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Title: Collected Short Stories, Vol. VII Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1300991h.html Language: English Date first posted: Mar 2013 Most recent update: Mar 2013 This eBook was produced by: Roy Glashan Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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APART from numerous novels, most of which are accessible on-line at Project Gutenberg Australia and Roy Glashan's Library, Fred M. White published some 300 short stories. Many of these were written in the form of series about the same character or group of characters. PGA/RGL has already published e-book editions of those series currently available in digital form.
The present 17-volume edition of e-books is the first attempt to offer the reader a more-or-less comprehensive collection of Fred M. White's other short stories. These were harvested from a wide range of Internet resources and have already been published individually at Project Gutenberg Australia, in many cases with digitally-enhanced illustrations from the original medium of publication.
From the bibliographic information preceding each story, the reader will notice that many of them were extracted from newspapers published in Australia and New Zealand. Credit for preparing e-texts of these and numerous other stories included in this collection goes to Lyn and Maurie Mulcahy, who contributed them to PGA in the course of a long and on-going collaboration.
The stories included in the present collection are presented chronologically according to the publication date of the medium from which they were extracted. Since the stories from Australia and New Zealand presumably made their first appearance in British or American periodicals, the order in which they are given here does not correspond to the actual order of first publication.
This collection contains some 170 stories, but a lot more of Fred M. White's short fiction was still unobtainable at the time of compilation (March 2013). Information about the "missing stories" is given in a bibliographic note at the end of this volume. Perhaps they can be included in supplemental volumes at a later date.
NIEL JOHNSON laid the book he was reading down for a moment, and pulled at his pipe thoughtfully. He was, above all things, a theorist, and he was devoting the best part of his life to the problems which deal with the intricate subject of crime. He was a solitary man, though by no means a recluse, and he had few friends. Fortunately for himself, he had a sufficient income to permit an indulgence of his favourite study. There was hardly an authority on this subject with which he was not familiar; he had read them all from start to finish, and the more he studied this subject, the more surely convinced he was that the majority of crimes were based upon insanity. There were exceptions to the rule, of course, but on the whole his experience proved that this theory was correct.
From time to time he had investigated a great many mysteries which had puzzled the police. He was fond of tracing these complicated tangles to a practical conclusion; it was his habit to work them subsequently into a narrative, and then to supply the whole to one of the leading daily papers. In this way, the name of Niel Johnson wa becoming known to the public.
He liked to choose his own cases, of course, and the more apparently mysterious the crime, the more attracted he was tp it. He was engaged upon a case just now which had only come into his line of vision within the last few hours. The gist of it lay within th few lines which he had cut recently from an evening paper. He picked up the paragraph now, and read as follows:
STRANGE DISCOVERY AT CHELSEA
"Early this atternoon two lightermen connected with a Thames barge discovered the body of a woman half-hidden under some timber in Chelsea Reach. The corpse proved to be that of a middle-aged lady, and apparently had been in the water for some days. The unfortunate woman was exceedingly well-dressed, and she was wearing some remarkably handsome jewellery, and a silver combined card-case ans purse containing a considerable amount of money. There was nothing in the purse by which the deceased could be identified, with the exception of an original pencil sketch of an elderly man wearing an eye-glass. The mysterious affair is all the more inexplicable seeing that the police have had no inquiries lately relating to any missing person in the same walk of life as the lady in question."
Here was a case, then, after Johnson's own heart. There was nothing to help him, no kind of clue to the problem, and very little encouragement as to the way to proceed. Still, it possessed all the elements of attractiveness, and, indeed, there was something quaintly fascinating in getting to the bottom of a mystery like this, with no clue besides a clever caricature of an elderly old dandy with an eye-glass. Johnson put on his hat presently, and strolled off in the direction of Scotland Yard. He was well known there, and always sure of a welcome. He found himself presently in the office of Chief Inspector Chambers, whom he was informed had the case in hand. The inspector motioned his visitor to a chair.
"I think I can guess what bring you here, Mr Johnson," he said. "You have read the newspaper paragraph about that Chelsea business.
"That's right," Johnson said. "I did read it, and it rather appealed to me. Have you heard anything in connection with it?"
"Not a word up to now," Chambers said, "Oh, yes, the unfortunate woman was a lady right enough. There are no marks of violence upon the body and nothing whatever to lead to identity. Her clothing not marked, either. I expect it will turn out to be a case of suicide."
"Oh, that's possible enough," Johnson said. "And yet, I don't think so. I am acting upon pure supposition, of course, but it is not often that my instinct in these matters leads me astray. Besides, there's one thing you seem to lose sight of. Here is a lady, undoubtedly of good position and of ample means, who disappears for several days, and no inquiry is made by her friends and relatives. Even if she had no friends, and happened to be living alone, her landlady would be naturally anxious. We will put it on even more material grounds than that if you like. It is pretty certain that the aubject under discussion is comfortably off. It is, therefore, pretty certain that she has relatives who would not be averse to stepping into her shoes. Then why haven't some of them come forward and made inquiries?"
"That's plausible enough," Chambers said. "Yes, there's a good deal in what you say, Mr Johnson. Even if you are oorrect and there has been foul play here, somebody will certainly turn up sooner or later to ask questions."
"That's inevitable," Johnson said, thoughtfully. "You know I have made a careful study of these things. You know my views as to the connection between crime and a certain form of insanity. If a criminal has been at work here, it is fairly long odds that he will turn up himself and make inquiries. It is a well-known fact that murderers of a certain sort find it almost impossible to keep away from the neighbourhood in which the crime was committed. You see if this doesn't happen in this case. Now, with your permission, I am going to stay here for a few hours and study the people who come asking questions as to missing relatives."
"That's all right," Chambers said, "but you will be wasting your time here. What you want to do is to go down to Chelsea Police Station. You see, the lady's body is lying in the mortuary there, and anybody who came here would be referred to that station. You had better go down to Chelsea and see Sergeant Farrant, who is in charge there. I think you know him."
A little time later, and Johnson was sitting at a desk in the Chelsea station, much as if he were an official there engaged in his routine duties. He waited doggedly and patiently for the best part of the day, but no one came near the station who appeared to be in anxious search of missing relatives. There had been one or two of those dreadful objects dragged from the darkness of the river lately, but Johnson had no desire to see any of these. It was getting towards seven o'clock before he had any sort of reward for his patience. A half-drunken coster had come and gone, a distracted mother looking for her daughter had gone tearfully away, and following these, just before eight o'clock, there came an elderly-looking, dapper little man with an easy, natural manner and a suggestion of briskness about him. In appearance he was decidedly French, though there was no suggestion of accent in his speech; he was well-dressed, apparently prosperous, and on good terms with the world generally. He was exceedinglv sorry, so he remarked, to give them this trouble, but he had a very unpleasant task to fulfil. It appeared that a friend of his had lost a daughter, whose age was somewhere between nineteen and twenty. The friend was so prostrated with grief and anxiety that he was quite unable for the present to investigate for himself. Of course it was possible that no real harm had happened to the girl, who was known to be exceedingly romantic, and perhaps some love affair was at the bottom of the disappearance. But, on the other hand, the girl might have met with foul play. Of course it was a horrible thing to have to do, but might he be permitted, the visitor asked, to view the bodies lying in the it mortuary.
"The place is open for that purpose, sir," Farraht said. "Would you be so good as to follow me this way?"
As the stranger moved forward Johnson rose from the table where he was apparently busy and came forward with a book and a pen in his hand. He handed these to the little man.
"Will you kindly write your name and address here, sir?" he said, with an official air.
Just for a moment the stranger appeared to be startled. "Is that the usual custom?" he asked.
"It certainly helps us," Johnson said. "You can quite see the advantage it is to us—"
"Oh, certainly, certainly; that had not occurred to me before. If you will give me the book I will sign with pleasure."
He took the pen, and, without hesitation, dashed off a name and address in crisp handwriting. Johnson returned gravely to his desk, whilst Farrant accompanied his visitor into the dark and unutterable beyond. As soon as his back was turned Johnson reached for the London directory, and hastily scanned its pages. He was not surprised to discover that the dapper little gentleman's name and address were entirely false.
Here, then, was the first thread of the mystery ready to hand. He had felt absolutely certain that sooner or later somebody would come to view the body, and the conclusion had proved a correct. The little man came back presently; he had lost a good deal of his jaunty manner, his face had turned to a peculiar green. He shook hia head mournfully and sadly.
"I am very sorry to trouble you," he said. "The poor girl I am looking for is certainly not here. I must go at once and see her father. I will probably look round again in the morning."
The little man vanished, entirely ignorant of the fact that a moment later he was being followed by a detective policeman, who had been told off at a glance from Johnson for that special duty.
"Why did you want him followed?" Farrant asked.
"Oh, that for the present is a mere precaution," Johnson replied. "No, that charming old gentleman was not telling the truth. He has no friend with a missing daughter, and the girl in question does not exist. He struck me as being altogether too plansible. As you saw, it occurred to me to ask him to write down his name and address. He didn't like the suggestion, but he dashed down the particulars without a moment's hesitation. When you were gone I turned up Kelly and found, as I expected, that the address and the name did not exist. Now that in itself is a suspicious circumstance. I am not going so far as to say that this man is connected with the unfortunate lady who was fished out of the Thames to-day, but, at the same time, you will admit that it is possible. But in any case, you are bound to admit that the giving of a false name and address is a little queer. Now, tell me, did anything significant happen when our man was in the mortuary?"
"I didn't think so at the time," Farrant admitted, "but now I come to think of it—well, yes. There were three bodies there; he hardly looked at two of them, but he certainlv appeared to be interested in the third."
"Oh, yes; and I suppose the third happened to be the body of the unfortunate woman who was picked up at Chelsea this morning?"
"Yes. that's quite correct," Farrant said. "He certainly was rather agitated but, then, how many men unaccustomed to such sights would not be? He stopped before that particular body and certainly had a long look at her through his eye-glass."
"Oh, indeed." Johnson exclaimed. "Now, I looked at him very carefully, and I failed to see any eye-glass."
"Ah, that's because he was wearing an overcoat. He fished it out from inside his coat. It was a gold-rimmed single eye-glass on a cord. I noticed it particularly."
"Oh, come, we're fitting on." Johnson said briskly. "The only solitary clue to the identity of the dead woman is a clever pencil-sketch of a smartly-dressed old gentleman wearing an eye-glass. A man answering precisely to the description comes here with an obviously trumped-up story upon which he gains admission to the mortuary. He gives us a false name and address, and it is many odds that we shall not see him here again. It seems, to me that my evening here has by no I means been wasted. That is why I am taking the liberty of having him followed."
It was a strange house, that in Audley Lane to which Johnson contrived, in course of time, to trace the little man with the eye-glass. It was a dilapidated kind of a place, though no doubt at one time it had been a fashionable residence. At the present moment it was smothered, more or less, under the dust and litter caused by a large hotel which had been built close by. At the back of the house was an untidy, neglected old garden which did not appear to have had the least attention for a generation at least. But this suited Johnson well enough. It was no difficult matter for him to find his way into the garden and there, night by night, keep a close watch on the house. He knew perfectly well now that he was on the right track; he knew that the solution of the Chelsea mystery was only a matter of time.
As far as the inmates of the house were concerned, they consisted of the dapper little gentleman, together with a maiden lady of uncertain age. There was an old housekeeper too, but she was rarely in evidence, and it did not take long to find out that she was both exceedingly deaf and exceedingly stupid. For the most part, these people lived at the back of the house in Audley Lane; the dining-room looked out onto the neglected garden, and here Johnson did his watching night by night. I was just possible to get a glimpse into the dining-room through the blind, which was worn in places, but Johnson did not feel that he was getting on quite so rapidly as he had hoped. What he wanted to do, and what he meant to do, was to get into the house.
The opportunity came at length, and that when he least expected it. He wondered why he had never noticed the thing before. At any rate, he trod on the edge of a grating outside the dining-room window, and the thing collapsed with a hideous crash under his feet. A moment later, and the dapper little gentleman burst through a French window carrying a candle in his hand. Johnson, back in the darkness, saw that he was in evening dress. The little man did not appear in the least suspicious either; he muttered something to himself as to the necessity of having a carpenter to mend the broken grating. Here was Johnson's opportunity. He slipped boldly into the house, and a moment later found himself in the dining-room.
He could see the dinner was laid out—a cold dinner, save for one or two dishes over spirit-lamps. There was a finely-painted screen in the corner of the room, and Johnson hid himself behind it. He could see into the room through the hinges of the screen, and it was but a moment later that he got his first surprise—for it was not the dapper little gentleman in evening dress that came into the room; it was somebody old and bent and muffled who stood in his place. The stranger had a kind of respirator fitted over nose and mouth; he seemed to have some difficulty in dragging his palsied limbs up to the table. And yet Johnson was prepared to swear that this was the same man. There was something in the carriage of the body that told him so; and then Johnson saw a tall woman with a deathly white face and a pair of gleaming eyes come mechanically into the room.
The woman took her seat at the table with the air of a well-drilled automaton. Johnson saw that she shuddered at the sight of food, to which the muffled man helped her from one of the silver-topped dishes.
"Must eat," he said, in muffled tones. "Must eat, dear Madge. If Lydia had only eaten! Well, she might I have been here now."
The woman seemed to thrill as assuredly as did the spy behind the screen. The muffled man made no show of eating; he gave Johnson the air of an invalid who had previously despatched his bread and milk, and was merely observing the conveniences. Johnson was quivering with the illumination of a great discovery. He watched the woman slowly trying to force food down her throat. The old man coughed and choked, and indicated the silver fountain on the table with a gesture. Then the woman's shaking hand shot out, touched a tap, and immediately a little spray of water trickled in the basin. Johnson could see the fine spray dancing, rainbow-fashion, against the lights.
"That's better," the little muffled voice said, in tones of relief. "That goes to the right place; that takes the pain from my heart. It makes me young again. But you must eat, dear child; you must eat. If Lydia had only eaten!"
"Lydia is dead," said the woman in her curious wooden way. "Lydia will never come back; she could not bear the guilty secret of our house any longer. But why did she not write as she promised?"
"She did write," the muffled voice whispered. "Oh, yes, I know, for I addressed the letter. But the secret was too much for her, and she forgot to post it. She died—"
"Oh, yes, yes. She threw herself into the river. At the spot that she showed me when you first came to see us. The same spot where my mother died. She could bear the guilty secret of our house no longer. Our mother was mad, and our father was mad, and we are all afflicted. In the dark river at Kew, where the tide sucks the body down, down, and it does not come to the surface for days... The same with my mother, and Lydia, and me."
The woman suddenly broke off into a cackle of horrible laughter. The lines disappeared like magic from her eyes; her trembling hands grew firm. She was like the quivering drunkard revived by a long-desired draught of brandy. The whole atmosphere of the room reeked of some trenchant spirit. Johnson was feeling it himself; it was getting into his head. The room reeled round him; it was certainly the feeling of intoxication. What diabolical business was going on here, Johnson wondered.
Not that he was likely to know much about it if that infernal vertigo continued. It was advanced intoxication beyond the shadow of a doubt—Johnson could taste the fumes in his mouth. And, in spite of everything, illumination was coming to him at last. He understood why the figure at the end of the table was muffled; his imagination pierced beyond that mask. The lights reflected the dancing yellow spray of the fountain.
Johnson turned up the collar of his pilot jacket, and crammed his handkerchief to his mouth and nostrils. His head was still humming like a hive, but the signs of intoxication grew no stronger. The woman at the end of the table was laughing and chatting gaily now, but her babble had no meaning in it. It struck Johnson as the forced gaiety of one who is very near to the gallows. The muffled figure at the head of the table sat quietly enough now he seemed to have performed his task. But Johnson ceased to be interested in him any longer; he had made the discovery he was after, and the main thing now was to get away.
It was just possible to creep away. The man at the table was adjusting the shade on one of the candles as Johnson's white face peeked cautiously out. At the same time the woman turned and screamed aloud.
"The face—the face she yelled. "The same face of my dreams—Lydia's face, with the blood on it."
She fled headlong from the room. From the lips of the muffled figure came one hasty curse. The muffled figure darted from the room with a vigour surprising in that enfeebled frame. It was Johnson's chance, and he took it without hesitation. He knew his way now; he could have found the garden blindfold. He could hear the woman screaming as she flew through the rooms of the silent house—how strange the well-appointed table looked in contrast with it all. But there was no time for philosophy.
"Your time of release is at hand," Johnson muttered, as he made his way cautiously along the tangled garden. Another hour or two and yonder rascal will be in the hands of the police. Did ever a clever ruffian hit upon a more ingenious scheme?"
Half an hour later and Johnson strolled into Scotland Yard. He had washed and changed, and looked as if he had come casually to his evening's occupation Chambers welcomed him eagerly. It was a very quiet night.
"Well!" the inspector exclaimed. "Have you got anything for us?"
"Got everything" Johnson said quietly. "I have solved the Chelsea mystery, and a pretty gruesome tragedy it is. I've done some pretty good work for you, but you never heard anything quite so gripping as this."
An hour later, and the inspector, had heard all that Johnson had to say over a cigarette. Chambers looked just a little vague and Johnson smiled.
"You can't quite follow yet?" he said. Here is a well-dressed lady's body, carefully nourished, no signs of violence, found in the Thames. Body has been there for some days. And yet there has been no inquiry for the missing lady. Suspicious to begin with. Evidently the man who knows-- there is always a man who knows--in this case had his own reasons for not coming forward. Well, so far so good. Here is your body and here is your pencil sketch of the eye-glass man. As soon as I read the paragraphs I bolted off to the mortuary, knowing that somebody would turn up sooner or later. As a matter of fact, the man who knew turned up sooner. Little dapper old chap with an eye-glass. I felt pretty sure of him as soon as I saw his face. When I, playing the part of an official, asked him to write his address, I was certain. Then I had him followed. My game was to get into the house, and I managed it at last, after camping out in the deserted garden. I got into the dining-room and hid behind a screen. But you know all about that. On the dining-table was a kind of miniature fountain arrangement. The old man asked the woman to turn on the water. At first I thought it was a sanitas, or a telephone, or something of that kind, till saw the fine spray dancing like rainbows against the light, and I tasted the heavy stuff at the root of my tongue, and then I knew better. I was within an ace of falling off into a stupor of intoxication, and I only saved myself by covering my nose and mouth. Chambers, don't you see what the fiend was doing? He was masked against contamination himself, but he was simply drenching that poor girl with a mixed spray of morphia and brandy!"
"There's one thing that seems to have escaped you," Chambers said, thoughtfully, after a pause. And that is, motive. It will be most important."
"Well, I've got that also," Johnson replied. "Thanks to an adjacent barber. I told you that a big hotel was making additions close to 7, Audley Lane. Well, it appears that some of those additions are nearly finished on a piece of ground that the hotel company bought, under the impression that the strip was conveyed to them with another piece of land. That was a mistake, as the strip I allude to belongs to the ladies at 7, Audley Lane. The old fox there let the hotel company erect a fine now block of buildings there and then discloses his hand. The new buildings must either be pulled down or £10,000 handed over instead. It was no use to cry over spilt milk, and the hotel people are going to pay the money. That money the old pentleman means to have. But for my interference he would have got that money, and directly it had passed into his possession the woman called Madge would have died also. She would have committed suicide, and the old gentleman would have been free to enjoy his ill-gotten gains."
"Excellent!" Chambers cried. Past eleven o'clock. Would you mind ringing that bell for me? It's time we began to move in this matter."
THERE are possibly more interesting hobbies than "Ming" dynasties or Blue Mauritius postage stamps, and it seemed to Violet Acton that she had found such a thing, and that a comparatively inexpensive one. Like most popular favourites on the musical stage, she had a voluminous, not to say quaint correspondence, and for the most part she pasted her letters into an album, which sometime or another might perhaps find a use in history. She glanced thoughtfully over one of the letters which she had in her hand now. It was not the least rare of her possessions, though it was a comparatively recent treasure. It ran thus—
"As a regular first-nighter, and one who has frequently enjoyed your splendid performances, I humbly take the liberty of pointing out to you one or two little mistakes in your big scene in 'Claude Duval' at the Frivolity Theatre. In my opinion, the big burglary scene where you take the part of Claude Duval would be made more natural if you had a few hints from an old hand like myself. I don't mean an old hand on the stage, but an old hand at the other game. I am out of the profession now, for, you see, I have turned over a new leaf; but still, if you like to know what I mean, and care to drop me a line at any time, it would be a great pleasure to me to wait upon you and show you where I humbly think you have made a mistake. I hope you won't be annoyed with me, because I mean it well, and I don't care who the next man is, you haven't got a greater admirer than
"Your humble servant,
"The very thing," Violet mused. "Now, why didn't I think of that before? I am quite sure this man would help me. At any rate, I'll try it; and even if I fail, I shan't be in a more horrible mess than I am now. Now, I wonder if I can manage to get a night off to-morrow. I haven't been 'indisposed' for quite two years, and perhaps the manager would pass it for once."
Miss Acton sat down and wrote a little note to the address given by Mr. Peter Budd, asking him to call upon her the following evening at ten o'clock. She would be alone at her flat then, therefore it would be no difficult matter to send the servants out and receive the artistic burglar alone. It was just as well perhaps that nobody should know of his visit. As Miss Acton's flat was situated in a great block of other desirable tenements where a good many of her own friends resided, there was a fair amount of risk, but that she would have to run. For, sooth to say, she was sorely troubled in her mind, and unless desperate diseases were met with desperate remedies, matters looked like culminating in a most unpleasant crisis.
To put it plainly, Violet was engaged to be married. There was nothing strange about that, of course, neither was there anything strange in the truth that the marriage was an exceptionally brilliant one. For the Marquis of Richfort was no titled idiot under the glamour of the stage, but a young man of great wealth and attainments who at no distantndate was tolerably certain to hold a high office in the Government. He was a rather serious-minded young man, but he had a very pretty notion of his own importance, and unless something out of the common occurred before very long, the popular favourite of the Frivolity Theatre would become the Marchioness of Richfort.
Not that anybody could say a word against Violet Acton. No shadow had rested for a moment upon her reputation since the time, four years ago, when she first appeared in the last row of the chorus. As to the rest, she was respectably enough connected; her father had been a well-known lawyer in Brighton, and on her mother's side she could boast of some exceedingly good Irish blood in her veins. So far as she could see, looking back, she had nothing to regret, with the exception of one foolish episode which had taken place some three years before. Violet Acton did not care to think about this now, but since her engagement to Richfort it had been forced upon her attention in a more or less unpleasant manner. She would have given a good deal to recall those few foolish letters which she had written to a man who was now dead and gone, and who had at one time promised to make a great reputation as a poet and writer of imaginative romance. It had been the nearest approach to a love idyll in which Violet had engaged, and it had been a matter of sincere grief to her when the young man died, and the actress had quite forgotten that those harmlessly sentimental letters were still in existence. They had come back to her with other effects of the poet, and she had forgotten to destroy them. Perhaps she had kept them for sentimental reasons.
