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Title: The Mistletoe Bough Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1601331h.html Language: English Date first posted: Dec 2016 Most recent update: Jan 2017 This eBook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy. 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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IT was getting late on Christmas Eve, but there were several people about still, and the West-End had not quite simmered down from its Christmas shopping. Round a corner there came suddenly three happy roysterers, arm-in-arm, with song on their lips.
It all happened like a flash. A sudden bump, a half-insolent apology, cut short by a savage expostulation, then a challenge, and the magical appearance of the inevitable policeman. When the little blue-eyed man came up the clamour was at its height.
"'Ere, 'alf a mo," the officer was saying, "not all at once, if you please. Who makes the charge? That's what I want to know. If an assault was committed, say so, or pass away."
"Rot!" the voice of a young roysterer broke in, throatily. "It was quite an accident. We may be a bit excited, but we ain't drunk. Just toddling along arm-in-arm, don't you know. We bumped into 'em, and Billy Masters started to apologise, and the big, clean-shaven chap told us to go to hell. So——"
"Better all come along with me to the station," the officer suggested. "You can fight it out there."
But obviously they did not want that. Nor were the foe keen. The man with the irresolute eyes came tentatively forward. He spoke in a timid, hesitating way. "Can I be of any assistance?" he asked. "There seems to be a misunderstanding. Christmas Eve and all that; and these gentlemen evidently strangers to London. Americans, if I make no mistake. Been dining at the Athenian, where I have just come from. I think if you will look at my card, officer——"
The officer saluted, evidently impressed by the polished slip of pasteboard with the legend, "Lord Esme Pollington, Bachelors' club," neatly engraved upon it.
"Very good, my lord," he said. "If your lordship makes yourself responsible I've got no more to say. 'Night, gentlemen."
The young roysterers were sorry now, and frankly said so. The man of the law faded away into the night. Lord Esme Pollington found himself in conversation with the two Americans, the more pleased as they were both going the same way. They came at length to a big block of flats leading off Cranbrook-street. The tall man said a word to his companion, and the latter nodded.
"We would like you to come in for a spell if it is not too late," he said. "Just a highball and a cigarette. Fact is, Lord Pollington, I have heard of you from friends in 'Frisco. Didn't you meet a man called Richard Pyle out there?"
"Well, not quite," Pollington said. "I was to have done so—at Christmas time, too—but circumstances prevented me. And—er—I'm not Lord Pollington, but Lord Esme, being a younger son, you know. As you are so kind I will come in for a few minutes."
"Fine!" the first speaker said. "Come right in. Fact is we are fixing up a sporting tour, and we have taken a flat here for a month or so, preferring it to a hotel. Man gone abroad, so we got the flat, servants and all, dirt cheap. Now, my name's Jefferson Varteg, and my friend is James Leasowe; both men of independent means and both belonging to old Virginian families."
Pollington found himself presently in a finely appointed flat on the third floor, in the cosy dining-room of which stood a piano with some song music in the stand. He looked around him uneasily.
"I had no idea that there were ladies here," he said. "Do you think that they will be——"
The big man with the clean-shaven face and broad, aggressive nose laughed, as did his companion.
"You can cut that out," he said; "no women here. Varteg is quite the big noise in the vocal line. If he hadn't been born with a silver spoon in his mouth he would have made a fortune by it."
Pollington took Varteg in with humble admiration. He saw a rather slight man, with black hair and neatly trimmed beard and the eyes of the artist.
"Oh, I warble a bit," he laughed. "But sit down. Let me mix you a drink. Shove those cards out of the way, Jim. You're a bit of a hand at the pasteboard, ain't you, Pollington?"
"Well, yes," Pollington admitted, with the air of a man who is having a weakness dragged out of him. "I suppose you heard that from some of your San Francisco friends. I'm not physically strong, and I haven't the nerve for game hunting, and I hate society. So what is a fellow who has more money than is good for him to do?"
"I flatter myself that either of us could give you a good game of poker," Leasowe said. "If you would like to come round early some evening after dinner——"
"It would have to be Boxing Day, then," Pollington replied. "I am going to Paris the next day. Say 10 o'clock, if it suits; and perhaps Varteg will let me hear him sing. If there is one thing I do care for beside cards it is vocal music."
Pollington drank his highball, and departed as quickly and quietly as he had come. Leasowe threw himself into a chair and proceeded to light a cigar.
"Gee!" he laughed, "what a partridge to pluck! Between the two of us we ought to have a nice little financial deal. Sort of fancies himself, don't he?"
