Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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In this episodic novel Etienne MacGregor, a young and cheerful man about town, is informed by Rudder, Foal and Rudder, a firm of solicitors, that his uncle has died, leaving him £25,000, providing he answers thirteen questions. If he fails to answer any one of the questions within seven days, the money is to go to the son of his late uncle's partner—a Chinaman named Suan Chi Leaf. MacGregor soon realises that Suan Chi Leaf and his mother, Mrs. Lotus Leaf, will stop at nothing to prevent him answering the questions, and that his uncle has deliberately matched him against the cunning of the Chinese.
Thanks and credit for making this work available to RGL go to the Australian bibliophile Terry Walker, who collected and pre-processed them for publication in book form. The stories are arranged chronologically in the order of their publication in the Australian press.
— Roy Glashan, March 2017.
IN spite of the mist, which, approaching from the direction of the palace, was slowly enveloping The Green Park in a greeny-grey cloud, and in spite of the drizzling rain, the face of the Mr. Etienne MacGregor bore that cherubic and philosophic expression which had so often impressed people with the mistaken idea that he had nothing to worry about. He sat on a seat immediately facing the band-stand. The park was deserted, except for one or two pedestrians, who, under the shelter of umbrellas and rain-coats, hurried to catch their last trains. The fact that the seat was rapidly assuming an uncomfortable dampness was increasingly borne upon Mr. MacGregor as each minute passed. But he sat there with a faint smile upon his round countenance, looking at the band-stand as if concentration upon that structure would in some mysterious manner solve his difficulty.
Things were not well with Mr. MacGregor. There was not the slightest doubt about that. If one had been able to see beneath his tightly-buttoned rain coat one would have been aware of the fact that his clothes were well cut and well kept, but an investigation of his well-polished shoes would have informed the close observer that the sole of the right shoe was becoming less on speaking terms with the upper at every moment.
Not that he minded being hard up. He had been hard up for most of his 28 years, but there had always been methods of procuring money at difficult moments. At least there had been one method—his uncle. But the letter which reposed in his breast pocket had even nullified that source of income.
He drew it out from his pocket and read it for the tenth time, as if one more perusal might help in the solution of the difficulty. The letter read:—
142 Lincoln's Inn Fields, W.C.
Dear Mr. MacGregor,—
With reference to your application for a further loan from your uncle, we regret to inform you that this is impossible, owing to the regrettable fact that he died last Tuesday.
We have pleasure in informing you that you are his sole heir, and under his will you inherit his fortune of about £25,000, but under certain conditions. These conditions are that you supply us with the answers to thirteen questions.
Those questions will be given to you singly, and the answer must be brought by you to this office within one week from the time you receive the question.
In the event of your not answering a question within the time stated, the whole of your inheritance passes to the son of your uncle's partner—Mr. Suan Chi Leaf.
In the meantime, our instructions are to render you no financial assistance whatsoever, as your uncle was of opinion that this method of leaving you his money would give you some chance of satisfying what he describes as your "insatiable curiosity," and that if you succeed in answering the thirteen questions and remain alive he thought that you would have more than earned the money.
The first question to which we must request your answer within seven days is:—
Who is Mrs. Lotus Leaf?
We are, dear sir,
Your obedient servants,
RUDDER, FOAL and RUDDER, Solicitors.
MacGregor replaced the letter in his pocket and ruminated upon the hardness of the world, and more especially upon his old curmudgeon of an uncle. How could he answer questions of this description? The bit at the end, too, about remaining alive did not sound too hopeful. He realised that there had been but little love lost between himself and his uncle, and probably the old boy had taken more than usual care to ensure that the questions should be practically unanswerable. MacGregor was so engrossed with the proposition that he failed to observe the odd-looking individual who had seated himself upon the end of the seat, and who was regarding MacGregor with more than usual interest.
Etienne got up from the damp seat and commenced to walk in the direction of Piccadilly. So did the odd-looking stranger. As they approached the park gates the seedy individual came close to MacGregor and touched his arm.
"Excuse me, sir," he said in a wheezy voice, "but I think that you are in a little difficulty—a difficulty in which my assistance might be useful. My name is Gubbs."
Etienne regarded the stranger for a moment, reflecting that his appearance certainly was not prepossessing.
"Well, Mr. Gubbs," he said, after the scrutiny, "and may I ask how you intend to help me?"
"Well, Mr. MacGregor," said the man, wheezing more than ever. ''You want to find Mrs. Lotus Leaf, don't you? And I can tell you just where you will find her."
"Now, look here," said MacGregor, stopping suddenly; "look here, friend Gubbs. How do you know that I want to find Mrs. Lotus Leaf?"
The man smiled rather sadly. "It's my business—knowing things, sir," he said. "You see I used to be one of your uncle's head clerks in China, until I was dismissed. I know the conditions under which you will, or will not, inherit the money."
MacGregor thought hard for a moment. When he looked up his smile was more cherubic than ever.
"What do you expect to get out of this, Mr. Gubbs," he asked.
Gubbs looked pained. "I don't want anything, sir," he said, "nothing at all. I thought I'd like to do something for my old master's heir, that's all."
"I see," said MacGregor, quietly. "Just doing it out of kindness, er, friend Gubbs? Well, that being so, just where is Mrs. Lotus Leaf?"
Gubbs smiled. "You'll find her at the Three Leaves Club; in Slater-street, Limehouse, Mr. MacGregor. But if you want to see her you'd better go down right away. She's leaving for Paris tomorrow, but if you go down there at once you'll find her all right. I'll put you on the right bus. I'm walking down Piccadilly myself."
In vain did Mr. MacGregor point out to the persistent Gubbs that he knew the Limehouse bus routes quite well, for that worthy insisted on accompanying the curious Etienne, and it was only when he was safely ensconced on the front seat of a Limehouse bus that Mr. Gubbs, with a flourish of his dilapidated hat, faded away.
It was characteristic of MacGregor that immediately Mr. Gubbs and disappeared he got off the bus with alacrity, and walked quickly to his rooms in Mortimer-street.
Mrs. Hands, the housekeeper, who opened the door, gazed at him in astonishment.
"I never expected to see you, Mr. MacGregor," she said. "At least, not so soon after getting your note!"
MacGregor smiled. "So you got a note from me, did you, Mrs. Hands?" he said. "Brought, I suppose, about ten minutes ago by a seedy-looking gentleman by the name of Gubbs. Can I see it?"
Mrs. Hands produced the note and handed it to MacGregor. It was signed with a very fair imitation of his own signature, and stated that he had been forced to leave suddenly for Paris; that he might not be back for some time, and requesting Mrs. Hands to forward his clothes to the cloak-room at the Gare St. Lazare, Paris. MacGregor folded the note and placed it in his pocket.
For some moments after Mrs. Hands returned to her domain in the basement he stood motionless in the hall, immersed in thought. It was only when the housekeeper's fourteen-year-old son. Tommy, ascending the basement stairs, sneezed violently that MacGregor came out of his reverie.
"Hallo, Tommy!" said MacGregor. "Your cold doesn't seem to have improved."
"It ain't the cold I mind, Mr. MacGregor," said Tommy. "It's the stuff she gives me for it. It's awful."
His face registered disgust.
MacGregor looked at the boy for a moment. Then his face broke into an amused grin. "Listen, Tommy, my lad," said he. "I rather think that we are going to have an adventure together. Incidentally, we are going to make use of that cold of yours. In some ways I think it constitutes an extraordinary improvement on your speaking voice. We will repair to the nearest teashop, and over a dish of cream buns discuss a blood-curdling plot. Are you game?"
"I'm game," said Tommy darkly. "There ain't been any excitement round here since the boy next door got run over last June."
It was quite dark when the pair sallied out and made for the nearest Lyons. Here, over a huge dish of cream cakes which brought joy to the heart of Tommy Hands, MacGregor unfolded his plot, and fifteen minutes later he hurried off to catch the Limehouse bus, leaving his accomplice to finish the cream buns and to reflect on the wonderful adventure which had come his way at last.
IT was half-past ten when Etienne found himself in Slater-street, Limehouse, looking left and right for the entrance to the Three Leaves Club. He found it eventually, situated in a dirty alley which led off the main street. The place seemed deserted and dismal, and it was only when he had pushed open the battered door and descended a flight of stone steps that he was able to hear the strains of the indifferent jazz band which was one of the "features" of The Three Leaves Club.
At the bottom of the stairs was a dingy office, and as he approached a bullet head protruded and asked him his business.
"My name is MacGregor," said Etienne amicably, "and I wish to see Mrs. Lotus Leaf."
"You just wait a minute," replied the villainous-looking doorkeeper, "an' I'll see if she's in."
Mrs. Lotus Leaf was in, and two minutes afterwards Etienne found himself following the doorman along a stone passage which ran alongside the dance hall. A glance into the main club room assured Etienne that the Three Leaves Club was no ordinary health resort. Full-blooded "blue" niggers rubbed shoulders with Lascars and Chinamen, and exchanged greetings with the white scum of Limehouse.
At the end of the passage was a door, and after knocking upon this Etienne's guide indicated that he might enter. MacGregor pushed open the door, stepped inside, and stood transfixed.
The room was in absolute contradiction to the rest of the place. The furniture was antique and valuable, and the carpet on which he stood was of the finest quality, but it was the woman who sat at the desk facing the door, and who rose as he entered, who was responsible for Etienne's lack of breath.
She was Chinese—and beautiful. Her skin, unlike the usual Asiatic complexion, was pale, and her hair, dressed in European fashion, and piled high on her head, gave her added height. She bowed to Etienne and indicated a vacant chair which faced the desk. A young man, also Chinese, and dressed, in the height of fashion, appeared from the end of the room and stood by her side.
"I am delighted to meet you, Mr. MacGregor," she said softly. "May I present my son, Mr. Suan Chi Leaf."
Mr. Suan Chi Leaf bowed. Round the corners of his mouth appeared the ghost of a cynical smile. MacGregor noticed it, and his own smile became more cherubic. "I am honored to meet you and your son, Mrs. Lotus Leaf—by the way, isn't that a pretty name—" said MacGregor. Incidentally, I ought to explain to you that my uncle having died and left me his money, providing that I can answer certain questions, I am compelled to seek your assistance, the first question being, 'Who is Mrs. Lotus Leaf?' I shouldn't have known where to start except for the kindness of a certain Mr. Gubbs."
"Exactly," murmured the woman. "I arranged that 'kindness' on Mr. Gubbs's part. Your uncle had a peculiar sense of humor, Mr. MacGregor, which both my son and myself appreciate. As you are aware, in the event of your not answering the questions within the time stated, the money goes to my son, and I think your uncle's rather cynical sense of humor was responsible for setting you to match your wits against us. Unfortunate—for you—that sense of humor, I am afraid."
"Really," murmured Etienne. "May I ask why?"
She smiled. "Certainly," she said. "Because, Mr. MacGregor in an hour's time you will be dead! You must realise that from our point of view you are better out of the way. You will not leave this place alive! A note from you has already been delivered to your housekeeper, who thinks that you have left for Paris. You will leave for Paris. For my son will take your body across tonight in our motor launch. Possibly in two or three weeks' time the body of Mr. Etienne MacGregor will be found floating somewhere on the Seine, and there will be nothing in the way of my son's inheritance."
She looked at him with a cool smile.
MacGregor yawned—politely—behind his hand.
"You are very beautiful, Mrs. Lotus Leaf, he said; "but, really, I don't think you are nice to know. Or your jolly old son either! But I'm afraid that this awfully clever idea of yours isn't coming off. You see, I'm very curious, and I wanted to why dear old Gubbs was so awfully keen on actually seeing me on to that Limehouse bus. That's why I got off and went home! I thought that as he knew so much about me he'd probably know my address, too. I read the note he left, and then I thought of a bright idea. I thought that you might like to write a note for me to take to my uncle's lawyers telling them that I know all about Mrs. Lotus Leaf, and before I came down here I arranged with K Division police station to ring up here at ten past eleven and ask for me, and unless I'm back at the police station by eleven-thirty I'm afraid they might come along and kick up a fuss. So perhaps you'll write that letter. Incidentally, if you've got a few ten pound notes about the place they'd be awfully useful at the moment!"
The eyes of Mrs. Lotus Leaf narrowed. She was about to speak when the telephone beside her rang. She answered the call, and handed the instrument to Etienne without a word.
"Hallo, inspector," he said. "Thanks for phoning. I'll be with you in twenty minutes. I'm just staying on for a bit to collect a letter and some cash from my dear old friend Mrs. Lotus Leaf—such a sweet woman! I hope your cold is better, inspector—you sound quite hoarse! One day when you've time you must let me introduce you to Mrs. Lotus Leaf and her son. He's a great fellow—a motor launch enthusiast, I believe. Yes, I very nearly went across to France with him tonight, but I thought it was a bit too cold! Goodbye, inspector; goodbye!"
One hour later Mr. Etienne MacGregor expounded the ethics of arithmetic to Tommy Hands.
"Tommy," said he, "your voice as the inspector was excellent, thanks to that cold of yours. It sounded most manful. All of which goes to prove that my curiosity plus your cold and some brains equals one question answered and fifty pounds for me and unlimited cream buns for a month for you!"
TO the casual onlooker it would have appeared that Mr. Etienne MacGregor was engrossed in a study of the scenery out of the railway carriage window. Really, he was interested in nothing of the sort; his mind being engaged at the moment with the contents of the second letter which he had that morning received from Messrs. Rudder, Foal and Rudder, his late uncle's lawyers, which congratulated him upon finding the answer to the first question, and requested politely but firmly an answer to the second within seven days; this second question being:—
"Where was the end of the river that ran sideways?"
Apparently, the lawyers wished to give him some slight clue, for they stated that his late uncle had suggested that he might find the air at Norfolk beneficial when endeavoring to solve this problem.
MacGregor's usual charming smile became more cherubic than ever as he regarded the only other occupant of the railway carriage—an elderly gentleman who might have been a well-to-do farmer, judging by his clothes and general appearance, who had—Etienne had noticed—walked up and down the length of the train twice before deciding to enter this particular carriage.
MacGregor, whose round face and juvenile brow hid an extremely keen brain, had already decided that the appearance of this elderly gentleman was possibly not quite so accidental is it appeared, and, following his usual plan, he proceeded to open the call before his travelling companion could put any of his own ideas into execution. Etienne turned to the old gentleman with his most charming smile.
"Excuse me, sir," he said pleasantly, "but I wonder if you know Norfolk well!"
The elderly gentleman smiled. "Know it well? I should think I did," he said. ''Seeing that I was born and bred there."
"Ah," murmured Etienne. "Then I wonder if you have ever heard, of a river that ran sideways?"
The old gentleman looked astonished. "A river that ran sideways," he repeated. "Strange.... very strange. Funnily enough, I have heard of such a river. I can quite well remember hearing it mentioned. At the beginning of last year I was staying at an inn at Gomphill, on the broads. One evening, when I was sitting in the bar listening to the talk of the watermen, I heard a great deal of laughter and chaff about a certain man. This man's name was Twist Anderson, and it appeared that he was the local drunkard, and when in his cups would produce some wonderful story about having seen a river running sideways instead of along its usual course. This story seemed to be a sort of village joke."
"Quite," said MacGregor. "By the way, sir, what was the name of the inn?"
"The Sepoy Inn," replied the old gentleman. "A very old property, I believe. It used to be a country house belonging to a retired merchant named MacGregor. A very pleasant spot indeed."
MacGregor was silent. So the Sepoy Inn had been his uncle's country house! He had known that once on a time his uncle had possessed a house in Norfolk. Was it coincidence, thought Etienne, that this old gentleman—a chance travelling acquaintance—should know so much about the place, and had heard of the river that ran sideways, or was the hand of Mrs. Lotus Leaf behind all this?
At the next station the old gentleman got out, as MacGregor thought he would. He had done what he intended to do. His information was the first move in the game!
Etienne left the train at Gomphill, and found the Sepoy Inn without difficulty. It was a charming old place. On one side of it a well-kept lawn ran down to the river's edge, and on the other was a tennis court. He pulled an arm-chair to the window, and sat thinking deeply.
It was apparent to MacGregor that the old gentleman in the train was no chance traveller. He had selected the carriage after seeing that MacGregor occupied it.
Etienne realised that Suan Chi Leaf and his mother were taking little trouble to cover their tracks. And why should they? They knew perfectly well that he had to solve the questions before he could claim the money, and therefore they were quite prepared to help him along—so long as their help brought him into the set of circumstances in which they could deal with him. He had to be got out of the way—and they would stick at nothing! It seemed to him, therefore, that there was nothing for it but to watch for the next step on the part of Suan Chi Leaf and his mother.
It was evidently their idea that MacGregor should stay at the Sepoy Inn. Well here he was.
Suddenly the actual question flashed into MacGregor's mind—what was at the end of the river that ran sideways? Did Suan Chi Leaf know? Supposing he did not. What was more likely than the fact they would endeavor to help MacGregor to solve the question in order that any advantage should accrue to them? For half an hour Etienne sat by the window, his brain busy with impossible schemes, then a humorous smile appeared on his face, and, lighting a cigarette, he strolled downstairs in search of the waterman—Twist Anderson.
He had little difficulty in finding that worthy. Everyone in Gomphill knew "Twist," and MacGregor was directed to a little cottage which stood directly on the river's edge, about a quarter of a mile from the inn. MacGregor knocked at the door. When it was opened he knew instinctively that the man facing him was Twist Anderson. No man could have been more aptly named. His face was twisted into a perpetual grin, and his arms and legs, which showed great strength, were twisted, too.
"Mr. Anderson," said MacGregor cheerily, "I've come to have a little talk with you about the river that runs sideways!"
Twist Anderson said nothing for a minute, but looked at the ground, and when he looked up his smile seemed more twisted than ever.
"You'd better come inside, sir," he said, and held open the cottage door. MacGregor followed him into the cottage—a very ordinary waterman's cottage, with one exception; on the end of the mantelpiece was a brand new telephone, which Etienne's quick eyes immediately noticed. He took the chair which Anderson placed for him, whilst the waterman sat astride a chair immediately facing him.
"Might I ask, sir," said Anderson, "what you mean by the river that runs sideways?" His grin seemed wider than ever.
Etienne lit a cigarette. "Look here, Mr. Anderson," he said. "I'm a very curious person, and I heard at the Sepoy Inn that several people had laughed at you because you've said that you have seen a river about here that runs sideways. Speaking personally, I'm rather interested—I want to have a look at that river, and if you can help me to do so I'll see that you don't lose anything by it."
Anderson looked at the floor. It appeared to be a habit with him. Then he got up from his chair, and crossing the room to a dilapidated locker produced a map, which he spread out on the table. "Here's the river that runs past this cottage," he said, pointing to it with his finger. "Here is a backwater, about a hundred yards away, and here is a stream—a fairly wide one, which crosses the river near Sanner's-bridge. That's the river that runs sideways. I've seen it doing it," continued Anderson. "I was down there fishing one night, and suddenly my boat was swept over to the bank. I sat there amazed—I wasn't drunk either, and, believe me or not, the river was running from bank to bank instead of along its course. Everybody said I was drunk, and when I thought it over next day I almost, thought it myself! But I wasn't. I've seen it happen a dozen times since then, and always at the same time—2.30 in the morning."
MacGregor was silent for a few minutes, during which time he studied the map closely.
"Well, Mr. Anderson, " he said eventually, "I shall be much obliged if you would take me to see this river running sideways. Is that all right? Good. Let's say tomorrow night. I'll meet you at 2 o'clock."
A few minutes afterwards Etienne took his departure. Twist Anderson stood at his cottage door and watched him as he strolled away.
Back in his room at the Sepoy Inn, Etienne grinned hugely. He felt very curious, and mainly he wanted to know why Twist Anderson had so suddenly felt the need of a telephone, for it was obviously brand new.
When darkness came he undressed, donned a bathing suit and over it some old flannels. Then he quietly made his way across the deserted tennis courts, and, hidden amongst the thick trees, kept close watch on Anderson's cottage.
