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Title: The Mystery of the Nine Stars Author: Aidan de Brune * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1800301h.html Language: English Date first posted: May 2018 Most recent update: May 2019 Produced by Colin Choat 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 Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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No further instalments of The Mystery of the Nine Stars appeared in The Bunbury Herald and Blackwood Express, following the instalment of 5 November 1920. The story, at that time, was incomplete. No further instalments have since been found in other newspapers.
This newspaper serial, though incomplete, has been published now because it seems to be the first story written by Herbert Charles Cull, writing as Frank de Broune. Cull went on to write other stories, under the names Aidan de Brune and John Morriss, which are available from Project Gutenberg Australia.
A notice appeared in The Bunbury Herald and Blackwood Express on 16/11/1920, 19/11/1920, 23/11/1920, 30/11/1920 and 3/12/1920:
The public are hereby notified that HERBERT F. de B. CULLE [Frank de Broune] is in no way connected with the Bunbury Herald, and has no authority to receive money or issue receipts for the Bunbury Herald.
THE UNITED PRESS, LTD.
Tucked away in many corners of London are streets and squares, which appear to be entirely alienate from their surroundings. Outside their boundaries is the noise and rush of modern commercialism. Within their precinct a peace that borders, almost, on stagnation.
Such a place was Pontin Square. A long narrow street joined it to Oxford Street entering the Square on the south side. The lines of houses to the west and north were unbroken, but on the east a short lane led past the mews entrance into Manchester Street. No. 14 Pontin Square was on the east side of the Square.
Pontin Square contained excellent houses. Built at a period when interior comfort was preferred to exterior display, they gave to the visitor a blank, stolid view. Within, while old fashioned in design and furnishings, they attracted by their air of homely comfort.
To many, 14 Pontin Square held a peculiar fascination. Casual passers turned to look at the darkened windows, behind which lived Ezra Gleed, the one time Wheat King.
Until the day when Ezra Gleed wound up his many business interests and retired from the Chicago Wheat pit to Pontin Square, his history had been no different from many another money monarch. From the humble beginnings of street arab he had risen rapidly, his path marked by the ruins of his opponents. Day by day he had accumulated money until with one sharp, bold stroke of genius and forethought, he held for three days the world's wheat supply in his hand. He had succeeded where others had failed.
Fortunately he had the good sense to realise the structure he had built was not permanent. Taking a rapid but enormous profit he announced his retirement from business and sailed immediately for England, ultimately buying 14 Pontin Square. Years passed and Ezra Gleed became but a name in the financial world he had once ruled.
At intervals stories were printed of his great financial battles, told as of one who had passed the portals of death; yet he had lived on in that old house, almost forgotten. Now he was dying. He lay on an old-fashioned four-posted bed in the centre of the room, drearily dark in spite of the fact that the windows were wide open. The furniture was old and solid in pattern, some of it of great value. By one of the windows stood a large writing table and seated at it a man. On the mantelpiece a clock ticked noisily.
"Have they come yet?"
As Ezra Gleed whispered the question the house bell tinkled faintly in the distance. He raised his head at the sound.
"Go and see Smeardon."
The man at the desk rose and left the room, returning almost immediately.
"The doctors and Mr. Waverill," he announced softly.
Gleed made an impatient movement.
"Bring them here at once. My time is running short."
In a while the three men stood by the bedside. Gleed looked at them for a few minutes in silence.
"Gentlemen," he said slowly and distinctly to the doctors. "My secretary, Mr. Smeardon, has explained to you why I desire your attendance. Make your examination quickly. I have much to do."
It was a short examination and after a few words of consultation the doctors again approached the bed.
"We suggest you complete your business arrangements as soon as possible," said one of the doctors gravely.
"I am aware of that. What of my mental conditions?"
"Your brain is unimpaired."
"Will you certify to that?"
The doctor looked at his colleague, who nodded.
"If you wish us to do so."
"Thank you. Is Mr. Waverill there?"
The lawyer approached the bed.
"Have you my will?" asked Gleed.
"It is here."
"Read it aloud. I wish these gentlemen to hear it read and then witness it."
The solicitor drew the will from his pocket. Seating himself beside the bed he commenced to read in a low even voice.
"This is the last Will and Testament of me Ezra Gleed of 14 Pontin Square Oxford Street in the county of London England, financier. I revoke all former wills and testaments and I give devise and bequeath to each of my servants now in my employ the sum of one hundred pounds sterling free of legacy duty for each completed year of their service with me. I give devise and bequeath to my nephew Claude Wilton Merrivale, the only son of my sister Jane Merrivale, the sum of ten thousand pounds sterling free of legacy duty. I give devise and bequeath to Matthew Smeardon, my private secretary, the sum of ten thousand pounds sterling free of legacy duty on condition he continues to occupy my house 14 Pontin Square for the term of twelve calendar months from the date of my death and shall particularly remain in the said house between the hours of 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. on each full noon night during the above mentioned period of twelve months, such legacy to be paid to him on the fulfilment of the said conditions and I direct that my executor pay to the said Matthew Smeardon such sums as he may consider advisable for the upkeep of the said house during the said period. I give devise and bequeath to my niece, Olga Mary Pellet, of the United States of America, the daughter of my sister Mary Pellet, the residue of my real and personal estate on condition that on one of the aforesaid full moon nights during the said period and between the said hours of 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. she applies in person to the said Matthew Smeardon at the said house, 14 Pontin Square, for a sealed envelope bearing the seal of the Nine Stars and that such application shall not be made in the presence of my said nephew, Claude Wilton Merrivale, nor while my said nephew is on the said premises, such legacy to take effect only on the fulfilment of the said conditions, and should the said Olga Mary Pellet fail to carry out the said conditions I give devise and bequeath the said residue of my real and personal property to my said nephew, Claude Wilton Merrivale, absolutely and without condition and I appoint Edward William Waverill, solicitor, of Holborn Inn to be the executor and trustee of this my will."
When the lawyer had concluded reading, Gleed turned to the doctors.
"You have heard, gentlemen. Will you witness this will as certifying that I am of sound mind?"
The doctors nodded assent. Waverill placed the will on the bed and Gleed signed with a firm hand. Thee the doctors signed. When the solicitor had placed the will in its envelope again, Gleed beckoned to Smeardon.
"You heard the will read, Smeardon. Will you swear to carry out the conditions binding you faithfully?"
Gleed looked at the man searchingly.
"I know you for a rogue, Smeardon. For some years I have known no good of you. I know you for a rogue, yet I have employed you, for a rogue, at times, was useful to me. In this trust I have placed on you I shall not be here to watch you. It is a big responsibility, the happiness and welfare of two people depends on your faithful obedience. Swear you will carry out my instructions to the letter without thought of a further reward than I have given you in my will."
"You swear; yet swear falsely. When I am no longer here to watch, you will turn traitor to your trust. I know you for a traitor, and because I know that, I have laid this responsibility on you. I know, too, that these children to whom I have willed my fortune, are worthy of their race and will defeat your feeble plottings. They will beat you, Matthew Smeardon, and you will lose that which might have been honestly yours."
The dying man paused for breath, motioning Smeardon away from him. When he had regained some strength he beckoned to the lawyer.
"Give me the letters. My time is short."
When he had signed the letters he handed them back to the lawyer.
"See that they are posted immediately I am dead. Do not allow them out of your charge until then, and let no one see to whom they are addressed. Post them with your own hands. Now go, all of you. I have finished with this world."
An hour later the body of Ezra Gleed lay in the gloomy chamber alone. A few hours more and that clay would be placed in the silence of the tomb. Ezra Gleed, the financier, was dead.
Through the streets of London the newsboys shouted the tidings. A king of finance had gone to a kingdom where gold held no sway. Autobiographies recounted how he had gathered his wealth, speculating on the extent of the fortune he had been forced to leave behind him. They acclaimed him a ruler; he, whom they had cursed in the past when he had cornered the people's bread. They speculated as to the personality of his heirs, and to what use they would put the vast hoards bequeathed to them. Some rumour of the peculiar will had filtered through to the newspapers, and they speculated as to what action the heirs would take--if such a will would result in a long, costly, and sensational legal war. They had no part or lot in the millions Ezra Gleed had bequeathed, but gold was a lure that they could not withstand. Even in the hands of others they felt its deadly fascination; a fascination that breeds only envy and crime.
Matthew Smeardon took possession of the house in Pontin Square. In the many interviews he had with Mr. Waverill, while they were sorting and docketing the dead man's papers he had fished assiduously for the addresses of the heirs. Ezra Gleed had not trusted him, and all he knew of the heirs was the brief description in the will. Only the dead man and the lawyer knew where to find these heirs. The letters Gleed had signed on his deathbed had been to them, but no questioning on Smeardon's part could exact any information from the lawyer.
Smeardon had hated, and still hated, Ezra Gleed. He had known that Gleed had never trusted him, that he had been retained in his employment, because, in the first instance, of his untrustworthiness. The old financier had found a sardonic pleasure in watching and circumventing the intrigues of his secretary. He had at times even used the dishonesty of the man to serve his ends. Yet in the matter of the will Smeardon felt that Gleed had had a more serious project in mind than simply to taunt him with his impotency. The financier had guessed that Smeardon would seek to betray his trust, if it were possible to do so to his advantage. Even row Smeardon was fumbling in the dark of his mind to find a way whereby he could obtain a further part of the Gleed millions. Yet knowing all this, Gleed had placed him in this position of trust. To what end Smeardon could not guess.
Smeardon was fixedly determined that no part of the Gleed millions should pass to either of the heirs, without paying toll to him. What was a paltry ten thousand pounds besides the many millions Gleed had possessed? Smeardon coveted riches, not for what the money could bring, but for the sake of the yellow gold itself. He wanted to feel the gold trickle through his fingers, piece by piece. He wanted to play with it, to watch the light glance on the surface of each sovereign as he piled it on its fellow. What did it matter that, with these millions, the luxury of the world could be bought; that love and power were purchasable--at a price? It was the gold itself that counted, the beautiful shining gold.
More than once in the days past he had dreaded to turn for fear of the old financier's eyes on him. Smeardon had acquired a habit of taking the money from the safe to trickle the gold coins through his fingers, gloating on their beauty. More than once the old financier had left large sums about merely to see the greed light in his secretary's eyes. Smeardon remembered with a shudder one occasion when the old man had stood for some time watching him play with a heap of gold. Gleed had taunted him with his miser heart, then, with a change of mood, had tried to teach him the true value of money--to show him how its possession only counted for what power and authority it brought. But Smeardon could not follow the old man's reasoning. It was the gold only that counted, the velvet feel of its surface as it trickled between his fingers.
At last the lawyer left him in solitary possession of the house, and Smeardon commenced a search for some indication of the whereabouts of Olga Pellet, and Claude Merrivale. All he had was their names and the fact that Olga Pellet lived in the United States. Bat the search was useless; the old financier had covered up the tracks too carefully. Smeardon prosecuted the search with all his vigour. The phantoms of his brain tortured him. From somewhere out of the world's spaces would come a man and a woman. About him they would fight for the Gleed millions and he would be helpless. He was to be but a puppet. At a given date and time a woman would step before him and demand from him his trust and he would be powerless to refuse her. It was maddening. Who was this woman? Why, he might even pass her in the streets and not know her. And then, one day she would stand before him, her hand outstretched for his gold.
Many weary hours the agent spent bent over the directories of the great cities searching for the name of this girl. He had decided after some consideration that it would be easier to deal with her. Women are fools in business. It would be easy to frighten her with tales of this Claude Merrivale and then she would pay, pay, pay. Aye, he would make her pay, and pay heavily, for the fortune he held for Ezra Gleed's heir.
It was easy to plan, but first he had to find the girl and his search had been resultless. Finally, he had placed the matter in the hands of a detective agency. They asked a high price for their work, and Smeardon writhed as he agreed to their terms, but it was the only thing to do. Then he sat in his master's chair and watched the telephone throughout the days.
Ezra Gleed had been dead nearly three weeks, and in that time Smeardon had accomplished nothing towards his desires. He sat at the old financier's desk as he had sat day by day for the past fortnight, waiting--watching. He looked a poor, wizened little man dressed in a shabby frock coat bespattered with grease spots. His turned down collar was held together by a narrow, rusty band of black ribbon. His face was thin with a high, narrow forehead surmounting sunken cheeks. The eyes were light in colour, framed by light wisps of eyebrows, and showing nearly yellow in the direct light, and set close together. The forehead receded and extended back over the crown of his head to a thin wisp of dirty grey hair that straggled over the collar of his coat.
Presently he picked up the telephone and called a number. He could wait no longer. The detectives had promised the addresses within a week. That time had long passed and they must now fulfil their promise. They were only delaying that they might charge him more. Oh, he knew them, and their ways.
"Smeardon speaking. Have you those addresses yet?--Hullo--yes--Mr. Claude Wilton Merrivale--yes--9 Pump Inn, Strand--yes--don't know Miss Pellet's--will find out--yes--you said that before--eh--well, hurry up with it--yes." He hung up the receiver with a bang.
"Silly fools! Can only find out what I could have found out for myself. Where on earth is that girl?"
Smeardon sat back in his chair and considered. One string of the twain was in his hands. He could go to this Merrivale and try and make terms with him. Would it be wise? The man might decide to fight, yet to a great extent he was in his hands. If he, Smeardon, made the conditions easy for the girl, Merrivale would only get the ten thousand pounds left to him in the will. On the other hand if he, Smeardon, chose to help Merrivale the latter would inherit the millions. Yes, it might be wise to see Merrivale. See him and then he could judge what was best to be done. Passing into the hall Smeardon took down his hat and snapped the street door behind him. He had discharged the servants directly the lawyers had finished at the house. They were an unnecessary expense, and he could easily find a means to place their wages in his pocket, besides, all servants had enormous appetites. The door stuck, and he jerked it shut.
It was early, in the afternoon, and arriving at the corner he hesitated. Should he take a bus? No, he would walk, it would be another penny saved. Crossing to the sunny side of the road he shambled citywards. As he shuffled on, many passers by turned to look at the shabby little bent figure so conspicuous in the well-dressed crowd; but Smeardon looked neither to the right or left.
Outside Charing Cross Post Office a man turned sharply as Smeardon passed him, and then followed, keeping a safe distance in the rear. When Smeardon came within sight of St. Clement Dane's church he stopped and looked up at the clock. It was early, and the day was hot. He turned into a tea-shop.
The shadower sauntered up and, entering, seated himself opposite Smeardon at the marble topped table.
"Well, Matt?" said the shadower quietly.
Smeardon looked up quickly. The cup he was raising to his lips swayed, and the contents spilt on his trousers.
"Who are you?" Smeardon asked fearfully.
"I don't think your eyesight is failing yet, Matt. Look again and you will recognise me."
"I don't know you. I don't want to know you," stuttered Smeardon, wildly.
"You don't know me," echoed the man, with a quiet laugh. "But I know you, and perhaps some of the gentry on the big house on the Embankment would be glad to share my knowledge. I know you, Matthew Smeardon."
Smeardon Smeardon put down his cup, unsteadily.
"What do you want?"
"I don't quite know," replied the man lounging back in his chair. "What have you to offer, Matthew."
"I've given it up, Tiger. I've given it up for the past four years now, Tiger. On my honour, I have."
"So you recognise me, at last."
"Its my eyes, Tiger. When I looked at you the second time, of course I recognised you."
"Stop the 'Tiger.' I'm Mr. Trantor to you, you cur. What game are you playing now?"
"No game, Tiger--I'm sorry, Mr. Trantor. I've given it all up, gave it up and turned honest. I've--"
"That's enough!" The man leaned forward and his hand closed on Smeardon's as it lay on the table. "So you remember it is four years since we met."
"Four years come next July, Mr. Trantor," answered Smeardon, eagerly.
"Four years come next July," repeated the Tiger meditatively. "And Tom Britton went up for a five year stretch. He should be out soon. You see the point of the joke, don't you, Matthew Smeardon."
"I hadn't anything to do with that, Mr. Trantor, I swear I hadn't." "Who said you had?" exclaimed the Tiger viciously. "If you remember so much Matthew Smeardon you will of course remember the gang--and the rules."
Smeardon shook as if with ague.
"I'll have to be going now," he muttered indistinctly. He groped his way to the door, and was reminded by the cashier to pay for his meal. The Tiger followed him out on to the pavement.
"Which way are you going, Matt?"
"You are not coming with me?"
The Tiger laughed quietly again.
"You don't look well, Matt. I'll come along and take care of you. Besides, you have not yet told me where I can find you--when I want you."
Smeardon turned and shambled across the road into the Temple with the Tiger strolling easily beside him. In Fountain Court Smeardon again stopped.
"I've to call on a friend here," he said.
"A legal friend!" commented the Tiger. "Come Matt, I've no time to waste. Where do you live now."
Smeardon searched his pockets and pulled out a dirty envelope which he passed to the Tiger.
"Come in the dark, Tiger," he whined. "I'm respectable now. Quite the gentleman. Quite a gentleman."
The Tiger read the address at a glance.
"That's right," he said as he placed the envelope carefully in his pocket. "I knew where to find you, but wished to know if you dared double-cross me again."
He turned on his heel as he spoke and left Smeardon without further word. The man stood and looked after him, fear, abject fear, on his face.
"I knew he'd turn up again one day," he muttered as he entered Pump Court. "I knew he'd turn up again. God help me."
At the door of 9 Pump Court Matthew Smeardon stopped and peered at the list of occupants. Satisfied that Claude Merrivale lived there he slowly mounted the stairs until he stood outside a door on the second floor, on which Merrivale's name was printed in large white letters. He knocked. Then, after a few minutes' wait, he bent and applied his eye to the key hole. Just as he settled into position the door was flung open and a young man appeared.
"Well, my inquisitive friend?"
"Mr. Claude Wilton Merrivale?" asked Smeardon, slowly regaining an upright position.
"That is my name. You're not a client?"
Smeardon hastened to assure his questioner that he was not seeking legal-advice.
"That's a pity," commented Merrivale placidly. "I've had some, surprises to-day, and a client would have rounded off matters nicely. If you're not a client, are you an editor?"
Smeardon declaimed any connection with the press. Merrivale looked sad and stepped to one side.
"Come in," he said sadly. "You've caught me this time. Whose process is it?"
Smeardon showed his puzzlement in his face.
"Where's your papers," asked Merrivale impatiently.
"The execution, man. Hurry up."
"What execution," asked Smeardon backing towards the head of the stairs.
"Then you're not distraining on my few poor belongings," asked Merrivale. He leaned forward and caught Smeardon by the arm. "You're not a client; you're not an editor; you're not a process server. Who the devil are you?"
"If you are Mr. Claude Wilton Merrivale," said Smeardon advancing into the room, "I want a few words with you."
"That's cheaper than money," observed Merrivale. "Sit down. I will give you ten minutes. If you want more you can have it. The time of a briefless barrister is worth more to others than it is to himself."
Smeardon seated himself in the least dilapidated chair he could find and looked at his host. He saw before him a lean, tall young man about twenty-five years of age, with a mop of shaggy hair surmounting a broad forehead. Rather heavy eyebrows framed, and partly hid, a pair of keen blue eyes. The nose was large, but well shaped and the mouth had a singularly winning expression. He was clad in a shabby blue lounge suit, except for the jacket, which had been replaced by a velvet smoking coat of some nondescript colour. From the man, Smeardon's eyes wandered to the room. It was untidy in the extreme. The furniture was poor, and almost every article had to rely on supplementary support. The few chairs were covered with a multitude of books, most of them in an advanced state of decay. Over all was a thick covering of dust.
"Quite an artistic apartment," observed Merrivale, following his visitor's glance.
"You are Claude Wilton Merrivale," asked Smeardon again.
"My dear fellow," expostulated Merrivale, "if I were not the person you ask for, do you think I would have enticed you into this abode of luxury. Yes, I am Claude Wilton Merrivale. My god-parents had no respect for the proprieties."
"You have heard of your uncle's death?"
"The late Mr. Ezra Gleed."
"Gleed!" exclaimed Merrivale, jumping up. "By Jove, I remember he was my uncle. Thought so when I read the name in the papers. Why the devil didn't you come and tell me this before. I might have got the write-up for the Moon. It's a clean couple of quid out of my pocket through your carelessness. 'The Life of an Uncle' by his loving Nephew. You know I'm inclined to book that couple of yellow boys up against you."
"Mr. Gleed remembered you in his will," continued Smeardon.
"He did? Awfully good of him. That reminds me," Merrivale searched the papers on his desk and drew out a legal looking envelope. "I was wondering which of my creditors this was from."
Smeardon took the envelope from Merrivale.
"Waverill, Waverill & Waverill," he read. "That is the name of your late uncle's solicitors."
"The name's nothing," observed Merrivale blandly, "most of my correspondence now consists of love letters from the legal representatives of my creditors. Kind of setting one devil to fight another."
"As you have not yet opened the letter, suppose you leave it for the present, Mr. Merrivale," suggested Smeardon. "If you will listen to me I can tell you all that is there, and perhaps more."
"Right-o," assented Merrivale, dropping the letter on the desk and tilting his chair back. "Mind smoking?"
He reached to the mantelpiece and took down a foul looking pipe.
"Mr. Ezra Gleed died about three weeks ago," commenced Smeardon.
"Poor devil," commented Merrivale through a cloud of smoke.
"After leaving certain legacies to his servants he bequeathed the sum of ten thousand pounds to you."
"Ten thousand uncles," exclaimed Merrivale leaping from his chair, "And I sitting here staring at an envelope containing such news and wondering which of my creditors was being unkind."
"He left the bulk of his fortune, amounting to several millions, to your cousin, Miss Olga Mary Pellet, on certain conditions."
"Lucky girl!" commented Merrivale. "But he left me ten thousand of the best."
"Those conditions may be made easy--or--difficult," said Smeardon impressively, leaning forward in his chair.
"Let us hope for the sake of the young lady they will prove to be easy," drawled Merrivale, puffing out huge clouds of smoke.
"I can make them easy or difficult," emphasised Smeardon. "What I shall do depends on the result of this conversation."
Merrivale's eyes narrowed quickly and he signed for Smeardon to continue.
"If I make those conditions difficult, I should say so difficult that the young lady will be unable to comply with them, you will inherit the residue of the Gleed fortune."
Merrivale leaned forward in his chair, eyeing his visitor intently.
"I'm afraid I'm rather dull," he said slowly. "Will you please speak more plainly."
"Mr. Gleed left you ten thousand pounds unconditionally," explained Smeardon. "He left the residue of his fortune, amounting to many millions, to Miss Pellet on conditions. If she cannot fulfil those conditions you inherit the estate, unconditionally. Those conditions are under my control. I can make them so hard that Miss Pellet will be unable to fulfil them. Then you will inherit."
"Where do you come in?" queried Merrivale.
"That is for you to say, Mr. Merrivale." Smeardon thought he had his fish hooked and assumed a more confident air. "Of course I shall expect a good bit for my services. I don't know Miss Pellet."
"You don't know me," retorted Merrivale, pulling hard at his pipe.
"I have heard of you as a clever and rising young lawyer," lied Smeardon glibly. "I preferred to approach you in the first place."
"Where is Miss Pellet?"
"I don't know," replied Smeardon. Then, realising his mistake, he added quickly, "I can soon find out."
"That's the reason you came to me," snapped Merrivale. "Look here, Mr. What's-your-name, I've given you a good innings. I told you that you didn't know me. You don't, and you wouldn't take the hint. You thought I was one of your own dirty kidney. Well I'm not. I may not be much of a chap but I'd get out of this decent world quick and sharp if I was the mean, despicable, sneaking, rotten cur you are. Get out of my chambers quick, you beast. I can't breathe the same air with you."
Smeardon got out of his chair hurriedly as Merrivale strode to the door and flung it open. Keeping the desk between himself and Merrivale, he attempted to parley.
"Mr. Merrivale! You misunderstand me. Let me speak. I assure you I am only acting in your best interests."
Merrivale left the door and came to the desk. Smeardon dodged to the opposite side.
"I told you to get out!" Merrivale exclaimed, his face white with anger. "By the Lord, if I lay hands on you I'll break your dirty neck. Will you go?"
He moved round the table to Smeardon and the latter dodged so as to keep the table between them. At last Smeardon found the door behind him and darted through.
"Mr. Merrivale!" he exclaimed, his head round the lintel. "I came to do you a service, and this is how you receive me. Look to yourself. The Gleed millions shall never be yours."
He withdrew his head just in time. Merrivale, in a couple of strides had reached the door and flung it shut.
"Whew!" he exclaimed, crossing to the window and flinging it open. "I must have some fresh air to get rid of the smell of that hound."
Below, in the court, he could see Smeardon's stunted figure gazing up at the window. As he looked, the old man raised his arm in a threatening gesture and hurried out of the court. For some minutes Merrivale stood thinking of the late interview. Then he crossed to the table and picked up the lawyer's letter. He read it through carefully and placed it in a drawer.
"Don't look as if I'll get anything out of the Gleed millions beyond my ten thousand," he commented under his breath. "Wonder why the old man made such a will. Anyhow it doesn't concern me."
In that statement, Claude Merrivale made one of his few mistakes. The matter of the Gleed millions was to cost him many sleepless nights. The shadow of the Nine Stars hung over his head and the head of a young girl hurrying across the Atlantic to a promised golden future.
The following morning Claude Merrivale called on Messrs Waverill Waverill and Waverill. They had requested an early interview and it is not policy for an impecunious banister to keep an important firm of solicitors waiting; Waverill Waverill and Waverill, the sole remaining partner being William Waverill, were solicitors of repute.
Mr. Edward Waverill had reached his office only a few minutes before Claude was announced and, contrary to the accepted practice of the learned profession, did hot keep him waiting. The business of the legacy was quickly settled and Claude was on the point of departure when the lawyer sat back in his chair with the evident intention of a chat. Merrivale resumed his seat and for a few minutes there was silence, the old lawyer scrutinising Claude closely.
"You had a visit from Mr. Matthew Smeardon, Mr. Merrivale?" the lawyer asked at length.
"How did you know that?" blurted Claude, involuntary.
"My dear sir," the lawyer was smiling in the most friendly fashion. "You were not at the deathbed of your esteemed uncle. The terms on which the late Mr. Gleed and his private secretary parted compelled the belief in my mind that so soon as Smeardon could discover your address he would seek an interview with you."
"I threw him out, the dirty skunk," exclaimed Claude, angrily. "What made you think he would come to me in preference to Miss Pellet?"
"For the simple reason that Miss Pellet is in New York."
"Then it will be some time before she claims her legacy?" said Claude.
"I have written to her and hope she is now on her way to England. In fact I should not be surprised to see Miss Pellet in London any day now. A fortune of seven millions is not left long unclaimed."
Again there was silence. Claude could see that the lawyer had something to say and could guess what that "something" was. He determined to give him no help.
"You did not expect to inherit the bulk of the late Mr. Gleed's estate?" asked Waverill at length.
"Yet you are the only male relative of the deceased."
"The will is in Miss Pellet's favour."
"That is so," replied the lawyer, musingly. "Yet with Matthew Smeardon's help, and I presume he offered you his help, on conditions, it should be easy for you to step into your cousin's place."
Merrivale rose from his chair, angrily.
"I do not understand you, Mr. Waverill. I am not likely to enter into any compact with that scoundrel."
"Sit down, my boy," said the lawyer kindly. "I did not expect such a thing from you. But I want you on our side, for there is certain to be a big fight before your cousin is allowed to obtain her inheritance."
"What exactly do you mean?"
"I don't trust Smeardon." said the lawyer slowly. "Certainly I have little reason to distrust him, except the scene at Mr. Gleed's deathbed and the fact that the man sought you out and made some proposals to you that appear to be very repugnant. I don't trust him, however, and with him in charge of the package of the Nine Stars, Miss Pellet will want all the friends she has if she is to inherit her fortune."
"Then you anticipate trouble?" asked Claude. "It seems to me that if I refuse to act with Matthew Smeardon in defrauding Miss Pellet he is helpless."
"Yet Ezra Gleed anticipated trouble. In fact some little time before his last illness Mr. Gleed placed in my hands a sum of money for the purposes of the estate. That was how he put it to me. Now I see that it is a fund to use in defeating the machinations of this scoundrel."
"If Mr. Gleed knew Smeardon for a scoundrel, why did he leave his fortune at the mercy of the man?" asked Claude.
Waverill did not answer directly. He was tapping the desk with a. knife.
"We will suppose that Mr. Gleed desired his large fortune should come into the hands of some person who could properly look after it. Perhaps he desired that the child of his eldest sister should inherit, irrespective of sex. Let us presume he did not know either of his relatives personally and, lacking a personal knowledge of their characters, he desired some guarantee that this enormous fortune should be administered with care and forethought. He formed his plans with the foresight that had won him his place among the financial kings of the world. Of course, you understand I am simply trying to construct a theory of what was in my client's mind when he was framing his will. I have no certain knowledge."
"It sounds reasonable." assented Claude.
"Let us presume he formed a plan by which his fortune should be worthily inherited. He may have argued that a fortune, lightly won, might be as lightly squandered. He had made his choice between his relations, but he desired to make that relation earn the fortune. He had a weapon to his hand. There is no doubt but that Ezra Gleed had a thorough knowledge of the character of Matthew Smeardon. He knew him to be a scoundrel. He then planned that he would place the fortune so much under the control of this scoundrel that it would need much forethought and work for his heir to obtain possession. Thus it would result that if his first choice, the daughter of his elder sister, failed in the test the fortune would fall into the hands of an heir who, by his training, should have some capability to take care of it."
"You do not lake into consideration the package of the Nine Stars," objected Claude.
"There I am at fault, altogether," replied the lawyer promptly. "Ezra Gleed was a close man. He confided in me little beyond the routine legal work. The package may be a blind. On the other hand, it may be of the utmost importance. So far, I have not been able to discover if any securities are missing. Personally, I should not be surprised to find that the package of the Nine Stars is but a dummy and therefore of no importance to the estate."
"Suppose I had accepted Smeardon's offer of service and tried to defraud my cousin?"
"I have not overlooked that point," replied the lawyer quickly. "I believe that Mr. Gleed had some fair knowledge of your character and deliberately placed this temptation in your way. No. I believe that the dead man was convinced you would assist your cousin to the utmost."
"You believe then, that Mr. Gleed made some enquiries about me?"
"It is more than probable."
"For what reason?"
"Perhaps he had in his mind conditions not stated in the will."
Claude thought for a few minutes.
"Mr. Gleed thought I would help my cousin, even against my own interests. To help her I must meet her. Then the unnamed conditions you have in your mind--the conditions you say Mr. Gleed did not state in the will--why--" Claude sprang to his feet, his face aflame. "You mean my uncle was trying his hand in the matrimonial market."
The lawyer laughed. "That is my reading of the situation."
"It's absurd," exclaimed Claude wrathfully. "I'm to marry a girl I have never seen?"
