance away—it was sure to have been washed up later and then there would have been the same anxiety for him, with the gang learning their pal had been shot and wanting to get their revenge." He looked curiously at Larose. "But it's just come to me, sir, that my cousin telling you all this puts you in a very awkward position. As a one-time worker with the Criminal Investigation Department and now, as I understand, a local magistrate here, you may feel it your duty not to keep silent."
Larose shook his head. "I shan't say anything," he frowned. "Certainly it would be awkward for me if I believed what the professor has told us, but"—he half smiled—"it is altogether such an extraordinary story that anyone would pardon me for taking it to be a dream." He nodded to the professor. "Yes, my dear sir, you've dreamt it all."
"Dreamt it!" exclaimed the professor, his eyes blazing. "Do you mean to say you don't believe it's true?"
"Certainly not," said Larose. "You've had a bad dream. That's been your trouble!"
"But damnation," almost roared the professor, "what about this knuckle-duster here, this hypodermic syringe, these skeleton keys and all these other things?"
Larose turned his head away. "I don't see any knuckle-duster or skeleton keys. I don't see——"
"Ha, ha," laughed the commodore, "that's the idea! Mr. Larose thinks you've dreamt it all, Eric, and so his conscience is quite clear. He'll be as mum as we intend to be."
The professor saw the joke at last and joined in the laughter. "Well, what do you advise now, Mr. Larose," he asked, "that I do about this dream of mine?"
"You dreamt you buried him quite effectively?" asked Larose.
"Quite! I rolled him in a piece of tarpaulin first and tied it at both ends. It's quite possible he may mummify as the sand was so very dry."
Larose considered. "Well, as his friends certainly won't dare to talk, though of course the whole business is most unlawful, I should say you are pretty safe. Later on, perhaps, say in six months' time, you might have another dream and dig up the bones and throw them a good way out to sea." He looked at the commodore. "How long are you going to stop here, because I don't think those men will have finished with this house yet? When they get over their fright they'll be coming back."
"So I think," agreed the commodore, "unless"—he paused impressively—"I find what they think is here first and broadcast it all about. That'd stop them." He nodded. "At any rate I shall be remaining here until I'm sure Eric will be quite safe." He laughed. "And you're a fine detective, aren't you? I've been down into the vaults and guessed at once what that flag with Thomas Wolsey on it meant."
"Oh, you did, did you?" exclaimed Larose.
"Yes, it doesn't mean that he is buried there, but only that Francesco, who was 'Ye Humble Servante of God' and whose grave the stone covers, had had something to do with the cardinal during his life. Probably the words we can't make out are something like 'and ye faithfull friende of'. Do you follow me?"
"Yes, I do," laughed Larose, "and you're undoubtedly quite right. My friend at the British Museum showed me a book on the life of Cardinal Wolsey and it mentioned a Father Francesco as being his chaplain and intimate friend. After the cardinal died this Francesco was badly wanted by King Henry VIII for having bolted away with some monastery vessels of great value. They never got either him or them."
"Whew!" whistled the commodore gleefully. "Then it looks promising for something good being hidden in these vaults here!"
"My friend told me something else, too," went on Larose, "which makes it certain that it's a gang of crooks who want to get into this house." He paused impressively for a few moments. "What do you think I learnt? Why, that one of the things those burglars took when they broke into Bentham Hall the month before last and murdered the butler there was a priceless old manuscript dealing with this very same Father Francesco and the treasures he'd got away with." He shrugged his shoulders. "Except how they came to learn Francesco was buried here, everything's as clear as daylight. The burglars who've been coming here are the same gang that visited Bentham Hall."
The two cousins were most interested and then the professor exclaimed suddenly, "Oh, that reminds me! I'd forgotten to show you something most important." He fished in a pigeon-hole in his desk and brought out a sheet of crumpled and faded paper. "This is what I picked up close to where the body had lain. I had gone back later to trample out any stains of blood. It's a page which has been cut out of a book and it's all about St. Cyprian's Church."
Larose took the page from him. "Yes, and it's from a very old book, too," was the comment. "Now I wonder if this was stolen from Bentham Hall, too! I should say it was certainly stolen from somewhere, for surely no one would mutilate his own book by cutting out a page. Let me have it, will you, and I'll show it to my friend at the British Museum. At any rate he should be able to say from what book it's come."
"Yes, and he was carrying it on him," said the commodore, "so that when they were here on the spot they could consult it to give them a good idea as to where exactly the vaults were." He spoke in business-like tones. "Now to-morrow, or the day after, I shall go into Norwich and buy some tools to lift up that flag. It looks like being a tough job and I shall want a crowbar and a pick-axe."
Larose got up to go. "Well, I wish you both good luck, and be sure and let me know if anything happens. One final warning. Take care of yourselves. Most certainly those wretches haven't finished with this house yet."
"I'm budgeting for that," laughed the commodore, "and we shall be ready for anything. Eric's got his pistol and I've got a revolver almost big enough to bring down an elephant. Good-bye! We'll be ringing up in a few days."
In the meantime both Ramon and Douro were most uneasy in their minds. As both the professor and his cousin had surmised, they were thinking it certain that Braddock had fallen over the cliff and been drowned.
That night, after the attempted raid upon the professor's house, they had got safely back to their car, parked in a small lane about half a mile away, and then had waited impatiently for the appearance of Braddock. They had thought he would have been just behind them. A quarter of an hour, however, passing with no sign of him, they had become anxious and, finally, with great reluctance, had retraced their steps to find him.
The moon had remained hidden and, not daring to flash their torches, they had had to make their way back by the light of those stars which were not covered over. With each step they took farther along the cliff path they became the more apprehensive that Braddock must have fallen over. They were certain he had not been hit by any bullet from the professor's pistol, as, they told themselves, they had both seen him running behind them long after the last shot had been fired and when they were all over the garden wall and quite a distance from the house. They had both looked back to see if he were following and had caught sight of him.
Here, however, they were mistaken. They had both glanced back almost at the same moment and in the dim and uncertain light it had been a small tree they had seen and not their companion. Braddock was then finished with and lying dead among the tall sea-grass.
Coming again within sight of the garden wall, they realised all further search was hopeless. Peering cautiously over the edge of the cliff, they saw the fierce waves thundering down below and were convinced there was no chance now of Braddock being alive. So they returned to the car and drove away.
"Gad!" exclaimed Douro. "Now what's going to happen?"
"We're quite safe," replied Ramon coolly. "We've no cause to worry. No one can have anything on us." He scowled. "It's damned annoying, but, except that we've lost Braddock, in the end to-night's business may turn out quite all right for us. That little devil will certainly have been scared and may now give up the house."
Douro laughed. "You're a callous brute, aren't you, Ramon? You never did like Braddock."
"No, I didn't," replied Ramon. "The fellow looked too much like what he was and, as our friend, might have made people suspicious of us. Besides, lately he's been very surly and rude to me."
Returning to Ramon's bungalow to pass the rest of the night, the two men put themselves frowningly to bed. It was, however, a long while before Ramon dropped off to sleep, as it had suddenly flashed into his mind that they might not be as safe as he had so confidently made out.
For one thing, Braddock, as the practical man and best fitted by his training to judge the easiest way of getting into the vaults, had been entrusted with the page Ramon had stolen from the Norwich Museum and he, Ramon knew, had had it on him at the moment of his disappearance. Then, it was just possible if his body were washed up, the page being a most unusual one, the police might trace it back to where it had come from, and Ramon remembered with a most uneasy pang the visiting card he had sent into the head librarian of the museum. Gad, it would be remembered he had recently had access to the old book and they would suspect him at once!
Soon after it was light he went into Douro's room. "Here, I've just thought of something," he said sharply. "If they find Braddock's body and there is anything on it to identify him it may turn out devilish awkward for us. You know he always carried that knuckle-duster on him and he'd got that hypodermic syringe, too."
Douro looked surprised. "But they can't in any way connect him up with us, if they do find out who he is."
"Oh, can't they?" scowled Ramon. "I think they can. What if they examine his banking account? They'll trace us through the cheques we have both paid him from time to time for his whack of what we've all made. Why, you paid him a cheque for £70-odd less than a fortnight ago for what we took off that young fool Glendenning at poker at your damned club!"
Douro looked uneasy. "But he's not likely to have had anything on him that would let anyone identify him."
"Oh, isn't he? I'm not so sure about that. What if he'd been carrying some letters, or what about some tailor's tabs on his clothes? At any rate, it'll be low water about noon to-day and we'd better go and look among those rocks about a mile from that damned professor's house. That'd be the most likely place to find the body if it's not been drawn right out to sea. We can pretend to be looking for shells if anybody comes near."
Accordingly, at midday they put themselves to an arduous two hours' tramp along the sands and among the rocks in the vicinity of Blackstone Gap, making, however, later for town, irritable and bad-tempered because they had met with no success.
In the ensuing week they went carefully through the newspapers, and particularly those published in Norfolk and Suffolk, for any news of any body having been washed up or for any mention of the attack on Professor Mildmay's house. But they came upon no record of either happening, and, to find out if there were any tales going about, one afternoon Ramon motored into Blackstone village and pulled up to have a drink at the little inn.
He chatted for a good half-hour with the publican and, as the latter was of the gossipy kind, was quite certain he would have learnt something if there had been anything to learn. But no, all the man talked about was the weather, the condition of the roads and, to him, the most interesting case of a villager being fined forty shillings for poaching two rabbits.
By the beginning of the following week they had become very curious to learn what was happening at the professor's house. Was he still there or had he gone away? Or had he got anyone staying there to keep him company? Surely, after what had happened that night, he couldn't have gone on leading his even, monotonous life! It must have made some change somewhere, and was that change likely to benefit them or not?
They were more certain than ever there was a fortune hidden in the vaults as Ramon had bought a book on The Spoliation of the Monasteries and had read how, amid all the disasters which had overtaken religious buildings at the hands of King Henry VIII, great treasure had nevertheless been secreted away and escaped all discovery.
At last, on the Friday, they made up their minds to motor over to near Blackstone Gap, leave their car in a byroad and go boldly past the house. They might, of course, learn nothing, but, on the other hand, if they saw the professor either somewhere about the garden or, through the window, sitting at his desk, they would know he was still living there.
Approaching the house along the cliff path, they heard the sound of chopping and, coming to the wall, saw someone with his back turned towards them and only a few feet off the path, hacking at the root of a tree. As they drew near, evidently hearing the noise of their approach, a man straightened himself up sharply and turned to look at them. With no surprise, but a little embarrassed, they saw it was the professor himself, who proceeded to stare at them curiously and as if rather scared. He was holding a small axe in his hand.
Annoyed at his having seen them so closely, they were intending to walk by with a curt good-day, when suddenly the scared expression of his face altered to one of intense anger. "You're two of the men who've been watching my house," he shouted. "What do you mean by it?" and dropping his axe, his hand plunged into his pocket and he drew out his pistol.
Douro was the nearer to him and, striking out like lightning with his walking-stick, knocked the weapon out of his hand. Then, as the professor darted to retrieve it, Ramon grabbed up the axe and with one vicious blow, almost clove his head in two. They could hear the bone crack in.
"Oh, you fool, you damned fool," almost wailed Douro. "You've killed him!"
"Well, I had to," panted Ramon. "It was him or us. We'd both have been shot in the next few seconds if I hadn't. The old fool's probably always been half mad." His gaze swept round on every side. "It's all right. We've not been seen. Quick! You look over the wall and see if there's anyone in the garden. I'll drag the body over into the long grass."
Douro, seeing no one in the garden, jumped back to trample out the stains of blood. Ramon, running up, helped him to make sure. Both the men looked white and scared as, with not a second's delay, they started to make their way back along the cliff path.
"But no hurrying," ordered Ramon sharply. "Let's just walk as if nothing had happened."
For a minute or two neither of them spoke, and then, when the house was well behind them, Ramon drew in a deep breath. "Yes, there's not a soul in sight. If we keep our heads we're quite safe."
"You mean you are," scowled Douro sullenly. "It was not my doing. I had no hand in it."
Ramon was now quite cool and collected. "Well, have it that way if you like," he laughed. "Then I say I'm quite safe." He nodded. "But it's a good thing he's dead. He'd recognised us and there was definite danger. We should never have dared to come near the place again. It would have been all up with us getting into those vaults."
"But I'm not so sure it isn't all up now," growled Douro. "What's going to happen when they find the body?"
"But they won't find it," said Ramon calmly, "for the moment it gets dark I'll be back here to get it. I'll bury it somewhere or sink it in the Broad. Then no one will ever know what's become of the little devil. He mayn't even be missed for several days, as it seems certain he's been going on living alone. Probably he thought he'd frightened us off with that pistol." He grinned. "I've got it in my pocket now and it'll be a nice souvenir. It's a Weimer, a damned good little gun."
That night Larose had just finished dinner when he was called to the phone. "It's Smith speaking," came a hoarse voice. "I want you to come at once—at once, do you understand—without a moment's delay."
"Why, what's happened?" asked Larose, a little nettled at the peremptory manner in which he was being addressed. "Is the professor all right?"
"No, he isn't," said the commodore sharply. "He's——" But he stopped short and then went on in quite a different tone. "Oh, do please come, Mr. Larose. It's most urgent."
"All right," said Larose, asking no more questions. "I'll come at once. I'll be with you in three-quarters of an hour."
It was quite dark and beginning to spot with rain when he arrived at the house by the Gap. The commodore was waiting for him outside, with a lantern. Larose heard a dog barking in the house.
"Good idea, that," said Larose as he jumped out of the car. "So you've bought a dog, have you? Now what's happened?"
The commodore did not answer his question. "But I thought I heard your car a good half-hour ago," he said sharply. "Did you have to stop anywhere?"
"No, I came straight here. But what's up?"
The commodore steadied his voice. "Eric's dead. He was murdered this afternoon when I was away. His body's among the long grass just outside the wall."
"My God, my God!" exclaimed Larose. "How terrible! What an awful thing! But what have you done? Have you rung up the police?"
"I've done nothing," replied the commodore, "touched nothing, moved nothing and just left everything for you to see."
"But how was he killed?" asked Larose hoarsely.
"With his own axe. I trod on it as I was bending over him. It had been pushed just under the sand."
"But you've done nothing, you say?" asked Larose.
"No," snapped the commodore. "I thought you'd know best whom to ring up to get a move on quickly."
"But the time wasted——" exclaimed Larose reprovingly. "The murderer might have been caught, or at least noticed before he'd got far away."
The other shook his head. "Not he! It was too late. The murder was done more than five hours ago. The glass of Eric's wrist-watch was broken and the watch had stopped at ten minutes to four. Come on, I'll take you to him."
With the lantern to light the way, they went through the garden and round by the wall outside, for about a dozen yards. The commodore held up the lantern and his voice choked as he said, "Here he is! The dog found him! He must have died instantaneously. His poor head——" but suddenly he stopped speaking, and with a lightning movement jerked up the lantern as high as he could and swung it round. His voice rose to a shout. "But he's gone!" he cried. "The body's gone!"
He darted forward a few yards and then darted back again. "Someone's been and taken him," he cried. "Look where he's been dragged away! Look at that furrow in the sand!" He swore furiously. "And I was close by all the time and could have caught them red-handed if I'd only known. The dog heard them and started barking and I wondered why. Oh, what a chance I've missed!"
"Steady, steady," said Larose, "let's keep our heads. When did the dog start barking?"
"Just after I thought I heard a car. For the moment I believed it was you and went and stood outside the back door. Then I realised you couldn't have got here so quickly and went back into the house."
"But what time was it then?" asked Larose.
"Twenty minutes to nine," he replied. He held his wrist-watch up to the lantern. "And now it's twenty minutes past."
"Forty minutes!" commented Larose. "And allowing about five minutes for getting the body to the car, they've had a good half-hour's start; time enough for them to have run to earth quite safely."
The commodore had cooled down and was now quite calm. "We've no chance, you think," he asked quickly, "of catching them if the police get going at once?"
Larose shook his head. "No, I've always thought they had a place somewhere not very far from here, and by now they've almost certainly disposed of the body. If they killed him, as you say, all those hours ago, of course they would have made all their preparations to hide it somewhere directly they had got it away. But let's go inside and decide what we are going to do. We must make our decision quickly, but as I look at it there's no hurry now for a minute or two."
Once inside the house Larose heard the full story. In the afternoon the commodore had driven into Norwich to get some crow-bars and a pick-axe to lift up the flags in the vaults. He had thought his cousin would be quite safe in daylight, particularly so as he was always on the alert and always carried his pistol with him. Returning home just after eight, he had been very disturbed at not seeing him anywhere about. It was then beginning to get dark. Half fearing the professor had had an attack of faintness—he knew he was subject to them—the Commodore had started to look everywhere. He didn't think he would have found him if it had not been for the fox-terrier he had happened to buy in Norwich. The dog had started barking at something in the long grass, and to his horror he had come upon the body. The head was all covered over with congealed blood and he could see where the skull had been crashed in. He had not touched the body but had run straight back to the house and rung up Larose.
"And that's what you're going to tell the police?" asked Larose. He spoke grimly. "But, now that the body has disappeared, what proof have you to give them?"
"Proof!" exclaimed the commodore, looking most surprised. "Why, they'll believe what I tell them!"
Larose shook his head. "No, they won't. The police believe nothing without proof. They're always being told cock-and-bull stories and are always on their guard against being hoaxed. They'll come here, of course, and they'll keep everyone away from where you say you last saw the body. They can't, however, search all around until it gets light." He shrugged his shoulders. "Then what if they find nothing to support your story? What'll they think?"
"But the blood, man!" exclaimed the horrified commodore. "They must see a lot of bloodstains about. The head will have bled terribly."
"No," said Larose emphatically, "there may have been very little blood spilt. If your cousin was killed instantaneously the heart would have stopped pumping instantly too, and there wouldn't be much blood about. Besides, how do you know the murderer or murderers didn't clear up what blood there was directly they had killed him? Remember, he wasn't likely to have been killed in that out-of-the-way place where you found him. His body was taken there afterwards until they could come and fetch if after dark. He may have been struck down in the garden here or——" He held up his hand. "But hark, here comes the rain in earnest, and it's good-bye now to any chance the police had before of finding stains of blood."
The rain was pouring down in torrents and the commodore had to raise his voice to be heard. "But, good God, man," he exclaimed angrily, "we can't sit down and do nothing with poor Eric murdered by those brutes! We must do something."
"Of course we must!" agreed Larose instantly. "We will do something and we'll get those blackguards in the end, right enough! I am only considering how best to set about it!" He went on, "You see, Commodore, unhappily we can't show all our cards. We can't put down all our hand before the police. Remember, we have a devilish awkward secret to hide ourselves: the body of that man your poor cousin buried under that sand at the back. We can't go to the police and tell them everything, so that, body or no body produced to back up your story, they will realise there was a motive for your cousin being killed."
"You believe me, don't you?" scowled the commodore. "You believe I saw him lying dead?"
Larose was emphatic. "Of course I do! I never doubted it for a moment, but I want to work out the best plan for unmasking those men, and it seems to me we have a better chance of getting them if they don't learn we know the professor has been murdered. They won't be so wary and will come out more into the open." He nodded. "I'm trying to take a long view."
The commodore heaved a big sigh. "I'll do exactly what you think best, Mr. Larose." He gritted his teeth together. "All I'll live for now is vengeance. Now what do you propose?"
Larose considered. "Give out that your cousin has disappeared. Ring up the police in the morning and say that you think it is loss of memory. Advertise his description. Stay on here until you have examined these vaults, as I suppose you're still determined on that."
"By Jove, I am!" exclaimed the commodore. "If there's anything there I'll find it, if only to prevent those blackguards ever getting hold of it."
"Good," said Larose. "And then, when you've either found something or got tired of looking for it, sell the house."
"Sell the house," said the commodore. "Why sell it?"
Larose raised one hand significantly. "Because it is most probable that whoever buys it will be the man responsible for your cousin's death. Put it up for auction and I'll be there and run it up pretty high before I let it go. That'll make the eventual buyer stand out. Then I'll trail him as hard as I've ever trailed anyone before, and depend upon it we shall find him one of a gang. Oh, yes, don't forget, there'll be more to find out about him than only this murder, more that will perhaps help us to bring it home to him. I'm certain he and his gang will turn out to be the killers and burglars at Bentham Hall. From what your poor cousin found in that man's pockets there's not the slightest doubt about their being habitual criminals."
"And if we find out where he lives," supplemented the commodore, "it may point to where he's hidden my cousin's body."
"Of course it may!" agreed Larose. "So many criminals are so very clever up to a certain point, and then they are as stupid as can be. In the long run they almost invariably make mistakes, and if this fellow has a garden I wouldn't say that, perhaps, he hasn't buried the body there."
The rain was continuing to pour down in torrents and with very little pressing Larose was prevailed upon to stop the night. Indeed he was the more willing to do so, for, as with all strong temperaments, he could see how greatly the commodore was suffering from the ordeal he had been through.
They talked on until past midnight, and desisted only then because they knew that with the first streaks of daylight they must be searching for any possible clues the murderer or murderers might have left behind them.
THE reports in the newspapers and the broadcast over the air that the well-known Professor Mildmay had disappeared created some little stir in scientific circles, but did not excite much interest with the general public. It was mentioned that for eight years he had been living by himself in a house belonging to a relation, by Blackstone Gap on a lonely part of the coast of Norfolk, and now he was missing and no trace of him could be found. His appearance was described and the public were asked to communicate with the Norwich police at once if they learnt anything of him.
Known to be eccentric in his habits, it was thought at first that he must have lost his memory and wandered away, but, with a few days passing and no news of him coming to hand, it began to be surmised that he must have fallen over the cliffs and been drowned. The cliffs in the vicinity of the Gap had an evil reputation for their dangerous condition, as they were continually falling away.
"There, what did I tell you?" exclaimed Ramon exultingly to his partner. "Everything's gone as I thought it would, and better still, because, as the house didn't belong to him, there will be no tedious waiting for a presumption of his death. So the chances are that, in a few weeks at the latest, the place will be up for sale, and we can just hop in and make the search at our leisure."
It followed that Ramon was quite correct in his surmise, as a fortnight later advertisements appeared in the local newspapers notifying that the house would be put up for auction at the Norwich Exchange, in ten days' time, on the eighth of the next month.
"And we'll get it for a song," nodded Ramon, "perhaps even for seven or eight hundred! Who would want an ugly, rambling old house like that in such an unfavourable situation? The very look of it would be enough to put people off, as it so obviously wants a lot doing to it to make it comfortable for ordinary people."
In the meantime Commodore Smith had been busy, and busy, it turned out, to some purpose. He had remained on at the Gap House and, with an addition to the family of a fierce-looking bulldog, been quite confident he would be able to deal with anyone who came to molest him. He kept in touch with Larose on the telephone, and almost daily talks passed between them, with both of them very guarded in what they said.
One morning he rang up to say he would like to come over to Carmel Abbey and, it being quite convenient for Larose, turned up that same afternoon in his car.
"I've found it," he announced in great excitement, "and I've brought it over for you to see. I have no idea what the things are worth and there's not much of them, but they look pretty valuable to me. Let me put the car into your garage and you can look at them there. We mustn't run the slightest risk of the servants noticing anything peculiar about my coming to you."
Accordingly, it was in the garage that the things he had brought with him were displayed before Larose's astonished eyes: a richly-jewelled gold chalice, a big gold paten, heavily jewelled, too, four massive, good-sized gold candlesticks and quite a number of jewels set in little gold plaques.
"Lord!" ejaculated Larose breathlessly. "Why, if those jewels are real, they must be worth thousands and thousands!"
"Of course they're real!" said the commodore sharply. "Almost certainly they're what the great cardinal used at his private mass. I take it these little jewelled plaques came from his mitre, the fabric of which has crumbled away."
"Where did you find them?" asked Larose in an awed whisper. "In that Francesco's grave?"
"Yes; and it took me a whole solid day to get up that flag without chipping it, so that I could replace it and it would not look as if it had been disturbed. The coffin, or what remained of it, was four feet below the level of the earth. None of these things had been apparently wrapped up but only just dispersed round the body. The skeleton was all there, but of course the bones were all separated."
"Wonderful!" exclaimed Larose. "And they've been there all these hundreds of years!"
"There was no damp," said the commodore, "and the earth was packed hard; so hard, indeed, that when I got to where the coffin had been I found it had not caved in round the sides. The skeleton and all these things were in a sort of cavity."
"You didn't leave anything?" asked Larose. "You're sure you got all there was?"
The commodore nodded. "Quite certain! I searched most thoroughly and when I packed back the earth there was nothing under it"—he smiled a cold, grim smile and averted his eyes—"Of what I'd come upon when I dug it up, except the bones and the skull."
"And don't you think," asked Larose, "that it can be seen the flagstone's been interfered with?"
The commodore was emphatic. "I'm sure it can't, and it fits so closely into its bed that when those blackguards come to start getting it up they'll have as much trouble as I had unless they try to crack it with a sledge-hammer." He nodded. "I wish them joy there, for it's at least ten inches thick."
"But they'll see the earth has been disturbed," said Larose. "They're bound to notice that."
"Yes, yes," laughed the commodore, "they'll tumble to things then." He looked most amused. "Don't you worry, sir. When they've had all the trouble of getting up that flagstone they'll realise, right enough, someone's been there before them, and quite recently, too."
"What a surprise!" laughed Larose.
"Oh, it'll be a surprise, right enough," agreed the commodore. He smiled his cold, grim smile again. "Why, I'd give a year's income to see their faces when they've got that earth up! Ha, ha, ha!"
"Well, what about these beautiful things?" asked Larose. "What are you going to do with them for the present?"
"I want you to take care of them!" said the commodore. "That is, of course, if you don't mind. I've not got any safe."
"No, I don't mind," said Larose. He smiled. "I don't really know who they belong to. I suppose they're treasure trove, and if so you're entitled to half."
"Well, it doesn't bother me," smiled back the commodore. "I've got all the income I want. Still, we'll not say anything about them for a while. I'll go into Norwich to-morrow and arrange, as you suggest, for the house to be put up to auction. I know a man and his wife who'll come in as caretakers until it's sold, and I'll never be far away either."
"Good," said Larose. "And I'll be at the sale and run the bidding up. I'll run it up high enough to absolutely convince us that the man who's buying it is the man we want. I mean that he's not buying it as an ordinary dwelling but because he believes it contains something worth any exorbitant price he is compelled to pay."
"But mayn't you be recognised?" asked the commodore. "If it's a gang, as we're sure it is, some of them may be old hands and remember you at Scotland Yard! Then, seeing you had been so interested in the house, wouldn't it make them rather on the lookout for your making enquiries about them afterwards?"
"You're right," nodded Larose after a moment's thought. "As you say, we can't afford to give away chances. So I'll go to the sale a bit togged up." He smiled. "It'll be like old times."
The day of the sale arrived and, as several properties were being offered that morning, there was a good attendance at the Exchange. Commodore Smith was present and, not being able to pick out among those gathered there anyone who looked at all like Larose, was a little bit anxious lest something had prevented his coming. However, when he felt a stoutish-looking man, rather shabbily dressed and with a scrubby moustache and swarthy complexion, softly but most deliberately digging him in the ribs with his elbow several times, he felt more assured. The man moved away directly the Gap House was put up for sale.
The auctioneer declaimed about the valuable property he was now offering, its historical interest and romantic situation, and asked someone to start the bidding at £1,500.
A dead silence followed, then he suggested £1,400; but it was not until he had dropped to half that sum that he got any offer. A woman, who, it was learnt afterwards, wanted the place as a convalescent home for tubercular patients, bid £700, whereupon a Norwich publican went up £50. The woman bid another £50 and a mild contest ensued between the two until the woman dropped it when the publican had got to £950.
The auctioneer seemed very hurt and, almost as if he were taking it as a personal affront when no further offer appeared to be forthcoming, expatiated again upon the desirability of the house for anyone who wanted peace and quiet among romantic surroundings. Another silence, however, followed, and then, just when it seemed the hammer was going to fall to the benefit of the publican, a well-dressed gentleman raised the bidding £25.
The publican countered at once with £25 more, and then followed a most business-like, ding-dong battle. The well-dressed gentleman capped every bid the publican made, but the latter, now very red in the face, was not easily to be shaken off, and it was not until the bidding had reached £1,400 that he had been silenced.
The auctioneer picked up his hammer. "£1,400 I'm bid!" he called out, his eyes searching everywhere round and round. "Only £1,400 for this most desirable property! Any advance on £1,400?" He lifted the hammer, "Going, going"—but a guttural voice broke in sharply in the clipped accents of a foreigner, "I beed another tweenty-five."
Everyone looked round to see who it was. The stoutish, shabby-looking man was holding up a rather dirty-looking hand.
The auctioneer looked pleased and lowered his hammer. "Fourteen hundred and twenty-five I'm bid! Ah, thank you, sir"—he nodded in the direction of the well-dressed man—"and fifty! Fourteen hundred and fifty I'm bid."
"And twenty-five," called out the foreigner.
"And twenty-five," called out the well-dressed man sharply, not even giving the auctioneer time enough to look his way.
The latter smiled broadly and put down his hammer. His many years of experience in his calling had taught him quite a lot about human nature and he was sure now there was all the makings of a spirited little contest in view. The last bidder was rattled. He as frowning and, consequently, it was more than probable he would cap any bid the other man made, simply in his annoyance.
"Fifteen hundred I'm bid!" he called out. "Fifteen hundred!" He looked in the direction of the foreigner and was disappointed there was no immediate response. Indeed, it was not until quite a minute had passed and he had reluctantly picked up his hammer again that the guttural voice was heard.
"And tweenty-five!" called out the foreigner.
"And twenty-five!" snapped Ramon, for the well-dressed man was he.
Then followed, for those gathered there, quite an amusing and entertaining five minutes. Excitement became keyed up, with most interest, however, centred upon the foreigner, for, exactly the opposite to Ramon, who instantly capped every bid which was made, he was tantalisingly slow in his decisions and almost every time it was not until the hammer was actually lifted that he called, out his guttural 'Twenty-five'.
