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"THERE'S a lady to see you, sir!"
Sexton Blake's man-servant Simmons stood at his master's bedside at half-past six one chilly, fine morning in October, and repeated the information, as the detective opened one enquiring eye at him, and then glanced at the clock.
"Hang it all, Simmons," said Blake, shutting his eye again, and getting deeper into the pillow, "I've only just gone to bed! Ask her to call later."
"She seems in great distress, sir," said Simmons respectfully, "young, too, sir, and remarkably pretty. Should say she's a widow, sir."
Blake sat up and pointed silently to his dressing-gown.
"I'll see her in five minutes," he said, "and—well, I'll wait till I've verified your statement, Simmons, before telling you my opinion of you."
Happily for the discreet Simmons, Blake's opinion of him rose mightily the moment he set eyes on his visitor. She was certainly young—she did not look twenty—and she was marvellously pretty, with one of those wistful, dainty faces Greuze has immortalised. And she was certainly in bitter distress, as the welling tears in her eyes, the tremulous lips, the intense pallor of temples and brow, eloquently testified.
Blake took one look at her, and made a leap for the sideboard. Next minute he was holding her within one arm, while he almost forced a liqueur glassful of port wine and brandy between her clenched teeth. Then he lifted her into a deep armchair, wrapped her with a rug, and placed a pillow beneath her head.
"Lie quite still for five minutes," he said. "I will complete my toilet, and so be ready to accompany you."
When he returned, he found her standing up, her eyes bright with hope, her whole face electrified with a new courage.
"That is better," he said cheerily. "Now sit down and tell me all about your trouble."
"It is very pressing," she said. "Will you not come with me at once? I can tell you in the taxi as we drive to my home in Hampstead."
"Certainly I will come," said Blake, as he struggled into an overcoat and snatched up a couple of rugs and a cap and a cushion.
In another two minutes he had made her cosy in a corner, and was seated by her side, and the car started off.
"My little boy of five years has been stolen during the night, Mr. Blake," she said. "When I went to bed at twelve he was asleep in the room next to mine. I woke up suddenly at half-past four, feeling something was wrong. I hastened into his room. His cot was empty. The bedroom window was wide open. All his clothes were there, but the child had gone. I think I went crazy for a while." Her voice broke, and she buried her face in her hands.
"Will you tell me your name?" asked Blake.
"My name is Eileen Carteris," she said. "All my relatives, on my side, are dead. I am literally alone in the world, save for my boy."
"But your husband's relatives?" asked Blake.
"I do not even know who they are, or where they live," replied Mrs. Carteris. "I met my husband in Sicily seven years ago. He was an artist. He told me Carteris was an assumed name, but that did not matter to me. We were so happy, and he was very successful. Then we came to London and look our cottage facing the Heath. One night, or rather one October evening about five, he went out to walk to Golder's Green, and he never came back. I have never heard from him since."
"You had no quarrel?" asked Blake gently, touched to the soul by the desolateness in her voice.
"Never!" she replied. "We had never had a rough word, Ours was a perfect love."
Blake dared not trust himself to speak, and for several minutes they rode on through the growing light in absolute silence.
"Yours is a most strange and sad history," said Blake. "But I bid you hope. There is not a doubt that there is a very close relationship between the disappearance of your husband and that of your child. You did most wisely in coming to me at once. There is no criminal living who can remove a child at night without leaving trace of his passage, and be it but a thread I will track it to the loom from which it was spun, and thence to the tailor who sold it. You have, of course, photographs of your husband and of your child?"
"Of my child, oh yes," replied Mrs. Carteris. "But my husband never would be photographed. All the same"—she smiled suddenly up at him—"I made a little sketch of him one day, and it is very like him."
"Excellent," said Blake, "your love's cunning will cheat all the craft of your foes. Is this your cottage?"
"Yes, it is here," replied Mrs. Carteris, "and that is my old servant at the door."
Blake turned to the chauffeur.