"If you are to help her you will have to meet her."
"Then I'll not meet her."
"Sit down!" said the lawyer, firmly, though still laughing at Claude's discomfiture. "Marriage to a nice girl should not be so distasteful to you. May I ask if your affections are already engaged."
"What girl is likely to look twice at an impecunious barrister?" said Claude bitterly. "No. I've not yet met the right girl, and the right girl is not likely to be Olga Mary Pellet."
"Yet, in fear that she may prove to be the 'right girl,' as you phrase it, you refuse to help Miss Pellet to protect her fortune against a scoundrel?"
"Oh, damn," exclaimed Claude. "You are getting, me into a corner. There is no danger of that."
"The danger appears to be to your peace of mind," the lawyer laughingly replied. "I'm afraid I have destroyed that entirely but, regarding Miss Pellet's fortune, no. We shall have to watch carefully, however. Smeardon did not come to you by chance. He has some plan in his head."
"I'm going to think this out," said Claude, rising, and holding out his hand. "Uncle Gleed has placed me in a queer position, and you have made it worse by your theories and conjectures. Let us hope Smeardon will do the right thing after all."
"Let us hope he will," agreed the lawyer. "Still I will make a sporting bet of a box of cigars that we have trouble with the old rogue."
"It's all supposition," insisted Claude. "Yes, I'll take your bet, for I believe the whole' of the trouble lies in your imagination. Still, if there is trouble, let me have one good smack at that scoundrel, Smeardon. I owe him one."
"Thanks," replied the lawyer, laconically. "I'll certainly send for you if there is any necessity."
Claude left Waverill's office in a maze of perplexity. Only one thing was clear to his mind, and that was that within a few days he would have a substantial balance at the bank. The theories and suggestions of the lawyer he could not bring into line with the everyday world around him. Melodrama had long ceased to exist except on the stage. Men did not go about these days seeking heiresses to defraud. Waverill had spoken as if there was a web of conspiracy being gradually woven around the fortune of Ezra Gleed. It was absurd. The lawyer was imagining a plot worthy of the most lurid of fiction writers.
The events of the past few, hours had made Claude disinclined for work, not that he had any of real importance at his chambers. He turned into High Holborn and walked slowly along towards the city. When worried, he loved to stroll aimlessly about the streets of the great metropolis. As he was crossing Holborn Circus someone bumped roughly into him. At the same moment a voice, sharp and shrill, struck on his ears. It was a voice that was familiar to him. Turning quickly he saw Matthew Smeardon passing in the apposite direction. As he looked after him, the man accompanying Smeardon looked back, and Claude saw his face. For a moment they looked into each other's eyes and then the man turned his head. For some moments Claude stood puzzled. Where had he seen the man before? Then a picture rose in his mind of a trial at the Old Bailey. A man stood in the dock charged with an accumulation of crimes. He was said to be the head of a gang of criminals, a gang that had long defied all the efforts of the police of the world. He stood in the dock, calm and confident, while the lawyers fought over him. He looked like a gentleman, but there was a narrowness of the eyes, a curl of the nostrils, a calculating, secretive expression that tokened a rogue. Then the verdict, an acquittal. Again Claude could see the half ironical, half contemptuous bow with which the man accepted his dismissal, to freedom.
"Tiger Trantor!" exclaimed Claude, under his breath. "Tiger Trantor and Matthew Smeardon."
Smeardon was not really surprised at the rebuff he received from Claude Merrivale. His visit, he afterwards realised, was a hasty, unconsidered act, taken from an impulse to make some move towards the Gleed millions which he coveted. He had known it was more difficult to deal with a man than a woman, and that, if Merrivale had accepted his offer, he would have had to wait at least twelve months, before they could divide the plunder. It would have been a period of great strain, for he would have to block Olga Pellet's attempts to obtain her inheritance. Then, again, there would have been the lawyer to reckon with. Smeardon had no illusions about Mr. Waverill. The lawyer would have caused infinite trouble and have been a constant menace, if not a certain danger.
Smeardon reflected that it was well Merrivale had refused his offer. He would get in touch with Olga Pellet one day, and then he would have a much easier person to deal with. Women are always fools in business, and easily frightened. The amount of the money at stake would daunt her. She would be nervous of so great a fortune, she would fear to lose it, and her fears would be his opportunity. He would fill her with tales of Merrivale; how the barrister had tried to corrupt his honesty. He would tell of the large bribes Merrivale had offered. Surely then she would be grateful, and her gratitude would take a substantial form.
Of late he had vaguely dreamed of plans that promised a far richer harvest. Nothing definite as yet, nothing that he could take hold of, but there were possibilities that almost frightened him. Why should Olga Pellet, or Claude Merrivale, ever touch a penny of the Gleed millions? Why should not he, Matthew Smeardon, take all! All!
When he met Tiger Trantor on his way to Merrivale's chambers, he had thought his plans were doomed to failure, but succeeding days spent in the company of the master crook, had opened new visions of possibilities. The Tiger had wormed his secret out of him and then suggested that they should work together to appropriate the Gleed millions. He had not been able to refuse. At first he had given a grudging assent, but after reflection he had viewed the situation in a new light. The Tiger had, at his command, men and women who would be invaluable in the delicate work before them. Smeardon realised that, with the help of the Tiger, his schemes would become certainties--but he would have to divide the plunder, and the Tiger would not be satisfied with less than the lion's share. His instincts revolted at that. Could he defraud the Tiger and the gang. His position was strong. Only through him could the Gleed millions be diverted from the rightful heirs. He held the power. Without him, the Tiger was helpless. Then, could he not take the lot, even from under the claws of the Tiger. He thought he could.
The Tiger was a dangerous man to cross. Well, Smeardon knew that. In the past he had worked with the Tiger's gang; once he had nearly suffered for him. Even after five years he shuddered at the thought of his narrow escape. He had saved himself, but at a cost--the betrayal of a comrade. The Tiger had reminded him of this casually, but with intent. For the moment he had thought that the Tiger knew he had been the traitor, but he had dismissed the suspicion. Had the Tiger known, retribution swift and sure, would have descended. The Tiger never forgave.
Smeardon was certain that the Tiger suspected him. Why had he spoken of Tom Britton if he had not? Tom Britton had suffered in his and the Tiger's place, and it had been his, Smeardon's, information that had placed him in jail. It had been his information that had placed the Tiger in the dock. If the Tiger knew that!
Alternating between greed and doubt, Smeardon took the Tiger fully into his confidence. Day by day they reviewed the life of Ezra Gleed--all that Smeardon knew of it and had gathered of late--looking for a clue to the mystery that the old financier had woven on his deathbed, around the package of the Nine Stars. What did the package hold? The Tiger believed it held the securities of the estate, and urged Smeardon to open it. Smeardon resisted; he had a superstitious dislike to tampering with the package and so far he had refused to even show it. Later, perhaps, when their plans were more fully formed, it might be necessary to deal with the package, but until then he was determined that it should not be touched.
Nearly a month had passed since Ezra Gleed died and nothing had been heard of Olga Pellet. The delay troubled Smeardon. He wanted the girl so that he could deal with her. Why had she not come to claim her inheritance? Supposing she did not come--if Olga Pellet was dead--if something happened that she was not able to claim the package. What then? The estate would go to Merrivale, who had driven him out of his chambers with loathing and contempt. Never that.
If Olga Pellet never came to claim her inheritance, would it be possible to claim it in her name? Could the Tiger find a girl to play her part; a girl who could pose as the real Olga Pellet and deceive the lawyer. Smeardon knew the wonderful resources of the gang, its agencies all over the world, its spies and agents, in the most unlooked for places. It was a tempting idea. Could it be worked?
By the time Smeardon and the Tiger met again, the former had the scheme well thought out. The Tiger listened in silence and then, after some discussion, gave it his approval. It might be worked. He knew a girl who might play the part. The only trouble would be if the real Olga Pellet happened on the scene after their dummy had put in her claim, but that was a minor point. The real Olga Pellet could be easily dealt with, if she came to light; dealt with silently and effectively. The Tiger had promised to find a girl and bring her along.
This was some days ago and the Tiger had not yet fulfilled his promise. Smeardon sat in the study of the old house in Pontin Square and waited. He was alone in the house for he had long since discharged the servants. The house was shut up and deserted, except for the study where Smeardon sat and the small back bedroom he had always occupied. In the study he spent his days hoarding the sovereigns paid out to him by the lawyer for the upkeep of the house. In the study he spent the day and most of the night, for he could not sleep. Daily he searched the study, examining books, peering about, he knew not for what. Some sense told him that there the old financier had hidden something. What it was he could not tell. Yet he sought--and hoped.
It was early one evening and Smeardon had just cleared away the remains of his meagre repast when the door ball rang. Shambling to the front door he opened it on the chain and peered out. The Tiger and a young girl were standing on the steps. At the command of the Tiger he took down the chain and opened the door.
"Well, Matt," said the Tiger pushing Smeardon to the wall as he passed into the house. "Suppose you thought I was never coming to see you again. Come in, Polly. That's Matthew Smeardon, once one of us. Now turned to righteous paths."
Smeardon closed the door and followed his guests to the study. The Tiger stood just inside the door and, as Smeardon entered, caught him by the arm.
"Will she do?" he asked as he switched on all the lights in the room. "Turn round Polly."
The girl turned obediently. Smeardon saw before him a young girl of about twenty-one or twenty-two, with an abundance of tawny hair piled high on her head. The face was small, with bright twinkling eyes and a turned-up nose, the mouth wide and hard--yet she was not ugly. More, she had a certain prettiness about her, tainted by an air of bravado that marked the woman of the criminal class. Her clothes were neat, but had an air of ultra-fashionableness. She stood with her arms hanging loosely to her side, meeting Smeardon's scrutiny with an air hall defiant, half indifferent.
"Will, will she do?" asked the Tiger again.
"Who is she?"
The Tiger laughed and bowed in a ceremonious manner.
"Let me introduce you people. Miss Pellet let me make you known to your late uncle's secretary, Mr. Matthew Smeardon."
Smeardon clutched the Tiger's arm.
"What do you mean?" he cried hoarsely. "Whom have you brought here?"
The Tiger shook him off roughly and, crossing to the mantelpiece, lit a cigarette.
"You will have to look to those nerves of yours, Matt," he drawled. "If this young lady is not the real and only Olga Pellet I suppose she will do--as a makeshift."
The girl had watched the two men with a certain air of amusement. When Smeardon approached her and peered into her face she drew back with a slight gesture of repulsion.
"Well, can't you speak?" she asked harshly. "Will I do for the part?"
"Who are you?" asked Smeardon again.
"What does that matter," angrily interjected the Tiger. "To you she is Olga Mary Pellet, of New York, the niece of the late Ezra Gleed. That's her name from now on and the sooner she forgets she ever had another the better for her and you."
"You know what yon have to do?" asked Smeardon of the girl, after a moment's pause.
"She knows nothing except that she is to impersonate an American girl, Olga Mary Pellet. Come and sit down both of you."
The girl obeyed the Tiger's command without a word. After a moment's hesitation Smeardon drew a chair to the desk and sat down.
"Tell the tale Matt," said the Tiger shortly. "All you know and all the details you can remember."
The old secretary leaned his arms on the desk and looked at his confederates for some minutes in silence, Then, slowly and with much hesitation, he commenced the history of Ezra Gleed's life. As he proceeded, he became more fluent, until at the death of the financier the Tiger interrupted.
"This is where I come in."
Smeardon turned to him in surprise.
"Oh, yon may look," said the Tiger with a queer laugh. "Did you think I had been idle since you first mentioned this stunt? Not so. I put the wires to work and, mark me, they have burned to some tune. Now I'll talk."
He talked well. In swift, well-chosen words, he sketched the history of Olga Mary Pellet and her family in the United States. Smeardon sat astonished. The rogue had worked to good effect and in the short time at his disposal had gathered in all the essential details. When he had finished, he drew some papers from his pocket.
"These are the necessary papers to establish your identity," he said, passing them to the girl. "They're good, although perhaps they are not quite original."
"Where did you get them from?" exclaimed Smeardon.
"What's that to you?" snapped the Tiger, angrily. "Do you know so little of the gang that you act like a loony. Some of them, a clever pen-man, like you, could have done just as well, if I had chosen. Now, Polly, we'll see what you know."
For the next hour the two men questioned and cross-questioned the girl until they were certain she was letter perfect in her part.
"You'll do," decided the Tiger at last.
"What's this about the Nine Stars?" asked the girl, who had been bending over a copy of the will spread on the desk. "I mean what are the Nine Stars?"
"You wouldn't be here now, dearie," said Smeardon, leering at the girl, "if I could tell you the meaning of the Nine Stars."
"Bring out the packet, Matt," commanded the Tiger, impatiently. "You never show it."
Smeardon hesitated a moment and then went to one of the bookcases and pressed a concealed spring. Part of the case swung to one side, revealing the door of a small safe. He worked the combination slowly and swung the door open. In the safe lay a large envelope. He took it out and laid it on the desk. It was a bulky package, addressed in Ezra Gleed's handwriting, to Miss Olga Mary Pellet, and under the inscription were the following instructions:
This envelope, addressed to my niece Olga Mary Pellet, is to be handed to her intact. In the event of it being opened by any other person than the said Olga Mary Pellet, in the presence of my executor, Edward William Waverill, my secretary Matthew Smeardon is to be considered to have forfeited his trust.
On the flap of the envelope was a large seal impressed with the mark of Nine Stars. They were arranged in two rows, the top row consisting of four stars and the bottom of five stars. The two men and the girl bent over the package as it lay on the table.
"I'd like to know what is inside that package," said the Tiger, slowly. "It might make all the difference to us."
Smeardon placed his hand over the package.
"No tricks, Tiger." he muttered. "We shall know soon enough and that package moans ten thousand pounds to me, even if our plans fail."
He took the packet from the table as he spoke and restored it to the safe. The Tiger rose to his feet.
"Time we were going, Polly," he said quietly. "Let us have a drink first, Matt."
Smeardon produced the liquor and they drank in silence. Then he escorted them to the front door.
"When is the stage set for?" asked Tiger, as he stood on the steps.
"The night of the full moon."
The girl raised her hand and pointed to the sky. There, among the stars, in a sky unmarred by a single cloud, floated the completed circle of the silver moon. One glance and the Tiger turned to Smeardon with anger in his face.
"You fool, Smeardon," he exclaimed. "Get an almanac! We've nearly missed the bus this time."
They followed Smeardon into the library and the Tiger tore at the "Whitaker."
"Tonight!" he exclaimed hoarsely. "Quick Polly! Demand the package from him."
The girl stared from one to the other of the men for a moment in astonishment. Then, on the Tiger reiterating his command, she grasped the situation. Turning to Smeardon, she drew herself up to her full height.
"Mr. Smeardon. I am Olga Mary Pellet. I require from you the package of the Nine Stars left in your charge by my uncle, the late Mr. Ezra Gleed."
Smeardon had been slow in grasping the situation and stood, staring, at the girl. The Tiger took him by the shoulders and forced him to the safe. As Smeardon touched the spring that worked the bookcase, the door behind the trio opened.
"I beg your pardon." The man who had just entered the room spoke. "This lady is not entitled to receive the package of the Nine Stars."
The three rogues turned quickly. Smeardon took a step forward.
"Merrivale!" he exclaimed. "Claude Merrivale!"
"Just so." said Claude with a smile. "It is very regrettable, but Miss Pellet cannot receive the package of the Nine Stars while I am on the premises."
"Damn you!" exclaimed the Tiger, springing forward. "Then I'll remove you.
"I think not." answered Claude quietly. "Listen!"
From a nearby clock floated the chimes of the hour.
One by one the four persons in the room counted the strokes of the bell until, at nine, the clock ceased to strike. At the last stroke Merrivale stepped back and closed the door behind him. The night of the first new moon had passed.
The next day Claude telephoned to Waverill but found the lawyer was out of town and would not be back for some days. The delay was annoying, for after the scene at the house in Pontin Square on the night of the full moon, Claude was convinced that Smeardon was up to mischief. Three days later he received a telephone message from the lawyer and went round to Holborn Inn immediately. Waverill listened to his story in silence.
"It was just a chance I was passing the house at the time and recognised the Tiger in the doorway," concluded Claude. "They pointed to the moon and then hurried inside the house. I followed and made a somewhat dramatic entry."
"Lucky for your cousin you did so." observed the lawyer, dryly. "You are certain this lady is a fraud?"
"What else can I think? I found her in the company of a man I know to be one of the leading crooks in the kingdom."
"You are certain of the identity of the Tiger?" insisted the lawyer. "You could not have been deceived by the poor light?"
"You forget I saw him later in a brilliantly lighted room," Claude spoke emphatically. "I had previously seen him in daylight, and since then I have been to Scotland Yard and examined his photograph. No, I am certain I am not deceived."
"You must remember that the trial at the Old Bailey was the only time the man was ever brought to justice and even then he was acquitted. What do the detectives say? Are they convinced the man is a rogue?"
"The police are certain they made no mistake. The man works almost entirely behind others and rarely comes out into the open. Now they have new evidence against him. Not enough, in my opinion, to convince a jury, but facts are accumulating against him. One day he will make a mistake and then--" Claude finished the sentence with an expressive gesture.
"We shall see," replied the lawyer with a smile. "You did right to interfere, even if you interfered with the heiress. It was her business to come to me first with her proofs of identity. That she did not do so strengthens the supposition that she is an adventuress in league with these rogues. If it is the Miss Pellet, who was in the house that night, it is unfortunate but there is no real harm done. She will have to wait another month for her fortune."
"Perhaps she will call on you now."
A knock at the door. At the lawyer's answer, a clerk entered and placed a card on the desk.
"Your guess was not a bad one," commented the lawyer, passing the card over to Claude. "Miss. Pellet is here."
"If she is a confederate of Smeardon and the Tiger, the girl has nerve," exclaimed Claude, rising. "I suppose you will see her, so I will be off."
"Sit down, Merrivale," said the lawyer. "You are interested in this matter, and it might be as well for you to be present and be introduced to your cousin."
He pressed a button beneath his desk, twice, and a few minutes later the door opened and the clerk announced "Miss Pellet."
The two men rose to their feet as the girl entered. The lawyer glanced rapidly at the girl and then at Claude, who nodded slightly and walked to the window. When the girl was seated opposite the lawyer, she looked round the room as she drew off her gloves. Her glance fell on Claude at the window and the lawyer noticed her eyes widen. Then, after a momentary pause, she rose to her feet and went across to the window.
"Will you not welcome me home, cousin Claude?" she asked, holding out her hand. "You would not speak to me last night."
It was a daring bit of effrontery and Claude could not find words to answer her. He took her hand mechanically.
"Bid me welcome," she commanded with just a suspicion of twang in her voice.
"I bid you welcome to England, cousin Olga," Claude said quietly. "I am sorry I could not stop longer last night, but your escort was not polite."
"He was disappointed, on my account," replied the girl. "You see, you interrupted at a critical moment. Now I cannot claim my inheritance for another month."
"I think I have met him before," said Claude bluntly. "His name is--" he made an appreciable pause.
"Mason--" filled in the girl. "Mr. George Mason. Will you allow me to apologise for his behaviour."
"Mason! I don't remember that name. When I saw the gentleman before he was passing under the name of Trantor."
"How funny," the girl laughed, delightedly. "I have never heard that he had two names. You are sure you are not mistaken?"
"I cannot say." replied Claude. He was beginning to doubt his memory.
"I have known Mr. Mason for a long lime, in the States," continued the girl, "and he has always been Mr. Mason. Perhaps you are confusing him with someone else."
Claude bowed. If the girl was acting, it was a magnificent performance.
"Why did you not come and see me before going to Smeardon," interrupted the lawyer.
Olga turned to him quickly.
"That was a mistake," she admitted. "But Mr. Mason thought I had better get the papers before I came to you. After Mr. Merrivale left us so abruptly last night, I insisted that I should see you at once, and Mr. Mason agreed. If you had stopped a moment longer, cousin Claude," the girl added, turning to Merrivale, "you might have helped us to a decision. You are a lawyer, are you not?"
"We are wasting time," said Waverill briskly. "Sit down Miss Pellet and tell me why you have come to see me now."
"I hardly know," replied the girl with a laugh. "I suppose it is necessary that I should prove my identity."
"It is usual," remarked the lawyer, in dry tones. "Have you any papers?"
The girl took a package from her handbag and passed it across to the lawyer. Waverill opened it and turned over the contents quickly. The papers appeared to be in order.
"What ship did you come over in, cousin Olga," asked Claude suddenly.
"The Danetic, cousin Claude."
Merrivale had hoped a lot from his sudden question, but it was evident that, if the girl was a fraud, she had been well tutored.
"I will leave my papers with you, Mr. Waverill," said Olga, as she rose to go. "You will act for me, will you not?"
The lawyer returned the papers to their envelope.
"I act for the estate, Miss Pellet," he answered briefly. "If you succeed in the conditions I shall be pleased to act for you."
"Then I will detain you no longer," said the girl, holding out her hand to the lawyer.
She turned towards the door, and at the same moment it was opened by a clerk, who entered without knocking. Something in his face checked the reprimand that rose to the lawyer's lips. He took, in silence, the card the clerk held out to him. When he had read it he glanced sharply at Olga Pellet. She was shaking hands with Claude.
"Show this person in at once," said the lawyer quietly. Then as the clerk left the room, "Sit down a moment, Miss Pellet. There is someone here I should like you to meet."
Almost immediately the door opened and the clerk showed in a young lady, without any announcement.
"Claude's glance jumped from the girl seated at the desk to the newcomer. Olga Pellet gave an almost imperceptible start and then sat back in her chair as if the further proceedings did not interest her. At a nod from the lawyer, Claude placed a seat for the newcomer almost beside Olga. The girl went straight to Merrivale and held out her hand.
"You must be Claude Merrivale," she said in a rather high voice, with more than a suspicion of the American twang. "I heard in the outer office you were with Mr. Waverill."
The lawyer's lips came together firmly--it is not wise to talk too freely in a lawyer's office. The girl noticed the movement and turned to him with a charming smile.
"You must not blame your clerks, Mr. Waverill," she said quickly. "I was asking where I could find Mr. Merrivale, and they told me he was with you."
Waverill motioned the girl to the seat Claude had placed for her. As she sat down she glanced inquisitively at the girl in the other chair.
"Miss Pellet," said the lawyer slowly and distinctly to Olga. "Let me make you known to Miss Olga Mary Pellet of New York. It seems you both claim the same name."
The girls turned and looked at one another. From across the large desk Waverill surveyed them with some amusement, yet evident perplexity. From his position, at the window, to which he had returned, Claude stared, first at one girl and then at the other, in open amazement.
It was easy to see that both men were puzzled at the situation. Only one of these girls could be the true Olga Mary Pellet. The other must be an imposter, and it might prove in the end that both of them were imposters. Waverill, from the direction of his eyes, favoured the first. Her papers were in order, and there seemed no reason to doubt her except in so far as Claude's story of the affair at the house in Pontin Square showed she was the associate of a crook. Claude favoured the second girl. He could not put from his mind the many suspicions that had gathered about the first claimant.
The first girl rose to her feet, indignation blazing in her eyes.
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Waverill. I must have mistaken what you said?"
"You made no mistake. This lady claims to be Olga Mary Pellet."
"My name is Olga Mary Pellet," retorted the first girl.
"That is impossible," replied the second girl, now also on her feet. "It is my name."
"I am the niece of the late Mr. Ezra Gleed," continued the first girl.
"I am Mr. Gleed's niece," retorted the second girl.
Claude took a step forward, but Waverill motioned him to silence.
"Mr. Waverill," exclaimed the first girl, indignantly, "This woman is an imposter."
"Mr. Waverill," cried the second girl, "I am the only niece of the late Mr. Ezra Gleed. My father was Ernest Pellet, a safe-maker, and he resided for many years in the city of New York."
"My father, Ernest Pellet," continued the first girl, without taking any notice of the statements of the other girl, "died in the year 1911. My mother died three years before him. He married a second time, some twelve months after my mother's death. I have been, for years, a typist in the employ of the Watson Brake and Engineering Company, and resigned my appointment on hearing from you."
"This woman is repeating my history," cried the second girl, with a look of contempt at her rival. "Where she obtained her information from I cannot even guess."
"You say I wrote to you," said Mr. Waverill calmly, addressing neither girl particularly. "Have you that letter here."
Both girls opened their handbags and produced letters and handed them to the lawyer.
"Here it is." The reply was simultaneous.
Waverill beckoned Claude to his side. The two men looked at the envelopes as they lay, side by side on the desk. They were identical in every respect. Handling them gingerly, Waverill pulled out and opened the letters. Both letters were exact in every particular. Waverill passed his hand across his brow. How had he come to sign two letters to the same girl and, even if he had done such a thing, how had one of them gone astray. No, surely neither he nor anyone in his office was capable of such a terrible mistake.
"Strange," he murmured, as he sat back in his chair and tried to look anywhere but at the two indignant faces before him.
Claude turned to the second claimant.
"On what ship did you sail from New York?"
"What was the number of your berth?"
"No. 14 on the main deck."
"That was the number of my cabin," exclaimed the first Olga indignantly.
"Ladies," interposed the lawyer firmly, "This cannot go on. We shall arrive nowhere. You both claim to be the heiress of the late Mr. Ezra Gleed. It is not for me, at this stage, to decide between you. Neither of you can inherit without first fulfilling the conditions contained in the will of the testator. Both of you, I presume are aware of those conditions. These are your papers," he continued, taking the envelope of papers from his desk and handing them to the first claimant. "You seem to have identical identification papers. One set of papers must be forgeries, but before I will do anything, I must first have handed to me the sealed package of the Nine Stars, obtained in accordance with the terms of the will of the testator, the late Mr. Ezra Gleed. When that package is brought to me I shall then examine the credentials submitted with it."
He rang his bell and a clerk entered.
"Show these ladies out, Matson," commanded the lawyer.
The door closed behind the girls and Claude sank into a client's chair with a sigh. Waverill leaned back in his chair and the two men looked at one another. At last Claude broke the silence.
"You got out of that wonderfully well." he said. "Uncle Gleed certainly mixed things up some. If I wrote the late interview up for the 'street' I should be accused of drawing too freely on my imagination."
"I will not doubt that," replied the lawyer, with a laugh. "The situation was unbelievable."
"How are you going to reach finality?"
"I don't know," replied Waverill candidly. "For the time being I am going to do nothing. Smeardon is now the keystone of the situation and until he gives one of the girls the package of the Nine Stars I am helpless."
"Uncle Gleed said the package was to be claimed on the night of the full moon. I am beginning to see some sense in that," said Claude meditatively. Then after a pause. "Well sir, I suppose we have wasted enough of your time for one day. You have plenty to do."
"From the way you speak, you seem to infer the reverse is your case," observed the lawyer, looking at his visitor with kindly, but inquisitive, eyes.
"Something of the sort," said Claude, trying to turn the subject with a laugh. "There are a good many of us young barristers, who would do badly without Fleet Street at our backs."
"Well, you will not starve with ten thousand pounds in the bank," retorted the lawyer. "However, I'll try and find a brief or two to keep your law from getting rusty."
"That's awfully good of you sir," said Claude warmly, grasping the hand the lawyer held out to him.
Leaving the solicitor's office Claude made his way back to his chambers. He wanted to be alone and think. When he had heard of the peculiar conditions in the will of his late uncle he had been inclined to scoff at the dramatic situation created. Now he was not so certain. Had Ezra Gleed any inkling of what would be the result of his death? Had he any fore-knowledge of the intrigues that would immediately surround his estate? So quickly had the clouds gathered that Claude could not but think that the old financier had known that his vast fortune had already attracted rogues around it. Certainly, from what Waverill had told him, Ezra Gleed knew his secretary for a rogue. Yet he had placed in his hands a power for evil that was already bearing fruit. Two women were claiming to be the heiress of the estate! One of them must be a fraud. From what he had overheard at Pontin Square a few evenings ago he came to the conclusion that his suspicions must be directed against the first claimant. Yet she had told a plausible story. But the second claimant had told a precisely similar story in every respect. The story must be true, it bore the impression of truth, therefore the only inference that could be drawn was that one of the two girls had, in some way, learned the life history of the true Olga Mary Pellet and had determined to impersonate her.
The appearance of Tiger Trantor in the matter perplexed Claude. He wanted to know which of the two claimants the rogue backed. Certainly the scene in the house at Pontin Square pointed to the first claimant but with a man of the known ability of the Tiger, it was never safe to go by first appearances. From what he had seen and heard, the first claimant had the backing of the Tiger. That told against her in Claude's mind. No one who had dealings with the Tiger could be anything but a rogue, but if the first claimant was the true heiress how did the Tiger get in touch with her and obtain sufficient influence over her to get her to go first to Smeardon. She called him "Mr. Mason." Had she known him long? Had she come over from America with him? Claude wished he had asked those questions in the lawyer's office. That he was mistaken in the identity of the man he had seen in the house in Pontin Square he would not believe. His memory of the Tiger was still very distinct. Besides, he had verified his suspicions of the rogue by every available means.
Puzzling over these questions Claude, on reaching his chambers, lit his pipe and sat down to thrash out the matter and, if possible, reach a conclusion. For some time he sat there going over and over the facts, but he could see no light. His instinct told him to believe the tale told by the second claimant, but the only evidence he had to support his instinct was the vague distrust of the first claimant's associates.
He tried to reconstruct the personality of the two girls. Was there anything about either of them that would cause a suspicion? Both of them had a good presence but the second girl, in his opinion, was the better bred. The first girl sometimes lost her poise and acted, or appeared to be acting, a part. Again, and the thought flashed across his mind, the clothes of the second girl bore creases as if recently packed in a trunk. The clothes of the first girl bore no such signs. It was a small thing, however to base a question of identity upon.
Determined to reach some conclusion, Claude tried to reconstruct the scene in the lawyer's office. He had a good memory and could remember word for word. Both girls had told the same story in every particular. Was there anything that they had said that he could use as a starting point for his enquiries?
"The Western Brake and Engineering Company." The name flashed across his brain. The first claimant said she had been in the employ of that firm. Then they should be able to give a description of Olga Mary Pellet. It was not much of a clue, but worth following up.
Seizing his hat, Claude went out to cable the Western Brake and Engineering Company of New York, asking for a description of Olga Mary Pellet. He found the telegraph office crowded and had to wait some time. While he was waiting, he became aware he was hungry; he had missed his lunch. When he had despatched his cable, he turned into an eating house and ordered a meal.
Until he received an answer from America, nothing could be done, as the lawyer had said, but wait. Claude tried to dismiss the subject from his mind, but it held so much mystery, and so many conjectures, that it was impossible. Lighting a cigar, he strolled back to his chambers. There was some work there he had to finish. Night had fallen when he arrived at Pump Inn and the staircase was in darkness. That did hot matter to him for he was continually up and down the stairs in the dark. When he reached the top stair, he became aware that someone was standing outside his door.