When the bidding had reached £2,000 the auctioneer paused and, taking in both the bidders with a quick glance, remarked apologetically, "Now, I don't know either of you two gentlemen and——"
"I pay ze cash," called out the foreigner, tugging a fat wallet out of his pocket and holding it up for everyone to see.
"Certified cheque," nodded Ramon curtly. He made no attempt, however, to produce it, as if quite confident his word, backed by his appearance, would be enough.
The auctioneer appeared satisfied and went on with the sale. The bidding proceeded on the same lines as before, with Ramon quick and snappy and the foreigner so hesitating and slow that everyone was fully justified in wondering if each bid he made was going to be his last.
When £2,475 was reached, with the bidding against him, the foreigner waited so long that it was only the fraction of a second before the hammer would have fallen that he called out, "Tweenty-five hundred pouns!"
"Guineas!" snapped the now thoroughly exasperated Ramon, whose nerves were by this time frayed almost to breaking point at the opposition he was encountering.
The foreigner looked hurt, blinked his eyes several times and then, without a word, turned his back upon the auctioneer and started to push his way through the throng and out of the room.
With no waiting, the auctioneer struck the table with his hammer and those present showed their appreciation of the little treat they had enjoyed by much clapping of hands. Old-timers at property-sales agreed it was a long time since they had experienced such drawn-out excitement.
Once out in the street, Ramon scowled savagely at Douro, who had been with him in the sale room. "That ugly devil," he snarled, "cost us more than £1,100. What the hell was he bidding like that for?"
"I heard a man behind me say," grunted Douro, "that once there was a rumour of a valuable china clay deposit somewhere about. Perhaps that's what he was after." His face brightened. "Never mind, we got the place and that £1,100 won't count much if we find what you think is there."
Late that afternoon Larose, now looking his proper self again, motored the commodore down to Carmel Abbey, where the latter was to spend a few days. The one-time detective was in good spirits. "He's known in Norwich," he said, "and has got a bungalow in Hickling Broad. His name is Ellister, Ramon Ellister, and he's a broker in the city. The man with him is called Douro and is half a foreigner, Portuguese or something, though he speaks perfect English. I couldn't find out what he is, but they're both supposed to be well off. A third man, who used to go about with them quite a lot, was called Braddock, but as he's not been seen lately we may take it he was the fellow your cousin shot." He nodded, "Oh, what a sure thing it is. This Ellister is the man we're after, right enough. Fancy paying more than £2,500 for that old place!"
"But I'm disappointed," frowned the commodore, "and don't feel by any means so certain as you. Why, the man looked a gentleman!"
"And so he is—of a sort!" laughed Larose. "Anyone can see he's got breeding, and I dare say we shall find him well connected and with most respectable relations."
"He doesn't look a murderer," frowned the commodore.
"But what man ever does?" asked Larose. "Great Scott! In my time I must have helped from thirty to forty men to the scaffold and I remember only one who looked the real thing. To outward appearance all the others looked decent, ordinary people. One chap in particular, Rankine, the poisoner who put three women to horribly agonising deaths, had quite an attractive appearance and was altogether charming to talk to. Still, when in that investigation I began to look about for the possible culprit, I suspected him more than some others because he had all the qualifications necessary for a successful multiple killer."
"And what are those qualifications?" asked the commodore.
"First, above all things, courage! For a series of deliberate crimes where a man is always ready to kill, if necessary, you must have courage. I say series of deliberate crimes, as distinct from taking life in a moment of passion. A veritable coward may be screwed up to committing murder in a sudden impulse, but when murder is planned deliberately and, particularly so, when it is repeated—then no coward is capable of carrying it through."
"That fellow would be no coward, I admit," commented the commodore. "He looks devilishly masterful as well."
"Of course he is! And he possesses another most essential qualification of the killer too. He's cruel! Look at his eyes. They've got the hard steely glint of a man who'd inflict any sort of suffering on any person who stood in his way. Why, when he was glaring at me so furiously in the sale-room this morning I knew he was a man who'll stick at nothing to get what he wants, and all my life's experience of criminals tells me I am right. He'd kill, and kill again, and have no remorse." He nodded complacently. "No, I'm certain we've got the right man. I'm quite satisfied with the morning's work."
Two days later Ramon and Douro went down to take possession of the house at the Gap, bringing with them what things they thought would be necessary for getting down into the vaults and opening Father Francesco's grave. Ramon, however, was not in a very good humour.
"Braddock's mother came to see me this morning," he growled as they were motoring along, "and I had quite a job in getting rid of her. Braddock must have talked more about us than we thought, for she knew where my flat was and was ringing the bell by eight o'clock, to be sure of catching me, she said, before I started up for the city. She'd come up from the country last night."
Douro's eyes opened very wide. "What on earth did she come to you for?"
"Wanted to know where Braddock was; said she knew he's been going to stay with me at the bungalow and hadn't had a word from him since. She'd been to his rooms and the landlady couldn't tell her anything."
"What did you say?"
"Oh, I said I couldn't tell her anything either! I didn't deny Braddock had been to the bungalow, but said he'd only stopped for the week-end and had been talking about going up north on some important business. I said I knew nothing about his private affairs, and that we were really only acquaintances and hardly friends."
Douro looked uneasy. "Did she take it all right?"
"No, she didn't! She said she knew I'd known him for at least two years because he'd been up with me in Scotland, the Christmas before last. Also, she said I had several times lent him my car and wouldn't have done this unless we were friends."
"Did you deny it?" asked Douro.
"I couldn't. He had gone down to Guildford in it to see her—that's where she lives—and she had poked about in the pockets and seen my driving licence with my name on it. Still, I repeated I didn't know where her son had gone and she said perhaps you knew, and wanted to know where you lived."
"The devil!" exclaimed Douro. "She knew my name?"
"Yes, and that you were a foreigner. She said you had plenty of money. I told her I didn't know where you lived."
"Did she go away all right?"
"No, she was nasty. She asked if I had quarrelled with him and then wouldn't tell me why she asked. I did the best I could to smooth her down, but she went off saying that if she didn't hear soon she'd go to the police."
"Well, if she does go, it won't hurt us," said Douro.
"Not if his body's not washed up anywhere," agreed Ramon, "but if they find that and identify it, with the things in his pockets it mayn't be too nice for us. Whatever happens then it would put us on the map as far as the police are concerned, and we certainly don't want them to know we exist."
Reaching the Gap at last, the prospects of what might lie before them thrilled them with excitement as they proceeded to take from the car everything they had brought with them. Ramon opened a bottle of champagne to bring them luck.
"Now we can't tell how long it's going to take us," he said. "It may be only a matter of minutes to find a way down into the vaults and a matter of an hour or so to locate where that Francesco was buried and open the grave."
"If we find it," nodded Douro significantly. "Remember, we can't be certain about anything."
"But I am," scowled Ramon. "I've no doubt there, and I have little doubt, either, we shall find plenty of stuff buried with him." He picked up a stout jemmy from among the tools. "Now we'll try the floorboards first and commence in the back rooms."
But an arduous couple of hours, spent in straining and pushing at the floorboards in every room, gave no result, and accordingly they started upon the oak panelling. They tapped here, there and everywhere, pushing and pulling upon the panels in all directions. Nothing, however, eventuated, and late afternoon found them flushed and angry, with bruised fingers, and the skin of their hands barked away in many places.
They were the more annoyed because they had had, repeatedly, to order trespassers out of the garden during the day. All that had happened in the sale-room had evidently stirred public interest and quite a number of people had arrived on bicycles and in cars to perambulate round the house and even press their faces close to the window panes!
"A good thing we never thought of getting down from outside," snarled Ramon. "We'd have had half the population of Norfolk here if we'd started that. Now we'll give up all this useless tapping business. It's only wasting time. We'll have to break through the flooring somewhere. If we take it up in one of those end rooms by the church wall we are bound to be right over the vaults. Braddock said that at any rate they would extend well under the back part of the house."
So, into a back room they went and proceeded to prise up the floorboards. There was a space of about a foot underneath and then came quite loose sand. The sand was easily cleared, and their eyes gleamed when masonry was exposed.
"We've got it!" panted Ramon excitedly. "This is the roof of the vaults. Now, everything is going to be as easy as shelling peas."
They soon found, however, that there was no light task before them, as the masonry was almost as hard as iron. The heavy chisel they used, no matter how fiercely struck, would only bite into it the depth of a scratch each time, and darkness came with only a few inches of depth to show for all their labour.
"The devil!" swore Douro. "It'll take us a week at this rate! I vote we have a spell. My arms feel fit to break and my poor hands are bruised to a jelly."
But Ramon was a hard taskmaster and, after only a very brief interval for a snatched meal, they went at it again. Hour after hour they chiselled through the granite-like stone, and then at last something happened. The masonry crashed in, a hole as big as a saucer gaped wide and black and both Ramon's hammer and chisel disappeared through it.
"Blast!" he exclaimed angrily. "That's done it! Now we shall have to go into Norwich again and get fresh ones!"
Still, they were greatly excited, and tying a candle to a piece of string, lowered it down through the hole. "Ten feet, at least," exclaimed Ramon, "and we'll have to get a ladder as well!"
In turn they peered down the hole and by the dim light of the candle gathered something of the size of the chamber beneath them. "But there doesn't seem to be any coffin," said Douro disappointedly. "The place looks quite empty."
"Of course it is," retorted Ramon. "The coffin will be under the flagstones. Thank goodness, we ought to be able to crack them easily if we buy the biggest hammer we can get to-morrow."
The next morning they were up at daybreak and by ten had returned from Norwich with a new chisel and a bigger hammer, and with a twelve-foot ladder strapped to the side of the car. Then it took them two hours to enlarge the hole sufficiently to get through it and climb down on to the floor of the vaults.
With the first swing round of their lantern for a few moments their mortification was beyond expression, even in oaths, when there was to be seen a second ladder propped up close by.
"I told you so," almost shrieked Ramon. "I knew there'd be a way up into the house," and darting over to the ladder he proceeded to spring up. The sliding panel was easy to pick out on that side and in a few seconds he had pushed it open and was peering into the kitchen. "Damnation!" he swore. "And we've put in all those hours of hard work for nothing. If only we'd been a little more patient and searched more thoroughly!"
Still, the fury of them both abated instantly when they picked out the name Francesco upon one of the big flagstones. Great treasure seemed already theirs and they looked at each other with sparkling eyes. For just the very fraction of a second it flashed into Ramon's mind to strike Douro down there and then and take everything for himself, but he quickly thought better of it. There might be a lot of hard work yet to do, and besides—disappearance number two might turn out to be very awkward unless it were carried out with every contingency provided for beforehand.
Douro drew in a deep breath. "Well, we'll have lunch first and another bottle of that champagne. Then we'll bolt and shutter up every door and window in the house and take our own time. There's no hurry now and we've got everything in our hands."
After a hurried meal—they were too excited to eat much—they returned to the vaults and started on the flagstone. At first they thought they would be able to break it easily with the big sledge-hammer they had provided themselves with, but soon found they were very much mistaken there. The stone was solid as a ten-foot rock and they saw there was no help for it but to chisel round the edges and raise it up with a crow-bar.
An hour's hard work and they got the crow-bar under. The big flagstone moved more easily than they had expected and a thrilling moment came as they levered it to one side and exposed the bare earth underneath.
"The spade, quick!" called out Ramon, and seized it and dug it deeply in. To their delight the earth was not hard and very soon there was a good heap over the side. For a few minutes he dug hard. Then, suddenly, he straightened himself up and, with a peculiar expression on his face, let Douro take the spade from him. Douro was all eager to go on, but, after shovelling up a few spadefuls, desisted as suddenly as Ramon had done and looked the latter straight in the eyes.
"Do you smell anything?" he asked in an awed whisper.
"By hell, I do," whispered Ramon, "and it's damned strange."
He spoke peremptorily. "But go on. The stink's probably been bottled up for all these years."
Douro resumed the digging, but, with each spadeful of earth he threw up, the horrid taint grew worse. "Here, wait a minute," he cried when he was knee-deep in the grave. "It makes me feel sick. I must get a breath of fresh air," and he stepped out of the hole they had made and moved a few yards away.
Ramon snatched the spade from him, holding his breath, started shovelling violently. He worked only with a great effort, as now the stench was very strong. He, too, was about to desist when the last spadeful of earth he threw up disclosed a piece of what looked like tarpaulin, sticking up.
"Hell!" he exclaimed. "It's some chemical they put in, and they've wrapped the body round."
A few quick strokes and he had exposed more tarpaulin. "Here, catch hold," he ordered chokingly. "Help me pull it out," and holding their breath they lugged out the tarpaulin and its contents from the grave and dropped it down quickly. The tarpaulin was tied loosely with a piece of cord at both ends.
They were loth to handle the gruesome object again, but, their hopes of great treasure prevailing over their repugnance, they pulled off the cords with the spade and with quick jerks flung aside the tarpaulin.
To their amazement was exposed a man's body fully clothed, even to the boots. It was lying on its side.
A moment's breathless silence and then, with their eyes almost bursting from their sockets, they both yelled simultaneously, "Braddock!"
There was not the slightest doubt about it, the corpse was that of their quondam companion. Of a dreadful colour and nauseating in its awful disintegration, they could yet quite plainly recognise its features. Added to that, upon a finger of one greenish, blackened hand they could see the gold signet ring they knew so well.
A stunned silence followed and then Ramon, pointing with a tremulously jerking hand, exclaimed hoarsely, "Look, look, he was shot in his head, just above the neck! See the bullet wound?"
"But what happened?" gasped Douro. "It couldn't have been——"
"It was!" snarled Ramon, his voice now strong and vibrant in his fury. "It was that cursed little professor! Braddock couldn't have got over the wall as we thought. One of those last two shots must have killed him."
"Then the professor must have brought him here!" exclaimed Douro.
"Of course he did, you fool!" shouted Ramon. "After he'd rifled this grave and found Francesco's treasure." His voice rose almost to a wail. "How he got to know about it we shall never know, but he bested us all along. Though he got his punishment from me, we've been beaten by the little rat."
"But perhaps he found nothing in the grave," suggested Douro, "or perhaps he never looked. He may have just lifted this flagstone haphazardly to hide the body and never searched underneath. Any treasure may be still there."
Accepting the suggestion with a scowl, Ramon seized up the spade and, springing into the grave, started to shovel up more earth. He worked quickly, but examined each shovelful before he threw it over the side. He soon came upon human bones, thigh bones, vertebrae, parts of a hand, a shinbone and finally a skull.
Then, when the earth began to get harder and more compact, and common sense told him he had come to as deep as the grave had been dug, his spade struck against something hard and, working round it, he brought up a round, flat piece of lead. He cursed it was not gold and was about to throw it up to Douro when he saw quite a number of words cut deeply into it.
Retaining it in his hand, he sprang out of the grave to examine it better by the light of the lantern. However, his eyes were smarting from the dust and he thrust it over to Douro.
"You read it," he cried sharply. "My eyes are smarting and I can't see clearly."
Douro rubbed over the surface with his fingers to dislodge the grit in the lettering. "It looks like a plaque," he said, "which was nailed on to the coffin, some sort of inventory of what was inside. By gad, I believe it is!" and he read slowly, "Ye jewelled mitre and paten and chalice and ye four candlesticks of golde." His voice rose to a shout. "God, it's what we're looking for. See if they are still there."
Ramon jumped back into the grave and started groping with his hands. He found more and more bones, more finger bones, more bones of the feet and more vertebrae—but no sacramental vessels or precious metal of any kind. He could feel he was at the hard bottom of the grave.
He sprang out and started to laugh boisterously, a hard, horrible, hysterical laugh. "I was right on the bull's-eye," he shouted, "right all along from first to last! I never made a mistake and my judgment was without fault." He sobered down to a bitter oath. "And that cursed miserable-looking professor hopped in and grabbed everything."
"But if he got them," snapped Douro, who had quite recovered his wits, "they can't be far away. He's hidden them somewhere. We can be quite certain of that."
"Ah, a good idea that," exclaimed Ramon, his hopes recovering. "We'll search every inch of the house. They're not likely to be down here. He would have taken them up to gloat over." He indicated the corpse on the tarpaulin. "We'll get rid of that. We'll dump him where he was." His hysterical laugh in part returned. "I want to get back at least part of that £2,500 I paid and I could never sell the house again with that stink coming up."
So, nauseating though the task was, the body was re-rolled on the tarpaulin and pushed unceremoniously back into the grave, the earth was piled over and the big flagstone replaced. Ramon was most careful, too, to stamp earth in the crevices round the stone.
During all that day and the day following the two searched through the house, with the search, however, degenerating into a half-hearted one, as the idea had occurred to both of them that the things found might have been taken away with the dead professor's effects.
"And if so," said Ramon when talking things over, "I don't see how we can move farther in the matter. Certainly, I could get in touch with the fellow in Cornwall called Smith who owned the property, but it might awaken suspicions that we had something to do with the disappearance of that damned professor."
"But they couldn't prove anything," said Douro, "unless they found the body."
"That's true," agreed Ramon, "but we don't know how much he may have confided in someone before he was bumped off, and so any enquiries from us as to what he had found might bring us in as the parties who tried to get in this house that night. No, there would be a lot of risk stirring the muddy waters and it isn't worth it. You see, it's certain now that Mother Braddock will eventually go to the police and then there will be two disappearances to be accounted for, with both of them, in a way, associated with us. I mean that would be the case if we go on now to show any interest in the professor's affairs."
So his first disappointment over, as was characteristic of him, Ramon proceeded to cut his losses. They would return to town the next day, he said, and let the matter drop.
It happened, however, that their run of bad luck was not over, for the following morning, starting early upon their journey, they broke the rear axle of their car when not a hundred yards from the house. The car was pushed back into the garage, Norwich was rung up and arrangements made for a new part to be obtained from London. In the meantime a car came out to take them into Norwich to catch the express.
They reached the railway station only just in time to get their tickets and jump into a carriage as the train was at the very moment of starting. They took the nearest first-class carriage they came to. There was only one occupant when they got in, a young girl sitting in the far corner, and for a minute or so, busy in arranging their suit-cases, they did not take any notice of her. Then Ramon, glancing round, took her in with a quick appraising glance and recognised her as the girl he had given the two five-pound notes to in the library in Norwich on the day when he had cut a page from that book.
For a few seconds he was uncertain whether or not to take any notice of her, but she settled the matter by giving him a bright smile and he immediately raised his hat and smiled back. That was all that took place for the moment, but, rather amused at the encounter, while Douro was busy with a morning newspaper, he moved along the carriage and, seating himself down opposite to her, opened a conversation.
"And how are you to-day?" he smiled. "You look very well."
"I am, thank you," she nodded. "Fortunately, I'm always well."
"Lucky girl!" he laughed. "Still at the library?"
She looked surprised at this question. "Of course! I'm always there."
"Going up to town?" he asked.
"Yes, I've got three days' holiday to do exactly what I like."
"Going to stay with some of your relatives, of course?"
She regarded him coldly. "I have no relatives, thank goodness. No, I'm going to stay at a hotel."
He pretended to look disapproving. "But surely it's not wise for a girl of your age and attractions to be by yourself? I mean with no one to look after you."
She looked at him more coldly still. "It's quite all right for me, thank you. Your sex are no danger to me. I'm not interested in them."
He laughed merrily. "That's a nasty one. You don't think much of us then?"
"I don't like or dislike you. I simply don't have anything to do with you."
He made a grimace. "And how, may I ask, are you going to amuse yourself?"
She spoke now with some animation. "I'm going to two pictures, a theatre and perhaps a concert."
"Do you know of any good pictures?" he asked.
"What I call good, but you mightn't. I'm going to see The Black Hand, Gentlemen of Crime and either Dracula or The Amateur Burglar."
"Dear me, dear me," he exclaimed in mock surprise, "what gruesome pictures for a young lady to want to see!"
"I like gruesome pictures," she said, "and I like ones about crime. They're adventures for me after my rather dull life."
He nodded. "And I expect it is dull in that musty old library. Now what sort of life would you like best if you could have it?"
"Oh, one full of adventure," she replied instantly, "and I don't think, either, I should mind danger and risk."
"But you'd like comfort," he frowned, "luxury and plenty of money to spend!"
"Of course I would," she laughed. "What woman wouldn't?"
Ramon was puzzled and anxious to find out what her education had been. He asked her what books she liked best, and was very much astonished to learn of the wide reading she had had. The opinion he had first been inclined to have was that she was a shallow-minded little doll, but this underwent a quick change and he became genuinely interested in her. All the while, too, he could not help noticing how exceedingly pretty she was. Indeed, he thought, it would be hard to pick any faults in her. Working tactfully round to her parents, he was not at all surprised when she told him her father had been Colonel Byron of the Indian Army and an aide-de-camp to the then Viceroy. He told himself he had recognised her breeding at once.
Presently Douro, noticing what a good-looking girl she was, put down his newspaper and came over to join in the conversation. The time passed so quickly that both men were surprised when town was reached. Then Ramon suggested that, if she had nothing better to do, she might care to have lunch with him at the Liverpool Street Station Hotel.
"There will be only we two," he laughed. "My friend Mr. Douro can't stop. He has some work he must do."
Agatha appeared quite unconcerned. "That won't hurt me," she said. "Yes, I'll come with pleasure, but I shall have to be away by two."
He led her into a big dining hall of the hotel and, choosing a table in a quiet corner, ordered the nicest things on the menu for their meal. "And what would you like to drink," he asked, "any wine?"
"Champagne," she replied coolly. "It always suits me best and never goes to my head."
Ramon smiled. Gad, what a nerve she'd got! What impudence to take it for granted he was willing to spend all that upon her, when they might never meet again! He was half minded to order the cheapest claret on the list and see what she'd say! However, an idea was forming in his mind and the champagne was ordered.
Agatha took a long drink and it was nearly an empty glass she set down. "I was thirsty," she explained, then, remembering something she had once read in a book, she added, "Besides, that's the proper way to drink champagne, no sipping and you get the result at once."
Ramon was amazed. Certainly he had never met a girl like her before! Either she was completely wanting in all actual experience of life or was just a brazen and designing little hussy—though undeniably a very attractive one—intending to lead him on. He doubted if her alleged indifference to men were not all a pose. At any rate, he would try her out and see what she would do.
"But you can't tell me, Miss Byron," he smiled, "that, with your really charming appearance, you haven't got a boy-friend yet?" He shook his head. "It isn't natural."
"It probably isn't," agreed Agatha calmly, "but it just happens I'm made that way. No, I haven't a boy-friend as you call it, and I've never had one." She smiled. "I've always stopped any man's interest in me—at once."
"But I am becoming interested in you," he smiled back, "and you're not trying to stop me."
She spoke carelessly. "Ah, but your interest in me is not in that way. You are puzzled because I let you buy me off when I caught you thieving in our library."
Ramon flushed hotly. With all his hardened criminal life it somehow grated upon him he should be so frankly stigmatised as a thief. "But you were every bit as bad as I was," he retorted sharply. "In fact you were worse, as you were in a trustful position and I was not." He regarded her curiously. "But why did you let me off?"
She laughed. "Because of the money you were offering, and, also, because I couldn't help admiring your boldness. Besides, it was an adventure for me, like one of those I often see on the pictures."
"But you ran a great risk," he frowned.
She shook her head. "I don't see it. You would never dare tell anyone what you had done, and certainly I was not going to say anything."
A thought struck him and he asked, "By the by, what became of my card, the one I sent in to the head librarian?"
She nodded. "I took it off his desk and destroyed it. Also I didn't enter your name in the diary, as I was supposed to, as a visitor who had examined the book." She laughed. "I covered all your tracks as well as my own. You had paid me for it."
He laughed, too, but, intending to pay her back for calling him a thief, remarked dryly, "Then anyone can buy you if they pay a high enough price?"
"I suppose so," she said, and then, not liking his smile and suddenly realising what lay behind it, she added quickly, "But only in certain ways." She looked contemptuous. "I'd never sell myself to anyone to be his mistress, if that's what you mean. I'm not to be bought for that."
"So, so," laughed Ramon. "Quite a virtuous young lady, after all!" He screwed up his face. "But tell me, if you dislike men so, aren't you ever going to get married?"
"Oh, yes," she laughed back, "when I meet the right man, the one who can give me all I want." She shrugged her shoulders. "It'll be distasteful to me, but I shall have to put up with that."
"And would you consider me suitable?" smiled Ramon.
Her answer was emphatic. "Certainly not! You're much too masterful and wouldn't suit me at all. The man I marry will be one I can order about and who'll be content with just what I choose to give him—and nothing more." She nodded. "Besides, your disposition is a cruel one and you'd murder me if you could when you got tired of me."
Ramon laughed merrily. "You're a nice prize-packet, aren't you? I've never met anyone like you. Do you turn yourself inside out like this to everyone?"
"Not I," replied Agatha instantly. "I've never confided in anyone before." She regarded him intently. "But with you I feel quite safe and it's a treat to be able to speak my mind. I realise we are both of the same type. We have no consciences at all. We'd neither of us have any remorse for anything we'd done."
Ramon regarded her with great respect. "Well, I'm damned!" he exclaimed. "You're a mind-reader if ever there was one." He spoke quietly. "No, I'm never sorry for anything I've done. I have the best out of life and I don't care how I get it."
"Are you well off?" asked Agatha curiously. "What do you do for a living?"
Ramon looked hard at her for a long moment. "You told me in the train," he said slowly, "that you knew Shakespeare."
"I didn't say that," she retorted instantly. "No one could ever 'know Shakespeare' as you call it, his mind was far too near the infinite, far too deep to fathom. No, I said I'd read most of his plays. That was all."
"Then leave it at that," nodded Ramon. "Well, you remember Autolycus?"
"'A picker-up of unconsidered trifles'," nodded back Agatha. "Yes, I remember him."
"Well, that's me!" smiled Ramon. "I'm an Autolycus."
"You mean you steal for a living?" frowned Agatha.
"That's a nasty word," he frowned back. "I mean I take things, occasionally which I don't think other people deserve to have."
"In a big way?" she asked.
"Certainly," he replied. "No picking pockets or taking the money left for the milk."
"Oh, how thrilling!" she exclaimed. "But don't you get caught?"
"Certainly not!" he replied. "Only fools and blunderers get caught, and I'm not one of them." He spoke quickly. "Now look here, Miss Byron. It's possible you and I might be of use to each other. I'm inclined to offer you a job. My friend and I run a nightclub, and what about you helping us? If you turned out suitable we'd pay you well."
"But what would I have to do?"
"You'd be our secretary and a sort of hostess, too. You'd introduce people to one another. You'd dance with the men and encourage them to buy champagne—we make good profit on that—and you'd attract people to come to play banker, roulette and chemin de fer."
"Then you play illegal games?"
"Oh, yes. That's where the money is made."
"But aren't you ever raided?"
"We haven't been as yet. We take a lot of precautions and there are several entrances and exits to our place. The doors are steel-lined, too, and would take a lot of breaking down."
"Oh, how thrilling!" exclaimed Agatha again. "And I should be a sort of decoy there?"
"Yes. And you'd get a lot of presents from the men if you were tactful and managed them properly."
Agatha was wary at once, "But I shouldn't give them anything in return. I've told you I'm not that sort of girl."
"You wouldn't have to be," he laughed. "You could play them like big fishes on a hook. Now what do you think of the idea?"
Agatha considered. "Where is this night-club?" she asked.
"In Hanover Square."
"Oh, in a good neighbourhood?" she exclaimed.
"Of course!" frowned Ramon. "What on earth did you think? Why we get some of the best of society people there, wealthy, and many with titles, too! Now what do you say?"
"I'd like you to try me," she said. "It might be the very sort of life I've longed for."
"Of course it would be!" he said. "It'd be a new adventure for you every night." He laughed. "What a chance to pick up the very husband you want, the poor devil you're going to take everything from and only give him cold kisses and the cold shoulder in return."
"But what would you pay me for all this?" asked Agatha.
"What salary do you get now?" countered Ramon.
"Five guineas," she replied, giving herself an instant rise of two.
"I don't believe it," he said rudely, "but at any rate we'll start you with six. Now when do you say you're supposed to be going back to Norwich? Ah, Sunday! Well, that'll fit in very nicely. Come to us for to-morrow, Saturday, night and see how you shape. Hanover Square, and be there at seven o'clock."
"But about a frock!" exclaimed Agatha. "I've not brought one dress with me suitable for dancing."
"Then buy one," said Ramon. "Have you got enough money?" He looked amused. "But, of course, you'll say you haven't! Well, I'll give you £10. And you say you'll have to buy shoes too? Another £4?"
He took three £5 notes out of his pocket and when no one was looking handed them across to Agatha. "And how do you know," she asked, "that you'll see anything of me?"
"Oh, you'll come all right," he laughed. "I know you'll not do anything for me out of gratitude, but self-interest will bind us two together. Now mind you look your best to-morrow and be sure your frock is all right. Here, you'd better go for it to Madame Bonnier in North Audley Street. She knows me and I'll give her a ring to say you're coming to her. I'll tell her you're to have the best she can give you in the short time, and if it comes to a little more than the £10 I'll settle with her later." He regarded Agatha's lovely piquante face and chuckled. "She'll think I've fallen for something at last and that you're my mistress." He laughed as if it were a splendid joke. "You won't mind, will you?"
Agatha's reply was contemptuously cold. "Not as long as it's not true," she said. "People can think what they like. Their opinions never trouble me."
That same evening Ramon told Douro the arrangements he had made. "About that girl we were talking to in the train," he said. "What did you think of her?"
Douro was enthusiastic. "A perfect little beauty," he exclaimed, "and I've been wondering all day who she was."
Ramon laughed. "She's the girl who caught me cutting out the page of that book in the Norwich library and let me off for £10."
Douro's eyes opened very wide. "The devil! And did she refer to it again?"
"Certainly she did! Called me a thief, but declared frankly she was always to be bought—at a price?"
Douro looked sly. "And are you going to buy her? You whom I thought had no interest in females!"
