RAYMOND NODES turned away from the contemplation of the snowy landscape, and the 'Telegraph' fluttered from his hand. He did not doubt the evidence of his senses; he did not clasp his hand wildly to his brow and ask himself if he were the victim of some strange hallucination. He was too cold-blooded and unimaginative for that. There must be some practical explanation to account for the man sitting opposite to him in the first class carriage. He had not materialised a fellow passenger.
To begin with, though it was Christmas time and the train was consequently full, the compartment had been reserved for him. As a man of means and local influence, he could command that sort of thing. He was going on to the Gate House to dine; he had been detained till the last moment by important business, and his idea had been to dress in the train. He had telephoned to his man to meet him at Whiteley-road with his kit bag and evening clothes. The man was to see that a carriage was attached to the train at Whiteley-road, and the Stationmaster had given the desired assurance. They usually had a spare coach or two there. It was no trouble, and Nodes had more than once done the same thing. He had everything he needed in his bag, even to his safety razor, but that would not be needed, as he had shaved closely that morning.
All the same he wanted to be a little particular, especially as he was going to meet Mary Glynn at the Gate House. He had never been there before—the invitation had come through Mary Glynn's host, Reginald Norfolk. There was no definite engagement between Mary Glynn and Raymond Nodes, but her friends expected her to marry him. Most of them thought she would be a fool if she didn't.
Nodes was not hurrying. The train was pretty sure to be late, as the snow lay so deep along the line. He had the best part of an hour before him yet, and he knew that he should find everything ready, down to the stud in his buttonhole. He did not want to lose the freshness of his toilette; he would leave it till the last moment. There was a lavatory with hot and cold water leading from the carriage. These are the sort of little luxuries that money can buy.
Then Nodes turned to find himself no longer alone. For seated opposite to him was a man about his own size and build, grim, determined, and dirty, and evidently in considerable trouble. He had a wild and hunted look; he suggested many sinister things, accentuated in his case by the queer garments that he was wearing. They consisted mainly of a horrible yellow jacket and knickerbockers, heavy woollen stockings and clumsy boots. Beyond question, the man was an escaped convict.
Nodes did not need anybody to tell him this. By some means or other an escaped convict had found his way into the carriage. The train had been stopped by the deep snowdrifts more than once. It was quite the old-fashioned Christmas weather. This must be the escaped Bransby convict. No doubt he had found his way into the carriage by way of the lavatory during one of the stoppages. He was going to ask Nodes to help him. He smiled at the thought. There was nothing feeling or sentimental about Nodes. He respected the conventions of society too sincerely for that.
"What on earth are you doing here?" he asked. "How did you get here?"
"We will come to that presently," the convict said. "Is it possible you don't recognise me?"
Nodes shook his head. He was not exactly frightened, but the back of his throat was dry. He did not like the grimness of the other's manner. He had expected an appeal to his better nature. Apparently, that formed no part of the intruder's programme.
The convict strode across the carriage in the direction of the lavatory. He was not away long enough to give Nodes a chance to press the alarm bell.
He came back with a wet towel in his hand. He rubbed it vigorously over his face, and turned to Nodes again. A cry came from the latter.
"Good Lord, it's Summers!" he stammered. "Rick Summers! What does this mean?"
"We will come to that presently," the man addressed as Summers said again. "Give me a cigarette. I was lucky enough to get both meat and drink today, and now I fancy a smoke. A merry Christmas to you, dear sir."
Nodes passed over his cigarette case with a shaking hand. Of all the men on the face of the universe at that moment, Richard Summers was the very last he wanted to meet. There were reasons why his heart turned to water; and his tongue clave to the roof of his mouth as he looked at the other.
"I am not here by accident," Summers went on. There was a hard, dry grimness in his voice that caused Nodes to wriggle about uneasily on his seat. "I came to meet you. I dragged myself hungry and tired across a whole county to see you. My intention was to call upon you last night. I was actually in the house when Henderson called on business, and you had him in the library. I heard your conversation there. I heard your plans for to-day. I changed my mind. An excellent idea occurred to me, if I could only put it in practice. If possible, I wanted to get on the train with you to-night. As I had heard all your plans discussed, the matter was not quite so difficult. If I could find my way in safety to Whiteley-road Station the thing might he managed. The dark and gloomy time of year was distinctly in my favour. I managed to get to the station and hide myself in the goods shed. How I got here you can easily guess."