He had not long to wait. At 10 o'clock a figure appeared and hurried to the back door of the cottage. As it passed through a patch of moonlight the face was plainly shown to MacGregor. It was Suan Chi Leaf!
MacGregor guessed that he had arrived in response to Anderson's telephone message. Keeping well in the shadows, MacGregor hurried down the river bank until he found Sanner's-bridge. He remembered the spots on the map shown him by Twist Anderson, and he examined the banks of the river with the utmost care. At last he thought he had found what he sought, and throwing off his clothes, he dived into the river. He was an excellent underwater swimmer, and it was nearly two minutes before he appeared on the surface. A few quick strokes brought him to the bank, where he dressed hurriedly and set off at a run for the inn.
Half an hour afterwards, after a rub down, he made his way back to the river bank. Then he produced from his pocket a long, coiled length of manila rope. One end of this he fastened carefully to a tree, and paid out the rope until he was able to hang the coil, secured with a piece of silk thread just under the surface of the river beside the bank, at a spot which he calculated carefully. After which, in great good humor, he betook himself to bed.
The moon cast an uncertain light on the smooth surface of the river as MacGregor, with Twist Anderson punting, floated quietly past Sanner's-bridge. Suddenly Anderson drove the punt into the bank, and caught hold of the overhanging branch of a tree.
"Here's the spot, Mr. MacGregor," he said. "It's 2.25 now. It might happen at any moment!"
MacGregor kept his eyes on the surface of the river and waited. Suddenly, without warning, the river swirled, and then flung itself sideways against the bank. At the same moment Anderson, with a wicked grin, gripping the tree branch, drew himself out of the punt, and simultaneously the punt shot into the swirling waters. It was obvious to MacGregor that the punt must overturn. But he had been prepared for this. Taking a purchase with his feet on the rocking punt, he dived for the spot where the coil of rope was hidden. He sighed with relief as his fingers closed over it, and the silk thread which bound the coil breaking as he tugged, he played out the rope as the swirling waters sucked him down. It seemed an eternity to Etienne as he was flung along by the current.
Then, as suddenly as before, the waters became quiet, and, arching his back, he came to the surface and filled his lungs with air. He was in complete darkness, and he could feel that only a few feet of the rope remained in his hands. After a moment a dim light appeared, and he was able to see dimly about him. He found himself in a square cavern, which he knew, had been cut out of the bank at the side of the river, both above and below water level.
The cavern was filled by means of a large trap opening which had been cut out of the bank below the surface of the river and which, when opened, caused the river to run sideways until the cavern was filled to the water level. At the far end of the cave leading out of the water was a flight of rough-hewn steps. These led into a narrow passage, from the end of which the dim light came.
Etienne looked round keeping a firm hold on the end of the rope. At his end of the cave, well above the water, was a small wooden shelf, and on this shelf was a box of the size of a large cigar box. He swam across and took the box from the shelf. Then, treading water, he peered towards the stairs and the passage. He knew that at the end of that passage Suan Chi Leaf was waiting, certain in his own mind that the only way out of the cave for Etienne was the way of the steps and passage.
Probably, Etienne thought, Twist Anderson was with him, too. The water cave had been the repository of his uncle's secret, and Suan Chi Leaf had intended that it should also be the repository of Etienne's body. Of course his disappearance would be easily explained. The punting accident would account tor that.
MacGregor smiled quietly as he thought of the suave Chinaman waiting patiently. Then with a prayer that the trap opening beneath the bank was still open, and gripping the rope securely, he dived and commenced to draw himself hand over hand along the length of the rope. The trap was open, but it seemed years before he gained the surface of the river. He drew a grateful breath, swam for the bank, scrambled out, and with the box under his arm ran for the Sepoy Inn—and safety.
ONE hour afterwards, after a hot bath and supper, he ascertained from the local exchange Twist Anderson's telephone number, and rang up that gentleman.
"Hullo, Mr. Anderson," he said cheerily. "You sound a little depressed. I hope you are feeling well. By the way, if Mr. Suan Chi Leaf is with you remember me kindly to him. You might tell him, too, that the box contained a letter to my uncle's lawyers, and £500 in notes. It rather looks as if I'm getting the legacy by instalments, doesn't it? Tell Mr. Leaf that I'm sorry I couldn't leave the water cave by the passage, as you so carefully planned. If you take a look at the rope on the bank you'll see how I managed it. It would have been such a pity if I'd been drowned as a result of our little accident, wouldn't it? Better luck next time! Good-night 'Twist,' pleasant dreams !"
Mr. MacGregor hung up the receiver, and with a more than usually cherubic smile went to bed.
MR. ETIENNE MACGREGOR, at peace with the world, leaned back in a comfortable arm-chair in the lounge of the Rialto Hotel, and, sipping his tea, listened with appreciation to the orchestra. Etienne was not dissatisfied with life.
He had managed to answer the first two questions, and in doing so had enriched himself to the tune of £550. It was because of this affluence that he was staying at the Rialto, whilst his rooms in Mortimer-street were undergoing their annual spring clean. At the same time he was beginning to feel slightly impatient.
By this time he should have heard from his late uncle's lawyers with reference to the third question, for, the financial aspect apart, Etienne was keenly interested in the strange quests in which he found himself involved as a result of his uncle's will.
His eyes, wandering round the lounge, stopped for some moments on the figure of a lady who had just entered the lounge, and who was looking round as if in search of someone. She had a letter in her hand, and, as her glance fell upon Etienne she commenced to walk towards his table. MacGregor, apparently concerned with the orchestra, watched her as she approached. His curiosity was aroused. He got up as she stopped at his table.
"Are you Mr. Etienne MacGregor?" she asked.
He nodded. "I am that unfortunate person," he murmured with a grin. "May I do something for you? Will you have some tea?"
She smiled. There was no doubt that she was a very charming person. "I'm from Rudder, Foal and Rudder," she said, "and I've brought a letter. Mr. Foal thought it would be better if I delivered it myself. I'm his secretary."
She held out the letter to MacGregor.
"Thank you," said Etienne. "Now you must have some tea whilst I read it. Waiter, bring another cup."
He tore open the envelope and read the letter, He read it through quickly, and then reread it more slowly, but, although his eyes were apparently on the paper before him, in reality he was unobtrusively noting some details about the lady who sat opposite him sipping her tea. In the first place MacGregor was curious about the thin chain which she wore about her neck, and which disappeared into the top of her well-cut black georgette gown. The chain was obviously of platinum. Etienne sensed that there was some ornament attached to the chain, which he thought, had been deliberately slipped into the top of her gown, and why?
Already an idea had begun to take shape in MacGregor's fertile brain, as he turned his attention, this time with a shade more interest, to the letter before him, which read:—
Dear Mr. MacGregor—
My sincere congratulations on your success in finding the answers to the first two questions. The third concerns the age of your late uncle's partner, who is an aged Chinese—Mr. Ho Hang Leaf. His age is known only to two people: his wife, Mrs Lotus Leaf, and his son, Mr. Suan Chi Leaf. I am permitted to give you this slight clue. There was an elderly Chinese named Yo Hang, who owns a curiosity shop off Clint-street, Long Acre, and who was a very old friend of Ho Hang Leaf, being born the same day. Perhaps you can find this old man. In the meantime I must formally request that you inform us of the correct age of Ho Hang Leaf within seven days from this date.
I am, yours faithfully,
H. G. Foal,
pp. Rudder, Foal and Rudder.
MacGregor slipped the letter into his pocket, and consulted his watch. Then he gave an exclamation.
"By Jove!" he said. "There's a man waiting to see me in the smoke-room. I'd forgotten him. Please excuse me. I shall be with you again in two minutes. I'd like you to wait, because I want to send a note by hand to Mr. Foal."
He strolled casually out of the lounge, but once out of sight of the lady he hurried to one of the smoke-room telephones and rang up his rooms in Mortimer-street. "Look here, Mrs. Hands," he said. "I want you to ask Tommy to speak to me on the telephone—be as quick as you can, and when I've finished talking to him will you give him a sovereign for me. I want him to do something."
Mrs. Hands was quick, and in another minute the voice of Tommy, her fourteen-year-old son, came over the wire to Etienne's ears.
"Now look here, Tommy," said MacGregor. "Here's an adventure for you. We were fairly successful together last time. Take a cab immediately and drive to within about twenty yards of the Rialto Hotel. In a few minutes' time a young lady will come out. You'll recognise her, for I shall walk to the entrance with her. Keep your cab waiting, and if she takes a taxi follow her and let me know where she goes. Do you understand?"
"You bet, Mr MacGregor," replied Tommy. "I won't lose her. If she goes a long distance I'll telephone you at the Rialto so that you shan't be kept waiting."
"Good man," said MacGregor. "You'll be a regular Sherlock Holmes before you've finished. Get round as quickly as you can!"
He replaced the receiver and rejoined his companion in the lounge.
"I'm so sorry to have kept you waiting," he said cheerily. "Won't you have some more tea?"
"No thank you very much, Mr. MacGregor," she replied demurely. "I really must be getting back. My mother is not very well and I'm afraid that she will wonder what has become of me. I must be going at once. I think I ought to take a cab."
Etienne walked with her across the lounge and through the entrance hall, making their pace as slow as possible. He was thinking that if Tommy Hands had hurried and had been lucky enough to secure a taxi at once he would arrive in time. In this surmise he was correct, for, luck being with him, it was quite some little time before the commissionnaire succeeded in getting a taxi for the girl and, as she drove off, Etienne saw Tommy's head come out of the window of a taxi, cab just down the street, give some hurried instructions to the driver and then disappear.
MacGregor watched the girl's cab speed off in the direction of Knightsbridge with Tommy in pursuit, and with a sigh of satisfaction he returned to the lounge, and over a cigarette ruminated on the plan in his head.
He realised that if his idea with regard to the girl who had called with the letter was correct he had not a great deal of time left in which to put his plan into execution. At the back of his brain an idea was taking shape rapidly—an idea by which he hoped within a few hours to become possessed of the correct age of Ho Hang Leaf, without consulting or obtaining the assistance of the Chinaman Yo Hang, who lived off Long Acre.
He walked into the smoke-room once more and telephoned to a Mr. "Slick" Walker, an acquaintance of the days when Etienne had been studying life in all its different aspects, a gentleman whose peculiarly clever and light fingers often found themselves in other people's pockets, but whose sense of humor was unfailing. After a short conversation with Mr. Walker, when an arrangement was made for a meeting at Knightsbridge Tube station in an hour's time, Etienne returned to his seat in the lounge, and waited patiently for the message from Tommy—the message on which everything depended.
Fifteen minutes afterwards Tommy telephoned. "That you, Mr. MacGregor?" he whispered tensely. "I followed her to March Mews, a little turning off Sloane-street. She went into a house there—I waited outside for about ten minutes. Then she came out, and a man came to the door with her. He looked like a Chinaman, and had a little black moustache. I pretended to be waiting to go into the house next door, and I heard him say to her, 'I shall meet you at my mother's flat, I shall leave here at eight forty-five.' Then she went off down Sloane-street, and he went back into the house. Can I do anything else, Mr. MacGregor?"
"Nothing, thank you, Tommy," answered Etienne. "That's A1. You've done your job very successfully. I'll come round and tell you about it tomorrow."
Outside the smoke-room, MacGregor consulted his watch. He realised how lucky it had been that he had made the appointment with "Slick" Walker at a spot near Knightsbridge. Things were shaping very well. He went to his room and got his hat; then, with a cheerful smile, he made his way slowly towards Knightsbridge tube station, where he found Mr. "Slick" Walker, his hands in his pockets and a cigarette stub adhering to his lower lip, studying with professional interest the diamond rings in an adjacent jeweller's.
AT a quarter to nine Mr. Suan Chi Leaf left his house in March Mews and walked down Sloane-street. He appeared to be quite satisfied with life, judging by the smile of satisfaction which wreathed his thin, cruel lips. As he approached the corner of Sloane-street and Knightsbridge, where there is always a crowd of people waiting for the buses, Mr. "Slick" Walker, who seemed to be waiting for a bus, knocked into him. Mr. Walker apologised profusely, taking such a time over asking Suan Chi Leaf's pardon that the Chinaman wondered at such good manners in such an ill-dressed man.
Suan Chi Leaf continued on his way, until a tap on his shoulder caused him to stop and turn. He found himself looking into the face of a police constable and at the somewhat dignified and stern countenance of Mr. Etienne MacGregor.
"That's the man, officer," said MacGregor. "He brushed against me a moment ago, and immediately I missed my watch and chain. I saw him sneak off putting something into his waistcoat pocket. I'm certain that's him."
Suan Chi Leaf smiled. "This is ridiculous," he snarled. "This is what you call a 'frame up,' I suppose."
"We can talk about that at the police station," said the constable. "If you didn't steal this gentleman's watch, let's see what you've got in your pockets."
With a self-satisfied air Suan Chi Leaf turned out his waistcoat pockets. His face expressed the utmost amazement when he found, in his right-hand waist-coat pocket, the watch and chain of Mr. MacGregor. He commenced to argue, but ten minutes later found himself comfortably installed in a cell at Knightsbridge police station on a charge of picking pockets.
Etienne, with his most charming smile, then held a short conversation on the legal aspects of the case with the station inspector, and having ascertained from that worthy the address which Suan Chi Leaf had given when he was charged, which address MacGregor guessed would be that of Suan's mother—Mrs. Lotus Leaf—he left the police station and took a cab to that lady's flat in Oxford-street. Five minutes later found him ringing the bell at the Oxford-street flat. As he entered her sitting-room Mrs. Lotus Leaf regarded him smilingly, but beneath the smile lurked all the venom of her Oriental nature.
"What can I do for you, Mr. MacGregor?" she asked, regarding him intently. "Won't you sit down? Please make yourself quite comfortable."
"It's awfully nice hearing you asking me to make myself comfortable, Mrs. Lotus Leaf," he said. "I appreciate your kind thoughts for my welfare, but I won't take up too much of your valuable time. What I want is to know the age—the exact age—of your husband, Mr. Ho Hang Leaf. You see that is the third question which I have to answer—the third of the thirteen questions which must be answered before I can inherit my uncle's money, I expect that you are rather surprised at my visit—you rather expected me to go to Mr. Yo Hang's in Long Acre tonight, didn't you, dear lady, and I expect that you and your equally charming son would have had a nice little surprise waiting for me when I got there. I gathered as much when you sent that charming and demure lady to my hotel with the letter, which you had typed on a sheet of Rudder, Foal and Rudder's note paper. You made one or two mistakes, though. Solicitors' typists don't wear 25-shillings-a-pair silk stockings, neither do they usually wear platinum neck chains, with immense diamond ornaments attached, which. I noticed, although the lady had taken great care to wear it inside her dress. She forgot that lace is often transparent I was, therefore, forced to deal with the matter, and the position is briefly this. Half an hour ago your son, Mr. Suan Chi Leaf, was arrested in Knightsbridge for picking my pocket. My watch was actually found on him, and he is at the present moment in a cell at Knightsbridge police station. The point is this. If to-morrow, when he comes before the magistrate, I press the charge against him he will probably get six months' imprisonment, and be deported at the end of that term. Now I don't want him to be deported any more than you do. I find that you and he have helped me a great deal, in spite of yourselves, in answering these first two questions, and I want to put this proposition up to you. Supply me with the answer to the third question—give me the correct age of your husband, and I will call on Rudder, Foal and Rudder at 10 o'clock tomorrow morning. If the answer is correct I will withdraw the charge against your charming son, and he shall go free. If it isn't..."
McGregor shrugged his shoulders.
Mrs. Lotus Leaf's long manicured fingers replaced carefully a tendril of her carefully-dressed hair. Then she looked at MacGregor with her usual smile—a smile that boded no good for him in the future.
"I agree to your terms, Mr. MacGregor," she said. "Mainly because it appears, that I have no option but to agree. I admire your brains. You say that in spite of ourselves we have been of use to you. We shall he more careful in the future. We are learning. Next time we shall make no mistake!"
She wrote the answer to the question on a sheet of note-paper, which she handed to him. "That is my husband's correct age," she said. MacGregor took the sheet of paper and rose.
"Thanks awfully, Mrs. Lotus Leaf," he murmured. "You are as charming as ever. I'm really very sorry that I can't oblige you by being a corpse! I do hope that your son won't be too uncomfortable tonight. It will give him an opportunity to think quite a lot, won't it? Goodbye, and many thanks!"
THREE minutes afterwards Mr. MacGregor might have been observed walking down Oxford-street looking at peace with all the world, and in the saloon bar of the Three Crowns in Seven Dials Mr. "Slick" Walker held forth to a bosom companion on the strangeness of life.
"George," observed Mr. Walker, "I've been pickin' pockets all me life, but, strike me pink, this is the first time in me life that a feller's ever paid me to pick 'is pocket and put 'is watch an' chain into somebody else's. It's a funny world, ain't it!"
IN spite of the cheerful and carefree expression which radiated from the round countenance of Mr. Etienne MacGregor as he strolled slowly up Regent-street, he was not feeling at all cheerful. Only three days remained for him to supply the answer to the fourth question which he had received four days ago from his late uncle's lawyers—the fourth of the thirteen questions which it was necessary for him to answer in order to inherit a fortune. He wondered if his luck had turned on him.
The first three questions had been easily dealt with—firstly, because of the keenness of the brain which existed behind Etienne's cherubic brow, and, secondly, because of the involuntary assistance he had received from Mrs. Lotus Leaf and her son Suan Chi Leaf. But this fourth question was a poser. He had not the slightest idea where to start in an endeavor to find the solution.
On reading Rudder, Foal and Rudder's letter, it had seemed to him that possibly this was the easiest question up to date. They had requested that he should inform them, within the stated seven days, what exactly were the contents of the China tea chest which had stood, in the chief clerk's office in his late uncle's warehouse at Wapping.
Etienne had immediately visited the warehouse, and found it not only dilapidated, but also closed, and apparently it had been deserted for years. No one in the vicinity could give him any information, neither could any of his uncle's old employees, whom he had hunted up, give him any information as to any China tea chest. And there the matter stood.
Immersed in thought Etienne slowed down and looked into a shop window at a set of expensive silk pyjamas. He was not really concerned with the pyjamas, but he considered that the splash of color in the window was attractive, and that it might be conducive to a brain wave. After a moment he was preparing to move away, when his attention was attracted and held by the reflection of a face in the plate glass window before him. It was the face of Mrs. Lotus Leaf.
Now although Mrs. Lotus Leaf was Chinese she was very beautiful, and Etienne, although he had no cause to love her, but a great deal of cause to dislike her, would have looked at her reflection any time. But on this occasion he was more than interested, for the expression on her face was so fiendishly triumphant that it almost brought a gasp of astonishment to his lips. He looked casually at the contents of the window once more, and then walked slowly away in the direction of his rooms in Mortimer-street.
Arrived there, he lit his pipe, and throwing himself into an arm-chair, allowed his mind to run on Mrs. Lotus Leaf—there had been no mistaking the expression of triumph on her face, and there was only one reason for this expression. She knew that MacGregor had not yet succeeded in answering the fourth question. It seemed to Etienne that, this being so, there must be some definite reason for her knowledge, and the most obvious one was that the China tea chest was in the possession of either Mrs. Lotus Leaf or her son, or both of them. This being so, she would have every reason for her triumph.
Etienne considered that his theory was supported by the fact that his old uncle had probably insisted on the China tea chest question being asked in order that Etienne might have another opportunity to match his wits against the Chinese. Puffing away at his pipe, he got up and walked over to the window. It had commenced to rain, but on the other side of the road, huddled up against the wall, stood a lounger—the type of man usually seen selling matches in the street. This in itself would not have interested Etienne, but he had seen the man before, and on both occasions he had been standing on the opposite side of the road, his hands in his pockets very busily engaged in doing nothing.