"Oh, she didn't mean it in that way! She's not in the market there. She got on her high horse directly I chaffed her about it and glared at me as cold as a frog. She told me plainly she was going to be no man's mistress. By buying her she meant she was willing to work for anyone in get-rich-quick ways if they paid her enough. So I purpose buying her, with you coming into the deal. I've already paid the £15 on account," and he proceeded to give his partner an outline of the conversation which had passed between them and the tentative arrangements he had made.
"She'll be an attraction, right enough," agreed Douro, "and ought to bring a lot of new clients in." He looked uneasy. "But how far can we trust her?"
"To the end of the world," nodded Ramon; he paused significantly, "as long as our interests happen to coincide with hers. If they don't"—he shrugged his shoulders—"not a yard, not a single yard. I believe she'd sell us without a moment's hesitation."
"She seems a queer fish," commented Douro. "Are you sure you've got her right?"
"I think so," replied Ramon. "Yes, she's the queerest fish I've ever met, and as selfish and heartless as she's beautiful. Still, for what we want her for I'm sure she'll suit us down to the ground. Of course she'll want a lot of training, as she's had no experience of life except what she learnt from books, though she's almost shrewd enough to be able not to show it. I know she told me several lies—one, for instance, about the salary she is getting at the library—but she told them so convincingly that I quite admired her for them. She's a splendid little actress."
"Well, well," remarked Douro, "I'll see what I make out of her to-morrow night. Business is business, and, though I don't pretend to be like you as far as girls are concerned, she won't get round me with her good looks."
When Agatha parted from Ramon she felt as if she were walking on air. No longer was she to be one of the audience watching a film, but she was to be on the film herself, and even more than that, it would be she who would be making the film. It would not be a shadow world in which she would move, but one real and tangible, peopled with live and vibrant men and women who all the time were taking risks against the law and walking upon the precipice side.
She had no doubts about what this night-club was and the part she was going to play. Of course, people were cheated out of their money and she was going to help in the cheating; they were fleeced and she was going to help take off the wool.
Booking a room at an hotel and leaving her modest suitcase there, she went straight to the costumiere Ramon had directed. Madame was at first inclined to be distant towards such a pretty girl who, in part at all events, was being financed by the gay Society man she knew Ramon Ellister to be, but the shy and modest manner which Agatha assumed disarmed her and she was almost at once intending to do the best she could for her.
Agatha's pose was that of an innocent and eager young girl who had seen little of the great world. Her story was that, coming up to London for a few days only, she had most unexpectedly been invited to a big dance and had nothing good enough to wear for such an important occasion. Then Mr. Ramon Ellister had suggested she should come to her, Madame Bonnier, to get out of her trouble. Oh, yes, of course, she knew Mr. Ellister well, he was her uncle.
Madame's good nature completely imposed upon, she said fortunately she was in a position to furnish Agatha with the very gown she wanted. One had been made just recently for a client, but the young lady was abroad and it was doubtful if she would be home for a month or longer. So Agatha should have her frock and, with a very little alteration, it would fit perfectly.
The gown was brought out and Agatha was charmed with it. It was black taffeta, most simple, but beautifully designed. It was tried on and she was told to come back the next day, when it would be all ready for her.
The following morning madame pronounced it perfect, and as Agatha surveyed herself in the big mirror, with a catch in her breath, she agreed with her. Surely never had she looked so nice, she told herself, and she wanted to burst into a cynical laugh. She, of the charity school and, such a short time back, the little general servant of old Miss Brown, now gowned in a beautiful creation of one of the most fashionable West End modistes and about to take her place on equal terms with some of the best Society people! Really she could never in her wildest dreams have expected so startling a turn of the wheel of fortune!
Madame regarded her with undisguised approval. "You will do great credit to me," she nodded, "and I am sure your uncle will not regret the extra guineas he is paying. But what are you going to do for a necklace? No diamonds. A single string of pearls will be best."
Agatha looked very amused. "My diamond-and-pearl days have not come yet, Madame," she smiled. "I have neither diamonds nor pearls. I shall go just as you see me now."
But madame was very troubled. "No, no, that will never do!" she exclaimed. "It will spoil the whole effect. You must have something round that beautiful neck to show up the beauty of my gown." She considered for a few moments. "When are you going home? Ah, to-morrow! Well then, I will lend you a necklace and your uncle can bring it back to me on Monday."
Going out of the room, she returned very quickly with a small jewel case in her hand, and took from it a string of beautiful pearls. Fastening it round Agatha's neck, she turned her towards the mirror to see the effect. "See," she exclaimed with enthusiasm, "that's just what it needed! Two beautiful things, but each incomplete without the other."
Agatha gasped. She was more than ever thrilled at her appearance. "But are they real?" she stammered. "Because, if so, I shall be afraid to take them."
Madame laughed. "No, child, they are not real. If they were they would be worth many hundreds of pounds. Still, they are the best imitation and it would take even an expert quite a little time to decide what they were." She nodded. "On you, with your looks and my gown, everyone will take them to be the real thing."
The necklace was not all she lent Agatha, for learning she had no suitable evening coat she produced one. "And your uncle can bring that back, too." She smiled. "Remember me to him and say I congratulate him upon his niece."
Arriving at Hanover Square, even when she entered the hall, in spite of all her self-confidence, Agatha could not help feeling a little bit overawed by the sumptuousness of the furnishings, and her heart beat unpleasantly. Happily, however, for her peace of mind, both Ramon and Douro were in the hall and at once came forward to meet her. As the former, in smiling approval of her appearance, took her coat from her, the latter gallantly raised her hand to his lips. "You will be the most lovely girl here to-night," he said ardently. "No, no, I correct myself, you will be the most lovely on any night. I am sure no one will surpass you."
For some reason Ramon felt annoyed at his partner's compliments. "Don't talk rubbish, Joseph," he said sharply. "She may be a bit out of the ordinary, but good looks are not all we want her for. It remains to be seen if she can earn her salary." He repressed a start when he saw her without her coat. "Pearls!" he exclaimed. "Where did you get those from?"
"Madame lent them to me," replied Agatha, "and the coat as well. You're to take them back to her on Monday."
"Oh, I am, am I?" he frowned. He regarded her curiously. "Though, of course, they are imitations, she must be trusting you pretty well to lend them. They're worth £20."
"Oh, yes, she trusted me all right," nodded Agatha. She smiled sweetly. "But then, as I didn't want her to think, as you said she would, that I was your mistress, I had told her you were my uncle."
"The devil you had!" exclaimed Ramon frowningly. "Evidently telling untruths never worries you." His face broke into a reluctant smile. "Your uncle, am I? Well, it's not a bad idea, and I'd better be your uncle here, too. It'll keep people from imagining things and"—his lips curved to a half sneer—"make it easier for you when you start looking for that millionaire husband."
Douro thought it a good joke and laughed heartily. "Never you be afraid of Mr. Ellister," he said. "If ever he annoys you with his attentions, Miss Byron, you come to me and I'll put him in his right place," and again for some reason Ramon was annoyed with his partner.
There was no doubt about Agatha being an outstanding success that night. Everyone wanted to know who she was and all the men asked to be introduced to her. Her behaviour was without fault and, though most modest and unassuming, her poise was that of one who was very sure of herself and able to hold her own with everyone.
"She'll do," said Ramon to his partner towards midnight, "but we must make her realise she mustn't take the men away from the tables. When she's learnt the ropes she'll be a great asset."
He drove Agatha back to her hotel just before three in the morning, with the arrangement made she was to leave Norwich at once and enter upon her duties at the Old Regency Club with no delay.
Accordingly, on the Monday morning Agatha told a harrowing story to the head librarian, how it had suddenly been found out that her aunt, her only relation, must undergo a terrible operation at once and she, Agatha, must take charge of her four little children. She was so grieved to relinquish her post at the library as she had got to so love her work. She did not know how long she might have to be in London, but it might be months.
The librarian was most sympathetic, so much so that he arranged for her salary to be paid up to the end of the month. He would try to keep her place open for her as long as he could in the hope that she would be free again sooner than she expected.
So strange is chance that the very next morning Larose presented himself at the library. He had been laid up, he said, with a bad attack of influenza or would have been there long before. He wanted to know if there were a page missing from their copy of Ye Anciente Churches of Olde England. He understood they possessed one of the four copies of the book known to be in existence. The page had been brought to him under peculiar circumstances, the exact nature of which he was not able, for the moment, to disclose, but there was no doubt it had been stolen from somewhere quite recently, probably a little over a month previously.
The librarian was interested at once, but most terribly shocked when, upon examining their copy, it was found to have been stolen from it.
"I cannot understand it," he told Larose, "as it is always kept in a glass case in the manuscript room and the public are not allowed access to it, except upon special request. Then they are always under the vigilant observation of one of our staff all the time they are perusing it."
The assistant librarian was called in and then it was remembered some weeks previously, after duly presenting his card, a gentleman had been allowed to examine the book. When, however, the daily records of the library were gone through, to the astonishment of both librarians there was no mention of the incident.
"But it is very extraordinary," commented the head librarian, "for the young lady assistant who was in charge of the manuscript room was never remiss in her duties and should have entered it. In the ordinary way, too, his card should have been filed."
"And you say this young lady has left," said Larose.
"Only yesterday, but I have her address. It is in Romford Road, Forest Gate, and we will communicate with her at once. She is certain to remember him and who he was, as we had very few such enquiries after our valuable books."
"Well, I'm going straight up to town now," said Larose, "and shall be passing through Romford Road. So I'll call and see what she says and telephone you at once."
A few hours later he phoned up that no person of the name of Byron was known at the given number in Romford Road and that no one, as far as he could learn, had ever heard of her.
The head librarian was very puzzled, but, such confidence had Agatha inspired in him, he came later to the conclusion that when she had given him the number of the house in Romford Road he must have put it down incorrectly. He was sure that was the explanation of Larose not being able to learn anything of her.
THE Old Regency in Hanover Square was patronised by certain people well known in Society circles and, of its kind, was generally considered good-class, though by no means exclusive. Membership, however, was not exactly easy and a newcomer had to be well recommended. It was whispered the police had their eyes upon it, though so far it had not been interfered with.
The club occupied the whole of a large Georgian house on the west side of the square and, if not extravagantly furnished, its appointments were nevertheless as comfortable and even luxurious as could be wished. No set meals were served and it did not open its doors until seven o'clock in the evening. It provided a small but good orchestra of four players, and dancing was continued until well into the small hours of every morning. It contained two spacious card-rooms where bridge was the game generally played, the stakes for the most part being moderate ones.
On the third floor, however, were several smaller rooms where members and their friends could make up private parties, and there it was well known the stakes were much heavier with considerable sums of money changing hands at poker in the course of a single evening.
A Monsieur de Vallon, a world-travelled Frenchman of charming manners, was supposed to be the proprietor of the club, but, in reality, he was only the well-paid manager of Douro and Ramon, who ran the whole place. Good profits were made on the wine and spirits sold, but the main source of revenue to the two partners, apart from what they took off the unwary at private poker parties, was undoubtedly drawn from the roulette played in a large room in the basement of the building. Here, most elaborate precautions had been taken so that, in the event of a raid, the players should have ample time to get out of the building without being interrogated by the police and, the next day, facing the scandal of being brought before the magistrate at the Bow Street Court. They were none of them aware exactly how the escape would be effected, but had been assured by the manager it had been provided for and that there was no need for them to worry at all. In any eventuality, they were told, they would be able to get away.
Ostensibly, the room was used for billiards only, and, to give colour to this supposition, a table had been installed in part of it, there still being plenty of space in the remaining part to house all the paraphernalia of roulette. The room was approached by a long narrow passage, to negotiate which two heavy pairs of swing-doors, which did not yield easily to the touch, had to be passed through. An attendant was always stationed outside the first ones, and, by the pressing of his foot against a well camouflaged push, a warning bell would ring in the billiard-room. The entrance to the room itself was made through double soundproof doors, the second of which had no handle outside.
Inside, the room looked innocent enough, with apparently no exit save by the door through which one had entered. In reality, however, there was another door leading into the cellars of the adjoining house. Access to this door was through one of the several cupboards in the room, and so cunningly had it been made that both Douro and Ramon were always confident that short of actually tearing the stout cupboard bodily from the wall the aperture would never be discovered.
Such was the Old Regency Club when Agatha Wandsworth, now known as Diana Montgomery, started to earn her six guineas a week. Rather to Ramon's amusement, she had given that as her name the first night she had come there.
"But why do you change your name?" he had asked. "Byron's quite a good enough name, isn't it?"
"Too good," she had replied coolly, "and too unusual. If anyone brings up my father, Colonel Byron, to you and asks about him, as my uncle you will be supposed to know all about him and that might be awkward."
So, as Miss Montgomery she was always addressed, and there was no doubt about her being an asset to the club. The men, young and old, were always buzzing about her, and it was often on her account only that they went down in the roulette room. She told them she so loved watching the play and they were nearly always willing to oblige her. She found it very profitable, too, as almost invariably they insisted upon putting something on for her. One night, when she had not been there a fortnight, she was made the richer by nearly £40.
With the women, as was natural, she was not so popular. Still, as she never apparently took any pride in the attentions the men gave to her, never indulged in any flirtations and was always so modest and retiring in her demeanour, much of their hostility towards her was disarmed and they were inclined to take her for what she made out she was—a not-too-clever girl, just enjoying the happiness and gaiety of life. One thing everyone was quick to notice. There was never anything coarse about her and she never encouraged the slightest familiarity on anyone's part.
"Quite a sweet girl," remarked one woman to her friend once, "and not a bit of a flirt. She'd quickly snub any man who said anything to offend her."
"Oh, yes, she appears to be all that," nodded the other. She laughed. "She's either a real little innocent or else a calculating little schemer, and, in my mind, I can't quite make out which."
Agatha was thrilled with the life. It was such an easy one. She lived in apartments in a good-class house in Maida Vale, and had two very nicely furnished rooms, with a bathroom attached, the landlady providing what meals she wanted. She had made out she was a violinist, playing in a small private orchestra—she did not say where—and to support that assertion invested in a second-hand violin case, which she always kept locked. She took it with her of an evening when she went to the Old Regency, carrying in it anything she thought she might be requiring there.
She had no visitors to her apartments, and the landlady soon fell under her charm, esteeming her not only as a very beautiful young lady but also as a very discreet and properly behaved one.
Nearly every night, or rather early morning, Ramon drove her home in his car and dropped her at her front door. It was not much out of his way to his flat. If he were not available, she came home in a taxi, at the club's expense. She got up about noon and passed the day as she chose. Sometimes she went out somewhere to lunch and to a picture afterwards with one of her club admirers. She liked the best of food and wines and still enjoyed a picture as much as ever. There, however, the matter ended, and, however ardent her escort, he never broke through her reserve. She had become almost perfect in the art of taking everything she could and then giving nothing in return, yet without offending the disappointed donors. She always parted from them with the hope in their minds they might be more successful later.
Her relations with her employers were peculiar. Douro was most kind to her and always most considerate where her wishes were concerned. From the very beginning he had wanted to become most friendly, and, a good-looking man, with considerable success with the other sex, he could not understand why she always repulsed him. He would not take in that she was, as she told him, a woman who would hate any familiarity, let alone intimacy, with any man.
"Men are only boring to me, Mr. Douro," she smiled frankly, "and, as I informed Mr. Ellister the second time I saw him, they simply do not interest me except for what I get out of them." She laughed. "Accordingly, to all standards, I know I am a bad and heartless woman, but perhaps one redeeming feature about me is that I admit it"—she nodded—"when it suits me."
"But what happiness, Mademoiselle," exclaimed Douro, "you are missing!"
Agatha shrugged her shoulders. "I can't help it." She smiled the really charming smile which won so many people to her. "I like you, Mr. Douro, very much, but any more, in the way you men want it—no, never."
She certainly did like Douro, but she had no liking at all for Ramon; indeed, a spirit of antagonism seemed to have risen up between them. Though he so often drove her home at night, quite often not a word passed between them on the short journey. At the club he was always curt and short with her, never letting her forget he was one of her employers. Many times, when he must have thought she was not looking, she caught him eyeing her frowningly. He loved, too, to find fault with her.
"Don't you bring old Major McWhirrell down to the roulette so often," he scowled once. "When he loses a pound he's finished for the evening, and that's no good to us. You ought to have had sense enough to see that."
"And you ought to have sense enough, too," remarked Agatha sweetly, "to see that if I bring down only those who are able to lose heavily people will soon tumble to what I am here for. No, you'll have to take the little fish with the big."
One evening he came up to her with his usual frown. "Here, you've been pretty thick lately with that new member, Watson, haven't you?" he asked. "Well, have you been out with him during the day?"
"Several times," nodded Agatha. "He's taken me to lunch at the Gaiety and——"
"No need to go into details," snapped Ramon. He eyed her intently. "Is he getting very keen on you?"
Agatha nodded. "Perhaps!" She smiled. "At any rate, he held my hand much longer than he need have done when saying good-bye on Monday, the last time he took me out."
"Has he asked you any questions about us here?"
Agatha considered. "Not unusual ones, but he was curious about Mr. Douro and wanted to know who he was and if he had anything to do with the management. I told him he was just a private member and that I thought he was an official attached to some embassy." She was interested. "But why are you asking me about him?"
"Because we are all getting suspicious about him. His credentials were certainly all right, but he seems to look about too much. He's all eyes on every one of us and watches people as they come in. Another member's told us, too, that when going through Trafalgar Square on a bus he's caught sight of him three mornings running."
"What's wrong in that?" asked Agatha, rather surprised.
"Perhaps nothing," replied Ramon grimly, "but, for all that, Trafalgar Square is devilish close to Scotland Yard."
"I've always thought," commented Agatha, "from the way he carries himself, that he'd been in the army once."
"Or in the police," snapped Ramon. "That's what we think." He gave Agatha her orders as if he were addressing one of the attendants at the door. "Well, this is what you've got to do. Next time you see him—oh, he'll be here to-night, will he?—make yourself as friendly as possible and pump him all you can. Make out you're in love with him"—he sneered—"which perhaps you are. Then if the police are really coming here, and he has anything to do with it, he may drop a hint in some way to prevent you being drawn in." He spoke peremptorily. "Now you understand what you've got to do?"
"Certainly," smiled Agatha. "If he's attached to the police I am to make him false to his trust and perhaps ruin his whole career." She looked amused. "Well, I don't mind at all. He's paid for one thing and I'm paid for another. It's just a game to me."
James Watson, for so he called himself, was a good-looking, well-set-up young fellow in the middle twenties. He looked strong and self-reliant and, in any eventuality, to be trusted. So he undoubtedly was until he came under the spell of Agatha's beautiful blue eyes. Then Eve looked at Adam and a bite from an apple seemed the most wonderful thing in all the world to an foolish man.
Driving Agatha home that night, Ramon remarked dryly, "Well, I saw you had got him well in tow this evening. Did anything happen?"
"Yes, we're lunching at Richmond to-morrow," she replied, "and after that"—she sighed—"I suppose it'll be a detestable walk in the park and I'll have to let him kiss me." She spoke bitterly. "Oh, I shall be earning my money, right enough, letting myself be petted and mauled about."
"You'll like it," scoffed Ramon, "and it'll do you good."
"Oh, will it!" retorted Agatha. "Yes, I shall like it just as much as you would if he were kissing you. I tell you I can't help it, but any man's kisses are hateful to me."
Arriving at the Old Regency the next evening, Agatha went straight into the partner's private room. "I think you're right," she announced, "and that he does belong to the police. Of course, he didn't tell me so, but for some reason he was particularly anxious I should go to see The Jest of Life at the Haymarket on Saturday night and not be here."
"Is he going to take you?" asked Ramon.
"No, he says he has to be away up North for the week-end, but he's given me two stalls so that I can go with a friend, and he's arranged for supper for us afterwards at the Rialto. We're to have what we want and the account goes down to him."
"Exactly," nodded Ramon. "To keep you away until well after midnight; and we're going to be raided on the Saturday, always our busiest night of the week, so that the police may make a big haul." He smiled at Agatha in a way he had not done for many weeks. "Really, it may turn out you have done us a good service."
"At a price!" said Agatha coldly.
Douro frowned. "But I hope not too high a one?" he commented sharply.
Agatha bridled. "Certainly not as high as some girls might have had to pay, but, all the same, it was annoying enough for me." She added spitefully, "Still, I shall get some satisfaction when I see his face when he finds me here on Saturday."
"But he won't find you," said Ramon quickly. "You'll go to that theatre as he's arranged, or, at any rate, keep well away from here. If the raid comes off and the police find nothing against us, that fellow mustn't learn it's due to you. It'll make him spiteful and he'll try to catch us another time. No, you can take a holiday on Saturday night."
Agatha was most disappointed. She had been gloating over the fine revenge she thought she would be getting for the kisses she had been obliged to submit to.
On the Saturday the atmosphere in the Old Regency was undoubtedly one of suppressed excitement. The word had been passed quietly round that there would be no roulette that night and, perhaps, for a few nights to follow. Also, they were asked to kindly order no drinks after eleven-thirty and to finish all they had by midnight. Monsieur de Vallon stated he had heard it whispered the police might be paying a visit to all the nightclubs within the next few days or so. Of course, he smiled, the visit would be only one of the routine ones the authorities were bound to make from time to time. He added that perhaps it would be a good thing for the club if those members who were interested in the game patronised the billiard-room that night, so that any visitors could see to what perfectly legitimate purpose it was being put.
The members thrilled. Certainly it might be they had been voyaging in dangerous waters, but to-night their vessel was safe in harbour and from whatever quarter the wind blew they would ride out the storm in safety. Many of them, indeed, were hoping a storm would come.
Nothing, however, happened until a few minutes after midnight, and then the attendant at the front door, opening it to a ring, was confronted with a dozen and more of uniformed police.
"Stay where you are," ordered the inspector in charge peremptorily to the apparently much-astonished doorkeeper, "We'll go straight in. We know our way about," and, leaving two men to guard the door, he hastened with his remaining colleagues up through the hall. The new member, young Mr. Watson, now in uniform, too, accompanied them.
They burst unceremoniously on to the dancing floor and the inspector held up his hand for the orchestra to stop playing. "All remain where you are, please, ladies and gentlemen," he called out sharply. "It's no good any of you trying to get away. The house is surrounded back and front."
Monsieur de Vallon came forward in smiling dignity. "No one will want to get away, Inspector," he said most politely. "They have no reason to. This place is properly conducted and we do not infringe the law." He threw out his hands. "The whole house is open to you. There is nothing locked"—he corrected himself quickly and raised one long forefinger in emphasis—"except, of course, the bar, which is always locked at midnight."
"Ah, of course!" nodded the inspector sarcastically. He made a motion with his arm to three of the accompanying police. "Still, you Henderson, Wicks and Jones, see what these ladies and gentlemen are drinking."
Leaving the dancers to be looked over by the three officers mentioned, the inspector and the rest of the police, guided by Watson, made their way quickly into the basement. Provided for all eventualities, one was carrying a big hammer and a crowbar, to, if necessary, break down any hindering doors.
The usual attendant was stationed at the beginning of the long passage leading to the billiard-room, but to-night it almost seemed he had been sleeping in his chair. He blinked his eyes stupidly and in great surprise as the little posse of police avalanched themselves upon him.
"Hold that man, one of you," called out the inspector and he hurled open the first swing doors. Those opening into the billiard-room were soon reached and the policeman with the crow-bar sprang forward. It was at once realised, however, that his services would not be needed. Certainly, there was no handle on the outside of the inner door, but it was not shut and only pushed to. The murmur of conversation could be heard and also the unmistakable clicking of billiard balls.
The police swept into the room. It was well thronged with members who had been engaged in watching an exciting match between two of the champion players of the club. They looked round in astonishment, not unmixed with some amusement, too, at the interrupters.
"All remain where you are," ordered the inspector in the same stern tones as he had done upstairs. "The house is surrounded and none of you can get away." His eyes roved quickly round and then he turned frowningly to Agatha's great admirer, who was close on his heels. "This is the room," he growled, "isn't it?"
The young man's face was white and angry. "It's the room all right," he scowled, "but the roulette table's been moved. It was at that end where those big armchairs are."
"Then they've been warned," whispered back the inspector hoarsely. "We'll not find anything now." But, for all that, he ordered a thorough search to be made both for any gambling paraphernalia and concealed exits from the room. Nothing, however, of an incriminating nature was found, and the inspector and his assistants returned frowningly upstairs, where the officers left there, stated they had found everything in order.
Monsieur de Vallon came forward again. "Is there any other way I can assist you, Inspector?" he asked suavely, with his face all smiles.
"Yes, I'll take the names and addresses of everyone here," grunted the inspector sourly.
One of the members, however, at once spoke up. "No, no, Inspector, you can't do that," he said sharply. "You are exceeding your duty there. You can't demand our names unless you have good grounds for believing we are breaking the law, and there is no suggestion of that to-night. Certainly, you can ask our names and we can give them if we like. Here's mine," and he handed him the card of a well-known King's Counsel.
There was no help for it and the mortified inspector had to withdraw with his men. Outside in the street he turned savagely upon Watson. "You've blundered somewhere," he scowled. "It must be you, as you know quite well that a couple of hours ago only you, the Chief and I knew the raid was going to be made. Yes, you've blundered badly."
The other could offer no explanation, but he wondered guiltily if his association with Agatha had had anything to do with it.
The following afternoon, the day being Sunday, Agatha had not gone out. She was reading in her sitting-room, when the young maidservant of the house knocked at the door and ushered in Ramon. Agatha was most surprised, as, by tacit arrangement, he had never set foot in the house before. To her even greater astonishment, he appeared to be most amiable.
"I've brought you this," he said smilingly, and, opening his pocket-book, he produced and handed to her two £5 notes. "A little present," he went on, "for the services you've rendered to us. They came last night, about twenty of them, but went off later with their tails very much between their legs."
"Did Mr. Watson come with them?" she asked.
"Oh, yes, as bold as brass; but when they didn't find anything I don't think I've ever seen any man look more sick. The inspector in charge must have been furious with him for having brought them on a fool's errand. Yes, Diana, we're very pleased with you."
Then—without giving her the very slightest warning of his intention—he suddenly seized hold of her and, crushing her to him, began kissing her fast and furiously upon the lips. She could not break away. One of his arms was round her neck, pressing her face close to his, and the other gripped her so tightly that she could not disengage her hands to defend herself. She tried to struggle, but very quickly realised it was quite hopeless and lay limp and passive in his embrace.
He stopped kissing her only when he was out of breath. Then he let her go and she sprang back as if released from a spring. Snatching up a handkerchief, she darted over to a bowl of roses on the table and, plunging the handkerchief into the water, began laving fiercely over her lips. She took mouthful after mouthful of the water and spat it out on to the carpet.
Ramon smiled triumphantly. "Now what do you think of me?" he asked, but he had to wait for her reply until she had finished her ablutions and was wiping her mouth with a dry corner of the handkerchief.
"Only what I did before," she panted, "that you are worse that any animal. Your kissing me made me feel downright sick." She shook her head in disgust. "You've had fish, too, for your last meal. I could smell it."
Ramon reddened furiously. Then, before he could do anything to prevent it, she had moved over to the wall and pressed a bell-push there.
"Here, what are you doing?" he asked angrily. "What are you ringing the bell for?"
She had now recovered her breath and replied quite calmly, "Only that I have a message to give the maid." She looked icily at him. "Don't make an exhibition of yourself before her."
The girl was quick in answering the ring and appeared almost at once. "Yes, Miss?" she said.
Agatha indicated Ramon. "If this man calls again, Mary," she said very quietly, "you are to tell him I'm not in. You understand, I am never in when he comes?"
The girl looked rather scared. "Yes, Miss, I'll tell him."
"Then show him out at once," said Agatha.
Uncomfortable at the so obviously off-hand manner in which the well-dressed visitor was being referred to, the young girl stood waiting nervously, but Ramon made no move to go. Instead, he settled himself down comfortably in an armchair, looking very amused. "Ha, ha, Miss Montgomery will have her little joke, Mary. She'll ring again when she really wants you," and to Agatha's annoyance, now greatly relieved, the girl smilingly withdrew, closing the door after her.
Instantly Ramon's smiling face turned to one of fierce anger. "I'll discharge you for that, young woman," he snarled. "We've finished with you from this very minute."
"But you can't discharge me," smiled Agatha sweetly. "When you went into partnership with Mr. Douro the agreement was that neither partner could discharge any employee without the consent of the other."
"Oh, then you two have been discussing me, have you?" demanded Ramon with a scowl.
"But not for any particular reason," replied Agatha carelessly. "Mr. Douro just happened to mention it one evening when you had been finding fault with me more than usual and giving me plenty of your pleasing scowls." She scoffed. "Do you imagine everyone hasn't noticed how unfriendly you've been lately?" She shrugged her shoulders. "Not that it affects me in the very least, as I certainly don't intend to remain much longer with you. A gentleman I know thinks he can get me tried out for the films."
Ramon changed his tune at once. "Look here, girl," he said, "haven't you any intuition? What do you think I kissed you for just now?"
"Because, I suppose, you're a male animal," replied Agatha cuttingly, "and I'm a female one, that's all."
Ramon smiled. "You're a devilish pretty one, anyhow." He burst out fiercely. "No, Diana, I kissed you because I love you. I love you as I've never loved any woman before." He shook his head angrily. "I never thought I should ever love any woman. I didn't think I had such a thing as love in me, but I love you passionately, and that is why I have come here to see you now. I want you to become my wife. I want to marry you straightaway, to-morrow if you will."
For the moment Agatha was altogether too amazed to speak, and she just stood still staring at him as if she could not believe her ears.
Her silence irritated him. "Don't you hear me, Diana? Don't you understand what I say?"
"I hear," she replied coldly, "but I can't say I understand." She nodded slowly. "So your rudeness to me all these weeks meant that you had fallen in love with me, your continual faultfinding, your black looks and——"
"My black looks were for myself," he interrupted. "I was furious that I had fallen into the pit"—his face broke into a smile—-"but I found I couldn't help it, and I'm not going to fight against it any more. I realise there will be no happiness for me without you." He spoke masterfully. "Come, Diana, you'll have to marry me. I'll make you a good husband."
"You never could," she scoffed, "any more than I could make you a good wife. We are both too selfish and would care only for ourselves."