"What do you expect to gain by this? Sooner or later you will be—"
"Sooner or later the truth will come out. A man in prison without friends or influence has a poor chance with a man like yourself. But things happen—unexpected accidents take place. A week ago it seemed to me that I had lost everything that made life worth living. I did not care for the future. I was quite resigned to serve my ten years' sentence out. But we hear things even in prison, we get scraps of news, we even see papers sometimes. That is what happened in my case. I saw in a paper that Tom Glynn was dead, that he had died in Paris after a long illness, following on an 'accident.' The 'accident' happened six months ago."
Nodes shivered. Words were precious with him just for the moment.
"I got ten years for the manslaughter of Wilfred Catling," Summers proceeded. "It was a bad case, and the judge was accused of erring on the side of clemency. I killed the best friend I ever had. I killed him because I was desperately hard up for money, and because I knew that he had made a will in my favour. And I killed him so that he should not discover that I had forged a cheque upon his banking account for £500. The jury were induced to believe that there was a violent quarrel, and that blows were exchanged. There was just a possibility that I did not really mean to kill the man whom I loved as a brother, and that saved my neck. But you know all about that, because you gave evidence at the trial. I was duly convicted, and there is an end of it—or rather, there was an end of it. And when my time is up, and I come out of gaol, I shall be free to enjoy the fortune of the man whom I am supposed to have murdered! But it will be too late then—long before that time you will become the husband of Mary Glynn. I could have hanged for all you cared. And I am going to hang you, my friend, hang you with a rope of snow."
"Miss Glynn and myself are not even engaged," Nodes stammered.
"That I am quite prepared to believe," Summers went on. "In the light of recent illumination, I am prepared to believe that she does not know what has happened to me. After the 'accident' to her brother, she went over to Paris with him to see a specialist. She probably made a devoted nurse—whilst she had Tom to look after she could think of nothing else. Very few people knew of the relationship in which we stood to each other. I knew none of her friends. I waited for her to come forward till it was forced upon me that she had turned against me. I had no idea that she had hurried Tom off to Paris. I only gathered that from the newspaper paragraph I was telling you about just now. A lot of things came clear to me as I sat in my cell the last few days. I wrote a letter or two, but no reply came. I decided to try to escape. Luck came my way—and, in short, I am here."
"What do you expect that I can do for you?" Nodes asked timidly.
"Not more than you can help," Summers laughed. "If I had found you alone last night, I might have done something to justify my sentence. I rather fancy that I should have killed you, my friend! But as I listened to your conversation with Henderson, and learnt the facts you told him, another idea occurred to me. I learnt, for instance, how it was that Mary Glynn never came near me. I became quite sure of the way in which poor Wilfred Catling came by his death. Then, as I gathered how you intended to spend this evening—this typical Christmas Eve—and how you were going to get to the Gate House, the whole thing came upon me like an inspiration. Get your kit bag down—it is time you began to dress."
Nodes proceeded to obey. There was something grimly determined about his companion, some suggestion that there was unfortunately worse to follow than this. With a shaking hand he turned kit bag and dressing-case out on the seat. Summers nodded approval behind his cigarette.
"Very good," he said. "Here we have everything that may become a man of fashion. You have prudently brought your dressing-case, and possibly you may stay the night. I am delighted to see that you use safety razors. My hair is fortunately about the right length, but I sadly need a shave. Do it!"
Nodes started. Summers' request was stern and threatening.
"Well, get on," he snapped. "Here is the shaving stick, and the brush and the razor. Get hot water and another towel. You are going to shave me. You can't cut my throat with that razor. But you can shave me, and the jolting of the carriage makes no difference. Get on with your work."
Nodes complied. It was just as well, perhaps, to humour this desperado. On the whole, he made an exceedingly good job of it. With Nodes close under his eye, Summers made something like a bath. Then he proceeded to turn over Nodes's evening kit.
"Everything here," he said. "An entire change from head to foot. Silk socks and underwear, pearl stud, half a dozen dress ties in case of accidents. We are about the same size—in the days when we were friends we borrowed one another's collars."
"What on earth are you going to do?" Nodes stammered.
"Why, put your dress clothes on, of course. When the operation is completed I flatter myself that I shall look very nice. I shall still have ten minutes to spare when I have finished. I won't put the coat on yet, because I have a little work to do first. Really, it was very good of you to make up your mind to change in the train. My little plan would have been a complete failure otherwise."
"But you cannot possibly gain anything by this," Nodes protested.
"Think not? But you are not altogether behind the scenes, Mr. Nodes. I am not going to ask you to pass me off as a friend of yours, so that I can leave the train in safety. I am not going to ask you to lend me your dress clothes and make an apology for turning up at Gate House in a morning suit. In that case I should simply have borrowed the clothes you are wearing at this moment. As a matter of fact, I am not asking any favour at all. I am simply making use of you. Take your things off!"
