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RIVELIN HALL, an ancient mansion standing in the middle of an extensive park about three miles from Sheffield, was the residence of Lord Fulwood. Rivelin Lodge, which faced the park gates, was the residence of his lordship's agent, Mr. Ewart, who had converted one of the rooms into an office, in which, with the assistance of a clerk, he transacted his multifarious duties. On a certain Saturday morning in March, Mr. Ewart handed his clerk a considerable sum of money, and instructed him to take it to Sheffield and pay it into the bank.
The clerk, whose name was Gainsford, pedalled off on his bicycle. But the money was never paid into the bank and from the moment Gainsford disappeared round the bend in the road just below the lodge all trace of him was lost. And although the matter was in the hands of the police by noon on Saturday, no news of the missing clerk had been obtained up to Tuesday night.
Two theories only appeared to fit the case. One was that Gainsford had absconded with the money; the other that he had been waylaid on the road to Sheffield, and either kidnapped or murdered and robbed.
Mr. Ewart and the police inclined to the former theory; Lord Fulwood to the latter.
"I know an honest man when I see him," said his lordship, "and nothing would ever make me believe that Ralph Gainsford was a thief."
These words were uttered about eight o'clock on Tuesday night in Lord Fulwood's study at Rivelin Hall. The study was a small room on the ground floor, with a smaller room leading out of it. It was heated by electric radiators, and was illumined at night by a cluster of electric lights, which hung suspended at the end of a cord from the centre of the ceiling.
At the moment when Lord Fulwood spoke the words recorded above he and Mr. Ewart were seated in easy-chairs, discussing the mystery of Gainsford's disappearance. The study window, which overlooked the park, was screened by thick dark curtains. The door leading from the study to the ante-room was slightly ajar. The other door, which led from the study to the corridor outside, was closed. The electric lights, needless to say, were blazing at full brilliance.
"I agree with your lordship," said Mr. Ewart, "that Gainsford always appeared to be an honest fellow; but it seems to me that the only possible explanation—"
His further remarks were interrupted by the entrance of the butler with a number of letters for Lord Fulwood, Amongst them was a crumpled copy of Answers, which had been folded up, wrapped in a sheet of greasy paper, tied round with a bootlace, and addressed, apparently, in red ink.
Lord Fulwood tore off the wrapper and unfolded the paper. Opening it at random, he immediately noticed, that dozens of the printed letters on the page were underlined with a tiny dash, apparently in red ink. Most of the other pages were marked in a similar manner.
Suddenly an idea occurred to him. He was then gazing at the last of the pages that was marked. He started to spell out the marked fetters.
"m-u-s-t-a-c-t-q-u-i-c-k-l-y-y-o-u-r-s-r-e-s-p-e-c-t-f-u-l-l- y-r-g-a-i-n-s-f-o-r-d," he spelled out.
"'Must—act—quickly,'" he repeated, "'Yours respectfully—R.— Gainsford.'"
"Ewart," he cried, "this is a message from Gainsford! He has evidently been kidnapped, and has adopted this ingenious means of communicating with me! Look! See these little dashes under these letters! I thought at first they were in red ink; but they aren't. They're in blood! Gainsford is evidently a prisoner. Having no other means of communicating with me, but having a copy of Answers and a stamp in his possession, he appears to have pricked his finger—probably with his scarf- pin—and to have spelled out this message by marking these letters. He then wrapped up the journal in that sheet of greasy paper, addressed it in the same way that he had marked the letters, tied it up with his bootlace, stuck the stamp on, and in all probability threw it out of the window of the room in which he is imprisoned."
"Your lordship is undoubtedly right." said Mr. Ewart. "Now, let us spell out the rest of the message."
LORD FULWOOD seated himself at his writing-desk, which was immediately beneath the hanging cluster of electric lights already mentioned. Mr. Ewart stationed himself behind him and peered over his shoulder.
