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Title: Collected Short Stories, Vol. XX (Supplemental Vol. III) Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1700011h.html Language: English Date first posted: Jan 2017 Most recent update: Jan 2017 This eBook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy, Colin Choat and Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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THE Slagburn Police Amateur Dramatic Society were giving their annual Christmas entertainment on Christmas Eve, and the rank and fashion of the great manufacturing town had gathered in support of that deserving quasi-charity in the town hall.
There were no professionals in the cast, even the feminine characters were taken by the men, and with marked success in one outstanding instance—Detective-Sergeant George Temperley.
"Pass for a woman anywhere, by gad," said his worship.
"Rather useful for a detective, what?" the chief chuckled as a programme-seller thrust a note into his hand. "Confound it, I have to see to something pressing. Good-night, Mr. Mayor. No peace for the wicked—and the police."
"Too bad," the great man murmured. "Nothing serious, I hope."
Martin smiled non-committally and vanished. He made his way under the orchestra to the back of the stage and thence into one of the dressing-rooms, where he found what looked like a fair-haired equestrienne of the upper classes arrayed for the chase. Quite a pretty, dainty girl, in fact, just touching up her lips and adding a dust of powder to her elegant nose. Without apology for his abrupt entrance the chief spoke.
"Afraid I shall have to cut your sketch out, Temperley," he said. "I want you at the office at once."
Detective-Sergeant George Temperley removed his blonde wig and swiftly took off his pink and white make-up.
A little later, in the seclusion of his private office, the chief handed his subordinate a letter to read. "What do you make of this, George?"
Temperley read the note, thus:—
17, Paston Crescent,
December 23rd, 19—.
I am coming to Slagburn to-morrow afternoon by the London train arriving at 2.13, with the object of calling to interview Mr. Lean, of Magley Hall, Magley-road, with a view to some business connected with the stage. I am told that he is a gentleman of position, who is interested in theatrical matters financially. Will you kindly advise me by wire on this point, for which purpose I enclose postal order for two shillings.
I would not trouble you, but for the fact that I am out of a regular engagement, and am anxious to invest some little capital in what looks like an exceptional theatrical opening. I don't know Mr. Lean, but I am told he is all right, and a personal interview is essential. I am not shy or nervous of strangers, but lately there have been some dreadful things in the papers about girls like myself who have answered these advertisements, and therefore I am taking no foolish risks.
With many apologies for troubling you.
"Actress, of course," Temperley commented. "No other class would spell Dorothy with an 'i.' Not quite a fool, all the same. Quite right to take precautions."
"But this man Lean is all right, isn't he?" Martin asked. "Good neighborhood, good address, and apparently all above board."
"Mr. Lean is a man of considerable means," Temperley explained. "Has been living at Magley Hall for many years and he is interested in theatrical ventures. This letter doesn't sound to me like one from a regular actress, but more like a stage-struck amateur with a little money to burn. Juliet is a first-class travelling company for £100 down touch. And at the mercy of any scoundrel who has the wit to bait the trap nicely. I have always thought that the Granmere murder was worked that way."
Temperley paused significantly and Major Martin reached for his desk telephone. He called up the Magley-road Police-station and had a few words with the sergeant-in-charge there.
"Matter of fact," he said, "Lean is away in Florida and the house is in the hands of a man caretaker who has been in Lean's employ for years. Um, it does suggest the Granmere mystery. What would you do if you were in my place?"
"Wire the lady to come down," Temperley said eagerly. "Let her come as arranged, and 'phone Balham to send a man in the same train so that he can point her out to me on her arrival. I'll be at the station and steer her here by a roundabout way, and we can see what she has to say before she goes to keep her appointment. If there is some rascal in this it is long odds he doesn't know the girl by sight, and that the whole thing is worked through a newspaper advertisement. And if I might make a suggestion, sir, as a further precaution——"
Temperley bent forward and eagerly whispered a few words in the ear of his chief.
He broke frankly into a broad grin. "Quite unofficially, of course," he said.
"Absolutely, sir," Temperley responded gravely.
The office clock in Slagburn Police-station pointed to the hour of half after two the following afternoon when the expected guest was ushered into Major Martin's office without undue ostentation by means of a modest back entrance. Her smile and manner were equally fascinating, and her accent and dress proclaimed her gentle upbringing.
"I don't want to alarm you, Miss Wade," Major Martin began after the preliminary courtesies. "Am I to understand that Mr. Lean has been advertising for ladies in connection with some theatrical venture he is interested in?"
"Of course," Miss Wade replied, "otherwise I should not be here. I have my living to get, and as I have saved about £200 I thought I might invest it in some theatrical venture under a good man. When a friend of mine who is on tour sent me Mr. Lean's advertisement I decided to answer it, and I did."
"Quite so," Martin murmured. "Was the advertisement you answered in one of the recognised theatrical papers? 'Era,' 'Stage' that sort of thing?"
"Well, no, it wasn't. My friend in Newcastle sent it me."
"An old friend of yours, I presume?"
"Not exactly that either. A girl on the stage I met casually—May Vaughan. She went on tour some time ago with the 'Orchid Girl' musical comedy. I suppose she cut the advertisement out of some stage paper and sent it on to me, with a line on a half-sheet of paper."
"Do you happen to have kept it?" Martin asked.
"Why, of course. I have it here in my bag. You see I had to answer the advertisement, which was directed from some business office in London. Would you like to look at it?"
Martin was quite sure he would. From her vanity bag his visitor produced an advertisement on a slip of paper cut from some popular print and gummed on a correspondence card. Underneath some one had scrawled the words, "Likely to suit you, dear, perhaps. Love. May. Frightful rush." And that was all. Thus:—
"Wanted, lady (young), to join advertiser,
who has vast experience theatrical matters
and in position to command openings, country
production, leading towns. Premium £150.
Play lead in new comedy by prominent dramatist,
also Shakespearean heroines. Unique opening for
clever novice with a small capital.
Apply in first instance to Manager, Box 745,
Gregory & Co., Quair-road, Fulham."
With the slip in his hand Martin crossed the big room and laid the card to which the advertisement was attached by a spot of gum in one corner, and laid it on the desk of a man who was writing there with his back to the others. Temperley looked up and nodded. Then he bent down again as if deeply engrossed in his work, and carefully examined the card and its letterpress.
"You wrote to that address?" Martin asked. "And Mr. Lean replied, of course. Am I right?"
"Not at first. There were two or three letters signed by somebody whose signature I could not read, and who said he was merely a secretary; and when things were fixed up I got a typed letter from Mr. Lean addressed from Magley Hall here asking me to meet him this afternoon and bring the money along."
"And that you have done? Yes, I thought so. Might I see the letter Mr. Lean wrote to you?"
Temperley rose from his chair and stole quietly out of the room. Just as Martin had finished with the letter handed him by his visitor Temperley looked in through the door.
"Just one minute, sir, if you please," he said. "Might I ask you to step this way, sir?"
Martin excused himself and vanished. In a little room down the corridor he faced Temperley eagerly.
"Well, what do you make of it?" he asked. "You heard all that took place. What paper did that advertisement appear in?"
"None, sir," Temperley said crisply. "It's a pure fake. Printed by hand on a scrap of what the news trade calls 'news,' and gummed on that card for the purpose of being forwarded to the young lady by some cunning scoundrel who managed to get it posted from Newcastle. I have detached the printed slip from the card. If you turn it over on the other side what do you find? More print, of course, to give it similitude, but in printing the reverse side the forger was guilty of the sort of carelessness which so often plays into our hands. If you look you will see that the print on the reverse side is upside down. Such a thing could not happen with a genuine newspaper."
"By gad, you are right," Martin cried. "I can't see a single flaw in your logic, George. And if you are right, then we are on to a bigger thing than you and I bargained for. The Granmere murderer, eh—the man Scotland Yard has been hunting for weeks."
"So I figure it out, sir," Temperley said gravely. "Nobody knows yet how that poor girl was lured to Granmere and murdered, except that she went to keep some mysterious appointment, with over a hundred pounds in her pocket. Still, we have some sort of description of the Granmere murderer, and let us hope the man lurking in the seclusion of Magley Hall at this very moment is like him."
The unsuspecting cause of all this excitement made her way along the exclusive thoroughfare known as Magley road until she came to the intriguing destination.
Magley Hall loomed large at length, with the name in gold letters on the gate, with a tennis lawn beyond and the house covered with creepers. As the eager aspirant approached the door a figure emerged and a soft hat came off with a flourish.
"I declare you quite startled me," the owner of the hat smiled. "I was just going for a stroll in the garden when—but you are Miss Wade, I presume. More than punctual, too. Well, an excellent virtue. Will you please come inside?"
They were seated presently in a large, well-equipped library, upholstered in solid Russia leather, with Turkey carpet, and carved writing tables complete. At a small secretaire in a side window a man sat busily writing.
"My secretary," the man in the velours hat vouchsafed, "but he need not trouble us. Now let us understand each other before we go any further. You are Miss Wade, the young person who came here by appointment to-day in response to my advertisement."
The Young Person smiled as if amused by some thought. Mr. Lean might be a prominent and opulent citizen of Slagburn, but he obviously was not a born gentleman, though the expression on his face was flattering to his visitor. His eyes were weak and sore, with horrible red rims, and pupils reminiscent of a poached egg.
"You did not mind coming here quite alone?" Dreadfuleyes asked. "I have a most important scheme on which takes every moment of my time, so I could not meet you in London, as I should have liked. It is absolutely new in theatrical business, and I should be much annoyed if the secret leaked out. I am taking if for granted that you have respected my request for entirely confidential——"
"Certainly," the Young Person interrupted. "I have not mentioned the matter to a soul. I have not even written to thank my friend who sent me your advertisement from Newcastle."
"That," Dreadfuleyes murmured, "was very discreet of you. A word carelessly dropped does a world of mischief sometimes. Now tell me, please, what stage experience you have had."
"Well, practically none, Mr. Lean. If I try to deceive you I am sure to be found out. A little chorus work and a couple of walking-on parts form my experience. But you told me in your——"
"Quite so, quite so," Dreadfuleyes murmured. "You see, I wanted someone quite fresh and unspoilt by conventional training. The money I expect you to put down if you decide to go on is quite a secondary consideration. Really in the nature of a fine if you break your contract. For £150——"
"I am prepared with that," the Young Person said calmly. "And perhaps a little more it necessary."
"Oh, indeed. Then perhaps you will tell me——"
"One thing at a time, Mr. Lean," the Young Person drawled. "I have had to work hard for my little money. I was driving a motor ambulance in France for two years, and that sort of thing teaches one to look after the personal equation. Before we talk of any further funds I should like a receipt for the original sum agreed upon."
Here, obviously, was a development which Dreadfuleyes had not expected. A keen business mind would have seen at once that he was reconsidering his position. But the Young Person babbled on.
"Savings Bank, you understand. Besides, the money I brought down here. I didn't bring the book, of course—that is in my lodgings. But I don't suppose that this interests you, Mr. Lean."
"One never knows," Dreadfuleyes murmured, as he took up a pen and commenced to scribble an elaborate receipt for £150 on a sheet of notepaper. "There! I have practically embodied our agreement on the face of the receipt. You have only to get that stamped at Somerset House and I am liable. Later on we can have a more formal instrument. Of course, if you haven't the money here——"
"But I have," the Young Person murmured. "Here it is all in Treasury notes, which I have been gradually saving for years."
Dreadfuleyes opened the notes and locked them away in a drawer on his desk. It was not displeasing to know that those notes had not been drawn in bulk, but gathered at odd times, and therefore not humanly possible to trace. And there were more to come. How to get possession of that bank book! How to detain this confiding young thing for eight and forty hours in which to forge a letter to the Young Person's address in London to get away with the rest of the plunder once the bank book was in the right hands.
Threats, perhaps force—certainly force if necessary. He scraped his throat, and immediately the man at the writing table got up and, coming forward, took his seat on a couch close by the other table where Dreadfuleyes and the Young Person were seated.
There was nothing formidable about him. He was small and weedy, with a marked obliquity of vision, but his smile was sinister enough. Then Dreadfuleyes turned a new, and, if possible, more repulsive face to the Young Person. She rose quickly as she saw it.
"I suggest you make arrangements to stay here," he grinned—"I mean remain here for a couple of days. Between the two of us we can make your visit quite pleasant. The fact is my dear young lady, we are most anxious to see that bank book of yours."
"What do you mean?" the Young Person gasped.
She looked wildly about her as if seeking some avenue of escape from the danger, and the men smiled.
"Then you really are beginning to understand," Dreadfuleyes said with a hard laugh. "You didn't learn everything in France. You are perfectly safe here so long as you are sensible. That bank book and a few hours' strict confinement to give us a chance to get clear. Don't be afraid."
"I am not afraid," the Young Person cried, "though I know now who you are. You are the Granmere murderer. Yes, I am safe enough so long as you don't get hold of the bank book."
A swift and horrible change came over the face of the man by the table. As he advanced towards the Young Person something gleamed in his right hand. A demon of rage possessed him, those awful eyes were blood-red and full of murder.
"Here, not again," the man on the couch wailed.
The man with the knife heeded not. He reached forward on his toes for the shrinking figure of the Young Person. And then suddenly the whole tense cinema drama changed as if by magic. A crushing right came from the hand of the Young Person and crashed on Dreadfuleyes' jaw, followed by a left uppercut as he was crumpling, and another twisting right laid him on the carpet in a state of stark insensibility. The man on the sofa clung to a cushion and gibbered with a fright he made no effort to conceal. As if in a sort of nightmare the room was full of blue uniforms.
"There he is," the Young Person cried breathlessly. "And, as I thought even from the first, the Granmere murderer tallies in every particular, and on the table you will find a few lines in his own handwriting. Get busy with the handcuffs and don't overlook the gibbering confederate on the sofa."
"But who the devil are you?" the bewildered constable in charge asked. "I don't——"
"Detective Sergeant Temperley," came the reply in a now familiar voice. "Good old Christmas theatricals! Get on with it."
THE mighty roar of the traffic diminished to a dull rumbling as the last bus rolled jerkily up the Strand, and the intermittent hooting of a belated taxi echoed through the comparative silence of a foggy December evening. Inside the great hotel, where crowds still congregated in the ball-room, the crooning voice of a thin tenor begged the lady of his choice to kiss him good-night, and presently the strains of "God Save the King" indicated to the sleepy guests who had already retired that the evening's festivities had come to an end. Then, in groups the guests were conveyed upwards to their rooms in purring electric lifts, while those who had come in for the dinner-dance clamored outside for taxis to convey them home. One by one, the twinkling lights disappeared, and, as Big Ben boomed the half hour, a little man emerged from one of the lounges, and crept stealthily down the steps that led on to the Embankment, and vanished in the humid pall of the fog.
"Lord, what a sentimental fool, I should look if any of my friends could see me now," he told himself whimsically, as he crossed the glistening, damp road, and, leaning on the Embankment wall, under which the silent waters of the Thames rolled bleakly, put a hand in his breast pocket and produced a wad of Treasury notes. "I'm afraid even the most unsophisticated child would never mistake me for Father Christmas. Still, I can't bear to think of those poor devils suffering while I have plenty of this world's goods."
And, pulling his overcoat well across the gleaming white shirt-front underneath, he stole quietly towards the nearest seat, on which sat four poor derelicts who slept the heavy, cramping slumber of heart-breaking fatigue. Taking four notes from the pile that he had stuffed into his overcoat pocket, he gently placed one in each of the pockets of the benumbed sleepers, and passed quietly on. Thence he crept to the next seat, where he performed the same rite, smiling softly to himself as he thought of the happy surprise they would have on their awakening.
"At least that will give them a comfortable bed and some warming food to-morrow night," he thought. "I couldn't sleep comfortably at Christmas time if I thought I hadn't done something to alleviate some of this terrible suffering. It seems so unfair that I should have so much, and they so little. What a tragedy it all is."
And so he continued on his errand of mercy, stepping lightly from one to the other, his slim form veiled in the lowering mist, until he came at last to the end seat, on which a solitary man slept restlessly, his right hand clutching the lapel of his shabby overcoat as if in mute protection of some treasure that lay in the thread-bare pocket beneath.
Martin Irwin stood watching him as he tossed uncomfortably on his hard makeshift bed, frightened to approach him lest he disturb the forgetfulness that Morpheus brings, but determined to wait until he should have the chance to press his offering into the man's pocket.
Half an hour he waited while the cold fog penetrated his limbs, until the unhappy derelict seemed to settle into a more peaceful sleep, then, approaching softly, he pressed gentle fingers into the slumberer's pocket. He was just withdrawing them when a hand clutched his and in a second, the man was on his feet grasping him by the throat.
"You dirty thief," he snarled. "You must be pretty filthy scum to sink so low as to rob the poor down-and-outs on the Embankment. Thought you'd have my last few shillings, did you? Well, you're mistaken, and, what's more, I'm going to give you the hiding of your life, despite the fact that I haven't had a square meal for over a week."
"Steady, steady," murmured Irwin, softly. "You're rather jumping to conclusions. I was only trying——"
"Trying to rob me," interrupted the man furiously. "Well, take that. That'll teach you to keep your fingers to yourself."
Irwin stepped back a pace as his assailant clenched his first and lunged savagely in his direction. It was the action of a desperate man, feeling justly that he had been made the victim of a dastardly outrage. But, probably from weakness or blind rage, his blow fell short, and he merely succeeded in grasping Irwin by the coat collar.
The garment came loose, displaying the white shirt-front and evening tie beneath. This was so surprising a development that all the outcast could do was to stare in amazement at his antagonist. For the moment, at any rate, all passionate anger vanished, for it seemed an incredible thing that a man attired in the last cry of evening fashion should so far forget himself as to pilfer from one of the world's unfortunates whilst he slept.
"It's all right," Irwin said, taking advantage of the change in the other's attitude. "All right, my dear fellow—merely a mutual mistake. God, bless my soul, I don't want to rob you. Quite the contrary."
The fog lifted for a second or two, so that the men had a better sight of one another. And as the nomad looked into the eyes of the man he would have assaulted, he saw something there that softened him strangely.
"Very well," he said. "I am down and out. I have in my pocket four or five shillings which stand between me and utter destitution. You might wonder why I am trying to sleep on this hard seat when I have the means to pay for a bed. Yes, but what sort of a bed? And, when I had paid for it, where would my food for the morrow come from? I——"
Once more, the speaker's expression changed. Just for an instant there had been tears in his voice, and something like a break in what Irwin recognised as pride, still stern and indomitable. Then the stranger staggered back and a low cry broke from his lips.
"Good heavens!" he stammered. "Martin Irwin."
"Yes," Irwin said. "That is my name. But surely—Oh, at last I have found you! You are Trevor Cross."
"Trevor Cross it is," the other said with a tinge of bitterness. "Sleeping on the Embankment with a bit of silver between myself and starvation, and my once comrade and partner, apparently enjoying the height of prosperity. Yes, that is what the whirling of time brings about. Still, there was a time, not many years ago, when we were working to one common end. We had money then, money we had saved for a certain purpose. Nearly two thousand pounds, I think."
"And a few shillings over," Martin smiled. "But why should we stand here in the freezing cold, when we should be much more comfortable under a roof? My flat is not very far away, and there I can give you all the hospitality that you need. I can explain, too; in fact, it seems to me that there is an explanation due on both sides. Now, come along."
With no further word said, the two crossed the Embankment and went up towards the Strand by way of the Temple station. A little later they were seated in the dining room of a perfect bachelor flat, where Martin lost no time in placing the best part of a cold chicken and a syphon, together with a bottle of whisky, on the table. Then, for some little time he pretended to be busy with a sheaf of papers he had taken from a drawer, whilst his guest satisfied an appetite that was perfectly wolfish.
"Now then, Trevor," the host said, when they were seated on either side of the fire and a cigarette box had passed from one to the other. "Let us see if we can unravel this tangle. In 1918 we were both young and both in the same battalion of the British Army, fighting with our backs to the wall to keep the great German push from breaking through and rolling us up with victory nearly in sight. Remember that?"
"Am I likely to forget it?" Cross asked. "I was taken prisoner and pretty badly wounded into the bargain."
"Yes, and you were reported missing, believed dead. I believed you were dead—everybody thought so."
"Now, that's a most remarkable thing," Cross explained. "I was under the impression that you also were dead. Surely that was what was said about you in the casualty lists?"
"Perfectly true. But, you see, so long as we both believed the other to be wiped out, and the records declared that we were so, then I didn't see much to be gained by making inquiries. You remember telling me once that you were the last of your race, and that you didn't believe you had a single relation in the world."
"I am still of that opinion."
"Very well, then. We had pooled our resources and saved money from the time we joined the Army till 1918. Result, two thousand pounds. You remember what that was for?"
"Of course I do. It was all paid into your banking account so that, if everything went well, we could buy ourselves a nice practice and set up in London as Irwin and Cross, solicitors."
"Well, so far, so good," Irwin went on. "I did buy that practice. There was nothing else for me to do. I was quite ready to hand over the money in case some relation of yours came along. But then, you had none. Moreover, the practice I bought from an old gentleman who was retiring has turned out to be a veritable little gold mine. There is more in it than I shall ever require, and, anyhow, the half of it belongs to you. I suppose I must have saved three or four thousand pounds, though meanwhile I have stinted myself nothing. It will be an easy matter to get your name restored to the roll of solicitors, since you qualified just before you joined the Army, and if you can see cause why my firm should not be known in future as Irwin and Cross, then I should be glad to hear it. Now then, my friend."
Irwin had done his best to speak lightly and easily, but there was a choke in his voice and he could see that Cross was furtively wiping his eyes.
"I don't know what to say," the latter murmured. "It all sounds like a dream to me. God knows what a time I have had the last few years. After my recovery in Germany, I came back to England penniless. Of course, I had no idea where my share of that money was, the more so, because I regarded you as dead and buried. Mind you, Martin, I never doubted you for a moment. I thought the money was somewhere, but where? Ah, that was the rub. Well, I got odd jobs here and there, and then found myself in quite a fair position in the offices of a firm that had a great reputation in the City. On the strength of that situation, I married."
The speaker paused and lighted a fresh cigarette.
"Six months later," he resumed, "the three partners in the concern I speak of were in bankruptcy. More than that, they had got away with over a hundred thousand pounds of their client's money. It was only by a bit of good luck, and the evidence of one of the witnesses at the trial that I did not find myself in the dock with the rest. Yet though everybody knew that I was perfectly blameless, I could not get a job, even as a junior clerk. Everything I touched went wrong. But why labour the subject? You found me to-night, by the grace of God, at my last gasp."
"But didn't you say you were married?" Irwin asked.
"Oh, I am married, right enough. One of the dearest and best women in the world. Thank heaven, she has been spared, so far, from sharing my misfortunes. Of course, she knew that I had lost my situation, but she believes now that I am in a job again, with a prospect of starting our little home once more. I dare say it was weak on my part, but I simply dare not tell her the truth. She went to her own people who, by the way, are almost as pinched as I am, happy in the knowledge that I had got my foot on the ladder again, that very shortly we should be reunited."
To all of which Irwin listened with sympathy and understanding. It seemed to him good that he should let Cross open his heart in this simple fashion, for he could see plainly enough how deeply the other had suffered.
"I wonder how many thousands of people like you there are in the country to-day?" Irwin murmured. "Do you know, I always think more and more about poverty and distress amongst people in our class at this time of year—the time of year when everybody ought to be happy and comfortable, and the spirit of Christmas is in the air. Like it is to-night, for instance. Only three days to Christmas, and a full round of rejoicing and gaiety. I dare say you wonder——"
"I do," Cross said. "Yes, I wonder how long you have been engaged, at this time of year, in pottering about the Embankment trying to pick people's pockets."
