Parkinson, the unquenchable stickler for decorum, paused after receiving the general instructions for the day just long enough to create a sense of hesitation. Mr Carrados, merely concerned with an after-breakfast cigarette, divined the position with his usual unerring instinct.
'Yes, Parkinson,' he remarked encouragingly; 'is there anything going on?'
A clumsily-folded newspaper enabled the punctilious attendant to salve his conscience as he returned slowly to the table. He shook out the printed sheets into a more orderly arrangement by way of covering the irregularity.
'I understand, sir,' he replied in the perfectly controlled respectful voice that accorded with his deliberate actions 'I understand that this morning's foreign intelligence is of a disquieting nature.'
The blind man's hand went unfalteringly to an open copy of The Times lying by him and there a single deft finger touched off the headlines with easy certainty.
'"On the Brink of War." "Threatened German Mobilization",' he read aloud. '"The Duty of Great Britain." Yes, I don't think that "disquieting" over-states the position.'
'No, sir. So I gathered from what I had already heard. That is why I thought it better to speak to you about a trifling incident that has come under my notice, sir.'
'Quite right,' assented Mr Carrados. 'Well?'
'It was at the Museum here, sir—a very instructive establishment in Market Square. I had gone there in order to settle a small matter in dispute between Herbert and myself affecting the distinction between shrimps and prawns. I had always been under the impression that prawns were unusually well-grown shrimps, but I find that I was mistaken. I was directed to the cases of preserved fish by a gentleman with a cut across his cheek. Subsequently I learned from the hall-keeper, to whom I spoke about the weather, that the gentleman was the assistant curator and was called Vangoor, being a native of Holland.'
'Vangoor,' mused Mr Carrados. 'I have never heard the name before.'
'No, sir. When I saw the gentleman last we were at Kiel, and he was then a Lieutenant von Groot. I thought perhaps I had better mention it, sir.'
Carrados's half-smiling expression did not change in its placid tone and he continued to smoke with leisurely enjoyment. His mind turned back to the details of the Kiel visit of a few years previously as one might turn to a well-kept diary.
'The man you mean called on me once with a complimentary message from the Admiralty department there. I was not in the hotel at the time and he left his card with a few words of explanation in perfect English. We never met and I cannot suppose that he has ever seen me.'
'No, sir,' acquiesced Parkinson. 'You sent me the next day to the Dockyard with a reply. That is the only time I have ever seen the gentleman before today.'
'Have you any reason to think that he may have remembered you again?'
'I formed a contrary opinion, sir. On the other occasion, although it was necessary for us to hold some slight conversation together, Lieutenant von Groot did not seem to be aware of my presence, if I may so define it, sir. I received the impression that the gentleman imagined he was talking to someone taller than I am, sir; and I doubt if he really saw me at all.'
'You are sure of him, though?'
'I was then making a study of detailed observation under your instruction, sir, and I have no misgiving on the point.'
'Very well. It was quite right of you to tell me of this; it may be really important. We are only five miles from a vital naval port, we must remember. Don't say anything to anyone else and I will consider it meanwhile.'
'Thank you, sir,' replied Parkinson, modestly elated.
In the past, whenever the subject of the English Secret Service came up it was patriotically assumed on all hands that nothing much was to be expected from that quarter, and we were bidden to lift our admiring eyes to German and other continental models. As a matter of history, when the test came the despised organization proved itself signally efficient. In a small way there was evidence of this that same July day, for within a couple of hours of sending a curiously-worded telegram to an official whose name never appeared in any official list Mr Carrados received an equally mysterious reply from which, after a process of disintegration, he extracted the following information:
Ref. Fff. C/M.107.
Groot, Karl von. Born Friedeberg (Prussia) about 1880. Mother English. Educated Heidelberg and (?) Kiel. Entered navy. Torpedo-lieutenant (staff) 1907. Resigned in doubtful circumstances 1910. Drawn into espionage system under Bluthmel in connexion with resignation. Expelled Holland 1912. Visited Russia 1913. Recognized in Cork, June, 1913. Speaks German, French, Dutch, Russian, English (excellent). Blonde, tall, grey eyes, diagonal sword-cut left cheek. Description ends. Please report anything known further.
Carrados read the decoded message twice, and then thoughtfully crushing the thin paper into a loose ball he dropped it upon an ash-tray and applied a match.
'A telegram form, Parkinson.'
With his uncanny prescience the blind man selected a pencil from the rack before him, adjusted the paper to a more convenient angle and, not deviating the fraction of an inch beyond the indicated space, wrote his brief reply:
Ref. Fff. C/M.107.
Information received. Regret have nothing further to report. M.C.
'We will investigate Mr Vangoor for ourselves a little first,' he remarked, passing across the slip. 'London will have its hands pretty full for the next few days and we are on the spot.'
'Very well, sir,' replied Parkinson with the same trustful equanimity with which he would have received an order to close a window. 'Shall I dispatch this now, sir?'
'Yes—from the head office: head offices are generally too busy to be inquisitive. Read it over first in case of an inquiry....Yes, quite right. Something of a feather if we can circumvent a German spy off our own bats, eh, Parkinson?'
'At all events we will open the innings without delay.'
'I quite appreciate the necessity of expedition, sir,' replied Parkinson, with his devastating air of profound wisdom.
It is doubtful if anyone had yet plumbed the exact limits of the worthy fellow's real capacity. There were moments when he looked more sagacious than any mortal man has any hope of ever being, and there were times when his comment on affairs seemed to reveal a greater depth of mental vacuity than was humanly credible. Carrados found him wholly satisfactory, and Parkinson on his side had ignored a score of hints of betterment.
'Pack a couple of bags with necessaries,' was the instruction he received on his return from the post office. 'Von Groot may likely enough remember my name, and I can't very well change it while staying at a public hotel. We will keep on our rooms here and go into apartments at the other end of the town for a time. There my name will be Munroe and yours can be—say Paxton. I will tell the office here all that is necessary.'
'Very good, sir,' assented Parkinson. 'I did not think the woodcock toast sent up for your breakfast entirely satisfactory, sir.'
In years to come generations now unborn will doubtless speculate how people lived in those early days of August, 1914. The simple truth, of course, is that to the vast majority external life went on almost precisely as before. It is as exacting for the moving machine to stop as for the quiescent one to start, and 'Business as usual' was one of the earliest clichés coined. The details of the situation that most impressed the citizen of 1914 are not the details to which the inquirer of 2014 will give a second thought. Individually, it was doubtless very intriguing to have to obtain change for a five-pound note by purchasing postal orders to that amount and immediately cashing them singly again....
Mr Carrados found the Castlemouth Museum open as usual when his leisurely footsteps turned that way on the following morning, and, as usual, the day being fine, deserted. Before they had—Parkinson describing as they went—made the circuit of the first room they were approached by a sociable official—the curator it soon appeared—drawn from his den by the welcome sight of two authentic visitors.
'There are a certain number of specimens that we have to store away for want of space,' he remarked hopefully. 'If there is any particular subject that you are interested in I should be very pleased—'
This suited Mr Carrados's purpose well enough, but before committing himself he not unnaturally preferred to know what the curator's particular subject was. An enthusiast is always vulnerable through his enthusiasm and no man becomes curator of an obscure museum in order to amass a fortune.
'I understand,' he replied tentatively, 'that you are rather strong here in—' An impatient gesture with the expressive fingers conveyed the speaker's loss. 'Dear me—'
'Palaeontology?' suggested the curator. 'My predecessor was a great collector and our series of local fossils is unsurpassed. If you—'
'Ah,' replied Mr Carrados; 'very instructive no doubt.' His alert ear recognized the absence of the enthusiast's note. 'But somehow there always seems to me about fossils a—'
'Yes, yes,' supplied the curator readily; 'I know. No human touch. I feel just the same myself about them. Now flints! There's romance, if you like.'
'That is the real thing, isn't it?' exclaimed Mr Carrados with unqualified conviction. 'There's more interest to my mind in a neolithic scraper than in a whole show-case-full of ammonites and belemnites.'
The curator's eyes sparkled; it was not often that he came across another.
'Brings you face to face with the primeval, doesn't it?' he said. 'I once picked up a spearhead, beautifully finished except the very last chippings of the point. Not broken off, you understand—just incomplete. Why? Well, one might risk a dozen likely guesses. But there it was, just as it had dropped from the fingers of my prehistoric forefather ten thousand years before—no other hand had touched it between his and mine.'
'I should very much like to see what you have here,' remarked the affable visitor. 'Or, rather, in my case, for I am practically blind, I should ask to be allowed to handle.' There were occasions when Mr Carrados found it prudent to qualify his affliction, for more than once astonished strangers had finally concluded that he must be wholly shamming. In his character as an American tourist of leisure—a Mr Daniel Munroe of Connecticut, as he duly introduced himself—the last thing he desired was that ex-Lieutenant von Groot or any of that gentleman's associates should suspect him of playing a part.
For the next half-hour Mr Lidmarsh—his name marked the progress of their acquaintanceship—threw open cabinets and show-cases in his hospitable desire to entertain the passing stranger. Carrados knew quite enough of flint implements—as indeed he seemed to know enough of any subject beneath the sun—to be able to talk on level terms with an expert, and he was quite equal to meeting a reference to Evans or to Nadaillac with another.
'I'm afraid that's all,' said the official at length, '—all that's worth showing you, at any rate. We are so handicapped for means, you see—the old story with this sort of institution. Practically everything we have has been given us at one time or another—it has to be, for there is simply no fund to apply to purchasing.'
'Surprising,' declared Carrados. 'One would have thought—'
'We arrange lectures in the winter and try to arouse interest in that way, but the response is small—distressingly small. A great pity. Theatres, cinemas, dancing halls, all crowded—anything for excitement. If we get nine adults we call it a good meeting—free, of course, and Mrs Lidmarsh has tried providing coffee. Now in Holland, my assistant tells me—'
It was the first mention of the absent Karl, for Carrados was too patient and wily a tracker to risk the obliquest reference to his man until he knew the ground he stood on. He listened to a commonplace on the unsophisticated pleasures of the Dutch.
'But surely you have more help for a place like this than a single assistant, Mr Lidmarsh? Why, in the States—'
'It has to be done; it's as much as our endowment and the ha'penny rate will run to,' replied the curator, accepting his visitor's surprise in the sense—as, indeed, it was intended—of a delicate compliment to his own industry. 'Vangoor, myself, and Byles, the caretaker, carry everything upon our shoulders. I count myself very fortunate in having a helper who makes light of work as Mr Vangoor does. Englishmen, unfortunately, seem mostly concerned in seeing that they don't put in half an hour more than they're paid for, Mr Munroe. At least that's my experience. Then he just happens to be keen on the subjects that I'm most interested in.'
'That's always nice,' admitted Mr Carrados, unblushingly.
'Well, it all helps to give an added interest, doesn't it? Not that any department of the work here is neglected or cold-shouldered, I hope—no, I am sure it isn't. For instance, neither of us really cares for natural history, but we recognize that others will think differently, so natural history in all its branches receives due attention. As a seaside town, of course, we give prominence to marine zoology, and our local fishermen and sailors are encouraged to bring in any curious or unusual specimen that they may light upon.'
'Do they much?' inquired the visitor.
'I am afraid not. Lack of public spirit and the suspicion that something is being got out of them for nothing, I suppose. Why, I have even found Vangoor rewarding them out of his own slender pocket to encourage them to come.'
'Fine,' was Mr Carrados's simple comment.
'Yes—when you consider that the poor fellow is none too well paid at the best and that he sends a little every week to his old people away in Holland—all that he can save, in fact—and he lives in a tiny, out-of-the-way old cottage quite by himself so as to do it as cheaply as possible.'
'Vangoor,' considered the blind man thoughtfully; 'Vangoor—there was a fellow of that name I used to meet at times up to six months ago. Now I wonder—'
'In America, you mean?'
'Yes. We have a good sprinkling of Dutch of the old stock, you know. Now what was my man's front name—'
'Then it couldn't have been this one, for he has been here just a year now. I wish he was about so that I could introduce him to you, but he won't be back yet.'
'Well, as to that, I've been thinking,' remarked Mr Carrados. 'I've had a real interesting time here, and in return I'd like to show you a few good things in the flint line that I've picked up on my tour. Could you come around to dinner tomorrow—Sunday?'
'That's very kind indeed.' Mr Lidmarsh was a little surprised at the attention, but not unflattered. 'Sure it won't be—'
'Not a shred,' declared the new acquaintance. 'Bring Vangoor along as well, of course.'
'I'll certainly give him your invitation,' promised the curator; 'but what his arrangements are, naturally I cannot say.'
'Seven o'clock tomorrow then,' confirmed Mr Carrados, referring to the fingers of his own rather noticeable watch as he spoke.'"Abbotsford", in your Prospect Avenue here, is the place. So long.'
At the slightest of gestures Parkinson broke off his profound meditation among Egyptian mummy-cloth and took his master in charge. Together they passed down the flight of stairs and reached the entrance hall again.
'Let them know at the house that I expect two guests to dinner tomorrow,' said Mr Carrados as they crossed the hall. 'Mr Lidmarsh will be coming, and very likely Mr Vangoor as well.'
'I don't think you'll find the last-named gentleman will favour you, Mr Carrados,' said a discreetly lowered and slightly husky voice quite close to them. 'Not much I don't.'
Parkinson started at the untimely recognition, but Carrados merely stopped.
'Ah, William,' he said, without turning, 'and pray why not?'
Mr William Byles, caretaker, doorkeeper, and general factotum of the Castlemouth Museum, disclosed himself from behind an antique coffer smiling broadly.
'So you knew me, sir, after all?' he remarked, with easy familiarity. 'I thought to surprise you, but it's the other way about, it seems.'
'Your voice has much the same rich quality as when you looked after my cellar, a dozen years ago, William,' replied Mr Carrados. 'Making due allowance for a slight—erosion. One expects that with the strong sea air.'
'I wondered what you was up to, sir, when I hear you pitch it to the governor you were Mr Munroe from America. Made me laugh. Now that you're inviting Mr Dutch Vangoor to dinner I can give a straightish guess. You needn't trouble, sir. I'm keeping an observant eye on that identical piece of goods myself.'
'Come to the door and point out the way somewhere,' directed Mr Carrados, moving on from the dangerous vicinity of the stairs. 'What do you know about Vangoor?'
'Not as much yet as I'd like to,' admitted Mr Byles, 'but I can put two and two together, Mr Carrados, as well as most.'
'Yes,' mused the blind man reminiscently, 'I always had an idea that you were good at that, William. So you don't exactly love him?'
''Ate isn't the word for it,' replied the caretaker frankly. 'Too much of the bleeding Crown Prince about Jan Van for my vocabulary. Ready to lick his superior's boots three times a day if requisite, but he's done the double dirty on me more than once. And I don't forget it neither.'
'But why do you think he won't come tomorrow?'
'Well, if it's going to be war in a day or two, as most people say, depend on it, sir, Jan Van knows already and it stands to reason that he's busy now. And so shall I be busy, and when he least expects it too.'
'Then I can safely leave him in your hands, William,' said Mr Carrados pleasantly. 'By the way, how do you like it here?' and he indicated the somnolent institution they were leaving.
'Like?' repeated Mr Byles, swallowing with difficulty. 'Like it! Me that's been butler in superior West End families the best part of my life to finish up as "general" in what's nothing more or less than a sort of mouldy peep-show? Oh, Mr Carrados!'
The blind man laughed and a substantial coin found its billet in the caretaker's never-reluctant palm.
'Not "Mr Carrados" here, William, remember. Please preserve my alias or you'll be doing Mr Vangoor a kindness. And whatever you are at, don't let him guess you're on his track.'
Mr Byles's only reply was to place a knowing forefinger against an undeniably tell-tale nose and to close one eye significantly—a form of communication that was presumably lost on the one for whom it was intended though it shocked Parkinson not a little. But the tone and spirit of the whole incident had been a source of pain to that excellent servitor all through.
Another member of Mr Carrados's household—though in point of miles a distant one—was also adversely affected by his employer's visit to the Castlemouth Museum. Less than an hour after Mr Byles's parting gesture a telegram addressed 'Secretary' was delivered at 'The Turrets' and threw Annesley Greatorex, who was contemplating a bright week-end, into a mild revolt.
'My hat, Auntie! just listen to this,' exclaimed Mr Greatorex, addressing the lady whose benevolent rule as Mr Carrados's housekeeper had led to the mercurial youth conferring this degree of honorary relationship upon her. 'Here you have M.C.'s latest:
Borrow few dozen flint implements any period but interesting and dispatch fully insured post or rail to reach me first tomorrow. Try Vicars, Bousset, Leicester (Oxford Street), Graham, etc. Wire advice; then stand by.
Stand by! That means ta-ta to mirth and melody by moonlit streams, until our lord returns, forsooth.'
'And not a bad thing either, Mr Greatorex,' declared the lady, without pausing in her work. 'If there's going to be a war any minute and that German family in Canterbury Road who've got an airship hidden away in their coachhouse fly out and start dropping bombs about, you're much better here safe in bed than gallivanting up and down the open river.'
'Then what about Mr Carrados right on the coast and near a naval harbour?'
'I'm no' troubling about Mr Carrados,' replied the housekeeper decisively. 'If the Germans come they'll come by night. So long as it's in the dark Mr Carrados won't be the first one to need the ambulance, ma lad.'
Carrados duly received his few dozen flints and smiled as he handled them and removed the labels. Promptly on the stroke of seven the curator arrived, but he came alone; whatever the true cause might be, William Byles was right.
'I'm sorry about Vangoor,' apologized Mr Lidmarsh as they greeted. 'He quite intended to come and then at the last found that he had an appointment. I'm sorry, because I should like you to have met him, and he isn't having the pleasantest of times just now.'
'Oh! How is that?'
'Foolish prejudice, of course. People are excited and regard every neutral as an enemy in esse or in posse. And the irony of it is that Vangoor hears positively that Holland will be in on our side within a month.'
They fell to talking of the war-cloud, as everybody did that day. It was known from the special issues that Germany had formally declared war on Russia, and had launched an ultimatum against France; that here and there fighting had actually begun. The extent of our own implication was not yet disclosed, but few doubted that the die was irrevocably cast.
'Will it make any difference to you up at the Museum?' inquired the host. Enlisting had suddenly become a current topic.
'I don't see how it can,' replied Mr Lidmarsh, with regret expressed very largely in his tone. 'At my age—I've turned thirty-nine, though you mightn't think it—I'm afraid there would be no earthly chance of being accepted even if the war lasted a year.'
'A year,' repeated the blind man thoughtfully.
'Well, of course, that's an absurdly outside limit. Mrs Lidmarsh comes of a military family, and she has it privately from an aunt, whose daughter is engaged to the nephew of a staff officer, that the Russian commander-in-chief has sent a map of Germany to Lord Kitchener with the words "Christmas Day" written across Berlin. Naturally everyone at the War Office can guess what that means!'
Carrados nodded politically. Every second person whom he had met that day had a string leading direct to Whitehall.
'Vangoor would go like a shot if they'd raise a Foreign Legion. But of course—Then there's only old Byles—So I'm afraid that we shall have to carry on as usual. And, after all, I don't know that it isn't the most patriotic thing to do. People will want distraction more than ever—not hectic gaiety: no one would dream of that, but simple, rational amusement. Soldiers on leave will need entertainment and somewhere to pass their time. A museum—'
Mr Carrados got out his flints and the curator brightened up, but something was plainly on his mind. He hemmed and hawed his intention to confide half a dozen times before the plunge was taken.
There's one thing I should like to tell you about, Mr Munroe, although in a sense I'm—well, I won't say bound to secrecy, but confidentially placed.'
'Of course anything that you might say—' encouraged his auditor, discreetly occupied with the cigars.
'Yes, yes; I'm sure of that. And you have been so extremely kind and—er—reciprocal and would, I know, be deeply interested in the find that—well, I feel that if you went away without my saying anything and you afterwards—perhaps when you are back in America—read of what we had been doing, you would think that in the circumstances I had not been quite—eh? Certainly, I know that I should in your place.'
'A find,' commented Mr Carrados, with no very great hope in that direction—'a find is always exciting, isn't it?'
'Well, perhaps I spoke prematurely in the fullest sense—though something we undoubtedly shall find—Did you ever hear of the golden coffin of Epiovanus?'
'I'm afraid,' admitted the other, 'that I never even heard of Epiovanus himself. Stay though—doesn't Roger of Wimborne mention something of the sort in his Chronicle?'
'The tradition of an early British chief or king being buried in a gold coffin seems to have been curiously persistent, and that would go to give it a certain degree of credibility. Personally, I take it cum grano, I am quite prepared for a gold-mounted coffin or a coffin containing certain priceless gold adornments or treasure of gold coin. I question if the richest tribe could at that time disclose sufficient gold to fashion a solid case of the size required.'
'There was fairly extensive gold coinage at that period, and then the metal practically disappears from the mints for the next thousand years,' suggested Carrados.
'It having gone into the manufacture of royal coffins? I should like to think so, for we believe that we are in fact on the track of something of the kind.'
'You are?' exclaimed the sympathetic listener. 'That would be great—real unique, I suppose. But I don't quite take it home, you know.' Actually he was only bridging conversation out of politeness to a guest. All the treasure of the Indies was of less interest than Vangoor's moves just then.
'Perhaps it sounds too good to be true, but Vangoor is thoroughly convinced, and he is exceptionally well up on the subject and has a veritable craze for digging.'
'Go on,' said Carrados mechnically. For one concentrated moment he even forget his American citizenship in the blinding inspiration that cleft without warning, shapeless but at the same time essentially complete, into his mind. 'I'm tremendously intrigued.'
'Nothing is known of Epiovanus beyond the existence of a unique copper coin reading EPIOV. REX. But among the country-people back in the valleys here—the peasants and labourers in whose names you can trace a Saxon ancestry—you will often get a shamefaced admission that they have "heard tell" from their grandfathers of a golden coffin containing the bones of a great chief. But where? That was the difficulty, Mr Munroe. But, to cut short a long story—nearly two thousand years long, in fact—I may say that we have at last linked up the golden coffin legend with Epiovanus, Epiovanus with this part of the land, and now, finally, Vangoor has established that the solitary mound on Headlam Height is undoubtedly an early British sepulchural barrow of very unusual size and importance.'
'It is a small, rugged promontory a mile or two along the coast here. The barrow is almost on the edge of the land, for the cliff has been falling away for ages—indeed, in another fifty years or less the tumulus would have gone over and whatever it contains been dumped into the sea.'
'And you have opened it?'
'We have made a start. There was considerable difficulty in fixing up a reasonable arrangement at first. You would think it a simple and harmless enough undertaking, but there was the lord of the manor to be approached, the landlord to be got round, and the farmer—well, he had to be bought over, and I am sorry to say that Vangoor in his scientific zeal has in the end promised him the greater part of his own share.'
'Of the golden coffin?' remarked Mr Carrados. 'A very weighty argument.'
'Well, of course, we should hope to retain the best things for the Museum, but there would have to be some pecuniary adjustment. If it turns out at all as we anticipate, the find would create a stir beyond anything of the kind before—at least, it would have done if it hadn't been for this wretched war.'
'It opens dazzling possibilities,' admitted the blind man. 'Have you found anything yet?'
'Nothing important but plenty of encouraging trifles—burnt bones and other remains of a funeral feast, fragments of pottery, and so on. We have only been at work a fortnight, and partly from motives of economy, but more because of the extreme care that must be taken, Vangoor has done nearly all the work himself.'
'Driving a tunnel from the shore side?' suggested Mr Carrados.
'Why, yes,' admitted the curator, looking rather surprised, 'but surely you haven't heard it spoken of?'
'Not at all,' Carrados hastened to assure him. 'Merely an interested guess.'
'I hoped it wasn't getting about generally or we shall have all sorts of prying busybodies up there. As it is, we have railed off the part and placarded it "Dangerous"—which it really is. But it struck me as curious you saying that, because at first we thought of making a sectional cutting right down. Then it was only after trials that Vangoor found the seaward side the safest to tunnel in.'
When Carrados decided that there was nothing more of value to be learned—a few aimless remarks elicited this—the conversation imperceptibly slid off to other and less personal themes. The wary investigator had no wish to stir the suggestion that he was curious about Vangoor, and, indeed, the impression that Mr Lidmarsh took away with him was that his host's real hobby in life was the promulgation of phonetic reform.
But what had before been merely a general precautionary suspicion on the blind man's part had now fined down to a very definite conviction, and from whichever side he approached the problem the road led to Headlam Height His first impulse was to investigate that secluded spot at once, but a moment's reflection suggested that the chance of encountering Vangoor there was too substantial to be risked at that stage of the quest. Mr Byles's rather burlesque intervention now began to wear another and a more important face. Was it possible that the disgruntled caretaker knew anything definite of what was going on at Headlam Height?
'This is your affair, Parkinson, and you ought to know all that I do,' said Mr Carrados five minutes later, as he retold Lidmarsh's disclosure. 'On the one hand we have a harmless Dutch scientist, wholly taken up with investigating a lonely burial mound; on the other a dangerous German spy, constructing to some hostile end a retreat that directly overlooks the Channel while it is itself cunningly hidden from every point of land. What do you think about it?'
'I apprehend that we ought to be prepared for the latter eventuality, sir,' replied Parkinson sagely.
'I quite agree with you,' assented his master, with all the air of receiving a valuable suggestion. 'We will stroll round by the Market Square, as any casual visitors might before turning in. If we encounter Mr Byles it may lead to something further. If not, another time will do.'
They made their leisurely perambulation, but nothing came of it. Not only did they fail to encounter Mr Byles but the small curtained upper windows that inevitably suggested his modest suite of rooms displayed no light. The two outstanding hypotheses had to be dismissed, for William had never been an early sleeper in the past, while the public-houses had now been closed some time. Plainly there was nothing left but to retrace their steps.
'Tomorrow morning we will come again,' arranged Mr Carrados. 'Fortunately the Museum will be open as usual, so that William cannot very well elude us. Afterwards ... I expect it will be Headlam Height.'
'Tomorrow' was the last day of peace—Monday, the 3rd of August, and thereby a bank holiday. 'Five Nations at War', 'Invasion of France', and 'British Naval Reserves Mobilized', ran the burden of the morning papers. It was no longer a question of peace trembling in the balance: it was merely the detail of when it would kick the beam.
But 'Business as usual' was now held to be the thing; and Castlemouth's business being largely that of providing amusement for its visitors, there was very little indication of stress or crisis on its joyous sands or along its glittering front that day. At the railway station perhaps the outward trains were crowded and the inward ones were light, while in every chatting group a single word prevailed, but so far Castlemouth was resolved to take war peacefully.
'I believe, sir,' reported Parkinson, as they crossed the Market Square—'I believe that the place is closed.'
'The Museum, you mean?'
'Yes, sir. The outer doors are certainly shut.'
'Curious. I made a point of asking about today. Mr Lidmarsh was explicit.'
'There is Mr Lidmarsh, sir. He has just come up. He is fastening a paper to the door.'
Carrados's heart gave a thud, but his pace did not alter, and the curator, looking up, judged the meeting accidental.
'Oh, Mr Munroe,' he exclaimed, 'this is a shocking business. Have you heard?'
'Not a solitary word,' replied the blind man. 'What is it?'
'Poor Byles. He was found dead on the shore this morning.'
'Where?' dropped from Mr Carrados's lips. A good deal might depend on that.
'Just below Headlam Height, I understand. "De mortuis", and all that, you know, but the man certainly had himself largely to blame, I fear. He wasn't supposed to know anything about our work up there, but he had evidently got wind of something. He was a curious, secretive old fellow, and, as I read it, he went up there in the dark last night, and, prying about, he either slid on the slippery grass or did not see the edge. And late at night Byles was sometimes just a little—you understand? However, we have closed the Museum today as a mark of respect. But of course if you want to go in—'
'Thank you,' replied Mr Carrados, 'but I guess not. I was thinking.... Where have they put him?'
'In the mortuary close by. He's fearfully knocked about. He had a couple of rooms up there'—indicating the windows Parkinson had observed the night before—'but he has no wife or people; and in any case the mortuary is the proper place. There'll have to be an inquest, of course; I've sent Vangoor to make inquiries now.'
'I was thinking'—he had undoubtedly been thinking, but he had not yet had time to review every possibility—'this Byles did me a service as we left the Museum on Saturday—saved me perhaps from what might have been a nasty fall—and a few friendly words passed afterwards. And now.... Dear me; how sad! ... Well, I'm not up in the customs of your sarcophagi, but if a trifling bouquet—Why, I've a notion that I'd like to.'
This impressed Mr Lidmarsh with the sentimentality of masculine America—an attribute he had frequently heard it credited with.
'Why, of course,' he replied, 'there could be no difficulty about that if you wish it. But did you mean—right now?' The last two words were in the nature of a spontaneous tribute to the visitor's nationality.
'Sure. You see, I might have moved on tomorrow or the day after. There seems to be a flower store open that we passed just back—'
Even as he purchased the sheaf of lilies to lay on William Byles's shroud, Carrados was not altogether free from an illusion of sharing a rather exquisite joke with that mordant individual. How would William have regarded the touching act on the part of his old employer? By whatever means it reached his insight the blind man's mind immediately envisioned the flashlight of a tight-closed humid eye and a nose and finger placed in close conjunction. But, in truth, Carrados had felt the necessity of investigating further, and no other excuse occurred to him at once. He could hardly affect that he wished to see the doorkeeper once more.... The sudden intuition that Parkinson was tentatively regarding a wreath of white moss-roses hastened their departure.
'One curious feature is the time this must have happened,' remarked Mr Lidmarsh as they walked on. 'He was found by the merest chance early this morning—almost as soon as it was light, in fact—and his clothing was not wet. That shows that he could not have fallen down before midnight at any rate. Now, whatever possessed the man to be there at that hour when nothing could be seen? He had the whole of Sunday on his hands if he wished to look about.'
'Singular, isn't it?' assented Carrados. 'No one saw him up there, I take it?'
'Oh, no—at least we have heard of no one. Who would be likely to be there? Even Vangoor doesn't dig on Sunday—he wouldn't think it right.'
The mortuary proved to be quite near—a corner of the market hall in fact. Mr Lidmarsh procured the key from the police station, with no more formality than a neighbourly greeting on either side, and Carrados was free to perform his thoughtful office.
The body lay, outlined beneath a single covering, on one of the two stone benches that the place contained. On the other were arranged the dead man's clothes, with the few trumpery belongings that his pockets had yielded set out beside them.
'They told me that his watch, purse, and keys were taken for safety to the station,' remarked their guide, as Carrados's understanding hands moved lightly to and fro. 'The rest is of no consequence.'
'String, pipe, tobacco-box, matches, small folding measure, odd cuff-link, silver mariner's compass, handkerchief,' checked off the leisurely fingers. 'How stereotyped we he-things are: my own pockets would show almost the same collection—in a liberal sense, of course.'
'It is rather odd about the book,' volunteered the curator, pointing to a worn volume of pocket size. It was lying a little apart, and apparently the gesture was for Carrados's eyes to follow—and strangely enough they did seem to follow, for he picked up the book unfalteringly. 'It was still tightly held in Byles's hand when he was found. Now, why should the man be holding a book in his hand—one that would obviously go into his pocket—on a dark night? If there was any mystery about the case I suppose this ought to be one of the clues that those wonderful detectives we read about, but never meet in real life, would unravel the secret by.'
Mr Carrados laughed appreciatively as he turned the pages of the book.
'Stories from the Studios of Paris,' he read aloud. 'At all events this throws some light on the literary calibre of our departed friend.... The only thing that would seem to be missing from the average pocket is a pen-knife.'
'Pen-knife?' repeated Mr Lidmarsh looking about. 'To be sure he had a knife generally; I've seen it often enough. Well, I don't suppose it matters—a shilling at the outside.'
Everything had been seen—everything except the chief 'exhibit' lying beneath the merciful coverlet. The curator understood that his new friend relied chiefly on a highly-trained sense of touch—he had marvelled more than once during this short intercourse at what it told—but he was hardly prepared to see Mr Carrados raise the sheet and begin to pass his hand over the—his own eyes perforce went elsewhere—over the dreadful thing which the day before had been William Byles's face.
'I think,' said the blind man, turning away suddenly, 'that this is rather too much—' His left hand came into contact with his attendant's sleeve and Parkinson felt himself detained by a robust grasp. 'Is there anywhere, Mr Lidmarsh, where ... a glass of water?'
'Yes, yes.' Almost with a feeling of self-reproach that he had allowed the mishap Mr Lidmarsh was off to the nearest house. He ought to have warned....
'The book, Parkinson,' said Carrados in his usual easy tone, and before Parkinson (who would carry his own blend of simplicity and shrewdness to the grave) quite knew what was happening, Stories from the Studios of Paris had disappeared into his master's coat pocket.
'I don't think that there is anything more to detain us here,' remarked the strategist dispassionately. 'We may as well await our friend outside.' He closed the door, locked it, and took out the key in readiness. When Mr Lidmarsh returned with the water he found Carrados seated on a market truck.
'I am glad you came away from the ghastly place,' he declared. 'I ought to have thought of that.' Still accusing himself of some remission, he insisted on accompanying the two half-way through the town and hoped that they might meet again.
As they stood there, exchanging these amiable formalities, an acquaintance of the curator's passed along on the other side of the road and could not forbear to give the news.
'The Germans have invaded Belgium,' he called across. 'They've just got it at the post office. I bet that means we're in the soup!'
'What happened, Parkinson, is as clear as day,' explained Mr Carrados. 'The important thing now is to decide what to do ourselves.'
They were seated in the private sitting-room at 'Abbotsford,' a table between them and on the table, with Mr Carrados's eerie fingers never long away from it, the copy of Stories from the Studios of Paris.
'We know from Byles's own lips that he only had a general suspicion of Vangoor's business here. Doubtless last night he watched the secluded cottage, and when Jan crept out about midnight he followed him to Headlam Height. Or, of course, he may have gone there earlier and waited. Evidently he did not know what he was going to see or he would have gone better prepared. As it was he had no pencil and he had no proper paper.... We are overdue at Headlam Height, Parkinson.'
'Yes, sir,' acquiesced the model confederate.
'Obviously there is some ground from which Vangoor's signals can be seen, carefully as he has planned his burrow. Byles saw something, and recognizing the importance of what he saw he tried to take it down. These cuts and pricks made with a pocket-knife (which we shall doubtless find up there) on the covers of this book represent quite intelligently a rendering of morse. What that meant he did not know; what this means we do not know, but Byles has done his bit and passed on the responsibility to us.'
'I think I appreciate the obligation, sir. Mr Vangoor should not be allowed to remain at large.'
'That is the difficulty. We can have a spy snapped up and possibly hanged for murder, or, what would be simpler, he might slip on Headlam Height—in the same way that William Byles did. But we must not lose sight of the fact that the man has been signalling out to sea. That definitely suggests a submarine—a submarine lying off Pentland Harbour, full of battleships. What has he signalled, and, if we give him rope, what will he signal next?' The blind man came to his feet and strode to the window, where before him lay the broad waters of the Channel still carrying their wealth of shipping—the panorama he would never see again. Seldom before had Parkinson known his master so visibly concerned as he stood there in the hot sunlight, moodily beating his palm with the thin edge of the book. 'Here in my hand are the very words he flashed—the key to every other message he may send—and we cannot read a letter of it. The system is capable of a thousand changes and ten thousand shifts of code. And the time is slipping by. It's maddening, maddening....Suggest something, Parkinson, there's a good fellow.'
Parkinson might be conscious of a complete mental destitution at that moment, but he had never yet failed to comply with an order reasonably given.
'I recollect, sir, reading about a Bristol baker who murdered his wife because she had been communicating with a young gentleman by means of secret marks on the rolls delivered at the house. He discovered—'
'Enough!' exclaimed Mr Carrados, making for the writing-table with his indecision vanished. 'That's it. You were inspired, Parkinson. Clifton Baker, of course!'
'Thank you, sir,' replied Parkinson, much gratified.
In those days the name of Clifton Baker appeared on the frosted glass of the outer door belonging to a small top-floor office in Chancery Lane. There was nothing more to indicate who Clifton Baker was or the nature of the business carried on there. Few callers appeared at the dingy office, but those who did almost invariably left instructions to proceed, and as each order meant a substantial cheque eventually, Clifton might be assumed to be not so unsuccessful after all.
In almost every case the new client experienced a mild shock on opening his business. Generally he had been sent there by a firm of responsible solicitors, and the matter on which he required assistance was confidential, extremely technical, and beyond the capacity of any other specialist. He expected to see—well, at all events he did not expect a slight, sallow-complexioned, glad-eyed, deep-browed young woman who dressed rather skittishly and struck him as being more than a shade rattle-pated. He might have left the commission somewhat dubiously, but he did leave it, and it was duly carried out: done to time, done as required, and done perfectly.
At the age of fifteen Clifton Baker had made up her mind—a considerable achievement of itself in that era. At twenty-five she spoke all the most useful living languages and wrote the four most important dead ones. Eight letters (which she never by any chance used) after her hermaphroditic name were some evidence of a scientific grounding, while the recital of her attainments in the higher planes of mathematics made elderly professors who were opposed to the movement ooze profusely in the region of the collar. Then chance, in the shape of a baffling testamentary puzzle, threw destiny across her path, and on the assumption that there was room for one professional lady cryptologer in the world Clifton took an office and passed the word round among her friends.
Up to that time the girl had never really done her hair, and she regarded boots merely as things to protect the feet. Suddenly it dawned on her that she was considered plain and that she diffused an atmosphere of intellectual frost. A morbid terror of being thought learned seemed from that moment to possess Clifton, and to make up for her neglected youth she began to outflap the veriest flapper in a stern resolve not to be taken seriously. Had she been less brilliantly efficient it might have ruined her business; had she been less impossibly absurd it would have spoiled her pleasure, but the two things simply antidoted one another. Everybody smiled indulgently and said how typical a product of the age Miss Baker was, and how hopeless it would be, except in this London of nineteen-dash, to look for such another.
Thus it came about that Mr Greatorex, dutifully 'standing by' on Monday afternoon, was startled to receive a duplicated telegram as follows:
FIND CLIFTON BAKER AND GET HER HERE ON ANY TERMS BY BREAKFAST-TIME TOMORROW. REPORT PROGRESS. CARRADOS.
'Whew!' ejaculated Annesley, who was not altogether ignorant of the lady's personality, 'that puts the top-knot on the pan-lid with a vengeance! Bank holiday, too, ecog!' He went through the various rooms of the almost empty house vainly bleating for suggestions. 'Where on earth am I to find Clifton Baker, on this of all days, Auntie?'
The housekeeper looked up over the top of her reading glasses a trifle dourly. She had a niece at school somewhere near Dinant....
'What should you want Miss Baker for?' she asked.
'I don't want her; I fear and shun her. But Mr Carrados does. He's just wired.'
'Oh, that will be all right then. Well, my laddie, I can't tell you where Miss Baker is, but I can tell you this; if she's not verra hard at work somewhere she's somewhere verra hard at play.'
It was at breakfast-time that Greatorex delivered her. Mr Carrados was standing in the loggia of the Hotel Beverley when a not unfamiliar sound claimed his attention. It announced to him the arrival of his own touring car, and the next moment a squeal of maidenly delight indicated that Miss Baker had espied him.
'You monster!' she exclaimed vivaciously, while a dozen yards away. 'To inveigle me into travelling all night with that delightfully wicked-looking young secretary of yours! I declare I don't know what people will say when I get back.'
'I thought it better to bring her down by car, sir,' explained Annesley in an aside of moody resignation. 'I only dug her out at something past eleven last night, and all the trains are at sixes and sevens just now.'
'Quite right,' assented Carrados. 'I suppose you can be ready for breakfast in about ten minutes, Miss Baker?'
Clifton drooped one eyelid thoughtfully as she considered this—a device she had lately taken up.
'Do I really require breakfast?' she confided to the hotel front generally. 'Mr Greatorex was most attentive all the way. He insisted on stopping at a charmingly romantic cabman's shelter somewhere, at five o'clock this morning, and we had a surfeit of hot cocoa and currant buns. I simply can't imagine why he should take such enormous care of small me.'
'I think I'll go up and wash, sir,' announced Mr Greatorex abruptly, 'if you don't require me just now.'
'Not until after breakfast,' said Carrados. 'In the meanwhile Miss Baker and I will talk business.'
Breakfast at a little table in the Fountain Court provided an opportunity (the discovery of filleted sole à la Normande restored Clifton's appetite), for the hotel was no longer full....
'Yes, I see,' nodded the girl at intervals, forgetting to be coy, and Carrados deployed the facts. When he had finished she held out her hand for the transcript of the message that he had already made.
'H'm. It looks rather hopeless, doesn't it, Mr Carrados?' she remarked professionally. 'When do you want it by?'
'Three o'clock if possible,' he replied brazenly. 'Six o'clock in any case.'
Clifton gave a little shriek of young-ladylike dismay.
'Mercy! Today?' she exclaimed. 'Why, you dear creature, do you know—'
'I know what you can do when you like,' he got in.
'And I know that perhaps it can't be done at all, sir.'
'And I know that Edgar Allan Poe said—'
'He said nothing about doing it in six hours.' Miss Baker had had that celebrated dictum quoted to her quite often enough to be able to dispense with it. 'Are you sure that you have even got this morse the right way up?'
'Yes, I can guarantee you that. But the message certainly begins incomplete and it probably ends so.'
'In German, we assume? Oh, yes; I think it must be. Well—'
'I knew you would. My sitting-room here is at your disposal. You'll find most things you may require already there. Anything else—'
'By the way, was there no later message sent? What was the man doing last night?
'No. I have him watched now, of course. Last night after leaving the Museum he was at Pentland until quite late, and returning he went home and stayed there.'
'Then I should like a full list of the warships in Pentland Harbour, recent sailings, and those expected, please. The "Navy List" I suppose you have here?'
'Good girl!' smiled Carrados approvingly. 'You shall have it if it's humanly possible. If I am caught in the act and my motives doubted I shall certainly be shot at dawn—and you will be transported.... Will they insist on blindfolding me, I wonder? Probably.... Regulations, you know, Miss Baker. Nothing else?'
'No, thank you.' Clifton still wriggled about the open door of the private room. 'Well—please keep Mr Greatorex away while I am busy, won't you? He will be sure to want to bring me ices and things like that; he's so absurd, poor boy!'
So much for that particular Clifton Baker. About three o'clock Carrados tapped lightly on his own door and a very faint voice bade him enter. Clifton was lying prostrate on the couch, a napkin round her head, and the reek of eau-de-Cologne filling the room. A single written sheet of paper was on the table near her—but there were more than a hundred others, torn across, littering the floor. Without a word she picked up the single sheet and, rattling it slightly to call his attention, held it towards him.
'You have?' he exclaimed, scarcely daring to believe it. 'You are really a wonderful woman, Clifton. This is splendid.' Neatly set out on the paper were three separate details—the alphabet in morse code as she had finally resolved it; the message William Byles had intercepted (including three textual errors to be discounted), as it was sent in German; and the same rendered into English.
'"— — — instruction. Your presence not yet suspected. Virulent, Delhi, and Telemachus left today for unknown. Westmorland for repairs expected tonight. Supply arrangements stand, VJ.372 will be trawling — — —"' he read aloud. 'Yes; we have it now. Mr Vangoor's bulletin tonight should be more interesting still.'
'I think you really are a wonderful man, Mr Carrados,' retorted Clifton, watching his shifting fingers as he touched her firm, bold handwriting word after word without a pause. 'I suppose you always get your way? I wonder what you are going to do with me now?'
'I am going to prescribe a cup of tea at once, an early dinner, and twelve hours' good solid sleep after all this excitement. Tomorrow I shall pack you off back to town by the car again, with Mr Greatorex to beguile the way.'
'Oh, please, please, please, Mr Max!' wailed Clifton in appealing tones. 'Can't you leave Mr Greatorex here and come instead? I should feel ever so much safer with you in these dreadful times!' But Mr Max laughed indulgently and shook his head. He had heard Miss Baker at work before.
'Not yet, I'm afraid,' he said. 'I am here for another fish, only Vangoor came along. And while I remember'—he took a slip of tinted paper from his wallet and held it out—'I hope that will be all right.'
'Oh, Mr Carrados,' she tittered. 'Ought I to, really? It doesn't seem at all like business with you! I hope no one will think—'
'I should like you to—it's certainly well earned,' he said. 'But, of course,' he added maliciously, 'if you prefer the satisfaction of serving your country for nothing you can always burn the cheque.'
'Burn it!' shrieked Clifton, scrambling the paper into her handbag. 'And my visit to the Cosmo-Croxtons in Scotland only ten days off! Why, you delightfully opportune being, this means four new frocks to me!'
'Well, make the most of them,' he advised, a trifle grimly. 'There won't be any country-house parties next year.'
'Why ever not?'
'When you wake up tomorrow you will find that we are at war. Before long most of your fair friends will be wearing white caps and aprons—or black dresses.'
Carrados had quite intended to climb up to Headlam Height on Monday afternoon, he had fully determined to do so on Tuesday morning, but each time the more important post lay elsewhere. When, therefore, taking Parkinson with him, he turned his inquiring footsteps in that direction after leaving Miss Baker, it was his first reconnaissance.
'Admirably chosen, Parkinson,' he remarked as they made the circuit of the acre or so of grass and heather that comprised the Height. 'No path or roadway near; cut off from Castlemouth's view by cliffs, and not a house or habitation in sight anywhere.... And this thing may really be an early British grave for all that we can say.'
'Yes, sir,' agreed Parkinson. 'I have always understood that the early natives of these parts were peculiar in their habits. But if I may mention it, sir, the ground here is very broken and there is little beyond a crevice, almost a yard wide, between us and the edge.'
'Quite right,' assented the other, turning back; 'we must be careful. The British Empire doesn't exactly hang on us today, but a British ironclad may. I suppose that crevice was the unfortunate William's retreat—there seems no other cover that would serve up here. We have a better arrangement for tonight. Now for the excavation.'
A couple of rough balks of timber across the entrance were the only barrier. The tumulus itself rose to nearly thirty feet, and the cutting was sufficiently roomy for a tall man to stand in.