"Who is there?" he demanded, sharply.
"What an enthusiastic welcome," replied a laughing voice. "Do you always keep your visitors waiting on the stairs, in the dark?"
Claude recognised his visitor. It was the second claimant.
Merrivale hastened to open the door and obtain a light. Olga followed him into the room. When he turned to her she held out her hand with a charming gesture.
"Will you not bid me welcome to this great city of yours, cousin Claude? You would not do so in Mr. Waverill's office. Please, now. I feel so very friendless and lonely."
"Certainly I bid you welcome," replied Claude, taking her proffered hand.
"Why no 'Cousin Olga'," asked the girl with a laugh. "You English are funny. We would not treat a new cousin that way in the States."
Claude looked at her, standing in his shabby chambers in all her girlhood freshness. She had appealed to him at Waverill's office, and he had felt an inclination to befriend her. In his heart he knew he would have welcomed her heartily and wholly as his cousin had it not been for the advent of the other girl. The presence of two claimants for the Gleed millions had brought a feeling of distrust against both. He knew, he was certain, that the first claimant was a fraud. He was coming to believe that the girl that now stood before him was the genuine heiress and his cousin.
"So this is where you live," said Olga, looking round the room with curiosity. "Will you not ask me to sit down? I have heard so much of your old inns and funny chambers and I have always wanted to see them."
"I assure you they are quite commonplace," replied Claude offering the girl the most comfortable chair. "If they have any claim to distinction whatever, it must be that they are more inconvenient and dull than the modern chambers erected outside the precincts of the inns."
"Then why do you live in them?" Olga asked, quickly. Then with a complete change of tone. "There, I have offended you. I am too impulsive, and let my tongue run away with me. You are wondering why I have come here, are you not?"
"It is a bit outside the usual visiting hours," admitted Claude, with a laugh. "Some of our old fashioned friends, and we have a number of them in the Inns, might say stupid things. But I am very glad to see you, all the same."
"You really mean that?" The girl clapped her hands with delight. "I have wondered all the way over if you would be glad to see me, considering what my presence here means to you."
"You refer to the Gleed estate?"
"Of course," Olga paused for a moment and then continued. "It is a shame Uncle Ezra left such a will."
"It is certainly awkward for you."
"Oh, I did not mean that, cousin Claude." The girl made a movement of her hands, as if to sweep away all personal interest in the matter. "I mean that Uncle Ezra was wrong not to have left you at least a part of his money."
"He left me ten thousand pounds, cousin Olga."
"Poof." The girl blew the idea into the air. "What is ten thousand pounds besides the millions he must have had."
"It will make a vast difference to me," replied Claude, with a smile. "My income before that was slightly under £50 per annum."
"My!" exclaimed Olga. "How on earth did you live on that?"
Claude laughed as he thought of the many shifts he had been put to in the endeavour to live.
"There are ways and means when 'must' rules," he said. "You forget I have a reversionary interest in the estate."
"I wouldn't give you much for that," said Olga, confidently. "An American girl is not likely to be baffled by any old conditions in a stupid will. But you believe that I am the right Olga Pellet, do you not?"
"I am afraid I must not express an opinion," answered Claude, shortly. This girl was an adept at asking embarrassing questions.
"But that was just what I came to ask you," she panted. "I want yon and I to be outside all this nasty legal business. Can't we be good friends, without bothering our heads about Uncle Ezra's fortune? Will you not believe I am Olga Mary Pellet?"
"Have you the necessary proofs?" asked Claude suddenly.
"Ample proof," answered the girl, gravely. "Mr. Waverill can see my papers at any time. Cousin Claude, who is this girl who claims to be me?"
"That is more than I can answer." He had no intention of telling her of the scene at the house in Pontin Square and of his suspicions that the first claimant was a tool of 'Tiger' Trantor and Smeardon. "I first met her only a few days ago."
"She then claimed to be the heiress of Uncle Ezra?"
"And you then doubted her?"
"What reason have you for thinking that?" asked Claude, wonderingly.
"I could see you did in Mr. Waverill's office. You don't doubt me, now?"
"You must be a thought reader," laughed Claude. "How did you guess all that?"
"Perhaps I am. Cousin Claude, you have not yet wished me luck."
She held out her hands to him again. Claude took them in both his.
"With all my heart, I wish you luck," he said earnestly.
"In spite of the fact that, but for me, you would inherit the Gleed estate?"
"In spite of that, and more," answered Claude. He was looking straight into her eyes and something in his expression must have startled her, for she blushed and withdrew her hand quickly. In a moment she had recovered her composure and turned to him again.
"Say. 'I wish you luck, cousin Olga,'" she commanded, prettily.
"I wish you luck, cousin Olga," he repeated obediently.
There was a crash of glass. With an exclamation, Claude stepped towards the girl and swung her into a corner. Then he looked towards the window. The glass was smashed.
"Look!" said the girl in a terrified whisper. She pointed to the table. There, among the papers, lay a large stone with a dirty bit of paper tied round it. Leaving the stone for the moment, Claude strode to the window and flung it open. There was no one in the Inn.
Olga had come to the table and had picked up the stone. She undid the string from around it and, when Claude turned to her again, she had the paper spread out on the table under the lamp.
"Claude Merrivale," she read in a steady voice, "Keep out of a matter that does not concern you. The Gleed millions will never be yours. Tell the woman now with you to get back to the place she came from."
The girl looked up at him with a queer laugh. "A funny kind of post you have in this old country. Can you tell me what this is all about?"
"I wish I could, and I wish I could get my hands on the postman. It is disgusting you should be frightened so."
"Never mind me," replied the girl, briskly, "I can fight my own battles, but they threaten you. What do you intend to do?"
"What can I do?" replied Claude bitterly. "If I knew who my correspondent is, I might take the law into my own hands, or sue him for a broken window."
"But what does it all mean? Why are you not to interfere and why am I to go away?"
"That is a long story," replied Claude, thoughtfully.
"And you don't trust me sufficiently, to tell me." said the girl, reproachfully.
Claude hesitated a minute and then decided to trust her. She was now being threatened and it was her due, that she should know the truth.
"It is the story of the beginning of the fight for the Greed estate," he answered. "Yes, cousin Olga, you should know, and I must tell you. But you must not stay here. I will take you back to your hotel and tell you everything I know on the way there."
Leaving the girl in the sitting room, Claude hunted out a revolver. If these people, and he believed the warning came from Tiger Trantor's gang, were threatening, they would not hesitate to put their threats into practice. It was well to be prepared and he did not mean his pretty cousin to come to harm while with him.
Walking through the partially deserted streets Claude told the girl of the scene at the death-bed of Ezra Gleed. From that he went on to his recognition of Tiger Trantor with Smeardon in Holborn, and then to the scene at the house in Pontin Square on the night of the full moon, and his seeing the first claimant in the company of the Tiger and Smeardon. Olga was deeply interested and questioned him keenly. He found she had brains. He recognised that, once her identity was fully established, she would prove a valuable ally in the fight against the forces of evil arrayed against them. That the Tiger would be able to frighten her away from England, he felt, was impossible.
Outside the Lyric Hotel, Olga stopped and held out her hand.
"Here is my hotel," she said. "Good-night, cousin Claude. I paid you an unconventional call tonight. I am afraid you must return my visit at a more proper hour."
With a final wave of her hand she ran up the steps and disappeared through the revolving doors.
It was a fine night and Claude was not inclined for bed. Turning down Savoy Street he strolled along the Embankment. It was dark here and the only people about were the flotsam of the great city. Pacing citywards he mused over the quickly happening events of the last few days. Out of nothing had come Romance and Romance had brought a girl in its train. He had found a relation whose existence he had not heard of until a few days ago. He had found this relation to be a beautiful girl, more, an intelligent and pleasing companion. But Romance had brought more substantial benefits with her. He had become possessed of a competency. The old bad days were gone, never to return. Those days when he starved while he waited for the opportunity that did not come. He smiled when he remembered the days when he had walked the streets with his articles and stories under his arm, vainly searching for his next meal.
It was all over now. Waverill, the great lawyer, had taken him up and he had enough money in the bank to make him independent of his pen. He could devote his time to the law, the work he loved. He would work hard and rise in his chosen profession. He was passing the Temple Station when a street boy darted out of the shadows and thrust a note into his hand. Claude clutched it mechanically and turned to question the boy, but the urchin had disappeared as quickly as he had come. Close by was an electric lamp. Claude strode to it, opening the note. It contained but a single line:
It is unwise to walk in the dark.
Claude looked around for the writer or the boy. Far down the road a motor car was drawn up against the curb. A woman stood at the open door of the car and Claude thought she was looking in his direction. He started towards her, but she stepped quickly into the car, which immediately drove off.
The following morning Claude awoke late! While he was breakfasting, he drew the two notes he had received the previous evening from his pocket and studied them again. They were in no way alike. One was the threat of an enemy, the other apparently a warning from a friend.
The writing on the note that had arrived so dramatically through the window was disguised. It was half printed on common paper and intended to be taken as the work of an illiterate person, but to the barrister's trained senses, it did not ring true. He decided that the pen had been in the hand of a man of some culture, perhaps not the culture of school and university, but certainly the culture of the school of the world.
The second note was on good paper and written in a flowing hand. It might have been disguised, and probably was, but to in no way disguise the refinement and culture of the writer. It might be the handwriting of an educated woman. If it was, then, the woman had received a good business training and had a keen intellect.
Claude there seemed little doubt but that the second note had been written by the woman he had seen standing at the door of the motor car on the Embankment. Dimly he seemed to remember her presence there some time before the note was placed in his hand. And, absurd as the idea appeared to him, she had watched him from the moment he had come in sight. When he had read the note and had first set conscious eyes on her, she was watching him. He was certain of that. Then when he had moved in her direction she had driven off.
From the notes, his thoughts turned to his cousin Olga. He reviewed her visit to him on the previous evening. When he had first met her he had determined to stand neutral to the dispute between the two claimants, but Olga had swept him off his feet. Almost against his will had he promised to help her. Was he sorry for his promise? He hardly knew. He was almost convinced the first girl was the tool of the rogues, but was the other girl the rightful heiress?
There was some significance in the fact that the Tiger was trying to frighten her away. He had watched her closely on the arrival of the message through the window. She had been frightened and astonished. The threat to himself and the girl made one thing clear. The Tiger and Smeardon had shown their hand. They had shown that the first claimant was a fraud and a tool of theirs. They had warned him from interfering and he took that warning as a declaration they intended to steal the Gleed millions.
There were difficult and dark days ahead; he could not doubt that. Waverill had asked his aid in guarding the estate. He had refused, but this girl had come to him asking for his aid and support. He had granted it to her, but his promise could do no harm. He would fall in with the wishes of the lawyer. He would act so as to safeguard the estate. If the second claimant was the true heiress, he would then be guarding her interests.
Whatever line he took, he realised it was necessary that Waverill should know of the latest developments. Claude went to a public phone and rang up a lawyer. He was informed that Waverill had been called away on important business and would probably not return that day. It was annoying but the matter could wait. There were many days to the next full moon.
When he arrived back at his chambers, a boy from an office below was waiting for him.
"Mr. Merrivale, someone on our phone wishes to speak to you."
Claude went down to the instrument. It might be the lawyer.
"Is that you, cousin Claude?" The voice came distinct, with its tinge of Americanism, over the wire. "I'm so glad I've caught you. Can you come round to me."
"How did you get this number," asked Claude much astonished.
"I rang up Mr. Waverill and the clerk gave me this number. He said you gave it for Mr. Waverill's use until you had a telephone of your own. Can you come round cousin, I've had such a funny letter."
"Hold up!" Claude spoke quickly. "Don't talk over the phone. I'll come round to you at once."
"How good of you," murmured the voice, and then came the little disconnecting click. Ten minutes later Claude entered the lounge of the Lyric Hotel to find Olga waiting for him. They found a quiet corner, and then Olga handed him a single sheet of notepaper. Claude started, for the handwriting was identical with that of the second note of the previous evening. Like his, it contained a single line of writing.
You have undertaken a dangerous task. Be careful.
The letter bore neither signature nor address. Claude turned it over in his hand and studied the texture of the paper. He then drew the letter sent to him, from his pocket, and compared the two. The paper was the same. He asked for the envelope. Olga went to fetch it. When she returned he studied, the postmark. It has been posted in the "W.O. District," the number indicating probably at some pillar box on or near the Embankment.
"What does it mean?" asked Olga with a puzzled frown.
"That is just what I mean to find out," replied Claude with a smile. "At present we are working in the dark. I think the writer is friendly to us; she gave me a warning last night."
"She! You think this was written by a woman?"
"I am certain of that," replied Claude.
Then he recounted to Olga the incident of the letter on the Embankment on the previous evening.
"Do you think Smeardon has anything to do with this," asked Olga, tapping the letter she had received that morning.
"No!" replied Claude emphatically. "The note thrown through my window last night came from him or the Tiger. That is certain. This came from a different source. The Tiger will not warn us again."
"Then I am not to inherit the Gleed millions without a fight," observed Olga, a defiant note in her voice. "Well, I'm not frightened. If they want a fight they shall have it."
"Good girl!" laughed Claude. "But you must be careful."
A glint of mischief shone in the girl's eyes.
"Then you are on my side. I am so glad--Claude."
It was the first time she had left out the "cousin" before his name and, for the moment, Claude nearly lost his head.
"Waverill had better hear of our adventures as soon as possible," he said briefly. "If you will give me your letter, I will take it to him."
"Mr. Waverill is out of town," replied Olga, with a pout. "And I wanted you to stay and lunch with me. Need you go, cousin Claude."
Claude hesitated, and laid down his hat again. During the lunch, Claude laughingly refused to discuss the Gleed mystery, as they now named it. He led the girl to speak of her past life in that huge, strange city of New York. Particularly was he interested in her father's life story. He had an idea, at present no more than an instinct, that when the mystery was cleared up, Earnest Pellet would be found to have played a large part in the event leading up to the peculiar will of Ezra Gleed.
Olga talked well and her little American accent lent piquancy to her descriptions of American life and manners. She portrayed the daily round of the average American business girl. She wove a romance about the dusty details of American office life; the men she had met, principals, managers and clerks. Claude thought he would recognise on sight many of the people she spoke of. For her fellow workers, Olga had a wide sympathy. She recognised and accentuated their peculiarities yet around her descriptions was a subtle sympathy that brightness and glossed all that was drab and sordid in their lives. The hours passed and Claude could not tear himself away.
When he left, late in the afternoon, he made his way to Holborn Inn. Just as he was mounting the steps Waverill came out.
"Heard you had telephoned this, morning," exclaimed the lawyer. "Told the clerks to get you but you had disappeared."
"I've been lunching with my cousin," answered Claude, feeling somewhat uncomfortable under the lawyer's gaze.
"Which one?" asked the lawyer, briefly?
"There is only one," answered Claude, angrily. "You surely do not consider the first girl, for a moment?"
"I don't consider either of them at present," retorted the lawyer. "I'm just waiting, Micawber-like, for something to turn up."
"Miss Pellet and I have had some correspondence," said Claude, quickly.
"So! Come info my room."
Seated in the lawyer's office, Claude went over the events that had happened since he left the lawyer the previous day: the visit of Olga to his chambers; his telegram to America; the message through the window; the woman on the Embankment; and, finally, the letter to Olga. The lawyer studied the documents carefully. Then he opened a drawer and took out a letter and a telegram.
"This is an answer to your cable," he observed, as he handed it to Claude. "You were wise to have it addressed to me, instead of to your chambers."
Claude opened the envelope.
"Olga Mary Pellet, employed here one year ten months. Left own wish. Fully satisfactory. Medium height fair hair, blue eyes, slender figure, speaks well, good presence dresses well, no visible marks. Left here Danetic--Western.
"It might fit either girl," commented Claude, as he handed the message to the lawyer. "It was a chance shot of mine and has not brought us luck."
The lawyer took the cable and handed Claude the letter. He looked at the envelope. It had a familiar appearance, and as he withdrew from it a large card, be realised it was from the person who had sent Olga and him the warning. The card bore only a diagram.
"What do you make of it?" asked the lawyer.
"The first of the Nine Stars," answered Claude involuntarily.
"I did not think of that!" exclaimed the lawyer, bending over the card. "The mystery is getting deeper."
The two men bent over the mysterious card, in bewilderment. That it held some definite part in the mystery that was fast closing around the Gleed Estate was certain. It was also probable that the sign bore some allusion to the contents of the safe in the house in Pontin Square. What was the connection? What was the secret, if secret there was?
Waverill, at length, declared that expert aid must be called in. The presence of two girls, each claiming to be Ezra Gleed's heiress, and the present inability to choose between them, inclined the lawyer to direct action. Claude at first opposed the suggestion but, after reflection, fell in with the lawyer's views.
"I have just the person to tackle this in mind," exclaimed Waverill. "In my business I have to rely to a great extent on private detectives for the information I require. For years I had trouble with people who would not, or could not, understand that I wanted evidence and nothing else. Lately I have come in touch with an American firm who suit me exactly. They are intelligent and exact in their work. I am going to place this matter in their hands."
"Who are they?" asked Claude, dubiously.
"The Black Detective Agency, of Chicago. They have lately opened a branch over here."
The lawyer paused, and looked at Claude with a peculiar expression on his face. Then he continued:
"I am beginning to think, Merrivale, you will have to take a much more prominent part in this matter."
"What do you mean?"
"We are up against a big problem," said the lawyer. "There is no doubt but that the Gleed estate is threatened by rogues. Unless some decided steps are taken by us, it is probable an unauthorised person may obtain the package of the Nine Stars and then apply to me for the delivery of the estate. I shall, or course, put every obstacle in the way until I am satisfied of the authenticity of the claimant. But you have seen how far these people are prepared to go. The papers of the first girl are perfect, so far as I have examined them. If a further examination does not disclose a flaw I shall have to hand over the estate, or stand an action for its recovery from me. That will be a difficult and costly action, but there is an easier way."
Claude was silent for some minutes. He could guess what was in the lawyer's mind.
"The will gives you the right to interfere," continued Waverill. "I know it will be unpleasant for you and will look as if you wish to obtain this estate for yourself, but what can we do? You are the only safeguard we have."
"Then you wish me to prevent Miss Pellet obtaining the package of the Nine Stars?"
"It is the only way, Merrivale. I will not say you should act so as to finally claim the estate. That is left to your discretion under the will. But for the present--"
"Don't talk like that, Waverill," exclaimed Claude angrily. "I know I must do this, however bad it looks, but you must not imagine that I wish to collar the money."
"I don't think that, my boy," said the lawyer kindly. "I know you too well for that. You must remember that there is plenty of time for Miss Pellet to claim her inheritance. I only wish you to bar the way until we can lay these rogues by the heel and have evidence as to the heiress' identity."
Claude gave way reluctantly. It was not an honourable position the lawyer forced him into, and to the world it would appear that he wished to obtain the Gleed millions. He could in no way conceal his actions. Every night of the full moon he would have to attend at the house in Pontin Square during the stipulated time and guard the package from any claimant. His actions would become public, and probably would provide sensational news for the lower class of newspapers.
He was forced to agree, and did so, believing he could thus best guard his new-found cousin's interests. One stipulation he made and that was if at any time the lawyer had certain information that the second claimant was the true heiress, he was to allow her to claim the package immediately.
The agreement was not satisfactory to Claude. For some days he went about his work in a very bad temper. During that time he saw much of his cousin, although at first he rather avoided her. She sought him out and insisted on his company laughing at his sullen moods.
"Cousin Claude," she said one day, "are you prepared to make a deal with me?"
"A deal?" Claude repeated. They were in his chamber, Olga seated by the open window, alternately reading and interrupting Claude at his work.
"A deal," she repeated mockingly. "A compromise, if you do not understand good American."
"I don't understand what you mean," he replied. The brief before him was of a technical nature and required great concentration. Olga's chattering was sometimes disconcerting.
Olga stamped her foot, impatiently.
"You are the dullest man I have ever met," she exclaimed. "A deal! A compromise! A settlement! An understanding! There now! Do you understand?"
"My fortune, of course." The girl rose and came across to the desk. "Is there anything more important in this world than a fortune of seven millions?"
"Yes. THAT!" mimicked the girl, in reply. "Claude, I'm tired of waiting. The second full moon is nearly here and I want to make things certainties."
Claude lay down his pen and looked at the girl who had pushed the papers into a heap and had seated herself on the corner of his desk.
"What do you propose?"
"I want you and I to go to the house on the night of the full moon and demand those papers from Mr. Smeardon."
"My dear child," observed Claude, "Have you forgotten the conditions of the will."
"I don't think there is a man in the whole of the States who has not more sense than the average Englishman," said Olga heatedly. "Of course I haven't. You can see that the scene is set all right and then go outside the door."
"Oh!" mimicked Olga.
"But I must not be on the premises," objected Claude.
"Then get off them," ordered Olga, now seriously angry. "You're the biggest stupid I've ever known. There's plenty of room in the Square outside."
Claude considered. It was a possibility. If he and Waverill took measures to safeguard the house from the Tiger it might be possible to fall in with Olga's wishes. The more he considered the plan the more he liked it.
"You promised to help me, Claude," whispered Olga, from behind him now.
It was feasible and would surely end this uncertainty.
"I'll speak to Waverill about it, Olga," he said quietly. "I like the idea, but he must know of it first."
Olga stamped her foot again.
"Everything is Mr. Waverill," she exclaimed angrily. "I thought it would be such fun if you and I could go to that gloomy old house, get the papers, and call on Mr. Waverill the next morning with everything in order."
"I can't act without Waverill's knowledge." answered Claude.
Olga came round to her seat on the table. She leaned forward towards Claude. He could smell the perfume of her hair. Her eyes were looking into his, and held a half promise that made his heart jump.
"Help me, cousin Claude--Claude--and--and I will divide with you. Fifty-fifty, straight."
"Claude stiffened in his chair."
"I can't do it, Olga," he said briefly but firmly. "Waverill should know. He will approve, I'm sure."
"You're the biggest pig in the world," exclaimed Olga, jumping off her perch and gathering up her belongings. "If you don't come round to the hotel and tell me you will do this, I'll never speak to you again."
The door closed behind her with a bang and he heard her running down the stairs. As he went to follow her the telephone bell rang.
"That you, Merrivale," came the reply. "This is Waverill. Can you come up to my house at once."
"Right." answered Claude, hanging the receiver on its hook. He would have better preferred to follow his cousin and make his peace with her.
He caught a taxi in the Strand and drove to Hampstead. Waverill met him at the door and took him at once to the library. Seated by the fire was a young girl of about twenty-one or twenty-two years of age.
"Miss Smith of the Black Detective Agency," said Waverill. "The agency has placed the Gleed matter in her hands. Miss Smith, this is Mr. Claude Merrivale, the nephew of the late Ezra Gleed. You have read the will and understand how he is interested in the matter."
In the resultant conference, Claude gathered that the Agency had taken off the man they had first detailed for the work, and placed it in this girl's hands. He felt vexed, for she did not appear to him capable of dealing with so complex a problem. She must have noticed this, for when the interview closed she held out her hand to Claude.
"You think I am much too young to handle this matter satisfactorily?" she asked.
"Yes." replied Claude, surprised into unexpected candour. Then he attempted to explain. "You see, we have to do with some very thorough scoundrels, and you might get hurt."
"Well?" said the girl somewhat defiantly.
"It's a man's work," continued Claude. "A girl--"
"Yet Mr. Waverill and the Agency trust me," said the girl with a quiet smile. "Will you not trust me, too?"
There was a quiet steadiness in her glance and Claude realised that under her reserved manner lay a strength of character and a fund of determination he had not suspected.
"Yes, I trust you," he said warmly, "but I don't like it. We have to deal with some of the worst scoundrels going, and it will be a nasty business. Much too nasty for you."
"Perhaps," she answered with another smile. "I have come up against some very nasty characters in my life and have not suffered any harm. Have we finished, Mr. Waverill?"
"There is one other matter." Claude interrupted the lawyer's assent.
He rapidly outlined Olga's request. Waverill was dubious, but Miss Smith was emphatic that no such scheme should be tried.
"It is early yet," she declared, "It is a probable solution and we can try it later on. At present I think it advisable that Mr. Merrivale should simply block all attempts to obtain the package."
It was left at that and in his heart Claude felt relieved, though why he could not have said. He followed Miss Smith out on to the pavement and asked permission to see her home.
"We are not a satisfactory body of people at present, Miss Smith," he said, laughingly. "No actual violence has taken place yet, but we have been threatened and warned."
Miss Smith accepted his reason without hesitation. They walked on for some distance before they could secure a taxi. When they were seated in the car, she appeared absorbed in her thoughts and Claude, after some attempts at conversation, remained silent.
Claude had received the directions, "Morton Street, Kensington" from Miss Smith. When they got to the corner of the street the cab stopped and the driver asked for the number. Miss Smith decided, however, to descend and walk the remainder of the way. Morton Street is a long, quiet thoroughfare, and they were some minutes before they arrived at the house where Miss Smith lodged. Lounging at the railings outside the house was one of those street Arabs that infest the heart of London. When he caught sight of Miss Smith and her escort, he straightened himself and came forward.
"Is yer Missus Smith," he queried.
"Yes," replied the girl, and held out her hand.
The boy handed her a dirty slip of paper, and when Claude tried to detain him, ducked suddenly and ran off into the darkness. Miss Smith walked to a lamp post and unfolded the paper.
"You may think you are clever," the read, "but if you are wise, you will get out of this game."
The girl handed the paper to Claude in silence, and then with a perfunctory "good-night," disappeared into the house.
The failure of their attempt to obtain possession of the package of the Nine Stars on the night of the new moon had not disheartened the Tiger. Then came Polly's report of her interview with the lawyer and the appearance of the second claimant. Smeardon had sworn violently, but the Tiger only smiled. He had learned to control his feelings and, in that lesson, had found the secret of controlling the vast forces for evil that undermined the city of London. He met his reverses with a smiling face and his followers were heartened and urged to fresh efforts. Many a time he had escaped by the merest margin while his associates had been captured. It had been his nerve that had saved him, that ability to smile in the face of danger.
In spite of his luck, at no time had he ever been accused of seeking his own safety by the sacrifice of his confederates. In every adventure he had accepted his full share of the risks, and when the unexpected had happened and his associates had fallen into the clutches of the police he had schemed, often successfully, to save them from their well-deserved punishment. In this he had accepted big risks. This had been acknowledged by the underworld where it has always been accepted that every man stood for himself. He called it his luck, but it was more a matter of calculation. He had never deserted a friend, and therefore his influence was supreme.
When he had accosted Smeardon in the tea-shop in the Strand he had not just happened to be there. For a long time he had had an eye on Ezra Gleed's secretary, waiting for the right moment to speak. There had been the sentence of Tom Britton to solve and he more than suspected that Smeardon could give the solution. Then, the position Smeardon held had great possibilities. He had been content to wait, but the death of the old financier had precipitated matters. He had asked Smeardon how the old financier had disposed of his fortune, and the information given him opened a wide field of possibilities. He was not long in discovering Smeardon was already scheming to take advantage of the peculiar conditions created by the will.
Many years before Smeardon obtained, by fraud, the position of private secretary to Ezra Gleed, he had been a member of the Tiger's gang. His agile brain, his cleverness in planning, but above all his ability as a forger had made him valuable. Yet the Tiger had never trusted him. He had recognised the cowardice of the man and that he would not hesitate to betray his comrades at the first hint of danger. In one of the gang's schemes something had cone wrong. Tom Britton had been associated with Smeardon in the work and Smeardon had betrayed his associate. The Tiger had suspected the betrayer but Smeardon had covered his tracks too cleverly. Then came the arrest and trial of the Tiger. Here again he had recognised the hand of Smeardon. Now he was waiting and watching, using the treacherous scoundrel to serve his present ends.
Smeardon had tried to rebel when the Tiger took command of the scheme for obtaining the Gleed millions. There had been sharp words and the Tiger had spoken openly of his suspicions. It had been necessary to overawe the man. Smeardon's quick submission only caused the Tiger to watch more carefully. He knew that he had frightened Smeardon; that the latter thought he knew more than he did; but the Tiger did not intend to act at present however far his suspicions might become certainties. He was dazzled by the magnitude of the game he was playing.
Smeardon had thrown the stone through the window of Merrivale's chambers. The Tiger had been angry for the man had acted without orders, though the action did no harm. He did not think that Merrivale would take any notice of the warning. Then his spies brought him knowledge of Waverill's application to the Black Detective Agency, an organisation that had driven him out of the United States. He feared the Agency, who used methods unknown to the red-tape police of England. They had surprised him, driven him from pillar to post, cornered his best agents, and finally had placed him in such a position that he had only escaped out of the States with a bare margin on safely. Then he had heard that Miss Smith had been detailed to the case; the girl who had planned and almost brought about his downfall.
It was the night of the full moon and the Tiger sat in Ezra Gleed's study. He was sprawling in a lounge chair before the fire, smoking and watching Smeardon, who sat huddled over the desk.
"Is the girl ready?" asked Smeardon at length.
The Tiger did not answer him. He was watching the old secretary trying to read the thoughts that lay behind those small cunning eyes.
"Is the girl ready?" repeated Smeardon, angrily. "Do you realise we shall lose this money if you play any of your fool tricks."
"I've been studying you, Matt," observed the Tiger, ignoring the other's question. "I've been wondering what you did and where you went alter the trial of Tom Britton."
"And yourself?" answered Smeardon, daringly.
"And myself," repeated the Tiger.
"That's my business," answered Smeardon.
"A business that will one day be mine." The Tiger was speaking in quiet tones which yet held a menace that Smeardon recognised but did not dare resent. "Another subject of my meditations is, how you came to fall into this comfortable billet."
"Again, I tell you, that is my business," snarled Smeardon. He was growing uncomfortable under the Tigers gaze. Did the Tiger suspect he had betrayed Britton and himself to the police? The thought caused an uncomfortable shiver to run down his back.
"Yet it is a matter on which I have great curiosity," continued the Tiger. "We may have to discuss the subject at length one day, Matt."
"Look here, Tiger," shouted Smeardon, jumping up from his chair. "What do you mean? Our business is to got hold of that money, and you are harking back over the past four years. I didn't let you into this game for that."
"Let me into this game," repeated the Tiger, sarcastically. "You let me in because you could not play it yourself."
"I could have done as much as you have done, and more. You've done nothing but talk so far."
"You would have landed yourself in the place where I once stood, and not with my luck," answered the Tiger with a glint of anger in his eyes. "Perhaps you will yet stand there."
Smeardon drew back as if from a blow.
"What do you mean?"
"Britton is due out this month."
"What's that to me?" It was a poor attempt at bravado.
"He is coming here."
"Here!" Smeardon caught his breath.
"We shall need him, I think," said the Tiger meditatively, and carefully watching the other's face. "Yes, he will be a real asset in the game if we have to use force. I dislike to use violence, as you know, but sometimes it is necessary."