"Good Lord, I'd almost forgotten," Irwin said with a hearty laugh. "My dear old chap, I have been doing nothing of the kind. When I left the hotel to-night, after attending a Christmas week party, I had about forty one-pound notes in my pocket. And those notes, one by one, I got rid of by putting them into the pockets, and pinning them on the dresses, of the unfortunates who can find no better rest for their heads than a hard seat on the Embankment. I had disposed of most of those notes before I came to you. I could see, even in the fog, that I was in contact with a gentleman, though your boots are broken and your wardrobe—well, the less said about that, the better. And you thought I was trying to rob you of the last few shillings you had."
"I most certainly did," Cross declared.
"Yes, and you sprang up, ready to murder me. I wonder why you stopped suddenly."
"Well, when I tore your overcoat open and saw that you were one of the elect, so to speak, I was so staggered that, for a few moments, I could do nothing. But heaven knows how near I was to strangling you when I felt your fingers in my pocket. Don't you ever find yourself in trouble? I mean, isn't there a time, now and again, when the police get a bit suspicious. And how long has this sort of thing been going on?"
"Oh, four or five years now," Irwin said. "I dare say you may think it's a queer whim on my part, but I have never regretted it, and still less shall I do so now, after the wonderful happening of this evening."
"And what is the next move?" Cross asked.
In the last half hour, he had become a different man. The sullen, fighting light had died out of his eyes, there was colour in his cheeks and a smile on his lips.
"Well," said Irwin, "I think that's pretty obvious, isn't it? We can leave the legal side of the business in abeyance for a day or two, during which time, you can draw on me for as much as you like. Anything up to a thousand pounds won't unduly strain my—I beg your pardon—our banking account. You see what I mean, eh? First of all, we will get rid of all those rags you are wearing, and get a real nice hot bath for you. There is a spare bedroom here which is at your disposal, and you are to use it as long as you like. But I shouldn't stay here, if I were you—not after to-morrow. I have a shrewd idea that you have quite a first-class wardrobe tucked away in various pawnshops, and——"
"Oh, I have," Cross, smiled. "And the pawn tickets, for what they are worth. I have with me at the present moment."
"Good," Irwin exclaimed. "Hand them over to me and I will redeem the whole lot, as soon as the shops open in the morning. Then, properly dressed, and looking like the prosperous solicitor that you really are, you are going down into the country with a pocket full of money, and a story that ought to fill your wife's heart with joy and happiness. Now, look here, old chap, I am going away for Christmas myself, and taking my man with me. Meanwhile, this flat is entirely at your disposal, and, if you take my advice, you will bring your wife up here and have a good time, without any sort of anxiety. Only one stipulation shall I make. You are carefully to disguise the fact that I found you down and out on the Embankment, or that I am the sort of eccentric ass who goes about at Christmas time scattering pound notes amongst the submerged tenth under the arches, and elsewhere. That's to be our secret. We ran together by accident, which, in itself, is an extraordinary story, so that your wife is not likely to ask too many questions. Of course, she knows all about our friendship?"
"Oh, yes, I told her that," Cross said. "You see, there was always the chance of my finding my share of that partnership money. There is just one more little thing I should like you to do for me, and that is to hand over that particular pound note you intended for my pocket—my Christmas card. I should like to have that to keep as a mascot. And may everybody's Christmas be as happy as mine is likely to be."
NOTHING but dire necessity would have induced Tom Webb and his wife to allow little Heather to appear in pantomime on the stage of the Cosmos Theatre. But what was a man to do who had lost his job owing to the amalgamation of two great daily papers and found himself facing the world with no means of supporting them beyond the fleeting emoluments derived from free-lance journalism?
It was only when Tom was down to his last half-crown, with no prospect of further income that he consented to listen to the suggestion made by a one-time celebrated actor that little Heather was born for the stage.
"I'm only a back number now and waiting for the end, with a small pension to keep me from the workhouse," Penfold told Tom. "But my opinion goes. Mossop, of the Cosmos, is one of the few moderns who pay any attention to what I say, laddie, though I do live in a dingy bed-sitting room on thirty shillings a week. Only yesterday he was moaning over the fact that he couldn't find the exact type of child he needed for pantomime. Going into rehearsal almost at once, so he tells me. So I told him that I could put my hand on the little lady he is seeking."
"What—meaning Heather?" Tom asked.
"Nobody else, dear boy. The loveliest child I ever saw. Her brightness and intelligence, her combination of velvet-black eyes and honey-colored hair! And a born mimic. I tell you, she is born for the stage. Let's be frank Tom. We are both down and out, and even a few shillings a week make all the difference. If you consent to my suggestion, Heather is sure of a shop for three months, counting rehearsals, to say nothing of a salary of £5 a week."
Five pounds a week! Why, it meant salvation. The awful arrears of rent, for instance. A matter of shillings more or less, but as far out of reach as so many millions. Was it possible that a girl-child in her tenth year could work something in the nature of a miracle?
But old Crawford Penfold had not spoken in vain. Came a visit to the Cosmos, and after that two or three interviews with the god in the car, otherwise Gladwyn Mossop. Little Heather dancing attendance, thrilled to the marrow as she watched a preliminary rehearsal in progress.
"Like to be one of them?" Mossop asked.
Heather's eyes danced like little wavelets in the sun.
"Oh, oh, if I only could!" she cried.
Within the next few days she was. Mossop was delighted. Nor did he demur when terms were mentioned. He would have a scene "written up" in which Heather was to play the star part. He would pay for rehearsals, too.
And so it came about the five blessed treasury notes trickled into that desperately poverty-stricken household, and the rent nightmare was no more. It was like a gift from heaven, and Tom so regarded it coupled with a certain shame which he could not quite shake off. He and his wife were still desperately poor, but there was enough. And there was the pleasure in watching little Heather and seeing how happy she was in her work.
"Makes me feel infernally ashamed of myself," Tom told Mary, his wife. "One can't but feel grateful to a wise and kindly providence, but anyone with an atom of self-respect must feel that——"
"I think it is wonderful," Mary Webb cried. "My dear boy we ought to feel nothing but thankfulness. Besides, what a chance it gives you to turn round. Now you can have the new shoes and suit you need so terribly. And I am sure that you will write better short stories now that your mind is not so much on the rack."
Tom took that pretty, brave little wife in his arms and kissed her fondly.
"What on earth could I do without you?" he murmured. "Never thinking about yourself, darling. Let us hope that all this excitement and flattery won't unsettle Heather. Will she fret when the pantomime comes to an end?"
"Don't meet trouble half way," Mary smiled. "There may be better things in store for the darling yet."
So Tom had to let it go at that. Still, he fretted and worried over the matter of the new outfit, knowing from bitter experience that rags were at as great a discount in Fleet street as anywhere else. Wonderful what a difference a good suit of clothes meant in dealing with editors and other gods on the high Olympus of journalism. He was wishing with all his heart now that he had taken that New York offer which had come his way four years ago.
Still, he was much easier in his mind now. He could sit at his desk, and give his mind free rein without dread for the immediate future.
There was nothing to worry about either between little Heather and the theatre. Old Penfold had seen to all that. He loved the child for her beauty and intelligence, and that utter lack of self-consciousness which was not the least of her charm.
It was the old man's pleasure to undertake the duties of chaperon to and from the theatre, and to sit watching her in an atmosphere which was the breath of life to him.
"She's a wonder, she's a fair knock-out," he enthused to Heather's parents. "And, egad, beginning to be talked about, too. The finest child actress the stage has seen since the days of the Terrys. And she don't know it. Takes it all for granted. And the way she picks up business! Just marvellous! Bless those lovely black eyes of hers."
"Seems to me that we are all responsible for a genius between us, Mary," Tom smiled. "When I came down from Cambridge full of hope and ambition, I little dreamed that within a few years I should be beholden for my daily bread to a tender offspring. That's what hurts, old man."
"Cheap, old bean, cheap," the old actor laughed. "It isn't as if you had been anything but model parents to the little one. And you a young man yet."
"Well, there's that," Tom agreed. "I must come down to one of these rehearsals and see for myself what a genius of a daughter I possess."
Those rehearsals were well in progress ere Tom found himself in a darkened auditorium watching the progress of matters on the stage. And when Heather came on more or less dressed for her part, Tom hardly knew her. There were other children in a sort of fairy scene reminiscent of Peter Pan, in which Heather took the lead as if it were her natural place. The child seemed to dominate the stage, her voice rang out loud and clear. Something like a tear of pride shone on Tom's face. Little Heather! Well, well.
Tom rose to leave presently. He wanted to get back to what he called home, and tell Mary what he had seen. She must come and watch for herself—never could he explain to her the amazing personality of their child.
He was quitting the theatre when a stranger accosted him; a tall, thin man with a thrust-out jaw and a huge cigar in the corner of his mouth.
"Guess your name is Webb," he drawled in an accent not altogether unpleasing. "If that's so, stranger, I'd like to have a mouthful of words with you."
"Quite at your service, sir," Tom said politely.
The big man led the way into a sort of office which had apparently been placed at his disposal. That he was a person of some importance there Tom did not doubt. In the office somebody had hung up a bough of mistletoe, and, with a shock, Tom suddenly remembered that it was Christmas Eve. But then, what was Christmas Eve to him?
"My name's Amos P. Salsman," the big man said. "Guess that it strikes a familiar chord."
It did indeed. The head of the famous Salsman-Kobe film company. With practically Hollywood in his pocket. The "big" noise in picture photography. A millionaire 20 times over—and conscious of it.
"Waal, I'm out for business only," the great man went on as Tom bowed. "I know what I want when I want it, and I usually want it now. That's why I am here in this lil' old town looking for a spot of child personality that don't seem to thrive in the States."
"I wish you success," Tom murmured.
"I calculate it's in your hands, stranger."
"Mine?" Tom cried. "What have I to do with it?"
"Now listen," the magnate proceeded. "It's that lil' gel of yours. I got money in this show, and I come here looking for a sort of Jackie Coogan in petticoats. In fact, there's a world-beating film depending on my finding the only thing I am looking for. And that kid of your is IT. I want her in Hollywood right now. Is it a deal?"
"But the pantomime," Tom stammered. "Her engagement to the manager here. And she's only ten years old."
"I should smile," said Salsman. "Suppose I want to kidnap the babe? Gangster work, eh?"
"I'm a poor man," Tom declared. "A poor man out of a job. But if you think you can separate me from my child you're mistaken. And, as to my wife——"
"Cut it out," Salsman growled. "You and your dame can come along if you like. Bit of an author, ain't you? Very well, then. You can both come along, and I'll fix you up a job in Hollywood within a week. What Salsman says goes. And don't you forget it."
A job. A home and occupation in a perfect climate! Tom's mind reeled before the prospect. Surely some good fairy was watching over his humble roof this Christmastide.
"Call it a day, what?" the big man went on. "I sure thought you would. That's why I had the contract drawn up directly I heard you were in the theatre. Got 'em here in my pocket. That's the sort of business man I am."
Before Tom's dazed eyes Salsman produced two sheets of paper partly printed, with blanks here and there, and laid them on the table before him.
"Five years' contract," he went on. "Sliding scale of payment. All expenses paid for the lot of you. Starting the kid somewhere around thirty-five."
"What!" Tom cried. "Thirty-five! I suppose, being poor, you can play on my poverty."
"Come off the roof," Salsman jibed. "Fifty, then, if that suits your book better."
With that the big man bent over the sheets of paper and seemed to be inking in certain figures.
"Well, there you are, then," he said. "And my signature to the contract. You sign the counterpart and the thing is done. The kid can stay and carry out her panto engagement so long as she—and you—come back home when the show comes off. Now what's biting you?"
Tom Webb said nothing—he was past words. Ere he could pull himself together a head was projected into the room and a voice asked for Salsman's presence elsewhere.
"Only keep you a minute," the voice said. "Very important and urgent."
With a gesture of impatience Salsman left the room, and in a dazed way, Tom took up his half of the proposed contract and in a sort of dream, appended his signature. Then, after a hurried glance, stowed the Salsman signed counterpart in his breast pocket.
"Good enough," Salsman smiled as he returned to the room. He was a picture of smiling amiability now.
"A bit rough just now," he half apologised. "My way in business till the deal is through. You won't see me again until you reach Hollywood, but my London secretary will do the needful when you call on him at our city office. Now what about wardrobe for the kid and yourselves? Better take this as a sort of premium on the contract."
From his hip pocket Salsman produced a thick wad of notes. He rapidly peeled off a handful and thrust them into the hands of the wondering Tom.
"There!" he said. "My best day of work for years. And yours, too. Mr. Webb. So long."
He was gone, actually gone, before Tom could say another word. And in Tom's hand were five Bank of England notes for ten pounds each. Enough to fit out the family, and leave a substantial margin behind. Amazing!
He was clear of the theatre at length with Heather by his side, taking her home himself for once in a way without calling on the good offices of the old actor.
"Christmas Eve," he pointed out. "I'm going to take Heather round to look at the shops. I might even manage to get her a toy or two. You look in late this evening, and I will tell you something rather startling."
Once he had the freedom of the street, Tom called a passing taxi, at which little Heather opened her eyes. She had never been inside such a vehicle before.
"What's it mean, Daddy?" she asked. "Have you come into a fortune or something?"
"Fairies," Tom laughed. "Wonderful beings, fairies. You don't believe in them? Much too old for that sort of thing, eh? But I do, darling. Because the most wonderful fairy in London this Christmas Eve is my own little girl."
"Guess I give that one up," Heather said, sedately.
The streets were thronged with people, all on Christmas shopping bent. The shops one long dream of dazzling delight. Everyone smiling and happy as if poverty and distress had ceased to exist.
"It must be lovely to have money to spend Daddy," the child said wistfully. "Money you can spare. If I had it, I would buy up a whole shop and give presents to all the poor children I could find."
"And nothing for yourself, darling?" Tom asked.
"Well, perhaps one little thing, Daddy. But what is the driver stopping for?"
The cab had pulled up before one of London's mammoth stores, and Tom alighted telling the taximan to wait. And then followed half an hour of sheer delight. When the two emerged it was with a pile of parcels that filled the cab almost to overflowing, and was crowned with a large turkey that made Heather gasp with delight.
"But where did all the money come from?" she asked.
"That fairy," Tom said. "Yes, really and truly."
And Heather was fain to be content.
"Won't Mummy be pleased?" she crowed.
Mummy was pleased and puzzled, and remained so until it grew late and Heather was at length in bed there to await the joys of her most perfect Christmas Day. Not till then did Tom explain to Mary all that had happened on that red-letter day. Her heart shone in her eyes.
"The cream of the whole thing is this," Tom explained. "When Salsman offered what he called thirty-five for the contract I refused it so he jumped to fifty. And I was fool enough to think that he meant shillings instead of pounds. And, in our dire need, I was prepared to take it."
JOAN BARRINGTON sat up in a nest of pillows and contemplated the pile of presents that lay on her bed. For it was a crisp, bright Christmas morning, with a powder of snow on the window ledge, where an impudent robin sat with his head on one side, as if he, too, would have liked to investigate the cosiness of that luxurious bedroom. A sound of bells drifted on the air, Christmas bells that rang in Joan's head and mixed confusedly with the thoughts that rushed through her brain.
Christmas Day! And yesterday Joan Barrington had been little more than a well-known actress. And yet since 24 hours ago, she had jumped to the pinnacle of fame. It seemed only yesterday that she had been struggling with managers here and there to get an opening for "Corn in Egypt," and now the name of that play was on everybody's lips. It had been a tremendous triumph both for her and the author, Gerald Aspen. Three times had she faced an audience as Gerald Aspen's heroine in the plays he had written and always with a certain mead of success.
But not like last night at the Melpomene Theatre. That had been a blazing triumph from the first moment that she had walked on the stage to the fall of the curtain, as she had felt, in her heart of hearts, that it always would be. What a night for herself and Gerald! And that was not all. Was not Gerald going to marry her only child, Cecilie, the little girl for whom she had fought so hard and suffered so many privations?
And, goodness knows, she had struggled hard. Married before she was 19 to a handsome scamp, she had been cruelly abandoned somewhere in Australia, where she was touring with a travelling company, and, since then, she had fought a lone hand.
But that was all over now, and the glorious part of it was that she had still retained all her charm and beauty, because she had come into her own before she had reached her 40th year. Fame and fortune in the thirties; what more could any woman ask?
She was still pondering over this question when the door of the bedroom flew open and Cecilie Barrington rushed impetuously into the room. She was just a younger edition of her mother, with all her unspoilt loveliness and charm.
"Hello, mother," Cecilia, cried. "A happy Christmas. And what a Christmas, too! A well-known actress at 8 o'clock last night, and a world-wide celebrity at 11. You were absolutely splendid. I tried to get into your dressing-room after the fall of the curtain, but there was no room for poor little me, so I asked Gerald to drive me home and I was asleep long before you got back. Mother, you are wonderful. What a lucky thing that you had Geoffrey Fair for your leading man."
A momentary shadow lay on Joan Barrington's face.
"Yes, I suppose so," she said rather coldly. "Still, he had only to be his natural self. His handsome face and picturesque grey hair were wonderfully effective."
"Is that all you have to say?" Cecilie asked with a smile. "How ungrateful these great actresses are! Have you forgotten that it was I who persuaded Geoffrey Fair to accept the part of leading man in 'Corn in Egypt?' There is no other actor on the stage who could have played the part half as well. I did manage to have a few words with him last night, and what do you think he did?"
"Well, my child, what did he do?"
"Why, offered me the part of leading lady in the play he is taking to America next autumn. I knew it was coming, but I thought I would keep the fact a secret. I can tell you now that I met Mr. Fair last summer when I was staying with the Mortimers, at Prestley. He told me he had known you for years and that he had acted with you more than once. And he told me more than that, mummy. He said that I had inherited all your talent, and that in the course of time I should achieve a triumph as great as yours. And now the chance has come, Mother, you won't stand in my way, will you? I can go to America, can't I?"
Joan Barrington lay there very silently for a moment or two.
"This comes rather as a shock, Cecilie," she said, presently. "Don't say anything more about it just yet. I will speak to Mr. Fair. Reverting to more immediate matters, I shan't be able to go with you to dine at the Pennington's to-night. You see, if it hadn't been for the kindness of Lord Romney, I should never have had the chance of taking over the Melpomene for the production of my play. So, when he insists upon some of us dining with him to-night, I could not very well refuse. So you will have to go to the Penningtons with Gerald."
A little flush of color crept into Cecilie's cheeks.
"But I can't, mother," she said. "Gerald isn't going."
"Gerald isn't going? Why not?"
"Well, you see mother, we had a difference of opinion when he was driving me home last night. He doesn't like Mr. Fair. He went so far as to say that he was a dissolute scoundrel who lived on his good looks and other people's generosity. And he wasn't a bit grateful to Mr. Fair for playing the hero in 'Corn in Egypt.' So, you see, one word led to another, and—and—Gerald and myself are not going to be married, that's all."
"Then there is no more to be said," Joan Barrington smiled faintly. "Now run away and I will get up."
She was a wise mother in her day and generation, so she prudently refrained from saying anything that might stand in the way of a reconciliation between the lovers. She had the highest regard for Gerald Aspen, and she would have been happy enough in the engagement of the young couple. But, all the same, she was deeply troubled in her mind and inclined to resent this semi-tragedy which threatened to spoil the happiest day she had known for many years. Still, she was not going to ruin everything by a premature show of displeasure. She waited until Cecilie had left the house on a little round of visit to various young friends in the neighborhood with a view to exchanging the compliments of the season, then she consulted the telephone directory and called up a certain number. Immediately a man's voice answered—the well-known accents of Geoffrey Fair.
"Very well," he said. "I will come round."
It was just a quarter of an hour later that Fair entered the drawing-room of Joan's flat and seated himself in a comfortable chair in a characteristic and elegant pose. He faced Joan with a charming smile on his handsome face.
"This is quite an unexpected honor, my dear Joan," he drawled. "But you have only to command and I obey."
"Always the perfect knight," Joan said with a touch of ice in her voice, "and always the same pose. But we are not on the stage now, nor are we anything more than mere acquaintances. This is the first time I have met you alone, and truth compels me to say that I hope it will be the last. And you will be good enough not to call me your dear Joan again."
"Ah, well, time brings many changes," Fair smiled. "And, upon my word, you seem to grow younger and handsomer every day. Little Cecilie will never be in the same class."
"Precisely," Joan responded. "And that is one of the reasons why I have asked you to come here this morning. Why can't you leave the child alone? Why do you come between us? Perhaps I can guess. But for the moment we need not go into that. You know that she has no real talent for the stage."
"Not a scrap," Fair agreed easily. "She never will reach a rung on the ladder higher than that of a parlor-maid. But she is so sweetly pretty that I could not resist the temptation of watching her face when I suggested America."
"You lie," Joan said coldly. "I don't believe you have made any arrangement to go to America in the autumn. You are too indolent to face the journey. And as for you spending months in the land of prohibition—why, the mere thought amuses me."
"Ah, there," Fair smiled, "you are mistaken. I am not saying that anything is settled yet."
"For the present, you are drawing the highest salary in your career. And there are other pecuniary considerations. Really, on the whole, as lessee of the Melpomene, I am finding Mr. Geoffrey Fair a rather expensive luxury."
"Luxuries are always expensive," Fair said amiably.
"Still, they can be dispensed with. For instance, there is nothing to prevent me calling in 'Corn in Egypt,' and thus terminating your contract. I am sick to death of the stage. In any case, I am through with it in the next two years. I shall be through with it in less if you push me too far."
"Do you know," Fair said whimsically, "that that sounds very like a threat. And threats to me, my dear Joan, are likely to prove rather dangerous. Of course, if the scandal——"
"Scandal! What does any mother worthy of the name care about that sort of thing where the welfare of her only child is concerned? Cecilie is still all I have in the world. For her sake I have suffered privations that I shudder to think of. And now you are trying to take my child away from me. Why? Because you think you can make still better terms for yourself. But you won't. If the child goes to America, our compact comes to an end. And you won't like it. You won't like giving up your luxurious flat and your nice income, and you won't like to find certain country houses closed to you in future. Because that is what it means."
"My dear Joan," Fair protested. "Why all this heat?"
The fascinating smile was still on his lips, the easy pose was there, but the man was beaten and both of them knew it.
"Now, what you have to do is this," Joan went on. "You are to tell Cecilie the truth. Say that you lied to her. Oh, I don't want to humiliate you any more than you have humiliated yourself. You need not see Cecilie unless you like. Write her one of those charming letters of yours, making the position clear, and letting her know definitely that you have no intention whatever of going to America. That is all I have to say."
"And meanwhile?" Fair asked as he rose.
"And, meanwhile, the shameful bargain can go on. Now go, or shall I ring the bell and ask my man——"
But Fair needed no further bidding. The handsomest man on the stage crept from the room with little of his usual fine assurance. A moment later Joan was alone.
But not for long. Cecilie burst into the room, her cheeks aflame and her eyes dim with what might have been angry tears.
"I—I didn't want to listen," she panted. "But you had not closed the door behind you, and I got back sooner than I expected. And then, when certain words came to my ears, I just had to listen. Mother, what does it all mean? What is there between you and that man that you can treat him like a dog and he dare not resent it? And he promised me a great future! He told me that I should be as fine an actress as yourself. Why did he lie to me like that?"