"Go as fast as you can," he said, "and bring me back the best bicycle you can find. Here are three fivers. If you can't hire one, buy one. Come back with it at once. I engage you for the day."
"Right-ho!" said the chauffeur jovially. Blake followed Mrs. Carteris into the cottage.
"I HOPE your servant has not been into the room," said Blake anxiously, as he joined his client under the porch.
"I locked the door," said Mrs. Carteris, "the moment I thought of coming to you."
Blake nodded abstractedly. His gaze was fixed on a path running past the side of the house remote from the Heath, a path overgrown with moss that was heavy with dew.
"Does that path lead past your son's window?" he asked.
"Yes," she replied. "It goes beneath it and through the garden to a wicket-gate giving on to the Heath to the left and to a narrow lane on the right. The lane runs back into the road. We passed the entrance three doors before my front gate."
"I will look at that first," said make. "Please go up to your son's room, but be careful to touch nothing."
He strode towards the path, in which his keen eyes had noted various impressions at regular intervals. As he had thought, they were imprints of a particularly neat, slender, pointed boot. He followed their track to below the window, where Mrs. Carteris was standing, after he had carefully noted and verified their measurements. There the prints were confused; but these was no trace of any child's foot.
He passed on, following the trail, heavier and more hurried now, till it brought him to the wicket-gate of which Mrs. Carteris had spoken.
An exclamation of delight escaped him, as he observed that a half-side of the lower panel had been kicked out, leaving a great open gap. The reason was obvious enough, since the top of the gate was furnished with a serried row of spikes.
He bent forward, examining the jagged edges of the broken panel, from one of which floated a strip of pink flannel, while from another hung a shred of fine blue serge.
He picked off both and placed them in his pocket-book, He was creeping through the hole when the glimmer of something shining in the long grass drew his attention. He darted at it, and drew his breath with a keen hiss, as he saw that it was a waistcoat button of a peculiar shape, and made out of some pebble resembling a cat's-eye. He sought carefully, but no other find rewarded his efforts. Passing through the hole, he traced the trail to the path leading back to the road. It was an asphalt path and greasy with the night mist, and the trail held good on it, taking him to the road, across it, past the pond, and to the track of a large motorcar with studded tires, whose nose had been pointed towards Frognal.
He pelted back to the house and up to the room where Mrs. Carteris awaited him.
"Is that part of your son's nightgown?" he asked, showing her the pink flannel.
She paled and nodded, unable to speak.
"Don't be afraid," he said, "they wouldn't have taken him away had they meant to harm him. I can do no more here. Ah!" He sniffed at the air, darted to the pillow and pressed it against his face. "The brutes drugged him," he muttered. "Give me the photograph and the portrait, please, Mrs. Carteris. I hear the taxi coming. You must pack a few things, take your servant, shut up the house, and go and wait for me at my rooms. Tell my man to get your breakfast. I may not be hack till late in the morning."
Blake almost snatched the portraits from her, rushed down the stairs, grabbed the bicycle from the chauffeur, and rode off, shouting to him to wait where he put down the lady.
It was an off-chance of a desperate hope that he was taking, and he knew it. For the morning traffic was already astir. But he trusted to his practised eyesight to pick out the track of those monster wheels among all the as yet thin criss-cross of cabs and buses and vans; and every indication, however small, was of infinite value to him at such a stage of enquiry.
But such indication as he got was of the vaguest. He tracked the car across Hampstead and down the Wellington Road. But opposite St. John's Wood Station all trace of it was swallowed up in the deluge of traffic.
The policeman on point duty remembered having seen a big, dark car—brown, he thought—sweep past in the early hours of the morning, going townwards, but that was all. Blake pressed him for the number. But beyond remembering that the lettering commenced ZQ, he could give no information.
Still, such as it was, it was something. A dark, probably brown, car, with the letter-number ZQ, was worth a long day's hunt, thought Blake. And, turning his bicycle townwards, he pedalled hard for Euston. There he sent a long telegram to Mrs. Carteris, left his bicycle in the parcels office to be forwarded to Messenger Square, and five minutes later was in an express bound for Birmingham.