"Nonsense," he retorted. "We should learn to give and take. We should get on right enough once we were tied up. We have so many ways in common."
She snapped angrily, "But haven't I already told you I dislike men?"
"Bah!" laughed Ramon. "That's only a pose because you've not been wakened up yet. Lots of women imagine that until they meet the right man."
"And you're certainly not the right man for me," she said. Then, feeling the pain of her bruised lips, she added, to annoy him, "Of the men I know now, I'd marry Mr. Douro a hundred times in preference to you. At least he's not got your cruel nature."
Ramon frowned angrily. He knew quite well what his partner's feelings for her were and that she had only to lift her little finger and Douro would marry her at once. "But I'll never let you marry him," he said fiercely, "or anyone else either. You'll marry me or no one, and just you take that in."
He left her presently and, driving away in his car, was not altogether dissatisfied with the interview. Certainly, she had repulsed him as bitterly and unpleasantly as she could, but he told himself that when she came to think things over she would see matters in a different light. Hitherto all his experience of the other sex had taught him that a woman loved her master. He knew, too, he must have hurt her with his savage kisses, but then—were not some sensations of pain very much akin to those of pleasure; and probably, therefore, his very roughness might have stirred her as no gentleness would have done.
He frowned uneasily, however, when he remembered her reference to Douro. There might possibly be danger there! With all his strength and hardness in other ways, Douro was a rank sentimentalist where women were concerned, and the girl might be imagining she had found in him the weak slave she wanted. The danger was the greater because he was aware Douro would be able to give her all she wanted in the way of money. Douro had made quite a small fortune lately by a lucky purchase of mining shares.
His thoughts ran on. Apart from regarding Douro as a possible rival where the girl was concerned, he was angry about him in other ways. The man was losing his nerve! He had been frightened about the butler whose life he, Ramon, had had to take when they were robbing Bentham Hall, and he had been frightened again about the professor's death and at first had not wanted to help in the disposal of the body. Another thing, too, he had refused to have any part in a deal where more than £3,000 worth of stolen forbidden drugs had been in the market for £500. He, Ramon again, left in the lurch, had had to carry through the matter on his own.
Ramon frowned heavily as he drove along. There was another matter now annoying him, too. As she had threatened she would do, Braddock's mother had reported her son's disappearance to the police and had lied in stating to them that he had been a great friend of Ramon's once, but was sure there had been some fierce quarrel between them.
Anyhow, a rather nasty-eyed police inspector had been to interview Ramon at his flat and had asked a lot of searching questions. Ramon was not altogether certain that his replies to the questions had satisfied the inspector, as the latter had called subsequently at his office in the city and asked some of the questions over again. Of course, Ramon told himself, the police could have nothing against him, but, for all that, it was unpleasant to have been brought in contact with them at all.
But if, when Agatha and he had parted, Ramon had his annoying thoughts, so had Agatha hers. She was certainly amazed that he was wanting to marry her and not a little thrilled that she now had it in her power to exasperate him by refusing. For all that, however, it was most inopportune he should be paying attention to her, for that meant he would be watching her, and that was the last thing she was wanting then.
Only a few weeks previously she had come to know a young fellow at the night-club, almost, it seemed, quite a boy. He was Peter Wardale and he had been greatly taken with her at once. He would have danced every dance with her had she let him. At first she had had no interest in him except to get him down as often as she could to the roulette room, so that he could put something on for her. She had soon found, however, that he was not well supplied with money and, accordingly, was on the point of shelving him for wealthier victims when, agreeing rather reluctantly to let him take her to lunch one day, he confided his circumstances to her, and her attitude towards him immediately underwent a great change.
He told her he was an only child and his father was dead. He had for guardian an uncle, who was the senior partner of a big firm of solicitors in the city. This uncle was very stern and strict, and, purposely kept him very short of money, never giving him a penny more than the small allowance which his dead father had arranged for him to have until he came of age. If it were not for his mother, who was devoted to him and often, against his guardian's wishes, supplemented his allowance, he would always be very hard up.
However, things would be quite different in a little less than a month to-morrow. Then he would be twenty-one and come into a large inheritance, including Wardale Court, a beautiful old-world residence near Esher, only fifteen miles from London. He would be able to do just as he liked and—he squeezed Agatha's hand here—marry whom he wanted to.
A great thrill had surged through Agatha and she had modestly lowered her lovely eyes. Here, perhaps, was the very husband she had been looking for! He would be wealthy, he was so obviously of a weak and foolish character, and he would be easily led!
She would encourage him all she could, but make him keep everything from his people until it was too late for them to interfere. She had a great awe of lawyers, and, above all things, this strict guardian of his must learn nothing. If he did he would certainly ask awkward questions about her family, and she was shrewd enough to realise she would not be able to satisfy him with her replies.
With her mind made up that he was a most suitable match, she had been going out quite a lot with him, lunching at the less expensive restaurants two and three times a week, letting him take her for drives in the country and even permitting kisses on a restricted scale.
He quickly succumbed to her charms and was soon very much in love; one day, at his ardent urging, she consented to become engaged to him, with the arrangement, however, that no public mention of it was to be made until his twenty-first birthday. Then, with them both being of age, they would be married immediately after.
This, then, was the position on that Sunday when Ramon had made his offer of marriage to her, and Agatha thought it was a very awkward one. She knew Ramon was of a most masterful disposition and would not easily be put off anything when he had once made up his mind. Above all things, he must not get to know how friendly she had become with Peter and how often she had been meeting him.
If, however, she was thinking the position awkward that afternoon, she thought it much worse on the Monday evening when she arrived at the Old Regency.
Ramon met her smilingly and said at once, "Young Wardale rang me up from his home this afternoon asking me, as your uncle, to give you the message that he wouldn't be able to be here to-night. He's also asked me to drive you down to-morrow to lunch at Wardale Court."
Agatha's heart bumped unpleasantly, but she asked coolly enough, "Oh, how did that come about?"
"Well, I happened to say I'd often passed the Court and thought what a beautiful place it looked. He said it was beautiful and that I must come down to see it one day. Then a few minutes later he rang up again to say his mother would be very pleased if we'd both come to lunch, and he mentioned to-morrow. I accepted; so, of course, we'll go."
"But I'm not too keen," said Agatha with a frown.
"Well, I am," snapped Ramon. "They've got two Ravencross goblets there and I should like to see where they're kept. They'd be worth a good £1,000 and I could dispose of them easily in the States." He nodded. "You might be able to help me there."
Driving down to Esher the next day, Ramon was bright and chatty and Agatha, though on tenterhooks that Peter might show himself too friendly to her and give everything away, responded to his mood as if there had never been the slightest unpleasantness between them. He made no reference to what had happened on Sunday until entering the drive to Wardale Court, and then, as he took in the beautiful surroundings, he remarked thoughtfully, "Ah, this young man might have done for you, Diana, if you had not been already bespoken."
Agatha made no comment.
The luncheon party was a small one. Besides Peter and his mother there was a cousin, Beryl Wardale, quite a pretty girl of nineteen and of a quiet and very natural disposition. Mrs. Wardale was a gentle, elderly woman with beautiful silver hair and very soft brown eyes. Suffering from her heart, she looked frail and, indeed, was more or less an invalid. There was no doubt she admired Agatha. During the whole course of the meal she hardly took her eyes off her except to transfer them to her son, and then, Agatha thought with an uneasy qualm, there was a rather anxious expression on her face. She learnt afterwards from Peter that there was a reason for it, as for a long time he and Beryl had been supposed to be sweethearts.
Peter behaved very discreetly until after lunch, but then was obviously a little too eager to show Agatha over the large estate which so soon was going to be his. However, she took good care to see that Beryl came with them.
Ramon was left to talk to Mrs. Wardale. He was all eyes for the portable valuables of the house, but, though noting the much admired goblets in their glass cabinet, took good care not to refer to them.
Certainly Agatha's appearance had made a good impression on the mother, and in the absence of the young people from the house she complimented Ramon upon the loveliness of his niece.
"Oh, yes, she is rather good-looking," smiled Ramon, and then, as if to reassure Mrs. Wardale, he added, "But she takes no interest in the other sex. I tell her she'll have to marry one day, but she always says she intends to be an old maid. The worst of it is she is quite well off, and that makes her very independent and prefer to live her own life."
Mrs. Wardale seemed comforted and showed it later by the kindly way in which she spoke to Agatha. "And you must come and see us again, Miss Montgomery," she said in parting. "You haven't seen the deer at the other end of the park. We have some lovely little fawns," and Beryl to whom Agatha had tactfully paid much attention, warmly seconded the invitation.
Driving back to town, Ramon remarked thoughtfully, "Yes, you must cultivate that young man up to a point. I know where I can lay my hands upon two very good imitations of those goblets, and you might get the opportunity of changing the real ones for them. The old woman would not know the difference. It was her husband who collected pretty things." Agatha said nothing, privately determining, however, that the real goblets should remain where they were. Already she considered they belonged her.
Meeting Peter, by quickly whispered arrangement, for lunch the next day, he was very enthusiastic about how pretty his mother had thought her. "She'll come round very quickly directly we're definitely engaged," he said. "It's all nonsense her wanting to make out I'm keen on Beryl. I never have been."
The following week he drove Agatha down to the Court for lunch again, as a surprise for his mother, he said. Agatha had been reluctant to go, but he had pleaded so hard that in the end she had consented. She had been afraid that if she went against his wishes so early it might weaken her hold upon him.
However, arriving at the Court, she very much regretted having given in, as the lawyer uncle had unexpectedly come upon a short visit. He eyed Agatha very intently and it required all her strength of will not to appear nervous. Certainly, he was most polite to her, but in a casual, roundabout way he asked her more questions about herself than she was prepared to answer. Still, she thought she fenced with him pretty well and hoped that her short replies would be put down to a reserved and independent nature.
As upon her previous visit, she took care she should not be alone with Peter for a moment. Also, she talked such a lot to Beryl that it seemed she was much more interested in her than in the heir to the Wardale properties. Anticipating what would happen when he returned home, during the drive back to town she coached Peter most carefully what to say to any questions asked about her by his uncle.
"Of course, dear," she said, "they'll try to put you off me and you must be very tactful not to offend your uncle or let him see you are unusually interested in me. Whatever you do don't get into a temper or you're certain to give everything away. Remember we've less than three weeks to wait now, and then everybody can know everything."
At the end of the three weeks she was referring to, Mrs. Wardale was giving a big dinner-party to celebrate Peter's coming of age. Of course Agatha had not been asked, but she had arranged with Peter that, two days before, he was to tell his mother he had himself invited her and her uncle.
"You must ask Mr. Ellister as well," she had said, "so that it won't look as pointed as it would if I were coming alone. Then, on your birthday morning, you can go into your mother's room and tell her, privately, we are engaged. It mustn't come to her as a complete surprise when everyone else is told. That wouldn't look nice, and, besides, if you tell her beforehand it will give her time to get over any disappointment about your not choosing your cousin." Then Peter had thought that surely never could any girl have looked more beautiful as she had added blushingly, "You can tell our great secret to all the others when they are all together at the same time—if you like—at the dinner that night."
Agatha imagined she was being very clever there, as she wanted Ramon to hear the news when he could not make a scene. She knew he would not dare to lose his temper before everyone, and she meant to take good care she would not be giving him any opportunity of speaking to her privately later.
As she had anticipated, Peter's uncle tackled him at once when he got back home.
"What are you going about with that girl for?" he asked frowningly.
"Oh, I like her," replied Peter. "She's very good company."
"But what are your intentions?" went on the lawyer. "Are you making love to her?"
Peter laughed. "Did it look like it?" He shook his head. "She doesn't seem to me to be the kind of girl who lets any man make love to her to amuse himself and just pass the time."
"Well, you mind your steps," warned his uncle. "What do you know about her? Who are her people?"
"She has no father or mother and I've not met any of her people except her uncle. Hasn't Mother told you about him? He's been here to lunch. He's Mr. Ramon Ellister, a stockbroker in the city."
His uncle was still frowning. "I've never heard of him. Where did you meet the girl?"
"At a friend's house," replied Peter. He smiled. "Isn't she pretty enough for you?"
"Oh, she's pretty enough," grunted the uncle, "but that's not everything. Where does she live?"
"She's got a flat somewhere in Maida Vale."
The lawyer's eyes opened wide. "Have you been there?"
Peter laughed. "No, she's never asked me."
His uncle nodded significantly. "Well, you just look out. She's the very type of girl to make fools of boys like you." Peter duly reported the conversation to Agatha and she seemed quite satisfied. She was sure things were going on all right. She was thrilled with the idea of becoming the mistress of Wardale Court, with its beautiful appointments and set like a lovely jewel in the glorious old park. It was a miracle, she kept on repeating to herself, that such a wonderful future should be unfolding itself before one who such a little time ago had been that friendless little servant-girl.
She would, however, have lost much of her equanimity had she only known what had been going on behind the scenes, for, although at a dead end for the moment, Larose had never lost confidence that he would ultimately track down the pretty assistant of the library in Norwich and find out who and where she was.
At first it had certainly seemed that all trace of her had been lost when she could not be found at the address given in Romfort Road. Still, by no means disheartened, Larose had gone back to the Norwich librarian and enquired how the latter had first come to engage her.
"Well, I can tell you that," said the librarian at once, "for of course we keep all the references of successful applicants for positions here," but when he came to look for Agatha's, to his great surprise, hers could not be found.
"Now that's very extraordinary," he exclaimed, "for hers should be among these! You see I have all the others." He looked very troubled. "Someone must have deliberately taken Miss Byron's away."
"What had she been before she came here?" asked Larose. "You must be able to remember that."
"Certainly I can! She was in charge of a big lending library in some London suburb. Now let me see. Where was it? Let me think a moment."
But the thinking of many moments could not recall the particular suburb to the librarian's mind, and after quite a good while he had to give it up. "Never mind," he said confidently, "it'll all come back to me one day. My memory often plays me tricks like that. I shall remember it all at once and then I'll telephone you." An idea came to him. "Ah, but some of the other members of the staff may be able to tell you."
It turned out, however, that no help was to come from them. Miss Byron had been a very reserved young woman and they knew nothing about her. She had made no friends and confided in no one.
Larose was most disappointed, as it was through the girl he had been hoping to get a line on Ramon Ellister's activities. He always argued that when a man worked alone in criminal ways he was more difficult to uncover than when he worked with others. He was sure everything pointed to the man and the girl having been accomplices in the theft of the page from the book, and the sudden disappearance of the latter from Norwich, he was confident, meant she was working with Ellister again.
At a dead end as far as the girl was concerned, he determined to concentrate at once upon Ellister. The commodore had been keeping a vigilant eye upon what had been happening to the house on the Gap, and had found out that, going to stay there almost at once after the sale, Ramon and Douro had only remained there three days, and then had shut up the house and gone away, apparently for good, as they had not been back since.
"And the second day they were here," said the commodore, looking very amused, "they were seen driving back from Norwich with a long ladder strapped on to one of the footboards in their car, which evidently meant they had not found the secret way down into the vaults and had had to break through the flooring in one of the rooms." He chuckled. "I shall regret all my life I didn't see the look on their faces when they found Francesco's grave had been already opened."
"But we can never be certain," commented Larose, "they would have realised it had been opened so recently. They may have thought it had been done hundreds of years ago."
The commodore laughed merrily, but did not explain why. He did not think Larose would altogether approve of his having dug up Braddock's body from where his cousin had buried it and reinterred it in Francesco's grave to give the murderers the shock of their lives. He told himself he had better keep that joke to himself.
Giving up all expectation of linking up the girl in the library with Ramon Ellister until he received the promised telephone message from the head librarian. Larose proceeded to hark back to the burglary at Bentham Hall in the previous March, when, among other valuables, the old manuscript dealing with the life of Father Francesco had been stolen.
After paying a visit to Printing House Square and consulting the files of The Times to refresh his memory with the details of all that had taken place, he next drove round to Scotland Yard and interviewed Chief Inspector Charles Stone, with whom he had worked so many years when in the Criminal Investigation Department.
The stout inspector seemed no different in appearance from what he had been in days gone by, and his big, heavy face was all smiles when Larose came into his room.
They shook hands warmly and Larose explained what he wanted. "Is there anything you can tell me about that burglary, Charlie," he asked, "which is not public property and has not been in the newspapers? You never got the ghost of a clue, did you?"
"Well, I wouldn't exactly say that," replied Stone. "We got several clues, though they certainly didn't lead anywhere. For instance, for one thing we were always pretty sure the burglars were known quite well to that poor devil of a butler who got killed. I mean that he had recognised them and that's why he had to die."
"How do you make that out?" asked Larose.
"By the injuries he had received. Two dreadful blows had been struck on his head, almost certainly with a knuckle-duster, and whoever struck the first blow must have known instantly it had been effective enough to knock the man out for many, many hours, at any rate for long enough to let them get hundreds of miles away before he would be able to call for help or even moan." The inspector shook his head slowly. "But no, the murderer wasn't satisfied and he came back to the poor chap, after an interval of minutes so the post-mortem showed, and struck again—this time an even more dreadful blow. He had no intention that the butler should ever speak again."
"But how could the killer have been sure," asked Larose, "that the first blow would have kept the butler unconscious for such a long time?"
The inspector shrugged his shoulders. "Common sense would have told him that, my son. The knuckle-duster had dented the forehead right in."
"And did you surmise anything else?" was Larose's next question.
"Yes. One of those taking part in the burglary had had access to the home only a little while before it had been carried out, because he had monkeyed with the bolt of one of the windows of a small passage, the usual stunt of taking the screws out and filing the threads so that they had no grip. That's how they got in, and they evidently thought they would get away with it, as they had put back the screws, very carefully."
"Then it wouldn't have been one of the servants who let them in?"
"Not unless the screw business was a blind, and we don't think it was because upon the head of one of the screws there was a faint dried smear and the scrapings, under the microscope, turned out to be quite recent blood. Whose blood, of course, we shall never know, but we presume it came off the knuckle-duster used upon the murdered man."
"Well, about those who had recently had, as you call it, access to the house," asked Larose, "did you find that a pretty big order?"
The inspector sighed. "A very big one, for, apart from the family and the twelve servants, there was a large number of tradesmen to be considered. Only the month before there had been some alterations made to the house and part of it had been redecorated. Oh, yes, there were masons and plasterers and paper-hangers and other tradesmen to be examined and we were never sure we had got the lot."
"And that's all you can tell me?" asked Larose.
Stone nodded. "That's all, Gilbert." He grinned. "But what have you come nosing round for? Have you any idea about anything?"
Larose nodded back. "Yes, Charlie, I have, and you shall know all about it later on. I've got my eye on a party"—he smiled—"from information received, but I want to be quite certain about him first."
Bidding good-bye to the inspector, Larose at once proceeded to ring up Sir Jeremy Rollison at Bentham Hall, but learnt that he and all his family were from home, motoring on the Continent, and would not be back for a month or six weeks. The Hall was practically shut up, as it had been given over to caretakers and a firm of contractors who were installing a new and extensive drainage system.
Larose was greatly disappointed, but there was no help for it and he would have to wait. So, not being able to get in touch with Sir Jeremy and hearing nothing from the Norwich librarian, a whole six weeks went by with no progress being made in the matters of either Ramon or Agatha.
When at last, however, Sir Jeremy did return, Larose lost not a day in calling upon him and explaining his reason for doing so. He had already some slight acquaintance with the knight, having met him a few times at Agricultural Shows, and made the excuse he was now approaching him so many weeks after the burglary because the idea had just come to him that perhaps some friends of the family might have been indiscreet and talked too much outside about the value of the old silver.
"When I was at the Yard," he explained, "we found that so often happened. Visitors to a house went home and spoke in front of strangers or, even perhaps, their own servants about where the burglar alarms were or things like that, putting ideas into people's minds. Now, I suppose you entertain a lot of visitors here?"
"Yes, I do," replied Sir Jeremy. "You see, I've got a family just growing up and they're always inviting their friends."
"Well, can you think of any of them," asked Larose, "who are big talkers?"
The knight was very amused, thinking Larose was still obsessed with the work of his old calling and unable to shake off the suspicions of his detective days. Still, he was most polite and produced a diary in which he had been in the habit of jotting down the names of all the visitors who came to the house.
"I want only recent ones," said Larose, "only those who were here during the preceding few weeks."
Sir Jeremy nodded and proceeded to read aloud a number of names, among which Larose was not the least surprised to hear that of Ramon Ellister. However, he let Sir Jeremy read right down to the end of the list and then appeared very disappointed the knight could not fix upon anyone who in his opinion might have been dangerous.
Sir Jeremy had a good laugh when Larose had gone. "A nice fellow," he said to his wife, "but a very simple-minded one. I can't understand how he earned the reputation he had."
Leaving Bentham Hall, Larose immediately rang up Inspector Stone on the latter's private line. "See here, Charlie," he said, "at last I think I've got something for you, and I want to bring a friend to see you to-morrow. We'll be telling a tale that will make you open your eyes."
"Good! They want opening," laughed the inspector. "In regard to that little matter we were talking about when I last saw you they are still as blind as a new-born kitten's."
"But first," went on Larose, "between now and to-morrow, say at eleven o'clock, I want you to find out if anyone in the Yard has ever heard anything about a Mr. Ramon Ellister, a stockbroker in the city—anything, mind you, however trivial. Of course keep the matter very quiet."
"Of course," agreed Stone. He laughed. "I won't even tell my missis."
THAT night Larose had a long conversation with Commodore Smith in a London hotel and, after having told him about his interview with Sir Jeremy that morning, went on emphatically. "But see here, Commodore, we're making no headway and really only just marking time. This business has become too big for us to handle ourselves and so I've decided we must go to Scotland Yard and put down our cards."
"All of them?" queried the commodore uneasily.
Larose frowned. "Not all of them. I don't see why we should mention about your cousin having shot and buried that man. It wouldn't strengthen the case against Ellister, and, besides, it might make things unpleasant for you and me"—he smiled—"especially me. They'll say that I, at least, ought to have known better and not connived at keeping the matter from the police."
"But I don't think we did wrong," said the commodore. "After all, it was my cousin's secret, and surely we weren't bound to give him away!"
"In one way that's true," agreed Larose, "because, as we argued that night, any disclosure as to the way in which that fellow with the knuckle-duster had met his death would have made things very dangerous for the professor. Of course the dead man's accomplices would have gone for their revenge." He spoke briskly. "No, we won't say anything about that. We've got good enough cards to put down"—he smiled again—"without producing that ace of spades."
"Well, how are you going to approach the police?" asked the commodore.
"Oh, you're coming with me to headquarters to-morrow," replied Larose, "to have a good yarn with my old friend and colleague, Chief Inspector Stone. I've made the appointment for eleven o'clock. I've already been to see him, and he'll know we're coming about Ramon Ellister, as I rang him this afternoon and asked him to find out if the police had ever heard of the gentleman."
"Do you think they have?" asked the commodore.
Larose shook his head. "No, I shouldn't think so, for, as far as I can find out, he's got quite a good reputation in the city and is doing a bona-fide business there as a stockbroker. Still, that counts for nothing. In the history of crime most of the big criminals have been, apparently, living most respectable lives."
"And this Inspector Stone," asked the commodore, "he's a sharp man?"
"Sharp man?" exclaimed Larose. "Good gracious, yes! He's about the sharpest man they've got at the Yard. He's big and heavy to look at and mayn't give the impression of being too brainy, but the Lord help the man he's questioning if the chap's got anything to hide." He nodded. "Yes, you'll have to step very carefully with him, and mind you don't say a word too much. Better let me do most of the talking."
"I suppose he's got implicit trust in you," said the commodore.
"Up to a point," laughed Larose, "but he knows I'm no stickler for red tape and, to keep out that shooting business, I shall have to walk every bit as warily as you. We've always been the greatest of friends, but, for all that, he was often suspicious of me when I was up at the Yard. It was always his grievance I was mistaking justice for law."
The following morning Inspector Stone received the commodore most politely. "Glad to make your acquaintance, sir," he said—his eyes twinkled—"though you do arrive in rather bad company. When Mr. Larose here was my colleague he was often something of a worry to me because of his lack of respect for authority. I could not get him to take in he was not the Lord Chief Justice but only a common policeman." His face sobered down to stern, severe lines. "Well, what's the tale you're got to tell me?"
"But first," said Larose, "have you found the Yard knows anything of this Ramon Ellister?"
"Just a little," nodded the inspector, "but nothing to make it necessary for us to keep our eyes on him. A little while ago a Guildford woman came to ask us to make enquiries about her missing son. She said he had been a friend of Ellister and she believed Ellister knew where he was, though he wouldn't tell her. One of our men interviewed Ellister, who stated the missing man was only an acquaintance and not a friend. He denied all knowledge of his movements."
"Who was the man?" asked the commodore, and Larose swore under his breath at him putting the question.
Stone reached for a slip of paper in one of the pigeon-holes of his desk and scanned down it. "Braddock was his name," he said, "Eden Braddock." He looked shrewdly at the commodore. "Ever heard of him?"
"Certainly!" began the commodore. "He was——" But Larose interrupted sharply.
"Wait a minute, Commodore," he said. "That had better come in its proper place in our story. It'll want such a lot of unnecessary explanation if we tell about it now."
"Well, what is this story you've got for me?" asked Stone, again looking from one to the other of his visitors.
"I'd better tell it," said Larose, "because I came into the trouble first."
"Trouble, eh?" exclaimed Stone with a frown. "Then you're in trouble, are you?"
"No, we're not," replied Larose, "but someone else is, and we hope you'll be able to make it much heavier for him." He spoke quickly. "It's about that Professor Mildmay of the Gap House in Norfolk we've come to tell you."
Stone nodded. "I know—the eccentric professor who disappeared."
"Oh, yes, he disappeared right enough," nodded Larose with a grim smile. "He was murdered."
"Murdered!" ejaculated the inspector, with his eyes opened very wide. "Who by?"
"That Ramon Ellister, or, at any rate, if he himself did not actually commit the murder, he was involved in the crime."
"Have you found the body?" snapped Stone.
Larose shook his head. "No! But, if you don't mind you'd better hear the whole story before questioning us. It begins about the middle of last May when the professor called upon me to ask my advice," and briefly and quickly he proceeded to relate all that the professor had told him up to the moment when the professor had recognised in the man he had seen coming out of the Royal Hotel in Norwich the woman who only two days before had tried to get taken on as housekeeper at the Gap House.
"That was the climax of everything," said Larose, "and made him come to me at once. Living in so lonely a situation, he was rather fearful as to how far those men would go to get what they evidently imagined was hidden in the house or below it."
Then he went on to tell what had happened the night after he had stayed with the professor, how some strangers had knocked at the door very late and, being denied admittance, had gone all round the house, testing the fastenings of the windows to see if there was anywhere where they could force their way in. Ultimately, he said, they had gone away. He mentioned nothing about the shooting and passed quickly to his second visit to the house about a week later, when he had found the commodore had just arrived to keep his cousin company.
Then he came to the tragedy of the professor's murder, and how when he, Larose, had arrived post haste in response to the urgent phone call of the commodore, they had found the body had been taken away.
The inspector frowned heavily when Larose came to that part of the story and interrupted at once to question the commodore.
"But I don't understand, Commodore," he said very sternly, "why, when you found your cousin's body and saw he had been so brutally murdered, you didn't instantly ring up the police. What was your motive in only ringing up Mr. Larose and wasting such valuable time? Mr. Larose was thirty miles away and there was a constable in the village, so to speak, almost at your very door. What was your reason for it?"
"I was stunned," replied the commodore. "I was literally aghast, and I turned for help to the one person whom I knew would give it best. I never gave a thought to the local policeman until after I had rung up Mr. Larose, and then, as Mr. Larose had said he would start away instantly, I decided to leave everything to him."
"You sort of lost your head then?" queried Stone grimly.
The commodore nodded. "I suppose I did." He bridled up warmly. "But who wouldn't have done, sir, at seeing someone he'd parted with in perfect health, only a few hours before, lying with his head almost cloven in two?"
"But in your profession you've probably seen dead men before, haven't you?" asked Stone.
"Hundreds of them," replied the commodore. He shook his head. "Only not relations and when I've been all alone. That made the difference. I was in the battle of Jutland and saw men blown to pieces all around me, and I never turned a hair. The excitement kept my reason clear." He shrugged his shoulders. "But that night there was not the excitement of battle to warm me up, and when I came upon my poor cousin's body my brain went numb and I felt cold as a corpse myself."
Stone nodded as if he understood. "But you lost precious minutes," he said, "and it was a great mistake."
"Oh, I realise it now," exclaimed the commodore, "but who would have imagined the murderer would be coming back to take away the body? From the appearance of the blood and the broken wrist-watch I knew my cousin must have been dead some hours, and surely no one would have dreamt he would have ventured to return after all that time?"
Stone made no comment and Larose went on to give the reasons which had made them resolve to keep silent about the crime. The inspector listened in stony silence. Next, Larose told of the commodore finding the treasure in Francesco's grave and, notwithstanding his obvious disapproval of the course of action they had taken, the inspector's frowning face could not help lighting in his interest.
"Treasure trove!" he nodded. "What have you done with the things?"
Larose told him, and went on with the story of the sale of the house and how he had forced up the bidding and made Ramon Ellister pay a huge price for it, out of all proportion to its real value.
The inspector frowned. "Then the man knows you are interfering?" he asked. "He knows who it is who has got his finger in the pie?"
"No, he doesn't," smiled Larose. "I was made up a bit and I'm sure he never recognised me."
"By Jove, no," supplemented the commodore with enthusiasm. "The sharpest person would not have seen through the disguise. It was a wonderful one."
With the recital of the account of the sale over, Larose paused to consider where next to go on.
"Is that the end?" asked the inspector.
"No, no," replied Larose, "not by any means! We now go back to that burglary and murder at Bentham Hall." He held Stone's eyes with his own. "Now you told me the day before yesterday that as the result of your investigations you were quite certain the burglars, or one of them, had had access to the house only a little while before the burglary was carried out."
"That is so," nodded Stone. "We are quite certain of it."