Etienne came to the conclusion that the man was probably employed by Suan Chi Leaf to keep the MacGregor flat under observation. Suddenly an idea came to Etienne, and he grinned happily. A scheme had suggested itself to him whereby he might find the headquarters of Mrs. Lotus Leaf and her son. Once he could do this, he knew that the China tea chest would not be far away. If by some means he could get the idea into the heads of Suan Chi Leaf and his mother that he knew of the whereabouts of the China tea chest and was going to make an attempt to discover what the contents were, it seemed to him that they might take some action which would give him a clue. In any event, something had to be done, and within the next three days, if he were not to lose all chance of obtaining the legacy.
He seized the telephone from his writing table and rang up Fletter's Detective Agency, a reliable firm which he had used on previous occasions. In two minutes he was connected with Fletter himself.
"Now listen carefully, please, Mr. Fletter," he said. "I'm speaking from my rooms in Mortimer-street, and there is a lounger on the opposite corner—a clean-shaven fellow dressed in a ragged fawn overcoat. I want you to send a man along at once to keep this fellow under observation, and when he goes off I want your man to follow him. Got that? Good."
He hung up the receiver and proceeded to carry out the second part of his scheme. He took a sheet of notepaper and wrote a note to Mr. Foal, of Rudder, Foal and Rudder, which read:—
Dear Mr. Foall,
I am in a position to tell you that I shall be able to supply the answer to the question with regard to the contents of the China tea chest within the next forty-eight hours.
He placed this letter in an envelope, addressed and stamped it, and slipped it into his pocket; then he took up a position just behind the window curtain, where he could keep the watcher on the other side of the street under observation. About fifteen minutes afterwards Fenway, one of Fletter's most reliable men, appeared in Regent-street, just opposite the end of Mortimer-street, and it was apparent to Etienne that he had recognised Suan Chi Leaf's man and was keeping out of the way for the moment.
MacGregor now put his plan into execution. He rang his bell, and when the house-maid appeared he handed her the letter which he had written to Foal, and gave her certain explicit instructions. Then, taking up his previous position by the window, he watched the man outside. A few minutes afterwards the house maid, bearing in her hand the letters for the post, crossed the road to the pillar box on the corner of Regent-street.
As she passed the lounger, who still stood leaning against the wall, a letter fell, apparently unobserved, from her hand, and lay in the gutter. The lounger waited until the girl had returned to the house, then, with a quick glance up and down the street, pounced upon the letter. He disappeared into a doorway, and presumably read the note to Foal, and then to Etienne's great delight hurried off as quickly as his legs would carry him, with Fenway unobtrusively in pursuit.
MacGregor chuckled at the success of his little plot. His fake letter to Foal would be in Suan Chi Leaf's hands in a little while, and that gentleman, believing that Etienne had some clue to the mystery of the China tea chest, would probably make some movement which would give Etienne the required clue.
At 8.30 the telephone bell rang, and Etienne took off the receiver to hear Fenway's voice.
"That you, Mr. MacGregor?" said the operative. "I've had a rare chase after this fellow. I followed him down to some deserted warehouse in Wapping, where, unfortunately, I lost him. I hung about, and some time afterwards he turned up again, but this time there were two people with him—a man and a woman. They rowed out from some steps that lead down to the river at the side of the warehouse, and I lost sight of them. There's a mist on the river tonight. That's all up to the moment, sir."
With a word of thanks, MacGregor hung up the receiver. There was no doubt that his little plot had succeeded. Suan Chi Leaf on receiving the fake note to Foal had promptly come to the conclusion that MacGregor knew the whereabouts of the China tea chest, and had gone off with his mother to ensure its safety.
Etienne slipped on his overcoat, and hurried out into Regent-street, where he procured a taxi and ordered the driver to make for the Wapping warehouse as quickly as possible. It seemed to him that the China tea chest was probably aboard some boat belonging to Suan Chi Leaf out in the river, and he had made up his mind to look for any suspicious-looking craft in the vicinity of the warehouse.
He paid off the cab at Wapping, and walked quickly to the warehouse, which fronted into a mean street, and the back of which was actually washed by the river. He could see little, for the mist described by Fenway had thickened. After a moment's thought he made for the stairs by the side of the warehouse, a wooden flight running down to the river. Peering out over the dark water he could make out dimly the lights of several boats which lay moored to buoys behind the warehouse, and he made up his mind to inspect these.
A dinghy was moored to the steps, and he jumped into this, and, untying the painter, pulled out on to the river. Suddenly he lay on his oar and waited. Above him, shining dimly from the black wall of the warehouse was a light. One of the back upper rooms was occupied, for there could be no other reason for the illumination.
He pulled silently back to the warehouse, paddling the dinghy along the wall and feeling for any door or other entrance to the warehouse. Presently he found what he sought. An iron ladder ran up from the water in the direction of the light above him. Apparently it was a fire-escape, and the light was coming from an open trap on the second floor of the warehouse, used in former days for lowering cases down to the river barges.
Etienne tied the dinghy to the iron ladder. The river in his vicinity appeared to be deserted, and only the occasional hoot of a siren broke the stillness. Then, as silently as possible, he commenced to climb the ladder. He climbed warily, moving slowly as he approached the open trap. When his head was just below its level he paused in his climbing and listened intently. A peculiar sound came to his ears—the sound of a man snoring!
Inch by inch Etienne raised himself on the ladder until he was able to look into the dimly-lit room. Then an involuntary gasp escaped him. The room had evidently been used once on a time as an office. Some bits of dirty and broken-down furniture stood about the place, and along one side of the wall was a dilapidated settee, and on this settee stretched to full length and snoring heavily lay a six-foot man of the hooligan type. Against the back wall of the room, four or five feet behind the sleeper, stood a rough table, and on this table stood a small and richly inlaid engraved chest—the China tea chest!
Etienne commenced quietly to descend the ladder once more, and, having reached and untied the dinghy, pulled a few yards away from the warehouse and lay on his oars whilst he considered the situation. One thing was absolutely obvious to him—a trap had been set for him, and one into which he had not the slightest intention of walking!
The China tea chest so carefully set out on the table and guarded by the large gentleman who was pretending to be asleep and snoring much too loudly to be convincing. Etienne had no doubt that on the other side of the door, at the far end of the room, Suan Chi Leaf and his satellites were waiting to seize him immediately he put his foot into the room.
He pulled the dinghy back to the steps by the side of the warehouse, and sitting down a few steps above the water's edge, gave himself up to deep thought. The fog had lifted, and his eyes, wandering over the surface of the river, encountered a long, grey boat moored to an official landing-stage which stood some fifteen yards to the right front of the warehouse. Then, as an idea took shape in his mind, his usual broad grin reappeared on his face, end he ran quickly up the steps.
At the top he gazed about him until he saw the lights of a public house twinkling down the street. Then, with a cheery smile he walked towards the Blue Boar, whistling.
Twenty minutes afterwards Etienne held an informal meeting at the end of a dark lane which ran to the left of the warehouse. The meeting consisted of six individuals collected by Etienne from four public houses—gentlemen of the type which is not a bit particular as to how it gets money, so long as it gets it!
He explained carefully to this motley crew exactly what he wanted, and then taking twelve one pound notes from his pocket, he tore them carefully in half and handed each member of the meeting two of the torn halves. "Now, gentlemen," he said, "when you've carried out my instructions I will hand you the other halves of the notes. As you doubtless know, the smaller halves which I have given you are worthless. I'll meet you here in ten minutes' time."
"That's all right, guv'nor," said the self-appointed leader of the men. "It's as easy as shellin' peas. Come on, boys!"
Etienne ran back to the stone steps, descended to the dinghy, and casting off pulled out on the river until the boat lay a few yards off the bottom of the iron ladder. The room at the top of the ladder was still lit up, and the faint sounds of snoring still came to Etienne's ears.
Suddenly a terrible hubbub occurred. From the street behind the warehouse came cries of "Fire," and to his left MacGregor could just discern one of his hirelings dashing along the pier to the stage where the long grey craft—the Thames fire-boat—was moored. "Fire!" yelled this gentleman at the top of his voice. "Fire!"
And as the crew of the fireboat tumbled on deck—"There it is, in that warehouse; were the light is—look sharp for 'eaven's sake."
With one look at the fire-boat Etienne pulled for the bottom of the iron ladder. As he did so a strong stream of water shot from the automatic hose at the stern of the fireboat straight into the room at the top of the ladder.
As he reached the top and looked into the room he roared with laughter. The terrific stream of water was playing straight on the now open door on the far side of the room, and in the dim light of the spluttering lamp Etienne could discern the drawn face of Suan Chi Leaf as he made attempt after attempt to enter the room, to be driven back each time by the force of the water.
MacGregor wormed his way over the top of the ladder, and crawling forward on his stomach, keeping well under the stream of water which played above him, succeeded in reaching the table. He pulled it over, and in a minute the China tea chest was in his arms, and he was wriggling back to the ladder. In a minute he was in the dinghy and pulling for the steps.
Fifteen minutes afterwards Etienne, having paid off his satellites, wandered to the edge of the crowd which surrounded the warehouse, and had the satisfaction of watching Mr. Suan Chi Leaf trying to explain to an infuriated policeman what he was doing in the warehouse. Then he hailed a cab, and with the chest beside him drove cheerfully back to Mortimer-street.
ETIENNE MACGREGOR, lying at full length in the heather which covered the slopes of Cammock Hill, a pair of field glasses held to his eyes, searched the long, flat stretch of ground which lay immediately beneath him until he discovered what, he sought.
Three-quarters of a mile away, approaching from the direction of Newmarket, a party of mounted men appeared, and Etienne kept his glasses on them until they were near enough for him to recognise his man. In advance of the party rode a stable lad mounted on the horse Greensleeves. There was no mistaking Greensleeves—a distinctive brown horse of average build and height with three white stockings. Behind the lad on Greensleeves rode the trainer, a gentleman whose broken nose told of more than one "rough house." To the right and left of the trainer, mounted on hacks, were two tough-looking fellows, who, Etienne imagined, were acting as stable guards for Greensleeves. Behind this party, smoking a cigarette, and smiling pleasantly, rode Suan Chi Leaf, immaculately dressed for riding.
Etienne watched them for a moment, and then, throwing the field glasses down beside him, turned over on his back and gave himself up to deep thought. He was engrossed trying to solve the fifth question. The letter from his late uncle's lawyers reposing at the moment in his breast pocket asked him, within the usual seven days, to inform them as to the number of teeth which were missing from the mouth of the racehorse Greensleeves, originally owned by his uncle.
They had given him a slight clue in the statement that the horse had been sold to a Mr. Jones Llewellyn, but it had taken Etienne four days to trace that gentleman and to discover that the horse had been sold by him to Suan Chi Leaf, and, with the help of Fletter's Detective Agency, to trace Suan Chi Leaf to Garran Manor, near Newmarket.
Of course Suan Chi Leaf had bought the horse because he knew what the fifth question was, and because he had no intention of allowing MacGregor to obtain any opportunity of inspecting the mouth of Greensleeves in order to discover which teeth were missing. Suan Chi Leaf and his mother, Mrs. Lotus Leaf, were much too perturbed by Etienne's success in answering the first four questions to take any chances.
MacGregor had taken rooms in a village a few miles from Garran Manor, and, under cover of night, had scaled the high wall which surrounded the old house, and inspected the place as thoroughly as he was able. But this inspection had shown him that there was little chance of getting anywhere in the vicinity of Greensleeves.
The horse was securely housed in a stable immediately adjoining the house. A man was on guard at the stable door all night, and in a barn close to the stable three or four Newmarket "toughs" slept so as to be within call of the guard should an alarm be given.
As Etienne lay on his back looking at the blue sky above him he racked his brains vainly in an endeavor to think of some plan by which he might once more outwit the wily Suan Chi Leaf. One thing was obvious, and that was that by some means or other he must obtain some opportunity of inspecting Greensleeves. His mind busy, he rose to his feet and commenced to walk across country in the direction of his inn at Seffcot. He was so engrossed in his problem that he failed to observe the individual who had overtaken him, and was walking alongside until the man commenced to speak.
Then MacGregor took stock of his companion. He was a tall, thin fellow, dressed in a pair of very old but well-fitting riding-breeches, and a carefully patched coat. He was well-shaven, and wore a bowler hat rakishly over one ear; a long straw was in his mouth, and he exuded an atmosphere of stables and horses. Etienne guessed that he was some hanger-on from one of the big racing stables at Newmarket.
"Good morning, sir," he said, touching his hat with his forefinger. "It's a lovely day. I suppose there isn't anything which I could do for you, sir?"
Etienne, rather amused at this greeting, lit his pipe, and looked over the match at the horsey-looking gentleman.
"I don't know," he said eventually. "What do you usually do for people?"
The man grinned. "Well, sir," he said, "as you may have guessed, I am an expert on horses. Yes, sir, there isn't anything about a horse I don't know. I've got a way with horses, I have. I can make 'em do anything I like!"
Etienne smiled. "That's rather an unusual accomplishment," he said. He looked the man over with more interest. There was something in the good-humored, hungry-looking face which appealed to him. It occurred to him instantly that it would be amusing to tell this chance acquaintance of his present difficulty, and see if he, with his knowledge of horses, could offer any solution. He drew his cigarette case from his pocket and gave the horsey man a cigarette.
"Look here," said MacGregor, as the other puffed gratefully, "I am engrossed at the moment with a rather unusual problem, which concerns the number of teeth in the mouth of a certain horse. The horse is in the stable at Garron Manor, and is guarded night and day, and I am afraid that any attempt I might make to get into the stable would be thwarted. Now if you've got any ideas on the subject I shall be glad to have them."
"Ah," said the horsey-looking gentleman, gazing ahead at the blue horizon. "Now, that's very interestin' that is, an' might I ask what manner of horse this horse is, sir. What does he look like?"
Etienne described Greensleeves as nearly as possible. When he had finished the horsey-looking gentleman came to a standstill rather suddenly, and, putting his hands into his breeches pockets, faced MacGregor.
"My name is James Tope, sir; Jimmy I'm usually called, an' if you'll be good enough to tell me where I could see you in, say, three or four hours' time, I think I might be able to produce an idea, so to speak."
"I'm staying at the Green Man at Saffcot," answered McGregor. "You'd better meet me there at 4 o'clock. Come and have tea?"
Mr. Tope grinned. "That'll be very welcome, sir," he said. "I think I'll get back to Newmarket and find out one or two things, after which I'll join you at tea, which, as I have said, will be very welcome, especially if it's a meat tea!"
So saying, Mr. Tope with a grin raised his forefinger half way to his very horsey bowler hat and turned back in the direction of Newmarket. MacGregor, his round face illuminated by its usual cherubic smile, watched the tall figure as it strode away. For some reason for which he could not account he had a decided feeling that Mr. Tope would and could assist him in solving the Greensleeves mystery.
Three hours after Etienne and Mr. Tope took tea together at the Green Man Inn. Mr. Tope had gathered a fund of information with reference to Greensleeves, in and about Newmarket. Apparently, Suan Chi Leaf proposed to run the horse in a race in the near future, and in the meantime was taking the utmost care that there was no possibility of anyone approaching Greensleeves. The horse was taken out for exercise each day, accompanied, as Etienne had seen, by a veritable crowd of attendants and guards, and as Mr. Tope so aptly pointed out, no opportunity could be found on these occasions to examine the horse's mouth.
Etienne found his hopes, which had risen slightly after his meeting with Mr. Tope, rapidly disappearing.
"It looks as if we are as far away as ever, Tope," he said gloomily. "If we can't get at the horse during exercise, and we can't get at him when he's in the stable, what can we do?"
Mr. Tope drank his fifth cup of tea.
"Well, sir," he said, "I've had a look round at Garran Manor. There's only one entrance—through the main gates, and the wall which surrounds the grounds is quite high; also, there's a lot of shrubbery about the place inside. Now, I had a little idea, sir, an' if you could let me have, say, twenty pounds, I think that tomorrow night we might have a look at Greensleeves!"
Etienne listened to Mr. Tope. Then he produced the twenty pounds, and watched that gentleman as he swung off down the Newmarket-road, after which Mr. MacGregor repaired to the saloon bar of the Green Man and stood himself a large whisky and soda with much glee.
NEXT night, shortly before midnight, Mr. Etienne MacGregor, accompanied by Mr. Tope and three of Mr. Tope's particularly intimate friends, who had been recruited by him during the afternoon, also a horse and cart, containing boards, ropes and other implements, and a travelling loose-box, drawn by another horse, travelled slowly across the downs in the direction of Garran Manor. They arrived shortly after one o'clock, and the all- clear having been signalled, by Mr Tope, who, with the inevitable straw in his mouth had gone on ahead, the cavalcade drew up beneath the shadow of some giant oaks which stood near the high wall surrounding the Manor.
Mr. Tope then took charge, and under his direction all sorts of activities took place, and the boards, ropes and other implements having been brought out and assembled to the satisfaction of Mr. Tope, the five conspirators withdrew into the shadow of the trees and discussed the plan of action once more in order to avoid the possibility of a mistake.
Then, with a parting word, Etienne quietly ascended the gangway formed by the planks, which ran over the high wall and into the Manor grounds, and carefully crept forward to the edge of the shrubbery, from which position he could look across the lawn at the stable door which directly faced him. It was a fine night, and he could see plainly the man on guard outside the stable doors, in his shirt sleeves, smoking his pipe. Five minutes afterwards a hand was laid on Etienne's shoulder, and a bridle slipped into his hand.
"'Ere you are, Guv'nor," wheezily whispered one of Mr. Tope's friends, "and don't fergit—directly you 'ear the whistle make for the entrance gate. There's a guard of three men there. Don't be in too much of an 'urry."
"Right," whispered Etienne, and the man crept away. Etienne crouched in the shadows. Then to his ears came the sound of a soft whistle. At the same time a shout echoed across the grounds. Etienne saw the man at the stable door start forward, and then fall as Mr. Tope hit him across the back of the head with a sand- bag.
Then, as Suan Chi Leaf's additional guard commenced to make for the stables, Etienne flung himself across the horse's back and set off at a half gallop for the entrance gates. As he rode across the lawn he glimpsed Suan Chi Leaf, in a dressing gown, and the rest of his men chasing after him. As he neared the gates Etienne checked his horse, just as a dozen hands stopped his progress. Etienne dismounted with an exclamation of disgust.
"Just my luck," he said. "I thought the gates would be opened."
The men stood round him in a threatening half circle. They made way as Suan Chi Leaf appeared. The Chinaman lit a cigarette, and smiled amiably at Etienne.
"My condolences on the failure of your little plot, Mr. MacGregor," he said. "As I notice that you have not had time to remove the hood and cloths of my horse Greensleeves, it is obvious that you have not yet examined his mouth, and that you are, therefore, still in ignorance of the little details which you have taken so much trouble to endeavor to ascertain. Smith, take the horse back to the stable, and open the gate for this gentleman. Good-night, Mr. MacGregor. I am afraid that you will have a rather lonely walk back to Newmarket. Good-night—my best wishes go with you!"
Suan Chi Leaf grinned cynically as Etienne, with a shrug of his shoulders and a disappointed expression, passed through the gates.
AT 3 o'clock on the next afternoon Mr. Jimmy Tope, his hat carefully cocked over one eye, and the straw in his mouth set at a jaunty angle, rang the bell of the entrance gates of Garron Manor, and the gates being opened passed through.
Mr. Tope, with the expression of a man who has done his duty nobly and well, handed the bridle of the horse he was leading to the astonished gatekeeper, together with a note addressed to "Suan Chi Leaf, Esq."
Then, with a cheery nod, he turned on his heel, and whistling the latest fox-trot walked off.
Suan Chi Leaf, sitting with his mother in the pleasant conservatory, was rather surprised to receive the note. He was even more surprised when he opened it and read it. As his eyes scanned the last lines and the signature the note dropped from his hand, and he gazed straight before him, his features distorted with rage. Mrs. Lotus Leaf picked up the note and read:—
My Dear Old Suan,—
I return herewith your horse Greensleeves by my trusty retainer Mr. Tope, who is, believe me, some expert on horses. The credit of this business belongs to him. Knowing how carefully the stable was guarded, he suggested that Greensleeves might be provided with a double, and the horse that your men so carefully stopped me on last night was a brown horse of the same size as Greensleeves, carefully painted with white stockings by friend Mr. Tope. Whilst you were all so keenly chasing me to the gates (which we knew would be shut), dear old friend, Tope and his merry men were getting the real Greensleeves out of the stable and over the bridge which we fixed up over the wall behind the shrubbery. I have this morning sent Rudder, Foal and Rudder the information they required, and everything in the garden is lovely! My best wishes to yourself and your charming mother. Let me know when Greensleeves is running. Both Mr. Tope and myself would like to back him. My felicitations!