'Are we to imagine that our enthusiastic friend contemplated driving an unpropped tunnel clean through?' reflected Mr Carrados, touching the loose earth sides. 'What does the view seaward give us, Parkinson?'
'There is a flat-topped rock visible a little way out at sea, and, farther away, the extremity of Pentland Rump—as I understand it is designated, sir.' Privately, Parkinson thought the name lacking in delicacy, and he wished to make it clear that the expression was none of his.
'Aye. And the extremity of Pentland Rump and the flat-topped rock line this point of course. Ah, what have we here?'
Evidently the excavator's tools, piled at the far end of the tunnel and covered with tarpaulin: a spade, a pick, a riddle, a wheelbarrow, rope, and the usual odds and ends—that was all; no, there remained a wooden tripod, such as may serve a score of uses, lying with the rest—a tripod with rough, substantial wooden legs but a nicely-finished metal top. Smooth metal is rather pleasant to the touch, and the blind man's hand lingered on its construction thoughtfully.
'We must put all these back just as they were,' he observed, busying himself. 'Parkinson!'
There was no answer for a moment; then Parkinson appeared at the entrance to the tunnel.
'I was looking out beyond the mound, sir. I felt apprehensive.... There is someone coming.'
Carrados replaced the last tool and rearranged the covering.
'Von Groot?' he asked quietly.
The two timbers fell into their proper places; everything was as they had found it. They stood, hidden from the land side by the mass of earth rising above them.
'How far off is he?' said Carrados.
'Nearly half a mile, sir. I saw him with the glasses on the skyline of the hill we had to cross. That means ten minutes yet.'
'He may have seen you also.'
'I was careful to keep in the shadow of the mound. I don't think you need entertain that, sir.'
'It doesn't matter.' For once the blind man's voice had lost its wonted suaveness. 'I've made a hash of it this time, Parkinson. I took it for granted that he'd not venture on anything before it was night again. We were prepared to deal with that, but he's going to steal a march on us. He isn't waiting for the dark—he's going to heliograph. We can stop him, of course,' he went on, sensing the unspoken question; 'we shall have to stop him. But we lose the message and whatever hangs upon it. No matter how plausibly we put him off it now, after finding us up here he won't risk it again—not on the top of William Byles's affair.'
'Excuse me, sir,' volunteered Parkinson, 'but I see no reason why we should not attempt to obtain the message still.'
'We—how?' demanded Carrados sharply.
'I understand, sir, that the system is merely a succession of long and short flashes of a mirror, and that one may commit it to paper without any understanding of the meaning.'
'Quite so—as William doubtless did. But where are you going to see it from?'
Parkinson's backward nod indicated the crevice on the very edge of the sheer precipice. 'I think it might succeed, sir.'
'No, no,' exclaimed Carrados, with a sharp pang of misgiving in his voice; 'it would be madness in broad daylight. Besides, here am I—'
'There are suitable clumps of gorse a little way back, sir. I anticipate that you would be quite safe there, or I would not suggest it, sir. And lying in the crevice I could watch through the grass and heather.'
'I can't allow it,' insisted Carrados, moved by the horror of what he saw impending. 'The man discovered Byles there ever in the dark, and we know how that encounter ended. No, Parkinson, I won't have you sacrificed in the forlorn hope of patching up my bungle.'
'I beg your pardon, sir,' said Parkinson, without a hair's deviation from his invariable tone of dignified respect, 'but I was not thinking of you—or of myself. I understand that we are on the point of war, sir, and that if we lose this message it may involve a misfortune to our arms. And I must remind you, sir, that yesterday you described this affair as mine.'
'By heaven, you have me there!' exclaimed his master, in an access of fine emotion. 'Go if you must—and God go with you!'
'The gorse, sir.' Parkinson took his arm and began to hurry him across the slope that led from the Height to the rolling land behind. 'I must be satisfied that you are safe there first.'
'Not so fast.' Carrados checked his pace to the deliberate walk at which he tried the unfamiliar. 'I may need to know this ground again.' His hand went to a pocket and came out with something in it. 'You are the one to have this now.'
'I would rather not, sir', if I may say so,' declared Parkinson with naive reluctance. 'I have never discharged a firearm in my life and the consequences might be unpropitious.' So Carrados retained the weapon, and a moment later he was lying in a natural bower of undergrowth, listening to the swish and crackle of Parkinson's diminishing footsteps.
It was perhaps three minutes before any sound other than the cheeping of a linnet or the rasping of a dead leaf on its bough reached the straining ears. Then, away on the left, Carrados heard the approaching beat of a heavy foot. There was little chance of reading any of the subtler indications on that luxuriant carpet, but the blind listener interpreted haste and the strain of an alert caution. The intruder passed within ten yards of the unsuspected lair—within easy pistol-shot, and the steady hand went again to the pocket, but this time it came out empty.
From the direction of the mound no sound came through; the day was drowsy, with occasional puffs of warm air and the smell of honey, and time began to hang like lead.
'He must get on, from every point of view,' argued Carrados to pass the seconds. 'Five minutes to fix the rig, ten more to send his message, five to pack up. Heavens! it seems an hour already.' He touched the fingers of his watch and found that barely twelve minutes had gone. 'But that's only if the submarine is here. He may have to wait.... At any rate, he hasn't spotted Parkinson at the outset or I should have heard something.'
And then, as if his action had been a continuation of the unspoken words, Carrados was on his feet and racing across the glacis. He had heard 'something,' and that sound the echo of his worst forebodings, for the sharp crack of a pistol had whipped the flagging afternoon—and that could mean one thing only. It was with this return in view that the blind man had marked his way, and he covered the ground with confidence, making directly for the barrow. When the difference of the air against his face told him that he was by it he dropped into a walk and moved with caution. Beyond it he was in full view, and the sheer drop hardly twenty yards away. Everything was now poised on the edge of chance.
'Damn!' came the low murmur to his ear. 'Ein anderer!'
It was not the time to ask for explanations. Carrados—conscious even then of the irony of the phrase—had to take the risk. As he once stopped to explain to Monsieur Dompierre, upon an occasion less hurried but quite as tense, he aimed by sound and practised round a watch. He fired now into the centre of the 'Damn!' and on the overhanging lip of the cliff there was a little scurry of movement among the loose stones and earth. He did not fire again. He waited, listening....
'Parkinson!' he called, without moving from the spot. 'Parkinson, are you—'
There was no response. The disturbed sea-gulls wheeled overhead, raising a plaintive clamour at the violation of their homes; a string of swift shorebirds cleft a zigzag course right out to sea; at his feet the untroubled bees continued in their humble toil.
'Gone!' whispered the blind man to himself. 'Gone, and I'm left alone. The best fellow—Good heavens!'
From the bowels of the earth, apparently, a wild echoing sound had come with startling suddenness—a sound so truculent and formless that it baffled perception. The next moment it revealed itself: a human being had sneezed with appalling vigour.
'Parkinson!' exclaimed Carrados, dropping on hands and knees and crawling to the crevice. 'Where the devil are you?'
'I'm down here, sir,' replied the welcome voice from somewhere below. 'I was unable to reply when you called before as I was on the point of sneezing. The dust, sir—'
'Wait; don't try to get out,' directed his master. 'I'll get that rope.'
It was the rope that Mr Vangoor had thoughtfully provided to give an air of conviction to his labours. By its aid Parkinson was soon hauled to safety. Once there he looked apprehensively around.
'Has anything happened to Mr Vangoor, sir?' 'Yes,' replied Carrados. 'He was too talkative. If you do not see anything of him about we must conclude that he has gone down the same way William Byles went.... What happened to you?'
'Unfortunately, when he had finished his message the gentleman seemed to be looking my way. I endeavoured to obliterate myself more thoroughly and evidently attracted his attention. I infer that he was rather nervous, sir, for he shot at me without saying a word.'
'If only he'd had the sense to do that in my case we might both be in Kingdom Come now.'
'Yes, sir? I may say that I didn't like it, sir, and as he fired I made a considerable effort to get down still lower. I imagine that something must have given, for the next moment I found myself wedged in some twenty feet down. I believe that the gentleman was much concerned what to do next as he could not discover me.... What is that?'
'Back!' cried Carrados. 'The cliff is going!'
The cliff, as Mr Lidmarsh had remarked, had been going for centuries—going by inches, by feet, or by yards. Possibly William Byles's activity had started a movement that Parkinson's struggles had consummated; perhaps, even, the pistol-shots had vibrated a responsive tremor. Now the cliff face—all the ground beyond the fissure—began to fall rigidly away from Headlam Height, as a ladder falls; then, as its base gave way, to change and to collapse, in hundreds of tons of shattered rock, upon the beach. In Castlemouth it was thought that the war had begun.
'Excellent,' remarked Carrados, when voices could be heard again. 'That should save much inconvenient inquiry about Mr Vangoor's unfortunate end. I suppose, Parkinson, that any notes you made are down there also?'
'No, sir. I managed to get the notebook back into my pocket. I trust that my efforts will have been adequate.'
'That is easily proved. If you really have got the message, Parkinson, you will deserve a knighthood.'
'Thank you, sir, but I hope you won't mention it to anyone. It would be very uncongenial to me to become notorious in any way.'
Carrados laughed as he took the notebook. Then he sat down at the base of the mound, and with Miss Baker's key before him he began to test the notation.
'Yes,' he reported presently, 'you seem to have hit it off all right, "Kriegserklärung" this begins.'
'I beg your pardon, sir?'
'It's in German of course—"War declaration". I'll give you the whole thing in a few minutes.'
'You left your hat in the gorse, sir,' said Parkinson thoughtfully. 'I will get it while you are engaged.'
'Thank you—do,' murmured Mr Carrados, again deep in the code. 'Now what—oh, "hafen", of course.'
When Parkinson returned—he had taken the opportunity to wisp himself down—Carrados was already on his feet and impatient to get away.
'We don't want to be here when the town comes out to find what the row was about,' he explained. 'We are not going to appear in this, Parkinson. We will make a wide detour—in fact, we may as well make Pentland direct while we are about it.'
'Very well, sir.'
'The message—you only got two letters wrong, which was better than William and less important, of course, as we have the code now. Well, here it is:
Declaration of war midnight. "Inexorable" leaves western harbour one a.m. by Viking Channel and from Gnome Lightship will proceed S.S.W. Rendezvous as arranged.
'The Inexorable it was to have been, Parkinson.'
'Yes, sir. What had we better do now, sir?'
'Nothing, practically. We have done. At Pentland I shall hand this over to the naval authorities with so much explanation as they may desire. It will then rest with them to do the doing. I venture to predict that Inexorable will not leave the western harbour at one a.m. by the Viking Channel. At the same time I think that a rendezvous will be kept. But so far as we are concerned it is Finis. You, Parkinson, have already done your bit.'
'Thank you, sir,' replied Parkinson, entirely satisfied.
Max Carrados always seemed inclined to laugh quietly if anyone happened to mention the curious disappearance of the Willington Petition Crown. Why he should have been amused rarely came out at such times, perhaps because it is not expedient for one private collector openly to accuse another private collector of barefaced theft (whatever misgivings the majority may secretly admit of one another's morals), but the extent of his knowledge in the affair will emerge from the following pages.
As a specialist in Greek tetradrachms Carrados would naturally only have a condescending interest in any of the non-classical branches of numismatics, but it was an interest that drew him to every word of coin news that appeared. As his delicate fingertips skimmed the morning paper headings at breakfast one day they 'read' for him a line that promised some entertainment, and the item was duly blue-pencilled for consideration later. It was no effort for the blind man to pick out all the essentials of the newspaper's contents in this way; he could even, though not with the same facility, read the ordinary smaller type, but where there was no special reason for this it was his custom to mark off such paragraphs for his secretary's subsequent attention. This was in the nature of their ordinary daily routine, and an hour later Greatorex noticed and read aloud the following extract from the Daily Record:
RARE COIN DISAPPEARS
AUCTION ROOM SENSATION
'Collectors and dealers who forgathered at Messrs Lang & Leng's well-known sale-rooms yesterday in the hope of bidding for an exceptionally fine specimen of the celebrated Petition Crown of Charles II were doomed to disappointment. When the lot in question was reached and the coin was displayed at the tables it was discovered that something was wrong. The Petition Crown, which had previously been on view for several days and up to the hour of the sale, had disappeared and a comparatively valueless coin of a somewhat similar type occupied its numbered receptacle.
'Immediate search among the other lots, both sold and unsold, failed to reveal any trace of the missing rarity and the whole affair is so far shrouded in mystery.
'Piquancy is added to the incident by the fact that the last person to see and handle the coin was a well-known lady journalist, who, however, disclaims any numismatic cravings. After inspecting the coin merely as a rare and valuable curiosity the lady in question returned the tray containing it to the attendant in charge, who at once replaced it in the cabinet. As already stated, when it was next required the crown had vanished.
'The Petition Crown holds the auction record among English coins, an example having realized £500 some years ago. It is generally stated that only fifteen specimens of this excessively rare coin were ever struck, and all but two or three are now in public collections and therefore out of the reach of enthusiasts. The crown owes its name to the interesting circumstances of its origin. The English engraver, Thomas Simon, having been supplanted in Charles II's favour by his Dutch rival, Roettier, the former put all his skill and genius into the creating of a super-coin, which took the form of a crown piece, with the following quaint inscription neatly engraved around the edge:
Thomas Simon most humbly prays your Majesty to compare this his tryall piece with the Dutch, and if more truly drawn and embossd, more gracefully ordered, and more accurately engraven, to relieve him.
'Sad to relate, although Simon's work is admittedly superior to that of "the Dutch", his petition was in vain. Still worse, the royal patron of the arts allowed his "most humble's" salary and working expenses for several years to remain unpaid, so that after the engraver's death his widow had also to "petition"—for £2,164 long overdue.'
'That's rather like another plant where a string of pearls was changed some years ago,' volunteered Greatorex, laying aside the paper in favour of his own reminiscences. He was a cheerful, mercurial youth who conceived that the more important part of his duty was to regale Mr Carrados with his personal views on life and affairs, nor, strange to say, did his employer very often undeceive him. 'Do you remember the one I mean, sir?'
'Yes; they mulled that by not copying the sale label closely enough, and the attendant noticed it when the necklace was laid down again. There was a woman in that business also. But the two cases have nothing in common really.'
'How do you mean? Both were at auction sales; both—'
'True,' interrupted Carrados, 'but those things are only superficial. The essential motives fall into two quite different classes. Good pearls are always readily saleable, and it is simply a matter of rearranging them and making them up in a different form. But what is a man going to do with a Petition Crown? Wear it on his watch-chain? As a marketable piece of loot he might as well carry off a Turner from the National Gallery, or, indeed, one of the lions from Trafalgar Square. Its trade value is about one and ninepence for the melting-pot.
'Oh, come, sir,' protested Greatorex. 'This account speaks of a few other specimens knocking about. Surely in a year or two's time this one couldn't be positively identified as stolen?'
Max Carrados turned to pull open a drawer of his desk and took out the top pamphlet of a number it contained.
'Here is Lang's catalogue of this sale,' he said, passing it across. 'I haven't gone into it, but very likely that crown will be illustrated among the plates at the end. Just see.'
'Quite right, sir. It is Lot 64, and it is reproduced in one of those photographic process types here on Plate 2.'
'Take a glass and look into it. It is described as exceptionally fine, but you will almost certainly find a number of small cuts and dents here and there on the surface.'
'Yes; I see what you mean. They don't show ordinarily.'
'All the same they label the specimen as definitely as if it was a numbered bank-note. The simplest way out of that would be to carry it loose in your pocket for a few years. That would reduce its cabinet value to one-half, but it would effectually wipe out its identity. The trouble would be that whenever you started to dispose of it you would be pointedly asked for the pedigree. What collection had it come from last? All these little details are on record and easily available. No, it's amateur work, whoever it may be, Greatorex.'
'I was rather hoping that perhaps someone would bring it round here to offer sooner or later,' remarked the adventurous Greatorex, still examining the plate. 'I'll bet I could spot it by that scratch over his majesty's eye.'
'Then you will certainly be disappointed,' was the unpromising reply. 'If the coin really has been stolen—and that's a palpable "if" so far—ten to one its immediate destination is the private drawer of some collector who will be content to handle and gloat over it in secret for the remaining days of his life.'
'And then I suppose it all comes out when he goes off?'
'It may. But I have heard a curious story of an old fellow who had a few pieces in his collection that he never showed. When he thought that he only had a short time left he took a coal hammer and in five minutes the rarities were effectually put beyond any fear of identification.'
'My Sunday hat!' exclaimed Mr Greatorex, compelled to a generous admiration. 'Some collectors are hot stuff!'
With that decorous epitaph the subject was laid to rest, with no indication that it would ever be raised again. But—just as one may meet three piebald horses in the course of one short walk—the Petition Crown was fated to persist, and before lunch-time a telephone call from Mr Carlyle had resurrected it. The period of interment had been just short of three hours.
'Busy, Max?' chirruped the familiar voice of his friend the inquiry agent—incurably brisk and debonair even after its ten miles' journey along the wire. 'Not to me? Dear old chap! Well, I dare say you've read all about the disappearance of Lord Willington's—er—Petition Crown in the paper this morning? I thought you might be interested as it's something in your line.'
'Greatorex is, at all events,' replied Mr Carrados. 'He was half expecting that someone might bring it here in the course of the day. Do you—strictly between ourselves, of course—do you happen to have it for disposal, Louis?'
'Do I happen to have it for disposal?' repeated Mr Carlyle in a slightly mystified tone. 'I thought you would have read that the coin has been stolen. However, Max, in my office at this moment there is a young lady who is very much concerned at being implicated in the affair. Frankly, as the auctioneers are naturally doing all that can be done to solve the riddle, I did not see how I could be of any real service to her, and I told her so. But she seemed so disappointed that as a—er—well—'
'As a sort of forlorn hope?' suggested the listener maliciously.
'Not at all; most certainly not!' protested Mr Carlyle indignantly. 'I explained that as you were both a keen coin collector yourself and an enthusiast in certain branches of criminal research, if—if, mind you, Max—you cared to hear what she had to say, you would be in an exceptional position to give her a word of advice. And that is really the long and the short of the whole matter, my mordacious friend.'
'Very likely, my ingenious sleuth, but I imagine that there is a small piece missing somewhere. You were not wont to turn young and beautiful suppliants from your office door. What is the real reason of this professional reluctance on your part?'
'Max,' came along Mr Carlyle's cautiously-restrained voice—the listener could divine how near the moving lips were to the mouthpiece—'I will speak to you as one gentleman to another when there is no danger of being overheard. Miss Frensham is young, but she is not beautiful, and to put it in that way is to pay her a noticeable compliment. She is also, I gather, regrettably hard up. Now, as I never conceal from my clients, my business is conducted on a purely financial basis, whereas you amuse yourself for—the other thing. Doubtless I could earn a few honest but ill-spared guineas at this young lady's expense, but I cannot satisfy myself that she would be any the wiser for the outlay. And so—'
'All right, you old humbug,' said Carrados amiably; 'send her along. So far as the portents go I am with you in not seeing that there is much to be done for her, but if she finds any satisfaction in talking about it you can tell her that I shall be here for the next few hours.'
Miss Frensham evidently did foresee some satisfaction in talking about it, for she came at once. In view of her circumstances, Carrados could not but deem her rather extravagant, for nothing but a taxi from door to door could explain the promptness of her arrival. Mr Carlyle had not maligned her looks: plain she undoubtedly was, not in any sense describably ugly but with a sort of pug-dog grotesquery. Her dress made no attempt to counteract physical deficiences, but when she spoke Carrados's unemotional face instantly lit up with pleasure, for, unexpected in such a setting, her voice had the rare quality of gracious music.
'How good of you to let me come in this way, Mr Carrados!' she exclaimed as they shook hands. 'I don't know which I have to thank the more—you or Mr Carlyle.'
'I think I shall claim the major share,' said the blind man lightly. 'Not for any particular merit, but because I am so very pleased to hear you.'
'To hear—Oh, yes; of course he told me or I really should not have guessed. You know what it's all about?'
'I infer that you are the lady of the paragraph,' and the lifted hand indicated the open sheet of the Record lying nearby.
'Yes, in a sense I am.' Miss Frensham seemed troubled for a moment. 'But I am not really a "well-known lady journalist", Mr Carrados. I am only a very obscure one—hardly a real journalist at all. That was just swank, and also because I felt sure that under that description no one who knew would ever think of me.'
'Oh,' said Mr Carrados with an amused and deepening interest, 'so in addition to being the heroine of the adventure you wrote it up?'
'Yes, ultimately I did. At first I was too upset to think about that. But I had gone to the place yesterday to see if there wasn't a "news-story" in this Petition Crown—nothing but "news-stories" are worthwhile, you know—and it seemed rather a pity to miss it when it turned out to be a very much better "news-story" than I had ever expected. And then I knew that if I got my "copy" taken I could keep my own name out. I had particular reasons for wishing that.'
Carrados nodded without showing any curiosity about the reasons. 'What is it exactly that you want to do now?' he asked.
'Well, I feel that I am really under suspicion of having taken the coin—I don't see how they can think anything else in the circumstances—and the only way of clearing myself is to find out who did take it. Knowing that I didn't, I naturally think that it must be the attendant there, because he seems to have been the only other person who could have done.'
'Reverse the argument, and the attendant, knowing that he didn't, naturally thinks that it must be you, because you seem to be the only other person who could have done. And so both sides get into difficulties along that obvious line. Suppose we ignore the two palpable suspects—yourself and the attendant. Now who else might it have been?'
'That is the difficulty, Mr Carrados; it could have been no one else. I returned the coin to the attendant; he put it back in the case and remained on duty there until he displayed it on the tray to show round. Then it was discovered to have been taken.'
'I suppose,' said Carrados tentatively, 'you really were the last to inspect the coin? Sitting there you would probably have noticed if anyone else had asked for it?'
'I only know what they said, but no one seemed to have any doubt about it. I went out to—to get some lunch and when I got back the sale was going on.'
'Ah,' said the blind man thoughtfully. 'Of course you would have to. Suppose you tell me the—the "news-story" all through.'
'I hoped that you would let me,' replied the girl. 'But I was afraid of taking up too much of your time. Well, I have been living by journalism for some time now. Rather suddenly I had to support myself by some kind of work, and there was nothing else that I seemed able to do. I have always been fond of writing, and I had quite a lot of stories and articles and poems that I had been told by friends were quite good enough to print. I brought them to London with me, but somehow they didn't seem so much thought of here. I got to know one or two other girls who wrote, and they told me that my sort of stuff would be all right when I got into the peerage or became a leading lady, but if I wanted to live meanwhile it was absolutely necessary to cultivate a "news-nose". I soon saw what they meant: it wasn't absolutely necessary that it should be news you wrote, but it had to give the impression that it was.'
'Miss Frensham, I have been a practical journalist myself,' remarked Carrados. 'You had grasped the sacred torch.'
'At all events, I could just keep the domestic pot boiling after that. It was rather a near thing sometimes, but there was someone—he is a sub-editor on the Daily Record actually—who helped me more than I can ever say. He told me of this sale. "There's a coin to be sold that's expected to break the record," he said; and he explained to me which it was. "There ought to be a 'news-story' in it if it does—say two hundred words in the ordinary way, four hundred if you can make it kick. I'll try and put it through." I thought that I had made it kick, so I went to four hundred.'
'Yes,' agreed her auditor, 'I certainly think you can claim that amount of movement.'
'I didn't know anything about a coin auction, of course, but I looked up Simon in the biographical dictionary at the B.M. reading-room and then went on to the place. That was yesterday—the morning of the sale. There were two or three others—men—looking at the coins—nothing to what I had expected—and one attendant who gave out the drawers in which they were arranged as they were asked for.
'I expected some sort of formality before they let me see the crown—so valuable—but there was really nothing at all. I just said, "Can I see No. 64, please?" and he simply pulled one of the shallow drawers out of its case and put it down before me on the table. There were about a dozen other lots in the drawer, each in its separate little box. Then he turned his back on me to attend to something else. I believe that I could have picked up the coin and walked out of the place with it.'
'We are a trustful people both in war and peace,' conceded Mr Carrados. 'But I think you would have found that you couldn't quite do that.'
'Well, I didn't try—though it certainly did occur to me that there might be a stunt of some sort in it: you look out for them when one means a week's good keep. I made a few notes that I thought I could work in and then found that it was just one o'clock—the sale was to begin at a quarter past. As the attendant took the coins away I asked him how fast they sold them.
'"If you only want to see that lot sold, miss, a quarter to two will be in plenty of time. If you reckon a hundred lots to the hour you'll be well on the safe side."
'I thanked him and went out. That was really all I had to do with the coin. I never saw it again. When I got back to the sale room the auction was going on. Even then there were only about twelve or fifteen people there. They sat at the tables—I suppose you know how they are arranged, as a sort of hollow oblong, with the auctioneer at one end and the attendant showing the coins up and down in the middle?—and a few sitting here and there about the room. I didn't sit down; I stood between the table and the door waiting for the price of Lot 64, which was the only thing I wanted.
'When he got to it there was a slight stir of interest, though a more lethargic set of enthusiasts I never saw. I always imagined that collectors were a most excitable race who lost their heads at bidding and went on and on madly. These might have been buying arrowroot for all the emotion they showed.'
'Half of them would be dealers who had long ago got over all human enthusiasms; the remainder would be collectors, too afraid lest the others should think that they were keen on something. And then?'
'The attendant was carrying the coin round on a little tray when one man picked it up and looked at it. "Hullo!" he said and passed it to the next. "This is the wrong lot," said that one, and then the auctioneer leaned over and called to the attendant, "Come, come, my lad—No. 64," and the attendant said, "This is No. 64," in an aggrieved way and showed him the numbered box. Then the attendant and those near that end began to look among the unsold lots, and after that they all turned out the sold lots—they had mostly been put into little envelopes—and when they came to the end of these everyone looked at everyone else and said nothing. Then I think they began it all over again—the hunting, I mean—when the auctioneer hit on his desk.
'"This is an important lot. Very sorry, but we can't go on with the selling until we know more where we are. I suppose someone did see the Petition Crown this morning?"
'Two or three men said that they had, and the attendant, looking round, recognized me.
'"That lady was the last to see the lot before the sale, sir," I heard him say. "Better ask her."
'"Did you—" began the auctioneer, and then, I suppose, recognizing that I mightn't like to carry on a shouting conversation across the room, he added, "Do you mind coming round here?"
'I went round the tables to where he was sitting, and he continued:
'"Did you see this lot before the sale? Our man thinks that you were the last to have it out."
'"Yes," I admitted. "I saw it, and it was there when I returned the drawer. Of course I don't know that I was the last, but it was about one o'clock."
'"No one had it out later, Muir?"
'"No, sir. I've been on this spot ever since, and that tray hasn't been asked for."
'The auctioneer seemed to consider, and everyone else looked first at one and then the other of us. I began to feel very uncomfortable.
'"I suppose it really was the Petition Crown you saw at one o'clock?" he asked after a bit.
'"I suppose it must have been," I replied. "I copied the 'Petition' from the edge into this notebook."
'"Well, that fixes it all right. You see how awkward it is for us, Miss—Miss—"
'I gave him my name.
'"Miss Frensham. We have to do the best we can in the circumstances. I can't say at the moment on whom the loss will fall—if the coin really proves to have disappeared—but the figure is considerable. Now everyone else in the room is known to us by sight; we have the names and addresses of them all"
'"You have my name," I said, "and I am living at the Allied Arts Hostel in Lower Gower Street."
'"Thank you," he replied, writing it down. "But of course that means very little to us. Is there anyone convenient who knows you personally to whom we can refer? You must understand that this does not imply any sort of suspicion of your bona fides: it is only putting you on equal terms with the rest of the company."
'I thought for a moment. I saw a great many unpleasant possibilities. Most of all I knew that I wanted to keep this from my people.
'"The editor of the Daily Record knows me slightly," I replied; "but I don't see that he can say anything beyond that. And as to suspicion, I am afraid that you already have some. If you have any ladies on your staff I am quite willing to turn out everything I have before them"—I thought that perhaps this would settle the matter off-hand, and I couldn't help adding rather viciously: "and after that I dare say the rest of the company will do the same before you."
'"Yes," he considered, "but you've been out for half an hour, so that would really prove nothing. At lunch, I suppose?"
'I began to see that things were fitting in rather unpleasantly for me.
'"Yes," I said.
'"Perhaps I had better note where you went. We don't know where this may land us, and in the end it may be to your interest to have a waitress or someone who can identify you over that time."
'"I'm afraid I can't do that," I had to say. "There was no one who noticed me."
'"Surely—Well, anyhow, the place?"
'I shook my head. He looked at me for a moment and then wrote something down.... You think that was very suspicious, Mr Carrados?'
'Your advocate never thinks that anything you do is suspicious,' replied the suave listener. 'Probably they would.'
'They seemed to. Well, Mr Carrados, I don't mind telling you, but somehow I couldn't say it before that—I felt—unfriendly battery eyes.... My lunch consisted of three very unladylike thick slices of bread-and-butter, and I ate them as I walked slowly up and down the stairs at a tube station. So, you see, there could be no corroboration.'
'Perhaps we shall do better—not even require it,' he replied quietly. 'What happened next?'
'I don't think that there was much more. They gave up looking for the coin. The auctioneer said that he had telephoned to someone—his solicitor or Scotland Yard, I imagined, but I didn't hear which—to know what ought to be done, and he hoped that everyone would remain until they knew. The the sale began again. I went across and sat down on a chair away from the table. I had no interest in the sale—in fact I hated it—and after a time I took out my pad and tried to write the paragraph. Very soon the sale came to an end and the men began to go—I suppose they had been told to. I waited, for I wasn't going to seem in a hurry, until I was the only person left. After a bit the man who had been selling came in and seemed rather surprised to see me still there. He said he hoped I didn't think that I was being detained, and I said, "Oh, no, I was just finishing something." He said that that was all right, only they were going to lock up the room then and have it thoroughly looked over today—it was just possible that something might turn up, though he was rather afraid that it would remain a mystery to the end. He was quite nice about it, and told me several curious things that had happened in connexion with sales in the past. Then I left and he locked the door after us and, I believe, took the key.'
Carrados laughed appreciatively.
'Yes, it was rather like the proverb about the stolen horse, wasn't it?' said the girl. 'But I suppose they felt that even the unlikeliest chance must be taken. Anyway, they have certainly sent inquiries both to my Hostel and to the Record office. That's chiefly why I want to have my poor character restored. Everyone says, "Of course, Miss Frensham, nobody would think for a moment—" But what else are they to think privately? The thing has gone and I am branded as the last to handle it.'
'Yes, yes,' said Carrados, beginning to walk about the room and to touch one familiar object after another in his curiously unhesitating way. 'That unfortunate "last" has obsessed you and all the others until it has shut out every real consideration. Your account of the whole business—quite clear so far as it goes—is entirely based on the fact that you were the last, and the attendant knew you were the last, and the auctioneer was told you were the last, and all the others grasped it, and you all proceeded to revolve round that centre. There stands the man we want, as plain as a pikestaff for us, only you and your lastness get between so persistently that we cannot see him.'
'I'm very sorry,' faltered Miss Frensham, rather taken aback.
'That's all right, my dear young lady,' said an entirely benevolent Carrados. 'We are getting on very nicely on the whole, and soon you will begin to tell me the things I really want to know.'
'Indeed I will tell you anything,' she protested.
'Of course you will—as soon as I have the gumption to ask. In the meantime what do you really think of the celebrated Petition Crown now that you've seen it?'
This light conversational opening struck Miss Frensham as rather an unpropitious way of grappling with the problem of the theft, but she had just professed her general willingness.
'Well,' she replied with conscientious effort, 'it chiefly struck me as rather absurd that people should be willing to pay so much for this one when other coins, apparently almost like it, could be had for a few shillings.'
'Yes; very true.' The blind man appeared to consider this nai've expression deeply. 'As a collector myself of course that goes home. You are not a collector, in any sense, Miss Frensham?'
'I was wondering,' speculated Carrados in the same idle vein, 'how you happened to know that.'
'Oh, very simply. There were about a dozen other lots in the drawer the man put before me. One of them consisted of quite a number of crown pieces, and they struck me as being so like the Petition Crown at a glance that out of curiosity I compared them. When it came to the sale they made only a few pounds for the lot.'
'You compared them—side by side?'
'Yes. I—I—' As she spoke Miss Frensham suddenly went very white, half rose from her chair, and sat down again. The charming voice trailed off into a gasp.
'You remember something now? You—possibly—changed them somehow?'
'I did! I see it all. I remember exactly how it went. What a dreadful thing!'
'Tell me what happened.'
'I was waiting for the attendant to turn so that I could tell him I had finished. It was then that I took up these two coins—the Petition Crown and one from another box—to compare. There was a man near me who had seemed to be watching—at least I thought so—and just then I looked up and caught his eyes on me. I suppose it made me nervous; anyway I dropped one of the crowns back into the drawer. It made a great clatter as it fell among the others and I felt that it would be almost a crime there to knock a coin like that. I just slipped the other into its place and pushed the drawer away as the attendant turned. And now I see as clearly as can be that I returned them wrong.'
'That is our real starting-point.' said Carrados happily. 'Now we can proceed.'
'But it must have been found out. All the sold lots were looked over again.'
'Oh, yes; it must have been found out. But exactly when? The man who was observing you—did you hear his name?'
'Where did he sit during the sale?'
'He sat—yes, that's rather curious. You remember that after talking to the auctioneer I went and sat down away from the table? Well, when the selling was going on again this man kept hovering round. Presently he bent down to me and said, "Excuse me, but you have taken my seat." "What on earth do you mean?" I retorted, for it was just at the time that I was feeling exasperated. "There was nothing on the chair, and there are a dozen others there," and I pointed to the whole empty row. Then he said, "Oh, I beg your pardon," and went and sat down on another.'
'Isn't it splendid!' exclaimed Carrados in one of his rare bursts of enthusiasm. 'No sooner have we got rid of you and the attendant as the only possible culprits than we find the real man absolutely fighting to make himself known—doing everything he can to attract our attention—struggling like a chicken emerging from its shell. Soon you will tell me that you found his hand on the back of your chair.'
'Oh!' cried Miss Frensham in sharp surprise. 'How can you possibly know that?'
'I did not; but it was worth while suggesting to you.'
'It's absolutely true. I certainly shouldn't have thought it worth while mentioning, but just at the end of the sale, when everyone got up, he passed behind me, and stopping, he put his hand—rather gratuitously it seemed—on my chair and asked me if I had heard what the last lot made. I said that I wasn't taking the least notice, and he went away. What does it mean?'
'At the moment it means that we must telephone to Lang's to keep the stable door locked—don't put your trust in proverbs, Miss Frensham. And there are a few questions I want them to have settled before I call there.'
'I dare say I'm an idiot,' said the lady frankly, 'but I'm beginning to get rather excited. Isn't there anything that I can do to help?'
'Why, yes,' he smiled with friendly understanding. 'Make out the list for me. We need the catalogue—it's over there. Now which was the lot of crowns you compared with?'
'This one—No. 56,' she replied, after studying the pages. '"Charles II, Crowns, various dates, in fine condition generally, 7."'
'That's sufficient. You have your pad? Now write:
Confidential. Please ascertain
(1) Who bought Lot 56?
(2) What man, if any, left the sale-room about one o'clock and returned before Lot 56 was sold?
(3) What man, if any, returned after the sale for something he had left in the room?
'Of course,' he seemed to apologize, 'that gives away the whole show to you.'
'Ye—es,' replied Miss Frensham dutifully.
Mr Carrados insisted on his visitor remaining to lunch. He even arranged that no one else should be present on the occasion, and the guest, justly annoyed at this characteristic masculine act of delicacy, repaid him by discovering the appetite of the proverbial fairy. The ghosts of three slabs of bread-and-butter stood between her and that generous table; and, reflecting on that, the whimsical maiden sought her own means to dispel the spectre.
'It is really my fault that the coin has gone,' she found occasion to remark. 'Almost as much as though I had taken it. If it never turns up again I can't be satisfied until I have made it good.'
Carrados was naturally horrified. Was she mad? Had she forgotten its record?
'My dear young lady, don't be romantic. The coin is insured, or ought to be. Why, it would cripple you for years—for ever.'
'Oh, no,' she retorted airily. 'We all expect to make our fortunes. And I really have some money that I don't use.'
'Yes?' he smiled, and in the character of her intimate adviser the words slipped out: 'How much?'
'Well,' she considered with deliberate effect, 'I think it varies.... But'—with devastating clearness—'it is somewhere about three thousand pounds a year.'
'I beg your pardon?' stammered Carrados. 'No, no; don't say it again. I heard perfectly. I see. I understand. You ran away from it?'
'I ran away—if you call it running away—from several things. If you could see me, Mr Carrados, you would understand that I am endowed with an almost supernatural plainness. It is too obvious even for the glass to conceal from me. At school, where politeness is not one of the compulsory subjects, I was "Pup", "Puggy", "Ki-ki", "Balcombe Beauty", "Snarleywow", and other shafts of endearment. I was not petted. Even my mother found it a little trying.... And yet as I grew up I learned that I could be astonishingly popular with most men. The things I said were witty, the things I did were clever, my taste was exquisite, and they were all prepared to marry me.... But when I happened to wander into the society of strange men who had missed hearing of my pecuniary worth, my word! No one noticed that I hadn't a seat, no one thought of asking me to dance, to sing, to skate. They didn't see me. And if I opened my mouth they very rarely even heard me. And then if a really pretty girl happened to come into the circle! What an instant preening up of the fishy-eyed old men and a strutting round of the bored-to-death young ones! They didn't even take the trouble to hide anything from me: I might have been a man too. I could watch them licking their lips and arranging their attractions. Oh—h! do you wonder that I went sick among it all? There was a man my father wanted me to marry; well, at all events a decent sort of male, it seemed. I was beginning to think that I might as well when that came out. No, it doesn't really matter what. My father thought it needn't make any difference! Mother assured me that it was nicer not to notice these things! When I said that it made all the difference and that I had already noticed a great many things and that I was going away out into the world to see if it was the same everywhere and meant to begin by earning my own living of course I raised a tremendous storm. Then—if I must go—they wanted to arrange things for me, so that everything should be quite nice. But they'd been arranging for me all my life and that was just what I wanted to disarrange. In the end I got my way—you see, I was in rather a strong position—subject to certain conditions. Father stipulated that I didn't get into any "damned mess", or back I should have to go. Mother hoped that her girlie would remain unspotted from the world. So here I am. And that's the whole story, Mr Carrados, and the reason why I'm so anxious to keep out of what I am sure my father would call a—ahem—mess.'
'Poor Louis!' thought his friend. Then aloud, 'And is human nature entirely transformed by the five-mile radius, Miss Frensham?'
'No,' she admitted seriously. 'But at least I know exactly where I am. There is no competition to carry my parcel or to run my errands—I hope I haven't given the impression that I want it?—but if anything I do does happen to get praised I can believe it honest; if I make a friend I can really feel that it is for myself.... I am no longer, as I heard of one "admirer" dubbing me, "The Girl with the Golden Mug".'
Both laughed. Then he grew almost pensive.
'After laughing at that let me say something,' he ventured at length. 'When you needn't fear having to meet a man's eyes ever he may be privileged to an unusual frankness.... Think as little of looks as you do of lucre, Miss Frensham. I can know nothing of the features you so dispraise: to me you would always be the girl with the golden voice. I am sure that someone else will see you—as you think you are—as little as I do, and to him you will always be the girl with the golden heart.'
'You kind man!' she responded. 'Well...perhaps there is!'
When Carrados got down to Lang & Leng's a few hours later he found that the seller on the previous day had been Mr Travis, a gentleman to whom he was by no means a stranger.
'Very glad to have your suggestions, of course, Carrados,' remarked Mr Travis graciously. 'Are you looking into it on Lord Willington's behalf? Miss Frensham's! You don't say so!'
'I have a weakness for being on the winning side,' remarked the blind man.
'Well, as to that, I don't know that it's exactly a case of a winning side or a losing side. Unless you call us the losing side, egad! This is the room. You want to look—to go round it?'
'I should like to. One never knows.'
'Oh, we've been thoroughly over it this morning. Heaven knows what we could expect, but it seemed the natural thing to do. Yes, it's still being kept locked, since you asked.'
'Anyone wanting to go in for anything?'
'No—only Mr Marrabel, who called for his gloves after the sale; they'd been taken to the office though.'
'Marrabel!' thought the patient worker in the dark. 'Yes, of course—Marrabel the dilettante.'
'And, by the way, that reminds me,' continued Mr Travis. 'Oh yes, sit anywhere you like. That list you sent through. You're not going to suspect Marrabel of any connexion? Because, strangely enough, his name is the answer to each of your inquiries.'
'I should scarcely describe it as a case for suspicion,' replied Carrados. 'Still, one thinks of everyone.'
'We can eliminate Mr Marrabel at all events, I think. He did not look at any of the lots yesterday. He only bought No. 56, and both Muir and I noticed that he did not touch the coins when he got them-just put them on an empty chair by his side until the hue and cry was raised, and then he passed the box over to the table for someone to verify—all there and the correct number.'
'Very convincing,' assented Carrados.
'I mean it rather shows that there isn't much to be gained by looking for so-called "clues" at this end, don't you think? Marrabel as a case in point. Of course we shall be delighted to put any information or facilities that we may have at your disposal, Carrados, both out of consideration for yourself and as due to your client. But what we chiefly want is to get the coin back. And the people we have put on to it seem to be extending themselves in that direction. By tomorrow every curio-dealer, pawn-broker, and leading collector will be on the look out, America will be notified, for they think that the coin may be quite likely offered there. A reward is being offered to make it worth anybody's while. In the next number of the Bric-à-brac Collector there will be an ingenuous advertisement from a wealthy colonial anxious to buy rare milled silver coins; don't be deceived by it.'
'I won't,' promised Mr Carrados. 'But all this must come rather expensive.'
'Doubtless it is. But the fact is, since the thing has gone, Willington's people are persuading themselves that it might have made a fantastic price. That is why we are only anxious to get it back again.'
'Oh!' Polite unconcern was Carrados's note. He seldom denied himself these rare moments when, perhaps, a week's patient labour ran down to a needle-point. 'Of course I'm more interested in my client. But as the coin is all you want—why, here it is!'
'What—what's—that?' articulated Mr Travis.
'The Petition Crown,' replied the arch-humbug, continuing to hold out his hand. 'Delighted to be the means of restoring it to you, Travis.'
'It is the Petition Crown,' murmured Travis. 'Good God! You brought it?'
'On the contrary, I found it here.'
'Found it? Where?'
'Beneath the seat of this chair.'
'You knew that it was there? Do you mean that Miss Frensham told you?'
'I knew that it should be here, and Miss Frensham certainly told me.'
'She hid it there?'
'Not at all. She did not know that it was here. She told me where it was, but she did not know that she was telling me.'
'Then I'm hanged if I understand,' complained Mr Travis. 'Can't you be human once in a way, Carrados? Damn it all, man, we went to school together!'
'Sit down,' said Carrados, 'and I'll be as human as you like.... Did you ever commit a crime, Travis?'
'Not really,' confessed the auctioneer with admirable sang-froid. 'I robbed an orchard when I was ten, but that—'
'Robbing orchards at ten scarcely counts, does it? Well, I have the advantage because there is no form of villainy that I haven't gone through in all its phases. Theoretically, of course, but so far as working out the details is concerned and preparing for emergencies, efficiently and with craftsmanlike pride. Whenever I fail to get to sleep at night—rather frequently, I'm sorry to say—I commit a murder, forgery, a robbery or what not, with all its ramifications. It's much more soothing than counting sheep and it never fails to get me off. The point is, that the criminal mind is rarely original, and I find that in nine cases out of ten that sort of crime is committed exactly as I have already done it. Being a collector myself, of course, I've robbed coin auctions frequently. I know precisely how it should be done and what is to be avoided. Marrabel did the correct things, but he overlooked the contingency of someone else also thinking of them.'
'But Marrabel, my dear fellow! He must be almost in Debrett. Think!'
'Oh, yes. But he makes a speciality of getting choice things for nothing, provided there is no risk.'
'And is there no risk here?'
'None at all; practically none if he's content to take his loss. But is he? We shall see. However, this is what has happened so far:
'Miss Frenshaw started the business by mixing Lots 56 and 64 without knowing it at the time. She had come to get a newspaper par out of the sale if she could, and was taking an intelligent interest in the subject when she happened to catch Marrabel overlooking her. Well, being nervy and rather touchy she dropped the Petition Crown on to the other crowns in Lot 56 and put the one from that lot into box No. 64.
'Marrabel evidently grasped that. It might prove a golden opportunity. Doubtless he took five minutes to consider the position. Then he hied him off to his Mayfair flat and returned with an appropriate coin in his pocket, well in time to purchase Lot 56. What did it cost him?'
'Three-fifteen,' said Mr Travis.
'You know well enough, Travis, that although a single-coin lot is generally taken up by someone as it goes round the table, half a dozen coins, like Lot 56, are seldom touched. At the most they are glanced at. When Muir turned them out on to his tray, what had been at the top naturally got hidden. When he returned them to the box, to hand over to the buyer, the Petition Crown perhaps came to the top again. Marrabel, seated in an unusually retiring position, doubtless received his booty with an appropriate gesture of unconcern and laid it carelessly on the next chair. Good. No risk so far.
'He had at least four minutes in which to act. You and Muir thought he paid no attention to the purchase because he didn't hold the box and examine the contents. Quite natural; but of course you weren't actually watching him and he was out to mask his-movements. All in good time the exchange was made. But now the element of risk came in: he had the thing in his possession.
'Your amateur is always self-conscious. Marrabel could have walked off then, but that would certainly have put him in an equivocal position. Yet supposing it came to being searched? And Miss Frensham, you may remember, did throw out the suggestion. Whether he had reconnoitred in advance we need not speculate; but here beneath his chair, without moving, Marrabel found an ideal crevice for his loot: tight, hidden, accessible.
'He could now move away from the dangerous spot, and he did when the chase began, putting his purchase on the table with a fine indifference for someone else to verify. He stayed away from this chair so long that a curious thing occurred. Miss Frensham took it.