"Well," said Larose very solemnly, "Sir Jeremy Rollison told me yesterday that, among others, a Mr. Ramon Ellister had been staying there as his guest barely three weeks before the crime."
Quite a long silence followed, with the expression upon the inspector's face an impenetrable one. Then he said sharply, "Well, go on."
Larose continued. "Now among the old manuscripts taken by the burglars was one dealing with the life of this Father Francesco whose body was buried in the vaults below the Gap House. The professor had shown me the Father's name upon one of the flagstones there, and I enquired of an expert at the British Museum if anything were known about him. He showed me a copy of the stolen manuscript—there are only three in existence—and it said the priest had been Cardinal Wolsey's chaplain and upon the cardinal's death he had gone into hiding taking with him many valuable sacramental vessels so that they should not fall into King Henry's hands. If you remember, Henry was just then despoiling the monasteries of their treasures. The manuscript also stated that Francesco had said that rather than the king should get hold of the valuables he would have them buried with him in an unknown grave."
"Did it say, too, where this priest had been buried?" asked Stone.
"No, of course not! If it had, people would have gone after the treasure all those hundreds of years ago."
The inspector frowned. "Then how did Ellister find out where the grave was?"
"That's what we don't know," replied Larose instantly, "but we do know he'd got the right oil from somewhere, because a week after the burglary he was trying to buy the Gap House, and we have evidence, too, that he was trying to find out all he could about the Church of St. Cyprian over which the house is built."
Larose then went on to relate how the professor had picked up the page about the church in his garden the morning after the midnight visitors had tried to break in and how he, Larose, had traced it back to the mutilated book in the library at Norwich. Of course, he brought in, too, the pretty girl assistant in the manuscript room and the mystery surrounding her disappearance.
There was no doubt the inspector had been very interested in Larose's story, and, at its conclusion, he said smilingly, "Certainly, Gilbert, you've brought us some very valuable information, though, of course, as no one will know better than you, the evidence against this man is all circumstantial. There is no proof he stole the manuscript from Bentham Hall, or that he was one of the men who came to the professor's house that night and dropped the stolen paper. It is all conjecture. Also, there is not the slightest evidence to show it was he who killed the professor. Just conjecture again." A thought appeared to strike him and he turned sharply to the commodore. "You look to me, sir, to be a mentally well-balanced man, and so there is not the slightest doubt in your mind, is there, that you did see your cousin lying dead there that evening?"
The commodore flushed rather angrily. "Not the slightest doubt, Inspector," he replied sharply. "Every time I want to I can visualise him lying there with the ghastly broken-in forehead."
"And you saw the axe," went on the inspector, "his own axe with which he had, presumably, been killed, lying close by the body?"
"No, no, a good ten yards away, close to the tree whose roots he had been cutting at. It was half buried in the sand and my foot knocked against it as I was going back."
"You left it where it was?"
"Yes, and couldn't find it later."
"One more question." Stone heaved his body straight up in his chair and asked, almost casually, "Do you benefit under your cousin's will?"
The commodore flushed redder even than before. "Not a penny! Everything goes to his old college."
"No offence, no offence," smiled the inspector, "but I had to ask the question."
"And I witnessed the will," snapped the commodore. "So I knew nothing would be coming to me."
Stone turned to Larose. "Well, Gilbert," he said briskly, "from now onwards we'll trail that man and there'll be as few minutes as possible when he's not being watched." He nodded. "And if he's, as you make out, a professional crook, then, as you know well, we'll be soon getting an idea of what he's up to." He smiled at the commodore. "Don't you worry, sir. If he killed your poor cousin, we'll get at the bottom of it, sooner or later. Even though Mr. Larose is no longer working for us we most often succeed in getting our man. With any good luck we'll soon have some news for you."
With the departure of his two visitors the stout inspector leant back in his chair with a thoughtful expression upon his face. "Gilbert's a good fellow," he told himself, "but he's always doing something he shouldn't, and I'm almost sure they were keeping something back now. That navy chap wasn't too comfortable when I was pressing him why he didn't ring up the police before he rang Larose, and Gilbert seemed anxious to help him out by going on so quickly with the story." He nodded. "Still, they brought some good oil. There's no doubt about that." He pressed a bell-push upon his desk. "And now for this Mr. Ramon Ellister!"
"What did you think of him, Commodore?" asked Larose when they were out in the street.
"An elephant with a brain as nimble as the legs of a grasshopper," frowned the commodore. "In all our complicated story he picked out the one weak spot at once."
"He's always like that," smiled Larose. "He looks for the reason for everything and his mind sinks like a plummet to the bottom of facts. Still, we did right in going to him, for Ellister will now have all resources of the Yard like a load of bricks on his back. However little they are able to find out about his past, his present and future will be something like an open book."
And Larose was in a way of being right there, as a few days later he got a ring from the inspector. "Here, I say," boomed Stone, "is that librarian girl you told me about a very good-looking piece, golden haired, blue eyes and lovely and all that?"
"That's the one!" exclaimed Larose. "The boss of the museum in Norwich said she was one of the prettiest girls he'd ever seen."
"Well, we've located her," said Stone, "but she's not Miss Byron any more. She's Miss Montgomery now and supposed to be Ramon Ellister's niece."
"Great Scott," exclaimed Larose. "Then there's no doubt about them being accomplices! Where does she live and what does she do?"
"She lives by herself in apartments in Maida Vale, and Ellister drives her home every night or early morning from a night-club in Hanover Square. She's supposed to be just an ordinary member and very keen on dancing, but our men think she's paid by the club as an item of attraction. The club's a good-class one, but, for all that, they play roulette on the sly. We raided the place a little while ago, but found nothing and came a thud. We're sure, however, they were warned, but for the life of us we can't imagine by whom."
Larose was puzzled. "But with all we suspect of Ellister, he doesn't seem to me to be the type who could let a relation of his make a market of her good looks."
"Oh, the report I've got doesn't go as far as that," said Stone. "Apparently the young woman lives a most respectable life in her apartments. We are told no men visitors ever come there and Ellister himself hardly ever enters the house. She's said to be musical and play the violin a lot."
"Does Ellister go to that night-club every night?"
"He goes there very often, and then we understand heavy poker play takes place. Ellister's supposed to be very well off. As a stockbroker he's got a good connection in the city and he's some relation of Sir James Ellister of Bolton Park, near Guildford. Well, Gilbert, that's all for the present. We are well trailing the man and something more may turn up in a day or two. We must play a waiting game."
Such strange tricks does chance play that after having been without news of Agatha for so long a time, that same afternoon Larose had another phone ring about her. This time it was the long-awaited one from the librarian at Norwich. He said he was not quite certain, but it had struck him suddenly that the library she had been managing before she came to him had been somewhere in Clapham, but exactly where he could not remember.
Larose thanked him for the information and the next day set about enquiring in Clapham for the biggest private circulating library in the district. "It should be rather a big one," he said at the post office where he made his enquiry, "because it has a manager or manageress and three assistants. A Miss Byron was the manageress up to the beginning of last March."
No one at the post office, however, remembered the name or knew of any private lending library employing so many assistants; indeed, Larose was informed that all such libraries round Clapham were very small affairs. Still, he was given the addresses of three and, rather disappointed, set about visiting them.
At the first one he drew blank, getting no information at all, and at the second, to begin with, things looked equally unhopeful.
A slovenly, carelessly-dressed woman was in charge, and she was short and sharp in her answers to his questions. "No one but me," she said irritably, "has ever owned this library, and I've never heard of any girl called Byron."
"The one I'm looking for," went on Larose most politely, "left this neighbourhood somewhere about the beginning of March last. She was very good-looking and went away to take up a position in Norwich."
It seemed the woman was about to make another sharp denial of knowing anything of her when, suddenly, a curious expression came into her face. "Good-looking, you say!" she exclaimed. "Tall, golden-haired and big saucer-blue eyes. Speaks like a great lady and thinks she's a duchess!" Her voice rose in scorn. "Yes, I know her! She worked for me, but she's no Miss Byron. She's just a jumped-up little servant-girl called Agatha Wandsworth."
"But are you sure it's the same girl?" asked Larose, very puzzled.
"If that's her description, I am," snapped the woman, "and it's quite certain it's the same girl if she left some library about here the beginning of March. Oh, she was a baggage, she was, and she took herself off at an hour's notice, leaving me in a dreadful hole!"
"But she went to a good appointment," exclaimed the rather dubious Larose, "with an excellent reference from the last employer."
"Then she wrote it herself," laughed the woman derisively. "I never gave her one. The little trickster was equal to anything and—ah, I see it all now! She had the letter telling her she'd got the situation the very morning she left. She waited for the postman outside, as she'd been waiting for him several days, and then comes in as bold as brass and tells me her father, who's a clergyman, is very ill, and she must leave at once." She scoffed. "All lies, of course!"
"And you never heard anything of her after?" asked Larose.
"No. But wouldn't I have liked to," exclaimed the woman hotly, "for the little wretch had been taking subscriptions for my library from people and putting them in her own pocket. Oh, she was a bad girl, she was, but I didn't learn anything about it until afterwards! She'd been a servant to some poor old lady in Balham and let her die from neglect. There was an inquest on her and this Agatha got it hot from the coroner. He said the police ought to prosecute her for the lies she'd told." The woman nodded spitefully. "But there—if you want to know all about that, go to Mr. Western, the chemist, at the corner of Bank Road. He can tell you everything about her, where she came from and all that."
Calling upon the chemist, Larose caught him just as he and his wife were starting upon a holiday. The taxi was at the door to drive them to the railway station. Learning what Larose had come about, the chemist told him he couldn't wait a moment, but directed him to the late Miss Brown's house where her niece, Mrs. Benson, was now living. "She knows more about this Agatha Wandsworth than I do."
Mrs. Benson, a prim, middle-aged lady with a rather hard, puritanical face, eyed Larose suspiciously when he asked her to tell him about her aunt's one-time maid.
"Do you come from the police?" she asked.
"No, certainly not," he replied, "I only——"
"Oh, I shouldn't be a bit surprised," she interrupted sharply, "for if that girl lives long enough, I'm sure the police will have plenty to do with her. Her disposition is naturally wicked."
"But she's said to be so very pretty," protested Larose, intending to lead Mrs. Benson on to speak as fully as she could.
"Oh, she's pretty all right!" agreed the other instantly. "And pretty, too, in a most modest way. Why, I really don't think I've ever seen a much prettier face. But she's wicked and selfish and couldn't be more dishonest and untruthful." She spoke sharply. "But why have you come about her? You've not told me that yet."
"Well, it's like this," fibbed Larose. "She obtained a situation with a friend of mine under false pretences and we are curious to know how she managed it. I happened to be in this neighbourhood and thought I'd enquire about it." He laughed. "Then I found out that the references she'd given were forged."
"Just like her! She'd be equal to anything. Why, in that coroner's court, though without a shadow of doubt she'd been caught out as a liar, she just stood up there before everyone like a martyred innocent."
She told Larose the whole story of what happened at the inquest and then harked back to Agatha's earlier days and her first coming to the old ladies from the orphanage.
"And do you know," she went on, "I'm not in the least astonished that someone has come here to-day to speak to me about Agatha. Things always run in twos and threes, and I saw the girl yesterday, the first time since the day of the inquest."
"She came to you here?" asked Larose, very astonished.
"No, no, I saw her in the West End, coming out of a palatial-looking restaurant—I don't know its name—and I was so close to her that I was able to take in everything. She was most expensively dressed, everything to match, and I'm sure her shoes alone cost five or six guineas. On her wrist, too, she'd got a diamond-studded wrist-watch. She was with a well-dressed, quiet-looking young fellow, and the commissionaire was whistling for a taxi."
"Oh, living expensively!" frowned Larose.
"Yes, and such a short time ago she was a little maid of all work, washing up the plates and dishes in this very house. Oh, but she looked a lady, a real little aristocrat! I tell you I was aghast."
"Are you sure it was the same girl?" asked Larose.
"Positive! I was close behind her and I heard her speak. She called the young fellow Peter. She has an unusually clear, musical voice and I couldn't be mistaken. Then the taxi came and she walked over to it with the airs of a great lady. She knew people were looking at her."
"Did she see you?"
"No! But it wouldn't have put her out if she had. She'd have probably smiled and said good afternoon. She was like that. There are two things to her credit I've always heard. She was never rude or lost her temper and she never had anything to do with men."
"But you say she was with one now," said Larose.
Mrs. Benson nodded. "And that makes me uneasy and I don't know where my duty lies. My conscience tells me I ought to warn that young fellow. If she's going about with him, it means she's serious and will probably marry him."
"But you don't know who he is!" exclaimed Larose.
"Oh, yes, I do," replied Mrs. Benson triumphantly. "When they had driven away, a well-dressed man waiting at the entrance to the restaurant asked the commissionaire who Agatha was. He didn't know, but said the gentleman was young Mr. Wardale of Esher. I've looked up the name in the telephone book and the place is Wardale Court. I almost think of ringing him up. What do you say?"
"I shouldn't do it," replied Larose, shaking his head. "He'd know it was a woman speaking and he'd only put it down to spite. Besides, he wouldn't take any notice. A young fellow in love won't listen to anybody."
The same afternoon Larose rang up Inspector Stone. "Your men were pretty smart, weren't they, Charlie, in finding out that that Miss Montgomery is Ellister's niece. It was quick work, but they happened to be wrong. She's no relation of his and was baptised as Agatha Wandsworth. She was in a foundling home and given that surname because a bobby picked her up one night on Wandsworth Common."
"Are you sure of your facts?" grunted Stone.
"Quite. I've traced her back, year by year, to her first orphanage and seen her photograph when she was sixteen and just going out to service. Even then she was a lovely girl."
"What sort of girl is she?"
"Oh, as far as men are concerned I can learn nothing wrong of her. She kept them all at a distance. Still, in other ways she's not too good, though she's never been in police hands. She's been a petty thief all her life. I believe now her meeting with Ellister in Norwich must have been accidental. However, I'll look in and see you to-morrow and give further details."
Larose told the commodore that night what he had found out about the pretty librarian's assistant. "Of course the only charge which could be brought against her," he said, "would be that of forging a reference, but it wouldn't be wise to do that now. We shall just watch them both until they make a slip. That's all we can do for the present. I'll let you know when anything happens."
The commodore told him he might be returning to Cornwall for a few days and then, perhaps, going to stay with some distant relatives of his in Surrey. Anyhow, he would let him know where he was.
Agatha was enjoying herself these days and quite confident everything was going well with her. Apart from having Peter Wardale well in tow, she was very delighted with a beautiful wrist-watch Douro had given her, the one Mrs. Benson had seen her wearing. It had cost Douro the best part of £250, but he had bought it for her out of the profit he had made out of his share ventures. Agatha had let him kiss her hand when he strapped it on her wrist, and, more in love than ever with her, he was sure her acceptance of his present would help to lead later to a closer intimacy.
He had given it to her one night at the club, and the only fly in his ointment had been that Ramon had come unexpectedly into the room just after Agatha had got it on and was still enthusing about its beauty.
Outwardly Ramon had been quite pleasant and had admired the watch, too, but inwardly he was seething with rage, being sure there was a better understanding between the two than they were making out. His passion for Agatha was still at a white heat. It was the truth when he had told her he had never been in love before, but now, deep in the toils, he could never get her out of his thoughts. She had become his great obsession and he was determined, with all the strength of his fierce and masterful nature, to get her in one way or another, and that no one else should have her he had sworn many times to himself.
So the days passed until one Monday morning, when Peter's coming-of-age dinner-party was only ten days away, and Agatha was lying in bed, luxuriously enjoying her breakfast and reading the paper. Knowing that Ramon and Douro were going to be away for the week-end at the former's bungalow on the Broads and would not be at the Old Regency on either the Saturday or Sunday nights, she had taken French leave and given herself a holiday from there, too. On the Saturday night Peter had taken her to a theatre and on the Sunday they had motored down to Eastbourne and spent the day upon the Downs.
She was glancing down the paper when, suddenly, the headlines over a paragraph caught her eye and she read, "Boating accident on Hickling Broad". She read down and her breath choked in her amazement. Douro had been drowned when he and Ramon had been rowing over the Broad in the moonlight on the Saturday night!
For the moment the print before her eyes became blurred and dark. Douro drowned and she would never be seeing him again! She felt no grief or horror, but only an almost overwhelming, startled surprise. The thought swept into her mind how fortunate it was he had given her that wrist-watch before it happened.
Her eyes cleared and the print before them was clear again. The two friends had been going for a short row before they turned in to bed. Ellister had been rowing and Douro leaning over the side of the boat flashing his torch to attract the fish. But he had leaned too far and overbalanced the boat! They had both been thrown into the water.
Then followed the account of the tragic ending of Douro. He could not swim, but Ellister had supported him and tried desperately to reach the bank. Douro's struggles, however, had made it impossible and, slipping from his companion's hold, he had gone under. Ellister had shouted for help, but no one had heard him and, in the last stage of exhaustion, he had just managed to save himself.
Then two men had at last heard his shouting and come running up. He had pointed to where Douro had sunk and they had dived in time after time to retrieve the body. Ellister, himself, in part recovering from his exhaustion, had courageously dived in too. However, for a long while the search was fruitless, and it was not until more than two hours had passed that the body had been found. It had then drifted to quite a hundred yards away from where it had sunk. It had been too late then to save the drowned man, though artificial respiration had been kept up for a long time.
The inquest was to take place on Monday at noon.
Agatha put down the newspaper and munched complacently at another piece of toast. In a cold sort of way she felt sorry for the manner of Douro's death, but relieved that she would be now free from his attentions. Certainly, he had been rather annoying of late and it had been a nuisance to have to be continually keeping him at a distance.
Then suddenly a thought came to her and her face went grey in fear. Had Ramon got him out into that boat, when no one else would have been upon the water, and drowned him deliberately? She knew Ramon had been jealous of him, and also that he was capable of anything. He was cruel and hard and a dangerous man to offend. Then what about herself? How would he act when he learnt she was going to marry Peter Wardale?
Oh, she must take care of herself! She must never be alone with him and let him drive her home again!
She thought quickly. She would go no more to the Regency Club. She would break with it altogether, at once. It was only ten days now to the coming-of-age dinner-party at Wardale Court and then her engagement to Peter Wardale would be announced. Four days afterwards they would be married by special licence. She did not think that once she was a married woman Ramon would dare to interfere with her. He would give her up. She had heard him boasting once to Douro that thank goodness he had always been strong-minded enough to cut his losses.
She felt comforted. Yes, she would be all right once she was married, but until then—she must look out.
Jumping out of bed, she opened a good-sized leather trunk she had and from a small locked box proceeded to add up exactly how much money she had. From her many presents at the roulette table and what she had not spent of her salary she had nearly £100. That was enough for anything. She would leave her apartments at once and go to stay at a hotel.
She would write to Ramon that the news of Douro's terrible death had so shocked her that she could not come to the Old Regency for a few days and would have to have a rest. It would be no good his coming to see her, as she had given orders no one was to be admitted. When she felt a little better she might even go away to the seaside for a short change.
Yes, that would be the letter to write him, she told herself, for above all things he must not learn she had left Maida Vale for good. If he came to make enquiries about her, which he probably would after a few days, if he heard she had given up her apartments altogether, he might suspect something of much greater significance than just going off for a short holiday. So she would go on paying for the rooms until after she was married, and even leave some of her things behind to make out she was coming back.
So, summoning the landlady to her room, with a tearful face of great grief, she showed her the newspaper and told her the dead man had been a great friend of hers and of her father. She said she would have to go away for a few days so that she would be quite near to his people, who lived in Chelsea, to give them all the comfort she could. She would be back, she added, in a week or ten days, and, to prevent all suspicion of her not returning, she paid a fortnight's rent and said she would be calling for any letters which might arrive.
She left the house within an hour, and straightaway rang up Peter to meet her that afternoon at the hotel where she was by then installed. Peter was going to be rather an anxiety to her and on no account could he be allowed to meet Ramon before the coming-of-age party. He was not clever and subtle enough to do much deceiving and so she must keep him away from all places where he was likely to run up against Ramon.
When Peter arrived at the hotel, to explain her staying there she said there were two cases of bad influenza in her house and with the coming-of-age party so near at hand she was terrified at the idea of catching it. Of course, she added, it was silly being frightened, and she had not even told her uncle, as he would only laugh at her for being such a baby. Peter was thrilled at her confiding in him and was emphatic he would let no one into the secret. If he did happen to meet Ramon or anyone from the club, he would just make out, if she was mentioned, that he had not seen her lately.
In the meantime Ramon had not been having a very good time at the inquest. He had drowned Douro deliberately and was thinking he had managed everything very cleverly. Directly they had got well out on the lake he had tipped the boat over and pulled his floundering companion well under the water by the legs. He had taken good care not to seize any of the exposed parts of his body, so that there would be no bruises to be found afterwards. Upon coming to the surface for breath, he had given Douro no chance to get his head above water for a single second, and from first to last Douro had never uttered a single cry. His lungs had quickly filled with water and he had been finished with in less than three minutes.
However, Ramon, to be perfectly sure, had held him under for a good five minutes before he had let go and swum leisurely to shore. Then it had been a few minutes longer before he had shouted. Help had come at once, but, to prevent all chance of Douro being saved by artificial respiration, he had directed the would-be rescuers to quite a distance away from where the body had really sunk.
So when the inquest took place on the Monday he was greatly surprised that it was not, as he had expected, just a formal one. On the contrary, a superintendent had been sent down from Norwich to represent the police, and he was most inquisitive. For one thing, he could not understand how it was Ramon's cries for help had not been heard at once, as the night was still and there were several bungalows only a few hundred yards away. Then he was very puzzled that if the drowned man had struggled so fiercely, as Ramon had said, why his clothing was found to be so little disarranged when the body was brought to the bank. His coat was still buttoned up and both his collar and tie were in their proper place.
Ramon could not give any explanation and, indeed, did not attempt to. He just brushed the questions away as if they were of no importance. All he seemed to realise was that his great friend was dead, and it seemed that his brain was still numbed from the shock.
"When help at last came," asked the superintendent, "did you make a mistake in pointing out about where the body had sunk?"
Ramon shook his head. "I don't think so," he replied slowly, "unless the position of the overturned boat misled me. It might have drifted a little from where it had been upset."
"But why didn't you cling to it while you called for help?" asked the superintendent. "Then you might both have been saved."
"But why should we have clung to it?" asked Ramon a little irritably. "I am a strong swimmer and the distance to the bank was nothing to me. I could have swum it twenty times over. I was perfectly confident we should both be all right until my friend slipped from my arms and I couldn't find him. I have told you I didn't even shout until I had dived many times to find him."
"Naturally, it being at night time," interrupted the coroner, a hay and chaff merchant in private life, "you could not see far under the water?"
"I couldn't see at all," said Ramon, "and all I could do was to dive round in circles on the chance of coming up against him. I think now that his feet must have got entangled in the weeds."
The coroner spoke most kindly. "Of course, with these questions being asked there is not the slightest suggestion in anybody's mind that you did not do your utmost to save your friend. We are only thrashing the whole thing out so that it may point a lesson to anyone who may one day find themselves in the same unfortunate circumstances. You understand that, don't you?"
Ramon nodded wearily. "Oh, yes, sir! Quite!"
There was no doubt he made a good witness, and if the sympathies of the police were not wholly and unreservedly with him, those of the jury were, as shown by the rider of condolence they added to their verdict of accidental death.
Inspector Stone discussed the whole thing with Larose the next day. "Of course there may have been nothing fishy," he said, "but, suspecting the man of what we do, nothing is certain. Certainly the Norwich police are not altogether satisfied, but that may be only because they know we are trailing him. They say they'd swear he never called for help until it was too late to do anything and then that he put everyone off recovering the body by making out it had disappeared where it hadn't."
"Who is this Douro?" asked Larose.
"We don't know yet, but we'll find out. He's been living in a private hotel in Kensington Square. Got a nice suite of rooms there. We've discovered who his lawyers are and they've cabled to his sister, his only relation, who lives in Madeira. She's coming at once."
Ramon received Agatha's letter the next morning, when he arrived at his place of business in the city. He frowned when he read it. "Now I should like to know if that little spitfire was gradually making up her mind to marry him. I shouldn't wonder after the diamond wrist-watch business. If he had told her what he had made over those damned mining shares it would have dazzled her quite a lot." He nodded sneeringly. "At any rate I've stopped that little business and there'll be no Douro-Byron marriage."
Still, when he thought of Peter Wardale, he was not altogether easy in his mind about Agatha, and he would have been more uneasy still if he had known the boy was attaining his majority the following week. It happened that only a few days previously he had come upon the two looking in the window of a jeweller's shop in Regent Street. They had not seen him, and, for a few moments, he had stood behind them without speaking, intending to surprise them.
He had noted they had been looking at a large tray of most expensive engagement rings and he had heard Agatha say, "Now, that's the sort of one I should like, the one with the big diamond," and the boy had laughed. "Only £300! That's nothing for any man to give you."
Changing his mind, he had not spoken and, instead, had passed on. At the time he had not thought much of the incident, believing it to be only one of Agatha's routine ways of trying to get everything she could out of everybody. That same night, however, when he had seen them dancing together at the Old Regency and noted the worshipping look in Peter's eyes, it had struck him Agatha was encouraging the boy more than she usually did her admirers and he wondered if by any chance there was anything in it.
He sat down now and answered Agatha's letter at once. He knew it was no good his going to see her, at any rate for a few days, as he was aware she could be quite as stubborn and determined as he was.
Of course, he wrote, Douro's death was a great shock to everyone, but she would soon get over it and forget it. He was sorry she was feeling off colour, but hoped she would soon be better, so that she could return to the Old Regency. However, her salary would go on just the same, and, now he was freed from Douro's restraining influence, it would be increased two guineas a week at once. That was, of course, a lie, as Douro had become so keen on Agatha he would not in the least have minded paying her twenty guineas a week instead of six.
Then, as a postscript, Ramon let his bad temper go and added, "See here, Diana, don't you try to play any trick with me and think you can get away with it. If you don't marry me I'll take good care you don't marry anyone at all, and you just realise that, young woman. You know me well enough by now to be quite sure I always keep my word."
The week went by quickly, and on the following Monday two things happened. Peter had just lunched with Agatha at her hotel, and from there he rang up Ramon at his office to ask him to come down to his birthday dinner-party on the Thursday. He had been well coached by Agatha what to say, and, indeed, she was standing at his side when he rang up.
She had told him an artful story to explain why her uncle must not know about the engagement until everyone else was told. She had said he wanted her to marry a cousin of hers of whom he was very fond and he would be very annoyed when he learnt she was not going to do so. So she had been keeping away from him and not telling him where she was staying. He had thought she was somewhere at the seaside.
"You and Miss Montgomery must come, Mr. Ellister," said Peter, "and stay the night, too. Also, if possible, you must both stop at the Court over the next day for the ball on the Friday. Your niece says she'd like to if you'll stay, too."
"Oh, then you've seen my niece?" said Ramon with suspicion.
"No, but I wrote to her," replied Peter, "and my letter was sent on to Brighton. She's just rung me up from there. She asked me to tell you she wouldn't be coming home until Thursday and then might come straight on to us without going to Maida Vale. She says she feels very much better."
"She's not condescended to write to me," said Ramon irritably. "Where's she staying in Brighton?"
"On the Parade somewhere. I didn't catch the number."
"All right, I'll come on Thursday," said Ramon after a few moment's hesitation, "and if she rings you up again, tell her to ring me up, too. I want to speak to her."
Hanging up the receiver, the expression on Ramon's face was a suspicious one. "Now I wonder if that's the truth?" he asked himself frowningly. "I know she can't be trusted a yard and will tell any lie if it suits her. Still, it's something she won't stay on for the ball unless I'm with her, though I don't pretend to understand what she means by it." He nodded. "I'd like to think it means she's coming round a bit, though, damn her, I wish I'd never seen her."
The second happening that day was that Mr. Newton, Peter's lawyer-guardian, arrived without notice at the Court that afternoon with the intention of stopping the night. He was most annoyed to find Peter was not there and would not be back until late the next day.
"He's gone to Oxford," explained Mrs. Wardale, "to spend the night with an old college friend."
"What's the friend's name?" asked the lawyer, with the idea of getting speech with Peter on the telephone.
"I don't know," said Mrs. Wardale. "I don't think he mentioned it."
"And I purposely didn't give you any notice I was coming," said the lawyer crossly, "because I wanted to catch Peter without giving him any warning so that he could not make some excuse and clear off." He looked grimly at Mrs. Wardale. "I'm pretty sure that Montgomery girl is a bad lot."
Peter's mother looked very distressed. "Oh, and he would make me ask her and her uncle to the dinner-party on Thursday. You must stop until he comes back and talk to him."
"But I can't stop," said Mr. Newton with a frown, "and that's why I came down in a hurry to-day. I've got to catch the night express to the north of Scotland to-morrow and I shan't be home until next week. I have some very important business in Inverness and it can't be put off." He spoke very sternly. "Now has his attraction for that girl gone any farther?"
"I don't think so," replied Mrs. Wardale plaintively. "He'd not even mentioned her for some days until last night, and then he said he wanted her and her uncle to stay the night here on Thursday and remain over for the ball if they would."
"Has he been going out with her, do you know? Well, has he mentioned anything about the Old Regency night-club lately?"
"No, and I don't think he's been going there. He's been home too early. I believe he was home every night last week by midnight, and when he's been talking about the club it's always been after he's come in very late, often between three and four in the morning. But what have you found out about Miss Montgomery?"
The lawyer's eyes were very hard. "I have every reason to believe," he said in precise legal manner, "that her good looks are being used as a bait to induce young fellows to lose their money playing at illegal games which are carried on there. In other words, that she's a sort of decoy, paid by the club to be about the premises every night."
"Oh, John, but surely that's not true?" asked Peter's mother, her voice quavering.