AT nine o'clock that evening Albert Carteris Waverley, nephew and heir to the aged Baron Moreton, of Moreton Towers, Shropshire, and Moreton House, Park Lane, rose from dinner at his club, and for the twentieth time sent the boy to see if a telegram had come for him. For the aged baron was dying, and his demise was only a matter of hours. And his nephew and heir was exceedingly anxious that the time should come which would seat him in so honorable a position and make him master of more thousands a year than he now had halfpence in capital.
The boy returned beaming, and bearing on a tray not one but two telegrams. Waverley snatched them up and tore one open.
He gave one glance, and a great sigh of relief escaped him. It was from the family solicitor at Moreton Towers, and ran:
INFORM YOUR LORDSHIP THAT THE BARON PASSED PEACEFULLY AWAY SEVEN-THIRTY THIS EVENING.
It was with a more languid gesture that the new baron turned to the second telegram. But if his gesture was languid, the contents of the telegram galvanised him to such an expression of ferocity that the beaming "buttons" fled in terror. For the second message read:
CHILD MISSING. COME AT ONCE.—FLOOD.
Waverley reeled rather than walked from the club and down into the street. He walked a little before taking a taxi. Then, choosing one passing, he bade the chauffeur drive to Blantyre Street, Chelsea. He stopped the car at the end of the street, and, dismissing it, made his way to a small house of sinister aspect, lying far back at the end of a ragged garden, thick with gloomy trees. Opening the gate with a latchkey, he passed up the drive, and knocked in a peculiar fashion at the tall door.
It was opened an inch, and a husky voice asked: "That you, guv'nor?"
"Who else, idiot?" was his lordship's reply.
The door was opened just wide enough for him to enter, then closed to again, leaving him standing in utter darkness.
"Will you strike a match," said the same husky voice.
Waverley struck a match. But as soon as it was well alight, a pair of handcuffs was snapped round his wrists, and an electric torch showed him the features of Sexton Blake.
"For so clever a man you walked easily enough into my telegram trap," said Blake. "I hold you for sequestration and kidnapping. I got your accomplice this afternoon. This way, my man!"
Blake spoke with an almost savage intensity foreign to his usual character.
"Here is the man, Mr. Carteris," he said, addressing a handsome though sadly-wasted man who, with a golden-haired boy on his knee, sat on a form against a bare and grimy wall.
"My cousin Waverley!" gasped Mr. Carteris.
"Himself!" said Blake.
"How on earth did you trace him down?" asked Carteris, after a long silence, during which he stared curiously at the sullen, vindictive face of his cousin.
"He was unwise enough to leave a cat's-eye button on the ground below the broken wicket-gate through which he bore your son there last night," said Blake. "I traced the button to Shald, the Bond Street tailor, who recognised it at once as one of an unique set he had sold to Mr. Carteris Waverley. The name inspired me to show him a pencil portrait your wife had made of you, and he immediately recognised you as Baron Moreton'a missing son.
"The rest I was easy. I found the garage from which Waverley had hired the big brown Mercedes ZQO43. I traced the car after much trouble to this house, and by a ruse overcame the fellow Flood, who has acted as your gaoler for so long. Then I sent a wire to Waverley, in Flood's name, intimating that the child was missing. And here he is. Twenty years is the maximum. And if I can help it, he won't get less."
IT was half an hour later that Blake led the new Baron Moreton and his son up the stairs to his rooms in Messenger Square. He opened the door quietly. Mrs. Carteris sprang to her feet.
"You have good news?" she cried.
"Better than you could dream!" said Blake softly. "I have brought them both back to you."
"Both!" she cried, her eyes ablaze with a white light. "Oh, both, Mr. Blake!"
Blake pushed the man and the child into the room, and, gently closing the door, walked with quick, uneven strides out into the night.