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RGL is proud to offer its readers the first-ever book edition of another "lost" work by Edgar Wallace—a series of ten stories about an intrepid aviator by the name of Captain Murray Hay. The series appeared in at least two periodical publications under different titles:
• "The Exploits of Airman Hay"
(Topical Times, D.C. Thompson, Dundee, Aug 30-Nov 1, 1924)
• "The Hazards of 'Headstrong' Hay"
(The Sunday Post, Glasgow, Jun 28-Aug 31, 1931)
The stories were published under completely different titles in each magazine:
|Topical Times Title||Sunday Post Title|
|The Captain's Good Deeds||The Hazards of "Headstrong" Hay|
|The Imperious Young Lady||Jean Airling Meets Her Match|
|The Birthday Greeting||The Scheming Mrs. Conner|
|The Mysterious Kidnapping||"Headstrong" Hay is a Little Too Hasty|
|The Oxygen Man||Mr. Gray's Queer Request|
|The Passing of the Professor||A Trap for a Trickster|
|The Woman from Brixton||The Girl in Ambush|
|The Fireman||She Ignored His Warning, and—|
|The Classical Scholar||The Richmond Park Mystery|
|The Vampire||Hay's Last Hazard|
The RGL edition, The Adventures of Airman Hay, presents the stories under the titles found in Edgar Wallace's manuscript, most of which correspond to those used in Topical Times. The title graphics published in the Glasgow Sunday Post have been added.
—R.G., July 2016
With a little pang of contrition Murray Hay realised that it was so long since he had been to Elbury that even the station porter, who was also station-master and ticket collector, did not recognise him. And this discovery added to his gloom.
He had caught an earlier train than he planned, and since his uncle would not expect him before three o'clock, he decided to lunch at the Red Lion. And even the Red Lion had changed its proprietor and staff since those hectic days of 1914 when he had come to say good-bye to his indulgent relative before plunging into four years of horror and thrill.
There was one other traveller in the coffee-room when he went in, a tall, thin man in a golfing suit, who was lunching at leisure, reading a newspaper when Murray arrived, and scarcely looked up to see the newcomer.
Taking stock of him, Murray guessed that his age was somewhere in the neighbourhood of forty. His face was thin and lined and a red diagonal scar ran from his right cheek to his chin. The young man's first impression was that his fellow guest was a foreigner, and this was confirmed when, looking suddenly over his paper, the man said:
"Good morning, m'sieur. You are a stranger here, yes?"
"I'm afraid I am in these days," smiled Murray ruefully.
"Ah! It is a beautiful place, of all places, most exquisite! I also, am a stranger."
Murray was not really interested and uttered some commonplace, for he had all the Britisher's aversion to conversation with strangers.
He paid his bill and set off on the three mile walk which separated him from Elbury Park. Even the lodge-keeper was new to him and eyed him suspiciously as he swung up the elm drive, and when he rang the bell of Elbury Manor and the door was opened by the prettiest girl that ever wore maid's uniform, his sensation of change was complete. Her flawless skin and fine, dark eyes were altogether entrancing, and for a second he was speechless with wonder and admiration.
"Mr. Hay? Yes, sir. Sir John is expecting you."
She preceded the dazzled young man to the library door and knocked. In another few seconds he was shaking hands with the bluff white-haired man who was his only relative.
"Changed, has it, you young dog! If you had been a dutiful nephew and paid me a visit or two, you wouldn't have noticed the change! However... sit down. Have a cigar."
"I missed old Thomas," said Murray.
"I pensioned him off. What do you think of the new maid?"
"She's beautiful," said Murray, with an enthusiasm he did not attempt to conceal.
"She's efficient," said the other practically, "and that is all that counts. She is pretty, though."
Sir John paced the floor, his hands in his pockets. Presently he stopped before the big glass case that contained his priceless gold plate—the £100,000 worth of the goldsmith's art that had taken a lifetime to collect.
"You wonder why I sent for you?" he asked. "The truth is, Murray, you're rapidly developing into a waster. No, no, I don't mean that you're becoming a blackguard, but just what I say: a waster of time, a waster of money, a waste of opportunity. Life to you is a glorified amusement park, if you'll excuse the Wembley illustration. The Palace of Industry means nothing to you; It Is the Giant Racer and the Scenic Railway that occupy your mind and thoughts. That isn't good for a young man."
Sir John Harlesden sat down in his chair, selected a cigar from a silver box on the table, and smiled quizzically at the disconsolate young man who sat opposite to him. Murray was a good-looking, clean-cut youth, the type that public schools and Sandhurst turn out yearly by the thousand.
"I'm a rich man," the other went on, "and you are my only relative, which means that you have instinctively come to look upon me as a sort of gilt-edged investment that will yield you money without the necessity of working for it. You have, in fact, become a sponger."
Murray writhed at the word. Sir John leant his elbows on the table and regarded his nephew with a critical eye.
"You're a decent boy; you've all sorts of medals and decorations for the work you did in the war. But wars are mere incidents which occur at intervals of a hundred years, and there is something to be done besides shooting down Germans from the air. Anyway, if you did it to-day, you'd be tried for wilful murder!"
"What do you want me to do?" asked Murray.
He was not the type that sulked; indeed, he recognised the absolute truth of all his uncle had said.
Sir John puffed a cloud of smoke into the air before he replied.
"I've been thinking it over. When I die, there's a million pounds for you, and I've had serious thoughts of transferring that amount to you during my lifetime. This appeals more to me than putting your name in my will, because I hate the thought that anybody is going to benefit by my death! At present you have an allowance of five thousand a year, which is more than any young man should have to chuck about. If I were a manufacturing millionaire or a merchant prince or one of these captains of industry that one reads about, it would be a simple matter to put you in one of my factories. But, fortunately or unfortunately, I made my money in the larger field of finance. And really I have no desire that you should go into business. You'd be an awful duffer, anyway. Your spelling is execrable and your knowledge of figures would bring the blush of shame to a child of six."
He opened a drawer, took out a paper covered with writing and, laying it on the pad in front of him, consulted his notes.
"In order that you should keep up your flying, I bought you a couple of fast machines; I've got you a private aerodrome and I pay the wages of three or four mechanics."
"You want me to turn the thing into a commercial hire company?" asked Murray eagerly. "Why, of course I will, uncle. I've thought about it before."
Sir John shook his head.
"I don't want you to do anything of the kind," he said. "I wish to inculcate the Boy Scout spirit. Murray, I ask of you"—he spoke deliberately, emphasising each sentence with a tap on his blotting-pad—"that in the course of the next year you perform eight good turns."
"Eight good turns?" repeated the dumbfounded young man. "You mean—?"
"I mean that you shall render eight acts of service to people who cannot afford to pay you and for whom these services are vital."
Murray's jaw dropped.
"But how the dickens am I going to find out—?" he began. "And what about the good turn I am doing on Saturday? I'm giving a stunt exhibition at the Police Festival at Wimbledon. I'm doing this without fee—"
"That doesn't count," said Sir John, with a twinkle in his eye. "And you will best discover how you can help by mixing with the people of the world; by bringing yourself into acquaintance with the needs of your fellow creatures. I don't mind your advertising,"—A light came into Murray's eyes—"but apart from the difficulty you'll have of sorting out the genuine cases from the fakes, you've got to prove to me that you have added to the sum of the world's happiness by your good actions. That is all. I have no suggestion to make as to how you will go about your task: only your eight deeds must satisfy me as to their disinterestedness. I've no doubt that you will find ample compensation, for the way of unselfishness is the way of high adventure. And, Murray, you won't find the right kind of people to help if you're frigid and standoffish. Talk to folks in the train... I'll bet you're the kind that could go from London to Aberdeen with one fellow passenger and never utter a word except to ask him if he minded the window being down!"
Murray remembered guiltily his taciturn treatment of the guest at the Red Lion.
"Now, off you go—be helpful, be of use in the world—and keep your eyes off my new parlourmaid!"
Ten minutes later, Murray Hay was walking down the drive like a man in a dream. How typical of old Sir John Harlesden this scheme was! For Sir John was something of an original, and it was he who, for a bet, sent a messenger boy around the world in seventy days.
Presently the humour of the situation took hold of him and Murray grinned. Eight good turns! There must he millions of people in the world who wanted something done for them. But did that something take the shape of a free ride in an aeroplane?
As he walked, he looked round, hoping to find some damsel stranded, some old man in distress, until he realised that he had not the wherewithal to help them, even if they existed. As he reached the village and was passing the Red Lion, he saw the stranger in the golfing suit come out, and obviously, by the direction he took, he also was making for the station.
In his then mood, Murray was prepared to be communicative, even to a perfect stranger; and he realised that there was this amount of truth in Sir John Harlesden's words, that he could only discover the needs of his fellows by unbending from his aloof attitude.
There was some time to wait before the train came in, and, seeing the stranger feeling in his pocket for some matches, he made a point of strolling up to him and offering a box.
"That is very kind of you," said the other, beaming. "My name is Lacomte."
"Mine is Murray Hay," said Murray recklessly, overriding the reticence of years. "Are you going to London?"
"Oui—yes, I am going to London. It is a wonderful city, but too noisy. And for me, distracted as I am"—he clasped his brow dramatically—"it is maddening!"
As they took their seats in the same carriage, Murray wondered whether it would be also maddening for him, for he had his own problem, which could not be any less poignant than M. Lacomte's.
"You are in trouble also?" said the Frenchman, with quick intuition.
"Well—yes," he admitted. And then, in his new mood of expansiveness, he went on: "You see, I am in a sort of a hole." Again he hesitated, but with an effort he continued. "I am an airman," he began.
"An aviateur?" said the other, with sudden interest, and Murray nodded.
"I have my own machine. And I am afraid I've rather wasted a lot of time and money barging around"—he hurriedly explained in his best French the meaning of the verb 'to barge', which had puzzled the stranger. "And now a relation of mine has asked me to help people... I mean, do them good turns."
A light dawned in the Frenchman's face.
"Ah, yes, I understand. You are to be more altruistic, and you are to use that aeroplane... extraordinaire!"
Murray thought it was extraordinaire too, but he didn't quite gather the Frenchman's meaning until later.
"So you were here in this little town, looking for persons to whom you could be a benefactor? You do not live here, no?"
Murray shook his head.
"In London, perhaps? This is most extraordinaire!"
Murray did not explain that his visit to Elbury was totally unconnected with a desire to do anybody a turn, unless, in obeying his uncle's somewhat peremptory demand that he should come down, he was helping a less favoured fellow citizen.
The Frenchman was strangely silent for the first part of the journey, and the train was running into the suburbs of London when he suddenly leant forward and, in a low voice asked:
"Is that what you wish—to render service unselfishly, to help the weak, hein?"
"That's the general idea," said Murray miserably. All the way up he had been turning over in his mind every possible and impossible solution of his difficulty.
Again the Frenchman relapsed into silence, which he as unexpectedly broke.
"Monsieur," he said gravely, "there are things happening in this world which few realise. Cruelties perpetrated, wrongs inflicted, desperate and villainous deeds committed, and none are wiser. For not all these things go to the judges at the courts."
Murray looked at him in astonishment, wondering what was coming next.
"Let me tell you a story," said the other. M. Lacomte's voice was low and sad. "Many years ago there lived in the town of Avignon, in France, a young girl, beautiful and accomplished. She had unfortunately a guardian who lived, and still lives, in England, and who coveted the property which came to her at her father's death. The property runs into hundreds of thousands of pounds. No sooner did this scoundrel discover that he was placed in charge of the girl's fortune, than he brought her to England on an excuse; and from that day to this she has never been visible."
Murray Hay's jaw dropped.
"Murdered?" he said incredulously.
The other man shook his head.
"No, monsieur. That she is alive, we, her friends, and the friends of her dear father, know. I said she had not been visible, but she has been seen walking about the grounds of this monster's house, but always by night! By day she is kept looked up in a room, and her meals, we presume, are carried to her by the man himself. Jean Jacques Milfois—a name which may be familiar to you."
Murray shook his head.
"I don't know him from a crow," he admitted, and the Frenchman sighed.
"He is well known, too well known," he said savagely. "Every week, cheques signed by little Adele come to her bank and are honoured. It is impossible to prevent payment. Last Monday I received a letter, which I have not with me, but the gist of which I will communicate to you, monsieur. It was a request from Adele that we save her from a terrible fate. But, monsieur, how can it be done? To take her from her guardian might be easy, though there would be some risk. But to get her from England, with your wonderful complicated police system? Every boat would be watched, every avenue of escape guarded. The bullies he hires to guard her might be overcome. It is possible to reach her window on the outside with the aid of a ladder, but those terrible policemen who stand at the gangways of the outgoing mail steamers, and who watch ceaselessly day and night at Dover and Folkestone, those are my difficulties."
Murray had listened with growing amazement.
"But is this really a fact?" he asked, his hopes suddenly rising. "Do you mean to tell me that here in England, in London...?"
M. Lacomte nodded.
"Your words have filled me with an ecstasy of optimism," he said. Then his face fell. "Can you fly by night?"
Murray could fly by night or day, in fair weather or foul, but he did not say this. Instead, he modestly admitted his ability to find his way across even an unknown country in the dark.
"Always providing that there's a landing place," he added.
"As to that, monsieur," said the other eagerly, "I can tell you that you need have no fear. You say your name is—?"
"Murray Hay," repeated Murray.
"That is a good name, a name which inspires confidence in my heart." He clutched his waistcoat fervently, and then: "Where can I see you to-night?"
Murray's first impulse was to give him the name of his club, but he changed his mind. He remained sufficiently British to hesitate before introducing a volcanic foreigner to that chaste atmosphere. Instead, he gave him the address of his little flat.
At eight o'clock that night, when he was dressing for dinner, the Frenchman called.
"Monsieur, I have news," he said. "I have had a letter from Adele, in which she tells me that Jean Jacques is leaving the house on Saturday. She will he alone. She has bribed a servant and can get into the grounds. Monsieur, can you help me to place this innocent child beyond the machinations of a heartless and contemptible villain?"
This was the question which Murray had been turning over and over in the solitude of his flat ever since he had said good-night to the Frenchman at the station; and he had come to a decision. Here was an act which must come into the category of good deeds, and he had already telephoned to his mechanics to have the machine in readiness.
"That's good news," he said thoughtfully. "I'd sooner make a landing by day than by night."
"At what height can you travel?"
"Anything up to twenty thousand feet," said Murray, and Lacomte's eyes glistened.
"They will not see us at that height. We may pass across to France above the clouds. It is magnificent! And you will help me?"
Murray's answer was to offer his hand.
When, on the Friday, he had a letter from Sir John asking him to accompany the baronet to Scotland for the week-end, it was with a sense of virtue that he wired:
"Sorry. Too busy doing good turns."
On Saturday morning a car called at Letherby Mansions, and the Frenchman was the solitary inmate. He waited impatiently for a quarter of an hour, although he was more than that time ahead of his appointment, for Murray to put in his appearance. At last the young airman came down and joined him.
"It is good weather for flying, yes?" he asked eagerly.
The young man looked up at the scurrying clouds.
"Yes, pretty good," he said.
He was glad enough that his good deed was timed for the early part of the day, for he had promised a very high police official that he would stunt for the benefit of the thousands who attended the annual police festival at noon that day. And he reckoned that he could drop the rescued girl in France and get back before the festival concluded.
The morning was grey, the air cold, and the Frenchman was shivering by the time they reached the little aerodrome at Barnet. Murray Hay's little Scout had been temporarily converted into a three-seater.
"It will be a close fit for you," warned Murray, as he made his way across the landing ground.
"The baggage—we shall have room for that, yes?" asked the Frenchman.
"A little," said Murray, and hoped that M. Lacomte shared his idea as to what was 'a little'.
The Frenchman was examining the machine with every sign of interest. He asked a few questions as to the length of time the machine could be in the air, and seemed satisfied. It occurred to Murray that his passenger had been in the air before, for after he had been enveloped in a heavy leather coat, he strapped himself in with the care of an old campaigner.
"Yes," he said, in answer to the young man's question, "I was once observer in the French Army—never pilot, you understand."
The mechanics made their final inspection; the propeller was spun, and with a deafening roar the propellers flew round in a blue haze. In another second the machine was bumping lightly along the ground. Presently the bumping ceased, and, looking down, Lacomte saw the ground fall away.
Higher and higher the aeroplane mounted, and now London lay beneath them, veiled under a blue layer of smoke. Presently Murray heard the telephone receiver at his ear.
"To the west!"
It had been arranged that his destination should be kept a secret until the last moment; an understandable precaution, thought the airman, though it was rather a nuisance not knowing the direction he was to take.
London was behind them now, and beneath a thin white twisting ribbon that Murray knew to be the Thames.
"Bear a little northward," said the voice in his ear, and he obeyed.
They flew for half-an-hour before Lacomte again corrected the direction. He was studying a map intently, and a quarter of an hour later:
"You will go north now and look for the two spires of Alchester Cathedral," he said.
Alchester Cathedral? That was near Elbury. Then in what place was this unfortunate girl imprisoned? Murray knew all the big houses for miles around, but he could not place Jean Jacques Milfois.
Fire minutes' flying, and ahead of him he saw the broad green of Elbury Park and chuckled. Little did Sir John know that the first good turn was progressing towards completion.
And then, to his amazement, Lacomte's voice roared:
"Descendez! On the green—there!" His lean, brown finger pointed, and Murray almost jumped out of his seat in his amazement.
He was to come down in Elbury Park!
"Is that the place where the girl is kept prisoner?" he asked, through the microphone.
"Oui, it is there."
But for the wind that would have blown the sound back between his teeth, Murray would have whistled. Obediently he dipped the nose of his Scout, missed the high poplars that skirted the western boundary, and touched ground out of sight but within a few hundred yards of the house. And then he saw a figure run from the shelter of the rhododendrons towards him.
"Do not stop your engine!" shouted Lacomte.
The figure was a woman, and she carried with difficulty a great bundle. Even as the machine came to a standstill, she was beside the cockpit and Lacomte had hauled the bundle on board. There was a musical sound of clinking metal, and out of the corner of his goggled eyes Murray saw the pretty maid. She was dressed for the journey, buttoned to the chin, a leather cap strapped over her dark hair, and goggles fastened across her forehead. In a few seconds she had followed the man and was strapping herself by the side of Lacomte.
"Allez!" hissed the Frenchman's voice. "For France!"
Murray had only the briefest time to make up his mind. He let out the engine and the machine bounded across the park, cleared the elms above the drive, and in a brief space of time had mounted high into the blue. No word of direction was spoken. Again he picked up the thread of the Thames. He saw now between cloud breaks, for he was well above the rolling mist that partially obscured the surface of the earth.
"Which way do you go?" asked the voice of Lacomte.
"Along the Thames mouth on to Dunkirk. Where do you wish to land?"
"As near Rheims as possible," said Lacomte. "You are losing height," he exclaimed.
"I want to get into the clouds," replied Murray, and presently he was in the thick, blinding whiteness, only to emerge again at a lower level.
"You are losing height!" screamed the other. "My friend, do not play fools with me!"
Murray did not answer. He was flying at two thousand feet above the earth and he was picking out landmarks. Presently he saw what he wanted: a great field, set about with banners which looked pin-points of colour from that height.
"Where are you going? You fool, where are you going?" hissed Lacomte, but Murray was swooping down to a broad field, and men were running towards the machine from all directions.
Some were policemen in uniform, and some were policemen without uniform, but they were all policemen, as he knew.
"Hullo, Mr. Hay! I'm glad you've arrived in time," said a burly inspector. "What is the first stunt?"
"My first stunt is to hand over this lady and gentleman to your tender care," said Murray Hay. "And be careful with that big and bulging bag. I'm not a good guesser, but I have an idea that it contains the majority of my uncle's gold plate which this pretty young lady has pinched!"
Sir John Harlesden was spending the week-end at St. Andrews when he received a telegram which surprised him a little and puzzled him a great deal.
"FIRST GOOD TURN ACCOMPLISHED, NAME OF
PERSON BENEFITED. SIR JOHN HARLESDEN."
It was signed "Murray".
Dear Captain Hay: I have just read in the 'Courier' the story of your exciting adventure with burglars and of your extraordinary arrangement with Sir John, that you will employ your aeroplane to do eight good turns.
I hardly dare put my case to you—it is so similar to the false story which was told to you by the conspirators who enlisted your help that I cannot expect you to believe me. I am an orphan living with relations who, for some reason, have conceived a violent dislike to my fiancé and have done all in their power to keep us apart. Arthur is leaving Paris next Monday en route to the United States. He is under the impression that I no longer love him, for apparently my letters to him have been intercepted. One of his letters has, however, got through to me, and in this he asks me to meet him at Southampton on Tuesday. He has the licence for the marriage and my ticket for the mail steamer. In his letter he says that if I am not there he will accept my absence as proof that I no longer love him, and will go on to America, never to return. What can I do? I am kept penniless, and this is an isolated spot (twenty miles from Arbroath) and if I had the money and attempted to reach the station I should be detected. I am...
(Here followed a description of herself, her age and parentage.)
Can you pick me up on Monday and take me to Southampton? There is a big field which I have marked on the enclosed ordnance map where you could land. If you will help, please wire 'Goods will be delivered on Tuesday'—I will be waiting for you at eleven in the forenoon.
What Miss Jean Arling did not write in her letter was that she was a very pretty, very wealthy and very wilful young lady, and that her uncle and guardian pined for her twenty-first birthday, which would relieve him of his responsibility.