"This is the first page that contains any marked letters," said Lord Fulwood, laying the paper on the desk in front of him. "As you see, the first letter that is underscored is 'm,' and the next is 'y.' Follow me, and correct me if I make a mistake. 'My lord this is the only way in which I can let you know that I was overpowered and kidnapped on Saturday morning by two men who were acting under the orders of—'"
The report of a revolver rang through the room, The bullet struck and severed the cord of the electric light, and the room was instantly plunged into inky darkness. There was a cry of alarm from Mr. Ewart, which had scarcely crossed his lips ere a hand struck Lord Fulwood on the side of the head and sent him reeling out of his chair. Then the same hand that had struck him snatched up the copy of Answers off the desk, and footsteps were heard making for the ante-room.
"I see him!" cried Mr. Ewart. "He's making for the ante-room! After him!"
Lord Fulwood hurriedly scrambled in his feet. He heard the sounds of a furious struggle in the ante-room, followed by a heavy thud, and the sound of an opening window.
At the tome instant the butler and a couple of footmen, alarmed by the report of the revolver, burst into the study.
"To the ante-room!" roared Lord Fulwood. "Some scoundrel has—"
The rest of the sentence was drowned by an excited yell from Mr. Ewart: "He has climbed through the window! He's escaping! Follow me—quick!"
With Lord Fulwood at their head, the butler and the two footmen rushed into the ante-room. By that time Mr. Ewart had vaulted through the open window, and was racing across the dark, deserted park.
"Follow me! Follow me!" they heard him shout.
They followed him, but lost sight of him in the darkness. They called him, but received no reply. Eventually, lanterns having been procured, they found him lying in an unconscious condition at the foot of a tree in one of the most secluded corners of the park, with an ugly wound in the centre of his forehead.
They carried him back to the Hall, put him to bed, and sent for the doctor. And on Wednesday morning, as the police confessed their inability to throw any light on this fresh development of the mystery, Lord Fulwood wired for Sexton Blake.
MR. EWART was conscious when Sexton Blake arrived on Wednesday afternoon, and readily answered the detective's questions.
"I was standing behind Lord Fulwood," he said, "peering over his shoulder, and watching him decipher Gainsford's message. Suddenly, a revolver-bullet whistled past my ear and severed the wire of the electric light. The man who fired the shot must have been in the ante-room, the door, of which was slightly ajar. In fact, I know he was in the ante-room, for I distinctly saw a muffled figure dart out of the ante-room, knock Lord Fulwood out of his chair, snatch up the copy of Answers, and dash back to the ante-room.
"I rushed after him," he continued, "and seized him as he was about to open the ante-room window. After a short, sharp struggle, he knocked me down, opened the window, and gave chase. I overtook the man at the spot where I was subsequently found; but when I attempted to seize him he struck me a stunning blow on the forehead with his clubbed revolver. After that I remembered no more."
The detective requested Lord Fulwood to conduct him to the study. Here he made a discovery which appeared to afford him the liveliest satisfaction. The bullet which had severed the wire of the electric light had afterwards buried itself in the ceiling, and the spot where it had lodged was in front of the writing- desk, whilst the door of the anteroom was on the right of the desk.
"If the man who fired that shot last night was standing in the ante-room," he said to Lord Fulwood, "where would you expect the bullet to lodge after severing the cord of the electric light? In the opposite wall—eh?"
"Not necessarily," said Lord Fulwood. "If he fired in an upward direction, the bullet, after severing the cord, might lodge in the ceiling."
"True," said Sexton Blake. "But in what part of the ceiling would it lodge? Remember, the cord hung down in the middle of the room, and the door of the ante-room is on the right."
"Humph!" said Lord Fulwood. "The bullet ought to have lodged in some part of the ceiling on the left of the cord."
"Yet it lodged in the ceiling in front of the cord," said Sexton Blake. "If the laws of mechanics count for anything, it proves that the shot was fired by someone behind you."