"I won't have him here!" shouted Smeardon.
"And I want him here." The Tiger rose to his feet and stretched himself. "What have you to fear from Britton, Matthew Smeardon, you did not betray him to the police. You were his pal once."
"What do you mean? I--I've nothing to fear," stuttered Smeardon, avoiding the Tiger's glance. "Tom and I were good friends."
"Let us hope he still thinks so," said the Tiger, casually. "You will be delighted to talk over old times with him."
"I won't have him here, Tiger," repeated Smeardon, with now a note of entreaty in his voice. "It will--?"
"What?" asked the Tiger swiftly.
"The police will know it. It will cause suspicion," answered Smeardon, weakly.
"I will take care of that. Britton comes here and you will hide him as long as I choose. That is final, Matt."
Smeardon walked to the window and pulled aside the blind. When the Tiger spoke in that tone, it was useless to argue further.
"Drop that blind," commanded the Tiger quickly.
"I was looking for Polly," answered Smeardon. "She is late."
"I told her not to be too soon," said the Tiger. "It's no good hurrying things. Besides, there may be trouble and we don't want the whole town here."
A knock came at the street door. Smeardon started to his feet and hurried to the door of the room.
The Tiger rose quietly, with a peculiar smile on his face.
"Don't get excited Matt," he warned. "It may not be Polly."
In spite of the warning, Smeardon hurried to the door and released the latch. Someone without pushed the door open violently, thrusting Smeardon to the wall.
"Takes you a devil of a long time to open the door here," growled a harsh voice in the darkness.
Smeardon shut the door and groped for the switch. In a moment the hall was flooded with light. Facing him was a short, thickset man muffled up to the eyes in a thick muffler, over a great coat.
"Good God!" exclaimed Smeardon, backing against the wall.
The man peered into Smeardon's face.
"Why, it's Matt! Matthew Smeardon, by all that's holy. What the--"
"Come in here, Tom," interrupted the Tiger, speaking from the door of the study. "Shut off that light, Matt. You surely recognise your old friend, Tom Britton."
Smeardon leaned against the wall to recover his composure. He realised now why the Tiger had planned for Tom Britton to come to the house unexpectedly. The arrival of Britton had been a shock to him. Had he shown any great agitation? No, he did not think he had betrayed himself. Bracing himself for what might come, he followed his fellow rogues into the study. Britton was shedding his wraps while the Tiger was talking in a quick undertone.
As Smeardon entered, Britton turned to him with a somewhat constrained heartiness.
"Well, Matt." he said in his deep voice. "This is a bit better than where I've come from. The Tiger tells me you will put me up for a time. You're a lucky devil. Always seem to fall on your feet."
Smeardon sniggered and walked to the desk, where he stood idly fingering the papers. He could not muster courage to look Britton in the eyes. He feared what he might read there.
"That's what I've been telling him since he came into the fold again," said the Tiger genially. Smeardon thought the Tiger laid an emphasis on the word 'fold.' "It's certain he's fallen on a good thing this time and he's willing to share with his old friends."
"I'm out and open for a job," replied Britton with a broad grin. "What's the game?"
"Nothing at present, except to rest yourself and have a good time." replied the Tiger. "The pay will go on all the same. We may want you as the strong man of the outfit presently, though."
"Safe work?" queried Britton.
"Nothing so common. Its only the matter of a young lady friend of Matt's. I's picking up the coin when Matt gets it for us. All you need know is that a young lady will call here tonight to obtain some papers from Matt. If she turns up you'll do, say, as a witness. If others interfere we may require help from you of another kind."
"Right-O," said Britton, casually seating himself in one of the lounge chairs before the fire. "This is a bit of all right, but you're none too free with your hospitality, Matt. Close as ever, eh, Tiger."
With trembling hands, Smeardon brought liquor to the table and helped Britton to a drink. The man lay back in his chair, his legs crossed and the soles of his boots turned to the welcome blaze. He was big built with heavy square shoulders and the muscles of his arms bulged beneath his coat. His head was somewhat small and long, sloping well to the forehead over which his thick hair was beginning to grow again. The eyes were small and twinkled good-naturedly, although when he glanced at Smeardon, as he did occasionally, they held a baneful light. His nose was broad and short and above the mouth there sprouted a short wire-like moustache. He bore the impress of a rogue, a rogue with immense strength, but not a brute unless events made him one. To the Tiger he acted with much familiarity, yet there was a certain deference. It was as if he recognised his limitations in his walk of life and acknowledged in the Tiger his natural leader.
"That's good." he muttered as he placed his empty glass on the table, "They don't give you tipple like that where I have just come from."
"Hell!" shouted Smeardon, swinging round on him furiously, "Why do you want to remind us continually that you have been in prison?"
"Perhaps its good for you, sonny," laughed Britton, good naturedly. "Perhaps you'll have a turn there yourself some day. That's if you don't get something else coming your way."
"Shut up, you two." commanded the Tiger impatiently. "You always were slinging off at each other. Time Polly was here."
"What! Is little Polly in this?" exclaimed Britton. "I'll be glad to see the kid again. She's one of the right sort."
"Yon won't have to wait long then," snarled Smeardon, as he rose to answer a knock at the door. In a few minutes he returned, preceding a girl thickly veiled. Without a word she dropped heavily into the chair the Tiger pushed towards her.
"What's the trouble, Polly," he said quietly. "Been followed?"
The girl nodded silently.
"Get her a drink, Matt," commanded the Tiger. "Let's get the business over first," said Smeardon going to the bookcase. "I've a feeling something is going to happen."
He pressed the hidden spring and the shelves revolved silently. Smeardon bent down to work the combination and then sprang back with a shriek. The two men sprang to his side. On the door of the safe appeared a shining silver star.
"What's this foolery," exclaimed the Tiger, darting a suspicious glance at Smeardon.
"I know nothing of it. I swear I don't Tiger," cried Smeardon, his knees sagging to the carpet. "No one's been here, I'll swear. Why, I've hardly been out of this room."
"It's certain someone's been here, though," said Britton, in his deep tones. "That is, if the safe is not as you last saw it."
"Open it. Quick!" commanded the Tiger, his voice showing the excitement under which he laboured. With trembling hands Smeardon worked the combination and pulled open the door. Inside lay the package. The Tiger stretched over Smeardon's shoulder and took it from the safe. He examined it carefully and then passed it to Smeardon.
"It hasn't been tampered with so far as I can see. Now get to business."
Smeardon advanced a pace towards the girl. She still lay back in her chair as if unconscious of her surroundings. "By Jove! Polly's in a bad way," exclaimed Britton. "Here, let's get rid of that veil."
The Tiger barred the way as he advanced towards Polly.
"Time enough, Tom," he observed, firmly. "Speak up Polly. It's only a sentence."
Supporting herself by the edge of the desk, Polly rose to her feet. Once, twice, thrice, she attempted to speak, and each time the words failed to come. Again she made the attempt, and then fell face forward across the table. The three men sprang forward. The Tiger was the first to reach her and, lifting her in his arms, carried her to the lounge.
"Poor girl," he muttered. "Something must have happened to upset her in this manner."
With tender fingers he loosened the veil round her head. When he saw her face, he stepped back in amazement. The other two pressed forward at his exclamation. On the lounge lay a strange girl.
"Where the hell's Polly?" exclaimed Britton.
"Who's this girl?" asked the Tiger. "Do you know anything of her, Matt?"
Smeardon bent close and carefully examined the girl's features. At first he shook his head doubtfully, then he looked again, and a faint recollection came on his mind. Where had he seen her before? Then came illumination.
"It's the girl who visited Merrivale the night I threw the stone through his window," he muttered, turning to the Tiger. "It's--"
"The real Olga Pellet," exclaimed the Tiger. "How did she come here?"
"Looks as if she came after the package, Tiger," said Britton casually. "Better lock it up again, Matt, in case she wants it when she comes round."
Smeardon shuffled to the table and, taking the package back to the safe, swung the door shut. Britton was looking at the Tiger.
"If this is Olga Pellet," said the Tiger, half to himself, "what has become of Polly?"
The girl on the lounge stirred slightly. The Tiger bent over her and forced some brandy between her lips. With a cough and a moan the girl opened her eyes and looked up into his face.
"Where am I?" she asked faintly. Then, after a pause, "Who are you?"
"You are in the house of the late Mr. Ezra Greed, in Pontin Square," answered the Tiger, gently. "I am a friend of his secretary, Mr. Matthew Smeardon."
The girl sat up and put her hands to her hair. The Tiger watched her for a moment and then asked her abruptly.
"Where is Polly?"
"Polly? Polly who?" asked the girl, with a puzzled frown. She looked round the room and finally her eyes settled on Smeardon, where he stood before the safe. She arose from the couch and walked unsteadily towards him.
"You are Matthew Smeardon," she said in clear tones, her cheeks now stained with a dark flush. "I am Olga Mary Pellet, the niece of--"
Across her words cut the clear tones of the clock. She hesitated and appeared to be counting the strokes. Nine times it struck while she waited, her eyes fixed on Smeardon's downcast face.
"Too late, I'm afraid my dear Miss Pellet," the old secretary said, with an evil smile. "Perhaps you will have better luck next time."
"Too late," the girl repeated with a moan. Then she staggered to the desk and, burying her face in her arms, sobbed bitterly.
The three men stood and looked at the weeping girl for some minutes, in silence. Then the Tiger beckoned to Britton and walked out of the room. Smeardon followed them to the hall.
"What am I to do with her?" he asked, pointing over his shoulder.
"Get rid of her, of course," replied the Tiger, briefly. "And, by the way Matt, if Polly should turn up, keep her here and telephone me at the usual place. Remember she is not to leave this house until I return."
Smeardon watched the two men walk down the square until they were swallowed up in the darkness. When he returned to the study he found the girl standing before the glass, arranging her hat and veil.
"Going?" asked Smeardon, gruffly.
"I suppose so," replied the girl listlessly. "There is nothing that can be done now."
Smeardon did not answer. He was looking at the girl with a peculiar expression in his eyes. His hands, hanging down his sides were clasping and unclasping nervously.
"Nothing to do now." he replied with a dry chuckle. "No my dear. There's nothing doing here at any time on your account."
"What do you mean?" Olga turned to him swiftly.
"Mean?" asked Smeardon leering at her across the desk. "Isn't it plain to you? You're not Olga Mary Pellet."
The girl stared at him in amazement, her cheeks flushing red. Her listlessness had disappeared and she was on the alert to defend her rights.
"How do you know?" her voice was little above a whisper.
"Know!" Smeardon gave a snort of contempt. "I know Miss Pellet and you're not her."
"You mean that girl I saw in Mr. Waverill's office. The girl that man to-night called Polly."
"That's her," chuckled Smeardon. "That's her."
"She is not Olga Pellet." The girl stamped her foot angrily to emphasise the denial. "Why, no one believes in her."
"No one? Who's 'no one?'" queried Smeardon, contemptuously.
"Mr. Merrivale or Mr. Waverill."
"Oh. Then you've been discussing our Polly with them, have you? Well they don't know much. You may take my word for it, she's the one who'll get the papers and claim the money."
Olga looked at the man before her with some contempt.
"You almost gave me the papers to-night," she observed quietly.
"True, my girl," chuckled Smeardon. "But you didn't get them. It was a good try, but it won't work again."
The girl hesitated a moment and then seated herself in one of the lounge chairs.
"Perhaps it may interest you to know, Mr. Smeardon, that 'Polly,' as you call her, will not get those papers."
"No?" Smeardon came round the desk. "Perhaps you know just why and how Polly failed to call here tonight and why you happened along."
"Surely the latter requires no explanation." replied the girl contemptuously. "Your questions regarding Polly I shall not answer."
Smeardon sprang forward, menacingly.
"By God! I've half a mind to wring an answer from you," he snarled.
"You haven't even half that mind," retorted the girl. "If you had, you dare not. The man you call Trantor is your master and you dare not disobey him."
The eyes of the man and the girl met and the man lowered his. He returned to the desk and seated himself on the corner.
"Look here, my girl," he said quietly. "It's about time you and I came to an understanding. Who are you?"
"Olga Mary Pellet," replied the girl promptly.
"Yes." The girl nodded her head, emphatically.
"I'm half inclined to believe you," mused Smeardon.
"In spite of Polly?" sarcastically enquired Olga.
"Perhaps. The question is to know how I am to believe you."
"You are ambiguous, Mr. Smeardon."
Smeardon sat forward, peering at the girl with his short-sighted eyes. Olga made a pretty picture leaning back against the dark leather of the chair, her face dimly lit by the light from the table lamp, now the only light in the room. Smeardon recognised her charm and a dull flush mounted to his face.
"Perhaps there are conditions under which we can understand each other," he said at length. "Mind, I only said 'perhaps.'"
"We might try," answered the girl.
"You know how I am situated here," continued the old secretary, speaking slowly, and studying the girl as he muttered his words, "Your uncle trusted me. He made a fool will. The will of a madman, but it placed the power in my hands. He left his fortune in my care. No one can get that fortune except by my favour, and I am to be convinced that the person who applies for it is the right person."
"You are not convinced that I am the right person?" queried Olga.
"I'm not. I won't say but what you can't convince me."
"If I convince you, what becomes of Polly?" Olga could not help the very feminine question.
"Cut Polly out of this," answered Smeardon, quickly. "It's the matter of you and me now. Suppose you convince me you are the right heiress. Where do I come in?"
"I do not understand you, Mr. Smeardon."
"You understand me well enough, girl," said Smeardon, with a queer laugh. "But I'll talk plainer. What do I get if I hand over to you the package of the Nine Stars?"
"You have your legacy."
"A measly ten thousand and you get millions," sneered Smeardon. "That's no good to me."
Olga thought quickly. Here was an opportunity to get possession of the papers without delay and trouble. She had been very lucky that night. But for that attack of faintness she would have secured the papers. Her chance had passed. Would it come again? She had seen the mastermind behind the plotting for the fortune. He had impressed her with his strength of will. Could she fight him and beat him? She did not think so.
And now this man was offering to turn traitor to his associates. He was offering her the fortune. If she took this offer she would be able to go to the lawyer in the morning and claim the estate by virtue of the package of the Nine Stars. But the conditions of the will had not been fulfilled. It would be impossible to fulfil them for another month. But did it matter? This man, a thorough rogue, would open the safe and give her the package. Who was to say that she had not obtained it between the stipulated hours. Surely not Trantor and Britton. They dared not acknowledge that they were interested in the matter. There would only be this man Smeardon and herself to question. He would, for his own sake, say that he had given her the package in accordance with the terms of the will. It was the easy way.
"What of those men?" she asked.
"Mr. Trantor and the other. Britton, I think you called him. What will they want?"
Smeardon made a gesture almost of fear. The movement was involuntary and he recovered his composure quickly.
"I told you, this was between you and I. They're not in this."
"Then what do you want?"
Smeardon rose and stood over the girl, bending until his hot breath touched her cheek. Olga drew back in her chair with a shudder of repulsion. She tried to meet his eyes, but could not.
"You're a girl after my own heart," he said slowly and thickly, his eyes sweeping over her and noting every line and curve of her figure. "You are a girl I could admire and work with. I'll deal fair with you. By heavens, I will. You're a pretty girl--one of the prettiest I've ever set eyes on. I'm fond of pretty girls and they can get anything out of me--if they're kind to me."
He broke off with a hoarse chuckle and his hands came down quickly and covered hers as they lay on her knees.
"You're a pretty girl and you shall have your fortune. Matthew Smeardon will give it to you. Aye, every cent of it. I'll open that safe, my girl, and give you the package that lies there. The package of the Nine Stars. Ah, your eyes are sparkling now. You know what that means. It means money and power. Plenty of fine clothes and rich food. Plenty of soft nice things that make life for pretty girls like you. You shall have fine houses and fine friends. Think, girl, think. Seven millions of money. Think of the gold, the gold that glitters so beautifully. Think of the heaps and heaps of gold you can make with seven millions. I love gold, beautiful, beautiful gold, but I love pretty girls also."
He hesitated a moment and his hands pressed into her knees. Her whole frame revolted from this man, but she sat quiet, fascinated, unable to move.
"And the condition. Just a little one. Not worth considering. Matthew Smeardon is not a bad chap. He's always willing to do what he can for a pretty girl and not ask much. Aye, you're looking at me now, you want to know what Matt wants. I'll tell you. It isn't much. He doesn't want your money, pretty one. No no. He gives you the money. All of it. Think of it. All the money. Money that would make a king appear a beggar, and you will give him what he wants. Won't you pretty one. He only wants love. Just your love. You can give him that for all the money he will give you. You will. Of course you will. Any girl would love me if I gave them seven millions of money. Ah, I want you, you pretty little thing. I want to have you, to cuddle you tight in my arms. To fondle you, to touch your pretty body. To have you for my own. Mine--mine--mine."
His voice had risen to a shriek. His hands clutched hers and drew her up from the chair to him. She felt his arms close round her, straining her to him. For a moment she was powerless in his grasp, and with a sudden effort she wrenched herself free.
"No, No, No," she screamed. "I'd die first."
Smeardon staggered back, his eyes blazing with greed and desire. Olga ran to the door and fled down the hall. Smeardon followed and almost caught her as she fumbled with the latch, but she fought free again and stumbled down the steps. Out in the quiet square she turned and looked towards the house. Smeardon stood in the doorway, his face quivering with passion and anger. He waved his hands over his head towards her.
"Then say goodbye to your fortune, Olga Pellet," he shrieked. "Say goodbye to it, for it shall never be yours."
The failure of Polly to keep the appointment on the night of the new moon had caused the Tiger much anxiety, for he was genuinely fond of the girl, who had worked with him since her childhood. The dramatic appearance of Olga Pellet in disguise, induced him to believe that some serious accident had prevented Polly keeping the appointment. Directly he left the house, he and Britton had searched for her, but without success. With the disappearance of Polly, the plans of the gang had come to a standstill. Without the girl they could not obtain possession of the fortune, for they dared not substitute another girl for her. If they failed to find her, they must give up all hope of acquiring the Gleed estate. But the Tiger would not give up hope. They had failed so far, but there remained a month before the next new moon. In that time he would find Polly and so frame his plans that there should be no further hitch.
Determining in the first place to find Polly, the Tiger set the complex machinery of the underworld in action. Every rogue, receiver, gangster and lounger in the country was advised. Woman after woman was tracked and identified, but Polly had disappeared without a trace.
A week passed and the Tiger had almost lost hope, yet Smeardon urged to further efforts with a strange determination he had never before shown in the plans of the gang. The Tiger watched him carefully, but could find no reason for the man's action. In the past he had always been a waverer, afraid of the police, afraid of his own shadow.
Britton, never a plotter, was openly suspicious of Smeardon. He urged the Tiger to have the latter watched, and himself spent most of his time keeping an observant eye on the old secretary. Yet he could find nothing to confirm his suspicions. Smeardon acted as if his sole ambition was to recover Polly and secure the Gleed millions.
Half convinced, by Britton's urging, that the secret of the mystery lay with Smeardon, the Tiger tried to draw the old secretary into intimacy. It was conduct foreign to the Tiger's usual methods for he always held the members of the gang at arm's length. Now he talked over his plans with Smeardon and asked his advice. In days past, Smeardon would have eagerly grasped the friendship offered to him. Now he sat silent and brooding, eager only when the discussion turned to the search for Polly and the plans for the next full moon night.
"Say, Matt," said Britton, suddenly, when the three were seated around the study table. "What's the matter? Goin' to give the gang the go-bye?"
Smeardon, roused from the reverie into which he had drifted, gazed at his questioner silently.
"Don't come those games with me," continued Britton savagely. "I'm not in love with you. Are you planning to give the gang the cold end of the stick?"
"Eh?" asked Smeardon, only catching half the question. "What about the stick, Tom."
"Can't you answer a straight question without all that humming and haa-ing. I asked, what's your pretty game now?"
"No game," replied Smeardon meekly.
"Why can't you give me a proper answer," roared Britton, working himself to a passion.
"That will do, Tom," warned the Tiger.
"What're you giving us?" growled Britton, subdued under the Tiger's glance. "Can't I get a civil answer to my question?"
"He's answered you."
"I'm sorry Tom," said Smeardon humbly. "I didn't catch your question the first time."
"You did the second, and made a devil of a fuss over a plain answer. Don't think I have forgotten you during the last four years."
"What do yon mean by that?" asked Smeardon, now on his feet and pale with fear and anger.
"You know what I mean, you cur. You didn't go into the box and swear away the life of the Tiger and me. Lucky for the Tiger you didn't. He'd have not got off as he did if you had. No you're too wise a guy to commit yourself like that. You sneaked behind the backs of the narks. Put them wise on the game. And it was one of your own particular games too you split on."
"It's a lie!"
"Lie, do I?" Britton's hand stole towards his hip pocket.
Smeardon stood in the centre of the room, his eyes wandering from Britton to the Tiger. The latter sat watchful.
"Ain't you going to answer me?" demanded Britton, half out of his chair. "Easy enough to call a man a liar, but you've got to go further than that."
"I said it's a lie, and I say it again." Smeardon was now boldly facing the situation, urged on by his fear of what might happen if he gave way.
"And I say you're a police pimp. Get that, you miserable sneaking cur."
"I am not a police spy." Smeardon was shaking as if with ague.
"And I say you are."
"You're a liar."
The words came involuntarily from Smeardon's lips. He could not help himself although he knew the consequences. It was one thing to say a statement was a lie and another to call a gangster a liar. Britton was out of his chair now and his hand came swiftly from his pocket. Just as swiftly the Tiger acted. With a quick wrench the weapon flew from the man's hand and struck the book case. Britton struggled for a moment, and then, at the Tiger's command, subsided into his chair.
"That's the end of it," commanded the Tiger, firmly. "You brought this on yourself, Matt. Here we have been panning all the evening and you never saying a word."
"Planning!" echoed Smeardon with a shrill laugh. "Where are our plans? Gone to the four winds of heaven. Is that all you have against me Tiger?"
"Well. Isn't it enough?"
"Schemes!" cried Smeardon. His nerve had entirely gone under the sudden strain. "All your schemes have failed. Where is the girl? You planned it. I was to produce the papers, you the girl. There are the papers. Where is the girl?"
"Damned foolishness, I say," growled Britton viciously. "Why don't you hand over the papers. Never mind this fal-lal of the full moon. Give us the papers, we'll see about the girl."
"There's a lot in what Tom suggests," observed the Tiger, slowly. "Let's have the papers, Matt." Smeardon looked from one man to the other, "If I give you the papers where do I come in?"
"Oh, damn it Matt." The Tiger swung on him quickly. "You know the agreement. Don't you trust me?"
"Trust you!" exclaimed Smeardon, thrusting his face close to the Tiger's. "Did you trust me when that man accused me of giving you away to the police? You--"
"Shut your head!" commanded Britton, springing to his feet. "What are you listening to his gab for. Get the papers Tiger, or I will."
Smeardon backed round the table as Britton advanced to the safe. He watched the man search for and find the spring that worked the bookcase. The crook bent to the safe and then stood back.
"Holy Moses!" he ejaculated. "There is witchcraft here."
The Tiger sprang to his safe. On the door of the safe were now two shining stars.
"What does this mean Matt?" demanded the Tiger. "I don't know," replied Smeardon, who had come across the room to the safe. "I know, however, that the safe is dangerous to be played about with and Tom interferes with it at his own risk."
"Bosh!" exclaimed Britton, "I'm not to be put off with that yarn. What's the word Tiger."
"Give him the word, Matt," commanded the master crook. "If you don't, he will open it his own way."
"What are you going to do?" said Smeardon, uncomfortably.
"Have a look at that package."
"Will you give it me back after."
Smeardon pushed Britton aside and opened the safe. As the door swung open Britton seized the package of the Nine Stars and carried it to the table. The three men gathered round looking down at the package that held the destiny of almost untold wealth.
"Its your job, Tiger," whispered Britton at length. The Tiger took some tools from his pocket and in a short time had a matrix of the seal. Then, heating his pen-knife in the fire, he raised the seal from the envelope. A few moments more, and the package lay open on the desk. The Tiger drew out the papers and spread them on the desk. One by one he turned them over, examining both sides of the sheet. They were all blank.
The package of the Nine Stars contained only blank papers. The three men stared in amazement. Then the Tiger carefully collected them again and subjected them to a thorough test for secret writing. At the end the papers remained blank.
"Try the envelope," suggested Britton. "There must be something somewhere."
The Tiger turned his attention to the envelope that had contained the papers. He subjected it to a close scrutiny and then tried the tests for secret writing, but in vain. Neither the paper or the envelope that contained them gave any clue to the Gleed estate.
"What do you make of this, Smeardon?" asked the Tiger, suspiciously.
"It's a mystery," answered Smeardon.
"What's your part in this mystery?" demanded Britton.
"Don't start that again," interrupted the Tiger. "This is the same envelope that Matt showed me the first time. He's not playing any tricks here."
"Who's starting what?" demanded Britton, angrily. "Say what you like, Tiger, I don't' trust Matt Smeardon an inch and you'll say the same if you tell the truth."
"What are you accusing me of now?" asked Smeardon, sharply.
"Of trying to ditch us, of course. Any child could see what you are playing at."
Britton was leaning over the table his face thrust forward towards Smeardon aggressively.
"I'm through with it," exclaimed Smeardon, angrily. "Either Britton goes out of the game or I."
"Just as I thought." retorted Britten, quickly. "He's only been waiting a favourable opportunity to ditch us. Who's your pet, Matt Smeardon, the girl or the lawyer?"
Seated at the table between the two men the Tiger had watched the quarrel warily. Deeming Smeardon not only untrustworthy but a potential traitor, he had not been unwilling that Britton should bait him. Something might be said in the heat of anger that might give a clue to past and present happenings.
"What's your answer, Tiger?" repeated Smeardon. "Him or I?"
"What of these papers?" queried the Tiger, not choosing to declare himself on one side or the other.
"They're mine." Smeardon covered the papers with his hand.
"You go and we'll hold the papers," shouted Britton, covering Smeardon's hand with his.
With a cry of rage Smeardon hit out with his free hand to Britton's face. Britton gave ground and then sprang at Smeardon. Quick as had been the happenings, the Tiger was quicker. With a sudden thrust he forced the table forward and stood between the two men.
"This must stop, boys," he said authoritatively. "Shake hands, both of you."
There was some hesitation, but the Tiger had ruled so long that on his repeating the command the men assumed a more peaceful demeanour. Britton was the first to make a move. He stretched out a huge hand across the table to Smeardon. The latter would not see the hand, but turned his back and walked to the fireplace. The Tiger repeated his command, this time addressing Smeardon by name.
"I'm through with this foolishness," said Smeardon, without turning round. "Tom Britton and I cannot work together. Either he or I go."
Britton was about to reply angrily, but the Tiger silenced him with a gesture.
"Then you draw out, Matt."
"If you choose Britton to me."
"And the Gleed millions?"
Smeardon laughed bitterly as he pointed to the table.
"We stand a good chance for them," he remarked. "Polly gone, heaven knows where, and the package a blank. No, I'll stand straight now. There's ten thousand in it for me, anyhow."
"Polly may be found."
"Well if she is, there's those papers. It's no good Tiger, we're done this time."
"I choose to think otherwise."
"What's the good?"
The Tiger drew the table to its original position and then gathered the papers together.
"Sit down Britton," he said quietly. "Matt, come and help me put this package together again."
Smeardon shrugged his shoulders but obeyed. For some time they worked swiftly but cleverly. At the end, the Tiger heated the wax of the seal and pressed on it the matrix he had prepared.
"That will do," he said as he surveyed their handiwork. "Put it back, Matt."
"You'll let him keep it?" exclaimed Britton, springing to his feet.
"Then I'm through," said Britton, striding to the door? "You'll know where to find me if you want me for anything else, Tiger."
Smeardon watched Britton leave the room with sombre eyes. Then he took the package and went to the safe. He placed the package in its original position and then swung the door to. As the bolts clanged he started back with a cry. The Tiger rushed to his side but at sight of the safe door he stopped suddenly.
On the door of the safe shone three white stars.
"It's witchcraft," said the Tiger under his breath, a wave of superstitious awe creeping over him.
Smeardon had backed to the centre of the room, his eyes covered with his hands. The Tiger knelt down and carefully examined the surface of the safe. The stars were real yet he could not tell how they had come there. He tried to rub them out but could not do so. Thoughtfully he pushed the bookcase back into place.
"Can you explain those stars, Matt?" he asked, at length.
"No. Can you?"
"Old Ezra Gleed was a cleverer man than I thought," mused the Tiger. "What do those stars mean?" He thought for some minutes and then turned to Smeardon. "Come Matt, you want a drink, and so do I."
Smeardon uncovered his face and went to the sideboard. "There's drink here,"' he said thickly. "What will you have?"
"Brandy," replied the Tiger briefly. "It will steady our nerves, and they want it."
"It's all gone." replied Smeardon, after a search. "If you will come and hold a light, I will get some more from the cellar."
Taking a bunch of keys from the desk, Smeardon led the way to the cellars. There, in ordered array, lay hundreds of bottles. The Tiger gave an appreciative glance around.
"Plenty to drink here, Matt," he observed, as he followed the secretary to a far corner.
"Old Gleed was one of the finest judges of wine in the United Kingdom," replied Smeardon. "When this is sold up it will bring in a small fortune on its own."
"And until then you help yourself??"
"Naturally! Here we are. There's a dozen different brands, so help yourself."
The The Tiger looked over the bins studying the bottles. Finally he made his choice.
"We'll try this. It looks..."
The sound of a pistol shot startled him. Without a word he sprang to the foot of the cellar steps. For some minutes the two men stood listening, but there was no further sound to be heard. The upper part of the house was again wrapped in silence. Motioning to Smeardon not to make a noise, the Tiger crept up the steps and along into the hall. It was in darkness except for a thin pencil of light that came from under the study door.
"I swear I left the light in the hall burning," whispered Smeardon in his leader's ear.
"Got your iron?" queried the Tiger in a whisper?
Smeardon went to the study door and turned the handle. The door refused to open.
Pushing Smeardon onto one side, the Tiger tried the door. He flung his weight against it, but it would not move.
"Light," he said to Smeardon across his shoulder.
Smeardon fumbled on the wall for the switch. A click and the hall was flooded with light. Then the Tiger produced a bunch of keys and bent to the lock. A moment and the door swung open.
The Tiger walked carefully into the room, followed by Smeardon. At first the room appeared to be as they had left it a few minutes before. Then Smeardon exclaimed and pointed to the bookcase. It had been swung out and three stars gleamed brightly on the door of the safe. The Tiger walked swiftly to the safe. On the floor at the foot of the safe was the huddled form of a man. Hastily the Tiger rolled him over. It was Tom Britton.
"God!" exclaimed the Tiger under his breath. "So that is what he meant."