Colonel Larn was a mild and kindly man, whose one fervent hope in life was that the twenty-third man with whom Jean fell in love would be a desirable partner. The first twenty-two had included an assortment of Admirals of the Fleet, Commanders-in-Chief of Allied Armies, aristocratic chauffeurs, three married men, and Arthur Elfer, who was not a chauffeur but was the most undesirable of all. He had come to Strathside with a letter of introduction for a week-end stay, had remained three weeks and had departed, leaving behind him a sheaf of bills, for during his stay he had bought royally and widely. He had been tailored in Edinburgh, booted and hosed in Dundee, and the bill for car hire, which came from an Arbroath garage, exceeded all other bills in size and importance.
And Jean loved him dearly. She had said as much to the distracted Colonel; she said it almost every day.
"The man is an utter waster; he is wanted by the English police for passing spurious cheques, and it is more than likely that he is already married," said the Colonel.
This was at breakfast on the very day Captain Murray Hay came upon the lady's letter.
"You hate him," said Jean angrily. "You have always hated men who admired me! I want fifty pounds to go to London. I am sick of this place."
The Colonel groaned.
"You can have fifty thousand pounds and go to—to London, so far as I am concerned, but you must wait until your Aunt Emily returns from Bournemouth. I cannot allow you to travel alone."
Jean restrained herself with a mighty effort.
"May I have the car to go into Arbroath?" she demanded, well knowing what the reply would be.
"I am driving into Arbroath, and you can come with me," he said. "And, Jean, who is that Captain Murray Hay you wrote to yesterday morning?"
"Why didn't you open the letter and find out—the same as you have done with my other letters?" she asked viciously.
The Colonel sighed and went into the library to count for the hundredth time the days which separated him from the end of his burdensome guardianship.
Captain, or, as he preferred to be called, Mr. Murray Hay, was only just recovering from the shook of finding that he had inadvertently rendered a service to the man who had imposed upon him the bizarre conditions of his benefactions. The secondhand appeal of a damsel in distress had made him the unwitting accomplice of a clever French burglar, and he was not in the mood to repeat his act of knight errantry.
And yet there was a certain appeal about this letter which was irresistible. It was not the only letter he had received, by any means; the ill-timed publication by his uncle of the terms of their bargain had brought him so many letters that he had to employ two girls and a man secretary to deal with his correspondence. In the main they were epistles from people who invented an excuse on the spur of the moment for securing a cheap ride in the air, and this was the first letter that really interested him.
Unfortunately, his late experience made him chary of dealing with ladies who had hateful guardians. And then an idea occurred to him; he rang up a friend of his who was the London representative of a Scottish newspaper, and, by great good fortune, the journalist knew both the Colonel and his wayward niece. That she was wayward, however, and even that she was wealthy, was not known to the informant.
"Oh, yes, I know a Miss Arling. She lives with her uncle, Colonel Lorn, who is a bit of a martinet, I am told."
Murray hesitated and was lost. That afternoon he sent a wire to Strathside, a message which the girl received exultantly.
Her uncle was going into a neighbouring town the next morning, and she was so amiable at breakfast that he ought to have been suspicious when she declined, with great sweetness, his offer to take her with him. He was nearing Arbroath when he heard the hum of an aeroplane engine, and, looking up, saw a microscopic speck of white in the sky and wondered what the pilot was doing in that part of the world.
Jean, with travelling rug and handbag, a heavy coat on her arm, waited with some impatience for the appearance of the machine. She had managed to leave the house unobserved, and it was typical of her that the fact that Mr. Murray Hay was twenty-five minutes late was a cause of some irritation, for Jean was one of those imperious young persons who believed that the world was made in seven days for her especial benefit.
Murray made a good landing and brought his little machine to a standstill within a dozen yards of the waiting girl. One glance at her told him that she was pretty, but her first words were rather staggering.
"Punctuality is the politeness of princes, Captain Hay," she said, with a note of asperity. "You are half-an-hour late."
He looked at her open-mouthed.
"Are you the young person I'm picking up?" he asked.
"I am Miss Jean Arling," she replied with dignity. "Isn't there a covered place for me to sit?"
For a moment Murray was staggered, and then the humour of the situation came to him and he laughed softly.
"I'm afraid there isn't any other place than the seat behind me," he said. "I shall keep a lot of the wind off you, but there are certain discomforts which are inseparable from travel in the air. I'm sorry I have kept you waiting, but the truth is, my engine isn't running as well as I could wish, and I had to stop en route."
He reached down and took her handbag and rug, fished out from a little locker a leather cap, which she regarded with disfavour.
"I can't possibly wear that," she said. "It would make my hair untidy."
He was looking at her with an amused smile in his grey eyes.
"If you don't wear it, your hair will be a little more untidy," he said grimly. "You can put your hat under the seat."
Something in his tone recalled to the girl the obligation under which she stood.
"I'm sure it's awfully kind of you to have taken all this trouble for me," she said, as, with some labour, she clambered into the fuselage. "But please do not think that I wish you to do this without a reward. My fiancé will repay you——"
"You will find some sandwiches in the little looker on the right, and a large thermos flask," said Murray coldly. "Please understand that I do not require payment for the small service I am rendering you. A little cheerfulness on your part would be greatly appreciated."
As he was strapping her in, it occurred to him that the doubts which had beset him on the journey northward had been more than justified by the querulous tone of this young lady, for which even her good looks were no compensation. There was some delay whilst he dragged out innumerable tins of petrol and charged his tanks, and the girl glanced impatiently backward towards the home farm.
"Why couldn't you put that stuff in before you came here?" she asked irritably. "We are wasting valuable time."
"If I didn't charge my tanks, I should probably waste your valuable young life," said Murray with a smile. He had got over the quick wrath which her ingratitude had inspired.
He threw the last tin away, climbed into his seat, looked backward at her, and, to her annoyance, adjusted the cap to a new and more unbecoming position.
"Please don't touch me," she said haughtily. "If you will make any suggestion, I will try to carry it out."
"Don't be silly," said Murray, and the coolness of the reply took her breath away.
The propeller had been ticking over all the time, and now, with a roar, it suddenly quickened, until she saw nothing but the faint blue circle. The machine was moving. She had never been in an aeroplane before, and she gripped tight to the side of the fuselage. In another few seconds the bumping sensation which had accompanied their movement across the uneven field ceased, and she saw the world dropping slowly away from her.
He was making for the sea: she saw the bare stretch of it beneath her, saw the yellow fore-shore come nearer, and then they were above the water and the shore was receding. She longed to ask him why it was necessary that they should go over the sea at all, but apparently her voice, raised almost to a scream, was unheard in the rush of air. He must have guessed what she was trying to do, for he half turned his head and pointed to a little telephone adjustment near the seat. She took it up reluctantly and fixed the instrument.
"Why do you go to sea?" she asked.
"It is the shortest way," was the reply. "We will pick up land ahead."
Her notions of geography wars fairly hazy, and her impression was that the first land they would see, if they followed their present course, would be the north coast of Africa.
That the machine was not flying well was evident. Now and again it seemed to lose speed; even she, inexperienced as she was, noticed a peculiar irregularity in the pull of the tractor. She was not afraid, but at the same time she was not unduly elated at the success of her stratagem. It was only as she thought of the Colonel's annoyance when he returned to find her gone, that she was in any way comforted.
Murray Hay, who knew nothing about the Colonel, and did not even speculate upon the state of his feelings, found no comfort in anything except the knowledge that, if his flight failed, and this very haughty passenger of his had the disappointment of her life, he would not be as heartbroken as he might have been.
They were now well out to sea, and ahead of them the girl saw a little blob which looked like land, and asked him what it was.
"Seagull Island," he replied; "uninhabited except by birds." He added, in a spirit of mischief: "I thought you might like to study nature at close quarters."
"I want to study nothing," she snapped, "What time shall we get to Southampton?"
"Heaven knows," replied Murray, and, even as he spoke, the thunder of the engine ceased, and the propeller slowed perceptibly. He made some quick adjustments, but with no result: the screw was slowing so that she could follow the rapid revolution of the blades.
"What has happened?" she asked in a panic.
"Engine failure," was the laconic reply.
He took a quick glance at his instruments. He was ten thousand feet above sea level, and there was a possibility that against a fresh south-westerly wind he might keep sufficient height to glide to the land, which was now almost out of sight. Against this course there were many arguments. He was farther away from the mainland than he had intended, and it was quite possible that he could not keep the machine in the air long enough to save them both a soaking, if nothing worse.
He searched the sea for a ship, but there was nothing in sight: only the irregular blob of grey-white rock that marked Seagull Island. And then he remembered that during the war there had been one or two forced landings on this unpromising site. Two aeroplanes chasing a Zeppelin had managed to get down upon the uneven table top of the island, and he made his decision. Circling like a great bird round and round the island, and coming lower at every second, he searched for a likely landing place, and presently was close enough to choose the spot. It was not level ground by any means, but it was smooth, and he guessed, from the stunted bushes and the grass that grew on the top, that there was something like a surface.
Presently the nose of the machine went down and he glided gracefully, missing the high pinnacles of the rocks to the eastward, skimming a deep gully, until his wheels just touched the bumpy surface of the ground. As he did so, thousands of white birds came flying up in a cloud to meet him, shrieking their annoyance at this alarming apparition. The girl, clutching tightly to her seat, was flung from left to right, until the aeroplane stopped.
"We're down," said Murray unnecessarily.
He unstrapped himself at leisure and climbed out of the fuselage. There was nothing to see but the edge of the deep crater into which his machine had landed. But right ahead of him he saw, to his amazement, a rough wooden hut, from the square chimney of which smoke was rising. More amazing still, a young and good-looking woman came running across the ground to meet them.
The miracle was explained: she was an enthusiastic naturalist who spent four months on the island every year, studying the ways and habits of migratory birds. Murray could have fallen on her neck in his relief; for the prospect of spending even a few hours alone on that desolate island with his very trying passenger was a horrible one.
The girl was fuming.
"You must get your repairs done at once," she stormed. "Arthur expects me in Southampton this evening."
"I am sorry about Arthur," said Murray wearily, "but as there is every possibility that this infernal engine is out of action for keeps, and can only be repaired by a staff of experts——"
She gazed at him in horror.
"You mean we shall be here for days?" she gasped.
"For weeks probably," said Murray.
The naturalist was looking from one to the other, a light of quiet amusement in her eyes.
"My accommodation is very rough, but I think I can make you comfortable, Miss——"
"Miss Jean Arling," introduced Murray.
But the girl ignored the proffered hospitality.
"You must get the engine repaired! I insist!" she said. "I will not live in this horrible place! You must telegraph to my guardian; he will send a ship to take us off."
Murray looked at the woman naturalist, weariness and boredom in every line of his good-looking face.
"Send a wire through—or maybe you can find a district messenger," he said sarcastically. "I presume that all the blessings of science can be found on this island?"
The lady shook her head.
"It will be another six weeks before a boat comes to take us off," she said, "unless you can get your machine to work."
"Six weeks!" The girl's face lengthened. "You see what you have done for me, Captain Hay? I was a fool to trust myself to your wretched machine. I could easily have hired one and had a competent pilot."
"You've got one," said Murray, taking off his coat preparatory to a complete overhaul of his engine.
Their unexpected hostess went back to prepare breakfast, and the two were left alone.
"I wish I'd never read in the newspaper about your stupid adventure," said Jean.
"So do I," replied Murray, climbing into the fuselage.
"You've probably ruined the whole of my life, and when Arthur knows——"
"Does Arthur know you very well?" asked the exasperated young man.
"Of course he does," she replied with dignity; "I am engaged to him."
"But does he know you?" demanded Murray, spanner in hand, and glaring down at the girl. "Because, if he knows you, he's not going to worry to-day, and if he doesn't know you, he's saved a lot of worry to-morrow!"
"You're impertinent!" she flashed an angry glance at him, and then her lips curled in a sneer; "I suppose you think this is one of the good turns that you're supposed to do?"
"I thought it was," he admitted, addressing the engine on which he was working.
"If I'd had any sense, I'd have asked Arthur to come and fetch me. He was in the Air Force."
"I congratulate the Air Force," replied Murray Hay savagely, "on his retirement."
She pressed her lips tightly together, but her expression was eloquent of her extreme dislike.
"I only knew one Arthur in the Air Force," Murray went on, "and I never read of a hanging nowadays without swotting the details. Up to now he is still alive!"
"You're insulting!" she said furiously. "I shouldn't be surprised if you're in the pay of my uncle—I shouldn't be a bit surprised," she said with emphasis, as the new idea took hold of her. "When I come into my money I'm going to have this matter thoroughly thrashed out."
"Oh, you're coming into money, are you?" he said mechanically, for his mind was entirely occupied with his work. "If you're an heiress, you're the sort of bird—sort of lady, I mean," he added hastily, "that my Arthur would be running after."
"My Arthur is the soul of honour," she said quietly.
"Loud cheers," replied Mr. Hay.
"When you meet him, you will be sorry you spoke like that," said Miss Jean Arling, tremulous with anger.
"Not so sorry as I should be to meet him," replied Murray.
He was being abominably rude, but he was entirely on the defensive. She turned on her heel and went towards the little hut, and Mr. Murray Hay was extremely grateful.
The naturalist brought him some coffee and biscuits and he was glad of the refreshment.
"I think I've located the trouble," he said, "and with any kind of luck, we ought to be off the island in an hour."
He produced from some mysterious recess of the aeroplane a stout rope and a long steel tent peg, and with these implements tethered the machine.
"I shall have to develop a considerable pull," he explained, "and I shall ask you to cut the rope as soon as I signal you."
The girl heard the noise of the engines as he tried them out, and came from the hut in a hurry.
"Have no fear, I shall not leave you," he said ironically, as he stopped the engines and got down to examine the tethering rope.
He spent the next ten minutes sharpening a knife under the glowering eyes of the girl. She had had time for reflection, and had decided that, as a matter of policy, it was a mistake to quarrel with the man on whom the success of her flight depended. He might in revenge notify her uncle by telegraph and her elopement, and even her marriage, would be stopped. In the circumstances she felt it best to compromise, and with a great effort apologised for her unseemly behaviour of the morning.
"Naturally, my nerves are on edge," she explained with difficulty, "and you must forgive me."
"Temper," suggested Murray unhelpfully. Then, with a laugh: "Why, of course, Miss Arling, I quite understand your feelings. Personally, I have never eloped, but I imagine I should be in just the same condition of mind as you are, and just as offensive."
"I'm never offensive!" she snapped. And then, recovering her poise: "I'm sorry I'm so irritable, but you're a very provoking man."
"Forget me," suggested Murray, giving a final pull at the rope and handing the knife to the naturalist. "Concentrate your thoughts and mind upon Arthur—forgive me for the familiarity, but I do not know his other name."
"Captain Arthur Elfer," said the girl, and added, impressively: "Military Cross."
Murray's foot was raised to step into the fuselage when she spoke, but slowly it came down again and he turned and faced her with an incredulous frown.
"Arthur Elfer?" he said. "Not Arthur Eric Elfer?"
"You're going to elope with him? Good Lord!"
"Why shouldn't I?"
"Well, there are several reasons: one is that he's married; the second is that he was kicked out of the Air Force for cheating at cards; the third is that he is a notorious blackguard, who has swindled scores of people by means of faked letters of introduction and judicious borrowing..."
Her face was white and set.
"You are in my uncle's pay!" she said accusingly. "I've thought it all along. How much did he give you? I can afford to give you more. I don't suppose you mind a change of masters if the fee is high enough."
Murray Hay smiled.
"That sounds familiar to me: it's from some melodrama, isn't it? No, I haven't the satisfaction of being in any other uncle's pay than my own. But you're sure—Arthur Eric Elfer is his name?"
"Of course it is!" she exploded.
Murray scratched his chin thoughtfully.
"All right," he said. "Now if you'll get into the machine, we will continue along the airy path to happiness."
She eyed him suspiciously, but to all appearance he was serious, and she could only suppose that his sarcasm was good-natured. As the propeller swung over, the rope grew taut. Faster and faster spun the engines, and then Murray signalled, his hand fell, and the rope parted with a crack. Before the girl realised what had happened, the aeroplane was zooming up at a steep and, to her, alarming angle. They cleared the saw-like edges of the crater and in another second were over the open sea. Three times they circled the island, gaining height, then it dropped away behind them.
In a quarter of an hour she saw a low-lying shore appearing before her, which evidently was another island, of greater length, for it had appeared on their left, and she wished she had paid stricter attention to the elementary geography of the British Isles. They crossed the land: she saw a town beneath her, a wide river, and the thin, spidery line of a railway bridge. It was a very big town, with many smoking chimneys. She wondered whether it was Newcastle or Durham, and how it came to be on the left of the machine.
They were over the country now, dappled green and gold. The aeroplane was losing height. And then, with a cry of horror, she recognised a familiar landmark. It was the Strathside kirk: there was no mistaking its queer steeple.
Hastily she gathered up the talking apparatus and shrieked into the microphone:
"Where are we going?"
Captain Murray Hay did not answer until the machine was rocking across the field from which she had ascended.
"Here you are, young lady," he said as the aeroplane came to a standstill.
"But—but we're back where we started!"
"You are, but I'm not," he said laconically, and handed out her valise.
She scrambled from the machine and was near to tears of rage and mortification, but she could not speak. At last:
"Is this what you call doing a good turn?" she gasped
"I've done you a better turn than you can imagine," said Murray. "I know Arthur Eric Elfer!"
And, with a cheery wave of his hand, he sent the Scout leaping.
When A young and enthusiastic airman is offered an enormous sum by an admiring uncle on condition that he utilises his aeroplane to "do a good turn" to eight people, it would seem at first glance that his task was a fairly easy one and the money practically in his pocket. But that this was not exactly the case, Mr. Murray Hey explained to his relative.
"You've no idea of the number of people who pretend that their lives depend upon an air trip, but who in reality only want a cheap ride," he said disconsolately. "I have heard from every crook, every loafer and every hysterical lady in England, and each and every one of them has a plausible tale to tell. And that plausible tale has to be investigated, and the time I waste—"
"Life," interrupted Sir John oracularly, "is largely a game of separating the chaff from the grain, the true from the false. It isn't a waste of time—in fact, time could not be better employed. It was just this occupation that I foresaw for you, and in all the circumstances I am very well satisfied with the results of my experiment. The real cases will come along, and there is no great hurry anyway. Have you had no promising requests?"
"Millions," said Murray extravagantly. "They are all promising! Forty-five prominent actresses have required the loan of my 'bus to reach some distant town in time to meet their engagements; sixty film stars have demanded my services to raise their salaries; ninety-five press agents have implored me to help them boost the wares they advertise. I have correspondents in every lunatic asylum in Great Britain—oh, yes, they're promising!"
Sir John looked at his cigar thoughtfully.
"There is a lot of romance in the world," he said. "You find its spirit in the most unlikely people. Take the Admiral, for example."
Sir John generally quoted his sturdy seadog of a neighbour. Admiral Sir Francis Smirth, his sayings, his eccentricities and his original view-points, had been hurled at Murray's head as long as he remembered. He had met the Admiral and liked him, but did not associate him with romance.
"Romantic—of course he is! The old devil is as full of fancies as a dog is of fleas. And as vain as a boy of twenty! He's got a face likely a badly mauled bulldog, but he has never lost hope that some day a bewitching female forty years younger than himself will fall in love with him!"
Sir John smiled confidently.
"They will come along," he said; "have no fear, Murray! Go on with your sifting and you will find the grain."
Murray Hay was sitting in the office of the little aerodrome, gazing gloomily at the pile of correspondence that stood on his table, when a most unexpected visitor was announced.
He had once assisted an impetuous young lady to elope, until a forced landing on a desolate island brought about the discovery of the young lady's fiancé. At the mention of the name of one of the greatest scoundrels he had ever met, he had deposited the infuriated bride-to-be within the grounds of her own house.
"Miss Jean Arling?" he said, hardly believing the words that were printed on the card. "Good Lord! what does she want?"
He went out of his office to meet a smiling girl, and took her hand with a sense of embarrassment.
"I wonder if you have forgiven me, Captain Hay?" she asked.
"I wonder if you have forgiven me," he laughed. "I was abominably rude to you."
"And I most abominably deserved all that you said," she smiled. "I came to London yesterday with my uncle, and I thought I would look you up and apologise to you. I was a cat."
"I'm rather fond of cats," said Murray solemnly, and they both laughed.
Suddenly the smile left Murray's face.
"You don't want me to do you a good turn, by any chance?" he asked anxiously, remembering the unhappy conclusion of his last adventure.
She shook her head.
"No, thank you," she answered demurely. "Only—" she hesitated—"I was curious to know whether you had had a client more objectionable than myself. I think I should be happy if I knew I was not the only ungrateful little beast in the world. By the way, did my case count as one of your good deeds?"
"It was really. I found afterwards that Mr. Elfer was an awful person. And now," she said with a smile, "I've come to do you a turn."
"Me?" said the astonished Murray.
"Yes. You see, Colonel Larn and your uncle are old friends, and the Colonel was telling me this morning how what difficult it was to find people who really wanted your help, and I've found one."
He gaped at her.
"You've found one really?" he said. "If you've done that. Miss Arling, I am in your debt for life."
"It is a girl," she said, and, when he groaned: "I sympathise with your agony of mind, but in this case it is really a nice girl—Alice Conners: do you know her?"
He shook his head.
"She's a great dear, very well off, and she's married to the most violently jealous man in the world."
"Thank you," interrupted Murray hastily, "I don't think that is the kind of lady I want to do good turns for."