INSPECTOR MINTER, of Scotland Yard, sat in his private office nursing a kind of grievance. It was Christmas night, and by rights he should have been in the bosom of his family in Balham. But Minter was a policeman first and a mere man afterwards, and he was waiting to see a brother sleuth who had come all across the Atlantic to meet him.
The visitor came at length—a rather sleepy-looking individual, with apologetic grey-blue eyes and a hesitating manner that wore off a little as the interview proceeded.
"Well, Mr. Ellis," Minter asked, "any luck? Did you find those men of mine any service to you yesterday?"
Sutton Ellis, head of the Southern Section of Pinkerton's famous private enquiry agents, rubbed his hands softly.
"Excellent," he murmured, "excellent. Of course, I was taking a liberty when I butted in here and asked your assistance. But, as I explained to you in my letter, we've taken up the Martin Everard business that the New York police turned down a month or so ago. Gave it up as a bad job, in fact. So the heirs to the property came to us, and we have it in hand. I have carte blanche to do as I like and follow any likely clue from hell to Connecticut. Money no object, Mr. Minter. The late Martin Everard's nephew will spend a million dollars, if necessary, to bring his uncle's murderer to the chair. And so I have followed a sort of clue to London."
"So I gathered from your letter," Minter said. "And you want me to do all I can unofficially. My hands are rather tied by the fact that this is not a matter for the international police, but what I can do out of hours, so to speak, I will do. Would you mind telling me a little more about the case?"
"Only too pleased. It's like this, sir. The late Martin Everard was one of the most prominent and popular men in 'Frisco. He was immensely rich, and very generous, and his kindness to young men really deserving of a helping hand was proverbial. Artists and authors and such like, I mean. He lived in a great house in Oakshott-avenue, which is in one of the fashionable suburbs of 'Frisco, where he had a magnificent collection of treasures of all kinds. He was practically alone in the house, bar the servants, and was in the habit of entertaining all sorts and conditions of people at all hours of the day and night—generally after the servants had gone to bed."
"Um! Decidedly eccentric, Mr. Ellis."
"Only up to a point. I should say more of a Bohemian; a sort of cultured Bohemian. He was a criminologist, too, and some of the most noted crooks were his guests from time to time. He liked to hear them talk and boast of their clever exploits. He was warned about that sort of thing, but he only laughed—they would never do him any harm, he said. On Christmas Eve, a year ago he was found by his servants in the big library, dead, and, indeed, murdered, beyond the shadow of a doubt. He had been stabbed in the back as he sat at his desk; and the safe in the corner of the room was open and a lot of valuables missing. So far as the servants knew their master had had no visitors on the night before; but they had all retired early, as usual, and he might have admitted someone after they were in bed, which had often happened."
"Any sort of clue?" Minter asked.
"Not the ghost of one. Many arrests were made, but all to no purpose, and so, gradually, the case was relegated to the category of mysteries that are never solved. When the American police were tired of it the case was turned over to us, and came into my hands mainly because I had my headquarters in 'Frisco, and was chief of the Pinkerton Force there. With the big money behind the problem I was instructed to concentrate on it, and I did. I looked up the records and read the evidence against every jay the police had detained. But all to no purpose—except as concerned one man. I don't suppose that you ever heard of him, but his real name is Richard Pyle."
"What you would call a typical Hodoo, I suppose?"
"I guess not," Sutton Ellis smiled. "A polished man of the world, well educated, with perfect manners, and capable of passing muster anywhere. A wrong 'un to his fingertips, and the cleverest gambling crook in the universe. He was known to be with Mr. Everard on the day before the murder, and after being detained was asked to account for his movements between 10 o'clock on the night of the crime and midnight. The medical evidence proved that the murder was committed between those hours. Pyle swore that at 10 o'clock, and on till almost dawn, he was gambling in his rooms with some friends who had gathered by his invitation to meet a certain Lord Esme Pollington, whom you may have heard of, Mr. Minter."
"Certainly," Minter said. "He is the second son of the Marquess of Rotherfield, and a rich man in his own right. A neurotic, who roams all over the world in search of excitement, and a born gambler; in fact, it is an obsession with him. We have got him out of dangerous trouble many times."
"That's the man, sir. No atom of physical courage, but one who would play poker with the devil, if he had the chance, for his own soul. A fine player too. Well, Pyle's friends rolled up and testified to the truth of his story. It had been a great night and had lasted until morning. But when Pollington was sought for to substantiate this evidence he could not be found. He had sailed early the next morning for some unknown destination and for a long time nothing was heard of him."