"But that's impossible!" protested Lord Fulwood. "There was nobody behind me except Mr. Ewart."
"Exactly!" said Sexton Blake. "Now, show me the spot where Mr. Ewart was found."
This was at the foot of a tree in one of the most secluded corners of the park, Near by was the mouth of an old, disused well. The detective examined the surface of the ground at the foot of the tree and also in the neighbourhood of the well. Then, to Lord Fulwood's unconcealed surprise, he suggested they should return to the Hall for a long rope.
The rope having been procured, the detective tied one end of it to the stump of a neighboring tree, and dropped the other end into the old well. Then he swarmed down the rope into the well, and presently hauled himself out again.
"Well, what have you found?" asked Lord Fulwood.
"This," said Sexton Blake, and handed his lordship the missing copy of Answers.
"From the very first," said Sexton Blake, "I suspected that it was Mr. Ewart who fired that shot last night, and who stole that copy of Answers. His account of the affair only confirmed my suspicion, and the moment I entered the study and saw that hole in the ceiling, my theory became a certainty. For the bullet which had made that hole in the ceiling had clearly been fired by someone who had been standing behind you, and the only person who was behind you at the time was Mr. Ewart himself.
"It was Ewart, without a doubt, who arranged the kidnapping of Gainsford on Saturday morning," he continued. "When you received that copy of Answers last night and, announced that it contained a message from Gainsford, Mr. Ewart determined at all costs to prevent you from reading the message. He planted himself behind you, and at the critical moment whipped out a revolver, fired at the cord of the electric light, and plunged the study in darkness.
"He then struck you on the side of the head and knocked you out of your chair, after which he snatched the copy of Answers off the desk and shouted to you that he saw a man making off in the direction of the ante-room. He then rushed into the ante-room, pretended to be struggling with the thief, opened the window and sprang out, calling to you that the thief was escaping.
"When he vaulted through the window the copy of Answers was still m his hand. His first object, of course, was to get rid of it. He evidently knew of the existence of that old well, and I have not the slightest doubt that his intention was to throw the paper into the well and then to return and tell you that the thief had escaped.
"The first part of his plan was successfully carried out. He reached the well and dropped the paper into it. Unluckily for him, however, he caught his foot in a trailing creeper as he rushed back towards the Hall, and pitched forward on his face, and was stunned. That's the explanation of that contused wound in the middle of his forehead.
"Now that we have recovered that copy of Answers," concluded Sexton Blake, "we have only to spell out the rest of Gainsford's message, and the mystery will he solved."
He was right. On reaching the Hall, the detective and Lord Fulwood adjourned to the study, where they spelled out the whole of Ralph Gainsford's message.
Gainsford began by explaining that he had discovered that Mr. Ewart had been falsifying the accounts of the estate for several years, and had thereby been robbing Lord Fulwood of considerable sums of money. He had further discovered, he said, that Ewart had arranged to annex the whole of the rents which were due to be paid on Wednesday, and to sail for the Argentine on Thursday with his ill-gotten gains.
"I did not discover, the latter fact until Saturday morning," his message continued, "and I intended to interview your lordship and tell you what I had discovered when I returned from Sheffield after paying the money into the bank. Unfortunately, Mr. Ewart had evidently suspected that I had discovered his little game, and had arranged with two men to waylay me on my way to Sheffield and kidnap me and keep me a prisoner until he was safely out of the country."
Gainsford then described how he had been kidnapped, and wound up his account by relating how he had been taken to a certain house in Scotland Street. By Sexton Blake's advice, Lord Fulwood said nothing to Mr. Ewart of what they had discovered. Without a word to the agent, they motored to Sheffield and showed the copy of Answers to the chief constable. In less than half an hour afterwards a posse of police had raided the house in Scotland Street and had rescued Ralph Gainsford; and six hours later Sexton Blake was on his way back to London with a fat cheque in his pocket, and Mr. Ewart was in custody.