'In one way Marrabel was now on velvet. The leading suspect had drawn a red herring across his tracks, for if by any chance the crown should come to light here Miss Frensham was hopelessly involved. Then presently the situation eased; the sale was coming to an end and there was no suggestion now of search or of anyone being detained. His only desire was to recover the coin and get away. But the lady seemed set here, and Marrabel, ignorant of her intentions, made his first bad move. He claimed the chair, fully expecting to be given it at once.
'As it happened Miss Frensham didn't budge. She is far from being an ordinary meek young person, and the immediate events hadn't gone to soothe her. She was sitting there quietly writing, and, taken on the surface, it was sheerly an impertinence on the man's part. She had had occasion to notice Marrabel already. In strictly feminine terms she told him to go to the devil, and Marrabel, now beginning to feel jerky, veered off.
'The sale comes to an end. Everyone begins to go. Is Marrabel to hang about aimlessly until this chair is vacant and then deliberately come and sit here for no obvious reason? The man's tightened nerves won't hear of it. Act naturally and there is no risk at all. Return later—tomorrow, next week, it doesn't matter, the coin is snugly waiting. And then, good heavens! the thing flashes on him. The chairs are all alike! Next week, tomorrow, even after the sale they may be rearranged, moved, taken to another room, and he will have to go sitting on one after another, an object for all to marvel at. What's to be done? Why, plainly to mark the chair before it is too late, and here, Travis, under my fingers, is the cross that our man broke his pencil on.'
'Very ingenious,' admitted Mr Travis, 'and in the face of this evidence'—delicately balancing the recovered crown upon a finger-tip—'it would be mean to argue. But, you know, Carrados, Miss Frensham did sit here last.'
'Inflexible man!' replied Carrados. 'Well, when is your next sale?'
'Friday—enamels. On view for one day only.'
'So much the better. You can have it in here? Keep it closed till then and I will be here early. And just make sure that Marrabel is sent his catalogue, won't you?'
There was nothing at all unusal to be noticed about the sale-rooms on Thursday morning, and Mr Marrabel strolled round in perfect composure. With praiseworthy restraint he had not hastened there, and the group of conspirators in the private office had to amuse themselves as best they could for at least two hours.
Marrabel was interested in enamels, as he was in all precious things, and he wandered from point to point consulting his catalogue, examining a piece and marking a price as he had done a score of times before—as everyone else was doing then. Finally he sat down to review his list: nothing could be more natural. Satisfied, he rose to go.
Outside the room an attendant came across to speak to him: the signal had been passed.
'Do you mind stepping into Mr Travis's office, sir? I think he wants to see you about something.'
The message was polite and not wholly unusual, but Marrabel's throat went dry.
'Not now,' he said, quickening his step. 'I have an important—. Back in half an hour, tell him.'
It was too late for that easy manoeuvre to carry. Across the hall there was another form between him and the outer door. Nor did the first one obligingly retire.
'Beg pardon, sir, but I understand it's rather particular, sir.'
Then Marrabel must have known that something had miscarried.
'Oh, curse it, all right,' he snapped and, watched at every step, he went.
'It's about the Petition Crown that disappeared at the last coin sale.' The urbane Travis never had a less relished job. 'We have received certain information and we may have to take proceedings. Do you wish to make any statement?'
Marrabel had dimly foreseen this possibility and he had given some thought to a satisfactory explanation, but in the end he had left it to be decided by the circumstances of the moment, because there was no perfectly satisfactory explanation to be thought of.
'Well,' he said, affecting a light laugh, 'that's an unnecessarily brutal way of putting it, because, as a matter of fact, I was bringing the crown to return to you, and I have it in my pocket at the moment. It was only this morning I discovered it when I came to look into that lot I bought. How it got there and how it came to be missed by the dolts who looked I can't say. Personally I didn't examine one of the coins until today.'
'I see,' remarked Mr Travis. 'But I understand that you were leaving the place just now?'
'You understand quite right. I intended handing you the crown, but when I got here and realized how cursed unpleasant it might be I funked it. I decided to send the damned thing back by post without a word.'
'At all events you have it for us now?'
'Yes, here it is,' and Marrabel took a coin from his pocket with alacrity, and laying it on the desk turned hopefully to go.
'Thanks, but—one moment—what is this?'
The unhappy man looked at the coin he had just produced and turned paler than before.
'I must have picked up the wrong one,' he muttered, beginning to recognize the hopeless morass he was floundering into.
'Look again,' said a quiet voice as Mr Carrados appeared on the scene. 'Look closer at the coin you brought from your room this morning!'
'You blind devil!' Lightly scratched on the surface of the silver he found the signature 'Max Carrados' and the date of that very day. 'This is your doing all through!'
'If it is it is only to show up a scoundrel. You didn't stick at getting two innocent people suspected by your scheme. Let them see you now.'
As if worked by machinery an inner door fell open and Miss Frensham and Muir walked in and stood silently regarding him.
'At the sale,' continued Carrados pitilessly, 'you were both publicly put in a position of some suspicion by the disappearance of a coin. It is right that you should now know that it was deliberately stolen by Mr Marrabel here. He is the thief and your perfect innocence is established.'
'Well, curse it all, it wasn't entirely my fault,' snarled Marrabel. 'I only accepted what was given me.'
'That will be for a judge and jury to assess. You'll give him in charge now, Travis?'
At this prospect Marrabel's last vestige of pretence broke down. All the poltroonery in the man came to the surface with a rush.
'For God's sake don't do that, Travis,' he cried, clutching him by the sleeve. I'll do anything you wish—confess anything you like—only don't have me sent to prison. I'll put all sorts of things your way, and I know crowds of people. Heavens! man, consider what it would mean to me—one of your own class.'
'What shall we do, Carrados? We never like to prosecute.'
'I know you don't, replied the blind man. 'I've already drawn up his confession. Read this and then sign it, Mr Marrabel, and we will all be witnesses of the spontaneous act of reparation on your part.'
'What are you going to do with it?' asked the unfortunate wretch.
'Keep it as a guarantee of future good behaviour, and to vindicate these others if the necessity occurs. And you needn't think of having me knifed to get it back again, because I shan't carry it in my pocketbook.'
Marrabel slowly signed and then stabbed the polished desk with the pen he held in a gust of passion that left his fingers pierced and bleeding.
'I'd go willingly to hell if I could first see you skinned alive, Carrados,' he said as he turned to leave.
'I am sure you would,' retorted Max Carrados pleasantly. 'But I don't think that anything to do with me need affect your destination. Now go.'
This did not happen last year nor yet the year before. Miss Frensham married her sub-editor, and their children—now old enough to go to school—frequently take prizes at quite important beauty competitions. Mr Marrabel almost immediately left these inhospitable shores, and after a seemly interval appeared in flourishing conditions in New York. Not that American connoisseurs know less than English ones do, but they know less of Mr Marrabel.
A good many years ago, when chance brought Max Carrados and Louis Carlyle together again and they renewed the friendship of their youth, the blind man's first inquiry had been a jesting, 'Do you unearth many murders, Louis?' and the private detective's reply a wholly serious, 'No; our business lies mostly on the conventional lines among defalcation and divorce.' Since that day Carlyle's business had increased beyond the fondest dreams of its creator, but 'defalcation and divorce' still constituted the bulwarks of his prosperity. Yet from time to time a more sensational happening or a more romantic course raised a case above the commonplace, but none, it is safe to say, ever rivalled in public interest the remarkable crime which was destined to become labelled in the current Press as 'The Holloway Flat Tragedy.'
It was Mr Carlyle's rule to see all callers who sought his aid, for the very nature of their business precluded clients from willingly unbosoming themselves to members of his office staff. Afterwards, they might accept the discreet attention of tactful subordinates, but for the first impression Carlyle well knew the value of his sympathetic handshake, his crisply reassuring voice, his—if need be—humanly condoning eye, and his impeccably prosperous person and surroundings. Men and women, guilty and innocent alike, pouring out their stories felt that at last they were really 'understood', and, to give Louis Carlyle his due, the deduction was generally fully justified.
To the quiet Bampton Street establishment one September afternoon there came a new client who gave the name of Poleash and wished to see Mr Carlyle in person. There was, as usual, no difficulty about that, and, looking up from his desk, Louis registered the impression of an inconspicuous man, somewhere in the thirties. He used spectacles, wore a moustache, and his clothes were a lounge suit of dark material, cut on the simple lines affected by the prudent man who reflects that he may be wearing that selfsame garment two or three seasons hence. There was a slight air of untidiness—or rather, perhaps, an absence of spruceness in any detail—about his general appearance, and the experienced observer put him down as a middle-class worker in any of the clerical, lower professional, or non-manual walks of life.
'Now, Mr Poleash, sit down and tell me what I can do for you,' said Carlyle when they had shaken hands—a rite to which the astute gentleman attached no slight importance and invariably offered. 'Some trouble or little difficulty, I suppose, umph? But first let me get you name right and have your address for reference. You can rely on this, Mr Poleash'—the inclination of Mr Carlyle's head and the arrest of his lifted pen were undeniably impressive—'every word you utter is strictly confidential.'
'Oh, that'll be all right, I'm sure,' said the visitor carelessly. 'It is rather out-of-the-way all the same, and at first—'
'The name?' insinuated Mr Carlyle persuasively.
'Albert Henry Poleash: P-o-l-e-a-s-h—twelve Meridon House, Sturgrove Road, Holloway.'
'Thank you. Now, if you will.'
'Of course I could tell you in a dozen words, but I expect you'd need to know the circumstances, so perhaps I may as well begin where I think you'll understand it best from.'
'By all means,' assented Mr Carlyle heartily; 'by all means. In your own words and exactly as it occurs to you. I'm entirely at your service, so don't feel hurried. Do you care—' The production of a plain gold case completed the inquiry.
'To begin with,' said Mr Poleash, after contributing a match to their common purpose, 'I may say that I'm a married man, living with my wife at that address—a smallish flat which suits us very well as we have no children. Neither of us has any near relations either, and we keep ourselves pretty much to ourselves. Our only servant is a daily woman, who seems able to do everything that we require.'
'One moment, if you please,' interposed Mr Carlyle briskly. 'I don't want you to do anything but tell your story in your own way, Mr Poleash, but if you would indicate by a single word the nature of the event that concerns us it would enable me to judge which points are likely to be most vital to our purpose. Theft—divorce—blackmail—'
'No—murder,' replied Mr Poleash with literal directness.
'Murder!' exclaimed the startled professional. 'Do you mean that a murder has been committed?'
'No, not yet. I am coming to that. For ordinary purposes I generally describe myself as a rent-collector, but that is because official Jacks-in-office seem to have a morbid suspicion of anyone who is obviously not a millionaire calling himself independent. As a matter of fact, I have quite enough private income to serve my purpose. Most of it comes from small house property scattered about London. I see to the management of this myself and personally collect the rents. It takes a few days a week, gives me an interest, keeps me in exercise, and pays as well as anything else I could be doing in the tune.'
'Quite so,' encouraged the listener.
'That's always there,' went on Mr Poleash, continuing his leisurely narrative with no indication of needing any encouragement, 'but now and then I take up other work if it suits me—certain kinds of special canvassing; sometimes research. I don't want to slave making more money than we have the need of, and I don't want ever to find that we haven't enough money for anything we may require.'
'Ideal,' contributed Mr Carlyle. 'You are a true philosopher.'
'My wife also has no need to be dependent on anyone either,' continued Mr Poleash, without paying the least attention to the suave compliment. 'As a costume designer and fashion artist she is fully qualified to earn her living, and in fact up to a couple of years ago she did work of that kind regularly. Then she had a long illness that made a great change in her. This brings me to one of the considerations that affect whatever I may wish to do: the illness left her a nervous wreck—jumpy, excitable, not altogether reasonable.'
'Neurasthenia,' was Mr Carlyle's seasonable comment. 'The sympton of the age.'
'Very likely. It doesn't affect me—at least it doesn't affect me directly. Living in the same house with Mrs Poleash, it's bound to affect me, because I have to consider how every blessed thing I do will affect her. And just lately something very lively indeed has come along.
'There is a girl in a shop that I got friendly with—no, I don't want you to put her name down yet. It began a year or eighteen months.... But I don't suppose that matters. The only thing I really think that I'm to blame about is that I never told her I was married. At first there was no reason why I should; afterwards—well, there was a certain amount of reason why I shouldn't. Anyhow, I suppose that it was bound to come out sooner or later, and it did, a few weeks ago. She said, quite nicely, that she thought we ought to get married as things were, and then, of course, I had to explain that we couldn't.
'I really hadn't the ghost of an idea that she'd take it so terribly to heart as she did. There's nothing of the Don Juan about me, as you can see at a glance. The thing had simply come about—one step leading to another. But she faulted clean away, and when she came to again she was like a solid block of ice to everything I said. And then to cap matters who should appear at that moment but a fellow she'd been half engaged to before I came along. She'd frequently spoken about this man—his jealousy and temper and so on—and begged me never to let him pick a quarrel with me. "Peter" was the only name I ever heard him called by, but he was a foreign-looking fellow—an Italian, I think.'
'"Pietro", perhaps?' suggested Mr Carlyle.
'No; "Peter" she called him. "Please take me back home, Peter," was all she said, and off they went together without a word from either to me. Whenever I've seen her since it's been the same. "Will I please leave her as there is nothing to be said?" and I've been trying to think of all manner of arrangements to put things right.'
'The only arrangement that would seem likely to do that is the one that's out of your power to make,' said Mr Carlyle.
'I suppose so. However, this Peter evidently had a different idea. This is what happened two nights ago. I woke up in the dark—it was about three o'clock I found afterwards—with one of those feelings you get that you've forgotten to do something. It was a letter that I should have posted: it was important that it got delivered some time the next day—the same day by then—and there it was in my breast pocket. I knew if I left it that I should never be up in time for the first morning dispatch, so I determined to slip out then and make sure of it.
'It would only be a matter of twenty minutes or so. There is a pillar-box nearer, but that isn't cleared early. I pulled on a few things and prepared to tiptoe out when a fresh thought struck me.
'Mrs Poleash is a very uncertain sleeper nowadays, and if she is disturbed it's ten to one if she gets off again, and for that reason we use different rooms. I knew better than wake her up to tell her I was going out, but at the same time there was just the possibility that she might wake and, hearing some noise, look in at my door to see if I was all right. If she found me gone she would nearly have a fit. On the spur of the moment I pushed the bolster down the bed and rucked up my dressing gown—it was lying about—above it. In the poor light it served very well for a sleeping man, and I knew that she would not disturb me.
'In less time than I'd given myself I had done my business and was back again at the building. I was entering—my hand was on the knob of the outer door in fact—when the door was pulled sharply open from the other side and another man and I came face to face on the step. We both fell back a bit, I think, but the next moment he had pushed past me and was hurrying down the street. There was just enough light from the lamp across the way for me to be certain of him; it was Peter, and I'm pretty sure that he was equally sharp in recognizing me.
'Of course I went up the stairs in double quick time after that. The door of the flat was as I had left it—simply on the handle as I had put up the latch catch, never dreaming of anyone coming along in that time—and all was quiet and undisturbed inside. But one thing was different in my room, although it took me a few minutes to discover it. There was a clean cut through my dressing gown, through the sheet, through the bolster. Someone, Mr Carlyle, had driven a knife well home before he discovered his mistake.'
'But that was plain evidence of an attempt to murder,' declared Mr Carlyle feelingly—he disliked crimes of violence from every point of view. 'Your business is obviously to inform the police.'
'No,' replied the visitor slowly, 'no. Of course I thought of that, but I soon had to let it slide. What would it mean? Visits, inquiries, cross-examinations, explanations. Everything must come out. After a sufficient exhibition of nerve-storm Mrs Poleash would set about getting a divorce and I should have to go through that. Then I suppose I should have to marry the other one, and, when all's said and done, that's the last thing I really want. In any case, my home would be broken up and my whole life spoiled. No, if it comes to that I might just as well be dead.'
'Then what do you propose doing, may I ask? Calmly wait to be assassinated?'
'That's exactly what I came to see you about. You know my position, my difficulty. I understand that you are a man of wide experience. Putting aside the police and certain publicity, what should you advise?'
'Well, well,' admitted the expert, 'it's rather a formidable handicap, but we will do the best for you that is to be done. Can you indicate exactly what you want?'
'I can easily indicate exactly what I don't want. I don't want to be murdered or molested and I don't want Mrs Poleash to get wind of what's been going on.'
'Why not go away for a time? Meanwhile we could find out who your man is and keep him under observation.'
'I might do that—unless Kitty took it into her head that she didn't want to go, and then, of course, I couldn't leave her alone in the flat just now. After Tuesday night's business—this is what concerns me most—should you think it likely that the fellow would come again or not?'
Mr Carlyle pondered wisely. The longer he took over an opinion, he had discovered—providing he kept up the right expression—the greater weight attached to his pronouncement.
'No,' he replied with due authority. 'I should say not—not in anything like the same way. Of course he will naturally assume that you will now take due precautions—probably imagine that the police are after him. What sort of fastenings have you to your doors and windows?'
'Nothing out of the way. They are old flats and not in very good repair. The outer door is never kept locked, night or day. The front door of our flat has a handle, a latch lock, and a mortice lock. During the day it is simply kept on the latch; at night we fasten the other lock, but do not secure the latch, so that the woman can let herself in when she comes—she has one set of keys, I another, and Mrs Poleash the third.'
'But when you were out on Tuesday night there was no lock fastened, I understand?'
'That is so. Simply the handle to turn. I purposely fastened the latch lock out of action as I found at the door that I hadn't the keys with me and I didn't want to go back to the room again.'
'And the inner doors?'
'They have locks, but few now work—either the key is lost or the lock broken. We never trouble about them—except Kitty's room. She has scrupulously locked that at night, since she has had burglars among other nerve fancies.'
Mr Carlyle shook his head.
'You ought at the very least to have the locks put right at once. Practically all windows are fitted with catches that a child can push back with a table-knife.'
'That's all very well, but, you see, if I get a locksmith in I shall have to make up some cock-and-bull story about house-breaking to Mrs Poleash, and that will set her off. And, anyway, we are on the third storey up.'
'If you are going to consider your wife's nerves at every turn, my dear sir,' remarked Mr Carlyle with some contempt, from the security of his single state, 'you will begin to find yourself in rather a tight fix, I am afraid. How are you going to account for the cut linen, for instance?'
'Oh, I've arranged all that,' replied Mr Poleash, nodding sagaciously. 'My dressing gown she will never notice. The sheet and bolster case—it was a hot night so there was only a single sheet fortunately—I have hidden away in a drawer for the present and put others in their place. I shall buy another of each and burn or lose these soon—Kitty doesn't keep a very close check on things. The bolster itself I can sew up well enough before it's noticed.'
'You may be able to keep it up,' was Mr Carlyle's dubious admission. 'At all events,' he continued, 'as I understand it, you want me to advise you on the lines of taking no direct action against the man you call Peter and at the same time adopting no precautions that would strike Mrs Poleash as being unusual?'
'Nothing that would suggest burglars or murder to her just now,' assented Poleash. 'Yes; that's about what it comes to. You may be able to give me a useful tip or two. If not—well, I know it's a tough proposition and I don't grudge the outlay.'
'At least let us see,' replied the professional man, never failing on the side of lack of self-confidence. 'Now as regards—'
It redounds to Louis Carlyle's credit as an inquiry agent that in an exacting world no serious voice ever accused him of taking unearned money; for so long as there was anything to be learned he plied his novel client with questions, explored surmises and bestowed advice. Even when they had come to the end of useful conversation and the prolific notebook had been closed Carlyle lingered on the topic.
'It's an abnormal situation, Mr Poleash, and full of professional interest. I shall keep it in mind, you may be sure, and if anything further occurs to me, why, I will let you know.'
'Please don't write on any account,' begged Mr Poleash with sudden earnestness. 'In fact, I'd ask you to put a line to that effect across my address. You see, I'm liable to be out at any post time, and if my wife should happen to get curious about a strange letter, why, that, in the language of the kerb, would blow the gaff.'
'I see,' assented Mr Carlyle. 'Very well; it shall be just as you like.'
'And if I can settle with you now,' continued Poleash; 'for of course I don't want to have an account sent. Then some day—say next week—I might look in to report and to hear if you have anything further to suggest.'
'You might, in the meanwhile, consider the most practical course—that of having your man kept under observation.'
'I will,' promised the other. 'But so far I'm all in favour of letting sleeping dogs lie.'
Not unnaturally Mr Carlyle had heard that line before and had countered it.
'True, but it is as well to know when they wake up again,' he replied. With just the necessary touch of dignity and graciousness he named and received the single guinea at which he assessed the interview and began to conduct Mr Poleash towards the door—not the one by which he had entered from the waiting-room but another leading directly down into the street. 'Have you lost something?'
'Only my hat and things—I left them in your ante-room.' He held up his gloved left hand as though it required a word of explanation. 'I keep this on because I am short of a finger, and I've noticed that some people don't like to see it.'
'We'll go out that way instead then—it's all the same,' remarked Carlyle, as he crossed to the other door.
Two later callers were sitting in the waiting-room, and at the sight of them Mr Carlyle's somewhat cherubic face at once assumed an expression of the heartiest welcome. But beyond an unusually mellifluent 'Good afternoon!' he said nothing until his departing client was out of hearing. Names were not paraded in those precincts. With a muttered apology Mr Poleash recovered his belongings from among the illustrated papers and hurried away.
'And why in the world have you been waiting here, Max, instead of sending in to me?' demanded the hospitable Carlyle with a show of indignation.
'Business,' replied Mr Carrados tersely. 'Tour business, understand. Your chief minion was eager to blow a message through to you but "No," I said, "we'll take our proper turn". Why should I interrupt the Bogus Company Promoter's confession or cut short the Guilty Husband's plea?'
'Joking apart, that fellow who just went brought a very remarkable story,' said Mr Carlyle. 'I should be glad to know what you would have had to say to him when we have time to go into it.' (Do not be too ready to condemn the gentleman as an arrant humbug and this a gross breach of confidence: Max Carrados had been appointed Honorary Consultant to the firm, so that what would have otherwise been grave indiscretions were strictly business discussions.)
'In the meantime the suggestion is that you haven't taken a half-day off lately and that Monday morning is a convenient time.'
'Generous man! What is happening on Monday morning then?'
'Something rather surprising in wireless at the Imperial Salon—ten to twelve-thirty. I know it's the sort of thing you'll be interested in, and I have two tickets and want someone fairly intelligent to go with.'
'An ideal chain of circumstances,' rippled Mr Carlyle. 'I shall endeavour to earn the price of my seat.'
'I am sure you will succeed,' retorted Carrados. 'By the way, it's free.'
To a strain of this intellectual horseplay the arrangements for their meeting were made, and that having been the only reason for the call, Mr Carrados departed under Parkinson's watchful escort. In due course the wireless demonstration took place, but (although an invention then for the first time shown bore no small part in one of the blind man's subsequent cases) it is unnecessary to accompany them inside the hall, for with the enigma centring in Mr Poleash that event had no connexion. It is only touched upon as bringing Carrados and his friend together at that hour, for as they walked along Pall Mall after lunching Mr Carlyle suddenly gave a whistle of misgiving and surprise and stopped a hurrying newsboy.
'Holloway Flat Tragedy,' he read from the bill as he investigated sundry pockets for the exact coin. 'By gad, if that should happen to be—'
'Poleash! My God, it is!' he exclaimed as soon as his eye had found the paragraph concerned—a mere inch in the 'Stop Press' news. 'Poor beggar! Tshk! Tshk!'—his clicking tongue expressed disapproval and regret. 'He ought to have known better after what had happened. It was madness. I wonder what he actually did—'
'Your remarkable caller of last Thursday, Louis?'
'Yes; but how do you come to know?'
'A trifling indiscretion on his part. With a carelessness that must be rare among your clients I should say, Mr Poleash dropped one of his cards under the table in your writing-room, where the conscientious Parkinson discovered it.'
'Well, the unfortunate chap doesn't need cards now. Listen, Max.
NORTH LONDON TRAGEDY
Early this morning a charwoman going to a flat in Meridon House, Holloway, made a gruesome discovery. Becoming suspicious at the untouched milk and newspapers, she looked into a bedroom and there found the occupier, a Mr Poleash, dead in bed. He had received shocking injuries, and everything points to deliberate murder. Mrs Poleash is understood to be away on a holiday in Devonshire.
'Of course Scotland Yard takes it up now, but I must put my information at their service. They're devilish lucky, too. I can practically hand over the miscreant to them and they will scoop the credit.'
'I was to hear about that,' Carrados reminded him. 'Suppose we walk across to Scotland Yard, and you can tell me on the way.'
At the corner of Derby Street they encountered two men who had just turned out of the Yard. The elder had the appearance of being a shrewd farmer, showing his likely son the sights of London and keeping a wideawake eye for its notorious pitfalls. To pursue appearances a step farther they might even have been calling to recover the impressive umbrella that the senior carried.
'Beedel,' dropped Mr Carlyle beneath his breath, but his friend was already smiling recognition.
'The very man,' said Carrados genially. 'I'll wager you can tell us something about the Poleash arrangements, inspector.'
The two plain-clothes men exchanged amused glances.
'I can tell you this much, Mr Carrados,' replied Inspector Beedel, in unusually good spirits, 'my nephew George here is going to do the work and I'm going to look after the bouquets at the finish. We're on our way there now.'
'Couldn't be better,' said the blind man. 'Perhaps you wouldn't mind us going up there with you?'
'Very pleased,' replied Beedel. 'We were making for the station.'
'You may as well help to fill our taxi,' suggested Carrados. 'Mr Carlyle may have something to tell you on the way.'
On the whole Mr Carlyle would have preferred to make his disclosure to headquarters, but the convenience of the arrangement was not to be denied, and with a keen appreciation of the astonishing piece of luck Beedel and George heard the story of the inquiry agent's client.
'It looks like being simply a matter of finding this girl, if the conditions up there bear out his tale,' remarked George, between satisfaction at so veritable a clue and a doubt whether he would not have preferred a more complicated case. 'Did you happen to get her name and address, sir?'
'No,' admitted Mr Carlyle with a slight aloofness, 'it did not arise. Poleash was naturally reluctant to bring in the lady more than he need and I did not press him.'
'Makes no odds,' conceded George generously. Shopgirl—kept company with a foreigner—known as Peter. Even without anything else there ought to be no difficulty in finding her.'
Sturgrove Road was not deserted, and there was a rapid concentration about the door of Meridon House 'to see the 'tecs arrive.' On the whole, public opinion was disappointed in their appearance, but the action of George in looking up at the frontage of the building and then glancing sharply right and left along the road was favourably commented on. The policeman stationed at the outer door admitted them at once.
A sergeant and a constable of the local division were in possession of No. 12, and the scared daily woman, temporarily sustained by their impression of absolute immobility, was waiting in the kitchen to indicate whatever was required. Greetings on a slightly technical plane passed between the four members of the force.
'Mrs Poleash has been sent for, I suppose?' asked Mr Carlyle.
'We telephoned from our office to Torquay some hours ago,' replied the sergeant. 'They'll send an officer to the place she's staying at and break it to her as well as possible. That's the course we usually follow.' He took out a weighty presentation watch and considered it. 'Torquay. I don't suppose she could be here yet.'
'Not even if she was in first go,' amplified his subordinate.
'Well,' suggested George. 'Suppose we look round?' The bedroom was the first spot visited. There was nothing unusual to be seen, apart from the outline of the bed, its secret now hidden beneath a decorous covering—nothing beyond the rather untidy details of the occupant's daily round. All these would in due course receive a careful scrutiny, but at the moment one point drew every eye.
'Hold one another's hands,' advised the sergeant, as he prepared to turn down the sheet. The hovering charwoman gave a scream and fled.
'That's a wild beast been at work,' said Inspector Beedel, coolly drawing nearer to appreciate the details.
'My word, yes!' agreed George, following a little reluctantly.
'Shocking! Shocking!' Mr Carlyle made no pretence about turning away.
'Killed at the first blow,' continued the sergeant, indicating, 'though it's not the only one. Then his face slashed about like a fancy loaf till his own mother wouldn't know him. Something dreadful, isn't it? Finger gone? Oh, that's an old affair. What're you to make of it all?'
'Revenge—revenge and rage and sheer blood-thirstiness,' summed up Mr Carlyle. 'Was anything taken?'
'Nothing disturbed so far as we can see, and the old party there'—a comprehensive nod in the direction of the absent charlady—'says that all the things she knows of seem to be right.'
'What time do they put it at?' asked Beedel.
'Dr Meadows has been here. Midnight Saturday to early Sunday morning, he said. That agrees with the people at the flat opposite hearing the door locked at about ten on Saturday night and the Sunday morning milk and paper not being touched.'
'Milk-can on the doorstep all day, I suppose?' suggested someone.
'Yes; people opposite noticed it, but thought nothing of it. They knew Mrs Poleash was going away on Saturday and thought that he might have gone with her. Mrs Jones, she doesn't come on Sundays, so nothing was found but till this morning.'
'May as well hear what she has to say now,' said Beedel. 'No need to keep her about that I know of.'
'Just one minute, please, if you don't mind,' put in Mr Carlyle, not so much asking anyone's permission as directing the affair. The sight of a wardrobe had reminded him of the dead man's story, and he was now handling the clothes that hung there with keen anticipation. 'There is something that I really came especially to see. This is his dressing gown, and, yes, by Jupiter, it's here!'
He pointed to a clean cut through the material as they gathered round him.
'What's that?' inquired the sergeant, looking from one face to another.
'Previous attempt,' replied Beedel shortly.
'There ought to be a sheet and a bolster case somewhere about,' continued the eager gentleman, now thoroughly intrigued, and under the impulse of his zeal drawers and cupboards were opened and their contents gingerly displaced.
'Something of the sort here among the shirts,' announced George.
'Have them out then. Not likely to be any others put away there.' The hidden things were unfolded and displayed and here also the tragic evidence lay clear before them.
'By gad, you know, I half thought he might have dreamt it until this came,' confided Mr Carlyle to the room at large. 'Tshk! Tshk! How on earth the fellow could have gone—' He remembered the quiet figure lying within earshot and finished with a tolerant shrug.
'Let's get on,' said Beedel. These details could very well have waited had been his thought all along.
'I'll fold the things,' volunteered Mr Carrados. All the others had satisfied their curiosity by glance or scrutiny and he was free to take his time. He took up the loose bundle in his arms and with the strange impulse towards light that so often moved him he turned away from them and sought the window.
'Now, missis, come along and tell us all about it,' called out the young constable.
'No,' interposed the inspector kindly, 'the poor creature's upset enough already without bringing her in here again. Stay where you are, Mrs Jones, we're coming there,' he announced from the door, and they filed along the skimpy passage into the dingy kitchen. 'Now can you just tell us quietly what you know about this bad business?'
Mrs Jones's testimony, given on the frequently expressed understanding that she was quite prepared to be struck dead at any point of it if she deviated from the strictest line of truth, did not disclose any new feature, while its frequent references to the lives and opinions of friends not concerned in the progress of the drama threatened now and then to stifle the narrative with a surfeit of pronouns. But she was listened to with patience and complimented on her nerve. Mrs Jones sadly shook her antique black bonnet and disclaimed the quality.
'I could do nothing but stand and scream,' she confessed wistfully, referring to the first dreadful moment at the bedroom door, 'I stood and screamed three times before I could get myself away. The poor gentleman! What harm was he, for to be done in like that!'
There was a string of questions from one or another of the company before she was finally dismissed—generally from Beedel or George with Mr Carlyle's courteously assertive voice intervening once or twice: the Poleashes had few visitors that she had ever seen—she was only there from eight to six—and she had never known of anyone staying with them; no one had knocked at the door for anything on Saturday; she had not noticed anyone whom she could call to mind as 'a foreigner' loitering about or at the door recently (a foreign family lived at No. 5, but they were well spoken of); neither Mr nor Mrs Poleash had talked to her of anything uncommon of late—the gentleman was mostly out and 'she' wasn't one of the friendly sort; the couple seemed to get on together 'as well as most', and she had never heard a 'real' quarrel; Mrs Poleash had gone off for a week (she understood) about noon on Saturday, and Mr Poleash had accompanied her to Paddington (as he had mentioned on his return for tea); she had last seen him at about five o'clock on Saturday, when she left, a little earlier than usual; she knew nothing of the ashes in the kitchen grate, not having had a fire there for weeks past; the picture post card (passed round) from Mrs Poleash, announcing her arrival at Torquay, she had found on the hall floor together with the Sunday paper; she was to go on just the same while Mrs Poleash was away, coming daily to 'do up', and so on; it was a regular arrangement 'week in and week out'.
'That seems to be about all,' summed up Inspector Beedel, looking round. 'We have your address, Mrs Jones, and you're sure to hear from us about something pretty soon.'
'Before you go,' said a matter-of-fact voice from the door, 'do you happen to remember what you were doing last Thursday afternoon?' It was the first question that Mr Carrados had put, and they had scarcely noticed whether he had re-joined them yet or not.
'Last Thursday afternoon?' repeated Mrs Jones helplessly. 'Oh, Lor', sir, my head's in that whirl—'
'Yes, but it isn't so difficult if you think—early closing day, you know.'
This stimulus proved effective and the charwoman remembered. She had something special to remember by. On Thursday morning Mrs Poleash has passed on to her a single ticket for that afternoon's performance at the Parkhurst Theatre, and told her that she could go after she had washed up the dinner things.
'So that you were not here at all on Thursday afternoon? Just one more thing, Mrs Jones. Sooner or later a photograph of your master will be wanted. Is there one anywhere about?'
'The only one I know of stands on the sideboard in the little room. There may be others put away, but not being what you might call curious sir—'
'I'm sure you're not,' agreed Carrados. 'Now, as you go you shall point it out to us so that there can be no mistake.'
'You couldn't make no mistake because there's only that and one of her stands there,' explained Mrs Jones, but she proceeded to comply. 'There it—'
'Yes?' said the blind man, close upon her.
'I'm sorry, sir, indeed. I must have made a mistake—'
'I don't think you made any mistake,' he urged. 'I don't think you really think so either.'
'I'm that mithered I don't rightly know what to think,' she declared. 'That isn't him.'
'Is it the frame? No, don't touch it—that might be unlucky, you know—but you can remember that.'
'It's the frame, right enough. I ought to know, the times I've dusted it.'
'Then the photograph has been changed: there's nothing unlikely in that. When was the last time that you noticed the other one there?'
Quite recently, it would seem, but taking refuge behind her whirling head Mrs Jones held out against precision. It might have been Friday or it might have been Saturday. Carrados forbore to press her more exactly, and she departed, sustained by the advice of Authority that she should have nothing to say to nobody, under the excuse, if need be, that she had answered enough questions already for one day.
'While we are here,' said the sergeant—they were still in the 'little room', the only one that looked out on the front 'you might as well see where he got in.' He went to the window and indicated certain marks on the wood- and stone-work. 'We found the lower sash still a few inches up when we came.'
'Went the same way as he came, I suppose?' suggested George.
'Must have done. All the keys are accounted for, and Mrs Jones found the front door locked as usual. And why not; why shouldn't he? There's the balcony, and you hardly have to lean out to see the stairway window not a yard away. Why, it's as easy as ring-a-roses. Might have been made for it.'
'Tshk! Tshk!' fumed Mr Carlyle unhappily. 'After what I said. And not one of the locks has been seen to.'
'Locks?' echoed the young policeman, appearing that moment at the door. 'Why, here is a chap with tools, says he's come to repair and fit the locks!'
'Well, if this isn't the fair nefus ultra!' articulated the sergeant. 'However, show him in, lad.'
The locksmith, looking scarcely less alarmed than if he had fallen into a den of thieves, had a very short and simple tale to tell. His shop was in the Seven Sisters Road, and on Friday afternoon a gentleman had called there and arranged with him to come on Monday and repair some locks. He had given the name of Poleash and that address. The man knew nothing of what had taken place and had come as fixed.
'It's a pity you didn't happen to make it Saturday, Mr Hipwaite,' said Inspector Beedel, as he took a note of this new evidence. 'It might-I don't say it would, but it might—have prevented murder being done.'
'But that's the very thing I was not to do,' declared Hipwaite, with some warmth. '"Don't come on Saturday because the wife is very nervous, and if she thinks burglars are about she'll have a fit," he said—those very words. "She'll be away on Monday, and then by the time she comes back she mayn't notice." Was I likely to come on Saturday?'
Plainly he was not. 'That's all right,' it was conceded, 'but there's nothing in your line doing today.' So Mr Hipwaite departed, more than half persuaded that he had been hardly used and not in the least mollified by being concerned in so notable a tragedy.
'Before I go,' resumed the sergeant, leading the way back to the kitchen, 'there's one other thing I must hand over. You heard what Mrs Jones said about the fire—that there hadn't been one for weeks as they always used the stove?'
'That's what I asked her,' George reminded him. Someone has had a fire here.'
'Correct,' continued the officer imperturbably. 'It's also what I asked her a couple of hours before you came. Someone's had a fire here. Who and what for? Well, I've had the cinders out to see and now I'll make over to you what there was.'
'Glove fasteners,' commented the inspector, 'All the metal there was about them. Millions of the pattern, I suppose.'
'Burned his gloves after the job—they must have been in a fair mess,' said George. '"Audubon Frères" they're stamped—foreign make.'
'That reminds me—there's one thing more.' It was produced from the sergeant's pocket-book, a folded fragment of paper, charred along its edge. 'It's from the hearth; evidently a bit that fell out when the fire was made. Foreign newspaper, you will see; Italian it looks to me.'
Mr Carlyle, Inspector Beedel, and George exchanged appreciative glances. Upon this atmosphere of quiet satisfaction there fell something almost like a chuckle.
'Did anyone happen to notice if he had written "Si parla Italiano" in red on the wall over the bed?' inquired the guileless voice.
The young constable, chancing to be the nearest person to the door, rose to this mendacious suggestion by offering to go and see. The others stared at the blind man in various stages of uncertainty.
'No, no,' called out Mr Carlyle feelingly. 'There is no need to look, thank you. When you know Mr Carrados as well as I do you will understand that although there is always something in what he says it is not always the something you think it is. Now, Max, pray enlighten the company. Why should the murderer write "Italian spoken" over the bed?'
'Obviously to make sure that you shouldn't miss it,' replied Mr Carrados.
'Well,' remarked the sergeant, demonstrating one or two simple exercises in physical drill as a suitable preparation, 'I may as well be going. I don't understand Italian myself. Nor Dutch either,' he added cryptically.
Mr Carlyle also had nothing more to stay for. 'If you have done here, Max—' he began, and turned only to find that Carrados was no longer there.
'Your friend has just gone to the front room, sir,' said the constable, catching the words as he passed. 'Funny to see a blind man getting about so—' But a sudden crash of glass from the direction referred to cut short the impending compliment.
It was, as Carrados explained, entirely his own preposterous fault. Nothing but curiosity about the size of the room had impelled him to touch the walls, and the picture, having a weak cord or an insecure nail ... had it not brought something else down in its fall?
'Only the two frames from the sideboard, so far as I can see,' replied Carlyle. 'All the glass is shattered. But I don't suppose that Mrs Poleash will be in a condition to worry about trifles. Jolly good thing you aren't hurt, that's all.'
'Of course I should like to replace the damage,' said the delinquent.
Inspector Beedel said nothing, but as he looked on he recalled one or two other mischances in the past, and being of an introspective nature he continued to massage his chin thoughtfully.
Three days later the inquest on the body of Albert Henry Poleash was opened. It was of the merest formal description, proof of identity and a bare statement of the cause of death being the only evidence put forward. An adjournment for a week was then declared.
At the resumed inquiry the story of Poleash's death was taken forward, and the newspaper reader for the first time was encouraged to see in it the promise of a first-class popular sensation. Louis Carlyle related the episode of his unexpected client. Corroboration of that wildly romantic story was forthcoming from many sides. Mr Hipwaite carried the drama two days later by describing the dead man's visit to his shop, the order to repair the locks, and his own futile journey to the flat. Mrs Jones, skilfully piloted among dates and details, was in evidence as the discoverer of the body. Two doctors—a private practitioner called hurriedly in at the first alarm and the divisional surgeon—agreed on all essential points, and the police efficiently bridged the narration at one stage and another and contrived to present a faithful survey of the tragedy.
But the most arresting figure of the day, though her evidence was of very slight account and mainly negative, was the unhappy widow. As she moved into the witness-box, a wan, graceful creature in her unaccustomed, but, it may be said, not unattractive crêpe, a rustle of compassion stirred the court and Mr Carlyle, who had come prejudiced against her, as an automatic reflex of his client's fate, chirruped sympathy.
Mrs Poleash gave her testimony in a low voice, not particularly attractive in its tone, and she looked straight before her with eyes neither downcast nor wandering. Her name, she said, was Katherme Poleash, her age twenty-nine. She knew nothing of the tragedy, having been in Torquay at the time. She had gone there on the Saturday afternoon, her husband seeing her off from Paddington. Their relationship was perfectly friendly, but not demonstrative. Her husband was a considerate but rather reserved man with no especial interests. Up to two years ago she had been accustomed to earn her own living, but a nervous breakdown had interfered with her capacity for work. It was on account of that illness that she had generally occupied a separate bedroom; it had left her nervous in many ways, but she was surprised to hear that she should have been described as exacting or ill-tempered.
'"Not wholly reasonable and excitable" were the precise terms used, I think,' put in Mr Carlyle gallantly.
'It's much the same,' she replied apathetically.
Continuing, she had no knowledge at all of any intrigue between her husband and a shop-girl, such as had been referred to, nor had she ever heard of the man Peter, either by name or as an Italian. She could not suggest in what quarter of London the shop in question was likely to be as the deceased was accustomed to go about a good deal. The police already had a list of the various properties he owned. At the conclusion of her evidence Mrs Poleash seemed to be on the point of fainting and had to be assisted out.
There was nothing to be gained by a further adjournment. The cause of death—the real issue before that court—was reasonably clear. The jury brought in a verdict of 'Wilful Murder against Some Person or Persons Unknown.' Before the reporters left the police asked that the Press should circulate a request for anyone having knowledge of a shop-assistant who had been friendly with a foreigner known as Peter or Pietro, or with a man answering to Mr Poleash's description, to communicate with them either at New Scotland Yard or to any local station. The Press promised to comply and offered to publish photographs of Mr Poleash as a means towards that end, only to learn that no photograph possessing identification value could be found. So began the memorable paper-chase for an extremely nebulous shop-assistant and a foreigner whose description began and ended with the sobriquet 'Peter the Italian'.
'I was wondering if you or Inspector Beedel would come round one day to see me,' said Mr Carrados as George was shown into the study at The Turrets. Two full weeks had elapsed since the conclusion of the inquest and the newspaper value of the Holloway Flat Tragedy had sunk from a column opposite the leader page to a six-line fill-up beneath 'Home and General'. 'Your uncle used often to drop in to entertain me with the progress of his cases.'
'That wasn't his way of looking at it, Mr Carrados. He used to say that when it came to seeing through a brick wall you were—well, hell!'
'Curious,' remarked Mr Carrados. 'I don't remember ever hearing Inspector Beedel make use of that precise expression.'
George went a trifle red and laughed to demonstrate his self-possession.
'Well, perhaps I dropped a word of my own in by accident.' he said. 'But that was what he meant—in a complimentary sense, of course. As a matter of fact, it was on his advice that I ventured to trouble you now.'
'Not "trouble",' protested the blind man, ever responsive to the least touch of diffidence. 'That's another word the inspector wouldn't use about me, I'm sure.'
'You're very kind,' said George, accepting a cigarette, 'and as I had to come this way to see another—oh, my Lord, another!—shop-girl, why, I thought—'
'Ah; how is the case going?'
'It's no go, Mr Carrados. We've seen thousands of shopgirls and hundreds of Italian Peters. I'm beginning to think,' said the visitor, watching Mr Carrados's face as he propounded the astonishing heresy, 'that there is no such person.'
'Yes?' replied Carrados unmoved. 'It is always as well to look beyond the obvious, isn't it? What does the inspector say?'
'He says, "I should like to know what Mr Carrados really meant by 'Italian spoken', and what he really did when he smashed that picture".'
Carrados laughed his appreciation as he seemed actually to watch the blue smoke curling upwards.
'How easy it is to give a straightforward answer when a plain question is asked,' he replied. 'By "Si parla Italiano" I ventured to insinuate my own private opinion that there was no Italian Peter; when I broke the picture I tried to obtain some definite evidence of someone there was.'
George waited in the hope of this theme developing, but his host seemed to consider that he had said all that was necessary, and it is difficult to lead on a man into disclosures when you cannot fix him with your eye.
'Poleash may have been mistaken himself,' he continued tentatively; 'or he may have purposely misled Mr Carlyle on details, with the idea of getting his advice but not entirely trusting him to the full extent.'
'He may,' admitted the placid smoker.
'One thing I can't understand is however the man set about keeping company with a girl without spending more on her than he seems to have done. We found a small pocket diary that he entered his current expenses in, and there isn't a single item for chocolates, flowers, theatres, or anything of that sort.'
'Oh, he didn't keep a diary; only entered cash, and rents received, and so on. Here it is, if you care to—examine it.'
'Thank you, I should. I wonder what our friend Carlyle charged for the consultation?'
'I don't remember seeing that,' admitted George, referring to the pages. 'Thursday, the 3rd, wasn't it? No, curiously enough, that doesn't appear.... I wonder if he never put down any of these what you might call questionable items for fear of Mrs Poleash seeing?'
'Not unnaturally,' agreed Carrados. 'You found nothing else of interest then—no addresses or new names?'
'Nothing at all. Oh, that page you've got is only his memorandum of sizes and numbers and so on.'
'Yes; quite a useful habit, isn't it?' The long, vibrant fingers touched offline after line without a pause or stumble. 'When he made this handy list Albert Henry Poleash little thought—Boots, size 9; hat, size 7⅛; collars, size 16; gloves, size 8¾; watch, No. 31903; weight, 11st. 81bs. There we have the man: Ex pede Herculem, as the motto has it—only in this case of course the hat and gloves are more useful.'