"I remember that," Minter said. "The family was in no end of a stew and they came to us to make enquiries. Nothing in the papers, of course, but all done quietly. No scandal. Finally Pollington came back and it transpired that he had been right into China, playing fan-tan and such diabolical games with the natives."
"So I gathered," Ellis said thoughtfully; "in fact, he told me so a day or two ago. The American police thought that he had been put away by Pyle's gang, but as you people didn't squeal it was no funeral of theirs, and so they left it at that. But Pyle's lot swore, separately and under separate examination, that Pyle and Pollington were there that night, and there was nothing for it but to let Pyle go. And there the Everard case came to a practical end, so far as the American police were concerned. And Pollington had never heard a single word about it."
"But you have seen Pollington, haven't you?" Minter asked. "At least, so I judged by your letter. Do you mean to say that he wasn't present on the night of the gambling party?"
"No," Sutton Ellis said, drily. "I mean to say that it was Pyle who wasn't present. He phoned to the effect that he was detained at the last moment and might be late. Pollington stayed till about midnight, but left then, as he had to catch his boat early the next morning. He told me all this on Thursday night."
"That's one to you, certainly," Minter said. "But it is only negative evidence so far. How did you find Pollington out?"
"Well, I don't mind admitting to you that that was quite an accident. As a matter of fact, I am not in England on the Everard business at all. But it's never far from my mind. I happened to see Pollington's name in the 'Morning Post,' and when I realised that he wasn't dead, as I thought, I called upon him and partly explained. And he put himself entirely in my hands."
"Um! Better be careful," Miner suggested. "He's a queer sort. He'd wriggle and twist and tell any sort of lie to get out of the publicity of a case like yours. You mean to say that he had not heard a word about the Everard case?"
"So he said at first; but I could see that he was not telling the truth. My idea is that he got some inkling of the facts and promptly cleared out. Not that it matters much. But he realises that he is quite in my hands and must do as he is told, unless he wants to stand in the witness-box in 'Frisco. Late to-morrow night he will be motoring to Dover to catch the morning boat to France. I've worked it all out."
"What precisely are you driving at?" Minster asked.
"Well, Mr. Minter, you have your methods and we have ours, and we don't show our tricks to the other conjurers," Ellis smiled sweetly. "I've got a little scheme worked out on paper, and I want you to run your eye over it. If you have no objection I should like your further assistance if possible."
Minter glanced over the sheet and nodded approval.
"You can count on me," he said curtly. "But you are a long way off your bird yet. Have you any sort of idea what this man Pyle is like? And where is he?"
"I rather fancy he is in London, but am not sure as yet. I have never seen the man whom I am after, and I have never met anybody who has. After the Everard business he vanished from America and the world has swallowed him. Out of the five men who were at that poker party two are dead, one has been electrocuted, and the other two are wanted. But, by sheer chance, I got hold of one sort of a clue that may win me through if I can tack it on to a practical grip. As an old sportsman, when you were an officer in the Indian Army, before you joined the force, did you ever go out after duck and come back with your bag filled with quail?"
"Yes, I see what you mean," Minter replied.
"Just so. And I fancy that is what is going to happen to me. This clue I was telling you about. There was a chap in 'Frisco who had been in trouble once or twice, and I had given him a helping hand, because that sort of thing pays. He used to be a church organist, with a fair teaching connection, before he went utterly wrong and took to burglary. He gave me a tip over the Everard case. On the night of the murder he was prowling about near Oakshott-avenue, and in Everard's house, just after eleven o'clock, he heard somebody singing there to a piano accompaniment. That's all, but I have not forgotten it or the name of the song. I'm not going to say any more, and I'll not detain you any longer, Mr. Minter. If you see that my little suggestion as laid down in that piece of paper is carried out by your chaps I can do the rest."
Lord Esme Pollington, very nicely turned out and just a little warm and nervous under the collar, set out about ten o'clock on the night of Boxing Day to keep his appointment with Jefferson Varteg and his friend, James Leasowe. Such a chance for a gamble on a big scale with two so accomplished gamblers in the poker world had not come his way for a long time and he was properly excited. At the flat he was welcomed cordially enough by his new acquaintances and made at home, quite naturally. The table had been set out and on it were two packs of unopened cards, and on the side-board a gold-topped bottle or so and some caviare sandwiches. A silver box of choice cigarettes stood open on the card-table. Pollington wiped his hot and rather agitated face and drew a deep breath.
