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"LORD ARLINGFORD wishes to see his box," whispered the cashier. And Mr. Upton Greig, manager of the Barnmouth branch of the Southern Counties Bank, hurried out to greet his most important client.
"Come this way, my lord," he said, lifting the flap in the counter.
Lord Arlingford, a stout and rather pompous-looking person of sixty, followed the manager into the large private room behind the office.
"We are home again sooner than I expected, Mr. Greig," said his lordship affably. "Lady Arlingford is going to Dunglas to-morrow, and, as she desires to take her rubies with her, I came myself to fetch them."
Mr. Greig unlocked a door in the right-hand wall and ushered his client down a wide flight of stone steps.
At the bottom was a great black door of solid metal, unrelieved except by a large brass handle and two small keyholes in the centre. Mr. Greig took a bunch of keys from his pocket, unlocked the two locks separately, then, wrenching round the handle, swung the massive steel door silently back upon its well-oiled hinges.
Beyond was a second grille door, made of latticed steel. A third key opened this. Mr. Greig stepped forward, switched on an electric light, and revealed a large brick-vaulted cellar with a floor of solid concrete. The only openings in the walls were narrow air-shafts over the door, and these but served to show the enormous thickness of the walls themselves.
Round the walls were shelves on which were ranged a number of boxes, mostly of iron or steel. Among them was a small, square steel one, which Mr. Greig lifted down from near the end of a shelf.
"It hasn't had time to collect much dust, my lord," said the manager, with a smile.
"No," replied Lord Arlingford. "I think it was only on May 28th that I left it with you, was it not!"
"That was the date, I think. Exactly a week ago."
Lord. Arlingford produced his keys, chose the right one, inserted it in the lock, and lifted the lid. In a tray lay five handsome jewel-cases of crimson morocco.
"Have you ever seen the Arlingford rubies?" asked the peer.
"No, my lord. I should like to, above all things," replied the manager, with a bow.
"This is the tiara," said Lord Arlingford, snapping open the largest care.
"Why, good heavens! What does this mean?" he stammered, gasping.
The case was empty. So were all the other four. The Arlingford rubies had utterly disappeared!
"IT means absolute ruin for me, Mr. Blake!" said Greig. The man's voice vibrated with sternly-repressed emotion.
"You have told me the whole story," replied Blake. "But are you sure, Mr. Greig, that you have omitted nothing? For instance, could no one have got at your keys?"
Greig flushed slightly under the steady gaze of the keen eyes.
"I will be quite open," he said. "One evening I went to the swimming-bath and left my keys in my trouser-pocket while I was in the water."
"And do you think that anyone could have got at them in the meantime? It doesn't take long, remember, to get a wax impression."
"I am almost certain that no one did so," replied the manager vehemently. "The dressing-rooms open on the bath. I was not in the water for more than five minutes. I should certainly have seen any person who entered my dressing-box."
"Very well. We will now take a look at the vault."
Sexton Blake's examination of the vault seemed to the jangled nerves of the manager unnecessarily long and tedious. The detective sounded the walls and floor. From the floor, Blake turned attention to the contents of the vault. He asked to be shown where Lord Arlingford's box had stood. He went round and looked at every box and chest in the place, on the shelves and the floor, and made various entries in a small notebook.
At last the detective snapped the elastic on his book, put it back in his pocket, and said briskly: "That will do for the present, Mr. Greig. Now, if you will allow me, I will see the box-register."
To the manager this seemed almost as futile a proceeding as the examination of the vault, but he made no objection, and presently Blake was deep in the ledger which recorded the dates of the deposit of boxes in the strong-room, their description, and the names and addresses of the clients who had deposited them.
"Here is Lord Arlingford's, I see, on May 28th," said Blake.
"Yes, it was only in the vault a week. The loss was discovered the day before yesterday—June 4th," replied the other, with a puzzled frown.
"I see that a large plate-chest was deposited on the following day—the 29th—by a Mr. and Mrs. Matheson-Finch," said Blake.
"Yes; it's there now," answered Greig.
"And are these old clients of yours?"
"No, not very. Their account was opened in April, I think. Wait; I'll tell you."
He went out of the private room into the office, and while he was gone Blake whipped out his pocket-book and compared certain entries with those in the box-register.
The door opened again.
"Yes; April 2nd," said Greig.
"I'll just take a note of their address, and you may expect me again about three o'clock," said Blake, and walked off briskly, leaving the manager in a state of profound perplexity.
PUNCTUALLY at the hour mentioned the detective returned to the bank, and, as soon as he was shown into the private room, his first words were: "Greig, I must examine that chest—the Matheson Finch's, I mean."
"Impossible!" exclaimed the manager in shocked tones. "It would be a crime. If such a thing became known it would ruin the bank."
"Oh, very well, Mr. Greig! But I warn you that, if you refuse, I must throw up the case."
"Very well," said Greig at last with a sort of groan. "It must be as you wish, Mr. Blake. When will you do it?"
"At once," replied, Sexton Blake sharply. "If we wait till night it will probably be too late."
Once more the two descended to the vault. Greig carefully closed and locked the doors behind them, then helped Blake to lift the weighty chest into the open.
Blake examined the box closely. It was very large, being about four feet deep, three long, and three broad. It was rather new, made of yellow pine and clamped with iron. On the top was painted in black the name, "H. Matheson-Finch"—nothing else.
Suddenly Blake gave a low chuckle
"Look at this!" he said.
"This" was a small slit almost hidden under one of the metal clamps.
