THE Slagburn Police Amateur Dramatic Society were giving their annual Christmas entertainment on Christmas Eve, and the rank and fashion of the great manufacturing town had gathered in support of that deserving quasi-charity in the town hall.
There were no professionals in the cast, even the feminine characters were taken by the men, and with marked success in one outstanding instance—Detective-Sergeant George Temperley.
"Pass for a woman anywhere, by gad," said his worship.
"Rather useful for a detective, what?" the chief chuckled as a programme-seller thrust a note into his hand. "Confound it, I have to see to something pressing. Good-night, Mr. Mayor. No peace for the wicked—and the police."
"Too bad," the great man murmured. "Nothing serious, I hope."
Martin smiled non-committally and vanished. He made his way under the orchestra to the back of the stage and thence into one of the dressing-rooms, where he found what looked like a fair-haired equestrienne of the upper classes arrayed for the chase. Quite a pretty, dainty girl, in fact, just touching up her lips and adding a dust of powder to her elegant nose. Without apology for his abrupt entrance the chief spoke.
"Afraid I shall have to cut your sketch out, Temperley," he said. "I want you at the office at once."
Detective-Sergeant George Temperley removed his blonde wig and swiftly took off his pink and white make-up.
A little later, in the seclusion of his private office, the chief handed his subordinate a letter to read. "What do you make of this, George?"
Temperley read the note, thus:—
17, Paston Crescent,
December 23rd, 19—.
I am coming to Slagburn to-morrow afternoon by the London train arriving at 2.13, with the object of calling to interview Mr. Lean, of Magley Hall, Magley-road, with a view to some business connected with the stage. I am told that he is a gentleman of position, who is interested in theatrical matters financially. Will you kindly advise me by wire on this point, for which purpose I enclose postal order for two shillings.
I would not trouble you, but for the fact that I am out of a regular engagement, and am anxious to invest some little capital in what looks like an exceptional theatrical opening. I don't know Mr. Lean, but I am told he is all right, and a personal interview is essential. I am not shy or nervous of strangers, but lately there have been some dreadful things in the papers about girls like myself who have answered these advertisements, and therefore I am taking no foolish risks.
With many apologies for troubling you.
"Actress, of course," Temperley commented. "No other class would spell Dorothy with an 'i.' Not quite a fool, all the same. Quite right to take precautions."
"But this man Lean is all right, isn't he?" Martin asked. "Good neighborhood, good address, and apparently all above board."
"Mr. Lean is a man of considerable means," Temperley explained. "Has been living at Magley Hall for many years and he is interested in theatrical ventures. This letter doesn't sound to me like one from a regular actress, but more like a stage-struck amateur with a little money to burn. Juliet is a first-class travelling company for £100 down touch. And at the mercy of any scoundrel who has the wit to bait the trap nicely. I have always thought that the Granmere murder was worked that way."
Temperley paused significantly and Major Martin reached for his desk telephone. He called up the Magley-road Police-station and had a few words with the sergeant-in-charge there.
"Matter of fact," he said, "Lean is away in Florida and the house is in the hands of a man caretaker who has been in Lean's employ for years. Um, it does suggest the Granmere mystery. What would you do if you were in my place?"
"Wire the lady to come down," Temperley said eagerly. "Let her come as arranged, and 'phone Balham to send a man in the same train so that he can point her out to me on her arrival. I'll be at the station and steer her here by a roundabout way, and we can see what she has to say before she goes to keep her appointment. If there is some rascal in this it is long odds he doesn't know the girl by sight, and that the whole thing is worked through a newspaper advertisement. And if I might make a suggestion, sir, as a further precaution——"
Temperley bent forward and eagerly whispered a few words in the ear of his chief.
He broke frankly into a broad grin. "Quite unofficially, of course," he said.
"Absolutely, sir," Temperley responded gravely.
The office clock in Slagburn Police-station pointed to the hour of half after two the following afternoon when the expected guest was ushered into Major Martin's office without undue ostentation by means of a modest back entrance. Her smile and manner were equally fascinating, and her accent and dress proclaimed her gentle upbringing.
"I don't want to alarm you, Miss Wade," Major Martin began after the preliminary courtesies. "Am I to understand that Mr. Lean has been advertising for ladies in connection with some theatrical venture he is interested in?"
"Of course," Miss Wade replied, "otherwise I should not be here. I have my living to get, and as I have saved about £200 I thought I might invest it in some theatrical venture under a good man. When a friend of mine who is on tour sent me Mr. Lean's advertisement I decided to answer it, and I did."
"Quite so," Martin murmured. "Was the advertisement you answered in one of the recognised theatrical papers? 'Era,' 'Stage' that sort of thing?"