A dark stain was slowly spreading on the carpet. The Tiger bent closer. Just above the right ear was a tiny bullet hole from which flowed the crimson stream. He placed his hand over the heart, but there was no movement. Tom Britton was dead.
The eyes of the men met across the body of Britton. What was Tom Britton doing in this room he had left but a few minutes before, swearing never to return? Who had fired the fatal shot!
One of the questions was easy to answer. Tom Britton had never left the house. Now, the Tiger could remember hearing the closing of the street door after Tom had left the study. His departure had been but a blind to deceive Smeardon. He had never intended to leave the house. Probably he had concealed himself somewhere in the hall--he had waited until they had left the room and then crept back to the study to steal the package of the Nine Stars.
So far the Tiger reasoned out the happenings of the first quarter of an hour. But who else had been concealed in the house? Who had fired the fatal shot?
Leaving the body, he commenced a search of the room. The windows were shut and hasped, and there was only one door to the room--the one they had found locked. He examined the carpet and the body, and then, with the aid of Smeardon, made a thorough search for the weapon. He could not find it. When he had completed his search he went across to the bookcase and wheeled it into position. To do this he had to move the body slightly, but he was careful, not to move the head from the stain on the carpet.
"Get the police, Matt," he said curtly.
"The police!" Smeardon lifted his eyes in startled enquiry.
"The police are useful sometimes," replied the Tiger with a wry grin. "Let them take charge. We don't want to have to dispose of that."
"What am I to say?"
"Say? Tell the truth--for once. Tell them I was calling on you and we went to the cellar to get some more drink. We heard a shot and found this on our return."
"Tom was here to-night!"
"Have sense, man," came the quick rejoinder. "We have not seen him before to-day."
"Smeardon left the house on his errand. The Tiger stood looking down at the dead man for some time. He was puzzled, and could not see any clue to the mystery.
"I wonder what your game was?" he muttered, addressing the dead man, lying full in the rays of the electric light. "You accuse Matt of playing the traitor. You work up a quarrel and then you return to obtain the package of the Nine Stars. There's a shot and we return from the cellars to find you dead. Why did you want that package? You knew what was in it. Simply a sheaf of worthless papers. What did you know? Were those papers so worthless? I wonder. Were you cleverer than I, this time, Tom?"
"And who killed you?" he continued, talking partly to himself, and partly to the dead man. "Who fired that shot? Who was with you? None of our crowd, I swear. Besides you never left the house. Then the person who fired the shot was not working with you? He, or she, must also have been after the package. Now who could it have been? Merrivale? No, it is to his interest that the package remains in the safe. Polly? No she would have thought Tom was working under my directions. Olga Pellet? More probable; but if she did, how did she get out of the room leaving the door locked on the inside?"
He heard a key grate in the hall door lock, and Smeardon entered the study, followed by a police inspector. The officer glanced quickly round the room, and then his eyes fastened on the Tiger.
"Mr. Trantor was here when I found the body," said Smeardon, in explanation.
The Tiger nodded insolently at this half introduction. Taking no notice of him, the Inspector went across to the body and satisfied himself the man was dead. After that he made a survey of the room from wall to wall. Then he seated himself at the desk and for some moments remained, lost an thought.
"Where were you when you heard the shot?" he asked the Tiger suddenly.
"In the cellar."
"Mr. Smeardon tells me you both left the room to fetch a bottle of wine. Did either of you lock the door behind you?"
"I shut the door but I did not lock it," answered the Tiger.
"It was locked when you returned?"
"Who opened it?"
"I did," replied the Tiger promptly. The Inspector went to the door and examined the lock.
"An expert in this business?"
"Purely an amateur."
The Tiger made the answer as insolent as he dared.
"Where was the key?"
"In the door. Inside."
"In the lock?"
"Have you moved the body?"
"Were the curtains drawn?"
"Just as they are now."
The officer went to the window and again examined the fastenings. Satisfied, he returned to the desk.
"Door locked, windows fastened, curtains drawn, no other ingress," commented the officer to himself. "Body on back, before bookcase. Anything to attract him there?"
He crossed the room to the bookcase and carefully scanned the titles.
"Nothing there in his line," he muttered, returning to the desk again. For a few moments he remained in thought, and then he took up his inquisition of the Tiger.
"Your name is Trantor?"
"114 Great Southwick Street, W."
"Where have I seen you before?"
"Really, my dear man, I meet so many people." Again the eyes of the policeman and the crook met and the latter gave way.
"At the Old Bailey?"
The Tiger sprang to his feet, his fists clenched. The Inspector waved him back to his seat.
"Its no good, Tiger. I know you," he observed quietly. "Who is this man?" he pointed to the body.
"Tom Britton." answered the Tiger sullenly.
"Recently released on ticket of leave. Friend of yours?"
"I knew him."
"Friend of his?"
The Inspector nodded towards Smeardon.
"He can speak for himself!" growled the Tiger.
The Inspector looked at Smeardon interrogatively.
"I knew him." answered Smeardon.
"What did you quarrel with him about?" said the Inspector suddenly, after a pause.
Smeardon looked up, alarmed.
"What do you mean?"
"Its no good Matthew Smeardon." said the Inspector quickly. "You are trying to throw dust in my eyes. The three of you have been intimate for years. When Tom Britton was released I set a watch on him. He went direct to you, Tiger, and you brought him here to Smeardon. Now I find him here murdered. When did either of you see him last?"
"He was here to-night." said Smeardon, breaking down under the force of the Inspector's knowledge.
"Ah, I thought so. Now, perhaps we shall get at something definite. Which of you shot him?"
"Neither," quavered Smeardon. "He came here to-night with the Tiger and left a few minutes before we went down stairs."
"Its a poor tale." commented the Inspector. "Let me construct it for you. You say the Tiger brought him here. You and he quarrelled. He left the house. You and the Tiger went to the cellars to get a bottle of wine. You heard a shot and returned to find the door locked, and opened it. You found Tom Britton dead. Now, that door has never been locked. There is not a sign that it has been opened or locked except with the key. Let us try again. Which of you quarrelled with him?"
Smeardon was about to repeat his denial, when the Inspector interrupted.
"It's no good repeating that denial, Smeardon. There was a quarrel. See. This table has been violently pushed along the carpet. Now, one of you, tell me the truth."
"We had words," admitted Smeardon reluctantly.
"Ah," said the Inspector. "Which of you?"
"He wanted me to part with some papers."
"The Gleed papers?"
"What do you know of, them." Smeardon jumped to his feet, thoroughly astonished.
"That's my business." snapped the Inspector. "You may take it that I know quite a lot, and will know the rest before I am finished."
Smeardon sat down again, glancing at the Tiger. The latter was sitting back in his chair with his legs crossed but there was a furtive watchful gleam in his eyes.
"Britton wanted you to hand over certain of the Gleed papers. Which?"
"As you know so much," snarled Smeardon, "you may as well know the rest. He wanted the package of the Nine Stars."
"You did not give it to him?"
"Where is it?"
"In the safe."
The Inspector glanced round the room. Interpreting his glance, Smeardon went to the bookcase and released the spring, revealing the safe. The Inspector came to his side.
"Was this open or shut when you found Britton."
"Then yon lied when you told me the room was as you found it. Is the package still there?"
"I suppose so."
"Open the safe."
Smeardon released the combination and drew open the door. The Inspector reached over his shoulder and took up the package of the Nine Stars. He carried it to the desk, beckoning Smeardon to follow him.
"Do you think that safe was opened by Britton?"
"No, he did not open it."
"This package is as you last saw it?"
"Last time you saw this package, who was here?"
"Trantor, Britton and myself."
The Inspector extended his hand palm upwards to the two men. On his hand lay a large matrix. He turned it over, revealing a seal of the Nine Stars.
"What did you use this for?"
Neither man answered. After a pause the Inspector repeated his question.
"You three men opened this package. You, Smeardon, and Britton quarrelled over the contents. You, Tiger, backed Smeardon and the package was remade and returned to the safe. Britton determined to gain possession of the papers, and while you were out of the room returned and opened the safe. One of yon caught him in the act and shot him."
"It's a lie. I deny it all. I was not here. Trantor will tell you so." Smeardon was on his feet, quivering with fear, his face livid. The Inspector leaned forward.
"Matthew Smeardon, I arrest you for the wilful murder of Thomas Britton. I warn you that any statement you may make may be used against you."
The Tiger started to his feet, his right hand behind his back. The Inspector, without taking his eyes from Smeardon, held out his hand.
"I'll take that gun, Tiger," he said quietly. "You, too, are under arrest as accessory to the murder of Britton."
As the Inspector spoke a loud knocking was heard at the front door.
"That pistol, please," repeated the Inspector.
The Tiger deliberately brought his hand round, empty. Then he walked to the door.
"Stop," commanded the Inspector.
The Tiger halted at the door and looked round to the Inspector.
"Mr. Inspector," he said coolly, "I will not say you are exceeding your authority in arresting me as an accessory to the murder of my friend, Tom Britton, but you are exceeding your capability. I am quite as anxious as you to discover the murderer of Tom Britton, but your methods are too crude. I can't work with you, so I will play my own game. When I find him I don't think I will require your services for the--er--final act. I am my own judge and sometimes my own executioner."
He shut the door behind him and strolled to the street door. There, as he expected, he found a couple of constables.
"Walk in, gentlemen," he said, urbanely. "Your Inspector is waiting for you in the study."
They passed into the house just as the Inspector called out again. One of the men rushed forward, and the other made as it to stop the Tiger. The latter had the door by the handle and before the constable could reach it slammed it shut behind him. He had but a bare dozen yards start, as he turned out of the Square into Malcolm Street. Fortunately for him it was after midnight and the street was deserted. Running at top speed the Tiger swung suddenly into the mews at the back of the houses in Pontin Square. In a dark corner he stopped. Where was he to go? He knew the mews to be blind, the only entry leading from Malcolm Street. He heard the pursuit pass down Malcolm Street and cowered in his corner.
He reckoned up his chances as he stood in that corner. The odds were against him. In a few moments the Inspector would realise that the man he was hunting was not running before him. He would obtain reinforcements and retrace his steps, searching out every possible hiding place. The mews had served, as a hiding place so far, would they serve further?
Creeping from the dark corner, the Tiger made his way up the mews, his brain working at high pressure. Where could he hide? Not in the mews, certainly. The police would return and search every nook and corner. It was madness to go any further into the trap. He looked up at the houses backing the mews. Could he gain sanctuary there?
Mentally he swept the line of houses with his glance. He was now standing opposite the next house to Ezra Gleed's. A plan began to form in his mind. It was daring. Could he carry it through? He walked to the fence at the foot of the yard of Gleed's house and raised himself so that he could peer over. The yard was deserted but for a number of old boxes and rubbish. The refuse Smeardon had turned out after he had discharged the servants. A spring and he was astride the fence. Noiselessly, he dropped into the yard. There was no place to hide there, but already a better plan had formed in his mind. By the light of his electric torch, he examined the lock of the back door. It was a common one. His hand went to his pocket. A moment, and the door swung quietly open.
His light swept the passage before him. There was no one there--the whole of the basement of the house was deserted. He closed the door behind him, leaving it so that he could retreat easily if necessary. He was in the passage connecting the offices. Below him were the cellars to which he had accompanied Smeardon earlier that evening. Again his light swept the darkness. At the end of the passage were stairs. He walked to them silently; they led to the ground floor of the house. Listening, he could hear the murmur of voices, above. Slowly, as a shadow, he mounted the stairs until he reached the hallway. Then he stopped suddenly. He heard the study door open and the heavy step of a policeman down the hall. The front door opened and some people entered.
"All right, Watson?" It was the voice of the Inspector.
"All right, sir," said the constable addressed. "He's just as you left him."
The study door opened and shut loudly. Only one man had entered the room.
"Where's your man," asked a husky voice above.
"Go on! Why, he wasn't a dozen yards in front of you in the Square."
"Well, we lost him. Not a shine of him at the corner."
"Perhaps he's in the mews."
"Searched there. And ain't his nibs in a stew about it too."
Creeping upwards cautiously the Tiger got his head on a level with the floor. He could see the study floor, but the late speakers were evidently further down the passage for they were out of view. The study door opened, and the Inspector re-appeared.
"Watson. Call a cab. We'll take this man to the station. Turner, you stay here all night. I'll have you relieved in the morning. I'll send for the body in an hour or so."
There was some stir above as the two men executed their orders. A taxi drove up to the house and the study door opened and Smeardon came out followed by the Inspector. The street door closed with a bang and the constable left in charge went into the study and shut the door.
The Tiger moved swiftly up into the hall. Not stopping there, he mounted to the upper stories. Since he had entered the house he had made two vows. One was the rescue of Smeardon, the other the discovery of the murderer of Tom Britton. He was convinced this murderer was concealed in the house. He could not have got away, there had not been time. When he had fired the shot he must have run upstairs and remained concealed throughout all the various happenings below. Now the Tiger determined to hunt him out. Slipping off his boots at the first landing the Tiger methodically searched every room, but without result. Then, descending to the basement, the Tiger searched this part of the house as thoroughly as he had searched the upper rooms. Again, the Tiger crept up the stairs and renewed his search in the reception rooms, on the ground floor. Quietly he moved from room to room, without result, until finally he stood before the study door.
Retrieving his boots the Tiger sat down on the stairs and thought over the matter. He was disappointed in the result of his search, for if he had found the murderer hiding in the house it would have been an easy matter to betray him to the police and so secure the release of Smeardon. But he had found no one in his careful search, not even a clue that some person other than themselves had been in the house that evening. The Tiger, sought in his mind for a clue. Some starting point from which lie could work to a solution of these mysteries.
The locked door! Why had he not thought of that before? When he and Smeardon had run up from the cellars they had found the study door locked. He had turned the key from the outside with one of the delicate instruments he was so familiar with. There was no doubt but that, when the murderer entered the study, he had turned the key in the lock, and the iron might probably retain an impress of the fingerprints of the man. He must have that key.
But to get that key he would have to go into the study, and there sat a large-sized specimen of the Metropolitan Police Force. What did that matter. It was but man to man, and his known audacity would stand him in stead. He must act quickly, for had not the Inspector spoke of sending to take the body away. He must have that key and be off the premises before the mortuary coach arrived. Very cautiously he approached the study and grasped the door-knob.
A quick wrench, a step forward, and he had the constable, who had been half asleep in a comfortable chair, covered.
"Hands up! Quick!" The constable raised his hands above his head, and the Tiger took another step into the room. His hand fumbled with the door behind him, his eyes and attention given to the man who sat, with open mouth staring at him. Ah! the key was in his hand.
"Sorry to have disturbed you, constable," he said, cordially. "I required the key of this door. Keep still and you will not get hurt. Keep your hands up, I say. Now, we will make a bargain. Your inspector is a stupid fool and wants to arrest me as an accessory to the murder of a friend. I am just as anxious to discover who killed my friend as the Inspector is, but I cannot co-operate in the search with a man of your Inspector's low mentality. Keep your hands up, please. Thanks! I shall wait in the hall an indefinite number of minutes. If you come into the hall before I go you will run up against this. See? My best regards to your Inspector."
The door opened again and closed behind the Tiger, the constable watching with his hands above his head. Four minutes later the Tiger sauntered out of the Square and watched the mortuary coach drive up to the house. It had been a close call, and the Tiger congratulated himself on a good piece of work.
"I was lucky to be at the Chatton Street Police Station when Smeardon brought the news of the murder of Thomas Britton," said Detective Inspector Pemberton. Claude Merrivale was seated in the Inspector's room at New Scotland Yard. He had read in the morning papers of the murder of Tom Britton at the house in Pontin Square and had at once sought the Inspector for further details. These the Inspector could rat supply. So far the police had made little progress, and the newspapers' accounts were well up to date.
"You think Smeardon murdered Britton?" asked Claude, doubtfully.
"I am afraid so," replied the Inspector, emphatically. "I had a lot of luck in the matter, thanks to you, Merrivale. Had you not consulted me over the Gleed affair, I would not have had the information to wring the truth from those scoundrels. Yes, I have had luck. It would have been a perplexing case without your hep."
"Yet I am doubtful," said Claude. "I don't believe Smeardon is the murderer. It is much more likely to be the Tiger."
[Twenty lines of type are illegible at this point.]
"Let us reconstruct the scene. Smeardon and the Tiger go to the cellar to get a bottle of wine. There, the Tiger so works on Smeardon's hatred of Britton that the man goes upstairs and fires at Britton from the doorway. You must not forget, also, that when Smeardon returned, he found Britton trying to force the safe. That was another inducement to the murder."
It sounded very plausible, as the Inspector pieced it together. Claude had to acknowledge that.
"It was severe provocation," continued the Inspector. "We will have to acknowledge that, and a clever lawyer will no doubt save Smeardon from the gallows. But I have the man that fired the shot. I am convinced of that, and I shall hold Smeardon for trial."
"What about the Gleed estate?" asked Claude at length. "If you hold Smeardon, how will it be possible for Miss Pellet to claim her inheritance?"
"Perhaps the arrest of Matthew Smeardon is the best thing that could happen for the Gleed estate," said the Inspector, with a dry smile. "You people seem to have got yourself engaged in a tidy little private war over that business. Now I have Smeardon safely out of the way, it will quieten things down a bit. No one will be able to claim the fantastic package of the Nine Stars without my consent, or at least the consent of the authorities."
"We shall have to go to the Courts to get another guardian of the package appointed, in the place of Smeardon," said Claude, after some moments' thought.
"If you take my advice," said the Inspector warmly, "you will do no such thing. I'm quite willing to do all I can for you and Mr. Waverill, and when you come to me and tell me you have the right girl, I will see if I cannot persuade Smeardon to perform his duty under the will. But first, you get the right girl, lad."
"That's awfully good of you, Inspector," replied Claude warmly. "I will tell Mr. Waverill what you say. It will be a relief to him. At present we are not quite in accord over the identity of the claimant. I think that Miss Pellet is genuine. For some unaccountable reason Mr. Waverill thinks differently."
"You lawyers agree," laughed the Inspector, "and then come to me. I'll do my part then. And--Mr. Merrivale, a word in your ear I've worked with Mr. Waverill a good many years and not often found him mistaken."
"Have you found the weapon with which the murder was committed?" asked Claude, as he rose to depart.
"No," replied the Inspector shortly. "Smeardon did not have a pistol on him and the tiger is too wide awake to see him use his. We cannot find a pistol in the house."
"Perhaps the Tiger removed the weapon when he returned to the house."
"The biggest bit of bluff I've ever known," exclaimed the Inspector with grudging admiration. "There was I with half the police of London hunting him and he snugly hidden in the house he had just escaped from. And then to intimidate my man. It was cheek. No, sir, I don't think he could have taken the pistol. My theory is that it is still hidden in the house."
"Just an ordinary revolver, I suppose."
"That is the peculiar thing," said the Inspector earnestly. "It was not a weapon of ordinary make and that is one of the reasons that makes me think the Tiger did not remove it. It had a rifled barrel and was probably a single shot pistol and not a revolver. I have the bullet here."
He took from a drawer a small box and from it handed a bullet to Claude. The latter looked at it curiously.
"How far was the murderer from Britton when the shot was fired?"
"Quite close. A yard or so, not more." He turned to a constable who had entered the room. "What is it?"
"Miss Smith, of the Black Detective Agency, wishes to see you, sir."
"Send her up." replied the Inspector. Then to Merrivale. "Don't go, Mr. Merrivale. She has probably come on your business and you might as well hear what she has to say."
Miss Smith was greeted by the Inspector warmly and it was evident to Claude that the two were old acquaintances. After a few words the Inspector picked up the bullet from the desk.
"You came to see this, Miss Smith. Rather an unusual pattern."
"I did come to see the bullet," said the girl quietly. "Although I already knew what it was like."
"You knew it had been fired from a rifled pistol," exclaimed Claude, much astonished.
"I expected it to be so," said Miss Smith, smiling at the evident amazement of the two men.
"Had it not been so, I should have had to reconstruct some of my theories regarding the murder and the Gleed case. I came, however, to learn the Inspector's intentions regarding Matthew Smeardon."
"I have just informed Mr. Merrivale, I intend to hold Smeardon for trial. I am convinced he is the murderer."
"I am not." replied Miss Smith. "However I am glad you think you should hold him. I did not know what your English customs were and was afraid you might release him. Will you give me due warning before you release him, Inspector?"
"Certainly," replied the Inspector promptly, "But you need not worry about Smeardon. I shall have to produce him before the magistrate, but until after the inquest there will be a remand and the coroner's verdict will be against him. That I am certain of, unless unexpected evidence in his favour turns up."
"Have you forgotten to-night is the third full moon," said Miss Smith suddenly to Claude.
"Matthew Smeardon will not be there," stated the Inspector grimly.
"Then the package of the Nine Stars cannot be claimed," observed Claude with a smile.
"Someone should be in the house," said Miss Smith after a moment's thought. "Are your men there now, Inspector?"
"No. The man on the beat has instructions to watch the house carefully and he has a key to enter, if necessary, but I have not thought necessary to place a man in charge."
"Quite right," said Miss Smith approvingly. "The house is a good trap for the Tiger. I should advise, however, that it is kept under constant observation so that if the Tiger thinks necessary to return he may be at once arrested. Have you a spare key, Inspector?"
"Then give one to Mr. Merrivale."
The Inspector produced a key but hesitated before handing it over.
"Give it to Mr. Merrivale," repeated Miss Smith. "He will want one."
The Inspector handed over the key.
"You will go to the house at five o'clock to-day, Mr. Merrivale," instructed Miss Smith. "Stay there until after nine o'clock. Keep a careful, watch on the safe and do not leave it, even if you hear any noise in other parts of the house. And will you please be at Mr. Waverill's office tomorrow morning at ten o'clock."
"Do you expect anything to happen?" asked Claude.
"I do not know. I hope many things will happen."
"Are you armed?" asked the Inspector suddenly, and upon Claude replying in the negative, he opened a drawer and took out a small automatic.
"I'm not supposed to encourage the carrying of arms," he said as he handed the weapon to Claude. "But the Tiger is not a proposition I should like you to meet, unless you are on somewhat like level terms. I'll have a couple of men close handy and if they hear a shot they will be with you immediately. Don't hesitate to fire--at the ceiling or floor preferably."
A knock at the door. A constable entered and placed a note on the Inspector's table.
"Brought here by a street lad," reported the constable. "We have the lad detained."
The Inspector tore the envelope open. He read the contents with a puzzled frown and then handed it to Miss Smith. She read it aloud.
Dear Inspector:--Thanks for the opportunity. I visited Pontin Square to-day and obtained the package of the Nine Stars. Sincerely yours, William Trantor.
"Where is that boy," thundered the Inspector. "Bring him here at once."
The boy brought into the room by the constable was a typical specimen of the London street arab. Clan in garments tattered and held together by various fastenings, rarest of which were buttons, he faced the Inspector with the boldness of his race.
A man had given him the letter. A tall man with a moustache. He had also given him sixpence and promised that he would not be hurt and that the Inspector would give him a shilling for bringing the message. He was very insistent on that part of his story and finally the Inspector produced the required coin and handed it over.
He did not know the man, had never seen him before, but a pal of his who had been a short distance off had said it was the Tiger. He did not know who the Tiger was and did not want to. Where was his pal? He didn't know or care. Might come across him some time or another.
The Inspector left it at that. Telling the boy there was another shilling waiting for him when he came with the true address of the Tiger, the Inspector let him depart. After his departure Miss Smith and Claude discussed the new position with the Inspector and decided to make no change in their plans. Miss Smith had a taxi waiting and, refusing Claude's proffered escort, drove off, leaving Claude to visit his chambers and make arrangements for his vigil at Pontin Square.
An empty house has always an eerie atmosphere. Claude was conscious of an uncomfortable feeling when he let himself into the house in Pontin Square soon after five that afternoon. The place was untidy and desolate. The dust lay thick everywhere. In the study he shuddered as he glanced at the floor before the safe where the Inspector had told him the body had been found. There were blood stains still on the carpet.
Switching on the electric lights throughout the ground floor, Claude made a journey of exploration. He returned with kindling for a fire, and a duster, and in time made the room somewhat habitable. Then he spread his papers on the desk and settled down to his work, keeping his senses alert for the advent of any intruder.
Soon after six the Inspector paid him a visit. Together they found the catch of the bookcase and revealed the safe but without the combination they could not open it. The stars on the safe door at attracted their curiosity and they spent some time trying to discover their origin. There were five of them now and, counting up the times they guessed the safe had been opened, it was manifest a fresh star appeared for each opening. Finally the Inspector left, informing Claude that he had men posted to watch the house and that he would look in again later.
When he had let the Inspector out of the house, Claude returned to the study and loaded his pipe. It was impossible to work and he lay back in his chair trying to reconstruct the mysteries, now so thick around the Gleed estate. Every day brought some new happening. Something that did not appear to have any definite connection with the estate yet shrouded the solution of the mystery of the Nine Stars with deeper bewilderment.
Principal of all was the package of the Nine Stars. What did it contain? Waverill was convinced that none of the securities of the estate were missing. He had all the papers in his hands. Therefore the package must contain something the old financier had not confided to his lawyer. Then there were the two girls. One of them must be the true heiress. The claim of the first girl was false. She was known to be a member of the Tiger's gang, a dummy put forward by the Tiger and Smeardon to get control of the estate.
Olga Pellet stood on firmer ground. He, himself, was fain to acknowledge her as his cousin, and the heiress of the estate. Waverill still expressed doubts and wished to delay the handing over of the fortune to her, but he could bring forward no definite evidence to support those doubts. It was an [?], he said, and laughed at himself as he said it. But he would not give way. He [?] a policy of inaction.
Claude realised suddenly he had been drifting into love with his cousin and wondered, what had he seen in her? She was a pleasant relation, but nothing more. He now fully realised there was only one girl in his life, and that was Ira Ira Smith, the detective Waverill had called in to solve the mystery of the Nine Stars. He lay back in his chair and pictured her.
A slim, slight girl rather above the medium height of women with a crown of dark hair. In the glowing fire he could see her proud little face with the large steadfast eyes, that looked out on the world with a wealth of courage. And she, a detective. He had always looked upon women detectives as unsexed creatures tracking down criminals. It was not work for a woman. He would woo her, win her and take her out of that life. Thank God, he had some money behind him now and Waverill had spoken well of his work. He would, work as never a man worked before and gain success--for her. It was to be all for her.
Claude was aroused from his reverie by a loud knock at the front door. A hasty look through the window showed him it was dark now, and he took his automatic from the desk as he passed into the hall. When he opened the hall door he was surprised to find Miss Smith and Waverill standing on the step.
"How are things," said Waverill cheerily as he entered. "Any callers?"
"Only the Inspector."
"Why didn't he stay? We are going to open the safe."
They passed into the study and Ira Smith went direct to the safe. Claude had not closed the bookcase, and she swung it into place and carefully examined it, taking down some of the books. Then she pressed the spring and examined the door of the safe.
"I can open this." she said quietly, looking at the lawyer.
"Good. As soon as you like."
She bent to the combination and with delicate fingers swung the index round. Then she took the handle and the door pulled open. She gave one glance at the interior and then turned.
"The package has gone," she said.
The lawyer came to her side and verified her statement. Then she and the lawyer carefully examined the interior.
"We shall have to catch the Tiger before we can go further," said the lawyer grimly.
"Rather a tall order," remarked Claude. "That gentleman seems to come and go as he pleases. It appears to me, Mr. Waverill, that the matter is now one for the courts. Smeardon is in jail, charged with a capital offence. While he was at liberty we could not touch him, or assail his position, so long as we had no definite charges against him. Now he is out of the way, it is necessary that someone should be appointed to take over his duties under the will."
Waverill considered the suggestion for some minutes.
"It wants a lot of considering," he said at length. "Let's sit down and hold a consultation."
He placed a chair for Ira and the two men sat, one each side of her.
"We will presume that Smeardon is incapable of carrying out his duties under the will. Then it is necessary, as the will makes no provision for such an eventuality, that the Courts must be approached to appoint some person to carry out those duties. So far Merrivale, you have stated the facts correctly. But would it be to our advantage at the present stage to take that step?"
"I see no reason against it," replied Claude.
"I see one reason," continued the lawyer. "I am referring to Miss Pellet. Now, Merrivale, I know what you are going to say. You believe that young lady is your cousin. I am doubtful. There is only one way to settle my doubts, and that is by the production of the most ample evidence that she is the true heiress of the late Ezra Gleed. I have asked Miss Smith to communicate with her American office and furnish me with the fullest particulars of the lady in question. Have you that information Miss Smith."
"I cannot let you have it at present," replied Ira.
"Then until you have that information I shall advise that we sit quiet and let matters take their course. Inspector Pemberton has promised that, if we can produce the right young lady, he will produce Smeardon to carry out his part of the compact. That is good enough for me at the present."
"Considering that the safe is empty, it is hardly worth troubling the courts at present," remarked Ira.
"What do you propose to do in the event of Miss Pellet applying to the courts to appoint a guardian for the safe, and to give her the opportunity to carry out the conditions of the will?" asked Claude suddenly.
"In such an event I shall oppose on your behalf," replied the lawyer, without a smile.
"On my behalf!" exclaimed Claude.
"On your behalf," repeated the lawyer, firmly. "You will have to do it, Merrivale. I quite understand your dislike to appear, in any way, to hinder your cousin from obtaining her inheritance. But you forget that circumstances have altered considerably since we first discussed your uncle's will. Now we have rival claimants, we are in doubt as to the identity of the lady who claims to be the heiress, and we have not the package to hand over to her when she proves her identity. It is your duty to safeguard the estate for your cousin, whoever she may be."
"It is the only course, Mr. Merrivale," said Ira gently. "You must follow Mr. Waverill's advice."
"By the way, Merrivale," exclaimed the lawyer. "I nave received more mysterious messages."
He drew out of his pocket some envelopes and sorted them on the desk.
"Here is the first one, which you saw at my Office," he continued, placing the card on the blotter. "And here are four others. I have placed them in the order in which they came to me."
Ira and Claude bent over the blotting paper on which the lawyer had placed the cards. The cards now read:
A D E E E
* * * * *
E S A N R
"Five of the Nine Stars!" exclaimed Claude. "What do they mean." He shifted the cards about, trying to form some word that would give them a clue.
"I am afraid we shall have to give it up until more of the symbols come along," remarked Ira, after a while. "There is not enough of them to allow us to even guess at the meaning."
They were interrupted by a loud knock at the street door.
"That must be the Inspector," exclaimed Claude, rising. "He promised to return."
It was not the Inspector. When he opened the door a heavily veiled young lady walked in.
"Is Mr. Smeardon here?" she asked in a low voice.
Claude thought rapidly, and then answered in the affirmative. He led the way to the study. When the woman saw the lawyer she stepped back, but Claude had closed the door and stood with his back to it.
"Where is Mr. Smeardon?" asked the woman agitatedly.