Yours, Etienne MacGregor.
And perhaps it was just as well that Mrs. Lotus Leaf said what she did say in Chinese!
ETIENNE MACGREGOR gazed moodily into the fire and bit savagely on the mouthpiece of his pipe. For once, his usual cheerful expression had vanished, and there was a determined look about his mouth which showed plainly that the matter that was troubling him was of an unusually serious nature.
Where was the "Yellow Kaffir"? This—the sixth—question asked by his late uncle's lawyers six days ago was yet unanswered, and Etienne knew that unless the answer was forthcoming within the next twelve hours he could give up all hope of inheriting his uncle's large fortune.
Certain facts had been easily ascertained. The "Yellow Kaffir" was a large diamond, not very valuable, but valuable enough, with a yellow flaw in its lustre, which had given it its unusual name. The diamond had been owned by his uncle, but where it was or where some clue to its whereabouts could be obtained Etienne had not the slightest idea.
In the previous questions which he had successfully answered there had been often some indication which had set him on the right track, or else some step taken by Suan Chi Leaf or his wily mother, Mrs. Lotus Leaf, to keep Etienne from finding the solution to a question had served as a clue which his quick intelligence had seized and acted on.
His eyes wandered to the mantelpiece and the squat Chinese idol which was placed in the centre. The idol had been sent to him a few days before by Rudder, Foal and Rudder, who had informed him that it was one of the few articles which his uncle had directed should be handed over to him.
At first Etienne had hoped that it might prove some indication as to the whereabouts of the Yellow Kaffir, but an examination had proved that the idol was carved out of some heavy stone, and there was no inscription or writing upon it as Etienne had hoped. Last night an attempt had been made to break into the house in Mortimer-street in which Etienne had his rooms, but the attempt had been frustrated owing to the quickness of the policeman on duty. He wondered if Suan Chi Leaf was behind the attempted burglary—and if so, why?
On previous occasions the Chinese had been too obvious in their intentions to prevent Etienne finding the answers to the riddles set him by Rudder, Foal and Rudder, but during the last week there had been no sign of Suan Chi Leaf or his myrmidons, a fact which caused Etienne some uneasiness. He wondered if the Yellow Kaffir were in the possession of Suan Chi Leaf, and if that cynical gentleman, sure in the knowledge that Etienne could not supply the answer to the question, was lying low until the seven days which MacGregor was allowed in which to answer were up.
Where was Suan Chi Leaf? This was the next point which troubled Etienne. The flat of Mrs. Lotus Leaf in Oxford-street was closed, and the tenant gone. The Three Leaves Club in Limehouse, another headquarters of the nefarious pair, had been raided. Fletter's Detective Agency, a reliable firm, who had been used before by Etienne, had up to the moment failed to trace either Suan Chi Leaf or his mother.
Etienne got up, and commenced to pace up and down the room. It seemed to him that he was beaten this time, and that the risks he had previously taken in answering former questions had been in vain. His luck, which had been so good in the past, had deserted him, he thought, and he was considering resigning himself to the inevitable, when with a suddenness which made him start the telephone rang. He took off the receiver and answered.
"That you, Mr. MacGregor?" said a voice. "This is Fenway speaking—Fletter's head man. I've been after Mr. Suan Chi Leaf for the last five days, and think that I've got a line on him at last. I picked up one of his men this evening and followed him down to Hounslow. I lost him on the edge of the Heath, but unless he intended to take a very long walk for the sake of his health there could be only one place to which he could be going—the old Mill House, which stands well in the centre of the Heath. I thought I'd better telephone and tell you."
Etienne, after a word with the man, hung up the receiver. There was only one thing for him to do. He must at once go to Hounslow and investigate the old Mill House. Anything was better than inaction. And there was just a chance—a slim chance—that Suan Chi Leaf might be there, and that he might have the Yellow Kaffir.
He opened a drawer and slipped a heavy automatic pistol into his pocket, and then hurried round to the garage in Portland-street where his motor-bicycle was kept. Five minutes afterwards, with the throttle wide open, he was speeding through the night towards Hounslow.
FROM the thicket in which he had hidden his motor-cycle Etienne could discern dimly the outline of the old Mill House, which stood on the most lonely and unfrequented part of the Heath. At first the place had seemed to be in complete darkness, but as he moved away from the thicket he could see a dim light burning in one of the upper windows. He approached cautiously, and discovered that the window was immediately above the old water- wheel which stood on one side of the house. There was not a sound to be heard as he moved forward and investigated. The front door of the old house was secured, and there seemed little chance of obtaining admission, either by this or by the back door, which besides being locked, seemed by the feel of it to be secured also with bolts. Then, as his glance alighted on the old water wheel, the idea came to him that he might climb up the spokes of the wheel, and gain access to the house through the dimly-lit window. He had not much difficulty in carrying out his project. The water wheel was fixed, and Etienne, young and fit, was easily able to climb up the wheel struts.
Standing right at the top of the wheel he was just able to reach the window-sill of the room above him. With a muttered prayer that the window would be unlatched, he drew himself up, and after some difficulty, managed to seat himself on the window ledge. The window was latched, but the frame was old and twisted, and Etienne was easily able to insert his penknife blade between the sashes, and push back the catch. Then he pushed open the window, and cautiously climbed through.
He found himself in what was evidently a small bedroom. Dusty and roughly furnished, it was lit only by an oil lamp, which flickered uncertainly. The room had evidently been occupied quite recently, for a shaving-brush on the washstand was still damp. Etienne's quick eyes noticed something bright on the floor near the window. He picked it up, and found that it was an ordinary safety razor blade. Carelessly he threw it back onto the floor.
He crept over to the door and listened. There was not a sound to be heard. Outside the door a passage led off to the left, but his eyes could see nothing in the inky darkness. He pulled the door carefully behind him, and commenced creeping softly down the passage. His eyes becoming accustomed to the darkness saw that the passage was branching off to the left, where it ran into a flight of stairs which led to the lower regions of the house. He reached the head of the stairs, and was about to descend when he felt himself gripped from behind. He struggled furiously, but soon realised that he was outnumbered.
His legs were seized and held tightly, whilst two other men half carried, half dragged him along the passage and back into the dimly-lit bedroom. Etienne realised that resistance was useless, and lay quietly on the bed on which he had been flung. He wondered what his fate was to be. The three men who had captured him appeared to be roughs of the worst type, and he imagined that any resistance on his part would simply result in his being badly knocked about. The men said nothing, but one of them produced a length of rope and Etienne's wrists and ankles were securely bound. This done, the leader of Etienne's assailants produced a dirty pipe from his pocket, which he proceeded to light.
"You better go an' tell the Guv'nor," he said to one of the others. "Tell 'im we've got this chicken trussed up all right."
The man grinned and went off. Presently Etienne heard footsteps approaching along the passage, and almost before the door was opened he knew that it was Suan Chi Leaf. The Chinaman stood just inside the door and smiled at the bound figure on the bed.
"Ah, Mr. MacGregor," he said cynically. "I am sorry to see you in such an uncomfortable condition. This time the luck appears to be with me, and having got you safely down here we may now consider ourselves at liberty to go and get the Yellow Kaffir. I assure you that in the process we shall do no damage at all to your flat, and that nothing else will be disturbed.
"What the devil do you mean?" said MacGregor. "The Yellow Kaffir isn't at my flat, as you jolly well know."
Suan Chi Leaf grinned.
"Indeed it is, Mr. MacGregor. Don't you think that it was a wonderful idea. I am afraid that I cannot take credit for it—it was my mother's—a very clever woman, Mrs. Lotus Leaf. She suggested that as you had been so successful on previous occasions in finding things, that the safest place to hide the Yellow Kaffir from you was in your own flat. And that is where it is. For myself, I kept carefully out of the way until tonight, when knowing that you would be disappointed and despondent, and not in your usual condition of mental keenness, I got one of my men to ring you up and tell you that he was one of Fletcher's operatives. I knew that would bring you down here post haste, thus giving us the opportunity to visit your flat in peace and reclaim the Yellow Kaffir."
Etienne metaphorically kicked himself. He told himself that he might have known that the phone call from Fletcher was a fake. But how had Suan Chi Leaf hidden the Yellow Kaffir in his flat? Etienne could find no answer to this question.
Suan Chi Leaf turned to the man who sat smoking the dirty pipe. "Tell Sims to get the car ready," he said. "We start in half an hour. You will remain behind and keep guard over the unfortunate Mr. MacGregor. I shall be back in a few hours." He turned on his heel, and with a malevolent grin at Etienne left the room, followed by the other men.
Left to himself, Etienne's brain began to work quickly. If he could only manage to escape from the old mill house and regain his motor cycle, which he had left hidden in the thicket, there still remained a chance for him to outwit Suan Chi Leaf. But how could this be done?
Twenty-five minutes afterwards he heard the sound of a motor car being started outside the house, and driven away. A few minutes afterwards he heard the footsteps of his guard approaching, and turning over, with his face to the wall, pretended to be asleep, snoring faintly now and again. The man took a chair and sat down, but after five or six minutes, being apparently convinced that Etienne really was asleep, he got up and went off, evidently believing Etienne was secure.
Hardly had his footsteps died away when Etienne rolled to the edge of the bed, and, getting his bound feet on to the floor, managed to wriggle off the bed. If he could only reach the safety- razor blade which he had seen on the floor when he first entered the room he thought that he might stand a chance of freeing himself from the rope which bound him. He rolled as quietly as possible towards the blade, which lay in the shadow of the washstand. A few feet from the blade there was a crack in the flooring, and he thought that if he could push the blade into the crack, supposing it did not fall right through, he could manage to rub the rope against the keen edge of the blade.
The minutes seemed hours, as with the tips of his bound fingers he coaxed the blade inch by inch over the floor. Eventually he got it into the crack, where most of the blade disappeared, leaving only half an inch standing above the floor level. Working as quickly as possible, he commenced to rub the rope against the edge of the blade.
In ten minutes he was free, and, as he heard the footsteps of his guard approaching along the corridor, he sprang from the window, and seizing the top strut of the mill wheel lowered himself rapidly to the ground. Five minutes afterwards, speeding at a rate that left policemen gasping, and with the motor cycle quivering under him, he tore along the London road.
AS a neighboring clock struck one, Suan Chi Leaf, his confederates left in the car on the comer of Portland-street, let himself into MacGregor's flat, and on tiptoe searched round the wall with the tips of his fingers for the electric light switch. At last he found it, and switching on the light, looked about him. Immediately facing him was the door of the sitting-room. He crept forward, opened the door, found the light switch and flooded the room with light. Then he stepped back with an exclamation of amazement.
Sitting in the chair by the side of the fire was Etienne MacGregor!
"Hullo, Suan, old fellow," said that worthy cheerily. "It looks as if I beat you to it, doesn't it? I'm awfully glad you didn't remove my keys when you took my automatic."
He rose to his feet, and stood in front of the mantelpiece, his hands in his pockets.
"Now, look here, Suan Chi Leaf," he continued. "I want to know where the Yellow Kaffir is! Either you tell me, and also how you managed to get it into this flat, or I hand you over to the police on a charge of housebreaking, which is it to be?"
The Chinaman said nothing, but his eyes narrowed. He took a step backwards, and his right had stole to his overcoat pocket. Etienne, realising what was going to happen, took a step forward, and, as Suan Chi Leaf fired through his overcoat pocket, he tripped and fell, the bullet whizzing past his ear. As Etienne regained his feet he heard the front door slam, and a minute afterwards the sound of a car driving off. Suan Chi Leaf had made his escape!
MacGregor grinned ruefully. There was no doubt about it, he had lost the game. Somewhere in the flat was the Yellow Kaffir—but where? He put his hands on the mantelpiece and gazed into the fire. He grinned to himself. It was no use crying over spilt milk, he thought.
He raised his head, and as his eyes fell on the mantelpiece, an exclamation of amazement escaped his lips.
Outside, people were banging on the flat door, seeking, no doubt, an explanation for the pistol-shot, but Etienne stood there grinning. So that was the explanation. The Chinese idol on the mantelpiece, which he had received, as he thought, from his uncle's lawyers, had been sent by Suan Chi Leaf.
A clever scheme, Etienne thought, but it had not succeeded, for the bullet fired by Suan Chi Leaf had knocked the head off the idol, and there, flashing in the electric light, half concealed in the neck of the idol was the Yellow Kaffir!
THE neighborhood of the East India Docks is not a particularly pleasant one on the best occasions, but on this winter's night, with the rain driven by a terrific east wind, accompanied by a pea-soup fog which was approaching from the river and slowly but surely enveloping the mean streets, it was so utterly depressing that Mr. Etienne MacGregor, struggling along against the wind, with his coat collar turned up and his hands in his pockets, wished that he were anywhere else.
He had left his easy-chair in front of the pleasant fire at his cosy Mortimer-street rooms on hearing that his wily adversary, Suan Chi Leaf, had been seen in the neighborhood of Pennyfields and the Docks, and he had thought it his duty to investigate. Limehouse and Poplar are big districts, but Etienne knew that in all mean and dark boroughs life invariably centres round two or three attractive spots, and it was on these spots that he was keeping observation, on the chance of picking up some hint as to the operations of Suan Chi Leaf.
MacGregor's luck in answering the previous six questions had spurred him in his efforts to solve the seventh. He was half-way to a fortune, but the seventh question had been set three days ago, and only four days remained for him to find the answer. That Suan Chi Leaf and his mother were aware of the questions Etienne had not the slightest doubt, and as on previous occasions he had secured a clue through watching their endeavors to prevent him finding the solution, he had thought it advisable to find out what Suan Chi Leaf was doing.
That they should redouble their efforts now was certain, for MacGregor had shown such intelligence in his dealings with them and their myrmidons that they no longer considered him unworthy of their steel.
"Could he produce the brother of The Sweetheart of the Razors?" That was the seventh question, and it appeared to Etienne to be a poser. Why should anybody be called the Sweetheart of the Razors? Fletter's Detective Agency, whose acquaintance with the underworld was unlimited, had failed to discover anyone answering to the peculiar title, and had confessed themselves nonplussed.
Down on the left-hand side of the dark street Etienne could see a splash of light. It came from the Green Staples, a somewhat notorious public house, where a motley collection of greasers, half-caste stokers and all the riff-raff of the neighborhood collected. It seemed hopeless, but Etienne thought that he would take a look at the place before giving up his uncomfortable job and returning to the West End.
The bar window, which was a long one, looked out on to the street. It was of frosted glass, but here and there the frosting had been rubbed away, forming peep holes, through which women and children often gazed in search of some reluctant husband or father. Etienne, who had no wish to enter the place unless it was absolutely necessary, glued his eye to one of these peep holes. Then, as he searched the room, his heart gave a leap. Sitting in the corner deep in converse with another Chinese, their heads almost meeting over the dirty table-top, was Suan Chi Leaf.
MacGregor drew back as he heard an approaching footstep. He looked up as the burly figure of a policeman approached. "Likely lookin' lot, ain't they?" said the constable, taking a look through the window himself. "Wot are you doing, sir—goin' to write a book on Limehouse or something?" He grinned cheerfully.
"Not exactly, officer," replied MacGregor. "But I'm interested in the two Chinese over at the far table. Do you know them."
The constable took another look.
"I don't know the well-dressed one," he said eventually. "But I know the other one—I should say so! Wing Hang's his name. 'E's a knife-thrower, 'e is. Can throw a knife through an ace of hearts at a distance of ten yards. Nasty sort of feller, too," the policeman continued. "'E's been mixed up with a lot of funny business down 'ere, but we've never succeeded in gettin' our 'ands on 'im yet. Clever, too. They all 'ave brains, these Chinks!"
He nodded to Etienne, and moved off into the fog.
Etienne walked off slowly in the direction of Poplar High-street, where he knew he could get a cab. There was no reason for him to search further. Suan Chi Leaf, who did nothing without reason, had already got some plan in his mind, but why had he found it necessary to come to Limehouse and interview an expert Chinese knife-thrower? MacGregor turned it over in his mind as he walked slowly through the fog, but no explanation presented itself. As his cab crawled back to the West End, Etienne considered the original question. "Could he produce the brother of the Sweetheart of the Razors?"
At the back of his mind he was certain that Suan Chi Leaf's conversation with the knife-thrower had something to do with an attempt to stop any possibility of finding this brother of the Sweetheart of the Razors. He came to the conclusion that his last hope was in Tommy Hands. This intelligent youth—age fourteen—his housekeeper's son, had on previous occasions proved himself useful, and after Fletter's failure to find the elusive Sweetheart, Etienne had suggested that Tommy Hands might endeavor to solve the mystery.
It was twelve o'clock before he reached his rooms off Regent-street, and, having paid off his cab, he let himself in and mounted to the first floor. As he opened the door of his sitting-room he was surprised to find the enterprising Tommy awaiting him, a folded newspaper held in his hand.
"Good evenin', Mr. MacGregor," said Tommy. "I've got some news. You told me that you were keen on findin' somebody called 'The Sweetheart of the Razors,' and I was a bit struck on findin' it out, especially as your detective firm couldn't do it. First of all I wondered why anybody should be called by a funny name like that, and it struck me that that was just the sort of name that someone on the stage might take, so I went and bought a theatrical paper—and look here!"
With an air of triumph Tommy Hands opened the folded paper and pointed to a paragraph heavily underlined with blue pencil. MacGregor took the paper, and read the paragraph. It stated that a drama entitled The Sweetheart of the Razors had been successfully produced at Tenby, and that it would be played the following week at Durslett. The success of the piece had been made by the Chinese knife-thrower, who, in the last scene, throws knives all round the heroine, who is tied to a board. A smile broke over MacGregor's face. So that was the explanation of Suan Chi Leaf's conversation with the Chinaman in Limehouse. His little game was obvious.
"Jolly good work, Tommy," he exclaimed. "Now, cut downstairs and get me an A.B.C. as quickly as you can!"
Tommy was back in a moment, and a quick examination of the time-table allowed MacGregor that the first train for Durslett left King's Cross at seven-thirty next morning. There had been no train since the time at which he had seen Suan Chi Leaf in Limehouse, and he was therefore certain that the seven-thirty train next morning would be the one selected.
"Now look here, Tommy," continued MacGregor, "I want you to do something for me. I'm going to telephone the garage for a car, and I want you to get off to Durslett as soon as possible. You should arrive about six-thirty tomorrow morning. When you get there I want you to find out exactly what has happened to the Chinese knife-thrower who is appearing in the Sweetheart of the Razors' show. You'll probably find that he is leaving tomorrow for London. Find out at any rate where he is going, and the train, and telephone me here directly you know anything. Here's some money!"
Twenty minutes afterwards, Tommy Hands, full of excitement at the adventure before him, left for Durslett by car, and Etienne, satisfied with life, at least for the moment, went to bed to sleep the sleep of the just.
At seven o'clock next morning MacGregor, concealed behind the entrance door of the booking-office at King's Cross station, kept his eyes fixed on the platform entrance leading to the Durslett train. Soon he saw what he expected. Suan Chi Leaf, accompanied by the Chinese knife thrower of the night before, appeared, and walked onto the platform, Suan Chi Leaf taking a platform ticket. Although he was tempted to follow Suan Chi Leaf from the station after the train had left, Etienne did not do so. It would have served no good purpose, and there was the chance that he might be seen by one of Suan's myrmidons who usually accompanied him. He therefore returned to his rooms, and waited as patiently as possible for some news from Tommy.
At four o'clock that afternoon, just as MacGregor had come to the conclusion that his scheme had failed, the telephone bell rang, and Tommy's voice came over the phone.