But be that as it might, they had recently found their way into the possession of a nebulous individual who threatened to make himself exceedingly unpleasant. In ordinary circumstances Violet would have laughed, and if she had been engaged to an ordinary young man, she would have probably told him all about it. But, being a woman, she did none of these things.
It was just the set of chances in which the blackmailer sees his opportunity. There is a popular delusion to the effect that the blackmailing reptile exists only amongst foreign waiters and the class which make a precarious livelihood by bleeding City men. This is a mistaken estimate, for the blackmailer is occasionally met in Society, and before now has been known to belong to a good club. And Violet was not quite sure as to whether or not Algernon Atherley belonged to this category.
At any rate, he was a well-dressed, well-set-up man, and he himself had a flat in Maxbridge Mansions also. He was on fairly good terms with most of the people of Violet's set, and there were only a few people who fought shy of him. Even those would have been hard put to it to say why, and Violet had been rather inclined to like him. They had seen a good deal of one another; he occasionally dropped into Miss Acton's flat to tea, and she had always found him an amusing and entertaining companion.
But since her engagement to Richfort, matters had not gone so smoothly. It was about this time that the hand of the blackmailer began to show ominously. He himself remained, so to speak, the flower which blushes unseen, and he had chosen, in the first instance, to approach Miss Acton through the medium of Atherley.
Atherley was properly indignant, of course; he would like to seek out the fellow and give him the thrashing he deserved. But the blackmailer was cunning to a degree; he refused to come out in the open, though as time went on he became more threatening, so that he was getting on Violet's nerves. There was only one thing for it now—she must either tell Richfort everything, or she must pay the £500 which the sinister figure in the background demanded as the price of the letters. It was an odd enough situation in its way, though it presented novel features. And now the time for action had arrived.
Now, Violet Acton might be frivolous, as she undoubtedly was, but she was a long way from being a fool, and she had a more than intelligent grasp on the situation. She had courage, too, and the strongest disinclination to part with the money, for many reasons. One of the chief and most powerful was that she hadn't got it. And, again, she hated to be done in this fashion. For a long time she pondered the matter over in her mind, and then at last she began to see exactly how it was that those letters had found their way from an old, forgotten desk into the possession of the blackmailer who stood behind Atherley. And she began now to see her way, too, to recovering possession of the letters, and the whole inspiration had come to her in a flash as she stood pasting Peter Budd's criticisms into her book.
She posted the letter to the converted burglar herself, after which she rang the bell for tea. There was nobody coming but Mr. Atherley, she informed the maid, and she didn't wish to see anybody else. He came along presently, smiling and debonair, and Violet noticed that he was wearing a new morning-coat for the occasion. Regarding him coolly and critically, she was bound to admit that he did not look in the least like a scoundrel. His air was easy and well-bred, and there was quite a frank smile in his eyes. Just for a moment Violet's heart smote her; perhaps he was acting in her best and truest interest—and this is a cold and crafty world, and one can never quite tell. And there was no doubt of the fact either that Atherley and the stricken poet, who was the original cause of the trouble, had been at school together. This was possibly why the blackmailer had approached Atherley in the first instance. Still, Miss Acton had learnt a good deal of the world since her poet's untimely death, and she could see that it would be necessary to walk circumspectly. Atherley alluded to the matter now as he sat there in the charming little drawing-room drinking his tea.
Necessarily, Miss Acton professed herself to be vastly obliged to Mr. Atherley. There was a grateful light in her beautiful blue eyes as she spoke to him. She murmured something to the effect that it is a blessed thing in the hour of tribulation to possess a real friend. Perhaps she was doing wrong in not laying the whole trouble frankly and openly before Lord Richfort, but she hesitated to do that until she was compelled to do so. Atherley shook his head. He seemed to doubt the wisdom and the strict honour of this course, but he said nothing. That was a matter upon which Miss Acton must be guided by her own feelings. But, one way or another, she must make up her mind, as there was no time to lose. Atherley appeared to wash his hands of it.
"I positively don't know what to do," Violet murmured. "Anyhow, it's awfully good of you to come to me like this. And I really don't know how to thank you. I can't understand why it is that everybody is so ready to help me."
Atherley murmured something complimentary as he stirred his tea. He conveyed his admiration gallantly.
"Of course, anyone would," he said. "And just now, one is all the more anxious to assist you. You must see for yourself that the ruffian who has these letters is deliberately taking advantage of your engagement to Richfort. You see, if Richfort was the ordinary Johnny who hangs about stage-doors and supper-rooms, the letters would be quite easy. But Richfort is a serious young man with lofty ideals, and if he knew of those letters, he might be surprised to hear that you had been previously engaged to be married, and to such a Bohemian as our poor friend. Of course, I don't say that he would, but he might."
Violet Acton sighed deeply.
"It's more than possible, simply because I have omitted to mention the fact hitherto," she said. "I only wish I had still got the wretched things, and I would take them straight to my futare husband myself."
"But you wouldn't like him to receive them without a sufficient explanation," said Atherley.
"Of course not," she replied. "But really, Mr. Atherley, do you see any harm in the mere schoolgirl sentiment of those letters?"
"Well, I don't," Atherley said. "But then--"
"Oh, then, you've seen them?" Violet asked innocently.
Atherley appeared to be taken considerably aback at the question. For an easy, assured man of the world he looked quite confused.
"Well, yes," he stammered. "It—it was like this. I didn't want to worry you, or I should have told you before. You see, the rascal sent me one of the letters, much in the same way as a bandit has a playful habit of sending along an ear of a captive to his friends with a view to hurrying up the ransom. I didn't want you to feel that I had seen one of the letters, and that's why I never told you about it."
Violet smiled as if she found the simile amusing. As a matter of fact, she hardly noticed it. She had stumbled, not altogether by accident, upon something which she had suspected for some time.
"I see," she said thoughtfully. "I understand. And you think if we don't buy these letters soon, they will be sent to Lord Richfort?"
"I should say that there isn't the slightest doubt of it," Atherley said. "What I am afraid of is that the fellow might ask more."
"But I haven't got it!" Violet cried. "Of course, I am making a good income and all that, and I don't think I am unduly extravagant, but, all the same, I never seem to have any money. What a hateful business it is altogether! My dear friend, I don't know how I can possibly get this money. Now, don't you think we could find some way of tricking the fellow out of the letters? Really, it would be quite fair. I suppose he keeps them in some very secure place."
"In a safe, I expect," Atherley said. "Ah, you may be sure that he is running no risks. I shouldn't indulge in any romantic dreams of that sort, if I were you. And, besides, you couldn't open a safe. You couldn't do it even if I were there to help you. We must try some other plan."
"But couldn't we burgle his safe, really?"
Atherley shook his head. He could not refrain from smiling. The idea of Violet acting the part of amateur burglar strongly appealed to his sense of humour. Still, although he could see the comic side of it, there was something in this flight of fancy which caused him an uncomfortable feeling that his fair companion was laughing at him.
"Don't you think you had better stick to business?" he said. "This is not stage comedy, you know."
"I thought I was serious," Violet protested. "I thought I was making a practical suggestion. And besides, after all's said and done, there's no great hurry."
"Oh, I am afraid there is," Atherley returned.
"But then I've got to find the money, and that will take some time. You must put your friend off for a week or two."
"My friend?" Atherley said coldly. "I don't quite follow."
"Oh, I beg your pardon, I'm sure. I mean your acquaintance. Let us dissemble, as they say on the stage. Try and put this man off, and see if we can devise some plan of campaign. Of course, you may say that it is a romantic idea on my part, but I should dearly love to steal those letters, if I had a chance. Still, if nothing can be done, I suppose I shall have to buy them back. Let me see. Suppose you come back to me on Tuesday. I am going to Brighton on Sunday evening to Monday afternoon, and between now and then I am going to devote my whole time to devising a way to get possession of those letters. I do hope that the man who has them lives in a flat—you see, it will make my task so much more easy."
Atherley did not like the mocking light in his companion's eyes at all. She was distinctly laughing at him now, and she was not making the slightest effort to conceal it. It seemed strange to him that a woman in so serious a position should take the thing so easily. He rose from his chair and reached for his hat. He made some sort of attempt to shake hands, but Miss Acton did not appear to notice.
"Well, good-bye," he said. "I will come again on Tuesday. Only please don't delay the thing any longer. Believe me, I am speaking in your best interests."
"You are too kind," Violet said demurely. "Try to bring the letters with you. I hope they are appropriately tied up with blue ribbon and sealed with violet wax."
"Violet wax?" Atherley stammered. "Blue ribbon? Why—but, of course, you are joking. I see what you mean. They would be fastened up like that if it was in a play; but, really, you must be serious. You must try to realise your position. And now, really, I shall have to go. But I won't forget you—I won't fail you on Tuesday. Good-bye."
Atherley left the flat somehow or other without shaking hands with his hostess. Afterwards he wondered why this ceremony had been overlooked. Meanwhile, the actress was sitting there grave and thoughtful enough now.
"I think it's all right," she murmured. "If my burglar is a good man, it ought to be a certainty."
VIOLET was quite alone in her flat. She was always by way of being a considerate mistress, and, seeing that she was not going out herself this evening, she had allowed her domestic staff a few hours' liberty; indeed, she had gone further than that, and had actually secured them tickets for the Frivolity Theatre. She was not playing herself this evening, for she had sent a message round to the theatre, accompanied by a doctor's certificate to the effect that she was suffering from a slight nervous strain. After two hundred consecutive nights in the same part, the excuse sounded plausible enough, and the management was satisfied. So, incidentally, was Violet Acton's understudy. And therefore it was with an easy conscience that the popular actress sat there awaiting the advent of Mr. Peter Budd. Her head was feeling slightly better now, especially as she had taken a little walk and subsequently stopped in the vestibule a few moments to chat with the hall-porter.
Mr. Budd came punctually at the appointed moment and knocked timidly at the door of the flat. He came shambling in, uncomfortable and hot, not to say sticky, and presently found himself seated opposite the brilliant actress in her dining-room smoking a cigarette and trying vainly to feel at ease. He was a comparatively young man, fairly well spoken, and dressed after the manner of a respectable City clerk whose ideas run in the direction of flashiness, and who is occasionally fond of backing his fancy. At an early stage of the proceedings he intimated that though he was now known as Peter Budd, that was not the name under which he had come in contact with the superior forces of the law.
"It is exceedingly interesting," Violet murnmred. "And really, I don't know how to thank you sufficiently for your kindness in coming here this evening. You don't know how I appreciate it."
"It was blooming cheek," Budd said with conviction. "That's what it was, nothing more or less than blooming cheek. Not as I realised it till after I had posted the letter."
"Not at all," Violet murmured sweetly, "not at all. It was really most thoughtful of you. Without really knowing it, Mr. Budd, you have in you the making of an artist. Under happier conditions I am sure you would have made a name for yourself. For you came to the Frivolity Theatre, and as an artist you were pained to see that I was doing my work so crudely. It was exceedingly nice of you to go out of your way to guide the footsteps of a stranger into the right path."
"No thanks are needed," Budd muttered politely. "But you always looked so good-tempered and amiable "
"Quite so," Violet murnmred. "At any rate, I am glad you have come here, and I am glad that we understand one another. And this artistic sympathy is a bond between us. Perhaps you guessed, or perhaps you read somewhere, that I am always grateful for hints, especially in the way of my profession. And I always pride myself in getting my details as realistic as possible, and that is one, but only one of the reasons, why I wrote to you. I want you to show me exactly what you mean. Of course, I don't suggest that we should start on a burgling expedition."
"I really couldn't do that, miss," Budd said quite firmly. "You see, I have had my lesson, and I'm going to profit by it. I am doing very well now, and, besides, I hope to get married before long. But if you happen to have a safe here, I could show you exactly what I mean."
"I'm sorry I don't possess one," Violet said regretfully. "But if I had, do you really think you could open it?"
Budd's smile was distinctly professional.
"Well, I should hope so, miss," he said. "I never saw one that beat me yet. Ever since I was a boy, I had an instinct that way. Besides, you see, it was the trade I was brought up to. I'm not boasting when I say that there isn't a safe in the City of London which I couldn't manage in two hours. Still, I dare say I could show you what I mean if you had such a thing as a tin box about the place. But, even then, it wouldn't be a practical lesson. It would pass on the stage, of course."
"That would be very nice," Violet smiled sweetly. "I will see what I can manage presently. I have a little scheme of my own which you may be disposed to fall in with, and I do hope, Mr. Budd, that you brought your tools with you."
Budd tapped his coat pocket significantly.
"Yes, I did that," he explained. "It was a bit risky, of course, but I really hadn't the heart to refuse you. As a matter of fact, I borrowed these. They're not quite all an artist would desire, but they are not bad."
The speaker produced several implements of his late trade and laid them on the table. He proceeded glibly to explain their uses. When at length the category was finished, Budd once more suggested the necessity of a tin box, with the object of completing the lesson. Violet shook her head regretfully.
"I haven't such a thing on the premises," she said, "but I think I have a better idea than that. It would be an excellent joke in its way if you would only help me. You see, I have a friend who lives in a flat close by, and I told—I told her all about your letter. Of course, I didn't show it to her, but she was fearfully interested and all that kind of thing, but she was quite sure that even if you came here, you would be able to teach me nothing, and I told her that I should get into her flat one day and burgle her safe. In the end, we had a bet on it; and the conditions were that if within a week I managed to steal a bundle of letters out of her safe, she was to pay me the full amount of the bet. Now, those letters are tied up with blue ribbon and sealed with violet wax. I tell you this because I want you to feel that everything is quite straightforward "
"It would be, with you, miss," Budd muttered.
"Now, that's very nice of you, Mr. Budd. And I have managed to get hold of the key of my friend's flat, and I know she won't be home for hours yet, and she has a deaf old housekeeper whom it is impossible to rouse. Now, if you will come along with me, we shall be able to have a real lesson with a real safe. And when the joke comes to be explained, nobody will laugh more heartily than my friend herself. Come along."
Budd demurred. He looked, if possible, a little more hot and uncomfortable than before. But now, he was as clay in the hands of the potter. There was never yet man born of woman who could refuse Violet Acton anything when once she had made up her mind to it. It was just half an hour later that master and pupil returned to the dining-room of Miss Acton's flat, and those precious moments had been by no means wasted. And, surely enough, a little packet of letters tied up with blue ribbon and sealed with violet wax lay by the side of a tumbler out of which Peter Budd was regaling himself with something exceedingly neat and exclusive in the way of a branded champagne. He was still very shy, and not a little uncomfortable, but he had lost his nervousness now, and his eyes wore a placid look of professional satisfaction.
"I suppose it's all right, miss," he said. "At any rate, you know what to do now; and now, if there is nothing more I can do for you, I think I'll be off."
Strangely enough, Atherley failed to keep his appointment on Tuesday afternoon. This was all the more odd seeing that he had been having anything but a good time lately. More than one of his little schemes had gone astray, and his creditors were beginning to press him. There is a freemasonry amongst the tradesmen of a certain class, and their intimate knowledge of the inner life of some of their customers would amaze them. For instance, most of them knew exactly how far to let Atherley go, and he was painfully aware that he had reached the end. A pretty little scheme of his in which figured a certain flighty countess and some family diamonds had miscarried at the last moment, and Atherley was face to face with the fact that unless he could provide himself with a few hundred pounds at the end of the week, he was likely to find himself in serious trouble. Therefore it was all the more strange that he should fail to keep his appointment, seeing that he might have used the cheque intended for the unknown blackmailer—temporarily, of course, until he could see his way out of his present difficulties. But, at any rate, he did fail to keep his promise, and Violet smiled to herself as the clock moved steadily on and there was no sign of Algernon Atherley. In a measure she was disappointed, because the climax of the little scheme would be missing. She had hoped to make quite a dramatic affair of it; she had hoped to confront Atherley with the letters and enjoy his discomfiture.
At any rate, there were no signs of Atherley. Perhaps he had forgotten his promise. It was about seven o'clock the same evening, when he was coming home, that he met Miss Acton going down the stairs. She smiled at him in her most fascinating fashion, but she did not offer her hand, neither did Atherley seem to expect it. He looked strangely uncomfortable and ill at ease, and would have passed on if she had not stopped him.
"So you didn't come this afternoon," she said. "Oh, there is no need to apologise. I didn't wait in for you. There was no absolute necessity to do so. I wanted to know if my little plan was quite successful, because, after all, I managed to get those letters from that scoundrel. Probably he told you. I've sent the letters on to Lord Richfort, explaining the circumstances under which they were written. I don't think they will trouble him any more than they do me! I regret only one thing, and that is that I am a woman. This prevents me from giving that rascal the horsewhipping he deserves. I can't stop a moment—I shall be late for the theatre, as it is."
HAROLD STANTON stamped up and down the platform of the little country station with a vigorous attempt to infuse some amount of life into his veins. The journey from town had been a long one there were changes to make, and the mere suggestion of a footwarmer had found the local officials helpless. The sun was setting in a sky of brass; a purple mist hung on the horizon; the whole countryside lay under a deep mantle of snow. For once in a way England was being treated to a good old-fashioned Christmas. And Harold was not quite sure that he appreciated the gift as he should.
"My luggage will be all right," he said. "I believe that a cart is coming over from the Grange for some things this afternoon, and I shall be glad if you will put my traps in with the rest. By the way, how far off is the Grange?"
The porter gave the desired information. It was a matter of two miles to the Grange, and it was impossible for the gentleman to miss it. There were no conveyances.
"Don't want one," Stanton said, crisply. "I prefer to walk. Don't forget."
Stanton's spirit rose as he strode along the snowy road. Warmth and elasticity were coming back to him again. Really, it was good to be alive, he thought. This was his first visit to the residence of Colonel Candwell, and it behoved this light of the Junior Bar to be on his best behaviour. There were special reasons why it was necessary to secure the good opinion of the Colonel. For the present these reasons were known only to Harold Stanton and Kitty Candwell, the Colonel's only daughter. Ostensibly the invitation had come through Jack Candwell, but even he was not in the secret.
Stanton came to a field-path presently, leading through woods that shaded a long stone house that looked exceedingly inviting and comfortable. Doubtless this was, the Grange. Harold waited for somebody to come along and tell him. The somebody who appeared presently took the form of an exceedingly pretty girl, with a pair of sparkling blue eyes and a mass of golden-brown hair under a little fur cap. Her dainty figure was clad in furs, and there was a charming touch of colour on her cheeks. She held out both her hands to Stanton. Then she seemed to vanish for a moment in an affectionate embrace. Her blue eyes grew moist and tender.
"Dear old boy," she murmured. "It does seem such a long time"
"Doesn't it, Kitty?" Stanton replied. "Ever since August. I began to think that I was never, going to see you again. I have been working like—like one o'clock by way of drowning dull care. But how did you manage it, Kit? I thought—"
"Oh, well, the others have all gone skating. There has been no such ice for years. I— well— l pretended that several things wanted looking after, and I stayed behind. I persuaded Jack not to send a conveyance for you to the station, saying that you would walk and that your luggage would follow. I did that so that I could stop away and meet you."
"You darling! Has Jack any sort of suspicion that we—"
"Not the least. Brothers never see that kind of thing. Probably Jack would be quite surprised that any man could care for a little insignificant thing like me. And you of all people in the world. Jack thought that my suggestion was inhospitable. What a surprise it will be for them all later on."
"Won't it?" Harold grinned joyfully. "What will the Colonel say?"
A slight frown clouded Kitty's precty face for a moment.
"That's what I'm afraid of," she whispered. "Dad is an old dear, but he has such funny, old-fashioned notions. He has no opinion of young men, and I'm very much afraid that he has already chosen somebody for me. I don't like deceiving him in this way, either, Hal. Now, if you could only do something out of the common."
Stanton was willing enough. He only wanted his chance. He was pretty certain to succeed in due time at the Bar; but as yet briefs had been few and far between. His private means were not large, but there was a certain jolly old sporting aunt who regarded him as the apple of her eye, and who was quite ready to do the handsome thing if Stanton's matrimonial venture pleased her. Still—
"We'd better go on like this for the present," he suggested. "Don't worry about the future. It's good enough to see you again, dearest. I'll do my best to make a good impression upon the Colonel. You might give me a few tip—"
"Are you any good in the detective line?" Kitty asked.
"What's that got to do with it? As a barrister I know a thing or two. But you don't mean to say that there is anything wrong here?"
"Indeed I do, Hal. I forgot everything for the moment when I met you. As a matter of fact, a very unpleasant thing has happened. I must tell you that my mother had a lot of valuable jewellery. The quantity was not so much as the quality. Dad refused to keep these things at the bank; he preferred to have them in the house. Each Christmas he takes one ring or pendant or something, and makes me a present of it. When he went to that old-fashioned safe of his the night before last he found that everything had vanished. The thieves had taken it all."
"That's bad," Stanton said, gravely. "Any clue?"
"No sign of one. We have had the police over several times, but without result. And dad refuses to have anything to do with Scotland Yard. He has resigned himself to his loss, and declares that the house is not going to be given over to a lot of strange men, who will only upset everybody without finding anything out. Now, it struck me that this might be a good chance for you. You're a barrister, Hal, and, of course, know a good deal about criminals and their ways. If you could only manage to get these things back it would make a tremendous impression upon dad, and perhaps— perhaps—"
Stanton plunged into the matter with all the enthusiasm of youth. He found himself discussing the matter with the Colonel presently, as they sipped their tea in the great hall of the Grange before a roaring log-fire. The skating party had not as yet returned from the lake, so that the group gathered round the tea-table was a small one, consisting of the Colonel and his daughter and Miss Constance Candwell, an elderly cousin of Kitty's who kept house for her uncle.
She appeared to be a jolly-faced woman, and Stanton knew by instinct that he had a friend here. Constance was one of those popular persons whose chief pleasure lies in the art of catering for other people's enjoyment. She ruled the household with the iron hand in the velvet glove the servants respected her; even in the kitchen she was a welcome figure. It was one of her boasts that she could cook a dinner with anybody. Certainly she was a popular figure everywhere.
The Colonel stood with his back to the blazing logs, laying down the law. "The thing is most annoying," he said. "It isn't altogether the pecuniary loss, though that comes to some thousands of pounds. It is the unpleasant suggestion that there is a thief in the house somewhere. I cannot bring myself to suspect any of my servants, seeing that they have all been with me so long. And, besides, they are all children of tenants of mine, all born on the estate."
"Except the cook," Kitty said, thoughtfully.
"My dear, I am quite aware of it," the Colonel went on, magnificently. "I have not lost sight of the fact that the cook is an alien, so to speak. Incidentally, I may remark that she is the best cook we ever had at the Grange."
Stanton murmured something respectful. The Colonel looked like a man able to appreciate the efforts of a really efficient cook.
"But I wish to remind you, my dear child," he went on, "that the cook was engaged by your cousin Constance. Constance never makes mistakes. We can put your suggestion aside as quite unreasonable. Besides, cooks do not help themselves to family jewels. Now, as a barrister with a practice at the Bar, I ask you. Mr. Stanton—"
The door of the hall was flung open at this point, and a cold stream of air poured in. Outside, the trees stood with their heavy mantles of snow. A roaring mass of blue and golden sparks streamed up the big open chimney. The skaters had come back again. There was quite a dozen of them, all clamouring for tea, and all declaring that they could eat anything. Their light-hearted laughter rang in the rafters.
A couple of footmen were kept busy dispensing tea and hot cakes. The Colonel looked on with his most benevolent smile.
"We will discuss the matter later on, Mr. Stanton," he said. "It is no subject for a frivolous crowd like this. We must make allowance for them."
Stanton was just a little flattered. It was something of a compliment to be singled out thus from the rest of the giddy throng, and it seemed to him that he was making headway. It was no part of his policy to proclaim the fact that he was as giddy as the rest, and that he was looking forward to his share of the fun. The next day would be Christmas Eve, and skating was again the programme. As an old skating-club expert he was anticipating this with pleasure. Besides, it would give him a good opportunity of seeing Kitty.
Jack Candweli came bustling up to him. "So you've managed to get here after, all, old, man," he said. "I didn't think that a quiet place such as this would be any sort of good to you. Now, look here; it's a good moon to-night, and there are a lot of duck down on the marshes. One or two of us propose to have a go at them to-night after the womenkind have gone to bed. We'll take a few sandwiches with us, and a flask or two, and start about midnight. We'll get back again by two in the morning. Are you on?"
Stanton accepted with alacrity. He protested that there was nothing he should like better. On the whole, it was rather a dull evening for him, for the Colonel had singled him out for special attention. His esteemed host was full of his loss, though the rest of the company appeared to hide successfully their sorrow.
It was nearly eleven o'clock before Harold 1 contrived to get Kitty to himself. She looked up with a demure little smile on her face.
"You are making yourself a favourite," she suggested.
"Confound it, yes," Stanton groaned. "I mean, I suppose that I should be pleased. The Colonel is good enough to approve of me. He sees in me certain solid qualities which are not possessed by the rest of the party, and I hope you will treat me with more respect in the future, Kit. Still, I should like to find those diamonds."
"Wouldn't it be grand!" Kitty exclaimed. "What are you going to do now?" Stanton proceeded to explain. Three or four of the younger men went presently into the smoking-room ready for the coming raid on the duck. The guns were in the hall.
"We musn't forget the grub," Jack Candwell suggested. "It will be precious cold work, and a mouthful of something will be acceptable. I expect everybody has gone to bed by this time. I'll go into the kitchen and forage round."
"Let me come along," said Stanton. "I'm rather good at cutting sandwiches."
The big kitchen was not empty, as Jack Candwell had anticipated, for the cook was still there. There had been a few things to clear up before retiring, she explained. On the great oak dresser stood a row of white basins with cloths tied over them. Two basins, more majestic than the rest, were still steaming.
"The pudding," Jack laughed. "Which one are we going to have on Christmas Day, cook?"
The cook shrugged her big shoulders. It was quite evident that this intrusion was by no means welcome to her. She answered the question in a short sullen way, and averted her gaze from the intruders. A faint smell of spirits pervaded the air. The cupboard doors were banged to, and presently the cook lighted her bedroom candle and departed.
"Nice amiable old party, isn't she?" Candwell laughed. "Wonder why cooks should always be like that. I suppose it is all a matter of liver."
Stanton responded thoughtfully. He was asking himself a few questions. He was still asking himself the same questions when the marshes were reached and the onslaught on the unoffending duck began. For once in his life he shot badly, so badly, indeed, that his exploits in that direction attracted the attention of Candwell, who remarked upon it. But it was doubtful whether Harold heard a single word.
"I've got it!" he exclaimed, presently. "By Jove, I've got it! I remember now. It was at Chelmsford two years ago, and besides—"
"What on earth are you talking about?" Candwell demanded. Stanton came to with a start.
"Upon my word, I heg your pardon," he said. "I must have been thinking about some one else. You see I have rather an important case upon my mind, and that is why I have been shooting so badly to-night."
Harold had the same thoughtful frown on his face as he prepared for bed an hour later. He crept in between the sheets presently, but not to sleep. Consequently, everybody had finished breakfast the following morning by the time he had got down. He found Miss Constance Candwell waiting to receive him.
"I apologise most humbly," he said. "But the fact is, I slept very badly last night, and— but what's the matter? Nothing wrong, I hope."
"Perhaps you wouldn't think so," Miss Constance said. "But from my, point of view it is nothing less than a calamity. Our cook is going."
"Really! I suppose it is awkward. Still, you will have time to get—"
"She is going this afternoon by the 2.15 train. Her mother is dying, and she has to leave at once. I can find a substitute, of course, in the village. But it is a tiresome thing to happen on Ghristmas Eve."
Harold expressed his sympathy. Ha ate his breakfast slowly and thoughtfully, after which he went in search of Kitty. She had her skates in her hand.
"This is dreadful she said, reproachfully. "And what are you looking so grave about?"
"Am I? I suppose Miss Candwell has affected me. The cook is going at—"
"That doesn't matter. Our old cook, who married from here in the summer, will come back if she is needed. And how long have you been interested—"
"My dear child, I have an idea. Unless I am greatly mistaken, I have made a most important discovery. I believe that luck is on our side. If I don't happen to be in to lunch, make some excuse for me. Now let's go as far as the lake."
A little before two o'clock the same, afternoon, Stanton was lurking in the shrubbery that led from the domestic offices towards the drive. Some time before he had seen the cook's boxes depart in a cart, and presently that functionary herself followed. It was her evident intention to walk to the station. She carried on her arm a flat basket with flaps, and the contents appeared to be heavy. As she entered the shrubbery Stanton rose and confronted her. Her red face was palpably paler.
"I will trouble you for your basket," Stanton said. "Hand it over, please."
"Well, I never the flustered woman protested. "What next, indeed!"
"That," Stanton said, calmly, "depends entirely upon yourself. It isn't the slightest use for you to take that tone with me. It is a considerable time since we met, and on that occasion it was my duty to get you eighteen months' imprisonment for fraud and forgery, and, robbing your mistress of money. You obtained a good situation, by means of a forged character, and you are well known to the police. Give me your basket."
"There is nothing in it but a plum pudding for my mother," the woman protested.
"Invalid mothers don't require plum puddings," Stanton smiled. "Give me your basket just as it is, and you can go."
The basket was handed over with a sigh. Without another word Stanton marched back to the house with it on his arm. As he expected, he found Miss Candwell in the kitchen superintending matters. He opened the basket casually.
"I took this from your cook," ha said. "Unless I am greatly mistaken it is the plum pudding for to-morrow's dinner. I noticed last night that there were two puddings of greater tonnage than the rest, and I feel sure that this is one of them."
"Quite right," Miss Candwell smiled. "I suppose that cook regarded this as one of her perquisites. And you actually took it from her?"
"My dear lady, I had an excellent reason," Stanton said. "My excuse will be forthcoming to-morrow night at dinner. Now will you do me a special favour? Will you see that this is the pudding for Christmas Day?"
* * * * *
It was an excellent dinner, in spite of the late cook's defection, and Miss Candwell's anxious face relaxed on tha appearance of the pudding carried by, two footmen and blazing with gold and purple flames. It was gravely divided and handed round to the various guests.
"One moment," Stanton remarked. "This, I feel sure, is a pudding of amazing qualities. If it should contain any foreign substance, such as—"
"Look at this!" a pretty, girl on tha far side of the table cried. "A necklace—"
"And here is a ring—" another voice broke in. "And I have got a pendant as well."
The cries were becoming general now, all along the table. Finger-bowls were brought into requisition, and pretty soon a pile of glittering gems lay by the side of the Colonel's plate. He held them carefully up to the light.
"My poor wife's missing jewellery," he said. "Mr. Stanton, you are indeed a Sherlock Holmes. Pray tell us how you managed such marvellous results. It was a pretty conceit of yours to—"
"Only part of the credit is mine, sir," Stanton said, modestly. "As a matter of fact, luck was on my side. I happened the night before last to recognises your treasure of a cook as a woman whom I successfully prosecuted nearly two years ago at Chelmsford for forgery and fraud. Directly I saw her I guessed at once where your family gems had gone. I knew your cook would leave you after she saw me, and that is why I stopped her on the way to the station. I took the basket and found the pudding in it. Then it flashed across my mind that the gems were in the pudding.
"Splendid!" the Colonel cried. "You are tho most remarkable young man I ever came across. I drink to your good luck, sir. Everybody will join one. And if there is any way in which I can repay you, any favour, however great—"
Stanton glanced at Kitty and smiled. She blushed and coloured with delight. An hour or so later, when the sensation and excitement had somewhat subsided, Stanton turned to remind his host of his promise. It was a big favour ha was going to ask. Colonel Candwell listened without any signs of grave displeasure.
"So you have met beiore," he said. "Well well. I suppose I shall have to part with Kitty some of these days, and I may say that I had other plans. Young men nowadays are so empty-headed, so frivolous, so you understand what I mean. But after to-night I feel that I could not refuse you anything."
Kitty was in the conservatory, apparently doing nothing. Stanton caught her to him and kissed her warm red lips. Outside the moon was shining on the snow. "What luck," he said. "It's all right, darling. And he's rather proud of me."
"And so am I," Kitty said fondly. "It was wonderful of you, Hal—wonderful!"
THIS thing was horrible, incredible! At first everybody refused to believe it. Men whispered it going up to business in tram and train: nobody seemed to be quite sure. It was as if some great royalty had been suddenly stricken by the hand of death. Such things happened, even to kings. But nobody had ever associated Lena Mars with a tragedy like this. She was a veritable queen of lightness and laughter, the acknowledged comedienne of two continents. There had never been anybody like her before; she was all the great ones in her own charming person. Only last night she had raised her audience to the wildest pitch of enthusiasm in her new comedy.
And now she was dead. She had been picked up dead, murdered, in the street!
By midday all the evening papers had it. Certainly here was a most amazing state of affairs. The great actress had left the theater shortly before midnight. She had managed to shake off a wild crowd of admirers on the plea that she was supping with a friend at the Olympic. A taxi had set her down before the doors of that famous restaurant, and subsequently she had been seen to enter. But no friend awaited her there, and no supper had been ordered. Lena Mars had vanished from the Olympic in the most mysterious manner. The hall porter who had admitted her was prepared to swear that she had not quitted the place.
Two hours later—to be precise, at 2:16 a.m.—the policeman on duty in Lanchester square found a huddled heap of humanity lying on the pavement at the corner of Lanchester place. He had noticed nothing a quarter of an hour before. He was surprised to find a woman richly dressed, her evening gown being covered with a long black cloak. A black lace mantilla had been pulled over her splendid hair. The diamonds in her corsage, about her throat and on her hands were untouched.
Clearly robbery was not the mainspring of the tragedy. There was no weapon to suggest suicide. X 75 bent down to examine the body more closely.
He was not new to the force; he had seen many strange things in his time, but he caught his lip between his teeth and wiped his forehead. There was a tiny blue stain in the center of the white brow, a wet crimson mass at the base of the scalp where the fair hair was all bedabbled. The woman lying there had been shot through the brain. X 75 blew his whistle, and presently there appeared a sergeant and two constables.
"It's Lena Mars!" X 75 gasped. "Dead. Killed the last quarter of a hour. Shot through the brain. And robbery's got nothing to do with it"
The sergeant muttered something not complimentary to his subordinate. A moment later he had cause to change his opinion.
"You're right," he whispered. "Clutter, fetch the ambulance."
Half an hour later Captain Trevor Heaton was on the spot. The chief commissioner was away on sick leave, and Trevor Heaton was taking his place. It was the biggest case he had tackled single handed, and he realized his responsibility. Unpleasant things had been said on his appointment, but the chief was satisfied. He had no love for amateurs, as a rule, but Heaton was something more than that. He was a born criminologist.
"This is really an awful thing, Robertson," he said to the detective to whom the details had been delegated. "I was in the theater tonight. A marvelous triumph. Never saw anything like it in my life before. Got any details yet?"
"A few, sir," Robertson explained. "Miss Mars had no appointment at the Olympic. No supper was ordered for her. Impossible that any friend of hers could have forgotten."
"Quite," Heaton agreed. "People don't forget appointments with celebrities like Lena Mars. What a sensation this will create tomorrow! Besides, if this friend had been detained he or she would have been certain to send a message. How long did Miss Mars stay at the Olympic"?"
"The hall porter doesn't know, sir," Robertson explained. "She went there all right. He didn't see her go out"
"Was she carrying anything at the time, Robertson?"
"I asked that question, sir," Robertson went on. "Miss Mars appears to have had a heap of some kind of wraps in her hand. Naturally the hall porter"—
"Quite so, Robertson," Heaton Interrupted. "He wouldn't notice. Miss Mara had those wraps in the taxi with her. There were the cloak and the lace mantilla. They would squeeze up to nothing in the hand, though they were capable of enveloping the unfortunate lady from bead to foot. Palpably they were her disguise. Her visit to the Olympic was a mere blind. She wanted to throw people off the track and keep some appointment that it was imperative should remain a secret. She probably turned into one of the ladies' dressing rooms at the Olympic and waited her chance. Muffled from head to foot, she walked out of the place without being recognized. She went on to the appointment that led to her death. She must have been shot point blank as she turned out of Lanchester place. Did the constable who found the body happen to hear any report?"
The constable had heard nothing. For the present there was no more to be done. It remained now to find the enemy who had done this thing. Who was it who had gone so far to get Lena Mars out of the way? And why? Lena Mars was at the head of her profession; she was running her own theater to enormous business; she had heaps of admirers ready to gratify her lightest whim. And, so far as Trevor Heaton knew, the breath of scandal had never touched her; it was very hard to assign a motive for this terrible tragedy, to imagine the kind of enemy who had done this thing.
Had Lena been afraid of anybody? Certainly there was one person in the world who could compel her to keep a secret assignation. Perhaps she had a blackguardly husband in the background, or perhaps some early letters in the hands of a scoundrel. But these people do not kill the goose that lays the golden eggs; besides, Lena Mars' famous diamonds had remained intact. Certainly it was a baffling mystery.
London talked about nothing else all the next day. The inquest was formally opened and adjourned for a week. The medical evidence was of little use. Lena Mars had undoubtedly been shot through the brain by a small-caliber revolver bullet, and the missile itself was not to be found. The greater part of the afternoon Heaton spent at the dead woman's flat looking over her private papers. He might have spared himself the trouble, for there was nothing here likely to be of the slightest assistance to him.
The only thing was a puzzling telegram from Paris containing a date and an hour, also the signature "Zora." Heaton wondered where he had heard the name before. It flashed upon him presently that this was the name of a famous agent connected with the French secret service department. He folded ap the telegram thoughtfully and placed it in his pocket. It might possibly be of use to him later on. The only outstanding feature of his search had been the amazing number of bills he had found. The whole place was littered with them and many clamoring for payment Later on in the afternoon Heaton went down to the theater and sought an interview with the manager.
"I am going to ask you a pointed question, Mr. Rosscommon," he said. "Is it a fact that Miss Mars was heavily in debt?"
"Lord bless you. they all are," Rosscommon said cheerfully. "They wouldn't be happy without it. I should say that the poor girl was up to her neck in it. It makes me tired to think of the way the money was squandered. It gives me many an anxious moment, I can tell you. Of course, there are always plenty of people to help—princes and dukes and cabinet ministers, even men like Sir Charles Scarborough—"
The manager pulled up discreetly and coughed. He had forgotten for the moment that his visitor had of late had his name coupled with that of the daughter of Sir Charles Scarborough, Minister for Foreign Affairs. Heaton appeared not to have noticed the indiscretion; his face was sternly thoughtful, but he was startled all the same. Here was one of the illuminating flashes that frequently burst from the darkest clouds.
It was rather a shock to find that the grave and reserved Foreign Secretary was on such familiar terms with Lena Mars. Sir Charles Scarborough came of a Puritan stock and professed a dislike for the frivolous side of life. It was a mild grievance to him that his only child, Constance, was so devoted to field sports. She was a beauty in her way, very clear-minded and possessed of the reputation that she would have cheerfully faced death before disgrace.
No words of love had, passed between Heaton and Constance Scarborough yet, but there was something like an understanding between them. Heaton found himself alone in the drawing room at 7:30 o'clock. He had come a little early, more or less by arrangement, to get a few quiet words with Constance. She came in presently, a tall and graceful figure in her somewhat plainly cut evening dress. Heaton was struck by the pallor of her face, the sparkle of her eyes. It seemed to him that she was keeping a certain guard upon herself.
"I hardly expected you tonight," she said.
"Why?" Heaton asked.
"Well, I thought that you would be too busy. Haven't you got this dreadful Mars business in hand? The papers say so. They are full of it."
"Oh, well, I have done all I can for the moment" Heaton explained. "If they want me at Scotland Yard they know where I am to be found. What do you think of it?"
"Dreadful, of course. I suppose you haven't found any clew?"
"Nothing that you might call definite. But I begin to have an idea. It is only pure theory so far, of course, but it looks like working out correctly. It's a little strange that the poor woman should be found so near here."
The strange gleam came into the girl's splendid eyes again. Heaton could read fear and defiance there, and withal a certain wilful tenderness.
"That woman had an enemy," she said—"a bitter enemy. You may laugh at me, but I feel quite sorry for the author of the crime. Oh, it sounds wild and emotional, I know, but I am—"
"You are justifying a murder," Heaton said coldly. "Do you understand that?"
Constance laughed. There was something hard and bitter in her mirth. She passed her hand across her splendid eyes as if to wipe out something. Heaton could see that she was trembling; there was a curious sensation at his own heart, a throbbing in his throat.
"Oh, I understand," the girl went on. "Don't you believe that crime is justifiable at times? Can't you conceive a murder that might be condoned? I don't want you to think as a policeman now, but as a mere human being filled with the courage of despair. If the case were yours—"
"You mean that possibly for my sake—"
"I do. Trevor. Suppose I loved you. Well, I do. Trevor, you are making it very hard for me. You should not have kissed me—yet. Suppose you were in bitter trouble. Suppose that a woman had caused it—she threatened to ruin your career—and I knew it, I would not hesitate. To save you I would kill her. I would, I would, I would!"
The last words came in a faint whisper. Constance's face was deadly pale: out of the set whiteness of it her eyes gleamed like stars. Just for a moment Heaton was conscious of a sensation of giddiness. He had the strange feeling that he had gone through all this before. He ought to have been surprised and shocked, but he was conscious of nothing of the kind. The wild delirium of possession was uppermost in his mind. This splendid creature was his. She had confessed her love for him. She had held ont her hands to him, and he had kissed her on the lips. Nothing else In the world seemed to matter now.
"Perhaps you are right," he murmured. "It is not one of the doctrines of my profession. I ought not to be here at the present moment: I ought not—oh. I ought not to do a hundred things. If your father heard you talk like this, Constance—"
Heaton stopped suddenly, for Sir Charles Scarborough was in the room. He came forward in his grave, impressive way and shook hands. A monument of impeccable respectability, Heaton thought The square face, the firm jaw, the patch of gray whiskers— all engendered confidence. The man's air would have inspired trust in the Bank of England. Yet there was a certain twitching of the lips, a suggestion of horror and sorrow in the deep set gray eyes. Sir Charles looked like one who had lost that which is very near and dear to him. His manner was oddly absent. It seemed strange to suggest furtiveness in connection with Sir Charles Scarborough, but it was there. And all the time Constance was watching him steadily.
"I had forgotten that you were dining here tonight" he said. "You are very busy."
"With the Mars case?" Heaton asked. He saw the dull, ashy gray creep over the Foreign Secretary's face. "For ths moment there is not much to be done. They know where to call me on the telephone if they need me. A strange case, Sir Charles."
"Very," Scarborough said. "And nothing stranger than the absence of motive. That I apprehend, will be one of your greatest stumbling blocks?"
Scarborough was speaking in his slow, incisive way, yet his eyes gleamed as he asked the question.
"Have you ever heard of a man called Zora?" Heaton do* manded suddenly.
The Foreign Secretary started. His face turned a shade grayer.
"A spy." he stammered. "In the pay of the French government A most remarkable man, whom our authorities would give much to lay by the heels. I have heard of him."
"I thought that in your official capacity you would," Heaton went on. "If we could catch Zora he would get at least twenty years. He could tell us much about Lena Mars."
A clock on the mantelpiece chimed half past 7 on a peal of silver bells. A solemn butler announced that dinner was served. Scarborough stood there as if he had heard nothing. He came to himself with a start as Constance laid a hand on his arm. He walked into the dining-room with the air of a man who dreams, he ate fitfully and in silence. He started at sounds that came in from the street; the ripple of the front door bell brought him to his feet The butler came in with a square package, heavily sealed, which he laid by the side of Heaton's plate.
"I was to give you this at once, sir," the butler said.
"Would you mind if I opened the letter now, Sir Charles?" Heaton asked.
Scarborough nodded. The table was cleared of all but the wine and fruit; the silver cigarette box stood before the host. Heaton waited till the door was closed. He read his letter in silence. From the bulky envelope he produced another packet jealously sealed. Sir Charles gazed at it with fallen jaw and eyes that seemed to be held by some nameless fascination. His face gleamed moist in the lamplight.
"One of my men brought this to me," Heaton explained. "I am going to tell you something in the strictest confidence, Sir Charles. You were speaking just now of the absence of motive in the Mars case. The absence of motive was terribly against me, but by good fortune I found the motive. It was in the form of a telegram from Zora that I found among Lena Mars' papers. Zora is a spy in the confidence of the French government. That being so, what did he want to make an appointment with Lena Mars for? What had she to do with international affairs?"
"It seems rather a difficult question to answer," Sir Charles said.
"On the face of it, yes. But having once got my clew the rest was easy. Lena Mars was up to her neck in debt and difficulty. She was lovely and fascinating, and she had a fine courage. She was just the woman that Zora might use for his purpose. He got hold of those papers relating to a proposal for an understanding between this country and Germany as to a settlement of the armament question. At that delicate stage it was essential that France should know nothing. Zora decided otherwise. He picked out Lena Mars as his intermediary. Probably he promised her £100,000 for those papers. And she got them."
"Certain documents are missing," Sir Charles said hoarsely.
"Yes. I was only certain of this when the letter came. We laid a trap for Zora, and he was arrested at Dover this afternoon. He was watched and tracked to a certain place where I imagined the papers were dispatched in waiting for him, and so it proved. It was theory on my part, but my deduction was correct. Zora was arrested with the papers in his hand before he had broken the seal. He knew that his government could not interfere. He knew that that was part of the game. He knew that for the next twenty years he would be an inmate of an English prison. That is why he committed suicide. He took prussic acid before the police could stop him. Perhaps it was as well."