"Now don't interrupt." She raised a finger in quite her best old manner, and remembering this pretty girl's capacity for reproof, he shuddered. "Johnny Conners is in the Navy, which means that he has to go away for months in the year, and all the time he's on the sea he's working himself up into a state of agitation at the thought of his wife dancing with other men, and gadding about, as he calls it. Poor dear! she doesn't dance at all, and seldom goes out of her house after dinner. Next Tuesday is his birthday, and she wants to give him a surprise—at least, it was my idea. He's away with the fleet and they're manoeuvering in the Channel and will not be in port for three days. No private messages can he received on the ship, because the wireless is to be used only for strictly naval business. Johnny's favourite flower is the Michaelmas daisy, and this is my idea: that you should take Alice, fly over the Fleet and drop a bunch of Michaelmas daisies on to the quarterdeck of the flagship with a little note attached."
Murray looked dubious.
"That doesn't seem to be much of a good turn," he said. "She's got the money, she could hire an aeroplane."
Jean shook her head.
"No, that's where you're wrong. During manoeuvers private aeroplanes have been warned off the manoeuver ground which means, of course, that there'd be a risk for the man who took Alice. She's applied to the only three companies who could do this for her, and they've all refused. So, unless you can do it, nobody can do it."
It seemed a fairly easy way of acquiring a new point in his score—too easy, he thought, and she must have read his thoughts accurately.
"Even if it doesn't count a point to you, you will be pleasing an awfully nice girl, you will be helping Alice tremendously. I want you to come to-day and lunch with her."
To this he agreed with some alacrity, for out of their very offensiveness one to the other, there had grown a sense of comradeship with the girl.
Mrs. Conners occupied a bijou house in a quiet little square off the Bayswater Road. She proved almost to completely justify Jean's encomiums—almost, not quite. Murray Hay, being a Scotsman, was suspicious of too sudden friendliness, and this lady was effusive, almost gushing. He had not been at her table for ten minutes before he knew her whole history, the unhappy time she had had because of her husband's jealousy, and a detailed account of their last quarrel. Murray was so constituted that he regarded such confidences as a little indecent.
Jean Arling, with her quick intuition, sensed the impression which her friend was creating, and during the momentary absence of their hostess from the room—she had been called away to answer the telephone—she said:
"Alice is a little too friendly to your Scottish mind?"
"She is a little too irresponsible," he replied bluntly. "How long has your friend's husband been at sea?"
"Three weeks," she answered. "At least, it is three weeks since they have seen one another. They had an awful scene before they parted," she said, lowering her voice; "I think that is why Alice is so anxious to make it up."
Mrs. Conners returned at that moment, and Murray studied her for the rest of the meal. He placed her in the category of fluffy women of the blue-eyed, golden-haired type, but her lips were a thought too thin, her chin a little too determined, and there was a certain coldness in the blue of her eyes which did not appeal to him. Moreover—and this was utterly against his somewhat Puritanical nature—she insisted upon discussing her husband, his faults and failings, his violent temper and his curious jealousy. She seemed to take a malicious pride in hurting this tolerant man of the sea. And Murray was not the only person shocked by her revelations.
"But surely, Alice, you didn't tell him you were dancing with Bobby Glaye?" asked Jean.
"I did, and he was furious—simply furious, my dear." Mrs. Conners had a soft, cooing voice, to which it was very pleasant to listen.
"But you never went out that night. You told me—"
"Of course I went out," said the woman impatiently. "My dear, I've told you lots of tarradiddles. After all, I can't be cooped up here morning, noon and night, just because Johnny is away at sea—how absurd! Besides, I love tantalising him. If you don't make a man jealous, he ceases to love you."
She smiled at a thought, and then:
"You're going to help me, aren't you, Captain Hay?"
"I will certainly help you," he said, without any great heartiness.
"Of course, it's terribly galling for Johnny to be on the same ship as that awful old horror Smirth."
"Admiral Smirth?" said Murray in surprise. "Is he in command of your husband's ship?"
She nodded, her eyes twinkling.
"He's a terrible old creature, but he loves flirting, and you wouldn't imagine it possible, but Johnny is ridiculously jealous."
Murray remembered his uncle's words shout the romantic soul of the Admiral. The rest of the meal was occupied in discussing arrangements for the birthday flight.
As he drove Jean Arling home to her uncle's flat in Berkeley Square, he had considerable misgivings, which the girl did little to remove.
"Alice is an extraordinary woman," she said thoughtfully. "I never dreamt that she was like that. You're not going through with this, Captain Hay?"
He shook his head.
"I'm afraid I must," he said. "I have promised her."
"And I am responsible," she said penitently. "But honestly, I didn't know Alice was such a—"
"Fool is the word you want," he said when she hesitated.
"I think it is. She is deteriorating under the consciousness of the power she has over her husband, and is losing no opportunity of arousing his jealousy," she said. "I know there was a terrible scene before he went away, but I blamed him—I did not know Alice as I know her now. If I were you, I should find a way out of this engagement."
"That is impossible," he said quietly. "But whether I'm doing anybody a good turn is open to doubt."
His uncle was in town that night, and Murray sought him out at his club and put the facts before him.
"Yes, I should count that as a point," said Sir John, after he had given the matter some thought. "If these two people have quarreled, and you're the means of effecting a reconciliation, that would be decidedly a point, for you would be doing two people a good turn. I'm not sure that it wouldn't be two points."
Murray sighed his relief.
"That's all right, then," he said more cheerfully. "I'm picking the lady up at Christchurch, near Bournemouth, early on Tuesday morning. I shall probably get a slating from the Admiralty, but as they're on manoeuvers they are hardly likely to shoot me down for going too close. And anyway, my machine is so tiny and I shall fly so high that I doubt very much whether they will recognise me until I am well away."
Yet, despite his cheerfulness, he was far from satisfied in his mind that Mrs. Conners' scheme was quite as innocent as it sounded. There was a certain amount of quiet malice in her face and tone when he had agreed to accept her commission, and he was a little disturbed at the thought that his trip might not be as innocuous as it had been represented. That matters were more strained between husband and wife than she had hinted, he learnt when, on the following morning, Jean Arling rang him up in a state of agitation.
"Please, Captain Hay, do not go any further in this matter with Alice," she begged. "I have found out through my maid, who is the sister of Alice's maid, that the quarrel was much more serious than we thought."
"In which case," he said lightly, "the reconciliation will be all the more effective."
There was no answer from the other end of the telephone.
"Did you hear me?" he asked.
"Yes, I heard you, but I'm not so sure that it is a reconciliation."
He was startled to hear his own thought put into words.
"Why do you say that?" he demanded.
"Alice makes no secret of her intention, which is to drive poor Johnny to some folly which will make a divorce possible. The thing she is scared of is having her name associated with any man. She's just admitted coolly that she could have got any number of aeroplanes for her purpose, that there's no restriction on machines flying over the fleet, and that she only chose you because you would be difficult to trace, and she begged me not to give your name."
"What's her little game?" he asked.
He heard the girl's weary sigh at the other end of the line.
"Heaven knows! You'll not do it, will you?" she asked, almost begged.
"I shall give the matter my most earnest thought," he said.
He was determined now to discover what mystery lay behind the birthday greeting, and on the Monday night he flew his machine to Christchurch. In the morning he was waiting in the field, putting the final touches to the Scout, when a car drove up and he saw Alice Connors alight. She was dressed in the chic-est airman's kit he had ever seen on a girl. From her blue velvet flying cap to her elegantly cut breeches and gaiters, she was a model of chicness.
"She might have stepped off the front page of any magazine—or from the chorus of any revue," thought Murray, as he walked to meet her.
She carried under her arm a huge bunch of Michaelmas daisies, and Murray saw that, attached by a broad purple ribbon, was a label with three lines of microscopic writing at the end.
"I am so glad you did not fail me, Captain Hay," she said, smiling sweetly. "Jean Arling made such a fuss about your helping me that one would imagine I was trying to run away with you!"
"That wouldn't have worried Miss Arling very much," smiled Murray, as he took the flowers from the girl's arm and put them under his own.
"Wouldn't it?" she said significantly. "Jean Arling is a very impressionable young person, and she thinks quite enough about you."
Murray listened with polite interest, gathering that the woman wished to please him.
"She's the last person in the world any man should marry," the lady prattled on. "She has a most shocking temper, and can be most insulting."
"So I have noticed," agreed Murray, and she looked at him quickly.
"You have known her for a long time?"
"About ten and a half hours," said Murray, as he bent his knee to furnish the dainty lady a step by which she could reach the fuselage.
He followed her, examined the strap about her slim waist, and then pulled on his own helmet and lowered his goggles.
"Let me take those flowers," he said; "they're in your way."
She made no protest when he took them and laid them beneath his own seat. In so doing the three lines at the end of the cardboard label came under his eye, but he had no time or inclination to read. With a splutter and crash the engines started up, and, gathering speed at every yard, the little Scout flew over the surface of the ground, and in half the length of the field had taken the air.
Beneath them lay the Isle of Wight, bathed in morning sunshine, and the narrow thread of the Solent. He crossed the island, heading south-west. He had been fortunate in roughly locating the position of the Fleet. And now, with perfect flying conditions, his engines running sweetly, his eyes dropped again to the flowers and the writing, and before he had realised what he was doing, he had read the message.
"Many happy returns of the day! I have had a perfect time, and at this moment am flying over you with the best-looking airman in England."
In his agitation he allowed the machine to side-slip, and felt her nervous clutch on his arm.
"Phew!" said Murray, growing hotter and hotter.
So that was the scheme! He was being the unconscious instrument of her malice.
"Flying over you with the best-looking airman in England". He would not admit that he was the best-looking airman, but he happened to be the only one in that machine!
His first impulse was to turn and land the lady where he had picked her up; and then he remembered the romantic Admiral Sir Francis Smirth, and a great idea took shape. She could not see over his shoulder, and could not guess what he was doing, when he lifted the flowers end, tearing off the lower end of the label, where the message was written, thrust the torn slip into his pocket, at the same time taking out his pencil.
He considered for a moment. Somewhere ahead of them, and soon to be faintly visible, were the Fleet, under the command of a romantic man whose favourite dream it was that some day love would come unsought. Murray grinned as he put the point of the indelible pencil to his tongue and wrote:
"To dear Francis Smirth, from his admiring—"
What name should he put? Rapidly he reviewed all the women's names he knew, and wrote "Agnes".
He had arranged to drop the flowers, for a special knowledge of speed and distance is necessary even for the dropping of bouquets. He presently picked up the Fleet: it was steaming, and the battleship leading the line would he the flagship. He took a wide sweep, coming lower and lower, until he was only a hundred feet above the grey-blue waters. And then, as the first ship was nearly abreast of him, he swooped down. Mrs. Conners, peering down at the egg-shaped quarterdeck, had a momentary glimpse of upturned faces, saw something drop and a sailor run forward to pick up the flowers, and cooed her satisfaction.
A signal gun banged from the flagship, and, looking backward, Murray saw a frantic staccato movement of signal flags, but continued forward, gaining height all the time. He was ten thousand feet up when he passed over the land, turning the nose of his machine towards the smoky pall of London. Presently the nose of the machine dipped and the aeroplane came to rest on his own little field.
"Wonderful, wonderful!" she breathed, as he was unstrapping her. "It was worth living for, that experience."
Murray said nothing until he had lifted her to the ground.
"And what is most wonderful, madam?" he asked sternly. "The run through the ocean air, or the fulfilment of your very unpleasant plan?"
She looked at him in wonder.
"What do you mean?" she faltered.
"I read the inscription on the flowers," he said, and her face coloured.
"I thought you were too much of a gentleman to—" she began, flurried.
"Perhaps I am trying to pick up a few hints on the art of reconciliation," he said drily. "At any rate, I read it. And if you are a decent woman, it will give you some satisfaction to know that that message was not dropped—"
She looked at him open-mouthed.
"You tore off the label?"
"A portion of it. On the other half I inscribed a message to a gentleman with a romantic soul." In spite of his seriousness he smiled.
"To—not to the Admiral?" she gasped.
"What did you say?"
"I wrote to 'Dear Sir Francis Smirth, from his loving Agnes.'"
He thought she would drop.
"Agnes?" she squeaked. "Did you write 'Agnes'?"
It was Murray's turn to be amazed.
"Why not?" he asked easily.
"Why not?" she raved. "Oh, you fool! Agnes is my second name...the Admiral always calls me Agnes!"
"I'm going away on the Continent for about six weeks until this matter blows over," said Murray to his uncle. "It's a cowardly thing to do, but I don't mind being a coward once in a while. And you can wipe out this as a good turn—"
"Wipe it out? Nonsense!" said Sir John. "Don't you think it was a good turn to make the old Admiral's dream come true? And as for going away—well, you needn't. Conners was not on that ship. He had a touch of malaria and they put him ashore the night before at Plymouth. Maybe, after this shock, Alice Conners will behave like a rational human being. No, my boy, that's Good Turn No. 3, duly registered and acknowledged. You've got five more to do, and your job is through."
There were many reasons which induced Mr. Murray Hay, airman at large, to take up winter quarters at Telbury. Most of these reasons he set forth in a long and unnecessarily detailed letter to his uncle.
When a man has undertaken to employ his aeroplane in doing good turns to the limited clientele which may require the free use of a 300-h.p. Bristol Scout, he finds opportunities few and far between. The excuse he gave for moving from his aerodrome at Barnet to the barn and the field which served him at Telbury, was that it was the heart of the Shakespeare country, and it was very possible that amongst the many visitors to that delightful corner of Warwick he would find some in need of his services, was not a whole or complete statement of his psychology.
The truth was (though he might not have admitted this to himself) that in the region of Telbury was a large country mansion known as Laud House, tenanted by Mrs. Gallagher. Mrs. Gallagher exercised no fascination over the susceptible heart of Airman Hay. On the contrary, he loathed her, and the loathing was reciprocated.
She was a tall, well-built, capable young woman, with a passion for managing the affairs of the world; and having successfully secured a husband of her own, it was her desire to find suitable matches for her friends. Murray knew her: she was, in fact, a distant relation. But she was certainly not the kind of person he would have gone a journey to meet, nor did she add any attraction to the countryside. But quite by accident, he had learnt that Miss Jean Arling, a wilful young lady, an heiress to a considerable fortune, was spending a month with Mrs. Gallagher.
Now he had met Jean Arling, and had spent one tempestuous day with her some four thousand feet above the level of the earth, and the memory held certain smarts, but it also contained a ridiculous happiness, the foundation for which Airman Hay, who was no psychologist, found it difficult to discover. Of course, she was pretty and had the slimmest and most graceful of figures, but she was, Airman Hay admitted ruefully, biased to the Tartar in disposition.
Nevertheless, he called upon his relation, made himself most agreeable, enquired after her new baby, and gradually worked the conversation round to the subject of Jean Arling.
"Oh, yes, you know her, of course," said Jane Gallagher coldly. "You tried to help her elope once, or something equally absurd. She was only telling me last week, when I met her in Scotland, how much she detests you."
"Bless you for those kind words," said Murray, striving hard to suppress his irritation. "So she's coming here? It's a curious thing, I'm moving my little aerodrome to this neighbourhood—"
"Then I hope you won't see much of her, Murray," said Jane severely, with that maddening air of motherliness which so set his nerves on edge. "I think Jean should settle down, and in fact I've got a man in my mind who would suit her admirably. Johnny Billings—"
"That cow-faced nincompoop!" said Murray vulgarly.
Mrs. Gallagher closed her eyes, shrugged her shoulders, and changed the subject with such pointedness that Murray knew he would never again induce her to discuss a lady who was most insidiously intruding herself into his thoughts.
Undiscouraged, he came to Telbury, with his mechanics and his spare parts, and became an object of interest and disappointment to the village, which expected him to do stunts daily, and were openly derisive when he failed them.
Murray stayed at the Chequers, a pretty little inn, remarkable for its charm even in Telbury, which was one of the show villages of Warwickshire. He certainly met many interesting people, but few who might claim his services. The place was, as usual in these months, alive with American visitors. Motor-cars came and went; new faces appeared in the dining-room of the Chequers day by day; and until the arrival of Mr. Jublee Jones, of Hartford, Connecticut, there was none who had the appearance of permanence.
Mr. Jublee Jones came with his party in two cars: his wife, his inevitable mother, his two nurses, his maids, his wife's maids, the small whining bundle of humanity which represented the hope of the Jones family.
Murray remembered the day of their arrival: it coincided with the coming of another visitor. He met her quite by accident as he was strolling towards his aerodrome; and when she came into view round the corner of a narrow lane, his heart beat a little faster. A slim figure in tweeds, he saw her mouth open in an O of astonishment, saw the frown of doubt, and then the smile as she came towards him with outstretched hand.
"Why, Mr. Hay—it surely is Mr. Hay?"
"How do you do, Miss Arling?" he stammered. "Haven't seen you for quite a long time. No more elopements?"
He was being gauche and knew it, but for the life of him could think of no more intelligent remark.
"Why, of course," she said, "my heroic benefactor!"
The touch of the sardonic in her tone made him wince, and then:
"You ought to be jolly grateful to me," he said reproachfully, and again knowing that he was on the wrong tack, changed the subject abruptly. "And how do you find Jane in these days?"
"Jane? Oh, you mean Mrs. Gallagher! She's a relative of yours, isn't she? She was telling me this morning that when you were a boy you hated having your neck washed."
"She would remember that," said Murray coldly, "she is so much older than I."
"Now you're being a cat," she said, pointing an accusing finger at him. "Why didn't you come up to see me? I'll ask Jane to bring you up to dinner. I'm most anxious to know how your quixotic scheme for helping humanity is progressing."
But the invitation did not come, either that night or the next. On the third day Murray went boldly up to Laud House and was received by Jane.
"Jean is away," she said, with the greatest uncordiality. "And really, Murray, I think it would be in better taste if you did not attempt to see her."
"Why on earth?" asked the astonished young man. Jane shrugged her massive shoulders.
"You're poor, Jean is rich: that is one reason. Another is, that your presence is a little distasteful to her. You must remember the circumstances in which you met, Murray. Surely you're sufficiently a gentleman—"
"But she's asked me up to dinner!" said the indignant young man, "Surely, if she can stick you and your podgy husband and your squawking child, she can stand me for an hour or two!"
Jane rose slowly and pressed the bell. When her butler appeared:
"Show Mr. Hay out," she said. And, as he was going: "I will never forgive you, Murray, for your disgraceful reference to my darling."
"I'm sorry I was rude about your husband," said the penitent Hay.
"I am not referring to Mr. Gallagher," she said with dignity, "but to Lucille."
He stopped and stared.
"You haven't given that unfortunate child a name like that, have you?" he asked in amazement.
She pointed to the door.
Undeterred, he went the next day. The butler, in his politest manner, made it clear to him that the door of Laud House was not open for his visits. He saw the girl by accident in the village that same afternoon.
"Can't you make it right with Jane?" he begged. "I'm afraid I said too much the last time I was up."
There was a twinkle of laughter in the girl's eyes, but she shook her head.
"You've finished yourself so far as Jane is concerned. However could you say such things about Lucille? She's furious with you."
"I shouldn't think a baby could be furious with anybody," he groaned.
"I mean Jane—you know I mean Jane."
Murray began to find Telbury a very dull place, in spite of his newly acquired friendship with Mr. Jublee Jones. Mr. Jones was a millionaire; he had made money out of the war and a fortune out of the peace. He also made motor-cars, and was such a good business man that, in his frankness, he expressed to Murray his astonishment that a live wire like Airman Hay should be content to hang around a one-horse village like Telbury. In self-defence Murray explained his mission in life.
"You see, Mr. Jones", he said in conclusion, "the position I occupy. I've promised my uncle that I would use my aeroplane to do eight good turns, irrespective of profit. That means that I've got to help somebody in distress; and the number of people in distress who can be helped with an aeroplane is mighty few!"
Mr. Jones, a fresh-coloured New Englander, fondled his ponderous chin and allowed that that might be so.
"Why, that's certainly interesting," he said. "Now in my country we're strong for business, but all that old-fashioned chivalry stuff is out—right out. Still, it's sort of in keeping with this neighbourhood, and I guess there's a whole lot about your knight-errantry that appeals to me—yes, sir!"
Murray got to like the stoutish man, and was sorry when he learnt that he was leaving from Southampton on the Saturday. There had been a strike of the dockers at the great southern port, and the sailing of the ship had been delayed until seven o'clock in the evening, Mr. Jones told him. He was taking his two hired cars on to Southampton and invited Murray to see him off—an invitation which the young airman almost accepted. He excused himself, however, on the grounds that, whilst he was away, some opportunity might arise for doing a turn. But though he said this with the greatest sincerity, his mind was on a certain Jean Arling, and the turn he had in his mind was one which would considerably benefit himself.
He saw the party off on the Saturday, and stood in the middle of the road, waving his hand to the departing Americans until the car disappeared from view. He even assisted the maids and the nurses, who occupied the second car, to dispose of their baggage, and felt a genuine sense of regret when the last of the party had disappeared.
The shopping portion of Telbury village consists of seven picturesque stores, where you may purchase almost everything except the article you are in need of. It was, he knew, Jane Gallagher's practice to drive majestically into the village on Saturday, lunch at the Chequers, and offer her week-end patronage to the little shops. He kept away from the Chequers until he saw her arrive—alone. In order that he might not prejudice his chances, he did not go into the dining-room to lunch, but waited in the street until she came out of the inn and made her way to Higgins, the principal store in the village.
Mrs. Gallagher was a person of some importance in the neighbourhood; her patronage was, from the point of view of the tradesmen, considerable; and she was treated with that respect, indeed veneration, which shopkeepers reserve for customers who pay on the nail. So surrounded was she by her sycophantic court that Murray had no opportunity of approaching her until she came out on her way to the post-office. For a second he thought she was going to cut him dead and pass without a word, though he stood squarely in her path. But apparently she was in her most Christian mood.
"It is no use, Murray," she said, almost gently. "The past is past. You have hurt me beyond forgiveness. Not only have you been exceedingly rude to one of my best friends, calling him ox-face—"
"Cow-face," suggested Murray.