"Sit down!" commanded the lawyer. "We did not expect to be favoured with your company this evening."
"Why should not I be here," said the woman defiantly. "I asked to see Mr. Smeardon."
"What is your business with that gentleman," asked the lawyer.
"You are Mr. Waverill, the lawyer," said the girl, slowly, "I have seen you before. I have come to demand the package of the Nine Stars."
"Who are you?" demanded the lawyer again.
"My name is Olga Mary Pellet. Where is Mr. Smeardon?"
"That is not your name." said Ira, leaning forward. "You are known as Polly and you are a confederate of the Tiger."
Polly threw up her veil and looked defiantly at Ira.
"I know you," she said spitefully. "You are the woman who had me imprisoned in the Albany some days ago. Well I've got out and now you'll have to answer for it."
"Yes, I had you captured and held a prisoner," said Ira, quietly. "I gave orders you were to be released today. You would not have gained your freedom, however, had not Matthew Smeardon been arrested for the murder of Tom Britton."
"Tom dead! Matt Smeardon in jail," whispered the girl. "Where's the Tiger? What have you done with him?"
"Sit down!" said Ira to Polly.
Merrivale placed a seat for the girl and, after a moment's hesitation, she took it. Ira turned to Waverill.
"It is true I have had Polly under lock and key for the past month," she said quietly. "I considered it necessary that she should not be in communication with her confederates. When Smeardon was arrested I gave instructions she was to be released."
Waverill smiled at the high-handed action of this American girl detective. Then he turned to Polly.
"Now you are here, Miss Polly," he said, "we should like to have a statement from you regarding your part in the attempt to obtain possession of the package of the Nine Stars. We are willing to overlook your part of the matter if you will now act like a sensible girl."
"Then you won't," answered Polly, defiantly.
"What is your full name?" asked the lawyer.
"Olga Mary Pellet."
"Dear me," murmured Waverill, "I thought you would have seen the folly of persisting in that statement."
"Especially as the Tiger may suffer for it," said Ira in an undertone.
"What do you know of the Tiger?" demanded Polly. "Have you harmed him?"
"Your silence may cause him a lot of harm," replied Waverill.
"Then you have not got him yet," exclaimed Polly, triumphantly. "You are trying to frighten me."
"Inspector Pemberton will be here any moment," said Ira, brusquely. "He will no doubt bring news of your friend. He was seen on the Embankment to-day and it is probable the police have arrested him by this time. In any case we will have one prisoner for the Inspector."
"You mean that you will give me in charge," said the girl, scornfully. "It's likely to be the other way round, my lady. What about your high-handed action in locking me up? What charge have you against me?
"Of false pretences," replied the lawyer, quickly. "For impersonating the heiress of the Gleed estate."
"Then you think that the girl at the Lyric Hotel is the heiress?"
"We know you are an imposter," countered Waverill.
"Very well," said, the girl, defiantly. "Have me arrested and I will prove my identity as Olga Mary Pellet. It will serve my ends."
The lawyer raised ins eyebrows. It was the one thing that he was trying to avoid. Legal process, at the present moment, would open the whole question of the Gleed estate in the Courts. Polly would claim she was the real Olga Pellet and produce the papers she had shown the lawyer. He had no evidence that she was an imposter, nothing that would convince the court. The girl would be released and he would have to apply to the Courts for directions to prevent her taking possession of the estate. He could see troublesome days before him if he acted too hastily now. Polly rose and walked to the door.
"I'm going now," she said. "Detain me if you dare."
The door closed behind her. The men exchanged glances.
"Leave her alone," said Ira. "I have arranged for her to be watched."
"We do not seem to be making much progress," remarked Claude. "This come and go business of our opponents is, to say the least, exasperating."
"We are dealing with some of the smartest rogues in the country," observed the lawyer. "We have to move cautiously."
"Perforce," said Claude.
A key was heard in the latch and then the Inspector entered.
"Perhaps Inspector Pemberton has news for us," said Ira.
"None whatever," replied the Inspector. "Had any visitors, Mr. Merrivale?"
"So! That young lady tuned up again. Why did you not detain her?"
"I am having her watched," answered Ira. "In fact I have kept a watch on her for the past month."
"Using her as a decoy to lead us to the Tiger," assumed the Inspector. "Pity you did not wait a while and let my man take up the trail."
"My people will do as well," said Ira. "Have you any news?"
"The inquest on Britton will be opened the day after to-morrow. Of course the proceedings will be formal. An adjournment is certain."
"And Smeardon?" said Claude.
"He will appear before the magistrate to-morrow. I shall ask for a remand. Now what do you want me to do regarding this mysterious package of the Nine Stars, and Smeardon?"
"I have seen the Home Secretary to-day," answered Waverill. "He is willing that Smeardon shall be brought here on the night of the next full moon to deliver the package to Miss Pellet. I hope by that time to have definite evidence of her identity. If she is the real heiress she shall have an opportunity to claim her inheritance."
"That will suit me," observed Ira. "I shall have all the evidence by that time:"
"If this Olga Pellet is, like Polly, a fraud, what do you intend to do?" asked the Inspector?
"I shall cancel all the arrangements and allow matters to stand until we get in touch with the right girl or the time elapses and Mr. Merrivale inherits."
Again there came a knock at the door. Merrivale answered it and returned in a few moments with a note he handed to Waverill. The lawyer opened it and, after scanning the contents, read it aloud:
Dear Mr. Waverill--You will know by this time that I have possession of the package of the Nine Stars. You are therefore unable to carry out the conditions of the will of the late Mr. Gleed, even if you find the true heiress. If you are prepared to deal with me for the return of the above package please insert an advertisement to that effect in the "Daily Mail" for to-morrow. I will then communicate to you my terms. Unless the advertisement is inserted I shall destroy the package.--William Trantor.
"What do you advise, Miss Smith," asked Merrivale.
"Insert the advertisement," answered Ira promptly.
"Yes," agreed the Inspector. "I don't like dealing with these rogues but in this case you have no option. You can refuse his terms at any time. Insert the advertisement. I shall not be inactive."
While they had been discussing the letter, Waverill had taken pencil and paper and drafted the advertisement.
"Tiger.--State terms. Waverill." he read.
"You are prepared to deal with him?" asked Claude.
"That depends on what he has to offer," replied the lawyer. "I have a suspicion there is some deeper meaning in the package than we suspect. Ezra Gleed was a secretive man but he had in his employ a man that was cunning and alert. Smeardon may have ferreted out the inner meaning of the package of the Nine Stars and revealed the secret to the Tiger. If that is so, then the Tiger has information that may be of the utmost value to us. I am prepared to purchase the package and the information."
"That may be right from your point of view, Mr. Waverill," said the Inspector. "I want to get my hands on the Tiger. Let me have that letter a moment, please."
He took the letter and carefully examined it by aid of a magnifying glass. On the back he found some marks. They appeared to be as if someone had written a message on the sheet of paper above, with a hard pencil. The Inspector left the room and, when he returned, handed the paper to Waverill. The writing was now quite legible and the lawyer read aloud:
To 4 Rockwell Crescent, at once, where I am.
When he arrived at Clarges Street Police Court on the morning Smeardon was to appear before the magistrate, Claude found Ira seated in the body of the Court. He offered her a seat inside the barrier, but she declined, preferring to remain with the general public. Claude had to pass in to the solicitor's table, as Waverill had briefed him on behalf of the Gleed estate. There was an air of excitement about the preliminary proceedings, that showed important developments were expected.
Some details of the Gleed mystery had filtered through to the press, and the reporters' table was crowded. The appearance of Smeardon was greeted with a subdued murmur as the spectators settled themselves for the hearing. Smeardon did not seem much concerned when he was placed in the dock. He glanced round the court room, and then fixed his eyes on the magistrate. Formal evidence of arrest was tendered by Inspector Pemberton, who detailed the finding of the body in the house at Pontin Square. No mention was made of the abortive arrest of the Tiger. Then the Inspector asked for eight days remand. It was immediately granted, the solicitor appearing for Smeardon raising no objection. Smeardon was returning to the cells when a boy's voice rang through the court.
"It's all right, Matt. We'll have you out soon."
Smeardon nodded to where the voice came from, and then walked quickly out of the dock. There was a commotion in the part of the room from which the boy had called as the police tried to find him. Then the court cleared.
Claude found Ira waiting for him outside the court building.
"Waverill wants us to go round to his office directly the proceedings here finish," he observed. "Will you come now?"
Ira assented and Claude hailed a cab.
"Have you heard the result of the Inspector's enquiries at Rockwell Crescent," asked Ira, as they were driven rapidly in the direction of Holbourn.
"No. The Inspector only gave me a curt nod when he was in the court," replied Claude with a laugh. "He looked black, so I suppose he has failed again."
The clerk in the outer office had evidently received instructions that they were not to be kept waiting. Waverill greeted them warmly.
"I had heard from the Tiger," he said. "Here is his letter. It was brought into the office by some woman."
The message was typed on common paper and was unsigned.
I will hand over the package of the Nine Stars in return for the contents of Ezra Gleed's safe. Call off the police and advertise your acceptance of these terms, and I will make an appointment.
"The contents of the safe," exclaimed Claude. "Why it is empty."
"Did you examine it for secret drawers, a false back or anything of that kind?" asked Waverill.
"It is just a plain safe," answered Claude. "I examined it carefully and so did Miss Smith. I am certain there is nothing there."
"Yet there must be something. The Tiger would not make a mistake of that kind. Are we to accept his terms?"
"No," said Ira suddenly. "You must not do that, Mr. Waverill. Cannot you keep in touch with him without settling anything definite."
"I can ask for further particulars, but I don't think the Tiger will allow me to keep him dangling on. He will demand an answer, 'yes' or 'no' next time."
"Try all you can do to postpone a decision," urged Ira. "A few days more and I may have the clue I require in my possession."
"By the way," exclaimed the lawyer. "I have received another of those mysterious cards."
He took from his desk drawer a packet tied with red tape and opened it on his desk. From the top he took an envelope and passed it across to Ira. She opened it and withdrew a card on which was drawn the symbol,
The lawyer had, in the meantime, sorted out the previous cards and now arranged them on the desk, placing them in the order in which they had been received.
A D E E E G
* * * * * *
B S A N R S
"Six of them," exclaimed Claude. "So far as we know, or can guess, the safe has been opened six times. That means that for every time the safe is opened, you receive a card with a symbol on it, Mr. Waverill."
"So it appears," replied the lawyer. "But what do they mean? To me they are but a meaningless jumble of words and stars."
A clerk entered and whispered a few words to Waverill.
"Show him in," commanded the lawyer. Then he turned to the others. "It's the Inspector."
"Got the Tiger?" asked Claude, as the Inspector entered and sank into a chair.
"Then the clue of the notepaper was valueless?"
"Yes. No one there looks anything like the Tiger. Got the boy who delivered the letter to the Yard. I was a fool to think that the Tiger would allow such a clue to fall into my hands."
Waverill handed the note from the Tiger to the Inspector.
"Humph!" grunted the latter. "Call off the place. Take more than that to get me off his trail."
"Miss Smith thinks we can play him for a time and perhaps get some information out of him. She hopes, in a few days, to have some information for us."
"Is that so?" asked the Inspector swinging round on Ira. "I've a great respect for your intelligence, Miss Smith, but if you can see any way out of this tangle, I'll say you are a wonder."
"I may have better information than you, Inspector," said Ira laughing.
"Can you give us any information, Miss Smith?" asked the Inspector.
Ira thought for a moment.
"I can give you some facts, but how far they will help you, I cannot say: First, I have found out that the girl who calls herself Olga Pellet came over on the Danetic. I may say that I was interested in this matter before Mr. Waverill approached me and watched Miss Pellet from the steamer to Mr. Waverill's office. Later I saw Mr. Waverill and he asked me to take the case up."
"May I ask how you were interested in the case before Mr. Waverill instructed you," asked the Inspector.
"I was interested in the girl calling herself Olga Pellet," replied Ira.
"Then you do not think she is the right heiress," said Claude.
"I am not prepared to give an opinion on that subject at present. I know certain facts about her that caused me to watch her. I know much of her family history that is more important to us at the present time than the girl herself. Her father, Ernest Pellet was one of the neglected geniuses of the world. He was a safe maker in the city of New York, and at one time had a business of his own. He failed, owing to lack of business methods. He was not a business man, although, he was one of the best and most original safe designers in the world. He then entered the employ of one of the large safe makers in the States and designed for them nearly all the finest safes now in use. That safe in Pontin Square is one of his make. The trick of the appearing stars I know to be his invention. They indicate how many times the safe has been opened during a given time."
"Is Mr. Pellet still in the States," asked the Inspector.
"He is dead," replied Ira.
"Could he make a safe capable of shooting a man," queried the Inspector abruptly.
"Certainly. It is quite possible."
"Are you thinking that Britton met his death through the safe?" asked Claude.
"From what Miss Smith tells us, it is probable," replied the Inspector. "I must look into it."
"If Britton was shot by any mechanism of the safe he must have been standing sideways to it," said Claude. "The bullet wound was over the right ear. In that case he must have been standing with his right side to the safe and bending down. Why should he assume that position if his business was with the safe."
"There's something in that," acknowledged the Inspector. "I thought for a moment Miss Smith's theory of the safe would account for the missing weapon."
"Could he have made a safe with a secret drawer," said the lawyer.
"It is very probable that he made a secret drawer to the safe in Pontin Square," replied Ira. "But so far we have failed to find any indication of a secret drawer or cupboard."
"The mystery seems to be thickening the farther we go into it," said the Inspector in a dissatisfied tone. "I should advise that the safe be examined by an expert."
"Just what I was going to suggest Inspector," said the lawyer. "I will arrange for an expert to go with us to the house for that purpose, and will advise you of the time."
The telephone bell rang and the lawyer lifted the receiver. After a moment he held the receiver out to the Inspector. "You are wanted at the Yard, Inspector. Speak from here if you like."
The Inspector took the receiver and gave his name. He listened for some minutes with growing excitement, interjecting a question here and there. Then he replaced the receiver on the hook.
"Olga Pellet has disappeared from the Lyric Hotel," he said briefly, picking up his hat.
"Any particulars?" asked Waverill.
"Few at present," replied the Inspector. "According to the story, the manager of the hotel tells, she has been missing for the last two days. She was seen leaving the hotel about eight o'clock in the evening on the day before yesterday and was supposed to have gone to some place of amusement, for she was in evening dress, but unaccompanied. She was not seen returning. No notice of her absence was taken until this morning when the manager rung up the Yard and asked for a man to be sent round. The Chief, knowing I am interested in the girl through the Gleed case, telephoned me to take the case in hand."
"I will go with you, Inspector, if I may," said Ira, rising from her chair.
"Certainly, Miss Smith. Glad to have you."
"Do you think the disappearance of Miss Pellet is connected with the Gleed case?" asked Claude.
"Impossible to say, sir," replied the Inspector. "Tell you more when I have been to the hotel."
Ira and the Inspector left Holborn Inn and drove direct to the Lyric Hotel. They found the manager awaiting them in his private office, striding up and down wringing his hands.
"This is most distressing for the hotel," he exclaimed on the Inspector entering the room. "It will do us a lot of harm. Can't you hush up the matter, Inspector?"
"Nothing to hush up at present," retorted the Inspector. "A lady goes out of the hotel and does not return for a couple of days. Nothing in it, Mr. Politzi. Half a hundred things might have happened to detain her without one of them being the dreadful thing you are imagining."
"It is good of you to speak so bravely," cried the manager. "But I have a presentiment."
"In that case we had better get to I work," said the Inspector without trying to combat anything so vague. "Miss Smith is going to help me."
"Mr. Politzi made Ira a low bow.
"It is most lamentable," he continued. "What will happen to the hotel if people are to be allowed to disappear in this way?"
"You are looking on the worst side of things," said Ira. "Will you please tell us what took place on the day Miss Pellet disappeared? Be as exact as you can."
"Miss Pellet did not go out that day until the evening," said the manager. "She had her meals in the restaurant and spent most of the time reading in the lounge. After dinner she went to her room and later rung up the office for a taxi to be called. I was in the hall when she came down."
"Did Miss Pellet receive any letters," asked Ira.
"I will enquire," replied the manager. He left the room and returned shortly with the information that Miss Pellet had received two letters, by post that day, one with the American postmark.
"What was the exact time Miss Pellet left the hotel," asked the Inspector.
"At eight o'clock."
"How do you place the time so exactly?"
"It is by the church clock opposite," replied the manager, "it struck as she came down the stairs."
"You were in the foyer when she left the hotel?"
"I was standing by the elevator. When she came out of it she did wish me a good evening. She was in evening dress with a cloak over it and I walked with her to the cab and helped her in. She did thank me and laugh."
"Is that all?" asked Ira.
"It is all I know."
"Miss Pellet did not receive any telephone or message?"
"It was only the letters she received," said the manager. "I did ask just now at the reception desk. There was nothing until the next morning when the maid came to me and told me Miss Pellet had not returned and did not sleep in her bed. I think, perhaps, she stay with some friends. Then this morning the maid again came to me and say Miss Pellet not sleep in her bed and I get alarmed and go and see. Then I telephone to the police. That is all."
"It is not much," muttered the Inspector. "We will go to Miss Pellet's room, Mr. Politzi."
The manager led the way to a large room on the second floor. He opened the door and stood back to let them enter.
"It was here Miss Pellet did lodge."
The room contained the usual furniture of an hotel bedroom. On the right a small room adjoined, the door of which stood partly open. In the corner stood a large steamer trunk plastered with labels. Ira stood in the centre of the bedroom and looked around with a smile. It was a woman's room and the occupant had evidently dressed in haste. Dresses and lingerie were scattered about the room. On the dressing table the toilet articles were lying in disorder.
"Looks as if she had been in a mighty hurry," observed the Inspector.
Ira gave a quiet smile as if the scene was a familiar one to her.
After her first glance round, Ira commenced a thorough search of the rooms. Every document and piece of paper she could find she handed to the Inspector, who placed them on the table in the centre of the room. There were not many. When they had completed their search, the Inspector and Ira drew chairs up to the table and carefully examined the letters.
"There's not much here," said the Inspector at length.
"No," said Ira absently. "Have you noticed anything missing, Inspector?"
"Can't say that I have."
"Where are Miss Pellet's identification papers?" asked Ira, with a smile.
"Great Scott!" exclaimed the Inspector, jumping up. "How did I come to miss them?"
"Perhaps you were not looking for them. I was. In fact, I must confess, Inspector, that to examine those identification papers was the main object of my accompanying yon here."
"Perhaps she placed them in a safe deposit," guessed the Inspector. "In that case she would have the safe deposit receipt somewhere. She would not carry it about in her bag."
The Inspector strode to the door and summoned the maid.
"Tell Mr. Politzi I want him."
The manager could not have been far away for he entered the room immediately.
"Did Miss Pellet give you any papers to lock up in the hotel safe?"
"She did give me a packet of bank notes to have in change for her," replied Politzi, "but of papers, no."
"Have you seen her with a package of papers?" asked Ira.
"A big package, almost a parcel," replied the manager. "Yes She did have one. Large, like this. I saw her with one in her hand two or three times when she had been leaving the hotel."
"Did the leave them in your charge at any time?"
"No, never with me. Ah! but the maid of the room may be able to inform you more. I will call her."
He left the room and brought back the maid.
"Come in, my girl," he exclaimed, leading the way into the room. "Here is a lady who requires of you a question."
"Have you seen Miss Pellet with a package of papers?" asked Ira of the maid, an intelligent looking girl.
"Yes, Miss," replied the girl promptly. "She kept them in the slip at the top of her trunk. I have seen her get them out."
"Get them for me."
The girl crossed to the trunk after a glance at the manager, who nodded his head, she opened the trunk and put her hand in the slip.
"They are not here."
"Thank you. That will do," said the Inspector promptly.
The maid and the manager left the room.
"What do you make of it, Miss Smith?" asked the Inspector.
"Very little, I must confess," replied Ira. "The absence of the papers indicate that she had perhaps left the hotel on business connected with the Gleed estate. But we cannot be certain of that. You had better send the usual call round the stations. It is the only thing to do."
The Inspector agreed and opened the door. Ira did not move. She was standing by the table, idly fingering one of the letters.
"Did you notice this letter, Inspector?" she asked.
The Inspector took the letter she handed him and read it. It was on the notepaper of the Watson Brake and Engineering Company and read:
Dear Miss Pellet--For your private information we beg to inform you that we have received a cable from Messrs Waverill, Waverill and Waverill, solicitors, of London, England, and have replied thereto. Copies of cablegram and our reply enclosed. We are, etc., The Western Brake and Engineering Company.
"By Jove!" exclaimed the Inspector. "This looks as if she was the true article for the Gleed estate."
Waverill and Claude attended the inquest on Tom Britton, more out of curiosity, as the estate was not concerned legally in the proceedings. The Inspector, who was the principal witness, described the finding of the body and arrest of Smeardon. The latter declined, on the advice of his solicitor, to give evidence. The verdict was a foregone conclusion. The Inspector caught the lawyers as they were leaving the room.
"Any news of Miss Pellet?" asked Claude.
"None," replied the Inspector. "We have swept the town but can find no trace of her. She has disappeared completely off the map. Have you seen anything of Miss Smith?"
"You had better come with us, Inspector," said Waverill, hailing a passing taxi. "Miss Smith telephoned us to meet her at Pontin Square directly after the inquest. Arriving at the house, Merrivale let them in with his key. Ira was not there and they decided to wait until she came. Shortly after them arrived Mr. Andrews, the expert Waverill had engaged to examine the safe. He had received a message from Miss Smith to come round and also expected her to be there."
"We may as well get along with the job, Mr. Waverill," said the Inspector. "I may be called away from here any minute."
Claude rolled back the bookcase and disclosed the safe. The expert and the Inspector carefully examined the outside, testing every stud and button. Then they tried the combination knob with the object of discovering if the safe was protected by firearms, but in this they were unsuccessful.
"I don't think there is anything here worthy of note," said the Inspector at length.
"Nothing," said the expert. "The stars are but a trick very easy to understand and work. They indicate the number of times the safe has been opened since their combination was set. Will you give me the combination now, Mr. Waverill?"
The lawyer handed over a paper and the expert opened the safe. Again he and the Inspector set about a thorough search but could discover no trace of any secret hiding place. They tested every part of the interior without result.
"It is evident there is nothing of a serious nature in this safe," announced Mr. Andrews when he had finished. "It is quite the usual pattern without any fancy work. Just what I should have imagined Mr. Gleed would have established to hold the few papers he required to keep in the house.
"Still I cannot think the Tiger would have made so great a mistake," said the Inspector reflectively.
"What is that?" asked the expert.
The lawyer told him of the offer of the Tiger to give up the package of the Nine Stars in return for the contents of the safe.
"You are perfectly justified in accepting the offer," declared the expert. "I will stake my reputation that the safe is empty."
"I am inclined to agree with you," said the inspector. "Much as I dislike the idea of having any dealings with that rogue."
"I disagree with you, Inspector," said Claude. "Why should the Tiger open the safe and take out the package of the Nine Stars, and then offer to return it for the other contents of the safe? If there are other contents why did not the Tiger take them at the time he took the package?"
"I had not looked at it from that point of view," acknowledged the Inspector. "With the safe open, the other contents he valued were at his mercy."
"But the safe contains nothing," interjected the lawyer.
"Not even the pistol that killed Britton," said Claude, with a glance at the Inspector.
"I'm certain now that Britton never met his death through any mechanism connected with this safe," affirmed the Inspector. "It is a most ordinary piece of furniture."
"Yet Miss Smith declares that it was designed and erected by Ernest Pellet," said Claude.
"Did he erect this," exclaimed Andrews quickly. He went to the safe and studied it again. "If Ernest Pellet designed this safe it is the only ordinary piece of work he ever executed."
The Inspector looked from the safe to the expert.
"It looks ordinary," he agreed. "But you and Miss Smith seem to have a great belief in its designer. Was Pellet such a clever man in the game. I mean, didn't he ever take on any ordinary, just common-place work, such as an ordinary safe for instance?"
"He was the greatest safe expert the world has ever known," replied Andrews, impressively. "If this safe is his work it is the first of its kind. He never designed a common safe in his life."
"Give it up, Inspector," laughed Claude. "What are we going to do about the next full moon? With Miss Pellet out of the way it will not be necessary to bring Smeardon here."
"Of course our plans will have to stand over unless Miss Smith can locate Miss Pellet in the meantime," said the lawyer.
"We shall have to recover the package of the nine stars, too," reminded Claude.
"I am not afraid of that," said the lawyer. "The Tiger says he is willing to hand it over if we will give him the contents of the safe. Mr. Andrews says it has no further contents, and I am prepared to stand by that statement."
"I can assure you there is no secret connected with that safe," the expert assured them. "It is a plain ordinary safe, nothing more. I give you my word for that."
"Then you would lose, Mr. Andrews," said a girl's voice.
The expert turned to face Ira, who entered the room at the moment.
"I am sorry I am late," continued Ira. "We will get to work now. You have examined the safe, Mr. Andrews, and believe, it contains no secret?"
"I am certain of that," repeated the expert, but hie tone was not so assured. Ira passed, to the safe and bent to scan the door. There now shone seven stars on its surface. She closed the safe and again opened it, working the combination. There were now eight stars on the door. Again she closed the safe and opened it, bringing nine stars into view. Then she closed the safe and stepped back.
"Will you open the safe, Mr. Andrews," she said, turning to the expert.
Andrews stepped to the safe and set the combination. He grasped the handle and slowly turned it. Some new mechanism was evidently set at work, for the handle turned stiffly. He drew the door open and gave a cry of surprise. The other men gathered round quickly.
There, on the floor of the safe reposed the package of the Nine Stars.
Waverill look up the package and carried it to the table. When he had thoroughly examined it, he passed it to Claude, who in turn passed it to the Inspector. The latter studied the seals closely, then placed the package on the desk.
"This is not the original package of the Nine Stars," he said slowly. "This has never been opened since it was first sealed. The package of the Nine Stars I saw in this room the night Britton was murdered had been opened. In fact, the Tiger acknowledged he had opened it."
"Then what is this and where is the original package of the Nine Stars?" asked Waverill. "Really, Inspector, I shall begin to think you are day-dreaming! This not the package of the Nine Stars?"
"I will stake my reputation on that," retorted the Inspector gruffly. "This package has never been unsealed?"
Waverill snatched the package and the magnifying glass the Inspector held out to him. He examined the seals and the flap carefully.
"You are right, Inspector," he said at length. "This package has never been opened. Yet it is the original package. Mr. Gleed showed it me once.
"It is not the original package," declared Ira, quietly. "This is the true package of the Nine Stars. The other, the one the Inspector saw before, was a dummy intended to prevent Smeardon playing tricks with his trust."
"But I don't understand," exclaimed Andrews, who had taken little interest in events that were transpiring at the desk and had devoted his time to a further examination of the safe. "How did the package come here. This is the compartment I examined a few minutes ago and then it was empty. There is no door or secret entrance."
"You are mistaken, Mr. Andrews," replied Ira, going to the expert's side. "This is not a single safe. It contains a double compartment, moved by a very complex mechanism. When the safe is used without the setting of the stars it differs in no way from the ordinary safe. You work the combination and open the door. Set the stars and bring them into view and you have behind the door a different compartment usually lying below the ordinary compartment. Cut out the stars, it is easily done by working the combination without closing the safe and when you then close the safe the compartment sinks down and is concealed until the stars are brought into play. Ezra Gleed sank the secret apartment and set the stars. When the ninth star came into view the secret compartment rose again and we came into possession of the true package of the Nine Stars."
"You seem to know a lot about his safe, Miss Smith," said the Inspector, at length. "Cannot you tell us more?"
"I could," replied Ira, coolly. "But at present I do not think I am justified in stating theories as certainties.
"Are you certain the lady who calls herself Olga Pellet is the heiress we are seeking?" asked Waverill.
"So far as I know at present, I can only say she is Olga Pellet," replied Ira.
"Then she is the heiress," exclaimed the Inspector.
"That is for her to prove," answered Ira. "We tried to find her papers at the Hotel, but could not. Had I seen them, I might have been able to tell you more than I have done."
"We appear to be talking in a circle," observed Claude, rising from his seat. "There is no more to be done here at present. Which way are you going, Miss Smith?"
"Are we to leave the package of the Nine Stars here, Mr Waverill?" asked Ira.
The lawyer looked at the Inspector interrogatively.
"I will put a. man on guard here," said the police officer. "I should have done so from the first."
"Then I will leave the package here," declared the lawyer. "Can you tell us anything about this package, Miss Smith? Are the papers of any value?"
"I cannot tell," replied Ira. "I have information I am withholding, but my knowledge does not extend to this package."
"If I remove it, I will have to replace it when we bring Smeardon and Miss Pellet here. No, Inspector, I will leave it if you will have the house guarded as you suggest."
"I will have a man round before I leave here," said the Inspector. "This house shall be guarded night and day until we have solved the mysteries surrounding it."
The Inspector took up the telephone and rang the police office. Ira and Claude left him and the lawyer in the house to arrange the final details. Ira was silent as they walked through the square and into Piccadilly.
Claude hailed a cab.
"I am going to take you straight home," he observed quietly, "You are worn out."
"Thank you," said Ira wearily. "I am tired."
"Miss Smith," said Claude after a lengthy pause, "You are a puzzle to me."
"Am I?" said the girl.
"You appear to know a lot about this hideous mystery, that we can only guess at. Will you not confide in me so that I may help you?"
"Is it not my business to know more of a mystery than others," replied Ira, evading his offer of help.
"That is the worst of it," groaned Claude. "What on earth has a girl like you to do with mysteries and all the unpleasant surroundings of crime? You were made for happiness and comfort and yet you are chasing murderers and thieves and all the riff-raff of the cities."
"Even a girl must work," replied Ira wearily. "I have neither friends nor relations to keep me in comfort. I must work or starve."
"But not this work," objected Claude.
"What would you have me do?" asked Ira, quickly.
"Shall I join the overcrowded ranks of the shop girls, earning barely enough to keep body and soul together, the butt and prey of her masters, the drudge and victim of her own sex who think they show their superiority in bullying the girls who are so unfortunate as to have to serve them? Or would you have me a typist, working long hours in stuffy offices, a human machine worse treated than the instrument she works all day? Or would you have me live the lives I have seen so many girls live, the life of the household drudge with no thought but for her legal master and the care of his children, marrying for the shelter of a home? No, Mr Merrivale, I am content with my lot. I am a free woman, independent, and earning a fair living wage. I have a profession, much as you and other people look down on it. It is a profession that exercises my wits, provides me with the full benefits of life, gives me outdoor employment.