He pulled out a bunch of skeleton keys, and, after examining the lock selected a couple. The second turned the wards, and in a moment the lid was flung back.
"It's empty!" gasped the manager, his face like ashes. "Have they robbed that too?"
"No; it's not empty," returned Blake. "Look here!"
He plunged his hand into the depths of the box, and lifted out a large chunk of pig-iron. Another and another were removed, until a pile of ten in all lay upon the floor.
Greig looked on in a state of blank amazement.
"But what does it mean?" he asked helplessly.
For answer Blake picked up one of the lumps of iron and held it out to the manager.
"What do you think that weighs?" he asked.
Greig took it unwillingly and balanced, it in his hand.
"Oh, about a stone, I suppose."
"And there are ten of them," remarked Blake. "One hundred and forty pounds in all. Does that tell you anything?"
Greig shook his head again. He was clever at his own work, but his brain had none of that lightning power of deduction which had made Sexton Blake the greatest detective in England.
"Well, I'll tell you this much, Mr. Greig," said Blake, in his quiet way. "I see light. And, though I have no idea whether or not I can recover the rubies, I think I can lay my hand on the people who stole them."
"And now," he went on, "as I shall have to stay in the bank for the present, I'll go back upstairs again, and, if you'll allow me, sit in your private room."
"The place is at your disposal," said Greig earnestly. In one minute half the lines were gone which the last two days had stamped upon his tired face.
No sooner were they back up the stairs than a clerk came into the room and spoke to the manager: "A carriage has called for Mr. Matheson-Finch's plate-chest."
The manager actually smiled as he stood on the steps of the bank and watched a brougham—plainly a jobbed one—driving away with a huge iron-bound yellow chest on the top.
"No. 5, Lipton Terrace, Murley," was the address which had been given to the driver, but as soon as the carriage was round the corner the driver turned his horse in a direction which was certainly not that of Barnmouth's pretty suburb, Murley.
At last it stopped outside a small, ugly house with a square of shabby grass between its rusty iron railings and its blistered front door.
The man inside—presumably Mr. Matheson Finch—got out, and he and the driver, with much perspiration and many gasps, lifted the chest off the carriage and carried it through a narrow passage into a dirty, ill-furnished back-room.
The driver then departed.
A small man, with a pinched face and a cast in his left eye, came down.
"So you've got it, Josh?" he said in a queer, squeaky voice. "It's my belief t 'ud have been a sight better to leave it where it were."
"Not much it wouldn't!" retorted the other. "Didn't you hear, Bill? They got that plaguey detective Sexton Blake down. Emily saw him this morning at the station. First thing you know, he'd have spotted this box and wanted to know what them air-holes meant."
"Maybe you knows best," replied Bill apologetically. "Anyway, it were a good plant. An', now, what are you going to do with the chest?"
"Bury it along with the other," replied Josh emphatically.
"You'll wait till dark, I reckon?"
"You bet! We don't touch a spade till after midnight."
"Then come on round to the Goat and Compasses, an' let's drink to our own healths. Nobody'll ever find them jewels under the hearthstone!"
"Right you are, then!" said Josh. "I'm that thirsty I could drink a bucket!"
It was the best part of two hours before the pair returned.
Blundering into the back-room ahead of his partner, Bill pulled up suddenly and stared stupidly at the box.
"'Oo opened it?" he demanded thickly.
"Opened it? What—the box open?"
Josh's voice rose to a scream, and he sprang forward, in his haste sending Bill spinning across the room.
After one glance at the wide-open lid, Josh rushed to the fireplace, and, with a mighty effort, wrenched up the hearthstone and flung it aside.
A yell of fury burst from him. "Tricked!" he roared, in tones that made the windows rattle.
"The tricksters tricked!" came a quiet voice from behind.
Josh spun round to find himself staring down the black muzzle of Sexton Blake's revolver.
"I don't understand it yet!" exclaimed Greig excitedly. "For the life of me, I can't see how a man could live all those weeks and months in a strong-room and none of us be any the wiser? And how did he get out? He couldn't have had keys; and, in any case, it's a time-lock, and no one can open it from the hour we close till the office opens next morning."
IT was eight o'clock the same evening, and Blake, having finished his task, was dining with the grateful manager. He listened smiling to the other's eager questions.
"My dear Mr. Greig," he said, "it's simple enough. The thief was in your strong-room for one night only, and it was you yourself who let him in and out."
Greig's face assumed a stupefied expression. Blake took out his, pocket-book.
"Look here," he said. "It was on May 28th that Lord Arlingford left his rubies with you?"
"And on the 29th that you had the big chest from the Matheson-Finches?"
"What happened on the 30th?"
Greig paused a moment.
"Come to think of it, a box went out. Yes; I remember. A large plate-chest belonging to a Mr. Fred May."
"Yes; which had been in your strong-room," said Blake, glancing again at his notebook, "since the previous day, the 29th. Do you understand?"
A light broke on the manager's face. Down came his fist with a bang on the table.
"What an ass I was! Of course, I see! The thief came in Finch's box and left in May's. The iron was makeweight."
"Just so!" laughed Blake. "I suspected it the moment I saw the entry of the 30th. Further enquiries made me almost positive, and when you kindly shut me up in that Matheson-Finch box, I chuckled to think that the thief was unsuspectingly carting me straight to the spot where in all probability he had hidden his spoil."
"Funny sort of safe deposit that!" exclaimed Greig.
"Yes. His partner positively crowed over the fact that no one would be able to find their hiding-place. They were under the hearthstone."