Cecilie threw herself down on a couch and dissolved into a flood of tears. The moment was not yet when she would realise that wounded pride and vanity were at the bottom of her grief.
"And he told me I was an actress," she sobbed. "He spoke as if he meant it! I shall never believe what any man says again as long as I live. And all the time he was laughing at me."
Joan said nothing until the first violence of the storm had died away. Perhaps, on the whole, it was just as well that Cecilie had overheard the conversation. Then, suddenly, the poor child sat up and wiped the tears from her eyes.
"Why was that man so frightened of you?" she demanded.
"So you noticed that," Joan smiled. "It is rather a long story, darling, but I will make it as short as possible. It concerns two girl-friends of mine, one of whom was very like you at one time. They were sisters, one being an actress and the other—well, on the stage. The one who was merely on the stage died. The tragedy of her life lay in the fact that she thought she was an actress—and she wasn't. And that is why she practically perished of starvation. Only her sister, who was an actress, did not know it till after she was dead. Not that the actress sister was in much better case. Hers was a hard life. She endured the most bitter poverty and distress for years before she got her chance, and, after that, she never looked back."
"And then, just as the promised land was in sight, she did a very foolish thing. She married. He was an actor, of course, and one who might have gone far but for his weakness for pleasure and a hatred of hard work. Also, he drank. Quite in a gentlemanly way, but the fact remains. And, in the course of time, he quarrelled with most of the managers who were ready to help him, and so, gradually, he began to live on the earnings of his wife. Occasionally he would take a character if he happened to approve of it, but, for the most part, he preferred to take most of his wife's money and waste it in reckless extravagance. He was a handsome man, and people envied the couple their happiness. Ah, they little knew! And then came the inevitable parting."
"It had to come, or the woman would have been ruined. Her position was assured, and her ambition was to make a competence and retire from the stage, where she had never been happy. Those early struggles had left a sore in her soul that no lapse of time ever wiped out. So she made the man an allowance, of a thousand a year, on condition that he kept away from her, and that the matter of the unhappy marriage should be kept a secret, which was not difficult, seeing that all I am telling you happened in Australia almost twenty years ago. You see, my child, that arrangement suited the man, because he could pose as a bachelor and lead the sybaritic life he loved. And that is why he has kept to his side of the bargain ever since. Once he breaks it he will be thrown on his own resources again—and well he knows it. If the story becomes public, every decent man whose good opinion he values would turn from him in contempt, the country houses would know him no more, and, for once in a way, the woman in the case would not suffer. The sympathy would be hers. Are you beginning to understand what I am leading up to, Cecilie?"
"I—I think so," Cecilie choked. "Oh, mummy——"
"Just a moment, dear. In a way this sorry business began to be a sort of fight for the child. I forgot to mention that the actress had a child. A girl whom she thanked God had never been, and never would be an actress. But it suited the man I am talking about to tell her so, because it gratified his spite against the woman who had so humiliated him. For it is humiliating to live on the charity of a woman who despises the recipient. But I don't think I shall be troubled any further with that man, Cecilie. Of course, if you still want to go on the stage after what I have recently had to say——"
"But I don't," Cecilie almost wailed. "I should hate it. And you really mean to say that Mr. Fair is——"
"Your father," Joan said quietly. "Yes. But we will keep the secret, because that is part of the contract. I know you thought you were doing a clever thing when you induced the man of whom we are speaking to offer his services to me, and I accepted them because your Gerald thought he was the only man——"
"And you can actually play opposite him every night?" Cecilie cried. "Oh, mother, how can you?"
"That, my child," Joan smiled, "is one of the crosses we have to bear. One of the horrors of the profession that I was so anxious to guard you from. One of the things one has to get used to. It is said that the fox enjoys the chase, but I doubt it. And now, let us talk about something else. I thought that this was going to be my happiest Christmas Day, and now that I have had to tell you what you should have known long ago, I am sure that it is going to be my crowning Christmas. No one need know anything about this—with one exception——"
"And who is that?" Cecilie asked.
"Why, Gerald, of course. But then, you are not going to marry him. He isn't even going to take you out to dinner to-night."
Cecilie flamed scarlet.
"I had quite forgotten Gerald," she said contritely. "But I am going to be brave, mother, like you were just now. I am going to ring up Gerald and tell him how sorry I am. Perhaps——"
"There will be no perhaps about it," Joan smiled. "Now, run along and make your Christmas as happy as mine."
It was only a small, still voice that spoke through the telephone, but the man at the other end heard every word or it.
"Cecilie," he cried. "Oh, yes, I hear you. Go on. What's all that? Chucking the idea of the stage? Very sorry? What for? Dear girl, I can't make head or tail of what you are saying. Want me to come round and make it up? Rather. And what on earth are you crying about? Eh? Oh, yes, you are. As soon as I can get hold of a taxi I'll be round in a flash."
"It's all right, mother," Cecilie cried, as she burst into the room. "He didn't say much, but he behaved like a perfect darling. And I'm glad, glad I am not going to America. Oh, what a happy Christmas we are both going to spend."
ROGER BEAUFOY came slowly down the wide, shallow staircase into the great hall of The Chase, and made his way into the library, where, according to custom, he usually spent the hour before dinner over The Times. After that he dined in solitary state with butler and footman to wait on him as he had done any time the last twenty odd years. A lonely man, a proud man, and the last of his race. So that when he came to be gathered to his fathers The Chase would be sold, with its priceless old furniture and the few historic pictures that remained, and Cumberland would know the name of Beaufoy no more. Enough there to pay off the mortgages and the ever-increasing debts, provided that Roger Beaufoy did not live too long. And he was not old as men go—65 and hale and hearty, though he took no exercise, and rarely ventured beyond the limits of his estate. The last of his race, and glad of it.
But was he really the sole surviving Beaufoy? That was one of the questions he never asked himself, and none dared to put to him. For there had been a younger Roger once, the heir left to him years before by a young wife who died all too soon. Perhaps if Margaret Beaufoy had lived things might have been different, for Beaufoy had loved his wife with the passionate devotion of the reserved type of man, and her last sacrifice in giving birth to a child had always been a mark against the child.
So the child had flourished and grown up without anything in the way of parental care and affection, going his own way until trouble and disgrace had reared their ugly heads and a stern father had bidden his offspring to go and be seen no more, since when the twain had never met. That was 38 years ago, and from certain information received, the erring Roger was believed to be dead. And Roger the elder smiled grimly as he heard it.
But there were times when his conscience troubled him, when he sat alone in solitary state and brooded over what might have been. If he had been easier with the boy—if he had only shown him a little more affection. A fine, handsome lad, headstrong, and wilful but the Beaufoys had ever been that. Well, it didn't matter very much. In any case there would have been precious little for the lad to inherit save debts and difficulties.
It was about Christmas time that these twinges of conscience troubled Beaufoy most, for his wife had died on Christmas Eve.
Beaufoy was haunted by these memories as he turned in the direction of the library. For it was the festive season, and the eve of the birth of the Christ child. Not quite the typical Christmas, with snow lying thick, but cold and crisp, so that the great log fire in the hall lent a cheerfulness that was not quite in tune with the mood of the master of The Chase. Just at that moment Pentecost, the aged butler, with a perplexed look on his ruddy cheeks, emerged from the shadows.
"Begging your pardon, sir," he murmured. "But there is a young lady in the blue drawing-room who asks to see you, sir."
"A young lady," Beaufoy said, with raised eyebrows. "To see me? At this time of night. On Christmas Eve! Who is she, and how did she get here, Pentecost?"
"She came, sir," the butler explained, "in a taxi-cab, with a suit case and dispatch box, and said as how she was to stay until called for. Her very words, sir. Sent the cab away, sir, she did. I hope, sir, that I am not to blame."
"Show her into the library," Beaufoy said curtly.
Into the library there came presently a girl. She was young and fair, and dressed entirely in black, which set off her golden loveliness to perfection. A pair of eyes the color of a summer night sky looked with almost childish confidence into the dark, rather frowning ones of Roger Beaufoy, very much as a dog might regard one that he recognises as a lover of his kind. A lady, Beaufoy thought—he could recognise breed and refinement in every line of her, from the clean-cut features and the carriage of the little head to the slim contour of the ankles. For the first time in his life, perhaps, Beaufoy felt embarrassed.
"If you will kindly explain," he began. "I am feeling at some disadvantage. Your name, for instance——"
The lovely little stranger smiled. A smile so sweet and melting and, withal, so intimate, that Beaufoy fairly started. It was as if some ghost from the grave had risen to confront him. So strange and yet so familiar.
"There is nothing to explain," the girl said in a fluty contralto that struck Beaufoy like a blow over the heart, so oddly familiar it sounded. "I was to come here and stay until I was called for. If that is in anyway unpleasant to you, then I have somewhere else to go. But I couldn't get there to-night."
"No, I suppose not," Beaufoy admitted. "Perhaps, if you will allow me to ring for my housekeeper——"
The lovely stranger held up a commanding hand. A beautifully slim and graceful hand, Beaufoy noticed.
"Wait," she ordered. "Perhaps you had better learn my name first. I am Cynthia Beaufoy. Your grand-child."
The old man believed it. He knew now where he had seen that smile before, where he had heard those low flute notes in the girlish voice, though he had seen or heard neither any time the last eight and thirty years. It was as if his dead wife was speaking to him across the waste which the locusts had eaten.
"Sit down, child," he said in a tone that none who knew him had heard for many a long day. "Sit down and let us thrash this matter out. That you are telling me the truth I know. Your voice and your smile are inherited from your grandmother. But your father? I believed him to be dead long ago."
The beautiful face dimmed like a flower in a frost.
"Daddy died just six months ago," she said unsteadily. "He died of heart trouble. And not very long before the end he told me all about you and this lovely old house, and how the Beaufoys had been great people for centuries. You see there was only daddy and myself because mummy died when I was quite small. She was always delicate, like so many of the old Virginian families are; and Chicago, where daddy's business was, proved too cold for her. And so she died, you see."
"And my—your father sent you here to me?"
It had been Beaufoy's intention to ask the question in a hard, stern way, but he spoke, despite himself, none too steadily.
"In a way, yes," Cynthia explained. "But not exactly as you expect. Towards the last, when daddy learnt that there was no hope for him, he began to think a lot about his early days. He told me lots of things I had never known before. You were not very fair to daddy, I think. Now, were you?"
This to the autocrat with the forbidding eyebrows, the man before whom most people trembled! But she was looking at him with his dead wife's eyes and speaking with her voice.
"Perhaps not," he murmured, as if he were looking down the dim past with new vision, "perhaps not. Go on, child."
From her vanity bag Cynthia produced a letter. It was heavily sealed and addressed to Beaufoy in his dead son's hand. He broke the seal and read the enclosure that ran:—
My Dear Father,
By the time this reaches you by the hand of my little girl, I shall be no more. When you bade me to go and never see your face again I obeyed. I took you at your word and left the home I had disgraced with little more than the clothes I stood up in.
Perhaps had you been more of a father to me than you were, the trouble would never have happened. But the fact of my being was the price of my mother's life and that you never forgave me. Hence my neglected and lonely boyhood. But enough of that.
For 20 years I struggled on here as best I could. All things by turn and nothing long. Then the chance came and the tide turned and fortune smiled on me. I married a lady who came from an old Virginian stock, a Pendennis, in fact, and the child I am sending you as a Christmas gift is the result. It is a fancy of mine that she should reach you on Christmas Eve, and if you accept her in like spirit she will not come empty-handed. I like to feel that a welcome awaits her in the home where I was born, though I am informed that after your time comes The Chase must be sold and pass into the possession of strangers. It matters little how I have kept in touch with the old place, but I have.>
If the stern point of view still remains, then Cynthia will find a home with an old friend of my wife's who is now settled in Sussex. So it matters very little how you decide, but I should like Cynthia to pass one Christmas in the house that I loved and clung to more than you ever knew. Sentiment, my dear father, but then sentiment is the rock on which the British Empire is founded. And the child is very like her grandmother.
To Beaufoy's intense surprise he was conscious of a smarting at the back of his eyes and the knowledge that a certain chronic heaviness was lifting from the region of his heart. A weight he had carried for countless years. Much as Ebenezer Scrooge felt on that Christmas morning when the last of the spirits had left him. He had not given a thought to The Christmas Carol for close on half a century, but it flashed oddly into his mind now.
"You want to stay here, child?" he asked in a voice so mild and friendly that Cynthia smiled. "To remain here, in fact?"
Cynthia laughed aloud, laughed like a ripple of silver bells so that the great solemn library rang with the music of it. Such a laugh The Chase had not heard for many a day.
"I should love it," she cried. "I have pictured The Chase so often and heard it spoken of by Daddy, especially before he died, that I seem to know it blind-fold. So, if you will do as you suggested just now and ring for the housekeeper——"
"Housekeeper!" Beaufoy cried with a heartiness he felt to his marrow. "You little witch, you are laughing at me. Now listen. What sort of a kit did you bring here?"
"If you please, sir," Cynthia said demurely, "only a dispatch box with some papers and a suit case with an evening dress in case you asked me to dine with you."
"Delighted," Beaufoy averred, and he meant it. "You have a full half-hour to dress. We must call Pentecost into conference. If you will oblige me by ringing that bell."
Pentecost came in response to the summons. His rosy face was working strangely as he gazed respectfully at the lovely stranger.
"Do you know who this young lady is, old friend?" Beaufoy asked with a chuckle. "Remind you of anybody, what?"
"My dear mistress, dead these thirty odd years, sir," the old man breathed huskily. "And Mr. Roger, too, if I may take the liberty of saying so. Don't say I'm wrong, sir."
"Wrong!" Beaufoy cried. "Of course you are not wrong. Go and tell Mrs. Kimmins. Tell everybody that Mr. Roger's child is here for good and all. It can't be for more than a year or two, as you know, Pentecost, but, please God, while it lasts we will do our best to make amends for the past and render my dead son's daughter as happy as possible before some fortunate prince comes along and claims her for his own."
Christmas morning fine and clear after a keen night of frost and stars. Lovely little Cynthia rising fresh as the lark after a sound night's rest in a glorious carved oak four-poster, in which a king had once passed the night. Then outside, taking in the noble lines of The Chase with the stone-paved terrace and the dim vista of the park beyond. And after that, an intimate breakfast in the famous cedar room with an almost doting grandfather, who sat opposite, smiling as if he had never known a frown on his face, or anger in his heart. Service in the little church across the meadows and afterwards neighbors, who in some way had learnt the great news, swarming round with congratulations and telling each other presently that they didn't know what had come to Black Beaufoy, upon their word they didn't, he had changed so for the better since they last saw him. Everybody going to call—which none of them had done time out of mind—and all in love with Cynthia and anxious to give her a welcome to the county. Gilded youth of the male persuasion, immaculate and self-conscious, standing round in silent admiration. And Black Beaufoy standing in their midst with a grin on his face that took ten years off his life.
"How kind and nice they were," Cynthia said, with a catch in her voice. "Oh, how I shall love this place."
"Make the best of it, my dear," Beaufoy said. "It can't last very long. My time, perhaps, but now there is your future to think about. It can't be here, anyway. Inevitably, I am the last of the Beaufoys of The Chase."
Cynthia slipped her hand lovingly under her escort's arm.
"Don't be sure of that," she smiled. "You have not seen all of Daddy's Christmas gift yet. If you had not been so wonderfully good and kind to me last night——"
"You little witch! Who wouldn't? You crept straight into this battered old heart of mine, as I shrewdly suspected you meant to do from the first. Now confess it."
"Well, perhaps," Cynthia admitted. "But when we get back home—my home, Granddaddy, now—there is something more that I have to show you, the second part of Daddy's Christmas gift."
Beaufoy smiled down into the smiling, exquisite face.
"Something more, is there?" he asked. "Something with a happy bearing on your future, I hope. If I could only discern that, then I shall die a happy man. The Chase saved. The long line of the Beaufoys secured. You mistress of the old house with a husband worthy of you, who will take the family name. But a fairy tale, my darling, a fairy tale."
In a fairy setting, Cynthia thought. This wonderful grandfather transformed from a morose old man into a sort of Cheeryble Brother by a touch of the Queen's wand, the grand old house, with its rose-tinted front and quaint, twisted chimneys, all redolent of the past. A veritable haunt of ancient peace, as Tennyson sang, with its immemorial elms, a place to love and cherish, a place which had sunk deep in Cynthia's heart already. And the fairy wand was locked up in the dispatch box in her Queen Anne bedroom.
It was in the library after lunch that Cynthia came down to Beaufoy with the dispatch box in her hand. Beaufoy watched her as she unlocked the box and produced certain papers.
"I have something like a confession to make, Granddaddy," she said. "Do you know that I have not come here to live on you, because I could never have done that."
"So your father hinted in his letter, my child. But do you suppose that would make any difference now?"
"Because—because we are going to be so happy together? Is that what you mean?" Cynthia said none too steadily. "Yes, I can read it on your face. But The Chase and the future, Grandaddy, I want you to look at these figures."
"Securities," Beaufoy said at length. "All American. Over three million dollars represented here. And all, apparently, in your name, Cynthia. Do you mean to say——"
"Oh, yes, yes," Cynthia broke in joyfully. "It is the money that Daddy left behind him for me. The certificates are with the Third International Bank in New York, and I have the receipt here. All that can be transferred to England whenever we want it. Daddy explained everything to me before he died. He taught me quite a lot about business. He made a will, too, and that he gave me to take care of. It's here. Perhaps you would like to read for yourself what he says."
Beaufoy held out an unsteady hand. His glasses were rather misty, but the words were plain enough.
I give and bequeath to my daughter Cynthia everything both real and personal of which I may die possessed. It is my wish that she repair to England as soon as possible after my decease and place herself at the disposal of her grandfather Roger Beaufoy, reaching his house The Chase as soon as possible; reaching there, if convenient, about Christmas Day or the day before. Should she meet with the reception I hope and my father consents to receive her until she is of legal age under his roof, I direct my said father to become her natural guardian and proceed to make her a ward in Chancery until her twenty-fifth year, he in the meantime to allow her one thousand pounds per annum for her personal needs, the balance of the income from my securities during my daughter's minority to go towards the upkeep of The Chase and the redemption of the mortgages thereon. And, if my said father deems it expedient under the conditions of guardianship aforesaid, then it is in the discretion of Roger Beaufoy to raise sufficient funds from my estate to free The Chase from all encumbrances provided always that after my said father's death the whole of this landed property and house pass in succession to my daughter Cynthia.
Failing the above conditions, I hereby appoint as my executors the two senior partner in the firm of Magness and Roscoe, of 650, Lincoln's Inn Fields, to administer my estate on the same terms and conditions as laid down beforehand with regard to my said father Roger Beaufoy."
There was a good deal more to the same effect, but Beaufoy had read all that he needed. Before he had finished the last chip of ice had melted from his heart and he made no effort to conceal his emotion. For the prodigal had made good, the strain on the family honor had been wiped out, and the line would remain unbroken. And, best of all, The Chase stood where it did and the dark clouds had rolled away.
"I don't think we shall have to trouble the family solicitors, my dear," Beaufoy said huskily. "It would have been all the same, as your darling self is concerned had you come to me without a penny. What a happy, happy Christmas you have brought me, and how very, very little I have deserved it."
JAMES LIPCHIN, Lechmere's elderly clerk, tapped on his master's office door with what impatience he dared, then smote agitatedly on the panels, rising to a crescendo of blows. The door of the private inner office had been closed and locked this two hours past, and the cheap American clock in Lipchin's tank pointed to 5.
Then panic gripped the decrepit little old clerk, and he fled into the corridor of the dingy block of offices in Barkstone Lane, and piped feebly for assistance. Up the broken stairway from the ground floor came another white slave in the shape of a pert little Cockney, whistling some choice fragment of song.
"Hello, Methuselum," he hailed. "Why this unseemly 'urry? Old Noah Lechmere given you the boot?"
"Can't make him hear," Lipchin piped in his aged treble. "Been locked in his room since just after 3. Can't make him hear anyhow. What shall I do, what shall I do?"
"Break the lock," first aid said promptly. "Old gentleman ill, perhaps. Come on."
The lock of the broken door gave at the first attempt. An old man sat at a desk at right angles to the only window in the room and within a foot or so of it. The window was wide open, for it was hot and sultry that afternoon, and the narrow Lane, with its steady stream of traffic rumbling on the cobbles below drew no breath of air. The old man moved not at all as the old clerk laid a trembling hand on his shoulder. Lipchin started back with a thin, wailing cry.
"Dead!" he broke out senilely. "Dead!"
"Murdered," Wigley amended, with a choke and a queer sickness at the pit of his stomach. "Murdered! Look here."
He pointed down to the floor by the side of Lechmere's desk next the window. There, on the ragged carpet, lay an old-time six-chambered revolver. It was grimed about the muzzle as if recently discharged, and on the left side of the dead man's head was the wound that had undoubtedly caused his death.
"'Ere, wake up," he gasped. "Call up the Minories police station."
A policeman appeared presently, and later on Inspector Sebohm, of Scotland Yard.
"Been long with Mr. Lechmere?" he asked.
"More or less all my life, sir. I was his chief clerk when he had one of the largest criminal practices in London. You see, sir, when he had the misfortune to be struck off the rolls 10 years ago——"
"Needn't go into that, Mr. Lipchin. Now, tell me in a few words how your late employer lived after he was struck off the roll of solicitors."
"Well, sir," Lipchin piped, "after the Barlick business the practice was as good as dead. And when we came to grief, sir, the master he opened this office as a sort of general adviser to people in trouble—folk as had done wrong."
Inspector Sebohm nodded grimly. He knew all about that. City men sailing very near the wind, company promoters desirous of knowing exactly how far they could go without coming to grips with the criminal law, had consulted Antony Lechmere, and not in vain.
"I think that will do," he said finally. "Give me the key to the little outer office where you work."
At a first glance the affair clearly suggested suicide. There was the wound on the left side of the head, there the revolver lay on the carpet to the left-hand side of the dead man as if it had fallen from his fingers as the fatal bullet sped home to his brain.
Questioned as to why the office door was locked, Lipchin said that it was the habit of Mr. Lechmere when any important client called. At about half-past 3 a client had appeared and asked to see Mr. Lechmere, and passed into the inner office with a brief statement that he had come by appointment. As to the appearance of the visitor, whom Lipchin had never seen before, he was vague. A tall, gentlemanly looking individual, with small black beard and an eyeglass. Had not noticed him particularly at the time, as he, Lipchin, was busy.
Sebohm dismissed the stranger from his mind for the moment. Barkstone Lane was one of the noisiest side streets in the city with its narrowness and the rumble of traffic on the cobbles, but a shot fired in the inner office could not have escaped the attention of the old clerk in the tank outside. The inner office, facing the Lane, was on the first floor and some 15 feet above the level of the street, so there would have been no attack from that direction. And the revolver with one cartridge exploded lay on the floor.
Sebohm looked out of the window into the street, now comparatively quiet, since the exodus from the city had begun long ago. The offices all along the other side were closed and silent. Nearly opposite a tall thin, sandwich of a building shrouded in scaffoldings had been abandoned for the day by the bricklayers and masons who were working on it. Was it possible, Sebohm wondered, if any of the artisans engaged there had heard the shot fired. The distance was only a matter of yards. The inspector made a mental note of the fact.
Nothing in the office of the slightest importance. Absolutely nothing on the desk beyond a copy of that day's "Bulletin" lying open with the first page uppermost, the page that contained the agony column of that extremely popular journal. One of these items caught Sebohm's eye; it had a pencil tick against it, a blue pencil very like the one that lay in a pen-tray within reach of the dead man's hand. It ran:—
"Binks.—Friday at 3.30.