'Very true, sir,' said George, whose instinct was to keep a knowing front on all occasions.
When Parkinson was summoned to the room some time later he found his master there alone. Every light was blazing on, and, sitting at his desk, Mr Carrados confronted a single sheet of paper. With his trained acuteness for the minutiae of every new condition, Parkinson immediately took mental photographs of the sheet of paper with its slim written column, of the position and appearance of the chair George had used, of the number and placing of cigarette ends and matches, of all the details connected with the tray and contents, and of a few other matters. It was his routine.
'Close the door and come in,' said Carrados. 'I want you to carry your mind back about four weeks to the last occasion when we called at Mr Carlyle's office together. As we sat in the waiting-room I asked you if the things left there belonged to anyone we knew.'
'I remember the circumstances perfectly, sir.'
'I want the articles described. The gloves?'
'There was only one glove—that for the right hand. It was a dark grey suède, moderately used, and not of the best cut. The fastening was a press button stamped "Audubon Frères". The only marking inside the glove was the size, 7½.'
Carrados made a note on the sheet before him. The hat?' he said. 'What size was that?'
'The size of hat, printed on an octagonal white ticket, was 6¾, sir.'
'Excellent, so far. When the caller passed through you saw him for a moment. Apart from clothes, which do not matter just now, was there any physical peculiarity that would identify him?'
'He had a small dark mole beneath the left eye. The lobe of his right ear was appreciably less than the other. The nail of the middle finger of the right hand was corrugated from an injury at some time.'
Carrados made a final note on the paper before him.
'Very good indeed, Parkinson,' he remarked. 'That is all I wanted.'
A month passed and nothing happened. Occasionally a newspaper, pressed for a subject, commented on the disquieting frequency with which undetected murder could be done, and among other instances mentioned the Holloway Flat Tragedy and deplored the ease with which Peter the Italian had remained at large. The name by that time struck the reader as distantly familiar.
Then one evening early in November Beedel rang Mr Carrados up. The blind man happened to take the call himself, and at the first words he knew that the dull, patient shadowing of weeks was about to fructify.
'Yes, Inspector Beedel himself, sir,' said the voice at the other end. 'I'm speaking from Beak Street. The two you know of have just gone to the Restaurant X in Warsaw Street. The lady has booked two seats at the Alhambra for tonight, so we expect them to be there for the best part of an hour.'
'I'll come at once,' replied Carrados. 'What about Carlyle?'
'He's been notified. Back entrance in Boulton Court,' said the inspector. 'I'm off there now myself.'
It was the first time that the two the blind man 'knew of' had met since the watch was set, and their correspondence had been singularly innocuous. Yet not a breath of suspicion had been raised, and the same elaborate care that had prompted Mr Carrados to bring down a picture to cover the abstraction of a small square of glass had been maintained throughout.
'Nice private little room upstairs, saire,' insinuated the proprietor as 'the two' looked round. He guessed that they shunned publicity, and he was right, although not entirely so. With a curt nod the man led the way up the narrow stairway to the equivocal little den on the first floor. The general room below had not been crowded, but this one was wholly empty.
'Quite like old times,' said the woman with an unmusical laugh as she threw off her cloak—there was little indication of the sorrowing widow now, 'I thought we had better fight shy of the "Toledo" for the future.'
''M yes,' replied her companion slowly, looking dubiously about him—he no longer wore glasses or moustache, nor was his left hand, the glove now removed, deficient of a finger. 'The only thing is whether it isn't too soon for us to be about together at all.'
'Pha!' she snapped expressively. 'They've gone to sleep again. There isn't a thing—no not a single detail—gone wrong. The most that could happen would be a raid here to look for Peter the Italian!'
'For God's sake don't keep on that,' he urged in a low voice. 'Your husband was a brute to you by what you say, and I'm not sorry now it's done, but I want to forget it all. You had your way: I've done everything you planned. Now you are free and decently well off and as soon as it's safe we can really marry—if you still will.'
'If I still will,' she repeated, looking at him meaningly. 'Do you know, Dick, I think it may become desirable sooner even than I thought.'
'Sssh!' he warned; 'here comes someone. You order, Kitty—you always have done! Anything will suit me.' He turned to arrange his overcoat across an empty chair and reassured his hand among the contents of the nearest pocket.
Downstairs, in his nondescript living-room, the proprietor of the Restaurant X was being very quickly and efficiently made to understand just so much of the situation as turned on his immediate and complete acceptance of it. In the presence of authority so vigorously expressed the stout gentleman bowed profusely, lowered his voice, and from time to time placed a knowing finger on his lips in agreement.
'Hallo,' said the man called 'Dick' as a different attendant brought a dish. 'Where has our other waiter got to?'
'Party of regular customers as always has him just come in.' explained the new one.' 'Ope you don't mind, sir.'
'Not a brass button.'
'It's all right, inspector,' reported the 'waiter'. 'He has the three marks you said—mole, ear, nail.'
'Certain of the woman?'
'Mrs Poleash, sure as snow.'
'Any reference to it?'
'Don't think so while I'm about. Drama just now. Has his little gun handy.'
'Take this in now. Leave the door open and see if you can make him talk up.... If you two gentlemen will step just across there I think you'll be able to hear.'
Carrados smiled as he proceeded to comply.
'I have already heard,' he said. 'It is the voice of the man who called on Mr Carlyle on September the third.'
'I think it is the voice,' admitted Mr Carlyle when he had tiptoed back again. 'I really think so, but after two months I should not be prepared to swear.'
'He is the man,' repeated Carrados deliberately.
Inspector Beedel, clinking something quietly in his pocket, nodded to his waiter.
'Morgan follows you in with the coffee,' he said. 'Put it down on the table, Morgan, and stand beside the woman. Call me as soon as you have him.'
It was the sweet that the first waiter was to take, and with it there was a sauce. It was not exactly overturned, but there was an awkward movement and a few drops were splashed. With a clumsy apology the waiter, napkin in hand, leaned across the customer to remove a spot that marked his coat-sleeve.
'Here!' exclaimed the startled man. 'What the devil are you up to?'
It was too late. Speech was the only thing left to him then. His wrists were already held in a trained, relentless grasp; he was pressed helplessly back into his chair at the first movement of resistance. Kitty Poleash rose from her seat with a dreadful coldness round her heart, felt a hand upon her shoulder, cast one fearful glance round, and sank down upon her chair again. Before another word was spoken Inspector Beedel had appeared, and the grip of bone and muscle on the straining wrists was changed to one of steel. Less than thirty seconds bridged the whole astonishing transformation.
'Richard Crispinge, you are charged with the murder of this woman's husband. Katherine Poleash, you are held as an accessory,' The usual caution followed. 'Get a taxi to the back entance, Morgan.'
Half a dozen emotions met on Crispinge's face as he shot a glance at his companion and then faced the accuser again.
'You're crazy,' he panted, still labouring from the effort. 'I've never even seen the man.'
'I shouldn't say anything now, if I were you,' advised Beedel, on a quite human note. 'You may find out later that we know more than you might think.'
What followed could not have been charged against human foresight, for at a later stage it was shown that a certain cable failed and in a trice one side of Warsaw Street was involved in darkness. What happened in that darkness—where they had severally stood before and after—who moved or spoke—whose hand was raised—were all matters of dispute, but suddenly the black was stabbed by a streak of red, a little crack—scarcely more than the sharp bursting of a paper bag—nearly caught up to it, and almost slowly to the awaiting ears came the sound of strain and the long crash of falling glass and china.
'A lamp from down there!' snapped Beedel's sorely-tried voice, as the ray of an electric torch whirled like a pygmy searchlight and then centred on a tumbled thing lying beyond the table. 'Look alive!'
'They say there is gas somewhere,' announced Mr Carlyle, striking a match as he ran in. 'Ah, here it is.'
No need to ask then what had happened, though how it had happened could never be set quite finally at rest; for if Kitty Poleash was standing now, whereas before she had sat, the weapon lay beyond her reach close to the shackled hands. A curious apathy seemed to fall upon the room as though the tang of the drifting wisp of smoke dulled their alertness, and when the woman moved slowly towards her lover Beedel merely picked the pistol up and waited. With a terrible calmness she knelt by the huddled form and raised the inert head.
'Good-bye, my dear,' she said quietly, kissing the dead lips for the last time; 'it's over.' And with a strange tragic fitness she added, in the words of another fatal schemer, 'We fail!'
She seemed to be the only one who had any business there; Beedel was abstracted; Carlyle and Carrados felt like spectators walking on a stage when the play is over. In the street below the summoned taxi throbbed unheeded; they were waiting for another equipage now. When that had moved off with its burden Kitty Poleash would follow her captors submissively, like a dog without a home.
'It isn't a feather in our caps to have a man slip away like that,' remarked the inspector moodily as the two joined him for a word before they left; 'but, of course, as far as they are both concerned, it's the very best that could have happened.'
'In what way do you mean the best?' demanded Mr Carlyle with a professional keenness for the explicit.
'Why, look at what will happen now. He's saved all the trouble and thought of being hanged, which it was bound to be in, the end, and has got it over without a moment's worry. She will get the full benefit of it as well, because her counsel will now be able to pile it all up against the fellow and claim that he exercised an irresistible influence over her. Personally, I should say that it's twelve of one and thirteen of the other, and I don't know that she isn't the thirteen, but she is about as likely to be hanged as I am to be made superintendent tomorrow.'
'Max,' said Mr Carlyle, as they sat smoking together the same night, 'when you think of the elaboration of that plot it was appalling.'
'Curious,' replied Carrados thoughtfully. 'To me it seems absolutely simple and inevitable. Perhaps that is because I should have done it—fundamentally, that is-just the same way myself.'
'And got caught the same way?'
'There were mistakes made. If you decide to kill a man you must do it either secretly or openly. If you do it secretly and it comes to light you are done for. If you do it openly there is the chance of putting another appearance on the crime.
'These two—Crispinge and Mrs Poleash—knew that in the ordinary way the killing of the husband would immediately attract suspicion to the wife. Under that fierce scrutiny it could not long be hidden that the woman had a lover, and the disclosure would be fatal. Indeed, if Poleash had lived, that fact must shortly have come to light, and it was the sordid determination to secure his income for themselves before he discovered the intrigue and divorced his wife that sealed his fate and forced an early issue.
'If you intend to commit a murder, Louis, and know that suspicion will automatically fall on you, what is the first thing that you would wish to effect? Obviously that it should fall on someone else more strongly. But as the arrest of that someone else would upset the plan, you would naturally make his identity such that he would have the best chance of remaining at large. The most difficult person to find is one who does not exist.
'There you have the whole strategy of the sorry business. Everything hinged on that, and when you once possess that clue you not only see why everything happened as it did but you can confidently forecast exactly what will happen. To go on believing that you had talked with the real Poleash it was necessary that you should never actually see the man as he was. Hence the disfigurement. What assailant would act in that way? Only one maddened by a jealous fury. The Southern people are popularly the most jealous and revengeful, so we must have a native of Italy or Spain, and the Italian is the more credible of the two. Similarly, Mr Hipwaite is brought in to add another touch of corroboration to your tale. But why Mr Hipwaite from a mile away? There is a locksmith quite near at hand; I made it my business to call on him, and I learned that, as I expected, he knew Poleash by sight. Plainly he would never have served the purpose.'
'Perhaps I ought to have been more sceptical of the fellow's tale,' conceded Mr Carlyle; 'but, you know, Max, I have a dozen fresh people call on me every month with queer stories, and it's not once in a million times that this would happen. I, at any rate, saw nothing to rouse suspicion. You say he made mistakes?'
'Crispinge, among divers other things he's failed in, has been an actor, and with Mrs Poleash's coaching on facts there is no doubt that he carried the part all right. Being wise after the event, we may say that he overstressed the need of secrecy. The idea of the previous attack, designed, of course, to throw irrefutable evidence into the scales, was too pronounced. Something slighter would have served better. Personally, I think it was excess of caution to send Mrs Jones out on the Thursday afternoon. She could have been relied upon to be too "mithered" for her recollections to carry any weight. It was necessary to destroy the only reliable photograph of Poleash, but the risk ought to have been taken of burning it before she went off to establish her unassailable alibi, and not leaving it for her accomplice to do. In the event, by handling the frame after he had burned his gloves, Crispinge furnished us with the solitary fingerprint that linked up his identity.'
'He had been convicted then?'
'Blackmail, six years ago, and other things before. A mixture of weakness and violence, he has always gravitated towards women for support. But the great mistake—the vital oversight—the alarm signal to my perceptions—'
'Well, I should really hardly like to mention it to anyone but you. The sheet and the bolster-case that so convincingly turned up to clinch your client's tale once and for all demolished it. They had never been on Poleash's bed, believe me, Louis. What a natural thing for the woman to take them from her own, and yet how fatal! I sensed that damning fact as soon as I had them in my hands, and in a trice the whole fabric of deception, so ingeniously contrived, came down in ruins. Nothing—nothing—could ever retrieve that simple, deadly blunder.'
At the time when the Enderleighs lost their silver the Monkey Burglar was at the height of his fame. The Monkey Burglar, should you by this date have forgotten, was the one who invariably gained access by leaping from a tree on to an upper-storey window-sill. So strong was habit that there were said to be cases of the Monkey Burglar going through this performance at houses where the front door stood open, or where a builder's ladder, left in position overnight, was reared against the very point he gained by the more sensational flight. During the thick of the burglary season that year each number of Punch regularly contained one or more jokes about the Monkey; no pantomime was complete without a few references to him; and the burgled invariably tried to claim distinction as authentic victims. In this, the Press, to do it justice, worthily seconded their endeavours.
The Enderleighs lived near Silver Park at that time, in one of the old-fashioned cottages that have long, delightful gardens running down to the river edge. They were a young couple, setting themselves a very moderate standard until the day when Enderleigh's wonderful qualities should be suitably recognized by a partnership. In the meanwhile he was something exceptionally responsible but not so exceptionally rewarded in connexion with a firm of estate agents and surveyors. Max Carrados had heard of him favourably from one or two friends and was not unwilling to put business in the young man's way. An opportunity came when the blind criminologist had, as trustee, to deal with an estate down in Warwickshire. He ascertained that Enderleigh was not debarred from doing work on his own account, and gave him a commission to inspect the property and make a general report. Business being slack, there was no difficulty in arranging a few days' leave of absence from the office, and the proposal was gratefully accepted.
On his return—he had conscientiously managed to cover the ground within two days—Enderleigh looked in at The Turrets before proceeding home and found Mr Carrados at leisure.
'I thought that I would leave the report with you now,' he explained, 'in case you cared to glance over it and ask me about any details while it's all fresh in my mind. I wrote up my notes in the train on the way back.'
'Good man,' smiled Carrados, accepting the docket. 'I should have liked you to stay while we discussed the matter, but I am afraid that someone else has a prior lien on your time.'
'In what way?'
'A few hours ago Mrs Enderleigh rang me up on the phone, and there is what I might describe as a standing order for you to communicate with her from here at the earliest moment.'
'Good heavens!' exclaimed Enderleigh in some trepidation. 'What's up, I wonder? Nothing wrong that you know of?'
'Nothing at all,' replied Carrados with reassuring unconcern. 'Your wife was in exceptional spirits, I gathered, but somewhat cryptical. However, there is the means of setting your mind at rest,' and he indicated the instrument. 'I'll leave you to it.'
'Please don't go.' Enderleigh seemed to be toying with the moment as if rather unwilling to set his mind at rest. 'I was startled for a second, but if my wife herself spoke to you there can't be anything much the matter. The fact is,' he confided with a certain shy complacency, 'she has been getting rather fanciful of late—not an unusual phase of the situation, I understand.'
Mr Carrados murmured his discreet congratulations, and his visitor summed up enough indifference to make the call.
'Holy Moses!' the blind man heard him mutter, and there followed a rapid fusillade of 'How?' and 'When?' and 'What?' and 'You don't mean it!' all indicating consternation and surprise, as long as the colloquy lasted.
'Here's a pretty go,' announced Mr Enderleigh, hanging up the receiver. 'We've been burgled!'
'The deuce!' exclaimed Carrados sympathetically. 'I hope your wife isn't much upset?'
'No, I don't think so. In fact, she seems rather set up, because some of our neighbours were robbed in a very commonplace way lately, and she's determined that this must have been the authentic Monkey.'
'Apparently the silver chest and nothing else. Myra rather fancied that I would call here on my way from something I had said—that's why she rang you up—and she wants me to go straight on. I hope you don't mind?'
'Of course not. I had hoped that you would keep me company for an hour or two, but that's out of the question now.... I'll tell you what, though: I will make a bargain with you. Stay another fifteen minutes, in which we can have a snack of some kind in place of dinner. In the meanwhile I will have a car got out that will land you at your place quicker than any other way you could go; and in return you shall invite me to inspect the depredation.'
'That's certainly a bargain from my side of the transaction,' replied Enderleigh. 'If it isn't putting you out, I'll accept like a shot.'
'Not a bit,' declared his host with more than polite formality. He moved across to the house telephone and quickly distributed the necessary orders. 'I love anything that comes suddenly along. It may be the beginning of—what adventure?'
'Well, as to that, of course there are two sides,' said the domesticated Enderleigh. 'This is quite sudden enough for men, but I certainly don't love it.'
Carrados was as good as his literal word, and fifteen minutes after he had spoken the lean form of his speedy Redshank car glided down the drive into the high road and then stretched out for Silver Park.
'Now that it's come to this, I may as well tell you about our silver,' explained Mr Enderleigh to his companion, on a confidential impulse. 'We happen to have rather a lot—more than people in our modest way generally sport, I mean. Myra's father was a fruit-grower and won a lot of cups and plates in his time. I used to be something of a runner and I amassed a few more, and when we got married our friends showered cruets and cake baskets down on us galore. The consequence is that there was a solid half-hundredweight of the metal reposing in a specially made case in the dining-room at Homecroft. Of course it ought to have been kept at the bank, and at first it was, but Myra liked to see an assortment out on the sideboard, so that it got to be a nuisance sending it backwards and forwards. Then I said that if we had it in the house it ought to be kept up in the bedroom for safety, and Myra found that she couldn't even lift the chest and decided that it would be too inconvenient to have it there. What with one thing and another, the confounded silver got to become a bit of a sore point between us—it brought on the first unpleasantness we had. Then, as bad luck would have it, just when I was leaving the other morning to go on this job we must needs get arguing about it again. I suggested that as there would be only two women alone in the house—herself and the servant—it would be safer if I carried the box up and hid it under the bed. Myra—God know why—retorted that if the silver was the danger-point it wasn't very kind to want to put it just under where she would be. One silly word led to another until I finally went off saying that I wished the damned stuff was at the bottom of the river.'
'You seem to have got the next thing to what you asked for then,' remarked Carrados. 'The silver apparently won't trouble you again.' But Enderleigh demurred at this cheerful summary and shook his head.
'Oh, yes,' he replied, 'but when you wish a thing like that you don't really mean that you want it to happen.'
'You are insured, I suppose?'
'Only partly, I'm afraid, because the value of the silver now exceeds the percentage allowed. And of course a lot of the things have associations, although there is nothing of antique value. I'm really wondering how Myra will take it when the excitement wears off.'
But so far the excitement was on, and she welcomed them radiantly, albeit a shade mystified that Mr Carrados should have chosen that moment to pay his call. It does not say much for the criminal expert's sense of publicity that neither his host nor hostess had the faintest idea of his uncanny reputation. To them he was simply the rich blind man who seemed as though he might be useful to Guy.
'But isn't it a shame, Mr Carrados?' she cooed, when the first round of wonder and exclamation had been gone through. 'Sergeant Lapworth declares that it can't possibly be the Monkey Burglar. And I was so relying on that to squelch the Higgses with.'
Carrados divined an exchange of private glances, expostulatory from the husband, playfully defiant on her part.
'I have met Sergeant Lapworth once or twice and he seemed to know his work,' said the visitor. 'Did he say why it couldn't be?'
'Well, the only way they could have got in was by the side door. No fastenings have been forced or windows opened. And the Monkey wouldn't ever dream of using a side door.'
'But how on earth could they do that?' demanded Enderleigh. 'I mean without using force. Chloe fastens the door at night, doesn't she?'
'I'll show you if you don't mind accompanying me to the nether regions,' said the light-hearted girl. 'Chloe only locks the door it seems—the bolts are too stiff to work—and Sergeant Lapworth says that these people—he's almost sure he knows the gang—have all manner of ingenious tools. There's a sort of pincers that you catch hold of a key with from the other side and turn it quite easily. You can see that the lock has been oiled to make it go.'
'You found the door unlocked this morning?'
'No—I don't know. I never thought of that. But I suppose they could just as easily lock it again to cover their tracks, and as it happened it was not until this afternoon that I missed the silver chest. Then there are footprints on the bed from the gate to the side door. He found those as well. It's most wildly exciting discovering clues; I've been looking for some all the afternoon, but so far without success.'
'Come on then,' suggested Enderleigh. 'You have a lamp or candle, I suppose?'
'Yes. Do you care to see our private morgue, Mr Carrados—oh, I am sorry: I forgot!'
'That's very nice of you—to forget,' smiled the blind man. 'It shows that I'm not so helpless after all. Certainly I should like to come; I'm as keen on clues as you are.'
The side door was the chief point of interest. It opened on to the garden from the scullery. The scullery—a dank and forbidding chamber that almost justified its epithet—in turn led into the kitchen, and the kitchen into the hall. But there were other ways of getting about, for it was an old house with many passages and on various levels. Most of the rooms appeared to have at least two doors. 'I think that the man who built it must have been fond of French farces,' remarked Mr Enderleigh, pointing out this feature.
But even at the side door there was very little to see, the Enderleigh burglary being chiefly remarkable for its negative features. There was the oiled lock, and the key bore certain recent scratches, and that was all.
'If the bolts had been shot this would never have happened,' said the master of the house. 'Perhaps in future—'
'But the bolts can't be stirred, dear,' protested Myra. 'I've tried myself until my poor thumbs are nearly dislocated. And every one says that if burglars want to get in they will, even if they have to come down the chimney.'
'I think the bolts might move if they were simply oiled,' suggested Carrados. 'The level is all right, you see.'
'Chloe,' called out Mr Enderleigh—the kitchen door stood open—'is there any oil about?'
A young girl in cap and apron—a girl of quite unusual prettiness—appeared at the door.
'Oil, sir?' she repeated faintly, and she continued to look from one to another of them as though something was amiss.
'Yes, oil—ordinary oil—the sort you oil with, you know. There must be some about somewhere.'
'Oh, yes—for the sewing machine,' she replied, and disappeared to return with it in a moment.
'Now a feather.'
The girl's eyes shot to a bucket holding kitchen refuse that stood beneath the sink; then rose to the level again as she continued to stand there.
'Feathers: in the middle dresser drawer, Chloe,' prompted her mistress tartly. 'Bless me,' she confided to the others, 'the girl's going dotty, I believe. Over-excitement isn't good for our poor sex.'
'Now we want a chair or something for the top bolt,' said Enderleigh.
'I think I can do it without, if you will allow me,' put in Carrados. 'I fancy that I am just a few inches to the good in that respect.'
'But really, Mr Carrados,' protested the lady, 'won't you get it on your clothes—or something?'
That is only a matter of carelessness, not vision,' replied Carrados. He gave the feather a dexterous turn in the neck of the bottle to remove the excess of oil before he withdrew it. 'Children have the keenest sight, Mrs Enderleigh, and yet look how they drop the jam about!'
'It's quite marvellous,' she murmured, watching him apply the oil and then work the action until the bolt slid easily.
'Not so much as you might think,' he assured her. 'Frequently you are indebted to other senses when you think you are using your eyes, and they get all the credit. Several men have told me that they always close their eyes when they are doing certain delicate adjustments.'
'I once knew a lady who always shut her eyes before she fired a gun off,' contributed Enderleigh. 'Yet she was fond of shooting, and often hit things.'
'Dogs or keepers?' inquired Myra politely.
Certainly the burglary did not seem to have damped anyone's spirits. Presently they went out to look at the incriminating footprints—'viewing the body' Myra called it—by candlelight until they were tired of striking matches and the friendly darkness put Carrados at liberty to go down on hands and knees and touch the well-marked impressions with his eerily perceptive fingers in his own peculiar way.
'What's this—snowing?' Enderleigh had exclaimed as he opened the door to lead the way into the garden. A sprinkling of white showed on the bare earth before them.
'Goose!' retorted Myra fondly, 'it's lime, of course. Old Benjamin—he's a sort of local unhandyman, Mr Carrados, whom Guy employs one day a week to sit in the garden and smoke shag—put it on only yesterday. He said the soil was too "thodden" for bulbs: it's always too something for Ben.'
'It came in useful, all the same,' said her husband. 'You see, the lime being crushed down in the footprints shows that they were made after it was put there. That's important.'
'Lapworth the Sleuth had already diagnosed that, O Fountain of Wisdom,' mocked his wife. She leaned forward and struck him lightly on the arm. 'You're it! Race you to the river, Guy!'
'Ssh!' warned Enderleigh with a nod towards their guest.
'Go, children—run,' urged Carrados benignly. 'I will follow at a pace more suited to my years.'
'Hold up!' cried Myra, limping into a walk before they were fairly off. 'I forgot; my feet are as soft as mush today. Besides, I oughtn't to now.'
'No, of course you oughtn't to,' said Guy severely. 'And we oughtn't to leave Mr Carrados like that. God knows what sort of a lunatic asylum he'll think he's dropped on.'
'Never mind: I got you away. Just one, Guy. And don't worry about him. He said his ears, but he meant his eyes, of course: his ears are sharp enough. That old man wouldn't take any harm if you put him down in the middle of a sawmill.'
'Old!' exclaimed Mr Enderleigh indignantly. 'Great Scott! What next?'
They walked back to meet the advancing Carrados, and then they all strolled soberly down to the extremity of the garden and stood contemplating the slow, muddy river before they turned back again.
'You take Mr Carrados into the dining-room, Guy,' said Myra, hastening on ahead as they neared the house. 'I'm going up to change my shoes—these are soaked.'
'Yes, my lady, you are pretty high up already, I'm afraid,' apostrophized her husband as they followed. 'That's the way of it, Mr Carrados. I shall think myself lucky if she isn't down below zero before the night is out.'
'I've taken hot water up to the spare room, sir,' said Chloe, as they passed her in the hall.
They washed their hands leisurely and went down to the dining room. The maid had lit the lamp and was replenishing the fire. Still Mrs Enderleigh did not appear. A few minutes passed rather flatly. Enderleigh made a half-hearted show of asking his guest if he was fond of this and that, but Carrados divined his vague uneasiness and soon they both frankly waited.
'Guy,' said a queer little voice just outside the door—it had been left somewhat ajar—'do you mind coming here a minute.'
Enderleigh threw a quick, inquiring look across, and the blind man—informed by what sense, who shall say?—nodded mute assent. Then the door closed and Carrados slowly turned his face to the four points of the room.
It was perhaps five minutes later that Enderleigh returned. He came thoughtfully across the room and stood close to his guest's chair.
'It's just as I was afraid,' he said, pitching his voice cautiously. 'Myra is now at a very minus stage indeed. And a curious thing—curious and trivial, and yet, I must admit, extraordinary—has happened to upset her. It's mixed up with one or two other matters, and I suppose that this burglary also—although that has nothing to do with it—has helped to put the emotional screw on. If you care to hear I will tell you with pleasure, especially as you have seen how bright she was a few minutes ago, but I don't want to bore you.'
'Go on,' said Carrados. 'Curious and trivial things that are extraordinary have never bored me yet.'
'Well, you shall judge. I indicated, over at your place, that we are expecting our little household to be increased in the course of a few months. Not unnaturally, Myra has to pass through a variety of new emotions on the subject, and she also has an unfortunate misgiving. It happened that her father was born club-footed and his father was disfigured in the same way. Of course, we tell her that it's all nonsense, but there is undeniably an element of heredity in that sort of thing, and she knows it well enough. Just now she is doubly prone to take notice of any kind of suggestion or premonition that may come along, especially on that one unlucky possibility. You heard her say that she was going up to change her shoes? Well, this is what has happened: she went upstairs, kicked off her wet shoes, and proceeded to pull on another pair. They are shoes that she has worn quite comfortably at intervals for the past few weeks, but now one—the right foot—would not go on. Thinking nothing of it, she picked up a shoe-lift and tried again. Still it refused to accommodate, and then she went to the light and looked more closely.... It wasn't likely to fit, Carrados, for the extraordinary thing is that those shoes, which she has worn quite easily and naturally a dozen times in the last few weeks, are both for the left foot!'
There was a rattle of cups and glasses as the attractive maid nearly dropped the tray she was bringing in. Enderleigh looked sharply round, but the girl kept her face averted and quickly went out again.
'There's another who's certainly got the jumps,' said her master. 'But about those shoes. Of course it's ridiculous, but you see the inference? In each forerunning case it was the right foot that was wrong, and so poor Myra is miraculously endowed with two left shoes at this moment as a sort ol admonition than an ordinary right will not be needed.... But you don't see anything in it, I expect?'
'On the contrary,' replied Carrados slowly, 'I see so much in it—so many thousand possibilities, all wrong but one—that I should like to go up into a very large, perfectly bare attic, lit by several twenty thousand candle-power arc-lamps, and there meditate.'
'And the nearest thing I can offer you,' said Enderleigh, 'is the coal cellar. It's roomy as such places go and certainly practically empty now. For the rest—' He found the pleasantry difficult to sustain.
'So,' continued the blind man seriously, 'we must still proceed on directly material lines. I should very much like to handle the pair of shoes that has caused the trouble. Do you think Mrs Enderleigh would allow me?'
'Why not?' assented the lady's husband. Til go and get them.'
He went, and returned almost immediately—but empty-handed.
'She's coming down now. Much better,' he whispered in the voice of a conspirator. 'Bringing them.' And almost at his heels a sobered Myra reappeared.
'I'm a hopeless little rabbit, Mr Carrados,' she apologized. 'Please don't say anything nice about it, because I am.'
'Rabbit!' ejaculated her natural protector loyally; 'rabbit I Why, Mr Carrados, that—that sylph has the heart of a—a—well, I'm not strong on the faunas, but of whatever is the antithesis of rabbit.'
'That would be a ferret, wouldn't it?' asked Myra in her funny way. 'What a sad flatterer you are, Guy!'
'Go on,' said Guy happily. 'So long as you can laugh—'
She waved a reassuring hand to him across the room as she addressed their guest again.
'Of course, I know that he has told you all about it, Mr Carrados,' she said. 'Because when I taxed him he began by saying, "I only just—" Here is the mystery.'
It was a pair of pretty bronze shoes, neat yet not fragile, that she put into the blind man's hands. He held them one by one, and as his long, delicately-formed fingers brushed across their surface the two watchers received a curious impression of seeing something read.
'I shouldn't mind-I shouldn't mind the shoes a particle,' declared Myra—she felt compelled to speak to break the almost hypnotic quest of those understanding hands 'though, of course, they're no earthly use. But for weeks I've been wearing them all right, and now I know perfectly well that I couldn't. There's something wrong with me somewhere, don't you see?'
'But, dearest,' pleaded Guy soothingly, 'there's some perfectly simple explanation if only we could see it. Why, only just now you said that your feet were tender. That's probably it. You've got them sore, and so you can't put on the shoe. If they were all right you'd jump into them and not notice that anything was the matter, just as you have been doing up to now.'
'Don't talk tommy, Guy!' she exclaimed half wrathfully. 'As if I could possibly put on two left shoes without knowing it, even if I could get them on. And yet,' she wailed, 'I have been putting them on—that's the horrible thing about it.'
Carrados had apparently finished his scrutiny, for he was listening to this exchange in his usual benign complacency, and as he listened he absently rubbed his nose gently with the polished toe of a shoe.
'Set your mind at rest, Mrs Enderleigh,' he remarked quietly, as he offered her the other one. 'There is nothing wrong. You have never worn that shoe.'
'I have never worn it?'
'Neither you nor anybody else. The shoe has not been worn.'
'But look at the wear,' she persisted, displaying the scarified sole. 'Look at this worn lace.'
'The lace, yes,' he admitted, with unshaken confidence. 'But not the shoe.'
'But how can you possibly know that?'
'In exactly the same way that I could oil the bolt—by using other powers than that of sight.'
'Do you mean—' began Enderleigh, but Carrados interrupted him with uplifted hand.
'If I may suggest, please don't say anything more about the shoes just yet. At this moment Sergeant Lapworth has come to the door and your servant is admitting him. Let us hear what he has to say.'
Myra and Guy exchanged looks of bewilderment—almost of alarm—and then the girl's face cleared.
'Yes,' she exclaimed, 'I had forgotten to tell you. He did say that he would look in again after you got back, Guy.'
'If you please, m'm,' said Chloe at the door, 'there's the detective here again, and he would like to see the master if it's convenient.'
'Quite right,' replied Myra. 'Show him in here.'
Sergeant Lapworth was a plain-clothes man of the local staff. If he had a fault it was that of giving the impression of knowing more than he would tell, a suggestion that resulted in people sometimes finding him less omniscient in the end than they had expected. The Enderleighs were rather surprised at the sudden respect that came over him when he recognized their blind visitor.
'One or two small matters I thought I'd like to see you about, sir,' he said, addressing Mr Enderleigh. 'Those footprints by the side gate. I understand that no one came along that way between the time your gardener put the lime there yesterday and my seeing them this afternoon?'
'That is quite right,' agreed Myra. 'We allow the milkman to come in at the front gate and go to the side door, to save him carrying his can right round the other way. No one else came; I asked Chloe particularly.'
'You see the point, sir?' continued the sergeant, directing his voice at Mr Carrados this time. 'Whoever left those footprints is the man we want to put our hands on. We should like him to account for his movements last night at all events. Old Ben certainly never made those prints, sir. Now, I wonder,' the sergeant's voice became softly specu-lative as he leisurely felt in one or two pockets and finally produced a neat paper template of a boot, 'I wonder if this suggests anything to either of you?"
Myra shook her head and passed the paper on to Enderleigh.
'It's a man's boot, I suppose,' she said. 'It is broader than a woman's and the heel is twice as large. It's much smaller than any of yours, Guy.'
'Lord, yes,' he agreed. 'I'm miles beyond that.'
'Perhaps,' continued Sergeant Lapworth, becoming almost dreamy in his quiet detachment, 'perhaps this might help you more if you should ever have seen the original.' It was a small fancy button that he mysteriously produced this time from the Aladdin's cave among his garments. Myra's spirits went up.
'What a splendid clue, Mr Lapworth!' she exclaimed. 'Where did you find it?'
'I don't want anything said about it just yet,' he stipulated. 'As a matter of fact I picked it up in your scullery this afternoon.'
'It is a boot button, I suppose?' questioned Enderleigh. 'It strikes me as rather dressy.'
'It is the top of a pearl boot button undoubtedly, I should say,' pronounced the sergeant. 'One of those metal-shanked things that they wire into the boot nowadays. First question is, Does it belong to anyone of the house? I dare say you have plenty of pairs of fancy boots and shoes in use or put by, but it isn't a button that you would readily forget.'
Myra breathlessly agreed that if she had had boot buttons like that she would never have forgotten it, and added that if Guy had appeared with them she could never have forgiven it—a sotto-voce effort that elicited nothing more than an anxious look from her husband.
'And how about the young person in the kitchen?' suggested Lapworth.
'I know Chloe's boots, and it certainly doesn't come from there,' replied Chloe's mistress. 'However, you had better ask her, to make sure. Shall I ring now?'
'Don't trouble,' he replied, with a quite spontaneous glance towards the decanters on the table, as he returned the precious relic to its hiding-place. 'I can have a word with her as I go out. Now as regards the silver. Your good lady said that you would be able to make me out a list, sir.'
'Of course,' assented Enderleigh; 'that's got to be done, hasn't it? And then there'll be the insurance people. And then a young man introducing himself as "The Press". I'll tell you what, sergeant, this being burgled isn't such a soft thing after all.'
'I don't know, sir. It strikes me that you have come off uncommonly easy, seeing as how things were. No mess, no breakages, no odds and ends from every room that you can't remember until it's too late to claim. Just one big lot taken clean.'
'It would be about as much as he could take, anyway,' said the owner. 'I shouldn't like to heft that case far.' He casually indicated the group of liquors. 'What shall it be, sergeant?'
'I'll leave that to you, sir,' said the sergeant modestly. 'Yes, it would be a tidy load. I don't know that I ever remember the case being taken before. Reckon they had a car somewhere near.'
'Anyway, nothing was overlooked,' said Myra. 'There were some tankards out on the sideboard here, and three dozen spoons of various sizes in the drawer, and they went too. I put them—'
'You put them what?' prompted her husband, for Myra had stopped as though she had said her say.
'I haven't the faintest notion, dear,' she replied frankly. 'To tell the truth I think I was half asleep. Put what what?'
'Well, I think I'll be getting on along, sir,' said Lapworth, reading in this a pretty obvious hint. 'As soon as we hear from you—'
'Nonsense,' interposed Enderleigh, rather put out at the turn; 'have another first,' and he refilled the not altogether inflexible sergeant's glass.
There was a hesitating knock at the door and Chloe entered with a card.
'Please, m'm,' said the girl—Mrs Enderleigh happened to be seated nearest to her—'there's a gentleman would like to see the master for a minute.'
'"Wich"—"Mr William Wich",' read Myra. 'Isn't there a Lady Wich a few houses away?'
'Trefusis—Lady Wich, madam,' volunteered Lapworth. 'There is a Mr William, the son.'
'I'd better go out and see what it is,' said Enderleigh. 'Probably only a minute—excuse me, won't you?'
For so short a gap it did not seem worth while discovering a topic of conversation, and so no one broke the minute's silence. If they had spoken their thoughts the exchange would have been something after this fashion:
'I wonder if Lady Wich ever intends to call—city knight's widow, I suppose. Now will Mr Carrados go when the fat sergeant leaves, or does he expect that we have proper supper?'
'Bit of a card this Mr Willie Wich from what I hear. Old party keeps him in pretty tight by all accounts. Larky; girls. Damn fine stuff this Scotch here. Wonder if it'd be all right, if he does give the nod again, for me to—'
'She must stand five feet five—possibly six. At that, with the tread she has, she will take a 4½ to 5. Yes, under any vigorous exercise she might reasonably split a pliant 3½. There were certainly two definable personal exudations about the other shoe, and associable with them syringa—that's the girl—and cheiranthus—this one.'
The door opened and Enderleigh entered, then standing aside he waited for someone else.
'Rather curious,' he announced. 'Mr Wich has come to give us some information about our friend last night; so as we are all here—My wife; Mr Wich; Mr Carrados; Sergeant Lapworth.'
'It's really from my mother, you know,' said the dapper youth who followed the host in. 'She's a frightful invalid—heart and all that—so she sent me to tell you. We only just heard of what had happened: beastly shame—'
'We didn't know that you'd be interested,' ventured Myra graciously.
'Eh? Oh, I mean rotten luck being burgled like that. Well, it seems that last night the mater was having a bad turn and she had to get up and sit at the open window to have air. That's how it takes her. It seems that from her bedroom window one can see most of your garden—we live a couple of houses along: Trefusis, you know—and as she sat there she distinctly saw someone go down your garden towards the river and disappear among the trees. She says she wasn't taking much notice of it at the time, because there was no reason why there should be anything wrong in that, and it being dark she didn't see a lot, and she was feeling pretty washed out as well. But she did notice that it seemed to be a man carrying something large and heavy, and when she heard of this she thought you'd better know.'
'It's most awfully good of Lady Wich to send,' gushed Myra; 'and of you to come. We are just celebrating the event with frugal hospitality. Will you drink the toast "Our Absent Friend" in whisky, port, or coffee, Mr Wich?'
'Eh? Oh, I don't mind. The first for choice, thank you.'
'The river,' mused Lapworth. 'That's certainly an idea now: we couldn't find any likely motor wheel-tracks down the side road here. A boat waiting, you see. What time about would this be, sir?'
'Oh, about half-past twelve, she said.'
'Ah!' The sergeant continued to regard Mr Wich with an air of distant speculation while at the same time his hand went mechanically to his mysterious pocket. 'I suppose you didn't by any chance happen to be in the neighbourhood yourself at about that hour, sir?'
The perfect respect of the tone could not wholly disguise a certain significance in the question, and Willie Wich looked up to meet the sergeant's eyes on level terms. Enderleigh also found something arresting in the sudden tension that seemed to have involved two of his guests, while Carrados continued to gaze into unseen space with the faint half smile of placid contemplation. Myra alone appeared to have no interest in the passage, and her face was turned away, but her lips were tight pressed to hold back a cry of generous warning and her heart was thudding like an engine beat, for in a flash her eyes had followed Lapworth's and in a flash had seen on her spruce guest's extended foot a boot with identical pearl buttons, of which the upper one was missing.
The gap between the question and the answer was almost as long as it takes to tell of it, for with their eyes meeting Wich paused to consider his reply as though a thought urged caution.
'What do you quite mean by that?' he asked guardedly. 'You know, of course, that I live in the neighbourhood. Do you mean, was I at home?'
'Not exactly, sir,' replied the sergeant. 'You might have been passing this very house on your way home and thought you saw or heard something suspicious here and come nearer to investigate. Or you might have had a dog stray into this garden and come in to call it back, or a dozen things. What I should like to know is, did you come into this house or garden last night for any purpose?'
'I did not,' said Wich, his face relaxing into something like an amused grin. 'What is more, sergeant, I have never before been in this house or garden in the course of my long and industrious life.'
'That's quite definite, sir,' Lapworth admitted. 'In the circumstances would you mind stating where you were between the hours of eleven last night and two o'clock this morning?'
To those who knew him pretty well young Mr Wich was something of a puzzle, and they complained that you never knew how he would take it and whether the fellow was quite the fool he sometimes seemed.
'"In the circumstances", sergeant, seems to imply the existence of certain conditions of which I have no knowledge,' he now replied. 'Should I ever find myself in the dock of the Old Bailey, charged with the murder of a constable, or before the Surrey Petty Sessions accused of appropriating Mr Enderleigh's ancestral plate, either of those eventualities would constitute an aggregation of circumstances that would enforce my acquiescence. At present I fail to see any reason why I should render an account of my trivial life and movements.'
Sergeant Lapworth took out an irreproachably white pocket handkerchief and wiped his face profusely.
'Very good, sir,' he remarked with dark significance. 'Should you have any objection to my comparing this form'—here the sergeant dramatically produced his first exhibit—'with the boots you are now wearing?'
'Not the least,' replied the buoyant young man, raising his right foot to facilitate the operation; 'though I must protest against the attention thus gratuitously directed to my very unprepossessing footwear. Anything to assist the legitimate ends of justice. But not,' he added severely, 'of mere vulgar curiosity.'
Without deigning to reply, Sergeant Lapworth went down on one knee and from that position fitted the paper impression against the proffered boot. It was at once plain to everyone that the two outlines coincided perfectly. But an even more significant piece of evidence was to emerge, for as the sergeant performed this office he slyly inserted a nail in the angle of the instep and an appreciable sprinkling of white-peppered soil fell down into his hand.
'I must call your attention, sir, to the fact that this earth from your boot appears to correspond with the soil of the garden here.'
'I say!' exclaimed Mr Wich aghast, 'I am sorry, Mrs Enderleigh—bringing stuff like that into your pretty room!' Then with a bright look of toleration, 'But I expect you know what servants are!'
'Lastly,' said Sergeant Lapworth with admirable composure in spite of a rather flushed complexion, 'I shall be glad if you will look at this button which corresponds exactly with those on your boot, where one is missing.'
'Thank you,' replied young Mr Wich, passing it back again; it's very good of you to have kept it for me, but it's really no use. It isn't a button you sew on, but one of those metal-shanked affairs and the shank is broken.'
'Then I understand, sir, that you decline to assist us with any information?'
'Oh, no, you don't, sergeant—not if you understand the common or vernacular tongue, that is,' retorted his antagonist. 'So far, what I have declined is to give an account of my movements on the strength of an old button hypothetically lost at some time from my boot and a little piece of paper traced to measure. It may be the law that I have to if anyone shows me those: I must look that up. But you may remember that the only reason for my being here was to bring you information.'
'Oh, yes,' exclaimed Myra, completely won over by the suspect's ready nonchalance, 'we are all sure that Mr Wich is quite all right, Sergeant Lapworth. Aren't we, Guy?'
'Mrs Enderleigh,' put in Wich, gazing at her with melancholy admiration, 'before I go I must unburden my mind, and I'm afraid you may think very poorly of me in consequence. I did not purloin your silver and I have not the faintest idea who did. Good-bye.'
'Must you really go?' she asked. 'Please be sure and thank Lady Wich from me, won't you? And any Thursday.'
'If you would be so kind as to help a blind man to his car, Mr Wich,' interposed Carrados, and Enderleigh found his own proffered services quietly brushed aside.
'You don't say you are!' exclaimed Wich. 'I never tumbled to it. And that's your little jigger waiting then? I'm looking forward to something on four wheels myself, but so far I have to be content with two.'
'It's hardly worth while offering you a lift,' said Carrados, when they were in the road, 'but if you don't mind I should like to walk with you as far as your gate.'
'Right-o,' said Mr Wich, wondering who this queer customer who had made up to him might be. 'Lovely night, isn't it? What about your car?'
'It will follow presently; my driver understands. I have been trying to think where we have met before. Are you by-any chance the Wich who made forty-nine for The Rest against Lord's Schools five years ago?'
'Oh, I say!' exclaimed his companion, becoming quite boyishly shy at the reference to this exploit. 'You don't mean to say that you remember that? Were you at Lord's?'
'Yes. I am fond of the minor fixtures; I can hear more play in them than often comes out in first-class matches. We did not speak, but you passed, and I thought I recognized your step again. A Winchester fellow was commenting on the game for me. You were given run out.'
'You must simply be a walking Wisden, sir.' said Wich, brimming with admiration. And then with a curious intonation in his voice he added, 'But why "given"?'
'I remember some reference to it.... Were you out?'
'As a matter of fact I was not,' he admitted.
'I don't think you made any fuss about it—quarrelled with the umpire or groused about the pavilion?'