"I prefer the masculine version," she said coldly. "Not only have you done this, but you have been wickedly, cruelly unkind about my darling Lucille. I could forgive you everything but that."
"Can't I come up and make my peace with the young lady?" said Murray. "I've had a present sent down from town," he lied glibly; "a silver rattle and all that sort of thing."
She raised her eyebrows.
"I am perfectly certain that your interest in the child is feigned," she said. "I hate to say it to you, Murray, but I am afraid you are a fortune-hunter, and the reason you wish to come to Laud House is not to see Lucille, but to ensnare dear Jean in your net. I have a good mind to write to your uncle and tell him the whole truth."
Murray went very red.
"You dear little soul," he said softly. "If you dare do that—"
Her eyes narrowed.
"If I dare do that?" Her tone was icy. "You mustn't threaten me, Murray. I shall write this very day."
Murray loathed her more than ever. He slouched back to his aerodrome, deciding that, after all, Warwickshire was not the place where he was likely to find people who required his altruistic services, and sat down to his table to compose a letter to Miss Jean Arling. In the midst of this labour of love, his mechanic brought a telegram.
For some time he did not open the buff envelope, and then, with a sigh, he tore open the flap and took out two closely written pages. The telegram had been handed in at Alton, in Hampshire. He looked at the signature: it was Jublee Jones.
"VERY URGENT. BY TERRIBLE MISUNDERSTANDING WE LEFT TELBURY THIS MORNING WITHOUT OUR BABY, WHO IS ASLEEP IN ROOM NO. 6. THE MAID THOUGHT LITTLE OSCAR WAS WITH US, WE THOUGHT HE WAS WITH THE MAID IN THE SECOND CAR. IF YOU WANT TO DO A GOOD TURN, BRING OSCAR BY AEROPLANE TO SOUTHAMPTON. PLEASE WRAP HIM UP VERY WELL AND TAKE GREATEST CARE THAT HE DOES NOT FALL OUT."
Murray leapt to his feet and yelled for his mechanic.
"Have the machine ready in five minutes," he said. "Run out my car, and get some blankets and skirts. What is the best way of carrying a baby?"
"A baby, sir?" said the dazed mechanic.
Rapidly Murray explained his task, and, leaving the mechanic, who was a single man and had the haziest views as to the portability of babies, to make what arrangements he could, he jumped into his car and sped down the village street. It was the hour of siesta, when Telbury was at its drowsiest.
He dashed into the hotel: neither the manager nor the proprietress was in sight, but he knew Room No. 6; it was two rooms from his own. Opening a door cautiously, he saw the small child slumbering peacefully on the bed, with pillows on each side so placed that it could not roll to the floor. He lifted the child gently, and, going down the stairs, reached his car.
It was a somewhat difficult business driving a car with a baby in the crook of one arm, and such of the villagers as were abroad stared in amazement at the curious spectacle he presented.
When he reached the aerodrome, the machine had been wheeled out of the shed. The single mechanic was engaged in a heated argument with one who was more blessed, as to the best method of carrying a baby.
"Tie 'im to both sides of the fuselage; shove a pillow under his head, and cover 'im with blankets," said the single man.
"Wrap him up in a blanket first, then strap him down, or he'll be getting in the way of the controls," suggested the married gentleman.
Happily the baby slept soundly during the period he was being strapped. In five minutes he was snug on the floor of the fuselage, and Murray was strapping himself to his seat. The propeller went over with a roar, and the machine, moving down the slope of the meadow, gathered way, and, zooming up, cleared the trees at the end of the field. Higher and higher they mounted, circling above the tiny village, and at last, having got his bearings, Murray sent the machine south-eastward.
He picked up Guildford in an hour, and soon after the hazy line of the sea came into sight. Once or twice he glanced back at the strapped bundle behind him, but the baby was sleeping calmly, and it was a satisfaction to Murray to know that, even if it had been crying, the noise of the engine was so loud that he couldn't have heard it!
Soon he was over the Southampton aerodrome, and with one dive came safely to land.
"I want a car," he said, as he unstrapped the baby, which was now awake and was staring at him with blue, wondering eyes. "How far are the docks from here?"
"Which dock do you mean?"
"The one from which the 'Mauretania' sails," said Murray.
No car was procurable, but by great good luck an official of the aerodrome arrived soon after in a taxicab, and this Murray claimed.
The baby was wide awake now, and roaring lustily. Murray wondered what he ought to do. He almost stopped the car at a baker's shop to buy buns, which seemed as likely an article of diet as any. But his anxiety to get the child in the hands of its parents prevented his stopping on the way. When he reached the dock:
"...Mauretania? It sailed half-an-hour ago."
"What!" squeaked Murray.
"Yes, sir, it wasn't expected to go till much later, but they got her away."
"Where—where its next port of call?" gasped the young airman.
"Cherbourg," said the dock official.
Murray gave urgent instructions to the taxi-driver and turned about. On the way through the town he stopped the car at a dairy, dashed in and snatched a bottle of milk, and between there and the aerodrome bathed the baby's face with this excellent and nutritive food. He didn't intend bathing the baby's face: his design was to feed it; but apparently the small child had not acquired the art of drinking from a bottle, but between chokes and gurgles and fits of strangulation, managed to absorb sufficient to ease its most violent pangs. It was asleep when he placed it in the fuselage, and asleep when he passed over the giant liner a few miles west of Cherbourg.
He landed a mile from the dock, and had to carry the slumbering infant the whole of the journey, arriving in time to board the tender that was going out to meet the 'Mauretania'.
"And if this isn't doing a good turn, I know nothing that is!" groaned Murray.
He passed up the gangway...
"Mr. Jones? Oh, yes, you'll find him on the promenade deck," said a steward, and Murray staggered up the companion-way.
Almost the first person he saw was Mr. Jones: he was one of a family group, the centre of which was a small, somewhat insignificant looking baby, who was being petted by Mr. Jones' momma.
"Why, look who's here!" said Mr. Jones, staring at him. "What on earth have you got?"
"Your baby," said Murray.
"My baby? Say, what's wrong with you? Didn't you get my wire? The landlord of the Chequers found we'd left the baby behind, hired a car and sent it on after us."
Mrs. Jones took the child from Murray's hands, handled it scientifically, and, turning up its little white petticoat:
"Why, you ought to have known it was not ours, Mr. Hay," she said, "There's its name, embroidered on its petticoat—Lucille Gallagher."
Murray staggered back.
"Lucille Gallagher?" he said hollowly, and remembered, too late, that it was Jane's practice to bring the baby into the Chequers on her weekly excursions. "Lucille Gallagher!" he said brokenly.
The following extract from the Sunday Globe is self-explanatory.
"The mysterious kidnapping of a child from the village of Telbury, Warwickshire, which created so widespread a sensation, and which set the police of the country searching for the miscreant, had a happy sequel when the child was restored by Mr. Murray Hay, a well-known airman. According to Mr. Hay's statement, he saw the baby being taken sway by two ruffianly men and placed in an aeroplane. He immediately gave chase and forced the scoundrels to descend in France. The child has been restored to its adoring parents, and there is some talk in Telbury of presenting Mr. Murray Hay with a simple memento of him heroic feat."
"Personally," said Mrs. Jane Gallagher, "though I am under an obligation to Murray, I accept his story with the greatest reserve."
It was not to be expected that Airman Hay's immediate mission in life could remain a complete secret.
If the truth be told, his uncle was something of a gossip, and found a joy in relating (in the strictest confidence) to his cronies the task he had set his nephew. So that from time to time there appeared, in those gossipy paragraphs which distinguish a certain section of the press, references to Mr. Murray Hay's unique responsibility.
Thus, in the Daily Megaphone:
"I saw Mr. Murray Hay in Piccadilly yesterday, and I wondered how few of the passers-by realised the extraordinary job which this gallant young airman has taken on. His uncle has made him a Boy Scout on a magnificent scale: in other words, Mr. Hay has undertaken to do eight good turns with his aeroplane, four of which, I understand, have already been accomplished."
The direct result of this paragraphing was an increase in Murray's correspondence. All sorts of cranks wrote suggesting fantastic missions; he had urgent letters and telegrams begging him to be at a certain rendezvous, generally in some inaccessible spot at an unearthly hour; but by this time he had developed an extra sense which enabled him to sort the wheat from the chaff, the practical jokers from those who were in dead earnest, even though their schemes were misguided.
Fortunately, very few people knew either of his aerodrome at Barnet or his new flat in Bruton Street, and he was spared the trial of interviewing importunate callers. He may have missed in this way many excellent opportunities for rendering service to cases of a genuine necessity, but he was also spared a great deal of irritation and disappointment.
There are certain penalties attached to fame, and one of these Murray discovered on a morning when he received a visit from Chief Inspector Slatten of Scotland Yard, who informed him that he had been impersonated by a young rascal in the Midlands. It was a very vulgar and commonplace piece of trickery: the thief, a man well known to the police, had posed as the altruistic airman, had cashed a cheque and had been vary promptly arrested. It was annoying to Murray, because it meant that he had to put in an appearance at a police court and give his evidence. But it had the advantage of bringing him into contact with an interesting man; for Slatten had a large acquaintance with the criminal world, and was, in fact, the officer who had trailed that amateur burglar, Mr. John Shelton, a very rich young man who had taken up burglary for the fun of it, and was now, to his vast astonishment, serving five years' penal servitude, which was a much less comical experience than he had imagined.
"What you've got to be careful about, Mr. Hay," said Slatten, as they came back to town together, "is that some crook doesn't get you to use your plane for his own purpose."
"They have tried," said Murray, "and it has been so far unprofitable."
He told the story of his first 'case', and Slatten, who had an extraordinary memory, recalled all the circumstances.
"Yes, I pinched the gilt-edged Mr. Shelton," he said, "the Lord High Mug! You wouldn't imagine that a fellow with nearly a million pounds would get any amusement out of burgling flats, would you? He thought, when he was caught, that all he had to do was to make restitution to the people he had burgled, pay a whacking big sum by way of compensation, and they'd let him off. You never saw a sicker man than he was when they sent him down."
"I am not likely to follow his example," laughed Murray. "In the first place, I'm not very rich; in the second place, I have no inclination towards crime; and in the third place, I'm clearly above such things—that's a joke. You won't see it because you're Scottish."
He remembered the inspector's warning a few weeks later, when he had a very flattering offer to take a night journey to the north of England and pick up a passenger on one of the wildest parts of the Yorkshire moors. He rejected the offer, mainly because he was offered good pay and he was out to help those who were more urgently necessitous. He was extremely grateful a few days later, when he learnt that there had been a series of burglaries at Yorkshire country houses, and that the criminal had escaped by a hired aeroplane.
In the months which followed his last advantage, no genuine opportunity presented itself to carry out his promise to his uncle. In any circumstances his "clients" were difficult to find, but now it seemed that life was working so smoothly with the world that nobody really wanted the assistance which a free-running aeroplane could give.
Autumn was drawing in to winter, and Murray was despairing of bringing his good deeds to a total of eight, when there occurred that remarkable happening which did much to shake his faith in humanity. He called this "The Adventure of the Man Who Needed Oxygen", and it began prosaically enough. The new flat into which he had moved was a service flat in the sense that meals could be provided, though the cleaning and general care of the apartment was his responsibility. He had a charlady who for several years had not only been an excellent cleaner but had acted as his valet. He was so seldom at home that there was no need to maintain a more pretentious staff than this good lady constituted.
One day Mrs. Higgins came to him whilst he was in the final stages of dressing, and very nervously asked if she could have a week's holiday.
"I've got a young woman who'll come in and look after you, sir, so you needn't feel neglected," she said. "But the truth is, I want to go down and see my son at Plymouth."
"Why, certainly," said Murray. "If the young female of whom you speak is half as efficient as yourself I shall be satisfied."
Lying in bed the next morning, he heard the new domestic arrive, and the whine of her patent sweeper as she tidied the hallway. He went in to breakfast, expecting many things, but not to be greatly interested in the character and appearance of his new charwoman.
The surprise was an agreeable one: he judged her to be twenty-four or twenty-five, and she was remarkably pretty. There was about her an air of refinement which seemed to sit naturally.
"Good morning," he said, when he had recovered from the shook of surprise.
"Good morning, sir." Her voice was sweet and low.
"You aren't by any chance my new—" He was going to say 'charlady' but changed his mind—"—help, are you?" he asked.
She smiled faintly.
"Yes, Mrs. Higgins sent me."
He did not ask her what set of circumstances reduced a person who was evidently a lady to the position of charwoman, and she volunteered no information, until later in the morning, when, her work finished, she asked if there was anything she could do for him.
"No, thank you."
She hesitated, as though there was something she wished to say.
"Excuse me, sir, you are an airman, are you not?"
"I wonder"—again she hesitated—"if you could give me some information? I hardly dare ask you, but I hope you will not think it is an impertinence."
"I shall certainly not think it is an impertinence. Sit down, Mrs. Gray," he said, kindly enough.
To do Murray Hay justice, he would have been as polite to her if she had been the gnarled and flat-footed harridan he had expected.
"Can you tell me what it costs for a two hours' flight?" she said. "I intended writing to the Air Transport Company, but when I heard I was coming here I thought it would be best to wait and ask you."
"Two hours' flight in the air? I'm blessed if I know," said Murray. "Two or three guineas, probably."
Her face fell.
"As much as that?" she said in an awe-stricken voice. "I was afraid it would be too dear."
"Why do you ask?" he demanded good-humouredly. "Surely you're not anxious to fly? If you are, I shall be very pleased to take you up one morning."
She shook her head.
"I have flown," she said simply, "with an army airman. We had a cottage near the aerodrome in Sussex, and my brother and I went up. If it hadn't been for that flight," she said, "I should not be asking questions about the cost of others."
He pushed back his chair and looked at her, his interest aroused.
"Will you tell me just why you want to know the cost of flying?" he asked, and under his keen scrutiny she reddened.
"My brother has lung trouble," she said. "He was given up by the doctors years ago, and we were prepared for the worst, when, by chance, a kind officer in the Air Force took us both for a short flight over the sea. Before we went up, my brother's chest troubled him terribly, but that short flight seemed to give him tremendous relief—in fact, he has never had such a bad spell as he had then until last week."
"Was it due to the flight?" asked Murray, interested.
"The doctor says so. He says that in the upper layers of the air there is, not more oxygen, but a quality of oxygen—I suppose he means that it is the air mixture—which brings relief to my brother."
Murray understood now.
"I see—and you want another flight?"
"The doctor says it would do him an immense amount of good, that he is coming to the critical stage of his illness, and that if he had another flight or two, it might mean all the difference between life and death."
Inside, Murray Hay was burbling with joy. Here was an opportunity which had not presented itself for months: the chance of doing a good turn and adding one more to the slowly growing list of his philanthropic achievements.
"I will take your brother with pleasure," he said. "Where do you live?"
She gave him an address in one of the outer suburbs of South London.
"We are moving into Devonshire next week, and the doctor thought that this little trip would just give him the necessary tonic to enable him to stand the journey. What would you charge—"
He waved aside the question of price.
"No, I shall charge you nothing," he said; "I am very glad to have the chance of helping you. What is the best time to pick up your brother? Is there an aerodrome near?"
She said there was a broad common, and when she mentioned its name he remembered that it was an ideal landing and taking-off place.
"You seem to be rather out of place here, Mrs. Gray," he said.
"You mean this work?" She shrugged her shoulders. "One must live. We lost all our money in the Burden Bank smash, and only my brother and I are left."
"He died during the war," said the woman shortly, and evidently this was yet so sore a subject that Murray did not attempt to pursue it further.
She was interested in flying; lingered for another half-hour, asking him questions about his war experience. Had he flown in the dark? How was it possible for an aeroplane to land or take-off in the dark? And he found her a pleasant audience.
He saw her the next day and arranged to pick up her brother in the afternoon. It was a brilliant, though cold day, with an unclouded sky, and if the ground mists were a little thicker than he liked, he had nevertheless no difficulty in landing. He came down at the appointed spot on the common and found a little group waiting for him: an elderly man, the girl, and a young man sitting in a bath-chair, so wrapped up with blankets and rugs that he was almost invisible.
"This is Dr. Elmer," the girl introduced the elderly man.
The boy seemed half asleep, and Murray made no attempt to speak to him. He had sent his two mechanics in advance, and these lifted the invalid into the fuselage and placed him half-sitting, half-lying, his head just above the fuselage level.
"Would you like to come?" asked Murray, and to his surprise the girl nodded.
"If there's room for me," she said.
"There is plenty of room," said Murray.
And then he saw the doctor beckon to him and walked across to that staid man.
"I shouldn't keep them up more than an hour," he said. "Personally, I think there is just a chance of saving this boy's life, though the crucial moment will come, and is coming very soon, when we shall know whether he will live or die."
"What do you mean—the crucial moment?" asked Murray.
"I mean this," said the doctor: "the culminating paroxysm must come some time within the next week. I don't know what quality the upper air holds, but I am certain that if, within two hours of that crisis arising, we are able to get this boy up into the air, we shall save his life. Mrs. Gray tells me that you are making no charge for your services, and therefore it would be rather an imposition to expect you to be ready day or night to give him his 'medicine'."
"I shall be at hand. Is there any warning?"
The doctor nodded.
"There is a clear four hours' warning, so that there will be plenty of time if he is carefully watched. But it's expecting rather a lot from you."
"I'll do it with pleasure," said Murray heartily.
A few minutes later his little aeroplane was whizzing up to the blue skies. Higher and higher it rose, until the instrument on his board showed him six thousand feet. At this height he cruised about for the greater part of an hour, and then, glancing over his shoulder, the girl nodded, and he came in one long swoop to the earth, landing almost at the spot from which he had taken off. His mechanics took out the invalid, placed him in his chair, and one of them wheeled him back to the little cottage which stood on the edge of the common.
"I don't know how I can thank you," said the girl.
Murray would have been extremely uncomfortable if she had not changed the subject, but happily for his mind's comfort she went on to talk about the boy and his sufferings. Apparently she herself did not live at the cottage, but in lodgings with his former charwoman. This she told him when he expressed his surprise and regret at the long journey she had to take every day.
He heard her in the flat at half-past six the next morning, and for a moment speculated upon the possibility of arranging with Mrs. Higgins for the girl to be a permanency. He only had a few minutes' speech with her, for he had a luncheon engagement. She told him the boy was much better and was going off to Devonshire that afternoon.
"But that's rather risky, isn't it?" he said. "The doctor told me that he thought the crisis of the illness was at hand."
She shook her head.
"He now thinks that Willie's trip in the air may have put it off for months. You don't know how grateful I am to you, Mr. Hay. It was splendid of you! You have done a most humane thing."
Which reminded Murray, and after his guest had left the club he went into the writing-room and sent an account to his uncle, wondering whether this very easy method of achieving merit would he credited to him. Sir John Harlesden was in town and got him on the 'phone.
"Yes, it's cheap glory, I admit, Murray, but it must go to your account. That is number five, is it not?"
He heard his uncle chuckle.
"You're in luck," said Sir John. "I never dreamt you'd find five cases that would pass the test."
Murray had now dismissed his good deed from his mind, and was in search of his sixth case, when the unexpected happened. It was the last day of Mrs. Gray's service; on the following morning his regular charwoman was coming back, and he had the task of paying the woman. It was curious that he had never found the slightest discomfort in settling accounts with his regular servitor, but now, as he pushed the money across the table to Mrs. Gray, he felt hot and uncomfortable.
"But this is too much, Mr. Hay," she said, as she took up the two Treasury notes. "I agreed to come for thirty shillings a week."
"The extra ten shillings is for fares," he said glibly; "I always pay fares."
She shook her head.
"No: the labourer in worthy of her hire."
She put her hand in her worn bag, took out a ten-shilling note and returned it.
"I am under a very deep obligation to you as it is, Mr. Hay," she said. "I trust you will never regret your kindness."
Murray saw her go with some regret.
Friday afternoons he usually spent at his flat, for he was working on a series of articles for a technical paper on modern aviation, and Friday was press day; and Murray, who had all the instincts of a story-writer, never put pen to paper until the printer's devil was knocking at the door.
He had finished his article, had seen the grimy printer's youth go clattering down the stairs into Bruton Street, and was sitting at his table, undecided whether he should go out to dinner or whether should spend the night at his little aerodrome, when there came an urgent tap at his door. The hour was five: dusk had fallen and the lights were showing in the street. Thinking that it was the printer's boy who had come back, he went to the door and opened it. To his amazement he saw a woman's figure.
"Who is that?" he asked.
"It is Mrs. Grey," said an agitated voice. "May I speak to you for a moment, please?"
"By all means—come in."
He switched on the remaining lights of the room. She was certainly in a condition of painful nervousness. He had not long to wait before he learnt the cause.
"My brother has had a relapse: I have just had a telegram," she said, "and I have been speaking to the doctor. He thinks there is yet time to save him."
"Your brother? where is he?"
"He's at Yelcombe," she said. "Oh, Mr. Hay, is it humanly possible that you could help us?"
He looked out into the street. The sky was clear, but there were difficulties which seemed insuperable.
"I'd like to," he said, "but Devonshire! That's nearly two hundred miles; it would be quite dark before I was halfway there, and I haven't the slightest idea where I could land."
"Oh, but I could help you," she pleaded. "I know every hedge in the country. I believe I could find my way to Yelcombe blindfolded. And near the farm where poor Willie is there's nothing but open moor... and, Mr. Hay, the doctor says he will show a light from his motor-lamps."
"Is the doctor there?" asked Murray in surprise.
"He went down yesterday to see him. He is our old family doctor, you know, and he is rather devoted to us. Fortunately, there's a shop next to where I'm living, that has a telephone—that is how he managed to get me."