Otherwise wire. Banks."
Well, this was Friday, and at half-past 3 or thereabouts Lechmere had entertained a mysterious visitor who gave no name. And against this notice somebody had made a tick. And there was the very blue pencil lying on the pen-tray. A little farther down the column was another of these queer announcements that caught the keen eye of the inspector, thus:—
"Black Bag.—Armistice arranged.
All hands report duty Monday.
Provisional terms arrived at.
To-morrow last day. Dispatch Case."
Sebohm smote himself on the thigh.
"That's an idea," he told his inner self. "At any rate worth following up. This is where Izzy Finklebaum comes in, unless I am altogether mistaken. We shall see."
With that, Inspector Sebohm locked the outer door of the office, and after officially sealing it walked down the Lane and thence into the busy bustle of Leadenhall street.
AN hour after the adjourned inquest on Lechmere, Sebohm strolled back to his office, where he found a subordinate patiently awaiting him.
"Well?" he asked. "Have you found him?"
"I have that, sir," the plain-clothes man replied. "Hiding in a little second-hand clothes shop in the Minories. With a compatriot named Sheerman. Got the address here, sir."
"He has no idea you are looking for him, Gratton?"
"Oh, dear, no, sir," the other explained. "Directly I marked him down I came back here, as instructed."
It was still daylight as Sebohm turned into the mean street of the Minories and entered a beetle-browed shop, fragrant with the sour, pungent smell of second-hand clothes. A few minutes later he found himself face to face with a diminutive Jew, who proceeded to tie himself into a series of sinuous knots, as if his writhing body was racked with pain.
"Strike me blind if it isn't the inspector," he moaned. "Oi, Oi, vat a dreadful business. I never did it, I'll thwear!"
"Then why are you hiding here?" Sebohm demanded. "It's three days since Mr. Lechmere died, and you have lain low here ever since. When did you see Mr. Lechmere last?"
"For the love of God, don't do it, sir," the Jew moaned. "It's as bad as taking me and throwing me into the Thameth. Better cut my throat than thay a thingle word. Becauth they know—thee?"
With this, Izzy gave another writhe, and from his waistcoat pocket produced a slip of dirty paper, on which a few pregnant lines had been typed by an uncertain hand, thus:—
Don't you do it, Izzy, if you value your whole skin. We are fly to the game, see? We know who pulls the nuts for the old man when it is to his advantage to get, you know who, out of the way. Move an inch, and your light goes out, as his has done. That's all.
"When did you get this?" Sebohm demanded.
"Three nights ago, sir," Izzy whined. "Posted to the lodgings where I wath. I'm scared sthiff; I am, thir."
"As a matter of fact, you have nothing whatever to fear," the inspector smiled. "On the contrary, you will probably save your life by making a clean breast of things, Izzy, you know perfectly well where that precious paper came from."
"I thwear to you, Mithter Sebohm——"
"Now, what is the good, Izzy?" Sebohm said, coaxingly. "Look here, I know that the late Mr. Lechmere trafficked these later days in stolen goods. We didn't interfere because, sooner or later, Lechmere always gave away his principals. But he didn't do that sort of thing direct, Izzy, he always employed a go-between. And that go-between was mostly yourself. Oh, we know all about it. Now, what I suggest is that some criminal, or more likely two of them working together, had a quarrel with Lechmere. They threatened him, and he decided to put them out of the way. And you were the fitting instrument for the dirty job. What are you afraid of?"
An evil light crept into the eyes of the hunted Izzy. He pointed with a shaking hand at the paper in Sebohm's fingers.
"That," he screamed. "Just that, Mithter. Becauth those devils piped the game. If you knew as much about Mat the Major, and Flash Fingall as I do——"
Izzy pulled up, as if conscious of having gone too far. Perhaps the puzzled expression on the inspector's face tended to reassure him, for he laughed unsteadily, which was a mistake, because Sebohm could be as wooden as any country lout when occasion called for stupidity.
"Oh, well, if you won't, you won't," he said. "Only you are making a great mistake. Izzy."
Sebohm retreated presently with the slightly dejected air of one who has failed in his mission. But there was nothing dejected about him, once he was back in his office in close consultation with his fidus Achates, Detective Sergeant Gratton.
"Any luck, sir?" the latter asked respectfully.
"Not so bad," Sebohm smiled. "Mat Butler and Flash Fingall are in this, and that will be your business. See? And one last word, Gratton—you are up against two of the most reckless gunmen in the world. I don't want any police shootings on this side. Looks so bad, and, besides, we never have that sort of thing in England."
"Quite so, sir," Gratton murmured. "You can leave it to me."
IT was only a matter of a few days before Gratton, like a mole underground, came on the track of the two wanted men. More than that, he contrived to get some sort of intelligent grip on what scheme they were plotting. It was a big thing, and needed money, so what was more natural than that they should apply to Antony Lechmere with a view to financing them?
"It's all right, sir, so far," he told Sebohm. "Those chaps were in communication with Lechmere."
"That you can prove?" Sebohm snapped.
Gratton smiled, and when he had finished his story, Sebohm was smiling too.
"Excellent," he said. "And now you can lay those rascals by the heels as soon as you like. But they'll fight?"
"I think not, sir," Gratton said confidently. "You see, Mat Buller—the Major—is the live wire of the party, and he is the man likely to give most trouble. About three nights a week he goes to the Jessamine Club in Carlton Place to dance. Rare good dancer he is. And most nights Flash Fingall goes to some theatre. He will be at the Haymarket to-morrow, and I know that the Major intends to look in at the Jessamine. Clawhammer coat, white waistcoat—all up to the nines. The same with Fingall. Nobble the latter in the crush coming out, before he can get at his gun, and with three of my men, disguised as waiters, rush Buller as he stands at the bar of the club——"
"Sounds all right," Sebohm murmured. "I think that I will look in at the Jessamine myself to-morrow evening."
"Very good, sir," Gratton said. "I'll make arrangements whereby my men at the Jessamine control the telephone, and when we have picked up Fingall at the Haymarket, Mason there can 'phone us of the fact to the Jessamine. Pretty sound scheme, I think, sir."
It was shortly after midnight when Sebohm strolled into the big dancing saloon of the Jessamine, the floor of which was crowded. He was not afraid of being recognised by the men wanted, who, so far as be knew, had never heard of Inspector Sebohm. Not that it mattered much either way, because the Major was not in the least likely to be scared by the contiguity of a mere detective inspector, especially as he knew he was not "wanted" by the London police. So Sebohm threw himself carelessly down into a seat, and ordered a drink. A very alert waiter came presently with a whisky and soda. On the tray was a tiny slip of paper that Sebohm casually glanced at and placed in his pocket. It was a brief intimation to the effect that Fingall had been quietly arrested outside the Haymarket theatre, and was now in safe custody. There were three other words at the end of the message that filled Sebohm with quiet satisfaction.
Meanwhile, he could afford to wait upon events. He watched the room fill up, he noted the glare and bustle and the air of gaiety, like some insidious perfume that clung to the silken skirts of the dancers. Then presently he caught the eye of the waiter with the suggestion of a wink in it, and rose leisurely and strolled in the direction of the bar. A fine specimen of humanity, standing with his back to the room, riveted Sebohm's attention. A waiter in front hustled him, whilst at the same moment two other men, dressed like the first, pressed on the drinker's rear. The Major's hand slipped behind him.
"Here, what the devil——" he began.
The next moment he was struggling in the grip of the three dress-coated policemen.
"Hustle him into the office, and close the door," Sebohm commanded.
"Now, my man, I am Inspector Sebohm, from Scotland Yard, and you are my prisoner, on a charge of murdering Antony Lechmere on the afternoon of Friday last, at his office in Barkstone Lane."
Buller's handsome face darkened to savage scowl.
"Perhaps you wouldn't mind going into a few details," he sneered. "You see, I'm rather interested."
"Quite so," Sebohm said drily. "The death of Antony Lechmere——"
"Suicide," Buller corrected. "The jury said so."
"Oh, you read all about that, did you? Interested, perhaps?"
"Show me one of the big guys in our line who isn't," Buller snarled. "Kept a racing stud and a villa at Monte entirely on what he screwed out of his clients. And when the smash came he turned receiver. Made thousands that way. And whenever one of us got too fresh, he gave us away to the police. Not directly, mind, but through a dirty little tool of his who gave Scotland Yard and the New York police the office."
"Man named Finklebaum, isn't he?" Sebohm asked mildly. "Yes, I know all about him. It was he who——"
"Gave us away!" Buller shouted. "Mean to say he had the nerve after——"
"After you sent him that warning—that slip of paper? Well, not in as many words. All the same, Izzy has his uses. I know that he had his instructions so far as you and Fingall were concerned. Yes, we've got Fingall all right. He was arrested more than an hour ago, and charged with being concerned in the murder of Lechmere."
"Fingall? I haven't seen the man for weeks."
"Very likely, but you have been in close communication with him all the same. You came here from New York on the same boat, though you pretended to be strangers. But you were on a big thing together working it from two different directions, until the time came when you could meet and share the plunder. But you wanted money, and you naturally went to Lechmere to get it. He refused, and you were so foolish as to threaten him. Then you discovered by some means or other that Lechmere was going to give you away at the dramatic moment, and that Izzy was to be the informer. So Izzy had to be frightened into silence while you got Lechmere out of the way. In other words, until you had murdered him."
"How?" Buller asked hoarsely. "How?"
"We will come to that all in good time. Did you ever come across a London daily paper called the 'Bulletin'?"
"Seem to have heard of it," Buller said dully. For the first time he was showing signs of nerve strain. "What about it?"
"We shall also come to that all in good time," Sebohm went on in the same even voice. "I suggest that when you crossed the Atlantic you had all your plans cut and dried in case Lechmere proved recalcitrant. If he agreed to come in with you, well and good; if not, you would have to use threats, because when you left New York you were in very low water financially. He did prove awkward, and you feared he would put us on your track."
"He was a cursed rat," Buller said thickly.
"Precisely. And a dangerous rat to be made into an example. Fingall saw him once or twice at the office in Barkstone Lane, and came to the conclusion that Lechmere must be removed. I know that, because Lechmere's old clerk recognised Fingall, despite his false black beard. I showed him photographs with beard and without it. Those pictures were supplied us by the New York authorities. Fingall called on Lechmere on the afternoon of his death. At that very moment you were not 15 yards away."
"Prove it," Buller shouted. "Prove it."
"Fingall went into the office in Barkstone Lane last Friday afternoon to try and come to terms at the eleventh hour. With him he carried an old pattern of an American navy revolver. It was fully loaded, but one chamber had been recently fired. When Fingall went away he very quietly placed the weapon by the side of Lechmere's chair next the window overlooking the Lane, and immediately left. He gave a sign to you and walked down the street."
Buller stood there, swaying to and fro with a white, set expression on his face. But he was not quite beaten yet.
"What's all this leading to?" he demanded.
By way of reply, Sebohm produced from his pocket the identical copy of the "Bulletin" which he had found on Lechmere's desk.
"Now, look at this," he said. "I mean that paragraph in the personal column. 'Black Bag to Dispatch Case.' It says, 'Armistice signed. All hands report for duty Monday. Terms arranged. To-morrow last day.'"
"Much too subtle for me," Buller sneered.
"Not at all. It is an intimation from one individual to another that the builders' strike has been settled, and that all hands go back to work last Monday, as they did. When I read that paragraph in the dead man's office it jumped to the eye that Lechmere's murderers had suddenly realised that if they wanted to use the scaffolding and hoardings opposite Lechmere's office as a smoke screen for the intended crime, they had no time to spare. So long as that newly-erected building was deserted in consequence of the strike and the hoardings up, a man concealed behind them could see directly into Lechmere's open window and shoot him down without fear of discovery. And that is exactly what happened. You were hidden there, waiting for the signal from Fingall, and directly you got it in your hiding place opposite, you fired. You shot Lechmere through a hole in the poster on the hoarding, and the stain of the powder is on the edges of the tear now, because I cut the piece out. The revolver with one cartridge exploded, before dropping the weapon by Lechmere's chair, was an ingenious way of suggesting suicide, and probably had I not found this copy of the 'Bulletin' on Lechmere's desk I should never have got on the right track. Of course, you had to run the risk of the shot being beard, but it was small, with the noise of the traffic on the cobbles on Barkstone Lane. And now, if I can prove to you——Yes, what is it, Gratton?"
Gratton came quietly into the little room, holding some bright object in his hand.
"Here you are, sir," he said. "I found it in the prisoner's lodgings, at the bottom of a Gladstone bag."
"Ah, the other revolver," Sebohm said quietly. "The fellow to the one found in Lechmere's office, and undoubtedly the weapon with which the crime was committed. How amazingly careless some of you brilliant criminals are. Do you want to hear any more?"
But Buller had heard enough.
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!"
IT was pretty plain to Ronald Charlton that the right sort of Christmas had come at last. In the whole of his mature experience of thirteen years he had never seen anything like it. There was last Christmas, for instance. All fog. And rain in the afternoon. And passed in a London lodging-house because Ethel had to be in town to see the solicitors. Then there were several Christmases spent in India, which did not count at all. It was ridiculous for a boy and girl who passionately admired Dickens to be expected to enjoy Christmas in a broiling sun, to say nothing of a temperature of 105 deg. in the shade. Why, Dickens himself could never have written the "Christmas Carol" in a heat like that. It was very unfortunate that daddy and mother had to stay in India so long, but, then, there had been a lot of tiresome lit—lit—what was it?—oh, litigation, and for years daddy never quite knew whether he was a poor man or whether that tiresome lit—litigation was going to leave him quite well off. That was why Ronald and Maisie had finally been packed off to England with Ethel to look after them. Commissioner Charlton had come to this decision at length.
"Ethel is quite old enough to look after the kids," he said. "She's barely twenty but that does not matter. We can't go muddling on like this."
Mrs. Charlton acknowledged with a sigh that they could not. It might be possible at a pinch to allow Ethel £200 a year, out of which May and Ronald could be educated till such times as the lawsuit was finished, and Ronald might possibly proceed to Harrow. Ronald listened to some of this with a flashing eye. It was a wrench at parting, but there were consolations—the prospect of a real Dickens Christmas was one of them.
But the litigation was not over quite as soon as Commissioner Charlton had expected, and for the best part of two years Ronald and Maisie were cramped up in London. It was a hard struggle that pretty little Ethel had, but she managed it. Then quite early that December there had come a cheery letter from India enclosing a special donation of £50, and the intimation that the lawsuit really was going to turn out well at last. Ethel was to spend that money on a holiday.
"A real holiday, dearest," Mrs. Charlton wrote. "Take the children into the country and let them have a good time. We hope to be with you in six months for good. It is only a matter of getting things settled now. If you only knew how I am longing to see you all again. Why is it you never mention that nice young Mr. Marten in your letters now? The omission makes me suspicious."
Ethel blushed as she read this postscript lo her father's letter. The latter part of it she kept to herself. Why had she ceased to mention Dick Marten? she wondered.
He had been very good to her. As managing clerk to her father's solicitors, Dick Marten had been most useful. He was poor, too, and that formed a bond of union. No doubt he had had his misfortunes, for he spoke of Eton and Oxford quite familiarly. Ethel imagined that he had lost all his money and had been forced to earn his living in a solicitor's office.
Any way, the children liked him. He was a hero in Ronald's eyes. He was full of sympathy with the prospect that might lead up to a proper Dickens Christmas. He had gone to Paris on business, so that he knew nothing of the wonderful £50 and the project that Ethel had in her mind. She, too, was away on business all the next day and when she returned her eyes were sparkling. Whenever her eyes sparkled like that Ronald always knew that she had been doing something to give Maisie and himself pleasure. These were occasions when he did not object to being kissed.
"Why are the eyes sparkling?" ha asked.
"I have been into the country," Ethel explained. "I did not say anything about it at breakfast, as I wanted to surprise you. You see, we have an extra £50 to spend. And we were told to spend it. I thought that perhaps you would like to pass the Christmas holidays in the country."
"Ripping!" Ronald muttered. "Go on, Ethel; tell me all about it."
"Well, I have been, making enquiries. I went as far as Rotherway, and there I found the most delightful old-fashioned house. Just like one of these pictures by 'Phiz' in your beloved Dickens books. There is a fat, comfortable-looking housekeeper and another maid. The people had to go abroad for a few weeks to look after an invalid relative, and they wanted to let the house. So I took it for the holidays and we are going to take possession on the twentieth for six whole weeks."
Ronald made no reply just for the moment; there was a queer sort of lump in his throat. Then they caught Ethel up between them and smothered her with caresses. For if there was one person in the world who was as keen on the Dickens traditions as Ronald it was Maisie.
"All oak panels and low roof?" she asked breathlessly. "And a garden with a wall round it? And holly and ivy and all the rest of it? And a place to skate? And a lovely old church on the side of the hill? And a grand old Manor House at the entrance to the village?"
Ethel restrained herself with some difficulty. Her pretty face was flushed, the shining hair was tangled over her forehead. She made a lovely picture as she stood there, and Ronald did not fail to notice it. Neither did a young man standing in the doorway. He was very nice-looking, very strong and manly, and there was a luminous twinkle in his blue eyes. It was a face to trust.
"May I enquire the cause of all this excitement?" he asked.
"It's Dick Marten," Ronald cried. "It's no use for you to frown, Ethel, because he asked me to call him Dick. And, Dick, where have you been?"
"Busy with affairs of state," Marten smiled. All the same he had eyes for nobody but Ethel and she seemed to know it without being told. "I only got back from Paris last night. But what has happened? Has some fairy godmother left you all a fortune?"
"A fortune!" Ronald cried contemptuously. "It's far better than that."
"Really? Miss Charlton, may I not be let into the secret?"
"It seems so funny to hear Ethel called Miss Charlton," Maisie said thoughtfully.
Marten discreetly ignored the suggestion. His eyes asked a question all the same. He could see the delicate rose pink flush into Ethel's cheeks.
"We are all terribly excited," she laughed. "We have had a Christmas present and we are commanded to spend it all. It occurred to me to give these children a surprise. I—I have taken a lovely old place in the country for the holidays. If we can only have snow and frost and ice, the dream of Ronald's life will be gratified. He wants to act the 'Christmas Carol' over again. We may even be able to find a Rob Cratchit and a Tiny Tim. If we do Ronald is sure to ask them to dinner."
"You bet," said Ronald promptly. "Like a shot. I don't know if I wouldn't rather have a Scrooge, though. It would be ripping to get hold of a Scrooge and convert him. Make him kiss Ethel under the mistletoe; and give all the village kids a blow out."
"Ripping indeed," Marten smiled. "Lucky kids! I shall think of you on Christmas Day when I am having a lonely dinner in my lodgings. Well, good luck to you."
"Here, I say," Ronald protested. "None of that. Dick must come down, Ethel. He simply must spend Christmas Day with us."
Ethel hesitated just for the fragment of a second. The idea of Dick alone in lodgings was not to be tolerated. To ask him to stay with them was not quite—well, he would know what she felt. But Rotherway was not so far from London, and there were frequent trains even on Christmas Day. She turned a shy, wistful face to Marten and there was a pleading look it her eyes.
"If you will," she murmured, "we shall be so glad. You could spend quite a long day with us. And I'm sure that the children would be delighted. I—I should be so pleased myself."
"That settles it," Marten cried. "You are very good to me, Miss Charlton. And where may this early Victorian paradise be? Is it very far from London."
"Not more than twenty miles. It is a place called Rotherway. Do you really know it?"
For Marten had started at the name. He looked just a little grave for the moment, then his face cleared, and that oddly humorous look came into his eyes.
"I've been there," he said. "In fact, I used to have friends there at one time. And I fancy I can guess the house you have taken. It is the old Dower House by the church."
"How very odd," Ethel laughed. "And what a small place the world is, after all. You will be able to show us all the beauty spots in the place."
Marten responded more or less absently. Something seemed to be on his mind, for he was curiously quiet and took his leave before his accustomed time. Ethel did not fail to notice, though it was lost upon the others. They had a thousand questions to ask.
"Not another word till supper time," Ethel said firmly. "Get to your home lessons at once. There will be plenty of time for all this sort of thing next week."
"I hope that it is all you say it is," Ronald responded.
But this keen and critical student of Dickens was more than satisfied with the old house at Rotherway. He compared it favorably with certain prints that he had abstracted from time to time from dilapidated earlier editions of the great master's work. The panelled room, the square hall, the large kitchen, with the hams hanging from the hooks, all breathed the proper spirit. It was delightful to know that the Christmas turkey was in the meadow behind the house unconscious of its impending doom; it was still more delightful to wake three days before Christmas to find a white veil over the whole world, and to see the frost pictures on the diamond-paned windows. The whole front of the Manor House stood out grim and grey, the lake in front of it was coated with ice.
"Now, this is what I call prime," Ronald conceded, as he regarded the silent landscape. "Two more days of this and there will be skating on the lake before the Manor House. The lord of the manor will keep open house and supply everybody with hot cakes and spiced ale. He must be rather stout and wear top boots and have a real oily laugh."
"He is nothing of the kind," Maisie declared. "I've been helping cook to make the mince pies. She says that Mr. Trevor is an old crabstick, who is no good to anybody. He has quarrelled with all his friends and nobody cares anything for him. He can't keep any servants. For all he is so rich he is quite unhappy. He is a—a——What shall I call him?"
Ronald clapped his hands vigorously. "A Scrooge!" he cried. "Ebenezer Scrooge! Lovely! Maisie, this makes the picture complete. If we can only convert Mr. Trevor we have the real 'Christmas Carol.' Don't quite see how it is going to be managed all the same, though. Still, we've had the luck all along, and I feel it won't forsake us now. I'll come into the kitchen and ask cook more about Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge Trevor."
The picture drawn by the cook was not an inviting one and it seemed to Ronald that he would reluctantly have to abandon that part of the programme. There was a lovely afternoon with the sleigh found in a corner of the potting shed, and next day the decoration of the house for Christmas. It was just after breakfast on Christmas morning that Ronald had news of his "Scrooge" again. Cook was fairly bursting with her budget of information as she came into the dining-room.
"What was only to be expected, miss," she said to Ethel. "It's happened before, but never at Christmas time. He quarrelled with all his servants last night and they left him in a body this morning. And him with rheumatics in both hands. Which it serves him jolly well right, I say."
"Do you mean that Mr. Trevor is all alone in the house?" Ethel asked.
"That's just what I'm telling you, miss," cook went on. "Not a single man or woman in that big place. And not likely to get anybody this being Christmas Day, and the poorest of us like to be amongst our friends if we can so arrange it. Dry bread will be his portion."
Ronald looked wistfully out over the snow. He had mapped out a most alluring programme for Maisie and himself. They were to toboggan till lunch time, and skate all the afternoon. It was all in accordance with the Dickens traditions. But here was Ebenezer Scrooge ready to his hand. An opportunity like this was not to be lightly thrust aside. He looked at Maisie, and her eyes danced.
"What are you thinking about?" he asked.
"Scrooge—Scrooge—Scrooge," Maisie giggled hysterically. "Let's go, Ronald?"
If the laws of the Medes and Persians had admitted it, Ronald would have kissed her on the spot. There was no occasion to say anything to Ethel, who was herself a disciple of the Master. And the programme was delightfully simple. They had merely to go over to the Manor House and convert Mr. Trevor, and bring him back home for the rest of the day. An elderly gentleman, with a big burden on his shoulders and rheumatism in his hands, should be easily converted to the gospel according to Charles Dickens. They would lead him into an atmosphere breathing the spirit of kindness and good nature, and he would see the error of his way on the spot. Afterwards he would speak with a lump in his throat and subsequently join heartily in a game of blind man's buff. Ripping!