'Well, should I be likely? ... It was cricket.'
'Yes.... And now about this business?'
They had reached the gate of Trefusis, but the young man made no movement towards it, and presently they fell to walking slowly on again.
'That isn't so easy. Not by a long, long way. I was taken by surprise, I must admit; I hadn't a notion that there'd be any trace. Of course it would have been simple enough to tell the sergeant how it came about, if that was all.'
'You mean the lady in the case; or shall we say the girl in the shoes?'
'Partly; and then there is my mother. She would certainly have a heart attack if she found that William had been taking her neighbour's hand-maiden out to midnight carnivals and other forms of penance.'
'Is that quite—cricket?'
'Not absolutely M.C.C., perhaps, but it isn't to be inferred that I had the inklingest of who she was at first. And Chloe really is an awfully pretty girl, you know. What has she let out?'
'Nothing at all, so far as I am aware.'
'Then how on earth do you come to know of her—and the shoes?'
'Very much, I suppose, in the same way that Sergeant Lapworth has come to know of you and the boot—because the traces are so obvious.'
'I must say I think Chloe was a bit of a mutt to walk on the bed and then leave a button somewhere about. She might have learned better than that from the pictures surely.'
'Chloe naturally had not foreseen that the escapade would coincide with a burglary. But I would not be too ready to blame her, my young friend,' advised Carrados dryly. 'The most disastrous blunder of all was made by someone else.'
'That's a straight one,' said Mr Wich. 'What did I do?'
'Suppose you tell me about it?' suggested Mr Carrados. 'Under the seal of confidence.'
'I don't mind. I was going to see a lawyer first thing tomorrow to find out what I'd better do to circumvent the forces of law and order. Perhaps you could advise me?'
'Perhaps I could,' admitted Carrados. 'At all events I will.'
'There really isn't very much to tell,' said young Mr Wich pensively. 'I happened to be on the river alone a few months ago when I noticed a dazzling creature watching my feeble efforts from the bank. To have a nearer look I landed and asked her if she was not, excuse me, Miss Prendergast? She said no, but, how curious, she had been almost sure that I was a certain Mr Johnson. This constituting a deputy introduction on established lines I prevailed upon the bright vision to go for a short cruise and even to accept some slight refreshment of a light and portable nature.
'Under the auspices of the gods the idyll proceeded with exemplary propriety to run its normal course. So far as I was concerned the chief attraction was the extreme likelihood of detection and the certainty that everyone concerned would impute the very worst motives to my conduct when they did find out.
'On our usual "evening" last week I was indulging the delightful being's passion for a harmless beverage known as Tango Teaser when she espied a handbill announcing a cheap fancy dance at one of the public halls a few miles away and artlessly exclaimed:
'"I should love to go to one of those".
'Of course there was only one humanly possible reply to a heart-cry like that, and I gallantly made it.
'"And I should love to take you. Why not?"
'To this she said that it was absolutely impossible and we fell to making the arrangements. She was to creep out quietly by a side door after the others had gone to bed, lock the door after her and bring the key, and meet me at our usual trysting place—a spot a few hundred yards from our respective abodes. I would be there with my iron steed, and on the pillion thereof would whirl her into fairyland.
'Everything went off as per schedule. The only contretemps was that Chloe—have I mentioned that the heroine was Chloe, by the way?—ripped one of her shoes across and thus passed automatically into the retired list. I confess that I was surprised at the consternation the mishap occasioned the sweet chit, and then she told me. Ashamed at the deficiency of her own pedal outfit she had surreptitiously "borrowed" a pair belonging to her mistress. Detection would now inevitably follow, disgrace, possibly dismissal. Sighs, tears—heavens!—reproaches. Again I did the insane chivalrous thing and swore to replace the shoe within twelve hours or perish.'
'The rest is obvious. Chloe knew where they had been bought—a shop in Oxford Street—and I was to his me off at dawn and duplicate them. As there would be the business of giving the shoes the necessary "wear" it would be simpler to keep only one, and this I was to put into a clump of ivy on the garden side wall. But when it came to parting a difficulty arose: it was essential for me to have the split shoe as a pattern; I could not allow the fair penitent to walk stocking-footed along the stony road; and it wasn't wise to risk being seen together any nearer our houses. The simple way out was for me to lend her one of mine, and this I recovered from the ivy bush when I put the other one in. And there, Mr Carrados, you have the whole egg in a nutshell.'
'Everything went off all right then?' inquired Carrados maliciously.
'Like a clock. I obtained the exact thing in the exact size, scrubbed it down to the exact appearance of the other and put in the old lace. The superfluous shoe was flung over into an orchard somewhere Isleworth way. There was nothing much in all that. But now you see why it was impossible to satisfy Sergeant Lapworth's inopportune curiosity.'
'You may perhaps find it difficult to satisfy one or two other people as well. Did Chloe say anything when she let you in just now?'
'Why, yes; it struck me as ungracious at the time. The angel looked at me very weirdly and just said "Idiot!" I thought she must be overwrought.'
'I think it very likely. I told you that there had been other blunders besides Chloe's. What she wished to indicate by a single appropriate word, my budding Lothario, was that you had thrown away the wrong shoe, with the consequence that Mrs Enderleigh is now on the verge of hysterics at an apparent miracle.'
'No!' exclaimed Wich incredulously, 'I could not. And yet, surely.... Oh, good Lord, I did! I kept them to make a pair—the new one and the other, instead of.... Well, I am a prize fathead! What will happen now?'
'What? Why the extreme probability that you have had your trouble for nothing and that Chloe will be sacked after all.'
'Oh, I don't think that—not after seeing Mrs Enderleigh. You and Chloe both misjudge her strangely. She seems the jolliest sort of girl to me. I bet she'll understand.'
'I'll bet she will,' assented Carrados grimly. 'And when she understands that her pretty servant has been wearing her things, sneaking out at nights (to say nothing about giving burglars the chance of sneaking in) to foot it at dance-halls with the young spark from next-door-but-one, you may not find her quite so sympathetic as she was half an hour ago. If she doesn't take the opportunity of calling upon Lady Wich about it I'm badly out.'
'It's a mug's business,' said Mr Wich with a qualmish note in his voice. 'What had I better do?'
'What you had better do is to leave it in my hands and agree to my condition.'
'That you never go gallivanting with Chloe again. You both "don't mean anything", but suppose you did happen to get the girl discharged with a very dubious character? Should you see any alternative to behaving either as a fool or a knave to put it right?'
'Whew!' exclaimed Mr Wich, easing the collar against his neck, 'that's heart-to-heart stuff. Well, if you can bring it off I'm good for my part. Chloe certainly is a dazzling thing, but, strictly between ourselves, her mind is little more than an assortment of obsolete film captions.'
When Mr Enderleigh returned from business the next day Myra greeted him with a subdued note. It was plain that the excitement had quite worn off.
'If Mr Carrados is really going to be useful to you, Guy, of course I shall do my best to amuse him. But I wonder all the same if he is going to make a practice of dropping in every evening.'
'How so?' demanded Guy.
'He rang me up this afternoon and hoped that we should both be in later as he would like to call. I had to say we should be charmed.'
'Just as well you did, my lady,' remarked Guy. 'Do you know that quite important people have a most extraordinary opinion of the man, and I am told that Scotland Yard will do anything to oblige him. That's what I've come across today.'
'My gracious!' said Myra, deeply impressed; 'it's just as well I fawned. Talking about police, I met Sergeant Lapworth in the road this morning and he seemed very odd. He said they had received instructions to go slow in taking any steps.'
'That ought to suit them down to the ground,' suggested Guy pessimistically. 'We don't look like seeing any of our plate again, old girl.'
'I don't know, Guy. It struck me that Sergeant Lapworth knew more than he would tell. He said that they expected developments.'
'It used to be "were investigating a clue",' said the unimpressed gentleman.
Mrs Enderleigh had named nine o'clock as a convenient hour and with the busy man's punctuality nine o'clock found Mr Carrados walking up the Homecraft garden path. Looking out, the lady of the house felt a pleasant access of importance, arising from the notable proportions of the car waiting at her gate.
'How nice of you to come again!' she exclaimed playfully. 'After the alarms and excursions of yesterday I hardly dared to hope it.'
'Oh, yes,' he replied prosaically, 'your husband and I have some small business details to discuss.'
'Of course,' she assented quickly. 'I am going to leave you at it.'
'But first,' he continued, 'I have a bargain to offer you.'
'Offer me? How exciting! Whatever can it be?'
'You really want to get your silver back again?'
'Why, naturally. Guy tells me that we shall only receive about half the value the way our policy goes—isn't it, Guy?'
'I'm afraid it is,' admitted her husband.
'And that's only money. To both of us many of the things are priceless.'
'While you have no particular affection for that odd pair of shoes?'
'Shoes? Oh, those! How ridiculous, Mr Carrados! You are not coming like an up-to-date genie to offer silver plates for old shoes, are you?'
'You have guessed. But there's always a catch about these attractive bargains, you remember. If you agree to let the shoes go, everything connected with them goes also. You have no curiosity, make no inquiries, entertain no suspicions: it is to be as though they and all that appertains to them had never been.'
'I wonder if I understand?' mused Myra with a sharp little look in his direction.
'I think you do,' replied Carrados. 'You are—forgive the homely phrase—no fool, Mrs Enderleigh. If you do not quite understand yet it's only because you have not had time to think about it. You soon would.'
'All right; I'll take it,' said Myra, with a very sporting air.
'But do you mean that you actually know now where the silver is?' demanded Enderleigh.
'I know where the silver is,' Carrados admitted.
'Where?' exclaimed two simultaneous voices.
'When you went off a few days ago, you expressed a wish as to where it might be, Mr Enderleigh, didn't you?'
'What was that?' asked Myra, from whose mind the malediction had apparently faded. Her husband, on the contrary, remembered very well and he coloured at the recollection.
'I am sorry to be reminded of that,' he said moodily. 'Something happened to put me out, Myra, and in a moment of irritation, without meaning it, I said I wished the stuff at the bottom of the river. That's all.'
'Yes; that's the way with you impulsive people, as we genii are always finding. You want a thing and then discover that you don't. Well, my friend, you have got your wish, willy-nilly. The stuff is at the bottom of the river.'
'What a lark!' exclaimed the lady.
'The burglars dropped it or hid it there?' said her husband, keenly intrigued. 'How on earth did you find that out?'
'The burglars had nothing to do with it, because there was no burglar—no burglary,' was the reply.
'Oh, but I say! Besides, it's gone. No, Mr Carrados! And then the side door key, you know.'
'Hush!' said Carrados mysteriously. 'That doesn't count. The side door key went, according to our bargain, with the shoes.'
'Very well,' acquiesced Myra, with something very like a giggle, 'but if there was no burglar how did the silver get into the river?'
'How?' Carrados raised an accusing finger and slowly brought it dead level on his hostess. 'How? Behold the culprit! You, my dear lady, threw it there!'
Moved by a common impulse Guy and Myra came slowly to their feet. Looking at Max Carrados's quietly smiling face it seemed impossible to believe that he—to doubt that he—to know what to think.
'I—threw—it—there?' articulated Myra queerly.
'You deliberately cast the "damned stuff" in. Rising in the dead of night, without staying to put on slippers or to cover those inadequate garments that are no longer the prerogative of my sex, you crept down, carefully replaced the silver lying about, took up the burden, let yourself out by the french window in the drawing-room, crossed the lawn, reached the silent river, and with a sigh of relief at accomplishing so meritorious a task, tipped the whole bag of tricks into the water. All in a profound sleep, of course. By the way, I hope your feet are better today?'
Myra sat down again with a strange look in her eyes.
'But I could not—I could not even move the box,' she whispered.
'Not when you are awake,' he replied, becoming grave again. 'And do you know why that is? It is because you know that you cannot, and so, your slavish body assenting, you really cannot. But in your sleep you do not know it; your unbound mind admits no limits, and so—'
'Do you know,' interposed Enderleigh sagely, 'I've heard something like that several tunes lately. I suppose there may be something in it after all.'
'Anyway,' said Mr Carrados, 'there is one thing you can congratulate yourself on. A wife who carries out her husband's slightest wish even in her sleep is a woman in a thousand.'
The mysterious affair of the anatomical subject, that ended in a Great Western corridor express, really began in a New York Mansion when Mr Hiram S. Nogg, wearing noiseless slippers, inconsiderately wandered into the remotest of his five palatial drawing-rooms, to the embarrassment of his niece Sabina and the even more pronounced dismay of Rigby Lacksome. In the terms of Mr Lacksome's unspoken comment, the premature discovery of the idyll 'knocked a piece of varnish off the mudguard,' and he rapidly speculated that unless something drastic and convincing could be brought into the situation not only his excellent chance of winning Miss Craddock's hand, together with a reasonable settlement, but even his tenure of usefulness as Mr Nogg's third secretary stood in jeopardy. But having been modelling himself on the strong silent pattern for some time past, nothing really useful occurred to him.
'Well, Pop,' remarked the maiden, after she had nicked her hair into position (long residence in the Nogg household had led to the adoption of this unpleasant form of endearment at her lips), 'what you gotta say about it?'
'Rainproof' Nogg fingered his scanty goatee dubiously and looked from one to the other of the young people in mild reproach. He had been warned by his private specialist that strong emotion consumed tissue, so he never ran to it now that he was seventy-five. He just acted in the same way, but without the excuse of deep feeling.
'Don't know that I've anything much to say, Sabbie,' he replied guardedly. 'Leastways, not in words. Rigby was going to Europe for the sales next week. Reckon he'd better go over just the same—and maybe stay there.'
'I guess not,' speculated Miss Craddock in an equally level voice, 'England's all right for a trip, but I don't congeal to the idea of a permanency. I must have room to reverse in.'
'I wasn't exactly thinking of you, Sabbie,' said the old man.
'No,' agreed Sabina. 'But from a child onwards I've always been encouraged to think for myself. And from what Rigby's just said I understand that if he went he'd wish to take me with him.'
'I hope, sir, you won't consider that there's anything clahndestine in my cawnduct beneath your roof.' Bracing himself against the Sicilian marble mantelpiece Rigby began to recover something of the attitude of the Noble Lover, a pose necessarily checked as yet by the uncertainty of the old man's real feelings. 'For some time past I have regarded Miss Craddock with sentiments of respectful admiration, but until this morning, when speaking of my forthcoming trip to Yurrup, I have never—'
'That so?' interrupted Mr Nogg enigmatically. 'Well we'll leave it there. Now, did that Shrubworth sale catalogue come in from Sotheby's by this morning's mail?'
'Yes, sir,' replied Rigby rather blankly. That was old Nogg all over—until it suited his own convenience the young man wouldn't have the least indication whether it was going to be the foot of ignominious expulsion or the hand of golden blessing.
'I want to go through it with you then,' said Hiram briskly. 'Bring it to my room when Johnson leaves.' He slid noiselessly away again, and after a very subdued exchange of protestations with his inamorata Rigby followed him. As he went to find the catalogue of the celebrated Shrubworth collection of Shakespeariana he was thinking harder and more rapidly than he had perhaps ever done before.
Max Carrados, you may remember, had some connexion with the United States. He had inherited his not inconsiderable fortune from an American cousin, who had in his time been a successful speculator—a speculator not exactly in crops, which are notoriously kittle-cattle, but in official crop reports. With a select few of his friends out there the blind man endeavoured to hold for a little longer a solitary outpost of the lost cause of polite correspondence. It is to be inferred that his contributions were acceptable; in return he certainly learned much that even the sleuths of American journalism failed to get on to, and once or twice his information was curiously effective.
'I doubt if you will ever have met "Rainproof" Nogg,' wrote one about this time—a shrewd old lady whose Dutch-sounding name caused pushful young hostesses to prick up their ears even when it reached them at third hand. 'Not a great many years ago he was living precariously on the crumbs that fall from rich men's waste-paper baskets, but during the last decade or two he has shot forward amazingly. I don't quite know what he does, but if I had a son—no, I should prefer it to be my grandson—I think I would put him to it. We have wheat "kings" and cotton "kings" and coal "kings"; railroad "kings", stationary engine "kings", and Mr Ford; "kings" in the realms of hardware, software, sectional bookcases, crime, and canned tomatoes. But all these sovereigns have some connexion with the domains they represent. I have never heard that Rainproof Nogg had any connexion with anything. I believe that people just bring schemes to him and if he approves of them they give him a share of the scheme for approving. It seems an easy way.
'At any rate, Mr Nogg is vastly wealthy, but he is growing old. This disease, I am told, has brought a morbid affection in its train: a dread that when he is dead he will be forgotten. It has become a terrible thing that in spite of his power and influence now, when he is gone his memory will soon be utterly effaced. I suppose he has been thinking. True, he has three thin-lipped, razor-jawed, stern-faced Wall Street sons, who will doubtless go on gathering more and more moss around the name of Nogg until the Constitution is amended to suppress them. ("So long as I can keep the money-making in the family, I can afford to pay other people to do the spending," is a golden Noggett.) But that only raises the problem one power higher: Rainproof, poor romanticist, wants to be remembered in the way that George Washington, Col. W.F. Cody, Pocahontas, and Mary Garden will always be.
'You have heard of his National Temple out in Virginia? That we possessed no Westminster Abbey must have touched his native pride somewhere, and he has set out to remove the slur by building and endowing a lordly private Valhalla on one of his seventeen estates for the last sleep of the great. Eminent Americans are to be invited to direct by will their interment there; and in the case of Americans not so eminent as to be invited, but who have nevertheless expressed a wish to join the others, a committee will decide. It seems a touchy business all along.... One cannot but think that Rainproof will have established a lien on the verdict of that committee when his own case comes up. A long shot, it may be, at immortality, but longer ones have hit; or Guido Fawkes, William Tell, and Samuel Pepys were forgotten now.
'In another direction Mr Nogg has found what I imagine has been signally lacking in his life hereto—amusement. And this brings me at last back to my original sheep—a fleece in which you may discover the predatory Rainproof's lupine form. You collect something I know, but what it is between cigarette pictures and stuffed mammoths I can plead the most benighted ignorance. But I know that you will have the best of them whatever they are—and so, hark ye, my friend, a word in your judicious ear. If-if they should be Shakespeariana by any chance, lock them up until you hear that a young man called Rigby Lacksome has returned to the land of his fathers.
'For by this time Rainproof is quite slightly Shakespeare mad. A while ago he was advised by a prominent nerve and stomach consultant (the two things go together here it seems) to "cultivate more interest outside business". Rainproof made the one recorded joke of his existence then, but let that pass. Whether the poor old gentleman heard the Bard's curious name for the first time about that period, or whether it was because his great financial rival "Slogger" Macmahomet was commissioning Frissman to corner First Folios matters not. At all events, Rainproof went down into the Shakespeariana pit and became a bull power.
'His first acquisition was a wistful young expert who had been in the ancient book business but who was quite content to get out of it—Mr Lacksome, to wit. He was to be Rainproof's librarian and Shakespeare secretary. This, I glean, is how they got to work.
'"See here," said Mr Nogg, "I hear that fellow on the other side the street has just given fifteen hundred dollars for a book called Hamlet, printed way back in the Dark Ages. Now I shall expect you to go one better."
'"I know of a copy that might be got," he replied. "But you would have to go at least two hundred dollars more because it is half an inch taller than Macmahomet's example."
'"Inch!" snapped Rainproof, "I don't do things by inches now, young man. Find me one that's about half a yard taller and I won't jib at two thousand dollars more".
'He has been put wiser since then. You will have heard of the anonymous purchase last fall of the Croxton Park First Folio for four thousand guineas (he buys anonymously on Wall Street principles). Yes, like Macheath's Polly, Mr Nogg by now is "most confoundedly bit."
'Will I bring this disquisition to a seemly close? I will, sir, and then only will you plumb its dark significance. R.L. is on his mettle, and the attitude of Rainproof is that of an expectant child with its mouth open and its eyes closed. For the engaging young librarian has fallen beneath the charm of Rainproof's not wholly guileless niece, and in return has found favour in her eyes. But what, everyone will naturally ask, what about the expression of old man Nogg's eyes, for on that the exact complexion of love's young dream must turn? Well, our quite astute Romeo has thrown out a very effective fly and the poor fish has risen. It is to be something so rarely and preciously Shakespearian that our hero begs the continuance of his employer's confidence until his return. Is this mere bluff for time? Or what—a manuscript, a signature, another portrait, a counter-cryptogram? However, young Lochinvar has gone out of the West—verbum sap.
'For you collectors are—well, how shall I put it? Rainproof will do it for me.
'"Reckon even in England they take some stock of W. Shakespeare as an asset. So if you get a safe chance at anything unique, Rigby, don't think that I shall worry you any about just how it happened—so long as I don't come in it," he remarked.
'"I just bet you won't sir," replied R.L. frankly.
'So now you know.'
Mr Carrados dropped the copy of the Pall Mall Gazette that he had been reading and turned to light a cigarette.
'Greatorex,' he remarked across the room; 'this is the Suffragettes' latest: they have tried to blow up Stratford-on-Avon Church.'
'My Sunday hat!' exclaimed the secretary, deeply impressed. 'So that was it!'
With no particular appearance of regret Annesley Greatorex detached himself from the cocupation of typing letters and came across to his employer's chair.
'In a sort of way I suppose I am an accessory before the fact,' he remarked with some complacency. 'At least, I knew that they were up to some special brand of devilment from Moya's hints and general air of mystery and triumph. Began about last Friday.'
'Moya?' repeated Mr Carrados. 'Do you mean to say that your shy little sister has become a "militant"?'
Mr Greatorex essayed a hollow laugh with considerable success.
'"Shy", you said, sir! And I think you saw Moya less than six months ago? Well, the shrinking violet has been "had" twice since then for brawling, and if her mother hadn't contrived influenza in the very nick of time I understand that the timid fawn had arranged to chain herself to the minute hand of Big Ben.'
'To prove that women are moving with the time, I suppose? Fine spirit, Greatorex.'
'Moral hashish, I tell her, sir,' amended Annesley with severity. 'It's a pretty grey outlook for England if these are a sample of the mothers of the coming generation.'
Max Carrados turned away from his ingenuous young assistant in order to strike a match for which he had no use.
'What did you hear about this business?' he asked, indicating the open paper.
'Well, you know what these young women are. I won't say they can't keep a secret, but at the same time they like to let it out on a string and then pull it back again. Now that Moya is on the active list of the precious "cause" she and half a dozen other hectics are in and out of our place like rabbits all day long. And ever since Friday there's been a sort of "We could and if we would" innuendo in the air.'
'Hallo!' exclaimed Mr Carrados with interest. 'Shakespeare again. How the Bard persists.'
'Force of example, sir. Moya and her new friend Mamie have been shrieking appropriate quotations at one another, upstairs and down, for days past. Of course, I didn't see the exact point of the various shafts of wit until now, but this is evidently what was brewing.'
'Oh,' thought Mr Carrados speculatively, 'Mamie!' 'Trust an American,' he said aloud, 'to know more Shakespeare than nine out of ten of us. I suppose your sister's friend is from the States?'
'She just is sir,' replied Mr Greatorex, pitching his voice into what he considered an appropriate twang. 'And devoted to the emancipation of her downtrawd'n Bri'sh sisters. Says they are real ladies but want gingering some. Seems to be doing it too. I'll bet this last affair was her idea.'
'Do you know what she is doing here?'
She says she is the European representative of the Bluff Folly Weekly Rapier. My holy aunt!'
All rather slack and jejune doubtless. But Annesley Greatorex was no fool despite his occasional lapses of exuberance. He knew precisely to the dot of an 'i' and the crossing of a 't' where he stood with Mr Carrados, and when the blind man merely indicated the newspaper paragraph that had started the digression it was read aloud to him with excellent clearness and diction by an entirely staid and businesslike assistant.
'ATTEMPT TO BLOW UP
SUFFRAGETTES' LATEST OUTRAGE
'Shortly after midnight a determined attempt was made to wreck a portion of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-on-Avon, by means of an explosive bomb. Many residents in warious parts of the town were awakened about that hour by a loud report, and on investigation being made it was discovered that a sensational attack had been carried out with the parish church as its objective. Both the fire brigade and the police were quickly on the spot, but the services of neither were immediately required, for no conflagration resulted from the explosion and the dastardly perpetrators of the outrage were clear of the scene before the earliest investigators arrived. Copies of suffragette leaflets strewn about clearly indicate the purposse of this discreditable affair.
'Detailed examination made when it was light reveals the extent of the damage is less than might have been expected. The spot chosen for the attack is on the north side of the chancel, and here several courses of masonry are shattered, much glass—fortunately all modern—broken, and the tracery of one window destroyed. The exact point of the explosion was against the walled-up doorway of what is known as the old "charnel house", and here the force of the bomb is shown by the dummy door on the interior being blown out. Those familiar with the sacred edifice will recognize from this description that the explosion took place within a few feet of Shakespeare's monument. It may be assumed, indeed, that this was the real objective, and that nothing but a slight miscalculation due to the darkness of the night, and, possibly, the nature of the explosive used, saved it froom destruction. Fortunately we are spared this crowning act of vandalism; the monument is absolutely untouched and the actual damage can be made good without any loss of historic association.
'That is all, sir—no, here is something more about it in the "fudge".'
Greatorex rearranged the paper to display the 'Stop Press' space and read on.
'A representative of Mr Hiram S. Nogg, the American millionaire and Shakespearian enthusiast, who happens to be staying in the town, communicated with his principal as soon as the news of the outrage reached him. As a result of this timely intervention Mr Nogg has generously undertaken to defray the entire cost of repairs. The work will be put in hand immediately, the chuch meanwhile being closed to the public.
'I think that really is all, sir.'
'Thank you, said Mr Carrados; 'that will do. Now bring me Valp's First Empire, will you. I want a reference.'
Greatorex stared at his employer almost with concern.
'I'm sorry, but don't you remember? You advised me to read it and—'
'True. I told you to take it home with you. It's still there?'
'Yes, sir.... But I could cut out and be back under the hour—time to do these letters for the post.'
'No; I want you for something else.... And Parkinson is out. I wonder—'
'I could phone to some people who live next door. They'd take a message in, and if Moya is about she'd bring it like a shot.'
'Do you think so? That would be very convenient, but it seems rather too bad—'
'Not a bit, sir,' declared Annesley with easy generosity. 'She thinks no end of you; in fact, only the other day she said that if she was put on to set this house on fire she wouldn't—'
'Really?' said Max Carrados, much gratified apparently.
'Yes; she said she'd certainly persuade someone else to do the job. But, of course, at this hour it's just a toss up—'
As it happened, however, Mr Carrados might be said to have won the toss, for Miss Greatorex was discovered to be at home, and as she arrived at The Turrets within forty minutes she may be judged to have come 'like a shot'. She was a small, elfin creature (the good looks of the family had begun and ended with Annesley), who in intimate political circles was generally referred to as 'The Vole'.
'Come and have some tea, Miss Greatorex, and tell me all the Secret History of the day,' suggested Mr Carrados, and grinning amiably the Vole complied—to the extent of taking tea, at all events.
'I know that you don't quite approve of us yet, Mr Carrados,' she remarked, 'but that's only because you've never really thought it out. None but the very young and the very stupid are actually hostile.'
'They're all as pert as poll parrots, sir,' apologized Annesley. 'That's a fair sample.'
Moya showed her splendid little teeth at him across the table, but refrained from any of the half-dozen appropriate retorts provided by the textbook for the occasion. After all, there would be no particular sense in exposing Annesley's intellectual shallowness to his employer; and she was quite reasonably fond of her brother—although he would come on the forthcoming Register, with lodger qualification.
'I suppose this is some of your fatuous work?' he remarked presently, pointing to the open evening paper. 'I hope you are proud of it.'
'Officially, I know nothing of it, Buttons,' she replied graciously. 'But it seems to have made some stir. Good heavens! Can that possibly be what the idiots intended?'
'Well, for mercy's sake don't call me by that ridiculous name, now we're grown up,' he besought. 'At least, I am.'
'You certainly came within an ace of making a much greater stir,' interposed the host, as peacemaker. 'I wonder how your friends came to miss the monument.'
'Perhaps they didn't want to hit it,' suggested the girl cryptically.
'Don't you believe it, sir,' put in Annesley with vigour. 'They'd blow up old Shakespeare himself, if they could, to keep in the limelight.'
'Mr Carrados, do you think that the man who created Portia would object in the least to having that smug, fat-headed image of a retired pork-butcher blown into atoms, if it would help to get her the vote?'
'I think,' replied Mr Carrados with a laugh, 'that he would recommend you to make better bombs—if you want to prove that you can do anything.'
'Hear, hear,' applauded Annesley, somewhat at a venture.
Moya Greatorex shot a curious little glance at the smiling Carrados and a quizzical expression twisted her small face.
'I don't mind telling you something, Mr Carrados,' she remarked, looking down upon her plate demurely. 'It was a man who contrived this particular demonstration.'
'Oh, we Englishmen can't,' he hastened to declare. 'Too law-abiding, I suppose. You ought to get an Irishman—or an American—to do that sort of job.'
'How sharp you are,' she laughed. 'Well, as it happens, he is an American!'
In the pause—of indignation on one gentleman's part but of signal complacency on the other's—that followed this little note of triumph, Miss Greatorex rose to go.
'Good-bye,' she said, giving Carrados her hand. 'I'm very glad to have been of this slight service to you.'
'Thank you,' he replied. 'It was most good of you to bring the book.'
'Oh, the book.' She dismissed that casually. 'Yes. But of course I was referring to the information that you wanted. Frankly, Mr Carrados, I'm not at all satisfied with the ins-and-outs of that affair myself.'
She nodded luminously and under the escort of a rather mystified brother took her departure.
'Greatorex,' remarked the blind man, when his secretary returned, 'I am not subscribing to a general principle at all, but it would be absurd to deny that your sister ought to have a vote.'
It was in this haphazard way that Mr Carrados was fated to be drawn into the curious Shakespeare case—a gossipy letter from an American friend coupled with the Stratford-on-Avon outrage, and the contiguous circumstance that his secretary's sister happened to be in the council of the 'militants'. Personally, it was no affair of his: whatever Rigby Lacksome had in mind, a cabinet of Greek tetradrachms did not attract him; and it would be idle to pretend that the amateur criminologist was stirred by public spirit to interest himself in a felony that he saw impending. He would be just as likely to assist in it if his sympathy went that way. No, as he himself would be the first to admit, it was nothing but the element of mystery that attracted here; until that had been set at rest something unsatisfied would continue to disturb the even balance of his mind.
'That is well enough, my friend,' he said to himself that night, 'but you have precious little to go on. Coincidence is simply the meeting of two straight lines, and they, we all know, can never enclose a space. Before going any farther on a wild goose chase I should advise you to verify the admitted American influence in the affair as connectible with Rigby Lacksome, the get-Shakespeariana-anyhow figure in the drama. Until that point is settled both wings of your deductions are purely in the air.'
'All right,' replied the other moiety. 'I will. That strange young creature certainly will know, and if I ask her nicely (as I might have had the sense to do before) I think she may have enough originality to tell me.'
'Do you?' scoffed the negative participant. 'Well, I very much doubt it,'
Without wasting any more time in arguing, Mr Carrados sat down and wrote his diplomatic little note. He had to wait several posts for any answer—he heard incidentally from Greatorex that his sister was 'out for scalps' somewhere—but one at length arrived. This was the form it took:
Dear Mr Carrados,
In reply to yours, the reference you require would seem to be in Brutus's third speech, "Julius Caesar", Act i, scene 2.
'Reference I require?' pondered the recipient dubiously, walking to a bookcase. 'Now, did I—' By this time his hand had gone unerringly to the book he sought, and he was turning the pages among the Tragedies. 'Well, anyhow, here is the reference I require, whatever it is:
Brutus: I am not gamesome; I do lack some part
Of that quick spirit that is in Antony.
A sudden light broke upon him and he repeated the first line with expression.
'"Lack some part." Lacksome, of course. That girl is a born conspirator, I'll take oath. In fifteenth-century Italy she'd have been up to the neck with some ring-and-dagger party.... In these prosaic days she has to be a militant suffragette.... Well, that settles it.'
But what did it settle, after all? Assuming the accuracy of his information, the curious fact was established that Mr Rigby Lacksome, ostensibly in England to attend the book sales, had prompted a convenient organization to carry out a raid on a certain historic building, while he himself immediately appeared on the scene with an arrangement to make good the damage. It could scarcely be an elaborate plan to get Rainproof's name associated with Stratford; that result could have been obtained in a hundred showier and less expensive ways. There was also a detail that might begin to assume significance: one gathered that on the whole the demonstration had somehow missed its full point. The local reports suggested so much, and Moya's suspicions might very well have been awakened by that very fact. Carrados was inclined to agree with his outspoken secretary that the 'militants', then at the apex of their frenzy, would be much more likely to blow up the poet's tomb itself, rather than to spare his effigy. Was there, indeed, some double purpose here at work?
In a reflective mood Robinson Crusoe made a tabulated statement of the prospects of his case. In much the same vein Max Carrados now drew a sheet of foolscap before him and stated the position:
'What does Rigby Lacksome need?
'He must procure an incomparable Shakespeare item before he returns—fair means or foul allowed.
'What has he achieved already?
'He had gained the most privileged access to Stratford-on-Avon church under unique conditions. The church and grounds will be closed against further "militant" attacks. The portions under repair may be screened off if he requires it, and there is no reason to suppose that he cannot introduce workmen of his own selecting.
'What special points will be under his direct control?
'Shakespeare's monument and Shakespeare's grave are both at this spot.'
Carrados creased and recreased the sheet of paper a dozen times with absent-minded precision as he began to pace the room, making his way among the scattered furniture with startling certainty; pausing now and then to touch a special piece of ivory or bronze, just as another's eyes might linger for a moment on a possession in half-unconscious satisfaction.
The monument; the grave.... The grave; the monument.
Among the many very baffling inconsistencies of Shakespeare's life the outstanding mystery is surely this: that of all his prolific work ('in bulk almost equal to the English Bible; in importance second only to that book'), not a line of manuscript is known to exist today. Nothing approaching this complete effacement can be paralleled in literary history, and to equip legend, when the poet who scrupulously particularized his worn wearing attire and his second-best bed came to the making of a will, not the obliquest reference to the contingencies of thirty-seven dramas finds a place therein. If William Shakespeare had been the greatest exponent of the modern method he could scarcely have planned a more effective 'stunt'. The Baconian heresy is one of its first-born—certainly the lustiest of its offsprings—but the curious inquirer among the byways of literary credulity will start many another hare.
The monument; the grave....
What, for instance, was that American theory (most of the Shakespeare heterodoxies spring from that vigorous soil) that in the poet's tomb, secure beneath the everlasting curse—though too much strain should not be put on that protection in these material days—the missing manuscripts may still be found, in extenso and intact? Well, as to that, both before Shakespeare's time and after, poets have buried their lyrics in their own graves or someone else's—and one at least of the greatest of the latter has repented and dug them up again.
'I don't feel drawn to that particular line,' mused the blind man, wheeling short on his beat to seek his bookshelves again. 'No one believed it here, and I doubt if anyone now does in the States. No, Judith made greased cake-papers of the sheets of Romeo and Juliet that she found about, and practical-minded W.S. nodded approval. But, ye gods! imagine a complete and original MS. of, say, Hamlet today! Would gold, literally in millions, buy it?' He drew from its shelf a volume of that useful series 'The American Catalogue' and soon found the entry he required.
'"Where are Wm. Shakespeare's Manuscripts?" By Hasdrubal Pott. Philadelphia. 1866.' it ran. 'It might be worth while to look it up. Lacksome will certainly know of it, and one must be on equal terms with him.'
He copied the details with his invariable precision and added a line for Greatorex's guidance: 'Shadrock, of Museum Street, will be the likeliest to have this.'
'It's wrong, wrong, wrong,' he repeated softly as he put back the book. 'I should feel it down to my finger-ends if I was going right; but what else can there be? The monument.... no earthly use or chance there. After all, Lucy Heemskerk did specify manuscript, and she may have had an inkling. Perhaps I'd better make sure of what she really says.'
It was easy in that room of perfect system to refer to anything, and in another minute Carrados was reading again the faintly ironic commentary on Rainproof Nogg's lamentable ambitions. At the time that he had received the letter he had attached only the interest of amusement to a warning that was plainly half or wholly jest, but now, as he touched line after line, his long delicate fingers seemed to linger for an inspiration.
And then in a flash it came.
'... You have heard of his National Temple out in Virginia ... a lordly private Valhalla ... for the last sleep of the great.... For by this time Rainproof is quite slightly Shakespeare made....'
The paper fell unheeded from the blind man's hand; he was caught up in the magnificence of the brazen enterprise.
'My gosh!' he exclaimed at last; 'but that would lick creation, wouldn't it, Uncle Sam?'
It is one thing to 'know' that you are right; it is rather another to go to the length of putting your entirely unsupported conviction into practice. Before he had bargained for quite so astonishing a revelation, Mr Carrados had pledged himself in his note to Moya Greatorex that there should be no prosecution. He nearly always kept that sort of undertaking, and in the present case he had no intention of departing from it, but it might mean that he would be able to avail himself very little of any official help.
But in the first place it would be desirable to strengthen the case somewhat, not so much on his account as against the contingency that he might have to lay his suspicions before other and less romantic-minded people before he had done with it. If he had entered upon the adventure casually he was now in it up to the neck, and with no intention of being left behind.
There were two ends at which he could begin—in London or in Stratford. The latter was the more conclusive ground, but at the same time the more delicate. No harm would be likely to come of any sort of indiscreet move made here in London, but on the scene of the exploit a single false step might easily be fatal. For, be it noted, with his keen appetite for crime, Max Carrados was not so much concerned to scotch a plot before it came to fruition as to demonstrate—if only to himself—that his deductions had been correct. In the meanwhile he took certain simple precautions against being forestalled by Lacksome's sudden departure, and then, satisfied that he had made the position safe, he turned with leisurely deliberation to the more delicate lines of investifation.
For this theoretical side of the business there was one formula alone. To the extent that Carrados was able to merge himself within the skin of Rigby Lacksome would success or failure attend him. Rigby Lacksome, arrived in London, his plan well in train, certain things assured, certain difficulties ahead, a keen appreciation that the stake was a high one, and that at the last moment, when it might be touch and go, no untoward irregularity must arise to rob him of the prize with the goal in sight. Come now, what would Rigby do?
From this starting-point Carrados launched four entirely different lines of inquiry. Not one of them came to anything and the time was slipping by. It looked very like having to go on to Stratford and take up the case by the thick end. Before admitting this measure of defeat the blind man sent the arrow of venture on one more flight.
'I want you to hunt round and see if it's possible to pick up a fairly complete human skeleton,' he said to Greatorex the next morning. 'I shan't need you again today, so you can go off and let me know tomorrow how you got on.'
'Right-o,' assented Mr Greatorex cheerfully—he had 'hunted round' after rather out-of-the-way things for his employer too often to be startled. 'What about the price?'
'There won't be any price. I don't propose to go to the length of buying one—but you needn't let that out. Just talk to anyone who seems to have anything to say. Even if you come across one for sale you can go on trying, all the same. I want to cut across a similar inquiry—successful or unsuccessful—in the past few weeks. It is not impossible that Lacksome may have bought one. If you strike that, get all you can about it. Anyone who's been asked for another skeleton so recently is sure to want to mention it.'
Annesley smiled his usual happy smile of charmed agreement and got as far as the door.
'Oh, where had I better try, sir?' he asked, pausing there.
'That's just what I'm not going to tell you,' replied Mr Carrados with decision. 'Your chief asset in this business is that you know nothing about it and you are quite likely to go where any other stranger in the same position might get. Now see what you can make of it.'
The wanderings of Annesley Greatorex throughout that livelong day (he was a generous worker on occasions) might be treated from a variety of dramatic standpoints, being tragic, comic, farcical, melodramatic, or extravaganzic alternately—or even several at once—nor could the claims of pantomime and mystery justly be omitted. Annesley's own considered verdict was that any account, from its lack of cohesive plot, its tenuous thread of connecting interest, and its wealth of varied and irrelevant detail, could only be done justice to as a musical comedy. It began in the back parlour of Miss Poppington's surprising establishment in Putney High Street and ended in the Lost Property Office at London Bridge. Between those limits Annesley visited two general hospitals, a phrenologist off Fleet Street, an eminent naturalist in Piccadilly, a metal dealer down the Elephant and Castle way, Madame Tussaud's, a theatrical costumier in Convent Garden, a wholesale toy merchant near Aldgate Pump, a Harley Street specialist, a firm of auctioneers, a museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields, a housebreaker (the legal variety), a retired conjurer and about eight other people less easy to define. In most cases he had sought these at someone else's suggestion, and the abiding impression he retained of that wonderful day was of the extraordinary good-nature of nearly everybody. Annesley certainly had a pleasant way with him.
And in the end he had the most astonishing success. It came as the result of one of these kind suggestions—the housebreaker's, in point of fact.
'Look here, mate,' said the giant in charge. 'What about the big west-end stores? Tried any yet?'
'No,' admitted Annesley, who had come on there from an educational appliance maker. 'Do you think it would be any good?'
'Why not give it a run? I should. There's Blackley & Whiteing now, up Kensington way. My missus isn't an easy one to please and she says they have nearly everything there that she can even think of. Can't do no harm, anyway.'
Annesley thanked the dusty giant gracefully and withdrew. Blackley & Whiteing, whose proud boast it was that anything from a troupe of performing earwigs to a desert island would not find them wanting, ought certainly to be on his list. None the less he felt some of the diffidence of youth at stating his business when ah unconsidered entrance brought him face to face with a tall, blonde lady in the glove department. These big, busy shops, thought Annesley, expect one to be precise, and yet.... The tall, blonde guide would probably, he feared, emit a piercing shriek. He asked to see the manager.
It would be meticulous to cavil about a definite article. Annesley, at all events, saw an important-looking gentleman with a managerial air. He listened gravely and patiently to his visitor's recital and then struck a desk-bell.
That is the worst of these big, busy shops. Annesley had imagined that he was getting on. He now had to repeat word for word to Mr Chadbeate all that he had just said to the manager. Mr Chadbeate listened gravely and patiently and then with a dignified 'Kindly step this way, sir,' led the inquirer to a third compartment.
'Heavens,' murmured Annesley, as the prospect of an unending recital faced him. 'I ought to have got it printed.'
Mr Noate, however, really was the man. He understood. He even sympathized. It was like that. You never could tell. Curious, too. Within the past few weeks they had had a similar inquiry. Yes, in that case they had been able to supply the order....
'Really? Then there is a sort of demand?'
Scarcely that—not so far as Blackley & Whiteing were concerned, at any rate. Of course they had a reputation, and jokers now and then.... But it must have been years ago that the last—
'Scientific requirement of course?' suggested Annesley.
'Oh, yes. An American. Singular idea. Theory that the English and American races, starting from a common stock, are diverging structurally. Wants to be able to demonstrate it by an English skeleton.'
'I recently struck a man,' volunteered Annesley, 'who was on that tack. Fellow called Lacksome; sort of confidential secretary to old Nogg, the U.S.A. millionaire.'
'That is the chap,' cried Mr Noate joyfully. 'So you know him? Well, it just happened that we were able to meet his requirement.'
'Quite casually,' admitted the caller. 'He didn't mention this to me. Awkward piece of luggage, won't it be?'
'Of course we had a proper box made; and nicely packed.... What he seemed most concerned about was the idea of trouble with the steamship company or at the customs somewhere. Didn't know anything about that sort of thing, and appeared to have an idea that someone might think it fishy and hold him up.'
'Yes; that might have occurred to me.'
'Quite an ordinary matter, of course. We obtained and filled up a special customs declaration form so that there will be no trouble on that score, and as he still seemed anxious we wrote to the Cunard Company and got their express acceptance of the freight on our voucher. Now as regards—'
'Thank you,' interposed Annesley with a grateful air. 'I think that should be something for my people to go on. It's a little doubtful, as I said, but if anything—'
'We should do our best, rely on it,' acquiesced Mr Noate, with suave dignity.
Carrados retrieved a creased sheet of foolscap from his waste-paper basket, thoughtfully straightened it out, and added a few more lines of writing to round off the new position.
'What precaution has he taken against inconvenient curiosity?'
'He has provided himself with a perfectly bona fide receipt for what he may be suspected of unlawfully possessing, and he has insured against an unusual property leading to awkward inquiry. He has created a sort of proprietorial alibi, which, like all fictitious alibis, may prove disastrous when it begins to crumble.
This time he burned the sheet. The précis was complete.
The last up-train from Stratford-on-Avon with any tolerable connexion for Paddington (the 6.32 in those days) had just pulled out of Leamington. There was no lack of accommodation and the single occupant of a smoking compartment well towards the rear was congratulating himself that he would be undisturbed for the remainder of the journey when two men passed slowly along the corridor, dropping an occasional word of comment.
'This will do quite nicely,' said Mr Carrados, stopping at the compartment indicated and Parkinson slid the door open for him. 'Come back as we reach Westbourne Park.'
'Very well, sir,' replied Parkinson, as he closed the door and moved on again.
The blind man settled down in his corner seat and lifted his face towards the other passenger.
'Ah, Mr Lacksome, I believe,' he remarked sociably. 'Delightful old place, Stratford, isn't it?'
Rigby Lacksome lowered the late evening paper that he had provided himself with at Leamington station and favoured the intruder with a long, cool stare.
'That's my name, sir,' he replied with deliberation. 'But you have the advantage of me.'
'Scarcely,' smiled Mr Carrados. He appeared to be in excellent spirits, as though the interview promised some entertainment.
'I mean,' explained the other man distantly, 'that I have no recollection of ever having seen you before.'
'That gives me no advantage, for I do not even see you now.'
'What do you mean?'
'Simply that I am blind.' Mr Carrados beamed benignly on his startled fellow-traveller. 'There is no question of who holds the ace, you see, if it should come to violence.'
'Just a modicum of breathing time, sir,' pleaded Mr Lacksome. 'You cut the ice considerably quicker than I can stack it.... Why violence?'
'One never knows.... I was talking to a man about a murder recently-just as casually as I am talking now to you. He became very violent.'