"But I'm pretty certain of it," nodded Mr. Newton. "Last week a very old client of mine brought her son in for advice. The boy's got into the hands of the money-lenders and, questioning him, it came out he'd lost more than £100 lately at this very night-club, playing roulette. I asked him if he'd met Peter there and he said yes. He said he'd seen him dancing a lot with a very pretty girl, a Miss Montgomery. Then I asked him about the girl and he said she often took men down in the roulette room to have what she called 'a flutter'. She'd taken him down several times."
"But I can't believe it of a girl like that," protested Mrs. Wardale weakly. "She looks so innocent and refined."
"Just the very kind to take men in," snapped the lawyer. He nodded. "I heard something more, too, from this boy. A little while ago a detective managed somehow to get into this club as a member and, upon what he saw going on, the place was raided. The management, however, had had warning and removed all the gaming tables in time. Then the rumour went round that this detective, who'd become very friendly with the Montgomery girl, had warned her what was coming and she'd saved the club. They say the heads of the police are furious with him and that he was nearly discharged from the Force."
"It sounds dreadful," exclaimed Mrs. Wardale, "but what am I to do?"
"Tell Peter what I'm telling you," replied the lawyer sternly, "and put him on his guard. I know he's obstinate and difficult to manage, but surely he'll have sense enough to keep himself out of danger."
"But what danger is there?" asked Mrs. Wardale, looking very worried. "He's not in love with her and she's certainly not trying to catch him. She takes no notice of him when she comes here."
"You never know," commented the lawyer grimly. "You women are wily creatures, and even the most stupid among you can be wonderful actresses. It's born in you, just like telling untruths, big and little." His stern expression lightened, as he added smilingly, "Why, with all my forty odd years in law, when I'm talking to a woman, whoever it may be, duchess or servant-girl, I can never be sure if she's speaking the truth."
When Peter came home the next evening, not having been near Oxford, but only hovering about Agatha nearly all the time, his mother told him what his uncle had said. Peter only laughed merrily. "Why, my dear mother," he cried, "after I'd been in the roulette room once she wouldn't let me go down again and she's always dead against my wasting money." He spoke gravely, "And does she look like that sort of girl Uncle makes out? Don't you worry. I don't think for a moment she'd accept me if I proposed to-morrow. She's half engaged to a cousin of hers whom her uncle is very keen on her marrying." He sighed. "I admit I've got rather fond of her, though I am sure I shall never dare to tell her so."
Mrs. Wardale felt very worried. She had a great respect for her lawyer brother-in-law's opinion, knowing him to be always most cautious in what he said. So, she was sure there must be something in what he had told her and she was terrified that Peter might now get entangled with a girl, undoubtedly so very attractive, but about whose family and history they really knew nothing.
She was devoted to Peter, but quite aware that his nature, like her own, was a weak one. He was easily influenced and so often let others make up his mind for him. Then, with a streak of his dead father's determination in him, he would become obstinate and refuse to listen to all argument or reason. All his life long she had never had much control over him and, when their wills had crossed, it had invariably been she who, in the end, had had tearfully to give in.
So, when on the eventful Thursday morning, Peter's twenty-first birthday, the boy came into her bedroom quite early and announced abruptly that he had become engaged to Agatha the previous evening, though she burst into tears, she knew she had no hope of influencing him.
"It's done, Mother," he said firmly, "and nothing is going to alter it. In fact I believe it was your talk with me on Tuesday which made me propose to her. I hated to think anyone was slandering such a dear, good girl and it made me realise how much I really loved her. I felt I wanted to protect her."
"But Peter, darling," she wailed, "you should have waited. You are much too young to know your own mind about girls yet."
"Oh, but I'm not, Mother," he replied, "and it'll steady me to marry young." He laughed. "Then those designing women you're so afraid of won't catch me."
"But I'm so frightened," she went on, "that you mayn't have chosen well."
"But I have," he insisted, "and when I asked her to marry me and she said she would, we realised we had been fond of each other for some time. Still, it was a great surprise to me when I asked her and a greater surprise even to me when she accepted me."
"But I'm sure her uncle has intended it all along," said Mrs. Wardale tearfully. "What does he say to it?"
Peter laughed merrily. "He doesn't know. That's the joke. And you just watch his face when he learns of it. You'll see then whether or not he's been egging me on." He held one of his mother's hands in his. "Now, Mother, promise me you'll be nice to her when she comes to-day. You're the first one to be told and we'll announce it to-night at dinner."
So it ended, as might have been anticipated by anyone who knew Mrs. Wardale, in her promising.
Agatha was thrilled beyond all expression as Peter drove her down to the big mansion of which so soon now she was going to be the mistress. How beautifully she had played her cards, she thought, and how well she had arranged everything! Upon his mother's credit, but quite unbeknown to her, Peter had bought the £300 diamond ring at the family jewellers in Regent Street, and, also, put everything in train for obtaining the special licence and their being married on the following Monday. Yes, everything would go off without a hitch and she had nothing to be afraid of now!
However, she felt just a little bit uneasy here. Peter was going to have several surprises. A lot of the lies she had told him would have to be disentangled; the lies about her aristocratic parentage, those of her relationship to Ramon Ellister and of the ample private means she was supposed to possess. Still, once they were married, with his passionate longing for her, she was sure she would be quickly able to get round Peter. If she couldn't—well, what did it matter? She would be Mrs. Peter Wardale and nothing could alter that.
Besides, directly after the ceremony, were they not to drive straight from the church to the office of a firm of solicitors where the deed of the marriage settlements, which had already been drawn up, was to be signed? So she was comforted that in any eventuality she would be well provided for.
If Agatha were thrilled with her thoughts as they drove along, Peter was in the seventh heaven of happiness, and several times during the short journey to Esher said he must surely be the very happiest man in all the world that morning. He kept looking round at Agatha all the time, and made her sit close to him so that he could sense in advance his coming possession of her by feeling the warmth of her lithe young body against his.
In spite of herself, his boyish adoration for her touched Agatha, and, as they passed between the big lodge gates into the short drive leading up to the Court, the very beauty of everything under the glorious sunshine stirred some strange and unaccustomed chord in her and, perhaps for the first time in all her callous and selfish life, made her feel ashamed of herself.
She was taking everything from this boy and intending to give nothing or very little in return. She had not the slightest affection for him and his hopes and romantic notions about her would be dashed from him within a few hours. He would know her then for the cold, unloving woman she was, and could not help being.
For the moment the prospect made her uncomfortable, and it flashed through her that she could not go through with it. She would make him turn the car round and drive her straight back to town. Her conscience, however, was only half stirred and she compromised with it immediately.
No, for she would give him something. At any rate his honeymoon should be a happy one. Then she would break him gradually to a realisation of how hateful to her were all his caresses and expressions of affection. Had she not read over and over again in books how soon men's passions tired? Well, his should tire the quicker. That would be all.
Quite aglow with her good resolutions, she squeezed Peter's arm and said feelingly, "You are a dear boy, aren't you?" and Peter would have liked to stop the car and kiss her shamelessly in front of anyone who might have been watching them from the Court windows.
ALL the morning Mrs. Wardale had been thinking tearfully that the meeting with her future daughter-in-law would be a most trying ordeal. She had schooled herself, however, to meet Agatha in as friendly a way as she could and let her get no inkling how distasteful to the family the engagement was. After all, she told herself, the marriage was still not inevitable and, if it were put off as long as possible, lots of things might happen to prevent it.
Peter might get tired of the girl, or if it could be proved and brought home to him that what her brother-in-law thought he had found out was the real truth, then her son might see reason and give the girl up. At any rate, the engagement time would be a breathing space and afford plenty of opportunity to learn everything about her and her relations. So she was comforted not a little, and when she saw Peter's car coming up the drive, appeared outwardly at least, to be quite composed and prepared to handle the situation tactfully.
When, however, Peter led Agatha into her room, when she saw the fresh young beauty of the girl, her lovely smiling face and big, innocent blue eyes, and when Agatha stood before her, so demure and so respectful—all her fears and apprehensions were swept away as in a lightning flash and she had to admit to herself that any boy could be pardoned for falling in love with such a delightful ideal of womanhood.
So she was genuinely friendly with Agatha and kissed her without any of that repugnance she had been so sure, only a few minutes before, she would be feeling.
Peter smiled happily to himself. He had been sure his mother would be like that and won over at once, for with her he knew it was always the one who was last with her who influenced her most. Also she was generally inclined to go to extremes, one way or the other. He had breathed a deep sigh of relief, however, when he had learnt his lawyer-uncle was not going to be present at the coming-of-age gathering, for, if he had been, it was certainly more than possible he would have made himself disagreeable. At the best he would have been cold and unsmiling before the other guests, and have lectured him, Peter, angrily in private.
Peter had arrived with Agatha just before midday, and, with the talk with his mother over, they all went into lunch. Beryl Wardale made up the fourth at the meal. She had been told of the engagement, and if she were disappointed, at any rate she did not show it. She made herself very nice to Agatha and congratulated her warmly.
The meal was a bright one and, Mrs. Wardale having now altogether discarded, at any rate for the time being, the idea that her son had engaged himself to an undesirable girl, was most chatty. She told Agatha about some of those who would be at the dinner that evening.
"They will all be relations or family connections," she said, "except, of course, Mr. Ellister. Peter had lots of uncles and aunts because I come of a big family, nine children altogether. There'll be the Reverend Mr. Duckling and his wife, one of my sisters. Mr. Duckling is the Rector of St. Jude's, South Kensington, and they say that one day he'll be a bishop as he's so clever. His sermons are always very short ones and it makes him most popular. Then there'll be Sir Michael Turton. He's an old bachelor and rather grumpy"—she laughed—"but everyone puts up with him because he's over eighty and has lots of money to leave to someone."
"Thank goodness," grinned Peter, "I shan't have to humour him." He pressed Agatha's foot under the table. "I've enough money on my own now, and there'll be no more bowing and scraping to Uncle John, either, to get him to increase my allowance."
A shadow passed over his mother's face, as if the fear that Agatha was marrying her son for his money had recurred to her. After a moment, however, she went on. "Then there's Commodore Smith. He's my second cousin, and I'm sure you'll like him even though he talks of nothing but golf. Then there'll be His Honour Judge Crofts, a County Court Judge, another uncle of Peter's."
Mentioning several other guests, Mrs. Wardale filled Agatha with a great pride that she was entering a family of so many distinguished people, so much so that she almost hoped the people at the Orphanage would one day learn to what great heights she had climbed.
After lunch she thought it prudent to ring up Ramon at his office, so that there should be no special reason for him to try to speak to her alone when he arrived at the Court. She told him she was speaking from there, Peter Wardale having driven her down to lunch.
Ramon spoke crossly. "I went to Maida Vale yesterday and they told me you'd been away from there the whole time. What does all this tomfoolery mean? Why have you gone down to Esher for so early? What are you after?"
"The same thing that you are," replied Agatha sweetly, and Ramon, thinking she meant the valuable Ravencross goblets, was somewhat mollified and went on more pleasantly, "Then mind you get them. That's all. I don't mind staying on for the ball if that comes off all right."
The expected guests began to arrive late in the afternoon, and it was a great triumph for Agatha when she was introduced to everyone in the big lounge, shortly before lunch. Commodore Smith, in particular, was greatly impressed with her appearance. He had no idea she was the Agatha Wandsworth Larose had told him about, for Larose, not having happened to make any mention of young Wardale's name, there was nothing to suggest any connection between the two. So he let himself admire the lovely girl without reserve.
And Agatha certainly did look lovely that night. She was exquisitely gowned, by the North Audley Street costumiere again, and she had even ventured to ask madame for another loan of her rope of imitation pearls. Madame had been quite willing, with the result that everyone's eyes seemed to linger on Agatha, particularly those of the men. Her face was deliciously flushed with the excitement, her eyes sparkled—like stars, so Peter whispered to her—and, confident that all was going well for her, she carried herself with the pride becoming to the most important guest of the evening. She was delighted with the many valuable presents Peter had been given, already regarding them as her own.
Ramon was late in getting down and did not appear in the lounge until a few minutes before the time when dinner was to be served. Then, when the commodore heard his name mentioned as he was being introduced to some of the other guests and recognised him as the purchaser of the Gap House, he got what was surely the greatest shock of all his adventurous life.
Gad, the murderer of his poor cousin, brazen as brass and looking the aristocratic gentleman! What the hell was he doing there?
Ramon was quite at his ease as he looked haughtily round. He knew he was as well-connected as anyone present and, probably, he told himself, much better off than most of them, too. So his handsome face was set coldly in its usual proud and arrogant expression. Only to Agatha did he unbend with a smile, and she took good care to keep as far away from him as possible.
The commodore felt red-hot in his fury and, indeed, had to turn away his eyes, so that he should not see him, to keep his temper under sufficient control. He was consumed with curiosity to learn how Ramon had come to be invited, but knew that must wait, as Mrs. Wardale was busy talking to her guests. He swore viciously under his breath. And the blackguard was going to sit among them at dinner, exactly as if he were a respectable person! He, a murderer, a thief and most probably the head of a criminal gang! He was going to eat the good food, drink the good wine and enjoy himself thoroughly!
The commodore was an impulsive, quick-tempered man and his thoughts rioted through him. Going to enjoy himself, eh? Ah, was he? He'd put a spoke in there! He'd be darned if he didn't!
Making his way quickly out of the lounge and into the big dining-room where, under the direction of the Court butler, the last touches were being put to the table appointments, the commodore looked to see where Ramon would be sitting. He soon found the dainty little ivory card, propped up against the napkin with 'Mr. Ramon Ellister' written on it, and taking a pencil from his pocket quickly added just one word in Roman letters beneath it.
The others there were all too busy to notice what he had done and he skipped from the room looking as impishly pleased with himself as a naughty little boy. "That'll fix him," he chuckled, "and he won't taste much of his dinner!"
The diners all trooped in, Peter, of course, with Agatha, Ramon had the clergyman's wife and the commodore Beryl. It was noticed Mrs. Wardale was looking rather pale. A buzz of conversation followed as they sat down, but the commodore did not dare to look squarely at Ramon, who had been placed just opposite to him.
Ramon had been directed to his seat, but at first had only just idly noted the card with his name upon it. Picking up his napkin, however, the card caught his eye again, and he saw the pencilled word below his name. He frowned, he looked very puzzled, and he blinked his eyes several times as if he thought his eyesight were deceiving him. Then, suddenly, he snatched up the card and looked at it closely.
Braddock! Braddock! Who had written Braddock there?
For a few moments he did not take in its significance, and then his heart beat painfully, his stomach heaved and he went grey in fear.
Someone in the house had recognised him as a one-time companion of Braddock and was intending this recognition should be a threat, or he would not be now taking this way of telling him!
But what could anyone there know about Braddock? Did they know he was dead or anything of what had happened before—or after? And who was it who possessed the knowledge? Was it one of the other guests or one of the servants?
He looked furtively round to see if anyone were watching him. No, no one was looking his way, and they seemed all occupied only with their conversations. He gulped down the glass of wine which had just been poured out for him and turned, tardily, to give some attention to the clergyman's wife.
The commodore had seen everything and was filled with an unholy joy. He had wiped the proud arrogant look from Ellister's face and the blackguard was in a cold sweat of fear!
The meal proceeded happily with merry laughter and bright smiles. Agatha received a lot of attention and, indeed, so many compliments from Sir Michael Turton that she was soon wishing she had met the aged knight earlier in her career. With his wealth and eighty years he would have made a much more satisfactory husband than Peter. She was sure from the amount he was eating and drinking that he could not last long. She hoped, anyhow, he would send her an expensive wedding present.
Among the rather noisy babble of conversation, the commodore thought it a good opportunity to find out from Beryl Wardale how it was that Ramon Ellister came to be a guest at the birthday party. As Peter's cousin and staying, as he knew she did, so often at the Court, she would be sure to know.
So, when a good burst of conversation was in full blast, he said to her very quietly, "Now keep your eyes on me, Beryl, and whatever you do, don't look in his direction, but tell me how long has your aunt known that Mr. Ellister sitting opposite to us?"
"Oh, a very little while," she replied, obeying his injunction and not looking in Ramon's direction. "We have only seen him once before to-night."
"Then why has he been invited here to-night?" asked the commodore.
Beryl opened her eyes very widely. "Don't you know he's Miss Montgomery's uncle?"
The commodore gulped down another big surprise. "No, I certainly didn't," he replied frowningly. "And how long have you known the niece?" he asked after quite a long interval of silence, during which he had tried to grasp something of the significance of everything.
"Not any longer than we've known her uncle," replied Beryl dryly, "though she's been here to lunch twice to his once."
"And Peter, has he known her long?" was the commodore's next question.
Beryl spoke with just a trace of resentment. "Longer than he's told us; several weeks, we believe." She lowered her voice to a still quieter tone, and added significantly, "And you may hear Peter make a surprising announcement about her in a few minutes."
The commodore was thunderstruck, for there was no mistaking what Beryl meant. "So that's what's in the wind, is it?" he asked sharply. He spoke almost sneeringly, "And I suppose Mr. Ellister has come down to give his blessing to the match?"
She shook her head. "Peter says he doesn't know anything about it yet. It's going to be as great a surprise to him as everybody else. No one's been in the secret except Aunt and me, and we learnt of it only this morning."
"Good God!" exclaimed the commodore fervently, and Beryl was startled by the grave expression upon his face. However, he asked no more questions about Mr. Ellister or his niece and turned the conversation into other channels.
The great moment at last arrived when the toast of the master of Wardale Court was to be drunk. His Honour the County Court Judge, as Peter's oldest relation present, proposed it, and in a few crisp and lawyer-like sentences wished his nephew long years of health and happiness. The toast was drunk with musical honours and Peter, with very shaky legs, rose to reply to it.
For the moment he was so nervous that he could not get out a single word, but, to everyone's amusement, Agatha patted him encouragingly upon the back and at last he managed to start. He thanked them for their good wishes and said how pleased he was they had come there that evening to give them to him in person.
Then he burst out impulsively, "But I want you now to drink another toast"—he looked down smilingly at Agatha—"that of this young lady here, Miss Diana Montgomery, the future Mrs. Peter Wardale," and thrusting his hand into his back pocket he produced a little case and took out of it the £300 engagement ring.
A moment's breathless silence as he placed the ring on Agatha's finger, and then came a burst of clapping and loud cheers. "Bravo, bravo!" called out old Sir Michael. "Why, I've give ten years of my life to be in your shoes, my boy!"
They were warmly congratulated on all sides and then Peter called for another toast, "That of Mr. Ellister, Diana's uncle, who is giving her to me."
It was well that Ramon had had the preceding short time to get himself well under control. His first feeling had been one of almost incredulous amazement, to be followed quickly by one of furious rage. So this was what the little Jezebel had been after! She had been playing with him all along!
He wreathed his face into some sort of smile as the toast was drunk and then said laughingly, "Well, that's one trouble off my mind. I tell you it's been no joke my having a good-looking niece to look after, but my only hope now is that they get everything they deserve."
The company clapped vigorously, but Agatha felt inclined to shiver. She was under no illusion and sensed the threat to her implied in his last words. Still, she was confident she would manage to continue to outwit him. She knew too much about him for him to dare to be openly hostile.
Ramon resumed his thoughts. Ah—it was she, of course, who had written Braddock on his card! Douro must have told her everything and she was now letting him, Ramon, know she knew, as a sort of threat to make him leave her alone and not interfere with her marrying the boy! Hell, how he hated her now! The scales had fallen from his eyes and he realised what a fool he'd been to ever hanker after her! If he'd got her she'd have soon sickened him with her airs and frigid ways, and within a week or two he'd have been beating her black and blue! He was well rid of her, ah—but he'd make her smart for it! He must think over what he must do.
In the meantime the commodore had slipped out of the room to the telephone and after several tries got through to Larose at the hotel where he usually stayed when in town. Larose told him he'd only just returned from Paris where he'd been with some friends of his wife's.
"I'm speaking from Esher," said the commodore, "I'm staying at Wardale Court there."
"Wardale Court!" exclaimed Larose, very surprised. "Then you know the Wardales?"
"Yes, Mrs. Wardale is my second cousin," replied the commodore. He spoke sharply. "Listen, I've got something startling for you, a nice knot for us to disentangle. Peter Wardale, the only son, is of age to-day, and comes into the estate. There's a celebration dinner-party on here to-night and—by hell—Ramon Ellister and that supposed niece of his are among the guests. They're staying over to-morrow, too, for the big dance."
"Great Scott!" exclaimed Larose. "He didn't recognise you!"
"No, no, of course not! It wouldn't matter if he had. But that's not the trouble. It's this. Not ten minutes ago young Peter got up and announced to us all that he'd become engaged to the girl and I understand he's going to marry her very shortly."
"Oh, but he mustn't!" burst out Larose. "He must be warned at once what she really is."
"Of course he mustn't marry her! That's what I'm ringing you for now. It would be a catastrophe, for the girl's probably Ellister's mistress. Now about opening his eyes. I won't say a word to him to-night, and I think you'd better come down first thing to-morrow and we'll do it together. He'll pay some attention to what you tell him when he learns you've been connected with the police at Scotland Yard. You'll come, won't you?"
"Certainly I will!" replied Larose. "It's a duty to save him from her." He whistled. "Gosh, but it'll be a ticklish thing to do and not let this Ellister chap learn he's being trailed! Anyhow, I'll be with you early to-morrow, and by then will have thought out a sound plan." He spoke quickly. "But tell me—is the girl as pretty as we've been told she is and as I've told you she looked in the photograph I've seen of her?"
The commodore heaved such a big sigh that Larose heard it quite plainly through the receiver. "Mr. Larose," he replied impressively, "she is one of the prettiest girls I've ever seen, and, if everything we know about her were not so certain, I'd swear she'd never done anything wrong in all her life. Just wait till you see her and then you'll be feeling as damned sorry as I am that she's got to be exposed."
"Hum," grunted Larose. "But, all the same, it's got to be done," and he came away from the telephone with a troubled expression upon his face.
It had been arranged that, to save all their energies for the grand ball on the morrow, there was to be no dancing at the Court that night. Instead, a popular music-hall artist had been brought down from town and for an hour he entertained the guests in the music-room. After that a flash-light photograph was taken of everyone in a big group, with, of course, Peter and Agatha in the centre. The photograph was to appear in a well-known Society paper.
During the evening, Peter had whispered to his mother the great secret that he and Agatha were to be married by special licence on the following Monday. She had received the news with a start and then, smiling rather sadly, had said that in that case there would be a lot to arrange to get everything ready. She added she was too tired to even think about it until she had had a good night's rest, and Peter quite understood, as he had noticed how pale she had been looking all the evening.
At eleven those of the guests who were not staying at the Court for the night took their departure, and by half-past everyone had gone upstairs. Soon the big house was wrapped in darkness and in silence.
It had been a very happy evening for most of them, and who, now sinking peacefully into slumber, could have imagined the dreadful awakening which would follow on the morrow? Who could have dreamed that the Angel of Death was already hovering over the Court and waiting only for the predestined moment to fold his wings and alight upon his ghastly mission?
Beryl Wardale was a long while going to sleep and she woke early in the morning. Her thoughts were not happy ones. A quiet, unsophisticated girl, she was fond of Peter and, up to a few weeks back, had been quite sure he returned her affection and would one day be asking her to become his wife.
The daughter of a by no means well-to-do clergyman and with seven brothers and sisters, the match would have been a splendid one for her, and she knew it would be a great disappointment to her people when they learnt Peter was engaged to someone else. Still, she had to acknowledge to herself that she could attach no blame to Peter. This other girl who had come so suddenly into his life was lovely enough to have attracted any boy. She did wish, however, that he had not been so secretive and sprung the engagement upon them without any warning. She knew it had been as great a shock to her aunt as it had been to her.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the maid knocking upon her door and, without waiting for any answer, coming hurriedly into the room. "Miss Beryl," she said pantingly, "I can't get any answer from Miss Montgomery and I think she must be ill. I've knocked loudly at her door for quite a long time and she doesn't answer. Her door is locked and I can't get in."
Beryl slipped on her dressing-gown and went back to Agatha's door with her. Agatha's room was at the end of a passage. There was a communicating door between it and the adjoining room, but it was kept locked and against either side of it was a wardrobe obscuring all sight of it, so that no one occupying either room would have been aware the door was there. The adjoining room to Agatha's had been allotted to one of Mrs. Wardale's maiden sisters.
Beryl knocked loudly on Agatha's door. "Are you all right, Diana? Don't you feel well?" she called out, and then, receiving no answer and getting very anxious, she ordered the maid to go to the housekeeper and obtain from her the key of the communicating door. "She'll know where it is and she's to give it to you at once."
Entering the aunt's room, she awoke her and explained what had happened. The key was brought by the maid, and between them they pushed the wardrobe aside and unlocked the door. The other wardrobe was pushed away, too, and they stepped into the room.
"Diana," called out Beryl nervously, "you've given us such a fright. What's the matter with you?"
Getting no answer, she darted over to the bed and a cry of horror burst from her lips. Agatha was lying very still and as if her sleep were very deep, her face was of dreadful blue, her mouth gaped and she breathed so quietly that it was almost as if she did not breathe at all.
Beryl recovered her wits quickly. "Get some brandy, quickly!" she ordered the maid. "And you, Aunt Mary, give it her directly it comes. I'll go and ring up the doctor."
It was still only half-past seven and she got speech with the doctor as he was dressing. She told him she thought Agatha was in a bad faint and he said he'd come at once. He'd be there in less than ten minutes. In the meantime they were to get hot-water bags and place them over Agatha's heart and at her feet. She was to be made as warm as possible.
Ordering the hot-water bags to be got ready instantly, Beryl ran in and told her aunt. Mrs. Wardale was very frightened and hopelessly incapable. However, she had sense enough left to tell Beryl to wake Mr. Ellister at once. Ramon appeared astounded and, putting on his dressing-gown, went in to see what he could do. He shuddered when he saw Agatha's condition, and, stating he could suggest nothing, went into the passage and stood outside waiting the doctor's coming. He looked a ghastly white.
The doctor appeared with his bag in even less than the time promised. He gave one look at Agatha and ejaculated, "It's not a faint, she's poisoned! Is she in the habit of taking sleeping tablets?"
But no one could tell him and he ordered Beryl to look about quickly. He lifted one of Agatha's eyelids and exclaimed, "Opium!" He smelt at her mouth and added, "Morphia!" He looked very grave. "Any permanganate of potash in the house? You don't know? Then I'll have to go and get some, and a stomach pump, too. While I'm gone prepare some of the very strongest coffee you can, pints of it."
He gave Agatha a quick hypodermic injection. "Is she very ill?" asked Beryl tremblingly.
"Ill!" he exclaimed breathlessly. "Good God, she's almost dead! She's hardly breathing," and he rushed precipitately from the room.
He was back again even almost before they thought he would have time to reach his house. He was quick, and, to the trembling Beryl, it almost seemed ruthless, in his ministrations to the stricken girl, but it was useless and soon Agatha had ceased to breathe.
The doctor made a gesture of despair. "I was too late," he said curtly. "She'd had a massive dose." He spoke very sternly.
"Lock both these doors and I'll take the keys. It's a matter for the police now, and I shall remain with her until they come. No one must leave the house."
The awful news spread like wild fire through the Court, and Peter sobbed and wailed like a little child. All the guests dressed quickly and stood about with ashen faces, in awed little groups. Already, it was whispered the doctor was of opinion either that the girl had committed suicide or else had been deliberately poisoned. By no chance, it was said he had stated, could the large amount of morphia she had taken have been an accidental overdose.
They glanced furtively at one another in horrified bewilderment. Not for one moment did they imagine Agatha had killed herself. How could she have done, they asked themselves, when she had left them the previous night all joy and happiness and radiant with the promise of life? She had been in the very pride of her young womanhood, in perfect health and strength and without, probably, a single care or anxiety to cast its shadow over her.
Then, if she had not destroyed herself, it must be that someone had murdered her, someone who even now was going about among them, outwardly with a face heavy with grief, but inwardly gloating over the dreadful deed he had done.
In not much longer than half an hour an inspector of police, accompanied by his assistants, had arrived from Surbiton and, after a few hurried words, with the doctor, repeated the warning the latter had already given that no one was to leave the house before being questioned.
Once in the bedroom, the inspector made a grimace as he looked at the girl who had but a few hours before had been so beautiful. "Not a pretty sight, is it?" he remarked. "You say it's opium which killed her—laudanum, of course?"
"No, morphia," replied the doctor. "There was no smell of opium about her breath and she didn't sweat as she would have done with opium. No, I am confident it was morphia, and, as only chemists and dispensers, people who have scales, handle the drug in powder or crystals, I should say at a glance it was given her in hypodermic tablets."
"Not injected?" queried the inspector.
The doctor pointed to a small table by the bedside, "No, dissolved in the milk that was in that tumbler there. We shall almost certainly find traces of it adhering to the sides."
"But why didn't the poisoner wash out the glass?" asked the inspector.
"He didn't get any opportunity," said the doctor. "The girl bolted her door when she came in here last night to go to bed. Those two big wardrobes had to be shifted to get in here through that other door."
"Who brought the milk up here? Have you asked?"
"Yes, one of the maids did. The poor creature here, just after dinner, asked her to put a glass of milk on her bed table, as she would be taking two Aspros in it when she went to bed, to make her sleep."
The inspector looked round the room. "And nothing's been touched here since the girl passed away? All right then! And you turned everyone out and locked both doors and kept the keys yourself until you gave them to me? But have you looked to see if there are any morphia tablets about?"
The doctor was preparing to take his leave. "Only just in a very quick way when I first came, in her hand-bag and the top of her suit-case." He smiled rather ruefully. "So, you've an open field before you. One thing, too, you can remember in your investigations. She was marrying into a big estate and someone may have wanted to prevent it. Peter Wardale is a very wealthy young man."
And, at that very moment when the doctor was leaving the Court, Larose was ringing up Inspector Stone. "I can't stop a minute now, Charlie," he said. "I'll be ringing again later and——"
"But where the blazes have you been hiding yourself?" roared Stone angrily. "For three days I've been trying to get you and no one knew where you were."
"Sorry," exclaimed Larose, "but the wife and I went to Paris and we hadn't left any address because we thought we should only be away a couple of days."
"But why this awful hurry now?" asked the inspector.