"It teaches me much of the good things of the world, as well as the bad. I am the equal of man. My brains and cunning are pitted against his in the open spaces of life. I play many parts and characters. One day I am the society lady with servants and money at her command, yet unlike her I am exercising the wits God gave me. Another time I am a shop girl, bearing her burden and the drudgery uncomplainingly, yet, unlike her, looked up to and considered by those who employ me. Would they do so if I was one of their slaves? I live well, my body is well fed, my brain is nourished by my constant combat with crime. I enjoy my work and its constant change. My employers respect and honour me. Can you tell me of any other employment where I shall get the same consideration?"
"What caused you to take up this work?" asked Claude.
"Chance. Fate. Call it what you like," replied the girl bitterly. "I started in an office. It was the usual drudgery day after day. Chance threw in my way a man who thought I was worth training. He trained me and before he died he said I had made good. Can I say more?"
She paused but Claude said nothing. He could not answer her logic.
Then she spoke again, but with the evident intention of keeping him away from the subject of her past.
"Tell me, Mr. Merrivale, what is your interest in the Gleed Estate? I do not think you are acting logically. If I cannot produce the right Olga Mary Pellet within a few months the estate will pass to you. Yet you are doing all in your power to aid my search."
"What would you have me do?" asked Claude.
"It is not what I would have you do that is under discussion," smiled Ira. "Most men in your position would sit tight and wait, even if they did nothing to forward their interests. You have a right to fight for your own. A right of intervention to protect your interests. Yet you do not merely stand by, but you openly aid my efforts."
"Is money so important?"
"Most people, nearly every one, think so. Don't you?"
"No!" replied Claude emphatically. "I prefer the money I earn to that of a dead man. Mr Gleed left me ten thousand pounds. It is very useful, I will acknowledge that, but still I prefer to work for my own self."
"Ten thousand pounds," said Ira scornfully. "And he left this girl seven millions! Have you no ambitions?"
"I am ambitious," replied Claude. "I am ambitious to live in comfort with the woman I love, for my wife. Are you trying to urge me to more?"
Ira did not answer. The car pulled up in the darkening street with a jerk. Claude alighted and helped her to descend. At her door she held out her hand.
"Good-night, Mr Merrivale. I--I think you have chosen the better part."
The door closed behind her and Claude dismissed the cab, deciding to walk to the Temple. It was a long walk, but the evening was fine and warm and he wanted to think. He was puzzled. This girl who had come into his life affected him deeply. She was a complex problem that he could not solve. Sometimes he thought he understood her, and then she would change, and doubts again grew up in his mind. Yet, in spite of all, he loved her. His whole being desired her.
He could understand that this was not the time to make love to her. She was absorbed in her work. The whole of her senses were on the problems that confronted her in this fight for the Gleed millions. In fact, she herself lived in an air of mystery. Once let the Gleed estate be settled and he promised himself that he would quickly pierce the mystery that surrounded Ira; he would see that she did not go out of his life without his first having tried to win her love. At present she treated him with sweet graciousness, as a comrade in a hazardous enterprise. Could he change that? Could he persuade her to relinquish this life of danger, yet of success, and merge her life with his? When the opportunity came he would do all in his power to win her to it.
The Temple was shrouded in its accustomed gloom as he entered Pump Inn and ascended to his chambers. When he had lit his reading lamp he surveyed the apartment. How bare it was. It was a room, not even an office, certainly not a home. He hungered for the future he dreamed of. A real home and a real woman.
He had no time to idle. Slipping into a loose jacket he went to his desk. Ira was in the future, possibly a near and dear future, but here to his hand was the work that would make that future possible. He had to work, and work hard but, thank God, it was a work he loved. He was quickly making way. The Gleed legacy, small as it was in proportion to the estate, had brought him luck, for it had brought him into touch with Waverill, who had given him his chance. First Waverill, and then other solicitors, had recognised that he had brains and knew how to use them. Briefs were coming in with satisfying speed. The neatly docketed bundles of papers on his desk were not now dummies. Most of them bore on their titles inscriptions of satisfying fees, money that would surely one day build a palace for his queen.
For some time he worked in silence. It was an interesting case he had in hand; one that Waverill had entrusted to him. He was determined that he would win it in spite of the many difficulties in the way. If he could succeed in this brief he would be a marked man. Success would be a certainty, and he could then retain only the cases that appealed to him. Presently he reached a point where he had to stop work for want of certain references. He picked up his pipe and leaned back in his chair. A last smoke and then to bed.
There was a noise at the door. A scraping and shuffling, then steps descending the stairs. He was certain that someone had tried his door. Who could it be?
The events of the past few months had taught him caution. Silently he found his automatic and with it in his hand stole to the door. The light from the room he had left shone on the door. Just under the letter slit an envelope lay on the ground. Claude strode quickly forward and flung open the door. There was no one there. He bent down and picked up the envelope. It bore no address. Tearing it open he took out a single sheet of notepaper headed with an address in Croydon. Below were the words:
Come to me--Olga.
The Tiger often boasted that he never acted on impulse, that every coup he undertook was carefully planned to the last details, that he would pass the greatest opportunity unless he had planned for it. To this rule he attributed his immunity from arrest.
In the matter of the Gleed estate, he had planned long and carefully. It was a coup of magnitude, and if he could bring it to a successful conclusion, he would be able to give up this life of plotting and, in some distant country, commence a new life. He might do more. In some South American Republic be might make a new and more honourable career.
The Gleed millions had appeared as a golden opportunity, but from the first his plans had gone astray. First Polly had disappeared and then Tom Britton had been murdered. On top of this, Smeardon had been arrested for the murder of Britton. He, the Tiger, knew that Smeardon was innocent, for had not Smeardon been with him at the moment the fatal shot had been fired? He could have gone to the police and tendered his evidence, but he knew he would not be believed. He might, as the Inspector had threatened, be held as an accessory to the murder. But he must rescue Smeardon. He had sworn that.
With this idea in his mind he had entered the house in Pontin Square and taken the package of the Nine Stars. With it in his possession he commanded the situation. He could use it to secure the release of Smeardon, possibly. Certainly he could get a fine price for it if the worst came to the worst.
He knew the contents of the package and he was certain that the lawyer did not. With this in his mind he approached the lawyer with an offer to sell the package. He had intended to compel the lawyer to aid in the escape, or to obtain the release of Smeardon. Then he changed his mind.
News brought to him of the plan to bring Smeardon to the house in Pontin Square, under arrest, on the night of the next full moon, caused him to revise his plans. He was only helpless so long as Smeardon was behind prison bars. Once in the streets, there was great opportunity for a rescue. Beyond this, he had altered his opinion about the package. It might possibly be of great pecuniary value. The death of Tom Britton had given him the clue. He cursed himself for not thinking of it before.
Why had Tom Britton gone back to the safe? It could only be for the package. So he had thought at first, but had Tom Britton thought so? Supposing Britton had found out that the safe held some secret drawer and that in that drawer was something of value, it might be papers, it might be something of more value. He could not guess. All he knew was that the package of the Nine Stars was valueless and that Tom Britton had met his death in seeking the secret of the safe. He would seek the secret, but he would not meet his death in doing so. Waverill should seek it for him.
It was advisable that he should be in a safe place where he could receive the reports of his spies quickly, but safe from the police. For some time he had had such a place. It stood half way between Merton and Wimbledon. A large old-fashioned house situated in large grounds behind high walls. At one time it had been used as a private lunatic asylum and the then owner had fixed on the high walls and iron railings. The Tiger had discovered it one day, and had promptly purchased the lease of the property for a mere song. There he had established his secret quarters, only the most reliable of the gang being admitted to knowledge of it.
When Waverill advertised his willingness to negotiate for the return of the package of the Nine Stars the Tiger laughed. The trap had been baited and the victim had walked in. Contrary to the inspector's thoughts, the Tiger was not inclined to close any deal at present. With the package of the Nine Stars in his possession he could wait his opportunity. Besides the package served too many purposes to be parted with at present.
One evening he had come to town--the confinement at Merton irked--and wandered about the West End. There he had a big piece of luck. A taxi had broken down and in the occupant he had recognised Olga Pellet. It had been easy to persuade her to trust him to aid her and later he had found means to decoy her to a place where he could find some of the gang.
The Tiger had expected there would be a hue and cry raised over the disappearance of Olga Pellet, but nothing happened. He was puzzled. Why had not Waverill advertised or gone to the police? Was it possible that this girl was not the true heiress? Yet from all he had gathered he was convinced that she was the genuine heiress to the Gleed millions.
His late success had caused him some perplexity. He had the package of the Nine Stars and Olga. On the other hand, the police held Smeardon. They had arranged to take Smeardon to the house in Pontin Square to hand over the package to Olga. They could not carry out their plans so long as he held Olga, and the gang were insistent that Smeardon should be rescued. Should he release Olga and plan to capture Smeardon? He did not like to relinquish his hold on Olga but he could not hold her and find a means to rescue Smeardon.
The night of the fourth full moon was fast approaching and he had not yet determined what to do. He wanted to obtain the unknown treasure from the safe and he had--the demands of the gang compelled it--to rescue Smeardon, It was a difficult problem and he longed greatly for the girl Polly. If she were there he could substitute her for Olga.
Word was brought to him at Merton that, through the underworld of London, search was being made for him by some woman. He gave orders that her photograph should be brought to him. It was in his hands a couple of days after and he immediately recognised Polly. The girl had returned. Where had she been? He gave orders that she was to be at once brought to Merton.
"Well, Polly," he greeted her when she entered his room. "Where have you been?"
"It was that woman detective," exclaimed the girl, viciously. "She had me caught and kept me for weeks."
"Good for her," laughed the Tiger. "I did not think she had the nerve. Never mind, Polly. I've got Olga Pellet."
"No," said Polly with deep admiration. "You're about the limit, Bill. What are you going to do with her?"
"Hold her for the time," replied the Tiger. "Polly, I'm in doubt what to do for the best."
"They can't get the package while you hold her," observed Polly, as she leaned across the table to take a cigarette from the Tiger's box.
"They can't get the package anyhow," replied the Tiger. "I have that, too."
"The girl and the package and the police right out of the running. It seems to me, Bill, that the Gleed people are right up against it."
"So am I, Polly. To get Smeardon, I have to release Olga and the package. The gang demand he shall be rescued."
"And what about the treasure? You dare not release the girl while they hold Smeardon."
"I'll give the girl for Smeardon any day," said the Tiger, reflectively. "By Jove, Polly, you've given me an idea."
"To exchange Matt for the girl?" said Polly doubtfully.
"Yes," laughed the Tiger. "To exchange Smeardon for the girl. It can be done. You go to her. I'll arrange that you are taken there as a fellow prisoner or something of the sort. Sympathise with her, win her confidence. It should not be difficult for you, Polly. Get her to send for that cub lawyer. Mason will capture him at the Croydon house. Then I can act."
"Right-o," said Polly. "It's easy, Bill. You get the package back to them. I'll look after the girl and the boy. Say, Bill, some people are fools."
Polly was taken to Croydon by the gang and soon won the sympathies of Olga as a fellow prisoner. The heiress accepted the first offer of friendship without hesitation and the two girls were quickly fast friends. Polly had confessed she had been induced by the Tiger to pose as the heiress to the Gleed estate and explained her present position by stating she had grown tired of a life of deceit and had been imprisoned at Croydon by order of the Tiger, who feared she would go to the police. This was the first intimation Olga had of where she was, and into whose hands she had fallen.
In a day or two Polly informed Olga that one of the men in the house was an old sweetheart of hers and was still in love with her. She believed that it would be possible to persuade him to help them escape or at least communicate with friends.
Olga jumped at the opportunity and under the direction of Polly wrote a few words on a sheet of paper with the address of the house and entrusted it to Polly to get to Claude. In a few hours Polly informed her that the note was on its way and probably, in a night or so, Claude Merrivale would make an attempt to free them.
Olga and Polly occupied the first floor of the house and they were waited on by a sour-faced gaunt woman who had been well tutored in her part. She treated Polly as a prisoner and refused to hold any conversation with either of them. Every day they were taken separately into the garden for exercise and it was on these occasions Polly gave her instructions to the members of the gang who were in the house.
The evening after Polly told Olga the note had been delivered, the two girls spent weary hours at the window.
"You are sure he will come?" asked Olga for the twentieth time.
"Sure as fates," promptly answered Polly. "He's too wise to come too early but you will see him in an hour or two."
"What are we to do when he comes?" asked Olga.
"Nothing," replied Polly with a short laugh. "We're only women and we must let the man do the work."
"Supper was brought to them by the woman and behind Olga's back she gave Polly a quick nod. Polly drew Olga to the table and made her eat a good supper on the pretext that they would require all their strength. Olga continually left the table for the window.
"Give the poor devil a chance," said Polly.
"What time did he get the letter," asked Olga, impatiently.
"Only an hour or so ago. You must give him time to get here." Olga had run to the window again. This time she beckoned Polly to her side.
"There he is!" she whispered, excitedly.
"Yes, that's him," said Polly without hesitation. "Now we've only to give the signal and the band will play."
The windows were screwed down so they could not throw out any message, but Polly took a bundle of papers and made a torch of them. This she waved across the window until Claude signalled his recognition. Claude had come to Croydon immediately on receipt of the note from Olga. He had tried to telephone Waverill at his house but the lawyer was not in and he did not care to leave a message. He had readily found the address given in the note and was searching the windows when he saw Polly's signal. He immediately crossed the road and walked up the steps of the house.
His knock at the front door was not answered. The two girls could hear the woman moving in the passage, but she made no attempt to open the door. Polly giggled. Again Claude knocked. Then the woman evidently made up her mind that she must get rid of the person at the door, for they could hear her shambling steps as she went down the hall.
"Is there a Miss Pellet staying here?" asked Claude, when the door was opened.
"What if there is?" said the woman insolently.
"I want to see her."
"Oh, do you," replied the woman. "And what kind of house do you think I keep to come calling on young women at this time of night. Be off with you, you ought to be ashamed of yourself."
"I demand to see her," said Claude angrily.
"Then you come at a respectable hour, young man," retorted the woman, trying to shut the door in his face. "I'm not going to get my house disgraced by a lot like you. Not if I knows it."
"Will you take up my name to Miss Pellet," asked Claude impatiently.
"I won't," said the woman, with emphasis. "And just you take your foot from my door or I'll get a policeman to you."
"Do you know you are doing an illegal act by detaining that young lady?"
"Detaining your grandmother," sneered the woman. "She can come and go as long as she keeps respectable hours and has no truck with men like you. I knows you. Come, be off with you."
She slammed the door in his face and he had no option but to go out on the pavement again. He crossed the road and looked up at the window where the girls had stood. They were still standing there. The torch had burned out but he could see the outline of their forms against the window. He waved to them, trying to signal that he was going for help. Just as he was on the point of turning away, he became aware that the girls were making some attempt to communicate with him. He tried to read their meaning but could make nothing of it. Then he heard a crash of glass. Polly had thrust a cushion through the window. He waited some time, but there was no movement in the house, so he crossed the road again.
He could not see the girls now, but by climbing out of the porch he was able to get on the window-sill of the bow windows beneath. There he could gain a glimpse of them and was within easy speaking distance.
"Is that you, Miss Pellet?"
"Yes, Polly is with me."
"Polly!" exclaimed Claude, in amazement. "What is she doing there?"
"No, you mustn't think bad of her," said Olga quickly. "It was her who got the note through to you. She is sorry for the way she acted and wants to help me now."
"Can you get down to the street door?" asked Claude, avoiding the subject of Polly's repentance.
"No. We are locked up in this room."
"I think I can get up to you," said Claude, after studying the brickwork. "There seems to be something like a foothold here."
He could hear the girls talking excitedly above him. Then Olga spoke again.
"Don't try now. Polly says that she can hear them moving about the house. Can you come back later? Perhaps we can get down out of the window."
"I'll go and fetch the police," answered Claude. "They'll soon bring that woman to her senses."
"Just like a man," said Polly scornfully, speaking for the first time. "Don't you think it would be wiser to telephone to the Tiger that you are rescuing us, and you might let him know that Miss Pellet will claim the package of the Nine Stars to-morrow night?"
"What do you advise, Miss Polly?" he asked after a pause. He did not quite see why he should not go the police, but Polly's sarcasm had made him doubt the wisdom of such a course.
"Get a rope and come round here in a couple of hours," commanded the girl shortly. "While you are about it, Mr. Merrivale, you might telegraph to Mr. Waverill that you have Miss. Pellet here and will bring her to Pontin Square to-morrow night to get the package of the Nine Stars."
"You will be all right until I return?" asked Claude, doubtfully. "They are not likely to remove you?"
"I don't think so," replied Polly. I was doubtful when I broke the window. They might have heard me, but they evidently did not. They won't visit us again until morning.
"All right, then," said Claude, "I'll go and get a rope and be back in a couple of hours."
It was very late when Claude got back to the main streets, and the shops were shut. He wandered round for some time without finding a shop that sold rope and at last decided to try some of the smaller streets. Here he had better luck. At a small chandler's shop he obtained a few short lengths of rope which, if knotted together, would perhaps serve his purpose. The man looked at him suspiciously, but said nothing.
With the rope under his arm he went to the station and sent his telegram to Waverill announcing that he had found Olga and would bring her to town the next day. Then he wrote another telegram to Inspector Merrivale reminding him to take Smeardon to the house in Pontin Square the following night, where he would have Olga to demand the package. These matters attended to, it was time to make his way back to the house where Olga was held prisoner.
The house was in darkness. Claude gave a cautious whistle but there was no answer from the girls. He whistled again and then crossed the road and climbed to his old post in the porch. From there he called gently to Olga but she did not reply. It was an unexpected check. Without the aid of the girls the rope was useless, for he could not attach it to the upper part of the house. He sat down on the steps for some moments considering. What could he do? Perhaps he could find a window he could force.
Climbing on to the sill of the bay he tried the windows as he crawled round on the sills. At the far side he found one unfastened. Kneeling down he managed to get the broad blade of his penknife under and raise it sufficient to obtain a finger-hold. The window came up easily and, parting the curtains, he stepped cautiously into the room.
The light of a match revealed dimly his surroundings. It was not a large room and poorly furnished. The door lay on the other side of the table and he found his way there with successive matches. There was no sound in the house and he opened the door and stepped out into the hall. The stairs lay before him.
Olga had spoken from the front room of the first floor. Claude crept up the stairs and tried the first door. It was fastened and would have led into the back room. Then he went to the other door. It would lead into the room where he had seen Olga. It was also fastened. He knocked quietly and listened. There was no answer. What had happened to Olga?
He did not hear a door open. A shadow stood behind him for a moment, then a smashing blow fell on his head and he pitched forward, hitting the door he was standing before, violently. Someone caught him as he slipped to the ground and a rag was stuffed into his mouth. He tried to struggle but could not. Then he was lifted and carried downstairs. Some one lit the gas and he saw he was in the room which he had first entered. A man, and the woman who had answered the door to him earlier in the evening, were standing by.
"A clean cop," observed the man with much satisfaction.
The woman giggled and shook her head at Claude in mock reproof.
"You're a nice young man. A-comin' alter my lodgers at this hour of the night."
"He's got a 'ead like a piece of wood," said the man retying the gag in Claude's mouth. "I'd 'ave been all out with a smack like that."
"Perhaps you didn't 'it as 'ard as you thought you did," said the woman. "Now for the get-away. Go up and give Polly the tip."
The man left the room and Claude heard him stumbling up the stairs.
Then there were voices above and the man came down again treading heavily.
"You must be a mug," observed the woman to Claude, "a'tryin' to give the once-over to the Tiger. Walked right inter the trap yer did, like a bloomin' pigeon. Lor' I could 'ave laughed to see yer treadin that light up the stairs to the girls, thinkin' we wasn't wise to yer. And yer took in that letter of Polly's a treat. Runnin' out 'ere all of a hurry just as she said yer would. Walked right into it, yer did. Lor', yer are a mug."
She spat reflectively on the floor. The man opened the door and pushed in his head.
"I'll get the carridge round and then we'll let 'is 'Ighness see his sweetheart. Don't let him get away while I'm out of the road."
"Wot are yer takin' me for," said the woman disgustedly. "He's only a bloomin' baby. Why, I'd give 'im the knock-out with one 'and. D'yer wants me to get the cart while yer mind the baby?"
Without answering, the man closed the door and stumped out into the street. Merrivale tried to collect his wits. He realised he had walked into the trap that had been set for him. The woman was right, he had acted like a child.
He was trying to think and plan, but his head ached. Polly was not a traitor to the Tiger. Had he stopped to think he would have realised that. There was nothing that would have brought that about. She had not been bribed, and the last time he had seen her she had been defiant and suspicious. Since then she must have got in touch with the Tiger and learned that he was winning all along the line. Why, then, had he reason to suppose that she would play traitor to the gang? It had been her daring that had deceived him. She had simply declared she was on their side and he, like a fool, believed her.
The sound of a carriage driving up to the door filtered into the room and immediately the man re-entered and sent the woman upstairs for Polly. Then he examined Claude's bonds and, lifting him in his arms, carried him out to the carriage. He returned to the house and in a few minutes returned, bearing the insensible form of Olga.
"There's your young lady, mate," he said jocularly as he placed the girl in a corner. "Miss Polly is here to see you don't get too fresh."
He stepped aside and Polly entered the carriage. Then the man, after a word with the driver entered and closed the door.
It was a long drive and Olga lay inert in the corner. The pain in his head was abating and he could now think more clearly. He tried to make out where they were driving him and, after some effort managed to slip forward on his seat so that he could get his face near the window. The man made no objection and he peered out. They were driving through country lanes. Sometimes the outline of a house was visible against the sky, but they were all in darkness and the gag prevented him attempting to cry out for help. Presently the pace slackened and the carriage came to a halt before a big house. The man jumped out, followed by Polly, who immediately entered the house. The man leaned into the carriage and loosened the bonds round Claude's ankles.
"Come out," he ordered, "and be careful what you do. I'll give you another crack on the head, if you try any funny business."
Claude stepped awkwardly from the carriage and looked around him. He was standing at the foot of some steps that led up to a large hall door. On the top step were gathered a group of men. His conductor ordered him to ascend the steps, and when he reached the men two of them took him by the arms and assisted him into the house. The first man followed almost immediately bearing Olga in his arms.
"Here's the decoy and there's the pigeon," he said. "Where's this lot to go to?"
Polly appeared at the head of the stairs and called to the men. Claude's conductors urged him forward. At the door of a room on the first floor, Polly stopped and beckoned the man who held Olga to enter.
"Take him to the boss," she said briefly, indicating Claude.
On the next floor the men halted and relieved Claude of his bonds. Then one of them opened the door and pushed Claude into a room. It was comfortably, even luxuriously, furnished and brilliantly lit. On the hearthrug before a blazing fire stood a man. He turned as Claude entered. It was the Tiger.
"Welcome to my house, Mr. Merrivale," he said, courteously, indicating a seat by the fire. "I hope my men have not treated you more roughly than necessary."
"This is an outrage!" exclaimed Claude, indignantly. "I demand to be released at once."
The Tiger smiled quietly and lifted a cigarette from a box on the mantelpiece.
"Smoke? Help yourself," he said, nonchalantly. "You will learn soon that the law does not count in this house. I am the law here. Not smoke? Just as you please. You may want one later."
"I demand to be released," said Claude, angrily.
"You are free from your bonds, Mr Merrivale," replied the Tiger, coolly. "You really cannot think I should go to all the trouble of capturing you, only to set you free on your demand. If you are wise you will put up with a little temporary inconvenience, if only for the sake of the lady.
"What do you mean by that?"
"I mean," replied the Tiger, slowly and distinctly, "if you choose to make yourself a trouble to us, Miss Pellet will have to suffer for your sins."
"Hard words do not affect me. Take my advice and behave yourself. Your stay under my roof may not be a long one."
"How long do you intend to keep me?"
"Until I obtain possession of the Nine Stars," was the startling reply.
"What do you mean? You wrote to Mr. Waverill and said you had the package of the Nine Stars. We searched the safe and found it missing."
"That is so. I have the package of the Nine Stars. Now I want the Nine Stars."
It was the night of the fourth full moon. The Tiger had driven up from Merton and, leaving the car in charge of a member of the gang, had walked into the Square. He was early for the appointment Waverill had made and strolled along, carefully considering the plans he had laid for the evening's work. So far as he could guess he had safeguarded everything. In a few moments he would be discussing with the lawyer the terms on which he was prepared to return the package of the Nine Stars. That the lawyer would refuse his terms he could not contemplate. He held the whip hand, for he had the package of the Nine Stars in his pocket.
At Merton he held Olga and Claude prisoners. He would hand over his prisoners and the package for the contents of the safe. It was a sporting offer and he stood to lose or win much for he had no idea of what the safe really contained. This only he knew: Ezra Gleed would not have placed so many safeguards, so much secrecy, around a safe that did not hold some great treasure. Tom Britain had guessed this. Finally, there remained Smeardon. He was pledged to obtain the release of Smeardon. The gang had demanded it and he dare not refuse. Again he had boasted that he never deserted his associates when they fell in the hands of the authorities. He did not like Smeardon. More, he distrusted him, suspecting him of treachery in the past. Had he only himself to consider he might have left Smeardon to his fate but he could not do that without betraying the gang.
A little way from, Gleed's house a well-dressed man stopped him and asked for a light. The Tiger handed over his match box and as the man returned it he muttered a few words. The Tiger gave an answering nod. His men were posted and ready. Inspector Pemberton answered the Tiger's knock and led the way into the study. There Ira and Waverill were waiting. The lawyer made no reply to the Tiger's greeting and motioned him to a seat.
"There is the matter of the safe conduct," drawled the Tiger slowly. "I did not understand I was to have the pleasure of meeting Inspector Pemberton this evening."
"My presence here is your safe conduct," answered the Inspector, gruffly. "You will be permitted to leave these premises unmolested. When you leave this room I shall wait fifteen minutes, then orders will be given for your arrest."
"That is sufficient. I shall not be followed, Inspector?"
"I have given my word," replied the Inspector, impatiently. "You are free from arrest and observation for fifteen minutes after leaving this room."
"Very well, Inspector. Now, Mr Waverill, we will get to business;"
"You have the package of the Nine Stars," asked the lawyer.
"It is in my pocket," replied the Tiger, boldly. "You write you are prepared to return it to me in return for the contents of the safe."
"That is so."
"Are you aware of what you ask for?" The lawyer hesitated, and then reframed the question. "Do you know the contents of the safe?"
"I require the contents of that safe." replied the Tiger, pointing to the safe now standing open.
"Are you prepared to state what the contents are?"
"Do you know the contents of the safe?"
"Then you are asking for something, the nature of which you are not aware."
"That is so."
"How do you intend to identify the contents you require."
"I am trusting to your honour. You will obtain the contents and hand it over to me."
"We carefully examined the safe after receipt of your demand. Are you surprised to learn that we can find nothing?"
"I quite expected that."
"Then we hand you nothing for the package."
The Tiger remained silent.
"How do you propose we shall proceed? The safe contains nothing."
"I have said I will take your word of honour to hand me the contents of the safe. I am not surprised that at the present time you have not found the secret of the safe. I am prepared to hand you over the package now and wait until you obtain the contents of the safe for me."
"Will your wait be long?" asked Ira, suddenly.
"I cannot say." The Tiger turned to the girl as he spoke. "I may have to wait some time, or you may be successful almost at once. My opinion is that you will hand me my--er--reward within a week after Miss Pellet complies with the condition of the will and obtains possession of the package of the Nine Stars."
"When will that be?" continued Ira.
"If you accept my terms," replied the Tiger, looking at his watch. "No, she cannot be here to-night. Shall we say the next full moon night?"
"What do you mean?" demanded the lawyer.
"I am not prepared to answer any further questions," rising from his chair and picking up his hat. "Are you accepting my terms?"
"We have had an expert examine the safe and he states there are no secret compartments. He is emphatic on that point," declared Waverill. "Do you still adhere to your demand in face of that opinion."
"Have you opened the package of the Nine Stars?" asked Ira.
"I know the contents."
"And you are aware that the package contains only blank papers?"
"I am aware of that."
Ira went to the safe and produced the package she had found in the secret compartment.
"Here is the package of the Nine Stars. The package you have in your possession is only a dummy. Is this what you required when you demanded the unknown contents of the safe?"
"That is not the contents of the safe," declared the Tiger, angrily. "This is an attempt to trick me."
"Then this is not what you require?" asked the lawyer.
"No. I demand the contents of the safe, when they are found."
"So far we have only this package. The safe is empty."
"It is a trick," persisted the Tiger. "I know the Inspector has the matrix of the seal of the Nine Stars I made when I opened the package of the Nine Stars. He, or you, have made a dummy package to deceive me."
"Come and examine it," suggested Ira, placing the package on the table.
"Do you think that seal was made from a matrix? You can see from its sharp edges it was made with the original seal. You are not to touch it."
"Perhaps Mr. Waverill can tell us where the original seal is now," suggested the Tiger, cunningly.
"I do not know," replied the lawyer. "The seal is not among the Gleed papers. We have searched everywhere for it."
The Tiger bent over the package and examined the seal. He could not deny Ira's statement that it had been made with the original cut stone. It was an exact replica of the package he had, at that moment, in his possession. Furtively, his hand stole to his pocket.
"Are you satisfied?" asked Ira.
The Tiger did not answer. His brain was working quickly as his hand stole up to his breast pocket. Give him the opportunity to place those packages side by side and he would certainly trick these very confiding people. A moment more--
"Put your hands down, Tiger." It was the Inspector who spoke.
The Tiger glanced up. The Inspector was standing at the other side of the table and pointing direct at the Tiger was a formidable looking automatic.
"You have the other package in your breast pocket, Tiger," continued the Inspector, quietly. "I have no intention that you shall change the packages. Put your hands down and keep them down."
"You are all very clever," laughed the Tiger, straightening himself.
"I would have been taken in by the play had I not known better."
"You are not satisfied that we have told you the truth?" asked Waverill.
"The truth! No. This is not the true package of the Nine Stars. You may have made it to deceive me. More probably you made it so that you could get the Gleed estate for Miss Pellet without the true package, now in my possession. No, Mr Waverill, I will keep my word with you. The contents of the safe for the package of the Nine Stars. Do you agree?"
"The safe is open. Would you like to search it?"
"Thank you, no. I prefer you to search it for me."
"The safe is empty."
"That it is empty now does not worry me. Will you accept my offer?"
"I refuse." The lawyer spoke emphatically and turned his back on the rogue.
"Where is Olga Pellet?" enquired Ira.
"She is in my charge," laughed the Tiger. "I have no objection to telling you that."
"Is she well?"
"Quite well, thank you. She will be delighted when I tell her of your kind enquiries."
"What do you want to release her?" asked the lawyer, turning suddenly.
"Nothing you can offer me, now," said the Tiger sternly. "You have refused my terms. I will now take what I want. Olga Pellet is my prisoner and I have the true package of the Nine Stars. Two of the three pawns in the game are mine. Soon the police will be forced to release Matthew Smeardon and then he will come to me. He will hand over the package of the Nine Stars to Miss Pellet under my directions for she will not be released until she comes to my terms."