Lacksome's vaguely calculating glance went round the narrow place they were enclosed in and came back to the self-possessed figure in the other corner without losing a shred of its own slightly arrogant assurance.
'There's some mistake, I guess,' he remarked. 'Are you one of the Scotland Yard outfit?'
Mr Carrados laughed appreciatively. 'No, no,' he said; 'you mustn't poke fun at our national institutions, Mr Lacksome. I am really no one. I ought to have introduced myself before. My name is Carrados—Max Carrados. I am just interested in things.'
'I see,' commented the other reflectively. Then he added, 'Any particular sort of things, might I inquire, sir?'
'Crime in general, if it promises originality. At the moment I am curious to clear up one or two points in what I might call the Mystery of the Anatomical Specimen.'
Rigby Lacksome stretched his limbs and yawned slightly to demonstrate indifference.
'It sounds like a three-reel thrill all right, Mr Cahrados,' he said. 'What does it hinge on?'
I'm afraid,' apologized Mr Carrados, 'that it hinges on one of your own articles of luggage.... No, the communication cord, if that is what you are looking for, is on your side.'
'I guessed you were trying to put it across me about being blind,' said Mr Lacksome cutely. 'I don't want the cord, but I want to know right here before we go any further how you come into this.'
'It's a detail of our old-fashioned judicial system,' explained Mr Carrados. 'According to these antiquated laws it is the duty of the merest outsider—myself, for instance—to arrest and give into custody anyone whom he reasonably suspects of having committed a felony.'
'Is that so?' drawled Mr Lacksome, moving a careless hand. 'How does he get on with it if he finds himself looking down the barrel of a gun?'
'What, violence already!' chid Mr Carrados amiably. 'And after I had warned you, too! But the answer to that, Mr Lacksome, is that a blind man—and you may take my word for it—never knows, of course that he is looking down the barrel of a gun.'
Rigby Lacksome's hand went back again to its former position.
'Excuse me relapsing into the vernacular, Mr Cahrados,' he remarked, not without a streak of admiration, 'but you certainly are the gelidest brand of guy I've ever struck.'
'Of course,' assented his companion; 'why not? I am sure it would shock you immeasurably if you met an Englishman who began to show traces of emotion under any circumstances whatever. You, for your part, are the most accomplished body-snatcher I have so far had to do with. Something like an hour must elapse before we reach Paddington. Why should we not entertain one another like two travellers in a mid-Victorian Christmas Annual?'
'Pre-paratory to being handed over to a posse of the station police at the terminus?'
The blind man raised a deprecatory gesture.
'Surely you must have misunderstood me, Mr Lacksome. I said that such was the duty of every citizen.... Alas; how few of us do our duty nowadays!'
'Just put it into English for me, sir,' said Mr Lacksome wearily. 'I'm late on the gear-clutch, I admit.'
'It is quite simple. You will find that at Westbourne Park we shall slow down almost to nothing. There will be a couple of plain-clothes men waiting on the platform. If I show a white handkerchief at the window they will just step on to the footboard and take instructions. If I show a coloured one—a certain coloured one—they will know that the case has dropped through and they are not wanted.'
'Great,' admitted Mr Lacksome with suspicious fervour. 'I had no idea that we were doing this for the movies, sir.... And now let me tell you, Mr Cahrados, that you've given yourself the devil of a lot of trouble over nothing. The particular equipment that you seem to have had your nose into when no one was looking is a scientific exhibit that I've bought here for anthropological use in America.... Like to see Blackley & Whiteing's receipt for it?'
'Not just now, thank you,' replied Mr Carrados. 'Mr Noate showed me the counterfoil. And we needn't waste time over the arrangement made at the Claverhill Street branch of the S.W.L.; or your understanding with Rainproof Nogg; nor the engagement of Sam Barbel to be foreman of repairs.'
'Hell!' was wrung from Rigby, 'that makes a bobtail flush, I must allow, sir. I can only put up one card against a hand like that, but I guess he is the joker.'
'You think I've lifted the mortal remains of old man Shakespeare to join the rest of Great Britain that we've accumulated over there, don't you, sir?'
'I think you set out with that idea.'
'Say "Yes", Mr Cahrados, won't you?' pleaded Lacksome. 'I should love you to guess wrong just once.'
'Was it the curse you weakened on?'
Mr Lacksome smiled his pagan superiority to such a failing.
'It was not, sir. I wouldn't deviate one jot, tittle, or iota for a sackful of best assorted medieval curses. Besides, do you think that the man who heart-throbbed to the tune of Romeo and Juliet, of Rosalind and Orlatido, and of Florizel and Perdita would care a banana-skin what became of his loose parts after three centuries if it would help me to win Sabina Craddock? No, sir; there wasn't a milligramme of gall in old man Shakespeare's constitution.'
'It seems to me,' remarked Mr Carrados, remembering something very similar not long before, 'that whatever anyone wants to do about Shakespeare, it is easy to find authority in his works for doing it.'
'That is so,' agreed Rigby simply. 'W. Shakespeare was not for an age, but for all time; not of one country but common to the world, and he said everything that there is to be said on every subject. That's where old man Nogg left the track. He has worked it out that Shakespeare was an American citizen, and he's tickled to death at the idea of getting him for his National Temple.'
'I think someone else has already proved that he was a German,' said Mr Carrados. 'So why not a German-American?'
'Both wrong, sir,' replied Mr Lacksome. 'Shakespeare was really a Literary Syndicate. Rainproof is demonstrably non compos mentis on that subject, and his infirmity is spreading. My own concern is to get my matrimonial—and I may add financial—arrangements put through before he is actually certified. You see how I am fixed?'
Carrados nodded sympathetically. 'But you haven't yet told me how you came to fail,' he said.
'Fail ...' considered Rigby dubiously. 'Well, as to that.... You are quite satisfied about it, Mr Cahrados?'
'Life is full of surprises,' admitted Carrados, 'but I must stand by my opinion. The stone had not been raised—the joint wouldn't even take water—and you certainly had not tunnelled.'
'You are right sir. The paralysing truth is that the stone can't be raised.'
'Can't? Why not?'
'That will have to wait for another generation to find out, I guess. All I know is that we had a patent suction jack—for of course we daren't use leverage—capable of raising five tons dead weight drawing on a stone weighing something less than five hundredweight and it couldn't budge it a hair. No, sir; do what we might it had us beaten to cold cinders. And if you want my obiter dictum I should say the biggest thing in W.S. enigmas is waiting patiently there for some bright boy to come along and scoop it.'
'Quite likely,' agreed Max Carrados. 'You aren't the first to have a try by any means. And you are not going away absolutely empty-handed, I imagine?'
Mr Lacksome's face relaxed appreciably from its smart, purposeful expression into something suspiciously like a genial grin.
'Well, come now, Mr Cahrados,' he replied. 'What should you say! You know that right beneath my feet there, by what they call the old charnel house, there were enough ancient bones of every sort and kind to stock the field of Waterloo. Sculls, arms legs, middles, toes, fingers, ribs and what not. And there on the other side Hiram S. Nogg is lapping up my cables and biting his nails to keep calm about it. Why should we disappoint the poor old mono-maniac in the midst of plenty? Why, I've even rooted out a few odds and ends of antique coffins and a brass plate with something that you couldn't say wasn't a spear cut on it. Oh, Rainproof will be satisfied, never fear, and Sabina will be satisfied, and I don't see why Rigby Lacksome shouldn't be satisfied too. And in about another century there'll be the dandiest Shakespeare mystery spring up at Nogg's National Temple that ever was!'
The suburban lights had been growing thicker for the last few miles and the slackening train now began to dodge its way across the maze of points and switches. Parkinson's restful face appeared at the window and the corridor door was pushed open.
'We are approaching Westbourne Park, sir.'
Lacksome started at the name, and despite the amiable relations that had occupied the journey his face was not without a shade of anxiety as he spoke.
'I hope you are satisfied as well, sir. After all—no one's a red cent worse off.'
'Rather a fine point though, isn't it?' conceded Mr Carrados. 'However—you're on the platform side—perhaps you'll show this from the window.'
Rigby snatched the dark silk handkerchief from the blind man's hand and turned to wave it vigorously at the open window.
'But there's not a soul along the platform!' he exclaimed blankly, looking back. 'Say, Mr Cahrados, have you been patting one over on me?'
'Dear me,' confessed Mr Carrados, quite crest-fallen. 'Can I have dreamt that part of it, after all?'
The garden gate of Thornden Lodge stood open as the Bellmarks walked past, and from the path beyond there came the sharp aggressive click of decisive shears at work. Elsie Bellmark grew irresolute, then stopped.
'Do you mind if I just pop in for a wee moment, Roy?' she asked. 'I expect that it's Miss Barrowford gardening, and it will save me writing. G.F.S. business, you know.'
'All right,' her husband replied. 'Only don't forget me and stay to supper.'
'The idea! As if I ever—I'll catch you up—or won't you come in too? You know her.'
'No,' he decided. 'If I do we shall be talking there for an hour. I won't go right on either. I'll just hang about in the middle distance to keep you up to the mark.'
With a nod and a smile she left him, and almost immediately the sound of the shears ceased and through the privet hedge came the rather ecstatic interchange of greetings. A grin of affectionate amusement came into Bellmark's face as he slowly lit a cigarette.
'It's long odds on my finishing this undisturbed,' ran his speculation; but he was wrong, for before the first ash had fallen an insinuating 'Roy!' from beyond the privet hedge summoned him inside.
'All bets off,' he murmured, as he cheerfully complied. 'That isn't according to the rules, my dear.'
'Oh Roy,' exclaimed Elsie, signalling. 'Sorry, couldn't help it,' with her eyes, 'Miss Barrowford wondered whether you had seen her brother. He didn't come by your train, did he?'
'You do know Vernon by sight, don't you, Mr Bellmark?' put in the lady of the garden. 'It's unusual for him to be so late on Saturday.'
'I think I know him,' admitted Roy. 'First class, nonsmoking; Morning Post: never in a hurry; nine-thirty-seven, isn't he?'
'Spats; black tie: neat umbrella,' smiled Miss Barrowford. 'Has been in the Civil Service. Yes?'
'At all events he didn't come, or he would have been here long ago—this young lady has been shopping as we came along, and leisurely at that. And when I come to think of it, there was only one other man got off the train at Stanthorpe—an oldish fellow, who didn't quite seem as though he knew what he was doing here. Women and children in plenty, but no other man.'
'Well, I don't think that anyone would describe Vernon as exactly old,' hazarded his sister. 'We are neither of us children certainly, but—'
'No, indeed,' exclaimed Elsie with great fervour. 'I mean,' she added hastily, as she realized that her well-meant disclaimer had got belated, 'I mean about your brother, of course. Why I feel ages older than he looks, I'm sure.'
'All the same, my dear,' confided Miss Barrowford dropping her voice, 'I think he feels the stress of business life of late. I often wonder if he was quite well advised in giving up the Civil Service for commerce. Somerset House is so assured; the feeling of permanency must be very tranquillizing.'
'I suppose he has to work hard now?' suggested Elsie politely. She had very little interest in the absent Vernon and still less in his occupation, but Miss Barrowford was 'a dear', and the surest way to her good opinion was to turn a sympathetic ear to amiable garrulities on her two subjects—her wonderful garden and her exceptional brother.
'Yes,' agreed the sister with a slightly dubious look; 'I suppose he has. But it is more the weight of responsibility that I was thinking of. Vernon, you see, was never brought up to the business—to any business, in fact—and when an uncle left it entirely to him on condition that he carried it on, it was like beginning life over again. His real tastes are literary and artistic, and he had to overcome something like a positive aversion to trade—though it is strictly wholesale trade of course.'
'I don't think that I even know what he does,' admitted Elsie. 'But perhaps I oughtn't to be inquisitive—'
'Oh, yes, my dear; there's no secret at all about it.' Miss Barrowford's shrewd, good-natured eyes opened wide at the implication. 'It's a wholesale fancy leather business—Widdowson & Stubb in Culver Street, though Uncle Con was the last Stubb and there hasn't been a Widdowson in it for half a century. They do with all the finer sorts of leather. Vernon didn't know the least thing about either leather or business when he took it up, but he had a very capable manager and reliable staff, or I don't know what might have happened.'
'It sounds nice—fine leather: bindings have such a lovely smell. Do you ever go and revel among it, Miss Barrowford? I should.'
'I have been once or twice, but I am not fond of going,' confessed the lady. 'The place was formerly a large, rambling old house—it was a good residential district once—and many years ago a very dreadful murder was committed there. Of course'—with an appropriate smile—'it is now haunted. But, seriously, I do not care about the place; it is a little errie after dusk.'
'How gruesome! And your brother really likes it now?'
Miss Barrowford indicated the complexity of her opinion by a shrug and a ladylike little mom before she committed herself on this. She even snipped off a superfluous leaf enigmatically as she glanced slyly at her other visitor.
'Men are strange beings, my dear,' she replied. 'Do we ever know what they really like—or, for that matter, do they know themselves? But who have we here?'
The gate, which had been pushed to on Mr Bellmark's entrance, was very slowly opened by an unfamiliar hand and along the immaculate path there advanced a peculiar figure—curious not by reason of anything outlandish in dress or feature but by his odd detachment from the scene and his pathetic air of being in some way lost. A trite synonym for witlessness is 'not all there', and no phrase could better describe the impression that the stranger made: some essential thing was missing.
'Now, who in the world—' speculated Miss Barrowford with a queer afarness in her voice, and then suddenly she gave a startled little cry and ran a few steps forward, only to stop again in a nameless fear.
'Vernon. Vernon!' was wrung from her, though scarcely heard. 'What is it? Oh, my dear, what ever can have happened?'
'Good God!' whispered Bellmark to his wife. 'This is the man I spoke of-the one who came by the train. It isn't the fellow I took to be her brother, and yet it somehow is. Do you catch on to it?'
'I don't know what you are saying,' replied Elsie, hypnotized by the two before her. 'But there is something dreadful.'
'Oughtn't we to go away?' he asked.
'I'm too bewildered to know. I shouldn't like her to think—And yet she may want us.'
Very slowly Vernon Barrowford walked up the familiar path to the door of his house, looking to the right and the left occasionally as he seemed to verify some half-forgotten landmark. He passed his sister, he passed the others, without a sign of recognition, but when Miss Barrowford caught him up and took his hand with a passionate cry to be spoken to he did not shake her off. Only he never spoke. Docilely he allowed himself to be led up the steps to the closed front door. Standing there, with the same monotonous precision that had marked his passage through the garden, he took out his bunch of keys, selected the right one with slow deliberation, and unlocked the door.
'I must go in to her,' said Elsie, as the two passed out of sight. 'Whatever it is, we've seen it now, so it can't much matter. You will wait, won't you?'
'Of course I'll wait,' he replied half gruffly. 'Tell her we'll do anything—'
In three minutes she was back again. Bellmark had discovered a garden seat and was meditating. He looked at her with inquiry in his eyes.
'He's sitting there in the morning-room, and he does nothing. He won't speak. And, Roy—don't laugh—she whispered to me would I ask you how you can tell if people are drunk or not. She thinks it may be that, but I'm sure it isn't.'
'You ask them,' replied Roy gravely. 'In either case they deny it, but if they are drunk they begin to argue about it and want to prove that they're not, and the more you agree and say, "It's all right, old man; don't shout and nobody will notice anything," the warmer they become, until you can hear a very intoxicated maan a mile away protesting how sober he is.'
'Well, that's no good because he certainly wouldn't speak. She'd be only too relieved if he would, whatever he might say.'
'He looked sober enough just now—too sober, in fact. If you want my opinion, it's a doctor's job.'
'I think so too, Roy. I'm sure she'd be glad to be encouraged to send, so I'll go in again and tell her what you say.'
'Wait a minute,' he advised, looking over her shoulder. 'I think—yes, here she comes.'
'What does he say?' asked Miss Barrowford, as Elsie went to meet her.
'He thinks you ought to have a doctor at once. I think so too, dear. We are afraid that you brother is really ill in some way.'
'I am sure that you are right. Yes, I will send for Dr Page at once. It is all very sudden, and for the moment I wished to keep it from the servants if it had been—anything disgraceful. I ought to have known Vernon better, but it is so inexplicable.'
'We'll go straight there and tell Dr Page to come. I'm sure Roy will get him as soon as anyone could.'
'Would you? That's very kind of you,' said Miss Barrowford quite gratefully.
'Oh, how can you talk like that!' exclaimed Elsie, kissing her in a scramble. 'It's nothing, and anybody would—'
'I'll go back now and wait, then,' remarked her friend. 'I must not leave him for long.'
'Should Roy go on alone and I'll stay with you until the doctor comes?' suggested Elsie.
'No, thank you, dear. I am not in the least afraid of anything and I shall tell the servants now.'
Dr Page must have been immediately accessible, for in less than twenty minutes—he lived half a mile away—his cheerful, commonplace mien and quiet confidence were diffusing a healthier feeling within Thornden Lodge. Miss Barrowford's face lost something of its unaccustomed greyness and the two maids no longer deemed it necessary to talk in whispers. No one ever thought of describing Page as a 'clever' doctor; 'good' was the word they used, and that meant that you generally got better soon.
'So it's Master Vernon's turn this time, eh?' he remarked, as he walked across to the unresponsive figure sitting huddled in the big easy-chair—he had dosed 'Master Vernon' through whooping cough and measles thirty years before. 'When I was last here on business it was your turn, I think, Miss Barrowford.'
'Oh, then!' she exclaimed disdainfully. 'That was nothing—a touch of'flu.'
'Nothing when you were all right, again, was it?' he acquiesced tolerantly. 'That's the way with things, isn't it? No, he'll do very well where he is thanks. Now let us see.'
Miss Barrowford stood aside while the detailed examination went on, ready to do just as she was told, and too sensible a woman to interrupt with needless, anxious questions. When he had finished, Page walked thoughtfully to the window and looked out; she followed with her eyes, now definite in inquiry.
'The simple word "shock" covers a multitude of effects. "Shock", Miss Barrowford. Does that satisfy you?'
'I don't understand yet. It is all so very sudden—and—terrifying. Is he—is he dangerously ill?'
'Meaning "Will he die?" No, he is not. You have a convalescent on your hands. All the mischief has been done; the business is to bring him back to normal health.'
'But—doctor—what is it—what has happened?'
'Shock. That is what I crudely indicate. There is no external lesion of any kind: no blow has been experienced. Bellmark told me how he arrived. Whether there is any especial reason—business or personal, for instance—why Vernon should be likely to have any very violent mental disturbance just now, you would be in a better position to know than I should.'
'I know of nothing—nothing at all. And it's so dreadful, his never speaking.'
'You must not ask him. That is the chief thing now—perfect rest. If he begins to wake up don't encourage him to talk. If they send here from the business wanting to know anything they'll have to do without it. You understand that quite literally, don't you. Miss Barrowford? No matter what it is. If the office can't go on without him it must stop. Better the business than the man—he's our job.'
'Is it so serious then?' she whispered, the clutch at her heart tightening again.
'It might easily become so if we don't take care, In a few days we shall know more about it—whether, for instance, the loss of speech extends to true aphasia or is only the temporary reflex of the first excitement. I should like to get McFlynn here to have a look—it's his especial subject. Tomorrow or Monday, shall I?'
'Certainly,' she replied. 'Oh, doctor—anything—everything—you can do.'
'Yes, yes,' he nodded. 'I know. You'd better have a nurse in—for a week, at any rate. Miss Hodge is doing nothing just now and she is handy. Shall I ring her up when I get back?'
'If you think I'd better. Of course'—a little wistfully 'you know I can nurse fairly well; still—'
'For a week,' he said, smiling reassuringly. 'Then perhaps—'
'Very well. I will sit on the doorstep like a veritable dragoness and keep intruders off. But are we to do nothing to find out what has happened doctor?'
'Oh, yes; indeed we must. Everything short of asking him about it. It will be the first step towards repairing the damage to find out what has caused it. We know that he arrived at Stanthorpe in this condition, so we must try farther back. He may have had a terribly narrow squeak of some sort.'
'There's the warehouse. But everyone will have left long since.'
'Still, that's the place to begin from. Isn't there a manager I've heard of?'
'Yes—Mr Pridger. He lives at Croydon.'
'You have his address?'
'Oh, yes, Shall I—'
'Yes, wire him to come up and see you as soon as he can get—tonight or tomorrow. Find out all he can suggest, but'—with a warning finger—'don't take him in to your brother. No reminders of the past just yet.'
It was the capable manager's long-established custom to escort Mrs Pridger to a theatre once a week, and Saturday evening had come to be the occasion of this rite. It not being a matter of life and death—Miss Barrowford's telegram simply enjoined 'as soon as possible'—there seemed no pressing reason why Mr Pridger should set forth on an adventurous journey from Croydon to Stanthorpe after midnight, so that, as it developed, it was not until Sunday afternoon that he learned of his employer's condition.
Turning in at the gate of Thornden Lodge, on her mission 'to inquire', Elsie Bellmark came face to face with a departing stranger, and, preoccupied as she was, she wondered vaguely at the queer look his face wore in the momentary flash before he recognized that she was calling there. The front door stood open, and it seemed very quiet within. With a freedom born of the circumstances Elsie ventured to investigate unannounced. The door of the morning-room was slightly ajar and from beyond came a low, intermittent note. She tapped very gently.
'Come in,' said Miss Barrowford's voice, and the other sound stopped.
She was sitting on a couch—it was plain that a moment before she had been lying there, and her eyes and handkerchief betrayed the nature of her occupation. Mrs Bellmark was appalled.
'Oh, dear Louise!' she said, and began to back out again.
'Don't run away,' called out the occupant. 'That was the last of it anyway. Thank you for coming. I was expecting you some time today.'
'He isn't worse, is he?'
'Oh no; he is almost the same as you saw. It wasn't that.'
'You don't mean that there's something else?'
'Did you meet Mr Pridger as you came in? He has just gone.'
'I did meet a man—at the gate. Whatever is it?'
'It feels rather like the end of the world. We've had a fire.'
'No—at the office and warehouse. It's practically burnt out, he says.'
'Yes; that's why he couldn't get here this morning. The police came across his address first and they sent for him. He found the place a wreck. Isn't it disastrous?'
'Had it—the fire—anything to do with Mr Barrowford being ill?'
'We don't see how it could. Mr Pridger knows practically nothing of Vernon's movements yesterday, as he himself had to go to another part of London to see a customer and he didn't think it worthwhile going back to Culver Street afterwards. The fire was not discovered until late on Saturday night, and long before that Vernon was here.'
'Yes,' agreed Mrs Bellmark; 'but it seems funny, all the same. I suppose it's insured anyway, being a business.'
'Oh, yes, I'm certain it will be. But it's bound to be unsettling to Vernon, don't you see. Just when he will be getting all right again and wanting to go back to work he will have to be told of this upset. It will take months to rebuild and straighten up.'
'It will be a good chance for him to take a long rest, I should say,' declared Mrs Bellmark. 'And, another thing, dear, from what you said yesterday I imagine that your brother might not be sorry to give up the business. We don't know, of course, but this might be an opportunity—'
'Oh, don't think that,' exclaimed Miss Barrowford hastily. 'I am sure Vernon would never dream of taking advantage of such a way out.'
'Well, I don't know,' said Elsie. 'It isn't as if he had set it on fire himself. But what's the good of talking about that? You are no nearer getting at what happened then?'
'Not a bit. And I'm beginning to wonder what next to do if, as I expect, he left the office all right.'
'I've been thinking,' volunteered her friend. 'Did you ever hear of Mr Carrados?'
'I don't think so,' admitted Miss Barrowford vaguely. And then with the common frailty of mankind she added: 'But the name seems somehow familiar.'
'He finds out things. He's quite wonderful at it, considering that he's blind. It's a hobby of his, because he is quite rich.'
'But if he is blind, dear—'
'You hardly notice it. If you had lost something from here—stolen or disappeared, I mean—and he was helping you, he might come into this room and in a few minutes he would know all about it: the size and where the furniture was and the colour of the wall-paper and when you last had the chimney swept and why you had moved a picture from one place to another. All the time you would be talking about nothing in particular as you thought and then he would pick up an old nail that no one else had noticed or touch a scratch on the paint.'
'How could he see the nail to pick it up?' demanded the elder lady practically.
'He couldn't, of course, but he would pick it up all the same. And in a few days or a few weeks it would lead in some absurdly simple way straight to what you had lost.'
'It sounds very marvellous,' conceded Miss Barrowford dubiously, 'but in any case we do not know this Mr Carrados.'
'We know him pretty well—from the time when we used to live at Groats Heath,' said Elsie. 'An uncle of mine is his great friend. I am sure he would come if he thought that it would help us: we are under a very great obligation to him.'
'But, my dear,' corrected Louise Barrowford precisely, 'that's the wrong way about. It would be if he was under an obligation to you.'
'Oh, he doesn't do things like that,' responded Elsie from the heights. 'Besides, if he was I shouldn't like to ask him.'
When Max Carrados learned the particulars of the Barrowford case his first proceeding—before he decided whether it interested him or not—was an obvious one. He made inquiry at Scotland Yard and at certain divisional headquarters to find out if anything had been observed on the Saturday that would promise to bear on the mystery. It had not. No trace of Vernon was picked up until Baker Street Station was reached, where a porter who knew him as a 'first season' had noticed that he seemed 'groggy'. The blind man decided that the case offered enough obscurity to attract him.
It was not until the Wednesday after the tragic happening that Max Carrados found leisure to get across to Stanthorpe. Elsie took him on to Thornden Lodge, where Miss Barrowford, now almost accustomed to her silent charge, received him with some trepidation. It was clear that Mrs Bellmark's rather freely coloured portrait had sunk in, and the lady of the house expected curious things to materialize beneath her eyes. Carrados had never seemed more matter-of-fact in his procedure. He betrayed no startling knowledge of the surroundings (to his sponsor's despair) and merely encouraged Miss Barrowford to talk about her brother from every angle. She was nothing loath, but Elsie had heard most of it before. Nor were his inquiries less commonplace.
'You have looked through his pockets, I suppose?' he asked. 'You found nothing unusual?'
'Nothing that I had not seen a hundred times before—with one exception. There was a large enamelled badge or check with a number on.'
'Perhaps I might see it?' suggested the inquirer. 'Oh, yes'—when it was produced—'this is a cloak-room voucher from the reading-room at the British Museum.'
'He frequently went to the National Gallery, I know,' suggested Miss Barrowford. 'Might it not perhaps be from there?'
'No,' replied Carrados. 'A benevolent authority has arranged that you shall not procure your neighbour's new silk umbrella from one institution by depositing your own worn-out walking-stick at another, and so all the sets of tickets vary. Is your brother absent-minded in a general way, Miss Barrowford?'
'No, indeed; he is one of the most precise of people. Why?'
Carrados held up the numbered badge significantly.
'Whatever that stands for he omitted to reclaim,' he explained. 'It is generally a stick or umbrella.'
'Of course,' she acquiesced. 'Vernon invariably carried an umbrella, and on Saturday he returned without it. I took it for granted that he had left it in the train.'
'If this usually exact man forgot it after going specially to the reading-room—umbrella or whatever it may be—it is assumable that he may have learned something important there, isn't it?'
'Yes, yes,' exclaimed Elsie keenly. 'Can you find out what?'
'If it turns upon a book it is doubtful. You help yourself to the thousands of more general works of reference. I suppose'—to Miss Barrowford—'you did not come across a cancelled application slip for a book?'
'I know the sort of thing you mean,' she replied. 'No, he had none about him.'
'They are usually torn up,' agreed Mr Carrados.
'Apropos of papers now,' continued Miss Barrowford, Miss Hodge—the nurse, you know—found something rather curious this morning. Vernon was sitting by a table on which there happened to be some stationery—a few sheets of paper and a pen and ink. He wasn't looking at it, but Miss Hodge noticed that his hand was moving on the paper. When she went to him she found that he had actually been scribbling there—hardly words, perhaps, and quite unintelligible, but she thought it was encouraging.'
'Yes,' assented Carrados, speaking so quietly that one might have thought he was afraid of startling so wonderful a thing of promise away, 'I am sure it would be. What became of the paper?'
'I think it was left about—or she may have thrown it away. Do you want it?'
'It is not without interest,' admitted the blind man. 'I think we ought to see it.'
It had not been thrown away, though Miss Hodge hoped for much more coherent signs of intelligence ere long. Carrados accepted the sheet and grasped its details of shape, weight, and texture as readily as another would by sight, while the two ladies overlooked his movements curiously.
'I cannot make head or tail of it,' confessed Miss Barrowford, as the senseful fingers crossed and recrossed the scrawl, now following a vague spidery line, now drawn where no visible mark appeared to lead. 'Is there any meaning, do you think?'
'That little arrangement comes in more than once,' said Elsie, indicating a hieroglyphic twist. 'I'm sure it must mean something.'
'That little arrangement is the word "red", and it comes in seven times,' interpreted the patient seeker. 'It is the strongest impression that persists.'
'Red! But what—' conjectured the sister with a tremor in her voice.
'Oh, a lamp-post—a sunshade—a picture,' reassured Mr Carrados quickly. 'Even a lead pencil if it happened to be there at the right moment.'
'Or a fire, I suppose?' suggested Elsie unfortunately.
'Here is a test for ingenuity.' Carrados was anxious to repair his indiscretion. 'That is a single word manifestly, but what?'
'It doesn't make a word to me,' declared Miss Barrowford, after a minute's scrutiny.
'"Meou" or "miaow", if there was such a thing,' suggested Elsie.
'Well, isn't there? What does one call a cat noise?'
'But why not write "cat"?' Miss Barrowford objected. 'If that is it.'
'Because the noise is the most arresting thing about it,' he replied. 'A "miaowing" cat.'
'Shut in,' contributed Elsie. 'Now I wonder what that long scrawl may be?'
'I think I had better take this for detailed tests,' said Mr Carrados, coolly transferring the paper to his pocket. He was not anxious for the broken man's sister to discover that the 'long scrawl' (twice repeated) stood for 'horrible', or that the poignant exclamation 'Oh!' had been penned four times. Later search disclosed only one other word. 'This,' considered Max Carrados as he reviewed his slender clues that night, 'this is the flashlight on a man's brain at the moment of its extinction,' and he arranged the impressions according to their persistence:
Red Red Red Red Red Red
Oh Oh Oh Oh
Horrible Horrible Horrible
But as yet Mr Carrados was still in Miss Barrowford's drawing-room, and at the moment he was there alone, for, on the question of certain rather delicate G.F.S. procedure, the lady of the house had sought an excuse to carry off her other visitor.
Why Mr Pridger, on being shown in a few minutes later, should have tacitly assumed that the gentleman who seemed so tolerably at home on the hearthrug must be his employer's doctor, does not appear. Possibly there was an ambiguous word in the simple-mannered girl's exclamation of surprise at finding another visitor still there; possibly Mr Carrados's bland air of perfect self-possession lent itself to the idea.
'Sad business, isn't it?' remarked the manager expansively. 'Patient any better today, sir?'
So far, although one might hazard a guess, the blind man had no knowledge of his new acquaintance. A wisely professional shake of the head committed him to nothing.
'Ah! Looks like being a long business, I'm afraid. I wonder if you could give me an idea—I'm his manager, by the way—any sort of an idea how long it might be before he would be fit again?'
'That is a difficult question to answer at all, and an impossible one to answer satisfactorily.'
'Yes, I guessed as much. But it makes it rather awkward for me, sir. And when he does come, as you may say, to himself—I suppose there have been plenty of other cases similar—what will he be like should you say?' There was a moment of hesitation in framing the crux of what he sought, an assumption of negligence that stood out like the postscript of a lady's letter, but it had to come: 'Will he remember what happened to him up to the last?'
'Will he remember!' What did Mr Pridger anticipate; what had he to fear? Carrados could not see the respectful, serious-eyed, decorously-attired manager who stood there. The whole of Mr Pridger's eminently respectable appearance went for nothing, but a hundred other indications that he had never taken into account were signalling their message through subtler mediums.
It was a question to which there could be no absolute reply, but it fell in with the investigator's impulse to lull the man's misgivings, and in his impromptu character Carrados spoke to that end of other curious cases. Mr Pridger seemed to breathe more freely.
'So far as the actual business is concerned, of course his being away wouldn't make a ha'p'orth of difference,' he confided. 'I'm the practical man and the governor looks on. But there isn't any business now; the fire has put the lid on that. And the latest is that the insurance company is going to be nasty.'
This was news, and Mr Carrados encouraged its recital by a sympathetic question.
'They don't say so yet, but the suggestion is incendiarism. They sent down a man at once in the ordinary way, and now we've had a notice to leave everything just as it is pending a further examination.'
'Why should they think anything wrong?'
'These insurances go a lot by the fire brigade report. I suppose the officer in charge has suggested something.'
'But surely he must be mistaken?'
'Well, it isn't for me to say. I'm an employee of the firm and bound to stand by it. Besides, I was away all the Saturday after ten o'clock, so I couldn't say what happened. But it's no secret that W. & S. have been getting short of the ready for more than a year now; it's claimed that the fire began in three or four places at once; and Mr Barrowford was the last to leave the premises. We've got to make the best of that whether we like it or not.'
'How gratuitously a rogue gives himself away; every clumsy insinuation is a window to his mind,' ran the hearer's thoughts, while his commiserating voice was saying, 'Dear, dear me! This is very surprising.'
'Of course'—implied the loyal manager, and 'Oh, of course; not a word,' assented his confidant. He had at that moment picked up the returning footsteps on the stairs and the tête-à-tête was at an end.
'I don't altogether trust that manager,' confessed Mrs Bellmark as she carried the blind man off a little later. 'I came suddenly face to face with him here a few days ago and he was grinning in a most sinister fashion. Why should he seem so taken aback that you were not a doctor?'
'People get such curious ideas, don't they?' agreed Mr Carrados. 'I thought that he seemed annoyed about some-thing when your friend said who I was. And yet he had been talking quite confidentially to me just before.'
'You hadn't misled him about being the doctor, had you?' asked a rather startled Elsie.
'Misled? I! Good gracious no; I wouldn't mislead a tortoise.'
'No, of course I didn't actually mean that you would,' said the amiable girl almost penitently. 'But really and truly I don't always quite know what to say about you, Mr Carrados. I was trying to tell Miss Barrowford what you would do and I could think of nothing better than to say that you might pick up a pin or a needle and that would be sufficient clue for you, and, do you know, all the time we were there she was craning her neck to see if you picked one up!'
'I wish I'd known,' he chuckled. 'I certainly would have done.'
'I wonder,' mused Elsie artlessly, 'if you did pick anything up?'
'No needles,' he replied lightly. 'A few loose threads at the most.'
It was in pursuit of the other ends of those same threads that Mr Carrados motored up to Culver Street on the next day. It was a neighbourhood of small industries with their contiguous offices, almost deserted after business hours and a wilderness at week-ends. Such shops as appeared to exist there were those supported by a special and assured clientage, with here and there a modest establishment of the humbler catering class. Widdowson and Stubb, not being in need of even such publicity as that peaceful thoroughfare afforded, had been thrust into the background by more assertive neighbours and had to be reached along an inner passage. A back entrance with a trade approach was discoverable in a cul-de-sac that seemed to have no name.
Parkinson accompanied his master, and with the perfect understanding of long association he reproduced from time to time just those details of the surroundings that he knew to be required. So much was routine, for any special need a word was enough to direct his peculiar talent for observation into the desired channel.
Interest in No. 33 as the scene of the fire had passed away—indeed nothing of the premises involved could be seen from Culver Street. The door, the sole evidence on that side of the existence of Widdowson & Stubb, opened to a push and the visitors found themselves in a long, bare passage, where a notice painted on the wall directed the inquirer onward to the office.
'We will wait here a moment and consider the circumstances,' directed Mr Carrados.
'Very good, sir,' replied Parkinson. He knew that at those close quarters his descriptive powers were not required unless to some specific end, and the blind man's interest in the floor and walls did not concern him. He sauntered down the passage and then back again.
'I imagine that Mr Carlyle is in the room beyond, sir,' he remarked. 'I can hear what I apprehend to be his voice.'
'Yes,' assented Carrados. 'He is part of the circumstances.'
They found the inquiry agent dominating the ruin of what had been the principal's office, and with him Mr Pridger. The manager's greeting was not by any stretch of imagination cordial, but Mr Carlyle's triumphantly assertive cry of welcome drowned the other's formal inquiry as to how he could serve the visitor.
'You, of all men, by the immortal powers!' he proclaimed enthusiastically. 'What piece of luck brings you this way, Max?'
'I scarcely think that the Barrowfords would describe it as that,' replied Carrados, indicating their surroundings. 'Do you happen to know that Elsie is quite a friend of theirs?'
'What, my niece?' exclaimed Mr Carlyle, with a sudden drop in his elation. 'No, by gad, I didn't. To be sure, they all live at Stanthorpe, don't they? I shall get into hot water over this, Max; I'm here for the Business and Domestic Insurance people.'
'I may as well go on with my own work now, Mr Carlyle, interposed the manager, with severe formality. 'For any other particulars you may require I'm entirely at your service.'
'Queer affair,' explained the professional investigator, with a gracious gesture of assent towards the departing Pridger. 'Shocking barefaced attempt, Max, if ever there was one. And now, I hear, this Barrowford is playing possum to avoid explaining things.'
'Oh, have you extracted that admission from the reluctant Pridger, Louis?'
'Egad, the fellow feels it, being connected with such a job; but he sees that there's nothing to be gained by piling perjury on the top of arson. Four separate fires, all starting about the same time, figure in this remarkable outbreak, and the first things to be consumed are the firm's books.'
'That was very unfortunate,' admitted Max Carrados.
'It was, when you consider. Books, Max, are about the most stubbornly uninflammable things that you find about an office. So long as it remains closed it is next to impossible to light a solidly-bound ledger; what happens is that it slowly chars for an inch or two inwards all round. These'—indicating the heap of soaked debris on the floor—'have been deliberately thrown open, drenched with some spirit, and set fire to.'
'Turpentine,' declared the blind man, picking up the relic of a volume. 'All this must have taken time, Louis.'
'Undoubtedly; the preparations were thorough enough for anything.'
'Vernon Barrowford—the last to leave as you very naturally insist—locked the Culver Street door after him at half-past twelve. The general office clerk was here certainly up to twelve-twenty. Ten minutes at the outside, Louis.'
'I haven't gone into that yet. He may have returned again. We learn that he did not reach home until rather late that day.'
'I think he very likely did return, and my interest lies in what he found here. He certainly went meanwhile to the reading-room of the British Museum—I have his umbrella in my car at this moment.'
'To pass the time until it was safe to return here? The brigade think half-past twelve too early to assume this fire which was not discovered until about ten at night.'
'The place is shut in all round and a moderate fire might go on for a long time unseen, but three or four o'clock would suit me better than half-past twelve,' agreed Carrados. 'What case of motive are you making against him, Louis?'
'The suggestion is that the stock has been going down ever since this Barrowford took on the business—five years ago—and the insurance has remained the same. The concern is practically bankrupt now, and the manager admits—'
'Don't say "admits", Louis; I have already conversed with that good, and faithful servant.'
'Well, I am only dealing with facts, whatever we call the source of our information. For months past Barrowford has been trying to get in capital. Lately he found some people who were not unwilling, but of course they stipulated for a proper stocktaking and an independent audit. Now that's just what—'
'I say,' came a plaintive voice from outside the door, 'I don't want to intrude, but—'
'Come in by all means,' called back Mr Carlyle. 'The formalities of office routine are suspended for the nonce. But if you want to see the manager—'
'No, I don't want to see good old Pridger,' said the visitor, disclosing himself as an elderly young man of rather languid aspect; 'I just drifted across, en passant, for a nod and a sympathetic word with dear old Vernon, but the bright young Frederick intimates that he hasn't arrived—'
'We are afraid he isn't likely to arrive,' volunteered Mr Carrados. 'Your friend is rather seriously ill at present.'
'You don't say so,' replied the caller, balancing himself against his walking-stick after looking vainly round for an unburnt piece of furniture to lean upon. 'Nervous breakdown and all that, I suppose? The fact is, dear old Vernon wasn't cut out for the turmoil of modern business competition. It was a fundamental error for him ever to have crept out of his cosy corner in Somerset House, where he really was integral. He didn't fit the wall space here.'
'I understand that his tastes were literary and artistic,' remarked Mr Carrados.
'Literary and artistic? Literary and artistic!' repeated the new acquaintance, with some play in emphatics. 'Certainly, the dear old somniloquist achieved an occasional letter to the Moribund Review on "Telepathy among Cab Horses", or something of that sort, but, my good Lord, artistic! And that reminds me—what has become of the Van Doop amid the cataclysm?'
'The Van Doop?'
'Yes; you've come across the atrocity, haven't you? He had it hung up there when I was last in—Saturday. You don't mean to say—'
'If it was anywhere in this room on Saturday last it has certainly gone the way of all flesh,' declared Mr Carlyle briskly. 'A painting, I suppose? Those may be the remains of a frame where you are looking. Was it valuable?'
'If the dear old chap has had the mental acumen to insure it for what he claimed it to be worth I should say it was very valuable indeed,' was the sage reply. If not—'
'There is no picture of any sort in the schedule,' declared Mr Carlyle, after consulting his papers.
'Then I don't mind telling you that it was rotten. Under the impression that anything signed "Van Doop" was by Van Doop, and that anything by Van Doop was worth about the level thousand, the poor old haddock seems to have let a gang of Bond Street rooks put it across him to the tune of some three hundred. Of course it was easy, because he thought that he was a born judge, and that is the beginning of ignorance.'
'Was he likely to find this out on Saturday?' asked Mr Carrados.
'Well, I told him. I don't see that you could have anything more conclusive than that,' explained the gentleman with some complacency. '"My dear old image," I said quite plainly. "Van Doop painted only one 'Portrait of a Father-in-Law' and that's in the Eremitage and has been for the last half century."'
'The where?' inquired Mr Carlyle with alert curiosity.
'Eremitage—the Hermitage Museum at St Petersburg, you would probably call it.'
'Yes, or course,' assented Mr Carlyle hastily. 'I didn't quite catch the word, that was all.'
'"As for this mutton-faced adventurer," I told him; "he is probably a worked-up piece by Jan Van Doop—an obscure relative of the man. As a matter of fact, I think Lenlau disposes of this canvas in his list of spurious Van Doops." "Lenlau?" he said helplessly, and I saw that the unfortunate oyster had never heard of the one man who wrote intelligently on the subject of Van Doop. "Good heavens, old thing!" I said, being really too overcome to rub it in, and then, as he asked me, I gave him the details of the work, and that's about all there is to it.'
'I think that explains why Barrowford came back,' said Carrados when the two were alone again. 'That egregious poseur knew what he was talking about, at all events. Our man went to the reading-room, got out "Lenlau", and then returned here to verify some point of description.'
'More desperate than ever,' remarked Mr Carlyle significantly.
'Not desperate enough to burn a picture that he hasn't had the prudence to insure, especially as there might be a chance of getting something back yet,' replied his friend. 'Did he find the place on fire when he got here? It is difficult to imagine anything particularly "horrible" about the redness of a burning room. Did he surprise Pridger, who attacked him? Then the cat? Of course it might—'
'One moment, Max, one moment,' cut in Mr Carlyle's assertive protest. 'It is very nattering of you to credit me with a supernatural intuition, but it makes your monologue unnecessarily cryptical. If this is a case of incendiarism—and, by Jupiter, on the evidence lying round I shall advise my clients to resist the claim tooth and nail—who is the perpetrator if not Barrowford?'
'Who?' said Max Carrados, and then his attention suddenly faded. With one of his disconcertingly exact movements he went direct to the mantlepiece, skirting a heap of debris in his progress, and picked up a few letters that were ranged there. 'Oh, Louis, Louis, and we two sleuths are asking, you "Who?" and I "How?" and here are Barrowford's neglected letters.'
'Pshaw!' fretted Garlyle impatiently. 'What business are they of ours, Max? Besides, the fellow is too ill to deal with them by your account.'
'And no letter-box to the door.'
'Well, what of that?'
'The letters fall upon the floor.' The blind man's inquiring fingers were touching off every word and sign accessible to them as he threw aside one packet after another. 'What do you make of this, Louis?'
'A post card. Not very confidential that, eh?'"Thanks for your kind inquiry. At the moment we have not—" This is merely formal.'
'Try the other side.'
'Ah, the post mark, "London, E.G., 12.30 p.m., 25 May"—Saturday last. You mean that if this was picked up on Saturday it indicates that someone was about after—let me see, twelve-thirty, say two-thirty delivery, say three o'clock here—and if it wasn't picked up—I see.'
'Not exactly that. Isn't there a sort of a—' and he indicated the cancellation.
'A mere pinkish smudge from something. Do you mean that?'
'What one might perhaps describe as the faint impression of a cat's paw transferred in red. Now, Louis, what was the office cat—'
'But, good heavens, Max, seriously, what have we to do with the peregrinations of this feline marauder? You are not suggesting that the abandoned quadruped deliberately set fire to the establishment, are you? My only concern is who—'
'Oh, who, of course,' apologized his friend. 'You asked that before, didn't you, and I got led away to something else? Naturally, Pridger set the place on fire—hasn't he told you that yet?'
'The manager?' Louis Carlyle stared hard and incredulously for a moment, and then swung half round to Carrados's lead with his usual mental agility. 'Do you know, Max, I always had an underlying instinct that there was something fishy—but so long as it is incendiarism I don't suppose it matters to my clients who the criminal is.'
'Oh, don't you, my friend?' retorted Max. 'It may considerably.'
'Barrowford is the sole proprietor of this concern. If he sets it on fire that naturally invalidates his insurance. But if someone else does—'
'His manager,' the other reminded him. 'His confidential employee, Max.'
'True. But you don't suggest that burning the place down is "in or arising out of" his duty, do you?—especially as it was after hours! If you are thinking of your clients, Louis, you had much better stick to Barrowford.'
'Well, after all, I shall keep an open mind on the subject yet. I have still to question some of the men—only Pridger and a boy come here now, and I must hunt the others up.'
'And I must hunt the cat up. We won't trouble Pridger about it, but the boy might be worth seeing.'