"Because I'm going down to Wardale Court near Esher. The commodore is staying there and he phoned me up last night. Things look rather awkward for us there. Young Peter Wardale, the heir to the estate, came of age yesterday, and last night the commodore says he announced at the birthday dinner-party in his honour that he had just become engaged—to whom, of all girls, do you think?—why, to that Agatha Wandsworth, the one who's been posing as Ellister's niece. The commodore is some distant relation of the young man and we've got to get him out of it."
"I should think so!" exclaimed Stone. "Why, of course, she's Ellister's mistress!"
"Yes," went on Larose, "and the commodore got a fearful shock when he found Ellister himself among the guests and——"
"Ellister there?" asked Stone excitedly. "And yesterday afternoon and last night I was looking everywhere for him to have a little talk. No one knew where he'd gone and we were half thinking he'd jumped the country."
"But what did you want to speak to him for?" asked Larose.
"Never you mind," laughed Stone. "If you're in a hurry to get away, so am I. At any rate I can't tell you all in one gulp over the phone. Good-bye, good-bye! I'll be telling you later, and I guess it'll be pretty soon now," and, to Larose's annoyance, he jerked on the receiver.
Arriving at the entrance to the Court drive, Larose was surprised to get a quick glimpse at what looked uncommonly like a police ambulance coming out. He was more surprised still when, arriving at the house, he came upon two unmistakable police cars parked outside and a uniformed policeman standing by the open front door. The policeman, too, barred his way when he made to ring the bell.
"What's your business, sir?" he asked sharply.
"I'm calling here," replied Larose. "What's up?"
The policeman did not answer his question. "You can't come in, sir," he said quite respectfully, "until the inspector says you may. If you tell me your name or, better still, give me your card, I'll send it up to him."
"But what on earth——" began Larose, when he was saved from further expostulating by the appearance of Commodore Smith behind the policeman. "It's all right," called out the commodore, "but don't mention your name. I'll tell Inspector Buckley. Wait there a minute."
Larose waited one minute: he waited two, and then the commodore reappeared accompanied by a man in an inspector's uniform. The latter frowned as he came forward to shake hands. They had known each other in Larose's Scotland Yard days. "I understand, Mr. Larose," he said, "that you've not come here on business. It's just a private visit to Commodore Smith, isn't it, arranged for over the phone last night?"
"That's it," nodded Larose, most surprised. "But what's up?"
"Come inside," said the inspector, "and the commodore will tell you. Excuse me. I'm very busy."
The commodore led Larose into a small room just off the big lounge and very quickly put him in possession of all that had happened.
"Good God, what a dreadful tragedy!" exclaimed Larose. "And of course there's no suspicion of any particular person having given it her?"
The commodore looked troubled. "Not really, but that damn fool inspector has been putting Beryl Wardale, Peter's cousin, in a fair way to make her cry her eyes out by his questions. Some of the servants told him she was Peter's sweetheart until this other girl came along and he jilted her, and he thinks she's a case for suspicion because of it."
"But the family here ought to have someone to look after their interests," said Larose, "particularly so, if the police are making a set against this cousin."
"I'm going to do it," said the commodore—he gripped Larose by the arm, "and you, my friend, are going to help me."
"All right," nodded Larose. He smiled. "That inspector was decidedly off-hand just now and I'd like to take him down a bit. Let me have a talk with the mother. No one can object if you make out I'm a friend of the family."
It was not destined, however, that Larose was to meet Mrs. Wardale for a little while, because as they came out of the room into the lounge, to the amazement of both of them, they almost ran into Chief Inspector Stone, accompanied by two other men who had 'plainclothes' written all over them.
"Ha, ha!" chuckled the stout inspector. "You didn't expect to see me down here, did you?" His face sobered down instantly. "No, I'm nothing to do with the girl here having been poisoned. The constable outside has just told me about it. I knew nothing of it before." He lowered his voice to a whisper. "Still, the Surbiton police being here on that job will make mine easier. I want to speak to that Ellister man. Can you tell me where he is now?"
Larose couldn't, but the commodore could. "I think he's out on the terrace. He was a few minutes ago."
"Then point him out to me," whispered Stone, "but don't let him see you doing it."
The commodore led him to one of the windows of the big lounge. "There he is on that bench by himself," and Stone, with a nod of thanks, left the lounge with one of his assistants.
"What's he going to do?" asked the very puzzled commodore of Larose.
Larose was frowning hard. "I'm not quite certain," he replied, "but I think I can guess. You just watch."
But we must now go back to two days previously, to the Tuesday afternoon, when Stone received a call from the solicitor whose client the dead Douro had been for several years. The solicitor knew Stone by reputation and had insisted on seeing him in preference to anybody else.
"One of my clients," he began to the inspector, "was a Mr. Joseph Douro who was unhappily drowned just over a week ago; and——"
"I remember," nodded Stone, who was very busy and wanted to to make the interview as short as possible. "He was drowned on Hickling Broad when with his friend, Mr. Ramon Ellister. I read all about it in the newspapers."
"Well, I've just found this among his papers," went on the lawyer, handing Stone a sealed envelope, "and, as you can see, the instruction on it is most peculiar. I've not lost any time in bringing it to you."
"If my decease," read the very puzzled Stone, "should at any time come suddenly or under mysterious circumstances, or if I should meet with any fatal accident when in the company of Mr. Ramon Ellister, my instructions are that the enclosed letter should be taken at once to a responsible official at Scotland Yard. If, however, I should die through natural causes, and there is no possibility of Ramon Ellister having had anything to do with my death, I solemnly enjoin my heirs to burn this letter, unopened. Signed, Joseph Douro."
The inspector read the instructions twice and then, with no comment, slit the envelope open and proceeded to read what was upon the single sheet of notepaper inside. He looked up presently, with the expression upon his face, however, quite an inscrutable one.
"Do you know this Mr. Ramon Ellister?" he asked quietly.
The solicitor shook his head. "No, I've never heard of him."
Stone rose from his chair to show that the interview was over. "Thank you very much, sir," he said, "for bringing it to us. It is most important." He smiled. "But, of course, the information it contains is confidential. Still, I shall hope to explain everything to you later on." His face became grave again. "I know I need not impress upon you not to mention the matter to anyone."
The solicitor went out and Stone's heavy face lightened to something like a delighted grin. He read the letter over again all the time with his jaw and lips working as if he were chewing some delicious morsel.
"I, Joseph Douro, of Maple House, Kensington Square, am uneasy in my mind that Ramon Ellister, stockbroker, of Burton Lane, City, joint proprietor with me of the Old Regency Club, is no longer friendlily disposed towards me. If that be so, knowing his cruel, ruthless and treacherous nature, he may inflict upon me some injury, even a fatal one, as to my certain knowledge he has already committed murder more than once. If this letter should ever reach Scotland Yard, under the specific instructions on this envelope it will only be because he has murdered me. Therefore, I have no compunction in disclosing one of his crimes. I choose this particular one because it can be brought home to him and he should hang for it. On May the 16th last he murdered Professor Eric Mildmay, of the Gap House, Blackstone, in Norfolk, with an axe, just outside his garden. Later, at night, he brought the body away in his car and buried it on Mr. Henson's property by Hickling Broad, about a quarter of a mile distant from his own bungalow. Mr. Henson and his family were away at the time. The body will be found about four feet down, under a heap of rubbish at the end of a disused shed at the bottom of the garden. Professor Mildmay was buried in his clothes, wrapped round with a grey blanket which Ellister took from his own house. He was killed because he had refused to sell his house and Ellister wanted to buy it as he believed he had found out there were things of value in the church vaults underneath it.
May 30th, 1927."
The inspector breathed heavily. "It rings true! It is no ghastly joke! This Douro had a proper estimation of Ellister's character, and he was right the fellow meant to kill him!" He smiled delightedly. "Won't friend Gilbert be surprised?"
The following morning Stone, accompanied by a brother inspector, was driven down into Norfolk, and after a brief conversation with the Chief Constable in Norwich a little party, in two cars and an ambulance, proceeded to Hickling Broad to interview Mr. Henson. The latter turned out to be a retired clergyman, and, an excitable, fussy little man, he was very astonished when the Chief Constable and Stone presented their cards and he learnt who they were. He was more astonished still when they explained their errand to him.
"A body buried in my shed!" he exclaimed aghast. "It is impossible! Why, I've recently turned it into a poultry house! I've got more than forty birds installed there and they are laying well. They must on no account be frightened. The whole story sounds preposterous to me and I don't like them being disturbed. Remember, in this country a man's home is his castle."
With some persuasion, however, he was prevailed upon to let the birds be turned into the garden upon a policeman being entrusted with the duty of keeping them off the vegetable and flower-beds. Stone's heart sank a little when they got into the shed. It had been whitewashed and tidied up and looked altogether much too spick and span to be hiding such a ghastly secret as the body of a murdered man.
However, they started digging up at once, and very quickly realised their search was not going to be a fruitless one, as the horrible taint of rotted flesh assailed their nostrils. A piece of cloth-like substance came into view.
"Steady, steady," warned Stone to the diggers, "don't pull at it. That's the blanket it was wrapped in. Dig all round."
The entire cloth was exposed, and very carefully it and its horrible contents were lifted out of the hole. The clergyman, feeling very sick, immediately retired, looking ghastly white. The cloth was flung back and, holding their breath, everyone bent over the corpse. It was quite unrecognisable. Where the axe had crashed into the forehead could be seen plainly.
"It will be impossible for anyone to recognise it by the features," whispered the Chief Constable, with all his experience of war and police work, awed by the nauseating appearance of the corpse.
"But those shoes would make it easy," commented Stone. "See, there's the maker's name on the tabs, and they look to me hand-made and almost new. Yes, the maker should remember them."
And a couple of hours later a Norwich bootmaker did. He had supplied them to Professor Mildmay in the previous March and was certain they were his as the upper of one of them was slightly different from that of the other. The professor had had a pronounced enlargement of the joint of the left big toe.
Back in town, the inspector obtained a warrant for the arrest of Ellister and, aware of the man's desperate and reckless character, resolved to carry it out himself. He just missed Ramon both at his office and his flat in South Kensington. At both places, he was told, he had been gone only a few minutes. All that night watch was kept near the Old Regency Club until the last reveller had gone, but the morning found the detective still at a dead end, and they were now fearing the wanted man had somehow had warning and bolted into hiding. Then, imagine the inspector's intense relief when the next morning Larose rang him up and told him where Ramon was.
We must now return to the moment when, after Stone's arrival at the Court, Ramon had been pointed out to him and he had gone out on the terrace, as he said, to speak to him.
With the police swarming all over the place, Ramon was not at all surprised when he saw Stone and the other man, both of them so obviously detectives, approaching him as he was sitting by himself in front of the Court. His handsome face darkened and he frowned irritably at the thought of his now going to be pestered with more questions.
"Mr. Ellister, I believe," said the inspector most politely, and Ramon nodded haughtily, without, however, making any movement to rise. That did not suit Stone's book, as it is not as easy to slip the handcuffs on a man when he is sitting down as when he is standing up. Then, one lightning movement when he is not expecting it, the handcuffs are on his wrists, and there is no rough-and-tumble scrambling and, perhaps, much tearing of clothes. Stone was always most careful about his uniform.
Stone's attitude was one of respect, as was surely only natural when a policeman is asking a favour of a well-dressed and important gentleman. "Then, please can I have a word with you, sir," he said, "and, if you don't mind, we'll go indoors where we are not so likely to be interrupted."
Without a word, Ramon rose to his feet and proceeded by the inspector's side along the terrace. The inspector's companion followed after them. They had, however, taken only half a dozen steps when Ramon was grabbed fiercely from behind, his arms were lugged to his back and, quicker than it takes to tell, the handcuffs were clicking on his wrists. Stone and the detective each laid hold of an arm, just below the shoulder.
"I arrest you," said Stone quietly, "for the murder of Eric Mildmay and I warn you anything you say will be used in evidence against you."
Strong and in perfect health though he was, Ramon would have fallen to the ground if the detectives had not been holding him. His face was white as death and his expression one of horrible surprise. He panted as if he had been running.
"Bring him along," said Stone, and, after his clothes and pockets had been gone through to make sure he carried neither weapon nor poison, he was half led and half carried to one of the waiting-police cars and lodged on the back seat, with a detective on either side.
And all the while Larose, and the commodore with eyes widely dilated, had been watching through the window what had happened. For the moment the commodore, at all events, was too astounded to make any comment.
With Ramon safe in the car, the inspector, his heavy face now all wreathed in smiles, returned to them and in a few brief words told them of the letter he had received and what had happened afterwards.
"But as it stands at present," he concluded, "I see some difficulty ahead in bringing home the crime to him. He may say that Douro himself did it and that he only came in after it had been done. Still, we've got him for some time anyhow, and when we come to go through all his places, his office, his flat and that bungalow and the Gap House, we may find a lot to strengthen our case."
"And about the death of this girl here," asked the commodore, his breath still coming short at the amazing turn things had taken, "are you going to stop and help in the enquiry?"
"Certainly not!" replied Stone. "For the moment it's nothing at all to do with the Yard, though, of course, we may be called into it." He turned to Larose. "Do you think it's more dirty work of this fellow Ellister?"
Larose nodded. "I certainly should," he replied, "if only I could light on the motive, for it seems incredible there could be two murderers under one roof at the same time. Murderers are not so plentiful that they are found in batches."
The inspector went off with his prisoner, but Larose was not able to have his talk with Mrs. Wardale, as the scandal of one of their visitors being arrested for murder, following upon the awful shock of Agatha's death from poison, had been too much for her and she was quite incapable of talking to anyone. However, he was able to speak to Beryl and heartened her up a lot by explaining that, as a matter of routine, policemen always suspected everyone and the questions put to her did not mean necessarily that the Surbiton police inspector was suspecting her in particular.
"But I am so grieved for Aunt," said Beryl. "This is the second terrible misfortune which has come into her life. Uncle Charles, her husband, met with a motor accident eleven years ago and for three months was in dreadful agony before he died. She's been a different woman and has had very little spirit in her since."
Larose left her greatly consoled with his promise that he was going to take a private hand in the enquiry and sought out Inspector Burton to have a word with him. He found him examining one of the servants and, to his obvious annoyance at being interrupted, drew him to one side.
"See here, Inspector," he said warningly, "you go easy with that Miss Wardale. She's not likely to be the guilty party and you won't do yourself any good if you worry her."
"Oh, I shan't, shan't I?" frowned the inspector. He spoke sharply. "But I tell you, Mr. Larose, no matter whom I have to question, I'm going to do what I think is my——"
"Of course, of course," agreed Larose instantly, "I don't doubt that for a moment, but I thought I'd give you a little bit of inside information. The dead girl was not Ellister's niece. They were no relation, only just crooks together and members of a gang. Well, crooks are always falling out among themselves, aren't they? So what is more likely than that another crook killed her?" He nodded. "And don't you forget it's for another murder her supposed uncle's just been arrested. See?"
And he left the astonished inspector too flabbergasted to think of any reply.
THE so dramatic arrest of Ramon Ellister at Wardale Court, coupled with the mysterious death of the beautiful young girl whom it had been supposed was his niece, provided a great feast of sensation for the general public. For a few days, however, they were kept entirely in the dark as to what was going on behind the scenes and the startling discoveries which were being made by the Criminal Investigation Department of Scotland Yard.
In Ramon's big safe in his beautiful flat in South Kensington had been found several of the articles stolen at the burglary at Bentham Hall earlier in the year, including all the old manuscript so valued by Sir Jeremy. Also, to Larose's great delight when he was shown it, the prayer-book which had once belonged to Father Francesco and with his name scrawled on the fly-leaf.
"That's the missing link, Charlie," he exclaimed, "and explains why Ellister first came to go after the treasure in those vaults, but how he got hold of this book in the first instance I suppose we shall never learn."
"Of course, now," nodded Stone, "we are going to charge him with the murder of Sir Jeremy's butler as well. Don't forget at the inquest on the poor chap it was thought some weapon like a knuckle-duster had been used to inflict his dreadful injuries, and we found a knuckle-duster in Ellister's safe, and also an automatic." He rubbed his hands delightedly. "Oh, yes, more and more evidence is piling up against this blackguard."
It turned out, however, that even more evidence was yet to come, for the very next day, under the flooring of Ramon's bedroom in the flat, was found a secret hiding-place containing a large quantity of illicit drugs, cocaine, opium, morphia and heroin.
Then came what the Yard thought as damning a piece of evidence of Ellister's murderous proclivities as they had yet found, for proceeding to search Agatha's apartments in Maida Vale, there right before their eyes on the mantelshelf was the letter Ramon had written her, warning her that if she did not marry him she should not 'marry anyone at all'. She had never called for it and it had remained there awaiting her return.
"And what more do we want?" asked Stone. "We have the threat here that he would murder her if she defied him. We know she did defy him, and we know equally well he was in possession of enormous quantities of the drug which poisoned her." He thumped his desk. "So murder number three will be put to his account."
The enquiry as to whom of the others at the Court might have given Agatha the morphia was at once dropped, and the local inspector who had been so zealously conducting it was both a relieved and disappointed man. Relieved that he would not now be faced with failure, and disappointed because he had not thought of Ellister at once as the guilty party.
"There was his room," he told a brother inspector, "in the same passage and only three doors off from hers. Of course, as her supposed uncle, he could have gone to her room any time to talk to her, and what is more likely than that he went there the last thing that night to pretend to give her his private congratulations on the engagement? Then, if he had come when she was in the bathroom—we knew she did have a quick bath before she went to bed—then what would have been easier than for him to slip the morphia in that glass of milk when she was out of the room?"
Larose was being kept informed of all the discoveries the Yard had made, but, for all that, was a little bit curious as to the reason for Stone's insistency when the latter rang him one morning about a week later and stated he wanted to see him at once.
"At once, Gilbert, if you can manage it," said the inspector sharply. "I've something very important to tell you."
Larose was staying at Wardale Court, where it seemed his company along with that of Commodore Smith was proving a great comfort both to Mrs. Wardale and Beryl.
"I feel so safe, with you here, Mr. Larose," Beryl had said once, rather tearfully, "for it's such a mercy to us our not being alone. You are doing such a lot of good to Peter, too, and I'm sure he's beginning at last to realise that girl did not care for him at all. You've talked to him so tactfully and I know he wouldn't have let anyone else speak about her—not even to mention her name. But with you it's been different all along."
Upon receiving the inspector's call, Larose went up to town at once and was quickly closeted with Stone.
"Well, Charlie," he asked smilingly, "what is it now? Another body dug up somewhere?" and, to his amazement, Stone nodded, "Yes."
The inspector went on sharply, "Now, Gilbert, you've never told me a lie, have you—a real big lie, I mean, not a fib?"
Larose flushed hotly. "Certainly not, Charlie! I may have often pulled your leg and kept back little things that it wasn't vital you should know, but I've never, never told you a direct lie."
"Good, and I believe you," nodded Stone. He looked Larose straight in the face and went on very slowly. "Then tell me, my son, did you know the body of that man Braddock was buried in those vaults?"
Larose almost jumped out of his chair and his surprise was obviously so genuine that the inspector knew what his answer was going to be before he spoke. "No, I didn't, Charlie," he replied. He was frowning angrily. "I swear to you I didn't."
Stone smiled his expansive, pleasant smile. "All right, all right, Gilbert, don't get cross. I'll take your word for it; I believe you, my son." His face sobered down. "But it was. It had been buried in that priest's grave where the commodore found the treasure!" He lowered his voice to a whisper. "And what do you think? He'd been killed with a bullet from the same gun we found in Ellister's flat! The experts have verified it. He'd been shot in the back of the head."
Larose felt furious. In a lightning flash it had come to him what had happened. The commodore, in an impish schoolboy trick, had dug up the body from where his cousin had buried it and put it in Francesco's grave for Ellister to find it when he went after the treasure!
For the moment Larose was far too angry to make any comment, and then the humour of it struck him and, try hard as he did to suppress it, he burst into a hearty laugh. He pictured the mortified bewilderment of the two conspirators when, after all their scheming and expense, instead of the gold and jewels they had been expecting, they had come upon the corpse of one of their confederates in crime.
"What are you laughing at?" asked Stone frowningly. "What do you see funny in it?"
Larose wiped his eyes with his handkerchief. "Why—the thought of this chap having piled up evidence upon evidence against himself! Good Heavens, this will be murder number four!"
"Of course it will," nodded Stone, now all smiles, too, "and it's a great relief to my mind, as, at any rate, we'll get him for certain on this charge, if not on any of the others. Evidently he and Braddock had a quarrel and he bumped him off and thought it a fine place to hide the body."
"But how did you know whose body it was?" asked Larose.
"Oh, I was very puzzled at first, but then I remembered suddenly about that Mrs. Braddock who had come enquiring about her missing son, a friend of Ellister's. Poor woman, she identified him at once, by his clothes and a signet ring on one of the fingers!"
Larose looked uneasy. "But don't you think you'll get Ellister on the other charges, too?" he asked.
Stone pursed up his lips doubtfully. "I'm not too sure about that butler at Bentham Hall, or even about the professor. Ellister can easily say it was Douro who killed them both. We know his solicitors cabled to Buenos Aires, where Douro came from about four years ago, and found out he'd been nearly indicted for murder there. He was in some quarrel with several others where a man was fatally stabbed, and though he was not actually charged with the death, at any rate he thought it wisest to get out of the country. So Ellister may make out Douro was always the man of violence and has all along been the killer."
He shrugged his shoulders. "How can we prove the contrary? I tell you that's going to be a nasty snag for us."
When Larose returned to the Court and got speech with the commodore alone, he turned on him angrily. "Look here, Commodore," he said, "it's not been very decent of you to be double-crossing me as you've been doing. After all, I came in to help your cousin, and, as you know, may be bringing myself in for a lot of unpleasantness in consequence. Why, I may even be struck off the roll of Justices of the Peace when I have to admit in open court that I connived with you in keeping the fact of your cousin's death from the police and misleading them into thinking he was only missing!" He spoke most reproachfully. "Surely, I deserved some consideration at your hands!"
The commodore looked flabbergasted at Larose's outburst. "But what have I done?" he asked. He was most indignant. "I've never double-crossed you."
"Oh, yes, you have!" snapped Larose. "Who dug up the body of that man your cousin shot and put it in——" But, suddenly, there came up to him again a vision of the faces of Ellister and Douro while bending over the corpse, and he could not keep his own face straight. He burst out laughing, and, this time, let himself go. A few moment's hesitation and the commodore lost his shame-faced look and burst into laughter, too. They both laughed until the tears came into their eyes.
"Oh, yes—it—was—a good joke," exclaimed Larose chokingly, "but you oughtn't to have done it." He sobered down. "Now that wretch will hang for a murder he's not done," and he related what Stone had told him and how the bullet in Braddock's head had been proved to come from an automatic found in Ellister's flat.
"Well, it won't matter, will it?" said the commodore. "He'll be hanging for the other murders as well!" and then, encouraged by Larose's still amused and smiling face, he told him about his writing Braddock's name upon Ellister's card on the dinner table and the consternation of the latter when he had caught sight of it.
Larose expressed his disapproval again, though admitting it must have been a good joke. Then a thought came to him and he said frowningly, "But I say—there may be nasty trouble for us ahead. Ellister is sure to deny the pistol was his, and what if they trace it to your cousin? The police will see at once it's been very little used and looks quite new. They may make enquiries all round to find out who bought it and when."
The commodore appeared most uneasy. "That's awkward! I never thought about it. And he bought it so close to where he lives, too. Still, how can Ellister explain its being in his possession unless he admits taking it off my cousin?"
"That'll be easy," scoffed Larose. "He can say he found it in the vaults, or he may even go so far as to admit they tried to get into the house that night and your cousin shot Braddock then. You see, Ellister's in a tight corner and he may admit a lot to save his neck." He heaved a big sigh. "Still, it's no good worrying. We'll have to wait and see how things turn out."
Leaving the Court next day, with the promise, however, that he would stay there again during the trial, Larose paid another visit to Balham. For one thing, he wanted to show Mrs. Benson the photographs of the birthday group in the press and be certain once and for all that Diana Montgomery had really been Agatha Wandsworth. An uneasy feeling had often troubled him there might be some ghastly mistake.
But no—Mrs. Benson assured him it was the same girl and he came away satisfied. To make doubly, sure, however, he showed it to the woman who kept the little lending library and she was positive, too.
"She'd have been equal to anything," she nodded emphatically, "and quite capable of deceiving anyone. I always told her she put on the airs and graces of a duchess."
Ellister was to be tried at the new Old Bailey, and, as the eventful day approached, Larose was feeling the more and more uneasy. As he had told the commodore, things might be very unpleasant for him at the trial, and, at best, he was expecting a sharp rebuke from the presiding judge for making out to the police Professor Mildmay was 'missing' while all the time he knew he was dead.
There was another nasty hurdle, too, to be got over. The commodore's mind was not a trained one, like his, Larose's, and he might easily make some slip in giving his evidence and put Counsel who was defending Ellister upon the track of making it certain it had been the professor who had shot Braddock. God! he thought, and a cold shiver ran down his spine. They were deliberately fastening upon Ellister a murder which they knew he had not done! Suppose he were acquitted of the other murders and hanged for that one only! Why, if it came out, it would mean hard labour for twenty years for him and the commodore. The thought was too horrible to contemplate.
Then, three days before the trial, an amazing thing happened. Stone rang him up to come and see him at once, and his voice over the phone sounded so curt and peremptory that Larose felt most uncomfortable at once. He was not reassured, either, when, upon shaking hands with the stout inspector, he noted how worried the latter looked. Worse, however, was to come.
"Look here, Gilbert," said Stone sharply, "I'm not satisfied with your evidence or that of the commodore, either. I don't think it'll do us any good. For one thing, you've been taking too darned much upon yourselves, and, for another, the jury mayn't necessarily believe you. You hoaxed the police by making out the professor was missing when all along you knew he was dead, and the court may think you're deceiving them again. In effect, your evidence is tainted."
"Oh, you think so?" frowned Larose, feeling most uncomfortable.
The inspector nodded sternly. "Yes, I do." He spoke more pleasantly. "You see, Gilbert, you must know quite well that we shall not be allowed to put in that damning letter of Douro's as evidence. The judge won't let the jury see it, for what a dead man has written is not evidence, as he can't be examined as to its truth or falseness. So, probably, we shan't even be able to mention the source of the information which enabled us to find the professor's body. We shall just have to say the usual 'from information received'. You follow me, don't you?"
Larose nodded, and Stone went on. "Well, see in what an atmosphere of mystery and secrecy we shall start off with, and the jury may even imagine you or the commodore had something to do with the burying as well as with the finding of the body."
"I've thought of that," said Larose uncomfortably, "and it'll be very awkward."
"Then take another thing," went on Stone. "We shall have shown Ellister's unusual interest in the Gap House by the huge price he paid for it at the sale, and it would certainly greatly strengthen our case against him if we could prove the professor was killed by someone spying about the garden—if Mildmay was, so to speak, killed on the very spot round which all the mysterious interest was centring."
"You mean," frowned Larose, "instead of if he had wandered away and been killed somewhere where there was no apparent motive for his murder."
"That's it," exclaimed the inspector, "where his death was not associated with his house and the mystery which was shrouding it." He frowned heavily. "Well, are we in a position to make that strong point that he was killed in his own garden? Dare we attempt to bring it off?"
"Why not?" asked Larose. "The commodore's evidence will prove it."
Stone shook his head. "I don't think so." He spoke slowly and emphatically. "When the commodore goes into the witness-box and testifies to having seen his cousin lying dead by the garden wall that late afternoon, as I say, the defence will jump to it immediately that his story cannot be relied upon with his admission of having already deceived the public once"—the inspector looked very stern—"and, mark you, Gilbert, with your connivance."
He leant back in his chair. "That's my point, Gilbert," he went on. "Neither he nor you will come into the court with clean hands, and I'm afraid it will make things go badly for us."
A long silence followed, and then Larose asked, with a deep sigh, "But how can we help it? What can you do, Charlie?"
Stone's answer electrified him. "Leave you both out," he exclaimed sharply. "Not call either of you. Use all the information you gave us, but make out"—he smiled—"we discovered it for ourselves." He bent over confidingly towards Larose. "Neither your evidence nor that of the commodore is necessary for the building up of our case. We can get on quite well without it. The very fact of the body being found buried near Ellister's bungalow and wrapped in his blanket should be quite sufficient to clinch everything. So we shall say nothing about the professor coming to see you or you going to the Gap House, or even about the finding of the treasure. We'll keep on safe ground. Don't you think it best?"
Larose's relief was prodigious, but he managed to hide it. "Yes, I do," he said, as if judicially. "I think you're quite right." Then he asked. "But tell me, Charlie, how do you now think the charges will go on the whole?"
Stone ticked them off on his fingers. "Sir Jeremy's butler—doubtful; Braddock—good; the girl—a certainty, and Mildmay—not bad!" He pursed up his lips. "Still, we know they're working devilish hard to get an acquittal about the professor. They've been going through all the gun shops in Norfolk with a fine comb to find out if he'd bought a pistol anywhere. Evidently Ellister is going to deny the pistol is his."
The fateful day at last arrived and the court was packed with the fortunate, curious, morbid, or idle who had managed by hook or by crook to obtain admittance.
(The trial lasted seven days, but in the report which follows the intervals and adjournments are skipped and, for the convenience of the reader, the happenings are given as an uninterrupted whole.—Author's note.)
Lord Hume was the presiding judge, and, though well on into the seventies, it was generally conceded the scales of Justice could not be held in steadier hands. With the face and eyes of an eagle, he was a grim old man with a masterful manner and biting wit. Woe betide any counsel, however eminent, who for one moment believed himself the most important person in any court. He would be summarily put back into his place, as if he were the newest junior who had taken silk.
One thing, however, about his lordship did not please everyone. A great jurist, it was said by some he was too hide-bound in certain of his ideas and much too inclined to want to split hairs in his interpretation of some comparatively trivial points of law.