Murray thought for a while.
"I could find my way to Exeter easily, and of course I could follow the Devonshire coast—is it near the coast?"
"Within half-a-dozen miles," she said eagerly. "Won't you, please, Mr. Hay? And I can afford to pay now; a friend of ours sent me a hundred pounds: it was waiting for me when I got home."
The trip presented no great difficulty if he were sure of a good landing, thought Murray. The only danger was...
"Would you get on to your doctor and ask him to have a dozen tins of juice for me? I don't want to run short."
This she promised to do, arranging to meet him in half-an-hour at Barnet. His mechanics had gone home for the night when he arrived, and he had to pull out and prepare the machine without their assistance. The ground mist was developing into a patchy fog, and he waited with some impatience for the girl's arrival. She came in a taxi, heavily coated, and evidently prepared for the journey. He strapped her into her seat before he started the propeller kicking over, and, climbing in after her, he made a mental calculation and drove the aeroplane blindly into the white mist.
He rose as steeply as he dared; the engine running perfectly, and soon he was above the fog cloud and looking down at the dim and blurred lights of London that showed in strange patterns through the mist.
The mist covered London from north to south, with clear patches here and there; it lay thickly upon the river, and gave him a guide. Between Oxford and Newbury the ground was clear, but it was thick on Frome and held streakily until he reached Taunton. He had spoken not a word to the girl since they had started, and it was not until the lights of Exeter showed ahead of them that she spoke to him.
"There is a fog at sea," she said. "If you can bear a little to the right, it is a straight line from here through Newton Abbot."
Newton Abbot had been visible from the moment they were over Exeter, but this patch of light stood by itself in a pitch blackness. One or two scattered lights at intervals showed the lonely farmhouses, and far away they could see the faint glow of Ashburton. Once she leant forward and touched him on the shoulder and motioned to the left, and he changed direction. All the lights were gone now, and he looked into a black void. And then, right ahead of him, Murray saw a star-like light that winked and glittered from the ground.
"That is the place," she cried. "If you make to land on the other side of the light you can't possibly go wrong."
He moved the controls and sent the head of the machine obliquely to the earth. Nearer and nearer they came to the light, which seemed to increase in brilliancy with their approach. A dozen yards short of the guiding lamp, and Murray dropped steeply, corrected his balance, end in another second his wheels were running along a fairly even surface.
The first person he saw as he got out was the doctor.
"I think you're in time," he said, "though he is very nearly in extremis."
"Can I help carry him?"
"No," said the doctor, "I've got him here on a hand-cart. Mrs. Gray, will you help? Will you go back to the wheel, Mr. Hay? I think you ought to go up at once. Make for the sea; keep aloft as long as you can... oh, yes, your petrol is here."
Whilst Murray filled his petrol tank, the doctor and the girl, assisted by a third man, lifted a blanketed figure from the little hand-cart and laid him carefully on the floor of the fuselage, strapping him secure. Murray only leant into the fuselage to feel the strap, and then he jumped up into his seat and the girl climbed after him.
"There is a straight run of two hundred yards... I've had the stones cleared away," shouted the doctor, as the propeller began to revolve.
Murray nodded, signaled to the men to let go, and the little aeroplane bounded into the darkness. They were up now; in an incredibly short space of time they were circling above the light.
"To the sea!" It was the girl's voice, speaking loudly through the microphone at his ear.
Murray nodded and sent the nose of his 'plane towards the misty sea. Twice she gave him directions, and wonderingly he obeyed.
They were heading now for the coast of France, and he was about to tell her this, when she spoke.
"Dr. Elmer says if you can reach the French coast, do so. My brother can rest there and come back in the morning. Is this asking too much?"
It was asking rather a lot, but he shook his head and kept a steady course. In an hour the first gleam of a French lighthouse rose up from the distant horizon, and before long he saw the white line of breakers beneath him.
"To the left!"
She knew the French coast rather well, it seemed, for, after ten minutes, she said:
"You may land here."
The obedient Murray, a little baffled and not a little alarmed, dropped down into the darkness, wondering how many trees, hedges, ditches and stone walls were waiting to bring about his destruction. The aeroplane came to a stand-still near a large house; evidently he had landed in the garden of some chateau. There were lights in the windows, and somebody came running towards them with a lantern.
And then, to Murray's amazement, the girl spoke quickly in French.
"He is here."
"Bien!" said a voice. "Can he get out unaided?"
"Certainement," said Mrs. Gray, and the invalid stepped leisurely forth.
As the blankets dropped from his head, Murray saw a man of thirty-five, with a bronzed, intellectual face, that was certainly not the face of the brother he had taken up from Bromley Common. Nor did he wear an invalid's pyjamas: on his legs was a pair of knee breeches, faintly marked with a broad arrow.
"My name is Shelton," he said calmly, "I escaped from Dartmoor to-day. This is my wife." He inclined his head to the smiling 'Mrs. Gray'. "If you're going to make a fuss, I'm afraid you'll find it difficult to persuade the English police that you weren't in it."
"But—Dr. Elmer!" gasped Murray.
"My father," said Mr. Shelton, "A clever old cuss! He organised the escape and found the mug airman to bring me over. You'd better have a drink, Hay."
Murray Hay rubbed his head.
"I think I'd better," he said.
"I ought to have been kicked for not realising that Yelcombe is within half-a-dozen miles of Princetown Prison," said the rueful Hay, recounting his adventure to his uncle. "And if I'd only read the evening papers that night, I should have known that a convict had escaped that day."
"The whole thing was well planned," said Sir John. "Even now the authorities are ignorant of the identity of the machine which carried Shelton abroad."
"The point is," said Murray, "does it stand as a good deed?"
"Certainly," nodded his uncle. "By the way, do you know that Mrs. Shelton was an actress before she married?"
"I guessed that," said Murray bitterly.
"Mrs. Higgins," said Murray Hay, addressing his charlady severely, "you played a dirty trick on me last week. You introduced into this house a woman who pretended to be a charwoman and wasn't a charwoman at all, but was, in fact, a most nefarious person."
"Lor, Mr. Hay!" gasped Mrs. Higgins. "Did she pinch anything?"
"She pinched my reputation," said Murray Hay. "She pinched my faith in human nature and human women. Isn't that enough?"
Mrs. Higgins was distressed.
"I thought she was honest. She came and took lodgings at my house. Of course, I knew she was a perfect lady, but I hadn't any idea that she was a crook."
"She wasn't a crook, and yet she was. She was a law-breaker and yet she wasn't. Don't do it again, Mrs. Higgins, or you'll lose a comfortable job, which brings you in thirty shillings a week and as much tea, sugar and odd eggs as you can carry away without my noticing."
Mrs. Higgins did not know whether to be annoyed, indignant, or tearful. She was a little of each for the remainder of the morning.
"The point is," said Murray Hay to his best friend and crony, Tommy Walton, "doing good turns has its disadvantages."
"Why you ever took on such a silly jackass scheme beats me," said Tommy, himself an airman and the holder of many distinguished decorations.
"I took it on because my revered uncle threatened to cut off supplies unless I employed my time usefully," said Murray. "I have to do eight good turns to deserving cases, without hope of reward, and the people I help must really be in need of my assistance and be unable to pay."
"There must be millions of 'em," said Tommy.
"You're a silly ass and a blithering goop," said Mr. Hay discourteously. "There's nobody in the world who really wants the use of an aeroplane for nothing. I've done five turns: I've been caught three times and caught myself once, and caught another fellow on the remaining occasion."
"Why don't you advertise?" suggested Tommy helpfully, as he reached for a cigarette.
"Originality is your long suit, or else by mistake you've strayed into the Advertising Convention at Wembley," said Murray sarcastically.
"It seems a silly ass idea to me," repeated Tommy. "At any rate, nothing's likely to turn up to-day. Come along and call at the Menbury's; there'll be some dancing this afternoon, and old Menbury particularly asked me to bring you the next time I came."
"Shall I find anybody there who wants a good turn?" asked Murray obstinately.
"Millions of 'em," was the optimistic reply.
Mr. Menbury had a big house in a small London square. He was a self-made man and quite honest about it, and passed on none of the responsibility for his wealth, his vulgarity, his stout wife or his plain daughters to his Creator. He was a parvenu and proud of it; he was a profiteer and gloried in it; he had made millions out of the war, and never pretended that he had done anything else. When he spoke of that "four years of horrible conflict", it was with a note of regret that one usually applies to the happiest periods of life beyond recall. So a married woman might speak of her girlhood, or a fat and flabby University man might recall the days when he rowed six in the University Eight. To Mr. Menbury, heaven was a place where there was always a war, and angels flew to and fro carrying profitable contracts in each hand.
But Mr. Menbury had one virtue: the money he made from the war, he gave to soldiers. He subscribed fabulous sums to every charitable institution that had as its object the succouring of broken men. He never saw a soldier playing a barrel organ in the street but he stopped and gave him a pound—a weakness of his, which resulted in Bryanston Square being one morning so packed with barrel organs played by bemedalled soldiers that the police were compelled to call out their reserves.
But it was genuine with him: he did not care twopence whether his name was in the paper or whether it was not; he had refused a knighthood in the days of that premiership when knighthoods could be had with the same ease that a muscular boy could procure a blood-alley; he was never to be seen at the stage door of the theatre; and it could be truthfully said that the revue actresses of London were not one penny the richer through Mr. Menbury's prosperity.
To add to his other dissimilarities, he had one son, who worked for his living, was never arrested for speeding, or figured amongst the names of those present when a night club was raided. Sam Menbury certainly went through Eton without losing his masculinity, passed through Oxford and remained an unspoilt gentleman.
All these facts Murray Hay knew, and his heart was warm towards the unconventional profiteer, for whom even income-tax inspectors had a kind word. A tall, thin, bald man, he looked like a college professor on the science aide, and talked like a Bermondsey tradesman.
"Ah, 'ere you are, are you?" he said, shaking hands vigorously. "Glad to meet you, Captain 'Ay. I never pronounce 'h's', it's too much trouble. Don't feel uncomfortable about it, because I don't—see what I mean? Mother, this is 'Ay: you've heard me speak of 'Ay?"
Mrs. Menbury, a stout woman with a deep voice, murmured a respectful greeting. She was respectful to everybody, not having acquired the habit of superiority which money brings to so many women.
"Aspirates are silly anyway," said Mr. Menbury. "In course of time nobody will ever use an 'h'. They're unnecessary and 'orribly 'ard to remember. I've been reading about you, young man: you're the fellow who's using his aeroplane to 'elp people who need 'elp?"
His keen eyes were fixed on Murray's face.
"I know your uncle too: he's a good fellow and made 'is money 'onestly—I made mine out of the war. I'm a profiteer—you may 'ave read about me in the newspapers."
Murray laughed softly. He liked this thin, unaffected man, whose blue eyes were agleam with good humour all the time.
"Now go in and dance." And then, turning abruptly to his wife: "My love, is the Professor 'ere?"
She answered that he was not there, and Murray detected the old man in a sigh, and wondered who was the Professor and whether he were an aspirant in matrimony to one of the plain young ladies of the house.
He missed his companion and made his way to the crowded Ball-room. An orchestra was playing at the far end, and the floor was crowded with dancers. Looking round the room, he saw a familiar face and walked rapidly towards the smiling girl, who held out a hand to greet him.
"You're becoming quite a society man, Captain Hay," she said. (She was one of the few persons in the world who ever remembered Murray's rank.) "I see you at all kinds of functions. Are you being frivolous or are you in search of victims?"
"Neither, nor are my adopted children," he said, as he sat down by her side: a reference to an unpleasant adventure of his, a nightmare memory which never quite escaped him.
Jean Arling looked more beautiful than ever that afternoon, and he wondered what had brought the wilful heiress to this ménage.
"We are going to have a wonderful exhibition of thought-reading this afternoon," she said. "You know Mr. Menbury is a member of the latest cult?"
He did not know and then and there learnt for the first time the identity of the 'Professor' whose arrival was awaited so anxiously by their host.
Professor Conti, who was the high-priest and founder of the Universal Society of Dominant Souls, had not exactly taken London by storm, but he had obtained many rich recruits to his new religion, which, put briefly, was the trite old saying that mind was superior to matter.
"Italian? No, I don't think so." Jean Arling shook her head. "He looks to me more like a Levantine Greek, possibly a Maltese. Isn't it queer what unlikely people these soul-experts rope in?"
"Vulgarly yet pithily put," said Murray. "Who is the latest devotee?"
"Mr. Menbury—he's a tremendous disciple. You wouldn't see Sam Menbury here if the Professor wasn't around."
She nodded towards an angular and studious-looking young man who wore a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles and a perpetual frown.
"I know Sam slightly: he's a pretty good chap," said Murray.
"He's a dear," said the girl enthusiastically. "I meet him frequently in Scotland, when he comes up for the shooting. He hasn't a ha'porth of side—he's such a gentleman that you don't realise ha's rich."
"Your enthusiasm depresses me," said Murray, and she shot a quick glance at him.
"Why?" she asked.
"Because I hate your being enthusiastic about anybody but me," said the bold young man, and she laughed in spite of herself.
"I am not likely to be enthusiastic about you," she said sternly. "You spoilt the best elopement I ever planned; you kidnapped my niece, or my godchild—have you any other claims to my admiration?"
"Unless you put my idiotic devotion to my credit, none," said Murray. "Here comes the Professor, I presume."
The Professor was a man below medium height, with a large round head and oily looks; an enormous nose, surmounted by gold-rimmed spectacles, and a figure that had long since lost its slimness. A heavy blue-black moustache, curled at the ends; a chin so blue that it seemed to be unshaven; and the unhappy faculty of perspiring at the lowest temperature, added to the general unpleasing character of his appearance. Mr. Menbury piloted him into the room and was obviously delighted to be in the presence of the Master. The appearance of the Professor coincided with the end of a dance, and now the instrumentalists put down their instruments and discreetly retired as though by prearrangement. Mr. Menbury, pulling a table into the centre of the room, added to this a chair upon which the Professor sank languidly.
"Ladies and gentlemen," said Mr. Menbury, beaming at the assembled company, "we 'ave the 'igh gratification of welcoming our friend and our master, Professor Conti, Chief Seer of our inspiring sect..."
He talked in this vein for ten minutes; spoke, obviously sincerely, of the new cult; dealt learnedly, if in somewhat commonplace language, of the superiority of mind over matter; and ended by informing the company that Professor Conti would now "look into the inmost souls of men, and," he added, "women."
Professor Conti came to his feet slowly, wiped his moustache with a deft flick of a gorgeous silk handkerchief, pushed back the tails of his frock-coat, and thrust his hands in his pockets. And then he spoke with a strong Levantine accent, but with such ease and fluency that Murray guessed that this was not the first occasion upon which this learned spiritualist had addressed a gullible audience.
The séance which followed interested Murray only as much as a demonstration of the three-card trick would interest an experienced racing man.
The mind-reading was obviously carried on with the help of two or three people in the audience who had been specially invited. And yet it seemed to please a large section of these people, for Murray heard expressions of delight and wonder on every side.
As the audience dispersed, and chairs were shifted back in preparation for a resumption of dancing, Sam Menbury pushed his way through the crowd and came to Murray's side.
"I spotted you an hour ago," he said. "What do you think of the Maltese?"
"Maltese, is he? I guessed he was," said Murray. "The only thing that concerns me is the success of his tricks. I thought a child in arms would not have been deceived."
"And what are these?" Sam asked dryly. "The majority of men here haven't thought since the first day they were breeched, and the women haven't started to think."
"I can't understand why your father is deceived. I thought he was such a practical business man."
"They're the easiest," groaned Sam. "If he doesn't get that thirty thousand pounds out of the old man I'll be very much surprised. He'll never get it while I'm around, but unfortunately I'm doing experimental work at Wallington—and I can't come up to town very frequently."
"What do you mean—thirty thousand?"
Sam explained that the professor was in England with the object of raising sufficient money to found a monastery of the Souls. It was to be built in Damascus, which was to be the home of the new cult. He was to be the first resident abbot.
"Fiddlesticks!" said Murray scornfully. "No one's going to fall for that."
"If the old man hasn't struck the earth, he's halfway down," said the other grimly. "These business men are like that. The devil of it is I know not the day when the professor is going to put it across my sainted parent."
He looked dubiously at Murray.
"I understand that you have laid yourself out to do a few good turns—you'd be doing me a very big turn if you kept your eye on papa and hauled me back to town at the first flourish of his cheque-book."
"I don't know your father sufficiently well enough," he said, "and I'm not a frequent enough visitor at your house to be of much use to you."
"Freda will help you," said the other unexpectedly. "I'm perfectly serious, Hay. This little swindler is going to lift real money from my father. I don't mind how much dad spends on soldiers, because I was a soldier myself, and it's a fine trait in the old boy. But it would break my heart to know that any of our money was going back to establish a Maltese harem for this well-larded Dago—and worse than Dago!"
Before Murray left he was introduced to Freda—a plain but pleasant young lady, who evidently shared her brother's views about the honesty of the professor and the menace to the family wealth.
Murray walked home alone—or he so intended—but fate decreed otherwise. He had not taken a dozen paces from the house when he heard his name called, and, looking round, saw the object of his conversation that afternoon. Mr. Menbury had given him a perfunctory introduction, and apparently the little foreigner was blessed with the gift of remembering names. He had the effusive manner of his kind, and greeted Murray as though they were old friends.
"Ah, you walk my way, yes? So charming, that Menbury, and of such perfect sympathy! You are not of the Souls?"
"No professor. I keep my soul exclusively to myself and my Maker."
"That is a pity," said the other, with unconscious humour, "for you have that touch of spirituality which would assist you to an understanding. Perhaps, when I build my new temple, eh?" He looked up from under his eyebrows.
"You're building a new temple, are you?"
"In Babylon—the home of sympathetic understanding," the professor babbled on. "All white marble and fountains and rose gardens."
"When are you thinking of going back?"
"Next week," was the reply. "On Wednesday morning by overland to Brindisi."
Murray wondered whether Sam Menbury knew this interesting fact. He dismissed the professor from his mind, but his existence was brought back very forcibly on the Tuesday morning.
He was in the midst of a long argument with his charwoman over the accumulation of dust behind a settee, when there was a knock on the door. Mrs. Higggins, glad to escape, went out of the room, to return with the information that there was a lady to see him.
"What name?" asked Murray in surprise.
"Miss Menbury, sir."
It was Freda, and she was in such a state of hurry and heat that he knew something unpleasant had happened.
"Mr. Hay," she blurted out, "Father is subscribing the whole thirty thousand! The professor is coming at twelve o'clock with the deeds which are to be signed, and father has already drawn out the money from the bank."
"Have you been in touch with Sam?"
"I telephoned to the works, but he has gone away on to the Ship Canal, and won't be back until to-night. Oh Mr. Hay, can't you do something?"
Murray sat back in his chair and scratched his head.
"Heaven knows what I can do," he said. "I'm not well enough acquainted with your father to offer him advice. If I were, he'd probably kick me out of the house for offering it! Are you sure you can't get Sam?"
"He's not expected back in his office till four o'clock. Naturally, he thought he'd have longer notice. You couldn't go and look for him?" she asked helplessly.
"An aeroplane is rather a difficult vehicle to employ for searching the bank of the Ship Canal," he said, "supposing he were on the banks. No Miss Menbury, I'm afraid I can't help you at all."
She made a little moaning noise, wringing her hands (Murray noticed she wore odd gloves).
"What am I to do? It will be such a terrible blow for father when he discovers he has been swindled! It wouldn't matter, Mr. Hay, if this wretched Italian, or whatever he is, were really to build the temple; but it would break father's heart to know that he had been had. That's a vulgar way of putting it," she excused herself.
"It's a very clear way of putting it," said Murray. "Where does the professor live, and what time is the appointment—I mean when is he coming to see your father?"
"He's coming to lunch—that means he'll come at about half-past twelve, and daddy and he will settle their business before luncheon. I've got his address."
She fumbled in her bag and found an odd scrap of paper on which the address was written.
"I copied it one day from a letter he wrote to father," she said apologetically. "I suppose it was very wrong——"
Murray took the slip of paper—705 Doughty Street, Bloomsury. There was just a chance that he might be helpful, but exactly how he could not for the life of him decide.
When the girl had gone he sat for a long time thinking. The idea came to him in a flash. Almost as soon as it was born he rang up his hangar at Barnet, gave instructions to have the machine ready, and—
"Stuff as many tins of juice as you can into the fuselage," he ordered, "and fill all the spare tanks."
This done, he ran down into the street and called the first taxi that passed, and a quarter of an hour later arrived in Signor Conti's presence.
"Ah, my friend, Mr. Hay. How wonderful to see you this morning!" said the effusive little man. "You have come from——?" He put his head on one side as though to hear better.
"I've come from Mr. Menbury," said the mendacious Murray. "He wants you to see my hangar."
"Your what? Oh, your hangar—I understand," said the interested professor.
"He wishes also to know whether you would accept as a present one of the latest and most improved British aeroplanes."
The professor's mouth opened in amazement.
"Me?" he said incredulously. "For what purpose should I have an aeroplane?"
"Well, come along and see it," urged Murray, before the little man had time to make a decision. "Anyway, if you don't use it, it's worth a couple of thousand pounds."
The monetary lure was irresistible; the professor followed him down the stairs into the taxi-cab, and some time later he stood admiring the machine.
"It must be interesting, but for myself I would not go up—no, not for a million pounds."
"Get inside," suggested Murray. "I can show you how it works without necessarily leaving the ground."
He explained how the machine taxied across the ground under the pull of its propeller, and with some reluctance the professor mounted into the fuselage and allowed himself to be strapped.