"That you, Mr. MacGregor," said Tommy excitedly. "I've found out all about the knife-thrower. He handed in his notice to the manager of the company yesterday after receiving a wire from London. He'd been offered a better job or something. The woman who assists him in the act is his sister, and she's staying on; I believe he's only leaving the company for a week. They expect a deputy to arrive from London today to take his place. I'm watching his lodgings, and directly he leaves for the station, and when I know the train he's going to take I'll send you a wire. There are only two more trains from here today, and they are both London trains, I'll probably come back on the same train myself."
Tommy reeled all this off breathlessly, said goodbye, and Etienne hung up the receiver. He wished that it had been possible for Tommy Hands to have informed him at once of the train that the knife-thrower was arriving by, but as far as things had gone the position might have been worse.
Etienne looked at his watch. It was 4.30, and time that he proceeded to make the necessary arrangements. Donning an overcoat and a soft hat, he left the flat and took an Underground train to the Elephant and Castle.
Arrived there, he walked for some distance along the main thoroughfare, turning down a side street, and again down a narrow alley. The darkness had fallen, and the solitary street lamp lent an air of mystery to the dirty and ill-built houses in the alleyway. Etienne pushed at the door of the house at the end of the row. It opened to his touch, and he walked along a narrow passage, and down a flight of stairs at the end, which led evidently to the basement. At the bottom of the stairs was a heavy door. He knocked on this door, and presently a small grating was pulled back and a villainous-looking face peered at him. The owner of the face was evidently satisfied with his scrutiny, for after a moment Etienne heard the sound of bolts being drawn and the door was opened. He passed through, and after traversing another stone passage found himself in a fairly large room, well below street level. Tables were placed about the room, and round them were gathered a motley collection of the underworld of the south side, immersed mostly in card games.
Etienne walked straight across the room to a table on the far side, where a large and humorous-looking man, obviously an Irishman, with a gigantic scar across his face, was dealing a hand of cards.
"Evenin', Mr. MacGregor," said he, recognising Etienne immediately. "An' phwat is it that ye're afther? You well know that I'll be doin' anything for ye that I can."
"I want to talk to you, Pat," replied MacGregor with a friendly grin. "Let's come outside and have some coffee somewhere."
The Irishman assented, and they left the place and walked to a Lyons Tea-shop in the main thoroughfare. Etienne ordered coffee.
"Now, Pat," he said, "this little bit of business is quite legal, and you've nothing to be afraid of. I don't say that it isn't an inch or two outside the law, but the other parties are not in a position to make a legal job of it. You can drive, can't you? Well, can you get hold of a taxi-cab from somewhere?"
"Sure, an' that's the aisiest thing in the whole wide world," replied Pat. "An if it wasn't I'd be doin' it for you, Mr. MacGregor. I'm not forgettin' the good turns you've done me in the past."
Etienne smiled. "All right, Pat," said he. "Now, here's the plot!"
They sat together for twenty minutes, talking quietly, then, bidding the Irishman au revoir, MacGregor left and, walking back to the Underground, made his way back to Mortimer-street.
There was a wire awaiting him from Tommy Hands. It had been sent off from Durslett station, and informed Etienne that the Chinaman had left Durslett on the 5.30 train, which was due in at King's Cross at 10 p.m. Etienne promptly telephoned a Camberwell number and gave Pat his final instructions. The 10 o'clock train in at King's Cross is always crowded, and taxi-cabs are scarce. Mr. Suan Chi Leaf was therefore very grateful, when, having met his friend who had arrived on the train, a ragged urchin informed him that he had secured a cab for him. Suan Chi Leaf smiled amicably and gave the boy a shilling.
The cab was waiting outside the station. The two men got in after Suan Chi Leaf had given instructions to the driver, and the cab moved off. They sped along the Euston-road, and, not knowing the neighborhood well, neither of the occupants of the cab was surprised when the driver turned off into one of the innumerable dark side streets which abound in that neighborhood. Presently the cab slowed down. It was moving at a walking pace, when the door suddenly opened and a large individual jumped in. Suan Chi Leaf opened his mouth to protest when he observed that the newcomer held an automatic pistol in his hand, a pistol which was levelled straight at Mr. Suan Chi Leaf's stomach.
"Now, ye'll sit quite shtill," said the newcomer, "an' not be movin' at all, otherwise the little gun might go off, d'ye hear, ye yellow varmints?"
He pulled down the blinds over the windows, and then picked up the speaking-tube.
"Hurry up now, George," he said to the driver. "It's meself that's wantin' to handle the £20 note that I'm gettin' for this job."
Half an hour later Suan Chi Leaf, white with anger, faced Etienne MacGregor in a back room. But in what house the room was situated or in what part of London he had not the slightest idea.
Etienne smiled happily.
"You see, Suan, old lad," he murmured, "directly I discovered that the brother of the Sweetheart of the Razors was engaged in a razor-throwing act on the stage I knew exactly what you were doing in Limehouse talking to your fellow Chink, a policeman having conveniently informed me that he was an expert knife- thrower. Obviously your intention was to corner this gentleman here, and keep him out of the way until the seven days in which I had to produce him were up. I guessed that you would offer him some monetary bribe to leave the company, but you knew that you would have to find a substitute, and so you sent the other fellow down this morning on the 7.30 train. I was down on the platform, and saw you both. I knew then that all I had to do was to find out when the dear old brother here was arriving, and capture the pair of you. I think my little taxi-cab scheme was rather neat, don't you? Anyhow, tomorrow myself and my large Irish friend are going to escort your friend here over the water, and produce him to my uncle's lawyers, which solves the seventh question. If you're very good we'll let you go tomorrow night; but if you use bad language or misbehave we'll let you cool your heels here for a bit longer. So that's that; and don't look so bad-tempered about it, Suan, old fellow. Smile, now; come on, smile, or we'll keep you here for a week."
And, believing discretion to be the better part of valor, Mr. Suan Chi Leaf smiled.
THE moon, showing for a moment between a rift in the black clouds which lay over the narrow street behind the dingy neighborhood of Theobald's-road, illuminated for a moment the door of the curio-dealer's shop, and then disappeared, leaving the street in darkness. A neighboring clock struck midnight as a figure detached itself from the dark shadow of an alley which ran alongside the curio-shop, slipped cautiously into the doorway, and pressed itself close against the door as the footsteps of a policeman passed along on the other side of the road.
Then, as the footsteps receded, the man in the doorway produced from his pocket a bunch of keys and, working rapidly, fitted them one after another into the door-lock. At last the right key was found, the heavy door opened, and the man slipped inside the shop. Closing the door behind him quietly, he produced a small flash-lamp, and, moving the circle of light before him, examined the shop. The room was long and narrow and crowded with the usual collection of antiques, figures, china vases and rubbish which go to make up the stock-in-trade of an antique dealer.
Mr. Etienne MacGregor, for it was he, breathed a sigh of relief as the light from his torch fell upon the object he sought, and to obtain which he had, for the moment, taken up burglary. A beautifully-carved green jade box, easily distinguishable amongst the mass of junk which surrounded it, stood on a pedestal at the back of the shop. With a grin he sat down on a chair. The business had been easier than he thought. He had only to take the box from its pedestal, produce it and its contents next morning to Rudder, Foal and Rudder, his uncle's lawyers, and then return it with apologies to the dealer, one Mr. Ephraim Schlett, who had, only that morning, refused to sell it to him.
Sitting in the darkness he wondered why Schlett had refused to sell the box and the ivory chessmen which it contained. He had been prepared to pay any price for it, for the eighth question which had been set him requested the production of the complete set of chessmen which reposed in the box within the usual seven days, and Schlett's refusal had forced Etienne to take any means of obtaining temporary possession of the set.
He wondered if Suan Chi Leaf had bribed the old curio dealer not to part with the set in order that it should not fall into MacGregor's hands, yet at the same time it seemed strange to him that such a valuable antique should be left standing on its pedestal all night instead of being locked away in the formidable safe which stood in a corner of the room.
Suddenly MacGregor rose to his feet.
There was a sound immediately above him. His previous examination of the room had showed him a dark corner between two cases, and he moved quickly to this spot. Then he looked above him. Over the shop was a fanlight, and from this fanlight came a scraping noise. After a moment a gleam of light shot into the room from above, and; looking up; he saw a pair of legs appear through the now opened fanlight, to be followed in a second by a body. The man hung for a moment by his hands from the fanlight, and then dropped silently to the floor.
Etienne pressed himself as close to the wall as possible, keeping behind the packing case as the intruder's flashlight travelled round the room. Then the light stopped dead—on the green jade box at the end of the room. The man walked quickly over to the box, took it from its pedestal and opened it. Etienne heard the rattle of the pieces as the man fumbled with them. He was kneeling on the floor with the box before him, and now Etienne could see that he was searching in his coat pocket for something. After a moment he found it, slipped it into the box, shut the box, and replaced it on the pedestal. Then he moved to the centre of the room, and taking the chair on which Etienne had been sitting, placed it under the fanlight. He mounted the chair, jumped for the fanlight above him, caught it, and drew himself up. A second later Etienne heard the fanlight close, then, complete silence.
MacGregor waited patiently in his corner, his brain working rapidly. The moon had come from behind the clouds once more, and its light, filtering dimly through the glass fanlight, fell upon the green jade box as it stood on its pedestal. He walked over to it and opened it. The chess pieces, each piece set in its own particular slot in the box, was complete. Etienne took from his pocket the photograph of the box and its contents which he had obtained the day before from the Museum, and switching on his torch, examined each piece carefully. Then a smile broke over his face as he examined the white king. It was an obvious imitation; the intruder of a few minutes before had taken the original. For a moment Etienne permitted himself to admire the cunning of Mr. Suan Chi Leaf, who had won the first move in the game.
"Checkmate!" he murmured, and switching off his torch, opened the shop door, and with a glance up and down the street slipped out into the darkness.
SEATED in the front room of a cottage on the edge of Epsom Downs Mr. Suan Chi Leaf, with a particularly self-satisfied smile, regarded the white ivory king belonging to the chess set, which stood on the table before him. Then he rose, and walking to the French windows which looked out on to the lawn, which was already silvered by the moonlight, he lit a cigarette and waited with as much patience as he could muster. His little scheme had up to the moment been successful, but it remained to be seen whether the conclusion would be worthy of the beginning.
That Etienne MacGregor would make every possible effort to regain the white king in order to complete the set, which he must produce on the following day or lose his uncle's money, Suan Chi Leaf had not the slightest doubt, and that he knew the address at Epsom and would come down in search of the missing piece the Chinese was just as certain. Suan Chi Leaf turned back into the room as the telephone which stood on the sideboard rang loudly.
"That you, Guv'nor?" said a hoarse voice, "MacGregor's 'ere. 'E's just pulled his motor bike up at the side of the road. 'E's walkin' towards the cottage now. I should say 'e'll be there in five minutes!"
"All right, Sharpy," answered the Chinese in his sibilant voice. "You'd better get out of the way, and keep out of the way for a bit."
He hung up the receiver. He glanced about the room as if to satisfy himself that everything was set correctly, then going to the sideboard he picked up a pair of tweezers, and, returning to the table, he seized the white king with the tweezers, taking care not to touch the ivory with his fingers; then he placed the chessman carefully in the centre of the sideboard where it could not fail to be obvious to anyone entering the room by way of the French windows. This done, and with a final glance round the room, he switched off the electric light and moved to the door. The bright moonlight shining through the open windows illumined the room, and the White Ivory King, as it stood in the centre of the sideboard. Suan Chi Leaf smiled, and closed the door gently behind him .
Mr. Etienne MacGregor moved silently across the lawn, and, keeping in the shadow of the trees which bordered it, smiled too. He had seen the light in the front room switched off, and he was fairly certain that he could find the missing white king in that room. He halted in the shadow of a large bush which stood well to the right of the French windows, and sat down on the ground. He would allow another twenty minutes before he actually commenced his search.
Sitting in the silence, his mind wandered back to the curio- shop, and the man who had changed the kings. Etienne wondered why Suan Chi Leaf had adopted the procedure of taking just the one piece instead of the whole box, which would have been just as easy, and would have saved the trouble of obtaining an imitation piece to take the place of the original, a business which must have cost money—much money, for the chessmen were beautifully carved. The set had been made for Cesare Borgia, they had told him at the museum—Cesare Borgia, the king of mediaeval Italian poisoners.
Suddenly MacGregor sat up straight, astounded by the thought which had come into his mind. Then he arose to his feet, and unwrapping the scarf which was about his neck, he approached the french windows. He flashed his torchlight about the room and saw, facing him in the centre of the sideboard, the missing white king. He stepped forward and stretched out his hand.
A few seconds later a hoarse cry resounded through the cottage, and as Suan Chi Leaf opened the door and switched on the light, Etienne turned slowly on his heels, looked at the Chinese with eyes that seemed to see nothing and pitched forward on his face. Suan Chi Leaf stood regarding the still figure on the floor. Beside MacGregor lay the white king. The Chinese drew the tweezers from his pocket, and picking up the chessman pitched it carelessly on the fire. This done, he rang the bell. Two men answered its summons. Suan Chi Leaf pointed to the figure on the floor.
"Lay him on the couch," he said. "He'll be dead in twenty minutes. You'd better get a rug or something and cover him up, I don't want to have to look at him. Tomorrow morning he can go into the mill stream with a few weights round his neck."
The men obeyed his instructions. "It was a good scheme, Guv'nor," said one of them. "It worked, too! We shan't have any more trouble with him!"
He jerked his finger towards the still figure on the couch.
The Chinese smiled. "It was the easiest way," he said softly. "He is much better out of the way. We may now regard ourselves as rich men," he murmured, rubbing his hands together. "Come, let us go."
They left the room, the Chinaman last. As he switched off the light, Suan Chi Leaf permitted himself a last look at the form under the dark blue rug, and his smile was more cynical than ever.
NEXT morning, cheered by the brilliant sunshine, Mr. Suan Chi Leaf, who had been taking a walk, turned into Epsom station, and entering a telephone box rang Messrs. Rudder, Foal and Rudder. He asked to speak to Mr. Foal, and a few minutes afterwards heard that gentleman's voice on the wire.
"Good morning, Mr. Foal," said Suan Chi Leaf. "The seven days allotted to Mr. MacGregor to produce the Italian chess set are, I believe, up, and as he has not done so, I suppose that I may presume myself entitled to the legacy left by his late uncle, which comes to me should he default in answering the questions."
Mr. Foal seemed surprised. "That is so, Mr. Suan Chi Leaf," he said. "But Mr. MacGregor has produced the chess set. Indeed, he has only left here a few minutes ago. The set was absolutely in order and complete; the museum authorities certified that. Can I do anything for you ?"
Suan Chi Leaf mumbled a few words and rang off. His brain was whirling. Then with unsteady steps he commenced to run towards the cottage. He crossed the lawn and pushed open the French windows.
A glance at the sofa showed him the recumbent form beneath the travelling rug. He crossed to it, and flung back the rug, then a curse escaped his lips. A few cushions had been heaped together to resemble a figure, and pinned to one of them, written on a sheet of the Chinaman's own notepaper, was a note addressed to himself. He picked it up with trembling fingers, and read:—
Dear Old Suan,
It very nearly came off, but a miss is as good as a mile. You were perfectly right in thinking that I should endeavor to burgle old Schlett's shop in order to get the chess box, but I did it sooner than you thought. In fact, I was there when your man came in and changed the White Kings. Then, of course, old Fletter, my pet detective, shadowed one of your men to the cottage at Epsom here, as you intended him to do, knowing that I would come down to reclaim the white king.
When I arrived last night it all seemed so easy—too easy—and it wasn't until I was actually outside the room that I suddenly realised that the chess set had originally belonged to Cesare Borgia, the Italian poisoner. Then I twigged your little game, and I knew the reason why you had taken only the white king from the box. The white king was a little invention of old Borgia's for getting rid of undesirable friends. Anyone picking up the piece from the board or table released a tiny spring, which injected poison into the hand of the holder. A very clever idea, and it was still more clever of you to use it. I wrapped my scarf round my hand before handling the piece, and put it carefully in my coat pocket. Then I threw the imitation white king on the floor, and let out that wonderful yell which you heard. You know the rest.
By the way, I expect old Schlett will want the white king back again. You might let him know that I'll let him have it—poison and all—for a hundred-pound note. Now, I'm just going to arrange some cushions under that rug so that you'll still think I'm here when you come down in the morning, and then I'm off back to town. I'll be seeing Rudder, Foal and Rudder in the morning.
So long, Suan; happy dreams.
Your nearly departed.
THE light of the rose-shaded lamp illuminated softly the well-appointed dinner table, and the faces of the three people seated round it, accentuating the Oriental beauty of Mrs. Lotus Leaf, casting a shadow on the mask of cynical suavity which lay on the face of her son, Suan Chi Leaf, and showing up the characteristics of the third man as he leaned forward to light a cigar, and the light fell full upon the receding chin and eyes, which were set too close together for the liking of honest men.
Mrs. Lotus Leaf flicked the ash from her cigarette, watched the lighting of the cigar with an appearance of interest, and then spoke, her soft Chinese voice belying the vindictiveness which lay behind her beautiful eyes.
"You are entirely mistaken, my friend," she said. "As you have so rightly pointed out, there were originally two Smoking Lamps, but one is still in the heart of a Peruvian forest, and the other—well, as you know, the other is safe in our possession. I do not doubt that it would have been possible for this MacGregor to have obtained possession of the second one had he the time at his disposal. But it is not possible to journey to Peru and back in a week, and he was only informed six days ago that the ninth question which he must answer in order to qualify for the inheritance was whether he could produce the Peruvian Smoking Lamp which had been presented to his uncle by his partner—my late husband—and which has disappeared."
She laughed softly. "Of course, it had disappeared," she continued. "Directly my son became aware of the questions which old MacGregor had set for his nephew to answer, he arranged the disappearance. Tomorrow at six o'clock the time is up within which MacGregor must produce the lamp. He will not do so, and the money automatically becomes ours."
Suan Chi Leaf smiled, and nodded his head in agreement, but the other shifted uneasily.
"That's all very well," he said, "but this MacGregor's slick—too slick! Look how he has beaten us before—not only beaten us, but used us as a means of answering some of the questions. We've heard nothing of him during the last week, and I don't like his quietness. You say that there were a pair of these lamps; well, supposing by some means he's got the other one. There's no difference between the two, is there?"
"There is no difference," she answered. "There are two of the lamps in existence. Originally they were used in the old Aztec temples before the sacrificial altar. But the other lamp is safe in its original place. We were advised of that a week ago by cable, and it is impossible for it to have come into MacGregor's possession in the meantime. It is quite possible that he has secured one of the many imitations, but these fakes become obvious immediately they are lit."
She rose, and walking to a cabinet at the end of the room unlocked it, and returned holding carefully in her hands a lamp of strange shape. Formed of beautifully-worked copper, beaten into the shape of a swan, it rested on a tripod of brass, set with precious stones. She placed the lamp on the table, turned a screw under the tripod carefully, and applied a match to the swan's neck. For a moment a little flame appeared, then flickered and went out, and from the beak of the swan came three thin jets of smoke, which as they rose joined together, forming a peculiar triangular shape, which floated into the air, a smell of incense filled the room, making the air heavy with perfume.
"That is the test," said Mrs. Lotus Leaf. "The shape formed by the smoke is controlled by the air passages in the neck of the swan, and there is no modern artisan who could do it. So you see, my friend, your fears are groundless. At last our clever friend is beaten!"
The man with the close-set eyes smiled. Evidently his fears were allayed.
"You're a clever woman, Mrs. Lotus Leaf," he said, "but I never underestimate an enemy, especially when he's as smart as Mr. Etienne MacGregor. Anyhow, it looks as if we've got him this time, but the sooner I get my hands on the money the better I'll be pleased!"
Suan Chi Leaf rose from the table. "Have patience," he said. "The money will be ours in a week, and—"
He turned quickly as the door opened behind him. The newcomer had evidently been hurrying. Beads of perspiration showed on his forehead as he threw his hat into a corner and advanced to the table.
Mrs. Lotus Leaf rose. "You have been hurrying, Mr. Kelse," she said with her mechanical smile. "Will you have some coffee?"
"I don't want coffee," said this man, mopping his brow with his handkerchief. "I don't like the look of things. Just as everything seemed right, too. Listen to this. It was in this morning's newspapers. Every single one of 'em has got it in the agony column. Must have cost somebody a small fortune to insert."
He unfolded the paper and read the paragraph aloud:—
"For Sale, Antique Peruvian Smoking Lamp.
Very rare. Only two in existence; £250.
Mollow and Co., curio merchants, Sloane-street, S.W."
He threw the paper on the table. "I tell you I don't like the look of it," he. repeated.
Suan Chi Leaf rose with an exclamation of annoyance. "It's pure coincidence," he said. "The lamp advertised must be a fake. We know that there are several fakes in London. We also know that there are only two original lamps in existence. We have one—the other is safe in Peru."
The newcomer was about to speak, but Mrs. Lotus Leaf silenced him with a gesture.
"Tell me, Mr. Kelse," she said, "what has MacGregor done today. Has he left his rooms?"
"He went out to lunch," said Kelse. "But he returned directly afterwards. He hasn't left his rooms since."
"Good," said the woman. "Then our plan is obvious. We will take no chances. We will ourselves buy this smoking lamp. MacGregor cannot buy it before Mollow's open tomorrow morning. We will wire them tonight and inform them that we will pay cash for it at nine-thirty tomorrow morning. This will obviate any discussion as to whether the lamp is genuine or not. Mr. Kelse, who is unknown to MacGregor, can deal with the matter first thing in the morning, and I will supply the money. Incidentally, it will be rather amusing to see if MacGregor attempts to purchase the lamp. If he does, we shall know that he has lost the game."
Suan Chi Leaf took a cigarette from his case, and lit it carefully. "I think that my mother is right," he said. "We must buy this lamp. At the same time this advertisement may be a trap set by MacGregor. He thinks that we shall endeavor to buy the lamp, and he may have men watching so that any purchaser will be followed. You'd better not come straight back here, Kelse. If MacGregor thought that the real lamp was here he would think nothing of using force to get it, and, remember, we can't apply for police protection. We've taken too many chances ourselves. If, when you go to buy the lamp in the morning, you have the slightest reason to believe that you are being followed, drive all round London if necessary, but be certain that you shake them off. With these precautions I do not think that we need bother any more about Etienne MacGregor."
"You're right," said Kelse. "We've got him beat this time!" He helped himself to a cigar. "Now, Mrs. Lotus Leaf," he said with a smile, "I think I'll have that coffee!"
AT 9.30 next morning Mr. Etienne MacGregor, wearing his usual cherubic smile, waited for the doors to be opened at Messrs. Mollow and Co.'s premises in Sloane-street, and directly they were opened he entered, and informed the salesman that he wished to buy the Peruvian smoking lamp which had been advertised for sale in the newspapers of the day before. The words were not quite out of his mouth when Mr. Kelse, smoking a large cigar, walked into the shop.
"My name's Kelse," said he, with a pronounced American accent, "and I wired you last night sayin' I'd buy that Peruvian lamp you were advertisin'. Got my wire all right? Good. Here's the money." He laid the bank notes down on the counter.
"That's quite correct," said the salesman. "The lamp is already packed up for you, sir. I'll go and get it."
"Look here, sir," said Etienne to the pseudo-American. "I want that lamp particularly. I'll give you three hundred for it."
"Sorry I can't oblige," replied Kelse. "But my wife's gone crazy on havin' the thing."
He took the package and the receipt from the assistant, and with a nod to MacGregor, walked out of the shop. Etienne looked crestfallen as he walked to the door.
Kelse, remembering Suan Chi Leaf's warning, jumped into a taxi which was crawling past the shop door. Before telling the man where to drive he looked up and down the street. Sure enough, a big yellow car was slowly moving out of an alleyway just down the road, the driver watching Kelse's cab.
"Drive round for half an hour," said Kelse to his driver, "an' drive fast. I'll tell you where I want to go presently."
He got into the cab, depositing the lamp carefully in the corner. The cab dashed off, and Kelse congratulated himself on having secured an intelligent driver. Through Kensington and across to Notting Hill Gate they sped, but out of the back window of the cab Kelse could see the yellow car hanging on to his heels. He put his head out of the window.
"Say, driver," he said, "I want to lose that yellow car behind, see? You get a quid if you do it!"
The driver nodded, and increased his pace. As they turned through the park once more Kelse was glad to see that a thick fog was advancing from the direction of Piccadilly. Once in that fog it would be easy to shake off his followers.
Half way down Piccadilly he looked once more out of the back window. There was no sign of the yellow car. His cab was crawling along now, forced to a walking pace by the fog. As they approached Bond-street Kelse's driver looked at his wrist watch. It was half-past eleven. He slowed down carefully when rounding the corner, and sounded his horn—three sharp toots and two long ones. As he did so a two-seater, long and low crawled out of Cork-street, and if Mr. Kelse had not been so lazily lolling back in his cab he might have seen a nod exchanged between his driver and the driver of the two-seater as they passed.
In Oxford-street Kelse spoke to the driver again—"74, Mervyn Mansions, Maida Vale," he ordered, and the man, touching his cap, swung off to the left. Kelse leaned back in the cab, well satisfied with his morning's work. The fog was lifting, but it was still necessary to drive slowly, and his driver seemed to be sounding his horn a great deal.
If Mr. Kelse had known anything about the Morse code he would have been aware that the long and short toots on the horn which his driver was sounding were signalling the address which he had given to anyone in Oxford-street who might care to pick up the message. In any event Mr. Etienne MacGregor, who was following in the two-seater, did, and he smiled to himself as he sent back the "message received" signal on his own Klaxon horn, and turned off to the right to take a short cut to Mervyn Mansions.
Fifteen minutes afterwards Kelse arrived at the flat. He paid off his cab, giving the driver the extra tip he had promised, then with his precious parcel tucked away under his arm, he entered the mansions and made his way to the flat of Mrs. Lotus Leaf on the first floor.
The cab driver watched him enter. Then he started up his cab and drove slowly off. Fifty yards down the road he pulled up as Etienne MacGregor appeared on the pavement.
"He's just gone in, Mr. MacGregor," said the driver. "Just about one minute ago."
"Good work, Sharp," answered MacGregor. "I'll see you at my flat this evening. Cheerio!"
The man touched his cap and drove off. MacGregor, lighting a cigarette, and with a glance at his watch, walked slowly towards Mervyn Mansions.
IT was with a self-satisfied grin that Kelse entered the flat and placed the parcel on the table. Mrs. Lotus Leaf and her son both looked at him, with inquiry in their glances.
"It's all right," said Kelse. "I've got the lamp, and, by Jove, you were right, Suan! MacGregor was down there trying to buy it. He offered me three hundred to sell. I picked a cab up outside, and when I looked out of the back window I saw a big yellow cab tailing me. That was some of MacGregor's pals all right. So I didn't give my driver the address here until we'd driven all over the place and lost the car that was chasing me. I'm beginning to think that this MacGregor ain't so clever after all. Anybody could see that the yellow car was hanging around to see where I was going. Well, let's have a look at this lamp."
Mrs. Lotus Leaf's nimble fingers were already busy with the string which tied the parcel, and in a moment the lamp stood on the table. It was an exact replica of the one in her possession. They stood watching her as she took a box of matches from the mantelpiece and applied a light to the swan's beak. A little flame glowed for a moment, and then the lamp commenced to smoke—not like the original, but a thick volume of sweet-smelling smoke issued from the lamp. She smiled as she threw the match into the fireplace.
"You see," she said. "It is a fake. There should be three jets of smoke, which meet and join together in the air. I almost wish that we had let MacGregor pay the money for this worthless thing. I—."
She stopped speaking suddenly, and her head drooped forward. She looked at the two men, but already they had sunk forward on the table, unconscious from the doped smoke which was issuing from the lamp, the perfume of which filled the room. For a moment she battled with all her will power to regain consciousness but in vain, and she, too, sank forward in a deep sleep.
A few minutes afterwards Mr. Etienne MacGregor rang the bell at 74 Mervyn Mansions. The door was opened by Suan Chi Leaf's Chinese servant. Without a second's hesitation Etienne stepped forward and drove his fist straight between the eyes of the Oriental, who promptly collapsed on the floor. Etienne then closed the door carefully behind him, and taking from his pocket a pad soaked with ammonia tied it over his mouth. Then he walked along the passage and opened the door of the sitting-room. Around the table on which stood the fake lamp Mrs. Lotus Leaf, her son and Kelse still slept heavily. MacGregor looked round the room, walked to the cabinet in the corner, burst it open with a small jemmy which he took from his pocket, and took out the Peruvian smoking lamp. He made a neat parcel with the paper and string which had packed Kelse's fake lamp; then, after opening the windows wide to clear the air, he took a visiting card from his pocket and wrote on it these words:—
"Exchange is no robbery."
He propped the card up against the fake lamp, and with a smiling glance at the sleeping trio he left the flat, and, walking to the spot where he had parked his car, drove off to the offices of Messrs. Rudder, Foal and Rudder, with three good hours to spare.
MR. FOAL, of Rudder, Foal and Rudder, placed a large piece of coal carefully on his office fire, and then turned and stood, his long legs wide apart, smiling down at Mr. Etienne MacGregor, who was seated in a leather arm-chair smoking a cigarette with his usual philosophic smile adorning his round and cherub-like face.
"I can tell you nothing further," said Foal. "All I know is that the tenth question which you have to answer is, 'Where is your other uncle?' I can't give you the slightest clue, firstly, because my instructions do not allow it on this occasion, and, secondly, because I haven't the slightest knowledge of who this other uncle was or where he is at the moment. Still, I have no doubt that with the use of that extraordinary intelligence which you have shown in answering the previous nine questions, you will, as you would say, 'function.'"
"That's all very well, Mr. Foal," said Etienne, "but it seems a bit hopeless to me. I don't know where to start. I say, do you think our dear old Chinese friends might know? They seem to know quite a lot of things!"
Foal shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know," he said. "There is no doubt that they possess a copy of the list of questions, although where they got it from I do not know. They're a pernicious lot, and I'm glad that you've beaten them up to date. It seems to me that your uncle's idea in leaving these questions to be answered before you could inherit his money was to match your wits against theirs, and, therefore, I do not think that there is not some means by which you may answer the question. I can say nothing further. Of course, I know the answer to the question, but if I discuss it with you I might possibly give you a clue involuntarily."
Etienne picked up his hat and shook hands with his late uncle's lawyer.
"All right, Mr. Foal," he said cheerily. "I suppose I've got the usual seven days to find the answer, and while there's life there's hope. Cheerio!"
With a nod he left the office. Foal moved to the window and watched MacGregor's trim figure as he walked across Lincoln's Inn Fields.
"I hope he gets the answer," muttered the old lawyer to himself. "I hope it isn't too easy this time."
Etienne walked slowly across Lincoln's Inn Fields, and turned down Kingsway, his brain busy with ideas by which he might trace the missing uncle, but none of them seemed practicable. In Oxford-street he caught a bus and returned to his rooms, where he lit a pipe and sat before the fire smoking and still considering his next move. Eventually he drafted out an advertisement offering a reward for any information which would lead to the discovery of the uncle's whereabouts, and sent copies off to a dozen London and provincial newspapers, which he hoped might bring forth some reply from some acquaintance of the mysterious uncle.
MacGregor spent the next day walking up and down his sitting-room in a frenzy of impatience. He knew that he could expect no replies to his advertisement until the following day, but he felt that precious time was slipping away. He had five days only left in which to discover the whereabouts of the elusive uncle.
Next morning, propped up against the cruet on his breakfast table, stood one solitary letter. Etienne regarded it from all angles before tearing it open.
"Dear Sir" (the letter read),
"With reference to your advertisement in today's 'Morning News' the following information may be of interest to you. There is an old gentleman whose name is MacGregor, and who purports to be a brother of the deceased gentleman you mention—James Simmonds MacGregor—and the uncle of Etienne MacGregor—yourself. He is living at the moment at 71 Leener's-road, Camden Town. The best time for you to call is about 7 o'clock in the evening. If the above information is correct, I shall be glad to receive the reward mentioned in due course."
The letter was signed, "Faithfully yours, James Hennikey."
Etienne, his mouth full of toast, pondered deeply over the missive. He felt undecided as to whether it was bona fide, or whether it was part of some scheme of Suan Chi Leaf's to put him on the wrong track.
Once again his found himself wondering whether Suan Chi Leaf and his mother actually knew the whereabouts of the uncle. In any event he felt that he must investigate 71 Leener's-road, Camden Town, and at six thirty that evening, donning a dark overcoat and cap he set off.
Leener's-road was certainly not a prepossessing thoroughfare. It consisted mainly of furniture depositories and warehouses, and was approached through a long alley which led over a portion of waste ground, which was liberally sprinkled with old tins and other refuse from the neighboring houses. No. 71 itself was a warehouse. Standing a little way back from the street frontage it presented a foreboding aspect which did little to cheer MacGregor. At the side of the warehouse was a battered door, with a broken bell-chain handing beside it. He hesitated before pulling the bell.
What was on the other side of the door? Was Suan Chi Leaf waiting with some little surprise and the usual group of "toughs" which he had used before in his attempts to outwit Etienne? Standing in the darkness on the other side of the road, Etienne turned the matter over in his mind. Eventually he decided to risk it, and was about to step across the muddy road when he observed a movement in the shadows on the left of the warehouse.
He drew back into a convenient doorway and watched. Presently the figure down the road moved again. Apparently Etienne had not been seen, for in a minute the man in the shadow, waxing more courageous, came out from his hiding place and peered down the street. Then he commenced to walk up and down, stamping his feet, but not moving too far from the doorway from which he had originally emerged.
Etienne was curious. He wondered if the watcher was someone whom he had already encountered in his duels with Suan Chi Leaf and Co. Very quietly and carefully he sidled down the street, from doorway to doorway, taking the utmost care not to be observed by the man on the other side of the road. In this manner he presently reached a spot of vantage, almost opposite the man. He stood there for a few minutes, his attention concentrated on the figure opposite, which in some way seemed familiar. After a little while the man moved nearer the single gas lamp which dimly illuminated the street, and Etienne grinned as he saw who it was. It was Mr. Gubbs.
So the whole business was some "frame up" on the part of Suan Chi Leaf. Gubbs, who on a previous occasion, posing as an old servant of his uncle's, had been used as a bait for Etienne, had been set to watch for his appearance. Etienne thanked his stars that he had arrived before time.
An amusing idea occurred to him. Supposing he turned the tables on Gubbs. Very carefully Etienne recommenced the process of sidling from doorway to doorway until he was well down the street, then, taking advantage of a moment when Gubbs's back was turned, he dashed across the road, and succeeded in getting into a doorway on the other side, not far from the spot where Gubbs was still walking up and down on his solitary beat.
Etienne moved quietly up the road until he was a few feet from the unwary Gubbs, then, holding his pipe in his overcoat pocket as if it was a pistol, he waited until that gentleman's back was turned, and with a couple of leaps pushed the stem of the pipe into the small of Gubbs's back.
"Not a sound, Gubbs, or I'll put a bullet into you. Just step into this doorway, friend Gubbs, will you? I want to have a little conversation with you."
Gubbs, trembling in every limb, and menaced at every step with the pipe-stem, obeyed.
"Now," said Etienne, when they were hidden in the convenient doorway. "What's the little game, eh, Mr. Gubbs? You were waiting for me, weren't you?"
"Yes," spluttered Gubbs. "I was. But I didn't intend to do you no harm, Mr. MacGregor, honest, I didn't."
"I should think not," said Etienne grimly. "Now, look here, Gubbs, I want the truth, and nothing but the truth. What were you waiting for, and exactly what is waiting for me inside that warehouse?" He prodded the shivering Gubbs with the pipe stem. "I suppose some of the wily Suan Chi Leaf's crowd are in there waiting to make mincemeat of me, eh?"
"No, there ain't," said Gubbs. "There ain't nobody in there, Mr. MacGregor, except your uncle."
MacGregor whistled. "Oh, there isn't anyone there except my uncle, isn't there?" he said. "And I suppose you were waiting here to report that I'd found him all right, were you? It was very nice of Suan and Co. to find my uncle for me! Perhaps you'll be good enough to tell me why they took the trouble?"
"I dunno," said Gubbs. "All I know is that Mr. Suan Chi Leaf said that you was lookin' for an uncle, an' that you ought to 'ave one. An' so when that advertisement was put in the paper 'e 'ad that letter written sayin' that your uncle was there, an' so 'e is. 'E's very old, an' e's deaf an' dumb, but e's there all right!"
"Good enough," said Etienne. "Very well, Mr. Gubbs. You and I will go and interview this deaf and dumb uncle of mine, and heaven help you if you try any funny business. This pistol of mine has got a hair-trigger!"
With Mr. Gubbs leading the way, the pair walked to the dingy door of the warehouse. Gubbs pulled the bell, and after an interminable wait tottering footsteps were heard approaching down the stairs.
The door opened, and, looking over Gubbs's shoulder, Etienne beheld a very old man leaning on a stick. His eyes were bleary, and a long grey beard straggled over his waistcoat, hiding the greater part of a very dirty shirt and collar. He looked at them for a moment, then, with a grin at Etienne, he motioned them to follow him, and led the way up the long flight of stairs. At the top of the stairs was a dirty and sparsely furnished room. The old man led the way into this room, and motioned them to sit down. He himself sat down in a rickety arm-chair by the small fire and gazed with bleary eyes from Etienne to Gubbs and back again.
Etienne looked round the room. On the walls were pasted a few cheap oleographs, cut mostly from old almanacs. In many places the damp had caused the cheap wallpaper to fall away from the walls, and it hung in long strips. The only item of interest in the room was a parrot, which stood on a perch in the corner, fast asleep.
"So this is my other uncle, is it?" asked MacGregor, still covering the sullen-looking Gubbs with his supposed pistol through his overcoat pocket. "And he's deaf and dumb, which seems to be a very convenient thing, because in those circumstances I can't ask him any questions. He considered for a moment, and then continued—"Now, look here, Gubbs, this uncle of mine so conveniently found by my friend Suan Chi Leaf means one of two things. Either he is a duplicate uncle, conveniently found for me so that I shall not continue my search for the real one, or else he is my real uncle, and Suan Chi Leaf is clever enough to know that if I came down here and found you hanging about the place, as I did, I should come to the conclusion that he was a fake and disregard his existence. Now which is it, Gubbs?"
"I don't know, Mr. McGregor," said Gubbs. "I've told you all I know, so 'elp me Jimmy, I 'ave. Suan never told me anything about it, 'e never does. 'E keeps 'isself to 'isself 'e does."
Etienne could quite believe this. He could also believe that Gubbs was telling the truth. Suan Chi Leaf was much too clever to allow the unintelligent Gubbs to know what was really going on. He was puzzled. For once the precious Chinese had scored a point! If he produced this bleary old gentleman to Foal, and the old man was not his Uncle, he would automatically forfeit the inheritance. If on the other hand he continued a search in which he had not the slightest clue to help him, and let the old man disappear, he might eventually find out that he was the bona fide article.
Gubbs broke the silence. "Well, what are you going to do?" he asked. " 'Ave I got to sit 'ere all night? I've told you all I know about the bloomin' business, an' I want to go 'ome!"
"Just a minute, Gubbs," said Etienne. "Just a minute."
An idea had occurred to him. Supposing that the old gentleman was not deaf and dumb. Supposing he was only shamming! Etienne rose to his feet, and pretending to stretch himself, walked over to where the old man sat in his chair, his head nodding and his bleary eyes regarding the dying fire. Then suddenly Etienne deliberately trod heavily on the old man's foot. Startled out of his pose the old man gave a yell, and springing to his feet stamped about the room. Etienne had evidently found a favorite corn!