"It gets me like this beforehand," he explained; "makes me feel like a flapper at her first dance. When I get going it's all right. Would you mind if I opened a window?"
Varteg flung open a window and pulled up the blind. The flat was too high to be overlooked from the other side of the street. Pollington murmured his thanks.
"Now I'm ready to begin," he said. "This is going to be historic, dear boys, what? I haven't felt so like it since the night I was going to meet the great Richard Pyle—and didn't."
"You never saw him, I think?" Varteg asked.
"No, old top. But I heard something after—months after it was. Met a chap, whose name I have forgotten, in Pekin. Something about a man called Everard, who lived in 'Frisco and who was murdered on the night I was to have seen Pyle. I was well out of that Pyle business—might have had to give evidence, and all that. That was one of the reasons why I cleared out so quickly from 'Frisco. I didn't want to be mixed up in any alibi business. But let's get on. There are some things that a man doesn't like to think about."
They played for an hour or more, with varying fortunes. Pollington holding his own against the two finest exponents he had ever encountered. He was cool enough now and as collected as the others, which was saying a great deal. When the Empire clock on the mantelpiece struck the hour of eleven he was only a few pounds down. He sat up and drew a long, deep breath.
"I'm not quite in such good condition as I thought," he confessed. "Out of practice, I suppose. What say you chaps to a little rest and a mouthful of something?"
"The very thing," Varteg cried. "A glass of champagne and a sandwich. Jimmy, unchain the Clicquot."
"And a song to follow," Pollington suggested. "You promised me that, Varteg. Something really decent. You chaps mightn't think it, but I am really fond of good vocal music. A really good tenor is the finest thing in the world, to my mind."
Varteg crossed over to the piano presently, and ran his hands over the keys with the air of a man who loves them. He was no longer the keen sportsman and reckless gambler, but a real musician with his heart in it. His expression softened, and a dreamy look crept into his eyes, and then he began to sing.
Pollington sat there entranced and carried away into another world altogether. He listened to Beethoven's "Adelaide" and "The Message," and one other little gem from Schubert, and then almost aimlessly crossed over to the piano and began idly to turn over a pile of music on a stand.
"That was real fine," he said sincerely. "Man, you are a big genius. It's a shame to push you too far, but I should like to have something Christmassy. Are you above this old favorite?"
With a hand that trembled slightly and a strange light in his eyes, he held up a copy of "The Mistletoe Bough."
"This one," he suggested. "It is a song that touches me every time."
"Not that!" Varteg cried, almost like a man in pain. "Not that! Still, why not? A certain association. All right."
He sang with a pathos that went home to the listeners. The song ended, he flung the music upon the floor. His face was wet now, and there was something in his eyes that suggested a deep emotion. "And now let us get on with our game, again. Enough of sentiment."
Pollington made no reply. Leasowe sat there nursing his strong chin in his hand. The atmosphere seemed to be charged with some strange electric force. Pollington crossed over to the open window and pitched his cigarette end into the street. He watched it falling like a little dying red star until he saw it dissolve in sparks on the pavement. Somebody below whistled a few bars of a song softly; the clock on the mantelshelf struck twelve. Footsteps shuffled somewhere.
"That's odd, that's very odd," Pollington said with a sort of hard metallic tang in his voice, "but it brings Richard Pyle back to me. The night he didn't meet me—the night of Martin Everard's murder. Man I met in Pekin was a sort of musician who had gone wrong—came from 'Frisco. By chance he heard that very song most exquisitely sung in Everard's house in Oakshott-avenue. Don't know why it all comes back to me now. These are the sort of things that frighten a chap—like some dreams."
"What the devil do you mean, Pollington?" Leasowe asked threateningly. "My friend Varteg——"
Pollington said nothing. He appeared to be listening intently to something that was moving outside. Varteg, in a sort of moist brown study, was seated on the music-stool. The door of the room opened very quietly and a hard face under a peaked cap looked in. Behind him followed three others. But it was only Pollington who was aware of this intrusion.
"What the devil do you mean?" Leasowe repeated.
"I have no quarrel with you," Pollington replied. "You may be an honest man for all I know. I was merely saying——"
"Not good enough," Leasowe snarled. "Take that back or it will be the worse for you. Now, Pollington!"
The other drew himself up, with no vestige of hesitation or nervousness about him now.
"Pollington nothing," he snapped crisply. "I'm not Pollington; my name is Sutton Ellis, of Pinkerton's Southern Section. And my friend in the doorway is from Scotland Yard. You can put up your hands, Richard Pyle!"
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