"And—and those papers?" the foreign secretary stammered—"
"Are yours," Heaton said coldly. "I am asking no questions. No harm has been done, and there need not be any gossip. I am not asking how Lena Mars obtained possession of them."
Scarborough grabbed for the papers with a trembling hand.
"It is impossible to say," he murmured. "But you have done me a service I can never repay. If you will be good enough to excuse me for a moment—perhaps I had better go as far as my office. Constance will look after you. There are one or two things I wish to compare—"
Sir Charles hastened from the room. Constance rose from her chair with a challenge in her eyes.
"Come into the drawing room," she said. "I have something to tell you. Please close the door. Trevor, you know exactly how and why Lena Mars died. Tell me the story."
"It is largely a matter of construction," Heaton said. "Your father came under the fascinating sway of that woman. He did not guess what she was after—he thought she loved him. With her beauty and her devilish arts she fooled him. When a man of his type gives way to a passion of that kind he surrenders everything that men hold dear—ambitions, career, honor itself. All was sacrificed to the glamour of the moment. He met her in secret. She came here when the house was asleep, is not that so?"
Constance bowed her bead silently.
"The thing was found out," Heaton went on. "Someone to whom the honor of Charles Scarborough was very dear discovered everything. It was another woman, of course. Seeing how matters stood, she did not disclose anything. She did not plead or scold. She could see how useless it all was. She knew that sooner or later there would be a terrible scandal and that Sir Charles would lose his honor and position. She guessed nothing of the real reason why Lena Mars came here; she only saw the moral side of it. So far as she could tell, there was only one way out of it. Lena Mars must die."
Constance looked up from the seat she had taken with a certain dull approval in her eyes.
"You are a wonderful man, Trevor," she said. "And it is all as you say. Then you did not suspect that my poor unhappy father had any hand—"
"No. He was too far gone for that. And on the night of Lena Mars' death he was from home. It was the—the woman I have spoke of who telephoned to Lena Mars to come here. She came expecting to see Sir Charles, but the—the woman I speak of saw her instead. And the woman followed her into the square and shot her with one of those new air pistols. The woman I speak of is quite a good shot. It was all quite easy, though the crime would be difficult to prove."
"What do you think of that woman?" Constance demanded.
"We will discuss that in the years to come," Heaton said. "In the old days she would have been a heroine; poets would have written epics in her honor. But she took her life in her hands for the sake of her home and those she loved. Perhaps in some fascinating—"
"Trevor," Constance gasped, "Trevor, you don't mean to say that you—"
"Indeed I do," Trevor went on. "Before I came out I wrote my resignation to Scotland Yard. I am pleading my old lung trouble to make an excuse for going to Texas to settle. I couldn't go on with my profession after this. And I couldn't give you up, Constance. Now perhaps you can understand my sympathy with your father. Say I am mad if you like, say that I am wanting in my duty. Constance!"
He held ont his hands to her, and she flitted into his arms.
"I am a murderess," she said firmly—"a murderess! Do you understand?"
"It is all the same," Heaton said a little wearily. "And I love you all the same. I am blinded to the horror of it. And just because I love you, dear, why—"
THE affair had developed rapidly, of course, as such things always do.It had been fed on moonlight, as usual, and watered by dewy nights under the shade of the awnings to the accompaniment of music. And, as usual, she was beautiful, and he was a young man going back home again after four successful years spent in quite the approved fashion, restoring the fallen fortunes of his house. And he had done it, too, which is a way they have occasionally, both in real life and in the pages of fiction. It is possible, of course, for a man to spend a few years on the west coast of Africa and come home again little the worse in health and considerably benefited in pocket. Thus Gerald Eversleigh.
He was not thinking now about the old house and all the improvements he was going to make, because his mind happened to be full of Miss Flora Canning. He knew perfectly well that she was the daughter of a rich American, who was on his way to England for a visit. He knew perfectly well, too, that Mr. Canning was quite different from the ordinary Yankee who has made his pile in the ordinary way. He was perfectly well aware of the fact that Canning was proud of the English blood in his veins, and that he was really descended from a good North-country family. This, of course, was all by the way. That was not the point which puzzled and slightly irritated Eversleigh. He could not get over the feeling that he had seen Flora Canning before. Of course, it was absurd, because he had never been in America, and, with the exception of one brief visit, Miss Canning had never been in England. And even if they had ever met, she must have been a mere schoolgirl when that one visit was paid.
In the first moment that Eversleigh had seen her on the boat he had been filled with this haunting feeling that he had seen her before. He could not understand why it was that the girl should instantly remind him of his old home. He could not understand why, directly he saw her, his mind was filled with visions of old oak and Jacobean furniture and quaintly carved picture-frames. Behind all this was a background, faint enough, of laces and silks, and large picture hats with suggestions of Gainsborough about them. It was certainly very strange that whenever Eversleigh saw Flora Canning, she seemed to be reminiscent of the seventeenth century. And yet she was modern and up-to-date enough, though she certainly might have made an exquisite picture for Reynolds or Romney to paint.
And so things went on till the boat was due at Madeira. So far, Eversleigh had been content to take the romance as he found it. So far, he had not even informed the Cannings that the name of Eversleigh was merely a Christian name, and that he had adopted it for commercial purposes.
It was the night before the boat reached Madeira, and he got some sort of a clue to the mystery which worried and at the same time fascinated him. For once. Flora Canning was not on deck, so, on the principle of being near the rose in the absence of it, Eversleigh was smoking his cigar with her father.
"No, I shan't be in England very long," the latter was saying. "Really, I am going there for more or less sentimental reasons. I shouldn't have mentioned it if I hadn't found out quite by accident that you know so much about the early English school of portrait painters. Now, I am a collector. What I particularly favour is the work of Reynolds. I am more especially attracted by him because at one time or another I have happened to pick up a good many specimens, mostly representing the women of my own family. When my grandfather came to grief, his collection was disposed of, and it was always a sentiment of mine to get those pictures back if ever I made money enough. And now I really have got most of them at my place in Philadelphia; but there is one that I am particularly anxious to buy, and I have had a terrible difficulty in tracing it. And now, by good fortune, I've got the chance of buying it. The picture is at a place called Morton Dene, in Derbyshire. I believe the real owner has let the place, and has authorised the tenant to sell any of the pictures if they happen to go at a fair price. It isn't a bad chance of getting the picture."
"I suppose not," Eversleigh said thoughtfully. "In fact, it's rather cute. They would probably fetch a lot more money if they were seen by wealthy collectors on their native heath, so to speak. And it so happens that I know something about Morton Dene. I was born in that neighbourhood myself. Doesn't the house belong to a man called Edenbridge?"
"I believe that is so," Canning said. "But, at any rate, I shall know all about it at Madeira. I expect to meet Denham-Carter there, and he will go back on our boat."
"And who is Denham-Carter?" Eversleigh asked.
"Well, I understand that he is the tenant of Morton Dene. Edenbridge let him the house furnished. I understand from my daughter that the Denham-Carters are none too well off, and that they take paying guests in an exceedingly superior way. But that doesn't concern me. What I am going down to Morton Dene for is to see this particular Reynolds, which I intend to buy even if I have to give a fancy price for it. And thereby hangs a tale. At the same time Reynolds painted two portraits of two distant connections of mine. These girls were sisters. One of them was fair and small, and I have her portrait. She is the very image of my second daughter, May, making allowance for a difference of costume, etc., and the strange part of the whole thing is that the other portrait, now at Morton Dene, is the exact likeness of my daughter Flora. I know that, because Denham-Carter sent me a photograph. So now you will see why I am so anxious to have the picture. It strikes me as a very strange and fascinating thing that, after the lapse of a century and a half. Nature should reproduce two girls in the same family so exactly resembling their famous ancestresses. I hope you won't think I am sentimental."
"Oh, the contrary," Eversleigh said warmly. "And now I begin to understand why Miss Canning reminds me of someone. I begin to understand why it is that when I see her, my mind is full of Old Masters and early Georgian painters. Seeing that I am acquainted with Morton Dene, I must have seen that portrait, and it must have impressed me more than I was aware. And so Edenbridge has let Morton Dene to your friend Denham-Carter? If he takes paying guests, as you say he does, I should very much like to go down there. I have very few friends in England, for I have lost touch with most of them; indeed, I expect I am so altered that they would hardly know me."
"I dare say that would be all right," Canning said. "I'll introduce you to Denham-Carter to-morrow, and then you can make arrangements."
Eversleigh remained on deck for some time, sitting silent and thoughtful under the stars. He had a good deal to think about, and his musings appeared to cause him considerable satisfaction.
He had the opportunity the next day of seeing the tenant of Morton Dene and being introduced to him. Denham-Carter looked like a gentleman; indeed, he suggested a naval officer of distinction. He had the easy, natural manner of one accustomed to good society, and the determined face and firm-cut mouth of a man who knows how to get his own way and perhaps is not altogether too scrupulous in his methods of doing so. He stared hard enough at Eversleigh when the introduction was made, and just for the moment he changed colour. But it was only for a moment, and then his easy, natural manner returned. Still, for the next day or two, it seemed to Eversleigh that Denham-Carter was watching him closely, and that he was puzzled as to his ability properly to place his new acquaintance. He had an expression in his eyes such as may be seen on the face of a poker player when big stakes are on the table, and he knows that he has an adversary worthy of his steel. But before the English Channel was reached, all this suggestion of suspicion had vanished, and Denham-Carter was the easy, fascinating man of the world again. Indeed, he seemed to go out of his way to make liimself agreeable to Eversleigh. He had known what it was, he said, to drift abroad for years and lose sight of old friends, and if Mr. Eversleigh liked to come down to Morton Dene with the Cannings, he was quite sure Mrs. Denham-Carter would be delighted to see him.
Eversleigh murmured his thanks; the offer was too tempting to be refused. And Flora Canning seemed to be pleased, too.
"I'm so glad you are coming to Morton Dene," she said. "And then, of course, you know the place."
"I know the house," Eversleigh explained. "It's run on rather novel lines, isn't it?"
"Oh, quite. You see, it's such a splendid idea to entertain guests in a charming old bouse which is a perfect specimen of Tudor architecture, full of old furniture. Of course, the Denham-Carters don't call people 'paying guests.' They entertain a carefully selected house-party, and I believe that when you are there, you would not know it from an exclusive gathering in any great country seat. You don't pay so much a week, or anything of that kind, nor do you see a bill. You go when you please and leave when you please, then you write the usual letter of thanks afterwards, incidentally enclosing a cheque at the rate of a good many guineas a week. You see how delightfully simple it is, and in what good taste."
"Magnificent," Eversleigh murmured. "Does it go on all the year round?"
"Well, except from Christmas to March, when the Denham-Carters go to Monte Carlo. Mrs. Denham-Carter is by way of being an invalid. But you shall see for yourself. I am quite sure you will be grateful to me for my discovery."
Eversleigh admitted enthusiastically that it was no fancy picture which Flora Canning had drawn of the delights of Morton Dene. He had been there just four-and-twenty hours, and he and his companion were pacing up and down the terrace in front of the house before tea-time.
"Now, didn't I draw a fair picture of the place?" Flora asked. "I ask you if I exaggerated in any particular. There is something so Tennysonian about the house. Look at the long, grey front, the moss-clad pillars, and the pigeons up in those gables, and the peacocks flaunting their plumes in the sun. Wouldn't a poet such as Austin Dobson love to describe this place?"
"It is certainly charming," Eversleigh said.
"Oh, that's a poor way of describing it. Do you know it is the dream of my life to have a house like this for my own. Most Americans rave over old places, but I don't think they really appreciate them, unless they happen to be really English at heart, as I am. I shall really have to find Mr. Edenbridge and make love to him. I believe I could love any man who could give me a home like this."
"There's no knowing what may happen," Eversleigh smiled. "I have just been looking at the Reynolds which your father is so anxious to buy. It is a beautiful piece of work, quite in the master's best style, but I understand that Denham-Carter's asking a fancy price for it."
"But he's not selling it for himself, you understand."
"Oh, I quite appreciate that fact. But our respected host is not without an eye for the main chance, and the bigger the price, the bigger the commission. Still, your father is keen ou having the picture, and I suppose the four thousand guineas he is paying for it are no great matter to him. It's a pity, all the same, your father can't get the shooting he wants later on. Still, even that might be managed."
"Do you really think so?" Flora asked.
Eversleigh refused to say more, and together he and his companion returned to the house. The light began to fade presently, and a couple of decorous footmen came into the hall with shaded lamps in their hands. It was a charming scene altogether, the half light, the great wood fire on the hearth, the broken shadows falling on the old silver on the tea-table, upon pictures and statues and the dusky gleam of armour. Mrs. Denham-Carter, perfectly gowned and full of small talk, presided at the tea-table. About her a score of guests were gathered. There was absolutely not one inharmonious note, no sharp tone of colour to suggest that the whole thing was being run on a commercial basis. Eversleigh stood contemplating the picture critically and talking in a desultory sort of way to his host. It seemed to him that Denham-Carter was not altogether easy in his mind; the strange look of suspicion was back in his eyes again, and there was something almost combative in his manner. In an odd sort of way Eversleigh felt that his host was waiting for something. It came presently through the medium of one of the decorous footmen and a telegram on a silver salver. Denham-Carter took up the envelope carelessly enough and proceeded to open it. Then his expression changed, and his wife looked up at him swiftly.
"I hope there's nothing the matter, dear," she said. "Oh, George, don't tell me that Emily is worse!"
"It's very sad," Denham-Carter said, "but your sister has had a relapse, my dear. She has been ordered out to Madeira again, and she wants you to go with her at once; and, under the circumstances, I don't see how you can possibly refuse. It will be very awkward, of course."
A murmur of sympathy went round the table. Mrs. Denham-Carter applied a few inches of exquisite lace to her eyes and sobbed. Denham-Carter was understood to say that these things were all for the best, and that the trouble might not be so serious as it seemed.
"Our guests will quite understand," be said. "But I hope they won't let this unfortunate message cast a gloom upon them. It will be time enough to think about trains and Bradshaws and all that sort of thing in the morning. I hope you good people will make yourselves quite at home till to-morrow, at any rate. I shall have to leave you men to your claret and cigarettes after dinner, because, naturally, my evening is likely to be a busy one. It will take me all my time to get the servants out of the house and the caretakers in before we leave for Southampton to-morrow. By the way, Canning, we can settle our little business before bed-time, can't we?"
"Isn't it sad?" Flora murmured to Eversleigh.
"Yes, it is a good joke," Eversleigh said absently. "Oh, I beg your pardon! Most sad, really."
It was very unfortunate, of course, and Denham-Carter and his wife came in for a good deal of sympathy. The former appeared to take it philosophically enough. There was a great deal to do, and directly dinner was over he disappeared in the direction of the library. By way of consolation to his male guests, he left out something exceedingly particular in the way of claret, and also a cigar the like of which is not met every day. It was getting rather late before the company in the dining-room broke up and the men began to scatter over the house. Eversleigh strolled into the hall to ascertain whether he could see anything of Miss Canning, but she was not there. He was moving in the direction of the drawing-room, when one of the decorous footmen stopped him.
"Would you mind going as far as the library, sir?" he said. "Mr. Denham-Carter would like to see you before you go."
"Go where?" Eversleigh asked.
Apparently, the question was a natural enough one, but it seemed to puzzle the servant. He looked at Eversleigh stupidly enough, but the latter asked no further explanation. Possibly the man had managed to blunder over his message, but the gist of it was clear enough. Denham-Carter wanted to see him, and, as a matter of fact, he was equally anxious to see Denham-Carter.
He made his way at once along the corridor which led to the oldest portion of the house, where the library was situated. This portion of Morton Dene dated back to the time of the first Henry.
The old, solid masonry still remained, the thick, stone walls had suffered little from the ravages of time. Here, in the old, turbulent days, had been a kind of monks' room or sanctuary, where more than one conflict had taken place. There was a sort of secret passage leading down beneath the moat, whereby anyone bold enough to take the plunge could dive under the water and come up on the far side. This fact was known to few people, but, at any rate, Eversleigh had heard it, and the thought was uppermost in his mind as he made his way to the library. The room was lighted only from the roof, the heavy walls were lined with books, and, indeed, the only modern innovation there had been the comparatively recent installation of the electric light.
Denham-Carter looked up from the table where he was writing as Eversleigh entered, then he rose from his chair and walked over to the door, which he proceeded to lock. Then he put the key in his pocket. The thing was so coolly done that Eversleigh could not but admire its quiet determination.
"No reason for us to be interrupted," Denham-Carter said. "Would you mind sitting down, Mr. Edenbridge?"
"I beg your pardon," Eversleigh said.
"Really! I thought I spoke plainly enough. Still, I don't want to have a misunderstanding with you. Of course, I know that it pleased you, when you came here, to call yourself Gerald Eversleigh, but that's not your name. I am quite sure that you will not deny the fact that you are Mr. Edenbridge."
"I will let that pass, if you like."
"Quite so. I thought you would take a sensible view of it. You are a man of the world, with plenty of natural courage, and I have no doubt that in the course of your wanderings you have been in a good many tight places."
"I have," Edenbridge said, "and I am not blind to the fact that I am in one now. But that's no reason why we should quarrel over things. Pass me those cigarettes, will you?"
"With the greatest pleasure. I am glad you are taking so common-sense a view of the matter. I suppose you don't know who I really am. You don't know my real name?"
"What does it matter?" Edenbridge said indifferently, "The point is that you are a cool, audacious scoundrel, and I have been fool enough to put myself in your power. I must congratulate you upon the neat way in which you have managed things. The message you sent me by your footman was quite a diplomatic model in its way. You must have thought it out very carefully."
"Well, I did. You see, it wanted a certain amount of consideration. You see, I have to be most cautious. When I joined the boat at Madeira, it was an unpleasant surprise to me to recognise you. I shouldn't have done so, only, when I was making arrangements with one of your trustees to obtain possession of this house, I happened to see on his desk an amateur photograph of yourself taken somewhere in Africa and sent home by you. That was a bit of luck in its way, which I didn't quite appreciate at the time. But I appreciated it right enough when I met you at Madeira, and I saw the danger in a moment. I hope I'm not boring you?"
"Not at all," Edenbridge said politely. "On the contrary, I am most interested. Pray go on."
"Well, you see, that meeting was most awkward for me. In the first place, it looked like upsetting all my arrangements. I had no idea that you intended coming back to England so soon. One of your trustees is now mentally unfit to take any part in business, and the other one is a careless sort of man who never troubles about anything. That is why I had no difficulty whatever in producing certain documents which satisfied him of my bona fides, and that I had made arrangements with you to rent Morton Dene furnished. And, on the whole, I made a very good thing of it. But, you see, there was always a certain amount of danger, and I always made up my mind that if I could get out with a few thousand pounds, I would do so. I began to see my way to this when I heard from Mr. Canning on the subject of the Reynolds. It looked such good business that I went to Madeira to meet him. And there I met you, too, and not being quite a fool, Mr. Edenbridge, I saw at once that you were up to every move on the board. I was prepared to bluf it out, but I saw that you were a man with a sense of humour, and that you were going to see the game through to the finish. Well, that suited me very well. I saw in a short time that you meant to keep your end up till Canning was ready with his cheque, and that then you would step in and spoil the show. Isn't that what you came down here to do?"
"Your instinct is marvellous," Edenbridge said. "That was my precise intention, and I was going to do it to-morrow. But don't you think you are carrying matters with rather a high hand? I am afraid that, physically speaking, you would be more than a match for me, and I see that you have something neat in the way of a revolver on the table there. But how do you propose to get rid of me? Awkward questions may be asked."
"Oh, I don't think so," Denham-Carter said thoughtfully. "Nobody knows that you are in England. You have never approached any of your friends yet, and you are always spoken of as 'Eversleigh.' You haven't been in this neighbourhood since you were a boy, so there is no chance of anybody recognising you. Now, by to-morrow afternoon we shall have cleared out of here, and when I go away, I shall take the Reynolds with me. I propose to lock you in here and leave you to make your way out as best you can. It was done once, a century or two ago, as you are quite aware. An ancestor of yours, who was confined in his own house, managed to make a hole in the floor by using his broken sword as a tool, and subsequently dived into the moat. It took him four days to do it, and by that time he was more or less of a wreck, but he managed it all right, as the records of the family show. I don't see why you shouldn't do the same thing, seeing that you know exactly how to go about it."
"It is a pleasing programme," Edenbridge said, "and it does you credit. But pardon me if I am dense enough not quite to understand. For instance, Mr. Canning will wonder what's become of me. That is one point."
"Oh, not at all. You are supposed to have left the house already. The telegram I received after tea-time was really addressed to you. At the present moment it is lying on the mantelpiece in your bedroom, and anybody who reads it will come to the conclusion that it indicated danger to yourself, and that you should be in London without delay. Within an hour's time I shall be on my way to the station, made up to look as much like you as possible, and my own chauffeur will drive me there under the impression that he is driving you. I shall take a first-class ticket to town, and I shall be seen to enter the train, but as it is only a single line here, I shall quietly creep out from the other side, and in an hour's time I shall be back again. That will dispose of you. And you've only got yourself to blame. You deliberately chose to pit yourself against me."
"It was foolish, wasn't it?" Edenbridge said drily. "But I've enjoyed it, and I don't regret the fact at all. However, there are flaws in even such a perfect skill as yours. Now, I take it that you are going to put me to all this inconvenience, not to say danger, so that I can be kept out of the way till you have negotiated your little matter with Mr. Canning and cashed his cheque. At the end of four days you ought not only to have done this, but you ought to have reached a place of safety. I see you follow me now. And now I am coming to the first flaw in that little scheme of yours. Mr. Canning is quite prepared to pay the price you ask for the Reynolds, but being a business man, he declines to part with his cheque till a well-known expert has reported favourably. Is not that so?"
"The point is conceded," Denham-Carter said.
"Very well, then. Now I am going to tell you something. It so happens that my grandfather was a great spendthrift, He had many ways of raising money, and one of them was by selling the family pictures. Amongst these pictures he disposed of the Reynolds which is the cause of our present little argument. He sold the picture, and to prevent awkward questions by Courts of Chancery and trustees and other painfully suspicious people, he had a copy of it made by a clever artist, for which he paid a sum of five hundred pounds. My grandfather was a cynical old man, and he kept the receipt for the double purpose of showing his sense of humour and preventing complications later on. You see what I mean, Mr. Carter. And if you don't believe what I say, you will find the very evidence in this room. I will procure it for you if you like. It is in the bottom drawer of that quaint, old secretaire over yonder, which opens by means of a concealed spring. But perhaps you would like to see for yourself.... There, now, there's no getting away from that, is there? Then, if that doesn't satisfy you, I will produce the letters which passed between my grandfather and the man who bought the original Reynolds. Now, come, Mr. Carter, you are a man with a brilliant and original mind, and you would be one of the first to admit that this is a serious flaw in your little scheme. Of course you might murder me and burn these documents, and I know you are perfectly ready and willing to do it. But, really, would it be worth while? You would gain nothing by such an unnecessary risk. Yon see, you can't deceive the real picture expert. He would be certain to pronounce the picture a forgery, and therefore your chances of getting Mr. Canning's cheque would be remote. You will fail to gain anything by all your cleverness. And if you do cause me any further inconvenience, then I promise you, when I am free, I will hunt you from one end of the world to the other. In the language that you are fond of using in your circles, the game is up, Mr. Carter."
The easy smile faded away from Denham-Carter's face. He turned the faded yellow papers over in his hand and examined them carefully. There was no doubt in his mind that they were absolutely genuine, and there was no doubt in his mind either that Edenbridge was presenting a perfectly unanswerable case. Denham-Carter picked up the revolver from the table and dropped it into his pocket.
"I give you best," he said. "You have been too many for me, and I always know when I am beaten. It would be folly on my part to push this thing any further if you are ready to make terms."
"Oh, I don't mind," Edenbridge said. "You're an infamous rascal, and I ought to prosecute you, but I have had a lot of fun out of this thing, and I am not disposed to be hard. Unlock that door. That's the first condition."
Denham-Carter unlocked the door calmly. It was a sign of a complete and absolute surrender.
"That will do," Edenbridge said. "Now you can go and tell your charming partner exactly what has happened. And you are not to see any of your guests again, mind. You and Mrs. Carter will go to London by the first train to-morrow morning, and the rest you may leave to me. Now go. Go straight to your own room and stay there. I think that's all."
* * * * *
"It seems to me that I am under an obligation to you," Mr. Canning said. "At any rate, you may have saved me the loss of a good deal of money. Picture experts are not always right, you know. Sometimes they err."
"They wouldn't have done so in this case," Edenbridge laughed, "because the picture is perfectly genuine. I didn't tell Denham-Carter so, for obvious reasons. I proved to him beyond a demonstration that my grandfather sold the picture and had a copy painted, but I didn't tell him that when the trustees found it out, they compelled my grandfather to buy the Reynolds back again. You see, I forgot that."
"How perfectly splendid!" Flora Canning cried. "How clever of you! But I suppose now that you won't part with the picture?"
"I expect not," Canning said regretfully.
"Oh, I think we shall be able to come to an understanding," Edenbridge laughed. "There is more than one way of managing this kind of thing. For instance, we might make an exchange."
Canning looked inquiringly at the speaker. He did not seem quite to follow, but obviously Flora did, for she looked down at her feet and a little colour crept into her cheeks.
"Perhaps I had better explain," Edenbridge said. "Now, suppose you take the picture and I take the copy. You are bound to admit that when your daughter came into the world, Nature obviously copied her from Reynolds. And, in any case, an arrangement like this will keep the picture in the family, and when you are away in Philadelphia, you will have the consolation—"
"Oh, it's like that, is it?" Canning asked.
"Indeed, I hope so," Edenbridge said quietly. "We will leave it to Flora to decide."
"It seems a good arrangement." Flora said demurely. "And dad will get his shooting at Morton Dene, after all."
THE old fakir held out an arm picturesquely dingy with the dirt of many wanderings. On the stringy muscles stood a pink and angry lump, where the skimming "Colonel" had made impact with his holy flesh. Altamount was moved only to passion.
"Serve you right, you filthy old rascal!" he roared. "You were right in line with the hole. Why didn't you clear out when the boy called you?"
The fakir drew himself up rigidly. Two electric points of fire seemed to dazzle in his weary old eyes. He muttered shibboleths the while, only adding to Altamount's rage.
"Look at the old blackguard!" he spluttered to the Commissioner. "Cursing me by his tin gods, I suppose. Why do they allow such cattle to stray about the finest golf links in India? I've a good mind to have the ruffian flogged. Hang me, if I don't have him flogged if he spoils my round! Do you hear that, you rascal? If I don't put in a record round to-day, I'll have you flogged! What is the record of the course, Challoner?"
Challoner replied curtly that the record was 69, made by an Olympian travelling overland home from Australia. Challoner was a bit of a radical in racial matters, and deeply versed in the lore of the East. He was a little disgusted at Altamount's outbreak, especially as the latter's drive at the first hole had lost little distance by the accident. The fakir smiled in a dry way, with a smile like that of a face which is seen shimmering behind a haze. He took from his rags a scrap of papyrus and a stump of red pencil looted from somewhere. On the papyrus he drew two figures roughly—68—and handed the paper to Altamount. The flickering smile was on his face still, the needle points of wrath in the pupils of his eyes.
"It is no new thing to me, sahib," he said—"no new thing, this game of the long shaft and the little ball. Three hundred years ago even here they played it. Me, Rana Sani, who cannot die till the curse is worked out, saw them—short men with breeches such as the sahibs wear, only larger, and hats sloping like the peak of Pindi yonder. Oh, yes!"
"What is the maundering old fool talking about?" Altamount asked impatiently.
"He is telling you something like the truth," Commissioner Challoner said gravely. The old fakir had passed on towards the jungle grass with his head buried in his beard. "There is little doubt that the Dutch played a species of golf here three centuries ago. Funny how history repeats itself. Do I believe the old chap saw it? Well, frankly, I don't know. 'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio.' Shakespeare must have had the purple East in his mind when he said that. I'm a student of the cult, you know. Sometimes I get up against things that fairly frighten me... Come along. And don't—don't despise that talisman. It's going to give you a record round."
Altamount laughed scornfully. After all said and done, his ball lay in an excellent lie, though not quite so close to the first hole as Challoner's. It was just possible to reach the green with a full mashie* shot. Altamount gripped his club with a certain nervous confidence. He seemed to feel that his stance was correct. The ball described a perfect parabola, and, landing on the edge of the green, trickled up to the lip of the hole. It was a good shot for the striker's medal round. Challoner gravely recorded a 3 on his partner's card.
[* mashie - a now obsolete golf club corresponding to the modern 4-iron. ]
"On the top of your game to-day," he said. "That's a bit too good for a five-handicap man."
Altamount replied that he did not feel in the least fit; on the contrary, he was shaky and nervous. He nearly as possible topped his next tee shot, but not quite, so that the consequence was a long, fine, raking ball, quite a professional shot, in fact. It was a long hole, a 6 bogey, but Altamount was on the green with his third shot holing a long putt for a perfect 4. It was a fine effort altogether, and the Commissioner remarked gravely that the spell was working. Altamonnt did not even swagger, a habit of his that did not specially endear him to the members of the Kalpore Club; on the contrary, he looked white and shaken. He was feeling the confounded heat, he said. But for the fact that they were playing a medal round, he was disposed to chuck the game altogether.
"And yet I'm playing the game of my life," he muttered. "That old fakir seems to have brought me luck. Of course, that papyrus was all rot. By Jove, that's a long drive!"
It was a beautiful, long drive, a superlative effort quite. Altamount grinned in spite of himself. There were two holes here—the sixth and the seventh—that always spoilt his round. But he negotiated the two in seven strokes, bringing off marvellous putts at each green .
"Naylor did this hole the day he made his 69 in 2," the Commissioner remarked, as they stood on the ninth tee. "Took a cleek* for his drive, and played for the run over the shoulder of the hill. Better try it, as you are doing so remarkably well."
[* cleek - an obsolete golf club with a very narrow face and little loft, roughly corresponding to the modern 1-iron.]
"So I will," Altamount said recklessly. "Give me the cleek, boy. A very low tee."
The cleek came through with a rushing sweep, and the ball flew straight and true for the angle of the hill. It hung just for a moment, and trickled over the sloping green close to the pin. Altamount laughed, but there was no triumph in his laugh. Challoner totalled up the score for the outward journey.
"3, 4, 5, 4, 5, 4, 3, 4, 2—total 34," he said. "Nothing like it has been done on the Kalpore links before. Naylor's score for the outward half was 35. And, so far as I can see, there is not a semblance of a fluke in it at all. I should like to make you a large bet that you will not do the homeward journey in the same score. But the thing is impossible."
"No, it isn't," Altamount burst out. "You may laugh at me, if you like, and say that I am swaggering, but I feel certain that I shall repeat my performance home. And yet I feel shaky and jumpy as a 'sub' before his first mess dinner. A fiver I get home in 34!"
Challoner accepted the bet with a mental reservation that the discipline would be good for Altamount. It was annoying, therefore, as hole after hole reeled off, to realise that the discipline was not there, and that the Commissioner was going to lose five pounds which he could ill afford. Eight holes produced a score of 30, but the last hole was an exceedingly difficult 5, and there was hope yet. Surely, in his eagerness, Altamount would spoil this. He was looking very white and shaky; there was an ominous quivering of the muscles of his mouth as he took his driver.
"Play short and make a possible chance of it," Challoner suggested, in a fine sportsman's spirit. "There are only two men in the club who can carry that bunker. If you get in it, you lose your money for a certainty; whereas, if you are just short, why--"
"As if I didn't know that," Altamount responded. "I tell you I'm going for it. I know it's a good hundred and sixty yards' carry, but I shall get there to-day. Tee it low, boy."
It seemed to Challoner that Altamount snatched at his ball in a jerky sort of way. The ball was half topped, too, but it was exactly what was necessary. The new "Colonel" flew straight as an arrow well over the other side of the bunker, and a rasping second laid it on the green. A long putt lipped the hole, and Altamount was down in 4, giving him a record of 68 for the course. It was a fine performance from first to last, and without the semblance of a fluke in it. And not the least remarkable part of the whole thing was that Altamount showed not the slightest inclination to swagger. The fact would go to the golfing world; it would be recordcl in the sporting papers; from St. Andrews to Melbourne men would talk of this wonderful thing. The committee would assuredly bring Altamount down to scratch, which was a calamity that all good Kalporites prayed against steadily. And yet the hero of the affair hardly smiled. He thoughtfully placed three balls on a spare tee by the side of the last green, and drove them in the direction of the club-house. They were execrable shots, that any 18-handicap man might well have been ashamed of.
"Overstrung," Challoner murmured in sympathy. "Funny thing how often one goes to pieces after a really tight round is finished. Let me congratulate you, old chap."
Altamount took his honours with amazing meekness. In the club-house he allowed Challoner to tell the story of his prowess; his modesty was phenomenal. Plainly, it was his duty to gather all the club-house about him and tell step by step, Homerically, how the thing was done. That is the penalty which the mediocrity pays for golfing greatness. But Altamount did none of these things.
"I'm ill," he said. "I feel so sick, so dreadfully faint, so sure that something awful is going to happen. It all seems like a dream to me. Bring me a large brandy peg, waiter, and not much soda. Put those balls in your pocket, Hicks; the sight of them makes me shudder. Think I'll turn in for a spell."
"Well, there's one thing certain," remarked a scratch player jealously; "he'll never do it again. These perfectly amazing flukes come off sometimes. As a matter of fact, I'm Altamount's partner in the Regency Cup to-morrow, and I shall keep a close eye on him."
Members present grinned. Hassall was a martinet in the game, also a gambler. Most listeners hoped that Hassall would spoil this particular Egyptian. After his performance to-day, Altamount could do no less than play Hassall for his usual pound per hole and a fiver on the match. There would be fine sport for the gallery on the morrow.
Altamount turned up for his match looking terribly ill and shaky, so ill, indeed, as to gain what his clubmates had never expended on him before—sympathy. He was very sick, he explained; also, he had not been able to sleep a wink all night. Only the iconoclastic Hassall refused to recognise anything but the exigencies of the game. He made his offer of a pound a hole, and Altamount snarled an affirmative.
"Make it two, if you like," he said. "I'm more fit for bed than anything else, but I'm going to give you a proper beating to-day. Two pounds per hole and ten on the match, and the same on the bye, if you like. Is that good enough for you?"
Hassall grinned that it was so. His was the lower handicap, so the honour was his. The man of iron nerve drove a perfectly straight long ball, and then, to the surprise of the gallery, Altamount outdrove Hassall.
Somebody muttered that there was a chance for a half in 4. Altamount smiled as he announced his intention of doing the hole in three. Hassall snapped at him with the offer of a fiver against it, and Altamount nodded. He proceeded to lay his next shot on the hp of the hole, and won in 3 to 4.
His face was deadly pale now, great drops passed off his forehead. With something like a snarl, he turned to Hassall, whose light operatic whistle was woefully out of tune.
"You love a bet," he said. "Well, I'll make you a sporting one. A fiver each that I do the next four holes in 4, 5, 4, 5 respectively. No money to be paid unless I do all the holes in the exact score that I mention. If I do, you pay me twenty pounds. Are you on?"
Hassall nodded with the air of a man who feels that he is decidedly favoured by fortune. But the stolid Scotchman's face fell as Altamount reeled off the 4, 5, 4, 5, as he had forecast, without the shadow of a fluke or the semblance of a mistake. From the point of view of fine golf, it was perfect—long, raking drives, perfect brassie* strokes, and equally perfect approaches, followed by putts of deadly accuracy.
[* brassie - an obsolete golf club corresponding to the modern 2-wood. ]
Challoner, who followed silently behind, grew grave. He could see something hidden from the crowd of excited golfers. Hassall was only alive to the fact that he was 3 down at the fifth hole, and that he had lost twenty-six pounds. With a quivering lip and a ghastly, twitching eye, Altamount announced that be was prepared to nominate his score for the next four holes for money—a most absurd thing to do, as everybody there knew. And yet there were no takers of the tempting offer, Hassall grunting that this was his unlucky day.
"Isn't there one of you who has pluck enough to take an offer like that?" Altamount snarled. "Come, isn't there one of you who will bet me twenty pounds that I don't do the last four holes of the outward round in 4, 3, 4, and 2 respectively. No takers, eh?"
But Hassall shook his head. He played his own steady game, doing wonderfully well, with a very few mistakes; but then, on the other hand, Altamount was making no mistakes at all.
"Never saw anything like it in my life," he said to a neighbour. "Altamount only wants two more 4's to equal his score of yesterday. But he is not likely to get the eighteenth score with this gentle breeze against him. Ah, that was a fine drive!"
"Can't make a mistake!" Altamount yelled. "I should have done it with the putter. A million to one I get a 4 here and equal my score of yesterday!"
It was even as the speaker said. A brassie laid him on the green, and two putts completed the hole. For the second afternoon in succession, Altamount had equalled the score of the links. He burst through the knot of yelling partners, and fled as if possessed to the club-house. He glanced furtively over his shoulder to see if be were pursued. The crowd would have dragged him back and plied him with many pegs, but Altamount was not to be found. It was certain that he had not returned to his own quarters. The only man who mastered his coolness was Challoner.
"A touch of sunstroke," he suggested, "and the excitement has done the rest. Altamount has gone somewhere where he can be quiet for a turn, and it will be a kindness of you fellows to leave him alone. No wonder the poor chap is upset after two such rounds."
Ohalloner's words were words of wisdom, and the clamour gradually subsided. He walked thoughtfully home a little before dinner. A native was waiting in his compound with a note for him. He recognised Altamount's handwriting, shaky and sprawling as it was. It was only a short note.
"I am at Belcher's," it ran, "keeping out of the way. Belcher is away from home. For Heaven's sake, come over and see me as soon as you can! This thing is killing me!"
"Tell the Captain Sahib I will come to-night," Challoner said quietly.
But Challoner had his journey for his pains. The Captain Sahib had dined at the bungalow of Belcher Sahib, so the butler said, but after that he had departed hurriedly for Kamadi, saying that he would be there for a few days. With the knowledge of the East full in his eyes, Challoner decided to wait. He could guess pretty well what had happened, though he said nothing to anyone; nobody would have believed him. It was soon after daybreak on the fifth day that he was disturbed by the presence of Altamount in his bedroom. The latter looked brown and lean and scraggy, and there was a wild gleam in his eyes, a nervous plucking of the fingers that suggested a man on the verge of delirium tremens.
"It isn't that," Altamount muttered, as he followed Challoner's inquiring gaze. "I am prepared to swear that I haven't touched a peg for a week. It isn't that—it isn't that!"
Altamount fell into a chair and rocked himself in a slow abandonment of grief.
"I couldn't stand it," he said. "It was bad enough when I beat you, but after I did Hassall down, there was a feeling like death at my heart... A cold sweat and the presence of some unseen thing behind me. I could feel it gripping my hands as I held the clubs. If I had told the other chaps, they would simply have laughed at me. You can imagine the hoary old chaff, and I going mad all the time!"
"You made a pretty good fight for it, all the same," Challoner said quietly.
"Of course I did," Altamount went on, in the same vague, distant way. "I meant to tell you because I felt sure that you would understand; then I changed my mind, and went off to Kamadi. If the same thing happened there, I knew that the cursed thing had mastered me. I couldn't give up the game; it seemed so cowardly... There were very few people at Kamadi, and I played three times a day—not with anybody, mind you, because that would have given the whole thing away. I went alone, for the most part without a caddie. And played! Jove, what a game I played!"
The speaker paused and wiped his damp forehead. It was no cue of Challoner's to interrupt.
"But you can guess—you know. I started the first morning at daybreak. Guess what my round was?"
"Sixty-eight," Challoner said softly. "This is a most interesting case, by far the most--"
"Quite so. Now, doesn't it strike you as being something more than a coincidence? Listen! My hole scores on both occasions were 3, 4, 5, 4, 5, 4, 3, 4, 2 out, and 3, 4, 3, 4, 5, 3, 4, 4, 4 home. Heaven knows, I can repeat that from memory fast enough! The thing was on my nerves. It came to me that I should go on doing the same thing all my life. Think of it, man, the maddening monotony of it! Impelled by some hidden fate to play a game I loathe, doomed to play the same score in every hole for evermore! No mind could stand the strain; gradually one would grow mad, and take one's own life. Something said that that was what the old fakir had done for me! The second night I could not close my eyes... I started to play at Kamadi as soon as I could see. Challoner, I went round in 68! I played every hole with exactly the same score that I played here; for the life of me, I couldn't vary it. I tried to make 4's into 5's, and 5's into 4's, but all to no purpose. There was no possibility of making any mistake. For five days I have been playing two and three rounds a day at Kamadi, with the same result. You may say: Give the game up. I can't! I am impelled to go on and try and break the spell. If I admit failure, I feel that my brain will give way. And I can't possibly go on playing alone. See how solitude increases the torture. On the other hand, look at the result of my making matches."
"You've made a pretty big reputation, anyway," said Challoner.
"Well, I'm not afraid of that. So far as that goes, I could tour the world and win everything. I should be fêted and flattered; my style could be copied everywhere. And the discovery would be made at once that I always did a round in 68. This would be followed by the further discovery that I also do every particular hole in a certain number of strokes. And the thing is absolutely true. It's the curse laid upon me for interfering with the fakir. When I think of what I have to go through, I could yell and dance and tear my hair. I sat up all last night and thought of my razors. But I daren't do it, Challoner; there's a little girl waiting for me in England.... Could you find the old rascal for me?"
"I dare say," Challoner said. "You see, I am pretty friendly with all the wandering vagabonds who come this way. I can speak their language, there is always a handful of rice for them at my bungalow, and in return they tell me many things. I can trace your old man of the sea, beyond doubt. You think that--"
"That it may be possible to propitiate him. Yes, I was foolish to lose my temper. It seems wildly ridiculous to a Western mind, but I should like to see the old man muttering some shibboleth over that scrap of papyrus, and destroying the spell. I was going to chuck that piece of papyrus away, but after my experience with Hassall, I decided to keep it... Try to find the man, old chap."
"I will. I will set the ball rolling tomorrow. Is that all you want?"
"Pretty well. There's just one more thing. I dare say you will laugh at me. Perhaps, after all, I have been merely overcome with something that gives me absolute accuracy, but I am going to make certain. Both of us know the links pretty well, don't we?"
"Walk round in the dark," Challoner said, "and never make a mistake."
"Well, I am going to play round them in the dark. At any rate, you are going to accompany me whilst I play a game in the pitch darkness. All we shall want is a box of vestas to locate the exact spot where the ball lies. We shall walk it up without the smallest difficulty. And if we do find the ball as easily as I expect, why, the sooner the fakir is unearthed the better."
"You can count on me," said Challoner. "Really, this is the most interesting experiment-- I beg your pardon, old chap. And now I'll go and make a few inquiries as to the whereabouts of the fakir."
Altamount wrung Challoner's hand in silence. There was a more hopeful expression on his face now, but the twitching of his lip still betrayed the agitation that moved him to the soul.
It was a perfectly dark and moonless night as the twain moved in the direction of the first tee. Altamount carried his own clubs. In a spirit of fatalism, he had come with only one ball—a new one. He never doubted for a moment that it would not be lost. Challoner had a box of matches. There was a swing and a crack, a swinging rush through the silent darkness, and Altamount strode forward.
"I shall find the ball to the left of a patch of sword grass near the hole," he said. "My second will lip the hole, I know it as well as if I could see the whole thing."
It was even as Altamount said; there lay the ball in exactly the same spot as it had fallen on the two previous drives. A second shot in the direction of the green lipped the hole. The same thing happened as the couple moved from tee to tee, Altamount prophesying the lie of the ball to an inch. They were half way round, and Challoner had not used more than two matches.
"We'll sit and smoke a cigarette before we turn," said Altamount. "Now you understand the full curse of my torture, Challoner. It will be the same wherever I go. I am bound to try on and on in the hope that time will break the spell. It would be the same at St. Andrews. After I had been once round the links, I should know where to look for my ball for ever. To preserve my reason, I should have to go wandering from link to link for the sake of half a day's variety. I should be known as a moody man, the Wandering Jew of the golf world, who never rests and who does the round in 68... Let us get along."
It was just the same on the way home again. At the fourteenth hole a sloping patch of jungle grass had to be negotiated, with a stone quarry on the left. With a sudden spasm of rage, Altamount smote his ball away to the left clear of the line. The impact of the ball on the rock could be heard distinctly. Challoner smote his companion on the back wearily.
"Broken the spell!" he cried. "You're miles away with that shot from the hole. We'll call that pill well lost, and go back for a peg and cheroot in an easy-chair."
"Not yet," Altamount said between his teeth. "Let's go and have a look at tbe hole. After all, I should not be in the least surprised to find my ball lying on tbe spot designed for it—a pit of gravel past the bole, with a mimosa bush on the right."
Challoner strode through the tufts of grass with an impatient curiosity that he made no effort to conceal. He struck a match, and the blue flame twinkled in his fingers. Even with the light in his hand, he could see nothing of the ball. Altamount worked unerringly across the grass down the rugged scarp to a patch of grass with a mimosa bush on one side. With a groan, he bent down and touched something round and gleaming.
"What did I tell you?" he said. "Hold the match down here. This is my ball right enough. No use pretending that it might have been lost by somebody else, because I see my brand upon it. I did pull it to the left, but it struck the rock in the quarry, and after that it took a course to the right, and landed in the place where I expected to find it. Challoner, in all your experience, did you ever see the like of this before?"
Challoner was bound to admit that he never had. Altamount picked up his ball and pocketed it. He refused to play out the other four holes; it was merely prolonging the torture.
"I'll go home to bed and try to sleep. Find the fakir as soon as you can, for poor human nature could not stand much more of this. Good night."
Challoner went thoughtfully homewards. He paused at the club for half an hour on the way, for he felt in need of the tonic of human companionship. A light was burning in his sitting-room, the blinds were open. It was a little unusual, seeing that the servants had all retired. Standing quietly before the table was the fakir. He raised both hands to his forehead in a profound salaam.
"Because the sahib is good to us, and you need me, I return," he said. "I go to a far country, to Thibet, to look for the death that is mine before I am born again, and I depart, as is necessary, without blackness of soul against any man."
"Not quite," Challoner said quietly. "There is my friend who hit you with the golf ball, for instance. You are going to take that spell off him before you go."
The fakir smiled until the countless wrinkles in his face expanded like a cobweb that lengthens in the wind. It might almost be said that he winked.
"There are mysteries and mysteries," he said slowly. "Many are known to the sahib, and many there are that can never be known till all things are finished. It was a small matter, and in the great holy time I had forgotten. And because you have been very good to us, yes, it shall be done. Three centuries ago there was something like it before. I was young then, and the men with the hats like the peaks of the hills yonder, they threatened me... And they came no more because they held the spot to be accursed... Your friend has the papyrus?"
Challoner explained that the talisman had not been destroyed. At sunrise the following morning the fakir would meet Altamount at the spot where the indignity had taken place. With an eagerness at which he would have laughed at any other time, Altamount was there. It was not pleasant to feel small in the presence of a native, but there are things that come like that.
"I was wrong," the fakir said. "I was wrong even because I have lived before, and seen big men as children, giving the gifts of the great God to the pursuit of the ball. It was of feathers and leather then, and it hurt not as the ball of the sahib. The papyrus?"
The last words came in a commanding tone of voice, the pin points of flame gleamed in the old man's eyes. With a hand none too steady, Altamount produced the scrap of paper. The figured 68 danced before him. Already the cold numbness seemed to be leaving his heart, the humming wheel in his head was slowing down.
"Reverse the paper," the fakir said, " and what do you see now? 68 no longer. You cry and whine to do one thing for a few days. What of me, who am doing the same thing since the world began? Yes, you have paid the debt, for your eyes tell me so, and the twitching of your lips. Not for your sake, but for the Challoner Sahib, who is good to us. What do you see?"
"It was 68," Altamount muttered. "But now it is upside down; it is 89. Does that mean—mean, hang it, you can't mean that number 68 is going to be 89 evermore?"
The fakir shook his head grimly; there was a glint of a smile amongst his wrinkles.
"Not so," he said. "I have seen this before, and I know. I ask questions of your servants, who sometimes carry the long clubs for you, and they say that the greatest of the sahibs who play golf vary between 68 and 89. It is a matter of eye, of temperament, of the dinner the night before, or the extra peg at luncheon. As for me, it is as a child playing in the gutter. But never shall it be less than 68 or more than 89, for the papyrus says so."
The fakir turned on his heel and vanished in the scrub. A great revulsion of feeling had come over Altamount. In the first place, the spell was broken. The curse had been removed, and he was a free man again. And never was he going to play outside 89 again, never more inside 68. The former reflection was most pleasant. People would call his achievement of two days a great fluke, if they liked. They would also in future learn to regard him as a most consistent player.
"I'll have a go and see now," Altamount told himself. "Shouldn't be surprised to find that I get round in 89 exactly. That means putting an extra stroke in each hole. Here goes!"
To Challoner, at breakfast, Altamount burst in excitedly. The flame of health was on his face, the look of power in his eyes, the healthy beads had gathered on his forehead.
"It's all right," he panted. "I saw the fakir, and he made the thing right by the simple dodge of turning the papyrus upside down—from 68 to 89, you see. When I started just now, I was delighted to find myself playing just good average stuff. When I got up to the eighteenth, I had 5 for the hole for an 86. And, hang me, if I didn't get into a rut and take 8 for the hole, doing the round in exactly 89! But the spell is broken, and I'm going to play between 68 and 89 for the rest of my life. It doesn't sound much to an outsider, but the infinite variety of it, Challoner!"
Challoner nodded. As a golfer, he perfectly understood. He did not profess to explain; he had been too long in the East for that.
"But you'll always look back with pleasure to your two rounds of 68," he said.
"Nothing like the pleasure with which I look back on my 89 this morning," Altamount said fervently.
THE girl seemed to be controlling herself with an effort. The look on her face was half angry, half scornful. And a very beautiful face it was, in Stephen Sherlock's opinion. A little hard and haughty, perhaps, but there was a reason for that.
"It is rather difficult to follow you, Miss Llewellyn," he said. "I should be guilty of lamentable weakness if I adopted your suggestion. Besides, those fellows are deliberately breaking the law. If they were permitted to do so in the old times—But I beg your pardon."
"Oh, you had better say it!" Ethel Llewellyn cried. "You were going to remark that, in my father's time, the tenants did as they pleased. When I was a child, there were salmon poaching riots on the upper reaches of the Wye very often. Once a river-bailiff was killed."
"Precisely," Sherlock responded. "After that the poachers did as they liked for ages. They have been doing pretty well as they liked ever since, only they don't call themselves 'Rebeccaites' now. They prefer to speak of their rights. They are backed up by certain irresponsible agitators. When I bought this property, I was led to believe that a little firmness on my part would turn the Elan into one of the best salmon catches in the kingdom. To my mind, it was one of the most valuable assets to the property."
Miss Llewellyn's sense of justice struggled with her annoyance. It was exactly as Sherlock had stated. After Captain Llewellyn's death there would have been little or nothing for her from Cwm Place had not Stephen Sherlock had such grand ideas on the subject of the fishing. In ordinary circumstances the purchase money had hardly cleared the mortgages. As it was, she had a few hundreds a year, and Sherlock had allowed her to retain the old mill house. It would have broken her heart to have had to turn out of Cwm altogether.
She had done her deliberate best to try to dislike this man. Had he not made money in trade, and had he not invaded her ancestral home? He was always doing things that jarred on her. He had a way with him which the tenants, for the most part, found it hard to resist. At any rate, they had comfortable households now, and barns capable of keeping out the rain. From Llewellyn they had had none of these things. Still, there were prejudices to be overcome, notably as to the right to net the Elan for salmon. Every loafer on the waterside claimed that. Sherlock had promptly taken the case to the courts, and a decision had been given in his favour. Custom was one thing, and legality another altogether. And Sherlock was not disposed to be puffed up over his victory. A certain amount of legitimate fishing would be allowed, but the idle and imprudent were not going to fill their pockets at his expense. There was a deal of muttering and one or two threats of personal violence, for the hillmen were a wild lot and none too civilised. A poaching affray had been followed by a prosecution and conviction, and it was freely stated that Sherlock would take his life in his hands the first time he ventured on to the hills.
"You don't appreciate the feelings of the people," Ethel said. "How should you?"
"Being all my life in trade and in sympathy with its views?" Sherlock asked.
"I did not say so," Miss Llewellyn said. But we will let it go at that."
Sherlock smiled just a little bitterly.
"I thought we should get to this in time," he said. "Quite in accordance with the best traditions, isn't it? New men and old acres. You may not be aware that my father was Sherlock of Mannergride. You will admit that the family was at one time as influential and powerful as your own. My traditions are exactly as yours, and my training has been very much the same. My father preferred to work instead of loaf on the heavily mortgaged family acres. And he had his reward. He made me work pretty hard, too, for fifteen years, and I am all the better man for it. You are all going to find that out in time. And those poaching fellows are going to find it out, too. They shall have a lesson to-night which they will remember for many a long day to come."
Ethel Llewellyn stood there under the shadow of the old waterfall tapping her foot thoughtfully. It was very difficult not to like this man, with his direct method and sterling integrity of purpose. And to the good things that he did there was no end. Nobody on the estate who really needed anything asked for it in vain. If only Sherlock could have got his tenants out of sympathy with the salmon poachers, all would have been well. But then this sort of thing had been going on for generations...
"You will need a strong force behind you to-night," the girl said.
"Indeed. Then you know something about what is going to happen?"
"Mr. Sherlock," the girl said earnestly, I am bound to. Rightly or wrongly, those hillsiders—who are your tenants, mind— have been netting the Elan. They are liberal with their catch, and therefore the bulk of the more respectable tenants are on their side. It is a tacit support they get. They will 'play the game' and lie for them in the police court. This is part of their code of honour. These things are hinted to me because I am supposed to be your bitter enemy."
Sherlock turned a little white under the healthy tan on his face. The slanting March sun was shining in his eyes. It was hard for any girl to regard a man like this as an enemy.
"If I thought that," Sherlock said slowly, I would go away."
"I hope you won't," Ethel murmured. The glint of a smile danced in her eyes. "Let me be quite candid. You have done far better here than I had expected. I was jealous of your success and now that I have made this confession—I feel jealous no longer. And I am glad that you are—well, one of the Sherlocks. It is hard to get outside that kind of thing, naturally, when you have struggled like we did to keep the old place together. And I'm glad you bought it."
She held out her hand wath a frank gesture, a warm smile on her face. She stood with her back to the waterfall, with the salmon ladder by the side of it and the black-beamed old house beyond. It was here that she lived alone with two faithful servants who would have followed her to death. She slept to the lullaby of the waterfall, and the river was the only music she knew. The lovely desolation and wild beauty of the spot appealed to Sherlock now as the sun glittered upon it. Here was the place where the poachers were wont to gather vicariously. Here was the salmon ladder and the long silent pool below, where the fish lay before going on to the spawning beds. The pool lay black and still under the tail of the waterfall, and here salmon could be seen sometimes by the score. All that was necessary was a dark night, a Dutch oven filled with blazing pine knots, and a spear. The poachers came with blackened faces and speared the helpless, fascinated fish as they lay there, a mass of blue and silver.
"This is very good of you," Sherlock murmured. "If you think that I ought—"
"No, I don't think so," Ethel laughed. All the time I knew that you were right. What business have those people to destroy the salmon so recklessly? The whole thing leads to idleness and crime. Besides, I have a horrible feeling that I have taken your money under false pretences. And I'm going to ask you to be very cautious to-night. They will be in a strong force—a score or more."
"Oh, we shall be sufficient for them," Sherlock replied carelessly. "We have light on our side. They are going to get a proper lesson to-night. Don't be afraid for me."
Miss Llewellyn turned away only half convinced. She knew those men far better than Sherlock did, and she was quite aware what they were capable of when their blood was up. They had not forgotten, either, that one of their leaders was in gaol for this very poaching. The resources of civilisation conveyed little to a descendant of the old Rebeccaites.
Sherlock returned to Cwm Place in a curiously elated frame of mind. He had established something like amiable relations with Miss Llewellyn at last. For the most part she had been cold and distant with him. She was bound to accept his money, but all the same she had always treated him as an intruder. It was terribly unjust, of course, but then, in the girl's case, it was more or less natural. And she had never been able to disguise from herself, even from the first, that he always did the right thing. Most of the scandalous abuses on the estate had continued to exist simply because they had become traditions, but Sherlock was stamping them out. Whether he would be able to stamp out the salmon poaching was quite another thing. There was danger in the air, though Sherlock did not appear to recognise it. And the trouble was fast approaching.
It was dark and still as Sherlock set out that same evening for the salmon ladder. He had made his plans with great prudence and caution. He had with him three experienced water-bailiffs who knew every inch of the river. There was another man in the party who had gone out of his way to learn the plans of the poachers. Sherlock's idea was to take the gang red-handed and hold them up till the police could be sent for. If there was a certain amount of violence, so much the better—so much more severe would the sentences on the poachers be. Sherlock pushed along by the side of the river, his head held high and his lips compressed. He was going to put a stop to this kind of thing once and for all. Those fellows should learn that he was master; he would teach them that poaching did not pay. A certain amount of legitimate fishing they should have. When the fame of the Elan as a salmon stream was established, the poachers would find it far more remunerative to act as gillies to the crowd of honest sportsmen who would flock here.
They came at length to the salmon ladder, with the deep black pool where the fish lay below it. There were scores of great silvery monsters waiting for the spate to come down thick and brown over the ladder, so they might go on to the spawning beds. Sherlock had counted a hundred of the long slim shadows there the day before. These were the fish that the poachers were after. They would come down presently with their spears and their lanterns, and in half an hour there would not be a single fish in the pool.
But they would find Sherlock and his bailiffs awaiting them. They were under the impression that the watchers had gone miles down-stream; even the servants at Cwm Place had been led to believe that much. In a clannish place like this no risks could be taken. There was a fringe of bushes here where Sherlock and his gang could hide. By the side of the ladder was the waterfall, and high over it the old mill house, where Ethel Llewellyn had taken up her abode. It looked a dark and forbidding place enough as it loomed out of the shadows.
"What sort of a place is the mill house, Jenkins?" Sherlock whispered to the man next to him. "What did they use it for in the old days?"
"Well, sir, they called it a mill," Jenkins responded. "A certain amount of corn used to be ground there, but in the old days it was used by smugglers. The Ap Griffiths family had it for three hundred years. Millers they called themselves. They did no milling whatever, sir. There was brandy and tobacco came over from Cardigan Bay, and the place used to be full of it. And the squire of Cwm Place for the time being, he knew all about it. So long as he had his brandy and tobacco free, it didn't matter to him. A rare wild lot the Llewellyns used to be, sir. They do say as there's a secret way up the pool and behind the waterfall to the mill house. If that's so, sir, you see a lot of stuff could come by water. But I've never seen the way myself, nor anybody who has seen it. I dare say it is an old woman's tale, after all."
"A poor house, I suppose, Jenkins?"
"Oh, no, indeed, whatever. Beautiful rooms are some of them. My lady furnished them from Cwm Place. Some of the summer visitors rave about the place."
Sherlock asked no further questions, but the romance of the situation was not lost on him. He had a great curiosity to see the inside of the old house where Ethel Llewellyn had made her home. Possibly she might give him the opportunity one of these days. At the moment there were sterner things to occupy his attention. The poachers would be here soon, and...
Jenkins grabbed him excitedly by the arm. Down the sloping path leading to the river half a dozen figures loomed hazily through the gloom. They came quietly enough, one behind the other, with the easy confident tread of men who knew every inch of the ground. It was easy to see that this was by no means their first expedition of the kind. They came presently to the side of the black and silent pool, where the oily ripples lapped the stones. The light of a match flared out, then a stronger gleam as the pine knots in one of the lanterns burst into a blaze. In the ring of flame five men stood with blackened faces, grim, resolute, ready for anything short of murder, and not afraid of that when their blood was hot. Another and yet another lantern danced and flickered as the poachers prepared to wade out into the stream. They moved now without the slightest caution; evidently they feared nothing. A spear was thrust down deep into the darkness of the water, a great bar of clear silver came headlong to the bank, flapping in the light like a mass of gold.
"A present for the Squire," somebody laughed, "and another to keep him company."
With blood aflame and face hot with anger, Sherlock strode from his hiding-place. The electric torch he held in his hand cast a flame of brilliant light into the darkness—picked out the five figures there in the water. In the background the waterfall rained down a white angry mass. The five figures in the glare turned like one and hurled defiance.
"You're welcome to take us, if you can, Squire," one of them said defiantly.
"You scoundrels!" Sherlock cried. "You infernal midnight thieves! Come out, every one, and give yourselves up. I have plenty of help behind me. Come out of it!"
A laugh followed, a jeer of voices, and then a chattering in the language of the Celt, which was lost on Sherlock altogether. It seemed to him that he was in for an easy victory, after all. A certain sense of disappointment filled him as the poachers stepped solemnly shorewards. Perhaps he was thinking about Ethel Llewellyn. He would have liked to figure as the central character of a romance before her eyes. He had not expected these fellows to play the game like this.
"I thought you would find it better to take it lying down," he said. "If you care to—"
Something seemed to stir in the bushes behind him like a sudden rush of wind. The air was full of oaths and curses and the noise of struggling bodies.
"Look to yourself, sir!" Jenkins yelled. They've got us tangled in their nets. Stepped into a regular ambush whatever! Just as useless as a lot of cats in a bag!"
It was even as Jenkins had said. There were other poachers concealed in the bushes behind the hiding-place of the bailiffs. The nets had fallen on them; they were being tugged by cunning hands so that the bailiffs were swept off their feet and dragged along in the string meshes as helpless as if they had been a catch of salmon. They lay there, a struggling mass of humanity, tightly bound together and watched over by a couple of men armed with cudgels. There was the sickening impact of a blow, followed by a groan, and a silence broken only by the heavy breathing of stricken humanity.
So these fellows really meant mischief. Sherlock could see that in their threatening aspect as they advanced towards him. He noticed uneasily, for the first time, that they had been drinking. He had the comforting assurance that he was armed.
"I can swear to three of you, at any rate," he said grimly. "Evan Evan, John Rees, and Joseph Morgan—"
A howl of rage drowned the rest of the sentence. Heedless of the gleaming barrel of the revolver, they rushed on Sherlock. He fired two shots at point-blank range; he saw one man's arm drop useless to his side ; he saw one of the others fall on his knees. If they closed in on him now, he was doomed. The revolver was wrenched from his hand and flung far over the deep side of the pool. Somebody clutched him from behind; strong arms swung him to and fro; then the hands released, and Sherlock dropped like a plummet in the centre of the pool. He came up again with the yells of rage and ribald laughter in his ears.
"Throw a net over him!" somebody yelled. "Drown him like a water-rat in the nets!"
A yell of applause followed. A big pocket-net cast by a skilled hand skimmed over the water and dropped plump over Sherlock's head. A second later and he was fighting for his life. Down he went again and again, till his lungs were bursting and his heart was beating like a drum. It was only now and again that he contrived to snatch a mouthful of air. The water was roaring in his ears, deepened by the yells of the fiends on the bank, who were sapping his life in this cold-blooded fashion. They were beyond all control now; the lust for blood and slaughter was on them; they would never release their grip so long as there was a spark of life in Sherlock's body. What would Ethel Llewellyn say if she knew?
Somebody was whispering something in his ear. In a dreamy way he seemed to see a boat come, like a brown shadow, from the side of the waterfall; somebody was leaning over the stern of the boat, and somebody was slashing at the net with a knife. Then, as the dream grew clearer and more concrete, Sherlock found himself sitting in the stern of the boat gasping for breath, and somebody who looked like Ethel Llewellyn was addressing the mob on the bank. She had a gun in her hand. Sherlock could see the shining barrel as it lay across the knees of this angry young goddess.
"Go home, all of you!" Ethel cried. And release those "bailiffs first. Understand, this business can't stop here. This will be the last time any poaching is done in the Elan. I can swear to every one of you. I can send every one of you to gaol, and I will!"
The figures on the bank melted away, the night was wrapped in silence once more. In the same dreamy way Sherlock found himself behind the waterfall and climbing a set of sloping steps till he stood in a great stone-flagged hall with Ethel by his side. A little later and he was in an oak-panelled dining-room, clad in a set of clothing supplied by Ethel's old man-servant.
"I suppose you know that you have saved my life?" he asked.
"It was like that," Ethel smiled. "I was afraid that there would be trouble. I could see something of it from my bedroom window, and that is why I got the boat out. Oh, there was no danger so far as I was concerned. I could do anything I like with those people. But you have got your own way, Mr. Sherlock. There will never be any more poaching in the Elan. If you see those men—"
"I am going to see them all to-morrow," Sherlock said. "I bear no malice, and it seems to me that I have got the game in my own hands. A policy of the sleeping dog seems to be the programme."
Ethel smiled approvingly. Her glance was warm and soft, the colour was in her cheeks.
"I am glad that all this has happened," Sherlock went on, "because we understand each other now. I shall never have any more trouble here so long as you are on my side. Won't you always help me, Ethel?"
"What do you mean by that?" Ethel asked.
"Oh, I think you know. I have always admired you. And it is one of my dreams to see the old place managed between us. Don't laugh at me. If I could some day speak of you as, say, Mrs. Llewellyn-Sherlock..."
Ethel smoothed her hair presently, as well as she could with Sherlock's arms about her.
"You are a far better manager than I ever should be," she whispered. "But I will come and help you if you like. And—how natural it all seems, doesn't it, Stephen dear?"
PEGGY CLIVE struggled back to consciousness out of a dream involving the marvellous recovery of Lady Lucy Tennant's emeralds. She had found them herself in a loaf of bread stolen from a baker's cart by one of the Bedlington terriers just at the moment when she was being hauled off to prison by two members of the judicial bench. It was the sort of stuff that dreams are made of—ridiculous, with a touch of the horrible grotesque in it.
In a way the dream was natural enough. For the emeralds had been stolen, and most of the house-party had sat up half the night looking for them. It was a dramatic finish to Mrs. Olive's fancy dress ball, to which half the county had been invited. The discovery was made soon after supper by Lady Lucy herself. The emeralds were family jewels with a history of their own. Of course, it was a careless thing to leave the case on a dressing-table, but then prudence had never been one of Lady Lucy's virtues. Besides, her maid had only slipped out of the dressing-room for a moment...
The emeralds were gone, and that was the one certain fact. At half-past three, weary and worn out, Peggy had gone to her own room, closing the door carelessly behind her. She was no more than a simple pierrette herself, so that her dress was of the plainest. She dropped into a chair for a moment and closed her eyes. When the dream had cleared away, she came back to the knowledge that she was cold and stiff, that the fire had burnt out, and that it was past four of that wintry morning.
It was very stupid of her, of course, but then she had been very tired. Now, with the contrariness of things, she was exceedingly alert and wide awake. Every little noise was exaggerated—the creaking of her chair and the rustle of the trees outside. The door of her room was slightly ajar, and she could see down the long oak corridor, where one of the electroliers was still burning.
Into the long focus of it presently there moved a figure. It was a furtive, slouching figure, light-footed and noiseless. Peggy caught just a gleam of a white set face and a pair of glittering eyes. Then the vision vanished into one of the dressing-rooms. Peggy should have been wildly alarmed, she should have rang her bell and screamed for assistance, but then Peggy Olive was not that sort. She was very pretty and very dainty, and withal feminine, but she loved the outdoor life, and her nerves worked with the regularity of a chronometer. And, being a woman, she was curious.
She weighed up the whole thing carefully. She dismissed the idea that here was the thief who stole the emeralds back again, thirsting for further plunder. The house was full of guests, so that the exploration of the bedroom was a dangerous matter. Making a rapid calculation in her mind, Peggy concluded that the invaded dressing-room was the one occupied by her brother Ted when he was at home, and he happened to be laid up in London just now. On the other side of the dressing-room was the bedroom occupied by Mrs. Oakley-Murray. Strange that Granville Oakley-Murray and his wife did not hit it off well together. Nobody knew what the quarrel was about; nobody knew how they managed to keep up separate houses on their slender resources. It was very awkward that they should have met at the dance that evening. Oakley-Murray had not been asked simply because his wife had. But he had come over with the Worthingtons, and—well, it really was a little awkward. Still, Olive Old Hall was a big place, and two hundred guests had gathered there for a dance. In society—
Peggy pulled herself together. Why was she dwelling on this paltry scandal at such a moment? She must really be doing something—give the alarm to the household. On the whole, she preferred to have the adventure to herself. Where was that case of ivory-handled revolvers that Ted had given her on her last birthday? She had done a lot of practice at the time. Yes,
here was the revolver, with the six chambers still loaded. Peggy slipped out into the corridor and waited. She was not in the least afraid. In the hall the electric light still burned; it had been left on in most of the rooms. It was not the fault of the servants, but the matter had been overlooked in the general uneasiness that had followed the disappearance of the emeralds.
Of course, it was a very nasty business altogether. The same thing had happened in one or two country houses lately. In each case the robbery had been found out almost immediately, and in each case there was absolutely no clue to the thief. Certainly the dressing-room had not been entered from the outside of the house. And people were saying nasty things. It was not nice to think that amongst the general body of guests there lurked a thief who—
The door of the dressing-room opened noiselessly, and the intruder came out. He was wearing a plain evening suit, with the traditional white tie and glossy shirt-front. Beyond the fact that his hair was cropped close to his head, there was nothing in his appearance to offend the most fastidious critic. If this man was a thief, he had certainly graduated through the medium of public school and Varsity. He was very nice-looking, too, though at the moment he presented an appearance of embarrassment.
"Who are you, and what are you doing here?" Peggy asked. "If you dare to move "
"Not for a moment, Miss Olive," the intruder said. "Don't—don't you recognise me?"
The little silver-plated weapon fell to Peggy's side. Her lips trembled. Just for a moment the tears came to her eyes—tears of mingled pity and anger.
"Have you no sort of shame at all, Mr. Faversham?" she asked.
"Indeed, I hope so. Miss Peggy," Faversham replied. "It is my earnest desire to convince you of the fact. I did not expect to meet you like this; I did not expect to meet you at all. A man fresh from a gaol, with the prison taint upon him, is not the kind likely to find an entrance at Olive Old Hall. And yet I was a welcome guest here once."
"You were a friend of my brother's," Peggy said coldly.
"And, I venture to say, a friend of yours also. Oh, yes, I was. A brainless idiot who wasted all his money without any heed for the future. When he realised what his possibilities might have been, it was too late. He told you so, and you were sorry for him. He might have told you more, but he was not quite so bad as all that. He was up to his eyes in debt and difficulty; he did not know where to turn for money. That was easily proved against me at my trial."
"You were found with the diamonds actually in your pocket."
"I was. What is the use of denying it? A pretty scandal for a big country house! There was not a person in the whole court who doubted my guilt. The only point in my favour is that I was quite willing to be searched with the rest of them. I dare say you will call that pure bravado."
"What are you going to do now?" Peggy asked incontinently.
"Now? Oh, I'm all right financially. My uncle, General Faversham, didn't have time to alter his will, and I got all his money. Ironical situation, isn't it? An outcast, a pariah, with possession of ten thousand a year! Nobody will speak to me, and I am expelled from all my clubs. I merely tell you this fact so that you may see for yourself that I didn't come here to steal. There is an utter absence of what the law calls 'motive.' I came for quite another purpose."
"But suppose you had been found? Suppose that anybody but myself—"
Peggy paused, and the warm colour stained her cheeks. The inference of her question was obvious. Peggy did not need to see the gratitude leaping to Faversham's eyes to realise that.
"I quite understand what you mean," he said quietly, "and from the bottom of my heart I thank you for it. You are not going to alarm the household, and you are not going to give me up. And now I will tell you why I came here. I came to try and prove my innocence."
"You were not dressed as you are a quarter of an hour ago, Mr. Faversham?"
"Quite correct. I found my way into the house by means of an unfastened window. Your servants appear to be terribly careless, Miss Olive."
"There was every excuse for them to-night," Peggy said. "Please go on."
"I waited till the whole house was quiet. I only came out of gaol this morning. I had no time to spare if I wanted to settle the matter at once. When I got here, I recollected Ted's dressing-room. I have worn some of his clothes before, and I am doing so now. You see, if any early rising housemaid happened to see me now, she would conclude that I was a guest staying in the house. And there are certain reasons why I must remain in the house an hour or two longer. There are reasons, too, why I cannot explain in this corridor. Can't we talk in the hall or one of the living-rooms?" Peggy flushed slightly. There was something about this man that fascinated her—there always had been. And he did not talk in the least like a guilty person. Anyway, she had started on a conversation, and she would see it through now. If anybody came along—
"Quite right," Faversham said, reading her thoughts with a startling clearness. "You can hold your revolver to my head and ask for a policeman. You won't regret it, Miss Peggy. And if I can prove myself, even by inferences, to be a deeply wronged man, you will be the first to rejoice with me."
"I would give everything that I possess to know it," the girl said quietly. "It shall be as you suggest, Frank. I suppose I ought not to use that name, but it slipped out."
Peggy walked down the stairs into the drawing-room on the right of the hall. With a gesture Faversham indicated an easy arrangement of screens and palms near the door.
"This will suit us admirably," he said. "I must be somewhere so that I can hear everything that is going on. I shall be greatly disappointed if I don't show up something startling presently. Would you mind if the rest of the conversation is conducted in whispers? Now look at this."
He took from his pocket a newspaper cutting from a local paper. It contained a preliminary account of the great festivity about to take place at Olive Old Hall, together with a list of the invited guests and the house-party assembled at Mrs. Olive's for the occasion.
"This conveys nothing clear to me," Peggy said.
"Perhaps not, but I can imagine that it will before long. I have other cuttings here procured for me by a friendly warder. I have been watching the various social functions in this locality for the past few months—I mean the places where the robberies of jewels took place. In each case the names of the house-party are given. Now see if you notice one name that appears in them all."
Peggy ran her eye over the names eagerly enough. She was interested now, and in sympathy with her companion. It was utterly wrong and illogical, but then she was a woman, and the man was asking for assistance. Already she had half perceived herself that there was a hideous blunder somewhere. And now one name out of the list was beginning to turn in her brain.
"I don't like to say it," she murmured; "it does not seem fair. But if you ask for a reply—"
"I don't," Faversham said eagerly. "Keep the name to yourself. I don't suppose I should have suspected but for something I heard in—in gaol. Convicts have a way of talking to one another. It is a kind of language that one soon picks up. I had to take an interest in something, or go mad. So I learnt the patter. There are one or two mysteries that puzzled the public on which I could throw a light. One man was a notorious receiver of stolen goods. I gathered that he had clients in all walks of life. And I more than gathered that the Grantham pearls found their way into his possession. You remember the affair of the Grantham pearls, Miss Peggy? They were the proceeds of the first robbery that startled this county. And I found out who sold them to the receiver." "Somebody we know?" Peggy asked eagerly. "If you will tell me——"
Faversham laid a sudden grasp on Peggy's arm.
"Be silent," he whispered. "You are going to see for yourself, unless I am greatly mistaken. Don't move. If luck is on my side—I think it is—she is coming in here."
Assuredly somebody was coming down the stairs. Peggy's quick ears caught the swish of a woman's skirt. The door of the drawing-room was pushed open, and a woman came in. Without looking to the right or the left, she crossed over to one of the long French windows and pushed back the catch. The figure of a man emerged out of the darkness and stood by her side.
"I began to think that something had gone wrong, Laura," he said. "All right, I hope?"
"Oh, it's all right," the woman said impatiently. "I thought that they would never go to bed. Up to half an hour ago I heard voices outside my room door. And those Scotland Yard people will be here quite early. You can imagine how anxious I was to get rid of the things."
"A fig for Scotland Yard!" the man said. "We can afford to laugh at these idiots. What a game it is, Laura! And who would possibly suspect what is going on? The man and his wife who have had a deadly quarrel, and are pledged never to speak to one another again! Sometimes it is me, and sometimes it is you. Those chaps know that this is a double-handed game, but they'll never spot the combination in a thousand years."
"They very nearly spotted it once," the woman said meaningly.
"You are alluding to the affair when we had to make use of Frank Faversham? I was sorry for that, but the danger was too close for me to be particular. And Frank happened to be handy."
"It was a hateful thing, all the same," the woman said. "How much longer is it going to last? We can't go on like this for ever, Granville. We ought to make ten thousand pounds over to-night's business, A man with your brains and audacity ought to be able to turn that into a million."
"Plenty of time to talk about that, my dear. Hand me over the stuff. I must get back to Marton Manor before daylight, so as to make it appear that I slept in my bed."
The woman turned so that her pale weary face could be seen by the watchers behind the bank of palms. She took from under her cloak a shabby green case, which she handed to her companion. At the same moment Faversham snatched the revolver from Peggy's hand and strode into the room.
"Put that down, Oakley-Murray!" he said. "Put it down, or I fire! And be so good as to ring the bell on the left side of the fireplace—the communication with the butler's quarters."
With a snarl on his lips, Oakley-Murray strode forward.
"So it's Faversham," he said—"Faversham, the gaol-bird. Where did you come from?"
"You have asked me a very pertinent question," Faversham said coldly. "I came out of gaol to-day. I came on here in consequence of something I gathered from a fellow-prisoner of mine called Cutty Parsons, a well-known receiver of stolen goods. He seems to know you, though you may not be aware of the fact. In happier circumstances he expected to blackmail you later on. As it is, you will probably face him at Lewes instead. I should drop that blustering swagger if I were you. I have heard everything, including the confession that you put those stones in my pocket. Directly I read in the local paper that your wife was here, I guessed that something of this sort would happen. Are you going to ring the bell?"
"Why should I?" Oakley-Murray asked. "Why should I not say that I caught you here with the emeralds in your possession? My wife will swear anything I ask her. You are just a little bit previous, my friend. On second thoughts I think I will ring the bell. Let me see. My wife sent me a note urging me to see her, with a view to a reconciliation, and I came to keep the assignation."
A warning glance from Faversham kept Peggy in her hiding-place. She checked the burning impulse to dash out and lash those miscreants with her tongue. With a smile on his face, Faversham approached the open window and whistled softly.
"An excellent programme from your point of view," he said. "But, unfortunately, you never can quite tell what the enemy's programme is. I laid certain facts before my solicitors, and they agreed to a certain course that I proposed... These are two London detectives, who probably have not only seen everything, but heard it as well. They didn't want me to take an active part in the campaign, but I insisted on that. And now, if you will be so good as to ring that bell for me—"
Oakley-Murray made no effort to move. He gazed from one to the other of the two men standing there; a lump seemed to be working up and down in his throat. Mrs. Oakley-Murray dropped into a chair and covered her face with her hands. A half-awakened butler surveyed the scene with sleepy astonishment.
"We need not disturb your mistress to-night," one of the officers explained. "We have arrested Mr. Oakley-Murray and his wife on a charge of stealing Lady Lucy Tennant's emeralds. Might go so far as to say that we caught them red-handed. Knock up one of the men and get a motor ready to take us to Lewes. And see if you can find Mrs. Oakley-Murray's maid. She may want some things got together."
The whole thing was over in less time than it takes to tell. The household, for the most part, was still sound asleep as the big car purred on its way down the drive with the prisoners inside. The sleepy butler went yawning back to bed—the story was too good to be wasted at this hour. That would be all told with variations in the servants' hall later on. The house dropped into the pit of silence again as Peggy came out of her hiding-place with wet cheeks and blazing eyes.
"How can you possibly forgive me?" she asked.
"We'll talk about that later on," Faversham smiled. "I shall have to attend and give evidence to-morrow against those people at Lewes. Now you see the advantage of borrowing Ted's dress-clothes. I'll get you to steal one of his overcoats for me as well. Why didn't I go back to Lewes with the others? Well, it's no great way, and I shall enjoy the walk. Besides, I wanted to have a word with you first."
"Is there anything that I can possibly say?" Peggy whispered.
"There is a good deal that you can say," Faversham replied. "Oh, you need not tell me you are sorry, for I can read deeper than any words in those beautiful eyes of yours, Peggy. It was you who first made me ashamed of myself, and filled me with the idea of leading a new life. How could a poor wretch like me tell you what I felt? I knew that you liked me "
"It was a little more than that," Peggy confessed.
"Well, I didn't like to say so, but I felt it. What a dreadful business it was—for "
"For both of us, Frank. The most awful year I have ever passed. And I asked Ted to meet you and bring you here to see me, only he was laid up in town, and—"
"And there is no more to be said," Faversham replied. "Give me a kiss before I go, dear. Let me feel that this good fortune is more than a dream
HATCH sat on the bank watching the yellow waste of water swirling by, wishing to Heaven that he was well out of it. He was down to his last tin of cigarettes, the soda-water had petered out long ago, and there was no quinine. The hideous silence of the swamp was getting on his nerves. From a spot of sand in mid-stream a crocodile winked a grim yellow eye at him—the crocodile belonged to the fortunate order of those who can afford to wait.
Two handfuls of dry tuberous chips represented six months of grim hard work. There are purple patches in the life of an orchid hunter, and there are other patches. Bernard Hatch was up against one of the others. It was all very well for his partner, comfortably ensconced in Covent Garden, to write in optimistic vein. Doubtless the Waterwitch existed, seeing that the traditions of the Gold Coast were pretty deiinite, but Hatch had not found it yet.
The main thing he had done up to now was to come in contact with Van Voarst. That oily Belgian rascal had greeted him with large enthusiasm, but forewarned was forearmed. There never had been a more successful orchid hunter in the coast than the Belgian, and certainly never one with a less savoury reputation. The man was a braggart and a bully; nevertheless, he had a pluck of his own. For the most part he hunted alone, and this from compulsion as much as choice. Wanless, of Mason's, of St. Albans, had gone out with him, and Wanless had never come back. Mansfield the same, and others. And Van Voarst's theatrical explanation had not been deemed satisfactory.
The only satisfactory feature of the whole case was that Van Voarst was sticking to Hatch like a leech. Evidently Hatch was getting "warm," and Van Voarst knew it. The man who laid predatory hands on the Waterwitch could retire permanently from the business. His tubers would fetch ten thousand pounds each in the open market, and no question asked.
Now, Harry the Buck had seen the Waterwitch. Harry the Buck was black and faithful, otherwise Hatch had not slept soundly at night with the great rotund carcase of the Belgian snoring so near. The Waterwitch was more or less of a sacred flower, the emblem of a great chief back of beyond the Indu Mountains. When one of the chiefs died peacefully—or otherwise—a flower from the Waterwitch was laid on his grave. It was death for anyone but a high priest of Mumbo Jumbo to touch it. There were dark sacrifices too horrible to mention. And Harry the Buck had seen all this. He told of it with grotesque gestures and volcanic squints. In the ordinary way, and in his ordinary vernacular, he was not taking any. But he happened to want a gun and a supply of cartridges. These he valued a little higher than his own life. Therefore he was on his way to the Indu Mountains, and it was at this part that Van Voarst had joined the expedition.
Nothing short of personal violence would have choked him off. That he guessed exactly what was in the wind Hatch perfectly well knew. The search was getting hot, too, and a couple of days in the canoe would bring the seekers to their destination. It was here that the accident happened to the quinine and soda-water, and Van Voarst apologised for his clumsiness. He took the matter so lightly that Hatch was forced to the conclusion that the big rascal had a private supply of quinine of his own. He could only make the best of it, and look the spectre of fever gloomily in the face. If he got down now, with no quinine at hand, he would never get up again.
Heavens, how hot it was! Harry the Buck, busy getting the canoe loaded, shimmered in a violet haze. His black skin glistened in the sunshine. He beckoned presently with the intimation that all was ready. Hatch called to Van Voarst huskily. From the high bank of the stream the Belgian responded.
"Just for one moment," he said, "then I come. Here is a plant that me puzzles— one of a family that my knowledge eludes, get into the canoe, and I drop down on you from the branches. It is only the matter of a little delay."
Hatch crawled down as far as the canoe and dropped wearily into it. There was a crackling of branches, and a fragment of rock some two hundredweight or so splashed into the water, missing the canoe by inches. Two pin-points of flame sparkled in Hatch's eyes. Harry the Buck grunted. Apparently the Belgian had been afraid to trust his aim, or possibly he was short of revolver ammunition. It was just the sort of cowardly thing he would do. Hatch jumped from the boat and scrambled up to the spot where Van Voarst was still busy digging. Another stone lay quivering on the balance.
"You shark!" Hatch shouted. "You murderous dog! Take that!"
Half unconscious of what he was holding in his hand, Hatch brought the butt of his revolver down with a crash in the region of Van Voarst's left ear. The Belgian grunted placidly, and lay on his back contemplating the hard sky with the whites of his eyes. He never moved again. From the stern of the canoe Harry the Buck softly applauded. In his eyes it was an exceedingly neat and workmanlike piece of business. He knew nothing of the horrible nausea at the pit of Hatch's stomach. Even when you take a life in self-defence for the first time the feeling is there.
"Get out of that," Hatch commanded. "Come and bury the swine; I can't do it."
Harry the Buck responded cheerfully. He came back in half an hour, lying glibly that the thing was done. As an economist in words with a limited vocabulary, he omitted the fact that he had pitched the fat body into a heap of mimosa and left it there. He took his seat and the paddle, and pushed the canoe steadily up-stream till the dusk shut down and the night closed in. They were under the shadow of the mountains now, and the atmosphere was sensibly cooler. Hatch shuddered slightly. With a grin Harry the Buck drew a square tin box from his tattered linen coat.
"By the gods, quinine!" Hatch cried. "Where did you get it from, Harry?"
"Belgian elephant," Harry grunted. "In um's belt. So this watch, and this revolver— gold. Took um all off Belgian elephant when buried um."
Hatch nodded. He was feeling in no critical mood just now. So Van Voarst, as he guessed, had had his own supply of quinine all the time. Well, he could not trouble anybody in future. And as to what was going to happen in the early future— why--
Hatch slept—for how long he could not say. His slumber was disturbed by strange dreams of Van Voarst. He had the Belgian by the throat, and he was yelling for mercy. In the distance somewhere a band was making hideous music. The blare of brass and skin became more pronounced, until it dominated everything and brought Hatch sleepily to his feet.
"What, in the name of all that is hideous, is the matter?" he asked.
Harry the Buck made a hissing noise with his teeth. The canoe lay half hidden in a tangle of mimosa scrub by the flat bank of the river. On the slanting plain beyond, a yelling mob of blacks had assembled. They were marching in the rude formation of a column, headed by what, in happier circumstances, might have been a brass band. The serene beauty of the night was stricken by the hideous din. In the centre of the procession was a huge catafalque affair surrounded by a body of men clad in white cotton garments.
"What's it all about?" Hatch asked.
"Big buryin'," Harry explained. "Dead chief. Bury 'em at night—chief. Dem priests. And dere's Waterwitch flowers on top of the body. Sure."
Hatch caught his breath sharply. Luck seemed to be coming his way at last. Some of the stragglers were so near that he could have touched them with the canoe paddle. With a certain vague alarm, Hatch noted that they were all armed. Presently the hideous din ceased and the column became more compact. From the slope of the silent hills there came another sound, full-throated and ripe of menace. A long scattered line of torches flared out; the yellow flame swept down the slope like a torrent of falling stars.
"What's this all about?" Hatoh asked.
"'Nodder tribe," Harry grunted. "Going to be what ye call barney. Old enemies. Hillman, he claim right to make chief in place of un dead. Others say no bally fear. They come take dead chief—hold um ransom till they come to der senses. Seen it done befo'."
Hatch was getting a grip on the situation. There was something rudely strategic in the way in which the column was forming in a solid phalanx around the sarcophagus containing the body of the dead chief. They faced outwards with defiant cries, brandishing their spears over tbeir heads. Down came the other yelling mob, with their torches aflame, till they were within striking distance. Then with one accord, or so it seemed, the flaming sinking torches were hurled into the phalanx, where they roared and spluttered with spitting cracks that added to the hideous din.
"Now, that's not a bad idea," Hatch said admiringly. "Quite a smart dodge."
"Himshi Don, the great chief, great warrior," Harry explained. "Cunning as the serpent. Um planned out this thing. And he will what you call wipe the floor. Bet you a dollar."
"No bet," Hatch smiled. "By Jove, they are at it in earnest."
They were. Taking advantage of the momentary confusion, the attackers sprang forward with the force and fury of a mountain torrent. The defenders swayed and bent before the shock, they reeled backwards, screaming as they went. Then, with a grim silence that was in marked contrast to the roar of battle, another force arose in the rear from the big tangle of scrub, and fell with incredible force and fury on the rear of the funeral party.
In a wonderfully short space of time the defenders faded away like a dream. The din of battle died out, the big crowd departed in the direction of the hills, and as the moon rose slowly over a snow peak. Hatch could see a struggling squad of figures removing the dead. As a matter of fact, the slaughter had not been great—the onslaught had been too impetuous and headlong for that—and in a short time the plain was cleared. Almost immediately afterwards a great bank of flame and smoke burst out from the shadow at the base of the hills, followed by a wail of voices so plaintive and melancholy that Hatch could feel it to the roots of his hair.
"What new devil's work is this?" he asked.
"Burn um village," Harry explained. "Burn um huts. Always de way. No matter. Dey go away to-morrow and build some more in some odder place. Watto!"
Harry turned over on his side and composed himself for sleep. So far as he was concerned, the whole thing was at an end. Doubtless he had witnessed many a scene like this before; no doubt he had been employed as an actor therein himself. It was one of the common objects of the country, so to speak. But Hatch lay awake there, looking up at the silent stars. How far was the Waterwitch off now? he wondered. Harry had declared that some of its mysterious flowers had lain on the breast of the dead chief. And Hatch was wondering what the flower was like, if he did find it. There were all sorts of stories told about this wonderful water orchid, and all kinds of fancy prices had been offered for it. An orchid that bloomed or had its growth in water was a thing calculated to send collectors mad. But how was it grown and how was it to be acquired? Harry the Buck professed to know, but Harry was fast asleep and snoring peacefully. Perhaps the daylight would tell.
Breakfast was ready when Hatch awoke. For once in a way be was ready for the meal. Perhaps the snow breeze from the hills was responsible for the unusual appetite. So far as could be seen, there was no sign of the contending hosts of the night before, nothing but some thin spirals of blue smoke in the distance. It was towards this distance that Hatch's thoughts were wandering. Somewhere amongst the ruins yonder must be the remains of the dead chief's palace, and if Harry the Buck was right, the Waterwitch must be there, too, unless the fire had destroyed it. If this was the case, then it would be his luck all over.