"So much for the deaf and dumb uncle," laughed Etienne, and then he stopped amazed. The noise made by the old man had awakened the parrot, and it was muttering to itself, muttering in a voice which seemed strangely familiar to Etienne's ears. Suddenly he remembered. The parrot was imitating the voice of Suan Chi Leaf.
"Sit down," said Etienne sternly to the old man. He walked over to the parrot, which now stood on its perch looking about the room, its sharp eyes twinkling.
"Pretty Poll," said Etienne. "Come on now, tell us all about it!"
The bird commenced to speak. Muttering to itself at first, and then in clear tones, giving an almost perfect imitation of Suan Chi Leaf's voice.
"We'll give him an uncle," said the parrot. "The fool! There isn't any other uncle. It's just a catch. Just a catch. So we'll give him one. This is where we got him beaten. He'll never suspect. He'll go on looking for one. But there isn't one! Ha, ha, there isn't one!"
The bird relapsed into silence. But the old man was cursing volubly.
Etienne roared with laughter.
"What a sell, Gubbs," he cried. "What a sell for poor old Suan. You can go home now, Gubbs, and we'll leave the supposed uncle to tell the parrot off! Poor old Suan! What a pity he never thought of the parrot!"
And five minutes later the inhabitants of Lenner's Road were surprised at the sound of Etienne's laughter as he walked home. The parrot had answered the tenth question!
Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 - 1954), Saturday 23 June 1928, page 6
MAZELLI'S Café is situated in the narrowest of the narrow streets which run between Covent Garden and the north side of Long Acre. There are many dingy little Italian cafés scattered about this neighborhood, but there is little doubt that Mazelli's is the dirtiest and most depressing of them all. The light from the weak and undusted electric lamps shone on the motley crowd collected round the small, marble-topped tables. Mazelli's customers were a strange crowd, consisting mostly of men who existed by means best known to themselves, and who were not at all scrupulous as to the manner in which they made their odd shillings.
Etienne MacGregor, seated at the table at the very top of the room, from which position of vantage he could observe the whole length of the narrow café, wondered why this weird spot had been chosen by Miss Julia Rose Petal as a meeting-place. He looked at his watch impatiently. It was ten minutes past, eight—ten minutes past the appointed time for the meeting.
He was very curious as to the identity of Miss Julia Rose Petal. First of all, her name certainly seemed out of the ordinary; and secondly, he could not but suspect that this meeting was in some way inspired by Suan Chi Leaf. For Suan Chi Leaf and his mother must be very desperate, Etienne reflected. His success in answering ten of the thirteen questions had brought him too near the end of the quest for his uncle's money for their liking. They would stick at nothing.
He looked up as the door opened and gave a start of amazement, for the beauty of the woman who had entered the dirty café was amazing. She glanced round casually at the men seated at the tables round about the door; then, looking up, her eyes fell upon Etienne, and she walked quickly towards his table and sat down.
Etienne rose to his feet, and then sat down again. He was about to speak, but she forestalled him.
"I should be glad if you could give me a cigarette, Mr. MacGregor," she said softly.
MacGregor produced his case, gave her a cigarette and lit it. She blew a little cloud of smoke into the air, and then looked him straight in the eyes.
"I expect you've guessed that I am Julia Rose Petal," she said. "And I expect that you are wondering why I wrote and asked you to meet me here of all places, and also what I wanted to say to you."
Etienne smiled. "Under certain circumstances I might have wondered," he said, "but the idea occurred to me, Miss Rose Petal, that our meeting here might have been inspired, possibly, by Mr. Suan Chi Leaf!"
He looked her straight in the eyes, but her eyes met his squarely, without flinching.
"This meeting is inspired by Suan," she said coolly, "but not exactly in the way you think. It would probably surprise you to know that Suan Chi Leaf is a relative of mine. His mother is my mother. My father was an Englishman who married her, and divorced her five years before she married her second husband—a Chinaman, who was Suan's father."
The cherubic face of Mr. MacGregor very nearly expressed astonishment. He was becoming interested.
"I know the situation between you, Mrs. Lotus Leaf and her son," she went on. "You have succeeded in answering ten of the thirteen questions, and, as you may imagine, they will not be too particular as to how they will prevent you answering the eleventh. It is on this eleventh question that I wish to speak to you. I know that it concerns the production of a locket, originally the property of Mrs. Lotus Leaf. I know also that only two days remain in which you must produce the locket to your uncle's lawyers, or lose the money. I know, too, that after some trouble you have succeeded in tracing the locket, in so far that you know it to be in the possession of a man named Lucas, who lives in Grifton-street, Poplar. Under these circumstances I was fairly justified in expecting that either tonight or tomorrow night you would go to this Lucas and endeavor to obtain possession of the locket, and I have come to warn you against this step. Lucas is a tool of Suan Chi Leaf's, and this time they will make no mistake! If you go to Lucas's house in Poplar, Mr. MacGregor, you will never return!"
Etienne grinned. "He's a nasty little fellow, this Suan, isn't he?" he murmured, looking at the girl who sat opposite, but in spite of his smiling face his brain was busy. Was this another trap?
"It's very good of you to warn me," he continued. "But supposing I don't go down to Lucas's place—what hope have I got otherwise of finding the locket, unless, of course, you can tell me where it is!"
She smiled. "That wouldn't be playing the game, would it?" she said. "This is between you and Suan, and whilst he was prepared to stop short of murder, I considered it nothing to do with me. I do know where the locket is, but I cannot tell you. That you must discover for yourself."
She got up to go. "I've done my duty and warned you," she said. "It's up to you now!"
She flashed him a quick smile, and with a nod walked out of the café.
Etienne, left to himself, lit another cigarette. He was still suspicious. It was nice of her, he thought, to warn him, but had this warning been inspired by her half-brother, Suan Chi Leaf, in a last attempt to keep him away from Lucas, who, MacGregor knew very well, had got the locket? She must realise that he was not going to give up the search at the eleventh hour because Suan Chi Leaf and Co. were threatening murder.
He paid his bill, and, deep in thought, left the café, and commenced to walk westwards in the direction of his rooms in Mortimer-street. There was something quite attractive about Julia Rose Petal, he thought, in spite of her mixed parentage.
He had reached Regent-street, and was but a minute's walk from his rooms when an idea struck him. Why not decide this business tonight? Why not tackle Lucas at once? In his heart he was now certain that the meeting with Julia Rose Petal was a part of some scheme of Suan's, but time was too precious for him to consider his own safety too much. He called a taxi-cab and ordered the man to drive to Poplar High-street, where he dismissed the cab, and after asking his way of a policeman, set off in the direction of Grifton-street. He soon found it. One of those long and ill-lit streets running in the direction of Pennyfields—a neighborhood where policemen still patrol in couples.
He stood undecided at the end of the street, for the thought came to him that it was quite possible that Suan Chi Leaf or Lucas would have someone on the look-out for his approach. Incidentally, Etienne realised that he had not the slightest idea what he was going to say to Lucas when he did see him. There was no reason why Lucas should not be in possession of the locket, and there was every reason why he should refuse to part with it. Etienne looked at the number of the house behind him, and after some calculation came to the conclusion that Lucas's place would be almost at the end of the street on the other side of the road.
The idea of approaching it from the rear, if possible, appealed to him, and he moved off and took the next turning, which ran parallel with Grifton-street. The right-hand side of the street was bounded by a dirty canal and the left by the walls which surrounded the back-gardens of the Grifton-street houses. The street was deserted, and half way down Etienne was glad to note that the wall finished and an old-fashioned board fence took its place. Here and there were gaps in the fence, removed, no doubt, for firewood.
He found a wide gap and scrambled through, and after crossing the badly-kept bit of garden, inspected the number of the house on the back door. He was only two houses away from Lucas's! He regained the street quickly, and keeping under the shadow of the fence, passed the next house, and considered how he could gain access to the back of the abode of Lucas.
The fence was intact, but through a crevice between the boards he could see a glimmer of light. He jumped for the top of the fence and scrambled over, making as little noise as possible. In front of him, across the piece of waste ground was the ground-floor window. It was curtained, but the curtains were badly arranged, and resting his arms on the window ledge, he peered into the room. A slight exclamation escaped him, for standing on the right of the room, his back to the fireplace, was Suan Chi Leaf!
Opposite him at the table, smoking a cigarette, sat a flashily-dressed individual, who Etienne guessed to be Lucas. It was obvious that some argument was going on, but he was unable to hear a word. He drew back and examined the back of the house.
Above him he could see that the first-floor back window was open, and running alongside the sill was a drain-pipe. It was a flimsy affair, and very ancient, but with a prayer that his luck would hold, Etienne commenced gingerly to climb. Several times he thought that the drain-pipe would give way, but eventually, with a sigh of relief, he reached the second-floor window-sill and, with a glance into the room, scrambled through the window and listened.
He could hear nothing except the murmur of voices from the floor below, and tiptoeing softly across the room he opened the door and peered out. Somewhere above him a drunken voice was wheezing out a song. The passage in which he stood was in utter darkness, but a few steps away the stairway led down to the ground floor. He crept to the head of the stairs, and was about to commence descending, when the noise of the front door opening caused him to draw back quickly. Looking over the banister rail, he saw a tough-looking waterman enter the house, pulling someone behind him, and, as the dim hall light fell upon her face, Etienne saw that it was Julia Rose Petal. The man slammed the front door, and, dragging the girl after him, opened the door of the back room. He pushed her into the room roughly, and followed, leaving the door slightly ajar behind him. In a minute the sound of angry voices came to MacGregor's ears. He slipped quietly down the stairs, and crouched by the door, listening. The waterman was speaking, whilst Etienne could see, through the slightly-opened door the white face of Julia Rose Petal as she stood motionless.
"She met 'im," said the waterman. Joe saw 'er down at Mazelli's. 'E's been keepin' tabs on 'er. I said she'd squeal, didn't I, but you wouldn't take no notice—you bloomin' Chinese fool!"
"Just a moment." The sibilant voice of Suan Chi Leaf contrasted strangely with that the last speaker.
"Now, my dear," he continued, addressing the girl, what exactly have you done? For your own sake I advise you to tell the truth."
She caught her breath. "I warned MacGregor not to come here," she said defiantly. "I told him that you were out to murder him."
"Exactly," interrupted Suan Chi Leaf, and his voice was very ominous. "But did you tell him where the locket was?"
"No, I didn't," said the girl. "Although I wish I had now—you beasts!"
Etienne heard the sound of movement as Lucas moved across the room, and then the sound of his voice: "The locket's all right, Suan," he said. "An' it's lucky for her it is."
"Quite, said Suan Chi Leaf, "and MacGregor will come for it... and he will not return." He laughed softly. "Have you got sentries out, Jim?" he asked.
"Three of 'em," said the waterman. "'E's got to come tonight or tomorrow, ain't 'e, an' I think e'll come tonight."
"So do I," said Suan Chi Leaf, "and we shall deal with him, and afterwards," he continued more softly than ever, "we shall deal with you, my dear. We do not permit traitors in the family. Do you hear, Julia Rose Petal?"
Etienne heard another movement and then a sharp cry from the girl. He pushed open the door a little, and looked into the room. No one saw him, for Suan Chi Leaf was busily engaged in twisting the girl's arm, whilst Lucas and the other man looked on grinning.
Then Etienne saw red. He forgot the locket—forgot everything except the devilish smile on the face of the Chinaman. With a quick spring he seized an empty chair, and as the three men turned, smashed the oil lamp on the table to smithereens; then, crouching, he flung the chair through the window. In a minute the room was in chaos.
Crouching by the table, Etienne saw the men at the window through which they thought he had made his escape. Lucas, drawing an automatic pistol, fired into the darkness, and with an oath, sprang through the window. Etienne moved quietly in the darkness to the side of the table, and found the girl's hand. Then softly he drew her to the door, and pulling her after him, quietly mounted the stairs to the first floor. Suan Chi Leaf and the other man concentrated on the window and the search of Lucas, and noticed nothing. They stood silently in the dark room on the first floor. Presently Lucas returned, followed by three other men, and the sound of angry quarrelling came up from the room below.
"Now, Miss Rose Petal," said Etienne. "We've got to make a getaway. They are firmly convinced that we have escaped, so all we have to do is to keep quiet."
"We shall never escape," said the girl. "They would hear us as we go down the stairs..."
"Exactly," murmured Etienne. "That is why I prefer the roof!" He pressed her hand.
"Wait until I come back," he said. "I shan't be a minute."
The drunken gentleman was still wheezing his song on the floor above, as Etienne crept up the stairs in search of a trap-door leading to the roof. He found it, returned to the girl, and after the nerve-racking ordeal of climbing the ladder and getting through the trap, they commenced their walk along the roofs of Grifton-street. It seemed hours before they stood on the roof of the end house in Grifton-street, and watched the lights of Poplar High-street as they twinkled reassuringly.
Julia Rose Petal, with a little gasp of relief sank down on the coping which ran along the edge of the roof. Etienne stood looking back towards Lucas's house.
"Now I wonder whether I ought to put you in a taxi and go back and call on Lucas, he said. "There's a fire escape running down from this roof to the ground. We can get down quite easily."
She smiled. "You wouldn't get the locket, even if you went back," she said. "Suan thought of a very good hiding place. Besides," she added softly. "You've got it!"
MacGregor paused in the act of lighting a cigarette. "Got it? What do you mean?" he asked. And then the light from his match fell upon Julia Rose Petal, and round her neck, on a thin chain Etienne saw the locket—and knew that the eleventh question was answered.
AN east wind blowing with all the ferocity of a small hurricane had but little effect upon the good spirits of Mr. Etienne MacGregor as, battling against the gale, he made his way back to his Mortimer-street rooms.
The twelfth question was answered! Strangely enough, Etienne had imagined that he was to have more difficulty over this question than he had experienced with any of the previous eleven. But his amazing luck had held, and, securely locked away in his desk in Mortimer-street, was the little ivory figure which marked one more success.
His late uncle's lawyers had asked him to discover and produce within the usual seven days the missing figure from a set of six ivory Hindu figures. They had been enabled to give him a slight clue, and after five days of searching, newspaper advertisements, and the employment of Fletter's Detective Agency, the figure had been discovered in a secondhand curio-shop, the proprietor of which had been only too glad to sell.
MacGregor's usual smile was, if anything, happier than usual as, with the vision of his cosy arm-chair before him, he fitted his latchkey into the front door and entered the house. His rooms were on the first floor, and he mounted the stairs quickly, pulling off his gloves as he did so. He opened his sitting-room door, switched on the light, and then stood amazed, the smile slowly fading from his face.
The room was in a state of chaos. The furniture was tumbled all over the place; the writing-desk, pulled out from its usual corner, stood in the middle of the room, its drawers forced open and flung in a heap beside it. The window looking out on to Mortimer-street was open, and the gale was blowing the heavy casement cloth curtains backwards and forwards. It was characteristic of Etienne MacGregor that, having noted the state of the room, he promptly pulled out his pipe, lit it, and throwing his hat into a corner sat down and proceeded to think things out.
It was not necessary for him to seek the cause of the disorder of the room, or to even examine the desk. The place had been ransacked during his absence, and the search had been successful. The ivory figure had gone. Suan Chi Leaf had, for once, scored!
Etienne realised that he had counted his chickens before they were hatched. Foolishly enough, he had considered that the precious figure, the answer to the twelfth question, would be safe enough locked away in his desk for a few hours. Etienne could have kicked himself with annoyance. He might have known that Suan, knowing that only two questions remained to be answered before MacGregor was entitled to claim the money under his uncle's will, would stop at nothing—certainly not burglary!
He got up and made a minute examination of the room, looking in every corner, searching every bit of the place in an endeavor to discover some clue. That the entrance had been made through the window was obvious. Even at this early hour of the night—it was just after nine o'clock—Mortimer-street was dark and deserted, and the heavy east wind had kept such mortals as might have been out by their firesides. The house was an old one, and the architecture provided ample footholds for a nimble climber to ascend to the first floor window which, secured only by an old-fashioned catch, would present no difficulty to a steel jemmy, which had obviously been used.
As MacGregor stood by the window the wind blew the curtains inward once more, and his eye lighted on a small, dark object on the floor. He picked it up, and taking it under the light, examined it. It was a small leather wallet, such as is used for holding season-tickets. One corner was torn, and by the light appearance of the torn part, had recently been caught by some projection. Inside, in the small compartment for stamps, was a three-halfpenny stamp, and sticking out of the larger pocket was a piece of torn letter-paper. Etienne took out the piece of paper. It was apparently the corner of a letter which had been torn simultaneously with the case. There were a few words on it, written in a clear and concise hand, which said—"at Galliford's Scale, near Chertsey, at 12 o'clock."
Etienne walked over to the window once more, and carefully examined the catch of the double windows, which had been wrenched open by the thin end of a jemmy being inserted and worked backwards and forwards. It became plain immediately to him what had happened. The thief, in making his exit from the window, had, in his desire not to attract any attention from the street below, inserted himself carefully between the two sides of the window. The torn window catch had somehow got inserted inside the coat of the thief, and had become attached to the leathern wallet. Then, as the marauder had lowered himself over the window ledge the leather case had been drawn from his pocket, the letter torn, and the case projected into the room.
Etienne sat down once more and studied the few words on the paper. "At Galliford's Scale, near Chertsey, at 12 o'clock."
Were these words part of the thief's instructions from Suan Chi Leaf? Was this the appointment at which the ivory figure was to be handed over to the Chinaman? Etienne thought that this might very easily be the case, and in any event it seemed to him that if this surmise were correct he must find out where and what "Galliford's Scale" was, and take immediate steps to endeavor to regain possession of the ivory figure.
He looked at his watch. It was fifteen minutes past nine. The appointment, apparently, was for twelve o'clock, so he had ample time to arrive at Chertsey before the thief turned up to hand over his booty. He knocked out his pipe and going downstairs to the basement interviewed Mrs. Hands, the housekeeper. In response to his questions, she informed him that no one had been to see him during his absence.
It was obvious to Etienne that the marauder who had secured the ivory figure had done his work silently and well, and that no one else in the house had any inkling of what had happened. He returned to the ground floor, and, as he was about to ascend the stairs to his own rooms glanced casually at the letter-box. There was a letter in it. He took the letter out. It was addressed to himself. Tearing it open he read:—
With reference to the ivory figure which we sold to you yesterday, we regret to inform you that this figure is not, as we thought, the figure which originally belonged to the Hindu set possessed by your uncle. Apparently it is an imitation, as we have today discovered, quite by chance, that the original figure is in the possession of a Mr. Suan Chi Leaf, who, on our request informed us that he would not part with it under any circumstances...."
Etienne read no more, but his usual grin reappeared as he slowly mounted the stairs, the curio dealers' letter in his hand. An interesting situation, he thought. Suan Chi Leaf, possessing the original figure, had taken the trouble to steal what he knew to be an imitation, in order that Etienne, on finding the torn wallet and scrap of paper would walk into a trap carefully set for him at "Galliford's Scale." A very neat idea.
He refilled his pipe and considered the situation.
Suan Chi Leaf unaware of MacGregor's luck in receiving the curio dealers' letter, would expect Etienne in the region of twelve o'clock—the time mentioned on the scrap of paper. Etienne, glancing at his watch, saw that it was now half-past nine. He could get to Chertsey in three-quarters of an hour—nearly two hours before he was expected, and, he hoped once there, might find some method of outwitting the wily Chinaman.
One thing was obvious to MacGregor. Suan Chi Leaf meant business. Although the real ivory figure was in his possession, he was plotting to trap Etienne—what for? There was but one explanation. Suan Chi Leaf, realising his rival's amazing success in finding the solutions to the previous questions, was intending to take no chances with the last two. MacGregor was to be put out of the way. Suan's trump card was murder.