Murray followed quickly. The propeller spun over with a roar, and the machine darted along the ground with increasing speed.
"Stop! Stop!" shrieked the professor.
He had hardly got the words out of his mouth before the little aeroplane zoomed upwards. Murray turned his head and yelled at the top of his voice——
"Keep quiet and shut up, or you'll be sorry for yourself!"
"What has happened?" screamed the man.
"The aeroplane has run away," replied Murray.
Run away it did. It ran above the broad ribbon of the Thames, it ran across the Channel, it flew speedily across France, crossed the Vosges at three o'clock that afternoon, and with only a few litres of petrol left, came gracefully to earth at a German aerodrome on the edge of the Black Forest.
"And if that isn't a good turn," said Murray as he got down and released the dazed and half-dead professor of Souls, "then I've never done one! I can only hope Sam is in London by the time this bird gets back."
Mr. Murray Hay, airman and philanthropist, had received many curious requests since he took up his uncle's challenge, but never one quite so remarkable and puzzling as that which came to him one morning in a letter bearing a Brixton postmark.
"Dear Sir, I have read in the newspapers that you are trying to do a number of good turns with your aeroplane. This is to tell you that you can do me a very great service indeed if, at eleven o'clock on next Sunday morning, you fly down the Brixton Road in the direction of Streatham. You should be above the Brixton Road exactly at eleven o'clock. I can't explain why: I can only tell you that by so doing you will save a woman from a terrible fate."
There was no signature; the writing was in a clerkly hand, without any especial distinguishing features, and Murray, having read the missive twice, put it aside and promptly forgot all about it.
He was not allowed, however, to let the matter drop entirely from his mind. On the following morning came another letter, couched in similar terms, and bearing the same address, which was care of a newsagent's in what he knew to be a side street off the Brixton Road. It differed very little from its predecessor. The next morning brought an explanation. The writer reproached him for not having answered her letter.
"The truth is," she went on, "my husband is an inveterate gambler; and because I have begged of him to give up his terrible practice, he has imprisoned me in a top room at No. 1274 Brixton Road, and here I have been for nine months, never allowed outside the house, and having all my meals brought up to me. I might add that when I married him, I had about £10,000, which he is now using for his own purpose. He is afraid of nothing but one thing—aeroplanes. He was in a bad raid during the war, and the noise of an aeroplane engine reduces him to a condition of terror. At eleven o'clock on Sunday morning he comes up to my room, to induce me to sign away some property which I have, and if your machine happened to be passing at the time, I know he would collapse, and I should have the opportunity which I have been so long seeking of making my escape. This may sound a fantastic request to you, but will you help me?"
Murray read the letter. It did seem a fantastic request, and the solution was obviously to place the letter in the hands of the police. At the same time, he was loth to take this course, not desiring to figure in police court proceedings.
The upshot of it was that, when the worshippers at Barnet were on their way to early morning service, Murray's aeroplane shot up into the sky and went buzzing southward like an angry bee. He crossed the river at Vauxhall Bridge, turned at the Oval, and, as the clock on his instrument board showed eleven, he was flying above the Brixton Road at as low an altitude as was consistent with safety.
"And I hope you succeeded, my friend," said Murray, as he turned the machine homeward, landing without incident.
He arrived at Colonel Larn's house in Berkeley Square soon after lunch time. It was an engagement to which he had looked forward all that week. Jean Arling, the Colonel's one ward and chief worry, had come to mean something in his life, and it was with a little quickening of breath that he greeted her.
"I saw a machine heading north as I was walking in the park this morning," she said, "and it looked suspiciously like yours, though I can't imagine, Mr. Hay, that, with your respectable Presbyterian forbears, you would have broken the Sabbath in so outrageous a manner."
"Guilty," said Murray, and Colonel Larn, who was a silent man, so much engrossed in his own thoughts that he seldom spoke, looked up with mild interest.
"What were you doing to-day—a good turn?" he asked.
"In a way, yes," said Murray, "though I don't know whether I'm going to get full marks for my altruism."
"Uncle," interrupted the girl, "are you asking Mr. Hay to dinner?"
Murray's heart leapt, but before he could become unduly excited, she went on;
"I shouldn't like you to feel that we couldn't live without you," she said, "but Dr. Lessington, who is coming to dinner to-night, particularly wants to meet you. Very foolishly, uncle told him you were coming to dinner."
"Then I get two free meals? How perfectly wonderful!" he said. "Who is your Dr. Lessington?"
"He is a clever man," explained Colonel Larn vaguely, "and he wants to meet you."
"Which doesn't prove conclusively that he's clever," said Jean, "but it shows, at any rate, he has an interest in queer types of humanity."
In the discussion which followed, the mission of the morning was forgotten, and Murray had no call to reintroduce the subject.
The hour after luncheon was wholly delightful to this young, and, as he began to fear, susceptible man. Jean was a tantalising, irritating, adorable girl—and elusive. He was never quite sure whether she was serious or whether she was having an elaborate joke at his expense. This much he told her.
"Take whatever view is the more flattering to your vanity," she said. "And now tell me all about your adventure this morning."
She listened, open-eyed.
"How queer!" she said when he had finished. "So really you've been spending this holy day in scaring one of your unfortunate fellow-creatures to death? I'm surprised at you, Mr. Hay. I presume to-morrow will be spent in receiving the bouquets which the rescued damsel will bestow upon you. Seriously, don't you think it would have been wisest to have informed the police?"
"I do now," he admitted, "but it seemed a very simple thing, and I didn't want to go into court—"
"Do you realise that you may still go into court, with a less creditable story to tell?" she asked, frowning her doubt. "Suppose this husband of hers has a weak heart?"
"For heaven's sake don't suppose anything so horrible!" said Murray.
"And how do you know she Is telling the truth?" Jean went on inexorably. "Wouldn't it have been wiser to have called on some pretext at this house, and discovered whether he was the type of man who deserved to be frightened to death? And suppose the plan failed, what are you to do next Sunday—drop a bomb?"
So she rallied him, half jestingly, half in earnest, and in a way he was not sorry to escape to the calm approval of his own flat.
Mrs. Higgins came early on Sunday and left before noon. The flat was empty when he came in, deciding to spend the afternoon letter-writing. But he had hardly taken off his hat and struggled into a silk dressing-gown and slippers, when the visitor came. He heard the timid knocking at the door and cursed softly.
His first idea was to ignore the knocking, pretending that the flat was empty; but that insistent tap-tap got on his nerves, and, going to the door, he flung it open and gasped. Standing on the mat was one of the most beautiful girls he had ever seen. She could not have been much more than twenty-two. Her flawless skin, her clear gray eyes, the ripe red lips, the straight, aristocratic nose, made hers the kind of face that is seldom seen other than on the covers of the popular magazines.
"Whom do you want?" he asked, thinking that she had come by mistake.
"Mr. Hay?" she asked, nervously.
"That is my name," he said, opening the door wider. "Please come in."
He showed her to the sitting-room, disappeared for a moment and returned, wearing his coat. He thought she was not the kind of girl that one could entertain in a dressing-gown.
"I have come to thank you," she said.
"To thank me?" he asked incredulously, "What have I done?"
"For your kindness this morning." She put out her hand and took his in a grip of surprising strength.
"You are not—"
"I am Mrs. Tatham," she said, "and, as you see, your plan worked perfectly."
In spite of his surprise he laughed,
"So you did get away! By any chance, did your husband faint?"
She shook her head.
"No, he didn't faint; he simply shook and was incapable of movement. Before he could recover, I was down the stairs and into the street. I found a taxicab a little way along the road, and drove to my hotel."
There was an awkward pause.
"I hope I didn't really scare him?"
She shrugged her shapely shoulders.
"It doesn't matter very much if you did," she said. "Mr. Hay, you've no idea how terrible a life I have led with him during the two years we have been married."
He saw the tears in her eyes and hastened to get her mind on to a more cheerful topic.
"You have friends in London?" he asked.
"My father is the Earl of Greenan," she said simply. "I am Lady Mary Tatham—you probably remember my wedding at St. Margaret's?"
He did not remember the wedding, because Murray Hay did not keep a very close watch on social events, but of course he knew Lord Greenan, one of the foremost politicians of the day.
"My father and I unfortunately are not very good friends. He totally disapproved of my marriage, and it certainly doesn't make it any easier to realise that his objections were very well founded. Imagine me living in that wretched neighbourhood, Mr. Hay! I have a beautiful house in Berkshire, of nearly a thousand acres, and it is this property which my husband wished me to mortgage. I shall see my lawyers to-morrow morning, and until then I do not think there is any chance of George finding me."
The adventure was a bigger one than he had imagined, he thought, and it was certainly one which might be put to his credit in the log-book of his uncle.
"Could you come and see my lawyers with me to-morrow morning?" she asked.
Murray smiled and shook his head.
"I'm afraid I can't under any circumstances," he said. "I am flying down to Bordon Camp to-night: there is a reunion of the old corps."
He explained to her that he had been a member of a night-flying squadron, and that once a year they met at a rendezvous on Salisbury Plain, each airman who had control of a machine flying by night and arriving in time for the midnight festivities which commemorated a great attack which his squadron had projected on the German industrial centres. On that occasion they had flown 450 miles, engaged in three aerial battles, and had returned without the loss of a single plane.
"And anyway," he said, "I don't think I should like my name to be brought into this matter. It was a great pleasure to help you—"
"Could you come to my hotel to-night?" she asked. "What time do you leave?"
He told her between eleven and half-past.
"And I have a dinner engagement, which is very unfortunate," he said. "I could see you to-morrow," and added hurriedly: "If it was necessary."
She thought the matter over for a minute, and then shook her head.
"I don't think it is," she said, rising, and again held out her hand and caught his. "I shall never forget your kindness," she murmured. "You are worthy of the greatest honour a woman can do to a man."
"Yes, I'm sure," said Murray hastily, as he piloted her to the door. "Please don't mention it, Mrs. Tatham."
And then, as he stood at the door, and before he could realise what was happening, she bent forward and kissed him gently on the lips. Murray stood thunderstruck, watching her descend the stairs till she was out of eight; then he went back to his room, a puzzled but not altogether displeased man, for he was human, and there are very few human men who resent a pretty woman's kiss.
Jean was waiting for him in the drawing-room when he arrived at Berkeley Square, and, curiously enough, she took up the subject of his morning flight just where she had put it down.
"I've a feeling, by your general air of perkiness, that you have seen your distressed female," she said, eyeing him narrowly.
"I have indeed," admitted Murray. "And if I'm perky, it is my natural attitude towards life."
"What is she like—pretty?"
"Yes," said Murray hesitantly, "she is very pretty, I think."
"Don't you know?"
"Well, she is very pretty," he admitted.
"How interesting!" said Jean, a trifle coldly. "And did her husband die of shock?"
"No, so far as I know he made a good recovery."
"Did she by any chance borrow sufficient money to take her to her friends in, say, Leeds?"
"No, she didn't even do that," laughed Murray, "It wasn't a confidence trick, Jean—"
"Miss Arling," corrected the young lady primly.
"It was by no means a confidence trick," said Murray, ignoring the hint. "She's going to her lawyers to-morrow, and I've succeeded in persuading her to keep my name out of the case."
The door opened at that moment, and a tall, white-haired man came in. The girl greeted him warmly.
"Dr. Lessington, this is Captain Murray Hay. You wanted to meet him."
"I've heard about you," said the doctor, with a broad smile, "What is your latest act of Boy-Scoutery?"
"He's been rescuing a female in distress," said Jean, with a touch of scorn in her voice. "Murray has a weakness—"
"Mr. Hay," murmured Murray.
"—He has a weakness for that sort of thing."
The doctor stood with his back to the fireplace, his hands behind him.
"I had rather a curious adventure this morning," he said. "In fact, it's one of the most extraordinary happenings that I've met with in my experience. I'm one of the visiting surgeons at Caldwell's private mental asylum in the Brixton Road."
"It's a place kept exclusively for rich mental cases, exclusively for women. Now, one of our attendants, the most trusted of all, had charge of a girl who is a dangerous homicide—in fact, she tried to kill her infant brother only last year, and she's watched day and night by two trained attendants."
Murray was going slowly pale, and the girl was staring at the doctor open-mouthed.
"One of the attendants had a bad shock during an air raid, so that, whenever she hears the sound of an aeroplane engine, she collapses. This morning, this unfortunate woman was tidying the private room where the homicide is confined, when a wretched airman came barging down the Brixton Road, and of course this poor attendant collapsed. Taking advantage of this fact. Miss Trevors walked out of the room, escaped the observation of any of the attendants, and succeeded in getting out of the house through the garden at the back. Where she is now, heaven only knows!"
Murray said nothing. He sat down gently on the edge of a chair and closed his eyes.
"We have discovered—or rather, the medical superintendent has discovered," the doctor went on, "that this girl was in correspondence with several people through one of the attendants. The letters were addressed to her care of a newsagent in a street off the Brixton Road, but we have been unable to trace any correspondence. The point is now, where is our homicidal lady, and how many people will she kill? It is her idea, by the way, that her whole life is one preparation for doing honour to the man she will marry; and her idea of doing honour is that he should die by her hand and that she should follow him to the grave as soon after as possible."
"Good lord and Moses!" groaned Murray. "What a perfectly horrible creature!"
"Yes, she isn't as charming as she looks, and she's certainly the most fascinatingly beautiful girl I've ever seen."
"It's a very strange story." It was Jean who spoke; she did not look at Murray, but he knew that she would not betray him.
He avoided her eyes for the rest of the evening, and it was only when he went to take his leave that the subject was mentioned.
"You may have had a narrow escape this afternoon," she said in a low voice. "Will you please be very careful for—for my sake?"
Murray raised her hand and kissed it, and want out to whatever dangers existed with a joyous heart.
One of his mechanics was on duty at Barnet when he arrived: the machine was ready, the petrol tank filled, and his emergency landing lights fixed on the underside of the wings.
"You'll have a clear run to Bordon, sir. Wind light and variable, south to south-west, no fog reported; they've telephoned up from Salisbury that the ground lights will he working from nine o'clock onwards."
Murray swung himself into the machine, fastened the strap about him and was soon soaring up into the starlit skies. A crescent moon rode high in the heavens, and diffused sufficient radiance for him to pick up such landmarks as were needed to guide him, though he could have gone without eyes, as the saying goes, for he had made the trip scores of times.
He was flying smoothly, when suddenly he felt the aeroplane give a slight jerk; the right wing went down unaccountably. He corrected the fault immediately, only to find it repeated on the left. And then...
A pair of arms came round his neck, arms that were soft but strong; a petal-like cheek touched his.
"Darling, we shall go together, shan't we?"
There was no need to turn his head: he knew that behind him was the beautiful woman of death. As his eyes fell upon the something she held in her hand, he saw the naked blade of a razor.
Her peril was sufficiently great: she was kneeling up in the fuselage. Any trouble that brought the machine side-slipping must throw her from her balance and hurl her to certain death. Murray turned his head and smiled into the beautiful face beside his.
"Not here, beloved," he said. "In a quiet place by the sea."
And then he kissed her. She nodded, but did not release her hold. There was one hope for him: a swift volplane to earth, so incredibly fast that the woman behind must hold tight to prevent herself from being thrown out. There was a risk that she would overbalance, but Murray was prepared for this, and was alert to grasp her as she fell.
That little patch of light below to the right was Wokingham. He was over country of hills and firs. Aldershot was immediately ahead, and he know the "Shot" as well as he knew his own dining-table.
Now his heart gave a jump, for below him were the landing lights of the big military aerodrome. Dropping the nose of his machine suddenly, he saw, to his horror, that it did not work. The girl must be kneeling upon the wire. Again he turned his head.
"Darling," he said, "you are kneeling on the control."
She nodded, and now, with a quick jerk, they were falling. Her arms gripped him tighter, the bright razor waved for a second before his eyes.
"This is not the sea!" she screamed in his ear.
Down, down, down into the blackness, the light seemed to leap up to meet them, and then, at a deadly dangerous angle, he eased within a foot of the earth, jerked up the elevator, and, skimming the ground for a hundred yards, dropped lightly. As the wheels touched the earth, he gripped the hand that held the razor, and, with a jerk, flung the weapon on to the ground. In another second he was struggling with one whose strength was phenomenal.
It was not until the army mechanics came running out in response to his cries that she was finally secured.
"There's only one question I want to ask you," said Jean, when he had told her most of the story. "Did you kiss her?"
"No," said Murray.
Sir John Harlesden sat in his study, an unlighted cigar between his teeth, his hands in his pockets and a menacing frown on his forehead. His mental condition was not quite so alarming as was indicated: he was merely sitting in judgment upon the last of his nephew's exploits.
"Yes, I think that must count as Number Seven," he said.
Murray Hay signed his relief.
"Then all I have to do now is to get an eighth, and I've fulfilled the contract."
"That is so," said his uncle slowly.
"There's one thing I'd like to say," said Murray. "You were good enough to promise me a large sum of money if I did eight good turns in my aeroplane. You told me, very rightly, that I was wasting my time, and that I had no other idea in my mind than to amuse myself, or you used words to that effect; and you were quite right, sir. I don't want you to think," he went on, "that when I'm through with this arrangement I am going to relapse into a good-for-nothing time-waster. I have realised that aviation isn't the beginning and end of human endeavour; that there's a whole lot to be done on the earth, and, frankly, I want to do my share."
The frown vanished from Sir John's face.
"That's fine, Murray. I like to hear you talk that way. Too many young men of to-day think that they're sent into the world to ride speedy cars, shoot shy birds, and take others out to dinner that are not so shy—if you'll forgive the vulgarity. Life isn't fun, and the man who is going through his existence killing time will kill himself first. Living for pleasure is like breakfasting on Turkish delight and ice-cream. It's nice for a change, but it's a sickly diet. And I think you ought to get married."
"So do I," said Murray promptly.
The old man looked at him.
"Have you found a girl?"
"Yes, sir—at least, she's found me."
Murray gave her name.
"Jean Arling, eh? She's got a deuce of a lot of money. Is she fond of you?"
"I wouldn't like to say that, sir."
"Well, perform your eight good deeds," said Sir John good-humouredly, "and then come to me for a wedding present. It will be a substantial one, I promise you."
It was quite an easy matter to talk lightly about marriage and to discuss affection; it was a less simple matter for Captain Murray Hay to bring to the object of his passion a clear understanding of her duty. In the first place, Jean Arling recognised her duty to nobody on earth. She had said as much to Murray several times. She had told her guardian this more frequently. It was unlikely that Murray would succeed where Colonel Larn had failed.
He made one of his many calls at the house in Berkeley Square within an hour of his return to town, and Jean, who saw him approaching through the library window, whistled softly to herself—one of her few vulgarities—and stood looking out of the window, not turning even when he was announced.
"Do you remember a few weeks ago, rescuing a lady from a terrible fate, and taking her off to the clouds for a midnight jaunt—"
"Is that fair?" he asked a little stiffly.
Her face changed.
"What a goose you are! And I was going to give you such good news."
"About this poor girl Trevors?"
"Dr. Lessington says that that experience in the air may probably result in her recovering her sanity. He said he was talking to her yesterday, and she was quite normal and remembered all the circumstances of her flight. He says that is a splendid sign. The only illusion she seems to retain is that you kissed her."
Murray was silent for a second.
"Well, I did kiss her," he said savagely. "I told you I didn't, but I did. You'd kiss anybody who had the edge of a razor within a few inches of your throat."
And then, to his surprise, she caught his hand and burst into a peal of laughter.
"Of course you kissed her! I knew that part of the story was true, and when the doctor told me I said that that was no proof of her insanity. It would have been a proof that you weren't quite right if you hadn't!"
His hand still in hers, she drew him to the window-seat.
"Sit down," she commanded. "I want to ask you a few questions. Do you realise, Captain Murray Hay, that you have been what my maid would call 'chasing' me for months and months?"
"I'm very conscious of the fact," he said.
"And may I ask whether your intentions are matrimonial?"
"That was one of the ideas at the back of my head."
"Then get it out of the back of your head," she said. "I like you, Murray: you're an awfully nice boy: but I don't love you. The fact is, I am fearfully keen on myself. To say that I'm self-centred is to put it very mildly. I'm fascinated by Me!" Again she stopped and laughed.
But to poor Murray it was no laughing matter.
"I'm sorry," he said. His voice was a little shaky. "You won't marry me?"
She shook her head.
"So that's that," he said, rising. "I really do appreciate your frankness. There's nobody else?"
She shook her head again.
"If I wanted to marry, I should marry you. If you hadn't any similar designs, it would be unfortunate—but I should marry you."
Though he was disappointed, he could laugh.
"You're a masterful woman," he said.
"There is another thing I want to say, Murray." She was quite serious now. "If I had had any tender feeling towards you, it would have been squashed flat by your faux pas at lunch yesterday."
Murray was silent. 'Faux pas' was a mild way of describing his colossal blunder; for he had not only dared take sides with her long-suffering uncle, but he had taken sides and expressed himself so forcibly about the Vanloodens that she had got up and left the table. And if there ever was a subject upon which a man could express himself with strength and vigour, it was the Vanloodens. They were a rich American-Dutch family, that had made their money in oil and had acquired every luxury of civilisation except good manners and a sense of decency. They were the smartest of the smart in the London smart set. It was they who had instituted the 'midnight chase', which sent the young aristocrats of London flying through the deserted streets in their cars, to the peril of London citizens; and they had attracted to themselves all that was most questionable in the social world. Actresses about whom decent folk whispered things; men about town who occasionally found it convenient to absent themselves from England for a year at a time. There was a story extant of a supper party whereat an assistant hangman was the principal guest, and where he performed the gruesome business of pinioning and roping the neck of his host for the delectation of the assembled guests.