"I'm going to have a squint round that place," he said. "I suppose it's safe?"
Harry the Buck entertained no doubt whatever on that score. The tribe had been beaten, their huts had been burnt, and they would fly further for safety. In Harry's opinion there was not a living soul within miles of the place. If Hatch doubted his word, he could go and see.
"Oh, I'm not afraid," Hatch grinned. "I'll come along. And if I find what I hope to find, the gun is yours, and as many cartridges as you like, when we get to Toparo. I'll leave an order for you to be supplied with a store of cartridges every year of your life. Get a move on you."
They set out across the plain in the direction of the smouldering village. The land was low and flat, and intersected here and there by pools and drains formed by the melted snow on the mountains on its way to the yellow splurge of the river. Harry stopped before one of these and pointed.
"Whatum say?" he demanded. "Here's um Waterwitch. Same as I saw befo'."
With a heart beating fast, Hatch bent over the shallow little pool. A flower broken off short at the head of the stem had fallen there and balanced on the puddle by its own weight. With all his wide experience in the beauty of the orchid, Hatch had never seen anything like this before. The bloom was some five inches in diameter, in the shape of four separate Maltese crosses. And each was a different colour—deep red, a lovely blue, saffron, and rose-pink, with a wide undercup of white shot with rose. The green foliage was veined with gold, exquisite feathery foliage wandering over the bloom and half hiding it from the eye. Hatch fairly gasped as he held it in his hand.
"Good Heavens!"he muttered. "Oh, good Heavens! And to think that I should be the first white man to bump up against this amazing flower! No description could picture its marvellous beauty. But the tuber? What is it like, and where shall I find it? All this is distinctly encouraging, but it doesn't help me much. Just my luck to find everything yonder done to a cinder, and not one of those tubers left."
Hatch pushed on fervently. It was quite late in the afternoon before the ruins were sufficiently cool to allow a proper search being made. In the chief's "palace" was an old chest, oak and brass bound, containing such odds and ends and cheap adornments as savages love—glass beads, some old cigarette tins, and a packet of post-card photographs. Hatch tossed it away gravely.
"Now, where in the name of fortune did all this come from?" he asked. "How did this chest get here? And what is all this tangle of fibre, with tiny clay marbles attached? Here are some things that look like orchids, but I shouldn't mind betting that they are nothing of the kind. Shove 'em all in the bag, Harry, and let's be off. We'll have another day here to-morrow."
Harry placed the tangle of fibre, with the little clay balls attached like beads irregularly threaded on a string, in a box lately containing cigarettes. This he tossed, a little later on, into the canoe. Hatch took one of his precious cigarettes after supper, and then turned in for the night. In a moment he was fast asleep.
The moon was sliding down behind the mangoes as he woke with a sound like the bursting of a shell in his ears. Harry was kneeling in the canoe with a smoking revolver in his hand. It was the same weapon that he had looted from Van Voarst. In the distance a bulky figure was running towards the watery slope. A groan came from the obese runner; something dropped from his hand and tinkled on the stones. Hatch took in the whole situation at a glance.
"That was that infernal Belgian," he said. "I thought you had buried him for me?"
"Same thing," said Harry. "Bury him or flung him in the bushes, all the same. Give the kites a chance to get a good meal. Not kill, only stun him by blow on head. See canoe move and his hand after stores. Little tin can with the marbles in it. I hit him on the hand and he drop it. Not trouble us any more. Bet you a dollar. Righto."
"Well, righto or not, don't you go to sleep again," Hatch commanded. "Keep your eye skinned till daylight. If it's worth while, we can find the tin box to-morrow."
"Find it to-night," Harry volunteered.
"No, you'll not find it to-night," Hatch retorted. "You'll just stay here and keep a bright look-out for that infernal Belgian. He'll murder us both to a dead certainty if he gets a chance. Don't risk your life for the residuary legateeship of a tin cigarette box."
Hatch turned over on his side and went to sleep again. All these things were merely incidents in the life of an orchid hunter, but, all the same, he was not going to spare the Belgian the next time they met.
He woke presently to find breakfast ready. There had been no further signs of Van Voarst, but doubtless he was somewhere amongst the ruins. Fortunately, he had lost his revolver, so that he was comparatively harmless in the daylight. Hatch was feeling on pretty good terms with himself as he set out for the blackened village. Harry lingered behind on the edge of one of the little pools.
"Oh, come on!"Hatch said impatiently. "Never mind that beastly little box."
"Found the box," Harry said calmly. "Lid off. All um strings and marbles in de water. Look!"
A great cry burst from Hatch's lips as he looked down at his feet. Van Voarst had dropped the little tin box in his flight, and the lid had fallen off. The little string of marbles had dropped into the pool, where they floated with the marbles here and there covering the whole pool. But where each of the marbles had been was a magnificent flower, making the most magnificent display of floral colouring that Hatch had ever seen. The secret was out now—the secret of the Waterwitch and how to grow them. Each of those tubers could be detached, and each grew into a family of lovely blooms. Directly they touched the water they began to expand into glowing loveliness; directly they were removed they would shrivel up to a dirty fibrous root. It was a Rose of Sharon glorified, the very best thing in the way of an orchid.
Hatch removed the whole tangled mass tenderly and placed it in the tin again after the lapse of an hour or so. By this time it was rapidly drying, the bloom had gone, and nothing remained to show what a few drops of liquid could do for it. Hatch drew a deep breath as he turned his face towards the south. The danger and trials of his life were over.
"Let's go back," he said. "Let's spend the night on the river, so that by Friday we can touch something in the way of civilisation again. Leave him to his fate."
He pointed to the blackened ruins of the village. A little black dot was moving from place to place as the Belgian sought patiently for what he would never find.
The journalist moved a little nearer to the man by the fireplace. For the journalist was interested, and the man by the fireplace had let drop certain hints and insinuations which seemed to have behind them the making of a story, and the journalist was not only a writer of paragraphs per se, but a fairly well-known writer of fiction besides. He laid a half-crown on the table.
"Will you have another?" he said persuasively. "Didn't I hear you say something just now about the mailbag robbery at Silvertown Post Office some two years ago. So far as I recollect, the matter was never properly solved."
The man in the corner grinned. Up to a certain point he had been spinning out his glass of vitrolic whisky with the faint hope that someone might come along and replace the potent fluid and here was an obvious angel unawares. Properly told, the story might result in the aggrandisement of the journalist's entire half-crown.
He was a seedy, sodden, savoury little man, with swollen features picturesquesly adorned with pink spots. His nose was red and damp, and deflected corners of his mouth twitched convulsively. A broken down man is a pathetic figure enough in any case, but a broken down rascal is one of the saddest sights to be sifted out from the scrap heap of humanity. The journalist's instinct spotted right enough. He had unerringly spotted the little man as one who, in his time, had been looked up to as one of the captains of crime.
"You were talking of Silvertown robbery," he said huskily. "So happens, guv'nor, I can tell you a good deal about it. I reckon, you are one of those writing chaps. Is that so?"
The journalist admitted the soft impeachment.
"Very well, then," the little man picked up the thread again. "It was just like this. Mind you, what I am telling you now I have never mentioned to a soul before." Prefixing the whole thing with a question. "Did you ever hear of Martin Stryde?"
The journalist nodded. The name was familiar enough to him. Stryde had been a well-known figure in certain circles a year or two before, but of late he had been lost sight of, and he was troubling the police no more.
"I thought you had heard of him," the little man said with a certain air of pride. "Well, about four years ago Martin Stryde was sitting in this very bar waiting for business, so to speak. He had not had much luck of late, for one or two things had gone wrong, and he was getting pretty short of the ready. He was thinking of moving on when a man that he knew came in and asked for a drink of whisky. You see, you can never tell who you are going to pick up a valuable tip from, consequently Martin Stryde was pretty free handed in the way of little treats of that kind. Just casual like he asked the other if anything was going on. Then Stryde's friend, he leans across the table and says with a wink of his eye:
"'What's the matter with Silvertown Post Office?'
"'I don't quite catch on, Jimmy,' says Stryde.
"'Well, it's this way, Mr. Stryde. The Silvertown Post Office is a small one—practically a sub-office for the dispatch of mails. There is a postmaster there and two clerks. I went in there the other night to get a stamp or two, and they were that busy they kept me waiting nearly twenty minutes.'
"'Selling stamps, do you mean, Jimmy?' Stryde asks.
"'Stamps be blowed! I tell you, Mr. Stryde, thousands of pounds' worth of parcels go through that office every day. Did you ever hear of a firm called Morgor and Enrstine?'
"'One of the biggest jewel dealers in the world, Jimmy.'
"'Well,' Jimmy goes on, 'they're making up a case for some foreign exhibition, and one of these cases will be dispatched some evening next month by registered parcel. Here's a chance for a man with a head on his shoulders. Only two small bags to pinch and two clerks and a postmaster to deal with.'
"Stryde, his eyes glistens. Then he laughs in a careless way.
"'Have you examined the back premises, Jimmy?' he says.
"'There ain't no back premises, Mr. Stryde. There is no outlet behind at all. The post office used to be a shop at one time, and over it are flats let out to men by the week. It would all have to be done by the front door. The post office people ain't quite fools, either. It's an understood thing that the parcels to be registered should be left as late as possible, so as to have them on the premises no longer'n is necessary. A special van comes for them at ten minutes to 6.'
"'Quite dark at this time of the year, Jimmy,' says Stryde.
"'Yes, sir. Well, those chaps locks the door of the counter, and as the parcels are registered they are dropped into two bags on the inner edge. Do you follow me, sir?'
'"Upon my word, Jimmy, I am quite interested,' Stryde says presently. 'Is it a narrow counter one could reach across and lift the bags in case anything happened to the gas, for instance?'
"'No it ain't,' Jimmy he says emphatically. 'There's a strong brass grating like a metal summer house all along the edge of it.'
"After that Stryde he has no more to do with it. He says to Jimmy as the thing is impossible, and of course Jimmy takes this for granted. Jimmy finishes up his drink and drifts out of the bar, and out of the story, too, for that matter; and Stryde he sits there until he begins to see his way pretty clear.
"Somehow or another a lot of information concerning the Silvertown Post Offices comes along in Stryde's direction the next two or three days. On one or two occasions he found it necessary to register a small parcel there. At the end of a week he posts a letter to a certain Mr. George Tatton, asking the pleasure of that gentleman's company to dinner at Hendon on Sunday evening. For Stryde he has a weakness, a little place in the country, and a nice snug shop he had of it, too. Ah, those were good days."
The man by the fireplace sighed and reached his hand out mechanically for his empty glass. The hint was not wasted.
"Well, George Tatton he turns up in due course—solemn, undertaking looking chap he was, dressed from head to foot in sober black. Sort of man who would have passed for a lay-preacher or street missionary anywhere.
"'And now, Martin," he says, 'what's your little game?'
"Stryde he goes on in great detail to speak of the information what he has got from Jimmy. There was a good deal more which might have caused Jimmy to prick up his ears if he had been present.
"'That brass trellis work is a fair knock-out,' Tatton he says, after a long pause.
"But Stryde, he doesn't seem to think so. When he had finished speaking, Tatton, he so far forgets himself as to smile.
"'You are a genius,' he says. 'Why, with an intellect like yours you might be Prime Minister. There ain't a flaw anywhere.'
"Well, for a day or two this same publichouse, where we are seated now, and where I don't mind having another, as you so kindly suggest, plays an important part in this little comedy. From this 'ere desirable establishment two evenings later there emerged a certain ship's fireman, Ben Barnes by name, in that state of silly drunk that leans towards a single-handed defiance of the law. Tatton was with him, and Tatton was trying to keep the fool quiet.
"'You let me alone,' says the fireman. 'I've got money in the Savings Bank, and I mean to get it out.'
"Saying that he lurched breezily into the Silvertown Post Office. A rare bit of luck it was getting hold of Ben Barnes, who really had money in the post office, and about as much to do with the story as you have. A puppet in the game, sir, no more.
"'I want,' he says, lurching forward, 'I want my money.'
"'You can't have your money without notice,' the clerk says curtly. 'Go away, or I'll whistle for a policeman.'
"Ben Barnes he loses his head at that. He clutches at the grill, shaking it backwards and forwards, for he was a pretty powerful man, then down comes the whole thing, together with the cast iron standards supporting the railing, and a moment later the police step in and take a hand in the game. Finally they gets Barnes down on the floor and straps him to a stretcher. Tatton he discreetly disappears, and by a strange coincidence runs against Stryde, he happened to be at the end of the street on business.
"'Well,' Stryde says, 'and how did it go?'
"'Beautiful,' Tatton explains. 'Real artistic, I call it. Barnes fell into the trap, never suspecting anything, and there's a fine specimen of modern brasswork to be sold cheap at the post office. They'll probably fine Barnes a couple of pounds in the morning, and compel him to make the damage good, so you had better hang about the court to-morrow and offer to pay the fine. Also you can find Barnes an expert workman who will repair the mischief in little less than no time. You don't want me for anything else, do you?'
"It turned out just like that. Ben Barnes he has nothing to say for himself except in the way of gratitude for Tatton, who pays his fine, and not only that, produces the workman to make good the damage. And then Barnes, like Jimmy, goes his own way, and he drops out of the story and there's an end of him."
"The same evening a new tenant moves into the industrial flat over the Post Office. A quiet looking chap he was, who appeared to have seen trouble in the past. Come to think of it, I fancy he called himself an insurance agent, and his little bit of furniture was hired from a small shop close by on the instalment system. Reuben Taylor we'll call him—not that it matters. At midnight of the first day, in his now house, Taylor, he has a visitor. I won't deceive you, sir, when I tell you that the visitor was Stryde.
"'Have you found out the lie of those pipes yet,' he asks.
"Tatton had wasted no time. Of course, you will have guessed by this time that the man Taylor was only Tatton in another name. He removes a short board from the floor, and with a candle shows out a mass of pipes below. It was a bit puzzling to Stryde, but plain enough to a skilled mechanic like Tatton.
"'I hadn't no difficulty in locating the pipe,' says he. 'I knew they were under this floor, and that's why I took this particular room. The finding of that short piece of board was a rare slice of luck. It fits so tight that I have only to stamp it down, and no one could possibly know that it had been moved.'
"'Very good,' Stryde he says. 'All you have got to do is to wait for the signal. Count twenty slowly, very slowly, mind, and then manipulate the pipes. The point is, are you sure you have got the right one?'
"'Of course I am,' Tatton says contemptuously. 'That's the one with the bit of red lead dabbed along the top. Loosen that head with a spanner, then comes a gush of gas into this room that will put the post office lights out like a shot. Then I'll tighten up the thread again, stamp this board down once more, and the whole blooming thing is done.'
"'Good again,' Stryde says. 'And after that?'
"'I'll have a cab waiting for me at the corner of the Street. Directly the gas business is manipulated I am to get to that cab as quickly as possible. You'll bring me the bags, and then you'll make yourself scarce as soon as I have them. Then I'm to blind the trail as well as I can, and get to Hendon without delay.'
"'Mind you get a four-wheeled cab,' Stryde, he says.
"Tatton, he wants to know what the four-wheeler is for. It did not take Stryde long to explain his reasons.
"'What a chap you are,' Tatton says. 'Seems to me there's nothing you don't think of.'
"If you listens to me carefully," Stryde goes on. "I can show you a way of blinding your trail so as to make everything perfectly safe. You mustn't forget that it is you they'll look for. And now the less we are seen together for the next two or three days the better. Good-night and good luck to you."
Nothing happens for a week or more till about six o'clock one evening when the Post Office is at its busiest and the small registered letter bags are nearly full. A loafer looks into the office curiously, waiting as if hesitating till the last of the confidential clerks had registered his precious packet. Then the loafer he steps into the road and sneezes two or three times violently. A second later some body closes a window over the Post Office very gently, and at the same time a most strange and unexpected thing happens. Like a flash out goes the gas in the Post Office, and the whole place is plunged into darkness. You can imagine the clerks looking at one another and wondering what is wrong. You can imagine, too, them having their suspicions aroused, but they are not particularly brilliant youths, and it never seems to occur to them that anything has gone really wrong. When you come to think of it, there is nothing unusual in gas going out. Anyway, those clerks were not a bit alarmed, not even when a slide and rattle as of a gate being opened struck upon their ears.
"'Funny thing,' says one clerk to another, 'funny that the gas is out again. Can't you smell it?'
"'Rather,' says the other one. 'Got a match?'
"'There's one in my overcoat pocket hanging just past the desk yonder. You'll find a box of vestas there.'
"Of course it takes a little time fumbling about in the dark, even when you know a place, and some two or three minutes passed before the matches were produced and the gas brackets over the counter lighted again. It didn't seem to strike those chaps as at all funny that the gas should play them a trick like that. They just looked at one another a moment, then one of them, who happened to be a bit sharper than his pal, he staggers back against the counter with his eyes fairly bulging out of his head.
"'Good heavens, Summers,' he cries, 'the mail bags have gone!'
"Summers he says nothing. He can only stand there gaping with his mouth wide open, till presently there comes a sound of wheels outside, which means as the Post Office van has come along and the postman is waiting for the registered letters.
"'I am a bit early, gentlemen,' he says, 'anything wrong?'
"Then those two clerks come to their senses at the same time, and begin to explain simultaneously. Of course, all this takes time, and a good five minutes pass before the post messenger makes a dash for the street, yelling at the top of his voice for the police. One or two of them come along presently, and at the end of half an hour some of the Scotland Yard Division begin to drop in. I believe it was Sergeant Denton who had the case in hand. It is long ago, and I forget. But, anyway, the sergeant comes along and clears the office, except for the frightened clerks and the postmaster. At the end of an hour that shrewd detective officer makes one or two what he calls important discoveries. There was a boy in the neighborhood who happened to have seen a tall stranger with a long coat, a seedy-looking chap, came out of the Post Office with two bags on his arm. Then somebody else professes to have seen the same man give the bags into the custody of somebody else, who was waiting at the top of the street in a four-wheeled cab.
"Then the inspector he strokes his big moustache and looks like a cat after a saucer of cream. Of course, he's got an important clue.
"'I shall lay those fellows by the heels yet,' he says, 'and now I'll go off and find the cabman.'
"Of course, they finds the cabman easy enough. But if they expected him to tell them anything they were mistaken. As a matter of fact he hadn't got anything to say but the truth.
"'It was just like this,' he explains 'the man comes along and orders my cab off the rank by St. Peter's Church to be at the corner of John-street by five forty-five sharp. He gets into the cab, and just as he is going to start a moment or two later another chap comes up with a couple of bags on his arm, a tall, surly-looking man, he was, wearing a shabby ulster. Nothing passes between them except that the bags were transferred to my cab, and then I was told to drive to Piccadilly Circus sharp. Not as I ever did get to Piccadilly Circus by a long chalk. When we were passing the Swan, in Ford-road, my man tells me to pull up, and we goes inside together leaving another party to hold my horse, and we had a drink. Then my party, out he goes, saying he has forgotten something, and that he'll be back in about ten minutes. Seeing as he had pitched half a quid on the counter to pay for the drinks, and hadn't picked up the change, why I didn't feel particularly troubled about being bilked out of my fare. 'Specially as he tells me, in a laughing sort of way, to keep the change if he doesn't come back. Well, I waited for half-an-hour or more and he didn't come back, and I did keep the change and that's all I can tell you about it.'
"But nobody knows, sir, till this day, and nobody will know, what Stryde was doing while the cabby waited in the public-house. But I don't mind telling you. He just goes back to the cab again and practically changes all his clothes. From under the ulster he produces a collapsible portmanteau, into which he empties the mail bags and the clothes he has just taken off. Then he fills the portmanteau with every blessed thing and steps out of the cab door, and not a blessed soul to notice him. It is an easy matter, after that, to stand at the corner of the road as if he had just come off a 'bus, and hire a hansom to take him to Baker-street Station. Once at Baker-street, he makes his way round to Charing Cross, and before morning he is on the night boat making for Calais. Before twenty-four hours are over his head, he is in Amsterdam; but I don't think there is any necessity for me to tell a smart gentleman like yourself what happened to the contents of those mail bags before Stryde turned his back on Holland. And that's the true story of the Robbery of the Silvertown Post Office."
"So that was the reason why he wanted a four-wheeled cab?" the journalist asked thoughtfully.
"You've got it first time," the man by the fireplace said. "He wanted a dressing-room. No, Stryde didn't leave anything to chance in those days. You see, he hadn't taken to drink then, and always kept a clear head. If he had only kept off that accursed stuff he might be a rich man now, and I know for a fact he was very well off at one time."
"The curse of so many geniuses," the journalist said gravely. "I am greatly obliged to you for your most entertaining story, but there is still one point which seems to me to need elucidation. I presume from what you say that the ship's engineer, Barnes, was quite an innocent party. I suppose he was what you call kidded on to make that disturbance at the Post Office. It was probably Stryde's brilliant suggestion that he should pull the railing down. But why?"
The man by the fireplace chuckled. A look of almost intelligence flashed into his bleared and watery eye.
"That was the gem of the whole thing," he said. "You see, we—I mean, they—could put the gas out, but there was the grating to be dealt with. So when Barnes pulled it down, and Tatton so generously repaired the mischief for him, the grating was fitted with a kind of hinge over the near end of the counter behind which the bags of the registered letters were hanging. Nobody suspected, and nobody could have found it out, unless some meddlesome person happened to raise one of the standards slightly. At any rate, there it was, and directly the gas was put out, all that was needed was for someone to sneak quietly into the Post Office, push a part of the railing back, and reach over for the letter bags. I know it sounds difficult, but, bless your soul, it was easy enough."
The journalist had no further questions to ask. He looked at his watch and rose with an explanation that he had overstayed his time already. At the same moment a detective, in plain clothes, glanced into the bar and nodded at the journalist, whom he knew slightly. Then he followed into the street, and the two walked along side by side for some little way.
"Who was my friend in the bar?" the journalist asked. "He told me a very entertaining story, just now."
"I daresay," the detective said drily. "At one time he was quite in the first criminal flight. The name by which we knew him in those days was Martin Stryde."
The titles of works by Fred M. White listed below were found in the on-line index of the A.P. Watt Records #11036, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The material in this collection documents sales of authors' works to publishing companies, newspapers, magazines, broadcasting corporations, and film studios. The on-line index lists the authors' names and the titles of their works, but does not say where and when these works were published, nor does it indicate whether a specific work is a novel or a short story. The collection itself is organised in a system of folders, each of which is identified by two numbers separated by a period. The following list of titles displays the folder number for each item in parentheses. For more information on the A.P. Watt collection, click on the link given above.
No source could be found for a work entitled The Missing Blade, mentioned in the following citation: "Fred M. White, author of 'The Edge of the Sword.' 'The Secret of the Sands,' 'Anonymous,' 'The Missing Blade' etc." (Introduction to the short story "The Arms Of Chance," The Queenslander, Brisbane, Australia, 27 Jul 1918).
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