The two made their way quite boldly up to the Manor House. It being obvious that nobody could answer the bell, they walked in. My! it was a fine place. Old furniture, old pictures, and armor, and trophies of the chase—but cold. Yes, decidedly cold. They came presently to a fine old drawing-room, where an elderly gentleman crouched over a small fire. He was warming a piece of bread and butter by the aid of a fork, a jug of milk stood in the fender.
"What on earth are you children doing here?" he demanded.
"We beg your pardon," Ronald said politely. "Our name is Charlton. I am Ronald and she is May. We have taken the Dower House for the holidays. We came down here to spend a real Dickens Christmas. Did you ever spend a real Dickens Christmas?"
"Yes," said Mr. Trevor curtly. "I have. Many of them. What then?"
"You're lucky," Ronald said grimly. "This is our first. And we find it jolly. Only you've got to make it jolly for everybody else, don't you know. That's why we came. We heard all about those rotters of servants of yours and all about the rheumatism in your hands. We want you to come and spend the day with us. Have luncheon and dinner, and all the rest. Ethel will be delighted. When Ebenezer Scrooge——"
Ronald pulled up suddenly and coughed. He realised that he was going too far. The dark, hard face opposite him twitched. It might have been a smile or it might have been a sardonic grin.
"I see," the squire said, "I'm Ebenezer Scrooge. Well, I've been called worse names. Now you just sit down and let me talk it over. Only I should like some coal first. Sure to be some in the kitchen. Go and see if you can find it, my boy. You're not afraid of me?"
"No," Ronald said steadily. "I'm not a bit afraid of you, and I'll get the coal with pleasure."
Maisie looked just a little uneasy; but when Ronald returned she was chatting freely with the squire. He sat half-listening, half-ruminating, with his hard old face shaded. He was a shrewd old man in his way and it did not take him long to get the gist of the story. In spite of his hard cynicism, he was curious to see the girl who had had the bringing up of these children. They were nice children, too, and they had the right distinction about them. So they belonged to Commissioner Horatio Charlton, did they? Well, he would tell them a secret—he was at Harrow with their father. Obviously, Scrooge was melting; and obviously he could not stay here in this cold place all alone. He did not look like the kind of old gentleman who thrived on a diet of bread and butter and milk. Ronald repeated his invitation again.
"I'll come," the squire said suddenly. "Hanged if I don't. Take this half-crown and go down to the lake. Get the first loafer you see to come up here. I'm going to bring some wine and fruit with me. I daresay we shall find the key of the orchard houses somewhere. Ebenezer Scrooge is going to enjoy himself. If I had had a boy like you I might have been a—but no matter."
When the procession arrived at the Dower House it wanted an hour to luncheon time. Ethel was standing by the fender, looking into the fire. Her face was red and her eyes were dim with tears; but they were happy tears, and her head was half resting on Dick Marten's shoulder. His arm was round her waist; he was talking to her slowly and tenderly. The world was very far away just then.
"I ought not to have spoken, darling," Dick said, "but when you looked at me as you did, and you put out your two hands, I couldn't help it, dearest. Because I have loved you all the time, and in that moment I saw that you loved me. I am a poor man, but for your sake I am prepared to——"
All this the dark squire saw and heard, though it conveyed nothing as yet to the children. They were too excited over their capture. Ronald burst out explosively.
"We've got him, Ethel," he cried. "We've got Ebenezer Scrooge. We went up to the Manor House and found him all by himself. Eating bread and butter. And milk. And we asked him to come and spend the day here. And he's come. And he's got wonderful old port in dusty bottles and grapes and peaches. Out of the orchard houses. And we are to go there whenever we like. And——"
Ethel turned a crimson face on her strange guest. But there was a welcome in her lovely, dewy eyes, and she held out her hand.
The squire's face relaxed.
"I am so glad," she said simply. "We heard all about your trouble. What must you think of my children?"
"I'll try and show you that later on," Mr. Trevor said. "So the ideal Christmas is complete. The atmosphere is perfect—everything is perfect, even the atmosphere of Ebenezer—meaning himself. And Dick here, too."
"Do you know him?" Ethel gasped.
"Do I know this rascal? Why, he's my nephew. The man who was going to have all my property. Oh, I don't care a hang about the children being here. They've catered for an ideal Dickens Christmas, and they deserve every ounce of it. I quarrelled with Dick because he wouldn't marry the girl I picked out for him. Preferred to pick out one for himself, and, by Jove, he's the luckiest man on earth. Shake hands, Dick, my boy, and let bygones be bygones. I heard you say just now that you were a poor man. It isn't true. You are going to be a very rich man, and you are going to give up the law that you always hated. You took up a profession so as to feel that you could get your living if necessary, but you never cared for it. You shall marry this pretty bird of yours, and I'll buy this house for you. Now, my dear, if you could kiss me——"
Ethel laughed and blushed; but she was equal to the occasion. She caught Ronald up and kissed him, too. It was not exactly playing the game but it was Christmas Day, and Charles Dickens would have approved.
"You're a wonderful boy, Ronald," Dick said unsteadily.
"Nothing to do with me," Ronald said sedately. "I was bound to play the game properly. When I see Mr. Trevor after dinner playing blind man's buff I shall be——"
"You shall, my boy," the squire said fervently. "You shall, my boy, if I die for it. Hurrah for Charles Dickens!"<</p>
COLONEL LEWIS FABER sat deep down in his big library chair trying to steel himself against the blow that fate had dealt him in the shape of the big man who stood with his back to the great carved chimney-piece and spoke as if Angles belonged to him. And the bitter truth was that the thing was practically true.
That is to say that the big man with the straggling beard, ill-kept hair and bloodshot eyes was the Colonel's only son whom he had deemed to be dead and buried ten long years ago. And glad to know that such was the case. Because Dick Faber had utterly disgraced the family name, leaving the country hurriedly lest he might have figured in the dock. A young man, thorough bad, with no redeeming features, one who had broken his mother's heart and sent her to a premature grave.
And here he was back again on Christmas Eve of all days in the year to claim his inheritance seeing that the the Angles estates were entailed, and, however vile the Colonel's successor was, the property would be his some day.
He was dead and had come back to life again after the lapse of something like thirty years despite the fact that the father had had proof in chapter and verse from distant Alaska that his son was dead, murdered, in that distant land. And Lewis Faber had been thankful to hear it.
The prodigal had changed beyond recognition. The handsome youth of thirty years ago had grown into the dissipated figure of a mere roadster and wandering vagabond leaving no trace of his early manhood behind him. But for the fact that he seemed to remember the grand old house and intimate things connected with it, the Colonel would have had no hesitation in proclaiming him to be no more than some impudent impostor.
"There isn't any way of getting over it, governor," the prodigal was saying. "Sorry to upset your arrangements and all that, but fair's fair even if I am a real wrong 'un. Which I ain't denying. O' course I can't prevent you leaving, mother's money to this young George Faber and his little missis to be, but all the property must come to me some day and there's no two ways about that. And mind this, old sport—I 'aven't come back with bulging pockets."
"Why did you come back at all?" the tortured Colonel asked with a bitter glance. "Wasn't it enough to drag the name down in the mud, as you did thirty years ago? My time has nearly come and you might have waited till then, the more so as you now tell me you have no means of your own."
"But I shall 'ave," the derelict boasted. He had few aspirates, the Colonel noticed. Forgotten long ago, probably. "Only I, well, there's no occasion to go into that. Thought I was murdered didn't you? Well, I was left for dead after that row I 'ad with Big Dronson. Over a lot of pelts, that was. Great stuff and worth a packet. Then One Tooth—a half breed—found me in the snow and nursed me sound again."
"I know," the Colonel said wearily. "You wrote and told your poor mother about that. Not that she showed me the letter. It was not supposed that you were in correspondence with her. Then came the news that, after all, you had succumbed to long exposure in the snow and the cold. Now what are you going to do? Some day you will be master of Angles, but not yet. I am not going to have you here."
"What! Not on Christmas Eve or to-morrow?"
The Colonel seemed to hesitate. A day or so mattered little. The Christmas tradition was strong in him. And besides, the servants knew pretty well everything by this time.
"Let it pass," he said. "But not after to-morrow. Do you propose to sit down to dinner this evening in those—er—rags? Perhaps Jarvis can dig you out a suit."
"All the same to me," the intruder growled.
He turned away and slouched out of the room. The Colonel sighed deeply as he rose and drew the heavy curtains so as to shut out the fading daylight with its leaden sky. A few feathers of snow were floating down-wards, but the impending fall would not be yet.
What would the end be? Lewis Faber asked himself. And why had this affliction fallen on him? The evidence of his wretched son's death had been so marked and conclusive that there had been no doubt about it for a moment. And this evidence had come to hand long after the story of the half-breed, hero of the rescue, had reached England through Dick Faber's letter to his mother. The letter which the Colonel had never seen, and which he was supposed to know nothing about.
And where would Elsie Warren and his nephew George Faber come in now. Elsie was a sort of adopted daughter and the apple of the Colonel's eye these ten years past. And George Faber, son of his dead brother and apparently heir to Angles—a young man calculated to uphold the honour and fortunes of the house. Those two were going to be married early in the new year, but the advent of the prodigal had put an end to all that or at least delayed it for some years. How would Elsie take it?
It was just at that moment when Elsie came into the room. A subdued and saddened Elsie far from the bright spirit and beauty who had helped all these years to make Angles the cheerful habitation it had been—till that very morning.
"Sit down, my dear," the Colonel murmured. "I have just been... No escaping from it, I fear. It looks as if Dick's mother knew that he was alive when we, yes, hoped, that he was dead. I never saw the letter——"
"I did," Elsie explained. "Just before Auntie died she gave me Dick's letters to read—all of them. I was to take care of them and I have. Not to show them to you unless you asked or made any inquiries. I have just been reading them again. Dear uncle, please don't worry about George and myself. It will all come right in the end. We are both young and..."
A GHASTLY Christmas Eve and a dinner suggesting that somewhere a corpse was lying in the room. The Colonel hardly speaking a word, Elsie trying to be cheerful and the derelict growing more noisy and boastful as he tossed off the wine which he never passed. And George Faber watching and wondering how it was possible that this vulgar ruffian, with his coarse speech and illiterate vocabulary had ever been educated in a famous public school. An evening never to be forgotten and never seeming to come to an end. Then, finally, Dick Faber rose unsteadily to his feet and made for the door. He leered at the others evilly.
"I'm going to bed," he said thickly. "Ask Jarvis to put a pair of slippers in my room—I've got nothing beyond the boots that I stand up in, governor."
He was gone, and the cloud seemed to lift as he went. But it was late now and, any way, the evening was spoilt.
"Is it snowing yet?" the Colonel asked absently.
"Just beginning, sir," George Faber replied. "Not heavy yet, but likely to be towards morning."
The conversation flagged and died so that the trio in the dining room welcomed the suggestion of bed. With every prospect of another dreadful day on the morrow. At least George Faber told himself as he made for his room. Not that he hoped to sleep for that seemed to be out of the question. He made up his fire anew and sat before it thinking deeply. He could hear the soft tinkle of snow on the windows and, down below, the clock proclaiming the hour after midnight. All else quiet as the grave.
And then a sound somewhere on the ground floor. A sound as if someone was hitting an object with some heavy weapon which was muffled by a cloth.
George scrambled out of bed and hastily dressed. Beyond a doubt, somebody was down there in the library. Within five minutes George was creeping down the stairs and into the room from whence the tappings proceeded. Somebody was at work there; some intruder kneeling before the rather ancient safe in which the Colonel kept some of his valuables, including a considerable sum of money with which to cover the festive season.
A masked figure, with what appeared to be a pair of rough stockings drawn over his boots. Without waiting for a moment, George flung himself upon the intruder and bore him backwards. But the advantage was short.
The thief recovered himself immediately. He was on his feet so swiftly that even his mask was not disturbed. In point of physique, the odds were all on his side. George just avoided a smashing blow, and made for the door with a view to giving the alarm. With a muttered oath the burglar dashed for the low french window, and drawing back the catch flung open the one half and vanished into the night. Nothing daunted, George followed. But his man had vanished into the darkness and was seen no more. An inch or so of snow had fallen within the last hour or so, but had ceased now, and George could see the beginning of a series of footsteps printed on the white sheet.
Pursuit, however, seemed to be hopeless. It only remained now to rouse the household and ascertain what had been removed from the safe, which the burglar had contrived to open and from whence he probably had looted the paper money and other valuables.
Apparently George's cry for assistance which he had uttered as he reached the library door had not been heard, so that he was fain to rouse the Colonel and tell him what had happened.
"All right, I'll come down," he said. "No occasion to wake anybody else. Pass me that dressing gown."
The safe door stood open and the Colonel looked in.
"Um, money all gone," he muttered. "And a gold cigar case. Nothing else, apparently. This is the first time I ever regretted the absence of a telephone here. We can do nothing till morning, George, so let's go back to bed."
CHRISTMAS morning; and a perfect day with brilliant sunshine and the whole countryside under a thin mantle of glittering snow. Breakfast time in the smaller dining-room with the Colonel and Elsie and George gathered there. No sign of the prodigal son for whose absence there was little regret. And not a happy Christmas morn as it had been but a year ago.
"Ought not we to do something about last night's affair?" Elsie broke the silence at length. "The footprints of the burglar are printed in the snow from the library window just as if they had been painted there. Evidently he forgot all about the snow. George says he had stockings over his——"
"On second thoughts," George interrupted, "I am inclined to think I was mistaken. More like grey tennis shoes. I am the more convinced of this because when I was looking for clues in the garden two hours ago I actually found an old tennis shoe or slipper. The thief lost that in his flight, and probably the other somewhere else. If you ask me——"
Jarvis came silently into the breakfast room.
"Sergeant Bruford would like to speak to you, sir," he said to the Colonel. "Something to do with last night, sir."
The man of the law had quite a lot to say.
"I was on duty last night, sir," he began. "Between the hours of 12 and six this morning. About one o'clock I was passing along the Park footpath when I saw a man emerge from Angles rose garden and run like a hare towards the river. He came straight into my arms, as one might say, and I made out that he was barefooted. Much later on I found a sort of tennis shoe in the man's tracks—but that is not the point sir. So, after a bit of a struggle, I arrested my gentleman and took him to the village lock-up. When I searched him I found a lot of money in notes and a gold cigar case bearing your initials, sir."
The Colonel turned hurriedly to George. "Run upstairs and see if my—Dick is in his room," he directed. "Something is very wrong here."
"So I think, sir," the policeman said. "Why, the man in question actually had the nerve to say that he was your son, sir. And staying here."
The Colonel's abject misery was plainly apparent.
"More or less true, officer," he murmured. "Though why he should play the burglar in what is practically his own house passes my comprehension."
"A pressing need of money," Elsie suggested.
"More than possible," the Colonel agreed. "We have long thought him to be dead, Bruford. But, of course, you know all about that shameful story."
Bruford made no attempt to conceal his surprise.
"Then I have your son in my custody," he exclaimed. "Of course, if you wish to withdraw the charge——"
"I must," the Colonel said miserably. "Well, George?"
"He's not there, Uncle. Bed not slept in."
IT was all wrong, of course, but in the afternoon the prodigal son swaggered in with no hint of repentance. He had wanted money which he had expected to be denied him, and had taken an easy way of replenishing his empty pockets. Only luck was against him, and so he had fled the house with the plunder in his pocket hoping to regain his bedroom when the hue and cry was over. The rest was no more than a piece of pure bad luck. To all of that the Colonel listened in abject misery.
"And this is a son of mine," the old man cried. "A son with no shame in him."
George Faber looked up from a letter he had been reading and which had been handed to him by Elsie. Then he turned to the prodigal and directly addressed him.
"Would you mind answering a question or two?" he asked.
"A million if you like," the other shrugged.
"Thanks. You remember a letter you wrote your mother some ten years ago after you were left for dead in Alaska and rescued by a half-breed Indian? You do? Good. Because I hold that letter in my hand. Do you recognise it as genuine?"
"Why should I deny it?" the other shouted after he had merely glanced at the handwriting.
"Good again," George went on. "This letter was handed to me just now by Elsie after we had made a most important discovery. She had it from Mrs. Faber with others not long before that lady died. And, most fortunately has preserved them over since. If that letter is yours——"
"Who doubts it?" the prodigal said truculently. "Not me."
"I do," George said, quietly. "Moreover, the late Mrs. Faber was not your mother. No need to shout, I am going to prove what I say. In this vital letter from the real Dick Faber to his mother, he says that he did not escape unhurt altogether from his long exposure in the snow. On the contrary, he lost all the toes on his left foot from frostbite. A small thing, but fatal to your case. If you like to show us——"
An oath broke from the prodigal's lips.
"No need for that," George went on. "The footprints you left last night, when you ran into the arms of a local policeman after I had alarmed you, are plain as daylight for anybody to see. Cross over to the window and look for yourself. They are those of a man who has suffered no injury. No doubt you know Dick Faber well and learnt how to impersonate him much as the famous Claimant did in the Tichborne case. Out of your own mouth you are convicted. If it is necessary to call the police——"
"No animosity," the stranger grinned, as he walked out of the room. "And a merry Christmas."
"And it shall be," the Colonel smiled. "Thank God."
WHEN Professor Felix Kleiser resigned the Vice-Chancellorship of Marchester University in August, 1914, the average Briton, with his nice sense of the proper proportion of such things, declared that the learned gentleman had done exactly what was to be expected from any man of honor.
It was true that the learned pundit in question was German born, but then he had been naturalised for over twenty years, and that before he came to this country he had been at open variance with the Kaiser and his Junkers with regard to their blatant militarism. Indeed, it was on record that high words had passed in the Wilhelmstrasse, after which the professor had turned his back on his native country for good and all, saying that England and Germany were natural allies and destined between them to rule the world. And, at any rate, it was a matter of public record that after the funeral of Queen Victoria Kleiser had rudely turned his back on the Kaiser, who had offered to shake hands with him.
Still, Kleiser had undoubtedly done the right thing, despite these facts. For, had he stayed at Marchester, there would have been a good deal of ill feeling, so that he gracefully retired with the regrets of the staff and the hearty good wishes of all who knew him. Whereupon he retired to a secluded spot some twenty miles from the port of Marmouth, where he devoted himself to the collection and study of butterflies. On this subject he was something of an authority, but, by comparison with his former work, this pursuit was a mere hobby. Still, he could do work of national importance in this direction, and he did. It was mainly owing to his exertions that the ravages of insects and caterpillars amongst the now precious crops were kept within limits; indeed, the Kleiser formulae for treating growing potatoes had been a marked success.
But it was butterflies that Kleiser mainly affected, and from the first he had been amazingly successful; so successful, indeed, that he had established a regular correspondence between himself and Zoomstag of Stockholm, probably the greatest authority on lepidopterae in the world. As a matter of fact the authorities had rather gone out of their way to make this correspondence easy, because Zoomstag had been enthusiastic on the subject of these crop parasites, and Kleiser had found some of his hints of the greatest value. There had been times occasionally when the U-boats were busy and posts irregular, that a letter had been conveyed to Stockholm by a British destroyer. But all this is more or less by the way.
Certainly Kleiser had been amazingly successful in his pursuit of butterflies all through the summer of 1917. He was probably the only man in England who had succeeded in capturing a Swallow Tail that year, to say nothing of a Purple Emperor or two, and when at length he proudly displayed a Camberwell Beauty and wrote a description of it to the papers, the jealousy of his rivals broke out into open and pointed cynicism.
Canon Hillgard, a near neighbor of his and himself a collector and authority, was frankly incredulous. But it was small use to talk like this when the professor came across to the rectory with the specimens actually in his hand. He was a tall, wiry figure of a man with a grey beard and keen eyes behind his gold-rimmed spectacles, the sort of man who suggested a certain amount of physical strength, in spite of his years.
"Ach, my friend," he said. "Look at this. A fine specimen of a Camberwell Beauty, beyond doubt. What you say to dot, mein freindt. Is she not a beauty?"
In common fairness the Canon was bound to admit, that it was. He said the usual polite thing, but he was worried and distressed all the same. He could put up with the Swallow Tails and Emperors, and the quite phenomenal number of White Admirals that had fallen captive, so to speak, to the professor's bow and spear, but he was not prepared to swallow the Camberwell Beauty for the simple reason that no such thing had been heard of, even in that favored haunt, for the best part of half a century.
"How do you account for it?" he asked. "Surely it could not be an indigenous specimen. Do you suppose it has flown out of a passing ship?"
"Dot might be," the Professor said. "A Dutch boat, perhaps. But dere it is, and you cannot deny it."
Naturally, with the specimen before him, the Canon was not prepared to go that length. All he could do was to congratulate the Professor on his great good fortune and make a record of the event in his diary. When the Professor at length departed, the Canon turned to his nephew, Haddon Hillgard, who had taken no interest in the discussion; in fact, he appeared to be frankly bored by the whole thing. It seemed to him rather absurd that two elderly and learned gentlemen should be so excited about a mere butterfly.
"What do you think of it, Haddon?" the Canon asked.
Haddon Hillgard shrugged his shoulders. He was a young man who apparently took no interest in anything; he seemed to have reduced the doctrine of nil admirari to a fine art. He ought, in the Canon's private opinion, to be in the army or navy, instead of which he appeared to have some vague job in Whitehall that allowed him frequent vocations in different parts of the country. Just now he was supposed to be doing work of national importance at Marmouth, on the great naval port and base some twenty miles away, but for the last week he had quartered himself upon the Canon. He did little else but smoke cigarettes all day and moon about the place in an indolent fashion that caused a certain amount of irritation to the Canon, who was an essentially outdoor man and had played cricket for his university in his time.
"Don't interest me much," Haddon drawled.
"No, I suppose not. I should like to see you interested in something. But that butterfly. Now, here's a man who is more or less of a theorist, but one who has never studied moths in their native haunts as I have. And he's found more rare butterflies this summer than I have found in the whole course of my life. Why, I haven't seen a Purple Emperor for three years, and, as regards a Swallow Tail, I haven't taken one since the Australians were here in 1884. As to a Camberwell Beauty—tell you what it is, Haddon, that man's a humbug. I believe he imports the larvae and turns it loose, so to speak, for the mere sake of saying he has caught a butterfly afterwards. It has been done."
"German, isn't he?" Haddon asked listlessly.
"German born," the Canon said honestly. "But English to all practical purposes. Resigned his job at Marchester University as soon as the war broke out."
"Still, he is a German," Haddon persisted.
"I am not denying it. But his instincts are purely English. He has done a lot of good, too. That new treatment of his must have saved thousands of acres of crops. He was thanked in the House of Commons for what he did. I am not denying that he owes a good deal to Zoomstag of Stockholm."
"I've heard of him," Haddon said. "Big scientific swell, isn't he? But how does your friend get in touch with him?"
"Well, it's like this. Zoomstag is the authority on creeping pests, and therefore the Government have gone out of their way to make it easy for Kleiser to communicate with Zoomstag. His correspondence is uncensored, and, indeed, I happen to know that our destroyers carry it sometimes."