Archer Wain, K.C., was leading for the Crown, and, a tall, handsome man of commanding presence in the middle forties, his expression in repose was one of a somewhat bored cynicism. No one, however, could drive home better the logic of hard facts, and he impressed juries by the impelling force of his arguments. Not given easily to the display of emotion, when need be he could yet rise to impassioned eloquence and then his eyes would flash and his burning words sear into the minds of his audience. It was agreed that if he had not been a great advocate he would have made a great actor.
Mark Bollington, also a K.C., was cast in a very different mould. He was stout and massive, with a huge head coming straight from his shoulders. His eyes were large and ox-like under big heavy brows and he would glower like an angered bull at any witness whose evidence was not pleasing him. His voice was harsh and strident when he was thundering to a jury, but it could drop to soft and silky tones when it suited him to appear reasonable and docile.
His lordship enthroned upon his dais, Ramon Anthony Ellister came up into the dock and seated himself nonchalantly and as if without much interest in what was going to take place. He was smartly groomed, but to those who had known him before he now looked very different. His face was paler, he looked much thinner and his eyes seemed to have sunk into his head.
With the charges read, upon a nod from the judge Archer Wain rose to his feet. He commenced very quietly in nicely modulated tones.
The prisoner, he said, was being arraigned on four charges spread over many months, but they were all being taken together, not only as a matter of convenience but, also, because, in a way, they were all interwoven with one another. If Robert Hansom, the butler of Bentham Hall, had not died, then Eric Mildmay would not have been killed with an axe, Eden Braddock would not have been shot with a pistol and the woman Agatha Wandsworth would not have been drawn into the orbit of a master criminal and ultimately come to an untimely death by poison.
He raised his voice ever so little here. And he would prove to the court that the accused was a master criminal, a man who had chosen crime as his profession, just as ordinary men pursued ordinary callings. He would prove, too, that he had pursued it for many years with zeal and energy, as if it were the obsession of his life. Long and patient investigations into his career had been made, extending to even before the times of the committing of these crimes upon which the present charge had been laid. It had been found he had been thief, cardsharper, promoter of illegal games, burglar and murderer, and that he had been often engaged in all these activities at one and the same times.
It would be shown that he had been the prime mover in a gang of criminals and for the past three years, at all events, had been working in partnership with a Joseph Douro and this Eden Braddock with whose murder he was now charged. This would be proved from the banking transactions of the three men, as from time to time the accused had been paying considerable sums of money to both Douro and Braddock, no doubt as their share in the criminal transactions which had been carried out.
But he, Archer Wain, had a long row to harrow, so he would proceed at once to bring witnesses to substantiate the damning statements he had made.
It was at once evident, as Wain had said, that most patient and far-reaching investigations had been made into Ramon's past. Several well-known Society hosts were put into the witness-box to testify that when Ramon or one of his intimate friends, of late years Douro, had been staying with them as a guest, very shortly afterwards their houses had been burgled and valuable property stolen. In one case it was mentioned, too, that a servant had met his death.
With these witnesses finished with, Archer Wain started upon the specific charges against Ramon, and he took that of the murder of the butler at Bentham Hall first. He told how Ramon had been a guest at the Hall less than three weeks before the burglary had been committed and he went on to detail all the happenings of the burglary, the killing of Robert Hansom and how, some months later, the police had found many of the stolen articles in the safe in Ramon's flat.
Producing witness after witness in support of his statements, to the amazement of the spectators in the court, the usually bellicose Mark Bollington never asked any of them a single question. He just leant back in his seat and, looking supremely bored and almost as if he were half asleep, let the whole charge against the accused go by default.
Next, Wain proceeded to the murder of the professor. He related the persistent efforts to induce him to sell the house, his sudden disappearance, and the extraordinarily high price which the accused had ultimately been willing to pay for the house at the public auction sale. He went on to tell how the police, acting upon 'information received', had dug up the body of the missing professor, fully clothed, in the garden of a bungalow close to that of the accused. He told in what a dreadful way the professor had come to meet his death and how his body, before burial, had been wrapped in a grey blanket exactly similar to others found in the accused's bungalow.
Then Wain dealt at some length with the motive for the murder as made clear when the police had opened the accused's safe and examined the breviary and the stolen manuscript there.
"Now everyone will be able to realise," he declaimed here, "as I stated in my opening remarks, how closely linked to one another are all these dreadful crimes." He shrugged his shoulders. "As to whether the accused and his co-criminals obtained any treasure from the grave in those vaults, we do not know. Only two persons other than the accused could have told us"—he paused significantly—"and they are both dead. One, I shall prove to you the accused himself killed, and the other, Joseph Douro"—he paused again, even longer this time, and looked intently from one to the other of the jury—"was drowned one night on Hickling Broad when out in a rowing boat alone with the same man!"
Mark Bollington, his face red with anger, sprang fiercely to his feet, but then—almost as quickly—subsided into his seat again. If he had been going to protest about anything, then undoubtedly, he had thought better of it. He resumed his bored expression.
Of all the witnesses called by Wain in relation to the murder of the professor, the only ones of whom Bollington asked any questions were a labourer from Blackstone village who worked on the roads, the professor's one-time daily woman and the jobbing gardener occasionally employed by him.
The labourer had testified to having seen two men in a car drive up to the Gap House a few days after it had been sold and, a day or two later, what he took to be the same car going in the direction of the house with a ladder strapped on to the side. In his cross-examination of him Bollington dwelt strongly upon the man's absolute conviction that on neither occasion had there been more than two men in the car.
When dealing with the housekeeper and the gardener the K.C. did his utmost to make them suggest that though they had never seen the professor with a pistol or had been aware he possessed one, still it was quite possible there might have been one in the house. With the gardener his line of questioning was fairly successful, as the man was obviously unobservant and slow-witted. With the daily woman, however, it was a complete failure, as she stated most emphatically that there could not possibly have been any pistol about. She insisted, over and over again, that nothing was kept under lock and key, and, as she did all the professor's mending for him, she had access to all his drawers and cupboards.
That ended the matter of the murder of the professor and he passed next to that of Eden Braddock. He stressed strongly the close co-operation in their unlawful activities between the accused and the murdered man during the preceding three years, as evidenced by the cheques which had passed between them. Then he dwelt upon Mrs. Braddock's insistence that of late the two had not been on mutual trusting terms and, finally, he pressed home how Braddock's body, with a bullet from the accused's automatic in the head, had been found buried where only the accused or Douro could have placed it. He altogether discounted the idea of Douro being the murderer, as the accused's was the master mind, the quest for the hidden treasure was inspired by him and it was his pistol from which the fatal bullet had come.
Under Wain's examination, Mrs. Braddock stated she had no belief that her son's occupation had been anything but perfectly lawful. She said his speciality as an engineer was in advising people who were taking out patents. She knew he had once been very friendly with the accused, but lately he had spoken of him as a man not to be trusted and who would do anything to anyone against whom he had a spite. It was that remark which had made her so suspicious of the accused when her son had disappeared.
Severely handled by Bollington in his cross-examination, she had to admit that she did not know for certain and that it was only conjecture on her part that there had been an absolute quarrel.
That finished with the case of Braddock, and Archer Wain passed on to that of Agatha Wandsworth. Here, he said, the jury should have no doubt it was a case of deliberate murder by the accused. It was not necessary to go into the character of the dead girl or to trace back far into her life. It did not matter if, as a decoy at the old Regency Club, her character had been anything but one beyond reproach. The only thing to be considered was that the accused had conceived a violent passion for her and threatened her with a dreadful vengeance if she gave her affections anywhere else. She had given her affections elsewhere, and, no doubt, the accused had received a horrible surprise when her engagement to another man had been so dramatically announced at that dinner-party at Wardale Court.
Then the accused, a masterful, impetuous man, without doubt for the moment becoming mentally unbalanced, had proceeded to carry out his vengeance with the least possible delay. There was the motive for the murder, as shown by his letter to her; there was the opportunity, with his room close to hers and the glass of milk she was going to drink standing on her table, and there were the means of carrying out the crime with the deadly drug in his possession.
No doubt he had felt quite safe he would not be found out, for, not being aware there was no such relationship between them, who would have suspected the uncle of being a discarded lover? Who would have imagined the courtly smiling gentleman at that dinner-table, the prosperous City stockbroker, the so well-known frequenter of Society circles—to be a burglar, a trafficker in stolen drugs and possibly a murderer?
With the witnesses called, when it came to their cross-examinations Bollington at last seemed to take a little more interest. He elicited from Beryl Wardale that the accused had gone a ghastly colour when she had told him of Agatha's dying condition, and from the Surbiton inspector that practically anyone in the Court could have got into Agatha's room and put the poison in the glass of milk. Also, he got out of the maid, whom Agatha had asked for the milk, that several people had been standing near when she had made her request and would have heard what she said. The maid, however, could not remember who any of the listeners had been.
Rising heavily to open his speech for the defence, Bollington said he must admit straightaway that the accused was not a pleasing type of individual to defend, as it was undoubted that he had been an enemy of the community and preying on it for many years.
He was one of the worst kinds of criminals, too, as there was no excuse for him, being brought up, as he had been, in good surroundings and given the education fitting to make of him a good citizen.
Still, that was not the question for anyone to consider. At this trial accused was being charged with murders and upon those charges alone must the jury give their verdict. Indeed, they must take especial care that their natural detestation of the kind of man the accused would admit he was did not prejudice them in his disfavour and, no matter how inconclusive the evidence against him, incline them to find him guilty.
He looked pityingly here at Archer Wain and went on that certainly the evidence adduced by his learned friend was most inconclusive and in not one single one of the four charges did it justify him in declaiming so boastfully that his case was proved.
It must be remembered that in the first three charges against the accused he had been carrying on his activities with another bad man, and if it could be shown that it was more than just probable this criminal associate of his had been the likely murderer then the accused must be given the benefit of the doubt. It was the great principle of British justice that when any doubt existed, however slight, the verdict must be one of not guilty.
He would bring evidence to show that Joseph Douro, the accomplice of the accused, was a man of vicious and violent character and known as such to the police of Buenos Aires. Then he would put the accused into the witness-box and he would testify that, while participating in the burglary at Bentham Hall and an accessory after the fact to the murder of Professor Mildmay, yet in both instances it had been Douro who had been the killer. He had killed the butler at Bentham Hall deliberately, but the killing of the professor had been in quite a different category, as they had come upon the latter only by chance and he had met his death when attempting to draw his automatic upon them.
The pistol found in the accused's flat had been that same automatic and the knuckle-duster had belonged to Douro.
Coming to the death of Braddock, neither the accused nor Douro had had anything to do with it and they had been amazed to find the body of their accomplice in the grave in the vaults, but had realised on the instant that both the killing and the burial of the body there had been the professor's work.
The K.C. then proceeded to relate in detail the attempt to get into the Gap House that night and all that had followed after. He added that none of the three confederates had ever carried firearms when engaged upon their nefarious work, being quite aware that a burglar caught with a pistol in his possession would get twenty years' penal servitude, whereas, without one, his sentence would not be half that period of time.
He stressed strongly that the pistol with which it had been proved Braddock had been shot, on the face of it, was not likely to have belonged to the accused, for, apart from the experts testifying it had been fired only a few times, as they all had seen when it had been produced in court, it was a new weapon. It was a recent purchase and, certainly, had not been carried about upon anyone's person for any length of time.
Coming to the poisoning of Agatha Wandsworth, here the jury must take a commonsense view of all the circumstances of the case. Certainly the accused had threatened the girl, but a threat did not necessarily mean that it had been put into execution, and was it likely, they must ask themselves, that he would have been carrying morphia about with him? It had been proved he was not a drug addict, it had been shown that the announcement of the girl's-engagement was as great a surprise to him as to everybody else, and so was it feasible to believe he had gone to that dinner-party all prepared for an eventuality which he had not the remotest idea was going to occur?
Apart from that, the accused was a shrewd, calculating man, and was it likely either that he would allow himself, so to speak, to be caught like a rat in a trap? He had so much in his life to hide, and quite a lot in connection with this girl. Then would he for one moment have allowed himself to be held up among a batch of suspects and where exhaustive enquiries would have to be made about everyone? He would have known the dead girl's history would be gone into, his faked relationship to her exposed and the part she had been playing at the Old Regency night-club brought to the light of day.
Then, if it was his intention to destroy the girl, could any reasonable person credit he would have chosen to do so in such a glare of publicity and at such an inopportune moment? No, a thousand times no! He was a scoundrel, a man deep in crime, but no one could say—he was a fool.
The massive K.C. plumped heavily into his seat and wiped the perspiration from his face. It was generally conceded he had made a magnificent speech and no one in the crowded court now looked upon Ramon's acquittal on all four charges as a forlorn hope.
Ramon made a good witness. There was no doubt about that, and, notwithstanding his dreadful admissions, something of the pity most people feel for the hunted animal became apparent in the glances which were cast on him. In spite of themselves, they were soon dwelling, too, on his good points. He was a man of courage, and, standing before them a self-admitted moral outcast, asked for no pity and did not whine.
His replies did not detract from the points raised in his favour by his counsel. He answered quickly and with no hesitation. In his gruelling cross-examination by Archer Wain he was never for one moment at a loss when any explanation was needed and did not attempt to parry when, time after time, the dreadful nature of his character was brought out.
"You say," said Wain, "that you had an angry quarrel with Joseph Douro because of his violence to the butler at Bentham Hall. Then was it because you were sorry the poor man had been given such dreadful injuries?"
Ramon shook his head. "No," he replied curtly.
"Then why were you angry?"
"It was unnecessary," was the quiet reply. "The first blow had stunned him and been quite sufficient."
"But as a one-time guest at the Hall, if the butler had been only stunned, when he came to he might have told how he had recognised you?"
Ramon shook his head again. "He couldn't have done so. I was masked."
"But he might have recognised your voice!"
"I hadn't spoken."
Wain went on. "But if you had so objected to his violence, why did you go on working with him?"
"He was useful to me. That was all."
"Did you protest next time when he struck at Professor Mildmay with that axe?"
"No, that was necessary. The professor was about to attack us."
"Then you quite approved of that being done and would have struck him yourself? Oh, you would have, would you! Then it was just chance that Douro struck him first and not you?"
"Yes, just chance, in the same way that it was just chance we had come upon the professor at all that afternoon. The encounter had not been sought and was quite unexpected."
"Now about Braddock. You say you had had no quarrel with him. Then did you like him? No! Why not?"
"He was coarse, with no manners."
Asked what his threat to Agatha could have meant if it had not been one to murder her, Ramon replied that the letter had been written at a moment of great irritation because she had absented herself from her duties at the club, without permission. He had been intending only to frighten her that he would disclose the part she had been playing at the Old Regency, that of a decoy to induce members to play heavily at the gaming tables.
"But when you knew," said Wain, "that she was going down to Wardale Court as young Wardale's special guest to that coming-of-age dance-party, because of his driving her down there himself in his own car you must have suspected they were lovers and going to become engaged."
"I didn't," replied Ramon. "I never gave it a thought."
"But for what purpose then did you imagine she was so eager to go to Esher?"
"She wasn't eager," snapped Ramon. "She told me she didn't want to go and I thought she had only consented in order to help me."
"In what way?"
Ramon was quite frank. "To change the spurious goblets I was taking down with me, and which were found in my suitcase, for the real ones in the cabinet in the drawing-room. The real ones are very valuable, and I thought she might get a better chance to change them than I. It had all been arranged between us."
With the cross-examination at last over, the knowing ones in the court whispered to one another that, if he had not improved his chances of acquittal, the accused had, at all events, not lost any ground.
Archer Wain, in his final address to the jury, went over much the same ground he had traversed in his opening remarks, not that it was necessary, he insisted, except to impress upon them that none of the issues he had raised had been countered successfully.
"All along the line of his criminal career," he declaimed fiercely, "the accused has shown himself to be a man of ingenuity and resource, and now in the line he has taken for his defence we have seen he has not lost any of his cunning. He has brazenly stripped bare to us so much of his wickedness in the hope that his apparent frankness will have led us to believe he has told us all. Surely, however, we are not to be taken in by a trick such as that?"
Wain raised one hand warningly. "This man is much more than a thief and a panderer to the dreadful vices of the drug addict. He is a killer. He is a man of death, and we have seen that wherever he has gone death has followed, first to Robert Hansom, next to Professor Mildmay, then to Braddock and, finally, to the woman Agatha Wandsworth. When these ghastly murders have been committed he has been on the spot every time, and surely it is straining our credulity to impossible lengths to imagine that every time he has been there only as a spectator."
In conclusion, he said, he was sure the common sense of the jury would see to it that punishment was meted out to one of the most callous murderers of recent times.
In his closing speech for the defence the massive Bollington boomed that, as with his learned brother for the Crown, he had little to add to what he had just put forward in his opening address, as nothing that had taken place in the court since had detracted one iota from the strength of what he had said.
He could not too strongly impress upon the jury again that, in accordance with the age-old traditions of British justice, an accused was at all times to be held as not guilty until it had been proved to the contrary. And in all four charges brought against him he had not been proved so.
Undoubtedly, suspicion there was in plenty, but actual proofs there were none. There was no direct evidence that he had killed a single one of these four persons, and when the Crown had resorted to evidence which was not direct and only circumstantial, its weakness must have been apparent to everyone. The accused had turned himself inside out in the witness-box, but, beyond what he had admitted freely and with frankness, the prosecution had certainly not gained anything in any way.
In conclusion, in due time the accused would, of course, receive adequate punishment for the several crimes which could undoubtedly be brought home to him, but no contemplation by the jury upon the wickedness of these other crimes must permit of them finding him guilty of deeds he had not done.
The large audience in the court, hanging breathlessly upon his every word, were in a way of being disappointed with the summing-up of Lord Hume. His lordship seemed tired and to lack much of his usual vivacity. To many, too, he appeared over-cautious in his mentioning so many times that in any uncertainty the accused must be given the benefit of the doubt. Indeed, the old habitues of the court nodded to one another that on the first two charges he was obviously directing the jury to bring in a verdict of acquittal.
Coming to the death of Braddock, he warned the jury that if the story told by the accused as to the way the man had died were not true, then they must not expect the motive for his being shot to be easily found by them. It must be remembered that all these three men had been passing much of their lives in criminal and unlawful ways and that, therefore, their quarrels and disagreements were likely to be adjusted and fought out in manners very difficult for ordinary people to understand. That there had been some unusual friction between the dead man and the accused was undoubtedly a fact, for, otherwise, upon his disappearance his mother would not have been so immediately suspicious that harm had come to her son at the hands of the accused. They must bear that in mind when considering whether the accused had murdered him or not.
His lordship dwelt at more length with the death of Agatha Wandsworth. Counsel for the defence, he said, had stressed strongly that between the public announcement of the engagement and the poisoning of the milk there had been less than three hours, and he had argued that it was hardly feasible in that short space of time the accused would have come to his dreadful decision to destroy the girl. It must be borne in mind, however, that if the girl's death did lie at the door of the accused, then it had been a crime of passion, and more often than not such crimes overwhelmed the sanity of their perpetrators with the violence and velocity of an avalanche. They were then carried out without caution and with an entire disregard of all consequences.
On the other hand, if the accused had arrived at the Court that night all prepared with the deadly morphia if he found the girl had defied him—how did he think he was going to carry out his dreadful deed? He could have known little of the girl's private habits, as it had not been traced he had slept one night under the same roof with her, and he had visited her only once at her apartment, and then only for a few minutes when they had quarrelled.
So, if he was intending to poison her, how did he expect to get the opportunity of doing so? How did he know she was going to ask for a glass of milk to be placed in her room by the bedside? It was by mere chance, too, she had asked the maid for it when others were within hearing.
The jury must most carefully weigh up all these things when making up their minds, and once again he must warn them that if they had doubts, any doubts at all, then the accused must benefit by them and their verdict be one of not guilty.
The jury were absent for five hours and, returning, the foreman announced they had found the accused not guilty of murdering Robert Hansom and Professor Mildmay, but guilty of the murders of Eden Braddock and Agatha Wandsworth.
A gasp went round the court and Ramon was seen to be deathly pale. Asked by his lordship if he had anything to say before sentence was passed upon him, he replied with ashen lips, but quite coolly, "Yes, my lord. The jury are all fools, and I respectfully submit that they and their descendants be exempted from serving on all juries for a period of at least one thousand years."
The judge put on the black cap and sentenced Ramon to be taken from that place and be hanged by the neck until he was dead.
Two months later, to the day, sentence was carried out and Ramon Ellister ceased to exist.
Some six months after Ramon had been hanged, one sunny Sunday morning, Larose and Inspector Stone happened to meet by chance upon the promenade at Eastbourne and they sat down to have a talk.
"I saw in the newspapers the other day," remarked Stone, "that Mrs. Wardale was dead. Poor woman, it must have been a dreadful trouble to her, all that scandal at the Court!"
"It was," nodded Larose, "but she died happy, for that boy of hers had married his cousin Beryl, and that was what she had been wanting so badly."
"Oh, I didn't see any announcement of the wedding!" exclaimed Stone.
"No, it was a very quiet affair and no fuss was made. Peter had soon got over his grieving for that Wandsworth girl and, I think, realised what an escape he had had. He was a bit ashamed of himself, too, for having been such an easy dupe."
"Funny affair altogether that Ellister business," said Stone, "and, looking back, one can see what a close shave it was that he got his deserts."
"The jury were fools," said Larose angrily, "the fools that he said they were, for of course it was he who had murdered both the butler at Bentham Hall and the professor. There wasn't the slightest doubt about it."
"Of course there wasn't," agreed Stone, "and I'm sure the jury themselves more than half-believed that, too. But the old judge had put them off it. He had been too much of a stickler for giving Ellister the benefit of the doubt, and they didn't like to ignore his summing up." He laughed. "However, they weren't quite such fools as you make out, Gilbert, for they were determined he should hang for something, and so nailed him hard and fast on the other charges."
"Where it might have been thought," nodded Larose, "he had stood a better chance of getting off."
"Exactly!" said Stone. He seemed to be hesitating whether or not to say something and then rapped out, "See here, Gilbert, knowing the sort of man you are, I'll tell you something now." He spoke very slowly. "For the first and last time in my life, old son, I took a leaf out of your book and saw to it that the wretch got Justice if not Law."
"Ho, ho!" exclaimed Larose. "What do you mean, Charlie?"
Stone looked him straight in the eyes. "I know I'm safe with you, Gilbert, and it'll ease my mind a bit to tell you." He lowered his voice darkly. "I suppressed evidence which would have favoured Ellister"—he sighed—"and one of the two murders he was hanged for he hadn't done. He never killed Braddock."
Larose opened his eyes very wide. "Oh, you knew that, did you!" he exclaimed, very startled. He nodded. "I knew that, too." He looked very puzzled. "But how did you find it out?"
"It happened in this way," said Stone. "Three days before the trial a man came to see me in great secrecy. He wouldn't give his name to the constable on duty, and he wouldn't say what his business was until he was alone with me. Then he told me he was a gunsmith in Fakenham in Norfolk, not very far from you or where the professor lived, and that not a fortnight before the professor had disappeared"—the inspector paused dramatically—"he had sold him that Weimer pistol which had been produced in court, the one with which Braddock had been shot!"
"But hadn't anyone been to question him?" asked the astonished Larose, to whom, all along, it had been a puzzle why those entrusted with Ramon's defence had not found it out. "I thought all the gun-sellers in Norfolk had been combed."
"So they had," nodded Stone, "but this man had lied because he had sold it to the professor when the professor had not got a licence. He knew he had been doing wrong and was afraid of the consequences. So he denied knowing anything about it."
"But how did he come to tell you?" asked Larose.
"His conscience troubled him and he came to me to make a clean breast of it and ask what he should do."
"And you persuaded him to keep quiet?" asked Larose incredulously.
Stone shook his head. "No, Gilbert, I wasn't as bad as that, and, greatly to my real grief, I told him to go at once to the solicitors who were acting for Ellister." He spoke very solemnly. "But he never got to them. He was prevented by an act of God. He was run over by a big lorry and killed instantly, not two minutes after leaving my room. I saw it all from my window as I was standing there in very worried thought."
"Did you know he was absolutely dead?"
"Yes, I ran down immediately. His whole chest was crushed in and he died instantaneously. So, I knew his secret was safe unless I told it." The inspector nodded. "So Ellister was speaking the truth when he said it had not been he, but the professor, who had shot Braddock."
"But it wasn't the professor who had put his body in that vault," said Larose quickly, "and I swear to you I knew nothing about it being there until you told me."
"I quite believe you," said Stone. "I know you'd never tell me a downright lie, and, besides, when you heard about it from me you looked altogether too astonished and angry to be deceiving me."
"And I was angry," said Larose. "I was furious."
"With that long-legged devil of a commodore," grinned Stone. "Of course he had taken the body from where the professor had got it hidden and, when his poor cousin was dead and missing, had put it in that vault as a ghastly surprise for those blackguards when they came to open the grave."
"That's it," nodded Larose. "And when I taxed him with it I couldn't be angry for long, for it was so funny. I had to laugh with him."
"So they kept you a bit in the dark," said Stone, looking curiously at Larose, "and didn't tell you everything? They——"
But the situation was becoming awkward and Larose did not want to be further questioned on that point. So he interrupted quickly. "Yes, the commodore is always like a schoolboy with his monkey-tricks." He lowered his voice as the inspector had done. "But now, Charlie, as you've told me one secret I'll tell you another, and mine"—he made a grimace—"is even worse than yours."
"What!" exclaimed Stone banteringly. "You're not going to tell me you bribed the jury?"
"Almost as bad," said Larose. He spoke very solemnly. "I let that blackguard hang for another murder he didn't do." He shook his head. "He didn't poison Agatha Wandsworth."
Stone looked incredulous. "Oh, he didn't, didn't he? Then who did?"
"Mrs. Wardale," snapped Larose, "with more than twenty half-grain morphia tablets she'd had in the house ever since her husband died."
"She told you?" glared the inspector.
"After I'd taxed her with it," said Larose. "I suspected her from the very first when the commodore took me in to see her and I said I'd be sure to find out who was the poisoner and so clear Beryl Wardale of the suspicion. She was terribly frightened of me from that moment."
"And she told you definitely that she had put that poison in the milk?" asked Stone.
"Yes, definitely. She had done it on the impulse of the moment to save her son. He had just whispered to her they were going to be married by special licence on the Monday—and she had only that afternoon learnt exactly who and what sort of a girl the supposed Diana Montgomery was."
He went on quickly. "It's not a long story. As I say, I saw she was terrified of me, not just nervous—but terrified, and I searched for the reason. Was it she who had put that poison in the milk? If so, it could only have been because she wanted to kill the girl and prevent the marriage, and that meant she had suddenly learnt all about her."
"Why suddenly?" asked Stone with a frown.
"Because Beryl had told me that on the previous day, Peter's birthday, she had been so bright and well at lunch just after her son had brought the girl to the Court and then, within a few hours, had been looking so haggard and ill that everyone had been remarking on it. So I asked myself who could have been talking to her about Agatha and made all the mischief. I found out she had had a strange visitor during the afternoon and I thought at once of the Benson woman. You remember—she was the niece of that old Miss Brown in Balham who, it had come out at the inquest, had died because of the girl's neglect."
"I remember," nodded Stone. "You told me she had seen the girl with young Wardale and was rather spiteful about it."
"Well, not exactly spiteful," said Larose, "but she had mentioned something about wondering if it were her duty to open the boy's eyes, and I had advised her to leave things alone. But she hadn't left things alone. She had gone down to Esher, armed with a photo of Agatha at the orphanage, the very afternoon of Peter's birthday, as I have told you, and told the mother everything."
Larose went on. "Then another idea came into my mind. Beryl had told me that ten years ago Mrs. Wardale's husband had died after a long and very painful illness and I guessed that of course he would have been having plenty of morphia, with, probably, as he would have been getting it pretty often, one or other of the nurses giving it him. So, I made a long shot that, when the patient had at last died, some of the drug had been inadvertently left behind." He sighed. "I went back to Esher and asked Mrs. Wardale point blank. She confessed at once, apparently very relieved to make a clean breast of it to someone."
"And you advised her not to tell the police?" frowned Stone.
"Advised her!" exclaimed Larose grimly. "Why, I had to persuade her, plead with her not to tell them. I had a terrible job to prevent her ringing up that Surbiton inspector at once, and it wasn't until I drummed into her how terrible it would be for her son that she agreed to remain silent."
"It was wrong of you," said Stone solemnly, "very, very, wrong."
"I know it was," agreed Larose. He smiled. "But didn't after events show it was very, very right? You and I are quite certain that Ellister killed both that butler at Bentham Hall and the professor. The crimes had both had the Ramon Ellister trademark upon them. Also from Douro's letter we are pretty certain he murdered him, too. Then what would have happened if the wretch had been acquitted of all the four capital charges? What punishment would he have got?"
"Ten years penal servitude for the burglary," grunted Stone.
"Reduced to less than seven for good conduct," snapped Larose, "and then, when a little more than forty years old, he would have walked out into the world again a free man to enjoy perhaps nearly another half of his life. Why, the idea was unthinkable!"
"Quite so," agreed Stone. "And with old Hume upon the Bench, as dry-as-dust an old stickler for 'benefits of the doubt' as there ever was, I was terrified the devil might get off."
"So was I," exclaimed Larose. "And, knowing what we did. I say we were both quite justified in tipping the scales a wee bit against him."
"A wee bit!" frowned Stone. "Why, between us we plonked in a damned heavy weight!" He heaved a huge sigh. "But there, don't let's talk any more about it. It's done and let's forget it. It depresses me and makes me feel low."
"A-ah, then it's only a bit of a tonic you need," said Larose brightly, "and I know the best doctor to give you one." He looked at his watch. "He'll be seeing his patients in about three minutes now, and so we'll just trickle across to the Grand and consult him." He laughed. "Good old Doctor Heidsieck, he plays a good tune on jaded nerves! So we'll crack a small bottle between us and feel different men."
"You young devil!" grinned Stone. He smacked his lips. "Still at some moments of our lives there is no better music than the popping of a cork. Lead on, son. I'll follow. No one can say old Charlie Stone doesn't take good advice when it's offered."
This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia