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IT was nine o'clock on Sunday morning, and Sexton Blake had just finished breakfast, when his landlady informed him that a lady, who gave the name of Wellings, wished to see him.
"I know you don't see clients as a rule on Sunday," she said; "but the poor old lady seems in such trouble, I hadn't the heart to send her away!"
"Trouble" was a word that never appealed to Sexton Blake in vain, and when it was a woman who was in. trouble—
"Show her up!" he said."
Mrs. Wellings proved to be a middle-aged woman, obviously of the lower middle class. She explained that she was a widow, and lived in York-street, which was only a step away from the detective's rooms.
"I'm sorry to trouble you at this early hour, and on a Sunday, too," she said, in a tearful voice; "but I'm convinced that something dreadful has happened to Ralph, and I want you to advise me what to do."
"Ralph?" said Sexton Blake inquiringly.
"My only son," she hastened to explain. "He's a professional photographer, and was formerly employed by the London Photographic Company. Six months ago he went to Berlin, where he had applied for, and obtained, a situation with a well-known firm of photographers, named Oppenheimer and Strauss."
"And what makes you fear that 'something dreadful' has happened to him?" asked Sexton Blake.
By way of reply, Mrs. Wellings handed him a telegram, despatched from Berlin at ten o'clock on Friday morning. It ran as follows:
LEAVING FOR LONDON THIS MORNING. ARRIVE VICTORIA 7.30 A.M. TO-MORROW. DO NOT TROUBLE TO MEET ME, AS SHALL BE ENGAGED ON FIRM'S BUSINESS ALL MORNING. WILL COME TO YOU AFTERNOON. STAYING TILL MONDAY. RALPH.
"I received that telegram on Friday afternoon—that is to say, the day before yesterday," said Mrs. Wellings. "As you see, Ralph told me not to trouble to meet him; but, nevertheless, I determined to do so. Accordingly, yesterday morning I started out for Victoria, but, unfortunately, I had miscalculated the time it would take me to walk from my house to the station, and it was striking eight when I reached Hyde Park Corner.
"As I was hurrying down Grosvenor Place," she continued, "I saw a motor-car coming up the road from the direction of the station. There were two men in the car, and as it passed me I suddenly perceived that one of the men was Ralph.
"I waved my hand and called to him, but neither he nor the other man saw me, and a moment later the car had turned into Piccadilly and was out of sight."
"Well?" asked Sexton Blake, as she paused and began to cry.
"I returned to my house," she sobbed, "never doubting that Ralph would turn up later in the day. But he didn't, and he hasn't turned up yet. I ought to have consulted you last night, but I kept on hoping against hope that he would come.
"I haven't slept a wink all night," she concluded. "What do.you advise me to do? What is your opinion? Has my son been kidnapped, or murdered, or has he met with some terrible accident? It is clear that he arrived at Victoria at ten minutes to eight yesterday morning, as he said he would in his telegram. He has now been in London for more than twenty-four hours. Why hasn't he come to my house? Where is he? If something has happened to prevent him coming to my house, why hasn't he sent me a message?"
"You are quite sure it was your son whom you saw in the motor-car?" asked Sexton Blake.
"As if I could possibly be mistaken!" she said.
"Were you expecting him to come to London?"
"Not until I received his telegram on Friday afternoon. Indeed, in the last letter I had from him, on Thursday, he said he was going to spend this weekend with an English friend at Potsdam. Evidently, therefore, his coming to England must have been decided on at the last moment—probably on Friday morning."
"So you do not know why he came to London?"
"I only know that he came to transact some business on behalf of Messrs. Oppenheimer and Strauss. He said so in his telegram, you know."
"You can supply me, of course, with a description of your son, and also of the car which you saw in Grosvenor Place?"
Mrs. Wellings handed him a photograph, and described the car to the best of her ability, and also the "other man' she had seen with her son.
"I advise you to go home, and leave the matter in my hands," said Sexton Blake. "I will first go down to Victoria Station and make inquiries there; and as soon as I have anything to report, I'll communicate with you."
"OH, yes, sir, I remember 'im quite well!" said the twenty-seventh porter at Victoria Station to whom the detective showed the photograph of Ralph Wellings.
"He arrived 'ere at 7.50 yesterday mornin' by the boat-express from Queenborough. I opened the carriage door for 'im, an' asked 'im if he 'ad any luggage, He said he 'ad three packages in the van; an' I got 'em out for 'im. Two of the packages was cases of photographic apparatus, an' the other was a portmanty.
"'Four-wheeler?' sez I, when I'd put the things on a barrow.
"'No,' sez 'e. 'There's a moty-car waitin' outside for me. Leastways,' he sez, 'there oughter be, for they wired to me at Queenborough as they was sendin' a car to meet me.'
"Sure enough," continued the porter, "there was a big green car in the station yard, with a red-'aired bloke in charge of it.
"'Are you the man wot Sir Somebody 'as sent to meet me?' sez my young gentleman.
"'Yes,' sez the red-'aired chap. 'That is, if you are Mr. Wellings, from Berlin.' 'I am,' sez my young gentleman.'
"And with that," concluded the porter, "I 'elps the red-'aired chap to stow the luggage in the back of the car, an' 'im an' Mr. Wellings drives away, an' that's all I knows about 'em."
"You didn't happen to notice the number of the car?" asked Sexton Blake.
"I didn't," said the porter.
"But the constable wot was on duty at the station gate would be sure to make a note of it."
It took the detective nearly an hour to discover the constable's name and to run him to earth. But it was time well spent, for the constable was able to furnish him with the number of the car; and a telephonic enquiry addressed to Scotland Yard elicited the information that the registered owners of the car were the London Automobile Supply Corporation, of Long Acre.
A hansom took Sexton Blake to this address in less than ten minutes; but the place was closed, being Sunday, and another half-hour was spent in hunting up the manager. Then the manager had to go to Long Acre to consult the books of the firm—in consequence of which it was nearly noon before the detective learned that the car had been hired for a week on the previous Friday by "J. Johnson, Mona House, Hamilton Terrace, Maida Vale, London, W."
A quarter of an hour later the detective's hansom turned out of St. John's Wood Road into Hamilton Terrace, and pulled up outside the garden gate of Mona House. The detective rang the front-door bell. There was no reply. Three times he rang, with the same result. Then he peered through one of the front windows, and found, to his surprise, that, although the window was garnished with blind and curtains, the room was both uncarpeted and unfurnished. A hurried glance through the other windows at the front of the house revealed the same state of affairs.
He passed through the wooden gate and entered the yard at the back of the house. Here there were neither blinds nor curtains to the windows. The house was unfurnished and uninhabited.
"A motor-car hired for a week," mused Sexton Blake. "An empty house, decked out in front with blinds and curtains to give it the appearance of being occupied. This looks serious!"
He pondered for a moment; then, smashing one of the panes of the kitchen window, he forced back the catch, raised the sash, and clambered into the silent and apparently deserted house.
BUT the house was not deserted. In the third room the detective explored he discovered a young man lying bound and gagged on the bare, uncarpeted floor, He recognised him from the photograph at a glance.
"Ralph Wellings, I believe?" he said, as he removed the gag from the young fellow's mouth.
"Yes," said Wellings, hoarsely. "Who are you?"
"Thank Heaven!" cried Wellings fervently.
Then he added,, wildly and incoherently; "Don't waste a minute! You can tell me afterwards how you tracked me to this house. Go to the Tower at once, or the Cullinan Diamond will be stolen. I can't come with you, for my leg is broken. But never mind about me. Go to the Tower at once—at once, or you'll be too late!"
Sexton Blake was not easily startled, but he was unmistakably startled now.
"Tell me all about it, quickly and briefly," he said.
"Messrs. Oppenheimer and Strauss, of Berlin, with whom I am employed," said Wellings, speaking rapidly and excitedly, "are bringing out a series of photographs of the Crown Jewels of Europe. They have already published photographs of the regalia of Germany, Austria, Italy, and Russia. About a fortnight ago they wrote to the Lord Chamberlain, and obtained permission to send over a man to photograph the British Crown Jewels, which, as you know, are kept at the Tower of London.
"They had originally intended to send over one of their assistants named Eckhardt; and it had been arranged that Eckhardt should leave Berlin last Friday morning and arrive at the Tower at half-past eight on Saturday morning, when, in the presence of the Keeper of the Regalia, a sentry, two yeoman, warders, and an official from the Lord Chamberlain's department, the jewel-case was to be opened and the regalia photographed.
"At the last moment Eckhardt fell ill and at half-past nine on Friday morning I was informed by Herr Strauss that I was to go to London in Eckhardt's place! I wired to my mother, left Berlin at 11.40, and arrived at Queenborough at six o'clock yesterday morning.
"At Queenborough I received a telegram, purporting to come from the Keeper of the Regalia, saying that he was sending motor- car to meet me at Victoria and take me to the Tower. The car was there when I arrived, and the chauffeur explained that before he took me to the Tower he had to call for the Lord Chamberlain's representative, whose name was Tredgold, and who lived in Hamilton Terrace.
"When the car pulled up outside this house the chauffeur asked me to ring the hell. I did so, and the man who opened the door requested me to step inside for a moment. No sooner had I done so than he attacked me with a loaded cane, and in the struggle my leg was broken, and I was stunned.
"When I came round, I was lying bound and gagged in this room. The chauffeur and the man who had opened the door were standing over me. With brutal frankness the latter explained that his name was Gunning, that the chauffeur's name was Hoffmann, and that they were both members of an international gang of thieves, for whose arrest there were warrants out in all the capitals of Europe.
"Gunning further explained that he and Hoffmann and another member of the gang, named Schreiner, had ascertained that Oppenheimer and Strauss were sending Eckhardt over to London to photograph the jewels in the Tower. And they had decided, he said, to kidnap Eckhardt, and to send Gunning to the Tower in his place, with the intention of stealing the famous Cullinan Diamond, which, as they knew, had recently been placed amongst the other Crown Jewels.
"'For this purpose,' said Gunning coolly, 'Hoffmann and I, who were then in Berlin, came over to London, rented this house, and hired a motor-car. Schreiner remained in Berlin to carry out the rest of the plot; and on Friday morning he wired to me that Eckhardt had been taken ill, and you were coming in his place.
"'After you had left Berlin,' continued Gunning, 'Schreiner wired to the Keeper of the Regalia, in your name, informing him that you had missed your train, and would not reach London until late on Saturday night. He added that you would call on him at one o'clock on Sunday afternoon, to apologise and make fresh arrangements.
"'It was I,' said Gunning, 'who sent that telegram which you received at Queenborough, saying that he was sending his motor- car to meet you at Victoria and take you to the Tower. You fell into the trap. And now that I have told you all this, you can doubtless guess what Hoffmann and I are going to do.'
"I couldn't guess," continued Wellings, "but Gunning quickly enlightened me.
"'Hoffmann, is going to drive me to the Tower at one o'clock to-morrow afternoon,' he said, 'and I am going to pretend to be Ralph Wellings. Being Sunday, the Tower will be closed to ordinary visitors, and the Jewel Room will be locked up. But there is a private way from the reception apartments to the Jewel Room, and, after I have apologised to him for having missed my train, I am going to persuade him to let me have a look at the Crown Jewels. Then I'm going to stun him, collar the Cullinan Diamond, return to the car, and make a graceful exit!'"
Sexton Blake whipped out his watch It was two minutes to one.
"So Gunning and Hoffmann are now on their way to the Tower?" he said.
"Yes, They left in the car about five minutes before you arrived. That's why I implored you to lose no time, but to go to the Tower at once. Unless you—"
But Sexton Blake was out of hearing. He was scrambling through the kitchen window, and a moment later he was climbing into his hansom.
"The Tower!" he said to the cabby. "And drive like the dickens!"
ABOUT the same time as Sexton Blake sprang into his hansom, a big green motor-car drew up outside the gate of London's Tower. There were two men in the car. One was Gunning, and tho other was Hoffmann.
"I wish to see the Keeper of the Regalia," said Gunning alighting from the car, and addressing the constable on guard at the gate. "My name is Wellings. He is expecting me."
The constable beckoned to a yeoman warder.
"This gentleman has an appointment with the Keeper."
"This way, sir!" said the warder.
A sentry inside the main gate, a sergeant and a warder outside the Middle Tower, another warder and another sentry at the Byward Gate, a sentry outside St. Thomas's Tower&mdash>;those were the only persons Gunning saw, till a housemaid took charge of him at the door of the Keeper's quarters and ushered him into that official's presence.
There is no need to record the conversation which ensued. Suffice to say that, after Gunning had apologised for not having kept his appointment on Saturday morning, he broached the subject of fresh arrangements.
"In the meantime," he said, "it would be a very great help to me if I could see the room in which the Crown Jewels are kept. Of course, I know the room is locked up on Sundays; but you could doubtless take me there, if you would. Will you?"
With characteristic good nature, the Keeper assented. He unlocked a door, led the way along a narrow, private corridor, unlocked another door, and ushered Gunning into the Jewel Room.
"There they are!" he said, as he switched on the electric light.
Gunning gazed at the glass and iron case in which the Crown Jewels of Great Britain flashed and scintillated. The Cullinan Diamond, the gift of the people of the Transvaal to the King of England, seemed especially to attract his attention.
"When I come to photograph the jewels,"'he said, pointing to a window on the opposite side of the room, "will it be possible to block out the light of that window?"
The Keeper turned to look at the window. At the same instant a loaded cane flashed out of Gunning's pocket, and descended with brutal force on the back of his head. With a stifled groan, the Keeper of the Regalia stumbled forward and pitched unconscious to the ground.
Quivering with excitement, Gunning whipped out a bunch of skeleton keys, and tackled the lock of the outer case. Not without good reason had he earned the reputation of being the cleverest look-picker in Europe. In less than five minutes he stood inside the inner case, with the Cullinan Diamond in his hand. And sixty seconds later, after locking both doors behind him, he had quitted the apartments, with the precious jewels in his pocket.
Neither sentries nor warders paid any special attention to him. Without being stopped or even challenged, he reached the outer gate, and was in the act of stepping into the car when a hansom rattled up and Sexton Blake sprang out.
What happened next happened so quickly as almost to defy coherent description. At the sight of Sexton Blake, Gunning whipped out a revolver. Ere he could fire, however, the detective had him by the throat; whilst, at the same moment, in response to a shout from Sexton Blake, the constable on guard at the gate threw himself on Hoffmann and dragged him out of the car.
Two minutes later Gunning and Hoffmann had been overpowered and hustled into the Tower grounds, the gates had been closed, and the crowd which had meanwhile gathered outside had been curtly informed "there was nothing to communicate."
The rest is soon told. The Cullinan Diamond was found in Gunning's pocket, and he and Hoffmann were subsequently sentenced to twenty years' penal servitude. The Keeper of the Regalia soon recovered from the effects of Gunning's blow, and Ralph Wellings at the present time is one of the leading photographers in London, and has Royal authority for describing himself as "Photographer, by Special Appointment, to H.M. King Edward."