But Haddon Hillgard did not appear to be listening. He strolled out presently in his indolent way and went off on his motor cycle in the direction of Marmouth. It was quite late before he returned, and when he did come back he did not go out of his way to inform his uncle where he had been. For the next day or two he rambled about the neighborhood with a considerable quantity of cigarettes and a powerful pair of field-glasses. Towards the end of the afternoon he was crossing a field in the neighborhood of the Professor's house when he came in contact, apparently quite by accident with an acquaintance from Marmouth. This was none other than a civilian draftsman in the Naval Arsenal there whom Hillgard knew by the name of Boom, a clever American naval architect, who enjoyed a position of trust in the drawing office to the department responsible for the turning out of destroyers. Hillgard accosted this man in his usual listless way.
"Well, Boom," he drawled. "What are you doing here?"
For some reason or another Boom did not appear particularly pleased to see his acquaintance.
"Oh," he said, "I'm having an afternoon off. Been spending an hour or two on my favorite hobby—butterflies. So I thought I'd drop in and see Professor Kleiser and introduce myself to him. I've had a very interesting afternoon."
"I don't doubt it," Hillgard said drily. "See the Camberwell Beauty? No, I don't take an interest in that sort of thing myself, but my uncle, the Canon here, the man I am staying with, talks about nothing else. Well, so long, Boom."
With that he strolled away in the direction of the Canonical residence. Quickening his pace once Boom was out of sight. Then he proceeded to shut himself in the little room at the back of the house where the telephone was situated. He called up a certain number in Marmouth—a number which, by the way, was not in the book—and presently got in contact with the man he was after.
"That you, Sutton?" he said. "Yes, it sounds like your voice, but give me the key letter. Repeat it. Yes, that's all right. Now, listen. I believe I've got it. I want you to keep your eye open for the next two or three days for the correspondence of Professor Kleiser. All his letters are to be opened and, as they are read, send a confidential messenger over here with them for me to see. What's that? Say it again."
"It's a big order," said the voice at the other end of the wire. "The Home Office has given instructions that the professor's correspondence isn't to be tampered with."
"Ah, I expected some tomfoolery like that," Hillgard said. "Now, go to Admiral X——, you know who I mean, and tell him what I said. Ask him to 'phone the Home Office at once and explain to them exactly what I want. Now, get busy."
With this Hillgard rang off and went in unconcernedly to dinner. It was a day or two before the first of the censored letters reached him, and it proved to be, as he had confidently expected, a communication from Kleiser to Zoomstag at Stockholm on general subjects, ending up with a long account of the capture of the Camberwell Beauty. This part of the letter Hillgard read again and again. It ran as follows:—
It was a bit of great big luck to me, my friend. I was passing along by a belt of trees behind some shrubs when I saw the butterfly high overhead. At first I did not guess what it was till the insect came down low and settled on some green stuff. Then I saw almost to my amazement, that it was a fine specimen of the Camberwell Beauty. I need not tell you that no specimen of this kind has been seen in the country for forty years. It was poised there with its tail towards the north-east, in fact, I send you a sketch of it just as it lay there on the foliage. By rare good luck I managed to catch it without doing the beautiful creature the slightest harm. You never saw a more beautiful specimen. I thought at first of mounting it myself, but so great a rarity deserves special treatment. So therefore I take it myself to London on Thursday and I leave Marmouth by the train that departs for London just after eleven o'clock. My Purple Emperors I am taking as well, but those need not go to London. Those I shall dispatch to York so that they will reach there on Friday. Perhaps I had better tell you that the Camberwell Beauty was flying in a north-easterly direction when I captured him—a small matter to the ignorant, perhaps, but highly worthy of notice by scientific students like ourselves. I will send you the two White Admirals in the course of a day or two, and perhaps I shall be able to enclose a special of the Swallow Tail at the same time. But as to this I'll write you more fully to-morrow.
It was some time before Hillgard locked the letter away, which he did presently with the air of a man who is not displeased with himself. He strolled towards the dining-room presently and sat down to his dinner, knowing perfectly well that the subject of butterflies would come up before long. And it did. It was easy thence to draw the Canon on to talk of Zoomstag.
"What nationality is he!" young Hillgard asked.
"None," the Canon said promptly. "Zoomstag boasts he belongs to no nation. As a matter of fact, he is a Swede by birth. But it pleases him to boast that he is purely cosmopolitan, which enables him to have correspondents in every country, even those that are at war with the Allies."
"Extravagant man?" Hillgard asked.
"Oh, very. Keeps a sort of open house. Like most scientific men, always painfully short of money. But he's a great man, all the same, and I have the highest opinion of him."
"That's all right," Hillgard said. And with that the subject dropped. Nor did Hillgard bring it up again till the best part of a week had elapsed.
During this time he seemed to have shaken off a good deal of the languid pose that caused the athletic and vigorous Canon to regard him with something almost approaching dislike. He passed most of his time on his motor cycle travelling backwards and forwards to Marmouth. Government work, he moaned.
Then, one evening at dinner, he introduced the subject of Kleiser and his butterflies again. They had reached the stage when the port and cigarettes had been introduced, and Hillgard sprawled in his chair much as if there was nothing in the world of interest beyond the enjoyment of the moment.
"I suppose you keep a record of these things?" he said. "I mean that whenever one of these beastly butterflies turns up you make a note of it."
"Yes," the Canon said curtly, "I do." He did not like this flippant way of speaking on what, to him, was an almost sacred subject. "Of course, it is almost of national importance. I have a diary in which all the circumstances surrounding the finding of a rare butterfly are carefully recorded. Not only that, but I have a note of the measurements as well. I suppose the last month or two Kleiser must have discovered a score of rare butterflies—White Admirals, Swallow Tails, Purple Emperors, and, of course, the Camberwell Beauty."
"And the dates as well?" Hillgard asked.
"The dates, certainly. But why do you ask? I began to think you didn't take an interest in anything."
"Oh, of course, I know you regard me as a slacker," Hillgard said good-naturedly. "But I think I shall be able to justify my existence when the time comes. Would you mind my having a look at those diaries and making a few notes from them?"
Somewhat flattered, the Canon assented. And he was pleased to note how carefully this slacker of a nephew of his went through his neatly-written pages. The latter had just completed his notes when the telephone bell rang, and the old butler came in with a message.
"A friend of yours has just rung up from Marmouth, sir. He wouldn't give his name. I was to tell you that the man you are asking about went to York Castle this afternoon, and that he left all his fishing tackle behind him. That was all, sir."
With the disappearance of the butler a strange change came over Haddon Hillgard. He stood up and discarded both his eyeglass and that indifferent manner of his. He had become, suddenly and unexpectedly, a man of action. The cynical smile faded from his face, his mouth grew stern and hard, and there was a look in his eyes that had the Canon's high approval.
"Uncle," he said in a quick decisive voice, "are you good for an adventure? I meant a bit of real melodrama with a prospect of physical danger behind it?"
The one-time University blue and champion amateur middleweight responded promptly to the challenge.
"My dear boy," he said, "I wish you could think you were half as good a man as I am. Oh, I know I'm fifty-six, but it isn't very long ago since I gave the village bully the hiding of his life. And he knew something about using his fists, too. What is it?"
"Government Service," Haddon said curtly. "I want to have a look at Professor Kleiser's collection of pupae and larvae. You told me a few days ago that you believe he imported these things and bred them so that he might have the honor and glory of catching them in the open. It's quite an innocent vanity, but it might be put to very dangerous purposes. At any rate, I am going over to the Professor's house, and, if necessary, I am going to burgle it. Mind, I'm not doing this for amusement. You think I am doing nothing at Whitehall—as a matter of fact, I am in the Secret Service, though no one's supposed to know it. I'm bound to tell you because I want your help, and I know you'll respect my confidence. Now, are you good for a little housebreaking?"
"In the cause of my country, certainly," the Canon cried.
"Well, come on then. I think you told me that the Professor was in the habit of retiring early. Put on a pair of old tennis shoes and I'll do the same. What I want is to get into the Professor's workshop and satisfy myself that these rare butterflies are really hatched from the chrysalides, or whatever you call them, that have been imported from abroad. This is exactly where I want your assistance. Oh, it's a big thing, I assure you."
They set off presently across the fields in the direction of the Professor's house. It was past 11 o'clock by this time, and rather a dark night for the time of year, for there was no moon. Haddon Hillgard had to stop and send a telephone message before they started, and, this being done, he declared that there was nothing more to detain him. They came, at length, to the outbuildings of the unpretentious house where Kleiser had taken up his abode, and, very cautiously, they moved round till they found an open window leading into the kitchen. Through this they climbed until they reached at length a small stone-flagged room which had originally been a dairy but which now contained a number of boxes neatly arranged on shelves in which were the eggs of butterflies in various states of progress. The Canon whispered that he had been here before, so that he was treading on more or less familiar ground. Then presently, with the aid of a chair, he reached a few boxes down from a top shelf and laid them on the table. Turning on his flash-lamp he examined the contents of the boxes carefully. A little grunt of satisfaction escaped him.
"Ah, here we are, my boy," he said. "It is exactly as I expected. Here are butterflies—rare butterflies—in every stage from the egg to the chrysalis. Some of them are almost ready to hatch out now. Look at those, and those. That's a Purple Emperor, and those in the other box are Swallow Tails. And here are some Camberwell Beauties. Those dingy-looking objects don't convey anything to you, but to me they're as plain as print. Now, isn't that like a German? These have been all imported from abroad beyond the shadow of a doubt—procured from Zoomstag, probably. So this is that old humbug who has been triumphing over all of us!"
"You're sure of this?" Haddon asked.
"Of course I am, though I don't know what it all means. Pure vanity, I expect."
Haddon muttered something under his breath. He was keen enough now and a very different man to the languid youth who had apparently been idling for the last fortnight. He was about to say something when there came the sound of a footstep in the passage and a second later Kleiser came into the room. He flashed a powerful light on to the two figures hanging over the boxes on the table, and an ominous click was heard. The Canon stood up straight enough, looking Kleiser in the face as far as possible, whilst Haddon Hillgard crouched so low that his relative half-imagined that he was lying there to escape a shot from the revolver which, beyond doubt, the German Professor had in his hand.
But it was only for an instant, then young Hillgard with a crab-like motion launched himself fairly through the air and gripped Kleiser round the knees. It was a beautiful piece of rugby tackling, executed to the instant, so that the Professor crashed on the floor and as he did so the weapon he carried flew from his hands.
The Canon was on to it like a flash. Then, knowing something about the room in which the encounter was taking place, he reached for the electric switch and flooded the room with light.
Kleiser lay on his face with his hands behind him—hands no longer capable of evil, for Haddon had produced a pair of handcuffs from somewhere and had neatly snapped them on the German's wrists. He dragged the scowling Professor to his feet, a Professor no longer amiable and suave, but a sullen, baffled spy with eyes venomously gleaming behind his glasses.
"I think the game is up, Professor," Haddon said coldly. "When I tell you that Boom has been arrested and that he has made a full confession you will probably agree with me. At the present moment your confederate is safe in York Castle. You can say what you like, or you can be silent."
The German had himself well in hand by this time. He was breathing heavily, but beyond that showed no sign of what was passing through his mind. Haddon Hillgard opened the kitchen door and put a whistle to his lips. A second or two later two unmistakable police-officers in plainclothes made their appearance. They seemed to know Hillgard, for they touched their hats to him and stood there as if waiting for further orders.
"Here's your man," he said curtly. "You'd better take him to Marmouth. I'll be there directly after breakfast. Meanwhile you can leave me to search the house."
Once Kleiser had disappeared the search of the house began. There was very little to reward a long and patient search with the aid of a flashlight until finally Hillgard dropped upon the Professor's copy letter book. His eyes gleamed as he turned over the flimsy pages and read a paragraph here and there.
"This is a fine bit of luck," he said. "The methodical German has kept a record of all his correspondence. Here are all his letters to Zoomstag. Come along, uncle, we'll take this back with us and I'll tell you all about it."
Half an hour later they were closeted in the Canon's study with the copy letter book before them.
"Now, it's like this," Haddon said. "For months past we have been suffering a series of casualties in connection with naval units entering and leaving Marmouth. As you know, it's one of our biggest naval bases. Since the intensive U-boat warfare began we must have lost at least twenty ships off Marmouth. Even to-day one of our super-Dreadnoughts had a narrow escape. Well, that sort of thing can't go on long without the authorities coming to the conclusion that there was something radically wrong somewhere. So I volunteered to come down here to investigate. I knew that I could stay with you so that my presence in the neighborhood would arouse no suspicion. And you know I have been backwards and forwards to Marmouth on my motor cycle making enquiries. And it didn't take me long to discover that a man called Boom was spending a great deal more money than a man in his position ought to. So I watched him carefully, and when I discovered that he was a butterfly man visiting Kleiser as a kind of worshipping disciple I began to see my way. Then you told me your suspicions about the wonderful capture of rare specimens. You see, Boom was in the drawing office and therefore in a position to learn a great deal about the movements of ships. And I happen to know what you don't, namely, that Zoomstag of Stockholm has been in the German pay for years. You see where I got to. Boom found out about the movements of ships and flotillas, and he conveyed that information to the Professor. Something like this. A White Admiral means a destroyer, a Swallow Tail a cruiser, a Purple Emperor a flotilla, and a Camberwell Beauty a super-dreadnought. Of course, that's only a rough estimate, but good enough for my purpose. A week before there was anything like a fleet movement, Boom let Kleiser know. Then he goes straight out on the hills, and comes back with a butterfly he'd caught, or said he'd caught. This insect in the code corresponds to a cruiser, or a flotilla, or a dreadnought, as the case may be. Your innocent Professor, who has behaved so well, and whose throat the Kaiser would like to cut, writes of his find to the papers, and sends a letter to Zoomstag, telling him all about it. Now, if you'll take the trouble to read those letters—which, by the way, our authorities expedited to Stockholm—you will see that Kleiser introduces certain details of the capture which really cover sailing routes, and the direction in which our boats are going. For instance, here, he says, he is going to take a Purple Emperor to York to be mounted on Thursday at two o'clock. My dear uncle, that's the time and date of the sailing of the ship, which information reached Zoomstag three or four days in advance. Need I say any more?"
"It's wonderful," the Canon said. "Marvellous. And this must have been thought of years ago. And meanwhile we all thought that there was a personal quarrel between the Kaiser and the Professor, which, well—I am lost in astonishment. And, by the way, my boy, I must apologise to you."
"Oh, that's all right," Haddon smiled. "You see, I was bound to lie low. I wanted your friend the Professor to regard me as a sap-headed fool, and I think I succeeded."
"What will become of him?" the Canon asked.
Hillgard shrugged his shoulders.
"Pretty obvious, isn't it?" he asked. "You'll hear in a few days that a traitor has been shot in the Tower, and you can draw your own conclusions. But not to anybody but yourself, my dear uncle. There are some things that are best not spoken about."
THE stage manager took the matter very seriously. He stood with his back to the big wood fire in the holly-decorated hall and frowned at the telegram in his hand. The man in the beehive chair smiled. Nothing mattered to him so long as he had left London and Fleet street—especially Fleet street—behind him. Carlton Dane was in holiday mood. Just now, to the brilliant chief of the Comus, nothing mattered. This combination of editor, journalist, and playwright had escaped from the trammels of office for three weeks, and he was not seriously disturbed to bear that Lottie Lane had sprained her ankle practising loop threes at Prince's.
"What's the good of worrying about it, Daintry?" he asked.
"But, my dear chap, it's your play!" Daintry protested. "And look at our reputation! The Marston House Christmas theatricals have become almost classical. We are the first amateur combination in England. The 'Morning Post' never gives us less than a column. You know that we treat ourselves awfully seriously. We shall have two hundred people here on the night that your 'Fly in Amber' is produced. And everybody knows that Willoughby Chesney is going to play the comedy at the Atheneum in the spring."
"I did not sell it to him till after it was arranged that my comedy was to be produced here, Daintry."
"My dear boy, what has that got to do with it? Chesney liked the play so well that he made no objection to your comedy being produced as a Marston House attraction before it saw the light on his own stage. There is nobody who can take the part Lottie Lane was cast for—at least, no amateur woman I can think of. And you sit there smoking your cigarette as if it were a mere trifle."
"What are you going to do about it?" Dane asked.
"There is only one thing to do," Daintry said, sorrowfully. "We shall have to give the part to a professional. There is no one here who could play Hilda Lorrimer."
"Oh, yes, there is, my dear boy. I need hardly say that I mean Mrs. Leatham."
"Hilda Leatham!" Daintry cried. "My dear fellow, my reason is tottering. To think that I should have overlooked her! And she is in the house all the time! If she will take the part, I shall regard Lottie Lane's sprained ankle as a blessing in disguise. I'll go and find her."
Hilda Leatham was curled up in a big armchair, in the library, gazing thoughtfully into the heart of the red log fire. The book she had been reading had fallen from her lap, and lay on the floor. It was a very white, slightly weary, but beautiful face that looked up as Daintry entered. The deep violet eyes were slumbrous now, but they suggested passion and sorrow, contentment and amusement, all at once. She stretched her long, lithe limbs, her present pose was easy and peaceful.
"What's the latest trouble?" she asked.
"Is my face so eloquent as that?" Daintry retorted. "Mrs. Leatham, I am worried. The fair reputation of the Marston House Dramatic Society is in danger. Lottie Lane has met with an accident, and cannot play Hilda Lorrimer in Dane's comedy. There is no other amateur I know of who can take the part. But that won't permit them all wanting it. And that is why I kept the dire tragedy to myself, will you play it?"
A wave of colour swept over the beautiful, pallid face. Daintry could see the eager trembling of the red lips, the flash in the velvet eyes. A little sigh escaped Hilda Leatham.
"I'm afraid not," she said, with lingering reluctance. "You see, I promised my husband."
Daintry looked away for a moment. It seemed a sufficiently feeble excuse. If gossip were anything like true, Hilda Leatham had not seen her husband for a year. They had been a devoted couple at first; but latterly they had drifted pretty widely apart. Leatham was away shooting, or fishing, or something of that kind; Norway, South Africa, the Rockies had all been visited in turn. The house in town had been let. Leatham and his wife travelled from one country house to another, but they never stayed under the same roof. The excuse nettled Daintry.
"But these are private theatricals," he urged. "Who could object to them? I am more anxious to make a success of the first venture, especially as Chesney has paid us so tremendous a compliment. The play will be a frost without you or Miss Lane. We have no woman who could carry the part, Mrs. Leatham, I throw myself entirely on your mercy."
A thin smile flitted over Hilda Leatham's face. The temptation of it stirred her pulses. She had been very fond of her profession—to give it up had been a wrench. The artistic chord was touched; the old ambition stirred in her breast. She had loyally kept her promise; but then there was a vast difference between the amateur and the professional stage. A rebellious red glowed in her cheeks. And the part was certain to be a good one, or Annabel Henson, of the Atheneum, would never have taken it. She stood up now, a tall, thin, graceful figure, with the firelight glistening on her glorious hair. She held out her hand to Daintry.
"Very well," she said. "I'm bored to death. I was never made for an outdoor woman. Let me have the part after dinner, and I will play it. I have given my word."
Daintry went off in a rapture of delight, "Prince's," after all, was a blessed institution. The cloud of misfortune had lifted, and the light of Marston House shone more brilliantly than ever. The success of the new comedy was assured. Daintry made his big announcement during dinner—a declaration welcomed with the most unbounded enthusiasm. There was no sign of jealousy anywhere; indeed, the whole thing was accepted as an intervention of a benign and farseeing Providence. Hilda Leatham took her typed part presently and returned to the library. She was not likely to be interrupted there; indeed, Daintry had issued something like a proclamation to that effect.
The lights were dim and faded, and the red heart of the fire was warm and grateful. From the dark brown walls the pictures of dead-and-gone Daintrys looked down. Here was the fine fragrance of Russia leather that seemed to go with well-appointed libraries. There was something in the aspect of the room that appealed to Hilda Leatham. All the artistic impulses, the glowing temperament, were aroused now as she looked at the typed sheets in her hands. She was going to live again after the hibernation of the last year or so. If Philip had only asked her a question or two; if he had only given her a chance to explain. But he took everything so seriously. She had not told the truth as to her visit to Archie Mead's rooms; but then Phil would not have understood. It was quite a harmless lie, after all. Archie had never cared for anybody but——
But what was the use of dwelling on that? The whole thing was done and ended, and she must make the most of what life held in store for her. Still, she had given up everything for Phil. She honestly thought that the sacrifice was all on one side. If Philip had only given her a chance!
She turned resolutely to the typed slips in her hands and began to read. Oh, it was a fine comedy enough. Chesney's judgment was rarely at fault, and he had pronounced "A Fly in Amber" to be the daintiest effort he had ever read. The tears and laughter were beautifully balanced, comedy and pathos walked hand in hand. Even as a story the play was worth reading.
But it was something more than a story. As Hilda read her interest deepened. There was something oddly familiar about it, some suggestion of a closer chapter from her own life. And yet nobody knew anything about that, for she had not told a word of it to anybody. She was not picking up the threads of her part now, she was reading a thrilling drama. She came to the end of it presently, and the loose sheets fluttered into her lap.
"The long arm of coincidence," she murmured. "But never was a coincidence like this before. If Philip had only been a friend of Dane's! But they have never met; he told me so to-night. And here is the story of our own misunderstandings told in the play! And if Philip had stood for his portrait he could not have been more faithfully drawn than the hero of this comedy. Surely Carlton Dane would never have invented this. Somebody must have told him the outlines of our—I wonder if I dare ask him? Still, nobody but Philip and myself know and we are too proud to tell a soul. It must be a coincidence. And I shall play the part as I never played before because it's me. I shall be able to confess everything to the audience, and they will cheer and applaud and give me the whole of their sympathy, because they will feel for me and think that I was right after all. They will love me all the more for the humanity of my folly. And yet it hardly amounted to folly. Indiscreet, perhaps, but then in Bohemia we have our own code. I am sure it is a kind and Christian one. And if Phil were only here to see for himself. Oh, what am I saying?"
She covered her burning face with her hands, and the tears trickled through her fingers. Well, she would go on with it, she would get all the sympathy she needed. And those people would applaud Hilda Lorrimer, unconscious that they were taking the part of Hilda Leatham. She picked up the sheets again. These were experiences of her own, little words and manners she used daily. Really, she must ask Dane where he got it all from. All a dream, perhaps.
"I'll get him to tell me in the morning," she said. "But how—how could he know?"
What did he know? And where did his knowledge come from? Not from Philip Leatham, at any rate. He was the last man in the world to tell a soul of his troubles. And yet here was the story of the tragedy set out so that all who ran might read. After all said and done, Hilda Leatham had asked Dane nothing. She made up her mind to watch him at rehearsals instead. It was not an easy matter, for she was an artist to her finger tips, and she could do nothing but throw herself heart and soul into her part. Still, there were chances.
The last dress rehearsal was a veritable triumph. Everybody seemed to feel that a high note had been touched. The leading lady dropped into a chair and regarded Hilda with a sort of quivering admiration.
"My dear, you are marvellous," she said. "To use the expressive vulgarism, you are it. You are the wife who has allowed her feelings to get the better of her. And anybody would think you were playing a chapter from your own life. I felt as if I could strike you for not telling your husband everything, especially as he had found you out. And yet your pride has all my sympathy. Mr. Dane, the part will never be played so well at the Atheneum."
"That I am certain of," Dane smiled. "Though I hope nobody will repeat my opinion. Your husband did the stage a sorry service when he married you, Mrs. Leatham."
Hilda listened to it all vaguely. She was waiting for her chance to come. It came presently when light refreshments were served on the stage. Dane came over and congratulated her.
"They expect an audience of over two hundred to-morrow night," he said. "They little realise what a treat there is in store for them. If I had written that part for you, I could have done no better."
Hilda Leatham turned her velvet eyes on her companion. "Are you quite sure you didn't write it for me?" she asked.
"How—how could I?" Dane stammered. "It was only by the merest accident—a most, fortunate and blessed accident, I admit, but——"
"I was speaking at random, Mr. Dane. I am interested in coincidences. Now, do you know that you have stolen a story and founded your play on it?"
"My dear lady, the story was given me. I was told that I could do what I liked with it."
"You mean that my—but that is ridiculous. I am rather afraid that we are at cross purposes, Mr. Dane. Let me put it another way. Is your play founded on facts?"
"Upon my word I believe it is," said Dane, with the air of a man who has made a discovery. "I didn't realise it until this moment. In a way, the plot of 'A Fly in Amber' came to me from an outside source—in the form of a short story."
"Oh, yes, I had forgotten you were the editor of the 'Comus.' Please go on. A—a friend of mine had a precisely similar experience as that which befell Hilda Lorrimer in the play. And it occurred to me that perhaps in some way you had—you understand——"
"Been made a confidant of? Nothing of the sort, I assure you. The plot came to me as a story—a short story submitted to me in the usual way. The story was there, and the pathetic humour of it. A gem in the rough—the very rough. I wrote and told the author so, and asked him to come and see me. He declined, and gave me the plot to do as I liked with."
"You mean that you never saw him? Haven't the slightest idea who he is?"
"Precisely. So far as I am concerned, the incident is at an end. How the idea was used you have seen."
"You have made up your mind that the writer of the story was a man?"
"I am certain of it. The handwriting, the style, the final chapter, everything points to that conclusion. And the story was written from the man's point of view. The hero is a good bit of a Puritan, though he married a wife who had been on the stage. He finds that his wife is corresponding with an old actor admirer of hers, he knows that letters are being smuggled and concealed. He has one in his hand. He follows his wife and sees her in the arms of the actor admirer——"
"That he didn't!" Mrs. Leatham said, vehemently. "I—I beg your pardon. Go on."
"Really, there is very little more to be told. The hero is a little blind, a little self-sufficient. He makes no allowance for his wife's artistic temperament. He magnifies a sentimental impulse into a guilty secret. He gives the woman no chance to explain, and she is far too proud to ask for one. That is practically all the story. But on the stage it has to go further. I have to get sympathy for the woman and show that she has really acted with a clean mind, and on a generous impulse."
"You have done it magnificently, Mr. Dane. Please go on."
"Is there any need to tell any more? I think if the man who wrote the story saw the play he would understand. I am taking it for granted that the story is a human document—a page from the history of that man's life. It must have been, because the story as a story was so crude and badly constructed. That's why I had to elaborate it in my comedy. And I want everybody to feel that the tragedy is behind it."
Hilda Leatham breathed a little more freely. "It is all exceedingly interesting," she murmured. "Then all this is based on a chance short story and elaborated out of your wonderful insight into human nature? I began to think for the moment that you actually held the secret of my—my friend's trouble."
"No. Authors are frequently accused of that sort of thing. They get indignant letters from strangers. Sometimes the letters are pathetic, and ask for advice. The writers assure us that we have exactly portrayed their own lives and troubles. How could it be otherwise when so many books are written? You can assure your friend that she is perfectly safe, if her husband is that class of fool——"
"I am afraid that he is," Mrs. Leatham said, unsteadily. "If he were here to see the justification——"
A whimsical smile crossed Dane's face. "Many thanks," he said. "You have given me an idea for still another play. Why not try and get him here? And get your friend as well. Once he has seen the last act of 'A Fly in Amber,' and watched your marvellous vindication of the heroine, he will abase himself before his injured wife. Now, if I could only work that scene into a play——"
But Mrs. Leatham was no longer listening. There was a dim look in her eyes as she moved away. She was a little dazed by the events of the evening; just a little carried away by her personal triumph. It was like one of the old first nights come back again. She had given up all this for the sake of a husband who had never even tried to understand her. Perhaps if he were present to-morrow night—but what was the use of thinking of that? She had not the remotest idea where he was. Slaughtering some inoffensive animal in some distant part of the world, probably. What did it matter? What did anything matter now? She would think of nothing but the triumph of the morrow. At any rate, she was going to live for the next few hours.
After all, there was nothing like it. She had all the people there in the hollow of her hand. The cream of the county was there—charmingly dressed women, beautifully groomed men. For the best part of ten minutes that glittering crowd had hardly breathed. Hilda played upon them as if they had been a harp and hers the hand that swept the strings. There would be an elaborate supper presently, but nobody was thinking of that. They were all heart and soul with the beautiful figure in the centre of the stage. Hilda paused just for a moment, and for the first time her glance swept the audience. And there, in the second row of the stalls, was the man she was mechanically playing to all the time—her husband!
Her splendid training stood her in good stead now. Another glance, and she understood. Philip was staying with his friends, the Heywoods. Here they were in front with him. They had come from some forty miles away; but that was nothing for the average motor-car. And Philip would not know till he got there, seeing that Lottie Lane's name was on the programme. He would never have expected——
The curtain came down at last amidst thunders of applause. The Marston House company had surpassed themselves. There were tears in Mabel Heywood's eyes as she turned to Leatham.
"I have never seen anything finer," she said. "And your wife was splendid—splendid! Actually I didn't know that she was performing here this evening."
"Neither did I," Leatham said. "Didn't somebody say that she was taking Miss Lane's part at the last moment? I suppose I had better go and congratulate her. It would look rather strange if I didn't add my leaf to the rest of the laurel crown."
Leatham spoke with a lightness he was far from feeling. He was getting over the dazed feeling, and he began to see the clear daylight at last. It was some time before he found himself alone with Hilda. She looked at him with a smile that sparkled, with eyes moist and unsteady.
"Have you learnt anything to-night?" she asked, mutinously.
"I have learnt a good deal during the past year," Leatham said. "Would you mind walking with me as far as the little conservatory beyond the library? There is nobody there; in fact, I looked to see. Hilda, it seems to me that I have been incredibly foolish."
"When did you imagine that you could write a short story?" she asked.
"Oh, I understand. I've puzzled it all out. Dane based his play on that miserable effort of mine. Making you the heroine and giving you a chance to justify yourself was his idea, I suppose. But why, oh! why didn't you tell me?"
"My dear Philip, you never gave me the chance. You jumped to the conclusion that I was in love with Archie Mead. The poor boy did fancy that he was in love with me at the time; but he really cared for Ada Grace. It was her letter that I was sending on to him because her people were dead against the match. And if I did kiss him, and you saw it, why, it was only a kiss of congratulation. You never made the slightest allowance for the artistic temperament, Phil, and if you had not written that story and come here to-night we should have drifted apart for all time. Oh! my dear boy, if I had not loved you as I did, do you suppose that I should have given up the stage? Ah! you don't know what the feeling is. Why, I convinced even you to-night; I could see that by your face. And when you come to learn——"
"My dear Hilda, I have learnt many things the last year. I have learnt that there are two sides to every question. I daresay all these people know——"
"They know nothing. Dane may guess; but he is discreet and human. If you still care for me——"
"My dearest," Leatham said, hoarsely, "I shall always care! I have been the most miserable fool in the world. And I might have given you a chance to—to——"
"Act," Hilda said, unsteadily. "But my pride was too deeply touched for that. And, besides, I was not acting to-night. It was real, real, real!"
Her hands flitted out to him, and he caught her to his breast.
"Always act like that, darling," he whispered, as he kissed her. "Make it real to me, remembering after that I am a poor, dull creature. And I shall understand now. And—and, dearest, what a Christmas!"<</p>
LONG before Inspector Price of the Little Mytton Police had finished his statement most of the spectators in the crowded and stuffy Police Court had made up their minds that the man in the dock was guilty. So far as he was concerned it seemed to be a matter of the utmost indifference to him, for he stood there gazing stolidly about him as if he had merely dropped in to gratify a languid curiosity. And yet there was ever and again a queer twitching of his limbs and a peculiar fluttering of the eyelids that showed either a tortured body or a mind singularly ill at ease. For the rest, he gazed about him with a strange detachment that one man at least in the body of the courthouse did not fail to notice and make a mental note of. This happened to be Dr. Whitlock Rhodes, the eminent criminologist who chanced to be passing a few days in the neighborhood and had come over to Little Mytton with the faint hope that he might add something to his experiences.
But, so far, the tragedy had been sordid enough, apparently a mere vulgar crime for the sake of inadequate gain—the sort of crime, in fact, that the Police Courts of a big town presented at frequent intervals. But then Rhodes had expected this, and so he was not disappointed. At any rate, he would sit on there till lunch-time on the off-chance of some unusual feature developing; meanwhile he confined himself to a study of Little Mytton inhabitants as they presented themselves to his experienced eye.
All this time Inspector Price, with a sense of his own importance, was telling the three prosperous-looking magistrates on the bench all about it, under the leadership of a local solicitor who, pro tem, represented the Crown.
"On the night of Monday last," the witness explained. "I had a call to the Bungalow in Mytton-lane, which, is or was, in occupation of the deceased gentleman, Mr. Brand Wargrave. When I reached the premises I discovered that the dining-room and the hall beyond were on fire, and blazing freely. With the aid of the manual engine, I got the conflagration under in a short time, and then I proceeded to search the house. Outside the bathroom door I found Mr. Wargrave lying at full length on the floor, stone dead. Evidently he had been struck down by somebody behind him, for according to the medical evidence, the unfortunate gentleman's head was quite shattered."
"What time would that be?" the Crown Solicitor asked.
"Just nine, sir," the witness replied. "In fact, the clock over the vestry hall was striking as I reached the Bungalow. I searched the body of the deceased and found on it his watch and chain and pocket-book, though I noticed that a Kruger sovereign that Mr. Wargrave was in the habit of wearing on his watch-chain was missing. I know the gentleman was in the habit of wearing this, because he snowed it to me on more than one occasion. I believe that Mr. Wargrave served as a volunteer in the Boer war."
"That," a magistrate interrupted, "is common knowledge. But what has this to do with the case?"
"I shall come to that presently, your worships," the witness went on. "I made enquiries and discovered that, on the day of his death, Mr. Wargrave drew the sum of a hundred pounds from Clay's Bank here. Mr. Wargrave saw no one during the day, except the accused, and he could not have parted with that money. I made the most thorough search for it, and I can find no trace of the notes anywhere. I might remind your worships that during the years that Mr. Wargrave has occupied the Bungalow the accused has lived with him; in fact, they have lived under the same roof ever since the latter left school. Mr. Wargrave, as you know, was a very reserved and exclusive type of gentleman, who was exceedingly proud of the fact that he belonged to a distinguished family, though, for some reason or another, he never had anything to do with them. So far as we know, he brought up the accused as his own son, though I don't think that there was any relationship."
"You are quite wrong," the man in the dock broke in. "As a matter of fact, Mr. Wargrave was my uncle."
"You must not interrupt," the magistrates clerk said. "You will have your opportunity to speak later on."
The accused shrugged his shoulders and seemed to lose all interest in the proceedings. Whitlock Rhodes, watching him carefully, saw the queer look come into his eyes again, and the painful twitching of the muscles of his face. Perhaps, after all, this was going to be an interesting case. Then the Inspector took up his tale once more.
"About 10 o'clock I arrested the prisoner," he said. "I met him in the lane near the Bungalow coming from the direction of Scott-road. I noticed that his coat was burnt in several places, and that the left sleeve was entirely gone. His trousers and shirt were badly scorched, and his hands covered with blisters. As he could give no account of himself, and as he had evidently been somewhere near the fire in the Bungalow, if not actually in the building at the time, I arrested him on suspicion. When I came to examine what was left of the coat I found in the ticket pocket a small round object which I now produce. If your worships will look at it you will see that it is a Kruger sovereign, which for some reason or another the accused had evidently made an attempt to melt down. It looks as if it had been hammered out of shape, but the portrait of President Kruger and the date are plainly visible under a strong glass. I suggest to your worships that this is the coin missing from the dead man's watch-chain."
"May I have a look at that, your worships?" Whitlock Rhodes asked. "I know it is an unusual request, but Colonel Roland, the Chairman of the Bench, knows me, and it is just possible that I may be able to give important evidence."
"Oh, certainly, Professor, certainly," the chairman said. "Only too glad to have your assistance, I'm sure."
Whitlock Rhodes examined the misshapen lump of gold for a moment or two without comment, then handed it back to the Inspector. If he had discovered anything, there was nothing in the expression of his face to show it.
"When I took the accused into custody," the Inspector resumed, "he made no reply, and during the night that he has been in custody I had no further dealings with him."
"Did you notice anything strange about the accused?" the Crown Solicitor asked.
"No, sir, only that he was rather peculiar in his manner. And twice during the time he has been in custody he has had a sort of seizure. A kind of fit that seems to paralyse his limbs for a time."
"What sort of a character does he bear in the neighborhood?"
The solicitor from a neighboring town, who had been hastily summoned to defend the accused, objected.
"What has this to do with the case, your worships?" he asked. "Still, I don't make a point of it."
"Well, sir," the Inspector explained, "fairly good. He doesn't do anything except a few odd things about the Bungalow, and occasionally shoot a few rabbits. A bit of a poacher, from all accounts. I know he's been in trouble with more than one keeper."
It was at this point that the accused actually smiled. What the Inspector was saying was true enough, and everybody in the neighborhood knew it. It was a lonely, monotonous existence for a sportsman and a public school boy that Stephen Wynne had passed during the years he had lived at the Bungalow, and his nocturnal poaching adventures had been the only occasional bright spot in his monotonous life. He smiled again and appeared about to say something when suddenly his limbs stiffened and he fell without a sound on the floor of the dock. A couple of warders carried him out and came back presently with information to the effect that the prisoner was recovering and would be able to reappear in half an hour or so. The Chairman of the Bench looked up at the clock and suggested to his brother magistrates that it would be just as well if they took their luncheon interval at this point. Thereupon the court adjourned for an hour, and the excited audience poured into the street. Whitlock Rhodes went round to the back of the court and asked permission of the Inspector to see the prisoner. He was lying more or less in a state of coma in one of the cells, but took no heed whatever when the specialist proceeded to examine him.
"Have you got such a thing as a bath here?" Whitlock Rhodes asked. "A really hot bath?"
"Oh, yes, sir," the Inspector said.
"Very well, then, carry this man into the bathroom, turn on the water, and leave him to me. You needn't hesitate, I know what I'm talking about. And if I don't astonish you and the magistrates before the afternoon is over, then my name isn't Whitlock Rhodes."
It was shortly after 2 o'clock before the accused stood in the dock again. Meanwhile he had had his bath, which seemed to work wonders, after which there had been a long and earnest consultation between the Professor and the lawyer who was acting for the accused man. At the request of the latter a police constable had been dispatched post haste to a game cover some six miles away that was locally known as Scott's Wood, and was told not to return without a certain woodman known as Simon Martin, who was required to give evidence.
It was quite a different man who stood in the dock now. He still looked ragged and dishevelled, his hands were still bound up, but his eye no longer wandered, and the twitchings of his muscles had ceased. He sat there, following the evidence of the Inspector with intelligent interest, until the latter had finished.
Then came a local doctor who testified to the fact that the deceased's death was due to a blow at the back of the head that had fractured the skull, and who was decidedly of the opinion that the wound could not possibly have been self-inflicted.
After him came a charwoman who was accustomed to do odd jobs at the Bungalow, and who told the bench of the frequent and violent quarrels which she had heard between the dead man and the person who stood in the dock. These quarrels, she said, were invariably over money. The accused was always asking the deceased for money, and more than once she had heard the former say that if the latter would give him a hundred pounds he would go abroad and never trouble the deceased again.
All of which tended strongly against the prisoner, so that, with perhaps one exception, there was nobody in the court who regarded him as anything but a doomed man.
This impression was still further strengthened by other witnesses, who spoke of the accused as a mere idler who lived upon the charity of the man who gave him the shelter of his roof and sufficient clothes to wear.
The evidence finished at length, and in a few words the Inspector applied for a week's adjournment. In the meantime he hoped to be able to trace the missing notes and, once this was done, present such a case against the accused as would justify the magistrates in committing him for trial on the capital charge. And indeed, from the point of view of the spectators, the Inspector had made out an absolutely damning case already. He had proved the constant quarrels between the two men, the regular applications for money on the part of the accused, and of £100 with which to take the man in the dock out of the country.
And then, on the top of that, was the fact that he had been arrested some time within an hour or so of the crime with the clothes burnt off his back and his hands in blisters, proof positive almost that he must have been inside the Bungalow when the crime was committed and the fire had broken out. Probably he had set fire to the Bungalow himself with a view to hiding the evidence of his crime, and, no doubt, the fire had spread so fast that he barely had time to escape from the premises with his own life.
And then again, there was the matter of the Kruger sovereign, perhaps the most damning piece of evidence of all. With this Inspector Price applied for a week's adjournment, and the solicitor who represented the prosecution lifted an interrogative eyebrow in the direction of the prisoner's counsel. Did his learned friend wish to cross-examine the Inspector, or was he prepared to fall in with the suggested arrangement?
"By no means," the lawyer said. "I have no questions to ask the Inspector, but I propose to call a witness or two now, including my client, and I think I shall be able do satisfy the bench that they will have no alternative but to acquit him."
It was a bold thing to say, and more than one listener smiled as he heard these brave words. But the advocate went on without further argument to call his witnesses. The first was a dairy woman, Alice Lane by name, who deposed that on the night of the tragedy she took a pint of milk, according to custom, across to the Bungalow at half-past 8, and that Mr. Wargrave himself had come to the door and taken the jug from her hand. Moreover, he had paid her for it, and a few words had passed between them. She knew Mr. Wargrave very well, and there was no doubt whatever that she had been dealing with him in person. This did not seem to prove much, except the fact that the deceased was alive and well at half-past eight; so, therefore, the solicitor for the Crown had no questions to ask.
Then there followed a further witness in the person of Solomon Martin, an aged woodman in the employ of Sir John Mason, a local magnate, who had some extensive shooting about four miles away, the principal covers being known as Scott's Wood.
"Now, then, Martin," counsel for the defence said, "tell us what happened outside Scott's Wood on the night of the crime. What were you doing there?"
"Well, sir," the witness said, "I was going my rounds. I 'elps the keeper. I left my cottage about a quarter to nine to take a turn round Scott's Wood, same as I generally does at that time 'fore I goes to bed. When I comes to the path across the wood, just agin' the young plantation, I catches sight of a man standing in the road. I says good-night to 'im, and 'e says good-night to me."
"Did you recognise him, Martin?"
"No, sir, I didn't, not exactly. It was main dark, and just beginning to rain proper. But I knowed the voice."
"Oh, you knew the voice, did you? In that case you can tell us whose voice it was."
"I wouldn't swear to it, sir," Martin said cautiously. "But I'm almost sure as it was Mr. Wynne. I've spoke to 'im lots o' times. I guesses what 'e was there for, a bit o' poachin' most like, so I speaks to 'im by name so's 'e might know as I'd got my eye on 'im, and 'e replies natural-like; an' as it weren't any business o' mine, an' the rain was comin' down like you might say in sheets, I cuts along the path to my cottage."
"And that's all you know? Wasn't there a big storm? Thunder and lightning and all the rest of it?"
"Well, sir, there was two dreadful flashes of lightning, and the worst thunder I ever 'eard. It was all over in a minute or two, but it was main bad while it lasted. I 'ears a tree or two struck, an' I didn't wait for no more."
"And that's all you've got to say, Martin? You are quite convinced that you were talking to Mr. Wynne?"
"I'm pretty certain about that, sir," Martin said sturdily.
"Well, that's something, at any rate," the lawyer commented. "I will draw your worships' attention to the fact that here is a witness who saw the accused four miles away from the scene of the crime within half an hour, at the outside, of that crime being committed. With this I propose to put my client in the box."
A buzz of excitement ran round the court as Stephen Wynne left the dock and took his place in the witness-box. He looked better and brighter now, the twitchings of his face had stopped, and the absent expression in his eye was no longer noticeable. He was immediately sworn and began to tell his story.
"On the night of the murder," he said, "I went out at a few minutes past seven, taking my gun with me. At that time it was quite fine, though very hot and close and threatening thunder. I walked for over an hour in the direction of Scott's Wood."
"What were you going there for?" the chairman asked.
"Well sir, I was poaching," the witness admitted candidly. "I was going into Scott's Wood to see if I could get a pheasant or two, I have been there more than once, and know every inch of the ground. It was just on half-past eight when I reached the new plantation on the edge of the wood, where I met Martin. It was very dark, but I recognised him by the way he walked, and when he spoke to me I said good-night to him. Then, as it began to rain in deadly earnest, I hid my gun and crept into the young plantation for shelter. I hadn't been there many minutes before there came two flashes of lightning in quick succession, followed by a perfect downpour of rain. I stood up to my shoulders among the foliage, sheltering myself as best I could under the thick branches of those young Californian cedars, when there came another flash of lightning, and I don't recollect anything else till I found myself walking down the road in a dazed condition. So far as I can make out, it must have been half an hour later. It was as if I had had some sort of fit. Something seemed to hit me on the back of the head with stunning force, and I didn't know what I was doing for a time. And then it seemed to me as if I had been struck by lightning. I could smell my clothes, which were all scorched and torn, and, hardly knowing what I was doing, I made my way homewards. It must have been just on 10 o'clock when I reached the lane behind the Bungalow, and there I met Inspector Price. I was still dazed, just as if I was half-drunk, but gradually the Inspector made me understand, and I followed him to the police-station. And I think that's about all I can tell you."
It sounded altogether an improbable story, and more than one listener smiled.
"You were not on good terms with the deceased?" the lawyer asked.
"We were always quarrelling," the witness said candidly. "I wanted to get away from here, and Mr. Wargrave wouldn't hear of it. He was a very peculiar man."
"You mean to say that he had the power to stop you?"
"Well, he had a hold over me, certainly, and he made the best use of it. Perhaps I had better explain, if I may do so in my own words. Mr. Wynne was my uncle. Nobody here knows it, but he was. My father married his only sister. And my father got into serious trouble. In fact, he eventually found himself in gaol, where he served a term of penal servitude. Mr. Wargrave never forgave it, and because of that he left his own place in the north and came to live down here at the Bungalow. He was morbid on the subject of his family, and his aristocratic connections. He made it a stipulation that my mother should move into a distant part of the country, and on this condition he undertook my education and made my mother an allowance. But he always said that with my education his responsibility of me ceased. But for some reason he refused to let me get my own living, and declined to let me take up any profession. No Wargrave had ever got his own living, and he was proud of it. He clothed me and gave me board and lodgings, but he was so afraid that I should go out and get my own living that he kept me with him, though there was no love lost between us. He told me if I left him that his allowance to my mother would cease, and that is the sole reason why I stayed. But we were always quarrelling, there was always bitterness between us, and the only amusement I had was an occasional bit of poaching, which I indulged in more for the sake of adventure than anything else."
"Now, what about that Kruger sovereign?" counsel asked. "Are you prepared to say it is not the same coin that is missing from your uncle's watch-chain?"
"No, I am quite sure it is," the witness said candidly. "I suppose it became detached from the chain; anyway, I picked it up on the doorstep just as I was going out on the night I am speaking of, and slipped it in the ticket-pocket of my shooting jacket."
"How do you account for the condition in which it was found?"
"Ah, that I cannot tell you. That is a mystery to me. Though I have heard of cases where coins have been fused in the pocket of a man who has come in contact with lightning."
"I think that will do," the lawyer said. "Now, your worships, I propose to call Professor Whitlock Rhodes, whose appearance here to-day I regard as distinctly providential."