'Extraordinary fancies you sometimes get, Max,' said Mr Carlyle, regarding this whim with benevolent toleration. 'I believe half of them are to mystify the simple-minded. The curious thing is that now and then they seem to lead—indirectly, of course—to something we've been looking for.'
'You've noticed that?' responded Carrados. 'I thought that perhaps it was only my imagination.'
'If you really want the boy I'll call him,' preferred Mr Carlyle. 'But I should warn you that even as boys go, he doesn't seem to be a very intelligent member of his tribe.'
The blind man nodded a smiling assent, and Mr Carlyle, going to another door across the way, sent out his ample authoritative voice in a call for 'Fred'.
An undersized, weak-eyed lad of about fifteen emerged unwillingly from a secluded lair, and stuffing an untidy paper-backed book into a pocket as he came he greeted Mr Carlyle with a boorish 'Well?'
'This is the brilliant individual, Max,' said the inquiry agent with elegant disdain. 'Democratic education, egad!'
'Can you tell me where we are likely to find the cat, Fred?' asked Mr Carrados persuasively. 'Perhaps there is more than one kept here?'
'Cat?' repeated the unwholesome-looking boy stupidly. 'The cat isn't none of my business.'
'But you might perhaps know where it usually is,' suggested the inquirer mildly. 'Cats have habits, you know.' But Fred was not to be cajoled by mildness, and turning away he muttered something of which only the words 'if you use your eyes' emerged.
'You young ruffian!' exclaimed the irate Carlyle; 'is that the way to reply to a gentleman—and a blind man, too! If I were Mr Carrados I'd have you skinned, by Jupiter!'
Mr Carlyle was not unaccustomed to his impressive voice and forensic manner carrying effect, but he was hardly prepared for the dramatic change that his words produced.
'Mr Carrados, did you say—blind!' came from the boy in a wholly different tone. His doltish look was gone, his sulky bearing had given place to lively excitement, and his dull eyes were now charged with intelligence—almost with cunning. Coming nearer he laid a hand eagerly on the venerated sleeve, and dropping his voice to the tone appropriate to melodrama, 'Are you Max Carrados, the blind 'tec?' he demanded.
'Come, come; really!' protested Louis Carlyle, scandalized by his familiarity, but his friend only laughed understandingly.
'Was that "Jake Jackson, the Human Bloodhound" you were reading just now?' he asked. 'Pretty good, isn't it?'
Til tell you about the cat, sir,' whispered the boy. 'It was suffocated by the smoke on Saturday, and it's out at the back by the dust-bins now. Is it the fire or embezzlement you're on to now, sir?'
'Fred!' sounded the manager's voice not so far away. 'Fred, where are—'
'Look out, sir,' cautioned the boy, as he made for the door. 'Old Pridger half suspects it's not going smooth. Bins straight through warehouse—yellow jinny cat.' Then his former lethargy descended on him and he lounged into the passage muttering, 'Electric fuses? 'Ow'm I to know—'
'Oh, Fred,' said the manager sharply, 'why the devil can't you come when—Here, get your hat at once and take this note across to Marchmont's and wait an answer. Well, gentlemen—'
Two minutes later, as the three walked towards the warehouse, they encountered Fred on his way out. The loutish youth, not dreaming of giving way, barged into Mr Carrados and earned a reprimand for clumsiness and a further word for the whistle of studied disrespect with which he artistically rounded off the affair. When the opportunity came the blind man smoothed out the screw of paper that the encounter had left in his hand and read as follows:
If you want to know more about it meet me at twelve tonight (mid-night) on Waterloo Bridge. Boss is all right, but old P. is a churlish swine. I've been dogging his footsteps for months and can put you on to two banks where he goes in different names. What ho!
(Signed) Frederick the Boy Detective.
'Frederick will probably be heard of again,' speculated Carrados as he slid the message into his wallet. 'All the same, I wish that his taste in appointments had not been quite so inconveniently dramatic.'
'Dear Louis,' wrote Max Carrados some time later, 'I will redeem the promise made when you were called away in the middle of the Barrowford affair. You complained that I did not seem to take much interest in that conflagration, and you were right, for a mere straightforward piece of incendiarism offers nothing new. But the mystery of Vernon Barrowford's condition struck quite another line. Whether we should ever have reached a true understanding of that curious case without the miraculous intervention of Frederick is beside the question. That boy, Louis, is in his way a masterpiece. Do you know, every article of clothing that he wears is reversible, so that he can present quite a different appearance at the shortest notice!
'You will have seen that Pridger got five years. It might well have been more if Barrowford could have appeared, but that was out of the question, and so, much against the man had to be ignored. His is quite an ordinary case. His nature is not essentially criminal and he had no expensive tastes. For twenty years he had been an exemplary servant under the eye of old Conrad Stubb; but Stubb knew the business to his finger-nails, while Vernon never really touched it with a long pole. His coming was the beginning of Pridger's downfall. The man saw—it was, indeed, thrown at him—how easy peculation was. Everything was left to his unsupervised control. In five years, out of a salary of six or seven pounds a week, he had "saved" at least eight thousand pounds!
'This wholesale success was the manager's undoing. The business grew poorer and poorer until it could no longer turn. Then Barrowford bestirred himself to get in outside capital. He found someone not unwilling to go into it, but that entailed a thorough audit. So far as Pridger was concerned the game was up. He had cooked the buying, he had cooked the selling, he had systematically pillaged the stock. He could, of course, have bolted—all his booty was conveniently arranged for that—but the man's conventional nature shrank from such a break with respectability. A fire was obviously the solution, and, as luck would have it, a fire just then might very easily be made to look like Vernon's expedient.
This brings us down to the Saturday of the deed. For some time Pridger had been waiting and watching for the occasion when his employer should be the last man to leave. In pursuance of this scheme it was his custom to announce that he was going and then secrete himself. This is what happened on the day in question, and when Barrowford saw all the others off and himself locked the outer door on his departure the manager decided that his chance had come.
'He was in no hurry. There was the bare possibility at first that someone might return for something, while as the afternoon wore on the footstep of the occasional passer-by would get even rarer, and it was no part of the plan that the fire should be discovered by some premature busybody. Mr Pridger leisurely consumed his simple lunch and re-read through his morning paper. Then at about three o'clock he began work seriously.
'We know now what had happened to Barrowford meanwhile. He had, I have since discovered, been the victim of a quite elaborate "plant" over the Dutch old master—thinking by his "connoisseurship" to improve his position—and he could not afford it. Whether the proof of the deception was quite such a simple affair as it pleased that debonair sprig to affect need not trouble us; at any rate, Barrowford found some reference so disconcerting at the British Museum that he hurried back to his office to verify the worst.
'Three-thirty, let us say. Pridger had been burning books and other incriminating matter now for half an hour. Then on his startled ear there falls suddenly the sound of someone unlocking the outer front door. No need to think twice who. Only one man beside himself possessed the keys.
'For this emergency the guilty knave had no plan ready. He had gone too far to make extrication possible; the evidence of his intention lay about in every room, and however slack a master Barrowford had been he would certainly read the plain riddle of the scene that met his eyes, and then Pridger was lost.
'Flight was no longer possible; for even to reach the warehouse and the back he must have recourse to the long passage. It was then that Pridger's eye fell on the door of a small store closet—he was in the general office now—windowless and dark. I think that the man's impulse was simply to hide himself and gain a breath of time. But as he stumbled in there flashed to his mind the desperate expedient of this last chance. It was no sooner grasped than acted on.
'A few months before a handy fellow among them had offered to paint the place and the materials were bought, but something intervened and the project hung. The tins of paint still stood there, already mixed, and it was to a lurid crimson that Pridger's mind had leapt. There was no subtlety—there was no time for it. He stooped, dipped both hands into the fluid, and simply laved his face with it. Then throwing completely round his form a sable cloth—one of those to be spread over the goods—he stepped out to meet his unsuspecting victim.
'How they met—whether the dreadful apparition leapt out as the man drew near, whether it stood silently awaiting him, or whether it rushed shrieking down the passage threateningly—we shall perhaps never know. But reconstructing the scene among those silent walls in the precarious light, with the unforgotten ghosts of other crimes ready to emerge from every shadow, I can conceive that no more frightful spectre than this sombre being, dripping red from hands and face at every step, has ever walked. Its effect on a rather soft and just then greatly harassed mind was tragic. Vernon Barrowford has brought from that shuttered past just one vivid lightning flash—the ghastly, all-pervading redness of the Thing; his own paralysing sense of helpless terror; the panic-stricken howling of the flying cat; and the safety of the distant door that he must—must—reach. He did reach it, but he left something there behind.'
'I Knew you in a moment, Mr Carrados. But I expect that you haven't the very faintest idea of who I am?'
'No,' admitted Max Carrados pleasantly; 'I am afraid that I must plead guilty. But,' he added, in his usual matter-of-fact, effective way, 'of course I know well enough who you were. Twenty years ago—at least, twenty to my account—we acted charades together and you were Gertie Hamilton.'
'I still am,' admitted the lady, with a suggestion of resignation in her voice. 'And it's every bit of twenty years as far as I'm concerned.'
That evening Mr Carrados (duly announced by an occasional small bill in the windows of dairies, fancy wool shops, and other refined establishments) had been delivering an address on 'Premonition, Hallucination, and Autosuggestion' at the Corn Market Hall in Overbury. It had amused the blind man to accept the invitation to give the annual Stalworthy lecture, as it frequently did amuse him to do unexpected things—sheerly to experience—but more than once before he was through the unentertaining business he cursed the moment of good-natured assent.
The last formal word of compliment was spoken and the audience dribbled away with a sense of having performed a duty only slightly less meritorious than that of going to church. Parkinson, at all events, in the glory of being seated on the platform, had thoroughly enjoyed himself. It was then that the lady, who had occupied a retired seat well down the hall, summoned up the resolution to approach the lecturer and to challenge his recollection.
'And you really do know me by my voice! How wonderful! I had been told—but you never know what to believe.'
'It does depend somewhat on the teller, doesn't it?' agreed Carrados.
'Well, it was chiefly Lydia Murgatroyd, I think. You remember her? Lydia married a drawing-master who had a pupil whose father—a wholesale druggist, you know—got into a case and employed a Mr Carlyle, who said—'
'Heavens!' interposed Carrados, 'that's five removes already. You can only believe a fifth of what you heard. Much better expect to find me as you found me in the past.'
'Well, we were always quite good friends, weren't we? You were Mr Max Wynn in those days, and you—you—'
'I had to trust my poor misleading eyes then? Yes; I wonder if I should have known you, Miss Hamilton, at sight.'
'Oh, I hope not!' she exclaimed ingenuously, and disclosing that train of thought she added, 'but my sister Mildred was the pretty one, you know.'
'Mildred; yes, I remember her very well indeed,' replied the blind man thoughtfully. 'We were all her devoted slaves. And she died?'
'Not until now. Your voice told me that.'
Miss Hamilton's look expressed surprise, but she accepted what he said unquestioningly; it agreed with much that she had heard.
'Yes; she died five years ago. And, curiously enough, it has to do with that in a way that I am here now. I came'—she suddenly found her diffidence returning—'I came to see if the Mr Carrados I'd heard so much about really was the Max Wynn we used to know, and if so to ask your advice.'
At the back of the hall a sad man was already putting out the lights; in the neighbourhood of the platform another coughed hopefully from time to time. No one else remained; even the young lady who had played selections from Bach and Schumann before the lecture and 'God Save the King' after it had closed the hired piano, rolled up her music, and stolen silently away. At a suitable distance apart, exercising his unique gift of being profoundly impressed by a subject that he had no interest in whatever, Parkinson was deeply immersed in a chart illustrating a century of wheat averages of the British Isles.
'I suppose that I oughtn't to detain you here,' continued Miss Hamilton looking about. 'I wonder if you could spare the time to go back with me and tell me what you think. I live just outside Overbury—quite a short walk.'
'If you knew anything of life in the "Mitre" smoking-room you wouldn't sound so diffident about offering an alternative for an hour or two,' replied Carrados.
'That's just like you used to be,' she commented. Thanking me for asking you to do something.'
As they walked through the silent and deserted streets of the little market town, Carrados was reviewing his memories of the past. Twenty-five years ago (he had given the lady the benefit of five) he had been of very small account indeed—an unknown youth in a strange city, with the wealth that had afterwards suddenly descended on him as remote then as if it had been buried in the mountains of the moon. The Hamiltons had let him understand that he need not be solitary if he cared to accept the simple, kindly entertainment they dispensed. It had not lasted very long; promotion to another town had cut across his path, and the Hamiltons had never become more than an incident, but, a little tardily perhaps, he recognized that at the time their friendliness had meant much to him.
The now middle-aged Gertrude, padding rather heavily by his side as she guided his course, had been the elder of the sisters. The other—Mildred—had more than merited Gertie's claim and his own prosaic tribute. Her memory stirred no heartbeat now, but he could very well recall the shy wonder with which the adoring youth had watched her movements. Then there had been a brother of whom he was yet to hear. Both parents would be dead....
'Here we are at last,' exclaimed Miss Hamilton with determined sprightliness, and Carrados heard the latch of a gate lifted. The garden they passed through was of the cottage order, but trimly kept; the blind man checked off one old English flower after another, and divined the care lavished on them before the door was reached.
'I wonder if Mr Parkinson would mind sitting in the kitchen with my old servant?' whispered Miss Hamilton. 'I am rather afraid of him, do you know!' The little grimace accompanying this indicated that the idea was to be regarded humorously, and Carrados understood that what she really doubted was the extent of Parkinson's discretion. 'Nothing would suit him better,' he replied. 'If he happens to approve of my address he will give your servant a selection of extracts from it, only in much superior language.'
'Then I will take him through, if you will excuse me.' She lingered at the door and laughed a little self-consciously. 'And generally—though of course you wouldn't remember a thing like that—we used to have just coffee and cakes as a sort of supper. But I hardly expect that now—'
'Do you still make the cake with pink icing and the orange flavour?' he inquired.
'Well, really, I wouldn't have believed!' she exclaimed, and bounced away like a delighted schoolgirl.
A little later, having successfully introduced Parkinson and arranged for the appearance of the celebrated cake, Miss Hamilton launched upon the subject of her trouble.
'It's really about Cyril I meant when I said Mildred,5 she explained. 'Cyril is Mildred's son, the only child she had, and so, of course, my nephew, the only one I have.'
'Tom went to South Africa ten—twelve—oh, fifteen years ago. We never heard from him after the war there; I think he must have been killed. You see, Mr Carrados, I'm quite alone except for Cyril now. Father—Mother—Tom—Mildred—all I had: all gone.'
'Your nephew lives with you here?' prompted Carrados. He was sorry for the poor lady, forlorn and rather unwieldy among the buffetry of circumstance, but he began to foresee that it might be necessary to keep her to the point.
'No; I'm coming to that. You must forgive me—I know I'm slow and tiresome. I can do nothing but think about things now, hour after hour: moping I suppose others would call it. It's so dreadful if it's true that I can hardly believe it possible; and yet, there it is. I must do something about it.'
'Yes,' said Carrados, smiling away the edge of his retort, 'you must really tell me about it.'
'There I go again!' confessed Miss Hamilton with a gesture of despair. 'How can I expect you to advise me? Well, Millie married a Mr Bycourt—Mark Bycourt—who still lives a few miles from here. He was quite a nice sort of man, but a little old for her, I thought, considering her looks and chances, and he really doesn't appear to be interested in any subject except water beetles. It seems a strange taste for a man. He might have taken up golf, or prize poultry, or politics, or lots of things, I mean, that would have seemed more—well, gentlemanly.'
'Quite a number of people are interested in water beetles,' observed Carrados mildly.
'So I am given to understand,' she admitted, 'and I suppose that I must be narrow-minded. But don't think that I have anything against Mr Bycourt; he made what I should call a good husband, though it must undoubtedly have been a little dull for Millie at times. When they had been married about three years Cyril came.... Did you ever hear of an Uncle Stace when you knew us at Midchester, Mr Carrados?'
'Stace? No, I have never heard the name before,' replied the blind man.
'I don't quite know where the relationship came in or if he really was any relation at all. I have heard that he had been very fond of mother years ago and wanted to marry her, but when we children knew him he seemed quite old and was said to be very rich. Well, all that he has to do with it is this: Millie was his favourite—as she was everyone's—and when he died it was found that he had left everything—almost everything—to her, and to Cyril afterwards.'
'To her and to her children generally afterwards?' suggested Carrados.
'No, just to Cyril by name. There were no other children, you see.'
'Quite so,' agreed the listener.
'Millie died when she had been married about eight years—it was appendicitis. Then Mark asked me if I would keep house for him and look after Cyril, and I did—for four years. Of course I got very fond of the child, especially after I had mothered him through his little troubles and illnesses; he was all that was left to me of the old days at Midchester. It was a great blow to me when Mark married again.'
Carrados contributed only a sympathetic nod; Miss Hamilton seemed fairly well set on her subject now.
'I should not have minded so much if the new Mrs Bycourt had been what I would call a suitable person, but really, one could hardly describe her as a lady. She was the very opposite of Mildred, and what Mark could have been thinking of I cannot imagine.'
'Some people are like that,' admitted Carrados diplomatically.
'Well, I suppose so; but it is a great pity. She was the widow of a sort of small country gentleman who owned one or two racehorses and came to grief, and she really seemed to have absorbed the atmosphere of the stable and the farmyard. Not that I mean there was anything definitely wrong about her—but the whiskies-and-sodas, the cigars, the slang (to call it nothing worse), the slap-dash of everything!—and Mark was such a refined man, whatever else he was. I really couldn't stand it for more than a week, although they both pressed me to remain until I could make my own arrangements; it was a sudden marriage, you know. That was about a year ago.
'It really was very terrible for me, Mr Carrados, to have to give little Cyril up. He was such an affectionate, dear little boy, and for four years I had been neither more nor less than his mother. But there! I took this cottage partly so that I could get across to Stacks—that's their house—from tune to time, and of course I have to consider ways and means as well: Papa was unfortunate towards the last. In the meanwhile Cyril goes daily to a small school kept by a lady in the village; he is delicate and rather too young to leave home yet. Mrs Bycourt has two boys of her own, a few years older than Cyril and perfect young ruffians. Fortunately, they are generally away at boarding-school.'
'And now?' prompted Carrados, for Miss Hamilton's silence was becoming rather strained, and, after maintaining an admirable control up to this point, the poor lady, brought face to face with her immediate distress, suddenly brimmed over.
'Oh, Mr Carrados,' she wailed appealingly, 'don't laugh at me, but I'm sure the woman's murdering Cyril by degrees so that her own will get his money. I know she is, and what am I to do?'
Now with regard to murder, experience had imbued the blind man with two convictions: the first that it is a very easy thing to do, and the second that it is a very difficult thing to do properly. If this inauspicious Mrs Bycourt actually succeeded in removing her young stepson, Max Carrados did not doubt that the chances were on the side of justice overtaking her, but the more pressing need was to find out if she had any such intention, and if so to frustrate it.
'Would the money go to her if your nephew died?' he asked.
'Oh, yes. I saw our old solicitor about that. As I said, it was left to Millie and to Cyril after her. It is really Cyril's now, but held in trust for him until he comes of age. Of course he can't make a will yet, so that if he died the money would pass to his father, and he naturally would leave it to his wife.'
'He probably would,' agreed Carrados. 'How much is there?'
'It was about thirty thousand pounds. I understand that by the time Cyril could touch it there would be more than fifty thousand. That seems a lot to people like ourselves. Mark is quite comfortably off, I suppose, but by no means wealthy, and his new wife will have brought him little. If she is determined to get rich or to provide well for her own awful children, Cyril's fortune—'
It was quite clear that Miss Hamilton had definitely settled the offending Mrs Bycourt and Cyril in their respective roles of murderess and victim, but when the patient investigator brought her up against the test of concrete facts he felt that the most useful purpose he could serve would be to discount her fears.
'But I feel so absolutely convinced that something sinister is going on,' pleaded the distressed lady. 'Oh, Mr Carrados, the boy is growing thinner and more lifeless week by week, the woman is capable of any villiany, the inducement is plain before our faces—'
'Then why not persuade the father to get a doctor in?'
'The doctor has seen him already. I insisted on Dr Huntley being called in some time ago.'
Carrados passed the revealing word 'insisted'. 'And he said?' he inquired.
'Oh, he said that there was nothing really the matter. Of course he meant that Cyril hadn't measles or chicken-pox, and we knew that well enough already. He recommended a little change. Cyril went with me to Eastbourne for two weeks. There he improved wonderfully. Then we came back and he went down again.'
'Could he not live with you here for some time?'
'I should love it. But Mrs Bycourt won't hear of such a thing—naturally. She says that the boy has been coddled enough already—me, of course—and that the sooner he gets over his morbid fancies the better, and that in any case if the air of Stacks doesn't suit him, it's hardly likely that this will as it's only five miles away.... Now whatever can that be at this hour? Did you hear a knock? I didn't, but Susan has gone to the door.'
'I heard a footstep outside and then a knock,' replied the blind man. 'It is a child who is uncertain.'
'Please, m'm,' said the elderly servant, opening the room door and standing there a little fluttered, 'here's Master Cyril from Stacks and in a pretty pickle.'
'Do you mean he's alone?' exclaimed Miss Hamilton, jumping up and making for the door. 'Oh, my poor lamb!' For the next half minute there was alternate rattle and murmur in the hall, while the staid Susan continued by the door, regarding Mr Carrados with a fascinated interest. Parkinson had undoubtedly been enlarging. Then Miss Hamilton returned, leading in a little boy who clung to her, his pale, over-refined young face not yet wholly reassured.
'This is Cyril, Mr Carrados,' she explained, patting the hand that gripped her protectively. 'He tells me that he has run away from home and walked all the way here, but I know nothing more because I thought that you had better hear it with me.'
'Well, he seems to have come just in time for some coffee and cake, unless the signs deceive me,' remarked Carrados with encouraging levity. 'Fond of cake with plenty of pink icing on it, Cyril?'
'Yes, thank you, sir,' replied the boy politely, as he took serious stock of this new grown-up.
'So am I,' confessed the friendly stranger. 'And I don't mind telling you, Cyril, that when I was ten—that's older than you perhaps—I ran away, because there was a very fat big boy who used to wait for me every morning and punch my head.'
'I am ten,' protested Cyril; 'and I am not much afraid of boys. But I am frightened of the man who comes to me in the night and is going to take me in his cart.' A look of pitiable terror came into his eyes and his voice rose almost to a scream. 'Don't let him; oh, don't let him take me, Auntie!'
With a croon of horror and affection Gertrude Hamilton flung her arms protectingly about her darling child and shot a meaning look of triumph at her unbelieving guest. 'Now what do you think?' it seemed to say, and, for all the world as if he had met it, the blind man's scarcely-moving hand mutely signalled back, 'Quietly. Be careful now!'
'He shall not touch you,' he said reassuringly. 'You are going to stay here tonight. Now tell us what this man is like, so that we shall be able to prevent him from ever coming again.'
'He is a big man and very strong, so that he can carry people. He stands by my bed looking down; and there is a nasty smell comes with him.'
'What does he wear?'
'It is a long brown thing with a belt, and a queer high hat, not like men wear now. And he has a staff.'
'Can you tell us what his face is like? Have you ever seen another that reminds you of it?'
'It is only his eyes that you can see,' replied Cyril, in a voice low with the memory of his terror. 'There is something like a cloth over his face.'
'Oh, my precious!' was wrung from Miss Hamilton, but Carrados's insistent gesture cut shot her passionate outcry.
'It is a dream,' said the blind man quietly, taking up his patient again; 'a bad black dream. You are really asleep at the time, Cyril?'
'I am not quite awake,' admitted the boy consideringly, 'but I am not really asleep. It is very queer and—different. And he mutters.'
'Do you remember anything that he has ever said?'
'Only a little bit now and then. Last night he said, "He has the—the"—I forget the word; oh, yes—"the tokens on him, but he is not dead yet. I will come again tomorrow night". That was why I dare not stay any longer.'
Miss Hamilton left Cyril on the couch where they had been seated and crossed the room.
'Is it necessary to distress him any more with this?' she whispered. Her face was white and scared, but there was the ring of defiance in her voice. 'Whatever happens, he shall not go back while I'm alive.'
'It's extraordinarily fascinating,' replied Carrados in the same guarded tone, 'and we ought to get at the bottom of these things. On the face of it this is plainly nightmare—he has read it all. Do you ever,' he continued, turning to the boy again, 'do you ever hear a bell ringing while this goes on?'
'Yes,' was the reply, given without hesitation, 'it rings sometimes outside. That is before the man comes in or alter he has gone.'
'You see,' explained Carrados aside; 'that bears it out. If this were someone got up to terrify the boy it's absurd that he should take the extra risk of having a bell rung outside, merely for a point of extra realism, but it is just the sort of detail that sticks in the imagination and reproduces in a very vivid nightmare.'
'But what is it?' demanded Miss Hamilton, beginning to be shaken in her high attitude. 'What is it that he is supposed to dream about?'
'What? Why the Plague to be sure; the Great Plague that furnished nightmares for many a generation in the past. Let me see, Cyril, you are fond of reading, aren't you?'
'Well, yes, sir,' said Cyril. 'If it's tales,' he added conscientiously.
'Oh, of course; we don't mean lessons, do we? Have you ever read Robinson Crusoe?'
'Rather! I've got it at home—with pictures.'
'Man Friday and the parrot and all? Do you remember who wrote it?'
'Yes; Daniel Defoe.'
'Bravo! Well, he wrote other books. Can you tell me any?'
Apparently not. Cyril considered, but remained dumb. 'Something about a "Journal" and a "Year", eh?' prompted the questioner. 'No? Well, never mind.'
'But why not ask him outright if you think it's that?' put in the lady. 'Shall I?'
'It is liable to suggest,' was his reply. 'But try.'
'Once upon a time a lot of people got very ill,' said Miss Hamilton coaxingly, 'and they called it a plague. Have you ever heard of it, my pet?'
'Yes, Auntie,' said Cyril, his large, considering eyes incapable of jest. 'It's what papa calls me when I ask him things.'
Miss Hamilton so to speak 'stood down' and Carrados resumed.
'Did you ever see a picture of a man in a long brown dress—'
'Like him?' interrupted the child with a shudder. 'No—and—please, sir—'
'My dear lad,' anticipated Carrados, going to the couch and laying his hand unfailingly on the boy's shoulder, 'we are going to help you. We intend that you shall never, never see the man again. But sometimes the doctor has to give you nasty medicine for your good. It isn't always pleasant to be left in the dark, even when you are ten, is it?'
'Well, when you feel like that, Cyril, you can think of me being in the darkness with you too. I am always in the dark because, you see, I am blind.'
'Oh, I didn't know, sir,' said the little boy with quick feeling. 'I am very sorry, but'—consolingly—'you look all right.'
'Thank you,' replied Mr Carrados gravely. 'Generally speaking, I feel all right. But we all have our moments in the dark.'
'Cyril has a little light always in his bedroom,' volunteered Miss Hamilton. 'Don't you, dear?'
'Quite right,' said Carrados idly. 'A nightlight?'
'Yes, but electric light, you know. A tiny bulb. It's new there. Mrs Bycourt said she couldn't stand lamps, and so Mark has recently put up an installation for the house.'
'Electric light, and recent?' mused Carrados. 'How long ago?'
'About, well—how long have you had the electric light, Cyril? A few months, isn't it?'
'At Christmas, Auntie. We had all the lights on at once on Christmas Day. Don't you remember; you were there?'
Miss Hamilton nodded assent, her eyes on her guest's impenetrable face. 'Yes, that is right,' she said.
'Let me see'—a most disarming unconcern had come into the blind man's voice—'was it before or after Christmas that the bad dream first came?'
'It was just after Christmas,' replied the boy.
'Quite sure?'—a little more insistent now.
'Oh, yes; I remember by my presents. And then he began to come oftener, and then he stayed away a bit, and—and I am frightened, but I'm glad I told you.'
'My treasure!' cried the fond lady, 'why didn't you tell Auntie sooner?' and for reply Cyril hung his head and whispered the fatal insuperable excuse of childhood:
'I didn't like to.'
'Another time you must,' she enjoined. 'And do you always sleep on your right side, as I told you?'
'And the bed is still pushed to the farther wall, away from the draught, where I arranged it?'
'Oh, yes Auntie. It is right up to the little pull-thing in the wall that does my light. I can send it in and out while I'm in bed.'
'And the best place for you to be now, young man,' said Carrados, taking out his watch and touching its fingers. 'Eleven-fifteen.'
'Yes, indeed,' chimed in Miss Hamilton. 'If you don't want another piece of cake Susan will take you up. I suppose'—turning to her visitor—'that I ought to let them know somehow at Stacks where Cyril is tonight?'
'I have been thinking of that. Are they on the telephone?'
'No—what a pity. You would have told them from your hotel, I'm sure.'
'Yes, but as they're not, so much the better. Just write them a line and I will take it round there now.'
'You, Mr Carrados? At this hour?'
'Why not? All hours are alike to me. Then we needn't disturb them if they know nothing of the escapade as yet. If I find the place in darkness I shall leave the note to be discovered with Master Cyril's absence in the morning. I have a fancy to "see" Stacks in my own particular way, Miss Hamilton, and, lo and behold! the Fates arrange it.'
Less than half an hour later a motor-car skated down the long, slight hill that ended in the village street of Irling and drew up before the cottages began. Mr Carrados and Parkinson got out, and leaving the hotel chauffeur to doze across his wheel they set out on the adventure of discovery.
'The turning to the left before the baker's shop,' directed the leader of the expedition. 'That must be it ahead, Parkinson, although the rural baker does not seem to bake by night. Edwards should be the name.'
'There is a shop, sir,' assented Parkinson, peering across the way. 'But I am unable to distinguish the name. If I may—' He was away a moment. 'Perfectly correct, sir, and there is the lane. The people hereabouts, sir, would seem to dispense with street illumination, and it is very dark tonight.'
'True,' replied Carrados, 'and fortunately there is no moon.'
'Yes, sir,' agreed the faithful servitor, catching his toe against the kerb and recovering by his master's guidance; 'I appreciate that it gives us the initial advantage.'
A short half mile, another turn, and presently a darker mass emerged lying back upon their left.
'That should be Stacks,' conjectured Carrados, when Parkinson gave him this information. 'Now is the murder out yet?'
'We are coming to the gates,' reported the proxy 'eyes'. 'There is a small lodge immediately inside. The gates, of open-work iron, are closed. The drive—'
'Wait,' interrupted Carrados. 'Any lights showing at the lodge?'
'No, sir; not on this side.'
'Have a look farther on.'
Parkinson walked fifty yards along the road and then returned.
'No lights anywhere,' he reported.
'Then the murder is probably not yet out. With so good an excuse for being on the premises, and every opportunity for losing ourselves if need be, I begin to despise the front way, Parkinson. Let us investigate.'
They continued along the road away from Stacks. Parkinson soon reported a small door in the garden fence, but this proved to be locked. A little farther on a lane gave promise on their left. A few stars had risen and the seeing eyes were more accustomed to the darkness. After a single futile cast a path was discovered through the fields that now separated them from Stacks, and with scarcely the tribute of a scratch they forced a likely hedge and fell through into what was unmistakably a private garden.
'Never mind the rhubarb plants,' said Carrados—his follower was standing rather aghast at the extent of their devastation. 'They made capital landing and usefully indicate that we are in an obscure part of the kitchen-garden. Can you see the house? Well, we will take a stroll round.'
Progress was slow and vicissitudinous. 'The advantage of beginning operations from here is obvious,' expounded the specialist. 'If we walk across a bed of onions—as we are, in fact, doing at this moment—we create an aromatic fixed point, so to speak, to which it is easy to return again whenever it becomes prudent. It is a line that holds.'
'I have always understood that onions possessed certain medicinal properties, sir,' replied Parkinson sagaciously, and heaven knows what profundities the ingenuous creature might not have advanced had not a parallelogram of emerging blackness disclosed the position of the house. Here also, ran the report, no lights were visible.
'Then the murder is certainly not out,' decided Carrados. 'We can resume out leisurely survey. But not, for preference, along their celery trench, Parkinson.'
'I am very sorry, sir. For the moment my attention was distracted. I have just observed another building, much nearer than the house, where a light is showing.'
'Make for it then. A light means someone, and we must put ourselves right by getting in the first word.'
But he was wrong. The place, a small, well-built shed standing in a remote corner of the grounds—half shrubbery, half waste, they judged—was deserted. Machinery, now idle, proclaimed its use; the light that had attracted them a single indicator lamp glowing above a switchboard.
'The dynamo house, of course, and now they're on the battery,' explained Carrados when they had investigated. 'I heard that they made their own light, but who would have expected to find the place down here.'
'I had some general conversation with the elderly person at Miss Hamilton's,' volunteered Parkinson tolerantly; 'and after the arrival of the young gentleman she expressed her opinions about the family living here. Mr Bycourt is a very nervous, irritable gentleman, it would appear, sir, and cannot put up with any noise or distraction. Perhaps on that account—'
'Aye, that will be it,' agreed Mr Carrados. 'The beat of the engine will scarcely be heard up there; but ssh! what the deuce is coming now?'
Someone was approaching at all events, and the two intruders shrank back into the readiest cover.
'A woman, sir,' whispered Parkinson.
'An old woman,' amplified his master. 'She carries something, and she's in a hurry. Also, she has no business here: which gives us a great advantage, because we have.'
At the threshold of the little house the burden was shot down. The watchers knew already that the door was fastened and looked for the unknown to produce a key. Instead, there was a sudden scrunch of iron, a splintering of wood, and the door swung loosely open.
'Forced, egad!' thought Carrados. 'Our lady is determined.' Then as she passed in, dragging along what now appeared to be a sack, he touched his attendant's arm and together they crept forward to the half-open door.
'It's shavings and wood she's brought,' conveyed Parkinson, his eye to a convenient chink. 'And, blow me, sir,' he added a second later, stirred to this deplorable lapse irom his usual diction, 'but she's drenching the place with petrol! she means mischief!'
'Stop!' cried Carrados, disclosing himself in the doorway. 'Haven't you the sense to know that you'll blow yourself up too?'
The startled creature—never was there a meeker-looking pétroleuse than this tidy, grey-haired cottager—dropped the box of matches she was handling and literally fell upon her knees among the mess she had contrived.
'Oh, the dear Lord preserve us all!' she gasped in terror. 'Who are ye?'
'Never mind that. The question is who are you and what are you doing here?'
'Sure I'm only Mrs Laffey from the lodge just by, sir. Indeed I wasn't doing no harm at all, but you gave me a great turn—just a bit of arranging and tidying up, as you may say. I dhropped a spot of oil an'—'
'Parkinson,' threw out Carrados in a sufficient whisper, 'the police.'
'Oh, don't bring in the polis on me, kind gentleman,' implored Mrs Laffey with redoubled fluency; 'the dirty, thievin' sergeant that set the lie against me a short while back over Mister Johnson's sthrayin' pullets, it's little justice I should ever see. Be the good kind gentleman—'
'You have just one chance,' Carrados took out his watch and displayed it upon his outstretched hand. 'Get up and tell us the exact truth, no matter what it is. Come, out with it.'
'Indeed an' I will, sir an' your honour, for I'm sure ye'd not be after bethraying a poor old widder woman. 'Tis for me boy I'm doing of it, and that's the blessed truth this minnit, though nothing but black words and the lift of a hand maybe would be me thanks if he did know.'
'Your boy? Your son, you mean?'
'Me boy Jim, and he the only one I've got and me husband gone this seventeen years. Ever since he has left school he's worked in the garden, with a thing here and there maybe in the house beyond and a bit extry for it of a Saturday. Well—and it's the stark truth I'm telling ye the blessed knows—last back end the master calls him by and said, "Jim," he said, "the missis is determined on this electrey light and it's all arranged for. You'll have to learn to handle the dynamey an' what not, but 'tis no matter at all—an hour here and there maybe and a grand learning for you for to be an engineer". "Jim," I said when I hear of it, "don't do it. For 'twas handlin' of that stuff hoist your granda out of Donegal in the old days". "Oh, bother," he says, "how am I to say I an't when himself has said I am? Twould be the marching order I should likely get instead". "An' if you should," I up and said, "aren't there plenty other jobs as good in the long breadth of the land and you a handy thrifty chap?" "Have done," he says, souring on me, and—God forgive him!—well I knew the reason why he'd stay, eating the very dirt if need be and she little better than a pagan deity, as you may say.'
'He had charge of this place then?' said Carrados with a patience that Parkinson could not but disapprove of. 'Well, go on.'
'He had indeed, sir, and never a restful moment has he known since. First his bright pretty colour goes, and soon his appetite, and he that would eat me out of house and home now touching no more'n a sup of tay and fiddling with a little thin piece of currant cake maybe. And all the while he taking great store of the dynamey and that, and would spend long hours polishing and oiling up here alone. Then the sleep forsake him, or it'd be one sweaty terror of the livelong night the way he'd fetch likely a groan in his dreams or a curse at the long, still blackness stretching to the dawn, and me listening at the latch-hole of his door.'
'What did he dream?' asked Carrados.
'We made no talk about it, sir, him being that stubborn. But many's the queer word he's let out in his sleep, the same as if he'd claim that one was waiting there to fetch him in a cart. But give notice to himself he would not, as I am tellin' yous, and the very grip of death closing in upon him plain for eny to see, until I knew. 'Tis either Jim or that rampageous divil that's somehow desthroyin' him up there. And that's the sacred truth itself, God help me!'
For a full minute the blind man remained silent, prodding the loose earth with his walking-stick as he pondered. When he spoke, instead of any of the things that Mrs Laffey had hoped, or perhaps feared, it was to put an idle question.
'Did this part of the ground have any special name?' he asked. 'Before this place was built, I mean.'
'They did used to be calling it the Bone Mound, so I've heard,' she said, trying to catch his mood with surreptitious glances. 'There was a little hump, you'll understand, but they thrudged the top off ut for to make a level space.'
'Yes, of course they would. And now, Mrs Laffey, you'd better go on home again. Show this man the way to the front gate as you go. We'll leave that way, Parkinson, but don't come back to me for half an hour.'
'Very good, sir.' Parkinson knew of the times when his master would have no human eye upon him as he worked, and he had ceased—if, indeed, he had ever begun—to feel a trace of curiosity.
''Deed an' I will,' said Mrs Laffey cheerfully. 'The gentleman is welcome to me little front room too until your honour's ready. And, begging your pardon, sir, you'll overlook to mention what's passed tonight?'
'So far as I am concerned you can set your mind at rest,' was his reply; 'but you'll have to explain one or two things in the morning, it seems to me. I dare say you can put a very good face on it somehow.'
'I might contrive,' replied Mrs Laffey hopefully.
Mrs Laffey did indeed contrive to put a very good face upon it, as Mr Carrados found when he visited Stacks openly the following day. It was not Mrs Laffey's fault that she missed seeing them, and doubtless dropping a word of timely preparation, but their own in discovering a wicket gate that saved the bend of the road and brought them upon Mrs Bycourt, who was exercising a pair of young hounds on the lawn.
'If ever there was a good Samaritan this side the Jordan it's surely you, Mr Carrados!' exclaimed that athletic lady when she had identified her caller. 'And'—she felt that she ought to indicate some concession to his infirmity—'in spite of your—'
'Or because of, perhaps,' he suggested, coming to her rescue. 'You got the note anyway?'
'Oh, yes. In fact, it was our first intimation that the bird had flown. It really was a great kindness because my husband fidgets so over little things, and if he had found Cyril gone and no trace of him, heavens knows what! And then this other business coming on the top of it!'
'You mean the incident down the garden?' asked Carrados tentatively.
'Good gracious, yes! I hope there isn't anything else? Not that I mind a bit of a shindy any time, but I have my poor dear's nerves to consider. He is most tremendously indebted to you; it really was sporting in the circumstances. Mrs Laffey gave us a most glowing account of your exploit.'
'Oh, did she?' Carrados considered a little. 'I rather wondered what she would say.'
'Well, she said—as near as I can remember—"The way the sthranger gentleman, and he not seeing, put the shame of terror into the trapesin' interlopin' blackguards, who would wring the neck of their own father for a minted sixpence, is a walking masterpiece," only much faster and a great deal more of it. I am dying to hear all the details, but we concluded that you must have heard them down the garden as you came across to leave the note. Of course you could get no idea of what sort of men they were?'
'No,' admitted Carrados. 'I certainly could not.'
'Mrs Laffey says she arrived on the scene too late to be any use at all. Sometimes, do you know, I've been a wee bit sceptical of Mrs Laffey's romances, but in this case she is singularly modest about her own share in it. What gets me is why anyone should want to destroy our property.'
'Yes, that is the mystery, isn't it?'
'Of course we have enemies here and there I know. It seems strange that anyone who behaves in a perfectly simple, straightforward way, just saying exactly what you think of people, should be received with enmity, but there it is. We've found where they broke in—it's easy to see that they knew their way about—and they have deliberately trampled on the planted beds ...'
'Yes, but unfortunately there's nothing positively to identify any of them by. Well, you'll come in, Mr Carrados, and—and meet my husband?'
'With pleasure, but can you guess what it is that chiefly brought me to Stacks today?'
'Oh,' pondered Mrs Bycourt, pausing in their progress. 'I wondered what tale Cyril told.'
'You are not going to be angry with him for running away?'
'Angry? Good Lord, no! It's the best thing I've known him do yet. I'm delighted to find that he has that much spirit left in him. The fact is, Mr Carrados, ever since I've been here I've had to be a bit hard-cased towards Cyril, simply to counteract the "come-to-mammy-and-let-her-kiss-it-better" ways his dear Auntie Gertie had got him into. But I forgot—you are Miss Hamilton's friend.'
'All the same I want to understand just how matters are.'
'Then I'll tell you this. Do you know what was the deciding thing made me marry Mark Bycourt in the end? Yes: Cyril. I'm fond of boys, Mr Carrados, and I want them to have their chance in life. I have two dear little scrubby ragamuffins of my own—they're called Bob and Jack. Cyril was being brought up on Eric, Misunderstood, and Little Lord Fauntleroy, and Cyril will have more need of red stuffing than most people because when he is twenty-one he will come into a great deal too much money. You know that, perhaps?'
'I understood so much from Miss Hamilton.'
'Yes; and I dare say Miss Hamilton indicated that I was capable of dark designs on Cyril's fortune? No? Well, if she had, it wouldn't have been wonderful. The fact is, Mr Carrados, Gertrude is a misfire. It was the surprise of her life (if I said "disappointment" you'd think me catty) when Mark married me, and she didn't set out to be pleasant to the interloper. When I saw that, I—well, I certainly laid it on a bit thick for Gertrude's benefit. I'm not really a he-woman or a vamp, Mr Carrados. I'm watching Cyril very carefully, and—if I may confess it to you—rather affectionately. I hope that in the end I, with the unconscious help of my two ragamuffins, may make a man of him. Now we have reached his room. Is there anything particular that you want to—to—'
'To see? To see in my own way? Well'—pointing—'the bed is there?'
'Yes. But how on earth do you know?'
'To make no mystery, by the familiar process of putting two and two together. And on the wall, quite near to the bed-head, is an electric light plug?'
'Yes, there is.'
'So that Cyril, sleeping dutifully on his right side, as he has been taught to do, will be lying with his face quite near that plug?'
'Within a foot or so certainly. It seems to be a fad of Miss Hamilton's—sleeping on the right side. I suppose she was taught to as a child.'
'I was, too. But I've grown out of it. Now I will look into this fitting, if you don't mind.' He put his hand with baffling exactness on the rail of the bed and drew it from the wall so that he could approach the plug—approach it so closely indeed that to Mrs Bycourt's mystified curiosity his face appeared to touch it. 'Yes, there it is,' he remarked, as one who has brought a delicate experiment to a successful end.
'But what?' demanded the lady, not unreasonably. 'Why this hanky-panky, Mr Carrados? Nothing wrong, is there?'
'Forgive me, I really didn't intend to seem mysterious. There is nothing wrong, and if there had been we have got to the root of it at last. But there is something very curious, and there is something—I was, in fact, trying to break it to you mildly—something rather horrible.'
'But, my dear man, people don't break things to me—they throw them at me solid.'
Til be as brutal as you like then. You know that Cyril has been having nightmares lately?'
'Oh, yes. That is not unusual for a boy.'
'Not at all. Nor is the menace of a man standing by his bedside uncommon. What is significant is that it always takes the form of the Plague cart come to fetch him, and what is doubly significant is that your man James Laffey passes through exactly the same experience.'
'Cyril never told me what it was; but we all knew that Jim Laffey was pining for the blue eyes of my housemaid. But what a dreadful dream, and what a strange coincidence!'
'In my experience,' replied Carrados, 'coincidence—as we call it—is often merely a key I find that fits a lock I have. Laffey, spending long hours in the new building there, but not, I ascertain, with the electric light fitted in his cottage; Cyril, sleeping here with his face turned to that wall, but not, I learn, allowed to put his foot inside the dynamo-house. What is it, Mrs By court, this strange coincidence?'
'I don't know,' she replied, awed in spite of her lavish spirit. 'What?'
'I will tell you. Over two centuries ago the Plague—the Great Plague of London as some histories call it—came to Irling, brought by a fleeing pedlar, and nearly wiped the village out. You have heard perhaps?'
'No, I don't think so. I don't remember anyway.'
'I find the tradition of it is almost lost here now. There are a few forgotten graves in the churchyard—but after the first weeks the dead were not buried there. It took too long to dig single graves and soon there was neither parson, clerk, nor sexton to perform the office of the Church. So a great pit was dug, well away from the houses of the living, in what was then an open field. But it is no longer that.'
'Oh!' exclaimed Mrs Bycourt, with the nameless horror beginning to take form before her eyes, 'do you mean—'
He nodded assent to the unspoken question.
'Yes; what was the distant grassland field is now your lower garden. The Bone Mound marks the hasty burial-pit, and right upon it they have built your power house.'
'But how does that—why does it—' she stammered.
'Who can say? It is easy enough to reply that you have stirred up the buried corruption of that dreadful place, but how is it that there have been awakened again the groans and the fears and the agonies of those heart-rending times?'