"Well, no, it wasn't. My friend in Newcastle sent it me."
"An old friend of yours, I presume?"
"Not exactly that either. A girl on the stage I met casually—May Vaughan. She went on tour some time ago with the 'Orchid Girl' musical comedy. I suppose she cut the advertisement out of some stage paper and sent it on to me, with a line on a half-sheet of paper."
"Do you happen to have kept it?" Martin asked.
"Why, of course. I have it here in my bag. You see I had to answer the advertisement, which was directed from some business office in London. Would you like to look at it?"
Martin was quite sure he would. From her vanity bag his visitor produced an advertisement on a slip of paper cut from some popular print and gummed on a correspondence card. Underneath some one had scrawled the words, "Likely to suit you, dear, perhaps. Love. May. Frightful rush." And that was all. Thus:—
"Wanted, lady (young), to join advertiser,
who has vast experience theatrical matters
and in position to command openings, country
production, leading towns. Premium £150.
Play lead in new comedy by prominent dramatist,
also Shakespearean heroines. Unique opening for
clever novice with a small capital.
Apply in first instance to Manager, Box 745,
Gregory & Co., Quair-road, Fulham."
With the slip in his hand Martin crossed the big room and laid the card to which the advertisement was attached by a spot of gum in one corner, and laid it on the desk of a man who was writing there with his back to the others. Temperley looked up and nodded. Then he bent down again as if deeply engrossed in his work, and carefully examined the card and its letterpress.
"You wrote to that address?" Martin asked. "And Mr. Lean replied, of course. Am I right?"
"Not at first. There were two or three letters signed by somebody whose signature I could not read, and who said he was merely a secretary; and when things were fixed up I got a typed letter from Mr. Lean addressed from Magley Hall here asking me to meet him this afternoon and bring the money along."
"And that you have done? Yes, I thought so. Might I see the letter Mr. Lean wrote to you?"
Temperley rose from his chair and stole quietly out of the room. Just as Martin had finished with the letter handed him by his visitor Temperley looked in through the door.
"Just one minute, sir, if you please," he said. "Might I ask you to step this way, sir?"
Martin excused himself and vanished. In a little room down the corridor he faced Temperley eagerly.
"Well, what do you make of it?" he asked. "You heard all that took place. What paper did that advertisement appear in?"
"None, sir," Temperley said crisply. "It's a pure fake. Printed by hand on a scrap of what the news trade calls 'news,' and gummed on that card for the purpose of being forwarded to the young lady by some cunning scoundrel who managed to get it posted from Newcastle. I have detached the printed slip from the card. If you turn it over on the other side what do you find? More print, of course, to give it similitude, but in printing the reverse side the forger was guilty of the sort of carelessness which so often plays into our hands. If you look you will see that the print on the reverse side is upside down. Such a thing could not happen with a genuine newspaper."
"By gad, you are right," Martin cried. "I can't see a single flaw in your logic, George. And if you are right, then we are on to a bigger thing than you and I bargained for. The Granmere murderer, eh—the man Scotland Yard has been hunting for weeks."
"So I figure it out, sir," Temperley said gravely. "Nobody knows yet how that poor girl was lured to Granmere and murdered, except that she went to keep some mysterious appointment, with over a hundred pounds in her pocket. Still, we have some sort of description of the Granmere murderer, and let us hope the man lurking in the seclusion of Magley Hall at this very moment is like him."
The unsuspecting cause of all this excitement made her way along the exclusive thoroughfare known as Magley road until she came to the intriguing destination.
Magley Hall loomed large at length, with the name in gold letters on the gate, with a tennis lawn beyond and the house covered with creepers. As the eager aspirant approached the door a figure emerged and a soft hat came off with a flourish.
"I declare you quite startled me," the owner of the hat smiled. "I was just going for a stroll in the garden when—but you are Miss Wade, I presume. More than punctual, too. Well, an excellent virtue. Will you please come inside?"
They were seated presently in a large, well-equipped library, upholstered in solid Russia leather, with Turkey carpet, and carved writing tables complete. At a small secretaire in a side window a man sat busily writing.
"My secretary," the man in the velours hat vouchsafed, "but he need not trouble us. Now let us understand each other before we go any further. You are Miss Wade, the young person who came here by appointment to-day in response to my advertisement."
The Young Person smiled as if amused by some thought. Mr. Lean might be a prominent and opulent citizen of Slagburn, but he obviously was not a born gentleman, though the expression on his face was flattering to his visitor. His eyes were weak and sore, with horrible red rims, and pupils reminiscent of a poached egg.