"What terms are you offering her," asked Ira, inquisitively.
The Tiger laughed again. He was recovering his poise. These people were but fools and, for the inspector, he held a growing contempt. Shortly he would read that self-opinionated official a well deserved lesson.
"My terms to Miss Pellet," he drawled, staring boldly at Ira. "I do not think Miss Pellet will object to your knowing, although we have made no formal announcement yet. Miss Pellet will be offered freedom--as my wife."
"And if she refuses?"
"Then she will, perforce, stay in my charge until she recognises and rewards my devotion." The Tiger made Ira a mocking bow and turned to the door. "I have your word for fifteen minutes, Inspector?"
The door closed behind him, noisily. The Inspector looked at his watch.
"Are you going to follow the Tiger, Inspector?" asked Waverill.
"Not much good," said the officer, regretfully. "He is to have fifteen minute's grace and that will be plenty for him to get to safety. I was thinking of Mr. Merrivale and Miss Pellet. They should be here now."
"Do you think Mr. Merrivale succeeded?" asked Ira. "The Tiger was certain he had Olga."
"Even if Merrivale failed he would come here to let us know," said the Inspector. "I am having Smeardon brought here on the strength of his promise to produce Miss Pellet."
"He cannot have failed," said Waverill, emphatically. "He telegraphed to me this afternoon."
"Have you the telegram?" asked the Inspector.
"Yes." The lawyer searched his pockets and finally produced the telegram. "He says:
"Olga unwell, requires rest, meet you Pontin Square to-night. Merrivale."
"Then he should be here soon," said Ira. "What of your charge, Inspector?"
"Here any moment," replied the Inspector, promptly. "I gave instructions for him to be here at eight sharp. Didn't want him too early in case we have to wait for Miss Pellet. An hour should see us well through the business even if they are a little late."
"I want a word with Smeardon if possible, before Mr. Merrivale arrives," said Ira. "I hope he will come soon."
"Going to probe him about this mysterious treasure the Tiger has on his mind," laughed the Inspector. "For my part I don't think there's anything in it. The Tiger is barking up the wrong tree, for once in his life."
"Yet we cannot take chances that he is mistaken," said the girl, quietly.
"Quite right, Miss," answered the Inspector. "It never does to neglect a clue in these matters. Hullo, here they are."
A cab had driven up to the house and the Inspector went to the door. He returned, preceding Matthew Smeardon in the custody of two constables.
Smeardon had not altered during his confinement. He walked into the room with his head bent and casting furtive glances round him. The Inspector placed a seat for him and the constables stationed themselves one each side of his chair.
"I have had you brought here, Matthew Smeardon," said the lawyer, "to make amends so far as possible for your treachery in the matter of the Gleed estate. I will not promise you that what you may do here will serve you in your present position. That is out of my power. You are charged with an offence so grave that no earthly influence can help you. I think, however, that you may realise that, in view of the very grave evidence against you, you may possibly never have another opportunity of righting the great wrong you committed against your trust."
"What do you want me to do?" asked Smeardon.
"You have been brought here to hand over the package of the Nine Stars to Miss Pellett."
Smeardon looked round the room.
"Where is she?"
"She will be here soon," interposed Ira. "Before she comes we want some information from you."
"What do you want to know?"
Waverill went to the desk and arranged his papers.
"Will you make a statement of your dealings with the Gleed estate, or will you answer questions we put to you?"
"I have no statement to make," said Smeardon, carelessly. "What questions do you wish to, ask me?"
"You will answer our questions?" asked Ira.
"Its no good, Smeardon," interrupted the Inspector. "I was in Court when that boy promised you that the Tiger would see you out of this, but he can't. I've seen to that. Get this Gleed matter off your mind. You've enough to worry about with the other charge."
"Ask your questions. I'll answer if I choose."
"How many times did you open the safe," asked Ira.
"Five or six."
"When did you open the package of the Nine Stars?"
"I did not open it."
"We know it has been opened. Who opened it? The Tiger?"
"The night Tom Britton was shot."
"You found only blank papers in the envelope?"
"Did you test those papers for invisible writing?"
"The Tiger did."
"How long was it between the opening of the package and the shooting of Tom Britton?"
"I refuse to answer. I am instructed by my solicitor to refuse to answer any questions relating to the death of Tom Britton."
"Was Tom Britton in the room when the package was opened?"
"I refuse to answer."
"Are you aware that the package you opened is not the package of the Nine Stars?"
"No." Smeardon showed he was puzzled by the question.
"Do you think that Mr. Gleed placed a dummy package in the safe to deceive you?"
"He might have done," said Smeardon after some consideration. "It would be like him to do such a thing."
"Here is the true package of the Nine Stars," continued Ira, taking the package from the desk. "Will you hand this over to Miss Pellet tonight?"
"I haven't any option in the matter," said Smeardon, wryly. "I can't get out of it if I want to."
"Did Mr Gleed tell you anything about the package of the Nine Stars?"
"I never heard of it until he signed his will."
"Have you ever used that safe?"
Ira pointed to the safe which had been left open.
"No, Mr Gleed always kept the combination secret until the day he died. Then he told me."
"Were you here when the safe was installed?"
"I was in Mr Gleed's employ at the time. He sent me on a message on the Continent. When I returned, the safe was installed and locked."
"Have you ever been in the room when Mr Gleed has used the safe?"
"Did you attempt to learn the combination?"
A look of cunning came into Smeardon's face as he answered in the affirmative.
"Did you succeed?"
"No. Old Gleed was too wide awake."
"Is there any secret mechanism to the safe?"
"Not that I know of," replied Smeardon, with a look of astonishment.
"I am going to be honest with you," said Ira after a pause. "The Tiger has made us an offer to exchange the package of the Nine Stars he stole from the safe--the one you and he opened--for the contents of the safe."
Smeardon quickly lowered his eyes that the girl might not see that she had conveyed information to him. The Tiger knew something. He had discovered that the safe contained something besides the package of the Nine Stars. He must find out more.
"If I am to help you," he said quietly, "You must tell me what the Tiger said. You say he offered to exchange the package of the Nine Stars for the contents of the safe. Did be say what the contents were?"
"No," replied Ira.
"Have you searched for what the Tiger requires?"
"Yes, and have found nothing."
"What did he say when you told him that?"
"He expected some such reply and offered to wait until we found what he required."
"Did you accept his offer?"
"We did not," interjected the lawyer, who had taken a transcript of the questions and answers.
Smeardon rose from his seat.
"I am ready to go, Inspector."
"Do you mean that you will not help us?" asked Ira.
"That is so."
"Is it that you cannot or will not?"
"Just as you please."
"Answer the question," snapped the Inspector, swinging Smeardon quickly round to face Ira.
"Take it as you please," said! Smeardon, angrily. "I shall have my freedom soon and if there is anything in that safe I will find it myself."
Waverill looked at his watch. It was after nine and neither Olga nor Merrivale had turned up. The time of the new moon had passed and before they could do more another month must pass. He nodded to the Inspector.
"Take him back," said the Inspector to the constables.
One of the constables led the way to the street door, Smeardon following, and the remaining constable brought up the rear. On the step there was a pause while the constable standing beside the cab opened the door. Then Smeardon descended the steps and as he reached the open door of the cab, stepped to the right. One of the constables who had Smeardon in charge grabbed at him, but the man at the door of the cab knocked him down with a terrific blow from a sandbag. At the same moment, men sprang up on all sides and the police were beaten and buffeted about. Almost as quickly as the affair had started, it ended, and when the Inspector gained the pavement the assailants were out of sight. Both constables were lying on the ground insensible.
"What has happened?" asked Waverill who, with, Ira had followed the Inspector out of the house.
"Just what I thought," groaned the Inspector. "He's gone. This is some of the Tiger's work."
The Tiger had planned well and truly. Smeardon had escaped from the clutches of the law and was now with the Tiger, free to plot and work for the Gleed millions. For the time he held all the tricks. The Inspector expressed himself in forcible words.
"He hasn't the true package of the Nine Stars," said Waverill, consolingly. "And you should not have much difficulty in getting Smeardon again."
"He'll get that package, don't you worry about that," said the Inspector, grimly. "That man has the luck of the devil, his master."
When the Tiger left the house in Pontin Square he went straight to Merton; to linger in the vicinity to watch the rescue of Smeardon was to take big risks. He had able lieutenants and his plans had been carefully laid and his presence might have complicated matters.
He was confident that the police would carry out their plans of bringing Smeardon to the house in Pontin Square to meet Miss Pellet and hand over the package of the Nine Stars. To obviate any mistake, be had despatched the telegram signed with Merrivale's name, stating Olga was rescued and would be at Pontin Square that night.
Yet he was uneasy. His interview with Waverill had not turned out as he had planned. The discovery of the second package of the Nine Stars had upset his calculations. He had thought that he held the master hand; that the lawyer must agree to the terms he dictated. At the interview he had declared that the second package was a fake, but this he did not believe. He knew Smeardon and he could make a good guess at the personality of Ezra Gleed. He realised that the old financier would not trust his secretary further than he had to. Why he had trusted him at all was a puzzle.
While he waited he tried to realise what had been in the old financier's mind when he planned his will. First he had something of value to conceal. That was certain. Then that "something" had to be concealed from every one other than the true heiress. It could not be left in trust with the lawyer because--
Here was the stumbling block. Had the old financier a secret he could not confide to his lawyer? Was that the reason he had given a partial trust to Matthew Smeardon? Yes, it must be so.
Ezra Gleed had something to conceal. He had to trust Matthew Smeardon until the arrival of his heiress. Yet he knew that Smeardon was unreliable and would betray his trust if he could. To protect his secret he made the false package of the Nine Stars and concealed the true package. Smeardon, if treacherous, would, as he did, deal with the false package. The true package lay hid until discovered by this girl detective. The second package, then, would contain the secret of the financier.
What did that package contain? There could be no doubt but that it contained the secret he had bargained with Waverill to possess. He must get it into his hands. Well, that would be easy when he had Smeardon with him again.
From the treasure, his thoughts turned to Olga Pellet. It had been a chance shot when he said he would marry Olga and thus obtain control of the Gleed estate. He had said it to annoy these smug, self-satisfied people. But now, looking at the idea in the cold light of reasoning, the proposition had much to recommend it. He had Olga in his power. It would be easy to persuade her to marry him. If not, well, there were ways and means.
He was aroused from his meditations by the entry of one of his men with Smeardon. Dismissing the man he motioned Smeardon to come across to the fire.
"A bit different from your late lodgings, Matt."
"Why the devil did you leave me there so long?" was Smeardon's ungracious retort.
"I could do little while you were behind the prison bars," replied the Tiger. "You got my message in the police court?"
"The boy? Yes! I got it," said Smeardon leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. "I waited day after day for you to move. God! It was awful."
"Well, I did my best. You don't seem grateful, Matt."
"What have I done to be grateful about. Do you expect me to bow and scrape for the privilege of a month or more in jail," answered Smeardon bitterly. "I've lost all I had worked for. All my work with that old miser, Ezra Gleed, gone for nothing. I'm a criminal, an outcast."
"What were you before," said the Tiger roughly. "Cut the cant, Matt. You must have feathered your nest pretty well during your four years' work."
"Well, it's gone," replied Smeardon, woefully. "I can't get at it now."
"Perhaps not for the present," said the Tiger. "Later I may be able to help you to it. But first we have to discover who killed Tom Britton."
"I can't understand that," exclaimed Smeardon, jumping up and pacing the room. "Only the three of us were in the house. I'll swear to that. You and me were down in the cellar. Tom was in the library. How was he killed?"
"That is what we have to find out, Matt. There's one other thing, too, on the board?"
"What is that?"
"The secret of the safe."
"I've heard of that," said Smeardon slowly. "They were questioning me about it at Pontin Square to-night. What do you know about it?"
"I am convinced that Britton met his death while he was endeavouring to discover the secret of the safe. Did the old lawyer ask you about that?"
"It was the girl. I guessed she had that in her mind."
"Did you tell her what you knew?"
"Not much! I wasn't giving them anything they did not know."
"Then you know something."
"You will tell me." The Tiger's voice grew hard.
"Not on your life," said Smeardon quickly. Then he looked up at the Tiger's face and his courage forsook him. "What do you want to know, Tiger?"
"All you can tell me about the safe, its contents, and the charge old Ezra Gleed gave you."
"It isn't much on the whole and I hadn't thought about it until they questioned me of it. I had always thought I was simply to get ten thousand pounds for handing a package to Miss Pellet when she asked me for it. Now I begin to suspect more."
"Tiger, there's two packages."
"I know that."
"I didn't, until that girl asked me to-night. Now I can guess a lot. Look here, Tiger. Ezra Gleed was one of those men who are always financing petty States and kingdoms. He was supposed to have retired from business. It was a blind. He did bigger business after he retired than he did before."
"Take it for granted."
"Well, one day he told me to take a letter for him to Altania. A day or two before, he told me he was going to have a safe built into the study wall. He asked me about it and I said I would see to it. Then he said he would see about it himself and sent me off to Altania. When I got back I found he had the safe installed and he would not tell me the combination."
"I asked questions of the servants, but they could tell me little. All I could find out was that the safe had been brought from America. One of the servants saw 'US.A.' on the packing cases. Another thing I found out was that it had been erected by a Mr. Ernest Pellet."
"Ernest Pellet!" exclaimed the Tiger. "Any relation of the girl he left his money to?"
"Her father. Old Gleed had sent for him. Pellet was one of the finest safe makers in the World. He could make a safe no-one could open but himself, and he could open every other safe."
"He'd have been a useful man to us," observed the Tiger with a loud laugh.
"Oh! he was straight," replied Smeardon with a grimace. "I tried him on the lay once and he would not bite."
"Oh! you met him. Where?"
"In the States. Gleed took me over once and Pellet came to see him. It was before there was any talk of the safe."
"What kind of a man was Pellet?' asked the Tiger.
"A fool. Just a common fool except for safe work. There he was a genius. He used to come to see the old man and try to borrow money. Got it too. Old Gleed was wild with him. Used to swear at him, and after he had left. But he gave him money for his wife's sake. She was some relation of Gleed's."
"His elder sister," suggested the Tiger.
"That's it," replied Smeardon, quickly. "It was in the will and I had forgotten."
"Had he any family?"
"Of course he had. Where do you think this girl came from?"
"Oh! a wife and daughter."
"Two daughters," replied Smeardon. "One was away from home all the time. The other I met sometimes when Gleed sent me to Pellet's house. She was a schoolgirl then. Later she went into a typing and shorthand school. Then she became typist in a big engineering works. Oh! I know her well."
"And her name?' asked the Tiger, eagerly.
"Olga Mary Pellet."
"The girl who claimed against Polly?"
"That's her. I recognised her the moment I set eyes on her, but she didn't remember me."
The Tiger leaned back in his chair and laughed loud and long.
"The young lady is upstairs now," said the Tiger when he had recovered his composure. "Do you know, Matt, I have been thinking she was a fake."
"Upstairs? Here?" Smeardon's eyes glistened at the news. "Do you mean to say you persuaded her to come here?"
"Just so. I have prevailed on Miss Pellet to accept my hospitality. Don't look so thunderstruck, Matt."
"It's the best thing that could happen, Tiger. Don't you see? We have the game in our hands now."
"How?" The Tiger's face had grown hard. "In what way can we make use of Olga Pellet except to hold her until we get the treasure?"
Smeardon was pacing the room in agitation. He was debating whether he should trust the Tiger with his secret. He had to, for was not he and Olga in the rogue's power? Yet would the Tiger fall in with his views.
"I want that girl, Tiger,"
"So? She happens to be my prisoner."
"I want that girl, Tiger," repeated Smeardon. "I mean to have her."
The Tiger fixed his eyes on his subordinate. His face had grown longer and more wolfish. He was leaning forward looking at Smeardon as if he was trying to read his secret thoughts. For a moment Smeardon thought he was going to give way to one of his rare bursts of passion, and cringed in anticipation.
"What's the game, Matt?"
"It's no game. That girl is more than any game to me."
"So! You have fallen in love with her, and at your time of life."
"Leave that alone, Tiger," Smeardon faced round angrily. "I may not be a youngster. I may be older than you. I may be double that girl's age, but I want her and I mean to have her."
"Is the lady willing?" asked the Tiger. He was faced with a new position in his plans. He had looked upon Smeardon as but a pawn in the game for the large stake he was playing--a pawn he fully intended to cast aside when he had attained his object. Now he had to look on him as a rival for the hand of Olga. More, a menace to his plans.
"I don't care if she is willing or not. I'll have her."
"None of that, Matt." The Tiger spoke sharply. "The girl is under my care and you will leave her alone."
"Care? Why don't you say she is a guest, at once?"
"If you like," replied the Tiger indifferently. "She is enjoying my hospitality and that is enough for you."
"Hospitality! With her door locked, I suppose. Fine hospitality that."
"None of your business, Matt. I'll treat her as I please but you shall not. If the girl is willing to look on you as a possible husband I'll not object, but you'll see her when and where I wish. That's the final word."
Smeardon stopped in his pacing and walked up to the Tiger.
"I tell you that girl is mine and I'll have her."
"With or without her consent," laughed the Tiger.
"Yes. With or without her consent, but she'll consent fast enough when I've done with her. She'll be only too glad to marry me then."
"I told you none of that, Matt," said the Tiger threateningly, looking straight in Smeardon's face, now distorted with evil passion.
"And I say she is mine and I will do as I like with her. I know you, Tiger Trantor, you want that girl for yourself, but you shall never have her."
The Tiger walked back to his seat. Smeardon had guessed right, but he did not intend to enter into any discussion on that point with him. Yet he was willing to appear to appear straight with Smeardon. The gang would demand that. Yes, he should have his chance, such as it was. He had no fear of the result. Himself on the one side, young, virile, and not bad looking. On the other, Gleed's Secretary, an old man, wizen, dirty, a craven.
And the prize! Not only the girl, and a girl he felt he could love and live with, but the mastery of the Gleed millions. In some far country he could reconstruct his life, be a free man, not again haunted by dread of the hand of the law. He would treat her well, give her all the luxury she could crave for, the luxury he loved for himself. What had Smeardon to give her? He would treat her as a slave and hoard her millions as a miser.
He would run little risk in making a bargain with Smeardon, for between the two men the girl's choice could be but a foregone conclusion. Yet by this bargain he would satisfy the sporting instincts of his associates, and, if the worst came to the worst, the girl was always in his power.
He had enough influence in the gang to gain his ends whatever steps be might take.
"Where is she now?' asked Smeardon, turning to the door.
"Where you'll not get at her," retorted the Tiger. "Come and sit down, Matt."
"It's true then," cried Smeardon, viciously. "You are after that girl, but you shan't have her. She's mine."
"Well! What if I am?"
"You're in love with her," repeated Smeardon staring vaguely at the Tiger. "I know it."
"If I'm in love with her, Matt, I'll marry her in spite of you or anyone else. Sit down like a reasonable man and I'll deal fairly by you. You shall have your chance."
Smeardon left the door and came slowly towards the fireplace where the Tiger was seated. He had his eyes fixed on the Tiger as if fascinated, but there was a lurking broodiness that revealed a mind off the balance. His fear of the Tiger was disappearing. His mind was set on this girl. From the night when the Tiger had left her in the house in Pontin Square alone with him he had desired her.
The Tiger was thinking. He had said he would give Smeardon his chance. But what chance would he give him? It must be one neither Smeardon nor his associates could grumble at, yet not one that would imperil in any way his determination to wed this girl. For the time it was only necessary to promise that Smeardon should have the opportunity to see the girl and make love to her. The thought of Smeardon's love making brought a smile to his lips. Surely that alone would be sufficient to bring the girl to his arms, especially if he let her think he would surrender her to Smeardon if she refused his offer.
A hand fastened on his throat and his head was forced violently backwards. He half rose from the chair, but was thrown back again by the weight on his chest. He looked up, and there close to his own was Smeardon's mad, rage-distorted face. His senses were reeling. A violent effort and he was free. He backed to the centre of the room, clutching at his collar to gain breath. The madman followed him.
In an ordinary struggle, the Tiger would have thought little of Smeardon, but now the man was mad. He must get help and quickly. If he could get to the other side of the desk there was a concealed bell under the carpet that would bring help. He tempted Smeardon to one side. The madman followed. With a wrench he got free and ran round the desk. He stretched out his foot and as he touched the concealed knob he slipped and fell. With a bound Smeardon was on him clutching at his throat.
Over and over they rolled, flinging the furniture on all sides. Smeardon was seeking a hold on the other's throat. The Tiger was evading the hold as best he might, and hitting fierce half arm jolts to Smeardon's head. They were telling, he could tell that, but his own strength was fast going. The madman had the hold he sought and the Tiger could feel the fingers sinking into the soft skin of his throat. The lights were dancing before his eyes and he felt himself sinking into an unfathomable abyss. Something crashed forward on him and then the pain in his throat relaxed. He heard a voice calling to him. Then the weight was taken oft his chest.
Someone was holding a glass of water to his lips and the touch of the ice cold water burned his aching throat. He opened his eyes and looked up. He was resting on Polly's knee and she was looking down at him with grave concern.
"Where is Matt?" he whispered.
The girl looked round. The Tiger struggled to a sitting position and followed her glance. On the floor lay Smeardon unconscious.
"I knocked him down with the ruler," said Polly.
"Press the bell under the desk," said Tiger. "It' will bring some of the boys here."
The girl obeyed. Almost immediately a couple of men entered the room. At the Tiger's command they bound Smeardon and sat him in a chair.
"What is it all about?" asked Polly.
"Nothing much, Polly," said the Tiger with a laugh, getting to his feet. "The confinement in prison, must have turned Matt's brain. He calls it love."
The words aroused Smeardon. He wriggled in the chair and tried to rise.
"Yes, I love her. I love her and he wants to take her from me."
"Who wants to take her from' you?" asked Polly looking from one man to the other.
"The Tiger. He loves Olga Pellet and he is trying to take her from me, but she belongs to me. I will have her."
"Is this true?" asked Polly turning to the Tiger.
"Is what true?"
"He wants to marry Olga Pellet."
"So he says."
"Do you want to marry that girl?"
"Mind your own business." said the Tiger viciously. The late struggle had been almost too much for even his iron nerves. "What is it to you what I intend to do? You and Matt will do as you're told."
"I'll look after this, Matt," said Polly, slowly. "He shall never marry Olga Pellet while I am alive."
She walked up to where the Tiger was standing and deliberately struck him across the mouth with the back of her hand.
"You devil!" exclaimed the Tiger.
"Glad you acknowledge that," the girl replied, walking to the door. "I am a devil and you shall know it better soon."
The next morning Smeardon awoke to find himself in bed with a bad headache. He looked round the room; how had he come here? Where was the Tiger?
Slowly memory came back. He remembered the rescue, the hurried journey to Merton, and the scene with the Tiger. He sprang out of bed and hurried to the window. It looked across the gardens and he guessed be was on the second floor of the house. Then he crossed to the door. It was locked.
He was remembering now, the fight in the Tiger's room. They had quarrelled about Olga and he had almost throttled the Tiger. His fingers warmed at the thought. The Tiger had said he was mad. Yes. He had been mad, but he was sane now. He loved and desired the girl. He would now plan and scheme to get his way. Fighting was not for him; he was too old; he must pit his brains, not his muscles, against the Tiger.
He had accused the Tiger of being in love with Olga. That might be true. He was in love with the girl, himself. But was the Tiger? He did not think so. The Tiger was too cold-blooded. He would not let the thought of a woman come between him and his ambition. The Tiger might want to marry Olga. That was more likely. With the girl as his wife he would have the legal control of the Gleed estate. It was what he had been planning himself when his desires had turned to madness and ruined his schemes.
What could he do now? He was a prisoner. The Tiger would not forgive that unprovoked assault. He would be a prisoner until the Tiger's plans had materialised, and he was necessary to their execution. Then he would be brought from his prison and made to play the part allotted to him. He would have no option. He shuddered as he remembered a day when he had seen the Tiger coerce a man to his will. It had not been a pleasant sight and Smeardon realised he had not the courage to stand against the Tiger's will. The Tiger would have no mercy on him. He had that blow to repay, and with interest.
The parting of the ways had begun when he had tried to force Olga to marry him in the house in Pontin Square. Now it was complete. For good or evil he was against the Tiger. It was not how he had planned things. He had decided the break should come at his wish. Yet it had come through his action, if not by his wish. Now he must choose. To remain a prisoner during the Tiger's pleasure or to plan and scheme against his former master.
Hour after hour he paced the narrow room trying to plan his conduct. He was a prisoner and could only plan. The opportunity to act was denied him. Yet he must plan. He might get a chance to escape later and he must be ready.
He was hungry. He had not eaten since the previous afternoon in prison. Did the Tiger intend to starve him? No, he would not do that. He was necessary to any plans the Tiger might make.
There were steps on the stairs. They were coming for him. It was not his intention to exhibit any signs of the previous night's frenzy. He crossed to the window and sat down with his back to the door. The key was turned and a man entered.
"Well, Matt," said the man pleasantly. "Hungry?"
"Yes," replied Smeardon cheerfully. He looked past the man into the passage. Another man was standing there. "Thought you had forgotten me."
"The Tiger said I was to give you time to recover. You seem all right now."
"Am I to be kept locked up here." demanded Smeardon.
"I've no orders to release you," replied the man. "Come in, Arch and bring the tray with you."
The other man entered with a loaded tray. It was evident the Tiger did not intend to starve him. The man placed the tray on the table and left the room. The first man lingered.
"What's the game, Paul?" enquired Smeardon, drawing a chair to the table and starting on the food without ceremony.
"All I know is that you're to be kept here until you're required."
"And you're to be my jailer," laughed Smeardon. "Pleasant job."
"Oh, you're not the only prisoner by a long chalk. There's three others."
"Three others," exclaimed Smeardon, in surprise. "Has the Tiger turned this place into a private lunatic asylum again?"
"Looks like it," agreed the man. "There's that lawyer chap overhead. The girls are down the corridor. You've got lots of company round you although you can't see them."
"Who are the girls? The Pellet girl and--"
"Yes. The heiress they call her. And Polly."
"Yes. She turned crusty last night and the Tiger gave orders she was to be locked up with the other girl for the time. It's a job, carting the eats around the place. Well, I must be getting along. Have to pay a visit over your head. So long, Matt, take my lip and make it up with the Tiger. I'll tell him you're reasonable now."
With a friendly nod the man went out and shut the door. Smeardon listened and heard them ascend the stairs. Then, the tread of feet over head and the murmur of voices. Finishing the meal, Smeardon lit a cigarette and started his walk up and down the room, planning how this additional information might help him.
Merrivale was above him; could they get into communication? Smeardon surveyed his own room. It was small, about ten feet square, and plainly furnished. A bed table, a washstand and toilet table combined and a couple of chairs were al that was in it. In the corner, beside the fireplace, was a large cupboard. The ceiling was low and he judged that, with a chair on the table it would be within easy reach.
The ceiling was the only way of communicating with Merrivale, yet he could not knock down the plaster without drawing the attention of his jailer, when he next visited him. Then his eye fell on the cupboard. He opened the door. It was a roomy place and the pegs were empty. He drew a chair in and, mounting it, tried to reach the ceiling. It was still some distance away. He carried the table to the door of the cupboard and managed to fit one angle into it. With the chair on that, he was able to reach the ceiling easily. Then, with his penknife, he began to cut a large circle in the plaster of the ceiling in the cupboard. It was slow work, for he had continually to stop, to brush the mess into a corner of the cupboard and to listen for footsteps, but he made good progress. Presently he had cut through the lathes and reached the floor of the room above.
It was now six o'clock. He drew his table back to its place and removed every sign of his work. They would soon bring his evening meal. He lay down on the bed and dozed for some time.
Presently the door opened and his meal was brought in by the same man, who also lit the lamp. Smeardon asked for a book or a newspaper to read and the man promised to bring it when he had finished with his prisoners. About an hour later the man returned and threw on the bed an old newspaper. Smeardon knew now the man had completed his work and would not return again that night. He went to the cupboard and, arranging his platform, knocked at the floor above.
He could hear Merrivale halt in his pacing of the room. He knocked again and then came a knock from above. Knocking at intervals he guided Merrivale to where he was.
So far he had succeeded in getting into communication with Merrivale. How was he to make him understand? He did not know the Morse or any other code. Merrivale knocked again and he answered. They could knock and knock but their knocking did not carry any meaning. Presently Merrivale knocked three or four times rapidly, then, slowly and distinctly, came twenty-six knocks. Twenty-six. Why! Of course. Twenty-six letters in the alphabet. He knocked twice quickly. Then Merrivale began to spell out words slowly. "Who's there."
"Smeardon. Who's there?"
No answer came. Merrivale did not understand. Smeardon continued.
"I'm a prisoner."
"So am I."
"Can you open your window?"
"Open it. Lean out."
He heard Merrivale's steps across the floor. Then he went to his own window and leaned out. Merrivale's head was just above.
"Don't look at me," whispered Smeardon, hurriedly. "Look in the distance. Can you hear me?"
"Have you sheets and blankets?"
"Can you make a rope and get down to me?"
"Could you climb back, if necessary?"
"Then make your rope and come down here. I have a plan of escape."
Smeardon left the window and waited. In a short time something soft hit his window. He caught hold of it. There came a strain on the improvised rope and Merrivale slipped down and climbed into the room.
"What's the game?" asked Claude.
"I am a prisoner," said Smeardon. "I quarrelled with the Tiger and he locked me up."
"What do you want from me?"
"Help, me to escape."
"I've been here for days or months," Claude laughed bitterly. "There has not been anything but escape to think of and I have not found the way yet."
"I have," said Smeardon eagerly. "Will you join me?"
"Why not act on your own," said Claude suspiciously.
"Because I have hot the nerve to act by myself," said Smeardon. "You are young and strong and can do things I cannot."
"Well, what is your plan?"
Smeardon was going to speak when Claude interrupted him.
"You fool. Look what you have done.
In his excitement, Smeardon had not replaced the table and chair. Claude dragged them into the room and seated himself at the table.
"Have you any tobacco?"
Smeardon gave him the package of cigarettes that had been on his first tray. Claude lit one and drew in the smoke luxuriously.
"I've been longing for a smoke for days," he said, simply. "What is your plan."
"It must be the window," explained Smeardon, quickly. "The house is impracticable. Besides, there are always two men when they bring the meals. We shall have to get your sheets and blankets somehow, and they, joined with mine, should make a rope to reach to the ground. Then--My God!"
The key was turning in the lock. The door opened and the Tiger entered.
"Tiger!" exclaimed Smeardon.
"Well, Matt," said the Tiger easily, "You seem surprised, to see me. You seem to forget, I'm in my own house."
Smeardon looked over his shoulder to where Claude had been seated. The chair was empty.
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