'Oh, how horrible—how horrible!' she cried. 'Is it true—can it be really true?'
'Is what true?' he asked. 'Do you mean—which detail?'
'I don't know,' she said. 'I mean any of it—all of it. It is like a nightmare in itself; it is so loathsome—so incredible. Why should it result in that?'
'That is the really interesting thing about it,' he replied. 'Your—'
'Interesting!' she retorted sharply. 'This!'
'To me,' he admitted mildly. 'I am merely an investigator, Mrs Bycourt. Your dynamo, designed to transform mechanical force into electrical energy, has here in some obscure way also changed physical effect into psychological experience. I dare say you know that in the house'—he indicated the wall plug—'the wires are carried through iron piping, and outside the cable is brought underground through drain-pipes. The lie being uniformly upwards, a warm room like this would create a slight but continuous current, so that, you see, Cyril has really been breathing direct—Yes, it is rather uncanny, isn't it? Laffey, of course, has been in more direct but shorter contact. Actually, we might have expected them both to contract the plague—there is record of that happening to some men who dug into a similar pit rather more than a hundred years after the interment. Instead, they caught the emotions of the victims. It will seem quite simple and obvious some day, but we know so lamentably little of that side of electrical energy yet. Even as it is I shall have to re-write my lecture.'
But Mrs Bycourt had no interest in his lecture. 'Oh, the dreadful, dreadful thing!' she moaned. 'What should one do? ... I shall have that horrible place razed to the ground—I can't rest until it's gone—and then I shall have a great fire heaped on the spot and burned and burned for weeks until every trace of those poor creatures is reduced to decent ashes.'
'Yes,' assented Mr Carrados. 'That does seem to occur to one, does it not?'
In its earlier stages the Ayr Street Post Office robbery had attracted little notice. Afterwards, owing to causes with which this narrative has to do, it achieved the distinction of passing into the grade of what Detective Inspector Beedel was wont to refer to with quiet professional enthusiasm as 'First-class Crimes'. But so meagre was public interest in the initial proceedings that when Mr Carrados looked in at the magistrate's court purely for old acquaintance's sake one stifling afternoon, he found the place half empty.
'Post office hold-up—Ayr Street case, sir,' explained the officer on duty at the door. 'Party named Rank charged. Pretty nearly over now, I should say.'
'Philip Thaxted!' cried a voice across the court.
'New witness for the defence,' whispered the policeman. 'Like a seat, sir?'
'Don't trouble—I may only stay a minute. Who are conducting?'
'Mr Booker's for the Public Prosecutor. I don't know the defence—not one of our regular people here.'
'He is speaking now?'
A plainly dressed man with a firmly lined and rather artistic face, iron-grey hair, and a quiet, self-confident manner, had gone into the witness-box. The formal oath had been administered and the preliminaries were being rattled through. Yes, his name was Philip Thaxted and he lived at such an address at Kingston-on-Thames. Formerly in the lace business, both as manager and on his own account, but now retired.
'On the afternoon of Wednesday, the seventeenth inst, you were taking a walk in Richmond Park?' suggested the defending counsel.
'That is quite correct.'
'Tell us what occurred.'
The blind visitor leaned across and touched the attendant lightly on the arm.
'I should like to hear a little more of this evidence,' he remarked with lowered voice. 'Perhaps I had better have a seat.'
As he moved quietly to a place, piloted by the officer's unobtrusive hand, someone in making way dropped a stick with an exasperating clatter. The man in the witness-box glanced sharply across in the direction of the noise, and something almost as perceptible as a start touched him, and for a word or two his voice rang flat. The next moment the flicker, such as it was, had passed and he was continuing his story as evenly as before.
'I suppose, inspector,' said Mr Carrados, 'it might seem rather unreasonable of me to ask you to come down here after being in court all day, eh?'
'Well, no, sir,' replied Inspector Beedel with his usual unpenetrable candour; 'I can't exactly say it did. You see, Mr Carrados, you've asked me to come and talk to you on one occasion or another a good dozen times now, and it's always been—as they say in the advertisement—"to hear of something to my advantage".'
Carrados laughed as he pointed to a chair and pushed the cigars across the table.
'Don't be too confident this time,' he advised. 'Can you give a guess what it's about?'
Beedel raised his slow, meditative eyes and wondered for the hundredth time at the strangely alive expression in the gaze that really seemed to meet his own.
'I may say that I noticed you in court today, sir, and putting one thing and another together—'
'Quite right,' assented Carrados. 'It is about today's case. These post office hold-ups are getting beyond a joke, inspector.'
'This one has certainly been beyond a joke for Lizzie Baxter, sir. We have it privately that the poor girl hasn't one chance in a thousand of pulling through. Then—'
'Aye. Then the case against Rank will not be one of Robbery with Violence, but Wilful Murder. That determined a special effort to get him off if possible before the graver charge came in.'
'The alibi, you mean, sir?'
'The alibi, yes. What did you think of that timely encounter at the exact minute that the job was taking place?'
A brightly-coloured band had adorned the cigar that Inspector Beedel was appreciatively considering. He smoothed out the pretty scrap and put it, carefully flattened, away in his notebook for the benefit of a stalwart young Beedel now rising five.
'It certainly staggered me more than a bit to hear that evidence this afternoon,' he replied. 'The man who comes forward and testifies that he was talking to Dennis Rank at half-past four that day isn't one of the sort that bob up after every assault or accident, prepared to swear anything for half a quid and a pot of beer. He has been in a good way of business, and so far from anything being known against him, inquiry goes to show that he has a creditable public record extending over twenty years. A police magistrate is a bit wary, and, as you know, Mr Lipscott committed, but if this chap sticks to his tale at the Old Bailey I doubt if any jury will convict.'
The blind man nodded weighty acquiescence. Plainly there could be no question about the importance of the Kingston evidence.
'He was walking in Richmond Park—quite a likely thing for a middle-aged gentleman who wants a little exercise to do—when this happened. A little dog coming out of a clump of bracken barked at him furiously, and he swished back with his walking-stick. Then it seized one of his trouser legs and tore it. The dog's master appeared on the scene and they fell to abusing one another, the owner accusing him of savaging the dog and he accusing the man of keeping a vicious animal. In the end he demanded this fellow's name and address, and there it is, written in his notebook widi the date and the exact time of the occurrence.'
'That's it,' assented the inspector. 'All very reasonable and circumstantial.'
'Yes,' agreed Mr Carrados. 'More than that: almost providential one might say. Had it been one of Rank's friends the evidence might have been open to suspicion, but our Mr Thaxted appears as a total stranger. Had they met, say in Hyde Park, a very slight discrepancy of time might have made the alibi unconvincing, but Richmond is too far away to consider that. And then under how few circumstances are you likely to ask a total stranger for his name and address, to write them down, and to note the time and date of the occurrence?'
'There is no doubt that Rank had a small terrier that might have acted like that,' admitted Beedel.
'And certainly Mr Thaxted will be able to produce a pair of trousers that would prove to have been torn,' said Carrados dryly. 'Come; what is behind this business, Beedel?'
'Behind it, sir?' repeated the inspector with the utmost innocence.
'The Ayr Street Post Office hold-up wasn't an ordinary outrage at all. You know that as well as I do.'
'It's a funny thing,' remarked the visitor introspectively. 'Here for the last week I've been trying to persuade one or two up at the Yard to regard it in that light and almost your first words—'
'Of course I really know nothing about it,' qualified Mr Carrados.
'It's my belief,' declared Inspector Beedel with sombre relish, and repeating the expression of faith to emphasize it! 'it's my belief that there's a secret organization at work in the background somewhere. I've never thought that Treasury notes were what those two fellows were after, though they certainly grabbed all they could as they went through it.'
'What then?' prompted Mr Carrados, for Beedel had relapsed into a keen professional abstraction.
'Something political, I'm pretty sure, sir. A lot of those Sinn Feiners are out to make trouble systematically just now. And you'd be surprised to find who are more or less in with them—all sorts of people.'
'The retired gentleman from Kingston, for instance?'
'I have no doubt he may be one. But people you'd never think of as, well, I mean—professional men and soldiers, civil servants, society ladies, dock labourers, skilled artisans. I dare say a good many of them wouldn't go very far for "The Cause", but some of them would, and then on the edge of it there are the usual crowd who are always keen to make something out of whatever's going on.'
'It's likely enough,' conceded the blind man. 'What were they after here?'
'There isn't a great deal of business generally at this Ayr Street Post Office, but it lies handy for certain public offices. Anything that had been registered would be lying beyond the counter, handy for collection, at the time of the raid. My idea is that they knew of something being posted that they were desperately anxious to secure or to stop. Lizzie Baxter wasn't shot holding on to the notes but because she got between Rank and the letters.'
'She hasn't spoken?'
'No; she probably never will. She is the only one who could identify the men, and without her the case against Rank is purely circumstantial; that's what makes it safe for Thaxted to come forward now.'
'Perhaps not entirely safe, after all, inspector,' remarked Mr Carrados with significance.
'How do you mean, sir?'
'I mean that as it happens on the seventeenth—the day concerned—Mr Thaxted and I sat on a retired seat in Kew Gardens from four to half-past and discussed carnation-growing and other impersonal topics. Afterwards we walked together as far as the Lion Gate and parted at about ten minutes to five.'
'Oho!' Inspector Beedel swung his shrewd but not very agile mind round to review the position created by this new factor. 'That's something of a facer for the defence, isn't it, sir? Do you mean that you know this Mr Thaxted?'
'Not at all. We were perfect strangers who just met and chatted a little and then went on our separate ways. I didn't know him from Adam until I recognized him in court today.'
'I see. Of course if he wasn't quarrelling with Rank in Richmond Park at half-past four he must have been somewhere else. But still, you would think—Well, he took a fairish risk.'
'Don't we all do that if we decide to commit perjury, inspector? After all, the man never mentioned his name, his business, any tangible personal detail; and he knew that it was a blind man who had sat by his side and talked with him. When—as we may assume—a volunteer was called for to save Rank by providing an alibi, it may have seemed to Mr Thaxted that the half hour or so that he must compromise himself over was pretty well secured.'
'Yes, yes,' agreed Beedel, rounding up the situation within his orderly mind as a rather slow but capable sheepdog brings in stragglers; 'it's all reasonable enough.... There's one weakness ahead—if you don't mind my mentioning it?'
'Let us examine the thin places, by all means,' encouraged Carrados.
'You are willing to give evidence, sir?'
'I suppose I must. I know nothing of Rank one way or the other, but I must either come forward or let an appalling perversion of justice go on. It may also help to clear off a trifle of my debt to you, inspector, eh?'
'Thank you, sir, but I think that's pretty good weight already. Still, I don't deny that it would do me a bit of good to produce evidence to upset that alibi. And that brings me to what I was saying.'
'Yes; only you seem rather reluctant to say it.'
'Well, it's like this, Mr Carrados. In the ordinary way you would give your evidence, and then the question would be put: "Do you see that man in court?" Now here—'
'When counsel says, "Have you heard that man in court?" and I reply, "Yes; when Mr Thaxted was speaking", you think it would fail to carry conviction?'
'I don't think the ordinary jury would see that it's as satisfactory to identify a man by his voice as by his face.'
'I am inclined to agree with you. If I said, "The man who sat with me bit his finger-nails, smoked Algerian cigars, and wore an elastic stocking", do you think it might impress the court?'
The inspector laughed rather contentedly.
'Why, yes, sir; I can't but suppose it might. We could challenge Mr Thaxted to show his finger-nails, produce his cigar-case, and pull up his trouser-leg. It ought to be a fair bombshell.'
'Then I must consider myself booked for Tuesday fortnight and as many days afterwards as the case lasts.'
'The fewer the better, sir,' replied Beedel cryptically. 'To tell you the truth, I shouldn't be sorry if tomorrow was Tuesday fortnight. It's a good thing that none of the lot know that you have anything to do with the case, and I hope you'll keep it close, up to the very last minute.'
'Oh!' Mr Carrados felt a trifle guilty, remembering that moment when the witness paused and faltered, but Beedel was-quite solicitous enough already. 'Any particular reason?'
'One of our witnesses has already had the misfortune to be rather badly run down while cycling, and I've had a natty-looking box of chocolates by post from an "unknown friend" myself,' replied the inspector. 'I imagine this Rank must be something of a top-hat among these people.'
There was a form overlooking a deep expanse of country where Max Carrados often sat when he took a walk in that direction. Indeed, a mild pleasantry current at one time among park-keepers and their kind credited him with a weakness for pointing out the things of interest to any passing stranger who happened to share the seat with him, and the prospect threatened to become mysterious to posterity as 'Blind Man's View'.
One breathless July afternoon (the drought and languor of that summer have become a record) about a fortnight after Inspector Beedel's visit, Carrados was sitting there alone when his ear picked up the footsteps of two men approaching. In a minute he knew that one man led the other, and with that came the intuition that the second man was blind. Then he found that they were making for the seat.
'This will do,' said the leader. 'You don't mind?'
'No, no; not at all. Only don't be long,' replied the other. 'I shall get anxious if you are and I—I feel so confoundedly helpless by myself.'
'There is a gentleman already on the seat,' dropped the voice warningly. 'That will be all right; I won't be long. I must have lost the damn thing within the last three minutes.'
His footsteps sounded on the turf, and then grew less along the gravelled road. The stranger turned to Mr Carrados.
'Could you give me the time, sir?' he asked, and at once enlarged the opening sociably. 'You'll have noticed that I'm blind. Helpless, of course. My friend dropped an important pocket-book some way back. Three minutes he said—say three minutes there, three back, and three looking about. Ten minutes at the outside.... I'll time him if you're staying so long. I don't mind being left in an ordinary way, but I get so confoundedly anxious if anything goes different. You see.... If anything happened and he didn't come back for a long time—or at all! Well—'
'That will be all right,' said Carrados. 'I shan't be going just yet. Ten minutes....'
'I daresay it doesn't seem very long to you, but it's different when there isn't a single blessed thing for you to do.... Just to sit and smoke and think.... Oh, and talk, of course, when you're lucky enough to get anyone who will.... But it's a pretty dull outlook. You normal people have no idea—'
In all this there was, as it happened, an insidious temptation. 'You are as fond of showing off, Carrados, as a child with a recitation', had been the piqued barb flung across by a man at whose expense the 'showing off' had been effected and there was in the jibe just enough truth to twist the blind man's habitual suaveness for a moment. Max Carrados was admittedly prone to a certain vein of superiority, and his demonstrations were occasionally timed to achieve a theatrical effect, but all sprang from a not unworthy root—from a passionate insistence on being treated as an ordinary human being. To take in a seeing man—to outwit five senses by the use of four—was well enough, but might not the opportunity be at hand of demonstrating to another sufferer that his life need not be so empty as he pictured? He waited.
'The war?' he hazarded.
'Nothing so romantic. Cataract. I suppose I shall get used to it in time.... Surely it must be ten minutes now?'
'No—eight.' Carrados referred to the fingers of his watch. 'But don't think too much of the time. There may be a hundred things to cause delay. Ten minutes ... that was altogether too fine a margin.'
'That's just it—a hundred things. Anything might happen to a man going along the road looking for a pocketbook.... and then where should I be? I was a mug to let him go.... Suppose—'
'Don't suppose. I'll stay here till your friend comes back.... At all events I'll see you through.'
'That's most confoundedly good of you.... I must strike you as a poor sort of wash-out....'
'No.' The situation was beginning to endear itself to Carrados's mind. 'I am interested in the blind.... Like faith, blindness moves in a peculiar way....'
'Faith?' mused the stranger vaguely. 'Yes; I suppose so.... What's that—a car?'
'No,' replied Carrados.' A plane going south. Queer how the sound varies, isn't it?'
'We left our taxi somewhere near—Heriot Lane the driver called it. I thought that perhaps—A flier, eh? ... Wings—"The wings of the morning", doesn't old Shakespeare or someone say? Suppose I shall never see a plane travelling again. Used to give me a funny touch sometimes, that. Just as if I was on the point of finding out what this old caboodle is all about anyway—only I never quite got it. Seemed as though I just needed that extra push through that I could never raise. Sounds mushy rot to you, I expect.'
'No,' admitted Carrados; 'most of us have been there. Seeing "through a glass, darkly", said the Jewish tent-maker of old.'
The other man gave a nod of ambiguous agreement. 'How's the time?' he asked. 'Confound Stringer; he ought to be here by now.'
'Going on for twenty minutes. But I don't suppose that it will have seemed like ten to your friend.'
They talked again and Carrados tried to interest his companion to make the time pass inperceptibly. Half an hour went by and still there was no sign of Mr Stringer. When three-quarters had been reached, Arnold—he had incidentally dropped his name—could stand it no longer.
'Look here. Something must have happened. I can't stay here for ever. And you—you've been most confoundedly decent, but you must want to be moving. Can you put me in the way of getting back to the taxi? Then I shall know where I am, whatever's gone wrong.'
'Certainly,' replied Carrados. 'I know Heriot Lane well enough. I'll take you there with pleasure. It isn't ten minutes' walk from here. What do you say to pinning a line here on the seat, so that your friend—'
'No, confound him! exclaimed Arnold with sudden warmth. 'He's left me in the lurch all right. Let him do a bit of guessing.'
It wasn't an outsider's affair either way. Carrados took the blind man's arm and led him from the seat. Out of consideration for his charge the pace was about half that at which the more experienced man usually walked. There was also still the chance that Stringer might appear. But he did not, and they reached Heriot Lane without incident.
'Is it far down?' asked Carrados. He knew that the lane was a winding little byway where even the humblest sort of traffic might not pass from one hour to another. He could take Arnold along it with a fair amount of confidence, but detection might come at any moment now. He had set himself to pilot the blind man right up to the door of the cab before he revealed the true situation—anything short of that failed to drive home the moral of his achievement. 'I don't see a taxi yet,' he added.
'A bit along, I suppose,' said Arnold. His eyes were open and he was looking sideways into his guide's face with an expression of peculiar and private amusement that did not carry into his voice. 'He may have drawn on....'
'Ah,' exclaimed the blind leader as they cleared a bend, 'there's something at last.' Ear and nose told him so much, and it would be an easy matter to bring his charge right up to the car. But—the chance of so inglorious a fiasco was small in that infrequent place—but how to be sure that this was indeed the taxi?
'Back again, sir?'
That settled it. Carrados moved on by the light of his own intuitive judgement. When he knew that he was three yards from the car the door was opened. He had reached the goal.
'Now!' said another voice in sharp command.
Before the word was spoken Carrados had had a flash of realization. It came with the nature-sense of overhanging danger, with the subtle change of intention in the arm that touched his own, with the slight chirrup of a stoppered phial being opened—but it came too late. Arnold's light pressure on his right suddenly became a pinioning grip, another pair of arms closed on his left and a saturated cloth not unpleasantly odoured, was pressed against his face....
'It worked? remarked one, rearranging himself after they had bundled the senseless form into the car.
'Like a charm,' replied the man called Arnold, smiling at a thought.
'Change that plate again, and move about it,' said the third of the gang shortly.
A minute later the renumbered car slipped out of Heriot Lane without any superfluous parade of warning, and taking on a pace much too moderate to suggest the remotest connexion with things sensational, it was soon swallowed up in the stream of evening traffic flowing eastward.
'Ah. So ye're com'n' round now, aren't ye?' said a not unfriendly voice, as consciousness began to trickle at first and then rush into Max Carrados's perceptions. 'Feelin' just a thrifle sick, too, at first, I don't doubt.'
'Where am I?' asked the blind man mechanically. Sick he certainly did feel in more ways than one, for the stuff that had been used to drug him with was of an unholy texture that left nausea and headache in its wake, while to be drawn into so guileless a trap outraged his most vulnerable susceptibilities. 'Where am I and who are you?'
'Now don't be troublin' ye'self about things like those that don't really matter at all,' replied the other persuasively. 'Ye're right enough now, and so long as ye don't sthruggle, so to speak, ye can be as comfortable as a dormouse in a haystack.'
'I quite understand,' retorted the captive. 'And if I struggle, as you are pleased to call it, I may infer that I shall be treated as Lizzie Baxter was?'
''Tis a great mistake to dhrop from the exthract on to the conkrate, as the man remarked whin he fell from the distillery window down into th' sthrate. Ye'll understand that whin there's a war goin' on there's likely to be cashoolties. Ye're a cashoolty just at the moment, Mr Carrados, but whether ye're ultimate destination is to be the recooperation camp or the wayside simitry is a matter entirely awaitin' ye're own personal convenience.'
'I have an idea,' replied Carrados, 'that it will turn out to be the witness-box.'
'I shouldn't build on that now,' said the Irishman speculatively. 'With all due respect to the three classical females who arrange the destinies, I can see no indication of anything like that on the immedjet horizon. Doubtless if ye were to consult the mysterious lady who prognosticates through the mejum of a chrystal sphere, or the obliging wizard who for the small consideration of haf a crown tells you what he sees in the smoke of an aromatic pastille, something in the nature of a witness-box might possibly be adumbrated; but for all practical purposes I should eliminate it from ye're calc'lations, Mr Carrados.'
'You appear to be a pleasant and ingenious gentleman, Mr—?'
'Murphy is a very handy name for the purpose of short reference.'
'Mr Murphy, then. You appear also to have a general knowledge of me and my movements, while I, unfortunately, know practically nothing of you or my surroundings. As a guest, enjoying your hospitality, that naturally puts me in a very humiliating position. You see—'
'I appreciate the delicacies of the situation,' replied Mr Murphy in the same vein of guarded satire to which they had fallen. 'I should dearly love to act as a general vade-mecum, who's who, and illustrated gazetteer of the situation if it could be done. But ye'll understand there may be sthretegic reasons aginst lettin' on which end of Park Lane this mansion is situate in, or whether ye're host is a blue-blooded aristochrat or merely a Labour member.'
'Perhaps,' suggested the blind man, 'it would be permissible to say why I have been carried off in this outrageous manner and what you imagine you are going to do with me?'
'There's no harm at all in tellin' ye what ye know already,' replied Mr Murphy, with a sudden loss of geniality in his manner. 'Ye're here because ye intended giving evidence in a case that was no airthly concern of ye's, and ye'll stay here, or in some other suitable place of retirement, until that little matter's satisfactorily disposed of. What call had ye to go acting otherwise than sthrictly as a nootral if ye're not prepared to take the consequences?'
'A neutral!' repeated Carrados in amazement. 'Good heavens, man, neutral in what? This was simply a case of elementary justice. But perhaps,' he added pointedly, 'you have never heard of that?'
There was a movement of anger from more than one part of the room, and the man who had been carrying on the conversation strode across and stood over the captive. The taunt had served a useful purpose, for Carrados had learned a little more.
'I should advise ye to keep that sort of remark in ye're breeches po'k't while ye're here, Mr Carrados,' said Murphy. 'This once ye're blind eyes protect ye.'
'They often do,' replied Carrados imperturbably. 'I am confident that they often will.'
'Don't be too sure while ye are here, that's all.'
He heard the man turn sharply on his heel and walk across the room. The door banged and silence lengthened out, but the prisoner knew that unfriendly eyes still watched him and that he had not been left alone.
Nearly a week went by and nothing happened. Max Carrados was as completely cut off from the world as if he had been carried away to Mars. Food was put before him on a generous scale and his ordinary needs were attened to, but conversation with those who moved about was not encouraged. Mr Murphy seemed to have disappeared after the first evening.
From the moment of his recovering consciousness Carrados began to construct the details of his surroundings and to examine his prison. It was, he learned within a day, a spacious, old-fashioned house of three storeys and a basement, detached, and standing in some private ground. The rooms were generally large and lofty, but their former state was not kept up; several were empty and the furniture of the others was miscellaneous and haphazard. Gas was used, the telephone bell often rang, and a silent elderly woman did the cooking and attendance. The captive soon discovered that he was never left alone, and at night he slept in a room where the window was barred from top to bottom and the chimney blocked. The blind man smiled as he realized that an alarming reputation must have preceded him.
It was not until the second night that he could definitely locate his prison. How long the journey in the car had been he had no means of knowing, but the taste of the air, the touch of the water in which he washed, and the distant noises of the street were all unmistakably of London. It was a quiet and secluded back-water to which he had been brought, and at no great distance from the house he soon knew of a park-like space where thrushes sang at dawn and the owl proclaimed the night, but a great highway of traffic lay extended on the south and another, rather less busy, on the north. On the second night he heard Big Ben slowly booming out the hours on a line almost directly east, and applying to the sounds his own peculiar methods he found that he could assume the space between them as just about three miles. The next day he dropped a simple test.
'I suppose I can have a certain book I want? I think it could be got—'
'A book?' repeated the man who was then in charge of him, dubiously.
'Yes, from Mudie's in the High Street just below here'—nodding direction—'you know.'
The sharp breath of surprise confirmed what he had already guessed, even without the attendant's belated and rather hurt protestation that he 'could say nothing about that.' The matter of the book progressed no further.
For a couple of days Carrados had been speculating rather poignantly about his position. A crisis of some sort must, he conjectured, be at hand. Even if the trial of Rank lasted three days—a generous limit—the verdict was now due. He had, he assumed, been carried off purely to suppress his fatal evidence, but if the case went against the prisoner—how then? He had no illusions about the methods of the desperate little band of extremists into whose hands he had fallen, and, without flurry or visible concern, there were very few minutes of the day when he was not considering plans of escape. But so far the strength of his prison was unassailable, the guards not to be drawn by casual hints of gold.
It was on the evening of the sixth day of confinement that the expected crisis came. All that afternoon there had been less movement about the big house than was usual, but towards dusk men began to arrive by ones and twos until Carrados had accounted for at least a dozen above the usual company.
'They have all been to hear the verdict given,' surmised the blind man. 'Now for it.'
He was right. An hour later he was curtly summoned to another room—'the council chamber,' as he had always mentally described it from the meetings that obviously took place there—and found himself before an informal court.
'This is the man Carrados?' inquired someone, with brusque authority.
One of Carrados's regular custodians replied.
'He is blind, captain, though you mightn't notice it,' he added. 'Shall I give him a chair?'
'Was Dennis Rank given a chair once during the three days of his trial?' demanded the voice.
'He was not,' came the hearty response from half a dozen.
'Let the prisoner stand.'
'A prisoner,' remarked Carrados mildly, 'is usually charged with an offence. May I ask what mine is?'
'Conveying information to the enemy,' was the answer, rapped out with domineering harshness. 'It concerns you to learn, Carrados, that Dennis Rank was pronounced guilty this afternoon and sentenced to death.'
'That would be the very natural result of carrying me off, wouldn't it?' insinuated the blind man. 'You had surely thought of that.'
'What do you mean?'
Carrados was almost tempted to shrug his shoulders to underline the obviousness of what had happened.
'If I had appeared and given evidence it would have been perfectly easy to suggest that I was either mistaken or a liar—one man's word against another's. As it was, there was nothing on which to suggest that I was mistaken or lying. You simply advertised that my evidence was correct and true and that you daren't allow it to be given at any price.'
'There now, captain, what did I tell ye?' muttered a malcontent.
'Stow that,' commanded the man in authority. Then he turned to the prisoner again. 'You are not before us to express your own personal and private views on this or that, Carrados, but to hear the decision of this court. Needless to say an appeal is being lodged against the bloodthirsty tyranny of Dennis Rank's sentence. If you can suggest anything to help that along you'd do well to get busy right now and let us know.'
'Theoretically,' admitted Mr Carrados, 'I've never been in favour of capital punishment.'
'That's vurry opportune,' remarked the captain dryly. 'But there are exceptions, and possibly this may be one of them.'
'Oh, it may, you think?' roared the astonished inquisitor. 'Wall, let me tell you this: the hour the black flag goes up at Brixton Jail for Dennis Rank your family will have cause to go into mourning too.'
'What good will that do?'
'It will do this good, that you may as well begin to get a move on you to dodge it. We opine that you have a pull in more than one direction, Carrados, and pawsably your Government may cawnsider your neck worth saving. Wall, you know the price, and you'd better make out the best case you can for the exchange when you let them know. You can have pen and ink and paper and—under suitable examination, so don't try any of your slim tricks here—you can communicate with your own lawyer or anyone else you like.'
'Thank you,' replied Mr Carrados, 'but I won't trouble you.'
'Won't trouble! Hell! what d'ye mean?'
'Just what I say. I have no intention of writing. Of my own free will I might in ordinary circumstances sign a petition against Rank being hanged. As you put it, I am much more likely to sign one against his being reprieved. You'll have to do your own unpleasant work yourself.'
'The man's clean daft,' sighed one of the court in helpless bewilderment. 'What'll there be unpleasant in saving your nut?'
'Merely a point of view,' remarked Carrados, turning towards him quite courteously. 'There are things that we all stick at doing at any price.... Or, at all events'—his face was again in the direction of the president of the court 'most of us.'
For some reason, in the five minutes that they had been together there had sprung up between these two men a deep and corrosive antipathy. Towards all the others of his captors Carrados bore little beyond a philosophic tolerance, with an occasional lapse into mild annoyance. But here each felt the other's hatred, and recognized that between them there would be no accommodation, no compromise. The only difference was the way the motion showed—in the captain it produced a tendency to shout, in the captive an icy quietness.
'So you think you can ride the high horse here, do you?' exploded the leader, flashing out passionately. 'With ya blasted "point of view" and ya infernal five-cent style. Remember that ya're not dealing with any of ya're own shilly-shallying Dublin Castle trash, but with men that mean what they say. And show proper respect to the court ya're up before or, by heaven! the crack of a fist'll teach you.'
'I can't defend myself.' Carrados turned towards the others and held out his groping hands with a plaintive helplessness. 'Is there any man here who can strike me across my sightless eyes?'
'God know that's true!' murmured more than one.
'Then how are you going to hang me?'
The captain summed up his stalwarts with a cold, contemptuous glance.
'Leave that to me,' he said more quietly, 'when the time comes. There's a proverb about killin' a dog, Carrados, you'll maybe know. In the meanwhile you'll have a few days to think better of it. Bear in mind that it's not to hang you for preference that we're out, but to save Dennis Rank. Remove the prisoner.'
When Carrados was removed he guessed that the eventuality had plainly been foreseen, for he was not led back to his former quarters. Instead, he found himself traversing parts of the house where he had never been allowed before. Then came a downward flight of steps and a cooler atmosphere. He was to be imprisoned in a cellar.
His treatment, as he learned presently, was to be in keeping with the place. All the contents of his pockets were taken from him, but being now in close confinement he was left alone. Doubtless it was considered that forcible escape was impossible, and when he came to examine his surroundings he saw no reason to dissent. It was not so much a cellar as a blind passage to which a massive door had been fitted. Probably at the time of its conversion there had been some special use in view. Every quarter has its vague, half-forgotten legends of mystery and crime. The house was old, and who could say now why the remote, unwanted passage should have been so strongly turned into the semblance of a dungeon? The prisoner paced it and examined its every corner with investigating hands. Five ordinary strides took him from one end to the other, and standing there he could without shifting his position touch its two long walls at the same time-with outstretched hands, and then the ceiling. Less than five yards in length it would seem to be, two yards across, and seven feet in height. The walls were stone, the floor was stone, and ceiling stone or concrete. Its most dreadful feature—the total absence of window or any source of light—did not trouble the man who now sat down to review his rather desperate plight. A single chair had been provided and a small pallet with a couple of rugs.
With the prison went prison fare—three very plain meals a day—enough, but far from lavish. It was perfectly indicated what this rigorous system meant: each day his jailer asked whether he wished for writing material, and each day he returned a negative. The odds were rather heavily balanced, but if it came to a test of mere obstinacy between the man they called 'Captain' and himself, Carrados was quite inclined to fancy his own chances. After the execution, or the reprieve, of Rank there would be no sane reason for detaining him. And somehow at the back of his mind the blind man could not abandon the feeling that even in the last extremity his star would see him through.
Three days passed. Carrados was not unendurably bored, for his mind was an inexhaustible storehouse, and with the unconcern for surroundings that was one of his assets he at once resumed the composition of a monograph on 'The Persian Archer on a Unique Tetradrachm of Corinth,' an entertainment that his capture had interrupted. But on the evening of the third day something occurred to make the Persian archer rather less interesting than he had been up to then. Night came, but no supper was brought, and as the hours went on and Carrados failed by the most delicate tests of hearing to discover any movement in the house above, a sudden misgiving shook him. What if.... He put the thought aside and went to bed as the simplest way of ignoring the situation.
But the next morning there was no breakfast. Again an unnatural silence lay upon the place. With his ear to the wall, the blind prisoner had been able to follow a footstep from his door up to the distant kitchen, but not the faintest echo now reached him. He took off a boot and beat a crescendo of remonstrance upon the door.... He might just as well have flicked it with his handkerchief for all the attention it provoked. Yet it could scarcely have failed to be heard, remote and subterranean as his prison was, if there had been anyone.... If there had been anyone! The thought suddenly developed and spread in half a dozen directions like a flame among dry shavings: was it part of a plan to starve him to submission—had some been arrested and the remainder fled—was there some ghastly misunderstanding, everyone leaving his care or release to someone else—had they suddenly given up all hope of influencing Rank's disposal and in revenge had left him there to die? In less than five minutes he was speculating on the probable discoverer of his body and how long hence the event would be a month, a year, or so remote that he would be referred to as 'a shrivelled skeleton.' ... He cursed his imagination and forced his mind back to the Persian archer and his significant appearance on a Greek tetradrachm.
But at noon there was no dinner. Hunger now began to make itself really felt, but more than that, a tormenting thirst had come over him. He raved a button off and kept it in his mouth to induce secretion, but it was a poor pretence. At measured intervals he beat upon the door as he had done before; to attempt to make himself heard by the outside world was, he knew, hopeless....
That night Carrados again went supperless to bed. He had been without food for a day and a half, but that was a small consideration beside the awful thirst that now possessed him. Those were the hottest days of an exceptional summer, and though the cellar was cooler than the house above it was also closer. A neglected drain somewhere near had given the prisoner 'a throat' which ticked and throbbed for relief in vain. His mind turned to innumerable tales of shipwrecked sailors dying of thirst, to accounts of men cut off and driven to frenzy through lack of water in the trenches, to the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, to a memory of a nauseous passage in Robinson Crusoe, to the awful case of.... Would it end in madness with him also? Before that ... he had no weapon, but there were the blankets of his bed, and he had touched a substantial pipe running in the angle of the wall and ceiling of his cell that would surely bear his weight.
It was to escape these thoughts that he lay down and tried to sleep when his time-sense told him that it was something short of midnight. He still clung to the hope that morning would bring relief, and if so he was in the mood to write anything to avert another day of thirst and torment—even the ink, he reflected grimly, would be a godsend at that moment.
Thinking of the ink—the ink—ink—the door opened miraculously and Parkinson came in. 'What a horrible dream,' thought Carrados. 'I fancied that I was shut up in a cellar, and here I am sitting down to dinner at some nice restaurant. What soup have you got there, Parkinson?' 'I beg your pardon, sir,' replied his attendant, putting a large bowl before him, 'but I understand that the custom of this house is for a dish of water to be left at night on every table; otherwise, I am told, the rats will gnaw through the lead pipes in search of it.' 'Very well,' replied Mr Carrados. 'But this is ink that you have brought.' 'I'm extremely distressed,' stammered Parkinson, 'I will change—' And as he spoke he changed into the magistrate at Lemon Square Police Court, and Carrados found himself listening to a case about a fountain-pen. 'Your worship,' pleaded the plaintiff, 'the pen was in perfect condition when I sold it. I would respectfully suggest that it was damaged by—' 'Rats!' interposed the defendant contemptuously as he proceeded to light a cigar. 'Silence in coort!' roared his worship. 'What this poor, honest man says is very true, belike. Sure, the craytures'll do anything for dhrink. Why, every morning don't I find the ink on me desk here lappit up and—' Again the court shook with laughter, and in the middle of it Carrados suddenly awoke—still in his cell and more thirst-racked than ever, but with a new hope to inspire. As he sat up he heard the rats outside scampering past his door.
'Idiot!' he apostrophized himself; 'not to think of that. You are certainly getting old and stupid. Dying of thirst with a water pipe—oh, my God, suppose it isn't! If it should be the gas!'
But it was not the gas. One tap with a finger-end set that at rest. In an old, rambling house it might have been any-thing, but an inch pipe giving the resonance of liquid contents could indicate nothing but the supply—an inexhaustible stream, of pure water was his for the taking. But how? His mind accounted for one useless article after another in a vain search for any kind of makeshift tool. Not a scrap of metal, not even a serviceable edge of broken stone or brick, had been left to suggest escape. Still, there must be something—must—Yes; the boot! His frequent poundings on the floor had already strained a heel; one sharp wrench against the other boot and the loose heel came away. In his hand he held a slab of leather bristling with rows of pointed nails: as effective a file as one could wish for.
In less than three minutes Carrados was drinking—drinking gloriously. He had rubbed through the soft metal of the pipe until the water began to jet, then he dropped the boot heel and used his hands to form a cup. He had no means of stopping the leak now; it might flood the cellar and ultimately drown him, but even if he had known that that must happen it would not have held him back—not at that moment.
When he had drunk sufficient for the time he took his handkerchief and held it to the stream, intending to sponge his face. On that slight incident—even on the hazard of the position he took up—depended all that happened after; for as he waited there—crouching rather on the uncertain chair and steadying himself with one hand upon the pipe a faint but distinct tremor passed beneath his hand. It was so trivial in itself, so barren of suggestion, that not one man in a thousand—even among desperate prisoners—would have given it a thought. But to Max Carrados his fingertips were eyes, and to him that slight vibration flashed a ray of hope. It told him little—definitely there was little it could tell—but he knew that somewhere someone was within reach of a signal in reply. The supply pipe would lead to a cistern up above, and at that hour—about daybreak now he judged—it was unlikely that anyone should be moving there. But in the other direction—out, through the garden, and along the streets? For months past now no rain had fallen, and the air was full of the talk of great droughts and threatening water famine. Every wasted drop was grudged, and by day and night—especially by night when the streets were quiet—the company's inspectors made their rounds, tracing every suggestion of a leak, raising the little traps that give access to the mains, and stick to ear for the faintest distant sound, listening—oh, ray of hope, Max Carrados!—listening!
A second gone, perhaps. Still lightly touching the pipe to take up any response, the blind man dropped the unheeded handkerchief and with the strong bare knuckles of his other hand he began to spell out into the unknown the universal message of despair: short, short, short; long, long, long; short, short, short—S.O.S.; S.O.S.; S.O.S.
About the time that Mr Carrados awoke and thought of a boot heel two men in the chaste blue attire favoured by the Metropolitan Water Board stopped at a small iron plate let into the road and prepared to enter upon the cabbalistic ritual of their tribe. The high priest, as it were, of the two carried a wand of office in his hand—a serviceable bamboo rod with a saucer-shaped top, and his ceremonial cap was dignified by the word INSPECTOR blazoned on a neat oval badge above the peak. His acolyte differed from him only in the slight details of appearance, but instead of a rod he affected a dangerous-looking implement that could only be likened to a small—but not a very small—harpoon.
'When we've worked down to the High Street again we'll knock off for breakfast, 'Orras,' remarked the inspector, speaking as one who conveys encouragement.
''Bout as well,' commented 'Orras. 'My inwards are beginning to inquire audibly whether me throat's bin cut.'
'It's queer how young fellows are always thinking of their teeth nowadays,' mused his superior. 'They don't seem to have no endurance, somehow, 'Orras. Did I ever tell you how three of us signallers were up in a tower outside a place called Binchley for the better part of a week—'
'Often; yesterday for once,' retorted the younger generation. 'Contrive to forget those early days of crime, Father William. The war's over and done with, and we aren't going to have no more.'
The inspector sighed and, leaning against a convenient lamp-post, tactfully indicated to 'Orras a suggestion to get on with it, while he himself proceeded to write up current record in his book. Disdaining an offer of the listening stick the assistant impaled and raised the lid of the trap with his own sinister weapon, and probing the depths with the business end of it applied his ear to the other.
'Well?' inquired the inspector presently. 'All O.K.?'
'Nor yet in sight of it,' reported 'Orras gloomily. 'There's something going on somewhere that's beyond me.'
'That's queer.' The inspector meant nothing by it, but 'Orras twisted his neck to get a sight of his superior's face. 'What do you mean it's like?'
'Better have a look yourself,' suggested the junior, making way, while the other closed his book and took his place above the trap. 'Listening posts are more in your line than mine.'
A minute passed in silence as the more experienced man stooped with his ear upon the depression of his stick.
'It's rummy that we should be talking about signalling and what not just now,' he remarked, without raising his head. 'If such a thing was credible I should have said that someone was talking morse along the pipe.'
'Wha'd'z'e say?' inquired 'Orras with languid interest, as he rolled a cigarette.
'Nothing what you might call coherent—just a run of letters. Sos; sos; sos all the time. Half a minute though: isn't there something "S.O.S." stands for?'
'Yes,' agreed 'Orras with expression, 'there is. Sosagers. And very nice too for breakfast.'
'Tchk! Tchk!' clicked the inspector reproachfully. 'Can't you never leave off thinking of food for half a minute, 'Orras? There! Now I've got it. S.O.S. It's the signal of distress a sinking ship sends out, of course.'
'Of course. Submarine must ha' come up the main, and now it can't neither turn nor reverse in the narrows. Why ever didn't we think of that at first?'
But the inspector was not to be put off by the cheap humour of irreverent youth. He had not lived five and forty years and gone through the war without discovering that very queer things do occasionally occur in real life. For a moment he twirled a pair of pliers absent-mindedly in his free hand; then kneeling on the pavement he struck the metal fittings down below a succession of measured taps—a score or so.
'What's that?' demanded 'Orras, intrigued in spite of his blase outlook.
'I just sent "Who's there?"' explained the inspector, returning to the listening attitude again. 'They mayn't know the calls and general answer and such like.'
'Seems to me this isn't M.W.B. routine at all,' said the assistant flippantly. 'You must have got through to the cinema somehow, uncle. "Snatched from Death's Jaws" in seven snatches—'
The inspector's right hand shot out in a compelling gesture of warning and repression.
'Get this down, lad,' he said with sharp authority. 'You have a bit o' paper and pencil, haven't you? C-A-R-R—You have a bit o' paper and a pencil, haven't you? C-A-R-R....'
'Right-o,' responded the other, discovering an old Star in his pocket and turning to the 'Stop Press' space. 'C-A-R-R—Carry on, sergeant.'
'Carrados! Why, he's the bloke—' The boy dived into the paper until a head-line caught his eye. 'MISSING BLIND WITNESS. STILL NO TRACE OF MAX CARRADOS.' 'You don't mean to say—'
'Shut it!' snapped the inspector fiercely. 'Attend, can't you? T-R-A-P-P-E-D P-H-O-N-E N-E-A-R-E-S-T P-O-L-I-C-E S-T-A-T-I-O-N U-R-G-E-N-T L-I-F-E D-E-A-T-H-'
'Phew!' murmured 'Orras, perspiring ecstatically. 'That's the stuff to—'
'A-M O-P-E-N-I-N-G L-E-A-K G-U-I-D-E P-O-L-I-C-E R-E-W-A-R-D.'
'Orras drew his breath in sharply, almost overcome by the vista of gain and glory.
'That all?' he whispered meekly.
'S-E-N-D R-T I-F U-N-D-E-R-S-T-O-O-D—you needn't put that last bit in though.'
'Let's see you do it.' 'Orras, subdued by a technical efficiency that lay outside his range, shrewdly foresaw that for the next three weeks at least every word he might condescend to drop would be worth its weight in cigarettes.
The inspector bent down and gave the metal a few considered taps with the pliers.
'That's all. Now slip off into the High Street, boy, and get through on the nearest telephone. And for God's sake don't stop to have your breakfast anywhere on the way, and I shouldn't wonder if this doesn't mean a week's fishing at Southend for us.'
'Garn,' retorted 'Orras, now in a state of giggling bliss. 'A day at Barnes Reservoir more likely. What're you going to do?'
'Now hop it,' said the inspector firmly. 'And don't muck up your end of the job. I'm going to look into this leak.'
Ten minutes later he was still tapping the road at intervals when two quite unnoticeable gentlemen appeared in sight, walking that way. As they took in his occupation a few words passed hurriedly between them and instead of passing him they stopped.
''Morning, inspector,' said one affably—he had shot a glance at the official cap. 'Nothing wrong with the water supply up here, I hope?'
'Nothing that I know of, sir,' replied the inspector simply. 'Just our usual rounds.'
'Ah?' said the stranger. 'That so? But it's a hell of a summer, isn't it? Keeps you people busy, I bet. I thought you might be making a round to look at our taps and fittings to see there was no waste.'
'Everything O.K. so far as I have found,' was the reassuring answer. 'We don't like to give any more trouble than we need. As a matter of fact, I'm only waiting for my mate to knock off for breakfast.'
The two nodded pleasantly and passed on. The inspector threw his stick into the hollow of his arm and strolled idly along the road after them, whistling softly to himself, until they turned in at a distant gate. He had a particularly guileless face and mild, speculative eyes.
As it turned out Mr Murphy and the Captain could scarcely have timed their return better from one point of view. They had just entered, seen that everything was, as the genial Irishman took occasion to remark, 'Go'n' on schwimmin'' (there being then about six inches of water in the cellar), and brought up the prisoner to a higher and drier level for a little serious conversation (foreshadowed by certain references to necks and ropes and throats and knives on the Captain's part) when a polite knock on the front door called one of them away for a moment. It chanced that the Captain was the one who went and he did not immediately return. Noticing this, Mr Murphy was seized by a sudden desire to investigate the rear portion of the grounds, and he rather hurriedly opened a window and dropped down, with the evident intention of proceeding there. In his excitement, however, he had overlooked the presence of several policemen, standing in what he himself would have described as 'sthretegic attitoods', and he fell into their arms to be escorted ingloriously back again....
'Do you know, Mr Murphy, I still have an idea that it will turn out to be the witness-box,' Mr Carrados observed when they all reassembled in the hall—an ignoble thrust admittedly, but much may be forgiven of a man who is carrying half a gallon of cold water after fasting for a couple of days.