The Vanloodens, in their desire for the unusual, lived on the seventeenth floor of one of London's three skyscrapers. They occupied the whole of the top floor of that magnificent block of residential flats that overlooks the Abbey Road—Mr. Vanlooden had built them himself, for he was an immensely rich man.
"I don't care what you say about the Vanloodens," said Murray; "they're impossible and rotten, and you're a fool to know them."
Up went her eyebrows.
"That is rather strong, Mr. Hay," she said.
"I mean it," he said doggedly. "And when I heard that you were going to their baby party to-night, I was nearly sick."
Jean drew a long breath.
"I don't think we need discuss this any more," she said, and held out her hand. "Good-bye, Captain Hay. I shall not be at home to you the next time you call."
"And I shall not call the next time you're at home," he said savagely, and stalked out of the house.
The baby party at the Vanloodens was an immense success. It was a fancy dress affair, without any great variety. Men or women had to make their appearance in infantile costume. And the occasion was doubly important because Mr. Vanlooden had that day won his case against the County Council who had sued him for certain infringements of the building laws in the erection of Angel Mansions. And the Council had lost its case, although it was indubitably in the right, through some technical flaw in the building law. Therefore was Mr. Vanlooden—stout, bald and pink-faced—in his most exuberant mood when Jean, who was one of the few masqueraders who really looked like a child, came into the big hall of the apartments and was greeted by her host.
Jean was not altogether happy; less happy as the night progressed, bringing guests in costumes which shocked even her by no means prudish sense of fitness. There was something very unwholesome about it all, she thought, as she sat in silence, listening to the newest of American actresses expounding her strange theories of love and marriage.
By midnight pandemonium reigned on the top floor of Angel Mansions, and Jean would gladly have gone home. Unfortunately, she had agreed to act as one of the Judges in the prize-giving for the best costumes, and as the guests did not range up for judging until one o 'clock, she was forced to wait, though she was growing more and more tired. Once she found herself alone in Mrs. Vanlooden's bedroom, sitting at a half-opened window, looking across the pinpoints of light that stood for London. That was how this great metropolis must look to an airman, she thought. She had never flown by night, and her mind went to Murray instinctively. He was right, she was wrong; there was something beastly about this stratum of society into which she had found her way.
With a sigh she went back to the revelers, glancing from time to time surreptitiously at the watch on her wrist, and almost praying for one o'clock to come.
She was in the midst of her judging, and the big drawing-room was a babble of noise, when she saw a white-faced manservant run into the room and, pushing his way through the guests, say something to Vanlooden. It was important, for immediately Vanlooden ran out of the room.
"That's a queer smell," said a man standing by Jean's aide. He sniffed again. "Smells like something burning," he said uneasily,
As he spoke, Vanlooden came in, his face white and ghastly.
"Gid out, eferybody, quick!" he roared. "The place is on fire!"
There was a wild stampede to the door. Men and women went down in the crush; imprecations tore the air...
At the first alarm Jean had shrunk back against the wall and watched in horror the wild stampede to the corridor and the lifts, which were still working, for she could hear their whine. She darted into Mrs. Vanlooden's room, where she had left her coat, and came back to find she was alone. As she ran into the corridor, she saw the smoke curling up from one of the lift shafts, and saw, too, the cable of the elevator going down at a tremendous rate. Presently she heard the faint sound of the door being unlocked, a confusion of voices, and then silence. She pressed the bell; she could hear the tinkle below, but there was no movement of the cable, and she ran to the stairs.
She had descended two flights, when the smoke checked further descent. Her eyes smarting, her throat dry, she climbed back to the top floor, and again tried the elevator. She knew, however, that her summons would never be answered. As she looked down the deep shaft, she saw the smoke glow and gleam in the light of invisible flames. And then, with a gasp of horror, she remembered that Vanlooden's offence against the building law was that he had not provided an outside fire-escape.
What should she do? Already the street below was filled with fire-engines. The clang of their bells came up to her, as every few seconds brought new contingents. Angel Buildings were isolated; there was no adjacent building through which she might descend. She must reach the roof: that was her only chance, though she knew that no fire ladder could possibly reach that height.
She began a search for the upper roof which Vanlooden intended laying out in tennis courts. It was not difficult to find, but there was a possibility that the door to the roof would be locked. This fear, however, proved groundless: the door was easily unfastened, and she emerged on to a broad square of asphalted surface, a great open space unobstructed by chimneys. Looking down, she turned giddy and withdrew her head. The glance, however, had been sufficient to show her that the lower portion of the building was in flames.
She saw a ladder come up, but it did not reach to half the height, and was apparently being used as a water tower to throw a stream upon the floor already alight. Jean rested her hands on the parapet. She knew that nothing short of a miracle could save her.
Murray Hay was making a final test of his aeroplane preparatory to an early morning flight, when the telephone bell in his office rang, and the frenzied voice of Colonel Larn called him by name.
"Is that you, Hay? Jean is trapped on the top of Angel Buildings... yes, I know she's there; I'm speaking from a house opposite. I've seen her,"
"What is wrong? Trapped—what do you mean?" asked Murray, unable to grasp the significance of the Colonel's words.
"The place is on fire, I tell you! And the firemen say that nothing can save the building."
Murray's heart nearly stopped beating.
"Isn't it possible to get a ladder up?" he asked.
"Up seventeen storeys? You know it isn't! That damned swine made no provision for fire-escapes. The case was in the paper this evening. For God's sake do something, Murray! Is it possible—"
But before he could put the question, Murray had dropped the receiver and was racing back to the field.
The glare of the fire was visible even from the field. He had noticed it before, and wondered what big building was in flames. He stopped only long enough to get a long coil of rope from his store, and this he placed on the fuselage, before he climbed in, and, not troubling to strap himself, gave the signal to his mechanics who were holding on to the tail.
He flew up, clearing the trees at the end of the field, banked over and moved straight towards the blazing mass. He was flying so low that his wings almost touched a steeple, and, warned by this narrow escape, he found height, and presently was circling round and round the doomed building, the white wings glowing redly in the light of the flames.
As Jean looked up and saw the machine, she knew at once what it meant. Would it be possible? She almost swooned at the thought, for she had given up hope. Now he had shut off his engine and was circling silently, coming lower and lower, till, making a wider sweep, he sent the machine straight for the parapet, losing height at every yard. He aimed to just miss the parapet wall and take his chance of being stopped by the farther wall, and he was amazingly successful, for the machine touched the asphalt and jarred to a stop at the farther wall. In a second ha was out of the aeroplane and dragged it back to the parapet he had just cleared. And then and only then, he turned his attention to the girl.
"Get inside," he said, "quickly, and strap yourself. I'm going to try an old trick of mine."
He took out the rope, tied one end to the fuselage and looped the other round a providential iron stanchion he found. When he had done this, he climbed into the fuselage, and buckled himself tight.
"Hold to this," he said, giving her the loose end of the rope. "Pull, and don't let go until you must."
"What are you going to do?" she whispered.
"I'm going to try to clear that wall. I may touch it and lose my undercarriage, and the chances are that we shall crash. But we've got to take that chance, dear."
She leant towards him.
"Please kiss me," she said. And then, inconsequently: "You kissed the other girl."
For a second Murray's lips twisted, and then touched hers.
"Now!" he said.
His hand closed over the rope near to hers, and the propeller, that had been kicking over slowly, spun with a deafening roar. The rope tightened; the strain on her wrists grew to an agony; and then, when she felt she could hold on no longer, he shouted:
And at that minute the aeroplane leapt forward—straight at the parapet wall, it seemed to her, and she closed her eyes. There was no crash: a little shock and a rocking, and, looking back, she saw one of the walls of the burning building collapse. They were flying over the lighted streets, climbing higher and higher. Once Murray looked down under his feet and seemed satisfied, though he had little reason to be, for his undercarriage had been ripped away, and a crash landing would mean certain injury and possibly death to both of them. He signalled to her to put the telephone receiver to her ear, and, when she had done so:
"I've lost my undercarriage," he said. "Can you swim?"
"Like a fish," she replied.
Her heart was curiously light, and there was something stirring within her that was wonderful to experience.
"Unstrap yourself and swim clear when I tell you," he said.
They were sweeping over the river now, dropping lower and lower, till the machine just cleared the top of Charing Cross railway bridge.
"Now for a bath," said Murray, and tore off his telephone as he spoke.
In another second the machine was skimming along the water.
"Now!" he shouted, as the fuselage seemed to slow and sink at the same time.
In another instant they were in the water, swimming side by side. Before them was the familiar obelisk of Cleopatra.
"Steps on the right," spluttered Murray, and as he pulled the dripping figure, with its soiled finery, from the dark waters, he asked: "Does this stand as a good deed, I wonder? I'll ask uncle."
"Don't ask him until we're married," she said, wiping the water from her eyes, "in case he says no."
Murray Hay's uncle sat back in his chair, took out his cigar and regarded the ash thoughtfully.
"Yes, my boy," he said, "you have certainly done the eight good turns that we agreed upon—and now?"
Murray Hay smiled.
"I'll continue doing turns for the rest of my life if you wish," he said. "The work has not been without its interest, though I experienced more and more trouble in finding people to whom a gratis aeroplane trip was of vital importance."
Murray Hay was an aviator, and, though he claimed no credit for the fact, a quixotic aviator. He had certainly benefited eight people or communities, and was entitled to the reward which his uncle had promised him.
Sir John Harlesden thought so too evidently, for he reached for his cheque-book.
"Wait a moment, air," said Hay. "One or two more stunts will do me no harm. Let us make it a round dozen."
"Let us compromise on ten," smiled Sir John. "It seems to me that none of your turns has had the spectacular value of rescuing Miss Jean Arling from the Angel Mansions, and I did hope to get some entertainment for my money!"
"I look as if my first chance is coming to-day."
He put his hand in his pocket, took out a pink telegraph form and laid it on his uncle's desk. Sir John adjusted his pince-nez and read:
"Murray Hay, Aerodrome, Barnet. If you wish to do a real good turn descend with your machine in Richmond Park near polo ground this afternoon at five o'clock."
"I get hundreds like this."
"And of course you take no notice," nodded Sir John. "What is it—a hoax?"
"Either hoaxes or lunatics," laughed Murray. "Still, we may get a genuine case in the course of the week, and possibly I shall be able to wipe off the extra acts of generosity before Sunday."
He went home, feeling well pleased with himself. Jean had returned to Scotland, and he had a fortnight ahead of him which had to be passed as quickly as possible, for she was returning at the end of that time.
He added the last telegram to a number of others. Even if he had exaggerated when he had said 'hundreds', there were certainly forty such messages, naming a rendezvous at which his machine might descend and confer untold benefits upon his mysterious correspondents.
He intended spending the evening at home, but a friend rang him up and asked him to dine. He was on his way back to his flat at midnight when he was conscious of the fact that he was being shadowed.
Murray Hay was rather amused than otherwise. It was not a new experience to any man who lived in the heart of the West End and was known to be wealthy or an heir to wealth. He had nearly reached his door, when suddenly he turned right about and walked towards the two men who were strolling casually behind him.
"You men have been following me ever since I left the Ritz-Carlton," he said. "What's your little game?"
To his surprise, when the smaller and elder of the two men spoke, it was in a cultured voice, and his amazement was intensified by his pursuers' candid confession.
"Yes, sir, it is perfectly true, we have been watching you ever since seven o'clock. If I had followed my friend's advice I should have spoken to you before you went into the hotel, and thus spared you the natural annoyance of being shadowed."
"Oh, you were then shadowing me, then?" said Murray good-humouredly.
The smaller man nodded. His companion stood over six feet in height, and was a broad-shouldered, taciturn man, as near as Murray could judge in the region of fifty. It was he who now spoke, in a deep, rich voice.
"The truth is, Mr. Hay," he said, "we've been reading a great deal about you and your altruistic flights. We have been wondering whether it would be possible to enlist your help."
Murray surveyed them keenly. They were both poorly dressed, both men of education—it was impossible to imagine anything less like footpads.
"Come into my flat," he said, "and I will talk to you."
He led the way up the stairs into his big sitting-room and closed the door upon them before he brought a bottle and a siphon from the cupboard and placed the inviting objects, with glasses, on the table.
The big man was less presentable in the light than his companion, but there was no doubt at all that he was a man of education.
"I understand, Mr. Hay, from the brief record I have read of your humorous flights, that you have been imposed upon not once but twice in the course of your novel pursuit."
"That's true," said Murray, and the two men exchanged glances.
"Perhaps I had better say," said the smaller man, who had introduced himself as Townes, "that the story we wish to tell you is one which I hardly dare hope you will believe. It is so incredible, so bizarre, that frankly, if a stranger, or indeed, even if a close friend had told me, I would have smiled politely but I should certainly not have believed him. Mr. Leader"—he indicated the big man—"and I were fellow students at a great university. We are both classical scholars, and we have both sacrificed a great part of our life and not a small amount of the modest wealth which we have been able to accumulate, in an attempt to discover the lost books of Marcus Aurelius. As you probably know," he went on, "in the sack of Rome the original manuscripts, not only of Marcus Aurelius but of several other great historical figures, were either destroyed or stolen; and amongst the missing treasures were the four volumes which Marcus Aurelius wrote in the last years of his life, and which, I can vouch, contain the most valuable of his writings. These disappeared from view, as did also, as you may have discovered from a happening which filled the newspapers recently, did the books of Livy. But what I will describe as the moral code of Marcus Aurelius was, we know, not destroyed, but references were made in some of the sagas of the Teutonic tribes, and the 'great treasure of wisdom' which was carried across the Rhine, and which, even at the end of the fourth century, was seen by an old monk and faithfully described."
He paused and looked anxiously at Murray.
"Those books have been discovered," he said simply. "My friend here"—he indicated Mr. Leader with a wave of his hand—"after ten years' patient search has found the missing books in a cave near the banks of the Rhine."
"When was this?" asked Murray Hay with interest.
"In the last year of the war, sir. My friend and I were investigating certain scientific phenomena in Germany when the war broke out and we were interned. It was in the course of our escape from the internment camp that the discovery was made. We had cut a little tunnel through to the river's bank, and came suddenly upon this cave. We recognised the importance of our discovery the moment it was made. In fact, we were so interested in our find that we almost forgot our own safety. We should certainly have run a risk in carrying these books away, but, happily or unhappily, that was not necessary. The tunnel sank in while we were examining the books in the cave, the attention of a guard was attracted, and we knew that recapture was certain. We therefore made our way out to the river bank, and after a quarter of an hour gave ourselves up."
"The books are still in the cave then?"
The tall man nodded.
"They are worth a fortune, Mr. Hay. I will not attempt to disguise that fact. But to get them to England in a perfectly legitimate way, it would be necessary for us to have a great deal of money and to secure the permission of the German Government, which would certainly never he given."
"I begin to see daylight now. You want me to take you over into Germany and bring back you and your books? I am afraid I could not carry three passengers—"
"That is not necessary," said the smaller man eagerly. "We have already decided that I should go. I am the lighter man, and I have a better acquaintance with the topography of the country. There is a big field running right down to the river's edge, where you could land, and I could promise you that I would not keep you more than a quarter of an hour."
"I shall have to think this over," said Murray. "Will you see me here to-morrow night at nine o'clock?"
The man to whom he spoke nodded.
"I think it is only reasonable that you should have time to consider our proposition," he said. "When the books are sold, we could, of course, offer you a reward—"
Murray raised his hand.
"The question of reward doesn't come into it," he said. "The point I have to settle in my mind is as to the legality of the proceedings."
He lay for a long time that night before sleep closed his eyes, turning the queer happening over and over in his mind. In the morning came his housekeeper (rather a magnificent name for a super-charwoman) with news that there was a young woman waiting to see him. Murray sat up in bed.
"What sort of a young woman?" he asked. "Not—er—a lady?"
"She may be or she may not be," said Mrs. Higgins diplomatically.
"Show her into the sitting-room," said Murray, and, getting up, made himself as presentable as possible and went out to meet the early visitor.
He judged her to be in the region of thirty, pretty if faded, and undoubtedly a woman of good birth.
"You're Mr. Hay?" she asked, rising as he entered. "I'm afraid I did a foolish thing yesterday: I sent you a wire asking you to bring your aeroplane to Richmond Park."
"Oh, it was you, was it?" smiled Murray, sitting down at the far side of his writing-table. "I get more commissions of that character than I can carry out. Are you really in want of an aeroplane?"
"I was last night," she said, "I wanted one badly I suppose I ought to tell you why. Mr. Hay, but that. I'm afraid, is impossible. The whole thing is so unsatisfactory from your point of view that I doubt whether it was worth while coming here at all."
"Where did you want me to take you?" asked Murray, intrigued in spite of himself.
"I don't know," was the amazing reply. "Somewhere—anywhere."
And then she told him her entirely unsatisfactory story. Her husband had fallen on evil times: she more than hinted that he had been in serious trouble, and spoke vaguely of somebody as his evil genius. This person, who evidently exercised considerable influence over the weakling whose name she bore, had arranged to meet him near the polo ground in Richmond Park to give him particulars of some now scheme of villainy.
"My husband," she said, "has a genius for organisation. He was the head of Blanks" (she mentioned a great store) "until the trouble came. Whenever they have any wicked scheme on foot, they always call up James to do their unlawful work. But he shall never go back to prison again, never!"
She stamped her foot and a light kindled in her eyes. Though he sympathised with the woman, Murray could have laughed.
"So you wanted me to come and kidnap your husband and carry him outside the reach of this bad influence? Well, that was a fairly impracticable scheme, Mrs. Gray."
"I know—it was stupid," she said. "But I want to get him away, Mr. Hay. I want to take him to some place where these people cannot trace him, and he would jump at the opportunity of riding in an aeroplane..."
Murray shook his head.
"You think I'm crazy?"
"I think you're impractical," he said gently, and wondered what tragedy lay behind that incoherent story.
She was a little mad perhaps, he thought, as he heard her languid footsteps go down the stairs. Her very scheme had in it the elements of lunacy.
But the question of the books of Marcus Aurelius intrigued him. He made a tentative enquiry from a lawyer friend, and found that the 'crime' was not so heinous as he had imagined; and since he bore no great love for the Germans, he was all the less inclined to turn down the proposition when the two men, promptly at nine o'clock that night, made their reappearance.
"I'm going after your books," he said without preamble. "Is it to be a day or a night flight?"
"A night flight," said the tall Mr. Leader. "We do not wish to be seen entering or leaving the country, for obvious reasons. I am afraid you will think we are rather furtive—"
"The circumstances demand a certain amount of secrecy," said Murray. "Show me exactly the spot where we are to land."
He had wondered during the day whether they would he prepared to make this disclosure until the last minute, but to his surprise the smaller man of produced a map of northern Europe, and with the skill of a pilot ruled off the route. They were to cross from a point north of the Thames to a point midway between Blankenberghe and Ostend, out diagonally across the Scheldt, and leave Cologne on their right. Murray asked a few questions about landing, and received a satisfactory assurance that there would be no difficulty either in getting down or taking off.
Murray went early in the morning to his aerodrome to make preparations for the journey. In anticipation of his uncle's present, he had acquired a new and more powerful machine, though in point of size it was a little smaller than his old one. He had made two satisfactory trial flights, and would have no difficulty either in getting to or from the Rhine in the hours of darkness. The only danger likely lay in the landing; and by great good luck he met an officer that day who had been stationed on the Rhine and knew the locality very well.
"Oh, yes, I know the place," said his friend, whom he met during a hasty luncheon at the club. "There's a big field there, but you want to be careful not to go close to the river because the bank goes down sheer like a miniature cliff, and the face of the bank is honeycombed with holes, and some of us thought there were caves there, and wondered if they were worth exploring."
He asked a few more questions, and went to Barnet that night with the satisfied feeling that he was taking no unusual risk except that occasioned by the breaking of the laws which govern flights over foreign territories.
Though he arrived well before eight, the little man was waiting patiently for him, and said he had been there since six o'clock. Murray gave him the use of his office whilst he went to make a final overhaul of the machine. It was a little before nine o'clock when the new aeroplane went zooming up into the air and, following the course of the Thames, crossed the myriad lights of London and headed for the sea.
With Tilbury on his right he headed for Clacton, and following the old route of the German air raiders, crossed the Belgian coast and edged towards Holland. He was flying at eight thousand feet, and speculated upon the possibility of his coming too near a Dutch fortress and finding himself under the cold glare of a searchlight. His fellow passenger sat huddled up behind him, and throughout the journey did not break his silence.
Between half-past eleven and twelve he guessed he had crossed the German frontier: it was then that he spoke to his companion.
"Will you want any help to carry out the books?"
"I have some local sympathisers with whom I have been in correspondence," said the voice of Mr. Townes. "They will be there to help load them in the machine. I will not keep you waiting long."
The engine was running sweetly, and the speed of the aeroplane more than fulfilled his highest hopes. It was a very long time, however, before the gray ribbon of the Rhine showed ahead of them, and, looking at his watch, he saw that it was past one. Presently he picked up the two land lights for which he was looking, and, shutting off his engine, came down into the blank void, the wind whistling shrilly past the stays. Happily for him, there was a crescent of moon in the sky, which, although it gave vary little light, afforded him sufficient to make a good landing. The smoothness of the field had not been exaggerated, he noted with relief. Presently he turned the machine and came slowly to a standstill.
"I think we are near the edge of the river," he said.
"Splendid!" said the enthusiastic passenger, and, tugging his straps apart, he jumped out of the machine and disappeared in the darkness.
It had been arranged that Murray would remain in his pilot's seat. He made a hasty examination of his petrol tanks and found that he had more than sufficient to carry him back to England. So doing, he heard low voices and, looking over the side, saw three men who were carrying something flat and heavy upon their heads. Nimbly the little man jumped up into the fuselage and handed in the three packages which the strangers had brought—they were the size of large folio volumes.