Rhodes stepped into the witness-box and took the oath. Then he proceeded to give his evidence in a coldly logical way that impressed the listeners from the start.
"I think I am pretty well known," he said, gazing calmly round the Courthouse through his glasses. "And I think that I can claim to be an authority where criminology is concerned. I was staying over at Sandbridge when I read of this case in this morning's "Daily Herald," and came over on the off-chance of finding something fresh. Now, your worships, I have been here ever since the court opened. Knowing what I do of my subject, no trifle is too small for me to make a note of. I watched the prisoner carefully, the more so because I saw certain symptoms about him that pointed to novel features in this case. A peculiar absent look in his eyes, those strangely nervous twitchings which were certainly not the result of conscience or fear. I could see they were purely physical, and certainly should not have been present in a man of such fine physique as the accused. It was plain to me that he had recently suffered some acute nervous shock. When he collapsed in the dock just now I was certain of it. Now, I have seen a man who has been struck by lightning before and it occurred to me that the accused bore every evidence of such a misfortune. But you can't prove that unless certain physical features are present, and I was determined to ascertain whether those features were there or not. That is why I followed the Inspector into the back of the building and suggested that he should submit the prisoner to the test of a very hot bath. At any rate, it would do him no harm, and it would give me an opportunity of looking for certain features which are not uncommon in the case of a man who has come into violent contact with an electric current. In fact, I saw to the prisoner's bath myself, and before it was finished I had satisfied myself that I had not been wasting my time. I satisfied myself beyond the shadow of a doubt that the prisoner was telling the absolute truth when he told your worships that at half-past eight on the night of the murder he was sheltering over four miles away amongst some young trees in the area known as Scott's Wood. When he told you he was struck by lightning he was telling no more than the bare truth. I am going to show you evidence stamped on his body by nature that is beyond any argument. I am going to make an unusual request. I want you to ask the prisoner to strip to the waist."
There request was so startling that a murmur ran through the Courthouse. People there craned forward to follow every word that was said. Then, amidst a tense silence, the prisoner complied with this suggestion from the Chairman of the Bench, and removed his coat and waist-coat. He was not wearing his shirt, so that his white skin gleamed dazzlingly as he turned his face to the light. And there, from the right shoulder-blade down to the elbow, and from the centre of his back to the waist, was something that looked like a drawing, delicately done by the pencil of an artist, and representing what appeared to be the branch of a tree.
"Now, your worships," Rhodes went on, "if you will come a little nearer you will see that these marks, which might have been made by an artist in tattooing, represent the delicate tracery and fine outline of foliage. But, those marks were never traced by the hand of man. They are the arborescent marks that come from, or rather follow, a lightning stroke. You may regard them as a great novelty, but I assure you they are not. They have been found more than once on the bodies of victims to the electric fluid. And I may say that they have nothing to do with trees really, although at one time it was thought otherwise. But one of Lichtenberg's tests—and Lichtenberg was a great authority on the subject—proved that this kind of pattern can be produced with an electric battery, a sheet of glass and any form of fine sand. But it is the electric test all right, and there is no getting away from it. And this is what I discovered on the prisoner's body when I saw him in his bath. And this proves beyond a doubt that he was four miles from the scene of the tragedy when it took place. But I have not quite finished yet. If you will look at that round queer spot immediately below the arborescent markings you will see that it represents a large O with the letter T. T. in the centre. Precisely the sort of mark you see on a sheep, or, perhaps, to put it more plainly, the sort of brand they used in the bad old days to identify their slaves. I daresay you wonder how that got there, but I am going to tell you. That T. T. means Thomas Tranter, and the big O round it represents the town of Oxbridge. Now, according to the witness Martin, whom I fetched over in my car, during the luncheon interval to give evidence, Tranters of Oxbridge are big nurserymen. The people, in fact, who made a new plantation in Scott's Wood two years ago. It is their custom, I believe, in the case of rare coniferae to attach to the trunk a tab of metal, with certain numbers on it, which is embossed with their initials, T.T., in a circle."
"Perfectly true," the chairman of the bench said. "I know, because Tranters are my own nurserymen."
"With that we will go on," the Professor proceeded. "There is no doubt, as any fellow expert of mine will tell you, that when the prisoner was sheltering in those young firs he was actually leaning against one of those metal discs which must have attracted the electric fluid, and therefore sustained those marks which, to my mind, are indisputable witnesses of his innocence. In a word, the witness of the skies. No man can explain the vagaries of the electric current, but there is the evidence before you for any man possessed of average intelligence to see. And with that, your worships, I don't propose to say any more."
"This is very remarkable," the chairman exclaimed. "And—er—absolutely convincing. It is not for us to enquire how the Bungalow came to be set on fire; we are only concerned with the innocence or guilt of the prisoner. Just one more question, Professor. That coin?"
"Surely one thing explains the other," the Professor said. "The coin was fused in the accused man's pocket by the same agency that allowed him to escape with his life and yet left those amazing signs of his innocence upon his body. If you look at the coin carefully you will see that a thread of burnt cloth runs right through it. If there is anything else——"
But there was nothing else. There was nothing to be said or done now but to release the prisoner.
"Well," said Inspector Price, "this beats anything I ever came up against. I'm glad for the young man's sake the way things have turned out, but it doesn't make matters any easier for me, and I shall have to begin all over again. Still, I've got those missing notes as a clue, and that's something to go on."
It was, for a week later a hop-picker was arrested some few miles away with the notes in his possession, and he confessed to the crime. The fire had been caused by the overturning of a can of petrol which the murderer had upset in his haste to get away and thus the testimony of Whitlock Rhodes was complete.
THE red curtains were closely drawn across the mullioned windows of the dining-room of Mulgrave Manor House, and a great log fire splashed like a great crimson smudge on the Christmas hearth, with Arnold Brentwood seated in front of it and his wife opposite. If it were going to freeze, let it freeze, he growled, but this alternate thaw and frost, this night lowering of the thermometer followed by a rise of temperature with the going down of the young crescent moon was maddening to a household where sport was a solemn ritual.
"Pity we hadn't gone to St. Moritz as we originally intended," Brentwood muttered. "We should have had some sport there, whereas here we are getting neither hunting nor skating."
"Oh, it isn't so sad as all that," Cecilia Brentwood smiled. "We shall manage to amuse our Christmas party somehow."
With that, she faded from the room and went up to her own cosy nest in cream and amber, leaving her spouse to his post-prandial cigar, and his own easy reflections. He nodded over the red blaze, his eyes closed, then out of space the old family butler, Thomas Shinwell, announced a visitor to see the master of the Manor.
"It's Andrew Marston, sir," he said. "Says he must see to-night, though I told him——"
On the instant Brentwood was very much awake. His jaw set tight, and there was a grim fighting light in his blue eyes.
"Oh, indeed, Shinwell," he muttered, "oh, indeed! Ask the scoun—I mean, ask the gentleman in here. No, you need not trouble to bring in any clean glasses. Bring the fellow here."
Shinwell departed mildly wondering. He had been a member of that exclusive household ever since he could remember, and there was little in the history of the family he did not know—certainly during the last fifty years. Also, he had a mental scenario of the shady past of the man called Andrew Marston who came from the city of Canterley, some two miles away. And Marston's dead mother, a boldly-handsome, gipsy-bred woman. And there had been whispers in Canterley thirty years ago about her and old Squire Brentwood, the present owner of Mulgrave Manor's uncle, when the latter had had a small chance of succession. Things that happen from time to time in all exclusive families; but nothing definite—Shinwell was quite sure of that.
Followed a few moments later a tall, shambling figure of a man, with a shifty eye and an uneasy swagger. His thin boots were broken, and, despite the bitter cold of the night, there was no overcoat over his summer suit of flimsy blue serge. He nodded with insolent familiarity to Brentwood, and dropped with easy impudence into a chair.
"You didn't expect me?" he growled.
"I did not," Brentwood said coldly. "In fact, I warned you more than once that I was only to be approached by letter. And after I helped you to get to Canada, it was understood——"
"Oh, was it," the other man sneered. "The unwritten code of honor between two gentlemen! The word of a Brentwood——"
"I have nothing to do with the past, neither have I, personally, anything to be ashamed of," Brentwood said quietly.
"No, but your uncle, Hallam Brentwood, had," the intruder went on. "If I had my rights and your old scamp of an uncle had married my mother I should be where you are at the present moment."
It was the heat of the fire, perhaps, but Brentwood's face took on a deeper red. He had heard this disgraceful episode, seated by the bedside of his dying predecessor. And by subsequent enquiry from the aged family solicitor, he had ascertained that it was not all old Hallam Brentwood's fault. He had been both weak and slightly dissolute, he had been angled for by the dead and gone Lydia Marston, and her cunning father, and the result of that sorry intrigue stood before Arnold Brentwood at that moment, with the suggestion of blackmail in those weak, shifty eyes of his.
"And your game," the latter said, "is to threaten me with an exposure of the whole business in Canterley unless I am ready to help you again. Isn't that the case?"
"And why not?" Marston blustered. "I've got a claim."
"I have done with you," Brentwood answered. "I told you so when I set you up in Canada. Be off, you scoundrel."
As he banged the door on his discomfited foe, he turned to see Shinwell, the butler, standing there, with no trace of astonishment on his stolid, impassive face. As the man who had seen nothing, his impersonation was to the life. Not so the tall, slim, black and white starched parlor-maid, who at the same moment was coming down the broad stairs. She was taking in everything with widely interested eyes. But she spoke quietly and respectfully enough.
"I was to tell you, sir, that madame has gone to bed, with a slight headache," she said demurely. "I think she is asleep, sir."
As he lay in bed later on, Brentwood thought it all out. Let the story come out. At any rate, his wife knew. Better than being bled white by instalments. And with that he fell asleep.
He came back to his senses again with the consciousness that somebody was shaking him by the shoulder. Shinwell, hanging over the bed, with a white face and shaky countenance.
"What is it, Shinwell?" he asked lazily.
"It's that man who was here last night, sir," Shinwell said through chattering teeth. "Found in the drive just now by one of the under gardeners. Lying on his face, dead—murdered."
The body lay just where it had fallen. Evidently the man had been dead for many hours, for he was stiff and deadly cold, though the frost of the early night had given again with the sitting of the moon, and the trees and shrubs were all dripping in the thin powder of dirty grey snow. Brentwood bent over the body.
Marston had pitched forward and lay on his face with his hands flung above his head, as if the fatal blow had dropped him in a flash, and evidently he had never moved again. He lay with his head and shoulders just under the cover of a sort of portcullis, roofed with heather thatch and ivy, which spanned the drive. The Manor House had been built originally inside the ruins of an ancient castle, and this portcullis, with its great iron gates at the far width of it was all that remained of the old mediaeval greatness and formed a fitting way into the demesne of the Brentwoods. Just now it looked like the entrance into the domain of Father Christmas; for, from the roof, hung long, bearded icicles in a sort of stiff fringe, and on the ground beneath, another cheveau de frize of transparent ice had been formed by the steady drippings from the roof in the house when the thaw had set in with the passing of the young moon. There was almost a suggestion of sanctuary about it.
Brentwood bent down and turned the body over. In the thin blue serge coat over the left breast was a triangular tear that might have been made by a sort of blunt bayonet penetrating through the flimsy cloth, and the ragged shirt—the dead man had no waistcoat—right into the heart. The blow must have been a savage one, and death instantaneous. Brentwood could see the ragged wound in the chest, and on the ground a red wet patch, which had not frozen since the passing warmth of the corpse and the protection of the clothing had prevented that. Inside the shirt and all down the body it was as if in falling the unfortunate man had contrived to get a patch of snow inside the clothing, for the shirt was sopping wet and the blood there was as if it had been diluted. Brentwood was still noting these things in a vague, unreal way, when there came a car that stopped at the high gates, and a man in uniform got out.
"Inspector Weston," he explained sketchily. "Sent here by the chief at Canterley to investigate. Mr. Brentwood, I think?"
Shinwell ventured a remark. He had taken the liberty of telephoning to Dr. Coffin when he had got the police, and the gentleman in question was on his way.
"He will do quite as well as the police surgeon," the Inspector said casually. "Newcomer in these parts, isn't he, Mr Brentwood?"
A motor cycle roared up to the gate, and a short, thick-set figure with restless eyes behind thick, heavy lenses, stood in the ancient gateway. He merely nodded to Brentwood, and then bent over the body.
"Been disturbed," he yapped. "Why? Silly thing to do."
Brentwood proceeded to excuse himself. He hoped that what he had done would not interfere with the course of justice.
"In this case I don't think so," Dr. Coffin said with a smile that lighted up his whole face. "Let me see. Um. Death caused by some sharp-edged weapon with a broadening point such as a Spanish poniard which penetrated to the heart. Any barn or empty house where I can get to work?"
There being no difficulty about that, the body was removed by two of the gardeners and the somewhat eccentric Coffin moved off with them, whilst Brentwood and the Inspector retired to the house.
"I don't want to put you to more trouble than necessary," the latter said, "but I must ask your servants a few questions. Marston may have come here to see one of them, sir, in which case——"
"Oh, then you know the fellow's name?" Brentwood exclaimed.
"I know all the hard cases in Canterley," Weston said. "And now, if you don't mind, sir, I'd like to have your staff all together in some room."
"Of course," Brentwood agreed. "I'll send them all into the library. My wife will be wondering what all this trouble is about so I'll just run upstairs and break it to her gently."
It was an hour later before Brentwood came down, after sharing a breakfast in his wife's room. And there he found Weston waiting for him, very grave and troubled.
"I am going to ask you some personal questions, sir," he said. "That parlor-maid of yours. Bit of a talker. They gabble and never know what they are saying till it is too late."
"Perhaps I had better explain now we have a few quiet moments together," Brentwood said. "Marston came to see me last night, and nobody else. He wanted money, and I threw him out. By chance the servant you speak of saw the affray. I never set eyes on the fellow again till Shinwell dragged me out of bed to look at the body. Of course, I know that my story sounds a bit thin, but I assure you that I am telling you things exactly as they happened. Look here, Inspector, I would not have had this happen in Christmas week for anything. Christmas of all times of the year!"
Inspector Weston heard all this with becoming gravity.
"I'm sorry to hear this, sir," he said. "You had a violent quarrel, and a few hours later the man Marston is found dead in your own grounds. Moreover, clearly murdered. Did he come back again after the servants had gone to bed, or had you any occasion to go out into the grounds? I'm bound to ask you these questions, sir."
Brentwood was beginning to appreciate the sinister aspect of the situation. He had no particular apprehensions as to his share in the tragedy, but it would be necessary to explain fully why Marston had come to the Manor House or have the facts of the family scandal more or less dragged to light at the inquest. It meant publicity all over the country. Brentwood groaned as he thought of it.
"Perhaps I had better tell you," he said, "it was I who sent the man Marston to Canada and set him up there. And when he had drunk everything away, he came back here, asking for more."
"But what claim had he got on you, sir?" Weston asked.
Brentwood proceeded to tell him at some length.
"And that's the story," he concluded. "But always I have had my doubts as to Marston's account of his parentage."
"And so should I, sir," Weston agreed. "I've been in the Canterley Police Force since I was nineteen, and I know all about the shady characters there. A rare bad set those Marstons, and the woman was the worst of the lot. Handsome as paint in her day, but as evil as she was lovely. Still, in the circumstances——"
"Must this come out at the inquest?" Brentwood asked.
"I'm very much afraid so, sir. If we could prove that the man died through accident, or that he was in contact with somebody else after you threw him out of the house, then the family story would not have much significance. We might suppress it altogether. But so long as we admit the fact that the man was murdered——"
Indeed, is was impossible to point to any other conclusion. The man had been murdered, and so far circumstances pointed to Brentwood as the only one who was directly interested in getting the blackmailer out of the way. Looking at matters in the most optimistic light, it was impossible to keep the family scandal out of the papers all over the country, unless the real murderer was brought to justice, and that without delay.
"Can't you hold off the inquest for a few days?" Brentwood asked with some diffidence. "I am ready to swear that I never saw the man after I kicked him out of the house. If all that scandal is dragged out and it turns out afterwards that the real criminal——"
Weston nodded—he quite saw the point. A capital crime had been committed and somebody was responsible, but he was not inclined to believe that Brentwood had had anything to do with it.
"As to that, sir," he said, "it's more a matter for the doctor than anyone else at the moment. He may take a long time in making his autopsy or he may have made some discovery that we prefer not to have discussed in public just yet. If he made an application like that the coroner would not hesitate to adjourn the inquest at once, especially if we backed up the application."
So it rested more or less with the doctor, Brentwood thought uneasily. Could he manage to induce the man of medicine to . . . and so save a flaming scandal? Again, there must be a clue somewhere to this amazing crime, if the police would only look for it elsewhere.
Perhaps Dr. Coffin might help him. The latter had only been in the neighborhood for a few months, and was hardly to be compared with the usual country practitioner, being a highly-trained specialist who had been forced out of London owing to the condition of his health. He had dined at the Manor House once of twice and had proved to be a brilliant conversationalist and an impressive mental force, but beyond that Brentwood knew nothing about him.
Coffin was deep in his gruesome task when Brentwood and Weston sought him out in the building where he was at work. He had had the best part of two hours to himself and was now in the act of putting away his sinister instruments. As Weston and Brentwood entered he was in the act of placing what looked like a piece of rough black string in between the leaves of a pocket-book.
"Have you nearly finished, doctor?" Weston asked.
"More or less," came the reply. "At any rate, I shall be ready for the inquest which, I presume, will be to-morrow?"
"Unless you want a little further time," Weston suggested, with a significant note in his voice. "Perhaps, on the whole, such a policy would suit the authorities, too."
The shrewd little doctor grinned appreciatingly.
"Sets the wind in that quarter, eh?" he asked. "All right. I can make a longer job of it if you like, though I see nothing to be gained by doing so. Perhaps Mr. Brentwood——"
"Who was the last man to see the deceased man alive! Bar the actual criminal, of course. Fact is, Marston called at the Manor House last night, and there was some sort of a dispute, and Marston was pitched out. If the story is to be told in public it must, but probably if I have a little more time I may——"
"Lay your hand on the real culprit," Doctor Coffin chuckled. "I am ready to make a little bet about that. You will never lay hands on the criminal who killed the man who lies there. Am I correct in my deduction that Mr. Brentwood is anxious to hush up some scandal? Not that I am vulgarly curious—we medical men are too accustomed to such things in our practice."
"That's what it comes to," Brentwood muttered.
"Then I think you can make your mind easy on that score," the doctor went on. "It is a mighty curious case, and I never came on the like of it before, though I believe something of the sort once happened out in the Klondyke. At the inquest Mr. Brentwood can give his evidence that the deceased came to him—was it in search of money?—thank you and the request was refused. No occasion to say a word more, my dear sir, I assure you. And when I have spoken my little piece the Coroner will address the jury, and there will be an end of what in other circumstances the reporting fraternity would have called 'The Great Manor House Mystery.' Meanwhile, Inspector, you want a clue as to the culprit. Suppose I give you one?"
"It will be a great service," Weston muttered.
The doctor bent over his pocket-book that was lying on the bare deal table which he had been using, and took from it the rough piece of blackened string which he had had in his hand when the others came into the building. He passed it over to Weston.
"Do you happen to know what that is?" he asked.
"No, I'll be hanged if I do!" the Inspector said. "Looks like a perished fragment of tarred rope."
"Not quite," the doctor smiled. "I will explain presently, and then you will see where this tiny clue comes in. Where did I get it from? It came out of the dead man's breast. It was buried deep in the wound—so deep that it had entered the heart. Now how do you suppose this man was killed, Inspector?"
"By a blow with some sharp instrument."
"Right! What sort of a lethal weapon, eh?"
"A sort of pointed tool, getting blunter as it sloped from the apex. A bayonet perhaps, or a Spanish poinard."
"All of which is absolutely correct," the man of science went on in the same tone. "The heart was badly torn by the weapon that penetrated it deeply, and was evidently driven with great force. But how did this funny wisp of black stuff find its way actually into a vital organ? Answer me that, Inspector Weston."
Weston shook his head. But he was wise enough to see that he was up against a greater mental force, than his own.
"The sharp instrument and the thickening blade is admitted," Coffin resumed. "But one can't visualise a piece of rough black string clinging to the point of a steel weapon and being thrust into the body of the dead man; therefore, the incident needs investigation. Marston undoubtedly died from the thrust of a sharp instrument, so will we admit so much. Bearing this in mind, let us go on to the consideration of a few further points. When the body was laid on the table and I began my examination, I noticed that the front of the serge jacket was damp, and that the shirt under it—there is no waistcoat—was still more damp, in fact, sopping wet. But not altogether with blood. A mixture of blood and water. Now, how in the name of fortune did the water get there? Blood still oozing from the wound and shading away in color till it becomes a thin claret in hue.
"Now, I must confess this puzzled me until I found that piece of ragged string, as the Inspector calls it. And when I got hold of that I began to ask myself some searching questions. Then, when I had answered those question from a severe scientific point of view, I knew how the man called Marston came by his death."
"How he was murdered, you mean?" Weston suggested.
"Well, if you like to put it that way—yes," Coffin smiled. "But perhaps I had better show you the solution. If you both will come this way we can touch bottom in a very short time."
Coffin turned out into the open, followed by the others. Down the drive he went until he came to the spot under the shadow of the ruined thatched portcullis where Marston's body had been found. The whole world was dripping now with the thaw that had come with the dawn, and from the thatch overhead came something like a steady rain from the thatch of the portcullis. The long icicles on it were shedding tears, and on the drive just below where other spikes of transparent ice had lifted their heads after each thaw, a sort of brittle rampart uprose not unlike grim rows of lions' teeth. Here and there patches of snow lay on the drive like huge grey slugs partly melted in the thaw, and where they had frozen up ere the dawn were slippery patches or ice trodden into the ground.
"When did it begin to freeze last night?" Coffin asked.
"About seven o'clock," Brentwood responded. "And went on till the moon went down, as it has done for the last five nights."
"So I thought," Coffin murmured. "Now look at this, bearing in mind that the earth must have been frozen hard again at the time Marston came here. He walked back along the drive just where we are standing and slipped on a fragment of ice as he reached the shadow of the portcullis. You can see where the scrape of his boot-toes caught the hard powder of the snow as he pitched forward and died."
"Yes—after he was stabbed," Weston declared.
"No," Coffin thundered. "When he slipped up and came headlong to the ground he was as much alive as we are at the present moment. Now, take this thread of black string. What is it really? You don't know? It is a fragment of heather thatch off the portcullis and was washed down by the thaw. As the sprig fell it lodged by the side of an icicle and became embedded in it somewhere near this point. What price this for a weapon?"
As Coffin spoke he stooped and snapped off one of the long, keen-edged icicles and held it in his hand.
"There!" he exclaimed. "That is what killed Marston. He pitched headlong on to one of those bayonet-like icicles and it penetrated his coat and his shirt and entered the heart. If the frost had not come back last night somewhere about the time that Marston was on his way here—but it is no use speculating about that, and I don't think we shall have to trouble Mr. Brentwood very much when we appear before the coroner."
"IT'S all very dreadful, of course, Arnold," Cecilia shuddered. "But I suppose it might have been a great deal worse."
"A great deal worse for me," Brentwood said grimly.
"Darling, as if ever you would have been really suspected! And we shall be able to keep Christmas up in the good old-fashioned way, as we always have done."
"Yes," Brentwood muttered. "But it has been a precious near thing."
Roy Glashan's Library.
Non sibi sed omnibus
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