TEN minutes later Etienne, seated at the wheel of a two-seater, which he had hired from the nearby garage, drove rapidly in the direction of Chertsey. Soon the lights of London were left behind. The gale had abated somewhat, but had given place to a sleeting rain, which stung his face. He wondered what scheme Suan Chi Leaf had evolved. That the brain of the Chinaman was of the first quality Etienne had no doubt. Some devil's work was afoot at "Galliford's Scale," wherever that was. The question of calling in police assistance had never entered MacGregor's mind, for, as on previous occasions in his duel of wits with Suan Chi Leaf and Mrs. Lotus Leaf, he had realised that they were in their own peculiar way of assistance in solving the questions for the simple reason that their efforts were always directed against him, and this very fact had often supplied a necessary clue.
It was forty minutes after he had left Mortimer-street that he pulled up outside the Crown Inn at Chertsey. He strolled into the saloon bar, and a few minutes afterwards, in course of conversation with the landlord, casually asked the necessary question.
"Did you ever hear of Galliford's Scale?" he said.
"I know the place well," replied the landlord of the Crown. "It's a big cement works about a mile down the river. They load the cement into the barges down there."
"Funny name—Galliford's Scale," mused Etienne.
"Why, no," said the other. "You see, there's a patent scale there—the Sliding Scale they call it. It measures out each barge- load of cement into a big steel box about 25 feet deep, then when they pull a lever each box-load is sent down the chute into the barge—does the work of fifty men," concluded the landlord.
Etienne finished his drink, said "Good-night," and struck off along the road by the river.
Once outside Chertsey he left the road and struck across the fields, keeping in the shadow of the hedges. In his head was an idea of what Suan Chi Leaf had planned. It was an excellent idea to dispose of a body by leaving it at the bottom of the cement scale, to be sent rolling down the chute with a few tons of cement and buried at the bottom of a barge, to be discovered weeks, possibly months, afterwards, miles away!
He paused under cover of an oak tree as Galliford's Scale came in sight. It was a ramshackle building of wood, standing on the river's edge. A solitary light in an upper window blinked through the darkness. He considered his plan of action. To approach the front entrance of the building which lay by the side of the main road would be foolish, although he was a good hour and a half before time, and he decided that his best method would be to endeavor to get into the building by the river side, where there was little chance of any watch being kept. He crept across the field.
As he approached he saw that the building ran a few feet out over the surface of the water, being supported on piles. A few feet from the ground was a rail, which evidently ran right round the building, affixed to the wall. He swung on to it and commenced to work his way, hand over hand round to the river side of the building. Often his feet and legs dangled in the icy water, but he kept on breathlessly, until he saw the central opening to which the cement chute led, and through which the cement was shot into the barges.
He paused at the opening, resting his feet on the edge of the chute. Looking up the incline he could see a dim light and heard the sound of murmured voices. Drawing himself onto the chute, he dropped over the side, and hanging by his hands, commenced to work his way upwards. After a few minutes he found himself stopped by the wall of what he imagined to be the cement box, which, worked by a lever, tilted the cement onto the chute. He drew himself up quietly onto the top side of the chute and lay there listening. After a moment the murmuring started again, and a light appeared.
Etienne looked up and his heart gave a leap, for standing on a small platform immediately above the cement box, accompanied by another man, who held a hurricane lamp in his hand, stood Suan Chi Leaf.
Crouched on the chute MacGregor saw the Chinaman consult his watch.
"Ten minutes to eleven," said Suan Chi Leaf softly. "I expect he will arrive in about half an hour. Stevens is watching the road, about a quarter of a mile away, and he will signal when MacGregor passes. Directly he enters the downstairs door, you, Pevis, and our caretaker friend will secure him, after which he can be laid on this platform and I shall have much pleasure in working the necessary levers. Jones," he raised his voice, "you might explain the mechanism to me once more, will you?"
A third man appeared and joined them on the platform.
"It's easy enough," he said, "when we've laid him on the platform, you simply pull that lever." He indicated a lever which stood in an engineers' gallery, just above the platform. "That shoots him into the big cement bin, just below you," he said. "After that you pull this lever, and the bin will be filled with cement—he'll have about two tons of it on top of him. Then on Monday morning, when the barges come, the bin will be emptied into the chute, and he'll go down into a barge—the chute's four feet deep so he won't be noticed," concluded the man, with a grin.
"Very satisfactory," said Suan Chi Leaf, "and that will be the end of MacGregor. He's been too lucky, and he's too near getting the money for my liking."
He produced a cigarette-case and offered it to his two companions. Etienne's brain was working quickly, and almost before the idea had completely come to him, he had proceeded to put it into execution. He dropped over the side of the chute once more, and hanging by one hand felt about on the wall of the cement bin. In a moment he had found what he sought. A small horizontal ladder, placed there for purposes of inspection, ran round the bin. He gripped this, and slowly and quietly made his way along the bin, turned the corner, and in a minute found himself practically beneath the engineers' gallery.
He raised himself slowly, and looked over the edge of the bin. Suan Chi Leaf and the two men were still standing on the platform with their backs to him. He raised himself slowly until he had one foot on the top of the bin, and then leapt for the gallery. Suan Chi Leaf and his companions spun round at the noise, but they were too late, for as they began to move Etienne reached the lever, pulled it, and the platform on which the three men were standing tilted suddenly, shooting the three conspirators into the 25-feet deep cement bin.
Etienne crawled to the ladder and looked into the bin, his usual cherubic smile illuminating his round face. Standing at the bottom, his face more evil than ever, illuminated by the light of the fallen hurricane lamp, stood Suan Chi Leaf. The two other men wore rubbing their bruises and cursing.
"Well, Suan, old fellow," said Etienne, smiling happily. "It was very good of you to let me know how this sliding scale business was worked. The only thing that remains now is for me to decide whether I pull the other lever and let the cement drop on to the three of you. You're a fine trio of scoundrels I must say. However, I'm prepared to do business with you. Let me know where the ivory figure is, the real one, and I won't pull the lever. Now Suan, which is it to be?"
Suan Chi Leaf looked up, his face devilish. Then he felt in his overcoat pocket, and without a word threw up a small oblong box. Etienne caught it neatly and opened it. Inside was the ivory figure!
"Excellent," smiled MacGregor. "Now I'll be generous and spare your lives, but, this being Saturday night, and the works here closed until Monday morning, I'm going to leave you three lads at the bottom of the bin till then. You can't climb out, and it will do you good to ruminate on your sins. By the way, Suan, you'll have to be quick if you're going to stop me getting that money. Now I'll just wander down the road and put the wind up your associate, Mr. Stevens, so that there is no chance of your escaping before Monday morning, and then I'll toddle home. Oh, by the bye, being a nice sort of chap, I'll telephone here first thing on Monday morning, otherwise they might fill up the cement bin before they get you out. Good night, Suan—pleasant dreams!"
And whistling loudly, Mr. Etienne MacGregor wandered quietly off.
ETIENNE MACGREGOR, seated beneath a tree in The Green Park, looked straight before him, his usually smooth brow furrowed by deep thought. For once his usual nonchalance had deserted him, and although he would not have admitted it, he was worried. Five of the seven days allowed him in which to answer the thirteenth question, the answer to which entitled him to the legacy of £25,000 left by his uncle, were gone, and he was no nearer the solution than on the first day, but at the back of his brain was another and possibly more urgent worry. He was concerned for the safety of Julia Rose Petal.
"Give full details of the parentage of Miss Julia Rose Petal"—that was the thirteenth question, but it seemed to Etienne that more than the actual answer was required at the moment.
Julia Rose Petal, who, in spite of her strange Chinese name, had seemed as English as himself, although she was Suan Chi Leaf's half-sister and the daughter of his beautiful but devilish mother, Mrs. Lotus Leaf, by her first and English husband.
Julia Rose Petal, who on a previous occasion had risked her own safety and her half brother's anger in order to warn him of an attempt by Suan Chi Leaf on his life—where was she? During the last five days he had moved heaven and earth to trace the girl, with no result. It had seemed to him that his first step in endeavoring to answer the question was to find her, but Julia Rose Petal had disappeared, and Etienne feared that Suan Chi Leaf was responsible for her disappearance.
What had become of the girl? In his heart Etienne hardly cared to consider. Mrs. Lotus Leaf and her son were desperate. Their only chance of obtaining the legacy lay in preventing him from answering the thirteenth question. They knew that he would try to find the girl, and the previous encounters had taught them that behind Etienne's smiling and cherubic countenance lay a keen, quick brain, which, aided by his amazing luck, had enabled him to outwit them twelve times already.
Had they killed the girl? Etienne realised, with a wry grin, that it was in this very park that he had puzzled about the first question—and found the solution. Would his luck help him again?
It was getting dark, and the lights of Piccadilly were beginning to twinkle. He got up, and left the park, walking moodily in the direction of Bond-street. Half way up Bond-street he stopped to light a cigarette. As he threw the match away he glanced casually at the figure of a woman who was walking towards Oxford-street, half a dozen yards in front of him. Etienne's heart gave a great leap as he recognised the elegant grace of the woman as she hailed a passing taxi-cab. It was Mrs. Lotus Leaf.
He drew back into the shadow of the buildings as she entered the cab, and looked quickly up and down the street hoping that he could pick up a passing taxi and follow her cab. But there was not a solitary car in sight. Luckily, her taxi had stopped almost beneath the light of a street lamp, and as it moved off Etienne was able to take the number. Then he hurried back to Piccadilly, secured a taxi and drove rapidly to his rooms.
Here he found "Sharpy" Williams awaiting him. "Sharpy," a reformed crook, had been of great use to Etienne in his search for Julia Rose Petal. Every trick of the modern criminal was known to "Sharpy," every underground haunt and ruse adopted by the clever fraternity of the underworld was at his fingers' ends. A short, stocky individual, with a perpetual twinkle in his eye, and a deep sense of gratitude to MacGregor. He got up from the arm-chair in which he was sitting, and threw away a cigarette-end as Etienne entered the sitting-room.
"No news," Guv'nor," he said. "She's disappeared absolutely. There ain't a trace of her anywhere."
"Never mind, Sharpy," said Etienne. "I've got a clue. Mrs. Lotus Leaf got into a taxi in Bond-street about ten minutes ago. Here's the number. It's pretty certain that after the driver sets her down he'll return to one of the West End ranks. Here's a five-pound note. Go out at once, get a cab and go all round the ranks until you come across him. Tip him well, and find out, if you can, where he dropped her. Telephone me at once. I'll be waiting here."
"Sharpy" disappeared, and Etienne, after taking off his overcoat, filled his pipe and sat down by the fireside with as much patience as he could muster.
Ten minutes afterwards the telephone bell rang. He hurried to the instrument expecting to hear "Sharpy's" voice, and gave a start of surprise as he recognised the voice at the other end of the wire. It was Julia Rose Petal. She spoke softly and quickly, but beneath the even tenor of her words Etienne detected a note of fear.
"Mr. MacGregor," she said, "I am in danger. Can you help me? I am at—"
The voice stopped, and Etienne heard a muffled cry and a thud. He hung up the receiver slowly. So his supposition had been right. If only she could have told him where she was. In spite of his appearance of coolness every nerve in his body was tingling, and his fingers were itching to get at Suan Chi Leaf. But there was nothing to be done—nothing but to wait for "Sharpy's" report.
It was ten o'clock before that worthy telephoned. Etienne was glad to hear his cheery voice.
"That you, Mr. MacGregor? I've found 'im all right. Picked 'm up on the Piccadilly, rank. 'E remembers the lady all right. Dropped 'er at 25 Mountview Mews, right down the Edgware-road."
"Right, Sharpy," said MacGregor. "Come back here and hang on. I may telephone you later. Goodbye."
He hung up the receiver, donned his overcoat and a cap hurriedly, and, taking an automatic and a handful of cartridges from a drawer in his desk, hurried out into Regent-street. Ten minutes later he stopped the cab at the end of Mountview Mews and paid off the driver.
Mountview Mews was a long and depressing mews in a turning off the Edgware road. One dim lamp shone fitfully on the cobbled roadway. The buildings on each side of the Mews seemed mostly to be garages which were "to let," but number 25 had been converted into a dwelling place. Etienne stood for a moment uncertain what to do.
The house was in darkness and there was not a sound to be heard. For one moment Etienne considered the advisability of summoning police assistance, but almost immediately dismissed the idea from his mind. First of all it was unlikely that any policeman would believe his story, and secondly he realised that his old uncle had intended the questions to be a battle of wits between himself and the Chinese. He would see it through alone! He stepped forward and knocked loudly on the door.
There was a sound of shuffling, and in a minute the door opened. A short, villainous-looking individual opened the door. "What yer want?" he asked gruffly. For answer Etienne stepped forward, pushed the man backwards into the passage and stepped after him, his fingers round the butt of the automatic in his overcoat pocket.
"I want Suan Chi Leaf," he said, "and quickly!"
The shadow of a grin crossed the man's face as he backed slowly down the dark passage.
"I'll turn up the gas," he said, and reached up to do so. Etienne had advanced after the man down the passage. As the man, still grinning, turned up the dim gaslight, MacGregor heard a soft sound behind him. He turned, but he was too late.
A door on the left of the passage had opened and a revolver was pointing straight at MacGregor's heart. Behind the revolver was the smiling face of Suan Chi Leaf.
"Good evening, Mr. McGregor," he said softly. "I congratulate you on your acumen in finding our new address. Really quite clever of you. However, I am afraid it will avail you nothing. Take this pistol," he said sharply to the man behind McGregor. The individual addressed relieved Etienne of his automatic
"Now, Mr. McGregor," said Suan Chi Leaf, grinning evilly, "perhaps you will walk down the passage, and down the stone steps at the far end. I have something interesting to show you!"
Etienne said nothing, but obeyed. In his heart was a sick feeling, that the game was lost, but his mind worked quickly trying to think of some move to gain time. At the bottom of the passage was a flight of stone steps. He descended with Suan Chi Leaf's pistol pressing against his back. At the bottom of the deep flight of steps was an iron door. Etienne pushed it open and stepped into a stone cellar lit by a single flickering gas jet. As he stepped over the threshold he gave a start, for lying in the corner of the cellar, her white face hopeless, was Julia Rose Petal.
"I think you have already met the lady who you imagine to be my half-sister," said Suan Chi Leaf, still grinning. "In reality she is no relation of mine, but, as on a previous occasion, she has again taken it upon herself to endeavor to warn you. Tonight I caught her at the telephone, and was forced to be a little violent with her. However, I think it most appropriate that you have arrived in time to take part in the little drama which I have planned, the drama which will, I am sure, make a fitting end to the mystery of the thirteen questions. As you will observe, dear Mr. McGregor, there is no window to this cellar, and the walls and floor are without crevices, most excellent brick-work. At the top of the right-hand wall you will doubtless see the end of a water pipe. This door, which is the only exit, consists of iron, and is watertight. In a moment or two I intend to shut and lock this door, after which I shall turn on the water. I should say that it would take quite half an hour for this cellar to fill, and about twenty minutes before the water reached above your heads. Miss Rose Petal being shorter than yourself, will probably drown first!"
Etienne said nothing. He leaned against the wall and looked at Julia Rose Petal. She was smiling bravely. Suan Chi Leaf, his revolver still covering Etienne, backed to the door. He fumbled in his breast pocket with his disengaged hand, and, after a moment, produced a packet of papers.
"Here," he said, smilingly, "is the answer to the thirteenth question. The full particulars of the parentage of Miss Julia Rose Petal, which is not her name, as a matter of fact. My mother was her nurse in China, and adopted her after her parents' death." He threw the packet of papers on the floor. "You will observe how generous I am," he said with a grin. "I present you with the answer to the thirteenth question."
He stepped backwards through the doorway, and the iron door clanged behind him. Etienne mechanically picked up the packet, and put it in his pocket. Then he looked up. A stream of water was running down the wall. He looked at the girl. She was still smiling.
"I'm sorry it has got to end this way," he said. "But I know that you are brave enough to face it."
She nodded, got up, and, crossing the cellar, put her hand in his. "It's worth it," she said, "because I know you came to try to save me."
Etienne pressed her hand. The water was running into the cellar with increasing force; already the floor was covered, and there was no way out. MacGregor leaned back against the wall trying vainly to think. He put his hand in his pocket, and his face lit up. In the pocket of his overcoat were the handful of cartridges he had taken on leaving his rooms. Suan Chi Leaf's man had taken the automatic, but left the cartridges.
"Listen," said MacGregor to the girl, "there's not a moment to lose. There's just one chance, and we've got to take it. You must try to work one of the stone bricks out of the wall. Here's a pencil case. Scrape at the mortar round the brick, and work quickly." He indicated one of the large stone bricks of which the cellar was built, choosing the wall which he thought fronted on to the street. Without a word the girl obeyed, and commenced to work feverishly with the metal pencil case.
Etienne pulled the cartridges from his pocket. There were six. He put the bullet end of a cartridge in his mouth, biting and twisting at the lead in an endeavor to extract the bullet. In three minutes he had one bullet out of the cartridge case. Then, turning the case upside down he shook out from the strands of cordite five little strands of explosive. The water was gaining rapidly. Already it was above their ankles as they worked feverishly on. One after another Etienne dealt with the cartridges, until as last he had broken them all, and in his hand lay thirty strands of cordite. He put them carefully in his pocket and went to the girl's assistance.
She had made but little progress, for the mortar was solid, but with his help the mortar began to crumble, and in another five minutes they had scraped a small slit in the mortar.
It was becoming increasingly difficult to do more for the water was up to their knees. Speaking quickly, Etienne explained his plan.
"I have thirty strands of cordite," he said. "They can be exploded in the same way as a bullet is exploded, by being detonated—that is, struck quickly. I'm going to put them in this little slot which we have scraped out, pushing them as far in as I can, and I am going to use one to set the others off. The explosion may kill us. On the other hand, it may blow a chunk out of the wall. Are you game?"
He smiled at the girl. She smiled back. Her answer was in her eyes. He sent her to the other side of the cellar and waited until she had waded through the water to the opposite wall. Then, taking the strands of cordite from his pocket, he pushed them into the slot in the mortar with a pencil-case, all except one. It looked like an innocent piece of string as he laid it along the edge of the crevice. Then, drawing his foot up, he quickly unlaced his boot. This done, he placed the end of the pencil-case on the single strand of cordite, holding it with his left hand, his back to the wall. Then he looked across at the girl.
"Good luck, partner," he said.
"Good luck" she whispered.
He closed his eyes, and raising his boot, brought the heel sharply down on the pencil case. There was a sudden crack, and then a roar and a blinding flash. The acrid smell of cordite filled the cellar, and Etienne gasped as it caught his throat. Then as the fumes cleared away, he looked and his heart bounded with joy. A hole four or five feet square had been blown in the wall of the cellar, just above the level of the water.
Etienne, with a word to the girl, worked his way through. Above him was a grating, and above that the star-filled sky! One end of the grating had been bent by the explosion, and a strong pull removed it.
Two minutes later Etienne and the girl stood in the mews, which was rapidly filling with people attracted by the noise of the explosion. Approaching from the end of the mews Etienne saw the familiar helmet of a policeman.
Etienne walked up to him, noticing as he did so the amazed face of Suan Chi Leaf at the upper window in the house.
"Look here, officer," said Etienne in an aggrieved tone, pointing to the face of Suan Chi Leaf. "I wish you'd talk to this fellow. He's been experimenting with firearms or something, and nearly blown the whole place up!"
The policeman approached the house and banged on the door. The crowd surged round. Etienne and the girl were unnoticed.
"Come on," whispered Etienne. "This is where we make a getaway."
They stole swiftly down the mews, and turning into Edgware-road found a taxi cab. Etienne ordered the driver to drive to Mortimer-street.
"I'm going to hand you over to my housekeeper, Julia," he said. "You're very wet, but you look happy. She'll look after you tonight, and tomorrow we'll discuss plans. Incidentally, do you realise that in my pocket is the answer to the thirteenth question, and tomorrow I can claim that £25,000. The thing is what are you going to do?
"I don't know," she said. "Perhaps I can get work of some sort in a shop, perhaps!"
Etienne grinned. "I don't think so," he said. "Now I've answered so many questions I think that I'll ask you one. Can you guess what it is? And, my dear, the only resemblance between you and a shop girl will be when tomorrow you come with me to claim that money. Then we can both say "Cash—Please!"
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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