"You can go," said the sharp voice of Mr. Townes.
Letting out his engine, Murray took off without difficulty, and in a few minutes was speeding back the way he came, gaining height at every yard, until the little townships over which he passed were tiny blurs of light that a threepenny-piece held at arm's length could have blotted out.
On their way back they met several cloud-banks, which would have drenched them through and through but for the leather coats they were wearing, and the crossing of the North Sea was made under these unsatisfactory conditions. The clouds grew thicker; once when they passed into a comparatively clear space, Murray saw the dull red glow of lightning beneath and to the south of him.
He was more uneasy because the compass was under the influence of a magnetic storm which was evidently raging, although he was spared the nearer ordeal of lightning. His companion too was anxious.
"Do you know where we are?"
"I haven't the slightest idea," said Murray cheerfully. "We ought to be over Essex in ten minutes."
But nearly half-an-hour passed before he was sure, and then the clouds thinned, he saw a town beneath him which at first he did not recognise until he had traced the tiny river to a greater stream of the Thames, and knew that he was above Maidstone.
He had arranged to put down his passenger and his books near Esher, and in order to avoid flying over London he made a wide detour, reaching Esher by way of Epsom. At last, with his petrol supply dangerously low, and the knowledge that, whatever happened, he would be compelled to leave his aeroplane overnight until that deficiency was rectified, the man behind him tapped his shoulder, and he dropped down to an open space which was fairly familiar to him: a broad heath which made a good but by no means an ideal landing field. As he was dropping two lights flashed up from the ground.
"There they are!" He heard the voice in his ear. "By gad, you're wonderful to pick on the very spot!"
Murray, having chosen that particular part of the heath by accident, said nothing. As the machine came to a standstill, a man carrying a light ran towards him, and he saw it was the tall Mr. Leader.
"All right?" he asked cautiously, and when Murray's passenger had answered in the affirmative, the tall man turned and flashed his lamp at the bushes.
Then for the first time Murray Hay saw they were near a road, on the side of which were drawn up three motor-cars, and from these came some half-a-dozen men. Interested scientists, thought Murray, and, unbuckling his straps, got down to stretch his legs. As he did so, the smaller man was handing over the first of the heavy 'books' to his tall friend. The latter missed his hold and the parcel fell to the ground with a crash, doubling as it did so in a way that no book could possibly double unless it was without covers, the wrapping paper flew apart, and Murray saw—not a book, but a thick package of brand-new one-pound notes.
He stepped back with a gasp, realising to what scheme he had been a party. They were forgeries—German-made Bradburys, which he had been instrumental in smuggling into the country.
Before he could recover from his amazement, a powerful arm passed quickly round his neck and he was flung backwards to the ground; a towel was pushed on to his face...
"You bungling fool!" he heard the little man roar. "I told you to be careful. Tie him up—we'll have to get rid of him somehow."
Murray felt himself seized by leg and ankle, shoulder and wrist, and before he realised what had happened he was trussed like a fowl.
"Get the stuff into the car. Gray will tell you where to go—"
It was a new voice that Murray heard, and the man who had been putting a final knot in the rope about his legs suddenly jumped up, and the airman jerked the towel from his face.
Lights were flashing from all directions, and in the rear one he saw a helmeted head and knew that the car had been surrounded by police.
"You are very lucky to have got out of this, Mr. Hay," said the divisional superintendent that night to a crestfallen aviator. "Leader and Townes are known as tale-tellers. I don't wonder you fell! That money would have been distributed all over the country, but the man they relied on had a wife, who, sooner than he should go down for a lifer, turned King's evidence.
"Gray was the man who had to distribute the money. He had a wonderful bump
of organisation, but that's the only bump he's got, for he's a jellyfish
through and through. By the way, are you going to count this as one of your
good turns, Mr. Hay?"
Murray laughed ruefully.
"That depends," he said.
Jean Arling was sometimes surprised at herself, at the change which had come over her lately, but her amazement was as nothing to that of her long-suffering guardian, Colonel Larn. She had been a very difficult person to live with. Most young ladies of a wilful disposition and considerable fortune add a burden to the lives of those who are responsible for their well-being and safety. But Jean had been especially trying, and though Colonel Larn had, with great cunning and perspicacity, introduced to her notice many eligible young men, Miss Arling had treated them cruelly and had sent them away, their faith in innocent girlhood somewhat battered out of shape.
"You'll have to marry some time, my dear," said the Colonel mildly.
They were sitting at breakfast in the Café de Paris, and though it was winter in northern lands, here the sun shone brightly in a blue sky, and an azure sea glittered goldenly somewhere behind the Casino.
Jean sipped her coffee thoughtfully.
"My dear uncle," she said, as she put down the cup, "there is no reason why I should marry at all. I have an idea that being a spinster is rather fun."
"What about Johnny Mackenzie?" suggested the Colonel tentatively. "He's rather a nice boy. He has pots of money—"
"And no brains," said Joan promptly.
The Colonel scratched his chin.
"There's that young man Rowman." he suggested. "He's fearfully fond of you—"
"But fonder of his dogs," replied Jean.
The Colonel had had too many rebuffs to be discouraged.
"I had some hope that you would get on better with Murray Hay," he said, "especially after he saved your life from that horrible fire. He's a nice boy, keen as mustard on his job, as brave as a lion..." He paused, soaking similes.
"Go on," she said gently. "As handsome as Apollo, as gentle as Sir Galahad?"
"He's a nice fellow," said the Colonel weakly.
Jean Arling looked across the sunlit plaza, her lips pursed thoughtfully.
"He's not bad," she admitted. "I don't suppose he dances—and he hasn't the polish of Mr. Pelford"—the Colonel winced. "Murray Hay seems to have no definite aim or object in life except to do good turns to all sorts of impossible people—"
"Including you," the Colonel interrupted gently.
"I'm an impossible person: nobody knows that better than you, uncle. He's quite nice, but when I take a husband it will be a man I can depend on finding somewhere on the earth's surface—it must be a horrible experience, when he doesn't come home at night, to have to go out into the garden and search the sky for him."
"That's silly," said the Colonel, and was terrified at his own boldness. "You know it's silly, Jean. He's a nice boy." He coughed. "I've asked him to fly down to Monte Carlo. In fact, he arrived at La Turbie about half-an-hour ago."
"I saw the machine," she said calmly, "and knew it was his. He was showing off over Monaco harbour. I hate people who show off. Where is he staying?"
"I've taken a room for him at the hotel. He's on a holiday," he added lamely.
"You expected him to breakfast, of course? That is why you kept putting it off, saying you were not hungry and asking me if I would mind waiting for half-an-hour. You are a funny man! I suppose you've got a car up there waiting to bring him down—of course you have. Here he is!"
The big Benz swept down the avenue of palms and came to a halt opposite the café, and Murray Hay got out. His amazement at seeing her was very badly simulated. She told him so as he sat down by her side.
"Honestly, I didn't expect to find you at breakfast," he said, as he unfolded a serviette. "Half-past-ten may seem very early to you, but to one who left Barnet in the dark and chill hours of the morning, it seems almost time to go to bed."
"What time did you leave?" she asked.
"Three o'clock," he said, "and I've had a wonderful spin. I came down at Lyons soon after seven, filled up, and was away in a quarter of an hour. There was fog over London, of course, fog over the Channel down as far as Abbeville, rain from Abbeville to Paris, snow from Paris to Lyons, and a whacking big air pocket this side of Dijon, but otherwise all correct. The old 'bus behaved splendidly."
"You haven't brought any distressed females with you?" she asked. "Any child who wishes to be united to Its mother?"
"No, I am doing a good turn to nobody except myself. I shall be here a fortnight, after which I'm working down through Spain to Morocco."
"After breakfast you had better work over to the hotel and take your bath," said Jean practically. "You've a large, black, greasy smut down the side of your nose."
"Sorry," said Murray coolly; "I didn't bring my vanity bag."
It added not a little to Jean's pleasure that the airman was at Monte Carlo, and this puzzled her even more; for the cause of her wonder and her uncle's bewilderment was that, latterly, Jean had been a pleasant person to live with. She had been less passionate in her fancies (though the Honourable Algernon Pelford rather filled her eye at the moment), less violent in her resentments. Analysing her feelings that morning, Jean came to the conclusion that Murray Hay was a soothing influence, and, for some extraordinary reason, she was annoyed.
To Murray the South of France was a joy. He had flown over this beautiful region before, but never had it given him such an intense pleasure to bring his machine down to the mimosa trees that made a golden carpet beneath him, to skim over the flower fields of Grasse, and the limpid blue of the Mediterranean. Possibly Jean Arling had something to do with his contentment.
She was dining with some friends of hers at the Hermitage that night, and the Colonel and Murray dined alone in the brilliant salon of the hotel de Paris.
"Personally," said the Colonel, when the conversation turned to the inevitable subject of Jean, "I'd be glad to see her married and off my hands. Her latest exploit has made me a little uneasy, though it isn't half as bad as some of the things she has done in the past."
"What is her latest? Has she fallen in love with the concierge?" asked the smiling Murray.
"Almost as bad," said the other seriously. "Though of course she hasn't fallen in love. There's a young man here named Pelford: he's a member of a pretty good family, I believe, but he's rather on the waster side. He dresses well, apparently has plenty of money, and he dances divinely—I'm using Jean's own expression. I've got an idea that he has been, amongst other things, a professional dancing partner at one of the big dancing establishments in Paris. I know he had an affair with a French girl, which ended tragically by the girl being found in the Seine. He is the type which has lived on the Continent since he left school, and that of course means that there had been some trouble at home which makes it impossible for him to return."
Murray listened with a growing sense of dismay. He knew the Continental type of aristocratic Englishman, had met them at Aix, Deauville and St. Moritz. Always perfectly dressed, and with irreproachable manners, they live heaven knows how, and not only stay in the best hotels but generally travel with a valet, a chauffeur and something expensive in the way of cars.
"Is he crook?" he asked.
The Colonel shrugged his shoulders.
"I'd like to know. Jean was introduced to him at Ciro's, though. Ciro's, of course, know nothing about him. He has a flat in Old Monaco and another in Nice, but what he does for his living heaven knows. You'll see him to-night: he plays in the Casino, and incidentally we shall meet Jean there: she is going on with her party."
Half-an-hour later, Murray Hay was walking over the thickly carpeted floor of the private club, strolling from table to table, each thickly fringed with players. Presently he came to the end table. At all the others roulette was being played, but the last table was reserved for trente et quarante, and here he saw Jean. She was standing behind a young man who, seated at the table, was at that moment thrusting a bundle of notes on to the space marked 'couleur'.
Murray stood back and took careful observation of the player. He guessed that the man was in the neighbourhood of thirty. His clean-cut face was tanned a dark brown. He was slim, a little below middle height, and, as Murray expressed it, dressed in that style which is so peculiarly British. He fixed his monocle in his eye and glanced up at Murray as though he were aware of the scrutiny, and for a second his deep-set brown eyes held the airman's. As they fell on to the table again, Murray was aware that the girl was looking at him, and there was an odd expression in her face as she came round to speak to him.
"Do you want to do somebody a good turn? Because, if you do, take that unfortunate boy away."
She pointed to a pallid, haggard young man who was sitting opposite Pelford, his hands playing nervously with a thin wad of thousand-franc notes.
"Who is he?" asked Murray.
"Sir George Welburn."
"Is he rich?"
She shook her head.
"No, he's very poor. He's got a young wife here somewhere, and he's worrying her to death. What do you think of Mr. Pelford? Uncle has told you about him, of course?"
"He doesn't seem to be losing," said Murray drily.
"No, It's extraordinary. He very seldom gambles, but when he comes to the table he invariably wins. He's a friend of Sir George Welburn. Do you think he's good-looking?"
"Very," said Murray coolly.
She looked at him quickly.
"You don't like him? Uncle has prejudiced you."
"I don't like him and I don't dislike him," said Murray—which was not exactly the truth.
All the time he was speaking he was watching the play,
"Will you introduce me to him?"
She looked at him in surprise.
"Why, yes," she said, after a moment's hesitation.
A few minutes later Sir George Welburn and Pelford rose from the table and strolled into the bar together, and Murray and the girl followed. The introduction was soon effected.
"I've had atrociously good luck," said Pelford in a rich, deep voice, "and poor old Welburn has had atrociously bad luck."
He did not seem too sorry for Sir George. That young man was gulping down a stiff whisky and soda, his eyes nervously searching the room beyond for, as Murray guessed, some sign of his anxious wife.
"This has very nearly finished me," said Welburn with a gasp as he put down his glass. "But I'm going to have one more cut at fortune, and this time I won't fail."
Jean looked at him open-mouthed. The Welburns were neighbours of hers in Scotland, and with her quick woman's intuition she guessed what had happened.
"You haven't sold Freelands?" she asked.
"The place is of no use to me—costs too much to keep up."
He tried to pretend he was indifferent to the sale of the home which had been in his family for centuries, but the girl detected a quiver in his voice.
"Does Elsie know?" she asked quietly.
He shook his head.
"No, I haven't told her. I put the sale through, and I'm getting the money down to-morrow. I can easily buy the place back."
"I think you're mad," drawled Pelford. "Why not give it best and go home?"
The weak face of the baronet twisted in a smile of contempt.
"Five thousand pounds is four hundred thousand francs, old boy," he said gaily, "and my luck has got to turn."
Pelford shrugged his shoulders.
"That is a stupid argument," he said, but there was no great heartiness in his tone.
A little while later Murray met Lady Welburn, whose anxiety was pathetic.
"They tell me you have been losing to-night, George?" she said nervously. "Don't you think it would be a good idea if we went back to Freelands? I'm sure this place is not good for your health."
He laughed. He had evidently been drinking heavily through the evening, for the confidence in his voice could not be justified by any other reason.
"In a few days you'll agree that Monte Carlo is the healthiest atmosphere in Europe," he said. "Now don't bother me, Elsie: I know quite well what I am doing."
Murray walked back with him to his hotel and skilfully extracted the ghastly truth. Welburn was one of those unfortunate men who had inherited a title on the barest of incomes. He had invented a system, which he had tested in his spare time (which was considerable) and, armed with this method of getting rich quickly, he had come to Monte Carlo to find that the system was a laborious thing to work, and he had dropped all idea of gaining a steady income and, leaving the roulette table, had plunged at trente et quarante.
"Pelford makes a lot of money—I don't see why I shouldn't," said the deluded youth. "I shall have five thousand to-morrow, and I'm going to risk a thousand a day, and of course the luck is certain to turn. These things go in streaks..."
Murray left him at his hotel and went back to the Paris a very thoughtful young man. He saw Jean and her uncle drinking orange-squash in the big lounge and joined them.
"George is a fool," said Jean. "Mr. Pelford has done his best to keep him from the tables."
"And yet I'll bet that Pelford is always at the table when Welburn's gambling," said Murray, and she looked at him resentfully.
"Do you suggest that there is any cheating?" she asked quickly.
"Of course there's no cheating. It would be impossible to cheat without the connivance of the croupier, and he is, like Caesar's wife, above suspicion."
"Then what do you suggest?" she asked. "You don't like Mr. Pelford."
"No, I don't," said Murray after consideration, and then tactfully changed the subject. "I'm going to the bank with Welburn to-morrow to draw his money. We're lunching at La Turbie, and I'm giving him and his wife a flight over Nice."
Jean was walking on the terrace the next afternoon when she saw Murray's aeroplane circling over the bay. Presently it crossed the hills and was lost to sight. He had promised to take her to tea, but five o'clock came and there was no sign of Murray or of Sir George and Lady Welburn. At dinner he was still absent, and she grew alarmed; telephoned up to the hotel at La Turbie and found that the aviators had not returned.
"Do you think there has been an accident?" she asked anxiously, and Pelford, who had been invited to dinner, smiled.
"These stunt airmen are always getting into difficulties. I don't think he ought to have risked Welburn's precious life, though."
"Lady Welburn is also a passenger," said Jean coldly, and Mr. Pelford apologised for the omission.
At eight o'clock in the morning, when her maid brought her tea, Jean's first question was:
"Is there any news about Mr. Murray Hay?"
"No, miss," said the maid. "The concierge says that nothing has been heard of them."
It was eleven o'clock that night, and Jean had just come into the hotel from the rooms, worried sick by the absence of news, when she saw the disheveled figure of Murray Hay striding through the lounge, and ran towards him.
"Whatever happened?" she asked.
"I've been to Scotland," said he briefly, and her mouth opened in astonishment.
"You took them home?"
"Almost a record flight," he said, not without pride. "I landed them at a little town north of Berwick-on-Tweed, and of course Welburn was furious and threatened to have me arrested and—"
She looked at him in horror.
"You didn't take him against his will?"
"I did it once before," he said. "You remember that wretched spiritualist that I dropped in the Black Forest? This time, however, I got Welburn to take a sensible point of view of my action. But he was furious at first."
"I suppose he drew his money from the bank before you took him? Well, that was a good turn for poor Elsie."
"It's a better turn than you know," he said; "for not only did I persuade him that it would be better for him to go back to Scotland, but I also induced him to give me a thousand pounds to gamble with."
She stared at him in consternation.
"You're not serious?"
"Indeed I am," he said. "I've got a thousand pounds of his money, and I'm going to play at the tables to-morrow."
She sat silent for a while.
"You're an extraordinary man," she said. "I can't quite make you out."
"Wait till to-morrow. I would like to see you, by the way, at lunch-time: I have an important question to ask you. In the afternoon I am going up to La Turbie to play golf with friend Pelford."
"What sort of question?" she asked suspiciously, but he would not satisfy her curiosity.
The question was asked in the most prosaic manner in a crowded restaurant where they sat vis a vis. It was after the coffee had been served that Murray Hay leant across the table.
"Jean," he said, without any preliminary, "my uncle has sent me a cheque for a hundred thousand pounds, which I put into Lloyd's a quarter of an hour ago."
"Well?" she asked, when he paused.
"Will you marry me?" asked Murray.
She glowered at him.
"Certainly not. You're the last man in the world I should think of marrying. How dare you talk about your money as though... that made any difference!"
"Will you marry me?" said Murray Hay.
"No," she snapped.
"Thank you very much." He was very calm, perfectly unabashed; he knew that he had asked at the wrong moment, and he had chosen the wrong moment deliberately.
That afternoon he went up to La Turbie and played a round of golf with the Honourable Mr. Pelford; and to Mr. Pelford he told a story that was partly true and partly false.
"I have to take you into my confidence," he said, "because I have nobody here that I can speak to. I asked Miss Arling this afternoon to marry me, and she turned me down."
A light came to Mr. Pelford's eyes, and he was so interested by the announcement that he did not stop to consider how strange it was that a man who was obviously antagonistic to him should have told him as much.
"That's bad luck," he said.
"It's the worst kind of luck," said Murray, fiddling with his driver, "because she was my last hope. I've come down here with a thousand pounds, hoping that I should get a share of her money at any rate."
"She's pretty rich, isn't she?" asked Pelford, with the easy familiarity of one crook speaking to another.
"Very," said Murray emphatically. "I've got to make this thousand pounds win me a little more, or I'm broke to the world."
"Are you going to try the tables?" asked the other, more interested than ever.
"Yes, I'm going to play to-night. I've simply got to win, or I'm down and out."
He did not see the girl at dinner, but at night, when he walked into the cercle privée, he saw her talking to Pelford, and, detaching herself from that adventurous man, she walked up to Murray, and he saw in her face an ominous flush.
"How dare you tell Mr. Pelford that you proposed to me and were rejected!" she stormed at him, and what her voice lacked in volume was made up for in intensity. "And to tell him that you had no money!"
"You didn't undeceive him, did you?"
"Of course I didn't! I'm furious with you, Murray: You've behaved very badly."
"You watch and wait," he said, and sat down at the table opposite to Pelford.
At that moment Pelford, who had been gambling in louis, began to sit up and take notice. Even Jean observed this. She had been rallying him on the modesty of his bets; now he was pushing thousand-franc notes into the enclosures, and steadily as the evening progressed she saw his pile dwindle. On the other hand, Murray's winnings were increasing at an amazing rate, and when the clock struck twelve and play came automatically to an end, he was nearly two million francs to the good, for he had played the limit.
White and shaking, Pelford rose to his feet and came round the table to Murray and the girl.
"You've had a bit of luck," he said sharply.
"Yes, I think that with Welburn's thousand I've won back almost all he has lost."
"You were playing for Welburn? I thought you told me—"
"I told you a lie." said Murray coolly; "the truth is, Pelford, I recognised you for a vampire when I saw you. You were playing the only system that wins at Monte Carlo. You found out somebody who wanted money desperately, and you backed heavily against him, knowing that by the curious workings of fate he must inevitably lose. You played against me to-night because you thought I was down and out. And you made a mistake. I could afford to lose, therefore I won. You couldn't afford to lose, therefore you lost."
"But it is incredible!" said Jean. "Do you mean to tell me that there are people who go about the Continental gambling places playing on that system?"
"A dozen of them," said Murray. "There are many names for the method, but I call it 'The Vampire Coup'. You find a man who is losing and can't afford to lose, and you back against him, and you must win. He cultivated poor Welburn, discovered how broke he was, and how very necessary it was for him to win, and the rest was easy. I am sending off the money to Welburn to-night."
"And is that your last good turn?"
"It was hardly an aeroplane stunt, was it? But I think in this new atmosphere my adventures are well furnished. Now I'm going to wait till somebody does a good turn to me."
She smiled and put out her hand.
"Let us have a Lent wedding," she said, "and come back here for our honeymoon—by train. Murray, you can sell that aeroplane of yours: it would be too easy to run away from me if you had that in the garage."
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