Nodes protested. But he was past all resistance now. What little courage he had possessed had left him. Very slowly and reluctantly he divested himself of his garments. It was none too warm, and he shivered. He waited with sickening anxiety for the next scene in the drama. Summers indicated the hideous covering he had so recently discarded. He pointed to this sternly.
"Put them on!" he said. "If you decline I shall force you to do so. You were always afraid of pain, but you are going to experience it now if you don't do as you are told."
There came something like tears in Nodes's eyes as he compiled. He demurred bitterly to the command that he should remove all his underclothing.
"Can't be permitted," Summers said curtly. "It would spoil all my carefully-laid plans. It is absolutely necessary that you should be dressed exactly as I was. Ah! that is better. You will see in a moment why I have not yet donned your dress-coat. I have some work to do first. Now, you are probably aware of the fact that this train slows up for a few hundred yards this side of Formgrave Station. It is at a point where the line crosses the marshes. At this critical moment you are going to leave the train. I am going to throw you into one of the deep drifts of snow by the side of the line. A typical Christmas, is it not? There is no danger; you will not be a bit hurt, though the odds are that you will be exceedingly damp. All you have to do afterwards is to crawl out on to the line again and make your way to Formgrave. You will tell your story there, and when you do so, the betting is that nobody will believe you. They will refuse to credit so preposterous a tale. You look a pretty disreputable object now, but nothing to what you will appear when you have emerged from that snowy ditch. You will have no proof of what you say, and you will probably be detained till the police have been sent for. I should say that a good twenty-four hours will elapse before the authorities are satisfied that a mistake has been made. Meanwhile, I shall have succeeded in my scheme, and—"
"For Heaven's sake, Summers," Nodes gasped, "be careful. This mad business will be the death of me. And I utterly fail to see why you should hurt me in this revolting fashion."
Summers' face grew dark. For the first time, there was hatred as well as contempt in his eyes.
"Ask yourself a question or two," he said. "Cast your mind back to the events of six months ago. But for you I should never have been in my present unhappy position. At my trial you could have told the story of that forged cheque, had you liked. But you wanted me convicted, you wanted me out of the way. And as things turned out I did not mind. I was deserted by everybody I cared for, and the rest mattered nothing. Come this way—the train is slackening speed."
Nodes crept unwillingly across the floor. His legs were shaking under him. Peering out into the darkness, he could see dimly a flat country, with great drifts of snow gleaming here and there. The footboard of the carriage overhung what seemed like water. Without another word Summers caught his companion by the collar and swung him clear of the train. He dropped like a plummet up to his waist in the feathery white mass. Cold and tearful, but quite unharmed, he crept on to the line again, forlornly watching the tail lights of the train growing fainter in the distance. Summers closed the door of the carriage, and took another cigarette from Nodes' case.
* * * * *
Reginald Norfolk's guests had assembled for dinner in the drawing-room. The circle of diners was complete save one—they were waiting for Raymond Nodes. The host looked at his watch.
"I expect the train's a little late," he said.
"I've sent the car to meet it. In any case, your friend can't be very long now. I hope you are not feeling anxious about him, Mary."
Mary Glynn shook her head. She only half comprehended what Norfolk was saying. Her mind was very far away at the moment. There were one or two women there asking themselves why it was that men voted Mary Glynn to be such a pretty girl. She looked horribly white and aged; the black dress she was wearing merely served to throw up the unhealthy pallor of her cheeks. True, she had had a good deal of trouble lately—she had lost her brother, but that did not account for everything. She was trying to say something appropriate now, when the door was flung open, and the butler announced Mr. Raymond Nodes.
He came forward, coolly and easily, and shook hands with his host and hostess. He said just the right thing. Then he lounged across the room towards Mary Glynn. She had not even glanced up at him, she was contemplating the floor in the same abstracted way.
"I know you will be glad to see me," Summers said in a thrilling whisper.
Something like a cry escaped Mary's lips. A clatter of conversation was going on all round. As Mary looked up the deadly pallor of her face grew ghastly. Then the blood flashed to her cheeks again, there was something in her eyes between joy and fear.
"Be brave," Summers whispered. "Nobody has noticed anything. I was fearful lest you should betray yourself. But luck has been on my side all through, and it is not going to fail me now. This is not a nice thing that I have done, Mary, but practically there is no other way. Everybody says that Reggie Norfolk is a real good fellow, and I am sure that he will forgive me when the time for explanation comes."