"You did not mind coming here quite alone?" Dreadfuleyes asked. "I have a most important scheme on which takes every moment of my time, so I could not meet you in London, as I should have liked. It is absolutely new in theatrical business, and I should be much annoyed if the secret leaked out. I am taking if for granted that you have respected my request for entirely confidential——"
"Certainly," the Young Person interrupted. "I have not mentioned the matter to a soul. I have not even written to thank my friend who sent me your advertisement from Newcastle."
"That," Dreadfuleyes murmured, "was very discreet of you. A word carelessly dropped does a world of mischief sometimes. Now tell me, please, what stage experience you have had."
"Well, practically none, Mr. Lean. If I try to deceive you I am sure to be found out. A little chorus work and a couple of walking-on parts form my experience. But you told me in your——"
"Quite so, quite so," Dreadfuleyes murmured. "You see, I wanted someone quite fresh and unspoilt by conventional training. The money I expect you to put down if you decide to go on is quite a secondary consideration. Really in the nature of a fine if you break your contract. For £150——"
"I am prepared with that," the Young Person said calmly. "And perhaps a little more it necessary."
"Oh, indeed. Then perhaps you will tell me——"
"One thing at a time, Mr. Lean," the Young Person drawled. "I have had to work hard for my little money. I was driving a motor ambulance in France for two years, and that sort of thing teaches one to look after the personal equation. Before we talk of any further funds I should like a receipt for the original sum agreed upon."
Here, obviously, was a development which Dreadfuleyes had not expected. A keen business mind would have seen at once that he was reconsidering his position. But the Young Person babbled on.
"Savings Bank, you understand. Besides, the money I brought down here. I didn't bring the book, of course—that is in my lodgings. But I don't suppose that this interests you, Mr. Lean."
"One never knows," Dreadfuleyes murmured, as he took up a pen and commenced to scribble an elaborate receipt for £150 on a sheet of notepaper. "There! I have practically embodied our agreement on the face of the receipt. You have only to get that stamped at Somerset House and I am liable. Later on we can have a more formal instrument. Of course, if you haven't the money here——"
"But I have," the Young Person murmured. "Here it is all in Treasury notes, which I have been gradually saving for years."
Dreadfuleyes opened the notes and locked them away in a drawer on his desk. It was not displeasing to know that those notes had not been drawn in bulk, but gathered at odd times, and therefore not humanly possible to trace. And there were more to come. How to get possession of that bank book! How to detain this confiding young thing for eight and forty hours in which to forge a letter to the Young Person's address in London to get away with the rest of the plunder once the bank book was in the right hands.
Threats, perhaps force—certainly force if necessary. He scraped his throat, and immediately the man at the writing table got up and, coming forward, took his seat on a couch close by the other table where Dreadfuleyes and the Young Person were seated.
There was nothing formidable about him. He was small and weedy, with a marked obliquity of vision, but his smile was sinister enough. Then Dreadfuleyes turned a new, and, if possible, more repulsive face to the Young Person. She rose quickly as she saw it.
"I suggest you make arrangements to stay here," he grinned—"I mean remain here for a couple of days. Between the two of us we can make your visit quite pleasant. The fact is my dear young lady, we are most anxious to see that bank book of yours."
"What do you mean?" the Young Person gasped.
She looked wildly about her as if seeking some avenue of escape from the danger, and the men smiled.
"Then you really are beginning to understand," Dreadfuleyes said with a hard laugh. "You didn't learn everything in France. You are perfectly safe here so long as you are sensible. That bank book and a few hours' strict confinement to give us a chance to get clear. Don't be afraid."
"I am not afraid," the Young Person cried, "though I know now who you are. You are the Granmere murderer. Yes, I am safe enough so long as you don't get hold of the bank book."
A swift and horrible change came over the face of the man by the table. As he advanced towards the Young Person something gleamed in his right hand. A demon of rage possessed him, those awful eyes were blood-red and full of murder.
"Here, not again," the man on the couch wailed.
The man with the knife heeded not. He reached forward on his toes for the shrinking figure of the Young Person. And then suddenly the whole tense cinema drama changed as if by magic. A crushing right came from the hand of the Young Person and crashed on Dreadfuleyes' jaw, followed by a left uppercut as he was crumpling, and another twisting right laid him on the carpet in a state of stark insensibility. The man on the sofa clung to a cushion and gibbered with a fright he made no effort to conceal. As if in a sort of nightmare the room was full of blue uniforms.
"There he is," the Young Person cried breathlessly. "And, as I thought even from the first, the Granmere murderer tallies in every particular, and on the table you will find a few lines in his own handwriting. Get busy with the handcuffs and don't overlook the gibbering confederate on the sofa."
"But who the devil are you?" the bewildered constable in charge asked. "I don't——"
"Detective Sergeant Temperley," came the reply in a now familiar voice. "Good old Christmas theatricals! Get on with it."