"But I thought," Mary gasped. "I thought that you were—you were—"
"In prison. So I was. And, what is more, I had no desire to get away until I discovered that Tom was dead. Then I knew that the time had come when I could speak. The strange part of it is that I should not have been here at all had it not been for Nodes. I found out that he did not know Norfolk; I found out that you were here. Nodes was going to dress in the train, and he engaged a compartment to himself. I'll tell you presently how I managed to get on to all this. Anyway, I boarded the train, and compelled Nodes to change clothes with me. Somewhere about this time he is telling his story to a set of people who will not believe a single word that he says. They will naturally take him for the escaped convict, and detain him for the police to make inquiries. Long before his identity is established, and the authorities are after me, I shall have proved my innocence."
"I know that you are innocent," Mary murmured. "Will you believe me when I tell you that not till the day before yesterday did I know that your friend, Wilfred Catling, was dead? That you had been convicted on a charge of killing him came as a terrible shock to me. But—"
"Presently," Summers whispered. "We shall have our chance after dinner. Meanwhile your hostess is making signals to the ladies. I take it for granted that I am going to be your escort. Of course, I am not exactly so fascinating as Nodes, but still—"
Mary squeezed her companion's arm. Nobody could say that she was pale and cold now. She was trembling between fear and joy. She was longing for the meal to come to an end, so that she could hear the much-needed explanation. It was maddening to sit there with the lights and the chatter, the gleam of the silver, and the din of voices about her. She played with the food on her plate, she toyed with her glass. It was with a deep drawn sigh of relief presently that she saw her hostess rise.
"There is a little conservatory at the end of the hall," she whispered. "When you have finished your cigarettes, you will find me waiting for you there. And for heaven's sake, don't be long, Rick."
Summers slipped away at the first favourable opportunity. In spite of everything, he had enjoyed his coffee and cigarette, the refined surroundings, and the talk of his fellow-men. He made for the dim little conservatory, where Mary was waiting for him. He flung himself down by her side, and attempted to draw her to him. She placed a trembling hand on his shoulder.
"Not yet," she said, "not yet, Rick. You must hear what I have to say first. I must tell you of a dreadful thing that only came to light the night before my brother died. There was really no hope for him from the first, but I did my best. For six months I saw nobody over there in Paris: I had no time to look at any English papers. All I knew before I went to Paris was that my brother and Wilfred Catling had been in an accident together. But I did not know that Mr. Catling was dead. I did not know that you had been charged with taking his life. But Tom knew. He read the papers that he never gave me to look at. And the night before he died, he told me why he had been so depressed. It was he who had forged the cheque that was the cause of all the trouble."
"I knew that all along," Summers said quietly. "And what's more, Catling knew before he died. If Tom had not been your brother, I should have spoken long ago. But it seemed to me that it did not matter. Yet, when everybody appeared to have deserted me, I could see how foolish I had been. Still, it was too late to speak then, and I was too desperately miserable to care what happened to me. It was only when I found out that Tom was dead that I decided to clear my character, and make some sort of an attempt to restore myself in your eyes again. I thought, of course, that you knew all about it. It was only when I escaped and attempted to see Nodes that I learnt pretty well everything by listening to a conversation between Nodes and his friend Henderson. I believe that I should have killed him had we met a few moments before. As it was, I thought of a much better plan than that. I worked out this scheme to see you this evening, and it has proved absolutely successful. We need say nothing—"
"Yes," said Mary firmly, "we need. The whole truth must be spoken. And the part that Mr. Nodes has taken in this vile conspiracy must be public property. And after that, if you still care to—to—"
"My dearest girl, how can you doubt it? If the circumstances were reversed, then—"
"Well, a girl is different from a man. You see, I always loved you Rick, and I was so hurt when I got no letter from you in Paris. Probably you wrote to me. Probably Tom suppressed the letters."
Summers preferred to ignore the point. He turned to Mary, and kissed the tears from her eyes.
"What difference does it make?" he asked. "Tom's folly cannot touch you. There will be a few days' gossip and scandal and then everything will be forgotten. And you and I together, my dearest—"
Summers stopped suddenly. His host of a night stood in the doorway of the conservatory, with a queer expression on his face. Two police officers were in the library, together with a strange gentleman. They had had an amazing story to tell. Would Mr.—er—Nodes be so good as to—?
Mary grasped her lover's arm. The happy colour faded from her face. He touched her tenderly.
"It has come," he said "I shall be very happy to give you the explanation you need, Mr. Norfolk, and the sooner the better. I shall tender you an apology later, and that, I hope, you will accept. And now I am anxious to see the gentleman in the library. Mary, I shall not be long."
* * * * *
The bells were chiming from the village church across the snow. Under the porch of the house a troop of children were singing a carol Mary listened to it all dreamily.
"Oh, yes, Rick would not be long. And to-morrow was Christmas Day!"